What's The Difference Between Me and You?
"Are you and my dad going to get married?" Nick asked out of the blue, prompting a look he couldn't quite read from Lori as they sped down the interstate.
"What makes you ask that, sweetie?" she responded, her face now registering a smile.
"I don't know," Nick shrugged. "That's just what I think. Then you'd be my stepmom."
"Yeah I would, wouldn't I?" she said warmly. "Do you think you'd like that?"
Nick smiled shyly and nodded, then turned his attention to the traffic around them. He was used to seeing heavy traffic on the interstate at all times, so he was a little mesmerized by the fact that there were so few cars this time.
"Will my dad be there?" Nick asked suddenly, worried that Jim might have forgotten that he was supposed to meet Lori and Nick at the medical complex for Nick's session with Miss Sue. Jim had classes that day, and he wouldn't have been able to make it in time for Nick's regular appointment after school if Lori hadn't picked him up and drove him there herself.
"Of course he will," Lori answered him. "Are you ready to see Miss Sue?"
"Yes ma'am," Nick said. "I like talking to her. Are you going to wait for us?"
"I'm going to the mall after you guys go in," she said. "Then I'm going to go home and watch for James. When he gets home, I'm taking him to Youth Group at the church."
As they drove, Nick thought about the way Lori's presence in his life had grown. It was almost as if she'd always been there, and he couldn't imagine a time when she would be out of his life. All of Jim's previous girlfriends were different, and Nick knew it. They never got to know Nick and always seemed to be leaving when Nick woke up. Lori was always there, and Nick never heard his dad bragging to others about his plans to dump her the way he had with other women in the past.
Lori was also the first woman Nick had ever heard his dad say he loved. Even though he was sure they would have moved to Virginia no matter what, he considered the possibility that meeting Lori was one of the reasons Jim decided to make the move. When they got home from their vacation in Virginia, Jim didn't see other women. When he was on the phone with Lori he seemed happy, and when they'd hang up, Nick remembered, his dad got emotional. He tried not to show it, but the anguish that Jim felt was plain to see.
When they got to the complex, Jim was sitting in his Camry, but he got out as soon as they parked. Nick hopped out and ran up to his dad, who looked happy to see him, for a hug.
"Hey buddy," Jim said, kneeling down and wrapping his arms around Nick. "How was your day?"
"It was good," Nick answered, giving his dad a peck on the cheek. "I missed you today."
"I missed you too babe," Jim said with a smile, then he stood up and puckered his lips for Lori. Nick watched with a grin as she leaned in and accepted his kiss, then the three of them walked up to the entrance. Lori stayed with them until it was time for their appointment to start, then she left and Nick and Jim went into Miss Sue's office.
"So I hear you've been getting along with James this week," she said to Nick in an encouraging tone.
"Yes ma'am," Nick answered politely. "We had a fight with someone from my school, though."
"I heard that too," she said in a sad tone. "Would you like to talk about that?"
"Okay," Nick said, then he went on to tell her about the way Danny rode up on his bike and practically invited trouble with Nick, James, Taylor and Anthony. Nick confessed that James cussed at Danny, but that Taylor had turned the story around and said that Danny was the one who cussed.
He got a little emotional as he spoke about how hurt Taylor's feelings were when Jim warned him that he'd not be allowed to come over if he acted out. He heard Jim sigh a little, but Miss Sue gave him an encouraging nod and he went on. He told her how Jim instructed Danny to come tell him if Nick was calling him names and that he didn't think it was very fair. Miss Sue asked him if he thought it was fair to call someone names and make fun of them for things they couldn't help, and Nick shook his head.
By the time Nick got to James' mom and dad and their visit, he was in tears. He hadn't realized how distressing their visit had been for him , but talking about it with Miss Sue brought out feelings for him that he couldn't explain. He just knew that he was really sad for his cousin, and wished they had never come. Still, he was glad they were gone and that they hadn't taken James with him.
"So you see how important of a person James is to you," she said, as if guiding his thoughts. "How do you think you'd feel if James had gone back to Tennessee with them?"
"Sad," Nick moped. "I'd be scared for him because I know they were mean to him."
"Go to your room, Nick," James said vindictively, pointing to the stairs.
"I don't have to," Nick shot back. "I didn't even do anything."
"You do too," James said. "I'm watching you, and you have to do what I say. Now go to your room and don't play with any of your toys."
Nick looked at his cousin with an incredulous stare, then he plopped himself down on the couch. James advanced on him, attempting to grab the back of his neck, but Nick slipped away from his grip before James could get him. Just as Nick seemed to be at a safe distance from his cousin, though, he felt James's knee land against his left butt cheek with force.
"Ouch!" Nick cried, the pain of the Charlie Horse coursing through his back and legs. "Leave me alone."
"Do what I said, Goddamn it," James hollered. "Go to your room or you'll get another one."
"I'm telling on you," Nick sobbed, turning toward the kitchen so he could get to the phone and call his dad.
"No you aren't," James warned him, grabbing both of his hands and twisting them, causing Nick to scream out in pain. "You're not allowed to use the phone."
The two of them struggled for an advantage, but James was drunk with power and he was able to overwhelm Nick, who could only cry loudly and scream at James to stop as loud as he could. Before nick could do anything to stop him, James had him by the arm, twisting it tightly behind his back and forcing him to the floor.
"I'll break your fucking arm if you argue with me again," James warned him loudly as Nick wailed. "Are you going to your room now or do I have to fuck you up some more?"
Nick was about to answer when the sound of a key in the deadbolt caught both of their attention, and before James could let Nick up, the door swung open and a very irritated looking Linda walked in. Her stomach was swollen beyond anything Nick had ever imagined, and she had to hold on to both sides of the doorjamb as she came through. It was obvious to Nick that she was in no condition to be up and around the way she was, and she wasn't happy to be there.
"James, what in the Hell do you think you're doing?" she asked in a slow, dark tone that Nick read as sheer anger.
"Nick wasn't listening to me, Aunty Linda," he answered. "I told him to go to his room and he said no."
"Why did you want him to go to his room?" she demanded, still sounding irritated.
"Because he was being a brat," James lied.
"No I wasn't," Nick cried. "I was just minding my own business. James just told me I had to go to my room for no reason."
"James?" Linda said with a raised eyebrow, and there was nothing James could do to cover up the guilty look on his face. "I want you to go to your room, James. Nick and I will wait down here for your father to come home."
When Jim got home, Nick immediately ran to him for comfort and to tattle on James, who he knew would be in for it. Jim seemed startled that James acted the way he did, and he apologized to Linda for having to come over and intervene. She told him that she could hear Nick's screaming from her living room, and that as she approached the front door, she could hear James torturing him.
"Are you okay baby?" Jim asked sympathetically, and Nick pouted and shook his head no.
"James twisted my arm and it still hurts," Nick cried dramatically, knowing he would get James in more trouble that way. "He said he was going to break it."
Before Jim went upstairs to confront James, he and Nick walked Linda home. Nick noticed that Jim looked uncomfortable about leaving her alone because she was so wiped out from the walk, but she insisted that she was fine and that Tom would be home in a little bit anyway. When they got home, Jim went to the refrigerator and started dinner, prompting Nick to speak up.
"Daddy did you forget to get James in trouble for beating me up?" he asked, and Jim shook his head.
"No buddy, I didn't forget," he said with grim expression. "I'm just taking my time, that's all. James is going to get it, but I think he needs more time in his room to think about what's coming and why. How about if you get started on your homework and I'll work on dinner, okay?"
Nick did what he was told, and out of nowhere, he heard the snap of his dad's belt. He looked up from the table and realized that Jim wasn't in the kitchen and that he must have slipped away while he was immersed in his fractions. The next thing Nick heard was James' crying. Moments later, Jim reappeared with a solemn look on his face and started working on dinner again.
"I hate you!" James screamed at the top of his lungs from his room, then his door slammed. Jim stopped and took a deep breath, then he went back to what he was doing. Nick watched his dad's expression for a moment and wondered if James would be punished again, this time for the way he was acting toward Jim. He was surprised that his dad was staying so composed about everything, but the composure Jim was keeping also gave Nick an idea that James could be in for something much harsher than he had already been dealt.
When dinner was ready, Jim went upstairs while Nick sat at the table and waited. Five minutes later, Jim roughly led James by the arm into the kitchen and sat him in a chair. Jim then made three plates and carried them to the table, but James immediately pushed his plate away.
"James, eat," Jim demanded.
"I'm not hungry," he shot back.
"Eat anyway," Jim said, sliding James' plate back in front of him, but James stubbornly pushed it away again. Nick had a bad feeling in his gut for James, but he stayed quiet and ate what Jim put on his plate.
"Would you like seconds?" Jim asked, and Nick shook his head.
"No thank you daddy," Nick said quietly. "May I be excused?"
"Sure son," Jim said. Nick got up and James started to stand up too, but Jim grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back down with a stern warning. "You'll stay right here until you're finished eating."
"I told you I'm not hungry!" James shouted in Jim's face, and in a flash, Jim's chair was on the floor and he was standing over a very frightened looking James with fire in his eyes. The look on James' face was enough to shake Nick up, and Jim must have noticed it too, because he immediately backed away.
"Go back to your room, son," he said plainly, and James instantly complied. As soon as James was out of the room, Nick walked to the family room, where he took a seat and watched TV while Jim sat alone in the dining room. Nick knew his dad was in an especially bad mood now, and that it would probably be a bad idea to speak to him unless he was spoken to. Somehow he knew that he was the reason for James' behavior and that none of this would be happening if he had just listened to his cousin when he was told to go to his room.
Nick watched from the love seat as Jim finished his dinner in silence, then got up and dumped James's plate of food into the garbage and did the dishes. When he was done, he walked through the family room and to the stairs. As his dad got further up the stairs, Nick wondered what his cousin's fortunes held. They couldn't be good, he figured, but he had doubts about whether or not Jim would actually spank James after his explosion at the table. Nick got his answer when the sound of Jim's booming voice carried down the stairs and into the family room.
"You will never speak to me or anyone in that tone again!" Jim bellowed. "If you do, you'll get more than a few swats on the legs. You'll get about ten of them! Do you understand me?"
Nick couldn't hear James's answer, but he figured it mustn't have been what Jim wanted to hear, because he heard his dad's voice again, warning James to watch himself.
"James, you better change your tone now!" he hollered. Before Nick knew it, Jim was coming back down the stairs with James's Playstation in his hands and James hot on his heels, begging him to give it back. Nick watched nervously as Jim carried it into the kitchen and before James could say another word, he saw Jim lift it over his head and smash it onto the floor, breaking it into about five pieces.
"Are you happy now?" Jim demanded as James instantly started crying. "It's gone for good, and you have no one to blame but yourself!"
With that, James turned on his heel and ran out of the kitchen, his face a mess of tears and snot that Nick couldn't help but notice as he made his way through the family room and back up the stairs. Before James slammed his door, he cried out, "I hate you! I'm telling my Uncle Tom and Aunty Linda that I want to live with them!"
About thirty minutes later Nick heard James' bedroom door re-open and slam one more time, then a loud stomping all the way down the stairs. James had his suitcase in his hand, and he looked hatefully at Nick before turning toward the front door. Jim came out of the kitchen just in time to see James walking down the hall, though, and immediately intercepted him.
"Where do you think you're going?" Jim demanded.
"I'm moving to my Uncle Tom's house," James said matter of factly.
"You'll do no such thing," Jim responded, his voice just as matter of fact as James'.
"Yes I will," James countered willfully, but Jim had already taken the suitcase from him and was walking it back into the family room.
"Why don't we call your Uncle Tom and see what he says?" Jim challenged.
"Fine," James said defiantly. "I don't want to live with you anymore."
"Well you don't have to want to live with me anymore, James," Jim said bluntly. "But that's not up to you."
"Yes it is," James countered. "I'll call the cops on you."
"And tell them what?" Jim said dismissively.
"That you hit me," James said smugly. "And that you do drugs."
"I see," Jim said with a smile. "Well maybe you should go call them right now. There's a payphone at the store, but it's a long walk from here."
"I want to talk to my Uncle Tom," James demanded, seeming to understand that Jim wasn't worried about his threat.
"Well why don't I call him and ask him to come over?" Jim offered, opening James' suitcase and dumping its contents on the couch. As soon as he did that, he turned and walked into the kitchen, where he retrieved the phone and called Tom. He chuckled a little, then he nodded and got off the phone.
"He's on his way," Jim said in a condescending tone, picking James' clothes up off the couch and using his hand to smooth the wrinkles out of each item before laying them out on the couch. When Tom got there, James immediately started crying and ran up to him, hugging him and telling him everything that Jim had done.
"He broke my Playstation," James sobbed. "It's ruined and it can't be fixed. And he spanked me too."
"All of that's true, James," Jim said, nodding his head in agreement as he spoke. "But you left a couple of things out."
"Like what?" James demanded tearfully.
"Like how you tortured Nick when you were supposed to be looking after him," Jim said. "And how your Aunty Linda had to come over here to stop you when she's supposed to be off of her feet. Oh, and how you screamed in my face at the dinner table. And one more thing. The way you said you didn't have to listen to me because you hated me."
"But that was because Nick was being a brat," James said. "He's always a brat and I hate watching him."
"Well you won't have to worry about that anymore," Jim assured him. "Obviously I can't trust you to watch him, so I'll have to figure something else out."
"I want to live with you, Uncle Tom," James sobbed, and Tom shook his head and gave James a small hug.
"James, you live here with your dad," Tom said thoughtfully. "You might not like it all the time, but I know that by this time tomorrow, you'll want to come back. You're just upset right now, that's all. You need to calm down and think about what you did."
"But what about my Playstation?" James cried. "He smashed it just to be mean to me."
"Son, I didn't do it to be mean," Jim interjected. "You're right that it was the wrong thing to do, but I didn't do it to be mean to you. I don't do anything to be mean, James. Do you understand what you did today?"
"It wasn't that bad," James sobbed bitterly, and Nick gawked, earning him a look from his dad that he took as a warning to stay quiet.
"Actually, it was that bad, son," Jim said a little sadly. "I've been after Nick to be nice to you and not to start trouble, but you did the exact opposite of that. Not just that, but your Aunty had to put herself in danger because you weren't doing what you were supposed to be doing."
"She wasn't in danger," James argued, but Tom cut him off.
"Yes she was," he said a little impatiently, causing James to look down ashamedly. "As a matter of fact, she still could be. She's not supposed to be on her feet like that, James. The worst part is that there was no reason for any of this to happen today."
"It's all my fault?" James asked in a small voice.
"Not all of it, buddy," Jim conceded. "But your actions today set everything else that happened into motion."
"Is my Aunty Linda mad at me Uncle Tom?" James asked in a worried voice.
"She's upset with what you did," Tom said. "But she's not mad at you."
"Are you mad at me, Uncle Tom?" James said.
"No, buddy," he said. "I think you owe Nick, your dad and Aunt Linda an apology, though."
"Yes sir," James said in a small voice. "I'm sorry Nick."
"It's okay," Nick answered, still feeling bitter about what happened but glad things were finally calming down.
"I'm sorry dad," James said in an even smaller voice.
"Come here, son," Jim said from his spot on the couch, holding his arms out for James, who moved into them and let out a sob as Jim wrapped him in a hug. "I love you James, but you can't behave that way."
"I know," James wept.
"We'll get you a new Playstation tomorrow, okay?" Jim offered, and James nodded, his face still buried in Jim's chest.
"Am I grounded again?" James asked.
"For a week," Jim answered.
"Okay," James said pitifully. "I'm sorry I said all that mean stuff to you, dad."
"It's alright buddy," Jim said quietly. "Sometimes when we're mad we say and do things we don't mean. I did it too, son, and I apologize."
"You do?" James asked, his tone one of surprise. Jim nodded and kissed the top of his head.
"I think tomorrow when you get home from school, you should go next door and apologize to your Aunt Linda," Jim said. "Then we'll see about replacing your Playstation, okay?"
"Yes sir," James agreed.
"Did you do your homework?" Jim asked, and James shook his head. "Why don't you go get it and take it to the table. I'll be over to help you in a little bit."
With that, Jim let go of his tight hug and James took his face out of Jim's chest. It was bright red and tear streaked, but the look of distress he was sporting wasn't as profound as it had been just five minutes before when Tom and Jim were reprimanding him. Jim used his hand to wipe James's tears away and gave him a loving smile, then he turned his attention to Nick, who wasn't sure what to think about what had just happened.
"Come sit with me, babe," Jim said. Nick did what he was told, taking a spot next to his dad on the couch and looking up at him. "Are you okay?"
Nick nodded slowly, leaning up against his dad's arm and watching his grandfathers expression of worry.
"How's your arm, kiddo?" Tom asked.
"It feels okay," Nick said with a small grin. "It was hurting me earlier but not anymore."
"Tomorrow after school you come to Grandma and Grandpa's, okay?" Tom said, and Nick nodded obediently.
"James isn't going to watch me anymore?" Nick asked, and Jim and Tom both shook their heads.
"You and James can come stay with us after school when your daddy has class," Tom said.
"Will grandma watch us?" Nick asked, and Tom shook his head again.
"I'll make sure I'm home," Tom said. "I was planning on being home early anyway."
"How come?" Nick asked, but Jim gave him a disapproving look that told him to mind his own business. Still, Tom smiled and answered his question honestly.
"So I can be there in case Grandma needs to go to the hospital and have the baby," he said, and Nick sat up and said, "Oh."
"It's almost time for the baby to be born, son," Jim said with a smile. "Aren't you excited?"
Nick grinned and nodded excitedly, then he sat back and listened while the men talked about Linda wanting a new car after the baby's arrival. After a while the topic changed and Nick lost track of the conversation, instead turning his attention to the TV. Once Tom left, Jim went into the kitchen and helped James with his homework. When they were finished, Jim came into the family room and talked to Nick.
"Son, James and I are going to be upstairs having a talk, alright?" he said, and Nick nodded. "We'll be back down in a little bit. Are you going to be okay?"
"I'll be okay," Nick assured him, then he turned his attention back to the TV screen. He took note of the fact that his dad and James walked through the family room but paid them almost no mind as Hey Arnold! was starting. He curled his legs underneath his body and rested his head on the arm rest so he could get good and comfortable, then he let everything that happened that day go.
It seemed like he had only blinked, but the next thing he knew, Nick was being roused by his dad, who had hoisted him up and was taking him up the stairs. Jim took him to the bathroom, then he took him to his room, where he helped him get ready for bed and tucked him in.
"Goodnight, sweetheart," Jim said softly as he leaned down and kissed Nick goodnight. "I love you."
"I love you too, daddy," Nick said with a yawn. "I'll see you in the morning."
Jim got up and turned the light off, then he closed Nick's door. Nick was just starting to get settled in with his Pooh Bear when he heard his grandmother's voice, and it sounded like she was shouting. Cursing, too.
"Damn you Tom, I'm getting sick of this!" she yelled. "It's been twenty-six years, and you still do it. You know I hate it! Why?"
Nick didn't hear his grandfather yelling, so he got up and looked out his window to see what was going on. His grandparents' bedroom light was on, but he couldn't see anything in the window, but he heard more yelling.
"Don't just stand there with your thumb up your ass, do something about it!" he heard his grandmother scream. All of the sudden, the light in their window went out and the shouting stopped.
Nick slowly made his way back to his bed and got back in, but he was no longer tired. In fact, all he could do was stare at the shadows in his ceiling and wonder what was going to happen next.
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