Jack in the Box

Chapter 16

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

I must have been staring, because Tony suddenly looked uncomfortable. "You okay, Mike?"

His voice startled my brain into gear. "Huh? Oh yeh, I'm fine." I smiled, "These pictures are awesome, Tony. Every single one of 'em is amazing! You should bring 'em to the picnic and let people see."

Tony looked surprised and embarrassed at the same time. "Heck, they're just pictures. It's only pencil." His face brightened, "I can't wait 'til Tim gets his chalks and stuff unpacked. I get to use color at school, but I gotta always draw what they want." He grinned at me, "Just you wait 'til I draw Jack in color! Then you'll see!"

I was already seeing color. I fished through the pictures and selected one of a girl at school. She was walking down the hall past the lockers bouncing a tennis ball off the floor with her racket. I leaned into Davy and held it in front of him. "See this girl? What color's her hair?"

Davy didn't hesitate, "Brown, light brown."

"What color are her eyes?"


I looked up at Tony, "See? We can already tell."

Tony asked, "How? I mean why? How can you tell what color somethin' is?" He came over behind us to see which drawing we were looking at. "Come on Mike, you're kiddin' me, right?"

I looked back at him, "I ain't kiddin' Tony. Davy don't know these people. Here, look!" I fished through until I found another picture of a person and handed it to Davy. "Tell me what you see, I'll keep my mouth shut."

Davy took it and looked. "Cheerleader. Cute, blonde, hazel eyes, NICE tits!" He looked back at Tony, "Are they really like that?" then he looked back at the picture. "She's cute, but I bet she's a bitch. There's a smile on her face, but it's not in her eyes." He looked at me, "How'd I do?"

I said, "Almost perfect. What's her name?"

"I dunno."

"Her name's Harriet, wanna know why?"

Davy looked me warily, "I'll bite, why?"

I grinned and started to move across the couch. "Because her mama named her Harriet!"

He still managed to get my arm with a hard elbow. "Bastard!"

He laughed, then I felt hands around my throat. Tony was laughing, "You're funny! That was a good one!"

We all laughed for a bit, then decided we'd better get going if Davy was going to see any of the good parts of town.

Tony packed up his pictures and brought them to the other room, then came back for us.

When we went through the kitchen to leave, Tony's mother handed him a canvas knapsack. "Here's your bathin' suit and a towel and somethin' to chomp on. There's enough for all o' ya'."

We all thanked her and said goodbye. When we were getting on the bikes I was trying to think of the best spot nearby to show Davy. Tony said, "Wanna go to Winsome Falls? We could show Davy the viaduct on the way, then cut over to the picnic from there."

They were good choices. I yelled, "Let's go!" then pedaled away. I had barely ridden my bike since Jack died, and had only lazed along the few times I had. I suddenly felt the old sense of freedom coursing through me and really started to crank it. It was hot, but the self-generated breeze countered the exertion it took. I was once again flying low, Michael Waters in his own element, paying no attention to the road itself, just the things alongside it. Yeah! Jah! Wow! Yay!

It didn't take long to discover that I was alone. I slowed and turned, finding Davy and Tony a good eighth of a mile back. I felt a little foolish when I saw how Tony was struggling. "Stop, Tony! You're in too high a gear, let's do it right."

I stopped beside him and showed him how to work the gears again, then got him started in the right one. We started moving and I kept yelling 'SHIFT!" trying to coordinate him with me. Before long we were all flying along, grinning to beat the wind. Tony was doing great bicycle wise, but all of his concentration was on the road and what it took to keep him there. I yelled, "The road ain't goin' anywhere! Look around, man!"

Tony looked up, wobbling dangerously for a second, then kept his head up. He had either lost his hat or stowed it. His sunglasses were on and he started to look around and smile. Mr. Goldman had always used the term 'Johnny Dangerously' for me, but I suddenly felt that I was looking at the real one. Tony's eyes were hidden by his shades. Even so, I could tell that he'd just found a whole new perspective on the world just from the expression showing on his mouth. I was looking at things myself, wondering if Tony could capture images at this speed.

We got to the old rail spur that led to the viaduct. There was a dirt track beside it that you could ride a bike on for a while, but it didn't last long. We dismounted and Davy asked, "Where's this go?"

I wised off, "Don't ask so many questions! We're gonna show ya some secret places, so don't go tellin' all your yankee friends. Next thing ya know they'll be buildin' condos out here."

I was in the lead, and when we got to what was called the viaduct we stopped and dropped our bikes. It was really a stone arch railroad trestle that bridged a narrow gap in the earth, a gap surrounded by light gray rocks and bottomed by a pool of deep water that spilled over smooth rocks and continued as a brook.

I knew people dived here, I'd seen the older kids do it, but I had never gotten up the nerve. The water was deep enough, it just wasn't straight down. It was out and down. To avoid certain death on the smooth boulders thirty feet below, you had to be able to jump probably eight feet away from the edge first. Jed Anderson and Don Hollander did it all the time, and I'd seen a few other people try at least one time. I had never personally heard of anyone being hurt there, I just knew it had to have happened.

We looked for awhile, explaining to Davy that people actually jumped sometimes, then headed down the trail to the falls. Winsome Falls weren't big in anybody's book and, in fact, there wasn't a heck of a lot of water there, but a prettier spot would be hard to find. The little stream that fed the falls got trapped in what looked like a wide swimming pool of granite at the top, just inches deep. Where the water pushed over the edge of the stone created the falls, and it came over just here and there through lower spots in the stone. The water collected into a smaller pool maybe ten feet down, then poured more rapidly into the stream below, where it just flowed away. There was a ledge beside the lower pool, and sitting there always felt real close to Heaven itself, the sound of the water splashing off the rocks mesmerizing.

We sat down there, our legs hanging over, and all of us were smiling. Tony dug into the bag his mother had given him and handed us sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. They were peanut butter and jam on homemade bread, and they were delicious. I looked at Tony, "Your mother make the jam?"

He was eating and just nodded. When he got his mouth unglued he said, "Yeah, the bread and the peanut butter too."

Davy looked surprised. "You make your own peanut butter?"

Tony was looking dreamily at the falls, "Yup, we make our own everything."

Dave said, "Well, it's really good."

Tony grinned and said, "I'll tell Mama you said so. You want some water?" He pulled out a plastic bottle and took a swig, then handed it to Davy. "We make our own water too." He started laughing at his own joke.

Tony was inches from me. I reached over and put my hand over his shoulder, landing it just the other side of his head, then pulled him to me and whispered, "We're friends, right?"

He leaned into me, feeling much less bony than he ever had. "Yeah, we're friends if you want. I never had my own company come over before. That was neat."

This kid was always making me think about things! I'd always had friends dropping by, at least before I got involved with Jack. I called them my friends, but I never felt any connection with them, they were just kids to play with or ride bikes with. Those same kids tried hard with Jack too, and just got pushed away like me. After a while we all just left Jack alone. Now I learned that I was Tony's first company. Ever.

Ignored. That's what Tony had been all his life. Oh sure, everybody was aware of his presence, it just wasn't wanted. A skinny, bald kid with big eyes who talked funny and wore homemade clothes. Who wanted to associate with that?

I sure hadn't before, but sitting on that rock with him leaning against me, knowing his artistic abilities and that he was no more strange than anybody else, I started to feel... desire. NO! I can't let that happen, I don't want that to happen.

Tony stifled my thoughts quickly. He dug into his backpack and pulled out a bag. "I got cherries, want some?"

Three hands dug into the bag at once, and the delicious little fruits were soon the object of an unofficial spitting contest as we tried to best each other with the pits. The only sounds heard for the next few minutes were "Pih" and "Fuh" and "Ptooie" as we each tried our best long distance techniques.

Davy won easily as his little 'pih' sent the pits to the opposite side of the little canyon, where you could see them hitting the rocks. Tony was next with his 'fuh' technique and I was a lame last with 'ptooie', but it was fun. I was definitely asking Davy for spitting lessons the next time we were alone.

We walked back up top and took our sneaks off to put our feet in the cool water, then eventually headed to the picnic. Davy hadn't said much, but he was obviously enjoying himself and his new status as the best pit spitter in Morton.

The shortcut to the Denson's house was a fire road through the woods. It was convenient but bumpy and boring, just cutting through a woods of scrub pines. It was hard to talk because the bumps always made your mouth click shut or made you emphasize something you didn't intend to.

When we got to the Denson's and were looking for a place to stash our bikes, we were greeted by Buster, who was wandering loose. It was the first time I'd seen him in the daytime, and he was an awesome sight. He walked up to Tony, who had his back turned, and nudged him in the butt with his snout. Tony giggled thinking it was me or Davy fooling around, but when he saw us both beside him he turned around, only to jump back and gasp. "What the heck is that?"

Davy said, "Meet Buster. He's my uncle's dog, and he's a funny guy."

Tony reached out his hand to tickle Buster's muzzle. The dog sighed and closed his eyes while Tony giggled. "I never seen a dog this big! What kind is he?"

Davy grinned, "Nobody knows for sure, probably Rottweiler and Shepherd mix. My uncles call him by the latin term, Canis Colossus."

We started to laugh at that, then Clay walked over. "Hey Mike!" He was smiling and it turned into a grin. "Annie's here, and she brought her machete if ya want your hair chopped off."

He looked around, "Hey Anton, you never said you were an artist. I wanna see your stuff someday. You, um, wanna show it to me?"

Tony seemed pleasantly surprised at the thought, smiling his shy smile and saying, "Really? Ma's bringin' some pictures here if she remembers. If she don't you can come over after if ya want."

Davy stirred, which reminded me to introduce him. "Um, Clay? This is Davy Loomis. This is Clay Nettleton." They both smiled and greeted each other while I continued, "Davy's just here for a few days." I suddenly remembered our vague talk about night fishing and looked at Davy. "You wanna try some fishin' tonight? If it don't rain I mean." I turned to face Clay and Tony. "Davy never went fishin' before."

I turned back to Davy. "We can go in the mornin' if ya want. Heck, we can go right here."

Davy seemed hesitant, so Tony and Clay started telling him what a good time he'd have. Davy smiled at the pressure they were putting on him and finally decided that he'd go. Clay ran off to find other kids to join us. I watched him. He was in a bathing suit and it reminded me that I didn't bring one. "Davy, you got a swim suit?"

He didn't even realize that there was a pond not a hundred yards away. "No, they got a pool?"

I smiled, "Better. Let's go to my house, I'll lend ya one."

He looked at himself, "I have shorts on. I don't wanna ride all the way back there for a bathing suit."

I laughed, "You're just turned around, man. It's right down the street."

"Oh. Let's go, then. I could go for a swim!"

I said, "Tony, if ya see Annie tell her I'll be right back, okay?"

Tony grinned and nodded, then Davy and I started back down the street. When we got to my house there was much activity in the driveways. Tim and Dave were unloading the big van with help from Nick and Scott and their sons, as well as Timmy. My parents and sisters were in our driveway loading our car with lawn chairs and coolers. Nobody had spotted Davy and I, so we surreptitiously dropped our bikes out of sight on the front lawn and went inside through the front door. It was maybe the second or third time in my memory that the front door had been opened for anything besides putting the storm up in the fall and the screen in the spring.

We went to my bedroom and I picked up the bathing suit I'd worn yesterday from the floor, then dug one out of a drawer for Davy. He wasn't shy. He kicked off his sneaks and dropped his shorts and underpants in one motion. A rush of embarrassment came over me and I turned away, not without seeing him naked from the waist down. It may sound weird, but seeing other guys changing clothes had never interested me in any way. I think it was just Davy's abruptness that got to me. I certainly hadn't been embarrassed about the prospect of changing with him in the room, just the fact that he had gotten naked in front of me before I even had a chance to turn around.

I said, "Gee, do you always just drop your pants like that? Couldn't you turn around first?"

I heard Davy giggle. "What, you wanna see my butt instead?"

I laughed too, and started taking off my clothes. "I don't wanna see anything!"

He muttered, "Boy, some queer you are."

"What's that mean?"

"Nuthin. Sorry."

When I sat on the bed to put my sneaks back on Davy was looking at me. "I'm sorry I said that, Mike. I was outta line."

I shrugged, "It don't matter. Hey, how'd Buster get to the picnic if everybody's still here?"

Davy grinned. "You'll get used to Buster. He takes walks when he feels like it, there's no keepin' that dog tied. Back home you'd run into him all over town, and it's a pretty big town. My uncles used to get all nervous when he took off, now it's just what he does. He always finds his way back. You'll see, everybody in this town's gonna know him before the month is out."

"That's funny. I bet nobody bothers him, either. Um, so what do you think of Tony?"

"Tony? I like him. You guys have been friends a long time, huh?"

"Uh..." We were ready, and we snuck out the front door and rode our bikes toward town, where we could turn around and just fly past the driveway. It worked, and as soon as we were out of sight we slowed down and I told Davy the short saga of my friendship with Tony.

He was very surprised that we hadn't been friends forever because that was the way we seemed to him. He couldn't believe that we had been recent enemies, but that was partly because he'd never had an enemy himself.

I told him what I could, but couldn't bring myself to tell him about the desires that seemed to be awakening in me, the desire that I'd felt briefly for Tony, for Annie, and for Dave himself. I couldn't explain them to myself, so how could I think about mentioning them to others? When we were almost back to the picnic I saw something that I didn't expect, Jed's car pulled up onto the grass in a way only he'd park it. I got really excited and yelled out, "Jed's here!" then left Davy in the dust.

I dropped my bike as soon as I got into the yard, then started looking for Jed. I asked everybody I saw if they knew where he was but, although people had seen him nobody knew where he was right then. I was going to go check out where all the chairs were when Jimmy Nettleton came up saying that Annie was looking for me, so I went with him to find her. She was sitting on the ground in the shade with a couple of little girls who started giggling when we approached.

Annie looked up and giggled herself. "There you are, Mr. Waters!" She smirked, "I brought my barberin' tools if you're interested."

Annie had traded in yesterday's two-piece in favor of a bikini, a bright yellow one. I was standing and she was sitting. She had an all-over tan and I could see right into... well, never mind. From what I could see, which was a lot of skin, she didn't have a blemish anywhere. Her eyes were bright, her teeth were white, and when she moved her head the sunlight played tricks with her hair, which seemed to go from tawny to red to blonde with every change in position.

I felt myself thinking 'screw the boys', but what I did was blush. "Um, sure. If you really want to."

She smiled as she started to stand. "Let's go in the house then. I need electricity."

I reached over and helped her up, special feelings coursing through me as our hands met. I didn't really feel shy with her, I just didn't know what to do. "Clay said you do this with a machete?"

She laughed. "Only him. That way I don't have to touch his ugly head."

Dumb me. "You think he's ugly? I was kinda hopin' you'd do my hair somethin' like his."

She faced me and reached her hands into my hair, pulling and tugging it. She smiled and said, "That'll work, just not quite as short. You have a natural wave and it'd be a shame to waste that."

She had been looking above my eyes at my hair, but after she said that she dropped her eyes so that they were looking right into mine. We both blinked but otherwise held the gaze. I had no idea of what she was thinking, but the last person who had been able to just get me to look into eyes had been Jack, and the feelings I had right then were much the same as I had for Jack. I stared like that for a second, then refocused and looked at her whole face. Despite the tan, perhaps because of it, she had tiny freckles on the bridge of her nose. I guess what makes somebody attractive physically is proportion, and Annie's face had proportions that were keepers. The rest of her seemed proportionate too, nice everything, not too much of anything.

I knew that Annie had dated Al Dominguez, I'd just never heard anything other than the fact. Al had been there the day before, but seemed to have his attention focused on Sara Quinlan. As far as I knew Ann was free. I was also free, free in that respect. Reality said I could do anything I wanted, but respect and longing for Jack held me in check. I felt things for Annie, I knew I did, but I didn't understand them, didn't have a clue as to how to move forward.

While we were walking to the house I found myself looking around almost desperately for Jed to rescue me. My feelings had already caused me to ditch Davy in a sea of strange faces, to forget about what Tony wanted to do, forget about arranging plans for fishing that night. My desire to talk to Jed was almost desperate, but Annie was on the main stage and I followed her into the house with my eyes wide open. Actually, her perfect butt in a yellow bikini had my eyes more than wide open. For the moment anyhow, I wasn't confused. Just curious as to where this was all headed and curious about the flesh beneath that bikini.

We got to the kitchen and Annie got her barber kit from a box on the floor, then Mrs. Denson deciphered what was about to take place and cried, "Oh no, child! You ain't cuttin' that mop off in this kitchen, no way! You march your little fannies outside to do that. Here! I'll get you an extension cord!" She disappeared for a moment and returned with a big orange extension cord. "Annie, I'll plug this in and stick it out the window. You carry it to the other end and watch which way the wind's blowin' when you get there."

She put her pudgy hands on her wide hips and said, "If I find any blondie hairs in the food I cooked you two are gonna pick it off hair by hair. Got me?"

We both shied off meekly, but started giggling when we got outside. Mrs. Denson was a big person, one not to be crossed. She was really a saint in her own way, the first to understand things that other people didn't, the first there with a platter of food when somebody died, the first to take up a collection when that somebody's family didn't have enough to get by on. After the accident she held me for almost an hour before my parents showed up at the hospital. I will never, ever forget her scent, her softness.

I went back to the window to get the extension cord, then walked it out to its full length. I went back for a chair for me, and Mrs. Denson gave me a bed sheet so I wouldn't get all itchy.

Annie started, big buzzing sounds coming from her clippers. I was trying not to move my head and hair was flying everywhere, lots of it. We were a few minutes into it when I saw Sammy, Scott Goldman's son, come running past me being chased by another boy. Sammy caught a toe on a root and went down colossally. He came up crying and bleeding from the chin. Annie pulled her hands from my head and I jumped up, shedding the sheet, and ran to Sammy. I knew him well, and he wasn't a crybaby.

"What's wrong, Sammy?"

He wailed, "My arm! I broke my arm!"

I rolled him onto his back and said, "Stay here!" I looked at Ann, "Stay with him, I'll find his folks!"

I didn't get far. I stood up and headed into the crowd only to find Joe and Marty running my way. Their parental tuning had let them hear Sammy's cries over all the other noise. Joe yelled, "Where is he? What happened?"

I said, "This way. He fell and says he broke his arm."

When we got to where Sammy was he was giggling at something Annie had said. They both looked up and Sam said, "Hey Dad! I broke my freakin' arm!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure! Look!" He raised his arm and his hand and wrist were swelling rapidly. Mrs. Denson was already there and had cleaned Sammy's face and put a band-aid on his chin. She ran inside and came back with a towel wrapped around ice cubes, which she applied to the swelling and had him hold in place with his other hand.

Marty bent down and kissed him, "Poor baby," then she looked at Joe. "I'll take him to the clinic. You stay and look after Missy and Scott."

Joe and Marty both helped Sammy to his feet, then Joe knelt and gave him a careful hug, whispering, "I love you, kid. You'll be okay, just be good and listen to the doc."

"I will, Daddy." He said that in a little voice, then huffed up to his usual loud volume, "You be good too, Dad. I'll be back!"

We watched them walk away, and I picked up the sheet and went to sit back down. Annie looked at me and started to giggle, then she put her hand over her mouth and started to laugh. I knew it had to be my hair, so I got up and looked at my reflection in a window. I had to laugh too. When Sammy fell down Annie had worked her way all around the sides of my head but hadn't gotten to the top. I looked like a damn carrot or something, and it was pretty funny.

I sat back down and let her continue, my lap filling with hair. When she finished with the electric shears she started clipping with scissors, only now she was using both hands - one to snip and one to position my head and hold out strands of hair to clip. She was very close. Between her scent and all the touching I was getting aroused. Very much aroused. I checked, and the sheet had me covered in such a way that there was no evidence showing, so I closed my eyes and enjoyed it. When Annie said she was done she went to pull the sheet off me and I only managed to get hold of it at the last possible second to avoid total embarrassment.

I was still embarrassed because I had no conceivable excuse for keeping the sheet on, but Annie didn't say anything and started putting her things away. I shook out the sheet with my back to her, the action seeming to relieve some of the pressure in my bathing suit.

I stood like that and folded the sheet the best I could and by the time I finished I was out of trouble. When I turned around she was right there smiling at me. I asked, "How'd it come out?"

She said, "I like it this way, I hope you do. Go inside and find a mirror while I put this stuff away, then we can go for a swim."

I smiled. "Thanks Annie." I looked at the ground and the amount of hair there made me laugh when I thought about it all coming from my own head. It looked like enough to turn Buster into a blonde. I picked up the chair and carried it inside with the sheet, then waited outside the bathroom.

When the door opened, there stood Jed Anderson. He gave me a very startled look. "Mike?" He grinned, "Holy shit, I mean half a Mike!" He spread his arms, and as I fell into his hug he said, "You look great! I've been looking all over for you."

I said, "Don't go anywhere. I just gotta pee and see what my head looks like, I'll be right out."

He laughed and let me go. I looked in the mirror first and liked what Annie had done. Everything was cut to about an inch long, just enough to let the waviness show a little. It really changed my appearance. I used to get buzz cuts in the summer, but hadn't had one since I was ten. Since then I'd always kept my hair pretty long, so it had a good head start already when I stopped getting it cut. I couldn't decide if I looked younger or older, so I settled on older. I peed and washed up, taking one last look at the new me. Then I flew out the door to talk to Jed.

He was standing there waiting and he smiled when I came out. I asked, "How long ya here for? How's college, do you like it? Did ya get a phone yet? Is Patty here with ya? Do ya..."

"Whoa!" he grinned, "slow down a little. You're startin' to sound like the Mike I used to know!"

That surprised me. I smiled, "I am?"

He looked at his watch, then back at me. "Yup, twenty questions in ten seconds. It's you alright!"

I laughed in embarrassment, "That wasn't no twenty questions."

"Well, it was a lot more than one. Let's go outside."

Jed put his arm around my shoulder and we headed outside, me looking at him and trying to detect changes. I guess I was the one who'd changed most since he left for school, and it hadn't been very long anyhow. As soon as we got near the picnic tables we could tell there was something going on. Hardly anybody was in the water, they were all standing behind or sitting at one table. People were jumping up or poking their heads between the people in front of them to see whatever they were looking at.

We had to get close before I figured out what was going on. Tim Atkins was sitting there with the box of Tony's drawings. Everybody else was trying to look over his shoulder as he examined each one, then he'd hold it up until they all got a chance to see it. It was an event, that's for sure.

"Hey, that's me! Wow!"

"That's my farm! Nice job, Anton! I wish it really looked that good."

"Mommy look! It's Jenna!"

I looked around to see where Tony was. I spotted Annie looking excitedly at the pictures. Everybody seemed excited, and it dawned on me that they were hoping their own image would be in the pile somewhere.

Tim had what I can only describe as an awestruck look on his face. He kept looking around, apparently looking for Tony. I finally spotted Tony with Clay and Davy down near the dock involved in an animated discussion. Clay seemed animated anyhow, and that was a first, at least from my own experience with him. Without thinking I took Jed's hand and headed toward them. He didn't protest, so we started walking past the whole town population hand in hand. When we got to where Annie was I stopped and said, "You're not in there if that's what you're thinkin'." I grinned, "Wanna go meet the artist?"

She smiled and nodded, then noticed our hands. Her smile remained and when she turned to go with us she took my other hand. There I was, a boy's hand in one of mine and a girl's in the other.

The funny thing is that at the moment I didn't care at all. I was with two people I liked a lot and didn't really give a hoot what anybody else thought. It would take a while before anybody recognized me with the new hair anyhow.

Davy recognized me pretty fast though. Tony and Clay were talking, but Davy saw us coming and looked at me with the absolute damdest expression I ever saw. I didn't know if it was because of the position I was in or because of my hair, maybe a combination, maybe something else altogether. I guess I'll never know, because it was a smile by the time we got close enough to hear each other. He called, "There you are! Who stole your hair?"

I let go of Jed's hand and felt my head. "Different, huh? Annie stole it; actually I gave it to her." I had a wicked thought. "She's bringin' some to science class and makin' pillows with the rest."

Dave laughed and gave Annie the eye. He held his hand out to her. "Hi Annie, I'm Dave." They both smiled politely and shook hands, then Davy held his hand out to Jed. "Hi, Davy Loomis."

Jed shook hands and introduced himself. Tony and Clay still seemed oblivious to our presence, and from what I could overhear Clay was trying to convince Tony that he should be world famous. Jed interrupted them by pulling Tony joltingly into a hug. Jed had tears in his eyes. "Thanks Anton, that picture of Kevin is really beautiful. It's just like... I don't know... it's almost like he's back in the house again." He kissed Tony's frizzy head, "You're really somethin' else, you know that?"

Clay chimed in, "That's what I'm tryin' to tell him. He's really somethin' else! Mikey said he's an artist, but I never expected somethin' like that! He should open his own museum."

Tony seemed to be embarrassed by Clay's enthusiasm. I looked at him standing there in just a white bathing suit, actually wondering where it came from because it looked brand new. He was so shy it got me embarrassed for him, truthfully. I felt bad for him. I think it was too much change coming too fast and he was feeling overwhelmed with his sudden popularity. I desperately wanted to talk to Jed and spend some time with Annie, but instead I said, "Wanna take the canoe out Tony? Just you and me?"

He smiled nervously and nodded. I looked at Jed and said, "You're not leavin' are ya? I really wanna talk."

He replied, "I'll be here 'til about eight." He smiled gently, "I see what you're doin'. Just go for it, okay?"

I looked at Annie, feeling terrible for leaving her. She smiled and nodded that it was okay as did a sheepish looking Clay. I'm not sure, but I think he got the message that he'd overdone the enthusiasm.

I held the boat while Tony climbed in up front. Knowing he didn't know how to, I handed him a paddle anyhow, figuring it was high time he learned. I steadied the boat and climbed in back, pulled the tie rope, then pushed off. I started paddling, feeling okay doing it by myself. I asked, "You okay, Tony?"

When he turned around to answer he upset us and we dunked. I yelled, "Don't lose the paddle!" and in a few seconds he had it. We could hear laughter from the shore and the easiest thing would have been to swim the boat back, we weren't more than fifty feet away.

Tony was laughing, "Now what?"

"Now we gotta get the boat upside down to get the water out! Let the paddle float and give me a hand."

He let the paddle go and I guided him through the process of upside-downing the canoe, then quickly righting it so it wouldn't pick up too much water. Then I grabbed both paddles and put them in the bottom and pulled the boat to an angle so Tony could half climb in across the seats and hang on while I righted it. When he was in I had him lean to the far side while I climbed in. I was too heavy for him and sent him back into the water. He flew right over my head and belly flopped into the water.

When he surfaced we decided to reverse roles, so I got in first the next time, at least I almost did. Tony couldn't hold the boat and my weight so I went right over the other side.

I came up laughing, then suddenly Jed, Davy and Clay were there to help us. They were all laughing, but they got us into the boat and on our way. I said, "Don't turn around, Tony. Are you okay?"

"I feel like an idiot."

I chuckled. "You ain't the first person to tip over a canoe."

He said, "I'm not?" turning around as he did so. We went over again. This time I managed to keep my ass in the boat, so I crept to the middle and hauled Tony back in after he retrieved his paddle. I decided it was safer to leave him in the bottom in the middle and just paddle by myself.

"People like your pictures. I like your pictures."

Tony was staring straight ahead. "Can I turn around?"


He curled around and put his elbows on the middle seat, cradling his chin in his hands. "What's so special about them? They're just pencil."

I thought for a moment. "It don't matter what you use. You... you draw life! Better than life. Your stuff is so real. That picture of Jack is the best thing I own!"

For the first time, he just looked into my eyes. His were so big that it felt a little bizarre, but I just stared back. "Why's this all feel like some dream, Mike? Nobody ever said nuthin' to me, now everyone is and I don't know what to say back." He stared some more, then got tears in his eyes. "I cain't do this, Mike. I don't know how."

I felt awful, Dave's words about us both being outcasts ringing loudly in my ears. I'd had the best week ever since Jack died, but I still somehow felt like I didn't belong anywhere in particular. Making friends did seem important, it just didn't seem right. I liked it and I didn't at the same time. I liked the people fine, just not the feelings I was getting about and for them. It seemed so unfair to Jack, but Tony was right in front of me and Jack wasn't. Tony's connection with me was different anyhow, it wasn't sexual, not anything I could define. I just felt that I needed him for a friend, needed to be a friend to him.

I put my hand on his bare shoulder. "You'll figure it out, Tony. We'll figure it out." I tried to smile. "I ain't no better than anybody else, we just all paid no attention to you. If it's too much now, it'll die down."

He looked torn. "I like it, Mike, I just ain't used to it. I don't know how to talk to all these people."

I had a feeling that our problem was the same but different. "You want to talk to them?"

"I do, but I don't know how. I ain't used to talkin', Mike. I can talk to you, and Davy seems okay, but everybody else scares me."

I smiled, "Big words?"

"I know the words okay, I just don't know what to say myself. I talk like a dang boondocks hick to start with."

"I like the way you talk. At least it makes sense."

His eyes, always huge, got even larger. "Thanks Mike." He smiled. "I know you, now you know me." His smile right then wasn't his usual little shy one, just a regular smile. That in itself meant a lot to me. It said that Anton Wolfe was comfortable with Michael Waters, the town queer, as a friend. I just grinned.

Tony reached out and touched my hair. "You're almost like me now. You ain't so scary."

I batted his hand away. "Come on, I ain't scary, am I?" I was smiling because I thought it was funny, then I thought about it. "I scared you?"

Tony tilted his head and stared at me. "I don't mean like a ghost scares me, just... I don't know." His look turned earnest, "You just got sumthin' that I don't. You know how to talk to people and I don't. That's what I want, Mike. It's all I want."

I looked down, water sloshing in the bottom of the boat. "Tony?" I looked up. "We want different things. You want to talk to people and sometimes I do, but mostly I just wish they'd shut up. I ain't nobody Tony, but you can be. You got your art and I got... nothin'. You'll be somebody; I never will."

I looked away, "I don't even care. I'll end up in the bible factory like my Dad."

Tony just stared at me, a quizzical expression on his face. "You can't talk like that, Mike. You're already somebody. You're somebody to me, anyhow. You're my first friend, 'n it means a lot, a whole lot." He had a soft smile on his face and tears forming in his eyes.

I leaned forward and hugged him the best I could given the positions we were in. "Thanks, Tony. You mean a lot to me too." I backed up a little, but kept my hands on his shoulders and looked back into those eyes. "I never... I mean... " I was getting tongue tied. "Tony, I can't believe I ever called you mean. You ain't mean, you're just the opposite. You... you're... beautiful, worth something, worth a whole lotta things."

Tony and I just looked at each other. There were a lot of things I should have been doing right then; talking to Jed, entertaining Davy, getting to know Annie, befriending Clay, answering the empty rumble in my stomach with some food. I wanted to do them all, but at the moment I was trying to understand the feelings I was getting from the eye contact I had with Tony and the connection we were developing. I needed to understand what I was feeling, what he was feeling. He said he wasn't gay and, according to James, that meant he wasn't. My feelings weren't really horny ones anyhow, not like with Ann and Davy, but they were strong ones. I just didn't have a word to put to them.

The moment was lost when Tony blinked and said, "I'm gettin' hungry."

My reverie broken, I giggled and said, "Me too." I started to move back and pointed my finger at him. "You stay just exactly where you are. I'll drive."

He smiled hopefully, "You'll show me someday, right?"

I picked up the paddle and got us moving, then smiled back at him. I suddenly realized what my feelings had been a few moments ago. I was smiling at a friend. Not a girlfriend, not a boyfriend, not an object of desire, just a friend. It was a different feeling kind of bond for me, a nice one. We could do things together, share things together, maybe even love each other in a way. It was brand new for both of us, but we'd figure it out together.

I could tell that Tony was feeling exactly the same thing, don't ask me how, but it was just something I knew for sure. Our smiles turned to grins and I finally said, "If you ever call me 'buddy' or somethin' lame like that I'll hafta break your arm!"

He laughed happily. "Yeah? Try it! You already called me beautiful, so I owe ya one!"

"Go ahead then!"

His smile clouded a bit but didn't fade. "I like you, Mike, I really do. I like this feelin', like I really do have a friend and... and it's somebody I like a lot."

I smiled, then decided to lean. What are friends for, after all? "Tony, do me a favor?"

"I guess."

"I really need to talk to Jed. Can you sit with Annie for awhile so she don't get bored? Maybe get her and Davy and go swimmin' or somethin? I'm s'posed to be showin' him a good time too."

He looked a little nervous at the prospect, but shrugged and said, "I guess, why not? I can eat first, right?"

I scooped up some water with the paddle and splashed him. "Yeah, you can eat first. Me too. Ah, what'd your ma bring today?"

"I don't know, she was talkin' 'bout stewed tomatoes."

"Oh." No no no no no! It wasn't fair. I was hopin' for more hot stuff.

Tony smiled shyly, "She makes 'em kinda different."

I was about to reply when I saw that we were at the dock and approaching too quickly. I started back paddling furiously to little avail, but Clay was there and caught the boat with his foot, easing it gently into place. I tied one rope and he did the other, then he held a hand down to Tony while I jumped out. Lots of people were in the water, but although the net was still up, they were just swimming and not playing volleyball. I saw Jed on the little beach making a sand castle with Missy Goldman, so I thanked Clay for his help, told Tony I'd see him at the grills, and ran over to where Jed was.

"Jeddy! Hi, Missy!"

They both looked up. Missy just smiled and went back to her castle, but Jed grinned and started flapping his eyebrows. "I saw ya lockin' lips with Anton Wolfe out there. What gives with that?" He grinned.

I backhanded him on the shoulder. "You should borrow Patty's glasses, moron. You saw no such thing! We wuz just makin' friends."

He grinned. "Did ya hear what happened to the Goldman's?"

"You mean Sammy? It happened right in front of me."

"No, Marty took him to the clinic and when she came out somebody had crashed into her car. Joe's there now, that's why I'm baby sittin'."

I said, "Oh, man! Is it bad?"

"I don't know. She wouldn't drive it until Joe said it's okay. Know what he said when he was leavin'?"

Jed was smirking, so I knew it had to be funny. "What?"

"Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug!"

We both snickered, and I looked at Jed. "I gotta eat something. Will you be right here?"

He looked at Missy, still lost in her little creation. "I'll try. We'll stay on the beach or maybe in the water over at the dock. I'll wait, okay? I wanna talk to you too."

I grinned, "Thanks, Jed," then took off to find something to eat. I was too hungry to bother cooking, so I picked up a plate and started filling it with stuff from bowls and pots. I made sure to get some stewed tomatoes, then I looked for a place to sit. I didn't immediately see anything open, so I just sat at the table where the food was.

I was the only one there at first, but Davy came over with Ann and they sat opposite me. I had a mouthful and another fork headed that way, so I just smiled and chewed. Annie smiled and said, "Well, at least we can see most of your face Michael. Do you like it?"

While I was swallowing Dave said, "Cool do, man! I like it."

I finally had an empty mouth, so I said. "I like it, too. Where's Tony?" Then I thought and said, "I didn't mean to ditch you guys, just Tony was gettin' nervous so I got him outta there."

They both smiled and Annie said, "It's okay, I think we all could see it. Tony the artist is on the dock with Clay the art lover right now. Don't you worry, they'll be friends."

I looked at Davy, "I didn't mean to leave you alone like that, it's just..."

He grinned, "Don't worry about it." He looked around, "I'm not exactly alone. I met lots of neat people. I wish I could stay longer."

I had another mouthful of food so Annie took up the slack. "I'm glad you like it here, and they are nice people. I'm sure everyone liked you too. You make a good first impression."

Davy blushed a little, then smiled at her. "Thanks, Annie. It's strange, but I feel like I belong here, like I could learn a lot more than at home." He paused, looking at Annie and me alternatively, "You guys talk about things, important things. If I was at a picnic like this at home everybody'd be talkin' about what cd's they have or about some sale at the mall. You guys are talking about each other, but it ain't gossipy crap.

He looked at me, then back to Annie, "I mean, you all care and think about what other people think." He looked at me, "Keep eating. Everybody 'cept me figured why you dragged Tony out of there before, and they all understood. When they said what it was I felt like a dumb ass, but if I was home and I was Tony I'd get left to stew in my own juices. I would'a done the same thing, I would'a never thought about how somebody was gettin' overwhelmed. I ... I", he pulled at his hair with both hands, "I love it here!"

He looked so happy right then. I wanted him to stay, for both our sakes. "Um, I... I mean we... we could kidnap you tonight. There's lots'a places to hide. You could stay right here and nobody'd be the wiser." I glanced over at Annie, "That'd work, wouldn't it?"

Davy said, "Kidnap me?"

Annie gave me a look that said my thought process was singularly defective. "I'm surprised at you, Michael. If Davy wants to stay here all he has to do is ask. Anyhow, how could you hide a kidnaping right in front of every boy and girl in Morton?"

The mischievous look on her face made me put down my fork. "Excuse me? If Davy got kidnaped on a fishin' trip no girl would see it. The guys know how to keep their mouths shut."

She smirked at me. "Au contraire. Surely you remember that from French class? It means that you're full of it, Michael. Your little stag fishing parties are a thing of the past. The girls are coming tonight, and we're all coming." I was sure my chin was on the table, but I grabbed my fork and kept filling my face. I chewed and stared as she continued, "Oh yes, Michael. Tonight the Beaver Street Boys meet the Dickey Road Girls, and we'll find out who knows how to fish!"

Davy laughed into his hand and I almost choked. They were both streets here but I'd never thought anything was odd about the names of them, not until Annie connected them in her own way. I thought it was funny and started laughing, Davy along with me. Then Annie started to giggle and I thought it deserved a response. I didn't have one, so I got defensive instead.

"We use real bait, Annie. Nice gooey worms for that matter!"

She screwed up her face. "Eww! I heard that your worms were nice, nobody ever said they were gooey! Ewwwwwww!"

Bested, I gave up and laughed myself foolish. I couldn't see through the tears in my eyes, but I heard gales of laughter erupting from Davy too. The sexual innuendo was something totally out of the blue, especially coming from Annie, and I thought it was hilarious. I didn't have a thing to say in response, so I just kept laughing and eating. When I finally calmed down, the only thing left on my plate was a clump of stewed tomatoes. I skewered some on my fork and had them on the way to my mouth.

Annie cried, "Wait! I'll get some lemonade!"

"Uh oh. Hot stuff again?"

She pointed at me sternly. "Just wait 'til I get back and you can try," then she was off at a trot.

Davy commented, "She's funny, wicked funny."

"I know," then I remembered Jed. "Davy, you try the tomatoes. I hafta talk to Jed and he can't stay. I'm really sorry!"

He looked up and said, "No problem. I'll just talk to Annie, I think she's nice. Um, she's the one you got your eye on, right?"

I nodded and he smiled brightly, "Okay, I won't try to seduce her then."

I just looked at him for a second, then turned and ran down to the pond. Jed and Missy had an elaborate castle in the works when I got there. Jed was now involved as more than as just an overseer. I said, "Hey, nice work! Can I sit or am I gonna wreck somethin?"

Missy pointed to a spot on Jed's left. "You can sit there," then she went back to filling her cup with sand. I sat where she had indicated and was just about to open my mouth with a question when Tony and Clay came over.

Tony grinned and asked, "Can we sit too? Me'n Clay are gonna be friends!"

I thought 'great', but then figured it didn't matter. I had to talk with Jed, ask questions, but it didn't really matter if other people heard them. I knew that Tony was more naive than me about things social and guessed that Clay might be too.

It was a little awkward that Clay was Annie's brother, but if I ever acted on my interest in her he'd know anyhow. I started by asking Jed about school, one question at a time. I'd just gotten ready to broach the subject of my feelings when his brother Pat showed up.

He was looking great, his last two days in the sun having tanned him up a little. He had clip-on shades, so the big eye wasn't in evidence. Pat looked cool. I was desperate to ask Jed things, and I really didn't care who heard. Pat sat down next to Jed and Jed put his arm around him, his other around me. He smiled his 'in command' smile.

"Mike and I need to talk. I guess it's okay if you guys listen, but stick your comments in your ears unless it's important."

Everybody chuckled, but I felt embarrassed. I decided to just talk to Jed and let the others hear what they thought they heard. I knew Jed would hear what I really meant. "Jed, you know I'm gay, right?"

Softly, "Yeah, I know."

"Well, what if I'm not? What if it was just Jack?"

"Huh? What're you saying'?"

"I ain't sayin' anything. Just, could it happen? The stuff I did with Jack was queer, no doubt about it, and I loved him... I still love him. He's a boy and that makes it queer, and I don't question that. The thing is... I'm not sure... so just stick with me." I thought for a moment. "Okay, look who's here. Every last one of ya's better lookin' than Jack in real life, but in my mind ya don't even come close. I loved that boy, and it hurts that he won't come back. I know he's tryin' and I know I'm trying, but only Dave thinks it'll work. Well, if he thinks it will I do too, I need Jack." There was silence and I thought it was because I was talking crazy. Jed pulled me a little closer. "What I'm sayin' is..." I looked over at Clay, "I kinda like Annie now." I smiled at my feet. "She's the only one givin' me boners."

I turned to watch Clay and he looked like he was about to say something, but it must have been going to be a wisecrack because he stifled it. Clay did speak up, but it was a question. "What're you tryin' to say, Mike? You like my sister?"

I didn't even have to think, "Yes, I like your sister, Clay. She's pretty 'n she's smart 'n she's funny. Who wouldn't like her?" I blushed, "She looks great in yellow, too!"

I was surrounded by guys who were loosely my age, straight, and interested in girls in their own ways. When my words sank in they all understood that I was talking about Annie's bikini, her yellow bikini that showed a lot, mostly how perfect she was in the ways that only girls can be perfect, the way that only young pretty girls with great figures and nice skin can be perfect.

There was no collective gasp or anything, but when I looked around everybody was staring at me. Jed asked, "What's going on, Mike? I know you like the boys, but …"

I was still looking at my feet. "Me too, but it might'a been just Jack. I just wondered if you knew anythin' about that, if it's possible to like girls too."

"I don't know, Mike, I honestly don't. I guess anything's possible. Let me think. There's a group at school, a gay support group. I saw their sign and it had other things on it. Gay, lesbian… let me think... bisexual, maybe something else. I know what gays are, and lesbians are gay girls. I don't know what bisexual and those other things mean. I can try to find out if you want me to."

"I can tell you." The voice came from behind. When I craned my neck to see, it was Timmy Loomis standing there. He sat down behind me and I introduced him. He was the oldest guy there, but not so old as to make him seem out of place.

Tim said, "When I started college there was a gay-straight alliance there. I joined right away," he looked around and smiled, "as one of the straights. I can answer your question right now. Gay equals guy loves guy or girl loves girl. Lesbian just distinguishes that with a word, but it's just girl and girl. It's not all that strange. There's other variations, but what I think I'm hearing from Mike is bisexual. We're all that to some extent, but what it means is that you can be a woman or a man and maybe love a woman or a man. In other words, everything looks tasty!"

He grinned and we all laughed. "Seriously, bi's can bop back and forth, but they'll usually hold with a relationship... at least honor it. If a bi guy gets married and has kids he's no more or less likely to cheat than a straight guy, but if he does cheat it might be with a man or with another woman. I guess that if you're a cheater like that to begin with, it's whoever looks good at the moment."

Clay asked, "You mean that a guy who's married might go have sex with another guy?" He sounded totally incredulous.

I was trying to picture that scenario, but couldn't quite pull it off.

Tim said, "Yeah, and vice versa. Not everything leads to sex, it might be just a guy scoping out another guy or a girl checkin' out another girl. It's all about how strong the attraction is. Guys all check out other guys, and straight guys know when someone's good looking just as well as gays do. Gay guys aren't dumb, and they know when a girl's good looking, when they have hot bodies. It's just the interest level that varies, the desire level." He looked around, "Am I talking too much?"

He looked around at our faces.

I looked around quickly too, and everybody seemed as interested as I was, everybody except Missy, who was struggling with a leaning tower on her sand castle. We all shook our heads.

"Okay, I was almost done anyhow. There's different levels. Bisexuality is a funny thing in a way, because most of us are like that to some degree. From what I've seen, it's actually more likely for somebody to be one hundred percent gay than one hundred percent straight. It's not real likely in either case, but the people who say they're straight are near one end of the scale, the people who say they're gay are near the other end. It's people near the middle who are bisexuals. It doesn't matter which side of the middle you're on, it could be girls one day and boys the next. Like I said, if something turns into a relationship, bi people will usually honor it whichever side it falls on, but if it's just casual encounters they'll go with whatever feels right at the moment." He looked up and passed a grin around, "It's called swinging both ways. Am I makin' any sense?"

It made some sense to me, but it also raised questions. I didn't know where I fell or how to find out. I had to find out in a hurry, because right at that moment almost everybody was looking good. I was right beside Jed, but I could see Patty's back next to him. They both looked good. Without turning around again I knew Tim looked real good, in an older sort of way. Tony seemed more muscular looking at each glance, and the snow-white bathing suit against his dark skin made him look better than ever. Davy wasn't right there, but he'd turned me on since I first saw him. Then there was Clay, scrunched over looking at the sand. Even his bathing suit was black, and he'd worn a black tank top into the water. Him I couldn't fathom, friendly one moment, lost in space the next.

I glanced at the dock and saw James sitting there with a bunch of other kids, leading the show as he always did. I couldn't hear what was going on, but everybody seemed to be having a good time, even Hector. I thought about James for a minute. He was probably the best looking guy I'd ever met, but he was also so smart and witty that it almost hurt to talk to him. His mind actually scared me sometimes, his insights so pointed that they stuck in you like voodoo needles. He was nice, very nice with his personality, he could just frighten you with his intellect, with the things he could see in you that you didn't recognize about yourself. You'd never feel afraid of him personally, just worry about whether or not you were measuring up.

James seemed to have expectations for everyone else, and he could truly make you believe you'd personally disappoint him if you didn't live up to them. Like his little play on words with Clay at the pond, he always seemed to know how to get people to think about things, then move on to do the right thing, to apologize when they were wrong and stand up when they were right. I thought the kid was a genius.

I had too many thoughts swimming in my head. I was surrounded by people who were trying to be nice to me and I was analyzing all of them. I had no right to do that.

My thoughts were interrupted by a soft swooshing sound, then a warm, soft body next to mine, a bare arm around my bare back. Everything suddenly felt okay and I smiled..

"Hi, Annie!"


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