Plan D: Lake Effect
The old steps were worn and had rotted in places, but they wanted to stay right where they were. We couldn't be too rough because there were parts we had to save. Not one single piece came up as easily as it might have. There was plenty of muscle there, but by the time we pried, wedged and hammered the last board off we were all soaked through with sweat. Dean was a casualty. He'd been trying to force a pry bar under a board when his sweaty hands lost their grip, and he slid forward into the dull end. That raised a nasty bruise on his belly, but there was no real damage.
Lee and Justin had been taking the old planks and using them as templates to cut the new wood, so John Balls had barely pulled out the last nail when they were there laying the new wood in place. You would have thought those two had worked together before. In just a few minutes they had the new steps roughly in place, then they used some shims to gap the boards, which they set with a nail at each end. It was actually kind of fascinating to watch them work.
When the wood was all in place, Justin used a measure to line up with the stringers, and he drew a light pencil line so we could see where to put the screws.
When they got that far, they joined us in the shade, and they were both sweating mightily where the rest of us had cooled off some. Chris and I got up, and we each picked up one of the power drills. With Aaron handing screws to me and Bruce handing them to Chris, we started in. Justin was there right away to make sure we sank the screws in below the facing of the boards. That made the work a lot harder because you really had to put some downward force on the drills to do that. There were plenty of people to relieve us, so we didn't have to stay at it for too long.
Once the top step was all secure, we took a break and watched Billy and John Balls do the same thing on the next one down. Justin had a reason for countersinking the screw like that. He walked around where the screw was in, and put a big drop of Elmer's glue on top of each one. Then he took sawdust and rounded it on top of the glue, and he gave the whole mess a good smack with a short-handled sledge hammer. It was brilliant, and took even Lee by surprise. Once those steps were painted, nobody would ever know how they were attached, much less where.
When the steps were together, there was still more to do. It was lunch time, though, and rather than cook, Aaron's grandfather took us to a snack bar in town, at the far end of the lake. It was called Walt's, and it reminded me of Bill's in Riverton except it was nicer, and they didn't have crab sandwiches. They didn't have any kind of fish. Aaron said their hot dogs were righteous though, and he had that right. These were the foot-long ones, and they grilled the buns, which were nearly as long. The fixings you added yourself, so when I sat down to eat I had two hot dogs loaded with ketchup, mustard and chopped onion, a cardboard tray full of fries, and a super-colossal pink lemonade.
It's a good thing I can laugh at myself, because right there in front of me were most of the food toxins known to man. I was salivating like a mad dog looking at it, so as soon as Aaron sat I dug in. I didn't even try to rationalize, I just enjoyed my food. I even briefly considered getting a third hot dog, but I was a good boy. Well, I became a good boy when I learned that Walt's had an ice cream place right next door.
Dessert was good, dessert was excellent, and I was ready for a nap by the time we got back to the house. My timing was perfect, too, because Lee and Justin had to bevel the fronts of the steps before anything else could happen. They had Justin's friends cut up the scraps up with a Skilsaw, then turned to their own tasks. Chris had his sights set on a sailing lesson, and I told Aaron to go ahead and take him out. Everyone else found things to do, and I flopped down on a divan on the porch. The sounds of rasping wood planes and a power saw were hardly melodic, but I dropped right off to them. I woke occasionally when there was a new noise, and a few more times because I was on plastic, and it made me sweat. I only woke up for real when there was a change in the pattern, and by the time I was functional my brother, Alton, was standing there, his duffel bag at his side.
He looked at me and grinned, "I like your style, Evan."
"Alton!" I cried. "What about my style?"
He shrugged, "People are working out here, and they're sweating bullets. Where do I find Evan? Sound asleep on a comfy looking couch! You've obviously become a Republican."
"I did my part earlier," I said in my own defense, then I grinned. "How long can you stay?"
"Two nights," he said. "Where should I put this?" he asked, indicating his bag.
I didn't know, so I said, "Leave it there for now. I'm not sure where you're sleeping. Want to see the lake?"
He nodded, "Show me the bathroom first." He looked around and added, "This is some place."
"It sure is," I said as I got up and showed him where the downstairs bathroom was.
I waited for him, and when he came out I asked if he wanted anything to eat or drink, and he settled for a glass of tap water. We talked a little while he drank it, then walked down to the dock. Nobody was around, and the only two boats there were an aluminum rowboat and the big pontoon boat. I said, "We can take the rowboat out," while Alton inspected the big boat.
"What about this one?" He chuckled, "This is really something."
I asked if the key was in it, and it was, so I figured nobody would mind if we took it for a ride. It was too bad the ski boat wasn't in the water yet, but it was still on land. The pontoon boat was fun in its own sedate way, and Alton knew enough to cast us off properly.
It had gotten seriously nice out, too. The morning hadn't been all that warm, but it was sticky and overcast. Since lunch, both had blown away. There were clouds in the sky still, but broken ones that were much higher up. The humidity had given over to a gentle and dry breeze. That combined to make the lake reflect a brilliant blue, and the breeze put a chop into the water that hadn't been there the last few days.
We motored out slowly, enjoying the weather and catching up with each other's news. Alton had most of the news, because he'd been considering what to do for college. He'd prepared an application for that program at Brown, then decided not to submit it. He could have been competitive enough to get in, but decided instead to finish out his undergraduate at State. He'd been disappointed once with a big name school, and he liked it where he was. His current drift was toward law, too, and he could learn that just fine right at home.
"Why law?" I asked, thinking that was a big shift from astronomy or medicine.
"Patent law," he said. "It's really a great field. I want to keep my mind active, and I can't think of a better way than with patents. I'll always have to learn the whats, whens and werefores of things I never knew existed. Who knows? Maybe I'll get free samples!"
I grinned at him, then pointed at another boat in the water. It was the rowboat with a motor on the back, and it contained my brother, Bruce, Billy and Dean O'Shea, and John Balls. They were fishing, though I think John and Dean were asleep with poles in their hands. Our boat must have been quiet in the water, because I came up behind them without turning a head. I tooted the horn and waved, "Hey guys!" before they noticed us and all waved back.
"Catch anything?" I yelled.
"I had the flu once!" Billy called back, and we all laughed, but Bruce pulled up stringer with a fish on it.
"What's that?" Alton called, and I think Bruce shouted something back, but we were too far past to hear it. Justin and his friends were in the canoes, and we saw them, too.
When we were far enough out, I turned down the lake to look for Aaron. I thought he'd be working with the wind, and I didn't know much else. We motored all the way down, then turned around and headed back. It was then that I spied Aaron's sail in the distance, so I idled the boat and waited.
I pointed, "That's Aaron! He's showing Chris how to sail!"
Alton didn't say anything, and that sailboat approached fast. There were a couple of squeals as it flew by and they recognized us, and I could see that it was Chris at the tiller, but that was it. I turned our boat around and went after them. I could have had the advantage with the motor, but I didn't take it.
I stayed a fair distance behind them, and when Chris brought the boat about we weren't even close enough to see his expression. I could sense it though, just from the way that boat sat there waiting for us. To Chris, any triumph was a major triumph. I didn't know him then, but I'm positive that he took a bow the first time his folks trusted him to underpants, and another bow the first time he got through a day without crapping in them. Now he could sail a little boat, and that was worth a major bow.
"You idiot!" I yelled. "You splashed us! There's a speed limit on this lake, you know!"
"Not for sailboats," Aaron laughed.
"No? Well there should be, especially if they let maniacs like Chris drive!"
Chris gave me a fake hurt look, and I shut up. "How is it?" I asked him.
He grinned, "I love it, Ev! You can brag all you want, because Aaron really is an awesome teacher."
I smiled. "You going back in?"
Aaron said, "I promised Lee a ride. Chris can go with you if he wants." He grinned at Chris and added, "But I don't think he wants."
Chris shook his head, set the sail, and they took off down the lake. I watched them for a moment, after which I asked Alton, "Want to go all the way around? There are some big places on the East side."
He nodded, so we did just that. Just outside of town, where Aaron said there used to be a community of dozens of cottages, there were now three houses, all colossal in size. They were roughly equal in size, too. Each was three stories tall and probably at least a hundred feet across the front. Between them, they incorporated every element of architecture you could think of, and they did it very badly. For all the peaks, dormers, offsets and turrets they had, they still managed to look extremely tacky, especially the one with pink vinyl siding.
These were showplaces only. Aaron swore that in the three years since the last one was built, he'd never seen a single soul at any of them, other than guys mowing the expansive lawns. Still, they each had boathouses with boats hanging in them, stone walls to the water with imported beaches below, and every elaborate landscaping touch that you could possibly spend money on.
Alone with Alton, I said that those places sickened me. Between them they took up a thousand feet of lakefront, and the only trees left were little decorative things that the owners had planted.
The rest of the lakefront, for the most part, was made up of cottage communities like those disasters had displaced. Those were clusters of some unknown number of summer homes, and the people who owned them took care of a single, shared little beach, maybe a boat launch, and a shared picnic area. They bustled, too, at least in summer. The week we were there was still April, so there was very little activity. I remembered from boat rides the last time I was there, that they were active little enclaves both day and night. Their boats came and went. They didn't hang in boathouses for the world to admire. And the beaches were full of families, the docks full of kids fishing and jumping into the lake. There was smoke from grills, music playing, adults talking and kids squealing as they played. They were the kinds of little communities where kids grew and made friends, and where they came back with their own kids when they grew up.
I noted that to Alton, and added, "You know something? You remember Harlan Blaine, right?"
Al nodded, and I said, "Harlan knows how to be rich. Everything he buys for him and his wife is for their own pleasure. They have that beautiful house, but it's not out there taking up a mile of waterfront. No, it's mostly hidden! And it's used! The mental defects that built those places back there did it just do it to show off. I mean, why don't they put up billboards with their pictures on them? They could put captions like, 'My name is Joseph Mental Deadinthehead, and I'd like to show you my bank account so you can be jealous and in awe of me'."
Alton laughed, and I said, "I'm serious! That's all they're doing. Nobody needs a house like that to start with, and I think it's criminal to wreck a neighborhood and not even live there afterwards."
Al looked at me pensively and said, "I hear you. At school there's a movement to change the laws along the beaches. People are buying up the front row and putting up houses just like that, and they block all the views behind them. It's the same thing. People have lived there forever with their views, now it takes just a few with money to disrupt the whole thing." He grimaced, "I think you'll see some state laws being passed. Nobody likes this shit."
I grinned in surprise, because Alton was about the last person I thought would know such things. "You're serious? It's not just me?" I asked.
He said, "Watch where you're going, Ev!" I looked and made a minor adjustment, and he continued, "It's a lot of people. There's always been money around ... rich people. I think there's a new breed these days, and I don't have a name for them." He shrugged his shoulders, "Too much money and not enough brains, maybe, but it's more like not enough class." Al's eyes softened, "There have been rich and poor all through the ages, Ev. The middle class is a recent development, so now it's not so much the haves and have-nots. Regular people have the same things the wealthy have. Sure, a rich guy can has bigger and better, but it's more likely he'll call it his house and leave it to others to say mansion. This boat we're on is nice. It's no yacht, but it does the same thing." He shook his head and smiled, "I'm getting off track. The thing is, it used to be beneficial in one way to have a wealthy segment of society. Most of those fortunes were made legally, and most were made with a lot of hard work and creativity. I don't think the first-generation rich are usually snobs, or at least they didn't use to be. Now though," and he pointed back at the big properties, "Now people are building things like that, and even that's fine if it's what they want. The trouble with this breed of people is that they're doing it at the expense of others. I mean, at least here the people got bought out, but down on the shore they're buying maybe three places on the water, then putting up giant houses. Worse yet, they're claiming private beach rights and blocking access to families that have lived there forever. It's going to be a big issue this summer."
"They can do that?" I asked. Beach access rights had been debated time and again in the state, and the people who tried to restrict access always lost. Somebody always tried again, though, and it looked like another round was underway.
I shrugged and smiled at Alton. "Well, let's not get worked up about it here. You'll see. Kick back and let this place take over your brain. By the time you go back you'll be so relaxed you won't know where you're supposed to be."
Alton chuckled, "That sounds healthy to me," and he sat back in his seat, then got up and moved to the wide seat in the stern. He sprawled there, the sun on his face and the breeze blowing his hair straight back.
By the time we got back to the house, Aaron was on the dock helping Bruce, Lee and Mark into life jackets. Al and I got the big boat tied off and stepped onto the dock. "More sailing lessons?" I asked.
Aaron didn't turn around as he secured a strap on Bruce's jacket, "No, just a ride." The buckle snapped and he turned around, a smile playing on his face. "Chris is taking them out. He's like a natural born sailor."
"Where is Chris?" I asked, looking around.
"Bathroom," Aaron said. He stood up and looked at the guys. "Do what Chris says. You'll have fun!"
Bruce and Mark both looked excited. Lee seemed apprehensive, and just before I commented on that, he appeared to find something reassuring within himself. His look turned into an eager one, and when Chris came back we pushed the boat out into the water; three first-time sailors aboard with one first-time captain, and it was Chris who seemed nervous then. That nervousness lasted until he had the tiller and rope in his hand and called, "Coming about!"
The mainsail flapped until the boat turned around, then Chris pulled it in and they were off. A collective and joyous sounding "Whoo!" was the last we heard from them.
We watched them go, and I said to Aaron, "You're a good teacher."
He snickered, "Maybe. See if they make it back before you say too much."
I glanced at Aaron to make sure he was kidding, and he was. I asked Alton, "Ever see a lovecock before?"
He made a face while Aaron giggled, "I ... um ... I don't think so. Should I have?"
I turned and gestured for him to follow. "Come on, I'll show you one. Aaron thinks it's gay."
Aaron laughed, "I'll meet you there. Let me get out of this thing."
Oh Lord, the wetsuit! I would have liked to help him get out of it, but it was too late to just ignore Alton. Aaron went inside and I led Al to the front yard.
He laughed the moment the sight of the big bird ogling the blue bottles on the tree sank in. "Oh man, that's great!" he cried as he walked around. He was more amazed when he realized the leaves and the smaller flowers were also made from soda bottles. Alton peeked and poked for five minutes and sat down, calling it the work of a genius.
I laughed, "Aaron? A genius? Lighten up, Al."
Al snickered, "Okay. This is really clever, though. It's funny, but very artful at the same time. I'm impressed."
I sat beside him feeling glad inside. I changed the subject. "What's going on in town? I heard a little about the gambling on the way over here, but nothing since."
Alton looked at me, "I brought the papers for you. There was a big article Sunday, and it's on the news all the time." He looked at me with an odd expression on his face. "You want to talk about it?"
"Yes, I want to talk about it!" I snapped "I feel like I'm the last to know about things, and this thing involves me. I would like, just for once, to know exactly what's going on!"
I turned a glare to Al, and he didn't deserve it. "I'm sorry," I said. "It's not your fault, but sometimes I feel left out of my own life! Just tell me what's happening. Sorry."
Alton looked at me, then took a breath. "It's bigger than a breadbox, Ev. I haven't heard much about the kid who got shot, but Mr. Throckmorton and some other staff at school are part of a gambling ring. It's bigger than just Mt. Harman, too. It's like a house of cards right now, because the cops are finding more every day. Lots of schools, lots of people, even higher-up people , and lots of kids like Ron Mastracchio. They have this hierarchy just like organized crime, and one of those articles tries to tie it to the Mafia. It sounds all convoluted, but let me try."
I sat back, then tried to be polite. "You want a soda or something?"
Alton shook his head. "I'm okay. Evan, it's scary. The extent of the gambling and the amounts of money sound just like the big casinos. Just in your school they're estimating a half million a year. A year! I mean, I used to play the pools. Everyone does. We just don't stop to think about it. If everyone plays, say, the one dollar Super Bowl pool, that would mean twenty pools and two grand right there. It doesn't stop there, though. There are two dollar pools, five dollar ones, ten dollar ones. That one game, in that one school, might be worth twenty or thirty grand in bets. The people running everything take money right off the top. Think about that. What's scary is that there's real depth to it. Super Bowl weekend still has other sports going on; hockey and basketball at the pro-level, but they're taking bets on college games, too, and your own school games." He looked at me intently, "It goes on all year, Ev. People bet on your own baseball games, on the pro games. It's like this big fun thing to do, and it is fun. If you lose, it's not much. If you win, then you have a few bucks you didn't have before. Almost everybody loses out in the end, but it's like paid entertainment. It costs you a buck to get in, and if you don't win so what? That moment of hope was worth a dollar, right?"
I smiled grimly and nodded, "I know. I never once even thought of it as gambling. It's just fun, and it's not like they steal the money. I mean, somebody wins every time."
Alton nodded and said, "Right. And if things stayed like that it really would be pretty harmless. It's a lot of money in the long run, but it's a lot of people, too. I said I brought you the papers, right?"
I nodded. Alton said, "There's a big piece in Sunday's, and you should read that for understanding. Monday's has two articles about Mt. Harman and they'll give you an idea of what happened there." He gave me a sudden, pained look. "Ev," he said gently, "It wasn't just Throckmorton and the Mastracchio kid. The people being investigated go from the custodial staff to the higher-ups at the Board of Ed. They're talking forty or more students who might be charged, too. It's not a little thing."
I looked away, which caused me to look at Aaron's lovecock. I didn't look back at Alton, but I still wondered, and asked, "What about Ron? If it's all these people, why did he get shot?" I looked at him again, and I had tears forming, "And why would Mr. Throckmorton kill himself?"
Al looked grim. "Evan, you won't find answers in the local paper. If you look in the Post you'll get some speculation. The kids involved in this weren't all just runners. Some were involved in gambling their own money. Some were heavily involved."
He didn't continue, and I looked at him, "What are you saying, Al?"
He shrugged, "I don't know, really. They cite cases where kids bet more than they had. If they lost, they had to come up with the money somehow, and kids like Ron, who were handling lots of money anyhow, usually just stole it." He shrugged, "I don't know for real. I can guess, and it goes like this: You lose bets, so you owe people money that you don't have. To get it, you steal money from the same people, and I suppose it's inevitable that you get caught. Now you're in trouble, and it's trouble of your own making. Tell Mommy? Maybe, and in truth that would probably end it, but most people aren't made that way. No, I think what happens is that the people you owe think of ways that you can pay them back, and that's when you're in real trouble."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "What's the difference who decides how you'll pay them back?"
Alton said quietly, and I looked to see if he was still talking to me, "I don't know, Evan. I can't answer that. I've left one thing out that might help you, though. Those people in the schools ... the custodians, the teachers, the cafeteria workers ... they're not running the show any more than kids like Mastracchio are. They're taking their cut and happy with the pay raise, but a good chunk of that money goes to the mob. I can only go by hearsay, but what I know is that if you owe the mob money, you will pay up some way, somehow."
I was aghast. "Oh, God," I moaned, not hoping for a reaction. For unknown reasons a nursery rhyme started in my head; Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock...
Consequences. Jesus, did everything have to have a consequence? I found my hands doing an odd dance, like they were putting up a mild defense against things unseen. Was Mr. Throckmorton dead because I'd interrupted some stupid Sopranos thing? Was it Lee and not me? Was there something so cosmic about that kid that he'd forever have the news world in a reel? Or was it me, and me alone? Was I doomed to having my every word and action turn around to bite me?
All I had done was to try to get Lee out of the sights of the Mastracchio's. Now the lid had blown off this whole gambling thing, and it was a thing I had no understanding of to begin with. What was next? Could I bitch about old garlic in the lunch line without turning up a giant, worldwide garlic conspiracy?
I was trembling, and I was staring at nothing. "Ev. Evan!" my brother said, and he squeezed my wrist. "What are you doing?"
I stared ahead and said, "I'm freaking out, how's that? You try it, Al. Go to guidance some day to say something, then come back later after people are dead, after the news is full of what happened, after ... after..."
I dropped my head deliberately between my knees and ignored his protestations. After a few minutes of it, I heard him say, "I'll get you some water," and I didn't respond.
I sensed that he left, and after about five minutes I sat back up to look out over the lawn and the lake. I wasn't being myself and I knew it. I didn't know where my funk was coming from, but it was right there clouding my thoughts. The last person in the world I expected to come and sit with me was Dean O'Shea, but he's who came. Just his presence amused me, because I was certain he was an elected representative.
"Dean," I mumbled. "Fancy meeting me here?"
He snorted happily and handed me a bottle of water, "No, I kind of expected to find you. What's up?"
I said, "They didn't tell you?"
"Heh, okay. Your brother said you might be blaming yourself for things. Is that it?"
I took a swig of water and thought that over. "Not exactly. It's not really blame, it's just that I seem to be in the middle of everything bad that happens."
Dean said, ever so softly, "See? That's why I'm here. I know exactly how you feel, and in spades."
I smiled at the ground. "Yeh, I guess. I'm not trying anything though, and everything just explodes around me. It's like if I have bananas for breakfast on the wrong day, well, then bombs will go off in Afghanistan."
Dean made a noise that could have been a stifled laugh. "Yean, I know. After Devon ... after my Mom ... I was afraid of myself for a long time. Ever see that movie, 'The Sixth Sense'?"
"I saw it," Dean said, "and all I could think was that I made dead people."
Oh, God, don't start, I thought.
"I'm past it, Evan, and partly because of you. My dad and Billy suffered as much as me when Mom died. Devon's family cried as hard as I did."
I looked at him and asked, "So? I know all that."
I felt bad for my tone of voice, but Dean ignored it. "You don't know it yet, Evan, if you won't let it go. If something you did made something else happen, you have to hope that the 'something else' is a good thing. If it's not, then keep trying. You didn't make your teacher die any more than I made Devon die, or my mother."
I looked at him, wondering how hard that had been to say. Dean's expression was serious, then it softened into a smile. "Evan," he said, "Don't make my mistakes. If you haven't done something wrong, just tell yourself that. Shit happens, and it happens around all of us. Don't go blaming yourself for getting in the middle of something. You didn't know you were to begin with, and who knows? Good might still come out of it all in the end."
I stared at Dean. His smile brightened and I managed to form one. He stood and touched my shoulder, gave me a wavering smile, then turned and walked away. I followed him because I could smell good things coming from out back, and I was getting hungry.
I don't know if I'd ever followed Dean before. He didn't have anything like a confident stride. I think he felt like I did right then, like everything was unknown in the direction he was headed.
I wasn't in the best of spirits when I rounded the back of the house. Then Aaron was at my side. He made me smile, and I felt a poke in my back. When I looked around it was Billy, and he was smiling. Everyone was smiling. They were yakking, clowning around, just generally anticipating dinner. I took another sip of water and put the bottle down. Then I took Aaron's hand in mine, which I knew would provide me a shortcut to feeling better. It worked, too. The feel of Aaron's hand, coupled with something that smelled good, brought me back to reality. It was a strange reality, too, because Justin, Greg and Doug were doing the cooking honors.
It was charcoal smoke that went with the other aromas, and there was the scent of meat mixed in. Aaron and I gravitated to where they were. Justin was frying mushrooms and onions on the gas grill. Doug kept peeking under the lid of the charcoal grill, and Greg seemed to be supervising everything.
I said, "It smells good. What are you making?"
Doug smiled, "London Broil, I think." He looked hopeful, "It smells good? I've been standing here ..."
Aaron said, "It smells great! How long?"
"Momentarily," Justin said. "One more minute. Get your plates if you're hungry. Tell people to line up."
"Bossy!" Aaron muttered, then went to announce that dinner was ready.
I got a plate and looked around. The variety of offerings had been fading as the week progressed. For sides there were bread and some butter, and a plate of sliced tomatoes that looked pretty good. I put butter on a slice of bread, took several slices of tomato, and joined the line by the grill.
Doug was slicing a healthy looking slab of meat, and there was another one still untouched, so I knew I wouldn't go hungry. When I got there he put five thick slices on my plate, then Justin smothered the meat with a big spoonful of mushrooms and onions, which by then were in a thin gravy.
I sat with Aaron and started eating, taking a slice of tomato first. It was good, riper than you'd expect to find in April. The meat tasted good, but it was ungodly tough. Still, the gravy, the mushrooms and onions, all made it worth the chew. Doug, who cooked the meat, bitched that it was tough. The rest of us were too busy eating to complain, but every once in a while someone would pull a piece of gristle out of their mouth that was too much to deal with. We were too polite to complain, too, and tough meat wasn't the cook's fault to start with.
Alton seemed to be hitting it off with people, and he ended up sitting with Paul Dawson, Justin, Greg and Doug. He knew Paul, and he'd met Justin several times.
Aaron and I sat with his grandfather, Lilac and Rakeed. Mark was there beside us, though he had his back turned and was really in a different conversation.
It was amusing to watch people chew. Aaron's grandfather said, out of the blue, "You know, there have been some boat wrecks on this lake. Where the buoy is, a family got killed one night. Me and my friends ... we were all around fourteen or so then ... were sitting out in a rowboat just offshore, doing some night fishing. There were other boats out. The Reese family had a house down near town, and that year they bought a new jet boat. Shelley Reese was about my age, and she was an object of attraction to me for sure ... such a pretty thing. She was sweet, too, just as friendly as a girl could be without getting herself in trouble. She had a younger brother, and I've forgotten his name. Anyhow, they'd had this boat for about a month, and they were out in it that night, tearing up the lake something fierce. I was just idly watching them, and suddenly that boat turned into a ball of flame like you never did see. They'd hit the rocks, you understand, and that's why there's a buoy now. There wasn't then. It was never determined who was driving the boat, but it had to be the young boy. The rest of them knew to avoid the rocks."
"That's awful," Rakeed said.
Grandpa Castle nodded, "And I don't know why I brought it up. The sight of that has stayed with me, and it has distressed me for all my adult life." He looked right at me, "I've always worked in insurance, and that gave me more than enough opportunity to hear about the terrible things that can befall perfectly nice people. Accidents, fires, floods ... they happen more often than you'd care to believe. That night though ... it was 1952, August the second ... that was the first and only time I actually saw people die .. that whole family. All gone," he snapped his fingers, "just like that!"
I stared at him, and he stared at me. I could tell that story was for me, but I didn't know why. Aaron finally spoke in a quiet voice, "That's horrible, Gramps. Why did you tell us?"
His grandfather hesitated, then said, "No reason. I just have to get it off my chest once in awhile." He looked at me, "It's the story that won't go away, and I have to tell it now and again. Otherwise I think it would consume me."
I felt a chill, and I think all of us who heard it did too. I suddenly turned to look at Lee, who was talking contentedly with Bruce, while sitting with Billy, Dean, and John Balls. He'd seen people die once, too. I still couldn't fathom it.
Aaron's grandfather suddenly clapped his hands together, and when I spun around he was standing up. "Time for dessert, I think. You folks carry on!"
He walked to the house, and I slumped in my chair. Rakeed asked, "What's wrong with you?"
I said, "Nothing."
Rakeed said, "Okay, it's nothing. When 'nothing' is bothering me, I like to get physical. Can you throw a football?"
I looked at him, then heard what he'd asked. I grinned a little, "Can you?"
Rakeed nodded his head, grinning, and he muttered, "White boys! I'll throw a ball that your pansy ass won't see coming!"
I stood in challenge, and Lilac cried, "Rakeed! I don't think you should call Evan a pansy! Choose another word!"
I laughed, and Rakeed grinned at Lilac. "You pick a word, girl. I know you can throw the ball harder than white boy here." He looked at me askance to see if I was offended, which I wasn't. He grinned again, "Do we even have a football?"
There was one, I knew. We both looked at Aaron, who shrugged helplessly. "Somewhere. I don't know where it is. Ask Justin."
Well of course Justin had a football close at hand, and we spread out in the front yard to throw it back and forth. Aaron didn't, but the rest of us did. Aaron watched with Lilac and his grandfather.
The A-list included Justin, Doug, Greg, Rakeed, Chris, Billy and me. Lee was close, but no cigar. He was the head of the B-list, though, and that included my brothers, Dean, John Balls, Paul and Mark. It was getting dark when we started, so we couldn't play long, but we worked out a rhythm of throwing, catching and getting out of the way so the next guys could have a shot. It was fun while it lasted; clean, simple exercise.
When we called it quits, I watched Justin and his friends walk off with Paul, and Paul sent Mark to 'play' with me. Pot time, I thought, surprised that Justin was going, then I saw my own brother, Alton, run after them.
I didn't care. I sure wasn't anybody's moral superior, and they were all older anyhow. I wasn't the only one to notice, though, and I looked when I heard Mark's voice.
"They're gonna smoke pot. I think I'll go to bed."
I did a double take and looked at Mark. It was pretty obvious that he didn't like Paul getting high, where I'd never noticed much difference if he was or wasn't. I patted Mark's arm and said, "Don't worry about it. They won't break anything."
Mark huffed, "You say that. I don't know, maybe they won't. I just don't like it."
I smiled at Mark and put my hand on his shoulder, "Maybe you're the smart one, Mark."
I started to take my hand away and Mark held it to his shoulder. He hesitated, then said, "I like it here." He looked toward the water and his voice quieted, "I really do. Nobody treats me like a kid." He snickered, "I am a kid, but not much longer. I just like it when it's not Mark, do this, and Mark do that!"
I laughed out loud, "I know. I'm like the third one in my family too, so I know what it's like." I giggled, "It gets better, Mark, it really does. Here comes dessert!" I added when I saw Aaron's grandfather coming out with a tray. It was store-bought apple pie, plus slices of that strong cheese and whipped cream in a can.
I looked at the cheese, and I had to mentally think about how it might go with pie, and the result came up favorable enough in my mind. I followed the old man's lead, taking a big slice of pie and a big slice of cheese, then I put whipped cream on the pie only.
Heh, I suppose we all have what we'd call defining moments in our lives, and the combination of sweet pie, somewhat-sweet whipping cream and potent cheddar was one of those things that defined a new version of beautiful to my taste buds right then. Awesome! Truly awesome, and I could see that I wasn't alone. Everyone there eating some wore the same face I knew I had. Pleasure. Unmitigated pleasure! What a dessert!
Paul and the others all came back for pie, and for the most part you wouldn't think they'd been smoking dope. They were extra cheerful, and they were hungry, but their moods fit in so well with the overall good feeling they didn't stand out.
Aaron and I escaped cleanup duty to go sit on the dock for awhile. We were joined shortly by Bruce and Lee, who had Mark in tow. I was looking at the buoy, which was bobbing innocently in the water way out there, a little light at the top of it. I asked if everyone heard Evan's grandfather tell the story, and I repeated it the best I could when they hadn't. It was kind of like telling a ghost story at a campfire, then I had a thought and said, "That's what it is, you know. It's a ghost story to Aaron's grandpa because it still haunts him. Now, sitting here looking at where it happened, I kind of feel the horror myself. Those people were out for a ride, and then it's bang and they're all dead."
I sensed a shudder, and immediately remembered that Lee was there. I looked at him quickly, and he had his fingers over his eyes. I felt awful. "Oh, man! Are you okay, Lee?"
He kept his hands where they were and said, "Yeah." He inhaled deeply, then said, "I'm okay. I have to be okay."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
Mark cried, "What happened?"
Bruce said, "Shh! I'll tell you later."
Aaron put a hand on Lee's shoulder, but Lee shrugged it away. He said, "No, I'll tell you, Mark." He looked at us in turn, then down at the boards we were sitting on. He shifted his weight and croaked, "I have this story down pat." He laughed nervously, "Heh, I never thought about it, but it's my own ghost story." He took a breath and started softly, "One night when I was ten ..."
Oh, it was scary hearing it from end to end. Lee spoke in a quiet monotone for the most part, but cried, "BANG, BANG, BANG!" when describing gunshots, and I swear I came a foot off that dock right then. Then a little later on he made the sound of person breathing with a slit throat and I almost threw up.
Mark nearly sobbed, and Bruce comforted him. Lee started breathing raggedly at the end and Aaron hugged him, then held on when Lee didn't stop.
I was just mortified. I knew that story. I'd even heard it before from Lee, at least in parts. As a whole story, it was too much to listen to all at once, and in that detail. I felt chilled to the bone, and I was disgusted with humanity.
Aaron's grandfather had witnessed an accident. It was senseless and it was tragic, and it had troubled Mr. Castle all his life. Lee's story, though, was one of pure evil and unimaginable cruelty. He was telling it because he could. He would clearly feel the effects for the rest of his life, but he could get through the telling of it even when he didn't have to. I can't tell you how much I admired the strength of his spirit and the honesty of his soul when he bared it like that. If lightning struck Lee down the very next day, I swear I'd make sure his tombstone read, 'Lee Erasmus, SURVIVOR!'
After awhile, Mark asked in a small voice, "Does it hurt to die?"
I waited for someone else to answer, and Aaron finally tried. He whispered, "I don't think so, Mark. Not the dying itself." He hesitated and looked at Lee. "With Lee's friends what hurt was being shot, and then being cut up like they were. Dying put an end to that pain. The people in that boat .. I don't know. They were there, then they weren't. I don't know if they had time to hurt." He paused again, "It's what leads up to the dying that can hurt. It's the living part, not the dying part."
A long silence followed as we each pondered Aaron's words. Lee finally spoke up and said, "It's scary knowing. I saw that."
He stopped and we waited, but he said no more. I didn't blame him. Mr. Castle was haunted by a vision of an exploding boat. Lee's vision was one of faces: his friends' faces while they died in front of him.
I tried to mitigate. "Marky, listen. Somebody tried to kill me once. I knew I was getting beat up and I knew it hurt. I never once thought they were trying to kill me or that I might die. I could have died, too, I just never thought so. I think that's how it is." I looked at Lee, "I hope so. Even if you've been shot and stabbed, you pass out first. You don't know you're going to die."
Lee looked at me curiously, then the tiniest twitch played at the corner of his mouth. His eyes brightened a little too, even in the dark. He didn't say anything, but he knew that I knew. He was right there when his own father tried to kill me. The only thing that kept me alive was lack of persistence on their part, because I had no way to resist. They left me unconscious and bloody, but not seriously injured when all was said and done. What was important to both me and Lee was that I hadn't fired off a single neuron thinking I might die. If I had been killed, I wouldn't have known about it.
The dock was getting uncomfortable, but until someone actually said something it didn't feel right to leave. I finally had to, and said, "I gotta pee," as I got to my feet.
I was startled to realize that Billy and Chris were sitting about twenty feet behind us, so they had heard anything. Chris, being Chris, cried, "Don't piss on me!" as he rolled frantically out of the way.
Billy looked at him and asked laconically, "What? He should piss on me instead?"
"Okay," I said, taking aim. Billy scrambled to move and I laughed, "You have to stay still, man! I can't hit a moving target!"
"Good thing," I heard from out of the darkness, and it made me snicker. It made me poetic, too, and I mumbled, "Piss, piss, fly away. Find your way to Bill O'Shea!"
Billy's laughing voice said from somewhere, "Screw you, Smiley! I'll piss in your pocket if you don't watch out."
"I'm right here," I said insolently. "I don't have a pocket."
I was done, and that seemed to be it. The little exchange had us in a better mood, and we walked back to the house together. Paul loomed in front of us and asked, "Is Mark with you?"
"I'm here," Mark said, and Paul nodded. He had just been checking, and he got another mental notch on my good side from me. Even slightly stoned he would check on his brother. That's the way Paul was, like it was built into him.
We gathered in the back yard, and Dean and John Balls got their guitars out. I was too tired to stay, and thought my yawning was rude. Aaron wanted to stay and sing, so I went inside and up to the third floor alone.
The turret window was at the front of the house, but I could hear the music faintly. I stood there to listen for a minute.
The guitars were faint and the singing almost inaudible, but there was still a quality to it. It seemed almost more pronounced when I had to strain to hear, like it was worth it to make the effort. I left the window open and flopped down on the bed, thinking I'd wash up and undress in a minute or two.
I slept through the night, and when I woke up it was because I needed the bathroom. My shoes were off and I had a blanket over me, otherwise not much had changed since the night before. Aaron was beside me, under the covers of the bed while I was on top of them.
I didn't think long because I really had to go, and when I came back upstairs I climbed into bed under the covers beside Aaron. I'd seen from the window that it was a fine day outside. To me, it was more important to get in synch with Aaron. I'd flaked out early the night before, and had no idea at all how late he stayed after I left. I didn't want to spend a nice day in bed, and I didn't want to deprive Aaron of any sleep.
I was restless though, wide awake myself, so I started stroking Aaron in places he liked to be stroked. That sleeping smile of his came out, and in another moment his eyes opened so quickly I thought I heard a noise. "Evan!" Aaron said. "Is it time to get up?"
I snickered and whispered, "You're already up!"
Aaron snickered, then he squirmed, "Let me up, I gotta go!"
I laughed and sat up, helping Aaron to get untangled. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched him walk unsteadily toward the door. Aaron in his undies, coming or going, presented a view that had stunned me from the first, and it was a view that I knew would always have that effect on me. Aaron was slender and getting tall, but nobody in their right mind would call him bony or skinny. He had just enough meat on him, and all of it was exactly where it belonged. Aaron's nature tended toward the fragile side, but his body sure didn't. He was man enough for me, and when he came back to bed he proceeded to prove it for the umpteenth time!
I went downstairs on shaky knees, but I was one happy boy. That happiness diminished some as we descended. It was still April, and that was muted somewhat in our attic room, but for the first time all week it was downright cold on the ground floor. I could see the goose bumps raising on Aaron's arms, but I couldn't laugh when I had my own.
I started the coffee while Aaron banged through cabinets, and he finally cried out in triumph, "Ah!"
I turned to look and he displayed an unopened box of Cream of Wheat. I'd never cared much for it, but in my shivering state it looked like salvation in a box. With the coffee going and the water started for cereal, we ran upstairs and pulled on warmer clothes. I left my sweat pants on and added jeans over them, then put a regular shirt and a sweatshirt over the tee I was wearing. Aaron dressed similarly, and then we were too warm for upstairs, so we headed back down laughing about it.
The Cream of Wheat wasn't the instant kind, so Aaron stirred that while I warmed up with my coffee and made toast. We ate the toast with blackberry jam while the cereal was still cooking, and when that was ready we sat at the table with bowls of it. Aaron put milk on his, which I didn't do. We both sprinkled some brown sugar on top, and it tasted every bit as blah as I remembered. It sure warmed me up, though.
People trickled in, each of them shivering and commenting about the cold morning. The talk turned to what we should or could do on such a cold day. Dean urged us to take a ride around. There were two state parks in the area, and lots of nice places to see, so that's what we decided on.
It took what seemed like a long time to get sorted out into two cars. Not everyone came with us, but we still needed the two SUV's. I rode with Aaron in his Toyota, with Billy, Bruce and Lee in the back. Chris took his car with Alton, Paul, Mark, Justin and Doug all squeezed into it. The others stayed behind for various reasons.
Those of us who went were all energized by the brisk air. It was a beautiful day, with alternating sun and dark clouds. The clouds weren't threatening to rain on us, but they provided some drama in the sky as they hurried across it to some other destination. Aaron's grandfather had given us a marked-up road map as well as a hiking pamphlet put out by a local mountaineering club. I was the navigator and I fingered quickly through the booklet for local trails, and there were plenty right in the area. The first one they recommended was a short hike in one of the state parks, and we were soon there standing in the parking lot and trying to get our bearings. Then Lee noticed a wooden sign that pointed toward the various trails. The book described the one we wanted as 'easy', and easy sounded good to a bunch of kids just recently released from a housebound winter.
It was an easy trail, too, and it followed a pretty stream downhill for about a mile to a little waterfall that splashed into an almost perfectly round pool. It looked like a wonderful spot to cool off on a hot day, but of course there was a sign that forbade swimming and wading. We had to go back out the way we came, but it had been worth the minimal effort.
We spent the morning riding around, and took one more short hike like that. By noon it was warming up some. We stopped at a deli and bought sandwiches that we ate at outside tables while we decided what to do next. Paul was looking through the hiking booklet, and he asked nobody in particular, "Is Crying Ridge anywhere near here? This sounds like a good hike, and they say there's a fifty mile view."
I got the map from the car, but I couldn't find it. Then Paul read the directions from the book, and it wasn't very far to one of the recommended starting points. Further reading told us it was a minimum of a seven mile hike, and on rough terrain. After much study and discussion, and dissension favoring going ahead with it versus doing something else, we compromised. Each car would go to different starting points and we'd hike in opposite directions. When we met in the middle we'd exchange car keys and continue on our opposite ways, then meet back at the deli afterwards. That's what we did.
Our group found the trail head marker, and Aaron parked just off the side of the road. The trail was obvious, but it pretty much went straight up a cliff. It wasn't bad once we got going. The trail didn't require rock climbing equipment, just strong legs and good knees. When we reached the top of that ledge, nobody was complaining about the cold anymore. We followed the trail along a much gentler rise and encountered another small cliff about a half-mile along. That was easier than the first one, and on top the trail led off to the right. Before it headed left again, we were right on the edge of a major ridge, and a cliff at least two hundred feet high.
I don't know if that view was fifty miles or not, but it seemed like forever to me. As we'd climbed up, the ground below had fallen away at the same time, and we could see that the same pattern would continue on for a while. We'd go higher and the ground directly below us would slope downward. Meanwhile, from where we sat to take it in and catch our breath, I don't think we could have found a prettier vista if we walked for a year. There was nothing close to us, but we had an expansive view across evergreen forests and budding deciduous forests. Streams, ponds, lakes - they seemed to be everywhere. We were in a rural part of the state, so the towns and villages were small, their identifiable architecture being church steeples.
We were silent for a long time, and I think everyone was as awestruck by the view as I was. Aaron pointed out at the distance and said, "Look. Look! You can see the bridges in Riverton!"
"Where?" I asked.
Aaron continued to point, "They're right on the horizon. You can only see the tops, but that's the North bridge and the South bridge. Just look from right to left, right at the horizon, and you'll see them." We all looked, and sure enough there they were; just little dots at that distance, but unmistakable dots in their own way. We remarked excitedly for a few minutes, then got back underway. The trail was stony by then, but not hard. The only risk was getting so captivated by the scenery that you'd walk off the edge, but we kept a fair distance.
We were all pretty quiet as we walked. That was really only remarkable coming from Billy, but he kept his thoughts to himself like the rest of us. I thought it was smart because we all had the same view. The magnificence of that view was in the totality of it, and after the first few minutes it seemed trivial to point out one more steeple or another pond.
We finally crested the trail and were walking on a slight downhill grade when we heard the other guys coming. It was just a moment before they emerged from some woods, and the bunch of them ran right to the ridge to look over it. I walked over there and asked, "Isn't it like this all the way?"
Paul's eyes were wide, his mouth open, and he just shook his head no. Justin said, "It's woods all the way."
I grinned, "Well, you get this the rest of the way," as I made a broad gesture at the vista before them. "It's really awesome, and if you look close you'll see the bridges over the river in Riverton."
"Really?" Justin asked absently. "Wow, now I'm glad we came." He looked at Aaron, "How are you doing?"
Aaron took that the wrong way, I think. He said sullenly, "I know how to walk, you know."
Justin took a step back and put his hands up in surrender, "Oh, snarl, Aaron!" He smiled, "Jeepers! I won't ask again, okay?"
Aaron looked rueful, "I'm sorry. I'm just not that fragile, and sometimes ..."
He dropped it and Justin did too. It was the first time I'd seen cross words between them. That was the remarkable thing really, because they were brothers. A little hostility was expected.
After a few minutes, we left the other guys to explore the ridge while we descended into the woods. We fortunately hadn't gone too far when Lee thought to ask, "Did you get their car keys?"
Aaron's face went white, then turned red. He said a meek, "No, I forgot."
I was ready to run after the guys, but Lee said, "I'll go. Keep walking," then he tore out of there like he'd just replaced his battery pack.
Aaron smacked his head and said, "I can't believe I forgot!"
Billy said idly, "So did they, Aar. So did they."
Aaron shrugged and we kind of ambled along, waiting for Lee to catch up with us. The way we were going was generally easy, just a path down the slope. There were downed trees here and there, and we had to go either around or over, and there were any number of ledges. Most of them we just jumped over, but a few called for end-runs. Going the other way, it would have meant climbing all that, so it was easier going down.
After awhile, I wondered about Lee. He should have been back, so I told the other guys to keep going while I went to look for him. I turned around and hadn't walked more than two hundred feet before I found him sitting on a fallen tree. He was clearly lost in thought, because I was almost close enough to touch him before he gave a start at my presence.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
Lee looked at me before looking away, "Nothing, really. I just felt like being alone for a few minutes. You can go, I'll catch up."
I said, "Why don't you come? I don't want to get split up on a mountain we don't know."
Lee turned a soft expression to me and said, "Fair enough. Sit here then," he said, patting the log beside him. "I'm just feeling sad for no reason, and it goes away."
"I'll be quiet," I promised.
"No, you can talk," Lee said. "I just get this feeling sometimes when I'm doing something ... something I would have done with my other friends." He took a deep breath and added, "My dead friends."
I looked at Lee and asked, "This reminds you of them?"
He nodded, "Yeah, a lot. So much it's almost like they're right here with me."
Lee's expression was mournful and wistful at the same time. I felt like an intruder, and I finally patted his knee, "Take your time then. We'll go slow, and if there's a fork or something we'll wait."
Lee looked at the ground, then gulped and nodded at the same time. I left as graciously as I could, trotting down the trail until I caught up with Aaron and the others. "Where's Lee?" Bruce asked.
"Resting," I said. "He's taking his time."
I kept walking, and I was taking my own time. Lee never did catch up with us, and it was over an hour before we got to the end of the trail. Chris had left his car in plain view, but I'd neglected to get the key from Lee. We sat on a couple of benches. We weren't there long before Lee came out of the woods, looking anxious at first, but he cheered right up when he spotted us. He trotted over and smiled, "Sorry, I didn't mean to make you wait."
Aaron said, "It's not a problem. Sit and take a load off your feet."
Lee did. He sat, and he looked pleased with himself. I would like to have heard his thoughts right then. I didn't ask because I don't think he had enough time to digest them himself, and I'd probably never ask. We sat for a few more minutes until we'd cooled off, then climbed into Chris' car. I'd never driven it before and it was way bigger than I was used to, so I was ultra-careful. By the time we found the deli where we'd eaten lunch, the other guys were spread out like you'd be if you waited too long for someone.
We weren't apologetic, and told them they could go ahead back to the lake if they didn't want to wait. Meanwhile, we got chips and drinks and filled that hole that hiking puts in you.
On the way back to the house, I led Aaron astray a few times. We were ready to be embarrassed for getting lost, but when the other guys showed up a half-hour later the laugh was ours. They left the deli well ahead of us, and by the time they showed up at the house we were already cleaned up all bright and shiny.
Chris could normally take a teasing, but that day when we started in he stormed right past us into the house. That struck me as strange, so I went in after him, and he was fine. He wasn't happy about being lost on unfamiliar roads for an hour, and he wasn't in the mood to hear about it. He was still funny, grinning the moment he saw my concern. "No teasing in the house! It's a posted rule here somewhere," he proclaimed with a smile.
"Fine!" I said. "Be like that." I softened, "You having fun here?"
Chris stared at me, "Are you serious? I'm having a ball!"
"Good," I said calmly. "Feel like having a fall? There's this whole audience out there that's never seen us in action."
Chris grinned, "I don't know, you do it. I'll just go in the bathroom and jerk off or something."
He was already headed out the wrong door for that, and I muttered, "Yeah, right!" as I hurried after him. It was the perfect setup too, one that we'd used many times. Chris went through the door and stopped dead in his tracks at the top of the steps, so when I came out I crashed right into his back, and we both went tumbling out into the yard where I landed right on him, my head out a foot farther than his.
There was some nervous laughter from somewhere, but a bunch of guys came to pull me off Chris and check us out. I kept it going when I got pulled off, because I stumbled forward off-balance, and landed in what I hoped looked like a good, solo face plant.
It's too bad that Chris started laughing, because I think we could have kept them going for a while longer. People caught on though, and they either thought it was funny or not, just like Aaron's lovecock in the front yard.
Aaron thought we were funny, and that mattered to me if to nobody else. He was at my side the moment I sat up in the grass, and he brushed me off laughing, "You know, you told me about doing that, and it's really comical."
I smiled, "You should keep some metal folding chairs around. It's much better with noise."
Aaron socked my shoulder playfully and said, "Oh, you!" The punch turned into stroking and he whispered, "How about I take you out to eat? Just the two of us?"
I said, "That sounds nice. When?"
Aaron whispered, "Now. Tonight. There's a German place right on the water that's really good. The Italian restaurant in the village has good food too, not as romantic."
Either sounded fine to me, but I had another thought. "Aaron, should we go sneaking off now? How about Saturday or something? These are our friends ... we invited them here. You make the call, but is it right for us to just take off?"
Aaron kissed my ear, "You know, I love it when you say sports things to me, like I can make the call!" He sighed and squeezed closer to me, "You're right, though. I'm trying to be selfish."
I couldn't think of anything to say, so I kept my mouth shut and just enjoyed Aaron's close presence. He was stroking my arm and he said almost absently, "Let's make it a date for Saturday. I want to take you out, Evan, and to someplace nice. You choose; German or Italian."
I said, "German," almost automatically, and only because I ate Italian food so often in Mt. Harman. We had lots of ethnic restaurants there, but I couldn't think of a German one. "Pork, right?" I asked, remembering something from somewhere, possibly a vacation.
"Yup, pork," Aaron said, "and veal and sausages and schnitzel. The place gets noisy on weekends but the food is great!"
"Date, then," I said. "I can't wait. Well, wait a second ... who's buying?"
Aaron laughed, "Only you, Evan. Actually, I was going to ask if you could see your way clear ..."
"You're broke?" I snickered.
"Only sort of," Aaron said. "I can get the money, I just don't know if I can get it by Saturday."
"What about tonight, then?" I asked. "You asked me to go out tonight!"
I was teasing, but I could tell that Aaron got flustered. "I have the money, Ev. I just don't have it with me." He touched my face to make me look at him and said, "I have this cookie jar mentality, I think. I never bring enough money with me." He smirked, "You owe me twenty bucks anyhow."
"You do! You took twenty to pay for a vest for Lee, and I never saw any change."
I deflated, "Oh man, I'm sorry. You never said anything, and I forgot all about that."
Aaron pressed in close, "That's the way it should be, isn't it? Who cares if I pay or you pay? We do things together and we have fun." He grinned, "Let's make a deal! We have the same birthday, so when we're ninety we'll settle up any difference. How's that?"
God, I loved him! "Okay, let's do that! We should figure in a wrinkle penalty. Whoever has the most wrinkled prune pays for everything, how's that?"
Aaron laughed, then caught his breath and said, "That's fine for then, and I do plan to collect on that. For now, though, do you really mind paying on Saturday? I'll get it the next time."
I laughed, "Listen to us. It's like a bad movie! I will pay, Aaron! I will gladly pay! Let's just shut up about it, okay?"
Aaron looked sidelong at me and said, "Krauser's is kind of expensive."
I rolled my eyes, "I have almost a hundred left. If it's that expensive we can buy hot dogs and cook out."
Aaron's eyes warmed, "No, not that much, not even close. I'm baiting you maybe, but not really. I just like to hear you say it." He smiled hopefully, "That's how it is, right? Or how things will be? Not yours, not mine, but ours? "
I had to smile when I thought about it. "Ours," I said happily. "Evan and Aaron. Aaron and Evan?" I suddenly looked at Aaron's face and said, "Let's take a walk, just you and me." Aaron didn't protest and we walked around the side of the house away from the others. We didn't go far, just to the lovecock, and seeing it sent Aaron scurrying for a hose to water the plants. They'd already started to wilt, which Aaron attributed to them being so recently transplanted. He was probably right, but the results of the watering weren't immediate, so when we finally sat down the flowers were still wilted, only now they were wet and wilted.
We sat there and I admired Aaron's handiwork once again. Actually, the workmanship was mostly by nature what with the major pieces being driftwood. It was the creativity that touched me, and the humor that made the thing inevitable in Aaron's mind. I was staring at the bird, wondering again how Aaron's mind noticed it right away in a scrap of wood.
He asked, "What are you thinking about?"
"Ears," I muttered.
Aaron laughed in delight, "Ears?"
I snickered, "Yeah, ears! Big suckers, with Egyptian jewelry dangling halfway to the ground."
We were both laughing when Lee appeared, and he looked relaxed and happy. "Mind if I join you?" he asked. We assured him it was fine, and he sat on the grass facing us. He took a good look at the bird and smiled, shaking his head in what I presumed to be fascination with Aaron's talent.
"That was real nice today," Lee said. "I wonder if it's legal to camp out up on that ridge."
Aaron said, "I don't see why not. Who could you bother up there?"
My thought was very different. I looked at Lee, kind of amazed that the word camping would come out of him based on his last experience. I didn't say anything, but I was very interested in learning what he had in mind.
Lee shrugged, "It's public land up there, so if it's illegal to camp it wouldn't be because you'd bother people, Aaron. They worry about damage to the environment, fires ... even how hard it is to rescue you if you get in trouble there. Nobody knows what happened to that pamphlet from the mountain club, and it probably says in there. Do you know where it is?"
I looked at Aaron, who shrugged, and I tried to remember the last time I'd seen the book. Then it struck me, "You had it the last I saw, Lee."
"I did?" He suddenly looked meek and felt at a lower pocket in the cargo shorts he wore, then the meekness turned to embarrassment as he pulled the zipper. "I don't believe it!" he said as he pulled the booklet out, followed by the map. "I looked all over for this!"
He was embarrassed enough for the three of us, so Aaron and I just looked on as he flipped through the pages, settling on one, then exclaiming, "Yes!" He looked up at us, "I am going camping!"
I was startled, and Aaron seemed to be too. He asked, "When? With who?"
Lee looked at the sky, "Probably too late for today, so tomorrow if I can beg a ride off one of you guys."
"You're going alone?" I asked in astonishment.
Lee eyed me and nodded, as if he was warding off an argument. "I have to, Evan. I don't know if I can explain it."
I was edgy all of a sudden, and I wanted to ask a million questions. At the same time I wanted to allow Lee his privacy. Lee helped by looking off at the lake and saying, "The last time I went into the woods at night, I never really came out. My friends are still there, and I want to show them it can be done." He turned back to us, a sad smile playing at his lips. "I think they're afraid, guys. They need their peace, and maybe I can give it to them if I can make it through a night."
Aaron stirred like he might say something. I put my hand on his wrist and said to Lee, "I'll give you a ride, then. You have to do this alone?"
Lee nodded, and I nodded in return. I was pretty sure I understood. I'd had the feeling all afternoon that Lee found something inside himself up on that hill. I was burning with curiosity, but I vowed to myself that I wouldn't trouble Lee with my questions.
Lee said softly, "Thanks. When?"
I said, "Well, you'll want to get set up before dark, so tomorrow should work."
He smiled, a bit more happily, "That's what I was thinking." He looked at Aaron, "Is there a tent here? Something I can make a lean-to with?"
Aaron's eyes were pretty wide, but he nodded, "Um, yeah. Sure. We have pop-up tents we use for overflow crowds here in the summer." His head seemed to clear and he smiled, "Sleeping bags, too. Air mattresses, the whole nine yards!"
Lee grinned, "It'll just be one night."
He at the sky and whispered loudly, "Perfect!"
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