Jack in the Box

Chapter 49

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : November, 2000

My evening with Annie was about as perfect as I could have hoped for, and it was a happy me who pedaled home well after midnight, under a very starry sky. It was cold again, and my hands and face were cold, but I didn't mind. We didn't get to see much of the stars when the weather was warm because of the humidity. When winter came, though, the lack of ground lighting allowed us to see forever, and it was especially mesmerizing when you crested a hill on a bike. You could just look straight out and see all those points of light, almost feel like you were among them in a space ship.

Annie and her mom had cooked up an outstanding dinner; lots of chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes with milk gravy, creamed corn, and a lane cake for dessert. Her family was fun to take a meal with, too. Annie didn't come by her conversational skills by accident. The whole family had lots to say, and they said it with good cheer. I was becoming especially taken with her father, a gentle and kind man, who could turn his observances of every day things into really neat little stories.

Her mother was a bit more acute, but gracious nonetheless, and Jimmy...well, Jimmy was fourteen and open to just about anything, and seriously into foolishness, if that's not a contradiction.

We sat at that table for a good hour and a half, and it was time well spent. After dessert, Annie and Jim cleaned up with their mother, while her father talked to me about my desire to become a doctor. Again, there wasn't a shred of doubt on his part that I could do it, and he actually seemed excited at the idea. I could tell that he liked me, and I liked him. When everyone in the kitchen was done, Mr. Nettleton made it clear that Annie and I needed some time alone, asking Jimmy if he understood that, and they all disappeared, leaving us with the living room to ourselves.

We sat close on the couch, the only light came from the television and what came in from the hall. I kissed Annie and said, "I really like your family." I rubbed noses with her, "No wonder you turned out so nice."

Annie wanted to kiss, not talk, so we did that for a fair while before we talked a little. I had to talk; I needed to say what I felt, and it came out easy. Smiling and snuggling, I said, "Annie, you're like the perfect person for me. I feel so good with you, so left out when you're not there.I guess everybody sees me one way or another, but you see me the way I want to be seen. I try to be good, I really do, but my good's not everyone's." I kissed her, "You understand me, and I can't tell you how good it feels to have that. You know my weakness, and you understand that, too." I kissed her again, "I know you can't like it, but you don't haunt me about it." I looked in her beautiful eyes, "I really love you, Annie. I really do."

Annie held my gaze for a long time, then smiled and gave me a quick kiss. She squeezed me a little tighter, "Wow," she breathed, as she fiddled with the top button on my shirt, "I love you, Mike. I love the way you think, the kind things you do." She giggled, "This will sound stupid, but I love your hands, too.

"My hands?"

She cooed, "Oh, yes. Just like you're doing now...so strong, and so gentle, like your touch goes both ways. You feel me, and I feel you doing it, like you're drawing something out of me, and it's not like I'm being pawed over."

I grinned, "What's it like?"

She sighed, "It's like I'm being loved...cherished."

I whispered, "You are."

That was about the end of our coherent conversation for the evening, and I'll leave the rest to your imagination, only saying that I never tried to break Annie's rules of engagement, though I was fair certain I could if I pushed the matter. I'd never done the deed with Jack, and I didn't feel hard pressed to do it with Annie. There were plenty of ways to get off without violating what Annie was saving, and we were getting good at finding new options whenever there was an opportunity.

Loving Annie was fun, and she shared in that. I made a mental note to keep track of the gladness factor, which is what Jack and I had missed, at least technically. We had each known it, I think, but always talked about love as if that was all there was, and it wasn't...not by a country mile. Our love was deep, profound even, but we tended to dwell there, not thinking about the joy...the elation...it brought both of us. Yes, we loved, probably as much as two people can, but we kept our focus there when we talked. 'I love you' in all its permutations was great to hear, and that's what we said.

We rarely took the time to say how it was manifested in sheer happiness, though, seldom thought it all the way through. We both felt it, and that was probably enough, but it would have been a lot more fun to talk about than our deepest feelings.

My brain and my heart were at odds all the way home, my head telling me I could never love anyone as much as Jack, my heart telling my head it was full of shit. I'd known that I loved Annie for awhile, but that night, riding in the cold, the stars shining, that's when I realized I was in love again, and as I steered toward the stars I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet.

My first love was a boy, now I loved a girl, and I couldn't remember why that had ever been a problem. It was the individuals that I loved, not the gender. Jack was my past, sort of, even though I still loved him. I'd find him again someday, I knew I would. Annie was my present, probably my future, and she'd share Jack with me. Nothing could be better. Woo hoo!

* * * * * * * *

Everything was dark when I got home, just porch lights on, and no sounds coming from anywhere. I put my bike away and started toward Jack's house, but decided I'd just sleep in my own bed. I'd probably wake up the guys if I went to Jack's room, and solitude seemed to promise a lot. I got to my room quietly enough, and flopped on top of my bed, visions of Jack and Annie in my head. Jack and Annie, my loves. I never even got beyond kicking my shoes off.

* * * * * * * *

Alarm clocks are useful things sometimes; you'd just think that some smart guy could design one that would let you plug in weekends and school holidays. But, no. morning is morning to the stupid thing, and if you turned it off just once the night before and forgot, it would screw you the next time by not turning itself back on.

I didn't mind, I'd slept like some dead thing, fully dressed and ready for the casket. I didn't even hit the snooze once, lazily thinking that it was a good idea just to get up. I could have breakfast with Dad and uncle Mike, ride down to Pat's and get some work done, and still come back in time to wake the lazy heads next door.

I stood and turned the light on, noticing that I must not have moved all night, because I only had to smooth the top cover of the bed. I shucked my clothes, grabbed my robe and went into the bathroom.

This will sound stupid, but on a day like that, when I had all the time I wanted, the bathroom was my favorite place in the house. It's where underpants, nakedness, wet...they're all expected and accommodated. Private, too, with that one little window up kind of high, magazines to look through to take your mind off what was happening when you had to sit, a door that, when closed, said to the whole world, 'PRIVATE'!

I took my time, enjoying my personal privacy, and when I emerged I felt great, ready for the new day. I could hear someone in the kitchen already, so, barefooted and in my robe, I joined my father and uncle.

Uncle Mike was at the table, and Dad had his back to me, pouring a coffee. Mike looked up and smiled, "Hey, wait'll you taste this." He held up something, "Pumpkin and raisin muffins: just right!"

Dad turned and asked, "Coffee, Mike?"

I nodded and sat down, reaching for a muffin, and they were good, as were most things from the bakery. I asked my father, "Hear anything more from Andy?"

He handed me my coffee, then sat down. "Yeah, he called last night." He looked at me sadly, "It's not words for an empty stomach, Mike."

Uncle Mike added, "Nor for a full one."

Dad shot him a look, then sighed, "I suppose not."

He turned to me, "They're both badly hurt, Mike. Crushing injuries, they got caught between a pickup and a big semi. Phil's left leg is all messed up, and he may lose it. Andrea got caught on the side of the head by something, and lost an ear, part of her face." He shook his head, "There's other injuries, too, from the airbags, from the seatbelts, just from getting hit like that."

I asked, "Are they gonna be alright?"

Dad closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at me, "I don't know. Andy said he'd call if there was a change, but right now they're both iffy."

I mumbled, "At least they're still alive."

Uncle Mike sighed, "I hope that's a good thing."

When those words settled in my head, I turned an astonished look to him. "What's that supposed to mean?'

He turned his face to me, "Don't take this wrong, Mike, but death is sometimes better than the alternative."

I gasped, "How can you say that?"

He held up his hands, "I said don't take it wrong. It's just that sometimes people get hurt so bad, there's nothing left but a shell. They live, they breathe, but that's all. There's nothing there anymore"

I yelled, "That's not true! NO! If they're living and breathing, they can still have the people that love them." I was all excited, "You're wrong! God damn." I got louder, "If Jack was a vegetable, at least he'd be a live one." I started crying, "I could still have him to love. How can you say that?"

I was glaring at my uncle, and I felt my dad's presence behind me well before he touched me. He gently put his hands on my shoulders, and said, "Mike, things aren't always what you want them to be." He sat in the chair beside me, and pulled me over onto his knee.

Dad's arms wrapped around me, as my mind came up with unbidden remembrances of all the time I'd spent on that knee. For a long time in my life, it was the safest place in the world for me. Mom had kisses and hugs, fed me, took my temperature, tucked me in, but Dad had that knee, and there was nothing left to fret over when I was on it. Now I was almost as big as Dad, but my worries turned into common sense sitting there, almost enshrouded by my father.

I'd seen Jack dead, and the damage to his head...that's wrong. Pat had brain damage, and Jens could have died from loss of blood, but he didn't. Jack didn't have a chance for that. Half his head was gone, his brains oozing their way off the knobs of a two-way radio. I settled back into Dad's embrace, knowing that my uncle hadn't meant anything wrong. Better-off-dead didn't mean from when you're in your prime, healthy and uninjured. It meant after that, however the after came to be

I thought of Dwayne, his friend who was hit by a car...alive, but unknowing, loved still by his parents, but with no presence. I gave Dwayne, mentally at least, the biggest of gold stars for still visiting there. His friend couldn't acknowledge his presence, but the parents got something out of it, knowing their son had a good enough friend to still visit when there was no more reason for his visits.

Dwayne's history with me was cloudy at best, but Dwayne did kind things, and it occurred to me that not forgetting what once was, was a kind act all by itself. I don't know, but for the family of a boy whose life had been destroyed at a young age, it must have been some comfort to see one of his old friends still come around; it must have made their son more than just their vision of him as he was now.

I looked at my uncle and mumbled that I was sorry, to which he just nodded. I went back to my own seat and ate a second muffin, then excused myself to get dressed. When I next went into the kitchen to get my coat, I told my dad and uncle that I was headed to work for awhile, and my uncle asked for directions. He wanted to see for himself some of Tony's famous bird houses.

When I got to Pat's, I started the wood stove and glue pot and picked up right where I had left off. I was soon engrossed in what I was doing. Mr. Anderson poked his head in before leaving for work, wondering why the stove was going. He said I could wake up Pat if I wanted to, but I didn't think I would. I was getting pretty good at putting houses together; Tony and Richard made it easy enough for us. It was impossible to hurry one together, but I was spending a lot less time on the knots, and Pat and I had both invested in little battery operated drills, which made the holes go way faster than forcing them with a screwdriver. The drills were something Pat had seen on a shopping channel, just to give you an idea of how interesting his life was when he was alone.

Jed came out after awhile, and it was nice to spend some time with him. I kidded him some about all the time he was spending with Sally, and I could tell that he liked her. He was still there when my aunt and uncle came to call, and he stuck around while I showed them what I was up to. They both loved the houses, and uncle Mike was interested in how they went together. Before long, he was laughing in disbelief at Tony and Richard's ingenuity.

As soon as my aunt and uncle left, Jed took off to pick up Sally, and I was alone again. I worked until about ten, then left for home.

When I got there, Joey and Ray were in our kitchen with my sisters. They all looked up when I walked in, and Joey noticed the shortness of my jeans. He grinned, "High waters in style here?"

I grumbled, "Must be," as I hung up my coat. I turned around, "What's up for today?"

Shrugs from everyone, so I asked, "Where's Davy and Matt?"

Ray said, "They said to call when you got home. They're out back."

I asked, "Anyone call?"

"Not that I know of, there's no notes." Ray gave me a sly smile, "You get lots of calls these days, don't you?"

I grinned, "What can I say? I'm a popular guy!"

Ray smiled like he was proud of what I'd just said. I think I gave him a surprised look before I went to get changed. Joey followed me into my room, asking, "So, how was it last night?"

I smiled, remembering, "Perfect, man, just exactly perfect."

Joey smiled, "You are so lucky, Mike. It's like you have everything."

I stopped in my tracks and plopped down hard on my bed, gaping at Joey. "You think I have a lot?" I stopped to think, "Hm, maybe I do." Joey sat on the opposite bed, and I said, "There's a world of hurt behind it, Joey. You wouldn'ta said that last summer."

He cocked his head, "Why not?"

I sighed, looking away, "Because I was one big, hateful mess, that's why not." I looked over at him, "Did you notice all that paper in Jack's room?" He nodded, and I asked, "Ever wonder what it is?"

It was Joey's turn to turn away, mumbling, "Letters to Jack; Davy told me." He turned his eyes to me, "Why that, Mike?"

"I don't know, it's just what I did."

He squinted at me, "Letters? Like you thought he could read them?"

I shrugged, "I don't know, I guess I more hoped it than believed it." I looked at the ceiling, then back at Joey, "I had this...feeling, I guess, that Jack was still here, like someday I was gonna open a closet and he'd pop out and 'boo' me...like it was some colossal mistake." I looked at the floor, "I still think it, Joey. I mean, I know Jack's dead and he ain't comin' back, but I don't think he's all the way gone, either." I smiled grimly at my cousin, "If you wanna ever fuck up your head, try on some thoughts like that. I...heh, I was in Monster Mike mode for a long time."

Joey snickered, "Asshole Mike?" and I nodded. "What changed? Just time?"

I smiled, "No, not time. Davy, mostly. He came blowin' in here with his head in a dog's mouth, and I been on the uphill since."

Joey put on a curious little smile, "Care to explain that?"

I brightened up, thinking about it. "Davy made me see what I had ...used to have, anyhow. I don't know how much sense it makes, but I had love...somebody who loved me, and I loved back, and that was when I was twelve. It wasn't some kid game, either. It was serious stuff, Joey, and I talked with Jack about it a lot. I was just so happy, so outside myself."

Joey gave me a 'go on' look, so I did. "You don't get it. A lotta people beside Davy got me goin' again. Oh, God! You don't know this, but Tony Wolfe used to be my worst enemy. It took Dave next door to change that, now we're best friends, and I love Tony. Do you remember Joe Goldman?" Joey nodded, "Well, Joe showed me what love really is, not big love, not like the person you want to spend your life with, but little love: everyday love." I grinned at Joey, "You know what?"

He shook his head, and I said, "It's everywhere, man, and you can measure it."

I had to explain, and I did, the best I could. Joey was a smart kid, and he was soon laughing at the simple symbolism of mulch piles, thinking about the little acts of love that made your days worth living, considering his own little kindnesses that increased two piles of mulch at the same time.

Talking to Joey, I knew that the hardest thing was recognizing incoming mulch. When somebody does for you in a big way, it's kind of right there, but the little things are harder to see. Even like when somebody doesn't tell on you when you do wrong, or even if they do tell, if it will keep you out of worse trouble. Bothering to think about it was more love.

I also realized that most people I knew probably had bigger reserves than me, and if we weren't careful, Morton would become the mulch capitol of the world, at least if everybody bought in to Joe's singular theory.

Joey had a few moments of realization himself, though, and that's when I saw how much like me he really was. He had my father's name, and I had his father's, and there was some humor in that beyond our dads' laziness in the naming department. I was born first, and I could picture my father thinking, 'I'll just name him after Mike, that'll give my brother something to think about', and I was looking at my uncle's retaliation for that act.

Joey and Mike, just like our fathers, only in reverse order. Maybe not reverse, just the perverse order that families seem to find so much delight in.

Our talk was interrupted by the phone ringing, and my sister screaming that it was for me. I left Joey and headed for the kitchen, "Hello?"

Tony's soft voice, "We're on our way back. Paulina says for you guys to come over for lunch."

I grinned, "Really? How's your ma?"

He had coyness in his voice when he said, "Still grouchy," and I could hear the smack, and his, "What?"

I laughed, "Who should come?"

Paulina had the phone, "Anybody who wants to." She sounded pleased, "The house is mine for a few days, so just come on over, bring who you want."

I asked, "Tony's ma is really okay?"

"I think so, time will tell."

I considered who was around, "I can really bring like my sisters, Patty, all those other people?"

She laughed, "Bring them. If we run out of stuff, we can always sell the piano."

My turn, and I was laughing, "How long?"

"Give us an hour. Call Annie...James and Buddy. Call Dwayne, if you want."

"You're kidding?"

Paulina sighed, "It's the holidays, Mike, the perfect time to bury our hatchets once and for all."

I laughed, "Honest Injun?"

She laughed back, "Bye," and hung up.

Joey had followed me, and my brother and sisters were still hanging around. I said, "Party time! Paulina's home alone."

Those were kind of like magic words. Suddenly there was a house available, one without parents, and my sisters jumped up, Joey got this excited look on his face, and Ray bopped my shoulder, "Nobody's home?"

I grinned, "Well, Tony's folks'll be there. I don't see any problem."

You need to understand right now that Morton didn't raise total idiots for kids. An empty house, or nearly empty in Paulina's case, was cause for a party all by itself. An individual with big house like that, set off the way it was, called for a party to match its size. Anything less would be like disrespect of the premises.

Trusting parents aside, nobody would trash a house of their friend, and we never did, though plenty of refrigerators had been emptied out.

I sent Joey next door to round up Davy and Matt, and I started calling people. After a little internal debate, I called Dwayne, and he was excited to be asked. I told him to come to my house, then we'd have three cars, along with Ray's and whatever Davy could borrow. The people I couldn't get ahold of, like Buddy and James, I left the number of Paulina's house and her cell phone number.

Joey came back shortly with Davy and Matt, and Davy had the keys to his uncle's Explorer, saying that he had to argue to get that instead of a rented Taurus. He was funny, explaining that he didn't want the memory of some huge humiliation, like being seen in a Taurus at a major event like a party at Paulina's, tainting his fond recollections of Morton.

We sacked the kitchen and the cupboard for snacks, left a note for my folks that we'd gone off with Ray, and left as soon as Dwayne got there. My brother took my sisters with him, and they were picking Pat up. I'd asked him to come, so I rode with Dwayne, while Joey and Matt went with Davy, who was going to follow us.

We didn't talk much on the way, mostly me saying what turns to take. We picked up Annie, who lived nearer to Paulina, and when we turned into the driveway of the party house, Dwayne let go of the wheel and crossed his arms across his chest, exclaiming, "Jesus!" and grabbed the wheel again. "What a house!"

I said, "It's kinda big, huh?" as he pulled up into the parking area. When we got out of the car, Dwayne stood there for a moment, looking dumfounded at the house.

Davy pulled in, and when they were out of that car we walked around back. The door opened before I could even knock, and Tony was there grinning. He said, "Hey, thanks for comin' to see my ma, it's nice'a y'all." He winked exaggeratedly, "There's no party, 'cause Paulina's not allowed to have parties, but come on in and stay as long as ya like."

I looked at the other guys, "Get that?" and got understanding grins. I hugged Tony, asking, "You okay?"

He squeezed me, "I never stayed in a motel before! It was some rare fun."

"Your ma's okay?"

"Yeah, she's got the grumps mostly. She don't like all the fuss."

We headed inside, and I said, "I don't blame her."

When we were in the hall, Tony turned to us, "They're settlin' Ma into a room up there," he pointed in one direction, "so we're settin' up down here," as he pointed in the opposite direction. We followed him the length of the house, then went down a half-flight of stairs into the prettiest room I ever saw. The walls were mostly paned glass, and different sides looked over part of the back yard, part of the front yard, then across a small pond and to the meadows. The inside was all white-painted paneling and stone floors, with lots of places to sit, and a big grand piano. It wasn't all one level, either, you had to take steps up and down here and there.

Tony's brother and his niece and nephews were already in there, and everyone got introduced around. Ray showed up with Pat and my sisters, then other people started filtering in. Paulina came down from getting Tony's mother settled, and turned on the stereo pretty loud. She yelled over it, "This is as loud as it gets, okay?"

We understood.

It was funny. Joey got a good look at Christa, and he was all of a sudden in full leching mode, followed closely by Matt. Joey had her dancing before that first song ended. I saw Dwayne checking out Lyle and Kelly...not doing anything, but he had an appreciative look on his face, then he got into a talk with Paulina by the window that overlooked the pond. When James showed up, he was with Aaron, and his cousin Lionel was there with them. James saw Joey with Christa and made a big 'I give up' gesture, then came to sit with me and Annie.

Other people came in. When Buddy got there he was with this guy Darius, who I didn't know well, just who he was, which is the biggest kid in the senior class, and president of the student council. He and Buddy joined Dwayne and Paulina after saying hello around to everyone, and meeting the new people.

Tony's dad came in for awhile, but he didn't stay long. The whole time he was there, he kept wincing at the music, and after a few minutes he left with his older son, no doubt to fine more peaceful surrounds. Some time later, I noticed them sitting on a little cement seat next to the pond, and it looked like they were laughing at stories.

I don't know what it is, but sometimes a party is fun and sometimes it isn't. Most people around me were having fun, but I wasn't really. I danced with Annie a few times, but mostly I just sat and watched. I talked and joked with whoever came by, but I wasn't set on seeking people out.

It was kind of enjoyable just looking at how other people interacted. I wasn't miserable or uncomfortable, not by a mile, but I wasn't really in a join-in mood either, just people watching more than anything.

Annie seemed to understand without saying anything, and she was having fun dancing with whoever asked her to. The party was boy-heavy anyhow, so the few girls there just did their civic duty. She was off with James when Dwayne sat beside me. He smiled, "You're being pretty quiet."

I sighed, "I know. I guess I'm just feelin' lazy."

He poked my arm gently, "Take a walk outside. I need some air, and you look like you could use some."

I looked at him, and he was just waiting for an answer. "Okay," I said.

We stood, and I tried to catch Annie's attention, but I couldn't, so we just walked out and found our coats. When we got outside, Dwayne took in all the tiered patios and stonework, breathing, "Jesus! It must be nice, huh?"

I said, "Nick does most of it himself, building walls is kind of his hobby. He's Italian, you know."

Dwayne smiled in awe, "Some hobby!" then mumbled, "Lead the way, man, I don't know where to go."

I smiled at him, "Or how to get there?"

He didn't answer, and I led him to the little road that went out to the main property. He finally said, "I'm finding my way now, I think. It's like I can wait for things to happen, if they're ever going to. A lot's changed since you caught me out." He put his hand on my shoulder, "Honest, Mike, I know I came on like some kind of predator, and I was." He sighed, "I don't know how many kids are gay like me, but I expect it's a lot. I almost threw everything away, and it was all from desire and frustration. I was always so damn afraid."

I mumbled, "I know. I still get scared sometimes when I think about it. Jack and I lived with that prejudice here, and when I went to see Davy up north, I saw it again." I put my hand on Dwayne's and pulled it off my shoulder, keeping hold of it. "It's not like people are bad, Dwayne, not by nature anyhow. Almost everybody that's picked on me tried to make it right since, and the ones who still don't like me at least keep their distance."

There was a comfortable silence as we walked, then Dwayne said, "Maybe, but you're with Annie now. People see you as normal."

"I don't know...could be." I had to think about that. Was it true? "I don't think so, Dwayne. Everybody knows I have a queer side. Maybe bein' with Annie makes it better, but they still know." We walked, "I was thinkin' about it last night, that I loved Jack, now I love Annie. It's the people I love, Dwayne, plain and simple, not their sex." I glanced at him, "Well, with you it's the sex you like." I giggled, "I saw ya checkin' out Lyle and Kelly."

Dwayne chuckled, "Don't blame a guy for looking." He paused, "Do you ever look?"

I laughed, "Sometimes, I guess. I mean, seein' a guy naked don't do anythin' for me, but I look at faces and the like."

Dwayne squeezed my hand, "How about seeing girls naked?"

I gulped, blushed, took my time, and said, "I'll pass on that question, but thanks, for asking,"

We kept walking, holding hands, silent. Dwayne finally asked, "Why are we holding hands? You did that the other night."

After a few steps, I had an answer. "I like your hands, Dwayne. They wrote Jack's story, and it's the most beautiful thing ever put on paper."

Dwayne laughed in surprise, "Your opinion?"

I laughed, too, "Yeah, it's my opinion, and I'm entitled ." I stopped walking, pulling Dwayne short, and he looked at me. "It's beautiful, Dwayne."

His plump cheeks blushed a little, then he smiled, "That's because it's a beautiful story to start with. I..." his eyes clouded, "I'm sorry it ended where it did."

I looked at Dwayne's eyes, feeling tears in my own. I took his other hand, then leaned in close. I kissed him, I did, and right on the mouth. Not a sexual thing, not at all, but a kiss of appreciation, of friendship, and that's the way Dwayne took it.

He just smiled for a moment, and we could both see each other better. We were just friends finally, with nothing between us other than comfort. We stood like that for another short minute, understanding, then smiled again and headed back downhill toward the house.

On the way we talked about Dwayne. Bruce and he were becoming better friends, still sex partners, and they'd been invited to Dave and Tim's the next day so Bruce could meet everyone. That had Dwayne all excited, because he was still all het up about meeting those gay men living normal lives, with both gay and straight friends. Things were progressing at his home, too, getting more comfortable every day. His parents and sisters were full of questions now, questions that showed Dwayne that they cared about him.

We were both happy when we reached the bottom of the last hill, then I turned and looked out over this one big, flat field, remembering playing baseball there. I mumbled aloud, "Maybe I could store mulch here."


"Oh, sorry. It's nothing important."

When we got close to the yard, Dwayne squeezed my hand a little, then let go, saying, "Not a good idea."

I took it back, "It's a fine idea, Dwayne. We're friends now. We'll do what we like, okay?"

Dwayne smiled and focused a surprised stare on me, "You're the boss!"

I didn't argue it, even though I didn't feel like a boss. We held hands right until we got to the door, then logistics suggested we had to let go.

Things had gotten louder, and I wondered just how far away Tony's mother was that it wouldn't disturb her.

When we got back to the others, I immediately saw Annie sitting on a sofa, kind of sprawled. When she spotted me, she opened her mouth, letting her tongue hang out like she was panting. I laughed and sat beside her.

"Where were you? I am absolutely danced out!"

I kissed her funny face, "I went outside with Dwayne. Sorry, I guess we walked awhile."

She smirked, "Were you groped?" and snickered, "I certainly have been!"

I pulled at my sleeve, playing macho man, "Who, Annie? I'll take care of him."

She laughed, "Them, you mean. I swear, anticipating turkey does something to boys!"

I slipped my arm behind her and snuggled up, "It ain't turkey, Annie. It'syou. You don't hafta say gobble gobble to turn on this ol' barn boy."

We kissed, knowing it was hopeless in that setting, and sure enough, hoots and slander started coming from all corners, so we pulled apart laughing. Ray was right in my face, waggling a finger at me, "I saw that. I'm tellin' ma!"

I knew he was teasing, and grinned, "Oh, no!" I faked hiding behind Annie, "Make him stop. If he tells my mother, she'll sew my lips closed."

Annie laughed, and Ray went on, "Your lips? You should be so lucky! She's gonna sew your zipper closed!"

We were all laughing. Annie cried, "Oh, not that!" and went into a little giggle fit.

That's when Tony sat down on the other side of me, leaning close and putting his arm around my shoulder. I guess he was tired, because he leaned back and stretched a leg across my knees. He felt good to me, and I asked, "Tired?"

"I'd say."

"Worried about your mother?"

"Not really, she's okay now. Her leg tickles, that's about it."

"You stayed up late, then?"

Tony leaned his cheek into my shoulder, "Yeah. There was this hot tub at the motel, but none of us had suits."


"We waited up late, 'til everyone was gone, so we could go in our underpants."

I started giggling, "Who's we?"

"All of us," he snickered, "the guys, anyhow."

I chuckled, "You waited up?"

"Bart said we'd just hover 'til everyone left."

That struck me funny, "You hovered?"

"Shut up. We waited, and when we got in it was fine. Then this drunk lady came with her kids, and she was fine 'cept for bein' drunk." Tony started snickering, "Oh, Lord, that lady was a case. She wasn't old or nothin', and she had a bikini on. When she saw Bart, she was suddenly all in love, and things got real rude real fast. Bart was all ablush, and he wanted to go...hell, we all wanted to go, but we was in our underpants."

Annie was wheezing with laughter, but I held it in. "So, what'd ya do?"

Tony sighed, "We waited it out. Hell, with the bubbles nobody could tell what we had on, or even if, but that lady had stayin' power. She could yak like you never heard, and she did. She had roamin' hands too. When she got nowhere with Bart, she went after Kelly, then Lyle, then me. It took her own kids to get her out of there, and they was for sure embarrassed."

I was chuckling, "So how late were you up?"

"I don't know, it was after two, and we had to get up early. We had breakfast with Paulina's family out by the airport."

I looked around the room, and people were still having fun there. I saw Tony's brother talking to Paulina pretty earnestly, then she went and turned the music way down, causing a few dancers to look around to see what happened.

Davy and James seemed to be having fun talking with Tony's young uncles, and Joey and Matt were obviously having fun with Christa.

Pat and Melissa were with them, and they seemed a nice, happy group. I didn't see Ray or Angela anywhere, but that didn't mean anything, it being such a large house.

I nuzzled with Annie until I sensed a change in Tony, and looked to see that he'd fallen asleep. I pointed that out to Annie, and she started trying to get Paulina's attention without making a lot of noise. When Paulina finally noticed Annie, then saw Tony, the change in her face was almost magical, going in an instant from full hostess mode to the tenderest, most loving expression I'd ever seen from her. She sat down next to Tony and started toying with his ear and hair until his eyes slitted open, then she kissed his cheek, saying softly, "Come on, Ace. You need a nap."

Tony nodded and closed his eyes again, and Paulina laughed, "I don't mean here. We have real beds in nice quiet rooms." She tugged gently at his arm, "Wake up for just ten seconds, then you can get some decent sleep."

Tony budged, and I pushed his leg off mine. He mumbled, "Okay," then got shakily to his feet. Paulina pulled him to her, and they headed up the short stairway into the far reaches of the house.

Everything had quieted down, so Annie and I just cuddled together on the couch. We talked some, but not about anything important. We were just enjoying the contact and each other. It was about fifteen minutes before Paulina came back, and she sat beside me, elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands. There was a strain on her face that I hadn't noticed before, so I sat up straighter and put a hand on her back, asking, "Are you okay?"

She nodded, "I'm okay, it's Anton that I'm worried about. He's not used to stress, and it's piling up on him."

I was surprised, "He seemed alright to me."

Paulina turned her head and smiled at me, "He's stressed, believe me, and it worries me that he doesn't just let it out. It's not just his mother, either, though her illness brought it to a head." She put her arm around me, sitting back a bit, "It's you, Mike...and me, and a whole lot of other people." She shook her head sadly, "Tony's so unaccustomed to having friends, so aware of the fragility of things...he's really afraid that it's going to disappear someday, and he'll be the same lonely person he was before."

I protested, "He has friends now, lots of them."

Paulina pursed her lips, "Yes, he does, but he's used to dreaming up his friends so much that I don't think he trusts the reality of having real people in his life." Her eyes focused on mine, "He doesn't trust himself, Mike. That's why he's so eager to please. The last months have given him a whole new concept of life, and he desperately wants to believe it's real. He always drew pictures of what he wanted, carved it out of a twig. Now the pictures move and talk, and the people in them really and truly love him back, but he finds it illusory more than real." She studied my face for a moment, "It's up to you and me, Mike. We're the people he loves most, the ones he's afraid of losing."

I said, "He won't lose me, I promise." I looked at her, "What about you, though? You'll be outta school this year, won't you hafta leave?"

She turned her gaze from me for a dreamy look around the room, didn't focus on anything, and looked back at me, something new in her dark eyes, but I couldn't read it at first. "Mike, when we came to Morton, we all thought we'd hate it, but that hasn't been the case at all. When Maria left for college, the kids around here thought she was making a break for the big time, but that wasn't the case, either. She won't go back there next year, it's too far away. It was kind of an ego thing on her part, like getting accepted meant she had to go there, and she did want to."

Annie spoke up, sounding incredulous, "She doesn't like it?"

Paulina smiled, "She likes it, just not where it is. It's a prestigious school, but there are prestigious schools in driving distance." She smiled, like she suddenly figured something out. "Mike's question was about me, and I can answer it. Anton has two more years of high school after I get out, and there's nothing that says I can't work a job for a few years before going to college, if I go at all."

Annie was aghast, "You might not go?"

Paulina reverted to her normal self, laughing, "Don't worry, girl! We can put a proper front on Tony's carving shack, we'll be fine." She smiled happily, "I can picture myself as the mother of some woodland sprites, maybe a whole bunch. I can't think of a thing that would make me happier."

Annie breathed in sharply, and I asked seriously, "You're really in this for the long haul?"

Paulina bit her lower lip and nodded, "The long haul, if he'll have me."

I pondered that and asked, "What brought this about?"

She smiled in recollection, "Oh, a little kiss in your back yard. I went into it kidding around, but I came out with an altered perspective."

Annie giggled, "Maybe I should try that with Tony. I do believe he had the same effect on Michael!"

I spun my head toward her in horror, and could have sworn for a moment that my hair had caught fire. But I saw the humor in her eyes, and we all burst out laughing. It was funny, and I had a whole new level of respect for Paulina. I'd always respected her and liked her, but that was for her looks, her brashness, her sense of humor, her sense of what's right.

Now I knew right away what I'd seen in her eyes before. It was love, plain and simple. She loved Tony, and she hoped to make a life with him, and she'd do it on his terms. Heh, somehow I also knew that she'd help him decide what the terms were, just so she'd be amenable to them.

What really bothered me was the idea that Tony somehow thought my friendship could was a fragile thing. That was the exact opposite of my feelings. He was one of the people I depended on most, one who almost always supported my ideas, one who I looked to for support. Given his past, I could see how he might think it was a dream at first, but we'd been friends for a good while now, and I didn't see any reason for him to be afraid of it.

There were probably things a lot of people could do that would cause me to not want to be their friend anymore, but when I got as close to somebody as I felt I was with Tony, he could cut my hand off before I even got worried about our friendship, and he'd have to take the other one before I thought he was seriously pissed. It worried me that he felt that way he did.

I looked at Paulina, "Where is he?"

"He's sleeping."

"I know that, but where? He can't go on thinkin' I'm not real."

Paulina patted my wrist, "Tell him you're real tomorrow, okay?"

I stared at her, then had an idea. "I won't wake him up, just whisper in his ear. I heard about it, it's called subterranean suggestion, and it's a powerful force."

Annie giggled behind me, while Paulina smiled, "I think it's submarinal suggestion, Mike, and I've heard about it."

Annie put her chin on my shoulder from behind, giggling, "Both of you, it's subliminal suggestion, and I can tell you it doesn't work, at least not on my parents." She giggled again, "You guys! Subterranean means under ground, and submarinal isn't even a word to my knowledge." She paused, "Paulina, I know that you know the word submarine means under water."

Paulina blushed, a rare thing for her, then grinned, "I was being too quick to correct Mike." She giggled, "Submarinal could be a word, I mean, it's a proper form." She squinted at Annie, "Are you sure?"

It was funny, but I cried, "Stop it! Ain't it worth a try? I, for one, don't want Tony goin' on thinkin' what he has ain't real, 'specially where I'm concerned."

Paulina looked over my shoulder at Annie, and I felt Annie nod, then say, with a lot of humor in her voice, "It's not real science, Mike, but I guess it's better than donating a kidney."

Paulina laughed, "Where would he put a kidney?" then she looked in my eyes, and decided, "It's worth a try, bad science or not." She stood and held her hand out to me, "Come on, Mike."

I looked at Annie for a moment, finding reassurance in her eyes, so I followed Paulina for what seemed like an impossible distance up to her bedroom, where Tony was on his back, under the covers, with his mouth wide open. Paulina whispered, "He always sleeps like that, like he's expecting a pork chop to fall from the sky."

I giggled, "He ain't expectin'; he's just hoping."

Paulina let out a happy, soft grunt of a laugh, shoved me into the room, and closed the door behind me.

I, of course, had no clue what to do. Tony's head was tilted a bit one way, and the side with the ear up was near the edge of the bed, leaving no room for me on there. I had to consider my options. I could kneel on the floor on that side, where I knew he'd hear me, or lay on the other side and hope he would. He was asleep, maybe I could just give his head a gentle shove and make the up ear out of the other one.

That's what I decided to do, and I laid on top of the covers, my front to his side, and attempted to push his face away from me, so as to put the particular ear I needed closer to me. There was no resistance from Tony, but as soon as I let go of his head, it flopped right back where it had been.

I tried again, then a third time, and finally had his ear right in front of me. Now I had to think of what to say. I whispered, "Tony, don't wake up, just listen to me." I waited, and I hadn't disturbed him. "I love you, Tony, and I mean it."

Nuts, I hadn't even introduced myself. "Tony, it's me, Michael Waters, 543 Arlington Road." I found whispering a lot to be a hard thing. "I do love you, Tony, and it's real. I'm real. I love you, and I know you know that."

I had to groan. I was repeating myself, sounding like an idiot, and I stretched out beside Tony, studying his face while I tried to think. He gulped some air, then closed his mouth, and I had to stifle a giggle when his jaw started slowly drooping, and it opened back up. I'd never really watched anyone sleep before, and it was kind of interesting to wonder what was going on in his head right then. Then I had a thought.

I brushed his cheek as gently as I could with my finger, and whispered, "Tony, I came from the same place you did, kind of. I was a loner, too, and we came out of it at the same time. Now we have friends, things to look forward to. I need you too, man." It's hard to sound upbeat in a soft whisper, but I tried. "Lookit where we are, Tony. It's all different now, and it's gonna get even better."

I got the reaction I expected, which was none, then my brain actually kicked in and gave me a look at myself. I was a little embarrassed, and I wasn't going to rely on the subliminal. I started shaking Tony's shoulder, saying firmly, "You gotta wake up, man."

He moaned and turned a little, still asleep, but I kept at it until he turned back to me and opened his eyes a crack. I asked, "Can you hear me? Are you awake?"

He nodded just barely, opening his eyes a little wider. I fixed on them and said, "I don't hate you, Anton. I love you." To prove it, I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then repeated, "I love you, Anton Wolfe. Don't go thinkin' for one second that I don't need you."

A tear formed in Tony's eye, and he asked in a whisper, "You called me Anton?"

I nodded eagerly.

"You said you hated me..."

"I know I did, but I was pretty stupid. There's no way I could hate you, Tony."

He smiled, "I like Tony better, anyhow."

I grinned, "At least I don't call you Anty or somethin'."

We smiled for a moment, then I said, "Go back to sleep, and don't you ever worry about how I feel again. And don't worry 'bout Paulina, either. She's gonna go where you go. You got yourself one classy lady, and she loves you more than anybody does."

Tony asked, with interest, "You think so?"

"I said go back to sleep, and yeah, I know so." I smiled at Tony's sleepy face, "You guys are playin' the same tune, and it's the song that never ends."

Tony closed his eyes mumbling, "Thanks, Mike."

I giggled, "It's Michael to you, Anton," then kissed his cheek and held him while I waited for him to drift back off.

Part of me wanted to stay there and nap with Tony, but I had to go. Annie was waiting, as were a lot of other people. I felt kind of guilty about Davy, because we hadn't spent any alone time together since the night he got there, and I really needed some of that.

I slid off the bed and shuffled quietly out of the room, then found my way back to where I'd come from. The party had pretty much dissipated, and the people still there were straightening out the room. Annie stopped when she saw me, and gave me a hug, asking, "How'd the suggestions go?" before kissing me. "Were you subliminal enough?"

Somewhere, between one thing and another, I had figured out the root word there, and answered, "I don't know about bein' sublime, Annie. I just woke him up and told him."

Lord, Annie sometimes gets close to me when there's no tolerable way to continue forward with our intentions. This was one of those times, when desire was up and opportunity was absent. I pulled back a little, smiling at Annie with a little embarrassment. "Um, maybe now's not a good time."

She grinned wickedly, "I'm not the one pointing a gun." She saw my blush, and asked, "You figured something out?"

I told her what I'd told Tony, and she thought I might be right about his fears.

I looked around to see who was there, and Dwayne appeared saying, "I have to get home. Are you set for a ride?"

I didn't know until I saw who else was still there. Davy had a car, but I didn't see Ray, and realized that I hadn't in some time. I asked Annie if she knew where he'd gone, and got a negative shrug for a reply. I asked Dwayne to hold on, then asked around, learning that Ray had left long ago to take Angela home, because she felt out of place with all older kids. I guessed that he stayed away for the opposite reason. Looking at who we needed to transport, Davy and I decided that we needed Dwayne, and asked him to take Pat, Melissa and Matt home, so there'd be room for Annie, me and Joey to ride with Davy.

When we told Paulina we were leaving, she protested, but I think I saw relief in her eyes, too. We weren't the last to leave, but I could tell that everyone else was ready to go home for dinner. We said our goodbyes, and left.

I walked Annie to her door when we dropped her off, and got a kiss that I won't soon forget. I don't think Joey will forget it either, because when I got back in the car he said, "Man, you're smoking."

I remarked, kind of snidely, "Look who's talkin'! You were all over Christa like a fly on stink!"

He leaned forward, an elbow on the back of each bucket seat, "Who wouldn't be? What a woman."

Davy giggled, "Uh oh, Joey's in love."

I smiled at Joey, "I told ya she was cute."

He grinned, "Yeah, and from now on you get to pick out all my women."

Davy snickered, "Be careful tonight, Joey. Don't go blind on us, and don't go growing hair on your palms."

Joey went to smack Davy, pulling back when he realized he was driving, then smacked me instead, saying, "That's for Davy, give it to him after."

Davy was in a mood. He laughed and said, "You know, if you save toilet rolls they're not half bad lined with Crisco."

Joey muttered, "Bastard," then started laughing. "You old guys know all the tricks, don't ya?"

Davy laughed happily until we got home. We climbed out of the car, and I held Davy back while Joey went inside. I faced him, "How 'bout we go out to eat, just you and me?"

He seemed surprised, "Really? What's up?"

"Nothin' special, it's just there's so many people around. We never get a chance to talk."

Davy studied my face for a second, then smiled, "You're exactly right." He looked around, "Um, let me go get changed. I'll come back over here in a bit."

I smiled, "Thanks. I'll buy...give me a chance to try out the credit card."

Davy was surprised, "You have one?"

I blew on my nails and polished them on my jacket, saying "But, of course," like the guy in the mustard commercial. Davy smiled and waved as he walked off.

I went inside and said hello while I was taking my jacket off. The kitchen was a pretty somber place, and after people said hello, my father said, "Andrea didn't make it, Mike. She died this afternoon."

I felt a knot in my stomach, "She died?"

Dad nodded solemnly. "There's no funeral. That's per her own wish. Phil's been told, but Andy said he hasn't really grasped it yet. Phil's still not out of the woods, so everyone's still trying to figure out what to do." His eyebrows went up, "On top of all this, Mrs. Rizzo accepted Jason's bid on the house, so now they have that to think about. I just talked to her and said what's going on, and she's in no rush to get out."

I just stared, feeling all knotted up. I didn't really know Jason's sister-in-law, but I felt bad for the family. I asked, "Should I do somethin'?" knowing what the answer would be. When my dad shook his head helplessly I just nodded and went to my room.

Ray was sitting in there with Joey, both of them glum and silent, just like me. It was bad news, plain and simple, and not close enough to do a thing about. When someone local died, people came to call, bringing casseroles or tomato salads, some kind of offering to show they cared, and to take away the burden of cooking. It wasn't different than a summer picnic in some ways, except everyone was solemn and regretful

Long distance, though, there wasn't anything you could do except feel bad about it. I felt awful for Andy and his family, for those kids without a mother, but there wasn't even anything for me to cry about.

I bopped Joey's shoulder, "I'm goin' out. You good for the night?"

He smiled, "Date?"

"Kinda, I need to spend time with Davy."

Still smiling, Joey said, "Okay." He looked down, "You guys have fun."

I felt bad, "Joey?"

He looked up, "I'm fine." He wiggled his eyebrows, "I can just think about Christa," then he snickered, "that should hold me for a day or two."

Hopeless, that's what he was. I grabbed my robe and went into the bathroom for a quick shower. Davy was there waiting when I got back to the kitchen, and things had lightened up some as everyone went through a makeshift meal of leftovers and whatever.

Davy and I slipped away with no hassle, saying we'd be back later. As soon as we were outside, walking toward the Explorer, I could tell that we were still in synch. Davy reached for and took my hand, and I almost cried with the pleasure that gesture brought me. It was familiarity after confusion, comfort after being unsettled.

It brought a happy smile to my face; Davy always did, and I felt eager to get wherever we were going, which I suddenly realized we hadn't even talked about. When he was backing out into the road, I asked hesitantly, "Where to?"

Oh Lord. I'd forgotten how much Davy's grin could look like Jack's, and when he looked at me with it I almost melted. "How should I know? I'm the tourist here, remember?"

Options were limited, so I asked, "Crummy pizza or real food?"

Davy smirked, "That's a question?" He laughed, "Let's try real this time, I'm not sure if I ever had any."

I laughed, and the tone was set for the night. We pulled in at Frank's, which was busy for a Tuesday, but we still got a table right away. While we looked at the menu, we remembered about Davy's 'going home' party last summer, and how funny it all was. We laughed about our 'frying pan' medals, then harder when we both said they were being proudly displayed somewhere in our closets. It was funny and touching at the same time, and we wondered who had thought of those particular awards. I thought James, and Davy figured Paulina, but it didn't matter. It was just funny.

Davy ordered a veal dish and I got catfish, fried in the spicy batter. That didn't really matter, either, because after the first few delicious bites, we talked so much that the food was long cold before we finished it. The waitress, as they will, tried to hurry us along, but she was out of her league. We got water after water, then ordered dessert and coffee, then more coffee. Our only real breaks were for the bathroom, and we never went together so they wouldn't clear off the table.

We'd been there for hours when the owner, obviously Frank, and what you might call an elegant man, came over to the table to inquire about our satisfaction with the meal and his establishment. We assured him that everything was fine, and he surprised us by asking about the status of our frying pans. It turned out that they'd been bought from him, in used condition, on the spur of the moment by none other than Annie's father.

I was touched in a lot of ways right then. First that Frank would even remember, and next that Annie's dad had thought of such a thing. Annie's father was a nice guy, that I knew, and we had come to like each other, a lot in my case. It was a real pleasure to learn that he was creative and had a working funny bone, too.

After Frank left, I looked at Davy, half-ass serious. "You know, Annie's dad must be the best father in the world."

Davy was surprised, "How do you mean?'

"I was thinkin' on it the other day. I mean, I look like my brother and sisters, and we're all different, only not a whole lot. Look at Annie's family. You got Clay, all into art and opera, but he loves baseball just as much." Davy nodded, and I went on, "Then there's Annie, she's smart and pretty, and all girl. Like, she could give a hoot about high art."

Davy bit his lip, "You're saying?"

"Think about Jimmy. He should be God's gift to the football team, and he don't even like the sport. He's huge, but he's even more sensitive than Clay."

Davy stared at me, "...and...the point is?"

I tried to glare, then a yawn got me, "I'm sayin' that he lets them be that different! It's like there's no organized floor plan in that house, no expectations other than normal ones. It's like he understands, that's what I'm sayin'."

I was worked up a little, and I sat back to relax while Davy considered. He didn't say anything, so I went on, driven by coffee and baklava. "He's a man, Davy, and he knows me'n Annie're in love, and still he gives us space!. I thought, then added, "Don't go thinkin' I'm bonkin' Annie, 'cause that's not the case. Her dad lets us figure that out, that's my point." I stared at Davy, "I don't know, if I'm ever a father I hope I can be like that, like get past the..." I stalled, thinking my thought was dirty.

"Past what?" Davy asked.

I blushed, probably royally, muttering, "Jizz," as softly as I could.

Davy's look was pretty precious, a mixture of astonishment and humor. "Um, mind explaining that?"

I put my head in my hands, "No, not really!" but I guess I had to. "Okay, you're a father. You got there by cummin' at the right time. Do you really wanna think about some kid cummin' in your daughter? Worse, do you wanna think about it happenin' with your son? I looked pleadingly at Davy, "Let's not go on, okay?"

He smiled, stroking the back of my nervous hand with his fingers, "Let's not. I get the picture." He waved at the bored waitress for our bill, then continued, "I guess it's what parents have to face, not like they don't expect it." He smiled, "I mean, boys screw girls; they have since time began. Some boys do it with other boys, and some girls do it with girls. I think I know what you're saying, and I guess that part of being a parent must really suck." He giggled, "I like when I cum. I don't think I want my mother knowing about it, though."

I gaped, then when Davy's words got to me I laughed out loud.

Oh no! I'd always worried about my father, and I felt really stupid for thinking of cum to begin with, but Davy associated hiding it with his mother. I was thinking about it from the recipient's parent's point of view, and Davy was strictly a donor. Oh, lord.

I was actually glad to grab the bill from the waitress, then proud to drop my Visa card on it. It was my first time using it, and there couldn't be a better way for me than buying Davy dinner.

When we got back home, we checked out Jack's room first, to see if the guys were already in bed. Nobody was, so we left to find them.

I had to pee, so I stopped in the bathroom. While I was letting it out, I noticed the contents of the wastebasket, and couldn't resist. Davy had gone on out back, so I scooped out two used toilet rolls and dropped one each on Davy's and Joey's sleeping bags, just in case they needed them later.

I stopped at my house to say we were back, and left for the barn. Nobody answered my knock, so I just walked in, hearing the usual hilarity emanating from the living room.

Davy's brother, Timmy, was there, having just gotten in from spending time with his friends at home. He was tired from traveling, but in a good mood, and we had a nice talk. I was tired too, so we went our separate ways after a while.

I wandered over to where Adam and Ron were standing, and I guess I regretted it a little. Ron hugged me, and felt my ass cheeks in the process, proclaiming, "Oh, you are equipped!" He was funny, he really was, but I didn't need to know that about myself, and I think Adam agreed.

"Leave him alone, Ron," he said with laughter in his voice. "If Mike wants your paws on his butt, he'll ask you."

Ron pulled back, his eyebrows in motion, "Oops!" He gave me a salacious grin, "Sorry, forgot where I was," then he winked at me, "Nice cheeks, anyhow."

Oh, Jeez. I was embarrassed to even think someone would appreciate an ass, much less my own. As I sidled embarrassedly away, I had to re-think that. There was a spot that both Jack and Annie had found, that would send me absolutely skyward when they touched it. It was up high, and where my belt usually was. Annie said it was an erogenous zone, and I found that she had one in much the same place. Jack, on the other hand, was nothing but an erogenous zone, if all that was true. Click fingernails with him, even accidentally, and he'd be asking, all excited, if I wanted to do something.

I rarely wanted to, but regretted that I hadn't done more, hadn't thought it was fun instead of serious. I missed that about Jack. I missed e verything about him.

I missed Jack something fierce, painfully fierce. I was getting better, though, and Jack was closer now. I could sense him all around me.

'Love Central', that's what Joe Goldman told me I had to be: a love magnet, so Jack could find me.

I was trying hard, really hard.


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