It's been six weeks since Todd and I first started our letters to Mr. Keating. I'd mailed them out at the beginning of March, when I was in town on a pass. We had hoped to get a reply sooner than this, but Chris got the flu and didn't come to see Knox last weekend. But she told him when he called her that letters had arrived for all three of us, and said she'd bring them when she and Knox met in town this weekend.
Todd can't come to town, of course, but I bicycle in with Knox, Pitts, and Meeks. The latter two are meeting Amy and Tina at the soda shoppe again, while Knox is meeting Chris at the diner. I go with Knox to the diner and we sit at the counter and order coffees while we wait for Chris to arrive with the letters. He surprises me a bit by initiating a conversation. While he's been much more civil to me over the last six weeks, he hasn't really spoken to me much outside of asking questions about our chemistry homework. But today, “Todd's right,” he says rather abruptly. “You have changed for the better. What's going to happen over the summer?”
I shake my head a bit, puzzled by the question. “Thanks. But what do you mean, what's going to happen? Are you asking about my plans, or asking if I'm going to forget how to be nice over the summer?”
He grins a bit at that. “You'd better not forget how to be nice. I was wondering if you two were going to manage to get together at all over the summer.”
“I don't know,” I reply. “Although I guess we should try to figure something out soon. There's only two months left until the end of the term. He hasn't talked much about what his family will be doing. Mine is going to spend July on Martha's Vineyard like usual, though. My father is always saying I should spend more time with friends, that studying is all well and good but having connections also helps. So I bet he'd let me have Todd out for a week or two, assuming his family will let him come. What about you, what are your summer plans?”
Knox smiles. “Well, my family and the Daltons will be going to Fire Island for the summer, as usual, so I'll have the summer to catch up with Nuwanda. And if things go the way I hope... Chris will be joining us, along with Ginny Danburry, for the last two weeks of July.”
I smile in return. “Sounds like you'll be having a good time, then. How are Ginny's parents taking her interest in Nuwanda, anyhow? I mean, with him getting expelled from Welton and all...”
Knox laughs. “Given that Chet flunked out, while Nuwanda was expelled based on the honor code due to his 'lapse in judgment' of punching you...”
“Which I deserved,” I interject wryly.
“You did,” he agrees. “Anyway, considering their own son, Nuwanda looks like the Archangel Gabriel in comparison. Under Welton rules, he had to be tossed out for hitting a fellow student, sure, but I understand it got put into his file that there were extenuating circumstances, that his mental state at the time was considered questionable due to his distress at Neil's death and that while the school considered permitting him to remain, his parents felt that he would be better off away from the scene of the tragedy.”
“Todd's parents should have cared so much,” I mutter softly. “Although I have to admit I'm glad they didn't.”
He gives me a long and thoughtful look. I can feel myself reddening under his scrutiny, but I'm saved by the bell... the bell over the diner door, chiming as Chris Noel steps inside with a handful of letters and a big hug for Knox. I concentrate on finishing my coffee to let them greet each other, then I turn around and give her a smile.
“Richard Cameron, right?” she asks as she smiles in return. “You're the one that Knox says used to be kind of a jerk but you got nicer since the term started.” She hands me two of the letters she's holding, the one for me and the one for Todd. She gives Knox the other two, the second being from Nuwanda.
I give her my best smile. “I've certainly been trying to be nicer,” I say. “It's good to know my efforts have not gone unnoticed. And Chris? Thanks a lot for taking these letters for us. It really means a lot.” I drop some money on the counter for my coffee and a healthy tip, standing to leave.
She takes Knox's hand with a sympathetic smile. “I met Mr. Keating the night of the play, remember? Ginny and I went to the cave with you fellows and Mr. Keating after the play. He seemed really nice, and I don't believe for a moment that what they said about him is true. So I'm glad to help.”
“It's appreciated,” I tell her sincerely. “You two have a nice day, now.”
“We will,” they chorus as I head out the door, looking at the letters in my hand.
I do make a couple of stops before biking back to school; one at the general store for some Hershey bars, and the other at the local pizza parlor for a large pepperoni pizza and four Cokes to go. I figure Todd will appreciate having something other than mystery meat for lunch today. I don't figure he'll mind the pizza not being piping hot. It's a little awkward trying to ride without dropping the pizza... the Cokes fit nicely in my saddlebags... but I still make it back to school within about fifteen minutes.
Todd must have been watching for me to return, because he's outside taking the pizza box from me as I attempt to lock my bike up one-handed. Once he has the box, I grab the Cokes and the Hershey bars and we head up to our room. I open two of the Cokes as he starts separating the pizza slices. He hands me one in exchange for a bottle.
I set my Coke down on the desk and give him a smile. “Chris made it,” I say, pulling out the letters. “Ready?”
“Ready,” he replies with a smile of his own as I hand him his. He sets his own Coke down and we both open our letters and begin to read.
I hope you will believe me when I say that it is good indeed to hear from you. Before anything else, I want you to understand this: You are not to blame yourself for what happened to me. Even if you had said nothing to the administration, it was inevitable that I would be let go, from the moment Neil put that gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
I know this sounds harsh, and it is. But it is also reality. The school needed a scapegoat as badly as you did. Unfortunately, Mr. Perry saw to it that I would become that scapegoat, even before you spoke to the administration. They would have come to you, had you not gone to them. So, I repeat, do not blame yourself.
If it makes you feel any better, I am still teaching. Perhaps not as such a prestigious preparatory academy as Welton, but I am still teaching nonetheless. I was lucky enough to arrive in this area just as one of the local public high school's English teachers was leaving to have a baby. As you can see from my address... and incidentally, dare I ask just how you obtained it?... I am now living just outside of San Fransisco. I hope to begin teaching at the University of California at Berkeley come fall.
I also hope to hear back from you gentlemen soon. I realize that you probably won't be able to mail a reply immediately, as I know you won't be able to mail letters to me from school without getting yourselves into trouble. And may I say, that was a very good idea, asking Miss Noel to take my replies to you. But it means a lot to me, to know that I left friends behind, rather than enemies. I feared that you would be persuaded to the administration's view of what happened that night in December.
Anyway, I hope you will continue this correspondence and tell me more of this dream of yours, that you have become determined to have even if it means breaking with your family. I hope it isn't anything I said, that makes you think that will be necessary. Ideally, I want you men to have your dreams as well as your families intact.
Yours in friendship,
your Captain, John Keating
PS. Give my greetings to Meeks and Pitts.
I look up from my letter with a smile to see Todd beaming at me over his letter. “He's still teaching!” Todd exclaims gleefully.
I reach across to give Todd a hug. “And he doesn't blame me,” I say. “He says Mr. Perry went to the administration, and that I'm not to blame myself any longer.”
Todd returns the hug and adds a kiss. “He says he's glad for both our sakes that we've made up and become friends. Do you... do you mind if I tell him about us?”
“Go right ahead. I'll also be saying something to him, because he asked about my dream, and why I think I'll be breaking with my family to follow it,” I tell him.
“What is your dream, anyway?” Todd asks as he sets his letter on his desk and takes another slice of pizza.
I laugh. “I'm not sure exactly,” I say. “But I think I'd like to be a doctor. I'm supposed to go into law, the FBI, then politics you know, according to my father's plans. But the FBI doesn't want queers any more than the army does. What about you? I know you've mentioned your father expecting you to become a doctor, but you didn't sound too happy about it.”
Todd nods around a mouthful of pizza. “Mmm. Promise not to laugh?”
I take a drink of my Coke, then grab another slice of my own. “I promise.”
“I want to be a writer,” Todd tells me. “Maybe work for a newspaper or a magazine, but also I want to be a published author.”
“That's going to take a lot of effort, but if anyone can do it, you can, Todd,” I tell him, meaning every word of it. He's let me see some of the poems he's written since the start of the school year, and as far as I'm concerned, they're as good as at least half of what we've read in English class. Of course, I'm not exactly a professional, not to mention that I have a definite bias. But still, they're good.
He flushes. “You really mean that, Richard?”
“Of course I mean it,” I say. “The Captain was right, I think, when he predicted great things of you that night.”
Todd's cheeks redden further and he hastily gulps his Coke in an effort to hide it. “Thanks,” he mumbles.
I decide a change of subject would be kind. “What will you be doing come summer?” I ask.
“I don't know,” he answers. “Probably not much. Aside from golf lessons and the occasional round of it with my father and brother. I hate that game... mostly because they like it so much,” he adds ruefully. “But doctors are supposed to play golf. My father is chief of staff at his hospital, so he doesn't bother with real vacations. My mother goes visiting her relatives sometimes, but she doesn't take me.”
I manage to hide my disgust at his family's treatment of him. “Do you think your folks would let you stay with me for a while?” I give him a hopeful look. “My family goes to Martha's Vineyard every July... and my father is always telling me I ought to invite a friend out sometime. Besides, I hate the thought of going the whole summer without seeing you.”
He smiles slowly. “I can't think of anything I'd rather do this summer,” he says. “Are you sure your folks won't mind me along?”
“As I said, my father's been telling me for years that I ought to bring a friend. My brother AJ... Andrew Junior... has a friend or two out every year,” I say. “Of course, he's graduating from Dartmouth this year... pre-law... and I think he might be going elsewhere for at least part of the summer. One last hurrah with his friends before buckling down to law school and all that.”
Todd blinks at me and starts to laugh. “Dartmouth? Your brother is graduating from Dartmouth this year? I don't believe it! Jeffrey... my brother... is graduating from Dartmouth this year. Only he's pre-med instead of pre-law. How crazy can you get? I wonder if they know each other?”
I laugh as well. “That is crazy! But you know, it might be a good thing for you if they do know each other. Assuming they don't hate each other, of course. Because you've said it a lot, that your parents pay attention to your brother... so if he tells them that the Camerons are good people and you'd benefit from getting to know them, that might improve your chances of coming to Martha's Vineyard.”
He nods and finishes his first Coke. “True. But I doubt I can find out from Jeffrey if he knows your brother. He never answers my letters. I only write him anymore because I'll be in trouble if my father finds out that I don't write to him.” He glances away uncomfortably.
There it is again, I think to myself, another demonstration of how Todd doesn't seem to matter to his family. Another demonstration of how it's all about his brother. I set my half-eaten pizza on the box and wrap my arms around him.
He turns slightly, holding me tightly for a long moment. “Thank you, Richard,” he whispers.
I brush my lips against his forehead, wishing I could stand between him and the cruelty... however unthinking... that his family inflicts on him. Without stopping to consider my words, I answer him. “I love you, Todd.”