Jack in the Box

Chapter 19

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

I was afraid, of what I'm not sure. Davy Loomis just told me that Clay was going to be okay, and that made me happy. I had a few doubts about Clay as a friend, but I certainly didn't want him dead, especially not on the nicest night I'd had since Jack died. I know how scared I'd been of the school bus after that accident, and it still frightened me. I didn't want to be afraid of ponds, of fishing, of having fun. I wasn't really even worried of being called a hero again, although I hoped people would just leave it alone.

I was afraid of my own head, terrified actually. I knew I helped save Clay's life, I just didn't know where it came from. The first time, that awful day on the bus, I had Jack in my head telling me what to do. Not just in general, he told me step-by-step what to do with each kid who was in trouble. I had followed blindly, helplessly even, and it worked. A lot of people died in the initial collision, but nobody died afterwards and that was because of Jack knowing what to do.

This night was different. When I saw them pull Clay out of the water I suddenly knew what to do, at least I thought I did. What worried me is that I shouldn't have known. I didn't have any sense at all of Jack being there, but I felt like I was thinking his thoughts, seeing what he would see. Maybe I saw it on TV, I don't know, but I did know what to do. I grabbed Davy and made him help. I thought it was taking too long and we'd failed when suddenly Clay spasmed and spit water in my face.

I still didn't stop. I kept blowing air into his mouth while Davy kept pressing on his chest. We did it until the ambulance guys got there and took over, and then I just backed away and watched. I could tell that Clay was alive, I could see his chest expanding and contracting with his breathing, I could see when his eyes opened. I could see but I couldn't comprehend. I felt joy, real elation, seeing that he was still alive, and that quickly turned to despair. Despair that I'd intervened where I shouldn't have, gotten involved where I didn't belong, prolonged the life of somebody who seemed unhappy to begin with.

I lost it and started to cry hysterically, cry like I never cried before, not even when I cried about Jack. I cried from fear and sorrow when it should have been from gladness and relief.

I cried when Davy held me, cried when James tried to comfort me, cried when the other kids applauded us, cried when I got home.

I cried again when Tony showed up, but to me those were different tears. I cried then because he had shown up, because he was there for me, because I had my first friend since Jack. I know that Tony got a ride, but I was certain that he would have walked if he had to.

Anton Wolfe... Tony... my friend... came to me when I needed a friend above my own family. He cried himself when he saw my condition, helped me change clothes, was ready to listen but didn't ask me anything.

Davy was there too, and he was a help, but he was already there and he was stuck there. Paulina, my parents and sisters, Dave from next door, they were all there for me too, but Tony came for me, dropped what he was doing and rushed over, and it couldn't have come too soon.

The news that Clay was okay didn't really cheer me up. It took the last of my strength to think about it. I stumbled across the driveway and sat on Dave's back step, Tony and Davy flanking me. The only light came from the ones by our side doors and what little escaped from windows. It was quiet but not silent, being the kind of night where little sounds carried long distances.

God, I hated how weak I felt, how little control I had over what happened around me. Worse, I couldn't control my own actions, much less my own thoughts. I didn't know what I liked, not even who I liked. Well, I knew some people that I knew I liked, at least some people I had a reason to like. Tony, like me, was stuck in Morton. Davy would go away the next day, and I didn't want him to. He'd go just the same, sort of like Jack, except Dave didn't have to die to get out.

I felt Tony's slender arm slip around my back, his voice softly ask, "You okay? Want me to do sumthin'?"

I shook my head, "Just don't go away. Please. Just stay here, okay?"

Davy asked, "How about me? Can I do something? You want something to drink?"

It was way too weird. I'd just met Davy the night before, now I considered him a better friend than most of the people I'd known all my life. I looked at the dimly lit things around us, at my back porch, the center of life at our house most of the year. I always wished we had a front porch, one where you could sit and see the world go by, but the back one was nice enough I guess. We could see the birds and the bunnies, the chipmunks and hoppy toads from there, just not the people driving, walking, running, biking or skating by. There was nobody to wave at from a back porch, and I think I would have liked to be able to do that.

I hadn't answered Davy and I didn't want to. I felt his hand join Tony's on my back and I liked feeling them both there. They both had a gentle touch and I appreciated that they were with me, and letting me brood over my dark thoughts, not trying to insinuate their own ideas about things on me. Could they understand me that well already, or were they having their own thoughts? Damn, I hoped they were better than my own! That idea made my brain take a left turn and gave me picture that Tony might see. I mentally moved my field of view over to that from my own stoop and saw three brooding boys sitting opposite me, all lost in thought. I giggled, then a vehicle pulled into the driveway and made us all jump.

It was Davy's van, followed shortly by another car. James got out of the passenger side and walked over to us. He smiled, "You heard about Clay?"

Tony said, "Just that he's alright."

James' smile intensified. "Yeah, he's gonna be fine, maybe a little sick for awhile." He held both of his hands out, one to me and one to Davy. We each took one and James' look became serious. "Thanks, guys. I'll never forget what you did tonight."

None of us said anything, so James continued, "Listen, I think all of your stuff's in the van, if it's not we'll find it." He looked around, "That's my parents back there, I gotta go." He smiled again, "Thanks for saving Clay. You'll be glad someday with that boy, you'll see."

He turned and walked away without another word, then got into the car behind the van, backed into the street and sped away.

None of us said anything for awhile, then Davy asked "What's so funny?"


"You laughed before, Mike, what was it about?"

"Nuthin, it was stupid."

"Come on!"

I giggled again thinking about it. "Aw, I was just feelin' like I was Tony watchin' all of us from my house, imaginin' what kinda picture he'd draw."

That was followed by silence, then Tony laughed out loud. "No shit? Me too! I got the thing half done in my head."

I had heard Tony snicker and giggle before, but I'd never heard him laugh out loud like that. I'd never heard him cuss or sound very excited before either, and the combination was almost musical, at least to my ears. Given his past, I wondered where he found the ability to sound so suddenly happy. I didn't want to dwell, so I elbowed him and said, "You just swore! What would your grandma think about that?"

He laughed happily again, "My grandma always cussed. She got me doin' it. You know how many times I got my mouth washed out with soap?"

Davy joined in, "Come on, that really happened?"

"Ohhhhh yeah. My mama hates those words. She says I'm goin' to hell and I ain't comin' back 'til it freezes down there."

Those were familiar enough words to me, but it set Davy off laughing. "Come on, really? For sayin' shit? What the hell else would you call it?"

Tony got serious, "Turd's okay, so's crap. Cow plop, dung, manure," he started to giggle, "Poop, poo," his giggling turned to laughter, "They're all okay. When it comes to pigs there's only one word," his laugh turned to a wheeze and he barely got it out, "Even mama calls that pig shit! You ever been by Jens' place after a rain?"

Davy didn't know, but I knew exactly what Tony was talking about and I laughed with him. There are things that stink, and there are things that stink, and nothing stinks quite like a pig farm after a warm rain.

Tony and I laughed it out, and then we all fell silent again until another car turned into the driveway. This time it was Dave's uncle Tim, whose doorstep we were sitting on, and his brother Timmy. I made a mental note too, if I ever had kids I'd name them 'Oxbow' or 'Red Dog' or something. My family was the same way, everybody was Mike or Joe, and it was terribly confusing, even if you were flattered by your own namesake.

Timmy stumbled toward us, followed by a sober looking Tim. Timmy grinned, " We had fun! What'd you guys do?"

Davy shrugged, "Not much. Fished, ate, swam."

Timmy, now propped up by Tim, smiled. "You fished? I thought you hated that!"

Davy put his arm back around me and pulled me close, "Mike saved a life tonight, and I helped."

Timmy looked incredulous, Tim seemed to believe Davy right away and anxiously asked, "What happened?"

I tried to tune out as Davy recounted the events of the evening. The two Tims stood there listening in silence. I did appreciate how Davy told it, all matter-of-factly. When he finished, Timmy said, "Wow! You guys are real he...."

Davy jumped up and shushed him before he got the word out. "Come on, Timmy. We were just there, and we'd have done the same thing for you. It's not a big deal, okay?"

Davy must have been doing something with his eyes, because Timmy kept looking at me. "Oh, I get it, yeah, not a big deal. That's right."

The older Tim looked at me, "Is there anything we can do? It's all okay now?"

There was something he could do, let me have Davy for a little longer. "Does Davy have to leave? Can't he stay longer?"

Tim fingered his chin as he thought, then he smiled. "You want him to stay?"

Davy nodded his head excitedly and I got excited too. "Yes! Can he? Oh, please?"

He put his hand on Timmy's shoulder, causing Timmy to look at him. "You mind flying back? I can pay the drop-off on these trucks, there's no reason to drive them back."

Timmy surprised us all when he asked, "Can I stay too? I kinda like it here myself. I don't really have to be back before Friday."

Davy was just about bouncing, "Really? I can stay? I love it here so much! I wish I could just stay forever!"

Tim grinned at Davy's words and said, "As long as it's okay with your folks, I sure don't have a problem."

I looked at Tony and he seemed as eager as I was to have Davy stick around a while longer. "Thanks, Tim."

He looked at the three of us and smiled. "Does Dave know about this? Did he sleep through everything?"

Davy said, "No, he was here. He made me and Tony get Mike away from everybody so he'd calm down. I think he's back in bed now."

Tim smiled, "Well, I think I'll join him if everything's okay out here." He looked at us again and said, "I'm really proud of you guys. That was an awesome thing to do."

Tim stood there for a second, mostly looking proudly at Davy. Then he moved toward the step we were sitting on.

Davy stood up to let Tim get by, then Timmy started telling us about his night on the town. He seemed excited about it, but before he got many words out yet another car pulled into my driveway. It was the Nettleton's, minus Clay. When they got out of the car they started walking toward us, all of them looking pretty shaken.

We stood to greet them. My eyes were used to the dark by then, and I could see that they had all been crying. Mrs. Nettleton still was, and she was using her husband for support. My attention went to Annie, who was looking right at me and trying to smile, her lip quivering. Jimmy was behind her and he didn't look a lot better than his mother.

Mr. Nettleton held his hand out to me, then Davy and Tony. "Mike, I already talked to your mother so I know what not to say. Clay is our son and we love him dearly. He's alive right now because you boys did the right thing, and for that we'll always be grateful to you." He sniffled, "I'm trying not to be sentimental here, but it's not easy." He looked directly at me and in a shaky voice said, "Mike, I know the things they were saying about you last year, I know what a hard time you and Jack had, and I know about Clay's role in it. He told me what he did and that he talked to you, so I just want you to know that in my book you're a man, a real man!"

Clay's mother let go of her husband and hugged me close to her saying, "Thank you. Oh, thank you so much!" She was crying pretty hard and I actually ended up comforting her while Clay's father talked to Davy and Tony. I was looking at Annie, who was staring at me with a strange, teary-eyed expression.

When her mother finally let me go, Annie came up and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She whispered, "You are a real man, Michael Waters. Whatever happens between us, you'll always be the man who saved my brother's life."

Annie and I held our hug while I watched Jimmy try to kill Davy with his. If he had him any tighter I think teeth would have started to pop out of Davy's mouth. Jimmy looked at me as if to say I was next, so I quickly went back to hugging Annie. I liked it. Where Jack had hard spots, Annie had soft ones. She smelled different too, mostly of pond right then, but there was something else coming through, something I liked. Poor Tony was kind of left out of things, but if I knew his preference that's the way he wanted it. When Jimmy finally backed up and stood by his father, I let Annie go and asked, "How's Clay doin' anyhow?"

Mr. Nettleton said, "For now he's fine. They're going to check for hidden damage in the morning, but he seems lucid and everything's working. He has to stay in the hospital for a few days because there's a possibility of pneumonia or infections from having pond water in his lungs. Barring that, he should be home Tuesday or Wednesday."

I smiled and said nothing. Mr. Nettleton said suddenly, "I just had an idea! When Clay gets home, let's celebrate! Annie knows everybody who helped tonight; we'll get a ton of pizza and soda and have a party!"

We all just looked at him for a moment, and it suddenly sounded like a fantastic idea. Clay was alive when he might not have been, that should be celebrated. Not me, Not Davy, not the kids who fished him out of the water, but Clay himself, his life! We all agreed enthusiastically, and Clay's father left it that when they were sure when Clay was coming home he'd have Annie get in touch with us and plan things.

Everybody seemed happier and the Nettleton's, except for Annie, went over to my house. Davy and Tony sat back down on the step, leaving room for me in the middle. There wasn't enough space for Annie, and she pushed me down between them and sat on my lap. On my lap! Annie Nettleton was sitting right on my, um … thing! Not only that, she was wiggling her fanny around to get herself comfortable there. Good luck getting comfortable, girl! I sprung a woody that she had to have felt! Hell, I think it was holding her whole body an inch higher than it would have been.

Not only was I stiff, I was hot. I was trembling and my breathing was difficult. I had no place for my hands, then Annie took them and placed them on her stomach so I was hugging her. I could feel her heartbeat, feel her breathing. Annie's heart seemed to be racing along in pace with mine, but her breathing was a lot steadier. I had her soft hair on my cheek, her soft butt on my lap, and my hands around other softnesses. I finally had to gasp in a great mouthful of air just to get enough oxygen to keep everything working.

That wasn't lost on Davy. "Uh, want us to get lost?"

"NO!" I cried in an out-of-breath squeak.

I startled Annie and she started to push herself up, which would have exposed my condition to Dave and Tony. Again I cried, "NO!" and pulled her back down onto my lap, laying my chin on her shoulder. I'm pretty sure she sensed my problem, hell she'd have to have a butt full of novocaine to miss it. We sat there like that for a moment before she said, "I'm thirsty. Do you have anything cold, Davy?"

Davy jumped up, "Sure, what's your preference?"

"Oh, iced tea, lemonade, something without bubbles."

Davy said, "Coming right up! Anybody else?"

Tony and I both nodded and Davy disappeared inside. Annie asked, "Anton, would you mind asking my parents how long we're staying?"

Tony seemed surprised, but he smiled, "Sure, Annie!" He got up and trotted across the driveway saying, "Be right back!"

As soon as he went into my house Annie stood up and turned to me, looking right at my crotch. "Get up, Mike. Let's take a walk."

I doubt that she could see me do it in that light, but I blushed hotly enough that the plants near me probably took on sudden new growth. I was so embarrassed. I was hard, Annie knew I did, and I knew that she knew. I'm also sure Tony and Dave knew why they had been sent on their little missions, and that embarrassed me even more.

I hadn't moved, just leaned forward to hide myself a little. Annie wasn't buying it. She held her hand down to me and said, "Come on Mike, before they come back!"

She held her hand out and I gave her what I hope looked like a smile, and stood, immediately turning away from Annie. She took my other hand and gave me a yank, almost pulling me off my feet. I followed Annie into Dave and Tim's back yard and heard her voice in the darkness. "I'm sorry, Mike. I promised not to tease and it's the first thing I did." She added some sweetness to her already pretty voice, "Forgive me?"

I was nervous, alone with Annie in the near-blackness. I stuttered, "It's... it's okay."

She somehow found my other hand and we stood facing each other, though I could barely make her out. "Listen, Mike. I know what you're going through, at least I think I do. I can't pretend to understand, but that's just me. You need to know that I'll wait, give you some time. I have one more thing I want to do, and after that the next move's yours, okay?"

I nodded dumbly in the dark, then when I realized she couldn't see any better than me I squeaked, "Okay."

With that, her lips found mine. It wasn't forceful, just a gentle kiss that we held for a moment. I reveled in it. Annie wasn't Jack and I didn't expect her to be. She was Annie, a sweet girl who was also bright and witty. Her lips felt good on mine and as I lost some strength in my arms, my hands slipped down to the top of her butt. Her body felt good close to mine like that.

Annie backed off from the kiss and my hands fell to my side, but my adjusting eyes could now see her eyes and her smile. She leaned forward and kissed me again, very quickly this time. Her look turned serious, and she said quietly, "You can have me, Mike, if you want to." Her eyes turned down, "I owe you for Clay. Even if you just want to try, it's okay."

It took a few seconds for what Annie had just said to sink into my confused head. She was standing there offering herself to me, even if love wasn't involved on my end, just so I could see what it was like. I was totally shaken by that, that this nice girl could suddenly care so much for me that she'd offer me... what; Her virginity? It wasn't supposed to happen, not in my wildest dreams.

It wasn't supposed to happen like that, period. I wasn't a victor claiming the spoils of war. I wasn't about to try anything with Annie simply because she'd allow me to. Heck, I could have done things with Jack ten times a day if he had his 'druthers, and I knew I was in love with him.

Still, there was something about Annie that kept my attention, some appeal that I couldn't describe, even to myself. I know I was attracted, more than that, I was infatuated by her, with her. Our kiss hadn't really been erotic, far from it, but satisfying and comforting and very pleasurable.

We just looked at each other for awhile, our hands back in each other's. I was friggin' attracted and I knew it, and I could see that Annie was too.

We were interrupted by Tony's hesitant voice. "Um, boo?"

We both started and turned toward him.

Tony said, "I gotta go Mike, 'less you want me to stay. Your folks's are goin' right now, Annie."

I looked back at Annie and she kissed me again quickly, "It's up to you, Michael Waters." She gave me another quick kiss, "Take care of yourself, promise?"

I didn't know what to say. I gave Annie a little cupped hand wave and said, "Bye. I hope Clay's okay."

She smiled and turned, hurrying to their car. I looked at Tony. " Can you stay?" I was suddenly emotional again and I took a few steps to Tony and hugged him to me, hoping to find some strength in his wiry body. "Please, Tony, I need somebody right now."

Tony pushed away from me, "You want me to stay? Davy's here."

My mind tried to process what Tony had just said, how he'd said it. The words implied jealousy, but the tone didn't at all. I almost laughed, it was just Tony being honest, like why the heck would I need two friends. In his mind any friend would be enough.

I was looking at Tony, re-thinking what had just gone through my head, and it hit me like a hammer. Tony was right in his own way, one friend was better than none, but I suddenly realized that two were better than one, three better than two. It dawned on me that friends were like comfy pillows, pillows that could talk, listen, respond.

Tony had said something earlier when we were in the canoe, and it just blew by me at the time. He said he knew me and now I knew him. I realized what he meant by that. Tony had watched all his life, always from the side, always paying attention. It was clear in his pictures, and I wished I had them in front of me right then to see what he really saw in me.

Was I just a blur flying by on a bicycle? Did I have a smile on my face and none in my eyes? Is that why he left me out of the drawing of Jack? We'd both been in the photo he did it from.



"I really want you to stay, tonight's been too much for me."

He looked a question at me. "Davy's here."

"I know he is, I want you here. Will you?"

Tony looked at me for a long moment, "Lemme tell Pa. I gotta make my glue in the morning."

I smiled into those big brown eyes, then Tony smiled back, satisfaction on his face if I read it right. I said, "I'll find you a ride home tomorrow, just please stay here."

"Okay, I'll be right back." Tony ran off to talk to his parents and I wandered back to where Davy was waiting with four cans of lemonade that were going warm.

He looked up, "Hey, you okay?"

"I'm okay. Timmy go to bed?"

"Yeah, he's all drunk. How'd it go with Annie?"

"Pretty good. Can I ask you something?"


I looked at Davy, not sure how to proceed. "Um, if a girl said she'd go all the way with you just to make you feel better... ah, would you?"

Davy's face jerked to look at mine. "Annie? Really?" He seemed to get lost in thought. "I... I don't know. I wanna get laid in the worst way, but I don't know if I could take advantage." He looked at me again, "Really? She'd do that for you?"

I realized I'd said too much already, "I didn't say it was Annie, it was just a question."

"Oh, okay. I guess... well... maybe, I don't know. It never came up, so I never thought about it." He smirked at me, "Speakin' of UP! Man, you could'a banged nails with that thang!"

"What's a thang?"

"Did I say thang?" He snickered, "I said it wrong, didn't I? It's the way Tony talks."

Tony was right there, "What's wrong with your thaing?" He grinned at me, "It was workin' when Annie was here!"

Oh, God. Everybody noticed; best to make a joke. "It broke."



I smiled, "Yeah, Annie sat on it and it broke right in half. I don't know what to do with two pieces."

Tony and Dave laughed, then fell silent. Tony looked up at the sky, "I'm makin' glue tomorrow." He snickered, "I'll give ya some, but you gotta glue the thaing yusself. I ain't doin' it!"

Davy and I both laughed out loud, and I pulled Tony onto my lap. I just meant for him to sit with us, I don't think I was aiming him that way, but that's where he landed, and what happened before happened again as Tony settled in. I got hard as a rock.

What the hell was in my head? Tony noticed right away and jumped up, laughing merrily. "I thought you said it was broke!"

If I had been embarrassed before, I was thoroughly embarrassed now. My friend had made me get hard, and I knew it was me and not him. I looked away in shame, my blush almost hurting. I grumbled, "It is broke. That's just the good half."

Davy giggled and asked, "Can I try? I don't wanna be the odd man out!" He grinned at me, "Man, I think a tomato tortilla would get you hard! When's the last time you got off?"

Tony faced us giggling. "A tortilla's better'n me?" He turned around and waggled his hands in the air, his butt in our faces, "Jeez, a tortilla? Man, I'll never get laid!"

Davy and I both broke out laughing at Tony's antics. He was funny and I never knew it, a thought that sobered me. I know that he had made me chuckle with his little jokes, but now he was trying to decide how to make himself look like a tortilla right in front of us and he was hilarious. I was laughing, but at the same time wondering what else I didn't know. It was Tony at first, and then Davy, and my thoughts eventually went to Annie.

Did these people have lots of sides that I wasn't aware of? Was I the one-sided person, the one with only one dimension, the dimension that even I couldn't find?

It's weird, I knew where I was, who I was with, what had happened that day and, especially, that night. I helped to save a life again, my friend's life, and the enormity of that hadn't sunk in, it probably never would. Meanwhile, Davy and Tony were clowning around trying to imitate Mexican food right in front of me.

None of us noticed somebody approaching. Paulina's amused voice broke through. "Alright, what are you guys supposed to be?"

Tony and Davy stopped in their tracks, surprise all over their faces when they saw Paulina, Jose and Scott looking at them. Davy said, "Um, I'm an enchilada, Tony's a tamale."

Tony squeaked, "Hi Paulina. It was a tortilla."

Jose laughed, "That ain't no enchilada! Scott, show him what an enchilada looks like." He gave Scott a shove toward Davy.

Scott turned around to face Jose, "I don't even like enchiladas! Why don't you just stand there and show 'em what a beanpole pole looks like?" He pointed and laughed, "Ha! You're already doin' it."

That chagrined Jose and they started wrestling each other while Paulina turned to us. She smiled, "I'm glad you guys were there tonight. It's really wonderful what you did."

Davy and I just mumbled, "Thanks, Paulina."

"I'll tell you what, what's your favorite food? I'll make sure we have lots of it tomorrow."

I didn't hesitate, "Chocolate chip cookies with pecans."

Davy seemed suddenly shy, "I kinda like shrimp cocktail. It's pretty expensive though, so don't go spendin' your money on me."

Paulina smiled, "Don't worry about that. You like your sauce hot?"

Davy smiled back, "Yeah, lots of horseradish."

Paulina looked at Tony, "Anton, how about you?"

Tony seemed surprised, "Me? I didn't do anythin'."

"My little brother said you drew my picture and that it's great. That's something, so come on... fess up what you want."

Tony smiled shyly, "Uh, ice cream?"


"Um," Tony seemed to be thinking furiously and I was silently championing chocolate chip cookie dough, "Banana split!"

"Mmmm, yummy! Hey, why don't you guys come earlier and we can hang around, maybe go for a swim."

Davy seemed eager. I asked, "You got a pool? When did that happen?"

"No, but we belong to the swim club in Arlington. We can have lunch there if you want; my treat."

I looked at Tony, thinking Paulina's idea sounded like fun but not wanting to leave him out. He said, "You guys can go, I really hafta work so I can get some money."

Paulina said, "That's okay, Anton. Maybe just you and me can go someday."

Tony seemed a little puzzled by the offer. "Really? Just us?"

"Yes Anton, just us. We can swim and get them to make us giant banana splits with six flavors. You've been around for a long time, and now I find out that you're special. I'm really sorry I missed that in you, and I want to make up for my lack of attention; it's not the way I want to be. Just say you'll do it, okay?"

Tony smiled, "Sure, okay. When?"

"This week for sure. Listen, I hafta get these two home before they turn into pumpkins."

We all looked at Jose and Scott, who had ended their wrestling match and were watching the rest of us.

Paulina grabbed my hands and kissed my cheek, whispering, "Thanks, hon. I'm proud of you.", then she kissed Davy on the cheek, presumably whispering something similar. She turned around and kissed Tony, only this wasn't on the cheek. She held his squirming body and kissed him full on the mouth, way longer than enough to make him stop squirming.

When she broke it off she grinned, "Wow! Well, see ya tomorrow. I'll call in the morning."

She turned and got between Scott and Jose and they all disappeared around the van. We could hear the two boys arguing over the shotgun seat and Paulina telling them both to sit in the back, then the engine started and they were gone.

The three of us were staring at where they'd disappeared from view. Davy said, "What a woman!"

I said, "Yeah, Paulina's cool. She's straight A, you know."

Davy breathed "I'll say," as I looked at Tony.

A silent laugh went through me when I saw Tony's awestruck expression. At first I thought he had his hand over his mouth, then I realized he was gently fingering his lips where they'd been kissed. I called out, " Tony!" making him jump back into reality. He turned a dazed smile toward us, and it quickly became a grin.

"Did you see that? Did you see that? Paulina kissed me!"

Davy groaned, "Oh man, please tell me you kissed her back!"

Tony was hesitant, "I think I did. I was scared at first, and then I did what she did." He looked at us curiously, "You ever have a tongue in your mouth... somebody else's I mean?"

Davy jumped up and down, "Holy shit! She Frenched you?"

Tony seemed very pleased, "I don't know what you call it, but if that's what they do in France that's where I'm a-headed."

Davy seemed to think that was hilarious, and it was clear that he'd learned a few things about laughing from his uncle Tim. The situation was funny to me too, but I ended up laughing more just because Davy couldn't seem to stop, and listening to him was funny by itself. Tony was right there with us, his laugh more like an uncontrollable giggle. It took us some time to calm down before I thought about how late it must be.

"I'm beat, guys. You stayin' at my house, Davy?"

"I would, but you just have two beds. I can sleep here."

I said, "You guys can have the beds, I'll just sleep on the floor or the couch. I don't mind."

Davy was hesitant, "Really? I don't mind the floor. Yeah, I'll stay if it's not a problem."

I yawned and said, "It's not a problem. Tony has to go in the morning, so let's stick together while we can."

Davy said, "Okay, I'll be right over," and went inside. I put my hand on Tony's shoulder and walked to our house expecting everybody to be in bed. My mother was waiting at the kitchen table and looked up when we walked in.

She smiled happily, "Well, you look better. Hi again, Anton!"

I said, "I'm okay. At least nobody's makin' a big deal out of it. Um, Tony and Davy are sleepin' here. Can you drop Tony off on your way to work? He has to work too."

"I sure can. I stayed up to see what you needed." Her smile changed into something deeper, more loving, "Michael, I'm very proud of you right now. Your father is too, we all are. Nothing could have prepared any of us for what happened tonight, nothing. We were all glad to see you kids getting together as a group, then Clay... well," she got teary eyed all of a sudden, "You don't know what it's like being a parent, giving you kids your freedom and then worrying all the time, worrying that you'll behave and be responsible."

She smiled through her tears, "Well, Mr. Waters, you were way more than responsible tonight and the whole town thanks you."

My voice came out in a whisper, "Thanks Mom, I love you."

I took a few steps toward her. She was standing by the time I got there and pulled me into a great, warm Mom hug. I got lost in it, no thought required, no tears falling, just comfort, the kind that could only be found in that one place.

Begat, begot, Bullshit! I'd been to bible study most of my life. This woman had squeezed me out of her very body, had given me up to the rest of the world. She never let go, though, and if there was one certainty in my life it was that she never would.

Mom's hugs weren't usually squeezers. This one was and I liked it. It was like she was trying to pull me back inside her, and right then that was a place I'd like to be. In the womb... dark, quiet, warm, wet. Nothing at all was required there except for a cell to divide once in a while, look up it's job on the DNA chart, and go to work. It was a place where you got to think about nothing, decide nothing. There was no chocolate or vanilla, just your mother. Pure love.

I heard the door opening and looked around to see Davy, clean underpants and his toiletry kit dangling off one finger. He smiled, "What's up?"

I partially released my mother, keeping my arm around her back as I repositioned myself to look at Davy. Tony was standing there too, looking a little sullen. I asked Davy, "Always the underpants, huh?"

"Yeh, well... you know. Skid marks and that. I hate puttin' 'em back on."

We all stared at him for a second, then my mother said so quietly it was hard to hear, "It's every mother's worry. I hope Clay changed his undies today."

I broke loose and turned to stare at her myself, then there was a collective, "What?" from Davy, me and Tony.

My mother blushed and said, "Never mind, it's just a mother thing. I'm going to bed!"

She hurried from the room, and when the rest of us understood what she meant we started wheezing with suppressed laughter. I know I had, and I suppose that Davy and Tony had heard it all the time. "What if you end up in the hospital? What kind of mother will they think I am if you're wearing dirty underwear?"

It was too funny, and I herded Tony and Davy out to the porch so we could laugh it out without waking the whole house. Davy still had underpants in his hand, and Tony and I somehow found that hilarious. We laughed and laughed. Davy didn't catch on to what seemed so funny.

He stood there embarrassed, "What?"

Through his laughter, Tony pointed to Davy's underpants dangling from his finger. He couldn't manage to get a word out. Davy got the message and blushed. "What, I should carry a suitcase because I have underpants?" He grinned, "You guys can be real assholes!"

Tony giggled and said, "You could put them in a bag or something," then his look turned serious. "Can I ask you guys something?"

We both said, "Sure."

"You guys saved Clay's life tonight. Why're ya afraid to talk about it? I don't get it."

Davy and I exchanged glances, and I could see the same question on Davy's face. I turned to Tony, "I don't know. I don't even know how to think about it." A thought entered my head, "Listen, I'm glad Clay's okay, but if you did the same thing for me would you be pattin' yourself on the back? Would you think it was any big deal? Wouldn't you just be glad you did it? Why can't that be the end? Clay's alive, that's what counts!" I looked at Tony, then Davy, "Isn't it?"

Davy got tears in his eyes and almost whispered, "That is all that counts," and more forcefully, "You're right! It doesn't matter who helped because Clay's alive!"

Davy looked at Tony and me. We were in tune. Clay was alive because of us, but that wasn't the important thing. If Clay had died, he would have been buried and forgotten by everyone except his family. Even they would lose their thoughts of him, only remembering the boy who had once been alive on his birthday maybe, perhaps on other occasions.

I was lost in thought, thoughts about life and death, thoughts about what the difference was.

Tony piped up, "You know, you're responsible now!"

I stared at him, "What's that mean?"

"Gran always said that if you save somebody's life you're responsible for the rest of it, you know, to make sure it goes alright." He looked around and continued, "I mean, if God wants somebody and you butt in, then it's your problem. He let you have Clay back, now you hafta take care of him. Forever!"

Davy said, "You know, I've heard that before too. Do you think it's true?"

I considered the prospect, wondering what it meant. "I hope the hell not! I can't picture myself babysittin' for Clay all my life."

Davy mumbled, "Me either. You guys ready for bed?"

We were, so we all headed to my room and figured out some arrangements. Davy and Tony both offered to sleep on the floor, but I insisted that I sleep there. It wasn't that uncomfortable to start with, and they were technically my guests. I got a pillow from the sofa and spread a sheet on the carpet between the two beds and laid down after I took my shirt and shoes off, then I just rolled up in the sheet as Davy and Tony settled into bed. We talked quietly for a bit, then zonked out. I fell asleep easily after a difficult night, secure between my two new friends. I drifted off into a dream where Jack Murphy was using a bulldozer to heap mulch up into humongous piles in my back yard while Joe Goldman dumped load after load from his truck.

* * * * * * * *

I woke up when my mother tapped on the door and called out for Tony to get ready. I was only half awake, but I remembered to thank him for coming over. When he was dressed, he knelt down and patted my shoulder, then said he'd probably see us at the picnic later. I wished him good luck with his glue, and he was gone.

I rolled over and dozed for a while longer, not really asleep but not quite awake either. I was trying not to think about the night before, about what had happened to Clay. That, of course, made me unable to think of anything else. I was even more puzzled about how I knew what to do, how I knew that Clay's body being cold was a good thing. I was really afraid that Jack had come back and not even bothered to say hello, or to mention that he was there to show us the way again. That scared the hell out of me when it looked like Jack might not love me anymore, that he might come back just to help and then not even let me know he was there.

I heard Davy stirring and I turned to look at him. He opened his eyes. "Hi. You sleep okay down there?"

"Yeah, it was fine. How about you?"

"Like a log. You gettin' up now?"

I stretched my way out of my little cocoon, "Might as well. You can use the bathroom across the hall and I'll use my folks'."

Davy's head was hanging off the edge of the bed as he eyed me. "That was some day yesterday. When I got here you made me think I'd be bored silly, and I had the best time ever. It didn't even cost anything!"

I stared at Davy's face, liking what I saw even more in the morning light, even if his comment made me think he was a little touched in the head. "Yeah, well welcome to Morton, the fun capital of the universe."

He gave me a puzzled look. "You sound like you don't like it here."

"Well, not everyday is like yesterday." I smiled, "I'm glad you can stay awhile, anyhow. We'll figure out how to bore you, give us a chance."

Davy snickered and tossed his pillow at me. "Yeah, like that'll happen."

I said, "It'll happen, that much I can promise."

I got up and grabbed my bathrobe and headed down the hall, where I had a nice, long shower. I was getting dressed when Davy came back into my room all pink from his shower and shave. He tossed yesterday's underpants at me and said, "Check 'em out! You really think it's weird that I want to change them?"

We joked around while Davy got dressed, and decided to have breakfast at his uncle's house after Davy said they always had a big feed there.

My father was in our kitchen with his coffee when we walked in. He looked at me in assessment for a second, and a big smile spread across his face. "Hi Boys! You okay, Mike? You had me worried last night."

"I'm okay. Can I call Dr. Service and change my appointment? Paulina's takin' us to the swim club over in Arlington."

His worried look came back. "Do you think that's a good idea? I thought you'd really want to talk to him today."

I did, actually, but it could wait a few days. "Yeah I do, but I never been to the swim club. I'll go Wednesday, I promise."

He stared at me and I could see his mind working. "You were really upset last night."

"I was just scared I think. I'm okay now, I'm fine."

"Well... alright then, go have a good time. Are you two hungry?"

"We're eatin' next door." I went over and gave my father a quick hug.

When we were headed out the door I heard, "Mind your manners," which never required a response.

We had a nice big breakfast with the two Tim's, then walked out to their pond with Buster. The dune buggy was still there by the barn but I somehow didn't feel like driving it right then. Tim had already talked to Davy's parents and he and Timmy were going to fly home on Friday morning. The only thing planned was for them to drive the trucks into the city later and drop them off.

While we tossed a stick into the water for Buster to retrieve Davy told me about some of his friends, how he liked them okay but felt he already knew more about the kids in Morton. I didn't really get what he was saying. How could you hang around with somebody and not know them? He said that where he lived kids talked, just not much about themselves. It was always about what was going on, game scores, belongings, music. Not necessarily gossip, just nothing very important.

I considered that, and there was a certain appeal to me. You got what you saw, and that was about it. Nobody had to know your feelings, nobody got too personal. It sounded good to me.

When we got back to the house my father was working in the yard. He told us that Paulina had called and she'd pick us up at eleven unless she heard different. We went in my house to find bathing suits and get ready, then wandered out to the barn where we'd seen Tim. He and Timmy were hooking up computers in the office area. I didn't know much about them, so I stood and watched for a while, wondering why he'd need more than one. I wasn't in a talkative mood, so I didn't ask.

Right at eleven we heard a horn from the driveway. Davy and I said quick goodbyes, then raced out to meet Paulina. We drove directly to the swim club, which turned out to be pretty nice even though it looked like any other metal building from the front.

Inside there was an Olympic size pool, a lap pool and a kiddie pool, then another pool that was part inside and part outside. That's where we swam, and the outside part was beautiful. There were stone walls and shade trees all around it, plus sitting areas with umbrella tables. There were colorful flowers growing everywhere, and each table had flowers in vases. Everything was on different levels and the overall effect was pretty stunning.

Davy seemed stunned by Paulina. I guess I was too. She was pretty to start with, with dark skin, black hair and surprisingly dark brown eyes. She looked great in a bathing suit and she could swim! She easily outpaced my most valiant efforts to keep up with her. It was more fun to watch her because she was very graceful with her body movements, barely raising a ripple in the water as she literally sliced through it..

We swam for about an hour, then sat at one of the outdoor tables and ordered lunch. I got a Caesar salad and a cheeseburger. Davy got a cheeseburger and fries, while Paulina had a chicken Caesar salad. The food was delicious, and I was a little surprised at how comfortable I felt there. I usually felt put off by fancy places, like I didn't really belong there. I guess Paulina was the main reason. She just kept us yakking about things during lunch, and that made me feel really at ease. She knew about a lot of very different things and it was a fun time for me just to listen to her. We teased her a little about her kiss with Tony. She put us in our place by saying she took her kissing seriously and that Tony had a very nice set of lips. I could see that Davy was really impressed with Paulina. I was too, but Davy was pretty impressive himself. I really liked him.

The subject of Clay never once came up.

We relaxed for a little while after lunch, then took another dip in the pool. When we got back in the Jeep Paulina asked, "Did you enjoy yourselves?"

Davy and I both gushed about how much we indeed had, then Paulina asked, "Wanna go see Clay?"

I didn't really, but I said yes anyhow because Davy seemed eager to. We drove across town, following the little blue 'H' signs. I lost my breath when we got there. I knew they'd renamed the hospital after Jack, but I'd never been by there since. At the turn in from the road there was a stone wall with a sign on it, "Jack Murphy General Hospital." There were a lot of little directional signs under it pointing the way to the various entrances. When we turned in, the building was in front of us, with metal letters across the front, "Jack Murphy General Hospital." The letters were big enough that it must have spread across fifty feet. There was a big fair weather cloud overhead and the words just looked gray, like death.

I was so taken aback that while Paulina was pulling into a parking space I jumped out and started running before she even stopped. I needed to be alone, to look at those letters in my own way. I found a tree where I could sit in the shade and look. I did look, but through my own tears. I wasn't ready for this, for my boyfriend's name to be up there for the whole world to see. It seemed obscene, more like an advertisement than a memorial.

I was upset and angry. Jack Murphy was a person, not a freakin' hospital! I hated that sign! I wanted to take it down and melt it, letter by letter, in Tony's glue pot. I wanted to find the people who'd decided to put his name there, maybe take a letter each and shove it down their throats, tell them, "Here! Eat this! If you think this is Jack, you're whacked in the head! Jack lived! He loved! He freakin' cared! He ain't no building!"

I noticed Paulina and Davy sitting on the hood of the Jeep, apparently talking, but taking anxious glances at me. I'm sure they didn't have a clue as to what my problem was, but right then I didn't care.

I looked back at the sign, ready to hate it some more, then the cloud that had been obscuring the direct sunlight passed and the words "Jack Murphy" were glinting in front of me instead of looking gray. It was prettier that way, almost hard to look at with the glare it reflected. I knew Jack Murphy, I loved him. I couldn't help but love him, and I missed him terribly. I squinted back at the sign. In the full sun it suddenly seemed more like a beacon, a directional signal. Could it mean that Jack was inside? I got excited and jumped up, almost tripping over myself as I ran toward the Jeep. Paulina and Davy slid off the hood onto their feet as I approached.

"Come on!" I yelled as I ran past them headed toward the visitor's entrance. Only when I was in the lobby did I think to stop and wait for them. Paulina came in first, an odd look on her face. Davy was right behind her. "What was that..."

"We gotta find Clay!" I ran to the desk and asked where Clay was and got directions, then ran to the elevator. Davy and Paulina were right with me. I pressed the 'three' button and ran to the right when the doors opened, like the lady had said. When we got near Clay's room I slid to a halt. There were about twenty kids milling around outside.

I found myself looking at James. He smiled, "You want in? It's two at a time, so just stay here and wait a sec. I'll get you in. You're the people he wants to see!"

I exchanged glances with Davy and Paulina, who said, "He doesn't mean me. You guys go ahead, I'll wait my turn."

I wanted to do a lot of things right then, thank Paulina for everything, thank Davy for sensing when I wanted to be alone, hug James for who he was. Mostly I wanted to be in that room! James came out with Buddy Early and Aaron. Buddy said he wanted to talk to me, but I just hurried past him tugging Davy's wrist.

When the door closed behind us I was looking at Clay Nettleton and he was looking at me. He seemed smaller somehow, and he had a tube leading to his wrist from a bag on a metal thing that looked like a coat rack. We stared at each other for a brief moment, then Clay's eyes filled with tears and he looked away. I continued staring in silence until he looked back at us.

Clay seemed scared, but he finally said something in a hoarse voice. "Guys ..."

Davy and I both said hi and sat down in visitor chairs. Davy's voice was soft, "How ya feelin', Clay?"

Clay croaked, "Not too bad. My throat's pretty raw, that's the worst of it. I um... I feel like I should say something. You guys saved my life."

I said, "You don't hafta say anything, Clay. I'd kinda prefer it that way."

Davy said, "Me too."

Clay didn't seem surprised. "Thanks guys. You know, I don't know if I dreamed it or not, but you might have had some help." He looked away, "Naw, it must'a been a dream."

Help? I was sure we had help, but from where? "What, Clay? What happened?"

He looked back at us, his face clouded in uncertainty. "I don't know what happened. I was tryin' to get my flashlight off the bottom of the pond, the next thing I know I was in space somewhere, 'cept it wasn't somewhere. It was more like nowhere. Suddenly I get thoughts, like I'm askin' myself if I want to go back. I didn't even know where I came from, and it was almost like somebody else thinking with me. I thought I had fun and wanted to go back to it, then wham! I'm gettin' lessons on CPR because I didn't think anybody knew it."

Davy looked dumbstruck. "D-do you think you were dead?"

"I don't know. Like I said, I thought it was a dream, just a very weird one. It was like I was thinkin' all the thoughts, like I was memorizing all that stuff. Then I thought I had to make somebody else think my thoughts or I wouldn't be able to go back to the party."

I was beside myself. "How'd you pick me?"

Clay gave me a bleak stare, "I don't know. The next thing I knew I was in your head lookin' at myself with your eyes." He looked up, a trace of embarrassment on his face. "I said it was weird. I thought I was making you know what to do, then the next thing I remember I'm laying there with a mask over my face and gettin' a needle in the arm. Now I'm here." He reached over to his bedside table and took a sip of a gray liquid from a glass there, then gargled and spit it into a little basin. "There's one more weird thing, really weird."

Davy asked, "What's that?"

Clay looked at me and blinked his eyes, then stared at me for a full minute before looking back to Davy. "This is embarrassing."

Davy said softly, "You don't have to get embarrassed, just keep it to yourself."

Clay thought for a moment before saying, "No, it might be important." He looked back at me, "All through this I had the damdest feeling that I was in love with Mike," he giggled, "Like wildly in love, completely in love." He opened his eyes wide in innocence, "It ain't true, believe me, but when I was dreaming it sure was. I was scarin' the shit out of myself."

Davy snickered, "What, afraid of your feminine side?"

Clay smiled grimly, "Maybe, I don't know. All I know is it's not the case. I like Mike just fine, but that's as far as it goes. So much for dreams, huh?"

My head was racing with thoughts and ideas, but I tried desperately to stay with the situation, to control it. I said, "Clay, that's some dream. If I was you I'd keep it to myself. I know me'n Davy won't ever say anything."

Clay looked relieved, "Thanks guys, thanks for what you did and thanks for comin'. Are there still a lot of people out there?"

I smiled, "Yeah, Clay. You have a lotta friends. We'll see ya when you get home, okay? Take care of yourself."

When Davy and I walked back into the hall, James told us that Paulina had gone to get some groceries and would be back shortly. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, once again fending off Buddy Early for a later time. I told him I'd see him at the picnic.

I hurried to the men's room and went into the solitary stall and sat on the toilet. I didn't have to go, I had to think.

Jack! It was Jack last night, behaving in mysterious ways maybe, but it was him and he still loved me. He was there, better yet here, somewhere around. I had been right all along. I hadn't felt him because he gave Clay that mission. I probably failed to notice that because I plain didn't know Clay that well.

I sat there for a long time, not really thinking except at first. The light in the stall was pretty dim, but I somehow felt I was giving off a glow, that the world, even that stall, was an alright place right then. I had new hope, renewed hope, that somehow... someday... I'd find Jack.

I took long enough that Davy came looking for me, saying that Paulina was back and we had to hurry so the food wouldn't spoil.

"Sorry, I'll be right out." I stood and yanked some toilet paper off the roll, then waited a bit and flushed the toilet.

I heard Davy, "Lunch didn't agree with you?"

I rustled my clothes a little, then walked out. "Nah, sometimes it just takes time."

"What'd you think about Clay's dream?"

We walked out to find a waiting Paulina, who hurried us along. I said, "It was pretty cool for a dream, I guess. I'm glad Clay told us about it."

When we got to the Jeep I hopped in back and strapped myself in. As Paulina pulled out I looked at Jack's name again on the front of the building.

Paulina noticed and stopped for a few seconds. "You must be pretty proud of that, huh?"

"I guess. You'd think they might'a spent a few more bucks and got bigger letters."


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