There was an awkward silence in the cab as I merged onto the highway. I was unsure what to say to the boy, but more importantly, I had forgotten exactly where I was. I knew the exit for Cody was not far away Yellowstone Park would be next, but I didn't want to start fussing with a road map. If the cop followed this route, I didn't want him to see the camper parked at the roadside or to catch me speeding, so I concentrated on my driving and watched for the next sign. I took a few sidelong glances at Kelly. He was still slumped back in the seat, his eyes closed. Either he had decided for some reason to trust me, or he had given up hope. But he needed to still have some choice about where he was going.
"Kelly," I said quietly, hoping not to startle him. "Your name is Kelly, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it's Kelly," he answered, still not moving.
"My name's Arthur Kent. My students call me Mr. Kent in class. When other adults aren't around, they call me Art. So I guess you should call me Art." I extended my right hand, palm up, in front of him. "Glad to meet you, Kelly." He opened his eyes, then tentatively reached out and placed his hand on mine. I gripped it lightly in a conventional handshake. His hand was warm, and his skin was as soft as a...
Quickly I jerked my hand away and back onto the steering wheel, as if I had to make a quick road maneuver. I didn't want Kelly to think I was rejecting him, but I didn't like the direction my thoughts were taking me. I shook my head, decided this meant nothing, and resumed the conversation, such as it was.
"Where can I take you?" There was a long, awkward pause. Finally I could wait no longer. "Kelly, I don't want to take you in the wrong direction. Where were you headed?"
This was not sounding good. "You must have been headed somewhere."
"No," he said. "Just anywhere." Damn, I thought, this kid has run away, and here I am driving him down the road. Does this make me a kidnapper or something?
He was silent again for a while, and then suddenly asked, "Where are you headed?" His question brought me back from my anxious speculation.
"Right now, I'm on my way to Yellowstone."
Kelly sat up straight, and his face broke into a tentative smile. "Really?" he said, his voice for the first time showing some shred of interest. Then the smile vanished, and he sank back down into the seat. I thought I heard him mumble, "You won't want me here anyway."
"Kelly," I said, trying to make my voice sound non-threatening, "are you a runaway?"
"No." For this first time he looked toward me, and I could see that he was trying to hold back tears. "I'm a throwaway."
I decided not to pursue the point. The last thing Kelly needed right now was emotional pressure. If he broke into tears now, he might be too ashamed to talk to me again. Damn our American "big boys don't cry" method of raising children. Suddenly I felt a light pressure just above my right knee. I looked down. It was Kelly's hand. Keeping the pressure going, he slowly moved it upward toward my hip. When he had nearly reached my groin, I placed my hand over his, stopping his progress. "What's that about?" I asked.
"I know how it works," he answered.
I was baffled. "How it works? What are you talking about?"
"I know how it works," Kelly repeated. "You give me a ride, I suck your dick."
I'm sure I turned pale. I had heard rumors about such exchanges; I had even heard that sometimes high school students stuck in downtown Portland considered a blow job to be the price of a ride home to the suburbs, but I had never heard a first-person account. I was not going to get into this. I lifted his hand and placed it firmly back in his own lap. "Well, it doesn't work that way with me," I said. "I'm giving you a ride, not selling it. You don't owe me anything."
He was surprised enough that his mouth was hanging slightly open. "Thanks, mister," he said at last.
"Art," I corrected him.
"Thanks, Art." He was suddenly very interested in the sage brush outside his window.
The exit sign took me by surprise. "Cody/Yellowstone Park" it said. I had been paying more attention to the boy than to the road. "We can talk about this more later, this is my exit," I said, and swung into the exit lane. I had to brake to get down to the 30 MPH exit speed. The ramp curved around to a stop sign, and I took the left turn onto US 14 headed west.
How do you resume a conversation with a teenage boy after turning down his offer of sexual favors? There was one topic that was sure to get a response.
"When did you eat last?" I asked. It was two o'clock and I had not yet eaten lunch myself. I seldom used the camper to cook when I was not in an RV slot. The whole top of the camper section could pop up about a foot when you were camped for the night, and although you could use it with that top down, it was pretty cramped. That's why I usually had fast food for lunch. I had brought my bottle of fat-blocker pills so that the Big Macs would not threaten me with another heart attack.
"I had a hamburger last night," he answered.
I was already a mile down the road from the fast food forest at the freeway junction, but it was simple enough to turn around. I had no sooner pulled into a side road than my cell phone rang. Since I was already stopped, I could answer it right away. Of course, Kelly could only hear my side over the conversation.
"Hi, darlin'..... Wyoming, on my way to Yellowstone.... Well, I picked up a young hitchhiker here, so if you don't hear from me tonight, call the cops." I winked at Kelly to show him I didn't mean it. "No, no, really it's OK. I'm fine..... Okay..... Yeah, I know you need to get to work..... Okay, sweetheart, call me tomorrow, okay? I love you too."
Kelly seemed oddly discomfited by the call. "Was that your wife?" he asked.
"No, I'm not married," I replied. "That was my daughter in Portland."
Kelly looked almost relieved. Odd. But I could think about that later. We were approaching the junction with the freeway. "What's your pleasure?" I asked. He looked puzzled. Okay, right, that expression is not part of a typical high school student's vocabulary. "I'll let you pick the place. I see Mickey D's, the Home of the Whopper, and the Fart Factory."
"The what?" he asked, and for the first time I got a smile. He giggled, actually; it was really cute. There you go again with the "cute," I told myself; cut it out.
"Over there. Taco Time, the fart factory. You know, all those beans?" He giggled again. It was still cute. "Where shall I stop?"
"McDonald's will be great."
"We'd better wash up," I said on the way in, and we headed toward the rest room. This kid needed to wash more than his hands. Traveling with him in the small pickup had made it clear that he was old enough to need deodorant, but he wasn't using any. Thank God for the fresh air coming through the air conditioner.
Three minutes later we were sitting down in front of two Big Mac Value Meals. I didn't eat fries myself, but I assumed that Kelley could wolf down both portions. This would not be a good time to bring up the issue of a balanced diet. Kelly's table manners were as good as might be expected from any teenager. At least he didn't talk with a mouth full of food. Perhaps that was because he didn't talk at all.
About halfway through the meal I looked him straight in the eye and said, "I'm not, you know."
He swallowed first, then asked, "You're not what?"
"Not a motherfucker," I answered. I was glad he had swallowed; otherwise the table would have been sprayed with half-chewed Big Mac. I kept going. "Nope, never fucked my mother. Not even once. Never even wanted to."
By this time he had stopped laughing, and his face had turned a deep scarlet. I loved a boy who could blush. A sense of shame can be a healthy thing. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was scared, and I... I don't usually talk like that, but I... I'm sorry," he ended lamely.
"I forgive you," I said. "In fact, I don't blame you a bit. How could you know I wasn't a child rapist or something?"
He physically recoiled from my words. Apparently, this kid had good reason to be scared. I decided not to pick up on the rapist part. "I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't mean to call you a child. I apologize."
"That's okay," he said, recovering his composure.
"I want you to know why I repeated the word motherfucker back to you. Two reasons, actually. One, I wanted you to hear how bad it actually sounds. And two, I wanted you to know that you can say anything to me, and I won't come all unglued."
His eyes narrowed slightly, and he stared deeply into mine. I was not sure what he was looking for, but apparently, he was satisfied, because he relaxed back into his seat and once more picked up his hamburger. "Thanks," was all he said.
I polished off my Big Mac and stood up to go for a refill of my Diet Coke. "Was that enough food for you?" I asked Kelly. He looked up at me doubtfully. It was clear that he thought he would be pushing it if he asked for more. "I'll be right back," I said.
I returned to the table with another Big Mac, but no fries this time. He smiled his gratitude. As he dug into his second big sandwich of the day, I sat across from him and opened the conversation I knew we had to have.
"Kelly," I began, "I suppose you're wondering why I picked you up." He nodded yes. "I'm not sure I can explain it very well. I'm a high school teacher. I'm a teacher because I love teaching. I love helping people learn, because I think that what I have to teach them will help make their lives richer and fuller. I love the kids I work with. My students pretty much like me, too. I guess the fact that they call me by my first name when we aren't in school should tell you something.
"I knew there was something wrong when I first saw you lying there on that picnic table. There was just no logical explanation for your being there alone in the middle of nowhere. In spite of the fact that you pulled a knife on me I was sure you were a good kid, just scared. I've seen kids go into the foster care system and just get knocked around. So I'd like to find out if there is some alternative for you. That's why I didn't just ask for help from that cop. Are you with me so far?"
He nodded again, and took another bite from his Big Mac. "I'm taking a big risk here. If anybody is looking for you, I could be arrested and charged with kidnapping or child molestation or something. Right now you're just hitchhiking, but when today ends you're either going to have to find another ride" - he stopped his chewing, and his eyes went wide - "or you're going to have to decide to stick with me for a while." He didn't say a word, but his chewing resumed.
"I've got the camper. It won't cost any more to stay at an RV park with you than it does when I'm alone. I'm a teacher so I don't have a lot of money, but I can feed you for a while. I'm assuming that you don't have much money?" I turned the statement into a question by ending on a rising tone. He looked rather embarrassed again, then shook his head in the negative. "But I do have to do what we called in the military CYA; that stands for Cover Your Ass. I'm not going to force anything out of you, and I don't want to embarrass you, but if you're going to stick with me, you're going to have to tell me enough of your story that I can check up on you a little bit. I have to be sure that you aren't running from the cops or somebody else who will be looking for you."
"I already told you," he said, sulking, but at the same time looking a bit worried.
"I'm sorry, Kelly. Right now I can't just take your word for it. I trusted you enough to take you into my car after you pulled a knife on me. Please trust me on this." He started to protest, but I cut him off. "I'm not going to hold that knife thing over your head, Kelly. I'm inclined to believe you. But this is too important. I have to be sure."
While I waited for him to reply, I took a closer look. He was thin, probably too thin. His face was framed by brown medium- length hair that fell naturally across his forehead. If he was a girl, we would say she had bangs. His eyes were startlingly blue, the deep azure sometimes seen from a jetliner as the plane moves into a later time zone. His eyelashes were long and dark, accentuating his eyes with an effect the Maybelline people would love to recreate. He had a deep tan, but there was still a splash of youthful rosiness on each cheek. He had once had a button nose, but the outline of his adult face was beginning to take shape. He was a beautiful child. No, he was no longer a child, and he was not yet a man, but he was beautiful. I had always trusted my early impressions of people, particularly teenagers. Not my thoughts about them, but my gut feeling. My feeling at this point was that if I had ever had a son, I would have liked him to be like Kelly.
His shirt was not buttoned all the way up, something I had failed to notice earlier. When he turned sideways to look out the window, I could see across his chest all the way to his small brown nipple. There was no sign of any real muscle definition. Apparently, he was not an athlete. There was a hint of dark fuzz on his upper lip, but I doubted that any hair had yet sprouted under his arms. Suddenly his image merged with one in my memory of another boy, one I had never met. His picture was safely stored, encrypted in a hidden directory on my home computer, along with several hundred others. He was in the same pose, one leg pulled up with the sole of his foot flat on the cushion of the booth, the other extended downward with the foot on the floor. Although I could not see through the table, I knew that if I could, I would be looking directly at the crotch of his jeans. There was no table in the way in the computer image. That boy was naked. A soft dusting of new- grown pubic hair lay atop his three-inch uncut penis. I suddenly noticed that my Jockey shorts were working overtime to contain an emerging erection.
I forced the computer image to go away. Never before had I felt sexual desire for an actual boy. Yet ever since I had discovered some online newsgroups I had been fascinated by pictures of boys: boys of all ages, little boys, prepubescent boys, teenage boys. Some were caught in candid moments in nudist resorts, others were posed in professional studios; some obviously were just showing off their little-boy erections, others clearly had discovered that you could do more with a penis than just pee. Some of the pictures were very disquieting: the boys appeared to be under duress, or drunk or even drugged. I deleted those as soon as I saw them. In my own mind I managed to exempt myself from the charge of being the exploiter. But in spite of this obsession, in all my years of working with both boys and girls of junior high and high school age, I had never said or done anything inappropriate. I had never even thought of becoming physically involved with a student, or if I had, my active superego had effectively prevented my conscious mind from becoming aware of the fact.
Being with Kelly was obviously going to present a different kind of challenge. But there was no time for any more of this line of thinking. Kelly had made up his mind. "Okay," he said, "I'll tell you."
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