Plan D: Lake Effect
I had my own set of worries, but they were in their own category. I worried for Lee himself. What if he got overwhelmed up there and all alone? What if whatever he'd felt that afternoon wasn't there the next time? How would he handle it? Various results ran through my mind, and none of them were pretty. Still, Lee stood up for himself, and he did it well. He must have had his own doubts, but he also had some kind of confidence that was telling him what he had to do.
Aaron's grandfather finally took Lee for a walk down by the lake, his arm over Lee's shoulder.
The arguments continued while they were gone. Justin and his friends were adamant that Lee shouldn't go alone. I had to convince Bruce that this had nothing to do with him, or with how Lee felt about him. It was simply something Lee had to do, and he had to do it alone. Rakeed's worries had spread to white people in general, and he wondered aloud if camping out was a self-imposed penance for all the years whites mistreated blacks.
Lee and Mr. Castle were gone for a long time. A few people had headed inside or otherwise disappeared by the time they came back. Lee sat at the picnic table opposite me and Aaron. Mr. Castle pulled a beer out of a cooler before he sat facing us. He smiled, and said in his gentle but authoritative manner, "This has been a week of reaffirmation for this old man. If I were to just watch television and read the papers, then I'd have to believe that your generation doesn't exist the way I see it." He smiled to himself, "I do believe it's always been that way, though. My own folks were absolutely certain that the only things in my future were Hell and Thunderation, whatever that is." His smile brightened, "I'm happy to admit that, once again, those who report on the condition of the current younger population should take the drastic step of opening their blinds and going outside to actually meet some of the monsters they report on."
He leaned forward, "For my money, I'm looking at a generation of bright, open-minded, hard-working and helpful kids." His eyes narrowed for a moment, "When I learned that I had a gay grandson, some of my past came flooding back on me, and those aren't all pleasant recollections. I've never personally suffered that particular prejudice against gays, but it's rampant in my own generation, and almost as much so in the generation I helped to father."
I took Aaron's hand and gave it a squeeze. He smiled at me, and we turned back to his grandfather.
"I'm pleased," he said, "that this new generation has so few problems with homosexuality." He grinned meekly, "I'm not here to talk about gays, anyhow, but men. I gather that you all know something of Lee's past, and I encourage you to make sure that you know the truth. Sordid stories tend to come up with tabloid variations, and Lee deserves better than that. I've just heard that story first-hand myself, and that's what prompts me to say these words." He furrowed his brow and thought before continuing. "What happened to Lee," he said, "was just that: it happened to him. As cruel and sordid as it all was, it's Lee that it happened to, and he has to work things out in his own way. That's why I said I wanted to talk about men, because I see some good men emerging in this group." He pointed at where Justin was seated, "You older boys, your protectiveness is one better quality of real men." He turned to me, "I see Evan worrying silently. Evan, voice your fears to Lee, don't just sit there and squirm with them. If there are answers, he'll have them for you."
He looked at Rakeed and grinned, "And you, young man! If this weren't such a personal quest for Lee, I'd order you to go camping with him! I see your fascination with nature, and at the same time you have some kind of aversion to it. I don't know what else to say."
He faced his general audience again. "Here's my point. Let me start from left field and say that Aaron is every bit the man the rest of you are." He grinned quickly, "How's that? Now that I have your attention, I'll say that I mean Aaron's a man whether he's a gay man or not. A man's worth is based on what he contributes to society, however he contributes it. My guess is that Aaron will entertain other people, people who work the hard jobs They'll come home to something that Aaron has created, and that something will make them smile; provide a nice distraction for them."
That caused a small murmur to arise, but it was an agreeable sound. Aaron's grandfather continued, "And that brings me to Lee Erasmus." His face clouded, "I'm talking about a very remarkable youngster here. What strikes me as singular about Lee is that, despite the pain in his past, he wants the same future as the rest of you do. Nothing special, just the chance to use his wits and skills to make a life for himself. He's facing a hurdle that the rest of you don't have, and that is his own past. It keeps sneaking out in front of him, tries to trip him up, and that is one thing Lee has to get by on his own, and on his own terms. That's the reason for this speech I'm giving. Lee discovered something today, something profound and personal. I'm sure he appreciates your concerns, but it's one thing he has to do for himself." He smiled, "It's what they call a rite of passage, guys. We all have them, and we all make it by ourselves. Lee has an extra one, and he has to do this himself."
"What should we do?" Justin asked.
"Help Lee get there," his grandfather suggested. "Then leave him to it. You guys give him your support, help with logistics, then the rest is moral support." He shook his head slowly, "You can't do any more than that. Not this time." He looked like he was finished, but he added quickly, "What happened to Lee was hideous ... ugly. Let me leave you with this thought. Lee wants to get over it all, and when he does, that will make him every bit the man that the rest of you aspire to be. Only he can know what it'll take to get there."
All eyes turned to Lee. He looked momentarily embarrassed by the attention, then he had a sudden fire in his eyes. "I'll be okay," he said quietly. "I'll be fine."
Aaron's grandfather sat back looking pleased, and Aaron went to talk to him while I watched Lee. Justin and his friends went to him immediately, as did Bruce. I would have been almost fatally embarrassed, but Lee continued smiling even when Justin and his friends called him 'little buddy'.
I saw Paul by himself, and I hadn't noticed that he came back after getting Mark to bed. I moved to the chair beside him and asked, "What do you think? How much did you hear?"
Paul patted my shoulder. "I heard it all. I was against Lee going to the woods by himself, but Mr. Castle makes sense. It's true that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Lee changed today, did you notice that?"
I nodded, afraid to say anything for fear that I'd say too much. Paul sat back looking satisfied, "I saw it. You saw a good change, right?"
I snickered, "Yeah, good for sure."
Paul fell silent for awhile, then said, "I think we'll see a bigger change after he climbs that mountain alone. That's pretty profound, isn't it, Ev? I wonder what's up there?"
Paul said that last bit dreamily, like it was a rhetorical question. I went to get Aaron, and after a short talk with his grandfather we went inside. We weren't facing mountains of our own, just molehills.
* * * * * * * *
The next day, you would be forgiven if you mistook Lee's little mountain quest for a solo expedition to the summit of Everest. That's how much interest there was, and how much planning. Most of it was unwanted planning, because when Lee showed up he already had most of what he needed, provided by Aaron and Justin. That comprised a tent, an air mattress, a poncho, a sleeping bag, a small backpack and a flashlight. All he needed was food and water, but no. Justin's pals had determined that the rugged terrain called for some mountaineering equipment; pitons and ropes, carabiners and ascenders. They had a pile of it waiting, and I wondered if they had totally forgotten that we all managed to just walk up in sneakers the day before.
Aaron thoughtfully suggested a toothbrush and toothpaste, as well as a Walkman and some cd's. He also offered this little pocket sized television he found, and that was the last straw for Lee.
He laughed, "I appreciate it guys, I really do, but I don't need all this stuff! Food and water, yes! The tent, the sleeping bag, even the poncho. I appreciate the offer of a television, but I won't be watching the soaps, and as much as I like P-Diddy, I can wait 'til I'm back for that." He looked at Doug, "I'm not going over the cliff either, if that's what you're thinking. I don't have enough Sherpas to haul everything, anyhow." He grinned suddenly, "I need matches, though. Are there matches in here?" he asked as he dug into the back pack.
"Not yet," Justin said dismally. "I'll find you some." He headed for the kitchen, and the other guys tried their best to convince Lee that he'd have a more rewarding mountain experience if he brought their equipment, but Lee wasn't buying it.
Justin came back with a couple of the little match boxes you get at restaurants and hotels. Lee took them and after looking he asked, "Can I really light a fire with matches from Lobsterama?"
That got a laugh, but it was still a nervous laugh. Lee tensed up for a second, then he put the things in his hands down. "Listen," he said. You're not sending me to my doom here." His eyes suddenly clouded, "It's personal. I'm not looking to hurt myself. I'll be fine, so just bring me there and pick me up tomorrow."
We did just that. We gave Lee a real send-off. All of us went in four vehicles, and we brought him to where my group had ended our hike the day before. There was more forest on that end of the ridge, so potential camping spots weren't as exposed to the elements.
When we got there, we all got out of the cars, and I think that we were all prepared to accompany Lee until he decided on a spot, then we'd help him set up his camp. He didn't want that. He wanted to make the whole journey on his own. He started to get apologetic about that, and Justin's grandfather had to step in and get us to leave Lee to his own devices.
Lee did, at the last minute, accept Rakeed's offer of his cell phone, even though there was no signal at the bottom. Rakeed quickly programmed in the number of the house and showed Lee how to use the directory.
Then Lee started getting ready. He put the backpack on, and Justin strapped the tent to that. His food, water and a frying pan were in a duffel bag along with some pieces of newspaper, a hatchet, a knife and miscellaneous personal things.
Lee tested the weight of what he had with him and on him, adjusted his cap, and asked, "Well, how do I look?"
That was a question that none of us expected, and we laughed. Paul went up to Lee and pushed his cap brim a bit to one side. "You look like a champion, Lee." Then he leaned in and whispered something that made Lee laugh.
After that, Lee took a step backwards and flashed a bright, dimpled smile at us and said, "See you in the AM! What time?"
"Nine?" I suggested.
Lee smiled again, "Nine's good! Thanks, guys!" Then he turned and strode across the little parking lot and soon disappeared into the woods. For all the freight he had on him, his pace and gait both seemed exuberant.
Doug mumbled, "He's a brave little guy."
Paul added sadly, "We're brave too. We're letting him go." He turned to Mr. Castle and said, "Thanks for talking to us last night. I see what you mean."
I looked at my watch. It was nearly four in the afternoon, so we had a lot of time before Lee would come back down. It seemed for a while that we might spend that time in the parking lot. Nobody made a move to leave. We just hung around talking. When we finally decided to get in the cars and go, it was after four and Lilac's cell phone rang. We could tell that she was talking to Lee, but he only called because the phone Rakeed gave him seemed to have a signal. He was on top and setting up camp, so there was nothing to keep us there any longer.
When we got back in the car with Chris, he said brightly, "At least he has a nice day for it! We should sleep out tonight, too."
We looked around at each other, shrugging like people do when they've heard a suggestion that sounds good to them personally, but they're not yet sure what the group thinks about it. Shrugs soon turned to smiles, and we were on target to sleep in the yard.
There were problems, of course. Bruce whined, "Who will I sleep with? Lee's camping by himself."
I suggested, "Then you can sleep by yourself."
"What if I don't want to?"
Aaron said "Sleep with Doug, then. He'll be alone, too."
Bruce gasped, "Doug? Don't get me wrong or anything, I think he's a nice guy ..."
"What, then?" Aaron asked.
"What if he rolls over on me? I'd be dead in ten seconds. I mean, Lee's sleeping on a mountain. I don't think I can sleep under one."
I said, "I wouldn't worry, Bruce. He'll never fall asleep anyhow with your snoring going on."
Bruce was the picture of incredulity. "What? I do not snore, Evan! Not even a little bit!"
I grinned, "I didn't say a little bit. You snore a whole lot! You sound like a semi trying to beat a train to the crossing! Why do you think Dad gave you your own room?"
Bruce started to sputter something about all of us having our own rooms, but I talked over him. "When Mom was pregnant with you everybody thought she had gas, but it was just you snoozing in there. Don't take my word for it, though. Ask Lee why he'd rather sleep alone on a mountaintop. I know you don't hear it because you're asleep, but maybe you should set up a recorder sometime and see for yourself."
I hadn't looked at Bruce once during that exchange, but I could picture his every move. I knew that he'd just folded his arms and looked out the window. He'd win every single time in an argument about scientific theory or mathematical fact. He didn't have a prayer when I made it personal like that, and I honestly didn't know if he snored or not. We'd always had separate rooms.
His parting shot was, "You say!"
I moaned, "For this I give up a nice dinner with Aaron."
"What?" Chris asked sharply. "Why are you giving up something?"
I said, "It's no big deal. Aaron wanted us to go out by ourselves, but we have all you guys here. We'll do it another time."
"That's bull," Chris said.
"Yeah, bull," Paul added from the back. "You guys have done enough. You can take a break from us."
Aaron said, "It's not a break from you, not at all. I just thought..."
"Do it," Chris advised. "Don't even think you're being rude or anything, just do it."
"Yeah, do it!" Mark called joyously from the back. "Do it, do it, do it!"
I looked at Aaron and his eyebrows asked the question. I whispered, "Let's."
He nodded eagerly and I said cheerfully, "Okay, Mark. We'll do it, but just for you."
Chris laughed, then put his hand over his mouth to muffle his voice. "Bullshit alert! Bullshit alert! Do not ... I repeat do not listen to anything Evan says."
I saw where we were and said, "That's your turn, Chris."
He kept laughing, kept on driving. We'd gone another five or six miles when he saw a sign that said we weren't going where he thought. "You dipshit!" Chris muttered, "Why didn't you tell me?"
I kept my mouth shut until he missed the turn again going the other way, then I said, "You know, Lee is probably way safer being alone on that mountain." Chris fumed in silence the rest of the way. He'd cooled off by the time we reached the house, and when he set the brake he turned around and said sweetly, "We're here!"
I could have said a lot of things right then, but Chris was okay as far as best friends go, and I didn't want to upset him. No too much.
Grandpa Castle's car was the only one back ahead of us, and Aaron and I went looking for him.
He was on the back step with some knives and a sharpening stone, and he smiled when he saw us coming. "Grandpa," Aaron said, "Are we being rude if just the two of us go out to eat?"
His grandfather said, "It would be not rude if you asked everyone to go with you."
Aaron smiled, "Let me refine the question, then. What if we want to go by ourselves, like on a date?"
His grandfather didn't look up. "On a date, or like on a date? I see a difference there."
Aaron knew he was being teased, so he made himself clearer. "I want to take Evan to Krauser's for dinner, just the two of us. It's a date, and we haven't been on a real date in a long time. Is it rude of us?"
His grandfather was chuckling, and I would have except I didn't want to embarrass Aaron with both of us laughing at him. His grandfather looked up and said, "Aaron, listen to me. If you're going out on a date, the only thing you have to ask me is if you can use the car. Seeing as how you have your own car, that question shouldn't come up. What were you asking me now?"
Aaron rolled his eyes, then laughed softly, and he got smart. "I was asking if I could borrow fifty dollars to take Evan out, that's what I was asking."
His grandfather looked at me and winked. "Oh, I didn't get that from your first question. If you want to borrow money, the answer is absolutely not."
Aaron looked stunned and Grandpa grinned, "I'll give you the money, and I'll do you one better. You're going to Krauser's?"
Aaron nodded, cheerful now that he knew for sure his grandfather had been kidding. Mr. Castle said, "Then I'll take the rest of this crew to Capriano's for Italian." He pointed to me, "You order the pork roast. You'll never find better."
We left to get cleaned up and changed, and I decided that Aaron had a lot of his grandfather in him, just like I followed after my grandmother on my father's side. We shared genes and chromosomes for sure, but we also inherited big gobs of our natures and personalities from those two, and that kind of thing seemed to skip over generations.
I didn't have any good clothes with me, and Aaron assured me that it was a boater's place and casual was fine. Still, I wanted to look as good as possible, so I experimented with things until I came up with an okay combination. I looked like a boater at least, with faded khaki pants, a white polo shirt and a blue sweater that had seen better days. It used to fit better, too. Still, Aaron said I looked good, and I thought he looked great himself. He had on charcoal colored pants and a dark red shirt. He carried a gray sweater with him, saying it was too warm to put it on.
We had time, so we took a walk along the lake road. There weren't many cars at that time of year, so we walked down the middle of the road until we heard someone coming. There were year-round homes on the lake, but most were in neighborhoods on the other side from where we were.
I liked that walk. The cottages tended to be in clusters, associations that would maintain a single beach for their own use. On Aaron's side of the lake, there were long stretches with no waterfront homes, but the people who lived back from the water had docks on the shore. That added a lot to the charm of the place that I'd felt the year before. The docks were quiet that night, but in summer they were busy, friendly places. Few boats were in the water when we walked by, but later on there would be regular flotillas of them, and in all shapes and sizes.
I hadn't noticed Krauser's restaurant before, though I'd obviously been by it several times. It was a wide, log cabin-like place back from the road, and they had a small neon sign out front. I thought we'd go in, but Aaron insisted on going back to the house first. Krauser's had a dock, and he wanted to arrive by boat. That was an idea that I found alluring myself, so we meandered back to the house. The others were just leaving to go out when we got there, so we waved, then Aaron went inside for the boat key.
We motored slowly, enjoying the warmer air. The big pontoon boat barely felt like it was moving, and when we pulled up to the Krauser dock a guy there helped to dock us and tie off the boat. When we'd walked by there before I didn't notice any boats, but when we tied up there were at least six others.
We weren't in a hurry, and when we were in front of the restaurant they'd turned on some outside lights, so I followed Aaron around a garden where he looked for ideas for his own. "No lovecocks," I commented.
"I noticed that," Aaron said. "It's a shame."
"Yeah," I said. "You probably see more of that sort of thing in Egypt."
Aaron grinned, and we went inside. It was a darkly paneled old place, and the lobby was filled with porcelain dolls, what looked like a million of them. They were dressed in all kinds of costumes, from peasant garb to ballroom gowns. They were interesting enough to fill the time until a woman asked, "Table for two?" Aaron nodded and she asked, "Smoking or non?"
"Non," we both said, and Aaron asked, "Is there a table out front?"
"There sure is," she said as she marked an X on a piece of paper. She smiled at Aaron, "You're one of the Castle boys, don't try to deny it. Is everyone healthy?"
"So far," Aaron said. "We came up to help get the house ready for summer."
She led us to a table right by the windows of the front porch. The windows were open to screens, and as she gave us menus she said, "You can just pull these closed if it gets too cool or breezy. Can I get you something to drink?"
I nodded, "Lemonade?"
She said, "I'll have to check. I'm sure we have iced tea."
I shrugged my agreement while Aaron ordered a Sprite. When the waitress left, I took in our surroundings and they pleased me to no end. We were on a wide, wide enclosed porch, probably thirty feet from our corner to the far one. Three sides were done in shades of window screening and the wall to the building was covered in dark shingles, probably brown. All the trim was white. Each table had a centerpiece of a cut glass candle holder, and the candles were lit where there were people at the tables. The tablecloths looked to be pink at first, but once my eyes adjusted the color was more of a peach, and the linens were of the heavy, expensive variety. Our napkins were a medium green that went well, and the silverware and glasses were reassuringly heavy.
I smiled at Aaron and said, "Good choice," then turned my attention to the menu. It was a big one, too. I'm glad that Aaron's ancestor had recommended something, otherwise I would have still been deciding the next morning. They offered pork cooked twenty-nine ways from Heaven, every kind of sausage you ever heard of and some I never heard of, veal, lamb, chicken, beef and fish. It was a menu that was good for a year, but I only had one night. "Which is the pork roast your Grandpa said I should have?" I asked Aaron.
He brought my attention to the inside of the menu's front cover where it said, "Our specialty for fifty years. Pork roasted in the German Tradition, and so tender you won't need a knife."
My mouth watered, but I still checked, "It's true?" I asked.
Aaron nodded emphatically, "Yeah, they do it right. That's what I'm having."
I licked my lips and said, "Me, too."
The waitress brought Aaron his Sprite and me a lemonade that the bartender had made from scratch. It was full of seeds and void of sugar, so the first sip puckered me up so much that Aaron laughed. I stirred in five little sugar packets before it was right.
When our meal came, it was truly memorable. Pork just as tender as they advertised, cooked carrots, and roasted potatoes, all served with a gravy that was as black as ink. We had other things, too; little salads that were too cold, bread that was wonderful, and we ended up too full for real desserts. The cart they brought around had amazing looking things on it, but I ended up ordering sherbet, as did Aaron.
I felt bloated, and Aaron probably more than me. He usually ate less, but the meal was so good we both cleaned our plates. We were sitting there innocently trying to get out some silent burps. We'd ordered coffee, and a couple sat at the next table just after we ordered.
I was seriously overstuffed from the excellent meal, as was Aaron. The coffee came hot, and while it cooled enough to drink we had some fun. Aaron looked out at the lake, and I stroked the back of his hand, and that caused him to jump a little and giggle.
Then when I turned my own attention away, he'd do something similar, and we'd both snicker.
We were oblivious to the people around us until the guy who'd just been seated at the next table us said, "Do you mind? Will you two take your nonsense somewhere else? Honest to God, this is a public place!"
I was shocked into silence, as was Aaron. I found my tongue and said, "We're public people. What is your problem?"
The guy said, "Why don't you just have sex right there?"
I said, "Why don't you? We're kidding around. You're with a nice lady. Why aren't you paying attention to her? You like boys or something?"
Well, I knew that was over the top before I finished the question, but it was out. The guy stood up, and he knocked some things off the table when he did. He wasn't big at all; short and bald and a bit past where you'd call him merely chunky. He surely wasn't a physical threat to Aaron, much less me. I will not kid you about this. He was wearing plaid pants and a striped shirt, and even so he seemed to think he was a dignitary.
"How dare you? You little ... "
I stood up, ready if he tried something, but the waitress came scurrying over and asked what was going on.
The guy was practically speechless. "These ... these ..." he said while waggling his finger at us, "These degenerates are making fun of me and my lady. I want them arrested! Call the police!"
I gaped in surprise, and the waitress called for the owner. He came over quickly and discreetly, a white haired guy with a pink face. "What's the trouble here? What's going on?"
The waitress shrugged, and the short man said, "We came here for a quiet meal, and you sit us down next to perverts!" He did an odd move and pounded his own chest with his thumb, "I don't have to put up with this! I could sue you!" He looked at me and Aaron and spat, "Uh!" as if it meant something we should understand.
Oh, I was ready to put his lights out, but the owner stood between us. "Sir," he said to the other guy, then touched Aaron's elbow, "This is a member of the Castle family, and the Castles are a big part of why we've been here for fifty years. They're a fine family, people you don't meet every day of the week." He stood tall beside Aaron and put an arm over his shoulder. "If you have a problem with this boy, then take it to another restaurant. I don't need your ten cents that badly. As a matter of fact, there's a lovely new McDonald's right over on Route 18. I'm sure you'll find it suitable for a man of your breeding and character."
Well, that little man turned ten shades of red, but he knew he'd lost. He sputtered, "See if I come back!" and "I'll warn my friends away!" He turned to the embarrassed woman with him and demanded, "Come on, Pet. This place sucks!"
She didn't look any less embarrassed, but she left with him, and then things were quiet again. Aaron said in embarrassment, "Thanks, Mr. Krauser," and the old man disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived.
We sipped our coffees and nursed bowls of sherbet, but the evening had been tainted and we both knew it. I had the masculine thought that the next time somebody like that guy interfered with us I'd just smash his face in. I knew I wouldn't do it for real, but it was comforting to envision it.
When Aaron had paid the bill and we were leaving, Mrs. Krauser caught us in the lobby. She was as white-haired as her husband, and she had a kind face. She held out a little bundle wrapped in paper to Aaron and said, "For you. You tell your grandfather hello, okay?"
Aaron thanked her and said, "Okay," and we left. When we were outside I asked, "What'd she give you?"
Aaron snickered, "Buns, I think. Nice, warm buns."
I put my hand on Aaron's bottom and said, "Oh goody. I think I was born to bun."
We went out into the lake on the big boat, and when we were in deep water Aaron let it just putt along while we kissed and fooled around. The night was just perfect, too. It was cool, but our sweaters were plenty. The sky was clear, and there was a sliver of moonlight showing. The moon was bright but not big enough to wash out the stars, which were shining in all their glory.
Aaron turned the stereo on and found a soft rock station, and he set the volume to where it was just audible and not intrusive at all.
Right next to the captain's chair there was a seat for two, and we sat there. Aaron could easily reach the wheel, although we were moving so slowly he wouldn't have to very often.
We were having a fine time just kissing and making small talk when I detected a laugh building up inside Aaron. I'd known Aaron long enough by then that I could sense these things, and sure enough he started giggling, then cried, "Suddenly there's a fat guy in a clown suit!"
I started laughing, and Aaron went on, "Then this here fellow ... this big marsh mallow ... begins to bellow!"
I was already helpless. Aaron didn't stop. He sang, "Oh no! It's fag-gots! I'm gonna puke up my own guts!" in an almost operatic voice. He elbowed me, "Take it, Evan!"
I was laughing too hard, and managed to say, "Right! You keep it, Aaron. I don't know where it goes!"
Aaron held it for a moment, then said, "Okay, never mind. I didn't like that guy."
I looked at Aaron and asked, "You're serious? Why not? I'm sure he's a wonderful ... something."
Aaron said, "Yeah, maybe." He snickered, "He's put me off pork chops, though." He looked at me, "I hope I'm not that ugly when I'm older."
I said, "Aaron, you could have a frying pan factory land on your face, and you'd still be a beautiful person."
"That's a special thought," Aaron said dryly.
"You didn't let me finish. Quasimoto there is ugly from the inside out. He's made from a blob of evil protoplasm that went haywire at an early age."
Aaron eyed me, "And I'm made from?"
I grinned, "A different blob, a wonderful blob. My favorite blob!"
"Evan?" Aaron asked carefully.
He kissed me sweetly and said, "Just for reference, I mean in the future, and I'm not making a big deal out of anything, but when you talk about why you like me, could you leave the word blob out of it?"
"Uh-uh. Thanks," he said.
"What then?" I asked, not willing to leave the train of thought. Aaron sat up suddenly and gave the wheel a turn, and I thought to ask, "That wasn't the island you were aiming at?"
"That's not an island, it's the shore," he said as he moved to the captain's chair to turn the boat around. He snickered when he cuddled back up against me, "I guess blob is okay for now, but one of these days we're getting the dictionary out."
We sat close to each other like that, and I was happy. Lee was coming back into my consciousness, though, and I wondered aloud, "I wonder how Lee's doing."
"Me too," Aaron said. "He kind of worries me. Do you think he really meant he saw ghosts or something?"
I thought about that, because I'd wondered it myself, and I finally said, "Nah. I think he's looking for ... I don't know what you'd call it ... his own release, I guess. I did hear him talk about his friends in the present sense, so who knows? He's up there now, all alone. I don't think it's a good time to start doubting him."
"No, probably not," Aaron whispered. "I just hope he's alright."
I put my head against Aaron's shoulder and sighed, "Me, too. I'm sure he's fine. He sure has a nice night for it."
Aaron mumbled, "Sure does," then he sat up. "Let's go in. It's late, and maybe he called."
I hadn't considered that, so I didn't argue. Aaron moved to the captain's seat again, and I stood behind him. He sped up just a little, and we meandered back to their dock.
We knew before we got to shore that people were still up, because we could see the light of the fire flickering on the trees behind the house. We tied up the boat and walked hand-in-hand around the house, where people were relaxing around the fire. There were several tents set up in the yard. We got a lazy welcome and joined everyone after saying we had a good time.
"Did Lee call?" I asked. He hadn't, so I relaxed and looked at the fire. Nobody was talking, and I wondered if Lee was looking into his own fire. Well, I thought, of course he is, so I wondered what he saw in the flames up there on the mountain. I hoped that he found a peaceful part of his mind to save memories of his friends and his father. He wouldn't want to tuck them too far away lest he forget them. Nor would he want them in the middle of day to day activities. No, he had to find the place where good memories are stored, a place where all the insanity that had been visited on him wasn't allowed to linger. Then his father and friends could be as they once were, and forever more.
I realized that I was nodding off, and looked at Aaron, who had already dozed. I started to stand, my hand on his shoulder to steady myself, and he stirred, smiling before his eyes opened. He looked in the wrong place at first, then turned. "Evan! What time is it?"
"I don't know," I said. "Let's find our tent."
* * * * * * * *
The contingent that went to pick up Lee was every bit as strong as the one that had dropped him off. The only difference was that Lee wasn't in the parking lot, so the able-bodied among us, which was everyone except Grandpa Castle and Lilac, went up that mountain to find him. Went up is a euphemism, and I don't suppose it's right to say we barged up a mountain either, but we sure didn't waste any time. We were on the upper ridge within fifteen minutes, and we walked along looking for signs of Lee's campsite. We found it after awhile, in a nice, logical clearing back in some pines. We found his things there, anyhow; the duffel bag, the tent wrapped up in the poncho, the backpack and the sleeping bag. They looked just like they had when he carried them out of the parking lot the day before. Everything was tidy and ready to use. All we were missing was Lee, and there was no response to our first nervous calls.
We started calling his name out louder, hands making megaphones for our voices. I felt this edge building in me, and I could tell that everyone else did. I wasn't panicky yet, but I grew more and more nervous that something had gone wrong. It looked like Lee had climbed the hill, dropped his equipment there, and gone off to somewhere else.
It took Mark, who was shorter than the rest of us, and therefore closer to the ground, to notice that some rocks were smoking almost imperceptibly. He bent down to touch them and jerked his hand away, crying, "Hot!"
That's all it took to start my mind on the path to calm. Lee had lit a fire anyhow, and the rocks wouldn't still be hot from the day before. I snickered at my own shakiness and said, "He probably went for a walk."
Everyone laughed nervously and agreed. Having no idea where Lee might have headed, we sat on the ground to wait for him. In about ten minutes Doug cried, "There he is!" and pointed along the ridge. There was Lee, walking with his usual cheerful stride. He had his folding shovel in one hand and a camper's roll of toilet paper dangling from his other one. He hid the paper in his shirt as soon as he saw us, and he was smiling when he approached.
"Man, you had us nervous," Doug said.
Lee seemed surprised, "What'd I do?"
Doug looked exasperated, wiggled his hands in the air, and finally admitted, "Nothing. We just found this place looking like you didn't stay here."
Lee looked around and smiled a little, "I like to leave things the way I find them. Sorry."
"Don't apologize," Paul said. "Just tell us how it was."
Lee put his hands in his pockets, looked down, and toed the ground in front of him. When he looked back up his expression didn't give anything away, and he said frankly, "It was a lot of things. You saw the night, so you know how pretty it was. It was gorgeous from up here, with all the stars out like that." He looked down again, toed some more pine needles, "It was kind of spooky here by myself, kind of boring too." He pulled one hand out of his pocket and scratched the back of his head with it, saying, "It was nice, too." He grinned, "With the breeze, I had the fire so hot I could make aluminum cans burn up in flame. They'd go woomph! just like that, and they'd be gone." He made a grand gesture with the word 'woomph' and I knew he was fine then.
"What's in your shirt?" I asked, reasonably certain that he'd forgotten about the toilet paper. I was right, too.
He remembered, blushed, and said, "Nothing! Are we hanging around here for a reason, or can we go now?"
I smiled at Lee, "We can go. We thought about you, you know." People picked things up and we started down the hill, Lee still with his potty shovel. He said, "I figured you would. I thought about you guys, too. Did you do anything?"
I shrugged, "We went out to eat, took the boat out on the lake. Not much."
Lee said, "That's nice, though. I woke up early, and it was all misty down below. I wish I had a camera."
"You've been up all day?" I asked.
"No, I went back to sleep." He chuckled, "I didn't sleep much at night, I don't know when I got to sleep."
I asked, "Want to tell me about it?"
We'd gone another five minutes before Lee said, "I don't think so. I don't know how to explain, but I have most of it sorted out." I didn't say anything in response, and when we were almost down the hill Lee said, "I feel better, like I was sure I would. It's not easy losing people to violence like that. It's too sudden, and you don't get to let them go."
I looked quickly at Lee, trying not to lose my footing when I did. "That's what you did?" I asked quietly, "You let them go?"
Lee looked away, then right back at me, and he stopped. "Not exactly, Ev. It's hard to say, but it's more like I showed them how to go." He looked down the path and started going again, "I can't explain it. I'll never be able to explain. It's just something I know now."
I liked that idea. That's how private thoughts work. You know something you can't explain, so all you can say is that you understand now, and thank you for shutting up!
I thought about saying more, but I did decide to shut up. Whatever happened for Lee, it seemed to please him We were all there because that's what we wanted in the first place. If he was content, then all I had to do was to be glad for him, and I was.
It wasn't an issue when we got to the parking lot. Grandpa Castle and Lilac were standing by one of the cars, and there was a folding table with a cake on it there beside them. When they saw us coming, Aaron's grandfather lit the one candle on the cake, and turned a great, wide smile to us. As we approached, we could see that the cake was an ugly thing, but Lilac said, "This is for you, Lee. I apologize for how it looks, but I hope the message is the right one."
Well, the cake wasn't that bad. It was the frosting, which looked like somebody had planned on pink and changed their mind at the last moment, so it was what you might get if you added some green to your pink.
The message, though! I gaped at it, for it said, "Happy Day New Lee!"
Then I laughed, and I cried out, "That's great! Who thought of it?"
I didn't get an answer because everyone started cheering Lee to cut the cake. When I looked at him he seemed happy, if a bit stunned. "New Lee?" he asked, looking around. "No. No no. Same old Lee, with maybe a new attitude."
I smiled at Lee's words. He can't have meant them, because it was his attitude that drew me to him in the first place. He was the guy I was supposed to dislike, the one I'd had a fear of. He turned out to be the opposite of what I'd expected, and I quickly learned to admire him.
For all the bad in his life, he held no grudges, and I'd never heard him whine. He didn't pick up any crutches like drugs or booze. He moved forward with his life because he was driven to do so, and that drive came straight from his heart. If he messed with that attitude, I'd smack him in the head.
The cake tasted better than it looked, and it disappeared quickly enough. We washed it down with bottled water, then people huddled around deciding what they wanted to do next. Dean and John Balls already knew, and they headed across the highway to explore the ridge some more where it continued heading South. Lee wanted a shower and to call home, so he went back to the house with Aaron's grandfather, Lilac and Rakeed. My brother went with him. Justin had to go to the boat place to order a new piece of rub-strip and another insignia to replace the pieces that got damaged when the boat fell over.
That left six of us, and I felt game for just about anything. Suggestions ranged from goofing off back at the house to following Dean and John Balls along the ridge. Chris favored driving around some more, then Aaron suggested water skiing.
Everyone except Paul sounded enthusiastic about that, especially Mark, who 'always' wanted to learn how. Well, that fit in with my plans, because I 'always' wanted to see Paul in a wet suit, even though I didn't realize it until right then. Billy and Chris, too, and Aaron again. Mark was twelve, so him I didn't care about. If I was twelve again, I'd be looking though. He resembled Paul, and he was probably destined to be a big boy himself. He was an active kid, and I don't think he sat around smoking pot all day, so he didn't share Paul's softness.
Riding back, I wondered if I was developing a dirty mind or what, and the 'or what' didn't really come into play. I wanted to ski for sure, but Chris, Aaron and Billy all together in wetsuits presented a pleasing image, and Paul in a wetsuit ... well, I'd have to see, but the thought was tantalizing. Maybe if Lee wasn't too tired he'd try it, too. Oh boy!
I felt like a bad boy all the way back to the house. Of course, there was still the matter of putting the boat in the water, getting gas, and a lot of other little things. When everything was set, we broke for a quick lunch, then changed into wetsuits. By then, Lee and Bruce declared their desire to try skiing, but it would have been too many people for the boat if we all went at once. Paul didn't mind waiting, so he and Lee sat on the dock to watch while the rest of us headed out.
Billy was the first in the water, and he got up on the skis on his first try. For a few minutes he looked from the boat a bit like a fireplug back there, leaning way back. Then he got his legs and started weaving back and forth within the wake, and he was soon outside it, and right beside the boat on the single slalom ski. He whooped and hollered, and was more than halfway around the lake when an intended stunt upset him and he disappeared into a mighty splash. Aaron brought the boat around and we pulled him in. Billy was laughing from the thrill and cussing the coldness of the water, but he'd had fun for himself. Aaron told me to go next.
We gathered up the other ski first, then I jumped into the water and put the skis on. There's science behind why, but fifty-five degree water feels exponentially colder than fifty-five degree air. My body wasn't cold in the wet suit, but it really bit at my head and hands. I didn't get up on the first try either, nor the second. I couldn't seem to get my legs under me, but the third try worked, and I did a full lap of the lake before I let go. I didn't do stunts yet, but it was fun just going that fast.
Aaron skied next while I drove the boat, and he was smooth from the get-go. He dropped the second ski as soon as the boat was up to speed, and he put on a pretty happy show for the rest of us. He crashed too, but it happened during a three-sixty off the boat's wake, and nobody else was nearly good enough to even try that.
Chris said he knew how to ski, but only a little, and that was accurate information. It took him five tries to get up, and he didn't last long when he did. He tried twice again, both times for short rides, then he signaled that he'd had enough and we picked him up.
Now it was time for the never-evers, and we did that from the shallow water by shore.
I was the coach for the first one, who was Mark. We stood out in water that was chest-deep on him, and I held him while he tried to get the skis on his feet. I knew what it was like from the year before ... the total unfamiliarity of the feeling. You had the buoyancy of the water trying to cast you side to side while you tried to stay straight, with your feet out of the water enough to get the skis on. It could be learned easily enough, but it was unnatural at first, and therefore difficult.
I was patient with him, and steadied him against the tautness of the rope when Aaron pulled some tension into it. Then he went into the water face-first on his first try, and backwards on his second and third. He was having fun and he wasn't afraid, so I found the patience to stay with him. After many tries he got up, then he went about fifty feet and crashed. Now he was in deeper water, over both our heads, so I had to steady him while I treaded water and wasn't very steady myself.
After a lot of tries, Mark managed a short ride. When he crashed that time he was on his own. By then I was sitting on the dock, and Billy jumped in to help Mark. It looked like he might try again at first, but it was Mark who climbed back into the boat while Billy picked up the skis and got them on. He didn't take another ride, but had Aaron tow him back to the dock. When the boat peeled out, Billy let go of the rope and rode the skis right up to us, sinking into the water not ten feet from the dock.
He grabbed the skis when they bobbed up in front of him, then asked, "Who's next?"
Lee and Bruce looked at each other, and Lee asked, "Why don't you go?"
There was some fear in Bruce's eyes, but he shrugged and said, "Okay." Before he got off the dock he picked up one ski, then the other and inspected them, then he looked to me and asked, "Aren't you going to show me?"
Billy was in the water waiting, and he said, "I think that's my job. If you learn from Evan then you'll ski like Evan. There are better ways."
I cried, "Hey! I take umbrage with that remark. I learned how to ski from Justin Castle!"
Billy stuck out his tongue, "Ooooh! Justin Castle, huh?" He looked at my brother, "Jump in, Brucie. It just so happens that I learned from Aaron Castle, and when it comes to water he's the man himself."
Bruce looked his question to me and I smiled, "You heard him. Get in the water!"
Bruce smirked at me and jumped in, and I was once again surprised by his agility. He'd worked with us and not complained, climbed that ridge and just kind of scampered up, and now he was eager to water ski. Bruce had said his first word at eleven months, his first sentence two months after that. He'd been cynical of others since he started kindergarten, and he'd read more words off printed pages by the time he was ten than most people did in a lifetime. And this was the first time I'd ever witnessed him having fun, and the kind of fun that comes with being a kid.
I wondered then about his inspection of those skis, if he'd somehow gleaned from looking at them how it all came together. I shouldn't have thought about it. He figured it out after many tries, and managed as many short rides as Mark had before he was sore and tired. There are places where your brains ... your mind ... can take you, and there are other places where you really have to rely on your body. Body responses were learned things, too, but they were learned in different ways than intellectual things.
It was like me against Chris in snow skiing. Chris had been on skis since he could remember, and he was a super expert. I'd only gone with him, and only a few times, so to me skiing on snow was an excellent means of gathering up snow on my body. Aaron was a great swimmer and an excellent water skier because he'd spent every summer since his birth around water. He learned to swim as an infant, and they had the pool in their yard as well as the house at the lake.
Lee was athletic, so it was good that Aaron decided to show him how to water ski. I thought Lee would pick right up on water skiing. He was very good on ice skates. Skating is nothing like water skiing, but it requires strength in the same places and a good balance.
I started to doubt my judgment when Lee had an awful time, trying over and over again to get up on the skis. When he did finally make it, he stayed up. He was awkward for a long time, but he kept adjusting his stance until he looked pretty good. Billy was driving the boat, and he gave Lee an easy ride, making big, sweeping turns. They disappeared from our view out behind the islands, but we could tell from the sound that Lee was still skiing. The boat came into view first, then Lee behind it, and he was doing just fine, even doing some turns inside the wake. They kept on going back up the length of the lake, and Lee finally lost it before they turned to go around the islands again. Then Chris took another turn, and he did much better than the first time.
When they came back to the dock, I decided I'd like another run, and Bruce and Mark did, too. We went out with Aaron as our driver, and this time Paul came along for the ride.
Bruce and Mark both got real rides that time. Neither of them made a lap of the lake, but they at least got long runs. I did better myself, and with some confidence back it was a lot of fun. I made it around the lake once and thought I'd try for a second lap, but I thought better of it when my left elbow developed a little tic. I'd had enough anyhow, so I let the rope go and sank into the dark water. The sun was getting lost behind high haze by then, so it was a good time to give up.
After we put everything away and got changed, it was between times ... too early to eat, but not much time for other things. I sat in the back yard with Aaron for a few minutes, then Chris showed up in front of me. He had a football that he'd found, and a very hopeful smile on his face.
I looked at Aaron and he said, "Go ahead, just don't throw it at me."
Chris tossed me the ball, and ran out into the yard while I stood up. I threw it to him, then ran so the ball wouldn't hit the house if I missed it. I liked throwing the football. There was skill involved that went beyond arm and aim. We were soon joined by a whooping Billy, then Lee and Bruce came out and Lee called for the ball. Before he threw it back to me, he asked Bruce, "You play?"
Bruce looked at him, and I think I detected some hope on his face, but he shook his head no and turned toward Aaron. Lee said, "Come on, I'll show you how. Your brother can't throw worth a hoot. Somebody in your family has to learn how."
I laughed, "Listen to him, Bruce. And when he throws the ball I'll show you how to tackle guys with red heads!"
Lee laughed and Bruce looked worried. I shrugged to Billy and Chris while we waited, but Lee didn't waste a lot of time on lessons. He'd give Bruce the ball, remind him how to hold it, and Bruce threw it. Then Lee reminded him to throw it at where he wanted it to go and they tried again. Bruce caught on, and then it was fun again. I did tackle Lee, too. He was watching a high lob from Billy to Chris, and he only noticed me coming at him at the last second. The look of utter surprise on his face was perfect, then he was on the grass, my face inches from his. He still looked surprised, and I said, "At least someone in your family knows how to take a hit!"
Lee snorted and rolled out from under me to stand up. I flopped onto my back and he was smiling, his hand out to help me up. Lee was strong. I was on my feet before I even tried to push myself up.
We played football like that for a long time. Paul and Mark joined in. Mark was enthusiastic but unskilled, while Paul surprised all of us with a good arm. He took time to help Mark, who improved rapidly. Justin and his friends showed up and we moved out front to play touch. Aaron went in to help Rakeed with something.
When John Balls and Dean came back we'd smelled the grill going for a while already, and they claimed exhaustion as a reason not to join our game of football. They did seem to have rubber legs, and we gave up the game with a score of nothing to nothing. Both sides had claimed scores, but with no way to prove one because we didn't have goals, neither side ceded a point to the other.
I went in through the front door to wash up and cool off. I had grass stains on my knees and arms, and probably places I couldn't see. I used a washcloth in the bathroom to get what I could, then held the cloth under the cold tap before putting it up to my face. It felt good, and I smiled under it, then wet it again and kept repeating until I wasn't sweating anymore.
I was smiling under that cloth because I was happy. I was happy because this trip had been a great affair from the get-go. There had been no injuries, no serious arguments, just a good time, and I'd had a great time. We were winding down now, and the other end of the vacation was firmly in my mind, just as I'm sure everyone else thought of it.
Happy is a selfish emotion, but I won't apologize for how good I felt. In less than a week I'd seen Lee blossom into what he deserved to be, watched Mark become a 'big boy' in one fell swoop, and I was once again friends with my little brother. I loved Aaron more than ever, and a certain lovecock in the yard, and the story behind it was the reason for that.
When you think you know someone, they'll surprise you, and that had happened again. John Balls used a name that was close to how his real name was pronounced. He was from a really big family, but claimed to be the only one with a metal face and colored hair. He was a gentle, funny guy under all that, and I'd come to like him for more than his skill on the guitar.
My brother had learned something about extending his body, pushing himself for the sheer fun of it, and he liked it just like anybody should. He was fourteen then, and I'm positive that he'd enjoyed a week full of firsts. Talking to jocks and entertaining them with his natural wit was a big one. He'd worked on projects, hiked, climbed hills, water skied, and now played football. That's normal for most kids, but Bruce had done none of that before. I wondered if he'd ever again consider a reading buddy as a companion. I hoped not. Nothing against reading, but it's something that's best enjoyed alone anyhow.
There were the regulars, too. Justin and Paul were model big brothers, protective and enthusiastic. If Aaron didn't have Justin, then he simply wouldn't be Aaron. Paul was the same way, and not only with his own family. I'd picked up a thing or two about getting along from Paul, although I didn't know it when it was happening. He had his ways, smoked his pot and sat in the basement with his pals, but he had been a strong, positive force for me. I could see him being the same way with Mark and Lee. Paul didn't expect much from himself, but he did from others.
I'm saying nice things about those guys, but Lee is the topic here.
He was stronger than the rest of us, and in ways that were palpable to me. He'd survived murder, kidnaping, rape, more murder, then the suicide of his own father. Devastating stuff! And it would be understandable to the entire population of the world if he turned out wrong because of it.
Not Lee, not the kid I knew. He knew awful things, and he had put a lid on them. The things that happened would always be part of him, but he was determined that they wouldn't define him, not even a little bit. He was becoming Lee! just like I felt I was Evan! A person earns those exclamation points, and Lee's had come much harder than my own. Lee had witnessed death and destruction, where I'd only had my own fears. In the end, it was the fear that would break you or not, and when you didn't let it you earned yourself an exclamation point. Lee could bold (!) his while mine was only regular (!), but they were the same thing in the long run.
I don't know exactly where or when bravery arises within you, only that it comes out as needed. Most people won't need to exhibit their bravery, but that fact doesn't diminish potential courage.
This is what I meant when I said I knew how Lee felt about his night on the mountain. He'd released something. Whether that was his memories of how his friends and his dad died, or his physical perceptions of them, or if it had been even more cosmic than that. He'd done it, and evidently found peace for himself. He couldn't tell me what it really was or how he really felt, and that's my dilemma right here.
I'm Evan! mostly because I'm not anybody else. I'm a lot of things, and they're all my business. I model myself after me, and if that doesn't explain it I don't know what will.
I don't think anyone is a carbon copy of another person, but I do know that some people try to be. For all that I gripe about my parents and their demands, there's one thing I know for sure, and it really belongs in Smiley lore. My parents had never demanded, nor even suggested, that any of us should turn out just like them, or even remotely like them. They poked us and prodded us, but it was so we'd learn what was inside each of us, and learn to put whatever we found there to good use.
* * * * * * * *
I joined the others out back, sitting by myself on the porch after I saw Aaron wearing an apron at the grill. Good, I thought. You cook and I'll sit.
I was smiling anyhow, because I was happy. Lee sat beside me after a bit and I didn't say anything. "You look happy," he said.
I looked at him, still wearing my smile. "I am. And so are you. The lake has that effect on people."
He did a little double take and smiled back at me. After awhile he sat back, put his hands behind his head, and said, "You're right. Let's just stay this way as long as we can."
End Plan D
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