The sign read, 'Tuckerville, population 5,342. The Friendly Town. Welcome!' As they drove past it, the man looked at the boy sitting next to him.
"This is it, kid. I've got a couple calls to make here, then I'm taking a customer out for dinner. I'll be leaving early tomorrow morning, probably around six. If I see you standing on highway 237 with your thumb out, I'll pick you up. You're not bad to ride with. You don't talk a lot." He grinned at the boy. The boy looked up at him, but didn't return the smile. He said in a flat, unemotional voice, "Thanks for picking me up, sir. Thanks for the lunch. Let me out anywhere. I'll be fine."
The man started to say something else, then stopped and kept his eyes on the road in front of him. When they came to the small center of town, the man eased into a parking space, diagonal to the curb in front of a barbershop. The street was lined with stores and businesses; the barbershop was one of many such storefront enterprises on this block. At the next corner down there was a traffic light at the intersection. It was the only one in town.
The man didn't switch off the ignition. He turned and watched as the boy reached down by his feet and picked up his backpack, then righted himself and opened the car door. The boy was young. The man estimated his age at 13 or 14. He had the gawky look boys get when they're in the middle of a growth spurt, starting to put on some height, to lose their childish appearance, but haven't yet entirely lost their physical connection with their erstwhile youth. He had light brown hair, almost blond, and a slender build. He appeared to be short for his age, but the man really wasn't sure of that, not really knowing how old the boy was. The one thing that the man saw, and that broke his heart, was how vulnerable and sad the boy looked. He hated dumping him off like this, but the boy seemed to be taking whatever his situation was in stride and the man had his own responsibilities.
The boy turned as he shut the door and looked into the car through the open side window. "Thanks again, mister. I sure appreciate it." Though he still didn't smile, he did give the man a short wave of his hand, shrugged his pack up onto his back and turned away for the car. The man hesitated a moment, watching as the boy began walking down the sidewalk, slowly, quite obviously without any real destination in mind. The man shook his head, pursed his lips into a frown, then backed out of the parking space and drove on, past the boy.
The boy stopped and watched the car drive away. When it was out of sight, he started walking again, toward the intersection with the traffic light. He needed to find a place he could sleep. He had no experience at this. This would be something new, finding a place for himself to sleep. The first night, he'd been able to sleep in the back sleeper area of the semi cab he'd been in. He'd been scared when the driver had picked him up. He'd known he had to leave his home; he knew he had no money, he'd known hitching was about the only choice he had. He'd been really scared when the truck had stopped. Would the driver just give him a ride, or would he want something from him? And how was he to know? He'd never hitched a ride in his life before this.
Afterwards, he guessed he'd been lucky. The driver was a young guy, probably in his twenties. He opened the door for him, looking down at him from his seat high above, and said, "Hey, where you headed for? Kind of young to be hitching, aren't you? What's your name, kid?"
"It's Paul. And I'm not going anywhere, really. Just going. Can I have a ride?"
"Sure, kid, hop in."
Paul had hesitated. Should he? The guy looked okay, friendly and all, but still, he'd heard stories, he'd even read some, about what could happen if you got a ride from someone you didn't know.
The driver saw him hesitate. Paul looked at him with some fear in his eyes, and the driver grinned. "Hey, I'm safe. I'll just give you a ride, and you can get out whenever you want. I'm straight as they come, and certainly not into boys at all. I just like a little company."
The driver's grin was what decided Paul. It looked natural and unforced, not what Paul thought a sex pervert's or rapist's or torturer's or murderer's grin would look like. And his eyes didn't look screwy or weird either. He made his decision, returned the grin the best he could, then climbed up into the cab.
"So you're not headed anywhere in particular, huh? 'Just going?' Sounds like you're running away from something, then."
Paul looked at him. The man was clean-shaven and dressed in what looked like a working man's clothes. But Paul felt uncomfortable, even though the man appeared safe. He realized, now that he was sitting here and the truck was moving, that the man had complete control over him. He was older, bigger, stronger and more mature than Paul. And now he was talking about something Paul didn't want to talk about.
But the man didn't say anything else, just kept glancing over at Paul between periods of looking ahead at the road, and Paul knew he was supposed to answer. What could he say? Then a strange thought occurred to him out of nowhere. He could lie! The man wouldn't know! Paul had almost never had to lie in his life, so it wasn't something that came naturally to him. Still, everything was going to be different now. He realized, even as he was opening his mouth, that lying would be something he'd probably be doing a lot of, in the days to come.
"I made a bet with my friend Sam. We're both going to see how far we can get hitching. We have to be back here tomorrow at this same time. I figure I'll win, getting a ride with a trucker like you."
The driver kept glancing at him, then broke out in a laugh. After he stopped, he said, "Paul, if that's really your name, that's the worst story I've ever heard. But it's okay. If I were your age and running away, I wouldn't tell anyone just who I was and why I was running, either. I mean you could be running away from the cops, you might live in a foster home and they're not treating you well and telling your social worker wouldn't help much, she'd just tell you to suck it up and make it work, you could be having troubles at home or even have been kicked out, it could be anything. I pick up kids like you every now and then, and I tell myself I'm helping them. They want out of where they are; I'm taking them out, so I'm helping. You don't need to worry, I don't need to know the real reason you're running."
Paul didn't say anything for a few minutes, just watched the road coming up to meet them, then asked, "How'd you know I was lying?"
"You're not the first kid I've had in here, as I just said. Most of them don't look as scared as you do. I figure this may be your first time. After this, maybe you won't look so frightened, and maybe after this you'll have figured out a destination to pretend you're heading for. That sounds a lot better to someone than saying you don't know or care where you're going, and then having to figure out a dumb ass lie to explain why."
"You're not mad, are you?" Paul asked, nervously.
"Of course not. I figure you've got problems. So do I. Everyone has problems. I've never met anyone that didn't have problems. If I can help you out with yours, I guess I've done a good deed." He paused, then, as his CB radio spouted at him. He picked up a microphone and started talking in a language that sounded to Paul like English, but the words he used didn't seem to make any sense.
When the driver was done on the radio, he didn't say anything for a while. It was late afternoon and they were heading west. The sun was providing enough glare that Paul found himself looking out the side window so as not to be blinded. The driver reached over and pulled the visor down, but Paul was short enough that it didn't mask the sun from his eyes.
Paul realized he must have fallen asleep when the driver spoke to him; he jerked awake. The sun wasn't shining in the front window any more, though it wasn't dark yet. It looked like it wouldn't be long before it was.
"I'm sorry, I guess I was napping. I didn't hear what you said."
The driver laughed. "I asked if you were hungry. There's a diner I stop at up ahead. I'm going to pull in and get something."
Paul felt his stomach rumble at the mention of food. "No, I'm fine. Can I wait in the truck for you?"
The driver didn't answer, instead just looked at him. Then he said, "When did you last eat, kid?"
Paul hadn't eaten anything since his bowl of cereal for breakfast, but somehow didn't want to tell the driver that. He thought it made him sound helpless, and he still had some pride.
"I grabbed a snack at that gas station where you picked me up."
The driver shook his head. "Kid, you're the worst damn liar I've ever met. I know that station. They don't have snacks there. Nothing. Not even chips or nuts or pop. Now look, you seem so green at this, you're getting me worried. I'm getting the idea now you don't have any money, or at least not much, and that you have no idea what you're doing. You've got to eat, kid. And drink, too. Look, this diner is just a glorified hamburger stand. I can spring for a meal for you. It'll cost me something like six dollars. You don't want it, then yeah, you can stay in the truck. But I'd advise you to eat it. I'll bet you have no idea when you're going to get your next meal."
Paul hung his head. He really didn't have any idea what he was doing. He had one objective, to get as far away from his home as possible. He hadn't thought about anything else. Now, reality was hitting him in the face, and he knew he wasn't prepared. Not for any of this.
"You'll do that, buy me something to eat?"
"Yep. You look like you need it."
Paul hesitated, then asked, "Why are you being so nice?"
The driver grinned. "That's just me. And I'm worried about you, kid. I really am. There're lots of drivers on this road who'd want something from you. You're a good-looking kid, damn good in fact, and a lot of horny drivers would be drooling over you. I told you, I'm not that way, but there are guys like that out here. You just don't know when you climb into their cab what they'll be like.
"The more honest ones will tell you what they expect, and if you tell them you're not into that, or not going to do it, they'll just stop the truck and have you get out. The bad ones are going to go after what they want, whether you want them to or not. You don't look like you can protect yourself at all to me. And that worries me. I don't like to think about you getting hurt. I wish I could tell you just to go back home, but I know you wouldn't listen."
"Well then, I hope you're a real fast learner. Here's the diner, coming up."
He pulled the truck into the lot at the back of the diner, parking it so he wouldn't have to back up when he started out again. Paul got out, climbing the long way down to the ground. After locking the truck, the driver led him into the diner. When they'd eaten and were back in the truck, Paul was getting comfortable in his seat when the driver said, "Paul, there's a bed right behind you. I'm going to drive through the night. I just got up a couple of hours ago. I usually drive at night - ess traffic that way so I can make better time. You might like to sleep back there. It's a hell of a lot more comfortable that sitting in that seat and sleeping."
He saw Paul face, and the hesitation in his eyes. "Don't worry, I'm not going to let you fall asleep and then come back there and try to do anything to you. You look exhausted to me. You're probably worrying to beat the band right now and that takes a lot out of you. If you want, you can crawl back there and sleep till tomorrow morning. We'll be pulling into Tallisburg about eight, tomorrow morning. I drop my load there, catch some sleep, then load up and drive back, so we'll probably be parting company there, unless I can talk you into going back with me."
"Okay, you're the boss. But I'd suggest you sleep in back there. I'll wake you up shortly before we get to where I'm going."
Paul thought about it, and realized he was exhausted. He turned in his seat and reached out, parting some curtains that were directly behind him. There was a wide seat there with a pillow at one end and some blankets on the other. He crawled out of his seat and onto the sleeper couch. He started to pull the curtains closed, then stopped and said to the man, "This is really nice of you. The food, now a place to sleep, and you're nice, too. Thank you."
"Sure thing, kid. I'll wake you. Good night."
Paul looked at the pillow. It looked clean. He lay down, pulled a blanket over himself, and closed his eyes. The noise of the tires over the road, the slight swaying of the truck, but mostly the day he'd had, conspired to put him into a deep sleep within moments.
The driver shaking his shoulder awakened him, "Time to wake up, Paul."
Paul raised his head. Bright daylight filled the cab, and the sleeper where the curtains had been pulled back. He still felt sleepy, but remembering where he was and why, he was quickly awake. He was conscious of a great need to take a piss, and looking down at himself, realized the driver could see his need.
He looked up into the eyes of the driver, who was watching him, wearing a huge grin. He didn't say anything, however, just turned back to the road.
Paul wriggled up into his seat.
"If you can hold out about five minutes, we're coming to the middle of town. There's a diner there you can get breakfast. They have a bathroom. I'm not going to eat there. I'll just drop you off."
"But. . . ." Paul stopped. It wasn't the driver's concern that he couldn't afford breakfast. He was being dropped off. He should just say thank you.
The driver glanced at him, then said, "Hold out your hand."
Paul held out his hand, and the driver dropped a five-dollar bill in it. "I wish I could do more, Paul. I really am worried about you. But this is all I can do. Take that, and don't argue with me. Maybe I'll see you on the road again, sometime. I hope not. I really hope I don't. I hope things work out for you. Take care, Paul."
By then he'd stopped. A small restaurant was beside them. Mom's, the sign said. Paul grabbed his backpack from the sleeper, then opened the door. "What's your name?" he asked the driver.
"Tom, all I can say is thank you. You've been awfully nice to me, and I can't repay you anything."
"Repay me by taking care of yourself. You keep hitching rides, sooner or later, you're going to meet some bad people. Stop doing this just as soon as you can. And listen, figure out where you're going. When someone asks, give them the name of a city up the road a piece. You tell them you don't know where you're going, they're going to know you're not expected anywhere. That's dangerous. They'll know you're all alone, no one's waiting for you anywhere, and they'll start to get ideas. So figure out what to say to them. You take care now, Paul."
Paul nodded, said thanks again, then climbed down. Tom pulled the door shut, tooted once on his air horn, then pulled away.
Paul debated with himself about spending the five dollars, but he did need the bathroom, and once he was inside, the smell of bacon and eggs and pancakes and coffee was too much to resist. He found he could get pancakes and a glass of milk for his money, and ordered that. When he was finished, he set off walking, and within an hour had reached the edge of town. There, he started sticking out his thumb as cars and trucks rolled past.
He was standing under a tree, staying in the shade, because even though it was only about nine in the morning, the early July sun was hot. He'd only been waiting a few minutes when a shiny new Cadillac pulled past him, then its brake lights flashed on and the car stopped. Paul jogged up to it. The window was lowered from inside, and the driver looked out at him. "Where you headed," he asked, his eyes quite obviously looking Paul over.
When he'd got his breakfast order, Paul had asked the counter lady at Mom's what the names of the next couple of towns down the road were. She'd looked at him a little funny, but told him Baskin was twenty miles away, Conner's Creek thirty miles past that, and Tuckerville another thirty or so miles past that. Now he knew how to answer the question about where he was going. He was going to tell people he was headed to Tuckerville, but if they were only going to Baskin or Conner's Creek, that was okay with him.
The man looked to be in his forties, though Paul wasn't good at judging the ages of adults. He was well dressed. Paul found himself feeling edgy, however, watching the man's eyes run up and down his body. "I'm headed to Tuckerville. Or anything in that direction."
"You're in luck then. That's the direction I'm going. Hop in."
Paul hesitated. He was worried, he remembered Tom's cautionary words, and something about the look on this man's face made him uneasy. Still, this was a ride, and he needed a ride. He couldn't be that choosey, could he? Somewhat reluctantly, he opened the door and got in.
"Just throw your pack in the back," the man said.
That sounded like a bad idea to Paul. The thought he might have to bail on this guy was in the forefront of his mind. He didn't want to have to be hunting for his pack if getting out of the car quickly was something he was going to have to do.
"I'll just drop it here by my feet," Paul answered. "Thanks for stopping."
"Sure thing. You know someone in Tuckerville?"
"Yeah, my cousin. She's expecting me. I told her I'd be there probably by noon."
The man was driving at this point, the car purring down the road. Paul looked at the speedometer and saw they were going 65. It didn't feel any faster than 30.
"Nice car. I've never been in a Cadillac before."
"Yeah, it's great. I always get Caddies. Lots of room, and people like riding in them. I pick people up all the time."
"Yeah. I especially like to pick up cute kids like you. They're usually just as horny and eager as I am."
Paul gulped. He should have paid attention to his instincts, he told himself.
"You like to fool around?" the man asked.
"No, I don't do that."
"You don't? Why not? It's fun. At your age, I was doing it all I could. Hey, I won't hurt you or anything. I'll suck you. You ever been sucked? It's wonderful. I'm ready right now. See?"
He leaned back in his seat and slightly raised his midsection. It was obvious he had an erection from the bulge in his pants.
"I'll bet you're hard, too. Are you?" And the man leaned closer to Paul, looking at his lap.
Paul wasn't aroused. What he was, was frightened.
"Mister, I don't do that. I don't want to do it. Why don't you just stop and let me out?"
"Hey kid, messing around is fun. You'll love a blowjob. It feels really good, your cock hard and me sucking on it in my wet, warm mouth, running my tongue up and down on it. That sounds good, doesn't it? You hard yet? I'll bet you're getting that way. thinking about a wet and sloppy blowjob. I'll tell you what. I'll blow you; all you have to do is stroke me off. You don't even have to suck me if you don't want to. How's that? You'll love it."
"No! Just let me out."
"Well, fuck you, then. I'll just find some other kid. There are lots of them that'll trade a little fun for a ride. They want it bad. Fuck you." And the man stepped on the brakes. The car quickly slowed down, then came to a stop as it pulled off the road. Paul had his hand on his backpack, and just as the car stopped he opened the door. He jumped out, then slammed the door shut behind him. Without even looking at him, the man stepped on the gas and pulled away, the tires kicking up some gravel from the shoulder.
Paul realized he was breathing hard, his heart pounding. He sat down on his pack, his legs shaky. It took him a couple minutes to calm down. Then he started looking around. He was in the middle of nowhere, as far as he could tell. He could see no houses, just open land. There were bushes and trees spotted here and there, but no sign of any improvements or cultivation. It was slightly hilly, rolling landscape, and the contour was enough that he couldn't see very far off to either side of the road. He looked up and down the road and saw no cars. Just empty road.
He'd been sitting there for five minutes when he saw movement in the direction from where he'd come. It quickly grew so he could see it was a car. He stood up and stuck his thumb out. Even though he was completely intimidated now to be doing so.
As it approached, he could see the car was a late model import, one of the small Japanese models that mostly looked the same to him. When it reached him, it slowed, then stopped. His heart in his throat, Paul walked up to it. The window didn't roll down this time and was tinted. He had to open the door.
A middle-aged lady was at the wheel. "Where you going, honey?"
"Tuckerville, or anywhere in that direction."
"What you doing standing out here? There's nothing around here."
"My last ride dropped me off here."
"Here? There's nothing here. Why here?"
Paul had to think. "We got in an argument. He told me to get out."
"Well, you look okay to me. I don't pick up anyone but kids, and even then I worry a little. But I can't leave you stranded out here. You're not planning to knock me over the head or shoot me and steal my car if I pick you up, are you?"
Paul grinned at that. "No ma'am. I'm just looking for a ride."
The lady looked him up and down, too, but Paul didn't feel any vibes this time. "Okay, honey, hop in. I'm only going to Conner's Creek, but that's about half way. That all right with you?"
"That's great, ma'am. Thanks a lot." Paul put his backpack on the floor by his feet, then buckled his seat belt.
"What's your name, honey?"
"You're not from around here, are you?" she asked as she pulled out onto the highway.
"No, I'm just going to visit my cousin in Tuckerville."
"Ah, I see. Tell me Paul, have you been saved?"
"Yes, saved. Have you welcomed Jesus Christ into your heart?"
"Uh, I'm not very religious, ma'am."
"Oh, you need to take Jesus into your heart. You need to be saved. Anyone who wishes to get into Heaven has to accept Jesus. You don't want to burn in the fiery lake for eternity, do you, Paul? You don't want endless suffering. We're all sinners, but we can have eternal salvation if we accept Jesus. Have you thought about that, Paul?"
"Uh, I guess not. I don't get into that stuff much."
"Well, you need to, Paul. We never know when we'll be called, and if you have to stand before the White Throne and then say you haven't taken Jesus as your personal savior, your Judgment will be terrible and swift. You don't want that to happen to you, Paul. You don't want eternal damnation. You need to accept Jesus. I fear for your soul. Will you pray with me now?"
"Uh, I don't pray much, ma'am. We never did, at home."
"What kind of parents do you have, not leading you in prayer, not teaching you the righteous ways, not preparing you to be reborn in Jesus' name? What are they thinking? Answer me that?"
"Uh, I can't really answer that, ma'am. I don't know what anyone is thinking about, really. We were never much of a church-going family."
"Don't go to church! Land sakes! Don't go to church! You're a heathen. Your family is all heathens. You believe in God, don't you? You have to believe in God!"
"Uh, I haven't thought about it much, ma'am. I mean, I've had a lot on my mind lately. I have problems. Thinking about God just isn't something I do, I guess. It never occurred to me, really."
"Hah! That's why you have problems! Anyone would, anyone that hasn't taken Jesus into them. He can save you. But you have to believe, you have to open yourself to Him and his Word. Tell me Paul, would you like me to help you do that? You have to be baptized, you have to ask Jesus into your heart, you have to claim Him as your savior, but I can help with that. I can introduce you to Dr. Michaels, our pastor, and he can get you saved. Will you let me help you, Paul?"
"Uh, I have to get to Tuckerville, ma'am. My cousin is expecting me around noon today. So I don't have time to be saved today."
The lady was quiet for a moment, then asked suspiciously, "You're not making fun of me, are you, Paul? Jesus isn't a laughing matter. There isn't any joke here."
"No, ma'am. I'm not joking. It's just that I'm trying to get to Tuckerville, and my cousin didn't want me hitching, she was worried about that, and if I'm late she'll worry even more, so I don't have time to talk to anyone today or get baptized or anything like that."
"This is important, Paul, much more important that getting to Tuckerville. Well, will you at least think about it? You need to be saved. I'm worried about your soul. You're a sinner, you know. Not going to church! Not praying! Paul, I'm going to pray for you now. It isn't the answer, it won't save you, and you have to be saved to live in Everlasting Glory and me praying for you won't be enough, but maybe it'll buy you a little grace till you wake up and learn to love Jesus. Now, bow your head."
Paul bowed his head, and the woman began praying. He realized he was supposed to be listening to the prayer, but he couldn't help but think about the fact that his head was bowed and hope hers wasn't.
It was fifteen minutes before she stopped. She stopped because they'd come to Baskin. She had to pay attention to the traffic in town, which interfered with her devout thoughts and entreaties related to Paul's soul.
Now that they were in a town and driving much slower, the woman obviously felt no need to keep her eyes strictly glued to the road because she kept glancing over at Paul. It started to make Paul nervous, and he finally asked her why she was looking at him.
She didn't answer, but kept turning to stare at him every few seconds. It began to upset him.
"Ma'am, is something the matter? It's making me nervous, you looking at me like that."
"Are you the devil? Is that why you were out in the middle of the country, all by yourself like that? Were you there to tempt me?"
"No ma'am. I'm just a kid going to Tuckerville."
"Maybe. Maybe not. I think you're the devil. I think I have to get you to a church and sprinkle holy water on you. Then if you shriek and burn, I'll know for sure. There!" She pointed past him out the side window. "There's a Catholic church. I don't hold much with them papists, but they do have holy water right by the front door. I've heard about that. Here, we're going to stop. We're going in there. We'll see if you're the devil."
"Ma'am, you're scaring me. I'm not the devil. I'm just going to Tuckerville. I don't want to go into some church."
"Hah! Of course you don't. But we're going to go in there, and I'm going to find out if you're the devil."
By now, she'd pulled into the church parking lot. As it was a Wednesday and before noon, the lot was deserted except for one car. Paul thought about running, but she grabbed his arm in a tight grip. She opened her door, then dragged him across the center console and out of the car. Holding him tightly, she marched to the front door of the church. It wasn't locked, so she quickly drew him inside.
It was dim and cool inside the church. As she had predicted, there was a font half full of water near the door. She dragged him to it, then unceremoniously took a handful of water and threw it on him. Then another.
"Devil begone!" she shouted.
Paul sputtered. The water soaked into his shirt, and his face was dripping. The lady looked at him, and puzzlement filled her face. She was reaching for another handful of water when Paul jerked his arm from her grasp.
"What the hell, lady! Are you nuts? Don't throw any more water on me!"
The lady looked a little confused. "I was sure you were the devil."
"Well, I'm not. I'm a kid going to Tuckerville. But I'm not going with you. You're crazy. I'm going to get my backpack and then find another ride. You stay away from me." Having said that, Paul turned his back on her and began to walk away. He suddenly stopped, walked back and scooped a handful of water out of the font and threw it on her. She looked at him, shocked. "Nope," he said, "I guess you're not either. You're just crazy."
He went outside and to the car. He opened the door on his side, retrieved his backpack, then shut the door and walked away without looking back.
Baskin was a no more than a village, and it didn't take Paul long to walk through the tiny town center and then reach the outskirts. During his walk he saw the lady's car streak past him. He watched it till it had gone around a bend. Then he stopped, set his pack down and sat down on it, looking back up the road for cars.
His wait was longer this time. Several cars and trucks passed him as he stood with his thumb extended but none of them even slowed down. He was starting wonder if anyone was going to stop when a car finally did. A man was driving. He appeared to be middle-aged to Paul, and looked decent. At least he didn't spend time looking at Paul's crotch as he asked where he was headed. When Paul told him Tuckerville, the man smiled and said that's where he was going, too, and to jump in.
"Hi, I'm Robert. What's your name?"
"Well, Paul, how come you're hitching? It isn't very safe. There are some strange people out here."
"I know. I've already met a couple."
"Really? What happened?"
"Nothing, really. I just got away from them."
"Did they try to do something to you?"
"Well, one of them did. She tried to convert me or something. She wanted to save me. Creeped me out a little. You aren't into saving people, are you?"
Robert chuckled. "No, I'm too busy for that. I'm a salesman and have this whole territory to cover. Come the weekends, I do my best not to even have to get into the car, and that includes not driving to church."
"Well, that's good with me. I don't need any more talk about being burned forever or opening my heart to anyone. What do you sell?"
The man began talking about sporting goods, which he supplied to all the small stores in all the small towns in the area. Paul listened, but soon found his mind drifting. The salesman didn't seem to notice. He talked and talked, and Paul thought back to yesterday, and some of the ease he'd begun to feel dropped away. What was he going to do?
A sudden silence made him realize the man had stopped talking. Paul glanced at him, and he was looking at Paul, a question in his eyes. Paul had to say something.
"I'm sorry. I didn't get much sleep last night. I must have drifted off there for a moment. What was that last thing you said?" Paul realized his lies were beginning to sound better. A little more practice, he might even get good at it.
The man grinned. "I probably put you to sleep. Sometimes I talk too much. I know it, but it's just who I am. Maybe it's why I became a peddler. Anyway, what I said was, we're coming into Conner's Creek. There's a diner that's pretty good here and I usually stop there. How's that sound to you?"
"I'm not really hungry. And I want to get to Tuckerville. My cousin's expecting me. I'd rather not stop, but if you're going to, I can try hitching some more. If no one picks me up before you're done, maybe you could take me the rest of the way?" Paul put some upwardly inflected hope at the end of that sentence.
The man laughed, then stopped and looked at Paul more closely. Then he asked, "Son, would you eat something if I paid for it?"
Paul looked down at the seat. Strangers buying him food wasn't something he was finding it easy to get used to or accept. He realized he should take advantage of this when he could, if it was going to happen, but he found it difficult.
His hesitation seemed to speak to the man. "Let's do that. Let me buy you lunch. You don't look like the sort who's usually hitching on the road. You're dressed better; you don't have a rough look to you at all. I don't know if you're going to Tuckerville to visit your cousin or not, but know you look something like my nephew, and if he were on the road, I'd like to think someone would look out for him. Let me buy you lunch, son."
Paul felt his eyes misting, and immediately stopped that. He wasn't going to cry. He wouldn't let himself. He just wouldn't. He was on his own now and had to start acting more mature.
"Thank you, sir. I'd really like that. Thank you."
In the car again after eating, the man tried to draw Paul's circumstances out of him, but, even though Paul was very grateful for the lunch and the ride, he wasn't ready to talk about that. As politely as he could, he told the man he was sorry, but it was personal and he couldn't talk about it, he simply wanted to get to Tuckerville.
The man finally let up and spoke again about his job, then started talking about where he was going tomorrow. Eventually, they drove past a welcoming sign and into Tuckerville. The man pulled up near the center of town, stopping by a barbershop. He told Paul that he'd be leaving Tuckerville early the next morning, and if he saw him on the side of the highway with his thumb out, he'd pick him up again. Paul got out, thanked him, and the man, after hesitating, drove off.
- -  - -
Now Paul was in Tuckerville and his first order of business, he realized as he walked towards the intersection that proudly displayed the town's only traffic light, was to find a place to spend the night. He had no money. He thought about food, it was afternoon and he knew he'd be hungry at dinnertime, but that wasn't his concern right now. While it was still daytime and light out and warm, he had to figure out where to spend the night. The idea he had in his head was to find a city park, if such a small town as this had one. Perhaps he could find somewhere there he could sleep. If he could, that would be one worry taken care of.
The town was small and he felt if it had a park, he'd be able to find it easily enough, so he just began walking. When he reached the traffic light, he looked in the four directions he could see, thinking this was probably the center of town. He thought that if there was a park, it might be close to the school. That's the way it was where he lived. Surely there was a school in town. He couldn't see anything from where he was standing, so, just at random, decided to turn right and walk in that direction. He had all the rest of the day to find what there was to find. There was no hurry at all.
He'd only gone one block before he saw a traffic sign saying this was a school zone and the speed limit was 25 mph when children were present. He kept walking and before long came to a large brick building set well back from the road, a broad lawn in front of it. There was a sign in the middle of the lawn telling him this was Tuckerville Central High School. The school appeared to be deserted, as one would expect in early July. The school had expansive grounds, but only a few trees and bushes, and so he kept walking, thinking he'd have better luck finding a more secluded place to sleep if he could find a park.
He was nearing the edge of town when he saw another sign along the road in front of him. It read "Tuckerville Recreational Grounds ahead. Caution, Children Playing." He kept walking, and it wasn't long before he was at the park itself. Standing on the road looking at it, Paul could see an extensive grassy area stretching out into the distance ahead of him. To his right, there was an area which had playground equipment, swings and slides, a teeter-totter and a kids merry-go-round; to his left there was a picnic area and behind the tables and charcoal cooking fixtures a dense rank of trees suggest some woods began. Directly in front of him there was a large parking area.
He entered the park and started walking toward the picnic tables. As he got closer, he found a much larger number of picnic tables scattered about than could be seen from the road, and many more charcoal cooking grills, too. Past the picnic area he could see a three paths that cut into the solid front of trees which marked the beginning of a woods. Before entering the woods, which was his ultimate objective, he looked back at the broad, long grassy meadow. There was a slight rise in the ground as it ran away from him and he couldn't see what was behind the park without walking in that direction. He decided to do that before exploring the woods, just to have a better feel for what else the park might have to offer.
It took him some time to get to the top of the rise as the grassy field he was walking on was quite large, several acres he imagined, though he admitted to himself he wasn't sure exactly how large an acre was. Large, he thought. Like this lawn. When he did get to the top of the rise, he saw a long, beautiful lake stretching below him. The slight hill he was on crested at this point and the ground sloped down to the lake. There was a swimming area set off with floats and a sandy beach area fronting it. An anchored raft was set near the far barrier of floats. Further off he could see rowboats and canoes racked on the shore, and the small shack nearby made it obvious they were set up for rental. There were a few people swimming and one or two boats on the lake. He could see no one but himself in the park itself.
Paul turned and walked back towards the woods. He passed the picnic grounds and then entered the woods themselves, walking on one of the paths. He couldn't tell how large an area the woods covered, but, after walking ten minutes, he was still in the trees. Some were growing quite close together, making looking past them difficult, but there were also less dense areas where it would be easy to leave the path, and the occasional small clearing. There appeared to be several trails that ran throughout the woods; he crossed them as he walked along the path he was on.
He decided to follow one of these other trails, and it led him deeper into the woods. He worried about getting lost, so stayed on this trail, but after walking for fifteen minutes, figured this was a much larger area than he'd first thought and knew he could easily find a place to sleep here that would give him as much seclusion as he wanted.
He turned around and followed the trail back to where he had turned onto it. Instead of retracing his steps by turning back on the original path when he came to it, he continued on this second trail. He walked some distance, and then finally emerged from the woods. He found he was now overlooking the lake, but away from the picnic grounds and the broad meadow that made up the park itself. Where the trail left the woods, it turned and then kept going along the top of the low crest and back to the park. Paul noted where he was, then reentered the woods, this time following the same trail, but looking for a place he could sleep that would afford him some privacy.
He had walked for about five minutes when he reached an area where the trees were more spread out and sun penetrated the woods. Off to his right, there was a clearing with some tall, dense bushes at its far side. He worked his way through the trees, walked through the clearing and stopped at the bushes. He saw an opening and pushed into them. They grew close together, but once he was past the outer branches, there was room inside for him to lie down and be completely concealed from anyone in the clearing. Perfect, he thought.
He slipped out of his backpack and shoved it under the bushes, then piled some brush on top so it couldn't be seen. After checking to make sure of that, he retraced his steps to the path and then back to the lake and then the park, making sure on the way he'd be able to find his way back. He felt some reassurance now that he'd found a place to sleep where he felt he'd be safe.
It was now late afternoon. He walked to one of the picnic tables and sat down. For the first time since he'd set out, he didn't have any place to go, didn't have any immediate objective in front of him. For the first time, he wasn't running. Now, his thoughts had a chance to return to the events of the past few days, a chance not to think ahead but to remember. He sat, and then he put his head down on his arms on the table. He began crying, his shoulders shaking. He cried for several minutes, then gradually stopped. Still, he sat with his head down. He had nowhere to go.
He sat alone, in the park. No one else was around. He became aware of the silence. As he sat, the sun dropped lower in the sky. He began to feel hungry. There was nothing he could do about that, so he simply accepted it. Eventually, he got up and walked over to the playground. There, he sat on one of the swings. He didn't swing, just sat there.
When the light finally began getting dim, he decided it would be much easier to find his sleeping spot before it was really dark, and after getting a drink at a drinking fountain in the playground area, headed back. It took him most of fifteen minutes, but he didn't have any problem finding his way. He pushed into the bushes and lay down on the ground. It was still early, but he was both hungry and exhausted. Using his backpack as a pillow, he closed his eyes and was quickly asleep.
He became cold during the night as the temperature chilled, but it didn't wake him entirely and, even if it had, there was nothing he could have done about it. His backpack contained only a set of clothing and a toothbrush. In his sleep, he huddled up into himself as much as possible. It wasn't a really cold night, so while he became uncomfortable, he was still able to sleep through it. In the early morning, however, long before he'd normally have wakened, he slowly emerged from his sleep because something was ticking his ear. He brushed at it, as one will do when mostly asleep, and his hand rubbed against something furry.
That got his attention, and he was suddenly wide-awake. He was cold and stiff from sleeping on the ground, but his imagination was racing and he was picturing all sorts of creatures attacking him, everything from bugs to bears. He opened his eyes and saw directly in front of him a set of large brown eyes and a hairy face. He tried to backpedal, but was already up against the bushes. As his eyes focused better, he realized he was looking at a dog, a rather large black Labrador. The dog had been sniffing him. Now it looked at him with its expressive eyes, a question in them. Its tail was gently moving back and forth.
"Hello, fella," Paul said. He reached out and touched the dog, then rubbed its thick coat. The dog moved closer to him, liking the attention. It looked down at Paul, then lay down next to him, forcing room for itself between the boy and the bushes. Paul could feel the warmth of the dog, and realized he was shivering. After a few more pats, Paul lay down next to the dog, pulling himself up against the warm animal. The dog sighed, then put its head on its paws. Paul wrapped his arms around it, then closed his eyes, and fell back asleep.
He was awakened from a vivid dream he was having. He'd been sleeping in a cave next to a bear, with a fire dancing in the background, and someone was shouting at him. As he slowly woke up, he heard the shout again, although what he heard was a voice some distance away, yelling, "Barney, here girl. Barney."
The dog, feeling Paul wake up, sat up, then gave a loud, "Woof." Just one, but it startled Paul. He thought the dog would run off, but it didn't. It sat there, alertly looking out through the bushes into the woods. Paul kept his arm draped over the animal, feeling very safe in its presence.
The calling voice was coming closer. The dog woofed again. Then footsteps could be heard and a rustling of bushes, and a boy was peeking through the close opening, into the cavity where Paul and the dog were.
"There you are!" the boy said. Rather than looking exasperated, he had a smile on his face. He looked at the dog, then at Paul, and said, "Hi there. I see you've adopted my dog, or vice versa."
Paul couldn't help but smile back at the boy. He had that sort of face where, when he smiled at you, you smiled back. He looked to be Paul's age, but was sturdier. He had dark brown hair, dark eyes and was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt.
"I think he adopted me. He found me, and then lay down with me. I sort of used him for a blanket. He's very warm."
"He is that, except he's not a he. He's a she."
"Really? I hadn't noticed. But the name sort of told me he must be a boy."
"Barney? Yeah, I could see why you'd say that, but frequently dogs have names that have nothing to do with their sex. We got her as a puppy, and she was uncoordinated and sort of stupid, and I watched a lot of Mayberry reruns back then, so she got named after Andy's deputy. What are you doing sleeping out here, anyway?"
"I just wanted to see what it was like, camping out in the woods, pretending to be an explorer or something. It was pretty cool."
The boy looked at Paul for a moment, started to say something, then changed his mind. Instead he asked, "What's your name?"
"I'm JC. My real name is Jerome Carruthers. Jerome Carruthers Spencer. Named after my two grandfathers. You can see why I go by JC."
"Hi, JC. Thanks for letting me borrow your dog. Does she always run loose in the woods at night?"
"Dad usually lets her out when he gets up at five. She goes where she pleases. Everyone knows Barney. It's sometimes hard for me to find her. She could be anyplace, but she likes the park and the woods, so I check here first."
"This is a big woods. How do you find her?"
"She'll bark to let me know where she is. Usually she'll come to me. I think she was being protective of you. She'll do that. She seems to know when someone needs her."
Paul wasn't sure what to say to that. He liked this boy, and especially the dog, but he couldn't make friends. Friends would want to know about him, and he couldn't tell them anything.
He decided it'd be best if he somehow ended this conversation. "Well, I'd better be getting back. I told Mom I'd sleep in the woods then be back this morning for breakfast, so I'd better get going."
JC lost his smile for a moment, then said, "I was just going to invite you to breakfast. Sure you wouldn't want to do that, come back with me to my house for breakfast, before you go?"
Paul was starving, he suddenly realized. He was so tempted to accept the offer, but knew if he did, there would be lots of questions, and he didn't have any answers. It was difficult, but he shook his head. "Sorry, but I'd better be going. Thanks for the offer, though."
He hugged Barney one last time and rubbed her ears. Barney licked him, and Paul giggled.
JC watched this with a serious expression on his face, then smiled again when Paul looked back at him. "Okay Paul. Nice meeting you. Come on, Barney." He pushed back out through the bushes into the clearing. Barney looked after him, looked back at Paul, then woofed.
"Go on, girl," Paul said. Barney remained staring at him a moment, then turned, pushed out of the bushes and followed JC.
The rest of the morning was difficult for Paul. His hunger became a physical nuisance, reminding him every minute that he should be eating. Without money, there was no way to do that unless he begged. He realized it might come to that, but he hadn't reached that point yet. He was simply hungry, and he could deal with that.
The day warmed rapidly and by nine it was well into the 90's. With the heat came humidity, and Paul became distinctly uncomfortable. He sat at the picnic tables for a while, then moved to the playground where there were scattered trees growing around and near the equipment which partially shaded the area. As the day progressed, people started showing up in the park. By noon, many of the picnic tables were occupied and people had charcoal fires burning in the grills. Soon, the smell of cooking hot dogs and hamburgers wafted through the park, and Paul's hunger reached new dimensions.
He was hot and hungry and, by one in the afternoon, was having a hard time concentrating on anything else. He spent some time in the woods to escape the sun, but he couldn't escape the heat or humidity. The sounds of kids laughing and playing in the park carried easily to him and made his loneliness worse. He spent some time crying, but that didn't change anything at all.
He stood at the end of the path that overlooked the lake, and suddenly decided he was going to go swimming. There were many people in the water, a few on the raft, and it looked so cool and inviting, he couldn't resist. He didn't have a bathing suit, but the boxers in his backpack were a solid dark color and by rolling the elastic waistband inside, he felt it could easily pass as a bathing suit. He didn't have a towel, but the warm sun would dry him quickly once he got out.
He walked back to his sleeping place, changed into his other boxers, then put his clothes back on and walked back to the park and made his way down to the beach. He undressed down to his boxers and laid his clothes in a pile on the sand like other people had done, though he didn't have a towel to lay his on. He walked to the water and waded in.
The water was very pleasant, not cold as he'd been afraid it would be. He decided to swim out to the raft. He was a very good swimmer and enjoyed the swim of about 75 yards. He climbed up the ladder and stood on the raft, looking around.
There were three other teens on the raft, all of whom looked to be a couple years older. They were lying together, giving Paul the impression they were friends. They looked up at him when he climbed aboard, then one sat up. The look he gave Paul wasn't either welcoming or friendly.
Paul sat down on the edge of the raft closest to the beach and let his breathing slow down after the fast swim. He was sitting, looking at the lake, when he heard a voice behind him ask, "Hey, who are you?"
Paul turned his shoulders and saw all three boys now sitting, starting at him.
"Hi, I'm Paul."
"I've never seen you before. What are you doing on our raft, in our lake?" The boy in the middle was talking. His voice was hard and challenging.
Paul looked confused, and he answered saying, "I thought this was a public park."
"Kid, we're on this raft, and you have to get our permission to come on here."
Paul knew this wasn't true. Still, he couldn't make much of a fuss. There were three of them, and they were all older than he was. "Oh, well, is it okay if I sit here?"
"No way, kid. Beat it."
"Okay. Just let me get my breath back."
The boy who'd been talking stood up and stepped closer. "You don't hear too well, do you. Hey, guys, look at that. He isn't even wearing a bathing suit. Those are boxers!"
The other boys stood and crossed to where Paul was still sitting, surrounding him. Paul felt very nervous now.
One of the other boys leaned down and looked, then said, "He obviously doesn't know the rule. Bathing suits only here. Anything else, we have to confiscate. It's the rule here."
"Yeah," said another of the boys. "We have to confiscate them. Otherwise you're not legal."
"So you'd better give them to us," said the third. "And be quick about it."
"Yeah, if we have to take them off, we may just get a little rough. But if you want, we can. Either way, they come off."
Paul's heart started racing. He didn't know what to do, and then the boy who appeared to be the leader, the one who'd spoken to him first, took hold of his arm.
"Let's do it. You two stand there so you're screening him, and I'll take them off him." The boy pulled Paul to his feet and behind the other two.
The two other boys did their best to screen what was happening behind them. They moved slightly, held the their arms akimbo, made themselves as large as possible, did anything and everything so that what was happening wasn't obvious across the water.
As the boy holding Paul reached and began pulling down his boxers, Paul suddenly jerked away from him. Because the boy was concentrating on the boxers and not his grip on Paul's arm, Paul was able to free himself. Feeling himself free, he immediately took the one step necessary to bring him to the edge of the raft and dove into the water.
The diving threatened his modesty as much as the boys had. When he dove he felt the water yanking at his boxers and them slipping down his body. He spread his legs quickly, and it was just soon enough to prevent them from disappearing entirely. He yanked them back on as he was surfacing, and heard three splashes behind him. Without looking back, he immediately started stroking towards the shore.
He was tired from just having swum out to the raft, and from not having eaten for 24 hours, but his adrenalin was high and bolstered his energy. Still, he could hear the three older boys right behind him. He made it to the beach ahead of them, and when he got there, took off running. More and more people had been arriving at the beach to find some relief from the hot day, and he had to dodge and twist to avoid hitting anyone.
He looked back and saw the boys were on the beach now and running after him. It was while he was looking back at them that he suddenly tripped and fell forward, right on top of someone.
He was still sprawled on that someone when he heard the footsteps behind him stop. He looked back and saw the three boys standing at the edge of the towel he was on. Near the towel was a large black dog, a dog whose hair was bristled over its shoulders and who was making a low rumbling sound deep in its throat.
Paul jumped up off whomever he was lying on. He stood facing the three boys. His heart pounding, he clenched his fists and prepared to at least get in a couple blows as they were annihilating him.
He was ready to fight when a voice behind him said, "Hello, Jason. Barry. Rick. You chasing someone?"
Paul looked back and saw the person he'd fallen on was JC, and realized what he'd tripped over had been Barney. JC was speaking to the three older boys. Although he was younger and smaller than any of them, he seemed entirely at ease. He hadn't even gotten up, but was speaking to them from his position lying on the towel.
The boys looked from him to Paul and back, then a disappointed frown appeared on their leader's face, and, without saying a word, he turned and walked away, the other two boys quickly following.
Paul stood watching, and when they were well away, sank down onto the sand. He was breathing hard, both from the swim and his run up the beach, but mostly from the residue of the fear he'd felt, knowing he was going to get beaten. He looked at JC, and then was mortified to feel tears forming in his eyes. He looked away, but the tears started to run. The past two days had caught up to him, and in a big way.
He was crying hard when suddenly he felt a wet tongue lapping at his face. He tried to twist away, but wherever he turned, the tongue was still attacking him.
No matter how badly one feels, it is difficult to cry when being slobbered on by a large teddy bear of a dog. Labs have huge tongues and are very persistent creatures. Within a minute, Paul was no longer crying, but instead was laughing hard. He wrapped his arms around Barney and hugged her tightly. Barney sat down next to him, and finally stopped licking. She stayed right next to Paul, however.
"See? I told you she knew when to be protective. I don't know how she knows, but she does."
"She's wonderful." Paul's voice was still shaky.
"Yep. Why were those guys chasing you?"
"I don't know. They tried to strip me on the raft, I got away, and they followed. Why did they stop when they saw you? There were three of them, and they're all older than we are. I think they are. You look like you're my age, 14. Are you?"
"Yeah, I am,"
"So why did they stop? Are they afraid of Barney?"
"I doubt it. She'd never bite anyone. She might growl a little, but that would be all. No, they were afraid of me."
"Of you? Why?"
JC laughed. "Well, for two reasons, and I think the second is probably more important than the first. But the first one is, I've got a black belt, and they know it. Jason tried to mess with me once, and he won't do it again. I don't even think all three of them together would try it.
"Jason and Rick are brothers; Barry is Jason's best friend. They love picking on guys smaller than they are, but people who fight back aren't really their style. They're not very bright. Most kids just try to stay away from them. They don't mess with me since Jason found out it was better to leave me alone."
"What's the other reason?"
"That's probably why they backed off so quickly. My father is the presiding judge for the five counties that make up this judicial district. He has a reputation of being tough on juvenile offenders. If those guys jumped me, they knew what would happen if it ever got into his court. Even if he recused himself because of family involvement, all the people in the legal profession around here know each other, and whoever took his place would probably be inclined to look very closely at anyone who was standing before them for any offense against me."
"Wow. Your father's a judge; you're a black belt. You kind of have it made in this town, don't you?"
JC looked at him, and his smiled faded. He didn't answer right away, instead turning to look at the lake. Paul didn't say anything else, just watched him, still with his arms around Barney.
Eventually, JC turned back to Paul. Instead of answering his question, he asked one of his own. "So, Paul, what's your story?"
"That was a load of crap you gave me this morning. Now that we know each other better, now that you dropped in on me, I thought maybe you'd feel like telling me the truth. Maybe we can get to know each other a little."
Paul didn't know what to answer. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. He looked away, then back at JC and said, "Can I go get my clothes first? I left them on the beach and should get them?"
"Sure. You're coming back, though, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I'll be right back."
JC grinned. "Take Barney with you. Then I know you'll be back."
Paul stood up. "Come on, girl," he said, and started off. Barney wagged her tail and took off with him, walking by his side, looking up at him occasionally.
His clothes were where he'd left them. He picked them up, then made his way through the sand back to where JC was again lying on the towel, his arm thrown over his eyes to block the sun.
Paul sat down on the towel. Without looking at him, JC asked, "You ready to talk now?"
"How'd you know I wasn't telling the truth?"
"Couple of things. One, I know all the kids that live around here who are my age. At least, I know them by sight. I've never seen you before. Second, who would ever go camping in the woods without even a sleeping bag, or a blanket, or a canteen, or a flashlight, or an air mattress or anything at all? No one. Third, when I asked you if you wanted to get breakfast with me, your eyes gave you away. You looked really hungry, for a minute."
"So why didn't you say anything?"
JC paused before answering that. When he did, he took his arm off his eyes and rolled onto his side so he could see Paul. "I guess I had a couple reasons for not saying anything, but they're nothing I want to talk about. It was more feelings I had than anything. I was giving you an opportunity to talk to me, if you wanted to. If you didn't, I could understand that. Everyone has problems, you know. When you don't want to talk about them, no one should force you to."
"You know, JC, you're the second person to tell me that everyone's got problems in the last two days. Why is that? It's like I have a sign on my chest saying, 'I've got problems.'"
JC grinned at him. "Well, that's not so far off, if someone looks at you closely, I guess. You do get looks on your face, now and then, that make me wonder what you're thinking. You don't smile much. You don't act all loose and goofy and unconcerned, like most kids. You seem very tight, somehow, like you're wound up. So, yeah, I'd guess you've got problems, just like we all do."
"What are your problems?"
"Whoa! How'd we get to that so fast? I think we were discussing your problems, and I just have a feeling yours are more urgent than mine. Let me ask you something, and answer me truthfully, okay?"
"Depends on the question."
"This one isn't that hard. When did you last eat?"
"Uh, well. . . ."
"Oh, come on, Paul! Just tell me. I know you're hungry. I can see it. It won't hurt anything to tell me."
"All right. Lunch, yesterday."
"So that was what, 26 hours ago? How often has it been in the past when you've gone 26 hours between meals?"
"Never, I guess."
"Right. So the first thing we need to do is get you something to eat."
"JC, I don't feel right about this."
"Why not? Are you planning to starve yourself to death? Or waiting till you're too weak to stand before asking for help? Or maybe robbing a bank or something? You need help. Why not let me help you?"
"I don't know. It just feels wrong, like I'm taking advantage of you, or maybe that you feel sorry for me. It just doesn't feel right."
"It can't feel right to be hungry, either. You have to be practical. Anyway, let's not argue, let's get something to eat."
Just the thought of eating made Paul's hunger suddenly real and urgent. He'd been repressing it. Now, aware that he could be eating soon, he no longer had a need to hold it back, and hunger pangs hit him with a vengeance.
JC had stood up and started moving off, expecting Paul to follow, and when he didn't, JC looked back and saw Paul leaning over. He hurried back to him.
"Sorry. My stomach got a cramp or something, and I felt a little dizzy."
"Hey, why don't you sit down? Just wait here. I'll get a hot dog for you. I don't think you want to eat too much right away. I read that some place. I'll get you a hot dog, then you can join us for dinner in an hour or so."
"My dad and me. I don't have a mom. He'll be here in a bit, with a picnic hamper and a portable grill, and we'll fix dinner."
Paul noticed for the first time there were lots more people on the beach, and he could hear the sounds of more above them in the park.
"How come it's so crowded all of a sudden?" he asked JC.
JC looked at him, then grinned. "You've been kind of wrapped up in whatever's been going on, haven't you?"
Paul looked down sheepishly. "I guess so."
"Well, sir, for your information, this is the 4th of July. There'll be fireworks here when it gets dark. The park fills up with people, they swim and have picnics, and then they all watch the fireworks. This entire place will be full of people, in another hour or so. Our whole town turns out and people from all over, too. Pretty quickly, I've got to go up on the lawn and spread a blanket. Paul, are you going to be all right if I go get that hot dog? I think you need food right now."
Paul looked around but couldn't see the boys who'd been chasing him earlier. "Yeah, I'll be all right."
"I'll leave Barney with you. Stay, girl."
Barney looked at JC, then sat down on the towel with Paul. Paul draped an arm over her back, the started scratching behind her ears.
About ten minutes later, JC was back. He handed a hot dog wrapped in paper and a cup of coke to Paul, then picked up a folded blanket lying next to the towel and said, "While you're eating that, and I'll go grab a place on the lawn. It's filling up fast this year. I'll be back in a few."
Paul began unwrapping his hot dog, feeling almost faint with hunger now that he was about to eat. Barney was suddenly sitting upright, her eyes focused intently on the hot dog, watching every move Paul made. Paul laughed and, hungry as he was, broke off a piece of the roll and held it out. Eagerly, Barney stretched her neck forward and took the piece of bread, very gently nibbling it out of his fingers. There was hardly a pause and she was back pointing the hot dog again.
"Hey, I've got to eat this, Barney. Sorry." Paul took a bite, and then another. He realized he'd better take the time to chew. He felt like just pushing the entire thing in his mouth and swallowing it whole. He ate it as slowly as he could, saving just a bit of meat and some more roll for Barney, who again took the food delicately and swallowed it immediately, not even bothering to chew it.
Paul drank some coke, then fished some ice cubes from the cups and held them out in his hand. Barney looked at him, her head cocked slightly to one side, then leaned forward and licked them into her mouth. She crunched them, then swallowed and looked back up at Paul.
"Why do I get the idea you're a bottomless pit?" he asked her.
JC was just returning to the towel and overheard. "You figured that out, did you? Barney's best thing is eating. She's an expert at it. You should see her go at her food bowl. It's incredible. I've heard other Lab owners say the same thing. Labs love to eat. You have to watch it or they get really fat. She's too heavy now, but not too bad. I've seen some that are well over 100 pounds. That's pretty heavy for a Lab. Isn't it, girl?" He was petting her head as he was speaking, and she was slumping into him, leaning against his legs.
JC turned back from Barney to look at Paul. "You ready? I set out the blanket, and Dad is here. He's getting the grill ready. I told him you were joining us, and that we wanted to eat early."
Paul looked a little scared. "What's he like? What did you tell him about me?"
"You'll like him, Paul. He's nice. As far as what I told him about you, not much. I don't know much about you. I just told him I'd met someone and invited him to eat with us. I also told him that, after eating with us, you'd also watch the fireworks with us and then come home and sleep over with me our house. I hope one night sleeping with the wolves and bears on your own was enough for you."
"JC. . . ." There was a plaintive quality to Paul's voice; JC could also see a longing in his eyes. JC just ignored Paul and began gathering up his blanket. Paul put his clothes back on. Both he and his boxers were dry by then, so dressing was no problem.
"Ready? Okay, let's go." JC started off, and Barney and Paul walked beside him. They climbed the slight hill from the beach to the lawn above it. Paul was surprised to see much of the lawn area covered with blankets, spaced so people could walk between them. There were a large number of grills going, some with meat already cooking. The smells of it stirred Paul's appetite and made his mouth water.
JC was weaving between blankets. Barney suddenly raised her head and ran ahead, stopping where a man was leaning over a chest, taking wrapped hamburger patties out. Barney ran up to him, stood looking up at him, then bumped him in the thigh with her nose. The man reached out and pushed her away, but she kept bumping him until he laughed and rubbed her ears.
He was standing up with his hands full of meat when JC and Paul arrived. JC said, "Dad, this is Paul. Paul, my dad, Judge Spencer."
The judge started to put out his hand, then realized it was full of hamburger patties. He laughed, a deep, pleasant laugh, and said, "Hi, Paul. I guess shaking hands will have to wait a bit."
Paul smiled back at him, though his smile was a little forced and nervous. The judge was a tall, thin man with gray hair and a distinguished looking face. Even wearing comfortable clothes, a light sweatshirt and slacks, there was a presence to the man that arrested one's attention.
"Hello, sir, nice to meet you. Thank you for inviting me to eat with you."
The judge looked at him, then at JC. He spoke to him, saying, "JC, you could take lessons from Paul. See how polite he is?"
Paul blushed, and JC said, "Dad, stop embarrassing him. Me too. I'm polite when I need to be. Now, what can we do to help get dinner on the table?"
"Maybe set up the table? I thought we'd just eat sitting on the blanket, but we can put everything on the table. We've got hamburgers with all the fixings, potato salad, baked beans that should still be hot but I'll stick them on the grill too to be sure, chips and salsa, deviled eggs, cold fried chicken, carrot and celery sticks, cucumbers in sour cream and dill, and brownies for dessert. Is that enough?"
Paul looked at him and asked, "You brought all that for just the two of you, sir?"
"No, Paul, these 4th of July picnics are sort of pot luck. This is a small town and almost everyone knows one another. People wander around, talk to each other and get invited to grab bites of this and that from all over. This is so we have enough for anyone to nibble on, anyone who wants to stop and talk."
"Dad's a politician," said JC, "and is always making sure he gets reelected. Having food for people is one of his main things."
Judge Spencer chuckled, then started peeling the paper off the patties and laying them on the grill. JC began setting up a collapsible folding table. When it was upright, he began taking things out of the cooler and setting them on the table. Paul hurried to help him. Barney kept her eyes solely on the grill. Paul laughed when he saw she was drooling.
JC noticed, too, and said, "We don't usually give her much people food. It's too high in fat for her. But at picnics, it's hard not to, and she knows it. She looooves picnics."
The food was finally cooked. There were paper plates on the table, along with wicker shells to hold them. Paul grabbed a plate and a bun and the judge put a hamburger on it. Paul filled his plate with other foods from the table, then sank down on the blanket. JC joined him almost immediately, and the judge soon thereafter. Paul was too busy eating to do much talking. The other two watched him for a moment; he noticed and slowed down, feeling a little embarrassed.
The judge and JC started talking together, not privately, but talking about things that didn't require Paul to join the conversation. Occasionally, other people, all adults, wandered by, and the judge stood and spoke to them, and invited them to the abundance of food. Barney stayed very close to Paul, and without seeming to move at all, kept getting closer, her eyes fixed on his plate. Paul smiled and began offering bits of hamburger, cold chicken and hamburger bun. Barney took them all gingerly and then made them disappear.
As they all ate, Paul was attentive to the relationship between JC and his father. Without seeming to pay them any attention, he was acutely aware of how they were together. Paul noted their easy manner, the respect that JC paid his father even when he was making teasing comments, and what Paul could only think of as love that the judge returned to his son. It was manifest in the looks the judge gave the boy, the casual way he'd lay a hand on the boy's shoulder, the close attention he'd give him when listening to what he was saying, the affectionate tone of voice he'd answer him with. The easy comfort each had with the other was obvious, and seeing it, being next to it, relaxed Paul more any words could have.
When Paul was beginning to feel full, after he'd spent the last few minutes with his eyes on his plate and feeding bits to Barney, he lifted them and to his surprise found the judge was gone. JC was still sitting next to him, watching him. He was sitting close, and his knee was touching Paul's leg.
"Where'd you father go?"
"He likes to mingle. He's not running for office again for a couple years, but he's always on the stump, according to him. That means he's always trying to drum up support, talking to people, being friendly. Besides, he never eats much. I think that's why he's so thin."
"JC, I don't know how to thank you for this. It wasn't till I started eating that I knew how hungry I really was. If I'd gone to bed hungry tonight, it would have been bad."
"You know, Paul, at some point you're going to have to tell me why you're on your own. You realize that, don't you?"
Paul was quiet.
JC didn't push it. He stood up and started cleaning up the debris, though he left the serving bowls and plates of food on the table, telling Paul it was there for anyone who came by and was hungry.
"Won't Barney steal it?"
"No way. She'd love to. She always looks like she's starving and will eat almost anything. I've seen her eat celery; most dogs won't touch that. She'd eat all the food on that table, and in about five seconds, if I gave her permission. But she won't steal it. She's trained. She doesn't do that."
When he'd cleaned up everything and thrown it in the closest trashcan, he sat back down on the blanket next to Paul. It was slowly beginning to get dark. Neither boy said anything for a while. Barney lay down next to Paul, and he idly petted her as he just looked around the park, watching the other people. The silence was companionable, and Paul couldn't help but think how anxious he'd been up until he'd stumbled over Barney and fallen on top of JC so recently. Now, sitting here, he was much more at ease. His problems still were there, lying in the background waiting for him, but right at this moment, he wasn't scared, and that was a significant improvement.
Most of the grass was now covered with blankets and people were sitting and eating, talking, or milling around talking to one another. Paul looked around and saw a lot of kids his age. They were usually in groups, some four or five, some even larger. Occasionally he'd see a pair of them. These groups seemed to be moving idly around the park, and occasionally would join with another group, talk awhile, then move apart and keep going. Paul watched this for a time, then turned to look at JC, whom he found had leaned back so he was lying with his elbows pushed back behind him, supporting himself with his upper body lifted off the blanket. JC wasn't watching the crowd. He was looking at Paul.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Well - " Paul paused. This was going to sound personal, maybe embarrassing. He wasn't sure how to put it.
"No, say what you were going to say."
"It's, well, okay, it's just that, I see a lot of kids our age here. They're all talking to each other, friendly, laughing, they all seem to know each other, and they're hanging out, but - " He stopped.
"But what? Paul, you can say what you want to say. But what?"
"But, none of them ever come over here. None of them are stopping by and eating your food, or petting Barney, or saying hi to you. Why aren't they - " Paul stopped. Then, after a pause, he asked, "Are they staying away from us because I'm here, and they don't know me?"
This wasn't what he was wondering. He'd suddenly not wanted to ask why none of the kids were coming to talk to JC. He'd changed the question to give JC an out. Putting JC on the defensive was the last thing he wanted to do. He realized, thinking about it, that he was feeling something for JC, that he had been for a while now. The boy had literally saved him: from the three bullies, from his growing hunger, from being alone, friendless, and scared. He had begun feeling thankful to JC for all that, but the feeling he had now, the feeling that was growing, was a different one. It had crept up on him, but he knew it was there.
The very last thing he wanted was to hurt JC's feelings. So he broke off his question, and didn't ask what he'd intended to.
A silence started to grow, and Paul felt suddenly embarrassed. Finally he said, apologetically, "I shouldn't have said anything. I'm really sorry, JC."
"It's okay. I keep asking you to tell me about yourself, but I haven't told you anything about me, either. I was going to. I was going to tonight, at home. I guess I need to do it now. It just takes me getting ready, is all."
He was quiet again for a moment before speaking. Then he sat up so they were sitting close to each other, cross-legged on the blanket, sitting where their conversation wouldn't carry beyond themselves.
"Paul, this is a small town. Most kids know each other. We know all about each other because we've grown up with each other. That's good, and safe, and makes growing up easier than in some of the big cities. We don't have gangs, we don't have much crime, even drug use here is pretty minor; it's much, much less of a problem than in big cities. I keep hearing the adults say that life doesn't move as fast here. And I know most parents are involved with their kids. I've heard that in cities, both parents work in most families. Kids are on their own a lot. That's not so true here, and in the cases where both parents do work, there's always some friend's mom around. No kid is really on his own here like happens so often in bigger places.
"There are, of course, some exceptions to that. My mom got cancer when I was real little. She died. I don't even remember her very well. What I remember of her now seems more like I'm remembering my memories of her rather than the actual her. But anyway, for most of my life, it's just been Dad and me. And being a judge, the chief judge of a huge district, he works a lot, sometimes long hours, and he's gone when he travels to try cases in other cities in the counties he covers.
"That should have been a problem for him, because he needed someone to watch me when I was young. Except it wasn't. I had a friend who lived across the street from us. His name was Freddy. Freddy and I were only a month apart in age, and I guess you could say we grew up together. We started playing together when we were about two. I was over there all the time, and his parents sort of became my second parents, maybe even more than that because I was there so much, and I didn't have a mother any more at home. Freddy's mother became my mother, too.
"Freddy and I were best friends, and when we were 11, we messed around a little like boys do. We'd been naked in the tub and shower and changing into swimming suits and pajamas many times before that, but when we got to be that age, it was suddenly different. When we were sleeping over, it suddenly felt exciting to sleep naked together. We'd never even thought about doing that before. But now, we did think about it, and we started doing it. It was exciting, and we both were eager. Soon we started touching each other and we both liked that, too. We both looked forward to doing it when we'd have sleepovers, and we started asking if we could sleep together more often.
"When I was just 13, about a year and a half ago, we were in bed at his house one night and doing the things we did. Freddy had asked his mom if we could sleep over that night, and she'd said no, I don't even know why, and he'd thrown a fit or something and she'd finally given in. She liked me, I was sort of a pseudo son of hers anyway, and I guess she just didn't see any point fighting about it with Freddy. But the reaction Freddy had when she said no seemed peculiar to her, I figured out later, and I guess it got her thinking. So, we were in bed, naked and both hard and he was on top of me and sort of humping on me, and she walked in.
"We were under the covers, but it was easy for her to guess what we were doing, with Freddy sliding up and down on me. Neither one of us knew she was there, till she spoke. I have no idea how long she watched before she said, 'Freddy, stop that!' He stopped.
"All of a sudden we were both scared out of our minds. We'd been caught! Freddy quickly rolled off me. His mom walked over to the bed and looked down at us. She looked more sad than mad. She just looked for a moment, then asked, 'How long has this been going on?'
"Freddy answered her. He was so scared his voice was trembling. He said in a very small voice, 'A year or so.'
"She looked really unhappy with that. She asked him, 'You do this all the time? This is why you want to have sleepovers so much?'
"Freddy said, 'I guess. This isn't only why we like to sleep together. It isn't the only reason. We like being together, too. We're best friends.'
" 'Well, this is the end of doing this sort of thing,' she told us. 'What you were doing is wrong. It's a sin. You two are too old for this. JC, get up and go home. Right now. And Freddy, I'm going to have to tell your father.'
"I just lay there. How could I get up? I was still mostly hard, even if I was scared, and I was naked. She hadn't seen me naked in years. She took care of that, though. She reached down and yanked the covers off both of us, and there I was. She glanced at me, then looked into my face, and just stared at me. I covered myself with my hands and got out of bed, and started getting dressed. I was embarrassed. And upset. I didn't know what was going to happen. I left, and went home.
"She told her husband all right, and he wasn't sad. He was angry as hell. He came over and talked to my father, and I think it was only because of who my father was, and the way he was, that things stayed reasonably calm. But Freddy's father was shouting and calling me names, and saying he never wanted me at his house again or me to ever have anything to do with Freddy again, and if I did he'd have me arrested and my kind shouldn't be allowed to walk around free, contaminating other children, and I finally got up and left. It was too hard to listen to all that, and to hear all that anger. I didn't think I was bad. I was just me. Freddy and I both liked what we'd done. Why was it all my fault?
"I went up to my room, and a while later, after Freddy's dad had left, still shouting, my dad came up, sat on the bed with me, not saying anything at all. He reached out his arms, and I fell into them and started crying. He held me without saying anything till I stopped crying. When I did, we talked.
"He asked me a bunch of questions, and I answered them. He told me I might be gay, but it was too soon to know, and whether I was or wasn't, I was his son and he was my father and we'd always be that and he'd always love me more than anyone else in the world. He said that what I'd done didn't make any difference to him; he loved me. He said we needed to be there for each other, and we needed to talk and not have secrets and we needed that more than ever now, because Freddy's father was going to tell people what the two of us had done and was going to make every effort to make it my fault and not Freddy's, and that this sort of thing always was interesting to people, so it would be talked about, and people would ask me questions, and I might get teased, or even bullied.
"That's when we decided I should spend more time with my karate lessons, which I'd started a couple years earlier, but hadn't been very serious about. He told me I should be serious about it now, and learn it. He also said to be myself, be proud of myself, and not to let any negative talk, name-calling or anything else get to me, that I'd just have to be stronger now.
"That was a year and a half ago, Paul. In that time, I've grown to understand myself. I've had to grow up a lot. I liked what Freddy and I did, but there was more to it than that. I now understand myself better. I'm gay, Paul. Not only do I know that, but Freddy's father made sure the whole town knew it, too, even if at that time I didn't even know it myself. It's taken me a year to be sure. He told everyone he could within the next few days of when that happened, then within a month he took the family and moved away, so I didn't even have Freddy any more.
"But the damage had been done. This is the Bible Belt; we're right in the middle of it. Most everyone here is religious, goes to church and believes what the ministers in town tell them to believe. Most everyone here thinks I'm a sinner, even though Freddy's the only one I've ever done anything with, and that was mostly just us learning about our bodies, doing what was exciting and felt good. Most of the parents have told their kids to stay away from me, that I'm evil. A few kids will still talk to me, but the ones that do have to put up with remarks about themselves, and most just avoid me. Some kids have tried picking on me, and I had a few fights at first, but I already knew some karate and I was getting better. Kids learned I'd fight back. They found out it was easier to just call me names than to confront me. Most of them just started leaving me alone.
"Anyway, I don't really have any friends any more. Adults watch me; they watch everything I do. Kids, for the most part, just ignore me, as that's easier for them. I don't get hassled by large groups of kids, because they're afraid of my father, I guess, and just one or two together, I can handle. About all that happens to me now is that I overhear some comments I'm meant to overhear. That hurt a lot at first, but I've learned to live with it. The loneliness has been harder to learn to live with. That's been really tough.
"That's the answer to your question, the one you were too polite to ask. That's why you don't see groups of kids coming over to talk or hang around with me."
Paul was watching JC. JC didn't look ashamed, though he did look sad. After finishing, he looked at Paul, looking to see his reaction. Though he'd developed a calm outward face for the world in the past year, inside, JC was nervous and hoping against hope that Paul wouldn't do what the other kids had done, turn away from him. He hoped he had found someone in Paul he'd been looking for, desperately wanting, for months. He so badly wanted and needed a friend.
Paul didn't know what to say, but he knew how he felt. He felt sad for JC, and surprised that the boy seemed to have accepted what had happened, accepted his ostracism by his town, and didn't seem overwhelmed by it. He was amazed JC was still outwardly a friendly boy, a boy who had rescued Paul and extended unconditional friendship to him. He also felt the feelings of attraction and attachment he'd felt before come to life, felt them come to fullness.
Paul didn't know what to say, how to articulate his feelings, but instinctively, he reached out and took JC's hand. He held it, squeezed it, and looked into his eyes. JC looked back and saw what he'd hoped he could find with Paul. He saw acceptance.
They sat like that, looking into each other's eyes in the new darkness. They sat close enough, each staring at the other, that they felt they could see into each other's heart, neither trying to hide anything from the other. They both saw need. They both saw raw emotions. They both saw the vulnerability of the other.
They sat like that, seeing each other, revealing all of themselves, revealing everything through their eyes, everything that is almost always kept hidden. They held this position for long moments, and then Paul leaned forward and gently, tentatively, kissed JC. He kissed his lips, then pulled back and again locked onto his eyes, looking for confirmation.
It was then that both boys were startled by the first skyrockets of the night: a group of four bursts of color, red, white, blue, and shimmery silver, that lit the sky with accompanying loud booms.
A large orange radiating spider, and then a series of noise-only rockets, and then a red and green medley of bursts immediately followed.
There was a pause then, for reloading, and while it was silent and people were letting their ears recover and darkness was again on them, JC responded. He leaned over and kissed Paul back. He put his hands on Paul's shoulders and held him and kissed him. His kiss was harder than Paul's and not a bit tentative. It was a kiss in which he didn't try to hide his need.
Another rocket lit up the sky, but the two boys remained with their lips together, mindless of the sudden light that bathed them.
When they finally pulled apart, and were again staring at each other, there was a new look in their eyes, a look of wonderment.
"I'm gay, too," Paul said. "It's why I left home. I had to."
In the intermittent light from the skyrockets, the two boys continued staring at each other. JC looked back into Paul's face and saw him, looked into his eyes but saw into his soul. Paul was scared, and vulnerable, but there was strength there, too, and desire. Paul wanted someone as much as JC did. He needed someone, as JC did. Whether it was a friend, a boyfriend, a lover, JC had no idea, but he could clearly see the need in Paul.
JC had the same need. He'd had to accept being alone, but he had never liked it. He was desperate for another friendship, one to replace the one he'd had with Freddy. Losing that had taken away a part of himself. He could see that need in Paul, too; he could read it in his eyes. He realized at that moment he'd seen it right from the start, right from when they'd met, but hadn't known how to interpret it.
As they were sitting, now simply staring at each other, holding hands, they were interrupted by Judge Spencer sitting down on the blanket next to them. He said, "Hi, boys. Sorry I was so long." Then he noticed how they were sitting, and saw their hands. They both turned to look at him, and a white rocket opened overhead at that moment, showing him the look in their eyes.
He chuckled. "JC," he said, "I think you've found a friend. It's been a long time. Paul, welcome. I need to get to know you better, but welcome. Do you two want me to make myself scarce for a while longer?"
"No, Dad. Stay with us. Then we'll all go home together and, in the morning, we'll talk."
"That sounds good to me, too, Mr. Spencer," Paul said, "or is it Judge Spencer? I don't know what to call you."
"We'll figure that out tomorrow, too," he said, smiling.
Saying that, he lay back on the blanket, and the boys did, too, and they watched the rest of the fireworks display. When the judge had first spoken, the two boys had dropped each other's hand. When they'd resumed watching the spectacle, however, Paul took JC's hand back, and they remained that way till the show was over.
Back at JC's house, after everything from the picnic had been brought in, and JC and Paul had told the judge good night and were up in JC's room, they sat down next to each other on the bed. As soon as they did, both felt a tension they'd not felt before. Both realized in that moment they didn't know each other very well, that in fact there was a lot more they didn't know about each other than what they did know. Both felt a powerful attraction to the other, but they were mostly strangers, strangers who a short time ago had looked inside each other and kissed, strangers who were now sitting on a bed, alone together.
Paul was the first to speak.
"This might sound funny, but, well, do you have a guest room?"
"Yeah, but don't you want to sleep in here with me?" He was clearly surprised, and just as clearly disappointed.
"I do. But I think I need to tell you about myself, first. Maybe tell your father, too. I'm a stranger to both of you. You told me about yourself. I need to do the same. But I'm really exhausted, and the only thing I feel like doing right now is going to sleep. I'm not up to talking. Could I do that? Sleep in another room? I promise to tell you both about me, but in the morning?"
"Paul, you can do that, but listen to me first. How about this? I really want to sleep next to you tonight. I have these feelings I don't even know how to talk about, but, well, we kissed, and I have all these feelings. I think I'm going to burst. I need you tonight; not to do anything else, but just to be with you, maybe to hold you. Can we do that? Just sleep together, nothing else, except maybe me holding you? Nothing else, I promise. I'm tired too. It's only a little after 10, but I'm ready to go to bed too. How about it? If you don't want to do that, I'll show you the other room. But, pleeeeease?"
Paul laughed. He couldn't help it. JC sounded so much like a little child, and the look on his face was adorable. "Okay, but we only sleep. Even if I want to kiss you again, which I do. But before we do anything else, I want you to know as much about me as I do about you. It just feels right to do that. We don't know each other very well, and I don't want to do anything till we do. Is that silly?"
JC grinned. "You're telling me you're not a slut. That you don't want to kiss on the first date, or anything like that, even if we already did. You want me to respect you in the morning."
Even though Paul knew JC was teasing, he still blushed while he laughed at the remark. "I guess I do. I guess that's sort of what I'm feeling, but I'm feeling it strongly. If feels important. If that makes me silly, then I guess I'm silly. I want to get to know you. I want you to know about me before anything else happens."
"I understand. I feel sort of the same thing, really. You don't want to go too fast, and I like that, and understand it. Want to get ready for bed now?"
Paul realized his backpack was still behind the bushes in the park where he'd left it after putting on the boxers to swim. He told JC that, and JC told him he could borrow whatever he needed from him, that they were close enough in size for all his stuff to fit. JC was a little stockier, a little more muscular, but other than that, they were pretty similar.
He ended up giving Paul a clean pair of boxers, which Paul took with him to the bathroom, where he found the new toothbrush where JC said it would be. He came back a few minutes later, just wearing the boxers and carrying his clothes. JC rather frankly looked at him, and Paul blushed again. JC laughed, then went to use the bathroom and brush his teeth, as well.
When he came back, Paul was still standing by the bed. "Which side is yours?" he asked.
"Makes no difference. I sleep all over the bed. Choose a side. Or, if it's okay with you, why don't you take the far side and I'll get the light?"
Paul got in bed, slid over toward the wall, then JC flipped off the overhead light and crawled into bed next to him. They were both on their sides, facing each other. Paul then turned toward the wall. JC asked him if it was all right for him to move over behind him and hold him. Paul answered very softly, "I think I'd like that."
JC spooned him from the back, put his arms around him, and Paul felt a peace settle over him that he hadn't felt for what seemed like forever. In no time at all, he was fast asleep.
The judge was busy in the kitchen when they went down the next morning. They were both fresh from showers, and Paul was wearing some of JC's clothes.
"Morning, boys. Grab yourselves some milk. I made pancakes. They're staying warm in the oven. Sit down and I'll get them for you."
While Paul stood and watched, JC took two glasses from a cupboard, set them on the counter, then poured two glasses of milk. He put the milk container back in the refrigerator, picked up the glasses and carried them to the table, pointing to one of the chairs and telling Paul, "You can sit there."
Besides pancakes, there were a dozen link sausages and three oranges had been peeled and sectioned. The judge had a pot of coffee ready, and asked Paul if he wanted any, which Paul politely declined.
Paul was again ravenous and attacked the pancakes with gusto. JC seemed to notice, but didn't want to embarrass his friend, so didn't remark on it. They ate in silence, other than Paul telling the judge how good everything was, and thanking him for it.
When they were both done and the judge was still finishing his breakfast, Paul spoke.
"Thank you so much, sir, for feeding me last night and again now, and for letting me stay here. I told you both I'd tell you about me today, and this is as good a time as any."
He stopped and looked at both of them and saw only open, caring faces looking back. He composed his thoughts, and then began.
"Three days ago, I ran away. I didn't know what else to do, and really wasn't thinking at all. I just ran. I was pretty scared and I just ran. I guess to tell this right, for you to understand, I have to start back before that.
"My family was just me, my mom and dad. I was always closer to my mom than my dad. I never quite knew why, but he never seemed to like me too much. My mom would tell him to do things with me, I heard her when she didn't know I could overhear, and she'd tell him how much I'd like that, how much I needed him involved in my life, and that he needed to get to know me. He always had an excuse why he couldn't spend any time with me. Sometimes they were just silly; he simply didn't want to do anything with me.
"I wasn't very athletic, about the only thing like that I've ever been any good at was swimming. He's one of those men who are all man, who hunt and fish and spend a lot of time with their buddies. He's friends with all the men in town that are the same way, the loud, big, masculine men. His best friend is the chief of police. They hang together, hunt together, even drink together.
"He tried to take me hunting once, but I didn't like it. He made me get out of bed in the middle of the night it seemed, it was winter and was cold and dark out, we went tromping through the woods through the snow and it was too dark to see anything. I didn't want to shoot anything, anyway.
"We got to the middle of the woods I guess, it seemed just like any place else there, and then we had to just sit there against a tree till it got light enough to see, and whenever I'd say anything he said to be quiet. I started to feel really cold, and I guess I probably started whining about it all, because he suddenly stood up and just turned around and started walking back the way we'd come.
"I could tell by his body language he was pissed. I followed him, almost having to run to keep up with him and he didn't say anything but just drove us back home; I got out, and he drove away. He never asked me to go hunting with him again. Which was fine with me.
"I could tell, living with him, that somehow I made him angry just by being me. It got so I tried to avoid him as much as possible, and it was only at dinnertime that we ever were together much. Mom tried to get us to talk together, but he just wouldn't. I was sort of intimidated by him, so I didn't make much of an effort either, after the first few times.
"I was really close to my mother, so not being close with my father didn't seem so bad. She and I talked all the time. We might have been closer than most mothers and sons. We told each other everything; we were like best friends. So when I was 12, and started realizing I was paying a lot more attention to boys than girls, I told her about it. And she didn't seem shocked or surprised or disappointed or anything, so as I kept growing older, I just kept telling her how I felt about things. We were buddies and it was natural to talk to her. Talking to her relieved the tension of never talking with my father.
"By the time I was 13, I knew I was gay, and so did she. We talked about what that meant, and the fact she agreed with my assessment of myself just solidified my opinion. I was gay, that was the way it was, but it didn't really bother me. Had I not had my mother to bounce this all off, if I hadn't had her complete acceptance and love, it certainly would have been different, but I did have her acceptance and love. I was fine. I didn't tell anyone else, but I didn't need to, I had my mom for that.
"I sort of knew, somehow, that my father would not accept me being gay. I knew he never would. If he didn't accept me when he thought I was straight and just a kid, he certainly wouldn't knowing I was gay and a teenager. It would be one more thing wrong with me, a terrible, unacceptable thing. I never told him I was gay, and I was sure my mom never did either. What he'd do if he'd found out, I had no idea. I didn't spend any time thinking about it. My father and I lived in different worlds, even if we were in the same house.
"Anyway, I've known I was gay for a long time now. I also knew what people who lived in this area, probably this whole state, think about people who are gay. These people are all religious, they all go to church, they talk about tolerance, but they can't accept gay people. Being gay here is difficult, but being gay and people knowing about it is much worse than that. I didn't let anyone know. That started getting hard when I was 14. But I knew I couldn't tell anyone. And I didn't.
"I had friends, of course, but none of them knew about me. None of them were gay. I had a best friend for a while, but he moved last summer and, somehow, I never made another friend that I was as close to. I sometimes wondered if, even though no one knew I was gay, somehow kids knew I was a little different. Kids don't handle 'different' well.
"This brings us up to two weeks ago. That was when my mom died." Paul stopped to take a drink of milk. He had to take a small sip, because he'd learned, when he felt like he was feeling right then, he couldn't swallow much. But pausing would give him a better chance to continue talking without his voice breaking.
He looked up to see JC looking at him with concern in his eyes. He reached across the table and put his hand over Paul's. Paul gave him a slight smile, then shook his head and pulled his hand away. "I'll be all right. I won't be, if you're holding my hand. I just need to finish this."
He looked back down at the table, taking his eyes away from JC, and paused for a moment before continuing.
"My mom was shopping at the grocery store. She'd finished and was wheeling her cart through the parking lot, walking to our car. Another car was driving down that aisle looking for a parking place, and as it neared Mom, another car suddenly backed out in front of it. To avoid that car, the driver of the one in the aisle jerked his wheel to the side. He ran right into Mom, pinning her hard against a parked car. It smashed her all up inside, and she died about an hour later.
"It was so sudden. She was my whole life, my friend, my confidante, my protector. And she was gone. I had no time to prepare myself for that. Suddenly, it was just my dad and me. He wasn't any more ready to deal with that than I was. He was broken up with her death, too, but he was a man, and he wasn't going to let anyone know. I needed someone badly right then, someone to hold me while I cried, someone to tell me things would get better, but I knew it wasn't going to be him. He couldn't show anything.
"We could have got closer because of it, I guess, but we didn't. Right from the beginning, he resented having to be responsible for me, and I resented his apparent lack of grief, even if he did have some. My resentment of him, and the way he was acting, was all mixed up with my own grief. I could turn some of that into anger, and the anger was directed at him. He couldn't show his grief, assuming he felt some, but he sure could react to my anger at him. I'm sure I wasn't any easier to get along with than he was, but we ended up shouting a lot. We'd never had any relationship before, but now what we had developed into a heartfelt, deep-seated and fully functional hatred for each other.
"The funeral was held and I cried all the way through it, and all the time we were at the grave, too. He never cried at all, and I hated him for that. I think he hated that I couldn't stop crying, that I was embarrassing him by not being stronger. He kept looking over at me at the cemetery, and it became apparent to me right then that his hated for me was as strong as mine for him.
"We tried to avoid each other at home after that, but it was a small house, and he had to cook for us, which was another thing he hated.
"About then, he started drinking. He'd always drunk a little, but not much at home. It was something he'd done in bars with his buddies. Now, he had a bottle of bourbon on the kitchen counter all the time, and he usually seemed to have a glass in his hand, or on a table next to him. I'd never really seen him drunk before. Now I saw it most every day.
"Three days ago, I was getting ready to fix some lunch for myself, when my father came home. I left the kitchen so we wouldn't meet, and went to my room to play a video game. I was spending a lot of time by myself. I'd cut myself off from the few friends I had, after Mom died. I wasn't dealing with it very well. I spent most of my time in my room. Dad had come home for lunch, and I went to my room as soon as he came in. I heard him go in the kitchen, so was sure he was having a drink. Then I heard him go into his bedroom. His footsteps sounded like I'd heard them a lot lately, unsteady.
He'd been going through Mom's stuff the past couple days, cleaning it up, getting ready to give it away or throw it away, I don't know which. We weren't talking at all to each other.
"It was quiet for a while, and then a heard him shout, 'What the hell?' Then I heard him stomping out of his bedroom, and my door suddenly burst open.
"I can remember his words exactly as he said them. I think that conversation is etched into my brain. 'You're a fag?' he asked. 'You're a goddam fag?' He was weaving a little bit and his words were slurred, so I knew he was drunker than usual, but the anger came through, pure and hot. He was holding a book in his hand, and I could see it had handwriting in it.
" 'What's that?' I asked him.
" 'Your mother was keeping a diary. A goddam diary. It says you're a fag. You're a goddam fag. You little shit. No wonder I never understood you. No wonder I never liked you. A fag. Well, I know what to do with fags. I knew a couple in the army. We beat it out of them. At least, we beat them. We got together and kicked the shit out of them. They were in the hospital for a while, I guess. I don't know what happened to them. We never saw them again.'
"He was unsteady on his feet, and all the words he was saying were sort of stuck together. But his eyes looked really mean, and I was afraid of him. I knew this was going to be bad. He looked at me, trying to focus his eyes, then started taking off his belt, mumbling about not having any goddam fags for sons and knowing what to do about it.
"I didn't know what to do. He was in my doorway and I couldn't get past him. The room wasn't very large. I'd never be able to dodge him in it, no matter how drunk he was.
"He got the belt out of his pants and doubled it over. I knew he was going to hit me with it. As drunk as he was, I thought he'd hit me, and then just keep hitting me till his anger was gone, and I might well be dead by then. He was a very large, very strong man, and being drunk, he had no self-control. I was scared to death. I thought it very likely he'd kill me.
"He was ranting now, working himself up I was sure. I thought I was dead, and was shaking I was so afraid.
"It was my dog that saved me. I had a terrier, a Jack Russell. He was my dog, and very loyal to me. I never got along with Dad, and he seemed to sense that, and he and Dad had never made friends. Dad resented the dog almost as much as he did me. Now, with Dad mumbling and raving and me being scared, the dog seemed to know something wasn't right. He had been somewhere else in the house, but now had come up to my father. He started barking, and then growling.
"My father, possibly in his drunken confusion, turned to look at the dog, then kicked at him. The dog jumped away, then started really barking, really going into attack mode.
"My father turned his anger away from me and onto the dog, and started swearing at him, then kicked at him, hard. The force of his kick, which thankfully missed my dog, upset him and he staggered a bit, then reeled out of the doorway and back against the hallway wall across from it.
"I didn't think I could move that fast, but fear makes you able to do things you wouldn't think you could. I was out of my chair and across my room instantly. I slammed and locked my door by pressing the button in the doorknob. Almost as soon as it was locked, my father was pounding on it, wiggling the doorknob and screaming at me to open it. Then there was a crash as he hurled himself against it.
"I had no time for anything. I grabbed my backpack, which had a clean set of clothes and a toothbrush in it because there was going to be a sleepover party at a friend's house the next night, and was out the window onto the porch when I heard another crash against my door and a splintering sound. I never looked back. I just ran.
"I didn't know what to do, but my fear was controlling me. Somehow in my imagination I could see him chasing me down the street, then catching me and raising that huge arm of his with the belt still in his hand. That thought kept my legs moving. I just ran.
"I don't know how long I ran, but I had to stop eventually. I did. I sank down onto a lawn on my hands and knees, my head hanging down, and just tried to breathe. After a while, I could. I stayed on the lawn, though, trying to think what to do. I knew I could never let him get his hands on me. He'd kill me. I was sure of that.
"I couldn't go to the police. No matter what I said, he was buddies with the chief, and the chief would just take me back to him. That was guaranteed. I could go to my school principal, but once she heard the story, she'd call the police, and the result would be the same.
"The only thing that made any sense to me was to leave town. I had no money, so I had to hitch. I didn't want to do that, I'd never done it before and it scared me, but I was more afraid of my father right then. Any other fear was minor, compared to that. My fear of what my father would do if he got hold of me was real and terrifying.
"So I hitched. And I ended up here. And JC rescued me.
And you've both been wonderful. I know I can't stay here, but I don't know what to do. Maybe I can stay for a day or two till I figure something out. My mother told me once about an aunt and uncle in Minnesota I've never met, they didn't get along with my father so we never had any contact with them. I don't remember their names, and I'm not sure they were really relatives; Mom said something once that made me think they were really just old friends of hers, not actually relatives. Maybe I could somehow find their number and call them. Maybe they'd take me. I don't know, but I could try. I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me stay here till I figure something out. Just a few days maybe."
Paul stopped. He felt tears in his eyes and his voice was beginning to break. Telling his story made him realize just how hopeless everything was.
JC was suddenly sitting next to him, hugging him, pulling him into his chest, and the judge's deep voice caused Paul to raise his eyes, even if they were leaking.
"Son, Paul, you're not going anywhere. You're staying right here till we figure all this out. You've certainly not had much luck lately, but you did have a little. You don't have a thing to worry about with your father, or even that chief of police. They can't touch you while you're with me. Let me ask you something. Would you like to stay with us, here? I don't mean for a couple days. I mean for as long as you need to, or want to?"
Paul didn't have to think about that. The chance of living here would have been more than he would have been able to dream of happening. The chance of being with JC, the chance that what he was feeling for JC could possibly grow, could possibly develop into something deeper, was exciting, something that had seemed too much to wish for. He looked at the judge and in a small, wondering voice, asked, "Why? You don't know me at all. Why would you offer me something like that? I'm just a runaway kid JC met at the park."
"Paul, I trust JC's judgment, and my own. I see kids, all kinds of kids, in court, and I've learned something from that. You're a good kid who's had to deal with some terrible things. Just watching you, talking to you, I know you're not a bad kid. I know it. Also, believe it or not, I trust Barney's judgment. I've seen how Barney is with kids. She seems to know who's good, and who isn't. Besides which, JC needs a friend. You do, too. You can't go back and live with your father, so you need a place to live. We've got room, we want you here, both of us do, and you seem to like us, too.
"Sure, I could be wrong about you. I don't think I am, but I could be. If that's the case, maybe you'll change your mind about living with us, or maybe we will. That doesn't seem likely. I see how you two look at each other, and I don't think I'm wrong. I think I'm right about you; I think JC and Barney are, too. You need a place to stay, Paul. A place where people care about you. And I can make this happen.
"I not only can make this happen, I can make it happen legally. I can make it so you can be here with us and no one can say differently. I can get any and all of your father's rights to you abrogated, I can make him pay child support, I can even get him thrown in jail for a while, if you'd like. I can get you completely free from him. Tell me, Paul, would you like that to happen?"
Paul looked at the man, too stunned to respond right away. While he was looking, the judge said, "You need to think. While you're thinking, I need to do something, and the sooner the better. What's your last name, Paul?"
The judge went to his kitchen desk, took out a phone directory, then picked up his phone and dialed.
Paul and JC could only hear one side of the conversation. What they heard, with accompanying pauses, was, "Yes, thank you, let me speak to the chief, please. Judge Spencer calling.
"Chief, Judge Spencer. I understand you know a fellow in town there named Whitacker?
"I need you to do something for me. Send someone over there. A Jack Russell terrier there might need some help. If it's been hurt or killed or isn't there, I want Whitacker arrested and held, and I'll specify charges.
"Chief, I don't like that tone. Are you certain you want to say that to me?
"Yes, certainly, I can put this order in writing. I can do that. It would make me unhappy, it would waste time, it would change the way you and I operate from now on, but if that's what you want. . . .
"Thank you, Chief. That sounds much better. Now, if the dog's all right, I want him picked up and brought to the station there, no matter what Whitacker might have to say, and then I want to be called. If the dog needs attention, arrange that, and for temporary care for it as well. Can you arrange that?
"No, I'll fax you a court order granting permission to enter the house if no one's home if you want one. But it isn't necessary when there's reasonable suspicion that an animal might need immediate assistance, which is true in this case.
"Okay, I'll expect to hear from you within the hour. No matter what, within the hour. We both can hope really hard that that dog's all right. Thanks, Chief."
Paul looked at the judge, and the judge grinned at him. "Hey, what's the point in being a judge, if you can't throw your weight around once in a while?"
- -  - -
Paul was nervous. Even sitting in the car with JC next to him, even though JC was holding his hand, he was nervous. It might have helped if Barney had been sitting on the other side of him, but Barney was in the front seat, occasionally sticking her head out the open car window and letting the wind flap her ears back while she sampled and sorted the various scents from the open country they were passing through.
"You sure Barney won't mind another dog living with her?" he asked JC again. JC had reassured him about this several times already, but he was still worried.
"Barney loves other dogs. The thing we don't know yet is which one will be the alpha dog. They always decide that for themselves. But it won't be a problem." JC squeezed his hand. He didn't like it that Paul was so unsettled. He'd calmed down considerably over the past couple days, but now he was tense again.
Paul was quiet then, thinking, and soon something else occurred to him. He asked the judge, "Sir, I'm nervous about meeting him. You don't know him. Can't I just be in another room or something while the papers are being signed?"
"Paul, if that's really the way you want to do it, yes, we can do that. But I think, later on, when you think back on this, you'll feel a lot better about yourself if you know you had the courage to face him. It'll help bring you closure. I'll be with you, and a policeman will, too. It'll be your dad's lawyer, a policeman, your dad and us. We'll meet at the police station. You father will sign the papers I've brought with me, we'll pick up your dog, we'll drive to your old house and pack up your stuff, and then we'll go back home. Just as we discussed already."
"I still can't believe he agreed to all this."
"He didn't have much choice, Paul. This is the best solution for everyone. If what he tried to do to you went to trial, he'd be facing some jail time. The dog was hurt, as I told you, when he kicked it down the basement steps and then locked it in without providing food or water, so there could be jail time for that, too. He's really getting off easily. He relinquishes all rights to you. He pays child support for you for the next few years, up till you're eighteen. That can all go into a savings account for you, and then be used for college. You get to recover all your things, you get your dog, and you come to live with us. He won't have to raise you, which I don't think, from what you've said, he wanted to do anyway. He won't spend any more time in jail, after today. All charges against him will be dropped. That's the plea bargain we worked out, and it's better than what he deserves. But it frees you and brings closure. I know that makes JC happy, and it makes me happy, too. I think this works out best for everyone."
"I know it's what I want. In my dreams, I couldn't have wished for more. How many times have I said 'Thank you' already in the past four days I've been with you guys? Not enough, I don't think."
The judge laughed. "Paul, you called me 'sir' again, a minute ago. I won't be happy till you stop doing that. I won't feel we're really a family till then. It's either you stop calling me that, or convince JC here to start."
"Hah! Fat chance of that!" JC grinned, and the judge did too.
"I know," Paul persisted. "It's just hard for me. It's difficult for me to call you Dad, because that name has such bad images for me. But I'll try, and I will, when it feels right. When is the custody hearing?"
"They haven't decided yet. And I know how you feel about the name. I'm really just teasing you a little. You have to get used to my teasing you. JC and I do it all the time. I think it's something you do when you love each other. Whatever you end up calling me is okay, Paul. I mean that. I'll understand."
Paul smiled. "I love it that you want me to call you Dad. I love the relationship you have with JC. It makes me feel secure. This is all so fast, but I'm feeling more and more a part of you guys all the time."
They pulled up at the police station a half hour later. Paul's nervousness increased. He'd be facing his father in just minutes, unless he chickened out.
They left Barney in the car, parked in the shade with all four windows halfway down. They walked into the station, and Paul and JC fell back as the judge spoke to the man at the front desk. Almost immediately, the man Paul recognized as the police chief came out from a closed door, strode up to the judge and shook his hand, a big smile on his face. There was a smile on the judge's face too, but it was of considerably less wattage.
They were all ushered to a conference room. Paul held back at first, but when the judge looked at him and raised his eyebrows, leaving the decision to him, Paul screwed up his courage and went with them. JC stayed close at his side.
In the room, Paul saw his father sitting at a large table, with another man next to him. A policeman was sitting in another chair. The judge moved to the table across from them, and Paul and JC went with him. It was difficult for Paul, but he raised his eyes and looked directly at his father.
He was surprised. His father wasn't looking at him. He was looking down at the table instead. He was wearing the coveralls of a county jail prisoner. He looked smaller, somehow, to Paul. He appeared to be diminished from what Paul knew him to be, sitting there in his chair, not meeting Paul's eyes. Paul was surprised, too, to realize he didn't feel the usual intimidation he felt in the man's presence.
"Richard, good afternoon," the judge said to the man sitting next to Paul's father. The man, an attorney, stood, smiled at the judge and reached out to take his extended hand. They shook, and then the two men and the boys sat down.
"No reason to delay anything." said the judge. "Here are the papers we discussed on the phone. You received faxes of them. Everything's just as it was agreed to. We need Mr. Whitacker's signature, this policeman can witness it, and then we'll be done."
The attorney took the papers, did a quick scan, then set them in front of Paul's father and laid a pen on top of them. Paul's father quickly signed the papers, without looking up. The papers were slid down the table to the policeman, who signed them on the line specified for the witness's signature.
"That's it then, gentleman. Paul, did you want to say anything?"
Paul hadn't been expecting the question. It startled him. They were standing now, looking across the table at the two men still seated.
Paul looked at his father for a moment, and suddenly realized this was probably the last time he'd ever see the man. He should have something to say to the man, his father, shouldn't he? He looked at him, then said to the judge, his voice even, "No, I don't have anything to say to him. I'm ready to go."
His father never looked up as the three left the room.
While the policeman and the judge were discussing the trip to Paul's old house, and waiting for someone to bring them the key, Paul and JC were led to another room in the building. There, when they entered the room, they saw a small white dog lying in a dog basket. It lifted its head, and then shot out of the basket and leaped into Paul's arms, making small squeaky yipping noises and licking Paul's face repeatedly, his whole body wiggling along with his rapidly moving tail. Paul laughed, as he hugged the squirming dog.
"He doesn't seem hurt too badly," Paul said, addressing the policewoman who had brought them to the dog while doing his best to keep the dog's tongue, which was lapping his face, out of his mouth.
"No, a couple days of food, water and attention have brought him back. He'd found a leaky faucet in the basement, so he had at least a little water, but he'd had no food for three days. He was pretty weak. The vet said he'd had his ribs bruised, but they were mostly healed by the time we found him. What I'm seeing now is more life out of him than he's shown since he was brought in. I'd guess, seeing this, he possibly might have been missing you, just a little bit." She grinned at him.
"I've missed him, too. Can we take him now?"
"Sure. You just want to carry him? I can get you a piece of rope for a lead if you want it."
"No, I'll carry him for now."
"You never told me his name," said JC, petting the dog as Paul carried it outside to the car.
"You'll probably think it's silly, but my mother's name was Mary, and she thought it would be cute if the three of us were Peter, Paul and Mary. I never called him Peter, though. I thought Pete was cuter, so that's what I've always called him."
They were at the car by then. Barney was up on his seat, sniffing through the window, very interested in Pete. JC opened the back door, and Paul slid in, still holding Pete. Barney was suddenly in the backseat too, sniffing. Pete rolled over in Paul's arms so his stomach was showing. Barney sniffed, then gave a happy 'woof', and started licking Pete's stomach. Pete jumped up and started licking Barney's face.
JC laughed. "I guess they made friends quick enough."
Paul looked at him, a broad smile on his face, too. "You guys are easy to make friends with, JC. Real easy."
The judge walked up to the car. "You ready to go get your stuff, Paul."
"Sure am. Let's go, and get it over with. Then, what I really want, is to load it all in the car and go home."
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