After lunch in the school cafeteria, Valerie found her former Pirate crew by Ricky’s locker.
“I didn’t tell you this before, but I invited Dilsey Murphy to our next confessional at the skinny-dipping pond.” She then found herself looking into two shocked and dismayed faces.
“I don’t think I can do the naked-truth thing in front of any girl but you, Val,” Ricky said with a slight shudder in his voice.
“I can’t do that in front of anybody,” reminded Billy. “And while we all need the chance to talk about what’s hurting us, I don’t think Dilsey will understand any of it.”
“Yeah, she hasn’t gone through the crap we have. She won’t get what we’re talking about,” added Ricky.
“I think anyone can understand about being depressed. And anyone can benefit by talking through it.”
“Well, maybe. But shouldn’t we cancel the naked-truth thing?” asked Ricky.
“Cancel it,” said Billy.
“We’ll see what’s possible. But if she comes, we can postpone getting naked. It may be too cold anyway.”
“Yeah. That’s a good point,” said Ricky.
“I suppose it won’t hurt to talk about Francois in front of Dilsey. She remembers him too, I’m sure.” Billy stuffed books in his locker as he was headed to P.E.
“Sure, of course she remembers him.”
“But she wasn’t with us during the blizzard. And she never met Tommy or Denny,” reminded Ricky.
“I never met them either, but I remember the stories about them,” said Billy. “But I gotta go now. I have to dress out for P.E. or risk another failing grade.”
“So, go. Have fun with the nakedness in the locker room, Billy.” Valerie grinned at him as she enjoyed his annoyed grimace.
“I gotta go too,” said Ricky as he slammed his locker shut and took off towards Berensen’s room, completely forgetting his History book in his locker.
Valerie was going to head to her class when a slamming locker door eight lockers down caught her attention.
“You had some nerve ruining the dance last week. You made yourself the center of attention and took all the joy out of the entire place.”
“You wouldn’t understand, Char. You only understand your own selfish stuff.”
“Don’t you think I can see the selfishness in you? Needing to be the focus of attention because you lost your daddy. We all pity you, but it doesn’t make everything always about you.”
They were alone in the hallway. The bell rang for fifth period. It was a good thing the hallway was so quiet. It meant neither girl was willing to yell and draw everybody out of their classrooms again.
“We are going to be walking on eggshells all week this week, and probably next week too, just so the crazy girl won’t have another hissy fit in the middle of everything.”
Valerie was instantly exhausted. Her arms and legs were now full of lead. And there was a crushing pressure in her chest. She knew this was going to happen. She just needed it to end more quickly than it was going to.
“You got your wish because of it. You’re head cheerleader now.”
“I have wanted to be that since I was little and didn’t know Valerie Elaine Clarke even existed! I worked hard for it all through junior high and high school. And when I got it, it was not because I won it for myself, not because I beat you out for it… but because you just gave it up. You got it all so easily. And you threw it away. You didn’t even give me the chance to earn it. I will never forgive you for what you took away from me.”
“Don’t forgive me, then. I ain’t asking.”
“And you get all the best boys, too. Ricky is so handsome. And he doesn’t have eyes for anybody but you. And you don’t even bother to see it.”
“Ricky’s my friend. Not my boyfriend.”
“See what I mean? You threw that away too.”
“Go ahead and hate me, Char. You are probably right to hate me.”
“I don’t hate you, Val. I always wanted to BE you. But I have to get over it now. I’m sorry your father died. But that doesn’t give you the right to act the way you do.”
Valerie no longer had the power to continue the conversation. She hung her head. She turned slowly towards class and the inevitable tardy slip. Charlotte walked off in the other direction, even though she had the same class that Val did.
Dilsey Murphy made her way back to Val’s usual seat on the bus the first thing in the morning. Usually Valerie rode to school of a morning with Ricky in his hand-me-down Ford Fiesta, but he had football practice after school on Mondays through Thursdays. So, Val was available to sit with Dilsey on a cold Tuesday morning in October.
“Hello, Dils. Something the matter?”
“It’s Blueberry. She’s sick this morning. Not going to school like usual.”
“How’s Mike taking it? Worried?”
Mike Murphy was Dilsey’s younger brother. Blueberry Bates was his eighth-grade lady love. They were always together like salt and pepper shakers on a restaurant table.
“He’s devastated. The Bates sisters took Blue to the emergency room last night. She’s in the hospital now.”
“Oh, that’s terrible! We’ll have to go visit her as soon as possible.”
“She’s not conscious. Maybe a coma…”
Dilsey sat down next to Valerie and the first thing Val did was put an arm around her and pull her in close. Dilsey laid her head on Val’s shoulder. Tears followed.
It’s funny how things work in real life. Not so long ago it was Val in tears, laying her head on Mary Philips’ shoulder. Then Mary had been the actual leader of the Norwall Pirates, the infamous liars’ club. But when Mary was going away to college, she didn’t turn to any of the boys to lead the club. She asked Valerie to do it. And then Val shouldered the responsibility until she finally handed the leadership of the infamous werewolf chasers and undead wizard whackers off to her cousin, the Terrible Timothy.
“Is it enough just to hold you like this? Or is there something you wanna talk about?”
“Holding me helps. Did I tell you I kissed him?”
“On your date?”
“Yeah. After the movie.”
“That’s sweet. But don’t let him take advantage of you.”
“I know… he’s a boy. And he tells a lot of lies.”
“Big ones… black in color… with hair on them… and sometimes spider legs.”
Through the tears, Dilsey chuckled at “spider legs.”
“But he has a good heart.”
“He does. You know he was pretty awful to Blueberry about the whole transgender thing, though.”
“Yeah. Blue has never really been a boy. But it was hard for him to accept that when he found out she was born with a penis.”
“Empathy for others was never something he was good at.”
“The Bates sisters convinced him though. They showed him the x-rays that showed that Blue also had malformed ovaries. She was only a boy on the outside part.”
“I didn’t know that. I always thought she just needed to be a girl that badly.”
“Do you think it’s easier to be a boy than it is to be a girl?” Dilsey looked up at Val and the tears were gone.
“I suppose it is to be your brother Danny. He always sees the funny side of everything and life is mostly one big joke to him.”
“Yeah, but my brother Mike is the opposite. He takes things way too seriously. He fights with Mom more than any of the rest of us. And he really loves Blue, even though he tells me how much he struggles to understand her most of time. Mom couldn’t force him to go to school today because Blue is in the hospital.”
“Mike is a gallant young man. You’re right. It must be harder to be him than it is to be either of us.”
“I wouldn’t want to be Tim either. It has to be hard to be that smart and that imaginative all the time.”
“I suppose you’re right. More than half of all the weird things the Pirates have done over the years happened because of what was going on in Tim’s evil brain.”
“His brain’s not evil, Val. He has a good brain.”
“Sure he does. And it’s a fine thing for you to admire him for it. I just say things like that ‘cause… you know… cousins.”
“Sure. It’s just like me saying brothers.”
“You know, Dils, it’s a good thing to be able to talk like this. Me and two former Pirates have started meeting down at the skinny-dipping pond. It might be good to have another girl there.”
“Really? Who are the other two?”
“Ricky Porter and Billy Martin.”
“Oh, uh… I don’t really know them.”
“Well, if you come along with me next time, you’ll get to know them better. It could be good for all of us. Some of us have problems with depression and it helps to be able to talk about anything and everything with people who will at least try to understand.”
“Yeah. That might be good.”
“I will get in touch with you for the next time.”
“Yeah, um… okay.”
The two girls sat together in silence for the last couple of miles to Belle City High School. It felt good to hold somebody like Dilsey. She was warm and soft and good to be near. And when they left the bus together, Valerie felt like now she was the wise older girl, while Dilsey had taken Val’s former place as the apprentice. She would be happy to pass on all the things she learned from Mary when she was younger. In fact, it felt like a real important responsibility.
The three of them walked all the way out to the oxbow pond on the Iowa River together, but Billy was really dragging his feet.
“Why so slow, Billy boy?” Ricky asked.
“Well, um… you know she’s gonna make us get naked out at the skinny-dipping pond, right?”
“Val? You haven’t forgotten about that by now? It’s damned cold, you know.” All three of them wore jackets as the October air turned chilly.
“I haven’t forgotten. We’ll do that eventually. Naked honesty, like in gazebo at Celephais. But not yet today.”
“I… I can’t do the naked thing, Valerie,” Billy complained.
“Yes, you can. You did it with Francois, Giselle, and I before Francoise died.”
“That dream stuff never really happened, you know. People can’t share dreams. Not really. We just remember talking about it with Francois. We just convinced ourselves we all had the same dreams.”
The three of them climbed through the barbed-wire fence around the pasture bordering the oxbow as Billy complained.
“It was real enough, no matter the actual truth of it. I remember it so vividly, it’s real now even if it wasn’t real then.”
They moved down to the flattened area of grass by the banks of the pond. They each selected a spot to sit where they could talk without making actual eye contact.
“Val, we heard about the dance. Billy, Terry, and me, we all decided we’d figure out some way to bring you out of your great sadness.”
“Yeah,” said Billy. “We know how dangerous depression is. And we don’t want you to miss another week of school.”
“Guys, what you’re doing about it here is enough. A place to talk… a place to say what’s true without any interference… That’s what I really need.”
“One thing that’s true is that I don’t want to take my clothes off while talking.”
“Shut up, Billy,” Ricky said. “When the time comes, I’ll strip you myself if I need to.”
Billy looked huffy and about to get mad, a rare thing for the skinny boy.
Valerie quickly interceded. “Nobody will make you do anything you don’t really want to do. Besides, I’ve already seen you naked, so there’s nothing to fret yourself about.”
“No, you haven’t! Celephais is not real. That was just in your dream.”
“Then how do I know your cute little thing was completely hairless back in the seventh grade?”
Billy swallowed audibly. “You’re just guessing.”
“Well, maybe so. But you don’t know for sure.”
It was quiet between the three of them for several long minutes.
“All I really need is someone to actually listen to me,” Valerie finally said. “You can both do that for me, can’t you?”
“Yeah,” they both said.
“In fact, I thought of something else that might help all three of us.” Ricky’s face was totally serious for a change.
“What’s that?” Val asked.
“Marahoochie cigarettes…” Ricky said.
“Marijuana. You know, the goof sticks. We three can get high together. It’ll make us get more creative like John Lennon did.”
“No, you can’t!” Billy said.
“It’s illegal. And your adopted dad is a cop. How will that look when Cliff has to put you in jail?”
“Ah, we don’t have to get caught. We’re smart enough to get away with it.”
“But it’s a gateway drug. We’ll end up on heroine, or maybe dead.”
“It’s not like that. Terry and I tried it. People don’t die from overdoses of marijuana. And it’s easy to control. It’s less addictive than regular cigarettes.”
“It’s my decision, isn’t it?” asked Valerie. “We’re here because of me, right?”
“But I don’t want to smoke anything.”
“We don’t have to smoke it. Terry and I can bake it into brownies.”
“Where are you gonna get it?” asked Billy. “You know any drug dealers around here?”
“Uncle Harker does.”
“Harker Dawes? Terry’s Uncle Harker?” Val was astounded.
“How does Harker Dawes know a drug dealer?”
“Well… you see… Harker runs Kingman’s Grocery Store now, since he lost the hardware store. And he has trouble dealing with the usual suppliers. So, he tried this new guy. And this new guy sold him some new-fangled health foods, you see. And the Mexican carrot greens were really marijuana.”
“Harker bought actual marijuana?” Billy asked.
“He did. But, of course, he didn’t know it was marijuana. He thought they were actually Mexican carrot greens.”
“You are trying to say Harker Dawes is that dumb? Or the food supplier?”
“The supply guy was using code for selling the drug. He thought Harker knew what it really was. But you know Harker. He believes whatever he’s told, even if it is a criminal telling him.”
“But he knows it now?” asked Val.
“Well… no. Terry wanted to tell him, but he doesn’t know any sign for marijuana. And he only speaks sign language.”
“Why didn’t you tell him?”
“Um, yeah… that’s how I’m gonna hook you up with some good weed. I already tried to smoke it. But it really worked best when we got Ma Dawes to bake some brownies with it inside. We told her Mexican carrot greens make good spice for brownies. Everybody really loves her brownies now.”
Billy and Valerie both stared in amazement at Ricky’s sneakers. They knew enough about the Dawes family, the family that adopted Terry during the blizzard, to know the story was absolutely true. But they were both too stunned to laugh.
“You’ll bring some brownies here, then?” Valerie asked.
Billy glared at the both of them. “You don’t expect me to break the law with you like that, do you?”
“Yes. And naked while you do it,” said Valerie.
“I could just report you both to Cliff and get you arrested.”
“But you won’t do that. You are too kind-hearted and too good of a friend,” said Valerie.
Since shortly after her twelfth birthday Valerie had lived with her mother in the house on the northeastern corner of Main Street and Whitten Avenue. It was a house they moved into after Daddy Kyle lost the family farm to the bank and he… well… he stopped sitting at the dinner table in the evenings. In fact, he never sat at that particular dinner table in that particular house. Ever.
“Valerie, help me set the table,” her mother said to her.
“Maybe you could ask Tim to do it. He’s growing up too, you know.”
“He’s a guest in our house this evening.”
“I’d be happy to help,” said Aunt Jen.
“We welcome the company, but you’re a guest too this evening. Valerie used to love doing this. Remember when she was ten and would sing Disney songs as she placed the spoons, knives, and forks?”
“I’ll set the table, Mom, but I don’t sing anymore.”
“That’s a real shame. You have a beautiful singing voice, girl,” said Aunt Jen.
“Valerie doesn’t do a lot of the things she used to do, Jen. Did you know she is giving up cheerleading in her senior year?”
“What? Why, Val? You have always been the best one out there. I thought you were the head cheerleader this year.”
“No. Charlotte Robbins is head cheerleader. But I didn’t want the job anymore anyway. I don’t have the pep in my step anymore to do that whole bouncy, smiley thing.”
Valerie rounded the table plopping down five forks next to the five plates. Then she picked up five spoons and rounded the table again, listlessly plopping down one for Uncle Rance, one for Terrible Tim, one for Aunt Jen, one for Mom, and then one for herself. Aunt Jen was Daddy Kyle’s sister, and her family came to visit every Tuesday like clockwork, because Aunt Jen was relentlessly trying to help her niece and sister-in-law every single week since… since Daddy Kyle stopped sitting at the dinner table. Five butter knives finished the ritual, and Valerie plopped down in her place.
Aunt Jen raised an eyebrow as she surveyed Valerie up and down. “I really thought you loved cheerleading. Is there something more wrong than usual that you need to tell us about?”
“No, I promise, there is not. I’m sorry if I’m a bit out of sorts.”
“Valerie says the cheerleading squad has gotten too shallow and petty for her. She seems to have some sort of grudge against about three of the girls.”
“Oh? Did they do something mean to you, hon?”
“No, Aunt Jen. It’s just that Dottie, Charlotte, and Lupe have all been making fun of the fact that I’ve gone most of the way through high school without a boyfriend. They’ve all got one.”
“All three of those girls?”
“All seven of them besides me. Even Patty the mascot has a boyfriend now.”
“But that is no reason to give up on something you love to do.”
“That’s just it… I don’t love to do it. Not since the end of eighth grade.”
At that moment Uncle Rance and Tim the Termite both walked into the dining room.
“What don’t you love anymore?” Uncle Rance asked.
“Boys,” Tim the Twit had to answer for her. He was the closest thing in the world she had to an actual brother, and he fulfilled that role tremendously terribly.
“Tim, dear, remember our discussion about respecting members of your own family,” Aunt Jen warned.
“But it’s not a secret,” Tim explained. “You remember that French boy that came to live with the Martins, don’t you?”
“Francois? The one who wore the clown paint and sang so beautifully in the Martins’ family bar and grille?”
“Yes,” Valerie answered with an almost-shaky voice. “I was in love with him. And suddenly he was dead and gone.” She looked down at the tablecloth and couldn’t look up again.
The adults were silent, looking… well, stunned.
“Oh, I do remember. That was so sad,” Aunt Jen said.
“But in school you are always hanging around with Ricky Porter and Billy Martin. And you and Danny Murphy were inseparable before he graduated and found that Carla Bates.” Uncle Rance was an English teacher at the high school, and he had seen practically everything she had ever done at Belle City High.
“Yeah, well, that’s because they were all Norwall Pirates and my good friends. Not my boyfriends.”
“We’re sorry for your loss, Val,” Tim said, in a voice that was at the very least an excellent imitation of sincerity. “I know how much you loved him and how long you were hurting after he was gone.”
Valerie almost said something mean to him. But she looked at his innocent little devil-face and knew he wasn’t about to say something to hurt her in this moment. She did love him… in a way… like the way you love a brother whom you want to bop on the head with your closed fist… and maybe even bop him really, really hard. But he was undergoing changes in his life too, wasn’t he?”
“Did Tim tell you about his big date this weekend?” Val blurted out. Even she wasn’t expecting the secret to spill like that.
“Oh? He hasn’t told us anything about it yet,” Aunt Jen said, looking at Tim.
“But I’ll bet it’s Miss Murphy,” said his father.
Tim blushed deeply. “Yes, it’s Dilsey.”
“What are you planning to do?” Aunt Jen asked.
“The Robin Williams movie is playing in Belle City at the theater.”
“Oh, that should be good.” Uncle Rance gave Tim a knowing wink.
Tim looked at Val and gave her a pained smile. “How did you find out before I told anybody?”
“Dilsey asked me to babysit for her on Saturday, and I made her explain why. Of course, you and her used to have some pretty epic arguments about who was more accurately described as a pig and who was a baboon. So, she asked me how terrible I thought you would be to her.”
“Valerie!” Her Mom interjected reproachfully.
“So, did you say nice things about me? Or did you tell her the truth?” Tim said with a wicked grin.
“Tim!” Aunt Jen said with even more vehemence than Mom had used on her.
“I told her that even though you are kinda stinky on the outside, deep inside you’re basically a pretty good guy… well, really deep inside.”
Tim laughed. Everybody else at least smirked, even disapproving parents.
“You know, Tim, we approve of Dilsey Murphy even more than we do of her brother Mike, your best friend,” said Uncle Rance.
“She’s very sweet and well-mannered young lady,” added Aunt Jen. “Not that we don’t find Mike to be charming too… at least sometimes.” Aunt Jen was laughing by that time.
“And, Timothy Allen Kellogg, you better not do anything to upset her in any way,” Valerie warned. “If you do, I will make sure you are wearing your underwear as a hat with your butt still inside it.”
“When you finish med-school, Cuz, you will learn that you can’t actually do that in the real world.” Tim was entirely his usual self again.
“Don’t you try to tell me what I can’t do if I really put my mind to it! One day, no single part of your anatomy will be safe from my surgical skills. I’ll give up my dreams of studying architecture and study medicine just to prove it to you.” After that, the adults fell into their usual conversations. Normally Valerie and Tim would use the time to talk about TV shows and comic books, and what monsters the Norwall Pirates were currently chasing. But it had been a while since Val had last felt like actually talking about stuff. So, instead, the two of them just looked at each other in uncomfortably awkward silence.
Getting to school and back by bus every day was tough. Especially when you are feeling rather down and blue. Now that she was a senior in high school, she no longer had Danny Murphy to sit with on the bus. Mary Phillips and Pidney Breslow had graduated four years ago and were in college now, soon to graduate from Iowa State University. Danny had graduated from high school last year, and had told her during that summer that he and Carla Bates would be getting married in the near future. Well, maybe not as near as anticipated since they still hadn’t picked a date. But no more Danny on the bus to tell her jokes or drive her home from Belle City High in that incredibly old 1950s car he inherited from his Grampy.
She sat alone in the far back of the bus now. Every day. The bus ride to Norwall seemed endless, even though it was only ten miles as the crow flies… a really slow crow named Joe with half of his tail feathers missing. But on this day, Dilsey Murphy, Danny’s younger sister, moved to the back as soon as she got on the bus. She was wearing that old purple Carl Eller jersey, number 81 from the Minnesota Vikings of the 70s.
“Um, Valerie… do you mind if I sit with you on the way home today?”
“I may be kinda grumpy company. But sure.”
Maybe the younger girl could lighten the mood for her. But, then again… probably not.
Dilsey had straight black hair which she sometimes wore with a barrette on the right side of her bangs because her mother’s fashion sense reeked of the 1960s. Otherwise, ignoring the hair and the barrette, Dilsey was dressed like a boy. Vikings’ jersey, denim pants, and boys’ sneakers.
“Um, Val, I have a favor to ask.”
Oh, boy. Here it comes. The real reason.
“Please don’t be mad at me, but…”
“It’s all right. I promise not to bite… at least, not very hard.”
“Yeah, um… you know Mrs. Patricia Zeffer?”
“Ray’s mom. Of course, I know her.”
“Well, I normally babysit for her on Saturdays when she needs to go out. But this week I can’t…”
“Mrs. Zeffer has a kid that needs babysitting services? She has a kid that young?”
“Well, yes… it’s her grandson, actually.”
“Oh, of course. But why is little Troy living with her now?”
“Uh, well… You know that family has a bit of trouble since…”
“Since Ray disappeared six years ago.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t be asking, but… I have a date on Saturday.”
“You do? But you’re only…”
“Almost sixteen, and a sophomore in high school.”
“Sure. I wasn’t trying to insult you or anything, but your mother…”
“Trusts me more than she ever did Danny.”
“Of course, she does.”
“Aren’t you going to ask who the date is with?”
She didn’t really, exactly… well, care. But…
“No! You have gotta be kidding me! Tim the Terror? Dim Tim? Rim-tin-Tim? The stinkilicious leader of the Norwall Pirates?”
Dilsey giggled awkwardly. “I’ll have to remember those names. They may prove very useful.”
“Why would an otherwise, very pretty girl waste her time with Tiny Terrible Tim? He’s my cousin, and one of the grossest human beans in all of Iowa. In fact… all of the Midwest.”
“You know he is a good person at heart. He’s only an icky boy on the outside. Inside he’s…”
“Only icky ninety-nine percent of the time. I do know my own cousin.”
Dilsey laughed a little more easily this time. Of course, Val wasn’t entirely sure she was joking. The brat could really get on your nerves sometimes.
“But… you don’t really think that…”
“That you shouldn’t be dating him? The girl who once told him that he was the worst, most two-faced person she ever met?”
Dilsey’s face was suddenly crestfallen. She looked like her whole positive little self was being crushed and was about to crumble into a weepy pile.
“You think it’s a mistake if I think I might be falling in love with him?”
“A boy who is a year younger than you are? One who is way less mature than you are? Way meaner too?”
Tears were forming in Dilsey’s dark eyes. Valerie had gone too far. Who was the meaner cousin now?
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said any of that. I have been feeling outa sorts and kinda depressed for a while now. I didn’t mean to take it out on you or Tim either. Forgive me?”
“You’ll take the babysitting job for me?”
“Of course. Little Troy Zeffer? He’s such a little cutie.”
“Do you really think it’s something a normal human being would do to like Tim and go see a movie with him? He wants to watch Mrs. Doubtfire with me.”
“With Robin Williams in it?”
“Yeah. The Murphy family wants to see it together too, so, if I go with Tim, I’ll be watching it twice, probably in the same weekend.”
Val chuckled softly. “That sounds good. You make sure you tell Tim I am taking this sitting job for you to be able to go with him, so he owes me. And if he tries to sneak-kiss you, hit him in the nose really hard.”
Dilsey laughed. Val knew she intimidated the younger girl. Dilsey had never been a cheerleader. Never been the leader of the Norwall Pirates. And never lost a boyfriend before. And Val envied her those things.
“Valerie? Do you need to be alone in this back seat every day on the bus ride home?”
“Are you offering to sit with me regularly?”
“Yes. Especially now that Tim is on the basketball team and has practice every afternoon.”
That was right. Now that Valerie had given up cheerleading, there was no longer any reason to stay in Belle City after school, and no reason to ride the late bus.
“I had thought I wanted to sit alone this year, without Danny here to entertain me. But I think sitting with his sister will be just about the perfect thing to take the place of that.”
It was an evil plan, a wickedness the boys would never see coming. But Valerie knew it was a necessary plan. She made them go by foot. You could reach the skinny-dipping pond by foot if you followed the tracks out south of town, past Uncle Dash’s farm and past the Sumpter Park Woods where the city of Norwall maintained a shelter house with picnic tables and a manicured lawn that led to trails into the woods and eventually to the old Sumpter log cabin, what was left of it.
There was an old ox-bow pond that once had been connected to the Iowa River, but now was a separate body of water coming out of an artesian spring that brought fresh water from the shared river water table.
“Really? We’re going to the old Pirates’ skinny-dipping place?” Ricky Porter asked skeptically.
“It’s too late in the year for swimming, Val,” Billy Martin reminded her. “October is too cold in Iowa.”
“You really think I would make you come this far just for a chance to see you guys naked? Again?”
“When did you ever see me naked?” asked Billy. At eighteen he was a rather bony and skinny youth. And he was so painfully shy that Val had not even seen him in swimming trunks.
“Okay, well… I wasn’t referring to you.”
“I only go in if you do,” Ricky said to her. He had dared her like that once before, though she had seen his golden-brown, muscled form and then successfully backed out of going in herself.
“We didn’t come here for that,” she answered with a frown. “I needed to talk to you both. I had another one of those dreams again last night. I spent the whole night crying.”
“The angel dreams again?” Billy asked, wide-eyed.
“Michel Volant, yes.”
“You know we’re here for you, Val. We’re your friends and fellow Pirates,” Ricky said.
“But you also know how much it hurts to talk about Francois,” Billy said, tears already forming in his eyes.
Valerie looked him squarely in the eyes. She knew he would see exactly what she meant.
“Oh, gawd, Val, you haven’t been hurting yourself already have you?” Billy asked, his voice quavering slightly.
“Not this time. But you know those dreams usually mean another black depression is coming on. And you know what we have to do about it.”
“Yeah. We promised to always tell each other if we ever had those kinds of thoughts again.” Ricky’s eyes were tearing up again too. Val was aware he had cut himself on the ankles more than any of them had ever done themselves self-harm. He was the one who had spent a week in the hospital two years ago.
“Have you been thinking about hurting yourself, Val?” Billy asked.
“Maybe. That’s why we had to talk today and not wait any longer.”
“Is it… is it Francois again?”
“Billy, we can talk about Tommy this time. I just need to hear it again. I just know if we don’t do something about the ones we lost…”
“…To keep them alive in our hearts, yeah,” said Ricky.
“You know I can’t tell you anything about Tommy. I never met him. I spent the whole blizzard down in the cellar next to the furnace while it burned propane.” Billy looked sadly across the wind-rippled water.
“What do you want to know about Tommy? I don’t know everything, but I knew him a few years longer than you did.” Ricky’s eyes were glistening.
“You haven’t heard from him since the blizzard, have you?” She asked.
“You know I would tell you if I had. Besides, he didn’t take anybody’s phone number with him.”
“He could’ve looked us up. He knows you were taken in by Cliff Baily and his new wife. He knows I live in town with my mother.”
“Yeah, but that’s not Tommy’s style. He survived on the road because he always lived in the moment. He was focused on where he was and the people he was with… in the NOW.”
“Yeah. I remember him that way too.”
“What more do you really want to know about him, Val?”
“Why did you boys follow him all the way to Norwall?”
“Well… um, I… Yeah…”
“You can tell me. No matter how hard it may seem, Ricky. We’re Pirates, you and I. You can tell me anything.”
“Are we still Norwall Pirates?” Billy asked. “We haven’t had a club meeting in two years. And you made your little cousin, Tim Kellogg, the new Pirate leader.”
“You did? You didn’t tell me?”
“Oh, Ricky. You left the Pirates before Billy and I did. They are all younger kids now. We’re old. Almost adults.”
“Yeah, but… Once a Pirate, always a Pirate.”
“We’ll always be a part of it. The club was started by my cousin Brent Clarke, and he says he’s still a Pirate. It’s just that the Pirates belong in the control of the Norwall kids, so they learn to rely on each other, and form the team that helps us all survive the perils of the unknown.”
Ricky and Billy both smiled and laughed a little at that. They knew it was true just as surely as Valerie did.
“We’re off topic now, Rick,” Billy said. “You promised her to tell her why you followed Tommy here to Norwall.”
“Yeah… um… You know that most kids in the foster care system get abused one way or another…”
“Yeah, Tommy told me that too… during the blizzard.”
“We didn’t form the Fantastic Foursome just by getting on that Trailways bus together. Terry and I met in the group home. He had nobody to talk to him in his previous foster homes… because nobody spoke sign language.”
“Did you know sign when you met him?” Billy asked.
“Terry taught me. He needed someone to talk to desperately. And I learned fast.”
“Faster than you taught it to me?”
“Well, yeah… You’re kinda a slow learner, Billy.”
“Okay, but that don’t mean I ain’t smart.”
“Of course, not,” Valerie said.
“Well, you can see what Terry’s real father did to him if you look at his burned ears. His father was the reason he was deaf.”
“And what about Tommy and Dennis?” Val asked.
“Well, you remember Denny had those crutches. He got that way from malnourishment. His first fosters only had him to get the money the State paid. They practically starved him to death. The mom of that family went to jail for it. Denny probably would’ve died if Brikkleputti… I mean, Mom, hadn’t followed us all the way to Norwall with the medicine Denny and I both needed.”
“Is Denny still alive, you think?”
“Sure, Val. If Tommy’s alive, and I know he is, he wouldn’t have let anything happen to Denny. He loved him like a little brother.”
“He loved all three of you like that.”
“Yeah, he did. That’s why he left us here when he left for Dallas. He took Denny with him, but he left me with Cliff and Mom to be a family like I never had before. And the Dawes family wanted to adopt Terry too. He left us behind for our own good.”
“But why was Tommy running away to begin with?”
“Well… the last foster family he lived with, they… beat him. And when he finally got strong enough to fight back, the cops came and took Tommy and locked him up… not that crazy old man who beat him.”
“Yeah, Tommy told me about that too.”
“And what about you, Ricky?” Billy asked.
“Well, I… uh… maybe I ain’t ready to talk about that just yet.”
“The Teddy Bear Killer?” Val asked.
“Yeah, don’t even say his name, please.”
“I know what you mean. I… um… I can’t talk about Daddy Kyle, either.”
“But, Val, what did we even come here for, then?” Billy asked.
“We gotta talk about the hard things. All three of us,” said Ricky. “We all are hurting inside almost all of the time.”
“Yeah, and that’s why we’re here instead of trying to meet in Zoomboogadoo. This pond is touched by magic, just like the gazebo in Zoomboogadoo.”
“No, that’s not a real place. We didn’t actually meet Francois and his sister in dreams. That was all just us imagining it. And Ricky wasn’t even able to meet us in the Dreamlands… not even once.” Billy was visibly upset.
“You are never going to convince me that Zoomboogadoo wasn’t real. I remember it too vividly.”
“But dreams can be vivid sometimes, and still not real,” reminded Ricky.
“All right. But this place is magic too. I have come here more than once to talk to Clovis. You just have to be in the right state of mind.”
“Val, there is no Clovis. He’s just a story they tell in the Pirates’ meetings to explain the disappearance of Conrad Doble. You said yourself, it was old Mrs. Haire that scared him away for good. He didn’t turn into no naked kid with horns and a tail.” It was Ricky’s turn to look visibly upset.
“Yeah, well… we need to stay ahead of the depression and the suicidal thinking. We are not any of us ever going to hurt ourselves again. That doesn’t cure the problems that are causing us pain.”
“You’re right, Val,” said Billy.
“Yeah, we gotta talk it all out,” said Ricky.
“Yeah. And we’re gonna do it here, by the skinny-dipping pond. And we’re gonna do it naked. That’s the evil plan.”
“What?” Both boys were upset.
“You remember how it was in Zoomboogadoo,” said Valerie, looking straight into the eyes of Billy. “We all showed up there in our dreams with no clothes on. Like we were born into it. Innocent as babes.”
“That was just a dream,” Billy insisted.
“Yeah, and it wasn’t cold fall weather either, I bet,” said Ricky.
“That’s true. But that’s what will keep us from being seen and watched by the other Pirates. They only come here during skinny-dipping season.”
“What if we can’t do it? Get naked here… I mean,” said Billy with a stutter.
“And what if we don’t want to do it?” Ricky added.
“Well, we’ll take it slow. It is not because of sex or wanting to see each other naked. It’s about being completely honest and open. No barriers. If we don’t help each other when the darkness returns to our brains, someone else will die. And I can’t lose anybody else in my life. I need to add people, not lose them.” All three of them saw the dark clouds coming on the horizon in the mind’s eye. At least, Val was almost positive they did. And the one advantage the Pirates had over other people who get darkly depressed and suicidal was that they had each other. These three friends, at least, actually knew each other better than most friends ever do. And soon they would be inside each other’s heads in ways that Valerie simply knew would help.