Jack in the Box

Chapter 59

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : June, 2001

Yes, yes, YES! Sixteen today, car bought and paid for, waiting in the driveway, and a party in the barn later on. It was the sum of everything good, and on a Saturday yet! School was out, freedom was back, and I couldn't wait for the day to unfold.

What a difference from a year ago. Then I was a sulking hulk, devastated by Jack's death, and that was something I'd never get over, but now I had Jack back in a way. I had him in Davy's smile, in Guy's bones, in Annie's love, but most of all he resided in me. My neighbor, Dave Devino, had been right all along when he said I'd find my Jack again, and I did, and he lives on inside me.

Once I'd started opening up about Jack, fitting him into my everyday equation, he started to come back to life, a little at a time at first, and then came a flood of Jack, and now he was with me all the time. I knew he existed in my mind, but that made no difference, because he was real there. It was like a partition, where we could talk like we used to, where Jack could experience life through me, and it was good.

I still wrote to Jack, too, and I had a good correspondence with his folks out in New Mexico. They knew my feelings, and it was a lot like having everything back together again, real or not. It's good because it's all real to me,

I rolled out of bed smiling at nothing in particular, and thought to Jack, This will be the best day ever! I took a shower and shaved, which was now an everyday thing, then headed to the kitchen, where my father was sitting with a coffee and newspaper. He looked up when I came in, then smiled, "Good morning, Son. Happy birthday! How's it feel to be sixteen?"

I couldn't help but smile, "I feel great!" I looked around, "Did you eat already?"

He put the paper down, "No, I was waiting for you. How's about we eat out? Just you and me, if that's okay, but if you want to ask Davy, that's fine, too."

"I'm for that!" I said, and he stood up. "Just you and me is good. Can I drive?"

Dad smiled, "You're itching, aren't you? Yes, you can drive, but you still have to wait a month to get your license." He smirked, "Then you have to wait 'til you're thirty to get permanent possession of the key to that car of yours."

"Yeah, right," I muttered. "Let's go! I'm ready if you are."

My father was a great driving teacher, and was apparently satisfied with what I'd learned, because he didn't say a word all the way to the restaurant, not even about my parking, which was less than picture-perfect, but I didn't hit anything.

We had a great breakfast and a nice talk, and I realized that I actually likedtalking to my father again. He was a fun person to be around when he didn't have to be particularly fatherly, and we were friends as well as father and son. He wasn't too old to learn new things, and when we went to the Little Wheezy River to fish in the canoe for the first time, he got the idea pretty fast of letting the river carry us. He got it when he got nervous, hung up on some brush, and he reached for a paddle. I had almost screamed, "Don't do that, we'll get loose!" He put the paddle back down, and the water got us free soon enough, and I told him I learned that from Mr. Anderson. It pleased Dad that I learned something that day he was mad at me, and let me go fishing anyhow with Pat and his father.

That canoe that I got him for Christmas was what glued us back together. We both loved the boat, and used it every chance we got. It was great in swamps, ponds, rivers and lakes, and the way Dad had restored it, it was the best looking boat out there. El perfecto!

As much fun as I was having with Dad, as soon as breakfast was over I felt a hurry-up feeling come over me, because Davy, Melanie, Juan and Guy were staying next door, and I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could, and they'd probably be getting up about then.

I was anxious, I guess, because the wall clock in the restaurant said it wasn't eight yet, and I was cranked anyhow. People had actually traveled here for my birthday, and that both pleased and excited me. Davy had come down with his folks for Easter, and we had a fun time. Guy and Juan, though, surprised the hell out of me when they showed up with Davy the night before. They got in late, so we didn't have a lot of time to fool around, and they were probably sleeping late, but I was determined to get them moving, to show them Morton.

It was a little town, maybe, but there were things to do, and people to meet, even Phil the Pill. Phil and Dwayne hadn't really hit it off, nor had Guy and Seth, but I had a feeling that Phil and Guy were closer to a match, and I was all anxious to see how it played out. What I was seeing was that there's gay people who are practiced in their gayness, like Dwayne and Seth, and they tended to scare off kids like Phil and Guy, so Guy and Phil should be perfect, and if not, so what? I wasn't playing matchmaker to start with, but I had determined they should meet the minute Guy showed up at my door.

I really loved Guy. I mean, who wouldn't? Phil had taken longer, but we'd gotten pretty close, and I liked him. He still had a lot of things stuck through his face, but he'd taken up bathing, started shaving, and stopped putting dye in his hair. I think that was mostly the real him, too, because he'd been the same since March, when they'd moved here for good. I liked having him around. He was smart for starters, and a really good talker, and I guess he challenged me to think a lot when we talked. He wasn't as off-the-wall as Clay, not as grounded as Davy, but he still had his own ideas about things, and he knew a lot, so it was satisfying to have him as a friend. It didn't hurt that he lived in a house I could walk to in about a minute, either. We spent a lot of time together owing to proximity alone, but that was about to change, because I had bought a car.

Well, it was a truck, technically. It was Mrs. Rizza's Jeep Cherokee, a two-door and ten years old, but it was white, in great shape and it was mine! My Dad, Tim Atkins and Joe Goldman had all checked it out, and proclaimed it to be a good deal, so I paid the lady what she wanted and drove it home, which was all of two hundred yards, but it still felt fine, because I had wheels. A low mileage special, and I loved it, even though I couldn't really drive yet, but my parents took me out and let me drive when I got too anxious. Learner's permits suck, but they're better than nothing.

It was funny in a way. When I was driving home, I thought about things, and I wasn't the loser I always thought I'd be. No more little Mikey Waters, over-curious kid. I was Michael Waters, Mike anyhow (Mice in one circle), and I was all done accepting bullshit in my life, other than friendly bullshit from my growing circle of friends.

Anybody else, my attitude was show yourself to me, then I'll decide how I feel about you. I was somehow pretty popular, though that wasn't necessarily good. It gave me opportunities, though, and I used them where they were worthwhile, ignored them when they weren't.

Nobody was going to budge me from my determination to become a doctor.

The day was going to be hot, but it wasn't humid, and I sat out on the back porch with a glass of water while I awaited signs of life next door. I lazed, thinking about the last few weeks. I got a high school letter, of all things. It was for baseball, which had turned out to be fun for both me and Tony. It was exercise, and it was a fun game, and I did okay. Tony did great, and we both ended up liking the whole idea of teams and teamwork. Tony, though, the other teams would scoff at the little guy standing on the pitcher's mound, right until he started striking them out. We won every game he pitched, and almost got in the playoffs. There was an awards banquet, and both our families went. I guess everyone who plays gets a letter, but it was kind of special for me, because when I went up to accept mine I was in a place I never dreamed I'd be.

There had been another awards assembly the day before school let out, and Dwayne got a standing ovation when he took the awards for the best feature story in a high school paper, both the state and the national ones. When he took it, he stood at the microphone and asked me to stand up, and when I did, I got an ovation of my own, and I got tears in my happy eyes, because it was really for Jack, and that's when I most felt him in me. I was crying for both of us, because we were accepted at last, and not as gay boys, but as equals among the students and faculty. Real people. It was good.

Tony took the real honors that day, and the principal himself announced the seventeenawards he'd won for both art in general, and for illustration of a story. That brought the roof down, and I got weepy again as I watched my humble and valiant friend listen in amazement to the wording of some of those awards, while the whole school loudly cheered him on. He just stood there beaming, looking at plaque after plaque, trophy after trophy, and all the parchment letters that came with them. Who knew? Life is good.

I smiled thinking of Tony that day. The awards were a confirmation of his talents, but he was a working artist at sixteen, selling drawings, carvings, bird houses, books and cd's. I didn't know how much he was earning, and I didn't often ask, but it seemed that everyone wanted a Tony original drawing. I had a signed copy of his book, and it was a big sucker that weighed about twenty pounds. It was on the coffee table in our living room.

The book came with a copy of the cd, and the cd had taken off on its own, even got reported in Newsweek, which brought the sales even higher. Tony's art was a universal thing, nothing more than down-home drawings of people doing everyday things, and the cd, with Tony's voice explaining each picture, had become my number two treasure, after my photo of Jack and me together.

"This is the Etthridge farm, a place, I always liked. When I walked by there that day, I stopped to take a good look. That's when I noticed the little girl in the barn, brushing out her horse. She was all intense, and that horse was beautiful. I know I show them real small, but that's what I saw."

Tony had even appeared on television, though he didn't come across that well. He'd been on Leno, all the morning shows, and on Letterman. He was nervous on television, and it showed, but David Letterman got to him with sarcasm about his eyes and his accent, and Tony said, "You're not a funny man, You're just mean!" which got the audience clapping, maybe half the country. You could see that it humiliated Letterman, and Tony was gone after the next commercial. That was fine with Anton Wolfe. He came home a hero, Morton's own teenage celebrity, but he vowed to anyone who'd listen that it was his last dance with publicity.

It worked in Tony's favor, too, because even more people wanted to know about the simple boy with the fantastic art, and they bought his books and cd's to see it. Tony was doing well, I just don't know how well.

It worked for me, too. I don't get depressed anymore, but sometimes I feel like being alone, and the best way in the world to be alone is to put Tony's cd into the computer and just drift with it. I'm alone then, but I'm not.

I like being with Tony for the same reason. We can talk a lot or not, and when we don't it's just as good, because we have our own thoughts, and it doesn't matter when they're good ones. We talk about things like money now, about royalties, sometimes about our futures, but that's rare. What's most likely to get us going is various upsets, but we're ordinarily pretty quiet when we're together, and I like that. Tony brings me down, and not in a bad way. He can get me in a mood where I just see things, which is what he does, and it's a happy, peaceful place to be, with trees growing, birds flying, air there just for breathing. I love it when I'm in that place. It's good.

It was the best time of my life right then. Everyone I knew was doing well, and I wasn't confronting unhappy people every time I turned around. Pat Anderson had a couple of surgeries, and now he was able to use contacts instead of glasses, so I didn't have to avoid looking at that weird big eye every time I saw him. That made him a whole lot happier than it made me, and the people who had been snickering behind his back were now seeing just what Pat was made of, which was good, solid Anderson stock. He still had a temper, but that perpetual chip on his shoulder seemed to have disappeared. Like me, Pat seemed to have found the Kevin side of him, and he was living a life, making friends, getting along happily.

Pat's loss of his twin brother was a huge hit on him, just like my losing Jack, but we were both coming around on that, putting it in the past where it was appropriate, keeping them alive where we could. It was working for both of us. We talked about it sometimes, but not a lot, just when there was something that seemed important. I knew that Kevin was as much a part of Pat as Jack was a part of me, and we alone knew how that felt, so we left it there most of the time, until one of us felt the need to say something. I could yank up Jack when I needed to, and Patty could evoke Kevin, and it was good.

I was just going to get up and go next door when Tony wheeled into the driveway on his bike. He dropped it on the lawn and hopped the railing to my porch, all grinning, his soft brown hair kind of long now, and framing his face. "Hey, Mike!"

"Hey, rich boy! You come slumming?"

Tony laughed, "Listen to you! I came to say happy birthday." He plopped into the chair next to me, and smiled, opening a sack he had with him. "I didn't know what to get you, so I made this," he said, as he handed me a perfectly carved little bust of Annie.

I was stunned. It was a wood carving, but out of a grainless wood so shiny it could have been porcelain, and absolutely the finest thing I had ever seen in my life. I could only stare at it, inspect it for the longest time. Annie, twelve inches high, not stoic, but smiling at the world, captured in time, by an artist who'd just taken a giant step to create it.

I looked in amazement, finally turning to Tony, "You never did anything like thisbefore. I ... I ... I can't believeit!" I cradled the sculpture, looking again, and it was still fine.

Tony asked, "You really like it?"

I said, "I loveit. This is the prettiest thing I ever saw!"

Tony said, in his quiet voice, "Okay," as he unwrapped some more paper, "I made you a Jack, too."

He handed it to me.

I gasped, because what Tony gave me was the most perfect thing he could have given me, a sculpture of Jack so real, so advanced, so beyond what I'd seen from Tony before ... tears formed in my eyes. It wasn't Jack then , it was Jack now, looking so much more like Davy, which I knew would be the case if he'd lived. I could only look, fondle, cry.

Sometimes I didn't know how to talk to Tony, and this was one of them. I was so overwhelmed, so teary-eyed, that I could only hold the little sculptures out and look at Tony in some weird, stunned way.

He smiled at me in that gentle manner he had, and said, "Take 'em, Mike. I made 'em for you." He fixed his big eyes on mine. "I ... I ... kind of projectedwith that one. I mean, I tried to see what Jack would look like with another year on him." His eyes bored into mine, "I didn't mean to make you sad!"

I shook my head, unable to speak at first, then I managed, "I'm not sad , Tony. This is just the most beautiful thing anyone ever did for me ... ever!"

"You like it then?" he asked eagerly.

I looked again at the little statue, and it was the exact picture I held in my head of an older Jack. Guy's bones, Davy's smile, but the damdest thing was that I felt Annie's love in it, Jacks love for me. I looked at both of them, at Annie and Jack, and I loved them both. I had no confusion about that anymore.

They were fine works of art, too. Tony's best yet by a wide margin; a whole new level for him. They weren't just sculptures, they were real,all full of emotion and the love we'd shared. I could feel it in those chunks of wood, and it was all for me.

My lovers, past and present, present and present. I'd always love Jack, and Annie loved him too, so the Jack in my head was as valid as the Jack who had once trod this earth.

I looked at Tony's expectant expression and smiled. "What kind of wood is this? It's almost like plastic, the way it feels."

He said, "It's holly, Tim gave me some hunks of it. I never tried anything that worked like it does."

"Holly wood?" I asked, then recognized the word. "Oh, Hollywood, like in Hollywood, California!" I inspected the two statues one more time, "I get it, now."

Tony smiled, "I'm glad ya like 'em. I never gave ya a birthday present before, and I like that I can."

That comment caught me short, but Tony was right. On my last birthday I saw Anton Wolfe as my enemy, the person who's name I least wanted to hear, who's presence I least wanted to be in. Now look at us: we are the best of friends, and for all the right reasons.

I had to smile. "Don't think about the past, man, we can't change it. We're friends now, and that's what matters. I ... um, I really love you, Tony. You really turned me around. I'd probably still be stinkin' like a chimney and holin' up in Jack's room if it wasn't for you."

Tony said softly, "And I'd prob'ly still be hauntin' the hills. I'm glad we're friends now, we're good for each other."

I looked at his soft smile, "Yeah, we are." I grinned, "That's profound !"

Tony leaned into me, "Yeah, it's profound." He turned his head away, "I love you too, Mike," he muttered, then turned back to me smiling, "I really love you. There! I said it to your face."

I smiled, and leaned in close, whispering, "I love you too, Tony." I grinned, "You amaze me."

"I do?" he asked, looking startled.

"Yeah, you do, like you're the best friend I could have."

Tony looked down and away for the longest time, then his eyes came back to mine, "Care to explain that?" He looked down again, then back , "I guess I never thought I'd have a friend," and his whole being seemed to brighten, "Now I know what it's like and I love it."

I thought about that, thought about it again, then said, "Yeah." I smiled, "That's just the way it is." I grinned, "You had the biggest birthday party in the history of this town."

He smiled, "It was the same people that went to James Green's party. How many yougot comin'?"

"Same ones. Oh jeez, I forgot, Juan and Guy came down with Davy, so I'll have four more than you, so there!"

"Really, they're here?" He looked at his watch, "I gotta do somethin', but I'll be back to see 'em."

I felt good that Tony wanted to see those guys again. I said, "You're figuring out friends."

Tony looked at me, smiled, then grinned, "I got at least one figured out, I think." He giggled, "Thanks, Mice."

I threw up my hands, "What's with Mice? It's a hard'c', Anton. Like the 'c' in murder!"

Tony looked at me all worried, then said, "Wait, there ain't no 'c' in murder!"

I laughed, then yelled, "Right! there ain't, and there ain't no 'c' in Mike!" I laughed, and pointed right at Tony's nose, "And I hope you remember that, young man!"

Tony looked at me, humor in his eyes, and before he could get a word out his shoulders started quivering, and he started laughing helplessly. I put my hand on his shoulder, laughing myself, so much my nose got plugged up. "Laugh, Tody, it's the best thing!"

He twisted his head, "Tody?"

I laughed harder, "Idth my node, it's all full of snot. I meant Tody !"

Tony wheezed out a laugh, then kept wheezing it out like it was funny, but it was just a stuffed nose, and the only 'n' sound I could make came out as a 'd', and it was his fault to start with. It was all just too funny, so we held each other and laughed.

It only got broken up when my father appeared in the doorway, "Mike, Davy called. They're waiting on you at Tim's house."

I was surprised, "They're up? Look, Dad! Look what Tody made for my birthday!" I handed him the carvings.

Dad' looked at me and said, "Blow your nose," then his eyes almost popped out as he gingerly took them from me. He looked closely at them, a small frown on his face, which soon turned to an amazed smile. "These are incredible , Anton! Amazing!" He looked towards the door, "Lucy! Come out here and see what Mike has!"

My mother rushed out, probably thinking I had the flu or something, but she saw I was fine, and Dad handed her the carvings, which stopped her in her tracks.

Tony beamed under the admiration, and I could tell he already knew he'd reached another plateau, and that he loved the confirmation. I wanted to see Davy and told Tony so.

He seemed uncertain, but finally said he really had to do something.

I said, "They'll be here all week, so go do what you have to."

It was so much fun talking to Tony lately, because he always had to be somewhere else than he was. He was as busy as a flea in a dog factory. Besides having a publisher, he also had an agent, an attorney and an accountant, and he'd gotten himself a cell phone.

He was branching out big time, but found himself having more time of his own, because they took care of everything but the actual work. I had asked him a few weeks earlier how much money he had, and he said, "I don't remember. The accountant wrote it down once, but I lost the paper, or maybe I gave it to Daddy."

He was serious, too.

Aside from his expanded payroll, and the money he had set aside for a Volkswagen that Joe Goldman was restoring for him, Tony didn't have a lot of use for money. He hadn't even replaced the old plastic tablecloth that enclosed his little workshop on the hill. I guess I was like that, too. I'd pretty much spent the check I got from my copyright for the talking cd idea on the car, but I still earned a few pennies every time somebody bought one of Tony's cd's. Now there were others out with artists narrating their work, and I got money for them, too.

Tony and I both had to pay a lot in taxes, and it's probably a lucky thing he got an accountant before they came due, else we'd be cell mates. That was something we'd been blissfully unaware of, and it rubbed us both the wrong way at the time, but now Tony was all set up as an employer, paying Social Security and Worker's Compensation, a bunch of other stuff. Me, Pat and Richard were having taxes withheld as well, doing our part to finance the running of this country. Tony's dad called us leaves on the taxpayer tree, and said that he himself had never much cared for taxes.

Tony didn't want to go, but he had some obligation, so I fussed over him when he stood up, hugging him and thanking him for the statues over and over again. I kissed him right in front of my father, who payed no mind, and Tony promised to be back in an hour or so.

I put the statues back in the sack, after wrapping tissue around them again, and headed out to the barn.

Tony's dad was making miracles in Tim and Dave's yard. The lawn was lush, there were big and little flower beds everywhere, and he had put in decorative trees here and there, and it was really beautiful. I especially loved the free-form rock garden he'd made by the big deck. The brick walk was still there going through it, but now there were boulders and bits of stone wall, flowers and vines, and it all looked softer, less severe. The favorite place to sit there now was no longer on the deck, but under a big old oak where you could look at everything, admire the landscape and the architecture together, and see yourself doing it in the reflection from the glass wall.

I missed Tony the moment he left. He meant the world to me as a friend already, and the fact that he'd done his finest carving to date for my birthday almost overwhelmed me. I stopped and leaned against a tree to think about that, and I guessed I could be in trouble. I loved the feel of some people, and there was a convergence happening that I'd never considered before. My friends were becoming part of me, and they were vital parts. It was Annie, Davy and Tony mostly, and I could no longer envision a life without them, because they brought me goodness in three different styles, three different flavors, which were all delicious.

There were others, too, lots of them, and they all let me keep hold of my own center. Jed and Pat Anderson, James Green, Buddy, Clay, Paulina, Tim and Dave. The list went on; Guy, Jason, even my 'problem children' Dwayne and Phil. All of them gave me something I needed and wanted.

I loved Annie, and any part of her that I could feel was good, way good. I loved the feel of Tony too, and he'd grown so much that he felt different now, but not different at the same time. He'd started to sprout up, and his baseball exercises had given him pretty strong shoulders, but he still felt the same. He wasn't really so small anymore, just wiry, and that came from his dad, I think. There was a strength that Tony and his dad had that wasn't shared by most people. I'd watched Tony strike out guys twice his weight, and watched his dad plop trees in the ground by himself that Tim and Dave together couldn't budge.

Now Guy and Davy were here. I'd never really see Jack again, and I understood that, but I could always see his smile in Davy's, always feel his body in Guy's. Those two wouldn't grow up different than the path they were on, so I'd always have a physical presence to go along with my mental images. It's kind of a weird way to keep Jack with me, but it was working.

I'm nuts, I know, but I like the way I am. I'd gone through a year where I didn't know enough about myself. I was all up and down, not knowing whether to love or hate. My head was up, my head was down, and I vacillated on everything, but I made it through, and now I felt strong.

At one point I'd thought that Jack's death had defeated me, and that was a feeling of absolute, total defeat, the lowest and ugliest point in my life. I had struggled with it for a long time, but I fought back, and now I was on the upswing. Jack was back with me in lots of disjointed ways, but he was with me again just the same, living as a part of me that was just him. I was winning, and I was goingto win. Good was on my side.

Michael Waters, Mice (hard c) for short.

Things were good.

In my head and in my heart, Jack lived. The rest of him was parts, but they were all there. Humpty Dumpty? Maybe, but the body lived on in Guy, the smile in Davy, and the true love in Annie. It all worked together to make me a pretty happy person on my birthday, so I continued on back to the barn, sculptures in hand, to where some friends awaited.

I smiled broadly at the sign Tony had made. It said, 'Republic of Morton - Town Hall' over the barn door. The wording and the idea were Clay's, the look and the lettering were copies of the sign over Tim's antique shop in Connecticut, but the feeling was shared by everyone in town.

Tim and Dave were new residents of Morton, there barely a year, and that barn was the newest structure of any magnitude. Still, if anything of significance was going to happen in town, the likelihood was that it would happen right there in the barn. Nobody planned it that way, it just happened, and there wasn't a soul in town who would deny the validity of the sign Clay and Tony came up with. People smiled again whenever they saw it.

Morton wasn't a city, not a town, not a village, not even a burg. It was a township: thirty six square miles of land that came under county governance. It was Clay's occasional genius with words that made Morton a republic, and there wasn't a soul in town who didn't like the idea, at least secretly.

I walked in through the barn, smiling at how Tim had cleaned up the old dune buggy he bought off Joe Goldman, and envisioning the fun we'd have with it on the land out back. I walked into the kitchen, finding everyone sitting with their breakfast dishes still in front of them.

Dave and Tim were in full-charm mode, and you could tell it was working on Melanie, Juan and Guy, because they all seemed mesmerized. I announced my presence and got happy greetings in return. I took a seat and reached into the sack, pulling out the sculpture of Annie and unwrapping it to a collective gasp. I beamed, "Tony Wolfe made this for my birthday! Ain't it great?"

I handed it to Davy for a closer look, and you could see the disbelief on his face as he scrutinized it, the same amazement I felt when I first saw it. He just sighed and handed it to Melanie, who also seemed totally amazed.

The best reaction was Tim's, though, because his eyes shone with an inner light when he looked it over. He finally held it out for everyone to look at, and said, "You know, this is the difference between real art and plain old everything ordinary. It's more than Annie's image, it's Anton's vision of Annie's life. It isher life." His eyes narrowed as he turned Annie's face back to him, and his voice got quieter, "All the emotions are there in a single expression. God, just between blinking my eyes I can see happy, hopeful, melancholy ... even angry." He looked at me, "This is valuable, Mike." He reached across the table to hand it to me, "Treasure this always, it's a work of art in any sense that you can use to describe art."

I was smiling broadly when I took it back, because I already knew that. I grinned at Tim, "I know you want it, Tim, but this one's mine."

He glowered at me, but I could see the humor in his eyes when he crossed his arms on his chest and said, "Hmmph!"

I just brightened my smile as I reached into the sack, saying, "Where there's one there's another!" and pulled out the sculpture of Jack. I tore the tissue on the little, sharp cowlick in his hair, but it drew even louder gasps than the one of Annie. I said, "I been tellin' y'all about Jack for a long time, now it's time to meet him." I handed it to Davy.

He held it gingerly, and smiled, his eyes glassy. "Hello, Jack. Finally we meet, huh?" He stroked the hair, "I know all about you, you know, and I think you're beautiful." He looked at Tim and smiled, "You're right about the expression, it's all there," then looked back at Jack fondly, almost whispering, "You'll never know ... you'll never know." Then tears came to his eyes for real, and he clutched the carving to his chest, whispering, "You poor kid!"

I honestly hadn't ever been so touched in my life. I couldn't help it, I cried, right there on my sixteenth birthday. I leaned close to Davy. Davy loved Jack, and I was totally overwhelmed with emotion when I saw it was true. I leaned into Davy, Jack clutched in his hand between us, and let the tears run. Davy was sad, and I was overjoyed beyond what I could try to contain. Union! We were one: the three of us. Jack, Davy and me, we were an entity for a moment, but the moment didn't last. "Let us see," said Guy's voice, and Davy pulled back to hand the carving over.

When Guy had it in his hands, Davy and I just stared at each other, like something scary had happened, and it had. Love is kind of scary to start with, but what I'd seen briefly in Davy's eyes corresponded exactly with what I felt in my own heart. Love. Not of the earthbound kind, but fundamental love, love that you couldn't do anything about if you wanted to. And Jack was in it with us, maybe even guiding things along.

I got distracted by comments from Melanie, and when I tuned to look at her, I noticed Dave and Tim both smiling at me, and they looked away quickly when they saw me notice. That was too weird for a moment, like they really were my angels, and were checking out their handiwork. I looked quickly back at Davy, and he had that same smile, but he held it, and I wondered.

I finally turned back to Melanie, who had a soft expression on her face, maybe close to weeping. She said, so quietly that I had to mentally repeat it to myself, "This is a treasure, Mike," referring to the carving she held, "it's gorgeous." She smiled, and handed it back to me, "It belongs with you. It's a beautiful piece of art, a beautiful life."

I took the statue back, never letting my eyes off Melanie's for the longest time, then I confronted Jack's face again. So perfect! It was unbelievable that Tony could advance his art so far, so fast, but he'd done it! Well, it hadbeen six months of never-ending birdhouses, new drawings, little comical whittlings, but this was something new. Very new. Fantastic!

In a way, it was Tony's world that I felt most a part of. Pat and I had determined to keep up with Tony's output, and we devoted Monday thru Thursday to that effort, working something like regular hours. I liked to get up early, so I was usually at the shop by seven, and Pat showed up around nine, but we both put in full days at the glue pot, and our output was gaining us about twelve bucks an hour.

It wassummer, though, and unless it decided to rain on a Friday, we gave ourselves a three-day weekend every week.

It was going to be my best summer ever, and that was a promise that spread through me every morning. My summer of love, my summer of discovery was happening, and I could feel it in my bones.

Annie and me made a lot with those long weekends. There hadn't been many yet, but every one so far had been nice weather, so we spent that time out at Tim and Dave's pond. There's all these terms for getting laid, like screwing your brains out', and maybe we were, because we sure came up addled for awhile afterwards, but then it was just us and we loved each other to the core, so a temporary loss of reason seemed a small price.

As a matter of fact, we'd spent the day before out there, and I believe that thing about brains has a ring of truth to it. We were both senseless afterwards, finding ourselves on the state road instead of at the house after we walked for a long time. We'd gone the wrong way, plain and simple, and it was amusing, but we had to go the same way back, and there was no hurry, so we did it again, swam again, and we loved each other even more than we had a mere hour earlier. It was perfect and beautiful, and anyone who said what we were doing was wrong was full of crap up to their ears, and it was overflow that spewed from their mouths.

There was nothing more wonderful than the love Annie and I had for each other, and we were equipped both mentally and physically for the sex we had, so the nay-sayers and the bible thumpers could take a hike in s direction chosen by us. We loved each other, and we were careful, and it was nobody's business but ours. Annie's Crohn's wasn't bothering her, and life was good.

Juan brought me back to the moment, saying, "So, Mike ... ready to show some Yanks around?"

I grinned, "Yeah! We can take mycar. Um, one of you guys still has to drive."

Davy smiled, "I'm eighteen, don't I qualify to be your guardian now?"

I shrugged, liking that idea, "Technically, I guess. I'll have to ask my folks."

We stood to head out, and Dave and Tim stood with us. There was a flurry of 'nice to meet you' and 'thanks for breakfast', then we headed out. Tim kept the carvings there because he wanted to look at them some more and Dave walked us out, his arm firmly around my shoulder. When we were outside, he faced me. "Have fun, Mike. The party starts at six, so don't forget to come back." He grinned, and I got a whiff of him, and almost said something about that scent that he shared with Guy, then figured I'd just complicate things if I did.

I smiled at him, gave him a quick hug, and promised not to get lost.

My dad surrendered the key to the car with just a mild warning, then we were off, me getting compliments about the Cherokee even though there wasn't much to talk about. It was clean and still looked pretty new, but it wasn't all that much to start with. It was mine, though, and I cherished the compliments.

Our first stop was right down the street, to see Jason and Jen, and ask if Phil wanted to go with us. Jason and Phil had run out to the hardware store, so we had a coffee with Jennifer while we waited for them to come back, and everyone liked her. I got to show off their baby, my God daughter, Milly, and she exhibited her own charms to everyone.

When Jason and Phil showed up, I introduced everyone around, and when I got to Guy, I said, "Phil, this is Guy. It's my birthday, but he's my present to you. He's my brother from Connecticut, and he's gay just like you."

I don't know why I said that, I honestly don't, and it didn't seem like it was going to go over very well. Phil was shy to start with, and Guy glared at me while the others laughed nervously. Finally, Phil smiled shyly and said, "You know, I guess that's good information to have." He held out his hand and shook with Guy, smiling more. "You're really gay?" He shot me a glance, then looked back at Guy, checking him out. He shrugged, "Well, why shouldn'twe know that? I'd know if you were a girl, wouldn't I?"

I looked at Phil, and there was something different. It took me a moment to realize that half or more of his facial decorations were gone, everything but the rings in his ear, and they'd all been there two days ago. It did wonders for him, because without those added features you could see his real ones, and he wasn't bad looking.

I thought I'd made a big mistake at first, but Phil smiled, then Guy did.

Guy said happily, "Yeah!" like he thought it was funny, and he leaned close to Phil, "We can relate, man. I'm in this gay alliance thing at school, and not one guy all year admitted to bein' gay." He looked at the ceiling and grinned, "Yeah! One day here and I meet someone like me."

He leered evilly at Phil, "Wanna dance?"

Phil gave me a pained look, and I just laughed, "Deal with it! I'm showin' them around. You wanna come?"

Phil looked at each of us in turn, then questioned Jason, who said, "Go ahead. I can replace a hose bib by myself," referring to the project he and Phil had been planning.

We headed out, just driving around at first so they'd get the lay of the land. Then we started to stop places, both for closer looks at things like ponds, and to meet some people. I brought them to the falls, through town, past Tony's trailer park, out to the lakes, then the next place we stopped was Pat's barn, so I could show them what we were working on.

That made an impression, both the work we were doing and that two teenagers, all alone, took such good care of our workplace. It was a necessity mostly, not a point of pride. We let it get dirty at first, then found out that dust didn't help glue to adhere, not even a little bit, so we kept things tidy now, and it only took us a few extra minutes each day.

Patty was happy to join us when we asked, and we continued on to the wealthy end of town, where I pointed out Paulina's house, kind of shy about stopping.

Guy whistled, "Wow! Why aren't we stopping?"

I glanced at Davy, "Did you tell them?"

He shook his head, then looked at Guy and Juan in the back seat. "Paulina's parents are kind of famous. You'll meet them, so I guess I can tell you the story."

Davy told them as I drove to the high school to show them where we went to school, then to the hospital to show them ... I don't know, a lot of things, I guess, but mostly Jack's name, all done up in polished aluminum or whatever that metsl was. That name up there, spread across the building like it was, it was special to me and Jack, confirmation that he lived, that he was important already when he died, and not just to me.

From that night at the bus crash until now, so much had happened, and I sat there just looking at the sign.

* * * * * * * *

It had been two days back in April. Orientation day for eighth-graders, on which the school had a short assembly to commemorate those lost in the year-ago accident, then the day went on as normal, except younger kids were sitting in on classes. It was the next day, Saturday, the actual anniversary of the crash, that I feared, and I got up reluctantly, knowing what I'd promised myself I'd do, but now afraid of it.

I awoke without appetite, stayed in bed for a long time, then went to the bathroom. Afterwards, I locked myself in my room, sitting on the foot of my bed looking at the closet door, knowing in general what was in there, but extremely reluctant to look at the real of it. I don't know how much time passed ... a half hour, more than that probably, before I finally opened the closet, got to my knees to move things out of the way, then pulled out the big carton that had lived against the back wall for nearly a year, untouched by me. Feared by me.

My last demon, I thought as I struggled with the tape that held it closed. Jack's things.

There was crumpled paper on top, to protect the contents I guessed, and when I got that off, the first thing I saw was a Far Side desk calendar, Jack's type of humor, and the top page was April 7, 2000, the day of the crash. I looked blindly at the cartoon, then noticed Jack's bold handwriting right at the bottom, where he'd written, "I love Mike Waters."

I burst out crying, and it came from deep within me, a bubbling, gurgling cry that threatened to dehydrate me. For that was the last thing Jack had ever written in his life, and it was that he loved me. I knew I'd made a mistake opening that box, and I thought I'd cry for the rest of my life, and seemed headed for that, but I finally settled down because there was something else in the box, and it was creeping into my consciousness.

Part of Jack. A part I thought was gone for ever, a part I'd always associated with him. A part that excitedme, for what was in that carton smelledlike Jack! God, I knew what Dave and Guy smelled like and never gave a thought to anyone else, but this was Jack, and I sure recognized it now.

I started pulling items out, some was just stuff, other things held memories and got me crying again, and some made me laugh through my tears.

I started wondering what his parents must have thought of these things, but then I remembered how they were with Jack. The condoms I'd bought him for his birthday were even there, two out of three, and I laughed remembering the huge Jell-o balloon we'd made out of the other, the cement truck we'd hit with it. Then I laughed harder, remembering how fast the fat driver was on his feet, running us both down in a field and making us use our shirts to clean off his truck.

A stupid incident maybe, but now I knew that those were the things lives consisted of. I started giggling. Profound and profane, intense and insane, we needed all that stuff to make us whole people. Jack and I had many insanely nutty moments that we laughed about over and again.

We had our profound ones, too, and when I lifted the heavy medical encyclopedia out of the box, I was reminded of one.

When I gave it to him for his fourteenth birthday, Jacky got tears in his eyes immediately, and started fingering through it, until he lifted his eyes to look at me. "Thanks, Mike," he said with a throaty voice, "I can't believe you got me this!"

We could kiss in front of his parents, though we didn't much because it embarrassed us, but right then we did, and how! Jack was overjoyed with what I thought was a very boring gift even though I knew he'd like it. After cake and everything, we went to his room and sat side by side on the bed. That's when he picked up a pen, saying "I'm going to dedicate this book right now."

He started writing inside the cover, saying each word out loud. "My name is Jack Murphy. I'm going to be a doctor. Mike Waters gave me this book because he loves me and believes in me. I'm going to prove to Mike Waters and everyone else that I can be what I want. Come what will, I am going to be a doctor."

I hesitantly opened the cover, and it was exactly as I remembered, signed 'Jack Murphy 5-10-98'

I just stared, drained of tears, but my heart was weeping. That ... that moment was when Jack came to me.

You have to do it, Mike!

I looked around in confusion. It was Jack's voice, but I hadn't heard it, just kind of felt it.


Right here.

I looked around again, "Right where?"

Inside, Mike. I'm you now, I have to be. You're me.


Get used to it, Mitchell! I'm in your head now.

That was when I knew. In all my life, people called me Michael, Mike or Mikey. Jack made up things sometimes, Like Mickey or Mitch, sometimes Mitchell, when he was being formal. Nobody, but nobody knew that, so this was real.

Jack was in my head, maybe a figment of my imagination, but he was there just the same, and I grinned out a sunbeam when I realized we'd just been talking.

"Prove it!" I said.

Okay. Remember our Barney song? I love you. You love me. We're as fruity as can be.

I laughed, Lord, did I laugh. We diddo stupid stuff like that, and I'd forgotten that one. It was Jack, sure as shit, plain and simple, and he was right there with me.

I spent most of the day in my room with Jack's things, looking them over again and again. They weren't him, but they were part of him, and they smelled of him. And I had Jack there to remind me of the significance of things I'd forgotten about. I so loved it, feeling him there with me like that.

All my dreams, all my longings, all my doubts and fears, were turned to a new reality I never expected. Dave had been right all along. I'd found my Jack, and he was me.

It was mid-afternoon when hunger finally overtook me, and I made a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the kitchen, got a big glass of milk, and locked myself right back up in my room.

I can best describe the way I felt that day as detached. Everyone left me alone, too, so I suppose they knew that I'd want to be. My dad tapped on the door once to ask if I was alright, and left when I said I was fine. Nobody called, not once, and I would have known because I got my own phone for Christmas.

I didn't leave the confines of my room until my sister called me to dinner, and by then I was satisfied that Jack was real enough that I'd be able to find him in me when I had the will to.

It was at once the finest and scariest day of my life. I thought I'd be tormented by Jack's belongings, but I ended up being entranced by them. It was a day of quiet for me, but I hadn't felt lonely for a moment. Jack was back, and he wasn't going anywhere.

* * * * * * * *

My birthday, my sixteenth, played out perfectly. We tooled around town in my Jeep for awhile, then met up with some other people, including Tony, who was the last one who could squeeze into the thing, then we headed back to my house, intent on swimming some in the pond and just chilling out.

I was intrigued by Guy in his bathing suit, then again by Davy, but when Annie showed up it was all she wrote for this boy. Her parents had to know what she looked like in those bikinis, and still she wore them. She had guys dropping like flies, and after a half hour of just splashing around, the serious swimmers, which were me and Annie, Tony and Paulina, and ... believe it or not, Phil, we all lapped the pond the long way.

When we got back to the deep end, others had shown up, kids of all ages, and Clay was trying to organize them into buddy pairs who'd watch out for each other, which was a pretty frantic effort on his part, and funny enough to watch. When Phil got to where he could stand on the bottom, he stopped and yelled out, "Get 'em Clay!" When Clay looked at Phil in surprise, Phil went on, "I heard all about it! Make sure they can swim first! Want some help?"

We all turned our heads to Phil, because he was right. We scrambled to shore and checked the younger kids out, making certain they were comfortable in water over their heads, because that pond dropped off fast at that end. The ones who couldn't cut it, Tony and Paulina walked down to the other end, where the water was shallow, and where the tree shade made it easier to see under.

It was like the party before the party. Kids kept coming, everyone I knew and some I didn't. Jens Christiansen showed up, and he was something else to look at those days. He'd really shot up, nearly as tall as me. His hair had darkened some from the near-white it used to be, but he was still very blond. He looked thin in a bathing suit, but he showed off well, and he was in the mood for fun.

I heard this voice saying, Man, what I wouldn't do for a piece of that ! and looked around, only to realize that it was the Jack in my head talking. I said out loud, "Shh! Don't go givin' me ideas."

Annie looked at me and asked, "Ideas about what?"

I watched Jens go underwater and muttered, "Oh, nothing," as I admired Jen's form.

Smack! I felt it, I swear, but it was from within, and Jack's voice said, Cut it out! You get Annie and you get me. That's your quota, Mr. Mitchell, and don't you forget it anytime soon!

I sat down. That's it? What about Davy?What about Tony?

Pure gravy, Mike. You make good friends.

I smiled, "I know I do."

Annie was beside me, "You do what?"

"Huh? Oh, just daydreaming. I have good friends is all, Jack just said so."

Annie leaned into me, sighing, "Jack's right, you know. You have really good friends."

I smiled at the people in the water, confirmation coming from within and from without.

I kissed Annie's cheek, saying, "You're my bestfriend, you know. I love you, Annie."

She just leaned in closer and cooed, and I loved that we could find a quiet moment amid all the noise and fun around us.

Guy came and sat beside us, looking good all wet. He rubbed some water out from his hair and asked, "Tell me again why you told them I'm gay."

It sounded like a kind of absent request, not serious or anything, so I gave an absent answer. "Just because you are, Guy." Then I thought about it and got more serious. "Listen," I said, looking square at him, "You haven't found one gay boy on your own. Phil's gay and ... and I don't know, I don't see any reason to dance around the issue. You're only here for a week anyhow, so what's the problem if people a thousand miles from home know you're queer? There ain't anybody here that it makes a never mind to."

I put my bare arm around his bare shoulder, feeling Jack in him, "Guy, I ain't tryin' to fix you up. You like Phil or you don't, that's your business. I just wanted you to know where you're startin' from."

Guy smiled grimly, "That's fair, I guess," then he looked a question at me. "What's he like?"

Annie leaned around me and touched Guy's arm, indicating Phil with her other hand, who was sitting by himself looking at us. She said softly, "Go find out, Guy. He's not really funny himself, but he likes to laugh. Phil's new here, too, so you guys should feel right at home together."

I smiled at Annie. She could always find the words.

Guy stared at Phil for a few moments, then said, "Okay, I guess," as he pushed himself to his feet. By the time he was up, he was grinning, then it dimmed when he looked back at us. "I never tried to pick up anyone before. Any advice?"

I had none, because I hadn't either. Annie said, "Just be yourself, and don'tthink you're picking him up! Go and make a friend if you can."

We watched as Guy started over there, hesitant at first, but by the time he sat next to Phil he must have thought of something, because Phil immediately burst out laughing, which was good to see. I didn't know if I'd ever feel anything except bad for Phil. He was in Morton because his family had been almost destroyed to begin with, but he'd come here of his own volition, though without a lot of other options.

He'd graduated from a high school he only went to for a few months, where he barely knew anyone. Still, he was the kind of person who insinuated himself on you, and you always wanted to know more about him after he left. He didn't make friends easily, yet he did make friends. He was messed up over his family situation, and that was understandable. He had this intelligence that could be astounding sometimes, but nobody would call him quick witted. You had to pain it out with Phil to understand the depths of feelings he could eventually find in himself.

People come in an amazing variety. There are the strong ones like Buddy Early. Buddy, if he was your friend, watched your back, and he was tough enough to make that important. He was your basic, all-around good guy, too. If he liked something, he worked hard to get as good as he could with it. He could also out-lazy anyone else I knew, happy to stay in bed for most of a day if he had nothing better to do. Buddy had become one of my better friends, quietly finding his way into my life with his solid ways.

He sat with us after I introduced him to Juan, and he seemed genuinely happy to see Davy again. I asked, "Have you seen Dwayne? Is he gonna make it?"

Dwayne and I had settled into being just friends after a marathon session with Tim and Dave one Saturday in January. That was quite a day for me and for Dwayne, but we left it as friends after a lot of emotions came out. Until then I had dealt with Dwayne quietly, but his feelings for me turned out to be more like an addiction than anything else; not real sentiment, but a lot of lust. Hearing it made me angrier and angrier, and I finally said some things myself that were out of line.

Dave and Tim were great mediators, though, and Dwayne had a long list of things to work on with his shrink, so at the end of the day we found us both apologizing to the other and agreeing that we could be friends because we liked and respected each other. Since then, we didn't really see each other that much, so when we did we got along just fine.

Dwayne's writing awards had helped to land him a summer job at a paper in the city, so he was staying there with a relative, only coming around about once a week. He'd be heading to Syracuse for college in the fall, and I kind of hoped he'd make it for my birthday so I could at least wish him well.

Buddy shrugged, "I don't know, Mike. I reminded Dwayne last weekend, and he said he'd be here if he could." Buddy giggled, "I will neverforget that day when we caught him out! There's big money in porn, you know ! That was just too funny!"

He laughed, and Annie, Davy and I laughed with him, leaving Juan in the dark, but he didn't mind, and chuckled along anyhow. It may seem odd, but memories of that day were a good thing now, and we often recalled the humor of it, choosing to omit the darker parts.

It was good timing, because James Green showed up then and sat with us. He'd also turned out to be a great friend, and he was always nice to look at. James had turned sixteen back in March, and he cribbed the written part of the driver's test for the rest of us when he went for his.

He had also decided he wanted to go into medicine, and I followed his lead rather than the other way around. James was Mr. Ready in my book, and I never once saw him take a step in the wrong direction when his mind was made up about something. We were signed up for all the same classes the next year, and we'd already decided to help each other stay on track to make the grades.

I used to think that James did it all with his left hand, but now I knew he worked at least as hard as me for his grades. He just never showed any signs of the struggle, where I'd get all bleary-eyed trying to figure something out. Otherwise, we were a lot alike in that respect, looking at learning as a whole series of little triumphs, not a few giant steps, although those came in handy when they happened.

All of my best friends were pretty steady, stable people, but James was almost professional at it. He never burst out in anger, for one thing. Sure, he got mad at things, but he always thought it out before deciding he was really angry, and most of the time that didn't happen, because he'd relate whatever it was to something less dire and kind of defuse himself. I'd really come to love the guy, and we were compatriots because we were headed in the same direction. He's really fine looking, too.

I don't want to stray too far, but James has the greatest pair of eyes that God ever screwed into a single head. Set off by his dark skin and really long lashes, his eyes are luminous, even in bright daylight with nothing special going on. Set him off on something he's interested in, though, and those eyes ignite, becoming his only feature ... eyes that can convince anyone about anything, eyes that can draw everyone's attention to James Green. He's not a cuddly guy, but he has a softness to him, a kindness, and he's a wonderful human being, a great friend.

I laid back on the bank, pulling Annie with me, and thinking I was blessed right then. We snuggled a little, kissed, but it was pointless to get horny, so we just loved each other the best we could.

I had reconsidered leaving Morton at my earliest opportunity. I'd been other places now, to Davy's turbulent Connecticut, to Matt's equally turbulent Dallas, and to Joey's bucolic Virginia. Morton measured up pretty well in the long run. Our shortcomings were also our long points. Except for basic things, there was no satisfaction on demand. That fact chafed at us kids all the time, made us envious of what others had available to them.

Now I'd been to those places you see on television, and I saw the cost that all that money, all those pizza places, malls and arcades came at, and little old Morton didn't seem so bad by comparison. That was stuff, and alluring stuff to be sure, but the people who lived there, especially the kids, paid for it with their freedom. I'd seen it. They were pretty much locked down, hovered over, prisoners of their parents' fears, at least those who had parents who cared.

Me? The other kids in town? We were free to go within family guidelines. We had limits, of course, and expectations of good behavior, but within that we could pretty much do whatever our imaginations led us to.

Even if you were nine or ten, and got lost in a late-night game of kick the can, the worst that would happen was you'd sleep late the next day and miss breakfast. Kids having fun and not home on time were a usual thing, not often a cause for worry. If anything, you might get yelled at and told to be more attentive to the time.

It was our own imaginations that grew us up. Our folks let us go where we would, and there were plenty of people around to learn from. I'd always had this huge curiosity, and a predisposition for liking people. It's funny for me to think about now. I used to visit everyone on the street every day to see what was new, what had changed from the day before.

Now the news came to me, and it wasn't just because I was older, but because people wanted me to know, like I needed to know like I used to, so I got the information. Who needs spy cameras?

It was more than that, though, and if you stood a Morton kid next to a city kid the difference wasn't hard to spot, because it was in the way trust showed. My city friends trusted me, and I trusted all my friends, but it was about the ways that trust comes out.

I guess it's a nuance, but city folks, they'd have to have reason to trust you, and it took time for that to build, whereas Morton kids needed to learn mistrust on an individual basis, because our world was so small that basic trust was built into us. Any kid, boy or girl, would hop into a car if a ride was offered on a rainy day, and we would get offered because nobody adult enough to drive would let a kid walk in inclement weather, unless the kid had a mind to anyhow. We were warned about getting into cars with strangers, but we didn't getstrangers in Morton, and when they came to visit they were welcomed.

Juan was an example of that, relaxing in the sun by the pond. He looked at me and smiled, "I feel a fool, Mike, I really do. You and Dave told me what it's like here, but I guess you have to see it to believe it." His face screwed up like he was searching for words, then he smiled more brightly. "It's so beautiful here. Not just the scenery, it's the way people are." He looked at the kids in and around the pond, "All these faces, Mike, they're all different colors and they're all having fun, and together." His look turned more serious, "When you said it was like this, it was hard for me to believe. Now I see that's because of what I'm used to, and it makes me like that even less." He looked back at the people and his face lit up. "This is so pretty! Look at all those people. All colors, all shapes and sizes, and they just get along like that." He looked back at me, "I don't think I have the words to say how much I love it here."

I absorbed his words, and looked around myself. I didn't know why things worked here, but they did. We didn't have any special laws or anything, just a bunch of decent folks who pretty much spent their lives never-minding about other people's business, or even their foibles. I don't know why Morton works like it does, it's probably a lot of reasons. I think the racial tensions I'd seen elsewhere are absent because the tables are turned. Black people are the majority by far, followed by whites and Hispanics, but there's no particular distribution.

Paulina's a case in point. She's one of five Puerto Rican kids adopted by two anglo guys, and she lives between two rich black families and across the road from some Guatemalans. Her dads are gay, and that's not big on anyone's mind.

Back when Jack and I were being tormented by everyone in school, it pretty much stopped when the school bus stopped. Not once did we ever hear anything in town or at our houses, not that anyone saw much of us to remind them.

Even now, even being with Annie for almost a year, I still got a little from goons at school, but it was just remarks, and I ignored them. I could flatten those guys if I wanted to, so I'd just say something like, "Think what you want," or nothing at all.

"Mike? Mike!" I jumped to the sound of Mr. Wolfe's voice, and turned to see where he was, which was approaching me rapidly and anxiously. "Is Anton out here somewhere?"

I stood and pointed down the trail, "He's down the other end, want me to get him?"

He looked perplexed for a moment, then said, "Send someone after him, I need to talk to you yourself."

Annie volunteered, "I'll go," and hurried down the path along the pond. I watched her go, my love apparently obvious on my face.

When I turned back to Tony's dad, he smiled and said, "She's a fine girl, Mike. You'll be wantin' to keep that one happy."

I giggled, "I try. What's up?"

I watched Annie disappear down the path, then turned back to Mr. Wolfe.

He lost the smile, "My idiot son went and kicked Kelly out of the house, sent him here." He shook his head in disgust, "Honest, what some take as religion is so beyond my ken. I can't believe it. It ain't belief in God anymore, it's belief in these pastors that go 'round indocternatin' otherwise good folks into their ways of hatred." He put his hand on my shoulder, "I'm on the way to town to pick him up. I wanted to ask if you'd welcome him at your party, or if we should bring him to the house."

I was surprised at first that he thought to ask that, then I realized it was just his way. Tony's dad wouldn't pick up a discarded hubcap from your junk pile without asking first.

I grinned and touched his arm, "Bring him along. We all like Kelly."

"Thankee, Mike. Now, where's that son of mine?"

He looked, and Tony was headed our way at a dead run, breathless and a little sweaty when he stopped, something of a fearful expression on his face. "What's wrong? What happened?"

Mr. Wolfe put his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Your nephew is now your brother, Anton. Kelly's comin' to live with us, and I'd like for you to be with me when I go get him."

Tony's eyes were huge, "Ma's okay?"

"Your ma's just fine. Put your shirt on, his bus won't be a half hour now."

Tony stared for a second, first at his father, then at me, and he broke out in a grin. "Did ya hearthat?" then he lost the grin, "You like Kelly okay, right? I mean, he was the goodone."

I chuckled, "I like Kelly just fine, so go get him."

Tony looked around anxiously, then hurried over to where his clothes were, pulling on a shirt and sneakers and leaving the rest, except his cell phone. He hurried back, holding up the phone, "Find Pauli, I'll call when we find him."

I was laughing, "He ain't lost, Tony. Get goin', before you piss yourself!"

Tony took a deep breath and grinned, "Yeah, you're right," then said to his father, "I'm ready!"

They walked off all astride, and when Annie and Paulina showed up with the younger kids I explained what was going on. By then a whole bunch of people were listening, so the explaining got broken up between me, Annie and Paulina. Guy, of course, asked if Kelly was cute, and Annie got a dark look from me when she assured him he was very cute, but that she had no reason to suspect he was gay.

Buddy seemed confused, saying, "Let me get this straight. This kid's not gay, but he gets kicked out of his home because he doesn't hategays?"

Clay groaned, "Oh, no!" and smacked his own head, "That's reallysick! What's this guy preaching?"

Jens stood up beside Clay, having just put his sneaks on, "Don't start," he said, as he put his hand on Clay's shoulder. He blinked a quick smile at me, then turned to Clay. "Weren't we there just a year ago? If I'd stood up and said I likedMike and Jack, where would thathave landed me?" Jens looked like he'd get worked up, then he breathed in deeply. Exhaling, he said, "There was hate brewin' around here. Where would I have been, Clay, if I didn't just go along with it? Can you tell me that? Where would I'a been?"

Clay pulled Jens close and looked at him. "To answer, I don't know. You probably would have been one of them." He shook the water from his hair, "There was no cause, Jens, and I'm sorry if I got you got caught up in it." Clay turned to me, "I've said it, Mike, but I'm sorry, I'll always be sorry."

I only nodded, because I'd heard it before, but then I realized I had Jack to defend, so I spoke up. I looked around, and kept my voice quiet, "That all happened, and it's past us now. I think I know how you feel about me , but what about Jack? The lastwords he heard were hateful, how do we answer that?"

I heard a choke, and turned to Clay, who had tears in eyes. He hung his head, "I don't know, Mike. I'm part responsible for that, it was just basic stupidity." He turned a mournful face to me, "You understand that, don't you, Mike? It was just my asshole spewin' out through my mouth."

I did understand, and Jack did too. I took a step towards Clay, and we hugged. Davy joined in, and it made another circle, because we were ostensibly the reason Clay was even alive, and a certain responsibility didseem to come with that.

Davy said it. "Clay, stop blubbering. It's all water under the bridge, over the dam, however you want to say it." He stopped and smiled at Clay, "You didn't die, but you almost did, and it made a difference in a lot of us." Davy grinned, "Don't get a big head, man, but you helped me make my best friend, and I will never in my life forget how it happened."

Clay wiped his eyes on the backs of his hands, then stared for a second before a smile formed on his face. He smiled at Davy and me, then at Jens, then said, "Yeah, a lot's happened, huh?" He put a hand on Jens' shoulder, "Me and Jens, we're best friends, too," which got Jens smiling brightly, until Clay added, "except when he smells like pig crap."

"It's pig shit," Jens corrected, and we all laughed.

Clay grinned, "Always shit?" and Jens nodded importantly.

The heat of the afternoon was full on us by then, so we went back in the water, playing something like no-rules volleyball with a beach ball that turned up from somewhere. It was nice, because there was no effort going into the game, and the little kids were all on somebody's shoulders. It was a chance to cool off and do nothing in particular except tease one another.

We played around until the scream of an engine got our attention, then Tim Atkins roared in, doing a doughnut that stirred up a rooster tail of dust. He was grinning like an idiot behind the wheel of his dune buggy. An equally grinning Anton stayed with Tim, and a shaky looking Kelly climbed out.

I yelled, "They're here!" though I doubt anyone missed thatentrance. I hurried up the bank, only to find Kelly looking all nervous. I smiled and held out my hand, "Hey, Kelly! Good to see you again!"

We shook, and he studied me, cracking a smile. His voice was soft, "Hi, Mike. I ... I didn't think you'd want me back anytime soon."

I knew what he meant, our last time together wasn't very pleasant for either of us, but I smiled again. "Things got tough at home?"

Kelly smiled, then frowned, "Things are impossible at home. Dad says he kicked me out, and more power to him. The fact is, I wanted out, more than you'll know." He looked at the ground, then back at me, an impossible expression on his face. "That ... preacher ... all he wants is your money! He is sucha liar about everything, and people suck it up. I went back from here and read that bible, over and overagain, and no way does it say what the Right Reverend says."

Kelly's look seemed hopeless, "He makes it up, Mike, and still they listen to him. Last Sunday I asked him, right in church, to show me where it said what he said, and he called me a heathen, made Daddy take me outside so he could finish his lyin' sermon." Kelly held his hands up a little, fingers spread and jittering. "Daddy said I either go back in and apologize, or I just go." He glared at me, "No waywould I apologize to that lying sack of shit, so here I am." He looked away, "Nobody 'cept me seems to remember the warnings about false prophets."

Tears came to his eyes, and I got to him first, patting his back. "You're the right one, Kelly," I whispered. Then I thought to add, "I have proof, living right inside me. If God's gonna hate anybody, it'll be the people tellin' lies in His name just to make money. God loves, He don't hate, and the God I love doesn't scare me." I held on, "You're welcome here, Kel, just look around. The people you see want to like you, so go get introduced around and give 'em your best shot."

He looked around shyly, then back at me. "I'm kind of nervous."

I grinned, "That's because you ain't wet yet!" and I shoved him into the pond, where he came up bubbling and laughing, asking, "Is it okay if I call you an asshole?"

Absolutely! said a voice inside me, and I laughed with Kelly.

"Asshole it is, but that ain't the end of it." I waded into the pond, and grabbed his wrist. I yanked him straight up, yelling, "Kelly Wolfe, welcome to Morton !"

The other kids surrounded us, stumbling and laughing in the water, and welcomed Kelly, who was all incongruous looking standing in the pond in his clothes, but nobody cared.

New was always good in our little town, and when I thought about it I laughed, fully determined that I was witness to Kelly's baptism. His real one, into a world and life he could understand.

I don't know why, exactly, but Kelly being there excited me. He was new, that was the simple answer, and my Jack kept saying he was really good looking, but that wasn't the all of it, either.

I could see it in Paulina especially, but in Annie, Tony and James too. They were the others who'd spent a little time with Kelly and his family, and they were as off-put as me when their religious hatred of others came out. At the time, I'd been more surprised than anything, because they all seemed so nice at first. When James learned what happened, the words they'd used behind our backs, he said we'd been derailed, and that was the term I was going with.

It was worse than that for me, for this was Tony's family, and they came across as loving, fun people at first. I wish I'd been there to see it, but Tony had described how they all laughed and cried reading Jack's story on the Internet, then how it got ugly in the last chapter, when the word gay showed up. I'd heard it all before, of course, as it applied to me and Jack, and it hurt.

All we did was love each other, and that's the main thing we should do, according to the Bible, the Koran, any religious book you can find.


Love thy neighbor.

Do unto others ...

Oh, all the Thou shalt not'swere there, too, and I tried to remember them. I felt Jack laughing inside me. You can't hide it, no matter WHAT you say. You DID covet my ass !

I giggled out loud, and muttered, "You wish, man! You wish!"

You keep saying that.

I giggled again, "Shut up,"

"Shut up, who?" Clay asked as he sat beside me.

I snickered, "I was talkin' to Jack, who was talkin' dirt."

Clay studied me for a moment, then smiled, puzzled, "Talking to Jack? Why'd I always think that?"

I looked at Clay, and I loved the guy. I'd once thought of him as kind of a nobody, but he wasn't anymore. He was my friend now, and his inquisitive, hazel eyes were friend's eyes. I didn't have a test for friends, but if I did, Clay would have stood up to it. He was solid as they come, but I didn't know what he meant right then.

"Why'd you always think what?"

Clay blinked, and he looked suddenly worried, "I don't know why ... it's just this feeling I get sometimes, like deja vu or something, and it's always about Jack Murphy." He shrugged and his smile came back, "I'm probably weird with this, but it feels so real sometimes." He shook his head, "I don't know ... I guess I amjustweird."

I snickered, "You're not weird, Clay." I patted his shoulder, "We all get thoughts we don't know where they come from. I dreamed once that you were Jack and I ..." I blushed, "... and I kissed you." I smiled sheepishly.

So did Clay, like that stirred a memory, but he didn't get a chance to say anything, because Buster showed up and decided to give my face a tongue bath, like it was his own happy birthday message, but he knocked me backwards in the process, causing me to laugh while I tried to push him off me. Tim had told me that Buster weighed a hundred and fifty-five pounds, which was more than me, and I couldn't get him away, so I just closed my eyes and mouth tight until he had all the salt off my face.

When he finally backed off, Clay was laughing, and Kelly was standing right behind Buster, who was a very satisfied looking dog.

Buster cocked his head the way he does, and Kelly asked, "Mike, can we talk?"

I was still laughing about the dog assault, but Kelly seemed serious, so I said, "Sure."

He fidgeted at little, glancing at Clay, and Clay said, "I get the idea."

Just when Clay started to push up, Kelly said quickly, "No, no, this ain't private. I just ..." he plopped down behind Buster, then moved quickly to his side because he couldn't see over him, which made us all laugh, "It's things I want to know about here."

I snickered, "Ask Clay then, he's older."

Well, I said it as a joke, but Kelly adjusted his butt so he was looking right at Clay. His eyebrows kind of scrunched at first, then they went wide. "I want to know how it works here."

Clay kind of backed up, puzzled, then leaned forward, "How what works?"

I looked between them, decided to let Kelly say his piece.

Kelly stroked his chin, "I don't know ... everything! Are you the lucky ones or something? I mean, this is still the Bible belt, but nobody seems to give a crap about anything. Is it really like this?"

Clay and I both started laughing a little, and Clay said, "Yeah, it's real enough here." He gave Kelly a serious stare, "Kelly, things happened around here that changed things some. I don't suppose you ever heard about the bus crash?"

Kelly had read the story on the Interned, but he focused, and Clay went on to tell him about it, right through the ceremony the night after. I didn't add much, just affirmed Clay's words whenever Kelly questioned me. Kel's eyes were wide, that's for sure. I could tell that it was hard for him to hear, and I thought Clay may have said some things that I'd never considered myself. I just charged it against faulty memory on my part, because I'd been so distraught and busy after the crash. Then, when Clay was about out of things to say, he ended up by smiling sadly at me, then turning back to Kelly. "Yup, ol' Mitch was quite the hero that day."

Kelly asked, "Mitch? You mean Mike?"

Clay was surprised, "That's what I said ... Mike."

Well, I'd heard it, too, but neither Kelly nor I said anything further. I did take a long look at Clay, and he turned to face me and looked right in my eyes. That's when I heard a low whistle inside me, and the words nice JOB, God !

I closed my eyes and did my best to fight off a belly-laugh, but it was no go. It was a helpless, Tim Atkins kind of laugh, one that started in my toes and worked its way through me at lightning speed. I was a quivering mass before I had breath enough to make a sound, then I roared, howled, clutched my stomach, gasped for air.

It was catching too. Nobody on this earth except me knew what I'd found funny, but they started laughing anyhow, because I was so lost in it.

There was another laugh, one inside me. You figured THAT out pretty fast.

Outwardly, I was laughing my ass off. Right, like you weren't being obvious ?

It's like that old Eagle's song, only. You can check IN any time you want, but you can NEVER leave !

You're stuck with Clay?

Fraid so. I'm stuck with you, too, if you want to think of it that way.

How many times can you do this?

As many as I want. I'm ... um, flexible. No, the fact is I'm stackable. If someone follows me, they just hop on top. They can't replace me and I can't replace someone else.

Should I worry about Annie?

No, she's yours. I said flexible, not crazy.

I love her.

I know you do, so go for it. I'm just a figment now.

What should I do?

Live, love, and be happy, I'm along for the ride. You should really watch what you eat, I can see you with a heart attack by forty.

I giggled within my outward laugh, A real fatso?

Arteries of stone is more like it.

I'll work on it, but it's my birthday, so starting tomorrow, okay?

"Okay?" I muttered as I came down from my hysterical laugh.

"Okay what?" Annie asked, and I found her hands on my cheeks, her face still red from laughing.

I sat up and looked around, contemplating everything that surrounded me. I smiled and kissed Annie, "Everything's okay." Everyone was red from laughing, or maybe from the sun. It was a good place to be, the right place, the perfect place for me.

* * * * * * * *

A few hours later I said goodbye to Tony when he was leaving to change clothes for the actual party. The preliminaries were over and I had been left alone under the trees by the south end of the pond. I was content just gazing at a group of small birds who apparently wanted some time by the water.

My particular part of the world was built on mulch, and it was the mulch of love, and I could tell that because the piles went up but they never went down, and when you saw two piles growing at the same time, you were seeing things working the right way. I heard a vehicle rattling over the bridge, but couldn't make it out at the full distance, and I didn't recognize it at all when I could see it clearly. The front looked a bit like a dune buggy, but it was much larger and had a roof.

When it made a sudden turn toward me I thought it must be Joe Goldman, and saw I was right as his smiling self stepped out of the machine. He turned toward me and grinned, "Hey, Mike. Are you alone out here alone on your birthday?"

I said, "Yup," as I stood to get a better look at what he was driving. "What's that you rode in on?" I asked.

Joe smiled brightly, "This here is a Manxter Two. I acquired it just the other day and it needed an engine."

The car was beautiful, painted in a riotously bright red/orange metallic. It was obviously related to a dune buggy, but much longer and with a sleek shape. "So you just had an engine laying around?""

"Oh, sort of. The engine you see here was in my barn waiting for me to finish the car I'm restoring for Anton. That car isn't ready for a motor but this one was, so I did what made sense." He smirked, "This engine has been modified a bit, so it has over two hundred horsepower. I couldn't see it wasting away on a pallet in the barn"

"Does Tony know this?"

"Not yet, he doesn't, and I won't worry him over it. I can get another engine in a day."

I grinned, "Two hundred horsepower? Isn't that a lot for a duner?"

"You know it is, but this is a four passenger car and needs something more than the forty horsepower you get with the standard rebuilt engine."

"Five times as much?"

Joe looked at me for a moment, then tossed me the keys and said, "You drive. You can make up your own mind."

That thought got me excited, and I jumped into the driver's seat and looked at the controls. I spotted the key and turned it so I could turn the radio on. Everything looked nice, and I reached forward to feel the dash itself. "Is this real wood, Joe?"

"Yup. It's all been custom-formed just like the steering wheel and the center console here."

I looked where Joe was pointing, and was surprised again. The wood was the same as the dash and steering wheel, and had some chrome to define the edges and the shifter. I said, "This is really beautiful," and thought it would be more beautiful in motion, so I reached for the key again.

Before I could turn it I heard Annie's voice calling my name. Joe heard it too, and we both turned in the direction of Annie's voice. Annie was running toward us about halfway from the bridge, so I got out of the car and started to trot her way.

"Who's that?" she asked when we met. "Oh, it's Joe. Is that a new car?"

I smiled, "I never asked if it was new. He just got the car and had to borrow a motor from Tony so he could drive it."

"Our Tony? Anton? Has he decided to become a mechanic? Why would he have a motor that just happened to fit in Joe's new car?"

I stroked her shoulder and said, "I suppose he did just happen to have it. Did you come alone?"

"No, I came with a lot of people, and they're all in the barn looking at a pair of beautiful sculptures Tony carved. He said he made them for you, and I came out here to ask you if you meant to keep that information private."

It dawned on me that I never showed the carvings to Annie, and I didn't know how to even start explaining that. I would ordinarily try to change the subject, but this was too important for that.

Joe said hello to Annie and turned to me, with the key ring dangling from his index finger. "I came to see the art exhibit part of your celebration, so I'd like it if you take Ann and go for a ride. Then you can offer me your judgment about this vehicle." He grinned, "Okay?"

I lifted my eyebrows to Annie and asked, "What do you think?"

She said, "Are you kidding? Let's go!"

We said goodbye to Joe and hopped into the Manxter. We found the seat belts, then I located the controls I'd need and started the engine. It wasn't particularly loud, but gave off a sense of power through the mufflers that turned into movement when I let the clutch out. It was grin material from the outset, and I set off by driving away from the barn and hit some streets where we wouldn't see everyone from the party.

The ride was nice, but got really bumpy in spots where my car would maybe rattle a little. Still, the car was fun and drew a lot of attention from people we went by who weren't party goers. We drove by the party and it looked like the art show was over and people were heading out back. I pulled into our side of the driveway so Annie and I could go in to use the bathroom and then dusted ourselves off.

Annie wanted to drive the car, so I sat in the passenger side while she drove carefully out to the bridge. She slowed even more to cross it and stopped when she got to the sand. She turned a sinister smile to me and said, is there a gift back there?

There was a wrapped box, a cube about a foot on a side with a big bow on the top. I said, "I wonder who this is for?"

Annie sighed, "Whose birthday is it? Yours? Think maybe it's for you?"

I can be a real dunce sometimes, and that was one of those times. Annie said, "I have an idea. Sit in the back, right in the middle, and hold that gift on the top of your head with the bow facing up."

I grinned, "Are you being sneaky?"

"Not at all, Michael. A lot of people are carrying gifts and we are riding, so it's only a friendly gesture to carry those gifts in this um dune buggy?"

"Joe said it's a Manxter: a Manxter two."

"Well alright then. Hop in back and sit up straight with the box. Make sure you're balanced, then tell me to go."

I did that, and Annie started the car moving slowly toward the people. When we were close she beeped the horn and shouted, "Alms! Alms for the poor!"

I didn't think that was fair, but I couldn't get angry. Too many laughing people were burying me in gifts both big and small. Annie kept on asking for more alms and people kept tossing them into the car until they started to fall out. When Annie caught on she stopped the car and we got out right there, and right there happened to be just a few feet from where we'd all been sitting that afternoon.

When I managed to get out of the car I found myself surrounded by my happy friends and neighbors. A lot of people I didn't expect to see were there. Nick and Scott had taken their kids up to Lake George where Scott's family had a house on the lake. Dwayne was there with Bruce, and Jed showed up with Pat and their parents. It looked like most of the town was there, and after years of picnics they were pretty good at knowing when and where to show up for occasions.

Tables were set up at the edge of the woods, and there had to be a dozen grills sizzling and occasionally flaring up. The Stefuraks were guarding a keg of beer and let everyone know they had to be of an age to drink. They neglected to mention that particular age so most of my friends were celebrating openly, and they made sure that I was an important stop on their supply line.

It was over an hour later before I saw Tony and Paulina, and they seemed excited. It was mostly Tony who seemed excited while Paulina was excited for Tony, but I guessed it had something to do with my present, and it was. Tony grabbed my arm and said, "Tim is taking me to New York to meet some art gallery guy, a big, famous one. He sent the guy pictures of your statues and he wants to see them and meet me. And guess what? He knows who I am from my book and was gonna contact me anyhow." Tony grinned, "Do you believe that? Some big New York art dealer wants to meet me and talk business ."

I pulled Tony into a hug and said, "Man, I thought you were close to getting' famous and now you're already there. This is great!"

I looked around quickly to locate Annie, who was right there talking wil Paulina, and they both seemed as excited as their boyfriends.

Paulina asked me, "What do you think of this news? Is Ace the man or what?"

I turned to Tony and said, "You're the man for sure. When are you going?"

"Tuesday. You and Annie can come if you want."

Paulina said, "We can stay at our place and maybe see a show or go to a ball game."

I looked at Annie and she nodded eagerly, so I said, "New York it is. How do we get there?"

Paulina said, "It's too far to drive, so we fly."

I nodded, "I suppose I'll have to ask, but count on us."

We ate, I was sang at, and we had cake and ice cream.

People had been coming and going all evening, but Annie stayed when they were mostly going, and were still there when the only people we could see were a few couples walking by the pond. Annie poked me and whispered, "Look there."

I followed her finger and saw Guy beside Phil, who were looking at the pond and holding hands. "I see them. I guess I can be glad I outed them both."

"I guess you can," Annie said. "I know you liked the party." She snickered, "What was your favorite alm?"

I kissed her cheek, "You. I mean your statue, but you're the best present I ever had."

She said, "That goes two ways, you know. If I asked you how things are in Morton these days, what would you say?"

I didn't have to think. "Everything's just the way it should be." I said to Annie. "Life is good."

T h e - E n d


That's it for this story. If I've learned one thing it's this: Don't make promises when medical conditions are involved. I know that I've failed on a lot of promised postings, but it seems that whenever I foresee a couple of uncommitted days ahead, some unknown insidious thing inside me sees things in a different way. I looked at my insurance record for 2022 and realized that I'd been to 94 appointments in one year. I swore that I'd resist a lot of those in the future, and I feel that I have, but I looked at my first quarter records and I had 17 appointments in those three months, so still a lot. We've had plans to spend time sailing starting tomorrow and I tried to avoid medical visits this summer, but I ended up with a lot going on in July and more in August, so something has to give. We'll see how many sailing days we have to give up.

What would a year be without a new affliction? Now it's cataracts, and they do interesting things with what I see, or what I think I see. Six of the above mentioned appointments should see them repaired, but then I'll probably need glasses.

I thought I'd have this story-ending posted last year but a lot of things happened, including my personal bout with covid. I'm glad it's finely done, but remember that once upon a time the story was trashed. I had started it in 2000 along with a lot of other things, and I started posting it to the dabeagle site probably in 2001. That all came crashing down about a year later, and I was goaded into posting it again in 2018. I resisted for a long time. After all, why would anyone be interested in a story that was a pretty spectacular failure in its first release? I guess I'm a glutton for punishment, and the current failure is less than spectacular, but that doesn't say much. If I have to go by responses I have only managed to please 8 readers.

I have a couple of other stories that are unfinished. I abandoned the Plan stories when I was notified that I had plagiarized every word and I don't intend to revisit it. I would like to continue with the Vermont stories just to see how far it goes and how it ends. Beyond that I don't have any plans, though there are some short stories around that I'd like to gather up and put on the site crvboy maintains.

My long-term barber died during the epidemic, but not from covid, and his old shop is now being converted to a single-family dwelling. That means no new barber in these parts. Cancer does things to hair, the primary one is that hair falls out. My loss was barely noticible for the first couple of months of chemo until I found myself choking awake nights on my own hair. I started wearing a toque to bed, and soon enough all the hair was in my hat and no longer attached to me. Other hair (non-head-hair) did different things but mostly ended up in different places when it fell out. That's not what I mean by interesting. The interesting part comes when chemo is over and your follicles start to regenerate.

I was born with blond hair which turned darker through the years, and was brown when I finished high school. It remained brown until it went away, and was once again blond when it came back. The hair on my chin came in white like Santa's. During the time my hair was coming back, I learned of a second cancer, and the hair that had been coming back started disappearing again. The treatment for this cancer was more aggressive and it was in remission in less than a year, but continued treatment will be a lifetime thing. My head-hair is now silvery-blond and as fine as a baby's. The chin hair looks and feels like a wad of steel wool, one armpit is bald and the other is black. I finally broke down in February and went to a barber in another town. I had no recommendations or anything, but I saw his light on and went in.

By then my hair was way down below my shoulders and as thick as a lion's mane, but he took his time and I came out still breathing and pretty happy to learn that I wouldn't be needing new hats.

I'm about out of excuses here, so thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear from anyone who cares to be heard from.



For the record: driver.nine@gmail.com

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