Shopping in Asheville wasn't as light-hearted as our first trip had been. Jason resisted buying more than the absolute minimum until Hank finally said to him, "Look, Jason, either we are in this together or we are not. You decide. But I can tell you one thing, I intend to be your friend. Douglas is your friend. If something happened and I needed it, I would expect you to give me the shirt off your back. That's the way it is with friends. Friends can't have anything that another friend can't have if he needs it. You need clothes. When you had some money, you bought your clothes. Now you have no money and no clothes. Douglas and I have a little money. If you are really our friend, you'll take what we are offering and get what you need. That's the way I understand friendship to operate. If I'm wrong, tell me."
Jason had hung his head when Hank started, and when Hank finished he looked up, tears in his eyes, and said, "Hank, I'll have to learn. I've never had anyone who gave a shit about me. Well finally my grandma did, and now she's gone."
Hank put his arm around Jason's shoulders and said, "We're not gone, Jason, we are right here. So let's get to shopping." After our stop at the Junior League and Goodwill thrift stores, we had a pile of clothes. Hank and I even picked up a couple of shirts. We had started out of town when Hank remembered underwear, so we stopped at Wal-Mart and got two more 5- packs--one briefs, one boxers--because Jason wouldn't say which he liked. So Hank said, "I guess that means you like both."
By the time we had finished, the pain pill I had taken after breakfast had about done it's do and I was in pain. Since Hank was driving, when we stopped at Sonic, I took another pain pill with my milkshake. I knew Jason and Hank carried on an animated conversation all the way back to my place, but that's about all I could tell you. The pain pill really made me very drowsy. When we reached my place, I went on inside while Jason drove Hank home.
When I got inside, Grandmom asked how I was feeling. I told her I had taken a pain pill half an hour or so ago so I was ok. "If you are up to it, I'll help you and Jason decide how you want things upstairs. I don't think there'll be a need to move too many things around, but Jason's room has been a kind of storage room and I'm sure he'd like it in a bit better order."
I laughed and said, "Grandmom, he was living in a half-loft in a falling-down mountain cabin. I can't imagine him having any problem with the room, regardless of the shape it's in."
"Well, he might not, but I do, we do." I got Grandmom's message loud and clear. Jason was to be made to feel at home as soon as possible. Jason was now a part of the family and was to be treated as such.
I hadn't meant to suggest otherwise and was ashamed Grandmom thought I had.
When Jason got back, Grandmom told him what we needed to do. "The two of you go on up and decide what you want done and if you need me, give a call."
When we got upstairs, Jason said, "Look, I don't want to push myself into your family, Douglas. So long as I have a place to sleep, I'll be ok, better than I was before the fire. Besides, you're not in any shape to do anything."
"I thought Hank got you straightened out about friends," I said. "My grandparents are taking you in exactly as they did me. Well I know I'm a grandson, but I'll be real surprised if either of us can see any difference in how we are treated. Relax and let people care for you. I can assure you, you will not be spoiled! And I'm able to at least look at how we want our space to be organized, and if it takes too much effort we'll do it later. Now let's look at what we have up here and decide what we want to do."
After we had looked over the whole upstairs, we sat down in my room and talked about what we liked.
"Look, I took the largest room for mine since I was alone up here, but I think we need to put the furniture from the den in Durham in it along with the computer," I said. "That means when we are doing serious work on the computer, there'd be no TV, but that'd be ok wouldn't it?"
"Douglas, I have managed very well without TV, radio, whatever. There was none in the cabin. Hell, there was no electricity," Jason said, with what I thought was a catch in his voice. I suddenly realized he had lost all the family he had, all of it. At least I had grandparents left.
"Jason, if you'd rather do this later, we can," I said, thinking we might be rushing things.
'No, no, that's ok. As a matter of fact I need to be doing something." We finally decided how we wanted things and had only one question for Grandmom. I suggested we ask about trading the twin beds for the queen- size downstairs in the guest room. She said it was fine.
We started moving things and I soon realized I wasn't as fine as I thought. Jason said we could wait, but I thought we should call Hank to help. Jason didn't want to bother him, but I called him anyway.
An hour and a half later, the three of us had the upstairs organized. Jason and I each had our own room with a queen-sized bed, chest, study desk, desk chair and a comfortable chair. The third room was a nice den with a couple of easy chairs, a couch, TV and computer desk. When we had everything in place, we flopped down in the den. Hank looked around and said, "You each have a space all your own, space to get away from each other and you'll need to at times. Believe me, I know... I shared a room with Josh." Josh was Hank's older brother who was now away at college.
Jason went downstairs and asked my grandparents to come up and see what we had done. "Looks great," Granddad said.
"Well, it will do for now, but you need some pictures on the walls and a little more dressing up," Grandmom said.
"While we're together, we need to talk about a funeral, Jason," Granddad said. "The expenses are taken care of, so you have no need to worry about that. You need to decide when, where, and what you want done in the way of a funeral."
Jason got a pained look on his face and said, "I'm kinda ashamed of myself. I kept pushing any thoughts about Grandma's death out of my head today. I know most people saw her as nothing more than an old drunk, but she was all the family I had and she was good to me. She did all she could for me even though she didn't have much."
"Jason, you have nothing to be ashamed of. We all try to avoid thinking about someone we love being taken from us," Granddad said. "Where is your grandfather buried?"
"There's an old cemetery on Mr. Richfield's land up the hill from where the cabin was. He's buried there. That's where I'd like her buried if Mr. Richfield approves."
"I'll call him. I sure he won't mind. He has a backhoe, so I'll ask him to dig the grave. What about a service?" Granddad asked.
"Nothing fancy, but I would like something, something simple."
"I'm sure Fr. Hanson at Grace would do a service at the church or just at the grave if you like."
"Can it just be at the grave?"
"Sure. I'll call him as well, and you can meet him in the morning if you want to go to church with us."
"I've never had much to do with a church. My old man and old lady weren't church-goers."
"No-one is going to put any pressure on you to go," Grandmom said. "But we'll go in the morning and you can go with us or not as you choose."
"I think I'll go," Jason replied.
"I'll go and make a couple of calls," Granddad said. "And I think you guys have made a comfortable place for yourselves, but we do expect you to come downstairs and visit from time to time," he smiled.
"I'm sure all three of you will be down to visit before too long since it's almost supper time," Grandmom smiled. "Hank, call your folks and tell them you're having supper with us."
When we went down for supper, Granddad said everything was set for a graveside service at 3:00 Sunday afternoon.
After supper I decided I really didn't need to take a pain pill as I had only slight "discomfort". Jason asked if I would play something, and he and Hank sat in the living room and listened as I played a couple classical pieces, then some pop tunes we knew. When I finished Jason said, "I saw the movers bringing in your piano and one evening, not too long ago, I came over to listen to you play. I loved it."
"Did I, by chance, see you outside the window?" I asked.
Jason blushed and nodded his head.
"Why didn't you come in?" Hank asked.
"I'm not sure," Jason said. "It was kinda like I was enjoying something I wasn't supposed to. And, to be honest, I thought Douglas' grandparents wouldn't like me hanging around. Guess I was wrong."
"You sure were," Hank said.
Sunday after church, Fr. Hanson met with Jason, my grandparents and me, and we planned the service. "I'll come by your house, Mr. McElrath, about two-thirty and we can all go to the grave site together."
Sunday afternoon when we reached the grave, I was surprised to see some floral arrangements. I was also surprised to see a number of people--several of the firemen, Hank's parents and some other neighbors. I am sure most of them had not seen Mrs. Wolfe in years, but I was pleased they showed up. It meant a lot to Jason and let him know he was not alone.
After the funeral, we went back home and changed into shorts and T-shirts. Hank said he would like to stay, but his parents had things they wanted him to do since he wasn't home Saturday. When we had changed, Jason said, "Douglas, I'd like to go for a walk in the woods."
"Do you want to be alone?" I asked, knowing there were times I needed to be alone when I got to thinking about my family being killed.
"Maybe later, but not today. I'd like for you to come if you would."
As we walked, we had very little to say. I guess I was on automatic pilot since I didn't realize where we were until I started climbing up to my rock. When we reached the top, Jason smiled and said, "I've been interested in climbing up here and looking across the meadow. I have seen it from the meadow a lot of times."
Suddenly I remembered what Jason had said Friday night about seeing me on the rock. I realized that what I thought was a wild animal in the bushes at the edge of the meadow was probably Jason. "Were you watching me?" I asked.
Jason smiled that wonderful smile of his and said, "Yeah. I was very lonesome and as much as I wanted to call out to you or even come over, I was afraid of what you would think or say. Even after I got to know you, I was afraid you'd be embarrassed or something."
"Jason, I wish you had made yourself known. It has been a rough summer. I sometimes felt I had been left alone in the world. But guess you know the feeling, since you have lost all of your family."
"True, but I can't imagine losing a family you loved. By the time my old man went to prison and my old lady left, I had no love for them and they had none for me. I was in their way, so them leaving me didn't hurt much. But Grandma, that's different. I got very angry at her when she drank up the money we had to live on, but I understood. I think just living was so painful for her she could only stand it by blotting out the pain with alcohol. But now even she is gone. I keep forgetting that then, when I remember, it's like getting a kick in the gut. Yeah, I know the feeling very well."
We were both silent, just lying on our backs, watching the clouds drift by. Finally I said, "Jason, you started telling me something Friday night and got interrupted. What were you going to say?"
"Douglas, I was going to say that I love you, Man. You are a good friend and care about me and I care about you--and Hank. And I wanted you to know that because life is short and uncertain. I guess your granddad interrupting to tell me Grandma was dead made that even clearer."
I had thought Jason was going to tell me he felt about me as I did about him, but when he added Hank's name, I knew he meant he loved me as a friend. Nothing more. Not that THAT wasn't important to me. One reason--the main reason--I didn't tell him I not only loved him but was in love with him, was the fear that I would lose his friendship. "Jason, you are the first real friend I have ever had--you and Hank. I had school mates, but they were never really close friends. We never did anything together except scheduled things. Every time Hank reminds us that it's one for all and all for one, I get goose bumps."
"Yeah, and I know that we know that, but I like to hear it. I like to hear you say you're my friend. And I like to say it. Even though I know it is true, I still like to hear it." We were lying facing each other in early fall sun which would soon be hidden by the mountain top. Slowly a smile spread across Jason's face and he said, "Douglas, you have the most beautiful eyes. Every time I notice them, I want to tell you that, but it's never the right place or right time, so I haven't. But you do... your eyes are like beautiful, magic windows."
Jason was embarrassing me a little bit, but I was also soaking up his comments and thinking about his eyes. His large eyes were so black it was hard to tell the pupil from the iris. I think his lashes were the longest I had ever seen. I felt as though I was being drawn into his eyes and, before I realized what I was doing, I reached out and touched his face gently. "I know someone else who has beautiful eyes," I said, and smiled at him.
Jason took my hand and, entwining his fingers in mine, said, laughing, "Let's face it: we are two guys with beautiful eyes."
"Yeah," I agreed and smiled.
We both were silent, thinking our own thoughts, until I realized the sun was no longer on us and it was becoming a bit chilly. "Think it's about time we walked back," I said. "It's going to be chilly here shortly."
As we started walking toward the house, Jason put his arm around my waist, seemingly giving it no thought beyond a show of friendship. I didn't feel quite at ease when I slipped my arm around his waist, but before we had taken a dozen steps it seemed perfectly natural.
When we reached the house, we changed clothes and went to help Granddad with evening chores. When we got back, we washed up and sat down for a Sunday supper. As we were eating, Jason said,
"Mr. McElrath, I don't know how to thank you enough for seeing that Grandma had a decent burial. Losing her was a real blow, but knowing that she had a proper funeral makes it easier."
"Jason, I suspect all of us felt a little guilty about not having done more for her when she was alive, and the funeral was all we could do now. I do hope it gave and will give you some comfort."
Jason and I sat in the den with Granddad and Grandmom watching TV until they decided to go to bed and we went upstairs. We undressed except for our boxers, went to the bathroom, brushed our teeth and got ready for bed. As we were brushing our teeth, we both stared at our reflection in the mirror. As our eyes met in the mirror, Jason smiled and said, "You are one good-looking man, Doug McElrath." I didn't comment on Jason having shortened my name, but I liked it.
"You're not so bad yourself," I smiled back at him.
"Look, Doug, there are a lot of things you could say about my looks, but good-looking is not one of them."
"You are to me," I responded.
"That's all that counts," he said, as a Jason special smile melted me.
In the hall, we said goodnight and each went to his own room. As I slid between the sheets, I had to admit that I felt drained. I guess it was the day's events and left-over from being cut that made me feel so tired. I thought back over the time I had spent with Jason and realized how very much it meant to me. Soon I was asleep, dreaming of him.
Some time in the night I had to go to the bathroom and when I came out, I thought I heard Jason crying. As quietly as possible, I walked down the hall to his room. His door was open and, sure enough, he was sobbing. I remembered the nights I had cried myself to sleep. I wanted to comfort Jason, but I really didn't know what to do. Recalling the times when I had nightmares as a child and Mom or Dad had slipped into bed with me and held me until I was asleep again, I debated whether or not to do the same for Jason. Finally I decided, "Why not?"
I walked into his room, pulled down the cover and slid in bed beside him. When I did, he turned to face me and started crying even harder as he reached out to me. I pulled him to myself and held him close. His head resting on my chest, I stroked his hair and started singing very softly a lullaby my dad used to sing to me. Jason snuggled in my arms and soon stopped crying. I felt him relax as he drifted off to sleep. I lay there, marveling at having him in my arms, at how right it felt. When I thought he was sound asleep, reluctantly I slipped out of his bed and returned to mine. I could still imagine the feel of his body against mine, his head on my chest and the scent that was Jason as I, too, drifted into a sound sleep.
Monday morning, I heard Jason in the shower when the alarm jarred me awake. I climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom, my morning wood preceding me. When I let loose a stream into the toilet, Jason called from behind the shower curtain, "Good morning, Sunshine!"
"Good morning yourself. I sure don't feel like sunshine. I hate mornings."
"Best part of the day, especially after being sung to sleep," Jason replied as he slid the shower curtain open, revealing his nude body. I didn't take my eyes off of him until he asked, "Like what you see?"
"What do you think I am?" I responded.
"A great friend, a good piano player, an excellent student, a fine swimmer, a singer of lullabies and one hell of a good-looking dude. I think that about covers it. The shower awaits you," he said as he stepped out, wrapped his towel around his waist and started brushing his teeth. His mouth foaming from toothpaste, he added, "Oh, yeah, and one damn good warrior. Yeah, that's Doug."
I got in the shower before his attention brought something else back to attention, and started washing my hair. As I did I became aware of how long it was, far too long for swimming. A haircut was definitely in order.
When I finished in the bathroom and had dressed, I went downstairs to find my grandparents and Jason having coffee. As I sat down, Grandmom handed me a cup and said, "Jason tells me you are very good at lullabies."
I blushed. I wondered if Jason had told them I had slipped into his bed, and clearly he had.
"One of the problems young men have, I suspect, comes from working so hard at being macho they forget simple things which can make life easier, like being held and sung to when the going gets rough," Grandmom said.
"Yes, that and being able to put aside things which keep them from helping each other. I'm sure your friends would have a problem with a young man holding and singing to another," Granddad added.
"Maybe not trying to be macho has advantages, Doug," Jason said. "Maybe it allows you to do things big he-men like Jerry are afraid to do. You are one hell ... oops, sorry Mrs. McElrath. One heck of a brave guy."
Hank had started going to school with us several weeks ago, so I wasn't surprised when I heard the front door open and Hank's cheery "Good morning". Jason might be a morning person but Hank was worse. He was terminally cheerful in the morning. I even warned him once that such cheerfulness could prove fatal.
"I wish I knew what to expect when we get to school," I worried as we turned into the parking lot.
"Seemed like Jerry and his henchmen had a pretty big following."
"Did he? Does he?" Hank asked. "Seemed to me the cheering section was rooting for you."
When we got out of the Jeep and started toward the school entrance, Hank placed himself between me and Jason and slid his arms around our waists. "All for one and one for all," he smiled.
Jason and I placed an arm around Hank as Jason said, "One for all and all for one."
I suddenly had a flashback to "The Wizard of Oz" and the characters skipping down the yellow brick road. As I did I started giggling and sang under my breath, "We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz." By the time we reached the students gathered around the entrance, we were all three laughing.
We were greeted like conquering heroes, surrounded by people who had barely noticed us before Friday. Someone started cheering and chanting, "Douglas! Douglas! Mr. McElrath!" I could feel my face turn red as I blushed. A couple students started asking what had really happened Friday. All three of us just kept saying it was over and done with, but that satisfied no-one. I was very pleased when the bell rang for homeroom. As it did, the chanting started again.
At the beginning of homeroom, the intercom came on and Ms. Kennedy's voice said, "Will Douglas McElrath, Jason Talltree and Hayden Dennison please report to the counselor's office." The three of us looked at each other, stood slowly and walked out of the room.
When we reached the counseling center, Ms. Kennedy directed us to her office. As soon as we were inside, she closed the door and said, "Be seated, fellows. First, Jason, I just learned of your grandmother's death. I am sorry. I understand your home burned, is that true?"
"Yes," Jason said. "My grandma burned to death in her cabin."
"I am truly sorry. What are you doing about a place to stay? Clothes?"
"Mr. McElrath, Doug's granddad, has said I can live with them as long as I need to. I even have my own room and a real bed," Jason said, his eyes sparkling like a kid on Christmas morning. Suddenly I realized I had not known very much at all about Jason's and his grandmother's living conditions. I knew he didn't have electricity, running water, that sort of thing, but it never occurred to me he didn't have a bed. "Hank and Doug loaned me money and we went to Asheville to a couple of thrift stores and bought clothes."
"Looks to me like you three know how to shop. I mean I have noticed a change in your and Douglas' dress lately."
"All thrift store," Hank said, "so are most of my clothes now. We got piles of clothes for what I would have spent on a pair of shoes last year."
"Great! Nice to know you are wise enough to make your dollar go further. So, Jason, I know you will be going through the grief process. I am sure Douglas will be a strong arm for you--and you for him as well. As I told Douglas, I can't imagine losing my family at your age. Please, if I can be of any help, call on me. You don't have to suffer to prove you are macho."
"Now there is another matter: a fight Friday. We took accounts Friday of what happened, from several students who were willing to be witnesses. I think there were a dozen or so who completed reports for Mr. Duncan. We have looked over them and they are all in agreement, a bit more of something in one and something a bit different in another, but essentially they are the same. But we need your statements as well. I think it will be best to put you in separate rooms and let you just tape your stories and I'll have them transcribed. You can read and sign them later."
"What will happen to the four, Ms. Kennedy?" Jason asked.
"I am not sure. The statements taken from you and the other students are for a school tribunal. If the four plead guilty, or are found guilty, I am sure they will receive the maximum punishment, which is expulsion from school. Of course, the other thing is what the court will do. The four have been charged. I don't know when the case will be tried. I don't think there is any possibility the four will get off scot-free."
"What will be done about Mr. Duncan?" Jason asked. "I had a long talk with Mr. McElrath last night. He was very upset that Jerry and his gang had been reported for hazing Doug several times and nothing was done about it."
This was the first time I had heard anything like that, and later learned both Jason and Hank had reported Jerry and his buddies for harassing me.
"I knew nothing about that," Ms. Kennedy said. "I suspect that will be a matter between Mr. McElrath as Douglas' guardian and the school board. As I said, I can just about give you 100% assurance that the four will not be back in Coldsprings High School and, more than likely, will be wearing striped pants and looking through bars for the next several years."
"You know, Ms. Kennedy, that's setting them up to become a drain on society for the rest of their lives. Jason said yesterday they'd come out of jail as felons, and without an education," Hank commented.
"I've really been thinking about that. I know about being homeless and having no skills. Of course, I don't think they should get off. I mean Jerry could have killed Doug with that knife," Jason said as he reached over and stroked my arm. "I find it hard to find any sympathy for them because of what they did to Doug, but then I think about how it was when I was in Wilmington." I could see the hurt in Jason's eyes as he remembered those days. "I have really mixed emotions about them."
"Jason, you have a generous soul. I don't think many students would agree with your feelings but what you say makes sense. It gives me something to think about. But, now, let's get your statements."
When we had finished our statements, we were told to go back to class. Students continued speaking to me, calling me "Mr. McElrath". It was ok but I thought it was kinda sad that four guys had to ruin their lives for me to get noticed.
As the three of us were driving to Clarksville after school, we talked about the four. "Tell you what I'd like to see," Jason said. "I'd like to know they were made aware of what was expected of them in decent society and that they had to get an education."
"Yeah, like being under house arrest and having to get an education. Like home schooling." Hank said. "Man, I love my family, but I'd sure not like to be forced to stay home for the next couple years."
We laughed at the idea until Jason finally said, "I think we should go talk to the sheriff if we're serious but it's Doug's call. He's the one who could have died."
"Doug's call?" Hank asked. "I've noticed we seem to have a new guy or new name in our midst."
"Yeah, the warrior and hero of Coldsprings High, Doug McElrath," Jason said. "But what about Jerry and the Assholes?"
"Let's think about it until Hank and I finish swim practice--well, actually, until Hank finishes swim practice since all I can do is watch. Anyway, after we finish and you finish work we'll meet at the music store and see what we can come up with. Ok?" We agreed, and Hank and I went to swim practice.
After swim practice, Hank and I told the coach we'd like to talk with him. After Hank got dressed, he suggested we take advantage of an Indian summer day and we went outside to a picnic table and sat down. Hank and I told him what we had talked about and that Jason agreed with us. "Frankly, Coach, Jason and I would have strangled the whole bunch when we saw Douglas bleeding, but we've talked about it and think there's a better way than having them locked up in jail, their room and board being paid by taxes."
The coach talked with us for about half an hour, helping us think through what we wanted to tell the sheriff. When we finished, he said, "I'm still fool enough to think that sports are supposed to be about sportsmanship and learning to be good citizens. And while you are new to my team, Douglas, you and Hank have just made me very proud."
We went to the music store where we waited until Jason finished work and joined us. While we were waiting, Hank's dad called the sheriff and arranged for us to talk with him and the district attorney.
When we arrived at the DA's office, he told us the four had been charged and arraigned already. Their attorney had convinced them to plead guilty and the judge had set Wednesday of the next week for sentencing.
We told the DA we had a deal we'd like to offer the four and he said that wasn't up to us, but that he was willing to listen, talk us through it and make a recommendation to the judge.
We presented the deal we had worked out, while the DA took notes.
They were to be under house arrest until they had successfully completed their GED and on five years close probation afterward, during which they were to learn a trade. House arrest would allow them no visitors unless approved by the sheriff and they could leave their houses only for medical reasons.
The district attorney had gotten all that in legalese and was about ready to go when the sheriff said, "You know, since they are out on bail, they have spent very little time in jail. It might make them take their house arrest seriously if they knew what jail was like. I think they should spend a week in jail and be reminded that if they violate the conditions of their house arrest or probation they will have to serve the time." The district attorney thought that was a good idea and made a note to include it in his presentation to the judge.
"Sheriff, how about those ankle things that let you know if they leave their house?" the DA asked. "That's the only way a house arrest can work, because you can't post a guard on the four twenty-four/seven."
"Good idea, but they are not cheap and I don't think the department has the money to buy them," the sheriff said.
The DA added a note to his pad, looked up and said, "I think they will be willing to pay for their own hardware."
"They also need to pay Doug's hospital and doctor bills," Jason added. "His grandparents are supporting both of us and shouldn't have to pay for something someone else did." The DA added that to his pad.
When we finished, both the DA and the sheriff said they thought what we had suggested was very generous and was certainly better than just having the four lie in jail and then be released not knowing how to earn a living. "I'm sure they will accept the conditions if the judge sees fit to offer them," the DA said, "otherwise, they can expect to be sentenced to six to ten years prison time, maybe more. Judge Harkins, who will be sentencing them, hands out really stiff sentences for what he rightly calls 'lawless youth'."
Since the music store was closed when we finished, the three of us were together going back home. We all felt good about what was being offered the four attackers. Jason did say, "I have to keep from thinking about seeing that knife headed toward Doug or I'd be ready to hang them again."
We rode in silence for a few minutes and then Jason said, "Hey, I forgot, know anyone who needs a job a couple days a week after school?"
"Why? You dropping back to three?" Hank asked.
"Nope. Jake told me tonight he'd give me the lawyers' offices in the Sharpe Building as my regular work since I have been doing so well. He did say that I'd need help a couple days a week to do extra cleaning. I'd get a twenty-five cents an hour raise since I would be responsible. He'll only check behind me if there is a complaint. What has to be done is clearly laid out and the work's easy. The only reason he thinks I'd need help is because two days a week the restrooms and break areas get more than routine cleaning. Let me know if you can think of anyone."
"That would give me all the spending money I need, I think, but I don't know about having you as a boss," I laughed.
"But you have piano lessons," Jason said.
I suddenly realized that, although he knew I went into Asheville for a lesson on Saturday, I had never told Jason I wasn't having lessons in Clarksville. I swallowed hard and said, "Jason, I haven't lied to you, not really, but I haven't told the whole truth either." I could feel Jason's eyes on me, but kept my own on the road.
"What do you mean you haven't lied, but haven't told the truth?" I could feel Jason's anger rising and knew that something had to be done quickly. We were near the road to the river and, even though it was late fall and pretty chilly, I took a chance. Something needed to be talked through now, not later.
I drove along the fence and when we reached the river, I drove to the ford we usually used. When I reached it, I realized the river was definitely too cold for wading. I hesitated only long enough to switch into four-wheel- drive and headed for the river.
"Have you lost your mind?" Jason asked, and I could hear the anger and hurt in his voice. I didn't respond. I changed into low gear and entered the river. I was sure--well, pretty sure--it wasn't too deep for the Jeep, and I was real sure the bottom was solid without any large rocks to cause problems. The Jeep performed like a champion and I was soon climbing the opposite bank.
When I was out of the river I stopped, got out, reached behind the back seat and pulled out a blanket I had put in sometime before. I spread it on the dry grass and said, "Ok, we have some serious talking to do and we are going to get everything fixed before we leave. Jason, have a seat and listen until I have finished and then you can talk."
Jason looked at me strangely and sat down. When he did, I realized that Hank was always coming up with ideas and I guess I had looked at him as our leader, but suddenly I realized that Jason--maybe because he was older- -was really in charge ... usually, but not today. Today I was in charge.
"Jason, everything looked fine when we first went into town and you found your job. I planned to have piano Tuesday and Thursday, Hank would come in with us and the two of us would have swim practice three days a week. It was a perfect setup. But as soon as I played for Mrs. Robertson, she said I was too advanced for her and she got me lined up for a lesson a week in Asheville. That meant I didn't HAVE to go to Clarksville Tuesday and Thursday, but you have a regular after-school job five days a week. I talked with Granddad and told him if you knew I didn't have to go to Clarksville, you'd dig your heels in and refuse to allow me to take you. I decided I'd come in like I was going to take piano lessons. So I did, and went to the library and studied for an hour then drove home before you and Hank came with Mr. Dennison. I wanted to do that but I knew your pride wouldn't allow it if you knew. I also knew you and your grandmother needed the money badly."
Jason was silent and, when I looked at him, I could see he was battling conflicting emotions. I let him think in silence. Finally he said, "Doug, I know what you were doing and I appreciate it but, at the same time, I don't like the idea that you were keeping a secret so you could give me charity. It's degrading."
I was shocked at the last statement and didn't know what to say. If Jason became too angry, he might decide to move out and, if he did, where would he go? I was in borderline panic when Hank spoke.
"Hold it just one cotton-pickin' minute before you two say something you will regret. Jason, how can you think that Douglas would EVER do anything to degrade you? Man, you have a bunch of silly shit in your head called foolish pride. You know that if Douglas needed something and you had it, it would be his. It would probably be nice if he knew it came from you, but not important. None of the three of us are looking for "you-owe-mes." There's a very big difference between doing something for someone because you want to and you know it is something they need, and doing something so you will feel you have placed the other under obligation. I swear, Jason, I think I'll make a sign for you to wear around your neck reminding you that we are in this together."
"I have a family who is well-off by local standards. We are not rich by any stretch of the imagination but, compared to our neighbors--including Douglas' grandparents--we are more than comfortable. Douglas has a small income from his house in Durham and his grandparents have a comfortable place for him to live. Compared to what you knew when he started taking you to Clarksville, HE was very well-off. So it's not a matter of either of us being deprived by helping you. Now with your grandmother gone, you would have less but you are working. Maybe you are not paying your way completely, but that's not important. You are doing what you can for yourself. That's what's important. In the future, you are obligated to help someone out, we all three are, but we are not obligated to each other because one has done more than the other. We are obligated because we are friends--remember?"
All three of us sat silent for several minutes. I was thinking about what Hank had said but, more than that, I was thinking about how much I had learned about friendship in the past few months--about being a friend and about having friends.
Jason had been sitting, his head down. I didn't have to look to know his anger and feeling of beingling of being betrayed had slowly left him. Finally he looked up, teary eyed and said softly, "One for all and all for one."