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Part 16:


“Are you mad?”

Fanato sat next to me, so close I could feel her breath. I could see only the middle of her face, the rest covered by her long, platinum blonde hair. Still, her eyes bored into me and never seemed to blink. She had this way of tilting her face forward so she always had to look up at me and it never ceased to give me the creeps. All that hair made me feel kinda weird, too, but at least it covered up the marks on her neck.

“Just stay where you are.”

Fanato’s expression was steady.

“Okay.”

I wiggled away until I felt comfortable with her next to me. I was very good at reading others, picking up on their moods, facial expressions, body language. It's how I made myself okay with people. Fanato showed none of those.

“Whisker is a dumb name.”

I didn't like it either; what I wouldn't give for a nice, normal, even strong name, like...

"John is a dumb name, too."

The hell?

"I call you Fanato."

"Fanato? What is that?"

"I dunno. I just made it up."

"My name is Kalliope."

"I like Fanato better."

"That is not my name."

"Why Kalliope?"

"Daddy named me that. He liked the sound of it."

I shrugged.

"Moms and dads are dumb like that."

"Daddy is not dumb. He loves me."

"Doesn't mean he isn't still dumb. Dumb people love stuff all the time."

Something boiled under the skin on Kalliope's face, a dank and nebulous thing that culminated with a twitch at the corner of her right eye; the blue one. Her other eye was somewhere between brown and orange, the spot where things catch fire.

"Take it back."

"Why?"

"I will make you do things."

"What kinds of things?"

"Things you will not like."

Even though her expression was blank, not like Bashika or Shane or even the Bad Dog, I knew she wasn't playing around. Still, knowing and acting on that knowledge often reside in different places. They did for me, anyway.

"Oh yeah?"

No reaction.

"Prove it."

Her head tilted forward, the way I didn't like, and her eyes sparkled.

"Get stiff."

I felt something stir down there, and moments later I had to adjust the front of my pants to alleviate the discomfort. I'd had boners before and it was no big deal. I wanted to ask her if this was some stupid joke.

"That the--"

"Now hit yourself."



Aunt Ky lived a few houses down from Grandma and Grandpa and since it wasn't too cold out, me and Mom decided to walk. It was a squat ranch, white aluminum siding, with an attached garage and nothing in the way of yard accoutrements except for a pair of bulldog shrubs guarding the front step. The garage door was up which meant she was home. I hoped for a peek of Uncle Trent's Vette, but the car cover was on. As soon as we were halfway up the drive, the dogs started barking. Two poked their heads through the curtains in the front bay window, the rest going wild at the interior garage door. I could hear their little nails scratching on the metal.

Ky walked into the garage from the back yard, in her hands a basket full of strawberries. They were small, not like the ones you get at the grocery store. She had a garden along the edge of the property with a huge berry patch at one end. I’d picked through it a couple of times, eating more than I put aside. Mom yelled at me, telling me the wash them first, but Aunt Ky just grinned so I paid it no mind. I noticed she was barefoot and her cutoffs so short I could see the pockets hanging out the sides. Mom clucked her tongue.

“Kyanna.”

“Hello Kathryn. Hey, Bud.”

I waved.

“I wanted to asked a favor of you.”

Kyanna stopped, weight on one leg, basket against her hip.

“I need you to watch Whisker for a couple of days.”

She blew the hair from her face and held the basket out to me.

“Take these inside and put them on the counter by the sink.”

I frowned, but did as told, just slow enough I could absorb as much of the ensuing conversation as time would allow. This was not something I'd been apprised of, and while I still enjoyed being around Aunt Ky, after what happened during the last sleepover-- what I called Someone Else's Stockings in my head-- I preferred it in the company of others. I inched my way to the door as Ky lit a cigarette.

"When?"

"Ahem. This weekend."

"Last minute, huh?"

"I know. I should have called."

"Don't know what to tell you, Kathryn."

"It would be a huge favor."

"Tell you the truth? I'm fresh out of favors."

Mom's eyes narrowed.

"You know I don't ask much of you."

"Why should you?"

"What?"

"You have everything you want."

"Oh, now you know that's not true."

"It sure as shit should be."

"What did you say?"

"You haven't changed a damn bit since high school."

Mom's face put on a color somewhere between raspberry sherbet and Grape Ape.

"You’ve got a lot of nerve."

Ky took a long drag on her cigarette, squinting at Mom, and I realized I’d paused just outside the door. She blew the smoke through her nose and made me think of dragons.

“Let me tell you about nerve.”

Ky tossed the cigarette on the concrete and smashed it out with her heel.

“The minute you turn eighteen you find some sweet, stupid boy to knock you up, light out of there like a cat with its ass on fire and leave me with him.”

She moved a step toward Mom. The dogs were going nuts on the other side of the door, but I could barely hear them.

“Then you fixed me up with this piece of shit who beats me senseless or his prick won’t get hard. I beg for help and you tell me to quit mouthing off.”

Another step. Mom’s colors were darker.

“And you toss your daughter out in the street for doing same as you when you were her age.”

Mom’s left eye quivered.

“She told me about the abortion.”

“Shut up.”

“Or what about dear sister?”

Mom shuddered back a step, lip trembling, legs stiff.

“Wouldn’t help her either.”

“Shut your fat face.”

“Did you see it happen?”

Tears ran down Mom’s cheeks, face wrenched into a mask.

“Did she call for you?”

“You spiteful--”

“Did she cry for her Katydid?”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU FUCKING SHIT.”

She threw up the first choking sob.

“WHISKER-- WE’RE LEAVING.”

I put the basket down on the floor next to the step and hurried out of the garage. It made my stomachs hurt to see Mom so upset and I put my head down so I didn’t have to watch. She caught up with me and grabbed my hand, crushing my fingers. I tried to pull it away but she held fast, marching me down the driveway. She heaved and cursed to herself, kicking stones with every step. Then I heard Aunt Ky call to us.

“What time this weekend?”

Mom threw her head over her shoulder with a snarl.

“NEVER.”



I kicked the dog in the face so hard I heard its teeth click together.

It was in one of those cartoon lion cages, rectangular, with high metal bars for sides. Before, all it did was growl and bark, but now had itself scrunched up, ears flat, and just kind of hopped around like a bunny.

The sight of this pleased me.

"Show it who is master."

I turned to look at Kalliope who was wearing a magician's assistant costume, somewhere between a tuxedo and a night club dancer's ensemble. My eyes tangled in all that fishnet.

"Then we can do things."

Things.

The cattle prod felt good in my hand. Sturdy. I primed it with several loud pops and watched the arcs reflect in those dark, bottomless eyes. The dog hunched in on itself like an accordion.

"Aim for the nose, Bud."

Aunt Ky's robe was open just enough to show everything under the mural of bruises. Then I felt Mom's hand on my shoulder and something warm and damp against my back, like her breath in my ear.

"Make it cry, Whisker."

Finally. Something I was good at.



Grandpa was right: the second one did taste better. Though it wasn't an improvement so much as I stopped caring. I discovered my face didn't hurt anymore, but I worried it might not go so well with donuts, even voiced my concerns. This made Grandpa chuckle and he assured me I'd be fine. He always drank beer with his.

It's a good thing I was in the back seat as I was pretty sure sitting next to Mom might be my undoing. She was kind of a bloodhound when it came to sniffing out lies, misdeeds and things like elementary school aged sons half lit on Grandpa's beer. Not that she'd need to be-- I knew I stunk. But if she noticed, she didn't say anything. I was surprised, but it didn't stop me from slouching, almost to the floor, trying to make myself too small to notice, or scrutinize.

I insisted Mom needn't walk me to the door, but for some reason she wasn't having it. Even in my state, I knew I was old enough to manage the trip on my own; the level of ridicule I'd receive if anyone saw might graduate my current situation from the fringe to full blown outcast. As it was, things were lonely enough.

"Give me a kiss."

I was petrified. Kid law dictated kissing moms goodbye was punishable by death after kindergarten, even though we all did it in the relative safety of our homes. The point was you didn't do it where anyone else might see. I wondered how this fit with the mom/girlfriend conundrum, but it all went away when Mom tugged my arm.

"Come on. I need to get going."

So did I.

"N-no."

"What?"

"No?"

"What the hell is wrong with you? Come here."

I inched my way toward the door, eyes wide, mouth warped into a stupid half grin that was equal parts apprehension and intoxication. I prayed I'd be sober enough to at least fake my way through class when I felt the door handle against my back. My eyes flashed with triumph.

Then I felt the hand on my shoulder.

"Mrs. White, I presume? I'd like to speak with you sometime, in private. I'll have my secretary make arrangements."

"Umm-- okay?"

"Very well. Now, if you'll excuse us, I'm late for a meeting and Whisker needs to prepare for his studies. He'll see you at the end of the day."

"Of course."

"Good day to you, Mrs. White."

Mom's lips made an effort to smile, but the rest of her face won.

"And to you, Mrs.--?"

"Ichelheimer. I'm the new principal."

Oh no.



"You're a lifesaver."

Mom was smiling and it made me nervous. It wasn't something that came easy for her, not in the way anyone could believe. I was used to the half smiles, the corner twitches, straight lines with puckered cheeks. Mom had a hundred not smiles and they all meant the same thing: distrust.

"Oh, it's really no problem at all. The boys are off hunting this weekend and it's just too much house to be there all alone."

Marcia bent over so we were eye level. Her eyes glittered like a cartoon.

"We'll figure out some way to keep ourselves entertained, won't we honey?"

I felt one of Mom's smiles creeping up. I liked Marcia, maybe too much, but something didn't sit well. I found I couldn't meet her stare and put my eyes on the floor. One of my shoes was untied.

"Let me get that."

Marcia tied it expertly-- not too tight-- wrapping one string over the half loop of the other. I still tied them with two half loops, bunny ears, like Grandma taught me. I knew it was how sissies did it, but I never got the hang of the other way. I would leave them untied in public until I could find some place no one was looking. Mom knew I still tied them that way, and whenever she caught me I could see it in all of her face:

Sadness.

Or disappointment.

Maybe Marcia could teach me the right way to do it. She knew things.

Marcia stood up, brushing off the bottoms of her pant legs. She wore heels and I noticed the skin on the tops of her feet was a shade darker than her hands and face. Pantyhose.

I knew things too.



Bashika looked upon me with disgust.

"Ain't no two ways about it. You STUPID."

I wasn't quite sure what changed between us, Bashika and me. Ever since that day in the woods she'd made a good game of avoiding me. Maybe she thought I'd rejected her, but I really had no idea. My friendships were rarely more complex than common interest, and in general, I assumed the leadership role: I picked what we watched, what we played, when we ate. I just assumed kids had a pecking order, like wolf packs. Boys, anyway.

Girls were different. I couldn't pin down specifics, but I knew that much from watching them. Then there was Bashika, who felt more like a boy the way she ordered others, like me, around and took what she wanted without regard for hierarchy or decorum. Then there was the way she was less like a kid and more like an adult, which really threw me for a loop. In some ways, she reminded me of Mom, others-- far fewer-- like Marcia or even Mrs. Greer. Not to mention the way my body reacted. I convinced myself it was involuntary, but deep down where the dark thing lived knew different. There was more about her that fit my still developing profile for female companionship than I cared to admit. Still--

Why did she have to be so abrasive?

"Tie that shoe before you hurt yourself."

I tried to ignore her. It wasn't the time nor the place. Until she smacked me in the back of the head.

“You deaf?”

“I’ll do it later.”

“I don’t remember giving you a choice.”

“What do you care?”

Bashika fixed me with her eyes, which were so wide I could see the pink of the sockets around them.

“You sassin' me?”

I looked at my untied shoe, one of the laces trapped underneath. My bladder cramped.

“Fine.”

I got down on one knee and gathered the laces in my hands, making the first loop, but hesitating before I made the second. I tried to remember how Marcia did it with her long, delicate fingers. There was something to the un-looped side, something I couldn’t quite remember.

“Oh gimme that, fool.”

Bashika smacked my hands away, taking the laces from me and tying them so tight my foot hurt. I nearly fell over when I tried to stand and she grabbed my sleeve to steady me. When I smiled my relief, she was shaking her head.

“What?”

“Get that baby bird look off your face.”



When I awoke that morning, I could tell something was different. I noticed since I moved to the upstairs bedroom I didn't remember as many of my dreams; waking life was hard enough. I could hear Mom yelling downstairs and it took me several moments to realize she was on the phone. Whoever it was, she gave them everything she had; the torrent of curses and epithets made my head spin.

I dressed quickly even though it was Saturday. Most times I spent all morning watching cartoons and eating cereal from the box in my jammies and rarely bothered to put on pants until it was time for lunch. Mom made plans for us to go shopping for my new winter coat, but I knew that wouldn’t be until afternoon. When I heard her slam the phone down and march across the kitchen, I knew where she was headed. I pulled my jeans on and went looking for my other sock.

“WHISKER.”

Mom was halfway up the stairs. I had only one shoe on with the missing sock no doubt halfway to Albuquerque. I grabbed another one, three days worn, and the wrong color. At least I wasn’t getting new shoes.

“Whisker. Finish getting dressed and help me get some clothes together.”

I put the other shoe on as Mom rifled through the dresser, pulling out shirts and pants, socks and underwear and began to stack them in my large duffel bag.

“Hand me those dirty ones.”

I put them in a pile on the bed next to the bag as she zipped it up and went to the bedroom across the hall for a basket. When she returned, her eyes were puffy. I couldn’t wait any longer.

“What’s going on?”

Mom sniffed.

“Your father is coming to pick you up. He’s taking you to Tennessee.”

I felt a ball of ice in my belly, where the dark thing slept.

“W-why?”

"You're going to see Uncle Meldrick."

Uncle Meldrick was the older of Dad's two younger brothers. He was a hippie in the truest sense-- my sense of which was someone with long hair, both head and face, who sang songs and played guitar. Uncle Meldrick was all of these. He co-wrote with a member of the Lovin' Spoonful in college and one of his songs made it on the radio sometime after they stopped working together, but he never got credit. Maybe he forgot to put his name on it.

I liked Uncle Meldrick, though I saw him a handful of times. His wife, my Aunt Jean, was pretty fun, too. She baked cookies with seeds in them and I never liked seeds until I had her cookies. She and Uncle Meldrick were divorced, like Marcia. I wondered which one was the asshole, but it was replaced with more important things, like what it meant for me.

"But why?"

"It's some sort of vacation, I don't know. Your father seems to think he can bribe you into loving him. Whatever. Stop asking stupid questions."

“But--”

“What did I say? Now go comb that rat’s nest you call hair. He’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

I tromped down the stairs, wondering why I wasn’t more excited. This was pretty much what I’d been waiting for. Better even. A vacation, time with Dad, and visiting Uncle Meldrick to boot.

I’d never been to Tennessee, knew next to nothing about it, but no matter how I tried, my imagination just didn’t want to work. Instead, my idea of Tennessee was a giant, black hole. I just hoped I was in no way right about that.

I went into the bathroom, looking for my comb. It was big and green; hard to miss. I shut the door without really thinking about it, scanning the vanity top. I only saw my Mom’s paddle brush, light blue with little white flecks. I checked in the drawers, under the sink, even in the medicine cabinet. Nothing.

“You should take better care of your things.”

Kalliope placed the comb on the vanity top in front of me. I saw several long, light blond hairs in between the teeth.

“You used it?”

“Girl has to make herself presentable.”

She watched as I combed out the rats and made faces and cursed, arms crossed at her waist, one hand rubbing the other’s knuckles. I watched her through the mirror from the corner of my eye. She smiled like Mom.

“I’m going to Tennessee with my dad. To see my uncle.”

“To stay?”

“I don’t think so. Mom said it was a vacation.”

“Good.”

“Why?”

“This is where you belong.”

I hit another snarl with the comb, eliciting a yelp. Something didn’t add up and I turned to Kalliope.

“At Grandma and Grandpa’s?”

She was gone.



“Now get your things and come along with me.”

Mrs. Ichelheimer waited while I went through my locker and got the books I'd need for morning period. I decided against grabbing Mad, instead stuffing it underneath a pile of notebooks and loose papers. I was pretty sure she wouldn't appreciate extracurricular reading.

"You'll be tidying that locker before you leave for the day."

She led me through the door at the end of the hall and across the main floor study and class areas toward the offices, hand pressed flat against the small of my back. I didn't like the way it felt; the imposed familiarity. It wasn't rough or cold, the way she did it, but quite the opposite. It was a hand practiced in keeping children calm, comfortable and focused and didn't fit what I picked up from being near her.

We passed Patsy's desk, where she smiled with a raise of her coffee mug, and entered the back office: what used to be Mrs Greer's.

"Sit."

"I thought you were taking me to class."

She closed the door and exhaled through her nose like a steam engine, straightening the ends of her sweater-- an uncomfortably tight thing-- as she walked around the desk and sat down to face me. It was the first time I got a good look at her and my stomachs began to dance like marionettes.

She was older, like Grandma's age, with short, curly gray hair that stuck out at odd angles and gave the impression of hasty grooming. Her face was round, the features puckered, with liver spots speckling her cheeks like a robin's egg. She wore thin, square framed glasses halfway down her nose, and peered at me from over the rims. Her eyes were sunken and overcast, a February sky, or sheet rock. Sheer and impenetrable, I couldn't lose myself in them like I did Mrs. Greer's. Not that I'd want to.

"It seems we have a problem, Mr. White."

Mr. White? That was my dad.

"Okay."

Mrs. Ichelheimer arched her fingers over her desk, pushing her chair forward so her large bosom rested on the edge. The chains on her glasses tinkled. I could see her nipples were hard through her sweater. There was a smell to the office, something-- medicinal. It was sharp, pungent, and tickled my nose. I tried not to sneeze.

"Let me start off by saying alcohol is strictly forbidden in this school."

"Okay."

"As are those who consume it in excess off premises."

I nodded, trying my hardest not to seem too eager.

"What I'm telling you, my dear Whisker, is coming to school under the influence of certain substances will not be tolerated."

"I should hope not."

Mrs. Ichelheimer leaned forward, her sweater threatening to unburden itself with every inch. Her lips pinched into a button hole about the size of a--

"Are you mocking me?"

Oh shit.

"What? NO."

"You don't think I know what went on in here? With you and that what was her name? Greer?"

"Umm."

"I hear things. It's-- what I do. I hear things and I decide if they need to be dealt with."

"Okay."

She was standing, hunched over the desk, palms out flat but her fingers still arched like some mad pianist.

"Do you know what I hear right now?"

Please stop talking.

"Uhh, no?"

"Well let me tell you, young man. It's a voice, a tiny little voice in my ear, telling me I am in the company of a wolf who looks like a little boy. A wolf, it says. A shaggy, starving, desperate, depraved-- wolf."

Her face was inches from mine, breath creeping up my nose and scurrying down my throat. I swallowed hard, trying to chase it down, but it was too sticky, too many little barbs. I tried to sit back in the chair, but there was nowhere left to go. All I could see were her eyes, an unyielding haze of despair. Then it happened.

"ACHOO."



"I want Hammerhead."

"Then I get Han Solo."

"But you always get Han Solo."

"Yeah, but you have Squid Head. And the Imperial Biker Scout."

"So?"

"That means I get Han Solo. And, uhh, Lando."

"I don't like this game."

I threw the Hammerhead figure on the floor and folded my arms across my chest, pouting. Brett just picked it up and held it out to me.

"You can have Luke and Leia too."

My lips were pursed.

"I don't want 'em."

"So you're done?"

"Yep."

Brett frowned, head cocked to the side.

"But we didn't even get to start."

"I don't care."

I got up and walked several steps away, picking up stones, woodchips, little bits of garbage and throwing them nowhere in particular. I tried to burn off my anger with controlled vandalism, but it was about as satisfying as a Happy Meal without the toy.

Brett was only a couple feet away when he spoke.

"Just-- come on back. We'll figure something out."

"I said I'm done."

"But we still have ten minutes."

I shrugged. Not my problem.

"I waited all morning for this. Didn't you?"

Of course I did.

"Nope."

"Fine."

I dropped my chin down, turning my head just enough I could watch as he walked back to his figures and began putting them back in the case. There was this way his bottom lip pouted when he was upset or exasperated. Today it was particularly cute since he was both.

Wait. What?

Second stomach did a flip flop.

"Here. Let me help."

I walked back over, crouched down, reached for a Stormtrooper--

"I got it."

Brett snatched it out from under my hand. It occurred to me I was being sort of a dick.

"Hey look, I, umm--"

Brett looked at me through his bangs.

"What."

"I didn't mean, to, you know--"

Brett forced air through his front teeth. He wasn't buying it.

"Be such a shithead."

"You know I can't say those words."

"Sorry. Umm, jerk."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Well there's only three minutes left now so."

"Yeah, maybe tomorrow."

Brett got up, walked away.

"I dunno."

"Wait."

I was blowing it, something I'd come to be pretty good at. I put my hand on Brett's shoulder and he slowed down, but wouldn't stop.

"Look, just--"

"What."

"I'm sorry, okay?"

We were almost to the door. Most of the other kids were already inside. Brett stopped several feet short and turned to me.

"I guess so."

He looked sad, dejected. His eyes were bright and glassy, cheeks red, lips puffy. He looked like a puppy, which only made me want to hug that sad out of him. He was tense, shoulders hunched up, and wouldn't look me in the eye. I just wanted to see him look at me; see myself reflected through him so I'd know I was okay, and by extension, he was okay with me. I put my finger under his chin.

"Look at me."

He raised his head a fraction, staring me through his bangs again. It was irresistible. So much so, I couldn't help myself.

I leaned in and put my lips on his. Everything inside me screamed STOP, but it felt so nice. We shared a lot, Brett and me. It made perfect sense this might be the next--

Something smashed into my face and my knees buckled.



I got to sit in the front sea when Dad picked me up. He was driving his work car, a 1972 Buick Riviera. It was dark purple, plum, with white sidewalls. He helped me put my stuff in the trunk next to his suitcase.

"Good to see you, kiddo."

"Me too."

I was smiling for real.

"There someone we need to pick up first and then we'll be on our way to Mel's."

I wasn’t paying much attention, I was too busy looking out the window from the front seat. For some reason, everything looked different from there. We drove for maybe ten minutes before Dad pulled into a gravel driveway off a county road. The house was small, blue, with flowers out front. It looked like an old lady’s house.

“Just wait here and I’ll be right out.”

Dad got out and walked up the drive, entering the house from the side. I occupied myself watching the cows in a pasture nearby. Most of them were lying down, but there were several at the fence row grazing on the tall grass. Cows weren’t all that exciting.

A few minutes later, Dad came out of the house with a suitcase in his hand. Then a woman came out, carrying only her purse, and locked the door behind them. He came to my side of the car and bent down in the window so he could see me.

“You can get out for a minute. I have someone I want you to meet.”

Dad opened the door and I crawled out, walking around him to get a better look at this stranger. She was tall, at least as tall as Dad, with legs like telephone polls, and nearly the same color. She wore a blue dress, belted at the waist, and sandals. There was a flower in her hair, which was long, down her back, straight and very dark. Her skin was the color Dad took his coffee.

I approached her slow, trying to take it all in. There was just so much.

“Hola, Whisker. Me llamo Rita.”

What.

“He’s only partway through his first year, Rita. Just use English.”

I realized I’d backed up a step, right into Dad’s legs. The woman named Rita’s eyes flashed dark for but a moment, then she smiled big, showing me all her teeth, like a shark. She bent down to my level.

“Is okay. I use English with you.”

Dad was grinning when I looked up at him.

“Who, umm.”

“She’s a friend, son. She’ll be coming with us to Mel’s.”

“She’s not my friend.”

Rita took my hand in hers, pressing it against her chest.

“I would like to be a friend.”

“Umm.”

Dad rubbed my shoulders, reassuring.

“Okay.”

At that, Rita beamed, and I realized her teeth were huge. She rose back to her full height and wrapped her arms around Dad in a bear hug, crushing me between their legs.

“I LOVE HIM.”

Her bellybutton smelled like baby powder.



Marcia fed me chicken fingers and tater tots from the freezer when we got to her house; Mom dropped me off at her work which was for a car insurance agency. She made sure people got money if they were in an accident. She wore another one of those shirts with the plunging neckline and I spent most of the car ride back perched in the front seat with my head straight forward but my eyes sliding to the left stealing peeks at her bra. It was bright white.

With just us in the house, Marcia played the perfect hostess: always asking if I needed more pop or when I wanted dessert. Then we played board games which I always seemed to win. When I accused her of letting me, she played innocent.

“I haven't played these in so long I must have forgot how.”

We watched tv downstairs with the lights off, me sprawled on the couch, her in the recliner nearby. There were movies with topless women and men getting shot in the wasteland. They were the kind Mom didn’t let me watch. About halfway through the second one, I started yawning and Marcia helped me take my shoes and socks off, then my pants and shirt, so I could get into my jammies. She said I could sleep on the couch with the tv on if I wanted and five minutes later I was out.

The following morning I awoke to the smell of bacon. It was a smell I'd grown accustomed to at Grandma and Grandpa's and for a quiet moment I thought I was back home. Then Marcia appeared in this white, frilly robe that fell at most halfway down her thighs. Her legs were long, lean, the same hue as the hose she wore. And smooth as my own chin.

"Morning, Sunshine."

I yawned and stretched, trying to give Marcia the impression I was still waking up. We had an unspoken understanding-- at least I thought we did-- where the time we spent together was like a waking dream, where everything was perfect; I being the much beloved and pampered young man and she the sweet, doting mother. Our fulfillment spawned from my having want for next to nothing and her arranging every day such that I never would. We were companions: more than friends, more even than mother and son, with a deep, rich love that was about being happy and content with and doing things for each other. It provided a calm I rarely felt in my everyday life; not at home, certainly not at school, but in fleeting moments that wiggled away when I tried to hold onto them, make them last.

"Morning."

"Bacon and waffles are on the table and the eggs are almost ready."

"Should I get dressed first?"

"You can do that after you eat. And take your shower."

Those were the magic words. I'd do everything within my power to spend more time at Marcia's if it meant I'd be taking showers.

I wolfed down breakfast, heedless of any complaints from down below. This was my Special Time, and petty inconveniences like full stomachs and gassy bottoms were summarily ignored. After laying waste to the table, I patted my belly and retired to the bathroom, where Marcia presented me with fresh towels, a washcloth and a just opened bar of Irish Spring. Then she drew the water and had me run my fingers under until it was to my liking. She helped me undress, promising my pajamas would be laundered before bedtime. When I climbed into the tub, she arranged the curtain for me.

"Don't forget your ears and elbows."

I was in there so long Marcia became worried.

"Do you need any help, honey?"

"Almost done."

When I stepped out, Marcia was there with a towel which she wrapped around me so I wouldn't catch cold. I told her I could dry myself off, but she just laughed it away, making sure all my tough to reach spots were bone dry, fluffing my hair, even getting the spots between my toes.

"It's important you dry everything before you get dressed."

I wore my Iron Man Underoos, jeans, and a tee shirt with Oscar the Grouch. It was one of my favorites. Marcia grinned.

"Well don't you look handsome."

I looked like I did any other day, but I smiled my appreciation. If Marcia saw things in my every day look that made her happy, she was more than welcome to. We played Uno until lunchtime, when she informed me there would be bologna and cheese with Fritos.

"And something sweet I know you'll just love."

I was still full from breakfast, but didn't want to upset the intricate choreography of the day. I managed to find room for half a sandwich and a handful of corn chips. Marcia smiled as she chewed, apparently impressed with my ability to put away what she made with love. When she went to the freezer, I almost begged her to wait a couple of hours, but the way the light coming in through the kitchen window caught her hair, she looked like an angel and I just didn't have the heart.

When she set the half gallon of ice cream down on the table, I frowned to myself. Don't get me wrong, I love ice cream. Finding room, however, was another matter.

"And now-- the pièce de résistance."

She moved my plate aside and placed a white box with a clear, cellophane window on the top. It was a box whose sole purpose was to hold things made in bakeries, and in this case, a lovingly frosted cake that spared no attention to detail. Marcia's eyes did that cartoon sparkle thing, mouth open in suspended joy, waiting for me to reciprocate.

It was a cake all right. One baked to look just like Snoopy with little cinnamon candy hearts for eyes and two simple words in bright red piping gel:

Be Mine.


OneWhiteWhisker

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