Jack in the Box

Chapter 54

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : December, 2000

I awoke to blackness sometime in the middle of the night. I had to pee, and something was blocking my way out of bed. My eyes did no better open than closed, and it took me a bit to realize where I was, and that Annie was the impediment to my progress.

We'd become somewhat entwined as we slept, and my left arm was under her neck while my right one was draped over her midsection. When my head cleared a little, I laughed silently. My dad had this little joke where he described a pleasant surprise as a tit full of whiskey. That may well be, but finding myself with a sleeping Annie came as a hugely pleasant surprise, even though I knew we'd gone to sleep together.

I guess I wasn't really surprised, but I was pleased beyond measure. I got myself loose, then did my business in the bathroom.

On the way back to bed a horrible thought struck me, and I immediately dug through my suitcase for my beloved picture of Jack. For the first time since I'd lost him, I had forgotten to kiss him goodnight, and I felt terrible. When I found the frame, I kissed the picture over and over again, then held it against my chest as I struggled to convey my silent apologies.

I felt like such a failure, to forget a promise to myself that I'd never forget Jack, and here I had for a whole day and part of a night. I started sobbing, which eventually woke Annie. I heard her stirring, but couldn't bring myself to even look at her.

A minute later, she was beside me, asking, "What is it, Mike?"

I couldn't speak at first, so I held the picture out in the light from the bathroom and moaned, "I forgot about my Jackie, Annie. I forgot all about him."

She took the frame from my hands gently and whispered, "Shh. No you didn't." I turned my teary eyes to hers and she went on, "He's not just your Jack anymore. Remember?" She stroked my cheek and looked into my eyes like she'd never done, "He's our Jack, and we'll never forget him." Her gaze intensified, if that was possible. "Mike, I love you, and through you I love Jack just as much as you ever did." She smiled, "One part doesn't come without the other, and you did not forget him." She touched my shoulder, "Wait."

Annie got tissues from the bathroom and dabbed at my tears, saying soothingly, "You didn't forget, Mike. You just stayed up late, but you didn't forget Jack, and you never will."

Annie pulled me closer into a hug, "Jack's a part of me now, Mike, part of us." She pulled gently at my elbow, "Come back to bed. We can talk this out."


Annie, who had started tugging me to the bed, turned back, all exasperated. "Yes, talk. Honestly, Mike. I don't know why I ever worry about you, because you recuperate faster than a bat caught in a badminton game."

I gasped out, "A what?"

She grinned, then pushed me to the bed. I climbed in, Annie right behind me, and we faced each other. She was smiling, which I had no defense against, then she kissed me. I can't describe an Annie kiss, except they are soft and warm and...wonderful, and...I can't describe an Annie kiss.

* * * * * * * *

I was up early the next morning, as usual. I took a quick shower to clean off the groat, then filled the tub before waking Annie.

I discovered the secret location of the Jacuzzi controls, then went and shook her awake.

Annie's sleepy eyes amazed me. Just opened, they were as clear and smiling as ever, even though her voice was more of a croak than the usual music she made with it.

After a kiss, I practically dragged her to the tub, and there was another kiss. And another.

* * * * * * * * *

The only surprise at breakfast was that Melanie was there, and apparently still there.

It was funny after awhile. Everything was stilted at first, because nobody knew who did what with whom. Tony and Davy seemed happy, as did Melanie, but Paulina was a little grouchy, and she passed it by off saying she wasn't a morning person. The truth was that everyone was wondering who got what, and nothing was forthcoming on that subject. None of us would ask, either, at least not in public or at the breakfast table.

Davy did himself proud with breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausages, even grits, which were way buttery all by themselves.

"Not bad, yankee," I commented. "Excellent grits."

Davy grinned, "I learned from a pro. So, what's everyone want to do today?"

Tony piped up, "I wanna see Tim's old store. I kinda have an appointment there."

Davy smiled, "We should all go. It's really a neat store."

Annie said, "I love antique shopping. Maybe I'll find something fun there."

Davy chuckled, "I hope you brought your whole bank account. It's all high-end stuff there, and I mean real high end."

Melanie cooed, "They have really nice things there, Annie. It's a wonderful place to wander through and dream for awhile."

I was a little surprised to hear her speak up like that, and I turned to look at her. She seemed much more comfortable with our little group than she had the night before, and her relaxed features translated into a loveliness that I hadn't given her credit for. Davy was beaming behind her as Melanie kept up her end of the conversation. I liked her a lot. She was bright and witty, and very kind, and I know we all felt that way. Davy did well by ditching me that day at the football game.

* * * * * * * *

Davy's car wouldn't fit all of us, so Paulina drove the Mitsubishi and Davy and Melanie went together in her car. The talk in our car was mostly about Melanie, how nice she was, how much she seemed to like Davy. I almost, but not quite, said how beautiful I thought she was, but I managed to suppress my thoughts, while Tony blurted his out. "Oh, man, is she pretty or what?" he cried.

To my surprise, Paulina agreed with him. "I can't fault your taste, Ace. She's a beautiful girl, and a beautiful person." She patted his shoulder, "She also has the common sense to know a good catch when she sees him. Did I ever mention that Davy tried to pick me up the first time we met?"

Tony laughed, "Davy did? Now who's got the good taste?"

Annie leaned over to me and whispered, "You can say it, Mike. I think Melanie's beautiful, too. If you don't, then we'll have to rearrange even more of your genes."

I laughed out loud. "Okay," I said, "She's beautiful, but I ain't comparin', Just statin' the facts as I see 'em."

Paulina said, without taking her eyes off the road, "Heh, the facts are obvious, Mike. Melanie is a knockout, she's very intelligent, and Davy's a lucky boy that I didn't fall for him." Her voice softened, "I could have, I mean, he's nice, and he's good looking, and very, very smart. I just thought there was no point, so I stole his beer and brushed him off."

I could see her grin in the mirror, "I didn't stop to consider Southwest's bargain fares, so now I have Ace and Davy has Melanie. Isn't it funny how the world works sometimes?"

She had Annie and me laughing, but Tony took it seriously, turning to her and asking, "Really? It's all just fate like that?"

Paulina giggled, "Sure, Ace. What else could it be? Look at it this way, and take it back as far as you want. If your parents hadn't met and fallen for each other, there would be no you." Her voice turned bitter, "If my biological parents hadn't done the same, then I wouldn't exist. If my real parents hadn't brought me to Morton, we'd have never met. It's all fate, and I'm happy with mine." She said that last sentence with the tenderness I'd come to expect from her when it came to Tony.

Tony brightened, exclaiming, "If you're my fate, then I'm all for it, Deuce."

Annie and I asked simultaneously, "Deuce?"

Paulina reached over to cover Tony's mouth with her hand. "You shut up, let me say this." She glanced back at us, then returned her eyes to the road. "Jose came up with it, calling me all kinds of things at first that related to a deck of cards, like 'one-eyed Jane'. Then one night, Hector was mad about something, and he called me a douche bag. Well, you know Jose, he took a word he didn't know and made it into one he did, and I've been Deuce since then." Her voice stiffened, "Privately until just now, you understand."

"Ace and Deuce?" I asked absently.

Suddenly Annie erupted in laughter, and we covered a good mile before she calmed down, gasping, "Just like us...Ace and Deuce...but we're A/C D/C."

I somehow missed the humor in that, but it crept over me slowly. I asked flatly, "I take it I'm A/C?"

Annie was in a fit of giggles, and I felt the car swerve sharply with Paulina's gasp of laughter, then it was some time before Annie could say, "I'm sorry." She was having a hard time getting words out between giggles, "It's just that Jimmy and Clay play this card game called 'Acey Deucey', and I couldn't help it."

Annie departed into giggle land again, and probably would have stayed there if Paulina hadn't slammed on the brakes, bringing us to a screeching halt. The rest of us had 'what?' on our minds, and she said, "They stopped right in front of me."

In a second, Davy was at the window, pointing to the side of the road, "There's one parking spot. That's the store right there. You park here, and we'll go down to the lot."

He ran off, and Paulina parked. We got out of the car and looked around, finding ourselves in a very neat little downtown. Most the buildings were small and ancient looking, but well kept up. The sidewalks were paved in bricks, and the signs all seemed to be lettered in either black or gold old English script. The building we were in front of was one of the biggest ones, built of different size bricks. It was kind of a square box, with huge, curved bay windows. The sign across the front looked to be made of wood, painted black, with large gold letters carved into it.

"Atkins Antiques" it said, and the immediate impression you got was that it wouldn't be cheap stuff inside. The secondary impression, from looking around, was that price wouldn't matter in this town. I was used to Morton, with Fords and Chevies and Dodges, Toyotas and Nissans.

The street we were standing by was lined with Mercedes, Porsches, BMWs, and the first Rolls-Royce I'd ever seen for real. Annie's eyes were as bugged out as mine, but we didn't get a chance to comment. Tony tugged me, "Let's go inside."

We followed him up the two steps, then he opened the door. We were immediately confronted by a tall, old man in a suit. "May I help you?" he asked formally, but you could see in his face that he meant, "What do a bunch of teenagers from a Mitsubishi want in this posh, expensive, up-and-up, hoity-toity establishment?"

Tony was silenced, so Paulina said, "We're here to see Ruthy. Ace has an appointment."

It was funny. You could see the guy's mind going a mile a minute. "An appointment? I should tell madam Ruth that Ace is here?"

What a snot. I said, "Tell her Anton Wolfe was here. Let's go, guys."

I turned to the door, and the guy said, "Wait. Anton Wolfe? The Anton Wolfe?" He looked directly at me, "Is that you, young man?"

I shook my head and touched Tony's hair, "No, this is him." I was tempted to add, 'old man', but my manners got the better of me.

The old guy looked stricken, "Oh, my. I've been rude. Please do accept my apologies. He held his hand out to Tony, and when Tony shook, the old guy took Tony's hand in both of his. "Welcome, Anton. Please come in." He looked at the rest of us to determine our anger level, then relaxed a little, apologizing, "I'm so sorry. It's just that we get...young people in here sometimes, who don't appreciate the value of things." He turned a kindly smile to Tony, "Most of the things we sell were created by people who are long dead." He beamed, "Meeting a living artist of your merit is a real treat. Oh please, do forgive me. Come in, come in. Can I get you coffee or tea, perhaps a soft drink?"

We all relented and followed him in. I could tell that Annie and Paulina felt like I did, also that Tony was still floating from being called an artist of merit. I didn't have to guess. When the old guy left to get our drinks, Tony beamed at us, "Did you hear that? He called me an artist of merit."

Paulina chuckled, "That's faint praise, Tony, but give that man credit himself. He turned on a dime when he found out who you were, and that's not so easy to do." She smiled, "He left out 'incredible' when talking about your merit as an artist."

Paulina jumped when the guy appeared behind her with a tray full of sodas and muffins. "Indeed I did," he said as he set the tray down. He smiled at Tony, "Incredible is a fair word. I've failed to introduce myself, I'm Robert Bishins, and I really don't try to hang around the door behaving like an ogre." We all chuckled and introduced ourselves. Robert said that Ruth was in a negotiation and would be right out, then did a double-take when Davy walked in with Melanie. He was all smiles then, and it was happy and real. "Mister Loomis. And Melanie. He hurried over to them, "This is a pleasant surprise. Are you here with Mr. Wolfe?"

I could see that Davy and Robert Bishins were friends, and I relaxed a little. Annie and Paulina had already started looking around the store, gawking at the things there, and laughing about the prices. Davy and Melanie were still talking to Robert, so it was me and Tony.

I asked, "Do you feel famous, Tony?"

He smiled, "Kinda. I just thought it was some regular store, not a place like this."

"And what would that be?" asked a feminine voice.

Tony and I both jerked around to find a tall and thin woman, dressed all in black and looking as elegant as all get out. Before we could close our mouths, she smiled, "I'm Ruth Hartzell. She looked at me, "Anton?"

I gaped and pointed at Tony. She seemed briefly surprised, and smiled at Tony, "You? Oh, I should have known. Come on, follow me." She gestured to us, and we trailed behind her until she stopped at a shelf that was in front of three mirrors. On it sat one of Tony's birdhouses all lit up by little spotlights, and under it was an elegant metal sign that read, 'Anton Wolfe Originals'.

It was all fancy looking, and I honestly thought Tony was going to cry. He looked up at Ruth and said, "It...it's beautiful." like he'd had no part in its creation.

Ruth smiled, and said softly, "I agree. You're the only current artist we carry, you know, and your bird houses have become a favorite with our customers." She glanced at me, then back at Tony, "We should talk. Can you take a moment from your friends?"

Tony looked the question at me, and I nodded, "I'll tell Paulina. You go do what you have to."

He had his shy little grin back, then disappeared with Ruth. I went looking for the others, and found them sitting with Robert and sipping their drinks. I told Paulina, "Tony's doin' business. So what's happening?"

Robert looked at me and said, "I really meant my apology before, Michael. I didn't realize who I was confronting, and I'm afraid I overreacted."

I said, "No problem," looked around, and decided to look at the things in the store. I tried looking at items before looking at the price tag, but after a few I just looked at the things. There were an awful lot of zeroes on those tags, enough that it scared me.

Robert came over to me and said, "If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them."

I felt like asking why that old stuff was worth so much. Instead, I asked about a chair, then about some other things. He knew his stuff, that's for sure, and we were soon joined by everyone but Tony for a tour through antiquity.

There were some other customers in the store, and Robert left us from time to time to answer their questions.

One particular couple came in, and Robert dropped everyone to greet them. They didn't look like anything special, probably around my parents' ages, but by the way Robert fawned over them, they must have been serious customers. I was close enough to hear most of what they were saying, and to hear their excitement when Robert announced that Anton Wolfe was in the store.

"He's here?" the man gasped, looking around. "I have to meet that man. That bird house has grown on me to the point that it's my favorite possession."

Robert said, "He's in with Ruth right now, he should be out soon." He gestured to us, "These are his friends."

The guy did kind of a funny double-take when he saw our ages, but he didn't say anything. Since I'd heard that exchange, I said, "Hi," softly and turned back to what I'd been looking at, which I thought might be some historical bedpan. Robert led them to whatever they'd come to see, and I kept poking around.

Tony was gone a lot longer than we expected, and we were all sitting down talking when he finally came back with Ruth. He was literally brimming with excitement about something. Before they got to us, Robert and the couple he was waiting on interrupted. "Anton Wolfe, I'd like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll. They own one of your first bird houses, which they're very pleased with, and they want to meet the artist."

The surprised looks on the Driscoll's faces were funny at first, when they saw that Tony was just a kid, but their expressions turned into delighted smiles soon enough. They stood off to the side talking excitedly while Ruth introduced herself to Annie and Paulina. We all liked her. You could tell that she was well bred and sophisticated, but she was also warm and funny, and kept us entertained while Tony was busy with the Driscolls.

Other people were coming and going, mostly looking, but some bought some things. I wondered what they thought of the noise level in that store just then. When we came in, it had been as quiet as a library. Now there were loud, happy conversations going on, and lots of laughter.

We were interrupted when Robert said that he was taking Mr. Wolfe and the Driscolls into the office to see Tony's drawings on the Internet. I glanced over at Tony, who's eyes were so wide that his eyebrows were lost in his hair. He didn't say anything, but you could tell he was really pleased. His head was bobbing a little, and he couldn't tame his smile.

Ruth followed them into the office, so we trailed in behind her. Tony was sitting at a computer wielding the mouse, and he soon had the school's website up, then the story. He looked over his shoulder, "You should read this story, too. It's really special."

Mr. Driscoll said, "I will, I will," then he gasped when the first drawing of Jack enlarged on the screen. Ruth, Robert and the Driscolls all drew in sudden breaths, and Mr. Driscoll said, "That's amazing, Anton. Fantastic." He looked at his wife, "Look, Nell." He knelt down beside Tony to get a more direct look at the screen, then went on about Tony's talent.

I had to find the bathroom, so I quietly backed out of the room, only to find myself followed by Annie, Davy and Melanie. Davy asked, "Seen that enough times?"

I smiled, "Well, yeah, but I have to go to the toilet, too."

Annie flashed me a look at my choice of words, but Davy smiled and pointed me in the right direction, asking Melanie and Annie, "Do you girls need the toilet, too?" He emphasized the word toilet ever so slightly, and it got me laughing.

When I got back, Davy was wandering around alone. He smiled when he saw me, asking, "Everything come out okay?"

I laughed, "You sound like my mother." I nodded toward the office, "They still in there?"

Davy nodded, "Do you know who that guy Driscoll is?"

I shook my head no, and Davy went on, "Only the CEO of the biggest company in the state."

"Really? He seems like a regular guy."

Davy smiled, "I don't know about regular, but he's real important. It's neat that he likes Anton so much. He can help him along...if he needs any help."

I shrugged, happy to learn that Tony's admirer was someone influential, though I had no idea what that could mean.

When Annie and Melanie got back, Annie looked at the office and asked, "They're still in there?"

Davy laughed, "Let's take a walk, this is a neat town. Hold on a sec, I'll tell them we're going."

He disappeared into the office and came right back out, smiling. "Let's go. I think they're in it for the duration. They know where to find us."

We walked outside and started down the street. I was holding hands with Annie as we walked along, commenting on what a neat little town we were in. We stopped in front of a real estate office to look at pictures of houses for sale, and my eyes just about fell out of my face. Damn. Ordinary looking houses cost over half a million dollars. Things went up from there, and many were in the millions, some of them lots of millions. I heard myself asking, "For a house?"

Davy laughed behind me, "What, Toto? You're not in Kansas anymore?"

I turned around laughing, "This is crazy. You could buy all ofMorton for less than some of these places. A whole lot less."

Davy shrugged and smiled at Melanie, then turned back to me. "I know, Mike. Not everyone lives like that, believe me. Real estate's crazy along the water."

Melanie smiled, "Ice cream's not too expensive. Want one?"

Annie shivered, "Today?" and it was cold and windy, but we got some anyhow - ice cream and hot chocolate, and we sat on benches enjoying the alternating cold and warmth. At least you didn't have to worry about the ice cream dripping down your front and all over your hands.

We were a pretty happy bunch, and we wandered down to the river front, where there wasn't much to see. We stayed there for a few minutes listening to Davy tell us things about the history of the area, then headed back towards the store, this time on the other side of the street. I started to notice that practically every building and home had a little sign with a date on it, and pointed one out to Davy, asking, "What's that mean...Blanchard, 1790?"

Davy said, "That would be the original owner, and...I think...the year the house was built. Either that or the year they moved in. That place we just passed is the Griswold Inn, and it's one of the oldest restaurants in the country."

Annie and I turned to look at an old, white building, and Melanie said, "It's not the oldest, but it's the oldest that's always been in business." She looked at Davy, "We should have lunch there." She turned back to us, "Everyone calls it the Griz, which gives me the creeps. Last summer, though, I came here with my parents and Anderson Cooper was at a table near us, and Matt Damon was right across from us." She shivered and looked at Davy, "Maybe we could go in now. I'm freezing."

Davy hugged her, mumbling, "Aww," and just then I saw Paulina hurrying towards us.

She was all flushed from running, and she had to catch her breath. She pointed at Davy, "Don't," and gasped in some air, "do anything. Stand right here, everyone's coming, and they're taking us to lunch." She was still huffing, "You're not going to believe this."

We were all asking, pleading even, to find out what was going on, but Paulina made us wait while we watched Ruth, Tony and Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll amble towards us. Ruth was in front, and Mr. Driscoll was between his wife and Tony, an arm around each of their shoulders, and they were all very animated.

When Tony spotted me, he broke loose and ran up, almost touching my nose with his. His excitement made him loud. "Mike. We're doin' it…the cd thing you thought of. It gets better. Wait'll you hear."

It's funny, or maybe just odd, but I often thought of Tony as a creature and not just a person. He was so unpredictable, just like a bear or a coon.

I asked, "Good news?"

He said, "Fuckin' great news." I started laughing when he ducked to dodge his imagined mother's swat. He came up grinning and rubbing the back of his head as if he'd actually been hit.

It was funny to me, and to me only, apparently. I laughed as we walked into the restaurant. The lady at the desk smiled, then she greeted Ruth, "Hi Ruth, how many?"

Ruth looked around, then said, "I don't know, I haven't counted." She looked around the lobby, and we were the only ones there. "All of us, and one table, please. And swear to me that you have corn chowder today."

The lady smiled, "Nine, then. And of course we have corn chowder, along with clam chowder and French onion. Give me one minute to get a table set up for you. Should I look for you in the bar?"

I choked on a laugh when Ruth said, "Oh no. We'll just follow you and wait. I love to watch the busboys' little bottoms when they wiggle them around."

Annie, Paulina, and Mrs. Driscoll all started snickering, and Mr. Driscoll said dryly, "Well, let's go see the show, then."

He looked at Tony, then me, then Davy, shook his head and shrugged. "

When we got seated in a big dining room, I could only look around at the place. There was a colossal fireplace with a fire going in it, and everything else was all woody and ancient looking. I liked the place a lot, and Ruth had gotten her fill of busboys' bums, though to my mind they were bus men.

It was nice, because people were quiet for a few minutes, all busy with the menus. Everything sounded good to me, so I intelligently laid down my menu and asked, "What's good?"

The only one not looking at a menu was Mr. Driscoll, and he said, "For lunch, try the burger. Everything's good and nothing's special, but you won't go away hungry with the hamburger."

I took a good look at this man, this captain of industry, mostly because he'd just said exactly what my dad would have. He had a nice smile, though he wasn't really what you'd call handsome. There was something there, though, something intense, even though he was just talking to me about a menu.

He smiled at me, "Anton tells me that you live next door to Tim Atkins."

I nodded, and Mr. Driscoll went on, "Tim was my roommate in my Freshman year of college. I owe him for igniting my passion for art and antiques." He grinned, "At first I laughed at his penchant for junk, or what I thought was junk, but his ardor turned out to be catching. Tim could amuse me for hours on end just with the way he would wonder about something, and dream up alternative stories about what it was, where it came from, who made it, and its function."

He smiled and sighed, "I was studying to be an engineer, and living with Tim that year helped me to be a good one. I'd always thought of engineering in terms of utility, and Tim made me think of the beautiful possibilities." He glanced at his wife, "Am I rambling yet?"

She chuckled, "No, but you're probably going to."

Mr. Driscoll snickered, "Anyhow ..."

"May I take your orders now?" the waitress asked.

She started with Ruth, then went down one side of the table and the other. I ordered the French Onion soup, only because I'd never heard of baked soup before, and a hamburger because Mr. Driscoll had suggested it.

When the order was taken and drink glasses refilled, Mr. Driscoll went on. "I was saying that..." He looked around, "Oh, hell. You don't want to hear this. Let me just say that a lot of engineers only think function. Take NASA as an example. Their things usually function just fine, but they're butt ugly. Then look at something as simple as your coffee maker, and you'll see that beauty doesn't have to be left out of the mix." He grinned, "It can be, but it doesn't have to be left out."

I was thinking seriously on that. I mean, here was an important person telling me that useful things could be handsome or beautiful things at the same time, and it brought my mind to Tony's kitchen immediately, to his whole house. It was an old trailer, more kept up than restored. But it had curvy lines where the newer ones were all angular. Inside was all old stuff, but old stuff that had been maintained forever, so it was still useful, and lots of those things were kind of like art.

The soups and salads arrived, and I grabbed my spoon. The French Onion was coated in browned cheese, and when I scooped some out the steam shot up. I was afraid of burning my tongue, so held it in the spoon for a few seconds, blowing on it. Mister Driscoll looked like he was going to start talking again, when Tony's face suddenly went ashen. He leaned forward, "Annie?"

My head jerked to my left just as Annie dropped her fork full of salad back into the bowl, and she pulled back, bending over, with her hands clutched to her belly. Her face had gone ghostly white, and she was making pained sounds.

I grabbed her, thinking she'd fall out of her chair, and cried, "What's wrong?" I panicked when she couldn't answer, her hands tight to her stomach and her breathing strained. Her eyes found mine and focused, and all I saw was pain and fear.

It took maybe a second for Paulina and Melanie to be with Annie, two more seconds before Mrs. Driscoll and Ruth got around the table. Paulina looked as scared as I felt, and Mrs. Driscoll got to her knees beside Annie and stroked her back. "Take a breath, sweetheart, try to relax." As Annie did just that, Mrs. Driscoll went on, "That's the girl, you're doing just fine now."

Annie's breathing gradually relaxed and the color came back to her face. She took a deep breath and dropped her hands to her side, sitting up normally. She looked around the table, then at me, and she smiled, "Wow. I've had cramps before, but ..."

Mrs. Driscoll brushed Annie's hair lightly with her hand, asking, "Would you like to lay down for a minute, Annie? There's a sofa in the ladies room lounge."

Annie shook her head no, "I'm alright." She noticed everyone's doubtful looks, and smiled instead of becoming annoyed, "Really. I'm fine." She gestured at the table, "Eat your food before it gets cold."

When Annie insisted she was fine, everyone went back to the table, but nobody was eating with gusto. Things were more reserved because we'd all seen the pain and fear in Annie's eyes, and her eyes just plain weren't meant for that sort of thing.

I kept looking at her, and she kept giving me reassuring smiles while she ate her salad.

Conversation gradually picked up, though it was no longer exuberant. Tony was almost cautious when he told me about what had transpired with Mr. Driscoll.

Driscoll's company was a conglomerate, and they owned a publishing company. He'd already decided to take a chance on publishing Tony's work, both as a book and a CD, like I'd thought of.

"That's great." I smiled. "Mr. Driscoll, do you think anyone'll buy it?"

He grinned, "Drop the Mr. bit, okay? I'm Harry and that's what I like to be called by my friends...and business partners."

I was surprised, I guess, but not a whole lot. I had the feeling that Harry considered people as friends until they did business against him. I muttered, "I like friends."

Harry said, "So do I, and we may become friends." His smile lit up, "For now, we're business partners, and it's our job to see that the whole world becomes aware of Anton's art." He turned to Tony and put a hand on his shoulder, smiling, "This young man is a diamond," his voice softened a bit, "perfect in its clarity...his clarity."

The food came to interrupt us, and I took Annie's hand for a second, inspecting her. "You alright?"

She kissed my cheek and smiled, "I'm fine. It was probably just gas."

A million wisecracks spun through my head, and I managed to hold them all in. I had a giant laugh just waiting to explode, but sensed that bathroom humor wouldn't be appropriate right then. Instead, I looked at her meal, asking, "What'd you get?"

"It's baked scrod."

I never heard of it, so I said, "I didn't know you could have scrod here. It looks good."

Annie just looked at me, and I turned to Davy, "I have a hamburger now, but I'd like to have scrod before I go home."

Davy nodded, but Mr. Driscoll's face turned beet red and he spit his food into his napkin, then burst out in giggles. He couldn't talk, and I looked at his wife, who shrugged helplessly.

"What?" I asked.

When he caught his breath, Mr. Driscoll...Harry, still all red in the face, managed to choke out, "Mike, I know that desire burns in the mind of every teenage boy, but ..." he laughed until he was crying, "you...you're the first one who ever asked for it in the past pluperfect. Jesus."

Damn. I didn't know what he said, but he was sure lost in it. His time as Tim's roommate was apparently well spent. He'd not only come to love art and antiques, he could laugh himself foolish in a public place, and one where he was well known.

I think we were all confused, so I took a big bite of my burger, and forked up a bunch of fries. Tony was watching Harry laugh, but I managed to catch his attention.

"Excited?" I asked.

Tony's expression went blank for a second, then the sun came out. Diamond clarity, that's how Harry had described it, and I'd be hard pressed to come up with a more descriptive term. Tony's big, brown eyes shone with excitement, and beneath that I could see want and need. It was all there. His art was his way out, or in, or whatever he wanted.

I was really surprised that I was a business partner, and when I asked, Tony said the talking CD was my idea, and Harry thought I should be paid off up front to prevent future lawsuits by me. I blinked, " Lawsuits?"

Tony grinned, "Yeah, he says nobody's friends when it comes to money, so I should cover my ass and pay you for your idea."

"Cover your ass? Don't worry, Tony, not for one single second."

Harry, coherent again, said, "Take the money, Mike. You had the idea, and you should be paid for it. That way, everyone's happy."

I was happy, too. I leaned across the table, "This is great. I mean, who'd have thought Morton would turn out a famous artist?"

Tony turned up the excitement a little, positively beaming at me. "Not me, that's for sure. I...I...I..." He looked at Harry, who was biting on his hamburger, but still had tears of mirth in his eyes. "Wait'll I tell my daddy," Tony exclaimed, "It'll be his turn to jam up the shitter."

That last bit came out loud, and sent Harry into brand new hysterics, and set me off laughing myself. Annie and Paulina started laughing, and soon enough we all were.

It turned out to be a fun lunch, though I don't think anyone actually tasted their food, and I didn't know if I'd ever get to have scrod. Mr. Driscoll never did really come up for air, and after awhile we left him to it, but his laugh influenced ours, just like Tim's always did. It would take me until later, and an English lesson from Paul to understand why Harry's joke was funny, but just being around someone who could laugh like that made everyone else laugh.

We spent a few hours just having lunch and enjoying a good time. Tony was clearly in tune with Mr. Driscoll ...Harry. They each had scraps of papers covered with phone numbers in their pockets, and when Tony worried about the guy at the other publishing company, Harry said he'd make him an offer he couldn't refuse, commenting that someone 'that smart' should have a big future in his company.

By the time we left the restaurant, Tony and Harry firmly and happily in each other's pockets, the sun had already dropped, the temperature right along with it, and the air was frigid. I was shivering with everyone else, and the car was clear up the street. We made our goodbyes with Ruth and the Driscolls, then ran just to keep warm.

The car was cold when we got in, and this Southern group shivered in unison, then Davy tooted the horn as he drove by, and Paulina did a u-turn to follow him.

Annie and I cuddled together to get warm until the heater kicked in, then we cuddled together because we liked to. We'd been riding for about fifteen minutes when Annie suddenly emitted a throaty groan, clutched at her stomach and almost doubled over.

It was just like at the restaurant, and I tried to get her to sit up straight so she could breathe better. That seemed to help, and it passed quicker than before, but I was getting really concerned for her. "Annie, were they sure that colitis thing wasn't real?"

She sighed, "They couldn't find anything, and this feels like a different place. I still think it might be gas pains." She was trying to comfort me by stroking my cheek, so I must have looked as worried as I felt.

Annie insisted that she felt fine, but the distraction had caused Paulina to lose sight of Melanie's car, and Tony was trying to navigate by looking out the back window.

I laughed at him, saying, "You ain't gonna find Davy's house lookin' that way."

He smiled at me, "It's the way we went, Mike. I remember the signs and things, so don't get all afeared." He turned to Paulina, "It's gonna be exit four, go slow when we get there," then back to me with a smirk.

I asked, "So, when you get lost in the woods do you come out backwards?"

Tony grinned, "No, I piss up tree trunks on the way in. I never get lost." I swatted at his head, and he ducked it, saying, "Hey. Wolfies are related to dogs, ya know."

Paulina laughed, "Oh, yes. Let me count the ways."

Tony turned around in his seat, and we heard him say with glee, "That's funny, Pauli, really funny. Seems to me you were the one what came sniffin' around."

Paulina adroitly changed the subject. "Here's exit four, are you sure, Fido?"


Annie and I were in stitches in the back seat. Paulina and Tony both had quick minds and well-practiced senses of humor. Sometimes they were like the 'Tony and Paulina Show'. Tony's backwards sense of direction was accurate, too, because as soon as Paulina slowed for the exit we saw Melanie's car off to the side with its flashers on. Paulina pulled up behind them and tooted the horn, and as soon as it was safe, we were on our way.

It wasn't that far to Davy's house from there, and conversation along the way was mostly about meeting Mr. Driscoll and Tony's delight that his art was not only worth money, but that it meant so much to a guy like Larry, who could afford anything he wanted.

We also learned that there had been at least the suggestion that Tony might get commissioned to do some original art for Mr. Driscoll's company headquarters.

Harry Driscoll was a big fish for Tony to catch, and not one of us could help but to wonder what it meant for our friend. I was so totally proud of Tony, the way he'd just been himself, and ingratiated himself to that guy with his own personality. When we'd split up after our long lunch, it was like they were old friends, almost like father and son.

I didn't have a lot of time to ponder that, because we were back at Davy's house, and it was freaking freezing when we got out of the warm car. We ran inside, huffing and puffing from the sudden exertion, then Davy looked at his outside thermometer, breathing, "Zero out there." He smiled at us, "It's gonna be a cooold night."

We were shedding out coats in the nice, warm house, and Davy said, "Mike, why don't you start a fire in the other room? I need to check on a few things. I'll be right down."

He headed upstairs with Melanie while we went into the family room. There were two love seats that faced each other with a coffee table in-between them, so we sat there. As I slung my arm over Annie's shoulder, she asked, "Aren't you supposed to start a fire in the fireplace?"

I said, "Oh yeah," and picked up the remote. I pointed it at the fireplace and pressed the 'on' button, and a nice fire jumped happily to life.

Tony's jaw dropped a little as he stared into it, and Annie commented wryly, "Now that's what I call a manly act. Here I had visions of you clomping out into the bitter cold to come in with arm loads of logs" She shoved my shoulder playfully, "Not you, though. You just couch it."

I giggled, "I couch it?"

Annie grinned, "Yes, couch it. That has to be the single most couch-potatoedly act I've ever seen."

Paulina was laughing cheerily, and she cried out, "Stop it. Potatoedly?" She grinned at Annie, "Between you and me, girl, we're going to come up with our own dictionary."

I looked at Annie, feigning anger. "I'm a couch potato? I'm a couch potato? Nobody calls me a potato!"

Annie's eyes and mouth both opened wide, and she squealed, "Oh, you ...." before attacking me, and tickling me until it was my time to scream.

"STOP. Aaaaah. Please, Annie. AAAAH. Not there. Okayokay, AAAAH. I didn't mean it."

Annie was beginning to relent, and we were both red-faced when Davy and Melanie came back it. I tried, "Help me, Davy. She's touchin' me in places no guy should get touched in."

Davy laughed, then prodded Melanie our way, saying "Learn from Annie, Sweetie. Learn those spots."

It was funny. Melanie leaned in looking all serious, and I jumped to about the ceiling from one particular poke. "Noo. You practice on your own boyfriend."

Fortunately, we laughed it out instead of acting it out, except for Paulina, who had Tony screeching as she asked, "Ooh...is that one of those spots?" while Tony's body twiched and lurched.

While they were fooling around, Davy handed me a post-it, saying, "Messages for you."

I was surprised, thinking that anyone who'd call me was right there, then I read, "Call Phil," and it had the number.

Annie saw me gaping at the note while I wondered why the last person on earth I ever wanted to talk to wanted me to call him. Annie saw my face and asked, "What?"

I shoved the note in my pocket, saying, "Phil wants me to call him for some reason."

Annie was surprised, "Phil the pill? Philth?"

I nodded, "Screw him, he had his chance."

I wasn't surprised that everyone agreed with me about Phil, or that we agreed against going out to eat. Lunch had gone late, and having something light later on sounded just fine.

We were three couples, all kind of self-absorbed, and I ended up sitting with Annie on the floor in front of the fire. Davy put on some music, not rap for once, but something jazzy sounding, and we all spent a quiet hour cuddling and making out.

I was comfortable and happy, thinking that vacation was a nice concept, when the phone started ringing and people showed up at the door all at the same time.

Davy waved Juan and Paul in while he answered the phone, then as soon as he hung up it rang again. He looked frustrated. Juan and Paul looked semi-frozen and stood in front of me and Annie while they warmed their hands. Then they sat one on each side of us, and we talked about nothing in particular for awhile.

Davy was pulling host duty, offering people things between phone calls, and he was good at it, like he enjoyed it or something.

I liked watching him. Davy was a happy person, and good with people.

Everyone was comfortable there, and he made sure they had what they wanted, even though he had to go answer the phone every ten minutes or so. When he called, "It's for you, Mike." I jumped, then he continued, "it's your mother."

I ran to the phone, "Mom?"

Her voice was sweet to hear. "Hi, Mike. Are you having fun up there?"

I smiled, "Oh, yeah," and proceeded to tell her about Tony and Mr. Driscoll. I failed to mention that I had slept in a bed with Annie, alone, and was somewhat surprised at my own wisdom in that matter.

She told me how much my father absolutely loved the canoe I got him (us), how he was right then beginning the process of refinishing it. I said, "Really? It's pretty nice the way it is."

"Mike, you don't know what that boat means to your father. Pretty nice won't do it. He absolutely loves your gift. He's going to make it like new for next Spring."

Oh, that made me happy. "Really? He really likes it? He's fixin' it up?"

"Michael, I hope you know that your dad always wanted a canoe, and for you more than him. That you bought him one first is...probably the sweetest thing that has ever happened to that man."

I took the phone from my ear for a second to look at it, then put it back and asked, "He really likes it?"

I actually got tears in my eyes when she said, "You'll never know how much, son." Her voice quieted, "He loves that canoe like he loves you, Michael. It was the perfect gift."

I asked nervously, "Do you like your earrings and flowers?"

Mom laughed, "Of course I do. I'm wearing the earrings right now, and the wooden flowers are the new centerpiece on the table. They're beautiful, Mike. Thank you for them."

That made me feel good, and I know I was smiling when I said, "Um, Mom? Phillip called here. Do you know what he wants?"

She sighed audibly, "No I don't, Mike. Just please call him back. This is the first time he's reached out to anyone since he's been here. Don't shut him out, do you understand?"

I groaned silently, because her asking if I understood was akin to her telling me I'd better call. "I understand," I sighed.

We didn't talk much longer after that, and I had to promise a second time that I'd call Phil soon. A roar of laughter erupted from the other room, so I had to say goodbye because I was now deaf.

When I hurried in to see what was so funny, everyone was all red-faced and laughing seriously. Everyone but Annie, that is. She was just red-faced as if the joke had been at her expense.

Since she was the only one I had a hope of getting a word from, I asked her what was so funny, which was the wrong question. She glared at me, "Funny? This is not funny. I can't find one scintilla of humor in it, and I can't believe you'd embarrass me like that."

I think she was being funny herself, but I wasn't too sure if she was going to start laughing herself or just slug me, so I hedged my bets. "It must be a little funny with everyone laughin' their heads off, but if you want me to hit somebody, I will." I eyed her, wondering how I'd done.

She maintained her red-faced glare, "Listen, mister. There's a fair chance that you may never live to hit anyone, much less have scrod." With that, I could see the corners of her mouth start to twitch while the others screamed in new gales of laughter. Annie lost it and started laughing herself, so hard I thought she'd choke, which left me standing there bewildered and embarrassed.

I finally threw up my hands and sat on the floor. "Fine. Have your fun and leave me out of it, I don't care."

I crossed my arms and stared at the fire, knowing that if anyone ever shut up I'd learn what was going on. Davy was beside me in a moment, still lost in mirth so much that he was crying, but he wrapped his arm around my back while he laughed, and got his tears on my sweater. It felt good, and I turned my head and kissed him, and I think he kissed me back a little. He certainly stopped laughing in a hurry, jerking his head back with his teary eyes all wide. Then he smiled, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.

Oh, that smile. It was so like Jack's when he thought he'd pissed me off with something, then realized he hadn't. Davy's different smiles were so like Jack's different ones that I wondered if there was a smile gene somewhere in all that DNA, a gene that my two favorite guys shared.

When he seemed coherent, I asked, "So, what's so funny?"

That set him off again, but not too badly. He finally sniffed, "Pauly…he knew what Harry Driscoll was laughing about when Paulina told him about that. Haha, it's just so funny." He bopped my shoulder, "We just have to pay better attention in English classes. When you said you'd like to have scrod before you left, he thought you meant you wanted to get laid." He looked at me, "Get it? Present tense: screw, past tense: screwed, past pluperfect: have scrod… hahahahaha."

Damned if Davy didn't lose it again, and when I sorted out what he'd said, I got to laughing just when everyone else was coming down.

When I cooled down, the girls had gone to the kitchen to drum up some snacks. Noticing who wasn't there, I asked Paul and Juan where Guy and Seth were, kind of hoping they were doing something together.

Paul smiled, "They're playing hockey, they'll probably show up later."

I shivered at the thought of being out in that weather and said, "Yeah, if they're not froze by now."

Juan looked around, then said guardedly, "Maybe they'll have scrod by the time they get here." and showed a wicked grin.

Paul laughed, "Who knows? Me? With these zit's I'll be lucky if I'll have scrod before I'm thirty."

Tony laughed, "Jeez. Stop with the fish jokes, okay?" He looked at Davy, "Do you have any paper? I feel like drawin'."

That surprised Davy. "Uh, sure. What kind of paper, just white?" then added, "Can I watch?"

Tony said, "Just plain paper. You kin watch if ya wan't."

Davy left and came right back with a handful of paper and some pencils. Tony sat at the coffee table, cross-legged on the floor, and started in, looking up after a few seconds with a little smile, "Lookit, the grain from the table's comin' thru. Neat."

I had only really watched Tony draw a few times and I'd forgotten how fast he worked. Using the side of the pencil lead, then the point, we all watched in awe as an image of Davy and I emerged. Looking at Tony work, I saw the concentration he put into it. Just the very tip of his tongue was visible in the corner of his mouth, and he'd occasionally look closely at a line as he drew it. Mostly he kept his head back, looking at the whole picture.

Oh Lord, when I saw it was Davy smiling at me just after we'd kissed not ten minutes earlier, I could have cried. Then Tony looked up at me for the briefest moment, catching my eyes, and I knew that he'd noticed Jack's smile on Davy's face. He didn't look at me for more than a second, but I got a full dose of understanding from his expression. Tony knew now, at least part of it, and it was a measure of his friendship, his character, that he'd give it to me in the form of a drawing that couldn't wait for later.

The girls came in with food while he was drawing. Nothing special, just cut up vegetables with dip, and chips with more dip. We all started munching, and Paulina put some things on a plate for Tony and knelt beside him with it. He absently took things to eat with his left hand while he continued to draw with his right, and it was obvious that this wasn't a first for them.

Paulina watched Tony's expressions as often as she watched his hands, and her love for him was displayed as clearly on her face as her nose was. She wasn't in awe of his talent, not protective of his innocence, she was just in love, and I really loved seeing it in that circumstance. Tony was wowing everyone with what he could do, and it was silent, save for the occasional crunch of a carrot and some murmuring. I had Annie's hand in mine, and it felt good there, so I squeezed it and kissed her cheek while we watched Tony finish the picture.

He looked up and smiled, "Done," and handed it to me. "This is for you, Mike. I see what you see now."

People clapped for Tony, but my hand was actually trembling when I took that picture. When I looked at it, I had to turn around so the others wouldn't see the tears in my eyes. Annie still had my hand, so my feelings passed quickly, and I gave her a better look at the picture, then turned around and put it on the table so everyone could get a good look.

Tony was already fast at work on another picture when it got crazy again, as the doorbell and phone rang at the same time. Melanie ran for the door while Davy got the phone. Seth and Guy were soon in the room, all red from the cold, and Davy called me to the phone.

I asked, "Who is it?" and Davy shrugged.

It was Phil the pill. I wasn't rude, but I wasn't exactly polite either, when I realized it was him. I had hoped to deal with Phil sometime when I didn't care if I got into a bad mood, like never. I'd promised, though, so after a chilly hello I asked "What's up?"

Phil, for such a nondescript dweeb, had a voice like a newsman, kind of deep and rich sounding. He started, "Mike, I know you probably hate me, but I hope you'll listen for a minute."

I said, "I don't hate anybody, Phil, but I'm at a party right now."

He hesitated, "... I know, I'll try to make it short. You listening?"

"Yes, I can hear you," I said, all annoyed.

It was Phil's turn to sound annoyed, and that didn't surprise me, it was his normal demeanor. "Mike, please. Just listen to me for a minute, I really need to tell you this."

I sighed, found a chair and sat down, "So, tell me. I'm listening."

I heard silence from the other end, long enough that I almost said something, then Phil said, "Um, I read some papers here, school papers. There's a series about you, Mike."

I listened to more of nothing, then finally said flatly, "I know about the story, Phil. Say somethin', or I'm goin' back to the party."

He gulped, "Sorry, I really am. I want to get this out, Mike, but I don't know how to say it just off the top of my head. It's..." he started sobbing all of a sudden, "...it's...too important. I...I want you to hear before you judge me."

I focused on the voice on the phone, "I'm listening."

Phil was all breathy sounding, "Mike, my mother was the only person on this planet who understood me, and now she's gone." He made a choking sound, "She's dead. Oh, man, I haven't thought this out." He paused again, "Now I read this story about you and your friend, and I'm banging my head."

I said nothing, just waited.

Phil swallowed loudly, "Mike, I need to hear how you got through it after Jack got killed. Andy said that I was acting like you did, and I didn't know what he was saying, so he gave me the papers to read. Um, the only you I ever saw was this happy guy with friends hanging off him all over the place, and I...I guess I resented it. Then I read that stuff and...I don't know, it was like a love story, I mean I could feel it right up to the last part, right where your life fell apart. I hope I'm making sense here, but right now I think I'm where you were then. I laid awake most of the night thinking about it, and I talked to Andy this morning, and he said maybe I should talk to you, find out how you got through it." He paused, "Listen, Mike. I know I've been pushing everyone away, but I'm so sick of hearing that I'll get over it, or that ..."

"Tomorrow's another day?" I offered.

His tone was bitter, "Yeah, like these things just take time, or God works in mysterious ways. Honest, sometimes I think they're talking about someone I read about in the paper instead of my own mother."

"That's exactly how I felt, Phil. I still do." I thought to ask, "So you were real close with your mother?"

"I...yeah, I was. I don't know how to say it without sounding weird, but I loved my mother...I needed her."

"That's not weird," I said softly. "I'd go nuts all over again if somethin' happened to my mom."

Phil was quiet for a moment, then asked, "Is that what you felt like? Really? Like you were losing your mind?"

"It wasn't a 'feels-like' thing, Phil. I was full-fledged crazy there for awhile. I fought off everything and everybody. I just couldn't deal with it, and I couldn't deal with fuckin' people trying to help me." I thought back, then connected. "I was a mess, Phil. I mean, really. I stopped taking care of myself, stopped talking, all I did was write letters to Jack."

Phil sounded hesitant, "Letters?"

"It's all I did, all day, every day. I wrote letters to Jack, hundreds and hundreds of them. They were all the same at first, or almost." I suddenly wished Phil was in front of me, so he could see the body language and facial expressions he was eliciting from me. "Then things started to change, and I changed the letters, like he could really read them. The first ones were all about me, I guess, how much I loved him, how bad I felt,"

God, I'd never thought that out before. It was the truth, though, plain and clear in front of me. Those big stacks of letters were mostly whines, pencil on paper.

"What changed?" I heard Phil asking.

"New people," I said without really thinking about it. "People moved into Jack's house...you met Dave and Tim...and it was like suddenly somebody really understood me. I...I...I guess I just didn't feel so alone anymore. Things just started to happen all around me, things I couldn't ignore."

Another long silence, and I heard sounds that I couldn't distinguish on the other end. Phil coughed where I could hear him, then mumbled, "I'm sorry, Mike. I really am...for you and me."

I sighed, "What's that mean?"

"It means that I'm sorry Jack died, I'm sorry my mother died, I'm sorry you ever felt like I feel right now. I can't stand it, Mike, I just can't stand it."

Remembering that awful pain, I said softly, "It doesn't go away by itself, Phil. I didn't change one bit in four months on my own." A question occurred to me. "Um, Phil...it don't bother you that Jackie and me were together like that? You didn't even mention it."

He cleared his throat, "I know I didn't. I didn't know if it was a sore subject with you or not. Don't think I didn't notice, because I did. You know, it came out so simply in your story that I half expected it by the time it actually got said. It just seemed so beautiful ..." he sniffed, "I...I don't know what else to say."

I asked, "It doesn't bother you, then?"

"No, only in a jealous way. I'm...I guess I'm more like you were than the way you are now."

"." Did Phil just tell me he was gay? "Um, so you're ..."

"I don't know, Mike, I'm pretty sure. I've never been with anybody , guy or girl, but I think guys turn me on more. I just never got up the nerve to do anything. Mom was the only one who knew how I felt, and she made it seem okay."

I said, "I thought you were talkin' about it pretty easy. I won't tell anyone."

"Thanks. It's not a big issue right now, anyhow." His voice choked up, "I have to deal with this fucking sadness. It's really eating me alive, and there's all these other things to worry about."

"Other things?"

"Yeah, like where to live, how to look after Dad, where the hell the money's going to come from. I'll be eighteen in four months, then technically I can be named guardian and stay at home, but I'm not ready to play dad. I'd have to put off college for another three years, for one thing."

I asked, "Do you have any choice?"

There was another long pause, and I didn't mind it. "I guess the smart thing is to move here with Jen and Jason. I mean, they're good people, and the offer's there. We're already tearing up their lives, and I hate doing it. If I let the state take over, Dad would kill me because that's how he was brought up, and he hated it. That's another thing, because now's the time to decide. If we're going to have to change schools anyhow, it's better to do it now." Phil choked again, "It's too much, Mike. I don't want to do the wrong thing for everyone..." He started crying.

I let him cry for awhile before I said anything, and I wanted to sound soothing. I looked up to see Annie standing there with concern on her face, and big tears started coming from my own eyes. I choked out, "I can't tell you, Phil. I wish I could, but I can't. Andy's there, and he's really smart, and you can always talk to Dave and Tim."

Phil was still crying, and I didn't even know if he heard me. "Phil?"

"I heard you," he sobbed out. "I will, I...better go now."

"Okay," I said, but he'd hung up.

I looked at the receiver in my hand, then absently placed it back on the phone as I stood up. Annie looked at me, then pulled me into a comforting hug. I felt okay, I think, and I pulled back to wipe my face on my sleeve, then hugged her again, saying nothing because I knew she understood.

We stood like that for a few moments, then I said, "Phil's just like me," and saying that made me cry again. I felt bad for Phil, but I also felt bad for the people who I'd abused in my own grief. The worst thing was that I hadn't seen myself in Phil when I was home. I just thought he was a jerk and never once tried to look under the surface, and if anyone should have known to do that it was me. I wasn't feeling too good about myself as a person, and I told Annie that, and what I'd talked to Phil about.

She squeezed me a little tighter, then kissed me. "You're a good person, Mike. You're a beautiful, kind, loving, gentle person, and I love you so much that I could scream when you knock yourself." She kissed me again, and said, "Smile, Michael. Not knowing what's going on in someone else's head doesn't lessen you in any way. Phil has problems, and we all knew that. He's finally reached out, and I think you should be proud that it was to you. That's a good thing, and it's to your credit. Now you know how to help him...how we all can help him, and all that's left is the doing." She smiled prettily, "First on the list is to get him to take a bath, then shave those red things off his fu...face."

Oh God, Annie could cheer me up. I giggled and said, "You almost said the f word."

She grinned, "I will say it if I have to see those little red hairs again. He should be shaving by now, but instead he has those stupid strings sticking out of his skin. Acne would be an improvement." She grimaced and stuck her tongue out like she was going to throw up. "Aaaah."

It's amazing. In about three minutes, Annie had taken me from feeling miserable to laughing happily. I said, "I love you, Annie. I gotta pee."

She rolled her eyes and gave me a nudge towards the bathroom, laughing. "Go to the toilet then. While you're in there, think about how what you just said may have sounded to me."

I laughed, figuring it would be smart in the future to consider what else I said in the same breath as 'I love you'.

When I went to wash my hands, my face surprised me. I knew I'd shed some tears, but my cheeks were all crusted over with dried ones, and it took seeing that to realize how much I'd cried while talking with Phil. I washed up and walked back out, feeling better about things, though Phil still worried me.

I was surprised to find the house pretty much emptied out. Annie was there, and Melanie and Davy, but Melanie had her coat in her hand, and was obviously ready to leave.

I asked, "Where'd everyone go?"

Davy gave me a look, "They went home."

Melanie added, "It's pretty late," and smiled, "see you tomorrow, I hope."

I smiled, waving to her with one hand while I looked at my watch. It was after eleven, and when I calculated back to the last time I knew what time it was, it became clear that I'd spent two solid hours on the phone with Phil, a whole lot of it not saying anything at all.

Melanie gave us all hugs, then headed out into the freezing cold. Davy went with her wearing a sweater, and when he came back in he was smiling.

"Ain't you cold?" I asked.

He just said, "Yeah, it's cold out." He smiled, "I'm beat. You need anything?"

Annie and I both shook our heads, then gave Davy quick hugs before he went upstairs.

I looked around, and the fire was out, everything was cleaned up; the house was telling me to go to bed. I looked at Annie, then bent to rub noses and kiss. "I wanna stay here, Annie. Ya think?" I pulled her to me, "I want you, Annie."

She kissed me, "I want you, Michael." and I saw the questions in her eyes, which gave me doubt. Those questions, Annie's and mine, evaporated with our next kiss. Honest to God, it was the most loving moment of my life, that kiss was, and I could tell it was the same for Annie.

I pulled an afghan off the sofa, hit the remote for the fireplace, wondering about the romantic aspect of that, then we were on the floor.

Making out with Annie in front of a real log fire might or might not have been better than in front of an automatic fire, but I can't say anything about that with authority. What I can say is the sexual charge between us had both of us quivering, our kisses trying to absolutely devour each other.

It was our time.


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