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Date with a Bridge

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DATE WITH A BRIDGE
by Karl5

It seemed nothing was going to go right for me that day. I had finally made the decision to end it all and jump off the Bourne Bridge. I was on my way there, only a couple of miles out of Provincetown, where Route 6 rises gradually from the sand dunes to the Truro Highlands, when my car engine sputtered and died. I coasted off the road and onto the shoulder, then tried several times to start up again. The battery was fine, but the engine simply wouldn't kick in.

Well, it figured, didn't it? Sometimes you just couldn't catch a break to save your life. I got out of the car and opened the hood.

I'm a man. I should therefore be able to fix cars, right? Wrong. Although I'm familiar with the principle behind internal combustion engines, the real thing is nothing to me but an incomprehensible tangle of grimy wires, greasy metal, and viciously whirling belts and blades. Nevertheless, I felt I had to at least make the effort, before I began hiking back along the highway to P'town.

I glanced up and over the top of my Ford Escort. I could still see the sand dunes in the distance, and behind them, the curve of the town along the shore of the bay. I'd spent so many years of my life in that eccentric little place out at the end of Cape Cod. Hard to believe I was actually leaving both the town and my life.

Although I wasn't really far from the outskirts of the town, I'm not that young anymore and it would be a long walk.

I sighed. That was the crux of the problem, wasn't it? If I were still young and handsome, I wouldn't be making this trip to begin with. Youth and good looks are at a premium in the gay world. Nobody wants an aging fairy. All during the busy summer tourist season, I hadn't been able to find a job, much less anything else.

The stalled car put a definite crimp in my plans. The Bourne Bridge was nearly an hour down the road, where the Cape connects with the mainland of Massachusetts. I had wanted to arrive just after dark, since I've always loved evenings and thought it would be a good time of day to die. Very dramatic to leap off the span of the bridge into the flaming colors of a late summer sunset, right?

Although I stood with one hand on the upraised hood and stared down at my recalcitrant engine, I really wasn't seeing the motor at all. Instead, I was stewing over the events that had led up to my final decision, piling bitterness on top of despair until my own thoughts threatened to topple over and suffocate me.

"Your car . . . will not start?"

Although there was no hint of threat in the quiet voice, I nearly jumped out of my shoes at the unexpected words coming from behind me.

"No shit, Sherlock." I replied, covering my startlement with sarcasm as I turned to face the stranger. Highways are dangerous these days; no telling what sort of weirdoes you might run into.

This particular weirdo didn't appear too intimidating. For one thing, he was at least as old as I am and quite likely a good number of years older. It's generally the young punks who think they're tough that you have to watch out for. I allowed myself to relax a little.

Overall impression of the stranger: he was a leftover love child from the 60's, even down to the sandals, worn clothes, and overlong hair. Just one more aging hippy. There were plenty of those in Provincetown. Along with its large gay population, the place seems to attract all sorts of misfits. At least his kind were harmless. Usually.

He glanced down at my car. "May I?" he asked.

I stepped out of the way and waved a hand at the engine. "Sure, buddy. Why not?"

Likely he knew no more about automobiles than I did. He obviously couldn't afford a car or he wouldn't be out here on foot, carrying what was probably everything he owned slung over his shoulders.

I looked back down the road, squinting against the glare of the lowering sun. Yeah, it would be a long walk back to town.

The stranger reached out and touched the end of a small rubber hose, then brought his fingers up to his nose, rubbing them together. "This is . . . gasoline. Should not this"... he pointed at the end of the hose ... "be attached to something?"

I shifted my head, trying to bring the right part of my bifocals to bear so I could focus. I hate the damn bifocals. Wearing glasses is bad enough, but bifocals? Please!

The engine was in shadows, so it took me a minute to figure out what was what, but, yes, that hose was obviously not connected to anything and fluid dripped out of it. Must be my fuel line. Now, why hadn't I noticed that?

So what does the hose connect to? The only thing in the vicinity that looked even remotely likely was a short metal pipe. I touched it gingerly with one finger. It was wet.

"Here?" I asked, looking sideways at the other man.

He shrugged one shoulder slightly inclining his head a fraction as he did so. Apparently, he knew little more about auto mechanics than I did. I jammed the hose over the pipe. Probably should have a clamp or something to hold it in place, but I could deal with that later. Or maybe not, as long as the car got me as far as the Bourne Bridge.

When I turned the key, the engine came to life. Damn, I'd actually repaired something myself!

Well, not quite by myself. My leftover hippy still stood by the front of the car. He closed the hood carefully, nodded his head to me, turned, and began walking down the road.

I leaned out the window. "Hey, pal! Where're you headed?"

He waved one hand vaguely at the highway. "That way."

"Nothing like having a definite destination in mind, is there?" I mumbled to myself. Oh well, being a drifter is no crime. Or maybe it is, when you consider how vagrants are treated these days.

What the hell, I figured I could be rid of him before I reached the bridge. Or, on second thought, this stranger would make a fine witness. He could tell everyone what happened. I was sure he wouldn't be able to stop me. When we reached the right place, I'd be out of the car and over the railing before he even knew what was happening.

"Want a ride?" I called out.

He actually took a moment to consider before replying, "Yes. Thank you."

As he got in, he put his things in the back seat. An Escort is a small car and he was quite a bit taller than I am. He had to take off his hat in order to fit under the roof. I made a mental note not to hit any of the numerous potholes on Route 6 too hard.

When he closed the door and the automatic shoulder harness slid into place, he looked rather surprised. Not usually a hitchhiker then, or he'd be more familiar with such things.

Putting the car in gear, I drove carefully up onto the pavement.

"My name's Jeremy Joseph Langsten," I offered.

"I am . . . Caine."

"Caine? First name, last name, what?"

"Kwai Chang Caine."

Kwai Chang? I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. Chinese? He sure didn't appear any more Asian than I do. Part Chinese, maybe, considering the name, but he really didn't look it. I had a Chinese lover once, so I ought to know. Of course, there was a time when parents were into giving their kids some pretty strange names, but that was in the 60's and he was much too old to be the hapless victim of inventive hippy parents.

"Where are you bound?" I asked.

"California."

I shook my head. "Well, you couldn't get much further away from California and still be in this country. You've got a long trip ahead of you."

"I . . . know."

That didn't tell me much. "So what's in California?"

"Something . . . which must be done."

Okay. But he sounded almost reluctant, as if there were ghosts out there that he was less than anxious to confront. Most people probably wouldn't have caught it, but I'm used to listening for undertones.

"I have been . . . searching," he went on softly, "for something I begin to think I . . . will not find."

"Yeah? Welcome to the club. I've been doing that for most of my life."

I hadn't intended the words to sound so bitter. They just came out that way. I saw his eyes flicker sideways as he studied me, even though I kept my gaze on the road. I'm used to watching people watch me. You get a lot of practice doing that in the bars.

I wondered what he saw. Could he tell I was gay? Most people seemed to be able to.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a swish or a flaming queen. I'm just one of those guys that can't quite pass for straight, even if I try. I don't know what it is, but people seem to know. Maybe I'm too neat or prissy or something. Yes, I do wear a small gold hoop in my left ear. But so many men wear earrings these days that it doesn't mean the same as it did years ago. The earring certainly isn't what tips people off.

As a child, I was the class bookworm and sissy boy, uninterested in sports and all those guy things. Your basic 98 pound weakling -- until the years accumulated and my pants started getting too tight around the waist. Oh, you still couldn't call me fat, nor even chubby. But the slender, willowy, pretty boy I once was is gone for good. The fact that it happens to all of us is no consolation, when you’re the one it's happening to.

And especially if you happen to be a gay man. You only think women have it tough in this regard. A mature woman is accorded some small measure of respect by our society. But an aging fairy? Forget it! I'm not saying this is right. I'm only saying it's reality. Of course, if you've got lots of money, you can buy respect, and what passes for love, same as you can in the straight world. But I had neither youth nor riches, and it was going to be all downhill from here on out.

That was a major part of the reason I had made a date with the bridge. I didn't want to wait until I was a pitiful old geezer out on the streets. Better to end it now, while I still had a few shreds of dignity left and my life savings, such as they were, in my wallet. (Didn't want them to pull me from the river and think I was a destitute bum, after all. Ten thousand dollars isn't much these days, but it looks pretty impressive in the form of five hundred dollar bills.)

Okay, so maybe getting old doesn't sound like a very good reason to off yourself. But, tell me, have you ever been there?

No job for almost a year, since the gallery where I had worked had been sold to new owners. Most of my friends dead, of AIDS or other less popularized tragedies. Do you know just how dark it gets, when nobody seems to want you for anything? Sooner or later, you don't even want yourself. Have you watched your money trickle away, with no prospects for getting more in the future? Have you felt the panic that eats your soul at the thought of being poor in this so called affluent society?

Perhaps you have, and you've been able to cling to hope and courage just the same. Well, I couldn't. As I already told you, I'm a sissy and a coward. When the darkness in my soul got just too dark, I chose what I thought would be the easy way out.

Look into your own soul on those awful nights when you lie awake and stare wide-eyed into a dreaded future, your heart pounding in panic and your thoughts unable to turn away from whatever constitutes your own particular nightmare; when the sun doesn't rise no matter how long you wait, and the world around you grows teeth and claws. Then tell me you don't know what I'm talking about.

Even as these thoughts ran through my mind, Caine sat silently watching me drive. "Something . . . is wrong?" he said at last.

Now how the devil did he know?

"I'm not sure you'd understand."

"If you . . . do not speak, . . . I will certainly not understand."

He was making me nervous. "I didn't ask for your understanding, did I?"

"No. You did not. Forgive me."

Polite bastard, wasn't he? I was rude, and he was apologizing. Now I really felt bad.

It got quiet then. We passed the exit to Truro, then Wellfleet. The silence didn't seem to bother Caine, but I couldn't stand it any longer.

"So how about you? What were you doing in P'town?" I asked. Easy way to make conversation: ask the other person about himself. "Can't recall seeing you around anywhere."

"I have been in . . . Provincetown . . . for little more than . . . a week. I came . . . on a sailboat."

"You own a boat?" My estimation of my passenger went up a couple of notches.

The idea seemed to amuse him, since he gave a short laugh. "No. I do not . . . own the boat. I was . . . helping those who do. They needed . . . crew . . . to bring the boat from Maine."

"You can sail?" That would still be more of an accomplishment than I would have given him credit for.

He shrugged. "It is not . . . difficult . . . to become one with the wind and the ocean."

I'd done a little sailing myself, but I'd never heard anyone describe it quite like that before. "Uh . . . yeah. I guess."

"We . . . stopped in Boston. While I was there . . . I heard some . . . news that made me decide to return to California."

That was the longest string of words I'd heard him put together since we'd met. But he'd said "return", hadn't he? I picked up on that.

"You're from California, then?"

"I have spent . . . much of my life there, yes."

Figures. Another place famous for kooks and weirdoes.

"Got family there?"

I'd have sworn he winced at that, but I didn't actually see him move.

"No," was all he said.

Although I kept on facing the road, my eyes went sideways, searching out his hands. He wore what looked to be a wedding band on the proper finger. That meant there was, or had been, a wife somewhere. Still, that "no" had sounded awfully final. I was treading on painful ground here, but I just couldn't seem to keep my big mouth shut. Perhaps I hurt so badly myself that I wanted to make sure other people hurt as well. You get that way sometimes, if you're down low enough. Besides, I was curious. One of my many faults.

"So where do you call home?" I probed.

That was apparently an easier question for him to answer. The gloom and doom had left his voice this time and he was smiling a little. "Nowhere . . . and everywhere."

Cute. But what it meant was that he was living my own worst nightmare: to be homeless. Guess that's a lot of people's worst nightmare, these days.

It occurred to me then that he might justifiably decide to play tit for tat and start asking me questions that I didn't want to answer, so I left it at that.

For another long while we drove in silence. If I had been alone, I'd probably have turned on the radio, just so I wouldn't have to listen to my own thoughts. But I figured that might annoy my passenger. He didn't look like the type who listened to rock music.

The exit for Eastham came and went, then we had passed Orleans also. Halfway there now. It wouldn't be much longer before we'd reach the end of the Cape. I was running out of miles, and out of time.

When I saw the sign for an upcoming rest area, I pulled over. Yeah, I still intended to keep that date with the bridge, but the closer we got, the more nervous I became. And when I get nervous, I have to visit the little boys' room.

It was one of those nice rest areas, with proper bathrooms, info kiosk, snack machines, the works. Once it had been a popular cruising area for gay guys, until the AIDS epidemic. I test negative for HIV, but that's sheer luck. By rights and all the statistics, I should have been dead a long time ago. The idea that I was living on borrowed time was kind of funny, considering I was now on my way to pay off what I'd borrowed.

Still, I couldn't help smiling at the memories I had of this place. That had been long ago, before the gay community learned that unprotected, promiscuous sex could equal death. Sometimes it seems that straight folks, particularly the young ones, haven't quite figured out that equation yet. Perhaps when they've buried enough of their friends, they'll get the picture.

The parking lot was virtually deserted, the only other vehicle there being an electric blue pickup truck endowed with several extra tons of chrome parked down at the far end. I pulled into a spot closer to the restrooms.

"You gotta go?" I asked Caine.

He shook his head, so I left him in the car and walked up the cement path and into the bathroom. It looked the same as I remembered it, but only ghosts hung around the urinals and stalls.

By the time I had finished and was walking out the door, my head was down, along with my thoughts.

"Hey, faggot! What's happening?"

That caught my attention. I glanced up and found myself confronted by three young guys standing in the shadows around the men's room door. The one who had spoken to me lounged against the wall, beer can in hand. I ignored them and tried to walk on past.

Needless to say, I didn't get too far before someone blocked my way. This one had a pretty face, but the muscles bulging under his faded t-shirt belied any sense of softness.

"Donnie asked you a question, pal," he said, sneering. "It ain't polite not to answer."

"I'm not a faggot," I lied cautiously. They probably wouldn't believe me, but it was worth a try.

Pretty Boy laughed and shoved me backwards. I stumbled into Donnie, who still leaned against the wall. He grabbed my arm, hard.

"Sure you are," Pretty Boy growled. "We've seen you going into the bars. You even made a pass at me once."

Had I? I couldn't remember the face, but it might have happened. I usually avoid straight men, but anything is possible, if you're drunk enough. And I've been drunk enough on occasion, since I lost my job.

"I think he needs a lesson in honesty," the third punk said, catching my other arm. He was younger than his friends, probably still in his teens and obviously trying to impress the older guys.

I didn't bother to protest. I knew what was coming. It had happened to me before. Begging wouldn't help and sweet reason wouldn't impress them. I was about to get my ass kicked big time. I thought of all the money in my wallet and just hoped it wouldn't occur to them to rob me also.

Of course, if I'd thought fast enough, I might have been able to get ahold of the cylinder of mace I carried on my keychain. But it was too late now. My keys were in my hip pocket and my hands were already out of action. I never do think of things like that until it's too late.

Pretty Boy took up a position in front of me. His left arm drew back, fist clenched at his side. As he stepped forward into the punch, I managed to jerk my body slightly to my left, turning as far as I could in order to give with the blow and keep him from connecting directly with my solar plexus. Having the wind knocked out of you is no fun; I'd prefer bruised ribs.

He didn't seem to notice that his blow hadn't quite connected, so I did my best imitation of being hit in the stomach, doubling over and gasping for breath. The gasp was real enough. Even off center, that had hurt.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his right fist coming at me. Pain exploded through the side of my face, but I went with it as well as I could, letting my head turn. I tasted blood, and deliberately allowed my mouth to go slack so the blood would run down my chin. That might fool them into thinking I was hurt worse than I was. If he didn't hit me in the face again, my glasses might not get broken.

If I'd had any guts, I'd've spit in his face, but that would only encourage them. I'd found that out a long time ago in grade school. Bullies don't change a lot when they grow up; they just become capable of inflicting more serious damage.

The others laughed and cheered Pretty Boy on. I ignored their taunts, watching covertly for the next blow so I could be ready. When it came, I wasn't prepared for what happened next. Not by a long shot.

Pretty Boy stumbled abruptly sideways and landed sprawled on the grass. I had been so focused on my attacker that I hadn't even seen Caine kick him, but my brain held an afterimage of my erstwhile passenger pulling his foot back in and planting himself in front of me.

"Let him go," Caine said softly to the two punks who still held my arms.

They looked at each other uncertainly and might have obeyed, if Pretty Boy hadn't been already back on his feet and charging at Caine from the side. I started to yell a warning, but I could have saved my breath. Caine simply stepped backward at the last minute, leaving Pretty Boy to careen past him and run full tilt into the wall of the building.

This was too much for Donnie. Releasing my arm, he stepped forward and took a swing at the older man, who brushed the fist aside as if he were shooing away a fly. When Donnie tried again, Caine grabbed his hand, twisting it in and around and bending the wrist into what must have been a painful angle, judging by the expression on Donnie's face.

"I do not wish to fight you. Let my friend go and we will leave."

"No way, mister," Donnie said through clenched teeth. He jerked his knee up, aiming for Caine's groin.

He had no more success with that maneuver than he'd had with anything else. With a quick twist and a sweep of one leg, Caine knocked the other man to the ground.

Then he looked at the youngest punk, who still held one of my arms. Raising one eyebrow questioningly, Caine held out his hands, palms up. He smiled.

The youngster shook his head and literally shoved me into the arms of my rescuer. Pretty Boy still sat against the wall. Blood ran from his nose, but he wiped it on his sleeve. He looked about ready to get up and give it another try.

Caine turned me around and started us down the path. "We must leave. Quickly."

I tried to say something clever, but that only made more blood ooze from my mouth. On television, you can knock someone around and they don't even get bruised, much less bleed. That's not how it works in real life.

Caine half carried and half dragged me toward the car.

I never saw the boy coming up behind us, but Caine must have. He kicked backwards without even looking around. I turned just in time to see the youngest of my attackers double over and collapse.

We reached the car without any more trouble. I pulled the keys from my pocket and held them out to Caine. The side of my face was swelling and I felt in no shape to get behind the wheel.

"I . . . do not drive."

"Great," I mumbled, as he helped me into the drivers' seat. He was around the car and in the other side before I even had time to turn the key. For an old dude, he could move awfully fast when he wanted to.

I took off out of that parking lot like a teenager in his first drag race. By the time we hit the highway, I was doing eighty, easy.

My side hurt bad, especially when I took a deep breath, and I knew my face looked ghastly. With the tip of my tongue, I could feel the gash inside my cheek, where the skin had been cut against my teeth. But none of that bothered me, not now. I had just seen my would-be attackers laid out like so many rag dolls. For the first time in my life, the bullies had gotten what they deserved. That thought itself was enough to keep me flying almost as fast as my car.

I wiped my bleeding mouth on my shirtsleeve and turned to Caine.

"That was terrific!" I enthused. "Where'd you learn to fight like that?"

He did that little shrug again. "It is . . . not important."

I swerved wildly around a car, coming entirely too close to its rear fender. The Escort fishtailed and I knew I was driving like a maniac. But I didn't care. All I wanted to do was talk about the miracle that had just happened to me.

My passenger obviously wasn't what he seemed. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out just what the hell he was.

"Not important?!" I almost shouted. "To get that good, you'd have to study for years. Maybe a lifetime. Sure wish I had your skill. I've always been something of a coward when it came to stuff like that."

"It does not take . . . courage. It takes training."

I shook my head. "I couldn't learn to do that. Not in a million years."

"In a million years, one may learn . . . many things."

I grinned inanely, despite the stab of pain in my cheek. "You know what I mean."

"Yes."

He had a strange way of saying that word. He seemed to draw it out, rather than clip it off, as most people do.

"You know, I studied karate when I was a kid. I was terrible at it." Funny, I hadn't thought about that for years, but the words popped out of my mouth.

"This is not . . . karate. It is kung fu."

This time I was the one who shrugged. That hurt too. "Same difference."

"No."

"Okay, whatever you say." Hey, I wasn't about to disagree with him, right?

"Why . . . did you want to learn . . . karate?"

"I didn't. My dad made me take lessons. Thought it would make a man out of me. I smiled and shook my head again. "It didn't."

My chest hurt and it was hard to get a decent breath, but that didn't matter. The hell with the pain. It was only my body that hurt. My mind was somewhere else.

I passed another car, too fast and too close.

"Jeremy, you are not driving . . . safely. Pull over"-- he pointed to a sign high above the road at an upcoming exit -- "at that restaurant."

"I'm okay."

"You are not . . . okay."

I would have argued, but I realized he was right. There was darkness around the edges of my vision and Caine's voice seemed to be echoing down a tunnel filled with cotton. I hit the brake and drove carefully off the exit ramp. The ringing in my ears meant I was going to faint, but I made it into a parking spot. Fumbling for the lever, I reclined my seat and laid back. That was an improvement right there. My breathing came a little easier and the encroaching darkness drew back a ways.

Then Caine's fingers touched my battered ribs and I almost screamed. Must be hurt worse than I had thought.

"Lie still," he said. "This will hurt."

It did. Don't ask me why I trusted him to do anything more than call 911 and get me an ambulance, but he seemed to know what he was doing. The stabbing pain eased off and I found I could get a decent lungful of air again. My chest still hurt, but not the same way it had before.

As I concentrated on the luxury of breathing again, Caine seemed to be trying to get at something in the pouch he carried slung over his shoulder. Not an easy task for a big man in a small car, hampered by a seat belt and shoulder harness.

He was facing away from me when he asked, "Why . . . did those men . . . attack you?"

Could he honestly not know? I decided to go ahead and bite the bullet. The worst he could do would be jump out of the car in disgust, right? "I'm gay."

"Yes." Matter of fact, as if it were no surprise. He was still searching through the contents of his bag.

There, you see? Like I said, people can tell. Or perhaps he had simply heard the names those punks had called me.

"They're gay-bashers," I went on, somewhat encouraged by his lack of reaction. "It happens a lot these days, although not so much here on the Cape as in the cities. It's becoming a national pastime."

"Why . . . do they hate you?"

"I don't know. Why don't you go back and ask them?" Then I realized he was perfectly serious. He really didn't understand. "Look, I'm sorry, Caine. I didn't mean to snap at you. There are lots of theories about homophobia. I honestly don't know which of them, if any, are true." He must have found what he was looking for, because he stopped digging around in that shoulder bag of his and turned to me.

"They fear you," he said.

I would have laughed, but I was afraid that would make my cracked ribs hurt again.

"Right," I replied skeptically. "They're so afraid of me that they beat the shit out of me."

He just nodded his head. He evidently meant it.

"What are they so afraid of, then?" I asked.

He did his half shrug again. He did that a lot.

"Perhaps . . . of seeing you . . . in themselves?"

"Well, that's one of the theories," I conceded.

"They attempt to destroy you . . . in order that they may destroy . . . that part of themselves that they fear may be . . . like you."

Definitely not the usual conclusion for a straight man to come to.

"You really think so?" I asked.

"Yes." He reached over and turned my head towards him so he could see my bruised left cheek. "Your mouth is . . . still bleeding?"

"A little, yeah." I guess I'd been swallowing the blood without thinking about it while we'd been talking.

He had a leaf of some sort in his hand, crushing it between his fingers. He held it out to me. "Put this against the cut. It will . . . stop the bleeding."

Well, why not? I stuffed the crumpled leaf into my mouth and against my cheek feeling rather like a chipmunk.

Cautiously, I pulled my seat back into an upright position. Yeah, that was okay. I could manage. The faintness was gone and the inside of my cheek now felt kind of numb.

"I think I can drive."

"Would you not like . . . to clean up first?"

I glanced down at the blood stains on the front of my shirt and shuddered to think what a mess my face must be. "Yeah. Good idea. But I really don't want to walk into a restaurant looking like this."

Caine nodded solemnly. "I . . . shall go in and get . . . some water."

He was gone before I could tell him that restaurants aren't too happy about folks who only want water. Oh well, let him deal with that. I had a problem of my own. He'd obviously expect me to change my shirt. Unless I wanted him to see the scars on my arms, I'd better tend to that before he came back.

My knees shook a bit as I got out of the car, but I made it to the trunk and pulled a fresh long-sleeved shirt from the small suitcase I had packed so carefully. These were the clothes I had picked out and brought with me specifically to be buried in, but there was no help for it now. Someone would just have to come up with a shirt for my corpse. I sincerely hoped they would have good taste.

By the time Caine got back, carrying two paper cups of water and a sheaf of paper towels, I was tucking my new shirt into my pants. He managed to get my face pretty well cleaned up. When I checked out the results in the rearview mirror, I almost looked human again.

"Let's get going," I said, feeling almost chipper.

Starting up the car again, I got us back on Route 6, no longer driving like a hyped-up maniac. My passenger sat silently watching the scenery go by.

"Caine," I said at last.

"Something is . . . troubling you?"

"Yeah. I enjoyed that," I confessed uneasily. "Oh, I don't mean I liked being beaten up. I mean I enjoyed seeing you wipe up the floor with those punks. I only wish it had been me who had done it."

He sighed and said softly, "There is no grace in victory. The one who glorifies it must revel in bloodshed."

That sounded too pat. And besides, he didn't hesitate between the words. "Where'd you get that?"

"It is from the Tao Te Ching."

"Oh. I think I read that a long time ago, when I was in college. Mostly, I guess I agree, at least in my head. I'm not a violent man." Now, there's an understatement! "But when you've seen the bad guys win way too often, the way I have --"

"I . . . understand."

"I doubt you do, if you can fight like that."

"Not all things . . . are solved . . . by physical combat. I have seen . . . evil . . . triumph over good . . . far too many times."

He stared straight out the front window, but I knew from his voice that he wasn't seeing the road. I got quiet then, leaving him to his thoughts.

Somewhere along the way, evening had arrived. The last of a bright sunset faded into shadows on the highway ahead. By the time we reached the bridge, it would be completely dark. That wasn't the way I'd had it planned. Well, there was nothing to be done now. Nighttime would be good too, with the lights of the bridge sparkling in the water below.

I glanced at the pine woods on either side of the road, the graceful branches spread with gossamer webs of shadows and dusk.

Damn! Seeing it all for the last time seemed to have turned me into a poet. The world had no right to be so beautiful. Not now, when all I wanted was to leave it behind.

It was only then that I noticed the headlights in my rearview mirror coming up behind us much too fast.

"We've got company," I told Caine as I recognized the chrome-encrusted truck I had last seen parked at the rest area.

The truck pulled up in the lane next to me. Donnie gave me a nasty grin and pointed to the side of the highway.

No way was I about to pull over. I hit the gas, but the truck easily kept up, edging closer and closer until I would have to pull over or be sideswiped. I slowed down, hoping they'd go past. I hadn't reckoned on their bringing in reinforcements. Another truck rode my tail, falling back only far enough to avoid hitting me as I slowed.

"What . . . are they trying to do?" Caine asked.

"Force us off the road," I replied grimly, hands clenched on the steering wheel. Pretty Boy's truck paced us again, edging closer.

"Let them."

"Are you crazy?!"

"No. You cannot continue like this. Pull over."

Much as I hated to admit it, he was right. My little car was no match for that souped-up truck. All it had to do was sideswipe me lightly and I'd lose control.

With no other choice, I continued to brake and drove over onto the shoulder. Both trucks followed us, one pulling up in front and the other behind as I slowed down.

The car had barely come to a stop when Caine opened the door and got out.

"Jeremy, . . . come out this side . . . quickly."

I levered myself painfully over the gearshift and stumbled to my feet next to him before anyone had gotten out of the trucks. Caine grabbed my arm and pulled me rapidly over to the sparse cover afforded by some low bushes not far from the roadway.

"Stay here," he said, as he turned back to the parked vehicles.

He meant to take them on by himself.

"Caine, no --"

I grabbed his arm, but he literally shrugged me off. Then the space beside me was empty.

Well, why shouldn't I stay put? I was no fighter. That had already been established. I squatted down in the shadows and looked over the top of the bush.

Pretty Boy, Donnie, and the youngster piled out of their truck. This time they carried baseball bats and pieces of pipe. Three more men got out of the other truck, carrying similar implements. This was getting beyond your ordinary gay-bashing. These folks were looking to do some serious harm.

Faced with the real thing, I more or less forgot I had been planning to be dead tonight anyway. Perhaps if I ducked way down behind this bush, they wouldn't notice me.

I didn't have to worry. Caine deliberately let them see him, stepping out from the cover of the low shrubs as he ran along the shoulder away from where I was hiding. They fell for it, following him up the road.

Jeremy, are you going to let him save your ass again? I asked myself in disgust.

Yes, I answered. He has the training to do it. I don't. He'll be fine.

This didn't satisfy the voice in my head. I don't care if he's Bruce Lee. One unarmed man doesn't take on a mob like that. Not and come out of it in one piece. Go help him.

Oh, shit! I replied as I conceded the point.

Right. I'm going to help him. How? My ribs already hurt just from the exertion of climbing out of the car, and I was no match for even one of our attackers. Big help I could be.

Then I remembered the little black cylinder on my keychain. I reached into my back pocket, praying I hadn't left the keys in the car in my haste. When my fingers closed on the warm leather case that covered my cylinder of mace, I smiled. Pulling it out, I twisted the top so it was unlocked. If nothing else, I should be able to even the odds a little with this.

I crept as silently as I could through the shadows in the direction Caine had taken. The last man from the second truck hadn't yet caught up with the action. He'd apparently gotten tangled in some brambles, judging by the way he was cursing and slashing with his knife at some vines clinging to his ankles.

Great. They had knives too. Well, I'd probably never get a better chance. Without even allowing myself time to reconsider, I stepped up next to him and sprayed him full in the face with my secret weapon. He dropped like a stone, the knife falling from his hand as he clutched at his burning face. I guess he was trying to scream, but it came out as more of a suffocated gurgle as the spray interfered with his breathing. If I hadn't known that mace isn't usually lethal, I'd have been afraid he was in real trouble. As it was, I grinned smugly as I left my very first victim writhing on the ground behind me.

There was clearly something going on further up the road, because I heard angry voices and people stomping around. Pretty Boy and company must have caught up to Caine. I could only hope he was having as much luck against them as he'd had last time. Maybe he wouldn't need any more help from me.

It must have been adrenaline kicking in, because I wasn't afraid as I snuck closer to the main melee. I also wasn't conscious of any pain, and I knew that couldn't be right. Time seemed to stretch out in the odd way it has of doing when you're in a dangerous situation and I saw everything with a terrible clarity.

Keeping to the shadows as much as I could, I arrived just in time to see Pretty Boy charge directly at Caine. Donnie was already out of action, sprawled on the ground off to one side. The youngster stood watching uncertainly, but he held a vicious-looking hunting knife. It reflected a sharp glint of brightness in the glare of the headlights of a passing car. I saw the remaining men from the second truck come up alongside him, one of them with a bat and the other brandishing a tire iron.

Caine went down under the weight of Pretty Boy's attack, but I'd seen him put one foot up into the younger man's belly as he rolled backwards, so it was with no very great surprise that I watched Pretty Boy fly head over heels -- or should I say heels over head? ... over Caine's body. He crashed to a landing almost on top of where I crouched behind a myrtle bush. I moved hastily aside, keeping one eye on Pretty Boy as I watched Caine.

He was on his feet again and ready as the youngster and the newcomers attacked, almost simultaneously. Caine simply stepped out of the boy's way, grabbing his hand and twisting the knife free as he charged past, now off balance and unable to stop himself from tripping over Caine's outstretched leg. Caine ended up in a half crouch just as one of the others rushed forward, his tire iron already aimed at the older man's head. Caine ducked in and under the blow, effortlessly levering his opponent over his back. The newcomer landed flat on his back on the ground, the air knocked out of him.

Damn, but Caine made it look so easy! It was almost as if he were dancing instead of fighting. I was totally caught up in watching him, but as he turned to confront his next opponent, I realized that Pretty Boy had regained his feet and was standing almost next to me. He held an automatic pistol pointed at my friend's back. Unless Pretty Boy was an exceptionally lousy shot or Kwai Chang Caine could dodge bullets, he wouldn't even see it coming, it was all over.

I took a deliberately noisy step out of the shadows and gave the young man the eye, asking in my most provocatively swishy tone, "Hey, Pretty Boy, wanna fuck?"

Fury contorted his face as he spun toward me. I prayed there was more mace left in my little cylinder as I raised my hand to aim it at his face. I was too slow. Pretty Boy caught my wrist in a grip I knew I couldn't break.

He grinned and squeezed my hand hard, knowing he had me. I did my best not to scream as pain lanced through my captured wrist, determined not to drop my mace.

"At least your friend over there can fight like a man, faggot. You're not even worth a bullet," he sneered. Flipping the pistol around so he held it by the barrel, he swung it up above his head.

As the gun slashed down towards my face, I raised my foot and kicked him as hard as I could in the knee. If I'd had time to think about it, I never would have done it. It was pure instinct.

No, not instinct: memory. I had practiced that particular move many times in my long-ago karate class, never actually believing I'd do it for real.

Much to my surprise, I watched Pretty Boy collapse to the ground, clutching at his knee. Kneeling down, I gave him a shot of mace right in the face for good measure, before I took the gun from his hand and tossed it into the bushes.

When I regained my feet, I found Caine standing almost on top of me, holding a tire iron in his hand. He looked from me to the man at his feet. Pretty Boy was simultaneously struggling to breathe and scrubbing at his stinging face with his hands, as he thrashed around.

Frowning in puzzlement, Caine asked, "How . . . did you do that?"

I held up my little black cylinder. "Ever hear of mace?"

"Ah!" he said. For a moment, I almost thought he was going to kneel down and try to help our erstwhile attacker.

"Don't bother," I said. "The stuff does no permanent damage. He'll be fine -- after a while. Let's get gone before we have to fight them off all over again."

He wasn't ready to leave it at that. Squatting down, he quickly checked out my gasping victim, then rose to his feet.

"I believe he . . . will be all right, but his knee . . . may be dislocated."

I shrugged. "Then let his friends take him to the hospital. It isn't far from here. He was going to shoot you in the back, in case you hadn't noticed."

"I . . . noticed," Caine said softly.

"Then I rest my case." I turned away, ready to head for my car.

Caine stopped me by putting a hand on my arm. He nudged Pretty Boy gently with his foot. "Now . . . is your chance . . . to see what true victory is like, Jeremy."

"What do you mean?"

"He is . . . helpless. You could . . . kick him again. Or hit him . . . with something." He offered me the tire iron he still held in one hand.

This was a new thought to me, but not an entirely unpleasant one. "Yeah. I could do that, couldn't I?"

"Yes."

I took the tire iron, because that seemed to be what he expected me to do. I couldn't read the expression on his face. For all I knew, he'd bash Pretty Boy himself if I didn't.

I looked down at my prospective victim. The man had recovered his senses enough to notice me standing over him, but his eyes were streaming tears and he was still fighting for breath, not to mention suffering from the damage I had done to his knee. I smiled, letting him know the tables had been turned.

For as long as I could remember, Pretty Boy and all the others like him had made my life miserable. Now I had a chance to get a little of that back. All the years and all the bullies. Boys older and bigger than me, men stronger than me. All the gays beaten, and even sometimes killed, because straight men like Pretty Boy just couldn't handle the fact that we existed.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I could stop him from ever hurting one of us again. Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I could bash some understanding and tolerance into that thick head.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I would succeed in getting rid of all the fear and hatred I had learned to keep locked inside my heart for all these years.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I could fracture his skull and cause sufficient brain damage to turn him into a vegetable. Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I could kill him.

Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I would succeed in turning myself into the same kind of dishonorable and vicious coward that he was. Maybe if I hit him hard enough, I could turn myself into something no better than my enemy.

I tossed the tire iron aside.

"I think I'll pass on this one," I said, not sure what response to expect from Caine. Had I just proved to him what a wimp I was?

Apparently not, since he smiled and put his arm around my shoulder as we walked over to my car.

When we were once more back on the road, Caine asked me in that quiet way he had, "Is victory still . . . so sweet to you, Jeremy?"

"No," I said slowly. "No, it's not. Yeah, they deserved what they got. But. . . ."

"Ah! There is always . . . a 'but', . . . is there not?"

I nodded. Doing my best to imitate his manner of speaking, I said softly, " 'There is no grace in victory. The one who glorifies it must revel in bloodshed.' " Grinning, I added, "Did I get that right?" I could hear the amusement in his voice when he replied, "Yes." Then he turned serious. "Why . . . did you not . . . remain hidden in the bushes?"

"Because, damn it, you got me out of trouble once already. And I didn't want you to get hurt."

He smiled slightly. "I would not . . . have been hurt."

Well, maybe not. But then again, Pretty Boy had been behind him with the gun, and Caine hadn't seemed as if he'd noticed, despite what he had said. But maybe he would have gotten Pretty Boy anyway. Maybe he was that good.

"It's not only that," I went on, not sure if I could put the rest of it into words. "If you save my ass -- and don't get me wrong, I really appreciate it -- I am not really saved at all." The way I was groping for words, it was starting to sound like the way he talked. "I mean, unless I can do it for myself, even if I got the shit knocked out of me in the process, it really isn't any good. I've got to stand up for myself, not hide behind someone else, if I'm going to respect myself."

He looked at me strangely but said nothing, so I blundered on, still searching for the right way to put it. "I'm not saying you shouldn't defend other people, if you can. But sooner or later, they have to defend themselves don't they?"

He thought about that for a while. "What you say . . . is correct. But . . . to stand up for yourself . . . is not always . . . easy. You can . . . be hurt."

"Well, even so, at least you haven't just given up and quit."

My voice trailed off as I realized what I had just said. The approach ramp to the Bourne Bridge loomed ahead in the glare of my headlights.

"We are not just . . . talking about . . . a street fight anymore, . . . are we, Jeremy?" he asked softly.

No, we weren't. I stared at the crescent arch of the bridge ahead and barely managed to choke out, "I'm a coward, a sissy."

"You could have . . . remained hidden, and yet . . . you did not," he replied.

I couldn't answer him. I was too busy driving up onto the bridge.

Quit -- or stand up and fight back? Which shall it be, Jeremy, old boy? I asked myself.

Life had suddenly turned just too interesting to give up. I had actually done something that took courage. If I could face that fear, why not the other fears? I knew this good feeling might not last, but for now, the darkness seemed to have lifted slightly.

Before I knew it, I was coming up on the spot where I had intended to pull over and jump. Caine had gone very quiet. Although he wasn't looking at me, I got this strange feeling of totally focused attention.

And then I was past my chosen place and still driving.

Well, if I wasn't going to die just now, what was I going to do? Turn around and head back to P'town? Why? There was nothing left for me there. I had everything I owned in the car and all my meager wealth in my hip pocket.

Caine faced sideways looking at me directly now. He put into words the question I was still asking myself. "Jeremy . . . where will you go . . . from here?"

Exit signs appeared as the bridge sloped down to the mainland. I pulled up my mental road map, considering possibilities. Route 3 north to the Mass Pike, then across New York state.

Yeah, that would work. There was a southern route also, but who wants to go south in the summertime? I've been there already, and besides, my car's air conditioner was unreliable at best.

I swung the Escort onto the exit ramp, clutching the wheel far more tightly than was necessary. Not daring to look straight at the man beside me, I said nonchalantly, "West. You still with me?"

It seemed to take an eternity for him to answer, although it was probably just a few seconds.

"Yes. . . ." The pause was longer than usual this time. I knew he had more to say, so I just waited. "I . . . have no money."

Was that all? The breath I had been holding escaped in a quiet sigh. "Don't worry about that. The hospital bill I would have paid for that beating I didn't get back at the rest area will more than cover expenses. I owe you that, at least."

And perhaps a lot more than that, I thought. The superstructure of the bridge was still visible behind us.

I stepped on the accelerator. The darkness had begun to lift from my soul, for some reason that I still did not fully understand. If it resumed, there were plenty of other bridges ahead, even if -- I glanced sideways at Caine's profile, lit up eerily in the flicker of the passing lights -- I ended up driving as far as the Golden Gate to find one.