Aiden At 12
"Mornin', Aiden. Rise and shine!"
It was the best I could do. I was lying on my front with my face in the pillow.
"Come on. Up and at 'em! Big day today! Your grandfather is taking you to the school to register. I doubt you'll attend today, but I have no idea. So come on. Up and get dressed, and come down for breakfast. It'll be ready in a few minutes."
I hated waking up. Always did. It was the worst part of the day. I hadn't been woken up by someone for a while. Mom had stopped doing that last year sometime, and I'd been late to school a lot until I started using an alarm clock. I opened an eye and turned my head. There was seven minutes until the new alarm clock was going to go off.
"Going to get up, or do I have to send your grandfather in and have him get you out of bed?"
"Got time. Alarm don't go off for over five minutes yet."
"Then set it ten minutes earlier tomorrow. Now come on, sleepy-head. Let's get moving."
She sounded way too cheerful. But at least she didn't sound like she was going to come pull me out of the bed and across the floor and push me into the tub and turn on the cold water from the shower head. After that morning, I always set the alarm and got up on my own. I'd only had underwear on, and it was humiliating to be dragged down the hallway by my arm, my ass on the floor, trying to keep them from being pulled down over my legs with my only free hand in front of her laughing boyfriend.
Thinking how different things were now, I found the energy to sit up.
"That's better. You'd best not lay back down, though. Now come on."
She was smiling from the doorway. I smiled back.
"Do you always sleep in your clothes?"
I had started sleeping in my clothes after that humiliating morning the last time my mom had gotten me up for school. I nodded.
"Oh, Aiden. Bad habit to do that. Would you like pajamas?"
I shook my head and said, "No way. That's for little kids and old men."
She smiled and said, "You're no old man, but you're no little kid anymore, either. But please, don't keep sleeping in your clothes. We can get you pajamas, or some big boxer shorts you can use."
"You can wear your little briefs under them, so you don't have to worry about, well... you probably understand. You're about at that age now."
Oh my God!
I felt my mouth hang open and my eyes go big and round. It was so humiliating!
"Get a shower if you want, then get dressed and come downstairs. Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. Put on something nice. I want you looking decent in case you go to classes today. And in front of the school people anyway. And your grandfather says he's taking you to get a few more things today as well."
"Okay," I said, then swung my feet off the bed and wiped my eyes.
She was gone when I opened them again. I looked around me. I was in my own room, with a big, soft bed, and a dresser, and tons of clothes. The bag of school supplies was on the table, and a tee-vee that I had wired up to the antenna on the roof myself sat next to them. And there were a few books I didn't have to worry would come up missing. The sun shined in through the windows and birds sang outside, their music carried in with the warm breeze that smelled like flowers and fresh-cut grass. Grass that I had cut yesterday on an actual farm tractor. It was so quiet and peaceful and comfortable. And clean. And it was safe. And I felt loved.
I smiled and cried. How can we do that at the same time? Fucking weird things, we humans.
"Cryin's for kids," I told myself, wiping my eyes and heading to the dresser for clean clothes.
I took a nice, long, hot shower. No fears that he would come barging in and make jokes about my body or my parts. I got dressed. I looked pretty normal in the long mirror on the back of the door. Just like any other boy my age. Maybe even a little better looking than some. The clothes looked new, but they were, so there was no way to hide that. That made me feel conspicuous. One of the words I wasn't supposed to know. But it had been in some books, so I'd figured out what it meant and knew how to use it. And I sure felt it in those new clothes.
I brushed my hair and looked at my face. I wasn't so dorky. Not really. I always thought of myself as one. No friends, reads books, gets good grades - dork. But I didn't look like one. Blond hair, blue eyes, round face, nice nose that wasn't big, lips that weren't crooked or fat or skinny, and a chin that looked like it could take a hit or two. I kind of looked like Steven Bradley back in Chicago. He was popular with the girls. I wondered why.
I thought of how he laughed and smiled and talked to them. And how he just acted like he was cool. It seemed to come naturally to him. I wondered how. I wondered if he ever worried about being pushed around, or ignored, or picked on. I wondered if it was an act. I wondered if I could put on that act. I thought I could try.
I stood up straighter. I squared my shoulders. I put on a smile. It looked stupid. I changed it. I changed it again. Better. I tried an angry face, as if someone said something mean. I tried another. Better. I tried a friendly, "Hi." I tried it more like Steven. It looked better. I memorized them. I flipped from one to another, over and over, until I knew them pat. I hoped they worked.
I went downstairs for breakfast. It was awesome! Gran knew how to cook! Bacon done the way I said I liked it when she asked, eggs scrambled the way I said I liked them when she asked, oatmeal that tasted like food and not cardboard, with honey on it, toast with butter and jelly, and orange juice and milk. I was going to get so fat!
We talked about school. What classes I liked, what ones I did well in, and chores I was expected to do later today.
"And we'll get that bike on the way back from town. Blue, I expect?"
"Sure. Or black. Just not pink or something."
"No fringe hanging from the handlebars I assume?"
I knew he was teasing. I wasn't used to that. Being made fun of, sure, but not just having fun. It made me feel warm and good.
"Oh, yes, and he needs something to sleep in. He did in his clothes last night," Grandma said, grinning at me in a way that instantly reminded me of earlier and had me blushing.
"You want to get some pajamas?"
"No! I can sleep in my..."
I wasn't willing to say 'underwear' in front of my grandparents. It was too embarrassing!
"Birthday suit?" Gramps asked.
I slammed my face into my palm and groaned.
"I suggested he get some oversized boxer shorts to use. He can wear his usual undies under 'em."
I shook my head in my hand and hoped I could somehow, someday, look out from behind my hand again.
"Good idea, hon. And when he grows, he can grow into the boxers."
"And a robe wouldn't be a bad idea," she added.
"S'pose not, dear."
"We'd best change the subject so he can finish breakfast before ya head out."
"S'pose so, dear."
I could hear them grinning. It was so embarrassing. I knew they were having fun, that's all. And it wasn't really all that bad, not really, but, oh, geeze.
"Finish your breakfast, Aiden. Then help with the dishes."
I kept my head down and held my hand above my eyes, like I was shading them from the sun, and ate.
"I haven't seen a boy blushed like that since Julie-Ann Masterson kissed you back in seventh grade," Gran said.
I sighed dramatically and shook my head.
"That was some day, I admit," Gramps said. "She was one hot potato."
"Won't be long before Aiden here is in the same situation, I expect."
"Yup. Girls are gonna be happy to see the old family charm back in town. He looks enough like I did at his age."
"Oh, dear. If he looked much like you did, he'd not have a chance with the girls."
"Oh? You sayin' I wasn't the cock o' the walk back then?"
"Oh, I'm just sayin' Aiden has his father's good looks, which are a vast improvement of his grandfather's."
"Did you guys tease dad like this? Geeze! I'm surprised he didn't run away when he was my age if you did!"
"Your father knew he was a stunner at your age. He was chasin' the girls by your age, and had already got his first kiss. We didn't have time to tease him. So maybe that's why we're takin' it out on you, makin' up for what we didn't get to do so much with... your father."
I moved my hand so that I could see her. Her voice sounded more and more... something, as she went on. Now she looked close to crying.
I realized in a flash that me being there was making them think of my dad when he was a kid my age. I hadn't even thought of such a thing until that second. Now I knew they were having sort of flashbacks and thoughts about him and that it was making them sad.
Grandpa reached out and held her hand on top of the table. She wiped her eyes and smiled at him, then at me. I felt like an asshole for making them think about my dad again.
"I'm sorry. I didn't meant to make you sad or anything."
"Don't be sorry, Aiden, honey. We couldn't be gladder you're here. Honest. Just... sometimes we're gonna remember, that's all. We did before you came. It's just the way things work. So don't you be feelin' like you're any trouble or it's your fault or something stupid like that. We love you, Aiden, and we loved your dad. And it's just so... wonderful to have you here. Sometimes we're gonna think of the old times with your dad is all. Not your fault, honey, okay?"
She smiled at me and pushed my hair around a little while she talked. I knew to put on a good smile and nod. I understood about remembering old times and things like that. Some books I read aren't just flimsy science-fiction or sword-and-sorcery fantasy stuff. Some were books that would have gotten me called a fag or a sissy for reading. They were good, too.
"Now finish your breakfast."
After I did, we helped clean the table, then I went upstairs and got my school supplies together in my new pack. My stomach was turning over, and not from the big breakfast that I wasn't used to having. I didn't know if I would be going to classes or not, but I felt as if I were. I didn't know what to expect. I'd never been good at making friends. I knew I would be the new kid, too. I'd seen what happens to the new kid more than once. But I knew I had to go. And I sort of liked school. I wanted to go. I just didn't want to go through all the bull shit that came along with going to school.
I looked around my room. My room. A bed. A dresser. Some rugs. Clothes. Books. Television. Windows. Light. Clean. Tidy. Comfortable. Home.
Like a little wussy, I had to wipe my eyes. But I was smiling.
I sighed really deep and went downstairs.
"Have a good day, Aiden!"
"I will! You too, Grandma!"
I pushed through the squeaky screen door and jogged to the blue and white pickup truck that Grandpa had pulled up to the porch and hopped in.
"Ready?" he asked, smiling at me.
"Ready," I said with a nod and that new, 'Hi" grin like Steven's.
"Good. Let's go."
The school was small compared to my old one. It was barely big enough to call a school. One story. Geeze. But it had room for a track and football field next to it, and a baseball diamond behind it next to a soccer field and two tennis courts with basketball goals at each end.
Inside, it was so clean! It looked so new, but it was obviously old. The lockers were all painted blue, with no tags or scrawls. No papers all over the floors. No broken windows in the doors. All the lights were on and working. And it smelled like cleaning stuff.
The offices were bright and cheerful. We went to the counter and Grandpa said he wanted to register a new student. He handed her some papers the lawyer had given him yesterday.
"Oh, yes. Young Aiden. We were told to expect him today. Here are the forms you need to fill out. You can have a seat over there and I'll get started with these." She smiled at me and nodded. "Welcome to Lincoln Elementary, Aiden."
"You'll be in Missus Clark's class. That's room 144. You turn left when you leave the office, and go around to the right along the hall, and it's near the end on your left. All the sixth-grade classes are up there. The gymnasium is just down the hall at the end. And the lunch room is the big one at that corner you'll turn at the end of this hall. You can't miss it. Here's a map for you."
The school was L shaped, with the lunchroom in the crook of the L, and the gym at the far end of it. The offices were at the top of the L. It was so simple. Nothing like the maze my old school was.
"Have a seat with your Grandpa and help him fill out these papers, then you can go to your class. Okay?"
Looked like I was going to classes today after all. I was happy and nervous and worried. We sat down, and Grandpa filled out the papers, asking me questions like what my old school was, its address, my student identification number, all kinds of things. Except what classes I'd had. When we were done, we went back to the counter.
"Looks good. It'll take a few days to get his records, I'm sure." She handed me a piece of yellow paper titled 'New Student Pass' with my name written on it. "Do you have any questions?"
"What classes will I have? When do I find out? Do I just go to this one room and stay for whatever class is going on right now?"
She looked puzzled, then seemed to understand.
"Oh. Your school had you going to different classrooms during the day for different classes, didn't it?"
"We don't do that here. Not until junior high, next year. This year, you'll stay in room 144 all day, with Missus Clark. She'll teach you all your subjects. No going from room to room or changing teachers."
"Oh. I see."
Just like for the little kids. Geeze. Whatever.
"Since you're all done here, you can walk him to his classroom if you like," she said to Grandpa.
"Oh, I think he can find it on his own," he said, glancing down at me. "I'll pick ya up out front at three-thirty."
I smiled and nodded. At least I wouldn't have my grandpa walking me to my class on my first day. He nodded toward the door. I nodded at him and started walking to my classroom.
The school was just so amazingly clean. And the room numbers were all in place, too. The cafeteria was small compared to my old school, but it was so amazingly bright and clean. The tables were shiny and neatly ordered. The floor looked clean and shiny enough to eat off of. Around the corner, I found room 144 easily. Just four more rooms to the gym doors.
I stood in front of it, looking at the numbers, feeling like I was about to jump off a cliff. My heart was hammering. My guts were turning over. My breathing was fast and shaky.
I worked on those faces I had done in the mirror that morning. I adjusted my pack on my shoulder. I checked my shirt and pants. I squared my shoulders. I stood up straight. I put on that mild smile.
I swallowed a couple times, then reached out and turned the door knob.
The room was bright and clean. Kids sat in neat rows of desks, and turned their heads toward me all at the same time, like a flock of birds. I pretended that calm, cool, easy manner of Steve's. I nodded toward them like I knew them. I walked right up to the teacher. She was probably the same age as my mom, but she looked like she had taken care of herself instead of using every drug she could get her hands on for years. She smiled and took the paper from my hand when I held it out to her.
"Hello. Class, this is Aiden. He's new to our school. I want you to welcome him to Lincoln."
"Hi, Aiden," most of them said in unison.
Some smiled at me, some looked blank or bored, some sort of frowned at me. Most of the girls were smiling.
I did my best Steven Bradley wave, smile, and, "Hi."
"You can choose any open desk. I suggest the one next to Howard Pace, near the window," she said, pointing it out. "He'll be good to get to know and help you catch up with our lessons."
It was as good a choice as any other as far as I was concerned. Howard looked like the class dork, though. Black-framed glasses, nerdy stripped shirt, and short jeans that showed off his white socks. And black dress shoes. What a dork. But the girl in front of the empty desk was cute. And she was grinning at me. And on the other side of the empty chair was another cute girl who was smiling at me. At least I could claim they were the reason I took the seat. So I did.
"Hi, I'm Howard," the dork said, holding his hand out to me.
I shook it. It was cold and clammy and almost sweaty. Up close, he was a total dweeb. Black eyes, black hair, thin lips, those ugly black glasses, and clothes that screamed country bumpkin.
"I'm Katy Haskins," the girl in front of me said, smiling at me.
Bright gray eyes, hair like honey, and lips so red she had to be wearing lipstick. Maybe a big girl, but not by much. And she had breasts! Not big ones, but obvious ones in that blue top.
"Hi, Katy. Nice to meet you."
I gave her the Steven Bradley big grin. She giggled and turned around.
The girl next to me smiled at me then laughed.
"I'm Carol," she said, turning really red.
Curly, long, blond hair and brown eyes. Narrow everything; face, nose, chin, build, everything. White shirt with frills and red skirt that stopped at her thighs.
I gave her the Steven Bradley big grin. She laughed, then turned to look at the front of the classroom.
The teacher started talking about history. It wasn't familiar at all. It was about France and its revolution. I'd read a couple of books that took place around that time, so I knew about it, but I'd never studied it at all. I wondered if the school was backward or ahead. It looked like I was going to need Howard's help.
By the time lunch came up, I was worried. History had been bad enough, but the lessons on punctuation were way out of my experience. Semi-colons were strange and odd, and what experience I had with them were confusing passages in thick, heavy, dense books. Then math. Converting fractions to decimals? Why would we need to ever do that anyway? I was fucked.
The bell rang and both Carol and Katy smiled at me and seemed to be waiting for me. Howard got up and said, "See you later," and walked away.
"Want to sit with us?" Carol asked.
"Yeah, wanna?" Katy asked.
They both grinned at me. It was embarrassing. I had to think furiously what Steven Bradley would do. The answer was obvious.
"Sure. Let's go."
I actually walked out of the class with a girl on both sides of me. I knew what Steve must have always felt like. It was awesome!
We went through the lunch line. The food smelled and looked pretty good. Way better than my old school. We sat down with a bunch of others, boys and girls. Nothing like my old school. Back there, boys sat with boys, girls with girls. I looked around and saw tons of tables where only boys or girls sat, but only a couple of tables had this mix. I wondered what that was all about.
They all seemed so friendly. Carol introduced me to everyone. They were all nice and said, "Hi," or, "Hey."
"This is Kevin Walker."
The name smacked me in the face. The lady at the store had said he was her son. He smiled and nodded at me. He had her eyes; brown, dark and deep, almost black. And her round, soft features. But that had to be his dad's strong chin.
"Hi, Aiden. Heard you'd be in my class."
"Yeah. Nice to meet ya, man."
"Aiden here's from Chicago proper," he said.
"Really?" some of the girls asked.
I was quizzed what it was like to live in the city, what the school had been like, and a lot of such things. I tried to be honest, but I had to seem mysterious and brave, right? So what if I told them how the gangs were so rough, that you had to fight to stay out of them. Or how the black gangs fought with the latino gangs and the white gangs, and how the white gangs tried to make me join them, but I was too independent to want to be part of that crap. Well, I said, "that fucking shit," but, you know.
By the time lunch was over, I had told them how I had come to the country to get away from the death threats from the gangs who wanted me to join, or else. And how if I hadn't left, I'd be in the hospital or dead. They knew my dad had been shot to death by a gang member. At least that was true. And that my mom was in trouble and had to get me away from that, too.
And I was invited to Christen Sawyer's thirteenth birthday party next month. He was the tallest and oldest at the table. And probably the class hotshot. Or one of them. His dad was the town mayor. And everyone was sure his party was going to be epic.
Back in class, I found that I was behind in Social Studies as well. And in Foreign Studies. I'd never heard of that before. They were looking at India. It was a lot like World Experience class.
When three o'clock came, and the bell, Carol and Katy walked with me to show me where my locker was. I had an arm full of books to put in it. I spun the combination as they talked about the upcoming party and how I would love their other friends, and how I was going to have such a good time.
"Good thing it's not a date party. We'd have to fight to see who goes with you," Katy said, giggling.
I tried not to blush. I mean, geeze!
"Hey, we could share him!" Carol said, laughing.
"Yeah! I bet he'd love that!" Katy said, laughing.
God damn! Country girls are way more advanced than city girls, I thought, amazed.
To change the topic, mostly, I asked, "Can you help with class? I'm going to do so bad."
"Class? Why worry about that?" Katy asked.
"Yeah. Screw class. Oh! You going to be on any teams next year? We got a great baseball team here. The best in the conference."
"I don't know. Maybe."
"You should! I bet you'd look cute in the uniform!" Carol said, grinning at me.
"Oh! Where do you live?" Carol asked.
"You ride my bus!" she said, smiling even wider.
"Bitch," Katy said, laughing.
"She's just pissed I'll get more time with you than her."
"I'll just have to make up for it, is all," Katy replied.
Girls were almost fighting over me! Holy fuck!
"Come on, I'll show you where to get the bus."
"I don't ride it today. Tomorrow, I guess."
"Oh," she said, looking a little let down. "Well, still, can show you where."
I had my books in my pack now, and the other things in my locker, so I shut it and locked it, and walked with the two of them toward the front of the school. They talked about the party and who was going to be there, and how great it was going to be, and such things.
When I saw Howard sitting in front of his locker, I stopped to talk to him. I needed his help.
"Hi, How. You mind if I call you How?"
He looked up, surprised for sure.
"Uh, I guess. What?"
"Would you help me with some class stuff? My school wasn't in the same lessons this one is, and I could use some help with it."
He blinked his dark eyes behind his glasses and stared at me for a few seconds, then looked at the girls standing on both sides of me.
"You serious?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah. Why?"
"Sure. You sit next to me in class. And Missus Clark said you'd be the one to get help from. So, will ya?"
He blinked at me a couple more times.
"Well, okay, I guess. When?"
"How about tomorrow after school? You ride the bus?"
"No. I get picked up by..." He looked at the girls and then back at me. "I get a ride."
"Oh. What time?"
"Usually about five-thirty."
That late? Why? I almost asked, but it seemed... just seemed like I shouldn't make a deal out of it.
"So, maybe we can study in the library or something?"
"Well, okay. I guess."
"Cool. I'll talk to you tomorrow about it. Okay?"
"Uh, sure. Okay."
He sure seemed suspicious of me. I didn't like that. I was used to being suspicious of others, and I didn't like that I was making someone else feel that way.
"Great. Talk to ya tomorrow."
I waved and turned to walk the way we had been before I stopped to talk to him. He didn't wave back, or smile, just sort of looked at me like he was expecting me to throw something at him, like an insult or a kick. I really didn't like that at all.
"Why'd you talk to him?" Carol asked.
"You heard. I need help with the classes."
"You really want to bother with that stuff?"
"Well, yeah. I don't wanna flunk out my first week."
"Looks and smarts. Good mix," Katy said, nudging me with her elbow.
We walked out the front doors and to a line of waiting busses.
"Route seven is ours," Carol said, pointing at one of the busses that had a big seven on a white paper in the window by the doors.
"Nine is mine," Katy said, pointing at another.
We ended up talking about the party next month, and the one last month for Heather Farthing's thirteenth. Well, they did. I mostly listened and nodded, and smiled Steven's smile.
"Time to go," Carol said when the busses honked, one after another. "See you tomorrow, tiger."
She smiled at me, and I was almost sure she was going to actually try to kiss me! But then Katy leaned over and pecked me on the cheek really quick and said, "See you tomorrow, cutie."
I almost pissed down my leg!
"You're such a whore!" Carol laughed at her.
I had time to recover before they paid me any attention. By the time they were done laughing and looked at me again, I had on Steve's winning smile and had my shoulders back and my spine straight.
"I'll see you tomorrow," I said as smoothly as Steve could, then waved and turned to walk back toward the doors and wait for my grandpa to show up.
I'd seen girls look at his butt when he walked away from them, so I made sure I sort of wiggled it back and forth like he did. I heard them giggle.
When I sat down on the bench by the doors, they were both on the busses. I didn't look for them in the windows. I did that Steven thing where he leans back on his hands with his ankles crossed and looks up at the sky and seems to be thinking deep, important, mysterious thoughts.
I was thinking how great it was to be Steven Bradley. My first day, and I had two girls making moves on me, and one kissed my cheek.
Someone sat down next to me. Kevin Walker. He smiled at me and nodded. I nodded back.
"So, Katy's after your pecker already, huh?" he laughed.
I laughed and did my best not to blush. Steven Bradley does not blush.
"She's got great taste. What can I say?"
He laughed and punched my shoulder, and said, "Studly."
"You know it."
One of Steven Bradley's favorite phrases.
"She gives good head."
Whoa! Steven Bradley does not blurt out, 'What?'
"She does, huh?" I added as calmly as I could.
"Carol won't touch it with a ten foot pole, but Katy will."
"Really. Good to know."
"Don't, like, expect it, or anything. Or mention it or push her for it. But she will. Watch and see."
"Play it cool, huh?"
"Yeah. You know."
"Yeah. Girls back in Chicago are the same. Some. Some'll jump ya first date and do whatever you want. But they'll give ya the itch and scabs, too."
"You've had head before?" he asked.
I wondered if he'd really got head from Katy or if it was bull shit. I'd gotten head, but from a guy. An older guy. And I suddenly thought about him and missed him. I had to shove those thoughts away really fast.
"Oh, yeah. A few times."
"Lyin'?" he asked, giving me the stare.
I knew the stare. I gave it back.
"Nope. Honest. I've had head more than once."
"What's the guy's name?" he laughed.
Steven Bradley does not blush.
"Shut up, homo," I shot back. "Lookin' for a guy to hook up with or something?"
"Cshhhh. Yeah, right. I'm lookin' for some hot cock to shove up my ass. Interested, big boy?"
"Sure. But can you take it? Might split you wide open," I said, trying to sound serious.
"Yeah, right! I bet a roll of dimes is bigger!"
"Than yours, probably."
"I'll just have to ask Katy."
He turned really red!
"Oooh!" I said, knowing I was onto something.
"She didn't, really. I was bee-essing."
"So were you."
"No I wasn't. I've got head before. Couple a times."
"Really?" he asked, giving me the stare again.
I gave it back and said, "Dude, honest. I have," and nodded, holding his stare.
Steven Bradley does not blush. He just grins a little from the side of his mouth.
"I know Katy does, though. Honest. She gave Mark Hawkins one. She even admitted it once, but it got around, and she'd probably get pissed if you mention it. But you can ask around. It's true."
"Good to know," I said again, and with a Steven Bradley nod.
A car pulled up and he said, "That's my ride. See ya tomorrow, studly," as he stood up.
He laughed, kicked my feet, then jogged to the car.
I went back to gazing thoughtfully at the sky, like Steven. I was amazed that I was making friends with the cool kids. I was part of the cool crowd. Not only the cool crowd, but the oldest class in school, too. The sixth-grade cool crowd. The kings of the school.
I was lost in thoughts of being popular and liked and having friends when I heard the old pickup pull up and honk. I picked up my pack and joined Grandpa in it with a huge grin on my face.
"Ohhh-kay," he droned, smiling at me. "I recognize that grin!"
"The one that says, I got it all goin' on!"
I shrugged at him, still grinning.
"Gonna tell me?"
"Okay, fine, do the mysterious grandson routine then."
"Fine. So, ready to see what the store has to offer as far as bikes go?"
"Off we go."
The store offered very little. Most were too small, just kids bikes. They had ten-speeds in my size, but they were dainty looking things with wheels and tires so narrow that I didn't see how anyone could keep them from falling over onto their sides. I had to choose from a red one with knobby tires and no gears, or a white one with less knobby tires and five gears. The red one was cheaper, so I went with it. It was still a lot.
Then the clothes section. He left me alone after some advice about size. I found ones that were large enough and weren't in an old man style. I got two packs of three pairs. And some very large, long, white t-shirts, also as advised by Gramps.
Then home. Home!
We got the bike out of the back of the pickup and I pushed it up to the porch.
"Go get changed into some work clothes, and we'll get some of the chores done, then we'll try out that bike after dinner."
I changed and met him at the barn. Feeding the chickens and other animals, cleaning up after them, and then we fixed one of the barn doors that had a bad hinge. It was all dusty, dirty, sweaty work. I liked it. It was real work. Doing something that mattered. Taking care of the animals made sure we had food in future. Fixing the barn door made sure wild dogs and wolves and such didn't get in to them. We were taking care of our own futures. We didn't have to rely entirely on the stores. It was really a neat feeling. Maybe I was meant to be a farm boy?
Then a shower and into regular clothes. Not work clothes, not school clothes, not formal clothes. Regular clothes. I had clothes for more than just wearing all day to do everything in. Amazing.
Dinner was great. More real food that wasn't microwaved shit in a box. Hot, fresh, real food. I had no idea what I had been missing all those years. Eggs from the barn, ham from the pen, corn from the fields, biscuits made from wheat from the fields and milk from the cows in the barn, milk that I also drank from an actual glass glass. All the porcelain plates set on a red and white checkered table cloth.
I wondered if it would all ever seem real or not.
Then, after clearing the table, and helping Grandma put them away after she washed the dishes, Gramps sat down with his bible and a cigarette, Grandma got to work on her crochet.
There was only one thing I wanted to do. Two, really, but one right then.
"Can I call Chuck?"
"Sure. Keep it short. Long distance."
They had a phone in the kitchen and one in the hallway near the front door. I went to the one near the front door and dialed his number.
"Oh, geeze. I was hoping you'd forgot that one!"
"Oh well. So, how'd everything go?"
"The lawyer said I was probably going to stay here. And I went to school today. And they got me tons of clothes yesterday. Good ones. And a bike. I got to learn to ride it yet. And I have to stay in the same class all day! Is that weird or what? Oh, and I think I made friends already. There's these two girls in my class, and they were really nice. And this guy, Kevin, he was so cool. They're like the coolest kids in class, and they're nice! They asked me to have lunch with them! And tomorrow. And one, Katy, is on my bus. And Kevin seems really cool. We were talking after school. And I got invited to this party next month. I forgot to ask Grandma and Grandpa if I could go yet! I bet they'll let me."
He didn't say a word as I rattled off everything I could think of, almost without breathing. I finally ran out of things to tell him.
"So, it sounds like someone is fitting in very nicely. Good for you, Aiden!"
"Thanks! I'm so surprised! I thought it was going to be so hard! But it's almost too easy!"
"Just be yourself, Aiden."
For a moment, I almost told him that would never work, that I was being Steven Bradley, and that was working. But I didn't know if I should. I sure didn't want to argue with him about it, or anything.
"Yeah. So how's things up in old Chicago?"
"Nothing new here. Work and home. Boring stuff."
I wanted to say it, but I didn't know if I should. But I really wanted to say it.
"I miss you."
"I miss you, too, Aiden."
"Yes. I do, Aiden."
"Well, you got the other guys. The ones... you know."
"I suppose. But they aren't you."
"I do miss you."
I felt myself blush.
"I do miss you, Chuck. A lot."
And what we did. Am I gay? What if I am? Is he? Has to be. Is he one of those weird pedos? Has to be. Will I be? Did he turn me into one? What if I become one?
"Me too, Aiden. I..." He sighed and sounded weird. "I don't think I'll be... well... picking up anyone."
"You mean... those guys?"
"Yeah. I mean... I never thought about... feeling... anything for one. I just..."
"Never mind. Not worth wasting the time on it. So, tell me about this Katy and Carol. Which one you want to go to this party with?"
"It's not that kind of party! Geeze! I'm not going with either one. They're both going to be there, though."
We talked about them, and school, and learning to ride a bike, and the farm. Then he said he had to go.
"I don't want to run up a huge phone bill for your grandparents. This call is already been too long. But I wish we could talk much longer."
"Will you come visit this weekend?"
"I'm hoping so. I'll ask your grandparents first."
"They won't mind. They'd like it if you do."
"Maybe. I might not even be able to. You know how life is."
I did, but I didn't. How could anything keep him from coming to visit if he wanted to?
"But you'll come, right?"
"I'll try. Now, you've got to get off the phone. Write me a nice long letter. Okay? I want to know everything. Okay?"
"Good. Call me again Thursday night. Okay? If your grandparents don't mind."
"Okay. I will!"
"Good. Well, goodnight, Aiden. Sweet dreams."
"You too, Chuckie."
He sighed and said, "I'll come up with some awful nickname for you yet."
"Accepted. Be good."
I hated to hang up. I wanted to see him. He had to come for the weekend. Didn't he? Yeah, he had to. I was looking forward to it.
I went upstairs and watched my very own television in my very own room from my very own bed. A real bed. With soft, warm, clean blankets. And I did homework from books that didn't have stupid drawings of dicks and balls or hairy pussies on almost every page. In fact, the books were nearly new. And some paragraphs or lines were underlined or highlighted, which turned out to be quite a help. And I had a notebook for each class. And highlighters, blue and black pens, and plenty of pencils. And a ruler, a compass, an angle square, a calculator, and everything I needed. And I didn't have to worry about them coming up missing from my room or being taken or broken at school. Or being chased home.
I was barely through my math work, and looking forward to Howard's help tomorrow, when Gramps knocked on my door. I hadn't closed it. I'd thought about it, but I was just doing homework, even if the television was on.
"So, you ready to fall on your ass a few times, bucko?"
I knew he hadn't forgot. I knew he would do what he said he would. I nodded and smiled and hopped off the bed and put on my old tennis shoes.
"Let's see if you can pick up on it like I expect you can," he said, one hand on my shoulder as we headed downstairs.
First, he held the seat as I sat on it, and let me try to balance it without using a foot on the ground to keep from falling over. It was impossible!
"How can you keep it from falling over?" I asked.
Every time he let go of the seat, I'd start falling over to one side or the other.
"You can't when it's not moving. We're just trying to get you used to the idea of balancing it first. It's easier when you're moving."
He told me to turn the wheel the way I was falling, and I kept doing that until it became almost automatic.
"Never let yourself turn away from the fall. You'll just end up goin' over even faster," he said, again letting go and waiting as I turned and leaned and tried not to have to put my foot down.
But I did. Again and again.
"Okay. Now. I'm gonna walk alongside of ya, holdin' on, and you pedal and steer. I'll keep ya from fallin' over all the way, so don't put your foot down unless ya really need to. Okay?"
I nodded. He pushed, I pedaled. I was moving! I jerked the handlebars side to side, and wobbled like my mom's drunk boyfriends. But I was rolling along! Slow and wobbly, but moving.
We went around in a small circle, then went around in the other direction a while. Then in a straight line from the house to the barn and back.
"Doin' fine, Aiden. Small changes in the steering, like the tractor. No big changes. Small and gentle. Keep it straight. That's it."
He got out of breath and I pedaled slower.
"Keep it upright and don't concentrate on it. Just let it happen. You got it."
It was getting easier. It wasn't so hard. It was a lot like walking or running. You just had to keep your balance and keep moving, and turn the handlebars the right way and not jerk them or turn them too far.
"That's it, Aiden! Now, turn left and come back."
I was near the front porch. I turned to the left and realized that he wasn't beside me. I snapped my head up to see him way back at the barn.
I was on my side in an instant. He laughed and said, "Now, get your ass back on it."
I brushed the dirt off my hands and knees, got the seat back under my seat, put one foot on the pedal, and kicked off like before, when he had helped. I was more wobbly than ever! But I was so wobbly on my own! I picked up speed and steadied out. Small changes to the handlebars. Lean this way, that way, try to stay in the middle. Faster. Smoother. Steadier.
It felt like flying!
"Turn around me and head back to the porch, bucko!"
I did! I made a long, wide, slow, wiggly turn around him, and then went toward the porch, faster, smoother, steadier. Another turn, then back toward him.
"Knew it! Nothin' to it for a son a my son!"
I turned around him, actually laughing! It was awesome!
I saw Grandma on the porch, smiling, one hand on her mouth.
"I see! I see, Aiden!"
I dared to wave as I got close to the porch. I nearly lost it! But I grabbed the handlebar and managed to wobble my way back to a steady turn.
"Wonderful, Aiden!" she cried behind me.
I pushed for speed. I was almost whipping around Gramps as I turned. My legs pumped and my arms worked, and I rode.
I learned that you need a lot more room to turn when you're going faster. I didn't have that room when I turned around at the front porch. I saw that I was going to ride smack into the stairs! I jerked the handlebars too hard and almost went over them. I ended up tangled with the bike and the little, wire fencing Gran had around her flower beds next to the steps.
"Oh! Aiden! Are you okay, hon?" she cried as she came down the stairs and arrived next to me.
"I'm okay! Don't!" I said as she began helping me up. "I can do it."
I got up, pulled up the bike, kicked down the kickstand, and looked at the mess I'd made of her little fence.
"Oh, shit, sorry!"
"Oh, don't mind that. Are you hurt?"
"Nope!" I said, almost proud of that fact.
We were straightening the wire fencing when Gramps got there.
"Not bad for your first spill, bucko. Took out some fencing and flowers. Not bad at all."
The wire fencing wasn't going to ever look straight again, but it was back in place. Some of the flowers were not going to survive.
"Really sorry, Gran."
"It's nothing. Nothing compared to the lesson I hope you learned, anyway."
"Yeah. If I'm gonna turn at high speed, I better have the room!"
"I was hoping you'd learned not to ride near the flowers or the gardens, but I guess that one isn't such a bad one either," she said, smiling.
"There's the difference between men and women, Aiden. Men consider the technical side of things, women the appearance."
"Oh, don't you dare start teaching him that kind of thing!" Grandma warned him.
"Oh? You'd rather I taught him girly things?"
"Well, I hardly meant that. I mean that there's such a big difference between the sexes."
"And there isn't?"
"He needen't worry about such things right now. He's just a boy."
"He's twelve. And I expect it's about the right time he be learning those things."
They were discussing such things and heading up the stairs when I slipped back onto the bike - my bike - and rode toward the barn.
I rode until I was exhausted and the sun had set. My legs felt like rubber and my ass was so sore I wondered if it was possible to sit at my desk tomorrow without hurting. And my arms were still feeling the bumpy ground even when I was walking into the house and admiring the bike from the porch. I felt the sore muscles in my arms as I opened the screen door and the tired muscles of my legs as I walked up the stairs.
I fell onto my bed and sighed out loud.
"I heard a distinctly tired tread on the stairs," Gramps said from my door.
"Uh-huh," was all I could manage.
He sat on the bed near me. I rolled over onto my back, grinning.
"Had a good time, huh?"
"Nothin' to it, huh?"
He patted my stomach.
"Knew you'd catch on. Now, the rules. No ridin' at night. Unless its inside the yard. Cars comin' down a road at night won't see you until they've done run you over. Understand?"
"No ridin' down the state highway. You do, and no bike. Get me?"
"You'd end up a mashed mess, and your grandmother would never let me live it down. And funerals are expensive."
I grinned and nodded.
"No ridin' off anywhere unless we know where you're goin'. Even if you're just off for a ride and you don't know where to, you let us know what direction you're headin'. Got me?"
"We might need to find you, or you might end up lost or hurt. If we don't know what direction you took off in, how're we gonna know which way to look?"
"Fine. And one last one. No doin' no Evel Knievel shit on that bike. Now, I know you're gonna, but I've told you not to. So, when you do, and you break a leg or an arm or get a concussion, I told ya so."
I nodded, grinning.
"Now, if you wanna ride it to school, that'd be fine, but not on days we expect rain. People drive like lunatics anyway, but in the rain, well, odds are you'll be a stain by the time you get halfway home."
I nodded, grinning wider.
"You take Sommerset to the hill, then go down to the left and stay on that road until you see the school. Don't be goin' no other way. That's about the only safe way, except across the fields, and that's gonna be a bitch."
"Be better if you take the bus, anyway. Safer. Quicker, too. You wont' have to leave so early. If you ride, you'll have to leave about half an hour earlier. Understand?"
"Yeah. I think I'd rather take the bus, anyway. Don't wanna get to school all sweaty."
"Prob'ly the best idea."
"Ya did good, Aiden."
I sat up and hugged him. He hugged me back and rubbed my back.
"You best get back to your studies. Good dreams, bucko."
"Night. You too."
I needed to try to study a bit more, but I was so sweaty and dusty and dirty. I'd taken another couple of falls after that first one, and my hands and the knees of my jeans were pretty grody. I opened a pack of those big boxer shorts, got some clean underwear and one of the big t-shirts, and headed downstairs and took a nice, long, hot shower. No worries about being interrupted. I even felt covered enough in those boxers and the long shirt, that I stopped to say goodnight to Grandma in the front room in them. The shirt was just long enough to cover anything even if I wasn't wearing any shorts, but having it and the big boxers on over my real underwear was as good as being in street clothes.
"Proud of you tonight, Aiden."
She gave me a tight hug and kissed the top of my head.
"Good night, Aiden. I love you."
"I love you, too."
It was so weird to say that! And even weirder to feel it! But so good, too!
Back in my room, I did homework until I got tired. I turned off the television, the lights, and got into my warm, soft, comfortable bed and closed my eyes. No worries about being bothered, no worries about hearing them fight, or have sex, or other people coming over and having a party and keeping me awake. No fear of being woken up and screamed at.
Just the quiet sounds of the night insects, the soft breezes, an occasional night bird or owl, sometimes a cow or sheep mewling, or the chickens. The air smelled mostly of grass and flowers, but the smells from the animals were blown this way a few times. It wasn't that bad.
I thought about him.