Jack in the Box

Chapter 43

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : October, 2000

I woke up to the alarm the next morning, for some reason thinking it was Monday. It wasn't until I sat up and saw my sort-of clean bedroom that I realized there had been no intervening Sunday. I could have gone back to sleep for awhile, but I decided that being up early was a good deal.

Freed from worry, I could get some real work done for Tony, do a better job on some of my schoolwork, and still have time to relax a little with my family. I sensed a good day coming on.

I climbed out of bed and peered out the window, but it was still dark, so I couldn't get a sense of what the weather was like. I pulled on my robe and walked across the hall to use the bathroom and take a shower. I took a hot one and steamed up the mirror, so I opened the window while I shaved, brushed my teeth, and combed my hair.

I heard Tim and Dave coming down the driveway from the barn, Dave complaining about running in the dark, and Tim saying that it would only be three miles.

I stuck my head out the window and scared the daylights out of them when I asked, "You guys gonna be gone long?"

I guess my voice was totally unexpected, because they both jumped about a foot. When Dave figured out where it came from, he was panting, and pointed at me, "Jesus. Don't do that to old men, Mike." Then he laughed, "Whew."

I said, "Sorry, I heard you comin', and Davy said you wanted to talk about Dwayne."

Dave smiled, "Yeah, we need to talk. Give us about an hour. If I'm not dead, we can talk. Are you okay?"

"Just ducky."

Dave laughed, "Okay, go quack for an hour. Right now, Tim wants to kill me with exercise. See you in a little bit."

With that, they trotted off, and I cleaned up. I'd be ready when they got back, and I could get to work extra early, earn some cash.

I wasn't really greedy for money, not by nature anyhow, but I'd seen how fast it could go out, and I needed some more to come in.

Joe Goldman had once upset a whole bunch of guys at a picnic when he said that his philosophy was simple: You needed to earn more than you spend. I thought I should test the simplicity of that. I didn't really need money for anything specific, but now that I'd had some I wanted more. If I earned lots and spent little, then after awhile it wouldn't seem so deflating when I paid for the pizza.

I felt that I should trust Joe on this one. He liked to goof on people, but he often packed some solid advice in his nuttiness. After all, it was Joe who caused me to recognize love in its little forms, to consider mulch as a way to measure it. If any single thing had turned me around from where I was headed, that was it. People simply wouldn't do for you if they didn't love you, or at least love what they were doing as it applied to all people. The idea of collecting love, amassing it, was pretty profound, but that you could increase your own stores by giving it away, giving love back, or to new people...that was the best part.

Trying it...doing it…had really turned me around. I found myself reaching up sometimes, asking, almost begging, for help. At the same time, I was reaching out and around, passing on the love I found, and I was getting on an even keel because of it.

My family, Jeddy, the neighbors, my new friends...they had all kept me from bottoming out and giving up. I had a life after Jack, one that I had never imagined possible. It had Annie in it, Tony and Clay, Davy, Paulina, James, Pat, even Dwayne.

After straightening out my closet and getting dressed, I left a note and went to see Dave and Tim, my angels. They were two men from out of nowhere who just happened to move in next door when I needed them most. Tim gave me Jack's old room, my only refuge at the time, when anyone else on earth who'd just bought a house would have simply changed the locks.

Dave forced me to sit with Tony Wolfe once, when I still hated him as Anton. A fantastic friendship had arisen from the floor of Jack's room that day, and now I considered Tony to be one of the most important people in my life. That wouldn't have happened without Dave, and there would still be a hard place in my heart as far as Tony was concerned. Indeed, there would never have been a Tony. He'd still be Anton Wolfe, the loner who nobody paid any attention to, creating his fantastic artwork solely to make himself feel like part of a world he didn't belong to.

These were heady thoughts for sunup on a Sunday morning, but Dave and Tim had earned them time and time again. They always seemed to be there for me when things were heating up, and they never pressed their views on me, just reinforced my own strengths. They got through to me with stories about their own past, which held some parallels with mine.

Now they were actively involved with Dwayne, although only Dwayne and I knew that Dave had a role. Dave thought that, technically, he was on safe ground, but the fewer people who knew he was involved, the better.

With my Dwayne problem in check, I had a genuinely happy smile on my face when Dave opened the door. He smiled back, letting me in while he said, "Look who's here." He turned his head and yelled, "Timmy. Mike's here, and he's wearing boy's clothes." Turning back to me, he grinned and asked, "Doesn't changing your appearance all the time get stressful?"

I snorted and said, "Not really. Annie kinda likes the other look, so I don't mind."

Dave gave me a look, and I giggled, saying, "I'm kidding."

He led me into the other room, saying, "I'm thankful for that."

Tim was laying on the sofa with most of the paper on his chest, and he was holding up the section he was reading. Buster was stretched out on the floor in front of the couch. He was darn near as long as that sofa, and he looked up at me for a second, then yawned and went back to sleep. I guessed that I didn't worry him anymore. Tim smiled, "Hi, Mike. I take it Davy got hold of you?"

I said, "Yup. Last night."

Dave said, "Sit, Mike. Talk to Tim, and I'll fix some breakfast. Did you eat yet?"

I said, "Nope."

Dave left for the kitchen while Tim sat up, giggling like mad. His face was funny, "Mike, I'm glad you're on our side. Excuse me, heh. Haha. I'm trying not to laugh here, but what you did yesterday was really funny." He looked over at me, giggled some more, then asked, "Did Dwayne manage to find you?"

I smiled, "Yeah, he found me. We talked."

"Go on..."

I got fidgety, "Tim, I know what Dwayne did was wrong..."

Tim said, "Wait a sec. Let's go in the kitchen so Dave can hear." He stood up quickly, and I followed him into the other room.

Dave was standing at the stove, and Tim said, "Listen up, Dave. Dwayne did catch up with Mike yesterday." He looked at me as we sat at the table, "Start again, Mike. Tell us what you talked about; tell us what happened."

I told them everything. Dave served the food and sat down about halfway through it. They were both listening intently, only interrupting when they didn't understand something I said. At some point, I felt tears in my eyes, and noticed that they both had them, too. I didn't hold back a thing. I told them everything, right up through my call with Davy, except for the private parts of that. I knew I could tell Dave and Tim anything, but some things were just for me, not secrets, but private.

When I said, "I guess that's it," there was a silence while we finished eating, which we'd mostly neglected to do. Even cold, Dave's breakfast was delicious, and I joined them with a cup of coffee, which I was learning to like.

Dave was looking at me, with an expression that made me feel a little uncomfortable. He finally smiled, then chuckled. He smiled at Tim and said, "Methinks that young Michael is developing a touch of class."

Tim smiled broadly, "I'll say." He turned a serious look to me, "We all have our flaws, Mike. I'm so glad that you recognize Dwayne's problem as a flaw; that it's not the only thing you see. The boy has a problem, maybe a lot of them; there's no doubt about that. The one that involves you is a bad one for sure, but he recognizes it, and he's willing to face it." He shook his head slowly, the smile reappearing, "You and your friends, though...Dave's right. You're classy people."

Dave looked at me, and his eyes bored into mine. "My reasons were different, Mike, but I was really screwed up at your age. It took an army of people, people just like you and your friends, to make me understand the good things the world had in store for me. Tim gave me the idea to become a teacher, but a lot of other good people helped me get there."

I looked back and forth between them, wondering where this was all leading.

Tim said, "Mike, both Dave and I tried to lone it out at some point in our lives, and it didn't work for either of us." He stared for a second, "You're a lot like we were at your age, and you're figuring it out." He grinned, "You're doing a great job, too. It really pleases us to see it."

Dave said, "People are what matter, Mike. I mean that, too. A kid like Anton would have flown under my own radar at one point, but once I learned about how important other people were to my own life, I would have reached out."

I smiled back and forth between them. "Is this a life lesson?"

Dave's expression changed, and he barked out a laugh. "Oh, God. I'm sorry, Mike." His smile was genuine looking, "I didn't mean to preach. I just wanted you to know how much you remind us both of ourselves." His face crinkled into a smile, "You're bringing back a lot of memories, kid. Good and bad, but over time even the bad is important, 'cause we learned from it."

I smiled, probably sadly, "I hope I don't forget. I, um, I got work to do. Should I be hearin' somethin' about Dwayne?"

Dave and Tim both laughed softly, Tim saying, "Sorry, Mike. Yes, we need to talk about Dwayne." His look steeled up, such as it could, "I think you picked up on Dwayne better than we did at first." He shook his head, "It's a sorry thing, Mike. Dwayne's problem is very real, and I hope you understand that. I'm really glad you talked, and I think the danger's minimal now, but we both think you should still watch out."

I looked at Tim in surprise, and turned when Dave said, "Dwayne's going to spend a little time with me every day, at least during the week. That's just to keep him grounded in reality, and to give him a chance to talk out any foolish impulses he may be feeling. When you're working on the story, I want someone else there with you. If you can't get one of your friends to stay, then I'll do it myself."

Tim asked, "Who's the doctor you're seeing? Is he a psychiatrist or a psychologist?"

I smiled, "I'm not goin' anymore, but it's Dr. Service in Arlington. He's a psychologist. I can get you his number."

Tim said, "I can find that in the phone book. Is he any good?"

"I guess he's good. I used to think it was a waste, but when I look back, he helped me."

Tim smiled, "I think a lot of people helped you, and I'm really pleased to see that you and your friends are willing to help Dwayne. Just be careful, he's not fixed yet." He looked at me hopefully, "Okay?"

I nodded, "I understand."

Dave added, "We'd really like to see Dwayne open up to his father. He mentioned his fears to you?"

I nodded.

"What do you think?"

I said, "I think he should go for it. At least he'll know where he stands with his dad, but he's really afraid."

They both nodded, and Tim said, "That's what we think. He could lose a lot if it doesn't go well but, like you say, at least he'll know. I know his fear. I had it for a long time." He looked almost bashful, "I loved Dave for years before I ever told him that I did, and even when I finally told him, I got no reaction at first."

I laughed when Dave stuck out his tongue. Tim shrugged and went on, "It's fear of rejection, Mike, plain and simple. In my case, it tore at my insides for years, and I think that's what Dwayne's going through." He smiled at me, "You're more honest than most people, with yourself and with others. I know you and Jack paid a price last year, but look where you are now. You're where Dwayne needs to be."

He put his hand on his chin and stared at me for a second, "Sex and sexuality are part of what makes you a person, a facet of who you are. Sexual urges are right up there with hunger and thirst with the way they need to be satisfied. All bundled up, though, they don't tell the world a thing about the person harboring those needs."

His look intensified, "Those needs are universal, Mike, and your sexuality is not hugely different than you liking fish more than meat," he flashed me a wry smile, "or liking both equally. What people should see is how you are, how you behave, your sense of humor...your deeds and accomplishments. One of the sadder facts of life is that too many people are more concerned about what you are than who you are."

I said, "That's kinda what I told Dwayne. I don't know why people care about that stuff, but you're right. You can be a freakin' saint, but mention that you're queer and idiots come out of the woods. I don't know what's with that." I suddenly teared up and sniffed, "Me'n Jack didn't do anything, but look at the shit we took."

Dave put a hand on my shoulder, and I went on. "People are nice enough after they thought about it, but if they thought first Jackie wouldn'ta had to go to his grave knowin' he was hated." I looked at Tim's face, "What's wrong with people?"

Tim's eyes were wet, and he shook his head, saying softly, "I don't know, Mike, I really don't. I think what happened with you and Jack was like a pack mentality, a lot of people didn't understand you, so they automatically decided something was wrong with you." He looked at Dave, then back at me, a little smile on his face. "We've been lucky." He chuckled, "Heh, it took some time to figure ourselves out, but while we were doing that, we found a support team that would give NASA wet dreams." His face crinkled into a real and kindly smile.

Dave said, "You're doing that too, Mike." I looked at him, and he was smiling. "What you did with Dwayne yesterday was really funny, but it did the job. It took real friends to do that, people willing to humiliate themselves on your behalf, even to give you the time to think about it all. You have a circle of goodness around you now, and it'll take all of you to keep it together. Give back, Mike. Never forget to give when it's your turn."

I said, kinda whiny, "I did. I spent a hundred bucks for pizza last night."

Well, that was the wrong thing to say. Dave started giggling, and the room started moving when Tim's laugh came on. I ended up laughing, too, even though I didn't think it was funny. Tim's laugh would carry anyone away with him. If I was a thief or something, I could have just taken his wallet and walked off with it; that's how helpless he was.

When we quieted down, I started to stand, saying, "I gotta get to work." I was still giggling, "Stop down at Anderson's to see what we're doin'."

Dave, who had regained his sanity, stood up to see me out, looking back at Tim and saying, "Best to leave him alone when he's like that," which made both of us snicker again. He put his hand on my shoulder as we walked to the door, and when we got there I wanted more. Dave wouldn't...couldn't hug me.

I didn't live by his rules, so I hugged him, all unsolicited and like that.

Sue me, but I loved the guy, and when I got up close that scent was there again. Oh, Lord, where did it come from? He smelled just like Guy did, or vice versa, and I still couldn't put my finger on it. It was kind of like tobacco, but the unsmoked kind, and maybe mixed with some kind of fruit.

When I left, I realized that my bike was still at Pat's house. It was a gorgeous morning, so I happily walked. The rain the day before had left the air crisp and crystal clear, and the sky was a deep blue with only a puffy white cloud here and there.

I didn't see a soul all the way to Pat's, but I got excited when I got there. Jeddy's car was out, which only happened when he came home from school.

I ran up to the door and knocked, then banged on it, but they must have been at church.

I went to the barn and turned the lights on, and immediately went to work on the piece I'd started the day before. I was well into it an hour later, tying the sections together, when I heard a car pull in. I ran to the door just as the Andersons were getting out of their Suburban. Jed was there, all gussied up in a gray suit, and I smiled when I noticed that he was growing a goatee.

I waved and called, "Hey Jed." as I trotted over there. Jed smiled widely, and held out his arms when I got to him. We fell into a hug that felt just right, then Jed pushed me back and we took good looks at each other

Jed grinned and said, "You look great, Mike. How's the world treatin' ya?"

I grinned right back, so happy to see Jed again. "Life's good. It's great. I didn't know you were comin' home."

He put his arm on my shoulder and steered me toward the house, "I didn't know myself. I should be studying like a maniac, but that's all I do anymore. I got the chance for a ride and decided to take it."

When we got inside, Jed's folks were in the kitchen. Pat had disappeared, probably to change out of his church clothes, and Jed said he was going to do the same thing.

Mr. and Mrs. A. greeted me, and asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink. I took a glass of water, and Pat's mother said, "We owe you a thank you, Michael. Pat told us that it was you who broke through his reluctance to talk about Kevin." I must have been cringing, because she smiled, "I've heard that you don't take to praise, so just know that we're grateful for your efforts." She sighed, and mumbled to herself, "Thank God for the little things."

Mr. Anderson put his hand on her shoulder, nodded a smile at me, then said, "Young Anton has quite a business going for himself, doesn't he?"

Did he? I didn't even know how much business he had. Well, there were a lot of birdhouses to put together, so I said, "I guess so. Did you look at the things we're makin'?"

"Yes, I have, and I think they're really well done. You boys are doing..."

The clatter of hooves on the stairs made Pat's father roll his eyes, and then Pat showed up, dressed down into jeans and a flannel shirt. He slapped my shoulder, "Hi, Mike. Jed's home."

I said, "I noticed. How was your night?"

He hesitated, glancing at his parents, "Um..."

I giggled, "Okay, I get it. You workin' today?"

He cocked his head, and pushed out his lower lip like he was thinking. "Let's see....work? Go for a ride with Jeddy? Hmm," he grinned, "Are you nuts? You work; I'm goin' for a ride."

I started to ask, "Where ya..."

Then Jed appeared and said, "Not 'til after dinner, Pat." He smiled at me, "Come with us, Mike? I've been outta touch with everybody, and I really want to know what's been goin' on."

I asked, "How long before ya go?" I banged my chest, "I'm tryin' to earn a livin' here."

Pat and Jed looked at their parents, and Mrs. A. said, "I should have you fed in about two hours." She pointed toward the door, "That's only if you clear out and let me get started." She looked at her husband, "You, too. Go do the crossword or something."

Jed, Pat and I headed outside while their father hurried into another room. I thought it was funny. My mother absolutely hated to be alone while she was cooking, but Mrs. A. wanted the kitchen to herself.

We went into the barn, me explaining that I wanted to finish the house I was working on, not so much for the money it represented, but because I really wanted to complete at least something that week.

Pat and I showed Jed the houses that Pat had done, the parts we started with, all that stuff. Jed was smiling, so I know he was impressed, and we talked more while I got back to work. Jed had us laughing about college fun, and then worrying when he said how hard the work was. I told him all about my trip up north, which Pat had already heard about.

After awhile, Pat and Jed began talking quietly together while I concentrated on what I was doing. I could half hear them talking, but I was trying to finish. I was totally surprised when Pat moaned, "Oh God, Jeddy. I can't stand it." Then he started sobbing, choking on tears and whatever was in his nose and throat.

I turned around to see Jed grab Pat and pull him in close, the back of Pat's head cradled in his hand. Jed noticed me looking, and turned a helpless expression my way. I didn't know what had set Pat off, at least not specifically. It had to be Kevin, but I had no idea of why all of a sudden.

I could see that it also got to Jed. After all, Kevin was his brother, too. Jed wasn't sobbing audibly like Pat, but tears were pouring from his eyes, and I got tears in my own eyes seeing my friends in such pain. I stood and put my hands on Pat's shoulders while he choked out his grief, and I tried to fathom what had gotten into him.

Then I remembered. I'd had my first big cry about Jack in the middle of an otherwise wonderful day in Connecticut. The simple fact that he wasn't there to share it with me is what set me off, and all the other bad stuff kicked in. The grief...oh God, I understood Kevin's pain, and there wasn't a thing I could do to take it away.

I tried to imply that to Jed with my eyes, and I think he got it. He held Patty close, while I kept a touch on his shoulders to let him know that I was there, too.

I kind of lost it myself, and so did Jed. We ended up in this big squish of a crying hug. Three guys in various stages of approaching manhood, all of us torn apart, then drawn together, by a single, wrenching twist of fate.

Whenever the reality of the crash got in my head, I remembered the total horror of it. It doesn't snow in April, but it did that day. There wasn't any depth to it, but it stuck to everything, and it lost me my Jack, and Pat his Kevin.

I saw Jack dead. I found some strength, somewhere, to pick up Kevin's body and move him so we could get to Pat.

I'd gotten through that, but now I knew the finality of dead, and Pat did, too. It means gone. It means no more. In some ways it's better if you know it's coming, like if somebody's sick and you know they're going to go. Dead is dead, and there ain't no goin' back, but suddenly dead, like Jack and Kevin were, it takes longer to get over that.

I don't know. Sick people you have a chance to let go of, time to know they're going to leave, time to say what you have to. Accident people are just gone. If the last words you had with them were cross ones, you'd have to carry that to your own grave.

Pat wasn't quieting down. I leaned in and hugged him, saying, "It gets better, Patty. It really does."

He sobbed out, "I know." He sobbed again, and lifted his head, "Oh, God. Will it ever get better for me?"

I already had Pat in a hug, and I said into his ear, "Every day, Patty. It gets better every day."

Jed and I held our hugs on Patty until he finally quieted down, then Pat croaked out, "I'm sorry. I..."

Jed let go of Pat and stood up, saying, "Please don't go there, Patty. There's still plenty of sad goin' around." He got tears in his eyes again, "You're not alone Pat, not ever." He pulled Pat up into a hug, "Go ahead and cry whenever it hurts. I sure do."

I touched Pat's shoulder and murmured, "Me, too."

Pat turned around to look at me, pulling off his glasses and wiping his eyes, "You do?"

I nodded sadly, "It hurts, Pat. Sometimes it just comes back and gets you all over again."

Pat stared, his lip quivering, then Jed said, "I got an idea. Let's go fishin', just the three of us."

My eyebrows went up, but Pat seemed interested. He turned back to Jed, "Really? Where at?"

Jed left it up to me, and I suggested, "How 'bout that bend in Little Wheezy that comes right up by the road? We can drive there, and ya always catch somethin."

Jed said, "Perfect. Okay by you, Pat?"

Pat agreed, saying, "I gotta clean up and blow my nose."

Jed led Pat out of the barn, and I went back to the bird house I was working on, wondering if it ever really got better. I felt my thoughts trying to darken, but I had something to concentrate on, and that helped to push those thoughts away.

I glued, and I tied knots, and I was six windows away from finishing when Jed came into the barn and said, "Time to eat."

I jumped, then pleaded, "I'm almost done, Jed." I said, "Eat without me," even though I was pretty hungry.

"Leave it, Mike. You can finish later."

I asked, "Can't you just bring me something? I'm almost done here."

Jed shook his head, "It's Sunday, Mike. We eat together, and Ma made roast beef."

I relented, after Jed promised to let me finish before we went fishing.

I followed him into the house where we washed up, then walked into their dining room, which was pretty elegant compared to ours. We waited behind our chairs until Mrs. A. came in, then Mr. A. said, "Mike, I hope you know that we're pleased by your presence here, and we'd be honored if you'd say the grace for this meal."

I looked at him in horror, but the whole family was smiling at me. Mrs. Anderson held her hand out to me, her other one to Jed, then the little circle was completed when Pat took my other hand and his father's, and Jed reached for his father's hand across the table.

I bowed my head, my brain racing for something to say. I started with the standard grace, "Thank you for all our blessings, for our family and friends, for the food on this table." I could have stopped there, but I went on, "Um, thank you also for making us all different." I reached for the thought, "And thank you for teaching us that different is good, not bad. We're all God's creatures...all Your creatures."

I looked up and around, then remembered, "Amen."

The Andersons all mumbled "Amen," but Mrs. A. kept her grip on my hand. She smiled around the table and said, "That was lovely, Michael, and I'd like to add to it, if you'll permit me."

She looked at me for unnecessary confirmation, then smiled instead of bowing her head. "Michael speaks of variety, and he's right." Her smile brightened, "I believe in you, God, but I think you're a lot younger than you let on. Only a child, only a child with a brand new mind, could have come up with people and bugs in the same thought. With plants and fish and...anteaters." She glanced around the table, then smiled again, sadly this time, "Thank you for the time that you shared Kevin and Jack with us, too. That was a wonderful gift, one that reinforces Michael's thoughts. We are all your creatures...your creations. I, for one, celebrate our differences. You've given us stripes and spots, skin and scales, cuddly and icky, hot and cold."

She stopped for a second and looked around the table again, finding what looked to me like a pretty rapt audience, then she finished, smiling at me, "You take away, but you leave us survivors, people like Michael and Patrick." She beamed at us, "They don't understand yet, but we do. When you choose a young one to be with you, it's because they're special, and you need special people for your angels." She paused for a long time, then said, "Amen."

I looked at her, and she seemed to be trying to believe what she'd just said. She was smiling, but had tears in her eyes, big suckers. She didn't let go of my hand until her husband cleared his throat, as if to say it was time to eat.

She let go my hand and smiled at me as we sat down. "I mean it, Michael. Our differences are important sometimes, as in when they're political. Our variety goes on and on, though, and I want you to know that I think you're a boy of a variety that I'd like to see a lot more of." She reached over and pinched my cheek, "Got me?"

I squeaked at the pinch, then smiled. "Gotcha. Thanks." I looked around, feeling a little embarrassed. Mr. A. had begun carving the roast, and when he saw me looking, he winked at me. Jed and Pat were scooping food onto their plates, so I reached for the mashed potatoes, anticipating the yummy meal that the aromas promised.

We didn't usually grace our food at our house, not unless the minister was over to visit or something, but I kind of liked it. I had no real concept of Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, but the idea of God as a kid with a chemistry set kind of tickled me.

We all had fun with it during the meal, too. "Whoops, zebras." Jed said, "Where'd them stripes come from? That ain't what I had in mind."

Patty laughed merrily, "That's the word of God?"

His father warned, "Patrick." then laughed himself, getting silly. "This is too funny." He smacked Pat's shoulder gently, then he grinned, "That's the word of your brother, Pat. The Lord would never have said ain't."

We all laughed, and he looked at Jed, "I don't know why I'm hearing it from the mouth of a boy with your school bills, either."

Jed blushed, and laughed when he realized he was being teased. He sat up straighter, then said, "I apologize, father. It's just a colloquialism that southern boys learn from their patriarchs. What I meant, of course, was that in the Lord's design, stripes warn't what he had in mind."

Mr. A's face got red, and he managed, "Much better," before starting to snicker. "It's just...does your tuition carry warranty?"

We all enjoyed a nice laugh. I liked being there, and it was more than just my love of roast beef and mashed potatoes. I was developing a sense of humanity, what it all meant, and I was surrounded by it in its best form there in the Anderson's dining room.

It was their home, their food, but I felt totally included, like I belonged there as much as anyone. Each one of them took moments to make sure I was always involved, either with a comment or a touch, a question, maybe just a smile or a raised eyebrow directed at me. It was just like home, just the way we'd been raised to make guests feel at home. I liked being on the receiving end, and I made that known when we finished our ice cream dessert.

I was smiling contentedly as I looked at the Anderson parents in turn. "Thanks for the meal, it was delicious" I put my hands on my belly for emphasis. I knew the words, and I turned a sunbeam to Mrs. A. "I hope that gravy's not a family secret"

Mrs. Anderson smiled, then laughed. "It's no secret. It's Franco American from a can, doctored up with drippings, wine and Gravy Master by my husband," she smiled at him, "who is the king of gravy."

Mr. A. smiled and bowed proudly, while Jed said, "Let's go fishin'."

We stood, and I offered to help with the dishes, but Mrs. Anderson just shoed us out of the room, telling us to catch enough fish for supper.

Pat and Jed got their gear together in less time than it took me to finish the birdhouse, and they waited patiently while I glued on the last window. I checked around to make sure there were no leftover parts, and held it up for Jed and Pat to see.

This one wasn't as elaborate as the one Pat had finished the day before, but it was still an elegant house, and I tried to memorize the color scheme for the day that I had a house of my own. I compared it to the pictures, and it had come out well. The house was a darkish green color, and all the trim was sort of a cream color, like a faded yellow. I thought they looked fantastic together.

Pat and Jed indulged me for a few moments while I checked for any defects in my own work. I was proud of it, feeling like I could accomplish anything at all if I could contribute to a piece of art like that.

I finally pried my eyes away from it, turned to Jed and Pat, and said, "I'm ready. Let's go."

We were suddenly all smiles, eager to get back to the familiar, have a little fun.

We climbed into Jed's car, me in back, and drove to my house for my fishing gear, and I also grabbed the pictures Davy had sent. Then we were off to the turnoff, where the river came close to the road. Our only stop on the way was at Arlie's for worms, which I paid for.

When we got to the river, it didn't take us long to get down to the water. There were a surprising number of people there already, so we stumbled along the uneven bank until we found an unoccupied flat spot that was big enough for the three of us. The ground was sopping wet from the rain, though, and we had to stand while we fished.

The only other person we could see was a guy in waders, fly fishing out in the middle of the stream. We baited up and cast out, then waited for nibbles. Jed nudged me and said, "You've changed, Mike. I like what I'm seeing."

I was a little surprised, and I reached for my zipper, kidding, "Keep it up, big guy. Flattery will get ya everywhere. Wanna see more?"

Jed shoved me gently and laughed. "I'm serious. I left for school all afraid you'd just disappear back into Jack's room, now lookit ya." He turned and smiled at me, "Tell me you ain't happy and I'll smack you upside the head."

I giggled, "I'm happy, I guess." My line had drifted almost back to shore, so I started reeling it in, snagging rocks, but no fish. I cast back out, landing my bait a little closer to the fly fisherman than I intended, but he seemed oblivious. I turned back to Jed, and was just going to say something, when I felt a fish on my line. "Woo." I cried, as I set the hook, then I could see the fish jump, and it was a lively trout. I grinned, all excited, "Did ya see that guy?" The fish jumped again, and I really had to fight to lead it toward me. My adrenaline started pumping, and both Pat and Jed reeled in their own lines to cheer me on.

They both seemed as excited as I was, and they gave me lots of noisy advice. Jed pulled his sneaks and socks off, and rolled up his pant legs when I had the thing close to shore. Then he walked into the river with a net. When the fish jumped again, he called out, "Wow." and looked back at me, "It's a brown." He paid attention as I tugged the fish in, then turned around again, "Don't lose this baby. Holy shit."

It took another ten minutes of maneuvering by Jed and I before he was able to net the fish, then he cried out, "It's a monster, Mike," then he stumbled and sat down in the water. Patty laughed his ass off, but I worried about Jed losing the fish.

Jed managed, though, and when he got back to his feet, laughing and cussing at the same time, the fish was still in the net. The guy who had been out fly fishing was hurrying toward us, such as you can hurry in hip boots, and he reached shore about the same time Jed did.

Jed was soaked and happy, calling, "Wait'll you see, Mike. This must be the biggest brown in the world."

My excitement rose as he got closer, and I could see the fish in the net.. Brown trout, or brookies, weren't usually big. Eight or nine inches was normal, ten inches qualified as a big one. You heard about people who had caught twelve inch fish, and they were either trophies or legends. This guy was well over twelve inches.

Jed finally reached shore, and handed me the net. Pat was right there with the measuring tape, and I dislodged the hook and held up the fish for him to measure. It's not that easy to hold an angry fish flat, and I was having a hard time. Then, the fly fisherman helped, putting hands both under and over the middle of the fish so we could stretch it out for Pat to measure.

Holy shit. It was a quarter inch shy of fifteen inches. Everybody was right there, but I screamed out. "Look at this thing." I don't think I'd been so excited about a fish since the first one I caught by myself. The fish started to flop again, almost getting away from me, and I said, "Get the bucket."

I felt a big hand land on my shoulder, and for the first time got a good look at the fly fisherman. He was a big guy, maybe a little older than my father, but hardly an old man. He had these sad looking brown eyes, which he fixed on me. "Let him go, kid."

I recoiled, "What?" I blurted out "This is the biggest brown I ever caught," though it sounded like one word, the way it came out.

He said quietly, "Let him go." His stare intensified, and I sensed kindness in it. "That's an old fish, boy. I've been watching him rise in about that same spot for a month now." His look became pleading, "Put him back, please."

I protested, "This is the biggest brownie I ever caught. Why would I throw him back?"

The guy's look softened. "Listen, kid. You do what you want." He pointed at the fish, "That fish is a granddaddy. Probably the granddaddy of this whole river."

He looked at me with a little smile, and leaned down to look at the fish again. "I've caught him before," He looked back at me, "I always let him go."

I was astounded. "You caught this fish before?"

He stood back up and said, "Yup. Twice." He looked at me for a second, "I'll tell you what. I have a camera in the car, I'll take a picture of you if you'll let him go." His look turned hopeful, "How's that?"

I looked at Pat and Jed, who just shrugged, then back at the fly fisherman. "I don't care I guess, it's just a fish."

The man smiled, "You're right, it's just a fish," and turned to leave, saying, "Give me five minutes. I'll be back."

We watched him walk away, then filled our bucket from the stream and dropped the fish in it. I looked at my fish, not believing I'd agreed to throw him back in the river, then we all picked up our poles again and went back to fishing.

We weren't having a lot of luck, except we had to yank our lines out near shore to avoid catching sunfish, which are a total waste of bait. We each caught some perch and dropped them into the bucket, but if we didn't get a lot more, we'd end up throwing them back, too. They were too small to bother with less than a whole bunch of them.

It was fun, anyhow. The weather was beautiful; cool, crisp air, and the sun bright enough to keep us warm. We were yakking happily, cussing occasionally, and generally enjoying the activity and the company.

After what had to be an hour, the fly fisherman came back, out of his gear, and very happy to see us still there. He walked up smiling, "I'm really glad you're still here. I thought for sure my camera was in the truck, but it was home in Arlington." He looked in the bucket, then smiled back at us. That is one pretty fish. How do you want to do this?"

I shrugged, "I don't know. How 'bout I hold him, then maybe get one of it by the tape?"

He hesitated, "Um, this is a digital camera. Do any of you have email access?"

I said I did, then started posing. Pictures of me and the fish, just the fish, the fish stretched out on the measuring tape.

Then I released him, watching him flop by shore a few times, and when he got his bearings he swam off.

We all stood there smiling, like we'd done something special. Heck, we'd all tossed fish back, but this was the grand daddy of the whole river. It felt like an honor.

Mr. fly fisherman handed me a card and a pen to write my email on, then another one, a business card, which he said had his on it, in case he forgot or something. I glanced at the logo and tucked the card into my pocket.

We decided to dump the rest of the fish back and call it a day, and we walked back to the parking area with the fly fisherman. He really knew that river, telling us where we could catch what, and chiding the crowd near the parking area for being lazy and bunching up like that. He had a way of talking that I liked, and a gentle sense of humor.

When we got back to the car, he held out his hand to me, "I'm Ned, by the way. Thanks for giving the old guy another chance."

I smiled, and shook his hand. "I'm Mike. It's no problem." I looked at his face and grinned, "I never thought of a fish like a grand pappy. That's neat."

Ned smiled, then Jed and Pat said their names, and we waved as he headed toward his truck.

I think that Jed and Pat were as pleased as I was when we loaded our things into the trunk, then climbed into the car and took off. A few hours of fishing, even with nothing to show for it, was better than most anything, except for a few hours with Annie.

I idly pulled the fly fisherman's card out of my shirt to look at it. It was a busy card, that's for sure. 'Gauthier Construction' showed up big enough, and I'd heard of them. There was a regular phone number, an 800 number, a cell phone number, a fax number, a website address, an e mail address, and a home phone.

I had to search the card for a name, and when I found it, my heart almost stopped. Ned Masterson, Project Manager. Damn. Dwayne's father? My head started spinning as I searched my memory for clues. "Macho man...fisherman, that part fit. I tried to mentally compare the looks, and that was hard. Dwayne was eighteen, and fly fisherman was probably pushing fifty. The eyes, though...yeah, maybe.

I wish I'd read the card when he gave it to me. I could have asked. If it was Dwayne's dad, I don't know, I could have done something gay to see how he'd react. I could have said something.

You'd think that if it was Dwayne's Dad, he would have asked something, like did we happen to know his son. He hadn't, and, when I thought on it, all he had been concerned about was an old fish.

I pulled my wallet out and fumbled for Dwayne's number, to see if it matched the one on the card. No. Damn. The guy may have been an uncle or something, it didn't matter at that point. I had just gotten an idea for a way Dwayne could test the waters with his dad, and I got super excited about it. I yelled, "I gotta get home, Jed."

Jed looked like he was going to make a wisecrack, but I think the urgency in my voice made him change his mind. His eyebrows went up, and he kind of inhaled the word, "Okay," before slamming the trunk. We all got in the car, then we were on our way back to Morton.

When we got to my house, I got my things from the trunk, then thought to ask Jed to go in and visit for awhile. I just had to make a phone call, so there was no sense losing the chance to spend time with Jed. I gave them the pictures to look at. As he and Pat headed into the house, I raced back to the barn, dropping my gear in front of the garage on the way.

I got to the barn and dialed Dwayne's number. It rang once, twice, then a female voice answered. "Hello?"

"Hi, is Dwayne there?"

"I'm not sure; let me look. Dwayne?"

In a moment, Dwayne came on. I said, "It's Mike. Listen, Dwayne, I just got an idea how you can talk to your dad."

Dwayne sounded surprised. "You're trying to help me? Hi, by the way."

I had to snicker at my lack of politeness, "Heh, hi. Sorry, but I'm all excited. I got an idea, if ya wanna hear it."

Dwayne said, quietly, "I'm listening."

"Dwayne, try to get your dad to read the stories about Jack, then mention that it's about gay kids. Maybe you'll get an idea what he'll think."

Silence, then, finally, "You think?" More silence, then, "That's a great idea. I have it right here, and I never thought about something like that."

I said, "Well, think about it. I don't see how ya can get hurt for that. Oh, are you related to Ned Masterson? I met him fishin' today."

Dwayne chuckled, "Yeah, he's my uncle. He's just like my father. Did you like him?"

I chuckled, "He rescued a fish I caught, and he took a picture of it to prove I caught it. Yeah, I liked him."

Dwayne was quiet, then he sounded sad. "It figures you would." I thought he was getting angry, but the next words were okay. "Mike, thanks. I...I...I...well, I was gonna say I don't deserve you." He lowered his voice to a whisper, "You didn't deserve me. That's the real truth."

I said, "Cut it out, Dwayne. Nobody deserves nuthin', not 'less they earned it. I'm just tryin' to show ya a way to maybe break the ice with your dad, give ya a chance to talk to him."

Dwayne sighed, "I know. I'm going to try as soon as we hang up. He's just reading the paper anyhow, so one more story should be okay. Listen, Mike. If I took my time I could come up with better words, but I want you to know how much I appreciate you. All I can do is promise to do whatever it takes to get my head on right. More than anything, I want your respect, and I want to earn it."

"Thanks, Dwayne. Uh, listen, I have company. Good luck, and let me know how you make out."

We said our goodbye's and hung up. I crossed my fingers for Dwayne as I headed toward the house, stopping at the garage to stow my gear inside. I had the happy thought that my life might be a pretty interesting thing to stay involved in.

When I went into the house, I could hear a lively discussion coming from the living room, so I went in there. It turned out to be two discussions. Jed was talking with my parents, and Pat with my two sisters. They all stopped when I walked in, giving me smiles. Dad said, "Hi, Mike. We've been waiting for you." He grinned, "I have some news."

I grinned. It had to be big news if he wasn't watching football with Andy. I plopped down on the floor, all expectant. Dad didn't usually have news, and when he did he rarely looked happy about it.

He looked around to make sure he had everyone's attention. "The first isn't really good news, but Mrs. Rizza has decided to give up the house and move to a condo in Arlington. It's gotten to be too much for her."

Ow. That hurt. Mrs. Rizza was one person I'd really miss. A first glance would tell you that she was a sweet old lady with a bajillion great recipes, but I knew her to be deeply intelligent, and generous with her knowledge of things. She was also a heck of a talker, and had kept me spellbound on many occasions when I stopped by. I was going to miss her for sure.

Dad went on, "It's probably for the best, at least for her. She's been taking care of that place by herself for a long time, and she can't keep it up." He smiled sadly, "I guess it happens when we get old. The good part is that she's staying in the area, and not joining her son in California. We'll still be able to visit."

There was a murmur as we all expressed our thoughts, then my mother said brightly, "The next news is of the best variety." She smiled a question at my father, and he indicated that she should go ahead. She put her arm around him and pulled him close. "Your father's going back on days." She held up a hand to quiet our excitement at that news, "As the general foreman of the entire rotogravure section."

It took a second for that to sink in, then this huge feeling of excitement and pride swelled up in me.

Jed was the first on his feet, shaking my dad's hand and congratulating him before he was halfway off the sofa. I was next, coming at him so fast I almost bowled him over, but we ended up in a happy hug. "This is great, Dad." I pulled back so I could see his face, "It's a big deal, right?"

My sisters were at him, but he grinned and said, "A real big deal, Mike. I still don't believe it."

Everyone was talking at once, and it was a nice happy scene. I was glad for my father, and proud of him. I was happy for me, too, for all of us, because we wouldn't be living on two different schedules anymore. I could go fishing after dinner with Dad again, and he could hang around more with Andy. Maybe, just maybe..."Dad? Can we get a canoe now?"

He laughed, "Wait 'til spring."

I gleefully took that as a yes. I hugged my mother, then whoever else I could find to hug, ending up with Jeddy. Jed's strength felt good to me. Of everyone, after the accident he was the one who tried hardest to patch things up with me. That was righteous enough. He and his buddy Don had done the most damage to me and Jack, had turned us into outcasts in our own school.

I still had this giant cloud in my head about it. Jed had done me wrong, and wronged Jack, too. But, so had Buddy and Clay, and three whole grades of boys at school, and Anton Wolfe from my grade. I had let the others off the hook for their deeds, pretty spectacularly in a few cases. Buddy was a good friend now, Clay was a close friend, and Tony...Tony was a special friend, the guy I could share dreams with.

Jed, though...he started the whole thing, and he was the guy who was my friend before, the one who should have been doing the opposite of what he did. If he'd smacked the first guy who opened his mouth, it would have been over before it started, but he was the first guy.

I was hugging him as a good friend, but I still couldn't find it in myself to forgive him. Not just casually, anyhow, I couldn't do it. I closed my eyes for a moment and silently promised myself that I'd try to find a way. I owed it to both Jed and myself to get it out of my head, but it was a thought that wouldn't just go away by itself. A lot of people had been mean to me and Jack, but they didn't know us, or just barely. They'd never eaten at my house, gone fishing or bike riding with me. Jed's role, as a family friend, a neighbor, had made his part like treason or something, and my brain wouldn't let me make it anything different than that.

I pulled back and looked at Jed, who smiled at me. I hadn't seen him in some time, and the beard looked stupid, a different color than you might expect, but it looked stupid anyhow. I giggled and pointed, "You got three colors of hair on your head, Jed."

He blushed and glowered at me, "Do you seriously think I don't know that, Mike? Don't worry," he said, while fingering his whiskers, "this thing is coming off soon." He muttered, "She's history, anyhow."

My eyes went wide, "She?" I grinned at him, "She? You got a girlfriend?" I let him go, and started chanting, "Jeddy' got a girlfriend, Jeddy's got a girlfriend," loudly enough that everyone turned their attention to his beet red face.

He shoved me, whispering, "You wait." then he looked at the others, still blushing. "Only sort of. It's a girl, but," he pulled on his beard, which was made of red hairs, "I think she mocks me. She's the one who got me to grow this thing, now she tries to match her stupid clothes to it." Jed brushed his hands down his sides, "Look at me." He touched his hair, "Blonde hair," then his eyebrows, "brown eyebrows, so far that's normal."

He tugged at his beard, and made a hilarious expression, "Where'd this thing come from? And, before anyone asks, I'm not going to describe anything beneath my chin."

Everyone laughed, and Patty yelled out, "I could tell ya." which caused us to laugh harder. Jed joined in, so I know he wasn't sore.

My mother asked Jed and Pat, "Why don't you boys stay for dinner?" She smiled at me, then back at them, "We're having roast beef and mashed potatoes. It's Michael's favorite."

Good timing, Mom. Pat was enthusiastic, "I'll stay."

Jed demurred, "Thanks for the invite, but I want to see some other people." He looked at Pat, "You'll probably have to find your own way home, kid. Mom and Dad are taking me back to school, unless you want to come for the ride."

Pat stared at Jed for a second, then smiled at Melissa, then turned a hopeful glance to my father, who smiled and said, "Sure, Pat. I'll give you a ride."

Pat beamed, and hugged Jed like he wanted to crush ribs. Jed gently cradled his brother, and they held the wordless hug for a full minute. Jed finally let go and backed up a step, smiling at Pat. "Be good, Patty. I'll see you for sure at Thanksgiving, maybe before then."

I walked Jed out to his car, and we stood there for a moment, just looking at each other. He said, "Something's on your mind, isn't there?"

I said, "Not really...um… yes. Yes there is." Best to get it out. I lowered my voice, but kept my gaze on his face. "I try, Jed, I really do, but I can't make myself forgive you for what you did."

Jed slumped against the car, crossing his arms and legs, studying me for a long moment. His expression was blank when he said, "I don't blame you. I can't either, and I won't blame you if you never do."

I tried to explain, "I forgave everyone else...well, almost everyone. They were rotten to us too, but I didn't know them, really, so it was just strangers bein' mean, not...not..."

Jed nodded, "I know what you mean, Mike, exactly what you mean. They hurt you. I betrayed you." His eyes clouded over, "You don't have to forgive that. I didn't just betray you and Jack, I did it to my family, my religion, everything I was raised to believe was right. I hurt a lot of other kids, too...the ones who wouldn't have said or done anything one way or another. They didn't deserve to be pushed into crappin' on you guys."

Jed straightened up and pulled me to him. "Don't forgive me, Mike, don't you dare. We can work around it, but what I did will always be there. It has to be there. I can't make it right by apologizing, and you can't make it right with forgiveness." He squeezed me a little, "Don't get me wrong, I don't want you to hate me for it, but I don't want either one of us to forget it, either. It'll be like a healed over wound. The hurt's gone, but the scar should be there forever, like a reminder."

I hugged Jed back, "A reminder of what? Temporary insanity?"

Jed giggled, "That would be a kindness on your part. It's more like temporary, baseless cruelty."

I leaned the side of my face against Jed's shoulder, whispering, "Okay. Maybe we should talk about it now and again, just to see if we feel the same."

Jed patted my shoulder, "Good thinkin', let's do that."

He took a deep breath and pulled back to smile at me. "So...ya ever gonna tell me about Ann Nettleton, or do I hafta keep listenin' to rumors about your love life?"

I giggled, then we sat on the step, and I spent the next half hour updating Jed about Annie and a lot of other things. It was fun, and even though I knew Jed had people to see, he never once rushed me. When Jed did finally leave, it was after a big, warm hug.

I watched him drive off, then went back inside, feeling better about everything. I didn't have to worry about forgiving Jed, we'd just live with it, work around it. The cloud that I felt between us was gone, replaced by a shared scab. No more pain, but we'd never forget what caused it.

I helped my mother fix dinner by mashing the potatoes, while Pat and the girls set the table in the hutchless dining room, and my dad made the gravy. When we gathered around the table, Dad asked Pat to say grace for the meal, and Pat did a pretty standard one. Then we tucked into what was the second roast beef dinner of the day for Pat and me, but neither of us was complaining. It was delicious all over again, and we chocolate cream puffs for dessert.

My father suggested that he and I do the dishes, and I didn't complain. Pat offered to help, so Dad washed, I rinsed, and Pat dried. Then we sat at the kitchen table and finished the leftover pie while I told my father about the trout I caught earlier. He was skeptical, as I would have been, but Pat was there to vouch for me.

We told him all about throwing it back because of Ned Masterson, and he appeared to understand. Dad was funny. He didn't say a lot, but his face told us that he would have had that fish stuffed and framed, to hell with its status as a grand daddy.

The phone rang while we were yakking, and I answered it.

"Mike? It's Tim, next door. Can you come over for awhile?"

I asked, "Now?"

He said, "Dwayne's here. Now, if you can."

"Um, okay. I'll be right there."

We hung up, and I looked at Dad and Pat. "Tim wants to see me, if it's alright with you."

Pat shrugged, and my father yawned, saying, "Fine with me, Mike. I need a softer chair, and I'm sure Pat can find better things to do than talk about fish." Pat blushed, and my father waved me off with a smile, telling me to mind my manners.

I grinned as I stepped outside, wondering how many times I'd been told that. Enough times that it was ingrained, I guess. I'd grown up with manners 101: Always acknowledge someone's appearance with a greeting, their departure with a farewell. Ask before taking, say please and thank you. Wash before eating, add to the conversation at the table. Common courtesy, my mother called it, the difference between civilized people and savages. She was right, too. It didn't hurt one bit to be polite, even though she was capable of, very politely, giving somebody the verbal equivalent of a middle finger right between their eyeballs.

As I walked, apprehension took over. I wondered why Dwayne was there, whether it was just a planned visit, or if something had already happened to him at home. I hoped that I didn't urge him into doing something he really shouldn't have, something that would hurt him.

When I knocked at the door, Dave answered, and he gave me a big smile. " Get in here, Mike."

As soon as I was through the door, his arm fell on my shoulder. He smiled and said, "You don't quit, do you? When did we last talk? Was it last month? Last week?" He put his hands to his cheeks and, in mock horror, exclaimed, "No. It was this morning, and look at what's gone on since then."

I stopped, sensing both humor and suspense. "What?"

Dave's hand landed heavily on my shoulder again, and he announced, "You have a new neighbor...and it's all your doing."

He led me into their huge living room where there was a fire going, and I saw Tim in a chair, Dwayne on the sofa.

Dwayne had been crying, either that or he had one heck of an allergy, but he looked happy. Tim was ebullient. He leapt out of his chair with a big grin, and pulled me into a huge hug. He said into my ear, "You don't listen, do you?" then he pushed me back to arm's length and grinned again, "Don't start now." He socked my arm lightly, "You have the instinct, Mike, don't let go of it." He pushed me toward a chair, which I kind of stumbled into, then he looked at Dwayne and said, "It's your story, Dwayne, you tell it."

Dave held up his hand to Dwayne like a traffic cop. "Don't start yet." He looked at me, "Something to drink, Mike?" then Dwayne, "Dwayne?" then Tim, "Timmy?"

Tim said, "Beer," so I did, too, and Dave just nodded.

Dwayne said, "Beer?" but it was more like a question. Dave smiled brightly and disappeared into the kitchen. He came back with four bottles of Beck's, which he handed out unopened, then twisted the cap off his own and took a glug.

Tim, Dwayne and I did the same thing, and Dwayne started, looking at me. His face was hard to read, part happy, part defeated. He smiled, "I did what you said, Mike. I got my dad to read the articles, the two that are printed and the one that's next." His face brightened into something I hadn't seen before, a combination of happiness and satisfaction. "Dad like totally surprised me. He read them and hugged me." Dwayne got tears in his eyes, "I haven't had a hug from my dad since I was nine or ten." Dwayne choked a little, then went on. "He told me he loved it, Mike, the story. He really did" The tears were back, "Then, when I was about to tell him Jack was gay, my uncle showed up."

I asked, "Ned...the guy I met?"

Dwayne nodded, "One and the same, and my father had him read the articles."

Dave spoke up, "This was a great approach, Mike." He gave me a great big smile that was bright enough to warm me up.

Dwayne went on, "Ned liked the stories, too...a lot. Then I told him you were the Mike he met today, the same one telling me the stories, and that really tickled him." Dwayne smiled at me, "He liked you, Mike, saying he wished there were more boys around like the ones he met today. I don't even know who you were with..."

"Jed and Pat Anderson," I chimed in.

Dwayne's jaw dropped, his voice filled with incredulity, "You hang around with Jed? That bastard's the one who started all..."

I held my hands out, palms toward Dwayne to make him stop, and butted in again. "Jed's my friend. I know what he did then, and I know what he did since, and he's still my friend. More than anyone, Jed kept me from hittin' absolute bottom, from," my voice dropped, "from doin' something really stupid." I looked around before I went on, "Jed knows what he did was wrong, I know what he did hurt, but we're just gonna leave it there and work around it. Okay?"

I had been looking kind of down toward the floor, and when I lifted my eyes I was looking at three surprised faces. Nobody said anything, so I looked at Dwayne and said, "Sorry for interruptin'.

Dwayne stared at me for a moment and appeared to be collecting his thoughts. "I..." he smiled at me, and grinned at Dave and Tim, pointing at me, "This kid doesn't think he's special." He shook his head slowly, "I don't think I've even scratched the surface yet."

I said, "Dwayne, I'll get Paulina to scratch your surface if ya don't tell me what happened."

Dwayne's eyebrows went up, while Tim and Dave chuckled.

Dwayne cleared his throat and blushed a little. "Okay, I guess it's me, huh?" He took a sip of beer and went on. "Um, Ned was going on about you guys, and I finally slipped in that the word at school was you and Jack were a gay couple." He winced, "I was really a chicken, but I wanted to stay far away from it at first. I just sat back and looked at them." Dwayne paused, then looked into my eyes, "My uncle asked if you were gay like me. I did a big sit up, and probably turned red as a beet, and I started shaking, like my hands were shaking."

His hands were shaking again, and he looked embarrassed, but he continued, "I asked him what he meant by that, all the time looking at Dad to see what he was doing, and Ned said he had me figured as gay from the time I hit puberty, which for me was at eleven." Dwayne's eyes went wide, "I couldn't believe it. All this time, Dad's just looking at me, like no expression, and I thought I was going to throw up."

I thought, sarcastically, 'Welcome to the club, Dwayne', but I kept my mouth shut.

Dwayne said, "Honest to God, I was sweating bullets. If Ned knew something, or thought he did, then my father must, too, because they hang around all the time. I didn't get any signals from them, and I didn't know what to say, so I finally just shook my head yes." Dwayne still had his eyes focused on mine, "I looked at my father, and there was like no reaction, but Uncle Ned was grinning like he just won a prize or something, like it was a triumph for him. He said, 'Told ya so'."

Dwayne dropped his gaze, "Dad still didn't say anything, but he looked sad. Then he kind of smiled and asked me if that was what it was all about; all the separation, all the deceit. I started to cry, then I got up and sat next to him." Dwayne's eyes teared up, "I was crying and he put his arm around me. He said it's going to be alright. He was ticked that I never told him, that I was afraid of him, that we lost all those years, and I truly believe he's sad about that."

Dwayne looked up tearfully, "All that time." He started weeping, gurgling out, "All that time I thought he'd hate me, and it was all a waste because I was such a coward." He shook his head, sending tears flying in both directions, then dropped his face into his hands and started crying outright.

The rest of us could only wait it out, and I was wondering why Dwayne was with Dave and Tim if things had gone like he said with his father.

Tim left for a moment, and came back with a box of tissues for Dwayne, who used gobs of them before he quieted down.

Dave said softly, "Take a break, Dwayne. Do you want me to tell Mike the rest?"

Dwayne shook his head and mumbled, "No, just give me a minute. I can do it." He looked around, "Where's the bathroom? I need to wash up."

Tim led Dwayne out of the room to show him, and I stayed with Dave, still curious as to why Dwayne was with them. I asked quietly, "Why's Dwayne here?"

Dave put his finger in front of his mouth, "Shh. Don't get worried, just wait for Dwayne to tell it." He stood up, "I'll be right back, I need something to munch on."

He walked out, leaving me alone. I got up and walked around the room, getting a good look at it for the first time in a long time. Their main furniture was modern, but there were antiques everywhere, and all kinds of odd things, including a huge old stand up radio. I knew it was old only because Andy had one, but this looked like it could have come out of the factory that morning.

A lot of the other old things were pretty battered, but they brought a lot of warmth to what would have been a stark looking room without them. Instead, especially with a fire going, the room felt cozy and interesting despite its large dimensions. It was easy to figure out their decorating technique, too. Wherever there was a splash of color, you'd find some neat old thing to look at nearby.

I turned around when I heard a sound, and saw Dave placing a tray of snacks on the coffee table. He looked up and smiled, "Relax and have something to eat. Dwayne's talking to Tim, they'll be right in."

I sat where I'd been, diagonal to Dave, and looked at what he'd brought in. There was a chunk of cheese, a container of some sort of spread, crackers, and a bowl of cut up fruit. Bunches of green and red grapes were laid right on the tray, making it all look like something from a magazine. I took a cracker and spread some of whatever it was on it, and took a bite. When the flavors hit my mouth, it was the kind of surprise that always made me smile. The spread was mostly white, probably cream cheese, and it had colored flecks in it, but it was spicy. It brought tears to my eyes, and I went after more, following it up with a chunk of sweet, juicy mush melon.

When I swallowed that, I pointed at the spread and asked Dave, "Where'd you get that stuff?"

He grinned, "You like? I love it myself. All of that came from Christiansen's farm market. They really have great food there."

I grinned, remembering Dave's first visit to the Country Butcher. "Did Jens' dad get ya all shit faced?"

Dave shook his head. "I hope you don't have the wrong idea about me. I drink, almost every day, but I don't try to get drunk." He grinned, "That just happens sometimes, but I won't let booze rule my life. I drank more when I was your age than I do now."

I got nervous that he thought I meant something else, and said, "I didn't mean that you were a lush or..."

Dave interrupted with a gentle smile, "I know, Mike, and I'm not trying to defend myself. I drink for effect, kind of to separate parts of my day. A beer when I get home makes me feel more at home, farther away from work."

His look darkened, and he looked toward the door to see if anyone was coming in, then he sighed, "Listen, Mike. Nobody in town knows this, and I'd like to keep it that way, but when I was your age I lived to get high, and I lived without dignity for a long time to stay high."

I was looking at his face when he said that, and he seemed to be pained. It was the first time I'd seen Dave with anything but a happy, earnest expression, and I wondered if it had anything to do with his suicide attempt, and decided it probably had everything to do with it.

I announced, "I never even tried drugs."

Dave smiled sadly, "Don't. Don't ever, Mike. The feelings drugs give you are all false, all a giant lie to get you hooked. They don't make anything better, they make things worse. Things just seem better, like there's nothing else to worry about." He looked right at me, "It's an illusion, Mike, a fucking lie. Drugs take you away from what's real in your life, and fill you with a false pleasure that has nothing to do with anything."

God, Dave's look was a forever look, not like him at all, it was so intense. I couldn't move my eyes from his, couldn't even blink. I think I felt what Tim must have in Dave's presence. Dave was such an open and understanding person, and he'd had to struggle with himself to get there. He was right in front of me, waking my gay side like he'd used a gong. He was such a sexy man, and I honestly believe that he had no clue that he was.

I wasn't feeling any sexual desire for Dave, but I could picture myself feeling protected by him forever. He had this energy about him, exuberance...power. Nothing was overt, but it was there just the same, and it wouldn't quit. I would have just stared at him for as long as he'd let me, soaking it up, but Tim and Dwayne came back in the room.

They sat, and Tim started picking at the fruit while an uneasy looking Dwayne looked at me for a long moment, kind of blank faced. I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring little smile, and he began to speak. "Mike, I kind of gave you the short version. I should tell you some of the things my father and uncle actually said to me."

I nodded, "Okay."

"Dad and Ned both said that, at one point in their lives, it would have totally freaked them out to meet someone who said he was gay. They're older now, and they've both worked with gay men, and they're done worrying about it. Ned's better with me being gay than Dad is...kind of annoying, really." Dwayne smiled a little, "He thinks it's funny somehow, and I know he's going to razz me until he falls off a crane or something." He shrugged, "I guess it could be worse, but you have to understand how I feel. I've been fearful for a long time, and him thinking it's funny is better than being hated for it, but funny doesn't sit well, either. I've had this knot in my stomach for years, and I don't think it's one bit amusing."

I didn't think it was funny either, but I'd met Ned earlier, and figured that it was just his way of dealing with it, which I told Dwayne.

He sighed and nodded, "That's what I think, too. Ned's a good guy, he really is. I just don't want to think that all those years of fear were just silly. It's been too big of a thing for me."

Tim joined in, "It's not silly, Dwayne, not remotely funny. Look at it this way. When Dave and I revealed that we were a couple, we got teased, too, but by friends, and in a nice enough way. We had to learn to laugh along, and laughing never hurts." He smiled at Dwayne, "Just a thought."

Dwayne smiled back weakly, "I know. Like I said, it's better than what I feared. I can take it." He turned back to me. "Dad was different...not angry, but confused I think. Well, he was kind of mad that I thought I had to be afraid of him, that I just turned away like I did." He looked down, mumbling, "I guess I never really saw his side. He thought I couldn't stand him, and he's had that to deal with, and he never did anything wrong."

Dave said, "Don't torture yourself, Dwayne."

Dwayne looked up at Dave, "I have to, a little anyhow. It was me all along, not my father."

Dave almost whispered, "I understand. We all make mistakes, Dwayne, and this was a big one, but it's not something you can undo." He smiled gently, and spoke just as softly as before, "All you can do is try to make things better from now on, and you're off to a good start."

Dwayne stared for a second, then nodded. He turned back to me, "I actually talked to Dad for a long time. We ditched Ned in the living room, and sat outside." He frowned and sighed heavily, "My dad's a good man, and I guess I've always known that. He doesn't like that I'm queer...not one bit, but he's not going to disown me or anything." He shook his head, "If anything, I feel closer to my father than I ever have. He doesn't understand everything, but he still loves me, and he said he'd never hurt me." Dwayne dabbed at his eyes, but he wasn't nearly as emotional as before. He slumped back, looking at the floor, and said, "I put a world of hurt on myself, and for nothing."

It was quiet for a short time, I guess we all had our own thoughts, then Tim said, "Dwayne, you're like me, while Mike and Dave have a lot in common. There were mixed reasons, but I was almost your age when I came to terms with my own father. I wasn't really hiding my sexuality from him, because he wasn't there enough, but I'm sure I would have. Anyhow, when I got back together with Dad, I told him right off about Dave and me. He had to think about it, too, but it didn't take all that long before he was okay with it, even happy for me." He grinned, "Dave and Mike are a different breed. When they decide something, it's time for the world to know, and damn the torpedoes."

Tim giggled, and I glanced at Dave, only to find him looking back at me with a hugely amused expression on his face, like birds of a feather or something. I smiled back at him, like we were sharing some kind of secret.

Dwayne spoke up, "You guys just tell all?" He smiled, "That's nice. Honest is good." His look intensified a bit, and he focused on me. "You paid the price, Mike, and it hurt me to watch," he smiled, "but you're a mile ahead of me."

I still didn't know why Dwayne was staying with Dave and Tim, or even if he was, though that's what it had sounded like.

I faced him, "Dwayne...um, did somethin' else happen? It sounds good with your dad and all, so why are you here?"

My mind did an uh oh when all of them stared at me. Dwayne opened his mouth, as if to speak, then closed it, then started again and stopped. Finally, he said, "I told him about you, Mike, about what I did, and that I needed to see a shrink. I had to ask about his insurance, and he'd still have to pay a lot himself." Dwayne closed his eyes, and tears started leaking out again, "Oh, Mike," he wailed, "do you know how hard that was to tell my own father that his own son tried to do something so sick, so perverted?"

Dwayne gasped in a breath and continued, his voice getting hoarse, "I did it, though. I told him all about it, and he was furious that I did what I did. I..." he gave me a pleading look, "I said you'd talk to him, Mike. He wanted to call your father to apologize for me, and it took me a half hour to convince him to talk to you instead. I don't even know if you told your father."

I stared at Dwayne for a second and numbly shook my head no.

Dwayne exhaled loudly in relief and said, "That's what I told him. I told him how you and everybody turned it around on me, and that I thought we'd be okay as long as I got help." Dwayne looked away, "He...um, he doesn't think you should keep something this big from your parents." He lowered his voice, "I guess I don't think so, either. They should know, Mike." He peered up at me for my reaction.

That reaction was a nervous explosion, "No! This is me, Dwayne,not my parents. They don't know the half of what I do, and they sure don't need to know what you do."

Dave said soothingly, "Calm down, Mike." He grinned, "Take a deep breath or something."

I did. I relaxed back into the chair until I was calm, then said, "Dwayne," I looked at Dave and Tim to include them, "I don't want them to know. If it got worse than it did, then one of us would probably be in reform school, and I don't think it'd be me. I...I...I learned from this. I know how far my friends'll go for me, and how far I'll hafta go for them if the time comes. I like feeling old enough to decide crap like this for myself, and I like that I can decide it right sometimes." I sat up straighter and pointed at Dwayne, "This is between you and me, at least it was; now it's between you and you, but I don't see where tellin' my folks is gonna help anything." I crossed my arms, "No. No way."

I was looking at blank stares, so I went on. "I'll talk to your father if you want, but there isn't one thing here that'll do my folks any good to know about." I glared at Dwayne, "I don't want them to know. It's my life, and they have their own. Please, Dwayne, don't drag them into it. It's just shit that'll get me back to the shrink." I looked up, a plea on my face, "Don't, okay?" I stared daggers at Dwayne, "You had me scared, you really did. I handled it, nothing bad happened, and now I just want it to go away, not to blow up all over again."

Dave grinned at me, as did Tim. Dave asked, "You want to tell us your real feelings, Mike?" which broke the tension.

Dwayne chuckled, "Point taken. Say those same words to my father, I think he'll reconsider."

I asked, "When should I talk to him?"

Tim interrupted, "The first question is where should you talk to him. I think you should find some neutral territory, someplace quiet where you can talk things out. I also think you should talk to Dwayne's dad alone, without Dwayne there."

Dwayne looked at Tim and asked, "Why?"

Tim looked at Dwayne and bit his lower lip, "Because you told your father that Mike's gay, and there's enough truth in that for the purpose of this. If you're with Mike, your dad may get the idea that there's something between you two, and he might decide that Mike's saying good things because of that."

Dave added, "Tim's right, Dwayne. Your father doesn't know Mike, so he won't know that he's meeting an honest person. At least if you're not there, he'll know that Mike can speak freely."

Dwayne nodded, "That makes sense." He looked at me, "When's good for you?"

I shrugged, "Anytime, I guess. After school some day?"

Dave suggested, "Why not ask your father to pick Mike up after school? He can give him a ride home, and they'll have time to talk. If they need more time, they can sit out in the barn."

Dwayne looked at me, "Any day?"

I thought for a second, "Sure. Just let me know."

Dwayne stood, "I'll call now," then he headed out of the room.

I reached for some more dip, and when I lifted my head to eat it Dave and Tim were both smiling brightly. I asked, "What?"

Dave shook his head, "I don't know, Mike, it's just amusing. You're going along with this like you're supposed to. Most people, after what Dwayne tried to do, would be headed for the airport. You're just going along, going along. I think it's really beautiful."

Tim smirked at Dave, "Yeah, it's just what you would have done." He leaned against Dave and put his arm around him, the first display of affection I'd ever seen between them, and said, "Exactly why I love you, Dave..."

Dwayne ran in, "Mike, is tomorrow okay?"

I was startled, "Um, yeah. Sure."

He ran back out, and the moment was lost. I'd seen what I did, though, and had mixed feelings. Sadness, wondering if Jack and I would have still been together after that many years, if our love would have mellowed into something private like Dave and Tim had. I was glad that it had worked that way for them. They were different from each other in most ways, the same only in their kindness and their sense of humor. Dave had an edge to him that Tim didn't share, a certain roughness, or maybe toughness.

I could see Dave as a sexy person, even though Tim was probably better looking. Tim felt more fatherly to me for some reason, and I liked that. Dave was like a comrade, someone to stand behind me and make a train wreck out of anything that got in the way of good things. Tim was those good things; kind, gentle, funny, and generous to a fault.

I found myself smiling at them, dip covered cracker still in hand. It was their turn to ask, in unison, "What?"

I smiled, shoved the cracker into my mouth, and kept my thoughts to myself.

Dwayne came back in, saying, "All set. He'll pick you up at school. I'll go out and introduce you."

I said, "Okay. You still didn't say why you're here."

Dwayne smiled, calmer after he talked to his father. "I didn't, did I?" He looked around, "Okay, Dad was totally upset after I told him what I did...tried to do...to you. He was giving me grief big time, and then my mother came home from visiting. He said she had to know, and I kept my mouth shut that she already did. He called her out and told her I'm gay then, when she said she already knew, the lid really blew off. He was so pissed that she knew and never told him, and she was mad because he never gave her a clue how he'd feel...well, it's a war between them now."

Dwayne smiled when he saw my jaw somewhere near my lap, "Don't worry. My mother asked if I had somewhere I could go for a day or two, then she sent Ned to find my sisters and take them home with him. Right now it's not about you or me." Dwayne smiled conspiratorially, "It's about withheld information."

Tim clapped his hands together once, "Well, that's a family matter then, right? None of our business."

Dave and I said, "Nope," at the same time. Every kid with any wits at all knows to get lost when there's a serious parental argument in progress.

Dave said, "Listen, if there's nothing else, I have some papers to work on."

I looked at Dwayne, and he shook his head no. I still had some questions, but they could wait. I left, happy with a big hug from Tim, and feeling very glad for Dwayne, hopeful that we could build a real friendship.

After everything, I still liked the guy.


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