Once, the young man had thought that the stars had finally aligned themselves and that his Path had crystalized. There had been a sense of Grace. An understanding that the suffering of his early life had somehow opened the door to the joy that was his reward. It was as if the heavens had blessed him in ways only the faithful would comprehend. He wore the armor of a soldier and carried the sword of truth, that made him old beyond his years. Many spoke of him because of the strange wisdom he nurtured.

           They would never know how close to death he had come and how that journey changed him forever. But with time, he grew to understand that some truths were his alone, and no amount of spoken or written words were sufficient to satisfy those who never cared anyways. In later years, this aura would be misunderstood as arrogance. But, the story we are sharing, started long before. So much earlier, that the forbearance of experience was supposed to have dulled the edges of the brutal pain that has now returned, some seven lustrum hence. It is a pain that now weighs on my memories, but in its inception, threatened to take from me everything I held dear, including the promise I made on the day of my Confirmation. It would have been easier, but then, this story would have ended, many years ago…

  November, 1975

                 Matty sat on the cold concrete until he was numb. How long he had been there was unclear, but now the sounds of the occasional passing cars were increasing as he huddled in the shadows of the brick facade with his knees drawn to his chest and his face hidden. He shook uncontrollably from the cold and soaked clothes that  clung to his slender frame. The persistent  rain fell but he no longer cried. He was beyond that. There would be fewer tears from now on, because he had put them in a place where the Others would never look. In his heart, where they would remain for 46 years.

                  The tall, young man struggled to his feet, staggering as tho he was learning to walk, for in a sense he was. The open car door beckoned him and as he approached it,  red lights suddenly cut thru the darkness and strobed off the water- blotched windows of the sleek Firebird. Matty turned slowly, disoriented, and realized that he was no longer alone on the one- way street. The police car drew closer and stopped behind the dark- colored car. It had long windshield wipers that seemed mesmerizing to the exhausted boy who stood frozen in place.

                    The grey- haired cop got out and walked towards the soaked young man until he was just feet away. His flashlight panned over Matty’s trembling body and then clicked off as the man spoke. “Son, I didn’t expect to find you here by now… Are you OK? “

                    Matty nodded slowly but the words would not pass his frozen lips. He stuttered, and then stopped trying.

                   “Dear Lord! You’re frozen half to death! What happened? How did you get so soaked? You should … Never mind, kid. Here, let’s close her down for the night. You’re coming with me. You can’t be out in this rain like this. You’ll never get to Florida if you end up with pneumonia!”

                 Matty shook his head and mumbled incoherently.

                 “No, don’t worry. I’m not talking about taking you in. I’m off shift now and I was heading home. I had a funny feeling, so I figured I’d come back this way… No, you’re coming home with me and we’ll get you into something dry. You need some sleep, too. Come on, now…”

                    He reached around the boy and took the keys from the car’s ignition and briskly closed the heavy door. Then, he gently took Matty’s arm and led the shaking boy to the other side of the cruiser and sat him inside on the front seat. He reached over the trembling lad and secured the grey seat belt and whispered soothingly, “It’ll be OK, son. You’ll see…”

                  Matty nodded hesitantly, as the older man closed the door and the car descended into darkness. The boy felt his eyes closing, almost against his will, as he gave in to the comfort and safety of this new world…

                 The inside of the cruiser was warm and comfortable except that Matty had to keep his legs shifted a bit to the right. A black- stocked shotgun sat cradled in a special bracket to the right of the radio equipment, which crackled and buzzed as the boy tried to keep his eyes open. He stared straight ahead but he felt the furtive glances of the seasoned cop as the lights of the city faded from view and the black hood of the powerful interceptor ate the strobing lines on the beltway asphalt. As he struggled to remain awake the grey- haired man reached over and shut the radio off and with a soothing voice, suggested that Matty relax…

                  “It’s OK, son. Just close your eyes and in 10 minutes, we’ll be there. I just have to make one stop. My boys drank all the milk again, and  the wife asked me to bring a gallon home before she left. Breakfast might be on the grouchy side if I don’t!”  He chuckled. “I’ll bet you know what I mean! Teenaged boys and all… Can’t seem to keep enough moojuice in the fridge to satisfy those two. Gotta work overtime just to keep them from starvation!”

                     He laughed heartily. “Ahh… God love ’em! I might complain, but I think the world of them, you know…”

                     Matty nodded slowly… He could tell. This man lived for his family. He slowly closed his eyes and drifted off into a restive slumber… He lost track of the time. All he knew was that it was dark and he was spent… He dreamed of a happier day.

November, 1964

               “Matty! Matty!  You can do it! I know you can! Jump! Past the rock… Past the rock!!!”

                The 10- year- old blond boy held his breath and let go of the heavy cold steel chain and flew thru the frosty stillness. For a moment he was an eagle, his arms outstretched to the sides as he severed the bonds that made him human. He was flying now, and in his mind’s eye, this new power would someday lift him beyond the clouds and free him from the terror of the shadows that sheltered the demon. Only then would he be safe again.

                  The ground rushed up to greet him so he bent his thin legs and clenched his jaw in preparation for the landing. It was almost as important as the flight that he land upright and under control, so that his new friend would still like him. It had been two months now, and Bobby had become his life preserver. Nothing was good enough for the stockier boy and Matty spent a lot of time worrying that one day, he would no longer interest the shorter 10- year- old, so he tried his hardest to devise these adventurist games. ‘Flying Eagles’ had become one of their favorites, as long as they were able to get to the swings before the other kids. And that took some careful planning, and deft maneuvering through the school hallways once the class was released for recess. Both he and Bobby converged from different classrooms and every swing- loving kid knew- if he or she was to have a turn, they were in for the race of their lives!

                    Today, it had worked out as planned, and the boys excitedly vaulted from the sturdy swings to the amazement of several onlookers who OO’d and AW’d at the incredible distances they leapt… Matty landed with a thud and a perilous side- step as he caught his balance and stayed upright.

                     “All right! Nice jump, Matty! Watch me, now! Watch!” And with that, Bobby flew through the heavy air and landed at Matty’s side, flashing a big grin at the beaming boy.

                      “Wow! That’s more than a foot better than my jump, Bobby! Look.” The blond boy traced a line in the powdery dirt with his brown Thom McAn shoe. “See? More than a foot further! Someday, maybe you’ll end up on the sidewalk!”

                       Bobby laughed. “Yeah, right! If I really grow feathers, you mean! “

                       Matty grinned. He knew it was impossible, but in his mind, this boy was special, and capable of ANYTHING. If he could like a boy as skinny and broken as him, there was little that he could do wrong… He looked at the twinkling eyes and felt the butterflies in his stomach again. He desperately wanted to touch the boy, perhaps to hug him, to know that he felt the same. But, that was impossible. Boys their age didn’t hug unless one of them scored the winning run, or made the last shot as the buzzer sounded.

                        His mind raced… ‘Gotta remember to sign up for basketball this saturday…’

                        Matty turned to his new friend and said, “Hey! I made you somethin’ in art class today! It’s pretty cool…”

                        “Yeah? Really? What… a turkey or somethin’? Miss Drake had us all making turkeys to take home for Thanksgiving.”

                          “Naw… Something better. I’ll show you after school. I think you’ll like it, because we were talking about something… well… uh… well, I’d better not say anything else or it’ll wreck the surprise!”

                           “Oh, come on!  You gotta tell me! It’s only 1 o’clock! That means two whole hours before I see it! Come on. Spill it! What did you make for your best friend?” Bobby grabbed the slender framed boy and spun him around, until he had his arms pinned behind him. Both boys struggled and panted, but the shorter boy held tight, and Matty stopped struggling, enjoying the warmth of the handsome boy behind him.

                             “OK, OK… I’ll tell you”, he chortled.

                               Bobby held on, grinning broadly. “Yeah? OK, what did you make?”

                               “It’s light as air, and smells like perfume!”

                                Bobby paused momentarily and started to release the boy, but decided against it… “Huh? That doesn’t make sense! You have to give me more than that!”

                                “OK, OK,” Matty cackled… “Ready?”

                                 “Yup! Let ‘er rip!”

                                  The tall boy almost fell over, laughing at that remark, but steadied himself , froze and with a strained grimace let loose with a giant fart!

                                Bobby was stunned, but after a few seconds, started laughing hysterically and let the tall boy go, waving his hand in front of his face in mock disgust…

                               “Cripes!  That was a loud one!” he yelled. The other boys in the area all started to laugh and it was a big hit for about three seconds… Until Miss Drake arrived on the scene! She was not so amused by the crass behavior, and decided that she had heard (or smelled) enough. Matty was never quite sure what she really knew, but it was enough for her to round up all the boys on the swings that day, and make them stand in place by the doors to the school for the rest of the recess. Bobby never stopped grinning. Matty was horrified. Two boys. Two distinct (sorry ;P) personalities…

November, 1975

               The sound of crunching gravel and the slowing cruiser jarred Matty from his slumber. He opened his eyes and looked around nervously, but all he could see was a darkened house and a carport with a few bikes strewn about. The grey- haired cop noticed at the same time.

             “Damn,” he muttered. Sighing, he threw the shift into ‘park’ and tiredly hoisted himself out of the driver’s door to move the bikes. One was larger than the other, but both looked fast, and were stripped down versions of the originals, with butterfly handlebars and removed fenders. They reminded Matty of the many bikes in his old neighborhood. Most had been ‘street prepped’ in a similar manner. In fact, it was uncool to be seen with a bike  that had fenders if you were a teenaged boy. But, in the headlights of the running car, Matty’s rescuer didn’t seem all that impressed. Just a bit aggravated that the bikes were in the way, and quite tired. The boy understood. He was exhausted, and still shivering from his saturated clothes.

            The stocky man returned and climbed back into the car. He was already calm. “Some things never change, Matt! It doesn’t matter how many times I tell the boys, they seem to backslide every few weeks. Probably oughtta ground them for the weekend, but then they’d just drive me crazy…” He looked at Matty and smiled. “You seem like the responsible type. I’ll bet your dad didn’t spend all of his time lecturing you about stuff like that!”

            “No sir,” Matty said quietly, his voice shaking.

            “Hey! I’m sorry, son. You must be freezing! Let’s get you into something dry. Maybe a cup of coffee to warm you up, huh?”

             The tall boy looked at him and nodded, uncertainly.

            “You DO drink coffee don’t you?”

            “NNo sir,”  Matty replied.

            “Oh, sure…. just like my boys. Well, that’s OK! How about some hot cocoa then? My boys  never get enough of that!” He patted the youth on the back and motioned towards the house. “Well, let’s get inside. I’ll get some heated up, quick as I can. I’m not the chief cook around here, but this weekend, I’ll have to do. My wife is off with the ladies on retreat again. They seem to be doing that a lot lately. Supposed to make her a better catholic, but I think she does it just to get away from all the men in the house! ” He laughed. “It must be tough to be the only one in the house who pees sitting down!”

            Matty nodded and followed the man’s lead. His feet felt like lead as he climbed the three stairs into the smallish ranch house but the blast of warm air felt good as the kitchen door closed behind him.

           It struck the boy at that moment, that this stranger had found him at a very serendipitous time. He didn’t know what had made the man take that detour on that awful night, but he felt like he had found a friend. Someone who knew only that he was in need, and didn’t care if he had asked for help or not. It was unsettling but heartwarming as well, and the boy decided that he knew this man, as he stood in the dimly lit kitchen and watched the rituals that every father goes through when he comes home from work. It was comforting, and a glimmer of hope came back to the boy and settled in his broken heart. Someone cared…

           As the milk heated on the stove, the man excused himself and disappeared into the dark recesses of the sleepy house. Matty sat on the cushioned chair in the dining area of the brightly decorated kitchen, and tried to gather his thoughts as his eyes grew heavy again. This detour had unsettled him, and he worried about his car and the belongings inside, and the schedule that he had intended to keep. Outside, the weather had returned to it’s chaotic state after a brief lull, and he could hear the wind- blown rain pelting against the aluminum siding on the smallish house. He wondered if it would ever end, and whether it had been a sign of sorts. Perhaps a case of fateful intervention that had brought him to this house in such a way…

            In the distance, he heard the rustling sounds of the man in one of the rooms near the hallway, and then the creaking sounds of his footsteps as he returned to the orange -themed kitchen with the fake ‘tiffany’ chandelier over the round table. Matty forced his eyes open and the cop smiled at him…

            “Here you go, son. I scavenged these from my oldest boy’s supply. He won’t mind…” He handed Matty a brand new pair of white BVD’s, a new undershirt, and  an olive green pair of sweat pants. “I guess they might be a pretty good fit… You look about the same in the waist as Danny, even if you are taller. The most important thing is that they’re dry. If you get out of those wet clothes, you’ll feel a lot better…”

              “Thank you, sir.” Matty responded.

                The cop chuckled… “No need to call me sir, son. Even if I do like the sounds of that! My name is Mike, and I’m OK with that, or Mr. Demmings…”

                 The tall young man was startled briefly by the strange coincidence, and stuttered, “MMike? Uh…”

                “Sure! Mike. As in Michael. Sergeant Michael Demming, Capitol Police, formerly of the 75th Rangers out of Ft. Benning…” He chuckled, as Matty’s eyes widened. “Days gone by, son… History of a tired man.”

               “Sir… I mean, Mr. Demming… Were you ever in ‘Nam? “

               The man sighed and turned to pour the chocolate into the steaming pot of milk. He didn’t speak for a moment and seemed to be gathering his thoughts. “Matthew. Take this from an expert… Let the dead rest. Your life is just starting… You’re only a few years older than Danny. I wouldn’t want him to be chasing shadows and dwelling on things that can’t be changed… Your friend… The soldier we talked about. He died over there, didn’t he?”

               “Yes sir, he did…”

                “Yeah…. Well, I saw plenty of that in the day. Boys chewed up in that goddamned meat grinder. I lost 2 of the best friends in my life on one night… They’re gone… gone. There’s no way to bring them back. Believe me. I prayed and cried… yeah, I was there, too.” He turned to look at the boy who was slowly shedding his wet clothes. “You can change in the other room if you want to….”

               “It’s OK, sir… I’m used to changing in front of guys…”

                “Did you end up over there? You seem a little too young…”

                 “No sir… I tried, but the war ended. Maybe if..”

                  “I’m glad, Matthew,” the man interrupted. “No man needs to see the things I saw, or your buddy saw. Things that belong in places far from home… That’s where they should stay, son. I think if you look into your heart, you know your buddy would have told you the same thing…” He placed the mug of hot cocoa on the maple table as Matty pulled on the new underwear and looked around for a place to put his wet clothes.

                    “Here… I’ll take those and put them in the wash, OK? Those pants look like you cleaned the sidewalk with them…”

                     Matty looked at the man, startled by his observation.

                      “OK… so I watched you for a while,” the former soldier offered. “You look a lot like my oldest boy, and let’s just say that I knew you needed someone to keep an eye on you …”

                        Matty pulled tight the cinch cord on the army sweats and felt the tears welling in his eyes, but this time, they came from a different place. He nodded, and wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.

                      “Thank you, Sarge”…

                       The man cleared something from his throat and straightened his tired shoulders. “You’re welcome, young man…” He reached over the boy with his right arm and pulled him close, until Matty was resting his tired head on his broad shoulders. He turned, and softly kissed the tearful boy on the head, and whispered into his ear, “Promise me you’ll live your life now, son…”

                        As the november rain fell, for the first time in months, Matty felt the hole in his heart start to close. He had found hope, when there had been none…

Continued in part 11…

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