Artie actually noticed the car before Jesse did. "Who's that?" he asked as he braked his bike in the pile of autumn leaves at the end of Jesse's driveway. They had spent all morning raking, and now they were riding through the piles.
"That's my uncle Fred!" Jesse spotted familiar New Hampshire plates on the brand new Audi. "My favorite uncle has new wheels! Sweet!" He brought his bike to a halt beside Artie's and swung his leg over.
"Unh, isn't he your only uncle? How can he be your favorite?" Artie was maddeningly logical sometimes.
"Cork it, Artie. Maybe he'll let me drive it."
"Get real, Jesse. We're thirteen."
"I think I need to go in now."
"Can I come in and say hello? Maybe he'll at least give us a test ride."
"I'd better check things out first," said Jesse.
"I thought we were best buds. I like your uncle Fred, too, you know."
"We are best buds, Artie. And I know he likes you. But Uncle Fred never just shows up like this. I should go find out what's up."
"O.K.... I'll see you." Obviously disappointed, Artie rode back toward his own house.
The next morning Jesse met Artie at the corner where they waited for the school bus.
"Well is a deep subject, Artie."
"C'mon, dufus. What was the crisis?"
Jesse had made up his mind to tell him. "No problem. Uncle Fred brought someone home for us to meet. He's getting married."
"That's great, Jesse! You're gonna have a new aunt!"
"It's a guy." Jesse glanced quickly at Artie's face.
"Jeez." Artie thought hard as Jesse waited. Then he looked up. "Like I said, that's great! Now you can really choose a favorite uncle!"
Jesse smiled. "Thanks, Artie."
Jesse trudged through the drifting snow back toward home. He had spent the past couple of hours surveying the effects of the storm that had started the night before and the heavy snowfall was just beginning to taper off. The power in this section was out and all the houses were dark. This was an old neighborhood, on the backside of his own, and nothing had been shoveled or ploughed yet except for a single lane down the city street that was already half-filled with new snow. Only a few of the snow-mounded automobiles had been dug out. He thought he and his buddy Archie could probably make a fortune the next couple of days shoveling, once they had cleared their own driveways and sidewalks. With Christmas only three days away people would be desperate to get out and about.
He noticed a house standing off all by itself, and he could just make out a figure in a window waving. Tentatively he waved back. At that the person in the window began waving both arms and Jesse realized that someone wanted to attract his attention. Maybe someone needed help. He made his way across the snow-covered lawn and onto the porch as the front door swung open.
"Thank goodness," the elderly woman standing in the doorway stated, "I was beginning to despair."
"Do you need some help?" Jesse could see that she was supporting herself with an aluminum walker frame.
"Yes. I'm Miss Erica Satler. I wonder if I could trouble you to go to one of the neighbors and see if someone could go down to the drugstore for me. I'm diabetic, and I'm out of insulin. My niece, who usually comes by, was caught by the storm at her home."
"Do you mean the drugstore down by the firehouse? That's the one my mother uses."
"Yes, that's the one."
"I can go myself. Nobody up here seems to have gotten out yet."
"Do you mind? I can pay you..."
"Oh, no. I don't need money to do it. You probably should call them and tell them I'm coming, though."
"You're a smart lad. Unfortunately my phone's been out since this morning."
"Er, you don't have a cell?"
"No. I never saw the need."
"You can use mine. I'm just supposed to use it to call home or for emergencies, but I think this is an emergency." Jesse pulled off his gloves and dug out his phone.
"Umm." the old woman studied the instrument.
"Here, like this." Jesse punched in his password. "What's the number?"
Miss Satler read the phone number from a container she had been clutching in her hand. Jesse dialed and handed the phone over. She held it awkwardly as she explained that she was Erica Satler and that she was sending someone for her prescription. "What is your name, young man?"
The conversation was getting right into the heart of the Don't Talk To Strangers rulebook, but Jesse knew this was more important. "Jesse Schofield, ma'am. I'm fourteen and I go to Amherst Middle School."
"Thank you, Jesse. They said they were about to close up but they'll wait until you arrive. I have an account with them so there won't be any charge."
It was getting late by the time Jesse started back from the pharmacy so he called home to explain what he was doing. His mother expressed concern. "Just who is this person?"
"She's an old lady, Mom, and she has a walker."
"Did you say 'Miss Jessica Satler'?"
"Miss Erica Satler, Mom."
"Really! Your dad and I had Miss Erica Satler for high school English years ago. So did your uncle Fred. Good Lord! I'm surprised she's still alive! Well, Jesse, I understand what you're doing, but you're to come straight home as soon as you hand that medicine over. We need to start digging out."
As Jesse approached the house he saw Miss Satler in the window, peering out. The door swung open. "Good," she said, "Come in and get some cocoa. You must be frozen." She turned and scraped down a hallway, propelling her walker. Sighing, Jesse stamped his boots off and stepped into the house, closing the door carefully.
At the end of the dark hallway a curtained doorway let Jesse into a cosy room. It was toasty warm with a blazing fire in the fireplace, and right away he noticed a smell of something wonderful. Another old lady was bustling around the fire, poking with a fire tool at an iron pot that was halfway in the ash.
"Susan! Here's the young man who assisted us," Miss Satler was saying.
"Damned beans are gonna burn. Where the hell's the tongs?"
"Language, Susan. We have company."
"Help me pull the pot back, young man. Then tell me who you are."
Soon Jesse found himself with his coat off and his wet boots stashed on a newspaper beside the fireplace. He had a cup of cocoa in one hand while the other held his phone as he listened for his mother to answer. Nearby Miss Susan Kendle was twisting a wire coat hanger so Jesse could use it to impale a hot dog to roast over the fire.
"Mom, it's Jesse. Miss Satler wants me to stay for supper. She remembers you and uncle Fred both! And guess what, she remembers dad! Her friend, Miss Kendle, remembers him even better cuz she was a gym teacher in the phys ed department. She knew him when he was a football star! Miss Kendle said she might have some pictures of him. They even knew he had gone into the Marines and never came home..." Here Jesse stopped and swallowed hard. "Yes, Mom. They said it was no trouble. Yes, Mom." Jesse listened, then handed his cell phone to Miss Satler. "My mother needs to talk to you."
Miss Satler looked at the phone with great misgiving, then accepted it from Jesse. "Katherine, this is Erica Satler. Of course I remember you. I don't like these miniature telephones, so we'll keep it brief. We were very sorry to hear about Howard, but your son Jesse appears to have turned out well. He has been a great help to us this afternoon and the least we can do is feed him. I'll send him home directly afterwards. He can take one of our camping flashlights to light his way."
Miss Satler handed the cell phone back to Jesse. "Here. She's beginning to repeat herself. That's Katherine Clark in a nutshell." Jesse choked on his hot chocolate.
By the end of dinner they were great friends, although Miss Satler did keep calling Jesse 'Fred.' She said he was the spitting image of his uncle, and 'appeared to share his essential nature' whatever that meant. Miss Kendle was hilarious, describing the way boys and girls took physical education 'in the olden days.' Jesse couldn't wait to tell his buddy Artie about the climbing rope and the boys' drill team. Then they studied the snapshots of the football team, Jesse's dad among them, which Miss Kendle hauled out of an old shoebox. She offered one to Jesse to keep, and after thanking her profusely the boy carefully buttoned the photograph of his dad inside his shirt.
After Jesse had been stuffed with hot dogs and baked beans and toasted marshmallows and both ladies were as full as they were going to get from beans and salad and cottage cheese, the ladies began nodding and yawning and Jesse knew it was time for him to go.
"But you must come back, young man." Miss Satler was quite emphatic. "We spent all evening talking about the school as we knew it. I want to know more about you and your life and times." She struggled to her feet and Susan Kendle quietly put her arm around her and guided her into her walker. As Susan adjusted Miss Satler's silk scarf her hand lingered and Erica Satler pressed her cheek against it.
Jesse blushed, looked away, and busied himself buckling his boots. "I'll come back tomorrow with my friend Artie and we'll make sure your sidewalk gets cleared. We can go to the store for you if your niece can't get in. I bet no one is going to be able to drive up this hill for a day or two."
"Thank you, dear boy. Thank you for everything. We wish you and your mother a Merry Christmas."
Jesse turned to wave as he trudged toward the street, borrowed flashlight ablaze. He saw the two old ladies side by side in the doorway and smiled. He looked forward to telling his mother all the things he had learned about his dad. Plus the picture! What a wonderful Christmas present, and from two caring ladies he hadn't even met before today. Jesse touched his chest where the photo was protected, and he walked carefully so it wouldn't get bent. It would be going into a frame right away, and it would sit on his dresser with the too few other keepsakes he had of his father. Except for his memories, of course—and now he had two new friends to help him remember.
Jesse was getting more than bored waiting for his mother to finish her shopping. If only he didn't have to depend on her for transportation! Being thirteen really sucked big time.
He sighed and turned to look over the rack of valentine cards. He couldn't believe the prices for these fancy cards. Luckily he could still get away with making the only card he'd need, the one for his mom, out of construction paper at home. Plus these store cards were all disgustingly mushy. In fact, he'd better not even be seen looking at them. He turned his attention to nearby shelves filled with vitamins and tonics. Where was his mother?
Finally Jesse saw her moving into the checkout. He walked quickly toward the front of the store so he could meet her at the exit without having to stand with her in line. He was so engrossed in avoiding his mother that he walked right into the customer who was leaving the other checkout.
"Oof! Sorry!" Jesse looked down with dismay at the valentine card fluttering out of the customer's bag and landing onto the floor. He couldn't stop his right foot from treading firmly on part of the big red envelope. "Ohmigod! Really sorry!" His sneaker had left a slight mark. "I'll buy you another one!"
He looked up to see a vaguely familiar high school boy grinning at him. "You're an even bigger klutz than I was at your age. Forget it. I can clean that up."
"Th-thanks," Jesse stammered. "Ya know, those big ones take more than one stamp or they won't deliver it." Jeez! Had he really said that?
"I'll worry about the stamps. You'd better practice steering those feet of yours." With another grin, the older boy scooped up the card and envelope and turned away. Jesse's relief was short-lived as he heard his mother behind him.
"Jesse, don't dawdle. We're late as it is."
"Right, Mom," he said with a sigh.
"Did you get any valentines?" Jesse's best friend Artie had met him as usual as school let out and they were pushing through the crowd of students toward their bus. Since the upper school students had already boarded, the remaining seats were all in the front unless they hurried to claim a space further back.
"Are you kidding, Artie? We're in eighth grade. Nobody gives out valentines."
"I got one. From Judy."
"Well, you've practically been married to her since first grade."
They pushed up onto the steps of the bus and Jesse stumbled into the student who was boarding ahead of him. He looked down as he caught himself and saw a familiar red envelope fall to the floor. In fact, it still had a faint footprint on one corner. He grabbed it and stood up. "You dropped this," he said to the retreating form wearing the varsity jacket.
Keith Eliot, star forward for the high school basketball team, looked back, scowled, and grabbed the envelope from Jesse. "That's mine, kid."
Ohmigod! Jesse's thoughts churned as he stumbled down the aisle. "Ooh Keith," one of the girls said, "who'ja get a valentine from?" The rest of the crowd was in full throat as they oohd and aahd. Keith grimaced and quickly shoved the envelope inside his jacket.
As Jesse turned to look for Artie his eyes caught those of a student in another seat. It was the boy from the drugstore. He was staring intently at Jesse. Jesse hesitated, gave a jerky shrug, then continued his turn as the boy looked at him and smiled slightly.
"What was that all about?" Artie had saved him a seat.
"Nothing," Jesse sat down heavily and dropped his backpack onto the floor. "Just a little special delivery."
"What'd I miss in Sunday School, Artie?"
"You were out back playing your Game Boy, weren't you? You rat."
"They expect us older kids to do stuff like that."
"Right. Listen Jesse, Pastor Bob wants us to be angels in the pageant."
"Artie, we're teenagers. We don't do angels."
"But it's an Easter Pageant, Jesse."
"No way. With wings? Forget it."
"Pastor Bob said just long white robes for us."
"Bathrobes I'll bet. Man, they'll be looking up our skirts!" Jesse shook his head.
"Good point. But still, whose idea was this? We never had kids do an Easter Pageant before."
"Well, we never had a Youth Minister before. Pastor Bob wants to try it out, and Reverend Chiswell said go ahead. We're going to do Jesus Risen in the Tomb. Pastor Bob is going to be the dead Jesus carried in by soldiers, then they'll roll a big rock in front of it, and then when they roll it back after the choir sings a lot it'll be Easter morning and the congregation will see a bunch of cherubs and no Jesus. That's the little kids." Artie finally took a breath.
"Yeah, Pastor Bob wants Tommy and Carl and Billy to wear cloth togas and little wings."
"It's Biblical. Then we appear and tell the girls who come to the tomb what happened."
"We have to say stuff?"
"Don't worry. I got stuck with that. That's what this sheet of instructions is for. C'mon, Jesse, you have to help me with this!"
"Let's give this some thought. It seems pretty creepy to me."
"0.K. kids, listen up. I've asked your parents to let you stay today after Sunday School. This will be our only dress rehearsal, so I want each group to go to your classroom and change into your costumes. Girls downstairs with Mrs. Eliot, boys up here with me." Bob, the new youth minister, was a part-time security guard at the mall during the week and he liked to give orders. The boys milled around nervously.
"You two," he motioned to Arthur and Jesse, "go in the next room and get your robes on. Remember to take your outer clothes off so the robes will drape properly. I'll be in to check on you in a few minutes. You boys that are playing townspeople, this rack is full of the shepherd costumes from the Christmas Pageant. Pick out one that fits and put it on. Mr. Sams will stay here with you and help with that."
"Yeah, right," muttered Jesse, "Artie, did you bring it with you?"
"It's right here, Jesse. Be careful, my dad will kill me if you break it. But I still think you're making a fuss over nothing."
"You two stop horsing around and go get those robes on!" Bob was pointing at them. "Billy, Carl, Tommy, come with me. I'm going to pin you up."
"Bingo," said Jesse. He and Artie went into the room next door and Jesse stood by the door, listening.
"What are you doing?" asked Artie.
"Just follow me, and be very quiet," said Jesse.
They crept down the hall toward the primary grade room. The door was shut but they could hear Bob talking loudly. "O.K., you boys. I said everybody strip down! Everything off right down to your underpants, so do it! Come over here one at a time and I'll pin these togas on you and fix your wings. Billy, you first. Move it!"
"Give it to me, Artie," hissed Jesse. He hefted the tiny digital camera and made sure the controls were set, then he carefully eased the door slightly open. He and Artie peered through the crack. They saw Billy first, wearing only briefs, his hands covering his genitals. The six year-old was shaking. Carl and Tommy, also in their undies, stood behind him. They appeared just as frightened. Pastor Bob was on his knees beside Billy. He pushed Billy's hands away as he groped at the boy's penis. Tears began streaming down Billy's face.
Jesse swung the door open and stepped inside, the camera flashing as he framed the scene before him. "Artie, go get Mr. Sams and the guys! Quick!" The next harsh flash from the camera starkly illuminated the desperate faces of the boys, the startled stare from Bob.
"What the fuck! Get out of here, you little shit!" roared the youth minister. He lurched to his feet as Artie turned and ran. Bob lunged toward Jesse but the boy jinked to the side and Bob slammed into the edge of the open door. Dazed, the man swayed uncertainly as footsteps came pounding down the hallway.
Later that afternoon Jesse and Artie were shooting baskets in Artie's driveway. "Did you see all the police cars!" Artie was recounting the experience for maybe the fiftieth time. Jesse just grinned, swerved, and dunked the ball past Artie's guard. "It's going to be in the newspaper! Dad said he was going to give you the camera!"
"I told you we don't do angels," said Jesse.
"Hi there, favorite nephew! Happy birthday!"
"Hey Uncle Fred! Thanks for calling." Jesse grinned widely. "How's Uncle Dave? How do you two like your new house?"
"Whoa, there, kiddo. This call isn't about us, it's about you. Are you enjoying your promotion to fourteen year-old?"
"She still won't let me drive."
"Give it up, Jesse. I know your mom, and you should be glad she lets you ride without a kiddie seat."
"Har har. Very funny. But not being old enough to drive sucks big time."
"Tell you what. The next time we come down I'll give you a driving lesson."
"Ohmigod, Uncle Fred! Do you mean it?"
"That's what uncles are for – to spoil nephews rotten."
"Wait'll I tell Artie, he'll crap his pants! Now I know why you're my favorite uncle."
"I didn't realize I had any competition."
"You didn't until you hooked up with Uncle Dave. He's definitely got you beat for cute."
"I didn't know you noticed stuff like that, kiddo."
Jesse fell silent. His uncle, sensing an awkward moment, cleared his throat. "Did I hit a nerve, Jesse?"
"Uncles are also good to tell things to."
"It's not any big deal, Uncle Fred. It's just that, unh, I got this birthday card." Jesse stopped. His uncle waited.
"It's from a guy."
"Is that a problem?"
"Well, I don't know what to think."
Is it from someone you know? Artie?"
"Artie doesn't count. I mean sure, he sent me a birthday card. But jeez, he sent me a card for Groundhog Day, believe it or not. He's my best bud. No, it's from someone else, a guy I ran into – really ran into – in the mall when he was buying a valentine for some other guy, then that other guy dropped it, and I found it and gave it to him, the other guy that is, and he – Brian that is – thanked me for not messing him up, and..."
"Whoa, nephew. You lost me back there a ways. Some guy you ran into? Is he a grownup?"
"Oh, no. Brian goes to my school. He's a sophomore. But he talks to me. I mean, he said thanks for not outing him when I delivered his valentine to Keith..."
"Whoa again. Brian has a crush on someone named Keith?"
"That didn't work out, I guess. Keith is like this big sports star, so I guess Brian kinda wiped out there."
"So you know Brian?"
"Well, we're both on the school newspaper, and he's started talking to me there. That's about the only place an upperclassman is going to have much to do with someone in eighth grade."
"Jesse, let's get back to the main point here. Why did he send a card to you?"
"Well, he said it was to thank me for not messing him up over the valentine card."
"Seems pretty straightforward. What's the problem?"
Jesse was quiet for a long moment. "I kinda liked getting it."
"Ah, I see. Do you want me to drive down there so we can talk?"
"I dunno, Uncle Fred. I don't know what to think. I'd kinda like things to stay the same as they've always been."
Fred's voice was gentle. "It's called 'growing up,' Jesse."
"Yeah, I get that Uncle Fred. It's just that..." The pause stretched out.
His uncle tried again. "It's nice to be told that you're special?"
"Yeah, that's sorta it. I like that he talks to me without treating me like a little kid."
"Right. But I am a little kid. At least as far as he's concerned. I mean, the only place I ever see him is in our newsroom."
"I think that's what's really bothering you. You and Brian move in different worlds right now. I remember high school – and even though you're in the same school, you're not even in the upper school yet, are you?"
"You're right, Uncle Fred. I mean, I like to talk to him, because it makes me feel older. But I'm not really older. And I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not."
"You're a wise boy, Jesse. It seems to me you're figuring it out all on your own. I think we will come down next weekend, and we can talk. What would you like Dave and me to bring you for your birthday?"
"You just gave me the best present, by listening."
"That's all you want?"
"Oh, I'll take driving your car, too."
Brian was foaming the top of a cappuccino with his special signature swirl when he heard someone clearing his throat. He glanced over and saw a man standing in front of the counter. "I'll be right with you," he said cheerfully, "just give me a minute to finish this." He quickly topped off the cap and passed the cup to Janice, who was waiting to serve it to the only other customer in the coffee shop area of the bookstore.
Brian turned and smiled. "How can I help you?"
"Brian?" The tall, slender man smiled back. "Have you got a few minutes to talk? I'm Fred Clark, Jesse's uncle. He said I could find you here."
"Is he O.K.?"
"Oh yes, he's fine. I just wanted to talk to you about him."
Brian wrinkled his forehead. "Let me tell the boss I'm going on break. Find a seat and I'll be right over." He leaned through the doorway into the back room, spoke a few words, then pulled off his apron.
"I've got about ten minutes," Brian said as he slid into a chair opposite Jesse's uncle. "Whaddaya mean, you want to talk to me about Jesse?"
"I'd like to know about your friendship with him."
"We just sorta know each other, from school."
"I'm talking about the birthday card."
"He told me what you said about why you sent it, but I wondered if there might be a little more to it than that."
Brian fidgeted and looked away, thinking hard. Fred waited.
"I'm not gonna be able to explain this very well. Did Jesse tell you about the valentine?" Brian blushed.
"Yes, he did." Fred smiled encouragingly. "Let me introduce you to someone." He waved to a man who had just entered. "This is my partner, Dave."
Brian's eyes widened. He looked back and forth as Dave approached their table rattling the car keys. "You're..."
"We're gay. Does that help?"
Brian swallowed hard. "Were you out..." He stopped.
"In high school?" Fred asked. Brian nodded.
"No way. That was the dark ages, by your standards. Do you think I wanted to get my ass kicked all over the campus?"
Brian snorted, then took a deep breath. "O.K., so I'm gay," he said softly. "Maybe being gay is easier today, but it still matters. So I don't go around announcing it."
Dave gave Brian's shoulder a little squeeze, then sat down beside him.
Brian continued. "But Jesse knows. And he's cool with it. He saved me from a lot of embarrassment when I tried to impress someone with that valentine. So we started talking and getting to know each other. Now we're friends."
Fred nodded and looked expectant.
"That doesn't–" Sometimes when Brian got very intent his voice still cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "That doesn't mean I'm after Jesse. I get that you're protecting him. Can you also get that I know Jesse is still too young for me to be interested in that way? He's a great guy and really smart, and he's just finishing eighth grade."
Fred and Dave exchanged looks. " 'Still too young' ?" Fred said.
"I really like that we're friends, but he's still a kid. I mainly want to make sure he doesn't have a rough time."
"With heading into high school and figuring things out." Brian said flatly. "He doesn't know what he wants yet but I can see he's working on it. He's maybe interested in boys. I don't know for sure, and I certainly haven't pushed that on him. But we talk about things."
"So you are like a mentor?" Fred sounded a little incredulous. "His gay guide?"
"What's wrong with that?" Brian asked.
"What if one of you decides to want more?"
Brian looked steadily at Fred. "I won't take advantage of Jesse. That's not who I am."
"And if Jesse...?" Fred persisted.
Brian nodded slowly. He obviously had already given this some thought. "Jesse may be young now, but everything changes. In a few months he'll be in the upper school." Brian paused, gathering his thoughts. "I'm happy to be his friend. Sometimes friendship can lead to something more. Sometimes not. We both have a lot to figure out. Isn't that how the relationship thing is supposed to work?"
Dave looked at Fred and raised his eyebrows. "It might be enough," he said.
Fred stared intently at Brian, then gave a little nod and said, "Could there actually be two kids who have their act together?" He reached for a napkin. "Here, let me give you our phone number. Don't hesitate to call if it begins to get complicated."
Brian looked back and forth between Fred and Dave. "I'd appreciate that. But only if we include Jesse in any other conversations about his future."
Dave smiled. "I like this boy," he said.
"Hi, Katherine, it's Fred. Just checking in to see how you and Jesse are doing."
"Why hello, Fred! How nice to hear my brother's voice! I was thinking about when we used to swing out back from that big tree by the arbor. D'you remember? There's still a rope swing hanging there, but I doubt Jesse's been on it much. Too juvenile, I'm sure he'd say. I've been out there pulling weeds all morning from Howard's old garden. I wish Jesse was here to lend a hand but you know how he disappears when he senses yard work. I'm sure he'll be sorry to have missed a chance to talk to you, you certainly have won him over with your so-called driving lesson and I'll never hear the end of it now will I, you really shouldn't encourage him like that and you know full well I'm the one that's going to bear the brunt of his impossible notion to be able to drive before the law says he may. Not that he needs to drive anywhere, about the only place he seems to want to go now that school's out is the bookstore–you remember Cleary's Booknook? Jesse's quite the bookworm, spends all his time down there, of course it's an easy bike ride. Plus his new friend Brian has a summer job in the coffeeshop part, he's old Mr. Cleary's grandson and it's so good to know that one of Jesse's friends comes from such a nice family."
"Yes, We've met –"
"Of course the Baxter's are nice, too, and he's been best friends with Artie practically forever although that might be tapering off some since Artie's gone off on his own to some kind of coed camp this summer. Can you imagine? Boys and girls in the same camp! Jesse didn't seem very interested in going. I know Artie was disappointed but Jesse said 'yuk' when Artie asked him. I suppose you might have said the same thing at his age. I don't think camps were held for boys and girls together when we were young and I'm sure we would never have been sent to one, I declare!"
"So what is Jesse doing –"
"Jesse would love to have a summer job like Brian's but of course he isn't old enough, although Lord knows Brian is just a teeny bit underage to be working, he won't be sixteen until next month even though he's just finished tenth grade since he started school when he was five. It's a family business so I suppose that's all right. Jesse is really jealous, though, and says he can't wait 'to earn the big bucks.' I say his allowance should still be enough for his needs at his age and anyway Brian seems to pay for everything when they're together."
"My goodness, look at the time! How I go on. Remember we're counting on you and Dave for Sunday dinner. Jesse loves his chance at man talk when you come down, and I'm sure you know I'm grateful. But no more driving lessons, if you please. Enough is enough. Oh, and Brian will be coming over this week for Sunday dinner, too. They're thick as thieves, those two."
"We'll certainly look forward –"
"Bye Fred, and give our love to Dave."
Jesse heard the shave-and-a-haircut tap at the back door and rolled his eyes. Artie never changed. Well, it was time to find out if he would.
"C'mon in, dufus."
"Watch who you're calling by your family name." Artie let the screen door slam as usual. "Oops."
"Hi Artie." Jesse looked up from his cereal bowl. "Welcome back from camp."
"Notice anything different?" Artie put his arms out and slowly turned around.
"Sunburn. More freckles. Mosquito bites. Fatter butt." Jesse would have gone on but Artie stepped closer and whispered something. Startled, Jesse leaned over to hear.
"I got laid!" This time Artie's hoarse whisper included saliva, and Jesse jumped back and wiped at his ear.
"Eww! Are you serious, Artie?"
"Ab-so-lutely, kiddo. The Big One! Numero Uno! The Home Run!" Artie paused for breath and Jesse put up his hands.
"I get it, Artie. Congratulations, I think."
"I kid you not!" Artie was practically dancing with excitement. "You won't believe this camp! Girls everywhere! Girl flesh everywhere you looked! You really missed out big time, you jerk!"
"So who is the lucky lady?"
"She got sent home."
"Sent home! What did you do to her?"
Artie's face was red. "Ah, seems I wasn't the only one who got lucky. She sorta got insatiable. I didn't know she was like that." He stopped talking and looked down.
"Oh, Artie. I'm sorry, bud."
Artie brightened. "But I did get laid! Let me tell you, Jesse..."
Jesse put both hands over his ears. "TMI! TMI! C'mon, Artie, give me a break. I'm still eating breakfast here."
"You're gonna need to know this stuff, Jesse. My expertise will save you a lot of fumbles, buddy. The expert is prepared to guide you."
"I don't think you've got information I can use, Artie." This was it. Jesse swallowed hard.
Artie stopped, puzzled. "What's that mean, Jesse?"
"We're still best buds, right?"
"Absolutely. You've always been my best bud."
"What we say stays just between us, right?"
Artie sat down at the kitchen table facing Jesse. "What's going on, Jesse?" he asked, his mood suddenly changed. "You know I've got your back, whatever happens."
"I'm with someone now, Artie."
"Dawg! Is that why you stayed home and wouldn't go to camp? Who is she, is it someone from school? I never saw you eyeing any of the girls in our class–"
Jesse looked straight at Artie until Artie ran down and stopped talking. Jesse cleared his throat. "Brian Cleary."
"Brian...Cleary?" Artie's voice suddenly squeaked. "The guy from the school paper?"
"But he's a guy..." Again Artie's voice broke.
"So am I," said Jesse softly.
"That means you're–"
"I'm gay, Artie."
"Wow." Artie sat back, his eyes wide.
"I wanted you to be the first to know, Artie."
"Wow." Artie sat and stared at Jesse. Jesse got up and carried his cereal bowl to the sink, then came back and sat down. He waited.
Artie nodded thoughtfully. "You know, this isn't a big surprise."
"It isn't?" Jesse leaned back a little.
"No. Your clothes always did match and look great. And look how clean you always are. It was hard to believe you were even an eighth grader."
"You dufus!" Jesse flicked a napkin wad at Artie.
Artie grinned. "So now I get first dibs on all the ninth grade girls."
Jesse smiled and spread his hands. "They're all yours."
They exchanged high fives, then stood up and moved toward the back door. "So where's this Brian?" asked Artie.
"He'll be over later. Stick around and we'll all go to a movie."
"I'll have to show him your baby pictures. I know where they are."
"You jerk!" Jesse reached for Artie and gave him a noogie. Artie grimaced and pretended he was in great pain. They wrestled, laughing.
Jesse tried again to write the letter to his dad. It was too complicated. He wanted to tell him how he and Artie rode bikes through the leaves, and about how heavy the snow had been that winter, and about Miss Erica and Miss Susan remembering his dad from high school, and about how he had helped Brian with the valentine card, and all about how he and Artie had caught the youth minister. He wanted to tell his dad that he and his mom thought about him every day, but he was pretty sure his dad probably knew that already. Not just because his mom still wrote letters to him each week – the bottom drawer in his mother's desk was almost full to the top with those letters.
He wanted to tell his dad about his new uncle Dave, and about driving uncle Fred's car, and about how the uncles were helping him figure things out.
He mainly wanted to tell his dad about Brian, but he wanted more than anything to be able to do that face to face. Because it was pretty important, and he wanted to see how his dad reacted. He just hoped his dad would like Brian. He really wanted Brian to be able to meet his dad, but that probably wasn't ever going to happen. He had shown Brian the medals and the picture of his dad in his Marine dress blues, but they were a poor substitute for a father who was missing in action.
Jesse sighed and looked at the sheets of notes, pages filled with the words he'd saved throughout the year. Then he straightened them up and put them back in his drawer. The letter needed a lot more work, and it was too important to get it wrong. Besides, it was almost time for Brian to pick him up. They were going downtown to watch the Veterans Day parade, and then they'd come home to be with his mother. Jesse knew it wasn't going to be an easy day for her, but at least they would be together. Later, after the uncles arrived, they'd all have a cookout in the back yard.
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