When I walked out of the subdivision, I turned left, instead of right. When I walked to school with Lane, we always headed right. I was looking for a bus station, so I figured I would have a better chance going in a different direction.
I wanted to get away. I didn’t care anymore. I was going to give it a try, mainly because I had become attached so quickly to Lane. However, he wasn’t enough to make me want to stay. The city appeared large enough to have a bus station. I was hoping I could get a ticket to Atlanta. Greyhound had to have buses that traveled south.
At home, I didn’t get along with my mother, but we tolerated one another. It had been working until a few years ago. However, I knew I couldn’t stay with my father. If I did, Curtis or I would eventually end up killing the other. He definitely had issues, but I was too unconcerned to care. I couldn’t even imagine a situation in which we could even tolerate each other. For some reason, he had a hostile attitude towards me. Living under the same roof would be impossible. Rodney wouldn’t always be around to step between us like he had today.
I could see a few tall buildings in the distance, so I walked towards them. It took me about a half hour to reach the center of town. I asked an elderly woman on the street where I could find the bus station, but she clutched her purse as if I was going to rob her and scurried away.
When I turned the block to continue my search, I saw a stalled car in the street. I heard the clicking of the engine, and I knew the person had a dead battery. A young boy jumped out of the car and attempted to push it out of the street.
I hurried over and helped him push from behind as he pushed from the driver’s door. He looked back and nodded appreciatively at me. When it was safely out of the way of blocking traffic, he wiped his hands and walked to the back of the car.
“Thanks,” he smiled as he extended his hand.
“No problem,” I replied as I looked at the older model silver Honda. It had several dents in the side, and the side window was duct taped with heavy plastic. I asked, “Dead battery?”
“Yeah,” he replied as he wiped sweat off his brow. “Third time this week.” I studied him as I watched him look down and scowl at the car. He was about my age, but shorter than me. His brown hair was short with a curly spike on top. He was wearing round framed glasses that he kept pushing back up onto the bridge of his nose. His appearance reminded me of Daniel Radcliffe in one of the last Harry Potter films. When he spoke, I expected him to speak with a British accent. However, his voice was a Southern accent that Lane, Mike and the other people I met spoke.
I laughed when he kicked the rear bumper and a piece broke off and fell to the street. “Piece of shit,” he muttered as he picked it up and tossed it into the rear seat.
I laughed and suggested, “Maybe it’s time you bought another car.”
“Wish I could,” he replied, “but I’m working two jobs now, and I can hardly keep up with the gas and insurance on this one.” He looked at his watch and said, “Damn it. I’m going to be late for work.” He looked over and added, “I guess I’ll only have one job now. This makes the third time this month I’ve been late.”
I asked, “Where do you work?”
“Did,” he replied as he saluted me. “Welcome to Burger King, Sir. We do it your way.”
I began laughing. “You’re an idiot.”
He smiled and extended his hand again. “I’m Shade.”
I shook his hand and replied, “Casey. Casey Barrett.” I gave him a puzzled look and asked, “Shade? Is that your first name?”
“Naw,” he said. “My first name is Almon, but if you call me that I may have to get my rifle out of the trunk and shoot you.” When my eyes widened, he laughed and added, “I don’t really have a rifle in the trunk.”
“Good,” I responded nervously. “I’ll be sure to call you Shade.”
He folded his arms and studied his car. “I don’t know what to do. I gotta get this piece of crap off the street or the cops will ticket it.”
I suggested, “Can’t you call your father?” I was surprised when he stepped back and roared with laughter.
“My old man lives in Pensacola,” he replied. “I ain’t seen him in about ten years.”
“What about your mom?”
He looked at his watch. “She’s working the tables at the diner,” he said. “Besides, she doesn’t have a car. She rides the bus.”
Talking to Shade, I had almost forgotten why I was downtown. “Is there a bus station around here where I can catch a Greyhound bus?”
He gave me a puzzled look. “Where you headed? It’s a Saturday, and the buses don’t run as regular on the weekends.”
I replied, “Atlanta.”
“What’s in Atlanta?” he asked, “Kinfolk?”
“No,” I said. “I’m trying to get away from kinfolk.” I had never used the word before, and I wondered if it sounded strange coming from my mouth. If it did, Shade didn’t seem to notice.
Shade studied me a minute and said, “Uh, oh. Sounds like you got a tale to tell.” He pointed to his left, put his hands on the back of the car and said, “Help me push this piece of shit into that parking lot, and we’ll go get something to eat.” I went to the driver’s door and grabbed the steering wheel. A few minutes later, we had pushed the car out of the street.
“Should be okay here,” he said as he locked the doors. “I hope someone steals it, though. Then I can collect insurance on it.”
“Wow,” I laughed. “What will you do with the fifty dollars?”
He smiled and said, “Smart ass.” I followed him through the parking lot and down a side street. A few minutes later, we were on the main street. He looked around, “What do you fancy?”
“I don’t have much money,” I informed him.
“Me neither,” he laughed. “McDonald’s then?” I nodded and we walked a few blocks to the restaurant.
“I worked here about a year ago,” he said as we entered. “If the old boss is here, maybe I can get my old job back.”
I laughed, “Is that the only work you do, fast food?”
He frowned and replied, “I do what I have to do to get by.” He pointed to a booth and told me to have a seat. I watched as he walked around the counter and talked to a woman who appeared to be about forty years old. They talked for several minutes, and then she walked away. A couple of minutes later, she returned and handed him a large McDonald’s bag. He came around the counter and headed to the table with a large smile on his face.
“I take it you got your job back?”
“Yep,” he replied proudly. “I start tomorrow.” He put the bag on the table, opened it and pulled out several sandwiches and three large fries. “I also got us a free happy meal,” he said with a laugh.
I looked at the large assortment in front of us. “It looks more than a happy meal.”
“I’m happy,” he stated. “You’re happy, so it’s a happy meal.” We each grabbed a double cheeseburger and started eating.
As I took a bite, I stared at Shade. “What?” he asked as he wiped his chin. “Did I dribble some mustard on me?”
“No,” I laughed. “Has anyone ever told you that you...”
“No!” he shouted as several people looked over at our table. He leaned towards me and whispered softly, “Please don’t say that.” He sat back and grinned. “I get told that about ten times a day. People even stop me on the street and ask me. I ask them what would Harry Potter be doing living in a hellhole like this place.”
“It’s not that bad,” I quipped without thinking. It opened up the door for him to ask a question.
“Then why are you leaving?”
I took a bite of my hamburger and reached for a fry. He grabbed my hand and stared into my face. “Why?”
“Shit, Man,” I replied. “I really prefer not to talk about it.”
“Shit?” he asked bemusedly. “I got a friggin’ car sitting in a parking lot with a dead battery. The cops have probably towed it away by now. I lost my job...”
“But,” I interrupted as I looked at the front of the restaurant. “You got another one.”
“Big deal,” he said sarcastically. “She gave me twenty hours a week, and I’ll only be making $7.50 an hour.”
I responded, “At least you have a home.”
Shade sat back and studied me for a minute. “So that’s it,” he said. “You homeless?”
“Not exactly,” I replied.
“What’s that mean?” I then explained to him about the living conditions in my father’s house. He stopped me when I mentioned Curtis’s name.
“Yeah,” I said. “You know him?”
He responded angrily, “Know him? He’s made my life at school hell since the sixth grade. He’s a friggin’ douche.”
“You got right,” I laughed.
“No wonder you’re running away.” His comment surprised me because I hadn’t said anything about running away.
“Who said I’m running away?”
He looked down at my bag, and then into my face. “For one, you asked me where you can catch a Greyhound bus. Then you tell me you’re going to Atlanta.” He looked at the bag on the floor. “And I’m guessing just about everything you own is in that bag.”
I laughed nervously. “Are you some kind of a private investigator?”
“No,” he replied, “but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” We both broke up laughing.
He stopped laughing, leaned toward me and asked softly, “So, why are you leaving?”
“Nothing is going right,” I said as I choked back tears.
“Listen, Casey,” he responded as he looked at the clock on the wall. “I’ve only known you for less than an hour, but you don’t seem like the kind of guy who just quits.”
“You don’t understand,” I mumbled softly.
He replied, “You’d be surprised. I have my own demons I fight every day.” He surprised me when he reached across the table and gripped my arm. “You’re strong, I can tell.”
He looked up at the clock again. “I really have to get going,” he said. “I’ve got to get home and take care of some things before I go to my other job.” He stood and looked down at me. “Maybe I’ll see you in school on Monday?”
“Sure,” I replied as I stood. As we were walking out, I put my hand on his back and said, “Thanks.”
Outside, we stood awkwardly facing each other. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. It was obvious a friendship was forming, and we didn’t want it to end.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out what money remained. I handed it to Shade. He looked at it and asked, “What’s this for?”
“A battery,” I replied. “There’s a little over two hundred. Is that enough?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said with a smile. Then he attempted to hand it back to me. “I can’t take this, though.”
“Sure you can,” I said. “Besides, if I keep it, I just might get that ticket to Atlanta.”
He asked again, “You sure?” When I nodded, he stuffed the bills into his pocket.”
“I owe you,” he said.
I smiled and replied, “That’s what I’m hoping.”
He winked, turned and hurried off down the sidewalk.
* * * * * * * *
No one was home when I returned. I don’t even think they realized I had left. Karen had written a note telling me that she and Lane had gone shopping, she also informed me that my father was away on a business trip.
When I went to my room, Curtis and Rodney had rearranged it back into an exercise room. I had about half the space I had earlier. The dresser had been pushed up against the bed, and I had to squeeze into a small space to get into the closet.
“Screw it,” I muttered as I put my things away. Shade was right. I was going to have to make do with my present situation. I could pack and attempt to run away a hundred times. However, the reality was, I had no place to go. I was beginning to accept the fact that I would have to remain here until I graduated. Then I could try to make it on my own.
I liked Shade. He didn’t really discuss his life much, but I was able to pick up that his background was probably much worse than mine. At least my parents had money. In fact, from what I had noticed so far, my father appeared to be quite rich. I now understood how my mother had been able all these years to live comfortably on a teacher’s salary. My father must have been providing her with child support, in addition to a generous alimony payment.
Shade talked about how he and his mother didn’t have much. They both worked low wage jobs, but he didn’t seem to complain. It was as if he was used to a meager life. Driving around in an old car seemed normal to him, and he seemed accustomed to working two jobs to help his mother meet their living expenses.
In a way, I envied him. Even though he was living in poverty, he seemed quite content. He didn’t talk much about his mother, but I could tell he seemed to worship her when he mentioned how hard she worked to make ends meet. He didn’t mention if he had any brothers or sisters, but I assumed he did, or why else would the both of them work so hard?
I took off my shirt, removed my pants and put on a pair of athletic shorts. If I was going to live in a room filled with gym equipment, then I might as well take advantage of it. Besides, I might have to build myself up if I was going to fight Curtis again.
I had been lifting weights for about ten minutes when someone opened the door. I stopped and saw Rodney standing in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I didn’t know you were in here or I would have knocked.”
“It’s okay,” I muttered as I lay back on the bench and returned to lifting the barbells.
Rodney approached and asked, “Need a spotter?”
“Sure,” I replied. “I want to add fifty pounds.”
“Fifty pounds?” he asked as he looked at the weights on the bar. “You’re already bench pressing one hundred pounds.” He walked over and picked up two ten pound weights. “How about twenty, and then you can add more?”
“Okay,” I replied as I watched him add the weights. I lay back, and he helped me with the bar. I did ten lifts before he told me to stop.
“I think you’ve reached your limit,” he said worriedly.
I replied angrily, “I’m not a wimp.”
“No one said you are,” he assured me as he glanced at my body. “It’s just that I don’t think you’ve worked out lately. You don’t want to overdo it.”
I stood, grabbed a towel and wiped the sweat off my forehead and chest. “Perhaps you’re right,” I admitted.
I watched as he removed his shirt and lay down on the bench. His upper torso was ripped. It was obvious he had spent a lot of time working out. Even though my body was naturally toned, I still looked like a weakling in comparison to his hard, firm body.
He didn’t seem to mind that I was staring at his body. He reached for the bar and asked, “Want to spot me?” I watched in amazement as he lifted the 120 pounds effortlessly. His muscles became taut with each repetition. I wasn’t keeping count, but he must have done about twenty lifts before stopping.
“I’m impressed,” I said as he stood and stretched his body.
He smiled and replied, “I’ve been involved in sports since I was seven. I was kind of a runt back then, so I started working out. Four years ago, when we moved here, Randy designed this exercise room for us.”
A wave of sadness washed over me. While I only got the obligatory money cards on my birthday and Christmas, my father was building Rodney and Curtis a weight room.
Rodney squatted down on the floor. He suggested, “Let’s do some sit ups. I’ll spot you.” I lay on my back, and he grabbed my ankles. I put my hands behind my neck and did about twenty before I began slowing down.
He let go of my ankles and said, “Better not push it. We’ll work you up to them.” He lay on his back. “Now, you spot me,” he said.
It felt strange grabbing his thick, muscular ankles. I know it was something he was used to doing with Curtis and other guys, but it made me feel uncomfortable. Each time he raised his firm body and then rested his head, his shorts would open slightly. I would get a slight glimpse of his red bikini underwear hidden underneath. I tried not to glance, but it was too tempting. Rodney was a very handsome boy, and I was only a couple of feet away from his manhood.
He did fifty sit-ups effortlessly before sitting up. He looked at me and smiled. “Coach says you’re going to join the baseball team?” It was more a comment than a question.
I began to laugh. “I don’t know why everyone is after me to play baseball. You guys must really suck if you want me on the team.”
“Suck!” he replied excitedly. “We’ve won the state championship six years in a row.” He then explained how the team had only lost one game in that time. “There’s no school that can even come close to beating us.”
I gave him a puzzled look. “Then why does Wentworth want me on the team? I’ve never played baseball in my life.”
Rodney scanned my body just like Wentworth and Mike had done. Subconsciously, I folded my arms over my chest. “You’re a little soft in places,” he said as he looked over my body, “but I’m sure Coach sees something I can’t see.”
“Well,” I replied. “He’s going to be really disappointed. Mike wants me to pitch, and I wouldn’t know a curveball from a fastball.”
“Maybe not,” replied Rodney, “but if anyone can teach you, it’s Mike. He’s the best.”
I watched as Rodney stood and put on his tee shirt. It appeared about a size too small for him. I wondered if he wore it smaller so it would accentuate his chiseled upper torso. He looked over at me and smiled slightly before commenting, “You do know Mike’s gay, don’t you?”