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Chapter 1: The Dream Ender

Cover of The Dream Ender

Chapter 1

"How's he doing?" I asked as Jonathan returned to bed.


"He'll live," he said, pulling the sheet up to his chin. "It's all your fault, you know."


"My fault?" I asked. "And exactly how did you reach that conclusion?"


"That kid can con you out of anything, and he plays you like a fiddle. You had to let him have another piece of birthday cake!"


"Well," I said in my own defense, "it was only a very small piece, and it was his birthday, after all. He doesn't turn five every day." It was a weak excuse and we both knew it. "He told me you said it was okay," I added lamely.


Jonathan turned quickly onto his stomach and plumped his pillow a little more vigorously than was probably necessary. "The defense rests," he said.

* * *

It was hard to believe Joshua had been with us for nearly a year. While I was truly amazed at how well he had outwardly adjusted to his parents' death, there was ample if subtle evidence of how deeply it had affected him. One obvious manifestation of this was his being an absolute sponge for affection and reassurance, and while both came naturally to Jonathan and me, he was not above occasionally provoking us or pitting us against each other as if testing to see if we really did love him anywhere near as much as his parents had.


His fifth birthday was, therefore, a cause for special celebration. The Bronson sisters, who ran the day care center Joshua attended, had a party for him with milk and cake and games, and then, because it was a Friday, our little clique of Phil, Tim, Mario, Bob, Jake, and Jared stopped by after dinner for another small party with another birthday cake. Joshua was his usual subdued self, bouncing off the walls, running from present to present, generally hamming it up, and finding time somehow to convince everyone that of all the people in the room, the one he was conning at the moment was his very favorite. So I guess I really should have known when, as I was in the kitchen rinsing off the dishes and putting them in the washer, Joshua came in and asked for another piece of cake.


"I don't think that's a very good idea, do you?" I asked, glancing through the door at Jonathan, who was engaged in conversation with the guys.


"It's my birthday," he said plaintively, in case I may have forgotten. "Uncle Jonathan said it was okay," he added earnestly, climbing up onto his chair at the kitchen table.
Hey, would a five-year old kid lie?


So rather than interrupt Jonathan for verification, I cut him a small piece and gave him a juice-glass of milk to wash it down. He finished it in under a minute and hopped down from the chair to run back into the living room for more attention.


Bob and Mario left early since they both had to work at their respective bars, and at about 8:30, it being my turn to get Joshua ready for bed, I excused myself from the remaining group and went into Joshua's room for his pajamas, then led him, under protest, into the bathroom for the evening undress/bath/pajamas/toothbrush ritual.


When we emerged, the others were getting ready to leave…it was a Friday night, after all, and they had places to go. I reflected yet again on the time before Joshua entered our lives, when Friday night was more than just another evening at home, and had just a twinge of nostalgia for the "good old days".


Both Jared and Jake had been uncharacteristically quiet during the evening, and I'd wondered if anything might be wrong. They'd been gone no longer than a minute when Joshua came running over.


"Look what I found!" he said, holding up a wallet.


"Where did you get that?" Jonathan asked.


"Over there," he said, pointing to where Jared had been sitting.


"Thank you, Joshua," Jonathan said, taking the wallet from him, then turning to me. "Maybe I can catch him," he said and hurried from the apartment.


I took Joshua into his bedroom, listened while he said his prayers, and tucked him into bed with Bunny, his favorite stuffed animal. He'd already picked out a book for "Story Time"— another evening ritual—and I'd just sat down on the bed and picked up the book when Jonathan returned.


"Catch him?" I asked, and he nodded.


"Everything okay?"


"Tell you later," he said.


About halfway through Story Time, Joshua announced that he wasn't feeling very well, which he shortly thereafter demonstrated by vomiting what appeared to be half a birthday cake.
To the bathroom, bed sheets changed, re-pajama-ed, and returned to bed, Joshua insisted that one of us stay with him for comfort and moral support, and Jonathan volunteered.


* * *


"So did Jake and Jared say anything about why they were so quiet tonight?"I asked.


Jonathan sighed. "One of their friends died this afternoon. He was 31. He'd only been sick for two months."


I didn't have to ask the cause of death. By that point in time, with friends and acquaintances dropping like flies, no gay man had to ask the cause of the sudden death of another.
"Jeez, I'm sorry!" I said, and meant it. "It's getting really scary out there."


Jonathan moved closer to me and put his arm across my chest. "That's one more reason I'm so glad I have you," he said. "Even if you do let Joshua get away with murder."


* * *


As I've often said, having a kid ain't like having a puppy, and there's one hell of a lot more involved in the way of responsibilities than many…probably most…gay men would want to deal with.


It was a pretty busy time at work and I was concentrating on squirreling away cash—kids are also expensive—against the next dry spell, which this business has taught me was always just around the corner. Jonathan, too, was putting in quite a bit of overtime at work, which meant a lot of juggling of time and logistics to pick Joshua up each day after day care. But we managed, though it didn't leave nearly as much time as we'd have liked for going out or getting together with our friends. And weekends were devoted to those things we didn't have time for during the week: laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, etc. Since living in an apartment is pretty limiting for a small boy, we made an effort to set aside at least one weekend afternoon to do outdoor things with Joshua: the zoo, street fairs, picnics, hikes, swimming, and the like. But then before we knew it, it would be Monday again and we'd start the whole process over.


About once a month we were able, with effort, to squeeze in a just-the-two-of-us night out for dinner or a movie, thanks to 17-year-old Craig Richman, son of a top-ranking officer with the city police. Craig was at the very top of Joshua's list of favorite people—and it was an admittedly long list—whose services as a babysitter were indispensable.


We did get to see Phil and Tim a couple of times, either having them over for dinner or going to their place, and we talked to Bob and/or Mario, who worked nights, on the phone, but when I suddenly realized that nearly a month had gone by without any word from Jake or Jared, I began to get concerned.


So after dinner Tuesday night, while Joshua and Jonathan were feeding the goldfish and watering the plants, I gave Jake a call. He wasn't home, so I left a message on his machine then decided it was worth a long-distance call to Jared in Carrington, where he taught Russian Literature at Mountjoy College.


He answered after the third ring: "Hello?"


"Hi, Jared," I said. "It's Dick. Haven't heard from you in a while so thought I'd give you a call."


"I've been meaning to call you, too," he said, "but I've been really busy getting ready for the next term."


"I understand," I said. "We really should have called earlier. How's Jake?"


There was a slight pause, then: "He's fine: he was up last weekend. He's got a couple of new construction projects going on, and he's been working his tail off, too, so…"


I detected something in his voice, though I couldn't put my finger on it.


"I didn't have a chance to tell you I was sorry to hear about your friend. Jonathan told me."


Another pause. "Ah…yeah, thanks. Mike was a great guy. Always on the go, always making plans to climb some mountain or other. It was all so damned sudden. One minute he's here, the next minute he…isn't. We saw him just before he…found out…and two months later he's dead."


Hesitation is not characteristic of Jared's speech. And I suddenly realized what I'd heard in his voice: fear. Jared and fear were two words I would never put together on my own.


"Life really sucks sometimes," I said. "But you're okay?"


"What do you mean, am I okay?" he asked, a little sharply, and I realized how he had misinterpreted my question.


"I mean you're handling his death okay?"


"Ah. Yeah. Sorry. I misunderstood." He sighed. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's just that dying at 31…. And he's not the only one."


I quickly changed the subject, thanking him for the kids' tool set he and Jake had given Joshua for his birthday. "He loves it," I said. "Now if we can just keep him from trying to saw the legs off the chairs, we'll be okay."


We both laughed, and the tension seemed to ease.


After another few minutes of general chit-chat, I turned the phone over to Joshua for a quick personal 'thank you' and then to Jonathan. The conversation ended with promises to get together soon.


* * *


Though I didn't say anything to Jonathan, the conversation had bothered me. I knew that while Jared and Jake were devoted to one another, they had a totally open relationship and often engaged in three-ways and group sex. From the tone of Jared's voice, I got the distinct impression that they may have 'known' Mike more ways than one…in which case Jared's comment that they had 'seen' Mike shortly before he found out he was infected was truly chilling. I hoped I was just reading my own paranoia into all this, but I couldn't escape the fact that Jared was obviously worried.


When Jake returned my call the next night, he was his usual upbeat self and gave no indication of sharing Jared's unspoken concern, which made me feel a little better. And then once again, daily existence moved in like a snowstorm, effectively covering over any crevices of worry.


Most of my recent jobs had been of the legwork variety. I had a number of lawyer clients including the city's top gay lawyer, Glen O'Banyon, who would have me run around verifying alibis, checking facts or tracking down information or witnesses on pending cases. Hardly the stuff of mystery novels, but the money was just as green.


The following Wednesday, I'd gone directly from home to the Hall of Records for some research for one of my clients. I got to the office at around 10:30 and had just opened the door when the phone rang. I hurried across the room to answer it.


"Hardesty Investigations."


"Hi, Dick, it's Jared."


Jared? What's Jared doing calling me on a Wednesday morning at work? I had no idea why he was calling, but I instinctively knew it couldn't be good.


"Hi, Jared! This is a surprise. Aren't you teaching today?"


"No, I don't have any Wednesday classes. I thought I'd come into town and maybe have lunch with you, if you're available."


Actually, there were several things I had scheduled for the day, but they could wait. "Sure," I said. "When and where?"


"How about the Carnival around noon? I've got a couple errands to run first."


"Noon it is," I said. "See you there."


I hung up the phone and just stood by my desk, looking out the window. I couldn't remember the last time Jared had called me at work. And what would bring him down from Carrington during the week? It was only an hour's drive, true, but… And if he was coming down, wouldn't he have tried to have lunch with Jake? He'd said Jake was busy with a couple construction projects, so maybe he couldn't make it. But then, why…


I stopped myself right there. No point running off on tangents. I'd find out at lunch. But I didn't like it.


* * *


The Carnival always did a good lunch business. It was a little off the beaten path, but not that far off, and it had a parking lot. I got there about quarter-'til, and there was already a fairly good crowd. I asked the waiter to save us a table on the patio and went to the bar to order a Bloody Mary. I don't usually drink during a work day, but something told me I might need it.


What in the hell are you getting so riled up over? a mind-voice…the one in charge of logic…demanded. A friend called you for lunch. Period. No big deal.


The bartender brought my drink and I fished a bill out of my wallet to pay for it. I glanced at my watch and saw it was still only eight minutes until noon, assuming Jared would be on time, which he usually was. I sat there idly pushing an ice cube around the inner edge of the glass with the celery stalk, occasionally removing the stalk to tap the liquid off and take a large crunch out of it. I became so absorbed in pushing the shrinking ice cube around that the feeling of a hand on my shoulder made me jump.


"Easy, boy, easy!" Jared said with a smile, which I returned. I set my drink aside to get up and exchange a hug. At over six feet and with the build of a linebacker, Jared was as spectacular as the first day I'd met him while he was delivering beer to Bob's bar…a long story I won't go into at the moment.


The waiter came over to ask if we were ready for our table. Jared gave his drink order to the bartender and asked to have the waiter bring it to the table, and I picked up my drink as we followed the waiter out into the patio.


"Well," I said when we were seated, "this was a pleasant surprise. We just don't see enough of one another."


Jared grinned. "Well, we might have if you hadn't gone monogamous on me." Then his grin faded, and he added: "Which may not have been such a bad idea."


Before I met Jonathan, Jared and I had gotten together regularly for a little no-holds-barred horizontal recreation, which was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that neither of us had any romantic designs on the other. And I realized I had had the same type of relationship with both Tim and Phil as well. Though I'd never mentioned it to Jonathan, I know he knew and, bless him, he never let on, or let it cloud his own friendship with them.


Jeezus, you were a slut! one of my mind voices said.


Luckily, a couple others came to my defense. Bullshit! You were just a healthy, red-blooded American boy. Sex was fun! It still is; you've just limited the number of players.


The waiter brought Jared's drink and asked if we'd like some more time to look at the menu. We said "yes," and he left.


We sat in silence for a moment. I knew Jared wanted to say something and decided I'd give him time to do it.


"I'm worried," he said, finally, not looking directly at me.


"I know," I said. "Mike."


He nodded. "Mike. And he's the third one I know of to die from the Male Call crowd in the last four months. A couple others have just dropped out of sight, and I've heard of a couple others who are sick."


The Male Call was the city's most popular leather bar, and one of Jared and Jake's hangouts whenever what Jared called their "leather mood" struck them.


"They closed the back room," he said, referring to a poorly-lit walled-off rear section of the bar where anything and everything could and did go on. "Sort of like locking the barn door after the horses got out. Business has really dropped off. Guys are scared. I'm scared."


"Did you have sex with Mike?" I asked, though I really didn't have to.


He nodded again. "Just before he found out he was sick," he said.


I couldn't help myself: I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.


"Isn't there some sort of test you can take? Do you know anything about it?" I asked.


He sighed. "There isn't any test. Jake's brother Stan is an immunologist at Mercy Memorial, and he just returned from a year with the C.D.C. in Washington, so he's right there on the edge of things. He mentioned they're working on a way to test for it, but…. Mercy's treating more AIDS patients than most people know. They've set aside a special floor for them. Some nurses refuse to work on it. Some doctors, too, if you can believe it. The hospital keeps it all real quiet."


He said nothing for another moment, then continued, "But even if there was a test, Jake says he wouldn't take it. 'If I don't have it, there isn't any reason to,' he says. 'And if I did have it, it'd be too late to do anything about it.' I have to admit he has a point."


The waiter came to take our order, though I was not the least bit hungry.


I waited until the waiter left before I said: "Neither one of you has had any…physical problems…, have you?"


He shook his head. "No. We're both healthy as a horse. It's just the idea of the thing. You don't know how lucky you are that you and Jonathan have the arrangement that you have."
I knew.


"Well," I said, "I'm sure you don't have anything to worry about as long as you're careful."


"We are," he said. "Now. We even use a rubber with each other. But that's just been since Mike. Again, horses and the barn door."


"Jake's right in that there really isn't any point to worrying about it. You can't go back and change the past. All you can do is be careful from here on out."


"Believe me, we will be," he said. He looked at me directly in the eye, and held it. "Thanks, Dick," he said.


"For what?" I asked.


"For being here for me. I'm not the kind of guy to go around crying on other people's shoulders, but I had to talk about it and I knew I could talk to you."


"I appreciate that, Jared," I said. "And you know I'm here any time you need me."


He nodded again, as the waiter brought our food.


* * *


I really don't like to keep things from Jonathan, and felt guilty for not mentioning my having had lunch with Jared when he called to say he would be about an hour late getting home. But I rationalized that this was more a way of respecting Jared's confidence than in keeping something from Jonathan.


I'd picked up Joshua after day care……which he insisted on calling "school." We had talked about taking him out of day care and putting him in a public school kindergarten when the new school year started in September, but decided that his current day care offered a learning experience equivalent to what he would get in a public school. Plus the fact that taking him out of day care would create even more logistical problem considering our work schedules. We knew we'd have to face those problems when time for first grade arrived, but until then….


Okay, I know I'm telling you more about raising a kid than you probably need or care to know, but it just underscores how much of my life was now involved in things I never would have dreamed of even two years earlier.


Since Jonathan was going to be late, I decided I'd fix dinner, so Joshua and I stopped at the store on the way home. I'd made the mistake of asking him what he'd like, as if I didn't already know, and on cue he replied "Macaroni and hot dogs!" Maybe I'd asked him because I knew what he'd say, and macaroni and hot dogs didn't exactly require a degree in gourmet cooking.


There was a message on our machine from Phil and Tim and, figuring that since I'd pretty much mastered the art of boiling water I could put off starting dinner until just before Jonathan was due home, I gave them a call right away.


Phil answered.


"Hi, handsome," I said. "Is your lover home?"


"No. Why don't you come on over? I'm horny as all hell and I don't get nearly enough attention lately. I'd been hoping you'd call, and I'm dying to see you.…Who is this, by the way?"
We both laughed. "I see you've been taking prick-teasing lessons from Tim again," I said.


"Never know when they might come in handy," he replied, followed by a sharp "Ouch! It's Dick, okay?"


I heard Tim in the background saying: "I knew that. You just deserve a good punch every now and then on general principals."


"Boys! Boys!" I said. "Play nice!"


"I am playing nice!" Joshua said, looking up from his coloring book.


"I know you are, Joshua," I said. "I was talking to Uncle Phil and Uncle Tim." I paused to shake my head before returning to the phone. "Well, now that everyone is thoroughly confused," I said, "I was just returning your call."


"Yeah, we were wondering if you guys might want to come over for dinner tomorrow night. Tim's got an urge to make lasagna and you know he always makes enough to feed the Bulgarian army."


"Does Bulgaria have an army?" I asked.


"Not since his last lasagna," Phil replied, followed by another loud "Ouch! Quit beating on me, you little twerp, or I'll whip your ass!"


I heard Tim's voice again: "Promises, promises!"


I laughed. "I'll have to check with Jonathan: he should be home shortly, but let's count on it and if he's got something else planned for us, I'll call you back. Otherwise, what time?"
There was another muffled exchange between Tim and Phil, then: "Seven? That be too late for Joshua?"


"Seven's fine," I said. "He's used to going to sleep at your place anyway, and once he's out, he's out, though he's getting pretty heavy to throw over my shoulder. But we'll manage."
"Great. We'll see you then."


We hung up and I went to the kitchen to fill two pans with water and turn on the stove.


"Come on, Joshua, let's set the table, " I called. We'd been using a set of Melmac dishes so if they were dropped, they wouldn't break. But Joshua was getting pretty adept at holding onto things, and seemed to actually enjoy helping us do things around the house.


Have I mentioned he's a pretty good kid?


* * *


We arrived at Tim and Phil's right on time, and Joshua immediately ran to their large aquarium to watch the fish while Phil fixed us drinks: a Manhattan for me, a Coke for Jonathan, bourbon-sevens for himself and Tim, and a small glass of Coke with a maraschino cherry for Joshua.


"You got a new fish!" Joshua declared, pointing to a small, bright pink fish about 3 inches long. How he was able to spot one new fish out of a tank with dozens of fish I didn't know.


"Yeah, Tim said. "He's a pink veil tail oscar. We just got him."


"His name is Oscar?" Joshua asked, obviously enthralled.


Phil, Jonathan, and I sat around the kitchen table talking while Tim puttered around getting everything ready, then moved into the dining area for dinner. Tim had made two huge pans of lasagna, which was served with a large salad and garlic bread, and wine (another coke for Jonathan and milk for Joshua). Needless to say, it was all wonderful, and I remarked yet again that if Tim ever decided to leave his job as an assistant Medical Examiner with the coroner's office, he should open a restaurant.


After dinner we sat around the living room talking, while Joshua alternately ran back and forth to the fish tank and sat on the floor with a box of crayons and the coloring book we'd brought along. Around 8:20, he crawled up on the couch between Jonathan and me and, after a valiant effort to keep awake, began a slow but increasing list to port until his head was in Jonathan's lap and he was asleep, Jonathan's arm over Joshua's shoulder.


"Have you talked to Jared and Jake?" Tim asked.


"Yeah, we called both of them a couple days ago," Jonathan said, sparing me having to find a way to avoid saying I'd had lunch with Jared the day before. "Did they tell you about their friend?"


Phil sighed. "Yeah. As we were going down to the cars after we left your place, I asked why they'd been so quiet all night, and they told us. We met him once, I think, when we went out bar-hopping with them. I think it was at the Male Call."


Again I resisted the temptation to say anything.


"Oh, yeah," Tim said. "I remember him now. A real hunk!" He paused and shook his head. "What a damned shame!"


"Neither Jake nor Jared said anything, but I think it really rattled them, especially considering how active they are."


"It's like Russian Roulette," Tim added: "The more times you pull the trigger, the greater the risk you're taking. I'm not trying to sound holier than thou here, but the worse this thing gets, the more glad I am I'm not out there on the streets anymore."


"Amen to that," said Phil…who, like Jonathan, had been a hustler when I first met him.

* * *

We left around 9:30, me carrying a still-sound-asleep Joshua like a sack of potatoes, and Jonathan carrying a large aluminum-foil-covered tray of lasagna.


As we'd done before on similar occasions, rather than trying to put Joshua in his pajamas, and get him cleaned up, we decided to postpone the ritual until morning, and put him to bed in his underwear, being sure Bunny was at his side.


When we went to bed ourselves, Jonathan snuggled up close, putting his arm around me to draw me even closer.


"Can we have sex?" he asked


"Since when do you have to ask?" I said, somewhat taken aback by the question but sensing something behind it.


He sighed, the flat of his hand moving slowly back and forth across my chest. "I'm scared," he said, "and I don't want to have to be afraid of sex. I guess I just need a little reassurance."
I pulled his head to me and kissed him on the forehead.


"You've got it," I said, and then we didn't talk any more.


* * *


The days clicked by. We'd heard nothing further from Jake or Jared, but that wasn't all that unusual. Bob called on a Thursday to ask if we'd like to join him and Mario for an after-church brunch at Napoleon, our favorite gay restaurant, on Sunday, and we accepted, conditional on our being able to get Craig Richman to come watch Joshua for a couple of hours.


Every Sunday, Jonathan took Joshua to services at the local, gay Metropolitan Community Church. As a confirmed agnostic I did not feel comfortable with any organized religious service, so I never went, but since Joshua's parents had taken him to church regularly before they were killed, Jonathan thought it was important to keep up the tradition. On those occasions when Craig, who was openly gay, babysat for us on a Saturday night, he often, with his parents' full approval, stayed overnight and would then accompany the two J's to church. He usually attended services with his family at a non-gay church, so he always welcomed the chance to go to the M.C.C. whenever he could. When we called to ask if he was available, Jonathan made arrangements to meet him at the church and bring him home for babysitting after.


Just after we'd put Joshua to bed and were sitting in the living room watching TV, the phone rang. Since I was closest, I picked it up.


"Hello?"


I almost didn't recognize the voice. "Dick, it's Jared. Are you busy?"


I instinctively felt as though I'd suddenly jumped feet first into freezing water. "No: we're just watching some TV. What's up?"


"I…uh…" that damned hesitation again! "I had to come in to see Jake."


The chill had reached my bones. "See Jake?" I asked inanely.


"Yeah. He's…in the hospital. He's got pneumonia."


Oh, Jeezus!

Cover of The Dream Ender

 

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