Warrior Justin Zderad

My family is pretty close-knit, all except for my older brother. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm the youngest of three children. My sister, Miranda, is the oldest; my brother, Jamie is next; and then there's myself. My mom and dad say that my brother is the bad apple of the bunch. In his early teens, he befriended the new kid, George. George comes from a snobby, well-to-do family. His folks are the kind of parents who have no rules and just let George do practically whatever he wanted. Because of this George was often getting into trouble at school. Mom says that George and his family were a bad influence on Jamie.

When Jamie went to college, he could not wait to get out of the house, to get away from my parents' rules. During his second semester, he met his girlfriend, Jenna. Jamie and Jenna don't really seem to love each other, as I gather; they're just interested in each other's bodies. Every other month I hear a story of squabbling between the two, and then through some "special" occurrence, they are back together again.

Uncle John is the coolest one of the family. My dad's kid brother has always been rather independent, mysterious, and a bit of a recluse. At age 35, he is still unmarried and lives in a house that is, in my opinion, way too big for him. I suppose it just goes along with his generous nature; he is always inviting my older brother and me to visit him on the weekends or having family and friends over for big get-togethers like Thanksgiving and Christmas. All in all, John is a quiet simple man with whom it's really easy to get along.

John's house is situated on a twenty-acre plot of land in the middle of the woods near a tiny town an hour north of everywhere. The house is laid out with a big bedroom and office on one side and two bedrooms on the other, with a big living space in the middle. The great room has a huge picture window looking onto a small lake. It's quite a view. I really enjoy visiting him, especially getting away from everything and taking long walks through his land, which he allows to grow untamed. The only signs of human existence on his land besides the house are his vegetable garden and a long path he keeps plowed with an old tractor that winds through the forest.

I suppose I really miss the days when I was little and Uncle John would pick up Jamie and me and take us to his place where we would camp out in a tent in the woods behind his house during the summer months. In the mornings, we would go hiking through his land and find new adventures; usually looking for various birds and deer and sometimes an occasional wolf or bear. John has a great sense of direction and he would always manage to find the way back to the trail after our treks.

Before I continue with my story, I must say something of John's twin, or should I say opposite. Adam lives in a small high-rise apartment in the big city where it is always noisy and bustling with activity. Adam lives a high-paced life to match his surrounds. John and Adam are inseparable. They met each other in college and it's said that they have never been seen apart when going out on sociable activities since those days, "way back when" as John says. Those two are funny; John is always saying that he wants to go see Adam in the city to get "cultured" such as going to an art gallery or museum, and Adam says he wants to see John to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and unwind "in the middle of nowhere." I really do not see that much of Adam. John and Adam live totally separate lives besides the big activities; you know, New Year's, the Fourth of July, stuff like that. Whenever I see those two, they seem so happy together, always smiling and often embracing; needless to say, they are best buddies.

Jamie would sometimes ask my mom and dad why Uncle John does not settle down and get married. "After all," he would say, "He has a house big enough to have a family in." The answer was always to the effect that John did not need a woman to keep him happy. At that point, Jamie would cup his hand over his mouth and snicker through his teeth. Was something funny? I never got the joke, if there was one. Mom would roll her eyes as if to say, "Oh, Jamie, cut it out."

After my first year away at college, I came home to the news that Uncle John wanted me to call him as soon as I could. After unpacking my things and getting my room back in order, I called John on the telephone to see what the deal was.

"Hey, Uncle John, what's up?" I asked.

"How would you like to come up for the weekend like you and your brother used to do in the old days?" he said.

"That sound's great!" I replied. "Will Jamie be there, too?"

"No. He says he'll be busy this weekend." Uncle John seemed a little hurt mentioning this.

"What? How can Jamie be too busy for you and for old times sake?"

"I don't know. Maybe you should have him explain it to you some time. On the bright side, Adam will be here this weekend and you can get to know him better, if you like."

"Sounds cool. I really only get to see him on big family occasions, anyhow, so yeah, I don’t really know him all that well, to tell the truth," I muttered into the phone. "When should I come up?"

"Be here at half past five Friday afternoon. I am making your favorite dinner, slow-cooked roast beef with carrots and potatoes. Come hungry."

"You betcha," was my reply. "See you then." I hung up the phone. I was eager for Friday to arrive. But why was Jamie not coming? He was always the odd ball. I decided to call him to find out for myself. I picked up the phone again after finding his cell number posted on the refrigerator. I dialed and waited for the inevitable.

"Yeah! Who's this?" was the reply on the other end. Why couldn't he answer the phone like a decent human being and have some manners. A simple "Hello?" would have done nicely.

"This is your brother," I said indignantly. "What's this I hear about you not going up to John's for the weekend? With what are you going to be so busy that you can't see Uncle? And Adam's gonna be there, too." Honestly, I knew that he was going to make up some lame excuse. It was just a matter of what.

"Jenna and I are getting together after having a little tussle when we left school. Now that she's graduated, we may see very little of each other." He said rather unconvincingly. "Plus, Adam and I never really got along very well." I could tell that he was holding back on some information.

"What are you talking about!? Adam is nearly as cool as Uncle John himself. You know that. Stop making up stories. What is it, really?" Did I want to know? Jamie is the kind of guy that goes into too much detail about everything. But it was too late, I had asked. "Brace yourself," I whispered under my breath as I closed my eyes in a wince.

"It's always about John and Adam this, John and Adam that. Don't you get it? Boy, you are dense, aren't you? They're gay lovers; they're a couple of fags," he said with a "duh" sort of tone in his voice. "I am not going to hang around them."

My brother did not just say that. "Whatever," was my reply. "I don't have time for this garbage. I'll talk to you later. I'm going to fix myself some lunch. Bye." Now it was I who sounded unconvincing. I hung up the phone with a slam and leaned back against the refrigerator, again closing my eyes in disgust.

Uncle John, my uncle John, is not gay. He is not some flame pot parading up and down the street. He never wears pink or rainbow colors or tight pants or any of that shit. He does not talk with a lisp. He does not act girly. My uncle is a smart, down-to-earth, real, practical man. Yes, he is a MAN, dammit! What was my brother on, anyway? My mom came into the kitchen and noticed the look of mental anguish on my face.

"Anything the matter, dear?" she said in a sweet but somewhat distressed voice.

"I am rather confused and frustrated," I said in a staccato monotone.

"Why? When did this -- ? Let me guess, you've been talking to your brother." She pointed to the phone cord still dangling back and forth against the wall.

"Right as usual, mom," I said, my face relaxing its grimace.

"You really don't need to pay too much attention to his ramblings. Is that what he was doing, rambling? He gets these bees in his bonnet about so many silly little things." Mom had been reading her British novels again; there she was, using that funny expression about somebody having a "bee in his or her bonnet."

I chuckled. "Yeah, I know. Jamie is just -- oh, I don't know."

"He is rather irksome at times, we all know this. Don't let it bother you." My mother always has a soothing atmosphere about her and always seems to know just what to say. As if nothing had happened she perked up and said, "Would you like a ham or turkey sandwich for lunch?"

"Um -- turkey please. I'll get the mayo."

The rest of the day was uneventful, but what Jamie had said kept nagging at me. I tried to convince myself that his comments would eventually evaporate from my mind. That evening I forgot all about it.

Friday arrived. I was so excited to see my uncle after being away at school. The hours passed by so slowly. I kept myself busy to make time go by faster. I did my laundry, folded and put away my clothes, and packed a small suitcase for the weekend. Finally, it was time to go. "Bye guys," I hollered to my parents as I walked out the door. "I'll see you Sunday night." I closed the door, got into the car, and drove away, singing with the radio, just happy to be alive.

I was ready for this weekend. No more papers. No more final exams. I would have a relaxing weekend with the guys. I sped down the highway whistling, noticing the gradual change as suburbia gave way to farming communities and eventually woodlands. I checked the clock on the car dashboard as I drove up the long drive to my uncle's house. 5:13, I hoped they wouldn't mind me being a bit early. I have a habit of always being punctual, if not early, to everything; this was no exception.

I knocked on the door and waited on the front step, still whistling. Adam soon answered the door. "Oh, hi there, young fellah! Put her there," he said extending his hand. I shook it cordially. "John's just setting the table for us. Do come in."

"Thanks, Adam," I said entering the house, smelling the aroma of the roast. "Hey Uncle John! What's up?" Before waiting for a response, I chimed in, "Boy, does that smell good." I gave my uncle a hug as I always do when we see each other.

"Hey, bud!" was his response. "I'm doing fine. I hope you're hungry. Why don't you help me finish getting dinner ready? The roast should be done by now."

"Sure thing," I said. I crossed the kitchen to the electric kettle on the counter. I lifted the lid and a big cloud of steam came rolling out. I put the vegetables in a dish just as John finished setting the table for three.

"Here, I'll cut the meat," John stated. "Grab the pitcher of lemonade out of the fridge, will ya?"

I did as I was told, pouring the drink into each glass placed on the table. John had the roast on a cutting board and was slicing it thinly and placing the pieces on a tray. Adam was standing near the dining table after bringing the vegetables over, watching the two of us finish preparing the meal. He had a big smile on his face. I was also looking forward to this feast and light table conversation.

"Here we go guys," John finally piped in bringing the roast over to the table. We all sat down. "Shall we say grace?" This was a tradition that still lingered in my household, one that Jamie couldn't care any less about. In fact, I was a little glad he wasn't there to interfere with such a happy occasion.

After starting our meal, John and I chatted about school, the weather, a bit of this and that. "Adam, you're awfully quiet tonight," I said. "You usually are the life of the party when the whole gang is here."

"Oh, I don't know," Adam interjected. "I suppose I don't have any wise cracks to make."

John picked up on my inquiring mind and said, "To tell you the truth, Adam really is a shy one when it comes to small settings like this. Adam is a great host for parties, aren't you, but underneath that outgoing exterior lies a reserved soul." John was sounding philosophical again. This was a side of Adam I had never seen. What other surprises were in store for me this weekend, I wondered?

After dinner, we all helped clean up. Putting the half-empty pitcher back in the refrigerator I said, "That was a great meal, John!"

"Thanks, man," he said. "I got an idea. How would you like to camp out in the woods tonight, like old times?" John, like myself, was a man of nostalgia. "Adam likes to camp out too, you know; even a city slicker like himself."

"Sure thing!" was my reply. "You still got all the camping stuff?"

"I could never part with it." John went over to the closet and dug out the tent and sleeping bags. "They're a little musty, this is the first time we'll be using them this year being still early in the season." After a bit more rummaging, John had collected all of the supplies. "I've got a few flashlights and I decided to pull out some of those old flannel blankets, in case it's a bit chilly tonight." John's voice was getting excited. He ran to his bedroom and came back with his acoustic guitar. "I haven’t played this since, well, it has been a while."

"Oh, that old thing," Adam chirped. "I remember when you first bought it. It was your pride and joy back in college. Have you ever heard John play?" This time he was talking to me.

"Heck yeah," I said. "He would play it for my brother and me on our camping adventures as kids. Are you going to regale us with a few tunes tonight too, oh dear uncle?" I was laughing audibly as John tuned up the instrument.

"You bet your beans," John laughed back. "Boy is this thing out of tune."

After gathering all of the gear: the tent, the sleeping bags, the blankets, and the guitar, the three of us trudged out the door and down the path through the woods. The sun was just setting and the air was still, it was a moment that I wish would last forever. After about ten minutes, we stopped at a clearing in the woods. It was the same familiar spot right next to the lake, a fire pit and a stack of wood lay just feet away. We set up the tent, placed the bedding in it, and John handed me the matches and old newspapers.

"Will you do the honors?" John asked.

"I'd be delighted," I said, taking the items from his hands.

While I got the fire going, John and Adam sat on two big logs chatting away like two college buddies. I sat down on a third log after the fire was well under way. Laughter and music soon filled the night air. We sang some of those corny kids' songs as well as some that John and Adam sang from their college years together. After a few hours the fire was dying down and we were starting to yawn.

"Well, time to hit the sack," John said. He turned on a flashlight and we headed for the tent. The air was getting a bit frosty so we quickly scurried into our sleeping bags. "Wasn't this fun?" John asked, half in rhetoric.

"You bet," I answered. "Goodnight, guys."

"Goodnight," John and Adam responded in unison.

All was quiet except for the crickets and frogs and the occasional owl. "Just like old times," I thought to myself. I soon heard the sound of John's light snoring. Chuckling to myself, I whispered under my breath, "Some things never change."

I woke up with a start. I was sweating from my face to my feet. My nightmare replayed itself in my mind. It was some parade like Mardi Gras. Crowds were cheering, horns honking, bands playing. The figures of two men came into view. It was Uncle John and Adam. John was wearing a black T-shirt and tight jeans. He wore a cape with rainbow stripes on it. Adam wore a pink muscle shirt, black leather pants, and purple tinted sunglasses. The two of them looked a bit drunk and were sashaying around while kissing like two characters from a high school romance film. There they were, my uncle and his friend, two complete fags.

I shook my head and sat up violently. No, it was not true. Jamie could not have been right. Those two are really good friends, that's all. I regained my composure and soon realized I was alone in the tent; John and Adam were not there. "They must have gone back to the house," I said aloud to myself. I lay back down and tried to fall back asleep but the image of the dream was too disturbing. Doubt encircled my mind. Middle of the night or not, I had to know the truth.

I found a flashlight and walked briskly back along the path toward the house. I stepped inside and walked down the hall. I quietly knocked on the bedroom door to my uncle's room and entered. "Uncle John, can we talk --"

Before my eyes lay the two men in John's bed, the room lit by candlelight. They were kissing each other and the outline of their bodies moved together underneath a thin blanket. I turned around and ran down the hallway into the great room, collapsed on the couch, and clasped a pillow into my chest. It was true. O my god, it was true!

A minute later, John walked into the room wearing his flannel pajamas. I turned to see who was there and then quickly turned my face away from him.

"Hey, bud," he said gingerly. "It's all right."

"So Jamie was right after all, you guys are gay."

"Is that what he told you?" John knew the answer but he was talking in his soothing philosophical voice again.

"His exact words were more like 'a couple of fags'," I said in a low, pulsating tone.

"And what does that mean to you, the word 'fag'?" John was searching for my feelings on the matter, more for my benefit than his own.

"Well," I said. "The word implies a girly guy, somebody who has a fruity voice, a man who really isn't a man. Someone with loose morals, more than likely has picked up an STD or two from sleeping around. Someone proud of parading his ass about."

"Do I fit your definition of fag?" John's questions were probing and to the point.

"Heck, no," I stated emphatically. "You're a real man, a good clean-cut guy, you are a straight, I mean, of sound principles. You're a good role model to the family; I've always looked up to you." I paused, then said, "But..."

"But what?" John asked.

"Jamie was right about you and Adam being gay lovers."

John came to the point; he did not dance around the issue. "First of all, I'm not too sure that Jamie really understands what love is. Would you call his relationship with Jenna love? But I'm not going to attack Jamie for his statements. It is true that Adam and I love each other deeply." By this time Adam had walked into the room and was standing next to John, an arm around John's shoulders. "What is all this emphasis on being 'gay'? It sounds like you're using the word like the word 'fag'. Adam and I have a committed relationship. We are true to another; we have no other. We've been together since college and we aren't going to leave each other for anybody else. The word 'gay' is meaningless when it comes to us. We are two men that love each other, nothing more, nothing less."

"You're right, John." I was much relieved to have him explain it to me, and I knew deep down that what he said was absolutely true. John and Adam were in love; there was nothing wrong with that. "I feel better now, thanks."

Looking at Adam and grasping a hand in his, John continued. "We'd made plans to talk to you about the two of us this weekend. This is one of the reasons why I called on the telephone for you, so we could discuss this one-on-one. We had hoped you would accept the fact, even though your brother refuses to acknowledge the truth about us. We knew you to be more understanding."

I was glad that Uncle John wanted to tell me himself. Unfortunately, Jamie had spilled the information out to me in such a hateful way.

"How about some ice cream?" John asked, lightening the mood. Adam and I perked up and both said, in unison, "You bet your beans." We all laughed as we walked into the kitchen.


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