We held each others gaze for a moment. As had happened the day before when Chris opened up to me for the first time, he looked deep into my eyes as if to answer some unasked question. Those damn x-ray eyes, again. I was too afraid to speak. The words that had finally come together in my heart were now trapped there as if unable to defy gravity and make their way to my lips. With that familiar twinkle and knowing smile Chris stood up, pulling me up with him by the arm.
"Thanks for understanding, Matt. I don't know what I'd do without you." He looked like he meant it.
I felt relief. Chris trusted me, he relied on me. My relief vanished as the full meaning of his words settled into my head. Chris DID need me. I once thought he had everything anyone could possibly want. He had a winning personality, charisma, he was a great athlete, and so blessed physically. Over the past two days, I had also come to realize that Chris was cursed. How could one boy carry so many gifts and so many burdens all at once? I loved him. I now knew that for sure. He needed me. I had to repeat the words slowly in my head. Without my friendship and support, I worried what might happen to Chris. I now fully understood the risks for both of us. Had I been selfish in thinking only what I would lose if Chris pushed me away? Chris would lose too, and I would be responsible. We might both pay a price that was more than we could afford.
My emotions were already frazzled. The run-in with Jay Henson, now this, I wanted to scream. I needed to scream. I was barely holding myself together. I couldn't possibly work all this out in my head right now. I felt like I was under water, not knowing when or how I would make it to the surface, but knowing that no matter what, I had to stay calm and hold my breath. I looked at Chris and gave him the most reassuring smile I could deliver, trying to communicate that everything would be all right. "Don't show him any fear" his own words echoing silently in my head.
"You know I'm here for you, no matter what" I said, my face tightening again, but somehow I found the strength I needed. "I sort of had a little fainting spell last night when I got home, nothing to worry about." Serious concern spread over his face. "I forgot to eat yesterday, just never got around to it and I blacked out for just a second right before dinner. I'm ok, really I promise." Why did no one ever believe me when I said this? "My mom was a little spooked. I'm going to have to skip out on practice today. I figure you probably have a pretty busy night lined up anyway with homecoming and all".
I'm sure the disappointment showed on my face because I couldn't even say homecoming without Katie flashing into my mind. This was going to be another long day. Chris looked disappointed too. Maybe he wondered if I could handle the stress of his home-life after all. Or maybe he wasn't looking forward to homecoming as much as I had assumed. Either way, I didn't want to leave him disappointed. "Can I still come over tomorrow afternoon, maybe sometime after lunch?"
I wondered if Chris knew how much and how well he communicated with that face of his. I always felt like I got instantaneous feedback. It was one of those little qualities I had grown so fond of in him. "Absolutely, but we'll go at it a lot easier tomorrow. I can't have you croakin' on me, OK?" He was smiling, but he wasn't trying to be funny.
"OK, Chris. I promise you I won't croak." I smiled back and almost managed a faint chuckle.
Wild screams interrupted the light moment as cheerleaders began pyramiding in the courtyard. Homecoming day festivities had officially begun. Oh brother, this was going to be such a long day. We both grinned shaking our heads in unison, then headed off in different directions to homeroom. As I walked out of his sight, my grin quickly turned upside down. Being in love wasn't going to be easy.
As I arrived in homeroom, Tommy was waiting for me at the door. He was so excited to see me. I wasn't able to return his enthusiasm.
"Mattie, what's wrong? You look like you saw a ghost or something." It seemed possible enough. I actually stopped and considered that I might have.
"Sorry, Tommy. I'm just a little jittery this morning." I thought about telling Tommy that my mom might not let me go camping tonight, but decided instead not to mention it. I was sure everything would be all right and there was no need to spoil his excitement any more than I already had. I still felt bad about yelling at him the day before. It seemed like months ago already, so much had happened in such a short time.
"Tommy, you know I've never been camping before. Don't tell anybody, but I've never even spent a night away from home." I gave him the `look' so he'd know I didn't want that information to get around school.
"Don't worry Mattie, you'll be in good hands. I've been camping hundreds of times. I've already got everything ready, camping tent, sleeping bags, frying pan, fishing poles. I'll round up some bait after school. It's gonna be so much fun. I can't wait." Tommy couldn't possibly be happier. I had to smile, finally able to let go of some of the guilt I felt for treating him so badly. It really did sound like fun.
"A frying pan?" I had assumed we'd take sandwiches or something. Tommy had the full experience in mind.
"For the fish. You do eat fish, don't you?" The full novice of my camping knowledge had finally registered with him.
"Tommy, what if we don't catch any fish?" It seemed like a reasonable question to ask.
"I ALWAYS catch fish. I know every good catfish hole in `Deadman's Creek'. Been fishing it my whole life." Tommy was one southern boy who took his fishing expertise seriously. Tommy Johnson, man of the great outdoors. Who would have thought it?
Then it hit me. "Why do they call it `Deadman's Creek', Tommy?"
"Well, Mattie. I don't truthfully know for sure. Rumor has it that a long time ago, a couple of old rednecks went coon huntin' in the hills up beside the creek. There's lots of good coon trees around there. Anyway, these two old rednecks sort of just disappeared and haven't been heard from since. The sheriff found their dogs down by the waters edge sniffing and snorting around. That must have been 40 years ago. My granddad used to tell that story all the time, eight or ten times a day after he got Alzheimer's. He told it a lot better than me though." Tommy had told it well enough to scare the shit out of me. Of course, in my condition it didn't take much.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Oh no, Mattie. My granddads really got Alzheimer's."
"No, `Opie'! I mean about the story. That's just an old legend, right?" Tommy's eyes narrowed a bit whenever I called him `Opie'. I think he decided to leave me hanging on this one.
"Well, Mattie. It may just be an old legend. Then again, it may be true. I really can't say for sure. But look at it this way, either the old rednecks are really dead - in which case we don't have to worry about `em. Or they're really old, in which case I'm pretty sure we can outrun `em. But then if they're dead, I wonder what killed `em?" He looked skyward and held the look as if really pondering for an answer.
"Knock it off, Tommy. I can't take the aggravation today." With that, I gave him a playful shove, knocking him off- balance as I headed for my seat.
I could still hear the squeals of excited cheerleaders barely drowned out by the loud homeroom bell. The day that might never end had only just begun. Oh man, what a long day this was going to be.
As Ms. Morgan checked attendance, everything just flooded back into my mind. I thought about the weird stare Chris's mom had given me. I thought about the longest ten minutes of my life - the ride home with Coach Briggs. I thought of the proud look on my dad's face. I thought about Jay Henson. Why did he pick on me? What an asshole. I bet he deserved the beating Chris gave him. "Deserved." I thought of the fucking homecoming dance, then Katie. Shit! I wasn't sure I could take all this. I settled on a more comforting thought. The thought of Chris's hand as it had cradled the back of my neck. Yeah, this one felt much better. Just hold your breath Matt, I thought to myself. Just relax and hold your breath. We'll make it to the surface. Maybe.
The rest of the day was filled with endless overenthusiastic school cheer, capped off by the greatest insult of all to my senses: The Pep Rally! This couldn't be serious. I mean, it's just a big school parody right? What type of mindless indoctrination into the `system' was this shit? I was starting to get a little unnerved, even paranoid. It seemed like the `system' was conspiring against me, plotting to put teenage boys and girls together. What about me? Was this some type of mating ritual leading up to uncontrollable boy/girl back-seat passion?
"Tommy!" I think I might have finally screamed, judging by the startled looks by several schoolmates filing out from the assembly. I was ready to go camping. I was ready to go looking for those old lost rednecks in the darkest dark of the night. Just anything to get me out of here!
"Mattie?" Thankfully Tommy found me before I completed my nervous breakdown. "Mattie, what time you think you'll be over?"
"My mom should be home by 5:30. I'll be ready when she gets there, and.Wait, Tommy. I don't know where you live." Tommy pulled a page of printed directions from his notebook, complete with a well-done home-made map. It looked a little like a treasure map. If Tommy couldn't put his high IQ to better use, at least he had a future as a tour-guide or travel agent. He seemed to be a natural.
"Ok, Tommy. I should be there by 6:00 at the latest. How long to get down to the campsite from your house? We'll be there before it's completely dark, don't you think?" I wasn't thrilled about making my way down to `Deadman's Creek' in the dark of night, after all.
"We should have plenty of time, Mattie. We'll take the 4- wheeler down to the edge of the woods, and then hike the rest of the way to my favorite fishing hole."
"4-wheeler?" I looked at Tommy mischievously as I asked. A 4- wheeler sounded like fun.
"Yeah, Mattie. We won't have much time to ride this afternoon, but I'll show you around the countryside on our way back Saturday morning." Tommy was beaming. I really was starting to think of us as brothers. I wondered if he was thinking the same.
First, I had to call my mom and let her know I was OK. No repeats of yesterdays fainting spell, or at least not yet.
>From a distance, I saw Chris making his approach. I could see Katie just a little ahead of him, making her way toward the student parking lot. I tried to look away, but at first I couldn't. I had to see this. I had to know. Just as he was about to reach her, my mind took over, hiding my eyes, afraid that what I might see would do me too much harm. Would he embrace her as he had that day in the cafeteria? Would he kiss her? I turned quickly, making sure I didn't steal a last peak, my head straight down just in case.
It was a glancing blow. Really, it was more of a brush of the shoulders with no harm done. Like this day hadn't been long enough, it was now as if I was doomed to repeat it, locked in a stare with Jay Henson. No words passed between us this time. My face was covered in pain. This was just one more aggravation I didn't need. It seemed like everywhere I turned, there was something I didn't need to see. As my eyes moved off him, I could feel him staring into me, almost as if he were trying to sort me out. If he was probing for another weakness, it wouldn't take much to provoke a fight. I was in no mood to take further abuse from him, the pep- police, or anyone else. I kept walking, the heat of his stare slowly fading the farther I moved away, until I was finally out of his sight.
"Matthew, you don't sound OK." Mothers always knew, somehow.
"Mom, I'm fine. I've already had two square meals today. Well, I had at least one. We had yesterday's pizza again today for lunch so I guess that doesn't count. Anyway, I feel just fine. It's just been a weird day at school. Everything has been cheer-this and cheer-that. I'm sick of it, Mom. I just want to get out of here and go camping. You'll break Tommy's heart if you don't let me go. He needs a friend almost as much as I do." Now I was just playing dirty. I hated to do it, but I felt like it was my only hope.
"We're checking your temperature when I get home. If it's normal, then I'll let you go."
I knew I was going. There was nothing wrong with me that could be medically detected, or cured for that matter.
I gathered my things from the locker and made my way toward my bus. Our little campus was completely abuzz. I caught myself hoping that everyone had a really bad case of cheer- hangover on Monday morning.
I could see my mom cut me an amused smile as she pulled into our driveway. I was sitting on top of my bag, already changed into what I felt like were suitable camping clothes.
"You're getting just a little ahead of yourself, aren't you?" as she pointed me back into the house.
"Mom, we need to hurry. Tommy is taking me to his favorite fishing hole down at..the creek. We need to get down there before dark." I almost said it, my lips were formed and ready to deliver, but `Deadman's Creek' was more than my mom needed to know right now.
All systems go. Finally we were on our way. I was wondering if she would say anything. Moms are usually very aware of certain milestones in life.
"This is the first night you've ever spent away from me, Matt." She looked sad. My first little step out of the nest was one step closer to an empty nest for my mom. As an only child, I worried about my mom sometimes. I worried what she would do if anything happened to me. I couldn't even let myself think of what I would do if something happened to her. I still needed her. She needed me. Chris needed me. My mom loved me. I had never doubted it for a second. I loved Chris. Could my mom love Chris? She noticed me looking at her. I tried to look at her the same way Chris looked at me earlier. Maybe there was a technique that would let you answer questions without asking them. It wasn't working for me.
"Ok, turn right up there just past that mailbox at the top of this hill." Tommy really did do a great job with his directions. He had even written them in reverse order on the back of the paper so my mom wouldn't have any problem getting home. It was overkill, but you had to credit him for being thorough.
The Johnson house wasn't as big as the Jordan house, but was located several hundred yards off the road with a long winding graveled driveway leading to an older ranch-style frame. I'm not sure who was happier to see us, Tommy or his chocolate labs. My mom didn't get out of the car, but she did roll her window down and exchange pleasantries with Tommy.
He was really sweet to my mom, telling her not to worry about me, this being my "first trip away from home and all". He'd take good care of me, and have me ready to pick back up at noon tomorrow. He was cute, doing his best to make her feel good about this. I reassured her too, and even gave her a little kiss on the cheek before I got out of the car.
"Mom, I almost forgot. Chris wants me to come over to his house tomorrow afternoon and play basketball. Ok? Right?" I raised my brows and nodded for her.
"Matthew, it doesn't sound to me like you're having any problems making friends" giving me a wry smile, just to let me know I wasn't as smart as I thought. "You're coming home for lunch tomorrow, and then maybe, just maybe, your dad will taxi you over to Chris's tomorrow afternoon."
Not being old enough to drive really sucked! At least in the city I could ride a bike and have some freedom. Here in the rural south, it wasn't so easy. It seemed like everything was ten miles away from where you were. My dad must drive at least twenty-five miles to work each day. I never knew why they didn't just buy a house in Charlotte when we moved here. But then, I wasn't complaining. The `country' life was suiting me better and better all the time.
"Mattie, I got us some huge night-crawlers." Tommy looked at me as if I should know what a night-crawler was. "Worms, Mattie. You know, for fishing bait."
"Tommy, I just hope we don't have to fry those worms up and eat them. You packed some snacks just in case, right?"
He looked at me like he thought I would never learn. "Well, we do have a loaf of bread. But mind you, I only brought that so we'd have something to eat with the fish - which we WILL catch." I was relieved to know that at least we had basic sustenance in our possession.
I was right, 4-wheelers were fun. I had to squeeze in behind Tommy, my legs spread on both sides of his hips, propping myself up against the carry-rack, with a finger of each hand in his belt-loops to keep myself balanced. When we got past the trees behind his house and came to an open field that had recently been harvested, Tommy gunned it a little bit. My fingers quickly moved from his belt-loops as I decided to wrap my arms around his waist, holding him just below the ribs for extra control. Tommy gunned it again several times after that, pretty much every chance he got. It had been a warm day, but with the setting sun blocked off by the tall trees, the chill of early fall was starting to set in. I brought a heavier jacket, but it was in my bag. I decided to snuggle up closer to him, using him as a wind-breaker, and absorbing some of his warmth. This felt so comfortable. It dawned on me that I had never held someone like this before, at least not since puberty and never from behind like this, and so close for so long. I always hugged my mom and dad, but that was a lot different. The excitement of the ride and the sheer comfort of holding Tommy in my arms, started to have unforeseen effects. I decided to scoot my butt back just a little to give myself some space, but there just wasn't any room to move. Every little bump in a field or sudden shift in weight just added to my predicament. For someone who had traveled these hills so many times, it sure seemed like Tommy didn't know many shortcuts. Finally, we pulled to a stop. I hopped off as quickly as I could, turning away from him and hoping he hadn't noticed. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw he had turned his back to me too. We were practically moving in a circle together around the 4-wheeler, both of us obviously trying to avoid the other. I decided to break the ice.
"Guess we better unload the stuff and get going before it gets completely dark." I turned toward the back of the 4- wheeler, and Tommy did the same. He was still looking down and I decided to take a quick glance to see if the ride had the same effect on him. Confirmed. As I looked back up, so did he. I couldn't help it, I just burst out laughing. This had been such a long, strange day. To have it end up with me and Tommy getting paralyzing boners from a 4-wheeler ride, just struck me as funny somehow. Tommy smiled shyly and started to untie the bags.
"Tommy, you think maybe tomorrow, you can let me drive a little?"
"Sure, Mattie. It's not as easy as it looks though. You'll have to go kind of slow until you get a feel for it. I'll show you all about it. I started riding a 3-wheeler when I was 7 years old. We got rid of it because my dad said it was too dangerous, I've been riding this same 4-wheeler for almost five years."
Tommy and I had very different experiences in life. He was a true southerner, growing up doing all the things that southerners do. Sausalito was a small town, but growing up so near San Francisco and Oakland, it just always felt like a much bigger place to me. You were always close to the bay waters, always boats nearby. There were a few open spaces, but nothing like this. I wasn't sure how far from Tommy's house we were, but this was as close to the middle of nowhere as I had ever been. I could hear the creek just through the last line of trees. There were hill banks running up along both sides. The only thing I had seen like this in Sausalito was on TV when I had watched `Deliverance' late one night on cable. Wonder what really happened to those old rednecks?
"Tommy, lets get going, OK?"
It was only about a 15 minute hike to the campsite Tommy picked out. It looked like a logical spot to me. There was a flat clearing on the bank elevated above the creek bed by 10 feet or so. Tommy explained that this spot was also good to fish from because the water was deeper here, backing up from a formation of rocks just downstream. There were also no trees hanging directly over the water for several yards, giving us a clear opening to drop our lines in. I mostly stood and waited for Tommy to tell me what to do. He gave me the chore of gathering up some old dry tree parts that were just scattered around sporadically on the banks. I picked out the ones that looked closest to those I had seen used in campfires in the movies. Tommy said to stay away from the heavier ones as they were likely either too wet or too green to burn well. He failed to say how much wood he wanted so I kept piling it up until I heard him laughing.
"Mattie, the bond-fire was last night at school. We're just gonna have a little campfire. That's more than plenty."
"They had a bond-fire too?" These people were unbelievable. How much cheer does any one school really need? The football team was mediocre at best. There just wasn't THAT much to get excited about. "Tommy, all this cheer stuff and homecoming, it really is over after tonight, right? I mean, this doesn't go on for like weeks or anything does it?" I wouldn't have been surprised.
"I'm glad I'm not the only one." Tommy shook his head signifying we were in complete agreement.
He fired up his old Coleman lantern and hung it from a little hook-shaped knob protruding from the side of a strong tree branch. The small nylon camping tent went up in a snap and we put our sleeping bags and gear inside. Tommy had a little short camper's shovel that he used to dig out a small pit and then put several pieces of the old dry-rot wood on top of some smaller twigs. We had a decent little fire going in no time. Tommy, ever the great outdoorsmen, explained that he had made a neat pile of the dirt removed from the pit, so that we could safely cover the remains of the fire tomorrow before we left.
I teased him, calling him Smokey the Redneck Bear, but really I was all for letting him do his thing. He was the camp expert after all. The only thing left to do was to catch some fish.
Tommy's hook couldn't have been in the water more than thirty seconds when his pole started twitching and I saw him yank it back over his shoulder and start reeling in. "I told you." Again, he was vindicated. His first catch looked to measure a little less than a foot long. "Good eatin' size" he proclaimed. He then pulled out a stringer and ran it through the catfish mouth, looping it back and then tying it to an exposed root right by the water, allowing the catfish to splash around just under the surface.
"Aren't you afraid he'll tell the other fish to stay the hell away?"
Tommy politely explained that it really didn't work that way. He threaded another night-crawler onto his hook and cast again in about the same spot. Sure enough, just a couple minutes later, he had another one.
As he pulled it in, I looked out at my line. It was sitting there so peacefully. Then I thought I had a bite, but it was just a moth that had landed on the tip of my fishing pole. Mother Nature was teasing me. I looked back at Tommy and frowned. He quickly landed two more catfish, each of similar size to the first, each time repeating his entire routine and casting again, pausing just long enough in between to boast that he "should have enough for supper pretty soon."
I looked out at my own line again. Still nothing. Tommy hooked another one. Now I was getting pissed. How hard could this be? Just then, I noticed that my line had gone completely slack, wrinkling its way back toward me into the water. Just my luck, I thought. Some wise-ass catfish had probably untied my hook from the line. Tommy was over there catching all the dumb fish. I had to get stuck with the one genius in this old creek. I hissed out loud, looking over at Tommy with my palms skyward giving him my best `What's up with this?' look. Tommy looked out into the water, then quickly back at me, eyes and mouth wide open giving me his best `What the fuck are you doing?' look.
"Grab the rod and reel in that slack!" Tommy wasn't the most patient of teachers. Maybe he wouldn't be such a good math- tutor candidate for Chris after all. "It's probably a really big one, Mattie. Sometimes, that's what they do. They grab the hook and swim toward the bank!" That got my attention.
I lunged at the pole, pulling it up from the wish-bone shaped branch that I had stuck in the ground earlier as a prop. I nearly broke the tiny gears in the spinner, I was reeling so fast. When the slack tightened and that old catfish felt the sting in his mouth, he decided to strike back, nearly pulling the pole out of my hands. I fell forward on my knees, fumbling my hold on the reel momentarily before recovering. From my knees, I looked over at Tommy hoping for some guidance on what to do next.
"Don't pull too hard, just keep the rod up! We'll have to wait for him to tire down, or else he'll break your line." I followed his instructions, holding on for dear life but not trying to rush the old fish. I heard strange noises coming from the spinner and I was sure it was about to disassemble right in my hands. "That's just the drag, it's supposed to give some line out when there's too much pressure. It helps keep the line from breaking. Mattie, I've got those drags set pretty high, this must be a really good one." Tommy was now at my side giving me the occasional pat on the back. I felt like I was the wrong man for the job.
"Tommy, you take him. I've never even caught a fish! I'm way overmatched by this monster!"
"No way am I taking your fish. Just stay with it, Mattie. This might go on for quite a while."
It did. Twenty minutes later, I was still fighting with this old warrior. Maybe he was just waiting for me to wear down. I briefly wondered if the remains of those old rednecks were still locked away somewhere in the insides of this old monster. Tommy decided it was time to make our move.
"We're gonna turn him, Mattie. I want you to pull the pole back over your shoulder, then reel in that little bit of slack, before lowering the pole back again. We'll do that three times in a row. He's probably sitting behind some big rock out there. Let's give it a try."
I did as I was instructed. If he was moving, he wasn't moving very far. On the third pull, I felt some give on the other end. I kept repeating the process and I could finally feel him swimming back toward me again.
"It's working Tommy! He's turning!" Tommy nodded enthusiastically and placed his left hand on my right shoulder, safely out of the way of the fishing pole thrusting over my left shoulder at a quickening pace now. As the line moved within a few yards of the bank, I saw a large swirl in the water. The old catfish was rolling over and over, too tired to keep up the fight for his freedom.
"Holy shit! Mattie, that's the biggest cat I've ever seen in this creek. I don't know how we're gonna get him up on the bank. I didn't bring a gaffer and his weight might break the line if you try and lift him through the air. Try and walk him down toward the stringer and maybe we can drag him up on the low part of the bank." I had developed new appreciation for Tommy's teaching and coaching skills. If he could teach me how to land the biggest old catfish in `Deadman's Creek', surely he could teach Chris how to pass algebra.
I staggered down the creek bank to where Tommy had earlier tied the stringer to an old root. Following his command, I lowered the pole pointing it almost directly at the old cat as he swirled and splashed into the shallower water. Tommy grabbed his flashlight, putting a spotlight on the old guy as his eyes peered up at us, his large grey body now partially out of the water. He must have been three feet long, definitely the biggest fish I had ever seen, not that that counted for very much. Tommy just looked him over and shook his head.
"Man, I had no idea there were catfish in this creek that big" looking back at me as if I had performed some miracle.
"Beginners luck?" was my only response. I could make no claim as a miracle worker. "Tommy, what are we going to do with him?" Neither of us had thought it that far through, confessed by the puzzled looks on our faces.
"Well, he's really too big to eat. The big ones aren't usually very tasty." What an odd saving grace, I thought. Tommy continued "I'd like to show him off, but I don't really want to haul him around tomorrow morning either."
We both probably knew the answer all along. We had won the battle, but the old boy would win the war.
"Tommy, this fish might be older than we are." We both agreed that we owed him something out of common respect for his longevity. Tommy took his needle-nose pliers and twisted the hook out of the old monster's mouth. It looked pretty painful. "Will he live?" I was genuinely concerned we might have mortally injured him.
"I'm pretty sure he will, Mattie. I've left catfish on a stringer all night and they were still kicking the next morning. This old man has been around a while, he looks like a survivor." With that, he used the toe of his boot to nudge him back out into the deeper water. The grand old cat had one last trick up his fin, and he made a violent slash with his tail splashing water onto both of us as he whisked off into the darkness.
"That dirty old son of a bitch!" Tommy yelled as he looked down at his wet pants leg. "If I ever see him again, I'll run my stringer through him and hang him up on the highest limb I can reach!" Then we both burst out laughing, the kind of sporty laugh that only experienced fishing buddies can share together.
"Tommy, I'm hungry." The experience had worn me completely out. Tommy proved to be quite the little cook also. He had packed a big zip-lock bag full of cornmeal, and had a small camp-size bottle of cooking oil. First, he had to clean our four fish, a very gruesome task if I might say so. Using his cleaning knife to cut off the heads, he then peeled the outer `skin' back down to the tail. I learned that catfish don't have scales. Living in the south seemed like a constant series of new experiences and realizations for me.
I wasn't as thrilled at the discovery that Tommy didn't see the necessity of forks and therefore omitted them from his packing list. "You eat fish with your hands" was his reasoning. Germs sort of freaked me out, and we also didn't pack soap or anything else that was anti-bacterial. Tommy did pack something that caught me by surprise. He had managed to sneak away the remains of a half-drunken bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. Tommy insisted that his mother would never know it was missing since it was leftover from some big party his parents threw for a friend several weeks ago.
The frying fish smelled so good. As I inhaled, I looked around the trees and hillsides, and out over the creek to the other side. Still no signs of the old rednecks, I guessed if the smell of these fish didn't bring them, then nothing would. Still I kept an open eye and ear, just in case.
Dinner was served. Tommy glared at me when I poured a good shot of the whiskey over my hands. "Disinfectant, it's the alcohol." The fish didn't last long. I had started to share Tommy's regrets about letting the old monster go free. He would be pretty tasty right about now. It was getting on towards nine o'clock. The woods were pitch black, except for our little patch of light by the lantern. We had enough fishing for the night, having caught what Tommy again assured me was the biggest catfish ever to swim the waters of `Deadman's Creek'.
Sitting around by the fire was very pleasant. The heat felt good, beating back the damp chill that was now clinging in the air. Tommy decided to take a swig of the whiskey, making a hideous face as he forced it down, and then passed the bottle to me. I had sipped on wine a time or two when my parents weren't looking, but never enjoyed the experience. The lingering strain the swig had left on Tommy's face didn't make this look any more appealing, but I decided to give it a try.
"Oh, man! This shit is nasty!" There was no need to file a copyright on that one, I was pretty sure Jack Daniels wouldn't want to adopt it as the new slogan.
It must have been the knowledge that it was an `adult' experience, something we were definitely not supposed to be doing. It certainly wasn't the taste. I can't fully recall what it was that made us take the next few swigs as we passed the bottle back and forth. The conversation started to get silly.
"Matt, do you think a nipple would grow back?" He asked in the serious way that only someone under the sudden effects of alcohol possibly could.
"WHAT?" I laughed loud enough to rouse those old dead hillbilly rednecks out of their graves. "Tommy, what kind of fucked up question is that?" still laughing. Tommy was trying not to laugh back, uselessly searching for some reason why he might need to know the answer to his question.
"Well, I mean." interrupted by a fresh swig. "If somehow, some accident, motorcycle crash, dog bite, whatever.If you lost a nipple, would it grow back?" I knew I was nearing the same bad shape he was in when I found myself pondering a serious reply.
"I don't think so, Tommy. I don't know of anyone who has lost one, though..." The bottle was in my possession, no need to miss a swig since it was so handy. "Tommy, did you lose a nipple somewhere?" I barely finished the question before releasing a new burst of laughter and spewing half my swig into the air, unfortunately over the fire, creating a mild mid-air explosion.
"Oh shit! That was so cool, Mattie." Tommy grabbed the bottle and tried it himself, but neither of us tried it again after the flame chased its way nearly right into his outstretched face. We were lucky we didn't get hurt. Our only danger at the moment was some injury from rolling in laughter. Tommy's next question hit a little too close to home.
"Mattie, were there lots of gay boys at your old school?" The laughter came to a grinding halt. All of a sudden, I could hear every creature of nature in the woods around us. Tommy's choice of words concerned me, too. Most boys would say `fags', or `queers', or worse. Why did he choose to be so respectful about it?
"I really don't know Tommy. I guess there were some." That was a lie. I knew there was at least one. Well, maybe not a complete lie, since I really didn't know for sure at the time.
"Do you think there are any gay boys at our school?" I was glad we were running out of schools to talk about. I reached back for the nearly empty bottle and took a final swig. I wasn't sure if Tommy was asking out of idle curiosity, or if he might actually be trying to ask me if I was gay. I would try and dodge him again and hope this might pass. This wasn't something I was prepared to talk about, yet.
"I guess there are gay boys at every school, Tommy. Gay girls, too. People were a little more open about things where I'm from. Still, people are people where ever you go, you know?" Tommy just gave me a silent nod in return. His eyes looked like they were starting to glaze over. It wasn't even ten-thirty and we were both basically drunk and headed toward an early sleep.
We never even made it to the tent. Both of us stretched out there within the warmth of the dying fire. The whiskey was still working into our systems. I opened my eyes briefly only to half-see the embers spinning in circles. There was no point trying to get up, I'd probably just stagger into the creek and drown - or get eaten by a vengeful monster catfish. I closed my eyes, drifting away. in and out..voices, off in the distance..in and out..getting closer..in and out...closer...."No!!!"..
"You just hold on right there boy. Don't you move now, you hear?"
"Look at this one over here. He sure is a cute little red- headed thing. Tender too. Come here boy. We gonna make you squeal for us, boy! Let's hear you squeal! Come on, squeal for me!! SQUEAL!!
"SQUEAL, I said!"
"Oh, no, no no! Please!! No!!!"
"Hey boy, you stay right there. We ain't done wid you yet..Look at him standin' der Junior.Ain't he pretty?"
"He sure is. He sure does have a pretty mouth!! Hahaha!!"
"No, I don't! I don't have a pretty mouth!!! I don't have a pretty mouth!!! NO!!!" I could see the image of Chris moving down the hill behind them in quiet, stalking movements. Our eyes met. He nodded to me. I saw him draw back the bow, the arrow released, heading straight for its mark.No, heading straight for me!.No!... No!! ...NOOOO!!!!"
I sat straight up, a cold sweat covering my head, now running down my face. The fire was completely out. Tommy was sitting up too, his legs crossed and his eyes studying me very closely. It was very chilly and I wrapped my arms around my chest, still shivering from the nightmare and now the cold. Tommy didn't say a word, just sat there looking at me. I wondered if he had finished off the bottle and was now in some sort of perpetual state of drunkenness, unable to move or speak.
"Tommy?" I waved my hand in the air in front of my face to see if his eyes followed.
"Yeah, Mattie?" He was well awake, still studying me over.
Often times, I would wake up with my mom sitting on my bedside. Sometimes she would rustle me to wake, other times she might just let me talk it out, depending on how emotional I was. Sleep talking was a curse because you never knew for sure what you had said.
"Tommy, was I saying anything just now? You know, when I was asleep?"
He didn't answer right away, just continued to study me. "Tommy, what are you doing?"
"Mattie, I think you DO have a pretty mouth." He smiled, then giggled, then laughed as loud as I had ever heard Tommy Johnson laugh.
"Oh no, I'm cursed!" I had to laugh along with him, but not possibly as loud as him. I was pleased to see him wince and grab his forehead. Finally the ill-effects of the alcohol were moderating his uncontrollable hysteria. "Tommy, did I dream-speak anything about that old toothless hillbilly redneck that was giving it to you up the ass?" That wasn't nearly as funny to him, but made me laugh hard enough to let me share in his headache.
"Come on Tommy. Let's get into the tent and in the sleeping bags before we both catch our death of cold out here." Together, we stood and staggered, making a z-shaped path toward the tent that was only a few yards in front of us. We arrived there safely, without falling into the creek and drowning, or being eaten by monster catfish, or being raped by redneck hillbillies.
My dreams were not over for this night. My next nightmare proved far more disturbing than the earlier encounter with the hillbilly rednecks. I wasn't even in this dream, just a faceless observer. Homecoming cheer had rotted into homecoming fear, as somewhere in my slumbering subconscious I realized that it was now well into homecoming night. My eyes floated out, free of the restrictions of my body, and went out into the night. I saw a familiar boy kiss a familiar girl. My eyes blurred, the images mixing together inseparable. At light-speed, my eyes traveled back into the safety of my head, arriving just in time for me to open them again, the familiar cold sweat covering my face. At least this time, I had been silent. The tent was very quiet, except for a faint rustling sound coming from Tommy's sleeping bag. I propped my head up and quietly watched him, his back turned to me.
My day had started with pleasant dreams and a near-pleasant shower. I wondered what Tommy was thinking right now. I wondered back to the `exciting' ride down to the campsite and the warm feeling of holding him in my arms. It seemed like Tommy had the right idea. Quietly, I slipped my own hand down to the buttons of my jeans, unhooking the first, then the second, then the third, then the fourth. My hand was a little cold, but it warmed up quickly. Another first for me, the first time I had ever done this together with someone. We may not have acknowledged each others actions, but we were definitely in this together. I wondered again what Tommy was thinking.