Jack in the Box

Chapter 41

Tim Atkins - Arlington Road Neighbor : October, 2000

Dave and I were sitting quietly. I was reading a new National Geographic while Dave corrected papers. This was typical of school nights. We weren't expecting company, so we were both surprised to hear a knock at the door.

I got up to answer it, and was quite properly shocked when I saw Mike Waters standing there, looking every bit like a pretty girl with short hair. I think I gasped rather than smiled. His face held a completely earnest expression, so I shelved my questions, gulped, and asked him in.

"Hi, Mike. Come on in. Ah…what brings you here?"

He had makeup on, and his clothes were odd, to say the least. His look was serious, though. "I got a problem. I was hopin' you could help me with it."

"Sure. Dave's in the other room, come on."

He followed me in, and Dave looked up, doing a double take, then a triple one. The look on his face said, 'What the fuck?' but he smiled, "Hi, Mike. New look?"

Mike looked down at his clothes, and I swear even his hair blushed. "Um," he grinned sheepishly, "ah...Halloween's right around the corner?"

Dave's eyes were wide, but he kept his mouth shut. Mike asked, "Um, Dave...if you hear about somethin' going on with a student you hafta report it, right?"

Dave's expression immediately turned serious. "I have to report abuse and harassment, not personal problems. What's wrong, Mike?"

Mike stammered, "There's somethin' goin' on, but I don't want anybody to get in trouble. Can I...um...can I borrow Tim for awhile?" He looked at me hopefully, "I mean, if you don't mind?"

Dave asked, "Mike, is it serious? Is anyone in any danger?"

Mike grimaced, "Not yet. I just...I can't say anything."

Dave looked at Mike for a moment, then at me. "Your call, Tim." He looked at Mike and smiled, "Mike, if it gets worse, let me in on it. For now, I think I know where you're coming from." He asked me, "That is, if you want to get involved, Tim?"

I looked at Mike, still stifling a laugh, "Jack's room?"

Mike smiled shyly and nodded. I said to Dave, "I'll be back."

Dave said, "Wait a sec. Where'd you get those pants, Mike? Are they back in style now? That's what I wore when I was a kid!"

Mike blushed again. "You did? Um, Annie got 'em for me." He looked at Dave more closely, "You wore girl's pants?"

I think Dave was trying to be polite while holding back his laughter, and I could see he was on the verge of failing. He said, "I always liked hip huggers like that."

Mike's ear, probably both of them, but at least the one I could see, suddenly looked like a strawberry. He looked at me innocently and asked, "Can we go, so Dave can laugh?"

I tapped Mike's shoulder, "Sure, let's go. Let him get it out of his system."

Mike giggled, "I can explain," as we headed out of the room and outdoors.

I put my hand on his shoulder as we walked to the old house, thinking about how much Mike had come to mean to me and Dave. He reminded both of us of ourselves around that age, and that was no mean feat. Mike had my shyness and Dave's intensity all wrapped up in one package. Mike was a loveable kid, innocent and violated at the same time. His loss of Jack was unfathomable to either of us, would have killed us, but Mike was forging ahead the best he could.

We both liked his style. Mike was hard to understand in some ways, but when you sat back and thought about him, he was just a kid trying to fit in. He was hard to deal with sometimes, a real delight other times. His moroseness had largely evaporated since his visit north, so I was very curious about his current problem.

I didn't want him to have a problem, but if he did I'd help if I could. Having Mike, with all his ups and downs, living right next door had reminded Dave and me of our own youth, maybe too much sometimes. Mike was really a sweetheart of a kid, but his mood swings were pretty exaggerated. When he was in happy mode, which was usually, he could charm the stars out of the sky. He was an excellent conversationalist and extremely inquisitive, just a real decent kid.

When he was down, though, he was much different. If I was still his age, I would have called him fucked in the head. He got ideas sometimes that didn't equate to his own reality. I'm nobody to talk. At Mike's age, I was a mess. Shy, hopelessly in love with Dave, who didn't have a clue, because I couldn't find it in myself to give him one.

Mike was much more outgoing than I was at his age, and he was making progress, though he still had an occasional setback. We were going to talk about a problem and, while he was certainly concerned with it, he wasn't being emotional. I took that as a very good sign. I was dying to ask him about his outfit and the makeup, and sincerely hoped that wasn't his problem, but I figured it could wait. He wasn't exactly in drag, but he wasn't far from it, and curiosity was killing me.

I was very surprised to get to Jack's room and find it filled with kids. So much for it being Mike's private place, but we'd given it to him with zero conditions, and I didn't mind a bit that he had friends over.

I looked around, saying hello to people, then busted a gut when I saw James sitting there in lime green spandex pants, wearing a t-shirt with a big '69' on it, and sporting a fetching shade of pink lipstick. I'd been introduced to him once, but didn't really know the kid. Whatever he and Mike were up to, it was finally too funny not to laugh. Laugh I did, and everyone else laughed with me.

When I finally settled down, I leaned against the wall. I looked at Mike and James again, and said, "I hope your problem's not that you need fashion advice. I never really tried to keep up with the trends, but I think you guys look, um...great! Yeah, great's a good word for it."

Everyone chuckled before their looks became more serious. Mike said, "You met Dwayne Masterson, the guy who's writing the story about Jack."

I said, "Sure, I remember. Dave just brought part two home today. He's doing a really good job, don't you think?"

Mike half smiled, "Yeah, the whole school was laughin' today."

I smiled, "It was pretty funny." I suddenly got nervous. "Did something happen to Dwayne? Is he alright?"

Mike gave me a funny look, "He's not hurt or anything, but he's the problem I was tellin' ya about."

I blinked, wondering what was coming, then sat on the floor when Mike did, joining everyone else there.

Mike started, "Dwayne's weird."

He went on to tell me the whole story, with others joining in when he left something out, or if they had their own point of view. I was distressed hearing it. Dwayne had seemed like a nice kid, and I'd been impressed with his writing skill.

They had all thought that Dwayne's older friend, Bruce, had been behind everything. They had built a pretty funny plan to scare him off, but their ages did that when James told Bruce they were fifteen.

They had me laughing again with their creativity. They thought they'd scare Dwayne off with whips, ropes and dildos, then get to Bruce with the illegality of it all, hopefully when he was all tied up. That was the reason for the getups and makeup, just to set the mood the way they wanted, to try to get into a controlling position.

It was funny, and it might have worked, but Bruce wasn't having any part of sex with kids that much younger than him.

That left Dwayne, and it made him seem more ominous when they learned the older guy wasn't behind things. Bruce apparently wasn't even aware of what had led Mike and James to be in his apartment that night.

Now there was the question of what to do about Dwayne. Mike and Annie were in favor of trying something similar again, but I tended to agree with the others that Dwayne should just be reported.

Mike was pretty convincing, though. "Nothing's really happened yet," he said.

Anton said adamantly, "That's bullshit, Mike! He turned me against the first friend I ever had!"

Clay said, "Yeah, Mike, and how do you know you're the only one he's messing with?"

Mike winced, "I never thought of that." He thought for a moment, "Do you think he has enough words from anybody else to do the same thing? I never saw a long story about anything in that paper before. Dwayne's got like three hours of me on tape."

James added, "Mike's right about that." He smiled at Mike, "If you didn't have a dirty mouth, he wouldn't have anything."

Mike looked down, "I know. My mom's always on me about the swearin'." He looked around, "Dwayne makes you swear, though. He got the dirty words from me by sayin' stuff himself." He looked like something had just occurred to him. "Damn! I didn't say 'fuck' or anythin' when I was talkin' about Jack, only when Dwayne started his crap about sex!"

I asked Anton, "Did it sound real, Anton? Like Mike was really saying that, or was it all stilted?"

Anton turned his big eyes toward me, and I was struck by how different he looked since the first time I'd met him. With some hair on his head and a bit more meat on his bones, he was really a nice looking kid. His big eyes radiated intelligence and an inner calm. "I guess it sounded real. I'm tryin' to remember. I...I guess if I knew it was fake it might'a sounded funny, but it just sounded like Mike sayin' those things." He smiled a bit quizzically, "Yeah, maybe that's why I kept askin' Dwayne. It did sound a little funny, like the tape was skippin' or somethin'."

James said, "I wish I heard it. Maybe I should just ask him tomorrow." He looked around innocently, "Hell, he knows that I know. I can ask to hear the evidence, can't I?"

I know I was smiling outwardly, but I was smiling on the inside, too. The world had changed a lot since I was their age, but these kids were figuring things out on their own, just like used to. I was there to hear and validate, but this was their game. I'd help if they asked me to, otherwise just listen.

It was mostly Michael, pressing his view that they could get to Dwayne in some way other than turning him in. I don't know if he really convinced anyone, but one by one they came around to agreeing with him. They'd have one more go at Dwayne, but if it didn't work out, they were going to report him.

It had been a serious discussion until that point, then the ideas started to pour out, mine included, and the whole thing suddenly seemed funny. There was determination that they could out-Dwayne Dwayne, and they all had ideas about how to do it.

James was thinking, and he asked Mike to try to remember all the names that he had spoken when he was talking to Dwayne. The only person that Mike could think of who wasn't in the room already was Buddy Early. It made a lot of sense to include Buddy in their plans, James thought, because then all of Dwayne's potential targets would already know what he was up to. It would be almost like disarming him.

Buddy was a senior, and also Dwayne's friend. Mike thought that Buddy would hear them out and take their side, and he and Clay decided to approach him the next day.

James gave Mike a curious look and asked, "I can see why this group would get named in your talks with Dwayne, you hang around with them all the time. Why'd my name come up?"

I could tell that it wasn't a good question for Mike. He turned crimson and grimaced for a moment, then turned a guilty face to Annie before muttering, "He...ah...Dwayne, that is...he...um, he asked ..." He suddenly smiled, "Shit. He asked who I thought was the best lookin' boy in school."

James' jaw dropped, as did Annie's. Anton smacked Mike's arm, "What about me! I ain't hot?" He grinned, "Tell that to Paulina!"

Paulina gave Anton a quick hug and said, "You're steaming, baby!"

Clay said, "I'm hurt, Mike. I truly am." He giggled, "I don't even get honorable mention?"

Mike's eyes rolled, then James said, "Oh, man! Here I am thinking we're getting all friendly, and now I'm just a pretty face?" He put a hurt expression on his face. "I'm shattered." He kicked at Mike's foot with his own, "Okay, give it up, boy! Where do I fit on a scale of one to ten, one bein' where your mama has to put a sheet over your head so sleep can sneak up on you? Where am I? Eleven? Twelve?"

They bantered on for awhile, while I thought back to similar nights with Dave and our friends. These kids were all masters at teasing, but it was like ours had always been, loving and gentle. Dave and I hadn't lost it, but I had cherished memories of nights spent around campfires with our friends.

We were all still friends, too. We'd survived our sometimes tormented youth, grown up to be responsible citizens, at least in public. Everyone from those days had moved on, and mostly moved away, but we stayed in touch and got together when we could. One of our older friends at the time had told us that it could be that way; it was like having bits of your life on tap all over the place.

These kids had the same thing, and it really felt good sitting there with them, sharing their human connection for an hour. I wondered if the feeling I had was what Ken and those guys got from adding some stability and meaning to our lives back then. We thought they were letting us run amok, but it was really them steering us toward some good clean fun. They let us drink beer as young kids, but not one of us was more than a social drinker now. Somebody was always there with advice when we needed it, strong hands when we needed help, strong shoulders when we needed one to cry on.

It was my turn.

I interrupted, "Hey guys, it's getting late. We have a lot of ideas, let's turn them into a real plan, then talk again tomorrow, okay?"

Clay picked up some paper and said, "I'll take notes, then I can put them on the computer and we can change things around if we want to."

They were good, and it was refreshing to see that some really evil ideas could still come from the minds of good kids. Clay was writing like crazy, but every once in awhile something so funny would come up that he got tears on the paper.

After another hour, things were slowing down. Mike said, "We should do this tomorrow. I ain't done my homework since last week, and Dwayne ain't worth flunkin' for."

The others agreed, and the meeting broke up.

It was funny. Mike and James headed for the door the way they were. Clay asked dryly, "You guys going home like that? Your folks been taking their heart pills?"

I laughed at Clay's words, then harder when Mike and James stopped dead in their tracks, looked each other up and down, and burst out laughing at themselves. Mike cried out, "Annie?"

She hurried past me, saying, "I'll get the cold cream. Sorry, I forgot." She stopped and grinned at them when she got to where they were standing, "You may be right, Michael. Maybe I do have lesbian tendencies. You two just look so sweet like that!"

Mike whined, "Annie!" in frustration, and she hurried outside.

I walked by, saying, "Good night, guys. If you get anymore ideas, write them down."

Annie was coming back in with a jar and a towel. I heard Mike say, "We will," as I walked out.

When I got back to our place, Dave had gone to bed. I checked, and he was zonked, so I stretched out on top of the covers and turned the television on.

I had just found the local news, when I heard a tapping at the door. I hurried to the kitchen, and a more normal looking Mike was standing there, a contrite expression on his face.

"I'm sorry, Tim. Really, I am. I drug you into my mess and never said thanks. So," he looked into my eyes, "thanks." He smiled, "You must think we're nuts."

I smiled back. "You're not nuts. I think you're pretty creative." I put a hand on his shoulder, "You'll win this, Mike. Dwayne doesn't have a chance."

He looked hopeful, "You don't think so?"

I said, "Not a prayer. He'll cave in, I'm sure of it." I giggled, "You guys are funny. Can you really pull off the acting?"

Mike took a step forward and put his arms around me, his head on my chest. He sighed, "I hope so, Tim." He snickered, pulling me tighter. "I can't wait!"

I held him for a moment, feeling for the first time in my life like I was holding someone who could have been my son. I whispered, "You better go do your homework." Then I pulled back and put my hands on his shoulders so we could look at each other. God, for me it was like looking in a mirror with slow glass or something, a mirror that held the reflection for twenty five years before showing it back to you. I smiled again and said, "Do your thing, I need some rest."

Mike nodded and then really pulled me into a hug. "Thanks, Tim. Thanks for everything!" He was quiet for a moment, squeezing me even harder before he said, "I really like having angels right next door."

I was startled, but Mike broke off and ran out, calling "G'night. Thanks again."

I went back to our room and started undressing, wondering about the angel remark, and wondering about the whole evening. The events had been bizarre at times, but it had been fun. Mike and his friends were really neat kids, trying to work out a problem on their own, and rightfully so. Mike was right about Dwayne. He had some kind of problem, but Mike thought he could stem it without getting Dwayne into big trouble, and it would be serious trouble if they reported it.

* * * * * * * *

Dave woke me up the next morning as soon as he'd finished his shower. Our days led us where they may, but we were true creatures of habit in the morning. Life was easier all around if you stuck to a routine before you were awake enough to entertain some creative thinking.

I made my way into the bathroom while Dave dressed and started breakfast. It was just coming off the burner when I joined him in the kitchen. We had a quick hug and a tooth-pasty kiss, and the only question was whether I wanted orange or grapefruit juice.

Dave put the food on the table, and we sat down to eat. I knew he was curious about the previous evening, so I took a sip of coffee and said, "Don't even ask."

"You won't tell me?"

I smiled and shook my head no.

"Better left unsaid?"

I smiled again, nodding my head.

Dave grinned, "Dammit, Tim! This isn't fair! Okay, twenty questions: One. Does it have anything to do with Mike dressing in drag?"

"Sort of."

"Don't you start with me. Sort-of isn't any kind of answer. Yes is an answer. No is an answer. Herbert Hoover is an answer, but sort-of doesn't cut it. Pay attention here, you might learn something. Tell me now, which is it?"

I grinned, "Herbert Hoover. Um, while I'm learning, was he the President or the vacuum cleaner guy?"

Dave smiled, "Okay, so it's a yes. See how easy this is, Tim?"

"Wait a minute, I didn't say yes. I said Herbert Hoover."

"And you were absolutely right. Okay, two. Does it involve Mike directly, or is it one of his friends?"

"Herbert Hoover."

Dave shook his head. "Good answer, but Venezuela was the one I was looking for. Three: Is anyone in any danger?"

I gave up. "Listen, Dave. It's not a pretty situation, but so far it's just been some lies told and some injured feelings. Mike and his friends are working to straighten it out. If you knew right now, you'd have to get someone into some pretty serious trouble. They'll do that if it comes to it, but for now they're trying to go it alone." Dave's eyes narrowed and I went on. "Let me ask you something. You don't have to report things that might have been problems if they've been solved in the meantime, do you?"

He smiled sadly, "I'm probably supposed to, but I won't go that far. These zero tolerance rules are what go overboard. They don't give teachers any flexibility to affect outcomes, and it's a more frustrating part of the job than disruptive students. I've told you some of the reasons for kids getting suspended, and they get more ridiculous every day." He wiped his lips with his napkin, "When you're getting a kid booted out of school, it should be for something overt, some major infraction, or at least lots repeated minor ones. You shouldn't have to apologize to students and parents for what you're doing, but it happens all the time now. The rules are idiotic, because they don't allow us to take intent into consideration."

I'd heard this before, and I didn't want Dave getting his blood pressure up before he left the house. "Okay, so zero tolerance sucks. I know that, but the question is how much tolerance should you have? One percent? Fifty percent?"

Dave looked at me. "It's not how much tolerance. It's a matter of applying rules intelligently. Punishing a bully is one thing. Giving the same punishment to a kid whose drawing of a spaceship resembles a bullet is something else again." He sighed, "I'm a teacher because I want to be, Tim, and I hope I'm a decent role model for my students. The less I get to exercise my own judgment, the less effective I become. It's getting to the point where they may as well hire talking trees to stand at the front of the class. Then no judgment about things, such as the value of effort, will be required at all." He glanced at the clock, "Shit, I gotta go. Fix me a coffee for the road?"

He guzzled the last of his juice and went to get his things while I filled his travel mug. I met him at the door. By the time he got there, the softness had returned to his eyes, and I knew his day would be fine. We lingered for a good kiss, and he said, "Thanks for not telling me. I don't want to be getting anyone in trouble if I don't have to."

I smiled as he opened the door, and said, "Have a good day. Hurry home, too."

He looked at me with a smile, "What're you doing today?"

"Oh, not much. Mike needs some things, so I'll poke around and try to find them."

Dave grinned, "Drafted? Or did you enlist?"

I didn't answer, just smiled and waved.

I would normally have just washed the dishes and done whatever I'd planned for the day. It was Friday, though. Garbage day. I knew that people would think me crazy, but I got a big trash bag and drove up the road. I stopped at every house that had a blue recycling box out, the ones used for cans. When I had about fifty empty beer cans, I thought again, and drove back. This time I stopped where I saw the red glass recycling boxes. I collected a lot of beer bottles, and several booze bottles.

It was fun just thinking about Dwayne Masterson encountering a side of Morton he had probably never imagined. One that was a little more decadent than what showed on the surface.

I dropped the cans and bottles off and headed to a convenience store for cigarettes. I got two packs each of three different brands, stunned by the price of those things.

By the time noon rolled around I had acquired everything I'd been asked for, and a few that I thought were just nice touches. I was making a sandwich when my cell phone rang. It was Paulina calling on her own, as we'd arranged.

"Hi, Mr. Atkins, this is Paulina."

"Hi yourself. You can call me Tim."

"Thanks. Okay, here goes. Clay talked to Buddy, and he's coming over tonight. I only got to talk to Clay for a second, but he said Buddy got really angry and Clay had to stop him from going after Dwayne. Mike talked to Dwayne, and for now it's set for Saturday morning. I don't believe Mike sometimes. He also set up another story session with Dwayne for after school today. James is going with him."

I chuckled, "Anything to get the story out, huh?"

"Heh, I guess so. How's your end going?"

I said, "I have everything we talked about. I got some candles and a little stereo, too. I didn't know what music to get, so bring some cd's of what you kids listen to, okay?"

"Oooh, good thinking. I have to go if I'm going to eat. What's a good time for tonight?"

I thought for a second. "Do what you have to do, I know you're all behind on homework. It shouldn't take that long tonight, so why don't you come over around eight."

She said brightly, "Eight it is! Thanks, Mr. Atkins."

I said, "You can call me Tim," but she'd hung up.

After I ate, I cleaned up the kitchen, then vacuumed in the living room, made the bed, and tossed clothes in the washer. I didn't really mind doing those things, but they were makingme feel too domesticated.

I walked next door to talk to Joe Waters. He was Mike's dad, and we'd become pretty friendly since I moved here. It started because Joe worked nights and was available to me when most other people were working, and we'd become real friends. Joe was a hard working guy, and you could see where Michael got a lot of his good qualities.

Joe was as honest as the day was long and had a good sense of humor. He was a gentle man, a man who cared about the people and places around him. It's hard to describe someone who has a 'way' about him, but Joe did, and Mike had inherited it. It was kind of a presence, gentle and a little forceful at the same time. However you could describe it, they were the kind of people who you knew were in the room with you, whether they announced it or not.

Joe didn't even have to wear hot pants, which was a kind of vicious thought on my own part. I smiled to myself at it, then noticed the note taped to the door. It said Joe was in my barn, and I knew that meant he wanted some help, so I walked out there.

Joe was restoring the hutch from his dining room. He'd begun at my prodding, and it had become a challenging project for him. The hutch was a nice enough piece, though it had no value as an antique. I told Joe that the best he could hope for was a nicer looking hutch, and he seemed to enjoy the challenge. The hutch was almost ready to be refinished.

"Hi, Joe."

Big smile, "Hey, Tim. I need help here." He pointed to some seams and fancy-work that still had old varnish in them. "What do I use to get in here? I don't want to scrape it off. I'll end up gouging it."

I went to my bench and handed him an old toothbrush. I smiled, "Always save these things, you can give them a second life.

Joe tried it with a little varnish remover and it worked. He grinned back at me, "I should have thought of this myself. I keep a whole jar of old toothbrushes and all I clean with them are tiles.

He worked for a bit, then got up and joined me at my bench. He was wiping his hands on a rag. "Well, I think all the old finish is off. What's next?"

I inspected what he'd done, and it wasn't half bad. I said, "We need to wash it now, get any fingerprints off, then maybe some final sanding."

I opened a can of alcohol and poured some into a coffee can, then dipped a clean rag in it and showed him how to apply it. I pointed out that where bits of lint snagged on the wood were the places that would have to be sanded some more, then handed the cloth to him.

When he started, he said, "Mike said he talked to you last night."

I said, "He did." I doubted that Mike had told his father anything about Dwayne, and I didn't want to lead the conversation in that direction.

Before I had a chance to respond, Joe asked, "How did he seem to you?"

"He seemed okay. Why?"

Joe kept his attention on wiping the cabinet. "No reason, just that he's been different since his trip up north...more mature."

I smiled, because Joe was right. "Well, maybe making the trip on his own like that gave him some confidence. I was seventeen before I ever left the state on my own, and it did change things for me. I guess I didn't know it 'til I did it, but being on your own, relying on yourself for the first time, it's like a milestone."

Joe stopped to look at me. "That's exactly what Lucy thinks. We've been kicking ourselves for never sending him to camp or something like that. Mike just seems so much more...I don't know, social, I guess. I don't think he got ten phone calls in fifteen years, now he's getting fifteen a day. He's gone and made himself popular somehow."

I smiled, "Yes he has, and he has some nice, solid friends. Don't complain. Get him his own phone for Christmas."

Joe snickered and went back to work, "That's what he asked for. He said he can pay the charges if we pay for the installation, but I think a cell phone is a better bet these days." He looked at me, "Did he tell you that he has a job working for the Wolfe boy now?"

I was going to get tripped up if I wasn't careful. Part of the story that I'd heard the night before had Mike saying he thought he'd been fired, so I had to ask from what. I had learned from my old employees that they were sending quite a few orders to Anton, but they were dealing directly with him. Now I knew that he had enough work and that he'd hired some people, Mike included, to help him keep up.

I said, "Yeah, he mentioned that last night. I think it's really great."

Joe grinned, "I do, too. He's earning more than I did until I was thirty!"

"I guess that makes everybody happy then. Ah, I have some things I need to do. Let me show you what to do next."

He stopped. "Okay, boss."

I handed him a package of fine sandpaper, pulled out a sheet and put it on a sanding block. I showed him how to use that on the flat surfaces, and told him to hold off on the fancy work.

I knew he had to stop and get ready for work soon, anyhow, so I went back to our place and tried to read for awhile. I couldn't concentrate, though. I really hated secrets. I understood what Mike was doing, and why, but I didn't like being in the middle. I knew that Dave understood why I wasn't telling him, but I didn't like it just the same. If Dave wasn't teaching at the same school, he'd be the perfect person to help Mike and Dwayne both. Now I'd just cut short on time with Mike's father because I was afraid of saying something that I didn't mean to, and I wished that Mike could at least tell his own father.

I was almost sulking about it all when an idea caught me. Technically, Dave didn't work at the same school. He was employed by Morton Middle School, not Murphy High. He was just teaching in that building because of space problems while the middle school was being renovated.

I got excited just thinking about it. I knew I could be wrong, but at least it made the time until Dave came home a little exciting. I busied myself, and filled my head with anticipation.

When Dave finally got home at four, I practically tackled him. I had him pinned against the wall before he even made a move to loosen his tie or take his jacket off. He was surprised, to say the least, but eager welcomes weren't unknown between us. His expression told me that he thought I was horny, and I was, so I spoke quickly before I lost the thought.

"I might have it figured out, man. Where do you work?"

His look of incredulity would normally have made me laugh, but I asked again, "Spit it out, Dave! Where exactly do you work?"

There had been many times when I could have just eaten that face like a sundae, and this was one of them. He didn't have a clue, and it showed, but he said, "Um, Morton Middle School?"

I grinned with my mouth open. "Right! See, you sounded hesitant, but that's where you work, right? Where you're employed?"

He looked at me like I was nuts. "Tim, calm down!" He grinned, "You had mushrooms for lunch, didn't you?"

I took a breath. "Dave, don't you get it? You work for the middle school. Are you really responsible for what happens with the high school students?"

He focused his look on my eyes while he thought about it, and I could see the smile gradually enter his eyes. "I always thought you were smarter than me. You always disagreed, but this proves I'm right."

I grinned, "That makes you smarter than me, then, doesn't it?"

Dave glowered, "Don't change the subject." He shook his head, "I need to think, but you're probably right." He looked innocently at me, "You know what?"

I giggled, "What?"

He smiled, "I've said it before ..."

"Say it again."

He pulled me to him and kissed me, "I like the way your mind works. I have to think here, but it really bugs you not telling me, doesn't it?"

I said, "Yeah, it bugs me. I had to leave Joe earlier, afraid I'd say something to him." I tried for a stern look, "So think already. Tell me it's okay, and I'll tell you what's going on."

Dave sighed, "Things unsaid...I know just how you feel." He smiled, "Let's go to bed, Timmy. There's nothing like a good romp between the sheets to clear up your thinking."

I grinned, "You're say not thinking clearly?" I kissed him and grabbed his hand, "I like your theory; let's test it."

* * * * * * * *

Dave, thinking clearly, was a force to be reckoned with. Like always, he listened to everything I had to say before jumping in.

To my surprise, he was gentle. "Dwayne's sick, Tim. I'm so glad those kids hung in there." He pushed up onto his elbow, "There's help. The school system has a confidential help line. Dwayne can call there, and there won't be any questions. They'll find him the kind of help he needs." His look darkened, "What he's doing...trying to do...is sexual predation. From what you've said, it sounds like his first try at it; at least I hope it is. I think that what you have planned will keep him away from Mike," he giggled, "probably miles away, but it won't necessarily stop him from trying again."

I asked, "You think?"

Dave said, "I do think so. Dwayne has the technology. He's trying it on the wrong kid right now, but if he's determined and gets the chance, he'll find somebody weaker, somebody who'll cave."

Dave stopped, and seemed to be collecting his thoughts, then he went on. "Desire is a powerful thing, Tim. You know that, and I know it. In the right context, it's a good thing, it makes you do what you have to, to get the things you want and need."

I said, "Dwayne's twisting it. Do you really think he'll try it again?"

Dave nodded. "It's the idea that has to change now. He'll think that he got close with Mike, maybe he just needs to refine his technique before trying again." Dave's voice softened, and he looked into my eyes, "It's the idea that Dwayne has to get rid of, that pushing somebody into sex, because he has some kind of control, is okay because it's what he wants." Dave shook his head, "It's common rape, Timmy, just as forceful as if Dwayne was using a gun or a knife to make it happen."

I was surprised a bit by Dave's intensity. "You mean ..."

Dave nodded, "I mean that Dwayne needs to be more than thwarted off by Mike, he needs to be contained 'til he can control his desires." Dave's look was sad, "Right now, I'd say he's a dangerous person."

I mumbled, "Wow."

Dave grimaced, "Wow is right. Don't worry; Dwayne isn't the first person who's had a twisted thought." He smiled, "You guys go ahead with your part of the plan, then you and I'll handle Dwayne." He bopped my shoulder, "Sound good?"

I sighed, "I suppose. How exactly are we going to handle him?"

Dave kissed me, then snuggled up, whispering, "Trust me."

I thought for a second, then said, "You have no idea, do you?"

He gave me a benign smile, "Not yet. You?"

* * * * * * * *

Saturday dawned all gray, cold and gloomy, but it wasn't raining. The pink flamingoes that Dave had hurriedly placed by the door to the front house were the only things in the whole yard that seemed to have any real color. We'd spent Friday evening making the house look like party central. There were food wrappers, dirty glasses, half-burnt candles, empty cans and bottles, just about everywhere. Dave, remembering what he had learned in college, had even made a nice pyramid of empty beer cans on the coffee table.

The kids had shown up early, and Dave cooked them a big breakfast, leaving the dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink, the messy pans on the stove. The egg shells were mostly in the waste basket, but a few remained on the counter, along with a good dose of toast crumbs. There were ashtrays full of ashes and butts all over the place, and the place reeked of cigarettes. Nobody smoked, so we'd just lit them and let them burn out in the ashtrays.

There were beer cans full of water in the refrigerator, along with a new twelve-pack in case Dwayne wanted a drink.

A pair of boy's pants and a bra were laying close together, next to a pillow on the living room floor. There was a condom wrapper beside the pillow. CD's were stacked haphazardly by the stereo, which was now playing one of them.

We were ready, and Anton was keeping lookout for Dwayne's car, so everyone could take their positions when he showed up. If Dwayne survived this, he had an appointment with Dave that he knew nothing about. The only thing unscheduled was that I had to call Dave over to see Mike and James in their new short-short hot pants. James was again wearing his '69' t-shirt, but Mike was now shirtless, with a target painted by Anton on his chest, his left nipple being the bulls-eyes. He was also wearing a big silver earring of the sort that looked pierced, but wasn't.

Everyone scampered when Anton called out, "He's here!" leaving me in the kitchen and James to welcome Dwayne in.

James waited a full minute when Dwayne knocked, and didn't answer the door for about ten seconds after the second knock. I couldn't see, but I could hear James say, "Oooh, Dwayne! Come on in!"

If Dwayne said anything, I didn't hear it, just the door closing, and James saying, "Mike's in the bathroom getting ready. You want a beer?"

I heard Dwayne, "Hm, looks like somebody had a party."

I chuckled silently when James said, "Are you kidding? The party never ends around here."

That was my cue. I walked into the other room, wiping my hands on a dish towel. I acted surprised to see Dwayne there, then held out my hand to shake. "Hi. Dwayne, right?" He took my hand, looking startled, and I said, "I'm Tim. We met before, if you remember."

He stuttered, "I..I remember."

I said, "So! Today's the big day, huh?"

The look of fear on Dwayne's face told me that we were on the right track. "It is?"

I said, as nonchalantly as I could, "Mike said you were coming over to fuck him, both literally and figuratively."

Dwayne stared at me, open mouthed. I went on, "I hope you understand that he doesn't want to do this. You know, Dwayne, you're taking a big chance. Mike's only fifteen, and if his father ever finds out, he'll nail you to the wall." I smiled and patted his shoulder, "Anyhow, I remember being a teenager. I know what it's like." I gave him the most fatherly smile that I could muster up. "Be careful, and be gentle! Mike's been kind of fragile since Jack died, and this is the last thing he needs happening."

Oh God, I needed to laugh. Dwayne's mouth hadn't closed once, and he couldn't change from a shake of the head to a nod fast enough. I said, "I have things to do," and left them standing there, making sure I made noise closing the door. Then I went around to the screen porch and came right back into the kitchen, where I sat out of sight at the table, sipping my lukewarm coffee.

Anton was up next, and I saw him walk past the kitchen door in just a t-shirt and underpants, and it looked like he was boned up. He said, sounding hesitant, "Dwayne...sorry, let me get my pants and P's bra."

I heard the zipper go up, then Anton's voice again. "I think you're a liar, Dwayne. Mike never said those things about me, did he?"

Dwayne coughed, then said, "You heard the tape, Anton. How could I make that up?"

I decided to just hang by the doorway so I could see. Dwayne's back was to me, anyhow. Anton was staring at his face, then he said, "Yeah, I heard it. I think you did it on a computer or something." He looked Dwayne up and down, "You're a real asshole, you know that? Get somebody else to do your damn pictures."

With that, he headed down the hall, pausing to bang on the bathroom door. " Mike? Dwayne's here, and I need to get in there. Me'n Paulina need a shower."

Anton disappeared into a bedroom, and in a minute Mike came out of the bathroom. He saw Dwayne, and hung his head. "Dwayne..."

James interrupted. "Mike, before I forget, your ma stopped by. She dropped off your dildos, because you forgot them. They're on the kitchen table."

I had to back up and cover my mouth, tears streaming from my eyes. That had been the line we'd been most afraid of cracking up over, blowing the whole thing, but James managed to make it sound like Mike had forgotten his toothbrush. Just another day in Morton.

I heard Mike go on, "Dwayne, I wish you wouldn't make me do this. I know you want it. Did you ever think about me?"

That was Annie and Clay's cue. I went back to where I could see, and they emerged from a bedroom looking like they'd just gotten up. Clay's pants were open, and both he and Annie were all disheveled. James said, "Hey, you couldn't wait for me? I would'a been there in another minute."

Clay yawned, "S'okay, James." He gave Annie a shove, "Give James a turn, he waited all night," and entered the bathroom

Annie saw Dwayne, and marched up to him, fire in her eyes. "Dwayne, why can't you just leave Mike alone? This isn't anything a gentleman would do! You are so..." she shook her head, "crass!"

Mike put his hand gently on Annie's shoulder and glared at Dwayne. "Don't even bother, Annie. If it don't happen today, it'll be another time."

He glared at Dwayne," Did you bring the tapes?"

Dwayne nodded, "There's only one. How many people did you tell, anyhow?"

Annie stepped up and said, "Everybody knows, Dwayne. You can't fuck the most popular boy in a small town like this without word getting around." She glanced at the room, then down the hall. "I'm really surprised that we don't have a larger audience." She sighed, "Well, I suppose when you have a small organ playing in an unknown auditorium, you can't expect too much interest."

I would normally be laughing loudly enough for the folks downtown to hear it, but I managed. The only thought going through my head, and it kept repeating, was, "Academy Award, that's a sure winner!"

There was a knock at the door, just as there should have been. I couldn't see in that direction, but I knew it was Buddy, fumbling with a big old VHS VCR. I'd picked up at a tag sale, thinking that such things might be valuable someday.

Buddy asked, breathlessly, "Am I too late? Man, I overslept big time. Did you fuck Mike yet, Dwayne? Did I miss anything?"

Dwayne started to turn, and I ducked back out of sight. Dwayne's voice was up an octave, "Buddy?"

Buddy sounded exuberant, "You don't think I'd miss this on purpose, do you? No, man," I could hear him patting the camera, "if this comes out good, I'm gonna see if I can sell it! There's big bucks in pornography, you know!"

Annie grabbed Dwayne's ear and tugged him toward the bathroom, saying, "There'll be no porn until this jerk's dick is clean."

Dwayne pulled away, "What?" He now sounded two octaves higher than normal.

Annie crossed her arms and glared at him. "Michael Waters is my boyfriend! If you're going to insist on doing this to him, it's going to be with a penis that's clean to my satisfaction!" She looked down the hall at Mike. "Mike, did you figure out the douche alright?" then back at Dwayne, "I made him clean out, now you're getting cleaned up!" I thought she was going to lose it for a second, but she was using real anger to keep from laughing. She looked Dwayne square in the eye, "This is a small town, Dwayne Masterson, but we're not stupid people." She gave him a shove toward the bathroom door, "Now get in there and get those pants off!"

Just then, Anton and a nearly topless Paulina appeared. Paulina sneered at Dwayne. "I can't believe you're really here, scumbag. Have you ever thought about consent? Mike's a nice, clean cut kid." She had the tag line, "Mike liked you, Dwayne. You may have gotten somewhere if you'd just tried to seduce the poor kid. Now he's just scared, and when you're done he'll be ruined!"

She put a hand to her chin, "You know, Dwayne, well...you probably don't. I have two fathers. That's right, two! How's that work, you're wondering? Well, I'll tell you. They're gay men, Dwayne, just like you could grow up to be, if you ever decide to grow up." Her look became pleading, "There's no shame in being gay, Dwayne. None at all. You're the sum of your parts, and you have to work with the parts you get." Tears formed in her eyes, "I know that it's harder when you're gay, but you're doing nothing to make that better by hiding what you are." She searched his face, "I can see that you don't get it, but if you make Mike go through with this, you're just a rapist."

Dwayne muttered, "I ..."

Paulina said, "Don't say it, Dwayne. Think about it, about what you're doing here. You're a smart boy, Dwayne, but what you're trying to do is so insanely stupid that I could just scratch your eyes out. You had a chance with Mike, a good chance. He likes girls and he likes boys. "He's a real fence sitter in that respect, but he doesn't want to be raped by you. He loved Jack when Jack was alive, that gives you no right to think that he wants to bend over to satisfy your wants."

She gave him one more piteous look, then took Tony's hand. "Come on, Ace. Let's go back to bed. This is pitiful."

They started to walk down the hall, and Paulina turned back to Dwayne. "Come on, big boy. We'll show you what affection and caring can do, no coercion required."

Dwayne's shoulders sagged, and he turned around, seeing me there with his tearful eyes. Buddy said gently, "Welcome to the party, Dwayne. He put a hand on Dwayne's shoulder and held his other one out, palm up. "Give me the tape, Dwayne. We're your friends."

I approached behind a now sobbing Dwayne, and put a hand on each of his shoulders. "Give it up, Dwayne. You are among friends. You should consider where you'd be right now if they didn't care. Jail, maybe; possibly even the loony bin."

Buddy led Dwayne to the sofa and helped him sit down. Dwayne had a look of horror on his face, and tears were pouring from his eyes, but he seemed reasonably calm. One by one, the other kids entered the room, dressed more or less properly, except for Mike and James. They were quiet, then Mike knelt on the floor by Dwayne.

He stared at him for a long moment, then said gently, "I don't hate you, Dwayne, but I'm sure pissed off."

Dwayne turned a morose face to Mike, but didn't say anything.

Mike went on, just as quietly, "Tim's gonna take you now. You listen to what him and Dave have to say, then do what they tell you to do." Mike made a face, "You're not in trouble now, but you should be. Nobody's gonna hear about what happened here, you can count on that." Mike looked at Dwayne's tearful, blank stare, "Do you hear me, Dwayne?"

Dwayne nodded, and started sobbing. Mike went on, almost in a monotone, like if he even emphasized a word it would break the mood. "You're a good writer, Dwayne, real good. You're a nice guy, too. I know that, everyone knows that."

Mike was getting tears in his own eyes, but he continued. "I know what it's like, Dwayne; you know that. Bein' queer makes you different, but you gotta ask yourself, 'different than what?'" Mike shook his head a little, as if to gather his thoughts. "I don't know, I thought about it a lot. I think I'm normal. I'm givin' up on wonderin' what I am, anyhow. It's the kinda person that I am that's important, the kinda person I can be."

Mike got up and maneuvered to the sofa, displacing Buddy beside Dwayne. Paulina set a box of tissues on the coffee table, and Mike dabbed at Dwayne's eyes with one. "Come on, Dwayne, buck up!" He gestured to the other kids there, "Look around, Dwayne. You did a bad thing, but these are your friends!" Mike grinned suddenly, and gave Dwayne a shove that almost tipped him over, crying, "You been hornswoggled, boy! Now, if you don't need my ass for any other purpose, we got birdhouses to make, homework to catch up on, real lives to live!"

Dwayne broke down crying as Mike looked around and asked, "Anybody get the tape?"

Dwayne, even in his state, reached into his pocket and produced it, tossing it halfway across the room. I sat beside him, and let him lean into me, telling the kids, "Nice job." I grinned at Annie, "You'll do well on Broadway!"

She smiled at me and turned a sunbeam toward James. "I can't believe you pulled off the dildo line." She turned her attention to Dwayne, "Whatever did you think when you heard that?"

Dwayne looked like he was going to laugh, but he puked into his hands instead, so I shooed the kids out. Paulina came back with a damp towel for Dwayne to clean up with.

James and Mike fought loudly over the bathroom in the background, while I held onto Dwayne until he settled down. When I felt that he was ready to take the walk out to the barn, I said, "Come on, Dwayne, time to face the music."

Oh God, his face was precious. He looked at me with saucer eyes and asked, "You're going to kill me?"

Lordy, one of these days I'm going to rent a big-ass field in Kansas to laugh this one out in, but I held back again, long enough to say, "No, not today. You know Dave, Mr. Devino, don't you? He teaches eighth grade?"

Dwayne nodded, and I urged him to his feet, saying, "Well, for the foreseeable future, Mr. Devino is going to be your best friend in the whole wide world, Dwayne."


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