Jack in the Box

Chapter 55

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : December, 2000

I guess I'm normal in at least one sense, that being that when I find out that I love something, I tend to like repeating it. Chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream is a fine example. Try that once and you know you'll be back for more.

Ice cream is something anyone can try, but loving Annie like I did was for me alone. Once wasn't enough, and that was mostly my fault for being too clumsy and excited. Twice was nice, because Annie got there just before me, and she could hold on to that feeling longer than I could. Thrice, if I can be poetic, held the magic, the real magic. All the passion was still there, but it wasn't brand new anymore, and love took over our beings. I had never been or felt so connected to another person in my life. Long, slow, loving, passionate and perfect. Sexy as hell, and as Tony would say, profound!

After, I sucked Annie's finger into my mouth for a second, then whispered, "I love you, Annie. That was beautiful."

She took that same wet finger and touched my nose with it, almost crying. "Yes, beautiful. Perfect!" We kissed, both of us tired, and she said, "I love you, too, Mike."

Always practical, she said, "We should go upstairs." She squeezed me again, kissed me again, then, with a light in her eyes that I'd never seen and took to be reserved for me, she said, "I love you. I love, love, love, love, love you."

I smiled and kissed her, just lips touching, and it was just as sweet as our first kiss had been, her lips moist and soft against mine. I mumbled, "You go up, I'll clean up," thinking it was my duty.

I watched Annie collect up her clothes, then head out of the room naked. Her fanny, which I had tried so hard not to even think about until the previous night, suddenly seemed alluring. Not a hair, not a pimple, not a wrinkle on it. Annie had slender hips, and from the rear she could have passed for a boy.

As I looked at the little disposal problem I was facing, I thought back to Jack's butt. Oh Lord, I'd just done with Annie almost what Jack had so desperately wanted me to do with him.

I wasn't ready then, though, however much I loved Jack. I had the equipment but not the desire, and I wasn't about to start now regretting things that hadn't happened. Well, I suppose I could retroactively view Jack's rear end in a more favorable light, since he'd always remarked in kind and generous words about my own.

I pulled on my underwear, then gingerly picked up used condoms and carried them to the bathroom to flush them. I went back and folded up the afghan, turned off the fire, picked up my clothes, and just stood there for a long moment, smiling. Our first time, and it had been magnificent. I turned off the lights and headed upstairs, humming a tuneless but joyful little nothing.

The door to our room was ajar, and I locked it behind me after I walked in. The door to the bathroom was wide open, and Annie was at the sink, wearing a robe and brushing her teeth. She smiled at my reflection as I approached her, then I wrapped my arms around her from behind. I nosed the hair from the side of her neck and kissed her there, and just looked at my love in the mirror.

I brushed my teeth, washed up a bit and joined her in that big, comfy bed. I brought Jack's picture with me, and we both kissed him, then we cuddled and kissed until we fell asleep, content that all was right with the world.

I was awakened the next morning by a tapping at the door and Tony's voice calling my name out in a loud whisper. I slid out of bed and looked around, and decided to wear Annie's robe, which just barely fit around me.

When I opened the door, Tony smiled and blushed at my attire, but didn't say anything. He did try to look around me, and knowing that Annie wasn't in a compromising position, I let him. "What's up?" I asked.

"We're goin' to New York. Wanna come?"

I blinked. "New York City? "

Tony nodded eagerly. "Yeah, I wanna meet Mr. Curtin. I talked to him last night."

"You did? Um, how ya gettin' there?"

Tony smiled excitedly. "The train! I never been on a train before."

I think my own eyes went wide. I'd never been on a train either, hardly ever saw real ones, though sometimes on humid nights I could hear a train whistle from somewhere. I smiled and tapped his t-shirted shoulder. "Let me ask Annie."

I ran to the bed and shook her awake, her eyes just opening when I asked excitedly, "Wanna go to New York City?" She started to sit up, but I pushed her back down, whispering "Tony's here!"

She looked around, then stretched her arms and asked sleepily, "What time is it? New York? Really?"

My mind really does try to do me in sometimes, and that fears me, but I managed to say, "Yeah, the Big...Apple," when 'big cherry' was what tried to come out. "How 'bout it?"

She slumped back down and smiled, "Why, Mr. Waters! Don't I merit a kiss before such an important question?"

I giggled, and leaned down to kiss her, noticing Tony as he sidled into the room. The kiss was all it took, and suddenly there was no Tony there, no New York beckoning, just Annie and the knowledge that a hot tub was just one door away. My defenses, as if I needed them, were all down, and thoughts of the last night flooded through me.

Tony got edgy, made a little cough, and said, "I'll see you downstairs."

I grinned out a weak "Okay," then leapt on Annie, who squealed and squirmed beneath me. "Whattya ya say, lover? We can go to New York, or we can stay in the Jacuzzi 'til we look like prunes. I want what you want."

She smiled and kind of pushed up at me. "I'd like to breathe a little." When I rolled off, she continued, "I, for one, would love to see New York, and the idea of looking like a prune doesn't sound very faddish, but it's up to you."

I giggled. "Okay, let's go to New York," then added hopefully, "Wanna do anythin' else first?"

Annie smiled brightly, saying, "I'd really like to have the bathroom to myself for a moment," then laughed, "and I think I should mention that pink is not your color."

I lost her for a second, then realized she was mentioning the robe I had on, and I think I turned the same color as it was. I croaked out, "I need the bathroom, too. Wanna choose me for it?"

She shoved me. "You go, then it's my turn." She arched her eyebrows hopefully. "We could shower together after."

This was nothing to argue about. I hurried into the bathroom to pee, then came back out to find Annie making the bed. I announced, "I'll do that," already hard in anticipation of our shower together.

Well, that shower took somewhat longer than purely hygienic reasons would dictate, but it sure was pleasing as educational processes go. Wet, soapy skin was one turn-on, but our seemingly total lack of inhibition was the big one. Annie washed my boinger until it boinged out a big one. I touched her in places I never thought one would touch another, and she just shivered in pleasure. When we finally turned the water off, I dried her with a big towel, wiping here, rubbing there, and just dabbing in other places. All the time it was Annie who I was feeling through that terry cloth, and I can't think of words to say how wonderful she felt.

I started humming again.

Annie, my Annie in purely selfish thoughts. I had done absolutely nothing to deserve her, but there she was, and I loved her so much that I got goose bumps when she dabbed at my already air-dried body with a towel.

We kissed a lot, and I loved kissing, maybe more than anything that we did the night before, not that I'd choose to have foregone that. I still loved kissing, and that's what we did until Annie pulled back and said, "We should get dressed and go downstairs." She eyed me, then asked, "Y-you don't think I'm a slut, do you?"

My eyes bulged. "Are you serious? Why would I think that?"

Her eyes dropped sadly for a second, then she smiled shyly at me. "Because I am one around you."

I laughed. "You're a slut? My Annie ain't no slut. You're the most beautiful person in the world." I smiled. "No way a slut, and I hate that you'd think that."

She pulled me close, not saying anything for a minute, then, "Just checking."

I started to say, "I..." then I thought, "It's a miracle, Annie." We were still naked in the bathroom, "We...um ....ah...last night ..."

Annie smiled. "Had sexual intercourse?"

Damn, I hated that term. "Yeah...well...we had sex anyhow, that's better!"

I was so embarrassed, and there was no reason for it. We'd done what we did, and that was reason enough for celebration on my part. I pulled her to me and let my fingers slip down to the cheeks of her butt, which were firmer than they looked.

Another Annie first! I'd seen her butt before, even gotten turned on by it when it was covered in cloth, but now it was just skin over muscle, and it felt delicious to my fingertips. Go figure, but I was an overnight ass-lover.

"What are you doing?" Annie asked.

"Um, feeling your butt. I like it," I replied.

Her fingers found their way down my spine, and she tickled my cheeks just like I did hers, and she rubbed noses with me. "You have a sexy butt, mister!"

I said, "That's what Jack always said."

Annie held me tighter. "Heh, give Jack points for good taste. There's nothing wrong, is there, Mike?"

There was nothing wrong, nothing at all. I squeezed Annie to me, sighing, "Not anymore, Annie. Honest to God, I love you so much I ..." I didn't finish my thought. Even our timing was coming together, and we went into the bedroom and started getting dressed, stealing happy glances at each other as our secret places disappeared.

Just as she pulled her jeans on, Annie doubled over, clutching her stomach, just like she had done the day before when she was claiming gas pains.

Now I was scared, and I tried to get her calmed down on the bed, but it wouldn't go away this time. Sure that our activity the night before was at cause, I went running out of the room calling "Davy?" Davy!

He came hurrying up the stairs, and I cried, "Annie ain't right!"

Davy followed me into the room and took one look at Annie, then said, "Get dressed! I'll warm up the car. Don't waste any time."

She wasn't right, either. I went back into the room, and it just wouldn't stop. She still called it a cramp, but it wouldn't leave her this time, no matter how she stretched and twisted. I started to cry about her pain and my fear, but it wouldn't do any good, so I made myself stop crying and helped her into some clothes. "It's gonna be okay, Annie," I said, wanting to holler it to the heavens.

Oh God, it was so scary! I laid down with her there on the bed for a moment, feeling all over her tummy, trying to find the spot that hurt. Everyone came in, saw me in my partial nakedness, and I didn't care.

The next few hours were a blur on my mind.

Paulina helped Annie out to the car while I hurriedly pulled some clothes on. When I got in the car with Annie, Davy tore out of there, leaving Tony and Paulina to get hold of Annie's folks.

When we got to the hospital, they rushed Annie right into a room. I was a wreck. I was half-froze, too, wearing only shoes without socks, jeans, nothing under the cotton shirt I'd pulled on. At least I was covered.

I was frantic, and Davy tried to calm me. Him holding onto me felt all sexual and I started to cry. Then I couldn't stop because I was certain that Annie's pain was my fault, and I just couldn't shake that thought.

Finally, after about another hour when I had been calm for a while, a nurse came looking for me. I asked to see Annie, and the nurse said she'd be out as soon as she was dressed. "Is she okay?" I asked.

The nurse smiled at me. "The doctor's talking to Annie's mother right now. He'll be out to talk to you when they're done." She brushed my cheek gently. "Don't you worry, sweetheart. Annie's going to be just fine."

I sat back down beside Davy when the nurse left, still nervous and jittery. Davy was talking to me quietly, but I wasn't really paying attention. It was probably another fifteen minutes before the nurse came back for me, and by that time Melanie had arrived with Tony and Paulina, who both seemed as worried as me.

The nurse led me to a room with a single bed in it, and Annie was sitting on the edge of it while the Doctor sat in a chair. He stood when I came in, and smiled. He introduced himself as Dr. Turgenov, and he didn't look like any doctor I'd ever seen. He was round and wide, with a big shock of black hair and some seriously bad breath. He was wearing a shiny, blue Hawaiian shirt and chinos. Then he smiled and asked me to sit down, so I sat next to Annie and his odd looks suddenly seemed fine.

The doctor grinned. "I'll try to keep this in English for you, Mike. With Annie's prior history of rectal bleeding, and these episodes of severe abdominal cramping, I'm going to go ahead and treat her as if she has Crohn's disease. The medication I'm prescribing won't do any harm if it's not Crohn's, and if it is, it will alleviate the symptoms."

He went on to describe Crohn's in some detail, explaining that the root causes were obscure, that there was no cure, but that it could be managed. He smiled at Annie, "For now, I'd like you to avoid roughage in your diet, at least until your own doctor gets this nailed down. Cut down on brown breads, colored vegetables other than tomatoes, and cold cereals."

Annie interrupted, "Isn't that what's good for me?"

The doctor laughed. "Yes, normally it is. You're in the midst of a flare-up right now, so stick with soft, low fiber stuff if you can. You'll have less discomfort. If you look at the information kiosk by the front desk, you'll find a booklet on inflammatory bowel diseases, and it has recommendations on what to eat and what to avoid specifically." He noticed Annie's glare, smiled and said, "I see the way you look at me girl. Don't worry, you can eat well and live a normal life."

Annie asked, "What about this drug? Are there any side effects?"

Dr. Turgenov winked at me. "Smart girl you chose here, Mike," then turned to Annie. "It may cause drowsiness, so take it about an hour before you go to bed. If it makes you feel funny in any other way, give me a call. You have my card."

Annie nodded, and the doctor looked back and forth between us, asking, "Anything else?"

We both shook our heads no, and he stood up. "Enjoy the rest of your vacation by relaxing. Try to avoid stress and heavy exercise for the next five days or so, and see your doctor when you get home. I'll send him a report on what we've just talked about." He smiled and put his hand on Annie's shoulder. "Don't worry too much, Annie. If it's Crohn's, you can still have a good and productive life; you just have to expect these episodes, and hopefully learn how to predict them so they're less intense." He shook my hand again and said, "You look after her, Michael. She's a keeper."

We all smiled, and when he was gone the nurse who had led me in came back to the room before we even stood up.

She was a cheery type lady, and she laughed. "Silly me. I was just about to ask if you had all your things, but you came here without things." She smiled. "Let's get you out of here. I have your proxy, so I'll get your prescription filled and you'll be on your way."

"Proxy?" I asked.

She put on a badly faked Southern accent, "Yes, you're all just chilluns, so we had to have Annie's pappy fax me permission to act on his behalf. Come along now, the day's a-wasting."

I looked at her name tag, which read 'Justine', then took Annie's hand, asking if she felt okay.

She smiled, more bravely than with any kind of humor as we started to walk. "I feel fine right now. I just hope it's not Crohn's Disease. I learned about that the last go-round, and it's like a life sentence."

I kissed her cheek. "It'll be okay, Annie. I'm gonna be a doctor, maybe I'll be the one to figure it all out."

Davy, Paulina, Melanie and Tony fell in with us when we passed them, and Paulina and Melanie kind of monopolized Annie. Davy and Tony both asked me if things were okay, because Annie looked good. I said, "I hope so. I don't think we'll be goin' skiing anytime soon."

Davy smiled and bopped my arm, "That's good for you then, no? I never got the feeling that you were too excited about it."

I protested now that I didn't have to go, "Not true! I was lookin' forward to it! I never got to break my leg, not ever."

Davy laughed. "I never did, either. It's not that dangerous."

I looked at Tony. "No New York?"

He shook his head, "Not today, anyhow. Jim's comin' up here instead. He already talked to that Mr. Driscoll, and he's more excited than me."

I was surprised. "He's comin' here? "

Tony grinned. "Yeah, for a business meetin'. I like business meetin's. I never said what Ruth told me yesterday."

When Tony was eager, he was funny, all angular and jerky. "She says I ain't chargin' nearly enough, that I should double and triple the prices so's I can sell more."

Davy laughed. "I like that concept. Raise the price so you can sell more? "

We were suddenly at the pharmacy counter, and Justine did what she had to for Annie's prescription. I coughed up the twenty dollar co-pay, and Annie thanked Justine absently while she read the paperwork that came with her pills. I thanked Justine again, because I thought she was a nice lady, and she pointed the way out of the place.

Annie walked right by it, lost in conversation with Paulina and Melanie, so I stopped at the information kiosk and found the folder the doctor had recommended, then started looking through it while we walked to the car. I started reading the dietary information out loud. "Listen, Annie! This ain't so bad. Ice cream, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, salad dressing, ice cream, white rice, pasta, white bread, ice cream, popsicles, chocolate, custard, eggs, ice cream...there's lots of good stuff you can have!"

She turned around and snatched it from me, grinning. "Give me that."

I laughed, and she turned around and stuck her tongue out. Same Annie. I loved her.

We drove back to Davy's house in the same cars we'd come in, and we all crashed in the family room, Davy doing the honors with the fire. Everyone except Melanie was hungry, because we'd missed breakfast. Tony and Davy went to make something, and it wasn't long before we were eating delicious cheese omelets.

After that, Davy took Tony to pick up Jim at the train station, while the rest of us learned more about Crohn's from the pamphlet.

I felt so bad for Annie, but she was taking it okay. Her mother called, and she was talking to her when Davy and Tony came back.

I guess I had a picture of a book publisher in mind before Jim Curtin came, and my picture wasn't of Paul Bunyan, but Jim was that at least. I was expecting Dwayne's friend Bruce with his glasses on and dressed in a nice suit. Instead we got...well, Paul Bunyan!

Jim was a big man, over six feet tall, red hair, red face, red beard, and giant paws that resembled human hands.

He wasn't wearing a nice suit, either. Instead, it was wardrobe by Levi Strauss. He had a strong but high voice for such a big man, and a good memory. He said, as he held his hand out to shake, "Hi, Mike! I know you from your pictures!" He turned his warm eyes to Annie when she walked in, and asked, "Are you feeling alright? Anton told me what happened this morning." Annie nodded, and he grinned. "These are exciting times, aren't they?"

He started to sit on the coffee table, but thought better of it, saying, "Don't want to break that piece," and took a chair instead. He looked around at the room. "This is really nice. I love New England and can't get my wife out of the city." He looked at Tony. "Anton, I can hardly believe it. Your friends look so exactly as you've drawn them. Iknew we'd get something going, I just knew it! My former boss even said to give you his best. He's a great guy, just kind of a coward when it comes to money. Driscoll, now, he's a guy who shares my vision." He drew a box with his hands, his face focused on Tony. "I see Anton Wolfe as a brand name, kind of like Kincaid...no, scratch that, more like Grandma Moses." He suddenly got redder. "Not that I see you as a grandma."

Tony smiled happily. "I wouldn't mind. It was my granny what taught me."

"Perfect!" Jim yelled. "Your granny what taught you? I love it!" He smiled to light up the room. "You're such an artist, Anton, and you're just the person that your art conveys; so innocent, so loving. We're gonna sell a lot of books."

Tony grinned. "Yeah!" then toned right down, looking at Jim. "Can I draw you?"

Jim seemed startled. "Really?"

Tony smiled that gentle smile. "Yeah, I like you. You don't hafta do anythin', I already got it."

Jim pondered that while Tony picked up his pencil and paper from the night before and started drawing him. Jim was looking on in astonishment, as were the rest of us, as his image appeared out of the smudges and lines that made up Tony's art. Again, there was color in black and white, and Jim came out so real looking that he seemed like an old friend.

I laughed when Tony was finished, at his art at that point, but when he handed it to Jim, saying, "You kin have it," big Jim got tears in his eyes, and I did too, only because Jim did.

The rest of us left Tony, Paulina and Jim to talk about whatever they had to talk about. Annie wanted to rest for awhile, so I went upstairs with her. We kicked off our shoes and plopped down on the bed side-by-side, not saying much. I knew Annie was scared, but I didn't know what to do other than stay with her. I had words of love and encouragement, but I didn't know enough to give her any real reassurance.

I guess we were lucky about one thing. Her mother really wanted to get her home, but the doctor had calmed her down, then when Annie talked to her she just said she was staying. I kind of hoped I hadn't overreacted by dragging her to the hospital, but I don't know what else I could have done. Annie has a really open face, and her pain was so evident that I couldn't ignore it, and when it didn't go away I had to do something.

Annie drifted off to sleep somewhere there, and I pulled a plaid blanket that was folded on the foot of the bed over her. I fell asleep beside her, and the next thing I knew, Davy was prodding my shoulder gently, saying, "Phone, Mike. You have a phone call. It's my Uncle Tim. Want me to say you'll call back?"

I looked at Annie, and she was in dreamland, so I sat up, rubbing my eyes, "No, I'll take it. Did he say what he wanted?"

Davy shook his head no. "Just that it's important. You can use the phone in my room if you want."

That's what I did. I picked up when I got there, then sat at Davy's desk. "Hi, Tim!"

"Hi, Mike. Is Annie alright? Davy told me what happened."

I said, "She's asleep right now. She's all nervous, but the doctor said she's okay."

Tim breathed loudly. "I'm really sorry this is happening. Annie's really a bright and beautiful young woman, and you can tell her that she has our best wishes."

I said, "Thanks, Tim. I'll tell her. Is that why you called?"

He coughed. "Um...no. We...I mean you...I mean all of us...well, you, me, and Dave...have a new set of problems. Well, two new sets, I think...of problems, that is." I could hear the grin in his voice. "I'm making this clear, aren't I?"

I wasn't hesitant with my reply. "Nooo."

Tim laughed. "Okay, let me try again. You, um...well, you ..."

I could hear Dave in the background saying, "Spit it out, Timmy!"

Tim started to laugh, and said, "Here...talk to Dave."

In another second, I heard Dave's voice. "Mike?"

I was getting nervous, and it made me foolish. I said, "Last I heard!"

Dave said, "The last thing I need right now is a wise-ass on the other end of this phone! Let's see...how to start. Did you kiss Dwayne Masterson on the lips?"

Oh God! "Um, yeah."

I know he covered the phone, but I could still hear his voice saying, "He fucking did, Tim."

When Dave uncovered the phone, I could hear Tim in the background saying, "Well, at least Dwayne's not lying."

I thought it was funny that they were pissed off at me, but that didn't help my nervousness. Dave said, "Mike, you're not helping things here. You agreed to stay away from Dwayne in alone situations, then you kiss the kid! I'd like to know exactly what in the living fuck you thought you were doing, but it's beyond that now." His voice softened. "You've created a monster, Mike. Dwayne's full-fledged in love with you now, and it's going to take you to cool that down." He added, "If you want to cool it down, that is."

I cried, "Shit!" then decided to add, "Damn! Fuck, I was only tryin' to be nice to the guy. I mean, Dwayne means somethin' to me, he means a lot to me, but not in any...not in any... shit! Now I can't even think of words."

Dave chuckled. "Calm down, Mike. That's about what we thought, and you really should talk to Dwayne about how you feel, but do it when we're all together so Tim and I can reinforce it, okay? We'll do that when you get home. There's another thing, and you know, a little warning might be nice sometimes. Phil was here most of the morning, and he said it was on your say-so. Just so you know, we're really not trying to run a lonely hearts club here."

He sounded cross, which worried me, so I asked, "Are you mad at me? I only told Phil to talk to you because...because you're good."

I heard Dave repeat that to Tim, eliciting a little laugh, then he came back. "Mike, it's your turn to be an angel. Let me ask you something."

I got really nervous, and said hesitantly, "Okay..."

Dave said, "I think Phil needs you, Mike. Your history is closest to his, at least in the monumental loss department. We're also tossing around this idea of introducing him to Dwayne, and we really want to hear you examine that thought."

I was taken aback, to say the least. "Dwayne?" When I thought for a moment, it didn't sound like a bad idea. For all his quirks, Dwayne was an excellent listener. I said, "I think it's a good idea. When I started talkin' about Jack with Dwayne, he really made me think things through. Phil lost his mom, though, and I think that's supposed to hurt for awhile."

Dave seemed to think that over, and he mumbled, "Yeah, I guess it has to, but there's no reason we can't try for a end-run around the isolation part. Phil's already reaching out, and that's because he read your story. You know, he's an odd kid in some ways. Take away the sadness and turmoil that he's going through from losing his mother, all the uncertainty over what happens next, all the anger about all of that, and he's actually a pretty steady person underneath. He's gay and not out to anyone, but that doesn't seem to bother him; it's just a fact of his life that he hasn't dealt with yet. He's the exact opposite of Dwayne with that...like Dwayne buried it deep and hid from it, but Phil knows who he is, and is just waiting to get around to doing something with it."

I said, "You're sayin'?"

Dave chuckled. "I'm not proposing some kind of sexual union here, Mike, just ..."

I could hear Tim ask, "Why not? It's exactly what that kid needs."

I laughed while Dave and Tim went back and forth about that, then Dave asked me, "What do you think, Mike? Do you think that, with a nudge in the right direction, Dwayne would try to really help Phil?"

I didn't have to think much about that. "Dwayne does try to help people. I've seen him...matter of fact, half the people I'm sendin' money to I learned about from Dwayne. He's sensitive like that. I...I don't really know Phil, though. Last night's the first time he ever said anythin' except to leave him alone."

Dave breathed, "I know. I saw how Phil treated people, but I remember how I was when my father died, what you were like when we first moved here. I'm no doctor, but I think it's a defense mechanism, like I hurt, therefore you have to hurt, and after that it's just how you go about it. Phil's no worse a person than you or me. He's had his shields up for a while, now he's looking for a reason to drop them. He's human, he craves attention and love like we all do, and I think he's ready to accept some."

"Dwayne?" I asked.

"Just because they're both gay doesn't mean they'll hit it off, and I kind of wonder about that." He snickered. "Tim seems to think that Phil just needs to jump in the sack with ..." I heard the mouthpiece get covered again, and a muffled Dave say, "Well, you said it, I sure didn't," then he came back to me. "I don't want to hold you up all day, so let me tell you what I think, then ask what you think. How's that?"

I said, "Fine."

Dave continued, "Okay. First, what I think, and I'll go with first impressions, then what I learn over time. When Dwayne came here the first time...that was when he was interviewing you for the story...I saw a bright, eager kid who was anxious to please, and who listened very well. That's all still there, still valid impressions. I didn't really get to know him before he started up with you, then I saw selfishness to the extreme, a certain meanness, low self-esteem, maybe even self-loathing. Some of that came from his fears about being gay, fear of his dad finding out, fear of anyone finding out. Some of it comes from his own nature, too, like he wants to please himself and doesn't worry a lot about how that affects other people. Dwayne also tries to fool himself, like thinking you love him. He's a complicated guy, Mike, but you know that. Your thoughts?"

I swear, my chin was on the desk. "Wow!" I muttered into the phone. "How do you do that?"

Dave laughed. "I'm Italian. It's my nature. Am I spot-on or what?"

I gasped, "I guess."

He said, "Okay, you go first this time. Tell me about Phil." Then his voice softened. "Think, Mike. Think it out before you say anything."

I did think, then, with a wavering voice, I said, "My first impression… Okay, it was weird. Strange dude, kinda dirty and smelly, not friendly, petty…mean, really." I stopped there.

Dave asked, "And now?"

I tried to think of something to say, but all I could come up with was, "Me." I got all emotional. "He's just like me, Dave. He wants people, needs people around him, but he can't deal with them. Oh, God! I was just like that, wasn't I?"

Dave said quietly, "You weren't breaking new ground there, Mike, nor is Phil, nor was I." He sniffed. "It's so hard when you lose someone so important to you, then you look around to see everyone else in the world doing just what they did the day before, and it's like a personal insult."

I was glad that I was alone, because I couldn't hold back the tears. Dave was so right! When Jack got killed my own world stopped turning, but for other people it went right on going like nothing had happened. The same lame shows were on the television, the same neighbors talked about the same local things. But most of the world missed the fact that Jack was dead, and I hated that...hated the people in the world who just didn't get it, and that was most of them. They just didn't get it, and the ones who did wouldn't leave me alone.

I choked out, "I know how Phil feels, Dave. I really do know."

Dave said, "I know you do, Mike. So do I, but not everyone does. Listen, we can introduce Phil to Dwayne, but we're in no position to monitor them after the first time. That's the whole point of this call. Tim really thinks that Dwayne and Phil are natural-born friends waiting to happen, but Tim's been known to have been full of shit before. Ow! Well you're not always right, Tim."

Dave laughed. "Ignore that, Mike. Tim has his days. I know I was trying to make a point here, and...oh yeah, now I remember. I wanted to ask what you thought about Phil and Dwayne, but I have that figured out and it's a go. I can anticipate that you want to say something, so wait for a minute while I finish. Listen, Mike. I could be wrong, but I think I'm right here. You have the power to cut short the pain that Phil's feeling. I think that Dwayne would be good for him, and vice versa, but after we introduce them, there's no way for us to really look after it. I'd like it if you and your friends kept an eye on them. Stay in touch with Phil, include him in your group so Dwayne's not the only person he knows."

I asked, "Phil's stayin' there? He didn't know that last night."

"Phil's being realistic, Mike, and he doesn't have a whole lot of options. If they go back to Georgia, he knows that it's just a matter of time before things change anyhow. There's an excellent rehab facility for his dad right over in Dover. They can stay with Andy and Lin until Jason moves here, then they'll have a place to call home with people they love and trust. It's a big decision, and one that's not fully made. I think that if you talk to him when you get home and try to make him feel welcome here, it'll make the decision easier for him."

I coughed, not all that pleased with the idea, but I couldn't let Dave down. "I uh, I can do that, I guess. I can't talk for anyone else, though. Do you think you could maybe get him to take a bath or somethin'?"

Dave roared with laughter, then managed, "Where there's soap there's hope? I love it. It's a deal, Mike. I'll hose him down myself if I have to."

"Okay," I said, "I'll do it!"

Dave's voice softened. "I knew you would. You go take care of Annie now, and enjoy your vacation. We'll look after Phil 'til you get back, okay?"

I smiled. "Okay," and added, "I love you, Dave. I hope you know that."

"I know," Dave whispered. "We love you too, Mike."

When I hung up, I swiveled around on the chair only to find Tony standing there. He smiled kind of sheepishly. "Sorry, I wasn't tryin' to listen."

I said, "It's okay; it's nothin' private. What's up?"

Tony toed the carpet while he said, "We're goin' to see Mr. Driscoll. He invited us to eat, and he wants to talk business." He looked up at me. "It's okay, isn't it?"

I stood up and smiled, "It's okay, Tony." I put my hand on his shoulder as we left the room. "You don't have to ask me, you know. Just have a good time and do your business."

"Jim says I should get an agent so's I don't get screwed."

I laughed, then hugged Tony to me and cried, "An agent? Oh, man. How ya gonna explain an agent in Morton?"

I guess it sounded silly to Tony, too, because we just stood there hugging and giggling. Anton Wolfe needed an agent! It was just too funny.

We laughed it out until Tony went to get ready. I went back to Annie, and she was sitting on the bed cross-legged talking animatedly with Melanie, who was in the same position facing her. They didn't notice me come in, so I ahem-ed, then looked at Annie, "You okay?"

Annie smiled. "I'm fine now. If you don't mind, go find Davy. Melanie and I are just learning about each other."

I cocked my head in a question, and Annie grinned. "Go, Michael!" Her look softened. "I'm feeling fine, okay? Don't worry, but leave us to get acquainted."

* * * * * * * *

Oh Lord, here we were. Me and Annie on our first real date. I was excited, a little nervous. Davy had cranked this out in his own head: separate reservations for two at the same place, at the same time, just in different sections so it wouldn't seem like a double date. He did that for me, because I mentioned that I'd never taken Annie anywhere on my own. He picked the place, which was an Italian steakhouse, because he said it was nice and romantic, and the food was top notch.

Davy and Melanie were whisked away in short order, then I was faced with a lady who asked, "Smoking or non?"

Damn, I suddenly felt big. I said, "We have a reservation for Waters, non-smoking."

"Oh, yes, here it is. Give me a moment to look, Mr. Waters. Your table should be ready."

I smiled at Annie. "This place looks real nice." My smile brightened. "So do you, Annie." I kissed her cheek. "You're beautiful."

She was beautiful, too, wearing a dark red sweater over a white lacy blouse, with a charcoal colored skirt. She had a little gold chain around her neck and a pretty little emerald stud in her ear, both of which I'd bought her for Christmas. Clay had told me how Annie loved emeralds, and her expression when she opened the box was worth way more than I paid for the thing.

The hostess came back and led us to our table, which was in a smallish room all done up in dark wood, with green carpeting and tablecloths. Our table was two away from a huge fireplace with a real log fire burning in it, and there was a candle set in a little flower arrangement between us. The room was fair full of people, and there were just enough other conversations humming that we felt comfortable talking in normal tones.

We were quiet while we looked over the menu, then a waiter came and described the specials. It all sounded good. He left and came back with a small plate with six little things on it that looked like potato puffs on toothpicks, saying, "Compliments of the chef."

We each took one and popped them in our mouths, and Heaven suddenly descended on Earth. Ohmigod, talk about good! They were scallops in a tempura batter that was lighter than air. Smart chef! His little treat had us back in the menus with a mission. Annie looked longingly when a big plate of salad went by us, but she ordered soup instead, and we both ordered clams casino, plus fried mozzarella to share.

There were a lot of entrees to decide between, and they all sounded good. Annie finally decided on the steamed salmon and I ordered veal picatta, because I saw someone else with it and asked the waiter what it was. Davy had told us that the veal was especially good there.

Everything was terrific, especially the experience of sharing it with Annie. We didn't feel rushed at all, and the service was really good. Whenever one of us was down to a few sips of water in our glass, they'd both get refilled unobtrusively. They gave us a little time between courses, and when our dinners came we took our time, each trying a bit of the other's.

Annie's a pretty girl, and she'd look fine in any light, but the combined glow from the fireplace and the flickering candle had me mesmerized by her appearance. She seemed as entranced as I felt, and when we laid down our forks for the last time we held hands across the table and just looked at each other for the longest time. She finally smiled and said, "I could get used to this."

I grinned. "I could, too, but I'd look like a hippo after a few weeks of it."

Annie giggled. "I don't think I'd like that too much. Maybe just once in awhile."

The table got cleared, and we both ordered raspberry sherbet for dessert, which is all we could fit.

I got a coffee and Annie got tea, and the sherbet came with little cookies. We were enjoying that when the lady at the next table leaned toward us and asked, "Where are you from? We've so enjoyed hearing your accents. More so because you're such a handsome young couple."

Annie and I looked her way. She was an older woman with gray hair, dressed pretty fancily and wearing a lot of jewelry, but she had a kind face. Annie explained where Morton was, and what we were doing there, while her husband gave me an exaggerated wink. I didn't mind the friendly intrusion, but I did wonder how friendly it would have been if it was Jack sitting there with me.

I didn't want bad thoughts to disrupt such a nice night, but that's how bad thoughts work. A boy and a girl could sit there all night, probably even get pretty lewd, and it would just be normal. I'm sure a boy and a boy, or a girl and a girl could, too, but if they got lovey with each other things would change quick enough. I was lucky enough to have Annie to begin with, because she was such a special person. I just had the feeling that being with her, being seen with her, made me look more normal than I was. I felt normal enough, but if things had turned out differently it could have been Jack there with me, and we sure wouldn't have been able to hold hands across the table.

Maybe I wasn't all the way gay, but a good chunk of me was, and I sorely regretted how society viewed gay people, and suddenly wondered how my cousin, Sally, was doing with her little campaign for acceptance. I still didn't like that word, but it was better than tolerance.

By the time I focused back on Annie, the nice people next to us were eating their dessert. I said glumly, "They seem nice," just to say something.

Annie reached for my hand. "I know what you're thinking, Mike. Don't dwell on it. The world will change."

I was surprised, and almost pulled my hand away. "You know? How do you do that?"

Annie giggled. "It's just this look you get sometimes. I guess I could call it your Jack look. I know how you miss him, and I know how much you'd love for it to be him here with you." She leaned forward a little. "I don't mind, Mike, not one little bit." She smiled. "It's me that you're stuck with, though, at least for now, and I hope I'm a worthy substitute."

I looked at Annie in amazement. "You're no substitute, Annie. I did love Jack, and I always will, but don't go thinkin' you're a fill-in or somethin'. I love you, and I love you hard." I giggled. "Pardon my choice of words, there, but I truly love you, Annie. I mean, how could I not?"

Annie's eyes teared up. "Even now that I'm...defective?"

I suddenly realized the depth of her fear. "Listen, Annie. You were strong when I needed it most. I leaned on you, relied on your strength. You can just lean back on me now, I'll be right here." I looked in her eyes. "I love you, Annie. You, for the person you are. You heard the doc today. You're not defective, you just have a condition, and he said it can be managed." I lowered my voice. "We'll figure it out, Annie...together!" I think my eyes crossed. "You're not alone, Annie. Not ever!"

She let her tears flow, and I stopped them with my napkin. "I mean it, Annie. I love you, and I'll make sure you eat all the ice cream you need."

I realized how ridiculous that sounded just when Annie burst out laughing. It was a great, sloppy laugh, coming right on top of tears, and I loved her more for getting it out. When she settled down, she said, "I need the restroom."

"Me, too!"

We got up, and I asked a waiter where they were located, and left Annie at the ladies room door while I headed across the hall to the men's room. When I got out, I had to wait a few minutes for Annie, and she came out looking as good as new, all bright and happy again. I smiled. "All better?"

Annie sighed, then leaned into me. "All better for now." She gave me a little squeeze, then whispered, "I guess it's not all fun and roses." She leaned her head onto my shoulder. "Forgive me, Mike. I didn't mean for you to compare me to Jack, that's not fair." She paused. "I'm just learning what love is all about and...well, if something ever happened to you I don't know what I'd do."

I steered us back toward our table, me and Annie feeling connected like never before. I'd never felt particularly protective toward Jack, it was the other way around in most respects. Jack understood things that I didn't sometimes, and he kept me from going nuts about them. I never, ever got the thing about hating gays, but Jack knew. He knew about what people thought. He'd been acting out gay since he was a little kid and really helped me to understand things like that.

I liked being gay just fine, when I thought that was all I was. Now I was with Annie, and I liked that, too. I thought I'd always have an attraction to guys, but I could stay true to Annie. My life was all figured out in a nut dish, which was on the table when we got back: almonds and pecans, which didn't give me much to think about while we sipped our second coffee and tea. Maybe I was a nut, maybe not, but I was sure in love again, and watching Annie pick at them, smiling in her own way, only made me smile back.

It occurred to me that I'd never asked what happened the night before, when I spent so much time on the phone with Phil. "How were Guy and Seth last night? I forgot to ask."

"How were they? Fine, I guess. You know, Guy's a very cute boy."

I blushed. "You think so? I meant, were they getting along okay?"

Annie smiled coyly. "Just what are you asking, Mike? They said they had fun skating, and they spent the rest of the time trying to out-funny each other. Oh, and they are funny."

I said, "I knew that. I just wondered if they were...oh, hell, I don't know what I wondered."

Annie grinned. "Okay, Dear Abby. I don't think I have an answer for you. Seth and Guy seem to like each other, but I didn't see any sparks flying in either direction." Her eyes looked past me. "Here comes Davy."

I turned around and grinned when I saw him. He smiled at Annie, then at me, putting both hands on my shoulders. "How was it?"

I said, "Everything is really nice," while Annie said, "Wonderful."

Davy beamed. "I knew you'd like it. We're all finished. Are you guys?"

I looked at Annie and she nodded. I said, "I still have to pay, but we're ready."

Davy said, "Great, we'll meet you in the lobby in a few," then turned and left. I signaled to the waiter that I was ready for the check, and in just a few minutes I was in the lobby helping Annie with her coat. Davy and Melanie appeared right afterwards, and we were on our way home in a very cold car.

Annie and I snuggled up in the back seat while Davy cussed his slow heater, and we felt the first warmth from it when we were turning into his street. Melanie's car, which Paulina, Tony and Jim had used, was back in the driveway and there were some lights on in the house, so they beat us back.

We hurried into the warmth of the house, and found Tony and Paulina cuddling in front of the fire. We all sat together for awhile, talking about our evenings. As nice as ours had been, Tony and Paulina were full of excitement about their dinner and the meeting between Jim and the Driscolls.

Annie excused herself for a moment to take her pill, and she was soon back next to me. Tony was beside himself with excitement, and it soon became clear why, when he reached into his shirt pocket and unfolded a check for fifty thousand dollars made out to him. "It's an advance! Can you believe it?" He spent more time looking at the check than showing it around. Now, Tony has big eyes...unusually big eyes, and right then I could see the numbers on that check reflected backwards in them both. I was amazed, but I also found it to be funny.

I giggled, and Tony looked wounded, so I sucked it back down and stopped. "What?" he asked. "It's funny?"

"No, it's amazing! If anyone deserves it, it's you, Tony!"

I meant to go on, but Paulina interrupted. "You tell him, Mike. Ace is trying so hard to fit in, and I keep telling him that it's him who's special." She looked at him with adoration in her eyes. "Let others fit in with you, baby. The A and F crowd at school will probably do just fine in life, but they'll never even strive for what you already have." She touched the tip of his nose with her finger, making him smile. "You're the Ace, not anyone else."

Sweet. Annie asked, "Do they live in a big mansion?"

Paulina's eyes got almost as big as Tony's. "Oh God, yes. Not a house, but a museum. They have art and antiques from around the world, but guess what's displayed on a pedestal right inside the front door?" She pointed at me when I started to open my mouth. "Yes! A bird house, that Mr. Driscoll thinks is the finest piece of art in his collection. Guess what else?"

We all looked at her, and she went on. "Old Driscoll has some smarts. Duh...I guess you may have figured that," she said sheepishly. "He thinks Ace's art should progress on its own, like nobody can really teach him about what he already does, so he thinks he should go to school for other things, like architecture or film, or both, just to broaden his horizons." She leaned into Tony. "He's so totally behind my man...I'm speechless."

Tony said wryly, "That'll be the day," which got him a kiss that didn't promise to end anytime soon.

Annie had been leaning against me, and she suddenly snored softly. I looked at her in surprise, then remembered the may cause drowsiness warning that came with her drug. I smiled sheepishly at the others, then tried to wake Annie up, but she wasn't having it. She was down for the count, so Davy and I carried her upstairs.

Sometimes you have to do stupid things, and we couldn't get her into bed without trouble, so we laid her on the floor while I pulled the covers back, then kicked Davy out, saying I'd do the rest myself. Annie obviously didn't know where she was, and it was a struggle to get her out of her clothes and into her jammies, as she called them, but I did it. Then I lifted her into bed. I pulled the bedclothes up to her chin and considered going back downstairs, but I couldn't. I'd never really watched Annie sleep before, but the sight of her like that glued me to the spot.

I don't know how long I stood there looking at her pretty face, but I eventually slipped out of my own clothes and got in beside her, whispering, "Good night, Annie," and kissed her cheek before I kissed Jack's picture and conked out myself.

* * * * * * * *

The morning brought sunshine in the form of Annie, who nudged me awake, and smiled so prettily I thought I must still be dreaming. I smiled back and kissed her, which caused her to pull back. "Ooh, garlic! Get thee to the bathroom, young man," she said teasingly.

I was happy to oblige, because I had to pee. Annie gave me a respectable amount of time alone in there before we showered together, which was one of the new pleasures in my life. Her pill had knocked her out the night before, but she insisted that she felt both wide awake and healthy. We didn't shower long, just enough to get the grunge off, then we filled the tub, set the jets on gentle, and relaxed in the hot bubbles. I was never going to want to leave Davy's house.

When we finally went back to the bedroom it was getting light outside, and I exclaimed, "Look. It's snowin' out."

Annie and I crowded the window while we were getting dressed. The snow was accumulating rapidly, and it was beautiful to watch. We went downstairs only to find that we were the first ones up, so we decided to take a little walk outside. We had to go back upstairs for the hats and gloves that had never left our suitcases, then we bundled up and headed out.

It seemed warmer than the day before, and the snow was fun to be out in. We turned up Davy's street walking slowly and were soon joined by a little boy with a black and brown dog, and they were both loving it. "Hi," the kid said. "Do you like snow, too?"

Now, there was a good question for me, but Annie answered it. "Yes, we like snow. What's your name?"

"I'm Peter!"

Annie smiled. "I'm Ann, and this is Mike. What's your dog's name?"

The kid smiled brightly. "This is Walker. She likes snow, too." With that, he made a snowball and threw it, and the dog chased happily after it, coming back with a mouthful of snow if not the actual snowball.

Annie asked, "Walker is a she? It sounds like a boy's name."

The kid shrugged. "I didn't name her, but she had puppies twice, so she's a she."

Annie laughed in delight, and her already rosy cheeks told me she really was feeling fine. She beamed at Peter. "Oh, isn't it fun to have puppies all around?"

Peter tossed another little snowball for the dog, then grinned. "Yeah, it is. We had to give them all away, but they were cute." He looked straight at Annie. "You talk funny."

Annie grinned at him, "No, I don't. You do." She pulled his woolen hat off and tossed it a few feet away. "Oops! How did that happen? Your hat went flying just at the moment you tried to make fun of somebody." She leaned down to him a bit, looking in his face and smiling kindly. "It's true, you know. If you lie your nose gets longer, and if you make fun of someone your hat disappears." She giggled, and nudged him toward his hat. "Then your little head gets cold and you have to go back home. That's not what you want, is it?"

Peter retrieved his hat and pulled it on, smiling at Annie. "No, that's not what I want, and I like the way you talk."

Heh, now we were three...and a dog. Peter took Annie's hand like it belonged to him, and I took the other. Then we walked through the neighborhood listening to the narrative of a bright eight-year-old, and it was really pretty entertaining.

Peter reminded me of me when I was his age. He knew every house, who lived there, what was going on, but he had no judgments, just knowledge. Everything was information, nothing to cloud his thinking. He was just having fun in the snowstorm with his dog, and now us.

We walked clear around the neighborhood and back to Davy's, and by that time we were hungry. We said a cheerful goodbye to Peter and Walker and then went in, feeling spiked by the whole experience. I could like snow just fine, especially with Annie to keep me happy.

We stomped the snow off our feet the best we could before we went in, took our boots off, and hung up our outer clothes. Annie's face was red enough from the cold to make me smile, but she was smiling too, so mine must have been just as red. It didn't matter, we could smell coffee and we went to the kitchen. Davy was there, sort of. He seemed to be kind of disorganized, but he cheered up when we came in.

We all smiled and said hi, then I asked where Melanie was. Davy bit his lip, then said, "She's home," then smiled. "We got away with one night, but her folks are pretty watchful." He brightened. "We're all invited for dinner tonight, if you want. They live in a neat old house."

Davy seemed hopeful by the way he said 'neat old house', and I was up for meeting anyone he knew. Annie took over, anyhow, saying, "That would be really nice. We all like Melanie, Davy, as if you needed confirmation of that." She had to add, "Your rejection by Miss Paulina was harsh, but things do tend to turn out for the best, don't you think?"

I looked at Annie, wondering if she was serious or teasing. I had the idea that Davy was a little fragile about things like that, but he just laughed. "I think Paulina is suitably occupied, and yes, I'm really nuts about Melanie." His eyes went wide and bright. "Is she the prettiest thing you ever saw? And smart, too. She wants to be a biologist, you know, figure out diseases and all that." He grinned. "You want fancy for breakfast, or is cereal good? I think there's some yogurt, if you want it."

Annie said, "I'll make myself some eggs, if you have any. I'm supposed to avoid roughage." She looked hopefully at Davy. "Do you really have yogurt? I can eat that."

Davy said, "Just sit down. I'll make the eggs. Can you have bacon or sausages?"

Annie and I looked at each other with the same questions on our faces, and I high-tailed it upstairs for the pamphlet. When I got back down, Davy was cooking both meats in the biggest frying pan I ever saw, and Annie was looking on hopefully. I read, and it didn't say anything about meat, so I said, "It must be okay; it's not on the 'don't eat' list. Just don't have toast."

Annie looked at me longingly. "No toast? However will I sop up the yolks?"

Davy almost yelled, "Not to worry, Annie. I'll just fuck up this pan and scramble them," with which he started whipping the already-frying eggs with a fork. That started a whole new thing for me, because they came out delicious like that. The butter that Davy had been cooking the eggs in just got sucked up into them, and the flavor was incredible.

Later, when Tony and Paulina hadn't shown up, we cleaned up the kitchen. We lounged in the family room for awhile, bored with morning TV, but not with each other. I knew there was something bugging Davy, but he hadn't said anything. When I pressed him, he finally went and got the paper.

The headline story was about a fifteen year old boy who had been found murdered, gangland style, in a cemetery. That news clearly bothered Davy, and it would have bothered me without him.

This kid was found in his underpants, executed on his grandmother's grave, like if there was a point to it.

I lived in Morton, not a vacuum. I knew what people did to each other sometimes, and I hated it! The story went on to say it was suspected to be 'drug related', like that explained it all. Excuse me, I'm also fifteen. Am I supposed to excuse 'drug related' in some way as a reason for murder? Jesus! Okay, let's try that. You're my age, you mess with drugs, so it's okay that you die for it? It's expected? Arrgh! This kid, who I knew in no way, was murdered, and in a very cruel and humiliating way.

I looked at Davy, who was back in his funk, and went over to him with the paper. "This kid, Sammy Alvarez, you knew him, didn't you, Davy?"

Davy hung his head and nodded. "It wasn't him I knew, Mike. It was his brother. Sammy was a nice kid, but Miguel's been trouble for a long time. He used to be a nice kid, too, but he got tied up in a gang, started moving drugs. He's been in trouble since he was twelve, and Sammy did everything he could to stay clean. Miguel's big and tough, and hard to get at, so I'm sure Sammy paid the price for something Miguel did."

Davy was leaking tears, and said quietly, "Sammy didn't do anything, Mike. I guarantee it." He looked up at me with pain in his teary eyes. "He wanted to be a doctor, too, Mike, and he was smart enough." He shook his head. "Shit like this just doesn't make sense. It's just so..."

He didn't finish, and I sat down and pulled him to me while he sobbed quietly. Annie sat on his other side, but we really didn't have comfort to give him. We didn't know Sammy to mourn him, but we still felt awful about the situation.

When Tony and Paulina finally came downstairs, they found us in a pretty solemn little huddle. We explained what had happened, and their moods were dimmed, too, Paulina especially. She had first-hand knowledge about gangs and drugs, which had decapitated her relationship with her biological parents. She started mumbling to herself in Spanish while she read the article, which I couldn't really follow, but I eventually realized she was saying a prayer. She was clinging to Tony like he was a vine of truth or something, which he probably seemed like to her at the moment.

Tony was anything but a big person. He had a strength and solidity to him that most people lacked, though, and it was enlightening for me to watch him pull Paulina back to a steady state with his whispers and touches. When I thought about Tony and Paulina, I always saw Paulina as the dominant person, but that was just her personality. She was outgoing where Tony was reticent, but Tony had the real strength, and I was witnessing it. He had her smiling and asking for breakfast within ten minutes, then they left with Davy to make something.

I asked Annie, "Did you see that?"

She nodded, saying quietly, "A lot of people think Paulina goes with Anton out of sympathy, and it's just not true. I know you know it, Mike, but Paulina adores Tony. He's the one who keeps Paulina so stable." Annie gave me such a fat smooch on the cheek that I had to smile. She went on, whispering, "We're not the only people in love, you know. Just look at them, all tied up in each other like that." I got another kiss, on the lips this time, and Annie leaned into me. "We make our own lives, Michael. The world goes 'round, and we find our own anchors." She smiled. "For now, I think we have, and I really love you." She paused and shook her head. "That's weak. I love you, Michael, I really do. I'm ready to follow you to the ends of the earth"

She sighed. "I know you, and I know it may not work out like that." She leaned into me and smiled. "You come first, you're the more important person."

I tried to say something, but she went on, looking at me, "I mean it, Mike. You have something for this world, even if it's not defined yet." Her eyes focused. "You're important, mister, and you need to realize it."

I grinned, the both of us lost in our own little world. "Okay, stop," I whispered. "You're givin' me a big head here."

We snuggled for awhile, then I told Annie, "Don't ever tell me I'm more important than you, girl." I grinned. "Nobody's more important than you, nobody! Got that?"

Annie smiled and saluted me. "Yes, sir!"

I laughed. "Cut it out! I'm serious. You're my best friend, and I love you for that more than anything. More than that, I just plain love you to pieces. I love the sex we have, but I loved you already without it." I quieted down and looked in her beautiful eyes. "If I'm gonna be anythin', it's because you're with me, Annie. You give me your strength, and you give me a reason to wake up happy every day." I pulled her closer. "I love you, Annie, and any fool can see that. Just know that much. If I'm ever gonna be important, it's 'cause you already are."

I ended the conversation with a kiss that didn't end until the others came back from the kitchen.

Davy seemed to be more cheerful and Tony and Paulina were all lovey, so we spent most of the morning just hanging around and talking about different things. Davy and I kept in touch, so there was no real news, but I expanded some on what was happening with me at school since I announced to the guidance counselor that I was going to be a doctor, and wanted to make sure I had the right classes.

I'd always been an okay student, but Jack had taught me how to organize my studies, and I'd managed to make the honor roll during the year of our troubles, and I was still on it. I wasn't in any honors courses, which kept things easy enough for me, and they wouldn't allow any mid-year changes of classes I'd already started. I did manage to switch from metalworking to keyboarding, so at least I'd have an easier time on the computer.

Tony was going to follow his art, of course, but Davy, Annie and Paulina didn't have anything clear for intentions. They all thought there was plenty of time, and I was sure they wouldn't end up flipping hamburgers, except maybe Davy, because his most likely thing was to take over his dad's business. He liked it, and it had been working for a long time.

I guess you'd have to picture it to see the humor I found in the whole thing. Anton Wolfe and Mike Waters, two nobodies from nowhere, sitting with a real brain trust, were the only two with a clear idea of their futures. I laughed inside about it, then began to worry that if I had any real intelligence I'd see some options, maybe a long menu of them. Not me, though, nor Tony. He was going to art, and I was going to doctor, and that was the way things would be.

Then the doorbell rang. As Davy got up, he wondered aloud, "Who's out in this crap?" and left to answer the door. When he came back, he was trailed by two familiar and bashful looking guys who I'd only met once.

I stood up smiling. "Bally and Bobby! Jesus, don't you guys know to stay in when it's cold out?" I don't know why, but I was happy to see them, happier yet to see them dressed right and looking healthy, possibly even happy, but their cheeks looked so cold they probably would have shattered if they tried real smiles. I introduced them to Annie, Tony and Paulina, then asked, "Did you guys walk or somethin? You look all froze!"

It was funny, because they both shivered at the same time, and Bally smiled. "It's cold, okay! We can usually walk here in fifteen minutes, but it took almost an hour." He grinned. "Welcome back, Mike! Davy said you were coming."

I smiled at Bally, who I didn't really know, then took a look at Bob, who I knew too well. They'd both gained maybe an inch, and Bally seemed slimmer, Bob a bit heavier. The one time I'd met Bob before, he had this mean, mousy look about him. Now, when his eyes caught mine, he just smiled faintly, in a shy way, and it fit him. I said, "Hi, Bob. Things working out now? How's your sister?"

He looked at the floor, then back at me. "She's doin' good." He smiled a little. "I'm doin' good. The trial's in a couple of months, and we're both gonna testify." He looked right at me, with something I couldn't measure in his eyes, saying steadily, "We're gonna bury that bastard's ass in jail once and for all." Bob looked more confident than defiant when he added, "He can't hurt us anymore, Mike. He might be our father, but he's one messed up dude." He looked up at me with half a smile. "Thanks."

I asked, "Why thank me?" then realized where he was coming from. If I hadn't been so furious with him, hadn't tried to kill him in front of his only friend, Bobby would still be letting his so-called father rape him. The thought embarrassed me, but I smiled back. "You did it, Bob. You stood up and talked, and that's what it took."

He smiled for real, and I think I was as taken by his real smile as any I'd ever seen. "Okay, I'll take the credit if you want," he said. "You still gave me the nuts to do it, and I never had that before." He smirked. "Ball's in your court, Mike."

I said, "I like seein' you smile like that! Things are really better?"

Bob's smile cleared, and he actually seemed happy. "It's better. It's gettin' better. There's no more fear, anyhow." He frowned. "There's a lot to forget, a lot to work around and more to do, but we all feel better." He looked up. "It's work sometimes, and we need help, but we're movin' on now. Davy's dad gave Mom a job, and I help out after school. Ken and Mary are really fantastic, and," he beamed, putting his hand on Bally's shoulder, "I have the best friend you could ask for."

Bally's smile made me smile. Back in October, I could see that he was Bob's friend, but Bobby didn't recognize that fact. Now he did, and I guess the waiting can be worth the later rewards. I was new at real friends myself, and I understood that whatever effort it took to make and keep them was well worth it. It was friends, people you could count on, who gave you your center, who drew even more people into your personal world.

Six months earlier, I was probably more like Bob than anyone one else I knew.

Dave Devino pushed me to take the first tentative step toward making friends with Tony, and that was the deciding thing.

Tony was the first person besides Jack who I'd contemplated as a whole human being, and it was awkward for me, and I suppose for him. We got there, though, and it didn't take long at all. Going from total contempt to tentative friendship only took a day, and a little fun thrown in made it a real friendship in another day.

Starting right then I looked more closely at people, not in judgment, just at how they were, and I started to make more friends, and learn who was already my friend. James and Clay were in that category, watching my back before telling me about it.

I'd always known Annie, but I connected with her for the first time on the same day that I first met Davy. I don't know much about astrology, but my planets were lined up right then for sure. Annie and Davy had come to me at the same time to find me in a truly and thoroughly fucked up mess of emotions, emotions that were still sorting themselves out in my head.

My mulch pile was big enough that I could start my own planet. Joe Goldman had been exactly right when he told me about love that time. There was the heavy sort, as with me and Annie, the automatic kind you felt for family, and there was the everyday variety, as with me and anyone and anything else. As far as I could tell, given my limited experience, all love was good and beneficial, even the little I'd shown to Bobby that day when my brain was telling me he was my enemy.

I could tell that Bob wanted to talk to me, so I saved my thoughts for later and focused on him. Without me moving, we somehow felt a bit of privacy right then, because everyone else was paying attention to Tony's check. I asked, "You're really okay?"

Bob bit his lip. "Pretty much, really. It's ugly, and they had to go and put everything in the paper, so now half the town thinks I'm queer. That don't bother me, but they all know what happened, 'n that does bother me." He saw my concern and smiled grimly. "Hey, I'm not gettin' sick over it or anythin', I just wish people didn't know what went on." He put his hand on my arm and looked at me in earnest. "I meant it when I said thanks, Mike. I was bein' mean to your friend and I pissed you off." Bob smiled warily. "When you ever jumped me, I thought I was dead meat. I...I just want you to know that I think of you as a friend now, and I hope there's no hard feelings."

I smiled and shook his hand. "No, no hard feelin's. I'm just glad it's all workin' out." I grinned. "So, you're a workin' man now?"

His eyebrows went up. "Yeah, and I like it. It's not a get-rich job, but it's somethin' to do, and I make a few bucks. I spent most of it on Christmas presents, and that felt good." His gaze focused on my eyes, and he said, "I like you, Mike. I think you're a good guy."

That was a surprise, and I think it showed when I stammered, "Th...thanks. Where'd that come from?"

Bobby blushed a little. "Mary says I should tell people what I think when it won't hurt, and that's what I think." He smiled again. "You could'a just finished killin' me that day, and it wouldn't have made a difference. Now," he shrugged and smiled, "now I'm glad I'm still around."

Just then, Bally appeared before us, all wide-eyed. "Did you see that, Bobby? That foreign kid has a check for fifty grand and it's all his."

I looked at Bally in surprise, then gasped out a wheezy laugh. That foreign kid was Tony, whose accent seemed to sometimes escape people from Connecticut. I said, "He's not foreign, he's right from the good ol' USA!"

It was funny. Bally blushed, and you could practically see his mind working as his eyes darted around, trying to reason things out. "What's that language, then? I don't get it. He says all this stuff, and I don't know what it is, but everyone else does! They talk American to him, and he comes back with...I don't know what."

Too funny! I left Bally to sort it out for himself and went to the toilet, noticing that the snow had pretty much stopped outside, and that there was a whole lot of it on the ground.

When I came out, Davy was pulling his boots on, and I asked where he was going. "Just to clear the driveway," he smiled. "I won't be too long."

I said, "Can I help?"

He said, "If you want. Come on out when you're ready."

I went into the other room to tell Annie, and she wanted to come with me, as did everyone else. It turned into a production with us all trying to get our winter clothes on at the same time in the fairly small entrance hallway.

Bulked up like we were, we headed outside through the garage, where we found Davy gassing up a kick-ass big snow blower.

"Jeez'm," Tony exclaimed when he looked at the nine inches or so of snow that came neatly to an end where the garage door had been raised. "I never seen so much snow." He walked out into it and picked up a handful, then tossed it, and it was like talcum powder. He turned around and grinned, then laid on his back and started sweeping his arms back and forth, yelling "Snow angel! Everybody make one!"

He got up gingerly, and we all looked at his handiwork. Then we each made our own angels, even Davy.

It was fun, a bunch of teenagers acting like little kids. It was new snow, snow that had amassed silently, and I wasn't a bit frightened by it. Davy's big snow blower made quick work of the driveway, and the rest of us boys took turns doing the walks and the steps with shovels. The snow was light, and it wasn't hard work, but I still felt a little sweaty with all the clothes I had on.

When we were done, Davy asked, "Anybody want to go sledding?"

We all volunteered excitedly, and after hauling every manner of sled down from the space over the garage, we started walking up the street to a golf course. There were other people already there, and a really great, long hill. I inflated this round, plastic thing like a flat-bottomed tube, and Annie and I started out on that. It was really fast, and by our second ride some kids had built up a bump near the bottom. When we went over it, we lifted right into the air and went flying in different directions, laughing like crazy.

Davy, Bally and Bob were using a toboggan that looked like it had room for two more, so our third ride was on that, and we really went fast! At the bottom, we had to all lean to the left and tip the thing over, else we would have ended up in the road.

What a great afternoon! Tony tried this pink, plastic, bath-tubby looking thing, and it went where it wanted, spinning him back and forth out of control, and he crashed into a little girl, who he caught in his arms somehow, and they made the rest of the ride together. I could hear the girl's father or whoever laugh and cry out, "Nice catch, kid!" Then he laughed again, calling Tony, "Queek Straw McGraw!"

The walks back up hill got harder and harder after awhile, and we finally called it quits, heading back to Davy's to warm up. I was already warm, because my fear of snow was completely gone. I was kind of proud of myself, in a way. Snow wasn't my only fear, but I'd faced the one, and now it was gone, and replaced with good feelings. Well, good feelings until Tony shoved a handful of snow inside the back of my collar. I screeched and scrunched, then let go of Annie and chased him clear back to Davy's.

The little fucker could run faster than he could throw, and I didn't have a chance. He was already inside stomping off his feet when I caught up with him. Breathless as I was, I'd had the foresight to scoop up a handful of snow before I went in, and he already had his coat off, so I got him a good one, right down the back of his shirt.

Tony jumped a foot and screamed, then fought himself to get his shirt off, while I caught my breath and laughed in satisfaction. Tony was a sight, all angular in his movements as always, and we both ended up laughing before anyone else got back. "Hah!" I said. "Got ya!"

Tony turned a shy smile to me, then surprised me by giving me a hug. A real warm, friendly hug, and it made me feel good. Tony was more than everyday to me, and I mentally added another category for special friends. We kissed quickly, and I named that category 'friends you can kiss'.

Joe Goldman would have loved it!


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