Mall Kid
By: Jess Mercer
( 2010 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

 

Without thinking about the time or the fact that school started last week, I leave the office early to run by the mall to pick up a package of T-shirts. I discover as soon as I enter the door that I should have taken a part of my lunch hour for the errand, because the mall is filled with students from the high school just a few blocks away.

I have nothing against the young in general, but on a day that has been fraught with problems, I'm in no mood to put up with their teen angst. It's so natural to them they don't think of it, but to the mature, as if I'm that much older than they, it's an annoyance. With a scowl, I push my way through a group standing near the entrance to Penney's and make my purchase, eager to be away.

The cup of coffee I had before leaving my office catches up with me, so I brave a restroom, filled with boys preening before the mirrors, to relieve myself. It annoys me further to have to say, 'excuse me' several times before one of the boys steps aside so I can get to one of the basins to wash my hands.

With that finally accomplished, I'm headed for the main entrance when I spot one of them leaning against the wall near a computer shop, one thumb hooked through a belt loop in an attempt to look as cool as possible. Though he's typical, he lacks the arrogant look and stance of the rest. I slow to get a better look. He has to be at least a junior, because he's wearing a black and rust letter jacket with a soccer ball embroidered on it. He probably got it from an older brother, for his face looks that of no more than a freshman. He has thick black hair falling in a heavy shock across his forehead, dark eyes shadowed by black brows and long black lashes, a cute almost snub nose, and a small classic mouth. He's wearing jeans and on his right foot is a heavy looking high-topped athletic shoe of the type favored by teens. But it's his left leg that rivets my attention. It has been taken off just above the knee and replaced with a peg, which looks to have been made from a crutch. It has to be new, because the wood is still clean and brightly varnished. His stump rests on a bar between the shafts, at the top of which is a leather strip about four inches high laced in front to secure it. The rest of the jeans leg is folded up neatly in front and pinned near the waistband in a way that hides as much of the peg as possible.

The attraction for me is so overwhelming I buy a cup of cappuccino from a nearby kiosk, and sit on a bench that puts him in my direct view. I sip my coffee wondering why such an attractive kid is not mixing with the others. He looks at those passing without being acknowledged by any of them. His look becomes wistful, then he pushes away from the wall and looks over the display in the window of the computer shop. He walks in and examines a boxed program, then shakes his head and comes out, starting toward the entrance to the mall. I get up and follow, marveling at the ease with which he walks on his peg.

I dawdle getting to my car, watching him walking toward the street. When he's out of sight, I get in my car. As I wait for the light at the street to change, I see him standing on the corner, his thumb outstretched. The light changes about then, but despite the impatient drivers leaning on their horns behind me, I stop and motion for him to get in. He's a little slow, for he sits down and pushes the seat to its far limits to accommodate his peg, then I drive on.

"Thanks for stopping. You going anywhere near The Oaks?"

He's named a nice development on the far side of town. "I live there. I don't recall seeing you around, though."

"My dad and I just moved here a couple of weeks ago."

"I didn't think I recognized the colors on your jacket."

"From my old school."

"You're a soccer player."

He grimaces. "I was. Guess you can see why I can't play any more."

"I'm sorry. You into computers? I saw you looking in the shop."

His face brightens. "They've got some cool games. Been playing a lot since my accident. I'm glad the school here has some computer courses. I've signed up for two. They're going to be tough, though."

"Oh? Which ones?"

"Beginning programming and operating systems."

I never dreamed fate would deliver this kid into my neighborhood, much less into my area of specialty. "I'm Nick Adams. If you have a problem with your homework, I'll be glad to help you out. I'm a computer consultant."

"You will! Man, that's great. I don't know anybody in my classes, and my dad doesn't know anything about them." He holds out his hand. "I'm Dirk Mander."

When I turn into the entrance to the Oaks, I ask, "Where do you live?"

"At the end of Twin Oaks Drive."

About a block from where I know he lives, I point down a side street of more modest homes. "I live on Oak Trail, my name's on the mail box."

"You were serious about helping me?" He looks at me unbelievingly.

"I'll be happy to. I'm usually home about six." When I stop to let him out at his house, I pull a card from my pocket and write my home number on it. "Here's my card. I put my home phone on the back. It's unlisted. So don't lose it."

"Thanks, Mr. Adams. Thanks for bringing me home, too."

I watch him walk up to the door and let himself in before I back out of the drive and turn back towards home. I switch on the TV for the evening news and fix myself a drink, but I follow little of what's going on, my mind so filled with the vision of Dirk. It would be worth getting married if I could have a son like him, peg leg and all.

A few days later I go back to the mall to pick a prescription from the drug store. As I'm leaving, I see a security guard herding a bunch of teenagers toward the door, among them Dirk. I hurry over and call him aside.

"Hi, Mr. Adams."

"He with you?" The guard asks.

"Yes," I answer quickly. "What's going on?"

"Getting rid of these kids hanging out in here. Older customers are complaining. I didn't know he was with somebody."

"Kids have to have some place to go after school. I should think they're better off here where it's safe than on the streets."

"Damn nuisance is what they are, specially on rainy days like this." He leaves Dirk and me to hasten the exit of the other kids.

"Thanks, Mr. Adams. Guess I'll go on home."

"I'm going home, too. Can I give you a lift?"

His smile is beautiful. "Thanks. I stopped here because of the rain."

"Don't you ride the school bus?"

"Nothing to do at home. At least here I can pretend I'm waiting for a friend."

"Still haven't made any?"

His shakes his head sadly. "The ones I'd like to know are all into sports. They don't want anything to do with me because I don't have but one leg."

"No girls?"

"Why'd they want a guy like me? I can't dance or anything like that. I'm not much interested in them anyway."

Reading his disappointment, I change the subject. "How are the computer classes going?"

"Pretty good. I've got a test coming up in a couple of days. I was gonna call you tomorrow and see if you would help me."

"I'm busy tomorrow night, but what about tonight?"

"That's great, sir. My dad's out of town, and it sure would be nice not to be alone."

"Let me go by the house and change out of this suit, then I'll take you out to dinner. Do you need to go home first?"

"Not really, less you want me to use my crutches."

"There's nothing wrong with the way you are."

I change into cargo pants, a knit shirt, and loafers, then we go to a waterfront restaurant I like. The food's good and the atmosphere casual. I notice Dirk thoughtfully takes a seat along the wall so his peg won't extend out where people might trip on it.

After I order a drink and he asks for tomato juice, I ask, "Haven't you a leg?"

"Something screwed up in the knee, so we had to leave it in the shop until they can get a part to fix it. Why?"

"I just wondered. I've never seen a peg leg made like yours before. It's very nice looking."

He smiles proudly. "Made it myself."

"You didn't!"

He nods. "I hate using crutches. It's too hard to carry my books and things. At my other school, some of my friends would run off with them. It was tough trying to hop from one class to another on one leg."

"That's unforgivable."

"Nah, they were just playing around."

"Where did you get your idea for the peg?"

"Right after it happened I got in the habit of resting my stump on the hand grip when I was standing. Then I thought if I could get the grip low enough to rest the end of my stump on and find some way to hold it on, I could walk on it. So I bought a new non-adjustable crutch and cut it down. I screwed the block in between the posts and glued some foam rubber on top. First I tried a belt to hold it on, but it kept slipping, so the guy at the crafts shop told me how to make the leather strap. He said that should work." He grins. "It does, and nobody can run off with it."

"It looks very nice, too. You're a handsome young man."

He blushes. "Thanks, but I'm not so good looking, specially with one leg."

"Nonsense. In addition to your personality, it sets you apart, makes you special."

"I just want to be like I was before."

"I'm sure, but I admire the way you have accepted it. When we get back to the house, I have something to show you."

"What?"

"You'll see. It's on my computer."

I'm amazed that he seems so comfortable in my presence, since the only other time we've been together was when I gave him the ride, but I'm pleased. He seems to have enjoyed his dinner with me if his smile is any indication.

We're hardly in the house when he asks, "What is it you want me to see?"

"Pull a chair up to my computer and I'll show you."

He looks at my desk and says, "Uh, oh! Mind if I take off my peg? I can't get close enough with it on."

"Make yourself comfortable. I expect we'll be working for a while on your test review."

He sits down and unlaces the band, then slips his peg off. "Wish I had my crutches, now. I don't use the peg much at home, dad doesn't like it."

I pick it up and look it over. He's done a job on it any craftsman would be proud of. "It looks professionally made. You did a fine job on it."

"Cause I really needed it."

"Do you ever feel you're the only guy your age who's lost a leg?"

"A lot. All I've seen have been old guys."

"I thought you might. Have a look at this."

I sit down beside him and bring up a site with pictures of young amputees. His mouth drops open. "I _ I never thought there were so many guys like me."

"More than we know about. If you saw them on the street, you wouldn't know if they were using a leg."

"Thanks for showing me these. You're a nice guy, Mr. Adams. I'm glad you don't care about my leg."

"I do care, Dirk, and I like seeing you on your peg. Do me a favor and call me Nick."

"You don't mind?"

"I think friends should call each other by their given names, and I'm not that much older than you. I'd like it very much if you would."

I'm surprised when he suddenly hugs me. "I'm glad you want to be my friend, Nick."

"Let me show you something else." I bring up a wantabe site, then put my arm around his shoulders.

"Gee, even more."

"These guys aren't real amputees. They sent in their pictures and the web master used a paint program to make them look like amputees."

"Why would they want to do that?" He's still staring at the screen.

"Because they were curious about how they would look. I expect a few of them wish they were real amputees."

"I don't know why anybody would wish that."

"I don't either, but I showed you this so you would know that not everyone feels being different is so bad. Now, let's get to your work."

After two hours of tutoring he has the basic concepts down thoroughly. When I ask if he would like something to drink, he starts to stand, but sits back down and looks around frantically for a moment.

"What's wrong?"

"I've got to go to the bathroom. I forgot I didn't have my crutches."

I hand him his peg and watch him strap it on. He looks up with a grin. "Now you know why I use crutches at home."

I fix him a cup of hot tea, the same as I'm having. He takes the mug and sits in a chair where he can let his peg extend. He smiles when he notices I can't take my eyes off him. "You really like to look at me, don't you?" He asks with teen directness.

"You're the most beautiful young man I've ever seen. I want to take some pictures of you, if you'll let me."

He laughs. "It'll break your camera, but let's wait 'til I have my leg back."

"No way! I want some of you on that great looking peg and some on your crutches."

He shrugs. "Okay. I'll really owe you if do well on my test."

"You're a bright young man, you just needed to get the information in a proper progression."

We chat until he's finished his tea. "Guess I better be going now. Thanks a lot, Nick."

"Want me to run you home?"

"It's just three blocks. I can walk that easy."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah. I like to walk, even on this."

"Let me know how you do on the test."

"Sure will. And thanks again."

Friday evening I'm just in the house when the doorbell rings. It's Dirk.

"I aced that test, Nick!"

"Great. I knew you would."

"I wouldn't have, if you hadn't showed me how to work through a basic problem. My dad's gonna be real happy."

"Come on in."

"Can't. He's gonna be home soon, but I promised I'd tell you how I did."

"I appreciate it. I'm here any time you want some help."

"See ya." I watch him swing off jauntily.

To my disappointment, which would be keener were I not so busy, I don't see Dirk for nearly two weeks. I spend the time doing some web surfing on my own gathering information I hope will please him. He finally shows up at my door.

"Need some more help, if you've got time."

"Come on in. I've got something to show you."

"You find more pictures of guys like me?"

"Yes and no. I think you'll really be interested in these."

He pulls a chair up to my computer. "Okay, let's see 'em."

"After we've done your work. Another test?"

"Yeah. This one's going to be a killer."

If what he tells me is correct, it's what I would have expected of an introductory college course. We work steadily for nearly three hours, taking a break for a cup of tea. This time he's using his crutches, and goes to relieve himself as freely as if he were home.

"Going to show me those pictures now?" He asks when we're done.

I look at my watch. "It's too late now. Why don't you come back Friday evening and we'll have some time."

He's a little disappointed, but he smiles. "I'd like that. It'll give me something to do. Dad's gonna be out of town all weekend again."

"Wear your peg when you come."

He grins. "Okay."

The next afternoon, I stop at a medical supply house and buy a pair of forearm crutches to keep at the house for him when we're working on the computer, or he tires of the peg.

With most of the items on my calendar cleared up, I decide to close the office at noon on Friday giving my two employees a long weekend. I go home and change into comfortable slacks and pullover shirt, then drive my sports car to the high school to pick up Dirk.

He's surprised when he comes out of school and sees me. "Nick! You come for me?"

"I'm taking a half day so we'll have some time together."

"Super. This is one cool car. Where've you been hiding it?"

"Can't use it for business. My clients wouldn't take me seriously if they saw it."

"Sure wish I had my leg so I could drive a straight shift like this."

"It's fun on the highway, but I like my bigger car in traffic. How'd the test go?" I ask as we drive away.

"The teacher went over mine twice, cause I'm the only one in class who aced it. The way you help me, I'm having a ball in there."

"Hmm, may have to hire you if you keep this up."

"Don't I wish! I really like being with you, Nick."

"I'm glad. I enjoy being with you, too."

"Do I get to see that site now?" He asks as soon as we're in the house.

"Here you go." I pull up the official amputee soccer site.

"Wow! One-legged guys playing soccer. This for real?"

"It certainly is. There's more." I click on a sidebar. "Here're the rules they play by."

"Would you print them out for me, so's I can see the difference between them and the rules I know?"

"No problem."

After I print them out for him, he reads them carefully. "Not that much different from the standard ones. I sure wish there was a team around here. I'd have to get some crutches like theirs, but it would be fun to play again."

"You didn't notice?" I point to the pair of forearm crutches I left propped in the corner next to my desk. "I got you a pair to use here and for playing." I bring the homepage back up and point to the team listings. "There's a team in Huntersville. I gave the coach a call, and he'll be happy to talk to you about joining. They practice every Saturday morning."

Dirk's face lights up. "That's great," he says, then his expression becomes sad. "That's about sixty miles, isn't it? I've got no way to get there, cause my driver's license is provisional."

"About that. Would you like to go tomorrow? I'll be glad to take you."

I'm surprised when he suddenly hugs me. "You're the greatest, Nick."

"Because you're such a fine man. Let's adjust your crutches and see how you like them."

I make the height adjustment and he swings over to the full-length mirror the former owners put on the inside of the closet door to admire himself. "Cool!" He comes back to me. "Thanks, Nick. These are fantastic."

"I'm glad. Ready for some dinner?"

"Yeah. Let me use these instead of my peg."

After dinner we drop by a large computer store for me to pick up a set of inks for my printer. Dirk's like a kid in a candy store. There's one game he drools over, telling me he'll be saving his allowance to get. I'm pleased to find he's kept the programs he uses on his computer updated. He asks what program I use for pictures, saying he doesn't have one. I call a clerk I know aside and ask him to put a copy of the game and the pictures program aside for me at the business checkout counter and have them bagged when I get there. With my professional discount I can buy Dirk both for what he would pay for the game alone. Dirk's manner are superb, for he doesn't ask what I've bought when we leave. When I hand him a copy of the store's catalogue, he tells me he hopes I'll bring him back again. This place is too far for him without any transportation, and his dad will never bring him.

Back home I hand him the bag with a straight face. "I believe these are yours, Dirk."

"Hunh? I didn't buy anything."

"Let's say it's a birthday present or something."

"How'd you know? My birthday's next week." He pulls out the two programs and yells in delight. "Rad!" He sets the boxes down and hugs me. "Can we load the game on your computer?"

"If you want, but I got these for you to put on yours."

"Please? I want to try that game, and I can play it when I come to see you."

I have no games on mine other than solitaire and one pinball game I deleted after he tried it and turned thumbs down, so I install the new game myself to be certain it doesn't interfere with the programs I use for work. When he sits down and begins to play, he constantly talks to himself, totally absorbed in the game. I enjoy watching him for a while, then take some work from my briefcase and begin to go over it.

It's half after ten when I look at my watch. "Hey, it's almost bedtime, guy. I'll take you home now."

He reluctantly exits the game and puts his peg back on. "I wish I didn't have to go home. It's lonely and I like being with you." He looks at me wistfully. "If I get some stuff I need from home, can I stay here until Sunday evening? Please, Nick."

"What will your father say?"

"He's out of town again, so he won't know. Won't care, either."

I can't resist his pleading look. "Very well. Let's go get what you need."

I get hugged again. "Thanks, Nick. I love you, man."

He invites me in while he gets his things. The house is beautifully decorated, obviously for entertaining. He's hasn't yet told me what his father does, nor much about his background, but I instinctively know Dirk is trustworthy and starved for affection. Rather than question, I'll let him tell me in his own good time. His room upstairs could belong only to a teen, though it's far neater than my room was at his age. He pushes a few things in a backpack and announces he's ready.

I show him to my guestroom and tell him to yell if he needs anything. It seems to me that he looks a little disappointed when I leave to get ready for bed, but he says, "Good night, Nick. Thanks for letting me stay. It means a lot."

The next morning Dirk springs out of bed the moment I call him. He's bubbling with enthusiasm when we're in my car headed for Huntersville. He insisted on wearing his soccer uniform and using the crutches I bought him. I couldn't bring myself to tell him it's unlikely they'll let him play. I finally find the grounds where the team practices. There are two guys standing off to the side talking. One is about my age, the other about the same age as Dirk.

When we get out of the car, the older one flows over smoothly on his crutches and holds out his hand. "Tom Seville. You must be Nick, and this has to be Dirk."

"Right on all counts. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to Dirk."

Seville grins. "You don't know how hard it is to find five leg amps who want to play soccer. I have two arm amps as goalies, but leg amps are tougher to find. We really need about ten, so they can spell each other in a game." He looks at Dirk. "I like a guy who comes dressed out and ready to play. You must have played before."

"I played varsity at school, but that was before."

"How long has it been? I don't want any of my guys getting hurt."

"Six months. My stump's in good shape, no pain or nothing."

"Good. Come on and I'll introduce you to Don. He's a little shy around strangers, so I hope you become friends. He needs to know another guy his age; the rest of us are older. Have you read the rules?"

"Yes, sir. Nick got them from the site for me."

"Good. This is just practice, so if there's anything you don't understand, stop and ask me. I'll put you in and see how you do. What position did you play?"

"Forward."

"Good. We'll see how fast you can move." He places his hand on Dirk's shoulder. "Don't worry if you can't keep up with the others, they've been on crutches longer than you have. And my name's Tom. We're a team, so it's first names all around."

After Dirk and Don are talking, Seville comes back to me. "I'm glad you called and brought Dirk over. A lot of kids his age need reassurance they're aren't useless cripples, but he seems well adjusted."

"I haven't known him long. He's new in town and hasn't any friends his age as yet. I thought this would help."

"It's good of you to take time with him. If he makes the team, will you be bringing him to practice and home games, or will his parents be doing it?"

"He said he has only his father. I haven't met the man yet, but he apparently stays too busy to give Dirk any of his time. That's why I'm here with him."

"You've got the making of a good mentor; I hope he realizes it. Here come the others, so I'll go introduce Dirk to them and get practice started. If you want to watch us, I've got an extra lawn chair in my van."

Seville may be a pleasant guy to talk to, but he's a tough coach. His team doesn't get by with less than their best. Dirk tries gamely to keep up. He falls several times, but always scrambles back up laughing. During a break, one of the other guys shares his bottle of water with Dirk, and he joins in the joking, always standing next to Don if possible. I'm glad, because Don is the only one his age. A casual visitor would laugh at what seems a rag-tag team of all ages, but their comradery jells into a team that works.

When Seville ends the practice, Dirk comes toward me with Don; they're both laughing.

"Hey, Nick! This is Don. He's into computer games, too. Man, I wish we lived in the same town. He's one cool dude."

"Pleased to meet you, Don." The kid drops his eyes, but shakes my hand. "You guys can keep in touch by e-mail, and you'll be seeing each other if you make the team, Dirk."

"I hope he does, Mr. Adams. It's nice to find a guy my age that likes the same things I do."

"I appreciate your being a pal to Dirk. I look forward to seeing you again."

"Can Don go with us to get a hamburger? I'm hungry."

"If he would like. I expect both of you worked up appetites. Seville is tough."

Dirk laughs. "Not as much as my old coach. Tom's great. I like him."

"Let me tell Tom I'm going with you. He usually takes me home after." Don says.

"Okay." I look at the two grubby kids in front of me. "Guess we'll have to get take- out and find a park somewhere to eat in. You're both too filthy to go anywhere but home."

"There's a park near my house," Don says.

Poor Don is a little smaller than Dirk, so he gets to ride in the space behind the two seats in my car, but he seems to be having the time of his life. I'm not surprised when both boys order two Big Macs, large fries, and a milkshake each. Don directs me to a small pleasant park with a picnic table under the trees. They chatter away leaving me feeling like a fifth wheel, but looking at the animation in Dirk's face, it's worth it. The kids are even laughing when they compare amputations. Don has a just below the knee stump and tells Dirk the lower part of his leg was deformed and taken off when he was a baby. Dirk tells him his was the result of an accident when his bicycle met a truck less than a year ago.

When we drop Don off at his modest home, his mother is waiting at the door. She comes out.

"Mom! This is Dirk and his friend Nick. We had a great time!"

She tells me that Tom had called and told her Don was going to lunch with us. She seems most appreciative. When Dirk gets out to help Don out, they hug each other. "You got my e-mail address?"

"Yeah, but it's no good. My computer's old and doesn't have a modem," Dirk replies.

"Aw, gee. But I'll see you next Saturday."

"You bet, buddy!"

Don's mother calls me aside. "I'm so grateful you brought Dirk to the practice. The others are nice to Don, but they're so much older. I've been praying for a boy Don's age to be company for him."

"He's done a lot for Dirk, too. I hope after a bit you'll let Don come to visit him for a weekend. I'll be glad to bring him back home."

"That's kind of you. We'll see."

All the way home, Dirk is full of himself, but a little anxious, too, for Tom told him he would call me after the team has had a meeting, but I'm certain Dirk's prospects are good. Now I've got to meet his father and get his permission.

The minute we're home and Dirk is out of the car, he hugs me. "Thanks, Nick. That was super and I've got a friend like me. Don's great; I love him."

I return his hug, then swat him on the butt. "Into a bath with you, kid, you smell like a goat."

He giggles and heads indoors. I don't think I've ever enjoyed myself so much as I have seeing Dirk so happy. He's not the kid I first saw in the mall, and I love the transformation.

We go out for dinner again, Dirk prancing on his peg. His sensitivity about it seems to have vanished. "This has been the most wonderful day I've had since before they cut off my leg. I got to play soccer and I found a great guy like me. I love you, man."

"I love you, too, Dirk. I'm glad you're so happy."

After breakfast Sunday morning, I get Dirk started on his homework and I read the paper until I stop to help him with his computer homework. After we have dinner, he finishes his homework and starts playing the game I bought him. About five, he looks at me with longing. "I wish I could stay, but I guess I gotta go home. Dad will be pissed if I'm not there when he gets in."

"Okay, get your stuff together and I'll take you."

When I get to his house, he gets out slowly. There are tears in his eyes when he looks at me. "I wish I could live with you, Nick."

"I'd like that, but it's impossible, babe. I need to meet your father, too. I can't take the responsibility for your playing with the team, unless he gives me permission."

"You think Tom and the guys will let me join?"

"You did well and I think they all know it. You're going to have to learn to run on your crutches better, but that'll come fast with playing."

"I hope so. I had fun and Don's great to be with." He leans over and hugs me. "Thanks, Nick."

Mondays!. I hate 'em! We spent all day at the office working on clients' problems, and I've brought one home as well. I've just settled in to some serious work on it when the doorbell rings. If it's Dirk, I'll strangle him! I'm in a foul mood when I snatch the door open. It's Dirk, as I anticipated, but there's a furious looking man behind him.

"My dad made me bring him, Nick. I'm sorry. I know you're working." Poor Dirk is on his crutches and looks as if he wishes he were anywhere but here.

"Doesn't make that much difference now. Come on in."

"Dad, this is Nick."

His father has an unpleasant look on his face. "What's this I hear about Dirk spending the weekend with you? I suppose that and taking him to a soccer match is part of your plan of seduction. Well, forget it! I'm not having him around a queer. I'm filing charges of pedophilia against you tomorrow morning," he yells.

I've got a sharp lawyer who's a friend from childhood, and I'm past caring what I say. "Do and be damned! I'm not gay, and I have no desire or intention of touching Dirk in a sexual way. I've given him a hug when he needed one and tried to be his friend. God knows he needs one, and an adult who'll spend some time with him."

"Are you implying I'm not a fit father?"

"Please, don't yell at Nick, dad."

"Shut up!"

"But, dad, he's been helping me in my computer courses. That's why my grades are so good. He makes me study, too."

His face turns sour. "When do I get the bill for that?" He demands.

"Never!" I fire back. "I'm doing it because you have a fine well mannered son who I enjoy helping and giving a little pleasure in life. If you doubt my qualifications, here's my card."

His expression eases when he looks at it. "I've heard your firm is the best around from any number of professional people."

I cool down a little after the pleading look Dirk gives me.

"I suppose I must apologize, Adams. I'm a district prosecutor and I've had one hell of a week with a child molestation case. You'll understand when it hits the media. When Dirk told me he spent the weekend with a man I didn't know, I suspected the worse."

"I apologize also. I had just started work on a tough problem with a program. My client is screaming because he's shut down until I solve it."

"Were you really serious when you told Dirk he could play soccer again? How is he going to do that on one leg?"

"Have a seat and I'll tell you. Would you care for a drink or coffee?"

"Scotch, if you have it. On the rocks."

I would ask Dirk, but he's on crutches and I don't want his father jumping to the conclusion I treat him like a servant, so I get up and fix him one, a bourbon for myself. "Dirk, you know what's in the fridge, help yourself."

When we're seated, I tell Mander that I met Dirk in a computer shop when he asked my opinion about a program, then gave him a ride home. I stress that the amputee soccer team is real and an officially sanctioned team with hopes of sending a member or two to play in the international Paralympics some day.

He looks at me unbelievingly. "I didn't know something like that existed. You're willing to take Dirk to Huntersville each Saturday so he can join their soccer team?"

"I am. I hope you can find the time to go with us occasionally, because if Dirk is accepted he'll have the time of his life doing what he thought he could no longer do. There's another nice kid his age on the team. They became friends with last Saturday, so it's not like he's just with an older group. Don's mother is delighted there's another boy his age."

Just then my phone rings. "Get that will you Dirk?" I call.

A few seconds later we hear Dirk let out a yell. He comes back in the living room as fast as he can, his face a huge smile. "Tom said the guys voted me on the team! Isn't that great! He told me Don can hardly wait 'til Saturday. Oh, boy, I can't either!"

"Dirk?" Though his father speaks quietly, I see Dirk's face fall.

"Sir?"

"If I permit this, are your grades going to stay up?"

"Yes, sir. Nick makes me study."

"But you can't be bothering him constantly. He has work to do as well."

"He always tells me when he's busy, so I go home."

His father looks at me. "Always?"

"When I'm seriously at work. If it's something routine, Dirk's so quiet he's no distraction. I couldn't ask for a more considerate young man."

"Then I have no objections. Dirk's mother died several years ago, and with my job, especially starting a new one here, he's been alone far too much. I'm grateful you're interested in helping Dirk, and I want to apologize for charging in here like a raging bull."

"Considering what you've said about the case you're working on, I would probably have done the same given the circumstances. I envy you having such a fine son and I assure you that he's safe with me."

"I would like to talk with you again sometime soon."

"Very well."

"Thank you. We have taken far too much of Mr. Adam's time, Dirk. Let's go."

He looks at his father hopefully. "I can come back to see Nick?"

"Yes, son. I was wrong to jump to conclusions when you told me about him. I wish I could spend more time with you, but I can't at this point, so enjoy your time with Mr. Adams. And you should be calling him Mr. Adams instead of Nick."

"Not at all. I asked him to call me Nick."

Dirk hugs me, his dad looking at us in astonishment. When Dirk has gone out to get in their car, I tell him, "Dirk needs affection. Give him a hug once in a while."

"I've never considered it. I come from a family that's not very affectionate, but I know he's missed his mother."

"You can't replace her, but try for his sake. I was dead serious when I told you he's a fine young man."

His handclasp is warm and firm. "Thank you, Nick. You've given me a lot to consider."

I close the door and go back to my work. Oddly enough, the slanging match with Dirk's father has so focused my mind that two hours later I find the solution to the problem with my client's program. I'll send him the floppy by special messenger first thing tomorrow morning.

Tuesday evening, Dirk bursts through my front door and grabs me in a hug. "I was so scared last night."

"Why?"

"I thought my dad wouldn't ever let me see you again."

"How'd he find out you were here?"

"I didn't cut the grass like he told me to, and he wanted to know why. I had to tell him I wasn't home." He shakes his head. "You can't lie to my dad. He always knows when I do, and that makes it worse."

"You can push a mower using your peg?"

"It's a riding mower. All the controls are on the right side, so it's no problem."

"Oh. You have homework to do?"

He pulls a piece of folded paper from his pocket with a grin. "Yeah."

After a phone call from Dirk's father on Wednesday, I make a phone call of my own. Friday afternoon I drive to Huntersville to pick up Don so he can join us for Dirk's birthday dinner. I'm surprised when he comes out on crutches instead of his leg.

"Cause Dirk will be using his or his peg," Don says when I question. "Besides, I gotta have 'em when we practice tomorrow."

"That's thoughtful of you. I hope your mother doesn't object to your staying overnight with me."

He grins. "Told her I was staying with Dirk."

The minute Dirk and his father arrive to pick me up, Dirk's is out of the car hugging Don. "I can't believe you're here!"

"Nick came and got me so's we could surprise you."

I get in front with Mander leaving the back seat for the boys. "Hope you don't mind my bringing along another guest, but Dirk and Don have become friends quickly. I thought he would enjoy Don being here."

Mander smiles. "I'm glad Dirk has finally made friends with someone. I'm sorry that poor boy has lost a leg, too, but I know sharing his experience will probably help Dirk."

"From what I've observed, it's helped both of them."

"Dirk, you kids get in, so we can go," Mander calls, then turn to me. "I guess I never did introduce myself Monday night. Please call me Tris." He smiles again. "My father was an opera lover with a sense of humor, so he named me Tristan." He shakes his head. "Damn, the things people do to their kids, and I didn't do much better with Dirk's name."

"I doubt either of you run into much confusion with names that different."

"True."

The boys attract a lot of attention when we enter the restaurant, and well they should, being handsome amputees, but both are too engrossed in their talk of the soccer team to notice the stares.

When we're seated, the boys continue to talk, and Mander asks me a lot of questions about the use of computers in law enforcement. He seems sincerely interested in my answers. Despite our unfortunate first introduction, I have a beginning respect for the man.

For dessert, the waiter brings out a beautiful small birthday cake with seventeen candles on it and sets it in front of Dirk. He looks at his father is surprise, then blows out the candles.

"Happy birthday, son." He pulls a small package from his coat pocket and hands it to Dirk.

"A new watch!" Dirk exclaims, when he's opened it.

"They told me this one is rugged enough to hold up when you're playing soccer."

"Gee, thanks, dad."

Don hands him a card as do I. "I didn't know what you wanted, so you can get a CD or something," Don says.

There's a new twenty in the card, which I know Don must have been saving from his allowance to get something for himself. A simple gesture of thoughtfulness that moves me almost to tears, knowing his mother is far from wealthy.

Dirk opens my card last. "I was a little premature with your gift, Dirk," I tell him.

"What was it?" Don asks.

"A great new game for my computer. Wait 'til you see it. I haven't won a game yet, and I've tried hard."

When Tris stops at my house to let Don and me out, Dirk asks Don, "You staying with Nick?"

"Yeah."

"Can I stay, too, dad? We'll have to leave early to get to practice."

Mander looks at me. "I was hoping to get some sleep tomorrow morning then get in a little work, but how on earth will you cope with two teens, Nick?"

I grin at him. "Guess because I'm not that much older. If Don doesn't mind sharing his bed, then Dirk's welcome. We will have to leave a little after eight."

"All right, son. I'll bring you back after you've gotten what you need."

"Thanks, dad."

Don whispers something in Dirk's ear, and I see Dirk nod. Some twenty minutes later, Dirk comes in carrying his backpack. He's using his peg, which has Don's immediate attention.

"Wow! That's cool man. Where'd you get it?"

"Made it myself. My leg's in the shop for repair, but I'm not sure I want it back. This is comfortable."

"Can I try it?" Don asks eagerly.

"You've got more stump than me, so I'm not sure it'll fit. But yeah, give it a try." He sits down and unlaces the leather band, then hands it to Don. "Better let me put it on."

When Don stands, the peg is about an inch too long, but he does look awfully attractive standing on it, with the little nub below his knee sticking out behind. I put my arm around his shoulder to steady him as he tries to walk on it. After a few steps, he manages fairly well.

"Wish I had one," he says as he drops down beside Dirk and takes it off. "My leg hurts me sometimes, but you know how lousy it is to carry anything when you're on crutches."

"You really want one?" Dirk asks.

"Yeah. My mom would probably croak, but I like it. You really look good on it."

Dirk has a grin a mile wide. He wraps his arm around Don and squeezes him. "I'll get everything I need and make you one next weekend, if you can come back with me after practice."

"But how'll I get home Sunday?"

Dirk looks at me. "Please, Nick."

How can I say no. "Okay." Dirk hops over and hugs me, as does Don.

I thought perhaps I might enjoy the occasional company of one kid, now it looks as if I'm inheriting a second. I reach into my desk drawer and hold out a key on a ring to Dirk. "Here's something for you, and for God's sake don't lose it."

"What's it for?"

"My front door. Long as you're going to be camping out here a lot, I may not be home every time you come. Don is welcome to come with you, but if I'm not home I'm trusting you not to bother my computer except for the games."

I get a crushing hug. "Thanks, Nick, You're the coolest."

"Don, I know it's not your birthday, but I have something for you, too." I hand him a box.

"What is it?" He asks with a puzzled look.

"An external modem for your computer, so you can e-mail Dirk whenever you want."

"This is great! Will you show me how to put it in?"

"I can do that, buddy," Dirk says. "Thanks, Nick. Now we can talk every day."

When I'm in bed, the boys are talking in the next room, apparently not caring if I hear. Don asks to see Dirk's stump. They compare notes, and, as I expected, a few minutes later their healthy teen libidos take over. Neither of them gives any overt appearance of being gay, but I'm hoping they love each other for they've both needed someone. I can only sigh, 'must be wonderful to be young and in love,' before I go to sleep.

At practice the boys seem supercharged. Seville comes over beside me. "What's gotten into Don and Dirk today? If they play like this in a game, we'll win hands down."

"Don spent the night with Dirk at my house. Guess it's because they have each other to play for now. They've become best friends quickly."

Seville smiles. "I wish Dirk lived here. Don's had a rough time being the only amputee in the high school."

"I rather expect I'm going to be running a shuttle service. Dirk wants him to spend next weekend with him as well."

"What about Dirk's father?"

I shake my head. "Man stays so busy he has little time for Dirk. That's why the kid's taken up at my house."

"I'm glad someone makes time for him. From what I've seen, he's a damn fine kid. Uh, oh!" Seville rushes off to stop play and explain something to Dirk.

Don tells us his mother has said he and Dirk can take showers and change at his house before we return home. I'm delighted, because as much as I like both kids, after the way they've played this morning I'm sure anyone within fifty feet of my car could smell them, convertible or not.

Don's mother smiles at the sight of the two of them when they rush by toward Don's room.

"Come on, Nick. You gotta connect that modem you gave me," Don yells.

"Okay." It takes only a couple of minutes, though Don looks unhappy when I tell him he's going to have to buy a cord long enough to reach the phone jack in the hall, then subscribe to a service.

"I'll have to ask mom. I hope she'll go for it."

"Check around. Some servers offer a set amount of time for about ten bucks a month." I leave them to get a bath.

"What was that all about?" She asks me.

"I gave Don a modem I wasn't using so he can exchange e-mail with Dirk. I think you can find a local service that's inexpensive but gives enough time to satisfy Don."

"That was very kind of you, Mr. Adams. I know he wanted one badly, but it just isn't possible at the moment." She smiles. "I think I can afford the server, though. I restrict his computer time so he'll get some exercise. You may as well sit down and have a cup of coffee with me, Don's noted for staying in the shower as long as the hot water holds out."

"I will, thanks. Dirk's almost as bad."

While we're having our coffee, she says something about fixing lunch, but I stop her. "I know the kids want to go to McDonald's. My car has only two seats, so if you don't mind driving, I'll be happy to have you go with us. It's nice enough to eat in the park like the kids and I did last week."

"Thank you, but no. I have my shopping to do this afternoon, then get the washing done. You can't know how much your kindness to Don means. He's been a changed boy since he met Dirk. He was so moody after we moved here last year I was becoming concerned about him."

"Dirk's been going through the adjustment. It's only been about six months since he lost his leg. After he met Don and made the team, the transformation has been unbelievable. It's hard enough being a teen without being different from everyone else your age. Before you get surprised I guess I'd better tell you Don and Dirk have plans together for next weekend. I'll bring him home on Sunday."

"That's far too much driving for you."

"I've nothing better to do and I enjoy having the boys around. They're no trouble, and it seems to be benefiting both of them. I know Dirk's grades have shot up."

"Don's doing better, too, but he has a hard time with math."

"Make him bring his book this weekend. I work with Dirk and I don't mind helping Don."

"That's wonderful of you. Don needs a man's influence. His father and I divorced several years ago, and he hasn't seen Don since, not that he cares. When they amputated Don's leg it did something to him. He never adjusted or tried to help Don in any way. Tom has been wonderful, but he isn't the nurturing kind of man Don needs."

"You're surprisingly knowledgeable about your son."

She smiles. "I see Don hasn't told you. I'm a psychiatric nurse practitioner at the hospital here." Her smile vanishes. "I hate to ask such a question, but are you gay, Mr. Adams?"

"Definitely not."

"Then will it affect the way you feel about Don if I tell you I'm almost certain he's gay?"

"Not at all. I rather think Dirk might be gay, also. They insisted on sleeping together last night."

"Thank heaven. As improbable as it is for two boys that age to be amputees and have gotten together, Don would be ruined if Dirk had rejected him. He speaks of nothing but Dirk, and he enjoys the soccer team much more now that Dirk's a member."

"You don't seem unduly upset."

"I'm not. Don is my son. Whatever happiness he can find is happiness for me as well."

I place my hand over hers. "You're an exceptional woman and mother, Mrs. Thomson. I'm not gay and have no desire to touch either your son or Dirk in any sexual way. I do find the sight of young amputees very appealing, so I enjoy watching the boys have a good time together."

"Thank you for telling me that you're a devotee. I've run across them before and have a clinical curiosity about them, but I know they're not necessarily gay. You have told me you are not, so I will trust you with my son, Mr. Adams. You seem more a nurturing type of man, and I'll be grateful for what you can give Don, especially since his father offered none."

"Mom! Can I spend next weekend with Dirk? We've got things to do, and Nick said I could stay at his house."

She gets up and kisses him; he squirms with embarrassment. "Yes, you may. I have to work the late shift on Saturday. Don't be a nuisance to Mr. Adams."

"I won't! Thanks, mom."

"Don, I expect you to bring your math book. I'll try to give you some help," I say.

"Aw, heck. Who wants to study on a weekend?"

"You and Dirk both if you want to stay at my house."

"Yeah. I should a told you buddy. Nick's mean about that, but he's a good teacher."

"If I have to."

"You do, so no whining," I tell him and muss his hair.

As I predicted, we wind up at McDonald's and then the park again. Much as I hate fast food, watching the boys makes my chicken sandwich almost palatable.

My backyard is fairly large, so before I can grab the boys' filthy soccer outfits and stuff them in the washer, the boys have them back on and are out back playing soccer again. I'm only in my late twenties, but I'd give anything for some of their energy. After Dirk has made a quick twist around Don and run the ball into the imaginary goal, I see Don grab him in a hug and kiss him. Dirk responds immediately, then looks around to see if anyone has seen them, but I have a tall hedge around my yard, so they're back in a clinch immediately.

A couple of hours later, I yell out the door, "You juvenile delinquents get in here so I can wash those uniforms. You both need another shower, too."

I guess I've become too familiar to them to be noticed, for they strip in the laundry room without any embarrassment, toss me their dirty clothes, and crutch off to the bath stark naked. Ah, youth, I think to myself as I start the washer.

It's so warm, they come back into the living room wearing nothing but shorts.

"Okay, guys, get yourselves a drink out of the fridge and get to the desk. Study time."

"Aw, Nick, do we have to?" Dirk whines.

"No. But if you want Don to spend next weekend here, you do. Which is it going to be?"

"Study," Don says quickly. "Mom made me bring my math book."

"Good."

Don catches on quickly and has his assigned work finished, so I make him work ahead, until Dirk tells me he needs help with the computer. Don is immediately beside him absorbing what I teach Dirk.

When we're finished, he says, "I wish my teachers were good as you, Nick. It's easy when you explain it."

"I'm glad. Now try not to forget what I told you. When you come back, I want to hear you did well in school this week."

They grab the comics from the Sunday paper and stretch out on the floor after breakfast. When I look up a little later they're in a clinch again. I shake my head and go back to reading.

Dirk rides with me to take Don back home. When we stop at his house, Dirk helps him out, and sneaks a kiss. "Can't wait 'til next Friday," he says. "Nick and me'll leave soon as I get out of school."

"Now wait, Dirk. If I'm busy it may be later. I do have a business to run, you know."

He turns that pleading look on me, knowing I find it hard to resist. "Try, Nick. Don's gonna look great on a peg like mine. Think how cool we'll look when you take us out to dinner."

Kids! I love 'em.

Wednesday night I hear a key in the front door. Has to be Dirk, but I'm a little annoyed because I'm working. He comes in carrying a shopping bag.

"HI, Nick. Can I leave this stuff here? It's for Don's peg. My old man's home, so I had to sneak 'em out so he wouldn't see 'em."

I turn around and my mouth drops open. Dirk's standing there on two legs. He looks absolutely weird to me. "Sure you can. You got your leg back."

"Yeah. The old man made me put it on. Damn! I want my peg; this thing feels funny."

I get up and hug him, then muss his hair just to irritate him with my playfulness. "Yeah, kid. I'm going to take away your key if you wear that thing here again. With two legs you don't look like the Dirk I know."

He grins. "Figured you'd say that. I gotta remember to tell Don to bring his leg this weekend. Dad's taking us all out to dinner, and he hates my peg, so he'll go in orbit if he sees Don on one, too."

"Yeah? Well that's just the way I want you around here."

I get a hug. "That's why Don and I like you so much, Nick. You go with the flow, no hassles." He grimaces. "Well, maybe one."

"Such as?"

"All that damn homework you make us do." He grins, so I know he's teasing.

"Get your butt home, boy, before I throw you out. I'm trying to get some work done."

"Ha!" He throws his arms around me. "Love ya, Nick."

"Love you, too, babe. Now beat it."

"Bet you'd like to," he says with an evil grin. Damn! This little devil thinks he's a mind reader.

I pop him on the butt. "Scat!"

He's attractive and I don't mind giving him a hug, but he and Don hold no sexual attraction for me. Even if they did, there's no way I'd ruin the best time of my life. I go back to my computer, but instead of working, I bring up a devotee site with a lot of pictures of teen amps and dream.

Fortunately, Friday has most of the current workload at my office cleared away by noon, so I give my people another half day off and I'm at the school in time to pick up Dirk when the last bell rings.

"Great! I knew you'd be here, Nick." He climbs in. "Let's go."

"You don't want to go home and put on your peg or get your crutches?"

"Nah. They'll wait. I been wanting to be with Don all week. Can't wait to see him."

"You're really in love with him, aren't you?"

He gives me a serious look. "You know it! He's my one and only, forever. God, I wish he lived here."

"Then neither of you would learn anything in school."

"Guess not, but it's hard thinking about him all week and not having him in my arms." He suddenly looks alarmed. He puts his hand on my arm. "Don't tell my old man. Please?"

"No way, babe. I'm happy for you guys. But be careful when you're around your father. Don's mom knows he's gay, but don't try anything around her until she's comfortable with the idea."

"Thanks for telling me, Nick. Don's been worried about her finding out, because we spend so much time together."

"Then tell him she knows and doesn't care."

"God, I'd give anything if dad was as cool as she is."

"I wish he were, too. But he's not. He might have a different attitude if he didn't deal with people like that so much."

"I guess."

Don looks as odd to me on two legs as Dirk. I open the boot so he can put his backpack and crutches in. "Dirk, don't you think it's time Don rode up front for a change?"

"No way!" Don says quickly. "I like the back now." I've put two thick foam pillows behind the seats, one for him to sit on, and the other to lean against.

"Whatever suits you."

At the house, they quickly change into shorts and come down. Dirk pulls the bag out of the closet. "Here's the stuff for your peg, buddy."

"You didn't forget!"

"Not a chance. Hold him up for me, Nick, while I measure where the block should go."

Dirk is as meticulous as any finish carpenter I've ever seen. When he's sure Don's knee is comfortable, he marks the cut-off shafts of the crutch, then measures the height of the shafts on Don's stump.

"Grab your crutches and let's go," he tells Don.

"Where?"

"My house. I gotta use the old man's tools to finish this right. Take us, Nick?"

"Okay." I want to see how he's made his anyway. "Your father home?"

Dirk shakes his head. "Out of town again. I knew he would be, that's why I wanted to do it now, instead of last weekend."

It takes Dirk an hour to drill the shafts for the screws to hold the block in place, measure the leather band against Don's stump, then punch the holes, put in metal grommets, and add the rawhide lace.

He holds it out with a grin. "Try it, buddy."

Don straps it on and walks the length of the cellar and back. He kisses Dirk. "Perfect, lover. Feels great. I just gotta get used to it."

"Okay. Take it off."

"Do I have to?"

"Yeah. Going to give it a coat of polyurethane so it'll look good. It's fast drying, so you can wear it to supper. I gotta get mine, too."

Dirk holds the painted peg by the rubber tip and the pad until we're back at my house, then props it against the utility room wall to dry. I demand they get their homework out of the way, and this time they give me no argument.

Except for their hair color and facial features, they could almost be twins, for they're dressed identically and have their pegs on. As much as I love juvenile beauty, this is almost too much for me to comprehend.

"Okay, you studs, I gotta have a picture of you two." In a little more than three weeks I must have accumulated over a hundred shots of these kids, but it's just a start. They pose for me obligingly, Don smiling broadly. Then they turn so the pegs are toward me and I get a beautiful shot of them kissing. Hope I can convince them to do it again later while wearing shorts and without their pegs.

I take them to the restaurant where I took Don the first time. You can imagine the attention two handsome young amps using peg legs draws. Dirk grins at me and makes doubly sure they're noticed, leaving me hoping I haven't got a budding exhibitionist on my hands.

At the playing field the next morning, Tom really drives the team. When practice is over, he announces that they have a sanctioned out of town game next Friday evening, and that he wants them all present. When Don protests he and Dirk won't be out of school in time, Tom hands them a note for their principals asking they be excused at noon. I tell Tom that I'll drive the kids to Montvale, a three and one-half hour trip.

They shower and change at Don's before our now established Saturday visit to McDonald's. Don is disappointed when his mother tells him she has to work and can't go with us to the game.

"Your father home today?" I ask Dirk when we're back home.

"I think so."

"Good. I'll invite him over for a drink and you can tell him about the game."

"Why? He won't go."

"How do you know if you don't ask him? Both of you put on your legs so he won't complain."

Tris sounds surprised at my invitation, but readily agrees. He's at my house almost immediately. Don turns shy again at the introduction. Dirk waits until his father has a scotch in hand, then tells him about the game.

"You're leaving work early to take them, Nick?"

"Absolutely. I wouldn't miss this for anything."

"I don't approve of Dirk missing school _"

"Aw, dad, please."

"Let me finish, son. I don't approve, but I know they let other athletes out early and they have no reason to discriminate against you just because they don't offer a sport you can play. Besides, your grades have improved so much I can't see any harm. In fact, Dirk, I'm going to drive you all up there myself."

Dirk's mouth drops open. "You _ you're coming to watch me play?"

"I wouldn't miss it. I didn't often get to see you playing before, but I'm not missing another game if I can help it."

Dirk hugs his father. "That's wonderful, dad. I'm really glad you're coming."

Tris picks me up at home just before eleven-thirty and drives on to the school to get Dirk. He tells me he had to threaten the school board with a discrimination suit in order to get permission for Dirk to leave early.

"I'll just be damned if I'll stand for it," he says. "If Dirk can't play with their team because of a handicap, then he will damn well play with a team where he can. I told them if they want to stress athletics as a part of education, then they can make provisions for any kid to engage, whether they have a local team or not."

"Good for you. Dirk and Don don't consider themselves handicapped, so why should they be denied excelling because of someone else's prejudices."

"My thoughts exactly. Thanks to you, my views have changed on several things regarding my son."

Dirk comes flying out of school. "You got all my stuff, Nick?"

"I put in everything you piled by the door last night. If anything's missing it's your fault."

"Thanks. Can I drive, dad?"

"No. We don't have time. I'll let you drive back, okay?"

After we've picked up Don and are on the interstate, I detect some motion and hear snickering from the backseat.

"What are you kids doing?" Tris asks. I turn and look to see them both stripped to their underwear and removing their legs.

"Changing into our uniforms to save time."

Tris shakes his head. "Kids."

As we near the stadium, Tris asks me to hand him the handicapped tag from the glove compartment. "Team members," he tells the attendant, and drives on to park near the entrance to the dressing rooms. Seville is waiting outside the door. His grin widens when the boys get out ready to play.

"See you after the game," Dirk says, and he and Don swing off on their crutches.

Tris and I get our tickets and programs and, being early, find seats where we have a good view of the field. As the crowd begins to trickle in, Tris looks at me with amazement. "I had no idea there were so many handicapped people."

"I suppose most of them use prosthetics, so we'd never notice otherwise. This is a regional game, so there are people here from several states according to what Tom told me."

"Dear God! Dirk is only a junior in high school and he's playing in what I suppose is a professional league."

"Close to it. There aren't enough amputee kids his age to have a separate junior league."

Tris shakes his head. "I'm not believing this. I hope he gets a chance to play."

"I think he will. Tom's a good coach and apparently skill, not age, is the primary factor with him."

"I've got to meet that man."

"I'll introduce him after the game if I can find him."

Both Tris and I have brought along our video cameras. I use mine to get a view of the players as they come out on the field. What devotee could miss an opportunity like this?

When Tris begins to ask questions, I hand him a print out of the rules. I'd watched a few regular soccer games on TV, but they hardly compare with this. It may look awkward at first, but these guys are playing from the heart. After a few minutes with no score, Tom sends Dirk and Don into the game. I see Tris sit up straight and grab his videocam.

"Damn, I'm glad I came, Nick. I'm not believing Seville, is it, put Dirk in."

"Told you age doesn't count with him." I'm damn glad I have a tele/wide lens on my cam.

After a few seconds of furious play, it becomes apparent the other team is paying little attention to the kids. While the other three players are involving the opposition, Don and Dirk ease intently into position, then one of our team's members kicks the ball to Don who maneuvers it skillfully. When he's approached by an opposing player, he kicks it to Dirk who slips neatly sideways - how he did it on crutches I'll never know - and kicks it past the unsuspecting goalie to score.

Tris is standing up screaming! I crank my lens down and get a shot of him to show Dirk. It'll thrill the kid to see his dad so excited. Tom signals the referee for a man change, and waves Don and Dirk back to the bench. The kids are almost knocked down several times by the congratulatory back slaps from their fellows. Tom grabs both of them in a hug, then Dirk grabs Don and kisses him. My cam's still running.

"Tell me I didn't see that," Tris says when he sits down.

"What?"

"My son kissing another boy."

I shrug. "What can I say? The kids are just excited."

"Hell, so'm I, but I didn't kiss you."

"Damn good thing, too," I reply with a smile.

Once the game resumes, Tris looks at me. "I'd like to discuss this with you later. You appear far more knowledgeable in some areas than I."

"I'll be glad to, but I'll tell you now, it must be a calm and rational talk. I know you're upset, but please don't get hysterical and say anything to Dirk until after we've talked."

"I'll do my best. I've always prided myself on being collected, but this is _"

"Unsettling. I'll have some professional information for you to read as well."

He tries to smile. "Okay."

During the ten-minute rest interval between periods, Dirk looks up and sees his dad and me. I give him a thumbs-up, and see Tris trying to smile at his son, though his eyes are moist.

We're still ahead one/zip when the second half begins. The opposition buckles down and by the end of the game has managed two goals to our one. The kids look disappointed, but are somewhat happier when the members of the opposing team come over to congratulate them on the goal in a show of sportsmanship.

Tris watches then says, "Now that's what I call decent. Don't see that kind of goodwill in professional sports."

"This is professional. The guys may not be paid, but they're no less serious, and the reward is a chance at the international Paralympics. I wish the media would give that as much attention as they do the regular Olympics. These guys put everything they have into a game. You saw the kids. Tell me they weren't great."

"I still can't believe Dirk made that goal. I never even thought he'd be playing again." He grabs my hand and squeezes it. "We've still got to have that talk. Nick, but I'm so proud of Dirk right now I could bust wide open."

"Then tell him exactly that with a hug. You'll be amazed at his response."

We're waiting by the dressing room entrance when the kids come out. Dirk gives me a wary look, but his dad grabs him in a hug. "You were wonderful, son! I'm so proud of you. You played better this time than you did with your school team."

Dirk hugs him back with a relieved look. "Thanks, dad. I did it for you and Nick and Don. Wasn't Don great the way he set that play up?"

I've given Don a hug and words of praise, then Tris puts his arm around Don's shoulders. "I hope you and Dirk get to play together a lot more, Don. The way you guys worked, it was like you were reading each others minds."

"Thanks, sir. Dirk's a perfect partner on the field and off."

Tris has a solemn look when he answers, "Yes, I think perhaps he might be."

Seville and several of the others come out about then, I wave Tom over and introduce him to Dirk's father. After quite a bit of discussion and praise for the boys, Tom says, "That was one of the neatest set-ups I've ever seen. Your son and Don are going to be played a lot more from here on out. I would have used them more today, but Dirk's still not quite up to speed on his crutches. I suggest you let him use them as much as possible to build endurance."

"I like him to use his leg so he won't appear different, but if that's what he needs I'll consider it. I've never seen him so happy. And I want a schedule of all the games you've got coming up. I'll be at every one possible."

Tom grins. "That's the kind of support I like to see my younger players have. Dirk's going to be an excellent player after he adjusts completely to his new crutches."

"Thanks to you and Nick. By the way, if your team ever needs a lawyer for anything, I'm volunteering."

"I thought you were the new prosecutor."

"I am. Strictly speaking, I'm not supposed to do any private work, but I'll represent you, even if I have to stretch things a little."

Tom shakes his hand. "That's a relief. We seldom need a lawyer, but sometimes we do have a few legal questions that need answers."

"Feel free to call me. Here's my card. Okay, boys, it's getting late, so let's hit the road. You still want to drive, Dirk?"

"Too tired, dad."

"I should think so. You kids relax."

Relax? Within ten minutes after they've eaten the sandwich and drink we stopped to get, they're leaning against each other fast asleep.

Tris looks at me and speaks softly. "No need to waste time, Nick. With the boys asleep, can we talk?"

"Why not? With your schedule this is probably the best time. What do you want to know?"

"Are my son and Don gay?"

"I know for a fact Don is. His mother knows, too."

"She's not upset?"

"Not really. She's still trying to accept it fully, but she's a psychiatric nurse so she understands it better than anyone else. It's hard when it's your own kid, instead of someone else."

"Damn right it is. I know Dirk didn't have a lot of dates in school even before he lost his leg, but I thought it was because he was so involved in soccer."

"Dirk told me you insist that he use his leg. Have you even begun to accept him as a one-legged man?"

He nods. "It's taken a long time, but I'm getting used to seeing him on crutches. I still hate to see him on that ridiculous peg leg he made."

"That peg is not ridiculous. He did a professional job on it, and he tells me it's far more comfortable than his leg. If he likes it, he's the one needs it, not you. He's made one for Don, too. So why not let him choose?"

"After what his coach said, I guess I'll have to. But I want to know about him and Don."

"The two weekends they've spent at the house they've slept together. They've been very open in their affection for each other with me, and I don't discourage it."

"Good God! You don't encourage boys to become homosexual, do you?"

"When you have a chance to read some of the literature I'll be getting you from the parents of gays association, you'll find it's not a matter of free choice. A person's either gay or not, except for a few bi's."

"What the hell is a bi?"

"A person with feelings for both sexes."

"Oh, damn. They must have a hell of a problem."

"They do. What about the man in the case you're involved with?"

"A pure pedophile. He molests kids younger than Dirk."

"No excuse for that. I know they exist and they have my sympathy for their feelings, but no one should force himself on a kid."

"Exactly. Are you really sure you're not gay, Nick?"

"Absolutely. I have no sexual desire for kids or males. Dirk and Don are perfectly safe with me."

"Then why do you enjoy having them around so much?"

"The real reason is that I'm a devotee."

"Of what?" He gives me a puzzled glance.

"Amputees. Especially amputee kids Dirk's age."

"Huh?"

"Oh, yes. There are many of us. We have several clubs on the net, and sites with many pictures."

"Does Don's mother know of this?"

"Yes. I was completely frank with her, just as I'm being with you."

He shakes his head. " How does one become a devotee?"

"I don't know. I suppose it's rather like being gay; you're born with those feelings or you aren't. Personally, I've been fascinated by amputees ever since I was a little kid."

"Beyond my comprehension. If you ever come across any factual material I'd like to see it. In fact, I wish you'd show me those sites sometime."

"I will. You'll see there's nothing pornographic or illegal about it. And lest you think us a bunch of scumbags, our members are university professors, doctors, lawyers, and so on."

"Mostly educated people, then?"

"Yes. Obviously you had some interest to study law."

"Of course. It fascinates me, especially the psychological aspects."

"And you have other interests?"

"I like to do woodworking, but I get little time these days. Why?"

"My main interest is computers, but I am attracted to amputee kids as well. Understand this, Tristan Mander, we're all human beings subjected to the same feelings and complexities of life. Only our personal interests differ. As long as kids too young to understand or make knowledgeable consent are protected, why should we adults object if they're gay."

I finally see a hint of a smile. "Damn you, Nick, you should have been a lawyer. That was one of the best summations I've ever heard."

"Thank you, I think. I want a serious answer, Tris. Does my devotion to Dirk mean the end of my association with him?"

He doesn't answer for several miles, during which time I break into a sweat. Finally he glances at me when there's no traffic. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me, but you've done a lot for Dirk in a short time, me, too. If someone trained in these matters trusts you with her son, can I do any less? I'll never understand your feeling for him because he's an amputee, but I love Dirk. You've been honest with me, and I promise to read all the information you can find."

"Thank you for that, Tris. But you'll make me happiest by loving your son and accepting Don completely as his lover, however long or short that time may be. Without his fear of your finding out, I think you'll find Dirk will improve dramatically in school and in his relationship with you. He needs friends but he needs his father worse. Yes, I love your son as if he were my own, but I'll gladly give him back to you."

I'm surprised when Tris brings the car to a gentle stop and tells me to drive. I see why when I slide under the wheel, the man is crying silently.

The End

Posted: 09/17/10