Jack in the Box

Chapter 40

James Green - Hangman Road : October, 2000

Mike Waters had always been sort of a mystery to me, a nice enough kid, but kind of a loner. We'd known each other since kindergarten but had never really connected. Now, recently, he'd started joining in on things, and I found that I really liked him. He was smart, earnest, and sometimes funny. Most of all, he was real. Mike was like me in that he always seemed to want things to be right, not just for himself, but for everybody around him. That suited my personality just fine.

Now he had a problem, a big one, an ugly one, and he was looking to me to help him with it.

When Mike told me, I was kind of mortified to learn that Dwayne Masterson was the way Mike said. Somehow, I couldn't not believe Mike's words. He was the kind of kid who gave you the feeling that there wasn't a lying bone in his body, so when I heard his story, saw how emotional he was about it, I knew I should help him.

I'm not a flip-out kind of guy, but I came close that day. Mike told me the guts of the story in a ground-floor boy's room at school, where nobody would show up at that time of day. Then I rode with him and Mr. Devino to Mike's house, and we walked out back and sat beside a brook.

Mike was kind of desolate. His head hung, "I don't know what to do, James. Dwayne's already put shit in Tony's head, and I know he'll do it again." He looked at me, "What'm I supposed to do? Call everybody I know and try to tell 'em that what Dwayne says... what he has on his tapes... is a lie? All faked?"

I smiled. A lot of people told me I had leadership qualities, but I knew what I really had. That was to recognize bullshit when I saw it, and confront it with a double dose of the same thing.

"Don't get all het up, Mike. Dwayne's playing a game here... a dirty little game, but a game just the same." I laid my hand on Mike's shoulder, "We need a bigger game." I pointed at the water and changed the subject, "Are there any fish in here?"

Mike sighed, then giggled, "C'mon, James. You come out here to get minnows, I've seen you."

I said, "I know. I'm trying to think here, Mike. This is new ground for me."

"Me too," Mike mumbled.

I said, "Okay, let's think about it. Dwayne thinks he has you because he cobbled up some tapes. Let's talk about Dwayne. I didn't know he was gay, when did you find out?"

Mike kicked a rock up with his heel, "Not for sure until just a few weeks ago. Buddy called once and said he knew another gay kid, and I didn't really care, then at the dance Dwayne said something that set Clay off. Afterwards I saw Buddy talkin' to Dwayne, and thought that might be who Bud meant was another gay guy. It didn't really come together 'til I talked to Dwayne about writing the story about Jack."

I said, "You're not gay, though, are you? What? Bisexual?"

"Yeah, I guess."

His tone of voice told me I needed to clarify my own position.

"Mike, that doesn't matter to me, I hope you know that." I moved a little so I was looking at Mike's profile. "Mike, look at me. Think before you answer, but what color is my skin?"

Mike looked, first at my face, then down at my hands, about the only exposed parts right then. He looked back at my face, "Kind of brown, I guess."

He was in tune. "Right! Kind of brown... not black, right?"

He smiled, "Well... your hair and your eyebrows ..."

I grinned, "Heck, lots of people have black hair. We're dealing with skin here, because people consider me to be black, and I'm not! I'mbrown. It's not exactly a suntan, but I'm not black!"

Mike looked confused, so I went on. "I'm not black, just like you're not white." I smiled, "You're sort of pink... more like orange, really. Definitely not white."

Mike smiled, getting it, "And I'm not gay and I'm not straight." He grinned, "I'm Mike, and what you see is what you get."

I beamed, "That's what it is!" I toned down, "Okay, we're on the same wavelength. We have to figure out what Dwayne is and what he wants, "I snickered, "other than a chance at your butthole, that is."

Mike laughed, "You're good!"

"Practice. We need a plan. Who are your best friends, the ones you can really trust?"

Mikes list was short, but substantial. The only if was Anton Wolfe, and that was because Dwayne had already gotten to him.

I looked at my watch. I should have been home, but this seemed important. We walked back to Mike's, where I called home to say I'd be late.

Then we called some other people to set up a little meeting for later. The first thing we had to do was fix things with Anton, and Paulina had already told us that she was working on him, though Anton wouldn't tell her why he was upset with Mike. She sent Hector to pick us up so we wouldn't have to do everything by bicycle, and in no time he dropped us off at the Wolfe's door.

I'd never been there, but Anton answered, glared at Mike for a moment, then asked us in. We were greeted by Anton's parents, declined an offer of food, and we went to sit in the gazebo the trailer park provided.

I could sense Anton's mistrust and Mike's discomfort, so I cut to the chase. "Dwayne lied to you, Anton. Whatever you heard is a load of crap. You know how Mike feels about you. Hell, I know how he feels. He never said those things!"

Anton's big eyes were darting around, first Mike, then me, then outer space. "How, though. I heard it!"

"What did you hear, Anton? We don't know, we just know what Dwayne's doing to Mike."

I could feel the heat of Anton's blush, more than see it. "He... I mean Mike... it's all on the tape." He cast an accusatory glare toward Mike. "You... you... you said you screw me all the time, fuck my butt." Anger flashed in his eyes, "I trusted you, Mike! I thought you were my friend!"

I jumped in, "Anton, you're not getting it. What Dwayne did was take a word from here, a word from there, and make Mike say whatever Dwayne wanted him to say. Mike never told Dwayne or anyone else that he had sex with you, or that he even considered it." I tried to stare him down, and with his eyes that was a challenge. "You have the wrong enemy, Anton. Mike's your best friend, he admires you, thinks you're agenius! Think about it. Dwayne is using you to get to Mike, that's all."

I paused for effect, "He wants Mike to lose his friends so he'll do what Dwayne wants."

I could see Anton questioning me, so I went on. "Listen, if you rub two cookies together, you usually get crumbs. Once in awhile, if you try long enough, they'll stick, and you have a bigger cookie, one that's better... bigger... stronger than the ones you started with." I lowered my voice, staring into Anton's eyes, "That's where you're at with Mike. Don't you understand that? You can't let someone like Dwayne barge in and change everything, not give Mike a chance." I pulled my ace card, "You're better than that, Anton!"

I looked at both of them. Mike was staring at Anton with tears in his eyes, and Anton was looking at him. I said, "I hafta take a leak. You guys figure it out."

I took a walk, wondering about the both of them. I'd learned from Mike that his friendship with Anton had developed into something special, and that Dwayne had torn it apart in one day.

That didn't really endear Anton to me, but I'd been around lies often enough before to know how compelling they could be.

Dwayne had made recordings, twisted though they might be, and had let Anton hear Mike's voice saying words that had never come out in the order that Anton heard.

Dwayne was ill, that much seemed clear. Mike's insistence that we don't punish him unnecessarily told me more about Mike than it did about Dwayne. I'd always considered Mike to be a nature boy... always fishing or slogging around the swamps, traipsing the woods. There was more to him, that's what I was finding out, and I liked what I saw.

Mike connected with people, certainly better than I did. I'd always been able to get people to do what I wanted, but Mike seemed to be able to help them do what they wanted. There was a beautiful difference in that, and I wanted to learn it. I wasn't a blue meanie by any stretch, and usually when people saw things my way they felt good about it. Mike saw things the other peoples' way, that's what the difference was, and he was a natural at it.

I wandered around the trailer park, giving Mike and Anton some time to come to terms. It was an old park, full of old trailers and mostly old people, but it was well kept up. There was a newer and fancier park near me, one with big double-wides, but it wasn't half as tidy. No, the people here were from different generations... proud of what they had, which wasn't much maybe, but proud nonetheless. Even in the dark, even in the autumn, you could see that there wasn't a blade of grass out of place, not a trace of litter anywhere.

My dad was an ex-military guy, and he always demanded that we be 'strack' troops. 'Strack' was military slang, but we knew what it meant; tidy, ready and able.

I was tidy enough, and I liked to think I was ready and able all the time, but a problem like Mike had with Dwayne wasn't anything I was ready for. I was too unprepared to even accept it at face value.

While I walked, I thought. Okay, Dwayne's gay. That part's alright. Mike's bi, I already knew that. Anton's joining the rest of the world, that's cool.

Dwayne bugging Mike, though? That didn't fit. Mike hadn't been sure if it was something serious or just teasing until Dwayne had played out his hand with Anton. Now it was serious, someone messing with your friend's head.

I agreed with Mike, though, that we should try to handle it ourselves, leave the authorities out of it if we possibly could. Dwayne was playing with fire, and we just hoped to extinguish it, not ruin his life.

I didn't know much about the guy, other than he was there. Not until the first story about Jack appeared in the paper.

That changed everything in my mind. I'd always been in Mike's grade, always in some of his classes. Now I could tie in how Mike was with how Jack was, and it made some sense.

I was no love expert, though I wished almost desperately that I was. Mike and Jack kind of became a haphazard cause for me last year. I didn't know either one of them well, really, but seeing them picked on like they were by the upperclassmen really got my goat.

I put the word out with the other freshmen that it stopped with the sophomores, didn't continue downwards. I don't know why I did that, maybe just a same-age thing, but I'm glad I did it.

Mike and Jack were in our class! I was in charge of that class, I don't known how, by default, maybe. Mike and Jack caused a lot of noise, drew a lot of heat, but it was never from another freshman, at least not twice, not if I ever heard about it.

I looked at my watch. Mike and Anton had been alone for almost fifteen minutes, long enough to figure things out if they were going to, and I had a germ of an idea about what to do forming in my head.

I walked back to the gazebo and found them talking quietly. When I went in, they were side by side, with their arms around each other's shoulders.

They both smiled at me, and Anton said, "Thanks, James. I was bein' an idiot."

I said, "Don't worry about that. Just tell us what Dwayne said."

Anton looked at the floor, then back up at me. "He called me last night. He started talkin' about pictures for the paper, just normal stuff. Then he asked if... if ..." his eyes clouded, "if I liked it when Mike screwed my ass." Anton's eyes grew to saucer size. "I thought it was a joke or somethin', then he played me the tape and said Mike bragged about it all the time. I'm thinkin', 'No, not Mike', but I heard it. Dwayne said Mike was tellin' everybody, and how I should watch my step."

"And you bought it?"

Mike tightened his grip on Anton, who looked ready to fall apart, and asked, "Why wouldn't he, James? Tony heard my voice sayin' those things. He did question it... over and over, but Dwayne kept tellin' him shit and playin' more of the tape." Mike looked at Anton and smiled reassuringly, then back at me. I would'a believed it, you would'a believed it. Dwayne's got all the cards."

I shrugged and muttered, "You're right. You guys are okay? You believe us, Anton?"

Anton looked at Mike's face, then smiled and nodded.

I said, "Good! I'm getting an idea of how to handle this, but we need more people. Who do you guys trust most when you need ideas?"

They spoke simultaneously. Anton said, "Paulina," while Mike said, "Annie!", then looked at each other and sniggered.

I smiled myself. Anton had upstaged me with Paulina, and she was loving every minute of it. Annie was the cutest girl in school, and Mike seemed to be all tied up with her. I wasn't exactly twisting around, lost in the universe, I had girls I liked, and who liked me. Paulina was a hard hit, though. I always thought it was the age difference with her. I liked her, and I knew she liked me, but when Anton hit the scene she was gone in a flash.

C'est la vie, right? We had a more pressing problem... what to do about Dwayne, both immediately and long term. We needed Paulina and Annie, and I sent Anton home to call them.

As soon as he was gone, Mike asked, "You're not mad at Tony are you?"

I shook my head no.

Mike's face seemed to be searching mine for a moment, then he said, "Tony's good people. You said you want to be better friends with me, he comes with the package. Is that alright?"

He looked like he thought I might say no, so I smiled, "It's fine. Where'd you get 'Tony' from?"

Mike grinned, "Long story."

I settled down, "Okay, someday maybe?"

Mike smiled kind of distantly, "Yeah, someday."

Anton rushed back in and said breathlessly, "They're comin' now." He sat down next to Mike again, and they leaned together. Soul mates, I could see it. Just like my daddy and Mr. Dominguez.

We sat like that for awhile, Mike and Anton together, me just there. I wanted what those two had, the closeness, the confidence in friendship. Dwayne had distorted Anton's view for a day, but Mike was quick to forgive, to understand why it happened. They were safe together, comfortable together.

I wasn't jealous, just curious that a kid like Mike could develop those kinds of attachments. The best part was that I found myself having feelings for Mike myself, for the real kind of person he was. I was trying to help him with his problem, but he was helping me at the same time. I was learning that Mike made friends, friends where the reliance on each other was a two-way street. That was something I was missing. I was too self-reliant, maybe.

When I needed a boost I always looked to my father, not my friends, and I could see that I was missing a huge chance with my friends.

When the girls showed up, we got down to business. Ann knew what was going on already, and was clearly pleased that Mike and Anton had settled their part. Paulina didn't know much, really, just that Anton had a falling out with Mike, but not why.

We all talked until we felt we knew what there was to be known, then I laid out my idea for discussion. It wasn't a bad idea, but it needed to be filled out, and that wasn't happening. I finally said, "We need somebody who can think outside the box."

There were some vacant stares at first, then Annie and Anton said, "Clay!"

That didn't work for me, but Mike and Paulina agreed that of all the people they knew, Clay was the best and most different thinker. Paulina called from her cell phone, and Clay was on his way.

When he got there, Clay heard the whole story about Dwayne, about his bogus tapes, his design's on Mike, and my basic idea.

He thought I was on target, but knowing that we wanted to avoid trouble, he came up with some really funny ideas.

I liked that. My father always said that any problem that could be handled with humor was destined to be over in a hurry, and Clay's ideas had the rest of us in stitches.

The first thing was for Mike to call Dwayne, and we wanted to record their conversation. Nobody had the equipment for that, then Paulina thought of using an answering machine. The one in her room could do it, she'd accidentally recorded calls before, so we took off for her house.

It took us awhile to get up to Paulina's room. There were a lot of people in the house, and we had to be polite and chat with all of them, but we finally made it there. Mike called Dwayne after looking in the directions for the answering machine to make sure Paulina had it set right for recording. It also worked like a speaker phone, so we could all listen in.


"Mike? I thought you might be calling." Dwayne's voice was quiet... eerie.

"Why'd you do that to Tony? He was my best friend, you got him all upset."

"You know what I want, Mike. I told you what'd happen."

Mike got angry, "I know you said that. You never gave me a timetable for anything!"

Dwayne said, sarcastically, "Well, sorrrrreee. You never asked."

"You know I don't want to do this, don't you?"

"Yeah. So?"

"If I tell, you're in deep shit."

Dwayne sighed, "No, Mike. If you tell, you're in deep shit. I have all the proof I'll ever need."

"I'm not eighteen, Dwayne. It's all illegal, you know."

"Who's going to know? I'm not telling anyone. Bruce won't say anything, and I'm positive that you won't go flapping your lips about it."

Mike paused for a long time, winking at the rest of us. He finally said, "You got me, Dwayne. I'll do what you want, but you gotta promise some things."

"What things?" Same eerie, disconnected voice.

"I'm bringing somebody with me."


Mike was heavy on the sarcasm, "Don't freak out! If you say it's fun with three, it'll be a real party with four!"

Dwayne gulped audibly, "Anybody I know?"

"Probably. I don't know who you know."

There was a long pause, "Why?"

Mike had practiced his lines with us, and he had them down. "Listen, Dwayne. I don't want to be doing this to start with. You're making me, and I'd just be happier if my boyfriend was with me. My mom has to drive us anyhow, so we can say it's his cousin's or somethin'. The other thing is, I don't know all of what you want, and I don't want to get murdered or anythin'. Two of us there, plus my mom knowing where we are, will make me feel better."

There was another long pause from Dwayne's end. "Your friend knows ?"

Mike grinned, and said into the phone, "He knows, just not who it's with. He's a lot kinkier than me. You'n Bruce'll love him!"

We heard, "Really?"

Mike said, kind of deadpan, "Yeah, really." Mike had looked pretty happy, then he got all serious. "This is my first time, Dwayne. You'll be careful, right?"

"I will."

"You'll use a rubber?"

"I'm not crazy. I'll use a rubber. Mike?"


"You're okay with this?"

I watched Mike struggle to answer, "No, Dwayne. It's what you want, so it's what you get. That's what counts in your world, right?"

Dwayne got cocky. "Stop it, Mike. You know you want it as much as I do."

Mike was cool, "No I don't, Dwayne. I'll do it this once, but I get the tapes after."

"No way!"

Mike smiled at the rest of us, "Way, Dwayne. This is a one time thing!"

Dwayne paused and said, "Okay, under one condition ..."

Mike broke in, "No conditions, Dwayne. We do this once, that's it!

There was another long pause, then Dwayne said, "Okay. One time, then you get the tapes. Who's your friend?"

Mike smirked, "I ain't sayin'. You'll be happy. I can't do it tomorrow, is Wednesday okay?"

Dwayne paused again, "Wednesday's cool. You need a ride?"

Mike was adamant, perfect. "I told you my mom's bringing me. She'll pick us up, too."

Dwayne grumbled, "Oh, yeah."

Mike was classic, "Listen, Dwayne, if you don't wanna go through with this, it's fine with me."

Dwayne stammered, "No. No! It's fine. You have something to write with? I'll give you the address."

Mike wrote down the Arlington address, then added, "Bring the tapes with you Dwayne. Nothing's happening 'til I hear 'em, then they stay where I can see 'em."

"You can have them. I won't need them a second time. You'll be back."

Mike's face reddened with anger, and Annie mimicked choking someone. Mike controlled it, saying, "Whatever you say. Don't count on it. I gotta go, Dwayne."

Dwayne asked, "Okay. Anything else?"

Mike thought for a second and asked, "Who was gonna be next?"

"Huh? Oh, that. I thought that Annie's parents might like to hear about the little threesomes you have with Annie and Clay."

I had to physically restrain Clay, while Paulina jumped in front of Annie. Mike hung up quickly because of the sudden sounds. I think Clay and Annie were both intent on reaching into the phone and pulling Dwayne right through the wire, clear over from Arlington.

I put up my hands and called, "Settle down, guys!" Everyone looked at me. "I mean it! That's the crap Mike's been getting from Dwayne, now we heard it first hand." I looked at Paulina, "Make sure you save that tape."

She went to the machine and started playing it back, then fast-forwarded to make sure the whole conversation was there. She popped the little cartridge out of the machine and dropped it into a drawer.

People were calming down, so I said to Mike, "You were perfect, man," as we high-fived. "I'm starving, though. I'd better get home."

Paulina smiled and said, "Our larder is full. Has anyone eaten tonight?"

Only Clay and Tony indicated that they had, so we trooped down to the kitchen and Paulina set about making burgers on their indoor grill. The rest of us sat and refined our little plan. It was right that we'd asked Clay to come. He was just tossing out ideas, but a lot of them were adding dimension and weight to what we already had in mind, and our general feeling that we could win this one took over.

Paulina's brother, Jose, smelled the food cooking and walked into the kitchen. "Put me on a cheeseburger," he said, then turned to leave.

Paulina rejoined with "You won't fit," just as he left the room.

He was back in a split second, wearing an embarrassed grin. "Okay, smart-ass. Will you please cook me a cheeseburger?" He put this fake pleading look on his face, "Please, Sis? I haven't eaten since... dinner!"

Paulina tossed another burger on the grill, laughing at Jose. She pinched his cheek, "I'll cook it, now get lost little boy."

Jose blushed, "Little boy?" He backed up to his sister and had her by a good inch in height. He turned around, "Who's little now?"

Paulina said, "I know you're tall, you're still a little boy. Now, scram!"

Jose said, "Oh yeah?" and reached for his zipper, then ran out laughing when Paulina came after him with her spatula.

It was just the diversion we needed. We had a plan, one we thought would work. There was no point in worrying it to death. We laughed at their antics, then, while we waited for the food, we all got assignments.

We talked about other things while we downed the delicious burgers, salad, chips and sodas that Paulina provided.

I was impressed by the warmth and closeness this little circle of friends shared, and felt right at home within it... like I was included. I'd known most of them all my life, Paulina since she'd come to town. She was oddly the one I knew best. I'd been in serious heat since the first time I laid eyes on her.

I wasn't alone in that respect. Every boy within hollering distance had paid attention when Paulina and Maria came to town. They were different than the local girls then, and they'd rubbed off a lot since. Paulina was brash and smart... street smart as well as book smart. So much different than the sweet southern girls that had populated our world before. She had her own version of sweetness once you got to know her, though, and it was way more real than the syrup we were used to.

Paulina and Maria really cared about things and people. When something wasn't right, it didn't stay that way long if they knew about it, and there wasn't a lot that escaped them. They were impossible to dislike, yet they commanded a lot of respect. They listened well, and responded thoughtfully to what you said, before making you realize that your point of view had been slanted all along.

Yes, I loved Paulina, and I envied Anton to no end. It wasn't something that gave me bad thoughts about either one of them, and I didn't dwell on it. When they'd first started seeing each other, I thought she pitied him, but that wasn't the case. We'd talked, and I knew that she saw Anton as somebody very special, and that she really and truly cared for him. I couldn't begrudge Anton that. Paulina had been walking on air since she met him, and if he could give her that, I sure wasn't going to try to intrude.

I was mesmerized, though. I had friends, lots of them. Nothing like this crew, though. Aaron and Donny were my best friends, but our connection was a lot more tenuous than what I was seeing in Paulina's kitchen. I liked my friends, I really did, but it was different somehow, less important. We were friends because we had fun together, not much more than that. We rarely discussed anything heavier than ball game scores or what to do on weekends.

This group was deeper, more into each other. They teased Clay pretty relentlessly, but he seemed to enjoy it. When they needed someone who thought out of the mainstream, it was Clay they called on, and he had come through in spades. Now they were down on him about his ardent enthusiasm for Rome, and he didn't flinch. He was going, they weren't, and he thought he had the upper hand.

It was funny to watch for awhile, but it got to be time to go home. Clay drove Mike and Annie. Paulina and Anton gave me a ride.

I sat in the back, but they kept up a conversation all the way to my house. Spending time with them made me feel really good about myself for once. I wasn't leader of the pack this time, more like joiner of the pack, and it wasn't my own pack. I liked it. I liked it a lot.

When I walked in, my parents were there watching television, and my youngest sister was with them. My father said, "You're late, James. You should have called."

I sighed and smiled, "I know, Daddy. I was trying to help a friend in trouble."

He looked worried, as did my mother. Dad asked, "Who's got trouble? Anything I can help with?"

That was so typical of my father. He was cross with me for being late, but his first thought was to try and help. I declined this time, saying, "No... I think we have it figured out."

He smiled in surprise, then said, "Good. Then, get your young ass to bed!"

That was an approval of the highest order in my mind, so I did exactly what he said.

* * * * * * * *

I saw Mike at school on Tuesday, and he still seemed edgy, though not nearly as much as the previous day. We knew what was coming, at least our view of what was coming, and it seemed a little scary even to me. We had convinced ourselves that it would work, but time alone with our thoughts had given us all reservations. We passed notes in shared classes, whispered things in the halls and at lunch, but our path was set, and we had chosen it.

We were committed, but our confidence had turned to something like wishful thinking; hope at best. None of us really knew Dwayne, and for sure none of us knew his friend, Bruce. It was coming though, the next night.

After school, Clay, Annie and Paulina headed to the city on a shopping trip. Mike and I tested words, tried out different possibilities, with Anton as our foil..

It was funny enough, at least we kept laughing, wondering what Dwayne and Bruce would think of the same words. Surprisingly, Anton set the tone when he said "Oh, dear," to something I said. That set us all off laughing for a long time. It was funny by itself, the thought of a guy saying, "Oh, dear."

We tried to insert it into our vision of the next night, and nearly laughed ourselves foolish. It was kind of what we expected from Dwayne and Bruce, at least what we hoped for.

When Paulina and Clay got back later that night, we were gathered on Paulina's back porch, waiting and dreading, at least Mike and I were. We went over the details again, how to look... what to say, and how to say it. We went through the purchases Paulina had made, wondering about some, laughing at others. Mike and I were both embarrassed just seeing the clothes they had chosen for us, and I wished I could have turned into wallpaper when I had to try them on.

Thankfully, Clay and Anton had gone into the basement to make some other preparations, so only Annie and Paulina saw us in the clothes at first. They fawned all over us, saying how 'fetching' our outfits were. I was laughing at Mike's embarrassment as much as he was at mine. Mike was wearing a pair of tight, hip-hugger, bell-bottomed, girl's jeans that Paulina said were intended to accentuate one's ass. For a shirt, he had what appeared to be a silk, sleeveless t-shirt that ended above his navel. For consensus sake, I agreed with Paulina and Annie that Mike's ass looked good indeed. Oddly, the way girl's jeans are constructed, all snug in front, it left no doubt for anyone who chose to look that Mike was not a girl... not at all.

I got girl's pants, too. Mine were pale green spandex things that ended about six inches below the knee, and I had a slightly darker green tank top shirt with the number 'sixty-nine' on it. The skimpy and flimsy bikini briefs I had on underneath did absolutely nothing to hide the fact that I also belonged to the male variety of the species.

If we were embarrassed just wearing that stuff, then you can imagine our mortification when the girls had us sit so they could apply makeup ! God, I came out on the easy end of that one. Paulina said there was nothing that would enhance my eyes, so she dabbed a little pink lip gloss on my mouth and declared me to be perfect.

Poor Mike. While he glared his intent to murder Annie at the earliest opportunity, she applied eyeliner, darkened and lengthened his lashes, painted his eyebrows, and enhanced his mouth with a darker pink lip gloss than mine. He growled, "This stuff better come off."

Annie said merrily, "Of course it comes off! All traces should be gone within a week." She handed him a mirror with a handle, "Well... what do you think?"

Mike studied his reflection, cautiously at first, then a little smile appeared. He looked up at Annie's expectant face and asked, "You think this looks good?"

Annie smiled and nodded, then Paulina said, "You're beautiful, Mike. Dwayne's going to have a major coronary when he sees you."

Mike glanced at Paulina, then back at Annie. "You really like it?"

Annie nodded again, seeming hopeful.

Mike said, "I get it now." He looked at me, "I wondered what she saw in me, now I know it's 'cause I look like a girl! She's a freakin' lesbian, James!" He had been getting up when he started talking. He waited for Annie's reaction, then ran for his life, laughing and dodging to put things between them.

Annie was laughing, "Lesbian? Oh, you're going to get it, Mister!" She chased a while longer, then stopped and said, "Don't take that literally! You are not going to get it... not ever!"

They were on either side of a round table, Annie ready to pounce and Mike prepared to run away again, when Mike's face broke out into a wide smile. "I got a better idea, let's dress you up like a boy! Let's see how that works!"

Annie shrieked something about Mike's lack of sanity, then fled as he came after her. She flew past me with a look of mock horror on her face, Mike in hot pursuit, and it was Annie's turn to dart behind tables, then go the other way when Mike made a move.

It was really funny to watch, and when Mike finally nabbed her they were both out of breath.

He led Annie back to where Paulina and I were sitting, and asked, "Okay, how do we do this? Stuff a potato in her pants?"

Paulina giggled, then laughed outright, "Just remember that it goes in the front!"

It took us a second to consider what the alternative would look like, then we had a good larugh at the image. Paulina ran inside and came out with two big potatoes. She handed one to Annie, saying sweetly, "Give it a try, girl," then she shoved the other one into the back of Mike's ass-enhancing jeans, causing him to yelp and jump.

It was so funny. Annie tried the potato in front, then jutted it out like a guy might after gym, while Mike hopped around trying to dislodge what looked just like a giant turd from his unyielding girly jeans. Paulina and I were in hysterics, tears flowing as we gasped for air.

Mike and Annie had given up, and they kissed each other just as Clay and Anton appeared. They noticed nothing at first, then Clay stopped in mid-stride and took a second look at Mike's rear end. His expression was pretty priceless, a combination of surprise, fear and revulsion. He stared for a second, then looked up at the guy who was kissing his sister. He scratched his head, then I think he noticed what Mike was wearing, which added more surprise to his expression. His eyes were as big as Anton's for a moment, while he decided whether he should say something or not. He noticed me and Paulina in our hysterics, then shrugged and walked over to us, looking back guiltily at the pair just once.

Paulina and I could say nothing, and by now Anton had noticed. I don't know if it was laughter, or the sense that other people had shown up, but Mike and Annie broke their kiss and looked innocently at the rest of us, turning as they did so.

Mike seemed to have forgotten his getup, and they started walking toward us. Paulina and I got worse as Clay and Anton got a look at Mike's clothes and makeup. I managed to see their gapes before I went totally blind with tears. I could hear their comments, though, at least partially. I wasn't laughing out loud, but the internal laugh seemed to block out much of what I should have heard.

I still heard Anton gasping, "Mike! You're beautiful!"

When I'd wiped enough tears away to see again, Mike was all embarrassed, trying to back away from Annie so that nobody could see the lump in his pants. That seemed to make the lump in Annie's all the more evident, and she casually reached in and pulled out the potato, but not before Clay and Anton got caught up in the funniness of everything.

Mike gave up, opened his pants and had Annie find the potato. When Annie had extracted it, she suddenly realized where it had spent the last ten minutes, dropped it onto the patio, then kicked it away with an "Ewww!"

Lordy, that action, and the glimpse that we got of Mike's flourescent orange undies, set us all off again, loud enough to draw a visit from Hector and Jose. Hector looked at me, then Mike, then Paulina with a potato in her hand, and muttered, "Jesus, I'm not even asking." He turned and walked back to the house.

Jose looked at me and asked, "What happened to your mouth, James?"

That innocent comment caused Mike to wheeze, and Jose turned around to look at him. His eyes widened, but before he could ask anything, Paulina was there, handing him a potato, "Jose, honey, put this back in the fridge, okay? Don't worry about us, we're just fooling around."

Jose trusted his big sister, that was evident, but he still took looks at me and Mike. As he headed back to the house he muttered, "I always miss out on the fun stuff."

When he was out of earshot, we all laughed again, but it was quieter. Anton still couldn't look at Mike without snickering, but I couldn't help looking. There was a beauty there, not enhanced by the makeup, though that drew your attention to it. The beauty was his openness. There wasn't a cloud between him and anybody. No deceit, no lies, just Mike, and I realized that it had always been just like that.

We were on a track to deceive Dwayne Masterson, but only because of his own deceits, and Mike still didn't want to get him into trouble if he didn't have to. I thought I had some pretty loyal friends, but this was a different level. There was importance in the air, but also hilarity, and I was reveling in it, even in my green tights.

With my own friends, I would have been humiliated. With this gang it didn't matter. The next night might get more humiliating. I might have to do things that I would never have considered, but I was willing, though I was praying loudly that it wouldn't come to that.

Mike had told me he never really had friends until a few months ago, and I knew that was true from my own experience. He'd always been this happy kid with a billion questions, but he never had any real associations. He lived for his bike, his woods, his fishing. Not for other people.

I was learning about Jack through the school paper like everyone else was, and the meaning of that particular friendship was opening my eyes to possibilities that I'd never considered.

I had friends. Really, really good ones, but our lives had always focused on fun... action and events. I'm sure we would have helped each other out in a pinch, and we did sometimes. The sad truth is, we probably as often sent one another home feeling bad because of some misplaced joke or judgment. It had happened to me, and I'm sure I did it to others. We felt friendship, but we were missing the meaning of it all.

When somebody walked away with his head and shoulders sagging, it shouldn't have been funny to the others, rather a signal to run after him and make things right. Ganging up on somebody, even verbally, even about nothing important, was easy, and it seemed to be funny at the time. Your friends would come back, wounded maybe, but back. Then it would be someone else's turn, and the cycle went on.

It wasn't vindictiveness, not intent to do harm, but that's exactly what it did, and I'd felt it many times.

Now I was with new friends, wearing lipstick, intent on doing a different kind of thing. It was evil, maybe, but a different kind of evil. Evil deeds, mostly from Clay's evil imagination, but deeds intended to result in some ultimate good. I smiled to myself, trying to resolve everything in my own mind.

Mike, in his own way, was trying to rescue Dwayne from himself. To me, Dwayne was the evil one, trying to take advantage of Mike, make him do something he didn't want to do. In Mike's mind, Dwayne was a talented kid with a twist. It was that twist that we were going after, and if the hilarity of the evening prevailed the next night, it would be a done deal.

I guess we each had our own thoughts about our chances, but the consensus was that our plan was solid.

* * * * * * * *

"Ready?" I asked.

Mike groaned, "No, not really."

"We can call it off... do it a different day."

Mike grimaced, "No, I'm ready. You're not scared?"

Cold feet. I had them, too. "No, I'm not scared. You're the star here, not me." If Mike lost confidence, we were dead meat. Fucked.

Tony looked nervously back at us, "Do it, guys. You know what to do, just do it. We'll be here."

Annie nudged Mike, "If it works, it does. If it doesn't, it buys you some time, or at least you'll have proof of what's happening."

Mike smiled shyly at me. "I guess I'm ready then. You hafta know how much this means to me, James. You're a real angel!"

I muttered, "Yeah, or a real idiot."

That got a general snicker, then we were being shoved out of the minivan, looking every bit as pretty as we had the night before, except this wasn't for fun. Clay stepped out with us, handing Mike our gym bag full of 'utensils', and wished us luck.

It wasn't funny anymore, but we were hopeful. We walked up the one flight of stairs to Bruce's apartment, and it seemed to be a thousand steps long, but we were soon looking at the door, wishing that it was the wrong one.

We looked at each other, and Mike mouthed the words, "You're beautiful," before he knocked.

Dwayne opened the door in about two seconds, smiling at Mike, then seeing me and saying, "James Green! Interesting. Um, come on in."

Dwayne backed into the room, his eyes on our crotches, but never losing the leering smile that he had started with.

"My, my!" He looked at Mike's face, seeing Annie's makeup job. He gasped, "Oh, my! Oh! Am I seeing the real Michael Waters for the first time?"

There was a man in the room, Bruce of course, who was pushing himself up out of an armchair. He asked, "Dwayne?"

Dwayne turned around and smiled, "Bruce, this," he put his hand on Mike's shoulder, "is Mike... the guy I was telling you about." He pointed to me, "This is James Green, not who I expected."

Bruce stood, and he looked like an okay guy. His eyes were on our crotches at first, too, but he soon lifted them to our made up faces, and he smiled. He looked at Dwayne and said softly, "Wow, a dream come true, huh kid?" then back at us. "Don't be so shy, come on in. Dwayne, get Mike and James something to drink, something to snack on."

He looked back at Mike and me, "Sit, guys." He came closer, then asked, "Um, how old are you?"

I said, "Fifteen... both of us."

Bruce's face lost color, and he called, "Dwayne?" as he headed in the direction Dwayne had gone.

I looked at Mike and whispered, "Maybe you're off the hook here."

Mike's eyes widened. We could hear them talking in the other room, but not what they were saying. After a short time, Dwayne came back alone. He looked nervous, and said, "You guys better go." We stood up, then he followed us outside, asking me to keep going while he talked to Mike for a few minutes. I picked up our bag of tricks, walked to the street and turned, walking right past Paulina's minivan. I stopped when I was out of sight from the apartment building. After a few minutes, Mike caught up with me, and we stood there in the open trying to be inconspicuous, which was pretty impossible. Mike said, "Bruce thought we'd be Dwayne's age. He thinks we wanted to go there."

Paulina was pulling up, and I asked, "What about Dwayne?"

Mike shook his head. "He said he'd think of something."

We were still talking as we climbed into the van, then had to start over because everyone wanted to hear it. Clay pulled Paulina's digital video camera from its disguise, and we knew there'd only be the audio portion on it, but nothing remotely incriminating had been said. I kicked myself for not leaving it with Mike while he talked to Dwayne.

Mike was back in limbo again. Our plan, even some of our thinking, had been shot to hell in only a few moments. We'd been working with the general idea that Bruce was behind Dwayne's scheme, and he was the guy to frighten away. That obviously wasn't the case, because one word from me had given him all the scaring he needed, and he still believed that we'd gone to his place because we wanted to.

It made Dwayne seem all that much more frightening, because he knew he'd face charges if Mike ever said anything. We weren't halfway back to Morton before we all decided the time was now to get an adult involved. The question was who.

Mike still didn't want to ruin Dwayne's life, though the rest of us were ready to. The general feeling was that if Dwayne drowned in a cesspool, it'd be one of his own making.

We tossed about a thousand rapid-fire ideas around, and a few of them had merit. We needed time to think, to make a new plan, something final. We needed a place to do that thinking, and ended up at the house next to Mike's, in the room where he said he came to think, to write his letters to Jack. It was the room in which Jack Murphy had lived out the last four years of his life.

Mike said he didn't mind us being in there, but it was eerie for me, and I could see that the others were uncomfortable at first. It wasn't because there was no furniture, just that it seemed too personal of a space. We sat on the floor, backs against walls. The only appurtenance in the room was a wastebasket, and Mike hastily removed that, as if it embarrassed him.

It occurred to me that Mike and I were still in costume, but nobody paid any attention any more. I didn't want to think about it right then, but hoped I remembered to change before I went home.

When Mike sat down, I think he suddenly realized he wasn't wearing normal pants, and it seemed to pain him.

To my surprise, Anton started things off. "Mike, you should just tell. You heard what Dwayne was gonna try with Annie and Clay. You can't let him get away with that!"

There was general agreement from the rest of us, but Mike said, "He won't. Not as long as he thinks I'll still do what he wants. We still got a few days, we can think of something."

Paulina spoke up, "Why, Mike? Why keep defending Dwayne when youknow what he wants, when you know the end's he'll go to to get what he wants?"

Mike got a little red when everyone agreed with Paulina. "I'm not defending him! Jesus! Do you know what kind of shit he'll be in here? I don't wanna ruin his life like that. I just don't!"

Annie patted his shoulder and looked at the rest of us. "I think I agree with Mike. Dwayne's got a screw loose."

Clay smiled at his sister. "You got that right, but which screw? We can't just give him a screwdriver and tell him to fix it himself."

I chuckled, "No, we can't. We need help, guys. We know it's just Dwayne now. Can't we just pound him or something?"

Clay said, "Then we'd be in trouble."

Mike said, "Okay, let's think here. If we go to the school, Dwayne's dead, same if we go to our folks. If we call the police, then it's trouble for all of us. We need someone who can make Dwayne do the right thing!"

There was a long silence, then Anton suggested, "What about Tim?"

Our ears all pricked up, and Mike asked, "Tim?"

Anton said, "Yeah. He's gay like Dwayne, and he's big, and he's smart. He'd know what to do, don't ya think?"

I wasn't sure who Anton was talking about, but everyone else seemed to agree with him. Paulina said, "You should at least talk to Tim, Mike. At least we might get some guidance... some new ideas."

Mike was thinking. "He's with Dave, though. If Dave finds out he has to report it."

I'd figured out who Tim was. "Talk to them both, Mike, just not what's goin' on. Let Dave know he can't get involved. If they don't agree, then they don't, but at least they don't know anything."

Annie said, "That might work." She looked at Mike, "What do you think?"

Mike looked around, then started to stand, saying, "I'll do it now. When he was on his feet, he said, "I hope they're decent."

We all chuckled, then Annie asked, "You're going like that?"

Mike looked at what he was wearing and blushed, then smiled weakly, "They're gay and they're old. They probably seen worse."

We all laughed as he left, happy that the potato was gone from the seat of his pants.

We waited nervously for about twenty minutes. Annie used that time to explain that the piles of paper we were looking at were all letters that Mike had written to Jack after he died. She'd never been in that room before, but Mike had told her what he did. The fact that Mike had done that, tried to keep his connection with Jack alive like that, was the most profoundly sad thing I'd ever heard in my life. I got tears in my eyes that I tried to hide at first, then they just fell. I couldn't help it, and I couldn't stop.

Oh, God! To feel that strongly, to love that much, then just lose it in a wicked snap! I was filled with sorrow for Mike, but I felt a rage building in me at the same time. Rage that Dwayne would use Mike's openness against him like he was doing.

I don't know whose story was in all of Mike's letters, but he was counting on Dwayne to finish Jack's story, and that was more important to Mike than even giving into Dwayne if it came to that. Dwayne wanted Mike's body for his own purposes, totally missing the being that inhabited that body. It was enough to make me sick, and it was doing a pretty good job.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and wiped my eyes enough to see a blurry looking Anton with his hand on me. "Come on, James. It'll be okay."

I blinked back my tears, realizing these people had no history with Mike either, but they had more than I did, and their confidence levels were way beyond what mine was. Mike was stronger than any of us, in his own way. He knew what Dwayne wanted from him, but he also knew what he wanted from Dwayne. Dwayne had deceit on his side, Mike had determination.

Dwayne didn't know how lucky he was. I think that if it had been just the rest of us, Dwayne would already be in jail. He'd be saying "Oh, dear," for the rest of his life.

Anton lifted his hand when he saw that I'd stopped crying, but I quickly grabbed it and pulled it back on my shoulder, putting mine on top to keep it there. I felt fragile, and little Anton Wolfe's touch was bringing me back. I'd always disliked being touched like that, always preferred to be the toucher if it would help to make a point. Anton wasn't trying to make a point, just letting me know he was there, and I was glad that he was. For once I felt the power of that little touch for myself.

It was a difficult thought, but it made me smile. Mike and Anton... two complete loners. Anton totally aloof and Mike totally friendly, but just as distant in his own way. Damn! Two oddments. Alone, they were just that. Together, though, they were becoming the center of Morton, at least for the kids our age.

Anton had started to talk, and talk he could. He had a heavy hills accent, but after awhile you understood him, and he could be really funny and charming. Mike had never really ever shut up, but now he was answering as many questions as he was asking. Anton's artwork had mesmerized the whole town once it became a known commodity. I was in a couple of the drawings I'd seen, as was my older sister. We weren't the subject of the pictures, just there in them. We were just as well drawn, though. You could see the buttons on my shirt, my eyelashes. Anton left nothing out, all the time us being unaware of his presence.

I liked that talented hand on my shoulder. I cherished it.

My thoughts were interrupted by the slam of a door and footsteps coming down the hallway. In a moment, Mike walked in, followed by Tim. Tim's eyes went from person to person, then focused on a pair of green spandex pants with brown calves sticking out where the pants ended.

He smiled and stretched out his hand, "James, right?" He snickered, "We've never really met."

The room started to tremble, the whole house really, with his` laugh.


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