W.A.R. Part Two - The Cold Winter

(2nd edition)

Chapter Two - The Third Wheel

by Jeff Wilson

I walked into my house and threw my book bag on the couch. I was happy that I would not have to study again until next year. I wondered if 2001 would be better than 2000 had been. Surely it couldn't be any worse. I'd lost my grandmother. I'd been in huge fights with my mom and dad. I'd broken a bone in my face. My best friend's life had turned into a train wreck. How could any year be worse than that?

I turned on the television and sat on the couch. The news was more of the same. The Supreme Court had finally decided that George Bush would be our President and not Al Gore. That news made my mom happy and my dad mad. Mom was convinced that he would be a good Christian President. Dad was convinced he was a moron. It didn't matter to me, as I thought both of them sucked.

I tried to find something more interesting to watch, but it was useless. I wasn't going to watch soap operas. Maury Povich was having yet another paternity test day. The sports stations were busy talking about football. My dad's boss Mr. Nicholson had given my dad and Donnie Barnhart tickets to the last Steelers game at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers won that game, but it didn't look good for the playoffs. They were never going to go anywhere without a decent quarterback.

I scrounged up a sandwich for lunch, turned off the television and went to my room. I entertained myself for a while with video games. I was determined to finish Ocarina of Time before Christmas so I could give it back to Brett. He always let me borrow his video games, and half the time he would forget he leant them to me. He would get bored with them after a while. He got bored a lot.

I thought about him a lot that afternoon. I was very worried about him. He seemed so different from that summer when we'd spent almost every single day together. I don't know how I'd have made it through that tough time without him. Mom and dad had been pretty close to divorce. Mom and dad had fought just about every day that summer over what to do. No wonder dad worked so much and mom spent all her time at grandma's house. Neither one of them wanted to be home that summer. And I'd been oblivious to it all. Sure I'd seen them arguing every time they were together, and dad had mentioned something about their problems having nothing to do with me. But it didn't occur to me that they might actually split up.

But those problems seemed to have been healed when grandma died. It was tough to admit, but grandma's death had brought our family closer together. Mom moved back home and started working at the hospital again. Very quickly, she got a promotion to head nurse and a nice raise. Dad didn't have to work eighteen hour days anymore. He could be more selective about which projects he would do. He also began taking me along on some of his weekend and evening jobs. Dad stopped sleeping in the living room on his chair and was back in the bedroom with mom. And from the sounds of things coming from their room at night when they thought I was asleep they were back on the right track. I know, eww.

I could certainly feel for Brett when he said he had a lot to deal with. I remembered how grouchy I'd been and how he never gave up on me. I'd told him to leave me alone and fuck off, but he stuck with me. Now things were reversed and he was the one having a tough time. I wasn't going to give up on him either! I was determined to help him, whether he wanted help or not.

I was getting very frustrated with the Zelda game. I'd spent several days stuck in the damn Water Temple and once more Link had been killed by his own shadow. I angrily tossed my controller down and turned the game off. I decided to lie down for a while and try again later.

I was awakened by the crushing force of Dustin landing on top of me yelling "WAKE UP BILLY!!!" We called his peculiar way of waking somebody up the `Dust Buster.' He would sneak up on you, then jump very high and crash down on top of you yelling loudly.

After the shock of the Dust Buster faded, I wondered what he was doing in my house.

"I heard what Jerk-Wad did to my mom and I wanted to find out what happened."

"How did you get in here?" I asked. "You break in or something?"

Dustin laughed, "your mom let me in."

"She's home? How long was I asleep?"

"It's a quarter till four. I don't know how long you've been asleep. So, tell me what happened. What's the deal with the bastard?"

"I wish I knew," I replied. "And don't call him that! He's been really depressed. I don't know why he flipped out on your mom. She ripped him a new one though. I thought she was gonna slap him right there in front of everybody."

"Mom's not stupid. She doesn't want to get fired like dad," Dustin said. Dustin's dad had managed to get fired from the job my dad had got for him when he showed up drunk. My dad was pissed that he'd put himself out for somebody like that and then they screwed it up.

"I'm just worried about him. Ever since school started he's been getting worse. If he's not careful he's going to get suspended or worse," I said.

"Maybe you spoiled him spending every single day with him last summer," Dustin fumed. "I mean, what was with you guys? You blowing each other or something?"

"Screw you," I replied. "We were just hanging out. You could have come over too if you wanted."

"Yeah... Billy and Brett and the third wheel. No thanks. You two were so tight I couldn't have possibly squeezed my way in. We used to be best friends before we started middle school. But lately it's been all Brett, Brett, Brett. I can't help it if I'm feeling like I've been dumped."

Dustin wasn't saying anything I didn't already know. I knew I'd ignored him all summer. I was always saying that I was going to go see him or invite him over but I kept putting it off and putting it off. I thought back to all the times over the summer when I'd been around Dustin. I thought of at least a few times when he'd tried to do something with me and I'd already had plans with Brett. Now the year was almost over and I was still setting him aside to try to deal with Brett. I knew he was frustrated with me.

"I'm sorry, Dustin," I said sincerely. "I really am! You know you're like a brother to me. I feel really bad about how things went this summer. I didn't mean to ditch you. But, you know, I had a really bad summer."

"Look, Billy... I know that you had a tough summer. But so did I, you know! My arm got broken. My dad got fired. My sister was a witch. Mom was even worse. My family's broke. I mean, we're on food stamps, man! You know how humiliating that is? My dad tries. He really tries! He can't help it! It's not his fault. He didn't mean to hurt me. He can't help it!" Dustin's eyes blurred up and he wiped them bitterly, "Crap, I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm dumping all this on you. I'm so stupid." Like Brett earlier that day, he was angrier at himself for crying than sad.

I looked at Dustin quizzically. Something he had said didn't sound right to me. "What do you mean he didn't mean to hurt you?" I asked. "How did he hurt you?"

Almost instantly, Dustin's mood completely changed. He wiped his eyes and kind of smiled. But it wasn't a real smile, it just wasn't right, like he put on a mask. After a pause, he spoke slowly, like he was thinking about each word before he spoke. "I didn't mean he `physically' hurt me. My dad doesn't beat me or anything like that. I just meant he hurt the family by getting fired." He quickly changed the subject, "so you ready for tomorrow night?"

I looked at him hard. If I hadn't just seen him in tears I would have never guessed that he'd been crying a minute earlier. It was kind of scary how quickly he completely changed his disposition. "Are you sure you're okay?" I asked.

"Yeah. Just had a little pity party there for a minute. Sorry about that. I shouldn't have said anything. I'm okay, really! I'd rather talk about tomorrow night. We haven't done anything fun like that in a while. I can't wait to kick your butt."

"Dustin if you're in trouble you know I'm here for you. I love you, bro."

"Whoa," Dustin replied. "Don't go all queer on me. I don't want you falling in love with me. I just don't want you to forget that you have other friends besides Reilly."

"I wasn't getting queer with you!" I protested. "God! Why can't two guys be close without somebody calling them queer?"

"Easy there, Billy!" Dustin replied. "I wasn't calling you a queer. Don't be so sensitive. I know you're not gay."

"I'm not!" I protested, just to make sure he understood. For a while after there was an awkward silence between us. I was looking at my shoes and he was casually glancing around the room. Neither one of us quite knew what to say without offending the other, so we said nothing. I eventually offered to play Mario World with him for a while, and that got our minds on other issues. After a while, I felt safe enough to ask, "so what do you think is wrong with Brett?"

"I think he's having his period," Dustin replied.

"Dustin!" I laughed.

"No, I don't know what his big issue is. Maybe it's hormones, I mean he grew a foot taller in four months. I went through that, it's not easy. Maybe it's the fact that his mom leaves him home alone all day and spoils him when she is around. Or maybe he's just naturally a douche bag, and now you're finally opening your eyes to see it. I don't give a crap, really. I've never liked the guy. I don't really know what you see in him, to be honest. He's always been a bit of a prick to me. All I know is he better not do anything like that to my mom again. If she doesn't kill him, I will. You don't mess with my family without having to deal with me. If he messes with anybody who I love again, I'll kick his butt! He's lucky I wasn't on that bus, I'd have punched him right in the face."

"He didn't mean it," I replied, trying to calm down the increasingly hostile situation. "He's just in a bad way. There's no need to go hitting anybody."

"If I ever did something like that, I wouldn't be able to sit down for a month," Dustin said. "Somebody needs to knock some sense into that kid. And if his mom's too afraid to do it then maybe I should."

For a while after that we didn't say anything. We got further along in our Mario game and found other things to talk about. Dustin was very excited about going bowling. He's in a kids bowling league with Brett. They're both pretty good. I am not. Not at all. I completely suck at it, to be honest. I don't know why I let Brett talk me into doing it. I guess I let Brett talk me into a lot of things.

When my dad came home, mom and I took Dustin home in the car while dad took a shower. Dustin was happy for the ride and thanked mom several times on the way. Dustin's not really used to people doing nice things for him and he was always so appreciative when somebody was nice to him. It's kind of sweet and kind of sad really. I know he wouldn't want people to feel sorry for him, but I just couldn't get over how bad I felt for him when he was crying about how crappy his life was. I was going to spend more time with him. He needed a friend and I was going to stick by him no matter what.

Because it was my birthday dinner, I got to choose where we were going to be eating. My parents knew I would pick Janet's Diner. It was owned by Bobby Rush's mom. Janet Rush is one of the best cooks in the area, and her restaurant was quite popular. It was a short trip from Donora to Mon City, where she had built a reputation as having the best place in town to eat. The prices were a little high so we didn't go there as often as I'd like, but the food was worth the price. Janet always hired boys from the high school or college to be her wait staff. She said that boys had fewer issues than girls that age.

When we walked in the door, Janet herself greeted us. She knew it was my birthday and told me that she had prepared a little something special for me for later. She was friends with my dad from high school and they talked for a while about things that didn't interest me. Mom asked Janet if she was planning to come to our Christmas party.

That's right... I haven't mentioned that yet.

Every year, we'd always gone to my grandparents' house on Christmas Eve for their annual party. My grandparents had been having that party for years, way back to when mom was just a baby. My grandma would spend weeks getting ready for that night, and she invited half the town to be there. She loved Christmas more than any adult I'd ever known. Even last year after the stroke, mom had people over at grandma's house for that night. But when grandma died, it seemed that our tradition would die with her.

But then mom suggested that we have the party at our house in memory of grandma. Dad loved the idea and they had spent the weeks since Thanksgiving preparing for the occasion. The only one who didn't like the idea was me. I'm sorry, but the idea of having a bunch of people at my house and going through my stuff just wasn't my cup of tea. My stupid cousins Brian and Jesse would be there overnight again, along with my aunt and uncle. The thought of waking up on Christmas morning and finding my bed hijacked by Brian didn't make me happy.

When our food arrived at our table, we ate happily! Janet's food is so good, I used to think that she had my grandma working in the kitchen. Our dinner conversation had mostly centered on that stupid party and on that stupid election.

"I'm sorry," dad announced. "The man's an idiot! His dad was an idiot too!"

"Oh George! Stop it!" mom scolded. "I just couldn't imagine Al Gore as president! He's pro-abortion! He's an environmental whacko! And don't even get me started on the homosexual issues."

"Dear," dad replied. "I don't care if they had Hitler running. I'd have voted for him over Bush. Mark my words, this country will regret having that nincompoop as President. We'll be lucky if we all don't get blown up within a year."

"Ms. Winston asked me to help her in the summer with the volleyball team," I announced as I finished up my lasagna.

"That's great, boy!" Dad replied. "That'll give you something to do besides hang out watching movies with Brett all day like you did last summer."

I blushed. I knew dad was picking on me for stealing his porn video the day of the Black-Eye Incident. Mom was oblivious. Dad had been true to his word and never told mom about what I'd done that day. It was our secret, and he enjoyed teasing me about it.

"Ms. Winston?" mom said. "I saw Pat at Walmart the other week with Susan. She mentioned she was thinking about asking you for some help. But, I don't know if I want you spending so much time with her."

"Come on, Paula," Dad argued. "Pat's a good teacher. She's the best one in that school. The boy could learn a lot from her. It'd be good for him to get out of the house, watching girls in tight shorts bouncing balls all over the place. That's the job I'd have wanted at that age! Might find himself a girlfriend."

I blushed and sheepishly sipped my drink. Dad was always talking about me getting a girlfriend lately.

"I know she's a good teacher," mom replied. "I just don't approve of her... You know..."

"Her what, mom?" I asked.

"Well, I don't approve of her lifestyle choices," mom replied.

"Why? Because she's a lesbian?" I asked.

Dad about spit his drink out. Mom gave him and me and stern look. "William Aaron, where did you learn such a word?" mom asked, looking very uncomfortable.

"Everybody knows she's gay, mom. She calls Susan her roommate, but everybody knows what's going on. They've been together since they were in high school. Who cares? What does that have to do with me helping her out?"

"Well I'm not sure I want you to know those kinds of things," mom replied. Dad had regained his composure and was quietly sipping his drink and listening to us in his usual quiet way. Dad was good at listening and letting people talk. I was not. I took after mom.

"I'm fourteen, mom. I know what a lesbian is."

"Would you keep your voice down!" mom whispered harshly. "I'm not foolish enough to think that someone your age wouldn't know about these things. I just don't like you knowing these things. I don't want you associating with someone in that kind of a lifestyle, and I don't wish to be having this conversation in a public place."

"What's the big deal? Nobody cares what we're talking about. And nobody cares if Ms. Winston's gay. What difference does it make anyway? Why shouldn't I help her out in the summer? It's not like I'd have anything to worry about."

"It's not about having to worry, Billy. I just don't approve of the types of relationships she chooses to have."

"What makes you think it was a choice?" I asked, getting a little angry. "It's not like she just got up one day and decided to be gay. It doesn't work like that!"

"Billy, please. Calm yourself! I'm not saying she chose. But she did choose a certain lifestyle that I don't think is appropriate."

"What's so wrong with her lifestyle, mom? She grew up, found somebody to love, went to college, and got a job. How is that wrong? It's the same thing you did!"

"It is not the same, Billy! That's just silly! I married a man! I didn't choose to live with a woman!"

"Dad did!" I snapped. Dad snickered and mom shot him yet another warning look.

"Now you're just being silly. Look Billy, I'm not saying that I don't like Ms. Winston. I do. I think she's a good teacher and I'm glad you're learning from her. I just don't think it's appropriate that she lives with another woman."

"If they're happy, then what's the big deal?" I replied. "What gives you the right to say what's right and wrong?"

"I'm not the one who is saying it, Billy. God is. It's just not natural."

"Why not?" I protested.

"Because that's just the way it is!" mom replied.

"What kind of stupid answer is that?" I asked angrily.

"Okay, boy, that's enough." dad piped in. He didn't mind me arguing until I called mom stupid. He didn't like me disrespecting her, even if she was dead wrong.

"Let's just have our dinner without fighting, shall we?" mom hoped.

"When did you choose to like boys, mom?" I asked.

Mom looked at me confused. "I didn't choose, Billy. I always liked boys."

"I see. You didn't choose to like boys. It just happened. So if I like girls, I was born that way. But if I like boys, then that's a choice. How does that make any kind of sense? Wouldn't it just happen for me like it happened for you?"

Before mom could answer, Janet arrived at our table with a small cake with fourteen candles on top. They sang "Happy Birthday" to me and I blew out all the candles, which meant I'd be getting my wish! Mom was just relieved that our conversation had been interrupted and neither of us was eager to continue it after the cake had been eaten and the bill had been paid. The cake was on the house.

The car was awkwardly quiet on the ride home. Somehow, I think we both knew that the conversation we'd had was only just getting started. There would be another day for that. At the moment, I didn't even know what I wanted out of life. I just wanted to be free to make up my own mind and figure out who I was without being told how to live my life. I wanted to be free to love whoever I wanted. I didn't know who that person would be. I didn't know what that person would be! I didn't care. When the right person came along, I didn't want to let anybody stand in my way, not even my parents.

But that was all far in the future. Maybe years in the future. I didn't need to worry about that now. Love wasn't going to just come walking into my life any time soon. I'd never even kissed anyone, and it probably wasn't going to happen for a long time. All that was on my mind the rest of the evening was the excitement that was to come the next night with my friends. I couldn't wait to go bowling!

Hi! Looks like a certain redhead isn't too happy with the events of the last chapter. We'll just have to see how things turn out! At any rate, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how things are going!

You can reach me at: jkwsquirrel@yahoo.com I'd love to hear from you. We're back to our bi-weekly schedule now. See you next time!