Jack in the Box

Chapter 38

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

The next day turned out pretty well, especially for Annie. She had to go through more procedures, and I wandered down the street to visit Dr. Service while they were testing her.

I didn't have an appointment, I just wanted to say hello to him. As luck would have it, he had some time to talk to me. He was working on billing, and didn't have any appointments until after lunch. I told him about Annie being at the hospital, and he shared my concerns, telling me that if there was anything he could do, and things like that.

We sat in the reception area rather than his office, and we both had sodas.

Dr. Service smiled, "Is this really a social visit, Mike? You look well; Connecticut must have agreed with you."

I grinned, "Yeah, I had fun there." I went on to tell him about my adventures up north. When I told him about my breakdown over Jack, he just took it in. Then he seemed all fascinated by what I did in the pizza place.

He interrupted me on that, "Let me get this straight. You told a bunch of boys who you barely knew about your sexual feelings, just so another boy could see their reactions?"

I shrugged, "Pretty much, yeah."

He looked at me with a puzzled smile, "You thought of that yourself?"


His smile turned genuine, "Go on, go on. I like this already."

I finished, telling him how Paul freaked out, but he was the only one. I told him about that whole night: how Davy got mad at Paul, Juan got the message, Guy and I got close, and Vinny and Tom didn't seem to care one way or the other.

When I took a breath, Dr. Service was staring at me with a look I hadn't seen before. It turned into a big smile. "Michael, I'm really impressed. That was a risky thing to do, but you thought it out and took that risk." His eyebrows went up, "Tell me about Paul."

"I don't know much. I liked him. I thought we'd be friends 'cause he likes to fish like me. I guess I was most surprised because it was him that went off the handle. He seemed like a nice kid, kind of shy, even. The other guys? They're all pretty big, I mean, Juan's huge. I never thought I'd get hurt, they all seemed pretty smart. I figured the worst thing that'd happen is they'd take off."

"You weren't worried about the repercussions for Davy?"

I grimaced, "Yeah, I thought about it. Like I said, they're all pretty smart. I thought they'd stay friends after I went home."

Dr. Service stared at me for a moment, a trace of a smile still on his face. "Michael, do you remember when you first came here with your family? How frightened you were?"

I looked down, muttering, "Yeah, I remember."

"Then, when Jack died. Do you remember how you felt then?"

I got tears in my eyes, "Awful." I looked up at him, "I was bein' an asshole, wasn't I?"

He smiled gently, "No, I wouldn't say that. You were facing a huge loss in your life, an overpowering loss. That would have an effect on anyone's behavior." His smile disappeared, "You tried to go it alone, Mike. I read all the letters to Jack that you gave me. They were very similar at first, the same things stated in different ways, then suddenly there were new things; questions, then little details about what's going on in your life, words about other people. Do you know what I read into those newer letters?"


"In a word, hope. You were opening yourself up to the larger world, which is what you needed to do. When you do that, there's not just one single thing that's important anymore. Other things get your interest, and you stick with some, reject others. You spend half your time taking things in, Mike, at least when things are going well." He crinkled his face into a grin. "Before that, you were obsessing over Jack. An obsession after something that momentous happening isn't a bad thing, either. It's you protecting yourself, hoarding your memories, guarding against further loss."

That made sense, put in those terms. I looked at Dr. Service, finding a different person than the one I'd been confronting since Jack died. It wasn't him that was confrontational like that, it was me, and it nearly made me laugh when I thought about it. Laugh at the lost little prick that I'd almost become. Oh God, I'd been on the way to turning into a hateful sonovabitch. I was doing good at it, too, even though I knew it wasn't what I wanted to be like.

Somehow, staying pissed off got easier than getting connected, and that's the way I was for a long time, alone and angry.

Dr. Service was saying "I think I found the turning point when you first asked a question in one of your letters. You did it just after quoting someone else. Do you mind if I ask who that was?"

I had to think back, then it came to me. Tim! "It was my neighbor... well, he wasn't yet, I mean, he bought the place, but he didn't live there. He was down here for somethin'. I don't know, he laughed so loud it'd bring the roof down, then when I cried, he did too. I only went over there 'cause my father made me, then here's this really nice guy there. I told him I was queer, and he said he was too. Then he said I could just keep Jack's old room the way it was. I still have it. It's where I go to be alone now."

Dr. Service was looking at me. "Are you still writing your letters to Jack?"

"I still do, not as much anymore. Oh, Jeez! I forgot to tell you. There's an article about Jack in the school paper. I'm workin' with this guy Dwayne. Tony's doing pictures for it. I just saw it last night, and it's beautiful."

He smiled in surprise, "You're talking about Jack now? That's wonderful, Mike. Of all the things you've told me, that pleases me the most. Is it hard for you?"

I thought, "No!" I grinned at the good Doctor, "No, it ain't hard at all! Everybody likes hearin' it. It was my idea to do it in the paper, how's that?"

He chuckled, "You're proud of that?"


He asked me what else I felt good about, and I gave him a pretty long list. Telling Annie and Davy how I really felt about them, nudging Patty off center, making friends with people, learning some of Tony's art, about Bobby and Bally, my grades, how not a soul bothered me at school, even about spending a warm night at the Wolfe's house after I got hurt. I talked some more about my new friends in Connecticut, mostly about Guy and the rest of that story.

All the while I was talking, Dr. Service kept smiling, but it looked like he was becoming happier and happier. When I finished, he looked at his watch and said, "Hmm," then he broke out in a huge smile. "Michael, you're a pretty remarkable young fellow. It was barely six months ago that you lost Jack, six months ago that you started coming to see me. I don't want to bring back bad memories, but back then you couldn't say two words without crying. Now look at you. You're all tidied up, all happied up, all full of your own new reality. You're looking after others, and I suspect that's where you find your greatest happiness."

I smiled in surprise and giggled, "You're right, Doc. I do like helpin' people. I like it a lot. When I talked to Pat last week, I thought I should be a shrink like you."

He smiled quickly, "Do it, then. You certainly have the instincts."

I said glumly, "Yeah, just not the smarts."

Dr. Service said, "Don't even go there, Mike. You're a very, very bright boy, certainly way above average in IQ. You have an exceptional ability to see how things relate to one another, and I think you're very perceptive in human terms."

I was speechless. I finally stuttered out, "I... I am?"

He smiled, "Michael, you have to stop thinking of yourself as dumb, because that's hardly the case. Actually, you should stop labeling yourself altogether. When you were just telling me about things, you called yourself dumb, stupid, homosexual, gay, queer, bisexual. None of that's you, Mike."

I was confused, "It's not?"

"No, it's not. Remember last summer, you told me about helping your new neighbors move in?"


"Were there a lot of boxes to unpack?"

"I'll say."

"Were the boxes labeled with what they contained?"

"Yeah, like 'glassware', 'towels', 'books'."

"Alright, Michael. Look at me and think. Do you honestly believe your neighbors took a box and wrote 'linens' on it, so they could put linens in it? Or do you think they may have written 'linens' after it was full of them?" He held his hand up to prevent me from answering, "Think about it first. You have a houseful of things that have to be packed up, and a roomful of boxes to put those things in. If you label the empty boxes with what should go in them, it makes your moving job much more difficult, because every time you want to pack something, you have to go and find the right box."

I stared, "I don't see what you're gettin' at."

"What I'm saying is, if you have to pack the linens, it's much easier to box them up, then label the box. That way, any box will do. The same box could have held books or anything else, and it doesn't get a label until it's full of whatever."


He sighed and smiled, "Okay, picture this. There's a roomful of boxes, and you know you have to get into one of them yourself. One of them is labeled 'Dumb Kid', another 'Queer Kid', yet another 'Idiot'. Oh, we can't forget one that says 'Bisexual Inside'. Which one would you climb into, Mike?" He paused, "Or would you rather get in a unmarked box and have someone else write 'Michael Waters' on it after you're in there."

I continued to stare, thinking about what he just said, but I couldn't keep it up because I started giggling. "I, um, I think I'd take the 'Mike' box."

He smiled, "Do you see my point, though? You're Michael Waters, not dumb Michael Waters, not gay Michael waters. Don't get hung up on labels, because they tend to stick too well. Your parents gave you the only label you'll ever need, which is Michael Waters. You just finished telling me how you hated a label for Guy, but you keep labeling yourself. Take your own advice." He smiled, "Cut that out."

I smiled back, "Okay, I'll do that."

He continued, "As for smarts, you may do dumb things sometimes, we all do, but there's no lack of innate intelligence limiting your ability to learn things. As for your sexuality... I'd say don't worry about it. You told Annie that you love her, and that's a pretty big step. Just enjoy who you're with, just be Michael." He started to stand, "I have to get back to work, Mike, but I'm really glad you stopped by. You made my day. Hell, you made my year!"

He was smiling brightly, and for the first time I noticed the warmth that he could emit from those gray eyes. Once again, the eyes of a friend.

I started putting my jacket on, then he told me to wait a second.

He opened a drawer at the receptionist's desk, and held out a lollipop, a green one. "These are for my younger patients, but you qualify now, because you've shed about five years worth of pain in the last few months."

I accepted it with a happy smile. I hadn't had a lollipop in years, and it was kind of funny to get one, but I loved the green ones. Just when I was about to close the door behind me, I heard, "Mike, I just thought of something."

I turned around, and Dr. Service said, "It's just a thought, Mike, but if you think you might be interested in psychology or psychiatry, or anything medical for that matter, it would be the coolest thing ever if you got the first Jack Murphy scholarship. The fund is a good thing that came out of something bad, but if you got it, especially the first one, it would be a perfect thing."

I gaped at him. "Me? You really think I could be a doctor?"

He smiled, "Look at what you've done for yourself, Mike. Look at what you did for Pat, for Guy. You get instant results." He grinned, "That's no way to make a living, but you're on the right track." One last smile, "Give it some thought, you're a natural." He held his hand out to shake, "Don't be a stranger, and don't hesitate to call if you want to talk."

I looked at him, a tall, thin, middle-aged man, and I decided he deserved more than a handshake, so I hugged him. "Thanks, Doc. Does this mean I don't hafta come back?"

He pulled away and smiled, "If you don't come back, I'll come and find you. I want you to stay in touch so I'll know how things are going. If things get rough again, I'll be here if you need to talk. Concentrate on living right now; you don't need me for that." He put a hand to my cheek, "You dug yourself out of this one, Mike," he said, as he nudged me out the door, "now go make the best of it."

I stood there for a minute, looking at the closed door with his name on it, while I fought the cellophane off the lollipop. Didn't they come off easier when I was five? Dr. Richard Service, the man who had helped mend our family, the man who helped fix me, the man who gave me ammunition, whether he knew it or not.

It's weird. The first time, after I told my Dad I was queer and he flipped out, I thought the Doctor was totally on my side. We had things worked out and happy in no time. Then, after the crash, I wouldn't listen to anybody, and I knew I was unresponsive and rude to Dr. Service.

I regretted that, but it was time to move on. I put the lollipop in my mouth and half-walked, half-skipped back to the hospital. The Jack Murphy General Hospital, where Annie was getting a clean bill of health.

I was elated from my visit to Dr. Service already, and when Annie's mother said Annie was fine I was ready to burst.

We only had to wait for Annie to get dressed, then for her mother to sign some papers, and we were free. And it was exactly lunchtime, twelve noon!

When Annie appeared we were both beaming. I hugged her, asking, "What was it?"

"They're not sure why I bled a little, probably from going so many times in a row. They couldn't find any specific cause."

I rubbed my nose on hers, then gave her a happy little kiss. "I am so glad, Annie! I'll just bet you're hungry, too."


Her mother came up to us, "Let's go, kids. Let's get some lunch and celebrate a little!"

We ate at Frank's again. Annie was hungry, and she ate a lot, but she took care to avoid anything greasy, settling on soup and a turkey salad, plus every roll in the place. I had their pot roast special, which was a lot of food.

We had a real nice time there until I remembered that I was supposed to meet Dwayne to work on the story. I hadn't called him to cancel out, so I asked Annie's mom to drop me at the school, and I'd find a ride back to their place to get my things.

They dropped me off out front, and I went to the office to explain why I was there, and why I hadn't been in class.

I still had to get a note from my parents, but they understood, and asked after Annie. Then I got congratulated on the newspaper story.

I went and hung around outside the newspaper room, which was really just a classroom they used, until the final bell rang. The halls filled up immediately with students, and I was suddenly the center of attention. It seemed like everybody who noticed me stopped to say something about the article, even kids I didn't know.

I felt like a celebrity, getting my back slapped and my hand shook. Happy looks, sad looks, even my old tormentors stopped to say something nice. When Dwayne showed up, he got some of the same, but he'd had two days to get used to it. He smiled when he saw me, "I didn't expect you to show up. How's the girlfriend?"

I said, "Annie's fine, false alarm I guess."

We broke away and went into the room, closing the door behind us. I had a big grin on my face. "I saw the story, Dwayne. It came out beautiful, and Tony's picture looked perfect."

Dwayne was grinning, too. "We had to print more copies. That's a first ever thing. Mr. Hastings, our staff advisor, already sent it in for every student journalism award there is. He has it flagged for nationwide consideration." He shook his head a little, "Mike, I don't know what to say. If I win anything, it's yours, too. You had the idea, you gave me the story, and I really owe you for it."

I smiled my appreciation, "You wrote it Dwayne, I just wanted people to know Jack. I already got my reward."

"Anton's drawing got submitted with the story, and separately for illustration. He's going to win something for sure, once they realize it's not a photograph. Here," he set his briefcase on a desk, "He already gave me some more for the next articles. Tell me what you think."

I already knew what I'd think, but I had to look to see what Tony had come up with. The first was another portrait, Jack sitting at a school desk with his book opened in front of him, and a very attentive expression on his face. It was a typical Tony drawing. It told a story, and the story was that there was a teacher not in the picture, and that teacher was about to ask a question that Jack knew the answer to. You could see it in the eyes, and in the right arm. It was tensed to shoot straight up like a flagpole, because Jack was excited that he knew, and was just waiting for the question to be asked.

I smiled at it, then at Dwayne, "That's Jack, alright." I decided to test, "Can you see what's coming?"


"Look. Tell me what comes next, if there was a next."

Dwayne stared at the picture for a few moments, then cracked a smile. He said mirthfully, "He's gonna be teacher's pet, isn't he?"

I slapped Dwayne's shoulder gently, "You got it! Tony's freakin' amazing! Uh, there's more than one?"

Dwayne said, "Yeah, this one looks younger," as he carefully lifted up the next picture.

My heart almost stopped when I looked at it.

This picture had to have happened. It was Jack, at an age before we got friendly, sitting in his front yard, knees up, arms draped across his legs, and his face looking up as if he'd just lifted his head up from resting it on his arms. The best that I can describe his expression as is 'searching', and I knew that he was searching the big brown eyes of a little boy his age, who must have been walking by and stopped to look.

You could see what Tony saw. What Jack would have seen is a skinny kid with a shaved head, giant eyes, homemade clothes, and nothing to say. Neither of them would have said as much as hello. Tony would have wandered on, and Jack would have retreated into his boredom, maybe picked up a stick and poked at the ground.

It almost hurt to look at, because Tony had expressed his own sadness in this one, his aversion to communicating, right along with Jack's. God, what would my world be like now if Tony had just asked for a drink of water or something? Jack surely wouldn't have refused him, and they would have exchanged other words. They might have become friends.

I think Tony would have liked anybody who spoke to him, but few did. Jack would have felt bad for Tony; he would have reached out to him if he was in his own yard.

It didn't happen, and my brain was swimming with the possible permutations if it had. If Jack knew Tony, it might not have prevented his own fate, but it could have altered mine drastically. If Jack had a friend, he might not have been home the day I crashed my bike, or he might have been in the back yard playing, or on the phone, and missed the whole thing.

Jack and me happened because of fate, I knew it did. My fate with Jack began the day I got hurt. It began because he was home, because hedid see it happen, because he knew what to do, and did it right. I wasn't badly hurt, I could have lain there for hours and I'd still be okay today. Because Jack helped, and he thought it was funny that I'd chosen to thank him by baking cookies - that's when we started to become friends.

It wasn't a lot different with Annie. I'd known her all my life, but she didn't live nearby, so we only sort-of knew each other. I talked to her for real the first time at a picnic, and I only sat with her by accident. She was a sight to behold, for sure, but it took her wicked sense of humor to embarrass me into really looking at her for the first time.

It's ironic, but at first I struck home with Jack because I somehow touched his sense of what's funny, what's a bit ridiculous. Then, when I talked to Annie at the picnic, she did the same thing to me. I guess that sharing a good laugh is a fine way to meet people, maybe an important one. Jack and Annie both knew how to set me off laughing, and I could get them going, too.

I had loved Jack right to the center of myself, but I'll always remember the laughter we shared most. Jack sometimes had funny thoughts, and he could disturb our quietest moments with a fit of giggling or outright laughter, and I'd have to wait until he was done to find out what was so suddenly funny to him. Then it would be funny to me, and we'd get lost in laughter so joyous that it could hurt sometimes. Most of the tears we shed together were strictly from hilarity.

Now I had that back with Annie. She had turned our sex play into something that was more fun than serious, and often had us both laughing while I was right in post-orgasmic ecstasy. She had taken to comparing my eruptions to various volcanos, as in, 'Wow! Pinatubo!', and I was certain that she'd bought a book about them.

It had amazed me at first that she could delight so much in seeing me spurt, but delight she did. Annie was pretty much unabashed about sex, even though she was adamant about what she wouldn't do. I think that's what made it so much fun for me with her. We played by her rules, which didn't rule out experimentation, and we cuddled and giggled afterwards, always satisfied, always happy.

I felt a hand touch my shoulder, "Mike?"

I jerked out of my little reverie to see Dwayne. He asked, "Are you okay?"

I looked at the picture again, and asked, "What do you see in this one?"

Dwayne dug into his case and pulled out his recorder, turning it on. He looked at me, then sat down, "You tell me, Mike."

I did. I recounted the thoughts I'd just had about what had caused Tony to draw that particular picture, and when I finished Dwayne was beaming. "Mike, do you know who Garrison Keillor is?"

"No. I think I heard the name."

"He's a radio guy and a writer, a real story teller." He grinned at me, "He's good. You're just as good, Mike, you sound just like him when you tell stories, and yours are true!"

I blinked, "His aren't true?"

Dwayne smiled, "There's truth in them, probably, but he makes them up." He looked into my eyes, "You do better, Mike. You're really a good story teller. Really, really good."

I was surprised by his compliment, and smiled back at him. "You mean that? Or are you just sayin' it?"

He looked at me, "I mean it, Mike. I'm not doing anything here except putting it into something readable It's you're story, I'm just writing it down."

I smiled, and Dwayne looked at his watch. "Wow," he looked at me, "do you have a ride?"

Dumb! Nobody with wheels knew I was there. I got nervous, "You think Dav... um, Mr. Devino is still here? I don't even know where his room is."

Dwayne started packing up his case, and smiled, "Relax, I'll give you a ride. I can do that much."

We started walking, and I looked at Dwayne. "Are you gonna write that Jack was queer?"

He kind of bumped into me, and put a hand on my shoulder. "I think so, Hastings is all for it. It's the truth. Hell, everybody knows it. Oh!"

He stopped, and knelt down to open his case, "I forgot to give it to you. I have the next article about ready, and I want to know what you think."

He chose some papers and handed them to me, then we walked out to his car. I started reading the article before we were out of the parking lot, and it was another terrific one. It was much lighter than the first, humorous enough in parts to make me chuckle out loud. Dwayne had Jack down so well that you could believe he knew him.

When I finished reading, I looked admiringly at him. "This is great, really great!"

He glanced at me with a smile, "You think so? That's your story telling, Mike. Some of it's verbatim from the tapes. It's accurate the way I wrote it?"

I grinned, "Yeah, 'cept you keep spelling from as form."

He smiled ahead, "Yeah, I know I do. Um, there's something I want to ask you."

I was happy, "Go ahead!"

Dwayne seemed hesitant, but after a bit he said, "I was telling Bruce about you. I think I know what your answer's gonna be, but he wants to know if you'd be interested in a three-way."

Huh? "A three-way what?"

"Well... you know... sex!"

I suddenly had a hard time breathing. I hadn't been so shocked since I don't know when. Dwayne Masterson was asking me to have sex with him and his buddy, and he was kind of asking like it meant nothing more than if I wanted to stop for a hot dog. I should have thought, instead I whined, "Dwayne!"

He kind of grunted, "That's what I thought. Tell me why, Mike. You don't have to do anything if you don't want. Bruce and I'll get you off. I'll suck your dick while he fucks me, or vice versa even. You can fuck both of us if you want. It'll be hot, Mike, fun!"

"Dwaaaayne!" God, I was scared. I did not want to entertain ideas about dicks in asses, and I sure didn't envision mine ever being in Dwayne's butt, or his pal's. "Dwayne, just bring me to Morton. I'm not interested, okay?"

He didn't say anything for a long time, then his voice was hoarse, and when I looked over at him he was stroking himself, "Mike, I'll get you off like you wouldn't believe. You can cum in my mouth, you can cum in my face, you can cum in my hair... whatever turns you on. Don't you know how hot you are? I'll do you right now if you want."

It was my turn not to answer. I turned quickly in disgust, and looked out the window, wishing I was somewhere else while I watched the familiar miles go by. I was thoroughly embarrassed, and totally turned off, and I only wanted to be home. Jack was definitely getting a letter, a real long one.

When we got near Morton, I had to tell Dwayne how to get to Annie's house, and it was difficult to even get that out.

Dwayne didn't say anything until we were in front of the house and I had my door opened. "Don't be mad, Mike. I'm sorry, okay? I just wanted to see... what you'd do. I'm really sorry if I bothered you."

I wanted to ask a lot of things, like 'What about finding love? What about finding someone your own age? What about you were sorry last time?'

Instead, I thanked him for the ride and agreed to have another story session on Monday.

When I closed the door and walked toward Annie's house, I was totally freaked out by it all. Dwayne had talent, and he was doing a wonderful job translating my ramblings into a story about Jack. Why did he have to get weird on me? I didn't want to be afraid to be around him, but I already was.

I still had the pages he gave me in my hand, and I sat on their front stoop to look at them before I went in, reading it again to see if I'd missed something, but it was the same story, and I found humor in the same places.

Dwayne had me totally confused. He'd gotten me nervous with his sexual references before, then I thought he'd explained them pretty well. Now he came and outright asked to have sex with me. Who the hell did something like that? Guys trying to pick up girls? Maybe the crudest of the crude, but I bet it wouldn't get them anywhere.

I decided right then that I didn't want to be alone with Dwayne again. I'd pay somebody to go with me if I had to, but I wasn't going to that interview by myself on Monday.

I felt doubly bummed out because it had been such a good day. Annie was fine, and I'd made a happy peace with my shrink, feeling better about myself than at any point since Jack died. I was also temporarily A-list material at school, and I'd seen even more amazing art from Tony, art that spoke to me in a way that I really cherished.

Then Dwayne fucked it up, this time with something more explicit than vague sexual references. I didn't know why it bothered me so much, it just did. It was like he thought I was a piece of meat or something, a dick instead of a person.

My thoughts were broken when the door behind me opened. I looked up to see James Green coming out from the house.

"Hey, Mike. Why're you sitting out here when there's a lovesick girl waiting inside for you?"

I smiled. James had that effect on me, just like he did with everyone else. "Hi, James. Just thinking."

He sat beside me and stretched an arm across my shoulders. "You should know two things, Mike. First, you did a great job on the story for the paper. I told Dwayne Masterson, and he said it was you, so I'm telling you now."

"Thanks, James."

"Second, I'm sorry that I didn't stick up more for you and Jack last year. I should have. We were just freshmen, but any two or three of us could'a taken down Don or Jed." He patted the shoulder he had his hand on, "I didn't know Jack, Mike, and now I'm sorry that I didn't. He was in a couple of my classes, but he seemed so... "

I smiled and interrupted, "Untouchable?"

James snickered, "I was going to say aloof. Jack never talked except in class. It's a shame."

I leaned into James, "Yeah, it is."

James squeezed my shoulder for a second, then asked, "You going to the Halloween dance?"

I shrugged, not even knowing there was such a thing. "Not if it's the same DJ as the last one, at least I hope we're not going."

James giggled, "Yeah, I heard that guy sucked. I didn't go, and I'm glad I saved my money." He backed away from me to look at my face, "Listen, Mike." He smiled, "We've always been friendly, just not real friends. I'd like to change that if I can. I like the way you are, the way you make things happen. You and me could do some good things in this world if we got together."

I was speechless. James Green, definitely the head of the A-list, was asking to be friends with me. I didn't know what to say in response to that, so I smiled and said nothing relevant, asking instead what James knew about Dwayne.

"Dwayne? Not much, really. He's a senior, he lives in Arlington, he writes for the paper, that's about it. Oh, well now I know he's a really good writer."

I smiled sadly and nodded. James asked, "Something wrong?"

I looked at the ground, "No, I was just wondering." I looked at James, "Did you stop by to see Annie?"

"Yeah, that and to bring Clay a book about Rome that my dad has. Annie's looking good. I got nervous when they said she might have a problem." He bopped my shoulder as he stood up, "I gotta get home. You take care of that girl, she's a keeper."

I smiled, "I know." Then I thought to ask, "James, I have a story session with Dwayne on Monday, if you're interested in seein' how it works."

James looked at me, "When Monday?"

"Right after school. I can get Dave... er, Mr. Devino, to bring us home. It won't take long, just an hour."

"I'd like that. Let me check if I'm free, and I'll call you later."

I smiled, "Thanks, James." and he turned to go.

I watched him walk away, wondering what led him to make the offer of friendship like he did. I figured I'd talk to him later, when he called to say about Monday. I liked James, I always had, but I never felt that I measured up. Now I was wondering why that was. I smiled after him, thinking that James was just a kid like me. More outgoing maybe, more of a natural leader maybe, but somehow the feeling that he was better than me had fled my mind.

I felt better just thinking about having James as a real friend and not just a friendly acquaintance. I stood up and walked inside. I heard voices in the kitchen and went in there to find Annie and Clay looking at a book. From Clay's bugged out eyes, and the fact the he wasn't even sitting down, I guessed that it must have been the book he borrowed from James. They were both engrossed, and I had to announce my presence.

Annie got up the moment she saw me, and hurried over to give me a hug and a kiss. "How'd your session with Dwayne go?"

I pushed back my thoughts about the ride home, "The session went real good. Wait'll ya see the new pictures Tony did." I handed her the papers that Dwayne had given me, "This is the next article."

Annie leaned against the refrigerator as she read, and she started smiling almost immediately, then she giggled a few times, laughing outright at one point before she finished. She turned to me with a happy smile as she handed it back. She kissed me again, and whispered so Clay wouldn't hear, "You have good taste in people, Mike. I'm really glad to see you sharing this with everyone." She kissed my ear, "I mean it."

I was about to say something when Annie said, "Oh, you have to go home. Your mother called." She shrugged, "We both have to go to school tomorrow. She wants you to call."

I moaned dramatically, as if it really bothered me, but I had been looking forward to school every day since the year started. Annie giggled, and I asked, "Wanna sit for awhile before I go?"

She stood up straight and crossed her arms, giving me a little glare, like she was going to give me a lecture about obeying my mother, and she smiled instead, "Let's."

We went into the back yard and sat atop the picnic table, not saying a lot, not kissing a lot. I was happy that Annie was okay, and I know she was, too. I also think we both knew we had schoolwork to catch up on, and that it would probably cut into our free time on the weekend.

I didn't tell Annie about Dwayne's behavior. I'm not sure why, but it seemed like something I had to deal with on my own, and I didn't want to draw other people into it.

We sat for about a half hour, then I had to head home. It was usually about fifteen minutes by bike, at least on high crank, but it would take longer because I had a bag of clothes and a bag of books to carry. I knew my mother would come to get me if I asked, but I wanted the time alone on my bike. I should have felt great after a day like that, but I didn't, because the thing with Dwayne bothered me.

When I was ready, I kissed Annie goodbye, got a hug from her mother, and an absent wave from Clay, who was engrossed in his book. I got on my bike, having to balance differently due to lugging bags on both shoulders, then I pedaled home.

This was one of those days. It had taken one bad thing, Dwayne's advances, to overshadow everything that had been perfect, and I didn't want to allow it to be true. Everything except my ride with Dwayne had made my day about as good as it could get, but somehow his words wore on me.

I wanted to like Dwayne, I really did, but the sex stuff was scaring me. He was a gifted writer, I could see that, but I was starting to feel weird around him before, and now I was downright scared of him. Nobody, nobody had ever come on to me before, and Dwayne had gotten pretty specific. If he didn't know what I thought, it might be one thing, but I'd backed off from him a few times already, so he had to know.

It bothered me, and it brought me down, and I didn't like that. Just because I'd been queer for Jack, and Dwayne knew that, didn't make me queer for every other gay guy in the world. Dwayne was confusing me just when I didn't need it. I had zero attraction to him as a sex partner, but I felt a real attraction on another level from working on the story with him. He was smart, he could write, he had a certain charm.

I knew that he was gay, and that obviously didn't bother me. I knew now what he did with Bruce, and the only part of it that bothered me was that Dwayne had told me. I could buy that he did it, I just didn't need the details.

That didn't make me interested in him, or in Bruce. I needed Dwayne. I really wanted to finish Jack's story, no matter how long it took. I got tears in my eyes thinking about it. He was doing a great job writing, but he was really creeping me out as a person. I wanted to work with him, but I didn't want to be near him.

I would have normally enjoyed the ride home. It was another nice day, and the bags I was carrying didn't really bother me as they bopped into my sides with every turn of the pedals, and I did start to enjoy being on my bike.

The ride finally got Dwayne out of my head. I felt pretty good again when I got home, and when I went inside my mother greeted me with a big hug. "Welcome back, stranger. I understand that Annie's just fine."

"Yup, they didn't find nuthin.'"

"You mean they didn't find anything wrong, right?"

I looked at my mother in confusion, "Wrong right?"

My mother looked at me in exasperation, "Let me put it this way. Don't say nuthin' when you mean anything. Am I making sense now?"

I knew what she meant, but I decided to tease. "If I mean somethin', I shouldn't say nuthin'? How will you know what I mean?"

I guess I couldn't fool her. She pulled me into a hug and laughed, "Aren't you the silly goose today? Now please tell me that Annie's well and happy, and dinner will be ready in an hour."



"Annie's well and happy."

She giggled, "Thank you, now scoot."

She let me go, and I started to head to my room. "Michael?"

I turned around. "I forgot, you have some phone messages," she said, handing me a piece of paper. "See if you can answer the out of state ones by email before calling them, okay?"

I nodded, scanning the list. Davy called, saying it wasn't important. Guy called (!) just to say hi. Paul called, and he said it was important. Tony had called, and I'd already seen him since then. The last one was from James, saying Monday was fine with him.

I dropped my things in my room, then washed up and headed out to the barn to look at email. I was getting popular. Lots of people were trying to give me money, save me money, send me on free trips, get me a better mortgage rate.

What a lot of crap to delete and add to the blocked senders list. I had things I wanted to look at, and I wasted five minutes getting rid of the junk. Then I had to sort things out so I could respond, There were messages from five people, several from some of them, but one I didn't know, and the subject, 'From Guy', got my attention. I looked at that one first.

Mike, I tried to call but u weren't there. I need to thank u. I talked to Davy all the way home from the airport. u were sooo right! I'm me, and if I'm gay it doesn't have a lot to do with anything. I told Javier, and he doesn't care. We're still friends. There's an org at school that I'm joining, a gay-straight alliance. There's about 30 kids. Get this, most of them are STRAIGHT! Javier's joining too and Juan might.

I really owe u.


PS: Juan said hi. If u ever change your mind about Annie... hahaha!


PPS: I have a poem for you. Here goes.

Hey, bud, I got you,

Got you on your knees,

I'm writing now to tell you,

You might have my disease


I don't know what I sounded like, alone in the barn and laughing myself foolish, but I'm glad nobody showed up to hear it.

Guy would have loved it. I knew that Guy didn't have a computer, but he had access and a hotmail address. He couldn't do email from school, but he could use the library.

I read the note over and over, skipping the poetry so I wouldn't use up too much time laughing. I was thinking about what Dr. Service had said earlier, and kind of patted myself on the back for this one. I didn't know what to say to Guy, though, so I clicked the messenger icon to see who was on, and Davy was there.

Me: Hi

Davy : Hey, where you been? I tried to call.

Me : I know. Annie got sick, I was over her house

Davy : Sick? Are you in the barn? What's the number there?

I had to look at the phone for the number, and about thirty seconds after I gave it to him, Davy called.

"Annie's sick?"

"She's okay, they thought it was somethin' worse. We spent yesterday 'n today at the hospital. She ate somethin' bad the other night and got the shits, then there was some blood. They were checkin' for colitis."

Davy was silent for a moment, then said, "She's really okay? Man, that's scary."

I said, "She's okay, everything checked out. Oh, man, it's good to hear you! I um... I told Annie I love her."

Another pause, "Really? I kind of thought you were in deeper than you let on, Mike. Heh, are you coming to your senses in your old age?"

I laughed, "Maybe. I really do love her, Davy. I think it took seein' her sick and scared to know how much, but it's true. I knew it already, I just never said it."

I could sense Davy's smile, then he asked, "When's the wedding? You need a best man?"

I giggled, "I'm fifteen, this ain't the sixties."

"Nope, you're right. You should probably wait a month or so. How'd the article come out? You said the paper came out on Thursday."

"I lied, it came out yesterday. Oh, man, I can't wait to send you a copy. It's really great, Davy. That fucker did a good job."

"Heh, that fucker?"

I debated telling Davy about Dwayne, but decided not to. "I mean Dwayne Masterson, they guy who wrote it. I just talk, just like I'd be talkin' to you, and he gets this story out of it. He's really good. I already saw the next one, and it's good too, kind of funny."

"Make sure you send it, then. How'd you like the pictures?"

I smiled, "They're great. You went to a lot of trouble."

"No trouble, I'm the one who forgot all the time." He giggled, "Did you see the ones of Paul?"

I said, "Yeah, what's that all about? He called here, too."

"Really? He said he would. Juan got through to him, saying how he hurt your feelings. Juan spent some time, but he got Paul to take a look at the before and after. I didn't know, but Paul was excited to meet you at first because you both like to fish, then he really liked you because... well, because of how you are. He flipped out because he doesn't know squat, he was saying what he thought he was supposed to be saying. You want to talk to him?"

"My mother doesn't want me making long distance calls."

"Hold on, I'll see if he's around. Just don't hang up, okay?"


There was a little blip sound, then nothing for about thirty seconds, then, "Mike?"

"I'm here."



Davy said, "Listen, you guys talk and I'll put the phone down. Mike, IM me when you're done, so I know when to hang up, okay?"

I said, "Thanks, Davy," then I asked, kind of timidly, "Paul?"

I thought I heard a sniffle at the other end, "Mike... I'm really impressed that you'll still talk to me. I'm sorry... I don't know what else to say."

"That's enough."

"Really? I mean, I went... I was... I said some rotten crap, really rotten. I'm not usually like that."

"Juan said."

I heard him take a deep breath, "Mike, I can't take back what you heard, I can't take back the way I acted, but just know I regret it, okay?"

"Okay, you weren't that bad, anyhow."

I guess I'd been turning around as I talked. I noticed that I was wrapped up in the cord, and had to turn the other way.

Paul sucked in air, "Juan told me... what you went through, that it was worse" He sniffled audibly, "I'm not like that, Mike. I'm not! I'm just... I don't know, I'm just an idiot! I liked you, you never did anything to me."

I said, "Paul, I know, and I know where it comes from, believe me. Do me a favor and stop thinkin' about it. Go make a queer friend."

There was a long pause, then Paul said quietly, "I think I just did."

I giggled, "I don't mean me! Find your own gay boy, make a new friend."

There was another long pause, then, "Maybe I will. I will, and I know who. Um, can I change the subject?"


Paul changed the subject to fishing, asking what kinds of fish I caught in Morton, then telling me how he looooved taking their boat into the coves along the river, loooooved going out into the sound for blues.

We had an animated discussion, but eventually we decided that Davy's dime was probably ten bucks by then, and hung up. I immediately IM'd Davy with 'Done', and he came back with 'Pick up the phone'.

I did. "Davy?"

"Yeah, how'd it go?"

I grinned, even though he couldn't see it, "Good. I'd say good... very good. I know it went good."

We stayed on the phone until I sensed dinnertime. By then, I'd told him about my visit with Doctor Service, more about Annie, about how James Green wanted to be a closer friend. Dave updated me on Paul, Juan, Guy, then about Bobby, who was still a mess, but less of one now. He talked about Melanie, who I sensed he liked more every time he saw her.

My final words were, "I love you Davy, but it's time to eat. I gotta go."

Davy said, "I love you back. Enjoy!"

After we hung up, I sat there for a minute, thinking about things. Paul had come around, and I would have bet that Davy had as much to do with that as Juan. Guy was happy, Bobby was being looked after. James was going with me on Monday, and I was certain that Dwayne wouldn't say anything out of the way in front of him.

It was back to being a good day.

I had a nice dinner with my mother and sisters, catching up on what I'd missed, then I took my books and went to get caught up on my homework from Tuesday in Jack's room. It was mostly reading, and I read ahead in history and science, anticipating what I probably missed. Even with the extra reading, I only spent an hour at it, then it was time to write to Jack.

I wrote a long letter, with a lot about Annie, a lot about my visit with the Doc, other things. Then I got into the article in the school paper, promising to get a copy and include it with the next letter.

I spent most of the time writing about Dwayne, though. I wanted to like the guy, I really did, and in most ways I did like him. He was giving me the creeps about sex, though, and it worried me. I told Jack that what really worried me is that Jack might have turned into a Dwayne. Lord knows that Jack's sex drive was always in full-race mode, even though mine wasn't yet during the time we had together.

I think I was just too young to have any real needs, but they'd developed since then. I got boned up all the time around Jack, I just didn't feel that I had to take care of it in any immediate way. Things were different now, and it wasn't just Annie.

I'd gotten older, more mature physically, and it had made me more willing. Very willing in most cases, but if it wasn't by myself it was with someone I cared for at a different level, a more important level.

That's where Dwayne was ruining it. He was a guy that I wanted to like, who I wanted to like me. I admired the guy. I envied his writing skills, I liked his demeanor, I liked his style. But every time I thought we were starting to form a bond, he got freaky on me and scared me off.

It was something that's hard to put into words, like an intrusion the way Dwayne did things. Every time I got comfortable with the guy, he'd say something or ask something about sex. It always had nothing to do with what was going on at the moment.

I could have listened to stories about Dwayne's sex life if they came up in normal conversation, but that was never the case. He started by asking what I did without Jack, then what I'd done with him. Now he was asking outright to have sex with me, telling me what he'd do to me, and what I could do to him, and without context it just sounded dirty.

I was getting wound up, so I stopped writing, picked up my things, and went home to get some sleep.

My mother was in the kitchen when I came in. It wasn't late, only about nine thirty. She watched me come in, "Hi, honey." She smiled, "You're a popular boy, you had more phone calls."

I looked at my mother, "Mom, what do you tell people when I'm at Jack's?"

She smiled, "That you're not home. Why?"

I took the paper she was holding out and looked at it. Tony had called, and Dwayne had called twice, leaving two different numbers.

I tried Tony's house twice, but it was busy both times. I didn't really want to talk to Dwayne, and almost went to bed without calling, but what he'd said in the car was nagging at me. I thought I'd sleep better if I got it off my chest and told him that, so I called his home number. Nobody answered, and I muttered, "Fuck it," as I hung up.

My mother's voice, from close behind me, exclaimed, "Michael!"

I didn't know she was still there, and I spun around to look at her, a little guiltily.

"Mike, you're growing up. I don't really like that you cuss, but at least save it for when it's important. If you swear all the time, people just get the idea that you have a foul mouth, and I know that's not what you want."

She was right about that, but she didn't know what had been going on with Dwayne, and I couldn't tell her. I muttered, "Sorry," and headed off to bed. I was just turning into my room when the phone rang, and my mother called out, "It's for you."

It was Tony, thankfully. I asked, "What's up?"

"I just got off the phone with Annie. I'm glad she's okay, Mike."

"Thanks, Tony. Oh, I went to visit my shrink today, kind of to make up with him for actin' like a jerk when he was tryin' to help."

He giggled, "How'd it go?"

I felt better again. "It went real good. He's really a decent guy, the problem was me. I don't hafta go back unless somethin' comes up. He said I'm smart, too."

Tony chuckled, "You are smart. I could'a told ya that."

"Really? He said I could be a doctor if I wanted to. How's that sound? Dr. Michael Waters!"

Tony was silent for a moment, then he said, "I could see that."

I asked, "Seriously?"

"Why not? You're good with people, you learn fast. You're pretty careful. So... like a brain surgeon or something?"

I giggled, "Can I practice on yours?"

Tony laughed, "I meant a dick massager. You can practice on that if ya want."

I started to protest, but ended up laughing when I heard Tony's muffled apology to his mother. When I thought I had his attention back, I asked, "Who said I need practice with that?"

Tony laughed harder, "You're a pro already?"

"Yup, and I can prove it."

Tony surrendered, "I believe ya. I saw Dwayne today. He wants me to do more stuff for the paper. He wants me to join the staff. How's that sound?"

I sighed silently, "That's great, Tony. I saw the new pictures. Um, you guys just looked at each other that day, didn't ya?"


"That picture of Jack in his yard... you can't say you weren't there."

I could picture Tony's shy little smile, "You are pretty smart. No, we jes looked at each other for a coupl'a seconds. I was headed up to Denson's to find my pa." He paused, "How'd you know?"

"I don't know. I was thinkin' about it when I saw it, wonderin' what my life'd be like if you guys talked."

I didn't say anything while Tony pondered that, then he came back softly, "Yeah, I get it. Things might'a been different, huh? That's pro found!"

It was profound. I changed the subject, "So, why'd ya call?"

"Oh, jeez, I forgot. Um, you want a job?"

"A job?"

"Yeah, I need some helpers. That store Tim used to own is sellin' bird houses like crazy. One lady wants five of the same one. I got like ten other orders already."

I giggled, "You want me to help? I ain't the handiest guy on the planet."

Tony said, "I can trust you. You know Richard Phelps?"

I had to stretch, but I put the name together with a face. "Yeah, he's in my gym class. What about him?"

"He carves, too. Me'n him can make the parts. I need one other person, you'n him can put 'em together. I'll pay ya! It'll be like a real job."

I protested, "Tony, I'd love a job, but I can't do what you do."

He warned, "Mike... I'll show ya how. It ain't that hard. You can work right at your house if ya want!"

"You really think I could do it?" I asked, praying he'd say yes. Non-farm jobs for kids in our area were really hard to find, and the farm ones were rare enough, and only seasonal.



"You kin do it. If your hands're good enough to be a dick surgeon ..." I heard a smack and an "Ow", then Tony giggled, "you can glue a birdhouse together. Jes say you'll do it!"

It wasn't hard to decide. "I'll do it, but if I mess up you tell me."

Tony's voice brightened, "Yes! Don't worry, you won't mess up. Now I need one more person. You got any ideas?"

"God, Tony, any kid in town would love a job. How 'bout Patty? It'd be safe for him, wouldn't it?"

Tony squeaked, "That's perfect! You guys live close, you could work together easy. It's late to call, so ask him on the bus for me, okay?"

"I will. Um, Tony?"


"What's the pay?"

"Oh. I figured I could pay like twenty-five for a frame, another twenty-five for puttin' the rest together. When we get rollin', it should come out to nine, ten bucks an hour."

My eyes bulged. No job in Morton paid a kid that kind of money. Now I was really excited, and determined to be the best bird house putter togetherer this side of Tony.

"I'll do it! I'll talk to Pat. Thanks, Tony, this is gonna be great!"

We talked for awhile longer, until we ran out of excitement to share, then we hung up. I hadn't even turned around when the phone rang again. This time when I picked it up, it was Dwayne. After we said hello, I sensed that there was something wrong with him from the way he sounded. He was breathing funny.

"Mike, I'm sorry about before," he was making a puffing sound, "I don't know what's wrong with me sometimes."

I said, "Dwayne," then lowered my voice to a whisper, "I'm not like that, okay? Can you pleeease never talk like that?"

He was making a rhythmic, breathy sound, and it didn't take me long to realize that he was jerking off. I freaked, and slammed the phone into it's cradle. Then, thinking he'd call back, I lifted it back up and listened to make sure I had a dial tone. I laid the receiver on the counter and headed shakily to my room.

When I got there I felt dirty, so I went and took a shower, but I still felt dirty afterwards. I almost stumbled back into my room, holding just a towel around my waist. I dropped it on the floor after I closed the door, and looked at my humble surroundings, focusing on the picture of Jack.

I walked over and picked it up, clutching it to my chest, then I flopped back on the bed, my feet still on the floor. "Oh God, Jack! This is a freaky fuckin' world!"

It was quiet. The light was on, but I had my eyes closed, still trying to calm my breathing. Thinking about Jack, holding his picture close to me, helped me calm down, and I drifted off to sleep like that.

Somewhere, I heard my own voice calling after Jack, then I was being shaken by the shoulder.

"Mike! MIKE! Wake up! What;'s wrong?"

I was being shaken awake by my father, and when I managed to open my eyes, all I could see were his, so close to my own.

"Mike, are you alright?" I could see him looking at my body, then he picked up my towel from the floor and tossed it to me, saying "Sorry, I came in to turn off the light, and you were having a dream. Clean yourself up and go to sleep, it's after midnight."

Huh? Clean myself up? I just took a shower.

I looked at myself. I was alone, but I blushed all over anyhow. I'd just had the grandfather of all wet dreams, and a towel wasn't going to cut it. It was late and I was tired, but I dragged myself across the hall to take another shower.

While the water washed the mess away, I thought about how much I hated that I never remembered my wet dreams. Nocturnal emissions, my mother called them. My mother! Emissions, my ass. I had to have been dreaming about something to blow like that, and it sure wasn't some smoky chimney emitting crap into the sky.

When I was dry, I walked back to my room. I was beat. Jack's picture was at the foot of my bed, and when I went to put it back on the dresser, I discovered that the back of it had noc-fucking-turnal emission all over it.

It was back to the bathroom, where I cleaned the picture off with a washcloth, then washed my hands yet again.

Back in my room, I kissed Jack, then set him back in his rightful place. I pulled on a pair of undies and climbed into bed, exhausted and face down.

I never really got any decent sleep that night, my brain was overactive. I tried to concentrate on Annie, then on Jack.

My thoughts kept coming back to Dwayne, and they weren't very pretty.


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