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(1969)

Stevie yelped when the latch behind him rattled, and scrambled away from Mr. L's back stoop like the dusty cement had bit him.

"I wasn't trespassin'!" he exclaimed, retreating into the weed-strewn yard. "Honest, I wasn't!"

"Whoa, hey, easy there," said the man on the other side of the screen door. "I'm not mad. What are you doing here?"

"Nothin'." Mr. L didn't look mad, but then Stevie didn't know him that well, recognized him only from passing him in the grocery store or peeping over the staircase during Neighborhood Watch meetings. He didn't even go to church, although Mama said he was a nice man: a little eccentric, but still a Poor Dear Thing for reasons that nobody talked about. "I'll go now."

He waited for Mr. L to close the door. Didn't want to turn his back on him, just in case.

Instead, the man opened the screen door and dropped to his knees. He definitely didn't look angry with his face at Stevie's level. "Are you okay?"

"'M fine," insisted Stevie. Not sniffling. Definitely not sniffling. He wasn't a baby.

"You look kinda down," said Mr. L. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No!"

"All right, all right." He sat back on the step, looking like he planned to stay there for a while, even though he was dressed to go out. "Nice day to be outside."

"I'm sorry!" wailed Stevie, bursting into tears.

"Whoa, whoa!" Mr. L fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and thrust it into Stevie's hands. "It's okay, honey, it's all gonna be okay." His palm was warm and heavy on Stevie's shoulder. "Did somebody hurt you? Did...oh, wow. Your shirt's a mess, kid."

"I didn't mean to!" choked Stevie, leaning without realizing it into the half-embrace. "I just wanted to wear it! I was gonna be real careful and then I slipped in the woods and I didn't mean to!"

"Shhh," said Mr. L, and Stevie tried, even though he didn't sound as mad as Papa sometimes did when telling you to be quiet. "It's okay, Stephen. It's just dirt. It'll wash out, easy."

"It won't!" sobbed Stevie. "It's a special shirt. It's expensive. Mama said!"

"Can I see the label?" Mr. L's fingers drifted to the back of Stevie's neck; he leaned obediently forward to let them ply his collar. It tickled. "Well. Can't just throw that in the machine, but it can be hand-washed, if you're careful. You want me to take care of it?"

On the verge of protesting that Mama had too much work to do already, Stevie stopped and looked up at Mr. L's kind face. "H-how?"

"Come in." Mr. L nodded towards his door. "I have a couple of shirts your size. You can borrow one of those while I wash this one out."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

There was a long scratch on the surface of Mr. L's kitchen table. Stevie made a person with his hand and walked his fingers along it, like a tightrope.

"How come you've got so many kid shirts?" he piped up. The one he had picked was black, with the craters of the Moon traced on it in sketchy silver, but there were others. And a couple of pairs of pants, and a neatly folded stack of socks and undershorts. Which was an awful lot of small clothes to have, when you were a big person like Mr. L and couldn't fit into them.

Over at the sink, Mr. L didn't answer at first, leaving Stevie worried that it had been wrong to ask the question. "I have kids," he finally said. "A boy and a girl. The boy isn't much older than you."

Confused, Stevie looked all around the kitchen. It was neat and boring, no crayon pictures displayed on the fridge, no stray smears of peanut butter on the counter. Anyway, he had never seen Mr. L with kids. "Where are they?"

"They don't live here," said Mr. L. "They're in...another country. Very far away."

He sounded sad, which made squirmy things happen in Stevie's insides. Boys weren't supposed to be sad. Especially not grown-up boys. Especially not in front of other people.

"Your shirt here is very classy," added Mr. L, swishing it around in the sudsy water. "I bet you're a real charmer in it."

Grateful for the change of subject, Stevie puffed out his chest. "It cost a lotta money," he said proudly. "I'm a rent boy. I gotta look good."

Mr. L jumped, making the water slosh in protest. "S-Stephen," he said carefully, "what do you mean, a 'rent boy'?"

"People need a boy, so they rent me," said Stevie impatiently. "Mama says I'm a natch'ral."

"But what do you do?" asked Mr. L. "What do people need a boy your age for?"

"I carry the pillow with the rings on." Stevie's walking fingers reached the end of the line, pirouetted, and started back down the other way.

"At weddings," said Mr. L, with a big sigh. "You're the ring bearer at weddings."

"Uh-huh." Stevie loved weddings. Wearing a tuxedo, being important...it was almost like being a grown-up. "When I grow up, I'm gonna wear tuxedos every day."

"I'm sure you will." Mr. L pulled the shirt out of the tub and poured the soapy water down the drain. "Stephen, do me a favor, okay? When you talk to people about this, don't call yourself a rent boy. Say you're a...freelance ring-bearer, or something."

"Free-lance ring-bear-er," repeated Stevie. It sounded impressive enough.

The faucet burbled as Mr. L ran the shirt under it, over and over. When he turned it off, Stevie hopped down from the chair and ran over to inspect the results.

He couldn't see a speck of mud. Even Mama, whose eyes had magical dirt-finding powers, would have to say it was perfect.

"Look all right?" said Mr. L, and Stevie nodded, choked with relief. "Oh, good. You want to play in the yard while it dries?"

"Yeah!"

"Go on, then. When it's ready, I'll come find you."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1971)

The sun had already dipped behind the trees, but the afternoon heat lingered on the field as Stevie stood over home plate, gripping an imaginary bat and cheered on by an invisible throng of adorers.

He could conjure up the crowd in perfect detail from his memories of last Saturday. Roaring fathers, mothers in flowered hats, Denny Shore's little sister crawling under the seats, a couple of babies who wailed in surprise when the applause got too loud. Mama and Papa couldn't make it, but Ed was there with his new fiancée, the one Stephen liked a lot better than Jimmy's and Tommy's wives because she treated him like a proper brother-in-law and not some troublesome nephew. Mr. L was at one end of the bleachers with Mrs. Chesterton, the coach's wife, who guarded a pan of brownies for the post-game celebrations.

With such a big crowd, it seemed like a waste not to have them ever clap for Stevie.

Not that Stevie needed to be on the field. Being a bat boy was a plenty important job. It had to be, because he was doing it. It was just that most people didn't have the sense to give his hard work the appreciation it deserved.

The pitcher wound up. The crowd held its breath. Stevie tightened his grip, eyes locked on the patch of air where the imaginary ball would be—

"Stephen! What are you doing here?"

Stevie swung wildly, lost his balance, scrambled to stay afoot. Couldn't even hit a fake ball he had made up himself—"I'm practicing!" he snapped, rounding on Mr. L, who had come to a stop on the far side of the batter's cage. "You're interrupting my concentration!"

"Sorry, sorry!" exclaimed Mr. L, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender made awkward by the bulging duffel bag slung over his shoulder. "Didn't mean to disturb you. I'll be over on the soccer field, out of your way."

True to his word, he trudged off across the grass.

Stevie tried to hit a couple more imaginary pitches, but the magic was gone. He couldn't hear his personal audience over the thudding Mr. L was making in the middle distance, white soccer ball standing out against the dusk as it flitted back and forth between his feet.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

For the next couple of nights, Stevie didn't go back to the field. He tried going through the motions in his own yard, but it obviously wasn't good enough, because he struck out three times during practice and spent the next game kicking his heels on the bench.

Ed couldn't make it this time. Margo, who was supposed to pick him up, didn't show up until the last inning. Mr. L was there for the whole thing, eyes on the game, clapping politely for every home run even though they were all hit by somebody who wasn't Stevie.

A couple of nights after that, he finally shook it off and returned, late enough that even the dog-walkers and evening joggers had stopped circling the fields. Mr. L was already there. Stevie wasn't sure whether he wanted the man to notice him and approve, or overlook him completely.

Before he could figure it out, Mr. L scooped up the soccer ball and waved to him. "Hey, Stephen! Come here a minute. I brought something for you."

Wary but intrigued, Stevie met him at the forest-green duffel bag, which slumped in the grass with even more bulges than before. Mr. L knelt to dig through it, finally extracting a regulation-size baseball bat.

"I wasn't sure you'd be back," he admitted, holding it out. "But I thought I might bring this, just in case. You can borrow it while I'm here, if you like. And if you ever want me to throw a couple of pitches...uh, I'm actually pretty bad at that, but I can try."

A chill ran down Stevie's spine. Let Mr. L see Stevie's uselessness in living color, rather than just drawing the obvious conclusion from his in-game performance? No thank you! "If you're no good, then I don't want your help," he said stubbornly, clutching the bat to his chest. "Besides, you're very busy with...with...what are you doing, anyway?"

"Mostly just stretching my legs," said Mr. L with a shrug, swinging the soccer ball out from under his arm and balancing it between his palms. "Little League soccer starts up in a couple of weeks, and I want to make sure I have all my moves down before I start trying to pass them on."

"You're gonna coach?" blurted Stevie.

"That's the idea." Resting the ball on his knee, Mr. L rubbed the back of his neck with his free and no-doubt-dirty hand. "Starting this year. Been a while since I taught anybody, though, so I'm not sure how good I am. Hey, listen, if you know anybody who knows nothing about soccer, who might be willing to help me practice...."

Stevie jumped. "Me! I know nothing about soccer!"

"Do you!" Mr. L smiled brightly at him. "That's perfect! If you need a break from your baseball practice, I could use the help."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

By the time the soccer season began, Stevie announced he was quitting baseball.

Mr. L didn't have a wife, so Bobby Crane's mom took it upon herself to bring sugar cookies for his team's first game. When they lost, Mr. L passed out the cookies one at a time and made sure everybody got the same amount. Stevie was pretty sure this was a form of communism, but he was usually lucky to snag a single one of Bobby's mom's treats after a baseball game, so he ate his cookies slowly while Mr. L told them how proud he was of all the hard work they had done.

They finally won the third game. Mr. L cheered the loudest, swept the whole team up in a rowdy group hug, and still made sure they all got three Rice Krispie Treats apiece. Stevie managed to make his last until Ed finally showed up half an hour later, and regaled him with a detailed play-by-play that lasted the whole drive home.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Up. Up. Up. Up.

The bleachers clanged under Stevie's cleats as he half-stepped, half-jumped from one riser to the next. At the top he could just barely see past the trees that surrounded the sports fields, could get a glimpse of pointed roofs and a lone church steeple against the red sky, before he turned around. Down. Down. Down. Down.

"Good view up there?" asked Mr. L from the ground. His shadow reached across the grass, pointing arrowlike towards the road. "See any cars coming?"

Stevie was unimpressed. "They'll be here any second. In fact, you can go, if you want. It's not like you're gonna be leaving me alone for long."

"That's what you said ten minutes ago," pointed out Mr. L. "Are you sure you don't want a ride?"

"It's good that they're late!" cried Stevie, turning away from him. Up. Up. Up. Up. "That way they don't have to see me lose. They won't have to worry about it, because they don't know—"

"Stephen, careful—!"

Too late: his foot landed at the wrong angle, and there was a metallic screech as the world flipped over.

Down—

 

 

Mr. L broke his fall.

His fall, no doubt hoping to return the favor, broke Mr. L's wrist.

 

Stevie scrambled away in a panic, praying that the snap didn't mean what he thought. God must have been either mad at him or out to lunch or maybe He's not reliable either because Mr. L cursed like a sailor and his hand was at a funny angle and Stevie's shoe prints were all over his jersey and what if he died and they locked Stevie up for murder by reckless jumping—

"Stephen," gasped Mr. L. He was all pale now, sweat beading on his forehead. "Are you okay?"

"You can't die!" yelled Stevie. "You're not allowed!"

"Not gonna die. Stephen—listen. Go to the cooler, get the ice pack—big blue thing. Bring it here. Then go across the street—find a house with someone—tell them to call nine one one."

Stevie sprang into action. Directions were good; directions were safe. If something went wrong, it would be Mr. L's fault for giving him the wrong directions. Like, if whoever was supposed to be at 9-1-1 didn't pick up? Not Stevie's fault.

He shoved the bag of ice at Mr. L and sprinted across the grass.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Stevie's hands were full of muffin basket, so Bill rang the doorbell. When Mr. L opened the screen door, Stevie held out the muffins and recited, "Thank you very much for catching me an' here is a token of my 'ppreciation."

"That's very nice of you, Stephen," said Mr. L. "Is this one of your brothers?"

"Uh-huh. Bill."

"Nice to meet you, Bill." Mr. L took the muffin basket with his good hand. "Why don't you two come in?"

"That's nice of you, sir, but we really have to get going."

"He has a hot date," said Stevie, and flinched when his brother chucked him lightly on the skull, sending his hair flopping in his eyes. "Well, you do!"

"Dates are important," said Mr. L solemnly. "If you want to take off, I can walk Stephen home."

Stevie wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. What if Mr. L was really angry, and was just waiting for Bill to leave before he could show it? Before Stevie could protest, though, Bill ruffled his hair. "Be good, kiddo. I'll see you at dinner," he said, and strode off down the weed-pocked path.

"I can walk myself home," blurted Stevie. "I've done it before. I—"

He flinched when Mr. L dropped to one knee, meeting his eye level. Close enough to get a good smack in, and what if he swung with the hand in the cast? That would hurt.

"Stephen, it's okay," said Mr. L. Up close, his eyes were awfully blue. "You hurt me by accident. I know. Everybody screws up sometimes."

"Some people don't," said Stevie glumly, thinking of Papa.

"Some people are better at hiding it," corrected Mr L. "As long as you're sorry, and take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them, it's nothing to worry about. Okay?"

Stevie wasn't sure that made sense, but he didn't want to argue. "Uh-huh."

Mr. L smiled. "Come on in. I want you to sign my cast, and someone needs to help me eat these muffins."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1973)

"Sweetheart? Your coach is here to see you."

"Send him in," ordered Steve from the couch in front of the TV.

He was getting lots of visitors (grown-ups, at least, and there was a good reason his classmates were staying away). Mama checked on him all the time, and hadn't once told him it was straining her nerves. Papa had even come home early one night. Except for the itching, chicken pox was turning out pretty great.

Mr. L had even brought a present, which cheered Steve up until he got it open. His face fell. "Books are for pinheads."

"I see," said Mr. L apologetically. "That's fine. It's probably too advanced for you anyway."

Steve stared from under his quilt, aghast. "Are you calling me stupid?"

"Well, no, I wouldn't say that. Just that it's an awfully complicated book, and might be too confusing for someone your age."

"It will not," said Steve. The itching was getting worse; he squirmed in place to relieve it.

"You're sure?"

Steve flipped through the book real quick, just to make sure it didn't have pictures he would be missing, then thrust it at Mr. L. "Read it to me."

"What?"

"So you can see I understand. And you can ask questions, so I can prove it." It was a bold request, Steve knew. Even Papa didn't always read to him when he was sick, and certainly never anything longer than Green Eggs and Ham.

Mr. L, bless his heathen Northern ways, didn't tell him to suck it up and do his own work. "I'll read you the beginning, how about that? It's too long for one sitting."

He settled down on the end of the couch, tucking the blankets in around Steve to make room.

He didn't sound much like Papa (and certainly didn't hold a candle to Papa's distinctive smell of cigars and wood-smoke cologne), but his reading voice was clear and easy to listen to. "'I looked at my notes and I didn't like them. I'd spent three days at U.S. Robots and might as well have spent them at home with the Encyclopedia Tellurica.'"

Half an hour later he was deep into a story about a girl a little younger than Steve was, trying to find her lost robot in the glorious New York City of the far-off year 1998. And if Steve's skin was still itchy, he had completely forgotten to notice.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1975)

Little Stephen's last year of elementary school, which means his last year on the soccer team. They're staying at a motel for an away game, four boys to a room, when one of Stephen's roommates gets sick. Stephen knows he's allowed to ask Mr. L for help, so he does.

After doing some cleanup and getting the sick kid back to sleep, Mr. L finds Stephen out on the walkway, sitting with his legs through the railing and looking out across the horizon. He thinks Stephen is checking out the stars, but it turns out Stephen is more interested in one of the cool, expensive, height-of-1970s-style cars in the parking lot. So they bond over talking about cars instead.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1977)

Middle school. On the run from bullies, young Stephen ducks into the gym coach's office. It's now occupied by Mr. L, of course. With the danger passed, Stephen brags about the lead role he's gotten in the drama club, to warm approval.

Later, rehearsals are going well, but the tone of Stephen's boasting reveals that he's not being terribly kind to his fellow student actors. Mr. L reminds him that just because he's had some talent and some luck, that's no excuse to be a dick. "Don't tell anyone I put it that way, okay?" Scandalized but impressed, Stephen agrees.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1979)

Mr. L didn't ask too many questions, for which Steve was grateful at the time, and started kicking himself not long after hanging up. Two hours was a long drive, after all. Long enough for the man to change his mind if he decided Steve hadn't been convincing enough.

Faking a stomach bug allowed him to stay in his cabin while the other kids went on their hike. He killed time with one of the sci-fi paperbacks stashed in his duffel bag, keeping one eye always on the clock. Four chapters later, he re-packed it and snuck out.

The bag fit easily in the back of Mr. L's van, holding everything he had brought except the outfit that was a lost cause after he got thrown in the lake. They cruised down the freeway in the afternoon light.

"I'm going to pull off at the next exit for gas," said Mr. L, "and then we're going to find a pay phone and call your parents. Do you want to talk to them first, or should I?"

"You first," said Steve, staring at the white lines as they flashed by his window. Even at fourteen, he was still the baby as far as his family was concerned. Mr. L was a grown-up. They'd listen to him.

"Okay. I'm on it. Anything I need to know? You weren't real specific on the phone."

Once Steve started talking, the words poured out. There had been a string of pranks that had been all in good fun, he wasn't a wimp or anything, but when someone found out about his (perfectly healthy!) terror of bears and started working that in, it was just too much. The counselors hated him, he was sure of it, with their tyrannical insistence on making him learn the book names for flowers and trees, which weren't even in American. Mark Rhodes had promised not to tell anyone, and then—

"Hang on a second," said Mr. L, easing down the curve of an exit ramp. "What did he promise not to tell?"

"It doesn't matter!" cried Steve. They were pulling into a rest stop, not the gas station part, but the part with the cluster of fast-food places. "What happened to getting gas, huh?" They weren't going to make the call first, were they?

"I didn't have lunch, so I wanted to stop for something. No sense making delicate calls on an empty stomach. You hungry?"

Steve realized he was. On the other hand, he didn't have any cash. "No."

"All right. But I'm not leaving you in the car, so c'mon in."

He got two cheeseburgers in greasy paper bags, and a big stack of fries. It seemed like way more than he could eat alone, and sure enough he started slowing down toward the end of the first burger. Steve had to help him out by finishing it off.

The pay phone stood at the back of the building under a drippy-looking overhang, sheltered from most of the noise of the highway. Mr. L fed it way more dimes than necessary for a short call, and dialed a number before Steve could volunteer one. Impressive how he kept the soccer kids' numbers memorized, even though it had been a couple years since Steve had played.

"Mr. Col-bert? ...Ed, right. This is Mr. L, from down the road. Is one of your parents there?"

Steve surreptitiously crossed himself and prayed that they weren't.

"Mrs. Col-bert! No, everything's all right. I, ah, I have Stephen here with me. Just picked him up. ...Because he phoned me. A couple of hours ago. He's been having some problems with bullying, and...A rest stop, a couple of exits down I-77. He's right here."

He looked at Steve, a question. Steve swallowed his fear and held out his hand for the phone.

"Yes, I'll put him on. I'll go fill up the tank while you talk."

He squeezed Steve's shoulder and passed down the phone, then walked away without looking back. Steve twisted the cord around his fingers. "Mama?"

"Stephen Tyrone Col-bert, what were you thinking?"

It was a good thing Mr. L was gone, because the mix of chastisement and despair in his mother's voice was too much for his furious, determined mask. "I'm sorry, Mama," he gulped. "I didn't want to bother you."

With every breath his mother managed to be both relieved he was all right and ashamed he had bothered their neighbor, upset that he had just run away from the troublemakers at camp and baffled that her baby wasn't beloved by all of them anyway. He still wasn't sure whether he was getting sent back until she finally started winding down (mostly because she was running out of breath), and ordered him to offer Mr. L a coffee if it got late on the drive home. "We'll pay him back when you get here. Out of your allowance, of course."

"Yes, Mama."

"Same with any food you eat. Don't skip dinner, you hear? You're a growing boy."

"Right, Mama."

"And you'll have to find a way to thank him for his time. Ask if he needs his lawn mowed, or any work done around the house. He's getting on in years, you know, and with no wife or kids to tend to him...."

"I'll ask, Mama."

"That's my baby. I'll see you tonight."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

"There are cassettes in the glove compartment, if you want to put something on."

Steve put down the hastily-bought Coke he'd been using as an excuse not to talk and dug through Mr. L's stash. All four Springsteen albums, a bunch of classical music, some comedy by a man Stephen had been told he wasn't supposed to listen to. He wasn't sure why. With a track title like Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television, this guy sounded like a respectable crusader for politeness and decency.

He turned over the newest Springsteen tape in his hands, then said, without looking up, "Me and Mark Rhodes did...something."

The plastic dolphin hanging from the rearview mirror bounced in an unnecessarily accusatory manner.

"The kind of something that would get you in trouble?" asked Mr. L.

"Yeah."

"I see. Did it put anybody in danger?"

Not unless you counted burning in the fires of hell for all eternity as dangerous. But then, Mr. L was Jewish, so Steve was pretty sure it didn't count for him. "No."

"All right. Had to make sure."

"It was supposed to be secret," continued Steve. "But Mark ratted me out to Harry Sylvester, who's supposed to be his best friend, and then Harry decided he was going to get a bunch of the guys together and...."

He trailed off. Gently, Mr. L said, "And then you would have been in danger?"

"Maybe." Steve swallowed. "Unless I ratted out Mark and said it was all his fault. Then maybe they would've gone after him instead."

He could see the whole tableau in his mind. Himself pointing the finger, using all his natural authority and all his acting ability to sway the crowd. The other boys turning on their new target, who was, after all, a lot more willowy than Steve, and had worn a pink shirt that one time, which was practically a giveaway. His own voice blending with the others as it yelled the insults that scared him most, while someone held Mark against a tree and swung a fist....

"So you left before that happened," finished Mr. L. "It sounds like you did the right thing, Stephen."

"What, running away?"

"Removing yourself from the situation. Sometimes there are things you can't fix, where the safest response is to back off. There's no shame in that."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1980)

Finally, after all that, teenage Stephen gets his first real boyfriend.

They get together for study/makeout sessions. They go see The Empire Strikes Back together. They have cute shenanigans in drama club. Even with the need to sneak around and keep it totally secret, Stephen is having fun.

Then they break up, and a despondent Stephen has absolutely no one to talk to.

By this point he's been doing regular yard work for Mr. L for more than a year now: mowing the lawn, watering the flowers, very occasionally shoveling snow. While he's miserably raking leaves, Mr. L invites him in for hot apple cider and commiseration.

Eventually Stephen chokes out a haphazardly-edited version of the whole story. He's mad at the ex, but mostly mad at himself, for being "broken" and "weak" enough to get himself into this situation in the first place.

Mr. L tells him there's nothing broken or weak about who he's attracted to, and slips him a copy of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality to prove it.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1981)

Stephen's parents find the book.

Encouraged and emboldened, Stephen doesn't hide or back down. He says that yes, he's been reading things like this, and he believes they're right. That he is probably one of the gays himself, and there's nothing wrong with that. In the process, he lets slip where he got the book from.

His parents promptly assume that Mr. L has been "recruiting him into the gay lifestyle," and probably molesting him along the way. (The fact that Mrs. L is MIA suddenly becomes a lightning rod for suspicion.) Papa storms off to Mr. L's place, to demonstrate exactly what he thinks about strange loners putting pro-homosexuality thoughts in his impressionable son's head.

Stephen, meanwhile, is grounded for the rest of the year and forbidden from seeing Mr. L again.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Steve threaded his way through the row of boxes on Mr. L's porch, and jiggled open the rusty latch without knocking. The kitchen was full of half-open drawers, dishes strewn in piles across the counter. He found Mr. L in the bedroom, carefully wrapping a table lamp in a protective padding of old sweaters.

"You can't leave!" he shouted, too loud for the empty room.

"Gah!" The lamp tumbled from Mr. L's hands, fortunately to a soft landing on the bare mattress; he put his hand to his face as he turned, running his fingers through his hair, badly concealing the purpling around his eye. "Stephen! What are you doing here?"

"I came to see you," said Steve. "Duh. I'm grounded forever, but Mama's busy with the Ladies' Auxiliary potluck, they won't miss me for hours — you can't leave!"

With a sigh, Mr. L let his hand fall to his side. "I have to," he said, heavy and resigned. "I'm not welcome in this town anymore, Stephen."

"You've lived here for years!" protested Steve, stamping his foot. "And now you're just going to take off, all because Papa socked you once? Shake it off, Leibowitz! Just stay out of his way, and you'll be fine!"

Mr. L looked at him so sharply that Steve almost took a physical step backwards. Almost immediately, though, the tension drained away. He sat on the edge of the mattress, moved the lamp to a box, and patted the now-free space on the sheet beside him. "Come here, kid."

Steve joined him, hands clenched into knotty fists. A comforting arm settled around his shoulders.

"It's not just your dad," said Mr. L softly. "It's everyone. I went to the market yesterday and nobody even asked about the bruise, much less insisted on baking me cobbler until I felt better. People are whispering, not even bothering to do it behind my back. Parents drag their kids away when I walk by. If I stay, it'll only get worse."

"But if you go, it'll be like admitting you're guilty!" countered Steve. "And you're not. You never touched me!"

With a gentle snort Mr. L squeezed his shoulder. The irony wasn't lost on Steve, though they both knew what he had meant. "Stephen, remember when I told you that sometimes the safest thing to do in a situation is to back off?"

"Safest for you, maybe!" cried Steve. "What about me, huh? If you leave town, what am I supposed to do without you?"

Mr. L gazed at him for a minute with sad blue eyes, then pulled him into a full, real hug. Steve clung to him, maybe a little desperately, and cried a few manly tears onto his shoulder.

"Here's what you're going to do," said Mr. L, rubbing his back. "You keep your head down, study your ass off, and get a scholarship at a college with a good theater program. And then you get the hell out of here, understand? You move to New York or L.A. or Chicago, and you wait tables, you mop floors, you do whatever it takes to stay afloat until you make it. And you will make it, you hear me? You are one of the most talented, determined, ballsy people I've ever met. Eventually the world is gonna take notice."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(1982-1999)

For months afterward, Stephen thinks about Mr. L all the time.

When people at church gossip about how scandalized they were that they let their sons go to soccer practice with a man like that, Stephen doesn't force himself to agree. He doesn't fight with them, either, but that doesn't mean he's a coward or dishonorable. It just means he's keeping himself safe. Choosing his battles.

When finals season comes around, he keeps up his focus through marathon study sessions with the memory of Mr. L's hand clasping his shoulder...and Mr. L's scandalously blunt encouragement. It's the first time in his life that his father looks at his grades for the year and tells him they're something to be proud of.

He does just well enough to squeak into Dartmouth, and sends a postcard to Mr. L's old address, trusting the post office to forward it. A few weeks later he gets a postcard with no signature, just some words of congratulation and the Empire State Building on the front.

When he screws up in theater class and nearly destroys a half-finished set, he doesn't panic and deny everything. Instead he fesses up, apologizes, and asks what he can do to help repair it.

That's how he meets a dark-eyed theater tech named Max, and for a while he's too distracted to think about Mr. L at all.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

They trade postcards every so often. Once or twice a year. Stephen bounces all across the country, but makes sure Mr. L always has his latest address. Mr. L, meanwhile, settles in New York City and stays there.

Apparently he writes. Plus he's made some really good stock investments, ending up with more than enough to live on.

When Stephen moves to NYC, they go out to dinner. Mr. L looks so much older than he remembers: thin hair gone totally white, face soft and lined, walking with a cane and a bit of a stoop. But he still listens with warm attention as Stephen catches him up on the events of the past few years.

When Stephen gets hired at The Daily Show, Mr. L sends him — and the guy he just moved in with — a cake in celebration.

And when a certain Jon Stewart is tapped to take over the host's spot, and Stephen visits the rest home to complain, Mr. L tells him not to worry. His time will come. In the meantime, this new guy should do fine.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

(2000)

Stephen's apartment was already hopping with activity by the time Jon showed up to the "We Finally Chose A President, America Is Still Happening After All" party. The host greeted him at the door, practically bouncing with excitement, only to slow down when he realized who it was. "Oh. I thought you were the pizza guy."

"Just me, sorry," said Jon.

"Well, that's good too," said Stephen reassuringly. "Come in, come in! There's someone I want you to meet."

He hauled Jon inside, past the crowd and past the buffet, not even stopping long enough to let Jon grab a cannoli or something. By the time they got to a secluded corner he was all bouncy again, looking for all the world like a proud puppy delivering something smelly to the feet of its owner.

"I've told you about Mr. L," he told Jon as they approached. "Well, he's a big fan of yours! Always asking about the show. And now he can meet you in person!" He deposited Jon in front of a wizened old Jew in a straight-backed chair, holding a cane and looking at least ninety, but with startlingly familiar features under all the jowl. "Mr. L, this is Jon Stewart! But you knew that."

"Pleased to meet you," said Jon automatically, holding out a hand to shake. When the older man didn't move (if his grey-blue eyes hadn't been looking right at Jon, Jon would have wondered if he was asleep), he turned the gesture into a wave.

"I'm sure you'll have a lot to talk about," declared Stephen. "Well, must dash! I've got to go re-spike the punch."

He took off in the direction of the crowd, leaving Jon to sink into the next chair over. Mr. L broke the silence. "How have you been? Everything going well? Family all right?"

"Uh, fine, I guess," said Jon. It would be weird to get too personal with a fan, even one who also happened to be a friend of a friend. And even if he did look like he could be Jon's long-lost uncle. "So, you've known Stephen a long time, right? Since he was a kid, he said."

"What? Oh — yes. A long time."

"He speaks really highly of you, you know. When we did that big gay-rights piece where he came out on-air — we're still getting backlash for it, I'm amazed how he hasn't let it get him down — he said it was basically you that gave him the guts to do it."

"Ah, he gives me too much credit," said Mr. L. "He's always had guts. And I'm sure the support of his boss and co-workers didn't hurt."

Jon shrugged uncomfortably. "What was I gonna do, order him to stay in the closet just to make my life easier? He's a good guy, his ex is really sweet too, they deserve to be treated like human beings." He paused. "Um, sorry about this, but...what is your actual name? Stephen always just calls you Mr. L."

Now the wizened old features broke into a smile that was, dare Jon say it, downright smartass. "What, you're telling me you haven't guessed?"

"Should I have?"

"Maybe...no, you've read enough sci-fi by this decade to have the concept down. Here, I'll give you a hint: the reason I didn't shake hands with you is that I'm still not totally sure it won't rip a hole in the space-time continuum."

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

They talk. Jon isn't sure how much he believes. The Stephen he knows is such a marshmallow, it's hard to believe any version of him causing that level of catastrophe. On the other hand, he's a charismatic marshmallow, and if he were a lot more angry and paranoid, and maybe had some followers with guns....

Mr. L assures him that it's all retconned now. He doesn't remember all the technical details, but the short version is, the old timeline has been overwritten. Jon himself can keep living in the new one, family and all, as long as he wants.

They don't hang out together all night. For a while Jon heads off to mingle with people, while Mr. L takes some time to recover (even the most low-key party is a bit much for him to handle, at this age). When the guests start trickling out for the night, Stephen ducks in back to check on him.

He's asleep, and won't wake up.

Stephen throws out all the guests except Jon, who stays behind and holds him until the ambulance comes.