A small Southern town.
Two young boys looking for things to do,
a summertime of freedom spread in front of them,
I think Ma might have begun feeling a little suspicious about me ’n Riley because she’d been looking at me a little differently for a few days. Then she dropped the bomb; she told me maybe Riley should sleep at home more, that his Ma would probably like to get reacquainted with him. I thought it was a joke at first; she couldn’t really mean that, but she wasn’t smiling.
Then the next morning, sitting at the breakfast table all by myself for a change and missing Riley, she sprung another surprise on me.
“Travis, we’ve been stuck here so far all summer, and I’m getting restless for a change. So I’ve decided you and I are going to go visit my sister for a couple of days. You can spend some time with your cousins, and I can catch up with Sue.”
Well, if that didn’t beat all! Why was she trying to ruin my summer? The only thing I could think of was, she’d overheard Pa talking to us, saying fooling around with our friends was perfectly natural. Maybe her ‘natural’ was different from Pa’s. Maybe she thought me ’n Riley were fooling around, and she didn’t like it.
“I don’t wanna go!” I may have spoken a little too loudly because she frowned the frown that meant I’d better back off real quick or there’d be consequences. Ma’s consequences weren’t to be trifled with. I didn’t want to give her a reason to suddenly say no more Riley sleeping over for the rest of the summer. She could do that. She could be mean when she had a mind to.
So I continued in a quieter voice. “Me ’n Riley are watchin’ that wall go up and are swimmin’ and fishin’ and stuff, and going over to Aunt Sue’s means not doin’ any of that and, what’s worse, meetin’ up with those cousins again. You know how I feel about that!”
“Those girls are just fine. You need to learn how to get along with girls, is all. This’ll be good for you.”
“I don’t want good for me. I want to spend the summer right here. Why don’t you go alone? Yeah, that’s it. I’ll stay here with Pa and you take a vacation. Take as long as you want.”
Well, maybe throwing in that last bit wasn’t too smart of me. She stood up straight without a hint of motherliness showing on her face and said, “So you don’t think you need me around here, huh, buster? You don’t think clean clothes, cooked meals, shopping, cleaning, none of that’s important, do you? You don’t know much of anything, and that’s the truth. But I know something for sure. You and I are going to visit your aunt, and maybe it won’t be for just a couple of days. Maybe you need to be away from here and Riley for longer. We’ll just have to see about that.”
Yeah, that last bit, I wished I’d kept that locked inside of my head instead of letting my tongue have its way with it. It was me ’n Riley and what she guessed we did together that was fussing her; I was sure of that.
We spent three days with Aunt Sue. It would have been more, maybe, because I could see how relaxed and happy Ma was, sitting and talking to her sister. They’d make a pot of tea and sit at the kitchen table together, drinking that tea and eating small sandwiches with the crusts cut off or thin little cookies you had to eat a bunch of to even know you’d had any, and they’d just chat away, sounding like a herd of wild parrots.
That left me to put up with my cousins. There were two of them, twins, Becky and Barb, and they were just ten years old. They were also the biggest nuisances and pains in the posterior you could imagine. They wouldn’t leave me alone. They wanted me to get involved in everything they were doing, and if I didn’t go along, they complained to their mother, and she got Ma involved, and then I was doing what those damn twins wanted and it was awful. You sit down to tea with two girls and eat pretend cookies and drink pretend tea after declining both pretend milk and sugar and then chat about how pretty their dresses are and how they could fix their hair this way and that, and then you tell me how much fun it is! Enough to make you puke.
So we were there only three days because Ma got tired of me whining and sulking and pouting and all. I’m pretty good at that. There’s a very narrow line you have to walk, and I balanced on that thing perfectly.
We got back, and Riley was there. Pa told me he’d hung around our house every day, or he thought he had because Riley’d been there every day when Pa had come home from the store. Pa said he’d been happy to have him because he made good company. I’d said, yeah, but he was supposed to be my company! Pa had laughed and said sometimes you had to accommodate women. You just did.
Then he had some news. Two more boys, these two our age, had been taken and molested while I’d been gone. They’d been found out in the country, and one of them was pretty shaken up. He’d been in the hospital, though what Pa said was he wasn’t physically hurt enough to stay in there.
They couldn’t identify their molester or where they’d been taken, but the one who wasn’t in the hospital told Officer Lodge what had been done to them. Pa had heard a condensed version from him. The man had participated this time, forcing things on the boys, forcing them to do things to him. Pa wouldn’t tell me what, saying specifics weren’t something I needed to hear. He just wanted us to know the guy was still out there and to watch out for ourselves.
I knew I’d find out what had happened to those boys sooner or later. The story was bound to come out. I asked Pa who the boys were as he’d said they were our age. He thought about that, not sure he wanted to tell us, but then decided we’d learn anyway, and so he gave us their names. We knew them, of course, and it shocked us.
But Pa stressed to me ’n Riley again to be careful, to watch out for ourselves, to stay together or with a bunch of other boys, and to stay safe.
“What are we doin’ today?” Riley asked me one morning.
“Why is it always me who decides that? You’re not pullin’ your weight, you know. Robin always had things in mind for Batman.”
“Hey, wait a sec! Whoever said you were Batman and I was Robin? No way, man! No way! You can be Batman if you want to be, but I’m no sidekick. Maybe I’ll be Superman.”
I shook my head, standing up as tall as I could and looking down at him. About a half an inch. “Maybe Mighty Mouse, though. That’s possible.”
“I’ll give you Mighty Mouse,” he said, his voice ringing with scorn and menace, and he pounced!
“Hey, get off me! You can’t be a mouse and act like a cat. It’s a . . . a . . . it’s a paradox. I think that’s the right word.”
“You’re right, I’m not a mouse. And before you think it, I’m not Catwoman, either. I’m Superman.”
“OK, Superman, use your superpowers and figure out what we’re going to do today.”
He looked sober for a second. “Well, I have an idea.”
“Yeah?” I might have sounded skeptical. Might have.
Riley got off me and sat on the bed. Yeah, he did look serious for once. “Okay. Your pa said one of those boys is still in the hospital and not because there was anything physically wrong with him. It’s Johnpaul Santee, I heard. You know what that means?”
I had to think for a minute. I’d put that whole thing out of my mind. Evidently, Riley had been thinking about it. “Well,” I said at last, “if he’s physically okay but still getting’ some sort of treatment, I’d guess it has to be somethin’ mental with him.”
Riley nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. So, I was thinkin’ about what your pa said about them worryin’ about no one likin’ them any longer because of what they did. And I kinda thought maybe we could visit him and tell him we still like him.”
Man, oh man! I was starting to think: of the two of us, maybe I was the dumb one. That was one of the best ideas he’d ever had. At first, I was going to make fun of it, but that wouldn’t have been fair. Instead, when I told him that was a perfect idea and let’s do it, his smile told me I’d done the right thing. Made me tingle a little, too.
Riley wasn’t what you’d traditionally call cute. He had one of those faces that was unique to him, one that didn’t seem to look anything like anyone else. He had all the right parts, of course, but the nose was a bit off-center if you looked at him from the side, his eyes were farther apart than with some people, his ears might have been too big, but, when you put everything all together, I liked his looks, and he was definitely cute when he smiled. But I never really got tired of looking at him.
We didn’t tell Ma where we were going. We usually did, but this time we just said we were going bike riding. Riley said we shouldn’t tell her, that she didn’t need to know we were going to visit a crazy person.
She told us to keep safe and watch out for kidnappers and then let us go.
But I was still thinking about his remark to me about visiting a crazy person. See? Being smart like he’d been that morning wasn’t any everyday thing for him.
The lady at the desk in the hospital looked up the name Johnpaul Santee and said he was in the Psych Ward, floor two, and to check in at the desk there. So we took the elevator up. There were lots of people in the car we got into, so Riley couldn’t press any buttons, not even 2 because it was already lit up. I think he would have pressed it anyway, for practice, but where we were crowded in, he couldn’t reach the control panel.
I was feeling a little funny. Riley’s mention of crazy and Johnpaul being in the Psych Ward made me wonder a little bit about what he would be like. Would he be in a straightjacket? Chained to his bed? I knew he wasn’t crazy but didn’t know how a person in the Psych Ward got treated. Or how what had happened had affected him or why he was still in the hospital.
We both knew him; we knew all the kids in town our age. He was a black kid and kinda quiet. Very good-looking, and he always wore nice clothes, not the ragged jeans and dirty tee shirts some of the kids wore. He dressed better than I did. I knew he went to the Baptist church in town, and I guess he took everything he heard there to heart. I’d never heard him cuss. Well, I didn’t cuss much, either, but sometimes you sorta had to if you wanted to be one of the guys. Johnpaul didn’t cuss at all but still was one of us. He was smart, too. I got all A’s, and not many kids did that. Pa told me if I could, I should, and asked if I could, staring right into my eyes. So I felt I had to—and I did. Johnpaul did, too.
His best friend, the kid who he’d been with when they were kidnapped, was also black and also smart. Because of that, they were teased some, but not much. Our principal wouldn’t allow it. Anyway, they stuck together real close all the time, and his friend, whose name was Tommy Abernathy, was pretty big and not someone you wanted to mess with.
I was friends with everyone, and I got along well with both of them even if Johnpaul was kind of reserved. He wasn’t shy, he just didn’t speak out a lot. I guess maybe he was sorta like me.
We told the lady at the desk we’d come to visit someone, that he was our friend. She looked at us, and I was glad we had clean tee shirts on. It was that sort of a look. Then she asked what his name was, and when I told her, her look softened. She tapped on some computer keys, looked at the display, and said, “Yep, what I thought: no restrictions on visitors. I think he’ll be happy to see you. No one’s come but his parents. He just sits in his room. Kids need kids around to feel normal. You can go right in. Room 212. Thanks for coming. Good of you.”
I would have felt good about that, except Riley elbowed me in the ribs and smirked at me.
His door was open, and we could see him dressed in regular clothes and sitting in a chair by the window. He wasn’t looking out, though. He was just sitting there, staring at nothing. We both walked in but stopped inside the room, not sure what to do then.
Johnpaul looked up, saw us, and looked surprised. Then his eyes changed, and I thought he looked maybe a little scared. So I knew I had to talk. I had to explain why we were there, and it wasn’t to tease him or question him or make him feel worse than he probably did.
“Hi, Johnpaul,” I said, trying to sound positive but not over-the-top joyful. That would be fake, and this wasn’t the time to be anything but genuine. “We heard you were here and came by just to see how you were doin’. You know, like the friends we are. We thought maybe you could use the company. And I brought you this.” I showed the book I’d brought him, one of my collection of sci-fi ones. It was one I really liked and had read three times. I thought if I loved it, he might, too. I didn’t really want to give it away but felt good about doing it.
I saw the fear leave his eyes. He stood up, then sat back down again. He opened his mouth a couple of times, but didn’t say anything. That was okay; I was used to him not saying much.
Riley, of course, didn’t do silence. “We have somethin’ to say to you.”
Johnpaul glanced over at him before turning back to looking at the wall. I looked at it, too, and didn’t see anything that needed staring at. Riley went on, not being bothered a bit by Johnpaul not looking at him.
“See, we were talkin’ to Travis’s pa, and he said that sometimes when somethin’ like this happens, kids get picked on and bullied. And we thought you might be worryin’ about that. So that’s why we came. We want you to know, we like you, you’re our friend, one of us, and if anyone does anythin’ like that, me ’n Travis, we’ll kick their ass. So you don’t have to worry none about that. Okay?”
Johnpaul turn to look at Riley again, and I saw a change in his eyes. I saw just a flicker of humor and more life than had been there before.
“Thanks, Riley,” he said, his voice soft and a little sad. “That’s nice of you.”
“I mean it. We will,” Riley stated, and I was sure he meant it. I wasn’t sure we could do it. Neither of us was a fighter, but I knew he meant it anyway.
But something had happened when Riley had said what he did. Johnpaul had looked a little better for a moment. And that gave me the courage to say what I hadn’t thought I’d be able to.
I walked over to where he was sitting. It wasn’t a large room, so I sat down on the bed and was right near him. “Johnpaul?” I said, wanting him to look at me. He did, but then away again. I took that to mean he was listening to me, but couldn’t look at me while I was speaking. It would have been better if he had, but at least he’d be listening.
“Johnpaul, Pa said some other things, too, and maybe this could help. I hope so. I want you to be happy and to get out of here. So, here goes.
“Pa said that when you do sex things, whether you want to do them or not, whether it’s voluntary or forced on you, sometimes at least a little part of it might feel good.”
I saw him sort of jerk in his chair, so I raced on. “I know you go to your church and it’s important to you. I think I know what they preach in there about sex. And so I can imagine if you had to do sex things to stay alive, and some of it felt good, that maybe you’re all confused about that. Maybe you even feel guilty about the feelin’ good part. You might think that makes you bad. That God won’t forgive that. But Pa said somethin’ else, and he’s real smart, and it sounded true to me. He said that God made sex, and he made it feel good so people would do it, and not just to make babies but because it felt good and made them happy and allowed them to show their partner they loved them. He said that if it felt good, even if you didn’t want to do it, it felt that way because it’s supposed to feel that way. It’s God’s way. And that you shouldn’t feel guilty because your body was only actin’ the way God made it to act. You can’t be guilty for somethin’ you were forced to do and then for your body actin’ the way it was made to act.”
He’d found a way to be looking at me now, and his eyes were different, too. I wasn’t sure what I was reading in them, but he sure was paying attention to what I was saying.
I was about done, but I wanted to say one more thing. “Riley’s right. We’re still your friends, and I think almost everyone will be. If anyone isn’t, that’s on them, not you. You’ll see. No one’s goin’ to tease you. They might ask about what happened, so you should take some time to figure out how to answer that before you’re asked, but I think it would be fine to say it’s too painful to think about and you’re tryin’ real hard not to, so please don’t ask again. The good kids, which most of us are, will respect that.”
I shut up then, and simply waited. He turned away again, studying that same wall that didn’t have any answers for him, then suddenly stood up again. He came over the two steps needed and sat on the bed next to me. “Your pa really said all that?”
“Yeah, Johnpaul. He was worried about you. I think everyone is. It wasn’t your fault, and there’s nothin’ to feel guilty about.”
I was surprised then, because he hugged me. Not only that, he hugged me for a long time and put his head on my shoulder and started crying. I could tell because his body was shaking, and then my shoulder got wet.
He finally stopped. He raised his head and wiped his face and said, “Thanks, Travis. And you too, Riley. I’ve been so afraid of what my minister will say. But you’ve given me lots to think about, and I feel a lot better. I know it wasn’t my fault, but I do feel guilty about how some of it felt. You’re right, I shouldn’t. And if my minister tries to make me feel guilty at all, well, I’ll have to figure that out, but I can. I know I can.”
Riley had a question. Johnpaul’s emotions didn’t bother him at all. “Hey, has Tommy come to see you.”
Some of the light that had been in Johnpaul’s eyes left. “No,” he said, and dropped his head.
“Hey!” Riley said, loudly. Johnpaul looked up.
“We’ll take care of that. Me ’n Travis. We’ll get him here or come back ourselves and tell you why. Today! Okay?”
Riley was so sure of himself, so positive, Johnpaul couldn’t help himself; he grinned. As I’ve said, that boy is feisty! But Johnpaul’s grin was our cue. I stood up, told him we’d check on Tommy and one way or another let him know, and then Riley surprised me. He walked over and gave Johnpaul a big hug and whispered, “Don’t worry.” Then I put the book on the bedstand and we walked out.
Maybe Riley was affected by Johnpaul’s tears after all.
Riley was quiet after we left the hospital. Riley was never quiet, so I finally said, “That was awfully good, Riley. I think we helped him, and it was your idea. I don’t know, though . . .”
He rode a short distance farther, and then asked, “You don’t know what?”
I was a little behind him, so started pedaling a little faster. I needed to be in front of him when I answered. So I passed him, moving well now, and said over my shoulder, “I don’t know what I should do when you start kicking asses. Probably just go for help.” Then I really pedaled, because he was coming after me, and even though I knew he really wouldn’t do anything if he caught me, I didn’t think my tender ears should be hearing all those cuss words he was throwing out at me. Ma would have been shocked at them, that was for darn sure!
It’s hard to ride fast when you’re busy laughing.
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