Neil had a notebook opened, and the others at the cafeteria table were huddled around him. Ned leaned over, peered at the numbers Neil had scribbled on the paper and asked, “How much have you managed to raise?”
Neil looked at the others and replied cheerfully, “Over four thousand dollars.”
Owen let out a whistle. “Wow, Neil,” he said. “That should be more than enough. How did you get so much?”
“Mom’s insurance company donated two thousand,” he replied. “Then when the other businesses heard what she did, they started giving.” He smiled and added, “I didn’t have to do anything but sit back and let the money roll in.”
Sammy smiled and asked, “When is he going to get it?”
Neil looked at her holding Alex’s hand. Over the past couple of months, they had become inseparable. She was always courtside at all his basketball games, and the others sat beside her. Afterwards, they would go to a local diner to celebrate the team’s victory.
“Mom talked to the guy on the phone yesterday,” he informed her. “She’s going to write a check from the funds; and as soon as he gets it, the chair will be delivered.”
Neil looked over at the door as Lucas entered. He was fussing at Elizabeth because she was attempting to push him in his wheelchair.
“I can do it myself,” he insisted as he grabbed the wheels and pushed himself over to the table. He looked around at the others as Neil quickly hid the notebook in his book bag.
“Hey, Guys,” he said with a smile as he pushed himself up to the table. “What’ s going on?” He gave them a puzzled look. He could tell by the look on their faces that they had been talking about him.
Sammy looked at Elizabeth, smiled and asked, “Is Lucas still being Mr. Grumpy?”
“Isn’t he always?” she joked as she lightly slapped Lucas on the forehead.
A lot had happened to him the past three months. He almost died from the beating. He was in the hospital for five weeks recuperating before being sent to a nursing home for an additional three weeks. Besides numerous facial injuries that had now healed and were almost unrecognizable, his uncle had delivered several severe blows to his back. One blow damaged his spinal cord. It left Lucas paralyzed from the waist down. His doctors were hopeful that someday he might be able to walk short distances. However, he would still need several years of rehabilitation to learn to walk again.
When he was dismissed from the nursing home, he had nowhere to go. His grandmother was residing in a nursing home. What she had witnessed that night in her home had left her mentally incapacitated. She spent most of her days staring idly at the television set, refusing to talk to anyone.
It was difficult to place Lucas in a foster home. Few families wanted a child his age, especially one who would need a lot of care. He would require transportation three days a week for his physical therapy sessions. His injury had also left him behind at school. He would need tutors to help him catch up on assignments, or he would face failing for the year. He was adamant about returning to school and graduating with the class he had considered his family for the past ten years.
One of the positive results of the accident was that Lucas was able to put his life into perspective. Lonely hours in a hospital bed have a way of making a person reevaluate his life. He had always resented his life. The abuse that he had to endure because of his uncle’s deviant behavior had turned him into a bitter person. The hatred he felt made him strike out at those he cared most about- his friends. Owen, Robbie, Ned and Neil had become the brothers he never had. When there was no love in his solitary life, there were always his four best friends.
Over the months, he had come to realize just how bitter he had become. As he grew older and realized the extent to which his uncle’s frequent rapes had affected his life, he lashed out. He became a bully to justify his manhood. He couldn’t prevent the control his uncle had over him, but he could transfer his power to those around him. Now, he realized how controlling he had become.
However, what affected him the most, and brought tears to his eyes late at night when all the lights were out, was just how strong his friendship was with the others. They visited him regularly at the nursing home as he was undergoing rehabilitation. It just wasn’t his body that he was learning to reuse. It was also his heart.
Neil and Owen visited him almost daily. Neil had gotten his driver’s license, and his mother would let him use her car to visit him. They would stay for hours playing video games or just chatting about what was happening at school. They made him feel like he was still a part of the class. Ned and Robbie would come with them on the weekends, and they would stay until the staff told them that visiting hours were over.
Once, he was able to convince the director of the facility to let him have a ‘sleepover’ with the other guys. She agreed, and they spent the entire night playing games and talking about old times. They even kidded Neil about finding a boyfriend. However, he insisted he would wait until he graduated before that happened.
“You never know,” responded Lucas. “Who would have thought this would have happened to me,” he said as he patted his legs. “Life sometimes throws you a curve ball when you least expect it.”
Owen giggled and said, “It sure won’t be a straight ball for Neil.” Neil’s face reddened as he reached over and shoved his best friend’s shoulder.
“Shut up, Dirtwad,” he laughed. Everyone laughed at Owen’s embarrassed face when Neil added, “I don’t see you asking Susie Talbott out any time soon.” Everyone knew that Owen had had a crush on Susie since the eighth grade.
Owen puffed out his chest and replied, “Maybe I’ll surprise you one day.”
Robbie giggled and said, “When hell freezes over.”
As the time for Lucas to be released from the nursing home grew nearer, the anxiety of the boys grew greater. Lucas still had nowhere to go. Neil even begged his father and Dwight to let Lucas stay with them. However, Brian reminded him that would mean Lucas would have to attend a different school.
Then as the day for his released approached, a family notified the social worker that they would agree to let Lucas stay with them. They had three children, but two had recently left for college, and only a daughter remained. Elizabeth was a senior, and she was attending nursing classes at night at a local community school. She had heard about Lucas’s situation in one of her classes when they were discussing spinal injuries. She went to her parents and told them of the situation. After a visit by Reverend Downing to their home one night, they agreed to let Lucas stay with them.
The reverend had assured the Rembert family that the church would help financially to support Lucas until he graduated and could find his own place to stay. They could also use the church van to transport Lucas back and forth to school each day.
So for the past month, Lucas had been residing in the Rembert home. It was very different from the little shack that he shared with his grandmother. Located outside of the city limits, it was a sprawling ranch on twenty-two acres. Lucas now lived in the Elizabeth’s older brother’s room. The room had its own door to the outside, which made it easier for him to get about. He could also entertain his friends without disturbing the other members of the family. Other than providing him meals, he felt a sense of independence that he had never before experienced.
Everyone looked over at Alex when he excitedly asked, “Who’s going to the game tonight? We’re playing Eastdale. They beat us last year,” he said, “but we’re going to kick some ass this year.”
The guys moaned when Sammy leaned over, kissed him on his cheek and said, “Only because you’re the highest scorer on the team.”
Ned giggled and said, “Bet that’s not the only thing he scores.” The guys for weeks had been speculating whether Sammy and Alex were doing ‘the dirty deed,’ as they called it.
Sammy smiled and responded demurely, “You’ll never know.” Alex grinned and gave them a mischievous wink.
Robbie leaned over and whispered in Neil’s ear, “See. I told you they were doing it.”
Just then, the bell rang and they stood to go to class. Neil instinctively grabbed Lucas’s wheelchair and started for their next class. Alex and Sammy walked ahead of them holding hands. Ned asked Robbie softly, “Do you think they are really doing it?”
“Probably,” replied Robbie. “You’re just jealous cause you’re not getting any.”
“Hey,” said Ned. “I can get some if I want to.”
Robbie looked down at Ned’s hand, laughed and remarked, “Yeah, with Rosie Palms.” He laughed louder when Ned looked at his hand.
* * * * * *
The scoreboard was showing 13:16 when Neil entered the gymnasium with Lucas. He pushed Lucas over to the front row where the others had reserved a place for them. The team was out on the court doing their traditional warm- up exercises.
Sammy appeared nervous. “We better beat Eastdale,” she said as she lifted her red and white pom poms into the air and waved them.
“Relax,” said Owen reassuringly, “Your boyfriend will win the game for us.”
“He better,” she replied as she held up the pompoms once again and shouted out Alex’s name. He looked over, smiled and waved back to her.
The group was talking about the game as the time clocked ticked down. Suddenly, Owen’s eyes narrowed as he looked across the gym. The others looked to where he was staring intently. Two sophomore boys appeared to be harassing a young freshman student.
Owen stood and said, “I’ll be right back.” He then started walking to the other side of the gym. Neil and the others watched as he sat down beside the freshman. He talked to him briefly, and then he stood, turned around and began talking to the sophomores. They couldn’t see what he was saying, but it appeared he was very upset with their behavior. A minute later, they extended their hands and shook the hand of the freshman. Owen patted him on his back and headed back across the gym.
When he approached the others, he mumbled, “Jeff and Carlos can be such assholes sometimes.”
Sammy smiled and remarked, “You handed that really well.” She pointed across the gym at Ms. Shelton. “Look who saw what you did.” When Owen looked over, Ms. Shelton gave him a thumbs up.
The buzzer rang, and both teams came out onto the floor. The Farmersville section rose and started cheering for their team. Red and white pompoms filled the gymnasium.
The game wasn’t even close. Farmerville immediately scored the first ten points and Eastdale was never able to cut into the lead. Alex had a career high of forty-two points. The group waited around until after the game for him. Finally, he emerged from the double doors. His brother, Gerry, and Paul, the starting center, trailed behind him.
“I’m starving,” he announced after kissing Sammy. “How about we go get some burgers at the Burger Palace?”
“Sounds good to me,” replied Neil as he looked around at the others. They all nodded their heads. Lucas, Ned and Owen rode with Neil, while the others followed in Paul’s car. Neil had gotten his license a month earlier, and his mother would let him use the car to attend the games.
The restaurant was crowded when they arrived. They had to wait ten minutes for a table that would seat the nine of them. The owner was an avid fan of the team, so he made sure that the two stars of the team were seated quickly.
After being shown to their table, Neil pushed Lucas forward and then sat beside him. Sammy sat beside him with Alex next to her. Gerry and Paul sat opposite them. The owner approached the table and handed them menus.
“Your meal is on me,” he announced cheerfully as he walked away.
“Shit,” mumbled Ned. “I’m getting everything!.”
“You will not,” admonished Sammy. “Mr. Dunson is being nice, so don’t take advantage of him.”
“Well,” remarked Ned, “I’m still going to order a double cheeseburger deluxe.” Sammy looked at him and rolled her eyes.
Neil looked across the table at Gerry and Paul. It appeared that they were holding hands under the table. Alex mentioned once that they were dating, and that Paul was a frequent guest in their bedroom. Neil had laughed when Alex once admitted that he had tried to get his little brother to hook up with him.
“I can get my own boyfriend,” insisted Neil. “I don’t need you playing Cupid for me.”
“That’s almost the same thing Gerry said,” replied Alex with a tone of disappointment.
As they waited for their meals to arrive, Sammy nudged Neil in the side a couple of times. Neil appeared annoyed as he asked her, “What?”
Sammy nodded her head at the table next to them and asked, “Who’s he?”
When Neil looked over, Sammy nudged him again. “Don’t look.”
Neil hissed, “You told me to look.”
“Look,” replied Sammy, “but don’t let him see you look.”
Neil pushed his knife off the table. When he reached down to pick it up, he looked over at the table next to them. He saw a family of four. It was a father, mother and two sons. One of the boys looked to be his age; the other appeared a couple of years younger.
The older boy that drew his attention was really cute. Neil had never seen him before. He had strawberry blond short hair and blue eyes. He appeared tall and lanky. However, since he was sitting, Neil couldn’t really tell just how tall he was. As Neil picked up the fork, their eyes met. Neil’s face flushed as he continued to stare into his eyes. When the boy’s mother said something to him, the boy looked away.
“Who is that?” whispered Sammy as Neil placed his knife back on the table. “Did you see how he was looking at you?”
Neil looked past Sammy to see Alex grinning widely. It was obvious that he had seen the eye contact as well. “I don’t know,” responded Neil as his face reddened. By now, even Owen was looking over at the boy.
“They can’t be just passing through,” said Sammy. “No one just comes to Farmersville.”
“Maybe they are visiting someone,” suggested Neil as he cautiously peered over at the table. The boy’s mother was still talking, but the boy would occasionally glance over at Neil.
“He’s into you,” said Sammy. “Maybe you should go over and talk to him.”
“I’m not going over and talk to him,” insisted Neil softly. “You can’t just walk over to a table and start talking to a guy when his parents are sitting with him.”
Alex giggled and asked, “You want me to do it?”
“No!” muttered Neil angrily. “Just let it alone. Okay?” He glanced over at the table. Once again, the boy was staring at him. This time, his mother had noticed and she was looking at Neil. She smiled, and then she leaned over and whispered something in the boy’s ear. His face reddened and he quickly looked away.
Mr. Dunson appeared with a large platter containing their order. He gave a brief speech about how well Alex and Paul had played that night. When he finished, everyone in the restaurant started applauding. Alex stood and playfully bowed several times.
As they began to eat, the family at the nearby table stood to leave. The boy looked down at Neil as he put on his coat, smiled and nodded his head slightly.
Sammy nudged Neil and exclaimed anxiously, “Go give him your phone number before he leaves!”
Neil replied, “I’m not going to give him my phone number.”
He grabbed Sammy’s arm when she stood and said, “Then I will.” He held her back until the family had left the restaurant.
Neil felt a wave of disappointment sweep over him. For the first time in his life, he was genuinely attracted to another boy. However, it was only a fleeting moment, and he knew he would never see him again. It saddened his mood, and Sammy and Alex spent the rest of the night trying to cheer him up.
* * * * * * *
Neil was in his bedroom Monday night completing a Spanish assignment that he and Owen had been working on for a couple of hours. Owen left when his mother called him and told him dinner was ready.
Suddenly, he heard his mother calling him from the family room. “Neil, Honey!” she hollered. “Come here for a minute.”
He walked over to his door and hollered back, “Can it wait for a little while? I’m finishing my Spanish homework.”
“No, Dear,” she insisted. “I need to see you now.”
He mumbled to himself as he was walking down the hallway, “This better be important.”
He suddenly stopped when he entered the family room. His father was standing in the middle of the room with his arms around Brett and Emily. Dwight was standing beside his mother.
He gave them a puzzled look and asked, “What’s going on?” He looked at his father, “What are you doing here?”
Brian laughed and replied, “That’s some way to greet your dad.” He pulled away from Brett and Emily and extended his arms toward Neil.
“Come give your dad a hug.” Neil hesitated as he crossed the room and hugged his father.
Dwight held out his arms and asked, “Where’s mine?” Neil glanced quickly at his mother, and then he stepped up to Dwight and hugged him.
He stepped back and asked his mother, “What is going on?” He glanced at Brett when he started giggling.
He asked his little brother, “What’s so funny?”
Brett giggled again and started to say, “Daddy bought...” Brian reached out and quickly covered Brett’s mouth.
Neil’s eyes narrowed as he looked at his father and asked, “Bought what?”
Brian looked at Brett and nodded. Brett held out his hand and said, “This.” He opened his hand and showed Neil a key.
Neil asked Brett, “What’s this?” when he walked up and handed it to his brother.
Brett giggled again and asked, “What’s it look like?”
“I know what it is,” replied Neil, “But what does it go to?”
He looked at Dwight when he started laughing. Dwight looked over at Brian and remarked sarcastically, “He’s not exactly a rocket scientist. Is he?”
Neil jumped and excitedly yelled, “You didn’t! Did you?” He ran into the living room, opened the door and looked outside.
“Holy Crap!” he hollered as he ran outside. Everyone followed and watched as he ran around the white Honda Civic. He ran back to his father and jumped into his arms.
“Thanks, Dad!” he said excitedly as he kissed his father’s cheek.
Brian pulled away and said, “It wasn’t just me.” He looked at Brenda and Dwight. “Your mother and Dwight chipped in, too.” Neil hugged his mother tightly, and then he hugged Dwight.
He looked over at the car and saw Brett in the driver’s seat acting as if he was driving. “Hey! Get out of there!”
“Wheee!” shouted Brett as he pretended to drive. “This is cool!”
Neil looked at his father and mother. “Can I take it for a spin? I want to go show Owen my new car.” They smiled and nodded their heads.
“Shotgun!” hollered Brett as he climbed over to the passenger’s seat and buckled the seatbelt. Neil was going to object, but his little brother seemed as excited as he was.
After kissing his mother, father and Dwight again, he got in the car, waved goodbye and backed out of the driveway. Brett was bouncing excitedly in the seat beside him.
* * * * * *
Brenda was at the kitchen counter drinking coffee. Brett and Emily were sitting across from her eating cereal. She looked up and smiled when Neil entered.
“Good morning, Honey,” she said as she rose from her seat, got a bowl from the cabinet and set it down on the counter in from of Neil. “Did you enjoy your ride in your car last night?”
Brett responded excitedly, “We sure did! Me, Neil and Owen went and got a burger and fries at the Burger Palace.”
“Neil, Owen and I,” admonished his mother.
Brett giggled and replied, “You weren’t with us, Mommy.” Brenda looked at Neil and rolled her eyes.
As he ate his cereal, Brenda informed Neil that Mr. Collins wanted to see him when he got to school.
He gave her a puzzled look and asked, “What about?”
For the past few months, his mother had been dating Mr. Collins almost every Saturday night. She thought that Brett and Emily were old enough to take care of themselves, so she didn’t insist that Neil stay home with them. The only thing she asked was that he be home when she returned. That was no problem because she usually didn't arrive from her date until after midnight.
“He didn’t say,” she said as she took a sip of coffee. “He just said he wanted to see you.” She looked over at him and asked, “Are you doing okay in school? You’re not failing a subject, are you?”
“No, Mom,” he insisted. “I’m doing okay in all my classes.” He smiled and added, “I even have an ‘A’ in Ms. Shelton’s class.”
She frowned and replied, “You should have an ‘A’ in all your classes.”
Brett commented excitedly, “I have an ‘A’ in all of my classes.”
“You don’t get letter grades,” commented Neil. “You get satisfactory and unsatisfactory grades.”
“Well, I’d get A’s if I did get letter grades,” remarked Brett as he stuck out his tongue.
“God’s going to freeze your face like that someday,” laughed Neil. Brett then stuck his tongue out again.
Neil picked up Owen, Ned and Robbie in his new car. He originally planned to pick up only Owen. However, Owen had called them and told them about Neil’s new car. Both had called him the night before and begged him to let them ride, too.
When they arrived, Lucas was waiting out front with Elizabeth. He was seated in his new motorized wheelchair.
“Cool!’ said Neil as he walked up and examined it. “It finally arrived.”
Tears welled up in Lucas’s eyes as he smiled at Neil and the others. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve all done for me.”
Neil patted him on his shoulder and replied, “That’s what friends are for.”
“Yeah, but...” started Lucas before Owen cut him off.
“Let’s go inside,” he said as he pulled his jacket over his neck. “It’s cold out here.” They followed behind Lucas as he headed up the sidewalk.
Neil was drinking orange juice when he spotted Mr. Collins heading his way. Owen laughed and said, “Here comes your step dad.”
“Shut up,” replied Neil as he jabbed him in his side with his elbow. Owen let out a whimper as Mr. Collins walked up to the table.
He looked down at Neil and asked, “May I see you in my office, Neil?”
“Sure,” replied Neil as he looked nervously around at the others. “Am I in some kind of trouble?”
“No,” laughed Mr. Collins. “I just need to see you.”
Neil trailed far behind the assistant principal as he made his way across the cafeteria. By now, it was widely known that his mother was dating Mr. Collins. He would have been ridiculed more than he was if he hadn’t been best friends with Owen, Sammy and Alex. As student ambassadors, they made sure that the ribbing was kept to a minimum.
When he entered the office, Mr. Collins motioned for him to have a seat in front of his desk. He walked around and sat back, folded his hands and leaned toward Neil.
He smiled at Neil and said, “I’ve asked to meet with you because I have a favor to ask.”
Neil asked skeptically, “What?” He was sure it had something to do with his mother.
It surprised him when Mr. Collins informed him that he wanted him to show a new student around the school.
“He’s new to Farmersville,” he said. “He comes from a large city, and he’s not used to the ways of a small city like ours. Since you’ve lived here all your life and you have numerous friends, I thought you would be perfect to show Chandler around.”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Collins. “Chandler Caldwell. He and his brother, Evan, are registering this morning.” He picked up his phone and dialed Mrs. Hayes, the school counselor. He asked if the boys were finished registering for classes.
“Would you have Chandler report to my office?” He put the receiver down and smiled at Neil.
He said, “I have a feeling that you and Chandler will become very good friends.”
Neil turned when he heard someone tapping on the door. Standing nervously was the strawberry blond boy from the restaurant on Saturday night.
When Chandler looked down at Neil, a smile appeared on his face.