Jack in the Box

Chapter 21

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

Paulina drove us all home that night in her father's minivan. Davy and I managed to get our bikes in the back and still have room for people. Tony sat in front with Paulina. Davy, Annie and I were in the back. We dropped Annie off first and I walked her to the door.

We hugged and I asked, "What time tomorrow?"

"Let's say six o'clock. I'll call everyone else. Tell Davy he can bring Louise if he wants."

I felt good with Annie in my arms. She was right earlier, it didn't matter if it led anywhere, it really didn't mean anything except that we felt something for each other. I gave her a brief kiss, "See ya tomorrow."

"Bye Mike," she giggled, "Don't let the bed bugs bite!"

I made a snarling sound, "I'll bite 'em back. Bye!"

I walked backwards down the gravel path, watching Annie until she went inside. Then I turned and hurried back to the van. Paulina dropped me and Davy off next, and when we were getting the bikes out I asked him if he was sleeping over again.

"I better not. I haven't spent any time with my uncles since I got here. I think it's gettin' to where it's rude now."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Hold on, I gotta write to Jack anyhow." I went to the driver's door to thank Paulina, then Tony got out and asked to talk to me.

"What's up?"

"Can you come over tomorrow? Paulina's pickin' me up at noon, so before then. Can ya?"

I smiled at the pleading look on his face. "Is something wrong?"

He looked very shy again, "No, not wrong, just some things I need to know. If you're busy it can wait."

"I'm not busy. Just me, or can Davy come?"

He looked uncomfortably toward the back of the van, then at me. "Is it okay if it's just you?"

I could see that something was troubling him, and it made me feel uncomfortable myself after a nice evening. "I'll come alone, what time?"

He smiled shyly, "Thanks. Anytime after the birds sing."

I grinned, "You'll have it back in your pants by then?"

Tony suddenly looked bemused, "I will if you will."

He climbed back in the van and I shut the door after him. Davy and I waved as they drove off, then leaned the bikes against the house and went to his place. The two Tims were in the living room and Davy joined them while I went to write.

I wrote a long letter, full of content and questions. Now I was certain that Jack was nearby, maybe even in the same room. I didn't even write much about Clay's drowning, figuring it was old news to Jack. I told him how people reacted, how I got cookies and Davy got shrimp.

I got up my nerve and told him how I felt about Annie and what we had done, about the picnic tonight and the party tomorrow. I was writing what was in my head and in my heart, somewhat fearful that he'd think I dumped him for new friends. I was afraid of hurting him and afraid of not telling the truth at the same time. One thing I was certain of was that Jack and I had never once lied to each other about anything, and I had no reason to start now. Jack was a tough kid in his own way. Like Annie, he could take it.

It took me a long time, and when I finally left the room the house was dark and quiet. I got out of their house and into my own as noiselessly as I could, pausing in the kitchen to grab some paper towels. I had a need that had to be satisfied, and the privacy to take care of it. I didn't even turn the light on in my room, just walked to where I knew the picture of Jack was and gave him his kiss. Then I shucked my clothes and laid on top of the bed, paper towels at the ready, and began to stroke myself. In a second I was beating off furiously and approached the end in no time at all.

"You're pretty shameless!"

Davy's voice came from the bed opposite me, and I jumped so high I almost broke my dick, then shot a load straight up that didn't seem to land anywhere. I was shocked, frightened, breathless and humiliated all at the same time. I didn't even have time to bask in my accomplishment. I was caught in the act, and my embarrassment was as total as it could get. I squeaked out with as much dignity as I could muster, "I didn't know you were here."

Davy was giggling so hard the bed was bouncing. "No shit?" bounce bounce bounce, "I thought you were showin' off." He was lost in helpless mirth.

Davy's laughing eventually got me going, even though I was worried about where everything had gone. I didn't want to be like the guy in the 'Mary' movie and find it on my ear in the morning, even though the thought was funny. I gasped out, "I don't know where it went!" then laughed some more.

When our giggling quieted I was too embarrassed to say anything. Davy said, "Don't feel bad, that's why I'm here."


"I would'a had to sleep with my brother." He giggled again, "I had to do the same thing, that's why I'm here..." he hesitated, "Well, I like it here too. I just didn't expect a show." He giggled some more, "You think it's stuck to the ceiling?"

"Fuck you."

"Not in your lifetime!"

"I'm bigger than you."

"I'm older, you ain't gotta chance, 'sides, I got a hemorrhoid."

"You're gross."



I climbed under the covers feeling as stupid as was humanly possible. I settled down on my side, but I couldn't sleep. That stuff had to go somewhere, and all I could envision was a cumly stalactite on the ceiling ready to start dripping on me the moment I dozed off.

I pulled off the covers, "Dammit!"


"It had to go somewhere!" I turned on the light and started searching around my bed for the largest single squirt that had ever come out of me.

"Want help?"

"DON'T HELP! Dammit, it's not funny!"

I was on my hands and knees looking around the bed after I checked out the ceiling. My right knee eventually found the little puddle and I cleaned it up without a word to Davy. I think he was asleep anyhow.

I went to the bathroom and peed on the paper towels after I tossed them in the toilet, thinking back on how I always thought sex with Jack was both fun and funny, at least when we actually got around to it. Sex with myself was fun too, and tonight it had turned out pretty funny, even if I'd never live down the embarrassment with Dave. He'd be gone in a few days, anyhow.

I went back to bed and slept like a log, only awakening when Davy shook me and said, "See ya later. I gotta spend some time next door."

I got up, cleaned up, had breakfast, and rode straight to Tony's house. I was a little worried about Tony's words last night. I had the feeling that something was bothering him, and I was afraid that it might be me.

When I got to his trailer he was sitting alone at the kitchen table finishing a bowl of cereal. He looked up expectantly and waved me in when I knocked on the screen door.

He smiled, "You came!"

All I could think of was last night and I blushed at the memory. "Ask me about that later. What's up?"


"Never mind, okay?" I was nervous, sensing something was wrong, "You wanted me to come over?"

Tony swallowed his cereal and grinned, "An' here ya are! Lemme finish, I gotta show ya somethin'"

He gulped down the rest of the cereal, tipping the bowl to get the last of the milk, then rinsed his dish and we headed out, the screen door slamming behind us as only wooden ones can.

Tony headed across yards, then onto the path that led to his shack. We walked right past it, past the clearing where he made his glue, and continued going uphill. We turned off onto something that didn't even deserve to be called a path. Tony knew the way and I followed, stopping when he did, where I gaped in awe at the vista before us.

It was basically the view from Tony's shack, only unencumbered by surrounding trees. We could probably see into three counties, the hills up close clear as a bell, the farther ones less and less distinct. We were at the edge of what looked like a cliff until you got close and looked over, then it was a gray rock, worn smooth by the weather, that sloped out at something less than a forty five degree angle.

Tony sat and slid down until he was leaning against the rock. "Come on, Mike, there's a place for your feet. Slide on down here."

I did, hesitantly. My feet landed on the ledge and I found that I could lean back against the rock and feel comfortable. I liked it, but before I took in the view I asked, "How do we get back up?"

Tony was obviously in his element, not shy, not worried, just Tony. "Look at the ledge, Mike. It's shaped just like a smile, ya can walk out either way."

I looked and it was the truth. It wasn't a skinny ledge to start with, probably five feet wide, but it curved up on either side right back up to the top. Tony's words had caught me though, it was shaped like a smile, and the way you could lean back made you think you could stay there forever.

"This is really nice, Tony. I thought I knew all the good spots in town."

Tony looked at me, "You show me yours, I'll show you mine. Haha, well, you know what I mean. You really like it here?"

I took another look outwards and breathed, "I love it," except I wondered why I was there. "Is something wrong?"

Tony hesitated, "I don't know, not really wrong." He glanced at me, "I feel kinda stupid for thinkin' like I did yesterday."

I stared at the scenery. "It's alright. In a way it's nice to think you care that much."

His voice was soft, "I do care. I love havin' a friend, and I'm real glad it's you. Now everybody's bein' real nice and I like that too, but..."


"I'm used to bein' alone. I kinda like it, just me an' the trees and birds. I had a nice time here yesterday. I did a lot too, I made my glue, started on Mr. Dickey's birdhouse, carved them things."

"Like me and my letters, I like that too."

We looked at each other, Tony with doubt all over his face. "Mike, I don't wanna say the wrong thing. You write your letters because you're sad, and I don't like for you to be sad. I come out here 'cause it makes me feel good, like little Anton has his own place in the world. I look out there and nothin' changes, not ever."

I didn't like the snideness he used for his own name, but I smiled anyhow, "So, what's the problem?"

He inhaled, "I like the other stuff too, I like you, I like Paulina. I love that dune buggy." He looked at me with a plea in his eyes, "I know what I like; I don't know what I want."

I hesitated before being flip, but I was anyhow, "Welcome to the club Tony, you ain't alone. I don't have a clue what I want either."

"Just Jack?"

I thought, "Maybe. I guess if he was here it'd be easier. I just don't know anymore. Jack always wanted to be a doctor. Me? I thought something that went with that, I wasn't sure, maybe an EMT, maybe a technician. I don't know now."

Tony almost whispered, "You were doin' it for Jack?"

"I'm not sure, not really." I looked over at Tony, "Maybe I was just hangin' on, but I hafta do sumthin." I hung my head, "I wasn't doin' it for Jack, just for me so I could stay close to him. I guess that's the real truth, Tony."

Tony nodded his head in understanding, silent for a moment. He smiled, "Now ya got me to worry about!" He suddenly seemed worried, "Sorry if that was outta line."

I leaned against Tony, "You're not outta line. You listen to my shit, so I'll listen to yours. Hey, we're both startin' ta understand, no? You don't mean you wanna be alone all the time do you?"

He hesitated and looked at the scenery, "No... I don't mean that. It's just now I have a chance to get some money. I can't do that if I'm runnin' around havin' fun all day. Nobody's gonna wanna sit and watch me whittle either."

"Can't you do both? Like make your things in the morning and play in the afternoon?"

"Right now's not a problem, but school starts next week. There's only gonna be Saturday and Sunday to do anythin' at all. My chores ain't gonna go away, now I'll have homework too. I ain't gonna have time for much to start with."

Tony was feeling pressure, probably for the first time in his life. School put the same imperatives on all of us, limiting free time and requiring effort. Tony had spent his free time in a certain way, now he had new things that he didn't want to miss out on. I didn't have an answer for him.

"I dunno, Tony. There ain't much goin' on after school anyhow. Maybe you can do your homework with someone else once in a while. Me'n Jack used to do ours together. I guess ya just gotta get picky about other things. You know... not hang around just for the sake of it, only if somethin' good's happenin'."

Tony sighed, "I know. I just wish everythin' happened before so I'd be used to it." He sighed and leaned back, "That's not what I'm really scared of."

"What, then?"

"It's that... uh, now I got a friend. I don't wanna lose ya 'cause I don't have any time."

That comment surprised me and I had to grope for a reply. "Lose me? That ain't gonna happen Tony, not 'cause you're busy anyhow. I gotta go to school too, ya know. We all do. You're the smart one, I'll probably spend twice as much time on homework as you. Don't go worryin' about nuthin, okay?"

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. I didn't go complainin' when you took off with Paulina last night, did I?"

His demeanor suddenly brightened and his shy smile returned. "Paulina does like me, ya know."

The change made me chuckle, "Likes you, hell, she got a boner for you just like … um, just like. I could tell she did. You're gonna have the whole senior class jealous. Where'd you go off to last night, anyhow?"

A look of bliss appeared on Tony's face as he looked off into the distance. He said softly, "We went back to France, only this time we stayed awhile."

When I realized what he meant I burst out laughing. I could use that one on Annie; she had a sense of humor. "How's it feel to have a girlfriend, Romeo?"

"It feels kinda funny. Good, but funny, I mean odd kinda funny. If I dreamed all day every day, I'd never put me with somebody like Paulina. It just don't seem possible that she'd like me that way." He turned a broad smile to me, "She likes me though. I don't know what it is, but she does."

I returned his smile, "Yeahhhhhh!"

"You like Annie too, don't ya? I saw ya suckin' her neck last night. You're not confused anymore?"

"Not about Annie I'm not! She kinda chewed me out last night then, heh, we went to France too."

Tony elbowed me gently, "Oooh, you dog!" He looked at his watch, "C'mon, I'll show ya the birdhouse."

We scrambled up opposite ends of the smile, then walked back to Tony's shack. He showed me the various sections that made up the frame of the birdhouse while removing the twine he'd used to hold things together while the glue set. If Tony for some reason couldn't make it as an artist he could try engineering. The joints he made to hold the thing together seemed pretty elaborate, and I got a good idea of why the finished product was so solid. Tony put the various sections together on the ground so I could get an idea of what it would look like.

I can't begin to describe how impressed I was by Tony's abilities. He was just showing me how it worked so I'd know, not trying to impress me at all. He was more matter-of-fact than proud, which made his skills seem all the more impressive. He'd carved the likenesses of the three of us sitting on the porch and made them lifelike and humorous. The two that I'd seen were different from each other even though the subject was the same. The one he'd given to Davy had me staring out into space while Tony and Davy were looking at me, Davy's figure leaning forward to see around me to Tony.

I looked around the shack and didn't see the one that Tony had kept for himself. "Where's the other carving you made of us on the steps?"

"Huh? Oh, it's in the house. Remind me and I'll show ya." He picked up a coffee can and held it out to me. "This is for Tim, it's his glue. I'll write out some directions for him if you bring it over."

I took the can, which was pretty heavy. "I don't know... I'm on a bike."

"Oh yeah. Uh, I can make a sling so you can hang it on the bars, okay?"

"Okay I guess." I changed the subject, "Excited about your date?"

"That I am!" He put the parts to the birdhouse back where they came from, then stood to leave. "What's that swim place like? I never been there."

We started down the trail, "It don't look like much from the front, but it's really nice inside and it's really really nice out back. Just so you know, Paulina swims like a fish. I couldn't keep up with her."

Tony looked like he was storing that away in the useful information category. "I can't believe she likes me! What's the word for a girl like her?"

Tony was getting excited, and I felt good seeing it. "Um, I dunno. Smart, I guess, no... hot! That's what she is, hot! She's smart and good lookin', real nice too."

Tony grinned, "Then Annie's pretty hot too. I guess we're lucky boys, huh?" He put his arm across my shoulder and we walked back to his place.

We got ice water, then Tony led me to his room. I'd never been in there before. It was pretty small, no more than 8 x 10 feet. The bed was made and all the surfaces were clean. There were carvings everywhere, both large and small. The walls were covered with drawings not unlike the ones I had seen, though I could tell they were older. I knew from looking at them that style came naturally to Tony, skill had taken a while longer. These pictures were somewhat cruder than what he could do now, but no less whimsical. I spotted one of me in grammar school, my pencil almost in my nose as I looked at a test or something. I was maybe nine in the picture, but as in all the others the likeness was quite good.

"Jeez, how long you been doin' this?" I pointed to the picture of me, "This had to be about fourth grade."

Tony looked to see what I was pointing at. "Yeah, about then. Oh," he reached for a carving and handed it to me, "Here's the other one. I'm gonna take a shower, you can look around."

With that he disappeared, leaving me to inspect the wonders in his room. The one in my hands was again the three of us on the steps. This one was quite a bit larger, and while I was staring ahead in it Tony and Dave both were looking at each other with 'Now what?' expressions on their faces.

Tony had made a little movie with his carvings, and I could tell the sequence. This one would have come first when they noticed me gone to outer space, Davy's was a little confirmation of that, then mine was when they'd decided to join me there.

I started picking up other things and looking at them, people, birds, animals, even a tortoise. Once again I could tell the relative age of the pieces by how intricate they were. Some were definitely pretty crudely done. What was amazing was that not one of them, not the oldest and crudest, left you guessing what it was. I had a bunny in my hand while I looked at another one. The old one I was holding was a bunny by shape and ears, everything in pretty good proportion. The more recent one had fur, irises in its eyes, and whiskers made of what looked like porcupine quills. One was okay, the other much more elaborate. Both of them made me smile.

Tony hurried in, a towel around his waist. He saw me with the old bunny in my hand and smiled. "Aah! Why ya lookin' at that? I must'a made that when I was like eight. Did I stink or what?"

I looked again at the piece in my hand before I set it down. "It don't stink, Tony. I can look around here and watch you grow up. I think it's neat!"

I was still looking around, fascinated by the things in the room. The only stuff not made by Tony was the furniture.

Tony opened a drawer and tossed his bathing suit onto the bed, then opened the wardrobe and started poking through things. "What should I wear? Is this place fancy?"

"It's pretty nice, but everybody I saw was wearin' a bathin' suit. Just bring a shirt and shorts for when ya eat."

He held out a shirt, "How's white?"

"I should probably head home so you can get ready. White's fine, it matches your swim trunks." I picked up his bathing suit, "Where'd ya get this anyhow? I like it."

Tony turned around, "Ma made it. Her friend makes flags; she got the cloth from her."

I fingered the cloth, remembering how it had fit on Tony. It went to just above his knees and was neither baggy nor tight. "Think she could make me one? I hate the crap they sell in stores."

"I'll ask." He took them from me and slipped them on, then turned around with a question on his face. "How do I look?"

I grinned, "Definitely Paulina material. Have a great time, I'm outta here."

I turned to leave and heard, "Mike?"

I turned around. "Forget the glue, we'll bring it to Tim." His shy smile returned, "Thanks. Thanks for comin' over."

I sensed that he wanted more, and I did too. I walked over and we hugged briefly. "No Tony, thank you." I gazed at him, "You know, today's the kinda day where nothin' happened, but I guarantee I'll always remember it. I... I... I"

I was stuttering all of a sudden. Tony laughed, "What? See if I'm right here. We're friends now, today's the first time we used it. I mean, we really talked about what we thought." His gaze steadied on mine, his big eyes drilling right into my own. He grinned his best and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, "I guess I love you too. Git yer butt outta here now, I got a date!"

I grinned, happy with the world. I was almost to the door to outside when I heard, "With a HOT girl! The hottest girl...."

I was laughing when I picked up my bike and started pedaling home. Paulina was turning into the trailer park as I was leaving. She stopped, "What's so funny"

"Nothing really, just happy. You goin' to Annie's later?"

She smiled, "Wouldn't miss it! Well, gotta go!"

With that she roared off. I was almost to my driveway when they sped past me, stopping in the road so Tony could deliver his glue to Tim. He must have done it without honors, because they were pulling away just as I turned in.

I put my bike up against the porch and went inside, where my father was reading a magazine in the kitchen.

He looked up and smiled. "Hey Mike, haven't seen much of you lately. What I do manage to see I like. You seem happier these days. Is it Davy?"

I stopped short. Davy? Not hardly! "Um, Davy's straight, but I like him a lot."

I sat at the table and my Dad put his magazine down. He stared, "Oh. Your Mom says you seem pretty tight with Annie Nettleton. Is that the case?"

A picture of Annie floated through my mind, making me smile.

My father looked at me and said, "You like a girl now? That's a surprise." He drummed his fingers on the table and looked at me. "Mike, don't get me wrong, but you're a mystery to me sometimes."

I sat and looked at my father. I guess I resembled him, but not very much. The part around the eyes looked like me, I think the rest I got from my mother. There was no mistaking a Waters kid, anyhow. We all looked like each other in one way or another, enough that people always made the connection.

I saw Dad's eyes, realized that I hadn't said a thing to him about Annie, my feelings for her. I didn't know what to say either, I was a little nervous about this new development. I smiled, "Yeah, I like Annie. We're friends anyhow."

My Dad smiled, not his usual one. "I don't get it, Mike. You told us you're gay and we all went to counseling. Now you're not? I thought I saw something between you and Davy, now you say it's Annie. I don't get it."

I lowered my eyes, "I don't either. All I know is I like Annie." I inhaled deeply, "Annie's pretty, isn't she?"

My father put his hand over his eyes, "Yes, Annie's a good looking girl. I'm just more than a little surprised that you're interested."

I said, "Me too. I mean I never even thought about likin' a girl. I figured I was queer and that was it. I like Annie though, and we... well, we talked about it and we're gonna be friends. If more happens then it happens."

Dad was staring at me. "When did this all start?"

"It was at the picnic Saturday. We sat together to eat and... I dunno... I started to um... then we went out in the canoe and it was real nice. She cut my hair on Sunday and she was touching me all over and... well, you know."

He smiled, "I think I know. What's Annie think of this?"

"We talked Sunday night and I was all confused. We were havin' fun, just the two of us. Then the accident happened and she came by after everything and, well, she kissed me." I was blushing, "She sat on my lap and..."

His eyebrows went up, "Again? At least the equipment's working."

I was embarrassed by this. "Um, it's workin' overtime I think. Anyhow, last night we took a walk and I was all nervous about doin' the wrong thing and hurting her. She gave me a talkin' to, sayin' she was strong and if it didn't work out it wouldn't kill her. I got to thinkin' about that and she's right. I shouldn't worry about why I like her or how I can like her, that ain't the point. I do like her and she likes me, and that's what's important." I tried to smile and looked right at my Dad. "I guess I got a girlfriend."

He was staring curiously at me. A small smile worked its way onto his face, but he didn't say anything and looked at the clock on the wall. I wasn't sure if he was just checking to see if it was time for work or if he was noting the moment for posterity.

I snuck a grin at him, "I guess you gotta tell me about the birds and the bees now."

He had missed the grin and snapped his head to look at me. "Really?" He seemed genuinely surprised, "Oh man, I'm sorry. You were so young before, and you said you were...."

I was grinning like the Cheshire cat. Dad caught on and tossed his magazine at me, "You little stinker! Go cut the grass. It's startin' to look like a hayfield out there!"

I said, "Cut the grass? I wanna talk about sex!"

It was my father's turn to grin, "You mow the lawn while I read up on it. I think I forgot how it works."

I said snidely, "Oh, sure you did!" He started to stand up in a mock threat. "Alright, I'm goin' already!"

"Don't strain yourself."

The door slammed behind me. The grass looked pretty much dead except for in the shade. It wouldn't be hard to cut, and I didn't mind anyhow. I actually kind of liked it, and it was the only real job I had around the house other than making sure the garbage was out on Thursday nights. I had to move half the contents of the garage to get to the mower. It had been three weeks since I last used it, and in summer that was a lifetime of things being pulled out and put back in different places.

I checked the oil and filled it with gas. The mower started up on the first pull, and I set to work. I started in the back yard, walking away from Dave and Tim's house, then back toward it. I was being careful to keep my line straight the way Dad liked it. Our back yard was pretty big, over an acre, so it was a while before I got near the house. There was a sudden flurry of activity next door. Tony's father pulled in, followed by Tim in his BMW. Timmy was in the truck with Mr. Wolfe and Davy was in the car with Tim. I finished the line I was on and cut the motor off, removing my shirt and wiping my sweaty face with it. I walked over as they got out of the vehicles.

"Hey, everybody! Go out to eat?"

Davy grinned, "No, we went shopping! Uncle Tim just bought out a hardware store."

Tim looked a little flustered, "I went to buy a lawnmower and wheelbarrow. I ended up spending a college tuition there." He smirked at Tony's father, who seemed a little embarrassed, "At least Wayne's happy."

Tony's father said, "All I did was look at it. I didn't mean for ya to buy the darn thing."

Tim grinned, "Come on Wayne, admit it. It was love at first sight."

We all turned to look as a truck turned into the driveway. It was from the hardware store, and when it pulled in I could see the equipment on the back. When everything got unloaded I took a look at the object of Mr. Wolfe's desire. He explained that it was a zero-turn riding mower, twenty four horsepower that did nothing but cut grass. I looked at it and didn't get the idea of how it worked. There was a leather seat on top of a pile of metal, but no steering wheel.

Mr. Wolfe checked the engine, then filled the tank with gas and got in the seat. He started it with the key, then grabbed a lever in each hand and spun the thing around in its own length. Then he headed toward their front yard, lined up with the road and started mowing. I think he mowed more in a minute than I had in the last hour. When he made his return pass he continued right across my front yard, then proceeded to mow the whole thing in a few minutes.

I loved his expression, it being so identical to Tony's when he was whittling or drawing. There was intent on his face, but it was an amused intent, like to say Lookit what I can do now!

He disappeared for a few minutes on the far side of the house, then came out around the back yelling for me to move my mower so he could finish. I hurried and dragged it into the driveway and in another minute the lawn was done. The best part was that the sections Mr. Wolfe mowed looked way better than what I had done. That machine didn't leave little tire tracks to show you where you'd been and what you missed. It mowed a wide swath and left everything looking perfect. It also looked to be as much fun to drive as the dune buggy.

When he finished my yard Mr. Wolfe paused in the driveway. He had a huge smile on his face. "Woohoo! This be the way to cut grass!" With that he was back at Tim's front yard.

Tim looked at us and grinned, "Gee, it's easy to make some people happy." He looked at me, "Where's Anton? I wanted to talk to him."

I said, "He's on a date. I'll see him later on and tell him to stop over or call."

Tim smiled in surprise, "He has a date? Anybody I know?"

"Yeah, he's with Paulina. Didn't you see her when he dropped off the glue?"

It dawned on me that they hadn't been home when Tony went there. I looked around and saw the coffee can on the step. I picked it up and handed it to Tim saying, "Tony meant to give you directions how to use it. He'll prob'ly write 'em down and drop 'em of when he has a chance."

Tim took it and lifted the plastic lid, jerking his head back when he got a whiff of it. "Ouch! That's rank!" He turned serious, looking at the can, "This is the stuff, huh? I can't believe it... bugs." He seemed lost in thought, "I wonder what part he uses."

Tim looked like he was going to talk to himself for awhile. Timmy had already gone inside, so I walked off with Davy. We went over by the barn and the dune buggy beckoned. I grinned, "Hop in."

He did, I started it up and off we went. Davy hadn't said anything about last night and I kind of trusted him not to. I still wanted him to know that he'd better not ever say anything, and I couldn't think of a better way than scaring him out of his skin. I drove pretty slowly through the woods, then when I hit the bridge I gunned it. I scared myself a few times with the chances I was taking. Davy sucked it all up gleefully, even when I almost hit a tree in a slide.

Davy wanted to drive and I eventually gave in to his pleadings. He wasn't real good with the stick shift at first. He knew how, just never got much of a chance to use one. He got the hang of it quickly enough and his experience at handling a car started to show through.

He was much smoother than me or Tony, which didn't necessarily make for a more fun ride. It did allow for him to drive faster, and the dune buggy was fun even when it wasn't delivering a near-death experience. When we finally rolled back up to the barn we found Dave, Tim and Timmy having drinks on the deck. Davy begged his uncle Dave to call Joe and get permission for us to use the dune buggy to go to the Nettleton's party. Dave called, Joe gave his okay, and two very happy boys disappeared into their houses to get ready.

* * * * * * * *

I showered and shaved my peach fuzz, which was becoming a more frequent chore, then set about finding something appropriate to wear. I had been in t-shirts and shorts all summer and I figured I'd try to do better for this night. I tried a few shirts and decided on a polo shirt that was white with a wide navy blue stripe that went horizontally around it. I thought it looked good with navy cargo shorts. I dug through the bottom of my closet to find my least repulsive sneakers, then I was ready.

I told my sister where I was headed, then trotted across the driveways to find Davy all ready himself, turned out in a white dress shirt and black dockers. We just stared at each other for a second before Davy grinned. "Wow! You wash up pretty good! Let's go! Timmy even shined up the duner for us."

"That was nice."

"Yeah, Timmy's pretty good to his little brother. I guess I'm lucky that way."

We were headed toward the car, "Yeah, me too. My brother's good like that."

The dune buggy looked great with the mud gone. I felt great, full of anticipation for a fun night. I could tell that Davy did too. I even let him change to the oldie's station, and we drove off toward Annie's house to the sounds of The Eagles blasting through the speakers.

I was feeling good, looking good. It's hard to describe the elation and excitement that I felt then. We were headed off to celebrate Clay's survival for starters, but friends awaited me there and that wasn't something I was used to thinking. Davy was already my friend, and Annie, Tony, Clay and Paulina would all be there. We were riding in the coolest car in town, happy loud music turning the few heads we passed. Younger kids cheered us on our way, even old ladies waved from their porches.

When we got to the Nettleton's, Davy started to park out front. I convinced him to drive right across the lawn and out back, which turned out to be a happy decision by instantly livening up what looked like a quiet gathering. Davy beeped the horn, boys looked at us in envy, and girls squealed. We were surrounded by happy faces before we even tried to get out of the car.

The happiest ones belonged to the Nettleton family, who were approaching the front of the car together, Mr. Nettleton's arm firmly around a smiling Clay's shoulder. I hadn't seen Clay smile a lot, and certainly never like he was right then. His eyes seemed almost disconcertingly bright, especially considering that I was seeing them through a scratched windshield. Annie was radiant herself, beaming fondness toward me with such warmth that I could almost feel the heat.

Davy and I unbuckled and climbed out to welcoming hugs and pats on the back. Davy leaned back into the car and turned the radio back on while I wondered if I should talk to Clay or Annie first.

Mrs. Nettleton settled that question when she hurried over and gave me a tight, silent hug. She didn't embarrass me by hanging on long, just pulled away and gave me the sweetest mother's smile that I'd ever seen from anyone other than my own mother.

She repeated the process with Davy while Mr. Nettleton held his hand out to me. "Glad you could come, son." He grinned, "I hope y'all have a good time!"

That was it, and I appreciated him more for it. He'd said his piece the other night, now he was leaving it alone. I hoped everybody would.

Jimmy walked up and bopped my shoulder, beaming his own slice of the sun at me. He said, "Thanks, Mike. You're always there," then, "Who's car? Is this Joe's new one?"

I told him it sure was then looked at where Clay and Annie were still standing. Annie had Clay's hand in hers and they both looked totally happy. I took the few steps that it required to put myself in front of them and smiled at Clay, "Hi. Feel okay?"

To my surprise they both tried to hug me, Annie giving way to Clay. He wrapped his arms around me quickly, then let go and stood back. "Yeah, clean bill. My throat's still scratchy, but that's it." I looked at Clay, suddenly figuring out that there's beauty in happy eyes. He continued, "I don't wanna muck up the party, but we need to talk." When I looked a question at him he grinned, "It's nothin' bad. I had the dream again, and I figured somethin' out."

I didn't get much time to think about that. Annie gave me a hug, then took my arm and led me back to where everybody had been when we drove in. We got to a secluded spot and she kissed me and smiled, "You look great! I was beginning to wonder if you were born in a sweaty t-shirt."

I had to laugh. It was very close to the truth. When I was very young, probably three, I had a favorite shirt. I didn't remember it, but every chance my parents got they told the story of how they were telling people about it at the picnic one day, then my father turned to ask me where my shirt was and I had it on underneath whatever they'd dressed me in, pulling up the outer shirt proudly to show everyone. I had apparently managed to get whatever I was in off, put on the little orange t-shirt, and get back into the clothes they had me in to begin with.

I smiled happily. It was Annie's turn to be in a t-shirt, the kind that stopped just north of the belly button, and she was wearing tight white shorts.

She was single-handedly trying to end my sexual confusion, and doing a pretty good job of it right then. Just standing there had me half hard and quite ready to just disappear somewhere with her.

"Hungry?" she smiled.

"Huh? Oh yeah, always. Is the pizza here?"

"No, Paulina's pickin' it up. I made some crab cakes."

"Crab cakes? I never had one."

Annie took my hand, and a shiver went through me. It was a shiver that I hadn't felt since Jack died, a shiver that promised a lot of things, a shiver that I had thought was lost forever. I almost said something, but shut up and savored the moment instead. I felt a sudden comfort with Annie, a realization really. She didn't care what I was, she cared who I was, and right at that moment she was hoping I liked her crab cakes.

I liked them, more than way too much. I was on my fourth one and the party had rejoined us when she stopped my reaching hand. "I'll make you some another day, save some room for pizza, okay?"

I smiled. They were delicious, but rich. We got up and circulated among the cheerful people there. I didn't feel uncomfortable at all, even though many of the kids there had been among my tormentors last year. Nobody was going to mention it, and I realized that all of them had already apologized to me. I had never expected or wanted apologies to start with. After the crash they had each approached me in their own way to say how they felt. It was touching at first, then it got annoying.

I had started to get angry after awhile. Fine, say all this nice crap to me, but it was Jack who died thinking you hated him. I distanced myself from all but a few. Now I was cracking, letting them back in. It had started with Jed Anderson, and he was persistent. I thought he was my only friend for a long time, even though I hadn't really forgiven him. Now there was Tony, who I thought I'd never forgive, but that was when he was Anton.

There was also James, once just a blip on my radar, but I was to learn that he was the guy who disallowed any harassment from my own class. He'd always seemed so distant, so much above me that I never dared reach out, but now I knew he was really just a kid like me, disappointed in love maybe, but forever hopeful, always in charge.

Then Clay himself, the mystery boy. He had a dream the other night, and I was certain it was Jack causing it, but Clay had spent some time in love with me. It was frightening and amusing at the same time. I thought it was Jack, it had to be, but Clay didn't know that. It must have scared the shit out of him.

Just picture it, there's Clay in a struggle for life itself, suddenly he's infused with undying love for another boy, a boy he barely knows and doesn't think much of to begin with. That's a dilemma, a dilemma with horns. Big suckers, the kind that curl around like a mountain goat's and have long sharp points.

Suddenly eight big pizzas showed up, borne by a struggling Tony, Paulina right behind him. I started to stand and help him, but Annie restrained me, indicating that there were several other guys already there.

As the pizza boxes got opened they were set upon by the sixteen or seventeen kids who had gathered. Annie called me over to one box. "This one's for you... bacon and onion."

I was surprised, "How'd you know?"

"Oh, I just had a feeling." She smiled at my confusion, "I called your house, dummy. Your father told me."

James was right beside us and overheard. He laughed, "Information is power, baby. Did you, uh, happen to call my house?"

"I did, and a couple of these should be sausage and mushroom. The only thing more popular was plain cheese."

I pulled out a slice and took a delicious bite, oil from the bacon dripped on my chin and dribbled its way downward toward my throat. Annie saw it and for the second time in just a few days dabbed at it with a napkin. Then she took a clean one and fashioned me a bib. She waited until I was chewing on a big bite before asking, "Are you always such a messy eater?"

I tried, 'Nmmgph!" I swallowed, "That's not fair." She had a slice of the same pizza in her hand, but I think she was afraid I was going to do the same thing to her. "Okay, draw! We can talk later. Just eat before it gets cold."

There was actually not a chance that any pizza would go cold. Those things disappeared like raindrops on hot pavement. They didn't vanish in silence either. This was a happy bunch of people, quiet only possible from any of us when we were actively chewing on something. The radio was blaring from the dune buggy, so you had to speak fairly loudly to be heard by the person right next to you. Anybody who wanted to make a wisecrack for general consumption had to truly shout it out.

A few couples started dancing and Annie tugged my arm, "Come on, let's dance!"

"Me? I don't know how to dance!"

Annie had some strength, and in a minute we were facing each other in the driveway with her dancing and me imitating her movements until I had her smile of approval. It was fun for sure. I'd danced at weddings and things like that in the past, but always slow and with my mother or sisters. Now I was getting the idea that it didn't much matter what you did as long as your partner did about the same thing.

We danced to a few songs, then sat down for a soda and talked to a few people, then danced more. Other boys asked Annie to dance and other girls asked me. Davy was popular with the girls because he actually knew what he was doing out there. Tony was trying gamely and became a popular partner because his angular motions were rhythmic if not particularly graceful.

Clay surprised me with how well he danced. James was a little better than him, but somehow that didn't surprise me at all. I had fun dancing, and I had fun watching others dance. We were all in great moods. Even though the pizza was gone, the Nettletons kept bringing out other stuff, chips and dips, brownies, cookies. Hunger wasn't a possibility. Whenever something was gone it was replaced with something else.

I held hands with Annie when we sat together and Tony did the same with Paulina. James noticed that, but he seemed gracefully resigned to the fact. He actually seemed to be developing an appreciation for Tony, as did everybody there. I'm sure it was Tony's first major social situation and he appeared to be having a lot of fun. He was still a bit shy, but he listened when others talked and responded on topic, revealing his gentle wit several times. If anybody didn't understand his accent they didn't say anything. I was used to it, anyhow. When we had first started talking I'd lose him once in a while when my brain stalled for a moment to translate something. By the time I figured out what the one word was, I missed the rest of the thought.

That wasn't happening anymore, and I was kind of proud of him. Tony probably weighed less than the smallest girl there, but he wasn't acting self conscious at all. He seemed pretty comfortable in, and awed by, his new situation.

I think I felt exactly the same way. I had never once been in the position I found myself in, surrounded by people my own age who seemed to like me, who took an interest in what I thought about things. It was the first time I ever thought about what it meant to come from Morton, to be part of the next generation of Morton adults. I started to understand what it was all about. Our little group ranged in age from fourteen to seventeen. The older kids didn't try to pull rank, nobody made wisecracks that would single out any individual. There was plenty of teasing going on, but it was either gentle or so far off the wall that everyone understood it was a joke.

We all took pains to make sure that Clay remained the center of attention, and I found myself wondering if he was feeling like Tony and I were. He was clearly having a good time and hadn't lost his smile or the look in his eyes even once. He was enjoying himself instead of drifting off into one of his scowly moods, and I wondered briefly if it came from him coming back from the brink, if he felt that he had another chance and decided to take a different tack.

At about eleven o'clock Mr. Nettleton came out and said we could stay as long as we liked, but we'd have to turn the music down. That didn't bother any of us. Davy just turned it off altogether and we settled into smaller groups, talking and joking quietly into the night.

That's when Clay asked to speak alone with me for a minute. I excused myself, and we went inside to his bedroom. I was totally surprised by it. He had the usual bed, desk, chair and dresser. He also had a small sofa with end tables and lamps and a coffee table in front of it. The walls were covered with framed reproductions of 20th century art, and there was a small stack of art books on the coffee table. The only thing in the room that said 'kid' was a crummy old Braves cap dangling from his desk chair.

I was looking around, "Wow Clay, you do things different!"

I turned to look at him and his earlier smile had become absolutely dazzling. He seemed to have a hard time talking through it, "Yeah. I guess I like the club look." He practically shoved me down onto the sofa, then went and closed the door, locking it. When he turned back to me he was smiling gently, but his eyes seemed serious.

"I have something for you, but I gotta tell you first." He sat beside me and we both turned so we were looking at each other. Clay continued, "I had another dream last night. I was in love with you again, but this time I loved everything that God ever made: every person, every plant and animal, every rock, every star in the sky. I know where it came from now, but I can't say. I get to keep everything else, but I hafta give the love for you back to you."

I was bewildered, "Huh?"

Clay turned on one of the end-table lights and got up and flipped off the overhead one with the switch by the door. He sat back down, "That's better. Okay, there's some ground rules. The minute you say something, anything at all, it's over. I ain't gonna remember a thing, and I'll thank you for never reminding me. Okay, ready?"

"Ready for what?" I peered at Clay's still happy face, "You sure your head's alright?"

"My head's fine. Come on, Mike. I don't have all night." He leaned closer to me, "Remember, you can make it last as long as you want, but if you say anything it's over. Understand?" His face got closer and he pursed his lips.

When his mouth was an inch from mine I suddenly understood completely. Clay still had Jack, or perhaps it was the other way around. Our lips met and my eyes closed. We fell into a tight hug, our lips parting and our tongues finding each other..

This wasn't Clay's mouth! It was Jack! It wasn't even pizza breath, it was Listerine. I know it tastes like crap, but better safe than sorry.

It was Jack's tongue. Heh, why's your tongue always taste like metal?

It was also Jack's kiss. Mmmmmm. You can be a turd head sometimes, but ya sure got this figured out.

Mostly, it was Jack's love. Til the end of time, Mike, 'til the end of time.

I pulled back crying, "Jack!"

Clay backed off and rubbed his eyes, "Oh man, sorry. I must'a dozed off." He looked at me, "You okay, Mike? Too much junk food?"

I didn't say anything, just stared at Clay's face, Clay's mouth. Did that just happen? Did we both doze off and I just had a bizarre dream?

I felt a thought somewhere and groped for it. No dream, Mikey. I knew ya'd think that. Listen to your angels.

I looked at Clay and wondered if it had really happened, then noticed that his clock read just shy of midnight. I felt dazed. It had been shortly after eleven when we came inside. Had I just kissed Jack for almost an hour? If I did, why did it seem so unreal already? Why was my memory so screwed up? I had every detail of the rest of the evening in my head, why was the last hour almost gone?

I shook my head and looked at Clay again. He seemed happy but tired. I said, "You look beat."

"I am. I guess the nap didn't help. Let's go back out so I can say goodnight. You guys can stay as long as you want."

I yawned myself, and we both stood to leave. When Clay got to the door he wondered aloud why it was locked, even closed for that matter.

I was in a daze for a moment, then my head cleared and what had just happened seemed like a distant and unverified memory.

We went outside to find things much as we had left them. A few kids had gone home, but most of them were still there and engaged in conversations or make out sessions, the latter being reserved for Tony and Paulina. Annie was picking up things. I told Clay, "Nice talkin' to ya," then went to help Annie.

She hadn't seen us come out, so I snuck up on her and put my arms around her midsection, kissing the back of her hair.

"Ooh! You better be somebody I know, mister. I have a meat cleaver and I know how to use it." She turned around laughing.

I giggled and kissed her on the lips, lingering, feeling very good about it. I smiled, "Sorry we took so long."

She seemed mildly surprised, "Long? I wish I could pee that fast. You guys have all the luck"

I kissed her again. And again. We hugged and kissed, standing right under a floodlight beam in her back yard. I had a stiffy to beat all, and I pressed it against her so she'd know I did. Neither of us cared who saw, it just felt right.

* * * * * * * *

The party gradually broke up as different curfews approached. Davy and I were the last ones there, and helped pick up what trash we could find. I kissed Annie one last time, then Davy and I drove home slowly, basking in our own happy thoughts.

Without any discussion he came in my house and we climbed into bed. I lay there thinking about Jack, wondering about what had happened with Clay, even if it had really happened. It seemed simultaneously real and unreal. What about Clay's words? Something about giving the love he felt for me back to me, like he only had it on loan.

I eventually fell asleep, but I slept fitfully for the first time in a long time.

I awoke to the sound of my father telling me to get ready for my appointment with Dr. Service. I looked over and Davy wasn't in bed, nor was he in the room. I figured he was probably in the shower, so I gathered up what I needed and headed to the bathroom prepared to wait. The door was open and the room was empty. I looked into the kitchen to find my father sitting alone. "Where's Dave?"

"He went somewhere with his brother. He knew you had an appointment."


My father grinned, "How was the party? You stayed long enough!"

I grinned right back, remembering. "It was great! I had a lot of fun, we all did. Lemme get ready, I'll tell you on the way."

I took a shower and got ready, then had a muffin and juice with my father. On the way to the doctor's I literally gushed about the party, the nice people, the food, the dancing. He smiled and made comments while he was listening, but I think he was remembering similar nights from his own youth.

I was glad that I'd canceled Monday's appointment. If I had gone then I probably would have caused the doctor to spend hours researching things that had by now straightened themselves out in my own mind. I certainly wasn't going to share what had gone on with Clay, not with Dr. Service anyhow. Maybe with Dave or Tim, but it wasn't going to become general knowledge.

Even the sexuality thing didn't bother me anymore, though I hoped the doc could explain it better. I had long ago come to terms with being gay, so if that wasn't the complete truth I could adjust. My experience with Jack told me I knew how to be faithful, so I saw no problems at all in store if I found somebody new to love, boy or girl.

No, my only problem with somebody new was Jack. I had been faithful, and now I wasn't anymore. The problem was that it felt good having new people in my life. Annie was my only possible love interest right then, and I think the only thing that bothered me about my interest in her was the fact that it didn't bother me. That's where I felt unfaithful, like there was a lie in there somewhere.

That's all I talked about with Dr. Service. He was helpful for once, explaining bisexuality to the point that it seemed understandable enough, even saying that it wasn't unusual for kids of either sex to feel love for their friends during the years Jack and I had been together.

Acting on those feelings was less common, but still not rare. Nothing we had done together ensured that I'd be a gay man, nor did anything preclude it. Sexuality as he explained it was an individual thing, and there was nothing particularly unusual about someone my age trying things both ways. I'd decide some day, and if I never did I'd still have fun trying.

He even coaxed me into an understanding of my lack of guilt about my feelings for Annie, getting me to see that if it was Dave or Tony instead of a girl that I probably would feel guilty. Since she was a girl, my feelings were entirely new to me and therefore not in conflict with my feelings for Jack. It sounded bogus in a way, because I thought feelings were feelings. I was happy with the reason for the time being, and Dr. Service was delighted to find me both talkative and happy.

I felt good when I left. It was my first visit there that hadn't been confrontational. I realized that all the prior confrontations had originated with me. I guess my mind set and mood had wasted a lot of Dad's money, but I was looking forward to my next visit. Dr. Service wanted to see some of my more recent letters to Jack, and I wanted him to see them. I always read them over as soon as I finished one, but I never looked back at a prior one. I kind of wanted to see if he'd find a new Mike Waters peering at him through the words I'd written

When we got home I dialed Annie's number and Clay picked up. He sounded cheery enough.

I said, "You sound happy!"

I could almost hear his smile, "I really am. Man, was that fun last night or what? I don't think I ever had such a good time."

"I know I had a ball. Um, is Annie home?"

"Yeah, she is," more quietly, "Thanks, Mike. Thanks for everything. Everything seems so much better since I got home. The whole world looks better."

I heard him call for Annie, and when she picked up we talked for over an hour. We talked about the party, then I told her about my session with Dr. Service and how I felt better about everything. She spoke quietly about Clay, how different he seemed since he came home, how happy he was. He was opening up to his family for the first time ever, and they all liked what they found inside. Paulina had called her and invited the both of us to join her and Tony at the swim club the next day. I remembered what a good time Davy and I had with Paulina at the club and would happily go back anytime, so we planned on it. For the first time in my life I made a kissy sound into the phone before we hung up.

My Dad left for work while I was on the phone. I looked and there were no cars next door, so I got a soda and stretched out in a lawn chair on the porch. I wasn't thinking of much, just feeling contented. Buster wandered over and sat between my legs facing me, then laid his massive snout on my lap. I stroked the top of his head, noticing that his usually mischievous look was almost mournful right then.

I asked, "How 'bout you, Buster? You glad you moved to Morton?"

His eyes brightened and his tail thumped the deck.



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