Chincoteague Island, VA
WITH a smile on his face, Donald Pottier carried the crab trap and strode across the yard toward the back door of the small house he lived in with his mother. The smile was because the trap wasn’t empty, the way it had been the last few times he’d tried crabbing off the dock near his home. This time the blue crabs had been hungry for his chicken necks on a string, and he’d netted nine large ones. He and his mother would eat well.
“What did you get?” his mother asked as she opened the door, a grin breaking across her face as he held up the trap. “They’re finally starting to get large enough,” she commented as she took the trap and brought it into the kitchen. She handed the trap back to him before covering the kitchen table with a plastic tablecloth, and Don set the trap on it. “Don’t you have to get ready for work?” she asked, pulling the large pot out from under the sink to fill it with water.
Don checked the battery-operated clock above the stove and jumped. “Yeah, if I don’t move, I’m going to be late.” He hurried out of the kitchen and down the hall to his small bedroom. The house his mother rented only had four rooms—living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms—but it was home and the only one Don knew. They’d lived here for as long as he could remember, renting the place from their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Klingbeil, whose house wasn’t much bigger, but unlike a lot of the places in town, at least she made sure their home was maintained. He knew they were lucky, because a lot of the places on this small fishing and tourist island weren’t properly taken care of by their absentee landlords.
Don opened one of the drawers in his dresser and took out a white shirt and a pair of basic black jeans. After tugging off his old jeans and T-shirt, Don pulled on the fresh clothes before checking himself in the mirror. He tried combing his wild, dark hair, but it just went right back where it wanted no matter what he did. At least the acne had started to clear up, and his face was no longer perpetually red and blotchy. His mother always said he was handsome, but Don never saw it. All he ever saw was the hair that wouldn’t behave and the nose that always seemed a little crooked, even though his mother swore it was perfect.
“You’re going to be late if you don’t move.” His mother’s voice drifted in from the kitchen.
“I know, Mom. I’m almost ready to leave,” Don called back, and after one more glance, he decided he looked as good as he was going to and left the bedroom. Then he joined his mother in the kitchen. “I’ll see you tonight.”
She hugged him before he could get away, and he decided he wasn’t going to fight it. Even for a sixteen-year-old, there were worse things than being hugged by your mother. “Be careful, and call me before you leave.” She released him and checked the water in the pot as the crabs struggled to get out of the trap. He hated the cooking part of the process. He would catch them, but he hated the sound of them banging on the side of the pot for the minute it took for them to die. “I’ll have crab cakes for you when you get home.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he said with a smile, and on an impulse, he kissed her cheek before rushing out the back door to the tiny shed. He unlocked the small building and pulled out his bike. After locking the door again, he jumped on the old ten-speed and pedaling toward town.
Don kept an eye out as he rode. Sometimes cars came around the corners too fast, or he’d find one of those battery-powered carts tourists rented right in front of him. The dang things were a nuisance, but as he swerved to miss one, he kept his opinion to himself—on Chincoteague Island in the summer, the tourist was king. It was their dollars that kept the meager island economy afloat, and those tourists provided him with the job he was heading to. Reaching the main street, Don put on the brakes and checked for traffic before turning right, toward town. If he’d turned left, he could have headed across the bridges to Assateague Island with its national seashore and public beach on the ocean.
“Hey, Potty-a,” a familiar, dreaded voice called from behind him, and Don pedaled faster. He was usually pretty good at avoiding Harmon Krepke and his friends, but since he’d been running late, Don had taken the most direct route, going past one of the miniature golf courses Krepke’s family owned. Don could hear them behind him, and he took a quick glance as his heart rate sped up. Standing up, Don pedaled as fast as his legs would allow him, the muscles screaming even as he got closer to work. The last thing he wanted was to walk into work with dirt on his clothes again, or worse, a mouthful of stinking mud that made him gag, which had happened the last time they’d caught him.
Don could see the sign for his destination, Mr. Whippy, and he continued pedaling up the street and then turned into the parking lot. He couldn’t hear the boys behind him, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Coasting to a stop near the back door, he looked around and saw Harmon and his main crony, Lymon Biggs, standing near the entrance to the parking lot of the ice cream parlor, talking and laughing with each other, pointing toward him and making imaginary cutting motions across their necks. Don shivered in the almost sultry late-morning air before placing his bike with the others, making sure to lock it carefully, and then looked one last time at his taunters before going in to work.
“I thought you were going to be late,” Kirsten said with her usual smile and chirpy voice as he punched his card with five minutes to spare before they opened for the day.
“I almost was,” Don said, stating the obvious, but needing some time for his breathing and heart rate to return to normal. He walked to the cleaning station and filled a stainless steel bucket with water and a touch of bleach before carrying it into the dining area.
“Was Krepke chasing you again?” Kirsten asked as she took a cloth and started washing off the tables. “He’s such a douche,” she said sympathetically as she finished washing a table and moved on to the next. “I wish I knew what was wrong with him.” Don had often wondered the same thing. He shrugged, wishing he could figure out the answer, and went outside to wipe down the plastic tables under umbrellas that lined the front of the building. He’d never done anything to him as far as he could remember, but in eighth grade, Krepke had grown faster than all the other kids. He’d started picking on most of the kids during gym class and after school, but over time his attention seemed to have focused on Don. Once Don was done with the tables, he went back inside and rinsed off his rag.
“We’re opening,” Mr. Hollings called as he unlocked the front doors. Their boss always made the same call, and when Don had first started working here, he’d always looked up as though a stampede of people was going to rush in. That never happened. Kirsten washed her hands and took her place behind the counter while Don finished with the tables and then joined her.
Customers began to trickle in, and by noon, there was a line. Marian, one of the other “whippers,” came in, and the three of them stayed busy taking lunch orders and dipping ice cream until their fingers alternately tingled and ached from the cold.
Don rarely paid attention to the customers other than to help them and then move on to the next person, but he always noticed Jason whenever he came in. It had been an accident that he’d even learned the boy’s name last summer. He and a friend had been getting cones when Don heard the friend call him about something, and Don had committed his name, as well as everything he’d ever been able to glean from his visits, to memory. Once, last year, during the hottest part of the summer, Jason had come in wearing this tank top that didn’t have much to it, and Don had actually seen most of Jason’s smooth chest and even his perky, pink nipples. That sight had fueled his fantasies for the rest of the summer, because Jason was beginning to look like a man instead of a boy. Don also knew that Jason and his family were summer people with a vacation house on one of the points that jutted out into the Intracoastal Waterway.
“I’d like a double scoop of Marsh Mud,” Jason told him in his rich voice, and Don swallowed hard without moving for a second. Then, without saying a word, he reached for a sugar cone, because he knew that was what Jason liked, and began scooping it out for him. “I’ve seen you around,” Jason said while Don worked the hard ice cream into a ball. “You live here on the island, don’t you?”
Don placed the first scoop on the cone before making another. “Yes,” he answered, a bit cautiously, even as he watched Jason lean on the case, his shirt riding up a little, and as he worked, Don could see a line of tanned skin through the glass. He nearly dropped his scoop, but managed to get the ice cream on the cone without making a complete fool of himself. Standing up, he set the cone in the stand. “Is there anything else?” Don asked, like he was supposed to.
Jason reached for the cone, taking a lick with his pink tongue, and Don used replacing his disposable gloves as an excuse to look away. “Could I get a large Coke too?”
“Sure,” Don answered as he moved toward the register. He scooped some ice and then filled the cup with soda before putting a lid on it and setting it on the counter. Then he rang up the sale. “That’s $4.97.” Don tried not to look as Jason reached into his jeans, the fabric tightening in all the right places for a moment, and then Jason handed him a five.
“Thanks,” Jason said, grabbing his soda and then walking away. Don placed the bill in the drawer and closed it, watching Jason’s denim-encased rear end move as he walked toward the door. Kirsten nudged his shoulder, and he moved out of the way, turning his attention to the next customer. He knew she’d probably been trying to see where he was looking, but thankfully Jason was out of sight.
“May I help you?” he asked the next people in line, who looked like grandparents with their three grandchildren. They began telling him what they wanted, and he immediately began scooping.
Work went on like that for another hour or so. “Go ahead and take your break,” Mr. Hollings told him, and Don smiled before taking off and throwing away the gloves, then heading out back. The air was warm even in the shade of the building, but it felt good, especially on his cold hands, so he leaned against the building and soaked it in.
“Do you have plans for tonight?” Kirsten asked him as she came out as well, searching her pockets for a cigarette.
“You should really stop that. You’ll sound like your mother when you get older,” Don teased, but he saw Kirsten nod.
“I’m cutting back to two a day,” she said with a smile before lighting up. “This is my first one. Next week I’ll go to one a day, and then hopefully I can stop altogether.” She puffed and blew the smoke away from him. “My mom’s smoked all her life, and she coughs all the time. I started because she always did it and because it was cool.”
“Is it?” Don asked, and Kirsten shook her head.
“It’s a bad habit. One I wished I never started, but it’s hard to stop. I’m going to do it, though.” She sounded determined, and Don wished her well. He never liked being around smokers much; they always smelled funny. Without thinking about it, Don snickered. The entire island smelled like dead fish, decaying marsh, and salt water everywhere you went. There was no escaping it, and he curled his nose up about a little cigarette smoke. “Don’t ever start, Donny,” she told him with a smirk.
Don leaned forward so he could see into the kitchen to check the clock as a multitude of muffled conversations drifted around to them from the front of the building. Don heard what sounded like a bike approach, and he tensed automatically before turning to look just as Jason pulled to a stop nearby. He watched as Jason stepped off his deep green bike that still shone with its new paint. Then, to Don’s surprise, Jason walked over to where they stood. “Hey, guys,” Jason said as Kirsten took another puff on her cigarette. “Taking a break from work?”
“Yeah,” Don answered, wondering why Jason had stopped by and excited about it at the same time.
“How long do you work?” Jason asked, and Don’s first instinct was to ask why he wanted to know, but he held back, and Jason continued. “I saw you fishing for crabs this morning, and it looked really cool. I was wondering if you’d show me how,” Jason explained. “Maybe after you get off work, if you have time. I’m Jason, by the way. Jason Greene.” He held out his hand like an adult, and Don stepped forward, shaking it and wondering by what twist of fate he actually got to touch the hand of the boy of his dreams.
“I’m Don Pottier, and this is Kirsten O’Connor,” Don said, half expecting Jason to be using him as some sort of ruse to get to Kirsten. She turned the heads of most of the boys on the island, with her blonde hair and big chest. Not that Don really cared, but it was hard not to notice. Kirsten’s mother was a ranger with the National Park Service on Assateague, and she was often referred to as Pam Anderson because she looked a lot like her, from the big blonde hair to the huge boobs. Kirsten came by her attributes honestly.
“So, are we on?” Jason asked a little earnestly.
“If you want. I’m done with work at five. We can meet here and ride to the grocery store before going back to my house, where I have a trap and other stuff we’ll need,” Don offered, still feeling a little reticent. But this was a chance to be with the boy who had captured his attention since the previous summer, and he might not get another.
“Cool,” Jason said, “I’ll meet you right here.”
Don took another look in the kitchen. “We gotta get back,” he said with a touch of disappointment.
“I’ll meet you here at five,” Jason said before hopping back on his bike and taking off, legs pumping. When Don looked away and turned to Kirsten, she had the strangest look on her face but said nothing as they walked back inside.
The rest of their shift passed in a blur of scooping ice cream, getting drinks, taking food orders, and cleaning up messes, which lasted steadily all afternoon. There were two places on the island for ice cream, and both of them were busy all day long and well into the night this time of year. In general, the employees scooped and rang up the customers. There was also always a cook to handle food orders that Don or one of the other scoopers then delivered to the tables when they were ready. They fought for those because sometimes they’d get a tip.
“What do you think of this?” Mr. Hollings asked just before the end of Don’s shift, once it finally slowed down enough for them to take a two-minute breather. Their boss carried a dish with four spoons in it. This was one of the perks, or hazards of the job, depending on how you viewed it—tasting one of Mr. Hollings latest ice cream concoctions.
“What is it?” Kirsten asked as she lifted a spoon and took a bite.
“Coconut ice cream with lots of dark chocolate chips,” he answered proudly. They each took a taste, and Don smiled as the flavor danced on his tongue.
“Tastes like a Mounds bar. I love those,” he said. “This is great.” Don smiled to reinforce his opinion. Some of Mr. Hollings’s concoctions had been really bad, like the pumpkin pie he tried last fall that tasted more like stewed squash than spicy pumpkin pie. There were also the winners, like his Marsh Mud, which was a dark, heavy chocolate fudge ice cream. It was a perennial favorite—if you liked chocolate, you loved that ice cream.
“It’s not really my thing,” Kirsten said, “because I’m not a fan of coconut, but the flavors taste good together. I think you have a winner.”
“What do you think, Marian?” Mr. Hollings asked as Marian took her first bite, and they watched her eyes widen. She was always timid about trying new flavors. Whenever she got ice cream for herself, she always got plain chocolate. “You like it?”
She nodded and grinned. “This is really good.” From the look on her face, Marian had just found her new favorite flavor of ice cream, either that or there was something in there to make her eyes roll into the back of her head. Mr. Hollings handed her the container with a grin of success. “You should go on your break before Don and Kirsten leave for the day.”
Marian nodded, still eating the rest of the ice cream as she moved into the back room. Don couldn’t help grinning as he and Kirsten took care of the last customers of their shift. Marian returned from her break, and two other people came in to relieve Don and Kirsten, so Don said goodbye to everyone before he and Kirsten left via the back door. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Kirsten called as Don saw her boyfriend’s car pull up, and then she hopped into the passenger seat. Through the window, he saw them kiss, and then Kirsten waved as they pulled out of the lot, waiting for traffic to clear before turning onto the main street, tires throwing up gravel.
Don watched her go and then looked around but didn’t see Jason. With a sigh, he turned away from the parking lot and began unlocking his bike.
“Well, if it isn’t Potty-a,” Harmon Krepke said from right behind him, close enough for Don to smell his bad breath. “We’re going swimming, and we thought you could cool off too.”
Don stiffened and whirled around but found himself held from behind. “Leave me alone!” Don cried, trying to squirm out of Krepke’s grip. But he was much bigger and stronger than Don, and he tightened his grip.
“I definitely think you need a swim. Grab his feet, Ly.” Don began to kick as much as he could, but Lymon got hold of his legs and held them tight. Don kept trying to squirm, but they were too strong for him. He began to squirm even more as they carried him toward the back of the lot to where the swamp mud began. They were going to throw him in, and Don knew from firsthand experience that this wasn’t just about getting dirty. There were places in the marsh that didn’t have a bottom. The mud was often just thick enough that you couldn’t swim in it, and yet there really wasn’t a bottom you could stand on.
“Leave me alone, you jerk!” Don cried and squirmed harder as they reached the break in the fence that Mr. Hollings kept saying he needed to repair. His heart raced and his mind began to cloud as sheer panic began to sink in.
“Right here is good, now swing his legs and we’ll toss him in,” Krepke growled with a sinister laugh, and Don tried to see what was happening, but his head was spinning, and all he could do was try to keep struggling as both his tormenters laughed. He kept struggling and cried out as his upper body began to fall. He was caught by one arm and then the other. Opening his eyes, he realized Krepke had his arms, and he continued trying to struggle as the two bigger boys really began to swing him.
Don braced for them to let go, but then he felt his legs fall and heard shouting. “Pick on someone your own size,” someone growled, and someone else cursed in pain. Lifting his head, Don saw Ly grabbing his nose, blood streaming out between his fingers. Then he was dropped, his arms released, and he fell unceremoniously onto his butt as he saw Jason turn to Krepke, fists up. Don scrambled to get out of the way as he saw Krepke brace for a punch, but Jason swept his foot in a wide arc, knocking Krepke’s feet from under him. Krepke stumbled and couldn’t get his balance before tumbling over the shallow bank and into the black mud. “Quit your bawling and help him out, or I’ll give you some more,” Jason told Ly, and the bully’s eyes widened as he held his nose, blood still running down his face.
Meanwhile, Don saw Krepke begin to climb out of the marsh, covered almost to his neck in foul-smelling mud, sticks, and bits of half-decayed plants. He looked almost like some sort of marsh monster. Don stepped back and grabbed his bike. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, and Jason nodded. Don hopped on his bike and waited for Jason before they took off, putting as much distance as they could between them and the bullies.
Once they were on the road, Jason began to laugh.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting in trouble?” Don asked Jason once they turned off the main street and they could ride side by side.
“No. Those two pick on everyone, and once word gets around that they’ve been whipped, someone else will do it too.” Jason put on his brakes to slow down, and Don followed suit. “How often have they done stuff like that?”
“Couple of years, I guess. Usually it’s just taunting and calling names,” Don confessed, looking away as his face colored. He hated being afraid of them, and if he were truthful with himself, he was ashamed that he couldn’t take care of himself. Every time those two got the better of him, it tore at him. What if someone tried to hurt his mother? He was the man of the family and all she had. What if he couldn’t protect her when she needed it?
“So where are we going?” Jason asked, and Don smiled, grateful he’d changed the subject.
“We need to go to the grocery store and get the bait for the crabs,” Don explained as he signaled and turned the corner. “Chicken necks are the best bait there is. The store stocks them cheap.” Thank goodness, because Don only had a few dollars in his pocket, and he didn’t want to ask Jason for money—that would hurt almost as much as being thrown in the mud. They rode into the grocery store parking lot and locked up their bikes before walking into Meatland Market. Don always had to keep himself from snickering when he thought of the name. Everyone on the island was very conservative, but they called their grocery store Meatland.
After walking through the doors, Don led the way through the aisles to the butcher counter. “Afternoon,” he said to Charlie, the butcher.
“More chicken necks?” Charlie asked with a grin.
“Yup. I’m teaching Jason here how to crab. Nothing better than chicken necks.” Don grinned, and Charlie began wrapping up the package.
“They’re free. I was about to throw them away anyhow,” Charlie said with a smile. “You say hi to your mother for me.”
“I will,” Don said honestly, taking the package of meat scraps. Charlie said that to him every time he came in, and Don knew it was because Charlie liked his mother. Don had always thought Charlie would be good for his mom, and he wished she wasn’t alone so much, but the one time he’d mentioned it to his mother, she’d gotten testy, with that “I’m your mother” look in her eye that Don knew better than to argue with. Saying goodbye, they walked through the checkout and showed the package to the cashier before hurrying to their bikes. Don fastened the package to the carrier on the back of his using a bungee cord, and then they were off.
The ride to Don’s house took about ten minutes. Don walked his bike to the shed and put it away after showing Jason where he could put his. “I’m always pretty careful.” He was always afraid Krepke would come by and damage his one mode of transportation other than his feet, so he kept his bike locked away when he could.
“Who’s your friend?” Don’s mother called from the back door, and he hurried up the steps. Like most of the houses on the island, theirs was on stilts to protect it from storm surges. At its highest point, the island stayed above water during a major storm, but that was just the areas near the main part of town. The rest of the island often submerged under storm conditions.
“This is Jason,” Don said, and Jason shook hands with his mother.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Pottier. Don is going to show me how to catch crabs.” Jason actually said that, and Don bit his lower lip to keep from snickering.
“Dinner is ready, so why don’t you two come in and eat? You can fish afterwards,” his mother said before stepping back from the door. “Do you need to call your mother to let her know where you are?” Jason looked at his watch and shrugged. “Call her, and then come eat.” His mother pointed toward the phone, and Jason dialed the number, but it sounded like he just left a message.
Don took Jason to wash up, and as he passed through the house, he saw it through Jason’s eyes, and he felt himself coloring. The furniture was old and worn around the edges. Nothing matched, and it all seemed shabby. But it was what they had and could afford. “Your mom’s really nice,” Jason said with a shoulder bump as they washed up and headed back to the kitchen.
“I made the crab cakes with what Don caught this morning,” his mother explained, placing a plate in front of each of them. Don noticed that his mother didn’t join them right away, and it wasn’t until Don asked her that she finally filled a plate and sat at the table. It didn’t take a scientist to figure out that there wasn’t much food and she was going to do without. Don peered at Jason, thinking he might have seen it too. Part of Don was as embarrassed as sin, but when Jason didn’t say anything, he felt better.
“These crab cakes are amazing, Mrs. Pottier,” Jason said with a grin. “I’ve had them in the restaurants on the island, but they don’t hold a candle to these.” His mother smiled, and Don saw her soak in the praise. The embarrassment that had threatened to well up slipped away when he realized that Jason might have understood.
Once they were done eating, Don took the plates to the sink and rinsed them, not that there was much left. “Just stack them in the sink and see if you can catch a few more crabs,” she told them.
“Thanks, Mom,” Don said, and he led Jason toward the door.
“Thank you for a great meal, Mrs. Pottier,” Jason said before following him outside.
Don got the package of necks along with the heavy string, net, and cage. “Let’s go. I usually crab at Mr. Winters’s place.” Don pointed toward the end of one of the channels. “You need access to the salt water.” Don began walking, and Jason strode next to him, after a while taking the cage.
“What’s this for?” Jason asked, holding it up.
“The crabs need to be kept alive until you cook them, so we’ll put the ones we catch in there and keep it in the water so they stay alive. When we get back, Mom will steam them right away and then we can eat them. Mom has this secret set of spices that she uses when she cooks them.” Don grinned as they walked. “I’ve eaten these crabs for almost my whole life, and no one makes them better than my mom.”
“I believe that,” Jason said softly as they continued walking. “Have you always lived here on the island?”
“Yes. My mother was raised here and so was my dad. He was a fisherman. He had his own boat, and one day he went out and never returned. I was about five, and I remember my mother worrying and crying for days before she told me that my dad wasn’t coming back.” Don swallowed hard. “I barely remember him now, except that he was the one who taught me how to go crabbing. I don’t have many memories of my dad, but I can remember when he took me in the car to what must have been a friend’s dock, and he tied the chicken necks on the strings and set them in the water. Then we waited, and I remember how he played with me and then showed me how to test the lines.” Don tried to remember his father’s face, but he couldn’t. He’d been too young, and all he could remember was how happy he’d felt with his dad.
They walked along one of the roads farther from town. Most of the homes were relatively new vacation places. “How far is it?” Jason asked.
“Next house on the right,” Don answered, and then motioned for them to cut through the yard. Don waved to Mr. Winters, who sat in the shade on his deck, and he waved back.
“Twice in one day,” Mr. Winters called down.
“Just showing my friend how to do it,” Don said, and Mr. Winters waved one more time and settled back in his chair as they continued on to the channel wall. “This is perfect because it isn’t too deep and the channel goes out to the ocean. The crabs love it here because there’s lots of food and the water isn’t too rough.” Don set down the supplies, and Jason placed the cage on the dock.
“What do we do?” Jason asked, and Don handed him the ball of string.
“Cut off two pieces about yay long”—he motioned with his hands—“and I’ll show you how to tie on the bait. If you don’t do it right, the crabs will steal it.” Don opened the package of meat, taking a few minutes to show Jason how he had to tie them on. “Now tie a loop in the other end,” he said, demonstrating, “and lower it into the water. Put the loop over the hooks, and now we wait.” Don sat on the dock, becoming quiet, the way he usually was when he was out here. Crabbing was usually his chance to think, and he fell into that mode without really trying.
“Do you know what happened to your dad?” Jason asked after a few minutes. “I mean, did you ever find out?”
Don shook his head slowly. “The coast guard believes he sank in a storm off the coast, but we never knew for sure. There was what they believed was a distress call, but then nothing. The coast guard figured he went down fast.” Don tested each of the strings, but there was nothing there. “For a long time,” Don said as he shifted so he was facing Jason, “I used to dream that somehow he escaped and that he would show up. I suppose that for both Mom and me there’s a part of us that still hopes, even though we both know he isn’t going to come back. I think that’s why she won’t get serious about anybody.”
“Does your mom date much?”
Don shook his head again. “A few times, but I know she still hasn’t let go of my dad.” Don checked the lines again and felt the familiar extra weight and tug. “Grab the net,” he told Jason, “and lift the string. Don’t pull it out of the water or the crab will let go. Once you can see it, scoop it up from underneath.” Don watched Jason’s excitement when he saw the crab just below the surface. He scooped the net and came up with both the chicken neck and the crab. “Perfect!” Don cried and motioned for Jason to lower it onto the dock. “Unfortunately, it’s not big enough.” Don used his fingers to show how large they needed to be. “You need to catch it by the back and lift it out of the net,” Don explained, and he demonstrated what he’d done half a million times. Once the small crab was free, Don walked down a ways and dropped it back into the water.
“Why let it go down there?” Jason asked.
“If I didn’t, we’d just catch it again. Now put it back in the water and feel the other lines.” Don sat on the dock again and watched as Jason slowly lifted the other lines to see if they had anything. “Scoop it up,” Don encouraged, and Jason got the crab that was there. This time it was a big one, and Don worked it out of the net before placing it into the cage. After making sure the door was secure, he lowered the cage into the water, tying the rope around one of the pilings. “You just caught your first crab. You’re a fisherman now,” Don told Jason, and he seemed inordinately pleased. “So where do you live when you aren’t on the island?”
“Chicago,” Jason answered. “My mother grew up outside DC, and she remembered coming here when she was a kid, so a few years ago, she and Dad bought the place here because they thought it would be a great place to spend the summers.”
Don listened as Jason talked. He could hardly believe that they were sitting like this talking. Part of him expected Jason to get up at any second, tell him that his crabs and chicken necks tied to strings were stupid, and storm away. But he didn’t. He kept talking, and Don listened intently as he watched each movement of Jason’s body. Part of him wondered what someone like Jason could possibly see in him, but they both seemed to be having fun, so he decided not to worry about it.
“Are both your parents here now?” Don asked when he realized Jason had been talking and he wasn’t really listening.
“No. My dad is in Chicago working, and I think my mother is in DC,” Jason said matter-of-factly, and Don gasped before they both looked up at Mr. Winters’s deck, but it was empty.
“You mean they’re both gone and you’re here alone?” Don couldn’t believe it.
“She’ll be back in a day or so. It’s no big deal. I spend most of the school year away when I’m at school. She doesn’t stay away for very long.” Jason turned away, checking the lines and netting another crab. Don watched Jason as he removed the crab from the net. He was being really careful to avoid the claws, and it took him a while, but he got it out and into the cage. Don checked the doors before they lowered it back into the water. As they worked, Don couldn’t help wondering what Jason’s life must be like. He obviously had all kinds of things, judging by the clothes and the new bike, but his parents had left him alone on the island. It made Don feel lucky, and that was something he’d rarely felt in his life. He had his mother, and while they might not have had much in stuff, Don knew he was loved. His mother would never think of leaving him alone for days at a time. His mother worked two jobs and always managed to see to it that she was there for important events, and she always had dinner for him. Sometimes she wasn’t around a lot because of her schedule, but she was always there for him.
“Must be lonely. Do you have friends on the island?”
“One,” Jason said with a smile, and Don felt himself blush when he realized Jason was talking about him. “I met a kid last summer, but his family was only renting a place, and they were gone after a week.” Jason fiddled with a small pile of sand that had accumulated on the boards.
“It must get lonely being by yourself all the time,” Don said, knowing he was probably stating the obvious. “I spend a lot of time alone myself. Mom works a lot, and when I’m not scooping ice cream, I’m usually crabbing, fishing, or hunting for oysters.” Don absently checked the lines, but there was nothing. “It’s what I can do to help.”
“What do you want to do?” Jason asked, and Don looked at his new friend a little confused.
“Do? About what?” Don thought Jason might have been getting bored and prepared to get everything together.
“When you get older. What do you want to be?”
Don shrugged. “I haven’t thought about it much. There isn’t much to do on the island. I never gave it much thought. Mom says I have to finish high school, and then after that I figured I’d start working on one of the boats.” There wasn’t much else he could do to earn a living. “I know I can’t scoop ice cream forever.”
“Don’t you want to go to college?” Jason asked, standing up as one of the lines moved. “I bet you get good grades.” Jason pulled it up and scooped the crab, but it was too small, so he let it go. “My folks would kill me if I didn’t go on to college. I get pretty good grades, and I work hard, but I don’t know what I want to do either. My dad wants me to become a doctor like him. He’s a plastic surgeon and makes a fortune giving women boob jobs and butt lifts.” Jason rolled his eyes.
“I never got what the big deal was about,” Don said, and then he wanted to suck the words back in. He really hadn’t understood boobs because they held no interest for him, but that statement was probably a little more telling than he’d intended or was good for him. Don checked the strings again and then got the net, scooping up another small crab that he carried down the way and released, silently berating himself the entire time for his big mouth. Walking back, Don kept his head down as he sat on the dock, trying to figure out a way to cover his mistake.
“I don’t get it either,” Jason said after a long time, and Don saw him lift his eyes. Was Jason saying what he thought he was saying? His heart raced, and he suddenly got all weird-feeling in his stomach, like he was both scared and excited at the same time. Looking up, he met Jason’s gaze and he saw the same longing and fear reflected back at him.
“Hey, boys,” Mr. Winters called from the deck above them. “You should probably call it a night.”
Don checked his watch. They’d been crabbing and talking for about an hour. The sun was starting to go down. Don pulled in the lines and cut loose the chicken, throwing it into the water. “The crabs will eat it and get bigger.” Then he pulled out the cage and looked at the two crabs inside. “We should probably release them. There aren’t enough to do anything with.”
Jason looked a little disappointed. “I guess so,” he agreed, and Don opened the door, setting the cage in the water, and the crabs skittered out and away. Then they gathered all their things, including the papers, throwing them in Mr. Winters’s trash before heading out toward the road. “Thank you,” Don called up to the deck, but he didn’t hear an answer.
“We could walk down to my place,” Jason offered. “It’s toward the end of this road.”
Don looked up at the sky. It was still light, but it would be dark in an hour or so. “I can’t stay very long. Mom will worry if I’m out after dark.”
“I don’t think it’s very far,” Jason said, and they walked down the side of the road, passing a number of nice summer places on stilts. As they walked, the houses seemed to get nicer and somewhat larger. Don saw the end of the road, and Jason veered off to the right and down a drive that opened up to a large lot with a tall, white beach house on painted stilts. The place was huge, and Don was about to ask if this was the place when Jason began to climb the wide, almost grand-looking steps to the door.
Don set the net and cage under the steps and walked up after Jason. He knew no one was home, but there was a nice car parked in a neatly manicured parking spot. Reaching the top of the steps, Don saw Jason pull out a key and unlock the door. “Come on,” Jason said, and he opened the door, motioning for him to go inside.
Don stepped in and it seemed like he’d walked into another world. That entire floor looked like one huge room, with glistening, sand-colored floors and a kitchen with gleaming white cabinets and countertops in what looked like deep-brown mottled stone. Everything about the place screamed a lot of money, including the large television in the corner. Don had never seen one that big except in the sports bar in town, and somehow he doubted that one was this big. “I have Nintendo, if you’d like to play,” Jason offered, and Don nodded slowly, feeling like a fish out of water.
“I played once at a cousin’s birthday party,” Don admitted, and he saw Jason’s mouth fall open, but he didn’t comment.
Jason set up the system. “I don’t have any of the really cool games here—they’re at home with the newer one.”
Don did a double take. “You have two?” Don could only wish he had video games, but to have two of them boggled his mind. “You’re really lucky.”
Jason shrugged. “My dad bought me one for my last birthday because he forgot he’d gotten me one the year before. Or, I should say, my dad’s assistant bought it for me.” Jason started the game and then demonstrated how to play. Then he let Don play. He didn’t do very well, and his Mario guy ended up dying really fast, but Jason let him play again, and he did better with Jason coaching him. After playing a few times, he handed the controller back, and Jason played for a while, getting really far in the game. They took turns playing, shouting at each other’s success.
“I should get home. It’s getting dark,” Don said, looking out the windows.
“Call your mom and see if you can stay a while longer,” Jason asked with this adorable “don’t leave me all alone” look on his face, and Don felt himself cave immediately. He found the phone in the kitchen and checked the time before dialing the number. His mother picked up on the first ring.
“Where are you? I was getting worried.”
“I’m at Jason’s. He has cool video games. I’m going to stay a little longer, and then I’ll come home.”
His mother didn’t say anything at first. “Be home in an hour,” she said, and Don thanked her before hanging up. When he returned to the living room area, Jason flipped him the controller, and Don began a game. It went on for what seemed like forever. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to come together and whatever he did was right. Don’s brain flashed ahead in the game, almost able to predict what it would do before it happened.
“Sweet,” he heard Jason say from behind him as he advanced a level, the action moving faster as mushrooms came at him from almost all directions. With a jump, he leapt over the group, bounding off the tops of them to reach the plateau. Then he wasn’t quite sure what to do, and the game ended. “Dude,” Jason said from behind him. “That was awesome. You got to areas I’ve never seen. That was way cool.”
Don put down the controller, his entire body singing with video game excitement. When he turned, he saw Jason smiling at him, and their eyes locked like they had on the dock. Neither of them moved, and Jason’s tongue licked his plump lips.
“Don, I saw you watching me today at Mr. Whippy, and I liked it.” Don’s throat closed and suddenly he couldn’t breathe. “It was nice,” Jason said, and Don’s mind began to process what he was hearing. “I don’t get girls, either, and they don’t do anything for me.” Don knew his words were going to come back to haunt him.
“Are you….” Don wanted to ask, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the word. He’d heard it way too many times used to cut at people as the ultimate insult.
“Gay?” Jason supplied, and Don nodded. Jason didn’t answer, and instead Don saw him moving closer. Then their lips met, and Don wasn’t quite sure what to do, but he was kissing Jason, or Jason was kissing him. Not that it mattered, because they were kissing and he liked it. Jason moved back, and Don flicked his tongue over his lips so he could get another taste of Jason. Then Jason kissed him again, and this time Don definitely kissed back.
It felt like electric shocks went all up and down his body. He could barely think, and his lungs were running out of air, but the last thing he wanted to do was stop for something as stupid as breathing. When they pulled apart, Don heard them both gasp for breath. “I have to go home,” Don said softly, not wanting to leave at all, but his mother would be angry if he didn’t leave right away.
Jason nodded in the light of the television. “Do you have to work tomorrow?”
“No. I was going to go fishing, though,” Don said.
“We could go to the beach if you want,” Jason offered, and Don smiled.
“The best fishing places are on Assateague. We could fish and swim,” Don explained, and Jason grinned before hurrying to the counter to write something down. “Here’s the number here. Why don’t you call me in the morning, and I can pick up my bike?”
“Okay,” Don agreed, and Jason gave him another quick kiss. Then Don said goodbye and hurried down the steps. He grabbed the net, cage, and his ball of string before looking up to see Jason standing outside the door. He waved and then took off at a run down the dimly lit street, trying to get home before his mother killed him. He had a ways to go, and unlike during the day, he had to stick to the streets because he couldn’t see. By the time he reached home, it was full-on night, and he put Jason’s bike and his other things away in the shed, making sure to lock it before walking into the house. His mother hadn’t come out to either greet or scold him, which was unusual, and he found her in the living room asleep in a chair. “I’m home, Mom,” he said quietly, and she came awake. Don kissed her on the cheek. “I’m going to go to bed.”
“Did you have a good time?”
Don tried not to blush, because he’d had the best time he could possibly imagine. “Yeah. We caught a few crabs but let them go. We talked a lot and played video games at his house. He’s really cool.”
“That’s good, honey,” his mother said with a yawn. “I’m awfully tired, so I’m going to go to bed.” Don glanced at the clock. It was just after ten, and his mother never went to bed without watching the evening news.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked when he noticed that she seemed to be walking a little funny.
“I’m fine. Just a little tired, and I have to get up to work at the store tomorrow.” She smiled and gave him a good-night hug before going into her room and closing the door. Don locked up the house and turned off the lights before showering quickly and then brushing his teeth. After slipping on a pair of briefs, he climbed into bed and lay awake, staring at the ceiling with a grin on his face. And all he could think about was that he’d gotten his first kiss from a boy—Jason, his new friend.
Don had been pretty well convinced that he was the only person who felt the way he did. Everyone at school acted like being gay was the worst possible thing in the world, and all he had ever heard about were limp-wristed guys who talked with lisps and acted like girls. But Jason was cool, smart, and he’d beaten both Ly and Harmon, sending the bully into the marsh. That was something he’d relish for the rest of his life, as was the feel of Jason’s lips when he’d kissed him. The memory was enough to send a tingle up his spine and to get him majorly excited. Don was about to do something about that when he heard his mother coughing in the next room. She’d been doing that sometimes—she’d go on for a while and then stop.
Getting out of bed, he made sure he wasn’t sporting wood before leaving his room and knocking on his mother’s door. “Are you okay?” He opened it and peered inside, and he saw his mother doubled up on the bed. “Do you want some water?” She nodded, and Don hurried to the sink, bringing her back a glass of water. She took a sip and then another before settling back on the bed.
“I’m okay, Donny, thank you,” she said, and he set the glass on the bedside table before leaving the room and going back to his own. Getting in bed, he kept listening for more coughing. But he heard none, and then his adolescent mind returned to the memory of his first kiss and the fact that tomorrow he was going to get to see Jason in a bathing suit.