W.A.R. Part Two - The Cold Winter
Chapter One - Trouble on the Bus
by Jeff Wilson
The world seems a little different when you open your eyes on your birthday. The sky is a little brighter. The birds are a little happier. The grass is a little greener. And you are a whole year older! All in one day! You go to bed thirteen, you wake up fourteen! And then there are the birthday perks. Everyone who knows you greets you with "Happy Birthday" instead of "Get the fuck out of my way, loser." Your relatives send you birthday cards which hopefully contain little green slips of paper with presidents on them. Your friends join you for gatherings held just because your mom went through hours and hours of painful labor, of which she reminds you repeatedly during the day. And when it's all done, you get a cake!
Unless you're me...
My birthday, December 19th, is just close enough to Christmas that my relatives will send me a card for one or the other, but never both. And Santa doesn't seem too thrilled about visiting me when mom and dad already took care of me for my birthday. I hate Santa, what a jerk! It's like my parents and him are in cahoots or something... Yes, that was a joke. I know Santa's not real. Now elves, oh yeah... They're real. And they aren't making little toys or baking cookies either!
Unfortunately, I was going to have two less cards at the end of the year. My grandma had always sent me a card and money for both days. But now that she was gone, very few people were going to have time to remember me on both occasions. I really miss her a lot!
People choose to celebrate their birthday in a lot of different ways. My mother doesn't like to even admit that she has a birthday. Every year when that date comes she gets upset if you mention that it's her birthday. She doesn't like people knowing that she's over forty. I don't know why she's like that. I don't mind at all telling people how old I am, especially since I'm getting closer to being allowed to drive a car!
My dad likes to celebrate his birthday in weird ways. His birthday is near the end of August right before school starts, so he likes to do things as a family or as father and son. This year he dragged me up to his boss's cabin up in Bedford County. We spent a few days fishing and hiking and all that jazz. I threw up in my dad's truck on the way up and saw a rattlesnake and drank a beer and used poison ivy for toilet paper. It was a lot of fun! My mom had to take care of me for three days because of the rash when we got home. I love camping! I hope I never have to do it again.
One nice thing about my birthday this year, we were only having a half day of school and then we were going to be on Christmas break for two weeks! Don't get me wrong, I like school. Or at least I like learning. School wouldn't be so bad if you didn't have to go with other kids. In that way, I was the opposite of my best friend Brett. Brett hated learning but liked being around the other kids.
It had been an interesting school year so far for Brett Reilly. He had changed so much since the summer when he had spent nearly every day with me. We were still best friends, but there was a lot that was different about him. One thing that was different, he grew about a foot taller in four months! He went from being the shortest and puniest kid in our class to catching up to me in height and I was one of the taller kids in eighth grade. It was no wonder he ate so much over the summer! Girls were throwing themselves all over him. He had money, good looks, and the bluest eyes in school. You could lose all track of time just staring at him for hours. His voice, which had been so high pitched he was often mistaken for a girl on the phone, had dropped seemingly overnight into a nice teenage baritone. His voice was very pleasant to listen to. He was undoubtedly the hottest boy in eighth grade!
Unfortunately, not all the changes were good ones. For one thing, we were separated even more in school. I was taking harder courses, and Brett was content to barely pass the basic classes. He had to take special reading classes, which he loathed because he was embarrassed about being dyslexic. Brett absolutely hated being in class. He didn't like being told what to do, and he could barely sit still and be quiet for more than a few minutes. Sitting through a boring lecture was torture for him. He got in trouble a lot with the teachers and had spent more than a few days in in-school suspension. He really couldn't help it. Because we were in separate classes, we hardly got to see each other anymore. After spending every day together over the summer, that was hard for me. We would meet on the bus, maybe have lunch together if he wasn't in trouble, and then see each other occasionally in the hallways. But that was it!
Another change was the way Brett was acting around me. Around the end of summer he really started acting like a jerk sometimes. It wasn't just teachers he was getting in trouble with. He was becoming rude with friends as well. He seemed very angry most of the time. He'd been short with me on more than one occasion, and it was getting harder and harder for me not to snipe back at him. I had a pretty short fuse myself, and Brett knew that. I wondered why he would push me like he did. It was like he was trying to see how far he could push me until I'd snap at him. It felt like he was trying to push me away.
In honor of my birthday, I was going to have dinner with my parents that night and a couple of friends and I would be going bowling the next night. Why I picked bowling, I don't know. I'm a complete klutz on the lanes. I think Brett was the one who suggested it, and I really can't say no to him. My friend Dustin Smith was going to be there, and another friend, Joey McKenzie. Dustin and Joey were both in my class. I'd known Dustin pretty much my whole life and I'd promised him I'd spend more time with him since I'd ditched him all summer for Brett. Joey was a friend of mine from school and from the church we went to. He was much more into the church than I was. I only went because mom made me. Joey seemed to like going. His parents were very pious and he had never even said a swear word in his whole life.
I rose from my comfy, comfy bed and trudged to the bathroom. I pulled off my shorts and turned on the shower to warm up while I peed. The thought occurred to me that I was wearing my birthday suit and I laughed to myself. I showered quickly and washed my hair. I'd avoided mom's shears since school started and it was time for a haircut. It would start to curl if it got too long. That's why Brett always kept his hair cut short because if it grew out longer than two months it was a curly mess and he hated it. My hair looked brown when it was wet and matted to my head. As it dried it would reveal its natural golden color. It was decidedly less blond this year and more brown than it was last year. Brett called it "mop-water blond." Mom interrupted me as I was brushing my teeth and told me that I would miss the bus if I didn't hurry up. I smiled into the mirror and tried to see if my braces were having any luck narrowing the gap between my two front teeth.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and walked across the hall from the bathroom to my room. I locked the door behind me and stripped off the towel. I had learned to lock my door since being humiliated by both my parents walking in on me naked over the summer. I quickly dressed and grabbed my winter coat. I knew I wouldn't need it, but I took it anyway. Summer had been unbearably hot, and now winter was much warmer than usual too. Is it too much to ask for a little snow in the winter? I want to be able to make snow forts and snowmen before I get too old for that kind of stuff!
I walked to the bus stop and waited with a few of the other kids from my neighborhood. I hardly knew most of the kids, and they lived all around me. I found my friend Emily Barnhart and we made small talk until the yellow monster pulled up and swallowed us. We rode past Dustin's house, and picked him up. He sat next to Emily and they laughed about some joke that they'd shared between them. Dustin used to sit with me until Brett had moved in and taken his spot. But the way Brett had been acting lately I sort of wished that I could have sat with Dustin or Em instead. I could already tell how the day was going to go at school. Because of the early dismissal, all of the classes would be shortened. Science and history class would be videos. Gym class would be free time to play basketball or something. My algebra teacher would be mean and give us vacation homework.
We stopped at the end of Park Avenue. Brett was the only kid on his street that went to our school. He quickly boarded the bus and sat down next to me. Brett was sporting a fresh haircut under his newest Yankees knitted winter cap.
"How's it going?" I cheerfully asked.
"This is so fuckin' stupid," he complained. "Why the fuck do we have to go to school for a fuckin' half day?"
I sighed. He was in one of those moods today. It was like he'd brought a rain cloud onto the bus with him. "It's nice to see you too!" I mocked sourly.
"Oh shut up," Brett sulked. "Don't even fucking start with me, Billy. I've got to spend this stupid half-day bullshit in detention, and I don't need you on my case again."
"You wouldn't have to worry about detention if you'd stop being a jerk to everybody," I replied. "Ever since school started you've been acting weird. Is everything okay?"
"I'm not acting weird. I'm fine. Why does everybody keep asking me if I'm okay? I just want people to leave me the fuck alone!"
"Even me?" I asked.
"Especially you," Brett snapped.
"Why are you mad at me? I didn't do anything to you!"
Brett scowled. "I'm not mad at you, I just want you to shut the fuck up and leave me alone! You've been on my case since for months now. It's fucking annoying."
"Fine!" I snapped. "I won't bother you, your majesty! I'll just sit back and watch you make an ass of yourself if that's what you want! I'm only trying to help you, you know. The least you could do is not be a dick to me on my birthday!"
Brett winced, realizing that he'd forgotten all about my special day. "Fuck, is that today? Shit, I'm sorry. I know I've been a douche lately. I don't mean to take it out on you. I... I'm just having a bad day."
"It's more like a bad couple months. What happened to the Brett from last summer?"
"I don't know. Maybe this is just the person I am now and you're just going to have to deal with it. Everybody hates me anyway. All the teachers and kids at school hate me. Even my mom hates me. Why should you be any different? Stick around long enough and you'll hate me too."
I didn't know how to answer a thing like that, so I just stared out to window. If I said anything more we were going to get into a fight. Why should I be any different? I was different! I liked him more than anybody in the world. I couldn't understand why he was being so mean to me.
When we got to school, Brett and I went to our classrooms. Since it was going to be a short day, there would be no lunch period. So the next time I would see Brett would be on the bus ride home. I sure hoped he would be in a better mood the next time I saw him. My God, there was no one more annoying and frustrating than Brett when he was in a bad mood. I was getting more and more of an urge to just unload on him. There was only so much of somebody being an obnoxious jerk that I could take.
When I sat down at my desk, Joey sat down next to me. "So, you excited about tomorrow night?" he asked.
"Huh?" I replied. I'd been so frustrated by Brett that I'd forgotten about my birthday bowling event. "Oh yeah, sure," I said, trying not to look like more of a doofus than usual.
Dustin sat down in the seat in front of mine and turned around to face us. "I'm going to kick both of your butts tomorrow," he laughed.
"Of course you are," Joey replied. "You actually like bowling. Tell me why you decided to do bowling again, Billy?" he asked.
"Because that's what Reilly wanted to do," Dustin snidely replied.
"Oh shut up!" I snapped. "It's my birthday. I can do whatever I want!"
"As long as your boyfriend approves," Joey added.
"Bite me, Joey!" I replied. "Keep it up and I'll find someone else to go in your place. Besides, Brett's being a real jerk lately. If he keeps acting like a dick I might tell him off."
Dustin smiled. "So Mr. Perfect isn't so perfect anymore? What a shame! Maybe now you can find some time to hang out with your real friends instead of that jerk."
The bell rang and our teacher told us to sit down so she could take roll call.
Emily Barnhart was first on the list. She and Dustin been my closest friends as long as I could remember. Em's dad was my dad's best friend. She had long blonde hair, much blonder than mine, and very sweet brown eyes. Since we'd known each other for our whole lives I'd never really thought of her like a girl. She was more like a buddy. I mean, we used to get thrown in the bathtub together after a day of playing outside until we were like ten years old. She had gotten into cheerleading and was doing very well for herself popularity-wise. Everybody liked her because she was pretty and nice and didn't have an attitude like most of the cheerleaders did.
Jerry Freemont's name was called and he grunted an acknowledgement. Jerry had been the second baseman on our baseball team over the summer. We used to be friends, but he started hanging out with some older kids who always got into trouble like Dustin's sister, Amanda, and her boyfriend, Max. Now we barely spoke to each other anymore. His hair was dyed black and straightened and it had grown very long and thick. Dustin and I argued over whether he was trying to be Goth or emo.
When his name was called, Joey McKenzie replied cheerfully. I'd known Joey forever, it seemed. He had wavy brown hair and brown eyes like his mom. He was always dressed well and he smelled nice, which made sitting next to him all the better. I just slapped deodorant on in the morning and called it a day, but Joey used some sort of cologne or spray that was distinctly his scent. You could blindfold me in a room of a hundred boys and I could find Joey just by sniffing around for him.
I raised my hand, waved, and went back to reading. I had told our teacher a hundred times that my name was Billy. She told me that was a little kid's name and always called me William, even though she called other kids the names they wanted to be called.
Like Bobby Rush, the only black kid in our class. He was called and his deep booming voice sounded out of place in a class of eighth graders. He was easily the largest and strongest kid in our class. Strongest man in our class was more like it. He was on the junior high football team as a lineman, though he was big enough to be on the high school team. Funny thing about Bobby, for as big and strong as he was, he was a really nice kid. He was sort of the anti-bully in our school. He was always standing up for the little guy. I sometimes wondered if it was true what they said about black guys and the size of their things. I wondered if he was as obsessed with his thing as I was with mine. But then I figured that there was no one as obsessed with their thing as me. I wondered if I could get away with slipping off to the bathroom at some point in the shortened school day for some fun.
Dustin was lost in his book bag looking for a paper. We didn't know why he was in the class with the smarter kids, and to be honest he didn't know either! He seemed to keep up with the class and do well on tests and all that. But he always looked confused. He rarely answered anything in class without making a joke and he was always clowning around. I don't think he ever studied and he never had his homework done and was always rushing to do it in homeroom. But still, there he sat in the seat in front of me always hanging around and doing just well enough to keep from being knocked down into Brett's class. I had never heard him swear in all the years I'd known him, which was odd because every other word his father said was a swear word. Sitting behind him in class, I must have counted the freckles on the back of his neck at least a hundred times. There were at least a hundred fifty-two between his shirt collar and his hairline.
What fascinated me the most about him was his hair. Dustin had the prettiest red hair. He'd have hit me if he heard me call his hair pretty, but it was! He was proud of being the only red head in our class. It wasn't orange like some redheads. It was dark red with blond highlights. If there was a boy who spent more time on his hair than Dustin, I'd like to meet him. It seemed every day it was a little different. On this day it was spiked with hair gel. There had been many a day when I'd lost track of time just staring at the back of him. I just wanted to reach out and touch that soft exposed skin on the nape of his neck and feel his hair through my hands... And I haven't even started on his grayish blue eyes! He was just a beautiful boy...
Oh... Sorry! Got lost for a minute there!
Sarah Taylor's name was one of the last to be called. Roll call was the only thing she was last in. Sarah was the daughter of the school board president and she was a total bitch. There were no redeeming qualities that I could see in her, not that I'd looked all that hard. She was mean behind people's backs and nice to their face. She was a total suck-up to the teachers. She was head middle-school cheerleader even though Emily was ten times more talented. She seemed to think that it was her birthright to be better than everybody else. She just assumed that the school would hand her valedictorian when we graduated, and she was determined to knock down anybody who got in her way. That was me. She hated my guts because she knew that I was smarter than her. I was one of the people who she was a bitch to my face as well as behind my back. But that was okay because I hated her right back.
"Okay, who stole my English paper?" Dustin asked angrily. The class, even the teacher, laughed at him.
"You have to have written something to have had it stolen," Joey teased.
"I'm serious," Dustin cried. "I just had it a minute ago. Somebody stole it!"
Nothing is ever lost in eighth grade. If it's missing, somebody stole it. Surely a thirteen year old boy could not possibly be asked to both write and keep track of an English paper and expect it not to be stolen! What did these teachers want from us? Personally, I blame the elves.
Homeroom ended without Dustin finding his paper, and since this was the last day to turn it in, he spent the rest of the morning frantically re-writing it in other classes. The back of his neck was getting to be as red as his hair as frustration and panic were setting in as we were closing in on English class. He was lucky that most of the classes were free time because of the half day. I had turned my paper in days ago, first in the class actually. I'm a decent writer when I put my mind to it and get to use a computer. I could never write a paper by hand as quickly as Dustin did that day. My handwriting is horrible and I'm so glad that they stopped grading it. Since I'm left handed I kind of write the wrong way. I scrunch my hand over top of what I'm writing. It cramps my wrist and it looks horrible and smudgy. If the ink is wet it always smears on my hand. Why couldn't I be normal like everybody else?
Dustin managed to finish his paper in time for English class. The teacher gave him quite a disgusted look when he turned it in. I'm sure she wasn't looking forward to trying to decipher Dustin's chicken-scratch handwriting over Christmas break. Mrs. Maple returned the papers of those who had finished their work early. I got a one hundred five percent with bonus points for having a bibliography. Sarah nosily peered at my paper and smirked. She had received the same score. I resisted the urge to slap her.
Our last class that brief day was science. I always looked forward to having that class at the end of my day, not because of the subject but because of the teacher. Miss Winston was my favorite teacher. She is not everybody's cup of tea, because she is very strict. But if you aren't a jerk and talk with her she can be incredibly funny and friendly. She's also brilliant. She's certified to teach just about any aspect of science. I wasn't looking forward to leaving her behind in middle school when we moved to Mon Valley High School. But the high school teacher had been a teacher longer than her, so she was stuck in middle school. Since the class was ahead of where she wanted to be before Christmas break, we got to watch a video instead of having class, just as I'd hoped. While that was going on, I completed the algebra homework our teacher had given us for the break.
When the bell rang, Miss Winston asked me to stay for a few minutes.
"Well Billy, do you want the good news or the bad news?"
"Uh, the good news..." I said nervously.
"Well, the good news and the bad news are the same: I'm being transferred to the high school at the end of the year. I'm afraid you're stuck with me."
"That's great!" I cheered.
"So what do you do in the summer?" she asked.
"I don't know... Hang out. Play ball..."
"Well, as you may know I am the coach of the high school volleyball team. I'm always on the lookout for boys who might like to help out as equipment managers. I have a few boys in mind, and you're at the top of my list. You'd get to go to all the games, help out with practices and set up the nets. It's a lot of work but it is fun and you would meet a lot of people. It's never too early to start building your resume."
"I'd have to ask my parents and stuff," I replied.
"I don't need an answer today. It's just something for you to think about over break. Now, you better hurry and catch your bus before I have to drive you home!"
"Okay! Hey, thanks for thinking of me! That was really cool."
I just made it to the bus before it left. I could have gotten a ride home with Dustin after his basketball practice if I'd missed the bus, but I really didn't feel like staying late after school on a half day. I found Brett and he let me sit by the window. He wasn't being nice. I got car sick if I didn't sit by the window. I'd thrown up on a field trip once because of my motion sickness. Boy was that embarrassing! We didn't say anything, I think we were both afraid to pick up our conversation from the morning. We just wanted to get through the last part of our school day without incident. Then there would be two whole weeks to have fun! I wished I could figure out what was wrong with him. I just wanted to help him. Why didn't he want to talk about it? Could it really be that bad?
The bus took a very sharp turn that caused me to slide into Brett and the next thing I knew Brett slid right out of the seat into the aisle. He hit the floor with a hard crash. Sometimes when he was in one of his clowning-around moods he would fall out of his seat just to be silly. But this time, he'd been genuinely knocked onto the floor and his pride was smarting.
"OWW!!!!" he swore. "What the fuck is wrong with you?!?" He shouted at me.
Unfortunately, we had a substitute bus driver that day who just happened to be Dustin's mom. She also heard what Brett had said, and she wasn't happy. She looked back in her mirror and glared at Brett. "Watch your language, Mr. Reilly!" she bellowed. "Quit fooling around and get off the floor!"
"It wasn't my fault!" Brett yelled angrily. "You're the one driving like a maniac!"
"Mr. Reilly, get out of the aisle and into your seat, NOW!!!" Mrs. Smith bellowed.
Brett sat stubbornly on the floor. "NO!" he snapped. My mouth dropped in shock. Nobody in their right mind had ever talked back to Mrs. Smith. Brett was seething with rage. He wanted a fight. "Why don't you learn how to drive you fucking bitch?" he shouted.
A stunned silence instantly fell over the kids on the bus. What had been an almost amusing little incident to them had just gone horribly wrong! I'd never heard our bus as quiet as it was at that moment. The bus swerved off the road and came to a harsh and abrupt stop. Mrs. Smith had unfastened her seat belt and was now stomping her way down the aisle like a tyrannosaurus after its prey. Brett's eyes widened like saucers. It was only then that he realized the magnitude of his mistake. Too late, he scampered off the floor and into the seat next to me. I kind of leaned away from him, as if I was afraid of being destroyed along with him.
"I'm sorry!" Brett squeaked before she made it to our seat. "I'm sorry!" His voice cracked as the words escaped him in a vain hope that he would be spared what was about to happen to him.
"You want to tell me what you just said to my face, boy?" Mrs. Smith roared. She was inches from Brett's face, towering over him. I knew at that moment why Dustin was scared to death of crossing her. I was ready to wet my pants and I wasn't even the one in trouble!
"I said I'm sorry!!" Brett whined.
"I want to hear you say what you said about me to my face, Brett," she commanded.
"I didn't mean it!" he protested. "I take it back!" I swear Mrs. Smith grew to twice her already intimidating size. She was nose to nose with Brett.
"TELL ME WHAT YOU SAID!!!!!" she roared. I think I still have hearing damage from the sound.
The silence was complete. Even the world outside the bus seemed to be in dread of her wrath. Brett could not have pressed himself any more into the seat. He whimpered, but the world was so quiet he might as well have shouted. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry!"
"Tell me what you said, Brett. Now." Mrs. Smith said icily and quietly. It was even more frightening when she was talking softly than when she was yelling.
"I said I'd like it if you would drive more carefully, please," Brett replied, his voice cracking. "It hurt when I fell out of the seat."
"And what did you call me?" she asked.
Brett gulped. He was turning white. He could not have gripped the seat any tighter without a vice. "I didn't mean it," he insisted.
"If you didn't mean it, then why did you say it?" she asked. Brett only sat there shaking. Mrs. Smith leaned into Brett's ear and spoke so quietly that only Brett and I could hear her. Very sternly she said, "Let me tell you something right now, Mr. Reilly. You think I'm a bitch now? You have no idea what kind of bitch I can be. You hear me? You better get your shit together, little boy. Because if you ever mouth off to me like that again I'll slap you so hard you won't be able to taste for a month. If you were my kid, I'd beat your ass so hard you wouldn't be able to walk if you ever mouthed off like that. You hear me, son?"
Brett glared at Mrs. Smith. "You can't talk to me like that. You're not my mom," he replied defiantly.
"No... And you're one lucky little bastard, aren't you?" she whispered. With that, she turned and walked back to the front of the bus. No one dared to be the first one to talk for the rest of the trip. All the rest of the way, everyone spoke only in hushed tones.
Brett sank low in his seat, trying to disappear if he could. His hands formed tight fists. He was sniffling and his eyes were puffy and red. He kept brushing tears away from his eyes before they could escape and run down his face. He was angry and humiliated. He scowled viciously at Mrs. Smith. He was angrier and more hurt than I'd ever seen him before. This was more than a phase, like his mom had told me his problem was. There was something seriously wrong with him. I just wanted to help him. I hated to see him hurting.
"You gonna be okay?" I asked.
"Fuck off," Brett snapped. He sniffed and wiped angry tears from his eyes.
"Why did you do that?" I pressed. "What were you thinking?"
"Billy, shut the fuck up. Please don't fucking talk to me right now. Please."
"Sorry," I replied. "You don't have to take it out on me. I am on your side you know."
Brett looked at me. The anger seemed to slightly fade. He was more hurt now than angry and for the first time he very slightly opened up. "Did you hear what she said? What she called me?"
"I didn't deserve that," Brett said angrily. "I didn't mean what I said. She meant to call me what she did. I fucking hate that bitch." He wiped his eyes again, angry at himself for letting someone get to him like she did.
"No offense, but you're acting worse than I've ever seen you, Brett. I know you're hurting from something much worse than getting yelled at by the bus driver. Please tell me what's wrong. I only want to help."
Brett sniffled one last time and seemed to regain his composure. He was still hurt and angry, but he seemed to soften up a bit. "I'm just in a bad place right now. I'll be okay. Please don't be mad at me. I don't mean to be a douche bag. I hate acting like this."
"Then let me help you," I offered.
"No one can help me," Brett replied hopelessly. "This is just something I've got to deal with on my own, Billy."
The bus stopped at Brett's street. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'll be better by tomorrow night for your party. I promise. I just have a lot to deal with. I'm really sorry." He walked to the front of the bus. Mrs. Smith had yet another talk with him up front. Brett apologized again for what he said and then he left the bus. As we watched him walk away, Emily tapped me on the shoulder from the seat behind me.
"What's going on with him?" she asked.
"I wish I knew," I replied.
"Well if anyone can help him, it's you Billy," she said as she patted my shoulder.
"Gee, thanks," I replied sarcastically.
When we arrived at my bus stop, Mrs. Smith stopped me. "Billy I just wanted to apologize to you for what happened."
"You don't have to apologize. Brett was being a jerk," I replied.
"He's just a boy. I shouldn't have over-reacted. I like Brett. I just hate to see him so out-of-control. I just know he could behave better if his mother would..." She paused and smiled at me. "No... It's none of my business."
I told Mrs. Smith that we would pick up Dustin tomorrow at six o'clock, then I left the bus and started walking home. It was only a little after noon but it had already been one of the most interesting birthdays I'd ever had.
Hi! Welcome back! So we have moved ahead a few months from Black Summer. I hope you'll enjoy this part of the story. It's kind of a reversal of the first part. This time it's Brett whose life is a mess. Will Billy be able to carry Brett through his storm like Brett did for him? I guess we'll have to find out!
You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org I'd love to hear from you!