A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 2

I stopped to see Chris on the way home, but he'd gone to the skate park. That sounded like fun because it had just reopened the day before, and I hadn't been there since October.

I went home to change and to get my helmet, talked to my parents for a few minutes, then found my helmet in the garage and headed off to go skating. My parents told me that Lee and Bruce had gone with Chris, and I found that to be an intriguing thought. I'd seen Bruce on a mountain, on water skis, now I'd see how he did with skates or a skateboard. I idly wondered if my in-lines would fit him, because they sure wouldn't go on my own feet anymore.

The skate park was still pretty new, having opened only two years before. That first year, some morons had cut the fence to get in one night, and it was still held together with wire clips where they did; an ugly wound on an otherwise nice place. There was a big parking lot, and not a lot of the kids drove there, so it was like an extension of the park, and when I pulled in there were several kids out there on skates, boards, bikes and scooters. The bikes and scooters were banned from the park itself, like that mattered to anyone. They streamed in to use the ramps as soon as the cop who checked the place once an hour drove off. The area inside the fence was laid out well. There was a high, steep ramp at one end that faced a high, double-drop ramp at the far end. Both ends had lower ramps beside the big ones. In between there were rails, ramps, platforms, half-pipes and quarter pipes. When it wasn't crowded and you could build up some speed, there wasn't much you couldn't try.

There were a lot of people inside when I got there, but most of them were just hanging around sunning on top of the ramps and along the fence. I saw Lee's red head up on the near ramp and I pushed off, riding up about a third of the way and scampering up the rest. He grinned, "Evan, hey!"

"Where is everybody?" I asked, looking around.

He shrugged, "I don't know, but not far." I turned around and looked at the other end, and Chris was up there talking to some kids.

I stood up and screamed, "Balls, said the King!"

Chris turned his head in surprise and hollered back, "If I had 'em I'd be King, said the Queen!" and we both pushed off. I had the steep ramp, so I hit the flat way faster than Chris did, and I was three quarters of the way to the other end when we passed. I didn't stop on the ramp, just spun and took a straight shot the other way, and spun around again where I'd started, this time heading up a platform with a jump off onto a rail, which I flubbed. I had to chase my board off to the side of the fence, then climb the ramp. When I got to the top, Chris was at the other end, and I knew he'd say something by the way he was grinning. "Zounds!" he screamed.

I tried to make my voice sound powerful. "Silence! Or I'll turn you into a toad, and you'll have to be kissed!"

"Who'd kiss a toad?" he yelled.

"You would!" I roared, pointing at him. Then I pushed off again and it was another twenty minutes before we took a break. I took a break. Chris had inlines that still fit, and he sat on the side to put those on while I sat with Lee, who had been joined by Bruce.

Lee seemed excited, "You're really good! I hope you'll show me some things!"

Bruce was rubbing his elbow and his knee was scraped up. He said, "I hope you'll show me all things. I did okay in the parking lot, but I come in here and all I do is fall."

Lee said, "You guys are funny, too. Zounds? You sound like a pirate cartoon!"

I laughed. I didn't even remember where we heard those lines, and I doubt we made them up ourselves. It was just another thing Chris and I did ... call attention to ourselves when we're doing things we do well so nobody would miss it.

When Chris had his skates on, I pointed and said, "Watch this. Let him get warmed up, then watch what he does on the quarter pipe." We watched. Chris was really fast on skates, and he needed that for the stunts he did. Once he got going, most of the other kids stopped to watch him. He went at the quarter pipe a half dozen times, slowing down when he got there, getting his timing right. Then he finally skated back to the end we were on, stood at the top for barely a second, and pushed off hard. He pumped fiercely on the flat, and when he approached the quarter pipe he crouched slightly and rode it up, then the incredible happened. He kept going up, and over, and he did a perfect back flip, his body fully extended vertically and upside down, and he landed it perfectly, spun off to the side, ducked down for a quick spin, then came up with his hands raised in victory, his skates rolling him back toward where we were. It's rare when skaters applaud each other, but Chris got a good hurrah for that one, and I knew he'd do it another five times before he was done.

When I paid attention, Bruce had my arm in a death grip, and the look on his face was priceless. "Wow!" he cried. "Double wow! I want to see that again!"

Chris knelt with us, an excited smile on his face, and asked, "Well?"

Bruce and Lee gushed, and I let them. When they finally slowed down I told Chris, "You'd make a good exclamation point, you know that? I need an exclamation point, so what say? I could pay you, say, fifty cents an hour to stay like that."

"Oh wow!" Chris said. "You're such a cheapskate! Ask me who'd kiss a toad."

"Who'd kiss a toad?" I blithely asked.

"You would!" Chris growled, and with that he was back on his feet, and he put on a good performance.

We watched for awhile, then Bruce was poking at me, "Show me how to do the ramps, Ev! I fall every time."

"Let me see," I said, winking at Lee.

"Not here," Bruce said. "I'll kill myself. Come down to the platform ramp."

There was a problem. The ramp we were on was only about four feet high, a quarter pipe, really. The platform ramps were very shallow-angle things, and the platform was barely a foot up. Still, I had a good idea what Bruce's problem was before we got there, and it's almost universal with new skaters. I let Bruce try it a few times, and sure enough he tried to stand straight up going down the ramp, and it just won't work.

I sat beside the ramp with him, and held his board in place on the ramp so he could see the angle. "Bruce, see the angle the board is at? It's the same as the ramp, because all four wheels are on the ramp."

Bruce nodded, "I see that."

I pulled his board right to the edge and put my arm beside it vertically. "This is what you're trying to do ... you're standing straight up. Watch." I put my elbow down on the board, my forearm still vertical, and leaned into it. The downhill wheels lifted right off the ramp. "You can't do that, Bruce, it's impossible. Whatever the angle of the ramp is, you have to position yourself at ninety degrees. Otherwise you're dead meat."

Bruce looked and looked, then turned to me. Without a word, he picked up his board and sat by the fence studying other skaters. It didn't take long for me to see some understanding spread across his face, and after some time watching he waited for a moment when he could get on the platform, then he pushed off and leaned forward into the ramp, and he went down it perfectly.

I don't know if he forgot or hadn't thought it out to begin with, but he failed to straighten out when he hit the flat, and that made the nose of his board touch pavement, and sent him flying.

He came back grinning, and when he walked by he said, "Let me try that again. There's more than one part to it."

I left him to practice and skated some more myself. Chris was at the fence drinking water, and I saw Lee skating so I caught up with him. "Hey, hey," I said as I came up behind him. "Having fun?"

He stopped and sat at the top of the ramp, reaching for a bottle of water he'd left there. "I'll say," he smiled up. "We never had a park like this at home. This is my first time with good ramps," his smile brightened, "and nobody yelling at me."

I chuckled at that, because it was the truth. Before the park was built we had to improvise, using things like stair railings in front of buildings for grinding rails, and we were forever being chased away from places, and sworn at by grand-motherly old ladies. The park was something that kids, parents and police alike had fought to get funding for, and now those same cranky grandmothers came to watch. Well, no complaints, because the park was well done and a lot of fun.

None of us could coax Bruce up onto the high ramps after he had the little ones working for him. He had to think about that, so we left him alone at the half pipe and skated, gradually slowing down ourselves. When we were resting more than skating, we left. I felt good, and I could tell that everyone else did, too.

When we were putting our things in the cars, an ice cream truck drove in, and the guy's timing couldn't have been better. That park emptied out to get in line, but we were there early and didn't have to wait long. I got a coconut crunch bar and didn't pay attention to the others. Mine was perfect, and I sat on the grass in the shade to enjoy it.

We sat there relaxing, enjoying the cold treats, when Lee said, "I didn't tell you, Evan, but we'll be moving soon."

I was surprised, "Really? Back to your house?"

He said, "I don't know. We might be selling the house, but we'll go back to the same area. We might get an apartment or a condo or something." He looked blankly at me, "It'll be better," he added unconvincingly.


"Yeah," he shrugged. "You know ... easier. Our house is pretty big and our yard is big, and it's a lot for two people. The people Mom's been renting to want to buy it, and I don't know ..." He looked sadly at the ground, then found some resolve, "It's hard, you know? They had that house built just the way they wanted it, and Dad took primo care of everything. We don't need a place that big, but that's where my good memories live."

"Are you okay?" Bruce asked Lee gently.

Lee nodded and managed a smile, "Yeah, thanks." He took a big gulp of air and shrugged, "I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't sell it. Maybe we should. It's worth a lot now, but I don't think we need the money. I ..." he smiled kind of helplessly, "Sorry, let's talk about something else. I get worked up about this."

"Lee," Chris said softly. "Talk, man! If you get worked up, then it's something you have to work out. We'll listen, and we'll even listen and shut up if you want. It sounded like your minds were already made up, now you sound undecided."

Lee looked at the ground for at least a minute, then without looking up he said, "I know. You get to be tentative, you know? Selling the house and getting something smaller makes all the sense in the world. Not selling it and moving back in sounds good, too. The thing is, we don't know which is best. I think one minute that I could never live there again, then that I have to go back. It's where ... where ... oh, man! It's like there's two me's, and that's where the real one lives. Then it's not, and it's just the place the prior me came from. I want to go back, but I'm afraid at the same time."

"Afraid," Bruce muttered under his breath. He absently put his hand on Lee's back and said, "Don't be afraid." He suddenly brightened and asked, "Can't you just try it? Go back to visit and see what it's like!"

Lee thought, then said, "Maybe that's what I should do. Good idea. Who wants to take me?"

I didn't think that was a serious question at first, but Chris did. "How long?" he asked. "It's almost two now, and I have to be home around seven."

I looked at Chris and said, "About forty minutes each way is normal. Are we really going?"

Chris looked at Lee's hopeful face and smiled, "I don't mind. Let's went!"

Lee's dimples popped out with his grin, and he scrambled to his feet. We had to drop our wrappers in the bag that dangled from the ice cream truck, then I locked my board into my trunk along with the helmet, and climbed into the passenger seat beside Chris. I looked over the seat back at an excited Lee and said, "I don't actually know the way there by road, so when we get close you take over, okay?" He nodded eagerly and we were off to Benham Falls. I hadn't been back there since I stayed with Harlan at Thanksgiving. I'd only been to the falls and the park that surrounded it, not into the town itself, so my sense of adventure was piqued.

Traffic coming the other way was heavy, but the road to Riverton was in good shape. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I'd normally be in that traffic going the other way, which was always slow going. There weren't the usual trucks on a Sunday either, so we didn't have to stop continuously to allow for their turns like we would on a weekday.

Lee took over well before we got to Riverton, telling Chris to turn right at a blinker. I paid attention, because it was a new way for me. If it came out anywhere near Harlan's it might save me a lot of time in the future.

Chris followed Lee's directions, and when Lee said to stop we were opposite his house. I was impressed. They had a broad, well kept front lawn, and the house was a big ranch style place, part stone and part stained wood. "That's my house," Lee said. "Like it?"

"Nice," I muttered, and I wasn't kidding. Chris and Bruce agreed that it looked nice, and I'm sure everyone except Lee suddenly felt uncomfortable, wondering what we were doing there.

Lee opened his door and said, "I'm going to see if they'll let me in. I won't be long, I promise." He got out and trotted up to the front door. He rang the bell and waited, then rang it again. Nothing happened, then he went around the house. We figured he found somebody out back because he didn't return. When he finally did, he came out the front door, and turned to wave at the family standing behind him. He walked out to us and said, "Leave the car here, I'll show you where it happened if you want."

That was something I didn't expect, but Lee was a person I didn't expect. We tumbled out of the car, then followed Lee down the street to a turn and made a right. It was familiar to me after that, the little center of Benham Falls Village.

The park was there across the street, and when we got to the parking lot Lee bounded down the crude steps beside the actual falls, paying no mind at all to the waterfall itself. We hurried down after him, then he stopped at the bottom until we were all there.

I looked around, and the park was very different from the few times I'd walked there from Harlan's house. That had been in November, and it was an empty and bleak place then. Now the grass was green, the trees had leaves, the water reflected a blue sky, and the falls seemed positively cheerful. There were people about too; lots of them, like you'd expect to see in a pretty park on a fine Sunday afternoon. Folks were doing lots of different things, but by far the most of them were sitting and watching the waterfall. I wanted to myself, but Lee walked toward the path along the river and we followed him until we were almost in the woods. There, an older woman had an easel set up and she was doing a picture of the scene with chalks.

Lee stopped to look at the picture, and when the woman noticed us there she took a step back so we could see what she was doing. I looked at the picture, which was interesting and pretty, when the woman gasped and said, "Lee? Oh, my! It's you!" Her voice went from surprise to sweetness, "Are you alright, sweetie? Oh, I've worried so much about you. How is your mother? Are you coming back here now?"

Lee suddenly disappeared into a hug, and he came out smiling at the woman. "I'm okay now. Um, guys, this is Mrs. Denton. She lives in the house right behind us."

She turned to look at us and Lee introduced us in turn. Mrs. Denton beamed as she shook hands with each of us, then said, "You're all such handsome boys! I must take a picture!" She reached into her bag and produced a disposable camera, and asked us to get close for a photograph. I always meant to buy one of those things and I never did. This would be the first picture ever taken of the four of us together, which was a shame. The worse shame was that I didn't have pictures from days like we just spent at the skate park. A picture of Chris in the middle of a three-sixty would dazzle, but so would a picture of Bruce's smile when he figured out something new. I didn't have any pictures of Lee, either.

After we talked with Mrs. Denton for awhile, Lee seemed to have second thoughts. He toed the ground and said, "This isn't a good idea."

Bruce looked disappointed, and I said, "Lee, you don't have to do this to yourself." I had some second thoughts myself. "Listen, and you too, Bruce. It happened right in this park. Isn't that enough to know? If Lee wants to go to the exact spot, then he should go by himself. I don't know ... it just seems ghoulish to even want to know so much."

Lee stirred, and we all looked at him. He said, "I don't want to go anymore. I don't know why I thought I would, but seeing Mrs. Denton there made me remember how much I love this park. I don't fear it anymore being here, but I want to love it again. That place won't help. C'mon, I'll show you around the falls."

Aaron and I had climbed around the falls before, but just for a few minutes. Lee had spent hundreds of hours around there in happier days, and he knew every facet of the land, the river, the trails, and the various falls themselves.

He knew where to swim, where to fish, where to bask in the sun, and where to look for critters. He was a good guide, too. "See that flat rock down there? That's where you wanna be on a hot day. You can put your feet in the water and get the splash from the falls, and you can fit ten guys out there! God, it's perfect." Then, "Look, look," he pointed. "See the chipmunks? They don't even know we're here."

Well, we weren't really where the chipmunks were, but I'd never seen more than one at a time. There were maybe ten of them across the stream and downhill from us, darting here and there and apparently feeling safe where they were. It was fun to see. When Chris started looking at his watch, we got the message and went back to the car. Whether Lee moved back to town or not, I planned to spend a lot of time in that park.

Back in the car, Lee asked, "Can we look at two more things? Just for a minute or two?"

Chris said, "Sure. Lead the way."

Lee wanted to see some of the alternatives to moving back to their house. The first place was a two-building apartment complex like you could see anywhere. They were like fancied-up barracks really, with a parking lot between them. The grounds were nice, though, and well kept. Still, while it was probably a perfectly fine place to live, it was ho-hum to the max. The next place was very different. It was called 'The Falls' and it was a condo development on a small scale. It looked beautiful, at least from the outside. The buildings were built in a tall and narrow style, with steep, peaked roofs and massive stone chimneys. They had weathered looking wood siding, tall and narrow windows, and the units climbed a hillside that offered great views into the distance. They had the decks to enjoy the views, too; upper and lower, front and back.

Chris muttered, "Wow! Just like in Vermont."

It was an attractive place to be sure, but what I noticed even more than the looks of the place was the activity there. There was a pool with people already lounging around it, even though the pool itself was still covered. It seemed like there were people everywhere; on the decks barbecuing, playing tennis, walking along trails. The people were all ages, from babies to blue hairs, but there seemed to be a healthy dose of kids there too. Kids our age.

I looked back at Lee, and his eyes were all alight. I snickered, "This be the place?"

He slid back down into the seat and smiled, "Yeah, I think so. There's supposed to be a unit for sale. I'll tell Mom to take a look tomorrow."

Chris took off toward home, and Lee told us about his short visit to his old house. "You know, it didn't feel like I thought it would. I guess it was dumb to think it wouldn't change when other people lived there that long. It's all different, too." He crossed his arms and thought. "They're nice people. They love that house, but they'll move if we want it back. There's five of them though, they should have it." I was about to say something when Lee added, "It's already their house."

The ride home was mostly quiet. We were tired after a busy day, and were anticipating Sunday dinner with our families. We all had to look forward to the ups and downs of another week; science and math for Bruce and Lee, and their own variations on life after that. Chris and I had baseball and school, and not a lot of time for much else. Chris was still spending time with Nancy, though he didn't say much about it. Maybe it wouldn't be such a hot romance after all, but they really liked each other. It's not written anywhere that your first date has to turn into your first love. If they could stay friends, that would be good.

Lee still saw Carly, too, and I think they liked each other in a romantic way. They were constrained more by circumstance; different school, different neighborhood, and no car between them. Carly had been to Lee's for meals and the like, but there wasn't much chance to be alone. Likewise, when Lee was in our neighborhood it was usually to see someone else, but he'd see Carly too.

They managed little things, though; a movie here, a walk another time. Lee wasn't shy. He was reticent at first, but he was less so by the day, and our trip to the falls had helped him decide even more things.

I relaxed in my seat and thought about that. I always heard that people 'picked up the pieces' after any kind of major upset in their lives. That was a good way to describe it, I guess, but I thought Lee approached things differently. To me, he was sweeping the pieces of his broken past out of his way, and far enough out of the way where he'd never trip over them again. I never thought of him as driven, but he had a sense of purpose about him that went way beyond his fourteen years on this Earth. He wasn't cocksure, either. Rather he poked, prodded and tested things before he decided anything, and the first decision wasn't necessarily the final and right one. He questioned, thought things over, and looked again. That was the basic nature of Lee Erasmus. Something within him gave him goals; told him he was born to be there, and the rest of him strove to make it happen.

The best part was that he enjoyed the journey. I'd seen Lee sad. I'd even seen him cry. Those times were just moments, though. Mostly Lee was this vibrant, would-be-if-he-could-be-happy person kicking and clawing his way out of the trash bag that had held back his life for a few years. He was free now! He did it! Lee was to me a special person, and I'm not sure why I thought that, but he was. Then it dawned on me. Lee wasn't trying to be normal, because he already was. He was instead trying to maintain normalcy, to draw it back to him after four years of lunacy had swirled around his head. I should have known it.

I'd played hockey with Lee before I knew who he was. He knew me, though, and kept quiet because he was afraid of me. When we did meet, he wasn't afraid. He was friendly and frank, and he opened right up. It was clear to me then that, regardless of what had happened, he still loved and admired his father. The man who tried to kill me. Twice. He hurt me doing it, too. Not permanently, but seriously nonetheless. I'd known fear then, and for the first time in my life it was genuine fear of another person.

I had already decided not to mention Lee's father again unless Lee brought him up. The man hadn't come after me because I was Evan Smiley, he attacked me because I represented an idea that had torn his life up. Now he'd thrown his own life away in a mindless rage, and that was where I tried to stop thinking about him. I'd seen his picture when he was still okay, and he looked like a nice guy. Then again, I'd seen a picture of the guy who took Lee after murdering his friends, and he looked normal too, like people who do that sort of thing tend to.

It wasn't my fault, nor was it Lee's fault, and we were both comfortable with that.

Chris turned toward our neighborhood when we got to Mt. Harman, and I had to remind him that my car was still at the skate park. He drove over there and dropped me off, and left Lee there with me when I said I could bring him home. That worked for me, because I wanted to talk to Lee anyhow.

As we drove, I said, "Lee, let me ask you something." He turned to me and I said, "What do you think about Mastracchio being hit with all those charges, and as an adult?"

We were going through town, and all I could manage was a quick glance at Lee's face, and his brows were furrowed, his eyes intent. "I think it sucks, if you want to know! I don't like that guy, but that's just because I don't." Lee sounded frustrated, "What are they thinking, Evan? Why on Earth would they even think of sending him away for that long? That DA wanted me as an adult, and he was serious! I mean, he had me for doing something physical!" He made an exasperated, breathy sound. "Ron's an asshole and he's in trouble because he's been asking for it." He shook his head, "I don't know, Evan. It's all crazy. The DA's crazy, too. You know what my lawyer was going to do if I got tried as an adult?"

I shook my head no, and Lee said, "He was going to make a point by demanding a jury of my peers like the law says, so it would have to be all kids and nobody older than seventeen. And guess what? You can't serve on a jury 'til you're eighteen, so technically a fair trial is impossible." He snickered.

I snickered back, "That's a good one. I um ... I asked you because I want to stand up for Ron, like fight for him. This just all seems wrong to me. I mean, everybody else is getting off easy. I don't know what to say yet, Lee. It's just all out of whack."

When we got to Lee's house and he was getting out, he leaned back in. "I'll help, Evan. Whatever you decide, let me know. Ron is a jerk, but I know what you're saying."

I grinned, "Okay, now I have to talk to whoever's leading this. I'll let you know."

Lee nodded and said, "Let me know. Bye, Evan."

He turned to the house and I drove towards mine. Somebody had already started an effort, now we had to learn what it involved and how, or even if, we could help.

It had been a good day. The skate park was fun and I got some exercise there. We saw a little of Benham Falls Village, which Lee considered home, and it was really a nice place. Benham Falls is technically a part of Riverton, so if they moved there Lee would go to school already knowing the guys he met at the lake, plus he had some old friends still in the area.

I was about fifteen minutes late getting home, and being late was something I had learned to dread since I came back. It was no different this time. As soon as I made noise closing the door behind me, I heard my mother's worried voice calling, "Evan? Is that you?"

"Yeah, Mom. Sorry. I'll be right up." I stopped in the bathroom to pee and wash up. Also to feel guilty, and I was doing that more often lately. I guess it was something like delayed stress, but several months after I came home, and when I thought things were good again, my mother started getting really nervous every time I was even a little bit late for anything.

I'm sure it made me feel worse than she did, because it made me consider what she must have felt like when I disappeared without a trace for three months. Bruce was home already, and he'd surely told her that I went to drop Lee off, so it's not that she didn't know where I was. It was more than that, and it was always unsettling to me. I had really thought that after all the craziness, at least my home life had settled down. It wasn't even same-old, same-old, because I felt closer to every member of my family than I had since back when I was sitting on laps.

It wasn't that I was gay, either. I thought my mother would probably never fully understand that facet of me, but she'd come to accept it. She saw how I was with Aaron, and how I felt about him, and she'd become a warm, loving second mother to him. Now the problem was me, plain and simple. I'd put my mother through the trauma of a lost son, and it was catching up on both of us. I thought about it a lot, and I felt awful for my thoughtlessness, but I didn't know what else to do except to be as punctual as I could.

I dried my hands and face and hurried upstairs. Al lowered the book he was reading and said, "About time," and followed me into the dining room. "I'm sorry I'm a little late," I said. "I brought Lee home."

My father looked up at me and didn't say anything. He'd probably been hearing my mother's worries, but he wouldn't repeat them, and neither would she. She did call for help carrying things from the kitchen, and I was the first one there.

I tried to keep it light, saying, "Hi, Mom. Smells good."

Well those words were the truth. Sitting there on the top of the stove was my reward for being alive; the grand prize surprise prize of all foods: My Mother's Ham!

My weakness, my addiction, my reason for all the exercise and otherwise healthy diet. Ham! Glorious, gorgeous ham, all browned and sweet and tender, covered with pineapple slices that were attached with cloves. Nobody on Earth made ham like my mother did, not even her mother. Yes sir and madam! I had to keep swallowing, else I'd drool like a puppy dog!

I picked up the platter and carried it into the dining room, where I set it down in front of my father, right next to his carving utensils. Then I watched while Al brought in a big serving bowl full of mashed potatoes, Bruce carried a pitcher of ice water, and Mom came in with a smaller serving bowl full of fried carrots and onions. Forgive me if I gush, but my mother is a terrific cook. The fried carrots and onion dish was something she just tried out of the blue once, and it was so good it became a mainstay. Carrots become incredibly sweet tasting when you fry them long enough that they become soft, and the bits of blackness they pick up from the frying are fifty times sweeter.

My Dad chastised my tardiness without words. Instead, even knowing how much I wanted all of that ham for myself, he served first my mother, then Bruce, then Alton, then he asked Bruce how his day was and seemed prepared to hear all of it before he served me.

Forsooth! "Dad? Did you forget me? I can get my own you know, if you're too busy."

He seemed surprised, "Oh, I'm sorry. Hold on, Bruce."

He started carving ham for me, and I kept motioning for him to keep going. My mother took the opportunity to say, "Bruce, it sounds like you're becoming a daredevil just like Evan. Make certain that the people who show you these things also show you all the precautions you should be taking."

Bruce grinned, "Evan's not a daredevil, not really. You should see Chris! I mean, Jesus damn!"

Well, you should have seen my mother expel a piece of carrot from her mouth into her napkin. She took a quick sip of water and lit into Bruce. "Bruce Smiley! I will not have that kind of gutter talk in this house, let alone at the dinner table!" She went on and on. Bruce was in shock and looked like he might cry. I looked at the status of my plate, which my father finally held out to me, then I caught Alton's eye and I could tell that he was as amused as me to see Bruce getting it from my mother.

I was being doubly rewarded for being late, and the irony of it all didn't escape me, but it was finally time to eat. I had ham, and I had mashed potatoes and those yummy carrots. My brain wouldn't be able to focus on a lot until the last of the ham was in pea soup three days hence, and I'd delivered the bone to the Saegers next door for their dog.

Oh, I had ham, too! Dad may have teased me, but he didn't short me at all. I knew all about hog heaven, and that's where I was.

You could eat my Mom's ham if you were toothless, that's how absolutely tender it was, and if you didn't want the fat you had to cut it away yourself. I had always been too lazy to bother, and now I thought the fat was one of the best parts, of equal importance as the sweet crust and the tender meat. She always managed to make ham come out with just a bare hint of saltiness, though it was salty enough that I never needed any on anything else that went with it.

I indulged, then overindulged a little bit, and when I was done I said I'd have my dessert later, like a week from Tuesday. I did hang around for coffee with my parents and Alton. Bruce left, probably to go sulk about his first tongue lashing from our mother. I should have left, but I didn't want to disturb things inside me too soon, so I sat there with a coffee in front of me that I didn't really have room for. I was still on a ham rush, but since nobody was saying anything I said, "I've been thinking."

Great lead-in, right? It got their attention, and I said, "I don't like what they're trying to do to Ron Mastracchio. It's like he's the only person out of all they've arrested who's been charged with anything serious. And look at the charges! Think about it! Look at all the people they've named so far, and this is just the start! They work for the school system, for the cafeteria company, even for the trash company. They're in our school every day, and that's just Mt. Harman! There are lots of people in on it, and Ron must be small potatoes compared to some of them. Why should he have to give up the whole rest of his life? Punish him, yes! I mean, I'd smack him myself, but two hundred years? Give me a break! He was doing those things to make money, but it was mostly other people who got the money. Ron got shot! There's some group forming to fight this, and I want to join."

I smiled meekly, because ranting wasn't something I usually did, and Alton clapped for me. "You should run for office," he said.

My father gave Al a dirty look and then turned to me. He asked soberly, "How would you have it, Evan?"

I told him about Lee's lawyer's idea to demand a jury of his peers, but since Ron was seventeen, he'd probably be eighteen anyhow before anything happened in court. I looked at the table and not at faces. "I'm not sure. I think the first thing is to keep it out of adult court. I think our District Attorney is an evil, sick man. Not because he charges kids as adults, but because he does it all the time, then sends the adults home with a little fine for the same crimes. He's going for easy, not for justice."

I looked up at my father, and he had a kindly look on his face. He wasn't smiling, but he was appraising me and what I'd said. He nodded finally and said, "You're right, Evan. Just the list of charges against that kid is ridiculous. He set up a football pool at school, and he has a felony charge for every bet placed. It's not right ..." His voice tailed off while he thought, then he said more forcefully, "It is ridiculous." He looked at his hands and sighed, "I don't know what to do. Maybe I'll join the group with you. Do you know what their plans are?"

I shook my head, "I don't even know who the people are, just that they're getting together."

Alton said, "You know, they have those investigative reporters. I'm surprised somebody hasn't already started talking about this one, now that I think of it." He looked at me, "You're right, Ev. It's lunacy. Well, they can't keep it up. They'll have to combine charges at least, otherwise their grandchildren will be deciding that kid's fate."

My mother, who usually stayed out of things like this, utterly surprised me when she said sweetly, "You should hold a rally, Evan. Right in your school."

Well, three jaws dropped, and we turned to my mother, who seemed surprised that she'd surprised us. She said, "Well, that's how you do these things. You state your case in public and you get other people to join your cause. They get other people, and before long you know how much support you have. If there's a lot of support to begin with, then you bring all that support to the authorities. If you don't have the support you need at first, then you have to sell your view; talk to people, learn why they disagree, then build brand new arguments to support your ideas.

I wanted to laugh: my mother the anarchist! She was right, though. Exactly right. Maybe that's how I could help. I could try to organize more support. I'd try to find people who agreed with us, and they could find more people from their own friends and families, and it wouldn't take long at all to get around. Within a short time we'd know if we had a loud enough voice by just asking people what they thought. If not we'd have to convince others until we thought we'd be heard.

I was thinking that over when my father said softly, "I don't think you should do anything at all until you have the blessings of that family, the Mastracchio's. They may have their own plans, and the last thing you want is to clash with them unintentionally."

He was right. I sighed, "I'll try to talk to Mike. I don't really see much of him."

Dad said, "Don't even bother, Ev. We need to start with the parents. I'll call over there and ask what they need, and what they think of this support group."

I stared at my father, wondering where he got his ideas sometimes, and it occurred to me that just possibly he learned some things the hard way when I took off the year before. Nobody had told me about misguided attempts by my friends to help find me, but it seemed more likely than not that they would have happened. I finally asked, "When?"

Dad smiled, "Don't be pushy. I'll call later on after I think about how to present myself. You don't have to wait for me, I'll talk to you in the morning."

I excused myself then, and went up to my room. Dad's comment about thinking how to present himself had me thinking, and seriously. I wondered about first impressions, and about how many people had originally noticed me because I was dancing down a hallway like a Cossack, or crashing noisily into a classroom. It made me smile, because that's how I made friends, but after meeting people that way it could take some time to convince them that there was actually something inside my brainial cavity. I didn't think it mattered much at my age, and it was fun to be me. Still, I probably should plan a review of the appropriateness of my behavior for when I was around thirty.

I called Chris from my room to tell him what I was thinking about Mastracchio, and he didn't warm to the idea at all. "Screw him, Evan. Ron brought it on himself. I don't feel sorry for him all of a sudden."

Oh, no. "Chris, listen to yourself! I didn't say Ron should get off, just that it shouldn't cost him his life! I don't know much about gambling, but I know it can be a big problem - like an addiction to some people. Do you really, seriously think Ron should die in jail for his crimes?"

Chris said, almost urgently, "He got little girls into prostitution, Ev! Do you know how sick that is?"

I came right back, "That's not what I read, Chris. Those kids were prostitutes already. What Ron did was ... deliver them, I think, like bring them to their customers, then handle the money. I don't want you to get the idea that I think he's innocent. He's being singled out to take the punishment for an awful lot of people who should have known better than him. A lot of what he did was because he got into money trouble with bad people. I can't defend him, Chris, and I'm not trying to. I just don't want to see that fucking DA get away with this shit. I think it's inhuman!"

Chris was quiet for an inordinate amount of time, and if it was anyone but him I would have either said something or hung up. Chris had a mind, though, and a good one when he chose to exercise it. To me, his silence implied deep thought, though he could have as easily left to go to the bathroom. When he finally made a sound, it was a little cough. "I'll help, Ev. Not because I wouldn't like to hang Ron out to dry myself, but because you're right about the DA. You know, I think about the law sometimes, like I might want to be a lawyer someday. Not to be like that piece of shit, though. You're right. He's going after Ron because he sees weakness there, and I'll bet you my last dime that Ron's family doesn't know the right people. That DA, if you knew his dentist's sister's friend the state representative, then you could get away with anything. Do you remember that little girl that got shot?"

I shuddered. "I remember." Two years before, a seven year old girl, sitting in her living room playing a game, was struck and severely injured by a stray bullet that hit her in the cheek. That shot turned out to have been fired by the gang-banging son of a grocery store owner, who happened to be a city councilman. Nothing had anything to do with anything else, but even with eyewitnesses, the DA decided there wasn't enough evidence to press a prosecution, so the guy got off without even a blemish on his record. I knew what Chris was thinking, and I said, "Thanks, Chris. You see what I mean, then?"

"Yeah, I do. Our top lawman gives justice a bad name, and I'll fight against that. Just don't get the idea that I'm fighting for Mastracchio, because I don't think that will happen."

"You used to like him," I reminded Chris.

"You did, too," he responded, and with that draw we said goodnight so I could call Aaron.

* * * * * * * *

The next morning when I went into the kitchen, Dad was holding his coffee in one hand, and flipping through some papers with the other. It was early for him, and the papers were from his work, so I asked, "Big meeting today?"

He jumped a little, then looked at me and said, "Nah, not big, just inconvenient."

I got some juice and dropped two slices of bread in the toaster before asking, "Did you call the Mastracchios?"

Dad's eyebrows lifted a little. "I did. They welcome any help you can offer, Evan, but they're holding back until they talk to Ron's attorney. The lawyer may want to talk to you." Dad smiled, "I surprised them with my call, Evan. They've been feeling very alone and cut off from people because of how this has been presented." He looked up at me, an expression of grief on his face like I'd never seen before, and he choked out, "I know how they feel, Evan. I got calls out of the blue like that when you ... when you ..."

Oh no! Dad pushed his dish out of the way and laid his head in his hands on the table and started sobbing, and it turned into outright bawling right away. I panicked and looked around to see if anybody else could take care of him, but we were alone. I didn't want to. I know what that sounds like, but I didn't want to comfort my own father for the grief I'd laid on him. God, I thought it was over and done with. I stood there and stood there, and finally inched closer to him, and his crying broke my heart.

I finally, finally went and hugged him from behind, tears pouring from my own eyes. "Daddy, don't cry, don't..." I said. "Please don't cry, I'm right here. I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm sorry! Dad ... Daddy!"

Eventually, of course, he calmed down, but he didn't want to even look at me right then, and I deserved it. His crying turned into choking sobs and then quieted, and he shrugged me away and stood up, his back to me. He hung his head forward and stooped over, then left for the bathroom.

I sat there stunned and grieving. I was the cause of that.

My Dad, whatever else he was, was a fine and honest man. He didn't deserve me or the fear and pain I'd brought down on our family. That would be my cross to bear, because I couldn't undo the hurt I'd caused. The best I could do was to openly display the love I'd always felt, and that's what I'd been trying to do since I came home again. It took problems with another family, and one that my parents didn't even know, to make them both crack.

I left home, and left my folks to despair over me. Ron had gone sour, got into trouble, but how much different could his folks feel?

Decent families stick together no matter what. My family had made a concerted effort to find me once they knew I was really gone. Ron Mastracchio was home, out on bail, but I bet his parents were looking for him, too. Just in a different way. I didn't know the Mastrachios, really. I only knew the boys casually, and I didn't know their family. Ron had turned onto his own path, but just from knowing him and Mike, I knew they couldn't be from a bad family. That thought made me hope I could help out without being directly involved with the Mastracchios, and for a selfish reason. I didn't want to see in the faces of his parents what I'd avoided seeing in my own parent's for so long.

There wasn't anything left to do but to do it. With trepidation, I got up and walked over to the bathroom. I tapped on the door and croaked, "Dad?"

"In a minute," he said, and I could hear the water running in the sink. I heard that shut off, then a few moments later the door opened and my father stood there, a limpid smile on his face.

"I'm sorry, Evan. I didn't feel that coming on." He came out, put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the family room sitting area. "I didn't know it was in me, son. I should have cried when you were gone, but too many people were relying on me and I just didn't. Then when we found you I was too happy, and too busy trying to make sure you wouldn't find reason to leave again." He sighed and shrugged, "I thought it was behind me, and now it is. I guess some things just have to happen ... are going to happen, whether the moment is appropriate or not."

I couldn't believe he just said that; that he wasn't blaming me. "You're okay, then?" I whispered.

He smiled kindly, "Better. I guess I needed to do that, because it is better now."

I said hesitantly, "I should probably just leave for school then?"

Dad snickered, "No, you should probably leave now." He looked me in the eye, "I'm not angry, Evan. I'm just a year late with that reaction, and it feels good now that it's out." He smiled, "Go to school. I'll see you later."

I stood up feeling slightly freaky, and I almost turned to go, then I took a step to my Dad when he stood up and I hugged him. "I love you, Dad," I said, then I let go and started to leave.

Dad said, "Evan?" and I turned around. He said softly, "I love you too. Have a good day."

I smiled and nodded. I left my father there to go upstairs and get my things. When I was leaving my room I met my mother who was just leaving their room. She was dressed for work and greeted me happily. I said, "Mom," as I hugged her. "I love you."

That got me a nice, round hug and I basked in it for the five seconds it lasted. Mom murmured, "You know I love you, Evan. I just hope you know how much."

I snickered, "The ham told me that ... loud and clear."

Mom laughed lightly and patted my tummy, "You watch out for that ham. You're cute as a little piggie, but I don't think being a fat oinker would suit you at all."

I laughed, and I said goodbye to both my parents again when we were downstairs. When I stepped outside, I was surprised by the weather. It was sunny and bright, but not nearly as warm as it had been. I went back in for a jacket, mentioning the cold to my folks, and I finally started off toward school. I'd gone back to walking to school because parking was impossible, and that was due to all the upperclassmen showing up every day for exams.

I didn't mind. I'd been walking since I learned how, and it was natural to me. I'd be a Junior when school started back up, so I'd automatically be eligible for a parking pass, and I'd probably still walk to school when the weather was nice. Paul's car was already gone when I went by, and I made it to Chris' house without seeing anyone else. That worried me, and I realized I was late. I started jogging, certain that Chris hadn't waited for me because that would have been a first. We were both on-time types of people, and it wasn't like either of us to show up late because the other did.

I wasn't way late, only ten minutes behind, and as I got closer to the school I saw other people walking in, and school buses going by. I kept running anyhow because it felt good, and a little because I didn't want to give up ham, but I didn't want to be a fat oinker, either.

I only slowed for the front steps, and I was halfway up when I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and heard it again, "Evan! Wait up!"

There were a lot of people around, and I finally spotted Mike Mastracchio running toward me, waving his arm in the air. He was a little bit out of breath when he reached me, and he just touched my elbow and kept walking up, trying to get some air in him. We stopped at the top of the steps, and I gave Mike time to catch his wind. I took that time to get a good look at him. Both Mike and Ron were pleasing to my eyes, but Mike more so than Ron. Ron was older than Mike by a couple of years, but since I'd known them Mike had been the bigger of the two. The better looking, too. Mike was a blond with brown eyes, and Ron was brown and brown, but Mike had a much darker complexion. He had wide-set eyes, a great smile, and he was in swimmer condition. I'd admired his looks since the first time I saw him. Both him and Ron had always been friendly and, I thought, ready to defend other kids when they were picked on.

When Mike had his wind back he said, "You're hard to catch. I was yelling for two blocks!"

I looked at him, "Really? Sorry, I was thinking about something and not really paying attention."

Other kids started streaming inside and Mike said, "Don't be late on my account, let's go in."

We did, and it was easy because we just walked through the doors. The extra security had been gone after about two weeks of it, and things were back to normal. Mike said, "Your dad called mine last night, and my parents want me to talk to you. So can we talk sometime ... alone?"

I said, "Sure, that's fine. How about we have lunch at that little place outside the gym?"

Mike smiled, "Thanks, Evan. I'll buy, okay?"

He was gone in a sudden rush of students before I could say anything, and in that rush somebody managed to grope me. God, I hated that. It was a touch on my privates, just long and sensual enough to tell me that it wasn't accidental. I looked at the heads around me, trying to memorize the ones I could see so I could compare them to last time.

I headed to my locker knowing that there would be more filth inside, and there was. It was a torn-out page from a spiral binder, and I didn't touch it this time because school security had told me not to. I'd had several notes like that, and they were all similar, sounding like somebody anti-gay, but promising to do to me more-or-less what had happened to Lee. The sexual depictions were a pile of impossibility, but unsettling just the same. I thought they had to be written by somebody gay only because straight people wouldn't understand what he wrote. I didn't understand a lot of it myself.

I had to get a pass to go to the office after homeroom, and the report I made was almost mechanical by then. No, I didn't know who it was from. No, I didn't touch it. Yes, it was still in my locker as I found it, and thank you, I'll go to class now.

The remainder of the morning was normal. We were winding down the year, and except for science and algebra nobody was trying to teach us anything new. The teachers in our other classes had us writing brief essays to display what we had learned, and I was on top of that. I was a good student because I wanted to be, because I loved school and I loved to learn. I'd loved the idea of school before I was even old enough to go myself. I went with my parents to school functions and parent-teacher meetings when my older brothers were little boys, and I remember how awestruck I was with the building, the classrooms, the alphabet and numbers everywhere. My parents say I made them crazy from the time I was three about going to school. The ultimate indignity to four-year-old Evan Smiley was when I learned that lots of my playmates would start kindergarten that fall, and I had to wait an entire year longer owing to my January birth date. I don't remember that much about it, but I was already me at that age, and I'm sure the entire world around me understood my displeasure for a very long time!

Now I was about to finish my Sophomore year, and I was acing every one of my classes, even French. I'd read an untranslated version of 'Remembrance of Things Past' by Marcel Proust, then written, in French, a book report that my teacher called 'very insightful and flawlessly done.' Beside my 'A' it said, 'Bravo, Evan! Tres bien!'

In Graphics, after I came out, I brought the Flash I'd made at home for Aaron in, and the class thought it was great. Of all my classes, that one had the most phobes in it, but to them a good Flash was a good Flash, and that one was a Moebius strip of Flashes; ending where it began so it could seamlessly go on forever. I got loud and enthusiastic applause from one guy, and on the way out he was serious when he called me depraved. The best part was that the teacher let me play it in the school auditorium through the very serious sound system in there. It was huge. Let me tell you, it was huge, as in 'Evan goes Hollywood'!

My gayness was a thing to some people, and didn't seem to matter to others. There was one whoever who kept grabbing me, and I was certain it was the same one dropping the threatening notes because those things always happened together. Other than that I wasn't bothered. There were kids who avoided me, and the rest didn't. There were guys on the baseball team who had problems with gayness in the abstract, but not with me the person. I made every practice and every game, and I delivered both on the field and in the lineup. Gay was too far out of context to matter. Who I went home to after the last out wasn't on anybody's mind.

I hadn't really thought about seeing Mike for lunch, though I mentioned to Chris what I was doing, and that Mike wanted it private. Chris didn't mind, because he knew if anything important came up I'd confide in him. The other side of that was that I had the feeling he didn't care a whole lot what happened. He'd be like that too, until he thought it over. Then he'd jump in on one side or the other.

Mike was waiting against the wall when I got to the little cafeteria at the gym, and he looked nervous when he saw me coming. I gave him a smile as he straightened up, and said, "Hi," when I got there. "I'm hungry," I added.

Mike said hi, then we went to see what they had. The little cafeteria at the gym was our smallest and quirkiest, but that day they had bean soup and chicken salad sandwiches on special, and that's what we both bought.

The tables were scattered there, so every one of them was reasonably private. Mike looked at me when we sat down and said levelly, "I appreciate this, Evan. I really do." He relaxed his gaze just a hair and said, "They're serious about trying to fuck over my brother." Mike tossed his long hair when he shook his head, then he brought his eyes back to mine. "Ron's guilty of things. We all know that." His brows hooded over his eyes, "Evan, Ronny didn't kill anybody or hurt anybody or even fuck little girls. He didn't. He gambled, and now we know he's addicted to it. He lost money, and the trouble he's in is because of the things he did to pay his debts." He opened the plastic box his sandwich was in and ate a spoonful of soup before he continued, sighing first, "Ron's not a creative money maker, Evan. He didn't dream up the things he did, they were suggested to him, even forced on him. I don't think Throckmorton was the mastermind, either. He helped my brother get into this mess, and he was trying to help him out of it when the world caved in. Now it's just Ronny, and the whole world wants his head."

"I know," I said glumly.

Mike lowered his voice and looked around, then whispered, "It's a conspiracy, Evan. Your father told mine that you guys think it's the D.A., and it is, but it's way bigger than that." He lowered his voice even further, "There are people, Evan; people in high positions, and they're making money off this gambling, and if they get found out they're dead. Ron doesn't know everyone, but it cuts right through the school board, the State Board of Education, even into the Governor's office. They're in positions to put pressure on the D.A. to treat Ron like he's the sole source of the problem, and that's exactly what they're doing."

I looked at Mike, and I had the feeling he was telling me straight. "Do you have any proof?" I asked.

His shoulders sagged and he put his sandwich down, "No, and I don't think we'll get real proof on most of them. Ron knows some people and how they fit in, though. The problem is that he's deathly afraid of them now. Well, I guess he always was. He didn't start taking girls to motel rooms because he wanted to, and he sure didn't start visiting the rooms next door on his own. The people inside the system aren't the important ones. They're just skimming; getting paid a little to look the other way. Throckmorton wasn't in it for big bucks, but he was living better than his teacher's pay would cover." Ron leaned forward so he'd have my attention. "The truth is gonna be in the numbers, Smiley. If Throckmorton was getting ten or fifteen grand a year, then so were a whole lot of others, and there's no way that my brother, Ron, was generating that kind of money, much less seeing any of it himself."

I exhaled the breath that I'd been holding. "Holy shit! Where do you get the numbers? How do you prove all this? Do you have to prove it?"

Mike smiled a little, "Somebody should prove it. What we have to do is to get people believing it so that someone will try to prove it. There's evil behind this, Evan, but it's way in the background, and we just want to make sure my brother gets treated fairly."

I smiled back, envisioning less of a tall order than I expected. "The D.A.?" I asked.

Mike shot me a look of disdain, "That guy's a pisshole in the snow! I don't think he's even trying to build a case that he can prove. He thinks he can do it by public opinion. Well, I'll give him that. If Ron's arraignment was tomorrow he'd be buried in the ground the day after, based on public opinion!"

I decided to get to the point, and only partly because I was starting to feel bad that Mike wasn't eating his lunch. Mine was really good. "Well, you know I volunteered, so where would I fit in?"

Mike had a bite of sandwich in his mouth, so I took a bite of mine and took my time with it. Mke swallowed his and said, "Probably in school here, Evan. There aren't a lot of people who like Ron right now, and that's not fair. If you listen around, you'll hear how people think he 'stole' all their money. I don't know how we get rid of that idea, because it's pervasive. Maybe start with the kids who actually won those pools, I don't know. There are a couple of people on our side, and I don't know how far off everyone else is. When do you have some time? I'll set something up."

I said, "Look at the baseball calendar. Any other time is good for me."

Mike appraised me and said, almost solemnly, "I'm glad you'll help us. I mean that." He looked off for a moment, then back at me, "You know, you hear about things all the time; kids getting shot, jacking cars, drugs, gang banging. Who would have ever thought that sports gambling could get one guy in so much trouble."

I looked at him and shook my head, because I didn't know. "Better eat," I said. "The bell's gonna ring."

Mike nodded, smiled, and dug in when I did.

* * * * * * * *

We had a home game after school. The whole team was at the point where we hated home games just because the field was such an embarrassment. It was dangerous, too. Just the week before in a jayvee game, a kid from the visitors broke his foot sliding into second. We didn't even have breakaway bases. The dirt around the bag had eroded away, so he slid into what may as well have been a curb.

The coaches and custodians did what they could with what they had, but they couldn't even get the town to buy clay to level off the baseline. We had way too many injuries, and when we reported to the field for the game it was apparently one injury too many.

Coach was stomping around the field in frustration, and we basically cowered on the bench until he came over to us. He took off his shades and seemed genuinely dejected. He kicked at the dirt once, viciously, and said, "No game today. Just go home. I won't play you guys on this field one more time. It's not worth the risk." He looked up, "Listen, it's not a season-ender. The Legion has a ninety-foot field that's in good shape, and Marlson Park has one that's at least better than this. I'll see what I can do about using them. We'll miss today, and the next two games are travelers anyhow. The other coach gave me a rain date on today, so we can make it up if it comes to that. It's not a forfeit yet. I just ..." He made a shooing motion with both his hands, "Just go home."

He turned, jammed his hands into his jacket pockets, and kicked at the field again. I looked around at the other guys, and it was a grim scene. That unhappy man in front of us wasn't our coach. Our coach was never happy, but he never became dejected either. Jerry and Dwight, the co-captains told us quietly to leave, and when I looked over my shoulder as I left they were approaching coach. Better them than me, but I'd witnessed a crack in Goodwin's armor, and it was a good crack. He'd rather forfeit than see someone else get hurt because of the condition of his field.

Well, we'd only had one rain game that year, and this was the same thing. I suddenly had three hours for myself that I hadn't expected. It wasn't good, because I looked forward to games, just like everyone else did. Still, extra time was extra time, and by the time we got back into regular clothes and I got to the street with Chris, it was time for some motion. We weren't driving to school because of the parking situation. If it wasn't so close to the end of the year, that grievous wrong would have bothered us more, but hey!. We were athletic, had a bag of unused energy that we'd stored up for the game, so we raced each other home. We were too used to each other to believe any diversions. I yelled to Chris, "Look! It's your Mom!" and he kept running. He tried to trip me on a corner and I shoved him away. When we were running past a park we saw kids playing basketball, and barged right in on their game. Those guys knew us, and they feared us, but we were both in our good clothes so we played nice.

We didn't stay long, and I went with Chris to his house, where I caught his reluctant-to-hear-it self up on what I'd talked to Mike Mastracchio about. "I'm serious, Chris," I said solemnly, "This is bad business. I want you to help!"

Chris laid back across the bed, then let out a sudden yelp and sat bolt upright, pulling his left knee close with both hands. He was wincing in pain, and I knew what it was. Since I'd known him, Chris was more susceptible to charley horse cramps than anyone I ever met. The truth is, he should have known better than to stretch out like he had, because that seemed to bring them on.

I knelt by the bed and took his ankle in my hands, then ran my hands up to his calf, and it was as tight as a drum. I started rubbing, then pulling gently toward me, then rubbing some more. It took awhile, and I told Chris to try standing once he could straighten his leg, which he did. He hopped around making noises that became less and less distressed, and then took some tentative steps before he finally stood up straight and sighed.

I was still on my knees, and our relative positions had led to things in the past, but I was in a more demanding mood. I stood and asked if it was better, and when he said it was I said, "That's what you get for not relaxing!"

He jumped on my words, "How the hell do I relax with you around? Get real, Evie!" He grinned, "Heh, once again Evan does a great job on my muscle! Want to try another one?" He sat on the edge of the bed.

I did want to! Oh Lord, I wanted to. I needed a promise though. "I might, but first I want help with Mastracchio." I grinned at him, "Don't you love that name? Do we know anyone else with four syllables?"

Chris grinned, "You are demented, you know. How many Italian names don't have four syllables? Or Polish ones for that matter? If you're being specific, then yes. Mastracchio does roll off the tongue, doesn't it? How'd you like a little Humphrey rolling off your tongue?"

I grinned, "I didn't hear a promise in there. Say you will, or say goodnight, Chris!"

I started stroking the backs of both his calves, and he whimpered, "I'll help. I promise."

I gave him a dirty look and he stood up. "Not because of that, Evan. You're bad sometimes, you know that? I said I'd help with Ron because you made a good case. I'd rather be on your side anyhow, no matter what I think. I know where things are gonna happen!"

I smiled in semi-surprise, "Why, thank you, Chris. Do you also know where things are not gonna happen?"

"What? What'd I do? Don't tell me you have a headache!"

I laughed, "No, but I wish I thought of that!" I pushed him back on the bed and asked, "Is the door locked?"

* * * * * * * *

At home later, my father came to my room after dinner. I was studying for a French test. I didn't need the extra study, but it was my only exam the next day, and with the year winding down I figured I'd take the time to review anyhow. I turned my back to it when Dad came in, and he sat on the bed eying the book behind me.

"Ah, I remember French," he said. "Not the words or anything, mind you, but I remember the class. I was out of place and my grades showed it. I transferred to Industrial Arts as soon as I could."

I smiled, "Good choice. I'm in the college prep course and that's not an option for me."

Dad relaxed and grinned, "Would it surprise you to hear that's not why I'm here?"

I shook my head. Dad looked me in the eye and said, "When I was talking to Aldo last night..." He saw the confusion on my face and added, "Aldo Mastracchio, Ron and Michael's father. Anyhow, he was really touched to think that Ron had at least one friend who was willing to stick with him through this. That's you, Ev. I've heard you say several times now that you don't even like Ron, and that's fine. I just wish you'd stop saying it. Whatever your feelings about that kid are, try keeping them to yourself." Dad kind of sagged on the bed, "Last year, the one thing I didn't have to do was grope to find your real friends, Evan. They were everywhere and willing to do anything to help find you. We had a lot of support from friends, neighbors, the people we work with, even the people we work for. Those kids though, they were so eager! Support is a wonderful thing, but they added excitement to the mix, and they kept us all hopeful and energized. Here's my point. I know the situation is different, but we never once heard one of them say they didn't really like you!"

I stared at Dad and felt a smile creeping into my expression. I finally said, "I always thought Ron and Mike were good guys. How about I stop right there?"

Dad stood and I got up, too. He held his arms out and I went in for a hug, and it was easier than before. "You stop there. Who knows? Maybe those good thoughts will come back."

I sat back down after Dad left thinking about what just happened. He was exactly right. He'd heard me say I'd help Ron, but always qualify that by saying I didn't really like him. I was wrong to put it like that. If I didn't like him, that was my business. The truth was that I was more angry with Ron than not liking him, anyhow, but if I could give his family hope, then that's what I was there for! Chris was with me on it now, so maybe the best we could do would be to provide moral support. We were school kids, and had no hope of busting up the whole gambling and prostitution thing. We could bring a little comfort to the Mastracchios, and the next big thing would to work hard against the D.A. and try to keep Ron in Juvenile Court where he belonged.

I felt better, like I had some direction to think about. Mike had told me at lunch that he felt like an outcast, and he hadn't done anything worse than be related to his brother. We could start right there with Mike; sit with him at lunch and walk with him between classes where it made sense to. That would be effortless. There wasn't much school left anyhow, but Chris and I were popular. When kids saw Mike Mastracchio with us, maybe some of his own old popularity would rub back off on him. Or not. At least we'd be doing the right thing.

I looked at the time, and Aaron would be at rehearsal for a long time yet. I glanced at my French book and my notes and decided I was already ready for the test, so I put those in my bag for the next day.

After that I went to the bathroom, and while I was washing up I decided that something sweet would taste good right then. I headed downstairs, and when I was near the bottom I noticed my parents intently watching something on television.

I'm evil. At about the third step from the bottom, I suddenly crashed forward, hitting the back of the sofa they were on and I rolled forward right between them. In an upside-down instant I realized they had drinks on the coffee table, but it was too late. I managed to twist around, which left the overturned table behind me, and I ended up on my ass right in front of the television looking back at them. I don't know what my face looked like right then, but my parents were both, um ... astonished is probably a good one. Yes, astonished does it justice. Well, astonished at first, then my mother looked mortified while my father jumped up to try to salvage something ... anything at all.

My mother finally asked, all aghast, "Evan! What happened? Are you alright?"

How to explain? I was leaning back on my hands, my feet apart and my knees up, and the truth wasn't forthcoming, not after I knocked over the table. "I um, I think I stepped on my shoelace," I said lamely. "I'm not hurt."

"Good!" Dad said. "Get some paper towels and clean this mess up!"

I glared at him for a moment. Then I figured it was best not to argue and stood up. I didn't need that kind of treatment though, so I stepped on my shoelace again and crashed past my mother the other way, and I managed not to tip anything over going in that direction.

In the kitchen, while I pulled towels off the roll, I wondered why I did things like that and couldn't find a better reason than I was Evan! I untied my sneaker as a reference point, and brought the towels into the other room.

"Tie your shoe, Evan," Dad said when he saw my foot. He wasn't happy. "You knew how to walk at one point in your life."

"I remember," I muttered angrily as I sat to tie it. Most people would have thought that my fall was really funny. Not at home, though, and I should have known that before advancing the effort. Funny wasn't exactly a family trait, and they didn't even realize I'd done that on purpose for their own amusement.

I started back to my room, then remembered why I'd come down to begin with, so I went in the kitchen to find something sweet. Cookies! I took two and went back upstairs with the intent of poking around on the Internet.

I started the computer as soon as I went in my room, then decided to wash up for bed so I'd be ready if I stayed up late.

The last few evenings had been balmy and I'd slept with the window open. It was still warm and the windows were still up, and while I poked around the Internet I listened to the gentle night sounds from outside. There were some spring peepers out there making a racket in the distance. There were closer sounds, too, but nothing special; the faint sound of a far-off dog barking, the breeze rustling the new leaves on the tree outside the window. It was nice.

I entered 'gambling addiction' on Google, and I knew instantly that it was a bigger problem than I suspected just based on the huge number of hits. I narrowed it down to 'high school gambling', then 'teenage gambling' and they seemed to bring up the same sites, so I started reading. I found myself shocked and fascinated, but ultimately saddened by what I read. Fully seven percent of high school kids in this country self-identify as having a gambling problem. That's just the people who admit it or recognize it in themselves. The things Ron Mastracchio did to keep gambling were only representative of what other kids did. Prostitution was common enough, and dealing drugs. Others simply stole money, mostly from their own homes. Others embezzled, or committed more overt crimes like holding up stores. The most hard-core gamblers, like Ron, got involved in the games themselves, running money to the big guys for a piece of it.

They did it right under my nose too, and I never recognized it for what it was. I'd put my own dollars into those pools, and I had fun doing it. I always played one square on the dollar pools, and only for the games I'd watch. Beyond the regular in-season games there were the baseball playoffs and the World Series, the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl, but the biggest thing had to be the college basketball playoffs. All Those Games! All That Money! Oh, Lord. Some kids I knew bet every game. I only bet the teams I liked, but even that could be a lot of games if they hung in there.

I was probably as small a bettor as there was in our school, and I was still putting in over a hundred dollars a year. If one quarter of the students at just my school bet that, it would be fifty thousand a year on sports pools alone. Well, just the ones I played, because there were hundreds of other pools that I didn't care about. I did the numbers in my head, and if our own seven percent of admitted problem gamblers lost a grand a year, and if a like number of kids had the problem and didn't recognize it yet, then they'd be kicking in a quarter million a year. Add to them the adults; the staff, the bus drivers, the support people who didn't actually work at the school.

That was just our school, one of many thousands in the country. When I looked at it that way, the dollars kids were betting for fun in this country became staggering; on the order of twenty billion dollars a year. Add that to the fifty billion that was wagered legally in lotteries and casinos, and who knows how much that was gambled illicitly by adults through bookies and the like ... it was enough to make me sick. People loved to complain about taxes, and at the same time they gleefully tossed their hard-earned money into the gambling pit where nobody really knows who ends up with it. It seemed unjust to me. That kind of money could do real good in this world, and instead it just disappears, and it seems that people are glad to see it go.

I was just staring at the screen, my arms folded across my chest, when Aaron called. I'm not easy to talk to when I'm confronting something like that, and it took Aaron sounding disappointed that he'd called to snap me out of it.

I shook my head, turned away from the screen to look at the window instead, and said, "Oh, man! I'm sorry, Aaron, I didn't mean that. I mean, you know that, right? I'm just looking at the magnitude of Ron's problem. Heh, it's kind of like a giant algebra test that you didn't see coming."

"Oh," came his little response.

I laughed, free again. "Don't be a stinker, Aar! I said I was sorry, and now I'm fully focused. Um, more than focused."

Aaron snickered, "More than focused? Can you explain that?"

I giggled, "Well, I have this arrow now, and I sure hope it's pointing me in the right direction!"

Aaron laughed, and we were cool.

Continued ...