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Part 17:

Brett's family seemed pretty normal to me. The were hippies, like Dad's brother Mel, and vegetarians: something I didn't fully comprehend. No meat at all? It was a foreign concept. No hot dogs, no steak, no shrimp, sausage or chicken. What kind of Thanksgiving does one have without turkey? Christmas without ham?

We sat around the dinner table, enjoying each other's company-- and the meatless meatballs. Brett's mom decided to ease me into the experience, being that I was a wanton carnivore. To my surprise, they were not much different than the real thing, tasted pretty much like the meatballs I'd had before. Even studded with grains of white rice, a healthy dollop of ketchup transformed them into bona fide kids food. Condiments were the great equalizer.

The rest of our meal consisted of a warm lentil salad with spring onion and little bits of green leaves with a pronounced minty flavor. Whatever it was, it was good, and I asked for seconds. Brett’s dad, Hugh, was a thin, reedy man; I could tell Brett got his build from him. He had a brushy beard and a receding hairline, with big, dark glasses. His mom, Ganice, was much the same, but shorter, with long, auburn locks and the aire of a bookworm. They looked enough alike they could be mistaken for brother and sister, but I was pretty sure they weren’t. At least I hoped not.

Brett picked at his plate, barely touching what he had. Ganice put her hand on his arm.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I don’t feel so good.”

“Do you need to throw up?”

“I dunno.”

“Well let’s get you to the bathroom in case you do. Come on.”

Hugh got up and started collecting plates.

“You done there, Whisker?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

He smiled and took my plate, heading into the kitchen, and called out to me as he loaded the dishwasher.

“You can watch tv in the sun room if you want.”

I climbed down from my chair and headed two rooms over, into the sun room, where the entire back wall and ceiling were a series of windows that sloped at the top. During the daytime, when the light came through, I loved being in that room. At night, however, or even after dinner when it was just starting to get dark, it took on an unsettling quality I couldn't quite put my finger on. I buried myself in the couch and concentrated on the tv.

I could hear Brett choking in the other room, no doubt getting a second look at his dinner. Moments later, he came into the room with his mom, a little sweaty, but no worse for wear. Ganice offered a thin smile.

"False alarm."

Brett plopped down on the couch, the family dog, an ancient hound named Bobcat, crawling up and making itself comfortable halfway over top of him. I raised an eyebrow at Brett, but he just shrugged.

"I dunno. Maybe I ate too fast."

"You two find something nice to watch. What time is your mother picking you up, Whisker?"

"Umm, what time is it now?"

"Six fifteen."

"Any minute now."

"Perfect. Why don't you get your things together and put them by the door so you don't forget."

"Okay." Brett sucked on his middle finger, running the other hand over Bobcat's flank, and occupied himself with a rerun of Knight Rider while I slid off the couch and made sure I had everything in my backpack. Hugh walked through the room on his way to the door, shrugging into a tan Members Only jacket, a drivers cap perched on his head.

"We're out of yeast. And olive oil. I'll be right back."

Ganice waved her hand the way a wizard might as she tidied the living room.

"Take your time."

"I'm making more brown bread, with the olives your mother brought us."

"Then get some eggs for the salad."

"Of course, yakiri."

He blew her a kiss just before he left and I thought I saw Brett's mom roll her eyes, but she went back to fluffing pillows on the couch and reached for an empty wine glass on the end table. I carried my pack over by the door and dumped it with a thud, mouth twisted up thoughtful.

"Yah-kree. What's that?"

Ganice tipped the wine glass toward me, walking around the coffee table.

"It's Hebrew. It means--"

She shook her hair for effect.


I grinned. I liked Brett's Mom.

"Can you teach me any more words like that?"

Ganice shuttered past me and into the hall toward the kitchen, tossing her hair over her shoulders like the women in rock videos.

"Not until you're older."

I wondered what that meant, but forgot moments later when the doorbell rang. Ganice hurried to the door, brushing past me and peering around the edge as it opened.

"Hi-- ello. Please. Come in."

I was trying to remember if I brought a copy of Mad with me and if I saw it in my backpack while I situated my notebooks and papers. When I looked up to I was surprised to find Dad standing in the doorway. Ganice looked beside herself, running wizard fingers through her hair.

"Hey, kiddo."

"Hey, Dad. How come you're picking me up?"

Brett's mom chuckled.

"What a lovely surprise."

I noticed her voice was different; richer, smokier.

"Your mom's a little busy right now and I was in the neighborhood."

He turned to Ganice.

"Sorry for the confusion. I'm Alan."

It didn't bother me, quite the opposite. That made two of us.

"It's no problem at all. I'm Ganice. Please, have a seat."

"Well-- okay."

"Can I get you something to drink? Wine?"

"Oh, beer would be all right."

"Import or domestic?"



"Bottle's fine."

"Be right back."

Ganice scurried into the kitchen, hair appearing to have doubled in volume. She seemed different, and not necessarily for the better. I walked over in front of Dad, putting my hands on his knees.

"Are we staying?"

"For a few minutes."

"Then I'm watching tv."

I plopped down on the couch, startling Bobcat. He let out a lazy woof and went back to snoring. Brett's eyes were glued to the tv, still sucking his finger. I wasn't in the mood for shows about talking cars, but Dad said it wouldn't be long.

I watched as Brett's mom handed Dad the bottle, a glass of something red in her other hand. She sat not in the chair next to the couch, but on the arm, legs crossed, foot bouncing with her laughter. She twirled her hair while they talked. I couldn't quite hear what they said with the tv up, but what I did catch sounded boring. Hasselhoff was midair over a tractor trailer when I heard Dad call.

"C'mon, kiddo."

I turned to say goodbye, but Brett was asleep, the hound grumbling for a better position. I gave a half hearted wave and trotted into the living room to get my pack.

"Yeah no, it's no problem at all. He was an angel. He's welcome here any time."

"Thanks, uhh--"



Dad wiggled out a quick, tight lipped smile.

"Would you like-- one for the road?"

"Nah, thanks. I'm turning in early."

Ganice's smile showed apprehension, eyes to the side.

"Well-- don't be a stranger."

"You too, thanks. C'mon, son."

Ganice was at the door waving when we pulled around the corner.

“Brett’s mom seems nice.”

Dad was speeding. He wasn’t a speeder; he always drove no more than four miles over the limit.

“Yeah, she’s okay.”

“How’s Brett?”


“And how are things with you?”


“And your mom?”

“Okay, I guess.”

We drove for several minutes in silence. I watched the buildings go by, looking for anything that changed.

“You hungry at all?”

“I ate with Brett.”

“What’d you have?”

“Meatless meatballs with ketchup. And some kind of tiny bean salad.”

“Was the salad tiny or the beans?”

“The beans.”

“Sounds pretty good. Was it?”

“Pretty good.”

The rest of the ride back to Dad’s place was uneventful and when we arrived, I left my stuff in the back seat. Dad waited with the door still open.

“Don’t you need this?”

I waved my hand like I was swatting bumblebees.

“Nah. Already did my homework.”

The inside of dad’s place looked like a display at the mall. The only things I recognized from home were two photos, one of me and one of Haley, in frames on top of the tv. Haley’s was her senior picture, but mine was from kindergarten and over two years old. The rest of the place didn’t look lived in. I was used to the clutter from home, but this was more like a museum. And clean. Far too clean.

I switched on the tv and flopped on the couch. Buck Rogers wouldn’t be on for another two hours. Dad grabbed a beer from the fridge.

“You should hit the sack early tonight. We have a big day ahead of us.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not tired.”

“Fine. One more hour of tv and you’re done.”

“But-- my show's on at nine.”

“Sorry, Toots. Not tonight.”

“But I always watch Buck Rogers. It’s my favorite show.”

“You can watch it tomorrow.”

“It’s not on tomorrow.”

“I’m not arguing with you. One more hour and you’re off to bed.”

I don’t know what came over me, but there it was.

“You SUCK.”

I could see several emotions play across Dad's face before he took a deep breath and pointed toward the hallway.

"Go to your room."



I made a show of it, throwing myself around, tromping the whole way across the room and down the hall where I rattled the doorknob and shuffled my feet on the floor several times before I went in and crashed into bed with an exaggerated grunt. It was a tactic I normally saved for Mom, but she was almost always the bad cop. After several moments, I realized I might have ruined my chances with tomorrow's plans and fear creeped into my blood. What if Dad canceled the whole day and I just had to sit here with no tv and nothing to do? I felt an involuntary shudder ripple down my back and I was suddenly cold. I wrapped myself in a blanket and rolled over, waiting for the tears to come.


When I woke some time later, it was so dark for a moment I didn't know where I was. There was no light in the room, not even from outside. I pushed the curtain away from the window and nothing looked familiar. The cramp in my bladder reminded me I needed to potty and I shuffled across the room, reaching for the doorknob.

"Well I love kids."

"It's good to have little servants around I guess."

"Oh, you're TERRIBLE."

"Why don't you show me how-- terrible."

"Stop it. I thought you said he was in the next room."

"He's asleep. So--"

The rest was lost in a fit of giggles. I didn't know who this person with Dad was, nor did I really care to. The names-- and faces-- blurred together; an endless stream of feathered hair and fake smiles. I decided this was just one more, turning the knob slowly, trying not to make too much noise.

I crept down the hallway, one step at a time. There wasn't any more talking, just random noises, and I craned my neck to try to see around the corner where the couch and chairs were. Halfway down the hall, I hear a sharp inhale.

"What's-- that?"

I could hear Dad grinning.

"It's my good luck charm."

"It's cute, I guess."

"It helps me get the things I want."

"Is that so."

"Better believe it."

"You seem pretty-- mmm-- sure of yourself."

Kissing noises.

"So do you."

"Just help me get this thing off."

Shuffling; clothes hitting the floor. My mind whirled. This was something I saw in movies and on tv, not in Dad's living room; not with Dad-- doing it. Buck Rogers always had the decency to close the door. Dad was no Buck Rogers.

I peered around the corner, holding my breath. I could see the back of the woman's blonde head; feathered, as I’d expected. She was topless, with large breasts that hung to the sides. Dad was completely naked, chest and belly hair plastered with sweat, with a wicked look on his face. The woman put her hands on his waist and leaned into the area between his legs. He let out a long, satisfied groan.

I couldn't look away. It was Bedbugs all over again.


Then I saw it sitting on the end table, staring at me, shuddering like a wind up toy.

It was laughing.

My pajama bottoms felt damp.

“You-- pissed yourself?”

I looked at the floor, not wanting to answer.

“Uh huh.”

“Jesus fuc-- the bathroom’s RIGHT NEXT DOOR.”

I couldn’t look him in the eye.

“I was scared.”

Dad seemed unsure.

“Well, uhh, let me-- let’s just get those clothes into a basket and put you in the tub.”

Dad helped me out of my dirty pajamas and I made my way to the bathroom to run the water. I should have taken them off right away, but I didn’t want to risk leaving my room; not with it right outside the door. I buried my head under my pillow the rest of the night so I didn’t have to listen to Bedbugs. Which meant I had to tell Dad about the sheets, too. I decided that could wait until after my bath.

Once I was in the tub, Dad came to the door.

“You all right in there?”

“I’m okay.”

“So why were you scared?”

I did my best to scrub the pee smell off my body, but Dad’s soap was scratchy and felt like a cat’s tongue.

“I saw something.”

Dad came in, using the toilet lid for a seat.

“What was it?”

“Something from home. Something I hate.”


I took a deep breath.

“The bottle.”

“The bottle?”

Shampoo stung my eyes.

“The snoopy dog.”

Dad was across from Mrs. Ichelheimer while I sat at the end of her desk, halfway between them. In a way, it was like sitting at the head of the table, but importance was the last thing I felt.

"So you see, Mr. White, we have quite the little problem here."

Dad slumped back in his chair.

"Yeah. I guess so."

"What is there to guess? He was caught in the act."

Dad turned to me, brow furrowed.

"Son, did you do this? Did you write, uhh, 'eff the snoopy dog' on your desk?"

Mrs. Ichelheimer raised her eyebrows at me, peering over the rims of her too small glasses. I fidgeted in my seat, trying to come up with the right answer: the one that wouldn't land me in ever bigger trouble.



"Spit it out."

Dad leaned forward, forehead creased.

"Now hold on just a minute here."

Mrs. Ichelheimer slid her eyes toward Dad, still facing me. His knee bounced like mine did when I was nervous. Or angry.

"Isn't it obvious he's scared?"

A chill fell over the room, and Mrs. Ichelheimer's chair squeaked as she turned to face Dad.

"He most certainly should be. Vandalism isn't something we take lying down."

I couldn't imagine there was much of anything Mrs. Ichelheimer took lying down, but I kept that opinion to myself. It was better to play scared. Or better yet, be scared.

"Whisker has had some-- issues in the past. We discussed them at length with Mrs Greer and  came to an understanding. While I don't disagree this is a serious matter, I think it makes sense to look at the bigger picture."

"And what is the bigger picture?"

Mrs. Ichelheimer's mouth pursed with superiority; a face that made my crotch shrivel.

"The point is everyone is making an effort to accommodate him, for his betterment. We're consulting a psychologist."

"I'm not sure what that has to do with me, Mr. White."

Dad gritted his teeth.

"I, that is, we, would appreciate your cooperation."

Mrs. Ickelheimer's glasses teetered at the end of her craggy nose, and I could see something nasty flicker in her eyes through the lenses.

"I see. And I feel I have to be frank, but this is something I've seen many times before-- a symptom of the larger disease. I very much understand the bigger picture, as you put it, and the picture I see is a steady decline in this young man's behavior. You may see this as petty, boys will be boys, if you will, but what I see is far less encouraging."

"And what do you see, then, Mrs., uhh--"

"Call me Vernice."

Dad looked a little green.


"What I see, Mr. White--"


"Alan-- is a decline in values, in self control. I've heard about Whisker's-- altercations. And frankly, I'm not surprised after having met his mother."

Dad's knee stopped. That was a bad sign.


She said it like it left a bad taste in her mouth.

"What kind of name is that anyway?"

Dad's bottom lip twitched.

"It's a family name."

"Ahh, I should have guessed."

"Are we done here?"

"Once you understand Whisker will be punished for his actions. And any further disruption will likely result in suspension."

"You don't think that's a little extreme?"

"On the contrary. Left unchecked, it's my experience such behavior rarely abates. He's already responsible for the destruction of school property and a shocking level of physical assertion with other classmates. Before long, he'll be skipping class, kissing girls, influencing others-- it's an unfortunate cycle, as I'm sure you’re aware."

"I think it's best we stick to the things he's actually done."

Maybe Mrs. Ickelheimer was right. While Dad wasn’t getting into fights or destroying other people’s property, I’d lost count the number of times I saw him kissing a woman who wasn’t Mom. It was a safe bet he kissed the woman at his place with the feathered blonde hair and I’d seen him kiss Rita several times; even the woman who was the mother of Jamal, a boy in my class, whom Dad worked with. Was this where I was doomed to go, this behavioral mine shaft? I hadn’t even kissed any girls in a romantic way except in my dreams.

Is that where it starts?

“Then perhaps we should discuss the terms of Whisker’s correction. Might I suggest a cumulative approach?”

I looked to Dad, fearful, and his face told me it was time to leave.

“I think I’ve heard enough.”

Mrs. Ickelheimer didn’t miss a beat.

“Then you agree we should explore, hmm, stringent punitive measures.”

“What? NO. He’s a CHILD. You talk like he’s some sort of-- criminal.”

“At this rate--”

“Just-- let me know next time something happens. If it happens.”

“I have little doubt that it will.”

Dad stood, shaking, trying to contain himself.

“Feel free to contact me directly. Good day, Vernice.”

Mrs. Ickelheimer arched an eyebrow, then lowered her eyes to the papers on her desk. At that moment, it was clear we were no longer there. She spoke without looking up.

“Good day, Mr. White.”

It took us all day to drive to Nashville from Rita's. I spent as much time as I could asleep so when we arrived I’d have plenty of energy for whatever activities might be planned. Rita talked pretty much the whole time-- the part of it I was awake for anyway-- and I had dreams about little barking dogs like the ones at Aunt Ky’s. We stopped twice; once for gas and once because everyone had to pee. The old man at the register kept the bathrooms locked and had the key attached to a hunk of wood the size of my forearm. Dad said it was a sawed down baseball bat, but it felt too heavy.

I went first-- there was room enough for only one person at a time-- and Dad had me hold the key while he went. I occupied myself watching the others who stopped, but it was mostly old people, who are never interesting. Until a man and a woman rode in on a motorcycle, both of which had a whole bunch of tattoos, and the woman had more. I heard the man cussing as he kicked the back tire, which made the woman laugh. Then she caught be staring and grabbed and shook her boobs at me. I waved sheepishly and she just laughed and waggled her tongue as they rode away.

Uncle Meldrick’s place was large and almost completely dark. It was two houses that were smashed together like Frankenstein and left uninhabited for many years. Only the front end of Uncle Meldrick’s part had electricity, and then, just living area and kitchen; which meant nothing but a kerosene lamp in the bathroom. He was fixing it up to sell, but judging from what I saw of the interior, it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.

But a small portion of the place was livable, the rest sealed off for winter. There were various tools, sawhorses and an arrangement of tarps in the corners and almost anywhere that hadn’t been designated for habitation. Furniture was sparse, the majority of it hanging from the ceilings. There was a thin layer of sawdust over everything and I wherever I was inside I felt itchy. Uncle Meldrick advised I stick to the room with lights; he hadn’t yet found time to lay down traps for the mice.

Rita threw a fit.

“This house is no good. I NO SLEEP WITH MICE.”

I, on the other hand, thought it could be fun to share a sleeping space with little furry friends, but Rita was in no mood for my optimism.

“We sleep with the light on. Whisker watch for teeth.”

When I put my backpack, duffel and sleeping bag down, Uncle Meldrick gave me a nudge.

“Might want to pick a different spot, closer to your dad.”

I gave him a questioning look.

“They like to sleep in the sawdust.”

I could smell blood in the air, which meant it was only a matter of time before it had me. I crawled with just one leg as the other was broken and useless. The ground was slick, muddy, and got so I couldn’t move any farther. I was crying, but I wouldn’t let it register. Even in my defeat, I wouldn’t let it have the satisfaction of knowing I was beaten.

Baht Daog towered over me, breath fetid with the remains of my friends and family and what was left of my genitals. It didn't make sense that it didn’t hurt, but figured there would be no time to ask. Then its cape fell away and I knew that meant my execution would proceed. A low growl rumbled in its throat and I turned my face away, preparing myself for the end.


I opened one eye and saw Uncle Meldrick running toward me. Everything slowed down as he cocked his arm and threw it, end over end, gleaming fire as it caught the light, and landing mere inches from my nose.

There it was. Forged in the fires of Hell. Dipped in the blood of the Spider King. Slayer of the twelve headed crystal demon hydra.

The Deathsaber.

My fingers closed around the hilt and then I was standing before the architect of my nightmares, body whole, clad in armor blessed by the Elven Lords. I brandished the weapon and Baht Daog snarled.

“This changes NOTHING.”

Off it flew at inhuman speed, the ranks of its man dog army rising from the ground, beating their shields with their weapons, fangs dripping with bloodlust. They were at least three score deep, an army whose growls were thunder and ferocity a gale force. Uncle Meldrick stood with me, axe at the ready, beard braided with the colors of his clan. His armor was a patchwork of spiked and studded plates, making him a living weapon. His breath blew frosty, every heave of his chest and shoulders hurtling him closer to berserker rage. I admired his fearlessness.

“We can’t kill them all.”

Uncle Meldrick flashed a skeletal grin.

“Then we die with their throats in our teeth.”

“And their black dog hearts pierced in twain.”

A tongue flickered over my ear as Lydia appeared next to me, oiled leather from head to toe, the curved blades of her daggers like grim smirks. She had her hair pulled into ponytail, high and tight, an ebony band tied to the side across her forehead. She grabbed my hand and squeezed; there wasn’t time for more.

War horns brayed and the dog army began to march, a sea of abysmal black eyes and slavering fangs, wielding all manner of death and dismemberment. A foul wind blew over us, leaving bitter soot between our lips. I looked past them, searching the furthest reaches for any sign of the accursed necromancer Baht Daog. I shouted.


From upon a pyramid of bone, swirling with dark energy, was evil insensate, held aloft by ribbons of red-- the blood of his foes-- and purple-- the souls of the fallen. They were what gave him his power. All those, and fear.

The dog men were at the crest of the hill, so close I could see the mangy fur on their chins, arms and between their legs. Most were the image of Baht Daog, misshapen dobermans, but there were others: shepherds, mastiffs and hulking saint bernards. From either side, the shrill cry of battle clarions pierced the air, and Brett cried havoc, a host of Fellwood rangers loosing a gray hail of doom upon the front lines. Ranks decimated, still they pressed forward, crushing the fallen beneath them. Uncle Meldrick's berserker clansmen and Lydia's buccaneer horde steeled us as I held The Deathsaber aloft, commanding the charge.

The two forces met with steel, every moment filled with blood, breath and screams. I wish I could say it was something inside me that cut a swathe through the dog man ranks, but the power and fury was all in the Deathsaber, cleaving flesh and bone indiscriminately. Such was the death dealt by my hand, I found an opening, launching myself toward fear incarnate: Baht Daog.

A final tide of dog men surged forward to protect their master, but Uncle Meldrick and Lydia were there at my sides, and we made short work of them. What was left of their numbers were soon routed, turning tail and heading for the hills. Uncle Meldrick growled.

"Victory is at hand."

But it was too easy. Baht Daog looked down on us, shark tooth smile swallowing its ears. Its fingered paws bent at impossible angles as it muttered an incantation and a menacing synergy coursed through us, enveloping those who lay at our feet. It tossed its head back, howling victory.


And that's when things got bad. The dead, the ones we skewered, slashed and beheaded began to rise and take up arms once more, even our fallen comrades so great was the dominance of Baht Daog. Lydia cried with dismay.

"He means to bend the will of our own against us."

Uncle Meldrick hefted his axe and spat.

"Devil dogs."

We formed up back to back, but shock and terror rippled through us. A ferocious marriage of man and dog was one thing, but we were ill equipped to dispatch a legion wrought of such foul magicks.  As the dead commenced their attack, some of those who were with us faltered, seeking escape, but among them who failed to defend themselves were cut down, only to rise again, swelling the ranks of our adversaries. Baht Daog cackled with glee, urging them forward, and I felt my own resolve begin to fail.

We'd come so far, to lose like this? Under the blades of our own? I looked to the heavens for some glimmer of hope, but the sky was cast in a bluish black haze, like some accursed, undulating bruise. Then there was a deafening crack of thunder and a spear of white light forked across the horizon into the pyramid where it sizzled and pulsed before exploding into a billion incandescent shards.

I saw them: on enchanted carpets of every color and pattern, and at their head was Chaz, astride a mighty griffon, a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. He brought with him the Sorcerers of Sal'Samoan, the fabled Wizards of Wundar. Legend told their magicks were second to none, that they commanded the powers of the elements and the stars beyond. We cheered as they soared overhead, countering Baht Daog's treachery and sending his aberrations back to the earth.

Chaz turned the tide.

Its monolith a smoking ruin, Baht Daog's power was all but extinguished. He cowered before us, one arm crossed over its face in a signal of defeat. Or was it? I saw something in its nebulous eyes, the predatory sneer. Its voice was shrill.

"It will never end, Whisker. I am the thing that waits at the edge of the light, what lurks where you can't see. I feed on your fear, your worry, the shame you feel amongst those your age and the impotence in the face of your elders. I am the thing in your belly what loathes happiness. I am the ache in your joints, the cancer in your blood. I am all these and more. I am forever."

I smashed the butt of my blade into its muzzle, shattering teeth and crumpling bone. Still, Baht Daog's defiance was palpable as it gasped forth a wheezing chuckle.

"Is this where I'm supposed to beg for my miserable life?"

My voice was strangely calm.

"No. This is where you die."

The room was dim, and it took several moments for my eyes to adjust. Dad laid on his side, snoring, with Rita draped over him like some great animal skin, her face in his ear. It looked like she had a secret to tell, but she could wait her turn. I yawned, stretching my arms and legs, and decided I'd better head to the bathroom.

I passed through the kitchen, where Uncle Meldrick sat a the breakfast table, lying face turned and drooling fast asleep with a half empty bottle of Rebel Yell and an upended plastic cup in front of him. His glasses were half off his head, bent up like on cartoons, a low flamed kerosene lamp throwing strange shadows on the counter next to him. He snored just like Dad.

Uncle Meldrick was tall and husky, Dad's height, with broad shoulders and a pronounced belly. He seemed to like flannel, and never shaved as far as I could tell, the hair on his head all pretty much the same length: shaggy. He was the type you felt instantly comfortable and could tell all your problems. He had an easy smile, a rich laugh, liked to give hugs. In many ways, he had the things I wished were in Dad. Except all that alcohol.

I inched toward him, planning to put the glasses somewhere safe. I saw it in a movie once and it stuck with me. A simple act of kindness, it was something I'd hoped I'd one day get to do. I grasped the ear sticking straight up and slowly pulled them away. Uncle Meldrick grunted, blinking through sleepy eyes. He smiled, smacked his lips, and within moments went back to snoring.

Once I was sure he was asleep, I dimmed the lamp until the room was just dark, placing the ears folded glasses nearby, and tip toed down the hall into the bathroom.

We sat together on the couch because I invited her to. At first, I took up the whole thing since I never got to at home, but it got so I liked having her there with me, next to me, enjoying the same things I did when we watched tv. It was a week night, so Tales of the Gold Monkey was on, which I could tell she wasn't all that into. She liked the shows with romance and men and women fighting over each other, but this show had its romance elements, too; somewhere under all the action and flying planes and shooting bad guys. I had to admit, jealousy motivated intrigue wasn't really my cup of tea.

After tv, it was time for me to go to bed, which again was the couch, but I kept a sleeping bag close by and would lay it out and crawl into it with a pillow. She told me to leave the tv off so I wouldn't be up too late, but I would sometimes wait until she went upstairs to turn in back on with the volume most of the way down and eventually faint away in a sea of women with big earrings arguing with upturned collared men.

Then there was the night I decided I needed a hug before I went to sleep. It was so rare anymore, with Mom or when I got to see dad. I hugged Grandma and Grandpa plenty, but it wasn't the same. Their hugs were expected of me, not the ones I wanted in my heart. When I gathered up the courage to ask her, she just smiled that sweet smile and opened her arms. It felt nice, being so close, her arms around me. She smelled like perfume and hairspray and love, the skin of her neck warm against my cheek. We held each other for what seemed like years, and I finally pulled away just before I began to drool down her back. She was the first to speak.

"That was nice."

And that was the point where things became clear to me, and what once before was an intricate puzzle beyond my capability to fathom, now came into sharp focus. Moms you loved because they kept you safe, made sure you never went hungry or needed a place to sleep. Girlfriends got their safety and shelter from me, the boyfriend, which in a way, meant I was the mom. Or the dad. It made a lot more sense in my head. Whatever it was, I could tell she knew what I knew without any confusion or need for labels because we shared the same heart.

"I want you to be my friend. I mean, my girlfriend. I mean--"

"Shhhh. Don't talk."

Marcia shushed me with her full, velvety lips, and I finally knew forever.


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