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

(2nd edition)

Chapter Nine - A Tale of Reckless Youth

by Jeff Wilson

It was even more difficult walking home than it had been walking to Brett's house. I regretted not taking Dr. Reilly up on her offer to take us home, but if we had, we'd have never met Dustin on the hill and we'd have never found ourselves on that park bench. We definitely didn't want to be in Palmer Park after dark. Though it probably would have been safe considering the weather, there were rumors about the place and about boys our age that were kind of scary. Rumors that all small towns have about a certain place where bad things happen. It was amazing that some of the worst things in town could happen so close to where some of the best people lived.

When we made it back to the trail, our footprints from earlier were almost erased by fresh snow. The wind was whipping furiously and I regretted not having a snow cap like Brett did. Brett was sniffling and coughing pretty bad by the time we made it out of the woods and back to my neighborhood. I was never so happy to walk through the back door and into my warm house again.

As we were removing our winter gear, my dad came into the kitchen to find us.

"Back again, Brett?" he asked.

"Yes sir," Brett replied. But when dad got a look at Brett's black eye, his cheer quickly evaporated.

"What in the hell happened to your eye?" dad asked.

"What eye?" Brett replied, then he sneezed and wiped his nose on the back of his hand.

"For god's sake, use a tissue, son!" dad scolded. "And you know what I'm asking about. What's with the shiner?"

"I tripped over a book bag full of pornography and hit my face on my coffee table," Brett replied.

Dad tried to keep his composure, but I could tell he was trying not to crack up over Brett's ridiculous excuse. "I... You know, I think I'll just believe you and move on," he said.

Brett sneezed again and dad told him to take a warm shower and get out of his wet clothes. I could tell he wasn't feeling well, because Brett always sings in the shower, but there was no singing that day. Since we had been out in the weather for so long, the clothes he'd packed for the night were also soaked through his travel bag. Dad told me to find some clothes to lend Brett until his dried. We were about the same size, though I was slightly taller and skinnier than Brett. But my clothes would probably fit him about right.

While Brett was showering and I was finding clothes for him, I heard the phone ring. Dad found me in my room and told me that it was Dustin who was calling. I reluctantly took the wireless phone from dad and prepared for the worst.

"Hey..." I said. My dad stood there while I had the phone and I stared at him grumpily until he got the hint and left me alone.

"Hey," Dustin replied. For a while after that we were both silent. It was a bit awkward. I didn't know if he was going to be angry or what and I just wanted to get it over with.

"So..." I started.

"So listen..." Dustin explained. "I've had some time to think about things, and I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been such a jerk about everything. I shouldn't have said that stuff about you and Reilly doing each other and everything. I know you're not like that. I still want to be your friend, even if you don't want to be mine."

"If you're sorry for being a jerk then why wouldn't I want to be your friend?" I asked. "I was only mad at you because you were saying those things. I didn't appreciate what you said about me when you know it's not true. And you got us in some trouble giving Brett that black eye. But it'll take more than that for me to not be your friend."

"Okay. So I guess you found him then? Will you tell him I'm sorry about hitting him?"

"You could tell him," I said.

"No... I don't think I really want to talk to him ever again. He probably feels the same way about me. Sorry. I'm sorry about what I said about you, but I still stand by what I said about him. I still think he's a spoiled little jerk. I'm sorry that you got caught in the middle."

"So what happens now?" I asked.

"I don't know. If we both still want to be friends, I guess we just keep on being friends as if today never happened."

"And you'll leave Brett alone?" I asked.

"If he doesn't bother me, I won't bother him," Dustin promised. "I still hate him though."

"Just as long as you leave him alone," I warned.

"Hey, mom wants to know if your mouth is feeling better. I told her about what he did to you."

I thought back to kissing Brett in the park and smiled. "My mouth's never been better."

"Okay. Well, I've got to go. Mom's taking us Christmas shopping. She thinks that there won't be as many people out there because of the snow. I guess if you can drive a school bus you can handle anything! I'll see you later, okay?"

"See'ya," I replied. I took the phone back to the living room. Dad was sitting in his chair watching another one of his movies.

"So I'm guessing Dustin's the one who put that shiner on Brett?"

I looked at dad suspiciously. "Were you spying on me?" I accused.

"Didn't need to, boy. Somebody punched him in the face. Might have been someone who got punched by him last night, but I know my boy wouldn't do that. And whoever punched Brett was right-handed, so you're out. Then Dustin comes calling to ask if you're home yet... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out."

"I hate when you do that," I said. "You always know what's going on even if we try to hide it from you. It's annoying. Just once I'd like for you to be wrong."

"I guess I should have been a detective instead of the world's best electrician? I've got to be honest with you, boy, I'm not really all that surprised. The glare that boy was giving ol' Brett last night I'm only surprised that all he has is a shiner."

"He was pretty pissed," I replied.

"I'm not surprised," dad nodded. "You've got some really loyal friends, boy. I know it bothers you that they don't get along."

"I think they'll work it out eventually. They just don't like each other. They never have right from the start. I don't know why. They're both my best friends, but they hate each other because of me. I don't get it. I'm not worth fighting over. I wish they'd get along."

"Well boy, if life were easy it wouldn't be as interesting. Just keep being friends with both of them and don't try to force them to get along. They'll eventually either see the other side of things or they'll fight each other forever."

"Yeah, I guess so... We talked to Brett's mom," I explained. "She wasn't raped."

"That's good," dad replied. "I was really surprised when Brett said that last night. I mean, it obviously could have happened. It could happen to anybody, but it wasn't what I was expecting."

"Yeah. Apparently she got dumped by Brett's dad when he found out she was pregnant."

"Really?" dad replied. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. "You believe her?"

"I guess... Sort of. Well, not really. No. I don't believe it. I mean, it just seems a little over-dramatic, right dad? Like, your girlfriend gets pregnant and you don't just dump her but threaten to sue her if she tells anybody? And then you don't even tell the kid? I don't get it. It doesn't make any sense. I don't think she's telling the whole story."

"You don't?" dad asked.

"Yeah. I think she's hiding something. She said her boyfriend thought she was cheating on him. Maybe she did and she's embarrassed about it. I think that's more likely than the boyfriend flying off the handle like she said just because she got pregnant. But I don't see why it makes any difference. Why hide it for so long? Why the secrecy for all those years? Something doesn't add up. It's not like either guy could hurt her now."

"No, I guess not. What a shame. Jen's a good person, and Brett's a good kid. He shouldn't have to live with something like that."

"Yeah," I sighed. "Can I ask you something, dad?"

"Sure," he replied.

"Why do you smoke so much?" I asked.

Dad laughed, "You been talking to your mom again?"

"No. I just think that it's bad for you. I think you should quit," I replied.

"I know. You're not the only one and you're not wrong. I did a lot of things when I was your age that I'm not proud of today. I lived life pretty fast back then. Smoking is just one of the things I started doing back then. I had more than my share of drinking and cigarettes and women and trouble-making. But smoking has been the thing that's been the hardest to give up. You know, my mother died when I was very young and my dad was stuck with me. We hardly knew each other and we could never talk the way you and I can talk to each other. He didn't know what to do with me. Half the time he'd slap me around and beat me with whatever he had in his hands at the time, the other half he'd be too drunk to care. He about killed me when he found out I was diabetic. He would take me on projects during the day and to the bar at night because he had no one else to take care of me. That was where I grew up and that was how I thought life was supposed to be. I probably had my first beer when I was ten years old. I felt like I was a burden to him and I hated him. So I moved out when I was sixteen and I didn't look back. I hadn't spoken to him for years before he died. Can't say I ever missed him. I even hated my own name because it was the same as his. That's why I'm George and not Earl Junior. Once I was on my own, I did my share of bad things and got into more than my share of trouble. I saw the inside of a jail cell a few more times than I'd like to admit. I wasted a lot of years being angry at God and the world about being sick and for taking my mother from me and leaving me with a father who didn't care about me.

"But your mother, God bless her, she came into my life and helped me to clean myself up. She got me living the right way, got me going to church and everything. She got me taking my insulin and watching my diet the right way. She got me to stop drinking and rebel-rousing. She's kept me out of trouble for twenty years now. But she couldn't cure me of the sins of my youth. I know I'll have a price to pay for my hard living. I know I won't see sixty, but I wouldn't have seen fifty the way I was going before I met her. And now I'm only one year away from the big five-zero."

"I never knew you were arrested," I said in awe.

Dad sighed, "Oh, lots of times. There's a reason I didn't settle down and get married until I was thirty, boy. I was pretty rough around the edges. That's what happens when you grow up too fast. I wasted a lot of years before I met your mother. But I'd like to think I've made up for it. I hope so anyway."

"What did you do to get arrested?" I asked.

"I did a lot of things I'm not proud of. I drank a lot. I spent a lot of nights in the local jail, just to keep me off the streets until I sobered up. That's how I know Dustin's dad so well, by the way. I guess I was trying to drink my problems away, but it just made my life worse. I was an angry young man. Angry at the world and at God. I got in a lot of fights, mostly over girls. I thought the solution to my problems was to be an even bigger bully than my dad had been and beat people up. Of course, I'm not all that big so I lost more than I won. I didn't like the guy I became when I was angry, nobody else did much either I reckon. So one night, I robbed a liquor store. It was closed at the time, and I didn't want to hurt anybody. I don't know why I did it, to be honest with you. But I got caught and I did a few months in the county jail for it, and that's when I knew I had to change. Your mother, God bless her, she led me away from that life. I'm not proud of my youth. I'm proud that you're taking the right path."

"You robbed a store? Wow... I can't believe you were like that!"

"Afraid so, boy. Like I said, I'm not proud of those years. You didn't get that temper of yours from your mother, you know. That's all Roberts. You got her stubbornness though, and her refusal to ever give up on the people she loves. Your mom, God bless her, she helped me leave that life behind. The way I was going I'd have been dead a long time ago without her."

"How in the world did you even meet her? Mom doesn't seem the type who would hang out in a bar."

Dad laughed, "Oh no... No no no... You know your mom. She's like you. She's always trying to save the world. That's not always a bad thing. She's an amazing woman. Anyway, the Nicholsons introduced us. It took a while. I had a lot of stuff to work through and she helped me to change my ways. I could give up the alcohol, the rebel-rousing, and the women, but I can't kick the cigarettes. But you know, I have a better chance of being electrocuted at work than I do of getting lung cancer. One good thing about living the kind of life I've led is that you learn that you can endure a lot. It'll take more than cigarettes to kill your old man."

"Yeah, how about Mountain Dew and donuts?" I asked.

"Now you really sound like your mother. I'm more careful than you think, Billy. I've lived with diabetes for forty years. I think know better than you what it does. I'm the one with nine toes and who can't feel anything below his knees. I'm the one who can barely feel his fingers. I think I know what this body can handle better than you."

"I know, dad. I just don't want you to get sick! I don't want you to end up like grandma!"

"Is that what this is all about? You think I'm going to die? Your grandma was an old woman, boy."

"She was in her sixties, dad. That's not very old. I just want you to be okay! I don't want to watch you kill yourself!"

Dad smiled, "Your mother said that exact same thing to me twenty years ago." He got up from his chair and sat next to me on the couch. He put his arm around my shoulder. "I'm not going to end up like your grandmother, Billy. It's not your responsibility to save me. You have enough to worry about without worrying about me too. I'm way more trouble than you can handle."

Brett emerged from my room wearing the clothes I'd picked out for him. He looked terrible. His eyes were red and bloodshot and his nose was running like a faucet. "I feel like shit," he announced. "I threw up."

"Maybe we should take you home," dad said.

"His mom's not home," I said. "He'd be better off with us. Mom will be home soon and she can help him."

"I reckon that's true," dad said. "You go take your shower while I take care of him."

I did as dad instructed and made my way to the bathroom. It felt good to strip out of my wet clothes. Brett had left me a little bit of hot water. I scrubbed up my chest and legs. Had it only been a few short hours ago that I'd jacked off in that very same room thinking about Brett's awesome body? I felt like I could go for another round, so I did. I wondered at my body's ability to reload the factory so quickly. I wondered, what was Brett now to me? It was weird to think of him as someone who I might consider doing sexual stuff with. I'd known him since we were eight years old. Sure I'd thought about doing things with him, or to him... But now that I knew that he felt the same way and that there was a very real possibility that we might really have sex someday, it was a bit overwhelming.

We'd only kissed. It wasn't too late to back out of this thing. Sure I had never done anything that had felt so perfect, but it had never felt so weird, either. How far was I willing to go with Brett? Did I want to be his boyfriend? I wasn't quite sure if I was ready for that yet. It was still Brett I was talking about. I loved him to death, but I'd never thought it possible that I might one day get to do the things I'd dreamed about doing with him. And what was Brett thinking about all this? We hadn't really talked about what had happened. I was beginning to regret being so direct and kissing him like that. I didn't know where his mind was. What was he thinking about us now that we'd confessed the truth to each other?

I turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. It was the second time that day I'd stood naked in front of the mirror. I'd never thought of myself as in any way attractive. My hair was all wet and matted and looked even darker than ever. I could hardly call myself blond anymore. What was it Brett had called me? Mop water blond? My green eyes paled in comparison to Brett's ocean blue orbs. I guess it was appropriate that my eyes were green because I was so jealous of Brett's pretty eyes. I didn't care what anyone said about him having his mom's eyes or his dad's eyes. Brett's eyes were all his own! The only person who even came close to matching his beauty in that department was Dustin.

As I dried off, I couldn't help but watch myself in the mirror. I was so average I could hardly stand it. There was hardly anything about me that I would look at on another boy and think that it was attractive. My body was bony and thin. My arms were wimpy. My head looked about a size too big for my body. My teeth were shrouded in metal. Even my precious boy bits were just average. I turned sideways and looked at my belly. I guess that was kind of attractive. I wasn't fat, but I wasn't fit either. I looked like I'd been stretched a foot taller than I had been as a kid and my body hadn't had time to figure out just what the adult me was going to look like. Even my butt was just ordinary. I didn't see what Brett saw in me that was so attractive.

After I put on some dry clothes, I came to the living room to find Brett out cold on the couch. I joined dad in the kitchen and he had made some hot chocolate for us.

"I think we better take him home, boy," dad said. "He threw up again while you were in the shower. He's all pale and he's burning up. I called his mom and she's going to come pick him up."

I was kind of angry that he wouldn't be able to stay, but I understood. Brett did look awful when I joined him in the living room. I sat in dad's recliner and just watched him sleep for a while. It's funny. He was always so full of hyperactive energy when he was awake that he never really sat still long enough for you to just sit and enjoy how beautiful he was. His face looked angelic, even if he was quite a bit pale like dad said. He definitely had a black eye now. It was all purple and swelled where Dustin had belted him. He had some freckles under his eyes and on his nose. Not nearly as many as Dustin, but just enough to add some character to his face.

If you were looking for it, you could still see the pale white scar under his left jawline from when he'd been hit by a car a three years ago. The scar was pretty much faded away now but it would always be there, a shade lighter than the rest of his skin. At the time it had been a pretty nasty gash that had to be stitched up. He didn't like to talk about the accident because it still gave him nightmares to think about it. He never rode a bike again after that, and he was quite terrified of getting back on one. He had been coming down the street on one of the town's hills, not paying attention until it was too late and a car coming up the hill hit him head on. I wasn't with him when it happened, but from what I heard he flipped over the hood, cracked the windshield with his head, and bounced about fifteen feet in the air before landing on the concrete behind the car with a sickening crunch that broke his right collarbone in three places and knocked him out cold. There was still a blood stain on the street where he'd landed a month later. He'd come inches away from cutting his jugular and bleeding to death right there on the street. If he hadn't been wearing a helmet he'd probably be dead. They had to take him to the hospital and in an interesting twist, my mom was the one who stitched him up. He was lucky he only ended up with a scar. His mom had spoiled him before the accident, but afterward she really spoiled him rotten. She still hadn't quite gotten over almost losing him.

Because my clothes didn't fit him quite right, his shirt had kind of rode up on him a little bit. His belly was exposed just enough that I could see his belly button. There was another thing about him that I'd never thought of as cute before, but now I couldn't take my eyes off it. It occurred to me that there was probably only one living person who had ever touched him there before, and she was the one who gave him that mark as proof that he was her son. I wanted so much to explore him there. I wanted to touch him in all the places he'd never been touched before. I wanted to know every bit of him.

When had my best friend turned into such an amazing person?

Brett sneezed and it woke him up. He tugged at his shirt and covered up that wonderful belly that I would wait anxiously to see again someday. "It's cold in here," he grumbled. "Can I have a blanket please?" I found a blanket and covered him with it. He sniffled and tried to settle into the couch. "I feel terrible," he moaned. "Sorry I ruined the rest of the day."

"It's okay. I don't think anything could ever ruin this day," I said.

"Was I dreaming, or did the park really happen?"

"You weren't dreaming," I said. "It was awesome."

"Yeah it was," Brett sighed. "I love you so much it made me sick." He tried to laugh, but quickly started coughing and then groaned.

"Just relax and get some sleep. Your mom will be here soon to pick you up," I soothed. I tucked him in gently and wiped his forehead. I looked to see that dad was not around, and then I kissed Brett on the cheek. He smiled and drifted back to sleep.

Hello again! Thanks for reading this chapter. Only one more to go in The Cold Winter!

I would love to hear from you! You can reach me at: jkwsquirrel@yahoo.com

Next time: The Christmas Eve Party.