Jack in the Box

Chapter 39

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

The next Monday, I was really glad that James Green was walking to the newsroom with me. I was beyond the freaked out that I had been last week, I was almost desperate. I thought I was over it on Saturday, but later that same day it came back to haunt me. Dwayne was winning, and I didn't know what to do about it.

* * * * * * * *

Having the creeps made it hard for me to sleep, difficult to concentrate on the things I should have been enjoying, and by Saturday everybody was beginning to notice. I didn't sleep well at all last Thursday, and on Friday I felt that I was always looking over my shoulder to see if Dwayne was around. Then after my gym class, he was in the locker room when I walked out of the showers. I was buck naked, and he was looking at me. I wanted to crawl into a hole as he looked me up and down, before he disappeared into the coach's office. I guess he was there for an interview, but I was certain that he'd somehow set it up for just that moment in time. It was weird, like I was being stalked.

I'm not a modest person, not at all, but knowing what Dwayne wanted from me made my nakedness feel dirty.

I couldn't even down my lunch that day. I was hungry, but so nervous I thought I'd throw up if I had more than bread and milk. I didn't see Dwayne for the rest of the day, and Annie and I went cruising with Hector over in Arlington that night. Hec had Clara with him again, and she hadn't lost her sense of humor. Paulina and Tony had come in her jeep, and they had Pat and Lissie with them. Clay didn't have a date, but he was in his mother's car with Jens.

It had all the makings of a great time, but I felt a little disconnected, Dwayne interfering with my thoughts at all the wrong times. It's terrible to be tired and distracted when you're with your friends. It makes them feel like they're doing something wrong.

Hector guessed wrongly that I was bored, and suggested going to the mini-golf place. I pretended to be as excited as everyone else about it, and actually had a pretty nice time there. The game took just enough concentration that I got into it, and we played out both courses. Tony hadn't been there in a very long time, and he was comical to watch as he knocked balls all over the place. He always swung the club too hard, and spent way too much time apologizing to people on the other holes for the sudden appearance of his orange ball on their carpets. Clay was the opposite, taking his time and lining up his shots for so long that it got exasperating waiting for him. Jens finally got him moving when he stuck the business end of his putter right in Clay's butt, then about lifted him up with it. "Shoot that damn thing, Clay. You ain't Tiger Woods!"

Afterwards, we stayed and got some food there. I felt better after a few hot dogs, and we went back to cruising the main drag in Arlington for awhile. We didn't stay late, nobody ever did. Hector dropped me and Annie off at her house. I figured I'd stay awhile and walk home, but Clay and Jens were going to play some video games, and Clay said he'd run me home when he brought Jens, if I was ready to go by then.

Paulina had followed us there, but the four of them didn't get out of the Jeep. Instead, we walked over and made our plans for the next day. Tony had already told Paulina about his new employees, so we were going to go to the swim club at nine, when it opened, and only planned to stay for a couple of hours so we could get to work.

Pat and I were both excited at the prospect of earning some money. I'd mentioned Tony's idea to Pat on the way to school, and he practically jumped out of his skin. It was really perfect for Pat, something that he could do without fear of injury to his head, and a way to earn his own cash.

His family had some money now, from the insurance, but his parents were kind of old fashioned about their kids making their own way. They were paying Jed's way through school, but his spending money was pretty much what he'd earned during the summer. I was sure they'd expect the same from Patty, though maybe not if his head kept bothering him.

I smiled at him sitting there holding hands with my sister. They were cute together. "Ready to start work tomorrow, Patty?"

He beamed, "Sure am. I hope I can do it."

Tony turned around, "I'll show ya how, don't worry about it."

Paulina peered around the seat at Pat, "You'll do fine, Patty. You'll just be gluing sticks together." She smiled, "Wear a gas mask."

Everybody chuckled at the reference to Tony's glue, and I suddenly wondered if I'd survive smelling that stuff for hours on end.

I guessed I'd get by. After they drove off, Annie and I walked to the back yard and sat at the picnic table. I was kind of tired from not sleeping well. Annie asked, "What's wrong, Mike? You're not yourself today."

I shrugged, "I didn't sleep too good. That doesn't usually happen."

I put my arm around her back and pulled her close, and she snuggled into me, asking, "Are you always grouchy when you're tired?"

I giggled, "I don't know. I usually sleep okay." I looked at her, "You think I'm grouchy?"

She smiled, "Well, you're not your usual cheerful self." Her look became more serious, "Is something bothering you, Mike?"

Should I tell her? No way, it was too freaky, and it would make me sound weird. "I guess... a few things ..." I smiled, "Not you, that's for sure. I'll sleep tonight, and I'll be fine tomorrow. You'll see."

Her smile was back. "Okay, I guess." She looked at me hopefully, "Your mouth's not all grouchy, is it?"

I giggled, knowing what she meant. "No, not grouchy at all."

We leaned into a kiss, and kept at it until Clay called out to say he was taking Jens home. I said to Annie, "I better take the ride, it's a long walk."

She gave me a quick kiss, and said, "Go. Get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning."

I smiled, "I'll be better... I promise."

With a quick kiss Annie said, "Bye, Mike."

I trotted off to join Clay and Jens, and I was home in a few minutes, ready for sleep beyond anything. My mother heard me come in and greeted me with a hug. "You're home early. Dwayne called several times. You can still call, he said anytime before midnight."

I groaned, "If he calls back, tell him I'm in bed, 'cause that's where I'll be." I kissed her cheek, "I didn't sleep too good last night."

I turned to go, but heard, "Michael? Is something wrong? Your father said the phone was off the hook last night, and you... um... well, you know how he found you. Are you alright?"

I sighed, "I'm fine, Mom, just tired. Last night... I had a dream, okay?"

I was embarrassed, about as totally as I ever had been, and I'm sure I was red from head to toe. I mumbled, "I'm sorry Dad saw me like that."

My mother approached to hug me, but I backed away, saying, "I'm tired, really tired. Just tell Dwayne I'll see him on Monday if he calls, okay?"

She said flatly, "That's fine, Mike. You get a good night's sleep. You'll feel better in the morning." She stared at me for a moment, then turned around and moved some things on the counter.

I felt that I'd hurt my mother somehow, but I also felt free to leave. I looked at her a bit guiltily before I turned and went to my room.

I felt heavy, and it took a long time to get my clothes off, and I finally left them in a heap on the floor. I looked around at my mess and vowed, promised myself, that I'd lead a tidier life, but I was too tired to clean up then.

I fell into bed, curling up on my side. Then the phone rang, and I was certain it was Dwayne, but I heard nothing else. I was tired, exhausted, but I couldn't sleep, thinking it would ring again. Maybe my mother would make me talk to him so she could get some sleep herself.

Every time I was almost asleep, Dwayne would intrude on my thoughts.

I wiggled, I squirmed, but I couldn't really get to sleep. I pulled the pillow over my head, but could still hear Dwayne making suggestions in my head, and I didn't want to hear them. God, how could being in love with Jack be so much different than what Dwayne wanted? It was making me crazy.

I tossed and I turned, but every alternate movement brought me the beauty of Jack, of Annie, then I'd see Dwayne's leer. I couldn't stand it. Tony and Dwayne were both creators, but there was a difference I couldn't figure out, and it bothered me. It bothered me all night. If I got any sleep at all, it wasn't much. I'd doze, then Dwayne would get into my head. God, it wouldn't leave me alone. I could deal with people talking dirty, even about me, but Dwayne seemed different. He wanted me to join his games. That's what was different, and it freaked me out. Dwayne used sex as a tool, a useful thing. To him, it wasn't the ultimate part of loving, of caring, it was just something you did!

How's that? Let's do sex, not let's love each other, care about each other, and have sex... let it happen. Let's just do it, get our rocks off and go home.

It was driving me nuts, that Dwayne would think I'd be like that. And he wouldn't leave it alone. I thought he'd given me a perfectly good explanation at the drugstore that day, now he was back at it, and going farther than before. If I didn't need him to write Jack's story, I'd probably just try to avoid him, maybe even report him.

I was finally asleep when the alarm went off, and then I couldn't wake up. I counted the times I hit the snooze bar, and forced myself to sit up after the seventh. Seven was all it would do, and I considered that to be a design flaw. Each bop on the button gave me ten minutes, so I knew that it was six-forty in the morning, and I didn't want to get up.

I dragged myself into the bathroom and took a shower, which made me feel a little better. Brushing my teeth made me feel better still, and I was okay when I went to the kitchen. My father should have been there, but he wasn't, and I vaguely recollected hearing something about extra hours.

I drank some juice from the carton, then fixed a bowl of cold cereal and ate in solitude. When I was done, I didn't know what to do with myself. I checked outside to see what the weather was like, and it was cool and cloudy. I really wanted to sleep some more, but I was afraid I'd miss everything if I went back to bed. Instead, I found my bathing suit and put it in a bag, then stretched out on the sofa in the living room and promptly fell asleep.

It wasn't a sound sleep, but it was better than nothing. I heard a car pull into the driveway and started to rouse myself, then I heard Hector's voice saying "I'll get him," followed shortly by a knock at the door.

I was all groggy again, so I let Hec in and splashed water on my face from the kitchen faucet, then grabbed my bathing suit and my coat. I followed Hec to the car and climbed in back with Annie, saying hi to Clara.

I was always happy to see Annie, but my tiredness took the usual spark out of even that. She was all bright and smiley, and had her hair pulled back into a pony tail, which I loved. We kissed and she asked, "Did you get some sleep?"

"Not a whole lot. I'm okay, though."

She looked worried, "What is it, Mike? Won't you tell me?"

I saw the plea in her eyes and decided she should know. I would have told Jack in a second, and Annie deserved the same respect.

I leaned close and whispered in her ear, "I'll tell you when we're alone. Don't worry, it's not you... not at all, just somethin' goin' on."

She relaxed visibly, and I did too. I felt better just knowing that I didn't have to hold it inside. I had told Annie that I loved her, I guess that gave her the right to know about things that upset me as well as the good things. She already knew a little, just not the things that happened after I thought everything was straightened out with Dwayne. At least she'd know the source of my edginess, and she'd probably have some good ideas for how I should handle it.

I leaned back into the seat. Then I giggled, thinking Annie would get angry, and that wasn't something I'd seen yet.

Jack would have been flip about it, told me to go for the blowjob, even offered to take my place, and that thought brought my spirits up.

I was more than certain that Annie wouldn't share those thoughts, but I started to become eager for her reaction. I was going to get it off my chest, anyhow. Just the knowledge of that made it seem a whole lot better.

When we got to the swim club, we all went to change after Hec signed us in. He said that Tony and Paulina were already there according to the log, so we got changed into our bathing suits and joined them at the pool.

I think Annie was trying to kill me. She still had some of her tan, and she was wearing a snow-white bikini. Oh, God. The dazzling white immediately drew my attention to the parts it covered, and I had to jump in the water before I really even said hello to everyone. Then I swam back to the side where they were sitting and held on to the edge, where I could get an eyeful and nobody could see the bone in my bathing suit. I felt a little foolish, and I could tell that Annie knew, though that didn't embarrass me.

Paulina was as sexy as Annie, and I could see a lump in Tony's trunks, too. Clara was a little heavy, not really pretty, but she made up for it with her personality. She had the others all laughing at something I'd missed. Hector was laughing like everyone else, but he was really looking at her, too. I had to smile. Annie had been right to force Hec to take a second look. He was doing it, and apparently liking what he saw.

It was nice that he could choose personality over looks, or maybe he was getting desperate. He'd dated every girl in two towns, and he was working on the third. He'd definitely been trying, now he had somebody on a third date. He looked like a tall chipmunk right then, and I had to stifle a laugh. Hec's tall and slender, but he has these plump cheeks that make it impossible for him to ever look angry. You had to look at his eyes to find out what he was thinking.

Right then, his eyes betrayed some pretty nice thoughts, and I asked, "Isn't anyone else comin' in? I thought we came to swim!"

With that, I pushed off the wall and swam to the bottom of the pool, then over to the other side. I surfaced just in time to see Clara diving in. Everyone else was already in the water and swimming toward me, so I dove back under and started evasive maneuvers. It meant nothing, but it was fun. By doing that, I made myself 'it' until Paulina caught up and pinched my shoulder.

It was beautiful, a game without rules, without direction, but it was so instinctive that we didn't need any. When you're 'it', everyone else gangs up on you until somebody else is 'it'. Many against one. You couldn't win and you couldn't lose. Actually, if you won you did lose, because you'd be 'it', and it was your turn to get pinched.

It was fun. Paulina had the edge as a swimmer, but it didn't really help her. We were predators, lurking everywhere. Swimming away from one just led her to another, and it was a real lark. Your friends were your enemies, and you got to play grab-ass with all of them.

We kept it up for a long time, finally tiring ourselves out.

Annie and I stayed in the pool for awhile after the others got out, swimming lazily together under water. We were pretty well matched with our ability and our capacity for holding our breath. We came up for the last time in the shallow end. We were both tired, both still exhilarated, both horny.

I grinned, "Hot tub?"

I hoped we could get one of the little private ones. I hadn't thought to sign up for one when we came in.

She smiled and nodded, then floated over to the steps and climbed out of the pool. Oh, Lord! If a dry Annie had me turned on, the sight of her all wet and shiny almost sent me over the edge.

My right hand instinctively reached for my dick, and it was providence that my brain took over at the last second. People could see me there in the shallow end. Playing with myself would not be a good thing.

Having a bone that felt like it could reach across the state line if I let it loose wasn't a good thing either, so I swam to the far side of the pool before climbing out. Thankfully, there was just a wall there, a narrow walkway.

Annie was waiting for me and smiling wickedly. I picked up the house phone, told the clerk that I was with Hector, and asked if one of the hot tubs was available. Yes! It was right behind door number 2, and it was empty.

I stopped in the locker room to get more towels, having left ours by the pool, then we went into the little tiled room, tested the water, and climbed in. I adjusted the jets to full power, but it made it too noisy to talk, so I had to turn it back down.

The water felt too hot at first, but we soon got used to it, and it was very relaxing. We kissed for awhile, then Annie asked what was going on.

I looked into her eyes, finding safety there. "It's Dwayne Masterson. He's like stalkin me."

Annie was shocked, but she heard me out. I told her about the conversations, the phone calls, gym class. "It's really eatin' at me, Annie. It's like the weirdest feeling, like I'm a piece of meat or something."

She stroked my shoulder, "Michael, that is so illegal. Doesn't he realize that you could get him kicked out of school... arrested, even."

"That's not what I want, Annie. I just want him to stop."

"Come on, you've asked him to stop how many times, and he keeps it up? Look what it's doing to you, Mike. You can't sleep, you're nervous as hell, you're short with everyone. You're going to make yourself sick over it."

"I'm sorry, I know I am." I looked at her sadly, "I thought I'd feel better after I told you. I don't want him to get in trouble, I just want him to stop."

Annie looked grim, "I know, and it would be big trouble, but I don't like seeing you like this. You should at least confront him, and with someone else there. Is it anything you can prove?"

"I don't see how, nobody else is ever around. Well, I guess Buddy heard a little of it. It got worse since then." I groaned, "I thought it was all settled."

"Are you all done with the story about Jack?"

"No, we're meetin' on Monday. I asked James to come with me."

She seemed surprised, "James knows?"

"No, only about the story. I didn't want to be alone with Dwayne again, so I asked James, sayin' he could see what we do... how we work on the story."

Annie smiled, "That was good thinking. I don't know what to say. Most of the stories you hear about sexual harassment are women being bothered by men, but you're certainly being bothered by Dwayne. Does anyone else know about this?"

I shook my head no, "Just me and you and Dwayne." I kissed her forehead, "I don't know why I'm bein' such a wuss anyhow. Hardly anybody knows Dwayne's queer. Just me and Buddy in school, I think, and you now." I made myself cringe so Annie could see how I felt, "It's just makes me feel so weird."

I had to look away for a second. Even my thoughts embarrassed me. Annie took my chin and pulled my face back to hers.

She looked into my eyes. "You're not weird, Mike." She kissed me and giggled, "Not weird at all." She got more serious, "This is a problem, though. Tell me what you want to do about it."

I sighed, "I was hopin' you'd tell me. I don't know, Annie. It's just words, and I don't wanna get Dwayne in trouble for that. I'm tryin' hard to like the guy. I mean, every other way he's pretty neat. He's smart, he's fun to talk to, he's a heck of a writer. I just wish he'd stop!"

Annie gave me a funny look, "You like him?"

I said, "Heh, most of him." I looked at Annie's expression, and knew she had the wrong idea. "Annie! That's not what I mean, just that I thought Dwayne could be a friend."

I swear her eyes crossed while she was deciphering what I said. She finally smiled, "Mr. Waters, it's going to take me a while before I'll know when I can use the words gay and boy in the same sentence, without you dancing off to a different drummer. You do recall your little soiree with Guy in Connecticut just a few weeks ago, don't you?"

I didn't know whether to laugh or blush, so I did both. Annie knew me, and she knew she had me there. I'd slipped up, but that was with Guy, and easily explained. I croaked, "Dwayne's not like Guy, I promise."

I could see that Annie was bubbling, about ready to burst into laughter, so I kind of fell into her, snickering myself. We hugged, and had a nice, gentle laugh together. It felt good, and it broke the serious mood. "Maybe I can deal with Dwayne that way. Why shouldn't it just be funny? I'm gettin' all worked up over words, and it's just bull."

Annie hugged me to her and whispered, "It's not bull, Mike, but maybe laughing it off might be your best bet. He can't hurt you, can he?"

God, I hoped not. Dwayne was the guy on thin ice, when I thought about it. He was gay, but that was something he kept mostly secret. If I made a complaint, that side of him would be out in the open, and he said his father would kill him if he found out. He was a senior, too, ready to graduate that year. If he got booted from school for any length of time, it'd mess up a lot of things for him.

The school system was being extra tough about things like that lately, too. Their zero-tolerance stance had gotten kids suspended for way less than what Dwayne was doing. We'd all heard about some first grader who got suspended for kissing a girl on the cheek because he liked her, and his parents had to really fight to even keep him in the public schools. That kiss was sexual harassment as far as the rules were concerned, and the rules didn't have any bend left in them.

I hadn't answered, "I don't see how he could hurt me, unless he's violent. Even then I could sure hurt him."

Annie's look went soft, "I hope nobody gets hurt, Mike, especially you. Maybe you should just talk to him, tell him what'll happen if you say something."

I grimaced, "He must know. I mean, the rules are in the school paper all the time. He writes the paper, he must at least see them."

Annie pulled me closer, "Mike, it's not right... I mean Dwayne's not right. He's too smart to not know the rules; there must be something wrong with his head." She smiled, "I can't believe I'm saying, this." She started giggling, "My mouth want's to say he can't bestraight, but my mind tells me that's not the right term in his particular case."

I started laughing with her. Annie having a problem with words was funny enough by itself, but the word she was searching for just led to more funny things. I said, "Bent, maybe?"

She laughed, "Bent? As in pointing in a different direction?"

My turn to laugh, "Twisted, then?"

She was getting silly. "Ooh, I hope not! That could hurt, couldn't it?"

I laughed, "That's Dwayne! It's still not the right word," and I couldn't come up with another one.

Annie, still full of mirth, said, "Maybe he's just nuts."

I croaked, "Maybe he just likes nuts! My nuts!"

Annie lost it for a minute, laughing so hard that I had to hold her up. I swear, if I ever wanted to take advantage of her, that was my chance. She was tight up against me and totally helpless and, I sensed, willing.

I didn't of course, but the way she was, the ways she could be, made me love her more. I gave Davy a lot of the credit for pulling me back into the world around me, but Annie was a colossal part of that world. She could make me laugh and look at the silly side of things, as she had just done.

And what a laugh, what a wonderful laugh she had. She sounded so merry, so musical, when she laughed like that. There was nothing left to say. I reached over and cranked the bubbler thing back up to full tilt.

I could get real used to spending Saturday mornings in a hot tub with Annie!

* * * * * * * *

James knew there was something wrong. I think he sensed my nervousness, my hesitation, but he didn't say anything until we were right outside the newsroom. He put his hand in front of me so I'd stop.

"What's wrong, Mike? You're acting like this is your last mile or something."

I shook my head, on the verge of tears, and reached for the door. James jumped in front of me, "Tell me, man! Did something happen with Annie? What? Whatever it is, I can help."

I looked into James' beautiful eyes and tried to compose myself, but they were too beautiful. The perfect shape, the whiteness of the whites, like something man-made, the long lashes, both top and bottom. They wouldn't let me lie, and I didn't know how to anyhow, but I couldn't tell him the truth, either. He'd try to straighten things out and get caught up in it himself, and I couldn't do that to him.

My fate was my fate. At least nothing would happen when James was there with me, so I had some time. Maybe after the session with Dwayne I'd run, catch a ride somehow, get to Connecticut and the safety of Davy's place.

Dwayne had me by the cojones, and I couldn't see any way out.

* * * * * * * *

After the swim club on Saturday, Hector dropped me off at my house, and I promised to call Annie when I was done work. I was happy. The problem with Dwayne seemed like less of one after Annie and I talked about it. I was dragging a little from lack of sleep, but happy in every other way.

Just the idea that I could say something like I'd call after work lifted me high. A job... money of my own... it was a thoroughly alluring concept. And I'd get to work with my friends. What could be better?

I floated into the house. My mother and sister, Angela, were in the kitchen making something. I merrily said, "Hi," and headed to my room to find some clothes that I wouldn't worry about getting all glued up.

I heard my mother, "Michael, Dwayne keeps calling. Will you please call him back so we can stop answering the phone?"

"Not now, ma. I gotta change and get to Pat's house." I disappeared into my room and found some old clothes. They didn't exactly fit anymore, but they weren't hideously small, just a little short here and there.

When I was ready, I went back to the kitchen and made a peanut butter sandwich, exchanging a few words with Angela while I gulped it down, then said, "Bye. I'll be back when I'm done," mounted my bike, and started down the street towards Pat's.

Logy or not, I was back on top of the world.

When I pulled into Pat's yard, Tony wasn't there yet, but Patty was sitting outside, and as full of anticipation as I was. I jumped off my bike, letting it drop on the lawn. I grinned, "Hey, Pat. Excited?"

His grin said it all, but he added, "This is the best, Mike. I got the tool shed all cleaned out. It's gonna be perfect. C'mon and look!"

What he called a toolshed was actually a small barn, bigger than our garage, but since they had another, larger barn, I guess 'shed' qualified.

It was indeed cleaned up, practically empty. His family's stuff had been all moved against one wall, and the long workbench was completely empty. The floor was clean, as was everything else. There was a small wood stove at one end, a pile of wood beside it, ready to burn if it got cold. There were fluorescent lights over the workbench, so we'd have plenty of light, and a few wooden stools sat in front of it.

I smiled at Pat, "This is perfect! You did all this?"

"Me and my mother. Dad's gone bow huntin' 'til tomorrow, so she helped me."

There was the toot of a horn from outside, so we hurried back into the daylight. Tony and his father were climbing out of their old truck. When Mr. Wolfe saw us, he said, "Hi there, Pat. How's the shoulder, Mike?"

I smiled, "All better. It healed up fast."

He winked, "Good. You boys help Anton, then. I gotta say hi to Mrs. A. for a minute."

Tony was wired! "Be careful with this stuff, I think I got it figured out how to make this work!" he said excitedly.

When we looked in the back of the truck, it was full of clear-plastic packages in cartons and paper sacks, plus a few sacks full of coffee cans.

We hauled it all into the shed, and put it where Tony told us to, then he said, "Richard's gettin' a ride over, we don't hafta wait." He held up a plastic-wrapped package and giggled, "It ain't exactly Mattel, but it should work." He held the package out, "This is a whole frame, and it has a number on it." He looked, "This one's number three, and if you look in that box," he pointed to another one, "there's another number three. That's the roof and some other stuff, and a picture of what it looks like."

He absently handed the package he was holding to me, then reached in one of the other boxes and came up with another one, which he laid on the workbench. He took back the one I was holding and started to unwrap it. "Come look!"

Pat and I stood on either side of Tony and watched him unwrap the outer package, revealing more than one smaller package inside. He elbowed me, "Even a dick surgeon can figure this out," and I laughed. He carefully undid the little package, which was just plastic wrap around a bunch of parts, and spread the parts on the bench. There were some of the things I had watched him make, that looked like little 4 x 4 boards, and other things that I knew he'd explain.

"We'll do this dry, so you can see how it goes." He held up a small cube, "This is an outside corner," then something less cubic, "this is a middle," then one other piece, "this is a middle corner. Take a look... see how they're different."

Damn, Tony could teach. His design was pretty fool-proof, too. The parts could only fit together correctly one way, there was really no chance to screw it up before the glue dried if you were paying any attention at all. Pat and I were both smiling at Tony's ingenuity before long. There were cubes, rectangles and triangles that we had to put together to form a frame, and most of our questions were like, "How the hell did you do this?"

Then Tony pulled out a hotplate and plugged it in, and the good part came to an end as soon as the glue he put on it started to heat up. Oh, no!

"Don't worry, it don't stink so bad when it's hot."

Pat said, with his fingers pinching his nose, "Please tell me that's so!"

Tony laughed, "Go outside 'til it's ready. It'll get better."

He followed Pat and me outside into the blessed relief of the autumn air.

We were there, gulping it in and laughing, when a panel truck pulled in. The lettering said, "Phelps Television." Richard Phelps jumped out from the passenger side, then ran to the back and started unloading boxes. We all went to help him.

Richard was in my gym class, but I didn't really know him. He was probably the worst athlete on this side of the moon, and he often sat out the classes. He was a chunk of a kid; short, overweight and acned. He was smiling that day, though, as he handed us boxes and told Tony, "I hope I got it right. I made a lot of this stuff."

Tony was smiling in astonishment, "I guess so. You got it wrapped good enough."

Richard grinned, "You said to. I think the bricks came out real good, wait'll you see. You were right about the color."

They yammered on for a minute, leaving me and Pat totally in the dark. Tony finally noticed us when the truck started to back out of the driveway. He said hesitantly, "Richard, this is Mike and Pat. I don't know if you know 'em."

Richard held his hand out to Pat. "Hi, Pat." He looked at me, "You're in gym, aren't you?"

"Yup. I think you were in my study hall last year, maybe."

It was kind of embarrassing to have never spoken a word to the kid before, and I think he felt the same way. He raised his eyebrows, and I did the same thing, in a copycat move. We gave each other wan smiles and Tony spoke up.

"Let's get this stuff inside." He looked at the sky, "It's gonna rain." He grinned at me, "Wait'll you see this stuff."

We lugged Richard's boxes into the shed, which by then smelled like the business end of an outhouse.

There weren't a lot of boxes, and they weren't heavy, except for one. I had it, and I asked, "What's in this one?"

Richard looked back to see what I had, and said, "Put it here," indicating a spot on the floor. "This is my glue pot." He looked at Tony and smiled. "I couldn't resist, Anton. We'll try each other's, see what works best."

I had to laugh, and tried to do it silently. Holy cow! A glue challenge? Something like an adhesive duel? I looked at Tony, who was looking languidly at the box, then he looked at Richard and said, "Let's try yours, too. If it's good, I don't care what one we use. What's it smell like?"

By then, Richard's eyes were as watery as the rest of ours, Tony's included. He smirked, "Not like that crap! I use bones!"

It was funny. Just when you might have expected an argument... some sort of hill-tribe defense, Tony asked, "Bones? I heard'a that." He looked at what Richard was taking out of the carton, "It's good?"

Richard hoisted his glue pot up onto the bench. It must have had a built-in heater, because there was an electrical cord dangling from it. Richard plugged it in and all the lights went out. "Oops," he said, "blew a fuse."

Pat said, "That happens a lot. Unplug it for now," as he opened an electric panel next to the door. He flipped a switch and the lights came back on, then he pointed to a different outlet, saying, "Try that one. I think it's a different circuit.

The plug went in and the lights stayed on, so we continued our lesson. Tony said, "We're gonna put together a whole house so you guys can see how it works. It'll come out crappy 'cause the glue won't be dry, but we can take it apart after. Then you'll know the whole thing, and I'll show ya the right way to make the frames."

We nodded as Tony disassembled the rectangular frame he had just put together. He pushed that pile of parts in front of Pat, along with two more packages, and he gave three packages to me, telling me to open the largest one. Then he took two wide bottle caps and scooped a few drops of glue into each one, setting caps in front of me and Pat.

He picked up a frame section and a corner from Pat's pile and dipped one end of the section into the glue, then inserted it into the corner piece, having me do the same thing.

Then he used a little paintbrush to put a drop of glue on a center mark on the frame section and slid one of the middle pieces over it, again having me do the same thing. We continued like that until we each had a flat, three-sided rectangle in front of us, then Tony showed us how to square the corners using a cut-out block of wood. We glued and inserted a cross-member in the middle of the long side, which is where Tony said they always went.

That was all pretty simple. Getting the other long piece in place was a little trickier, because we had to fit it into three notches at once, but even that wasn't really hard. We went on, adding uprights and more cross-pieces, then finally the top section. There were still pieces left, and Tony showed us how to make the roof frames.

Pat and I laughed our relief when the things were done, then Tony told us to put the other sections together by ourselves, though he'd watch to make sure we did it right. He had to remind us of things a few times, but we did pretty well, and in about two hours, we had all of the frame sections finished.

They were amazingly solid little creations, as Tony demonstrated when he tried to distort one of them, then let us try.

We took a break for awhile. I was exhilarated, and I could see that Pat was, too. We stepped outside, where it had started to rain lightly, but it was good to breathe some fresh air. We just leaned against the shed wall under the overhang, taking turns dashing to the house to use the toilet.

Tony and Richard were obviously pleased with our efforts, and told us so.

Richard turned out to be pretty likeable, and I asked him some questions about his own carvings. He'd started at around age eight under the tutelage of a neighbor, and it was what he did, the only thing he did aside from school, chores and television. He was easy to talk to, and pretty open about things, and I could tell that Pat was liking him as much as I was.

When we went back into the shop, as we were already calling it, we got to see his work, which was siding panels, doors and windows.

It was really cool. He had whole walls as single panels carved from wood. The ones we were working with were supposed to be brick, and they looked pretty authentic. They were beautifully turned out, especially the vertical corners, which went on first. Then we added the larger panels, our only real chore being to line things up horizontally.

When we were done we had perfect little brick houses, albeit without doors or windows. It was at that point that Tony showed us the photos of the house we were trying to duplicate, and that's where uncertainty set in. We weren't each working on three little houses, but big houses with three separate sections, dormers, a large, elegant porch, chimneys, and lots of doors and windows.

For the first time, I thought it was all beyond me, but Tony and Richard had it figured out. Richard dumped out a bag of windows and doors for each of us, along with paper templates that he showed us how to use.

The house in the picture had taller windows downstairs than up, and it was easy to figure out which was which in Richard's pile. It was a birdhouse, not a model, so we were only doing the front to begin with. With each section laying on it's back, Richard showed us the templates, which were labeled 'top' and 'bottom'. They were both exactly as long as the section of house they went with, and we taped the top on right at the top of the section, and the bottom one at the bottom. There were centerline marks for each of the windows, which Tony had us apply with four tiny dots of glue each. The windows Richard had created were complete in one piece, even the shutters, so we just lined them up, made sure they were straight, then pressed them against the wall.

Pat and I both laughed at our success on the first try.

It turned out that tying the sections together was the trickiest part. We laid the center section on end, and positioned the appropriate end section atop it, then Tony had us take screwdrivers and forcefully drill through both sections in four places. Then we glued the sections together so all the holes lined up. We tied knots in some twine and pushed the un-knotted ends up through the holes from the bottom.

Tony showed us how to make a knot for the top that could be pulled tight to hold everything together, then we set the things upright, triumphantly, I might add. We added the third section the same way, and had a roofless, but nearly complete house.

We added the floors at that point, which just glued in place. Then Tony gave us the roof sections, which were also already prepared, thin boards with the little shingles attached, and putting them on was fairly self-explanatory. There were gaps at the peaks, but Tony had little completer parts all set, and when we glued them in place we were almost done.

That was our part of the project. Tony was going to do the other details himself, the porch, dormers and chimneys. The reason for that was that he hadn't really figured out how, yet. He still needed to cut a hole for the birds to come in through, put a perch under it, and do his little doorknobs and light bulbs.

Tony and Richard both tested what we had done, and decided that they were keepers after all. They weren't finished, but if you didn't know what the real house looked like you might think they were.

Tony said it was enough for the first day, then he and Richard starting testing each other's glue on scraps. It was funny, because they were both impressed. Impressed enough that I was fairly certain that Richard was going to take up hunting, and Tony'd probably take up robbing dog dishes.

Pat's mother came out to see if we were hungry, then spent some time cooing over our creations. She said we were all welcome to stay for dinner, so we all went in to call for permission to stay.

When I called, my mother said, "Under one condition. You call Dwayne Masterson from there, else you come right home and call from here. That boy wants to talk to you, Michael. He's been calling for three days, and I'm frankly tired of taking messages. Promise that you'll call right now, or get yourself home so I can watch you call."

I promised and got the number. I asked Pat if it was okay to call Dwayne, then dialed, praying that he wouldn't be there.

He was. "Mike! Jeez, I get the feeling you're hiding from me."

"I'm not hiding, Dwayne, just busy. I started a new job today. What's up?"

"I... I, um... I think I have something you should hear. Are you alone?"

I looked around. Not hardly alone. "I'm in Pat's kitchen, we're about to eat."

"Tell me if you can hear this."

I opened my mouth to say something, then there was some sound, then, "Dwaaayne! I want sex! Just promise you'll stick that thing in me someday!"

I went white, almost dropping the phone. That was my voice, though it wasn't words I'd ever said to Dwayne! I gulped, "Dwayne?"

"I'm here."

"What is that?"

"Call me when you're alone. I'll be here all night."

He hung up on me, leaving me with a lump in my throat and a wrenching gut. I didn't know how he did that, but I knew my own voice, and the implications began to manifest themselves before I finally hung up the phone.

Oh God! Annie had asked if I had any evidence of Dwayne's harassment, and I didn't. It seemed that he'd done something to make a tape that sounded like me harassing him. He had evidence, and I didn't. I was going to get sick.

Mrs. A. noticed, touching my shoulder and asking, "Are you okay, honey?"

I shook my head slowly, clutching my stomach. I made a dash for the door and stumbled off the back stoop, landing on my knees and almost face first on the wet grass before I unloaded my guts.

Tony was there in a flash, pulling me up and hugging me as he asked, "What happened?"

I threw up on his shoulder, choking afterwards because some of it found its way up my nose.

"C'mon, Mike, get back inside."

I pushed back and turned away from Tony to let the next eruption out, then fell to my knees again. He was right there, kneeling next to me and holding me. "Okay, get it out." I felt him turn away and yell, "Get his coat or a blanket or somethin'!"

I heard Pat and Richard talking a bit excitedly, but the churning in my stomach wouldn't quit. They were wondering if it was glue fumes.

I suddenly found myself wrapped in a scratchy blanket, and Tony was pulling me to my feet. Mrs. A. was suddenly in charge. "Pat, get Anton a clean shirt. Richard, for God's sake, help get Mike back inside!"

Arms guided me to the kitchen table, and I slumped there, face on my arms, sobbing helplessly. I could hear Mrs. A. talking, then she said to me, "You're mother's coming for you. Take this." She pulled me upright and held a capful of Pepto Bismol in front of my face, "Drink it, Mike. It'll settle you down." She stroked my hair, and held the little cup there insistently until I tipped my head back and opened my mouth. She poured the chalky liquid in a little at a time until I had swallowed all of it.

She was stroking my forehead, and Tony took my hand in his. I didn't have to look to see who's hand it was, I was familiar with it by then.

I calmed down quickly enough, and Pat's mother got a damp towel, handing it to me so I could wipe my face. I wiped, then just held it over my eyes. The darkness it provided was bliss for a moment, then it got scary. Dwayne was in it, making my voice say word's I'd never spoken. What the hell did he want? No, wrong question, I knew what he wanted. How the hell did he do that, and what was he going to do with it?

I dropped the cloth and sat back, opening my eyes to let a little reality in. I glanced over at Tony and he did that little surprised look that always made me smile. I smiled back because I couldn't help it. I had a problem, maybe a big one, and it scared me. I couldn't tell anyone until I was sure about it, but there was comfort being in a warm kitchen with Tony and Patty there.

Pat said humorously, "Paulina wasn't kiddin' about the gas masks, huh?"

I groaned as if I agreed, deciding to let it be the glue for now. At least that was explainable. Richard said, "Try my glue next time. It don't clean up too good, but at least it don't stink like that."

Oh Lord, if it were only the stench of the glue. Now something else stunk, and I didn't know where it was leading me.

My mother rushed in without knocking. "Mike?" She saw me, "Oh, Michael, what now?"

Tony said, "He worked with glue all afternoon. I think the smell got to him."

He sounded so apologetic that I wanted to say something, but I kept my mouth shut, thinking that was my only cover.

* * * * * * * *

James grabbed my shoulders and stared into my eyes. His were hard to look at, twice as hard to not look at. I wanted some human closeness before I faced my fate, but I dared not hug James. We stared at each other for the longest time, then he pulled me into him, patting a shoulder.

"Mike, give it up! Screw this interview, we need to talk!"

Oh, that sounded good, but I needed to see Dwayne, I had to see Dwayne, before he started to destroy the lives of my friends.

* * * * * * * *

At home, my mother was all concern at first, but after I let her feed me some tomato soup with croutons in it, we both felt better. I told her that I needed to call Dwayne again, and that I needed to check my e-mail, so she let me go to do both from the barn next door.

I did look at e-mail, and answered what I didn't delete. Then I went to google and tried some words like 'voice impersonation', and didn't get anywhere.

I knew fucking well that I never said those words to Dwayne, but I heard them, and it was my own voice. He'd done something with the tapes from our interviews. That was the only thing that made sense.

I sat there, looking at the computer screen, wishing I smoked or something, just so I wouldn't feel so disconnected.

I went back through old e-mails until I found the one from Guy, thinking I'd say something, but I just read it again, glad that I did, but it didn't help the current situation.

I knew the phone was right there, waiting to be used, but I felt funny about it. My head said to call Davy, and that was long distance, somebody else's bill. My reality said to call Dwayne, just get it over with, whatever it was, and I finally dialed his number.

"Hello?" It was a man, not Dwayne.

"Hi, is Dwayne home?"

"Yeah." His voice was loud after he put the phone down, "Dwayne! It's for you."

I wanted to hang up in the worst way, just not deal with it, but something in my head kept telling me I had to talk to him, I could work it out.

When Dwayne picked up, it was with a happy sounding whisper. "Mike?"

"It's me. What do you want, Dwayne?

His voice was quiet, soft... scary, "I just want to spend some time with you. I like you, Mike."

I was blunt, "What was that you did before? I never said those things to you!"

He breathed audibly, "Oh, yes you did," whispering, "every word on that tape came from your mouth."

I cried, "It didn't, Dwayne," and he chuckled on the other end.

His voice became almost a hiss, "You said every word, Mike, and that's sexual harassment! Heh, heh. You could get kicked out for that, you know."

I knew. I got fidgety and started to feel sweat beading up on my upper lip. I threatened, "Dwayne... you know that's bull. If anybody's gettin' kicked out, it's you!"

"Not so fast, Mikey. Listen to some more."

I did. Listened... heard .... whatever. It didn't take long to tell that the motherfucker had played with the tapes. God, three hours of my words, he must have had every word I knew on tape, and he was twisting everything.

"Tony Wolfe, he's my best friend in town now." <I fuck him every chance I get>

"Annie?" <Fuck her! I wanna get in your pants, Dwayne! Pleeease? Dwaaayne?>

God, they were all my words. I'd said every one of them, just not in the sentences I was hearing on the phone.

I got mad. Dwayne had led me on. Garrison Keillor, for Pete's sake! "Dwayne?


"Forget it, Dwayne. You ain't gettin' shit!"

There was a click, and I was left with the phone in my hand. He hung up on me!

It was Saturday night. Anybody I could think of to call would be out somewhere, and it wasn't even close to late where they'd be home. Annie was off visiting somewhere with her family, and I'd missed my chance to call her.

I was totally frustrated, and sat there wondering what I had done to deserve this to begin with, and how I could handle it. The word 'blackmail' finally popped into my head, and I knew I was right. Dwayne wanted me to do something I didn't want to, and the thought of what he wanted was totally repulsive to me.

I was angry and I was scared, and my stomach was getting upset again. That worried me, too. I'd gotten myself physically ill at Davy's, then again earlier, and I felt it coming on again. I didn't want to go through life barfing every time I had a negative thought, and I wondered if I shouldn't see a doctor about it.

I clicked the IM icon, but nobody was on. I decided to try to get some sleep and started toward home, then decided to write to Jack first. I went to his room and sat down, where I began writing furiously.

I don't know how long I wrote, but I somehow fell asleep right there. When I came to, I was nose into the letter, and it was all covered with drool. I was as stiff as a board, too. My watch said two AM, so I'd been there for about seven hours. I looked around... my sanctuary. I got up and stretched, yawning, then went to the bathroom.

I walked outside, and our house was dark. I went in and wrote a note saying I was next door, then took a blanket and my pillow from my bed and went back to Jack's. Sleep was my only aim. I'd already gotten some, though in an uncomfortable position. I wanted more, almost desperately, and I got it. I kicked my sneaks off, laid the blanket and pillow on the floor in Jack's room, and conked out before I could think about anything.

I awoke to a knock at the door and Tim's voice asking, "Mike? Are you in there?"

I yawned out, "I'm here. C'mon in."

I was just rolling over when he came in, and it seemed odd to be looking up so high to see someone's face. Then I realized that I was on the floor, and it seemed less odd. Tim grinned when he looked at me, "If you're moving in, we should get you a bed."

I smiled through my sleepiness, "I'm okay, this is the most sleep I got in three days."

"Oh? Keeping late hours, are you?"

I said, "No, just kinda edgy."

Tim asked, "Is something wrong?"

Dwayne was wrong, but I couldn't tell Tim that. Instead, I said, "Just a lot goin' on all at once."

Tim nodded, "Dave brought home the school paper. That was quite some story about Jack. You and Dwayne did a really nice job, and the picture is fantastic!"

I said, "It's not over yet," and caught the double meaning as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

Tim said, "Anyhow, your mom called, saying you left a note that you were here. I didn't know that you were, so I came to check."

I sighed, "I'm sorry."

I had my pillow and blanket in my arms, and Tim said, "Nothing to be sorry about." He smiled, "I told you... this is your room for as long as you need or want it. Now, Dave's making pancakes with strawberries. Why don't you get ready, then come and join us. Your folks were heading out to church."

The mention of food got my mouth watering. All I had in me was some soup and croutons, and that had been over twelve hours ago. I grinned, "Be right back!"

I raced home, dumped my stuff, and took the fastest shower ever. I was back knocking on the door to their house in about ten minutes.

We had a great breakfast, everything delicious, and a nice long talk. It was mostly me talking about the things I'd done and the people I'd met in Connecticut, but Dave and Tim added a lot about how they were finding things to be in and around Morton. Dave really liked his teaching job, and Tim really liked not having a job, though he was busy doing things he liked. He said he felt like he was ten again, discovering everything around him.

Buster wouldn't leave me alone the whole time I was there, laying his big head in my lap, poking my hand with his wet nose every time I let it drop to my side. That led Dave to ask, "Is something wrong, Mike? The dog usually does that only when somebody's sick or really worried."

Damn! I wanted to blurt it out about Dwayne, about what he was doing, but I couldn't. Dave was a teacher, bound by law to report things like that, and I wasn't ready to let go of the idea that I could handle Dwayne somehow by myself. Instead, I told them that I told Annie I loved her, and that was cause enough for celebration that they forgot about the dog.

I couldn't understand their glee at first, then realized that it was part of the way they were. They believed wholeheartedly that good people found each other, as had happened to them, and were overjoyed that I had found somebody.

When I left, I was overwhelmed that those two kind men could have such strong feelings for a neighbor boy, and after such a short time, but that was their nature, too. I was getting a clearer idea of where Davy came from. His entire extended family seemed to be the kind of people who went beyond friendly... they cared. That's why Davy was the way he was, he couldn't have turned out differently if he tried. Nobody around him ever judged anybody, they just found the parts they liked and went with that.

Thoughts of Dwayne were far from my mind when I pushed the button on the answering machine. The first message was a breathless sounding Pat asking if I'd come down to do some work. That sounded good, we could try putting something together without Tony or Richard there, prove that we could do it on our own.

The next message was Dwayne, asking me to call him as soon as I heard it.

That wasn't going to happen. I called Pat and told him I'd be right down, then did just that.

We worked together on a single frame, double-checking each other and what we thought we'd learned, and it went together the way it was supposed to.

Tony was right about the glue, too. At temperature the odor was much milder. We considered trying Richard's glue, but his remark about it not cleaning up well stuck with us, so we left it alone until we could ask about it.

We chatted away while we worked, mostly about how much money we'd make if we concentrated, and by about four o'clock we were looking proudly at five identical bird mansions. We did the math, and our grins felt like permanent things. Five frames at twenty-five bucks each, five outsides at twenty-five bucks each. Two hundred and fifty dollars! Divided by two, it was one twenty five each, and a bit more math told us that it indeed came out to just over ten bucks an hour.

We could do better, too. A lot of the time the day before had been listening to and watching Tony and Richard. We'd done two of the little structures in about six hours. Now we'd done three in about the same amount of time.

Pat and I were two happy kids. The most money I'd ever had together at one time was a hundred and fifty dollars, and that was for my trip to see Davy. All I spent was on souvenirs and a few snacks. Davy kept paying for everything, so I still had almost a hundred when I got home.

Pat was like me, glad to have some money and no place to spend it. We yakked happily for awhile about how big our piles of cash might get before we actually had to use some of it, and it was simple fun to think about it.

The kids from Arlington sometimes called us 'barn boys', and that's what we were right then, but I bet none of them did better than minimum wage, if they had jobs at all.

Yeah, our turn to gloat! Pat and I almost danced around, we were so excited. Look at the barn boys now! Unskilled, unknowing yesterday, now all full of ourselves. We'd learned, been careful on our own. We were sure we'd done it right, because there was nothing left except the plastic bags the parts came in, and we had saved those because Tony told us to. What we had just done was indistinguishable from the two we'd done the day before.

We were both flying high. I pedaled home only wondering what was for dinner, because there had been no lunch. Dwayne wasn't crowding my head anymore. I'd deal with him when the time came.

* * * * * * * *


I had to shake my head to see that it was still James there, in all his glory.

"Mike, I'm telling you. Blow off this interview and talk to me!

I was used to looking at concerned people, but a concerned James was something different.

A glance at James would tell a complete stranger that his eyes were something special. Looking right into them, you could get lots of ideas. There was concern, yes, and I was pretty well accustomed to seeing people concerned about me. James, though... his eyes radiated both warmth and power along with that concern.

It's hard to say how he affected me. The power part wasn't adon't mess with me thing so much as I'm here, let's take care of business. Comforting. Solid. As solid as a block of unobtainium!

* * * * * * * *

When I got home, I wasn't the most popular kid in the house. My parents weren't too pleased with me for just disappearing the night before. I'd forgotten the trash on Thursday, and my room was a pig sty.

I couldn't argue, because I was guilty on all counts They weren't really punishable offences, my folks just wanted to let me know. My sisters loved it, the great Michael getting taken down a peg in their presence. I touched each of their knees, under the table, with my middle fingers, a special gesture I reserved for times like this.

It had been a good day. I had pushed Dwayne out of my head, kind of thinking it was a future thing and I'd think of something. We were just clearing the table when the phone rang. Angie answered it and said it was for me.

I approached hoping for anybody other than Dwayne, but Dwayne it was.

"Can you talk?"

"I'm washin' dishes. Everybody's here. Why?"

He sounded odd again, "Cool! I can talk dirty and you can't do shit about it."

I think my jaw dropped, and Dwayne went on, "I'm gonna fuck ya, Mike. I'll be the first, right? I mean, nod your head if I'm correct here."

My ears heated up, and I growled, "I don't think so, Dwayne," and I hung up the phone. I was out the door before he had a chance to call back. I ran behind the house and sat on the ground, beginning to feel desperate. I sat there trying to think of something I could do, and came up empty. I didn't know Dwayne well enough to know whether he was serious or playing with my mind. Whichever, he had my head spinning with awful thoughts.

It was too cold to stay outside long without a coat, so I made my way back to the barn and sat in front of the computer. I thought it over, and decided to call Annie. She already knew about Dwayne, so she'd believe me about the altered tapes. I doubted that anyone else would.

Jimmy called her to the phone.

"Hi, Mike!"

"Hi, Annie. I'm sorry I didn't call last night, but I got sick."

"Oooh... are you alright?"

"Not really. Are you someplace where you can talk?"

"Uh oh, no I'm not." I heard her asking Jim to hang up the phone after she picked up in her room, then after a minute she picked up and told him to hang up the kitchen phone.

"Something's wrong, Mike. I can hear it in your voice."

I sighed and told her about Dwayne and his freaky behavior, and about the tapes.

Her reaction was, "Call the police! I'm serious, Mike. I don't care what he has on those tapes, they'll prove that he did it himself. Don't try to deal with this alone. This is beginning to frighten me, and I can see why you got so upset."

I whined, "What if he's just foolin' around? I'd ruin hislife if that's the case. I... I can't yet, Annie! I won't, not unless he really tries to do something."

"Stop protecting Dwayne! You're scaring me now! You have to protect yourself, Mike... not Dwayne Masterson."

"Annie... please don't get mad at me. I feel bad enough already."

Annie sighed, "I understand, but Dwayne's threatening you." There was a pause, "Give me his number!"

"Annie, don't."

"Oh, yes I will! Give me that worm's phone number, and I'll let him know how his little game's going to play out!"

I smiled for the first time that evening. "Annie? Have I mentioned that I love you?"

Silence, then a giggle. "As a matter of fact, I believe you have told me that. I hope you know that it's mutual, I really do love you, too." I smiled, then she sharpened her tone, "Now give me that phone number, or I'll look it up myself!"

"Annie? Can we give it one more day? I'm supposed to see Dwayne tomorrow, maybe I can figure it out."

She paused, "One day and no more?"

"Do you really think they can prove he faked the tapes?"

"I'm sure of it. Alright, one more day. If Dwayne does anything in the meantime, you have to promise to report him." She was funny, "Tap tap tap, I'm waiting."

I laughed, feeling better, "Okay, I promise. You're funny, you know that?"

* * * * * * * *

I thought I had it under control again. Then, the next day, Tony never showed up at lunch. That wasn't totally unusual, but he hadn't sat with me or even spoken to me on the bus in, and that was.

Right after lunch, when I was at my locker, he came up. "Mike?"

I turned around and smiled, until I saw the wounded, defeated look on his face. He held out a wad of money, "Here's for your work. You did a good job."

He crammed the money into my hand, then turned and hurried away. It seemed weird, but I had my locker open and needed my books for the afternoon. By the time I shoved the money into my pocket and had things ready, he was long gone.

It shouldn't have been a problem, we shared study hall the next period, but Tony never showed up. I got worried, and passed a note to Annie, that said, You see Tony today?

He has a project. He's in the library .

I asked to be excused to go to the boy's room, then raced down to the library. Tony was sitting at a table there, not working on a project, but talking to Dwayne. I walked close enough so they had to notice me, and when they turned, Tony glared murder at me, while Dwayne gave me a triumphant leer.

I knew. Nobody had to say anything. Tony's face was full of mistrust, disappoint maybe, but mostly pain. Pain that simultaneously lodged in my heart and my gut.

I should have puked on Dwayne, but instead I ran for the tiled hallway, the safety of a bathroom.

I didn't throw up, but just barely. My stomach wanted to, but I leaned against a wall face-first and got it back together.

This giant cloud of sadness was threatening to become my permanant veil. I didn't know exactly what Dwayne had told Tony, but I could figure it out, and it hurt so bad that another wave of nausea came over me. Annie had the right idea the night before. I should have reported Dwayne then and there.

I was furious with myself. What could Tony think of me now? That I lied all the time? How would he ever believe anything I said? I was certain that Dwayne had convinced Tony that I bragged all the time about screwing his little tail, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

I stayed where I was until the bell rang, then dragged myself to my next class, brooding all afternoon.

* * * * * * * *

James had beautiful eyes. Masculine and feminine at the same time. Friend's eyes. I plumbed their depths, desperate.

"Okay, James. I'll tell you."


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