Mud Season

Chapter 15


Tommy’s face took on an astonished little smile.  His eyes were wide, and his lower lip couldn’t decide what to do, so it twitched.  “A real UFO?  If it’s real, wouldn’t it just be a Flying Object?  Where does the money come from to do this?  Did you get too close to all those chemicals and all that heat up in Stockton?”  He sat back on his bed and asked, “How real?”


I straddled his desk chair and said, “I don’t know.  I don’t mean a physical thing.  I just need to get someone from here to somewhere else and back without him knowing too much about it.”


“Where is the somewhere else?” Tommy asked.


I said, “I don’t know.  I guess it could be anywhere.  I won’t know that until I’m sure we can get him wherever it is.”  I smiled at Tom, “Is that enough detail for now?”


He was staring at me, and finally said, “Well, I guess it’s more than I usually get out of you.  Based on all that information, I’ll say yes.  We can figure something out.”


I was impressed.  “Really?”


Tom tossed his pillow at me and said, “No, not really.  Will you tell me what in Holy Hell you’re talking about, or is it a state secret or something?”


“It’s not a secret,” I said, “and I’ll tell you if you stop fucking swearing at me.”


That did it.  Tommy had me on the floor in two seconds, my nose to the rug and his hands digging into my ribs.  I squirmed around to get free, but he dug his fingers into me just below my rib cage and I had trouble breathing, which prevented me from even screaming for help.


I mounted a good struggle, though, and finally managed to flip over on my back, which caused Tom to lift up in the air and crash down on my leg.  It didn’t hurt me, but the part of his anatomy that landed just above my knee is one part that no man wants to bump gently into anything, much less hit  with any kind of force.  And I knew what he hit me with from the positions of his legs.  I knew how hard he hit because he was dead.  Well, almost dead.  His heart had clearly stopped, but his mouth was still making little groaning sounds interspersed with high-pitched squeals:  very high-pitched squeals, like one more pitch up and there would be dogs howling at the window to get in.  He may have been choking on his heart; it was hard to tell from my vantage point.


I knew he hurt, but not what I could or should do, so I just stayed put and let him lay on top of me.


I had a sudden fear and asked, “Are you gonna throw up on me?”




“That’s good,” I said. “I just got this shirt.”  I could tell that Tom was breathing again and asked, “Does it hurt?”


I knew it was a stupid question, but I figured if I could get him mad he’d be able to talk again, and maybe return to a normal life someday.


Tom said, in something like a coloratura soprano voice, “Eeeeeeyesss, is hurt.”  He got up on his elbows or something, because the next thing I knew he had both sides of my collar in his fists, and his very red face was just above mine.


“Good,” I said.  “Your heart’s pumping again.”


Tommy went into his death throes then.  It was either that or he was laughing; either way he was bouncing up and down off my chest.  I said, “You don’t have to do that, Tom.  I’m happy with a simple thank you.”


His thumbs jumped from my collar to my throat.  “Thank you?” he yelled.  “I should thank you for trying to turn me into a girl?”


I pushed him off and sat cross-legged with my back to his bed, while he groaned himself into a sitting position.  “You did that, Tom, all by yourself.”  I patted the mattress behind me and said, “I was sitting up here trying to have a rational conversation when you suddenly decide to commit murder on me.”  I was grinning.


Tom said, “I will welcome the day when you say something rational, meester Paul.  I swear, you spend your dreams figuring out ways to buffalo me with baloney and baffle me with bullshit.”


I said, “Well, you swore at me.”


Tom’s eyes widened.  “I said Hell.  I said it in the Biblical sense, not at you.  You said the f-word.  That’s not swearing?”


“You didn’t explain that you said Hell in the Biblical sense.  You should quote Moses or something when that’s what you mean.”


“Oh yeah?  Who were you quoting when you said the f-word to me … at me?”


“You never heard of George Carlin?”


Tom stared at me, and finally said, “You’re kind of an impossible friend, you know that?”


I smiled, “I always have Cheez-Whiz.”


Tommy laughed, “And that’s why I love you.”  He was quiet for a moment and added, “Weird, isn’t it?  I mean a friendship based on empty calories and questionable ingredients?”


“Sounds more superficial than it is, doesn’t it?  There’s more to it.  You can make UFOs.”


Tom sighed and said, “And that’s why you’re here, right?”


Tom was kind of squirming and I’d embarrassed him enough, so I asked to use his bathroom to give him a few minutes to get more comfortable.  When I came back he was standing and said, “Let’s go sit outside.  Why can’t you have a normal problem, like getting your head chopped off?”


“I’d have no way to tell you that, would I?”


Tom muttered, “That would be nice,” and we walked through the kitchen to the patio out back.  I sat on a seat at the picnic table, while Tom chose to stand at the end with his hands on the table supporting his weight, and his back bent at the hips.


I asked, “Do you want to get into this?  It’ll keep if you’re really in pain.”


Tom said, “Paul, I’ll be in more pain if I don’t learn why I’m in pain already.  When you have your next idea, can you at least put it in the pan and light the stove to let it cook awhile?  You don’t have a clue, do you?”


“I do so!  I know what I want to do, just not how.  That’s why I’m here.  Can we just talk about it?”


Tom snickered, “I guess … now that the preliminaries are out of the way.”


I laughed.  Yes, we always had the early rounds, whether I went to Tom or he came to me for something.  No bullshit equals no fun, and no fun equals no ideas.  It’s amazing how having revenge in mind can put your brain in gear.


I looked at Tom and said, “This is about Gary Andrews.  Tell me if you want me to stop, but we talked about helping him out.  Ready?”


Tom nodded, interested now.


“Ally looked into that kind of ataxia.  She talked to someone who knows, and there really is no cure, but there are degrees of it.”


I laid it out for Tom, what little I knew.  We didn’t know where Gary’s diagnosis came from or how accurate it was, but Tom pointed out that it was accurate enough to mention there is no cure.  He did agree that if there was an expert, Gary should see him.


“That’s why we need a UFO Tom.  Ally’s going to find a real expert to do a complete exam.  I don’t know where or when, but we need to get Gary there without his parents thinking it’s charity or welfare.  Did I tell you about how they are?”


Tom stared straight ahead instead of at me.  “I told you.  Let me think.”


I left Tom alone, and stood to wander around.  I saw some bright lights in my own yard that didn’t connect with me.  We didn’t have any lights there, and when I went a little closer I could see that they came from reflections off a window and Ally’s car, and the culprit was an impossibly bright moon, full or nearly so. When I knew it was the moon, I noticed the patterns of light and shadow everywhere, and decided Hector might have disowned me for not paying more attention.


I heard Tom say, “Paul?” softly, and hurried back to the table.  I sat back down, and Tom was looking away.


I said, “I’m here.”


“I know.  Look at that moon!  That’s the Milk Moon, but it’s super bright this year.”


“It has a name?  I thought it was just the moon.  How many are there?”


Tom muttered, “One for every month, I think.  That’s in this hemisphere.  I don’t know about the moon south of the Equator.”


He seemed serious, so I played along.  “They have their own moon?  There’s another one?”


Tom looked at me kind of indignantly, “There has to be.  Look at a globe one of these days.  If you’re here and look up on a night like this, you’ll see our moon.  Can you agree with that?”




“I love when you agree.  Okay, so if you’re on the other end of the world and look up at the same time of night what will you see?  Before you answer, here it’s you looking up, but if you’re in Argentina your up is opposite, so you’d be looking down if you were here.  Make sense so far?”


I nodded, and Tom said triumphantly, “Yes!  You see?  If you look one way and I look the other, and we see the same thing, then there must be two of them.”


“Not if it’s in the middle,” I said.


Tom sighed, “Paul, close your eyes and picture if you will, that we’re back to back.  That’s what it would be like if you were in Argentina and I was here.”


“I’m picturing,” I said.


“Good.  Now look at the Argentina sky and tell me if you see the North Star or anything.  The Big Dipper maybe. Sagittarius.”


“I can’t see anything.”




“Not right now.  Can I open my eyes and look?”


Tom sighed long and loudly.  “I give up.  Tell me what you need to help Gary, so you can go home and find the help you need.”


We finally got down to business and talked.  When I was comfortable knowing that Tommy knew Gary’s situation at home, I asked him for some ideas about how to get him some help without his folks balking at the idea of charity or welfare.


Tom said, “Let me think a minute.”


I nodded and he was kind of funny with his facial expressions and his body language.  I could tell he was envisioning things and rejecting them one after another.  After about two minutes he looked at me and said, “We need a teacher,” then his eyes went wide.  “Coach!  He likes Gary, and I can tell he feels bad for him.  I bet he’ll help if we give him a good story.”


“Which coach?” I asked.


“Mr. Donato.  He teaches honors math classes.”  Tom smirked at me, “That’s why you don’t know him.  He’s a good guy, and he’s always pumping Gary up to get his game going.  Gary likes him, too.”


“He’s our UFO?” I asked.


Tom said, “I can’t talk for him, but he’s a good bet.  Let’s get our story together and I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”


“We don’t have a story yet,” I complained.


Tom smiled brightly, “Even better.  We can get him to help write it.”


I grinned, “You’re pretty much okay when you put your mind to it.  I just wanted to say that.”


Tom raised his eyes to look at the moon and said, “You could be okay too, Paul.  You should give it a try one of these days.”


+ + + + + + +


The next day, Tom told me after we had lunch that Donato would see us after school.


“You told him what’s going on?”  I asked.


“Yeah, I gave him the basics.  He’s interested, but he doesn’t want to start any trouble.  I think we have to do some work up front.  We have to come up with something, some kind of idea.  Like, why would Gary go to a doctor he never heard of?  Why would he go to any doctor at all if it costs money?  Those are the kinds of things we have to think about.”  He looked at the clock and said, “The bell’s gonna ring.  Wait at your locker after last class.  I’ll meet you there.”


I nodded kind of dumbly, and the bell did go off.  I headed off to class already trying to come up with something, but it wouldn’t be easy during school.  Tom and I had already blown off our girlfriends and other friends after lunch, and we’d be doing it again after school.  We would both have some making up to do.  I’d have work to make up too, because I was totally distracted during history class.  Fortunately my last class was a study hall, so instead of doing homework I jotted down ideas.  I had lame ideas and dumb ideas, crazy ideas and crazier ideas, but I wrote them all down, and in the process something solid started to happen with my thinking.


The beginnings of an idea were forming in my head before I realized it, going together bit by bit, like I was trying to reconstruct a cantaloupe that I’d already cut up for breakfast.  When the bell rang I had it half done.  I smiled at the thought that half a melon was better than no melon at all, and headed off to meet Tommy while trying to keep my half-melon together in my mind.


I had to wait a few minutes for Tom at my locker, and when he showed up he asked, “Any ideas?”


“Lots,” I said.  “One might be good.  You?”


He shook his head.  “No, algebra and civics didn’t leave much time for anything.  Whattya got?”


“Where are we going?” 


“Second floor.  You have an idea?”


I said, “Kind of, I think.  Can ideas have first drafts?”


We started up the stairs and Tom said, “I guess they can.  It’s working for you?  You think it’s good?”


“I hope it is,” I said as Tom led me to Mr. Donato’s classroom.  The door was open, but the teacher was leaning over a girl, helping her to work through something, so we didn’t interrupt them.


We hung around for a few minutes, and the girl suddenly said, “Oh, oh, oh … I get it now.  How dense, huh?” 


The teacher beamed and said, “You’re not dense, Lauren.  The problems are simple enough to solve once you understand the concept, but the concept itself isn’t easy to grasp.” He smiled at her and said, “You’re on your way now.  Work some problems; think a few up on your own.  It’ll be like riding a bike, and you’ll never forget.”


The girl stood and picked up her things.  She thanked Mr. Donato for his help and left, closing the door behind her.


Mr. Donato looked at us and smiled.  “Hello, Tom, and you must be Paul Dunn,” he said as he approached me with his hand out to shake.


We shook, and I said, “Pleased to meet you.  Tom told me you know what this is about.”


Mr. Donato said, “Sit down,” and sat on the front of his desk while Tom and I took seats at desks in front of him.  He continued, “Tom gave me an idea of what you have in mind, and I really think it’s great that you’re taking an interest in Gary’s well-being.  If nothing else comes of this, Gary will at least have some friends.”  He looked at me, and then at Tom, “So what are you thinking about?”


Tom swept his arm so his hand was aimed my way and said, “I’ll let Doodler Dunn take it from here.”


I hastily glared at Tom before turning a serious face to Mr. Donato.  “Well, we’ve had this idea for a week now, and I learned a few things over the weekend.  Last night, I had a long and serious discussion with Tommy.”


I caught Tom in my peripheral vision when he drew his head back, formed his mouth in to a big ‘O’, let his eyes go wide, and inhaled mightily.  I said, “Sorry Tom.  Did you want to add something?”


His face went red and his eyes narrowed to slits as he hissed, “Not right now.”


“Later, then?”


“Count on it.”


I didn’t want to laugh in front of the teacher, but I couldn’t suppress a little smile.  I turned back to Mr. Donato, and he had a little smile himself.  I went right on, and said, “Last night we only had an idea of what we wanted to do, but now I have at least the outline of a plan.”


Tommy grumbled, “I can’t wait,” while Mr. Donato looked at me expectantly.


I thought for a moment to figure out where to start, took a breath and said, “Okay, I think this might work.”


+ + + + + + + +


It was two weeks later on a Tuesday when Tommy passed me a note.  All it said was ‘Donato starts it after school today’.  I read it, and handed it to Jim McNaughton when I saw him, and he knew to give it to Shea Luellen at lunch.


It didn’t really mean much at that point.  Mr. Donato was going to inform Gary that there was a clinical study of ataxia starting at the University of Massachusetts, and the doctors were seeking participants.  It wouldn’t cost his family anything, and there would be compensation for the participants’ time.  If any treatments came out of the study they would be completely voluntary and free.


We had more worked out, but that was all Gary would learn from Mr. Donato, and he’d be given a fact sheet along with an application to join the program.


I, Paul Dunn, had really stepped in it this time.  My original idea was based on radio ads that I heard incessantly when riding with my father.  He liked to listen to talk radio in his car.  He didn’t listen to the political programs, but rather to local, general purpose programs.  They were almost invariably sponsored, at least partly, by universities or medical companies looking for people with very specific health problems or physical conditions to participate in studies.  I thought we’d dream something up. 


Mr. Donato and Tommy were willing to go along, but when I brought the idea home to Ally she went and found a real program.  It was in Worcester, about ninety miles from Brattleboro, and the only thing we added to the literature was that transportation was included for both Gary and an accompanying adult.


Ally was ecstatic when she told me about the program because Gary was exactly the type of person they wanted:  young, otherwise healthy and robust, yet ataxia interfered with his ability to lead a happy life.


When we knew Mr. Donato was going to speak to Gary, we hung around until we saw Gary leave, but Mr. Donato was already gone when we went to his room, so we didn’t learn anything at all.


Jim and Shea waited for us, missing the bus, so we walked home together.  As far as conspirators go, we were pretty quiet.  We were certainly hoping things would work out, but the fact was that we might never know.  Gary could go for it or not, and would have no real reason to tell us either way.  He could pin the offer on the bulletin board in case someone else was interested, or he could never say anything at all.


I would know if he went, because Mom would have to come up with a car service, or maybe not.  If someone in his family drove him, they’d get paid mileage, and that would come from the program.


We were prepared to know nothing and leave it where it was, but I privately hoped to see Gary on the bus the next morning singing and dancing.  Right?  What I really hoped for was that he’d tell us about the offer and that his family had told him to go for it.


We still shared some satisfaction.  All of us had done something to help Gary, and brought it to the point that it was out of our hands, at least for the present.  If he didn’t go for the program, or wasn’t allowed to, he still had a circle of friends, and he’d never had that before.


I had come to realize that Gary was actually pretty cool.  For all his lumbering around when he walked, he tied his own flies for fishing and had a huge collection of them.  He got Shea interested in fly fishing and brought him out in the West River a few times.  Shea’s father was ready to take Shea to Orvis, over in Manchester, to buy equipment, but Gary talked them out of it and gave Shea an older rod and reel to learn with, and said he’d show him how to make his own flies.


Gary is good with his hands in general, which I thought might be compensation for the problems with his legs.  He carved the candles that his mother and sister made for the Sunday flea market, and he did it like it was a second nature.  He used an apple peeler, a little knife, and a screwdriver to make the designs, and they were pretty clever.  He has big hands even for his size, yet he can make these tiny little knots in his fishing flies, and carve some pretty intricate patterns into candles.


His whole family seemed to share a dry sense of humor, a kind of ironic view of life in Vermont.  They weren’t the reclusive clan I’d envisioned when we dropped Gary off at home the first time.  Their property was a bit isolated, but they welcomed visitors whenever they might show up, including Gary’s new friends.  His father was a big and tall man, and Gary was taller than his older brother, Noy, which I learned was their shortening of Noel.


Mrs. Andrews was a wide woman, but she had the jolly personality that sometimes seems to come with that shape.  Gary’s sister Kelly was pretty stunning.  Not for the usual reasons, because she was more handsome than pretty, and more statuesque than shapely.  She’s tall for a girl, probably five-nine or so, and that’s not it either.  She just exudes this radiance that stopped us all in our tracks, especially Dan McNaughton.


When we first met, she was dressed in her working clothes: jeans, boots and tee shirt, with dirt on her hands, mud on her boots, and a totally disarming and radiant smile on her face.  She didn’t need to talk, but she did.  Her smile brightened even more, killing any last defense we might have collectively put up, and said, “Hi, I’m Kelly.  Reeree says you like basketball, so …” she put her left hand on her hip and pointed to the barn with her right and said, “Let’s go shoot some hoops.”


We followed, with me wondering about ‘Reeree’.


Their hoop was above the barn door, so about two feet higher than regulation.  That gave us fits at first, but Gary really ruled his home court, and Kelly was better than the rest of us.  That was our first time there, and it took some getting used to bouncing the ball on gravel and shooting way up there for the basket.  For starters, you didn’t get a good bounce on gravel, and sometimes the ball just went astray, probably because it hit stones of different sizes.


Tommy’s hoop was probably a foot lower than it should be, because there was no place else to put it, and Gary’s was higher for the same reason.  Both made for difficulty at first, but we got used to them quickly enough.  The gravel was different than Tom’s paved driveway, and the driveway at Gary’s house was far from even to begin with.  It came in from the road pretty level, and headed down toward the barn, and then the whole thing went downhill from about the centerline and out toward the pasture.


If you were at three-point range on the left side, the hoop would be about regulation, but if you were closer it was two feet higher, and about the same from the right.  When the ball got loose on the right side, which it had a propensity to do, you had to chase it downhill, and then play an uphill game.  A three-point shot would be way up there, probably fifteen feet above the ground, and the slope distorted everything.


Gary claimed he’d made three-point shots from there before, but he couldn’t prove it while we watched.  We still had fun playing, and had all been back individually and in various combinations since that first day.


Ally had done most of the legwork, first learning what she could about ataxia and then seeking out experts.  That was really a good job for a journalist, which she was before becoming an editor and a publisher.  She probably would have been a great police inspector in that respect.  She’d learn one thing here, another there, and follow them up to the next level, and repeat again until she found what she was looking for: in this case, a bona-fide study of ataxia that Gary could get to by car.  It was good for someone Gary’s age because it wasn’t a clinical trial of some new drug, although they might recommend things to Gary’s own doctor.


I didn’t know if Gary had a doctor, but I think he probably did.  His parents didn’t strike me as cruel, uncaring or stupid.  They just didn’t take handouts, and probably managed to cough up the cash for the odd visit to a doctor.  After all, Gary had been diagnosed at some point in time, and was told that he’d have to live with his condition.


For all we were trying to do, that still might be the case, and it could remain so.  The best part so far was that none of us paid attention to Gary’s odd walk anymore.  I mentioned it once, and we both laughed, when he was walking me from his house out to the road with the sun low at our backs.  My shadow was about ten feet long, and his was about fifteen, but with each step his was exaggerated by five more feet and it was comical.  Sorry, but Gary thought it was as humorous as I did to see his shadow expanding and retreating like that.


I hoped we’d learn what Gary was going to do, but there really wasn’t any reason for him to tell us.  He had no idea that we were involved, or even that we had any interest.  All Gary would get was a helpful tip and a friendly prod from Mr. Donato.  Our little group had sworn secrecy, and I’d done my part.  Lisa had no clue what we’d been up to, and no reason to suspect anything.  I hadn’t really spent any time with planning or anything; I had just extended some time to Gary.  We’d all done that: Tommy, Shea, Jim, Dan and I.  I hadn’t talked about it with the others, but I felt some reward just from seeing a happy Gary, who was making other friends as well now that he’d dropped the scowl and sarcasm.


Even Lisa changed her thinking about him, and told me that ‘other girls’ thought Gary was hunky.  I’m reasonably certain she meant she thought that herself and, unfortunately, she’d never called me a hunk.  I don’t suppose anyone would.  At fifteen, I was five-eight and one-thirty pounds.  Not a bag of bones, and I was in shape, but hardly Mr. Muscle.


I think Gary was destined to be a big man like his father.  He already had broad shoulders and powerful looking arms.  I’d be willing to bet that at least half of his body tone owed to the effort he had to put into walking.  One step for him probably took twice or more the energy that I’d have to use up.  His family raised bulls, and I didn’t even want to think of why his shoulders and arms looked so strong.


I had all those thoughts while thinking about Lisa, and when we got to her street I left Tom and Shea to spend some time alone with her.  It was nice out, and I could walk home from there.


She saw me coming and trotted out to meet me at the road.  “You’re distracted,” she said.  “Is something going on?”


I leaned against her and said, “There’s always something going on.  The Moon orbits Earth, Earth orbits the sun, and this whole galaxy is moving into the future faster than we can comprehend.”


Lisa elbowed me, “Wow!  Isn’t that romantic.”


She didn’t phrase that last bit as a question, so I think she reversed the subject and verb on purpose.  I cuddled up even closer and said, “Yeah.  It is romantic in a way, isn’t it?”


She heaved a great sigh, “If you say so.”


I nuzzled my face into her neck and kissed her there.  “So I says,” I whispered.


Lisa put her hand into the hair on the back of my head, which she’d told me wasn’t as ugly as the rest, and fooled around there with her fingers.  That gave me some great ideas, but not in sight of that knife.  I mean, her father.  I have fingers too, and I’d been dreaming a lot about ways to use them, but that knife was always there, right in front of my face, and other places I don’t want to think about.  It was bigger every time, too. 


I mean, give me a break.  Is there even minimally a worse way to meet a girl’s father?  I like Mr. Mongillo and I know he likes me, but that little bit of history always gets in the way.  It’s the imagery, not the words that does me in, but the picture of a knife handle sticking out of someone’s butt, especially when you know the blade of that knife is … well, I look at it as fair warning, and probably always will.


Lisa’s door was a one-minute walk from where we met.  We set a new record that day, and made it in just twenty-two minutes.  We weren’t reading mailbox numbers either, nor did we go to Lisa’s front door.  Instead, we walked around the side of her house and out into the woods behind the garage after I dropped my school bags on the driveway.


The woods were fairly thick at first, but they thinned out as we headed up a low hill, and broke into a grassy knoll after a few minutes.  We sat there and we turned to each other, and my stupid phone went off.  I pulled it out to see who it was, thinking I wouldn’t answer no matter what.  It was Dad, though, so I flipped it open and tried to sound cheerful.


“Hi Dad, what’s up?” I asked, while silently cursing his timing.  Lisa was right there scrunched up to me, and she was nuzzling my ear with her nose.  I giggled.


My father asked, “Is this a bad time?”


“No,” I squeaked.  “I mean, it’s a fine time.  Well, if it won’t take too long it’s good.”  Lisa kissed my ear, and then she put her lips on my face right in front of it.  I sucked in a deep breath.


Dad’s no dummy.  He said, “Paul, hang up and turn your phone off.  Call me back later, after your spaceship lands, okay?”


I said, “Yessir,” and closed the phone, and I opened it again to push the red thing that shuts it down.  I did that while turning my face to Lisa’s where my lips found hers.


An hour later I was walking up the road to my own house, wondering if I could keep it up, if Lisa could.  On that hill, in the sunshine on that grassy-soft knoll, we had gone to second base, and we’d done it with no thought involved.  It happened too easily, and I knew it would happen again the next time because it was too good for a one time thing.  It was far too good, and we’d both had fun at the same time, cooing and giggling, and saying when a hand felt just right where it was.  And Hell, the promises I’d made … already broached if not broken.


I wanted to stop thinking about it, and did so by turning my phone back on.  I wondered about that, too.  Why didn’t it have a button that just turned it on?  Why did I have to press it for so long, and then wait for all the graphics, the beeps and blips, before it was ready to use?  And why, why did it take just as long to turn off?  It pissed me off with my first phone when I was about ten, and they’d become worse instead of better.


I was distracted and wandered into the traffic lane, which I didn’t realize until I heard a horn blaring, looked up, and saw a car burning its tires trying to stop.  I leapt to the side of the road and landed in pricker bushes while the car slid to a stop about fifty feet beyond me.  The driver pulled to the side of the road while I tried to extricate myself from the prickers.  By the time I got to my feet I was all scratched up, and the back and arms of my shirt were pretty well shredded.


The driver was running toward me, and a couple of young girls were looking back at me from his car.


I thought the guy was in a rage and started to back away, ready to run up the hill to visit whoever lived in that house.  When the guy was closer he cried, “Jesus!  I didn’t hit you, did I?  Tell me I didn’t hit you.  You just stepped right out there.”


I looked at the man, a farmer by the way he was dressed.  He was panicked, not raging, and I was still shaking with adrenaline.  My head was already cloudy from my time with Lisa, and I said kind of statically, “I’m okay.  My fault; I’m sorry.”


It should have ended there, but a shiny black Jeep pulled over in front of the man’s car, and another behind it, and I just dropped my head knowing that the security people had already learned of this.  I was totally embarrassed and didn’t know what to do.  I mumbled, “Sorry,” and turned away.


I obviously couldn’t have seen my own back, but the guy said, “On no!  You’re bleeding.” and the words were just out of his mouth when the first security guy got there.  At least he was reasonable, and asked me what happened.


“I was daydreaming, I guess,” I said.  “I walked right into traffic.  It’s my fault all the way, and if this person wasn’t such a good driver I’d be a hood ornament about now.”


The security guy walked behind me to see my back and asked, “You weren’t hit?  You’re all torn up and bleeding.”


I pointed at the wild raspberry bushes I had landed in and said, “Those suckers are sharp.”


“Do you need medical attention?”


“I don’t think so,” I said.  “My mother can probably take care of it when I get home.”


I looked at the farmer and held my hand out to shake his, saying contritely, “Thanks for stopping.  These guys will get me home.”


As we shook he said, “I’m glad you’re alright then,” and he glanced at the security man.  Then he turned and nearly bumped into the other one, who stepped out of the way. 


After he got in his car and drove off, the guy closest to me said, “I’ll bring you home, Paul.”


I got in the Jeep and buckled up, mildly surprised that he’d called me Paul.  When he climbed in beside me I asked, “What’s your name?”


He said, “I’m Darius Christopoulos.”


“Greek?” I asked, and he nodded.


There was a kid named Darius at Barents, and he pronounced it to rhyme with various.  The man beside me made it sound almost like ‘dry-us’, which is how my history teacher pronounced it when we learned about Darius the Great.  I hoped that Darius the student had someone else for ancient history, and was never informed that he pronounced his own name incorrectly.


My back was uncomfortable against the seat, so I leaned forward. The guy had the Jeep in gear, and jerked it forward when there was an opening in traffic that allowed a U-turn.  That hurt, and I hoped that I could at least leave some bloodstains on his nice, tan upholstery.


He had me home in a few minutes, and walked to the house with me.  Ally must have seen us coming, because the door opened just before we got to it.  She looked at the guard and asked, “Is there a problem?”


The man nudged me and said, “Turn around,” which I did.


While I was looking the other way, Ally said, “Thank you, Darius.  We’ll take care of this.  Come on, Paul.”


I waved to Darius, who was already walking back to his Jeep, and said, “Thanks for the ride.”


He turned and nodded, and I went inside with Ally.  I followed her to the kitchen where she pulled out a stool and said, “Take your shirt off and sit.”


I did, and she asked with an amused voice, “What happened?  Did you come under a flying pin attack?


I said, “Raspberries, actually.  How bad is it?”


“It’s dirty right now.  Go take a shower and come back.  I’ll put some antiseptic on it once it’s clean, and I think you’ll live.”


I was suddenly curious and asked, “Where’s Mom?”


“She’s outside, communing with her roses or some other flora.”


“After school, Mr. Donato was going to tell Gary about the program you found.”


Ally said, “Oh good.  Let me know how it goes.”


I stood and looked at Ally.  “I’ll tell you if he says something about it.  I don’t think we should go and ask him.”


“No, you shouldn’t ask him.  Go get cleaned up, and I’ll look around for some weed killer for your back.”


I did that.  I couldn’t really reach to get soap on most of my back, but I sudsed up my shoulders to the max and tried to make it run down the right way, and then stood with my back to the spray for a long time.  I started to lose track again when I thought of Lisa, but remembered why I was there in time to turn the water off, get myself dry, and put on clean shorts, sans-shirt.


When I went back to the kitchen, Mom was there with Ally.  She asked to see my back, so I turned around.  Mom touched me here and there and asked, “Whatever inspired you to roll around in raspberry bushes?  You must know they have thorns.  Does it hurt?”


I said, “Mom, I know that raspberries have thorns, and I didn’t choose to jump backwards into them.  I was walking home from Lisa’s and this big semi was flying down the road.  The guy was really speeding and like totally out of control and coming right at me. I chose raspberries over oblivion.”


Mom gasped, and Ally stepped in front of her, a tube of antiseptic salve in one hand, and a spray can of Roundup weed killer in the other.  I looked up at her and said, “Door number one, please?”  Her expression didn’t change and I added, “So I exaggerated a little.  He wasn’t going all that fast, and it was the sound of his brakes that made me jump … out of the roadway.  I wandered a little.”  Ally kept staring, so I kept talking.  “Okay, maybe it wasn’t that big of a truck.  It could have been a tow truck, a box van, who knows in that first instant?”


Ally aimed the Roundup right at me, and I confessed, “Okay, it’s good that you make me think back, otherwise I might go through life afraid of big trucks.  Now that I think of it, I’m sure it was an Elantra truck if there is such a thing.  It didn’t have very good brakes.”


I thought I’d won when Ally started laughing, and said, “Turn around, will you?”


I did, feeling smug, and the next thing I felt was a cold spray hitting my back just above the belt.  Ally said, “Oops, let’s try this,” and proceeded to rub cream over my back, shoulders and upper arms, and I have to say that she rubbed vigorously enough that I was nearly pushed off the stool more than once.  She gave one last ferocious rub and said, “That’s it.  I’m done.  Don’t put a shirt on for half an hour unless you want a permanent installation.”


I snickered and turned around.  “I’m good to go?”


“Please do.”


Okay, so I’d been chastened, but I earned some points too.  I ran up to my room and got my homework out, and my phone rang before I opened a single book.  It was Lisa!


“Hi,” I said happily.  “What’s up?”


“I just wanted to hear your voice.  I think my parents, or one of them, saw us today.”


My throat constricted suddenly, and I croaked, “What?  Why?  What did they say?”


Lisa said, “Nobody said a thing.  It’s just a feeling.”


I was picturing a Bowie knife with a two-foot blade, and asked in a near-squeak, “Why do you have that feeling?  Are they looking at you funny or something?  What is it?”


Lisa whispered, “Someone hung the Virgin Mary over my bed where your picture used to be.”


That should be funny, right?  It was funny, but I was mortified at the same time.  For one thing, I’d never seen Lisa’s room, and I had no idea my picture was over her bed.  I didn’t even know she had a picture of me.  It had to come from that dance we’d both worked on.


A Virgin Mary: that’s something I might expect from Tommy even though he’s not Catholic. I was trying to think of who in Lisa’s family had that kind of humor, but only came up with Lisa.  I decided it had to be her father, the man with a thirty-inch long Bowie knife.  It had to be him: fair warning from a good Catholic father.


I was raised Catholic just long enough to go through catechism class and my first communion.  I didn’t like it one bit.  The church was fancy and the organ was impressive, and I had friends there.  What I didn’t like was that the religion tried to lay a mantle of guilt on me from the get-go.  I was a sinner and responsible for the sins of the world?  Not this kid.


On the walk home from a celebratory lunch with family after my communion, I announced that I was finished with that church.  When Mom asked why I said that, I launched into an entire litany of eleven-year-old grievances, and neither of my parents tried to argue with me.  We’d always gone as a family, and we dropped out as a family.


I’ve been in church since, for Christenings, weddings and funerals.  Those times came from a sense of obligation to someone else, not a desire to be there.


Now there was a Virgin Mary over Lisa’s bed, and I did laugh.  “The power of suggestion, you think?  Tell them it’s working.”


Lisa giggled happily.  “I don’t need a reminder, Paul.  We didn’t do anything wrong today, and we won’t tomorrow.  I already took out my nametag from the dance committee and stuck it to the bottom of the virgin.”


I laughed out loud, thinking that was hilarious.  “You’re funny.  You won’t get in trouble?”


Lisa laughed again and said, “My parents are pretty good.  They know we won’t get in trouble.”


That sobered me.  “Lisa, I was already there today.  I don’t think it’s so easy to stop.  I mean, feeling you that close … I don’t know what I mean.”


She didn’t say anything for long enough that I said, “Lisa?”


“I’m thinking,” she said in a whisper.  In a few moments she came back in her normal voice.  “I was there, too.  I don’t know if I would have stopped either.  We have to think this out.  It was too good to not do again, but we can’t go any farther.”


“Ground rules,” I said.


“Yes, that’s what we need.  How about this for now:  nothing comes off, nothing gets unbuttoned or unzipped … nothing.  Can we remember that?”


I said, “Lisa, I’m sitting in my bedroom.  I can promise anything; I can remember anything.  It all falls apart when I’m with you.  I don’t know if I can be trusted.”


“Me either,” she mumbled.  “We’ll just have to be careful, trust the other to remember.  Oh!  I have an idea.  We can set a ten minute alarm cycle on our phones, but make them five minutes apart.”


“I don’t know,” I said.  “I love my time with you, and I don’t think being annoyed to death would be an improvement.”


“It wouldn’t, would it?  How about this?  If you reach for a button, a snap, a zipper, I’ll slug you, and you do the same.”


I sat back and laughed.  “Deal!  Right in the nose?”


“Don’t be silly.  If we’re that far along we’ll be kissing.  I can whack you up against the ear, or maybe a kidney punch, something that doesn’t involve the both of us.  I think it’s a good bet to work.”


I started laughing and asked, “What do you know about a kidney punch?”


When Lisa answered, I could tell she had a hard time not laughing.  “I’m informed, Paul.  I know where the kidney is, and that when I hit it hard enough it will cause extreme pain, not to mention make the person I hit wet his pants.”


I had tears in my eyes from silencing my laugh and managed, “What if his pants aren’t on?”


Lisa must have put her hand over the phone, but I still heard her laughing.  When she came back she said solemnly, “Well, if that’s the case,” she wheezed out another happy sound, “then the opportunity has already passed.”


“So, um, whoever it was could have his way with you?”


Lisa’s voice hardened.  “Paul, please don’t say it like that.  Nobody is going to have their way with me.”


“Sorry,” I said.


“You don’t have to be sorry,” Lisa said gently.  “I’m no prude, and I loved what we did today.  I’m fifteen, though, and so are you.  We can have fun laughing and kissing, touching and feeling.  Isn’t that good enough for now?”


I said, for the sake of something to say, “Fun is fun.”  When I heard myself I said, “I’m sorry.  You’re exactly right.  I have fun just picturing you, or writing your name.  It’s a thousand times the fun sitting with you on the bus.  It’s ten thousand times more fun when we hold hands and walk off somewhere, just the two of us.   I love when we can do that.  And today?   That was a hundred thousand times more fun than anything we ever did.  I mean it.  It just happened, right?  I didn’t push you, and you didn’t push me.  It just … it just seemed right, didn’t it?”


Lisa was quiet for a moment before saying, “You know what’s nice, Paul?  We can talk about this, and neither of us wants to go too far.  I don’t think I could have done this last week.”


I was alone in my room with the door closed, and I still felt a blush rising on my face.  “Even two hours ago this talk would have never occurred to me, but I’m glad we’re having it … that we can have it.  I don’t think it can always be after the fact like this, though.  I mean, no harm done except to my back, but next time we might up the ante, then maybe we should talk first.”


“Do you mean we should schedule it?” Lisa asked incredulously.


“No, I don’t mean that.  I don’t know what I mean.  Just forget that, but if we ever get to the point where we both think we’re ready for … you know … then we’ll have to think about things like, um, protection.  Well, you know.”  God, I was embarrassed.


Lisa explained in her sweetest voice, “Since we’re talking about all this sex stuff, you should know that I intend to be a virgin bride someday, even if I end up marrying some guy I met in high school.”


I smiled to myself, “Good point.  That means I have nothing to worry about.  You didn’t ask me about my back.”


“Sorry, I meant to.  What’s that about?  Was it too strenuous for you out on that knoll?”


I snickered, “Yeah, it was hard for me.”


Lisa snorted, “I’m talking about the degree of difficulty, not the stupid Mohs scale.  I know you had a stiffy; I just don’t see how that would bother your back.”


Boy, Lisa was full of surprises.  I had to bring some tact back into the conversation. “It was indirect: a delayed response,” I explained.  “I was daydreaming after I left you, and to get my consciousness back I played dodge-em with oncoming traffic.  One guy didn’t have good brakes, and I made a heroic, self-defensive backwards leap into a nice bed of wild raspberry bushes.  I trashed my new shirt, and I have a lot of holes in me.


“Ooh, does it hurt?”


“Not right now because nothing’s touching it.  Heh, if I yawn at you tomorrow you’ll know I couldn’t sleep.”


“Then I’ll be forgiving if you yawn.  I have to go and help with dinner.  Is your shirt really ruined?”


I said, “I’ll say.  It’s all shredded and a bloody mess.”


Lisa asked, in a perfectly normal tone, “Can I have it?  I want to add it to my collection.”




“I asked if I can have that shirt,” Lisa said patiently.


“Yeah, yeah, I heard that.  What was the next part?  You collect clothes that people died in, or could have died in?”


Lisa laughed, “No, silly.  I collect cloth.  In the cold months we make quilts.  It’s harder than you think to find nice cloth that’s not already worn out.”  There was a sound in the background that I couldn’t make out, and Lisa added, “I really have to go now.  I have homework still, so I’ll see you on the bus.”


I said, “Okay.  Call later if you can.”


“Bye; gotta run.”


She was gone just like that, and my phone rang again while it was still in my hand.  Dad.


“Hi, Dad.  What’s up?  How’s the business going?”


He said, “About what we expected, even a little better.  I have been feeling neglectful toward you, and wonder if you’d like to ask some of your friends up this weekend, or next, or anytime at all.  There is certainly enough to do around here to keep you occupied.”


“There is?” I asked.  I’d spent exactly five summer weekends in that house since we got it.  The house was new to us the first time, and just poking around, even learning the way around the house and yard, kept me involved.  The other times we’d gone for no real reason and didn’t really do anything at all.  We didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the area, and weren’t prepared for anything.  We took some walks, appreciated the scenery and nature around us, and were pretty bored.  It was a nice bored, but boring just the same.


Dad said, “Paul, we never looked closely enough before.  There’s an alpine slide over at Pico; you can rent canoes or kayaks right at the bottom of the hill, ATVs just a few miles north.  There are mountains to climb, miles and miles of hiking trails, horses to rent, white-water river rafts.  It’s all right here.  And you know this place – if you’re tired or want to be alone you can just goof off and contemplate nature, or even your navel.  What do you say?”

I was too stunned to react, but a few questions came to mind.  “How would we get there?  I can’t ask Ally to drive me every time.”


Dad said, “Someone, or some two, from the security company can get vans.  Don’t worry about transportation.”


I said, “I think dinner’s ready.  Let me think and call you back.”


“Good.  Enjoy your meal and call me later.”


I thought to ask, “Who can I invite?  Could Lisa come?”


Dad didn’t say anything for a while, and came back, “I suppose.  I think it might be wise if you invited her parents, or her whole family.  If not, Elenora can keep her safe from you.”




“Alright, sorry.  If they can’t come with her, I think it’s best that you ask her another time, when they can come.”


He was probably right.  I mumbled, “Okay.  I’m going to ask her, though.”


Dad said, “I’ll talk to you later,” and we hung up.


I went downstairs just in time to set the table for dinner, which was simple for once: just poached salmon with Hollandaise, boiled potatoes, and peas.  It was yummy, and didn’t take long to eat.  I was in the kitchen after clearing the table when Tommy came in the back door with a grin on his face.


Without any greeting he announced, “Gary just called me to tell me all about this program coach told him about.”


I smiled in surprise, “Think he’ll go for it?”


“He already did.  He sounded excited as all … heck.”


“Explain excited,” I demanded.  “He already went for it?”


“Yup!  His father filled out the application.  He has to get Gary’s records from their own doctor, and they’ll send it all in tomorrow.”


I turned to call Ally and she was standing right there.  “You heard it all?” I asked.


“Every word.  Don’t you worry about him not being accepted.  It’s already guaranteed.”  She smiled, “I’m really proud of you both, and your friends who helped with this.  Just remember that this is a study, not a treatment program.  It’s likely that the only thing Gary will get out of it will result from meeting other people with the same condition, and learning how they cope with it.”


“Like misery loves company?” Tommy asked.


“I suppose,” Ally replied.  “I think that old saying really means that people love to know they’re not alone with a problem, or even with a perception, or a fear.  It’s the idea behind all kinds of support groups that run the gamut from kids in trouble to Alcoholics Anonymous, and everything between and beyond.  It might be better worded to say that misery gathers company, because people with similar problems can help one another.”


Tom’s eyes had narrowed when he said, “Wow!” and it made me laugh.


I asked, “Did you tell anyone else?  Are we supposed to know?”


“Gary didn’t say not to tell anyone, but no. I wanted to tell you first.  I think we should wait.  Gary will probably blab it all out tomorrow.”  He looked at me, “Maybe we should call Jim and Shea just so they know.  Gary said he already told Roger.”


Ally shooed us out of the kitchen so she could clean up, and we went to my room.  I looked at my schoolbooks, which remained unopened on my desk and figured we should keep it short to leave time for homework.  Then I remembered Dad’s invitation for the weekend.


I looked at Tom and said, “Oh, before we start, Dad said we should all go up to Stockton for the weekend.  He found all kinds of things to do.  Does that sound good?”


Tommy eyed me and asked, “Like what to do?  Bird watching?  Maybe we can chop down some perfectly healthy trees, or move rocks around?”


I said, “Don’t be cynical.  There’s an alpine slide, canoes and kayaks to rent, whitewater rafting, trails to hike, mountains to climb.  Dad didn’t mention it, but I know for a fact that it’s possible to learn hang-gliding, and I’m saving the best for last.”


Tom was grinning and asked, “What’s that?”


“We can rent ATVs!” I screamed. “Muchos funos!”


Tommy looked at me and asked, “Did I ever tell you that your Spanish sucks?”  He grinned, “Count me in.”


I handed him my cell phone and said, “You call Shea.  I’ll call Jim and Dan.”


Tom handed the cell phone back and told me to look up Jim’s number so he wouldn’t have to hang up on Shea to find it for me, which was the usual case.  I wrote it down and picked up the landline, only to hear Ally talking to her father.


I could have asked Tom to use his own cell phone, but he had a pre-paid thing that was supposed to be just for emergencies.  It only gave him about an hour and a half a month of calling time, so I decided to wait until he was off the phone with Shea, or Ally hung up.  Of course, both things happened at the same time, and when I was reaching for the phone on my desk Tom handed me my cell.


I used the cell and gave Jim the news, and it pleased him more than I thought it would.  Then I asked him up for the weekend and he was up for it, but didn’t think Dan would go.  He’d be graduating in a few weeks, and there were a lot of parties and events for the Seniors taking place almost daily.  That made sense, because I wouldn’t go anywhere myself if I was a graduating Senior.


When I hung up from Jim I looked at Tommy and said, “I want to ask Gary.  Is that crazy?”


Tom shook his head and said, “No, it’s a good idea, but you better ask Roger too.”


Tom was right.  Out of everyone in school, Roger was the only one who’d stuck by Gary all the way through since they started school.  With Gary’s attitude that was a pretty notable achievement, and now that Gary was cheering up, Roger deserved most to share in some good times.


We decided that Tom would call Gary, and ask Gary to invite Roger himself.


Tom called, and I heard his side, and after a bit he took the phone from his ear and said, “He’s asking if he can go.”  In another minute, I could almost hear Gary myself, and it was clear that he could go when Tommy said, “That’s great.  Listen, I want you to ask Roger, too.  Yeah, of course he’s invited.  We’ll leave Friday after school and be back Sunday for dinner.  Is that okay?  Call me back.”  Tom clicked the phone closed and grinned, “Party time!”


Gary called back after about ten minutes, and said Roger could go if one of my parents said it was really okay.  Gary got Roger’s number and I went downstairs to explain things to my mother.  I made sure to stomp my feet on the stairs, and took my time getting there.  She and Ally were learning about zebras on Animal Planet when I walked in.  I said, “Mom, Dad asked me and my friends to come up to Stockton for the weekend.  It’s all set except you have to call Roger’s parents to say we won’t be there by ourselves.”


Mom looked kind of cross.  “Paul, we were just there last weekend.  Can’t this wait?”


I shook my head, “You and Ally don’t have to come.  Dad said he’d send a van for us, and he’ll be there with us.”  I smiled, “It’ll give you a weekend off from me.  All you have to do is call Roger’s house.”


She looked at a smiling Ally and back to me.  She held her hand out, palm up, and asked, “Number?”


I put the sticky that Tom had given me in her hand and said, “Thanks, Mom.  Want me to bring you the phone?”


She sighed and stood up.  “No need; I’ll call from the kitchen.  Please stay here and watch this program for me.  I want to know where these creatures get their stripes, and I know they’ll only reveal that in my absence.” 


She left and I sat and looked at Ally, who was shaking her head and laughing silently.  The show ended while Mom was gone, and never revealed the secret of the zebra’s stripes.  I made up my own.  When I relinquished my seat to my mother I said excitedly, “You’re not gonna believe this!  Zebras are plain old donkeys.  Those stripes are nothing but aboriginal graffiti.  Yes!  They’re painted onto newborn donkeys and stay with them for life.”  I looked at her skeptical face and said, “I didn’t know that.  Did you?”


Mom squeezed her eyes shut and muttered, “Your friend can go … and so can you.  Now!”


I laughed my way back up the stairs and gave Tom a thumbs-up when I went into the room.  He stood and said, “We’re all set, then.  I have to get home – the parents want to look over next year’s electives with me.”


I had to do that myself, but it would keep until after I talked to Lisa.


We talked and talked.  I invited them up for the weekend and mentioned her father could see his tiles in place.  She went to ask, and we talked some more while they decided.  I heard Lisa’s voice like no other voice before, and I was keen on every word she said, even if I drifted off just listening to her.  After about a half hour, she said her father wanted to talk to me.


“Hi Paul,” he said.  “There’s no way we can come up on Friday, but we can leave Saturday morning if that’s good.”


I was excited.  “That’s good ... it’s fine: perfect.  I’ll send the directions to Lisa.  I know the way, but I don’t really know road names.  Is everybody coming?”


He chuckled, “If you’re ready for six of us, we’ll all be there.”


I said, “Great.  About what time?”


“Oh, say nine-thirty or ten, maybe earlier.”


I hoped for earlier, but said, “Perfect.”


He asked, “What can we bring?”


I said, “You don’t have to bring anything … maybe a bottle of your wine for Dad to try.”


“I’ll do that, then.  You behave yourself, and we’ll all see you Saturday.”


I said goodbye and he handed the phone back to Lisa.  “What did he mean behave myself?”


Lisa laughed, “He always says that when he doesn’t say have fun.  He usually puts them together.  Don’t worry; they were thrilled when you asked.  They only had to wait for Aldo to get home.”


I said, “Um, have I ever told you about the place in Stockton?   It’s sorta the biggest house in town.”  I lowered my voice, “Maybe the fanciest, too, I don’t know.  I just want people to feel at home there, and not go around wondering …”


Lisa said, “Don’t worry, Paul.  Nobody goes around wondering about anything, except maybe Lou.  He won’t get out of hand with Dad there.”


I smiled, “So, who put up the virgin picture?”


She suddenly sounded grumpy, “I don’t know, but I’m ditching it tomorrow.  I’m bringing it to school right under my arm, and if they ask I’ll say it’s for show-and-tell, only I won’t tell.”


I snickered and said, “You’re funny.”


Lisa giggled.  “Like you’re not funny?  Get off the phone and do your homework.  I don’t want to go all the way to Stockton and find out you’re grounded here.”


That was good advice, and I said goodnight.