by Grasshopper

Chapter 8

"Has the jury reached a verdict?"

"We have, Your Honor."

"How do you find the accused, Karl Arthur Straihan, Junior ?"

"We, the jury, find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter."

"Mr. Straihan, do you have any words to say before I declare your sentence?"

"Yeah," Karl Jr. drawled, "That fucker deserved to die. I just wish I'd had more than a beer bottle to do it with. He was talkin' shit about my mother."

The judge tried, with great difficulty, not to roll his eyes. He'd had frequent visits with both the prisoner and the victim in this very court room. "The court has considered the fact that the victim, Otis McGee, was provoking you in front of witnesses at the Blue Moon Saloon where he was employed as the bartender. You willfully struck Mr. McGee repeatedly over the head with a beer bottle. It is the decision of the court that you be remanded to the Wyoming State Penitentiary for five years, with parole in two years for good behavior." Judge Geary doubted very much if Karl Straihan would know good behavior if it bit him in the ass. "I hope you learn something about Christian kindness to others while you're gone. I've seen your face in this courtroom too many times."

Sitting quietly in courtroom chairs, Wesley and Mercy watched their brother being led away. He never looked back at his family and all they felt was relief. Mercy began to cry.

"Hush, he'll be okay," Wes said softly, mistaking her tears for ones of misplaced love. She would never tell him how her heart was beating a million beats a minute at the joy of her brother being locked up away from her.

"By the time he gets out in five years, we'll be gone," Wesley smiled.

'And maybe I'll have washed the filth of him off my skin by then', Mercy thought to herself, knowing, in truth, that would never happen.

Father had not come to the trial, had never visited Karl Jr. in jail. He would never understand or care that his son had gotten to this place because of him. He only knew that his oldest son had shamed him and to Father, that meant that his god would not follow Karl Jr. into prison. His god only loved true believers.

Outside the courthouse, Cole sat with his father in the heated cab of the truck. They had brought Wes and Mercy for the reading of the verdict. Not sure what to say, Cole cleared his throat as the brother and sister climbed into the warm truck. "Is he....?"

"They found him guilty. He goes to prison for five years," Wes said quietly.

"I'm so sorry, Wesley, Mercy," Mr. Hewett said.

"It's okay, Mr. Hewett. I think we all knew this day was coming. It's just taken a while getting here."

Mercy was quiet, too quiet. Wesley put his arm around her thin shoulders and pulled her close to him. "It'll be okay. It'll be better now, you'll see. Maybe Father will ......." He trailed off as he remembered where he was.

"I hear you have a job at the doughnut shop, Mercy. How's that working out?" Cole's dad asked, feeling the tension.

"It's a very good job, Mr. Hewett," she answered. "Mr. Leoni says I can have a permanent job there as soon as I graduate in May."

Mr. Hewett parked in front of Mike's Diner and announced, "I'm taking us all to lunch. Go grab us a booth while I talk to Jed Grandley for a minute."

Cole led the way into the diner, picking a booth by the front window. "This okay?" he asked.

"Sure," Wes replied softly. Mercy slid into the seat and Wes followed her, leaving Cole to sit by his father.

Mr. Hewett came through the door, knocking the snow off his boots. He got to the booth after stopping to speak to several friends. "I'm starved," he said to no one in particular.

The waitress arrived, pencil stub stuck in a tangle of red hair., her order pad in hand. "What can I get for you today, Albert? Cole? And who do you have there with you?"

"Hey, Miss Ellie," Cole grinned at the skinny woman. "This is my best friend, Wes Straihan and his sister Mercy."

"Oh," the waitress frowned, "You kin to Karl Jr.?"

"Yes," Wesley mumbled, embarrassed to have to answer that question. He could tell the woman wanted to make a comment, but she had the grace to back off. Turning to Albert, she took his order of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Cole ordered the hamburger basket same as he had a million times before without even looking at the menu.

"And for you, Miss?" the waitress asked Mercy. Mercy was holding a menu, staring at it as if she'd never seen one before. Wesley took it from her hand, turned to Miss Ellie and said quickly, "We'll both have what Cole is having, please Ma'am."

Suddenly, it struck Cole. He had never heard Wes ever mention going out to eat. He kept his eyes down, staring at the table top for fear of what he'd see in Wes' eyes. The chasm between them had never seemed so wide before. It didn't matter to Cole, but he knew it would matter to Wes. Anything that made them different always mattered to Wes.

Sitting silently in the booth, Wes fidgeted with his paper napkin, afraid to look at Cole for fear he'd see how embarrassed he made his friend. He stared at his dirty fingernails, the fraying on the cuffs of his hand me down flannel shirt, the broken zipper on his old jacket and crammed his hands into his lap.

If it had just been Cole sitting across from him, Wes might have gotten up the nerve to say the truth; that he and Mercy had never been in a restaurant before; that he was not sure what to do. But, to say that in front of Mr. Hewett seemed like the worse thing in the world. It wasn't exactly that he was ashamed; it was more like he wanted Cole to be proud of him and how could he be when Wesley was such an ignorant clod? The differences between them had never seemed so wide to Wes.

He felt a kick. Not real hard, but enough to jerk him out of his thoughts. His eyes flew up, were caught by a pair of questioning blue ones and suddenly, it was okay. Wes didn't see pity; he only saw a smile. He didn't feel Cole pushing him away because he wasn't good enough. All he saw was his Cole, same as always, understanding him and not giving a shit whether he used the right fork or knew what to order.


When the truck turned at the dirt road leading to the Straihan house, both Mercy and Wes blurted, "Stop here. We'll get out here."

Albert had been through this before on the few occasions Wes had been allowed to go with them to a game. He knew better than to argue. Stopping the truck, Wes and Mercy slipped out. "Thank you, Mr. Hewett. See you, Cole."

Twilight was settling heavily down on the old dirt road as the Hewetts, father and son, watched Wes and Mercy walk quickly toward the old rundown house. "Maybe things will be better now," Cole murmured.

"You think it was the brother who was making them so miserable?"

Cole sighed, "I think it's that whole house and all the memories that live there. I can't wait for Wes, and Mercy too, to get out forever. If Karl Jr. had just left town after he finally graduated from high school, Wes and Mercy would be a lot happier right now. But, he just hung around, working for Terry Collom at the garage. He's been in trouble for years. At least he doesn't live at the house anymore."

Albert looked at his son. "They aren't your problem, Cole."

Cole watched as Wes climbed the front steps, turned and raised his hand in a wave. Knowing Wes couldn't see, Cole still waved back. 'No, he isn't my problem,' Cole thought to himself, 'He's part of me.'

Karl Jr. stared out the prison bus window as it drove out of McLaren headed for the state penitentiary. He'd run away so many times when he was growing up, but Father had always found him. He would never admit to anyone that the only reason he never left for good was the hope that, one day, his mother would come home. Karl had been such a good little boy all those years ago. He'd seen his dreams smashed and his heart broken; his conscience thrown into a deep dark hole in the ground and any kindness in his soul beaten out of him. The things he had done had been his choices, but never his fault, too late now for backward glances. He'd be back and when he was, there'd be hell to pay for all the pain. McLaren .... What a lame ass name. Well, fuck it and god damn double damn fuck Father.



"Do you ever think about dying?"

That got Cole's attention. Wes got this way every once in a while and it took all Cole could do to get him off the subject. "No, I don't and you shouldn't either, Wes."

Wes sighed and kept on drawing little circles in the dirt of the cave floor with a stick.

"I just wonder sometimes if my mother is dead. If she wasn't, wouldn't she have come to see us or taken us with her or something Would your mother just up and run away ... just leave you and Callie?"

Cole had no answer. His mom would never leave them. It was just a total impossibility to even imagine. He tried to be as gentle as possible, "Come here," he patted the ground beside him and Wes schooched over so Cole could hold his hand. "Thing is, your mom and my mom were in real different situations. You know that. Your dad made it impossible for her to stay, I think. Maybe she knew you'd have a better life staying here than running away with her."

Wes snorted, "That's bullshit and you know it. Mercy and I would have had a better life living out of the back of a car than this way. At least we would have been with someone who loved us."

All this bothered Cole. If Mrs. Straihan had loved her kids as much as Wes believed she did, how could she have gone off and left them with their father? If she ran away to get away from him, she knew just what a son of a bitch he was. Was Wes just dreaming about a woman who never really cared about the children she had? Was she just a pipe dream?

"Have you ever tried to ask your father?"

"You've gotta be kidding. The one time Karl Jr. mentioned Mother, Father hit him so hard, he landed flat on the floor."

Cole could see the tears glinting in Wes' eyes and knew it was time to get his mind off his family. "Hey, get the treasure box out. I have something to put in it."

Over the years, the boys had placed small 'treasures' in their plastic shoe box. They had reinforced the hole with rocks and rolled a larger boulder from outside into the cave to hide the opening. This wasn't the only secret they had ever kept from Callie. It was just added to the pile.

Putting their strong young legs into it, they pushed the big rock to the side and took out the box. Settling down in the cave opening, Cole always held the box and Wes always took out each small object. Such was another great difference in their lives; Cole didn't have to hide things precious to him, but then, some things belonged only to them and they were in the box.

"Here's Leo," Wes said softly. "He and Poppy," he lifted the little bear out gently, "Were my only friends before I met you, Cole." He didn't have to pretend in front of Cole. He laid them carefully on his leg. Next, was the red tail hawk feather Cole had found one day riding with his father on the high range. The river smoothed rock, so round, so cool to the touch. The rattle from the rattlesnake the day Wes used his spooky eyes. The funny valentines they had given each other the year they realized. The first picture Wes had drawn of Cole, rough, pencil. The pendant Cole had bought at the carnival; half sun, half crescent moon. Wes had said the sun was Cole and the moon was him; light and dark. A picture of two boys kissing that Cole had printed off the internet. A photograph of the volleyball team, arms slung around shoulders, happy grins. An old wrinkled photo of Katherine Straihan.

Wes held the picture reverently, flipping it over to read the back for the millionth time. 'Kat - 16 April 1983'. When Mercy found the picture stuck in a book in the front room, she had run to Wes and they had huddled together, staring at their mother. Mercy had her beautiful long curly chestnut hair and her soft chocolate eyes. She had only been sixteen when the picture was taken and she looked so happy. She had had Karl Jr. the same year. Mother had only been sixteen when she married Father. How could that have happened? Someone as pretty and full of life marrying someone like him so young? That meant that Mother had only been twenty-three when she had Wesley and twenty-three when she left.

Most everything in the box belonged to Wes. Cole tried so hard to give Wes ways to let his feelings out. He just knew how hard it was for Wes to keep it all bottled up inside. He had waited, over the years, for Wes to let go of his secrets, but he never did. Cole knew the only thing he could do was just wait, be there, be the rock Wes leaned on. One day, they'd look back and all this would be just clouded memories, but now, in the reality of it, all Cole could do was wait.

"I have something to add to the box," Cole smiled. He pulled the wornout copy of Willie Nelson's The Hits CD and handed it to Wes. "I know the songs by heart. It will always remind me of July 9th."

"When we have the big house with all the animals, could we have music in every room?" Wes asked.

"Of course we will and we'll dance and sing whenever we want to and .........,"

Cole trailed off looking into Wes' clouded eyes.

"It's all a dream, isn't it? I'll never live in that big house or hear all the music. I love you, Cole." Wes pulled Cole tight as if he were saying goodbye.

"What's wrong? What brought this on? Of course you will. I promised you, didn't I?"

"Sometimes, the best made promises can't come true. I've been having these, um, I'm not sure what to call them, feelings, I guess, for a while now. Like something is gonna happen and we won't be happy for a long time. I keep seeing this deep snow, you know, like in the dead of winter when you can't even ride Whistler?"

"In dreams?"

"No," Wes sighed, "Just through my eyes. The blizzard is so thick and the snow is so deep that Whistler can't walk in it. Its night and the moon is so low in the sky, if you reached out, you could scrape it with your fingernails. Mercy always used to tell me that if you did, the moon would bleed. The air is full of a heavy darkness and there's mist creeping under the doors."

Cole shivered. "What the hell are you talking about, Wes? You're creepin' me out." He looked over into Wes' face and into his eyes to find that they were bluish silver and the pupils just pinpricks in the very center. "Stop now, no one's dying anytime soon."

"You're in that mist, Cole. Always just ahead of me and just out of sight. I can hear you calling me, but I can't catch up. Callie takes my hand, but she squeezes ahold too tight and my hand begins to bleed and Cole....,"

It was then that Cole knew he had to get Wesley out of that house. Whatever his father had done to him over the years was going to make him explode if he stayed much longer. "What, Wes?"

"I can hear a baby crying way off in the mist. I can hear my mother singing and a baby cry. I don't know what it means, Cole. Tell me."

Cole held on in desperation. He had felt this coming for a long time, but he had no answers. Pulling on Wes' hand, he pulled him to his feet. "Let's go to my house and get something hot to eat. It's freezing in here."

Wes had never been to Cole's house, but right now, he was too confused to worry about it. He had been so afraid to tell Cole about his dreams and the look on Cole's face told him he had been right. Wes was scaring him. Climbing up behind him on Whistler, Wes just hung on and felt the twilight take over his mind.

Walking in the back door, into the brightly lit kitchen, Cole sat Wes down in one of the kitchen chairs. "Hold on right there for just a sec," Cole said and hurried down the hall.

"Mom," he whispered, when he found his mom and dad watching the news in the den. Sarah looked up from her knitting and, seeing the look on her son's face, jumped up from her chair.

Out in the hall, Cole whispered, "Mom, Wes is in the kitchen and he's kinda upset. Could you make us some soup or something?"

"Of course I can, poor boy," she murmured and went right to Wes. "Hello. Wesley," she said softly, pressing the back of her hand firmly against his forehead feeling for fever. Feeling none, she pushed his hair up to look in his eyes and held back a gasp at the bright silver color and the tiny pupils.

"I'll just make you boys some hot soup and a sandwich. You relax and get warm." Cutting her eyes over at Cole, she frowned, asking questions without speaking.

Cole didn't really forget that his mother didn't know, he just didn't care right then. He pulled a chair over close to Wes and leaned into him, whispering. Sarah Hewett stood very still, soup pot in her hands, watching her son and this boy. She finally saw what she had guessed when Albert would tell her about Cole and Wesley Straihan. These were not two friends with a problem; these were two boys devoted to each other and Cole was sick with worry. This was what she had feared, and yet, as she watched, as Cole touched Wes' cheek and Wes raised those frightening eyes to look with love at her son, Sarah couldn't deny that what she saw was fine and true. It wasn't what she wanted for her son, but it was apparently what he had already chosen.

The soup warmed and two turkey sandwiches cut in triangles with the bottom crust off, she laid the plates on the table and sat down across from them. "Are you warm now? Can I help?" she asked, looking at Wes.

"Thank you, Mrs. Hewett," Wes said quietly.

"You can help, Mom," Cole replied, knowing in his heart that his mother would come through for him. He could see the softening in her eyes. "Wes has been having these like dreams and they're bad. He's been keeping them to himself until today and I guess they just kinda overwhelmed him." His eyes pleaded with her to understand and to say something positive.

Sarah had heard the stories of the Straihans. She had heard what all went on at that church. She realized that she had let her children be exposed to something that was scaring this boy. No small wonder he was upset with a crazy father, a mother who had abandoned him and a brother in prison. Sarah realized she should have insisted that Wesley come here. She would spend many hours thinking and praying for forgiveness for doing nothing.

"Wesley, God always shows us the way. Do you believe in God?"

Wes smiled, his eyes slowly fading back to their misty color. "You mean the God that turns on the light for me at night? The God that gives me snow to drink? The God that gives me strength? That God, yes, I believe in him."

"Then you will use that strength God gives you to overcome these bad dreams, won't you? Is this God your father's God?"

Wes snorted, "No, this is MY God. Father's god is only for Father."

Sarah saw an ache so large it filled his whole body. "Wesley," she said as she pulled her chair over to the other side from Cole, "Let me just put my arms around you, will you?"

Shy and hesitant, Wes turned to Cole's mom and stiffly shifted into her open arms. She gathered him close and felt as his heart raced. "Shh, my child, relax now and let all that tension go." As she began to hum a quiet melody, she felt his body ease down and he began to cry softly. "Shh, Wesley, you'll be all right."

They sat like that for awhile, a mother and her son and the boy he loved. Embarrassed, Wes sniffled and raised his face off her wet shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"Never be sorry for letting your emotions show. You needed that, I'm thinking. You can come back here anytime for a good hugging." Wes smiled and Sarah's heart broke for him. Poor boy.

"I need to be going," Wes mumbled. "I'm really late."

Sarah leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You're welcome here anytime, Wesley. I'm sorry it took so long to get you here. Cole, see that he gets home quickly."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Sarah stood at the back door, watching through the storm door as Whistler carried the two boys off into the now dark night. She said a quiet prayer for her son and for Wesley Straihan.

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