The Third Good Thing

Chapter 2



Lisa and I both looked at the spot where Lou had been, which was about where the ambulance stopped.  He was indeed gone, and nowhere in sight.  Lisa said, “Maybe he went home.  If he’s not there, call and we’ll find him.”


Lisa’s parents drove off and we walked in the same direction.  Remembering the night that Lou disappeared from our house during a big storm, I asked Lisa, “Does Lou run off like this often?”


Lisa sighed, “He probably thinks he’s in trouble.  Don’t worry, he won’t go far.”


I asked, more-or-less idly, “Why would he think he’s in trouble?”


“Lou doesn’t have a lot of confidence, and sometimes he does dumb things and gets in trouble.  He probably thinks he’ll get blamed for Tony getting banged up.”


Before I could say anything, Lisa’s phone rang, and after she listened she said, “Okay,” and hung up.


She looked at me.  “His bike is in the front yard, but he never went in the house.”


I asked, “Do you know where he usually goes?”


“I would say to Tony’s house, but they’re not home.  I guess we could look there anyhow; they probably didn’t lock up.”


I’d never gone the way we were going, but when we turned a corner I could see Lisa’s house down the street on the left.  Mr. Mongillo and Aldo were in the yard calling to Lou.  Al looked irritated, probably because he was missing his game, but neither of them seemed particularly worried.  When we got there I asked Lisa, “Which house is Tony’s?”


Lisa looked at me and noticed the bicycle I was carrying.  That made her snicker, and she pointed to the house we’d just passed.  It was similar to her house, but painted a kind of mustard color with black shingles.  I carried the bike over there and propped it up next to a stoop on the right side.  That‘s where the driveway was, and most likely the door they used most.  I tried to make the bent part of the wheel prominent so there would be no mistake that it wouldn’t work.  I walked back to Lisa’s, and Al had disappeared so it was just Lisa and her father.


“Do you need any help looking?” I asked.


Mr. Mongillo glanced around in about a one-eighty degree arc and shook his head.  “Nah, he’ll be back.  Where would we look?”  He glanced at me and smiled, like he was surprised I was still there.  “Don’t worry.  He’ll get hungry and come home.  He can probably hear us talking right now.  The little monkey can disappear like a magician.”


I looked at Lisa and she shrugged.  I said, “Don’t tell Hector that.  He’ll hire Lou as his sidekick.”


Lisa giggled, and I borrowed her phone to call for a ride.  I couldn’t even think of the number at the house, but it was in her phone book.  When Ally answered I said, “Hey.  I’m at Lisa’s. Can I get a ride?”


She sounded hesitant, “Well, sure.  Why didn’t you call Hector?”


“I don’t have my own phone, and I don’t remember the number over there.”


Ally said, “I’ll call Hector.  One of us will be there in a few minutes.”


Mr. Mongillo had gone inside, so I sat on the front stoop with Lisa and asked, “I shouldn’t worry about Lou?”


She shook her head.  “He’ll come home when things scare him.”


“What do you mean?”


“Lou is afraid of bears.  He’s afraid of the dark woods.  He’s afraid of the river.  He left his bike here, so he didn’t go far … not that he ever does.  It’s like Daddy says; he can probably hear us talking.”


I smiled.  No concerns meant kiss time, and did we ever.  Too bad the neighbors were at the hospital getting prickers pulled from their kid, because they missed a good show.


We missed some things too, because we were startled to our feet by the blast of a horn and the front end of a black Jeep not three feet from our faces.  My heart was pounding, and Hector’s voice called out, “Your ride is here, amigo.”


I had to wait for the adrenaline to go down at least a little before I could even think.  Lisa was quaking a bit, too, but she managed to give me a quick kiss and say, “Call me later,” before she turned to go inside.


I hesitated before getting into the Jeep.  I did though, because I was too tired to walk.  I made a point before my ass hit the seat.  “I’m too tired to listen to you gloat.  You scared the living shit out of us.”


Hector said, after a moment, “We’re even then.  I’m blind, thanks to you.”




Hector said, “I should have looked right at the sun or something, because the heat you two were throwing off was ten times as bright.  Now all I see is circles: pink sometimes, green sometimes.”  He smirked at me, “Don’t worry; it doesn’t bother me like it does some people.”


When he dropped me at home I asked, “Are you going to be around?”


“Yeah, I will.  Is there a problem?”


“It’s probably nothing.  Lisa’s little brother ran off somewhere.  He does it, so they’re not worried, but just in case …”


“How old is he?  What does he look like?”


I said, “He’s ten, thin and small, pointy face, wears glasses, kind of reddish-brown hair.  He doesn’t look anything like Lisa or anyone.”


Hector breathed, “Norman blood,” under his breath, and asked, “Do you remember what he was wearing?”


I stood up straighter and said, “White tee shirt with a cartoon design on the front, mostly orange.  Shorts that were, I don’t have a name … not black, not gray, not brown, but kind of all of them put together.  Dirty white sneakers, too, and dirty white socks.”


Hector smiled and said, “Very good, amigo.  You learn well.  If you need me, just call,” and he backed away.


I didn’t think I would have to call, and when I went inside Mom and Ally were watching television.  They both smiled at me when I walked in, and Mom asked, “Are you hungry?”


I grinned, “Are you serious?  Not now.  If I want something I’ll get a sandwich.  Don’t worry about me.”


Ally asked, “Is something wrong?  You seem worried.”


“I guess a little; not really.  Lisa’s little brother took a hike and nobody knows where he is.”


“He’s hiking?” Mom asked.  “He hardly seems the type.”


I sat on a chair and said, “No, he kind of disappeared.  I guess he does that, and they’re not worried, but …”


I didn’t continue and Ally gave me a look, “But you’re worried?”


I slumped in the chair, “I guess I am … a little anyhow.  He was riding bikes with his friend and the other kid hit a rock and went sailing.  They called an ambulance and everything, and then Lou was gone.”


“Oh my God!”  Mom said.  “Was the other child badly hurt?”


“I don’t think so,” I said.  He was a little cut up from landing in the bushes.  His father was pissed at me when he found out the kid was bleeding on the side we couldn’t see, but Lisa’s dad set him straight.  He’s probably home by now.”


We talked more.  I had to explain the incident: who was who, and all that, and it’s not all that easy with a detail freak like Ally.  Then we talked about other things for a while, and paid attention when 60 Minutes came on.


I was startled by the telephone.  It rang right beside Ally, and after greetings she held it out to me, mouthing “Lisa.”


Ally gave up her seat, and I sat down before saying, “Hi.”


Lisa sounded worried, “Can you come back, Paul?  Lou’s not home, and it’s getting dark out.  Al and Dad are out looking, but we need more help.”


I had to let that sink in, and asked, “He’s missing?”


Lisa cried, “Oh God, don’t say that.  He didn’t come home, and the dark always sends him here.  Can you come?”


I said, “I’ll be right there.  Do you need more help?”


She said, sounding almost desperate, “Anybody you can find.  I have to get off the phone.”


She hung up abruptly and I turned to Ally and Mom.  I don’t know what my expression said, but they both read it.  Ally asked, “Is he lost?” 


I said, stupidly, “He must be.  I’ll get flashlights.  We need more help.  Mom, you get flashlights; let me call Tom and Jim and Shea and … everybody.”


I called people and they all said they’d get to Lisa’s house as soon as they could.  Then I smacked my forehead and called Hector.  Someone else answered, and I asked, “How many people are there now?”




“This is Paul Dunn.  We need help finding a little kid.  Is Hector there?”


“Yes he is, but he already described the boy to us.  Have you called the police?”


“Me?  No.”


He said, “I’ll check in with them on the way.  We’re leaving in two.”  He hung up.


I waited at the bottom of the stairs for an interminable minute for Mom and Ally to come down before Ally called from the front door, “Paul?  Are you going with us or Hector?”


I should have smacked my head again, but I ran to the door instead and jumped into the car.


When we got to Lisa’s house there were already a lot of people there, including a policeman with a megaphone who was asking people to stay and relax for a few minutes while they figured things out.  We stood there like everyone else until Lisa came out the front door.  Hector bopped my shoulder hard enough that I knew he meant it, and said, “Stay here.”


I watched as he went over to Lisa and started talking, and they disappeared around the side of the house.  In the meantime, two more policemen had arrived and the guy with the megaphone, which was much softer than before, asked people to come forward in pairs to look at a ‘sector’ map, and he assigned each pair to a sector.  I saw a couple of guys I recognized as being from the security company make up pairs with people who otherwise seemed alone, and before long everyone was out on the search.


Shea had gone off with his father, Tom with his dad, Jim and his brother, and so many other people that I either knew or didn’t, but there were probably about thirty in total.  I was standing alone before long, and Aldo came out to stand beside me.  “What’s going on,” I asked.


He said, “The cops want us to be here in case Lou comes home, but I can’t just wait.  It’s dark out, and he hates the dark.   This isn’t … it’s not normal.  Something’s wrong.”


I said, “He ran away from my house in the dark, right in a blizzard.”


Al didn’t look at me, but he asked, “Are you serious?”


“I’m serious,” I said.  “We found him up at Shea’s house with all the lights on, the TV going, and he was crying.”


Aldo brought a hand to his face, and leaned into it.  “That’s what he does.  He gets himself into things on purpose, and then they scare him and he cries.”  He pulled away and put his hand on my shoulder.  “I hope that’s all this is, but it seems different.”


And that sounded ominous to me, but Hector came over and said, “Let’s go.”  He saw Aldo and said, “Al, right?  I’m Hector if you don’t remember.  Let’s go get your brother out of the scary, dark woods.”


I snickered and said, “You sound pretty confident.” 


Hector said, “Oh, I am, I am.  This way.”


He led us down the street past Tony’s house instead of into the woods, and we went around the last house on the road and into the forest from there.  Al and I could only follow him, and he’d stop short sometimes and make that ‘Sh” sound very quickly.  I never heard anything but woods sounds, but he’d change direction slightly and we followed him.


He stopped suddenly and said, “Listen.”


I heard it.  Whimpering, then louder, “Leave me alone!”


It was Lou’s voice, and Al made to charge forward, but Hector put an arm out to stop his progress, and Al fell on his butt.  Hector made a pronounced ‘zip it’ motion with his finger across his mouth, and helped Al up. Hector turned his light off while he whispered, “Lights out now.  Let me think a second.”


He turned to Aldo and put a hand to each of his shoulders, pushing him up tight against a tree.  He whispered, “Somebody has your brother over there.”  Al’s eyes bulged and he struggled against Hector’s weight and strength.  Hector said, “Don’t.  Just stop it now, okay?”


Al glared at Hector, and Hector said, “I mean it.  Another look like that from you, and you get to sleep through this.  Understand, amigo?  Don’t fight me.  We’re in this together, but I’m in charge.  Got that?”


Al was stiff for a few more seconds, before he slumped a bit and said, “Okay.  I get it.”


Hector said, “Good, because I need you.  Let me get around to the other side of them, and when I signal, you and Paul go up calling for your brother.  That’ll distract the creep and I’ll take him out.  Does that sound good?”


Al nodded, but I got nervous and asked, “Take him out?  Do you mean kill him?”


Hector stared at me and said, “You know me better than that, amigo.  I’m going to fix him an omelet.” 


On my sigh of relief he turned away and muttered, “Between his ears.”


We heard Lou cry, “Don’t make me!” and Hector rushed us into action.  We got to where we could barely see Lou, but not who he was with.  I’m sure Aldo was as anxious and nervous as me, but we stayed put and waited for Hector’s signal.  He hadn’t told us what that would be, but his flashlight blinked once toward the sky and Al and I ran in, crying “There you are!” while Hector came flying in from another direction to land on Lou’s captor with all his bulk.


Lou came stumbling to me for some reason, crying, and held on like I was his savior or something.  His pants and underpants were pulled down, and I helped him pull them up.


I never heard Hector yell, but I’ve heard him swear, and he said in a breathy voice, “Shit!  Who the hell are you?”


When I could see who Hector had pinned to the ground, it was a chubby kid who wasn’t a whole lot older than Lou.


Aldo said incredulously, “Larry?  What the hell?”  Then anger changed his face and he grabbed the front of the kid’s shirt with both hands.  “What were you doing with my brother?”


Hector said, “Don’t touch him, Al,” and pulled Aldo back by his shoulder.  “Do you know this kid?”


Al still had fire in his eyes.  “Yeah, that’s Larry Turcell.  I go fishing with his brother.”  He pointed vaguely to the road and added, “He lives right down there.”


Hector said gently, “Help Paul with your brother.  I’ll call in so they can let people go home.”  He turned to Larry Turcell and asked, “Larry?  Is that your name?”


The kid nodded, eyes on the ground. 


“How old are you, Larry?”




“What was going on here?”


While they talked, Al and I sat on the ground and Al took Lou on his lap.  He kissed the back of his head as he wrapped his arms around him and said, “You can stop crying.  It’s all over and you’re okay.”


We sat another five minutes, and Lou calmed down sooner than that.  Hector stood in front of us, his hand firmly on Larry’s shoulder.  “Aldo, you can take Lou home now.  I don’t think anything awful happened here.  Leave Lou with your parents and locate the officer in charge.  Can you find your way back here?”


Al nodded, and Hector told him to bring the lead officer back.  There were a lot of people out looking, and he didn’t want them to get any wrong ideas about what happened.


Al walked off with Lou, who seemed a bit unsteady and I asked, “Why am I staying here?”


Hector said, “You’re a witness to my professional behavior, that’s all.”


I understood, and sat back down.  Hector told Larry to sit with me, and then got on his phone and walked off a ways.  When Larry sat down I looked at him and said, “I’m Paul.”


He said, “I heard.”


I asked, “What happened here?”


“Nothin’ happened.  I tried to get Lou to go home, and he kept goin’ the wrong way.  When I asked what’s wrong he said he killed his friend.  I told him he still gotta go home, but he kept runnin’ the other way.  I fin’lly pulled his pants down like they do on Cops so he couldn’t go nowhere.  I was tryin’ to drag him home, and he was beggin’ and arguin’.  I finally said fine and backed away, and that’s when that giant knocked me down.”


“Why were his underpants down, too?”


“They just came down with his pants.  I ain’t no pervert.  Who in hell wants to see his bony butt?”


I looked at Larry, and he seemed earnest.  That would be an unlikely story for him to make up, and I was inclined to take his word for it.  “So you were just trying to help him?”


Larry said quietly, “Yeah.  Lou’s okay, but there’s somethin’ wrong there.  He can be fun one minute, and then he starts cryin’ about nothin’ and runs off.”


I asked, “Why were you out here?”


“Oh, God, do I have to?”


“You could just start.  Stop where you want.”


Larry gulped, “I live in a house with my parents, my grandmother, my brother, and three sisters.  It’s crowded ‘n everybody but Gram shares a bedroom.  Me ‘n my brother have a little room my dad made in the garage.  I come out here just to get away.”


“I get it,” I said.  “You want a little privacy.”




I heard a car door close in the distance, and then another one, and a third.  I pointed my flashlight in the direction Aldo had gone off in and said to Hector, “I think they’re coming.”


He said, “I heard them,” and into his phone, “I’ll get back to you shortly.”


He walked back to where we were sitting and pointed his light the same way as mine.  We heard voices and saw lights flickering between the trees, and then they were there, with a man I didn’t know.  Hector walked off with the policeman, and the guy I didn’t know went directly to Larry and asked, “What did you do?”


Larry didn’t seem frightened at all when he said, “I didn’t do nothin’, Dad.  I was just tryin’ to get Lou home.”


I got to my feet while Larry’s father held his hand out to Larry, but Larry got up on his own.  I looked at the father and held out my own hand, “I’m Paul Dunn.  I was, uh, just helping to look for Lou.  That’s why I’m here.”


He nodded and said, “Hi,” as we shook hands, then turned back to Larry.  “We have to talk to some people.”


Larry was clearly nervous.  “Do I have to go to the police station?”


“I don’t think so.  We can talk in the kitchen.”  He sounded a little bit nervous himself, but he bopped Larry’s shoulder and said, “Come on.  Let’s go home.”


They started walking away, and Larry stopped after a few steps, turning to me.  “Bye, Paul.”


I gave him a little wave and said, “See ya.”


Aldo asked, “Ready to go?”


I called to Hector, “Can we leave?”


He said, “Al can leave.  I want you to stay here until morning to protect this scene.”


I think my jaw dropped, and Hector snickered, “You are too gullible, Paul.”  The officer snickered, too, and Aldo looked positively gleeful.  Hector asked, “Do you two need a ride?”


Al said, “No, I have our car.  I can bring Paul home.”


Hector said, “Fine.  Paul, I’ll talk to you in the morning to compare notes, okay?”


That meant he didn’t fully trust Larry yet, and I just nodded.  The policeman came over and handed each of us cards.  “Thanks, boys.  Call me if anything comes up.”


I echoed Aldo’s, “I will,” and we followed them out to the road.


I got in the car beside Al, and he said, “I think it’s all good. Lou told me what happened.”  He let out a quick little laugh and said, “It’s kind of funny.  What we saw had to do with what happened, but I don’t think anybody would think it was all innocent like that.  Did you?”


“No.  I thought it was something else, too.  It’s a good thing Hector was there.  That kid Larry might be part of a tree if it was just us.”


Al said, “That’s for sure.  You want a ride home, or are you coming over?”  He started the car and pulled out.  The dashboard clock said it was ten-thirty and I asked, “Is that clock right?”


“Yeah, it’s right.”


I wanted to see Lisa, but it was late.  I was hungry, too, but a little time with Lisa might help that.  I said, “I can stop in at your house, I guess. I should see if Lou’s alright so I can tell my mother.  I can just walk home after.”


Al laughed, “Jesus, Paul!  Don’t try to grease a greaser.  Lou’s probably in the tub, but I’m sure Lisa is wondering what happened to you.  She has it as bad as you do, I hope you know.”


God, how embarrassing it was to hear that from Lisa’s older brother.  It was good news, but still embarrassing, and I didn’t dare ask Aldo what he knew.  We were at the house in a minute, and Lisa came out when she heard us pull up, followed by her father.  I asked Al, “Do they have the story?”


“As much as I could get out of Lou,” he said, and opened his door.  Mr. Mongillo stepped past Lisa when I got out of the car, and pulled me aside as soon as he reached me.


“What do you know, Paul?  Is this as innocent as it sounds from Lou?”


I said, “I think so.  I talked to Larry and I don’t think he was lying.  He says he was trying to keep Lou from running away.  Lou thought he got Tony killed today; that’s why he ran.”


“Why did Larry pull Lou’s pants down?”


I snickered, “He says so Lou couldn’t run.  He saw it on TV … on Cops.  He said the underpants just came down with Lou’s pants.”


Mr. Mongillo thought about that, and he got a merry gleam in his eye.  “Heh.  Ha-ha.  I can see that.  The kid’s got no waist.  We have to cinch him up until it hurts to bring him to Church.”


I laughed with him, and thought to ask, “Is Tony alright?”


“Oh, yeah, he’s fine, just a little scratched up.  He’s not hurt.”


I said, “That’s good.”


Mr. Mongillo smiled, “Listen, I know you’re not here to talk to me, but thanks for pulling in the troops like you did.  I appreciate it.”  He winked, “Lisa appreciates it, too.”  He patted my shoulder and said, “Be good, okay?” and turned to go inside.


I thought to myself, you had to add that, didn’t you?  Be Good.  Dammit!  I don’t want to.


I didn’t want any more thanks, so as soon as I was close enough to Lisa that I could speak softly I asked, “How’s Lou?”


Lisa smiled, “He’s fine.”


“And how are you?”  I asked while pulling her close.


She put her chin on my shoulder and whispered, “Better now.”  She pulled back to look at me and smiled broadly, “Welcome to the Mongillo Family Soap Opera.”


I said, “Use some of that soap on Lou, will you?”


Lisa laughed out loud.  “I’d love to!  You could walk Lou through a carwash and polish him at the other end, and it wouldn’t take him two minutes to look like he went swimming in a pig sty.”


I pulled her down beside me to sit on the stoop and said, “A real pro, huh?  I used to hang around with a kid in Boston like that.  He lived in our building.  We’d meet in the lobby and he’d be clean, but go outside for ten minutes and he looked like he just came home from a war.”


“How did he do it?”


I laughed, “It’s almost like he was a magnet to dirt.  Wherever Nicky sat, there’d be something spilled.  If he took something out of his pocket to show me, guaranteed he’d drop it where he’d have to go under a car to get it back.  We used to play in this park.  Everybody got dirty there, but Nick was a pro.  If we got tired and laid down on the grass, there was a one hundred percent chance that he’d find the only dog turd in the park to put his head on.”


Lisa was jiggling with laughter.  “Like a pillow?  I mean the dog turd?”


I started laughing, too, and wheezed, “Maybe.  That’s a good thought, because dog shit might be more comfortable than all the pebbles and peanut shells under my head.”


“That’s too funny.  Do you still see him?”


“No.  I don’t know where he is.  When I was away at Barents his father was called back to Italy, so he was just gone when I came home.”


“Nick is an Italian?” Lisa asked.


“Yeah.  His father works for the government.  He did then, anyhow.”


Lisa asked, “You didn’t have any trouble communicating?”


“No.  I think Nick would tell you that English is his native language.  They came here when he was real young, like maybe three.  His first school was in Boston, so that’s where he learned to read and everything.  He learned English in school and Italian at home.”


Lisa stared off at nothing in particular and whispered, “That’s really neat.  I want to learn Italian, and nobody in our family knows more than a few words.  My great, great, great grandparents immigrated here, and I guess it’s been bred out of us.”


I said, “I can get by in Italian … not like a discussion or anything.  The hardest thing about a different language isn’t the words, really; they’re not so hard to learn and put together.  It’s listening that you have to get right, especially listening to someone speaking at their normal pace. My mother says it’s just me, so it probably is, but I can ask a question in Spanish and hear Spanish coming back at me that I don’t understand.  I don’t do it often enough that I really know how to listen in Spanish.  That’s the problem, my problem, anyhow.”


Lisa looked at me and asked, “How many languages do you know?”


“Just English, really.  I get by in Spanish and French, and do okay with Italian and Portuguese, but only because they’re so close to Spanish … and French, really.”  I grinned at Lisa, “To speak French, learn Spanish first, and stuff cotton balls up your nostrils.  That’s French.  Good enough, anyhow.”


She giggled, “That’s funny.  Can you teach me some Italian?”


I felt evil.  “Sì posso, ma comincerò con il francese.”


Lisa smiled in confusion.  “Translate please?”


I brought my face close to hers and whispered, “I can teach you, but let’s start with French.”


Lisa giggled and whispered “I like that idea,” so we started with a little French. Soon enough, I lost track of who was instructing.


Lisa must have too.  The next thing we heard was the screen door opening behind us, which was startling to say the least.  Aldo’s amused voice said, “I hate to intrude, but Paul, if you want a ride home I gotta take you now.  It’s after midnight, and I need some sleep so I can work tomorrow.”


Lisa and I pulled apart.  I could feel my ears burning, but Al hadn’t turned the light on.  I didn’t look at him, but started to stand and said, “Sorry.  I didn’t know it was so late.”


I think Al was enjoying himself.  His voice sounded entertained, “Yeah, time flies when you’re having a good time.  It sure does.”


At least he didn’t laugh, and I managed, “You got that part right,” and turned to Lisa, “Maybe I’ll come by tomorrow.  I have to get a new phone, but that won’t take long.”


She gave me a little kiss and said, “I’ll ride with you.”


Al muttered something that sounded almost like “Insatiable.”


* * * * * * * *


The next Friday afternoon, I was driving Ally’s Audi up to Stockton.  Ally was beside me not saying much about my driving, while Tom, Shea and Lisa were in the next row, and Mom was stretched out in the way-back.  Hector always told me to use the cruise control, and Ally didn’t want me to.  She wanted me to develop a sense of my speed, and control it with my right foot.  That kept my eyes occupied.  I was watching the road, the rear-view mirrors and the speedometer trying to feel the difference between sixty, sixty-five, and seventy.


Dan and Jim McNaughton were behind us, and Dan had called to ask what in the Hell I was doing.  Ally explained it to him, and he thought it was a good idea, so we started doing this dance up the highway.  I’d go sixty-five in the right lane, seventy in the left, and where there was a third lane near on and off ramps, I’d go seventy-five over there.  It was fun in its own way.


It was less fun when we got off the Interstate.  There had to be a festival somewhere, because the road ahead was filled with campers and motor homes.  My view forward was the back end of a Sun Seeker from New Jersey, and it was all I saw from the highway until we got to Ludlow.  I groaned when they turned north on Rt. 100, which was where I had to go, but the line of them turned left just out of town, and I had my lane all to myself.  I looked at Ally and asked, “Can I?”


She said, “Get farther from town, and sixty is fast on this stretch.”


The speed limit was fifty, and even that seemed fast.  Route 100 is twisty and hilly, not to mention narrow.  There are a lot of places where you have to rely on the signage to even know where the road goes.  You can be going up a long hill turning one way, and just at the crest there’ll be a turn in the other direction, but the arrows tell you that ahead of time.


I was having a good time driving it.  I’d speed up, tap the brakes sometimes, and stomp on them other times.  I certainly wasn’t smooth yet, but I brought that big car to our mountain without once crossing the center line, running off the road, or pissing any other drivers off.


Ally was pleased when we got to the house.  “Good job, Paul.  Actually very good.  Practice will ease the rough edges some and you’ll be a fine driver.”  I smiled at the praise and went to help get things out of the back.  Before I’d taken two steps, Ally added, “And we didn’t go through a single cornfield.”


I stopped.  Enough sarcasm!  I turned around.  “There was a cornfield?  Where?  I didn’t see it, but we would have gone that way if I did.  That’s more fun than spitting hawkers from a Ferris wheel.”


Ally didn’t just roll her eyes; she kind of rolled her head around on her neck before heading to the house.  My mother found her way out of the back seat and asked, “Is there a problem?”


Four innocent faces told her there wasn’t, so she hurried after Ally.  Tom snickered and Lisa looked at me, “You can be really awful.”


“I’m not awful,” I said.  “You should hurry after them.  They’re supposed to put you in a room I can’t find.”  Lisa stood there with her arms crossed, glaring at me.  I said, “Go on in.  We’ll bring the luggage.  Honest.  We’ll bring the presents in, too.”  She held her glare and I asked, “What?  Why are you mad?”


“I’m mad?  I’m not mad, not even angry.  I’m just astounded at how callous you’re being.  Last week you took a stupid risk with three lives that mean a lot to you.  You said so yourself, and now you joke about it?  I don’t get it.  How can you ever laugh about something like that?”


I couldn’t think of a thing to say, and Lisa finally said, “At least you have the decency to blush.  I’ll find my own way, thanks.”


She turned and marched toward the house while I stared after her.  I’d never heard Lisa like that.  Tom sidled up to me and asked, “That time of month?”


I watched as Lisa disappeared through the front door, and said, “Maybe that’s it.”


Jim and Dan had pulled into a store back on Route 4 for something, and they came up the driveway right then, parking right beside Ally’s car.  When they got out, I asked, “What did you stop for?”


Dan said, “To check my suitcase.  For some reason I couldn’t remember packing my shave kit, but it’s there.  We went in for sodas and drank them there.”


Jim put his hand on the side window and leaned back.  “No eating or drinking in this baby; no sir.”


Dan swatted his hand away and said, “No fingerprints, either.”


I looked at the bags in the back of the Audi.  Nothing was very big, but there were a lot of them.  “We’ll have to make two trips,” I said, pulling the bags out onto the driveway.  I slid a plastic shopping bag with a wrapped gift in it over my wrist, picked up the two nearest pieces of luggage and went to the door, which I propped open with one of the bags and put the other two down in the hall.  Of course, I had to wait until everyone else came in before I could go back outside, but Dan said, “Stay here.  There aren’t many left.”


I found Lisa’s bag and the gift she brought for Dana, and I took my bag upstairs after telling the guys to take any of the rooms they stayed in before.  I dropped my suitcase in my room and went down to Mom and Ally’s room with Lisa’s things.  I tapped on the door and Ally called, “It’s open,” so I went in.  I meant to ask which room Lisa was in, but she was there with them.


Ally led Mom right past me into the hall, and before she closed the door she said, “This sounds like an adult problem, so I’ll leave you two young adults to work it out,” and dammit, she winked!  People wink for two reasons: to let you know they’re kidding someone else and you’re in on it, or because they understand a problem you’re having and don’t plan to help you with it.


I said to Lisa, “I brought your things. Are you staying here, or do you have your own room?”


Lisa was sitting in Mom’s desk chair facing my way.  That put me a safe twenty-five feet from her.  She said, “Oh, put those things down right there and come over here.”


“Are you going to hit me?”


“Of course not.”


“You’re not going to shoot me are you?  I wouldn’t like that a lot.”


“Stop it, Paul!”


“You didn’t say you’re not going to shoot me.  What do you have there?  A little Derringer?  Saturday night special?  A zip gun?”


She finally giggled.  “Don’t be so silly.  I want you to hug me after I apologize.”


I said, “You don’t have to apologize.  I was going to.”


“You didn’t do anything.”


“Neither did you.”


“I still want you to hug me.”


“Okay,” I said as I ran to her, and we fell on the big bed in about the best hug ever.  It was more than a hug, of course, but I’d never ask Lisa what she got so angry about, nor would I ask Mom or Ally what they said to help her get over it.


When we stood up we saw that we’d made a mess of the bed, and Lisa went to straighten it out.  “Leave it,” I said.  “Let them wonder for once.”


I picked up her suitcase and she picked up the little package for Dana.  I asked, “What room are you in?”


Lisa looked hopeful.  “Can I sleep in your room?”


I shrugged, “Sure.  I’ll sleep downstairs.”


She smacked my arm, “I meant with you, not instead of you.”


Uh-oh.  “Um … follow me.”


We went to my room and I locked the door behind us.  The room was stuffy from disuse, so I opened all the windows and the door to the deck.  I couldn’t believe Lisa said that, and I certainly wasn’t prepared in any sensible way, but how could I refuse?”


I asked, “Left or right?”




“Left or right kidney.  Which one should I punch, or do you want to wait till after and we can just duke it out?”


She said quietly, “Don’t make fun of me, Paul.  I’m prepared even if you’re not.  I’m …”


Lisa started crying and fell into me.  I led her to the side of the bed and held on to her, realizing why she’d lit into me in the yard.  She had cold feet.  “Lisa,” I whispered, “That’s the most unselfish thing I ever heard of.”


She sobbed, “I feel so foolish.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”


“I do,” I said.  “You were thinking you love me as much as I love you and … and … and seeing as how I’m bent on killing myself you … never mind.”


Lisa pulled my face to hers and we kissed.  She broke it to say, with a tearful smile, “I don’t think you’re as dumb as they say.”


We kissed some more, a lot more, and then I found an empty bedroom and brought my things down there.  We could keep a lot of people wondering.


+ + + + + + + +


Dana’s party was different than mine.  He’d asked Russ Glover to invite people.  Russ had nothing better to do, so he kept on inviting people, and I think everyone who ever met Dana, heard of Dana, or thought the name Dana sounded familiar was there.  It was in an open pavilion, so pretty much outdoors.  The band was way different.  They looked like a motorcycle gang that consisted of grandfathers long removed from their high school years, and they had a style that was kind of gruff Southern rock.  They were good though, very good.  They had amp stacks that were probably capable of blowing the party into the next county, but they kept it reasonable.


The food was different, too.  This was a pig roast, more likely a pigs roast with all the people there.  It had been snacks until about eight o’clock, and then pandemonium arose when a couple of guys carried a cooked pig around the outside of the pavilion to a really long serving table, and some man in a chef’s hat announced that dinner was served, and don’t worry, there’s plenty.


A lot of people rushed outside, but after a minute it seemed pointless to make the line longer.  Well, it was pointless until we saw people coming to their tables with plates stacked high with yummy looking (and smelling) food.


We didn’t know what the caterer’s idea of plenty was, but there was no point taking chances.  I almost choked when I saw the adults at their table being served by waiters, with bottles of wine along the length of it.  It was Dana’s party, and I was sitting with Dana.  He should have the same treatment.


I had started to feel slighted, but laughed it off.  Dad’s parents and Dana’s grandparents were older people who didn’t need to be crowded by a lot of high school kids.  Rhod was wearing a hat that wasn’t a bad disguise in itself, but if he mingled too much he might be recognized and he wouldn’t want that at Dana’s party.  Bernie … I think Bernie would have had fun in our food line, but he wasn’t in it.  Mom wouldn’t have liked it at all.  Ally wouldn’t mind either way, but when they weren’t alone she usually ceded to my mother.  Mr. Glover probably would have had trouble in the food line, so he was there with his wife.  Heinrich and Karen were there too, and all of them seemed upbeat and cheerful.


There were other adults out in the regular tables.  I recognized some as Danamat employees, so others must have been spouses or friends, but there were too many for just that.  I had no idea who most of the people at the party were.  That was no surprise because I didn’t live in Stockton.  They could be friends of Dad and Elenora or just evidence of Russ Glover’s invitational prowess.


There was a table of younger kids there, too, and Ian was the smallest among them.  He was clearly having a good time, and was sitting behind the mountain of food he’d heaped on his plate.  Those kids all had taken huge amounts of food, and I was betting on Ian to be the one who actually finished his.  He hadn’t let me down once in Boston, even when he was eating something he swore he hated.


Lisa and I danced some during the first hour before dinner, but spent most of the time being introduced to Dana’s friends, going through the whole ‘I never knew you had a brother’ bit too many times.  It was fun, though, and not a single person commented on the absolute lack of resemblance between us. 


Lisa is Italian and she looks it, although she could be a lot of other nationalities and look the part.  She has the dark skin, the black hair, and the almost-black brown eyes, of her ancestral Sicily.  Oddly, and I learned this from Hector, that he had her brother Lou pegged as Sicilian on the combination of his name and his reddish hair. 


Dana is of Italian descent too, yet he has the blond looks of Northern Italy.  That’s where it bangs up against France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia.


I’m the half-breed known as Scots-Irish, and a pretty lucky one as far as my skin goes.  If I had any pigmentation at all it would come in the form of freckles, and a me with freckles just wouldn’t work well at all.  Instead, I’m a paleface. I have to use SPF-8 on hazy days and somewhere between SPF-16 and SPF-64 when the sun is out, the higher powered stuff when I ski at altitude.


I was pleased, and I sensed that Dana was too, when nobody questioned our appearance when we said we were brothers, and that was true in Brattleboro the week before.


The meal was wonderful, even if questionably healthful.  There were salads, different breads, and lots of cooked local vegetables, as well as plates full of fresh sliced tomatoes and onions.  If someone’s plate was full of just that, they could eat with no more worry than to wonder what was in the salad dressing.  I made a salad myself.  It consisted of lettuce, tomato slices, and onion slices.  When I spotted it, I added an ice-cream scoop of guacamole because it looked good.  I picked up another, larger plate when I went through the serving line.  I could manage the two when someone else was dishing things up.  First there was the pig, and I asked the guy, “Which pig is this?”


He gave me an odd look and said, “Porky?”


I laughed, “I don’t want its name.  What’s his number?  I mean his sequence number?”


The poor guy stared at me, and I asked, “How many pigs did you cut up tonight before this one?”


He put his head back like the joke was on him, and we were old pals.  “Oh!  This one’s number five.  The last one is number six and she’s on deck.”


I said, “Find me a nice, fatty part of number five.”


He said, “Good stuff coming up,” and with a few slices with his giant knife put at least half a pound of yummy looking meat on my plate.  “Enjoy your evenin’, son.”


I should have left the line right there, but I’d already seen the red roast beef next door, and thought I could manage a slice.  I asked the guy carving, “What cut is that?”


He said, “It’s rump roast.  Prime beef, too.  You’ll never taste better than this, my friend.”


It looked beautiful.  “Can you give me a couple of really thin slices?”


The words were barely out of my mouth before my lovely pork was hidden under two thin slices of that roast, but the roast was bigger than it looked, and those slices were hanging off my plate on two sides, and my wrist was cramping up.


I hurried to the table to put things down, but went back to look at the rest of the goodies up there.  I stood behind the line, and they had white turkey, dark turkey, baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, white rice, brown rice, Spanish rice… it was too much.  I went back to our table as the sole occupant and started picking at the guacamole.


When the others started showing up at the table, it was clear that they’d gone through the entire line, because their plates were piled high.


It was a real feast, and Russ told Dana he must be King Dana, and he’d have to be killed if he got too big for his britches. The pig carver and the roast beef carver came out with rolling carts and offered more to anyone who wanted it.  Some did, but not me.


The band played another two hours, and we danced.  There was a small dance floor inside the pavilion, right in front of the band, and there was another, larger one outdoors out on one side.  It was just a concrete slab and minimally lit, and that’s where I ended up with Lisa.  We danced for forty-five minutes straight, and if there was a slow dance in there I don’t remember it.


Then it was time for cake, and Dana’s two grandfathers carried the giant thing out, his grandmothers at their sides, and Rhod there with a knife, prepared to serve everyone.


To my surprise, and everyone’s from the looks on their faces, Elenora, on stage with a microphone, started singing the happy birthday song, and most people joined in, but they were clapping as they sang, and some were cheering, which is what I decided to do.  I’m no singer anyhow, so I clapped and cheered with everyone long after the song ended.


If Dana ever did that to me, I’d have to murder him, but right then he was hidden from me.  He was surrounded by people hugging him, shaking his hand, kissing him, and things I couldn’t see.  That went on for ten minutes, and when Lisa wanted to join in I said, “We’ll get ours later.  Give Dana his moment, okay?”


The band started back up, and we danced some more, but we weren’t left alone.  Mrs. Senator wanted to dance with me, and the Senator went with Lisa.  Then Lisa danced with my father while I danced with Elenora, and that wasn’t the end of it.  Ally danced with me while Rhod asked Lisa, and Rhod stayed with Lisa while I had a dance with Mom.  Right after that Mr. Daniels danced with Lisa while I had a nice dance with Mrs. Proper Elimination.


After that, Lisa danced with Dana and Russ, and some other guy I didn’t know, while I went with Katie and two girls I didn’t know.


That nonsense ended when the singer from the band said, “We have another fifteen minutes, so if you haven’t danced yet, now is the time.  I see a lot of partners changing out there, too, so get back with your main squeeze if you have one.  We’re gonna go slow from now on.”


They played five beautiful songs after that, and I danced nose to nose with Lisa on a very crowded floor.  The music seemed mystical, and it got more so when the keyboard player and the singer picked up saxes and played a harmony in the middle of a song.  Lisa and I were both startled to hear horns, but after a moment we floated away on the sound of them, and that feeling stayed with us through the goodbyes and the ride back home.


People ended up in random cars, and Lisa, Dana and I rode with Dan and Jim McNaughton.  We were all wired up from a good time, and Jim looked back from the front seat and said, “Dana, maybe it runs in the family, but you and Paul do the best parties.  Paul has some catching up to do, though.  Jesus!  Five kinds of meat!  Is there even a sixth?”


I said, “Hold on here.  Last week and tonight were my father’s parties.  He asked me what I wanted, and that was it.”  I looked at Dana and asked, “Same with you?”


He nodded and grinned, “I just said I wanted food and music, and all my friends.”


I had to ask it.  “Did you even know all those people?”


“No … well most of them, but I’m pretty sure Russ asked the chess club and … maybe some people I don’t really know.”


Lisa laughed and I laughed, “I knew it!” and the guys in the front seats laughed with us until Dana joined in.


Everyone was tired, but when we got to the house and split up I sat out on the deck off my bedroom, now Lisa’s bedroom, and we talked.  We looked at the sky first because it was bright with stars.  Even with Vermont’s clear air, it was a singular sight that compared with a winter night.  This was better.  Those winter nights are cold, usually frigidly cold.  It was chilly for July, but we were comfortable in summer clothes with just lightweight sweatshirts.


The sky was phenomenal.  It felt like, just for us, our Milky Way had laid down a new carpet of stars for our own enjoyment.  It was beautiful, and Lisa and I got closer and closer together as we pointed things out to each other.  The night sky was clear enough that we could pick out areas of different color.  There was a red one there, a green spot there, and look!  It’s like gold right there!


We should have been in bed, because we were both exhausted by Dana’s party.  We both fell asleep looking at the stars, and when the chill woke me up I shook Lisa.  “It’s cold.  We better go in now.”


Her eyes blinked open and she mumbled, “Ah, Godzilla, I gotta pee.”


She came to a bit more while I led her to the bathroom, snickering and outright laughing all the way.


When she came out, she almost knocked me over with her hug, saying “I’m so tired.”


I said, “Me, too. Come on, I’ll get you to bed.”


I pulled back the covers and let her get in with her clothes on, though I had helped her out of her sneakers.


Lisa smiled up and asked, “Won’t you sleep with me?”




“Don’t be a silly goose.  I have clothes on.  You keep yours on, at least what’s reasonable.”


I looked at her and asked, “What is this, Lisa?”


Lisa looked at me with her trusting eyes and said, “I want you, Paul, just here with me … not for sex ‘cause that won’t happen.  Keep your clothes on if you want.  I just want to sleep with you, beside you.  I want to see you sleep, know what you’re like when you sleep, and you can learn the same about me.”


I didn’t understand what she said, but it sounded good. I said, “Okay,” as I undid my belt.


Lisa’s mouth opened to say something, but didn’t speak.


I asked, “What?”


“You’re taking your pants off?”


“Actually, I’m taking my belt off.  If you want to see more than that, you’ll have to help.”


Lisa rolled so she was looking away from me.  I put the belt on the bedside table, followed by the contents of my pockets.  I toed my shoes off and dropped my sweatshirt on top of them.  Then I got under the covers and turned the lights out.  I was flat on my back and I didn’t know what I should do.  When I closed my eyes, I realized that Lisa was sleeping.  I pushed up so I could see her face, and she was out.


I rolled over on my back again, closed my eyes, and suddenly felt foolish.  Lisa and I were taking a huge risk just sleeping in the same bed.  If we were going to get into trouble there should be a real reason.  I was tired enough to fall asleep, but decided to get out of there.  I slipped out of bed as gently as I could manage, and looked to make sure I hadn’t woken Lisa.  As quietly as I could, I put everything back in my pockets, clenched my belt between my teeth, and picked up my shoes and sweatshirt.  I tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack to peek out.  Nobody was there, so I opened it wider and stepped into the hall, then closed the door as gently as I could, turning the knob so it wouldn’t click when it shut.


I was in the hall, and there was one turn followed by a long walk to the room I slept in the night before.  The house was silent.  The hallway had a carpet runner over the hardwood.  I thought I was home free, but just before I passed a bathroom I heard the toilet flush, and then Jim McNaughton came out.  He looked like he was going to greet me, but the belt in my mouth and the shoes in my hands gave him pause. 


Just when a smile began to take shape on his face, I said, “G’night, Jim,” the best I could with a belt in my mouth, and walked past him to my room.  I went in, closed the door behind me, and fell onto the twin bed that I’d used the night before.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it didn’t matter for the moment because I realized that I had to use the bathroom.  I stayed on the bed just long enough to steel myself, and went down the hall to the same bathroom that Jim had been in, which wasn’t the best choice given all he’d eaten that night.


Back in the room, I shucked my shirt and pants onto the floor and got under the covers.   I don’t remember another thought from that night.


I remembered in the morning, though, and was up early, wearing only my jeans as I opened doors to find where Jim was sleeping.  He was alone in one of the twin rooms, sound asleep until I woke him up.


He grumbled, “Paul … what?”


I asked, “When’s the last time you saw me?”




“Do you remember the party last night?”


His eyes narrowed and he asked, “What’s going on?”


“Nothing,” I said.  “I’m just testing your reactions in the early morning after a late night.  I want to know if you remember anything.”


He looked at me as if I’d descended from the moon, but that look turned into a smile.  “Dana’s party.  You know, last week I thought you had the last word in great parties.  Last night, though … that pig roast … now, that’s championship material.”


“I know,” I growled, “We talked about it in the car on the way back.”


“We did?”  Jim snickered, “I guess I left my brain on the buffet table in exchange for more roast beef.”


“You don’t remember anything after that?”


“Not really.  Did I miss something?  The only thing I remember is you in the hallway with your clothes in your mouth.”


That’s what I wanted to know.  I sat on the edge of his bed and explained, “If you ever say those particular words in that order again, a large man named Hector will come to visit you, and he will not be in a good mood.”


Jim looked at me and asked, “What are you implying?”


“Nothing,” I said.  “You just took the dump of the century and you were hallucinating.  You get in trouble when you talk about your hallucinations.  People start to think you’re off your rocker.  That’s not a precedent you want to set when you’re sixteen.”


I stood up, and Jim asked, “You really think it was the dump of the century?”


“Trust me.  I had to go in there after.”


I had my hand on the doorknob when Jim said, “Paul?”


I turned and he grinned, “I get it, okay?  All you had to say was to keep my mouth shut.”


I grinned back.  “That’s exactly what I did say.”


When I was in the hall, I realized the house was dead silent and wondered what time it was.  I looked at my phone when I got to the room, and it read six-ten.  I didn’t believe it, so I went downstairs where we aren’t so under-clocked, and I’d been right.  It was six-twelve.  A.M. that is, and it’s not a normal hour for a teenager on summer vacation to be up and around.  I did what I usually did when that happens, and decided to go for a little run.


I don’t know why that is.  I’m not a runner, though I don’t hate running, but once in a while when I’m up early I run.  I went upstairs and changed into a pair of shorts and my sneakers.  I had stepped out on the deck and knew it was already a warm morning, so I didn’t wear a shirt.  I would have liked a sweat band, but if I had one anywhere it would be in my room, and I didn’t want to wake Lisa.


I went out dressed the way I was, jogged in place for about a minute, and took off uphill.  The last houses are less than a quarter mile up the road, and they’re built along a road that’s basically a big oval.  I ran around the oval four times, which might have made a mile, and trotted downhill back to the house.  I wasn’t out of wind, but I was pouring off sweat, and I stood in the driveway looking at the view across the valley while I cooled off a little.  I went over to the kitchen deck to go inside because I wanted water, and while I drank I thought to make a pot of coffee.


I went upstairs for a change of clothes, and brought them down to the bathroom next to the TV room.  It was a nice bathroom, and wasn’t used nearly enough to justify the rain shower head that Dad put in there.


I left my wet towel there and brought my dirty clothes upstairs, and I was still the only moving body in the house.  “Never mind,” I thought.  “I’ll make breakfast.”


I went back to the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator to see if I could determine what they had in mind.  It was hard to tell.  There were four loaves of bread on the counter beside the refrigerator, and a lot of eggs inside.  That suggested French toast, so I went with the meats.  There was a huge package of store-sliced bacon, another of sausages, and yet another with ham slices.


I laughed when I opened the bacon.  Only Dad.  The slices weren’t a quarter-inch thick, but almost.  I didn’t know if you could cook ham ahead, so I left that and pulled out the bacon and sausages.  I found the four biggest frying pans, put bacon grease from the refrigerator into two of them and water into the other two and turned on the burners under them.


When I had the pans as full as I could get them, I knew it would take two loads, so I put the oven on warm, poured myself a coffee and sat on the cooking stool.


Yes, sorry.  Dad’s back gets funky if he stands in certain positions too long, and he bought this cheap wooden stool for when he had to do things like slice a lot of vegs or watch a lot of bacon brown up.


I remembered what came next and got up to get some old newspapers.  I spread those out and put paper towels on top for a place to drain the bacon.  I found the strainer Dad uses for the sausages and put it in the sink, and found another coffee can for the new bacon drippings.


By then it was time to flip the bacon and turn the sausages.  I turned the flame down under the bacon and up some under the sausages.  I drank coffee and watched.  The sausages were fat, and weren’t done when the bacon was.  I put the bacon out to drain and reloaded both pans, then turned the sausages, happy that they were browning up.  I took a pointy knife and poked them, smiling as they pissed out their fat.


When everything was off the stove and drained, I got a cookie sheet out, piled up the meats, and shoved the tray in the oven on the lowest setting to keep things warm. I put the bacon fat in the can and the little bit of sausage grease down the drain, followed by hot water.  The pans each got a little squeeze of soap and went into the sink.  I fixed another coffee and went out to the deck.


I was dozing when I heard, “Paul.”


Dad’s voice.  I smiled at him.  “Hi.”


He smiled back, “How long have you been up?”


“I don’t know,” I said.  “What time is it now?”


“It’s just after nine.  Did you cook all the bacon and sausages?”


“Wasn’t I supposed to?”


He shook his head.  “No, that’s fine.  I … well, I thought I got up early to start that.  How long have you been up?”


I said, “That’s kind of personal, you know, but since around six.”


Dad sat down with his coffee.  “I figured you kids would be dead until noon at least.  You’re not tired?”


I yawned and said, “I am now.  I got up and went for a run up the hill.  When I got back I thought about making breakfast, but I didn’t know what you had in mind.”


Dad said, “So you cooked the bacon and sausages?”


I shrugged, “They take the longest, don’t they?   I never saw you cook ham ahead, so I left it.”


“It’s good that you did, and you’re right.  You want breakfast ham hot from the pan.”


I yawned again, a huge one this time.  Dad said, “Why don’t you take a nap.  Look, there’s a chaise right over there with an umbrella all set up.”


I looked, and headed toward it feeling like a zombie or something.  I’d been up for over three hours, which meant I’d only slept for about three hours.  That lounge, with its fat cushion, looked like heaven on earth, and I was asleep soon after I stretched out.


There was someone in the kitchen when I next opened my eyes, and the sky above seemed to be an impossible shade of blue before I realized it had ribs.  That sky was, in fact, the underside of a big umbrella shading me from the real sky and sun.


“Good morning,” Lisa said, and I saw her sitting in a chair smiling at me.


I smiled, “Hi.  Why didn’t you wake me up, or did you?”


She said, “I just waited.  It was nice watching you sleep.”


I started to sit up and said, “Oh, yeah.  It must have been a thrill a minute.”


Lisa said, “No, that was you.”




She just smiled at me, and looked at my shorts. I was wearing silver-colored basketball shorts, which are normally as baggy as shorts get, but they had somehow managed to become stretched tight around the front, and the thin cloth did very little to hide … me.  My blush was so hot I could feel it in my ears, and I smiled with embarrassment as I stood and quickly turned around.  The shorts self-adjusted as soon as I stood.  I couldn’t keep my back turned on Lisa, and while I turned back to her I thought it was a so-what thing.


I smiled at her and asked, “Well?  Is this better?”


Lisa looked me in the eyes and said, “Definitely … not.”  She smiled demurely, “Of course, here with all these people around, it’s probably better.”


I didn’t get to open my mouth before she added, “Give me a call the next time you want to take a nap.”


I grinned, “You’re evil.”


“Why don’t we see if we can find some moose shit to sit in?”


I remembered the last time and said, “That’s a great idea.  Let’s eat something first.”


Most people were still sleeping, and Mom and Ally didn’t want to start cooking until there were more people there, so we had toast and orange juice out on the deck, left our dishes there, and climbed the hill behind the house.  The path up was clear, but the undergrowth had gotten both taller and denser, so it was work getting through the tangle over to the rocky ledge.  It wasn’t far, and we made sure we had a clean spot before we sat down.


The view in summer was less dramatic than the last time, when things were just coming back to life.  We could still see the fields and some houses, but a lot was hidden by foliage in many shades of green.  It was still nice, but softer looking.


We looked for a few minutes, pointing out this and that, and then we made out.  It was a long, hot session, punctuated with giggles substituting for commas, squeals for semi-colons, laughs as exclamation points, and breathy, happy conversation for parenthetical interludes.  Eventually, we decided we’d been gone for quite a while, and started to make our way back.  When we got to the clearing that led down, Lisa had briars stuck to her all over the place, and I had them everywhere except my shorts.


We started pulling them off ourselves, and then each other.  When I had the last one from Lisa in my hand, I stuck it to her tee shirt right where it would look like a big nipple, and it did!  I laughed, and put one on the other side.  She complained loudly when I put one in her hair over each ear.


“Please take these off, Paul.”


“Nope,” I said as I tried to affix one to the front of my shorts, but it just wouldn’t stick.  I said, “Give me nipples, too, and whatever else you can think of.”


Lisa muttered, “I can think of an asylum right now,” as she gave me nipples.  Then she started pulling my hair down onto my forehead, having more luck with her fingers than I’d ever have with a comb or brush.  She gave me a crown of thorns, decided it looked stupid and added a line over the top of my head from front to back.  “There.  It looks like an electric chair helmet.”


We headed down the hill, looking at each other and giggling.  I saw Shea Luellen looking off the back of the deck, and his face changed as we approached.  He turned around to someone, and my father appeared beside him.  We were close enough to hear voices by then, and my father said, “Oh, Jesus.  Now what am I looking at?”


By the time we reached the steps everyone was staring at us, and most were laughing.  I looked at Bernie Sutton and asked, “What?  What’s so funny?”  It was easy to keep a straight face because my laugh mechanism was still recharging after laughing so much with Lisa.


Bernie pulled a burr from my hair and held it out.  I looked at it and said, “So what?  It’s crawling with briars on the hill.”  He reached for my nipple and I took a quick step back and said, “Hey.  Watch it there!”


When Bernie backed off quickly, it was my turn to laugh, but I held it in and took Lisa’s hand.  I pulled her into the kitchen and out into the hall where we broke down laughing.  The faces on the deck had displayed every variation of surprise and astonishment that we’d ever seen.  As usual, it was a Kodak moment without the Kodak.


We stepped into the bathroom and started pulling briars off each other.  Lisa did my head first, because that’s where the most of them were, and they didn’t come out that easily.  When they were in the toilet, there were still lots of bits stuck to my hair.  I used a comb to get the two out of Lisa’s hair, and it seemed to get everything.  She picked the ones off my chest, and I took them off of hers.  When I went to get the remaining bits of the second one, Lisa pulled my hand down on her breast and looked at me, and we kissed long and hard.


She combed the remaining junk out of my hair, and we went to have a very late breakfast.  It seemed like almost everyone had slept late, because most of them ate with us.  Lisa and I sat with Rhod’s parents, Heinrich and Karen.  The conversation was gentle.  There was no talk about elimination, and Heinrich told some funny stories about homeowners and their do-it-yourself projects gone wrong.


When we’d all eaten and were just sitting there, Dad came over and leaned down next to me.  “Paul, I need to talk to you.  Go to the deck off the living room, and I’ll be right there.”  He put his hand on Lisa’s shoulder and said, “We won’t keep him long.”


Dad walked off and I headed to the other deck.  Nobody was there, but as soon as I sat down Dana came out, followed by Dad and Elenora, Mom and Ally.  They all sat down, except for Dad.  He closed the sliding door, and turned around.  Dana had taken a chair off to the side, and Dad said, “Paul, go sit beside Dana.  I can’t talk in two directions at once.”


I looked at Dana as I walked toward him, and he gave a slight shrug to tell me he didn’t know what was going on any more than I did.  I took the chair beside him and turned it so we were both facing Dad.


Dad smiled, “Boys, I think you’re aware that I’ve had feelings for Elenora since the first time we met.  Those feelings have grown into true love over the last half year, and I have asked Elenora to marry me.”  He grinned, “She agreed, believe it or not, so we’re getting married!”  He smiled at us benignly and said, “That part is a done deal, but if you have any concerns or worries feel free to voice them.”


I looked at Dana, and he looked at me.  Dana looked at Dad and asked, “Do I have to change my name?”


Dad said, “Only if you want to, and you should really think about that before you decide.  You’ve only just found your own relatives, and you don’t have to lose that connection … ever.  If I were you I’d keep it just because the announcers seem to like saying it in your race videos.”


Dana smiled and his gaze went kind of blank.  Dad went on, “Paul, on the other hand, will have to change his name.  Paul Dunn sounds so innocuous that he gets away with crap all over the place.  We’re going to change his name to Filbert Dunn, which is more memorable.”


I was laughing and said, “You lie.”


Dad said, “Try me.”  Then he laughed and said, “You’re right, though.  You’ll never be anything but Paul.”


I said, “This makes me happy.  You two getting married, I mean.  I think it’s great.”


Dana, the more thoughtful of us brothers, got up and hugged Dad, and then his mother.  He had tears in his eyes, and said, “I’m so happy right now …”


I followed Dana, first hugging Dad.  I said softly, “Good move, man.  I love you.”


He pushed me out to arm’s length, his eyes wet.  “Thanks, Paul.  I was most worried about you.”


Ouch.  “I don’t know why.  I get the foxiest stepmother on the planet, and you get to be really happy again.  It’s a good deal all around.”


Dad pulled me to him and whispered, “Thank you, Paul.  Thank you.”  He pushed me back again to look at my face and said, with merriment in his voice, “You have your defects, but you really are the perfect son.”  He pulled me back close into a hug and said, “I love you so much.”


I thought for a moment, and said honestly, “You’re the perfect dad to me.  You always have been.  I’m really happy for you and Elenora.”


Dad stepped back and patted my shoulder.  “Thanks, Paul.  I hoped you’d be with me, and I’m glad you are.”


When Dana and I sat back down, Dad did too.  Mom and Ally stood, and Mom said, “Ally and I are getting married, too.”


I sucked in a breath, and caught Dana doing the same thing.  I stood up and said, for lack of anything else I could think of, “That’s great.  You’ll be honest women at last.”


Dad sputtered out a laugh while Elenora and Dana giggled.  Mom laughed lightly while Ally roared like a sea lion, pulled me to her, and practically crushed me with her hug.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you, kid.  Here we expected fifty questions and sixty arguments, and we get a Paulism of the first order.  She kissed my forehead and the tip of my nose and said, “Honest women, indeed.  Will you be our ring bearer, or would you prefer flower girl?”


Dad interrupted, “Hold on.  I was going to ask Paul to be my best man.”


“Why can’t I be both?” I asked.  “I can be best man for dad and flower boy or whatever for Mom.”  I looked at Mom and Ally, “Don’t you need a best man, too?”


Mom, Dad, Elenora and Ally all burst out laughing.  After a few seconds Dad cleared his throat and smiled at me.  “Paul, we’ve managed to omit one crucial little bit of information.”  He looked at the floor and snickered again, then turned his gaze to me.  “We’re planning this as a joint wedding.  We’ll all get married side by side.”


I dropped into my chair feeling stunned.  Not shocked really, but stunned that Mom and Dad were still friends enough to want a joint wedding.  I liked the idea myself.  It would be something special, different, and wonderful.  I looked at Dana and he was smiling.  I elbowed him and whispered, “What do you think?”


He grinned and said, “Ask me later, man.  I just got all these new relatives I never knew, and now I get more.”  He looked at me and added, “So do you, I guess.”


Dana was right.  I’d need a scorecard to keep track.  I’d be adding two stepmothers to my one mother and, can it be true?  Three more sets of grandparents, or step-grandparents, and all the cousins and aunts and uncles I’d never met yet.  When I thought about it, Dana would end up with the same number; at least it seemed that way.  I’m the guy who gets lost with the concept of second cousins and now look!


I was astounded and very happy.  I went to my mother, who stood when I was in front of her.  I gave her a hug and spoke softly by her ear, “You’re really moving up in the world, going from hacker to magazine publisher.”  I kissed her cheek and whispered, “I’m really happy.”


Mom put her cheek against mine and said, “You’re simply wonderful, Paul.  I was praying for simple acceptance, but your blessing is really special.  God, I love you.”


We stayed in that hug for what seemed like a long time, and I didn’t want to let go any more than Mom did.


Ally finally broke us up, tugging my shoulder.  “Okay, Lothario, time’s up.  You left a lovely young lady on the deck.”  She put a hand on my ass, I swear, and said, “Get back into real time.  That girl’s in love, and so are you.  Go out there and do what you do.”


I laughed and said, “Okay.”  I waved to everyone and headed inside, followed closely by Dana.


He said, “You think this is great, don’t you?”


I stopped in my tracks and turned, “You don’t?”


Dana smirked, “If you walked slower I could talk slower.  I think it’s great.  It’s wonderful … perfect.  I want to know if you think the same.”


I stared at Dana for a second, and then said, “I guess I heard you the wrong way.  I think … I think it’s the third good thing to happen this year.”  I smiled and held my arms out, “Give me a hug, brother.”


We hugged and held it.  Dana asked, “What were the other good things?”


I said, “Well, running over you was mean, but it counts as a good thing because we got to meet.  I got together with Lisa, and that’s a really, really, really good thing.  And now …” I looked at Dana, “I’m kind of overwhelmed if you want to know.  This is beautiful, our families coming together, and Mom and Ally.”


Dana said softly, “I get it.  You didn’t run me over, but I’m sure glad Dad saw me, else I’d be dead.  That was my first good thing this year … meeting you and Dad.  I didn’t believe you people.  You’re living in this freaking castle up on a mountain and I must have looked like a pile of smelly cow plop that day.  Then you’re feeding me and keeping me warm and making me laugh.  It was definitely the first good thing.  I guess I have a lot more good things than you, but go with your three.”


I grinned, “You have a building named after you.  What’s that, the tenth good thing?”


Dana counted on his fingers and smiled, “Forty-first.”


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