Nicky put on his coat and waited outside the house for several minutes, wiping tears from his face and hoping that the door would open for him to go back in. Then he felt the cold; without his cap, mittens, and boots. He would have to find someplace warm soon. He didn't think he could find a store open on the holiday which would be large enough for him to loiter in without getting noticed. The school would certainly be closed. He could think of only two other possibilities; church or the Simpsons'.
He didn't want to intrude on the Simpsons' holiday, and explaining to his friends what had happened would be embarrassing, so Nicky decided to go to the church. He buried his hands deeper into his pockets and set out against a biting wind.
Besides his toes, the tips of his nose and ears soon stung from the cold. Even his teeth hurt as he breathed in the frigid air, and he soon found himself walking back first into the wind. He squinted his eyes as the sun appeared from behind a cloud and the suddenly brightened snowbanks dazzled him.
At the church, he scurried from door to door, but found each of them locked. He took shelter in an alcove to get out of the wind. His nose was so cold that he blew hot air from his mouth over it for warmth.
He didn't have any choice but to go to the Simpsons', much as he didn't want to. He was getting colder and more afraid of freezing to death. His fingers, even though inside pockets, hurt as badly as his toes, and a periodic shiver shook his body.
He wasn't sure if he could remember how to get there, except that he had to start from the school. He walked, and then jogged, with the wind blowing on his left side. After a block, the left side of his face became so cold that he walked backward for the next block. He alternated in this fashion until he reached Roosevelt High.
The building looked cold and forboding with no other soul in sight and grains of snow blowing across the empty parking lot. He followed the street he thought he remembered Butch driving down on the day they had gone to his house. The wind blew at his back, helping him run faster. He hoped he was headed in the right direction because the last thing he wanted to do was to have to backtrack.
He reached the familiar fast food restaurant with relief that he was going the right way. Stopping in front of the closed restaurant, out of the wind, he stamped his feet and blew on his hands in a futile attempt to warm them.
He tried to fight back a resurgence of tears because they froze on his cheeks. Why did his father hate him so much? Why couldn't he do better so his father wouldn't get so angry with him? He rubbed a stream of mucus from his upper lip and wiped it off on the back of his pants.
He crossed the busy street in front of him and continued down the same street as before until reaching the park, where he turned right. The wind froze the right side of his face, but he soon reached the curving street on which the Simpsons lived. He ran to the house and rang the doorbell.
At first no answer came, and Nicky panicked that nobody was home. Then the door slowly opened and Irving stood in the entrance.
"Who is it, Irving?" Marshall yelled from inside.
"Butch and Eugene's friend," Irving replied shyly.
"Let him in and close the door," said Marshall. "You're letting in the cold."
Splendid warmth encompassed Nicky's face as he stepped into the house and Irving shut the door behind him. He saw Marshall and Sanford looking at him from their lounges in the living room and did the last thing he wanted to; he cried uncontrollably.
"Benjamin!" Marshall called.
Benjamin hurried from the kitchen and, spotting Nicky in tears, came to him to put an arm around him.
"Nicky. Don't worry," he consoled. "You're going to be okay."
Nicky's weeping subsided and he buried his face into Benjamin's shoulder more to hide than to seek comfort.
"You're cold," said Benjamin. "Let's get you warmed up."
He pointed Nicky towards a door next to the staircase, at which time he saw Butch and Eugene coming from the kitchen.
"I'm going to take care of Nicky," Benjamin told them. "Go back to whatever you were doing, and keep Sanford away from the food."
The twins returned to the kitchen with Irving joining them. Nicky discovered a bathroom on the other side of the door by the steps, where Benjamin ran hot water in the sink for him to put his numbed fingers under.
"This makes them hurt worse," he worried as the pain intensified in his fingers. "Does that mean I have frostbite?"
"No, quite the opposite," Benjamin assured him. "It's when you don't feel anything that you have to worry about that."
Sure enough. The pain quickly resided, leaving a dull warm ache in his fingers. The same sensations of pain and dull warmth came to his toes and eartips as they warmed up.
With his appendages warmed, Benjamin led him through another door into a bedroom and invited him to sit with him on the edge of a quilted bed.
"I need to know what happened, Nicky," said Butch and Eugene's father. "Why did you come here?"
Nicky met the gaze of his caring eyes and knew he could talk to him. "There was a big fight at my house and my dad threw me out. I'm sorry to come here and bother you on Thanksgiving, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go."
"Let's get one thing straight," said Benjamin. "You're not bothering me. Okay?"
"I'm glad you came here before any harm got to you first," Benjamin continued. He ran a finger along a long red mark on Nicky's neck. "This isn't from the cold, is it?"
"No," Nicky answered. "My dad did it."
"Does he beat you often?"
"Once in a while."
Benjamin shook his head. "I don't understand how a parent can do that to a child."
"He must hate me," said Nicky.
"Oh, I doubt that," Benjamin disagreed. "Does he beat anyone else in your family?"
"What about brothers and sisters?"
That question made Nicky think. His father rarely beat Emily, but still he had. What about Robert? He couldn't think of a single time that his father had even spanked him.
"Just my sister," he said. "He leaves my brother alone."
"That doesn't make sense," Benjamin rubbed his chin. "If your father beats your mother and her children, why does he beat two of the children and not the third?"
With those words, a realization came into Nicky's head with such force that his body bolted upright.
"What, Nicky?" Benjamin noticed.
"We don't have the same mother!"
"Ahhhh," Benjamin understood. "You mean that your brother has a different mother than you and your sister."
Nicky nodded, wondering what it meant.
"What happened to your brother's mother?"
"And then your father married your mother?"
"Listen, Nicky. I can tell you something from your father's point of view."
Nicky's interest was perked in what had already become a fascinating conversation.
"I know how painful it is to lose a wife. When my wife died, a part of me died with her."
Benjamin tapped the stump below his left shoulder with his one hand. "When I lost this arm, it hurt like hell and I had to get used to not having a part of my body, but losing my wife was worse. Much worse."
Nicky felt a jumble of emotion. He was still hurt and angry, but also felt sorry for Benjamin and his own father.
Benjamin kept speaking. "I can't say for sure how much your father loves you or your mother, but my guess is that he's never loved anyone more than the mother of your brother. What's your brother's name?"
"I think that's why your father treats Robert better than anyone else in the family. I know I love my three sons even more because of their mother. Do you understand what I'm saying, Nicky?"
"I think so," Nicky nodded. He had never heard a more plausible explanation for Robert being his father's favorite.
"Your father doesn't hate you," Benjamin emphasized each word. "He hates what life's done to him and he's never been able accept what has happened. He gets angry with you because he's still angry about Robert's mother."
Benjamin's words warmed Nicky's spirit as if a heating pad had been implanted in his chest. He had never felt so accepted before, and gave in to an urge to hug Benjamin.
Benjamin returned a bear hug which was tighter than anything Nicky had experienced before. "You must be feeling better now, huh?"
"Yes," Nicky gave him a faint smile. "Thank you, Mr. Simpson."
"No, no. You must call me Benjamin."
"That's better. Now, have you eaten Thanksgiving dinner yet?"
Nicky shook his head.
"You're welcome to eat with us," Benjamin invited. "And you can stay here until we figure out what's going to happen to you."
Waves of relief coarsed through Nicky as he followed Benjamin back out to the living room. At least he didn't have to worry about hunger and being out in the cold. He had finally stopped shivering, so he removed his coat and left it on the back of a chair where Benjamin told him to put it.
"Do you want to help us in the kitchen?" Benjamin asked.
Nicky found himself torn between wanting to help and not feeling ready yet to face Butch and Eugene.
"You can also wait out here if you like," said Benjamin.
Nicky gladly accepted the latter offer. He sat in a chair in the furthest corner he could find and nervously waited for Marshall and Sanford's reaction.
"He was worse when I was his trainer," said Sanford, in the middle of a conversation with Marshall. "He came to a fight one time with half his knuckles split open. That was one time I had to cover for him, because Nichols was looking to can his ass. I put those bloody hands of his into gloves before anyone else could see them. He managed to last four rounds that night."
Marshall shook his head. "That guy did more fighting outside of the ring than in it."
"You know how he got the scar over his right eye?"
"Yes," Marshall rubbed his fist. "He hit his head on an eyeloop in the turnbuckle when I knocked him out once."
"That was the left eye," said Sanford. "He got the scar on his right side when Macky caught him with his woman and threw him through the window."
"Oh, I remember Macky," Marshall rubbed his chin. "What a tank."
"Gomer bashed his eye on the fire escape."
"I remember that woman too," said Marshall. "She's the one who wore the chainlink brassieres, right?"
"That's the one," said Sanford. "She had quite an interesting sister too. I've never been so worn out in my life."
"I mean it," said Sanford. "You know I wasn't the type to turn down an opportunity, but I did with her."
"You're so full of crap, Sanford," Marshall threw an empty beer can at him.
The can hit Sanford's enormous belly and bounced off as he gave a hearty laugh. Nicky felt himself blushing as he listened to such bawdy talk.
Then Benjamin poked his head into the room to announce that dinner was ready. Sanford knocked over a lamp in his haste to get to the kitchen.
"Come, Nicky," said Benjamin as he uprighted the lamp. "We made a spot for you."
Still feeling out of place, Nicky followed him into the kitchen. He saw that the table had been pulled further from the wall and expanded to a longer length. The meal was already set on it; ham, the obligatory turkey, rice, gravy, fruit salad, and about six different kinds of garden vegetables.
Butch and Eugene greeted Nicky cheerfully. The three youths climbed behind the table and sat on a bench along the wall, with Nicky in the middle. Sanford already sat at the end nearest the living room, scooping green beans on to his plate. Marshall took the other end, and Benjamin joined Irving on the side facing the wall.
Nobody talked while they passed the various dishes around the table, except to ask for something to be passed or to tell someone to move a utensil to make room to set food.
Butch opened conversation with Nicky after everyone had been served and begun eating. "Did you get your grades?"
Nicky nodded, unable to speak because he had turkey in his mouth.
"Do you want to hear what I got?"
Again Nicky nodded.
Butch counted with his fingers as he recited his marks. "I got a 'C' in English, a 'B' in biology, an 'A' in shop, 'C's in gym and math, and an 'A' in history." He picked up his fork.
"An 'A' in history, huh?"
"Yep, plus one detention." Butch put down his fork. "Did your grades have the detention on them?"
Nicky twitched the corner of his mouth as he nodded.
"No wonder you're dad got so upset."
Marshall interjected. "So you had a tough one with the old man."
"Marshall!" Benjamin said sternly.
"What?" Marshall motioned his hands with upward palms. "I'm just trying to help."
"Nicky doesn't want to be reminded of his troubles."
Nicky didn't mind being reminded of his problem as much as he did knowing that everyone else at the table knew about it. The meal continued in an uncomfortable silence. Nicky tried to think of something to talk to Irving about. Then he remembered Butch mentioning once that his little brother had a snake.
"Do you have a snake, Irving?"
Irving stared into his peas and nodded.
"What's his name?"
"Can I see him later?" Nicky asked, although he wasn't sure if he wanted to meet a snake.
Nicky left Irving to himself, satisfied that he'd be getting a chance to get to know him. He wondered why Butch and Eugene didn't talk much about their little brother or do things with him.
Each of the dishes of food eventually wound up by Sanford, who emptied whatever remained in them. The only thing he didn't get was the rest of the turkey which Benjamin snatched away to save for sandwiches. Then Benjamin brought an apple pie.
"Here, Marshall," he gave the dessert to his brother as the telephone rang and he needed to answer it.
He listened for a moment.
"Yes. He's here."
Nicky's stomach tightened. His father had found him.
"That's fine. Do you know how to get here?"
Nicky exchanged glances with Butch and Eugene, wondering if they could see how scared he felt.
"Okay. Goodbye," Benjamin hung up the telephone. "Your father's coming to get you," he told Nicky what he already knew. "You don't have to go with him unless you want to."
Nicky pondered the option given to him, not knowing what to do. He was afraid of his father, but he wanted to go home and see how his mother and Emily were doing.
Benjamin went to the freezer for a carton of vanilla ice cream and gave it to Butch, who put a scoop of it next to each slice Marshall cut out of the pie.
"I'll take a double scoop," said Sanford.
Nicky pushed thoughts of his father to the back of his mind while he enjoyed his dessert. He grew tense again when he heard the doorbell ring.
"Ready, Nicky?" said Benjamin.
He crawled underneath the table to get out of his cramped seat between his friends.
"Good luck," said Eugene.
Nicky started to leave the kitchen with Benjamin.
"Do you need me?" Marshall pushed himself back from the table.
"No," said Benjamin. "I can handle this."
Nicky stood back, reaching for his coat on the chair, as Benjamin opened the door.
"Come, Nicky," his father's voice sounded different; not so commanding. "Your mother's worried sick about you."
Nicky looked at him, standing inside the door. Mark wore an overcoat and business hat, and dangled his car keys in one hand. Benjamin closed the door behind him.
"Mr. Delgado. I told Nicky he doesn't have to leave here."
Nicky fingered his coat, which he didn't have on yet. He looked at his father with a mixture of fear and concern.
"Are you coming?" Mark asked. "Your mother's waiting for you."
"How long am I going to be grounded?" Nicky wanted to know.
"I won't ground you this time. Come on. I need to get to work."
Nicky had one other point to negotiate. "Will I be able to come over here to visit Butch and Eugene?"
Mark reached for the doorknob and Nicky feared that he had pushed him too far.
"If you ask me first," Mark opened the door. "Let's go."
Nicky put on his coat and gave Benjamin a hug on the way out. "Thanks, Benjamin."
Outside, his father was already opening the driver's door of his Oldsmobile. Nicky hurried to his door and looked over the roof of the car at him.
"I love you."
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