Castle Roland

Chapter 37

Published: 19 Sep 16

Tales from Bentonville

By David Lee
Copyright © 2005, 2016

April turned out to be a month of unpredictable weather. It ran the gamut from chilly to hot to mild to severe. Temperatures were steadily on the rise, but could make sudden drops seemingly without warning. Seasoned gardeners knew enough not to put out the most tender plants until the middle of May at least.

In the early part of the month, Miss Charlotte called Darrin to let him know that her daughter was doing much better and was well enough to be on her own. Charlotte was heading back in a few days. She made it clear that she wanted the boys to continue living there unless they were uncomfortable with her being under the same roof with them. She urged Darrin to give up his apartment when the lease came up.

Darrin wasn't sure how he felt about having the older lady living with them. She would certainly figure out the relationship he had with John. No one could put anything over on the lady. She might be old, but she was nobody's fool.

Over dinner, the three guys discussed it. John felt they would have to tell Lottie the truth and let the chips fall where they might. Darrin was proud of his younger lover for being so forthright.

When John picked Lottie up from the airport a couple of days later, she remarked about how good he looked.

"You've turned into a handsome young man! I'm proud to know you. I'm guessing your love-life has improved since you changed your style and your attitude."

John blushed because he felt like Lottie could see into his mind and soul.

"Yeah, it has," he admitted. "Do you have any idea who my soul-mate is?"

"Yes, I think I do. May I assume that it is someone who took a special interest in you and who cares for you as much as you do for him?"

John was taken aback by how up-front she had been in her use of the gender of his lover. He blushed some more and swallowed. He simply nodded because he wasn't sure what to say or how to say it.

"Darrin is a very nice young man and so are you. I hope everything works out for the two of you."

After that had been said, Charlotte asked about various people in Bentonville to get caught up on local happenings as they drove toward town. She enjoyed the updates about the Johnson twins and was eager to see Greta's new grandchildren. She even took delight in hearing details about Dan's compassion for Cory in acting as his nurse.

John was struck by how normal the conversation was and how she'd made no further reference to his and Darrin's sexuality or relationship. Before they got to the house he had to explore more about how she felt.

"Um, are you really okay with Darrin and me, or would you be more comfortable if we moved out now that you know?"

"Why would I want you to do that? I've suspected for some time. Darrin always speaks about you with a kind of pride in his voice that comes from caring a great deal for someone. It reminds me of how my late husband used to brag about me to his mother. She wasn't thrilled about having her son give his affection to another woman! I'm not saying what she felt toward her son was anything, but she certainly did dote on him."

John had to laugh at Lottie's assessment of her departed mother-in-law. He was certain that the lady hadn't stood a chance against Miss Charlotte. Who would?

The moment Charlotte entered her old house, she could feel the change in its aura. The atmosphere was as light and happy as it had been before her brother, Robbie, had died. She suspected it was because of the love which was shared here now, that and the fact that three young men brought a new energy to the place. It was great to be back.

Darrin made a special meal for Charlotte's homecoming. It was served to style in the dining room with china, silver, and a good wine to complement it. The boys were all at home to eat with her and were dressed in slacks and sweaters in keeping with the occasion. She was very pleased.

"This is a real family!" she exclaimed. "I'm so happy you've allowed me to be a part of it. You've done wonders with the house!"

"We really haven't done anything except dust and vacuum," Darrin said.

"Oh yes you have! You've brought life and sunshine to it by your presence. It is the happiest I have known it to be in years."

Later that night, Darrin and John made gentle, passionate love in their room. Though the walls were quite solid, they were especially quiet lest their fervent moans offend their elderly friend. But they felt even closer by virtue of the fact she knew about them and accepted them. Her love seemed to feed their own.

Work on the musical, "Annie," progressed at an amazing pace. When Dane and Colt got involved in helping to build the set, they enlisted DJ to join them when he could. Adding that in his schedule, as well as not neglecting his wife and new babies, resulted in getting less sleep, but he managed.

Gary Fagan came one Saturday with Dave and Dustin to lend a hand. He figured that if the boys were going to be in Bentonville for high school in the fall, they might as well begin to make more friends there. He might as well get used to the idea of volunteering at the school which was once his archrival. It felt good to work with his hands and to work beside DJ. Building things for the pleasure of others was good therapy for both veterans.

The news Gary shared with DJ was not all good. It seemed his wife was having a difficult time accepting that Dustin was gay. Even after Gary had made a complete turnaround in his thinking, she was not able to. It was problematic for Dustin, but not overwhelming since he now had his father's acceptance.

Dustin had already shared the story with Dane and Colt via email, so they weren't surprised. They did give him their verbal support when no one else was within earshot to overhear them.

"It's really great that Dad understands," Dustin said. "I don't know what I would do if he hadn't come around. But, either way, I still have the guy I love, and his parents are both behind us a hundred percent. I spend as much time at Dave's house as possible and the rest with my Dad. Mom kind of goes off to the bedroom or out in the yard when I'm around. She doesn't say anything bad to me. Mostly, she doesn't acknowledge I exist."

Besides academics, the musical, and spring sports; there were other activities. The student council was casting about for ideas for a community-service project. The response to the fund-raiser in the fall for Jerry's new moped had been so great that the student leaders thought that they could keep the ball rolling. Since Joel and Alex had been instrumental in that idea, the other kids turned to them for thoughts about a new direction. Danica Parr, the president of student council, asked them for input at the next meeting.

"At my old school, we had a 'Clean out Your Drawers' drive in the spring," Joel volunteered with a grin. "It was a way of giving good used clothing to deserving people. There was a local mission that gave the things free to people who were down on their luck and it gave us room for the new clothes we needed to replace the outgrown ones."

"I think the title is a little suggestive for Bentonville to accept," said Mrs. Brinks, the advisor with a smirk of her own.

"How about calling it 'Out of your Closet,' instead?” Jerry suggested.

Quick eye contact was made between Alex and Joel, Dane and Colton, and a few others, but Mrs. Brinks somehow missed the symbolism of "closet" because of her naiveté.

"Yes," she said. "I think that would be fine."

Joel suggested a silent auction for more valuable items, to raise cash for the local food bank at the same time.

"I have a great leather jacket I've outgrown. It would fit a guy the size of Jerry just fine. I'd be glad to donate it. I am certainly not passing it down to my brother."

Other kids began to think about things they might donate for the auction as well. By the end of the period, everyone was excited about the project. They all knew that their mothers would be pushing them to do spring cleaning anyway. Why not combine it with a fund-raiser?

In the end, they decided to accept some house-wares as well as clothing. There was a mission in Cosgrove much like the one Joel had mentioned in Florida. And, if that place didn't need the items, certainly the Goodwill store would take them.

Mrs. Brinks said she was sure there would be funds available to help sponsor a dance on the night of the silent auction. An activity of that sort would ensure a lot of participation. The admission charge could be kept at a minimum so all kids could afford to come. She was as happy about the prospect as the kids were. It would help build community on many levels.

Dustin had his problems with his mother, but they didn't hold a candle to what Joel's parents were planning. They were really pissed over the email Joel had sent them when they confiscated his Corvette.

Shortly after spring break, Joel's grandfather, Rhys, got a notice from the lawyer who was employed by Ward Teague. In it, he was informed that an official hearing would be held in an attempt to overturn the guardianship rights that allowed Rhys to keep Joel.

Joel was devastated by the contents of the letter. In short, the lawyer insisted on having the hearing open to the public. In it, he planned to show that Joel's grandparents had allowed, and promoted, a life-style which was immoral and degrading by encouraging him to use alcohol, and to have a sexual relationship with another boy. Of course, if Joel voluntarily came back to Florida to live with them, the whole thing would be dropped.

Joel went to see Alex immediately.

"I'm going to have to go back to live with my parents. I'm sorry! I love you very much, but they've played a trump card that can't be ignored. I can't risk outing you as well."

"Shit!" Alex exclaimed when he read the letter. "I didn't think anyone could be that manipulative. I love you and I need you. You don't have to leave; we still hold the ace of spades."

"What do you mean?"

"We'll beat them to the punch and not tell them. Let's have a coming out party! I know it has a different meaning for society debutants, but we can put our own spin on it." Alex exclaimed.

"But, you'll have to give up football and watch your back all of the time. It's not worth it for you. I'd better go quietly and hope we can get together again after I turn 18."

"Joel, do you think my life would be worth living without you now that I've found you and shared your love? I think I can still play football, but if I can't, so be it. I can face the loss of about anything but you. We're bound to come out before school's over anyway. I only worry about you being here alone after I graduate. Maybe I'll flunk government class so I won't graduate next year."

Joel sat on Alex's bed with tears in his eyes. He had never known another guy who cared for him like this. Even his best friend back in Florida wouldn't have thought of putting his reputation in jeopardy for Joel.

"Hey, Baby, it's going to be okay," Alex whispered as he held Joel close.

Just then, Allen entered the room he shared with his twin and asked what the problem was. The other two explained the situation and their tentative solution. He suggested they talk to their mom before they did anything drastic.

"If you do decide to come out, you can count on me. I'm sure there are others who'll hang with you, too. I'm guessing Dane and Colt will be there for you. I'm pretty sure that most everyone you eat lunch with will remain your friends."

After talking to Lori Albers, the boys made up their minds that they would indeed come out publicly. The only way to fight this fire was with fire. They simply had to decide when to do it.

"Let's come out it at the dance," Joel suggested. "A whole bunch of people will be there and we can tie it in with the theme of clearing out the closet."

Alex grinned at Joel's play on words. They had both been thinking that if you truly cleaned out your closet, you might have to come out of it at the same time. They informed Allen of their decision. He assured them again that he would be in their corner regardless of how and when they made the move.

In the next few days, clothing began to accumulate at Bentonville high. The principal allowed the kids to use the conference room adjoining his office as a place to store the items. The kids involved in student council began to fold the clothing and put it in boxes according to size, type, and gender. Some of the nicer things were placed separately to be auctioned off. There were a few household items such as pots and pans, decorative pictures, vases, etc. which could be sold too. That is, assuming any student might actually want them.

On Wednesday night, despite the prediction of nasty weather, lots of the kids were participating in youth activities at First Lutheran. The area churches had combined groups to make them large enough to be viable. It also promoted understanding between Catholics and Protestants of several types. (Naturally, the more fundamentalist churches didn't participate! To do so would certainly be against God's will!)

Since the kids were already in the basement of the church, they didn't have to go far to be in a safe place when the tornado-warning siren went off. Pastor Swenson herded them into the part that was under a solid, reinforced concrete ceiling. Even if the church got blown away, this area would likely stand firm.

For the kids, it was a big adventure until the storm began and it sounded like the Last Judgment. Despite being in a secure place, they could hear the torrent of rain accompanied by the thud of hailstones and the howl of the wind. All at once, the fury ceased. It was almost too quiet for a couple of minutes. Then came a sound that rivaled a freight train. The sanctuary above them seemed to shudder. The electricity went off leaving them in the dark. It took pastor Swenson a few minutes to find a few large candles and matches to give them some illumination. Most kids probably prayed more ardently in that short time-span than they had in all of their young lives up to then.

After what seemed like an eternity, the awesome sound went away. But, the pouring rain continued.

It was about 45 minutes later when the all-clear signal was given and the kids emerged from their underground haven to have a look outside. What greeted them would be imprinted on their minds for the rest of their lives.

Many old trees were down. Some cars were turned over. The steeple of First Lutheran Church was nowhere to be seen.

Several power lines were down causing sparks as they shorted out on the wet street. Pastor Swenson cautioned all of them to stay inside to be safe. They were frightened enough to obey without question. Most were just thankful to be alive and unharmed. But, of course, they were all worried about their families.

Some got through to relatives by cell phone. Dane and Colt contacted Greta who told them that the whole family was at DJ's and there was little damage to property other than some tree limbs down.

Joel was relieved to find out his grandparents were safe. Alex was frantic when he couldn't raise anyone on his phone. Finally, it rang. He was so worried he nearly dropped it as he fumbled to answer. It was his mother with good news about their condition.

Dan and Cory settled down once they knew their families were okay. It seemed that Lottie had ridden out the storm in her "widow's watch" room on the second floor of her house. Darrin and John had eventually left her there and gone to the basement at her insistence.

Pastor Swenson had told the kids to inform their parents about the downed utilities in the area and to say that he planned to keep them all at the church overnight. He also managed to get through to the sheriff's office to let him know that the kids were all safe. He went to the parsonage next door and returned with his wife and young children who were all carrying blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags. They had grabbed everything that was available in order to make it more livable for the teens.

Mrs. Swenson went back to the house and returned with extra milk (there was some in the church refrigerator), sugar, and cocoa. She heated up a huge batch of hot chocolate on the gas range and thawed out some frozen cookies in the oven.

The pastor retrieved more candles from the sanctuary to light up the basement recreation room. The couple turned the nightmare of the storm into an impromptu sleepover party. The kids all appreciated it.

The teenagers listened carefully to a battery-powered radio for the latest report on damage. They were pleased to hear the reporter tell everyone that the youths at First Lutheran were all safe and accounted for. They knew their families would be relieved, especially the ones who couldn't be reached by phone.

As the evening grew late, kids huddled together on the carpeted concrete floor sharing what blankets and pillows were available. No one did anything that wasn't proper in public, but some were cuddled together for warmth. It was like a massive, coed pajama party.

In the early light of dawn, Dane was awakened by the sound of utility trucks. Electrical workers were restoring the lines as quickly as they could. Power had been cut for safety. It would be okay to go home soon.

Dane was painfully aware of his morning erection. It felt strangled in the confines of his jeans. He adjusted himself as well as he could before getting up, lighting a candle, and stumbling to the men's room. He was just zipping up when Colton appeared in the room for the same reason.

In the flickering light, they washed up at the sinks and finger-combed their hair so they would face the world. Joel and Alex came in before they had finished. They made some comment about its not being as much fun as the cottage where they could go naked. All four decided their morning breath precluded any serious kissing even if there hadn't been the possibility of being discovered by their peers.

The four teens went out on the front steps to watch the utility workers and to survey what they could see of the damage from that viewpoint. Soon, they were joined by several other kids. As they were pondering the mess, Greta drove up. She asked them to help her bring in a couple of boxes.

Greta had borrowed a large box of Bisquick and a box of Krusteaz pancake mix from Ellen to add to her own supplies. They had scrounged as many eggs as they could and dug cans of frozen juice concentrate from Greta's freezer. Mrs. Swenson went to the parsonage to bring additional eggs. With her help, and that of the four boys, Greta began whipping up breakfast for the group. Including pastor Swenson and his family, there were nearly 40 hungry mouths to feed. The smells coming from the kitchen caused even the most reluctant sleepy-head to rouse.

Some of the teens pitched in to set out plates and glasses. Breakfast would be served cafeteria style and everyone would clean up after themselves. If the power got restored in time, they could use the dishwasher.

Before the food was served, the minister offered a short prayer of thanks for their safety and for the food. Given what the kids had been through, saying grace meant a great deal more than usual.

When the lights came on in the middle of breakfast, all of the kids broke into applause. Civilization had been restored!

The reporter on the Cosgrove TV station announced that most area schools were closed because of the storm damage. Bentonville was one of the first to come up because the list was read alphabetically. A cheer went up from the kids in the room.

Older kids, who had driven to the church, went out to check their vehicles and prepare to go home. Alex, Allen, Joel, and Alicia had all ridden in the car that the Albers' twins shared. It was fortunate Joel hadn't driven his new vehicle because a tree had totaled the Albers' older sedan. Far from being upset, the twins were happy. They were pretty sure their parents could be talked into replacing it with a better set of wheels or maybe two cars. It was worth a try at least.

Greta gave Allen the keys to her Camry to drive his siblings and Joel home. She said she would give him a ride home when he returned with it. He thanked her profusely for trusting him with her nice vehicle.

Some parents showed up soon to pick up their kids. They took along other kids who lived near them. Just as Greta was finishing up, Allen came in with her keys. His mother, Lori, had followed him over to take him home. She made sure to express her thanks to pastor Swenson, and to Greta for their kindness to the kids.

School may have been called off, but it didn't mean no one had anything else to do but play games. Most kids were out helping to clean up after the storm. Dane and Colton picked up many branches in Greta's and DJ's yards. DJ got out the electric chainsaw to cut up the larger pieces for firewood. There was no sense wasting.

By noon, both properties were back pretty close to normal. So, after lunch, the boys went to Colt's aunt's house to see if she needed help. She had managed to do a lot by herself, but with the help of her nephew and his cousin, the rest was done in no time. She offered to pay them for their work, but they wouldn't accept anything more than a snack and hugs.

After that, Colt and Dane moved on to help others in the neighborhood. When they got to Colton's old place, they couldn't believe their eyes. The house was crushed under the huge old oak Colt used to climb. He was sad to see his favorite tree gone, but not the house. The tree had been his childhood friend, but the house held few pleasant memories. He wondered about the fate of the Tracewell's, its current owners.

Colton's old place wasn't the only one to suffer major damage. Several houses in town were uninhabitable. Families were standing around in shock wondering where they would be sleeping that night. The answer was not long in coming. Lottie Webber was on the scene inviting people to her home.

"I have four unoccupied bedrooms in my house. We can put up cots in the old ballroom on third floor. No one will be without shelter if I can help it!"

Darrin offered his unoccupied apartment to a young couple who had two little children. They had tears in their eyes as they accepted the keys from him.

Other people opened their homes and hearts to their neighbors after seeing Miss Charlotte's example. No one would need to be housed in the high school gym, though it had been made available.

Joel called Mrs. Brinks to see about opening up the school to distribute some of the clothing and other things they'd collected. She, in turn, called Mr. Haggerty, and soon it was arranged. Word spread across town by phone and also by TV. A reporter covering the damage for the Cosgrove station heard about it and included it in her story. ABC picked it up as a human interest story for their national broadcast. They praised the kids in the small Iowa community for their efforts in helping their neighbors cope with the disaster. Joel, Alex, and Mrs. Brinks all watched themselves being interviewed on the evening news. It was pretty exciting.

The best part was that the gently used clothing got put to use right away. Some high school and middle school kids, who had lost nearly everything, were delighted to have something to wear. Mr. Haggerty took a van-load them to Wal-Mart and gave them $20 each to buy underwear, since that was an item very few high school kids felt comfortable in donating. He was pretty sure the silent auction would cover his expenditure. If not, he would simply consider it a donation.

Some adults took advantage of things that fit them, and also accepted household items which would help them survive. It seemed as if the "out of your closet" project had happened at just the right time.

Miss Charlotte was certain her arrival back at Bentonville at this particular time wasn't merely coincidental.

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