Jayden was getting ready to leave the hospital when a young woman entered the waiting area. She hurriedly walked over to the information desk. He overheard her ask how her brother, Troy, was. The nurse smiled and asked her to have a seat until her parents came out of the ICU.
She sat down in a chair next to Jayden. She looked around nervously and then fixed her eyes on him. “Are you a friend of Troy’s?”
“No,” Jayden answered shyly.
“Who are you here visiting?”
“Well,” stammered Jayden. “I’m here to see Troy, but I’m not a friend.” The girl gave him a puzzled look.
“I’m Penny, Troy’s sister,” she informed him.
“I’m Jayden,” he responded.
“Do you know how my brother is?”
He shook his head. “Not really. You’ll have to ask your parents.” Just then a nurse came out and told Penny that she could go back and see Troy.
“It was nice meeting you,” she said as she rose and left the waiting room.
Jayden left and took the elevator to the ground floor. When the door opened, Detective Wallace was waiting to get on.
“Jayden,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” Jayden walked out of the elevator. The doors closed as he stood in front of the detective who had questioned him earlier.
“I came by to see how Troy was,” he replied nervously. He started to leave, but Wallace stepped in front of him.
“And how is he?”
“I don’t really know,” Jayden replied. “I guess he’s getting a little better.”
Wallace hit the elevator button. When the doors opened, he took Jayden’s arm and led him onto the elevator. “Why don’t we go see for ourselves?”
“I should be going home,” he responded nervously as he tried to break free from Wallace’s grasp.
“This will only take a couple of minutes.” He gently pulled Jayden onto the elevator. He grew uncomfortable as the elevator climbed to the fourth floor. Wallace stared at him without saying anything. When the elevator doors opened, Wallace asked Jayden to follow him.
Jayden thought they would enter the waiting area, but Wallace walked past it and headed down a long corridor. Jayden looked into the waiting area and saw Troy’s parents and sister sitting on a sofa. They looked up when they saw Jayden and the detective walk by.
“Where are we going?” Jayden asked nervously. Wallace didn’t respond. He continued to walk until he came to a door and opened it. When they walked inside, Jayden realized that they had entered the ICU through a different entrance. He started to leave, but Wallace grabbed his arm.
“Please, don’t go,” he insisted. “You came here to see how Jayden is. I’m going to arrange for you to see him.”
“That’s all right,” Jayden replied. Wallace held his arm as he leaned down and said something to the nurse at the nurses’ station. She got up and asked Wallace and Jayden to follow her. She walked over to a cubicle and slowly pulled back the curtain. Wallace tightened his grip on Jayden’s arm.
Jayden closed his eyes and refused to look into the room. “This is what your cousins did to Troy,” he heard Wallace whisper. Wallace shook his arm. “Look at him,” he insisted. Jayden’s legs buckled when he saw the figure lying on the bed. Wallace led him closer.
Tears welled up in Jayden’s eyes when he looked at Jayden’s battered body. Some of the wrapping had been removed, and Troy’s bruised and swollen face appeared before him.
“Why are you doing this?” Jayden cried as he pulled away from Wallace.
“I want you to see this, Jayden,” Wallace said angrily. “This is what you are letting your cousins get away with.” He grabbed Jayden’s arm and pulled him toward the bed.
“Look at him!”
Jayden fell to his knees and started sobbing. Two nurses ran into the room, but Wallace motioned for them to leave. He leaned down and whispered into Jayden’s ear. “Did your cousins do this?”
Jayden buried his face into his hands and nodded. Wallace took his arm and led him slowly from the room. Once outside into the hallway, he pulled Jayden into a hug. “I’m sorry I had to put you through that, but I couldn’t let your cousins just walk away. Justice must be served.” Jayden cried into his shoulder and nodded his head. After a minute, he stepped back and looked tearfully at Wallace.
“What do you want to know?”
Claire was sitting in the cafeteria watching the door for Will to appear. She had been unable to catch up with him the day before at the hospital, and he had refused to answer his cell phone.
“Maybe he’s not going to show,” suggested Allison as she also kept a watchful eye at the door.
“He better show,” hissed Claire. “I want to know what happened yesterday. He ran from the hospital without saying a word.”
“You told me that you had to leave the room when you first saw Troy,” Allison reminded her. “And besides, you’ve known Troy almost all his life. Will’s only known him a few months.”
“I know,” sighed Claire. “It’s just that I think Troy sometimes knows what’s going on around him. It might help him if he can hear Will’s voice and know he’s with him.”
“There he is.” Claire looked in the direction Allison was pointing. When Will’s eyes met Claire’s, he frowned and turned toward the door. Claire got up and ran over to him before he could leave.
“We need to talk,” she said angrily. He nodded and then headed out the cafeteria. Claire followed behind him. They walked outside and sat on a bench in the quad. Will pulled the hood to his jacket over his head.
“Are you all right?” His shoulders started trembling as he turned his head away from her. “Will, look at me.” He turned and faced her. Tears were falling down his cheeks.
“I can’t do this!” he sobbed. “I can’t stand to see him like that.”
“This is going to be hard on all of us,” she replied sadly.
“You don’t understand,” he cried. “What if he’s not the same when he gets over this?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“Look at him,” he answered emotionally. “His face looks horrible. What if it doesn’t heal?”
“He’ll still be the same Troy we’ve always known,” replied Claire. “It doesn’t matter what he looks like.”
Will stood and looked sadly down at Claire. “What if it matters to me? What if I can’t love him like that?”
Claire stood and faced him. “You can’t be serious?” She could feel anger slowly building inside her. She couldn’t believe what Will was saying.
“I’m nineteen, Claire,” he said. “I don’t want to go through life with... with... a freak.”
Before she was aware of what she was doing, she drew her hand back and slapped Will’s face. He stepped back before she could hit him again.
Tears welled up in his eyes again. “I just need some time to think about this,” he cried. He turned and hurried into the building. Claire sat on the bench and sobbed. Soon she felt a familiar arm wrap around her waist. She leaned over and cried on Allison’s shoulder.
“He’s scared right now,” whispered Allison. “This is hard on all of us. We love Troy so much.”
She lifted her head and looked toward the door where Will had exited minutes earlier. “Some of us love him,” she replied angrily.
Jayden raised his head when he heard his government teacher call out his name. He hadn’t been paying attention, so he didn’t know why he had been called on.
“Yes, Ma’am?” Mrs. Artwell was sitting impatiently at her desk waiting for him to answer her question. He looked nervously around the room. He was a good student, and he enjoyed the class; however, he had been too preoccupied with Troy health to be involved in the class discussion.
“Do you know who the current Secretary of State is?”
“Um...” he hesitated before answering. He knew his answer would be wrong, but he made a wild guess. “Colin Powell?”
“You’re about five years too late,” replied Mrs. Artwell as students started giggling. He dropped his head and started doodling on his notes.
After Wallace forced him to visit Troy, he had broken down and told Detective Wallace about the incident in Anthony’s bedroom in which they had confessed to the beating. Until Troy could recover and identify his attackers, it was the information Wallace needed to take to the prosecutor and have them arrested. He was determined to get his cousins off the street.
He was also fearful what could happen to him once they were arrested. His aunt depended on them to provide her money, even though she refused to acknowledge where or how it arrived in her hands. She had been generous in taking him into her home after his mother’s death. If she discovered he was the reason for her sons being arrested, then she might resent him.
However, the thoughts that haunted him the most were those of holding Troy in his arms until the ambulance arrived. He never hesitated a minute in taking his bloodied body into his and giving him comfort. He felt like a protective mother, carefully guarding her child. Something happened that night, and he couldn’t explain it. It was that same sense of protectiveness that kept drawing him back to the hospital.
As traumatic as it was when Detective Wallace forced him into looking at Troy, he also felt a sense of relieve in knowing that he was still alive. He was also drawn to Troy’s family, who seemed to have taken an interest in him. It was a closeness he hadn’t experienced since his mother died.
“Mr. Henderson?” Jayden was once again awakened from his thoughts when Mrs. Artwell called his name.
“Can you now tell me who the Secretary of State is? Miss Van Horn just gave us the correct answer.” He looked over at the girl to his right. She gave him a demure smile.
“I know it’s not Colin Powell,” he joked in an attempt to make light of the fact he hadn’t been paying attention.
Mrs. Artwell raised her arms to the ceiling and exclaimed, “Why do I bother to even try?” Students broke out into laughter.
Troy’s parents and Penny were sitting in the waiting room when Claire and Allison entered. “Penny!” Claire ran over and hugged her, spinning her around the room. Like Troy, she had been a good friend for years. When Claire confided in her about six months after telling Troy she was gay, she readily accepted her. “You were my friend yesterday and today. Nothing you’ve said will affect you being my friend tomorrow,” she had remarked after hearing the news.
“Allison!” Penny pulled her into the hug. Troy’s parents stood by smiling. Penny pulled away and grabbed their hands.
“We’ve gotten some great news this afternoon.” She looked at her parents and smiled. When she turned back her eyes were wet with tears. “The swelling in Troy’s brain has gone down. The doctors are beginning to think that he’s finally turned the corner.”
“That’s wonderful!” Claire shouted. She then hugged Troy’s parents.
“Even though we have cause to feel better,” warned Mrs. Neal, “he’s still not out of the woods. There’s going to be a dark path to recovery.”
Claire gave her a wide grin. “Troy’s a fighter,” she said. “If anyone can pull out of this, then he can.”
“Let’s hope so,” replied Mr. Neal skeptically.
They sat down and Troy’s parents informed Claire and Allison of their previous visit. Troy was more alert than in earlier visits. When they held his hand, it appeared that he attempted to squeeze theirs. The doctors also said that he seemed to be sensing what was going on around him.
“He could be getting a private room in another day or two,” said Penny. “More people will be able to visit him then. It may be just what he needs to bounce back.”
“Besides,” laughed Mr. Neal, “I think the hospital administration is getting tired of all the people hanging around here in the evenings. Once school lets out, students start dropping by to see how he is.” He had no sooner said that when three seniors walked over and chatted briefly with Allison. Soon, several more students arrived. They didn’t stay long. They merely wanted to let Troy’s family know that they weren’t alone.
Claire nudged Allison when Jayden walked in. Mrs. Neal immediately rushed over and hugged him.
“Jayden!” she said excitedly. “I’m so glad you came back.” She took his hand and led him over to the sofa and sat down. She patted the seat beside her, and he reluctantly sat beside her.
“Penny, have you met Jayden?”
“Yes, Mother,” she smiled. “We met yesterday when I arrived. We really didn’t get a chance to talk.”
Troy’s mother reached out and grasped his hand. “He’s a wonderful young man.” Jayden seemed embarrassed by the attention.
Claire rose from her chair and held her hand out to Jayden. He took it as she pulled him up. “Come with me and Allison,” she smiled. “We’re going down to the snack lounge and get a soda.”
“We are?” Allison asked.
“Yes, Silly,” replied Claire as she kicked Allison’s foot. “Remember, you said you wanted something cold to drink.”
“Oh, right,” responded Allison as she stood. Claire then led him from the waiting room.
Allison kept peering around Jayden’s back to catch Claire’s attention. Claire had mentioned him, but she didn’t understand why everyone seemed to appreciate him coming to the hospital.
They entered the snack area and Claire got a Snickers bar from the machine. “What do you want, Honey?” Jayden stopped suddenly and looked over at Claire. He wasn’t sure if he had heard her right.
Allison looked quickly at Jayden, and then gave Claire a puzzled look. It appeared that Claire was trying to intentionally out their relationship to Jayden. “Just a bag of chips,” she replied. Claire got them and handed them to her.
“Here, Babe,” she grinned. Again, Allison looked at Jayden who was standing back with an astonished look on his face.
Claire looked at him and grinned. “I guess I forgot to tell you that I’m also gay.” She walked over and threw her arm around Allison’s shoulder. “Meet Allison, my girlfriend.”
Unsure what to say, Jayden managed to stammer out, “Hey, Allison.” Both girls giggled at his nervous reaction.
They walked over and took a seat at one of the tables in the snack lounge. Claire turned to Allison and attempted to explain why she had told Jayden they were lesbians.
“When I met Jayden the other day, he was wondering why Will seemed so worried about Troy,” she explained. “Since he had done so much for Troy, I figured he had a right to know; so I told him that Will and Troy were boyfriends.” She looked over at Jayden and grinned. “I didn’t mention the itsy bitsy fact that we were a couple too.”
“It’s all right,” Jayden responded quickly. “It doesn’t bother me. I think it’s cool if you guys are dating.”
Claire placed her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands. She leaned forward and said, “You don’t seem at all surprised that I’ve told you that four of us are gay. Most people would have seemed shocked, but not you.”
Jayden shrugged his shoulders. “Different strokes for different folks.”
“No,” Claire studied Jayden closely. He started to become embarrassed. “It’s more than that.” She rose and walked over to a vending machine. She returned with another Snickers bar. “I guess it’s really none of my business,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jayden appeared insulted by her comment. He knew what she was attempting to suggest. Since his relationship a few years earlier with Vince, he had hidden the fact that he was gay.
“Hey!” interrupted Allison when she saw the exchange between Claire and Jayden. “How about those Knicks?” Claire gave her a puzzled look and asked, “Who?”
“Never mind,” she replied. Claire leaned in and quickly kissed Allison on the nose. She looked over to see how Jayden would react to the kiss.
Jayden sat back and started laughing. “You’re not going to give up, are you?”
Claire leaned forward and folded her hands as if in prayer. “Please tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Are you gay?”
“Do I look gay?”
“Well, no,” Claire replied as she sat back. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just I got this gaydar thing going off right now.”
“Gaydar thing?” Jayden leaned back in his chair and started roaring with laughter.
“She’s being serious,” Allison said. “She thinks she can spot a gay person a mile away. I told her one day she’s going to be wrong.”
Claire looked disappointedly at Jayden. “Damn,” she said. “I was so sure.”
Jayden laughed and rose from the table. He threw his trash in the container and started to leave the lounge. Before walking out the door, he turned and grinned. “Maybe your gaydar thingy does still work.” He laughed and headed down the hall.
Claire sprang from her chair and rushed out the door. “Wait!” she shouted. “What did you mean by that?” Jayden let out a loud laugh and continued walking.
Troy’s parents were sitting in the waiting area with broad smiles on their faces. Penny was wiping tears from her eyes when the three approached.
Claire asked, “What’s going on?”
Mrs. Neal stood and hugged Claire and Allison. She stepped back and smiled at Jayden. She then opened her arms. “You come here too.” He grimaced when she squeezed him tightly.
She stepped back and smiled. “The doctors came out moments ago and gave us some great news. Troy is beginning to respond well to the stimulus tests. He has even nodded his head a few times when the nurses have asked him questions. It appears that the worst may be over.”
Allison grabbed Claire and hugged her. They then started dancing in a circle. “Let’s not get too cheerful,” warned Mr. Neal. “It’s promising news, but we still have to wait until the doctors say his condition has stabilized. Right now he’s still in critical condition.”
“It’s still good news,” insisted Troy’s mother “After the past couple of days, any improvement is welcomed.” Claire and Allison nodded their heads.
“Have you been back to see him yet?” Allison asked.
She shook her head and looked up at the clock. “Visiting hours will be in about ten minutes. One of the doctors told us that he’s going with us. He wants us to see if we can get Troy to be aware that we’re in the room. He says sometimes a familiar voice will help a patient respond better.”
They sat and talked until it was time to go back to see Troy. Jayden attempted to leave, but Mr. Neal begged him to stay. “It feels like you’ve become a part of our family,” he said as he put his arms around Jayden’s shoulder. Jayden fought hard to hold back tears.
Mrs. Neal walked over and hugged him. “If it hadn’t been for what you did, Troy may not be alive today. We owe you for saving our son’s life.”
Jayden stepped back and appeared embarrassed by the affection he was receiving. “Please don’t say that,” he insisted. “I only did what anyone else would have done.”
“Say what you will,” smiled Troy‘s mother, “but you’re now a part of the Neal family, whether you like it or not.”
As if on cue, a doctor walked into the waiting room and asked for the Neal family. He stopped when he saw six people approaching. “Are you all family members?” He gave Jayden a curious look. Mrs. Neal wrapped her arm around Jayden’s waist.
“Yes,” she said proudly. “This is our adopted son, Jayden. These girls are his sisters.” She jumped when her husband gave her a slight jab in the side.
The doctor studied them carefully. “Very well. It’s not customary to let so many people go into the ICU, but I think we can make an exception. I think Troy might respond if he hears your voices.”
He led them back into Troy’s cubicle. When he pulled back the curtain, the first thing that was obvious was that Troy’s color was beginning to return. His arms didn’t look ghostly white as they had earlier. Some of the bandages were removed from his face, and the swelling around his cheeks seemed to have gone down. There were still dark bruises apparent on his face.
Jayden stood back while Troy’s parents and sister approached the bed and began kissing his cheek and holding his hand. Claire walked up and rubbed his arm while Allison put a protective arm around her waist. Jayden felt tears welling up in his eyes as he watched the love being given to Troy.
He noticed Troy moving slightly. Occasionally, he would appear to tighten his grip on his father’s hand, or he would move a foot under the sheets. It was apparent that he was aware of what was going on around him.
Mr. Neal turned and motioned for Jayden to approach the bed. He released Troy’s hand and offered it to Jayden to hold. He gripped it gently while Mr. Neal leaned down and whispered to Troy.
“This is Jayden, Troy,” he said softly. “He was with you the other night and held you until
help arrived.” Jayden flinched when he felt Troy grip his hand tighter. It was as if he had understood what his father said. Jayden squeezed his hand tighter and rubbed the back of his hand. Claire walked over and put her hand on his back.
After several minutes the doctor returned and asked to speak to the family in the hallway. “Did you notice any change in Troy today?”
They explained how he seemed to respond to them. He seemed particularly pleased that he had gripped Jayden’s hand. “If he reacted like he did, then he’s definitely aware of what’s going on. This is very encouraging. I think he’s making excellent progress.”
When the doctor left, everyone began hugging one another. Jayden felt uncomfortable at first, but even he was pleased that Troy was getting better. For someone who he had never met except in the direst of circumstances, he felt as if he’d known him for a long time.
He looked at the clock on the wall and realized he should be leaving. It was late, and he still had homework to do. As he was putting on his coat, Troy’s father asked him if he needed a ride home.
“I can take the bus,” he said.
“Nonsense,” Mr. Neal replied. He started to put on his coat. “I need to get away for a minute anyway.”
“You need a cigarette,” exclaimed his wife angrily. “I’m surprised you haven’t been sneaking out more often to smoke.”
“Please don’t start, Dear,” replied Mr. Neal. He looked over at Jayden. “Don’t ever get married. I think it’s a wife’s duty to nag her husband to death.”
Mrs. Neal slapped him gently. “It’s my duty to love you in sickness and in health. I’d rather you be in health.”
“Yes, Dear.” Jayden grinned when Mr. Neal rolled his eyes and started heading for the door.
As soon as he exited the hospital doors, he lit a cigarette. He offered one to Jayden, but he told him he didn’t smoke.
“Good choice,” he replied. On the way to Jayden’s house, Mr. Neal questioned him about school. He found it strange that Jayden and Troy had never spoken.
“You’re such a nice young man,” he said. “I think you and my son would get along.”
“I’m not as nice as you think,” Jayden replied.
Before Mr. Neal could respond, they pulled onto Jayden’s street. They immediately saw four cruisers blocking the street.
“What’s happened?” Mr. Neal asked as he slowly approached. Jayden then saw Anthony and Tyrone being brought out of the house in handcuffs and placed in the back seat of a cruiser.