Jack in the Box

Chapter 26

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

I had never been on an airplane before, never really thought I would be. When my neighbor Tim Atkins found out I'd be on a Southwest flight, he gave me advice that got me in the first wave of passengers onto the plane. I was excited and scared at the same time. Tim said I should try for a window seat that wasn't right over the wing and had a window centered beside it. He'd even drawn a sketch to illustrate what he meant. The seats didn't necessarily line up with the windows, so even if you had a window seat it didn't mean you could look out if the window was in the wrong place.

I was one of the first people on the plane. I just looked for a few seconds, it was a whole lot different than a school bus inside, but not different enough to confuse me. I looked for a seat like Tim described and spotted one. I sat next to the window with my backpack on my lap and looked out at what I could see of the airport, which wasn't a whole lot. The activities and all the contraptions they used were interesting, though. The plane next to us had a big conveyor belt going up to a door in the side from the ground. People at the bottom were tossing luggage and packages onto it, then the things rode up and disappeared into the plane. Near the back of it there was something like a giant jack, and the people running it loaded big containers onto the plane.

The stewardess came by and took my backpack away to stow it in a bin over my head, then helped me buckle my seatbelt. The plane was running, I could tell that from the whooshy noise and some vibration. It took some time for everybody to get on board, then they made announcements. There was a lady in the aisle seat next to me and she noticed my anxiety.

"Afraid of flying?"

I looked at her, probably stupidly, "Not afraid, it's my first time."

"Oh, isn't that nice? Are you going off to school?"

The plane lurched a little, then we were going backwards very slowly. I gripped the armrests and looked back at the lady beside me. She was older, but still very pretty. "No, I'm goin' to see a friend for Columbus Day is all."

The engines revved up and the plane turned around, going I knew not where. I thought we were going to fly, not drive around some airport. I gripped the armrests tighter, and soon found a hand patting mine.

I looked at the lady next to me and she smiled, "Don't be nervous, they do this every day. What's your name?"

"Michael... Michael Waters. What's yours?"

She held her hand out and we shook, "I'm Cecelia Mordanado. You can call me Ceil. Are you going to Baltimore or Hartford?"

I was unnerved. Every time the plane moved the noise from the engines increased, then it died down. The stewardess was showing us what to do in an emergency, which I didn't want any part of. I squeaked, "Hartford! What are they doing? I thought we were gonna fly there!"

Cecelia Mordanado chuckled and said, "We'll fly, we have to get to the runway first." She smiled a friendly smile, "Don't worry, this will be boring soon enough. Enjoy your first takeoff, Michael."

With that she sat back and closed her eyes. There were more announcements, then the engines got really loud and I was unexpectedly forced back into my seat by the sudden velocity of the takeoff run. I doubled my grip on the armrests as I watched the world start to whiz by, then by some stroke of luck the front of the plane pointed up and we were in the air. I watched out the window in amazement as everything on the ground shrunk, doubly amazed by the angle we were going up at.

I was flying! Me, Mike Waters! I was on an airplane, a jet plane, and we'd just taken off!

The world beneath me was disappearing, and when the plane banked into a turn it did disappear. The view of the ground from the window was quickly replaced with a view of the sky. I looked across and out the other side and the ground and airport were directly underneath us. I was certain that we were all dead, that the pilot had somehow gotten the plane sideways in the sky and we were falling to earth.

He saved us though, that he did. A few moments later we leveled off, followed shortly by the return of my heartbeat and breathing. As glued as my hands were to the armrests, I made a mental note to ask my father to write to the airline and mention the heroics of the pilot of this particular airplane on this particular flight.

I had just calmed down and was looking out my own window again when a shudder went through the plane, followed by another and another. I was petrified, and when I looked around and saw other people napping and reading I wondered where their minds could possibly be. I was just about to scream to everybody to grab their parachutes when a voice came through a speaker apologizing for the turbulence and telling us to keep our seat belts fastened.

How could we possibly unfasten them when we couldn't remove our hands from the armrests? Unbuckling belts doesn't come easily to those whose hands alone are keeping them alive, keeping the airplane in the air, keeping the plane from crashing into some mountain or warehouse. No sir, this belt was forever!

We flew out of the turbulence, then the waitress came by and gave me a napkin and the smallest bag of pretzels I'd ever seen, and took my order for an apple juice. I had to use my teeth to get the bag opened, then I dumped the pretzels out on the napkin. It was bewildering. This was a snack? Put together, they wouldn't equal even one real pretzel. I guess it didn't matter, if they gave me any more I'd need more to wash them down with than the little glass of juice they gave me, which was mostly ice to start with.

* * * * * * * *

I couldn't see much out the window, so when I calmed down I sat back and let my mind leaf through the pages that had built up in my memory since school had started.

Pat Anderson had a hard time with the school bus for a few days; just being near it freaked him out. Jens and I sat together with him and he seemed to get over his nervousness. The bus wasn't much fun anyhow, but my life as an outcast appeared to have ended. People talked to me again like they talked to everyone else.

Tony's lifestyle had changed big time. Going with Paulina got him automatically accepted by the in crowd, and he adjusted to it pretty well. He didn't change in any perceptible way; he just got used to talking with people and made friends with a few that he liked. His hair was actually covering his head and it really made a difference in his appearance. Combined with his new clothes it was enough for him to be able to get lost in the crowd. That was the real difference, he was in the crowd instead of hanging around on the edges.

That was a major change for him and he had mixed feelings about it. There was no doubt that he was happy to have friends. At first when somebody new called him on the phone he'd immediately call me to say that it happened. It tickled him to no end to have the phone be for him, and he'd actually started answering it. Other kids were coming to his house too, and thatreally made him happy. It would be unfair to say he was starting to fit in, he just did. He had composure in conversations and, just like Dave said he would, he was getting easier for everyone to understand. I don't know if it was a conscious effort on his part, but he was saying words more like everyone else did.

Tony was also a very busy person. He had the usual schoolwork, homework and chores. Now he had to make time for friends, but he also had orders for birdhouses, five of them at last count, and all of them for two hundred and fifty dollars each. He worked on them furiously every chance he got. Paulina helped, and she'd enlisted the help of her brother, Jose, and Scott Goldman on a few occasions.

Tony still managed to disappear by himself once in awhile when he felt like it. He wasn't a lonely person anymore, but he did like to find solitude sometimes. I learned to think of it as solitude myself. I still wrote to Jack from his old room, now I'd taken to sitting there when I had to read an assignment, and even when I was reading for pleasure. It was the one place where nobody bothered me, and I was comfortable being alone by myself

There was one other thing going on with Tony, a very big thing. I recalled the conversation from a few weeks earlier. I got called to the phone and it was Tony.


"Ouch! What?"

"Mr. Atkins called! There's some book guy interested in my pictures!"

I got excited, "Really? What's the deal?"

"There's no deal yet. I gotta write down captions for 'em, you know... explain every picture. They wanna know why I drew 'em."

"Why you drew 'em?"

"Yeah, you know. Like who's in it, what's goin' on, why I didn't draw somethin' else instead'a that. Oh man, I'm shakin' like a leaf!"

"Yeah! You're on your way, Tony! Wow, a real book?" I looked over at my mother who had been reading at the table and was now looking to see what my excitement was about, "Ma! Tony might get his pictures in a book!" I spoke back into the receiver, "Hold on, I'm tellin' my mother."

My mother was staring, excitement on her own face. I said, "Mr. Atkins found somebody that might put Tony's pictures in a book. He has to make captions."

She smiled, "You tell Tony I said good luck," then more quietly, "Lord knows that boy could use some."

I spoke back into the phone, "Ma says good luck!" I grinned and spoke more seriously, "I say good luck too, Tony. I hope it works out."

He was quiet for a second, then whispered, "Thanks, Mike. Um, you takin' Annie to the dance Saturday? Paulina says we're goin' but... I don't know."

"Don't know what? It should be fun! We're goin' with you guys anyhow, I don't think you have a choice."

Tony's voice perked up, "Really? We're all goin'? Paulina said so, but I didn't see you to ask. You really think it'll be fun?"

I said, "I hope so. I never went to a real dance before."

Tony giggled, "You know I never went. I gotta hit the hay. Maybe it'll be fun after all."

I smiled, then realized Tony couldn't see me. "It'll be fun I hope. I gotta get to bed too, see ya tomorrow."

I went to bed that night thinking about the dance. I didn't have any notion what a school dance was like since I'd never been, but I was looking forward to it. It would be the first school event I'd attended since I started hanging out with Jack. The middle school I went to had a few dances each year, but I never went. It sounded stupid when fishing and bike riding made up my life, then when I was with Jack we never even considered it. Dancing was something neither of us knew anything about. It hadn't mattered at the time because we had a lifetime ahead of us. Now I knew the pleasure of dancing and wished that Jack and I had danced together just once. I know that we'd have giggled until our faces hurt. I still wished it had happened.

Now I danced with Annie. Now I understood the pleasure of it, the closeness of a slow dance, the exuberance of a fast one, the silliness of line dancing. Oh yeah, she'd been showing me the steps to some of those, and explained that they could be fun when you were actually doing them with everyone else. That remained to be seen.

I'd been learning my way around the computer, and I had a lot of teachers. I wasn't a typist, but at least the keyboard had become familiar and it didn't take me a week and a day to type an email. Tony had one of Tim's computers at his house now and he was learning it too, at least when he could get his parents away from it. They had scoffed at first, but when they spent some time on it they both got hooked. Tony was a little exasperated with the situation, but he thought it was funny at the same time.

I was able to stay in touch with Davy through e-mail and instant messaging. He called on the phone a few times so we could hear each other's voice. It was fun, and our friendship didn't seem to suffer any with the distance. The initial loneliness we felt didn't really go away, but it was mostly offset by being busy with school and other friends.

I found that I had more friends than I knew about. First of all James, Clay and Buddy Early checked with me every day to make sure I was being treated alright, and I was. Both of the Simmons boys had sought me out during the first days of school, not to make friends with me, rather to say they wouldn't bother me anymore if I stayed away from them.

I pushed my luck a little with both of them, telling them that what happened once could happen again if they ever did cross me. I think they honestly didn't have a clear remembrance of what had taken place at the lake that day. Both of them kept their distance. When we met up by accident I'd get a grudging nod and nothing more.

I know it sounds like a small thing, but it really meant a lot to me to know that even the tough guys were going to show some respect. To everyone else except my friends, I was just another face in the hallway. Not a hated face, just a face.

I wished every day that it had happened while Jack was alive so he could experience it himself. The school was now named after him. It was worse than ironic that his one year there had been so miserable. Even the sports teams had been renamed to the 'Murphy Magicians' instead of the old 'Dover Dragons'. Jack's parents had ardently fought the first nickname, 'Murphy Marauders', on the grounds that it was way too out of character for Jack's image. It was Reverend Kramer who came up with the 'Magicians', and the vote had been unanimous.

It didn't work like magic, sadly. All the teams were on their ways to the usual losing seasons. It was just too small of a school to even field teams in a lot of sports, and when they did come up with enough kids to play it was always marginal. If one person couldn't show up they'd usually have to forfeit because there was no depth. There was an upside... anyone who wanted to could get on a varsity team. All you had to do to get a uniform was to sign up.

Yes, there was a point for me thinking about this. It started one Monday when Clay Nettleton cornered me while we were waiting for the bus.

"Mike, you gotta talk to Anton. He won't listen to me!"

"Hi Clay. Tony don't listen to anybody. What's up now?"

Clay was earnest, "We went huntin' yesterday. He needed to get some new skins for glue, so I picked him up. I brought my .22, you know what he brought?"

The question amused me. Tony had mentioned hunting varmints for hides, just not what he used. I had no idea, so I took a guess. I smiled at Clay, "What? An elephant rifle or something?"

Clay looked surprised, "We're talkin' 'bout Anton Wolfe here. He didn't have a gun!"

I asked, "What then, bow and arrow?"

Clay shouted, "ROCKS! He hunts with friggin' ROCKS! The kid's got an arm like I never seen! I bagged a rabbit and two squirrels. Anton got five freakin' rabbits and three squirrels throwin' freakin' rocks at 'em! You gotta talk to him, Mike."

I was surprised that Tony hunted with rocks, but I didn't see what it had to do with me. I looked at Clay, "What? That's illegal or somethin'?"

Clay squared off with me and put a hand forcefully on each of my shoulders. He glared into my face, "Oh man, think Mike. Forget huntin'; think about baseball!"

I was trying to figure out what hunting had to do with baseball and I had Clay's face staring intently at me, hope written all over it. I didn't get it. "What's huntin' got to do with baseball, Clay? So he hunts with rocks? I don't hunt, so I don't know where you're goin' here."

Clay relaxed his grip and left his hands on my shoulders. The change in his stare said that he'd found me to be startlingly stupid. "Mike, I'm not talkin' about huntin', I'm talking about his arm! Anton can knock a squirrel's head off at fifty or sixty feet! I saw him try at a hundred feet and he didn't miss by much!"

"That's cool, what's it got to do with baseball?"

The way Clay's expression changed made me realize that I was pathetically ignorant about the game of baseball. "Mike, listen. Anton could be in the major leagues right now with his arm. He's a natural, just like Nolan Ryan. We went to my house after, and he could hit the pocket of my glove no matter where I put it. Here, look at my hand." He put his hand in front of my face, palm outward, and it was indeed all red. Clay went on, "That kid could throw a fastball past anyone! Talk to him, Mike! We need Anton on the baseball team; maybe we can win a game for once!"

Aha! Now things were becoming clear. Tony's art no longer mattered to Clay, it was his throwing arm that was important now. I smiled at him, "You're two-faced, ya know that?"

Clay looked stricken, "Why'm I two faced? I just think Anton should play ball with us."

"Clay, you wanted Tony to have his own museum, then his own book, now you want him to play in the majors! Give the kid a break, will ya?"

"Um ..." Clay's face broke into a little smile, "You're right, I'm a pushy bastard, ain't I?" His look turned pleading, "You'll talk to him, won't you? Anton only believes you, Mike. He should really play a sport anyhow, it's good for you." He smiled openly, "It wouldn't hurt you either, Waters. You're big enough; learn how to swing a bat! I bet you could clock one a country mile."

My jaw dropped, "You want me to play? I only tried little league one year and I really sucked!"

Clay's smile stopped my thoughts, "You were a runt then, that ain't the case now. You could be the home run king of ..."

I cut him off, "What, are you the recruiter now? You guys don't need me!"

He sagged a little, "I'm the shortstop, Mike. If we don't find more players we won't have a team. I'm not kidding about you and Anton, you'd both be great." He looked at me with a smirk, "You don't hafta decide now, I'll just remind you once in awhile 'til February when it's sign up time. If ya wanna try in the meantime, I'll be around."

I giggled, "You really think I could play baseball? I don't even remember the rules."

Clay beamed, "Great, you'll play? Wait'll I tell coach!" He let me go and pointed at me, "I'll leave Anton up to you. If you get him to pitch we'll have a killer team!"

There it was. Clay left it up to me to convince Tony that learning baseball was now more important than his art, than Paulina, than making the birdhouses that he could sell, than writing captions for his pictures.

The funny thing is, I agreed with Clay. I wanted to learn, wanted to play a team sport. Tony should too, we'd both spent far to much time on the outside. It was a also chance for each of us to try something brand new together. I had one year of little league ball when I was nine. I was small and uncoordinated then. Now I was the physical match of most guys my age, bigger and stronger than a lot of them.

If Clay was impressed with Tony's throwing arm I had to believe him. I'd never seen it, but nothing Tony did would shock me anymore. It made sense in the usual Tony way. If he needed to hunt and didn't own a gun, he'd figure something out. Rocks were a logical choice, actually. They didn't cost anything, they were free everywhere, and if you hit your mark you wouldn't empty the rest of the woods with the blast of a gun.

I wanted to see Tony throw, not that I doubted Clay one bit, I just wanted to see what my friend could do. Tony was just too full of surprises, and this really shouldn't have been one of them. His roots showed through in everything he did. He drew his pictures on paper he swiped from art class, he carved his things with his grandmother's old knife, he made his own glue, now I learned that he hunted with rocks. It seemed unusual in a way, but it was right in line with his family's existence. Why would you buy something if you could make it yourself... grow it yourself... cook it yourself... find it in the woods yourself... catch it, yourself? Tony's family made do with what they had.

Families like Tony's weren't unusual around Morton, not at all. I think percentage-wise most people lived in trailer parks. There were even degrees of those. Where Tony lived was probably the low end with way more trailers per acre than the newer places. The better places weren't much different, just bigger lots and fancier trailers. Where Tony lived at least had mature trees for shade, and the people kept their flower and vegetable gardens looking good.

Anyhow, I did talk to Tony about playing baseball. We didn't come to any real decision, but we both felt that if Clay at least thought we might play he wouldn't pester us all winter.

* * * * * * * *

There were some announcements over the plane's speaker when we started descending into Baltimore. Tim had told me to make like I was yawning to relieve the pressure in my ears, and that was kind of fun when they popped.

It was dark out by then, and I was fascinated by the lights on the ground. I'd never seen anything like it in all my life, and I thought it was gorgeous.

I didn't know Baltimore from Tucksville, but it was huge! The lights on the ground stretched away as far as I could see, brighter here and there, but it was amazing. I must have made some noise because suddenly Ceil's face was near mine looking out the window.

"It's really pretty from the air, isn't it?" she asked.

I murmured, "It's awesome! How big is this place, anyhow?"

She said, "It's like this all the way up the coast. It's like one big city, and you have a great seat if they fly offshore. It gets to be more and more developed as you head north. You'll see Philadelphia first, the New Jersey shore, then the big one... New York. If you think this is something, wait until you see that!"

I took a breath, "New York City? I'm gonna see New York?"

Ceil smiled at my excitement, "You should be able to. It depends on the weather there, of course. If they fly inland you can look out the other side." She put her hand on my shoulder lightly and said softly, "I fly this route every two weeks or so, Michael, and it's a sight I'll never get tired of. Nothing else on earth quite compares to the view of New York on a clear night. You'll see."

I continued to stare out the window as we got closer and closer to the ground. My fascination with the view had me excited rather than fearful. I decided right then and there that I liked flying in airplanes, if for no other reason than the view. I paid scant attention when the waitress picked up my trash and put my little table up and I checked my seatbelt when they said to make sure it was fastened securely, otherwise I just stared out the window. When we landed I barely noticed the little thump, then my hair stood on end when the engines made a sudden huge noise and I plunged forward.

Ceil's hand was suddenly on my worried shoulder. "They're just slowing down, it's nothing."

"What was all that noise?" I asked, somewhat shakily.

"They do something with the engines to slow the plane. It's like that on every landing." There was humor in her voice, "We're here safely, just like always. We'll be on the ground for a half hour, don't give up that seat."

I looked at Ceil's happy smile and returned it. I, me, Michael Waters, more like Michael Backwaters, had just completed his first flight in an airplane. I even enjoyed part of it.

We sat on the ground for the promised half hour, some passengers left and a whole lot more got on. I learned what a full plane was like when somebody sat in the seat between me and Ceil. He was an older guy, and he grunted a hello before pulling a book and some papers from a briefcase and burying his nose in them. He had a yellow marking pen and was highlighting words on his papers. I gazed at him idly for a moment, then the kindness shown to me by Ceil occurred to me.

I was too absorbed in my fear of flying at first, then my enjoyment of the view, to pay attention to the fact that she'd dished out a good measure of love to me. As the plane moved away from the gate, I leaned around the guy between us and smiled my appreciation to her. I think she knew what I meant. She smiled knowingly, then closed her eyes again.

This time when the plane started moving I knew what was happening. I was excited again, but I wasn't scared. I actually tried to close my eyes and be like the other passengers, but I couldn't. Maybe a ride in a plane was boring to them, and maybe it would be boring to me someday. It sure wasn't then, and as soon as we were in the air I was once again mesmerized by the sights below me.

* * * * * * * *

As fascinated as I was with the view, as our altitude increased my thoughts drifted back to Morton and recent happenings. I was running things idly through my mind, trying to sort out what might be fun to tell Davy about. I was just over an hour away and totally thrilled that I'd see him really soon. We'd been talking and instant messaging and e-mailing each other about my trip for weeks. I mostly wanted to see Davy again, but I did have one thing I needed to do.

I wanted to see the ocean. I wanted to see a lot of things Davy had told me about, all of them if I could. Most of all I wanted to see the ocean, just to look at it. Davy thought it might still be warm enough to swim in it and that would be nice, but that wasn't what I needed.

I had, of course, seen oceans in pictures and movies, I just felt a real need to see the real thing, those big waves crashing to shore, the spume from them flying up in the air. I was an inland kid, but the need to see and hear the ocean was a pressing thing now that I knew I'd be close to it.

Sea, land and sky. That was it, right? The big three things that made up this world. Maybe fire should be in there, I don't know. I did know that everybody had land and sky. I was just intrigued by the sea part. We had plenty of water where I lived, and I understood that it all came from and returned to the seas. That's what I wanted to see... where the water came from... where it went back to. There was no good reason for that to be important to me, it just was.

Davy had promised I'd see the ocean and my mind wandered back to my first school dance. Annie and I had gone with Paulina and Tony. Clay had a date and Pat Anderson brought my sister Melissa.

There had been some trouble. A kid in Pat's class started making fun of him for his glasses and my sister for being with Pat. Pat got mad and smacked the kid, but not hard enough to stop the kid's mouth. The other kid hit Pat in the head and it started a little war. Nobody touched Patty's head, everybody in Morton knew that. The other kid was from Dover and didn't know. He had his own friends and there was a standoff, lots of kids yelling and swearing at each other and the potential for a big fight.

My sister got Pat away from it fast enough, and he was okay except for a bruise on his cheek. The teachers who were chaperoning, once they realized that it involved Pat, got all the would-be combatants out into the parking lot and explained the disaster that could ensue from a little fight with Pat, then went with the other boy to find Pat and made sure that they were both calm and nothing else would happen.

I was starting to worry about Pat. It wasn't so much about his injuries, he was healing and his doctors expected that he'd lead a normal enough life. He just wasn't making friends. He had an interest in my sister and was friendly with the kids he already knew; he just didn't know how to make new friends, didn't even seem to want to. I thought for awhile that it was the way he looked with his glasses, and I'm sure that was part of it, but I suspected there was more. He'd been lonely during the summer. Other kids got bored hanging around with him because he couldn't do much, but that didn't seem like a good excuse anymore. He was back in school and there were kids his age, potential friends everywhere.

Kids were used to his glasses now and had moved beyond that. Pat had developed this snarly attitude that he used with kids who weren't already his friends, and it looked like it was hurting his chances of making new friends, of even getting along. He'd just hit a kid over some teasing, and that was fair enough I guess, it just didn't fit with the sweet, smart kid that I knew.

I mentioned my concerns when the group I was with were sitting together during a DJ break. I said, "Patty's really got a chip on his shoulder lately, anybody know what's goin' on?"

Everyone's eyes searched for Pat, and he was sitting on the bottom step of the bleachers with my sister. They were holding hands, otherwise just staring ahead unsmilingly. Tony said, "He's lonely."

I looked at Tony, "Lonely? He's right here with my sister. How can he be lonely now? I mean, I know he got lonely durin' the summer, but hat's all over."

Tony shook his head, "He's lonely Mike, I can see it."

I watched Pat and Melissa for awhile. They weren't totally inert, they were talking and would look at each other now and then, and they continued to hold hands. A thought started to form in my mind, and before it was completely there I muttered, "Kevin."

Paulina said distantly, "I bet you're right." She turned back to us, "Pat lost his twin brother." She turned the question to me, "They were best friends too, right? I mean it was built in, wasn't it?"

I thought before I answered, but Paulina was right. Pat had told me that several times. I said, "Yeah, Patty misses Kevin. He keeps sayin' he should'a been the one to die, like Kevin could deal with this better." I looked at Tony, "I think you're right too, Patty's lonely."

Annie put her hand on my shoulder, "Just like you, Mike. I know how sad you are, you should spend more time with Pat."

I protested, "I spend lots of time with him now. He's fine most of the time."

Paulina leaned toward me, "Then you should get him to talk."

I said, "We talk all the time, I just don't get it why he's so off with other kids. Pat's easy to talk to, fun even."

Tony chimed in, "Yeah, with you. Paulina means you gotta get him to talk about what he doesn't want to." He smiled at Paulina, "Did I get that right?"

Paulina pinched Tony, causing him to squeal a little, "That's just what I meant." She looked at me, "Tony's right, you have Pat's ear. James told me he thought Pat was trying to live Kevin's life, and I don't think that's healthy." She smiled, "You need to lean on him, Mike. You guys are in the same boat. Lend Pat one of your oars and show him how to use it."

I stared at Paulina until I figured out what she meant, then I smirked and said, "I know what you mean. Heh, I didn't use no oar, it took me a shovel to get out of it."

Tony elbowed me and grinned, "A big sucker, too."

I elbowed him back while Annie said, "Shovel, oar... whatever, lend Pat yours." She smiled, "You miss Jack; it's probably no different for Patty. I think Paulina's right, he needs a push. You're the guy to do it, Mike, you know how he really feels."

Tony said, "Yeah, you're the right guy, Mike. You, um, you had Jack and you lost him. It can't be that much different for Pat. I... I... uh," Tony looked at me with a question on his face, "I don't wanna remind ya, keep remindin' ya, it's just... just ..."

I smiled at Tony, "I know what you mean. I'll try, I promise." I looked around, "Is that okay?"

I looked at Pat again and it was like watching myself sitting with my sister. He was there but not there. It was Pat's first dance too, and I guessed that doing new things on his own made him miss Kevin all the more. My sister seemed to know what to do. When the music started back up she pulled Pat onto the dance floor and before long he was smiling again.

Later on, a senior confronted Tony when they were alone in the boy's room. He threatened Tony for taking Paulina off the 'market' and pushed him around a little, but Tony stood his ground. The way Tony told it, he was scared and angry, but he used his head and his mouth to get the guy to back off. He told the guy that he was with Paulina because he was invited by her. If the guy had a problem with that he should bring it to Paulina, and invited him to go talk to her, otherwise he'd just mention it to her. That was enough to shut the guy up. Paulina's reputation went beyond her smarts and her mouth. She was also reputed to have kicked in the car door of a guy who tried to go too far with her one night. When that wasn't enough to stop his advances she'd loosened a bunch of his teeth.

Tony never mentioned it to Paulina that night, but he told me and Clay when we were outside getting some air while the girls were 'fixing' themselves. Tony was nervous, worried that other guys might not be so easy to fend off, and obviously more shaken than he wanted to let on. Clay and I were trying to reassure him when a voice asked cheerfully, "Is this the gay corner?"

I bristled and spun around, only to confront a boy who was like Clay in his non-descriptiveness. I knew the face from school, but not the kid wearing it. Clay moved right up to him and glared, "That's not a very well thought-out question, Dwayne!"

Alright, now I knew who he was: Dwayne Masterson, Senior and editor of the school paper. His opening made me fear that he wanted to write about me in that paper, something that I suddenly dreaded.

Dwayne looked down at the ground after Clay's confrontation, scribbling around in the gravel with the toe of his shoe. His shoulders sagged as he exhaled, then he took a breath and looked at Clay, then glanced at me and Tony, then back at Clay. "Sorry, Clay." He looked at me, "Sorry Mike, Anton. I thought you'd think it was funny." He hesitated and looked at Clay, then he turned his head to me. "I... I wanted to talk to you, Mike."

Clay said, "You can talk to Mike with me and Anton here."

Dwayne looked at Clay for a moment, then deflated again and said, "No, it's kinda personal. Never mind." He glanced at me, "Maybe another time." He turned and hurried back into the building, leaving the three of us looking at each other in confusion.

Tony asked, "Do you know him, Mike?"

I said, "Only who he is." I looked at Clay, "He does the paper, right? Do you think he wanted to write about me?"

Clay was looking in the direction Dwayne had walked off toward, a curious expression on his face.

He muttered, "I don't know. I don't know what he's up to, he's a weird kid." Tony and I looked at Clay, then after Dwayne. I know I was thinking that our exchange was odd, but at least it had gotten Tony thinking about something else, and out of his worried state. We went back inside, ready to dance some more.

The dance itself was less than I expected. I was having fun with Annie and my friends, it just felt too planned and kind of stupid. I suppose a lot of the credit for that went to the DJ, who was a complete moron. He was the kind of guy who laughed at his own jokes when nobody else did, and spent entirely too much time telling them. We would have had more dance time, more music, if somebody brought a radio. Even with ads and weather reports there would have been less talk than with 'Papa J', as he called himself.

Papa J. also spent too much time on stupid dance contests and trivia. In a way, the high point of the night was when he asked "What's the name for a female peacock?" and one of the senior guys ran up and grabbed the mike to yell, "A pea-cunt! Play some music, asshole, we wanna dance!"

That got the first and only genuine laugh of the night, and seemed to humble the DJ into playing music, though there was only an hour left by then.

I danced. I danced with Annie, with Paulina, with Clay's date Suzanne. There was a string of fast songs, and I was having fun when I noticed Dwayne and Buddy Early engaged in what looked like an almost violent conversation beside the folded-up bleachers.

Dwayne looked upset and Buddy seemed to be trying to calm him down. Things clicked in my mind and suddenly two plus two equaled four! Dwayne was Buddy's friend, the other gay kid in school. At least it made sense to me that he was. Buddy had mentioned weeks ago that he knew such a person, and offered to help us meet. I had resisted, not really seeing the point of it, and Buddy had laid it to rest.

I didn't know what to do, so I basically ignored it and went back to dancing and joking with the people around me. I didn't see either Buddy or Dwayne for the rest of the night and basically forgot about it.

* * * * * * * *

My thoughts were interrupted by the delivery of another tiny pouch of pretzels and another taste of apple juice. I was getting pretty hungry, so I asked the waitress if I could order a sandwich or something, which got the guy next to me laughing. I guess the waitress felt bad for me because she came back with five more packets of pretzels and a whole can of juice.

Just when I looked back out the window the pilot announced that we were starting our descent and that New York City was coming up on the left. I got all excited, then disappointed when it seemed to be getting foggy out. It was a minute before I realized that I had my nose right against the window and it was my breath fogging it up.

The view of New York had me spellbound. We were too high to make out any real details, but the brightness from the ground was astounding and it seemed to stretch on forever. Ceil was right, too. I bet even the pilots never got tired of seeing that.

It passed all too quickly and we were soon over darkness that was broken by occasional lights from smaller towns, all connected by the lights of cars on roads. I wondered what Morton would look like from the sky at night, if you'd even notice it, and decided that you probably wouldn't.

My excitement didn't diminish, it just shifted from the view out the window to the idea that I was almost there. I'd see Davy again. God, I'd missed him almost beyond reason. We'd been in touch every day, by instant message, by e-mail, sometimes by phone. It was nice to be able to do that, but in my mind it almost made things worse. In a way it was like having another Jack, like having two friends who seemed to always be just out of reach, just around the corner, maybe behind that tree.

Now I was going to see him, something I couldn't do with Jack. Davy's whole family was coming down to spend Thanksgiving with Tim and Dave, so I'd see him again then. Who knew when after that, maybe during the Christmas holidays. I was excited about spending time with Davy, but I was already dreading having to leave him again to go home. His parents and mine had all been good about letting us take off the Friday before the holiday, and I had a non-stop flight home that didn't leave until after five on Monday, so I'd have tonight and four whole days there. The idea that I had to leave at all is what bothered me. We'd never really be together, we'd always be either apart or separating soon when we did get a chance to spend time with each other. It didn't seem fair. I had other friends... good friends. Davy did too, but there was just something special about the connection I felt with Davy.

Annie thought I had a crush on him and I knew she was right in a way, and it was a crush that I felt was returned by Davy, but in a different way. I had dim sexual feelings for Davy, feelings that I got the first time I laid eyes on him, feelings that I knew could never be returned. Still, there was something more there.

I could squelch the sex, find it elsewhere. I knew Davy thought about me as much as I thought about him, he said it all the time. It was a mutual need to be with each other, physically in each other's presence. I even tried to make believe sometimes. I'd put on the cowboy hat he'd left me and look in the mirror, try to emulate his smile... Jack's smile. I didn't have the right shape mouth, but every once in awhile, just for a moment, I thought I could catch both of them smiling back.

It was really strange in a way. Davy had spent a week in Morton and we'd spent most of that time together. It wasn't like a bond had developed in that time, it was more like the time together had done nothing to diminish the bond that had formed almost immediately. He and I were on this planet to be friends with each other, it just took our first meeting to establish that, then it was understood, a done deal.

I remembered that I had a present for Davy from Tony, something I was certain he was going to love. Tony had been finding time to work with Tim's chalks and paints, and he'd created an awesome picture of Davy with Scott Johnson and Nick Cassarino. Davy had a photo of pretty much the same thing, but it was one that hadn't come out all that well. The one Tony had done was gorgeous, in full color, and Tim had put it in a frame.

Tony had been doing the captions for his pictures for the book publisher, not writing them on paper but speaking into a little recorder that Tim had lent to him. I'd sat with him a few times when he was doing that, and listening had given me a whole new level of fascination with Tony. He not only knew the names of the people in the drawings, the owners of the land in scenery pictures, he had a reason for drawing every one of them. Those reasons gave me a glimpse into the very soul of this gentle boy. Tony did his pictures to make himself part of the world around him, part of the world that had overlooked his very existence all his life. It was a world that he understood even while it didn't even notice Tony.

As often as not, he had me with tears in my eyes. He'd sit there with a picture in one hand and the recorder in the other, usually twisting the picture to odd angles to silently criticize something he wished he'd done differently. Then in carefully articulated words he'd describe the who and the why of each picture in terms as gentle and kindly as himself. There was no other way with Tony, no anger or venom, not even sadness, just a calm testimony to the existence of the picture itself.

It was hard for me to think of Tony without getting teary eyed for the little boy who'd grown up alone and ignored, but it was also hard to imagine him being the person he was becoming if his life had been different. He didn't seem to regret his past, and it really wasn't my place to do that for him, but it was hard not to at least acknowledge it. He'd spent that time developing a part of himself that I thought would serve him well in the future, his art. Whether he got a book deal or not, he could make it, and he wouldn't have that if he'd spent his time playing with other kids or watching television.

My dad often said that life was a series of trade-offs. If you wanted money you had to give up time, things like that. Those trade-offs almost always dealt with time when I thought about it. If you wanted a wife and family you had to give up time with your friends. When you had to feed that wife and family you had to give up time with them to earn the money for that. Those choices weren't cheap or easy ones, but everybody had to make them, decide which things were most important at different points in their lives. Dad said that was one of life's mean streets, that when you needed the most money you earned the least, then as you got older and earned more you needed it less. The only wisecrack he'd ever made about me being gay was that I'd get to spend whatever I earned on myself.

He didn't mean that he regretted being married and having children, it was just a joke. I'd thought for a long time that I was a disappointment to my parents, especially my Dad, but I knew after awhile that wasn't true. My father lost his cork and scared me away when I told him I was queer He came to find me and we'd made up long ago. That lack of understanding led the whole family to counseling and those sessions did help everyone come to terms with things. What those talks did more than that was make us all realize what love within a family, our family, really meant. We knew from society and church that we were supposed to love and understand each other. What Dr. Service made us all see was that we needed to, we had to if we were going to hang together as family and appreciate each other for life.

He had made sense and helped all of us then, which is why I'd ended up back with him when Jack died. I wasn't interested for the longest time then. I didn't want to be 'helped' I just wanted to be left alone. Now that I did want help again Dr. Service wasn't really able to deliver it. That's not fair, he was helping me with practical matters, terminology, technical things.

What I wanted was to be in love with Annie, and I wasn't. I loved her, I really did. I loved everything about her. She was pretty, wickedly smart, funny, sexy, fun to be with. Her views, her attitude on life and the world, they were all exactly in tune with mine.

We knew we could please each other sexually without going all the way, the problem we had now was finding time and a place that was private enough. Between school, shorter days and colder nights we found little time to be alone together at all.

Annie felt the same way as I did, she loved the same things about me. We were kissingly close to being in love with each other and it hadn't happened.

We were at a point where it seemed to both of us that, if it was meant to be, we should be in love by now. Dr. Service told me that beyond a certain point I couldn't make anybody love me anymore than I could make myself love them. He honestly thought, and I tended to agree, that the love I'd shared with Jack was so deep that it might be hard to match, hard to replicate with anyone else.

That hurt to hear... the idea that I might not ever love like that again. Being honest, I loved Annie, I really did. She loved me too, it just didn't give me the wholeness... the oneness that I'd felt with Jack. I wondered aloud with the doctor if I was really gay then, because I felt as one and complete with both Davy and Tony, just not with Annie. Dr. Service thought that was different, just ordinary male bonding, and convinced me how lucky I was to have such deep connections with anyone at all at my age. He said that many people went through their entire lives without ever having that experience. I had many people to share my feelings with, and the best the doctor could do was to encourage me to share them openly and honestly. I was trying, especially with Annie, and we stayed together because we enjoyed being with each other. We each knew that it was tenuous and would probably end someday, but that didn't make our feelings about each other meaningless. Fun is fun, and that's what we were having.

* * * * * * * *

They announced our final descent again and I wondered if the one in Baltimore wasn't really final, then figured that was a pretty stupid question.

The pilot welcomed us to Hartford and thanked us for flying with them, and we hit the runway with a bang. My heart stopped as we bounced way back up in the air and the plane seemed to roll to the right, then we hit the ground again and bounced again, then again. When we were finally on the ground and the plane was slowing down with that big roar, the pilot came back on and said, "Sorry about that landing."

The lady who'd served me picked up a microphone and asked, "Which one?" which got everybody but me roaring with laughter. I was trying not to vomit while my hands tried to compress the armrests I was gripping into plastic pretzels.

We taxied for a long time, which gave me the chance to calm down, and when we finally pulled up to the terminal the lady said, "Thank you for flying with us tonight. Welcome to Bradley International Airport."

I smiled and thought, "No, welcome to Davy's world."


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