The news that Mary Beth’s father was the forbidding force that Drew encountered in St. Joe’s shut the boy down. Thus far in their time together, Drew had never drawn away in thought from Kyle. Kyle Jensen alone, apart from Drew’s mother, was the only person to whom he had opened up, talked, listened with anything like peace in his soul. Kyle’s disembodied voice told him clearly that he thought Mary Beth was in danger from her father. Drew only said, in the face of Kyle’s pleas, “I will do what I can to keep her from being hurt, but she’s gotta help.”
“What do you mean, she’s gotta help? She’s a victim of her evil father!”
“You don’t know that, Kyle!” he hissed, stopping in the middle of Lucas Court. Drew’s inner defenses rumbled into position, like heavy stones leaping into the form of a fortress wall, erected against the forces of chaos that make living, just breathing, impossible. It wasn’t something he could stop. His deep care for Kyle, though, forced him to say, “Maybe he is evil, but maybe the not knowing is what Jorge meant by me not being prepared to meet this challenge.” The place of true desperation in Drew was something that Kyle had never seen, nor had Drew thought of showing it to him. Yet he knew it was there, like his ugliness, even if a girl smiled at him. Drew had looked at his face enough and seen the fears he kept hidden.
Silence, however, and a chilly breeze greeted his tense reply, and something in the light shifted, for Drew. Maybe it was the clouds blowing away completely, leaving a fresh, deeper blue sky, but the light became crisp. The smell in the air gave him the first good hint of Autumn, a dryer scent, like a browned leaf. Kyle’s earlier comment that winter was on its way meant that they had to get through Fall yet, and Drew loved Fall. It was Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the run up to Christmas, and it was the time of year that his father would be gone more often, hunting and fishing. That was the official story, anyway.
Drew’s mother explained to him that his father was away, often, trying to do what he needed, whatever that was. Maybe he did hunt and fish, though Drew never saw evidence of it. His father would be around more often during Christmas and would be quieter, until March, maybe. At some point in the Spring, he would become outraged, again. About what, Drew didn’t know. With a father who vacillated between numb silence and outrage, Drew had grown accustomed to a fear that greeted him most days. It was a fear deep in his gut, as he imagined it, a mild nausea that rose in him with his father’s cigarette smell that remained in the kitchen each morning. Drew counted himself fortunate that his Dad was most often up and gone by the time he got up, for that relieved the fear, a little. His mother’s silent face, relieved that her difficult mate had gone for the day, greeted Drew each morning, though it would be replaced by a look of worry by the time Drew returned from school, until the hunting and fishing trips started.
That same heavy worry about his father rose up in Drew as Kyle’s words haunted him home. He had to refuse Kyle’s request, in part, at least. That problem was too big. The new scent of the air and the change in the light gave him a sense that he needed to say no. He could not articulate to himself that it was fear of a father that placed a barrier around MaryBeth’s home life. Kyle had been right that Drew saw things, like light, in different ways, that he saw worlds, parallel to his own world, and some of those were dark.
“Kyle, I’m just not ready to go marching into MaryBeth’s life and demand to know what’s going on, with the danger you say she is in. I mean, I’ll help her the best I can, but…”
The wind that bent the tree tops and dried out the brown and yellow foliage chilled him for the first time that day. He shivered, knowing that Kyle was gone.
“Kyle? Are you there? Are you mad at me?” Kyle had never been mad at him before.
“Kyle?” he called in a louder voice, and nothing came back to him except the chilled and windy silence.
The weekend that had seemed as long as a month was over, and Drew, back in school, sought to return to normal. In his AP classes, Drew focused on his studies, his work, and went to football practice on Monday afternoon, as per usual. It was true that the guys on the team gave him funny looks during practice, but seventeen years as an oddball meant that was no big deal. After supper, his homework done before he went to practice, Drew was free to return to his garage, to lift and read, a return to his world, where things made sense. He just concentrated on reading and doing the exercises that didn’t over-stress his legs and back, for that was what his coaches demanded of him. He kept his weights light, just to take comfort from the familiar motions.
Since the day was warm again, though not hot, he kept the garage door open for the evening breeze, his radio on and tuned to WAKY and found that he was able, for a time, to shut off the thoughts in his head. Sit ups, pull ups, and inclined bench presses were well under way in rotation, as was his restart of The Fellowship of the Ring. The fall scents brought on his desire to read Tolkien’s trilogy again. And as he made his way through the first couple of chapters, he found a sudden awareness that his great hero, Frodo Baggins, experienced about twelve years of life in his Uncle Bilbo’s home, before the return of the wizard and the start of Frodo’s own quest for Mount Doom. That Frodo lived his life for a dozen years before he had to act on the dangerous legacy he was given, the Ring, gave Drew a sense of relief, that he was right to tell Kyle “no.” He would do what Kyle asked, in time, in a way that made sense to him, to help Mary Beth. Like all young men who lack experience with life’s troubles, the sense of “not yet” let him breathe.
His problem, though, was that “not yet” has a way of hiding behind corners, waiting to trip a man up. Thoughts about pursuing things in his own time occurred to him while he was pressing some weights on the incline. And they occurred to him as so important that he said aloud,
“So…Kyle, if…you are here…and listening…I just need time.”
“Time for what?” MaryBeth said from behind him. With the radio on and the clanging of the weights, Drew had not heard her old Falcon pull up in the driveway. When he racked the weights, Drew jumped off the bench and turned to see her leaning against the door frame. She was dressed, still, as he’d seen her at a distance in the halls of Durrett that day: pale blue dress with a flowered print in shades of green and yellow, modestly several inches above her knees, though its slim waist line showed her shape. Hair brushed and down over her shoulders, her arms were crossed as were her legs at the ankle, and she looked relaxed, though she wasn’t smiling.
“I was…I was just thinking out loud,” he said. “You surprised me.”
“Sorry,” she muttered and came into the garage, hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, which she had often done when she came with Kyle. Drew thought he had never smelled anything so good as her scent, which lingered in his nostrils, since she stayed close to him. “Are you okay? Were you talking with Kyle?” She gave him a half smile.
“No. In fact, well…no,” he said, deciding against telling her what had been on his mind.
“I just came from the hospital,” she said, perching on the edge of his bench seat. “They’re taking Kyle home.”
“What? Why? Aren’t they going to, you know, treat him there?”
“There is no treatment. There is no cure for his condition. At best, they can just manage his symptoms, whatever that means, and, well, wait,” she said.
Drew could see that she had not been crying, although she had just told him that they were taking Kyle home, so that he could die there.
“I guess that’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?” she asked.
“What are you going to do?”
“Wait, too, I guess,” she sighed. She looked up at him and her eyes focused on his startled face. “Oh. Are you ready to do some more with this?” she gestured to the weights in the rack. “Here. Let me spot you. How much do you want to put on?”
Running on autopilot at that point, Drew motioned to a pile of small weights and said, “A ten and a five on each side.” She managed the change and brought a low wooden stool over behind the bench, so that she would be above him and could help, if he needed it. He got back on the bench, took the weights out of the rack and began. The weights were light, but his breathing was shallow, as he looked up at her hovering over him. Lucky for Drew, she spoke to him in a quiet voice while he did his presses: “In fact, I’ve come with something like a job offer for you. Mrs. Jensen asked if you’d be interested in coming by most evenings to help them out.”
Drew finished his reps, let the her help him on the last one that slowed down as he locked it out. She had seen Kyle do this and knew something about how to spot someone. Mary Beth pulled just enough to keep his motion going.
“Drop all the tens and that five on the right side,” Drew said without having to think, “so I can finish.” He did the same on the left side and hopped back onto the bench. Kyle had showed him how to do drop sets, as a way to get the greatest training effect in weight exercises. Drew took the weights again, grinding out as many reps as he could, his chest and shoulders burning with the effort. Mary Beth had to pull harder on his last rep and gave a moaning grunt as she did.
“Can I try a set?” she asked, as Drew sat up on the bench, breathing hard. He looked at her and frowned.
“Okay, but you better go with just the bar,” he said. Mary Beth smiled at that, happier than she had looked since she got there. They pulled the weights off, and Mary Beth got on the bench, as Drew stood on the stool to spot her. “Now, you breathe in when you take the weight down to your chest, and breathe out, hard, when you push it back up.”
She giggled once as she looked up at him, saying, “You look like a giant up there, looming over me.”
“Concentrate on the bar,” Drew said knowing that he was ugly, like the giants in storybooks. And when she composed herself, and took the bar in her hands, pushing it out of the rack, she said, “Oh, God. That’s so heavy!”
“It’s about forty pounds,” Drew said. Concentrate on your breathing.”
She took the weight down and blew out her breath, the bar resting on her upper chest. Drew pulled it off of her. “You must breathe in on the way down, and out on the way up. Try it again. He let her take the weight back in her hands, and with a frown of concentration, she followed his orders and did one rep, blowing out hard as she brought the weight up. “Go on. Take another deep breath and blow it out when you push up.”
She did as she was told and managed a total of six reps, before she ran out of steam. Drew racked the weight and told her, “Good set.”
“I’ll never understand why you guys like that feeling so much,” she said. “The grip part of the bar even hurt my hands. But I can feel it in my chest. Maybe if I do it, I’ll keep my boobs in better shape.”
Drew turned his blushing face away from her, willing away thoughts about her appealing anatomy. He could only say, “Well, it will keep your muscles toned.” She walked up to him, placed her hands on his chest and asked, “Will it make me big, like you and Kyle?” She thumped his chest with flat of her hands. “God, look at the mass of you.”
He took a step back from her. She was Kyle’s girlfriend, and even though she had put her hands on him before, exclaiming about his size, it was always just friendly, and Drew fought to remember that. MaryBeth’s beauty had always been too much for him. With Kyle as a buffer zone, he’d been able to deal with it before. Something in her eyes, maybe the way they seemed to sparkle with the small amount of happiness he’d given her in a difficult time, made this moment different.
“Why do the Jensens want me to work for them?” he asked, turning away and putting a book mark in his Fellowship. Mary Beth stayed close, moving with him at his side. Drew told himself that it was just her need for comfort. She needed his friendship.
“Well, for one, it’s your strength. Kyle has to be bathed and changed, and he weighs almost two hundred pounds. Neither Mrs. Jensen or Emma can manage him that well. He’ll be like a huge infant. His Dad might manage, some, but he’s got a bad back. And, to tell you the truth, I suggested you. Kyle said that you’re the strongest player in the county, probably the state, and I think he was right, and I know you care for him. They really need you.”
“Yeah, I do care for him,” Drew said. “He’s my friend,” knowing that he would take the job, but reticent to say so.
“Plus, we’ll be there, together, much of the time, at the same time. I don’t want to be there without you.”
Though Drew longed to ask “Why?” he managed to nod and say, “Okay. I’ll do it. When do I start?”
“Is half an hour from now okay? I can take you over and bring you home about 10:30.”
Drew gulped, and nodded his acceptance, never thinking about making money. He knew he would do it for free, because Kyle needed help and Mary Beth asked him. But he shuddered as he realized something: she was doing something for herself, which is what he’d demanded as a condition of helping her, though his thoughts were, at best, all muddled with the idea of spending time with her and Kyle both. His “not now” had just changed to a “now.”
Kyle had already begun to lose weight. And though Kyle was still a big guy, much heavier than Mrs. Jensen, Emma, or Mary Beth could manage, his first thought on seeing Kyle in a hospital bed in the Jensen’s downstairs guest room told him that, soon, the Kyle that he knew would soon disappear.
As Emma showed Drew and MaryBeth into the room, Mr. Jensen, a big guy himself, was just working on moving Kyle in to a sitting position on the bed. He was stiff in his father’s arms, and his right forearm bashed his Dad in the head, despite Mrs. Jensen trying to hold them still. Kyle’s body dropped back to the bed, and his father was staggered by the blow. Emma, her mother, and MaryBeth all started talking at once, but Drew didn’t hear them.
Drew moved in. He pushed his hands under Kyle, dropped his head on his friend’s chest, and picked him up, cradling him. The room went quiet, except for the moaning sounds that escaped Kyle’s throat. His arms waved, striking Drew across his back, but Drew didn’t notice.
“I got you. I got you,” Drew whispered, and Kyle grew calmer.
“Thank God, you’re here,” Mrs. Jensen said, fixing her tear reddened eyes on the boy. “The doctors warned us that he would be like this sometimes, until he…”
“Mom means that Kyle will lose strength, “ Emma whispered. Mary Beth had one hand on Drew’s back, and with the other, she caressed Kyle’s head.
“I think he knows Drew is here,” MaryBeth whispered. Drew just held his friend close, Kyle’s smell all around him. He didn’t raise his head, for he didn’t want to see the others watching him.
“Kyle. I’m here,” Drew whispered, and her heard Kyle’s voice near him.
“I…I don’t want to…see this,”Kyle said.
“Somebody get a book and open it. Lay it flat somewhere,” Drew said, lifting his head and looking around the room. There was an empty desk near the door, and Drew said, “Put it on the desk and hold it open.”
Mary Beth grabbed a book at random, an encyclopedia, and opened it. Holding its pages down. In a whisper, Drew said, “Just read until we get you situated.”
As young men will, Drew and Kyle had wrestled enough times for Drew to be accustomed to Kyle’s body in his arms, but this was not normal. Kyle’s arms locked around Drew with desperate strength, yet already they weren’t as strong as they had been. So, Drew just held him, as Kyle’s parents got the bed adjusted, changed the soiled sheets, and made it ready.
“Have her turn the page about every minute,” Kyle’s voice whispered. Drew repeated that instruction, failing to notice that the other Jensens in the room were staring at him, their mouths open and slack.
“How much are we paying him?” Mr. Jensen asked his wife.
“We, uh, haven’t discussed it,” she said, as Drew put Kyle’s body on the bed. With gentle power, he removed the arms that held him tight.
“Whatever it is, it isn’t enough,” Mr. Jensen murmured.
“Kyle?” Drew asked. “Can you do anything about your body?”
“Like make it relax a bit?”
“No, I can’t, Drew. You know that.”
“I don’t know that. I don’t know how I can even hear you. Neither of us knows what’s possible here,” Drew said.
“I’ll…try,” Kyle whispered, “though I’d rather read the encyclopedia.” Drew kept pressure on Kyle’s straining arms. Drew heard Kyle groan with the effort, and it didn’t come from the body. “God!” Kyle shouted in Drew’s ear. “It’s like trying to walk through chest deep mud in a hurricane!”
Ever so slowly, the stiffness in Kyle’s arms began to relax. “You’re doing it, buddy!” Drew said.
“I’m sorry it hurts. It hurts getting tackled, too, but it always took at least three guys to take you down. Keep going.”
“What…who is he talking to?” Mr. Jensen asked, holding his wife closer to him.
“He’s talking to Kyle,” Mary Beth said. “He’s the only one who can.” Kyle’s parents stepped away from the bed, as Kyle’s body relaxed. His rolling eyes closed, and his limbs let loose their tension. Emma added her embrace to her parents and together they stood shaking, staring, as Drew continued gentle pressure on his friend’s legs.
“What were you reading?” Drew asked, looking at Kyle’s face.
“The entry,’Somnambulism,’” Kyle said in Drew’s ear. The voice was calm but spent.
“Isn’t that sleepwalking?” Drew asked, smoothing back Kyle’s hair.
“Yeah, it is. It was just the page she opened to,” Kyle whispered, “but it was better than watching what you did.”
“Did I hurt you?” Drew asked in a worried voice.
“No, but going back in there was…it was…awful hard, Drew. My mind…it doesn’t…it isn’t…”
“Okay, okay. I’ll try not to ask you to do it, too much, but sometimes…”
“Tell my Dad I didn’t mean to hurt him,” Kyle whispered. “I’ve… gotta rest…”
Kyle was gone again, and Drew looked at the others in the room who had listened to everything he’d said. Mary Beth stood with them, the encyclopedia in her hands, showing the entry “Somnambulism” to them all.
“Kyle wants you to know, Mr. J, that he didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s hard for him to get his body to do anything,” Drew said.
“But he talks… to you?” Mr. Jensen asked in whispered tones.
“Yes, sir,” Drew said. He dropped his gaze to the floor, away from the eyes of the father, so he did not see Mr Jensen come forward to embrace him. The father’s arms wrapped around Drew, and he stiffened, at first, but when he heard the man weeping softly, Drew returned the hug and found tears spring into his own eyes. They seemed to spring from a sorrow older and deeper than Drew’s loss of his friend to disease. He had no shame in crying, then, because he could not really say why he did. Some tears are just necessary. They all moved forward to touch Drew, and he didn’t back away.
“Somebody or something just came in the house,” Kyle whispered in Drew’s ear. Kyle’s voice pulled him away from the balm of family, something Drew had only ever understood as coming from his mom. To hear their voices saying his name with love and thankfulness filled him with hope that not all of life would be like the fearful balancing act that was his home. Kyle’s whisper caused the room to darken.
“Why, there you are!” cried a woman’s sickly sweet voice from the door. Simply hearing her southern drawl hurt Drew’s head. He turned and saw, in the doorway, another version of Mary Beth, who suddenly cringed against him. With hair teased and coifed, rather than merely brushed, the woman, Dolores Stevens, Mary Beth’s mother, stood there smiling, touching either side of the doorframe and standing cross-legged at the ankle, as though to be admired. Her dress, though slightly longer than her daughter’s, was of the same kind, but tighter and red, with a print that looked something like flowers and also like flames. Drew thought she looked like a movie star posing for the cameras, and Mary Beth groaned.
“Dolores,” Kyle’s mother said, “how kind of you to come see him—us. Mary Beth is such a comfort to us and so helpful.”
Dolores Stevens minced into the room, smiling still, pretending to brush away hair from her eyes. Drew thought her hair looked as hard as a helmet. No strand would dare be out of place. “Well, I am glad to hear it, though her father is, of course, worried sick about her. He hasn’t seen his precious pet all day.” Dolores walked up to her daughter and took her by the arm, and Drew saw that her grip was hard and that her nails marked Mary Beth’s skin.
“Talons,” he muttered.
Dolores gave him a swift look with no smile in it, as though she knew well who he was and dismissed him as insignificant. She pulled MaryBeth to Kyle’s bedside saying, “Why here’s the poor darling all asleep. My, isn’t he a handsome boy? Such a—“
Kyle’s eyes popped open, his body arched, and a howl came from his mouth such as Drew never heard. The pain and rage behind it grew, as Dolores, screeching in fright, dragged her daughter away across the room. Everyone cried out in alarm, too, but Drew moved in and covered Kyle’s arching torso with his body, struggling to push him back onto the bed.
“What is it Kyle? What’s going on?” he shouted.
“I don’t know!” Kyle shouted back at him, while his physical voice roared in animal pain.
“Mother, what did you do?” MaryBeth demanded, and Dolores smacked her once, hard. Drew heard it and heard all the Jensens draw in a breath of shock.
“What a horrible racket!” Dolores cried.
“Oh, Dolores,” Kyle’s mother said, “I’m so sorry. I hope he didn’t upset you. He doesn’t mean to. We never know—“
“Yes, of course,” Dolores said, covering her anger. “Think nothing of it, Ellen. We’ll, we’ll do lunch soon.” And she left, dragging Mary Beth with her. Kyle collapsed under Drew, who pushed up and away from him. He ran to the door and watched through the front window as Dolores Stevens pushed MaryBeth into the old Falcon, before she got into her Cadillac and slammed the door.
“Drew,” Kyle said, before he was cut off.
“I know. I know,” Drew said. He knew that the “not now” had passed from a “now” to a “too late.” He had no choice but the face his deepest fears, resolve his own conflicts and do something to help Mary Beth. But what was there to do? Somewhere, in Kyle’s ruined body was the answer and no one, including Kyle, had any idea how to get to it.
Stay tuned for Part 7.