Plan C: Mawg Dilligs

by Driver

Chapter 7

The only trouble I had driving all the way home from Aaron's was right in front of my own house, where I slid straight past our driveway, and continued sliding down the hill without seeming to slow down one bit. The ABS was pumping away, and I finally thought to take my foot off the brake and downshift, which slowed me some, and the next time I touched the brakes they did some good.

I felt like an idiot, but Alton said, "I forgot to tell you about that. Just turn around here and see if you can make it back up."

We made it fine, and I went in through the garage so I could stop in the bathroom before seeing anyone. Then I followed my ears to the family room where my folks were talking with Dad's parents. "Hi!" I said as I walked in, and I put on a real smile because my grandparents looked good and healthy.

"Evan!" they said as one, and they both stood up. I hugged my grandmother first, then gramps, then I stepped back to face their smiles, and I got good ones back from both of them. I forgot my fears and asked them about their trip to Crete and Turkey, which I hadn't heard about yet. They were always happy to talk about their travels, and they just happened to have their pictures, so we spent the time until dinner talking about that, and it really did look beautiful in the pictures.

It was when we had all settled into our meals that the conversation turned back to me. Grandma said, "Evan, will you tell us about your summer? I'm afraid we missed it."

I smiled, "I guess you did. What can I say? I moved into my own place for awhile, got a neat job, fell in love, now I'm back home."

Grandpa asked wryly, "Is that what you call a nutshell, Evan?" He winked at Grandma, "That was smaller than a peanut."

Grandma smiled at me. "I believe your grandfather is right Evan, dear." Her smile became coy, "I heard you mention that you've fallen in love. I would like to hear all about your love. Will you indulge me?"

I shrugged, loving that old woman. "When haven't I indulged you?" I looked at my hands and took a breath. "His name's Aaron. Aaron Castle. The first time I saw him, he was yelling at a car, only he wasn't really. He was practicing for a play he was in, and he's really a good actor. Want to see a picture of him?"

That set the tone, and I showed them pictures of Aaron as I talked excitedly. I only managed to raise eyebrows when I got to the recent stuff about Lee. Then, even my grandmother thought I was acting a little prematurely, but my father backed up my argument that I was getting to know Lee for my own peace of mind. They, of course, already knew most things, so they were looking for my take on everything.

My grandfather had been a little aloof while my grandmother fawned over pictures of Aaron, and me and Aaron together, but I saw him peeking and smiling. Aaron had that in his favor. When his face looked happy, anybody within eyesight had to smile at him.

Most of the pictures I had of us together were taken one day in October, and Chris took them with his father's digital camera. If you ever want to look really good in pictures, have them taken in October, when the leaves are in full color and the air is crisp. We were wearing sweaters, our cheeks were pink, and our smiles were happy ones. It had been a nicer day than you'd dare ask for. It was after we'd feared not seeing each other, and before the trouble started with Lee's father. It was Aaron's first whole weekend staying with my family, and that made for heady times to begin with. Aaron had met my family before, and my folks seemed to automatically like him.

That may have had something to do with them already knowing Aaron's parents. It sure didn't matter that first weekend. Chris hit it right off with Aaron, and that had been my biggest worry, but when I looked back on it worrying made no sense. Chris was my best friend. How could he not like my boyfriend. And vice versa. Aaron would have loved Chris even if I never existed.

Anyhow, a perfect day like that made for perfect pictures. My grandmother smiled wistfully at the one she was looking at and said, "He's a lovely boy, Evan. I've only heard wonderful things about him, so I compliment your judgment."

I beamed, then Grandpa added, gently I should mention, "You seem to have made your choices, Evan, and I won't quarrel with them." I looked and he was smiling, "I won't be old fashioned, and neither will Joan. If you're happy, then we're happy for you, and we'll welcome you and Aaron to come see us soon."

Then I really grinned, "Thanks. I didn't know what to expect from you."

Grandpa said, "Evan, listen. We stay in touch with the world. We watch television, read the papers, take a lot of magazines. I suppose it's the job of one generation to worry what the next one's coming to, but every generation comes up with some boys like you, and I think it's just to reassure the ancestors that the world will still be in good hands when we're gone." He leveled his gaze, "You're a remarkable young man, Evan, and you always have been." He looked around quickly, "That's not to take a thing away from your brothers. You're all strivers." He looked uncomfortable with where he was going.

Bruce said cheerfully, "You can say he's better than us, Gramps. He always does!"

"Only because it's true," I corrected, and Bruce laughed while my mother disclaimed that, and my father yelled.

It took awhile for us to settle down, and with dessert my Grandfather said, "I'm not trying to discredit anyone, but I do have special praise for Evan." He looked at me, a slight smile on his face, "We expect certain qualities, such as honesty and effort."

My Grandmother took over, her eyes crinkling, "I don't think a sense of fun hurts anything, and frankly I find great fun in learning that Evan's first love is a boy. I mean, who'd a' thunk it?" She smiled right at me, "Pride is busting out all over, right, son? You ran from yourself last summer, but now you're back and you're standing tall." Her smile turned into a warm sunbeam, "You go ahead and love Aaron. I'm your grandmother, and that makes me prejudiced, but in my opinion Aaron is one very lucky young man."

"I'm lucky, too," I said quickly.

She looked at a picture and smiled, "I'll say you are," and everyone laughed.

Later on, the temperature plummeted and everything froze up outside. My grandparents couldn't get out of the neighborhood, so they stayed in my room while I slept on a sofa downstairs. It was still all ice in the morning, and after I was all cleaned up and ready to go, school got called off. Dad tried to get to work, and he couldn't either, so he called in and we all went back to bed.

I had been awake and ready to leave, so I laid on the couch and looked through a magazine for awhile, then I decided to call Aaron. There was no answer at his house, and I figured that they'd missed out on the ice and gone to school and work.

A free day is a free day, though, and I had no intention of wasting this one. I'd eaten once, but I made some more toast. I was munching on that and reading the paper, coffee at my side, when my grandmother came into the kitchen. "Good morning, son," she said warmly. "Mind if I join you?"

I jumped up, "Not at all. Have a seat. Coffee?"

She sat and said, "Please?"

"What to eat?" I asked. "I ate earlier so I'm just having toast, but I think we have everything."

She smiled, "Do you remember how to poach an egg?"

"Sure do. On toast?"

"You are such a sweetheart. Toast will be delightful, even better if you have some juice to go with it."

I fixed her coffee the way she liked it, brought that to her, and set about preparing her food. There's nothing much easier than poached eggs on toast, and I had a plate in front of her in about five minutes. I'd just opened the cabinet to put the pan away when Grandpa walked in and said, "Mmmm. That looks good. Are you cooking, boy?"

I still had the pan in my hand. I nodded, "Morning. Same thing?"

He looked at my grandmother's food and said, "Looks good to me. Is there any more coffee?"

"Coming up on both counts," I said as I put fresh water in the pan. I got it simmering while I fixed him a coffee, and his breakfast came promptly, and ended up in front of him just when my mother came in.

"Oooh, poached eggs! I haven't had those in a long time.

"The water's still hot," I said. "I'll leave it here for you," I added as I made to sit down.

"Oh, Evan," Grandma said, "Be a dear and fix your mother's breakfast. This was simply divine."

I almost got my butt on the chair, too. I asked my mother, "Is Dad up yet?" I did not want to become a serial breakfast cooker.

I didn't wait for an answer, just shoved four slices of bread into the toaster and got out four more eggs. I wondered exactly what portent had led to there being two dozen eggs still in the refrigerator on a Monday anyhow. Nobody knew the next ice age was coming, but there were eggs to go around, even with two extra people to feed.

I gave my mother her food and started a new pot of coffee. Dad hadn't shown up yet, so when Bruce appeared I said, as cheerily as I could, "Oh, Bruce! Sit down, sit down, your breakfast is waiting."

He did give me an odd look, but he sat down appreciatively, and I dashed out of the room after serving him. I slowed down going through the family room, and just barely saw Alton's shadow as the door to outside closed behind him. I hadn't taken a step when there was a knock on the door, and I figured he forgot his keys, so I absently opened it as I walked by.


I turned, and it was Paul Dawson standing there, a meek expression on his face. I laughed, mostly because Paul wasn't who I expected to be there, but also at his surprised look. "If you're here for breakfast, you'll have to cook your own!" I announced.

Paul's eyes darted around the room, then he smiled evilly, "That's shit and you know it. If I wanted breakfast, you'd cook it."

I would, I suppose, but I don't think I gave that away. He said, "I'm not hungry, anyhow. I just wanted to see if I could walk out there."

"Well, looks like you made it."

He grinned, "Yeah, and I only had to take one step. Then bingo, I'm here!"

I laughed, "Just like that, huh? Well, come on in." He followed me, and I asked, "How was your weekend?"

"Snowy. Very snowy. How about yours? You were over at Aaron's?"

I flopped down on the sofa and picked up the remote. "Yeah, and it snowed there, too. You ever have a soft-shell crab sandwich?"

"Never knew there was such a thing," Paul said as he settled into a chair. "I haven't, but then you've never had Sensi Star, and I don't think you feel deprived."

I giggled. Sensi Star was a new one on me, but I'm sure it was some variety of pot. Paul was a regular connoisseur when it came to that. "You're right, I haven't missed that one." I remembered something and asked, "Did you get Lee high yet?"

Paul shook his head, "Nah, he won't try it after all." He smiled mysteriously, "He's smart like you, Evan." He looked away and back, "That's not really true. He's afraid of being crazy."

I raised my eyebrows in question. "His dad lost his marbles, and Lee thinks it'll happen to him." Paul's face became serious, "He's a good kid, Ev, but he's like a lost little puppy."

"Meaning?" I asked, interested.

"You know, I think Lee feels humiliated more than anything. He's like a celebrity in some ways, and he doesn't want the attention. He was doing pretty good 'til his father came home from jail, and even after that. Then his dad flipped out, and the whole state saw what he did. Now everybody knows who Lee is, and they know all about him. He's the kid with the looney father, the kid who got kidnaped, the kid who got raped." Paul shook his head in disgust, "People are sick sometimes, Ev. They tease the fuckin' kid because of that past, like he somehow brought it on himself."

I stared at Paul, and he was clearly upset. "So, what do we do?" I asked.

"I don't know, Ev. All Lee wants is to be normal, not the kid who got raped, and not the kid whose father blew up a freakin' house. He wants to remember his father the way he knew him, and not see that stupid house blow up every time they advertise the news."

I nodded my understanding. "I didn't know people were teasing him. That's cruel, man." I thought for a moment, then, "That's a mindset, isn't it? Take a perfectly average human being, then make him different in any possible way, and suddenly he's bait. It's like those fucking morons really need somebody to look down on to justify their own pathetic lives. They can't really get away with racial prejudice anymore, and even homophobia is kind of back room stuff. You can't pick on religion, either, so we're down to fat kids, kids with bad skin, and I hope I'm wrong, but maybe kids with tough pasts?" I sat up, "Stay here for a minute, Paul. Listen for the sand truck, because when it comes we're gonna stir up some shit!"

Paul smiled in confusion, "What you mean we, white boy?"

I laughed, "Just stay put, I'll be right back." I tossed him the remote, then hurried up to my room to call Chris and finish dressing.

I told Chris what was happening to Lee, and he agreed to round up our rather curious circle of friends to do something about it. I was angry, but not so irate that I stopped thinking. My group of friends pretty much touched on every clique in that school, and if some idiots were picking on Lee we'd find out who easily enough. We couldn't make real concrete plans to meet because of the weather, so we left it as 'first opportunity', and I went back downstairs.

I wanted Lee there, too, but when I asked Paul to call him, he hedged. "Um, Ev ... what if some of our friends have been doing the picking? Shouldn't you find that out first, before putting Lee in the middle of them?"

I patted his shoulder, "Thanks, I didn't think of that."

I called Chris back and told him to check on that when he talked to people. I didn't want to exclude anyone, but if somebody already had to apologize to Lee, I wanted them to know. When I headed back downstairs again, the whole family seemed to be in the room with Paul, and I really didn't want them to know what was going on.

I looked out the window, and the world outside seemed to be shining up at me, which meant it was still all ice. The sun was out in force, but it wasn't doing much good.

I asked Bruce and Paul into the kitchen so we could talk. Bruce knew Lee, and I thought he might come in useful if we actually came up with anything that made sense.

I let Paul tell Bruce what had been happening to Lee, and Bruce didn't seem to get it.

Paul said, "Bruce, listen." He looked at me, "You listen too, Evan. I did get Lee to tell me in gross detail what really happened to him. I think you know the generalities of it, so here come the specifics."

I sat back and asked, "He told you this?"

Paul nodded grimly. "It's hard to hear," he said quietly, "but you should understand. Lee is amazing when you know what he's been through, because all he wants is to be normal, and for people to believe that he's not some special case."

I had this terrible, sad feeling already. I knew the basics of what Lee had survived, and I wasn't anxious to learn the specifics. Paul seemed to think it was important, so I tried to divide my focus between Paul and the refrigerator, which loomed behind him.

When Paul saw that he had our attention, he began, "It started when Lee and his friends went camping. They'd done it before, and told the same fibs to get away with it. Everyone thought they were somewhere else, and somewhere safe. What they did was go to the store and get things to eat, then they went into the park to sleep out."

I said, "I was there, you know. Not then, but last Thanksgiving."

Bruce gaped at me, and Paul nodded, "I know, you told me that. Anyhow, they fooled around doing kid shit, then when it was late they made a fire and sat around. Lee thinks he fell asleep first. The next thing he knew, he heard bangs and his friends screaming, and when he was awake, there was this guy there with a gun jammed into his ear." Paul paused and made this kind of spinning motion with his hand, "Go ahead, try to picture that. It was pitch black out, too, and Paul could hardly make out what he was seeing, much less what was going on. Then the guy pulled Paul by the collar, and he went and sat his friends up against trees. They were all alive then, but he slit their throats, and he sat down with Lee on his lap until he thought they were dead."

"Gross!" Bruce said, and he looked kind of green.

"They drowned on their own blood, Bruce." Paul winced, "I said this would be hard to hear. It's not exactly fun to talk about."

"Why tell us, then?" Bruce asked, and it sounded like he was trying to be defiant.

Paul said firmly, "I'm telling you so you'll know." He sniffed and wiped his eye with the back of his hand. "After the murders, Lee has a blank spot. He might have passed out, but he thinks he was drugged somehow. Either that or knocked on the head. The next thing he knew, it was day, and he was tied up in the back seat of a car with only his nose and eyes out of a blanket that he was wrapped in."

Paul looked away for a moment, then said, "I know more details, but I guess they don't matter. When the ... I can't say person here. When the fucking lunatic that took Lee knew he was awake, he started with a line of shit, and I guess he never dropped it all the time Lee was there. He was sent by the parents, and they couldn't afford the kids anymore, so he was taking care of a problem for them. He was personal friends with Lee's mother, though, and if she couldn't afford to raise him, maybe he could. I'm telling you, it was a total line of shit, and right from the mouth of the devil himself."

"You're not kidding," I said. "I feel so bad right now, I could puke."

Bruce only stared, but his eyes showed the hurt he felt.

"I don't know," Paul said. "You don't need the details of the abuse, but it started that day, and it was violent. Day after day, too, and two, three, even four times a day. I'm gonna stop there. You get the picture, but the other thing that was going on was more intense. This guy was feeding Lee, buying him things he liked ... kind of pampering him, I think." He smiled a little, "I know insidious is a big word for me, but that's what it was. This guy fucked Lee every chance he got, but he also took charge of his well being. He even brought him to a dentist for a toothache." He grimaced and asked, "You still with me?"

I looked at Bruce. He didn't give anything away, but I found a yes in there. I nodded at Paul, and I should say that I was fascinated once again by him. This was exactly why I'd always kind of idolized Paul. I always put it down to him being cool, and that was because he was older. The truth was that Paul understood people, and he connected with people at some fundamental level that slipped right past me.

He'd obviously had some very difficult talks with Lee, and he seemed to have it sorted out pretty well in his own mind. I had a vague picture in my own head already, of me and my friends running defense for Lee, setting a stage where he could get through high school on his own merit.

It was time to get started. We only had to wait for a sander to go by.

Lee helped by calling me up to talk. "Hey, Lee," I said. "We were just talking about you."

"Really? Was it good?"

"Heh", I chuckled. "Not bad, we're just kind of worried."

"About me?" he asked, sounding surprised.

"Yeah," I said. "Paul's here, and he told us you're getting grief from people. I don't think it's fair, so we're waiting for the ice to go away, then we'll meet up and try to figure something out."

"Really? Figure out something like what?"

"I don't know yet," I said honestly. "It's just not right that you get picked on for something that happened to you. We know a lot of kids. We'll work something out."

"I don't know what to say," Lee said doubtfully.

"Don't worry, man. I think what'll happen is that you suddenly have a lot of new friends, that's all. I don't know what we can do except look out for you, shut people up when they start something."

"If you could do that ..." he started. "Oh man, you don't know what it's like. Some people are real idiots. Like me getting raped makes me gay. It doesn't make any sense. It's like saying that girls who get raped are nymphos or something."

"Is that what they say?" I asked.

"People say a lot of things, Evan. You probably wouldn't believe it."

"You've said things, Lee, but not the details. Paul told us what you talked about, and it's like beyond words. Oh, and I'm wondering what's going on with your case. My dad made is sound almost like you'd do better if you got convicted of something."

Lee was silent for a long moment, then he said, "I guess that's the truth. Now that Godzilla is off my case, it doesn't sound so bad. The lady who took over isn't trying to put me away, anyhow." He sighed, "I did things I shouldn't have, and there's a price to pay. They're talking probation now instead of reform school, and that lets me stay home with my mother. It also means the state pays for the counseling I'm getting, and that's not cheap."

"What are you going to do? Do you know yet?"

He snickered, "I don't like the idea of getting convicted, but it would be a sealed conviction that gets incinerated when I'm eighteen. I don't think I'll get a better deal."

I smiled, "I don't think you could ask for a better one. When do you have to decide?"

"I think they decide for me, Evan. I don't know what else they have to do. It should happen pretty soon."

"How do you feel about it?" I asked hesitantly.

"...Sad, I guess is the word. I wasn't made to be a criminal any more than Dad was. I don't want to be a victim forever, either. You know, the shrink I'm seeing now is pretty good. She thinks reliving things over and over is the way to make them not important, and it really does work. It's like, every time I talk about the night of the murders, I use some of it up and there's less pain to go around. It works too. Nothing good will ever come from that night, but every time I talk about it, it hurts a little less. It helps me to box it up with other bad things, and I get to control the cover. It can't go away because it happened and I saw it, but I can talk about it now. I can explain what I saw and what I felt then, but I don't really feel it anymore."

I thought about that and asked, "You're like numb to it?"

"Mmm, not really numb. Like I said, nothing will ever make it a good thing, but I can help make it a past thing, and it can't just jump up and bite me anymore."

That was interesting to me, and I decided to do some reading when I got a chance. Lee continued, "It's easier with something like that, even if that was the worst part of the whole thing. It was over in a few minutes, and so was when Dad shot the guy. Even when he attacked you, then shot up your house, those things are ... well, they're not easy to think about, but it doesn't take much time. When Dad lost it at Thanksgiving, that was two days. I could relive shooting up your house five hundred times in two days, so the longer things I have to work out a different way."

"What about ... um ..."

"The rapes? You can say it, Evan. I guess I have to relive them, too."

"All of them?" I asked in astonishment.

Lee said sadly, "I remember all of them, so we'll see how it works out." He breathed loudly, "I'm a mess, Evan, and I can't afford to be. I need to be strong, or I have no future. I have to take care of Mom now, too. You saw her last week; it's like she's broken. This has all been too much."

I didn't know what to say, and I didn't want to sound too lame. "You have help, right? Lots of relatives?"

"Thank God for them," Lee breathed. "Else, I don't know where we'd be."

I noticed Paul standing there looking anxious, so I said, "I have to go now, Lee. I'll call you when I know what's going on, okay?"

"Okay, Evan. I really appreciate you helping me like this. I know I don't deserve it."

I thought for a second, "No, don't say that! What you don't deserve is the shit that already happened. It burns me that people treat you the way they do, and if I can help stop it, then I'm going to."

"I ..."

"Bye, Lee," I said in my friendliest tone.

He snickered, "Heh, bye Evan. Thanks."

I hung up before I realized Paul didn't want me to. "What?" I asked.

"The sanders are out, the prison gates are open!" he grinned. "Call Lee back, he should be there to meet his new friends."

"Doesn't take much to make you happy," I muttered as I dialed.

We were set; Paul's basement in one hour. Paul was picking Lee up, and Chris and I had great success with our friends. They were stir-crazy for the most part, but I knew they'd give Lee a fair shake. Who knew? Maybe we'd all learn something.

I got to Paul's house before he did. A few other kids were already there in the driveway and we fooled around, feeling good about being out of the house.

My grandparents had left, and they left me feeling good. I didn't expect a rejection or anything really negative, from my grandmother. I was really tickled to learn how my grandfather felt about me, though. He was too old for gay to matter, but he saw something in me, something bigger, and it heartened me to hear it.

There were lots of things going on in the world, all of them bigger than me. Yet my grandfather chose me as the architect of future things. He didn't state clearly what qualities he saw in me to lead him to that conclusion, but he did see them. If anything at all surprised me, it was how easily I sucked that up. I didn't envision myself as a leader, at least not in a political or military sense.

Still, there was a growing number of kids in Paul's driveway, and I'd asked them to be there. And they came! We were there for a small, but good reason. That was a premature thought. We were there for fun, and out of curiosity. For the most part, these were the kids I grew up with, and we tended to have a healthy respect for each other based on sheer familiarity. We knew each other's hot buttons and weak points, and we tended to avoid either. Not always, but usually.

Chris had forewarned people what this was about, so when Paul showed up with Lee in the car it was a cheerful bunch who followed him across where the garage used to be. John Berman had come with Lee and Paul. He'd said some things about me that I hadn't heard, and I didn't get a chance to even say hello at that point.

Our boots had picked up sand from the road, and that had been sustaining us in the driveway, but the bit to the back door was over polished ice, and almost everyone fell at least once, and Chris slid halfway across the back yard before he snagged a tree.

When we finally got into the basement, I think everyone was in a good mood. Getting out of our own houses was good, the ice was pretty, and slip-sliding away was simple fun.

Paul had pretty much owned his basement for years now. It wasn't finished off, but he had all kinds of things to sit on down there. Decoration was by poster and black light. And the place fairly reeked of pot and beer and cigarettes. Paul didn't care.

He stood there, his arm over Lee's shoulder, and looked around. "Yeah, I know you people." He nodded to Lee, "This is Lee, if you don't already know him. Say hello to the nice people, Lee."

I snickered, and Lee said an embarrassed hi to everyone. Most of us said something like, "Hi, Lee," back to him, and he looked less embarrassed.

Paul talked quietly to Lee for a moment, then looked at me. "Want to start, Evan?"

I didn't really, but I did anyhow. I stood and asked, "Is there anyone who doesn't know who Lee is? Anybody who doesn't know the story?"

People shook their heads no, and a few said it out loud. I said, "Okay. There ... there's this problem that's showing up. People are picking on Lee because of his past."

"What?" one of Paul's friends asked. "He has a past?"

I chuckled, "Yes he does. His problem is that he remembers it. What's yours?"

That kid just giggled, so I took Lee by the shoulders and went behind him. He was taller than me by a hair, so I looked around and said, "This is Lee Erasmus. He's my friend, and I don't like that some idiots are picking on him, and I especially don't like why! Bad things happened to Lee ... awful things, and the Neanderthals at school think it's their place to harass him about it." I looked around, "I told you all I'm gay, right?"

There was a nodding of heads. "I didn't tell you why I'm gay. Well, it's simple. I just am! I'm not gay because I saw murders, and I'm not gay because I got raped, which I didn't. Lee here, he's not gay, but people say he is because of those self-same reasons, and it's all bull." I looked around again and smiled, "I don't want to say too much. Lee Erasmus is a nice guy, and he'll get along fine if we all just watch out for him right now. Okay?"

The response was an amiable murmur, and that's all I really wanted. I backed off to talk to Chris, while people gathered around Lee. Chris and I watched for awhile. These people were our friends to start with, and our trust in them seemed bo be holding up. They introduced themselves, then some spoke seriously with Lee while others just kidded around. I knew that every one of them was giving Lee their assurances that they'd watch his back.

I saw John standing by himself, and I was just about to go over to him when something caught my eye. Lee was standing there talking with people, and apparently enjoying himself, but his attention kept drifting elsewhere. It took me a few minutes to figure it out, but he was ogling Chelsea Dumont, the younger sister of my friend, Joe. Chelsea is a striking girl, with blonde hair, blue eyes, great skin ... great everything! She was Lee's age, too; a freshman. That day, she was wearing faded, low-cut jeans that molded to her every curve. I knew she looked good, but I'm bad, because I found myself wishing Aaron had a pair of pants like hers. He did, actually, he just didn't wear them often enough, and I fully intended to discuss that with him.

I caught Lee's eye, and he blushed a little when I raised my eyebrows, then he just grinned. Chris elbowed me and whispered, "Do you see what I see?"

"I see," I said. "Should I talk to Joey, or just let things happen?"

Chris said, "Oh, God! You're naive sometimes, Ev. Joey's not gonna pimp his sister."

I looked at Chris in surprise. "You're bad! Tell me where you heard the word pimp in what I said!" Before he could say anything, I added, "You're right, too. I'll tell Lee her name, but that's it. Half the room is looking at Chelsea. Half the room is always looking at Chelsea."

Chris nodded, "You're not very observant. If you haven't noticed, I'm looking at Chelsea!"

I looked quickly at Chris, "Really? Why didn't you say something?"

Chris grimaced, screwing up his mouth on one side. He shrugged and shoved both hands in his pocket, then hung his head. "She's kind of young," he muttered.

"That's true, but so what? Is two years that much? Anyhow, talking to someone doesn't mean anything, and she is a real sweet girl."

Chris eyed me, but I'd spoken the truth. I'm sure that Chelsea knew she sat at the top of the looks heap, but I never had the impression that it went to her head. She'd been something of a tomboy when she was younger. I was pretty sure she was over that, but she was very much the athlete. She was into gymnastics, and she was better on roller blades than any boy I knew. She could do a star-quality three-sixty back flip with a smile on her face, and she could do the same thing on a snowboard.

The thing I didn't know was whether she was dating yet, or even allowed to. I smiled at Chris and figured I'd stay out of it. I turned my attention back to John, and when I spotted him he was just coming out of the laundry room, so he'd probably gone through to use the toilet.

"John," I said as I approached. "How's it going?"

He didn't smile. "Hi, Evan." He didn't seem nervous either. "I don't see you around much."

I shrugged, "I'm indoors most of the time. The ice sucks, so what's there to do?"

"Not much, I guess." He turned his head, then started to walk away.

"John?" I called after him. He stopped and turned, and I took a step closer. "Is there a problem? I get the feeling you're avoiding me, and Chris said some things."

His lip twitched, and his eyes didn't find mine. "No problem, not really."

"Why do you say things if there isn't a problem? Did somebody tell you I was queer for you, or did you come up with it all by yourself?"

God, he was hard to talk to. He had nervous habits, and he displayed them all at the same time. He blinked too much, licked his lips too much, toyed with his collar incessantly. He finally asked, "You're not?"

I gaped. He was serious, and it suddenly seemed funny. I managed not to outright laugh, but I still chuckled. "John ... Oh, Lord John ... I'm sorry." I looked at him and it was hard to keep talking, but I managed to say, "John, believe me. You worry about a lot of things. Too many things already, without worrying about me." I felt bad for him, but it wasn't my job to suggest counseling, so I made my own case instead.

"I'm gay, and you know that. Everybody here knows that! I'm not after you, though. I don't say that to make you feel good or bad. It's just the truth. I have a boyfriend, John. I'm in love. I do my best to not look at other guys anymore, because it's pointless now. Do you get what I'm saying?"

John finally focused on my face, and he must have seen the truth. "Okay, thanks Evan," he said evenly, then he walked away.

I felt satisfied for a moment, then I knew I should do more. I hurried after him, and he turned around when I tapped his shoulder. "John," I said earnestly, "You really do worry about too much. That can't be any fun. You should go see the school nurse. He'll set you up with some people who can help you stop worrying."

I crossed my fingers. John's face became angry. He spat out, "Thanks, Evan. It's good to know that you think I'm crazy, too."

He turned and stomped away, but I wasn't finished, and I was getting angry, too. I hurried after him, tapped his shoulder again, and when he turned around I said, "Don't do this, John! I didn't say you were crazy, you did! I didn't tell you what to do, either, just one thing you could do." I registered his surprised look and kept going, more gently. "Listen, John. You seem like a good guy, but you let things get under your skin. I don't know anybody who's against you, and I don't know anybody who doesn't like you." I put both my hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye, "That's you, John. You do it to yourself, and it's not fair to turn it against people who just try to be friends with you."

He sneered at me, then his look softened and he mumbled, "I know I do it, too. It's ... I don't know ... it's me."

He stopped talking, but he stayed there. I squeezed his shoulder. "People like you, John. I ... lots of people like you." I smiled, remembering some baseball games, "You're the man on the bases! How many double steals have we done?"

He smiled shyly, and I thought about what a good base runner he was, how much fun he seemed to have. "You're contagious, John," I said. "With you and me on base, they don't have a chance!"

John kept smiling, and he toed the floor. It was the truth. John could outrun me by a mile, but I could steal a base too, and when we were on together we could addle the mind of any pitcher, and it was one of the best things about baseball. For all his hesitancy about people, John knew the game, and he loved it at least as much as I did. He wasn't a slugger either, but he could hit for average. Once he was on base, he was always a threat due to his speed, and he was as aggressive as he could be. He took these gigantic leads off base, and he was funny. He didn't sneak, he marched, and he knew just how far he dared to go, then he'd tease, shifting his weight and calling to the pitcher. He had a sense about pick offs, too. He always got back to base, and he had more steals than anybody in town.

He smiled kind of evilly, "You can keep talking, you know."

"Oh, right," I said. "Well, if hearing me sing your praises makes you feel good, maybe I'll write them down. That way you'll have a way to cheer yourself up whenever you need one."

He snickered and said, "Good idea."

I said, "John, the next time you think somebody has a problem with you, try asking them about it."

I didn't get to go on. I was suddenly hugged warmly from behind. It was a girl hug, too, and from the two big pressure points pushing into my back I knew which girl. "Hi, Nancy," I said, smiling at John.

"How did you know it was me?" she cooed.

"Lucky guess," I said as I turned around. I smiled at her face, then looked down at her boobs so she'd know exactly how I knew. "How have you been, girl?"

She smooched my cheek and said, "If you ever found time for your old friends, you'd know just how I've been. But, I must say you're looking fine."

"Thanks. You always look fine."

She batted her eyelashes and said, "You're sweet." She looked at John and smiled, "Hi, John. Have you been out skiing in all this new snow?"

He nodded, "We went yesterday. It was awesome!"

Another girl walked up behind Nancy, and I paid attention to her while they talked about skiing. Carly Mathers smiled and we said hello. She was a cute girl, but one I could never figure out. She usually hung with a different bunch of people than me, but sometimes she did things with us. She seemed to have a purpose in talking to me that day, though, so after a little small talk I let her get around to it.

"Evan," she said quietly, "I'm glad you're alright after you got hurt, but isn't Lee one of the people who attacked you?"

I nodded.

"You like him anyhow?" she asked, confusion in her eyes.

"Yeah, I like Lee," I said. "He's really a nice guy."

She looked down, then right in my eyes. "I know some of the guys who are picking on him," she said throatily. "It's Ron and Mike and their friends."

"Mastracchio?" I asked, bewildered. They were brothers, and pretty much the leaders of the prep pack at school, and the guys Carly hung around with most. I'd never had a problem with any of them. I always thought they were decent kids.

She nodded, seeming embarrassed. "Ever since after Christmas. It's like they go out of their way to harass him. The things they say ... it's embarrassing to even hear it."

I was surprised at what Carly had to say, and surprised that it was Carly who said it. I'd never been close to Ron or Mike, but I always liked both of them alright. Ron was older by a year and a junior. Still, he was smaller than Mike, and neither one of them were very big guys. I thought they were both good looking in different ways. Ron had brown hair and darker skin, while Mike's hair was light blond. They always dressed well, and I thought they were always respectful of everyone, but apparently I was wrong about that.

"Thanks, Carly," I said. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I don't like it," she said. "It doesn't make any sense, either. I've never seen them be like that before. Tease, yes, but they're hounding that kid, and I can see how much it hurts him."

I touched her shoulder and said, "I was thinking it's not like them myself. Any ideas?"

She grimaced and shook her head no. I got bumped from behind and it broke my attention for just a moment, and when I looked back at Carly, she was looking out into the room. I followed her gaze, and suddenly thought I understood a little more. Lee was right there in her field of view, having an animated discussion with Chris and Bruce. Of course, all discussions with Chris are animated, even if you're talking about mold spores.

I took Carly's hand and pulled her gently, saying, "Come on. I'll introduce you."

She didn't resist, not even a little bit. I didn't say anything until we got to where the guys were standing, and I waited for Bruce to finish what he was saying. Chris said hi to Carly, then I said, "Lee, this is Carly Mathers. She told me who some of the guys who've been bothering you are."

Lee eyed her and said, kind of shyly, "Hi Carly. Don't you hang around with those guys?"

I said quickly, "I do, too, Lee. I don't know what their problem is, but I can find out. Carly said they were out of line, so don't get the idea she was part of it."

Lee had his mouth open, but he just nodded, then thought to close it, and he smiled. "Thanks, Carly."

I waited until they said things to each other, then pulled back. They could decide if they liked each other without my help.

Chris and Bruce started talking again, so I headed back to Nancy, who I'd kind of left standing there. That wasn't a problem, and she was talking to some other kids, and I joined that little group for awhile.

It turned out to be a decent afternoon. Even though the sum of it was that I'd left the relatively fresh air of our house for the stale, smelly air of Paul's basement, it didn't matter. It was encouraging to know that we could draw a crowd, explain something once, and get the feeling that people would help out. Especially that they'd watch the back of a stranger ... a new kid.

Things started to break up at around four, and with a thinner crowd I noticed that Lee was among the missing. I didn't think anything of it, and I was on a sofa joking with some kids when he came in from outside, right beside Carly Mathers. Carly was smiling happily, and that wasn't her usual demeanor. She favored a darker look usually, but the smile on her face right then seemed as natural as daylight, and Lee was beaming himself.

I made it a point not to mention anything, lest I jinx it, but I felt good just the same. Carly was almost two years older than Lee, but his intelligence would make up for that difference, and Carly was kind of a pixie anyhow, very young looking.

I left them to it, and Chris and I found our coats and headed down the street to my house. Enough sand and salt had been tracked around by then that walking wasn't a problem. I sighed when we passed my car in the driveway. With all the snow on it, it was as tall as me, but with the ice on top of the snow I didn't want to risk scratching the paint to get it off.

Chris saw me looking, and he said, "I'm getting my car this week, you know."

I didn't know when, but I knew that he was inheriting his father's Trail Blazer, and that was a nice vehicle. "This week?" I asked. "Now we both have cars we can't drive."

"You don't have a test date yet?"

"No, they never sent me one. You got yours?" We'd submitted our paperwork at the same time.

"It came Friday," Chris said. "Yours must have got lost in the snow."

I laughed and asked, "You coming in?"

He looked around and said, "Nah, it's almost time for supper. I'll call you later, okay?"

"Bye, Chris," I said as I turned to go inside. I turned back around quickly and asked, "What? No kiss?"

Chris looked and smiled, "You're hopeless. Call Aaron or something."

I smiled, "Good idea. I'll talk to you later."

I went in and asked when dinner would be ready, then went upstairs to my room because I had a half hour to myself. I booted the computer while I changed into sweats and my moosies.

I did like being alone sometimes, and I guess I was due. I looked at the CNN Web site and at BBC, but I didn't bother with my e-mail. World news would have been interesting if anything was going on besides the war preparations, and I gave up after a few minutes. I left the computer on and slumped back in my chair.

My mother called from downstairs, "Evan, you have a letter from Matty!"

That got me up quick enough, and I ran down to get it. I'd been writing to my brother almost every day since Dad said I should, and this was the first letter back from him.

I took it back up to my room, and as soon as I started reading it I was laughing. He thought my Mawg Dilligs was funny, and he tried to interpret it

'Ev, I see that you wrote mawg dilligs, and I think I see what you mean. It's like god dammit, right? Same number of syllables, same general phrasing. It comes really close to an Iraqi term, which is also mawg dilligs, but it means something else entirely, something to do with cyanide pills, or maybe it was bras stolen from clotheslines. I used to know, but I don't remember.'

I think I mentioned before that Matt was off the wall, and nonsense like that was typical of him.

I had tears of laughter in my eyes when I started to write back to him. I said he could put an APB out on his missing bra if he really missed it that badly, and I told him a lot of other nonsensical things.

I was called down to dinner before I finished, and our table conversation was nothing important, except I asked if anyone had seen any mail for me from Motor Vehicles. They hadn't, so I finished eating and went upstairs to finish my letter to Matt.

At the end I wrote, 'Mawg Dilligs' again, and I said, 'Translated, that means your little brother loves you. Shoot that Hussein dude and get your ass home!"

Then I added, 'I like the Iraqi language, I think. They get that all out in three syllables: Mawg dilligs!'

I thought about adding, 'I'm gay' but I couldn't put it in context, so I didn't.

He would know one day, and soon enough. Who knows, maybe he already did. Matt had always been pretty perceptive.

I put the letter in an envelope and brought it downstairs for postage, said good night and went back upstairs.

I put my school things together for the next day, then changed into sweats for sleeping before I called Aaron.

It had been a normal day in Riverton because the deep freeze that turned Mt. Harman into a sheet of ice hadn't happened there. I teased him because we had the day off and he didn't, but we hadn't gotten to do much with the time, so I didn't have any great bragging rights.

I said, "Once the street got sanded, a bunch of us got together to talk about Lee." I snickered, "I guess we have our own troglodytes here. If you can believe it, he's been getting picked on for all the crap that's happened to him."

"No," Aaron said.

"Yeah. I'm confused, too, because some of the guys doing it always seemed pretty decent."

"What will you do?"

I don't know," I said. "Talk to them, I guess. Like I say, I don't get it, but if they think they're funny I'll have to point out that they're not."

"Point it out how?" Aaron asked guardedly.

I picked up my comb and used the end to clean under my fingernails, holding the phone up with my shoulder. "Oh, you know, the usual ... gouge their eyeballs out, and if that doesn't work there's always disembowelment."

"Owww! That's gross!"

"I know. You have to start somewhere, though. There's always the good old, all-American wedgie!"

Aaron squeaked at the thought and I laughed. "Why are we talking about this, anyhow? More stuff happened! I introduced Lee to this girl, Carly. The next thing I knew, they were practically holding hands."

"Is that the Carly you talk about sometimes?" Aaron asked.

"Yeah," I said. "She lives a couple of streets over. She's our age, and she's a cute girl. They looked good together."

Aaron said quietly, "It's nice that you do these things, Evan. You know I love you, and I like you too. I don't know if I've ever said how much I admire you. You're really someone special."

"So are you, Aaron. So are you."

We talked for a long time, until we were both tired. I told him about seeing my grandparents, and about the nice things they said. I told him that Chris had his driver's test lined up and I didn't, and Aaron said he didn't have his letter either. I was also waiting for my tax return checks, but I knew they'd be awhile.

Dad had shown me how to fill out the tax forms, and I was getting back most of what I'd paid in, which was pretty substantial between the Federal and State taxes. Dad had mourned that he only had Bruce left to claim now, but he'd worry about that the following year. Nearly all they'd spent on their search for me turned out to be deductible, most significantly the reward money, so they were getting a large chunk of change back, too.

After I talked to Aaron, I curled up in bed after switching the light off, and just thought about things until I fell asleep.

I was thinking good things, counting my blessings. It was a nice way to fall asleep.

... continued

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