Jack in the Box

Chapter 18

Davy Loomis - Visitor : August, 2000

I kind of fell in love with Morton the first night I was there. It was so... different than what I was used to, which was a tired old city in New England. It was really the people in Morton who seemed different to me, not so much the place itself.

My brother Tim and I had driven down from New England with two truckloads of stuff for our uncles. They had both assured us that it was an easy two-day drive. Easy for them maybe. We had gotten stuck behind one construction or accident delay after another, so it was the third long day of driving that finally got us there. Wherever there was. We had detailed directions, but found ourselves searching for mailbox numbers along the darkest road on the planet.

Tim and I both had walkie-talkies and cell phones to stay in touch with each other and the world. I had Buster with me, a giant loveable dog. I had never driven a long distance before, but Buster kept me alert. He licked my face violently every time he had to pee or pinch a loaf. I usually peed when he did, saving the other for motel bathrooms.

Other than the delays, we had no trouble until we managed to get lost in the smallest town either of us had ever seen. When we finally found some light, Tim called and got a promise that somebody would come to find us.

That turned out to be a guy named Joe and a kid named Scott, driving what looked like a dump truck that seemed to be painted a violent blue in the relative darkness. Joe stuck his head in my window, "Are you Dave or Tim?"


He stuck his hand through the open window to shake, "Hi. I'm Joe and this here's Scott. You got the right road, just went too far. You sit here 'til I turn around, then just follow me. You're pointed in the right direction."

That's how our little trip to Morton started. We followed Joe until he indicated that we should turn into a driveway. When I opened my door to get out Buster took my head in his mouth, his signal of I don't know what, maybe strange places and he didn't get along. Whatever. I screamed and in about a second my uncles were there disengaging my head from Buster. I hurried around and away from my van to find two kids looking toward the road, kind of nervous.

They were the next-door neighbors, and I instantly liked them. My uncle Tim had told me about the boy, Mike, but had failed to mention his sister Angela, who was a funny little southern lady, maybe about twelve. Angela held her ground and I nearly lost my cool when she asked me if I was rich or well hung in the same sentence. I liked her.

I liked her brother, too. It turned out that he was a gay kid who'd lost his best friend in a crash. I didn't learn that as a fact until later that night, but I got the feeling that he was checking me out. He didn't act gay. My uncles didn't either. I'd met friends of theirs who were pretty flamboyant and others who behaved like any other guys. I just had no doubt that Mike was looking me over. If he was gay it wouldn't bother me in general, but I had never noticed another guy eying me like that. It was embarrassing, funny and flattering at the same time.

Mike had extremely long and unruly hair that night, but the next morning it just looked long. I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I undressed in front of him a few times, that first night just to go to bed, then the next afternoon to bare it all and put on a bathing suit.

Mike showed me around the area, which was beautiful, and introduced me to a number of people. To a one they were different than the people I knew at home, more serious about things, but they displayed a ready humor all the time. These folks talked about other people's problems openly. I liked everybody I met, and got invited on a night fishing trip that was really just going to be a party.

We spent Sunday afternoon at a picnic, and then it was time for fishing.

When I got to my uncle's house after the picnic, there was a note on the table telling me where to find what I was supposed to bring. I figured he was in bed, so I got the stuff and put it in bags, then went next door to get Mike. I had the keys to a rented van in my pocket and was ready for some fun, hick fun though it may be. I didn't care, I was looking forward to whatever they could put together. From what I could tell, it'd be a lot more interesting than another trip to the mall.

I banged on Mike's door and his mother answered. "Hi David, I'll get Mike." She turned and yelled down the hall, "Michael! David's here!"

The first two people to hurry into the kitchen were Mike's sisters. I had met Angela the night before, but I'd only had Melissa pointed out to me at the picnic. She looked very much like Mike only her hair was shorter than his had been in the morning. We introduced ourselves and talked a bit while Angela flirted with me using just her eyes. Angela was the cuter of the two, though Melissa was just as outgoing. Melissa was going with us and Angela wasn't allowed to because she wasn't old enough.

When Mike finally joined us, he took a look at me and said, "Man, you better put some clothes on, least bring some with you. The bugs'll eat you alive like that."

It sounded like good advice, "The van's open, put your stuff in and I'll be right back." I ran next door and grabbed a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt from my bag, then got in the van and started it up.

It was a regular delivery van, the stretched type. There was only seating for two and Mike was in the passenger seat when I got there, Melissa in the back. Mike gave me directions and we picked up Pat Anderson just down the road. Mike let him take the front seat and climbed in back with his sister, then we headed down some other roads where we picked up the Nettleton kids and their neighbors, Billy and Al Dominguez. I had met them all at least briefly at the picnic, so long introductions weren't necessary.

We drove to the pond that we were going to fish at, finding several vehicles and a modest gathering of other kids already there. When we were getting our things out of the van I asked Mike, "Is Tony coming?"

"I don't think so. He has a chance to make some money, so he's gonna make glue instead."

I found that funny. "Make glue? Why doesn't he just buy some?"

Clay Nettleton overheard and answered for Mike, "That ain't the way Anton works! He knows the folk ways, Dave. If he can do something his own way he will. You watch, someday that kid's gonna be famous, and it ain't gonna be because he buys glue in a store."

I had talked to Clay earlier and enjoyed seeing his enthusiasm for Anton's art. He was a little one-sided about it, but I got the feeling that there was more to him, a side that went deeper. He'd be gushing about Tony's talents one minute, then disappear into a world of silence and thought the next. When he resurfaced it would again all be talk about art, how he wished he could just draw a straight line.

He was a change from most of the people I knew at home, and I began wondering if where I lived had something in the water that made people shallow. I thought I had some pretty good friends and I was probably right about that. What I was finding in this little town was that people knew about each other, wanted to know what made somebody tick.

We had the van unloaded and I asked, "So, who's gonna teach me to fish? I never did this before."

They all looked between each other, then Clay said, "I guess that'll be me." He smiled, "Everybody else came lookin' for nookie and, if ya don't mind me sayin' so, you might wanna try your luck at that, too."

I looked toward the pond and there were kids fishing there, maybe five out of the thirty or so who had arrived. The rest were sitting around or standing, all talking, all with fishing gear at their feet. I wanted to socialize and I wanted to learn fishing. "Okay, show me how."

Clay looked at Mike, "Did you bring gear for him?"

Mike picked up a fishing pole and a tackle box, "He can use mine. There's a dummy in there." As soon as he handed the things to me he took Annie's hand in his and smiled at her. I wondered what that was all about. Just last night he told me he was gay and today he'd spent almost all his time with her.

I didn't get it and was just about to ask to speak with Mike in private when Clay said, "Let's go over here," indicating an open field away from the pond. He started walking and I followed. When we were about fifty feet from everyone he took the tackle box and looked through it, taking out some object which he attached to the end of my line. "This is a dummy, it lets you practice casting in your yard or somewhere else without water."

He then proceeded to show me how to cast a line until I could make it go more or less in the direction I intended, then we walked back to the pond. Clay picked up his own gear on the way and we sat pretty far from where the other kids were fishing. There were actually quite a few of them with lines in the water by then. Clay set us both up with hooks and bait, then told me to cast out first. I was pretty excited. I cast and everything went about where I aimed it, landing with a distant 'sploosh' in the water. Clay was getting ready to cast when he cried, "You got a fish, man!"

"What do I do?"

He put his hand on mine where I held the pole, then his other farther out on the rod. "Gentle but quick!" With that he yanked the pole upwards, saying that was to set the hook. "You got him! Just reel him in, man. I'll get the net."

I reeled, following Clay's instructions. I looked around to see what he was doing and learned that having a fish on your line was one way to draw a crowd. Almost everybody had gathered around to watch. When the fish was right at shore Clay held a net out and told me to lift the end of the pole. When I did, the fish came partly out of the water and Clay put the net under it. It didn't look like any fish I'd ever seen. It was getting dark and this thing looked very long and black.

Clay yelled, "It's an eel!" He looked around, "Anybody like eels besides me?" He turned a grin to me, "Man these things are good!" He reached into the net and unhooked my line from the ugly fish, then ran off. When he came back he had a pail, which he filled with pond water followed by an eel. I looked into the pail in the fading light, wondering what I had done, what this little accomplishment meant, if anything.

I caught my first fish on my first cast of my first time fishing. I got pats on the back from a bunch of people. The kids who had been fishing at the other end all moved close to where we were. Clay finally got a chance to cast his line out, then we all sat and watched our bobbers floating in the still pond. I said to Clay, "Thanks, that was fun."

"Beginner's luck. Can I ask you something?"

"Sure, Clay."

"What's it like up North? I mean, you have things we don't, all those museums, operas, ballet, concerts."

I had to think before I could answer. Concerts, yes. Rock concerts, but I had a feeling that Clay wasn't talking about rock and roll. He had just named four things that weren't on my agenda, although I knew those things were available throughout the area. "Well, it's different. I like it here better, at least so far. You really like all that stuff?"

Clay pulled a piece of tall grass from beside the pond and stuck it in his mouth, then laid back on the ground. "I do. I never saw a ballet, but it must be beautiful." He rolled to his side, propping himself up on an elbow. "I like most music but I love classical, especially Chopin. You ever listen to the piano etudes or the nocturnes?"


He seemed disappointed. "Well, I think they're fantastic. Daddy calls me a Renaissance Man. I just thought you might like some of the things I do, given where you come from."

"Sorry. There must be people here who like those things."

"Yeah, old ladies. Oh well, two more years."

"What's that mean?"

"I'll be eighteen and I can go where I want. I just don't fit in here."

We looked at each other for a moment before I said, "Funny, I was just thinking I fit in here better than at home. I like it here, and I wish I could stay."

Clay held my gaze, "You mean that? This place don't even get a dot on most maps!"

"I mean it. I really like the people here, everybody's sincere and funny at the same time."

"What's that mean, like you ain't? You're chalkin' up friends like the popcorn guy at the fair! You're just as nice as anybody here."

I focused a stare on Clay, trying to determine if he was telling the truth. "You serious? People like me?"

"What's not to like? You're friendly and you're funny. You're the typical Morton man."

"You're not typical?"

Clay's expression intensified. "I'm not typical. I'm weirder than Waters to most people. Nobody understands me around here, they just think I'm strange. What's wrong with liking beauty? I like nature as much as the next person, but men do some fantastic things too." He got excited and sat up. "Look at Chagall, Dali... I mean, my God! The Wyeth's, Homer, they all take the world and make it their own place. Anton does that, maybe even better! It's not just pictures, it's architecture, music, even landscaping. God made the world, but artists make the world we live in."

I grinned, "You okay?"

He relaxed a bit and smiled, "Yeah, pretty intense huh? It's really the way I feel. God creates, man molds, and we end up with some pretty neat stuff." Clay got serious again, "I know about ecology, about how everything works together to keep us alive, how everything means something to everything else. I know people think men are only fuckin' up the eco-system, but we use it to make wonderful things too. We take rocks and trees and dirt and make beauty out of them." He grimaced, "Am I an asshole, am I boring you?"

Boring me? Not hardly. Clay's views fascinated me, his feelings got me wondering why I never voiced my own. I think we were very much in tune, just at a different level. This guy thought about where things came from, why they were important. All I did was like or not like, not much thought involved. "You're not boring me! I'm only here 'til tomorrow, so the asshole thing needs to be decided by your own friends. I like you, Clay. You got the Internet? Maybe we can stay in touch?"

He smiled broadly, "I have e-mail. Don't let me forget to give it to you."

We realized that our little talk hadn't been very private when four others volunteered their e-mails to Clay and me.

When we got back to our talk I asked Clay, "What do you mean you're weirder than Waters? You mean Mike Waters?"

"Yeah, he's one strange dude. At least he has been since Jack got killed. I like the kid okay, but he's hard to read. Did you know he's gay?"

"Yeah, I know. Should that bother me?"

"I don't know, that's up to you. What I'm gettin' at is he's been all over my sister the last few days, and I don't get it. That's the reason all these girls are here tonight. This fishing thing never happened before with the girls, and Annie got it goin' just to spend time with Mike. If he's a queer he should leave my sister alone. I apologized to him only yesterday, but if he hurts Annie he's gonna need a hospital."

"Ooooh, threats! I was wondering the same thing. Want me to talk to him?"

"Would you? You think you can?"

I reeled in my line and set the pole down. As I started to stand I said, "I can try. You getting hungry? I brought a lot of stuff."

"Yeah, I could eat something. Where is it?"

"It's in bags in the van. Why don't you offer it around and I'll talk to Mike. Save me a sandwich or something."

I turned around only to find Mike and Ann sitting not five feet behind us. They must have heard everything. I smiled sheepishly while Mike glowered at Clay's back. Annie smiled brightly, "Curiosity got the cat?"

When Clay heard her voice he spun around with a surprised look on his face. "How long you been there?"

She patted the grass beside her. "Long enough to learn that my big brother is looking out for me. Sit down and we'll talk about this."

We had been caught in the act and I suppose the look on my face matched the unhappy, guilty one on Clay's. He sat next to his sister and I squatted down facing them all. I asked, "Who starts?"

"I do," growled Mike. "Clay, if you think I'd hurt Annie then you're way off base. We already talked about this, for your information." He looked down at the ground, "I don't know what I am and I don't know what I want." His voice lost its edge, "All I know is I like Annie, I like her a whole lot. We're gonna be friends and that's it, for now anyhow." His face exposed his inner turmoil, "I'm gettin' feelings I didn't know I could get, but 'til I understand them I ain't doin' anything."

Clay muttered, "Sorry."

Mike leaned forward so he could look directly at Clay. "What I don't like is hearin' you make threats to a third party. You can talk to me, I don't bite. I was just startin' to like you."

Clay was clearly upset. He was watching his hands as he wove and unwove his fingers. "I'm sorry, I really am." He looked up at me, "I'm sorry to you too, Dave. Mike's right, I should'a just talked to him and Annie." He looked at the ground in front of him, "I'm such a loser," then he started to weep, putting his forehead on his already laced fingers, "I don't belong here. What the hell went wrong?"

Annie reached out her arm and pulled Clay to her side. Mike moved to Clay's other side and put his arm around his shoulders, "Don't be upset, Clay, I didn't mean for that to happen. It's just that when you have a problem with me, you should tell me, not the rest of the world."

I felt totally out of place. I stood up and said, "I'll get us something to eat." I don't think they heard me, or if they did they didn't care. I got up and walked to the van, where I took my time getting things out. I didn't know what to do with everything, so I opened the big sliding door on the side and spread things out on the van floor.

I was almost done, and thankfully didn't have anything in my hands when I suddenly got poked in both ribs and jumped about a foot. I turned around to find James and Aaron standing there laughing. Aaron had done the poking, but James was reaping the amusement value.

"Hoo!" He grinned at Aaron, "Who says white boys can't jump?" He turned his happy smile to me after looking at the goodies laid out on the van floor. "Look at all that food! It must be PARTY TIME!"

James yelled the last bit loud enough to be heard by everyone. I'd met him earlier at the picnic and it was clear that he was the alpha-male in town, at least among the teenagers. He was not only smart, but quick with the smarts. He was also witty and, it seemed, wise and kind.

People hurried over to the van, which was soon party central. Most people had brought things and it all got laid out to be shared. Aaron took the key to the van and got the radio blaring, starting with my hip-hop station but quickly turning it to a top forty thing. I watched Mike coming toward us. He was smiling and walking beside Annie, but he and Clay had their arms wrapped around each other.

James noticed too, and he ran up to them and pointed his finger right in Clay's face. "See? It's the people you associate with!"

Mike, Clay and James all burst out laughing, the joke lost on everyone else. It didn't matter. There were soon flashlights lit all around the place, the light inside the van was on, and everybody was mingling and eating and listening to the music. Somebody brought beer, not enough to go around, but I managed to get one and was mildly surprised to see Mike and Annie sharing a can. Behind them was a girl sitting by herself, so I went and sat beside her.

"Hi, I'm Dave."


"I never saw you before. Are you a picnic holdout?"

She giggled, "No, I spent the day on the phone with my sister. She just left for college and she's all afraid that everything's going to fall apart without her here." She stared at my face, "You're not from around here."

"No, just visiting. Want some beer?"

"Just a sip." I handed it to her and she took a sip, keeping the can. "What made you come to visit Morton, of all places?"

"I, uh, I drove a truck down for my uncles." There was something about this girl that almost had me stammering. She was pretty in a different kind of way. Black-haired and slim, nice smile, very dark eyes; I should capitalize pretty, maybe even spell it out... P-R-E-T-T-Y!

"Are Dave and Tim your uncles?"

"Yeah, how'd you guess?"

"Oh, I'm just so smart. They're the only new people in town, the only new people in a year."

"Oh." I felt myself falling down, "Do you go fishing a lot?"

"I've been a few times with my Dads."

Uh-oh, plural there. I think I knew who her dads were, I'd met them earlier, although met sounds pretty weak. How's blown into the weeds?

Scott Johnson, Nick Cassarino... who didn't know them? About them, anyhow, and here they were at a picnic in Morton behaving like a couple of the local good guys. Gay men, I'd never known that, never would have guessed. They told me. I just couldn't believe that they'd both stood there and talked to me, asked me questions about my own life, like that could be of any interest. But... but they did seem interested, interested enough to stop me from hyperventilating and make me talk. And I talked. I talked and talked until my uncle Dave came to the rescue, not sure who's, but he shut me up. It was the most excited I'd ever been in my life. I never met anybody famous before, and these guys were famous people I wanted to meet... not like the President or something.

Now I was sitting with their daughter, at least I thought I was. "Are Scott and Nick your dads?" It felt weird as soon as I asked it.

Paulina shrunk into herself a little, then smiled. "Yeah. Pretty cool, huh?"

"I'll say it's cool! How do you stand it? I mean, don't you get questions from everybody?"

"No, hardly ever. People ask when they're going to record again, things like that. We pretty much get left alone."

"That's amazing, it really is. I thought guys like that all lived in castles or something, you know... lots of servants and stuff."

Paulina giggled, "Not hardly. Our house is pretty big, but it's built of sticks and not stones. Scott and Nick aren't into themselves too much."

"That's what you call them? By their first names?"

She giggled again, "No, they're both Daddy to us." A demure smile ensued, "They rescued us, Dave, from what I don't know, and I don't want to go there. We were headed to different places, that's for sure." She grabbed my hand and made me look at her. "Do you believe in angels?"

"I... um... ah, I guess so."

"Well, you should. Just when we were about to be farmed out to different foster homes our dads showed up. He we are, five little spics, then suddenly two rich and famous white guys want to take us home with them. They were soooo nice, then Hector tries to play macho boy and says he won't live with queers. What did he know anyhow? He was only eleven," Paulina smiled mischievously and dangled her little finger in front of me, "hey, his dick wasn't any bigger than my pinkie!"

I laughed and she continued, looking more serious. "My big sister, Maria, she always kept us together, made us decide everything together. I know she was pissed at Hector, but our thing was that we only do something if it's unanimous. If Hec didn't want it, then we wouldn't have it. Hector finally changed his mind, so here we are. Um..."


She grinned, "Do you always try to pick up girls with empty hands? Where's the food?"

I jumped up, "Sorry. Whattya want?

She held her hand out and I took it to pull her up. "I'll go with you." She lowered her voice, "Don't tell anybody, but I brought a cake."


She whispered, "It's for Hector. He's sixteen and a month, but he loves birthdays."

I laughed, "You're too much!" I looked at the beer can in her other hand, "You gonna drink that whole thing?"


"Oh, let me get a soda then."

"I know where there's more beer."

"You do?"

She smiled, "Yeah, the beer store. You got an ID?"

I felt that I was being toyed with, but I went along. "No, I don't have an ID! Do you?"

I guess the game was over. Paulina smiled and shrugged, then handed me back the beer I'd started with. "It doesn't go with cake anyhow. See ya!"

See ya? I was dumped? I started to go after her, but before I took a step there was an arm blocking my chest. I looked to see who it was attached to and found Aaron. He calmly said, "She be taken, man. I ain't mad 'cause you ain't from around here. You like the movies?"

I was so startled that I just blurted out, "Yeah."

"Well, you just had a close encounter of the first kind. That's James' girl, man. I know she likes to flirt, just don't go no farther or he'll split you open like a melon! Understand?"

I was only flirting myself, hoping maybe. I understood completely. I was the intruder here. I had no idea of the pecking order like I did at home, no idea that James might have a dark side.

James suddenly appeared beside me and put his arm across my shoulder. I was nervous when he asked, "You like my Paulina huh?"

I managed, "She seems like a nice girl."

"What you all nervous about? I know how she is." He laughed, "She pulls that crap all the time just to anger my soul. Don't you worry, Yankee boy, Paulina and I, well, we're gonna re-make the world!" his voice softened, "If she ever decides to, anyhow."

I turned around and looked at his face, sensing his weakness for this girl. "Um, let me know how you make out, okay?"

James laughed, "Yeah, make out sounds good. You got e-mail?"


"I'll keep you in touch with my progress then," he dropped his eyes, "but don't hold your breath on my account."

"You're not gonna split my head like a melon?"

James grinned, "You've been talking to Aaron. I never hurt anybody in my life. He just makes my reputation for me."

"And Paulina?"

His grin disappeared. "Man, I love that girl, but she's never going to give it back. We do a lot together and have a lot of fun, but she's so... remote sometimes. All she really cares about is her family. I just get to follow her around. She won't let me in her life."

I said, "Caring about family is a good thing, isn't it?"

James sighed, "I guess. I really love her, Dave. I just never know where I stand. Every time I decide to look elsewhere she's right in my face giving me new hope. Mama says she's too old for me anyhow."

"She's older?"

"Yeah man, she's seventeen. I just turned fifteen." He looked at my hand, which was still holding a can of beer. "Um, you gonna drink that?"

"I forgot all about it. You want it?"

"No, it's just that you're driving. You can get away with lots of things here, but kids with beer on their breath when they're driving are in serious trouble, especially if there's other kids in the car." He held his hand out and I handed him the can. He tipped his head back and chugged the whole can in about five seconds, then burped and smiled. "Sucker!"

I laughed, "Prick! I don't care, I don't really like the stuff."

He was looking past me and smiling. He pointed, "Look at that. Lissie's got herself a beau!"

I turned around and saw Melissa Waters walking hand in hand with a blonde boy who looked vaguely familiar. He also appeared to be blind. She was leading him, but he kept stumbling and almost falling. It was a little comical. James said, "That's Patty tryin' to be cool over there. It looks funny, but it really ain't." He watched some more and grinned, "Well, maybe it's funny." I took a look at James and he explained, "Pat can't see because of an accident. It's not his fault that he can't see, but it's pretty funny watching him try."

When Pat and Melissa got closer, James walked up to them and stopped their progress. He said quietly, "Put your glasses on Pat, you're gonna get hurt. Why're you trying to walk blind?"

Pat looked at James' face while I looked at Pat. He was a good looking kid without the glasses, but they really hid that. He looked almost like a caricature with them on, like some cartoonist's idea of a mad scientist. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his glasses, then put them on and looked at James. "I hate the way these make me look, James. I can't stand it anymore."

James put one hand on Pat's shoulder and held out the other one, palm up. "Okay, give 'em to me."

Pat took them off again and folded them, then handed them to James, looking blindly at him once again. James said, "Your choice man," then he hurled them towards the pond, "No more problem!"

Pat screamed, "My glasses! Now I can't see!"

James grinned and said, "Yeah, but you sure are pretty to look at. How's Lissie look to you now?" then he handed Pat the glasses, which he'd only pretended to throw. "Put these on, Pat. Keep 'em on. We all know what ya look like underneath them; you do what's right for you!" He glared at Melissa, "You should know better, girl! You either like the boy or the way he looks! Don't get stupid on me again, you hear?"

He turned around, giving me a smile and a wink while Melissa protested her innocence to his back. I was beginning to understand James' popularity. He'd handled that with humor and grace, scaring Pat enough to make his point but not stretching it into teasing.

We shouldered our way back to the food and parted ways when we both had some. I watched James mingle for a moment, wondering what made a leader. I was popular enough at home, just never in charge. Every time I met somebody like James they made it seem easy, like being in charge was a birthright they honored but didn't abuse. I didn't feel deficient about myself at all with him, this kind of person never made you feel like that. Instead they bare their own weaknesses, which somehow makes you feel that they're even stronger, closer to you than they really are or ever will be.

"I guess I owe you an apology."

I jumped at Clay's voice. I hadn't seen him walk up to me. "Clay! An apology for what?"

"I don't know, for tryin' to get you involved." He looked at me with a weak smile. "I'm a real shit. I should'a just talked to Annie before. I just don't do the right thing sometimes. I'm sorry, anyhow."

I looked at his face. Clay wasn't a bad looking kid, there was just nothing to distinguish him. I had wondered earlier how three kids from the same family could look so different. Clay was the oldest, but looked the youngest in a lot of ways. His sister was a pretty girl. If Mike wasn't interested I would have made a hopeful move on her. Annie had a nice face, a great body, and a nice way about her. I say hopeful because to date all my moves on girls had been futile. I could get dates easy enough, I just couldn't develop any connections.

Their younger brother Jimmy was as big as both of them combined, probably two hundred pounds or close to it, a giant cheerful kid with a happy, excitable way about him. He and Annie were easy to like, Clay was different. I'm not sure what it was. A year before I'd lost four friends in a car crash, and Clay reminded me of my friend Lyle in a way. Lyle had been solidly in our little group, but different than the rest of us, quieter and more profound. He wasn't an art lover like Clay, at least not to my knowledge, but he was a deep thinker in the same way. He found humor in a lot of things and could keep us laughing, but I think it was his reservedness that drew the rest of us to him. I felt the same kind of thing with Clay. He was the kind of nut that you had to crack first, then there would still be something left to peel off. He might not be easy to know, but he'd be worth it like Lyle was when you got near the center.

I bopped his shoulder, "Don't worry about it. I'm only here for another day, then it's back to the great white North." I smirked, "So who you got your eye on?"

"It ain't worth talkin' about. It's just not possible. I got nothin' to offer, anyhow."

I smiled, "You got things to offer, man, you love the beautiful things. Girls love that stuff!"

"Yeah, right."

"I mean it, Clay. Girls might be flaky, but they like the smart guys. I see it all the time."

He looked despondent, "I ain't that smart, I just like different things. I got nothin' goin' here."

I grinned, "Who is she?"

Clay smiled and pushed me. "Bastard! You gotta know everything?"

I grinned, "Not the details, just tell me who she is."

He stared at me for a moment, then said softly, "I can't. It's no use anyhow, so I ain't sayin' anything."

I felt bad for him, so I changed the subject. "It doesn't matter, I guess." I smiled hopefully, "So, what do you do for fun?"

"I don't know, I like baseball and I'm on the school team. Mostly the Internet, I guess. I spend a lot of time online."

"Yeah, me too. I am soooo hooked! My father keeps threatening to take my computer away."

Clay smiled, "Yeah, fathers are like that."

We both got sodas and started walking toward the pond. It was darker there, but we could make out the forms of people fishing. We'd been hearing the occasional whoops when somebody caught something all evening, now it had gotten pretty quiet. Kids were sitting in groups large and small, some talking quietly and others boisterous. I couldn't see much because it was dark, but it was still a nice scene. The weather was sultry and still quite hot, with just a trace of a breeze. I'd been sweaty since I got to Morton and I still was. I was enjoying myself anyhow, seeing something so different from what I was used to.

Clay suddenly fell with a loud 'Oomph!' He'd tripped right over two kids sitting on the ground. They made some cross sounding noises, and when I could make out who they were it was Scott Goldman and his friend Jose. Clay got up on his knees cursing and the two others laughed a little.

"Watch where you're going, Clay," Jose said.

"Watch where you're sitting, numb nuts! Jeez, you could kill somebody." Clay straightened himself out and smiled, "How y'all doin?"

Scott had his head on Jose's shoulder. He looked up smiling at me instead of Clay, "Not bad. Did ya really catch an eel? Did ya get a shock?" He stuck his hand hard into Jose's ribs and went, "zzzitt!" Jose squealed and jumped, then Scott went on, "Like that?"

The two of them collapsed into a sea of giggles and Jose let out a long stream of epithets, so I just walked around them and continued towards the pond with Clay. I was chuckling, "They're nice kids."

Clay laughed too, "Those two are somethin' else. They're always cookin' up things to keep life interesting."

We made our way to where we had left the fishing equipment only to find Mike and Annie sitting there with lines in the water. Clay asked, "Who's winning?"

They both turned around, Annie with a bright smile and Mike with a scowl. Mike growled, "This ain't a contest, Clay. We're just fishin'."

Annie quietly said, "It's three zip, my favor," then she started snickering.

It wasn't hard to see that Mike was steamed. "Jeez, look at the equipment she has. All I got is a K-Mart pole." He chuckled and calmed down, "Like I said, this ain't a contest. We're just throwin' 'em back anyhow." Then he looked at Annie, "You can't prove a thing, so there!"

She smiled and stuck her tongue out at him. "You know what I caught. You can fib if you want, but you'll always know!"

I think Clay was thinking what I was. He yanked his head as if to say 'let's go', then unhooked a flashlight from his belt and started walking along the pond. We were headed away from the crowd, but screaming from behind had us trotting back in that direction. The first scream had sounded terrified, now it sounded half like a laugh. Before we could see what was going on there was a giant splash noise followed quickly by another one, then a roar of laughter.

When we got close enough it became evident that some boys had thrown two girls into the water. The girls were in the pond having a hard time finding their footing, stumbling and falling back under every time they got up. The bank was crowded with laughing boys, but as we approached two of them waded into the pond to help the girls. Clay and I were just watching and laughing when I heard a girl's voice say, "They'll do," from behind us.

The next thing I knew I got a mighty shove in the back and went flying face first into the pond. I too came up stumbling in the soft muddy bottom and found Clay still right beside me, the light from his flashlight visible on the bottom. The water was pretty icy, much colder than I would have thought. When I looked toward shore there was a group of girls laughing at our predicament. They were soon joined by some boys, who laughed just as hard, then started pushing girls into the water all around us. It rapidly descended into a general shoving match and before long half the kids from Morton were in the pond, laughing just as hard as the people on shore who had pushed them in.

It didn't stop there, it didn't stop at all until there were just two older boys standing on dry land, with Patty Anderson sitting alone watching everything. Then the two older kids went at each other until one of them went in. The victor did a little dance, then turned his back to the water and just plopped down backwards, stiff as a board. Everybody seemed to think it was hilarious, myself included. Some kids started climbing out right away, others stayed in the water splashing and dunking each other for a while.

I soon climbed out and sat on the bank, wringing wet. I used my hands to squeegee out my hair, but doing anything else would have been pointless. I was alone for a few moments, then a young kid sat next to me. I'd met him earlier, his name was Jens. "Hey there, " I said.

"Hi Davy, bet you didn't expect to get dunked!"

"You're right about that. Does this happen all the time?"

"Nope, this is new to me." He giggled and said conspiratorially, "I got my hand on Mary Ann's tittie when she was tryin' to drag me in."

I smiled and looked at him. "How old are you?" He looked about twelve.

"I'm fourteen, how about you?"

"Seventeen. So, you got your first feel?"

He grinned engagingly, "Yeah, my first slap too." He thought for a few seconds, then smiled again, "It was worth it, though. You hungry?"

I wasn't really, but a nibble wouldn't hurt. "Think there's anything left?"

He started to push up, "One way to find out."

We walked over to the van where most of the other kids had begun to gather. The night air was still filled with the hilarity of people playing grab ass and squirting each other with soda. When we got to the van there was precious little left from the mountain of food that had been there earlier. I rummaged around and found a pickle, which was about all I was hungry for anyhow. Jens started eating crumbs from chip bags.

Everybody was seriously water logged but, like me, nobody seemed to mind. There were still some random dunkings going on, accompanied by appropriate squeals. Suddenly there was a real scream of terror and I ran towards it along with everybody else. A bunch of kids were standing on the bank staring in horror as four boys waded to a body floating face down about twenty feet from shore.

When they retrieved it and started hauling him to shore I was shocked to see it was Clay's lifeless body they were dragging in. I felt a knot that I can't begin to describe start to develop in my stomach. When they got him to shore and stretched him out on the grass, the boys who had pulled him in looked up helplessly, eyes and mouths wide open, silent screams evident on their faces. I just stared at the scene in disbelief when a strong hand grabbed my arm. "We gotta help him!"

It was Mike. I was too stunned to react, so he literally dragged me to Clay. Mike knelt down, then looked up at me in desperation. "I need you down here Dave!"

I knelt beside Clay feeling awful. Mike took my hands and forced them onto Clay's chest, then put his on top of mine and pressed down hard. There was panic in his voice. "Like that, okay? Do it fast five times, then wait while I give him some breath, then start again. Don't stop for anything!"

He looked a question at me to see if I understood. I thought I did, so I nodded and started in while Mike positioned Clay's head in a certain way. When I finished five compressions, Mike started giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation, and stopped, indicating I should do more compressions. Every once in a while Mike paused to whisper, "Come on, Clay. Come on!" Once he looked at me with real anguish on his face. "He can't be dead, he just can't. He's so cold! He can't be dead 'til he's warm and dead."

We worked and worked. There was a humming in my ears that I couldn't identify. During one of my pauses I realized it was the frightened breathing of the gang of kids surrounding us. The sound of a siren in the distance entered our ears, then suddenly Clay's body spasmed and he spat out some water. There was a collective gasp from the crowd, the siren got closer, and Mike said quietly, "Don't stop now," then he went back to breathing air into Clay and I to massaging his chest.

Clay started twitching and occasionally spitting up water until the ambulance guys got there and hooked him up to some sort of breathing apparatus, having rudely pushed me and Mike out of their way in the process. I just backed up into the crowd of onlookers and stared in disbelief, then cheered with the rest when Clay's eyes opened and he lifted his arm a little. They loaded him on a stretcher and sped away with him, taking Annie and Jimmy in the ambulance with them.

I looked for Mike and found him, clearly shaken. I asked softly, "You okay?"

He looked at me in anguish, shaking his head no, then he started bawling and fell into me, squeezing like he was hanging on for life itself. I looked around and a lot of people were crying, but Mike was shaking and sobbing violently. I didn't try to understand what was going on in his mind, just tried to comfort my new friend. James came up behind Mike and started gently rubbing his shoulders while I got an occasional light pat on the back from somebody. When Mike's sobbing became less violent James said, "Take him home, Dave. I'll make sure everybody gets a ride. I'll call his house when we hear about Clay."

I stared into James' eyes, which were soft and commanding at the same time. I wanted to say something but my mouth wouldn't stop quivering. James called out to the crowd, "Somebody take these two home, Dave can't drive." He looked back at me. I still had Mike in a hug and James was still rubbing his shoulders. "Don't worry, man, we'll take care of things here."

I heard a perky female voice from behind me and felt a hand on my shoulder. "Ready, handsome?"

Without turning around I knew it was Paulina. James smiled at me and said, "Good luck," and we helped Mike over to Paulina's Jeep and got him buckled up in the passenger seat. I sat right behind him and held his shoulders while Scott and Jose, who turned out to be Paulina's little brother, squeezed in beside me. Paulina started the engine, turned the lights on and started to back out.

What happened next was something I never would have expected. Somebody started clapping their hands and was soon joined by everybody at the gathering. We drove away slowly to the sound of a standing ovation.

I was overwhelmed and started to cry myself. A quick glance at Scott and Jose showed me that they were crying too. Paulina's voice was choked with emotion when she tried to make light of it and said, "You do nice work, Dave. You should stick around awhile."

That made me laugh through my tears, but nobody said anything else until we were in Mike's driveway. Paulina made Scott and Jose wait in the Jeep while we brought Mike inside. I thought differently about that and called to Scott, "Get my uncles to come over, Scotty."

We helped Mike to the side door and opened it. His family was in the living room watching TV when we came in. Mike ran to the kitchen sink and leaned over it like he thought he was going to throw up. I yelled, "HELLO!"

His parents came to the kitchen, then seeing Mike by the sink asked together, "What happened?" His mother ran to a still sniffling Mike and caressed him, asking "What's the matter, baby?"

Paulina started to explain what had happened, starting over when my uncle Dave came in followed by Scott and Jose. Dave looked like he'd been dragged out of bed and seemed shocked. He started asking at once if Clay was alright. We didn't have any answers. I was feeling queasy myself, but I said, "All I know is that Clay was dead and now he isn't. I don't know what happened, he was in the water with everybody then I lost track of him." I got overwhelmed and started to cry again, croaking out, "We were just tryin' to have some fun."

Paulina pulled me into a wet hug in a second. I found real comfort in it and calmed down quickly. Everybody around us was talking excitedly. I heard none of it until Mike asked his mother to call Tony and tell him what happened.

She shooed us all into the living room. Paulina pulled out her cell phone and called home, then she disappeared down the hall to answer the questions she was getting. Mike sat in a chair. To my mind he looked more like a person who had just killed somebody instead of saving him. Jose was staring at him. "Mike, I heard about you saving other kids, now I saw it. You are a hero!"

Mike buried his face in his hands, and it looked like even more tension was building up in him. He started to shake harder, then looked up and blurted at nobody in particular, "I ain't no hero!" He stood up quickly and started to pace unsteadily, my uncle Dave and his father quickly at his side. They were trying to calm him when his mother came in and said, "Tony wants to talk to you, Mike."

Mike didn't respond, nor did he when his mother repeated it. I stood and walked to the kitchen. "Hi, Tony. It's Dave."

"Dave? I wanna talk to Mike."

"Listen, Tony... "

"Is he okay?"

I didn't know what to say. Mike didn't seem okay, I just didn't know why. "I don't think so. He's not hurt or anything, just messed up."

"Wait." I could hear him asking his father for a ride. "I'm comin' over, be right there!"

"Thanks, Tony."

He hung up. Instead of going back into the other room I sat at the kitchen table and worried about Mike. Then I worried about Clay, he was a nice quiet kid and I had enjoyed talking to him. I couldn't imagine what had gone wrong. I'd seen him swim earlier at the picnic and he knew his way around in the water no problem. Then I remembered his flashlight beam still shining from the bottom of the pond and a few minutes later the champion dunker doing his pratfall into the water. It was around the same area and he had come up rubbing his head. It might have been, though it really didn't matter.

Just then the door flew open and Melissa strode in. She was still wet and I realized I was too, as was everybody who had been there. Melissa gave me a terrified stare, "Is Clay okay? Where is everybody?"

"They're in the living room. Mike's taking it hard."

She deflated, "Not again."

She disappeared into the other room. In a few minutes my uncle Dave led Mike into the kitchen and they both sat with me at the table. Mike was still shaking. I was too, just not as bad as him. I looked at my uncle, "Want me to leave?"

Dave shook his head, "No. Go get changed, then when Anton gets here you guys get Mike changed and do whatever he wants. He smiled, "Pronto, before that phone starts ringing!"

I jumped up and ran across the driveway, changed all my clothes and ran back before Tony even got there. Dave was speaking quietly to Mike. At him is more like it because Mike wasn't responding, then I realized that Dave was just telling him a story. Mike still looked a mess, but he wasn't shaking anymore and seemed calmer.

Tony burst in, followed by his parents. My uncle beckoned Tony to the table where we were and asked his folks to go in the living room to learn what happened. He told Tony and me to get Mike into some dry clothes and get him out of the house for awhile, and said he was going back to bed.

Mike stood and stared at Tony, then he started crying again. Tony just faced him for a moment, a look of indecision on his face. He took a step forward and tentatively spread his arms a little, obviously not sure of what he should be doing or what Mike wanted. His guess was right. Mike pulled Tony into a close hug and his crying got louder. Tony just stood there at first, then gently wrapped his arms around Mike and started rubbing his back a little. I did what James had done earlier and stood behind Mike gently massaging his shoulders.

Mike's anguish had tears leaking from Tony's eyes, so I wanted to hurry things up a little. I said quietly, "Let's get you in some dry clothes, Mike. Can you make it to your room?

He sniffed and nodded, letting go of Tony. We had no sooner turned toward Mike's room when the phone started ringing. We stood out of the way to let Melissa run to answer it, and followed Mike to his room.

When the door closed behind us Mike seemed to calm down. He didn't say anything, but he kicked off his sneakers while starting to take off his wet shirt. He saw me looking for where his clothes were kept and pointed, "Closet. Underwear's in the top left drawer," indicating the dresser. Tony took to the task of picking up Mike's things as he got out of them. I pulled open the drawer and tossed a pair of underpants onto the bed, then opened the closet and grabbed the first pair of pants and shirt that I saw. There were a lot of sneakers on the closet floor, so I matched up a pair and brought them over to Mike.

When he was dressed he said, "I gotta pee," and hurried out the door.

I looked at Tony, who was holding all the wet clothes, and said, "I do too. You know where those go?"

Tony was clearly distressed. "What's goin' on, Davy? What's wrong with Mike?"

"I don't know. We were all havin' a blast, then they found Clay floatin' in the water." I started to choke up, "He was dead, Tony, then Mike brought him back. I think maybe it's shock or something, but he kinda fell apart after. I think I did too. James made us get a ride home."

Mike came back in and Tony asked him what to do with the dirty clothes. Mike said there was a hamper in the bathroom, so Tony dumped them there and I went to take a leak. When I got back to the bedroom they were waiting for me. Mike looked a bit shaky but a heck of a lot better than before. I asked, "So what next?"

Mike said, "Let's just get out of here. I can't be a hero, I can't stand it."

I opened the door and walked out into the hall. The phone was ringing again and people were speaking quietly in the living room. We passed them without hearing any comments, then saw Mike's mother on the phone in the kitchen. I let Mike and Anton go ahead of me as I held the door. Just when they had stepped outside and I was going to follow them I felt a tap on my shoulder.

It was Mike's mother with the receiver in one hand and the other hand covering the mouthpiece. She whispered excitedly, "Clay's going to be okay. He's awake and talking."

I don't know why, but I started to cry again and I was crying when I walked outside. Tony saw me first and asked what was wrong, causing Mike to turn and look at me with the same question in his eyes.

I looked around me. It was the same sultry night, the same end to a day of fun in the southern heat. I had been in Morton just over twenty-four hours, this place that didn't even show up on most maps. I was looking through teary eyes at two boys who I now considered friends, the kind of people who I wanted to keep as friends. Tony and Mike, both very sincere boys who cared enough about this stranger to allow me into their lives, show me a good time, show me how real friends take care of each other.

It wasn't just them, it was everybody I'd met. I guess I expect adults to be polite to strangers, but here everybody gave me a chance, let me get to know them. I loved my own family and was very close with them. I felt the same things in our home, just not in the streets of the northeast.

I felt overwhelmed, mostly by the horror of watching Clay being dragged out of the pond, by the tension of trying to revive him, by how forceful Mike had been in getting me involved. The kindnesses I had been shown had come on slower, a person here, two there, but the cumulative effect was just as powerful. Here in this place, for the first time in my life, I felt like I actually belonged.

I managed a teary eyed smile. "Clay's okay guys, awake and talking."

The relief on their faces made me add something of my own. I grinned at Mike.

"He's claimin' you slipped him the tongue."


© Copyright, 2018-2019, the author. All rights reserved.