Jack in the Box

Chapter 37


Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

I stayed with Annie for the next two days, sleeping on the couch in Clay's room. I didn't get any argument from my mother about missing school, and Clay ran me home to get some clothes and my shaving kit.

The first day at the hospital, I sat with Annie's mother during the tests, then with Annie between procedures. We were all jittery, and Annie was hungry and uncomfortable to boot. She had to be empty for the doctor to do his thing, and part of that was to poke a scope up you know where.

All I could do was hold hands, commiserate, and not eat anything in front of her. We were there from eight in the morning until after two the first day, and after all that they hadn't found anything definitive. There were more tests scheduled for the next day, just to make sure, and Annie was allowed a light meal before six that night, nothing after that.

She couldn't wait to get home to eat, so we stopped at Frank's for a late lunch. We were all pretty well relieved that nothing had turned up, and once Annie had some food in her, she brightened right up.

When we got back to her house, she felt good enough to take a walk, so we headed out into the sunshine. The weather was being fickle, cold one day and warm the next. We didn't even need jackets, so I borrowed a sweater from Clay's room.

We just walked along the road, holding hands and not saying much. We ended up sitting on a bench by Joe Goldman's pond, looking out over the water. Right across the pond from us was the first place we really made out. It was just a bend in the brook with some shrubs that had hidden us, but I idly considered erecting some sort of monument there. I kept my mouth shut about that idea.

Instead, I asked Annie, in all seriousness, "Does it hurt to sit?"

She elbowed me in the ribs, "What kind of question is that?"

"Jeez, it was just a question. I wasn't tryin' to be funny."

She leaned against me, saying quietly, "No, it doesn't hurt." She sighed, "I hope they don't find anything tomorrow." She started giggling, "It's funny that you thought Dwayne was a pervert. I was hoping that you'd leave the corruption of your morals up to me."

I giggled, "Start corruptin', I'm all yours."

She kissed my cheek, "Do you mean that?"

"I do today, Annie. Have your way with me!"

Annie laughed, "Just today?" She scrunched around and straddled my legs facing me, putting us nose to nose. She whispered, "Did you mean what you said last night?"

I knew that was coming, and I'd had the whole night and day to think about it. "I did mean it. I love you, Annie. I never knew how much 'til I saw you all fragile like that." I smiled, "You have this boy for as long as you want me."

She smiled her brightest and kissed me, then put her chin on my shoulder. "Oh, Michael, I love you too. Mmm, I can't believe you said that," she breathed out.

I did say it, and I meant it. It had crept up on me, but there it was. I loved Annie, plain and simple. No doubt about it.

We kissed again, then again. The bench we were on was by the road, and we'd heard a few cars go by and paid no attention to them. Suddenly a horn beeped, jarring us enough that we turned around to see a grinning Hector looking at us from his car, with his brother Jose peering out from the passenger seat and Scott Goldman looking at us from the back. Hector laughed, "I hope you guys know this is a public place!"

Annie said, "It was private enough until just now, Hector. Is that a big scratch I see on your pretty little car?"

A look of horror spread across Hec's face as he fumbled with his seatbelt, then jumped out to inspect his car. Annie said, "Just kidding."

Hec turned around and exhaled loudly, then kind of smiled and leaned back against the car, crossing his arms. "I owe you one, Annie. How'd it go at the hospital?"

Annie said, "They didn't find anything, one more test tomorrow."

"That's good. Um, let me bring Scotty up, I'll be right back."

With that, he got back in the car and took off up the street, turning into the driveway. I watched until he was out of sight, then turned to Annie. "Do you understand that guy?"

She looked surprised, "Who? Hector? What's to understand? He's a sweetheart."

I mumbled, "Yeah, if ya like roller coasters."

"What do you mean?"

"Come on, Annie! He's so up and down he's like an escalator."

Annie hugged me gently, "Put yourself in his shoes, Mike. He was eleven, old enough to know what gay meant, when he got adopted by two gay men. They were people he'd been conditioned to think were bad, suddenly he's living with them. Paulina says he still struggles with that. He's always had a problem connecting with people, and she thinks he has an inferiority complex." She giggled, "Go figure that one, huh? The brightest kid in town feels inferior."

I was surprised, "Really?"

She shook her head gently, "Think about it, Mike. Have you ever seen him with the same girl twice? I can answer that, because you haven't. He goes out and has a good time, then convinces himself that he did everything wrong and never calls back. You saw him with Clara on Friday, did that look like love in the making or what?"

I remembered Clara's humor and chuckled, "Yeah, they were havin' fun. She's a funny girl."

"If Hector comes back, ask him how she's doing. You'll see."

I pulled Annie in for a kiss, then asked her, "How'm I doin'?"

She smiled, then whispered, "Just perfect, Mike." She rubbed her nose against mine, then her look got serious. "I know what you lost, Mike, and I'll never, ever, envy your memories of Jack." She pulled back for a second, then her expression became softer, "I may envy you for having memories like that, but Jack is part of you, so he's part of us, too."

I leaned in for a kiss, but she pulled away and said, "We should look at today as day one. Whatever happens between us, this is where it starts." She smiled, "I love you, Michael. I'd love to spend my life with you, but if that's not in the cards, I'll understand. I'll still always love you for the person you are."

I thought that was beautifully said, but I was a bit confused. "Why's today day one? What about kindergarten, first grade? We've always known each other."

I stared at her, waiting for an answer.

Annie looked down, then back up into my eyes. "Maybe you're right, I mean... you're right that we've always known each other, and that's part of us, too. Today's the day we know how much we care about each other. It's been coming, Mike, but we never really said it. Now, "her eyes filled with tears, "we have said it, and... and I can't tell you how much it means." She flung herself on me, crying happily, "Oh, Michael, I'm so happy right now I could burst."

I thought about telling her not to burst on me, but held my tongue.

The feelings I had right then were kind of indescribable. Annie's words had an effect on me, an effect that I hadn't felt since Jack died. I knew then that I could love this girl, that I did love her. I knew her differently than I knew Jack, because I'd known her since I developed a conscious mind. It wasn't the same thing in most ways, but in the ones that mattered it was exactly the same.

There was one huge difference, that being that Jack was a boy and Annie was a girl. Jack had loved me for me, the person, and Annie did, too. To me right then, it was irresistible. Annie had just given me permission to love Jack all my life, to share that love with her.

She knew that I had a propensity for liking other guys, she'd just said it. I knew that I did, too, but I could be faithful to Annie.

I saw her as my match, equal in every way. She was also pretty, smart, and understanding in a way I'd never be. We were fifteen years old, and had discovered ways to satisfy each other's sexual wants without actually doing the deed. We had reveled in each other's bodies, enjoying the youthful beauty that was bound to fade, but we knew that. We'd be old soon enough, maybe on the same track, maybe on different ones.

It was now, though, and it was right, and it was perfect. I knew I was getting smarter, because I knew I cared for Annie even more than I loved her. I knew right then that caring was what I'd always seen with my parents, with Tony's. We, as kids, were just background noise. We were loved, to be sure, but a byproduct of an even greater love. Children were one outcome of that love, not the reason for it.

I decided to play movie actor, and leaned into Annie until she was almost horizontal, and kissed her exaggeratedly until she squealed, then kissed her lovingly.

There was the sound of brakes behind us, and the sound of a big engine running. I was in the middle of a big and sexy kiss, but I giggled because I knew who was there, and could only hope that he wouldn't embarrass me too much.

As expected, I heard Joe's voice, saying happily, "Jeez, I put a bench out for folks to sit on so as to enjoy the pond, and the next thing I know they're getting' ready to fornicate."

Annie and I both turned ten shades of red and sat up to look at his grin. He rounded the bench, plopping down beside us, and touched the back of his hand to Annie's cheek. "How ya doin', girl? The tests go okay?"

Annie smiled and nodded. Joe said brightly, "Good. It's not the end of the world, anyhow." He softened his tone, "Annie, if it helps, Marty has Crohn's. She got diagnosed around your age. It's a problem once in awhile, she gets sick and I get scared, but it always ends after a few days or a week. You should give her a call if you're concerned. It's something you can deal with... if you even have it."

Annie stood, then turned around and sat on my lap with her back to my front, seeming to meld right into me. She smiled over at Joe, "I never knew that about Marty. She never needed surgery?"

Joe patted her shoulder, "Only once, and that was just to get a closer look." He grinned, "Stop worryin', girl! By the time you need a colostomy, you'll be too old and frail to wipe your own ass anyhow."

I closed my eyes tightly, trying desperately not to burst out laughing, and I heard Annie exclaim, "Pig!"

Joe went on, "What?" then he giggled, "I'm not kidding, Annie. The older you get, the harder it gets to lift your rump and reach under there."

I was in silent (I hope) hysterics, and Joe didn't let up.

"You'll probably have arthritis in your fingers by then, and you'll be half blind. Just findin' the end of the toilet roll will be a problem." He started snickering, "People should look forward to a colostomy when they reach senility. It takes a huge problem right out of their hands."

If I didn't laugh, I'd explode. Joe already was laughing, and the parts of Annie I could see were bright red, so I let go, then she did. We all laughed ourselves silly until we heard Hector's voice behind us.

"What's so funny?"

I think the word funny set us off again, because it was a minute before Annie squeaked out, "Nothing's funny. Joe... just... gave us ..." she broke out in giggles, "a glimpse of our future!" Then we all started laughing again. Hector laughed too, and Jose, and it must have been at our own laughs. They didn't have a clue, but laughing can be funny all by itself.

When we settled down, Hector and Jose were standing in front of us. God, I thought Hector was tall, but Jose was only twelve and he wasn't far behind Hec, maybe two inches. They looked like brothers, that's for sure. Hector with his perfect teeth, and Jose with his braces that promised future perfection.

Jose was an easier kid to like than Hector. He was consistent at least, a brainiac like the rest of the family, but he knew how to have fun, and he knew how to have friends. Hec could be like that when he wanted to, he just never let you know where you stood with him. He'd be your friend one minute, ignore you the next, then be back like nothing had changed.

I tested what Annie had said earlier, smiling, then asking, "Hey Hec, wanna go cruisin' again Friday? If Annie's okay, I mean. We both like your girlfriend... Clara."

Hector hemmed and hawed, leaning against his little brother at one point. "Um, sure... I guess, if I can get a date." I could see his eyeballs darting around in his head, "I don't know about Clara, I'll ask somebody else." He smiled, looking unsure, "Yeah, let's plan on it."

Annie had been right, and just then she took charge, leaning forward, "Hector, that girl likes you. Don't be an idiot for once… ask her again." She stood up, and when I looked in my lap I had to lean forward and cross my elbows over it. "Hector, don't do it again. It's easy, Hec. Call Clara on the phone, say you had fun, and ask if she wants to do it again!"

Hector was fidgeting. I glanced at Joe and he was just watching. Hector finally said, "I don't know. Maybe... she liked you guys, not me."

Annie got right in his face, "Hector... mmmmph! You are maddening, you know that? Clara likes you! Does she have to get a tattoo that says it? You like her, too." Annie was close, and she poked Hector's chest, "You might be smart, but you miss a lot, buddy. You play the poor wounded me game all the time, but you're the one causing it. I'm sorry, but Earth to Hector! You can't live in the stars forever!"

Hec looked down at Annie's upturned face. He cracked a little smile, "I'll call her. Jesus! If you like her that much you could call yourself!"

Annie lifted her knee toward his groin, not connecting, but coming close enough to cause Hec to cover himself with his hands. She said, "Ooooooh! You make me crazy! You call Clara because you like her. Not because I do, not because Mike does," she poked his chest again, "because you like her! You go and get that cell phone, I want to hear it!"

By now, Joe, Jose and I were all chuckling at Hector's discomfort. He dutifully went to his car, making the call from the driver's seat while Annie stood there.

"Joe said, "Heh, that's what that kid needed to hear." He looked at me and blushed a little, "So, Mike. You're all hot'n heavy with Annie now?"

I smiled, "Yeah," then sighed, "yeaaah."

He patted my shoulder, "That's nice. Hey, tell me about your trip. Did you live on pizza and clams up there?"

Jose sat down beside me with a dreamy look on his face, "Oh, man. Don't remind me about the pizza. I can't even eat one from here anymore. Those were sooo good!" He rubbed his belly in remembrance, while I tried to revive the delicious flavor in my mouth..

I launched off into a description of the places I'd seen and the things I'd done with Davy, and it was neat that they knew what I was talking about. They'd spent the summer near there, and seen and done some of the same things. It was cool to have people who actually believed everything I said. Joe and Jose were nodding eagerly with my every word.

When Annie and Hector came back, Annie had a triumphant smile on her face, and Hec was smiling sheepishly. Annie said brightly, "It's a go for Friday, and we're all going to the swim club for awhile on Saturday."

That sounded like fun. I asked Hector, "You takin' Clara?"

He nodded, then asked if we needed a ride home. I really wanted to stay where we were, but Annie accepted his offer, so we said goodbye to Joe and climbed in the back seat, while Jose got in front with his brother.

When we got to Annie's house, we told Hector we'd call him or see him in school to make final plans for Friday night. I was looking forward to it.

Jed had taken me cruising a few times, but I was in a deep funk then, and didn't have much fun. Now I knew what I should have been feeling, especially in a neat car like Hector's, and I couldn't wait. Cruising like that was probably pretty dumb, but it sure was fun.

As soon as we walked in Annie's back door, her mother said, "Michael, your mother called, call her back." Then she started asking Annie questions about how she felt.

I called home, and my mother answered. "Michael, Rosie already told me about Annie's tests. Is she feeling alright?"

I smiled, "She feels good to me."

"Michael!"

"Sorry, it just came out. What's up?"

"Are you staying out of school again tomorrow? If you are, you should get somebody to bring you your assignments. Also, there's a package here for you from Davy. It must be your pictures."

"Really? Open it up!" I was all excited. I couldn't wait to see the pictures and show them to everybody.

There was a pause, "It's the pictures." Another pause, "Oh, my! Ohmigod, you're both so handsome! Look at those cheeks!"

"Mom!"

"Well, you are! Michael, these are beautiful. I can't wait for you to tell me what I'm looking at."

"Can you bring them over? Please? I wanna show Annie."

There was a pause, then she said, "I can. Later though, not right now. I'm fixing dinner. Can you wait?"

NO! was the correct answer, but I knew I had to wait. "Sure, whenever you can. I just wanna show 'em to Annie."

My mother paused again, "Let me turn this oven down, I'll bring them now."

I threw up a fist and jumped, grazing the ceiling with the backs of my knuckles. When I touched down I noticed Annie and her mother looking at me and blushed a little, whispering into the phone, "Thanks, Mom. See you in a few."

I hung up and turned a happy face to Annie. "Davy sent the pictures, and Mom says they came out great. Now ya can see everything I did!"

Annie seemed excited, but before she said anything her father and brother, Jimmy, came barging in, both laughing about something. Damn, Jim was already Lake Erie, he was shooting for Lake Superior. He was one big kid, as tall as his father, as wide as his mother and father combined. He was the kind of person that could get you wondering about what genes really had to do with anything.

Instead of wondering too much, I backed up against the wall so he couldn't really hug me, which was his propensity. He had kind of a big-boy version of Annie's face, but that's where the resemblance ended. It was hard to believe he was younger than me.

Against the wall, I smiled, "Hey, Jimmy."

"Hey, Mike."

I was spared a crushing hug, because the phone rang and Jim hurried to pick it up, then handed it to me, saying, "For you."

I expected it to be my mother, but it was an excited Tony. "Mike! Um, how's Annie?"

"Okay."

"Did ya see the paper? We're right on the front page!"

"The school paper? I thought it came out tomorrow."

"No, today! Man, everybody's talkin' about it. You guys did a great job, but," he started stuttering, "I... I... I... I'm published!" I had to laugh at the glee in his voice.

I got a little excited myself, "Oh, man! I hope you got me a copy." I put my hand over the mouthpiece and told Annie who it was and what it was about.

Tony said, "I got about fifty of 'em. I can't believe it, Mike, I got a picture right on the front page of the paper! Even Daddy's excited."

I giggled, thinking I'd like to see that in person. Tony's father was perhaps the calmest man on the planet, and I wondered how he exhibited excitement. Maybe he lifted both eyebrows. "Oh, man, now I wanna see one!" A light bulb went off in my head, "Tony! Ma's bringin' the pictures from Davy over, why don't you bring a newspaper, then we can look at everything."

"Yes!"

I heard him asking if he could, then, "Let me eat, then I'm on my way! Prob'ly an hour."

When I hung up I must have been the picture of excitement. I looked at Jimmy, "Did ya see the school paper today?"

He smiled, "I tried, they were all gone." His smile disappeared, "I saw the big article about Jack at lunch. Everybody's talkin' about it." He searched my face, "That must'a been hard for you to do, Mike. Half the school was cryin' after they read it." His lip started to quiver, "All the guys that ragged on you..."

I was hugging Jimmy in a second, my turn to give comfort. For all his size, he was still a kid. I'd seen him face his fears and overcome them, but facing them didn't make them any less unsettling emotionally. I whispered, "It's alright now, Jim. I like talkin' about Jack. It's okay."

He nodded his head and pulled back, looking into my eyes. "It still sucks what they did."

I said, "It's all over, Jim. All done." I thought, then added, "All fixed."

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. Annie was looking at me and Jim, but her parents were being pretty obvious about trying not to look at us, like we needed this time and they were in the way. I looked at Annie helplessly, and she got the message.

"Why don't we sit outside?" she asked. "This could be the last nice day we get."

We didn't even make it into the yard, just plopped down on the back steps. I had a gut feeling that I owed something to Jimmy, I just didn't know what it was. He'd helped on the bus on that awful day, and I'd never really talked to him about it. I didn't want to talk about that, not ever again if I could avoid it, but Jimmy had been there and he'd been strong. He helped people. He deserved something.

I said, "Jim, there's stuff I could say. I just don't wanna talk about it." I couldn't keep the tears from my eyes, but I continued, "I know what you did that night. You're strong, a good person." I was choking up, "You did what you ..."

I couldn't keep it up. I leaned into Jimmy choking back tears. He was on the verge himself.

We'd been through something that was awful beyond imagination together, and had really never acknowledged it to each other.

We sat in silence, knowing what the other was feeling, what we were seeing in our minds. It wasn't for a long time, but it was something that had to happen. Jimmy had been another force that day of the crash, as important as anybody. He'd kept the majority of the kids calm, fed and comfortable.

There was no order of importance on that bus, really, other than getting control, and that had been a task that overwhelmed all of us, at least after the fact. We were kids: me, Jed, and Jimmy, doing men's work, and we didn't know how.

Jack led us through it, using my head and my mouth. There were dead people there, horribly dead, not died-in-your-sleep dead. These were people who had been alive moments ago, people we all knew. Still, we worked around the bodies, the gore that was everywhere. We all had to come to terms with things on the spot to be able to help the living. I'll never know how we did that. The mangled bodies of my Jack, Jed's brother and his best friend, Jimmy's friends and teachers, they were all there. I guess your brain does something different in a situation like that, kind of shuts out the real horror of it so you can deal with that part later.

The images from that day still invaded me from time to time, and they probably always will. Sitting there with Jimmy, it was all too real again, and I know that we were both seeing the same pictures. I'd had my hand on Jim's arm, but I pulled it away to cover my eyes, as if that would make it all go away, make it not happen again, make it not have happened in the first place.

Ultimately, I didn't have any words for Jim, and he had none for me. It didn't feel like it was my place to say thank you; that was for the people he'd helped. It would hurt too much and accomplish nothing if we talked about it.

I was bummed out. Jimmy was a nice kid, and I felt that I was always avoiding him for the very reasons I should have befriended him. He'd been there with me, done his part when others couldn't, and I couldn't get my brain to send a single word to my mouth.

Jim finally stirred, and muttered, "I'm thankful you were there, Mike."

I sighed. He had it right. That's what I should have said, because it was what I felt, exactly what I felt. I had nothing to say thank you to Jimmy for, but I was damn thankful that he'd been there. That's what I finally said, "I'm thankful that you were there, too. I... ". I stopped. There was nothing to add to that. I took my hands down from my eyes and looked out into the back yard.

I didn't want to disconnect from Jim, but I wanted to change the subject. "Howcum you're not playing' football?"

Jim was quiet for a few seconds, then he mumbled, "I ain't big enough."

That broke the tension, and we both laughed. He said, "I don't even like football that much."

I said, "Man, the coach must cry every time he sees you in the halls. What do you like?"

"Sports? Just baseball and fishing really. Clay says you and Anton are goin' out for the team, too?"

I chuckled, "That ain't been decided yet, Jim. We don't know the game."

He started, "I seen Anton ..."

Just then, my mother pulled in. I bopped Jim's shoulder as I got up, "It's my mother, I'll be right back."

I trotted over to the car, expecting my mother to just hand the pictures out the window. By the time I got there, she was getting out, and she had my sisters with her. My mother handed me the package from Davy, and my sisters were getting things from the back seat. My school bag, and what looked like a casserole.

I laughed. They'd invited themselves over, even brought their own dinner. It was good, in a way. I could explain the pictures once and get a whole bunch of people out of the way. What I couldn't do was wait. I had them in my hand and I wanted to see them right away.

I ran back to Annie and Jim, who were standing, hoping that Davy was a better picture taker than Paulina. "I got 'em! Let's go where we can look at them."

As we were going inside, I wondered about the heft of the package I had in my hand. Davy had always been forgetting the camera, forgetting to snap shots when he did have it. The envelope felt like it contained a whole bunch more than I remembered posing for.

Annie's house had a formal dining room, and she led us in there, turning on the chandelier over the table. My mother called from the kitchen for us to not start without her, but I was already at the head of the table, fingering through the photos.

I could already tell that they were out of order, just randomly scooped together. My mother was the probable culprit, she always did that, but it could have been Davy.

I was just looking at them quickly by myself, but Davy was definitely a better photographer than Paulina. These all seemed to be focused and clear.

I could also tell why there were so many, and why it had taken so long. Davy had gone back and taken pictures of things I'd seen and people I'd met when he either didn't have the camera with him, or forgot to take pictures.

When dinner was in the oven and everyone had gathered around, I noticed that Clay wasn't there, and Tony hadn't shown up yet. I asked, "Where's Clay?"

His father said, "Jimmy, go get Clay." He looked at me, "He has his headphones on, I guarantee it. Lord knows what he's listening to, probably some high opera or something."

The doorbell rang, and Annie opened it to let an excited and somewhat sweaty Tony in. He had a big envelope in his hand, and he dumped the contents on the table, several copies of the school paper. I thought I was a good grabber, but I didn't have a chance. I had to look over Annie's shoulder to see it.

I gasped, and grabbed onto Annie for support as soon as I saw it. The school paper had never really gotten my attention. It usually had some profile of a club or a person, schedules, sports information, cafeteria menus, nothing too important.

This one had the header Jack Murphy Regional High School Journal, then the headline that I knew was coming. Tony's drawing of Jack, shrunk down like it was, looked exactly like a photograph that had not, could not have ever been taken. I knew what the words in the article said, but seeing it together on the front page like that seemed impossibly beautiful.

I beamed my grin around from person to person, like I was trying to bake the moment into their brains. I was between Tony and Annie, and I wrapped arms around both of them, kissing both their cheeks. My mother and Annie's parents were reading the article. Mom got tears in her eyes first, followed shortly by the Nettletons. I could see the difference, my mother with her own memories of Jack, the Nettleton's sad because they had none of their own. It was like they were meeting him for the first time.

There were seats for eight people at that table, but we were all standing, oblivious to the comfortable accommodations available to us.

As people finished the article, they turned sad eyes to me, but I was already celebrating. This was a time for glad, not sad. I gave Annie a big smooch on her cheek, then turned my attention to Tony.

"That picture's friggin' great! Tell me you ever saw Jack with his hair combed!"

Tony was as excited as me, "I was in gym with him. I saw it combed!"

I wished Dwayne could have been there to see the effect his story had. I wished I had been in school to see the effect there. The last thing I wanted to do was to make people cry, at least when we started this project, but now that I'd seen it, it seemed to fit. Once people knew Jack, they could share my grief. It was sort of love mulch in reverse. If love was a pile of mulch that you spread around, then maybe grief was a pile of rocks, but everybody had to carry their own. Mine sure didn't go away. They were too heavy, kind of immovable.

I was trading grins with Tony when I first noticed Clay standing against the wall, all morose looking. When he saw me looking at him, he jerked his head in a 'come here' motion, so I followed him to the kitchen, then he headed down the hall to his room. When I walked in, he pushed the door shut behind me.

I didn't know what was going on, but I was suddenly afraid that Clay was doing drugs. His eyes were all red, and his face looked tense. It wasn't like him, and it kind of scared me. He led me to his couch and kind of nudged me down to sit while he paced. He was looking away from me when he said, "Mike ..." He turned around to face me, "I don't know who I can tell this to besides you."

He took a step back and sat on his bed, facing me. It was then that I realized that his red eyes were from crying, not drugs.

He was on the bed, fidgeting with his hands. He finally looked at me. "Mike? Annie says you write to Jack, is that so?"

I nodded.

"Can you tell him I'm sorry?"

I nodded in surprise, "Yeah, I can do that."

Clay was still fooling with his hands, pressing his fingertips together, then moving them back and forth against each other. "I got the damdest feeling when I read Dwayne's article, like deja-vu or something, like I already knew the things in it. I've read it about ten times now, and I end up crying every time. I can't believe I did something so fucking... indecent to you guys. I never even knew Jack, and I still played a rotten game on you." He stared into my eyes, "I know you said you're not mad about it, but I'm mad. I'm mad at myself, mad at the whole gang of us."

"It's okay, Clay. It's all done with."

"It's not okay, Mike. I know you now, and you're one of the nicest guys I ever met. Now I know more about Jack, and I can't get over the feeling that I know more than I should, like I can tell what you guys felt for each other. I can almost feel it myself." He drooped a little and looked away. "I don't know, it's this beautiful thing I feel, and I don't know where it comes from." He shook his head slowly, "It sure doesn't belong to me."

I just stared at Clay; it was all I could do. My mind was racing, wondering if Jack had somehow left something behind in Clay's head. Accidently, or on purpose? Maybe just part of how that all worked? Clay had told me about his dream, that 'someone' was in his head after he drowned, and I knew then that it had to be Jack. I kept having this dream myself, about a long and beautiful kiss that I'd shared with Jack, but every time I woke up I was seeing Clay's face, not Jack's. I found myself wondering if, when Dave told me that I'd find Jack, he meant I'd find him in someone else. But Clay? Or was I going to find him scattered all over the place, a pice here and another there? Did I have to put him together? I thought about when I'd dropped a bowl of bacos on the floor once. I thought I had them all swept up, but found ones that I'd missed for weeks.

I don't know how long I sat there like that, but I was drawn back by the sound of my name. "Mike?"

I was startled, but it was just Clay, probably wondering where my mind had wandered off to this time. I wanted to talk to him about this, but I was afraid of sounding like an idiot, afraid of sounding crazy. Instead, I shrugged and smiled, not really knowing if he'd been talking all along or not. I started to stand, "Sorry, guess I spaced out." God, I wanted to ask Clay what he was feeling. I was afraid of it, though. I mean, what if Jack was in there? Would I have to hold endless intellectual discussions about music and art to find him? I would, I would in a minute. I just wanted to be more sure of myself before I tried to feel out Clay.

When we were both on our feet facing each other, Clay said, "I'm gonna do something, Mike. I don't know what yet, but something to make up for what I did. I can't make it right, but you'll see. I'll make it better somehow. I promise." He smiled and held out his hand to shake.

I was afraid to take hold of Clay's hand, afraid that there would be electricity there and I'd know for sure. I had to, though, and when I did it was just a hand, one with slightly sweaty palms. I smiled at Clay while I sighed inside. If he really held a part of Jack, it wasn't the part that lit my fires.

I hung onto Clay's hand for a long moment, the both of us searching each other's eyes. I don't know what Clay was looking for, probably not what he was seeing. I sure knew what I was looking for, and I wasn't finding it. Clay had nice clear eyes, but I could only look at them, they didn't let me inside.

He finally dropped my hand, bopped my arm, and said, "Let's go see the pictures."

I nodded, still feeling kind of dumb and overwhelmed. I loved Annie, and she said it was okay for me to love Jack too. This was my first encounter with that duality, and it really had me worried. If Jack could come back in any real form, Annie would be dumped so fast that the sound of my goodbye would still be in the air after I left the room. That thought really bothered me. Annie wanted to share Jack with me. I wanted that, too, the freedom to continue loving Jack for all time.

I wanted to sit back down and wonder about things, but Clay didn't want me to stay away from the others any longer, so I followed him back, stopping in the bathroom on the way.

When I got back to the dining room, people were eating and passing the pictures around. Annie was nowhere in sight, and when I asked, I was told that she'd gone to her room to lay down, given that she couldn't eat. That made me not want to eat, out of sympathy I guess. I went down the hall and tapped on her door, asking, "Annie? Are you decent?"

"Not when you're around," was the answer. "Come on in!"

I walked in to find her on her bed, just setting a book down. She smiled up, "Where'd you disappear to with Clay?"

I pulled the chair out from her desk and straddled it, my head resting on my arms on the back of it. I said softly, "We were just talkin'. He still feels bad about last year. He wants to make it up somehow."

Annie smiled, then shivered and curled up a little. I stood up and helped her roll up into her comforter, asking, "Cold?"

She shivered again, and said, "Mostly hungry. Did you eat?"

I sat on the edge of her bed and leaned in for a kiss. "No. If you're hungry, I guess I can be too, like moral support."

She giggled, "That's so sweet. You go ahead and eat something. If I feel the need to faint from hunger, I'd be disappointed to find you already on the floor, instead of gallantly rescuing me."

I giggled and touched her nose with my finger. "You're funny."

She shivered again, and I asked, "Are you okay?"

She smiled, "Just cold from hunger. Help me get into bed." She pointed at her dresser, "My warm pj's are in the bottom drawer. My bathrobe's inside the closet door.

I started to get up, but Annie held onto me. "Kiss me first," she wiggled her nose, "then you can undress me."

I kissed her, giggling about the undressing remark, then I looked in her dresser drawer, finding a fuzzy Dr. Denton pajamas. I stood and held them by the shoulders, letting them unfold, then I grinned when I saw Mickey Mouse emblazoned on them. It was the wizard picture, with stars coming out of his wand and arcing around his head. I turned around and held it out, "Are these the ones?"

Her smile was my answer, so I dropped it on the bed and opened the closet to get her bathrobe, darned if it didn't have the same picture on it as the pajamas. I grabbed it and turned to Annie with a smile on my face. "What is it you like here? Wizards, or mice, or stars?"

She giggled, "Cartoon mice are alright. I just like the idea of stars coming from a magic wand."

I knew Annie, her sense of humor, and I knew what she meant. It was too funny for me to remain standing, so I just about dove onto the bed beside her before my knees gave out.

We kissed and giggled until my own magic twanger was ready to spray forth a galaxy, and Annie somehow became undressed in the process. Not totally naked, just in her underwear. She stopped me, "No, Michael, not here." She giggled, "help me into my pj's."

I found the pajamas on the floor and helped her wiggle into them. She was cuter and sexier in them than she was out of them, all wrapped up in the same fuzzy garment from her neck to the bottoms of her feet.

Annie smiled up at me, "Go eat, Mike. I need some sleep."

I leaned down and kissed her, whispering, "Sleep well, Annie. I love you."

She held onto my neck for a moment. "I love you, too. I'll see you in the morning."

Before I went out the door, I turned and looked at Annie, worried that she might not be okay. She gave me a happy little wave, so I returned it and left the room.

As soon as I appeared in the dining room, Annie's mother looked up and asked, "How is she?"

I said, "She got cold, she's goin' to sleep now."

I must have looked worried. Annie's mother got up to go see her, and as she passed me she paused and put her fingers to my cheek, smiling gently, "Don't worry, Annie always gets chilly when she's hungry. We'll feed her well tomorrow. You go help yourself to something before you wither away yourself."

Everyone else was still at the table, Clay the only one still eating. Nobody was looking at the pictures, just talking, but I could see that the photos were in two piles while I filled a plate. I took my time choosing food, because I knew I was going to get a big ass inquisition about one of those piles or the other.

As soon as I had some food on my fork, my mother said, "Mike, between us I think we figured out the scenery, and I must say you picked a beautiful weekend to visit. We don't know who all these people are, though, and it seems that you met a lot of them." She smiled, "You can speak with your mouth full, I'll just hold up photos and you tell us who they are and where they fit in, okay?"

I shoveled in some food and nodded while, God help me, my mother reached for the bigger pile of pictures and selected the top one. She held it up, and it was Davy's father, which I told them. We got into a little rhythm, me eating, then saying, "That's Pam, Davy's mother," and "That's Ken and Mary, they live in the red house you saw. They really helped Davy's family when they were all growing up. You know, people like Tim and Dave next door."

After about a dozen, my mother picked one up and looked at it, then before showing it to me, she said, "This one has us confused. Who is this boy?"

She turned it to me, and it was a picture of Paul holding something in his hands. I couldn't see it from across the table, so I wiped my fingers and reached over for it.

Paul was smiling in the shot, and he was holding a piece of paper with hand lettering on it.

It read; I'm an idiot on the first line, then It's official, then I'm sorry.

I just stared at it, my heart leaping. Yes! Juan had gotten through! I didn't know why it elated me so much, probably because it meant that I didn't exist in a hole in the world that was different than everywhere else. I was just as happy for Davy and Juan and Guy, for Tom and Vinny. I was grinning.

My mother said, "There's another one," and handed me a similar picture of Paul. I thought it was a duplicate at first, but the paper he was holding said, I like you, then, Call me up, then his phone number.

I stared at it until my mother asked, "Well?"

I couldn't stop smiling. "This is Davy's friend, Paul He's Juan's best friend. He... um, he had a problem with me."

Tony looked up and asked, "Like I used to?"

I looked into his big brown eyes and said, "Yeah, Tony. Same problem, different place."

That caused an uncomfortable silence, which only ended when my mother passed over the next picture, and it was Guy.

I got excited. "This is Guy, Guy Morales. He's Juan's younger brother. He's really smart, and he's a lot of fun, and he's got more jokes than you ever heard. He plays soccer. He's the best guy on a bad team, but the good teams want him now. He's got real good ideas, too. You watch, he'll be rich someday!"

Silence.

God, everyone was staring at me, and I had to bite my lip to keep from going on about how guy smelled, about how he could use both hands, that I thought he was cute, that he was gay. Instead, I looked at the picture, which had caught him mid-laugh, his eyes shining, his lips moist. I looked to find something wrong, maybe a booger showing in his nose, or one ear bigger than the other.

There was nothing wrong. It was a picture of Guy being Guy, just the way I remembered him.

I kind of missed him.

I handed it off before I could dig a bigger hole for myself, making a note to contain my enthusiasm for guys named Guy when at Annie's house.

I think the only two who caught onto me were my mother and Clay. My mother had a kind of surprised look on her face, while Clay had a wry smile.

My mother broke the moment by showing me more pictures. Barry, Jack, Jimbo, Sherry, so many others. It really floored me that I had met so many memorable people in such a short time.

Then there was one of Bally and Bobby, and it really stopped me short. Bobby wearing a nice, bulky winter coat. They were both smiling, Bally broadly, Bob kind of timidly, like a smile was a foreign thing to him. My eyes immediately clouded with tears, and a pounding started in my ears. I couldn't form words then, and finally my mother said, "There's something on the back of that one."

I turned it over, and it said simply, "Thanks," and it was signed by both of them.

I almost lost it. I couldn't say anything, just look for some kind of promise in the picture. Bally and Bobby were just weird friends, I didn't get any sense that they were gay or anything, but they leaned on each other. I had the thought that Bally was the one who leaned on Bob most, but now that Bobby's horrible secret was out, it was the other way around. It was good that it could work that way. Bally learned about tough from Bobby, and when Bobby needed a strong friend, he found the one he'd taught to be strong, no matter how strange the lessons may have been along the way.

I finally found my voice, and decided to tame it for once. Turning the picture to the others, I said, "That's Bally in the tan coat. It's short for Balthazar, and he hates it. Bobby's the kid in the ski jacket. They're best friends."

Tony snickered, "Balthazar? Ain't that some French guy in history class?"

Clay said, "No, Anton. That's a French guy in English class. Didn't you read 'The Three Stooges' yet?"

It took a few seconds, and Clay tried valiantly to correct himself, but it was way too late. One by one we started snickering, then laughing, led on by Clay's own father, who seemed to truly rejoice in his son's slip.

Clay gave up and laughed harder than anyone, his face all tear-stained and beet red when we started to settle down.

Tony reached across and tapped my hand, pointing at Clay with his other, "Mike, maybe we kin boil Clay. That's a better red than I get from flowers!"

I looked at Tony and started wheezing, feeling like I might chuck up what I ate. I lost it, picturing Clay all boiled up in one of Tony's pots. I had a laugh so good that it was both painful and messy, my eyes and nose all running. It was just Tony and me this time, nobody else had a clue what we were talking about. For once, Tony lost it too, and as much as I was lost in my own mirth, I couldn't help but notice that Tony was lost in glee for the first time since I'd known him.

He was skinny, but his stomach was literally bucking up and down. He had his hands over his eyes, but I could see the redness in his cheeks, the tears leaking under his palms. I loved it! Tony Wolfe, confident enough now that he could break down in mirth in front of other people. And have it be about something that was truly funny, at least to him and me.

If there was a way to stop laughing, we could have explained to others and made it funny for them, but there was no way. I got too many pictures in my head, like Tony with an old lady customer looking at a birdhouse: "What do you call this color, young man?"

"Oh, that's Clay."

"Oh, how delightful!. What a marvelous shade of red!"

I set myself off over and over again, thinking thoughts like that, and Tony was doing the same thing, I knew he was. He was just like me, he'd slow down for a moment, probably hoping it was over, then just wheeze out another laugh when an idea hit him.

You have to stop laughing like that sometime, I mean, it makes your bones hurt. I was consciously trying to not think about it anymore, but the harder I tried, the funnier it got.

It was just me and Tony, laughing ourselves foolish, but when one of us went high-pitched, other people started laughing just because we were so totally lost in it.

Eventually, even the funniest things lose their grip, leaving you feeling weak and tired, with your eyes burning from the tears of laughter you've shed.

I looked at Tony and giggled one last time, finally able to speak, and I didn't want to say anything that might be remotely funny. I still hadn't responded to Tony's actual remark, and I thought it would be best if I never did.

After a few more snickers and giggles, we were back to earth. I avoided looking at Clay, knowing I'd just start up again if I did.

Instead, I looked at my mother, who responded to my gaze with a pretty intent look. I asked, "Any more?"

She looked through the remaining pictures, then handed them to me. "No, just repeats." She didn't even change tempo. "Look how you've grown from this trip. We should have sent you off on your own a long time ago."

A giant "Huh? formed in my throat, but before I got to voice it, she went on. "Michael, just listen. I know you're not destined to stay here. I've known it since you could talk, since you could ask questions."

She stood and walked over to me, leaning down into a big motherly hug. She breathed, "Mike, you don't have to tell me everything, I already know, I don't need the details. I know that this trip was a giant step for you, and I think it was in the right direction, too. I know that there's more than you're telling me about Bally and Bob, about Guy, about Paul." She pushed me back to look into my eyes. Her own were fervent, "I know that you're adult enough to deal with a lot on your own." Her eyes clouded, and her voice lowered to a whisper, "I also know that you're still child enough to get frightened by it all." She pulled me into a hug, "You know where to come, Mike. Your father and I will be here for you as long as we can draw breath."

I was holding on to her, and she continued, "Michael, be true to yourself, wherever that brings you. You have feelings for a lot of people, I can see that. You have to sort it out for yourself, if sorting's even required. There's no hurry. You take your time, and make sure that you end up exactly where you want to be."

I sighed, "Thanks, Mom. I love you."

Tony announced that he had to leave, then my mother told my sisters to gather everything up because they were leaving, too. I walked Tony out to his bike, and as soon as we were outside we started giggling about Clay again. We had a quick hug, then I watched as he rode away into the darkness.

I walked over to where my mother and sisters were putting things back in the car. My mother said, "Bring your books with you tomorrow, you can study while you wait."

I gave her a quick hug, "Okay," then I hugged Angela and Melissa, asking her how Pat was doing.

She smiled, "Way better. Ya done good, big brother. Don't stop now."

I patted her shoulder, "I'll keep talkin' to him. It helps me, too."

She gave me a squeeze and a kiss on the cheek, then they were off. I wandered back inside and sat down to take a better look at the pictures Davy had sent. Everyone else had disappeared, and I could hear the sound of a television in the other room.

I went through the pictures twice, setting a few aside that I wanted to show to Annie. The 'repeats' my mother referred to had several more of Guy, a really great one showing him with his mother and brother, still a loving and happy family. My absolute favorite was the one some lady took of me and Davy at the beach. We were all wind-blown and red-faced from the chill air, but if you could find a picture of two happier looking guys, I'd like to see it.

I could get lost looking at pictures of Dave, and I did for awhile. It had been a kind of stressful day, though, and I soon found myself nodding off at the table. When I realized what I was doing, I got up and washed up in the bathroom, then headed for Clay's room.

Clay was lying on top of his bed, still dressed, with earphones on, and reading a book.

He didn't even notice me until I started making up the couch with the sheet and blankets they'd given me. I had my back turned to him when he said, "Hey, Mike. I didn't see you come in."

I turned around, "You looked busy."

He laid his book down, and I could see that it was 'Fodor's Italy'. He pushed up on an elbow, then noticed me looking at the book. He smiled, "I'm gonna have the back streets of Rome all memorized before I get there." He sighed, "Oh, man, I can't wait!"

I turned back to fixing up the couch. "You should have fun with Joe and Marty, they're good people."

It was Clay's turn to sigh, "I hope so. I just hope I don't have to spend too much time checkin' out road repairs or something."

I giggled, "Plumbing?"

Clay snickered, "Yeah, or wiring." His tone of voice changed, "I got the feeling that Guy is like special to you. Is that right?"

I turned around, "He's a nice kid, we had fun. That's all, Clay, I really liked him."

He raised his eyebrows in a smile, "A new friend?"

"Yeah, I made a lot of new friends. People talk funny, but they're not much different from here. The pizza's way better there, and they have an ocean. I guess it's not so different, 'cept there's lots more to do."

Clay said, "I looked on a map. You were an inch away from New York City. I'd have been on the first bus there." He stood up and started peeling off his clothes, as I was doing. "Well, Connecticut has some pretty good museums, but if I was that close it'd be New York in a second. Oh man, the Met, the MOMA, the Guggenheim, all there on the same street. I'd be in heaven."

I laid down and pulled the covers over me, "Yeah, well Rome must be the real heaven, then." I yawned, "G'night, Clay."

Clay climbed into his bed and turned off the light. "G'night. Um... Mike?"

"Yeah?"

"That stuff I told you before... did it make any sense?"

I could have answered in any number of ways, but I said, "I don't know. It's beyond me, I guess."

Clay settled in, "Oh, okay. I guess I'd be worried if it did."

I laid back and closed my eyes, then Clay asked, "Mike?"

"Yes?"

"We're friends, right?"

I said, "That we are."

Clay made a sighing sound, "Thanks. I like that we're friends now. Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Will you please go out for baseball? And bring Anton with you?"


Continued…

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