There was little left of the November sun as the forlorn teen traversed the darkening path through the marsh where evil lurked in every shadow… Matty had  avoided this area since he was 10 years old, for reasons he tried not to remember, the remnants of which, chilled his spine, and, made him jumpy, even tho he felt better prepared to protect himself. But, this was the shortest way to Bobby’s house, an old, two- family structure that sat on a lot surrounded by blueberry bushes and deep woods to the east, and, neighboring houses spread apart by undeveloped lots on the north and south.

         The lanky boy picked up the pace, as he reached the perimeter of the swamp, preferring to leave that area behind, to the denizens of the bramble and swaying cattails. Soon, he was walking on pavement, but, with a deft zig zag, entered the second area of silent woods, another shortcut that he and Bobby had travelled so much that it had become a worn trail– packed clay really, with brown, dried leaves and golden summer grasses that had outlived their time and were conceding to the coming winter winds that would soon cover the trail in knee deep snow, making it mostly impassable… The boy walked as quickly as he could, the protruding branches of the maple saplings, snapping at his face as he countered with an extended forearm, expertly deflecting the eye -level limbs that he almost knew by name. The last branch was pushed out of the way and a clearing appeared, full of the thorny canes of spent blackberry bushes that he boys had feasted on, frequently during the summer heat. ‘If only these woods could talk’, thought Matty… This was a happy place. A place of solitude and secret kisses. A place where the first, furtive gropings of two teenaged boys became part of the smoldering passion that fueled the sticky dreams and the desperate waking hours of best friends.

The towering house loomed ahead now, a porch light illuminating the dark grey planks in it’s eerie light… To the right side of the porch were the two deck chairs, still equipped, even this late in the season,  with the flowery upholstered cushions that the boys joked about so much. Bobby seemed to think that his flatulence had so impregnated the thick material that it was toxic, and Matty always fought him for the ‘unspoiled’ one that adorned the largest wicker chair. The boy smiled inside, remembering the many wrestling matches that the two of them had entertained, and, the blushing face of his best friend as he ‘popped a boner’ in the early part of their friendship, after one such charged encounter.

       The blond boy climbed the stairs, two at a time, and reached for the lighted doorbell button to the right of the mahogany door. But, before he could press the button, the shape of an adult woman appeared behind the translucent lace that curtained the large window on the upper half of the door. Matty  waited as the door opened, revealing a large woman in a calf length dress and apron. She opened the door completely, and spoke to the boy through the outer screen door.
  
        “Matthew… What is it? It’s dinner time. You should be home !!”
        “I’m sorry Mrs. Koczera… I was hoping to speak to Bobby. It’s pretty important…”
         “Matthew…” The boy didn’t understand this– Bobby’s mom never called him by his formal name, unless she was scolding him or Bobby. “Matthew, he’s not here at the moment. You should come back some other time, perhaps.”
          “Not here?  Um, is he OK? Where is he? Uh, I just want to talk to him for a minute…”
          “Matthew, he’s not here!! I don’t know where he went… but… he’s just not here!! Call him on the phone, maybe tomorrow, I don’t know…”

            And, with that, Bobby’s mom shut the door, leaving the bewildered boy standing in the dancing rays of the windblown pendant light, as it swayed back and forth from a sudden gust of wind.
            Matty was stunned! What was going on?  Something was very wrong! He searched his memory for anything that he might have done, that could have upset the stout lady, but, he was stumped!!  It was very unlike her to leave him standing there, after all, she had called him her second son, at one point!
            So, he stood there, for a minute, and then,  shook his head in disbelief and slowly walked down the 6 concrete steps to the sidewalk, stopping halfway, to look back… There, in the living room window, partially obscured by the lace curtains, he could see Mrs. Koczera, watching him leave. The boy felt hollow inside. Suddenly, everything was spiraling out of control!  His rock, the best friend that he counted on, so much, had vanished, and, was unreachable on top of it!
            The tall boy’s mind reeled, and, his heart pounded. What could he do? He felt his chest tighten, and, he fought the demons that tried to wrest control from him. ‘I’m not going to cry! Bobby’s here, somewhere… He walked down the street a ways, until he knew that he was out of sight, and, then, turned, and doubled back, running in the shadows and through the blueberry thicket until he reached the back of the house. It was getting quite dark, now, and the boy looked to the eastern sky. A large, orange moon was starting to rise, threatening to breach the tops of the trees in the backyard. Matty scrambled to the safety of the darkest corner of the structure and squeezed between the hedge that was growing outside of the window that led to Bobby’s bedroom. The old steel milkbox was still there, from the last, clandestine meeting that the two boys had arranged. Matty turned it upright and stepped up on top of it.
            His head was now at window height. He pressed his face against the glass, but, could see very little- just the glow of a night light that was plugged into an outlet near the door to the hallway. He strained his eyes to try to make out the shape of a person on the quilt covered bed, but, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized that the bed was empty, and, that the quilt seemed undisturbed. Bobby was elsewhere. Maybe the old lady was telling the truth!  But… something seemed just a little off! Why hadn’t she invited him inside? Why didn’t she tell him where his best friend had gone? Why did she keep calling him ‘Matthew’? There were lots of questions.  The list seemed to grow, the more the boy thought. He stopped a moment, and, thought things through. Something had been wrong with Bobby in school, something he wouldn’t even talk about. Then, the note. This had never happened before… Bobby had left notes, sure, but, never a note like that!! It had always been stupid stuff– ‘I’ll be back when I’m back, you whang.’ Or, ‘Hey Koles, don’t piss your pants, I’ll meet you after this fucking detention is over, by the falls.’

           The note had been a complete departure.

            The boy squeezed back out of the confines of the hedgerow, and sneaked, quietly to the north side of the house. There, the cascading light of the dining room chandelier illuminated the lawn outside the bay window. Matty crept to the very edge of the large window, and, climbed up on top of the hose holder that had been bolted to the side of the building. He grabbed the window sill for a hand hold, and quickly peeked around the corner, into the dining room. Mrs. Koczera was just coming into the room, carrying a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes. She placed them in the center of the table, in front of the seated, balding man, who had his back to the boy. She looked up for a second, and, Matty quickly ducked his head back out of sight. ‘Close one’, he thought!!
            He waited a minute, and then slowly peered around the corner again. Both parents were now sitting at the table, starting to fill their plates with food, but, Bobby was nowhere in sight.

            Matty’s heart skipped a beat. Where the hell had he gone? Had he made a new friend? Did he go to the library? During dinner? The questions were starting to become daggers, poking at the boy’s heart. There seemed to be no good answer. Matty was in a place he had not known since he met the grinning maniac!! They had shared EVERYTHING in their lives, from the most mundane to the deepest secrets… Once, the two boys had even stayed up, to the wee hours of the morning, trying to come up with new things to tell each other that had never been shared!! It had all finally ended on a hilarious note, when Bobby farted and said, “There’s something new, and blue, for you!! Smell it, savor it, before it loses it’s awesome power!” The boys then spent the next half hour, trying to outdo each other, seeing who could come up with the loudest fart, much to the dismay of Bobby’s dad, who had finally heard enough, and intervened, telling them, through the walls to ‘just go to sleep, you little maniacs!’  Which they did, side by side in the bed that they both shared when Matty stayed overnight. It had all been so innocent, but, it was the thing that Matty held dearest. His young prince, in his arms, in the warm bed, in the quiet dark room, his face resting on the soft skin, as the two boys drifted off to sleep… Of course, the door to the room had always been secured with the ancient  skeleton- keyed lock, a key that Bobby proudly carried on a silver ring, along with the key to his bike lock, and the key to the rear door of his house. More than once, both boys were glad that the door had that lock as they engaged in rather risque massages clad only in white briefs, that were straining to contain their growing boy parts…

         But, now, Matty was unnerved. What to do? He crept back around the large house and left the area, through the neighboring bramble, the way that he had arrived. In the distance, he could hear the deep barking of a large dog. He glanced about. ‘Better get out of here’, he thought. ‘That stupid dog is going to rat me out!’ Soon, he was in the safety of the distant woods, but, his stomach was full of the butterflies that seemed to arrive when he was in deep inner conflict. The boy reached up and mindlessly rubbed his neck. The tension was starting to create a knot at the base of his neck.

        Matty reached into his pants pocket and felt the rosary beads at the bottom… He stopped for a moment, and started to say a ‘Hail Mary’, when it dawned on him. The treehouse. Why he had the thought, he didn’t understand, but, there it was!! He knew only that he needed to be there.

        Matty turned down the path to the left at the ‘Y’ and jogged through the moonlit woods, to the meadow where the grandfather oak stood, clutching in its arms,  the rickety structure that the boys had constructed from scavenged wood. Material  that Matty had dragged from his dad’s construction sites, and from an old, abandoned house, that most kids were afraid of, because of the rumors of child- killing ghosts that hovered inside.
        It lie dead ahead now, and Matty approached, and stopped below it. He looked up, and could see that the hatch was closed. “Bobby… are you up there?”
        There was just silence.
        “Bobby!! It’s me, Matty. Are you up there?”
         Still nothing, but, as Bobby grabbed the first rung of the makeshift ladder, he heard the muffled sob of a crying boy. Then he knew. He had found him. It was starting to become clear. He reached into his back  pocket just to make sure. The leather box was still there.
         “I’m coming up, Bobby!” the blond teenager exclaimed. “Hang on, I’ll be right there!”

           Matty climbed the slats that wound up the leaning tree. The wood had been harvested from an oak pallet, and, hand sawn by the boys and then sanded, because of it’s rough surface. They had really had a tough time, securing the slats to the tree because they were so hard to nail through, and, as a result, a few of the slats were adorned with bent over nails, that never made it all the way into the tree without bending. In the dark, Matty could feel the bent over nails, and, it started him thinking strange thoughts… Of the wooden cross, and the sacrifice of the Christ and the spear in the side from which the wine flowed as the last breaths of the Lord were spent. He reached the hatch, and, his legs were shaking.  He wasn’t afraid of heights, even tho he had fallen out of numerous trees, but, for some reason, he couldn’t control the quiver  in his trembling legs. He stood there a second and said a small prayer, asking God for strength now… He must be strong, no matter what happened. The shivering subsided and, the slim boy pushed the hatch open, and looked inside.

         Bobby sat in the corner, in the shadows created by the walls… Only the very top of his head was illuminated by the rays of the ‘Frosty’ moon. Bobby had his head buried in his knees and was sobbing, silently. Matty called out, quietly to him– “hey Koles… Bobby… it’s me, Bubba.”
         There was no answer, so the blond boy hoisted himself the rest of the way into the treehouse, and, closed the hatch. Then he crawled over to the distraught boy in the corner, and put his hand on the back of his head, and caressed his trembling neck… Bobby started to really cry then, so Matty snuggled up next to him and wrapped his arms around the shaking boy, and softly cradled his head in a warm embrace, kissing his neck over and over, tenderly, until the trembling subsided.
         Bobby finally looked up, and, in the glow of the full moon, Matty could see the tear streaked face for the first time. Bobby’s face was swollen and his eyes were puffy from all of the crying that he had done.
         “What happened, Bobby? What’s going on? I went to your house after I read your note… I don’t understand. Why do you want me to go away? I thought we…” Matty couldn’t continue… he clenched his jaw and tried to steady himself, but the raw emotions overtook him, and the tears welled in his eyes… he buried his face in his buddy’s neck, and held him in a bear hug, and cried while Bobby held his head in his strong hand.

           It was too difficult to explain, so, Matty wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve, and, reached into his pocket and took out the small leather box. He handed it to Bobby. Both boys understood the meaning of that box. The box that contained the silver cross that Matty had worn at his Confirmation the year before. Bobby had admired it, and, had always wished for the same cross, but his family couldn’t afford it at the time. In fact, Matty had bought the cross himself, as a reminder that he was now a soldier of Christ, an honor and duty that he held dear, and, would hold dear for his whole life. It was a rare piece of jewelry for the boy at that time, and he proudly wore it every day, except during phys ed days, when he feared losing it in the porous lockers that the boys used in the changing room…

        Bobby was speechless for a while. He held the box in the palm of his hand and studied it, trying to understand why it had been handed to him.
       “I want you to have it,” Matty said. “I can’t think of anyone more deserving than you… You are my rock, Bobby, you always have been, and, the thought that you want me to go on without you is … well… it’s not possible. You are the only person in the world that I really love. I wouldn’t know how to go on. I prayed and prayed that you didn’t mean it and I want you to look me in the eyes and tell me to my face what happened… why you want me to leave.”
       “I thought you were leaving to become a soldier. I wasn’t leaving you, you were leaving me.”
        “Bobby, even if I leave to become a soldier, I’ll come back to you. I could never leave you. You should know that! But, there will be times, in our lives, where we have to be apart, even if it hurts, until we do the things that make us men to the world. So that noone can take that from us, no matter how hard they try. Do you know what I mean?? Someone… something…. not a man… a monster, tried to take that away from me, because I was not as strong as him. Then, the world, the war, took Mike away from me, and I couldn’t stop them. Now, I won’t let them take everything from his little boy, Bobby… I can’t let that happen…Even if it means that we have to be apart for a little while…”
         “What?? His boy?? What are you talking about, Matty??”
          The blond boy shook his head, and turned away… He looked out the window of the weatherbeaten  treehouse, and watched the moon arc high into the November sky.

           “Bobby… Mike has a son. I didn’t know until I got those letters from him when he went away. I never told anyone else, and, I don’t want you to ever tell anyone, either. He can never find out about me. He needs to know that his dad would have come back to him if he could have.”
            “But, he was… “
            “Yeah, I know. He told me that he did it with the girl to try to make them think he was a man… You know, that he liked girls, not guys…”
             “Oh my God… Koles… is that why you have to go?”
             “Yeah.”

       Continued in Part 4….

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