Authors: S. E. Hinton
Mike's feet touched bottom, and he staggered onto shore.
“I won,” he gasped out, falling onto the towel.
His cousin Terry dropped down beside him, panting.
“This time,” Terry admitted.
Terry won the short races, Mike usually won the long. They were like that at everything they did. Terry was quick but couldn't pay attention for long; Mike was stubborn.
“Wonder what the suckers back in school are doing.” Terry pawed through his clothes, found the cigarettes.
Mike knew what at least a few of them were doing. History test. One he'd studied for, too.
Mike had made up his mind. He wasn't going to drop out, flunk. It would give the step-bastard too much satisfaction, the way he kept predicting something like that.
But Terry had made a lot of sense, saying today would be better for the lake. No people, no crowds. Not that
minded; Mike was the shy one.
Terry knew the way to get Mike to skip school. He could always read his mind. Cousins, but it must be something like having a twin, Mike thought. They were closer than most brothers.
“You want to head back now?” Terry asked.
If they left for home now, no one would know where they'd beenâthough it wouldn't matter much to Terry.
Aunt Jelly would believe anything he told her, or he'd sweet-talk her out of being mad in five minutes. She'd say he was grounded, but that wouldn't last longâ¦
Mike would be facing the step-bastard, who would yell a lot and then take off his belt, his mom would just watch.
“No,” Mike said. “The fish will be biting after sundown. We don't want to waste bait.”
“You can be a real mule, Mike,” Terry said.
Mike lit his own cigarette, lay back to look at the sky.
It was a real nice day for the lake.
“We'll get a boat,” Terry said.
“What we need is a truck.” Mike took a long hit off the joint and passed it back.
“Travis Fish & Ski.”
Mike hadn't thought about details, but since fishing and skiing were two of his three favorite things, that brand of boat sounded fine.
Well, there's number three, Mike thought.
“I'll tell you what, you get the truck, I'll get the boat. We'll have enough money for both in a couple of months.”
Mike stared out at the lake. Boat sounded good. He felt like he was on one now, just drifting along, nice breezeâ¦
“What is your problem?” Terry asked.
“Who says I have a problem?”
“You just usually do.” Terry dug around in the cooler, got out another couple of beers.
Mike didn't say anything. Even if he was stone-cold sober, Terry could talk rings around him. No use trying to argue now.
“We're not hurting anybody, Mike.”
“Yes. I know.”
“It's not that dangerous. We know the guys.”
“Yes,” Mike said again, and popped open his beer.
“We'll never get our hands on money like this.”
Mike tried to hang onto his nice, fuzzy high, ignore the uneasiness in his gut.
“You know what your problem is?”
Mike said, “I worry too much.”
Sometimes he thought the first words out of Terry's mouth must have been, “Mike, you worry too much.”
“Well, yeah,” Terry said. “That and the constant farting.” Mike choked on his laugh, his beer, and threw what was left at his cousin.
But Terry was already in the lake.
“We used to bring you kids here when you were little,” Aunt Jelly said.
“I remember,” Mike said.
There were still some little kids determined to stay in the water; it was likely to be the last warm weekend of the year. Already the water was cold.
“Just a little while longer?” they'd whine when their moms made them get out. Their teeth would be chattering, their lips blue, and all they could think of was getting back in.
Mike could remember whining like that. He picked up his cigarettes from the picnic table, tapped another one out.
“He says it's not as bad as you think. His cellmate is fine. They have a window.”
Sometimes Mike thought Aunt Jelly must have had a stroke or something, since Terry â¦ left.
She seemed so stunned. Strange. She was not a stupid woman.
Mike knew damn well there was no window.
“It's not forever.”
Mike looked across the lake. It was years. Sometimes it seemed like forever to him, and he was not in there.
He looked at his truck. He was going to sell it, trade it. He'd never have a chance to get another, new, but the sight of it made his stomach turn.
The boat was gone. They took it.
The truck was in Mike's name.
“It's not your fault,” Aunt Jelly said suddenly, fiercely. She put her hand on his arm. “Terry knew what he was doing. He knew the risks.”
“Yes,” Mike said. After all, it was the truth.
“And it's not your fault you're not in there with him.”
“Just a little while longer?” the little kids whined.
They could not tell it was cold.
Mike walked along the shoreline. He should have brought his fishing tackle, he thought.
But he hadn't planned where he'd go today, just got in his old truck and drove.
He took the stick Amos brought back, and threw it as hard as he could. Then sat down on a log and stared at the water.
Forever wasn't over yet. It still had years to go.
Amos came back with the stick, dropped it. Put his head on Mike's knee and whined. He was a real quiet dog. It wasn't often he whined.
Mike stood up, zipped his jacket. It was too cold to stay. It was getting dark; he needed to go to work.
Something was his fault. He was sure about that.
“You didn't need to get all dressed up for this,” the step-father said.
Mike looked at him but said nothing. He had come from work; he would go back to work from here. You didn't get all dressed up to work on a street crew.
His cousin Terry winked at him. Terry was dressed fine, but he was between jobs as usual and had nothing better to do.
Aunt Julie smiled at Mike. He had come to the reading of the will because she asked him to. She wouldn't care if he didn't dress up.
I hope it says something about Dad's guns, Mike thought. Because I am taking them one way or the other.
The woman who was Aunt Julie's sister, his step-father's wife, had just died.
To Mike it seemed like his mother had died a long time ago.
He was glad he went to see her in the hospital, though. Glad Terry had made him.
“You will be so sorry if you don't, man,” Terry had said, and Mike was glad he had listened. He could see it meant a lot to his mother.
He held the step-father's eyes again.
I am twenty-three, not seventeen, Mike thought. Your yelling would not make me nervous now, and if you make one move to take off your belt I will strangle you with it.
Mike had thought his life was ruined when he was ten years old and Dad's car went off that icy bridge. Then two years later his mother had married this man, and Mike found out what ruined was.
The lawyer was saying something about the jewelry going to Aunt Julie. It wasn't much, but Mike was still glad she would get it and not the step-father.
He could tell Terry was trying not to laugh. He always saw the comical side to things, and this lawyer, he sounded just so damn â¦ lawyery.
(But after the funeral, Terry had sat in Mike's truck with him and hugged him while they both bawled like babies.)
The lawyer was talking about the house now, the house he had grown up in, Mike heard the address. Then heard, “â¦ to my son, Michael Timothy” and looked up to make sure he was hearing right.
One look at the step-father's face told him.
Of course the guy started fussing and protesting, and dimly Mike heard the lawyer saying the house had originally been Mike's father's, left to his wife and son, and yes maybe the terms could have been changedâbut they weren't. In fact, she had seen the lawyer about a year ago to make sure Mike got the house.
I'll paint it back white like it is supposed to be, and Terry can get off his lazy butt and help me if he wants to move in, Mike thought. And yank up that god-awful carpetâ¦
He'd get a dog, not like Bingo, who was sent to the pound for biting the step-father, but another â¦ Yeah, he would get one from the pound, that was a good idea.
He stood up. So did the step-father.
“I have to go back to work.”
He had grown a lot since he was seventeen; the other man had to look up to meet his eyes.
“She told me she changed that will,” the step-father said.
“She once told me she married you because she loved you,” Mike said. “Guess she lied to us both.” He paused.
“You got twenty-four hours to get your stuff out of my house.”
Those were the exact same words he'd heard six years before, when he thought he had left that house forever.
Mike hoped the step-father remembered saying that.
“Fuck you,” he started to add, but then realized Mom had said it for him.
Mike had the draft in the mug before the customer sat down. He didn't know the guy's name, but he knew what he wanted. Bud draft, a package of chips. And to tell the story about the UFO.
It would take three beers, but the story would come out.
How he was driving down the highway. No drugs. No booze. No one else in the truck. The white light. The engine dying. The three things in the road. Yeah, they looked like the picturesâsmall, gray, a slit for a mouth, big eyes â¦ He'd passed out or something, came to on the road with a splitting headache and four hours behind schedule.
Mike would nod, listen. Give the guy what he was thirsty for.
“Yeah, that is spooky man. It would freak anyone out. Nobody could go on driving a truck after something like that. No, I never seen one, don't want to. Sounds like hell. Sure, nobody wants to go on disability, especially mentalâ¦”
On the third beer the guy quit shaking, on the fourth he was talking sports.
Four beers in an evening never hurt anybody, and it was easy for Mike to do his job.
He'd worked here for three years now, since he was twenty-five and needed a steady job. It didn't pay much, but right then he didn't want much. Just something steady. He was the bouncer, too. Mike would rather keep a fight from happening than try to end one, and he was good at that.
He had an eye for spotting the ones who were thirsty for a fight.
He had gotten real good at knowing what people wanted.
There was one woman, just a few years older, though sometimes, the way she carried on, you'd think she could be his mother. She didn't have any kids. Maybe that was it.
She stopped in on her way home from work. It was quiet then. Sit at the bar and order a rum and Coke.
Mike could tell which days she needed more rum than Coke.
Her arms were bruised sometimes; once or twice she had a split lip. From work, she said. She worked in an old-folks' home. It would surprise you how strong they could be. Violent.
Mike would set her drink down and hear about the old people, the mean ones, the sweet ones, the families who visited, the ones who didn't.
Then she'd say she had to get home, hubby would be worried, mad, haha, you know how men are.
Mike knew how some men were, so he would nod.
One weekend when he visited his aunt, he got the name of some agency, some place you could call when hubby got mad like that. His aunt had a friend who had been in trouble.
“What'd ya give me this for?” the customer spat at him when he gave her the number. “I don't need that.”
She gulped down her drink and left. Mike felt bad. He wasn't a damn social worker. That wasn't his job.
So next time, when she came in, he acted like nothing had happened. Poured the rum and Coke.
And when she asked for a third, he said, “Maybe you better get on home. Your husband might be worried. Men lose their tempers quick, sometimes, when they get worried.”
She brightened up at that.
“Yeah, it's funny, the way it takes you sometimes. Love.”
Mike nodded, and she left happy. That was his job. Give them what they were thirsty for.
The guy who had fits about his daughter. Seeing the frigging therapist. They hypnotized you these days, made you say whatever they wanted. You couldn't believe the garbage, the filthâand they had the poor kid believing she really rememberedâ¦
It just broke his heart.
His wife's, too.
Mike said, “It's a shame the way people can mess with your mind.”
Gave him another Jack Daniel's. His money was as green as anyone else's, even if he did give Mike the creeps.
Ed, the other bartender, never said much while they worked. Ed was a lot older. There wasn't much in common outside of the job. Once, half-kidding, Mike told him, “My name is not Fool Kid.”
And Ed said, “You seem to think it is your job description.” And he wasn't kidding a bit.
But after the bar was closed, when they were cleaning up, Ed would say a few things. Women. How rotten they were. He ought to know; he was married four times. They just made your life hell.
Mike said, “If you quit marrying them, maybe you would like them better. Nothing wrong with a lady friend.”
And Ed would scowl, mumble. Then mention, there was this gal he'd seen at church â¦ She did seem niceâ¦
Mike said everyone could use a friend.
Mike wasn't any talker. But he could listen good. It was like he could hear a whole other conversation under the words they said. The storiesâthe wife, the boss, the brother-in-law, the goddamn copsâ¦
Sometimes, late Saturday nights, when he worked till 2:00, Mike would take a few tips, buy himself a couple of shots of whiskey. He could still work fineâwatched out for fights, ladies who needed an escort to their cars, glasses needing to be refilled, cleaned.
Which words they wanted to hear.
Three years here.
It didn't seem that long. Saturday nights, late, the bar was so full of smoke it was like a heavy fog; the music and noise had melted together where you couldn't tell which was which, it was like being in a dream.
It was a good job, far away from that mess he and Terry got in. The paycheck didn't bounce.
Besides, he didn't know what else to do.
But he couldn't help thinking how this place would look twenty years from nowâ¦
His mind went strange places that late at night. He'd have another whiskey. But it wasn't what he was thirsty for.