Spring Break

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Chapter 12

Mom tried to explain that his little brother had special needs, more than she and dad could provide. Paul ran out into the pines, tears streaming down his face. Through the fence, he told Buddy that his parents gave the baby away.

The next day, Buddy appeared in his driveway, pulling his red wagon. He’d loaded it with his favorite blanket, graham crackers, and a sippy cup of milk.

“I’ll help you find your little brother,” he said.

So they headed down the country road, pulling the red wagon behind them. It was dusk by the time Buddy’s dad pulled over to the side of the road and scooped them into his truck.

That night, Paul heard his mom crying again, and his dad’s voice sounded muffled as if he’d been crying too.

“We have to take the baby home,” Dad said. “He won’t be as lucky as me. He’ll rot in a state institution.”

Paul didn’t know it then, but his father was adopted. A long time ago, in the 1940s, a minister’s wife found a baby on the front steps of the church. He had soft tendrils of black hair and big, brown eyes.

“He’s from Indian country, no doubt,” a parishoner said to the minister’s wife. “Poor thing! No one will want to adopt him.”

So the minister and his wife took the baby home and raised him as their own.

Mom continued to weep. “What will my family think?” she asked Dad. “You know how they are. And how will they treat him around town when he grows up? Will he even go to school?”

Dad said, “Paul loves him.”

And the next day, Paul woke up to hear a baby crying in his bassinet. He had dark curls like Dad, and dark, almond-shaped eyes.

“A perfect little brother,” Paul said, and kissed his forehead.

Now it was Paul’s senior year, and Pine City was in the football playoffs.

The game was taking place an hour and a half south, next to the Michigan University campus.

The team was jubilant as they boarded the bus on Friday afternoon after lunch. They could leave school early even though the game wasn’t til Saturday night. Mike’s dad, the assistant coach, had requested it.

“So Mike can’t get wasted the night before the game,” one of the juniors muttered as they boarded the bus.

“What did you say, faggot?” Mike said, pushing him. Paul looked the other way.

During the ride, the seniors were both boisterous and anxious. College scholarships depended upon their victory. Paul was hoping for a scholarship to Michigan University.

Halfway through the trip, Jimmy nudged him. “Guess who’s playing on the MU campus, within walking distance from our hotel?”

It was Hillbilly Delight, Paul’s favorite country band.

“We have to go tonight,” Jimmy said. “We just won’t drink.”

“How are we going to get there?” Paul asked.

“Easy. Mike’s dad is taking his car,” Jimmy said. “We’ll bait Mike into going with promises of booze and women.”

They both laughed. Both of them had enough of Mike lording over everyone with his Titanic-sized ego.

“We’ll find some way to go, with or without Mike,” Paul said.

Jimmy fist-bumped him. “Tell no one,” he said.

An hour after he tossed his duffel bag onto the hotel bed, Paul heard music pounding down the hall.

“Who’s partying at four in the afternoon?” Paul asked.

“Who do you think?” Jimmy asked.

“Mike,” they both said in unison.

“He’s lucky my dad isn’t on this floor,” Paul said.

“Regardless, this is a Holiday Inn,” Jimmy said. “It’s not some Ritz Carlton in Malibu they can trash, like they’re rock stars or something. Someone oughta break it to Mike that outside of Pine City, no one cares who we are.”

Paul clenched his jaw, reminded that high school wouldn’t last forever. They were about to be cast out into the real world.

“I need this scholarship,” Jimmy said. “I want to get the hell out of Pine City.”

“I’m thinking about coming back,” Paul said. “I’d love being a football coach, like my dad.”

Jimmy cocked his head and gave him an impatient look. “Think bigger.”

“Well, I want to go to MU first,” Paul said. “You know that.”

“First, let’s win this game,” Jimmy said.

Paul and Jimmy knocked on Mike’s hotel room door.

“What do you want?” Mike’s voice bellowed over the thumping music.

“It’s Jimmy and Paul.”

Mike opened the door a crack. Paul knew that meant there was booze flowing on the other side of the door. He pushed it open, greeted by the sight of his teammates drinking and partying as if they’d already won the game. Most of the guys were sipping beers. Mike was drinking from his usual bottle of whiskey.

“Welcome to the pre-party!” he hooted.

“How you gonna play tomorrow feeling like shit?” Jimmy asked, although he knew the answer. Mike played every game hung over.

“The enemy is at the gate,” Mike said. “Come to the window and look.”

They watched the Jonesboro boys unloading beat-up vans and trucks.

“Whoa,” Jimmy said. “And people think we’re rednecks?”

“This is why I’m not worried about this game at all,” Mike said as he peered through the blinds.

“I am,” Paul said. “They might be a bunch of Deliverance Country boys. But my dad warned me that they’re pretty damn good at football.”

Mike shrugged and blew him off. “I have some other good news for you, Jimmy,” he said. “I met two hot girls in the lobby and gave them my number so we can meet up with them tonight.”

“What about me?” Paul asked.

“C’mon, Kilcher, we know you have no game with girls,” Mike said. Paul stiffened, in time for Mike to say, “Just kidding. Lighten up.”

“We’re sneaking out to see Hillbilly Delight tonight,” Jimmy said. “They’re playing at a bar on campus.”

“Cool. I’m inviting those girls,” Mike said. “I’ll sneak them in through the back door.”

Paul and Jimmy looked at each other. “Let’s leave him behind,” Paul said. “He’ll get drunk and blow our cover.”

“We need his car,” Jimmy said. “Don’t worry. He’ll be too distracted hitting on those girls to bother us.”

They both fell quiet, a sense of foreboding hanging in the air.

By sunset, Paul and Jimmy had a plan. They would wait until Coach Kilcher checked every room at ten to make sure the players were in for the night. Then they’d leave using the back staircase instead of the elevator. Paul would drive to the concert, but he wouldn’t get drunk there. He had no intention of compromising the game with a hangover.

At ten, his dad knocked on the door.

“Goodnight, Paul,” he said, gripping his shoulders. “Make me proud tomorrow.”

“I will,” Paul said, swallowing hard and ignoring the tight feeling in his chest.

By the time he and Jimmy tiptoed into Mike’s room, he was sweating. He went into the bathroom, where Mike had hidden an ice bucket full of beer.

“I need one of these,” Paul said. “But just one...or two.”

“That’s my boy,” Mike said, slapping him on the back.

Jimmy tiptoed to the door and opened it, looking both ways.

“Now would be a good time,” he whispered.

And with that, they dashed for the stairwell, trying their best to be silent. As they ran downstairs, they laughed, laughter that was both nervous and exhilerated.

“We’re actually getting away with this,” Jimmy said. He sounded shocked that his own plan had gone off without a hitch.

Mike’s car keys jingled as they ran for the street, inhaling the cool fall air. It was damp and smelled of fallen leaves.

They weren’t the only ones out. They were on the far edge of the MU campus, where roups of students huddled together as they walked uptown. Three male figures in sweatshirts began walking ahead of them. Voices called to them from the open window.

“Remember to come back with a case!”

The three guys gave them the thumbs-up sign, looking both nervous and excited. Paul wondered where they were going, this trio that resembled their own.

He heard Wade’s voice behind them.

“Paul! Where are you going?”

“Oh no,” Paul said as he froze. “Wade, what are you doing? Go back to the hotel!”

“Mom and Dad are asleep,” Wade said. “I want to go with you.” He looked up at Paul and blinked his almond-shaped eyes.

“Don’t worry, I have an idea,” Mike said.

He put his arm around Wade and led him to the car.

“Jimmy, drive to that convenience store on the corner,” Mike said. “Paul, come in with me.”

In the store, Mike wandered up and down the aisles before he spotted a bottle of Wild Turkey.

“Saves money on drinks tonight,” he explained.

“How are you going to buy that?”

“I’m twenty-two,” Mike said with a wink, flashing a fake New York license. “Where’s the pharmacy section? I know what Wade needs tonight.”

He reached down and grabbed a dark glass bottle from the bottom shelf.

“Cough syrup?”

“It’ll knock him out for the rest of the night,” Mike said. “Relax, Paul. I went to that bar where Hillbilly Delight is playing last summer. You’ll be able to see the car from the windows.”

When they got back to the car, Mike poured some of the cough syrup into the medicine cup.

“Here, Wade,” he said. “This is your juice.” Then he took a big swig from the whiskey bottle. “And this is my juice.”

Paul stared straight ahead in the front seat, white-faced and grimacing.

“Thanks, Mike!” Wade said.

They pulled up to the bar and parked in the very last row under a wall of trees. Wade was sound asleep in the back seat, his head lolling to one side.

The warm, innocent country music helped Paul forget his dread about getting caught. He parked himself at a table near the window while Mike bellied up to the bar. He came back holding three beers.

“Here,” he said to Paul. “Calm your nerves before the girls get here.”

Paul drank, and so did Jimmy.

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” Paul cringed.

But the warm, worry-free feeling that overcame him was impossible to resist.

“Hey, there they are!” Mike said, pointing out the window. “I’m sneaking them in through the back door. By the way, I get the blonde one.”

Paul watched as Mike approached the table with two girls. One was a cute brunette with deep green eyes. But Paul’s sight set on the petite blonde girl beside her, who looked nervous and shy. She wore a white lace dress with tights underneath. It made her look strikingly sweet and girlish in this gritty country bar. She was wide-eyed, looking around the bar as if she had never been inside a place like this.

“These are my friends, Paul and Jimmy,” Mike said. He positioned his body between the table and the blonde girl, making it clear that she was his for the night.

“Would you sweet young things like a drink?” Mike asked, as Jimmy made a face at Paul indicating he was trying not to gag.

“I’m going to the jukebox,” Jimmy said. “Gimme a dollar.”

He put on “Straight Tequila Night” by John Anderson.

The band was setting up on stage. “So, do you like country?” Mike asked the girls. “What are you in town for?”

“A school trip,” the blonde said. “We’re on the newspaper staff, and we’re on a trip to learn about undercover reporting.”

“What grade are you in?” Jimmy asked.

The girls looked at each other.

“We’re sophomores,” the brunette said after a few awkward seconds.

Jimmy leaned into Paul. “Five dollars says they’re freshmen.”

When Mike walked away, Paul caught the blonde girl out of the corner of his eye. She had been taking tiny sips of the beer, but now she was pouring it into a trash can next to the bar. He couldn’t stop himself from laughing.

“What are you doing?” he asked. “Not much of a beer girl?”

The girl blushed. She looked up at him. He noticed her doll-like appearance, with rosy cheeks, wide eyes, and long, dark lashes.

“I have nothing against beer, I just don’t drink,” she said. Then she added, “don’t tell anyone.”

“Of course I won’t tell anyone.”

The girl broke into a smile. Mike reappeared and put his arm around her.

“What’s up, doll face?” he said, and shot Paul a look that said “go away.”

Paul felt tempted to pummel him. He picked up the beer Mike had bought and downed it, hoping to wash the feeling away.

Hillbilly Delight took the stage. Paul watched Mike inch closer to the blonde girl. She turned and gave Paul a “help me” look. He walked up to Mike and shoved a paper bill at him.

“Mike, can you order another round of drinks?” Paul asked. “Buy yourself one, on me.”

Mike eagerly accepted the offer, as Paul knew he would. “You want one?” Mike asked him.

Paul looked out the window at the car. It was still sitting in the back row against the wall of trees, undisturbed.

He thought of all the nights they had practiced til the sun went down. How he had followed all the rules all these years. He thought of all the days he spent as Wade’s guardian and protector. All the times he had shoved someone into the lockers for throwing around the word “retard.” He thought of all the fun he didn’t have on the nights he chose to make his father proud.

“Sure, I’ll have another,” he said.

Mike nodded, looking pleased with him for once.

Paul looked down at the girl as Mike went to order drinks. “So, do you like country music?” he asked her, struggling to make conversation. Mike was right, he wasn’t very good at talking to girls. Especially the pretty ones.

“I love it,” the girl said. “There’s this new country singer who’s only seventeen and writes her own songs. Her name is Taylor--”

“Swift,” they both said at the same time.

Paul winced. He probably shouldn’t admit to listening to a teen girl’s overwrought breakup ballads.

But instead the girl searched his face with a starry-eyed look. “It’s nice to meet a guy who listens to Taylor Swift,” she said.

Suddenly, there was a commotion at the bar. Mike was arguing with an older man who was holding his fake ID in the air, refusing to hand it back.

“Oh no,” Paul breathed, remembering Wade in the car. “Nice going, Mike.”

He touched the girl’s arm and nudging her toward the same door she had used to sneak in.

“Do you want to go outside for a few minutes?” he asked her. The last thing Paul wanted in front of her was a humiliating bust for underage drinking. Or to spend the night at the police station, ending all hope of winning tomorrow.

“Yeah, outside sounds great,” the girl said, watching the scene at the bar. Paul didn’t even try to find Jimmy before bolting out the door with her.

It was quiet on the bar’s back porch. At least Paul could watch the car from here, and talk to the girl without the loud sounds of the band in the background.

“That was a close call with your friend,” she said.

“Not for him,” Paul said. “He’s in trouble all the time.”

But at home, where everyone knew who he was, he got away with it.

“I’ve never snuck out at night before,” she replied.

“Never?”

“Never.”

“And you don’t drink,” Paul said. It was nice to meet a good girl for a change.

Hillbilly Delight was beginning a new song. It was “Straight Tequila Night” again.

“I guess this is the theme of the night,” Paul said.

“So are you going to...”

“What?”

“I thought you were bringing me outside to kiss me.”

Paul laughed, more out of surprise than amusement. “First, I have to know your name.”

He would forget it by the morning.

And then he kissed her--a slow, sweet kiss. It was the last thing he remembered before awakening hours later, facedown on a picnic table outside the bar.

It was silent when Paul woke up. Silent, and black. The bright, merry sounds of Hillbilly Delight had faded. The only sound he could hear was the distant rumble of the interstate.

“Wade,” he said as he stumbled to his feet. “I forgot about Wade.” An eerie wind rustled the trees.

He got up and ran toward the wall of pines, disoriented in the dark. He could barely make out the shape of the red sedan. He felt dizzy, as if the world was about to dissolve under his feet and swallow him up.

He grabbed the door handle. The door was open a crack, and Wade was gone, missing somewhere in the blackness.

Paul jammed the keys into the ignition and raced back to the hotel, driving eighty miles an hour on the forested back roads. Had Mike and Jimmy brought Wade back to the hotel? Or were they hauled away to the city jail in handcuffs for underage drinking? And what had happened to the girl?

He didn’t want to know.

He didn’t realize how fast he was going as he pulled into the hotel parking lot, racing against time.

The front desk looked deserted. Paul raced up the back stairs and pounded on Mike’s door.

“Oh, thank God,” Paul said when Mike answered the door. “Where’s Wade?”

“Hell if I know,” Mike said. “Where were you all night?”

“It doesn’t matter. I went back to the car and Wade was gone.”

“He couldn’t have gone far,” Mike reminded him. And it was true--a disabled kid walking alone rarely went unnoticed.

Paul went back to the room he shared with Jimmy.

“Jim, wake up,” he said, shaking him. “I can’t find Wade.”

“What?” Jimmy said, rolling over.

“I need you to help me find him,” Paul said.

“I can’t sneak out again,” Jimmy said. “I almost got busted at the bar.”

“Are you kidding me, Jim?” Paul replied. “Wade is missing. Now get up.”

Jimmy stared at him in the semi-darkness, pleading with his eyes. “Paul, I can’t.”

“Some friend you are,” Paul said as he slammed the door behind him.

He spent the night racing around, trying to lift his foot from the gas pedal once in a while. “Please, God, let me find him,” he said out loud to himself. “If you let me find him, I’ll do anything. Anything you want me to.”

He went into a gas station, the only place still open as the clock ticked away toward morning.

“Excuse me,” Paul said, frantic and stammering. “Excuse me. Did you see a boy come in here, fourteen years old, almond-shaped eyes...”

The cashier stared at him. “A kid out at four in the morning? No,” he said, looking half-awake, with dark half-moons under his eyes.

“Nevermind,” Paul said, bolting out the door and back to the car.

He drove until his forehead was wet with sweat and his breathing was rapid and shallow. He flashed his brights on the dark road ahead. Suddenly, he saw a moving figure, glowing white like a ghost in the darkness.

“Wade!” he cried, slamming on the breaks.

He felt like a pile of bricks had landed on his stomach when he realized it was a deer, a big buck with mangy antlers.

The sun was coming up when he pulled back into the hotel parking lot. He pulled out his cell phone and turned it over and over in his hands, wondering whether to call the police. He wanted to, but he couldn’t...not without turning himself in, along with Jimmy and Mike.

All of a sudden, his door flew open.

“Get out,” his dad said, grabbing him by the collar. Paul got out of the car, and his dad shoved him against it.

“Where’s Wade?” he shouted in Paul’s face.

“I don’t know,” Paul said, clenching his fists in terror.

Coach Kilcher slapped him hard across the face.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said. “The whole team is up and waiting in the lobby. You need to tell me what happened before we give up the game.”

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