Jack in the Box

Chapter 46

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : November, 2000

The party was great. Scott Johnson had bought Frank's restaurant out of all their hors d'oeuvres, their salads, their lasagna, just about everything that didn't have to be cooked to order, then a whole truckload of pizza showed up. A lot of people brought food with them to share, just like always, and there were kegs of beer and barrels filled with ice and soft drinks.

I was still standing with Dwayne when Scott and Nick showed up, and when Dwayne saw them, the squeal he made had me thinking he hit himself in the nuts with his own chin. He started huffing excitedly, then grabbed my arm and pointed at them, "H-Holy shit! D-d-do you know who that is?"

I looked. "That's Scott and Nick."

Davy finally saw me, and he came over with Maria, both of them smiling happily at what was going on around them. Maria said dryly, "Hello, Dwayne. Remember me?"

Dwayne had to tear his eyes off Scott and Nick as they disappeared into the crowd. When he saw Maria he gaped, then smiled. "Maria! Hey, hi! How's Stanford?"

Maria glared, then took Dwayne by the arm, leading him away, and the last thing I could hear was her saying, "I'll 'how's Stanford' you, pal."

Davy and I both watched them disappear, then his hand was on my shoulder and he asked, "What's that about?"

I just looked at them, "I have no idea!" I looked at Davy and smiled meekly, "That's Dwayne, by the way."

He chuckled, "So I heard. I get the feeling that Maria doesn't care much for him."

I said, "That seems clear. I always had the feelin' that Paulina didn't either. Nobody ever said anythin'."

Davy shrugged and smiled happily, "Oh, well. Where's Annie?"

"I think she's introducin' Joey around." Just then, I spotted Annie and Joey walking toward us, and pointed, "Here they come."

They both had plates of food, and were smiling brightly. Annie held a plate of shrimp out to me when she got close enough, and I dipped one in sauce, then she handed the plate to Davy, saying, "I remembered how you like these." Her eyes twinkled brightly, "They're from Clay."

I realized that the twinkle was from tears, and put my arm around Annie. I knew her now, and I knew she'd never forget Davy's role in saving her brother. She didn't get sappy about it often, but Clay wasn't at the party because he was still alive, and off doing something he'd always dreamed of. Annie didn't think of the alternative, only that Clay's life was a gift from me and Davy, and I didn't think she'd ever let go of that idea.

I think Davy understood. He just looked at Annie for awhile, then nodded and picked up a shrimp. He dipped it in sauce, smiled and said, "To Clay, then," and popped it in his mouth.

I could tell that Joey didn't have a clue, but I didn't want to get into it right then. I let go of Annie and leaned into Joey. "So? Do you like Annie?"

He smiled, "Lucky stiff!" just when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see James, Aaron and Donny Dominguez there.

James asked, "Who's your friend?" and I introduced Joey around.

Just then, I saw Davy gesturing to somebody, and he was soon joined by a tall blond kid around my age.

Davy announced, "This is my cousin Basil, from Dallas."

Basil elbowed him, and Davy looked hurt as Basil smiled at us. "Forget that, his real name's Francis," Davy said, which got him another elbow, and they both laughed. Davy went on, "Sorry, just teasing, his real real name's Ru..."

The other boy shoved a laughing Davy aside and smiled, "All that because of something that happened a long time ago. I'm Matt."

We all introduced ourselves, and decided to hit the food while some good stuff was left. That's where we met up with Tony and Paulina, more introductions, Patty and Lissie and Angela, still more, then..." "Jed!" I hollered. He turned around, smiling, and I ran to him. We hugged, and I towed him over to where we were in the food line, with yet another round of introductions.

We were a happy group when we sat down with our plates loaded enough for a family of bears. We ate while conducting a loud and happy bull session, and others joined us. We kept widening our circle on the floor to make more room, and we did it again when Maria and Dwayne came back, hand in hand. They both looked happy, and Maria kissed Dwayne's cheek before leaving him to sit next to Davy. Dwayne just plopped down where he was, looked around, and got right back up and strode off to the food tables.

I looked at Maria with a question, but she smiled softly and shook her head. Not my business.

Dwayne came back with food and got introduced around. After that, conversation was kind of a loud buzz, people talking to whoever was listening. People were up and down, getting more food, dumping trash, going to the bathroom. After about an hour, Annie took my hand and pulled it to her lap, then a minute later she looked at me and said, "Let's dance."

It sounded good to me. My butt was sore from sitting on cement, and I actually hobbled a little when I stood up, then held a hand out to Annie. She had the sparkle in her eyes, and I felt one in my own eyes.

Nobody else was dancing. The music was barely loud enough to hear, and it was corny anyhow. Didn't matter. It was slow music, and we got close together, both sighing at the same time. We knew we were the only ones dancing and that people were watching us. Didn't matter, we didn't feel them, just each other. We were alone together no matter who saw us. Annie had her head on my shoulder for awhile, then lifted it, and we smiled into each other's eyes.

I whispered, "I'm sorry."

She looked, then said, "Don't be, Michael. Just don't pull away like that again." Her voice was a familiar whisper, "You're punishing me for your own feelings, and I don't deserve that. If I was angry, you'd know full well." We danced in silence for another minute, not even knowing whether there was music still playing, then she kissed me. "I love you, Mike. I can think for myself, though. If I have something to say, you know I'll say it, but I really don't like you trying to think my thoughts for me."

To emphasize that, I'm sure, she stepped on my toe. "I've told you before, and I hope you remember. We're kids, Mike, barely past being children. We're too young for commitments, but I think we already have one."

I asked, "We do?"

She smiled and laid her chin back on my shoulder, "Yes, that we love each other. We care for each other, look out for each other." She sighed, "I know that's what you were doing; you were worrying about me!" She tightened her grip, "Worry about yourself, Mike. Take care of yourself first, and I'll do the same for me. That's the only way it can work. You have to be your own number one, otherwise I have to look out for you. The reverse is a ditto, and I don't want you worrying about me, either

I smiled. "You're so smart."

I finally looked around, and a lot of other couples were dancing by then. The music was still slow, or probably slow again, I hadn't been paying attention. I must have picked a dreamy moment in time to look up. Tony was with Paulina, Davy with Maria, Patty with Liss. My parents, Annie's parents, Davy's parents...all dancing. Lots of others were, too. Dave's mother with Tim's father, my cousin Sally with Jed, then I saw Dwayne and Joey leaning against the wall looking bored.

I looked at Annie, "Wanna make two guys happy?"

She socked me, "Stop it!"

I grinned, "I'm serious. Joey's all lonely, and so is Dwayne."

Annie had this look she could throw at me, and it spelled murder, but it always turned into a helpless laugh. She asked, "Which?"

I said, "Take your pick."

She looked at me belligerently, "You'd dance with your cousin? I don't think so, Mister. That is incestuous!"

I shrugged, "You dance with him, then. I didn't mean I'd dance with him, just find him somebody."

She laughed, "Who's gotta dance with Dwayne?"

I tweaked her chin, "You said gotta, I thought that was a no-no."

She pulled back from me, tugging at her hair and laughing. "Oh, God! A trillion men in the world, and I fall for this helpless soul."

We were both smiling as we approached Dwayne and Joey. I told Joey, "Annie wants to dance with ya."

He accepted happily, and I looked at Dwayne, "Why aren't you dancing?."

He eyed me warily, and I said, "Come on, Dwayne." I gestured toward the crowd, "It's fun. Bein' gay don't mean ya can't associate with girls!"

Dwayne looked grim, saying, "I know. Believe me, I know. It's just not for me right now." He smiled wistfully, "You go have fun, I'm fine here."

I said, "At least talk to people," then I thought about it. "What's with you and Maria, anyhow? I always had the idea that you didn't get along too well with Paulina."

Dwayne shoved his hands in his pockets and slumped back. "It's a long story, Mike. I guess I can make it short. I went out with Maria a few times, kind of for show, but I really liked her. We started to get close, and it scared me, so I backed away."

I drew a deep breath, "You dumped Maria?"

He kicked glumly at the floor, "I guess you could say that. I didn't realize that she had feelings for me, and she says I hurt her pretty bad when I didn't say what I should have."

"Oh, man."

"Right, and now I know that she's the one who would have understood me, better than anyone. That's what I meant when I said I hated living a lie like I was. Look at what I passed up because of being scared. It's like I missed the last five years, and I hurt people to boot...the ones who could have helped me sort things out." He paused and looked sidelong at me, "Then I go chasing after you like you stole my candy or something." He hung his head, "I really messed up, Mike."

I asked, "That's what you talked to Maria about?"

He nodded, saying nothing.

"She seems okay now."

Dwayne choked out, "Yeah, now. I had no idea she cared for me like that. I feel like such a shit. If I'd just told her the truth, I'd probably be past this by now."

I tried to console, "You didn't know..."

"That's the point. I should have known. That's why I finally came out in the paper. Oh man, Hastings was so against leaving that in. He called my parents in, then we had to go to the school board, and they were tough." He smiled a little, "It's the first thing I really fought for, and I won in the end. Hastings finally took my side, and my folks weren't against it, so the Board ended up saying they're not in the censorship business."

I smiled, "That's great, Dwayne. You're okay with your family now?"

Dwayne smiled, too. "We'll get there. There's a lot to undo and a lot to make up for, but we're working on it. I'm seeing my own psychologist, and we're all going to family counseling. My dad's the biggest surprise. He's been really great." Dwayne put his hand on my shoulder, and I let him keep it there, "I feel better, Mike, I really do. Maria kind of shocked me, but she's being really nice about it. She's a classy lady, and I can't believe I ever called her a barn baby."

I laughed, pulling out from under his hand, "You called her that? Man, she must'a liked ya if ya still got both eyes"

He snorted, "Yeah, that's about what she said."

"You know about Scott and Nick now?"

Dwayne got a little wired. "That's another thing! Nobody ever said they were from Morton. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how's a whole town keep a secret like that?"

I smiled, "It's no secret, Dwayne. We just don't go flappin' our lips about what's nobody's business. You know, last year when Jack'n me were gettin' all that crap, we never thought once to talk to them about it. We knew they were gay, but nobody thinks about them like that, and it went right by both of us. We thought we were the only gay guys around."

I looked at Dwayne, "Which reminds me, how's Bruce? You never once told me about his part in your plan."

Dwayne looked horrified, "Oh, God!" He shook his head, "Oh, man. Bruce was innocent. I swear it!. I told him a guy I met was looking for fun, and he never asked much. When he knew you were coming over, he wanted to look good, so he had his glasses off. When he got close enough to get a look, he freaked out. That's why you got the bum's rush like that. Oh, Mike. Don't think bad of Bruce, he didn't have a clue what I was doing."

I said, "He seemed nice. Did you ever tell him?"

Dwayne shrugged and smiled, "How could I not? Dave and Tim made me tell him, but I would have anyhow. He knows everything now."

"How'd he take it?"

Dwayne smiled, "Mad at first, but we're better friends now. He's trying to help me now, too."

I asked, "Do you still...you know?"

Dwayne put his chin up and sniffed, "Miiiike," just the way I said his name when he asked personal questions.

I snickered and wiggled my eyebrows, "You're gettin' better already, Dwayne. Have you met all the gay guys here?"

He blushed, "Um..."

I smirked, "Dwayne, it's a party. As we speak, my little cousin is on his fifth dance with my girlfriend. Before we know it, he's gonna charm her right away from me."

Dwayne laughed, "I doubt that, and he's not what I'd call little."

I looked around and spotted Adam in the distance, and pointed him out to Dwayne. "Look, Dwayne, see that blond guy? His name's Adam, and he's gay like you. That whole crowd is, so how's about I introduce you, and you can see how normal you are?"

Dwayne's eyes were bugged out. "H-he's gay?"

I didn't have to answer, because just then Ronnie came and took Adam's hand. I reached for Dwayne's to lead him over there, but when my hand touched his, he jumped away like I'd poked him with a cattle prod. I smiled and held out my hand, "C'mon, Dwayne, they're great guys, and you'll like 'em. They're all grown up, but I bet they have stories like yours." I reached for his hand again, and finally got it. "This is your life, Dwayne, and I don't think you have anythin' to be afraid of."

Dwayne and I walked clear across that barn holding hands, we did. I didn't care who saw it, but I was happy to see Dave and Tim appear just as we reached Adam. Tim looked at our hands, then our faces, then back at our hands, and smiled. When we were close enough, he asked, "What's up with this?"

I said, "Dwayne wants to meet your friends." I grinned, "I think it'll do him some good, and I been monopolizing his time long enough."

Dave smiled wryly, put a hand on Dwayne's shoulder and turned around. With his back to me, he said, "Great idea, Mike. Get lost, okay?"

I looked in stunned amusement, "What?"

Tim said politely, "He means get out of here, like scram," He came closer and touched my arm. "Nice move, Mike." He snickered, "You go find Annie and leave Dwayne to us."

I took one last look at Dwayne, who was under excited scrutiny by Ronnie, and decided to take Tim's advice, but not before a quick hug with him.

Truth be told, I was much more self-conscious walking back by myself than I had been holding hands with Dwayne. Eyes may have been on us then, but I hadn't paid attention. Now I felt that everyone was looking at me, and I kept my own eyes on my feet. That led me to walk right into a big guy I didn't know, and I backed up and stopped.

He didn't seem annoyed, just kind of went around me and kept going wherever he was going. It woke me up, though, and I looked around. Joey and Annie were still dancing together, and when I took a step their way I felt a tug on my shoulder. I turned around, and it was my brother. I grinned and hugged him, "Hi, Ray. I thought you weren't comin' 'til tomorrow."

He hugged back, "Got away early. Who thought of this party?"

I pulled away and giggled, "Scott. Man, it was two o'clock when he got the idea, seven when it started."

Ray bopped my back and said, "Must be nice to have that kind of money."

We hadn't realized it, but we were right next to Jose, and he cried, "Stop it! It's not a money kind of thing, it's a party kind of thing."

I liked Jose, I always had, but never more than right then. He was a total sports freak, especially football, and especially the Titans. He taped all their games, and watched them over and over again, which seemed weird to me. Now he was defending his lifestyle, and I liked seeing it. His family had money, lots of it, but you never saw a one of them thinking it was important. It wasn't an embarrassment to them, just something that was there. Their fathers had earned it, as can happen with rock stars..

The kids, though, they were the town's brain trust, every one of them smart as a whip. I knew bits and pieces of their story from talking to Paulina and Jose.

Their grandparents had been something of an aristocratic family in Puerto Rico, what they called 'pure' Spaniards. They'd moved to New York years ago with their daughter. They made a life. The grandfather had been a legitimate pharmacist in Puerto Rico, but his credentials didn't count here, so he opened a grocery store and did well. Their daughter, the kids' mother, didn't do well. She married a man that her parents didn't approve of, but they couldn't stop it.

They started popping out kids, beautiful kids, but the father got more and more removed into his gang, into the world of drugs. The mother stayed with him, until it was too much for the grandparents to take, and they grabbed the kids, able to give them a decent life.

Their own daughter was lost to them, but they were able to provide a stable environment, and lots of love. Their grandfather, after just a few years, took sick and died, and they were left with their grandmother. Nydia was just a toddler then.

The grandmother started to descend some time afterwards, possibly Alzheimer's disease, nobody knows for sure.

Paulina still smacks her own face when she mentions it, but she was the one to mention their situation to a teacher at school. After that, it was Social Services, group homes, and the realization that they'd get split up, possibly never know where the others were.

Then Nick and Scott came along. Two gay men, though few knew that, even though they didn't hide it. They were celebrities, rock stars, loaded with money, but that's not what got them their family. They got to adopt those kids because nobody could say anything bad about the men. Good guys, period. Nobody, not anywhere, had a bad thing to say despite the fact that they were 'bad boys' on stage.

I'm not even sure where that idea came from, maybe their clothes, the look they took on, whatever. It was an act, just like any show. They've been around here for a goodly length of time now, and I've yet to hear anything negative about them.

I think too much sometimes, and Ray caught me up on it. "Earth to Mike? What's in your head now?"

I turned and smiled, "You are, sorta. I was just thinkin'."

He grinned, "Yeah? Well think about this. Have you seen Sally? Did she turn into a fox, or what?"

I felt kind of distant, "Yeah, she's a pretty girl."

I felt Ray's arm on me, "What's wrong, Mike?"

I shrugged, "I don't know, tired I guess."

I was. I was tired...getting lazy after all the anticipation the day before, the anxiety, then Davy actually showing up. My excitement at that, my continued excitement about my relatives coming, meeting new people, all the dancing and talking was getting to me. I really needed to sit down and drink a soda, and just hope I'd get a jolt from the sugar.

I told Ray that I needed a break, and he decided to socialize, so I got a root beer and sat in a corner against the wall. It was nice just people-watching, and I was in a good spot to do it. I saw Annie looking around, and I supposed she was looking for me. I waved when she looked my way, but she didn't notice me there on the floor. I wasn't sulking, and I wasn't trying to disappear. I just needed to sit for awhile.

There was still a lot of activity, but some people were starting to leave. It was around ten, and the first ones to go had younger kids with them. I put my soda on the floor and lowered my head for a moment, just to rest. I stayed like that for a few minutes, wishing I was more wide-awake. I knew I had to be sociable, so I eventually picked up the root beer and downed it. I stood, and decided I had to take a leak, so I went to the bathroom that was in the entranceway to the house.

I washed my face in cold water and stepped outside for a minute, looking for the cold air to perk me up. I wasn't the only one outside. The rest were mostly smokers, but Pat and Lissie were there, holding hands and looking at the stars. They were talking quietly and didn't see me, so I went back in, feeling somewhat revived.

Most of the kids my age had re-grouped, and were making plenty of noise. Annie and Joey were there laughing at something, so I joined them, and Annie immediately put her arm around me. "Where were you? I haven't seen you in an hour!"

I smiled, "Sorry. I went outside to wake up." I looked at Joey, "Havin' fun, Joe?"

He was happy, "Yeah, I am. I think everybody is."

We were just having a quiet, happy conversation when we felt a change of momentum, and people rushed to where it was coming from. We could see, between bodies and heads, a woman prone on the floor. Tony screamed, "MA!" and pushed his way through to her. I followed in his wake. Tony knelt and fell onto her, hugging and crying. She was awake, but she looked scared, cradled in her kneeling husband's arms..

Dave was right there, and the man next to him announced, "I'm a doctor. Give me some room here."

People backed away a little, but they were loath to leave one of their own in trouble. The doctor was on his knees, looking Tony's mother all over while Tony kept crying, "What is it? What happened?" Then he'd hug his mother and cry. His dad, who also looked scared to death, pulled Tony closer,

Tim rushed to the doctor, holding out his cell phone. "An ambulance is on the way, the ER lady wants to talk to you."

The doctor grabbed the phone and started explaining what he was seeing, using the word 'stroke'. He saw Tony's reaction to that, and reached over to muss up his hair. He gave the Wolfe men a comforting smile as he continued talking, then when he hung up, he said to them, "Don't count her out yet. What happened?"

Tony's dad said, "She started complainin' 'bout her leg, then she almost fell."

The doctor patted Mrs. Wolfe's shoulder and looked her in the eyes. "Don't be so frightened. I think you've had a stroke, but help is on the way. They have medication that will lessen the effects, maybe eliminate them if your stars are lined up." He smiled at her, then Tony and his dad. "Sometimes we actually advance medicine," then he looked back at Mrs. Wolfe. "Did this just happen, or have you felt it coming on?"

She actually smiled, which warmed my heart, "It just came on me all of a sudden. I was standin' there gabbin', and suddenly my leg went away."

The doctor smiled, "That's good news, then. Let's get you up into a chair, okay?"

Tony's mom nodded, and I grabbed one of the few chairs available almost out from under Mrs. Denson, whose considerable weight was threatening it anyhow. It only took a few seconds for Tony and his dad to get Mrs. Wolfe into it, and a few people took it on themselves to get the other people back to their business. Dave and Tim were running around asking people with cars in the driveway to move them into the street or out onto the lawn so the ambulance could get in.

Tony's dad and the doctor were talking to his mom, and Tony looked left out. I went up and put an arm around Tony, and I didn't say anything. He leaned into me and cried, managing to weep out, "I'm scared, Mike."

"I know. I'm scared, too." My own eyes were leaking tears, and I was praying hard that Jack was there somewhere, making sure Tony's ma would be alright.

When I paid attention, I noticed that a whole bunch of people were right around us, kind of a protective circle. Paulina was there, looking on sadly, but when I said with my eyes that she could hold Tony instead of me doing it, she just shook her head slowly and smiled at us.

When the sound of the siren reached our ears, I finally figured out why they made all that noise like they did. There certainly weren't any cars to get out of the way, it was to let you know they were coming. You could hear them from a mile off, farther if the weather was heavy, and you knew help was on the way. It got louder and louder, until they were right there.

People watched as the EMTs rushed in. One stopped and spoke very briefly with the doctor, and then two of them got Tony's mom onto a guerney. One man was still speaking with the doctor. That guy gave her a shot of something, and they rushed her out to the ambulance, with Mr. Wolfe alongside.

Only then did Paulina come over, and wrapped her arms around Tony in a way that meant I had to let her have him. She whispered, "C'mon, Ace. It's gonna be okay."

I smiled at her, partly in thanks for letting me give comfort to my friend, partly for her loving us both enough to let me. She led him away, turning her head to mouth 'thanks' and wink at me.

Annie came beside me and took my hand. I could tell that she was as shocked as me, and we just stared off in the direction that Paulina had led Tony. I felt awful for Tony and his parents. Dave saw us there and walked over with the doctor. "Kids, this is Doctor Forrester, a good friend of mine. If you have questions, now would be a good time to ask them."

I got a good look at the doctor, a heavy-set, nearly-bald man with humor in his eyes. I asked, "What happened? What's a stroke?"

Dr. Forrester smiled, "First, I'm not positive it was a stroke. It could just as easily be pressure on a nerve or one of several other things. Better safe than sorry. A stroke is, to the brain, the equivalent of a heart attack. In fact, there's a movement to change the name of strokes to brain attacks. They start when either a clogged or broken blood vessel disrupts the flow of blood to an area of the brain, and that in turn causes cells in the immediate area to die. These dead cells can cascade to a larger area, killing more cells. Far too few people recognize the symptoms of a mild stroke, and by the time they realize something is seriously wrong, it can be too late."

He smiled, "Don't worry too much about your friend. She'll get treatment in plenty of time to prevent a disaster if it was a stroke. That shot she was given is a neuroprotective agent, and it'll work quickly to lessen further damage. She may or may not require surgery, and that always entails risks."

I think we all gasped.

"They'll get her condition diagnosed and stabilized right away, then either call in a specialist or move her to a specialized facility. I'd expect the latter, since you're so close to Vanderbilt. A lot of excellent stroke research is coming from there, and they're well equipped to both gauge any damage and to provide treatment." He scratched the back of his head, "I don't know what else I can tell you. Strokes can be devastating; they often kill. I doubt that your friend has much to worry about, but then again I'm not God."

Annie asked, "Is this expensive?"

"I'm afraid it can be. I hope they have decent coverage," said the doctor.

Annie started to say, "I don't think they have any..."

She was interrupted from a voice behind us, and we all turned to see Nick there, "I've already called the hospital. They're covered, so not to worry."

Nick had spoken, and I was surprised at the number of people who had gathered to listen to the doctor. Annie and I were up front, and I'd been paying such close attention that I'd forgotten we were at a party. Davy was right there, and he gave me a smile and a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. A lot of people were smiling, none more brightly than Nick, Scott and their kids. It didn't take a genius to know that they'd just made a quick family decision, and that they were all pleased with it.

I turned back to the doctor, but he was already walking away toward his friends, leaving Dave there alone. Dave motioned me over to him, then whispered in my ear, "They beat you to the punch this time, Mike. Your turn will come."

I looked at him in surprise, "You knew I was gonna ask if I could pay?"

He grinned, "I'd be disappointed if you didn't. Now get back with your friends," he gave me a gentle shove.

I looked back at him, wondering why he was pushing me away like that, but I landed in Annie's arms. She squeezed me, "Are you okay?"

I grimaced, "Not really. I'm all worried about Tony and his mother."

She hugged me tighter, whispering "Me, too." She was quiet for a moment, then said, "James' father is here. He's a deacon at church, maybe we should ask him to lead a prayer for Mrs. Wolfe."

I suddenly got tears in my eyes again. I'd said prayers before, but I never gave much credence to them. I believed in God, I really did, but I didn't put a lot of stock in the religions that people had built in His name. Under the circumstances, I didn't see how a little praying could hurt. We got James to ask his father, and when he said he would, we fanned out, quietly asking people to make a single group for it.

I have to say, it was nice doing it. Mr. Green asked everyone to hold hands with the person beside them, then delivered a short, sweet little prayer that only talked to God Himself. Afterward, everyone started shaking hands, hugging and kissing. The feeling of warmth and caring in that barn was palpable. Even the out-of-towners, who didn't know anyone involved, were clearly moved by it.

It also pretty much marked the end of the party, as people started getting their coats and saying their goodbyes. I was standing with Annie, Davy, Joey and James when Hector came over and said he'd talked to Paulina. They'd never even checked Tony's mother in at Jack Murphy Hospital. Instead, they put her on a helicopter to Vanderbilt. Mr. Wolfe had flown down with her, and Tony and Paulina were driving down. Hector looked at Annie, "Can Paulina stay at your house after that? We're going up north on Tuesday, and she won't leave Tony alone like that."

Annie said, "Sure." She looked around quickly, spotted her parents and hurried over to ask for confirmation. She came back smiling, "It'll be fine. She can have Clay's room. He won't be back until Sunday."

Hector smiled, "Thanks, Annie. He turned his smile to me, "Um...listen. They're gonna stay at the hospital for tonight. I can bring you down there tomorrow if you want."

I nodded dumbly, then snapped out of it and tried to smile. "Thanks, Hec. That'd be great."

He said, "We're leaving now. Call me when you get up, I don't mind if it's early."

He turned to go, and Davy asked me, "Mind if I come?"

James said, "I'll go, too." He smiled brightly at me, "Tony comes with the package, remember?"

I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. "Thanks, James; that means a lot." I wasn't kidding, either. James and I had become pretty good friends during the past several weeks. I'd always looked up to him, and I still did, but for more personal reasons. If you needed to talk to someone, James would let you ramble on forever, then think about what you said and call you back later with his views. I liked that about him. He never said much until he had time to think. You wouldn't expect a friend to go home and think about your personal problems, but James did. He was beautiful to look at, but many times more beautiful when you got glimpses of his soul, which he displayed often.

We still had to figure out sleeping arrangements. I wasn't ready for Ray to be home, even though I was glad he was. My sisters and Sally already had our living room, while my aunt and uncle took their room. There wasn't really room for four in my bedroom, not enough room between the beds for two people to get comfortable. I considered the living room in Dave and Tim's front house, but they had a lot of people, too. Most were staying in the motel, but I knew they had every bed accounted for, and all the sofas.

I decided, kind of unilaterally, that Joey should stay with Ray while Davy and I camped out in Jack's room. That didn't go over very well. Ray and Joey both complained that they were counting on spending the night together with me, so we all decided to sleep on the floor in Jack's room. I was happy that we'd decided something that worked, even though my over-active mind reminded me that Jack never had anyone but me in his room. Well, I was dragging Jack along with me, so he'd have a chance to grow up too.

Annie pulled me to her, saying, "We're leaving now." We kissed, and she asked slyly, "Can I trust you in a room full of boys?"

I giggled, "They're related, Annie!"

She rubbed her nose against mine, smiling. "So is Tony."

I kissed her again, "I'll be good."

She grinned and kissed me quickly. "I trust you. We're going. Call me in the morning?"

I smiled, got one last quick kiss, and said, "I will. I love you, Annie."

After she said, "I love you, too," I watched her walk off toward her waiting family.

That's when Dwayne showed up. I'd seen him hovering nearby, and gave him points for not interrupting us. He took a quick look after Annie, and showed me the best smile I'd ever seen on his face. He got right up close to me, grinning, his hands up like he was getting arrested, except they were wiggling excitedly.

I had to smile, "What?"

He grinned even harder, if that was possible, acting like he was fighting himself to keep his hands off of me. He finally gushed out, "Man...that was the best!" His grin brightened even more, "You don't know what I feel like right now." He landed his hands on my shoulders, and for a second I was afraid he was going to kiss me. Instead, he weakened the grin into a smile, "I never would have thought, Mike. Never in a million years."

My head was wondering 'what?' and my mouth finally spit the question out.

"Gay men, Mike. You made me go over there, and now I know why. You're exactly right, that's my future and...and I love it! Gay men! Everyone of them different from the other! Not a one of them slinking around pretending they're something they're not! I love it, Mike!" His hands started wiggling again, his head shaking enough that his hair moved with it, "You were double right, too, they all have stories! Oh, man, I wish Bruce was here. Oh, man...I'm just so excited!"

I had to smile, then Dwayne asked, "Can I kiss you?"

I did a double take, then turned my cheek to him and got one like I'd had from my Aunt earlier, just a smooch on the cheek. After that we just looked at each other embarrassedly. Dwayne dropped his hands, and I took both of them in mine, looking down at first. Then I lifted my face to his and said, "Dwayne, you'll make it just fine. Bein' queer ain't the be-all or end-all in life. You got a good head, you can write. Just...keep your tailgate up!"

Dwayne nodded solemnly, then turned to go like the conversation was over. He turned around all at once, a quizzical smile on his face, "What ?"

I smiled, then laughed, "Nothing. It's just somethin' my daddy says."

Dwayne looked at me for a long moment, then said, "I think I will." He pointed at me, "Give Tony my best, Mike. I hope his ma's okay."

I just waved, and watched as Dwayne walked off. There seemed to be something like finality in our talk, and that was fine. Dwayne was walking tall, feeling good about himself. I was a little pumped up, too, thinking I'd helped make that happen.

When he was out of interest range I turned around, finding myself alone. Everyone else was helping clean up what little mess there was, and I wondered how long I'd talked with Dwayne.

I joined in the cleanup, picking up soda and beer cans. The litter was minor, and the work mindless, so I thought about things...again! I was worried about Tony's mother, wondering what would become of Tony and his father if it was worse than what the doctor had said. She was a good woman, worth learning a new language so we could talk, and I had come to love her for the warm person she was. That was enough to make me worry, but she was also the glue that held their household together.

Tony's family didn't have much, but they were like a lot of folks around Morton in that regard. They were used to making do, living contentedly with other people's cast offs. We did the same thing, to some extent. Our televisions were always Andy Stark's old ones, for instance. The Wolfes, though, they'd find something beside the road and love it back to a useful life.

There was irony in that, even for me, since Tim moved in. He made money doing the same thing Tony's folks did just to get by. I don't know that Tim had ever been to Tony's house, but in my mind Mr. Wolfe was every bit the restorer that Tim was.

I had the money to help now, and I'd been sending some to a few families. It started with Beaulah Lamphier, who had indeed used the money to visit her sister before she died. That had been a great start, and one other family seemed to be taking better care of their kids. There were two other families I was sending money to, and I wasn't seeing any results, though they may have used it to avoid eviction or something. I could see how it would take a very long time to get rid of that much money. I'd sent Beulah nine hundred dollars all at once, but the others were getting money just now and then, usually a hundred dollars at a time.

Davy had sent me home from Connecticut with fifty thousand dollars, and he said he was bringing more with him, though it hadn't been mentioned since he arrived. I wasn't hurrying, but I pretty much knew what was going on in Morton, and I hadn't heard about anyone in dire straits. I'd picked up on one family when Dwayne paid for the kid's lunch a few times, another just from how the kids were dressed. Buddy had told me about a few, and I was looking at their situations, too.

It was hard. Part of me wanted to run up and ask, "So, did you get the money?" and another part knew I had to remain silent, anonymous. I could only listen, look for signs, and try to figure out what they were using the money for. Now that it was cold out, I could see who had warm clothes and who didn't, so I had a short list of people I'd send some money to just for that one purpose. It was an interesting project that I'd taken on, but not really fun, or even particularly satisfying. I wished I could get someone to help me, and I had permission to, but I hadn't figured out how to approach anyone about it, or even who that person would be.

When we were done cleaning up, there weren't a lot of people remaining. Davy was with his cousin, Matt. I saw Dave and Tim talking with a few people and headed over there, thinking I'd say good night while they were available. One of the people with them was the guy I'd walked into earlier, and there were a few others I hadn't seen before. Tim introduced me, first to a tall, blond man who had to be Matt's father

"Mike, this is my brother Jerry and his wife, Deanna. They're Matt's parents, and I know you already met him."

We shook hands and exchanged greetings, then Dave led the big guy to me. "This is Rafe Anziano, one of our really best friends."

I looked up. Rafe was a big man, well over six feet, and kind of rugged looking, even though the top of his head was shiny with baldness. He had a great smile, "Hi, Mike. I've heard some stories about you, and I'm pleased to meet you." He took the elbow of another guy no bigger than me and said, "This is Brian. We've been together since high school."

I smiled at Brian as we shook hands, suddenly understanding Dwayne's feelings. I guess it stood to reason that Dave and Tim would have other gay friends, but I'd never thought about it. Brian seemed kind of bookish, but there wasn't a thing about him that said gay. Out of all their friends, only Adam and Ronnie were anything like the gay people you saw on television or in the movies.

That's what Dwayne had appreciated; all these guys, different as night and day from each other, but all gay men, and all living life on their own terms.

Dave took my elbow and grinned, "We told Rafe and Brian what you went through last year in school." He giggled, "Rafe was like a test case for the rest of us. You guys should talk someday."

I looked at Dave, then at Rafe, and I smiled nervously, "I'd like that. I really would."

Rafe smiled down, "You felt all alone?"

I looked at him, "Yeah, kinda. It was just me and Jack against everyone."

Rafe grinned, "It was just me and me until I met this guy," as he patted Dave's shoulder. "It kind of makes the personality come out, doesn't it?"

I smiled, seeing that Rafe had a nice personality, but what he said wasn't exactly true in my case. "I...I...um, no. I kinda turned into a creep."

Dave bopped my shoulder merrily, "You weren't a creep, Mike, just a little confused, to put it politely." He stood behind me and dug his fingers in on each side of my neck, making me laugh and squeal. I could hear the fondness in his voice, "You were being just like I used to be. You wouldn't know a friend if you tripped over him, but you have it figured out now." He stopped digging into my shoulders and swung to the side, an arm draped behind me. He said happily, "You're me, Mike. A sack of shit all full of potential, but watch out when somebody finds the string that's holding that sack closed."

I laughed when everyone there said, "Amen," pretty much in unison, and I felt a different kind of connection with Dave. Our circumstances hadn't even been close, but we were a lot alike. I'd heard enough about his past, both from his perspective and from Tim's, to know that we had at least one thing in common. We'd both felt like loners within a circle of friends, and it took a lot of big and little things to make us both realize that we were as important to our respective groups as any of the people around us. Dave had been like me...centerless, but look at him now.

I smiled and looked down, a little embarrassed, but Dave was right. Lots of people were important to me now, and I knew I was just as important to them as they were to me.

I looked up and smiled brightly at everyone there. These were loved people. They loved each other, together and separately, and sexuality had not a thing to do with it. By then, Artie's parents, and Ken and Mary had come to join us, and I could see that the warmth and friendship that radiated from all of them had been well used over time.

I had to think back to when I started to feel like that, like nothing mattered but the goodness of the people you called your friends. I thought I'd come up with Jed, but the first time was really with Jason Stark, Andy's son. I'd known him forever, and he'd forever been a friend, ever since I could remember. He was about the age I was now when I first remember him, maybe sixteen. My dad had taught me to ride a bike, but Jason was the guy who made me love it, just because he did. He was always a little bigger, a little stronger, than anyone his age, but he had a gentle soul. And, unlike his parents, he could talk forever, and about anything under the sun. Even to a little boy with endless questions.

Jason never claimed to know everything, but he had a penchant for finding things out. Before I was even in school, he had the school library available to himself, and he'd find answers to my questions about bugs and other critters just because he didn't already know. Jason liked me, he really did, and I always knew it.

He's the guy I should have talked to about queer feelings a long time ago. He wouldn't have minded, and he would have found me the words I needed to put my own thoughts in order. Jason had been my own personal savior lots of times, he'd just been gone when Jack and I had our troubles.

His own father called him the true 'Mouth of the South' lots of time, and few would dispute that. Jason could talk from sunup until somebody hit him with a hammer to shut him up, but I never thought he ever spoke a boring word. He could talk about science, mechanics, farming, books he'd read, the news, just about anything. When he got caught up on something he didn't know, he'd go learn it and be ready the next time. After that, he'd just be Jason again, all confident and happy that you wanted to talk to him at all.

I couldn't think about him without smiling, and decided he was my first true friend. He was grown up now, out of college and married, doing well in a job his father suspected he didn't like much. He was a barn boy who wanted the barn back, not all that happy with the life he'd found himself in, and he had a bid in on Mrs. Rizzo's house.

And he was coming home for Thanksgiving, though not until the day before. I felt a sudden, but strong, urge to re-establish our friendship.

I said goodnight to everyone, then went to gather up my brother and whoever else was still there. Matt and Joey were yakking happily together, as were Davy and Ray. I tried to calculate the space in Jack's room, and there was room for five, so I asked Matt where he was sleeping.

"On the couch in the living room of the house out front."

"I just thought I'd ask if you want to bunk in with us. We're just campin' on the floor, but it should be fun."

Joey and Davy both urged Matt to join us, and it didn't take much urging. Matt hurried over to tell his parents about the slight change in plans, then we all went to my house to rustle up sleeping bags and pillows. We didn't bring anything else with us to Jack's, figuring we were all close enough to whatever we'd need in the morning.

We had a great time before falling asleep. We all hit it off well; either that or we were just goofy from being tired. Whatever, it was all hilarity until we were just too tired to laugh any more.

I woke up once when Davy elbowed me while he turned over, and I listened to Ray's comforting snore before dropping back off. Damn strange how I could consider a snoring brother a comfort, but Ray had always snored, and I had always been reassured by that sound.

I was the first one awake in the morning, and my attempt at getting up without bothering anyone soon had everyone grouching at each other. I slipped out of the room, took a pee, and went over to my own house for a shower.

True to form, at six in the morning, my uncle Mike was already in the kitchen having a solitary cup of coffee, all shaved, dressed, and ready for the new day. He smiled when he saw me walk into the kitchen. "Mornin', Mike."

I grinned, "Mornin, Mike!" and he chuckled, indicating with his hand that I should sit down for awhile.

I poured myself a coffee, even though I really wanted juice, and sat down with him. He started with, "That was quite a party last night. Annie seems like a super nice girl. Actually, everyone was really nice."

I smiled, "Yeah, folks are pretty good around here, though there's lots visitin' right now. I don't know who-all you met."

He snorted, "I don't know who I met either, I'm terrible with names. They all seemed like nice people, at least the ones I did get introduced to." He hesitated, "Um, Mike...I wanted to apologize for not getting here for your friend's funeral. By the time Joe thought to call me it was too late to even try."

I sipped coffee and said, "It's alright. Joey told me already. I probably wouldn'ta known if you were here or not anyhow."

He reached over and touched the top of my hand. "Still, we would have been here if we'd known in time. I just want you to know that we didn't just stay away."

I stared at him, knowing what he was suggesting. He caught my eyes and suddenly looked uncomfortable, scratching the back of his head. "Um, I guess we need to get some things out in the open, Mike. When Joe told me you were gay and in love with another boy, I didn't take it too well. Not well at all, to tell the truth. None of us did, really, and I found myself trying to look for signs that we should have seen when you were younger." He snickered, "That was a stupid exercise." He smiled, "It took Sally to prove there's still some intelligence in our branch of the family. While the rest of us were fussin' over what became of you, she took it on herself to learn something."

I smiled, knowing full well that Sally had a stubborn streak eight miles wide, "What'd she learn?"

Uncle Mike laughed, "You know her. She learned a whole lot, joined a club at school so she could learn more." He smiled proudly, "Now, she's the vice president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance and, believe me, we're all a lot wiser." His smile turned into a frown, "It's not easy to change, Mike...not when you've thought one way all your life. You first have to admit you've been wrong, and that's not somethin' that a stubborn Waters boy likes to do," he smiled again, "but, when you have a ten times more stubborn Waters girl tryin' to prove a point...well, you either listen up, or you listen again the next day."

I grinned, "No gettin' away from it?"

He laughed, "No way in hell."

His hand pressed more heavily on mine, and his eyes got watery, "We have the same name, Mike, and there's nobody I want to be prouder of than you. It turns out it's me who's shamed our name, and I'm sorry for that. I've heard nothing but good things about you, and I am proud of you." His hand slipped under mine so he was holding it, "You just keep on doing what you're doing. Be good, be honest, stay healthy. When you find the person you want to spend your life with, I promise to be proud of your choice."

I started to smile, when a slow, steady clapping started behind me. My uncle and I turned our heads and saw my father leaning in the doorway. Uncle Mike blushed, and said, "You weren't supposed to hear that."

Dad smiled, "Why not? I always hoped I didn't name my son after an idiot." Dad blushed, "I trust that you feel the same way?"

They stared for a brief moment, then cracked identical little smiles. Mike said, "I feel exactly the same way." He smirked, "Almost exactly. Explain to me why I've been waiting on breakfast for an hour, and why you're trying to starve this son of yours."

I laughed, taking that as my cue to get a shot at the bathroom before everyone else woke up. I was all naked, water running, just ready to step in the shower, when Dad knocked on the door. "Tony's on the phone!"

"Okay!" Damn! I pulled my robe on and turned off the water, then hurried to the kitchen.


"Hi, Mike."

"What's up? How's your ma?"

"We ain't sure yet, I guess it ain't too bad."

I asked, "Are you okay?"

I could sense his shrug, "I guess. I'm nervous about Daddy now. He stayed up all night, and he's all scared. I never saw him scared before."

"I'm coming down there, Tony. Hector's bringin' me. When'll ya know better what's goin' on?"

"I don't know, maybe an hour. That's why I called. Paulina can't get hold of Hector, and we need some things. Can you stop by our place and get some clothes and our stuff from the bathroom?"

"Yeah, Tony. Whattya need?"

"I don't know. Pants, shirts, socks, underwear. Daddy's shaving stuff, you know."

I guess I did know. "Is the house open? How about for your mother?"

Tony sighed, "It's open, just look around. There's a suitcase in the heater closet." He let out a quick sob, "I don't know about Ma, she'll be here a few days anyhow, so don't bother."

I said, "Don't worry, Tony. Does Hector know where to go?"

"Hold on." There was a pause while he apparently asked Paulina, "Yeah, he knows."

Oh, God. The strain in Tony's voice hurt to hear. I whispered, "It'll be okay, Tony. I love you."

He sighed, then sobbed out, "Thanks, Mike. I love you, too."

"See you in a bit."

When I hung up, my dad was looking at me, concern on his face. "How is she?"

"Tony said it's not too bad, I guess they don't know yet."

Dad nodded, then said, "Ask them here for Thanksgiving, okay?"

I nodded and went back to get cleaned up. I stood under the water feeling bad, wondering why people had to get old, why things happened to them when they did. Tony's parents were already older than any of my own grandparents when they died, and the Wolfes seemed pretty vital before last night. Could I determine my own time on earth based on that of my ancestors? They all died between the ages of fifty-nine and sixty five. How much time did that give me? Or did their genes turn into new spirals, blended ones, longer lasting ones that only I had?

I opened my mouth and turned my face to the shower head, then when I had a mouthful of water I spit against the far wall, just to see how far I could spit really, but to get my thoughts on happier things. I did it a few more times as I washed, making myself laugh.

I didn't often spend much time in the shower, but sometimes I did, and that Sunday morning was one of them. Water tasted different when it was hot, and it was easier to spit out, and there were lots of ways to spit. I was naked, but you have to be in the shower, and I was doing something utterly stupid to bring cheer to my morning, that the stupidness of it did the trick. By the time I felt like a total prune, I was just a silly kid again, laughing at my own spits, and at myself for having so much fun with it.

Then, when I finally turned the water off, I heard the tapping at the door. "What?" I called.

I heard, "Finally!" in Melissa's voice. "Are you gonna be all day in there?"

Oops, "Sorry, I'll hurry. Just gotta shave and clean my teeth."


I skipped the shave, it could wait another day or ten. I combed my hair, brushed my teeth, then surprised Lissie by opening the door so soon. "All yours," I said as I breezed by her.

"Hmmph!" was her response, but I didn't mind.

I hustled over to my bedroom, to find the other guys already there. They were all dressed and ready to go, asking me what took so long. I didn't want to tell them that I'd been spitting, then something about their demeanor made me ask, "You guys already ate?"

Davy rubbed his stomach, "You didn't? Dad and Dave put out a big breakfast, grits and all."

Oh, no! I was all empty, but I had things to do, and the last one was to go socialize some more. I grimaced, "I'm not even dressed, and I gotta get things for Tony. I gotta find Hector, we gotta pick up James." I fidgeted, "Oh, man! Just...just let me get some clothes on."

Joey presented himself in front of me before I took a step, "I'll get you some food. Whattya want?"

I waved him off, "Whatever you like, just anything!"

Joey smiled and saluted, then turned, mumbling, "Those prune omelets were good, especially with rutabagas on the side."

I yelled, "Joey Waters?"

He turned, grinning, and I threatened, "If you bring me a pruneanything, I'll shove my personal rutabaga straight up your ass! I need real food, not some dumb omelet!"

Joey feigned shock, then grinned, "What then, bacon and eggs?"

"Yeah, that's good."

"Pancakes and sausages?"

"Mmm, that too."


I got impatient, "Of course grits!"

"What on them?"

I lunged at Joey, laughing, but he was quick to disappear, and when I turned back around my robe fell wide open, and everybody got a good look at me. I turned around toward my dresser, "Huh. Call me the queer," as I rummaged for underwear and socks.

Davy snickered, "Are you always this cranky when you sleep on the floor?"

"I'm not cranky!" I said as I bent to step into my underpants. Just then, the back of my robe got lifted up, and somebody blew air right on my bumhole, causing me to jerk right up. With underpants half on, it took me a second to turn around, and those guys all had their hands behind their backs and were whistling at the ceiling.

I muttered, "Jerks," and got serious about getting my clothes on.

By the time I was tucking in my shirt, Joey came back, saying "Your food's in the kitchen. Can Matt and I use the bikes while you're gone?"

I said "Sure. You remember your way around?"

Joey said, "I think so. How lost can we get in Morton?"

I giggled, then thought about it. "You can get lost, Joey. Way lost."

Ray left to visit his own friends; Matt and Joey took off on the bikes, and Davy watched me inhale a small mountain of food. Hector showed up while I was eating, and he had already picked up Annie and James. Annie sat sideways on my lap, and I gave her a strawberry to occupy her while I finished my breakfast.

Between mouthfuls, I told Hector, "We gotta stop at Tony's for clothes and stuff."

He said, "I know, Paulina told me. If you tried to call, I went for a run and forgot my phone."

I swallowed my last bite, "S'okay," then downed my milk. "I'm ready!"

Davy laughed, "Always prepared. You're such a boy scout."

I gave him the finger, and we headed out. James came into Tony's trailer with me, and it was a bit of a mistake. He got so hung up on Tony's art that I thought we'd never get away, and at the same time I had the task of gathering things like underpants for my friend then, even worse, for his father.

The trailer was spotless as always, and the only detectable aroma was in the kitchen, probably the scent of what was last cooked in there. I had to sit at the table for a second, just to picture the night I'd spent there. The real warmth of the place wasn't there without the people, but some lingered.

Everything shone, there wasn't a lick of dust anywhere, and I'd seen Tony's mother take care of that. She always seemed to have a cloth in her hand, wiping this surface or that. I tried to remember Tony before I knew him, and only came up with this kind of gray image.

Lots of people had that image in Morton: the poor people. I think grayness comes with the territory. It's the old and worn out part that makes poor seem gray, at least to me. Old clothes, old cars, old homes, that's how poor shows itself on the surface. Scratch a little, though, and you found real people, vibrant people, just like the Wolfe family. Poor didn't stop things from happening, didn't even slow them down. Being rich didn't make things happen either, for that matter, nor anything in between. Being poor limited your possibilities sometimes, but not necessarily the quality of your life. I doubt that there's a rich man on the planet who lives in a cleaner home than Tony, or who eats better tasting food.

There's even a certain sureness in being poor, at least for those who've worked it out. They're the people who would survive even if the dollar didn't exist. They could hunt and trap, pick fruits and berries along the roadside that moneyed people probably didn't know existed.

They'd survive any catastrophe because that was their history, and folks like the Wolfes would share what they knew with others. That was their history, too. If the world that we knew ended in some horrific way, it would be kids like Anton Wolfe who could start a new civilization, not kids like Michael Waters and Davy Loomis.

I smiled at the thought. Just when everyone was starting to call him Tony like I did, Anton suddenly sounded like a fine name to me. That was his given name, after all, and I should respect that. I had to smile, even all by myself. Anton Wolfe wasn't a hated name anymore; it was the name of my friend, the name his parents gave him. Something inside me melted sitting at that table, something important. I'd been trying to separate Tony from Anton for too long, his past from his present, my past with him from the present.

It worked for me for awhile, keeping Tony separate from Anton, but it was used up. Tony was Anton was Tony. We shared a little scab, just like Jed and I shared a big one, but neither of those scabs hurt me anymore. Anton Wolfe existed since he was born. Tony Wolfe was a bit of my own creation, a valid bit at the time, kind of a creation borne of necessity. I had to do something then, and renaming my enemy to allow him to be my friend had worked, both in a pinch, and for some time now.

I would always call him Tony, but if the world somehow got into big trouble and had to be jump started, I'd rely on Anton to share his know-how, his own food, and his shy grace

I stood, calling out to James that we should go.

I waited for him, thinking that James had always been James, never Jim or something like that. I'd always been Mike or Michael, and I answered to either. Tony had lots of names, Ace being the most recent, and he happily answered to them all. Lots of people still called him Wolfie or Wolfman, though thankfully Bambi and Doe-Eyes seemed to have been forgotten.

I called James again, and he came from Tony's room smiling. "Jesus , he's good! There's a whole stack of stuff I never saw before, and Tony gets better and better."

I looked in surprise, "New things?"

James shrugged, "New to me, anyhow. Wanna see?"

I did, but it was Annie to the rescue. She barged in the door demanding, "What is taking you so long?" She looked in surprise at the little pile of clothes on the table and asked, "It took ten minutes for that?"

James looked at his shoes while I blushed. James muttered something about getting caught up in Tony's art, while I mumbled, "I got to thinkin', that's all."

Annie knew I was hopeless, helpless, when I got to thinking. She smiled and said softly, "Get a suitcase, and let's get going before they outgrow these clothes."

Great. All we had to do was find the heater closet, which didn't take but the opening of a few doors. Annie packed everything carefully into the old suitcase, and we hurried out to find both Hector and Davy waiting impatiently.

Hector had a minivan instead of his car, and now Davy was sitting up front with him. I guess he'd moved there so they could talk while they waited for us, so it was Annie and James sitting in the second row with me. I sat in the center, which I didn't mind in a van. I could see forward, while James and Annie could only see headrests.

We took off, and I started saying out loud what I'd been thinking inside, about coming to terms with Tony as Anton in my own head.

James and Annie caught on to what I was saying before Davy or Hector did. James was kind of incredulous, because I'd never told him about what Tony had done to me. His eyes bugged, "Anton? That little..."

Annie leaned around me and smiled at him, "Don't say too much, James. You shouldn't get angry in retrospect. Listen to Mike, because I believe you're going to hear the last nail driven into that particular coffin."

I laughed at Annie's words, and could see Davy's and Hector's eyes fixed on the back seat via the mirror.

I tried to keep it light. "Guys, lots of people did me and Jack wrong. Look at Jed, and Buddy, and Clay. Those were the guys all pushin' it. I'm friends with them now, but Tony's my real friend. He's the guy I do things with, the one I learn from." I shook my head, "I know it don't make sense, but I really gotta let it go. I can't keep hatin' Anton, because he is Tony."

I looked up, and my tears let loose. I managed to gulp out, "I can't go around hatin' what he used to be...I..."

Annie pulled me to her, and James put his hand behind my neck, saying gently, "I get it, Mike, and I think I get you now. 'Used to be' doesn't count in your book, it's what's now, what's gonna be, that matters." I could feel James getting closer, such as the seatbelts would allow, and he practically whispered, "You're so right, Mike." He snickered, "You really floor me, you know that?" I turned to look at James, right into his eyes, and waited for him to finish the thought.

He did. James smiled, "I'm starting to think you'd find the good in a chain-saw murder." There was a burst of surprised and nervous laughter from everyone except James and me. Our eyes were still locked. He went on, "I mean it, Mike. I grew up thinking that every act had its consequences, and that's true enough." He smiled as he collected his thoughts, and a pensive smile from James Green was a work of art that I doubted even Tony could capture. "Bad gets bad, right? You steal and you go to jail. You lie and Momma spanks you so hard you can't sit down." His smile turned into a grin, "Not in your world, though. You give people room to make mistakes, to fix them if they've a mind to." He closed his eyes for a moment, then unleashed the sun on me. "You're it, Mike! Honest to God; that is so beautiful."

James got tears in his eyes. I already had them, but they started flowing faster. Annie's grip on me tightened, and I could feel her breath on my ear. I turned my face to her and immediately got the sweetest little kiss. She took her finger and wiped the tears off my face, smiling and saying nothing.

We all settled in for the ride, Davey calling out the driving instructions that Hector had printed off the Internet. We found the place with no trouble, and parked in the lot beside the red-brick building. We went in through the front door and asked at the desk for Mrs. Wolfe. The lady there apologized, saying no visitors were allowed yet.

Annie asked where the family would be, and the lady gave several suggestions. Instead of checking them all out, Hector dialed Paulina's cell phone from his own, and told her we'd wait in the lobby. We all chuckled at the silliness of phoning someone in the same building, but it worked. We were still milling around when Tony and Paulina appeared, looking tired and a little the worse for wear, but both happy to see us.

We were still greeting each other when a male voice called out, "Anton?" Tony spun around, and the voice continued, "Oh, Lord! Is that you ?"

We all turned to look, and a tall, handsome man was standing there, a surprised look on his face. He was accompanied by a nice looking woman in a dotted dress, and three teenagers. There was a pretty girl about my age, and two boys, one who looked to be around Jed's age and the other maybe thirteen or so.

Tony's face registered shock at first, then delight. He ran to the man and hugged him, crying, "Bart! You came!"

The man kissed the top of Tony's head, saying, "Of course we came! How's Mama?"

That took a second to register in my brain, as I watched Tony hug the woman, then greet the kids. Holy Shit! Tony's brother! At least one of them, and he had gray hair around the temples. Tony finally turned around, saying proudly, "This is my brother Bart and his wife, Sylvia. My niece, Christa, and my," he grinned, "nephews, Lyle and Kelly." They all waved, and we waved back individually as Tony told them our names.

We went to sit in the cafeteria at Paulina's suggestion, while Tony went to tell his father. We sat at a long table, kind of two groups of people, and tried to get comfortable with the newcomers. It wasn't hard, really, just a little awkward. Where Tony and his parents were pretty quiet people, this bunch wasn't, and they all peppered Paulina with questions about Tony's mom, so we all learned the status at the same time.

She'd had a stroke, albeit a mild one, and the doctors were right then deciding what to do for her. From what Paulina knew, doing nothing was a distinct possibility, while prevention of future and potentially worse strokes was the more likely course of action.

When Tony came in with his father, there was a pretty touching family reunion, and I found myself wondering why the Wolfe family had always seemed aloof to me. They certainly weren't among themselves, and the visiting kids happily let themselves be kissed by their grandfather.

The fear that I'd seen on Mr. Wolfe's face the night before was largely gone, and he was obviously elated to see everyone there. He looked tired but happy. He asked Bart, "Did you manage to get 'hold of Arnie?"

That name I knew, he was Tony's favorite brother, and lived up in Oregon with his family.

Bart smiled, and it was pretty much Tony's smile, "Yeah, just before we left. He's willin' to make the trip, but I told him to hold off 'til we knew more."

I hadn't noticed them leave, but Paulina and Hector came from the counter with a tray of drinks and another one of cellophane-wrapped pastries. We watched while Tony's family helped themselves, then dug in ourselves. It was funny for a minute. Christa was flirting with me with her eyes until Annie noticed and kissed me, which brought Christa's attention to James, who flirted back, and was suddenly in a conversation with her. Kelly and Lyle both had their eyes alternating between Paulina and Annie, but Annie's kiss took care of that, and both turned their full attention to Paulina, who seemed unaware of it.

When she took Tony's hand and they got close for a moment, saying something private and kissing, they both seemed happily surprised that their little uncle could be involved with such a fine girl. It was really a good deal that Hector and Davy were there. They both started talking with the other boys and everyone relaxed.

We all listened while Tony's father told about his helicopter ride the night before, "The first time my feet ever left the ground," and laughed at his reactions.

While he was talking, two men approached, dressed in green hospital clothes. "Mr. Wolfe?" one of them interrupted.

We all looked up, and the same guy asked Tony's dad, "Is this your family?"

Mr. Wolfe looked around, then nodded at the man, who introduced himself, "I'm Dr. Wertle, this is Dr. Steinberg." He looked around and smiled, "I think we have hopeful news for you all. Mrs. Wolfe suffered a stroke last night, but a fairly mild one. She had a blood clot in a very small vein inside her brain. Medication has already dissolved the clot, and the oxygen deprivation it caused. Right now, the only after effect she's feeling is a tingling in her right leg, much like you probably all know as your foot being asleep sometimes when you wake up in the morning."

Dr. Steinberg took over. "There's no danger right now, but we're putting her on a mild regimen of drugs to reduce her blood pressure. Her cholesterol is fine, and there's no evidence of diabetes, so the risk of a future occurrence is small. We're keeping her here one more night, but mostly so she can rest up a little. To that end, we'd like her to stay awake for awhile longer so she can sleep through the night." He smiled, "That means you can go visit, but no more than two or three at a time."

There was a quiet little cheer, and the Wolfe family all gathered around the doctors. I slumped in my chair, relieved. I smiled around at everyone still at the table, and caught their own relieved smiles. We knew we'd have to let Tony and his family spend time together, so we ended up taking a walk to look around the campus.

I was seriously impressed, more so when I connected what I was seeing with Jed. It was a cold day near the end of November, but there were still a few colorful leaves clinging to the trees, plenty more on the deep green grass beneath. There were old stone buildings and newer, modern buildings everywhere, but the place generally seemed like a well-kept park. Of course, most people were home for the holiday, so the quiet probably wasn't normal, but we found ourselves speaking softly when we came across a particular building or statue.

It was my first visit to a university, and I had this feeling of reverence for the area. The idea of higher learning took on new significance when I saw where it actually took place. Having no reason to think otherwise, I'd always pictured a university as a big high school building, surrounded by dormitories. That obviously wasn't the case, and I decided then and there that Vanderbilt was where I was destined to be.

I had never mentioned to anyone except Tony that I had even considered the idea of becoming a doctor, because it always seemed beyond reach. Now, seeing where I could learn, I decided on the spot that it was for me after all. I let go of Annie's hand and stopped walking, looking around, all mesmerized by my surroundings. After a moment, everyone stopped and turned to see what was keeping me.

When I noticed them looking, I smiled, saying more or less to myself, "I'm gonna be a doctor, and I'm gonna learn how right here!"

That brought stunned looks from everybody except Davy, who grinned like he knew I'd say that someday. Epiphany: that was the word. I was still looking around, awe turning to happiness. I felt smarter just standing there, knowing the knowledge that lay behind all those walls was waiting for me to come and find it, understand it, use it.

Stunned looks turned to smiles all around when everyone realized I was serious. Annie came to me smiling, "You'll do it, too. What kind of doctor?"

I shrugged, "I'm not sure yet." I felt hopeful, "You think I can do it?"

Annie was funny. She put her hand on her chin and inspected me, even walking around me for effect. When she got back in front of me, she had a dopey grin on her face, one that I'd never seen before, a mixture of happiness, curiosity and surprise. She kissed me, "I think you can do anything, Mike, anything at all."

When we broke the kiss, everyone was close. James smiled, "Annie's right. You'll make it...wherever you want to go."

Hector gave me a rare grin and bopped my shoulder, saying nothing. Davy was right there, trying to displace Annie, who wouldn't let him. He leaned in and kissed my cheek, grinning wildly. "You are the man, Mike! A doctor? I thought you'd never say it. You'll be a shrink, right? I mean, that's you, man." He suddenly looked embarrassed, and added, "Um, unless you want to be a vet or something, maybe a gynecologist."

Annie stood straight up, releasing me. "Absolutely not!" then she blushed like I'd never seen. She hesitated, then some more while her face got even redder. "Um...ah...forgive me that reaction. I just...I...never mind!"

She was embarrassed, and I didn't know why. I pulled her to me and whispered, "It's okay. What's that all about?"

Annie settled against me, and I could feel that her heart was pounding. I didn't know what set her off, but I had the feeling that now wasn't the time to ask, so I just whispered, "I love you, Annie," into her ear. She calmed against me, and I love that she'd feel comfortable enough to do that.

Davy suggested that we head back, and we did. Davy and James started talking, and Hector joined in, but Annie remained silent, so I did too.

Annie finally said softly, "Be a gynecologist if you want, I just don't think it's a job for a man. It upset me no end that the first one I saw was this fat guy, with big fat fingers and no manners. You'd at least have manners, but," she smiled, "you're entirely too good looking for the job." She giggled, "You'd get rich, though, just from repeat business"

Davy apparently overheard, and turned to ask, "How about a proctologist, then?" with a wise-ass grin on his face. He dodged Annie's swing, while I turned to ask what that was.

Annie blushed, "They deal with...um...the other end, the backside."

I was incredulous, "There's asshole doctors?"

I guess that came out pretty loud, because the three guys in front of us all stopped to laugh. James said, "My dad works at the clinic. He thinks a lot of doctors are assholes!"

We all laughed, and we were a pretty happy bunch when we got back to the heart building. Tony's family was mostly back in the cafeteria talking, save for Tony and his brother. Mr. Wolfe smiled at us when we came in, and said, "Y'all can take turns goin' up now. It's room three-thirty." He smiled more brightly, "Go on, now. The missus is feelin' pretty sprightly, but the rest of us need naps."

Annie and I sat down with Paulina while James, Davy and Hector went to say hello. I asked Paulina, "How is she?"

Paulina's tongue poked through her lips before she spoke. "Pretty good, I guess. She looks okay, and the doctors are happy. She'll be going home tomorrow."

I said, "I almost forgot, Dad said to invite Tony's family for Thanksgiving." I put my hand on Annie's wrist, "Be right back."

Paulina snagged me, "Not so fast. I already invited them to stay at our house, since it'll be empty. I'll cook Thanksgiving dinner."

Annie giggled, "You know how to cook a turkey? Can you really do it on a grill?"

A rare cloud of doubt crossed Paulina's face, and it made me turn my head away so I could smile. She said, "How hard can it be? If Dad can do it, I can do it...I mean, you just shove it in the oven, right?"

I turned back in time to see Annie shrug, "I think you need to stuff it, things like that." She saw me looking out of the corner of her eye, and said, "Mike probably knows. Let's ask Mikey!"

I laughed, "Don't ask me, girl! You'll have Tony's ma there, she could probably build a turkey from the ground up."

That got a big laugh from Tony's relatives, and Lyle said, "You know she can. Last time we came for the holidays, she had a turkey with eight legs all sewn on there. It looked more like a porcupine than a bird, and we all got our drumsticks."

I laughed, and got my first serious look at Lyle and Kelly, trying to keep in mind that they were Tony's nephews. They looked a lot alike, a lot like their father. Dark, handsome, confident kids, with the perfect teeth I'd come to associate with the Wolfe family. They didn't really look much like Tony, but they shared some traits, and they were the better ones. Kelly had some zits, but otherwise clear skin. A long glance at Christa told me she was much like them, all dark and pretty...self composed. None of them had Tony's big eyes, but theirs were all clear and happy looking.

I learned something about them, too. Bart had left Morton after high school, just like most kids do. He'd taken a trade in school, auto mechanics, and had worked various jobs, then got married. They were living in South Carolina, where Sylvia was from. When BMW opened their plant there, they both got jobs and were doing well.

I'd had this 'these are good people' feeling since they walked in, and talking to them did nothing to change that. Lyle was in a junior college trying to better some grades so he could get in the university. Kelly was a freshman in high school, and Christa was a sophomore like us. Easy people they were, just as interested in us as we were in them. Honest, hard working, friendly, not a lick of bull involved. I took a long appreciative look at Tony's dad. He never had much, never would, but he'd given his kids the tools and confidence to fend for themselves. He'd encouraged his older sons into trades, but when Tony wanted to be an artist, and the old man learned he could make a living at it, he bought Tony his coveted colors.

It was our turn to visit Mrs. Wolfe, so Annie and I found the room she was in. I expected her to be in bed, but she was in a chair, fussing with the TV remote. "Hi, Mrs. Wolfe!" I said.

She smiled her best, "Hi, Mikey...Annie. I don't believe I've had so much company in one day in all my life."

Annie asked solemnly, "Are you feeling alright?"

Tony's mom smiled softly, "I'll be alright. I have this tingly in my leg, but it works just fine. It's a pesky feelin' but I'll get used to it." She smiled at me, "You, boy, you keep bringin' that tourist around, that one from up in Connecticut!. Her mouth showed a sly grin, "Davy's a fine example of what even a yankee can be. The grin softened back into a smile, "You don't find friends like that in every dooryard, Mike. You take care to see that he remains a friend."

I think I blushed a little, and I hung my head, "I will ma'am." I looked back at her and smiled, "Is there anything we can get for you?"

She caught my eyes with her own, the mother showing through, "You can git gone right now. This old woman needs some sleep, and my men do, too. Don't let them go worryin', either. I'll wake up tomorrow like I always do. My time ain't up yet, so shoo." Her eyes crinkled, "Leave Annie for a moment."

I knelt in front of the chair and hugged Tony's mother, a warm comforting hug. She was still strong, she'd make it.

I told Annie, "I'll be outside," and left the room. The door closed itself quietly behind me.

Annie was out in two minutes, smiling and silent. We walked back to the elevator, both with our own thoughts. When we were headed to the cafeteria, we noticed everyone out front when we passed the lobby. I guess they were only getting some fresh air. I told Tony's dad what his wife had said about getting some sleep, and he just nodded. Bart said they already had a motel room reserved, so that was it. Paulina would stay with Tony and his family, and we'd go back as we came. The only thing that changed is that we squeezed into Paulina's Jeep for the ride home, leaving the van so she could bring Tony's parents home the next day.

It was a pretty quiet ride back to Morton, nobody said much after we argued out the turns back to the highway. Nobody even wanted to stop for ice cream when I mentioned it; all of us anxious to get home to our own families. Davy had lots of relatives next door, James was expecting uncles, aunts and cousins, and Annie her relatives. Hector was leaving with most of his family to visit their family in New York. I had my own at our house, and was kind of anxious to spend time with them.

I guess it was nice that we all had that, but I felt a little sad that our families weren't all one. I had this picture in my head of a giant table, all of us around it, a colossal turkey with a centipede's worth of legs. Maybe in a castle or something, but we could all share the good feelings at once instead of separately.

Not real enough. Hector pulled into my driveway, and Davy and I climbed out.

I kissed Annie, and it felt good to both of us, but there was nothing to say except, "Have a nice Thanksgiving. Call me, or I'll call you."

Hector backed out and tooted the horn, leaving me and Davy in the driveway. There were cars in mine, lots in Tim and Dave's. Davy and I looked at each other, not sadly. We both had family duties, nothing important...just spending some time with everyone, which meant time apart from each other.

I smiled and waved a little, "See you later?"

Davy came closer and hugged me, kissing my cheek. "Later, right? Jack's room?"

I said, "Jack's room."

We turned away to deal with our own families and friends. I had this one feeling, and it wouldn't quit.

I'd never find a better friend than Davy.

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