Plan D:Lake Effect

by Driver

Chapter 7

Gambling. If there was one thing about the school shooting that would never have crossed my mind, it was gambling. Our state had a lottery, and I knew something about problem gamblers from news stories, but I just couldn't envision gambling in school.

"Where'd you hear this?" I asked. Not a word had been mentioned at baseball practice.

Lee eyed me from his seat and said, "I have an in, remember? There's a press conference today, and my uncle saw the release."

"What else did it say?"

"It was a fact sheet, Evan. It said the shooting was gambling related so all the news heads could bone up on gambling. That way they can understand what's being said, or at least have a commentator who can talk about gambling." He paused, then said, "Turn on the news."

"Good idea." I reached over and pushed the button for AM, then the scan button. I knew there was a talk/news station, but I wasn't sure which one it was. It soon turned up, but it took a long time before they actually got to the news.

Then there it was: the lead story. I was paying attention to the road, and it was hard for me to listen, much less absorb it. I did get part of it, and it was all bizarre to say the least. First, Ron Mastracchio was apparently shot accidentally, and when Throckmorton thought he'd killed him, he turned the gun on himself. It was now believed that Throckmorton had acquired the pistol for Ron to protect himself with, and it had somehow gone off during the exchange.

They didn't spend a lot of time on the shooting itself. It had been some time ago. Throckmorton was dead and buried, and Ron survived, though he wasn't back in school yet.

The big part of the story seemed to be that they thought gambling was behind it all, and that's where they stopped being specific. Well, that would come out through the grapevine if it was true. It surprised me to learn that gambling in schools was considered to be a major problem, and that on a nationwide basis colossal sums of money changed hands each year, right in the halls of high schools like mine.

I wondered where. I hadn't seen it, and I got shrugs from Bruce and Lee when I asked if they ever saw anything. I had gambled once in my life, betting a treasured toy with another kid, and I lost. The toy was a car that an aunt had sent me for Christmas one year when she was working in England, and it was unique and quite beautiful. During the days after Christmas, I carried it everywhere with me to show off.

There was a family up the street from us at the time; the Carlsons. Joanie was a girl my age, and we played together a lot. Her brother, Neil, was a few years older than us, but he had never given me a problem. When he saw that car, though, he wanted it, and he went into action.

"Where'd you get that?" he asked.

I showed it off proudly. "My aunt gave it to me. It's from England!"

He held out his hand. "Let me see," and I gave it to him. He looked it over admiringly, then said, "I'll trade you for it."

"Uh-uh," I said. "I don't want to."

"Come on, I have good stuff. I have a brand new wagon that's worth more than this."

"Naw, never mind. Give it back."

He held onto the car and stepped out of reach. "I'll choose you, then! Odds or evens?"

"I don't want to," I insisted. "Give me my car!"

Neil shook his head, "You can't do that. I dared you, now you have to choose. I'll give you two out of three."

I got nervous and repeated, "You can't make me! Give me my car back!" I said, trying to grab for it.

He jerked it away. "No! I dared you, now you choose up or I'll just keep it!"

I was on the verge of tears. I knew what odds or evens was, and I couldn't ever win that with kids my own age. Now I had a nine-year-old telling me I had no options, and I was sure he'd cheat. Still, I said, "Odds."

Neil smiled and put the car down on the ground. "Okay," he leered. "On three. One ... two ... three!"

I put out one finger, and so did Neil, so he had the first point. He barely paused, "One ... two ... three!"

I put out three fingers and he put out two, so we were tied. "One ... two ... three!"

We both put out two fingers. I was desolate when I watched him walk off with that beautiful car, and he never even said where the wagon was. I wandered off into the back of their yard and cried my eyes out, then I avoided both home and people for hours because I was so embarrassed. I heard my brothers calling for me, but I stayed by myself until the combination of cold and hunger sent me home to my worried family.

My disappointment must have still been apparent. Once I'd been cleaned up and fed, my dad walked up to the Carlson's house with me, and he got me and Neil together with himself and Mr. Carlson.

Neil lied. Oh my God, did that kid lie! He said that it didn't happen, then modified that to make it sound like I asked for it. He denied any knowledge of the car, then Joanie came down from the attic with it in her hand.

I was so glad to see my car again, and Neil's father gave it back to me. Even at my young age I could see the disappointment over Neil's actions in his father's eyes. After that, I know that our two fathers talked in private. The next day, Neil came to our house alone, and he apologized to me for taking my toy, then to my father for lying. I felt bad for him, because I know he had no choice. He didn't want to be there, and he'd probably hate me forever for having to do that, but I had my car back and it wasn't me who cheated and lied to begin with.

Since then, I'd chosen odds and evens like that, but only to see who had first go at selecting teammates. I'd tossed coins to see who had first ups, tossed coins into wishing wells, but I hadn't tossed my own cash or belongings into anyone else's grips since that one time with Neil.

I didn't know what to think about it. Every morning of the year, buses left from Mt. Harman to take people to the casinos in New Jersey. There were stories in the news all the time about people embezzling from their companies, or stealing some other way to pay for their gambling. I thought that was unfortunate, because most people lost in those casinos, and if they didn't do something dire it never got reported. Their stories were only reported in general terms, like when the Sunday paper would have an article about the pawn shop activity near the casinos.

That's where the day-to-day tragedies were, the minor ones.. People gambled because it was exciting and fun. Most people could deal with that, and only wager what they could truly afford to lose. Those pawn shops were evidence of a much more serious problem. They were heavy on things like jewelry and other personal items. Cd's, players, cell phones ... things that people would have with them, and that they could get cash for.

My parents shared an aversion to gambling, too. They wouldn't even buy a lottery ticket when the prizes were huge, much less join their friends for trips to the casinos. They didn't scoff at it or anything, but said if they ever decided to get rid of their money with nothing in return, they'd at least give it to charity.

The news had me feeling grim, and that wouldn't work. When I got off the highway, I found a supermarket and we went in. I didn't want to just show up empty handed. I knew they'd have plenty of food at the house, but I had visions of a special breakfast the next morning, and I bought a lot of fresh fruit to cut up, juices, a couple dozen of eggs, and some nice, thick bacon.

Bruce and Lee were busy in the store, too. Bruce picked up five pounds of pistachios in a canvas sack, and Lee bought enough candy to put holes in the teeth of a small army.

On the way back to the checkout, we walked through what was called the 'leisure center', which was full of things like lawn chairs, coolers, rubber balls and ... yes! They had all kinds of funny sunglasses in primary colors. The green ones had frogs where the ear pieces met the front. The pink ones had flamingoes, the white ones geese.

I had Lee try on a pair of red ones with little dogs at the corners, and Bruce put on bright blue glasses with dolphins. They were two bucks a pair, and on sale at two-for-one, so we picked up twenty pairs and laughed our way to the checkout counter. At the car we all wanted glasses, so Bruce dug around in the bag while I said, "I want froggies!"

"Dogs!" Lee cried. "No, wait! Give me the flamingoes! No, no, I want a piggy!"

Bruce handed us ours, then put on white goose ones. We looked at each other, laughed heartily, then tried to look dignified when we got in the car. A silver minivan had just pulled in next to us, but when the lady driving it got a look, she pulled ahead into another spot. So much for dignity. We all burst into giggles while we belted ourselves in.

I pulled out of the parking lot, and after about a hundred yards Bruce said, "This is the wrong way, Ev."

"?" "What? How can it be the wrong way? This is the road."

After about a mile he said, "It is the wrong way. That was the highway we just went under. It should be behind us!"

"Yeah," Lee said, looking at the map. We're supposed to be on a two-lane road. We got turned around somehow."

I wasn't buying it. "What do the directions say after the exit? Doesn't it say to bear right?"

They both agreed that it said to bear right. "Okay," I said. "I went right, so this must be the way."

"The market," Lee mumbled.

"What about it? I turned right into it, and I turned right out of it, so this is the way."

Bruce and Lee were both looking around for landmarks, but they didn't say anything else. That's when I got bothered, because my recollection was of things getting more and more rural as we neared the lake, and the opposite was happening. Both sides of the road were taken up by stores, restaurants and gas stations, and I finally pulled into a parking lot to look at a map. I found the highway we'd been on, then the exit number, and sure enough we wanted to head to the east from there, which meant bearing right was correct. I was confused, so I pulled out, then into the next gas station, where I went inside to ask where we were.

More than one person looked at me, and a few of them giggled before I realized I had the frog glasses on. I pushed them up onto my head and waited my turn. When I got to the counter, I asked the older man working there, "What town is this?"

He snorted, "This is Weston. I take it you want to be somewhere else?"

"Yeah, um, I want to be at Easterly Lake."

He grinned, "Then you want to head East. Take a left out of here, then go about three miles and you'll see Highway 107. Take that North, but only for about a half mile, then take the ramp and bear right. You'll see the signs, then when you get to Easterly take Lake Road. There's a big, white church on the right, and you turn there."

I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. "Do you know that exit number off 107?"

"It's exit 57E."

"Okay, thanks," I said. I turned and walked back to the car confused. I had taken that exit, I'd swear to it, and I had stayed to the right, and here I was, miles in the wrong direction.

I got back to the car and looked at the map again, finding Weston. It seemed that I must have taken the wrong exit after all, and that it came down on the north side of the road I was on. That would explain it, but I felt like an idiot for taking the wrong exit and not noticing.

It put me in a bad mood, and when I followed the guy's directions I knew something was wrong. I asked, "This is the way we came, isn't it?" as I took the exit off the highway, and Bruce and Lee agreed that it was. Sure enough, about a mile on the right there was the big Mercado store that we'd gone to.

I was baffled, because this time around the road narrowed right down to two lanes, and there were periodic signs to let us know we were headed toward the lake. This was the scenery I remembered from the past summer, too. It was a pretty part of the state; rural and hilly, with the occasional herd of cows off in a pasture to the side. Then we approached Easterly, which was a small town at one end of the lake. Seeing it during the daylight made me think we should spend a few hours there. It looked busy and pretty, and there were neat looking restaurants and shops along the road. Then there was the church and the turn for Lake Road.

I took the turn, and soon enough the lake dominated the world. There were clusters of cottages on both sides of the road, and very little commerce. One large restaurant showed up on the left, as did a snack bar a while later. On the right was a marina and a long, narrow town park, then more cottages, and a handful of newer year-round homes. The development gradually eased off, with just an occasional cottage, then after a sweeping turn we came to the Castle family's place. The broad sweep of lawn coming up from the lake, and the Victorian house itself, gave prospect to why the place was known locally as 'Castle's castle', but the family called it 'Castle's hassle' for a lot of reasons.

It impressed people. Lee had just said, "Look at that place!" when I turned into the driveway.

Bruce let out a low, "Ooooh!" and I spied a glint of yellow up in back. Toyota yellow!

"We're here!" I cried, and scrambled out of the car. I started to stretch, then Aaron came up behind me and squeezed my midsection. "Evan! I got worried. I thought you'd be here earlier."

"We stopped at a store," I explained.

"We got big time lost," Bruce announced. He looked around, then up, "This may be an odd part of the planet, you know that?"

Aaron eyed him and said, "Oh, it is!" then he muttered, "And I think it just got odder," when he noticed our special sunglasses. "Oh my God!" he squealed. "Those are precious! I want a pair!"

I looked at my brother, "What do you think, Bruce? Dolphins?"

Lee cleared his throat, "Um, if you don't mind me saying so, I think that hot pink color of the flamingoes would go marvelously with Aaron's hair." He raised his eyebrows and put his hand against his face with the wrist bent back. It was funny ... a caricature of Aaron's own movements, and we all laughed.

I was still giggling when I leaned back against Aaron and asked, "Don't I get a kiss?"

Of course I did. We brought our things in from the car. Aaron assigned a room to Bruce and Lee, letting them know that they'd be sharing it with Paul when he came, then we brought my bag to the room I'd be sharing with Aaron, which was in the attic and had a window at the top of a turret. It was a little room, but very cool and unusual. "I never saw this room, Aaron."

He grinned, "I never showed it to you. It's too hot up here in the summer, but right now we have the best view on the whole lake. Take a look," he said, as he stepped away from the turret window.

And wow, was he ever right! That window revealed the entire length and breadth of the lake, and it was spectacular in the brightness of the day, and of spring itself. I always thought of spring as a green season, and it sure was that. The lake and the area around it was also resplendent with every other color. The sky was blue, and the lake water reflected a darker blue. All kinds of things were in bloom, too, and the greens were offset everywhere with white, yellow, pink, purple and red.

Aaron moved in close beside me and put his arm gently around my waist. "I'm glad you like it," he whispered. "I knew you would."

I reached back and pulled him closer and kept looking out, finding new things. "It's beautiful, Aaron. Really beautiful." I noticed more things, like the islands out in the lake. I whispered, almost to myself, "Really beautiful."We stayed quiet for a long time, then Aaron said softly, "My parents have a picture from their wedding from right here. It's really something. They're each on one side of the window with their arms low, and they're holding hands. You can see the whole view though the window, too. Rakeed wants to take that same picture with Lilac." I looked again at the view from that window. We were on a high enough floor that the window didn't have to be bigger, because you could just look out and see the whole scene below, and it was drop-dead gorgeous

"That's nice," I said absently.

Aaron suddenly sounded nervous, and he said, "I ... I'd like to do that, Evan. With you, I mean. I mean, I know we can never get married, but someday we could take vows ... that is ..."

I suddenly felt my eyes welling up, "Is what, Aaron? Is this a proposal?" I looked right at him.

He nodded, and his eyes suddenly got shiny, too. I didn't know what to do or say. I loved Aaron and he loved me. One of the things I loved most about him was the way he brought about moments just like this. We were both guys, gay guys. There was no way we could marry, but vows of commitment were possible. As practical as my mind usually was, vowing myself to Aaron, even at age sixteen, sounded to me like exactly the right thing to do. "Let's do it, Aaron! Everybody's gonna be here! Let's do it!"

Aaron's teary eyes bugged right out of his head, and a quivering smile came right behind. "You mean it? Oh, of course you mean it!" His hands started fiddling with nothing, "Oh, God!" He looked in my eyes, "Evan, will you marry me?"

I smiled and nodded. Aaron got flustered, "We can't! How about this. Will you commit to me? Promise me your love and ..."

Poor Aaron, he looked like he'd cry, and I pulled him into a hug. "I love you, Aaron. You know that. I think we should do this whole thing again, though ... later, when we don't have these funky glasses on our heads."

Aaron blushed and reached up to feel his pink glasses, which he pulled down onto his nose. Then he smiled, "There won't be any point in doing it again, Ev. How could it be any better than me asking you when you're wearing froggie glasses with heart-shaped lenses?"

I eyed Aaron before deciding that he was serious. I had to take my glasses off to realize that the lenses were indeed heart-shaped, which I'd neglected to notice before. Aaron's flamingoes had round lenses, and they made me smile, which turned into a grin. How could I ever say no to a guy who'd propose to me while wearing those? "I'll marry you, Aaron," I said. "Just find some place where we can, and it's a done deal."

Aaron leaned into me and laughed, "Oh, isn't that romantic ... a done deal?"

Oops. I snickered, "Uh ... sorry. What I meant to say was, find a place where we can get married, then fly away with me ... uh ... to there ... that place .. wherever it is."

Aaron started giggling, and he put his hand on my chest, "You better stop, Ev. I like the fly away part, though." He giggled, "Otherwise, let's save the romance until you're full of wine. Or at least until after lunch."

I just held him, and he felt fine. I didn't say wrong things, I just sometimes said things the wrong way, and right then I seemed to be at the top of my form. We kissed in front of the window, then noticed a pickup pulling in, so we broke off. Aaron looked at me, "That's my grandfather. Let's help him unload."

I followed Aaron out, asking, "He's just getting here?"

"No, he came up during the week. He went to get some materials."

We tromped down the stairs, looked briefly for Bruce and Lee, who had disappeared, then went down the next stairs to the ground floor. I followed Aaron outside and around back.

His grandfather's truck was an older, gray Ford that looked to be past its prime. I was a little surprised to see so many people there. In addition to Bruce and Lee, Justin was there with two guys I'd met the summer before; Greg and Doug. I always thought of Justin as being big, and he was compared to most people his age, but Greg was bigger than him and Doug was a regular mountain of a man. He was way off the curve for high-schoolers; probably six foot two and two hundred pounds at least.

Aaron's grandfather had his back turned when we walked up, but the other guys all laughed at our glasses, and Doug said, "Oh, man! I want a pair of those! Hi, Evan!"

I grinned and shook his hand, then Greg's and Justin's. "I brought glasses for everyone!" Bruce and Lee were hurriedly pulling theirs on. "There's still time to be unique, too. We have as-yet unclaimed cows and piggies."

"And chickens!" Bruce added.

I laughed, not from any reaction by anyone, but just because it was funny. I'd bought the glasses on a whim, probably much like when my dad bought us kids plastic pails and shovels on the way to the beach. They wouldn't hold up, and they wouldn't do any good, but they'd be fun while they lasted.

I suddenly found myself looking at Aaron's grandfather, who had his hand out. I took it to shake, and he held on, smiling all the way. "Evan. It is Evan, right? Not Kermit?"

I laughed and took the glasses off, "Nope, I'm Evan. Hi, Mr. Castle. Thanks for inviting us."

He smiled warmly, and I introduced my brother and Lee to everyone. I could see the spark of remembrance when I said Lee's name, but only from Aaron's grandfather.

The other guys were ready to take a chomp out of life, so we started unloading things from the truck. Boards, cans of paint, boxes and bundles of things, sacks ... Aaron's grandfather said where to bring things, and we did.

"Drop that right here," he'd say, then, "That goes down to the dock. Put the shingles by the back porch."

While we were doing that, more people showed up. Billy, Dean and Huck all came in a van that was driven by John Balls, and it turned out to have some music equipment as well as their things. John Balls had as much hardware as ever hanging off his face, but his hair had a new look, which was kind of like iced-tea tipped off with blue like you'd get from a powder puff. Everyone had shorts on except him, but he still looked good in a way-tight tee shirt. I liked John, and I had since the first day I met him. He had an image that he wasn't afraid of, even though he was basically kind of shy.

Break out the hair dye, though, and stick him behind a guitar with a few jillion watts of amp, and he went from John Balls, to John Balls, and there was no denying the difference. He was the way he was to please himself, and even though he kind of ended up at a right angle to my style, I appreciated the kid because he was real just the way he was.

After things were distributed, and before lunch, we learned the things that had to be done and the things that would be nice to get around to if there was time. It was almost all outside work except for a few ten minute jobs inside, and we decided among ourselves what we'd work on that afternoon. Then we had a free-for-all kind of lunch. Aaron's grandfather had all kinds of cold cuts, several kinds of bread, and all the fixings for sandwiches.

I made myself a modest corned beef and cheese on rye, which I washed down with water. It was really good, and just enough to keep me going. Most of the guys, of course, pigged out on really fat sandwiches.

After we ate, we broke up into work groups. Aaron had volunteered me to work on the boats, and John Balls joined us. The canoes and rowboats were stored upside-down in a wooden rack. The canoes were fiberglass, and we had to put some polish on them. That took an hour, and they were looking good. The rowboats needed a coat of bottom paint, which Aaron volunteered to do. John and I went to uncover the motorboats, then there was a checklist of things to do to them.

John was possibly the least talkative person I had ever met, but I kept trying. When we were uncovering the ski boat I asked, "Did you ever try water skiing? Last summer was my first time."

"I ski," he said.

I waited, but he offered nothing else, so we got the boat ready for the water according to the checklist, and that took the better part of an hour. I looked at John in exasperation. I wasn't against silence, but I'd hoped for something that might indicate we were working toward a common cause.

"John," I said. He looked at me, and I swear that a couple of eyelid decorations banged into each other. "Do you ever talk about things? I have the feeling that I could know you for a long time and never know you at all."

He didn't respond, and I looked at him only to find him looking at me. "You care?" he asked.

I didn't know what that meant. "I care, John, but in the sense that I want to know, not the sense that it's a big deal if you don't want to talk."

"You want to know what?" he asked, kind of dumbly. I was sore from squatting anyhow, so I plopped down on the grass on my butt and looked at him.

John was looking at me with an absolutely blank expression on his face.

I stared for a minute, then said, "I'm Evan Smiley. I'm a sophomore at Mt. Harman High, and I'm on the baseball team. Right this second I'm pulling a four-point-oh grade average. I just recently got my driver's license, and I bought my own car." I thought to myself, then said, "What else? You know this already, but I'm gay, and I go out with Aaron Castle. There's more."

John stared silently, then cracked a tiny smile. "Huh? You'll have to speak up. I play in a Rock band."

I stared at him, then he lost it and started laughing. He had a laugh, too, croaky like his speaking voice, but loud like his singing voice. It got me snickering at the sound of it, then he said, "I'm second in a big family, Evan. I have one brother, and he's twenty. There's a sister at fifteen, and the rest are little girls." He smiled in a way that made me know he liked having little sisters.

"How many?" I asked.

"Five," he smiled. "Six girls total, three of them under ten. You can do the math, but it's eight kids. I .." he put his hand on his heart and looked up at the sky over his shoulder, "I try to differentiate myself! Have you ever been to Sam's Club?"

"No," I allowed.

"That's where big families go to buy food in the volumes they need."

Aaron showed up right then, and as he sat beside me I asked, "Ever been to Sam's Club?"

Leave it to Aaron. "For sure! We were just there today for all this food!"

"Then you'll appreciate," John said, "that they sell big containers of things?"

Aaron nodded. John went on, "I was just telling Evan this." Then he put on an evil grin, "I do it all the time. Last night, I knelt down where they have these big tubs of peanut butter. I took off the lids of a few, and I wrote 'fuck you' in the peanut butter with my finger."

I felt my eyebrows go up just as Aaron started to snicker. "Stop it!" I said. "You really did that?"

John nodded, a bit eagerly.

"Do you do drugs?" I asked.

He laughed, "No! Should I?"

I looked at him and said, "I don't know. It might help."

He laughed, "I do hair instead. It's cheaper, it bugs my Dad, and I don't have to go to jail for it."

I grinned. I got John to say something, and he was pretty cool. We went back to work, and when the boats were cleaned up Aaron suggested taking a walk. John didn't want to, and he went back to the house while Aaron led me along the lakefront in a direction I hadn't been, and we soon picked up a wide path through some woods.

The woods were a mixture of pines, flowering shrubs, and some taller shade trees, so the path was relatively dark even though we could see the bright sun reflecting off the lake only a short distance away. It was really nice, and I reached for Aaron's hand when I realized we weren't exactly in a public spot. We walked until the trail ended at a grassy area right on the lake, then we sat close to the water. It was warm in the sun, and we enjoyed things in silence until Aaron said, "Look at that!"

I looked where he was looking and didn't see anything, so I asked, "What?"

Aaron stood and walked over to a fallen log. When I stood up, I could see that there were several of them, and they'd been there for some time. They were barkless and bleached by the sun, and they seemed quite uninteresting to me. Not to Aaron, though. "Oh my!" he exclaimed. "Look at this one!" and I did. I obviously didn't see what Aaron saw. It appeared to me that a tree had died, then collapsed into pieces. The piece that interested Aaron was bent, with a wide spot at the bend, then there was a fork into to parts to the right, and the length to the left was split the long way. Dead wood is what I thought, but Aaron was all excited.

"I can make something with this, Ev! Help me bring it to the house."

"What?" I asked. "It's dead wood." I bent down to test the weight, which wasn't too bad. I looked back at Aaron, and he was serious, so I pulled it from its resting place in the weeds, which didn't give it up too easily. Once I had it, it didn't weigh much, and Aaron was struggling to free up a few straighter pieces.

I guessed that he wasn't going to tell me what he had in mind, so I hefted up the piece I had after Aaron had two smaller ones, then we walked back to the house. We dropped our dead logs at a garden by the road, and it was clear that more people were there. I saw Paul's car, and I saw Aaron's mother talking to Rakeed by the side porch. It seemed like the only guy I knew who wouldn't show up at the lake was Huck. He'd been invited, of course, but he went instead to Jamaica with his family. Such choices.

I felt cruddy and begged off from Aaron when he said he wanted to go back for more pieces of wood. He went by himself, and I went inside to wash up. When I saw myself in the mirror, I decided on a shower. My hands were sticky from a lot of things, and I had little paint flecks all over me, enhanced by pine needles and plain old dirt. I didn't take long, and when I was clean I only put on sneakers, a tee shirt and some clean shorts. It was warm outside, and I didn't need anything else.

Coming down the stairs, I ran into Paul's little brother heading up. He stopped and grinned, and I smiled, "Hey, Mark!"

Mark was twelve. He had Paul's blond coloring, but other than that they looked unalike. Paul was big, and he always had been for his age. Marky was a skinny little thing, lithe and fast-moving, and full of fun. He grinned excitedly, "Hi Evan! Can you take me for a boat ride?"

I had to think. "I don't know, maybe in a canoe if you want to. We just painted the rowboats, and I don't know about the ski boat."

He beamed, "A canoe is good! Let's go!"

With that, he turned and raced downstairs, and I trotted after him calling for him to stop. "Mark!" I cried. "Get changed. You can't go in a canoe like that!"

He looked at himself, then me, and the look on his face asked 'why not?' but he said, "Don't go without me!" and raced up the stairs.

I went outside and ran into Aaron's parents, his grandfather, and Lilac and Rakeed on the porch. We said our hellos, and I asked, "How many people can go in a canoe? Mark wants a ride."

"He's the little one?" Mrs. Castle asked, and I nodded.

She looked at me and said, "Bring Justin or Aaron with you, Evan. Have Mark sit on the bottom in the middle, and all of you wear life vests." She smiled, "To answer your question, two people is normal for a canoe, but a little boy like Mark shouldn't make much difference."

I nodded, then Mark was there fidgeting at my side. I said, "Come on," and we went to look for Aaron or Justin.

Aaron was there in the yard, and he surprised me when he said he didn't want to go out in the boat. "I have a creative urge, Ev," he said, grinning. "I can't help it. If Justin won't go, ask Billy. He's good with a canoe."

I was amused by Aaron in a brand new way. Whatever he had planned for those sticks and logs, it was more important right then than me, the lake, or the chance for a canoe ride. He had a real sparkle in his eyes, too, so I knew something either major or very funny was coming up. Maybe it would be something majorly funny, but Aaron wouldn't say, he just shooed us off to find Justin.

Justin had gone off somewhere with his friends, so I approached Billy. He was busy measuring a board that was meant to replace a seat on a picnic table. I walked up behind him and said, "Bill," I tapped his shoulder so he'd look. "Take a break. You need a canoe ride."

He smiled, "I do?" He started to stand, wiping his hands on the sides of his shorts. He noticed Mark, then said, "I think you're right, Grins. I do need a canoe ride, and I'll bet this guy is going to take me for one." He grinned at Mark. "I'm Billy."

Mark stared, so I said, "This is Mark. He's my neighbor."

Billy went in the house to de-grease his hands, and I took Mark with me to put a boat in the water.

"Which one do you want?" I asked, as we looked at the three canoes. One was green, one was bright red, and the last was a very dark red that I thought looked classy. Mark chose the bright red one, but he didn't have the strength to help me. I tested the boat myself, and it was light enough, I just couldn't get my arms around it. I picked up some paddles and carried them to the dock, then opened the locker and pulled out vests. It took a little digging to find one that fit Mark, but he seemed pleased when I handed him one to try.

"Cool!" he said as he pulled it on. "I thought they'd have those orange things." He grinned once he had it on, "This one's nice."

Billy came and we got the canoe into the water, then positioned Mark in the middle before getting in ourselves. I wasn't actually comfortable with canoes myself, but I made like I was for Mark's sake. I pushed my end away from the dock just as Billy sat down, then we paddled off tentatively until we found a rhythm.

Mark was hyper, one question after another. "How fast are we going? Is this water deep? Are there fish in here?"

I chuckled, my back to Mark. "Take it easy, Mark. One question per minute should do it."

He giggled and shut up for awhile, then he said, "You should sit here, Evan. I can see Billy's balls!"

I almost choked, and Billy laughed nervously, saying, "Tell me you can't, Mark! I know you can't."

"Well, I can see where they are," Mark said. "They're big, too. Evan's the queer, he should sit here so he .."

"Mark!" I said loudly. "Shut UP!"

Billy snickered, "Good idea. That is, unless Evan wants to trade places with you." He snickered again.

I wasn't good enough at a canoe to get physical, but if I could have without drowning myself in freezing water, I would have bashed both their heads with my paddle. "You can shut up too, Bill," I said. "Mark, what the hell are you talking about?"

His voice went quiet, "I'm sorry. Paul told me about being queer." He couldn't resist a giveaway snicker, "I thought you might want to be here, that's all."

"Right," I said. "So I can look at Billy's balls?" I giggled, "You can do it for me, Mark. Let me know if there's any change, and if either of you say anything else, this boat is going over!"

After a full minute of silence, I heard Billy say, "That's what I call forceful, Mark. And you better stop looking at my nuts, or people will get the wrong idea about you."

"Evan said to let him know ..." Mark squeaked, and I laughed.

I changed the subject, asking, "Want to go to one of the islands?"

Billy and Mark both did, so we headed to the largest one. Altogether, our ride was over an hour, and I think we were all glad when we got back to the dock. By then the shadows were lengthening and the air was cooling off. I was thirsty and I wanted to see Aaron, so when we had the boat secured and things put where they belonged, I left Billy and Mark to rudely comment on my butt as I walked off.

Aaron was close by, right where we'd dropped the logs off by the garden, and he was working furiously, although I couldn't tell what he was doing until I was right there. Then I laughed, because he had attached over a dozen bright blue bottles to one end of a log, which was on the ground beside him. It looked like nothing if not some kind of alien palm tree with a shiny, bright blue noggin. Aaron was sitting on the ground with a pile of green soda bottles beside him, and when he saw me coming he smiled and said, "Good! You can help me."

I grinned in confusion. "Help you what?" I asked as I sat beside him. "What is this?"

"I'm not sure yet," he mumbled. I made flowers out of blue bottles, so I'm making leaves out of green ones. Watch."

He picked up a bottle and screwed the cap on tightly, then took an x-acto knife and carefully cut the bottom off it. Then he cut slits from the cap to the bottom so they ended up about an inch wide at the big end. He bent them back so they fanned apart, then said, "Look at this!" He held the cap of the bottle against another log, and damned if the whole thing didn't look like an exotic, transparent leaf.

I grinned, "Got another knife?"

"No," Aaron said, "but I have glue. Stand the log up and start gluing on the leaves." He grinned, "Is this neat or what?"

I stood back up and looked around. There was a post hole digger laying there, so I picked it up and asked Aaron, "Where do you want it?" I started digging when he showed me, and the ground was easy. It didn't take long, and I had a second upright log a few feet away from the first. Then Aaron handed me a bag full of the bright blue bottles and some giant nails. I tapped the nails into the top of the new log, then slipped a bottle on each nail, laughing while I did it. What we were doing might be stupid, but it would be colorful and stupid!

I started gluing leaves on, and they looked pretty good. We stayed at it until we heard voices calling us to dinner, and left two of the weirdest looking plants you ever saw right among the rhododendrons in that garden.

Dinner was simple: hamburgers and hot dogs, tossed salad and potato salad, and some good garlic bread. It was a gentle time, full of talk and laughter. I was pleased to see Bruce and Lee looking like friends, joking and laughing with each other like I would with Chris or Billy.

When the food was done, John Balls, Dean and Aaron entertained us with a few songs, and when they stopped, Rakeed borrowed a guitar and did a credible job on some sad blues songs.

When he stopped, it was eerily quiet; no traffic on the road, and it was too early in the year for birds, tree frogs, or insects to be playing their songs. The mood was still cheerful, and it was hardly late yet. Some people decided to play Trivial Pursuit, others to read or whatever. Aaron and I took a walk after putting on warmer clothes.

It was nice. Just the two of us, alone in the darkening evening. We brought a flashlight but didn't need it at first. There was a quarter moon that would be bright, and the leaves weren't out full yet, so we could see without help. Aaron looked good in anything, and he had nice clothes, but I liked it best when he dressed carelessly like he was then. He had on a pair of jeans shorts that came to his knees, sneaks, and a gray, hooded sweatshirt with the hood down around his shoulders. I wasn't much different. I had on beige skater cargo shorts that came to mid-shin, and a blue hooded sweatshirt, also hood-down.

Who cares, right?

I cared. Being alone like that, the only sound other than our footsteps and breathing being the water lapping up at the edge of the lake, and Aaron dressed like he was ... it was trancendental. Every time I saw Aaron, every time he spoke or laughed, every time he was with me I loved him more than I had before. And yet, every once in awhile there was a time when just being there with him almost overwhelmed me, and this was one of those times.

We'd talked about commitment just that afternoon. We were walking along the lakeside, not even talking, just enjoying the silence together, and it occurred to me that we were committing further just by doing that. We were together. Totally together. It didn't take talking for that, although we'd talk again for sure. It didn't require touching, and we weren't even holding hands. It didn't take sex, or even kissing, to make our commitment more real. It just took being there. Aaron was my reality, and I was his.

I decided to push my luck, and asked quietly, "What are you thinking?"

Aaron started a little, then got closer, "I wasn't thinking, really, just spacing out," he whispered.

"Me too," I said. "Aaron ... I don't know, but I feel like I'm already committed to you, and you are to me." I fumbled for his hand, then took it in mine. It felt good and I said, "I like your hand, Aar. I love it when we hold hands like this. I should shut up, because I was loving it just being here."

Aaron cooed happily, "I love it too, Ev. I love you! You're right, too. Sometimes quiet is good. I just ... I don't know. I like to hear it from you, too."

I squeezed his hand, "I like to say it. I love you, Aaron. I don't know what could make me not love you, or what could make me love you any more than I do." I leaned a little closer, "I already feel committed."

Aaron responded by sighing quietly and giving my hand a gentle squeeze, then we resumed our comfortable silence. We sat for some time on a bench in someone's yard, facing the water. There were some ducks swimming around, and even they were quiet, not quacking away like they usually did. We eventually heard some voices from out on the water, then a canoe came into view, followed by another one. Aaron's folks were in the first one, and Rakeed and Lilac followed about thirty feet behind them.

I smiled as they went by, wondering if my parents would go for a canoe ride the next day. They knew how, and I knew they liked it. We had vacationed several times on Lake George, other times on Lake Winnepesaukee, and they always made sure the place they rented came with a canoe.

Our reverie was soon interrupted by more voices, louder this time, then someone said, "There they are!" and after a pause, "Over there, right by the water!"

I nudged Aaron, "I think we've been found."

He snickered, then just about everyone except Aaron's grandfather showed up beside us. "What's up?" I asked.

"Just taking a walk," Billy said. "We wondered if we'd run into you."

"Is everything okay?" Aaron asked. "What happened to Trivial Pursuit?"

"The brain trust happened," Dean growled. "Between John Balls, Evan's brother, and Huckleberry Finn here, we didn't have a chance."

Lee said cheekily, "You had a chance. You just didn't know any answers!"

Dean shot back, "Yeah, sure. Like anybody except you geeks know the crap you do. It's worthless knowledge."

John Balls said, "Don't get started, Dean-o. Who played lead guitar for the original Allman Brothers Band?"

"Duane Allman and Dickey Betts," Dean said cautiously, "Why?"

"What blues singer strapped a board to his foot to make rhythm?"

"John Lee Hooker. What are you getting at?"

"Where did Chet Atkins learn about acoustics and echo?"

Dean grinned, "His high school bathroom. This is important information, though; the kinds of things people need to know."

John patted Dean on the shoulder and said, "I rest my case. I'll bet that except for you and me, nobody else here ever heard of those people."

Well, I sure hadn't, and I said so, and it turned out that John was right. It was guitar player trivia, and if the game had that category the outcome might have been different.

By then, some of the guys had continued on. Of the others, a few walked out onto the dock beside us. My brother and Lee sat on the grass to the right of our bench while Dean and John sat to our left. Billy, being Billy, sat on Aaron's lap, and he stayed there. Aaron grunted at first, but he wiggled around a little and apparently got comfortable.

I noticed the look on Bruce's face, and he sure seemed to be contented. "Having a good time?" I asked him.

He and Lee both smiled, and Bruce said, "I really am. I'm like all ... unstressed, I guess is the term. I've never once envisioned myself sanding windowsills and enjoying it."

I snickered, "I never thought I'd see that, either, and I'm sure that Dad will be interested in this new side of you."

Bruce's eyes widened. "I didn't say I liked the work, just that it's brainless. I got to think about things I never think about, and for a long time." He chuckled, "I think I'm in love with the idea of daydreaming. I always try to stay focused, and I never thought about doing the opposite."

Aaron said, "You've created a monster, Ev."

"What? An unfocused Bruce?"

Aaron smiled, "You don't think that's scary? Billy does."

At that instant, Billy let out a screech that could probably be heard all around the lake, and he pitched forward off Aaron's lap, stumbling until he fell down. When he stopped, he knelt in the grass looking at Aaron. "What was that all about, Castle? Give me one good reason I shouldn't throw you in the lake."

I put my arm around Aaron and said, "Me."

Billy grinned, "And whose army? Okay, if that's the way it is, I'll throw your brother in the lake."

I leaned back and turned my attention to Aaron until I heard Bruce's frightened and indignant, "Evan!"

I looked up, and Billy had him in a headlock, but he was smiling. He gave Bruce a quick little noogie and pushed him toward our bench. I put my hand out to stop Bruce, but he stopped himself, gave me an odd look, and sat back on the grass.

Lee snickered, "I had fun today, too," he said happily, then his tone changed a little. His voice softened and sounded almost wistful. "I haven't had a day like this in a long time, really." He smiled, kind of to himself, but even in the dark I could see his dimples and sense his satisfaction.

Paul walked up from the dock holding his little brother's hand. "Mark's tired. We're going back to the house." He smiled, "Thanks, guys. It was a good day."

Most of the guys agreed with Paul. Aaron and I got up too, and Aaron and John started in on a little, happy tune, just singing, "Woo-hoo, woo-hoo." It sounded nice, and it didn't have to make sense because it was just for fun.

When we got back to the house, Aaron's family wanted to talk to Aaron and Justin, so they took over the kitchen. Paul took his brother upstairs, Justin's friends went to watch television, and Dean and John took off into the back yard to play their guitars. Bruce decided to take a shower because he said he felt crusty, so I sat on the porch with Lee.

We sat and looked out over the big lawn down to the lake, and the lake itself, which was reflecting a little moonlight along with lights from a few houses.

"I'm relaxed," Lee announced in a pleased voice. "I really appreciate you guys, Evan. I haven't felt this good in ... in too long."

"You're getting along with Bruce?" I asked.

Lee snickered, "Yeah, he's cool. He's kind of a space shot, but," he giggled, "I think he's on target. He analyzes everything, but I have the feeling that he likes what he sees."

I chuckled, "I could tell you stories. Bruce is our resident genius, and it took a lot of things to turn him into a human being."

Lee said softly, "I remember him from computer camp a few years ago. He was funny. He never even knew what he was eating for lunch, he got so distracted. Guys would wait 'til he started his ham and cheese, then swap peanut butter and jelly for the other half, and he just kept on eating and reading."

I laughed, "I can see that happening." I looked at Lee, and he was looking at me. "What?" I asked.

He seemed embarrassed, "Nothing, I guess. I'm just thinking how weird it is. I was there when my father tried to kill you. If he did, I'd be home with him and you'd be dead. Now I'm here with you and he's dead."

Lee's demeanor suddenly changed. He leaned forward, his hands between his knees, and he looked down and away from me. "I resented you Evan, at first anyhow." He gulped, "I thought that if you just died when you were supposed to, then everything would be different. My Dad would be back to normal and things would be okay." Lee laughed nervously, then looked at me quickly before turning away again. "Heh, this is what psychologists are for, I guess. I know, and I always knew that you weren't my problem. I didn't even know you. That was my father, and he twisted everything up. None of it has anything to do with you, and I know that for sure now."

He finally turned a nervous smile to me, "I really like you, Evan. I think we would have been friends no matter how we met." The smile brightened, "I think it's very cool that you don't even let a little attempted murder get in the way of things."

I laughed, "No problem! You had your big chance and you blew it!"

"What?" I heard Bruce's voice ask. He was just stepping out onto the porch, and he looked at Lee. "You blew somebody? You didn't tell me you were queer, too."

Lee rolled his eyes and said, "Bruce, record this in your memory and play it back over and over. Lee is not gay. Lee is not gay. Lee is not ..."

Bruce laughed happily, "Stop! I get it!" He looked at me, "Why were you saying he blew somebody?"

I was exasperated. "I said ... I said .. that's not what I said. I told Lee that if he wanted a blow job, he should ask you, since you're sleeping with him!"

Bruce gaped at me, and I would have responded, but Aaron showed up in the doorway just then. He beckoned me with his finger, intent all over his face. I patted Bruce's shoulder on the way by and said, "You guys figure it out."

Aaron wanted to walk, so we headed straight to the lake, then sat on the grass just before the beach. I knew it wasn't bad news, because Aaron was cheerful, but in a tentative kind of way.

"What?" I asked.

"It's complicated," Aaron said. "This place was built by my grandfather's grandfather. It's always been in the family, and it's been like our own private resort for just about ever." Aaron shifted his weight a bit, and leaned into me, so I put my arm around him. He continued, "My grandfather has been taking care of things here for a long time. Now he's tired."

I looked when Aaron didn't go on, and he said, "They want me to do it, Ev." He looked at me, "It doesn't sound like a big deal. They all chip in money, so it's like I'd write the checks, do things like today to maintain the place. Otherwise it's just scheduling, so everyone has a chance to use it." He grinned, "We can live here, Evan. Not now, but when we're older."

I was stunned, "Here? Damn! I love it here, but it's kind of remote."

Aaron said, shaking his head, "It doesn't have to be our permanent address, but it could still be our place. Our place to go to when we want to get lost."

"That's nice," I said dreamily, picturing a lifetime of summer weekends right where we were.

"I said yes," Aaron told me. "I can already tell that you agree."

"Oh, I do, Aaron," I said as I looked over the peaceful water. It was getting chilly, but not cold enough to send us straight back inside. Our body heat and proximity to each other kept us warm enough. It occurred to me to ask, "Why you? What about your father, or even Justin?"

Aaron shrugged, "They don't want to. It's not like there's no effort at all, but I won't mind it. I don't have to put a roof on when this one gets old, but I'll have to hire somebody, and I'll have to write the checks for the taxes, for the insurance, for garbage pickup ... even for having the grass cut. Gramps says it takes him a few hours each month, except for cleanup weekends like this one. Even this is more fun than work." He turned to me. "I don't see a downside, Ev. We'll always have first dibs on the house, and we can live here if we want to, or even if we have to."

That made me think, and I said, "Wouldn't that be something, Aar? The one thing I never thought of was that we could grow up to be broke. Heh, do you think there's a rock anywhere that's big enough to derail our train?"

I looked at Aaron while he thought about that. He bit his lip and said, "Not your everyday rock, that's for sure. Things happen, though. All kinds of things can mess up a life."

I thought of Lee and said, "Yeah, for sure. Let's not get ourselves depressed, okay?"

Aaron nodded, and I asked, "What's on for tomorrow?"

Aaron said, "I don't know. Gramps is taking the boat out fishing if you want to get up early. Otherwise it's Sunday, so not a lot will be happening. I have to find some paint or stain or something so I can work on my sculpture."

I thought of Aaron's driftwood. "What is that, anyhow?"

Aaron giggled, "Palm trees, maybe. Right now they look more like medicine bottle trees."

"What time do I have to get up if I want to go fishing?" I asked.

"An hour ago, I think," Aaron laughed.

"No, seriously!" I said.

Aaron shrugged, "I don't know, around five I guess. You really want to go?"

"I'd like to," I said. "I only went once last year, on opening day. Now this year ..." It dawned on me. "Oh, NO! I'm sixteen now, I need a license!"

Aaron patted my arm, "Let's go back. It's getting cold, and I'm tired. You can get a license at the marina when you go for gas and bait."

We stood while I asked, "Really? It's that easy?"

Aaron nodded, and I asked, "What do I need?"

"Seven bucks."

"That's it?" I asked, incredulous. "I don't need ID or anything?"

Aaron snickered, "No, just money. It's funny, Ev. You pay the fee for a license, and the money goes to pay for guys who make sure you paid the fee."

I understood, and changed my attention to the house as we approached. There were shadowy figures on the front porch, and I could see the adults inside in the front room. They seemed relaxed and happy, having a cheerful conversation. Most of the kids were on the porch, and they were just talking quietly. We sat with them for awhile, but we didn't get much out of it and soon headed to bed.

It had been a nice day for me, though I was still chiding myself for getting lost on the way that morning. I tended to agree with my brother's assessment that we'd found a bit of the Twilight Zone, where a road went one way, then didn't. I told Justin to be sure to wake me up for fishing, then turned to leave.

"Where are you guys sleeping?" Justin asked.

Aaron turned, "In the attic ... the turret room."

"Okay," Justin said. "Watch out for bats."

I thought he was joking or trying to scare us, but Aaron said, "They don't bother me. I just leave the window open."

"Bats?" I asked when we were on the stairs. "There's bats up there?"

"Yeah, usually," Aaron said. "They don't bother anybody, they just come and go. Well, except one got caught up in my aunt's hair once, and that wasn't a pretty scene. They're not like vampires or anything, they're just little brown bats."

"Oh," I said queasily. "It's just that you never mentioned them before."

"Sorry," Aaron said as we came to the top of the stairs and turned into the bedroom. "If it's creepy for you, we can sleep downstairs."

"No," I said. I had limited experience with bats. Once in church a bat decided to attend Sunday services, and it made a few women scream.

Other than that, when we played badminton after dusk bats always seemed to be attracted to the birdie. Chris thought it was the little whistling sound the birdie could make that attracted them, but when the bats came out, we went in. I had no reason to fear the things, but I was still leery when I heard the word. It might still be neat sleeping with them.

Aaron and I were both tired. We headed to bed with intent, then I remembered all the fresh fruit I had to cut up for breakfast. I left Aaron and went downstairs to get things ready. I didn't spend more than half an hour, but Aaron was out cold when I got back upstairs. I climbed into bed and fatigue overtook me before I could even watch for bats.

Continued ...

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