PROLOGUE

The Way We Were

 

EXCEPT FOR the disastrous second semester of our senior year in high school, which is what this story is mostly about, I really can’t remember a time growing up when Timmy wasn’t there. And not “there” in the way I remember my old beat-up pair of navy-blue Champion sweatpants. I pretty much lived in those things, around the house at least, from the time I first started growing body hair when I was in the eighth grade until they started cutting off the circulation to my balls at some point during junior year. When I woke up, my balls strapped tight to my left thigh by a strip of navy-blue poly-cotton blend, I very reluctantly admitted that the time had come for a change. So I broke down, dragged my ass to the mall, and forked out the hard-earned twenty bucks for a replacement pair the next size up. The old ones went out in the trash the next day, forgotten real quick.

The way I remember Tim is nothing like the way I look back on those old sweatpants.

My memory of growing up with Timmy is more like how I fondly reminisce about the Southern-fried chicken Grandma Sarah used to make when I visited her; it was pretty much always right there when I expected it, and it was always amazing. Didn’t just taste good, but somehow it felt good going down too, you know? Or maybe the deal with Tim and me is more like how I remember playing Call of Duty on my Xbox 360. After enough time spent on it–and believe me, major time was invested—I knew that game as well as I knew how the hair grew on the back of my own wrist. And just when I thought I was all set to blow right through my mission, easy as tit, the damned thing managed to surprise me—to throw me a curve ball—which somehow just served to keep my interest. And I missed the hell out of it when I was playing another game—couldn’t fucking wait to come back to it, because it just felt right.

That’s how I remember all those years with Tim.

 

 

PART I

Choices

 

Spring of My Freshman Year

 

“YOU PLAN on sleeping ’til it’s fuckin’ noontime?” The entire one-hundred-twenty-pound mass of a gangly teenaged boy plunked down on top of me as I lay there, curled up in my bottom bunk, midmorning sunshine streaming in through the bedroom window. “The time to get your lazy ass outta bed came and went like two hours ago, Wellsy.” He said matter-of-factly, as if he wasn’t perched like a parrot on my left hip.

“Go away—you’re wrecking my dream—and it was well on its way to being a wet one.” I yanked on it hard, but the sheet wouldn’t budge, as it was stuck under Timmy’s bony knees. Now I had nothing but my pillow to pull over my head, which was pretty much exactly what he expected me to do, but I was gonna go for it anyways. “And while you’re making your way to the door, cut out all the curse words, because my dad’s down there.” I made my move.

As predicted, Tim was too quick. Snatching my pillow and chucking it across the room in one smooth motion, three-pointer into my hamper, he said, “Face it, Benny—you can’t get rid of me—and we’re going fishing. You promised me yesterday.”

I did, didn’t I?

“I’ll go down to the kitchen and burn you some toast. Be there in five.” In an effort to get off me without banging his head on the top bunk, Timmy wrenched around just enough to make me grunt and then finally slid sideways onto the floor. Took my sheet and blanket with him, just to be funny. “PB or strawberry jam?”

After a deep yawn, I replied, “Peanut butter, and not too much of it.” Once he’d turned around, I cracked a sleepy grin. There really wasn’t anything I’d rather do on a Saturday morning in May than go pond-fishing with Timmy anyways.

 

 

“YOUR STEPDAD come in late last night?” From the limited info Tim had let me in on over the past couple of years, the later Larry got home, the more it sucked to be Timmy.

“Uh-huh. Like at 1:00 a.m., I think.” Persistent as always, Timmy cast his line yet again, but for the most part, we’d already lost hope of catching anything. For a couple of fourteen-year-old boys, two hours of getting absolutely nothing, not even a single nibble, was enough to dash our short-lived, fish-for-supper dreams.

“He drunk?”

Tim nodded. “You know it.”

“Everything go okay?”

Standing to step in front of me so I couldn’t see his face, Tim reeled in his line. “Pretty much.”

The back of the one ear I could see through his longish hair had turned red.

The red ear, coupled with his curt answer, told me that things hadn’t gone very well with Larry at all, but also that Tim didn’t want to talk about it. I could respect that. If he had something to say on what had gone down last night, he knew where to find me, right? So I sat there on the cool, mossy bank, my arms wrapped tight around my knees, having already ditched my own pole, and watched as Timmy took his pole apart and slid it, real careful, into its tube. A gust of chilly New Hampshire spring breeze ruffled up Timmy’s shaggy brown hair, and he shivered. Not a whole body shiver, but still I caught it.

“Want my sweatshirt?” I was already pulling it off over my yearly spring buzz-cut head. “Here, T-man. Take it.”

Timmy turned around, and our eyes met. He looked at me in that way he sometimes did, like I was the dude who’d hung up the moon in the sky. Only thing was, his usually cool gray eyes were a bit puffy today, not to say that it meant anything. “Don’t mind if I do.” He snatched the Boston Bruins sweatshirt from my hand and pulled it on over his T-shirt. “Thanks, Ben.”

 

 

NEITHER OF us had exactly been born with a silver spoon in our mouth, but things were definitely several steep steps up at my house from how they were at Timmy’s trailer. I lived alone with my father, Bill Wells, in this real compact yellow Cape, stuck way out in the middle of the woods where Dad said the land was cheap, in a tiny town called Hopkins. Which, if you’re wondering, is in central New Hampshire, or as many would call it, the official capital of the middle of freaking nowhere. My mom—well, that’s a real short story—she was long gone, and I didn’t miss her one bit. Enough said on that, except, from what little I’d heard, she’d never been much of a team player anyways. And Dad was cool; his coolness more than made up for how Mom had ditched us.

Sometimes guys are just better off without a woman in residence.

That’s what I always told myself.

And Dad always told me he wanted to make sure I stayed on the “straight and narrow.” Therefore, my grades couldn’t suck, or else, and ever since middle school I’ve had to either play sports or work a job after school to keep me busy. The way Dad saw it, which was all that really mattered in our house, busy meant out of trouble. That theory had translated into me spending a substantial amount of time holding a rake or a snow shovel or a baseball bat. In other words, I had no choice but to keep my butt strictly inside the lines.

So maybe Dad was a little bit too strict with me; I’m sure he had his reasons. To that end, I’ve always been kind of surprised that Dad even let me hang around with Timmy Norton to begin with. But I figured, for some reason he’d never thought to share with me, my father had a soft spot in his heart for Tim, “the troublemaker trailer park kid” who nobody in town thought had any chance in life at all. Even back when I was just a kid, Timmy had been like a part of our family. He came over one night for dinner when we were eight years old or so, after I’d found him playing on the swing set behind the trailer park a ways down the road, and he just kept on coming back.

Timmy’s family? Well, that was one sorry situation all wrapped up in crappy luck. Tim lived in the park down the road with his mom and his “evil stepfather” and three little rug rat sisters. Life in his trailer wasn’t exactly one of those Norman Rockwell paintings, not by a long shot, and it started with the fact that his mom, Lesley, was most probably addicted to some kind of drug or another, or possibly she was majorly depressed. It was hard to say for sure which it was because Lesley rarely ventured out of her bedroom when I was over and Timmy sure wasn’t talking about it. Her husband, Larry, was an asshole, plain and simple. The guy had no redeeming qualities I could see, except for the fact that he held down a factory job. He liked to stay out late and booze it up in the bar downtown with his buddies, and when he finally came home, he liked to take out his dissatisfaction with life in general on his stepson. I’d caught a glimpse of the results of Larry’s anger issues on Timmy’s back more than a couple times.

Not pretty.

But you didn’t need a silver spoon to eat a five-dollar cheese pizza with your buddy. And since we weren’t frying up fish in a pan like we’d planned, I told Timmy I’d treat him to pizza and a Coke at Breda’s Pizza and Ice Cream Factory in downtown Hopkins. Not too much of a downtown, really, but there was a little grocery store, a gas station, a pizza joint, a bar, and the standard bank, library, and police/fire station, so I guess Hopkins Center counted as a “downtown.” There we sat, filling our faces, when a couple of preppy guys from our high school pushed through the restaurant’s glass door.

“Look who’s here—Norton and Wells, attached at the hip like always—and I’d bet my ass that you guys aren’t taking a study break because you spent the past eight hours in the library cracking the books for final exams.” Lance LaFrance—no joke, that really was his name—sort of sauntered over to our table, his nose stuck in the air, as usual.

“Lucky you, Lancy lalala Francy. Looks like you bet your ass on the right pony.” Timmy didn’t bother to look up as he delivered his retort. “So you get to keep that cute little butt of yours for one more day.”

Now by this point, late May of our freshman year, Tim and me had already been designated by students and teachers alike as “not exactly college material.” That fact didn’t burn my ass even slightly. I had my own set of plans for the future that revolved around technical school and building buildings. Not too sure what Tim’s plans were; he never really said. But when harassed about his lack of academic prowess, sometimes Timmy got a bit too wiseassed for his own safety. Maybe you could call him “hypersensitive” about his learning problems, but believe me, he had good reason. Kids can be damned mean, and I’d seen it with my own eyes.

“LaFrance, did you even poke your head out of the library today? Blue skies, green grass, the pond is warming up real nice—a perfect day for fishing. So sorry you missed it.” I faked a bit of laughter. See, I was always trying to run interference between Tim and pretty much the rest of the Hopkins High School student population. Except for the burnouts, that is. The burnouts couldn’t get enough of Timmy Norton. “Hey, Mason, you spend all day with your nose in a book too?”

The prep who’d come in with Lance, Mark Mason—tall, blond, and dressed to go sailing—smirked at me. “I’m not exactly going to get into a NESCAC if I waste my day sitting beside Landon Pond with a rod in my hand, am I?”

“That’s ’cause you don’t have a clue what to do with your rod when it’s out of your pants. Now, Ben and me, we’re real men, and we know how to handle our big poles.”

“Wanna eat those words, Norton?”

“No thanks, I’m not hungry anymore.” Tim pointed to his empty plate. “But just ask your girlfriend, Lucy—we know from personal experience that she knows all about real men like us and our big rods.”

“You son of a bitch….” Mark took a couple of menacing steps forward.

Looked like Timmy was in top form tonight, and since I didn’t exactly relish the thought of getting jumped in the Pizza Factory’s back parking lot on a belly full of cheese pizza, I forged ahead in the smoothing-things-out direction. “Can’t you tell when my man Tim is yanking your chain? Relax, Mason, it was just a joke.” I stood up and put a hand on the asshole’s shoulder to enhance the calming effect of my words. “Don’t worry, Lucy Shaw doesn’t even know our last names.”

Which was, unfortunately, a fact.

“Uh… I know that, but still, I don’t get why you hang out with that sorry loser, Wells. At least you’ve got a shot at getting out of this hillbilly town. I mean, not so much in the college sense, but there are ‘training programs’ for guys like you.” Lucky me—air quotes and everything—and as hard as it was to believe, that last statement was an example of Mark Mason offering me an olive branch. It just served to remind me, one more time, of why I spent all of my time hanging with Tim.

Fortunately, LaFrance was at the counter now, shifting his weight impatiently from one foot to the other, chomping at the bit to place his order. “Come on, Mark. We didn’t come here to shoot the shit with these jokers. Let’s order.”

I looked over at Timmy, whose head was still down, and he appeared to be chewing, although his half of the pizza was already long gone. He was pissed.

Dropping back down into my flimsy orange plastic chair, I offered, “You want a slice of mine, Nort?” I plopped my second-to-last piece on his empty paper plate and pushed it right under his nose. “I seemed to have lost my appetite.”

“Nah, I’m all set.” He pushed it back at me. “‘Training programs’? Christ, he’s acting like you’re a tamed zoo animal with the possible potential to jump through hoops in the circus.”

I pushed the slice of pizza back at him. “I don’t give a crap what those guys think. I’ve got my own plans, and they don’t include working on Wall Street.”

“You’re as friggin’ smart as them two, Benny.”

Timmy always had so much faith in me. “Same with you, if you tried.”

After giving me one of his “whatever, man” shrugs, Tim grabbed the slice, folded it in half, and said, none too quietly, “Let’s head out, Wellsy. It’s startin’ to stink like moldy fifty-dollar bills in here.”

Lance dove in for the kill. “That’ll be the day when we smell like Ulysses S. Grants. Make that Benjamin Franklins, loser, and I’d have to admit that you hit the nail on the head for the first time in your sorry life.”

Probably, Timmy had no clue that Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin were the guys on the fifty and the hundred dollar bills. Hell, he probably hadn’t ever even heard of either of those dudes. And he definitely hadn’t ever seen bills of those denominations. Didn’t matter, though. Tim was already out the door.

And like 50 percent of the time, I followed him. The other 50 percent of the time he was chasing my ass around.