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The Pennsylvania mountains surrounded the small car with majesty and grace. “When I die, scatter my ashes here,” said Roger, the driver.

Ok,” said Paul.

The two were married, five years now. They had met one summer day at the Macy’s store on State Street in Chicago.

What are you thinking about?,” asked Roger, the bigger man behind the wheel. “Emily and Leonard.”

Emily was Paul’s daughter. Roger and Paul were returning from Emily’s wedding the day before, in Philadelphia.

Both of them seemed ill-at-ease when we left,” Paul said, as the car travelled westward through the Allegheny valley.

As the early autumn sun was starting to set, they pulled up to a diner along the interstate, just west of Harrisburg. They’d been on the road for hours. Tired, hungry, but happy after the previous day’s ceremony and reception, they straggled through the doors and found a booth near the entrance and the cash register.

Feeling in the mood for a bit of a risk, Roger, the big man, the construction worker, gave his smaller husband Paul, the teacher, a hug ‒ a kind of a bear hug ‒ before going to the restroom.

Watching this from across the room were George, the diner’s owner, Maggie, George’s wife and head waitress, and Charlie, their most regular customer.

Don’t bother me none,” Charlie said at the counter, raising his coffee cup a bit to motion to Maggie that he was ready for a refill. “My brother’s Danny’s kid, Stevie, likes to wear dresses.”

What?!,” asked George, seated on the stool two down from Charlie.

Charlie was huge, about 300 pounds, so sitting on the stool two down from him was wise.

That’s right,” Charlie continued. “That’s the new thing, I guess. At Penn State. The boys dress like girls and the girls dress like boys. Angie said she thinks it’s the work of the devil. And she says a special Hail Mary every night for Stevie, so he’ll stop wearing chiffon and taffeta.”

George shaked his head and laughed. Gave his friend and regular customer a light punch on the shoulder.

You’re crazy, big man.”

A family, the Hendrickson’s, walked in the diner: a tall, dark-haired husband, about 40; his pretty wife, roughly the same age; and their young children, a boy and a girl, twins, about 6.

Hi, folks,” called Maggie across the restaurant. “Sit anywhere you’d like.”

The restaurant, George’s Diner, was beginning to fill up. The skies over the majestic mountains that line the highway were starting to fill with grey and darker clouds. Motorists were steering onto the exit ramps as forecasters predicted a storm coming from the East.

Can I get anyone coffee?,” Maggie asked the family of new arrivals.

No one said anything for a moment. Then the father spoke.

No, thank you, ma’am. My wife and I will have 2 Cokes. Milk for the children, please.” “Ok, coming right up.”

Thank you, kindly,” the father said.

It started to rain. Small drops started appearing on the large plate glass windows of the diner.

Paul, of the Chicago couple, a handsome, trim, intense man of about 35, gazed out the glass at the mountain range.

He was thinking about Mother Nature.

So … what do you feel like?,” asked Roger, as he slid across the vinyl covering of the booth, returning from the restroom.

Roger, a construction worker by trade, was well-built, with the torso of a football player. Nearly a foot taller than his husband, Roger was in his early 30’s.

Oh, I dunno,” said Paul, still lost in thought and watching the increasingly rough-looking sky darken.

We got off the highway just in time,” Paul said.

As if to underline his sentence, a jagged spear of lightning ripped across the sky in view of everyone in the restaurant, followed by a loud roar of thunder.

Damn,” said Roger, wiping his glasses with his retro-70’s Mickey Mouse t-shirt.

At the crack of the thunder, the little boy at the Hendrickson family table jumped into his mother’s lap, and threw his arms around her, burying his little brown-haired head into her ample bosom.

Roger, twenty or so feet across the aisle, watched this. A small smile appeared on his face.

Roger loved children, though he had none of his own.

It’s Ok,” he whispered across the way to the little boy, Davey.

Davey smiled back.

What can I get you fellas?” Maggie was asking Roger and Paul, pad and pen in her hand. Paul, who was a community college history teacher, gave his order.

Then he seemed to echo how Mr. Hendrickson had ordered for his family. “My husband will have the same. Coffee for us both, please.”

The storm outside was intensifying. The hard sound of hail hitting the window had started, and deep rumblings of distant thunder continued.

William, or Bill Hendrickson, a minister and school principal by trade, had heard Paul’s reference to his husband.

Hendrickson turned and looked at Paul, with a hard, questioning stare.

Paul returned the stare.

The evening continued. It was dinner time, early autumn, and the rhythms of how things go in a roadside diner were perking along as usual, like the coffee machines that made coffee there 24/7. A steady rain continued, but the regular flashes of lighting and thunder had more or less subsided.

At the counter, George, Maggie and Charlie were discussing Charlie’s nephew, Stevie.

Does Stevie wear these dresses a lot, or just once in a while?,” Maggie asked. “I met him here once. Years ago. Nice boy. Seemed quiet.”

Maggie had worked at the diner her entire adult life, since she was 18. She was going to turn 50 the day before Christmas this year.

Well, I dunno, guys,” Charlie said. “He wears them whenever he feels like it, which is too often for his mother and father.”

Stevie is a smart kid,” he continued. “He does real good in school.

He told me recently that we need to change the world.”

The three friends looked at each other for a moment.

The world is changing, that’s for sure,” said George, Maggie’s Greek-American husband. “College boys in dresses. What will they think of next?”

Hey, George,” asked Charlie, smiling, “didn’t men with men start ages ago in Greece?” “I dunno, man,” George replied, shaking his head. “Before my time.”

At this, the three at the counter erupted in laughter.

I want to see George in a dress!” said Maggie, between bursts of laughter. “I want to go shopping for dresses and shoes with my old Greek husband!”

The dishwasher machine was spraying racks of dishes and plates and silverware in the kitchen. The two cooks were grilling, baking, and preparing dishes. Diners were enjoying their entrees or sipping hot coffee with their peach cobbler or apple pie.

The restaurant was humming along at the 6 o’clock hour.

Roger and Paul were talking about Emily and Leonard’s wedding reception the night before. It had been held in a gorgeous white hotel ballroom in Smithfield, the Philadelphia suburb where Paul and his ex-wife Nancy had raised Emily.

The conversation rambled between memories of the night, memories of their lives together, and memories of raising Emily, and her brother, Ethan. It went all over the place, like a ballerina skipping gracefully along.

And along the way they poked fun at themselves, and everyone else.

Roger started giggling. And then he started laughing. And his laughter was a deep, rolling merry thing, and it got Paul giggling, and then laughing, and before long, the two of them looked like two schoolboys on holiday.

Little 6-year old Davey Hendrickson, at the quiet table of his father, Rev. Hendrickson, watched the two grown men carrying on. Little Davey’s face burst open into a 6-year old’s smile, watching his new friend Roger, whose chest and upper body were getting a workout from all that laughing.

Davey started laughing, and then Roger saw Davey, and pointing his index finger at the little boy, made a funny face, and then a mock serious face, and they were all having a fine old time at their tables there at George’s Diner.

However, Davey’s father, the Rev. Hendrickson, who was a towering figure at well over six feet, had had enough of this.

He got up from his chair, and walked over to his son, his index finger at his mouth.

Quiet, David,” he said. “That’s enough. Eat your dinner like a good Christian boy. Make your mother and I proud of you. Enough of this foolishness.”

The boy’s eyes welled up with tears, and then he started crying, and ran to his mother. Rev. Hendrickson walked over to Roger and Paul’s table.

Please leave my boy alone,” he said to the men. “We’re trying to raise our children in a devout household, and he doesn’t need exposure to big-city foolishness and wicked lifestyles.”

Hey, man, what wicked lifestyles are you talking about?” Paul asked him, rising up from his chair. “We were just relaxing, man, having a good time, and your boy joined in. Lighten up.”

Hendrickson went back to his table. You could still hear Davey’s soft sobs for another five or ten minutes, but then they subsided. Davey’s sister, Janey, sat eating silently at her seat, accustomed to her father’s outbursts. Diners at tables nearby, unnerved by the disruption, slowly returned to their usual ways, talking about nothing … and everything.

Dusk was settling over the Pennsylvania valley. The Appalachian Mountains blessed the land with their quiet and their majesty, as they have done for ages and will do for ages to come.

A grey and white SUV pulled into the parking lot of George’s Diner. A man in his 20’s, wearing black jeans and a grey sweatshirt, tallish, of proportionate weight, got out of the vehicle and made his way into the diner.

He was carrying a black duffel bag.

When he walked through the diner’s vestibule into the restaurant itself, he dropped the duffel bag on the floor, just as the welcoming bells on the door were tingling. He then reached into the black bag and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun.

He fired one shot into an overhead light fixture above the cash register, only two or three yards from the front entrance.

Everyone cooperates and this will be painless for everybody!” he shouted.

George had been manning the cash box for his restaurant, which had been handed down to him from his father thirty years before.

When he’d seen the gun ‒ his first burglary in thirty years ‒ he flipped on a switch beneath the register, which automatically alerted authorities to the emergency.

People who were walking around the restaurant immediately sought cover under tables, counters, and any flat surface. Many of the diners and staff had run to the back of the building, and were trying to get out. The gun shot was loud and jarring. About a third of the restaurant’s lights had gone out, and the place was basked in an eerie half-light, with the dusk and parking lot and moon light from outside giving George’s Diner a strange look.

Children were screaming or crying, as well as some older people.

Others seemed in a state of shock.

A piece of the light fixture that had fallen from the ceiling was on fire, and burning the carpet behind the cash register.

I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I’ll blow anyone’s fucking head off who gives me trouble!.”

As if to underline his intention, he raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired one shot at another light fixture, this one directly over the booth where the Chicago couple, Roger and Paul, were sitting.

The fixture exploded in the ceiling, in a flash of white electric light, and then darkness. Loud screams and running and chaos now filled the restaurant. The light fixture, on fire, fell to the table and hit Paul directly in the head, knocking him down to the maroon carpet beneath the booth.

The thief next took aim at the cash register, and fired one shot. There was another explosion, and the cash box flew open. The thief took out handfuls of money, stashed these into his black duffel bag, and ran out of the diner, into his SUV, and sped out of the gravel parking lot for the interstate, heading east.

Call 9-1-1!” a man screamed, and numerous cell phones were pulled out of pockets to dial the emergency number.

Amid the general chaos, Rev. Hendrickson saw what happened to Paul. People were running and screaming this way and that, and most of the diner was now in semi-darkness and smoke. But Hendrickson walked calmly over to Paul.

First, the tall minister placed the smaller man on his back, and bent down to listen for breath, and watched to see if Paul’s chest rose or fell.

He heard and saw nothing.

Sir!” Hendrickson firmly called to Paul, shaking his shoulders gently. “Sir! Can you hear me? Are you all right?!”

Paul was out of it. He had a severe wound on the top of his head and forehead. Blood matted his hair. Blood poured from his head wound and his nose. With his eyes closed to the world, lying there on the floor beneath the restaurant table, the 42-year old teacher looked near death.

Paul!” cried his husband Roger, two feet from his body. “Paul! Can you hear us?” There was no response.

Rev. Hendrickson took a white cloth napkin off of Paul’s place on the table, and held it against Paul’s bleeding nose for a while, until the bleeding seemed to lessen.

Then the tall minister bent down to Paul’s bloody shirt and chest. Seeing no signs of life, he began CPR on Paul Steiner.

He placed the heel of one hand in the middle of Paul’s chest, and covered that hand with his other hand.

Then he started pumping up and down on Paul’s chest, with his hands and arms and upper body strength. He did this for what seemed like a minute or two.

Then he bent down closer, and put his mouth over Paul’s bloody mouth, and breathed in to the traumatized body. He removed his mouth, and, not seeing any reaction from Paul, he placed his mouth again over Paul’s mouth, and breathed in again.

C’mon, Paul,” Hendrickson said quietly. “C’mon, buddy.”

The Protestant man of God performed CPR on Paul for several minutes, switching between chest pumps and mouth breathing.

He was in the middle of a short series of mouth breaths when Paul gasped, and rolled over on his side, coughing violently and spewing blood out of his mouth.

Don’t anyone touch him!” Rev. Hendrickson said, as he helped Paul lie back on his shoulders on the floor. “Let him lie here until the ambulance people arrive.”

He looked around at the small group of people who had gathered around the wounded man. “Everyone say a prayer for Paul,” Rev. Hendrickson said.

The Hendrickson’s children, still at their table, were crying loudly. They were nestled against their mother, Felicia, who was fighting back tears, amid general terror and shock.

Roger, who had also been slightly wounded, and whose Mickey Mouse t-shirt was now splattered with blood and sweat stains, put his right hand on Rev. Hendrickson’s shoulder.

I don’t know what to say,” Roger said.

Hendrickson looked into Roger’s eyes, and then the two men embraced.

Soon, with red headlights spinning and sirens blaring, police, fire, and ambulance vehicles screeched into the gravel of the parking lot and the first responders poured into the restaurant. There were several wounded people in the diner, but Paul was the worst off. Immediately he was placed onto a stretcher and taken outside to a waiting ambulance, which swiftly left the parking lot and, with sirens blaring, traveled east on the interstate to the nearest hospital in Harrisburg.

Before long, nighttime filled the sky. The mountains again kept their watch over the quiet world.



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