I woke up early the next morning. Too early to even consider going to Jeremy’s, but I could hardly hold back from going over. I was as anxious to tell him all about the date as he was to hear it. I kept looking out my window to see if the paper was still on their lot. I figured, if the paper was gone, Mr. Palmer was up at least, and I could go over and wait until Jeremy was awake. Finally, the paper was gone.
I went in their back door and Mr. Palmer was sitting at the table reading and Mrs. Palmer was making coffee. I said hi, as I walked in. Jeremy’s dad grunted good morning but never looked up. Mrs. Palmer looked up, smiled at me, told me good morning, and asked how my date went. “It went great! You give good advice,” I told her, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Remind me not to listen to Jeremy or Tommy again.” She smiled and asked if I was hungry. When I nodded, she told me to sit down, that she was getting ready to cook breakfast.
The hospice nurse arrived while we were eating, and Jeremy’s mom went upstairs with her to wake Jeremy. Jeremy’s dad looked at me and smiled. “So the date went okay, huh?”
“Yeah, it was a lot of fun.”
“Good. We appreciate you coming by so we could take part in it. That’s something we’d never have been able to do with Jeremy, even if he hadn’t gotten ill.”
“Because, even if he’d gone on a first date, it would have had to be in secret. Maybe even from us.” I looked a little bewildered and he continued. “Let’s say Jeremy and another gay boy met and, somehow, each discovered the other was gay. We know Jeremy’s gay, but the other boy may not be out to anyone, including his own parents. It would be wrong for Jeremy to tell anyone, including us, that the other boy is gay, so even though it would be a date to them, to everyone else, it would have to appear as just two friends hanging out together.”
“Gay kids are at a disadvantage, when it comes to dating, and it’s not fair. I think this is the reason Jeremy is so excited about your first date. It’s his chance to experience one, with all the trappings, through you.”
I’d never really thought about it before. I guess since I was straight, I’d always just assumed that it was the same with Jeremy as with me, only with a boy. It made sense to me, though. I’d known how Jeremy had felt about TJ all these years, but he couldn’t just ask him out. If he had, he’d have been risking a friendship that meant a lot to him, and possibly been outed at school.
After the hospice nurse left, I went up to Jeremy’s room. Still thinking about what his dad had said, I was determined to tell Jeremy all about the date. But first, I was going to have a little fun. After we’d said hi, he looked at me expectantly. I made up a horror story about how everything had gone wrong and now Jennifer and I weren’t even talking. At first, he looked shocked but as my story grew, he began to look skeptical. “Tony,” he interrupted me.
“Cut the crap and start spilling the beans. How did it really go?”
I laughed and decided I’d teased enough. I told him everything. I tried remembering how I felt at the times I was telling him about, so he’d get the full impact of the date. It took me almost as much time to tell him about it as the date itself actually took. When I’d finished the story, he was beaming. “Sounds like it was a lot of fun,” he said.
“Yeah, it was.” We lapsed into silence. I was reliving the night before in my mind when he spoke again.
“Your eyes are twinkling again, Tony. That’s what I wanted to see again before the end.”
The end, when it came, was quick...too quick. Wednesday, we were all at Jeremy’s. Tommy and Silvy were there, as well as Jennifer, TJ and Duane. We spent the evening reminiscing and just hanging out. Jeremy was particularly in a good mood. He was laughing and telling stories about some of the things we’d done, growing up. I didn’t see him doze off one time that evening.
As everyone was leaving, Jeremy seemed to get more and more sad. Finally, it was just Jeremy, TJ, and I. Usually, when TJ left, Jeremy would tell him he’d see him later, but that night, he called TJ over to his bed and reached out and took his hand. “Bye, TJ. Thanks,” Jeremy said.
“Thanks? For what? I haven’t done anything.”
“Yes, you have. You’ve been a great friend for a long time.” I could see a change come over TJ’s face and tears start rolling down his cheeks. I felt like I was intruding on a private moment, so excused myself to go to the bathroom. I went downstairs to get a drink of juice. Jeremy’s mom and dad were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee.
“Everyone gone?” his mom asked.
“TJ’s getting ready to leave.”
She nodded. She and Jeremy’s dad had been in and out of his room all evening and had heard several of the stories. I felt both of their eyes on me, and each time I looked at them, they had a smile on their face. “You know, Tony?” she said. “We heard some pretty shocking things tonight. If we and your parents had known about some of the dangerous things the two of you were up to, you’d both have been spending a lot more time grounded than you were.”
“I know,” I answered sheepishly. “That’s why we never told you. “
They both laughed and she got up, came around the table, and hugged me from behind. “You were both good kids and you’ve both turned into good young men. We couldn’t be prouder of either of you, and I know your parents feel the same.”
I was embarrassed by their praise, but felt warm inside at the same time. We sat there, for a long time, just talking about nothing in particular. It was nearly a half hour later when TJ came downstairs. He never stopped to say goodbye to any of us. He looked like he’d been crying, and just walked out the door. I got another glass out of the cabinet. “I think I’ll take Jeremy some juice before I go home.”
When I walked into Jeremy’s room, he was laying staring at the ceiling. He still had a few tears falling from the corners of his eyes. “Are you okay, Jeremy?” He looked at me and nodded. “TJ?”
“TJ’ll be fine. He just has some crap to work through in his mind is all.”
“I brought you some juice,” I said, setting the glass on his nightstand.
“Thanks.” He went back to staring at the ceiling. I sat in the chair and just watched him. “It won’t be long now, Tony. I can feel it happening.”
“You don’t know that,” I said. I could feel my voice quivering as I spoke.
“Yes, I do.” I had no reply I trusted myself to give him, so we were both silent for awhile before he spoke again. “Do you think you could stay with me tonight, Tony? I’m scared of being alone. Sometimes, I lie awake all night, listening to myself breathe. A few times, I didn’t hear anything and thought I was dying, but then realized I was holding my breath so I could hear better. This dying shit sucks, Tony.” By now the tears were rolling down my cheeks too. “I know it’s a school night. Do you think your mom and dad will say yes?”
“I won’t let them say no, Bro.”
I went back to my house and told mom and dad what Jeremy wanted. They looked concerned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” my mom said.
I looked her in the eye. “Even if you say no, I’ll wait until you’re asleep and sneak over there to be there with Jeremy...to be there for Jeremy. If you lock me in my room, I’ll break out the window and go over there,” I said softly and as politely as I could.
“Jeremy,” my dad said. “I think there’s something you haven’t considered.”
“There’s a good chance you’ll wake up and Jeremy has died during the night. Would you be able to handle that? Would you be able to live with that memory?”
I didn’t have to even think about it. “Yeah,” I said. “I would probably freak out, but I’d get over it, and yes, I’d be able to live with the memory. You know what I wouldn’t be able to live with, though? Knowing my best friend...my brother, had died alone and scared when I could have been there for him.”
Dad just looked at me for a minute like he was thinking. Finally, he nodded and said, “It looks like our little boy has turned into a man while we weren’t looking.”
Mom hugged me. “Take some clothes for school with you.”
I hugged and kissed both of them, grabbed some school clothes from my room, and hurried back over to Jeremy’s. His mom and dad looked up in surprise when I walked in the back door. “I thought you were going home?” his mom asked.
“I’m staying the night.”
“Are you sure,Tony?” his dad asked, the concern clear in his voice.
I took the stairs two at a time on the way to Jeremy’s room. He was still just staring at the ceiling when I walked in. “Hey,” he said. “You made it back.”
“I told you I would.”
“Yeah, good old reliable Tony.”
A little later, we were in bed and the light was out, when I heard him mutter something. “What?” I asked.
“I asked if you were asleep.”
“No, I’m not really sleepy. Why?”
“I’m not sleepy either...want to fool around some?” he asked.
I could hear the teasing in his voice. “Sure,” I said, remembering our conversation in the tree house that night. “What do you want to do? Watch a movie or play video games?” We both laughed.
“You’re as clueless as ever,” he said, laughing harder.
“You boys, don’t stay up too late talking, Tony has school tomorrow.” we heard his mom say from the doorway.
“Okay, Mom,” we answered almost in unison.
“Do you think she heard what we were talking about?” I snickered in a whisper.
“Probably,” he answered. “Parents have great hearing, unless you’re asking for something they don’t want you to have.”
“So true!” and we both began laughing again, but much quieter this time.
When the laughter died down, Jeremy turned to face me. “Promise me something, Tony?”
“After I’m gone, you’ll still have Silvy and your parents. Mom and Dad won’t have anyone. Promise me that you won’t abandon them...cut them out of your life.”
“I could never do that to them, Tony. They aren’t my mom and dad but they are two extra parents. I’ll always be there for them.”
“And when they’re old and need help with things round the house? Will you do them for them like I would if I were there?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“And when you and Jennifer get all dressed up for the prom? Will you come over, so they can see and take pictures of the two of you?”
“If Jennifer and I are still together, we will.”
“You will be. The two of you are stuck with each other forever, just like Tommy and Silvy are. I can see it in the way they look at each other when they think no one’s watching. You and Jennifer have that same look. You four don’t look at each other like boyfriend and girlfriend, like other high school kids do. You’re not in like, you’re in love.”
“Do you really think Tommy and Silvy will end up married?”
“Yeah, I do.”
It was hard to imagine my little sister being married, and even harder imagining me and Jennifer together the rest of our lives. “Well,” I finally said. “I guess I could have a worse brother-in-law than Tommy.”
“Yeah, but the question is, is it possible for him to have a worse brother-in-law than you?” he laughed.
I hit Jeremy on the shoulder. “That was cold, Bro!”
We never did go to sleep that night. We stayed up all night talking. We talked about nothing and everything. We laughed and we cried. I think we probably relived our whole lives together that night. Some time during the night, our hands touched and we just held onto each other. We neither one wanted to let go.
We were still talking and holding hands when his mom stuck her head in the door the next morning. “Tony? It’s time to get up and ready for school.”
“Okay,” I told her and then turned to Jeremy. “I have to go get showered and ready for school.” He nodded to me. “Uh, Jeremy? I can’t go until you let go of my hand.” He smiled at me, nodded, and let go. I showered and came back to his room to dress for school. I could feel his eyes watching me. His mom came in with some juice for him and sat in the chair by his bed.
After I was dressed, I went over to the bed and told him I had to go now. He nodded, but as I was about to walk out the door, he said, “Tony? You’re the best brother I could have ever had.”
“And you’re the best brother I could ever have,” I told him and walked out the door. I didn’t realize those were the last words I’d ever hear from him.
I was a mess all day at school. I felt anxious and nervous all day. I figured it was from being up all night. When school was out, I hung around out front with Jennifer, waiting for her mom to pick her up and take her to the hospital. It was Thursday, so she had to work that afternoon and evening. After she was picked up, I went home. Mom and Dad weren’t there but Silvy was sitting on the couch. She’d been crying. Her eyes were all red and swollen. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“They’re next door. Jeremy’s worse, Tony. It looks really bad.”
“Will you call Jennifer at the hospital and let her know?” I asked, dropping my books on the floor and hurrying next door.
I hurried up to Jeremy’s room and all four of our parents were in there. “How is he?” I asked, but was afraid to hear the answer. Mom came over and hugged me. Dad was right behind her, and together they led me out of the room and back downstairs. “How is he?” I asked again.
“Tony,” dad said. “Now’s the time to be strong for Tony. It could be any time in the next few hours.”
“Oh no, it can’t be,” I said, falling onto the couch and lowering my head into my hands. I felt like screaming and crying, but I wouldn’t let myself. I wasn’t going to cry yet. “I have to go be with him,” I said.
“Are you okay, Tony?” Mom asked.
“For now,” I said, going back up the stairs. I stopped before going into the room and took a deep breath. “Hi, Jeremy,” I said, as I entered. I walked over to the side of his bed and brushed the hair away from his forehead. “Are you ready for more Tom Sawyer? I’m pretty sure we can get it finished tonight. There’s only a few chapters left to go.”
I sat down in the chair and took the book off his nightstand, opened it to where we’d stopped last time, and began reading. I knew people were coming in and out of the room, but I paid no attention. Mary came in and checked on Jeremy, but never interrupted me. Everyone just let me read.
I finally got to the last page, but it was hard reading through my tears. Then I got to the last line. “Most of the characters that perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore, it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present. The End.” I read.
I felt Jeremy squeezing my hand as I said ‘the end,’ and when I looked up at him, was surprised to see his eyes open, staring at me. “Hi, Jeremy. Jeremy’s awake,” I said quietly to the others.
Everyone crowded around the bed, and I sat on the side of the bed next to him and took his hand. Neither of us broke our gaze. It was like we were burning each other’s image into our brains. It was just like he did when he was looking around the day he came home from the hospital, and I realized that was exactly what we were doing. We were saying our goodbyes. A tear fell from his eye and I nodded. “I know, Jeremy. It’s been a good book, hasn’t it? I didn’t want it to ever end either.” This time, he barely nodded to me. Everyone else might have thought I was talking about Tom Sawyer, but he knew.
His eyes slowly scanned everyone in the room and finally settled on his mom and dad, who were sitting on the other side of his bed. His mom was holding his other hand between hers and his dad had his hands over hers. He kept looking back and forth between them, and finally settled on his mom’s. He looked into her eyes even longer than he had mine and soon he had more tears falling.
“It’s okay, Honey,” she told him. “We know and it’s okay. We’ll be fine.”
Jeremy looked back over at me with an unasked question on his face. When I nodded, he smiled and looked back at his mom, still smiling. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. As he exhaled, the smile slowly faded, and his grip on my hand relaxed. I waited for him to inhale again but he never did. My best friend and brother was gone.