Jack in the Box

Chapter 36

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

I had a note to sit out gym class on Monday because of my shoulder. It was Dwayne's study hall period, so we met during school instead of afterward. He showed me the finished article, and it was more of a polished up version of what I'd already seen, nothing except the title had really changed.

Dwayne had lost on the title part, and now it was Meet Jack Murphy, Namesake of Your School. It was sub-captioned, As told to Dwayne Masterson by Michael Waters. Artwork by Anton Wolfe .

I smiled at Dwayne. "Where's the artwork?"

Dwayne smiled hopefully. "I talked to Anton already, and he'll have something by the end of the day. He's reliable, no?" I nodded, and his look turned questioning, "So, what do you think?"

I thought it was beautiful, and I told Dwayne that. Then we had the rest of the period to continue. As we did the last time, I talked and Dwayne questioned, and now that I was used to that style we covered a lot of ground.

When we decided we were at a good breaking point we stopped with that, and Dwayne got personal again.

"What kind of things did you guys do?"

I looked at him, "I been tellin' ya."

He looked at me blankly, "I mean sex. As much as I'd like to, I can't picture you with a dick in your mouth. Did Jack do all the work?"

I was suddenly uncomfortable, extremely uncomfortable. I had a hard enough time talking about sex with Jack, even though he was the guy I was doing things with. Now this nimrod thinks I'm going to tell him?" Instead I whined, "Dwayne!"

"What? It's just a question. Don't get all bent, I just wanted to know what other guys do." He kind of shrugged, "I'll tell you what I like if you want."

I said, "Come on, Dwayne, that's personal. I ain't sayin' anythin', and I don't care what you like. That's your business!"

He looked a little wounded, but he backed off, holding his hands up a little in a surrendering motion. "Okay, sorry. You're right, it's none of my business."

I calmed down a little, then the warning bell rang. "Okay," I said as we both started picking up our things, "when's the next time?"

"Tomorrow after school?"

I said, "I'll be here," then hurried off.

I felt a little bad for Dwayne, about the way I said I didn't care. Still, it made me uncomfortable when a relative stranger asked me personal things like that. It was one thing with Dr. Service, he was paid to, but I couldn't figure out what Dwayne wanted, why he'd ask things like that. I was already telling him about Jack and myself, and I'm sure the school wouldn't even let him mention that Jack was gay, so there was no reason to get into our little sex life.

I liked Dwayne, and I was pretty impressed with how he could write, but I didn't know him well enough to get personal. I was already telling him about Jack and me, and a lot came out in the stuff I was reciting for him.

It wasn't so much the questions, it was the kind of leering look he got when he asked them, and that comment about the dick in the mouth… God, nobody had ever said anything like that to me, and it shook me to hear it.

By the time I got to my next class I'd managed to put it out of my mind. I needed room in my head for all the new things I had to learn.

I had lunch in the cafeteria with our regular little circle. I got a kick out of Pat. He looked uncomfortable doing it, but every kid in his class that walked by our table got a "Hi, Billy," or a "Hi, Janie," from him. He'd started doing that the day after we first talked. He got some surprised looks then, now it was mostly smiles and waves. My sister said he'd been talking more about Kevin, too. Just stories, not about his feelings, but I had the idea they'd come out eventually. It wasn't with everybody, just her, but it was a start.

He had it hard, and I knew that, but it was really nice to see him trying. Patty was damaged from the accident, his life changed forever, yet he still had to function... eat, sleep, learn things, do chores. I was glad that he'd taken a liking to Lissie, because she was a pretty level-headed girl. I also thought it was good that the eighth graders had to eat in a sectioned off area. It was to keep them away from the high school kids, but the downside was that it put Pat kind of on his own with this.

After I finished most of my food, and was just poking at the things I didn't like, I said, "Hey Patty! How's all your new friends?"

He looked over at me with his big eye, and gave me a nervous smile, then whispered out, "Friends."

That's all he said, but I knew what he meant. I knew exactly what he meant, and my eyes got a little watery. Friends. I had been a jerk before, but I had a bunch of friends now, and I treasured them. They were all so different from each other, but the feelings they gave me were the same, just for different reasons. They liked me and I liked them, and there was so much to gain on all sides from having relationships like that.

I smiled at Patty, saying, "Keep with it, Pat. You'll see; it's worth it."

After lunch I knocked off some of my homework in study hall, then had a whispered conversation with Tony and Annie, starting with the pain in my shoulder, then making premature plans for the next weekend. I was only half with it, concerned with the things I was behind on. I made a silent vow to lock myself in the barn after school and finish my email. It didn't seem right to not answer it, even though I'd seen and talked with most of the people in the meantime.

I also hadn't written to Jack in a dog's age, and I wasn't intending to give up on that either. I could probably spend a week writing letters just to catch up.

I was silently thanking Tony for the quiet Saturday in the woods, even though I did get beat up a little. He knew how to focus, and it was something I had to learn. That day, no matter how painfully it turned out, had been something kind of special. The rest of the world had seemed far away and blurry for the whole time we'd spent on the mountain. It was just me and Tony, and that was usually pretty quiet to start with, him teaching and me learning. We didn't really do much, but not a single second of it had been boring to me.

I had needed that time alone with Tony just as much as I needed to get away for fun and excitement with Davy. It was all important, I just had to learn how to measure what I needed to stay happy. I liked to be alone sometimes, too, and that's how I planned to spend the night.

I told Annie that I wouldn't be calling that night, and why. She understood, and had a project to work on anyhow. She liked to get alone sometimes, too.

I sat with her on the bus back to Morton, then we kissed at the lot, and I considered giving up my plans. God, what was this bi crap about anyhow? Dr. Service had told me about the Kinsey Scale and all that, but I didn't believe it anymore. He had me pegged at right in the middle, but there was something grossly wrong with that.

I couldn't half-love Annie, then half-love Davy or Guy or Tony. That Kinsey theory didn't make any sense, because the people I loved I loved at full throttle, one hundred percent. It didn't seem one bit ambiguous to me to love Annie and Davy the same. If it was just about sex, then I desired them equally, too. Paulina was with Tony, and I wouldn't intrude on that, but if I'd known that she'd consider a younger guy, well I'd had a crush on her forever.

The good part is that it didn't really confuse me anymore. Why I could love one person and not another wasn't important. I knew who I loved, and meeting Guy showed me that my scope was expandable. I was sure it would expand again as I got older. I was fifteen years old, so there should be no rush, which is exactly what my dad had been trying to tell me for a few years.

When we split up onto the vans home, there was a new kid on the one for Arlington Road, and he was going to Pat's house instead of home. His name was Lionel Green, a younger cousin of James, just as good looking and destined for success as James, but he was a bit on the chubby side.

I looked over the back of my seat at them, to find them talking seriously about something. I interrupted, "New friend, Patty?"

They both looked up at the intrusion, and Lionel looked at Pat while Pat answered with a happy look, "Lionel's gonna help me catch up on algebra! Kevin always figured out math, I never get it."

Lionel smiled at me, "Maybe, but Pat kicks ass in biology." He put a hand on Pat's shoulder, then glanced back at me with a bigger smile. "This is a mutual aid society," he looked back at Pat, apparently having already chosen an eye to focus on, "ain't that right, Pat?"

Pat's expression almost made me laugh. He was obviously happy, but there was more than that. He was proud of himself, and it showed right on his face. The day after our last talk, he'd opened himself up to the rest of his classmates, and here he was a week later with a new friend. It was a new mutual aid society right then, but Lionel was as effervescent as James. I turned around chuckling, because I knew Pat would be putty in Lionel's hands.

When we stopped at Pat's house, I reached back and poked him before he got out the door. "Good goin', Pat."

Lionel got out first, and Pat gave his retreating back a quick glance, then he looked at me, breathing out, "Yeah." He smiled brightly, then turned and climbed out after him.

It made me feel good that he was peering out of his shell, better still that he was liking what he saw.

After I got dropped off and was halfway into our driveway, a horn tooted behind me in Dave and Tim's driveway. I turned around to see Tim's car pull in, then Joe Goldman got out of the driver's side with a totally shit-eating grin on his face. He turned it on me, and it made me smile myself.

"Mike, whatever ya do in life, make a bag of money. That way you can have one of these things! Woo-hoo!"

Tim got out the other side wearing an equally big grin. "Hi, Mike!" He giggled, pointing at Joe, "Make sure you double-check your insurance if this guy ever wants to drive your car! I'm talking heart attack city here."

They both came toward me while Joe said, "I didn't even put a scratch on it!" He hadn't lost his big grin. "Cars are supposed to have limits! This thing goes against all known science." He smiled, "How ya been? I haven't seen ya in awhile." He walked up and put a hand on my bad shoulder, making me wince and causing him to pull it away. "Uh oh, what happened?"

I smiled, it was good to see Joe. "It's okay, just an ice accident. I hear you're takin' Clay to Rome."

It was Joe's turn to wince. He smirked, "Don't put it that way. Clay's comin' with us, he's stayin' in the same hotel. Aside from that, he's on his own. It's all part of Marty's scheme to have me die before I'm forty, so there'll be double indemnity on the insurance." He looked at me, apparently serious, "You didn't make it to the Renaissance Faire this year, did you?"

I shook my head.

"Well, I did, and I had to play the part of the Renaissance fairy! Honest to God, I had to wear makeup and a ruffled shirt, had to grow a beard, and I had to wear tights! God dammit, I was like a magnet for every gay man in the county! I was surrounded by them!"

Tim was still behind Joe. He looked at me and grinned. "You still are, Joe."

Joe looked back at him, "I really appreciate you pointing that out, Tim." He scratched his now beardless chin, "Let's see, how to explain this?" His eyes opened wide as if in revelation, "I got it! How's this? Fuck you both! No, wait!" He fondled his chin some more, "No, you'll take that the wrong way. I always had a hard time swearin' at queers!" He grinned, "You guys don't leave anything open for interpretation." Joe was giggling by then, and Tim was working up to one of his volcanic laughs.

We all kind of erupted at once, ending up a few minutes later with our faces all red and tear stained. When we were down to giggles, Joe hugged me and mumbled, "I'm glad you're back with us, Mikey. You had me worried for awhile."

I leaned into him, "No more worries. I got enough mulch piled up to take me into the next century."

"Hm? Oh yeah, I remember! You're stayin' with the mulch theory?"

I whispered, "It ain't a theory to me. Thanks, Joe."

He patted my good shoulder while Tim asked, "Did you take care of the other thing?"

I broke away from Joe, "The other thing?"

Tim looked at Joe cautiously, then at me. "Chicago?"

It dawned on me what he was talking about and I nodded. I had found out what it would cost for a round trip to Chicago from the Internet, then put nine hundred dollars into one of the cards that Tim had given me, along with a printed out note saying what it was for, and mailed it to Mrs. Lamphier.

As far as I could tell, it hadn't yet turned up on the local talk mill, so I had no idea if she'd even gotten it yet, much less if she would put it to the intended purpose.

According to Davy and Tim, at that point it wasn't supposed to matter to me. I was to keep my eyes open was all. If she went to see her sister, there might be some more money later. If she bought a car or something with it, that would be the end of the money for that purpose, but I wasn't supposed to judge her choice.

I thought it was kind of neat, the way they'd worked it out. Money was sent with earnest intent. If it was used for good, more could follow if it was needed. If it wasn't, there were others who needed it.

I had to develop an eye for where it was needed, and I hadn't yet. I was kind of keeping an eye out for kids in flimsy clothing, kids not eating enough, but either they weren't there or I wasn't adept at spotting them.

I finally left Tim and Joe so I could do my homework. They were going to talk about cars until the next full moon, I could see that.

I sliced up some salami and munched on it while I looked over my Algebra problems. When I was done eating, I washed my hands and wrote them out.

It was funny. When I headed out toward the barn, Tim, Joe and Dave were all there. Every door, the trunk and the hood of the BMW, open, and apparently every part of it was worthy of unlimited discussion. Buster was stretched across the back seat with his front paws hanging out the door.

I slipped by unnoticed, then spent a solid hour working on email. I had two new ones from Davy, so I read them first. The first one described his second date with Melanie, and the next one was about a long walk they'd taken that Sunday. Taken seemed to be the point Davy was at. They'd held hands for most of the walk and ended up kissing when he brought her home. He really liked her, and he thought they were clicking on some fundamental level.

That was the note I responded to, after re-reading all the others I had from him since I got back. I remembered to tell him that I never got the pictures he was supposed to have sent, figuring that he'd forgotten about them again. I didn't say it to him, but he'd almost missed connecting up with Melanie; it took me to notice her infatuation with him. I did feel good for him, and I told him that and wished him luck.

Then I went through all the other mails I'd never responded to and wrote something to each sender. When I was finally done, I felt a little triumphant that everything had been read and answered. I decided to start treating e-mail as just another chore, and that way I might stay caught up.

I went to the house and had a pretty quiet dinner with my mother and sisters, then went next door to catch up with my letters to Jack. That was hard, because I had to tell him about Davy again, now Guy was in the loop. I told him about the thing with Dwayne, the story he was writing about Jack, about how Tony was going to do the artwork, about how I was talking about him a lot now, and people were liking what they heard.

I guess I got lost in it, because the next time I looked at my watch it was almost eleven, way past my normal bedtime. I groaned and left off where I was, heading home and detouring only to the bathroom before I kissed Jack's picture and climbed into bed.

I think I was asleep before I hit the pillow, and the alarm seemed to go off at about the same time.

I got ready the next morning and rode down to the bus, only to find no Annie. Clay was there, and said she was sick. She'd spent half the night in the bathroom with the runs and vomiting, which wasn't exactly what I wanted to picture my girlfriend doing. I felt bad that she was sick, but I certainly didn't need to hear the details.

When I got to school, I went to the pay phone and called her, but there was no answer, so I left a get well message. I headed to my home room thinking this was no way to start a day.

The day went alright, although I was a little lonely at lunch. I didn't feel like joining in the usual banter, just ate quietly, then wasted another quarter trying to call Annie again. She still didn't answer, so I left another message. I ran into Clay in the hall and asked what he thought the problem was, and he figured it was something she ate because it came on fast the night before.

I felt bad for her. I knew the feeling, the chills, the uncontrollable stomach and bowels. It wasn't something you'd wish on your worst enemy unless… uh, I shouldn't go that far.

I made my way to study hall and pecked at my homework, not really getting into it. I was even listless when I had a short, whispered conversation with Tony about the picture he'd made of Jack for the paper. He'd already given it to Dwayne, so he could only tell me about it, which was kind of hard to figure out, especially without his usual hand gestures.

I met Dwayne in the newspaper room after my last class, and I couldn't even get into that. He showed me the layup for the article that would be in Thursday's paper, and I had to smile at how good it looked. Tony had done a real portrait of Jack, from about the shoulders up. I didn't know how he did what he did, but he had Jack's face just off from center with a gentle smile, an intelligent expression in his eyes, and his hair combed. That was the funny part, because Tony would have to have seen him during the nanosecond it took between the time Jack combed his hair and when it decided to aim its own path toward every available direction.

I wanted the original, thinking that Tony had created something that very few people had ever seen in real life.

When the recorder was set up and I was supposed to start talking, I couldn't come up with much. Dwayne's questions seemed less pointed, and I'd kind of hoped they'd lead me somewhere, but they didn't.

After about ten minutes, Dwayne punched the stop button on the recorder and looked at me. "What's wrong, Mike? I know you have more to say."

I shrugged, "I don't know, bad day I guess. Annie's sick."

He nodded, saying, "We don't have to push it. I have enough for next week and probably the week after."

I sagged in my chair, "That's not all, Dwayne. You gotta promise me somethin', too."

He seemed surprised, "Promise? Promise what?"

I felt a little like throwing up myself, and my voice was a little shaky. "Just don't ask about sex anymore, okay? I don't wanna hear what you can picture in my mouth... or my ears, or any other place!"

Dwayne just stared at me, and that leering look was back. He said in a monotone, "Don't be afraid of it Mike."

I said, "I'm not afraid, I just think it's private... my business and nobody else's."

The leer continued, or maybe I was imagining it. "Mike, sex is just part of life. Everybody likes what they like. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"I know that, Dwayne! I ain't ashamed, I just think it's between me and who I'm with."

His look softened, "Okay, that's fair. Let's get a soda and talk about something else. I'll give you a ride home."

I thought for a second, "Okay, I hafta tell Dave... Mr. Devino."

We got our stuff, then found Dave's classroom. He had a class in session, but noticed us standing at the door and came out. I told him not to wait for me, then eventually ended up in Dwayne's car headed to Morton.

We didn't say much on the way, then I guided him to the drug store. Most of the high school kids had left and the ones from junior high hadn't shown up yet, so we took a booth and ordered sodas.

As soon as we sat down, Dwayne looked at me and said, "I scare you, don't I?"

"I ..."

"I scare myself, Mike." He lowered his voice to just above a whisper, "I'm queer, queer as a three dollar bill. My mother knows. If Daddy ever found out I'd be dead. He'd shoot me as fast as he'd shoot a bear going after the bird feeder." He lowered his eyes, "I'm scared, too. I have needs just like you, maybe worse." He looked up, "I'm eighteen, Mike. Maybe you can sit on things for a while longer, but I have to do something. Um," he looked at me, "can I say sexual?" with a little smile.

I nodded.

He looked around to see if anyone was paying attention, then said in an even lower voice. "I got into it with this guy Albin when I was thirteen. He was sixteen, and he showed me a lot of things, um... things. He wasn't really using me, we were just two kids with no other outlet. There was no love or anything, just a little sex, and it was fun for both of us."

I asked, "Is that your older guy?"

He shook his head, "No, it only went on for about half a year, then Albin got hit by a car and he's all messed up. He ended up in a wheelchair, and his brain's fried. I visited him for awhile, but it was too hard. Before it happened he was this bright, funny kid, now he doesn't even know his name. He didn't recognize me, and I couldn't stand to see him like that, so I mostly stopped going over there. I still stop by sometimes, but for his parents sake. He still doesn't know who I am."

I felt terrible hearing that. All I could think about was Pat Anderson and how close he'd come to being like that. He was messed up enough as it was, but he was functional and trying to rejoin the world. I gasped out, "That's awful!"

Dwayne had a tear in his eye, "Yeah, tell me. I was fourteen, horny as hell, and no place to let it out. Then one day I was walking home, sticking out my thumb whenever a car came by, and one stopped." Dwayne's eyes were darting all over the place as the kids from the junior high descended on the soda fountain, but they weren't interested in us. "That's where I met Bruce."

Dwayne ran the back of his hand across his lips, "Bruce was like me, I just knew it, and he did too. He was twenty then, and the most perfect looking person I ever saw. We ended up... well, you don't want to hear it, but it was before we'd gone a mile."

"That's not child abuse?" I asked.

Dwayne smiled sadly, "Technically, I guess, but I was the initiator." The smile turned wistful, "Poor Bruce didn't have a chance. I didn't have a lot of experience, but he had none at all. He was beautiful: queer, a virgin in every sense, and here he picked me up by the roadside."

I did a quick mental calculation, "So your boyfriend's twenty four?"

Dwayne nodded, "He's not really a boyfriend. We don't even have much in common except in the sex department." His eyelids drooped, "It's fun, Mike, it ain't love."

I thought, then said, "It sounds pretty sad to me."

Dwayne stared at me for a long moment, taking a sip of his soda in the meantime. "It's sad alright." He smiled, "I gave up a lot, I think. Don't get me wrong, the sex with Bruce is great, but I should have spent that time looking for someone my own age." His eyes focused on mine, and he paused before asking, "Did I ever tell you that I think you're an awesome looking guy?"

All my mind could come up with for a thought was a giant uh-oh. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks and ears. My voice cracked when I answered, "Nooo," which came out pretty shaky, in addition to the cracking.

Dwayne leaned in a little and said, "Well, you are. Listen, Mike. I'm not trying to put the make on you, even though it's hard not to. I really need to find someone my own age, not someone younger." He leaned back and looked like he was thinking of what to say next. "I know you're seeing Annie Nettleton, and you're a beautiful couple. I wouldn't do anything to hurt either one of you, but hearing you talk about Jack... well, I can see how much you loved him, how connected you were in spirit."

He took a sip of his drink, looking around again to see if our conversation was still private. "I know I upset you, but when I asked you questions about what you did with Jack and since he died, I just wanted to know how that love got manifested, how you put it back together, and with a girl this time."

I said, "So, you're sayin' ..."

"I'm saying that you know how to love, what it feels like. I know some other gay guys that I'm not involved with, and I know that they're like me, just looking for a fast... um, just sex. I love sex, Mike. Hell, you'd have to be a stone not too, but listening to you talk about Jack, about the feelings you had... I just know there's more. That's why I was asking you. I wasn't trying to embarrass you, I just wanted to know what led to what, how you came to be in love in the first place."


Dwayne snickered, "Oh? That's it? Oh? I'm trying to explain that I'm not some kind of weirdo, Mike. I'll be honest, if I thought you were interested I'd be on you like ants at a picnic, but that's not really what I want. I just want to be friends, and hope that some of whatever you have rubs off on me. I want to see how you love when I just lust. I need to do something, Mike, and you're my best shot at learning what that is."

I looked at Dwayne's expectant face. His plump cheeks suggested that it topped a chubby body, but he was about my size and shape. He had dark blond hair that he didn't spend a lot of time with, it kind of dangled in roundish bangs, brown eyes, fairly thick lips, good teeth, and a nose with a little upward tilt to it.

His hopeful look made me smile. "You just wanna be friends?" I couldn't resist, "You could'a said that, you know."

He smiled, and his eyes lit up a little, then he giggled, "Yeah, I guess I could have."

I smiled more myself, "You're not perving on me?"

He grinned and shook his head.

"Not some dirty old man?"

He started giggling, and so did I. After a few minutes, Buddy Early slipped into the booth next to me. "Hey, Dwayne, I saw your car outside. Hi, Mike. What's so funny?"

Dwayne giggled out, "I had Mike thinking I was some kind of pervert."

I said, "Yeah, like a stalker or somethin'."

Buddy barked out a laugh, "Well, Mike's right about you bein' a pervert, but he's one too. Don't worry, I won't tell anybody. I'm comin' to like perversion in lots of forms," he put his left hand on my shoulder and held his right across the table to shake with Dwayne, "at least these two."

Dwayne and I laughed, and Buddy went on, "Really, I'm glad you two are hitting it off." He turned to me, "Get ready for a billion questions, Mike, this guy never quits."

I grinned, "Well, he better get ready for two billion. I like to know everything!"

Dwayne put on his best leer, "Everything?"

I laughed, and repeated one of Jacks old jokes:

Big, deep voice: "The whip, the whip!"

Tiny, high voice: "Oooh, nooo, not the whip!"

Big, deep voice, "The whip, the whip!"

Tiny high voice: "Oooh nooo, anything but the whip!"

Big, deep voice: "Anything?"

Tiny high voice: "The whip, the whip!"

Honest, it was the only joke I ever got right, and it cracked those two guys up.

When Dwayne calmed down from laughing, he raised his eyebrows and asked, in a big, deep voice, "Anything?"

That set me and Buddy off laughing again, then I gave Dwayne the finger. I looked at my watch and decided I should head home. Buddy offered to drop me off so Dwayne could go straight back to Arlington, and that worked for everyone. Dwayne and I made plans for another story session that Thursday after school, and also for him to sit with my group at lunch the next day, and maybe call me sometime to talk on the phone.

Buddy and I stood at the curb until Dwayne drove off, then climbed into Buddy's car and headed to my house. Buddy said, "Dwayne really likes you, you know."

I said, "I like him, too. He got me shook up a few times, now I know why. We're cool now, and he's really a good writer."

"That he is. He's a good kid, too. I really like him."

I asked snidely, "Thinkin' of changin' sides?"

Buddy backhanded my arm, grinning, "No, asshole, I'm not! He's just too good to people. I've seen him go without lunch so many times to buy other kids something, that I can't count."

"Really?" Then my senses kicked in. "Really? What kids?"

"What kids? Anybody that's hungry, I guess."

"Um, Buddy, can you give me an example? I didn't know anybody was hungry."

Buddy glanced at me, "Look around, Mike. I don't know if you know Janice Baldwin, she's a senior. They live in Dover. She's got five brothers and sisters that are younger, but her daddy lost an arm a few years ago and can't work. Her mother's got somethin' where she can't work. That girl's holdin' the whole place together; working a job and raising all the vegetables."

"They live in Dover?"

"Yeah. Then there's the Patterson kid from Arlington. He's in your grade, isn't he?"

I nodded. I knew Hank, which is somehow short for Henry, but I don't know him well. I never got the impression that he was deprived in any way.

Buddy went on, "His daddy's run off, and his mother's in the looney bin. The kid lives with his aunt. She takes care of him, but he doesn't have a thing of his own. God, Dwayne gave him a rabbit's foot for good luck once, and Hank looked like he'd died and gone to Heaven."

I said, "Buddy, if there's more kids like that, let me know."

"You got blinders on Mike? There's hurt all over this county."

I didn't want to raise any suspicion with Buddy, but I wanted to know what he knew. I said, "Buddy, you ought to write down all those people. Maybe I can get Dwayne to do a story, you know... "

I know, lame. I wanted to know, though.

I had a sudden revelation. Misery loves company, I could come up with a factitious story about a family in trouble and tell it to other kids, hoping for a response of, "That's nothing, wait'll you hear about ..."

Buddy gave me a strange look when I hit the roof of his car trying to high-five myself as we pulled into my driveway.

I was full of myself at the moment, and I didn't care what he thought. It was the simplest thing, something I'd always done. When you don't know something you want to know, ask!

I was full of glee when I thanked Buddy for the ride and watched him drive away. I could dream up something about an unlucky family living near Davy, and use that to draw out sad stories about local people.

I bounced up the steps into the kitchen. My mother was taking something out of the oven. She turned and looked at me. "Michael, Rosie Nettleton called. Annie's still sick and she'd really like to see you. You're invited to eat over there if you want."

Oh, no! "Did she say what it was?"

"They took her to the clinic today. They suspect food poisoning, but she's the only one sick. The only thing she had different was some soup she ate last night. They don't believe it's serious, but she's a very sad little girl right now."

I dropped my bag on a chair, saying, "I'll go right now." I turned to go out the door, then banged my head with my hand. "Shit! My bike's still at Tony's."

My mother appeared behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. "Take that word back and I'll give you a ride. We can stop at Tony's and get your bike."

I sagged. I cussed too much, and I know my mother hated it. She went on, "You didn't let me finish. Whatever got her sick last night is one thing, but they think she may have colitis, possibly even Crohn's syndrome. Annie thought there was some blood in the discharge. She's seeing a specialist tomorrow, and she's quite afraid."

I think the blood drained from my face. "Isn't that what your mother had?" I had visions of my grandmother wearing what she called her 'turd bag', which she'd been able to joke about, but she was old. I could picture Annie thinking of that as something that would make life not worth living.

My mother saw the fear on my face and pulled me to her, whispering, "Don't jump to conclusions. It may be nothing. If it's really colitis, it may clear up, or maybe she'll need a change of diet. Don't be afraid of what we don't know yet. Give it a few days, Michael. It's just a suspicion the doctor has right now." I leaned against her while she patted my hair to calm me.

God, what a scare. I was on the verge of tears when my mother pulled back, "Come on, Mike, you're what she needs right now."

I followed her out the door andwe drove to Tony's house. Nobody was home, but my bike was where I'd left it on Saturday, so I hefted it into the trunk.

When my mother dropped me at Annie's she took my bike home, telling me to call when I was ready for a ride. I walked up to the door, then hesitated before knocking. I ended up pacing around the yard, afraid of what I'd find inside. It was hard for me to think of Annie as anything but the healthy, vibrant, confident girl I knew, and I really was scared to see her afraid and not well. Why Annie? Aren't there enough jerks in the world? Why'd she have to be the one to get sick?

I was wearing down a little circle in the lawn when the door opened and Jimmy called, "Mike? C'mon in. Annie want's ta see ya, and Daddy wants some grass left in the spring."

I sighed. I was caught. I tried a smile in Jimmy's direction, then followed him into the house. I was immediately met by an ebullient Mrs. Nettleton, who hugged me and thanked me for coming, then led me down the hall to Annie's room, not giving me any time to ask anything. She poked her head in and told Annie I was there, then waited a minute before propelling me in.

I had never seen Annie's bedroom, and it was really nice. All of the furniture was white, and everything else was complimentary shades of green.

Annie was in bed, pale and a little disheveled, but her eyes were as bright as ever, and they locked on mine the moment I looked at her, drawing me to her as both of our expressions turned into smiles. Even being sick, she was as pretty as ever, maybe even more so to me, because it was the only time I'd seen her when she was looking vulnerable.

I said, "Hey, Annie."

"Hey yourself."

"You okay?" Now that was a bright question.

"Better." She patted the side of the bed and I sat down, turning to see her face. "I'm mostly tired now." She grimaced, "Last night was the pits. I warmed up some chicken soup that was in the fridge. I guess I didn't cook it long enough." She looked up at me hopefully, "Don't I get a kiss?"

I felt like an idiot. I leaned down as she lifted herself up, and we kissed, gently at first, then she reached her hands to the back of my neck and pulled me into a deeper one. When we came up for air I was lying on her bed beside her, the usual problem evident in my pants. I giggled, "Damn, Annie! I... um ..."

She grinned, "You'll have to take care of it yourself. Where have you been? Did you go somewhere after school?"

"Yeah, Dwayne took me to the drugstore for a coke." I smiled, "I was startin' to think he was stalkin' me. I didn't tell ya, but he kept askin' questions about what I did with Jack... you know, sexually. It was startin' to freak me out."


"And I was gettin' nervous. He always backed off, then today he told me I was good lookin'."

Annie smiled, "At least he has good eyesight."

I blushed and giggled, "I thought he was comin' on to me! Honest to God, I was ready to run!"

Annie snickered a little, "Ooh, has big bad Michael met his match?"


She laughed outright, "I just think it's hilarious that another boy scared you like that." Her grin became a bit evil, "Knowing you like I do, I would have thought you'd jump right in."


"Never mind, give me a kiss, then tell me what happened."

Gladly! We kissed, and I told her what Dwayne and I had talked about. Annie, after hearing it, christened me with an embarrassing new nickname, "Morton's Love Center," then I artfully changed the subject to her.

"Annie, what's this colitis thing? Aren't you scared about that?"

She smiled sadly, "Yes, I'm scared. I can deal with whatever, it's not knowing that's weird." She looked up at me, "It's frightening to think I may not be right" She suddenly got tears in her eyes and, reaching out to me, said, "Oh, Michael! Hold me!"

I did, I pulled her up into a hug, as she continued, "Of course I'm afraid." I could feel her tears dripping onto my shirt, and it broke my heart.

I didn't know what to do for Annie. She was supposed to be my strength, and now I had to give it back. I didn't know how, and all I could do was comfort her and shed a few tears of my own. "Don't worry, Annie," I whispered, "it's probably nothing. They'll figure it out." I pushed her back a little so I could look at her face, "Want me to go with you tomorrow?"

She sobbed out, "Would you?"

I pulled her back to me. "I'm going with you."

I had a larger thought. "I think I love you, Annie."


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