Lightning in a Jar by Cole Parker

David’s at loose ends this summer and likes it that way, hoping to goof off until school starts in the fall. With his mom pushing, it doesn’t work out that way, however.

Chapter 5

A couple of weeks later, a routine had been set.  Every day, Nick would take his fiddle—he’d packed more violin stuff than clothing—and go off to the cabin he’d commandeered as his practice room for the summer.  He wasn’t so shy with his Fox mates any longer.  With everyone else, he was a very soft boy.  I had the opinion he’d been rather brutally bullied at school or in his neighborhood because his way of reacting to strangers was to lower his head and not say anything until they went away.  I was sure such behavior in the past had earned him some punches and pushes and scathing remarks before his aggressors had left.  Too often bullies take their greatest pleasure with victims who won’t fight back.

Although, honestly, he didn’t seem to be cowardly.  It was more that he was shy and unsure of himself and didn’t know how to avoid  embarrassment when another kid would approach him.  “Hey, kid, what’s happening”, the sort of remark someone simply meeting him might make, left Nick blushing and looking anywhere but at the kid standing in front of him.  Nick wasn’t afraid of him, he simply didn’t have the social skills to know how to answer the question.    He took everything literally.  ‘What was happening?  How do I answer that?  I’m walking to lunch, that’s what’s happening, but if I say it I’ll sound silly because he knows I’m walking to lunch; he is, too.  So why’d he ask me that?  And what do I say so I don’t look like an idiot?’

That was the kind of thing that went through his mind.  He didn’t realize that the question was simply a social convention to start a conversation, not a real question that demanded a literal response.  He’d get hung up in his head trying to figure it all out and end up not saying anything, just blushing.

That might have explained some of his connection to his violin.  It  never attacked or threatened or questioned him.  He felt safe and in control when he was playing it.  He felt no control at all when he was with other people.

He’d gotten to know the other Fox boys and was probably as comfortable with them as I imagined he’d ever been with any group of boys.  That had mostly been Sam’s doing.

Sam was just what he’d told us he was.  He was an introvert, and his talent was staying on the sidelines but still being involved.  As such, a strange thing had happened.  The boys had started to gravitate towards him to get his opinion, to solve problems, to mediate arguments, to be a go-between and a judge.  The other boys looked up to him—whether because of the year he had on them or because he himself was never in the fray and so a neutral bystander, I didn’t know, but I could tell he really liked that.  In real life, perhaps he’d not been just outside the hum of school life, but way, way outside.  Now, he was part of things but slightly separate, too.  I think that’s just the way he wanted it.   

He was the one who was the cause of Nick being treated as well as he was.  I think the other boys might have ignored Nick, or even been somewhat condescending to him because he never joined in, never got into their discussions or play.  It would have been easy to get the idea that he was aloof, that he felt they were all beneath him somehow.

Sam saw it differently.  I heard him speaking to the others one night when Nick had gone for his shower after the others had come back.  Nick didn’t like the showers when a whole herd of boys was there.  He was very unsure of himself in crowds.

So he was gone, and the rest of the Foxes were in the cabin, and as soon as he left, Sam cleared his throat in a way that the others had learned meant he had something to say.  It didn’t happen very frequently, Sam speaking out without being drawn in by someone, and so when he did, the others tended to pay attention.  They did this time, as usual; I pretended to ignore what was being said, as usual.  I only got involved with them when they specifically pulled me in.  Otherwise, like right then, I stayed out of what they were doing.  I had the idea they liked that degree of independence.  Just as they liked having an adult around they could call on if they wished.

“Guys,” he said, speaking solemnly as was his way, “have you noticed Nick has been even more withdrawn in the past couple of days?”

I’d noticed it.  I doubted the others had.  I wasn’t that surprised Sam had but didn’t know why he’d bring it up.

The other boys looked at each other, and Colley said, “No.  He’s always quiet and on his own.”

The others nodded or verbally agreed.

“Well,” Sam said, not to be deterred, “I’ve noticed, and I think I know why.”

“Okay, why?” Zach asked.  He’d probably be the last to notice anything about Nick.  He was so outgoing, so in the middle of everything, he probably couldn’t understand anyone who wasn’t the same.

“Well, this is what I think it is.  I wanted to see if anyone would agree.”  He turned to Rad.  “Rad—” the boys had all quickly adopted the nicknames I’d assigned them, somewhat to my surprise; they’d all liked them “—remember the other night when you were showing us that dance step you’d seen on YouTube and were correcting each of us because no one seemed to be able to do it just right?”

“Yeah.”  Rad smiled at the memory.  There’d been a lot of laughing that had accompanied that.

“Well, we all were getting it wrong, and you worked with each of us, and finally we began to look like a dance team.  A ragged one, but a team.  Remember?  All of us except Nick.  Remember what he did?”

They looked at each other, then Colley said, “Yeah.  He walked away, went back to his cot and picked up his book.  Didn’t say a word.”

“And what did we do?”  Sam was focused, and so the others were, too.

“We did the step together.  We did it three times, getting more in sync each time through.  It was great,” said Zach.  “We all started laughing and high-fived each other at the end.  So, what’s that got to do with anything?”

“It’s just that, well, I think Nick got his feelings hurt.  Rad, you corrected us all, just like you did Nick.  When you did that to Nick, I was watching his face.  He blushed when you told him no, the left foot has to tap twice.  Then you more or less dismissed him and moved to me.  You didn’t dismiss him angrily or scornfully or anything; you just walked away from him.  He looked up, your back was to him, and he blushed, hesitated a brief second and then went back to his bed.

“I glanced over at him when we all finished and were laughing.  He heard that and twisted on his bed so his back was to us.  Guys, I think he was really hurt.  That was one of the few times he’s had the courage to join in with us, and bang, he thinks Rad turned away from him in disgust or as a rebuke or just out of indifference—something like that.  We all know that wasn’t how it played out.  Rad was helping everyone, and he thought Nick now had the step down cold. 

“Hey, I don’t know for sure, but my point is, I think Nick is fragile.  He has very low self-esteem.  He feels he doesn’t fit in at all.  He gets hurt by things we’d just shrug off.  My question to you is: do we want to let him go through the summer feeling that much alone or do we want to include him in what we do?  I know the answer.  He’s one of us.  He’s a Fox.  Well, we have to treat him gently, considerately, being very aware of his feelings, and keep asking him to join in.  I think he will, eventually, and then we need to still be sensitive.  Okay?  Can we do that?”

I was amazed—and so gratified.  These guys, other than Sam, were 12!  That’s not the most sensitive of ages.  It’s often a me-first age.  But these guys, guys of an artistic bent, perhaps understood better than most what it was like to be on the outside, to be shy, to need friends but have no idea how to win them.  They all saw what Sam was saying and from then on made a point of talking to and including Nick.  Nick often turned them down, but more and more as time passed, he began to join them.

I was so proud of those guys!

And interested in seeing what Sam was writing all the time.  For anyone who could see what he saw with Nick, maybe life experience wasn’t all that necessary.  Sensitivity to others might be what would make him good.  He had that.

It was Rad’s idea the next night to practice that step again.  When they were all ready and Nick was on his bed with his book, Rad went over and sat down and spoke to him.  He spoke to him softly and didn’t try to make eye contact.  Nick’s bed was directly across the aisle from mine, so I could hear what was said while pretending to be reading.

Rad: “Nick, we’re going to practice that step again.  It was fun with four, but it’s more fun and will look better with five.  I thought about it afterwards, and maybe I gave you the wrong idea when I walked away from you when we did this before.  I thought you’d gotten it, and I needed to help Sam more.  He’s kind of hopeless, you know?”  He stopped to chuckle, and I thought, wow, that’s genius: make Nick think that Rad thinks that he’s a better dancer than someone else that’s doing it. 

“But I didn’t say that and should have,” Rad continued.  “You’re good at it.  Probably because you’re a musician and understand rhythm and staying on the beat and that kind of stuff.  All of us want you to do this with us.  We’re Fox, and that includes you. Please?  I’ll feel bad if you don’t.  I’ll feel I hurt you somehow.”

Nick, after a pause:  “Really?  You all want me there?”

Rad:  “Absolutely.  Come on!”

And so Nick joined them and laughed with the rest of them when they were done.  Because of that and other things that followed, he got roped into things, and he got so he could talk to those boys and even look at them when he did.  Progress was being made.

Sam was remaining his introverted self, but as the other boys looked up to him and used him as an arbiter, he was also roped in more than he probably wanted.  He seemed to me to be a loner at heart, while with Nick, I didn’t know if that was true or not.  Maybe it was with Sam; maybe that was why he liked writing, something that required quiet and solitary reclusiveness.  He did spend his days on his own in a secluded spot he’d picked.  He didn’t choose a cabin but instead the area Reggie had shown me my first time there, the open spot high on a hill where he could look out over part of the island and the lake.  He’d take his laptop, find a comfortable place to sit, and either write or simply think.  He told me he was having a great summer!  Seemed lonely to me, but then, I enjoyed having people around me.  He seemed to do fine without them.

I sensed a change in Sam about three weeks into the first month there and finally asked him about it.  My relationship with all my boys was probably different from what most counselors developed with their campers.  From what I saw, those guys were right in with their tribes, doing what the kids did, getting activities going, being a father figure and big brother and even a consoling mother to them all, but mostly a rah-rah activity leader.  I, on the other hand, purposely maintained a much more hands-off relationship.  Oh, I was friendly, and I was there if they needed me, but my group all seemed to know what they wanted, and independence was high up on all their lists.  As was doing their own thing.  For the most part, they didn’t need me, and so I stayed out of their way.

So, asking Sam about the change I’d sensed in him was somewhat out of character for me.  And it wasn’t because I saw he needed me.  It was merely my own curiosity.  I caught him when the others were all out of the cabin.  He’d come back for a spare battery pack for his computer. 

I was reading a book when he came in.  “Hi, David,” he said, smiling his greeting at me. 

“Hey, Sam.  Man, you sure seem happy.  There’s a spring in your step that wasn’t there that first day.  I see how the rest of Fox looks up to you.  Maybe that’s part of it.  You just seem really focused on something lately.”

Okay, so I didn’t really ask him about it.  I just said what I said and let it hang there.  He could clue me in if he wanted to—or not.  A bit to my surprise, he opened up, even if just a little.

He laughed and said, “I’ve noticed how sly you are about asking us things in a way we don’t have to tell you anything at all.  It’s up to us.  You’re very clever.  I think we got the best counselor here!”

“Hey, Sam!  Thanks.  And here I thought I was just the laziest.”

“No way, man.  You do just what we need.  You’re perfect.  And me.  Yeah, what you’re probably seeing and are too polite to ask directly about is, I’ve thought of something to write about, and I’m doing it and it’s really fun.  Maybe I’ll let you read it someday.”

“Maybe,” I said, picking up my book again.  “Only if you want me to.”

So that was Sam.  Nick seemed to be doing okay, though I had no idea how his violin practice was going as he rarely smiled about much of anything.  He was such a serious kid and rarely spoke unless he was asked something.  I watched him a lot when I was in the same place he was.  There was something about him that spoke to me.  I liked all of the boys, but I had a different feeling somehow for Nick.  The others, I don’t know.  They went about their business and were fine.  I suppose Nick was, too, but I simply felt I should be available for him more than the other boys, even if there was no reason apparent for me to feel that way. 

Zach and Rad were in their own world.  Rad told me he was teaching Zach how to dance and that Zach was teaching him some acting skills, like developing stage presence.  He told me that actors and dancers these days had to be able to do any and everything.

They’d go off, and I’d see them at lunch and dinner, and they’d join everyone around the fire at night, but that was all I saw of them.  I did notice that if you saw one, you saw the other, that they were always together.  I guessed, just a guess, they were teaching each other more than acting and dancing.  They were both Ann Arbor kids, so perhaps if they were getting together the way I thought they were, they wouldn’t necessarily stop when the summer was over, either.  I was quite happy for them.  Young love.  What could be better?

So Colley was the odd man out.  To me, he was the puzzle.  On first meeting the group, he’d reminded me of a floppy, friendly dog.  The name I’d picked for him had been a coincidence and really didn’t fit at all from that standpoint.  A Collie is often an elegant dog, even regal, and Colley wasn’t that at all.  He was easygoing, careless about his appearance, and didn’t seem to take much seriously.  I’d known other redheads like that growing up.  And that had been the initial impression I got of him after he decided that I indeed wasn’t going to regiment them.  I could see why thinking that would have disturbed him, because he liked to do things at his own pace, which was relatively slow, and he didn’t like to be pushed.

He’d take his paints and canvas and collapsible easel, all of which he packed in his backpack, and wander off by himself.  I spent most of my time hiking, sometimes by myself, sometimes with Evan, and I’d find Colley now and then, standing by himself, looking at the scenery, or painting it.  He’d have a wistful expression on his face, but he never seemed truly happy.  Not like I expected he would, at least.

Following my plan for the summer, I didn’t question him.  I’d told them all on a couple of occasions that I was always there for them if they wanted my attention, but meddle I wouldn't.  And I hadn’t.  But with Colley, more than the others, I wanted to.  Something was off with him.

§   §   §   §

I decided one day that I probably should be more aware of what Zach and Rad were doing.  It was all well and good to leave all these guys to their own devices, but what if things weren’t going as well as I thought with those two?  I was being paid to be watching them.  Maybe I should try actually doing that.

So I decided to find out exactly what was what with them.  I’d do it so they’d never know I’d checked on them, hopefully. 

The island seemed perfect to me.  Green with trees and bushes, no one around from outside our small community, an easygoing atmosphere, happy kids’ shouts about the only noise one could hear, lots of opportunities to be alone in a beautiful place, lots of opportunities to be with groups of people.  Good food; always the freedom to do what you wanted to do.  When the afternoons got hot and muggy, most of the boys shed their shirts and looked more like the natives the camp tribes were named for.  The few times it had rained, Reggie’d played movies that the kids loved in the old auditorium.

It was a warm, sunny day, as most had been this summer.  Shorts and a tee shirt were what everyone wore, and what I had on as well when I took off, hiking in the direction of the cabin where Zach and Rad went each day.  It was about a fifteen-minute walk; a climb, really.  I think they’d chosen it because the climb kept other boys away.  You had to work to get to it.  These two were in such good shape from working on dance steps during the day, it probably wasn’t much work at all for them.

I made the climb easily.  I’d been hiking every day and was in terrific shape, too.  The hills on the island made sure of that.  When I was close to where the cabin could be seen through the trees, I left the path and began circling so I’d come out of the woods from behind.

I was glad I’d put on both sun block and bug repellent because the tiny critters were certainly active.  They’d land on my neck or arms, but quickly leave, rarely sucking any blood.  Thank goodness for pharmaceuticals.

I stopped at the edge of the woods behind the cabin.  I could hear music playing inside so figured they must be there, not out hiking.  I moved back through the trees and farther to the side so when I emerged again I was facing the corner of the cabin and wasn’t directly in view of a window.  Hunching low, I scurried all the way to the cabin, then dropped down so I’d be below the window in the back as I crawled toward it.

I slowly raised my head when I was where I needed to be and looked in.  The cabin, as most were, was a single room.  There was no furniture inside, just a bare room.  A bare room with two boys in it.  Two boys who were stretching, doing gymnastic moves, and occasional dance steps.  Two boys who were doing all this naked.

They were beautiful boys, very fit from their work here, though Rad had probably been just as fit before he’d come here.  Zach wasn’t quite as muscled as Rad, even though he had the larger body of the two.  Rad was so graceful, so light on his feet and balanced as he moved about.  It was apparent Zach wasn’t as lithe, as smooth, but also that he’d been working on it.  I could see how he tried to mimic Rad’s style as he exercised.

I pulled down from the window and thought.  Do I want to watch this?  Well, maybe briefly.  They weren’t doing anything that I shouldn’t be watching.

I moved up again and looked in.  Now they were doing a dance step, a complicated one done in unison, the boys side by side, more or less locked together with Zach’s left arm, Rad’s right, around the other’s shoulder.

They looked good!  It was obvious they’d been practicing a lot because all their movements were right together.  Almost like two robots in sync with each other.  They were laughing, too. 
Sometimes, when you’re doing something with someone else and you both do it perfectly, the joy is so great that you can’t help but laugh to express what you’re feeling.

But they weren’t robots.  As I watched, I saw Zach beginning to get hard.  I saw his lips move, obviously saying something, and then Rad looked, and he began to stiffen as well.  They stopped the dance step and faced each other and the action happening down below continued till both their members were standing a little above horizontal. 

They were 12, and both still had a lot of growing and developing to do, but there was no doubt they were equally aroused.  I looked at their faces.  This is what I had wanted to check.  If there was anything going on with them, I’d wanted to know if it was entirely mutual or if there was any coercion involved.

Their faces answered the question.  Both were looking up and down, down at what was below, up into each other’s eyes, and both were grinning to the max and showing the flush of sexual excitement.  Both looked eager.  Both had dancing eyes.  Both wanted what would happen next.

What would happen next was private and not anything I would watch.  I slowly sank down below the window and noiselessly made my way back into the woods.  Then I hiked to where I expected to find Colley.  On the way I passed Nick’s cabin and heard the distinctive sound of his practicing.  I stopped to listen.  He was good!  That was something even someone without training could tell.  Young violinists often have a scratchy, thin, tuning-challenged sound.   Not Nick.  He was getting as much sound out of his violin as the instrument was capable of providing, and it was rich and pure.  I listened for a few minutes, being as careful as I’d been with the other two boys not to be caught.  I listened long enough to recognize the piece, the Cesar Franck sonata.  It was a piece no beginner could even begin to play.

I walked on and eventually found Colley.  He wasn’t painting at the moment, but his canvas was on his easel and showed a lightly sketched panorama in barely-to-be-seen pencil.  What he’d painted, though, I found a little disturbing.  He’d only filled in some green patches, leaves and bushes and such, but he’d done so with a green that was so dark, it was almost black.  In reality, the scene he was painting was sun-lit and bright, and all the green nature was presenting him was in different, vibrant shades, exuding lightness and color.  Why had he painted it so somberly? 

I would have asked him, but he was dead to the world, lying beside his easel, taking a catnap.  I watched him for a moment or two, then shook my head and walked on.


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