After I talked with Mark in the choir room that afternoon, Uncle Nathan picked me up at school. We gave Mark a ride home. "Haven't seen you around much lately," Uncle Nathan said to Mark. "You used to come over all the time."
I felt embarrassed for Mark. I'm sure he didn't want to explain that he and I had a falling out. "He's got a girlfriend now," I said.
"That'll do it!" Uncle Nathan remarked. Fortunately, that ended the conversation as to why Mark and I didn't hang out together anymore.
When I got home, Aunt Gretchen told me to put my books away and come back downstairs. She seemed anxious. I did as she requested without asking any of the questions that were going through my mind.
"I called your mother today," Aunt Gretchen said when I sat down in the living room. "I haven't talked to her in months, and I just wanted to see how she was doing. She had some sad news, James. The baby was still-born."
I knew what still-born meant, but for some reason, it wasn't sinking in. "You mean it died?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so," my aunt said. "It was a boy. They were going to name him Theodore John Covington, Junior."
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"Late March," Aunt Gretchen said. "I can't believe she didn't call me earlier. But she seems to be doing as well as can be expected. I guess your dad is devastated."
"Can I go to my room now?" I asked. "I think I need to be alone."
"Of course, Sweetie," my aunt said.
I started toward the stairs, but then I stopped. "Did Mom ask about me?" I said.
"I was going to tell her how well you're doing and about your country music award, but we didn't get around to that," Aunt Gretchen said. "We mainly talked about the baby."
I lay down on the bed when I got to my room. I wanted to cry, but something was stopping me. I felt sad that the boy who would have been my half-brother had died. I was concerned about my mother and hoping that she hadn't started drinking again. But mostly, I was hurt. My dad had wanted a son to replace me, and my mother hadn't even asked how I was doing. Then, I felt guilty. I was thinking about myself when my family was grieving over the loss of a child. I did start crying when I realized that my parents happily gave me away but were mourning the loss of the child they did want.
Then, I had a ridiculous thought that made me laugh through my tears. Maybe Mom and Dad can adopt Mark and Debbie's baby! Then, I tried to figure out the genealogical relationship between Mark and me if I were his child's adopted brother. The genealogy curriculum at Bridgeport Academy hadn't covered that, and it seemed so complicated that I finally gave up trying to figure it out.
About 9:00 that night, I decided to call my mother. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was about the baby. I hadn't spoken to her since she dropped me off at the bus station last August. Back then she said that maybe I could come home for a visit after the school year. There were only four weeks left before the end of the semester, and I hoped that maybe having me around would be helpful to my mother. I went downstairs and asked Aunt Gretchen if I could make a long-distance call. "I'll pay for it," I said.
I was nervous as I dialed the number to my home in Connecticut. The Housekeeper answered the phone. "Master James!" she said when she recognized my voice. "It's good to hear from you."
"Thanks, Mrs. Carlson," I said. "It's nice to hear your voice again, too. Is my mom there?"
"I'll tell her you're on the phone!" she said.
I waited several minutes before I heard my mother pick up the line. "Hello, James," she said.
"Hi, Mom," I responded. "I haven't talked to you for a long time, and I just wanted to say that I miss you and Dad."
"That's very nice of you to say, James," Mom said. "How are you getting along with your Aunt Gretchen and Uncle Nathan?"
"Pretty good," I said. "Uncle Nathan is a great guy, and he always makes me feel welcome. Aunt Gretchen and I had a rough start, but we've worked things out. We get along now."
"And school?" Mom asked. "Are you keeping up on your studies?"
"Well," I said. "I have straight A's, but they put me in regular freshman classes. The high school in Tellico Falls doesn't offer an advanced placement program. So, a lot of my classes are a review of what I learned at Bridgeport Academy."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Mom said. "You should take it upon yourself to work above grade on your own time."
I decided to change the subject. "Mom," I said. "I was sorry to hear about the baby. I'm worried about you and Dad."
"I'd rather not talk about that," Mom said. "It's not something that should cause you concern."
"But Mom!" I objected. "I'm part of the family! Of course, I'm concerned."
"Things change, James," Mom said impatiently. "It's best if we all just move on."
I felt as if Mom were telling me that she and Dad had "moved on" since sending me to Arkansas. She seemed to be saying that I was no longer part of the family. That not only hurt my feelings, but it made me mad. I purposely brought up a subject that I knew would upset her.
"I met my real dad," I said. "Darren McCoy was a judge in a country music competition I entered with a friend. I play guitar now. My friend and I took third place."
"Country music? Guitar?" Mom questioned in a tone of voice that clearly communicated her disapproval. "Oh, James!" She said nothing about my meeting Darren McCoy.
Now, I was really angry. "Well. I guess I come by it naturally," I said in a snarky tone. "Darren McCoy said that I have your good looks and his singing voice. Oh, and he gave me one of his cowboy hats. It looks really cool on me. Should I send you a picture?"
"Did you call just to harass me, James?" Mom asked. "Considering the year I've had, I would expect a little bit of kindness!"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I know you lost the baby, and I feel terrible about that. But I didn't know you had a lot of other problems this year. I hope your father didn't spit in your face and call you a bastard. I hope your parents didn't kick you out of the only home you'd ever known. And I certainly hope you didn't get sent to the rural south where your cousin sexually abused you!"
Mom didn't respond. She said nothing before quietly hanging up the phone.
When I went to bed that night, I felt guilty about what I said to my mother. Yes, I thought she acted cold and aloof toward me. I didn't like it that she was judgmental about my playing guitar and singing country music. But I had purposely upset her by talking about Darren McCoy and offering to send her a picture of me wearing his hat. And mentioning how Mason had abused me when he made me jack him off was unnecessary. Now, I was afraid that Mom might speak to Aunt Gretchen about what I said, and I just wanted to forget all about that!
I realized that I was falling short on my goal to treat others with more kindness and respect. "I'll just have to do better in the future," I told myself.
Over the next two weeks, I talked with Mark almost every day. He was very anxious about the results of Debbie Dickson's pregnancy test. I tried to be as optimistic and supportive as I could. Apparently, the situation had caused a rift between Debbie and Mark, and they were barely speaking to each other.
While Mark was down in the dumps, Justin and I were on top of the world. Our bond grew closer with each passing day. I didn't wanted to admit it to myself, but I hadn't been sure that I loved Justin as much as I had told him I did when we first got together. I had been overwhelmed when he said that he loved me; no one had ever said those words to me. And it felt so good to be loved that I naturally responded by saying that I loved him too. Yes, I had been in love with Mark since the first day I met him. But during the two weeks after Mark had told me that Debbie Dickson might be pregnant, my feelings for Justin grew to a new level. I was in love with Justin now, and being with him made me happier than I had ever been.
On the day Mark and Debbie expected the pregnancy test results, I saw Mark at his locker before classes began. He looked terrible! "You okay?" I asked.
"I feel sick," Mark said. "I've never been this scared in my life!"
I put my hand on his shoulder. "No matter which way it goes, you'll be okay, Mark," I said. "There are a lot of people who care about you and who will support you."
"If the test comes back positive, Debbie wants to … get rid of it," Mark said.
"You mean an abortion?" I asked in a hushed tone. "But that's illegal – and dangerous!"
"I've decided if that's what she wants, then I'll go along with it," Mark responded. "Debbie said she'd find a doctor who would do it if I figure out a way to pay for it. And, just so you know, I don't want any more money from you. This is my problem, and I'm taking responsibility for what I've done."
I didn't say anything, but I was relieved to know that Mark wasn't planning to ask me to help him pay for an abortion – even if it were only a loan. I didn't want to have any part in something like that. I thought about bringing up the idea of adoption, but I decided it wasn't my place to get any more involved in Debbie's and Mark's problems. Besides, I was sure that they had already thought about that option.
"When do you find out for sure?" I asked.
"Today after school," Mark answered. "Debbie is going to call the clinic from my house. My parents don't get home until 6:00 o'clock, so that will work out best."
The bell for first-hour classes rang. "Hang in there, Man!" I told Mark. "I'm here for you."
"I'll let you know tonight," Mark said. Then, he hugged me right there in the school hallway!
At lunch, I sat with "The Pack," but I was only thinking about Mark. I guess I was quieter than usual. Justin picked up that something was bothering me. "Why so glum, Chum?" Justin asked.
I lied. "I'm just nervous about my History test 6 th hour. I didn't study as much as I should have."
"Is that Grandpa Gingrich's class?" Justin asked, using the nickname that the students had bestowed on the elderly teacher. "You want me to swipe all the copies of the test so that he can't give it today? I'll get you a copy, and you can ace it when he does give the test!"
I was sure Justin was kidding around, so I joked back. "Yeah, right!" I said. "You may be the leader of "The Pack," but you're not an undercover agent like James Bond!"
Later, I went to my 6 th -hour class. I was shocked when Mr. Gingrich said, "I seem to have misplaced the copies of the test I planned to give today. But, if I've learned anything about history over my thirty years of teaching, it's that people have to adapt as situations change. So, instead of the multiple-choice test I was going to use today, I'll be giving you an essay test. You'll have the entire hour to answer these questions." Mr. Gingrich raised a roll-down map, behind which he had written four essay questions on the chalkboard.
The class groaned! I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe that Justin would actually steal a teacher's test so that I could cheat to get a better grade! I was so mad at Justin! And I didn't I want to sit through the last hour of a long school day trying to answer essay test questions!
Justin was going to give me a ride home that day, and he was waiting for me at my locker after 6 th hour. He smiled at me as soon as I approached him. "How was your test?" he asked with a grin on his face. "Or couldn't Gramps find it?"
"I thought you were joking, Justin!" I said in an angry but hushed tone. "You were totally out of line in stealing that test. And doing it for me makes me part of the cheating! I can't believe you would do something like that!"
Justin looked surprised. "I was just trying to help you," he said. "And I didn't steal the tests. I just found them and hid them in his supply cabinet. Well, I did take one – for you. I'm sorry, James. I wouldn't have done it if I knew it would make you mad."
"Justin," I said. "How can I trust you if you're willing to do things like that?"
Justin was quiet for a moment. "You're right," he finally said. "You're absolutely right. Do you want me to go to Grandpa Gingrich and confess? I'll do it, James. I'll do it right now if it will make things right with us."
I was surprised and impressed that Justin would confess if I wanted him to do it. But I wasn't sure he was sincere. "Okay," I challenged. "Let's do it now. I'll go with you."
"Okay. Let's go," Justin said.
I think we were both apprehensive as we walked to Mr. Gingrich's classroom. His door was still open when we got there, but the lights were off. No one was in the room. "What should I do now?" Justin asked.
"Just get the tests and put them back where you found them," I said.
"What about confessing?" he asked.
My belief in total honesty waivered. "Just put the tests back," I said. "Then, we'll forget all about it – if you promise never to do anything like that again!"
"I promise," Justin said. He went to the supply cabinet, found the pile of tests, and placed them in one of Mr. Gingrich's desk drawers. "Okay, let's get out of here!"
"Where's the one you took for me?" I asked. "Put it back, too." Justin got the test from the pocket of his jeans, unfolded the stapled pieces of paper, and placed them with the others.
It was my day to lift weights, but I decided to skip it. Justin was willing to wait for me, but I just wanted to get home. We were both quiet on the ride back to the farm.
"This is the worst timing ever," Justin finally said to me. "But I've got to tell you something. My brother set me up on a blind date for tonight. He wants me to take some girl to the movies with him and his girlfriend."
"And you agreed?" I asked.
"I sort of had to," Justin said. "I haven't been out with a girl since we got together. And people are starting to ask questions. I won't fool around with her. Just one date, and that's it. I promise!"
"Okay," I said insincerely. "Have fun."
Justin dropped me off at the farm. He tried to kiss me, but I resisted. "Give me some time," I said.
"Do you still love me?" Justin asked. He sounded scared.
I looked him in the eyes and told him the truth. "I love you with all my heart. Please don't break it."
My mind was in overdrive as I waited for dinner to be ready that night. I was mad at Justin for hiding Mr. Gingrich's tests. I was anxious for Mark to call with the results of Debbie Dickson's pregnancy test. And I was caught off guard that Justin had a blind date that night with a girl.
Aunt Gretchen, Uncle Nathan, Mason, and I had just started saying grace when the phone rang. I was sure it was Mark, but I knew better than to answer it. No one was allowed to take phone calls during dinner. "If it's important, they'll call back," was Aunt Gretchen's philosophy.
It was my turn to clear the table and do the dishes after dinner. Just as I was finishing up, the doorbell rang. Mason answered it. "Hey Twerp," he called to me. "There's a nerd at the door. It must be for you."
Aunt Gretchen had gone upstairs after dinner. Uncle Nathan had gone to the barn. So, I was free to say, "Screw you, Dickhead."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, Sissy Boy?" Mason taunted back at me. He walked away from the door, and I saw Mark standing on the porch. I went outside and closed the front door. Mark and I sat down on the steps.
I looked at Mark, waiting for him to tell me the news. But he didn't have to say anything. I could tell everything I needed to know from the expression on his face.
"The test was negative?" I asked excitedly. "She's not pregnant!?!"
"No! She's not!" Mark said. "I'm so relieved! I almost can't believe it."
"What did Debbie say?" I asked. "She must have been relieved about it, too."
"Oh, yeah!" Mark said. "She was almost as relieved as I was. But she broke up with me."
"I'm sorry," I said to Mark. "That must have hurt!"
"Are you kidding?" he asked. "I'm thrilled to be done with that girl! I hate to say this, but I never really liked her that much. I just liked the idea of having a girlfriend." Mark blushed. "And I liked the sex part, too."
I let that comment go. "Sorry I couldn't answer the phone earlier when you called," I said. "We had just sat down for dinner."
"I didn't call you," Mark said. "I wanted to tell you the news in person. That's why I had my mom drop me off. She had to run to the store, and she'll pick me up in half an hour."
Mark and I talked easily with each other while we waited for his mother. I loved having my friend back – without Debbie Dickson in the picture!
After Mark left, I went into the house and turned on the television. One of the shows I liked, " My Favorite Martian ," was on. But when the phone rang, I turned off the TV and got up to answer it.
"I'd like to speak with James Covington," a man's voice said. "Is he there?"
"This is James Covington," I replied.
"Mr. Covington, my name is Randall Dorset," the man said. "I'm a reporter with the Jonesboro Examiner. I'm writing an article for our Sunday edition, and I'd like to verify some information we've received."
I had no idea what this guy was talking about, but I got a knot in my stomach anyway. "What information?" I asked.
"I understand that your mother is Angela Price Covington and that she lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Is that accurate?"
"Yes," I answered.
"And your mother was the runner-up in the 1951 Miss America Pageant before she married Ted Covington – the owner of Covington International Enterprises?"
"Yes," I said as I saw Aunt Gretchen come into the room. "What's this all about?" I asked the reporter.
"We've been told that you are the biological son of the country music star Darren McCoy and not the son of Ted Covington," the guy said. "Can you confirm that?"
I was shocked! I looked at my aunt. "A newspaper reporter wants to know if Darren McCoy is my real father," I said. Aunt Gretchen reached for the phone, and I handed it to her.
"Who is this?" my aunt hollered into the phone. I couldn't hear what the reporter said, but my aunt listened and then said, "That is none of your business! And don't you dare put anything like that in your paper! Do you hear me?!? Or I'll sue your ass off!" She slammed the phone down.
"What's going on?" I asked. "Why is a newspaper interested in anything about me? I don't understand."
"They're trying to write some sleazy story about two well-known people having a baby out of wedlock," Aunt Gretchen said. "Don't you worry. I'm calling Angela and Ted right now. They'll put a stop to this nonsense!"
Aunt Gretchen started to dial my parents' home. I was too upset to listen, so I went upstairs. I couldn't help but think about how people would react if they read about my family secrets in the newspaper. Then, I wondered how the Jonesboro Examiner found out about my family situation. Who would have told them? As far as I was aware, only Aunt Gretchen, Uncle Nathan, and Justin knew that Darren McCoy was my biological father. None of them would ever betray me by sharing that information with a newspaper! I couldn't even imagine who had called the Jonesboro Examiner.
A little while later, Aunt Gretchen knocked on my door. "James," she said. "May I come in? I talked to your father."
I told my aunt to come in, and she sat down on the end of my bed. "Your father is highly upset about what the Examiner is doing. Well, maybe it would be more accurate to say that he's furious. He said for us not to worry. He's having his lawyers call the Editor and get him to kill the story." Aunt Gretchen laughed a little. "He even said he'd buy the damn newspaper and close the place down if they run the story."
"Do you think Dad can do that?" I asked. "I mean, kill the story."
"Have you ever known your father not to get his way?" Aunt Gretchen said with a smirk. "You and I both know how he goes after anybody who dares to cross him."
After talking with Aunt Gretchen, I felt much better. I trusted that if my father said nothing terrible would happen, I didn't need to worry about it. In fact, I almost forgot about it - until we went to church on Sunday morning.
As we entered the church that day, the Carters greeted us at the door. "I'm so sorry for you, dear," Mrs. Carter said to my aunt. Then, she gave me a dirty look. "Pastor John is waiting for you in his office."
I had a bad feeling about what was going on.
"Have you seen the Examiner this morning?" Pastor John asked as my aunt, Mason, and I entered his office.
"No," Aunt Gretchen said. "We don't take the paper." Pastor John handed the Sunday Jonesboro Examiner to her. Mason and I walked over so we could see it too. The front-page headline read:
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