by Grasshopper

Chapter 4

Callie flipped her long blonde hair out of her eyes and pushed the folded slip of paper across her desktop and let it flutter to the floor. At eleven, Callie Hewett was turning into a beautiful girl, headstrong and spoiled. Glaring at the back of Wes' head, she willed him to look back at her. Giving up, she raised her sneaker and kicked him in the butt. Jerking his head around, Wes pretended to be angry, but Callie knew he was never angry with her. He had the patience of a saint when it came to her and all her antics.

She nodded her head down toward the floor. He pretended not to see the little note. She kicked him again. Rolling his eyes, he glanced at the teacher, then leaned sideways and picked up the paper with two fingers. Unfolding the note, he read, in Callie's fancy writing:

"Meet me at the cave after practice today."

Cole had found the cave late one afternoon when he and his dad were out riding fence. It was just a small cave and didn't go very far back into the mountain, but it was a good hidey hole and the three had made it their secret place. Not long after they claimed the cave as theirs, Wes and Cole had dug out a hole, lined it with a space tarp and then rolled a big rock over it. They wanted a place to hide their treasures.

Wes nodded his head and shoved the note in his pocket. At eleven years old, Wesley Straihan was beginning to show evidence of the man he would one day become. Long coltish legs, strong boy muscles, big feet that still needed to be grown into. His auburn hair was still too long, still raggedy-cut, always flopping into those serious silver eyes that had seen too much and held too many secrets.

Slender, but not skinny, Wesley ate whenever hot food was put in front of him and was always grateful for the feeling of a full stomach. The ladies in the school lunchroom always had some extra for the Straihan kids and knew they'd get a shy smile as a thank you from Wesley and Mercy.

Wesley spoke little, but always meant what he said. Growing up in Father's house had taught both he and Mercy to think carefully before they spoke and to be ready to move quickly out of the striking distance of an angry hand. Being with Cole and Callie was like time spent at a carnival for him as she chattered and babbled anything that came into her head and Cole made him feel special. It always made him feel the great space between his life and theirs. He wanted sometimes to just climb into Mr. Hewett's big truck and go home with them forever, but that wasn't real, that wasn't his life. He tried not to dream about what that life would be because the pain was just too sharp.

He still wore Karl Jr.'s hand-me-downs, but it never seemed to bother him. Callie had mentioned it once and he had shrugged her off, saying, "They're just clothes. Still got some good wear left in them." He'd learned years ago not to care what was on the outside of him nearly as much as what was in his heart. No one could touch what he held there; Mercy, Cole, Callie and a longing for his mother filled his heart every day.

He'd made more visits to the pit over the past three years. It didn't hold as much power over him anymore. It didn't frighten him like it had when he was a baby. Nothing much frightened him anymore. You can only be scared so long and then something in you just dies. He had actually found an odd kind of peace there in the dark.

He and Mercy had decided that it could be a lot worse. Father could beat them like he beat Karl Jr. They had tried to tell their brother once not to argue, to just keep his eyes down and agree with anything Father said. Thing was, Karl Jr. was his father's son.

They each had their own personal punishment every time they sinned. Mercy found herself locked in the basement, Wes had the pit and Karl Jr. always provoked Father enough that the black belt came off. A couple of times, when he was younger, Wes had thought he would rather have the belt than the pit, but as he got older, he knew that the belt had done something horrible to his brother, made him crazy mean, and Wesley never wanted that to happen to him.

There were a lot of times that Wesley felt like Father hated him. Fathers were supposed to love their children, but sometimes he'd see a look in Father's eyes that made his skin crawl. Wes learned very early to stay out of Father's way and take his punishments stoically.

Mercy was in 7th grade now, a sweet quiet girl with long brown hair and, when she smiled, which was very rarely, she was beautiful. The accident had left her with a permanent limp and she always carried her right arm close to her chest. The night she had tumbled down the basement stairs was the only time any of the Straihan children had ever seen a hospital. Father had been very angry that night.

The doctor had set the leg and the arm saying they needed to see Mercy back in three days because the leg had been broken in two places. That had been that. Six weeks later, Father had taken Mercy out to the barn, cut the casts off with a hand saw and sweet Mercy had dragged that leg ever since.

Karl Jr. was in high school now. He was one of those students the teachers dreaded, never working and always causing trouble. The guidance counselors had tried to discuss the behavior with Mr. Straihan, but had been met with passages from the bible and his seemingly complete indifference to their problem. It took them a while to realize that, for days after their notes and conferences, Karl Jr. would be absent and then return with yet another layer of pain painted into those hatefilled eyes.

Many was the time Karl ran off and many was the time Father found him, showed him the error of his ways and then read scripture to him as he cried. Mercy would always save Karl food and she and Wes would wash the blood from his back and legs. Karl never said thank you or ever looked at them. After time, Karl ceased to cry and the tears turned into hate.

Callie and Wes were in Mr. Grable's fifth grade class while Cole had ended up in Mrs. Clarey's. They had all three been together and inseparable up through fourth grade when, deciding that twins need separate friends and experiences, the guidance counselor recommended that Callie and Cole be split apart. It wasn't until then that the connection between Callie, Cole and Wes Straihan was strikingly evident.

Mr. and Mrs. Hewett had worried that Cole and Callie would be upset by being separated, but they were fine with it. The only problem was that one of them would be separated from Wesley. Cole took it good naturedly because he would be with Wes everyday for volleyball practice, but Callie took it personally. She pitched a fit as only a beautiful eleven year old girl can pitch. Giving in to her and making sure she was in class with Wes was the start of too many times they all made the mistake of indulging Callie.

Class over for the day, Wes and Callie found Cole leaning against the water fountain near the outer door. Cole, like Wesley, was halfway to manhood. Cole's baby white hair had turned a rich honey gold, still a mop of twisty twirly curls and his long eyelashes, hiding navy blue eyes, rested upon tanned cheeks. Cole was as full of sunshine and light as Wesley seemed to be covered in darkness and silence.

"We've got volleyball practice. Hurry up, Wes." Cole urged his best friend.

"After V-ball, you promised," Callie reminded Wes, punching him lightly on the arm.

"Yeah, the cave, I know," Wes cut his eyes toward Cole.

"We're gonna look for arrowheads out by Strangler's Bluff, right Callie?"

Cole joined in.

She nodded. "If I can find three more good ones, I win the award. Mr. Grable said so."

She had totally forgotten that most of 'her' arrowheads had been found by her brother and her best friend. Cole and Wes didn't care. She cared way more about winning the silly blue ribbon than either of them did.

"Let me check with Mercy," Wes said as he always did. He was always very careful not to put Mercy in harm's way. She had been his guardian angel for as long as he could remember, the only mother he'd ever known, and he'd let himself be hurt before he'd be the cause of her going to the basement.

The only way he could get away from the house after school was if Father was at a meeting or at the church. Mercy would cover for him, but he was always very careful not to stay too long and always to slip into the house through his bedroom window. At eleven, he had become damn good at hiding in the shadows and his lies had become real.

Cole watched Wes run off to find Mercy. He knew things were bad, very bad, at Wesley's house and that his father was mean. He never pushed Wes to tell him more than he could, but Cole saw the shadows pass through those sad seafoam eyes and wanted more than anything in the world to ease his best friend's pain. Cole knew, even at eleven, how lucky he and Callie were to have parents who loved them. He wanted this for Wesley. He knew Wesley was lying to him about the reasons he couldn't come to their house after school. Wesley lied about so many things, but Cole knew, when he looked into those sad eyes, that Wesley never lied about how much he cared for Cole, for Callie, and that was all that mattered. The lies Wesley told were always marked by a change in the color of his eyes and only for Cole. Cole could always tell when Wes was lying because mists would cover his silver fog eyes like a cold winter morning.

Over the years, Cole and Callie had tried to give Wes lots of small gifts, but he always had an excuse for not accepting. Last Christmas, they had invited him to spend Christmas Eve night with them and celebrate Christmas Day, but he couldn't. "Father always has services early. I can't miss services," he had replied, biting his bottom lip to keep it from quivering. Cole could see the tears hovering just behind the sadness and didn't press him.

Wes headed back to where they were waiting by the double doors. "I can't. Mercy says Father is going to a meeting in Granger and we have to go with him."

Callie frowned, "You always have to go do stuff like that. I need you to help me find arrowheads." Her pretty face pinched up into a scowl.

"I'll help you," Cole said quickly, not wanting Wes hurt.

"I'm sorry, Callie. You know I would if I could." Wes watched Callie's face as she began to pout. It seemed like he upset Callie a lot more often than he did Cole. She just wanted things from him that he couldn't give her. It hurt him to say 'No', but he had to protect Mercy.

Callie watched Wes and Cole as they headed off to the field for volleyball practice. "His father is a dumbhead," she grumbled. Callie knew deep inside that it was much more than that, but she didn't know anything she could do about it. She saw Mercy sitting on the bus bench and walked over to her. "Hey," she said, her voice still filled with not getting her way.

Mercy Straihan was such a shy girl. She wanted to be like all the others, the pretty girls, but she had nothing to offer; no fashionable clothes, no slumber parties, no chatter about cute boys. Callie and Cole were about the only kids at school who bothered to talk to her and she knew that was because of Wesley.

She looked up into the dancing blue eyes. "Hi", she said softly. She would trade anything she had to be like Callie Hewett, but she didn't have anything that wonderful.

Callie plopped down on the bench. "You're in 7th, right? Mrs. Bluchell's homeroom?"


"Wow, isn't Craig Harold in your class? He's a total dreamboat."

"I guess," Mercy smiled shyly. She had a huge crush on Craig, but would never say it for fear of being teased.

Callie gave Mercy the once over with her eyes thinking that maybe if she pretended to be friends with Mercy, she'd find out stuff about Wes. "You know, if you pulled your hair back, it would look real pretty. Why don't you come over to my house after school one day and we'll go swimming and I'll do your hair?"

Mercy knew Callie might as well have asked her to fly to Paris for lunch. Feeling the tears burn her eyelids, she said softly, "Thank you, but I have chores after school."

"That's the same thing Wes says. You must have an awful lot of work to do at your house. Mercy......?"

Mercy heard the question in Callie's voice. "Yes?"

"Could you come if you didn't have any chores? Can't you get out of them and then we could ......................."

"No," Mercy sighed.

"No, you can't come or No, you can't get out of them?"

Mercy looked out toward the field where she could see Cole and her brother playing volleyball. Why was life so easy for some people and so hard for others? "Both."

Callie knew better than to keep pushing. Cole was going to kill her for pressing this far and he would know because Wesley would probly tell him. Callie was very jealous of how close Wes and her brother always were. She had just wanted to see if it was the same for Mercy at the Straihan house.

"Well, that's too bad. I know I can get out of stuff if I just bat my eyelashes and look pitiful," she said, patting Mercy on the arm. "I get anything I want that way."

Mercy wished the bus would hurry now. She wasn't ever comfortable around other children. They weren't like her and she felt like they could see her shame written across her face. It was in her eyes and in every step she took as she dragged her leg.

She watched Callie run off across the field, cheering her brother's name as he whacked the ball over the net. Mercy just wanted to be like that for a few minutes; to run and call out her friend's names, but she never would.

She'd tried to tell Father what had happened that night, but he wouldn't listen. How Karl Jr. had come into her room and done unspeakable things to her, nasty things. Instead of listening, Father shoved her as she stepped onto the top step of the basement stairs for her punishment. Tumbling over and over as she fell, Mercy thought she was dying. Lying at the bottom, her leg bend under her, her arm stuck in the lowest step, she remembered hearing Father's voice as he spoke to her standing in the doorway surrounded by the kitchen light, "You are punished for your sins. You are your mother's child." Looking up at him through pain-filled eyes, she had seen, not a loving father like other children had, only a frightening dark figure surrounded by a bright burning light.

She had never told Wesley about what Karl Jr. had done. She knew he would be very angry, at their brother and Father. Wesley was the only thing that mattered to her and she'd keep him safe as long as she could.

On Thursday evening, after prayers, Father said, "I will be at prayers over Mrs. Spindler tomorrow until night. The devil is in her and must be exorcized."

Wesley was free!! He wanted to call Cole and tell him that they could go to the cave after school tomorrow, but he wasn't allowed to use the telephone. He just hoped Cole could go tomorrow. They'd find those last three arrowheads. The only joy in Wesley's life came from being near Cole, and well, Callie too, but it wasn't the same thing exactly. Wes figured he'd marry Callie when he was grown and then he and Cole would be brothers. It seemed the perfect answer. They'd live far away from here and he'd have lots of children and love them, love them, love them. Wes didn't want much; didn't ask for much; just some happiness in his life and that thought always included Cole.

The meadows were full of wildflowers, bees buzzing, butterflies nestling on silken petals. It was as close to Heaven as Wesley ever got. He loved coming here with Cole and Callie. Sometimes, Mr. Hewett came along just to make sure about things. Wes thought that was so great, having a father who cared if they were safe. He had checked out the cave and even helped them drag a couple of old logs up there to sit on.

Snap, Cole's blue heeler, was chasing lizards and gathering bright yellow pollen on his nose. They had found seven nice sized arrowheads and Callie was past excited. "I'm gonna win for sure now."

Three kids, lying on their backs in the meadow, finding elephants and schooners and dragons in the heavy cumulus clouds floating by. Best friends, two covered in golden sunshine, one, for a few hours, shutting away the dark of his night.

"Look, look ! Right there!" Cole pointed up in the sky, "A gigantis rat!"

"Oh, look, ewww, his head fell off."

"Watch how the sun looks like its coming out his nose!"

"Ewwwwwwww! Gold snot," Callie shouted. She jumped up. "I'm gonna go see if I can find just one more arrowhead. Come, please."

"Nah, you go, you've already got plenty."

"Poopyheads!" Cole and Wes grinned as she bounced off across the meadow toward the bluff.

"It's so quiet here," Wesley sighed. His head was resting on Cole's thigh. "I could just stay here forever."

"We could build a cabin here when we grow up," Cole said, as he combed his fingers through Wes' long hair, "With a porch that goes all the way around and a big barn. I would get you as many horses as you want, Wes."

Neither boy ever seemed to notice that the future for one always included the other. It never seemed strange that they touched each other in ways that boys don't usually touch. When they were alone, one was always touching the other; it was as natural as breathing. The warmth of skin, the pulse of a heart beating excitedly, eyelashes flickering across fingertips.

"You been thinking anymore about going to the university with Callie and me?" Cole asked absently, his hand resting on Wes' belly.

"You know I can't, Cole. We don't have money like your dad does."

"But, there's scholarships and everything. I was asking Dad about it just the other night, and he said ..........................."

"That's a long time away, seven whole years. Heck, you'll probably have lots of other friends by then," Wes said, his eyes shut against the late afternoon sun.

Cole didn't answer.

"What?" Wesley said, craning his neck to look at his friend.

"You'll always be my best friend."

Wesley heard the hurt in Cole's voice. "I was just kidding, Cole. You know I was. You ......." He struggled for the words, "You're like my family. There's Mercy and you and Callie."

"I know," Cole answered him, not really understanding why it hurt his chest so much to know how sad Wesley always was. Cole lived in a different world, a world full of love and promise. He knew from the darkness that would fill Wesley's eyes that his best friend lived without much hope. "I'll keep you safe, Wes. I promise."

'If only he could', Wesley thought to himself, but some things even his best friend couldn't control.

"Well, in seven years, you can be gone from that house and we'll get an apartment at the university and we'll have a dog and a cat and whatever you want. I promise, Wes."

Wesley had told him one day about the little puppy he and Mercy had found by the side of the road. How they'd taken it home and hidden it in the barn, sneaking bits of food out to it after prayers. Wes had been so excited each day at school to tell him what all the puppy had done. Then, one morning, Wesley got off the bus and Cole had seen dried tear stains on his face. All he'd say was the puppy had barked.

"The puppy barked, Cole. He barked, that was all."

In that moment, Cole Hewett felt hatred. A happy boy surrounded by love and acceptance felt a consuming surge of hate for the man who would not let his Wesley have even a little puppy. He never asked what had happened to the dog. He didn't want Wesley to have to say it out loud. All Wesley ever said was that Father told Karl Jr. to take it away.

"We'll have lots of dogs and cats and rabbits and mice and whatever you want. You can name them all and we'll have a big farm and raise anything you want, Wes. I promise."

Cole Hewett made so many promises to Wesley Straihan while they were growing up. He just wanted to see his best friend smile. Some were small promises, just little blinks, like sharing a popsicle or letting Wesley ride his new bike first. Some were big promises, like never letting him down or trusting him with deep secrets. Cole would never tell Wesley about the biggest promise of all and it would change their lives forever.

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