Hey, I’m no author! Forget that. But some people who are important to me told me I should write down what happened this summer. They both said I’d forget the details as I grew older, and this summer was something I’d want to remember when I was older.
My mom was one of these people. She teaches English at my high school. I think she may have wanted me to write this just because she loves to make me write. Always the teacher!
Anyway, I’m no writer. I’ve never written anything before but school stuff. I guess I didn’t hate writing that stuff, but still, I wouldn’t have done it unless I was forced to. So I didn’t mind all that much, writing this, but I doubt I’d have done it except to avoid disappointing my mom or my friend. They mean too much to me. So that’s why I’m writing this account of last summer.
Maybe when I’m done I can find someone to edit it so it doesn’t sound like it was written by a 15-year-old who had no idea what he was doing, trying to write something like this. Hey, that’s not a half bad idea!
Okay, as the saying goes, shit or get off the pot, so I might as well stop all this procrastinating and apologizing in advance and get on with it. But just one last thing first. As I said, I’m no author. I don’t really know how I should handle this one problem. Probably experienced writers would know, but I don’t. The problem is, my friend’s name is Jim. Jim Fowler. However, his job causes him to use other names, and he changes them frequently. Not many people know his real name; he rarely uses it. He used more than one name during the time I’m going to write about. That gives me a problem, writing about him. I think it would be confusing if I used different names for him. But I had to address him by a name other than Jim during the events I’m going to write about, if I ever get done with this Author’s Note. I think it would confuse people trying to read this if I did that, however. So that’s my problem, whether to use the name he was using at any moment or to just to call him Jim.
I’m going to solve the problem by just calling him Jim. Except when I don’t. One thing is real clear about this author business: I can do it any way I want, I’m the boss here, and that’s my decision!
Okay, that’s settled. Here we go.
When these two get together, anything can happen, and usually does.
I could hardly wait. I kept moving around, finding things to do to use up some time but always ending up in the living room looking out the front window. He should be here by now. Well, maybe not. He’d said ‘around 10’ and it was still ten minutes before that, but, well, crap! I was tired of waiting!
It would have been different if Jerrod was around, but he was visiting an aunt in Florida. If he were here, he’d have been teasing me and I’d have had to be pretending to be cool and all, and the time would have passed more quickly. But Jerrod was gone. I had mixed feelings about that. I loved Jerrod. I shared everything with him. But this? Time alone, just Jim and me? I hadn’t had to decide if I wanted Jerrod along or not in the end. That was because Jerrod’s trip to visit his aunt, his dad’s sister who lived alone in Florida, had been planned, and his dad put his foot down. Jerrod wasn’t going to disappoint his aunt, and that was that.
I’d wondered if that, not disappointing his aunt, was the real reason Mr. Carter, Judge Carter now, had insisted Jerrod go. I thought it possible, maybe more than possible, he’d made that decision so I could be alone with Jim. Judge Carter could do things like that. Judge Carter wasn’t only Jerrod’s dad—he was mine too, now. He’d adopted me, which was funny because Jerrod and I were boyfriends, and how many kids had brothers for boyfriends? Certainly not many who were open about it. But we were a tight family, something I treasured after having grown up with a much different sort of family—one that had a father and two brothers who’d tried to kill me.
I never saw Jim much. He did write occasionally. He couldn’t talk much about his job and where he was and what he was doing. But he did write because he knew I worried about him. He kept telling me not to, that he’d been taking care of himself for years and would be still doing so for years to come. But I worried. Jim was an adrenalin junkie and took risks that he didn’t need to. He was also about the most capable man I’d ever met. He worked for the government in a hush-hush job for a hush-hush agency, doing jobs in the area of national security.
I’d met him the previous summer. He’d saved my life. He told me I’d saved his, too, in that old barn we’d found. Maybe I did, I didn’t really know. What I did know is I’d formed a bond with Jim like I had with no one else. It was a different sort of bond than the one I had with my new family. I loved Judge Carter, I loved my new mom, and I loved Jerrod, but those loves, of course, were quite different.
So where was he? Jim was coming to pick me up and I’d spend at least the next week with him, more time if we needed it. When I’d written back, asking what we’d be doing, where we’d be going, his answer had been short and sweet: just driving. That sounded like Jim all right. Between assignments, he liked to drive back roads and do mostly nothing, letting life come to him. We’d done some of that sort of driving when I’d first met him, when he’d rescued me from my father and brothers. When he’d totally changed my life.
I peeked out the front window again. Fitz came up and licked my hand, probably feeling my tension. I sank down on one knee and gave him a good rub all over, which ended up in my being on the floor with him, wrestling. He weighed just under a hundred pounds and had the energy of a bulldozer. It was a pretty even match! He won, however, because afterwards I had all the German Shepherd hair to brush off and all he did was just smile at me and lick himself.
I was taller now than last summer; heavier, too, as I was eating a lot better and no longer worrying about things. I’d let my hair grow a little, it was dark brown and curled over my ears. Jerrod said it looked cute, that I looked cute, but what boy my age wants to be called cute? None that I know of.
I’d had a birthday, too, since I’d last seen Jim. I was 15 now. The birthday celebration had been something I’d never had before. My new family had had a big party and I was the reason. Seemed most of the town was there. Well, my dad was a politician now; I guess parties like that were part of the Tri-County Judge business.
But it was bittersweet, too, because Jim wasn’t there. He’d sent me a present, he’d written me a long email rather than one of his short ones, he’d told me how sorry he was not to be able to be there on my day. That was nice, but not as nice as if he’d been able to show up. I missed him.
Just like I’d missed him at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This was the first time I was meeting him since he’d left, since he’d brought me to the Carters. I couldn’t wait. Good thing Fitz had noticed; it was amazing how fine tuned to my moods he was. He kept me so occupied, rolling around on the floor, I didn’t hear the car pull up, the door opening and closing, or anyone walking to the front door. I did hear the doorbell ring. I disengaged from Fitz and ran to the door, brushing my clothes off and opening the door before the chime had stopped ringing.
Okay, I know, teenagers are supposed to be a bit aloof, a bit reserved, a bit emotionless. So I failed. Big time.
I opened the door and launched myself at him. He was ready because he caught me. I don’t know which of us was hugging the other harder. I do know we held that hug for a long time. He only said one word: “Colt.” It was filled with emotion, and I’d have hugged him tighter if I’d been able to. That hug was only broken by a hairy nose pushing in between us. A hundred-pound dog that wants attention finds a way to get it and is hard to ignore.
Jim dropped to his knee, much as I had earlier, and was thoroughly licked by Fitz while Jim was vigorously rubbing and petting him. Fitz’s tail was wagging so hard, his whole rear end was dancing.
We finally made it into the house. Jim took hold of my shoulders and stood me up, looking me over. “Damn, kid, you just keep getting handsomer. You’ve put on some muscle, you’re taller, too. You look great.”
He had always been able to make me blush. I’d never had to listen to compliments before Jim had started laying them on me. I’d never got used to them. And here he was, doing it again.
“Colt, I’m so glad I got some down time and was able to see you again. I’ve missed you! I never thought I’d ever miss a kid. You, I’ve missed. Thanks for your emails. They’ve meant the world to me. You do, too.”
I had so much to tell him. I took him into the kitchen and got us each something to drink. We sat at the breakfast table, and I told him all the little things that I couldn’t put in emails, about how Fredricksville had changed, how the mood of the people living here was different now, about what it was like living with the Carters, about me and Jerrod, about being an out gay teenager living in a small rural community in Georgia. About how a couple of other kids at school had been brave enough to come out after we had.
I’d thought maybe there’d be some initial distance between the two of us when we’d first get together again. At least some initial shyness or awkwardness. There wasn’t. It was as though we’d never been apart. I couldn’t stop smiling.
He couldn’t tell me much about his job. He said that was to keep us both safe, and so he wouldn’t get tossed in the clink for divulging state secrets.
He asked if I was all packed and ready to hit the road. I was. I’d been ready for two days.
He was driving what he’d driven some of the time when we’d been together the year before—a Cadillac Escalade. I teased him about that, saying that he was sticking it to the taxpayers. He teased back, saying he was just doing the government a favor, moving the car from one location to another and saving them the cost of hiring a driver for the job, and what would I know about paying taxes, I was just a kid.
After saying that, standing in the driveway by the car, he suddenly hugged me again. I could see something in his eyes. Maybe it was exhaustion. It could have been compassion. They looked a little alike. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe his last assignment had been worse than he’d let on. Maybe, just maybe, he needed to spend some time with me as much as I wanted to be with him.
We hit the road before lunch. Fitz took the backseat, happy to be going with us. But we were a team, the three of us. That’s how I looked at it. We worked well together.
He took the back roads I knew he loved, the sort of roads we had a lot of in southwestern Georgia. We talked about nothing at all. Like, “You still run around all summer wearing practically nothing at all? Through the woods so you know every tree by name?”
I laughed. “Not so much. Jerrod is with me a lot, and he’s not as woodsy as I am. Was. He was brought up right. He thinks I should have a shirt on when we’re outside. Inside, too, most of the time.” I rolled my eyes, but he was looking where the road was and didn’t see it. Maybe he could hear it in my voice.
“He’s rubbing off on me. And I don’t feel the need to be wary of everyone and everything any longer. So I’m changing.”
“Too bad,” he harrumphed. “I liked the wild child you use to be.”
“Oh, he’s still in there,” I retorted, “no question about that. “Just hasn’t been much opportunity for him to strut his stuff lately. I lead a much tamer life now. We have a new sheriff, a proper one, chosen by Dad. The whole town has changed, so the fact I’m changing, too, it’s just normal.”
“I guess,” he said, and gave me a quick glance. “Jerrod still doing all your homework for you?”
“He never did!”
He laughed. “Well, that’s good. You were plenty smart enough to do your own. And I’ll bet your dad and mom value education, not like what you had at home before.”
I wasn’t going to think about what I’d had at home before. I changed the subject, asking where we were going.
What we were doing was just driving. He liked doing that, and I liked just being with him. Even if I was wearing a shirt.
He did say something important. I could tell because his voice changed. I could always tell when Jim was being serious.
“Colt, I forgot to tell you. Should have said it right off. But like always, it’s best if you don’t call me Jim. My driver’s license and everything else is in the name of Card Phillips at the moment. You don’t need anything but your own real ID. At least I sure hope that’s true. It’s funny, though. Trouble seems to have a way of finding me.”
“Or maybe it’s me,” I said. I meant it to sound provocative, or at least funny. He didn’t respond, so I’m not sure he got it.
How many names had he used in the short time I’d known him? I couldn’t remember! Anyway, in my mind, I started the transition. I didn’t want to screw up. He was now Card if anyone was around.
We drove down to Niceville, just to be going somewhere. We ate outside on a patio where we’d eaten before, although the cute waiter who’d sort of flirted with me back then had been replaced by a girl who wasn’t nearly as interesting. We drove past the store where Bryce had been, but we didn’t stop. I didn’t need new clothes now.
Jim got us on a fishing boat with a bunch of tourists and we went out into the gulf. I caught a 20-pound scamp grouper; Jim didn’t catch anything. I think he was happy just watching me; he didn’t even have a line in the water much of the time. The grouper was the first saltwater fish I’d ever caught, and was I ever excited.
We drifted back up into Georgia and spent the night at a small motel in the middle of nowhere. It was the sort of place Jim liked: not at all busy, off the beaten track, a bit seedy. The sort of place that liked it if you paid in cash. Jim liked paying in cash.
The next morning, Jim asked the desk clerk when we were leaving where we could find some breakfast around there. The proprietor told us about a local diner that didn’t look like much but had great grub. He told us how to get there. And we were off.
We found the diner easily enough. It was on a road we’d probably have missed if the directions hadn’t been as good as they’d been. There were only a few cars parked in front of it, but the lights were on. There was nothing else around. No other buildings, just empty fields and this diner. Seemed kind of lonely to me. Maybe that wasn’t the right word. Except for the few cars, it seemed abandoned.
We went in and left Fitz in the car with the windows cracked. It was in the high sixties, so he’d be fine. We were greeted inside by a waitress.
It was an old fashioned roadside diner, standing alongside a mostly unused country road. Jim asked the waitress why a diner was so isolated. That made me realize: the word I’d wanted, rather than abandoned, was isolated. She told him that, like had happened a lot of places, this road had been bypassed by an interstate highway. That left the diner off on its lonesome. There’d been other buildings around back then, but the land had been reclaimed by farmers, and now the diner was all by itself. It had only remained open due to the loyalty of local customers who’d drive out to it purposely just to keep it going.
It was a long and narrow sort of diner. There were booths along the front wall with windows overlooking the parking area and the road beyond it. There was an aisle running along the booths the length of the diner, and on the other side of the aisle there was a counter with pivoting stools for single patrons who didn’t want to take up an entire booth. About halfway down the aisle was a jukebox that looked like it was as old as the diner. I was curious to see if the records in it were just as old.
There was a tiny restroom at the front end of the diner, near its only door. There was no real kitchen set apart from the rest of the place. The cook worked off a griddle behind the counter in sight of all the customers. He was an ancient black man and one of the reasons the diner was still in business. The motel proprietor had mentioned him. Said he was an artist with a spatula, and there was a rhythm to his actions. Said people came just to watch him do his special dance, flipping flapjacks, crisping his home fries, gentling his over-easies over easily, getting just the right crust on his hash. All the time he worked, he hummed a tune that sounded older than he was.
I guessed this morning was a typical weekday morning. The place only had six customers when we came in. One was an old man sitting at the counter reading a newspaper while eating a breakfast which appeared to be a ham and cheese omelet with sautéed peppers and a side of hash browns. A young couple was sitting in one of the booths near the front door along with a little boy, most likely their son, who looked to be about five. He was next to his mother; his dad sat across from them. The boy had a matchbox toy truck he was pushing around on the tabletop. He was entirely focused on his truck while his parents chatted,.
Further down the aisle there were two older women, white-haired and dressed to the nines in clothes that were probably very fashionable thirty years earlier. They hadn’t had to order; I heard them say to the chef as we were walking in, “The usual, Franklin,” and saw him wink at them. Then he’d saluted them, raising his spatula to briefly touch his forehead, and gave them an almost bow; at his age, that might have been as low as he could go. They’d nodded and smiled at him and the waitress standing near the cash register.
After the waitress greeted us, Jim pointed to the last booth all the way at the end of the aisle and asked if we could sit there. She said sure and handed us two menus. I took mine; Jim said he didn’t need one. He also said he’d like a cup of coffee, black, and she smiled and said, “I thought so. You look the type.”
I didn’t bother to ask her what she meant by that. What I thought was, maybe straight older people didn’t know how to flirt as well as we younger gay ones did.
She gave me a minute to look at the menu, then came to our booth.
She brought the coffee and set it in front of him. He ordered sausage, eggs up, hash browns and wheat toast. I went for the pancakes.
When she left, I decided to go look at the old, old jukebox we’d passed when walking to our booth, and I told Jim I was going to check it out. I got up and walked over to it. I didn’t recognize a single one of the tunes it had, but some of them had funny names, like “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” Another was “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie.” I took a quarter out of my pocket and saw I could get five plays for that. A nickel each!
That was how things were when a man pushed open the diner’s door and stepped inside. The man had wide eyes with large pupils, a nervous tension about his carriage and jitters which extended all through his body. He was sweating even though it was a mild day and still early. But no one seemed to pay much attention to any of that. Everyone’s eyes were focused on the large handgun the man was holding in front of him and was moving around, momentarily pointing at everyone in the diner.
I was the only one standing up other than the cook and the waitress, and they were both behind the counter. I was in the same aisle the man was. He was looking around, fidgety with rapidly moving eyes. They settled on me. He could have thought I was a threat, standing like I was not that far away from him. He pulled his shoulders back, like he was surprised to see me there, like he hadn’t noticed me before. And as I watched, he brought the gun up and pointed it straight at me.
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