Jack in the Box

Chapter 51

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : November, 2000

The day after Thanksgiving, I slept late. Well, for me, anyhow. I was still back in my house by seven-thirty, and the only one up. I even beat my namesake uncle to the kitchen. I went hurriedly through my bathroom routine, got dressed, and was on my bike headed for Paulina's by eight. It was a nice, clear morning after all the clouds we'd had, and still chilly, but the blue sky looked real nice and I knew the sun would feel warm later on.

Tony had said that he'd personally make breakfast for us, and that I couldn't wait to see. I'd never seen him cook anything except glue and dead leaves, so this would be a first.

It took me about fifteen minutes to get there, and Tony answered the door on my first knock, grinning like the devil. "C'mon in, Mike. What's this big idea of yours?"

I dropped my coat on a chair just inside the door and smiled at Tony. "Oh, no ya don't. First ya gotta feed me, then I tell you how to get rich."

He raised an eyebrow, "A bribe, huh?" He smiled happily, "How d'ya like your eggs?"

"However you're havin' 'em is fine. Ooh, boy. That coffee smells good!" It smelled fantastic, to tell the truth, and it didn't take long to figure out why. Tony showed me the coffee machine, which ground the beans right inside it just before brewing. I was no coffee connoisseur, but the cupful Tony handed me tasted as great as it smelled.

I sat at the table while he hauled things out of the refrigerator and started cooking. He knew his way around a kitchen, too. He cut big slabs off the Thanksgiving ham and got them frying, then put butter and dishes on the table, along with silverware and glasses. He cracked eggs into a bowl and scrambled them, dropped bread into the toaster, turned the ham over, and put the eggs in a separate frying pan. In about another minute the eggs were on our plates, followed by ham, the toast, and finally a bottle of orange juice sat in front of me.

Tony sat across from me and smiled, "How's it look?"

I grinned, "Better than it will in five minutes. You never said you could cook."

He just smiled and buttered his toast before we dug in. It was flat out delicious, the eggs the creamiest tasting I'd ever had. I commented on that and was told, of course, that he added cream to them. Forsooth!

When we were finished and the table was cleared, I thought to ask, "Where is everyone?"

Tony shrugged, "I'm not sure. Pa went out somewhere with Bart. Paulina's helpin Ma with her hair. I haven't seen anyone else."

"How's your ma?"

He looked at me and smiled, "She's pretty good. We're goin' back home today." He looked around, "It's gonna seem pretty small there, now."

I giggled, "I guess the hell. You could put ten of my house in here, and still have room for your trailer."

Tony smiled wistfully, "I don't mind. I like it here, but I like our place just fine. I'll have a house someday." He grinned, "I'll have one if you ever get off your butt and tell me how I'm gonna make all this money you're talkin' about!"

I chuckled, "Okay, hear me out. It started when I saw your pictures on the computer, the way you could make them get as big as the screen. Then I showed Sally that website, and she got all excited. Her club has their own page on their school's website, and she wants to link to the story, just to show how things happened here. She thinks every school in the country is gonna want to link to that story."

I had Tony's interest.

"Here's my idea. You should have your own website! You could have the pictures little, like the first ones, then charge people if they want to see the real thing and print them off. I don't know how it'd work, but if you could take that tape you made of captions, and somehow have them play while somebody's looking at the pictures, now that would be cool!"

In the first sarcastic comment that I'd ever heard from Tony, he muttered, "I bet Dwayne could show me how," then he brightened. "Okay, tell me how I get a website, tell me how people could pay, tell me you really think they would."

I deflated a little, but not much. I could answer one out of three questions. "I don't know, Tony. You could ask the girl who does the school website about making your own site. Maybe talk to the publisher guy about how to get paid. The one thing I'm sure of is that people would pay to see your pictures, to have their own copies. I know I would."

He studied my face for a solid minute, then cracked a shy smile. "I like that idea. That publisher is Jim Curtin. Is it okay if I call him first? He said if I had any ideas...well, it ain't my idea, but he knows how to do this stuff."

I shrugged and smiled, "Go for it, Tony. It's just an idea."

Tony looked at me seriously, his tongue pointing out of the corner of his mouth after a bit, "I know, but it's a good idea." He lifted his butt of the chair to pull out his wallet and started looking through it, finally extracting a piece of paper. "Wait while I call Mr. Curtin. You'll see, I bet he thinks it's real smart!"

"Um, I think it's a holiday, Tony."

"He turned and smiled, raising his eyebrows, "I got his home phone." With that said, he went to the farthest corner of the room and started dialing, and just then Lyle and Kelly walked in.

I smiled at them and got sour looks in return. Lyle looked in the refrigerator, and turned to the counter. He put four slices of bread in the toaster, and they both kept their backs to me. I said, "Hey, guys," and got no response.

I slumped in my chair. Their behavior angered me, but I wasn't about to start something with Tony's kin, so I kept my mouth shut. I did until the toast popped out, and they were looking around for the butter. I said, "It's right here," and when they turned around, I pointed to it.

Rather than even acknowledge me, Lyle looked back in the fridge and got a stick of hard butter, and I know they tore their toast all to shreds trying to spread it.

I was getting seriously pissed off, and decided for once to say something. "What's with you Lyle? What's with you Kelly? What'd I ever do?"

There was silence, so I kept on. Tony was on the phone, sounding all excited with who he was talking to, and I don't think anything else registered with him. I got no response from Kelly or Lyle, just a couple of cold looks, so I tried again. "Listen, I don't know what you think, or why you think it, but I'm who I am, just like you're both who you are. Now I'm a fish that's gone bad, because of somethin' you saw on theInternet? I'll tell you what. Fuck you! Fuck you both! Go eat your toast somewhere else"

Paulina's voice rang out from behind me, making me jump. "No!" then she was right in front of them. "Give me that toast, you're not eating food here again!" She grabbed the food from their hands and threw it toward the sink. "Get out!" she said, her face right in Lyle's, "Get out of here right now!"

They started to head out of the room in confusion, and she blocked their way. "Out of this house, damn it!" She glared at them, hands on hips. "Move it, children! This is my house, and you better be outside before I count to three!" She crossed her arms in front of her, glaring angrily at them, "One ..."

"What?" Lyle protested.

Paulina got close to him again, "You hate fags, do you little boy?" She pinched his nose, and said like a kindergarten teacher would, "Yes you do! And that's not allowed here, so get out, and don't come back!" She put both hands on his chest and propelled him backwards, " Out! Out of my house!"

Tony had noticed by now, of course, and hung up the phone, a confused look on his face.

Paulina lowered her voice, saying menacingly to Lyle, while poking his chest again, "You go upstairs right now. Get your mother and sister, and get the hell out of this house! If you're not all gone in five minutes, I'm calling the constable, and you'll be arrested!" She stuck her nose right up to his and yelled, "NOW!"

I saw Tony, and he looked stricken, like he didn't know what started it, or what to do. I stood, "I'll leave, Paulina."

She pushed me back into the chair, "No you won't!" She pointed at Kelly and Lyle, "It's these ingrates who'll leave!"

Tony was suddenly beside her, frightened, and with tears in his eyes, " What? What's goin' on?"

Paulina said in a quiet, but strained voice, "I won't have it, Tony. I won't allow a good friend of mine to be abused in my own home, not even by your relatives."

Tony looked shocked, and Lyle said, "We didn't abuse anybody."

Paulina got in his face again, "What do you call it, then? You were deliberately giving Michael the cold shoulder, and it's because you learned that he once had a boyfriend, a boy he loved. Not an hour before that you were saying what a neat kid he seemed to be. I thought we had this ironed out the other night, but I can see that's not the case. What is the problem?"

Kelly spoke up, "It's a sin."

Paulina smiled, "A sin, is it? Where'd you learn that?"

"From our pastor."

She softened, "You might consider a new church. If your pastor is preaching hatred for others, then he's stunting your growth just as surely as if he was taking the food from your mouths."

Lyle's jaw dropped, but Kelly asked, "You don't believe in God?"

"Look, Kelly. Listen to what you just said. I believe in God the Creator just like I believe the sun will rise in the morning. What I don't believe is that he created religion, because if he did, there'd be just one, and it wouldn't be preaching hatred. If all of the modern Western religions were correct, then there wouldn't be a now, because all of humanity would have been wiped out long ago for not conforming to one or another of them."

Lyle's face darkened, while Kelly's took on a curious little smile. "Yeah, I wondered about that."

Paulina went on, "Since you have a pastor, can I assume that the only true Bible is the King James Version?"

Lyle said, "Of course."

"Hm. There were an awful lot of versions written before that one. I wonder in awe about just what might have happened in 1611, in Britain no less, that could have invalidated all the prior Bibles. Oh," she put her hand to her face, "and did you know that King James himself is widely suspected of having been gay, and a pedophile?"

We all gaped at her with that question, and she went blithely on. "Who exactly was this king of England and Scotland, to deem himself saintly enough to authorize a revised version of what had been so written long before. Are scriptures and psalms not likely more accurate in their original verse?" She paused to think, then said, "I was raised Roman Catholic. I see you shrugging, like 'so what', but I'm ashamed of the history of my church, the things they've done over the centuries, and supposedly in God's name. They've been tamed by modern politics, so no more armies, but they still damage hearts and lives with their inflexible views based on their teachings. The Protestant Fundamentalists are no better, maybe worse in their brand of racism and homophobia and hatred of others, their twisted interpretations of things Biblical."

Kelly asked, "What's a good religion, then? Don't the Muslims hate everybody, too?"

Paulina wet her lips, "I don't know. If you read the holy writings from any religion, you can find a message of love and hope in all of them, and they're all pretty similar. Most people could lead a fine life if they went by those words alone, if that was their path to God. The problem seems to be that the people who take religion most seriously tend to overlook those parts, and only go by the words of exclusion and hate that can be found in those texts."

I smiled, sensing that Paulina was taking us somewhere, and she was.

"If you look at any religion, those haters all seem to get their periods of ascendancy. They disguise it in their so-called message, so you can leave church, or the mosque, or the synagogue, thinking you feel good because you've just learned more about love, but it's love for your own kind, and teaches you to dismiss people not like you at best, to hate them at worst." She stared in turn at Lyle and Kelly, "You guys don't have a natural-born hatred for gays any more than you're natural-born killers. You learned it, and you never questioned why. Faith is great, faith is wonderful, but blind faith is idiotic beyond words."

We were all pretty stunned, especially Tony, whose jaw looked like it lost the pin that held it up. I glanced at Lyle and Kelly, then turned what I hoped was a smile to Paulina. She smiled and walked over to me, the only person sitting. She put an arm across my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek, then looked back at them, "If you can find me a kinder person than Mike, let me know. If you can find a more responsible person than Mike, I'd like to see that. If you can find me a more helpful or loving person, tell me, because I want to meet him."

I was getting embarrassed, and Paulina only tightened her grip on me. "I don't know Michael's religion, and I don't care to, but I suggestyou two ask him, because he may have found the real right one." She stopped abruptly, "Oh, I forgot to tell you. Your grandmother got sick at the home of two gay men, men she was happy to be visiting. Her medical bills are being covered by two other gay men. There was no obligation there, they did it so she could get the care she needed, no expectations on the other side."

Someone else finally spoke. Tony looked at Paulina in shock, asking, "Does my Daddy know that? He's been frettin' like crazy."

Paulina left me and went to Tony, "Tell him not to fret. It's a family problem, and the family's taking care of it." She suddenly got tears in her eyes and took a long look at Tony before she turned back to Lyle and Kelly. "Did you hear what I just said? Anton's my family because I love him, and that makes his family part of ours." She smiled through her tears, "That makes you two belong, too, but let me tell you one thing. This family doesn't allow idiotic behavior, and we don't take truck with intolerance of any kind."

She took one more try, almost pleading, "Didn't you learn the Ten Commandments in your church? Which one is your pastor twisting to say something bad about gay people? Or do you have eleven Commandments?" She grinned, "I'll bet it's number ten, where it says you shall not covet your neighbor's ass. Well, I decided long ago to go by the Golden Rule...you know...Do unto others ..."

Her look suddenly softened completely, "Come on, let me show you something." She glanced at me, "You, too, Mike. You haven't seen this."

I stood and took up the rear. Tony was wrapped up in Paulina, Lyle and Kelly were right behind them. Paulina said, "Don't expect anything fancy," as she led us upstairs and down a hall. She opened a door and went in, turning on the light.

It was a big enough room, no furniture except tables and display cases. It was awesome, though. Posters and platinum records on the walls, photos, commendations, plaques, framed letters. Statues and medals were on some of the tables, teddy bears, records, tapes, cd's on others. Microphones, guitars, cymbals, all sorts of things were all over the place, and it was more like a closet for those things than a display.

Paulina let us look around for awhile, then announced, "This," she put her hand to a poster of Scott and Nick, obviously at a concert somewhere, both looking skyward and full of life, "is my father!"

Kelly looked dumbstruck, "Nick Cassarino is your father?"

Paulina smiled and shook her head no slowly, "They're both my father, Kel, and I'm prouder of them than they are of themselves. They think they're lucky, but they have gifts, both of them. They can stand up in front of thirty or fifty thousand people and spread all this love around, all this music, then hurry home to look after us. They write songs and play music that talks to people, but around here they're just Dad." Her look became more intense, "They're in love, boys, and they have been for a long time. You can call it gay, homosexual, whatever, but it's just love when you boil it down. You can't call it sinful!"

I almost laughed when Kelly let out a soft, low whistle, then Paulina went on, "Being gay didn't make them rich and famous; that was their music. Being in love kept them together, though, and that's where they really learned how to do lyrics, because they just wrote down what they said to each other, what they said to us. Something important always came up, it's easy when you have love; then they'd rhyme it, or we would." She stopped short, turned around with tears in her eyes, "I don't love them because they're gay. I don't love them because they're rich. I love them because they're real. They're men! They're generous beyond your comprehension, men with no reason to apologize to anybody about how they've led their lives." She lowered her eyes, "That's why I got so angry before."

Tony hugged Paulina to him and stared at his nephews, then turned to me, "You okay, Mike?" He grinned, "I seen Paulina pissed before, but not like this!" He turned to the boys and continued, "Mike's my best friend, the best person I know. If you can't take him for what he is, then you better get lost."

Kelly turned some sad eyes to me and started to say something, then Lyle pulled him by the collar, "Come on, Kel. I think we know better than this bull."

He started to pull his younger brother away, but Kelly broke loose and stared at me for a moment, then said, "It's not me." He dropped his gaze to the floor, "I...I'm sorry, Mike, I really am."

"Kelly!" his brother demanded, "Don't go giving in to this homo bullshit!"

Kelly spun around and glared at his brother, "No! You go and listen to pastor Fernlick if you want! I like what I'm hearing right here."

Lyle reddened, "You little shit! You're coming with me, and right now!"

Kelly backed away, and his brother went after him, and for the first time in my life I saw Tony explode in anger. He got between them and pushed Lyle back so hard he banged into the door jamb, then he punched him in the face to make a sound like something broke. Lyle collapsed to the floor, holding his jaw and looking up in something like awe at Tony.

I couldn't help it, I started to giggle, and after Tony stared at his hand for a second, he did, too. Kelly joined in hesitantly, and Paulina hugged Tony from behind. Lyle was on the floor, his cheek in his hand, looking up miserably at four laughing people. Tony said, "You should go. You kin stay at the trailer. Maybe you'll wise up after you see how poor people live." Tony kicked his older nephew gently on the side of his ass that he could reach, then said sadly, "Just go, Lyle. There's nothin' for you here." He turned around and fell into a hug with Paulina.

Kelly looked at me for a moment, then held a shaky hand out. I smiled tentatively and shook it, and we had our personal truce. We all watched as Lyle got to his feet, saw him glare defiantly at us, and caught the defeat in his eyes. He was wrong, and he knew it. He wouldn't give up, though, and he just turned and left. Tony called after him, "The trailer's open."

Kelly watched his brother go, and muttered, "What an asshole."

To my surprise, Paulina touched his cheek and said, "Don't go there. He's your brother and he needs you right now. Don't ever let him think that you don't love him."

Kelly looked at Paulina in confusion, and I could see her eyes change. Those eyes were a study to start with, beautiful just to look at, but they showed her every mood. When anger was coming on, it was like the lightning bolts in comic books. Laughter, turn them ten shades lighter, and when it was kindness, they softened like they did just then. "Don't leave him alone, Kelly, not when he needs a friend. He won't change his mind today or tomorrow, but it'll come. He'll always be your brother, though. You go now, be his brother. That's what love is."

Kelly just looked at Paulina as tears formed in his eyes. He nodded and chased after Lyle. I felt a tear running down the side of my nose, and caught it with my tongue when it reached my lip. We all had tears, and Paulina would later call it a bittersweet moment.

At the time, she just clung to Tony, looked at me, and said shakily, "Leave us alone, Mike?"

Oh, boy. I could see how draining the past hour had been for Paulina, how much she'd let out on my behalf. I said shyly, "I hafta go anyhow.' then thought to add, "Clay's comin' back tonight; you two should stop over his house."

Tony and Paulina both smiled, both declined. I said, hopefully, "Well, I'm off to make birdhouses for awhile, then. Thanks for breakfast!"

Tony cried, "Wait!" and I turned around. "That guy Jim, he likes your idea! Not a website...well, maybe a website, but he thinks we should put the pictures on cd's. He's thinkin' three different ones; people, places and things."

God, there we were with tears all over all our faces from the prior emotions when Tony started talking commerce, and like he was interested in it. I grinned at a grinning Paulina and asked, "Can I borrow your boyfriend for a second?"

She nodded, probably knowing what would happen, even though I didn't. I kissed Tony, smack dab on the lips, and he kissed back.

Nothing erotic, but I did pull back for a brief bit of air, and wondered what would happen if he could make himself gay. Then we kissed again, quickly, friends still, and always.

I pulled away and grinned, "I want a picture of macho-you knockin' Lyle down. I want a picture of you cookin' breakfast!"

Paulina cleared her throat. I looked at her and smiled, "I'm outta here!"

She said, "Not yet." She crooked her finger, beckoning me to her.

I went, and she pulled me into a hug, staring into my eyes. "I'm sorry, Mike. I go over the top sometimes, and I didn't mean to make you the middle."

I said, truthfully, "No problem," then I kissed her nose and giggled, "Tony gets better than that," and I kissed her full on the mouth, "like that!"

We looked at each other, smiling, until Tony said, "Time's up!"

I turned and smirked, "You got nothin' to worry about with me. Walk me out?"

Paulina nodded her assent, and Tony and I walked back to the kitchen holding hands. I said, "I'm sorry 'bout all that happened. I know what you said on the phone, and I should'a waited before comin' over."

"It don't matter, it's over. I didn't even see what happened."

I said, "Nothing happened, really. They just wouldn't talk to me." I looked at Tony, "You ever hit anyone before?"

He replied, "No. You?"

I giggled, "You forgot?"

He snickered, "You called that a hit? My wrist hurts." To prove his point, he let go of my hand and rubbed his right wrist with the left hand, sighing, "I didn't know they'd be like that."

I reassured, "It's not your fault. Lots of people are like that, you know."

"I know, I saw it all last year. You know what?"

"What's that?" I asked as I pulled on my coat.

Tony looked at me earnestly, "It's because it's easy. Easy to just hear somethin' and think it's God's own truth. Paulina says a lot of people are too lazy to even think their own thoughts, make up their own minds. They hear somethin' on TV and think that's the way it is, hear somethin' in school and think the same way. She thinks it's stupid and lazy to be like that, 'cause then you only get one view of things."

I said, "I think I agree with Paulina. Do you think she really knew all that stuff about religion and that King James guy?"

Tony giggled, "She knew it, alright. She spent half the night on the Internet lookin' it up."

I grinned and tapped his shoulder, "You're a lucky guy, Tony." I hugged him before reaching for the door, "I hope you have lots of kids, 'cause yours with Paulina will be unstoppable."

I turned to go out, and Tony called, "Wait!" I turned to look at a serious face. "Paulina wants to have a lot of kids. I ain't even ready to think about things like that. I...never mind."

"What, Tony?"

He said glumly, "I'm fifteen! I never been past the city. I wanna go places and do things before I settle in somewhere."

I could see that he was serious. "Do it now, Tony. Go visit Davy, he'd be glad to have ya. Visit your brothers, visit your relatives."

He asked, "Alone?"

I smiled, "Why alone? Take Paulina. Go see her family, too! You can work it in, just like I did."

Tony leaned forward, his forehead against my shoulder, "Heh. You make it sound easy."

I chuckled, "It is easy. All ya need is a ride to the airport." I grinned, "If you go see Davy, don't think I'm not goin' with ya!" I patted his shoulder, suddenly thinking I should leave if I was going to at all. "You left Paulina alone, Tony." I kissed his hair, "I think she might be waitin' on ya."

Tony smiled, "Call me?"

"I will." With that, I was on my way. I hopped on my bike and headed out, only to find Lyle and Kelly sitting at the foot of the driveway. I considered just riding by, but stopped instead.

"You guys lost?"

Lyle, who had a blue looking cheek, turned away, and Kelly said, "We don't know where to go."

"You don't know where your grandparents live?"

He looked down, "Not from here."

I started to give them directions, then realized that, while I knew the way, I couldn't come up with how to put it in words. As soon as I said, "Turn right where the Winterhalter's barn used to be," I knew it was hopeless. I finally said, "C'mon, I'll take you."

Kelly seemed pleased, while Lyle only got to his feet sullenly. I got off my bike and started pushing it, while we walked in silence. Lyle didn't like me; that was clear as clean glass. I think Kelly didn't want to upset his brother more than he already was, so he didn't say much either, except when I pointed out a few things so they'd remember the way next time.

We were almost to Tony's trailer park when I finally needed to talk. "I bet nobody ever got kicked outta that house before. The same thing happened to me last summer, twice, and in two days!"

Kelly asked, "Really? What'd you do?"

I breathed out, "I don't know. I was blamin' my problems on everyone else, mad at the world I guess. I called people names one night, and got kicked out of the friendliest yard in town. The next day, I punched Tony...I mean Anton...and got asked not to come back to another house. I was a real jerk."

"You punched out our uncle?" Kelly asked, "Why? I thought you were best friends."

"Not then, Kel. I hated Tony back then. I was just mad, mad at everything. Jack got killed last April, and this was in the summer. It was the first time I was tryin' to do things with other people, and I was up and down like a pogo stick. Nobody could look at me cross-eyed without gettin' on my shit list. I didn't like anybody, and nobody liked me very much. I felt like a junkyard dog, like my job was to chase everyone off."

Kelly took a long look at me, "What changed?"

I was looking down, seeing my feet take steps, the bike wheels turning as I pushed it. I said, "Everything changed. Suddenly the anger and hate I was pushin' out came back at me." I looked over at Kelly, "I went too far, just like you did with Paulina. People were sorry for me about Jack, and they held their tongues for a long time, all worried I suppose. Then I went totally nuts, and they pushed back. I guess the day I punched Tony will go down as the best in my life, at least so far."

Kelly asked, "Why'd you hit him?"

I hated this part, and I spoke in a monotone, "After the accident, after all the noise died down, Anton Wolfe was the only person in the world who wouldn't get off my case about bein' queer. I mean, he just wouldn't let up at all, and that's why I hated him."

I thought I heard Lyle say something, but when I looked at him his eyes were straight ahead. "I thought he was takin' what friends I had and turnin' 'em against me. Anyhow, after I gave him a bloody nose,everybody was pissed at me. Then my neighbor, Dave, who just happens to be gay himself, locked Tony and me in a room 'til we came to terms with each other."

"You were friends then?" Kelly asked.

"Not then, not really, just not enemies anymore. That same day...it was at a picnic...I learned something about how people treat each other, how they get along, and what the little things we do for each other really mean."

I looked at those two boys. Kelly was interested, into it even, while Lyle was doing his best to ignore me. We were at the intersection that would lead to the trailer park, and I called out, "Lyle, maybe I'll just leave you here." I pointed right, "Maybe it's that way," then left, "maybe that way. Maybe it's still ahead, maybe we already passed the turn. I could'a just went the wrong way altogether from Paulina's house." I smiled at him, "Here's the deal. If you don't talk, I get on my bike and ride home."

He glared at me, and I glared back, saying, "That's the deal." I looked an apology at Kelly, but I could see that he understood. "Talk, or I ride, Lyle."

Lyle's shoulders sagged, "Go, then! We'll find our way." I put my leg over the bike, hearing, "Wait!"

I looked at him, and he went on, "I don't hate you, Mike, it's what you are." He rocked his head back and forth slowly, "Homosexuality is a sin; it's right in the Bible. You can be saved if you change your evil ways."

My temper flared, "Listen, Lyle. God made me just like he made you. There's a saying that God don't make no mistakes, and you're sayin' he did. What if you're the mistake, the thing that went wrong? Didn't you hear anything Paulina said? Didn't you get anything from it?"

Lyle looked at me, and said slowly and clearly, "She made fun of my church, my religion, my bible. Pastor was right about that, too. If you're not white, you're not right."

Help me, my blood boiled right then. "Lyle, that is so full of shit that it stinks out both ends!" Oh, I wanted to just punch him until he begged for mercy. "Paulina didn't make fun of anything! Your brain's in a knot if you think she was tryin' to." I'd had about enough, "You're just like all stupid and lazy people. You hear what youthink you heard, and in this case it ain't even close to the truth. Paulina knocked her own religion, not yours! She never even asked what you were." I looked at Kelly from my bike, feeling bad for him, but done with Lyle. "You guys find your own way, because it sure ain't where I'm headed."

With that, I pedaled away, hearing Kelly's nervous voice calling after me. Just before I got out of hearing range, I heard Lyle's voice call my name, and I stopped my bike and looked back. They were both looking around, and I didn't think he was calling after me, just calling me names. I left for Pat's house, hoping that Lyle wouldn't be stupid enough to not ask a black person for directions, suspecting that he was truly all that stupid and more.

The ride helped me let off steam, and when I was at Pat's I darn near turned back, but I didn't. I was still angry, and barged into the barn, jumping the bejesus out of Patty.

He spun to look at me, and practically cowered. I asked, "What?"

He said, all shaky, "You scared the daylights outta me!"

I mumbled, "Sorry. It's been a bad day so far." I patted Pat's shoulder, "I really need to do some work."

Pat stared at me, calming down, "What's wrong, Mike?"

I looked at him, "Let me ask you something, Patty. Is there some part of you that worries about me being gay, or whatever I am?"

Pat searched my face with his big eye, and his regular one, then held his silence for a long time. "Yeah, to be honest." He saw my startled look and added, "Not a lot! I just think it's," he looked downwards, "weird, kind of scary."

Not my day. I sighed, "You think I'm weird? I scare you somehow?"

Pat cringed back against the workbench, "No...um, that's not what I meant."

"What, then?"

He looked at me, and I could see how nervous he was, "I...I just mean, it's...it's not me. It is scary sometimes, like right now. I don't know why you're askin', and I don't know what you want."

I was about to give up on the day, but I could see that Pat was earnest. "I don't want anythin', Patty. I don't like the idea that you eventhink I want but to be your friend. Where'd you even get that idea?"

He mumbled, "Your Top-Ten."


"Your list of the top-ten boy butts in school."

"What? What are you talkin' about?"

Pat looked at me and groaned, "It was in the locker room one day. You didn't put it there?"


Pat stared at me, trying to measure my honesty level, which I was trying seriously to put across to him. "There's a boy butt list in the locker room?" I swear, my voice had changed a year and more ago, but right then I was back to soprano. "I didn't do it, Patty, I swear!"

He looked at me, in the eyes I think, hard to tell with those glasses, then he said, "Okay."

I blew. "Oh fuckin' kay? What the hell's that mean? I sure didn't put up no list, but you think I did? I thought I knew you better, Pat. I thought you knew me better!"

Pat looked at me, "I guess I don't." I think my sudden anger got him in defensive mode. "You come in here scarin' me to death, then ask me somethin' I never thought about, then get all pissed at my answer. Why don't you go back out, then come back in, and let's try again."

I exhaled. Patty was exactly right, I could have done that a lot differently. I grimaced and nodded, then went back out the door. I stood there for a second whistling, then made some noise opening it.

Pat hadn't moved, but he put on a little smile, "Hi, Mike."

"Hey, Patty," I smiled. "I hope you're in a good mood, 'cause I've seen enough pissy ones this morning."

Pat asked, "What happened?"

I told him what had happened with Lyle and Kelly, with Paulina and Tony, about leaving Lyle and Kelly standing in the road, where they didn't know where they were.

Pat seemed to think it was funny more than anything, but when I finished he said, "Okay. See how easy that was? Now I know where you're coming from."

"Good. Now tell me where you're comin' from. I didn't think you had any problem with me bein' gay."

Pat's smile fled his face. "I guess I said that wrong, too. I...I don't know. There's a paper hangin' in school with my ass named on it, and it says it's your list, and you bust in here and ask me what I think about you bein' gay. Put those two things together in your head, Mike, then tell me what I was supposed to think."

"Tell me about that list, first. Who all was on it?"

"I didn't know all the names, and I don't remember but mine and Jens'. I tore it down and threw it away."

I looked at him, "Where was it?"

"On that bulletin board just inside the locker room door."

"And what did it say, if you recall?"

"Oh, I recall, alright. It said, 'Mike Waters Top Ten - Today's Subject: Favorite Butts'. Then there were the names, one on top of the other. I was second to last."

I shivered, "More! What kind of paper? Was it typed up? What?"

"No, just a piece of lined paper, and the writing was in pencil. I never heard about it from anyone, so maybe I was the only one to see it."

"What were you doin' there, anyhow?"

He looked surprised, "Getting ready for gym."

Now I was surprised, "You take gym?"

Pat looked away, "Not what everyone else does. I'm on a soft exercise program the teacher did up with the doctor. I can use some of the machines...the treadmill and things. I hafta wear a crash helmet even for that." He turned back to me, a grim smile on his face, "At least when my fuckin' head gets fixed the other parts'll be all healthy."

I felt really bad for Pat. I was so used to the glasses, that I often forgot about the serious problems that caused him to need them. Now I was afraid to touch him and give comfort...afraid he'd misread my intentions. I had to get that out of the way, and fast. I leaned close, "Pat, listen to me. I never made such a list, and I want you to know right now that my intentions toward you aren't sexual in the least." He looked up, and I went on, "I like you, Pat. I love you, even, but as afriend." My eyes teared up, "I'd hope you'd know that by now."

Pat sat in silence searching my face for I know not what. I said, almost desperately, "If I was gonna try somethin', don't you think I would have by now? Say somethin', Pat. I'm feelin' all weird now."

Pat stared a bit longer, then cracked a little smile. "You're not weird, Mike. I just get dumb ideas sometimes, and I don't sort them out fast enough." He sighed, "I believe you, Mike; I never didn't. I just don't know enough about gay, and you came in here all strange like. I guess it scared me," he looked down, "that's all." He peered back at me, "I'm sorry you had a bad time with those boys, and you know I don't think like them."

I stared at Pat, and could feel a familiar smile coming back to my face, a familiar something else inside me. The warm feeling that came from knowing Pat was a real friend, that we'd just somehow hiccuped, could talk things out and still be friends. My smile spread, "You okay?"

Pat grinned, "Yeah, I am. You?"

I nodded happily, "Still friends?"

Pat came close and gave me a quick hug, "Yeah, still friends. Want some cocoa?"

I felt better, back on keel. "Cocoa sounds right fine."

Pat made cocoa, and we had a nice talk while we sipped at it, then we went and worked until about two, when I decided I'd better leave. I had so calmed down that the earlier parts of the day seemed like a bad dream. I needed to talk to Dwayne, to confront him about that list. I was pretty sure he had to be behind it.

I came home to an empty house; the note on the counter said all the adults had gone to some mall for Christmas shopping, that we were on our own for dinner, and please use up the leftovers. I checked the answering machine, and ended up very glad that I was alone. I wrote a message for my dad, and noted that Paulina and Annie had both called me, and the next one was Richard Phelps.

"This is for Mike. This is Richard. Daddy wants to know if you want that canoe, 'cause someone else is lookin' at it. Have you seen Anton? I ain't been able to call him all week."

He left his number, then I wrote down the rest of the messages and called Richard's number. Now I got an answering machine, so I said I was definitely taking the canoe, and for him not to leave another message like that, because I was buying it for a Christmas gift.

I called Paulina before Annie, thinking it would be the shorter call.


"Hi, Paulina. It's Mike."

"Oh, I'm glad you called. I want to apologize for this morning. That should not have happened."

I was confused, "It ain't your fault. I thought you did good."

She sighed, "Still, it happened here, and it shouldn't have. Honestly, I thought everything was square after the other night. We all talked to that family, and now I don't think any of them got that we were serious. They're so tied up with their pastor Phlegmwad, or whatever his name is, that they can't see straight. Anyhow, they're gone now, gone home to wherever they came from. I really feel bad for Kelly. He's the only one with a clue."

I said, "I don't get it, Paulina. They're such nice people, then suddenlyI'm a piece of crap just because of the way I'm made?

"They're not built like that, Mike. They are nice people in most ways. I sent them packing from here, but Tony's own parents sent them home from their place."

I gasped, and Paulina went on. "I don't know if you've noticed, but Tony's parents don't own a mean bone between them, and they don't like at all that their kin have developed one." Her voice got worried, "I still, after five years, have to deal with my own brother's on-and-off freakiness about gays. He knows he's loved, knows he's cared for, yet he still gets strange, and I know it's the Hispanic, macho thing. He just gets this idea sometimes that it can't be right."

I said, without thinking much, "He should meet Guy."


I realized she didn't know. "Guy's a kid I met in Connecticut, the brother of a friend of Davy's. He's Puerto Rican, a really fun person, and he's gay."

Paulina giggled, "I suppose he's good looking?"

I blushed, alone in the kitchen, holding the phone at my ear. I growled, "Don't start!"

Paulina laughed, "I already know about your affair with Guy."

I almost choked, "My affair? Annie said that?"

"Relax, Mike. I dragged it out of her when she was upset."

I groaned, "I didn't think she was all that upset, just a little. Is a half hour really an affair?"

"I don't suppose so, and I don't believe either you or Annie knew how you'd grow to feel about each other at the time. I guess you were free to do what you wanted."

I was confused, "If you knew that would upset her, why'd you tell Tony it was okay for him and me? I don't get it."

Paulina sighed, "Do you actually believe I thought he'd try it, or that I thought you'd go along? No, sir. That was a classic example of miscommunication on my part, the all-time classic example. I said what I said, though, so I own it. In the future, I hope you'll remember that evening fondly, because if it happens again you'll both be carrying your dicks in your back pockets!"

I said, "Ouch! I'm cringin' at that image.

Paulina laughed, "Cringe you should, but keep it in the back of your mind. Anyhow, Annie called, and we're going to stop by to see Clay after all."

I said, "Good. Annie called here, too, so I guess I'll call her back. Heh, you think Clay's gonna be all Italian now?"

She laughed again, "I can't wait to find out! I'm going over to Tony's with a basketful of leftovers, so we'll both see you tonight."

"Okay. Wait. Somebody's screwin' around, and I think I know who it is. Pat saw a paper at school, and it's supposed to be my list of the ten best boy butts in school. You think it might be Dwayne?"

"What? That is so not funny! I didn't hear anything about it. Did Pat keep it?"

"No, he threw it away. He thinks maybe he's the only one who saw it, because he never heard nuthin' either."

Paulina let out a long sigh. "Don't worry; we'll get to the bottom of it. I don't know about Dwayne, though. It sounds kind of juvenile for him. Did Pat say who was on the list?"

"The only ones he remembered were him and Jens. I'm gonna ask Dwayne, anyhow. You know, if it was him, you'd think James would be on that list, and Pat knows him enough to remember."

She said, "Don't ask until you see him in person. Maybe you'll get a reaction that will give you a clue."

I said, "Okay, I'll wait. Listen, I gotta get goin' here. See you later?"

I could feel Paulina's smile through the phone, "Later it is, sweetheart. Behave yourself."

I laughed, and we said goodbye.

I called Annie, and she'd only called to tell me that Paulina and Tony would be coming over. I told her about the butt list, and she didn't believe it was Dwayne, either, but she'd keep her ears open. Then we talked about our Thanksgiving dinners, and things we'd done with our families. After that we just talked about us. Paulina had already told her what had happened that morning, and she was concerned about how I felt, which I hadn't fully decided yet.

It still stung, and I hoped that hurt wouldn't set in. Lyle and Kelly didn't really mean anything to me, but we had gotten along just fine until that morning, and I hadn't changed one bit since the last time I saw them. If it had been anyone else...anywhere else, it would probably remain a sting, a painful little bit that didn't mean much.

It wasn't, though. It was Tony's own family, and it happened in Paulina's house, so I couldn't put it off that lightly even if I wanted to. It was something that would come back to bite me one way or another, and I knew it. I suddenly found myself to be the axe that had split Tony's family, and it hurt to be in that position.

I told Annie about Pat, too, about his reactions that morning. I'm glad that Pat was the one to calm down and try again, because I may never have, given the state I was in. It still really bothered me that, even with my good friends, there was some part of me they might not really trust.

That's what I told Annie. She was the one person in the world with a good reason not to trust me, but she did, and more now than ever.

It was the most serious conversation we'd had to date, and I think it worked better because it was on the phone. If we were together, things would have gotten in the way of our thoughts, and a lot of things might never have been said. I always had respect for Annie's intelligence, but that day I began to respect my own. I hadn't missed a concept, hadn't heard a single word I didn't know the meaning of, and I held up my end. Humor slipped in a few times, like it does, but it was a pretty serious discussion, and a long one, and after we hung up I was feeling very satisfied. Annie and I could love each other foolish, but we could connect at an intelligent level, too, and I looked forward to the day we could do it in person, without going all gooshy instead.

I'd barely hung up and turned around when the phone rang, and it was Tony. He sounded kind of hesitant. "Mike? Daddy wants to say somethin', so here he is."



"Wayne Wolfe here. You okay, boy?"

"I...I...Hi! Yeah, I'm fine."

"Mike, I want you to know that I think you're a fine boy, and I'm totally apologetic about the words you had to suffer from my grandsons. If I ever knew my son could grow so hateful, and spread it to his own spawn, I wouldn't have him here to begin with. It's a fitful world, Mike, and I'm sorry to know that boys like you will always suffer the ignorance of others. Just know that you're always welcome here, welcome before that clutch comes back. Here's Anton."

I didn't get to put in a word, and I found myself crying. How could an old woodsman and farm hand be so understanding and insightful? How could his own son get himself into the grasp of a church that preached hatred? Tony's brother, and his wife and kids, had seemed so nice, c lean-cut, talkative, full of fun. Then the word 'gay' gets interjected, and they're something different...guarded and hateful, spouting Bible. King James version only, please.

I was happy to hear Tony's voice again. "Sorry, Mike. Daddy's kinda upset. Ma says the same goes for her."

I had to think, and I didn't have time to do it right. "Tony," I said nervously, "I don't want y'all splittin' up your family over me. I'm not worth that; I can't be!"

Tony was silent for a bit, then almost whispered, "It's not you, Mike. They hate a lot of things, and homosexuals ain't even the top of the list. You got Blacks, Hispanics and Asians up there first, then Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Arabs, a whole lot of religions, before they get to politicians that don't think like them, bank robbers, general liars, and gays. I think if you don't go to their very church, there's little likelihood they'll care much for you, because that makes you different from them"

Tony made me laugh. I said, "Still, they're your family."

"Yeah, they are. Daddy told 'em to come back when they can act like it." He paused, "Are you crying?"

I sniffed, "Only a little. It's been an odd kinda day."

"It truly has. Daddy told Kel he could move in here if he can't find peace at home. He's got his eyes open. I don't think he likes what he lives with."

I smiled, "Yeah, he's a nice kid. You could tell he didn't believe all that religious noise when Paulina was talkin'."

"Mike, that's where I got bent. They been bein' nice to her all week, takin' her hospitality, eatin' her food, lettin' her pay for everythin', then when we're back here, she's just a spic. They didn't know she was Hispanic until I said it, but I might as well'a stuck nails in their eyes. I didn't notice 'em offerin' to pay her back so they could stay pure, though."

I giggled, "Pure as in? ..."

"Heh, pure as in purely fucked up." <Smack!> "Ow!"

I laughed, wondering if Tony's head had a spot that reflected his mother's palm. "Watch your mouth, Tony. You'll get your eyes popped out one of these days!"

Tony giggled, "Yeah, that's what I get for associatin' with a known homo sexual, and a known Puerto Rican.

I laughed out loud, "You're evil, you know that? A known Puerto Rican?"

Tony snickered, "That's my story, and I'm stickin' with it. See you at Clay's?"

"That you will! Bye, Tony. Bye, Anton. Bye, Wolfie. I love you all."

We hung up laughing, both of us. I felt good again...good and bad at the same time.

I felt bad for Tony and his parents, but I knew they weren't taking my side specifically. I'd really only gotten the cold shoulder that morning, but that had unearthed other things about that part of the family, things that weren't pretty at all.

I went next door in search of Davy, and I found Matt instead. Davy had gone Christmas shopping with his parents and everyone else. Matt had a serious aversion to stores and shopping, and he was pretty funny expressing his adamancy about it. We decided to go for a bike ride, since it was still nice out.

On the way to the garage he said, "So, I hear you're my cousin now."

I smiled, "I guess I am. No secrets on your side?"

He bit his lip in a smile, "Nope, none! Dad told me and Mom how it went down, and I think it's great. You must have been freaked out."

I laughed, "I was scared at first. I didn't know what they wanted. Then...I don't know...it was all this emotion, I guess." I glanced at Matt as I opened the garage, "You have a great family."

He smiled brightly, "I know." He slapped my shoulder before we mounted the bikes, "They're your family now, too. Whatever you get into, they'll be there to bail you out."

We started pedaling out of the driveway, "You need bailing out?"

Matt laughed, "Not technically, I never got arrested or anything." His laugh toned down into a smile, "I don't always get along with my folks; they hold me close to home more than I like." His smile brightened, "I meant that I get bailed out by Dave, Tim and Artie. My dad had parents that didn't care about him, and he's sometimes too much the opposite of that. They want to know where I am every second of my life."

We got on the road and tried to hit a stride. Matt went on, "It's the way my dad grew up...my mom, too. He got no guidance, and she got like nothing but guidance. That's what Dad wished for, so I get it. Sometimes it goes overboard, so I call an uncle." He grinned over at me, "You're gonna love it, Mike." He looked forward and sped up his pedaling, "God, I love these roads." He looked over at me, huffing a little, "We live so much in the city...it's easier to walk"

We pedaled around for awhile, then I took Matt over to Winsome Falls. It had been a rainy fall, and they were up pretty good. We sat there for some time, just tossing pebbles into the water and talking. I liked hearing about Dallas and all the things they had there, and decided on the spot that I should visit someday. After all, I had relatives there now.

When it was getting dark we rode back to the house. Most of the cars were back and Matt followed me into our kitchen, where lots of people were gathered. Everyone looked spent from their foolishness of going to the mall on the day after Thanksgiving, but the mood was cheerful. Davy came over after awhile, and we left Matt talking to my family while I went to get changed for Annie's.

When we got to my room, Davy said, "You know, it's really weird, but I've been nervous about you all day."

I was looking in my closet and I turned to him, "Nervous?"

Davy smiled sheepishly, "Stupid, huh? I don't know what it is; it just has me spooked."

"Spooked? Like what's got you so nervous?"

He looked at me warily, "I don't know exactly what. I just had this feeling that something bad was going to happen ever since I got up. It'd go away, then it'd come back. Very strange."

I looked at Davy, sitting there all edgy looking. I could see that it was bothering him, but I still thought it was funny. "You must'a been feelin' my day, 'cause it truly was strange"

Davy looked curiously, "Strange how? I still feel spooked that something's not right, like something's going to happen."

I said, "It already did. Tony's nephews don't like that I had a boyfriend, not one bit. Paulina lit into 'em like you never saw, then Tony's dad sent the whole bunch home." I made my face into a frown, "They picked me over their own kin."

Davy had sat up, looking as surprised as I'd ever seen him. He blurted, "Who? Lyle and Kelly? They seemed really nice."

"Kelly backed off, Lyle wouldn't. They got some religion in their heads that makes them see evil at every turn. Paulina kicked 'em out, and I was showin' the way to Tony's place, then I just ditched 'em beside the highway. That Lyle's got his head blocked up with bad thoughts. He called Paulina a spic in front of Tony and his folks, and that set them on their way back to where they came from." I looked at Davy, "Tony says it's no big deal, but I feel like I came between them as a family."

Davy leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and rested his chin in his hands. "Maybe it's a backwards feeling I'm getting then." He looked up, "It was you that I thought something was going to happen to. Maybe it already happened. I don't have a picture, just this feeling that something's wrong."

It was my turn to be surprised, "I did get in a tiff with Pat today. He really scared me." I grimaced, "I guess I scared him first." I told him about Pat's reaction when I first got to his place, the list, how we both got mad, then made up.

He smiled, "That sounds like you. You always seem to make out."

I grinned, "Now that you mention it ..."

"Get out of here!"

I chuckled all through my quick shower and shave. When I went back to the bedroom, Davy was stretched out on my bed, hands behind his head, smiling at the ceiling.

I started getting dressed, "Still spooked?" I asked, as I buttoned the shirt I had just pulled on.

Davy looked at me, checking me out in my undies, I think. He smiled, "I don't know. It's just this odd feeling, like something's still going to happen."

I turned around as I pulled on a pair of pants, wiggled my butt at him, and leered over my shoulder, "It could happen any time, Davy. Just say the word."

Davy laughed, "Are you ever gonna give up on that?"

I turned back to him as I pulled up my zipper, and shrugged, "Okay. I give up."

Davy made an odd face, "Just like that?"

I giggled, "Want me to keep tryin'?" Heck, he was stretched out on the bed, so I stretched out right up against him. "Admit it, Davy," I said as sexily as I could muster up, "you want me."

He rolled away laughing, "Jesus! No wonder you scared Pat."

I don't really know what had gotten in me. I was fooling around, not one bit excited, but I think if Davy had said the right word I could have spent the night right there with him. I finally sighed and laid back, my hands under my head. I could say that I was able to stifle my desire for Davy until I was blue in the face, and I could stifle it...it just wouldn't go away.

I needed a healthy dose of Annie, so I rolled to my feet and said, "Let's go. We can be early."

Davy shot me a look, and I think he understood where I was at that moment. I put my things in my pockets, straightened out my clothes, checked my hair in the mirror, and announced, "I'm ready."

He straightened his own self out, then said, "Man, you are in a mood today."

I smiled, saying softly, "You start your day with prejudice against you. See where it brings you. If I was facin' this alone..."

Davy put his hand gently on my shoulder, "You're not alone, Mike. I wonder if that's what I've been feeling today...your feelings."

I turned into a full hug, my chin on Davy's shoulder. "I hope not...for your sake."

Davy sighed, and I nuzzled up against his cheek with mine, whispering, "Days like this are aren't much fun. I mean, Tony's nephews pissed me off, but they don't mean anything to me, really. It was seein' how easy Patty could change that really bugs me."

Davy held the hug, "Yeah, but that was a misunderstanding."

I pulled back and looked at his face, "It's right there though, Davy. Right under the surface. People say they don't care, but give 'em one wrong idea and it's right back on top." I suddenly felt bitter, "You don't know what it's like."

Davy pulled back, "No, I don't. Not from your end, anyhow, but I've seen how it works, even against you." He looked in my eyes, "You get beneath my skin, Mike, way beneath it." We were back in a hug, "You mean a lot to me, a real lot. I...I wish I could protect you somehow, but I can't." He smiled, "You live in a good place, the best place. It's solid here, Mike. Just look at how Pat came around today. That wouldn't happen most places. I don't think he meant anything against you, he just took things wrong."

I sighed, "I know you're right, but he was still afraid of me there, and he's my friend. That's the worst part of today. Now I don't know who I can trust, who's really a friend and who's just sayin' it."

Oh, Lord. My mouth was running ahead of my brain, and I wasn't getting it all together. I looked at Davy, "Can we talk later? I'm spoutin' off here, and I'm gonna say the wrong thing." I looked a sheepish question at him.

He snickered, "Sure. I certainly don't want to hear the wrong thing, at least not out of my Mikey's mouth."

He made me laugh, "Your Mikey? You never called me that before."

Davy smiled, "Yeah, my Mikey." He smiled so sweetly right then, "I like that." His voice trailed off, "My Mikey." He brightened up and smiled at me again, more softly this time. "That's what you are, you know, my best friend."

We walked out through the kitchen. I was a little concerned about leaving Joey again, but all the kids had plans. Jed was borrowing his father's Suburban, and the lot of them were going out for pizza and a movie. Jed was taking Sally. which by now was a given. Ray, Joey, Matt and Pat were going, and so were both of my sisters. My parents and my aunt and uncle were going out to dinner, then to a roadhouse for some dancing. 'Yay', I thought to myself. For once I could have fun without feeling as if I'd left someone behind.

Davy and I left first, again in Dave's Explorer, and we drove straight over to Annie's house. We were almost an hour earlier than we said we'd be, but it was no problem. After we were welcomed warmly and offered drinks and snacks, Annie's dad looked at Davy and asked, "Do you play pool, Dave?"

Davy brightened, "Yeah! I love to play pool."

"How about you, me and Jimmy shoot some eight ball, then? We'll leave these two lovebirds alone for a few minutes."

God, I loved that man! Davy jumped at the chance, and they hurried down the hall. I kissed Annie and mumbled, "I didn't know you had a pool table."

She kissed me back, "It always has that ping-pong thing on top of it."

I grinned, "I guess I'm always lookin' at somethin' else when I'm here."

Annie stroked my cheek, "Oh, Michael! Do I drive you to distraction?"

"You're distractin' me right now, girl," I laughed. "You can't know how much I need this time with you after today. I love you, and I love that you love me. I love that you trust me, and I love that we can talk the way we do."

Annie smiled, settling herself against the corner of the sofa and putting her legs across mine, which turned out to be a fine position for some serious kissing and cuddling. She whispered, "I love you, too, Mike," before kissing me so sweetly that we didn't even come up for air until we heard the others coming back. We didn't change positions much for their benefit, just loosened up a little and put our hands where they belonged.

When they walked in, Annie's father got a glimpse of us and turned to Jimmy, saying, "Jim, be a good scout and get us all some ice water."

Davy had this stupid grin on his face, so we must have looked a sight, but I didn't care. Davy said, tactfully, "Don't ever, not under any circumstances, play pool with a man who has his own table. I am officially humiliated!"

Annie's father looked at him with a smile, asking, "Why ever would you say that, Davy? You comported yourself very well."

Davy shook his head slowly, smiling, "Do you mean I did a good job handing you the chalk?" He turned to us, "This guy can clean the table with the best of them."

Annie's dad said, "I'd suggest that you don't challenge Clay, then. He cleans my clock most of the time."

Annie stirred, whispering, "I need to go and straighten up," and started to pull away from me.

I had to hold on to her, as I whispered in horror, "Not yet!"

She giggled, and struggled away from me. She gave me some cover while she stood straight in front of me, looking my way. She whispered, "Lean forward, I won't be long."

Lean I did, pulling my knees together and putting my elbows on them, resting my chin in my hands. I felt slim better when I saw Annie walk away. Her skirt was askew, her blouse was mostly pulled out from it, the back of her hair was an absolute mess, and she still looked fine. Her father and Davy paid no attention as they inspected some knickknacks on the mantle.

She had barely escaped my view when Annie's dad turned to Davy, "If you two don't mind, I should check on my wife's progress with dinner."

I squeaked, "That's fine by me," quite likely a little quicker than I should have.

Davy added, "We'll be fine. Thanks for the game, even if you did kill me."

Mr. Nettleton smiled, apologized for leaving us alone, and left. Davy put his hand right on the front of his face, spread his fingers so he could see through them, and giggled. "Oh, God, you should see yourself! I guess that was an hour well spent. You were so heated up when we came in you looked ready to explode,"

I blushed, "That wasn't a whole hour, was it?" I didn't think it was anything like that amount of time.

Davy said, "Almost to the minute. Where's the bathroom? You need to clean up before anyone gets here. And you don't have to hide that thing from me, I've seen it before." He held a hand down to me, and I took it, and he pulled me to my feet, wheezing out a laugh when he saw that I wasn't even zipped up. "Does it hurt?"

I said, pleasantly enough, "Fuck you," while I tried to work my zipper up. I hurried to the bathroom in the hall and locked the door behind me. The inside of the door held a full-length mirror, and when I saw my reflection I had to laugh at myself. My clothes were all pulled apart and crooked. My hair zoomed out in every direction, and most of Annie's lipstick was on my face. That which wasn't on my ear and my neck was on my face, that is to say, and there was enough on my own mouth to make even me smile.

I took my shirt off and hung it on the peg, then looked for cold cream, which I found none of, so I washed the lipstick off with soap until I couldn't see any more of it. I combed my hair, put my shirt back on and tucked it in properly, then checked the mirror again. Satisfied, I took a step out into the hall to the sound of a ringing doorbell.

By the time I got to the living room again, Annie's dad was taking Tony's and Paulina's coats from them. They were surrounded by Davy and the rest of the Nettletons, and Annie took my hand as soon as I walked in. Everyone seemed to be happy and talkative, and it made me feel good to think my day would end a lot better than it started out.

Annie's parents left the rest of us in the living room, and we'd barely sat down when Paulina looked at me, all seriousness on her face. "I've solved one mystery, Mike. I know who wrote your little top-ten list, and they're likely to die by my hand tomorrow when I see them."


She looked so exasperated that it was funny. "I talked to my family earlier, and I asked Hector and Jose if they'd seen any such list."

We all leaned forward at once, which also struck me as humorous. "Hector said no, but when I asked Jose, I could tell he knew something about it." She smiled, "I don't suffer evasion lightly, so I asked him to put Nick on the phone, and I told Nick to put Jose back on, and to sit on him until I said it was okay to let go. Jose doesn't lie well, and Nick had him pinned." She looked around, "It was him and Scotty Goldman, and they thought they were doing something funny!" She smiled, "I don't know about Scotty, but Jose's going to find out just how funny scrubbing toilets is, and, " her voice became stern, "they're both going to apologize to you, Mike. In person, so you can speak your mind."

In reality, I was very relieved that it was just kids playing games, rather than someone who actually had it in for me. I was comfortably certain that Scott and Jose didn't hate me, and I wouldn't have to confront Dwayne about it, which I kind of dreaded. I looked toward Paulina, "Um, that's good news, I think."

Paulina smiled sadly, saying, "I knew you'd say that, and I understand why. You take out whatever punishment on Jose that you want, and I won't question it. I just don't want to let it get back to Nick and Scott. They don't need to be hurt, and I think this would. I'll put a guilt trip on those two boys that they won't forget! I'll tell Joe, too, because he'll have to handle Scott." She smiled directly at me, "If you're worried, you probably shouldn't be. Jose pinned that paper up after his gym class, and Pat was in the next class. If anyone else saw it, they probably didn't pay any attention. Otherwise, the fewer people who know about it the better. We don't want to be giving other scuzy little boys any ideas."

Jimmy spoke up, "Mind tellin' me what we're talkin' about?"

That duty fell to me, and I did it short and sweet, possibly embarrassing Jim in the process. He knew Scott and Jose, and sometimes hung around with them. He didn't seem surprised by their supposed humor, and called them 'sick puppies'.

We were all having a good time when we heard a thump at the door, followed by it opening and Clay bursting in, laden with luggage and followed by Joe Goldman. We all cheered Clay's arrival, and Annie and Jim ran up to him, while their parents hurried in from the other room. Clay was draped in his brother and sister, and Joe waved happily, saying, "He's back in one piece!" He patted Clay's shoulder, and Clay turned to him, a dreamy look on his face. I couldn't hear what he said, but they ended up in a quick hug, then Joe waved goodbye.

Annie's father cried, "Aren't you coming in, Joe?"

Joe shook his head, "Can't now. My parents picked us up, and the kids are waiting. I'll come back tomorrow, Clay has some of my things there."

Clay had moved into the living room, so Joe shook hands with Mr. Nettleton and waved goodbye.

Clay was busy in a hug with his mother, but as soon as he saw Davy there, he looked around and found me, getting tears in his eyes all of a sudden. He walked to where Davy was sitting, motioning me to join him, which I did. He hugged into Davy, pulled me into it, and started sobbing.

Davy and I just held on until Clay calmed down, which he did in a moment, then Clay said, his voice going high and weepy, "That was the best week of my life."

I put my arm around his shoulder and said, "I'm glad, Clay," and I was, but I didn't want it to be attributed to me, which I suspected was coming. "Tell us about it, okay?"

Clay understood. He smiled up through his tears and asked, "Got about six days to spare?"

Davy laughed and slapped Clay's shoulder gently, asking "That good?"

Clay pulled off his jacket and wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve, then smiled, "It was better than good." He raised his voice a little, "I knew it would be fantastic, but it was better than that, even."

Davy pulled back a little, making a face. "Whew! Long time on the plane, huh?"

Clay seemed surprised, "I stink?" He lifted his arm for a sniff, and made an appropriate face.

His mother was right behind him, hands on his shoulders. She put her face right up beside his, and said gently, "I'm so glad you're home, Clay. I've made pork chops your favorite way, and dinner can be on the table in ten minutes."

Clay leaned back into her, obviously enjoying the closeness. "Okay mom, but I think I need a shower."

The way they were positioned, Clay's mother couldn't see his face right then, but the rest of us could, and the awareness and satisfaction on there was something to behold. He was tired from traveling, exhausted even, but his pleasure at having made the trip and returned home was so evident that I felt almost like I'd gone along.

We all stood in the living room for a few minutes before Clay's father also suggested that he smelled a bit ripe, and we went to carry his things down to his room so he could clean himself up. He did smell pretty distinct..

Well, I picked up a soft bag, and Tony picked up Clay's loose things. When Davy, walking by it, tried to pick up the big suitcase, it stopped him in his tracks. "What's in here? It weighs a ton!"

Clay looked back and said, "Oh, just leave it. That's mostly Joe's stuff."

Clay disappeared to take a shower, and when he came back it was time for dinner.

I don't know who else was, but I was surprised by how well Clay could tell a story, and he sure told some. He hadn't expected to do much with Joe and Marty, but ended up spending almost every minute with them. He'd become outraged on the first day of the trip because it was a Saturday, and everything he wanted to see was closed. I guess he got on Joe's nerves with his anxiety, because he told us how Joe gave him a talking to that night, and that afterwards Clay learned to develop a sense of, and a feeling for, exactly where he was.

He had listened, and settled into Rome at Joe and Marty's pace, which was brisk enough. He'd have to live there for years, he learned, to see all the art housed in that city, but he had managed to adopt the Goldman's love of the city itself, and all its chaos. For all its art and history, Rome was a city full of people and life, and Clay was exuberant when he talked about the neighborhoods, the pace of life, and the food. He had a ball there; that was clear. He'd go back, too; that was abundantly clear.

It was a real nice night for all of us, especially Clay, and he didn't give us a single reason to tease him. He was animated like I'd never seen him before. Even with his head sagging from fatigue, he held out until about ten thirty before he petered out, and that was late enough for a visit anyhow.

Davy and I got hugs from the whole family while we were getting our coats on, and I got a great kiss from a shivering Annie when she walked us out to the car. She was just about to go back inside, when emotion overtook her. She squeezed me harder than she ever had, and started crying. Davy heard her, and scurried over to us to see what was wrong.

She let go of me to take Davy's cheeks in her hands. She kissed him, glanced at me, and said, "Thanks." She seemed to be searching for words, and she finally said, "I owe you guys. Clay owes you, we all owe you." She pulled back from us both and whispered, "Thank you for Clay." Then she turned and hurried toward the house.

I looked at Davy with a little smile, and he returned it, and we knew. Tony had been right in a way that night that Clay drowned. Davy and I, and the boys who had pulled Clay from the water...we were responsible for the rest of his life. It wasn't in the sense that we had to look after him, as we first took that to mean. We were responsible that he still had a life, responsible for every future pleasure and pain that he would ever encounter.

We stood there looking at each other, me and Davy, and smiles crept across both of our faces.

We were responsible, and, for something as meaningful as life itself.

It was a pleasurable ride home until it started to snow about halfway, and I panicked. The last time I'd seen snow was on the worst day of my life.

Davy's premonition wasn't a false alarm, it was a warning.


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