Jack in the Box

Chapter 20

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

Paulina drove us back to my house and waited while we figured things out. I wanted to go to her house with her, and Davy had to drive a truck to town and wanted me to go with him. Paulina told me to go ahead with Davy, she had cookies to bake, shrimps to peel and bananas to split. I thought she was great, and I could tell that Davy was developing a serious attraction to her.

My sister Angela wanted to go for the ride, so she rode with Timmy while I went with Davy, Tim following in his car. We got a little lost finding the place and it ended up taking an hour to get there. Tim paid for the trucks and we piled into his car for the ride home. Tim was a quiet guy most of the time. He was different in his car, grinning and passing everybody on the highway. His car was fast, too. Every time he gunned it you got squished right back in your seat.

When we got back to the house I wanted to go to the picnic. Tim wanted to wait for Dave to get home, so Davy and I decided to ride bikes. I called Tony's house and his mother said she hadn't seen him since morning; if he was making his models it was best to just leave him alone.

Davy and I took our time riding over to Paulina's house. We didn't want to be all disgusting and sweaty when we got there. Tim asked me for directions and I told him it was better just to follow somebody because they lived where the forks started and it was easy to get lost. When Tim heard that he said he thought he knew where it was; that's how he found Morton to start with.

When we turned into the driveway we saw Scott and Jose laying in the front field, apparently looking at the sky. We could hear their voices when we went by, but not what they were saying. Those two reminded me of Jack and myself in some ways. It was rare to see them apart and their closeness was evident to everybody. Jose's father, Scott, called them Scozay sometimes, that's how tight they were. It was different than me and Jack, though. It was clear enough that they loved each other like brothers, yet I didn't think they were in love.

When the house came into view Davy said, "Jesus!"

It wasn't a fancy place, just a box with additions going everywhere, but it sure was big. I'd been told that there were eight bedrooms and ten bathrooms, two kitchens, the usual dining room and living room, and other rooms that were just there waiting for a purpose. They hadn't even gotten around to having their driveway paved, so it was easier to walk the bikes than try to ride in the loose gravel.

The front yard wasn't that nice, just a field mostly with some lawn right near the house. Around back, where we headed with our bikes, was where it was really nice, similar to the swim club in a way. There was a giant screen porch that was surrounded by an even bigger deck, and that was surrounded by a huge flagstone patio. Everything back there fit the natural slopes of the land, so there was no particular spot that was especially large, it was all segmented by steps and railings and stone walls.

When we rounded the house we could see that quite a few people were there ahead of us, mostly just setting out food or shooting the breeze. I saw Scott Johnson and Joe Goldman together in lawn chairs, so we dropped our bikes and walked over to them. They watched us approach, big smiles on their faces.

Joe said, "Hey, it's the dynamic duo, and they look like they're ready for action!"

Scott smiled, "Good job last night guys, I'm serious."

Joe said, "You're serious? That's a first," then looked at us. "Listen guys, I heard through the grapevine that you don't want to talk about it. That's fine. The first person that brings it up just let me know. I'll have Nick deck 'em, okay? Maybe stick a lit match in his ear?"

Davy laughed through his nose. I said, "It ain't that big a deal." I looked directly at Joe, "You were right. Last Sunday, I mean, about the spirits."

He looked surprised, "I was?"

Scott nudged him and said, "Talk about firsts!"

Joe turned a hurt expression to Scott. "Hey, I've been right before, especially on Sundays! That's a low blow, man."

I knew better than to try and hold a conversation when they were on each other like that. I looked at Davy, "Ya wanna learn some new insults or ya wanna find Paulina?"

That didn't take two askings, and Scott pointed to where she was. Davy left to find her while I backed away, bowing and waving. I turned and followed Davy to Paulina, who was getting frustrated trying to peel shrimp.

Davy said, "Hi," and Paulina looked up.

She smiled, "I never actually had to do this before! They keep breaking!"

Davy said, "Allow me," then he picked up a shrimp and pulled out a pocket knife and had the shell off in a second.

Paulina said, "Alright, wise ass. Show me how you did that."

Davy said, "After."

Paulina looked at him suspiciously, "After what?"

"After you show me what you showed Tony last night."

Paulina, the girl of many voices, was quiet for a moment, then she looked at Davy. "If I kiss you like that you'll peel these things?"

"The whole mess."

Paulina thought for a second then held out her hand, "Give me that knife. If I don't figure this out in three shrimp you get your kiss, if I do you get to kiss my fish!"

A surprised looking Davy placed the knife in her outstretched hand, "You have a fish?"

She picked up a shrimp and, trying what Davy had done promptly broke it in half. "Of course I have a fish. It's a koi, and I hope you like carp breath!" She picked out another shrimp and managed to get the shell off without breaking it, but it took some time. The shell from the next one came off pretty easily. She leaned across the table she was working at and stuck her tongue out at Davy. "It's time to kiss a fish, mister! The koi pond's over there," she pointed as she picked up another shrimp.

Davy took her hand and grinned, "You go play with your fish, I'll take care of these. Okay?"

She grinned right back, "Why didn't you offer in the first place?"

Paulina marched off while a surprised looking Davy's eyes followed her. "I thought I did." He looked at me, "I offered, didn't I?"

I started to chuckle, then felt a hand land heavily on my shoulder. I turned and it was Joe Goldman, looking fairly serious for once. "Let's talk, Mikey." He smiled a bit, "I'm so seldom right, I can't wait to see what it's about. Take a walk?"

I nodded and we started walking away. The property was kind of strange, shaped like an hourglass between other farms. They had a lot of land out front and around the house, then it throttled down to just an old cart path with fences on either side until you came to the big part out back, which was just hilly woods and abandoned fields.

Joe had his hand lightly on my shoulder as we got onto the cart path, then he stopped and turned me around, staring me right in the eye. I held his gaze.

He seemed hesitant to speak at first, so I gave him a little room by leaning against the fence.

"Mike, I know you don't want to hear this. I'm so proud of what you did last night I could just bust." He smiled softly, "I guess all those questions you always asked really taught you something, huh?"

We started walking uphill again. "Joe?"


"Promise you won't tell anybody?"

He stopped again. "Mike, I'd never tell anybody what you say unless you tell me to. You know that, don't you?"

I did know that. "Joe, it was Jack last night. Not me and Davy. He's just like you said, except he knows where I am."

Joe sat, bringing me down with him. "Sit down, Mike."

I giggled, "I already am."

"Yeah, well… what makes you think it was Jack?"

I told him all about what Clay thought was a dream, about how it was the only thing that made sense, about how I always felt that Jack was close, about how the sign on the hospital changed in a minute from an ugly thing to a welcome mat. Joe listened.

"Damn! You got me at a loss for words here, Mike. You're saying the spirits are nothin' but a bunch of thoughts floating around out there? I thought there'd be more to it."

Despite the heat I leaned into him, looking at the opposing fence from the one we were leaning against. I whispered, "I don't know. That's funny, you know."

"What is?

"That you thought there'd be more than thoughts."

Joe chuckled and said, "Mikey, I really don't know about this stuff and I don't think I want to. Clay said it was just a dream, didn't he? Why don't you just go with that?"

My voice had gone quiet too. "I didn't know how to do that stuff, Joe. I don't know CPR."

"Maybe you just have good instincts?"

"No, that ain't it. My instinct is to stay away from trouble, walk away. If it was just a dream Clay had, I wouldn't have done nuthin' and he'd be dead." I was trying to make sense of things in my own head, and I desperately wanted some confirmation of my thoughts. I shifted my weight, "Joe, if it wasn't for Clay thinking he loved me I might believe it was just a dream. He didn't say he just loved me, he said he was in love with me, that he felt it."

I looked up at Joe and he was staring off into space, lost to me for the moment. He started to smile at something, then said, "Mike, I hope you're right. Did we ever talk about love?"

"Yeah, just last Sunday. You said my ice cream was love."

He looked at me quickly, "Oh yeah, I remember. Didn't I tell you there were different kinds of love?"

"Yeah, but you stuck with the everyday kind."

"I remember. There's all kinds of love, Mike. You already know it if you think about it. You love your parents and you love your brother and sisters, but it's all different even there. I'm sure you have things you love, maybe a pet. I'm also sure you love your bike because it makes you free. You told me about Jack and how much you were in love. You can love certain places, even nice weather."

He adjusted his position and smiled, "It's all different, kid. I think it's a natural condition to love people and places and things. It's not something you can just choose either, especially with people. It's pretty much pre-ordained that you'll love your family. I think when you love somebody else it's your tendency to make them part of your family, let them become part of you.

I looked at him, wondering what was going through his head. He noticed and said, "Listen Mike, you're gonna love a lot of people in your life; you already do." He looked wistfully across the darkening road, "I loved a boy once, I still do."


He mussed my hair, "Yeah, Scott. He was my first friend, my only friend for a long time." He brightened and put his hand on my shoulder, "Hey, we did okay, didn't we?"

I shrugged, "I guess. You guys are in love? That's weird, I mean you're married."

"Whoa! I didn't say I was in love with Scott in a sexual way, don't even think it. Scott's my best friend and always has been. I guess in a way I'm in love with him, I mean I wouldn't be anything if it wasn't for Scott. Vice versa's probably true too. If it wasn't for each other we'd probably be bitin' our nails behind some desk. All I'm sayin' is that we're best friends in the truest sense of the words."

I thought about that. Jack and I always hid our feelings, except in the woods or behind closed doors. Joe and Scott were always holding hands and kissing each other's cheek and nobody thought anything about it, at least nobody ever said they did.

I knew I was missing something and was suddenly determined to find out what it was. "How can you love so many people, Joe?"

"I don't know. How can I not? I love you, Mike. I love you as the son of a friend that I love, also as the man you're becoming." He looked at me, "Why wouldn't I love you? You're a bright kid, tryin' to learn where the good is." His eyes softened and he smiled, "You'll find it Mike, believe me. Don't listen to the news. For every wife-beater there's a million guys who would never think of it. It's the same for any crime you care to mention."

He looked at my confusion and smiled, "Mikey, for every aberration in society there are millions of people to prove it's just that, an aberration! My best friend in the whole world is a gay man and some people think that's an aberration in itself, even worse. Scott might have an aberrant sense of humor, but he's also the kindest, most decent person you could ever hope to meet."

Joe's smile turned into a grin, "If you ever tell him I said that I'll personally turn you into a eunuch. You know what that is, don't you?"

I confessed my ignorance by shaking my head.

"Well, you don't want to find out. Listen, about Jack... I know you want to believe Clay's dream. Hell, I want to believe it too. I guess things could be that way. I mean if there really is some kind of afterlife there must be a point where you end up in it. You get my thinking here? Maybe there's a point when you're either just dead or almost dead where you're still part here. Drowning might even be a special case because your body's essentially okay, at least if you get found soon enough. Your basic functions have shut down, but I bet some stray neurons are still getting touched off in the brain for a while. That sounds like where Clay was, almost dead but not quite, and he got lucky enough to meet someone on the other side smart enough to put him back together."

I was staring at Joe, hoping, "You think?"

He smiled, "I don't know, and I'm guessing. I haven't been there, so I have no reason to believe it or not; it just sounds plausible. Where it gets pretty radical is where Clay manages to get into your head, but that's happened to you before. Maybe you have a hole there that the rest of us don't." He grinned, "Noticed any extra openings lately? A zipper, maybe?"

He started laughing when I absently started feeling around my head and it got me laughing too.

"There you are!" Tony's voice. Joe and I both looked down the trail to see him walking toward us with a smile on his face and his hands behind his back.

I grinned and started to get up, "Tony! You made it!"

Joe said, "Hi, Anton. Whatcha got behind your back?"

Tony shot a glance at Joe, "Oh, nuthin." Then he smiled and held an object out to me. "This is for you." I took it in my hands and drew a sharp breath. It was a woodcarving of me, Davy and Tony, sitting on steps and staring out into space just like we had been the night before. I laughed, mostly because it seemed so fantastic. We were all instantly recognizable, so recognizable that I immediately checked the crotch of the Mike figure to see how much detail Tony had put into the carving. Fortunately he hadn't gone that far, but I had to laugh again at the expression on my face. Davy and Tony just seemed to be gazing ahead while I was positively glaring.

Joe was trying to get a look, so I handed it to him and pulled Tony into a happy hug. I wrapped my arms around him and put my head on his shoulder so we were cheek to cheek. Tony responded right away by putting his arms around me and pulling me even tighter. We were both giggling. I wasn't sure why Tony was, but I was so happy right then that I couldn't keep my joy silent.

Joe's voice, "This is really neat, Anton, really awesome! You just did this today?"

Tony and I broke apart, but I found myself taking his hand in mine. He didn't protest. "Yeah, I made three of 'em, Davy already has his."

Joe looked astounded, "In one day?"

Tony seemed pretty nonchalant, "It's just whittlin'. It don't take no time at all."

Joe handed the carving back to me saying, "Yeah, well it'd take me a hundred years. How do you do that?"

Joe motioned that we should head back to the house, so we started walking. Tony said, "It ain't hard, you just think of what you want to end up with and get rid of everythin' else, sort'a the opposite of drawin'."

I heard that, but it didn't process right away. I couldn't draw worth a bean, but at least I knew how it worked. You started with a piece of paper and an idea, maybe a crayon or a pencil, then you started to draw your idea. If you were like me, you'd write 'horse' under your finished creation so people would know what you intended. What I thought Tony was saying was that the carving of the three of us already existed in a chunk of wood, you just had to remove what wasn't in your vision to get to the important part. The thought somehow made me very happy and I squeezed Tony's hand once I realized it was still in mine.

Tony squeezed back unashamedly. That little change in pressure gave me an amazing level of assurance that I had indeed found a friend in Tony Wolfe, found somebody I could love in a way I'd never been aware of. I could love Tony the way Joe loved Scott, as a special friend. I thought about how we'd just hugged each other a few minutes earlier, about the warmth I felt from being that close, about how there hadn't been a sexual thought involved, just friendly thoughts, loving thoughts.

Tony hadn't been kind to me the last year, but I felt that was offset by the fact that I'd never been kind to him, never really acknowledged the existence of this poor boy. Just a week ago at Dave's house we'd started at ground zero, then come to a hesitant accommodation of each other that had already blossomed into a true friendship. Tony had shown me a lot of sides of himself, first bashful, then artistic, then caring, then funny. I really thought that I was getting the long end of the stick, aware I didn't have much to return in the way of anything.

When we reached the yard most of the people from town were there. Tony and I marched in hand in hand and didn't raise an eyebrow. People saw us, lots of them, we even talked to a bunch. There was a ton of buzz about the night before and what happened to Clay, and even that didn't bother me.

We saw Dave and Tim sitting at a table with their nephews of the same names and Tony's parents, so after grabbing munchies we headed over there. We'd let go of our hands just so we could carry things, but we were walking close to each other. We got interrupted on the way by Buddy Early, so I told Tony to go ahead.

When he walked away Buddy followed him with his eyes for a moment before turning to me. Buddy was bigger than me, but only in an older sort of way. He had brown hair and not very good teeth, but he was pretty popular in his grade and, I was told, very bright.

He held his hand out to shake and I took it. "Mike, listen. I know Clay said what I did last year. If you want me to repeat it I will, but I was bein' an ass." He focused his clear gray eyes on mine, "I ain't even gonna offer to make it up, 'cause you can't make up stupidity. I just want ya to know that I'm truly sorry for the trouble I caused to you and Jack."

I couldn't hold his gaze, so I looked around before replying. "It's okay, I guess." I kicked my toe at the ground, then looked at his face. "Why, Buddy? Why'd everybody hate us so much?"

His eyelids dropped to half-mast, "Because we didn't know any better." He paused, "Look, if it helps... after the accident we tried to learn."

"Learn what?"

"About homosexuality; about being gay."

"Who's we?"

He shrugged, "Most everybody, I think. We asked our pastors and teachers, went to the library, looked on the internet. It ain't that easy, then one night I was talkin' to Pa about it and he said I should just talk to Nick and Scott if I wanted to know more."

"Nick and Scott?"

"Yeah, stupid huh? Here's two gay guys livin' right in town and nobody thinks a thing about it because they're pretty righteous. Do you really want to hear this?"

I did in a way, but I wanted to do other things too. "Not really. Buddy, I'm glad we talked, but I just want to party a little. Paulina made me cookies."

He smiled hesitantly, "We're okay then?"

I smiled, "Yeah, we're fine."

It was his turn to look down and toe the ground, "Thanks Mike, I don't deserve this."

I don't know if Buddy expected a response. He didn't get one because I noticed Tony waving excitedly to me from where he was sitting. I trotted over and greeted a bunch of very happy faces.

Tony was practically bouncing in his chair. "Guess what?"

I sat and smiled at his grin and he hollered, "You tell 'im Daddy!"

I looked at Mr. Wolfe only to find an older version of Tony's glee. Tony's Dad was pretty old, but he had the same perfect teeth and nice smile. "I got me a new job, Mike!" He indicated Dave and Tim, "I'm gonna be takin' care of their property, makin' it look the way it should oughta. You just watch, this time next year it'll be the best yard in the county."

I was a kid. I didn't know about jobs, only how happy they seemed to make people feel when they found one. Jeddy had literally walked on air all summer after he got the one working on the barn next door, now Mr. Wolfe seemed just as happy. Even not knowing much about work it made me happy too, just seeing the contentment at that table.

We were interrupted by Paulina's voice yelling, "Hey, Everybody! Attention, please? HEY!"

The general chatter quieted as everybody's attention went to Paulina, who was standing on a low stone wall just off the deck. She was speaking loud enough for everybody to hear her. "Listen! First, thanks to everybody coming on this special night!" There was a smattering of applause and a lot of murmuring.

Her voice continued loudly, "Everybody knows what happened last night, so now I want to invite two very special people to join me here. They don't think they're special, but I was there. I watched!"

I looked at Davy and groaned.

"Mike Waters and Davy Loomis, get your own selves down here!"

I knew that if I didn't go on my own I'd get carried, so I just stood up and walked with Davy, people cheering us along. When we got there Paulina quieted the others and said, "We have some rewards here, real Morton rewards!" People started hollering again and I was thoroughly embarrassed.

"Michael Waters, the town of Morton thanks you with this tray of chocolate chip cookies with pecans!" She handed me a plate all wrapped in cellophane and with a big bow around it. For some reason I got tears in my eyes when I took it from her. I hadn't expected any recognition, didn't want it, but it was in my hands and was my favorite cookies.

"Davy Loomis, you get shrimp cocktail, the biggest suckers I could find! She handed Davy a tray with a big bowl of shrimp and a smaller bowl of cocktail sauce, all wrapped similarly to mine.

People were laughing and cheering when Paulina went on, "These guys don't think they're heroes and don't want to talk about it. Let's all honor that, okay?" There was a gentle murmur again from the crowd. "One more, then we can eat!" She looked up at our table, "Anton Wolfe, come on down!"

Everybody roared at the reference to the game show. I saw Tony's father and Timmy force him to head down. I felt bad for Tony, he looked like he was going to cry at all the attention. People were quiet as he approached us.

"People, we have here an artist who's gonna put Morton on the map! I wasn't there yesterday, so I missed it, but Mr. Anton Wolfe touched a nerve in this town that I didn't know was there." She grinned at Tony, "Anton, it's in the freezer, but if you ever see a bigger banana split I want to hear about it." Paulina grinned back at the cheering crowd, "There's plenty for everybody! One more thing!"

Everybody quieted and Paulina yelled, "Thanks Morton, thanks from our family for being the way you are!" then she jumped down and gathered Davy, Tony and me together. She was bubbly, "You guys go do good things, I know you can." She beamed at Tony, "Ready for our date?"

Tony seemed more ready to stick his thumb in his mouth, but instead he looked Paulina in the eye. "It's a date?

Paulina seemed sincere, "Yes Anton, it's a date. I'm sorry I had to do the asking, but it's a date. You'll go with me, won't you?"

Tony made a sound like a hiccup, then smiled and said, "I'll go. Is tomorrow good?"

"Tomorrow's great!" Paulina looked at me and Dave, "Go spread the wealth guys, I wanna talk to Anton some more."

We turned to go, and I looked back at Paulina and Tony. Tony seemed happy, but there was something else in Paulina's face. She looked happy, but she also looked like she saw something more than a little buddy in Tony.

I almost jumped when the thought cleared itself in my head. As Davy and I carried our goodies back to the table I wondered about what I'd just seen. I actually wondered on several levels at once, first that a girl like Paulina could take anything more than a sisterly interest in Tony. She was older and much more worldly, then again she had kissed him into near oblivion the night before. She had everything and he had nothing, but that probably didn't matter anyhow. I may even have felt a twinge of jealousy. After all, Tony was my friend. That passed quickly when I remembered Jed's words about other people liking your friends, even your enemies.

Davy and I were almost back at the table when I said, "I think Paulina really likes Tony. You?"

He said glumly, "Yeah, story of my life."

I suddenly felt bad for Davy. I'd seen earlier that he cared for Paulina and now his hopes seemed to have been in vain. "Hey, not everything works out the way you want."

He seemed resigned, "I know, I guess I should feel glad for Tony. Paulina's quite a girl."

"Yeah, at least he lives here. What could you do in a week anyhow?"

Davy gave me a smirk, "You'd be surprised."

I smacked his shoulder and looked around to see if Annie had shown up. I didn't even know if the Nettletons were coming since Clay was still in the hospital. They weren't there when I went earlier, so maybe they had to wait until somebody got off work to go. If that was the case they might not show up at all, and I really wanted to see Annie. I hadn't been thinking hard about her, but she'd never been very far from the front of my mind since Saturday.

When Davy and I got back to the table we had just left, the occupants had changed. Instead of Tony's parents Nick, Hector and Sammy were sitting with Davy's uncles and Timmy was turned around talking to Joe's wife at a table nearby. Our chairs were occupied, so we just started wandering around and chatting up people.

We met James doing the same thing, so the three of us sat on a wall with sodas. James had noticed that Paulina was sitting down below with Tony. He smiled, "Little Anton's hot for Paulina, huh?"

Davy said, "I think it's the other way around. You jealous?"

James sighed, "Yeah, a little I guess. Maybe she just goes for the artistic types, huh?"

Davy took the cellophane and bow off the shrimp and offered them around. "Maybe she does." He dipped a shrimp and put it in his mouth, then his face went red. "Hot! Watch out guys, this'll clear your nostrils!"

He was right about that. The sauce was the kind of hot that went up through your head instead of burning your tongue. I thought it was fantastic and dug into the bowl, eating one after another. James and Davy did the same thing, and the bowl was nearly empty before we even slowed down.

James said, "You know, I was in a hurry last night and didn't get to say all I meant to about Clay. You mark my words, that boy's gonna be somebody someday. We're all gonna be glad that he's alive."

Davy licked his fingers on one hand as he reached for another shrimp with the other. "Really? What makes you say that?"

James seemed serious, "I think he's a genius. I also think he has the kind of gentle soul that's gonna make him do some real good with it."

I almost sneered, "Clay? A genius?"

James chuckled, "I know what you mean, it don't show too much. He's kinda lazy and he gets bored pretty easy, but he understands things other people don't... things about life and how it's all put together. He loves his art and he sees it everywhere. Just watch him someday if he sees a spider web or something. He thinks that spiders, bees and birds are the next highest life forms to man because they all create art." James chuckled again, "I expect he's gonna be your good friend now that you did something for him. You'll see it all for yourself"

"My good friend?"

James smiled mysteriously, "You'll see. Clay's a good boy when he knows who he can trust."

I was going to ask what he meant when I saw Jimmy Nettleton's head a few tables away. If he was there Annie must be too. I stood up and looked around, glad that we had a pretty good vantage point. I spotted Annie by the screen porch, and she was looking around too. I said, "See ya," and hurried down to where she was standing.

When she noticed me coming her way she smiled. I immediately pulled her into a gentle hug and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "Hi," I smiled.

"Hi yourself. Clay said you went to see him. That was a nice thing to do."

"Why wouldn't I?"

"I don't know, you just have this thing about people thanking you. Clay was really glad you came."


"Not terribly, I had a hamburg at the hospital. Oh, the party for Clay is tomorrow, he's getting out first thing." She seemed excited, "My Dad has some pretty good ideas sometimes."

I had a horrible thought somewhere in the back of my head and it suddenly leapt to the forefront. "My cookies!" I patted Annie's shoulder, "Don't move, I'll be right back!"

I ran back to where I'd left Davy and James. They were gone, but the cookies were sitting there unmolested next to the shrimp tray, which now contained nothing but two empty bowls and a small mountain of the little paddle things that you can't eat. I picked up my prize, then heard, "You gonna eat all of them?"

I turned around to see Aaron and his mother sitting with the Dominguez family, all of them looking at me expectantly. I'm sure that it was Aaron who had spoken.

"I'm gonna try!" I turned to go, then looked back, "Y'all have a nice night."

I giggled my way back to Annie, ignoring anybody who tried to get my attention. Annie was standing with her hands on her hips and a wide smile on her face. "You left me for cookies?"

I was embarrassed, "Special cookies, yeah. I came right back."

She snickered, "They're special cookies? I guess it's alright then. What makes them special?"

I straightened, "These are the cookies that Paulina Cassarino baked especially for the man who helped save Clay Nettleton's life!"

Annie giggled, "Only little boys defend cookies. Come on, let's have one."

I thought about that. "I am a boy, Annie. I ain't that little, but I ain't ready to be a man yet. I'm just a kid."

She looked like she was about to say something, then she stopped and looked at me, her expression becoming serious. "You know, you're right," She giggled, "For once anyhow. I'm a girl, not a woman." She looked into my eyes, "I like you Mike, I really do. I'm just not ready to pay up on the offer I made last night, okay?"

I wasn't ready to take her up on it either, so I kissed her quickly and smiled, "Okay."

We both set to getting the plate of cookies open, which wasn't as easy as it might sound. Paulina had taped the bow on, then the wrap that was around the dish seemed reluctant to let go of it. When we finally had an opening I gripped a cookie between my teeth and held another one out for Annie. She nibbled at it like I was feeding her, so I took mine in my other hand and ate as slowly as she did. I ate slowly for about half a cookie anyhow, then Annie grabbed the one I was holding and started chomping on it.

Paulina had done herself proud. Those things had the highest ratio of chocolate chips and nuts to dough of any cookies I'd ever had, and they were hands down delicious. They were big too, easily five inches in diameter. We were each on our third one when Paulina and Tony came over.

Paulina spoke, "Mike, Tony needs to know something."

I looked at Tony and found confusion, maybe even fear in his eyes. When I looked at Paulina there was only determination. I had no clue what the problem could be, so I said nothing.

Paulina hesitated, "Mike, um... ah... um... duh! Damn! Okay, start again." She cleared her throat, "Mike, do you have feelings for Tony?"

Paulina was calling him Tony now. I was still confused, "Feelings? I don't know what you mean. Tony's my friend."

Paulina put her arm around Tony and looked at him, then me. "Tony, you go ask him. This is private stuff. I'll wait here, okay?" She was almost whispering.

Tony looked at her nervously, then at me, then back at her, "Okay, I guess." He looked at me, "Can we talk?"

Annie nodded, so Tony and I walked into the relative darkness on the side of the house. I still had no idea what the problem was or where it had managed to come from. We leaned against the house, not standing very close together. Neither of us said anything, and I didn't have an idea of how to start anyhow.

Tony's voice suddenly came out, sounding very small. "Mike?"


He stuttered badly, "D-d-d-d--do you love me?"

My voice cracked in sincerity, "Yes."

Silence. "Oh."

Nothing was said for minutes, then Tony said, "Okay, I'll tell Paulina."

"Tell her what?"

"That I can't go with her."

"Why would you tell her that?"

"Because you love me."

I sat. "Tony, please tell me what the hell you're talkin' about. How do I have anythin' to do with Paulina? If you like each other you should just see where it goes! Where do I fit in?"

"You... you said you loved me." He sniffled, "I love you too, Mike. I know I do, and I'll do what you want."

I tried to disappear into the siding. I put my hands over my eyes, "Tony? You don't want to have sex with me, do you?"

"No! I don't want that, I thought it's what you wanted. I... I... I ..." He choked back a sob.

I moved closer and found his thin hand in the dark, then took it and placed my other one over it. "Don't cry, Tony. Sit down. Please don't cry." I felt awful and terribly confused, "I love you, I really do, but I don't wanna have sex with you, I just wanna be your friend. I don't want you to be afraid of me, I'm just Mike." I was getting panicky. I wanted me and Tony to be just like Joe and Scott, not like me and Jack or Scott and Nick. I could feel the trembling in Tony's hand, but I couldn't find the words to make the difference to him.

I felt awful and kind of awed at the same time. Awful that Tony felt something he shouldn't and awed that he'd even consider acting on it they way he thought I wanted. I needed the right words to make it straight. I tightened my grip on his hand and said quietly, "I do love you, Tony. I want you to be my friend forever, but that's all I want." I thought for a moment, "I want the world to see what I see. I want everybody to see your art. I want you to be what you deserve to be."

Tony squeezed my hand lightly, "I don't deserve nuthin'. I don't get it. You say you love me one second, then you don't want me the next."

I was getting exasperated. Tony could be dense. "Listen, I love you as a friend, okay?"


"I want to keep you as my friend. If you don't want me to love you, then I'll just like you. How's that?"

Tony snuggled up next to me. "No, I want the love part Mike. I just don't get it. I think you need to tell me about gay, 'cause I only heard it from other guys. I thought if you were gay and wanted me to love you I'd hafta do... you know, things with ya."

He was still tense, "Tony, look at me!"

He turned his head and I stared into his big brown eyes. "Believe me, and I don't mean to make ya feel bad by sayin' it, the last thing I want is to have sex with Tony Wolfe. You like the girls, and maybe I do too, but I know you're not queer and I ain't tryin' to make you that way. I just want you for my friend, Tony. That's all I want."

Tony squirmed a little, then relaxed. "You don't wanna ..."


He giggled, "You sure?

"Damn yes I'm sure! You get your little butt back to Paulina. That girl likes you."

"You think?"

I spoke more softly, "Yes, I think so. I didn't tell you, but Annie thinks you're cute too."

There was surprise in his voice, "Annie does? Annie Nettleton? I thought she liked you!"

I smiled, though it was probably to myself in the dark. "Yeah, Tony, I think she likes me too. I'm just kinda iffy material, so if things don't work out with Paulina at least give me a chance before ya move in on Annie."

Tony relaxed against the house. His voice sounded quizzical, "You think Paulina likes me? Do you believe that?"

I murmured, "Yeah, I believe it. You're some kinda guy, Tony, some kinda guy."

"I am?"

"Cut it out, will you?" I glared at him, "Paulina likes you and everybody can see it. Open your eyes Tony! Even James knows he lost this one. You just go back to that girl and see what happens, okay? You go and like her back, like I know you do, then take it from there. At least you'll have another new friend."

Tony let go of my hand, but instead of leaving he put his arm over my shoulder. There was silence for a moment, then he said, "Granny always said ..." he started whispering as if to himself, "Let it go... let it go. If you love somethin' let it go," then louder, "That's what you're doin' Mike, lettin' me go." He kissed my cheek, Tony Wolfe did, and said "I'll be back!"

He grinned and put his hand over his mouth, "Oops."

I laughed and swatted at him, but he had already stood and turned to go. I hurried to catch up and we found Paulina and Annie sitting on a stone wall chatting merrily. Paulina saw us coming, and when she looked Annie did too. They both smiled, Paulina asking, "Everything okay?"

Tony nodded eagerly and Paulina stood up, taking his hand. She looked tenderly at him, "Am I still in the picture?"

I said, with maybe a hint of sarcasm, "You are the picture, Paulina," then more softly, "Take care of him, okay? He's my friend."

They both looked at me with smiles. Paulina said, "Don't worry lover boy, he's my friend too." She smiled affectionately at Tony, "How about a walk in the moonlight?"

Tony smiled innocently, "Okay. Which way?"

Paulina led him uphill toward the back of the property. I looked at Annie and asked, "Does that sound good? Wanna go for a walk?"

She smiled and stood, holding out her hand. I took it and we wandered off in the opposite direction, around the front of the house. There were a lot of vehicles parked everywhere, so progress was slow at first, but when we reached the field we were alone and unobstructed.

I liked holding Annie's hand, liked it a lot. It felt soft and strong at the same time, warm, comfortable, like it had found where it belonged. We walked in silence for a while, then Annie said, "It's a nice night, nice and quiet."

"Yeah, it is." I was silent for a while. "Annie? Did Paulina tell you what Tony wanted to ask?"

"No, just that you two had something to sort out. I take it you did?"

I gave her hand a gentle squeeze, "Yeah, we're fine. Tony's a little confused."

She said gently, "You're the one to talk. Wanna sit for awhile?"

We walked a little further and sat at the top of a steep bank. I said, "Yeah, I'm confused. I turned to face her, sitting cross legged. "Annie, I want to be honest with you. All the time, I mean."

"Okay, so be honest."

"It's not that. It's just that I don't know what I am. I know it makes me stupid, but for two years I been thinkin' I'm gay. I didn't doubt it for a second until just this week."

"Now you doubt it?"

"I... I don't know if I do. I ..." I looked at her and asked, "Can you keep a secret?"

"If you want."

"I want. Listen, this sucks, but... um... if Davy was gay I might 'a gone on this walk with him."

I waited for the slap that never came. "Well, at least you have good taste. I take it he's not gay?"

"Heh, no. Not in the least."

"Mike, there are plenty of good looking boys in town, why aren't you checking them out? Is it just because Davy's new?"

Hmm, she was smart. Maybe my lack of attraction for other guys was based in familiarity. Davy walked into my life wearing a smile that was remarkably similar to Jack's. He was new and, because of that, tentatively available, at least unless I learned that he wasn't. That wasn't the real problem. I looked at Annie, "You could be right. The trouble is that I thought of him at all. I just don't wanna be unfair to you, Annie."

She sighed, "Mike, I can see your eyes. Can you see mine?"

I was puzzled, "Yeah?"

"Are they open?"


"Alright, give me some credit then. You are way too worried, mister. We talked last night and I know that you're confused. Right now I like you a lot and I think you like me. Isn't that good enough? If we get involved and one of us falls for somebody else it's gonna hurt the other one, but we're not eggs, we're not gonna break. It hurts for a while, and then we're both smarter next time. Don't believe for one second that you're the only one with eyes for good looking people. I've gone with other guys and we broke up; everybody's okay and we're still friends. Your ego's what's in the way right now. You're assuming that you're gonna hurt me and that only comes from a big head."

She pushed herself closer and gently touched my cheeks. "You're okay, Mike. I'm okay. Just please don't think you have some inner demon that's gonna break this girl beyond repair." She smiled mischievously, "Okay?"

I felt put down in a way, but I had to grin. Annie was exactly right. My inner conflicts amounted to selfishness in her eyes, and it was selfish to think so much of myself to believe that I could break a girl I barely knew in some horrible way. She said it herself, her eyes were open. I just had to open mine.

When I did, when I really looked, her face was about ten inches from mine. I leaned forward slowly enough to avoid causing a collision, then we kissed. We held it for quite awhile, then rearranged ourselves to make it easier and kissed again. This time our lips parted. I got hard and started to experience breathing difficulty. So did Annie, the breathing part anyhow.

We spent a long time out on that hill in the darkness, kissing, cuddling and occasionally talking about nothing in particular. We only got up to go back when a few cars left the picnic. This walk was different. I had my hand lightly on Annie's butt and she had hers on mine. Feelings of electricity shot through me every time we hit a rough spot and it caused a bit of friction. We changed to just holding hands at the last possible moment before we rounded the corner to where people could see us.

The backyard was kind of spectacular at night, hidden lights illuminating just the right things. It was a romantic spot, if a yard can be described that way. We saw Tony and Paulina at a table on the deck and walked toward them. Paulina's hair looked a little frizzed from what it had been earlier, and I noticed that Annie's was too. Tony didn't have any hair, but I'm sure mine was as frizzed as the others. Tony and Paulina were sharing a banana split, staring at each other and occasionally giggling. I was hesitant to intrude, but before I could change direction Paulina noticed us and smiled brightly, her lips white with ice cream.

She licked it off and smiled. "Hi! Join us, please. I'll get some more spoons." She looked happily at Tony, "Ten scoops is too much even for this guy!"

She ran off to get spoons while I looked at Tony. He looked like Tony, but something was different. Maybe it was just the indirect light, but there seemed to be a sparkle in his eye, one that hadn't been there before. His expression when he looked at us was almost pure delight. I say almost because there seemed to be a twinge of something else there. Guilt I thought.

I smiled, perhaps thinking of the little guilty pleasures life hurls our way once in a while. I had just made out with Annie for I don't know how long and I didn't feel one bit guilty about that. I was certain, absolutely certain, that Tony had done the same thing with Paulina and didn't wonder about it at all. "Hey Tony. Good ice cream?"

He grinned a mouthful of it at us, "Yeah, it's too much though. I'm gonna get sick." He pushed the enormous dish toward us, "Take it away." He grinned, "I never thought I'd say that!"

I laughed just as Paulina walked up and handed us spoons. Then she stood behind Tony. She leaned close to him for a second and, I swear, nibbled his ear. Annie and I dug into the ice cream while Paulina spoke. "You know guys, when we got to Morton we all thought we'd hate it here. It looked so boring, but you know what? It hasn't been for a minute. We were city kids and wondered what we'd find to do with nothing except fields full of corn and barns full of cows. Right away Morton started revealing its treasures and we've been very happy here."

I swallowed, "Treasures?"

"Yes, I mean the people, the nature. It's not buried treasure either, at least not 'til last night. She pulled Tony's chair back with him in it and sat on his lap, causing him to make an 'oof' sound through his delighted grin. Paulina grinned at us then gave Tony a kiss. "I always knew Ace was around, I just never bothered to know him. That may go down as the biggest oversight of my life."

I was staring, a spoonful of ice cream halfway to my mouth. "Um, Ace?"

She smiled, "Yes, Ace! The high card; the hole-in-one!"

I almost dropped my spoon, "Hole-in-one?" I looked incredulously at Tony's smile, then got a napkin square in the face from a seriously blushing Paulina.

"You little pervert!" she giggled, "I mean the most real person I ever met." She smiled and kissed Tony's head and looked back toward us. "I guess I always though Morton was full of treasure, and now I've found the pot of gold."

I couldn't believe it. I was really happy for Tony that Paulina seemed to think so much of him. When she first moved here I had a terrible crush on her, her sister Maria too. I was around ten at the time and they hit town like a flash flood. Whatever James had, they had the same thing. They were smart and in control, unafraid of anything, and always friendly and pleasant. I didn't know what 'it' was, but I wanted some for myself.

I suddenly remembered Davy, "Anybody seen Davy around? I forgot all about him!"

Paulina said, "Relax. Davy found a friend." She was smiling.


"Yeah, he seems to like Louise."

That was an interesting choice. Louise Allston was a tall girl, a bit overweight. She had a reputation with the older kids as being easy, so maybe Davy was busy getting lucky. At any rate, I relaxed. Annie sat on my lap just like Paulina was doing with Tony. I was idly staring at him as he did the same to me. Tony looked contented in a way that I hadn't seen before, and I hoped my own look reflected that.

Whatever I was, I was happy with Annie Nettleton sitting on my lap. I moved her hair and kissed the back of her neck, which caused her to wiggle a little and make a happy sound. Our conversation had stopped, the ice cream had mostly melted, yet I felt no compunction to move or do anything different.

When Annie and I made out before, it didn't feel a lot different than it used to with Jack. She gave me similar sparks and shivers. I think the only real difference was that I had been solidly in love with Jack, still was. Somewhere in my head I had the idea that what I was doing with Annie was wrong, was an experiment like Dave had described. I didn't feel bad about it because she didn't, and she seemed to like it as much as me.

I had gotten used to the idea of being gay. I knew it wasn't something that defined me as a person, and I wasn't trying to make myself straight with Annie. I just liked her, a whole lot really, and the kissing and cuddling made me feel more complete as a person than I had in a long time. I watched in bliss as my mother approached the table, only jumping a little when she actually got there and spoke. The expression on her face was indescribable, but priceless.

"I'm taking the girls home, Mike. Do you want to ride with us?"

My voice squeaked out the littlest "No," you ever heard. I cleared my throat, "I'm stayin' awhile. I gotta ride home with Davy, anyhow."

It seemed like I could read her thoughts. ' Why's my gay son sitting with a girl on his lap? Why's he trying to give her a hickey ?' She smiled fairly graciously, "Be careful on your bike after dark. G'night, kids."

We all said goodnight, then Paulina got up, followed by Annie. They made murmurings about the picnic breaking up and started to clear the table. I made a point of checking out Tony's crotch and, Yes! he was in the same condition as me. I felt somehow vindicated, not as weird as I had the night before.

Paulina said, "When you guys are done checkin' each other's dicks you can give us a hand here. Some of this stuff has to stay cold."

I looked at Tony and grinned, almost laughed out loud. Somehow tonight had announced my return to Planet Earth. I felt like that once before, the first time I kissed Jack. I'd had different desires then and I was focused totally on Jack. Nothing else mattered, nada. It was just us, there was no rest of the world. It was Jack and me, and that's all that counted.

I still missed Jack every waking moment of my life, but now things were different. I had friends, which I suppose I always had, but I was older and learning to understand their importance, recognize who they were and what they meant. I don't know that I was actually falling in love with Annie right then, but I knew I was close. I thought I wanted to talk to Tony, but guessed that we'd laugh ourselves foolish in a little pride festival.

I couldn't tell exactly what Tony was thinking, but I was proud of myself for once. I'd listened to Annie's assessment of me before and decided to do something for myself. She said I might hurt her, and I desperately wanted to avoid that, but she also said I couldn't break her. I believed that. I think it would take a falling crane to break Annie. She was stronger than me, she knew it, and she was sharing that strength with me.

What was really different was that I had, with little conscious effort, decided to go for it no matter where it led me. Michael Waters, former brat kid, felt for the first time that he had decided something for himself, something to possibly enhance his own life, certainly to enrich it.

"Hey dream boy, you gonna help or not?"

It was Paulina smiling at me. "Sorry." I glanced around and we were alone. "Can I ask you something?"


"I... I... do you think I'm an oddball?"

She winked, "Not since the haircut. Something troubling you?"

"No, not really. I just don't know what people think of me."

Paulina sat down and indicated that I should too. "Are you talking about last year? Listen, I could throttle Hector for never telling me about what you and Jack were going through."

I was startled, "You didn't know?"

"Listen honey, if Maria and I knew that was happening there would have been more black eyes in that school than in Harlem. I hope you noticed a few after we did find out!"

I chuckled because I had. "You?"

She smiled a very satisfied smile. "Mike, you're not an oddball. I don't know anybody who doesn't like you. If there's anything strange about you it's that you don't let people know you." She shook her head to get her hair out of her face. "Why is that? What do you have to be afraid of?"

I tried a different tack, "Why are so different? You, Maria, James... you're all so in control!"

She smiled, "Like you're out of control? I don't think so, Mike." Her voice softened, "If you think things come easy for me, think again. Well, now we have money and that helps, but don't think for one second that I'm naturally smart, that I don't work for my grades. We used to live with our grandmother, and she never let up on how important it was to take care of yourself, to make yourself the best you can be. Trying to be smart makes you smart if you stick with it." She paused for a second, "Well, at least you learn a lot."

"How do I take care of myself? I eat okay and I'm usually careful, is that what you mean?"

"No, it's not. I mean, those things are important, but you need to love yourself."

"Myself? Not possible."

Paulina moved over next to me and put her hand on my shoulder. "Mike, listen carefully. You have to love yourself first. I'm not talking about being conceited, but if you're not the center of your own world you'll grow up without a center. Nobody else is gonna want that job." She reached over and put her hand on my leg, "Honey, if you only ever learn one lesson, learn that one."

"I don't get it. That's not what they teach in church. I'm supposed to be my brother's keeper."

"You want religion? How about 'Cleave unto yourself!' You know what that means? It means you hafta take care of number one before you can hope to do anything worthwhile."


She grinned, "Cleave's a neat word. It means it's opposite depending on how you use it, but the reference I used means to love yourself, depend on yourself first. Kinda like hug yourself."

I just gaped at Paulina, trying to absorb what she was saying. "Mike, your world revolves around you. Things happen all around, but if you want the good things to happen to you, to come to you, you have to first believe in your heart that you really want them. Then you have to find them, filter out the crap, work hard to make sure you keep the good things you find."

"That sounds selfish!"

She looked around as other people cleaned up around us, "I should be helping," then she looked back at me. "It is selfish in a way, but it's not like taking other people's things away from them, it's not that at all. Look, I talked to Tony and he told me all about the two of you. You can't be making him feel so much better about himself if you're not getting the same or more from it. Tell the truth now, aren't you Tony's friend because it makes you feel good?" I nodded. "That's the kind of selfish I'm talking about, not hoarding cookies."

I was a little excited about what she'd said. "Tony said I make him feel good?"

She smiled, "Yes, Mike. You know how to do it, just think about why you really do. It's for you! The people around you just reap the benefits of your own need to feel good."

I found myself grinning for no good reason on earth.

I... me... Mike Waters, I made Tony feel better about himself.

Clay, Pat and Jens were all alive partly because of me.

Tony felt better about himself because of me.

I felt better about myself because of Tony.

Helping to save lives was one thing, a good thing.

Making people feel good felt better.


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