Jack in the Box

Chapter 14

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

It was already hot when my father called me to the phone early on Saturday morning. It was Tony, who I hadn't seen since Wednesday because he was working on Mr. Dickey's birdhouse.

His voice was shy. "Hi, Mike. Wanna help me catch bugs?"

I was a little groggy and I thought he said he wanted to catch bugs. "What?"

"I need to make some glue an' I need bugs. I can get 'em right at Spencer's. Ya wanna go with me?"

Actually, looking for bugs sounded like fun. I smiled at the phone. "I'll go. You comin' here?"

"I'm on my way. Thanks, Mike!"

When we hung up I got cleaned up and had some cereal for breakfast. I knew it was supposed to be a hot day, but when I stepped outside it was already hot and humid. I sat in the shade on the porch, but I got sweaty all over in just a few minutes and it was only eight in the morning. I didn't really mind, and I was actually looking forward to doing something with Tony again. As I waited for him I thought about the things that had happened since I last saw him

On Wednesday, while Tony and I were joyriding in the dune buggy, Pat Anderson was being rushed to the hospital. He'd called 9-1-1 himself because he had a sudden tremendous headache and couldn't see straight. They kept him overnight and did another MRI in the morning, but by then he felt better. I rode my bike down to see him Thursday afternoon and he said it had been a temporary occlusion and it had been scary. I didn't stay too long. His parents had stayed home from work and they wanted him to rest for the remainder of the day, though they thanked me for stopping by. On my way home I stopped at the Surdiak's house and had an iced tea on the porch with them while we caught up on events.

When I got home I asked Dave if I could use the dune buggy and he said he'd just leave the key in it so I wouldn't have to ask anymore. I was trying not to be a pest to them. When Tim arrived the day before they were both real nice to Tony and me, but we got the feeling that we were in the way.

I still couldn't believe he'd let me take the duner out by myself, but I sure didn't argue the matter. I drove it for a few hours, mostly trying to make my shifts as smooth as Dave's were. I actually got pretty good at it, to the point where shifting seemed fairly natural. With that out of the way I decided power slides should be next. Dave did them all the time and I had watched him, but he never explained exactly what he was doing. There was a big flat area near the back of the property, nothing but bank run gravel and weeds, and that's where I practiced until I got the hang of it. I couldn't get it tight like Dave, but I got the car to spin. Dave could make it spin and stop right on a trail. I realized I'd probably never figure out how to do that on my own.

When I brought the car back they'd gone off somewhere, so I went into Jack's room and wrote him a letter. I was down to one letter a day instead of a dozen or more, but I think they were more interesting. I had new things to say because I was doing different things and talking to more people. All along I'd thought that Jack was somehow getting my letters, and I wondered if the drop off in quantity was offset by the improvement in content, if he'd rather get a dozen that said the same thing or just one that was mostly new.

I always got a weird feeling when I was writing, sad but not totally sad. I was sad that I couldn't just talk to Jack, but glad I had at least some way to communicate. I wrote funny things sometimes, and I giggled to myself while I wrote them. All the letters were as upbeat as I could make myself write them. Jack had a lot of things that he felt insecure about, mainly his sexual past and how he related to other people. I think he felt shame for the things he'd done, though he never spoke of it like that.

It was just a feeling I got the few times we talked about it. His innocent promiscuity as a child had been dangerous and ultimately harmful to him but, because of his young age, his partners were the ones who got the blame and ended up with police records. I do know he hated the fact that his willing behavior had hurt other people, so I had learned to change topics whenever our talks brought us anywhere near the subject.

I did the same thing in my letters, keeping them as cheerful as I could until I wrote how much I missed him and how I hoped that wherever he was he was happy.

I rode down to see Pat again on Friday morning. It was too hot outside to do much, so we just hung around indoors playing with his video games and munching on junk food. Tony's drawing of Kevin had been framed and hung prominently in the living room. Looking at it in a more formal position made it seem all the more impressive, and I again wondered about how Tony saw things through those big eyes. I asked Pat if it was really Kevin and he assured me it was. I asked how he could tell, and he said that Kevin was different than him inside and that Tony had definitely drawn Kevin.

The picnic ended up at the Anderson's that night, though no kids my age showed up. Mrs. Goldman was there, but Joe hadn't been coming for a few days. She said he was building a swale somewhere, whatever that was. It didn't matter because I only wanted to thank him for letting me learn how to drive his car. When my mother left to go home with my sisters I went with them, my bike sticking halfway out of the trunk. Tim and Dave were still at the picnic, so I went next door to write to Jack.

They weren't back by the time I finished, so I just went home to bed.

Now, the next morning, I was sitting on the porch in the heat, wishing for a breeze and waiting for Tony. It was hard for me to believe, but I'd actually missed him the past two days. I'd been mentally kicking my own ass all week for avoiding him all those years. I liked him and found him to be pretty interesting. There was no doubt that he was talented, he was also bright in a shy way and we had fun together. He made me get a little of my old self back. He never asked me much, although I questioned him all the time and always found his answers well considered and honest. He wasn't used to talking a lot with other people and his accent was sometimes hard to decipher, but I had it fairly well figured out.

I heard the scrape of a tire in the driveway and looked up to see Tony getting off his bike, looking twice as sweaty as I was. He spotted me and grinned. "Is it hot or what?"

He hopped up on the porch and I said, "It's hot okay, I bet we get storms later."

He pulled an empty bag from his pocket. "It'll be good bug huntin' weather anyhow. Ya wanna go now?"

I started to stand up, asking, "What kinda bugs are we lookin' for?"

He held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. "I don't know the real name, but the Asian ones. They're black with a big horn, like this big."

"Oh, I know the ones you mean. They're always under the pine trees, right?"

He smiled. "That's the ones! Let's go now 'fore they disappear."

I smiled knowingly. "You wanna walk or, ahem, drive?"

Tony's eyebrows went up. "You can use the dune buggy by yourself?"

I brushed the nails of my right hand against my chest and blew on them. "Yep! I been drivin' up a storm." I grinned. "Let's GO!" I jumped right over the porch rail, then ran toward the dune buggy. Tony was right behind me when I jumped in the driver's seat. When I started it up the radio was back on Dave's oldie station, so Tony found something else. It was the right station, but it was in the middle of an ad for a truck place. I told Tony to leave it, and just when we crossed the bridge it started playing some music that made me want to drive faster.

That's exactly what I did. I felt much more confident at the wheel and, with the radio as loud as it could reasonably go I drove as fast as I dared out to the back of the property, doing a humongous power slide for Tony's amusement.

I was really trying to scare him, but it didn't work. I was whooping and yelling, but Tony was as loud as me. I did one more spin, then headed for the pond so he could find his bugs. We were laughing and yelling over the volume of the radio, and when we got there I saw Tim just walking up the bank out of the water.

I did yet another power slide, this time ending up right in the cloud of dust it had created. I shut the car off and hopped out, kicking off my sneaks and removing my shorts and shirt. I threw it all in the back seat and ran for the water and jumped in, headed straight towards the bottom.

The pond at that end was in the sun, but the water was over twenty feet deep and much cooler near the bottom. You could feel the temperature dropping as you went down, and it took a while to reach the bottom. I turned right around and headed towards the surface for some air.

The water there was as warm as a bath, but it still felt good. I popped up to find Dave and Tim looking at me, then Tony broke the surface between them. Tony and I were both sputtering water out of our mouths, laughing at the same time.

Dave and Tim laughed too, and stayed in the water for a few minutes. They didn't have breakfast yet, so Tim asked if we wanted to go back with them or have him pick us up later. We told them later, and when they climbed up the bank we could see that they still had their shorts and shirts on.

It didn't matter. Nothing mattered until after they drove away and Tony said, "Shit! They got my clothes!"

They had mine too, but I didn't care. We still had underpants on, and nobody in their right mind would come snooping around in that heat anyhow. I flipped on my back and started kicking my way across the pond. "Relax, Tony! Who cares? Just cool off, then we'll go find your bugs."

I just drifted away, paying no mind to anything except staying afloat. I was solidly in the middle of the pond when I felt something touch a toe ever so lightly. I smiled inwardly thinking it was just a fish seeing how I liked a dose of my own medicine, then suddenly a cheek of my ass was in pain. I screeched thinking it was a snapping turtle, then Tony's head popped up right in front of mine laughing and sputtering. I yelled, "You idiot! I thought it was a snapper!"

He held his hand up for a second, making little claw-like motions with his fingertips. He had an ear to ear grin. "Gotcha!" His grin turned evil, "Now it's your turn!"

With that he disappeared beneath the water. I dove down after him and could see him right away. If he thought he was getting away he could just think again! This wasn't some old muddy dammed up brook pond, Spencer's was fed by springs and the water did little to hinder your vision.

Vision or not, I couldn't catch Tony. I swam faster than him, but he could stay under way longer than me. Every time I came up for air I'd have to find him again before I could give chase. One time I came up and spotted him not ten feet away and looking in the opposite direction. I gulped in some air and dove, and had him in my grasp in about a second. I grabbed him around the waist and pulled him straight down. He wriggled and squirmed, but I had him good. I pushed towards shore and when I could finally find a place for my feet we both stood up and gasped in air.

We were in water up to our shoulders and I kept holding him as he struggled to get free. When I took stock of the position we were in, my front pushed against his back, I let go. I felt embarrassed, but Tony didn't move away. He leaned back into me until I started to go over backwards. Instinctively I wrapped my arms around him until I was able to steady us both, then he spoke.



"That was fun! You swim good."

"You ain't so bad yourself. I wish I could stay under that long like you do." I grinned. "Wanna race back?"

"I guess." He pulled away from me, then pushed me backwards hard enough that I fell into the water before he swam off toward where we had first jumped in.

When I came to the surface he was thirty feet away. I screamed, "You cheater!" then started swimming furiously after him. I gained on him, but there was no way I could make up that kind of lead.

Tony was out of the water and sitting on the grass grinning at me by the time I reached the far end of the pond. I don't know what it was, but he looked skinnier with clothes on than he did bare chested. He was very thin to be sure, but he didn't have ribs showing all over and it actually looked like there might be some power in that small frame.

When I could find bottom with my feet I walked towards him shaking my fist. "That's cheating, Anton Wolfe! I outta kick your ass!"

A brief look of fright crossed his face, so I just smiled and pulled out of the pond to sit beside him. The refreshed feeling from being in the water was quickly replaced by the feel of the oppressive heat and humidity. I looked at Tony and asked, "So where're these bugs? Let's get 'em before it gets any hotter!"

"Good idea." He stood and walked to where the car had been parked, then bent down and picked up a paper bag. He walked toward the other side of the pond from where we were sitting. "This way." I got up and followed him toward an old stand of pine trees, then got on my knees beside him when he started brushing away pine needles near the roots. When I finally spotted a beetle I reached for it, but Tony pulled my hand away. "Jes follow him. He'll take us to more."

Sure enough, the big beetle burrowed back into the pine needles and we were able to follow his motion to a hollowed out area at the base of the tree trunk. Tony carefully began pulling layer after layer of pine needles back with his finger tips until we could see into the nest, then we started grabbing beetles one at a time and dropping them into the bag. When we had probably a hundred of them Tony said it was enough. That was a good thing, because just then we heard the beep-beep of the dune buggy's horn.

From what we could hear it sounded like the car was going back and forth, but when we emerged from the woods it was stopped just in front of us and Tim was looking the other way. Tony crept up on him and dumped the entire contents of the bag onto Tim and into the car, resulting in a huge shriek and Tim practically levitating his way out of the car. Tony and I thought it was hilarious and started laughing wildly. Tim joined in after a minute and before we knew it we were laughing more at his laugh than the situation.

He made us pick up the bugs, then tried to get Tony to tell him his secret for making glue with them. Tony wouldn't budge, so Tim drove us back to the house. My mother fed us some tuna fish sandwiches, and told us to make sure we brought bathing suits later because the picnic was going to be at the Denson's house. They lived right on a big pond in the last house before the town line with Arlington. It was a good choice because people would at least have a way to cool off.

When my mother learned what was in Tony's bag she ordered it off the premises immediately. Tony decided to bring them home and I went with him so I'd know where he lived. I knew where the trailer park was but had never actually gone in there. It was a little over three miles and we were both sweating buckets when we got there. His father was laying in an old canvas hammock and I'm pretty sure he was asleep. His mother greeted us when we walked in, then asked if we wanted lunch. We weren't hungry, but it sure smelled good in there. We each had big glasses of water.

I wondered what it was like for Tony. His parents obviously cared for him, but coming home must have been like visiting his grandparents for the kid. His mother had a heavier hills accent than his father did. I think that if I hadn't been listening closely to Tony all week I might have thought she was speaking a foreign language.

I looked around their trailer. It seemed pretty old and it wasn't air conditioned, but it wasn't too bad inside with a few fans blowing. It was sparsely furnished, but everything looked shiny and clean. It wasn't hard to figure out why. His mother seemed to be constantly wiping something. When she asked Tony what he had in the bag and he showed her, we got shown the door in a hurry.

Tony giggled as he led me around back where he opened the top of a wooden box with window screening on the four sides and dumped the beetles in. Then he filled a metal jar cap with water and put it in with them. I was looking around the yard. He had elaborate birdhouses hanging everywhere and I recognized several of the houses they had been patterned after, including Andy Stark's place.

Some of them looked like they had been painted, but when I asked him Tony said that he made dyes out of different things and just let the wood soak in them until he got close to the color he wanted.

I walked around inspecting them. A few still had birds living in them. Tony said they were the busiest in the spring and early summer when the birds were nesting. The little houses were all different from one another, the only similarity being the little porch lights and doorknobs made of tiny white stones.

I grinned at Tony. "Is the light like your trademark or somethin?"

He smiled. "Is that what they call it? I just did it once and it was funny, so I went and put lights on all of them. The birds like 'em. These were all full this year." He looked at me hopefully. "You wanna see where I whittle? It ain't far."


"C'mon then." We walked through some yards, then after the last one we were at the edge of some woods with a barely discernable trail heading in. Tony barged ahead and I followed. Soon we were headed up a steep hill, still heavily wooded. The path took a sharp right then curved left around the hill, always heading upwards.

We came to a clearing and my eyes were drawn to a small shack. It had three sides and a roof of thatch and the front looked like an old plastic tablecloth, which is what it turned out to be. Tony pulled it up and revealed a little bench made from small logs and nothing else but a substantial pile of sticks. The bench was barely wide enough for the two of us, but we both sat down.

When I looked out the view took my breath away. We were situated where we could look the length of a valley I didn't know existed. It wasn't really one valley, just the view lined up with the hills in such a way that it seemed like you could see forever. Each farther hill was a little less distinct than its predecessor until they faded into a greenish blue haze, but the effect was like looking at one of those Japanese screen paintings. The spreading branches of the trees opposite us created something like an oval frame for the view into the distance.

I was so captivated by this place that Tony had found that I jumped a foot when he spoke. "That's gonna be Mr. Dickey's house." I followed his hand and he was pointing towards jars and coffee cans full of sticks that I hadn't noticed. I could tell what they were, though. There was a can full of larger sticks that would be the logs and a jar of the little stiles for the porch. There were also squared pieces that I guessed would be the frame, and a mayonnaise jar full of tiny little shingles. It was a lot of pieces, and I wondered that he could carve them out in just a few days. Tony idly pulled a twig from his 'raw' pile, flicked open his knife and started whittling.

He was looking at what he was doing but said, "These're the hard ones. It ain't easy gettin' things square."

That's what he said, but I watched him quickly and surely cut the bent little stick into what looked like a perfectly straight, perfectly square miniature four by four timber. He made another like it and laid them on a board full of chop marks. He roughly lined them up at one end, then put his knife at a ninety degree angle. Picking up a round flat rock, he pounded the back of the knife blade to cut off one end of the pieces perfectly square. Then he picked up an already finished piece and, first using the blade of the knife to line up the finished ends, cut the other ends to the exact same length. He held the three pieces out to me and I took them to look.

Close inspection told me they weren't exactly alike. You could tell they'd been whittled and see knife marks, rough spots, even bits of bark. What was amazing to me was that they were dimensionally the same no matter how you looked at them. I was once again awed by Tony and his skills. I almost choked when I realized that a week earlier I thought he deserved to be run over by a bulldozer. Now I found myself hoping that his talents could be recognized, that his artistry would make him popular and happy.

When the breeze shifted, a foul odor made its way into my nostrils. I said, "Eww! What's that?"

Tony grinned. "Glue in the makin'! C'mon." He stood and led me a little farther along the trail, this time to a larger clearing with no view. There was an old bathtub there along with a lot of old pots and a metal frame over a long dead campfire. Tony pointed into the bathtub. "Them's hides. They been soakin' for two months now, so I can make glue any time."

I peered in, but it was a cloudy mess and it stunk to high heaven. I had to pull my head back, but managed to ask Tony, "What kinda hides?" before I gagged.

"Hahaha! I told ya it stinks! It's mostly rabbits, a muskrat and a coupl'a squirrels. It don't really matter. Ya just gotta soak 'em for a few months in lime water, then ya start cookin'."

I just stared at his face, finding intelligence I'd never seen there before. Why didn't I know these things? I thought glue was just something you bought in a white plastic bottle, but Tim seemed almost desperate to know how Tony made his. I wondered what the heck was so important about glue to begin with, deciding not to ask. I never thought I was dumb, but Tony knew things that he was sure of.

The only thing about myself that I was certain of was that I had loved Jack Murphy, still loved Jack, and that my love for him was tearing up my life.

That thought wasn't fair to Jack, I was doing it to myself and I knew it. I just couldn't imagine letting go. I had new questions and I didn't know who to ask them of. Joe had made me think about basic love and I think I was starting to recognize it when I saw it. I had so much more than that with Jack, though. Tim had implied that he'd gone through something similar once, only nobody was dead. When I thought about what had gone on between Tony and myself during the past week anything seemed possible with living people, but Jack was dead.

There was nothing I could reconcile... not my timidity about sex, not our failure to report our tormentors... nothing. My position seemed fixed in time, frozen forever in my mind. Whenever I thought I'd made a move off center these same thoughts would return and drag me right back to the same place. That place was an empty hole... devoid of any part of Jack except my thoughts of him. I needed to talk to Dave, to tell him there was some hurry-up involved with finding Jack.

Tony brought me back to earth. "Mike? You okay?"

I shook my head. "What?"

"I said let's go five times and you're starin' at an ol' pot. My Dad'll be leavin' for the picnic any time. We can catch a ride!"

"Oh. OH! Let's go then."

Tony gave me a funny look, then turned and started heading back to his house. When we got to the steep part of the hill we both started trotting down because it was easier than walking. We got back to his place to find his mother sitting in the passenger side of their pickup and his father putting something in the bed. He saw us and smiled. "Yup! You boys hop in. We're already late."

Tony cried, "Wait one minute! Mike, put your bike in. I need somethin' to swim in!" He ran into the trailer and by the time I had my bike in the back of the truck he had come out with an old looking pair of shorts dangling from his finger by the belt loop. He jumped in the bed with me and pounded the roof of the cab yelling, "Okay, papa!" The truck lurched forward and suddenly there was a blessed breeze on us from the movement.

When we got near my house I hollered, "STOP! Let me off!" Mr. Wolfe stopped in the road in front of my house and I hassled my bike over the tailgate, then told Tony, "I'll be right up there. I need to get my bathing suit. I'll just be five minutes."

The truck pulled away and Tony waved at me so I waved back, then pushed my bike to the side door and dropped it. I started to walk inside thinking I'd just change into my bathing suit and ride up to the picnic to both clean off and cool off.

It wasn't to be. Clay Nettleton and James Green were on the porch waiting for me. I said, "Hey, guys!"

Clay looked bored like usual and just held up a hand in a sort-of wave. James grinned like he always did, then said, "Hi Mike! We been waitin' awhile."

You couldn't look at James and not smile. He was a perpetually happy person, always in control and usually in charge. His energy and inner strength showed through his eyes. James was black, but the whites of his eyes were perfectly white and clear. He had long lashes, almost girlish, but there was nothing effeminate about him. The opposite was true. He used those childlike eyes to disarm people, though I don't think it was intentional. He wasn't trying to fool anybody, just to engage them. My father said James reminded him of JFK in a lot of ways, but Bob Surdiak always said he was more like FDR.

I didn't know enough to even think about who was right, I just knew that James was a good person who I felt was destined for greatness. I guess I was spacing out again because James said, "Listen. You need to talk to Clay, so I'm ridin' your bike up the street. I'll see you when you get there, okay?"

I was certain that I'd missed something and began to ask, but James jumped the porch rail and hopped on my bike before I could think of what the question was. I looked at Clay and he looked as confused as I felt. I said, "I'll be right back. I really need a wizz!"

Clay meekly nodded his head and I hurried into the house, blessing air conditioning while wondering what was going on. I went into the bathroom and turned the shower on, then stripped and hopped under it. I just peed where I stood, reveling in the refreshing water from the shower head. I didn't really wash up, just rinsed off. I didn't even dry off when I got out, I just took a towel to my hair.

I went to my room and pulled on a bathing suit, then grabbed a t-shirt and stepped back into my sneaks and headed back to the porch. I started to sweat almost immediately in the heat, and took a look at Clay. He was older than me by a year and probably about my height, but thinner.

His little brother Jimmy was bigger than either of us. Clay was wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and black baggy shorts. He was one of the only kids in town who'd been allowed to get an earring, and his black clothes seemed to fit his dark disposition.

He was the kind of kid nobody would ever call either handsome or ugly. His skin looked a little oily and, although he had short hair, it always seemed like he needed a haircut. Everything else was just okay. Nothing stuck out... not his ears or his nose. If ever you were going to describe another person as nondescript, Clay might be your model.

I tried a smile on, then flashed it at Clay. "What's this about?"

He looked at me, a dull glaze in his stare. "James says I hafta 'fess up and be more sorry for when we were fishin'."

I looked at him, feeling confused. "More sorry? You didn't really do nuthin'."

Clay stared at me for a minute, his eyes getting wider and his expression telling me he wanted to say something. "I... I'm hungry. Let's go up the street."

"Okay, Clay." He stood up and we started down the driveway. "Is something wrong?"

Clay just kept walking. We turned left on the road and walked for ten minutes before he sat down in the shade, just barely grabbing my wrist so I'd notice what he did. I sat beside him, the shade feeling good. "What's goin' on, Clay?"

He stared at the road for a long time, not acknowledging my presence. I finally said, "I'm goin' to the picnic. I'm hungry an' I'm hot."

I started to stand, but Clay grabbed my arm. As I was sitting back down he looked at me, a fearful expression on his face. When I sat back down he was silent for a minute, then looked at the ground and said, "I started a lot of the shit you got last year Mike, and I'm really sorry." He looked sideways at me. "I talked to James about this and he's already spreadin' the word. If you get any crap from anybody this year you just let one of us know and we'll end it right there."

I was a little confused. "I thought Jed and Don started all that. I don't remember you bein' involved."

He looked grim. "They stirred things up with the seniors. Buddy Early got the juniors worked up and I did the sophomores. You didn't know 'cause I was too chicken to face you direct. I just kept goadin' everybody else and they did the dirty work."

"Why? What'd I ever do to you?"

"Nuthin'! Ya never did nuthin' to me. You were always a good kid an' I had no call. I should'a been stickin' up for ya 'stead of causin' trouble. Buddy feels the same and he's gonna say sumthin' when he sees ya. I got no excuses Mike, I was bein' an asshole."

I didn't say anything. I was sitting there wondering if a confession like that was an act of love, not sure if I should be pocketing some mulch. I decided it must be. It had clearly been difficult for Clay to do, and if he hadn't told me about his actions I would have gone through life never knowing. I decided to let it go.

I put my hand on Clay's shoulder and he jumped a little, but I just tried to smile. "It's okay, Clay. Thanks for tellin' me."

He looked surprised. "You're not mad?"

"Nah, I ain't mad. You gotta do one thing to make up for it."

"One thing?"

"Yeah, try smilin' once in a while."

He looked at me for a second, then he did smile. "Yeah, Ma says I look like an angry young man all the time. It's just that I think about things an' forget there's people around."

He looked up the road toward the party. There was a mighty lineup of cars and trucks parked along the road. "You ready?"

I nodded and we both stood up. Clay asked, "So you're hangin' with Anton now? What's he like?"

"I think he's pretty cool. He's a real artist, ya know!"

He was surprised. "Anton is? I thought he was just a little hillbilly."

I was ashamed. "That's what I thought, but he's really good. He drew a picture of Kevin Anderson that was so real it made Patty cry. He carves these birdhouses that look like real houses." I looked at Clay. "You should talk to him. He's a pretty cool kid to know."

"I'm surprised, but I love art. Someday I wanna go to a big city an' see some real museums. I can see a lot of stuff on the Internet, but lookin' at pictures of pictures ain't like seein' the real thing."

"You have the Internet? Lucky. We don't even have a computer."

"Y'all can come over if ya wanna try it. I'm on it all the time."

"Whattya do on there?"

"Mostly games and chat with friends. It's way fun!"

I looked at Clay. "My brother says it's all porn."

Clay smiled. "Yeah, that's there too. I got some pictures once, but my Dad found 'em an' barred me for three months. Now he checks up on me all the time. It's still fun. I play games with people all 'round the world. It's real good sometimes for homework, too."

I was jealous. I'd been on the Internet lots of times with Jack. We never got in any trouble because the computer was in the kitchen and he wasn't allowed to use it when his folks weren't home, but we always found something interesting to do. When we were turning into the Denson's yard I decided it was high time to mount a new plea for a computer with my parents.

Clay and I were both hungry, so we split up to find our parents and their coolers. Most people seemed to be in the water, and when I found our lawn chairs they were empty. I extracted two hamburgers from the cooler and headed to the grills, wondering if I'd get sick if I didn't bother cooking them.

Hector Cassarino was there with his little sister tending a bunch of hot dogs. He was a kid I didn't understand. His father was rich and famous, but Hector never seemed to socialize much. He wasn't as bad as Anton, but he kept to himself a lot. His socializing always seemed to come in spurts, then he'd be alone again. He was likeable enough, just hard to figure out.

"Hi Hec, Hi Nydia!"

"Hey Mike," they said together.

I tossed my burgers on the grill. "Ya get your license yet, Hec?"

"Next month, if I pass. Man, I can't wait!"

"Ya gettin' your own car?"

He grinned. "That was the deal! I made the honor roll all last year, so new car here I come."

That sounded exciting. "What kind ya gettin'?"

He shook his head. "I can't decide. I like the Jeep, but it's not much fun in winter. I want something my friends can fit in, but I don't want a floatin' boat either. I got a stack of car magazines a foot high and I still don't know. Maybe an Outback."

Nydia was hugging my leg, so I picked her up and held her against my side. I got a wet kiss on the cheek for my effort, then looked back at Hec. "I wish I had your problems."

He started putting his hot dogs on a paper plate. "Yeah, I guess I'm lucky enough huh?" He finished with the hot dogs, then started to turn. "Come on little sister." I felt Nydia slide down to the ground and smiled when she waved, then the two of them just walked away.

My hamburgers flared, so I flipped them and lowered the lid on the grill. Clay showed up at my side and opened it back up, dropping two fat sausages on the grate, then closing the grill cover. I asked, "What's that?"


My throat constricted a little and I backed away to get a plate and some buns. It was probably perfectly delicious, but it definitely needed a new name. The first time I had bratwurst I liked it until somebody said what it was. Why anybody would call something they wanted you to like wurst was beyond me. I went back and put my burgers on the buns, then hit the table with the fixings and finally where all the pots of different foods were lined up. I was scooping up some potato salad when I smelled the aroma from what Mrs. Wolfe had been cooking.

I found it and it was okra gumbo, made thick with rice. I wasn't nuts about okra, but it smelled fantastic so I ladled up as much as I could fit on my plate, then went looking for a place to sit. I saw an open spot at a table and hurried over to it, only to find myself across from Ann Nettleton. She was looking fine in a two piece bathing suit. I put my plate down and started to sit, saying, "Hi, Ann! It's a warm day, huh?"

She looked at me and giggled. "It surely is warm, Mike." She laughed a little. "What exactly are you trying to accomplish with your hair? It's... um... interesting." She reached across the table and put her hand on mine, looking perfectly innocent. "Have they been giving you electrical shocks?"

Spoken like a true southern lady. I'm sure I blushed every shade of red that had ever been invented, then a few new ones for good measure. When she saw that she giggled again and said, "I'm sorry. I was just teasing." She smiled demurely. "I can help you with that if you want. I cut Daddy's hair and both my brothers."

She still had her hand on mine and I was torn. It felt good there, but I was starving to death and really needed it to eat with. I decided to be the southern gentleman myself. "That sounds fine, Miz Nettleton. Please don't assume any rudeness on my part, but I need both hands for just a moment..." I couldn't keep it up. I laughed and said, "I'm freakin' starvin' here, Annie." I slipped my hand out from under hers and grabbed my fork, scooping up a big bunch of gumbo which, of course, dribbled down my chin as I lifted the fork to my mouth. I hadn't thought to get a napkin, and just when I was going to wipe the juice off with the back of my hand Ann reached over and did it with her napkin.

I suddenly felt a new kind of heat. Tony's mother didn't skimp on the hot stuff and my ears were suddenly red again for a whole new reason. I hadn't gotten anything to drink, so I tried a mouthful of potato salad to cool things down a little. It worked pretty well, and when I swallowed it I started to get up explaining that I needed something to drink.

Ann smiled and said, "Nonsense. You eat your food and I'll get you something. Iced tea? Lemonade?"

I looked at the middle of her chest and said, "Iced tea, I guess. Better make it two. This gumbo is HOT!"

When she turned to go I followed her with my eyes until she disappeared behind somebody. Annie had a good body and she had poise. I suddenly found myself feeling something that had been missing since Jack died. It was a sexual attraction, this time for Ann Nettleton instead of Jack, a girl instead of a boy. I picked up a burger and took a big bite, thinking as I chewed. There were plenty of good looking boys around me... Pat, Nels, Jed, even Anton and Clay in their own way, and James was downright beautiful. I felt nothing for any of them except as friends, but five minutes with Ann had me wondering about it all again. I was so lost in thought that I almost bit off my thumb before I realized I'd already eaten both burgers.

Ann reappeared, a can of iced tea in each hand and a big cup clenched between her teeth. The view of her going had been fine, but watching her come towards me actually caused movement between my legs. She put the cans down, then took the cup from her mouth and set it near my plate. It was full of shaved ice. She handed me a couple of paper napkins.

She sat down and looked at my plate, the only thing remaining being the gumbo. She smiled in surprise and said, "I guess you were hungry. Can I try some of that? I like spicy!"

I moved some things, then slid my plate to the middle. We both took forkfulls and put them in our mouths, practically eyeball to eyeball. Ann chewed and swallowed, then sat back fanning herself with her napkin. "Woo - ooh! That is hot!" Her eyes were watering and she grabbed blindly for my cup and I held it out to her. She took a gulp in a very unladylike fashion, then smiled and put the cup down between us where we both could reach. She fanned herself again and said, "I like that! Who brought it, do you know?"

I liked it too. It was like most hot stuff. The first mouthful hurt, but after that it was just delicious.

Anton's mother made hot stuff the right way too, the way my father had learned from Andy. Hot things went into it, not hot powders. That way you had separation and could taste the sweet things in there along with the bland things and the hot things. It still made it hard to talk, but I managed to croak out, "Mrs. Wolfe. You know... Anton's mother."

She took another bite. "Really? Clay said you're going around with Anton now."

I said, "Yeah. I call him Tony and he's a good kid. I like him."

She twisted her napkin. "I like his real name better. I just wish he wasn't so shy. I think he's adorable!"

I sat up straighter. "Tony? I mean, Anton?"

"Oh, yes! He has those big puppy dog eyes. He's sooooo... cute! I could just hug him to death!"

Huh? Tony? What about me? I had my chance, so I took it. "Um, you're cute yourself. Pretty, I mean. I think your real pretty, Annie."

She looked at me, then smiled curiously. "And you're a hunk, Michael Waters. Too bad...." she trailed off.

"Too bad what?"

She stared at me. "I mean too bad..." Her look intensified. "You mean you're not?"

I felt like disappearing. I understood what Ann was getting at, I simply didn't understand myself well enough to give her an honest answer. I had to answer, though. I twisted my own napkin, avoiding her gaze. "I... I dunno, Ann." I looked at her, trying to figure out what it was. The only thing similar to Jack was the hair color, and even that wasn't very close. "I... loved Jack. I still do, and he's a boy. It's just... well, lookin' at you and listenin' to ya talk... well..." I blinked, then finished, "You're real nice and I think..." I hung my head. "I don't know what I think." I lifted my head and smiled the best I could, trying to think of something to say.

I didn't get a chance. Tony came up behind me and said, "There you are! I been lookin' all over." His voice got softer, "Oh, hi Ann. Nice to see you."

I watched Ann smile at him. It didn't seem to be anything special. She said, "Hi yourself, Anton. New clothes?"

Tony said, "Um, yeah. You like 'em?"

She smiled and said in a seductive voice, "Very nice, Anton. Who's your tailor?"

Tony didn't get the joke, just said, "I ain't got no tailor. These are store bought!"

Tony was behind me and I hadn't even looked at him yet, but Ann directed her gaze over my shoulder. "Let me guess. The shirt's from Gap, the jeans are from American Outfitters and the shoes..." she ducked her head under the table, then popped up again, "Athlete's Foot! How'd I do?"

Tony looked at himself. "Good, I guess." He noticed the okra gumbo between us. "Ya didn't eat a lotta that did'ya? You'll have the shits 'til Tuesday!"

Ann and I looked at each other, then burst out laughing. When we calmed down I was going to say something, but she beat me to it. "My, my Anton, you sure have a quaint way with words. Now if Mr. Michael Waters would just slide over a little you might just fit yourself on that bench beside him."

I started to slide over, then Tony said, "I was jes gonna go swimmin'. They got a net set up an' everybody's playin' a game."

I let my ears focus on the sounds coming from the pond and it sounded like people were having a good time. I looked at Ann and asked, "You feel like swimmin'? It's awful hot."

She was a little shiny herself from the combination of the heat of the day and the gumbo. "That sounds like fun. Let me get my towel and I'll meet you at the dock."

Tony said, "I gotta change. I'll meet ya both at the dock," then he hurried off.

I said, "I'll clean up here. See ya in a minute." Ann got up to fetch her towel while I picked up everything and carried it to the trash, then dropped my t-shirt and sneaks on one of our lawn chairs. There was still no sign of my parents or sisters, but when I got to the water I could see why. Most of the town was playing volleyball in the pond, my parents among them. There had to be thirty or more people on each side and it sure looked like they were having fun.

I saw James sitting on the dock with Aaron, so I went and sat beside them. "Hi, guys. Howcum you're not playin'?"

Aaron looked at me and said, "Man, we just got out!" then he looked past me and smiled. "Hi, Ann! We wuz wonderin' where you got off to."

I looked back and Ann was there smiling at the three of us. "I just had a sandwich, then some good spicy gumbo." She looked at the action in the water, then turned back and asked, "What's the score?"

James smiled and said, "Who knows?" He looked past us, "Hey, Anton! You gonna play today?"

I turned around and Tony looked a little embarrassed. "I never played before." He cast a glance at the people playing, then said, "It looks kinda fun, though. I'll play if somebody shows me how."

James gestured and Tony sat beside him. James pointed at the game and said, "Well, you have the net and you have the ball. You hit the ball over the net if it comes to you. If it doesn't come to you, you just stand there and wait for it 'cause maybe next time it will." He grinned. "If somebody on your side gets the ball over the net, then you yell real loud, like yay or something. When someone from the other side gets it over the net, just look mad and yell they're cheating. I think those are the only rules." James glanced in turn at me, Aaron and Ann, "Those are all of 'em, right?"

Aaron and Ann thought James had it pretty well covered, but I stood up behind Tony and said, "There's one rule you forgot. You can't play unless you're in the water!" I pushed Tony in, then jumped in after him, turning to see James and Aaron laughing while Ann jumped in herself.

It was a lot of fun playing in the water. There were so many people on each side that it was pure luck if you actually got a chance to get your hands on the ball. It was tricky, too. The pond didn't have a flat bottom but got deeper the farther out you got like most ponds do. I'm not sure how the net was set up, but it was parallel with the water's surface and perpendicular to the shore. People were a different matter. The youngest and shortest were closest to shore while even the tall guys near the deep end of the net were treading water sometimes.

It didn't matter. People were having fun and laughing up a storm. Most weren't even paying much attention to the action, just yakking with the people around them and occasionally ducking under water to stay cool. I had been in the water for the better part of an hour when I saw a couple of older kids, Rico and Ellis, pulling up to the dock in a canoe. I swam over to them and asked if it was theirs and if I could take it out for awhile. They said it belonged to the Denson's and to help myself.

I took the paddles with me so nobody else could beat me to it and asked Ann if she wanted to go for a ride. She did and Tony overheard me asking. He wanted to go too, and I couldn't say no even though it wasn't what I intended. When we got to the dock, Tony said, "I never been in a canoe before."

I looked at Ann and asked, "Do you know how to paddle one of these things?"

"Well, of course I do. Anton, we'll hold it while you get in the middle, okay?"

He nodded. Ann and I each held an end of the boat while Tony warily climbed in and got himself seated. I held on while Ann got in, waiting to see which way she sat facing so I'd know what to do when I got in. She made her end the bow, so I undid the rope and hopped in and pushed away from the dock.

We paddled lazily across the pond, which was pretty big as ponds go. It was probably a half mile in the direction we were headed, a little more the other way. It had a very irregular shape and a couple of little islands. We were all sitting facing the same direction, so we didn't say much. Tony kept a death grip on the sides of the boat for awhile, then gradually loosened up. Annie was steering, so I called out, "Where we headed?"

She didn't turn around. "Let's go to Blueberry Island."

Fine, I thought. It was the larger of the two islands and I can promise that a blueberry had never grown there. It was big enough to have a little grass and a couple of stunted trees, nothing else. It was mostly a pile of rocks near the far side of the pond from where we were. It was a destination, though, and that seemed like enough. I said, "That's fine by me."

We were paddling lazily, and when we were away from shore I got a view in all directions. I could see thunderheads building up in the West and knew that we wouldn't be able to spend the rest of the day on the pond. Right then the sun felt really hot, so I picked up my stroke a little. Ann was just steering and I was doing the work, not that I minded.

Tony looked over his shoulder at me and grinned. "This is nice."

I smiled back at him, wondering what he'd think if he knew Annie thought he was cute. I started wondering about myself too. I was really confused about what I was feeling for Ann. I had spent the best part of two years thinking I was gay, then just a few minutes with her had me feeling an attraction that I didn't think existed in me anymore, and it was for a girl. Annie was pretty and she was easy to talk to, plus she had a sense of humor that I liked.

I was embarrassing myself just thinking it. I wanted to touch her, to hold her hand, to bring her to all the places I thought were special. I knew I wanted to do other things with her, but I fought off the thoughts. I knew what those things were, but I didn't have a clue how to proceed and I was far from sure that I should. I found myself looking forward to Monday's counseling session. Dr. Service might be able to earn his fee for once if he could help me with this one.

I also thought that I could talk to Dave and Tim about it, maybe they'd know something. I felt totally naive about everything right then. Could a guy have a gay relationship for a long time and then just not be gay anymore? Was it because Jack was dead and I didn't want to compare other guys? Was I just some freak of nature? I had just spent a week feeling like I wasn't crazy anymore, now it was back in full force. I had to be nuts, had to have some mental defect that made me different than everyone else.

I wished I was alone but I wasn't and I couldn't be, at least not for a while. We were approaching the island, and that made me change my thoughts to not wrecking Mr. Denson's boat on the rocks. I yelled to Annie, "Pull left!" which she did immediately. "Paddle with your hands and watch for rocks."

Slowly and carefully we got the canoe near shore, then I jumped out and pulled it in. We dragged it onto the grass, then sat there with Ann between me and Tony. Except for an occasional distant hoot from the party it was quiet and peaceful. Nobody said anything, so when the oppressive heat got to me I stood up and walked back into the pond, just sitting in shallow water. I was soon joined by Ann and Tony, and this time I was in the middle. After a while Ann leaned into me. I put my arm around her back, then after a minute I put my other one around Tony and he leaned against me too. For those few minutes I felt some kind of serenity and was mentally shoveling love mulch into big canvas sacks.

It was interrupted by the sound of thunder in the far distance. I said, "We better go," and got no arguments. We quickly got the canoe back into the water and started paddling with intent as the sky darkened around us. We made it to the dock just when the wind was kicking up. I told Annie and Tony to go while I tied up the boat. When I was done I looked at the sky and decided I had time for one more plunge into the water. I dove off the deep end of the dock and swam to shore.

People were hurrying everywhere, most putting things away, a few getting in their cars and leaving. I looked at the house and the screen porch was packed with people. I kept walking out to the road, then turned toward my house. My bike was at the picnic somewhere because James had rode it from my house. I didn't care, I'd find it in the morning. Right then I had to be alone, had to write to Jack, had to think about a lot of things.

I was halfway home when the first raindrops hit, big fat ones but not many. It had just started when a car tooted its horn next to me. I looked and it was Tim, so I hopped in.

"Where's Dave? Ain't he with you?"

Tim looked a little worried. "No, he went to buy some steaks and never came back. I'm hoping he just went home. It was a while ago."

I said, "Don't worry. These things just blow through here. The sun'll be back out in an hour."

Tim didn't say anything and in another few minutes we were pulling into his driveway. He started to look really worried. "His car's not here! He should've been back an hour ago!"

"He's probably yakkin' it up with somebody." I was trying to calm Tim. "That man can sure talk!"

Tim smiled, still looking pensive. "You got that part right. Oh, I meant to ask but I haven't seen you to talk to. Our nephews should be here later with the rest of my things. They're a little older than you, but would you mind spending a little time with them tomorrow and Monday? I don't know what goes on around here besides picnics."

I hated to disappoint him but, "Nothin' goes on around here 'less somebody makes it go on. How old are they? What're their names."

Tim pulled the car onto the grass behind the house, explaining that when his nephews got there they'd need the whole driveway. We climbed out and ran through the rain the few steps to the house. As soon as we got inside Tim said, "They're Tim and Dave too. Timmy's twenty two and Davy's seventeen."

"They got named after you guys or somethin'?

Tim grinned. "Yes, they did. They're great kids, so will you show them around some tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure. I don't mind."

We stood there watching the storm through the screen door. It wasn't a direct hit, apparently missing us by a whole county. Dave still hadn't shown up and Tim was pacing around all worried. The rain had tapered off when I heard a vehicle pull into the driveway. I called Tim and said, "Somebody's here. It's probably Dave!"

Tim came right over, but the person who showed up was Joe Goldman. He looked like he was trying to grow a beard, but he smiled his usual when he pulled the door open. He reached for my hair and asked, "Get struck by lightnin' did ya?" I started to laugh while he held his hand out to Tim. "Hey, it's Tim, the famous reconstructionist! I'm Joe Goldman. You got somethin' of mine and I got somethin' of yours."

Tim seemed hesitant, but he held his hand out to shake and smiled. "I know I have your duner, what do you have of mine?"

Joe grinned his fiercest. "Your boyfriend, I think. He's drunk as a skunk!"

Tim looked shocked. "Davy's drunk? Where .. I mean how? He doesn't drink much!" He stared at Joe with what I thought was fear in his eyes. "You brought him here?"

Joe smiled and held his hand to Tim's shoulder. "Nobody warned him about Adolph. I went to get some pork chops and found 'em both in the meat cooler with an empty Jaegermeister jug. Ol' Adolph's a good meat man, but you don't wanna be there Saturday and get lured into that cooler." He looked at Tim. "You ever had Jager'?"

He pronounced it 'Yager'. Tim shook his head, making Joe grin even more.

"Well, it's somethin' you drink after it's been cold for a week. It tastes awful, but not at all like booze!"

Tim was nodding quickly, like 'get on with it'.

Joe just smiled more brightly. "It goes down easy, but it's pretty deadly. You want him back? If not, I'm goin' to recycling tomorrow and he's already in the truck."

Tim stared at him for a second, then burst out laughing. He was too much fun to watch when he laughed like that. It got me and Joe both going, then his son Scott started laughing from outside. I didn't even know he was there, just recognized his voice. He had to be laughing at Tim's laugh, not what had been said.

When we all calmed down a teary eyed Tim looked at Joe and said, "I think I'll keep him. How bad is it?"

Joe's smile got softer. "He's sleeping." He pushed the screen door open and started out. "I got him in the truck okay, but I need help gettin' him down."

Tim and I followed him out. Scotty was standing in front of the truck, still laughing. I noticed that Joe's truck had been painted a new color. He called the old one 'obnoxious blue', but this was kinda pretty. I asked him what the color was. He said, "It's supposed to be teal, but it's pretty bright." He looked at me with a question on his face. "You like it?"

"I like it a lot!"

I was just an old Chevy dump truck, but I knew that of all the vehicles Joe had this was the important one. Dave was slumped against the passenger-side door sound asleep. Joe told Tim and me to wait a second, then climbed into the driver's side and grabbed hold of Dave's shirt and yelled, "Okay, open the door!"

We did, and an awakening Dave dropped into Tim's arms. I helped him get his feet to the ground, then he groggily stood by himself. He looked stupidly at the ground until Tim lifted his chin to make him focus. Dave smiled lazily, "Timmy! I'm all shitfaced!"

Tim was kind. "I can see that."

Dave asked, "You know what I like?"

We all just stared at him.

"Them mothballs!" He had a goofy grin. "I swear, I just drank a quart of 'em!" He was staggering. "Hoo!"

When Dave started to tip over both Tim and Joe held him up. They led him into the house and laid him down on the sofa in the living room. Tim looked at him with a soft smile and said, "Goodnight, Dave," then turned to Joe and said, "Thanks. I was really gettin scared that something happened. You want a beer?"

Joe smiled and nodded. I don't know what happened to Scott, but I headed to Jack's room.

Dear Jack,

What would you think of me if said I think I like a girl?


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