Jack in the Box

Chapter 24

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : August, 2000

I rode back from the airport with Tim after we saw Davy and Timmy off. I was disappointed that Davy was gone, but not really depressed about it. I knew all along that he was just visiting, I just never expected such a deep and sincere friendship to develop in such a short time. I knew I was going to miss him sorely. There was little to be done about it. He lived his life in a different place, a place that was far away. He swore that he'd come back every chance he got, and he made his uncles promise to bring me up with them sometime when they went to visit. Meanwhile we had e-mail, instant messaging and the telephone. We had pictures of each other, both the ones drawn by Tony and Paulina's photos.

I had touched him the night before when we went to bed, stroked him to a climax through his underwear. When he came I did too, then I felt ashamed of myself. We cleaned up in the bathroom, then laid in bed talking until the alarm went off. We talked about what had just happened. I knew that I'd violated Davy's trust and our friendship and I was afraid of what it would mean. Davy took it less seriously than me. He was embarrassed but not really freaked out, and my shame faded when he convinced me that it didn't mean much and had felt good to both of us.

We talked about a lot of things, mostly about friends and families and what they all meant to us. We talked about degrees of love, how we felt for different people, and it helped us to decide that we were each other's best friend. Neither of us felt confined by the idea, but at that moment it was true. We agreed that it was more than likely that somebody else would start to fill the role of best friend for each of us, and probably in the near future, but we parted as best friends. We hugged for a long time when Davy's flight was called, long enough that Timmy had to drag him onto the plane.

On the way back from the airport, Tim had been struggling through rush hour traffic, but when we got north of town things cleared up and he put his foot down. He glanced at me and smiled, "Are you thinking or daydreaming there? Thanks for showing Davy such a nice time. I can tell that he loved it here, that he made friends."

I smiled back, "Yeah, everybody likes him. Well, maybe not two bozos from Arlington."

Tim cleared his throat, "Um, you have feelings for Davy, don't you?"

"Yeah, but we talked about it. We're just friends. We can't make each other somethin' we're not."

"No, I guess we can't. How about Annie? You seem to be getting pretty close to her, too."

I sighed. Annie. She was everything a guy in his right mind would want in a girl. Pretty, funny, smart, sexy. I grinned, "Yeah, I guess I am."

Tim said, "You seem to think that's strange."

I looked over at him, "It's not?"

"I don't think so. When I didn't think I had a chance with Dave I was looking at girls, not other guys." He chuckled, "Heh, Dave used to get on my case because I only liked parts of other people."


He laughed, "Yup, parts! I'd like somebody's face, somebody else's hair, a leg, hands, a personality, a mannerism. The only one with everything was Dave."

"And he was a boy."

Tim smiled, almost a grimace. "That he was, but what a boy! At least you didn't make the same mistake I did. When you determined it was love you felt for Jack you came out and said it. You're very, very lucky that he was ready to hear something like that. I pretty much hid my feelings for Dave for years. When I finally told him what I felt for him it was damn near too late. I don't know if it would have made any difference, he still wasn't ready to hear it when I did tell him."

Tim smiled at the recollection, "He came around though. The night he told me he loved me back is so etched in my brain that I sometimes have trouble thinking about other things. It's always like it just happened, like it keeps on happening."

"I know what you mean. That's the one moment I remember best about Jack, when he said he loved me too." I suddenly felt sad, "There's a difference, you know. Jack didn't live long enough for us to get what you guys have."

Tim reached over and touched my arm. "I know, Mike, I know. It's sad, but I guess you have to try again at some point."

I thought about that. "With Annie?"

"Hm. I can't help you decide that. Let me say this. You loved a boy, and all that proves is that you're capable of loving someone. I think another thing I have in common with you is that we both loved at an early age. Keep in mind that the important thing is it worked out for us. I guess we have to consider that I'm a gay man. I love another man and I have for a long time. We've made our life together. If it hadn't worked out with Dave, which I thought would be the case for awhile, I might have ended up with a girl. Dave might have, too. Do you get it? We love each other. It's not because we're both guys, it's because we love each other. That sounds like what I'm hearing from you about Jack. It's the person, not the sex of the person."

I slunk down in the seat and thought about that. I wasn't all that much like Tim. I felt attractions to other guys, mainly Davy, but others as well. Other than that, I guess the only difference between me and other guys was that I knew who I thought was good looking and who wasn't. Timmy had said the other day that even straight guys knew that, so maybe it wasn't so weird.

Thinking of Annie made me smile. I wasn't afraid of her anymore, and she certainly wasn't afraid of me. She'd gotten me off the other night at the picnic and again yesterday in the hot tub. It wasn't just sex either, I thought we were connecting as friends as well. I found myself really liking Annie the person. I loved her kisses, her warmth, her strength. I also loved her smarts, her sense of humor, her ease in conversations. The thought occurred to me that I had three selves, pre-Jack, with-Jack, and post-Jack. Annie could make me feel like an older and wiser version of the pre-Jack me, full of questions and awe for and about the people and things around me.

Davy told me that James called me a nature boy, and that thought pleased me to no end. I knew James pegged people for what he saw in them, and I was gratified to learn that he thought of me that way instead of as just a queer. I did love the outdoors, to the point that going inside after a long day of fishing and riding sometimes felt so confining that I went right back outside to sleep on the porch, under the stars.

I looked at Tim, who hadn't said anything in awhile. I was just thinking out loud. "Maybe I'm not too weird."

Tim seemed startled, "Huh? What? Sorry, I wasn't paying attention. Hey, Joe said there's a good ice cream place at the next exit. You interested?"

I grinned and nodded, reminding myself to remember the exit number for next time. "I was just thinking that maybe I'm not so weird after all."

Tim stared ahead and smiled, "You're not weird, Mike. You're your own person." He glanced over at me, "You and me are a lot alike. We even look alike... well, when I was your age anyhow."

Tim drove so smoothly that I was surprised to find us at a stop sign. Tim asked, "Which way?"

I indicated right, and we were soon sitting at a picnic table with colossal sundaes in front of us. I had a rocky road with hot fudge. Tim ordered the same thing and we were both enjoying them. I liked looking at Tim. If it's possible, there was fun in his eyes. I wondered if I could ever project that, if I ever had. Dave looked the same way, and I found myself sitting there wondering about the eyes where I saw happiness and the eyes where I didn't.

Annie and Paulina always seemed to have the happy ones, Clay more recently. Tony did sometimes, Pat almost never. I guess that spark was missing from Jed too. James certainly always had it, Jens sometimes. I always saw it with the Goldmans, with Nick, Scott and their kids. Except Hector. I wondered if there was some magic button somewhere that could turn it on. My parents had it sometimes, my sisters most of the time.

Tim was looking at me. "A penny for your thoughts," he said.


He smiled gently, "You look lost in space."

"Yeah, I guess I am. I was wonderin' why some people always seem happy and others don't. You and Dave have that look all the time."

Tim looked briefly into my eyes. "Uh, we try to make each other happy, keep each other happy." His face took on a look of pure bliss. "It works, Mike. It takes a little imagination, but it works." He grinned happily, "Oh yeah, it works." He reached over and put his hand on my wrist, "Mike, you'll find somebody someday. Whoever it is, make it your mission in life to keep him or her happy. That's all Dave and I do, and it really works. You'll fall in love again Mike, because it's in you to love someone. Whoever you fall in love with, be sure to make that love the most important thing in your life. Not your job... not your own wants, just your love."

Tim looked at me with a happy smile, "Mike, maybe I'm just lucky but I don't think so. I don't think we're special people, but Dave and I have found our own happiness." He blinked, "You'll find yours."

Our ice cream was melting and we both dug in for a minute. "Tim?"


"What's it like? I mean, Jack and I always thought we'd be together but we never thought about ourselves bein' all grown up. What's it like for you and Dave?"

Tim just looked at me for a minute, then he smiled and said softly, "It's great, Mike. I can't really picture my life playing out a different way. I love Dave and he loves me back, it's that simple." His smile became even softer and his voice quieted, "It's a great thing, Mike. You'll find love. I can't promise that, but you're open to it and that's the right way to start. Don't reject anybody automatically. Don't look too hard, either. Love kind of just happens."

I already knew that, it's what happened with me and Jack. We weren't looking for anything, but we fell in love anyhow. The thought made me smile to myself.

Tim said, "You know Mike, when I first met you I was worried about how you'd handle things. You were trying to do too much by yourself and rejecting what other people had to offer. I'm really pleased that you're looking at your life in different ways now." He smiled, "I shouldn't be the one to talk, I guess I only ever hoped for one life for myself, and it worked out the way I wanted. You've already lost what I managed to keep, which is your first love. I just hope you realize you still have an opportunity to live well and to love again."

I frowned, "I know that, I just feel like I'm cheatin' Jack."

We were finished with our ice cream. Tim wiped his mouth and indicated that we should leave. On the way to the car he said, "You can't cheat Jack, Mike. It's not possible." We slid into our seats and buckled ourselves in. Tim went on, "It's you Mike. It's in your head, and it's your memory of Jack that you think you're cheating. That's one thing you have to sort out for yourself."

"But how?" I asked, almost a whine.

Tim smiled sadly at me, almost grimly. "It was fate that cheated Jack, not you. He got cheated out of a long life, out of the happiness you would have brought to each other, out of the chance to prove himself in the world. You got cheated too... cheated of the life you would have had together, of your love getting better and stronger every day." He reached over and patted my hand, "Don't think you're cheating Jack in any way by getting on with your life. You must know he would have wanted you to."

I almost started to weep, knowing what Tim said was true. Jack died when he was only fourteen. He was full of love, full of life, full of wonder about the world. I missed him terribly, but that wouldn't bring him back to life. It was selfish of me to think of only Jack, too. Boys his age died every day, all over the world, from war, disease, famine, accidents, abuse, poverty, neglect, murder. I couldn't love all those boys myself, but I hoped someone somewhere did.

All I could do was love Jack, keep loving him, keep the love alive. We never hid what we felt for each other, but now it seemed like it was me alone who knew it was a real thing. I was trying hard to accept love and kindness from others, and I was doing good at it. I think I'd crossed that particular barrier anyhow. I found myself being able to accept little kindnesses with a smile and nothing else. I was even doing better with larger gestures, and I was trying to give back too.

I loved Joe's idea of mulch piles. It was something I could picture coming and going, building up. Everyday love was all around me, I'd just never recognized it for what it was before. Now I knew, and I was amassing great stores of it. I wasn't sure what to do with it all. If it was real I'd already need a warehouse. I wondered if I could use it for bigger things, maybe to make me love somebody or to make somebody love me like Jack did. That was a nice thought. If I could, who would I choose?

Right then Annie was the easy choice, and a convincing one at that. She was like Jack all wrapped up in a girl, only not exactly. Well, maybe. She had a serious side too, I just hadn't explored it much.

The guys I knew were all straight, but if I could pick one out of a fantasy it would be Davy. We had a connection and he had Jack's smile. If I could make him love me I thought I could love him back.

Tony definitely had depth, and I already loved him. He said he loved me too, and we'd become pretty open about our affections for each other, but affection was where it ended. I'd felt a little desire a few times, but it had been satisfied by being able to hug and hold hands when we felt like it.

Who else was there? Pat was handsome and hopelessly straight. Even in a fantasy I couldn't see how our mutual problems could ever lead to anything except a joint pity festival. James was downright beautiful and also straight. Besides, he was so far out of my league intellectually that my wildest fantasy would never bring us together.

In my small but growing circle of friends, that left Clay and Jens to think about. Clay was average looking and he'd turned out to be a decent person with a good smile when he chose to use it. He was hard to know, but I'd learned that if you bothered to try knowing him it was worth it. He just didn't fit my fantasies, even after delivering Jack's kiss. He was too deep.

Jen's was different. I'd never said anything or thought it out, but I had a gut feeling that his love for Clay was more than brotherly. I had no basis for that, just a feeling that Jens might be more like me than he cared to admit. He was good looking too, though in a little boy kind of way. He had a bright personality and a good disposition. He just seemed so little, like Jack and I were when we first fell in love. I never thought there was another gay boy in town, but thinking about Jens had me reconsidering. The problem with him was lack of attraction on my part. I was a pretty big kid, even for my age, and I thought Jens might make a neat little brother, but that was about it..

Jack and I were the same age, and in my new world the guys I was attracted to seemed to be that or a little older. And here I was, rejecting them in advance like I had some say in it. I learned with Davy that straight boys might let you do something with them, but you'd never get it back. Here I had Annie willing to give a little even when I didn't know how to give back. Annie liked me. A lot. I liked Annie a lot, and she was taking care of me. If I borrowed a tractor and dumped all my stored up love mulch on the both of us would we fall in love? Could we?

Tim's voice, "You going home, or should I drop you somewhere?"

I was a little startled. "Oh! Uh, I guess I'll write to Jack. I need to catch up with him."

Tim smiled, "Okay. Hey, the paint's be dry in the new guest house. Do you think you can rustle up some friends to help us move out there this weekend?" It's not the whole house, just the bedroom and the groceries mostly."

"I can ask around. How many guys you need?"

"Oh... you, me, Dave... maybe two or three others. I'll pay anyone who helps." We were turning into the driveway, "Let me know how you make out." When he stopped the car he looked at me and asked, "Are you alright? You got awful quiet there."

I smiled, "If it's okay I'm gonna go write to Jack."

We both got out of the car and looked at each other across the roof. Tim said, "That's fine with me." He smiled, "Tell Jack I said hello."

That idea made me chuckle. "I'll do that."

He turned toward the barn and I went inside the house. It still felt awkward now that Tim and Dave were living there and it wasn't Jack's house anymore. Walking through it was what felt awkward, I was fine when I got to Jack's room.

I had some serious business to write about, and I took a long time getting it all on paper. The last time I wrote to Jack was before my relationship with Annie took a definite sexual turn, and I also had to explain what I did with Davy. There were a whole lot of other things that had happened since I last wrote, so I tried to sort it all out in my head before I even started writing.

I began kind of in the middle with our frying pan medals, knowing that would get a laugh. Then I worked backwards to the picnic at Joe's house and what Annie and I had done, also filling in the details of what else had taken place at the picnic and since then.

It took an especially long time to explain what I'd done with Davy and how I felt about him. I wanted Jack to know that I loved him and needed him, that I also needed living people to help me through everyday life. I told Jack that Davy and I had declared ourselves to be best friends, but that Jack was still my best best friend. I started to belabor it, then realized that Jack was a lot smarter than me. He'd know what I was talking about, no problem.

I finished the letter with a joke Timmy had told on the way to the airport. When I was all done it was lunch time, but I was still pretty full from ice cream. I went out to the barn to play with the computer.

Tim had said to leave it on all the time, so when I sat down I went to my e-mail and was surprised to find five messages. The first two were from James and Clay, both of them with lists of e-mail addresses for other people I knew. The most recent three were from Davy. I smiled at how I could have e-mail from him already. I really loved this thing. I opened the first one and there was a note with two pictures. One was of Davy's house, which was pretty nice looking, and the next was of him and Timmy with their parents.

The next message from him was an invitation for me to come up the first long weekend. He said his father would buy me a ticket and it wouldn't cost me anything. He also asked me for everybody else's e-mail because he couldn't find the paper he wrote them on. That was no problem, Clay and James just sent me everybody's. I'd just copy them down and send them ahead.

The last message was a note:

Mike, I want you to know that I think meeting you and your friends qualifies as a milestone event for me. I want to change the way I am so I can live like you all do. I just love it there and I'll be back for sure. In the meantime, I'm going to start taking better notice of my friends and their feelings, try to be a better friend. You guys make it look easy and I hope I can make it happen here. I don't want to get all sappy on you. Just know that you're my best friend, the best friend I ever had.

Ok, I have to go. You be good to Annie, I really like her.

Love from your friend and brother,


I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat after reading that. I read it over and over until I was just staring at it. I wanted to respond, but I'd forgotten what Tim had shown me. I didn't know what to say anyhow. I finally went back to the pictures and looked at Davy's house, the place where he really lived. It wasn't a mansion, but you could tell they weren't hurting for money either. I wondered which window was Davy's, if it was even on that side of the house. I felt a little silly even wanting to know, but I wanted to nonetheless.

The family picture was really nice. It had been taken in the fall, and they were posed in a colorful setting in front of a split rail fence with leaves on the ground and very colorful trees surrounding them. We got some color in the fall, especially near the swamps, but it was nothing like where they were. This was brilliant color and I wondered if it would be like that when the first long weekend came along.

After awhile I started poking around on the computer, trying to remember which little thing made the instant messaging program start up. I clicked different things until I found it. Nobody was on right then, so I decided to go home and call some people to see if they could help moving Tim's stuff to the barn. On the way I thought of calling Clay and Tony, then figured bigger guys would be more help.

I called James, and he was willing. Aaron was with him as usual and he said he was in too. I asked James if he could think of one more strong guy and he suggested calling Buddy Early. I told James I'd get back to him with a time, then looked up the Early's number and dialed.

"Hello?" It was a female voice.

"Hi, is Buddy home?"

"Yeah, one second. I'll get him."

I looked in the refrigerator while I waited.


"Hey, Buddy. It's Mike Waters."

"Mike? What's up? I didn't expect a call from you."

That made me smile to myself. "I'll bet you didn't. Listen, the people next door want to move into the house out back. I'm trying to find guys to help. James and Aaron are coming, think you can do it? It's for money."

"Um... hold on. When? I have to see if we're doing anything."

"Tomorrow, I guess. I'm not sure what time."

"Let me ask, I'll be right back."

I put my nose back in the refrigerator and finally pulled out a hunk of cheddar to munch on.



"I can do it tomorrow or Sunday, just not Monday."

"Okay, great."



"Does this mean we're really square? I meant what I said the other night, but you just ran off."

I paused to swallow the cheese in my mouth. "Yeah, I said we were didn't I?"

"Yeah, you did. I really appreciate you bein' so big about that. Can I ask you something?"


"I... you don't hafta answer if it's personal."


"Well, um, you said you're gay, now I hear you're runnin' around with Ann Nettleton. Is that true?"

"Which one?"

He laughed, "Don't tease me! Is either one true?"

"I don't hafta answer?"

"Not if you don't want to. I... I... I... Jeez'm! Now ya got me stutterin'. I was gonna wait 'til I saw you, but if you're gay I know there's one more gay boy in school."

I had just broken off another piece of cheese and had it almost to my mouth. I jerked my hand away, "In our school? How do you know?"

"I um, I just know okay? I told you we all tried to learn about it after the crash, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember."

"Well... I learned with him. He told me."

"Wow! Who is it?"

"Uh, I don't think it's my place to say. I'm the only one who knows about him, around here anyhow. He knows who you are, and I just thought if you're interested in talkin' with him I could let him know. He already has a... um, um... a... "


I could hear his gulp over the phone. "Yeah, I guess that's it. Whatever you call it. Anyhow, you can think about it and let me know."

I was confused, "Why're you doin' this, Buddy? If this kid already has a... a special friend, then why me?"

Buddy sighed, "I don't know, I only wanted to help you out a little. I just thought if you guys knew each other you could talk. I mean, you should have more in common with each other, more than with me anyhow. I think I understand things better now, it's... um, it's just not me. Do you get what I'm saying?"

"If you mean you're not gay I get it. If this kid starts talkin' to me everybody's gonna figure him out pretty quick."

Buddy's voice got stern, "It's not gonna be like that this year, Mike, that I can promise! You have a lot more friends in that school than you think. You'll see, you can hang with whoever you want and nobody's gonna think a thing."

That sounded good, and it surprised me to hear it in the wake of my run in with the Simmons boys yesterday. My voice raised an octave, "Really?"

"Really, Mike. We'll be lookin' out for ya. Um, from what I hear Neil Simmons'll be headin' the other way when you're around."

That last sentence brought tones of both humor and pride into Buddy's voice, and it made me smile. It told me that whatever my reputation had been last year, it was now that of a kick ass. That might be useful.

"Thanks, Buddy. Now I'm glad I called."

"I'm glad too, Mike. You goin' to the picnic later?"

"I don't know, do you know where it is?"

"Hold on."

I heard him yell out the question and wait for an answer, then he came back on. "It's at the Carlson's. I wasn't gonna go, but if you're goin' maybe I will."

"I can't say 'til Mom gets home. We usually go, especially on weekends."

"I'll be there then. Find out what time this move's takin' place so I can make plans."

"I will, Buddy. Thanks."

"Thanks yourself. Let me know what you think about the other thing, too."

"I will. You take it easy."

When I hung up I stood there munching on cheese and feeling better about the impending school year. The incident with the Simmons jerks had happened in isolation the day before, but word had gotten around anyhow. According to Davy, James had figured it all out and Davy had given me the credit even though it wasn't really due me. Those boys had been all mouth last year, but they had loud ones. Buddy was the same way then, and now he was actually sounding pretty sensitive, sounding like another friend.

I liked that idea, that I could just make friends. Now I had another one, somebody who really put me through it last year. I liked that.

I cleaned up my cheese crumbs and sat out on the porch. I was having a bit of an internal conflict wondering who Buddy's friend was and if I wanted to meet him. On the one hand I could know somebody else my age or thereabouts who was gay. On the other hand I wondered if I wanted to. Things were pretty cool the way they were. I'd more or less shed my shell and started making some friends, real friends, for the first time in my life. Jack had been a friend and more, but other than him I'd only had playmates and acquaintances. That's not entirely true. Before Jack I had felt real friendship with a few adults, just never kids near my age.

I was pondering that little anomaly in my life when my mother pulled into the driveway. She got out of the car and when she noticed me she waved and said, "Hi, Mike. Home alone?"

"Yeah. Have a good day?"

"Not bad. Did Davy get off okay?"

"Huh? OH! Oh... oh yeah, he got home okay. He sent me some e-mail already."

She went in through the kitchen, then a few minutes later came out and joined me. She hugged me quickly and made a kiss sound somewhere near my cheek. "How's my number two son doing, anyhow?" she asked as she sat opposite me.

I smiled, "Better, I guess. A whole lot better."

Her eyebrows went up, "Oh! Should I be making cookies? I know I promised to talk to you, but it's been a busy week."

"You got that right. I don't need cookies, I just polished off the cheese. Mom?"


"I'm... um, I might not be gay like I said."


"Well, I might be bisexual, at least that's what they call it."

She smiled a bit more brightly than I was prepared for. "Well, that opens up a world of possibilities, doesn't it? Can I assume that you're leaning the Annie Nettleton way right now?"

I lowered my face a little, blushing but maintaining eye contact. I muttered, "Maybe."

"Annie's a lovely girl, Mike, and she's very charming too." She grinned, "You're beginning to develop a new kind of charm yourself you know."

"I am?"

"Oh yes you are, mister." Her smile clouded, and for a moment I thought she was going to start crying, "Michael, I've been so worried about you since the accident. You withdrew from everything and hid yourself farther and farther away. Your father and I were afraid we were losing you." She shuddered, "Oh God, Michael, we were so afraid!" She pulled herself together and sat back to smile at me, albeit sadly. "The last few weeks have brought so much change in you, "

She stood up and came over to me, ending up in my lap and a giant mutual hug. She kissed my cheek and held on.

"I hope I'm not overdoing this. You've gotten so big!" She pressed her cheek to mine for a minute, then got off my lap and went back to her chair, tears in her eyes. She shook her head and looked me in the eye. "Michael, I love you and I always have. That's to be expected from a mother, but I loved you for the wonderful, happy child you always were. Now you're almost a man, and you're suddenly acting like one. Well, at least like a happy teenager."

I looked down at myself, then back at her, "Me? I'm happy?"

She almost sputtered, "Aren't you? Michael, you seem so much more relaxed than your brother did at your age. Raymond was a ball of nerves for almost five years."

"He was?"

"I'm not trying to compare but, yes. I suppose Ray was a typical teenager, all those insecurities, but he found his own confidence." She smiled, "You seem to be finding some confidence and happiness now, and that pleases me more than you can know." She knitted her hands and smiled shyly at me. "Michael, your sexuality doesn't concern me. I don't care if you settle down with a him or a her or an it or a that. I'm your mother, and I want you to be happy with your life." She sniffed a little and looked away, then up at the sky. When she looked back at me she said, "I love you, Michael. I always thought you were like banjo music."

Huh? "Banjo?"

She smiled her sweetest and I almost melted. "Oh, yes. Banjo. It's the one instrument that's incapable of making an unhappy sound. You were always such a happy child. I always heard banjo when I saw your smile. Then you grew up and met Jack and I had a duet." Her face took on a look of torment, "Mike, I know how much you loved Jack, we all know. When he died you seemed strong at first, then your sadness started to drift into anger. You got so distant, so... quiet." A tear struggled out of her eye and streamed down her face. She brushed it away, "You had us fearful that you were going to do something awful. Oh God, I've been so scared."

I felt like a skunk. I'd become so draped in my own misery that I'd spread it to others. I had spent months trying to distance myself from everyone and I'd done a good job of it. I was trying to stay alone though, not frighten my family. I said meekly, "I'm sorry, I mean really sorry. I was bein' an idiot."

She shook her head and smiled, "Don't, Michael. Don't apologize, just tell me that it's behind you and that you're half as happy as you seem to be."

I managed a weak smile, "I really am feeling good. I ain't tryin' to fake it. I don't... that's not true. I do know what changed. People finally faced up to my bullshit, startin' with Jeddy. I swear it, Mom! If people didn't get pissed at me I'd still be in a fuckin' hole, deeper in it even."

My mother's expression was precious, a mixture of shock and humor. "Michael, I must say your vocabulary has taken an interesting turn." She smiled sweetly, "I believe I know what you're saying. I also believe I could paraphrase it into a less pornographic expression of your feelings. At the same time I wish I'd thought to get pissed off at your bullshit, if that's what it took." Her smile turned into a mother's smile again. "I'm glad it worked, no matter how you choose to express it."

I stared at her for a second, then burst out laughing. She joined in, and hearing her laughter with mine again was the most satisfying sound ever. Nothing was really funny. I had laughed some during the past few weeks, but I don't think my mother was ever there. When I was younger, before Jack, we could always tickle each other's funny bones. When Jack was alive we all could, even his parents. It had ended, now it was back. My mother was laughing herself silly and it was because I was laughing like I used to. I was laughing because I liked the way she talked, the way she said things.

When we calmed down I asked, "Want somethin' to drink? Iced tea? Water?"

"In a minute, Mike. When's the last time we laughed like that?"

I thought for a second. Oh, no! "It was the day of the crash, that morning. You caught us, um... "

"Yes! I believe smooching is the operative term. Do you have any idea of how cute you guys were together, how red you could turn?"


She stood, "Well, you were! Cute, that is. Now look at you, almost a man. Cute doesn't apply anymore, but you're a handsome devil. C'mon, help me peel some eggplants so we can get to the picnic."

There were still a lot of things I didn't understand. My mother wasn't, and never had been, one of them. She loved me unconditionally and I loved her just for that. There were other things, though. My father could tell a joke okay, but he wasn't really a funny guy. My mother could be funny without trying.

Dad loved me and I knew it. His role was different. He was my teacher about manly things, and he did a fine job. He taught me how to ride a bike, mow the lawn, how to fish, how to look at the world and love nature. My Dad, my mentor. We had spent a lot of time together, way more than other kids I knew spent with their fathers.

Mom was different, though she probably mentored my sisters in the ways of women. I didn't pay attention to that. She didn't let me get away with only knowing how to fish and hike. I learned things about cooking, ironing and cleaning too. I even knew how to run the washer and dryer, how to hang clothes on the line when the weather was right for it.

I was following her lead peeling eggplants, wishing I had the nerve to ask her what I could do with Annie that would make her feel as good as she made me feel, when the phone rang.

I answered, "Hello?"

It was Tony. "Mike, it's you! GUESS WHAT!"

"Hey, Tony! What?"

"Mr. Dickey gave me a hundred bucks!"

That was big news. "Wow! I mean, wow! That's a lot of money. Whatcha gonna do with it?"

"Keep it, I guess. I wanna buy Joe a big ice cream. I never had my own money before, I don't know what to do. You goin' to the picnic?"

I smiled , "Yeah, I'll be there."

"Okay, I can show it to ya! It's all tens."

I had of course seen money before. I never really had any of my own, just when I needed some I'd ask and get handed a few bucks. Tony had actually earned his, and it sounded like a lot. I think I was as excited as he was, and I wanted to see the money. "You're bringin' it with ya? I can't wait!"

"You should see my ma, she don't believe it!"

"Heh, I bet! Uh, listen. I'm helpin' cook, so I'll see ya there. Okay?"

"It's okay. I just wanted to tell ya, now I'm callin' Paulina. See ya there!"

I was smiling when I hung up. My mother asked, "Who was that?"

"Tony Wolfe. Mr. Dickey gave him a hundred dollars for the birdhouse, Tony's all excited."

The eggplants were all peeled. I took over the task of slicing them while my mother breaded the discs and dropped them into the hot oil. She smiled and said, "You sounded pretty excited yourself. Is that because you own such a valuable thing?"

I stopped slicing and looked at her. "No! I'm excited for Tony is all. I already promised to keep the one he gave me."

She wiped her hands on a towel and walked over to me, then put her hands on my shoulders and kissed my forehead, "You'll keep your promise too, won't you? You should talk to your father about finding a post and putting it out for the birds next spring. Anton didn't make it for an ornament."

She went back to cooking and me to slicing. She was exactly right.

Tony made his birdhouses so birds would find homes in his yard, not to make money. The money was a happy surprise, and I wondered if Tony told Mr. Dickey to use the house the way it was intended, then I considered the possibility that he might have made that particular one just for money.

That made me start thinking about money in general. I knew we didn't have much, though we had more than a lot of people around here. We lived on the third nicest street in town as far as houses were concerned. Out where the Goldmans and Nettletons live is nicer, and where Mr. Dickey lives is where most of the big old restored homes are. His house is pretty new and he built it himself, but his neighbors were the people with the old mansions, rich people who had the money to keep them up.

I wasn't sure what it all meant with money. I knew you needed some. I also knew that the people with lots of it didn't seem much different than the ones who didn't have much. The rich ones had nicer houses and things, but they seemed the same as anyone else. The people in the trailer parks didn't own much and they still buddied around with everyone else.

The kids I used to hang around with came from all levels of wealth, and at the kid level it made no difference at all. We all played in the same mud, fished in the same holes. A cheap pole with bread for bait caught as many fish as an expensive one with fancy lures. The fish tasted the same to all of us after being cooked in a mud oven, which is to say delicious. A rich kid showed us how to use mud to cook with and a kid with nothing knew how to make a hot enough fire, and the rest of us learned how from both of them. There weren't a lot of places for a kid to spend money in Morton if he had it, but the kids with money would pay for a soda or an ice cream for whoever was with them. The drugstore would accept a promise that Daddy would pay if the kid didn't have cash with him.

That's the way we grew up. Black, white or Hispanic, rich poor or somewhere in between, it wasn't important. It couldn't be important because it would spoil the whole thing. Morton was a town too small for things like that to become important, and it occurred to me that Davy had recognized that right away. That's why he was so reluctant to leave.

I smiled to myself as I handed my mother the last of the eggplant. Jack and I had been the only people I ever knew of who had things turned against them around here, but even that only occurred at school. We were friendless at home in Morton, but never taunted near where we lived. Not until Jack died and Anton Wolfe started in on me.

I should have hated that kid. I did for awhile but I couldn't keep it up, not even in my own head. Anton was now Tony to me, a different person. He was alive and he had artistic talent. He was my friend and he saw things in a different way, a way that was making me look at things differently, and I found myself loving him more for that than anything.

My own thought suddenly jolted my mind. I loved Tony Wolfe and he loved me, and it was nothing like what I had felt for Jack Murphy. I think I'd found what my father had with Andy, what Joe had with Scott. I had an on-again off-again twang of sexual attraction for him, but I could sit on that because I knew it wouldn't ever be returned. What I could hang onto and keep was the true friendship of a boy I was learning to cherish. Tony was an A-1 original, different from me in most ways, but he was the one person I felt I could be completely open with. Hell, I chickened out asking my mother what I wanted to know about sex with girls. I knew I could talk about it with Tony. I doubted if any good information would come out of such a talk, but we could do it.

I stayed with my mother until the eggplant was covered with cheese and sauce, then left to get cleaned up for the picnic. When I was ready one of the girls still hadn't shown up, so I hurried to the barn next door to see if I had any more e-mail. There was one from Clay, but it just said they'd be at the picnic. I didn't respond to it and got up to go and wait for my sister, then I remembered the picture Tony had thrown away earlier and dug it out of the wastebasket. I flattened it the best I could and laughed again. Except for the faces it was more hurriedly drawn than his other pictures, almost a cartoon. It sure was funny though, and I wasn't going to let it get thrown out with the trash, even though there were precious few people who I'd ever let see it. Annie had to see it, and if she wanted me to burn it I would.

I wandered back home looking and laughing at the picture, only remembering to fold it up and stick it in my pocket when I saw my mother and sisters on the porch. I blushed at the thought of them ever seeing it.

I was really tired from not sleeping and I idly thought of not going at all, but everybody was ready so I climbed into the car with them.

We headed across town to the Carlson's. When we got there my family dispersed into the crowd. Tony showed me his money and that was exciting. I talked to Buddy Early, but I hadn't decided if I wanted to meet his friend. We both went to find Tim and Dave and decided on a time for the move the next day. Pat Anderson was there, and he was starting to fear school starting up, the bus ride back and forth. Pat hadn't been on a bus since the accident. I had, but I still felt nervous all the way. We both talked to Jens and he was a little afraid of the bus too. We decided to ride near each other, the back seat if possible.

It was odd in a way. Everybody kept asking me about Davy, how I felt now that he'd gone home. The Nettletons showed up, Jimmy heading off somewhere with his friends, me with Annie and Clay with Jens. I watched Jens when Clay showed up and wondered if I had misread him. I thought I'd seen something there, but when Clay arrived Jens just greeted him happily and they headed off to find some food. Annie and I waited with Tony for Paulina to show up so we could all eat together.

I guess that when things change slowly enough and you're not paying attention they can creep up on you. I suddenly noticed that Tony had hair on his head. Not much, but it was there enough that I couldn't see his scalp through it anymore. It made him look different, less... no, it was more... well, different. I reached over and felt his head, the softness of the little bit of fur that had appeared there.

Tony turned a curious look to me, "What?"

I smiled, "I just noticed you're gettin' hair." I looked to Annie, "Whattya think?"

Annie grinned at me, "Where have you been?" then turned to Tony. "Give it a few more weeks, then I'll have enough to work with."

She gave him an experienced once-over and said, "You'll be even cuter with hair. Paulina's gonna have to watch her tail when the other girls see you." Looking at Tony from head to foot she remarked, "Yes sir, Anton Wolfe, you're a sex object in the making." She grinned her sassiest and turned her eyes my way for a second. "Mr. Waters here might just find some competition himself."

Tony blushed crimson and little beads of sweat formed on his forehead. I complained, "Hey! Tony's my friend! If you want both of us we could arrange somethin'!" I saw what neither of them did, "Ain't that right Paulina?"

Their two heads swung in surprise as Paulina asked, "Okay, what are we arranging now?"

I beat Tony and Annie to the punch, "Nuthin' much, just some kinda three-way Annie wants to try."

Paulina stared for a split second, then shook her head a little to make her hair swing one way and then the other. Paulina's quickness was funny. "Three way? Wait, there's four of us! Are we drawing straws?" She grinned at a startled Tony, "Ooh, I hope you don't get the short one baby." She looked at Annie and me, "Can the loser at least watch?"

I thought it was funny and laughed, but I was alone in finding it humorous. Tony was giving Paulina a 'say it ain't so' look while Annie stared a 'that is not funny' glare at me. Paulina was apparently gauging her effect. I said, "Tony, show Paulina your money!" as a way to change the subject. It was a dumb thing to say. Paulina could probably get a hundred bucks any time she asked.

She was a class act though, and seemed genuinely pleased that Tony had earned his first money all by himself, all with his own talent. Tony was so proud of himself. He had money in his pocket and he'd put it there with no help from anyone. I couldn't stop smiling about it. Tony had spent his life looking at people rather than interacting with them. He'd been envious of the things they had, so he made his own versions in miniature. Now people were interested and he could sell the things he made, maybe even the pictures he drew.

I smiled at Tony and said, "Let's eat!" then I grabbed his hand and Annie's. Tony reached for Paulina, then the four of us walked to where the food was. I wanted to know, "What'd your ma bring, Tony?"

"It's vegetable chili. You'll like it, it's like eatin' steam outta the radiator pipe."


"Oh, yeah, it's hot okay!" Tony gave me a smile I hadn't seen before, almost conspiratorial. "Mama made it extra spicy for you. She knows you like it hot."

I suspected that Tony's ma liked it that way herself and was using me as an excuse to heat it up, but I wasn't complaining. I'd loved hot spicy foods since I first tasted Andy's chili when I was about five. The rest of my family didn't care for hot stuff, though my father would sometimes make something just for me.

The rest of the time I had to rely on neighbors to put a little zing on my taste buds. Mrs. Rizza down the street made a vegetable soup that was like liquid fire.

Andy had a friend at work that made mustard pickles. Those things would get your nose running just getting them close to your face. They'd burn your lips, too.

Mrs. Wolfe's chili wasn't like that. There was some serious heat in it, but it was a work of art as far as I was concerned. It was so good I almost forgot where I was and who I was with. I pigged out on it... three bowls. I didn't even know what-all was in it, but it sure was good. I looked at Tony and wondered how he stayed so thin if he got to eat stuff like this every day.

Tony and Paulina were having fun feeding each other. I was sitting quietly with Annie. I just couldn't get into it because Davy wasn't in the picture. He'd only left that morning, but I missed him already. .

I had friends now, several of them, but somehow in one short week Davy had become my backbone. He kept me from thinking too much about myself like nobody else ever had. I think it was him more than me who made it feel okay to be with Annie. He just accepted it and let me know he thought it was pretty cool. He clonked out two of the biggest guys in school and gave me the credit for it. Davy made me feel good about myself, caused me to think about myself in my own terms. He knew when to tease and when to back off, when to talk and when to shut up.

Most of all he knew how to live, grab the moment. I found myself wishing I'd worn the cowboy hat he gave me to the picnic. I could have gone inside and looked in a mirror and remembered him better.

Melancholy is what I was feeling. Not really sad, sort of sadly happy. It was a nice night, I was with friends, it was just that one of them was missing … missing and sorely missed.

Annie sensed it. Her voice was soft, "You miss Davy, don't you?"

"Yeah," I sighed, "I guess I do."

She snuggled up to me and I wrapped my arm around her back. "He'll be back, Mike. He likes it here."

I whispered, "Go figure, huh? At home he has his own car and everything, he comes here and he's all happy with a bike or walkin'. I wish I could just like everythin' the way he does."

Annie laid her head on my shoulder, "I like Davy too, Mike." She kissed my cheek and pulled me closer, "I like you better."

I settled back and kissed her quickly. "Why's that?"

"Oh, I guess it's just the way you are. You're so honest and loving." She smiled, "You're one heck of a good kisser, too."

I smiled, "I am? A good kisser I mean?"

She leaned in and we shared a short kiss, then she pulled back and grinned, "Mmmm. See what I mean?"

"Yeah, I do. I thought that was you though, not me."

"Well, it does take two. Believe me, you're very good. The other thing I really like about you is how gentle you are. You're so strong, yet you never manhandle me."

I looked down and smiled, then a question popped into my head. I guess the answer mattered because it was hard to ask, but I wanted to know. "Annie? Can I ask you somethin'?"

"Sure you can."

"I don't know how to say this... I... I guess I'm wonderin' if it bothers you that I learned to kiss with Jack. Is that dumb?"

Annie appeared ready to answer right away, then she became pensive and thought for awhile. "I... I've never thought of it that way. I suppose it's something to think about, but I wouldn't say it bothers me. It's not dumb, that I can say. Let me ask you a question."

"Okay, go ahead."

She put her hands gently on my shoulders and brought her nose to within striking distance of mine. "Who taught who?"

I giggled, "It wasn't like that. We kinda learned together."

Annie's hands found their way to the back of my neck and her voice dropped to a whisper, "You practiced a lot?"

"Annie, I loved Jack. You must know that by now. Yeah, we kissed a lot."

Annie suddenly got tears in her eyes and pulled me into a hug. "Oh Mike, your heart must have broken right in two when... it must have been so horrible for you." She sniffled a little, "I know the answer now. It doesn't bother me at all who you learned with. You learned from real love, and that's what matters." She sobbed, "I just feel so bad for you, thinking how awful it must have been." She sobbed again and gulped, "I'm sorry, I'm a sap sometimes."

Annie tried to smile. I had tears in my own eyes. I'd always thought of Jack's death as a loss, a horrific loss, but Annie had called it a broken heart and she was way closer to the truth.

I returned Annie's hug and held it. I was thinking about all the nights that had passed since Jack died, the loneliness I felt, the crazy thoughts that went through my head. There wasn't a way to fix it though, and part of me knew that. I lived on empty for a long time, sometimes thinking it had to be a bad dream and other times facing the reality of what happened to Jack.

Since he'd been gone I always had the feeling that he was somewhere near, somewhere just beyond my grasp. Now I was almost positive it was true. Everything that had pointed to Jack seemed to happen almost in a dream though. I'd remember parts and not other parts. His name lit up while I was staring at it on the hospital building, then Clay told me about his dream. He called it a dream, anyhow. Then at his party I'm sure he gave me a kiss from Jack, but that felt like a dream to me too. It felt real but it seemed like seconds, not an hour.

I was tired and it was making me think too much, too randomly. I remembered the picture in my pocket and cajoled Annie into taking a walk so I could show it to her. That was an ill considered move on my part. Annie's sense of humor deserted her temporarily, and she made me hold my hands out while she tore the picture into little pieces that I had to hold until we could find a trash receptacle.

"This little piece of pornography is not funny, Michael."

"I thought it was. If it's not funny why do you hafta keep from laughin'?"

"Just you wait 'til I get my hands on Anton Wolfe! That boy needs to clean up his thoughts."

I stopped Annie's progress and pulled her in for a kiss. We were almost there when Annie started giggling helplessly. I tried to kiss her anyhow, but it was hard with her jiggling with laughter. It got me giggling myself, so we just held on to each other the best we could. We ended up sitting on the grass.

"I'm pretty tired, Annie. Me and Davy stayed up all night talkin'."

"You seem kind of out of it. Why don't you go home to bed?"

I sighed, "I'll go when my mother goes. You're not mad at me, are you?"

She cuddled up closer, "No, I'm not mad. You need to take care of yourself. Do you have plans for tomorrow?"

"I'm helpin' next door for awhile. Why, what's up?"

"I just thought we could do something by ourselves, maybe go for a hike or a bike ride."

"Really? That sounds like a plan. Where ya wanna go?"

"I don't know, anywhere sounds good. Why don't you pick a spot and surprise me."

"Okay, I just don't know what time I'll be done. I guess I can call when I know."

"Okay, even if it's later in the day. We don't have to go anywhere far."

"If you want we could take the dune buggy and fool around out behind the neighbor's place. It's a lot of fun. It's real pretty out there too. The pond's great for swimming."

She thought for a second and said, "That sounds like fun. I can bring a lunch and we can have our own picnic."

I liked that idea; it would be like a real date. Annie and I had only been together in a crowd, a bunch of people that we had to slip away from to find privacy. Doing something by ourselves would be perfect. I had strong feelings for Annie and spending time alone with her seemed like the right way to help me sort them out. Just the two of us, like I used to do with Jack. Jack and I knew full well that we could entertain each other without anybody's help, and I'm not talking about sex. We talked all the time because we liked to, but somewhere along the line we both realized that words weren't always necessary to communicate. Sometimes just a smile, a touch, even a sigh, said more than a million words could.

Annie and I had been pretty heavy into making out for the last few days, but that night it didn't seem necessary. I was pretty well falling asleep and she seemed to understand that. We were close together and that was enough. I guess the thing was that if I wanted a big kiss I could get one; she was right beside me. That's the way it was with Jack. We both loved it when we kissed, but we didn't always feel the need. It was there... available, and that was enough sometimes.

We eventually wandered back to where everybody was. My eyelids were drooping and I convinced my mother to bring me home even if she wanted to come back, which turned out to be the case. The adults were playing a round-robin game of setback and that was her favorite card game.

I kissed Annie in front of everybody, promising to call her about the next day. Then I collapsed into the passenger seat and my mother dropped me off at home, telling me to sleep well.

When I got to my room I shed my clothes and picked up the photo of Jack. I really looked at it that night. The pity of photos is that they never change. The same thing can be a blessing. Jack was happy when the picture was taken, you could see it. I thought to look at my own face and could tell that I was happy too. I looked at my eyes, at Jack's eyes, and found myself idly touching my belly button as if that was the switch that could turn that happiness back on.

After kissing Jack's picture I flopped down on my bed and turned the light off. I was tired and I was alone in the house, alone in my room, alone in my bed.

I wasn't used to it and I didn't like it.

I curled up under the covers and cried myself to sleep.


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