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Mathew Figures it out

Chapter Seven

....There was no way I could tell Chris about Katie. That wasn't even an option. I was suddenly overcome with a real fear that he would kill someone if he found out about this. That couldn't be left to chance, but I couldn't put a plan together this quick. I couldn't believe she would be so careless, that they would be so careless. Ty probably got off extra hard from the risk, but he wouldn't get off if Chris got his hands around his neck. Right now, I had to get my composure. Later I had to make a plan. I breathed easier knowing that Tommy would find him for me, and at least keep him safely away from here.

This had raised the stakes for everyone. I had to figure this out....

"Think, Matthew think." My mind was reeling. I couldn't believe she could be so conniving and selfish. I also couldn't believe she could be so stupid. She had to know what Chris was capable of when pushed. The picture of her sobbing face came back to my mind. She had told Ty that this wasn't "fair to Chris". Katie had made quite a mess for herself too. She was a beautiful girl, but Katie wasn't from a life of privilege. Tommy said she lived with her mom in a trailer across the woods from him and Chris. Her father had left the two of them when she was barely old enough to walk. It seemed to me that servicing Ty in secret was about as close to his throne as she would ever get. She just didn't have royalty in her bloodline. I couldn't possibly get up the nerve today, but I still had to talk to her soon before someone got hurt.

Tommy was boring Chris with the on-going debate about whether a nipple would grow back when I found them sitting at a corner table in the cafeteria.

"Where have you been?" Chris threw out his hand for our customary greeting.

"Man, my stomach has been kind of funky this morning." The source of my nausea was more than he needed to know right now.

"Please Mattie, spare us the details. I just had left-over pizza for the fifteenth time this month." Tommy leaned behind Chris and winked at me as he said this. I smiled and nodded. Good move Tommy. I noticed Chris glancing around the cafeteria, looking for Katie.

"So did you ask him?" I confused Chris with the question, exactly as I had planned. "Did you ask Tommy about giving us a hand in algebra?" I never got around to actually discussing this with Tommy, but now seemed like as good a time as any. Tommy gave me a look like he was being setup. He was. "Tommy, here's the deal. Chris is failing algebra. If he fails algebra this quarter, then his dad won't let him play basketball. Tommy, you're like a math genius. He needs your help." We were really putting poor Tommy on the spot. I could tell he wasn't sure he wanted this job. "Chris has algebra for third period. We could work on it together at lunch each day, just enough to get him over the hump. Please?" Tommy finally agreed. He couldn't refuse me and I would find a way to make it up to him. Chris smiled, impressed with my negotiating skills. Too bad my dad wasn't here; he would have been impressed too. Like father, like son. None of this solved the much bigger and more dangerous problem still weighing heavily on my mind. Just then, the smile fell from Chris's face and he stood without announcement and walked toward the food line. Katie had just walked in alone and was grabbing a juice. I watched Chris approach her but he didn't make his normal warm efforts. She received him just as coolly and they walked through the line together before sitting alone at a table on the far side of the cafeteria.

While I had been watching them, Tommy had been watching me. I'm sure he saw the pain and concern in my eyes. When I snapped out of it and looked him in the eyes, he gave me a reserved smile. I sighed and let my eyes fall down to the top of the fold-out table. I looked back up at Tommy and he still had me in his sights. It was time to spill a bean or two.

"Tommy, I know I can trust you, right?" I paused to make sure he was grasping the seriousness of my request. "If this were just about me, I wouldn't even ask. But I need to know for sure that you can keep a secret." I stopped and waited for his confirmation.

"Mattie, who am I going to tell?" Point well taken.

"You're not going to tell anybody, not your folks, not your preacher, not anybody. Even if some old redneck hillbilly kidnaps you and tortures you, you won't even tell him. Got it?" I was serious. This was a matter of life and death. I had finally realized that I could trust Tommy with anything. I needed to talk with someone about this. I also needed for him to know where I was coming from, or at least know what I was willing to tell him.

"Ok, Mattie. I understand." With his words, I briefly put my hand on his forearm and smiled my appreciation. Tommy lit up like a Christmas tree.

I looked around to make sure no one could hear, and then I leaned across the table and told him in barely a whisper. "Chris and Katie have been fighting a lot and Chris has been really depressed about it. That's the real reason he is failing algebra." Tommy nodded attentively, now he knew why I had put him on the spot. I continued. "Katie has been treating him really bad and I made up my mind to have a talk with her about it." Tommy's eyes got bigger, surprised by my boldness. "Anyway, I followed her into the auditorium." My heart was racing again, the fresh memory still very vivid in my mind. Tommy waited patiently, his eyes now as big as saucers. If he was breathing, I couldn't tell it. I looked around again before continuing and then focused intently into Tommy's eyes. "I found Katie blowing Ty Wilson in the back of the auditorium stage." Tommy's mouth dropped wide open and his eyes moved to Chris and Katie sitting across the cafeteria before moving back to join eye contact with me. We both paused for a minute, giving me time to calm my racing heart and Tommy time to absorb the full impact of what I had just revealed.

"He'll kill him." Tommy's short observation summed it up.

"Exactly, Tommy. Now you know why I was so freaked out when you found me before lunch. What if that had been Chris who found them instead of me?" We paused again.

"Did they see you?"

"No, Tommy. Nobody saw me."

"What exactly did you see?" Tommy was naturally curious and asked this rather shyly. I gave him all the juicy details. It was the least I could do considering what I had dragged him into.

"Ty Wilson is a dead man." Tommy read the verdict, but we had to find a way to keep the sentence from being carried out. Ty might be the dead man but Chris's future, and mine, would die along with him if it came to that.

"I've got to talk to her and make her bring this to a stop. It's still not too late, I hope." I wasn't sure I believed it myself. Tommy shook his head in obvious disbelief.

"Mattie, how are you going to do that?" He asked a good question. I wished I had an answer and I wished that I had a plan. Tommy looked at me with real concern in his eyes, concern for me and what I was getting myself into.

"Tommy, Chris is such a good guy. I don't understand why shit like this happens to him. Jay Henson, Chris's own mom and dad, now this." Chris was accumulating quite the emotional rap sheet.

"What about his mom?" Tommy didn't know the full story and I assured him he didn't want to. There was too much other stuff to worry about to get consumed with something we couldn't change.

"Tommy my brother, just work with me. Please. I don't know exactly what to do or how to do it. But I know I need to depend on you. Chris needs both of us, Tommy." Tommy had been drafted into this fight, but I knew he would give me all he had. Another alliance had been made.

The little warrior within me continued to prepare for the battle ahead. The warrior could hear the drums beating off in the distance, getting a little closer each day. Tomorrow, he would fight.

Tommy nodded behind me and I turned to see Chris approaching our table again, looking aggravated. As he strolled by, he just rolled his eyes and ran a loose hand across my back keeping his stride. Almost out the door, he stopped and looked back in at Tommy. "Thanks Tommy, for agreeing to help me." Chris was only talking about algebra as he had no idea of just how deep Tommy had committed to help. A warm smile of appreciation and Chris was on his way. It did Tommy a world of good. I think he was still a little scared of Chris. Chris always found little ways to impress me. He didn't have to stop and thank him. Tommy had already agreed to help with his algebra. It was just one of those little personal details that Chris took care of so well. Once Chris was out the door, I looked across for Katie. She was still sitting there alone. I decided to try for a warm-up, something to help my nerves for later. I carried my lunch tray toward the trashcans and walked by Katie's table as I went.

"Hi Katie." She didn't even acknowledge my existence, off in some distant place in her own mind. Even if not for the hissy-fit she threw after the pizza incident, I still don't think she would have given me the time of day. The more I observed of Katie, the more I had her figured out. She was all about social structure and people staying in their place. It struck me as an odd philosophy for a girl who lived in a trailer. The social structure she was building around herself was definitely built on a poor foundation, in my mind. I doubted that she was very concerned with my opinion of her little world. On my return trip from the trashcans, I decided to try again. "Hey Katie, are you OK?" She genuinely looked a little down. This time she noticed me, and quickly made me long for the days when she paid me no attention at all.

"What? Why are you talking to me? Stay away from me!" With that, she stood and marched out of the cafeteria. Katie had a voice that carried well in an open space. So much for my little warm-up. I turned to face the laughing stares of all who were left in the cafeteria, all except Tommy at least. He was wincing badly and had slid almost underneath our table in sympathizing embarrassment. Instinctively, I decided to deal with the situation with as much humor as possible. Using both hands overlapping, I clutched my heart and feigned pain, staggering back over to Tommy. He gave me a priceless look of amused bewilderment. It was definitely all an act and my hands were shaking badly when I pulled them down and placed them back flat on top of the table. Tommy looked me over and frowned. Now my nerves were shot at the very thought of trying this again. I wasn't going to be dissuaded so easily, though. I had to deal with her soon. I would never be able to live with myself if I let Chris do himself or someone else harm because I couldn't stop it.

It rained for the third day in a row. Basketball tryouts started next week and I was beginning to wonder if I could live up to my end of the bargain. I needed practice time and had already planned with Chris to practice each day after school for the rest of this week, plus Saturday afternoon. Actually, it was good that it rained today because I had a dentist appointment this afternoon anyway. My mom came and picked me up right after school and we drove back into town for my appointment. After my appointment, we would spend the rest of the day at her at work and close up shop before coming home. Still heavy on my mind was my looming confrontation with Katie. The dread was almost overwhelming and I still didn't know what I was going to say.

After a cleaning and check-up at the dentist, I settled in at the vet office where my mom worked for what little time was left in the day. Her patients this afternoon included a few cats and dogs with a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig thrown in for good measure. It must have had a nasty belly ache and when it squealed out, I had a flash-back to `Deliverance'. Some nightmares don't die easy. Dr. Boyd the vet had left early this afternoon and the other vet assistant begged my mom to cover for her so she could leave a few minutes early. It was dark outside and we were finally alone and just about to lock up when I heard a truck slide into the rainy parking lot and the front door of the office burst open shortly after.

Panicked, breathing heavily, now standing in the lobby completely drenched and holding a badly injured English collie in his arms was none other than Jay Henson. I was shocked at his appearance and made brief startled eye contact with him before my mother rushed over to the collie and waved Jay back into the rear of the office.

"Come on Matt, I'm going to need your help." My mom was frantic. I could tell in her voice that things didn't look good. The collie was badly hurt and breathing in loud gasps, whimpering ever so softly in between. He appeared to be an older collie and even soaked in rain with traces of blood, his brown and white coat stood out proudly from his injured frame. We all hurried to the back of the office where several large tables with stainless steel tops were used for a variety of intense procedures.

"Son, what happened to him?" My mom just called Jay Henson `son'. This whole experience was very surreal to me. I truly felt like I had walked right into some dream playing out in my head, but this was no dream.

"I was pulling into the drive and he was just so excited that I was home." Jay didn't know where to start and was struggling. Whatever persona he tried to carry at school had been stripped away by the reality and urgency of this moment. This was no time for putting up fronts and pretended emotions. Pausing to gather his breath, he finally continued. "He ran right out in front of a car coming from the other direction. It hit him really hard." With the end of this sentence, there seemed to be some acknowledgement on Jay's face that his efforts might be futile. It all struck me as particularly tragic. If a `human' friend were struck violently by a car right in front of our eyes, teams of psychologists and therapists would be volunteered to help manage the trauma and shock to your own psyche. Society just didn't measure the same emotional weight for the loss of a close pet friend. Judging by the speed of his arrival and the tightly clinched jaw he spoke with, I would say there was a long history of friendship between Jay and his collie. No doubt, they had been through a lot together. Guessing at the collie's age, Jay might have only been a toddler when their nearly life-long bond together started. I didn't really know Jay at all. I knew the two of us were linked in some vague and disturbing way through Chris. I grudgingly admitted that Chris must have hurt him badly once, Jay losing the hearing in one ear as a result. I knew that he was a loner and that he didn't like me, but there were lots of older kids who didn't like younger kids, especially younger new kids like me. There was a natural pecking order after all. Jay might be a fellow freshman due to lost school time during his injuries, but there was more than just the one year age difference between us. He seemed even older than that to me, but any boy with his own truck seemed much older to me. Right now though, he was just a cold wet little boy, scared of losing the best friend he probably ever had. Maybe the only true friend he had ever had. I felt really badly for him.

"What's his name, son?" My mom didn't treat animals like objects. They were real beings, with real names, real feelings, real emotions, and real friends.

"It's Shep, mam." Jay answered softly without looking my mom in the eyes. He was staring attentively into the eyes of his injured friend.

"Matthew, come over here and just help keep Shep's back legs in place on the table. I don't want to strap him down until I can see where the injuries are and I don't want him to kick and slide himself off the table." I followed my mom's orders exactly. Jay never lost touch with his collie, rubbing his back and soothing him as much as he could. I noticed traces of blood on Jay's hands, as well as on his shirt. I locked my hands on both sides of the collie's back legs, creating a human brace in case he made a sudden lunge, but putting no pressure on his injuries. My mom looked the collie over closely, wincing several times during the process. From this close, it was obvious even to me that this couldn't have a happy ending. I looked for some sense of hope in my mom's eyes, but none was there.

My mom looked up sadly at Jay and shook her head. "I'm so sorry." She was. No sooner had she said it, when the collie's whimpers became louder. The erratic breathing had lost any rhythm and there were now long, painful pauses between the gasps. I was now witness and party to the most intimate of all of life's events as a life was passing right before us. Jay didn't flinch when my mom gave him the bad news I'm sure he already expected. Instead he leaned down and tried to offer what comfort he could to the final moments of his old friend's life. His left hand had moved to the soft underside of the collies face and he was rubbing it softly. I could hear him whispering softly and reassuringly in the collie's ear.

"It's ok, buddy. It's ok." Jay closed his eyes but that didn't stop the tears. Keeping his eyes closed and the touch of his hands gentle and slow, he continued his reassurances. "I'll be ok. Just let go... Just let go. I'll be ok... Just let go." It was as if the old collie heard and understood him in tone if not in words, and in some way trusted Jay's promise. His whimpers calmed and his breathing eased back into one last long slow rhythm. I found myself gently rubbing the collies back leg, trying to offer what little distant comfort I could. The moment was far too powerful for me and quiet tears streamed down my face. I fought hard against any need to make noise, unwilling to intrude further on this private moment between best friends. Jay's eyes reopened and they watched my hand rubbing the collie before his eyes rose to join mine. He was in a silent steady cry, his face unyielding but his eyes disobedient. I had seen this look somewhere else. I held his gaze only long enough to offer my silent condolences before looking away. Finally, the last moment came and went. The old collie had passed on, now well beyond the reach of pain and suffering. Jay's eyes fell absently on the now lifeless body, but he continued rubbing the collie's face and back for another minute. Finally, he sighed deeply and stood upright, running his arms back underneath the collie, lifting him into the air and hugging him firmly against his own chest. He met my mother's eyes and nodded his appreciation to her before turning back toward the front lobby and making his way toward the parking lot, the body of his old friend firmly in his embrace. I went forward to open the door for him and also stepped out into the parking lot before realizing that Jay had never closed the front door of his truck from his arrival, oblivious to the rain and elements. He placed his lifeless friend back into the front seat he had arrived in and closed the passenger door. Standing there in the steady rain, he paused and looked back at me uttering a well-meant but chilling warning. "Be careful." His eyes held mine for a moment. There was no menace in them, no emotion in them at all really. There simply was none left. With that, he walked slowly around to the driver's side, started his truck and pulled slowly and easily out of the parking lot. The truck that had arrived like an ambulance now had the movements and body language of a hearse. I stood there in the rain mesmerized by the moment and the warning, goose-bumps covering me from head to toe.

"Matthew, you're getting soaked!" My mom startled me out of the trance I was fixed in. As I walked back in, she hugged me pulling me closely to her. "Are you OK, Matt?"

"Yeah, mom. I'm--I'm OK." I wasn't very convincing because really I wasn't OK at all. The whole experience had been far too surreal, and far too painful and disturbing. I had yet to have an encounter with Jay that didn't shake me to the core. This one wasn't his fault, but in some way that made it all the more powerful. His mere presence served as a cold reminder to me of how little I knew about the boy I loved. Why did Chris hurt him? Before today, I had the convenience of only looking at Jay as some distant victim, likely deserving of whatever he got. There I went again: "Deserving". Nobody deserved what he got. Seeing Jay lose a part of his life tonight made him so much more real to me and so much more human. Now we seemed bonded together in yet another way. We were connected somehow by Chris, and we both had shared in the intimate experience of death, along with my mom. One thing was for sure, I would never be able to look at Jay the same way again.

We drove quietly home in the rain, both of us drained. I never knew how emotional my mom's job could be. Losing a close pet really was like losing a close friend for some, like losing a child for others. My mom had to be part doctor, part psychologist, part priest, and mostly friend to all who suffered such a loss. I noticed her right hand trembling a bit, having moved from the steering wheel to sit nervously on top of her leg. She hadn't spoken for several minutes. I reached out and took her hand in my left, reaching over with my right hand also, rubbing in on top trying to warm her and ward off the trembles she felt inside. She glanced over at me, smiling sadly. I could see a trail of tears from the reflections of headlights in the oncoming traffic. My mom wisely put both hands back on the wheel and I scooted over and rested my body squarely up against her to reinforce my emotional support. No words were spoken, just a mother and son making their way together from a sad place on a dark night.

As I lay in bed, violent flashes of the tragedy that Jay had witnessed popped unwelcome into my mind, like the increasing lightning from the fall storm brewing outside. I tried to shake the imagery from my head, but I couldn't. I could see morbid shock on his face as the accident first unfolded. I could see his panicked look as he must have sprinted to the injured collie's side. I could see the tragic hurt in his face as the sad realization must have begun to sink in. I could see the fight and determination that led to the rush to my mom for help. From there, I simply recalled the very real images that were stuck in my mind, playing over and over. I sniffled as the whimpering sounds of the collie rang back into my ears. Again, I heard Jay's quiet plea "just let go", "just let go". His last reassurance to his old friend "I'll be OK". I felt some misplaced anger at Chris, quickly followed by the recollection of that same look of hurt on his own face, that haunting look of quiet tears. Southern boys must be taught to cry that way. I slept very little on this night, too many dramas playing out in my head. My eyes opened wide awake after only a brief lapse. I had to deal with Katie. The little warrior within me swallowed hard at the fresh realization.

My alarm clock almost brought a sense of relief. An endless night of drifting in and out of sleep had come to an end. Today I was resolved to fight, and to win. I put aside my dread and went about the routines of the morning. Third period seemed to last for three days and I was the first to bolt out the door when the bell rang. I didn't know where Katie would wind up, but I knew she would be leaving Mr. Clark's history class and I sprinted there to catch her before she disappeared. I already had the battlefield picked out as well. Thanks to our school's unbridled growth, we had yet another new trailer, really a double-wide, meant to serve as a temporary classroom. This one was quite new and not even in full service yet. I just needed one lucky break, the door needed to be unlocked. I had seen the maintenance guys going in and out earlier this morning. Surely, I could catch just this one break. I startled her, as it seemed like I always did. She tried to dismiss me as easily as the day before, but the warrior stood his ground.

"We need to talk about Chris." This seemed to at least get her attention. She cut me a very irritated but curious look. "We need to find some privacy." I looked warily around making sure Chris wasn't watching this unfold. Katie didn't say a word, but I had her attention for sure. I led her around the back corner of the building, just a few yards from where I had intercepted her. Oh please God, let it open. It did and I held the door for her as she unappreciatively stepped inside ahead of me.

"You little shit! How dare you!" She fired the first shot before I even had a chance to draw my verbal gun. She was really fuming and I hadn't even gotten started yet.

"Do you love him, Katie?" I knew she didn't, but I wanted her to admit it at least to herself.

"How dare you!" Again. She had no idea how far I would dare. "You little pervert. You don't think I notice your little looks at him?" I didn't see that one coming. I started to wonder if I had led myself right into an ambush. I had to refocus fast.

"Oh, you can insult me all you want." She would. "But Chris and I are best friends now. You better get used to that idea and you better get used to me." I had regained some momentum, briefly knocking her off balance, far too briefly. She couldn't tolerate my presence any easier than I could tolerate hers. Girls were mean fighters, especially a former tom-boy like Katie.

"And I'm his GIRLFRIEND and you better get used to that idea." She almost punched me with her eyes, she said it so hard. There was simply no way she was going to accept me as any type of equal in this conversation. As she brushed past me and reached for the door, I unloaded both barrels squarely into her back. She just had to be stopped.

"Are you sure you're not Ty Wilson's GIRLFRIEND?" She froze, completely suspended in mid-reach. She spent a good minute gathering herself before turning ever so slowly to face me, her eyes intense and now locked onto mine. I swallowed hard and hoped she didn't notice. I didn't want to be the first to blink. Slowly, she walked right back up in front of my face, only inches separating us. She was calm. I liked it better when she was screaming. I could see her mind working, trying to figure me out!

"You better be careful." Popular advice these days. "You go spreading rumors like that and you might just get hurt." Enough was enough. I was tired of the bullshit. Too much was at stake. The warrior rose.

"Cut the fucking bullshit, Katie!" It just burst out of me. Now I was getting cranked up. "You can blow Ty Wilson in the auditorium with the curtains raised and the whole fucking school watching for all I care, except for one important FORGOTTEN detail!!!" She blinked and I definitely saw it. "ChrIS!!!" I screamed his name at her as loud as I could. I really was tired of the bullshit. This had been building up for way too long. "Do you want him to kill somebody? Maybe Ty? Maybe even you? Did you even think about that? How about himself, Katie? What if he only kills himself? Maybe that would be OK with you?" Tears of anger now stood in my eyes, not daring to run down my face. I had admitted to her the fear I wouldn't even admit to myself, that somehow Chris would abandon me along with all of his problems and his life. She was trembling right in front of me, her face contorting trying to keep some semblance of composure. She couldn't pull it off.

"What do you want?" The words had to pry themselves from her tight-lipped face. I looked her over seriously, giving myself a moment to gather my own words and composure.

"I want you to let him go. Let him move on. I don't care what you do with the rest of your life. Get yourself another cover. I won't tell anyone what I know. Just let him go." She had the hostage. All I wanted was his safe release. She was punishment enough to herself. Again, I found myself face to face with a part of Chris's past. It was a past I didn't fit into, but still a path I had to backtrack through in order to rescue our future. There was something about Katie. Chris's own earlier quiet recollections of the youth they had spent together had some sympathetic effect on me. She owned the memories of a past that I could only long for. The realization moved me further. "I know you once loved him. What happened? How could you treat him this way? You should have seen his face the first time he described growing up with you." She couldn't bear the eye contact with me anymore and I felt her drift to a different time. I had no desire to rip her heart out, but I wanted to confirm that she at least had one to give. "Do you have any idea what I would have given to be you? Growing up with someone who loved me, not growing up alone?" This struck a nerve. I had probably revealed too much, but Katie was about to reveal even more.

"I know plenty about being alone." She didn't scream this time, but it was a determined delivery. She raised her chin. "I know I'm not going to grow old and alone living on scraps in some run-down old trailer." It seems that Katie's mom had taught her even more than she had intended. She really wanted Katie to be the kind of woman that she was unable to be herself; the kind of woman who would attract a man who could provide for her. Love was a provision that had spoiled quickly in the Barnes house. It no longer held value there. Money and position were provisions that would last a lifetime, or so they thought. Katie's lesson from paternal love was that it was undependable and it hurt a lot. When childhood friendship started to blossom into young love, she ran straight past and into more adult ambitions. Chris had been right from the very beginning. Her mother really had done a real number on her. For not the first time, I felt sympathy for Katie. She took it like a slap in the face.

"Katie, you don't need.." She could tell by the tone in my voice where this was going and she didn't like it one bit.

"Oh, don't you give me that shit! You've got no idea, and I don't want your sympathy. I can take care of myself just fine." I believed her all too well. "I'll give you what you want." She was ready to make a deal and I was ready to move on. I didn't want to save the whole world; I only wanted to save Chris.

"Let him go easy, but let him go. I want it done by end of the day tomorrow and I don't want you blowing anybody else until it's over. We never had this conversation and I never saw what I saw. Understood?" Her eyes seared into me as I said it. I didn't care. It was no time for miscommunications.

"We understand each other perfectly well, and don't ever speak to me again. Understood?" No request would make me happier to fulfill. Katie Barnes was finally about to be removed from my life. I might still see her, but she would be no more than a walking ghost from the past.

"Understood." The deal was made. I walked to the door and looked out the thin wire frame window to make sure no one was watching. I opened the door and pointed her out. I waited a couple minutes before re-checking and letting myself out, breathing a huge sigh of relief. I couldn't believe it was over. Now I would have to start my Chris vigil. I had no idea how hard he would fall. I hoped the breakup might actually come as a relief to him, but there was no way to predict exactly how he would react. An entirely new realization burst its way into my mind and it scared me even more than Katie. Chris would be back on the market and on the rebound. What had I done? There were lots of eager, cute girls at school that would make a play for Chris. With the chains unleashed, he might knock up every girl in the school. I had replaced one dread with four hundred new ones. It didn't matter. I felt like I had pulled him from the path of a runaway bus, and saved myself in the process. More than anything, I truly wanted him to be happy and safe. Nothing else could be worthwhile if those basics weren't in place. Still, I had to be honest and admit to myself that I was now more scared than ever. The warrior suddenly felt very alone.

I marched into the cafeteria. Chris and Tommy were elbows deep together in an algebra book. Tommy's hands were wailing wildly, as he drew vectors and fields out of thin air. Maybe there really was hope after all, at least for algebra. Chris didn't see me coming from behind. I plopped myself right between him and Tommy, placing an arm around each of their necks. I looked at one and then the other. The final confrontation with Katie combined with the emotional experience the night before with Jay had left me totally drained. I couldn't say a word.

"Buddy, are you all right?" Chris was amused at first but then showed some concern. Tommy just stared at me, unsure how to respond.

"I don't know, guys. Right now, I'm just glad to be here. That's all." It was true. I felt very safe between my two best friends and I needed to be propped up a bit. After a minute, I released them and leaned back in my chair. "You guys keep going, looks like we're making progress." After more prodding, they reluctantly resumed and I just sat quietly and watched the two of them interact, really for the first time since I'd known them. Tommy, as teacher, had direction and purpose, no longer intimidated by Chris. Chris, as pupil, was attentive and appreciative, no longer forced to wear the persona of the older kid. I was proud to have helped bring them together as friends. It was rare for me the have this opportunity, observing them both from such close range without the distraction of being in the conversation. The cold front that had brought three days of rain had finally cleared and the temperature had dropped to the fifties. Chris was wearing a navy colored sweater. He looked so good in a sweater, his shoulders well highlighted. Tommy was so cute, really engaged in this new teaching experience. I could see Tommy following his dad into teaching someday. He had the brains and passion for it. I wondered what Chris would be. We had spent so much time struggling with his past and present that his future seemed to never come up. He was really beautiful to me, the perfect balance of a maturing body and a boys face and true heart. I wondered if Chris found me attractive in any way physically. He had definitely been interested in exploring with Katie. I could see the beauty in girls but not the appeal. I glanced around the cafeteria at some of the cute girls that would no doubt fall all over themselves for Chris. Katie had been tall for a girl, and slender, not really the full-figured type. Funny thing is we were built sort of alike. Looking at some of the other girls, some were definitely better equipped. I peeked down at my own form, nothing to compare in the boob department for sure. I liked my ass, but then SOMEBODY had to like my ass. I had matured a good deal in the last year. I thought back to how well my suit had fit for church. I felt a little attractive, but I couldn't answer my own basic question: Was Chris attracted to me? The warrior started to wonder if his battle was against hopeless odds, but in his heart of hearts, he knew it was still a battle worth fighting to the end. The drums were a little louder now. One small battle had been fought today, and won. The larger battles loomed just over the horizon.

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