Pretender
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...

 

Chris sat in front of his computer and brought up his e-mail with hope. Nothing! Disappointed, he brought up a site he visited often and scrolled through the member profiles looking for one that might offer some hope of friendship to a guy stuck at home. Thus far he had ventured to send three brief messages, with no response. He had composed a profile of himself several times, but, at the last moment, his finger always hit Delete instead of Send.

There was no physical reason why he could not go out, but the curious looks of others as he limped heavily along made him uncomfortable, so his innate shyness kept him at home for the most part. He shrugged and opened the program he was employed to work on and settled in for serious thought.

Four hours of intense concentration later, he zapped his work off to his employer, leaned back in his chair and stretched. He poured another cup of coffee from the ever present pot and brought up the site, clicking on 'add your profile' once more. Do it, man, he thought, and typed: 'Pretender with a peg-leg looking for conversation with same.' Enough, he thought as he added his e-mail address and hit Send, then put his computer in Suspend.

Five days passed with no e-mail, other than one message from his boss, delighted at the speed with which Chris had solved a software problem. Make the best of it, man, he told himself. Who would want to know you?

Saturday morning he slept late, enjoying the luxury. After breakfast, he brought up his computer. E-mail!

'Sir, if you could send me a picture of your peg-leg, maybe I can make one that works. I like to pretend when my father isn't home, but the peg-legs I make hurt and fall apart pretty quick. Please don't tell anybody I asked you about it. I'm almost sixteen, so I hope you will answer.' He read the message again slowly. He could help the kid, but did he want to? After all I'm ten years older than him, but I liked to pretend when I was his age. Bet the kid's lonely like me.

He spent the afternoon thinking. He had a shot of his peg-leg he could scan and send the kid. Why not? He asked himself. I can be that kind to another lonely guy. He scanned the photo and attached it to a short note wishing the kid luck, then popped Send.

The next Friday evening he had new e-mail. 'Thanks for the picture, sir. Your peg-leg is like I want to make, but I can't tell how from the picture. I wish I knew where you lived, so maybe I could see it. Pat.'

Poor kid, he thought. I remember how happy I was with the first one I made. He poured another cup of coffee and composed his message. 'Dear Pat, I made my first peg-leg when I was thirteen and had a lot of fun with it. I live in Harbor City, so if you are near enough to come see my peg-leg, send me another message. We can work out a time. Chris.'

Chris put his computer in Suspend and stretched out on the sofa with a new book. When he read the last page and closed the book, he looked at his watch. No wonder I'm hungry; it's eight thirty! He rummaged in the freezer and popped a frozen dinner in the microwave, then brought his computer back up. E-mail!

'Dear Mr. Chris, I live on Lake Drive. I could ride my bike to your house tomorrow afternoon, if that's okay. Please tell me what time and your address. Thanks. Pat.'

Polite kid, he thought. If he wants to come that bad, I'll let him. 'Dear Pat, I live at 11 River Road. Come about three. I will not be working then. Chris.'

The reply came within five minutes. Good lord, the kid must have been waiting to see if I would answer, Chris said to himself.

About quarter of three, he glanced out of a window just in time to see an attractive boy riding a bike up his walk. He went to the door and opened it. "Pat? I'm Chris Matthews. Come in."

The boy came quickly up the steps, brushing a thick shock of black hair out of his face. He was as tall as Chris, muscular, and looked older than his fifteen years until he smiled shyly. "Thanks for letting me come, sir. Gee, you're wearing your peg-leg!"

"Come in. I'll take it off so you can examine it."

He seated himself on the sofa and unstrapped the peg-leg, handing it to Pat who stared at him, mouth open. "I I thought you said you pretended, sir."

"I did for a while, but then it wasn't pretend any more."

"I'm sorry, sir. I wouldn't have asked if I'd known."

The boy's embarrassed look kept Chris from resenting the stare. He put his hand on Pat's shoulder. "It's all right, Pat. I wasn't truthful in my profile because I didn't want to be bothered by a lot of stupid questions from people I don't know. You asked me nicely, so I didn't mind letting you come to see it."

The boy blushed again. "I'm glad, sir. I didn't think you'd be so young."

Chris smiled, liking this kid. "I'm twenty-six, Pat. I'm an old man to you."

"Oh, no, sir. You aren't old; I've got a brother who's twenty-four."

"Let me show you my leg, Pat." He showed the boy how it had been made from one piece of wood, the padding on top where his knee rested, and the leather straps that held it in place.

After the explanation, the boy shook his head. "I'll never be able to make one like this. I don't have any real tools, just a saw and a hammer." He looked at Chris with a happy expression. "I bet it's a lot of fun to wear."

He blushed again at Chris's questioning look. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean . I guess I always say the wrong thing."

"Forget it, Pat. I know you didn't mean anything by it." He strapped the peg-leg back on his stump. "Would you like a Coke or some lemonade?"

"Lemonade, please, sir."

Chris knew the boy was watching him with fascination as he crossed the room toward the kitchen, and found to his surprise that he didn't mind.

"Here you go, Pat." He handed the boy a glass, then sat in his favorite chair, foot and the peg-leg propped on the hassock. The boy stared at his peg-leg intently.

"Do I mean do you miss your leg, sir?"

"Of course I do. There are a few things I find hard to do, because a peg-leg doesn't bend like a real leg."

"Can't you get an artificial leg?"

"I have one I use when I go out, but I like my peg better around the house. It feels good and I'm used to it now." Chris smiled at him. "Didn't you say you would like to see what a real one feels like?"

"Yes, sir."

"Stand up."

The boy set his glass down and stood. Chris went to stand beside him, looking down at the boy's knee which was as high as his own. "Mine should fit you fine, Pat. Want to try it?"

"I I couldn't, sir."

"Why not?"

"It's yours for real, sir. I might break it or something."

Chris read the longing in the boy's eyes and took off the peg-leg. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder for balance. "Put your knee on top and I'll strap it on for you." He pulled the two straps snugly around the boy's thigh, then hopped back to the hassock. "Try it."

Pat's first steps were hesitant, then he swung off confidently, a huge smile on his face when he turned back toward Chris. "It feels good like you said, sir. Makes me feel like my leg's really gone like yours."

Chris enjoyed watching the boy. "I'm glad you're just pretending, Pat, though you look good on it."

The boy walked around the room a few more times, then sat down and took the peg-leg off reluctantly, handing back to Chris. "Thanks, sir. Would you tell me where you got it and how much it cost? Maybe I can save up for one like it."

"I don't know anyone who makes them, so I had to make it myself. It wasn't expensive, just took a lot of time to get right. I tried to make it like the one I saw an old man wearing when I was younger."

"You really made it yourself?"

"Yes."

"Would you show me how?" The boy's face showed his excitement.

"You've seen it, but I don't know how you can make one without tools to work with."

Pat dropped his head. "I guess not. I really wanted to make one like yours, but I guess I'll have to try to make one like before." He stood and held out his hand to Chris. "I gotta go, sir. Thanks for letting me see your peg-leg and all."

"You're welcome, Pat. Good luck."

What a nice kid, Chris thought as he watched Pat ride off. Makes me wish I had offered to help him. I have the tools down in the cellar, but what would his parents say if he was over here so much? No way, man. Appealing as he is, you don't get involved with a kid.

No matter what diversion he sought that evening, his mind always returned to the pleasure he'd received from the boy's visit. He closed his eyes seeing the boy's sweet smile. The time had flown by as never before.

Chris's emotions raged in battle all week, so strongly so that he had to spend three hours rewriting a section of computer code he'd screwed up. After he sent his work in early Friday morning, he wandered down to his workshop. He startled when he brushed against a cupboard door and it sprang open, an object falling out. He picked it up, examining the peg-leg he had roughed out as a new one for himself. Why didn't I finish it, he wondered as he turned it in his hands, then he saw the flaw in the grain of the wood. Oh, yeah, I remember. Didn't think this would hold up. He started to drop it in a scrap barrel, then thought of Pat. It would do for the kid, no more than he'd be using it, and he looked so disappointed when he left. Yeah, damn it, I enjoyed his company. It was nice to have somebody to talk to for a change. He's a good kid, so why not.

He put the peg back in the cupboard and closed the door. Upstairs he composed a message to Pat, signing it, 'your friend Chris', and sent it before he could argue himself out of it.

He had not finished his first cup of coffee Saturday morning when the doorbell rang. He opened it to see Pat standing there, jiggling on his toes in excitement, his face one big smile.

"Hi, sir. You mean you'll really help me?"

The boy's excitement spread to Chris. "Come on in, Pat, I'm having my coffee. Would you like a cup?"

"Please, sir."

After he had served the boy, he resumed his seat and looked at the sparkling eyes across the table from him. "Pat, if I'm going to help you, I want you to do something for me."

"Yes, sir!"

"Call me Chris. I know you've been taught to say sir to older men, but I'm not that much older than you, and I'd like to be your friend."

He almost dropped his coffee mug when Pat shot out of his chair and came around the table to put his arms around his neck in a hug. "I wanted you to say that, Chris. I don't have any friends, 'specially any I can talk to about pretending and things, and you look like a guy I can trust. I like you, Chris."

Chris reached up and patted the boy's hand. "I like you, too, Pat. Finish your coffee and we'll go to work."

Pat looked at Chris in awe when Chris opened the cupboard and handed him the roughed-out peg-leg. "Wow! You already got this much done on a peg-leg for me?"

"It didn't start out that way, my friend. I started to make it for myself and got this far, then," he pointed to the flaw near the bottom of the peg, "I saw the grain in the wood wasn't straight, so I made the one I'm using." He saw Pat's disappointed look, and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "You know I have to depend on mine, so I can't have one that might break on me. But you're not going to be on it that much, so I'm sure this one will last as long as you want. Let's finish it up, so you can enjoy it."

The boy's smile returned. "Thanks, Chris. What do I do?"

"You can hold it while I finish roughing it out."

They spent the morning with Chris working the draw-knife to bring the wood into a graceful slender taper. After they ate lunch, Chris picked it up. "Let me handle it against the drum sander, then you can do the finish sanding by hand."

Pat watched fascinated as Chris rotated the wood against the spinning sander, seeing the dust sucked into a vacuum discharge. "That's about it. Now you can get to work, buddy," Chris told him a few minutes later. He handed him a sheet of sandpaper. "No, no," he said as Pat started to work, "with the grain. This is a finish paper. You want it to be smooth, so the finish will look nice."

"Why bother? It's just for fun. Nobody's going to see it but me."

"I want it to look nice for you. If you're going to make something, even for fun, it should get your best effort. Now sand." Chris helped him hold the peg as the boy worked.

Some time later Pat looked at him. "What about now?"

Chris ran a hand over the wood and smiled. "Pretty good." He glanced at his watch. "What time do you have to be home? It's almost six."

"Oh, gee, the old man's gonna kill me."

"Stand still a minute." Chris brushed the dust from the boy's shirt and jeans.

"Thanks, Chris. Can I come back tomorrow?"

"Sure. It's been good having you here."

He waved at the boy now pedaling his bike furiously down the street.

When Pat didn't show up Sunday, Chris began to worry. Wonder if anything's happened to him. He seemed so excited when he left. He could have at least have sent me a message. He paced the floor, feeling more alone than ever. The boy had been good company.

Chris worried the evening away with a book, realizing when he set it aside to go to bed that he couldn't remember a word he had read. He stared at the computer, then bought it up one last time.

'Dear Chris, I'm sorry I didn't come back like I wanted. My old man was pissed at me for being late. I told him I was cutting your grass and then you showed me how to do some stuff on your computer, but he won't let me come over there again until he's met you. I had to tell him your name, so you'll probably get a call. I'm sorry. Love, Pat.'

"Oh, shit! I don't want to meet his dad. What have I gotten myself into?" Chris lay in bed fretting until sleep finally came.

The workload that awaited him on the computer took him the rest of the morning to organize. By working into the early hours of each morning and with only a few hours of sleep in between, he was able to zap the work off at noon on Thursday. He stretched longly. "God, I'm glad that's out of the way. I need to relax," he mumbled as he rubbed his eyes and fell asleep on the sofa. He awoke to the ringing phone. He had chance to say nothing beyond 'Hello' and a 'Yes', before hanging up.

He ate a quick dinner and showered, then debated putting on the leg, but his stump was bothering him. To hell with it, he thought. Pat's old man can see the peg for all I care. He dressed, then straightened up his living room/work room combination. He glanced out of the window when he heard a car door slam. A man in a dark suit was coming up the walk holding Pat firmly by the arm. He answered the bell, though he was tempted not to.

"I'm Patrick's father, Mark Andrews. Are you Mr. Matthews?" he said before Pat could say a word.

Chris nodded. "Come in." He saw the pleading look Pat gave him as he followed his father into the room.

"I like to know who my son associates with, Mr. Matthews, because he's not exactly reliable when it comes to picking friends. I've had to get him out of trouble before, and I'm determined he's not going to get into any more. I'm sure a young man like yourself can understand that."

"Of course, sir." Chris deliberately lifted his peg-leg to the hassock. "As you can see, I have some difficulty pushing a mower. Last Saturday your son saw me and offered to help. When he finished, I gave him some lemonade and we got to talking. I happened to mention that I write specialized programs for business, so he asked me some questions and I was showing how to solve a problem he said he was having with one of his computer programs. I quite forgot the time, as did he. It's completely my fault he was late getting home and I apologize."

Instead of the expected smile, Chris saw Andrews's face wrinkle into a frown.

"Your name seems familiar for some reason." Andrews thought for a moment, then looked at Chris. "You wouldn't be C.M. Matthews, by any chance?"

"I am."

Pat's father sprang up with a big smile and walked across to Chris, holding out his hand. "I'm delighted to meet you in person at last, Matthews. Your work is superb."

Chris stood and shook his hand. "How do you know me, sir?"

"I own Program Design Specialists. I've wondered why you always insisted you had to work at home, instead of coming to the office. After seeing your computer set-up I can understand. We have nothing at the office to equal that."

Chris's mouth dropped open. "You you're my boss, sir? I never thought, even when Pat told me his name."

"Understandable. It's good of you to help Patrick. He speaks highly of you and, since he refuses to listen to anything I tell him, he can learn a lot from associating with a man of your experience. I appreciate the interest you've shown in him."

"You mean I can come back to see Chris, dad?" Pat's eyes glowed.

"He's Mr. Matthews to you, son. You may come to see him as long as you don't make a nuisance of yourself or interfere with his work." He turned back to Chris. "Be certain you run him home if he does."

Chris put his hand on Pat's shoulder. "Pat's a fine young man and very considerate. I enjoy his company and," Chris winked at Pat, "his help, too."

"I noticed your grass is getting a little long. He'll be here Saturday morning to cut it for you. We must be going now. Thank you again, Matthews."

Elated, Chris went down to the cellar after they had gone and added the padding and leather covering to the top of Pat's peg-leg. He finished it with a coat of the same quick-drying finish he had used on his own peg-leg, then made up the two straps and buckles it needed.

Saturday morning Pat bounded up the steps and into the house without knocking. He hugged Chris as he was about to sit down to breakfast. "You were wonderful. I was sure you'd put on your leg to meet the old man, but when he saw your peg-leg he had to believe I helped you cut your grass."

"I glad your father agreed to let you come back. I've missed you. Want something to eat?"

"Already had breakfast. Hey, he told me on the way home I was to do anything you wanted. I can think of lots to do, so I'm going to be here a lot."

Chris hugged the boy, sensing his need for affection. "I'm glad. Let me eat and we'll finish up your peg-leg."

"Oh, wow! It's beautiful!" Pat yelled when he saw it glowing under the lights. "Is it finished?"

Chris grinned at his enthusiasm. "Down, boy. Gotta have something to hold it on." He picked up the leather straps and attached them to the peg-leg. "Put your knee on the top and hold my shoulder while I get the length right."

He tightened the straps around Pat's leg and marked where the holes for the prongs of the buckle would be punched. "Okay, buddy. We'll be all set in just a minute then you can try it out. How did it feel for length?"

"Just about right. Hey, what are you doing to it?" Chris had laid it on the workbench and was starting to saw on the end.

"Got to take off enough to allow for the tip." He pushed a large rubber tip over the end. "Okay, try it out. Put it on yourself."

Pat's grin grew as he strapped on the peg-leg then pranced around the cellar. "It's perfect! Oh, wow! It feels so good I wish I could wear it forever." He stumped over and hugged Chris. "Thanks, Chris. Let's go out back. I saw the fence around your yard, so nobody'll see me."

"Wait up! Let me go first so you can see how to manage steps. I don't want you getting hurt."

Pat did well until he turned sharply going through the door at the top of the cellar stairs. He banged the side of his leg against the door facing. "Ouch!" He rubbed the part of his leg sticking out behind the peg, with a rueful look. "I forgot all about this."

Chris grinned. "You've got to remember you've got a lot of leg sticking out back. I don't."

"I'm really glad you put that note on the net and I saw it. Now I've got a real peg-leg. You're a great guy, Chris."

"Thanks, buddy, I think you're a great guy, too."

Pat hugged him, but Chris gasped when he felt Pat's hand close over the end of his stump. Immediately Pat dropped his hand and pulled away to look into Chris's eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No, Pat, it was just a surprise. Don't you think you're getting just a little intimate without being invited?" Chris regretted his stern words when he saw Pat's hang-dog expression.

"I guess. I just wanted to see what it felt like. I didn't think you'd mind after we've hugged and all. I like it when we hug; I don't get any at home."

"Oh, Pat. I didn't know." He pulled the boy closer and returned the hug. "I like it when you hug me, too."

He released the boy and sat down in his chair. "Sit here," he said patting the hassock. When the boy was seated, he unstrapped his peg-leg and pulled back his jeans leg, holding out his stump. "Touch it if you want, I don't mind. In fact it feels good when somebody rubs it."

Pat hands were eager as they lifted Chris's stump and held it while his eyes explored it. As his finger traced the neat scar, he looked up at Chris. "What happened to it?"

"I was riding my motorcycle to classes one day when a truck hit me. Tore my leg up so bad they couldn't save it. I was eighteen."

Pat winced. "I'm sorry, Chris."

Chris patted him on the shoulder. "Don't be. It's over and done with. I've just never gotten used to people staring at me when I use crutches or the peg. That's why I don't go out much." He smiled at Pat. "Maybe being with you will help. I don't mind your questions and looks as much as I thought I would. You're a good kid."

"I don't wanna be a kid to you, Chris. I want more, cause you're a great guy and our peg-legs match and all." Typically youthful, his mood changed. "Let's go outside. I wanna walk with you."

"Oh, man, what a great feeling," Pat said after they had walked around the yard several times. "The old man said I was supposed to cut your grass, so I'm gonna do it on my peg-leg. You go sit on the steps and watch."

Chris had to smile at the boy's grin as he pushed the power mower over the grass. When Pat pushed the mower to the steps and shut it off, Chris went in the kitchen and brought back Cokes, handing one to Pat, who was now sitting on the steps, his bare chest dripping with sweat.

"Well, how was it? More of a workout than you thought?"

Pat wiped the perspiration from his brow. "And then some. It was harder than I thought it would be, but I'm glad I did it on my peg-leg. That made it fun. I can see why yours don't bother you much when you're doing things. I'll do the front after a minute, but I guess you want me to take off my peg-leg for that."

"Sit here and rest. I'll do it. Won't take long."

Chris pulled off his T-shirt and started the mower. When he finished and had pushed the mower back into the garage, Pat immediately jumped up and wiped down Chris' peg-leg with the old towel he was holding. "You oughta keep this looking nice, Chris."

"It's a necessary part of my daily life, Pat, so it won't always look as nice as yours."

"I guess, but you look so cool on it. What about a shower? I brought some clean stuff to put on."

Pat followed him into his bedroom. "You go first," he said, and watched Chris strip, then hop on his one leg into the bath.

When Chris returned, Pat stood and, holding his right leg doubled up, started to hop toward the bath.

"Why are you hopping like that?"

"So I can see what it's like having one leg for real."

Chris pulled on a clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt, then sat on the edge of the bed waiting for Pat to finish his shower. When the boy came out, Chris motioned him over. Once Pat was seated next to him, he looked into his eyes. "Pat, pretending is okay if it makes you happy, but living with one leg isn't easy. I know seeing my stump and peg has some appeal for you, but you can always take off the peg and have two legs, I can't."

"I'm sorry, Chris. I wasn't making fun of you, honest. I just wondered what it was like for you."

"I know. You're a good kid, Pat, but think about what I've said."

"I will. I'm gonna keep my peg-leg here and wear it every time we're together. I wish we could go out somewhere on our peg-legs. We'd look way cool."

"I always use my leg if I'm going out in public. I don't like people staring at me."

"Don't you ever use your crutches?"

"Not often. Why?"

"I bet you look great on 'em, like you do on your peg. If you won't use your peg, I'd like to go with you somewhere when you're using your crutches."

Chris shook his head. "I don't use them much because they make carrying anything too difficult. Get your peg-leg on and we'll have some lunch. I'm getting hungry."

"Hey, I want a burger and fries. I know a place makes great ones and we don't have to go in. I'll call in and we can pick 'em up and bring 'em back here. My treat."

"I'd like that, Pat, but I don't feel like messing with my leg. We'll do it some other time."

"Use your crutches. Nobody's gonna see you in the car, and I'll keep my peg-leg on. It'll be a blast."

Chris's qualms melted under the boy's grin. He dropped his peg, rolled up his jeans leg to the end of his stump, then picked up his forearm crutches. "Okay, Pat, but I'm not sure you're going to be able to wear the peg in my car."

"I'll push the seat all the way back. If it don't fit, I'll take it off." He stroked the wood. "This is so beautiful I wish everybody could see it. I'd sure hate for anybody to tell my old man about it, though."

Pat watched the fluid grace with which Chris walked to his car. "You sure walk good on your crutches. I didn't hardly notice 'em."

"I've had lots of practice. Want the top down?"

"Oh, man, this is great!" He twisted in the seat until his peg-leg fit comfortably, then watched Chris drive, using his left foot on the accelerator. "You oughta get one of those extentions, so you don't have to stretch your foot across to the gas pedal," he told Chris.

"I didn't know they made anything like that."

"I saw one in a car magazine. I'll see if I can find it."

Chris was relieved when the restaurant was not the fast food place he'd thought it would be. He drove up to the service window and asked for their order. Pat grinned when Chris passed him the styrofoam trays and took the money he held out.

"See, I told you nobody would look at us. I know a great place we can eat where there's no people. It'll be like a picnic. Please, Chris."

After all the time he spent at indoors, the idea appealed to him, and Pat's enthusiasm was contagious. "Okay. I think there's an old lap-robe in the boot we can sit on."

He followed Pat's directions and soon turned onto an unpaved road. A short distance further along, he parked and they walked to a spot on a bluff overlooking the river. Pat helped him spread the lap-robe on the ground.

"This is a beautiful spot, Pat. How'd you find it?"

"I used to ride my bike all over." He looked up with a sad expression. "Don't have no friends, so there wasn't anything else for me to do. I'm glad you're my friend, Chris."

"And I'm glad you're mine. We'll do this again, if you like."

"Great. I like doing things with you."

During the drive home, Chris realized how much he had enjoyed the impromptu picnic, and Pat's happy smile touched him in a way he had not thought possible.

"I wish I lived with you, Chris, 'cause nobody else loves me." Pat said as he took off his peg-leg to return home. "I can talk to you and we have fun together. You're the only friend I got."

Chris hugged him. "I like being with you, too, Pat. I used to wish I had a kid brother like you. But I know your dad loves you. What about your mother?"

"She's dead. The old man doesn't give a damn about me. I guess that's why I get in so much trouble, just so he'll know I'm around."

"I'm sorry about your mother, Pat, but if your dad didn't love you, he wouldn't be concerned about keeping you out of trouble. He just doesn't know how to show you he cares. I like your company and it's nice having another guy on a peg-leg around. You're always welcome."

"Thanks, Chris." After giving him a quick hug, Pat was out the door to keep Chris from seeing his tears.

It was the next Saturday before Pat came by again. His smile was broad when he ran into the house, holding out a package. "Here. I got something for you. I'll put it in."

Chris pulled the slender box out of the bag and looked at it. The picture on the box showed an accelerator extension attached to the gas pedal. He looked up at Pat's smile. "You shouldn't have gone to the trouble to get this for me, Pat, but I really appreciate it. Thanks."

"No sweat. Hey, after you made me my peg-leg, I'm glad to find something you can use. Let's go put it in and see how you like it."

Chris was surprised to see how adept Pat was with tools as he installed the device. At last he crawled out of the car and pointed with a big smile. "All you gotta remember is to swing your foot right for the brake, instead of left. Why don't we take a spin and see how you like it?"

"Okay." Chris dropped his peg-leg in the back and slid under the wheel. He had driven only a few blocks before his smile was as broad as Pat's. "You were right, buddy, this is great. Takes all the strain off my leg. I really appreciate it."

"Long as we're out, you feel like another picnic?"

"Sure." Chris held out the cell phone. "You know the number?"

"Don't remember it, but I'll go in. Sure wish I had my peg-leg."

"If you want, we can stop by the house after we get the burgers. It's on our way if we're going to the same place as before."

"Thanks, Chris. I really want to."

He handed Pat the house key and waited in the car for him. He sat up suddenly, mouth open in surprise when Pat came out on crutches, half his right jeans leg pinned neatly up.

"What the hell?" He asked as Pat slipped into the seat.

Pat grinned. "Like it? Hey, with you on your peg-leg and me on crutches, it'll be a blast. Two great looking one legged guys."

"Don't you think you're carrying this pretending business just a little far?"

Pat's expression sobered. "I'm sorry, Chris. I like it, and I don't want you to feel like you're the only guy with one leg. If it bothers you, I'll let my leg down and I won't do it any more."

"I appreciate your considering my feelings, Pat. It was a surprise when I saw you on my crutches, but it doesn't bother me to see you pretend. I just don't want you to find yourself in an embarrassing situation."

"Wouldn't be the first time according to my old man. Anyway, it's just the two of us. If I was somewhere where nobody knew who I was, I might try it with crutches. It would be more fun if you were with me on your peg-leg."

Chris shook his head. "How could you stand people staring at you with pity, like they do me?"

"What makes you think they're pitying you? You're a great guy, so I'll bet they're thinking what a good looking stud you are."

"Come on, Pat. I'm just an ordinary guy with one leg."

"Bull! You've got an awesome build and a beautiful face. If you got your hair styled a little, you'd look way better than any of those male dancers the all the broads go nuts over."

Chris grinned. "Enough, already. You'll swell my head. But I'm glad you think I'm a reasonably decent looking man. You're the one who's handsome. I'm surprised you don't have a string of girl friends a mile long."

"Girls!" Pat snorted. "There ain't no way of pleasing 'em. If they like you, they're always pestering you to do something. And if you look at another chick, they act like it's a major crime. Who needs 'em?"

"I expect to change your attitude will begin to change shortly. Then your pretending will be over and you won't even know I exist."

"No way I'll be forgetting you, Chris. You're the only real friend I've got."

"I hope you'll always think of me as your friend, Pat, but you need friends your own age."

"How many you got?"

"A few acquaintances, but no close ones." Chris said sadly.

"Don't you think I'm your friend?"

"Of course. I meant friends my own age."

"Oh." Pat looked up when Chris stopped the car. "Let's eat, man. I'm starved."

Chris had put his peg-leg back on and picked up their lunch containers when Pat started to pick up the robe, then fumbled with the crutches. Chris laughed at his awkward attempts. "See now why I don't like using crutches?"

"Yeah." Pat threw the robe over his shoulder and followed Chris. "But it's still fun."

They had finished eating, Chris drinking the last of his coffee when a sudden clap of thunder sounded and a few drops of rain fell. He pushed himself up and picked up the robe by the corners to contain the empty trays and cups from their meal. "We got to run, Pat, the top on the car is down."

Chris started the motor to rise the top, then looked around for Pat, who was moving as quickly as he could on crutches. He was almost to the car when the crutches slipped on a wet rock and he fell awkwardly, his left foot twisted under him. Chris saw his face contort from pain.

"Help me, Chris." Pat called.

Chris fumbled with his peg-leg in his haste to put it on, but at last he was beside Pat, reaching down to pull him up. Pat cried out as he tried to stand. "I can't, Chris. What are we gonna do?"

Chris quickly opened the boy's jeans and straightened out the folded leg, then pulled the jeans back into place. "Use the crutches. Let's go, we're getting soaked."

Pat wiped the water dripping from his hair into his eyes. "I didn't mean for you to get all wet. I'm sorry, Chris."

"It's not your fault it rained."

"If I hadn't been playing around with your crutches, I wouldn't have fallen and hurt my leg, and you wouldn't have gotten all wet helping me."

"Don't worry about it. Who's your doctor? I think you'd better see him."

"Martinson. His office is out by the hospital."

"I know the place."

Concerned only with Pat, Chris put on his peg-leg and helped the boy into the office, explaining to the receptionist what had happened. A moment later Pat, using Chris's crutches, was taken in for an examination. Some minutes later the nurse called Chris to the examining room where a sober faced Pat sat on the edge of the table, while the doctor applied a plaster gauze cast over his foot and ankle. When he finished, the doctor looked at Chris. "It's fortunate you had your crutches with you, otherwise you'd have had to carry Pat."

"I could carry him if needed, but I would worry about falling and possibly hurting him even more. How is he?"

"He has a hairline fracture of the tarsus and a pulled ligament, so I want him off that foot for at least two weeks. You'll need to stop on the way home and get him a pair of crutches. I'll call his father and explain."

"Hey, now I got an excuse to get my own crutches. I want some like yours, Chris." Pat said when they were back in the car.

"Regular wooden crutches will do for two weeks, and they're a lot cheaper."

"No way. The old man won't care what I pick out, and I got money enough. Where we gonna get 'em?"

"The medical supply house where I got mine. Then I'll take you home."

Once the crutches had been selected and adjusted for height, Chris drove Pat home. His father had evidently been watching for them, for he was out of the house and at the car by the time Chris dropped the selector in Park.

"Damn it, Patrick, what have you done now? Why did you bother Matthews?"

"It was an accident, sir," Chris said. "We were having a picnic lunch when the rain began. Pat slipped on a wet rock and hurt his foot while we were running for the car. I carried him to your doctor."

"I appreciate it, Matthews, but damn it, it couldn't have come at a worse time. I've got to be out of town on business for several days and there's no one to take care of Pat. The cook comes in daily, but John said Pat will be on crutches for at least two weeks and he can't stay alone like this."

"He can stay with me. I have the room, and I'm probably more aware of the help he'll need than anyone else."

"How can you take care of a kid big as Patrick when you're a cripple yourself?"

"I never think of myself as a cripple," Chris snapped. "My house is equipped for my needs, so it will be comfortable for Pat as well."

"I apologize, Matthews. I shouldn't have said that."

"Please let me stay with Chris, dad. I promise I won't bother him any more than I have to."

"I told you to call him Mr. Matthews, Patrick. I would feel a lot better about this if I had time to make other arrangements, but I don't. And since Matthews has generously offered, you may stay with him until I get back home. But you had better be on your best behavior and not cause him any trouble."

"I won't."

"If you will be good enough to come in while Patrick packs a bag, you can take it home with you and he can come directly there after school tomorrow."

"Fine. Sorry to hold you up, but it'll take me a minute to put my peg on."

"Use your crutches. I can certainly bring his bag to the car. It's little enough after you've been so kind. We'll have a drink while he packs."

As he sipped the extra light drink he had asked for, Chris looked enviously at the comfortable furnishings in Andrews's study. "This is a beautiful room. So comfortable. Must be a pleasure to relax and read in front of a fire on cold evenings."

"It is, but I don't often have the time to enjoy it as I would like. Competition is stiff in the software market, and experts like you are hard to come by, Matthews. I have no doubt that you've had other offers."

"I have and I turned them down. None of them were willing to let me work from home, and you've treated me fairly. I don't like being in public."

"I apologize again. I should never have said you're a cripple."

Chris gave him a tight smile. "It's true, but Pat has helped me to feel better about myself in that regard. You should be proud of him. He's a kind and thoughtful young man."

Andrews's shocked expression startled him. "Patrick? I don't believe it! He's been in one scrape after another ever since his mother died. I'm almost ready to give up on him."

"That's not the Pat I know. When I took him downtown with me a couple of weeks ago, he noticed how awkward it is for me to keep my left foot on the accelerator, so he located an extension and put it in for me. It lets me enjoy driving again. None of the dealers suggested it when I was looking for a new car."

"It has to be your interest in him, then. He hasn't been in trouble that I know of since he's been spending time with you. I just hope he isn't being a nuisance."

"Not at all. He's most considerate. When I'm working, he reads or does his homework until I'm finished. Then, if he's having a problem with his schoolwork, I help him. Often, I spend time teaching him about computers. A pleasure for me, because he has a quick mind. I think we'll get along well while you're gone."

"I wish I could relate to him like you do, Matthews. Must be because you're young yourself."

At Pat's call, his father went up for the suitcase. Chris watched Pat came slowly down the stairs on his crutches.

"I never thought wishes came true, but mine did." Pat said when Chris picked him up at school the next afternoon.

"What?"

"Getting to stay with you. I've been wanting to ever since you let me come see you that first time."

Chris nodded. "And another of your wishes came true, too."

"Which one?" Pat asked with a puzzled expression.

"Having to use crutches for real. How'd you do today?"

"Not too bad. I was late to almost all my classes, because I can't walk fast like you do, and the kids wouldn't give me any room in the hall."

"Then you're going to have more work to do tonight. I'm going to teach you how to use them properly. After a day or two you'll walk as well on them as I do."

"Thanks. You know what I really wish? I wish I didn't have to keep my leg straight, then I could use my peg-leg. But the crutches are fun, too."

"You won't think so by the time you can use your leg again. You said you wanted to know what it's like for me, well now you're going to find out. I'll help you when you really need it, but otherwise you're going to learn how to do things for yourself with one good leg."

By the end of the second day, Pat was walking smoothly with his crutches. Chris was surprised at the few complaints he heard as the boy learned to do things while supported by crutches, helping Chris clean and do the washing. Only at cooking did he fail. Fixing meals for two gave Chris the incentive he needed to prepare good food, instead of grabbing something from the freezer and tossing it in the microwave. He felt a genuine sense of regret when Pat's father appeared to take the boy back home.

"I'm sorry I was away longer than I expected. I hope Patrick hasn't been too much trouble."

"Not at all. He's been quite a help since he learned to use his crutches, and I've enjoyed having him."

"He's apparently enjoyed it, too. I appreciate all you've done for Patrick more than you can know, Matthews."

"Not at all. Oh! I should tell you that he received his report card while you were gone. Since it had to be returned the next day, I signed it for him."

Andrews looked disgusted. "The usual C's and D's, I suppose."

"Straight A's. I was so proud of him, I took him out to dinner." Chris grinned. "Because he asked, I used my crutches."

Andrews's eyebrows shot up. "Knowing how you feel, I'm surprised you would do that simply because Patrick asked."

"He's helping me get over my shyness at being seen. We've helped each other, really. I hope you'll let him visit whenever he wants."

"If you don't object and he continues to get good grades, I'll be grateful."

A week later, Pat showed up after school one afternoon, the cast on his foot gone.

"Are you still using crutches?" Chris asked.

"I don't have to, but my foot still hurts some. After you taught me how to use 'em, it's no problem. I carry everything in my backpack." He grinned mischievously. "The teachers don't know my foot's well, so they cut me some slack."

Chris returned the grin. "Faker!"

"Hey, when you get a chance you take it. Besides this is research. I need your help."

"With what?"

"The English teacher gave us a paper to write. We get to choose the subject, so I thought I'd write about living with one leg. I've found out some, but I figured you could tell me enough to do the whole paper."

"Tell you, hell! You just want me to write the paper for you."

"No way. I want to write about a guy with one leg. How it feels to find out your leg is gone and all that."

"There are some things I'd rather not try to remember, Pat. Going through an amputation is traumatic enough. Besides, it's a very personal thing. I don't want those feelings made public."

"I won't use your name, Chris. I already found some good stuff on the net. I got a great site to show you, if you'll let me use one of your computers."

"After I see the site, I'll read what information you have and we'll see where it goes from there."

"Okay." He crossed to Chris's smaller computer and brought up a search engine. A few minutes later he entered the Garden. You seen this one, Chris?"

"Where do you think you found my profile? I use this site quite a bit."

"Heck, I forgot. The pictures are awesome. You read any of the stories?"

"No. Haven't had time, really."

"Some of them are great. I liked every one I read; you will, too. I'll bookmark it so's you can come back to it later on. There's a great link site, too. Let me show you."

Chris blinked several times as Pat brought up two different sites, each with screen after screen of pictures of guys with amputations similar to his own. When Pat put the computer back into suspend, he looked at Chris triumphantly. "See how those guys were having fun on the beach and all? That's how you should be, Chris. I hope after school's out we can go to the beach together. It would be fun."

"I wouldn't mind going to the beach for a week and having you along, but I'll have to think about it." He reached up and ruffled Pat's thick hair. "Thanks for showing me those other sites. It makes me feel I'm not that different. I'll look at those pictures again."

"Don't be surprised if you see yourself in the Garden in a week or two. I sent them one of you."

"You didn't! Damn it, Pat, that pisses me off. You should have asked my permission. How'd you get it?"

"I had my little automatic camera the first time we went on a picnic. You were using your crutches that day. Hey, you're a lot better looking than those other guys, and they won't know who you are. They don't ask for names."

"That's something, I suppose. But what if someone who knows me sees it?"

"You said you didn't know that many people, so I figured they already know about your leg." He hugged Chris. "I'm sorry," he said contritely. "I just wanted everybody to see how great you look."

"I guess I know how it feels to be outed, now."

"What's that?"

"When someone makes public what you've been trying to conceal. I know you didn't mean any harm, Pat. It's done, so I'll chalk it up as part of my desensitizing process."

Pat grinned. "Got to get you psyched into going on the beach with me next summer."

"You juvenile delinquent! I think you're good for me, but at times I'm not sure. Let's see the notes for your paper."

Twenty minutes later, Chris looked up from the pages he'd been reading with an amazed look. "Where did you find all this? The psychological references and the material about phantom pain are completely accurate."

"Got it off the net. I found one of those super search engines and used it. Had so many hits it took me over a week to go through them all. What I need now is the personal side of it. That's when I thought of you. You still gonna help me?"

"I shouldn't, not after what you did with my picture." He saw Pat's face fall. "But, yeah, I'll tell you. Let's go get some dinner and I'll tell you about it after. Call your dad and tell him I'll bring you home later."

He did not see Pat for several days. Late one afternoon he answered the door to find Pat's father on the stoop, a worried look on his face. "I need to talk with you about Patrick, Matthews."

"Please come in. Is something wrong? He's not ill?"

Andrews sat on the sofa, wringing his hands, his expression even more morose. "Patrick is very ill, Matthews. You've worked wonders with him, as well as being my most valued employee. I hate asking personal favors, especially one likely to be painful, but I beg you not to turn me down for Patrick's sake."

"You know I'll do anything for Pat I can. Why should it bother me?"

"Because you're so sensitive about your leg. Patrick trusts you and now he needs a friend who's an amputee. If you'll just go with Patrick and me to the doctor's office tomorrow morning and stay with Patrick until he's well, I'll turn all of your work over to the others at the office."

Chris could find no logic in Andrews' words. "But why is my being an amputee suddenly important?"

Andrews pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes. "When John took the X-ray of Patrick's ankle to see if the fracture had healed, he didn't like what he saw, so he made more pictures. He confirmed there's a bone tumor just beginning in Patrick's foot. Tomorrow he's going to tell Patrick he he's going to take Patrick's leg off."

"I can't believe it! Not a good kid like Pat." He left his chair to sit beside Pat's father, and put his hand on the man's shoulder. "I'm so sorry. Of course I'll go with you. I'll stay with Pat every minute. "

"I was so afraid you'd refuse, Matthews. I don't know what I would have done if you had."

"I can't refuse. I know what it's like to hear such devastating news and have no one to turn to. I hope I can give Pat some comfort. Thank you for asking me."

After the doctor broke the news to Pat, he sat with a disbelieving look for a few moments, then bit his lower lip as tears trickled down his face. When Chris saw Pat's father's inability to cope, he pulled Pat to his lap and wrapped his arms around him. "I love you, Pat," he whispered. "I'll stay with you."

Once Pat had calmed, they started home to pack the things he would need for his hospital stay. When they reached the house, Chris took Pat to one side. "Go take a short run, buddy, so you can remember how wonderful it is. Look at everything and appreciate what you see, because your whole world is going to change. I would gladly give my other leg if it would save yours, but it's impossible."

Within two hours Chris was in a private hospital room, being prepared for his surgery early the next morning. His father and Chris sat with him as the tranquilizer took effect.

"Stay with me, Chris."

"You know I will."

"Chris?"

"Yes?"

"Will you make me a really good peg-leg like yours?"

"Why do you want Mr. Matthews to make you a peg-leg, son? That's a lot of work for him when you'll be getting a new leg within a few weeks."

"Chris let me try his. It feels good, and I want one."

As he waited with Pat's father for the operation to end the next morning, Chris painfully relived his own experience, frequently praying Pat would suffer less than he.

They went to the room as soon as Pat was moved from recovery.

"It hurts, dad."

"I know." He patted Pat on the shoulder. "Be brave, son. It won't be for long." When he looked down to where the top sheet fell flat just below Pat's left knee, he turned away.

Chris hugged Pat. "I know it hurts, Pat. They'll give you something for pain until you begin to heal. Let me go talk to your dad for a few minutes, then I'll be back. I promise I'll stay with you."

Chris led Pat's father into a vacant room and shut the door. "You can fire me if you want, sir, but you're going to listen to me. I'm serious."

"What is this, Matthews?"

"You, sir. I saw you turn away when you looked down where Pat's leg should have been. I know it's hard for you, but you'd better get used to looking at him and his stump damn fast. He's just become a cripple like me. Whether or not he sees himself that way is going to depend a hell of a lot on the way he thinks you see him. He's been around me enough to know I can do almost everything a man with two legs can by making a few accommodations. Like it or not, you have to accept it. You'll also need to make a few changes in your house to make it easier for him, especially while he's using crutches. Most important of all, you haven't given him the attention he wants from you. That's got to change, especially now. That's why he's been in trouble and why he's spent so much time with me. I've come to love Pat a great deal, so I'm speaking plainly for his sake. If you're offended, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is."

He saw Andrews scowl and start to speak. "No! Don't say anything now. I won't listen until you've had time to think. I'll be with Pat.''

Chris left Andrews and returned to his seat by Pat's bed, holding the boy's hand until he slept. He smiled gratefully at the nurse who brought him a cup of coffee.

Pat's father eased into the room as evening visiting hours began. He gave Chris a slight smile, then squeezed Pat's shoulder. "I love you, son. I haven't said that in a long time, have I?" He leaned down and hugged his son tightly, then kissed him on the forehead. "You're almost a man, and I hadn't even noticed. I'm sorry I've treated you like a child. I should have trusted you more and taught you about computers like you begged me to. Forgive me, son."

Pat returned the kiss with a glowing smile. "I love you too, dad. I just wanted you to spend some time with me like Chris does. I love him. I want you to like him as much as I do."

"Mr. Matthews made me very angry this morning. But when I thought about what he told me, I realized how much he cares about you, son. It takes an exceptional man to talk so plainly, and I know now what a good friend he's been to both of us. I want to call him by his name, if he'll let me." He looked at Chris. "May I call you Chris? I would like for you to call me Mark."

Chris stood and took the offered hand. "It will be a pleasure, Mark."

"I know Chris promised to stay with you, son, but I'd like to borrow him tomorrow morning. I want him to look over the house and tell me what changes should be made to make it comfortable for you."

"Sure. The visiting teacher is supposed to come by tomorrow with my assignments, so Chris can go with you then. He doesn't want to hear all that stuff."

The next afternoon, Chris watched as the nurse got Pat up and helped him take the first few steps on his crutches.

Pat looked quizzically at Chris. "Why's it so different from when I used them before?"

"You've lost the weight of part of your leg, so your center of balance has shifted. You'll adjust quickly, then you can walk as well as I do."

"I'll be glad when I can use my peg-leg. You got it started yet?"

"Not yet. But I promise I'll have it ready by the time you can use it."

Three days after Pat's surgery, his father and Chris held a small party in Pat's room to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. He shouted with delight when he opened the card Chris handed him and saw the confirmation for a week at a cottage on the beach.

Chris grinned. "You said you wanted it, and I'll use my peg-leg and crutches while we're there." He winked at the boy. "Just so you won't feel like the only one."

Pat's father handed him a card. "You're sixteen and you're going to need a car badly now. I didn't know what you might want, so as soon as you can go with me, we'll pick out one that'll be easy for you to drive."

Pat hugged both of them.

Spending the morning hours working on the new peg-leg, Chris cut his visits to the afternoon hours. He helped Pat complete his English term-paper on living with one leg and printed it out for the boy to turn in. He helped him catch up his other schoolwork as well.

When he and Pat's father left the hospital at the end of visiting hours a few evenings later, Pat's father followed Chris home.

"Chris," he said after Chris had fixed them drinks, "I'm asking another favor of you."

"Of course."

"It will be another week before the contractor has finished the remodeling you suggested, and Patrick is being released tomorrow. Would you consider letting him stay with you until the work is finished?"

"You know I will. I enjoy him. It's about time I started work again, too. You've been good about it, but it isn't fair to the others to make them do my work in addition to theirs."

Mark shrugged. "So they've had to be a little more productive than usual. It won't hurt them, but it'll sure be good to have you back. You're twice as fast at finding and correcting problems in code as any of the others. But that's minor compared with what you've done for Pat and me."

"It was done gladly, sir, just as I'll be happy to have Pat here again. I can use the time to teach him some things I wish someone had taught me when I lost my leg. I'll take him to school and pick him up after, so feel free to come by any time."

Once Pat returned home, his visits to Chris became more infrequent, but whenever he was with Chris, Pat spoke often of the fun he and his father were having together. Though he sorely missed Pat's company, Chris was delighted at the improving relationship between the boy and his father.

A few weeks later he received an invitation to a dinner party Andrews was hosting at his home for his employees. Chris sent his regrets, changing his mind only after phone calls from both Mark and Pat demanded his presence.

Uncomfortable with the curious looks of people he had never met, Chris took his glass of wine to a quiet corner and talked with Pat.

"You walk far better with your new leg than I do, even after all this time. Like it?"

"It's not too bad, but I like the peg-leg you made for me a lot better. I got this on just 'cause it's a special occasion. Dad doesn't much like it, but I wear the peg most of the time and even to school once in a while. The guys think it's cool. I still use my crutches a lot, too. I can't wait 'til school's out and we go to the beach." He winked at Chris. "I'm gonna leave this leg here."

At the table, Chris was more disconcerted to find himself seated on Andrews' right, Pat seated at his father's left. When the after-dinner coffee had been served, Andrews tapped a spoon against his water glass for attention. When all eyes were on him, he smiled at Chris. A glance showed Pat staring at him with a solemn expression.

"Until tonight, all of you have wondered about the mysterious man Patrick calls the phantom programmer of PDS. I hope you've taken this opportunity to meet Matthews. A man it is my pleasure to call friend, because what he has done for me, and especially for Patrick, goes far beyond anything I have a right to expect.

"With the exception of Matthews, all of you are aware that Program Design Specialists is a privately owned corporation. Patrick and I together hold the one-hundred shares of authorized stock. He and I are in agreement that with the rapid growth in our sales and the need for additional personnel, there should be a change at the management level." He looked at Chris. "Please stand, Matthews."

Bewildered, Chris stood, looking first at Pat's broad smile, then at his employer.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce Mr. Christopher Matthews, the new Executive Vice-President of PDS. Among his first duties will be the recruitment of qualified personnel who have some physical challenge to overcome." When the applause ended, Pat's father pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it out to Chris. "For personal services freely and cheerfully given to Patrick and me, Patrick and I are pleased, no, delighted to give Chris fifteen shares in our company. Thank you, Chris, and God bless."

After Pat's father had shaken his hand and given him the stock certificates, Pat hugged the still speechless Chris and whispered, "I love you."

The End

Posted: 10/15/10