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Here it is, gang. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks as always for my talented beta, Alan, and talented JUNIOR betas (LOL!!!) Roz and Jen who are always catching me on something on the preview copy and also to Pfyre, without whom I would have no site at all. Also, Jen gets a lot of these pix she uses in the illustrations directly off screen caps, but sometimes I send her one I got in La Mon's illustrated emails, or just sent to me by someone. I never take off the attribution if the picture is stamped, but if it isn't, forgive me if I don't credit you, I can't keep up with them all, but trust me, none are original to me. Randall.

Reconstructing Brian

Chapter 4

"Daddy, I peed in the bed."

Brian awoke to this announcement. As if to prove his claim, Gus smelled faintly of ammonia. Brian opened one eye, noticed it was still dark, and then groaned. "Did you tell Mommy?"

"Mommy is too sleepy. She won't wake up."

Brian sighed, knowing from experience that Lindsay and chardonnay led to a solid sleep. "Okay then," he sat up, just as Justin asked what was wrong. "Gus wet the bed," Brian said and Justin yawned.

"Need some help?"

"Well, yeah," Brian took him up on his offer. "You have a choice. Wash the kid or change the sheets."

"I'll wash the kid."

After Gus was cleaned up and wearing fresh jammies, and the sheets on his crib were equally pristine, he went right back to bed. Brian and Justin, on the other hand, were wide awake. They worked as a team to scramble eggs and toast English muffins, suddenly ravenous. They took their plates back to bed, sitting Indian-style and chowing down on this snack as they talked in low, intimate tones. So much for Brian's habit of rejecting carbs and fat after seven. He smirked at the thought of being both unemployed and fat.

"Should one of us call Melanie?" Justin wondered and Brian frowned.

"I don't think so. I hate meddlers. She must know that Linds and Gus are here. You'd think she'd call just to see how the kid's doing."

"You think she's cheating?"

Brian shrugged. "I don't know. She's done it before."

"Poor Linds."

"We've heard exactly half the story. Remember that."

"I can't believe you're defending Melanie."

"I'm defending no one. I'm just saying keep your mind open for now."

Justin took the empty plate from Brian's hands and stacked it on his own, placing them both on the bedside table. "I so want to fuck you right now. You're so hot when you're being paternal with Gus."

Brian laughed. "What a chick thing to say. So what are you waiting for?"

Justin wrinkled his nose. "I feel funny about it with them right down the hall."

"Fuck that," Brian said, pushing him back and yanking at the sash of his robe.

"Daddy?" Gus's small voice was like a bucket of cold water thrown on their activity. "There's a monster under my bed. Can I sleep with you and Justin?"

Brian groaned and lifted him into the bed, exchanging a last longing look with Justin before he turned off the lights and they both tried to sleep with a wriggling toddler trapped in the space between them.

The next morning, Brian dressed in a dark gray Armani suit. He wore a pale blue hand-tailored shirt and a blue Ferragamo tie decorated with small silver birds. He drank black coffee and kissed his son on his way out. Justin had gone to the gallery a half hour earlier. Brian entered the elevator, rode it down to the street, left the building and put on his sunglasses. Now what? He glanced at his watch. Nine o'clock. He had nowhere to go, but he didn't want Lindsay to realize he wasn't going to work. What did people do when they were out of work? He knew he should be polishing his resume and talking to headhunters, but he was too numb to think about finding a job now. He was still in shock.

He just wanted to hide, but where? He wanted to stay home and bolt the door, but here he was, on the street, with no office to go to, no appointments to keep, no money to spend frivolously and nothing to do. At least the rains had stopped. He bought the New York Times, and went into a coffee shop where he ordered breakfast. He ate slowly as he read the paper from cover to cover.

"Hey, Brian. Why so dressed up? Going to an interview?"

He looked up at one of the younger partners in his ad agency, a man he would consider a peer. The guy had been educated at elite universities, but Brian found him more arrogant than intelligent. He knew he could take him in a match up, because Brian was that much better at what they did, and far more appealing to clients. He always sensed this guy's jealousy. How happy Brian's humiliation must have made him. He was dressed casually, accompanied by a small woman who was obviously pregnant. She smiled sympathetically at Brian, clearly not sharing her husband's gloat.

"Hello, Evan," Brian responded, not bothering to answer his facetious question.

"I took the day off. We have a doctor's appointment to figure out if they'll induce or let nature take its course."

The wife looked so miserable, Brian smiled at her. "For your sake, I hope they induce."

"Thanks," she stuck out her hand. "I'm Beth, Evan's wife."

He shook it. "Brian. Why don't you sit down, Beth?"

"No," her husband intervened. "We won't bother you in your job search."

"I'm just reading the paper."

"I'm getting your old office at the end of the month," Evan twisted the knife, but his wife winced at his cruelty. Brian gave away nothing. His old office had the superior view, and the better location, because he made much more money for the firm than Evan did. Brian was immensely bothered by the idea of this numb nuts moving into his space. "Is that Cynthia woman any good?" Evan continued.

"She's the best. Why?"

"They asked me to put her on my team. I'm thinking about it. She'll have to prove herself to me."

His wife sighed. "I really need to sit down, Evan."

"Please," Brian said tensely, and she gratefully lowered herself into his booth. Her husband continued to stand. "Cynthia's a great asset to the firm," Brian assured him. "I hope you treat her fairly," Brian tried not to make it sound like a warning. What threat could he offer, other than to smash in Evan's smug face?

"Is she your girlfriend?" His wife inquired innocently and her husband laughed.

"Your mind is shot from your hormones, honey. Remember? I told you. Brian is gay." He put an odd emphasis on that last word, drawing out the "a".

Her face reddened as she gave Brian a stricken look. "Sorry, I....you don't..."

He tensed. "Look gay? Act gay? Well, he's right. I am. And Cynthia's a talent. She shouldn't be punished just because she has the stigma of working for the faggot partner."

"FORMER faggot partner," Evan said with a smile. "I mean faggot FORMER partner. I know a lot of the agencies have queer partners, Brian. They seem proud of it. I'm sure they'd love to have you. We just have this family-oriented atmosphere, where alternative lifestyles don't really fit in."

Brian stared at him. "Being gay is not a lifestyle any more than being straight is a lifestyle. It's a sexual orientation, not a decision to live in a condo overlooking the sea. Or choosing Southwestern cooking over Chinese. It's as big a part of who I am, fundamentally, as being straight is who you are."

"Sorry if I wasn't ‘PC'," he made quotes out of that last statement with his fingers. "The fact remains the same. You were a square peg in a round..." he hesitated as Brian smiled wryly. "Well, you know what I mean."

Yeah, Brian thought to himself. You wouldn't want me to be in that round hole, now would you, asswipe? To Evan, he said, "I'm at a loss to understand why the partners would sit around and gossip about who I fuck. What could it possibly have to do with them? They're safe. I wouldn't fuck any of them with YOUR dick."

"It's just not...normal...is it? You have to admit, it's not normal."

"Normal? Sure, it's normal. Faggots are nothing new. We've always been around, at least ten per cent of any population. Maybe that's not the majority, but it's certainly not abnormal."

"Many Christians and psychiatrists would disagree."

"Not the ones with brains."

"Uh, do you have a boyfriend, Brian?" Beth tried to break the tension.

"Yes, Beth, I do. Would you like to see a picture of him?"

"We need to go..." Evan said, but his wife shot him a poisonous glare and he shut up. Brian removed a photo from his wallet. It was taken on their balcony in the pensione in Portofino. They wore matching hotel robes, their arms around each other, a sparkling, incredibly beautiful backdrop of the ocean behind them. Their relaxed posture and wide smiles said it all. They were two men in love. She looked at the handsome couple and nodded. "He's very attractive. You make a lovely pair."

"Thanks," Brian returned it to his wallet and his wallet to his pocket.

"Pair of what?" her husband said with a laugh. "Come on, honey, let's go eat. Brian needs his time to peruse the want ads."

As she laboriously moved her bulk out of the booth, she reached out and placed her hand over Brian's for a fleeting moment. "I'm so sorry," she said softly. He wasn't sure if she meant for his loss of a job or for her boorish husband. He supposed it didn't matter. He smiled and nodded as her husband moved her along, asking. "Why'd you say that?" as they went.

"Why'd you have to be such a raving asshole?" she responded and whatever his answer was, Brian couldn't hear it. His blood was rushing in his ears. His face was burning. He felt exposed and vulnerable. He took his Mont Blanc pen from his pocket and began writing down everything he could remember from this conversation on the newspaper.

Later, Brian went to a movie, just to kill time, and then he finally went home to a blessedly empty loft. He changed out of his suit, pulling on jeans and a silk sweater, his feet bare as he sat down at his computer and brought up his old resume. Lots of updating was needed. He wasn't sure how much time had passed when the door opened and Lindsay came in, holding a sleeping Gus. She looked surprised to see Brian there, put a finger to her lips to silence him, and took Gus to the bedroom. When she emerged, she retrieved a Coke from the refrigerator, and then sat down on the sofa with a heavy sigh.

"What are you doing home so early?" She asked.

"I live here."

"You know what I mean."

He swiveled his chair to face her. "Where were you?"

"We went to lunch with Mick."

"Right. Late lunch. What advice did she give you?"

"To talk it out with Melanie before I took any action."

"Smart lady."

"Very, but I don't know if I want to do that. I'm already talked out. So why are you home?"

He took a long beat before he said, "I got fired, Linds. I'm out of a job."

She stared hard at him. "No." He nodded. "But...why?"

He explained the situation succinctly and she walked over to him, hugging him gently. "I' m so sorry, Brian. And here I am, adding to your burdens."

He sighed and swiveled out of her embrace, raising his hand to rest under his nose as he peered hard at the computer screen, feeling perilously close to tears. He didn't know why he felt like crying. Was it her maternal touch? Was it the humiliation in the coffee shop? Was it just the fact he was such a fucking loser, not only in Justin's eyes, but now in Lindsay's, too? Thank god Gus was too young to understand. She massaged his shoulders, saying nothing, knowing when he needed space to think or compose himself. He edited a couple lines on his resume, then stopped and leaned his head back against her belly, his eyes closing. "I don't know what to do with myself, Linds. I'm drifting."

"It just happened, honey. Allow yourself some time to rebound from the shock."

"I thought this was my shot. From here to senior partner, then managing partner. I did nothing to deserve this. I'm a top performer. I never let them down, even when Molly was so sick and I was so strung out. How could this happen?"

"Because they're a bunch of homophobic assholes."

"Are they? Or am I making excuses? Did I blow it by spending time in Pittsburgh with Molly and Justin? Or by taking that vacation? Do you know how much vacation time that I lost every year because we could only carryover a week and then it all expires in March? I could have taken a year off on unused vacation time. I worked my vacations. Except one. When I was so physically and mentally exhausted, I would've been no good to them anyway."

"Brian," she swiveled him around to face her, leaning her hands on the arms of his chair. "You did the right thing. This is bullshit. Don't let them cause you to question your decency. Is this why you hired Mick?" He nodded. "Good. If anyone can take them to the bank, it's Mick."

"I guess so. I feel like such a failure."

"How did you fail, Brian? You helped Molly and her family through a crisis. You cemented your relationship with Justin and took him on a vacation that you both deserved and earned. Where was your failure in all that?"

Gus began to cry, barely heard down the hall, and she sighed and went to check on him. Brian leaned back in his chair, feeling the calm of numbness return. Numb was just a step away from denial. Denial was a close friend, his constant companion throughout his childhood and much of his adult life. Deny your feelings and it doesn't hurt. Lost in a haze of fear and self-pity, he didn't notice Lindsay as she returned to the room, holding Gus. She watched Brian with the worried expression of a mother, wondering what she could do to help.

Justin came in quietly that evening, in case Gus was asleep. Music was playing at a low volume, the fire was lit. Brian was seated at his computer, his expression reflecting his concentration. Justin walked over to him and kissed the top of his head. He could feel Brian's tension. He didn't even look up from the screen.

"You're late," Brian said gruffly. "Lindsay made dinner. There's food in the fridge for you. You can nuke it."

"Okay. Are you mad at me? I called to say I'd be late."

"Yeah, at seven. An hour after you were due."

"Brian, we were working on inventory. It took forever. We have to catalogue everything, enter it in the computer along with all of the artist's information, the prices, and then update the insurance rider. Look at me."

Brian sighed. "I'm working on my resume. Lying is such a fine art."

"No need to lie, you have great credentials. Stop for a minute. Where's Lindsay?"

"Taking a long bath. Gus is asleep." Brian stopped what he was doing and swiveled to look up at Justin, his expression flat. Justin knew that look well. It concealed either anger or hurt feelings, often both.

Justin took Brian's handsome face in both hands and leaned down to kiss him sweetly on the lips. He could almost feel Brian's tension subside, as Justin's warm love chased away the blues. Their tongues touched, and then Justin withdrew and said, "I love you. I'm sorry I was late."

"S'ok," Brian responded softly. "One of us has to make a living."

As Justin went into the kitchen to retrieve the food set aside for him, Brian followed him with his gaze. "I told Lindsay the truth."

"Thank you! That'll make things so much easier. What about Mikey?"

"I sent him an email, but I haven't heard back. Not sure if he's seen it."

"He'd call if he had," Justin took the foil off the plate of curried chicken, rice and broccoli, rolling the silver paper into a ball and tossing it in the trash as he placed the plate in the microwave. He noticed some discarded mail in the trashcan, one envelope in particular. He waited until Brian went back to his computer screen, before he retrieved it and stuffed it in his pocket. It had been torn in half.

"I'm going to take a leak while my food heats up."

Brian said nothing and Justin closed the door to the bathroom before he pulled out the envelope with Jeffrey Walker's embossed home address on it. Justin wryly supposed the psychopath couldn't put his current address on the envelope, since the city jail lacked a certain panache. He lined up the heavy vellum paper he found inside, squinting at the almost illegible doctor's scrawl as he read,

"Dear Brian,

I heard from my attorneys that you're back from Italy. I'm sure you intend to testify against me. I don't blame you a bit. What I did was wrong. I know you'll find this hard to believe, but I did it because I love you. I love you, Brian. I always will, whether you believe me or not. We were made to be together.

Do I hate you for embarrassing me in front of my friends and colleagues? For throwing me into this hellhole? For ruining my career? No, I could never hate you. I love you. There's so much you don't see, won't see, refuse to understand.

You're blinded by your obsession for Justin, you just can't see how little he cares for you. Your money? Yes. Your support, your lifestyle? Yes. You? No. He's proved that over and over, leaving you, not believing in you, running to another man. Breaking your heart. Busting your balls. He's a menace. He's too young for you, too green, completely undeserving of the person you are.

Someday, if, god forbid, you lost your job or your money or all the perks you can offer, you want to see how fast he'll be gone? Don't blink. He's a blond twink who will be hanging off the arm of some other older, richer benefactor before you can even apply for unemployment. Not I, Brian. I would always be there, supporting you, paying your bills if you couldn't, loving you.

I may have gone about this the wrong way, and I'm willing to pay my dues for what I did, but never let them make you uncertain of my motives. I'm now and forever motivated by one thing: love. Do what you have to do at the trial. I understand and I love you no matter what.



Justin frowned, returned the letter to the envelope, and shoved it back in his pocket. The psychopath was still at it. He walked back to the kitchen, where Brian was at the fridge, removing a beer from the door. He saw Justin's expression and sighed. He walked over to the trash can, glanced at its contents, then held out his hand to Justin. "Give it to me."

Justin reluctantly did so, and Brian took the letter over to the hearth and threw it in the flames. "NO!" Justin insisted. "Get it out!" By the time Justin began shoving at it with the poker it was too late, the letter was incinerated.

"What are you doing?" Brian insisted.

"It could be evidence."

"Of what?"

"Doesn't matter now. It's gone."

"Justin, I don't care what that psycho thinks or says. I don't doubt your feelings for me. Come here."

Justin went into his arms, ignoring the chime of the microwave, announcing that his dinner was warm. "Good, because he's wrong."

"I know that."

"Do you think he loves you, Brian?"

"Maybe in his sick control freak, obsessive way, he does. But that doesn't mean he has my best interests in mind. Love is not always a force for good. A lot of murders and other mayhem, even wars, involve the emotion of love."

"What he said about your job interested me. You think it's just an ironic coincidence?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, it's so weird that he warns you about what I would do if you lost your job, and then...you do lose it. Coincidence?"

"What else could it be? Jeffrey's in jail, and I hardly think he can control my partners."

"I don't know. I don't have a theory. I just don't like coincidences."

Brian kissed his nose, and said, "He may be right that you're a blond twink, but he fails to see the fact you're a blond twink covering an ancient soul."

Justin smiled and kissed Brian squarely on the mouth, luring him towards the bedroom, unconcerned that his dinner was growing cold.

The following evening, Brian sat at the bar in Hot, located beneath Mick's offices. He was drinking a scotch, waiting for her to appear. It was way too early for a gay bar to fill up, and he suspected some of the men who wandered in now were just escaping the rain, which had started again, with a vengeance. No one had the nerve to approach him, and Brian was fine with that. He wanted to be left alone. Mick finally came in from the street, dressed in matching pants and blazer that was one tuck away from being a man's suit. Her blue cotton shirt had an open collar, and the whole ensemble seemed to cry out for a tie. She slammed her briefcase on the bar, slapped Brian's back in greeting and ordered a boilermaker.

"How ya doin', Terry?" She asked the bartender who grinned at her.

"Can't complain, boss."

"Since when?" She said with a guffaw. "You be nice to my friend Brian, here. You got it?"

"I think I can manage that. He dresses up the place."

Brian smirked at that remark and she led him to a back table where they could talk.

"Dykes aren't allowed in this bar," one of the stragglers grumbled at her, glaring at Brian for having the gall to host this woman in their closed domain. Mick laughed.

"You must be new. I own this bar, chickie baby. Fuck off."

Brian smiled, enjoying Mick's attitude. "Were you in court?"

"Yeah, that's why I look so elegant. How did you know?"

"Scott told me." Her secretary was back.

"Just a discovery hearing, but while I was there, I went over and talked to the D.A. who's trying Jeffrey Walker's case. He's a good one. And he feels like he has a strong page on this creep. He wants to see him do real time, not just get his wrist slapped since he has no priors and is a rich doctor."

"Good," Brian said, looking down at his drink, his brows knitting together in consternation.



"Don't do that. I hate it when my kids do that. What's on your mind?"

"He wrote me a letter. Told me he did it out of love. Admitted he was misguided, he was wrong, apologized, and said he loved me. That Justin didn't love me and never would. He only loved the life I gave him."

"Shit, that's a confession, kid. Did you keep it? Turn it over."

He looked up, blushing slightly. "Justin said the same thing. I burned it."

"Oh well. What worries you about it?"

"I think in his own twisted way he did love me, Mick. And for a time, I encouraged that love. Now his whole life is ruined. I keep remembering that, despite everything else he did, he saved Molly's life. He's a brilliant doctor. Is the trade off worth it? How many kids will die because I have the satisfaction of putting Jeffrey behind bars?"

"Listen to me, Brian. You can be brilliant and still be a freak. Look at Hannibal Lecter. Someone that unstable, that twisted, doesn't need to be dealing with life and death issues, no matter how technically skilled he is. Stop that."

He met her eyes and sighed. "I try, but I remember how sick Molly was until Jeffrey took over. Now she's on the road to recovery."

"And he almost killed you in the process. At least he endangered your mental and physical health by misusing his professional tools. Quit beating yourself up. We have a different battle to wage now. Against your firm. I want to get a letter out this week. The first volley. I'll need some names and information to do that. I'll also want you to review it."

They were interrupted by a tall, lanky youth who wandered over to their table. He lit a cigarette with a shaking hand. He was chalk pale, soaking wet from the rain, his dark hair streaming into his eyes, which were blue and haunted. His cheekbones were gaunt, giving him the skeletal beauty of a fashion model. He was all angles and bends in jeans that were beginning to bag and a thin, less than clean t-shirt. He looked cold, and wiped his runny nose on the sleeve of a battered leather jacket.

"Hey," he said to Brian, ignoring Mick as if she weren't there.

"Hey," Brian said, raising an inquisitive brow.

"You want a date? We can go downstairs."

Brian looked confused. "A date? You want me to pay you to go downstairs with you when I could go downstairs and get a free blowjob from anyone I chose?"

"Yeah, man. I don't give it away. You'll like it. I'll suck your dick without a condom for fifty or you can suck me, with a condom, whatever you like. I'll let you bareback me for a hundred."

Mick started to speak, but Brian held up a hand to stop her. "I'm not interested."

"Come on, man," the kid persisted. "I'm hungry. I haven't eaten all day. Two days."

Something about him hit a chord in Brian. Was it the tall, gangly body? The haunting but handsome face? The expression of hopeless chaos? He was seeing himself at this age if he didn't have people like Debbie Novotny and Vic and Michael to support him when things got unbearable at home. He reached in his pocket and removed a twenty dollar bill he couldn't really afford to spare, and handed it to him. "Get yourself something to eat."

"And stay the fuck out of my bar," Mick said gruffly. "This isn't a hustler bar and you aren't old enough to be in here. Wait." She too produced a twenty and as the kid reached for it, she noticed how thin his hand was, like skin stretched directly over bones. On the back of his hand was a purplish lesion. She encircled his wrist, which was tiny, holding fast when he tried to pull away. He couldn't do it, she was too strong. "You sick?"

"Fuck you, you fat dyke bitch! Let go of me!"

"Honey, you need help."

"I'm fine."

"You infected?"

"None of your business. It don't matter to you. I wouldn't fuck you for a thousand bucks," he suddenly grimaced, his face contorting as a cramp went through his body. "Leave me alone, I have to go to the bathroom. Let go of me."

She released him, and he ran towards the can, while she exchanged a look with Brian and shook her head. "He's got it."

"HIV? You can't know that, Mick. He's just thin."

"He's sick and he's practicing unsafe sex for money. He's got it. You notice he didn't offer to share his body fluids with you, only to take yours into him. Because he has nothing to lose." She flipped open her cell phone and auto-dialed a number. "Hi, Frankie, it's Mick. Good, and you? Got room for one more? Medical workup, shelter, food, the usual. Come on, this kid is desperate. He's probably not on any meds and he needs to be. He's wasting, he's sick. I don't know. I'm at the bar. I can be there in ten, if he'll come with me. I know Frankie, we'll talk about the horrors of finances later. For now, let's help this kid." She hung up and Brian looked at her.

"A shelter?"

She nodded. "A safe place for HIV- positive youths. Sad that there has to be such a place, but there does. Some of it is social and educational, a place they can go and hang out, get a meal, get condoms for free, play some video games or listen to music or watch television. Get medical care. If they're users, they get free hypos. But we have a few slots for resident kids until they can find a halfway- house or somewhere to stay. All of the slots are taken. The place is way too small to accommodate the demand and money is always a problem. But we'll double him up with someone. He can't be left on the street."

"How are you involved with it?"

"It's the Patrick Donovan Center for Gay Youths. Patrick was my son who was murdered. It's something I've funded in his honor, but it's gone beyond me. We depend on agencies and charities and private contributions to eke by. It started out as more of a social club for young gays, but we've filled this sad little niche now. It's become a place for HIV positive kids to go without censure."

He looked at her and sighed. "God, that's great, Mick."

"No, it's small potatoes. Just a handful gets helped, but I like to think that's a start. We're struggling right now in these tough economic times. Brian, he's been gone too long. Will you check on him?"

He winced. Sick hustlers were not his thing. But how could he refuse after what she just told him? He went into the bathroom, crinkling his nose at the unpleasant stench. The kid was seated on the tile floor, his back against the wall, his long legs splayed out in front of him. He was as white as the tile and trembling like a rat on crack. Brian looked for a sign that he had recently shot up, but nothing was apparent. "You okay?" He asked, and the kid sighed.

"I'll be okay, just let me sit here a second."

Brian squatted beside him. "Mick, the dyke at the table with me, has a place for you to stay."

"Some fucking shelter? No thanks. You ever been to those? The streets are cleaner and safer."

"This one is okay."

"How do you know?"

"I uh..."

"Yeah, you don't look like the Good Samaritan type. You've never even been in it, have you? It'll be a hellhole."

"Where else do you have to stay? You have a crib?"

The kid looked down at the floor. "Not right now."

"I'll go with you. If it's a terrible place, if I wouldn't stay there myself, I'll buy you a hotel room for the next three days, okay?"

He looked up at Brian, his eyes reflecting an absolute emptiness. He had no fight left in him. Brian stood and held out his hand to help the kid to his feet. The boy reached out and Brian saw the eggplant colored mark against the white skin of his hand. He hesitated just long enough for the boy to understand the reason, and withdraw his hand. He struggled to his feet under his own power. He was seething with anger.

"It's just a bruise! Some asshole shut a car door on it! See?" he pressed his thumb against it and the mark lost color and then darkened again when he removed the pressure. "AIDS spots don't fade out if you push them, you asshole!"

"Look, I..."

"I don't have AIDS! I don't!" His voice rose in anger and fear. Brian tried to quiet him by lowering his own voice.

"It's okay, I believe you. Come on." When Brian touched his hand, it felt hot and dry. He pressed the back of his hand to the kid's clammy forehead. "You're burning up."

"I can't stop shaking. I feel cold."

Brian thought of Molly, of all the hell she went through and all the hell he went through with her. He knew he couldn't let himself care about what happened to this sad kid. He couldn't survive another health crisis, and he had enough on his mind. It wouldn't be the same, because he had no connection to this kid as he did to Molly, but still, it was too much for anyone to ask of him.

"I'm scared," the boy said softly and Brian slipped back into a memory.

Brian was four, not much older than Gus was now. His father was on a drunken rampage after coming home from a night of boozing and bowling with his friends. When he heard Jack yell at his mother, Brian ran down the hall to his sister's room. He remembered he was wearing flannel pajamas with feet in them and his feet slipped on the hardwoods as he ran, making his escape more perilous. Claire was only seven, but she seemed grown up to him. He crawled in bed beside her and drew in his limbs, becoming a red flannel ball, as small as he could make himself appear.

"Hide me," he whispered desperately. "I'm scared!" Claire covered him up with the quilt just as their father entered her room.

"Where is that little crybaby? He broke my god damn radio!"

Claire pretended to have awakened at that exact moment. "He didn't mean to, Daddy. The knob just came off in his hand."

"I told him to leave it the hell alone! How am I supposed to listen to the game when I'm working in the garage? Where is he?"

"I don't know. Hiding, I guess."

"He'll wish he hadn't when I find him," he stormed out of her room. For some reason, Claire wasn't subjected to Jack's rages. Whether it was her gender or her fragile appearance, or something else, he saved his beatings for his son and occasionally his wife. Claire rubbed Brian's arched back, helping him to relax and stretch out again. She whispered, "Don't be scared, Brian. He won't come back. He's gone. Don't be scared, you aren't alone."

Whimpering softly, Brian pressed close as she enfolded him in her arms. He listened to her sing "The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout..." as if it were a lullaby. Eventually, he fell asleep. By morning, the liquor would've worn off, and the worst of Jack's rage would've passed. For the moment.

Over time, Brian and Claire lost that closeness they felt as kids under fire. He missed that sense of camaraderie. He should call her sometime, try to mend some fences. Strange how a simple act of kindness could remain with you forever. He sighed and slipped an arm around the boy's thin waist.

"Don't be scared," Brian said softly as he led him out of the bathroom. "You aren't alone."

Go to Chapter 5

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July 25, 2004