An Overheard Conversation

by Ivor Slipper

Chapter 1

"You'd think he'd learn his lesson, but he never does."

"I'm sure you'll get through to him before much longer."

Mr Jackson chuckled as he answered, "Yeah, I'm not sure how much more his butt can take."

"Wayne sure is a tough nut," Mr Reynolds responded, "but I guess he has to be coming from where he does. Takes after John, perhaps?"

Mr Jackson laughed, "You know his real name was Marion – Marion Morrison?"

Now it was Mr Reynolds turn to laugh. "Yep, with a name like that I bet he grew up quick and hard when he started school."

I'd come back at the end of school to my Home Room in order to see Mr Reynolds who was our Home Room teacher. On arriving outside, I was about to knock on the door and enter when I'd heard voices. I'd held back from knocking and had listened instead quickly recognising that Mr Reynolds was in conversation with the Vice Principal, Mr Jackson, who was in charge of discipline at Southfields Valley High School.

There was a pause in their conversation, so not wanting to be caught listening, I knocked on the door and entered. On doing so I immediately apologised for not waiting to be told to enter, adding that I hadn't expected anyone else to be there.

"Alright this time, son," said Mr Jackson, "but next time, wait to be asked."

"He's new here," put in Mr Reynolds, "Ethan Berenson only started with us a couple of weeks ago."

"Thought I didn't recognise him. Evidently our paths haven't crossed as yet."

He walked past me, giving me a strange sort of smile as he did. I felt a slight sort of shiver, similar to one I'd had a couple of years ago when I'd spotted a shark while swimming in the Pacific. I made a mental note to do my best not to cross his path. I then collected from Mr Reynolds the book he'd promised to lend me. That related to the project he'd set in out US History class earlier, for which he also happened to be our teacher. As I went to find my bike and cycle home it occurred to me that perhaps I'd just found someone I could partner up with.

I was still getting used to cycling to and from school. Where we'd lived before in California I'd always gone on the school bus. However, a few months ago my dad had come home from work one day and announced that we'd shortly be moving to a little town in Texas to which he was being transferred by his employer. I wasn't happy at being uprooted at the age of fourteen and moved thousands of miles across the country. Not only would I lose all my friends, but I be starting at a new school in the middle of a semester. So, I really would be the odd one out. Additionally, where we lived was near the coast so I could spend large chunks of the summer on the beach with my friends. Now though the nearest beach was hundreds of miles away and where we were going seemed to be more like desert. I was not happy. One of the few good things that had come out of the move was that my folks agreed to let me cycle to and from school. But that was a very small plus against a whole lot of minuses.

So, I was fourteen years old, a little over five foot five tall, slim, with blond hair bleached by the sun, and blue eyes. At least I didn't have any physical defects, nor was I cursed with zits, but I sure stood out at that school. I almost thought they were talking a different language at first – not that anyone really talked to me, apart from the teachers – and it was a struggle initially to follow what they were saying. At least they weren't all from Texas, so that helped a little. Also, the syllabus was virtually the same and I came to realise after a few weeks that the standard in my old school was a little higher than here. That's not to say I was a straight 'A' student, but I did achieve a mixture of 'A's and 'B's with more of the former. Overall therefore settling in at school wasn't too hard, but I did miss my friends. At this time the Internet was something new. Not everyone had it, although we did so I could at least keep in touch with my friends using email and phone calls. But it wasn't the same.

I laid in bed that night thinking. Wayne Parnell was definitely a loner like me. But unlike me he wasn't from outside – at least not as far as I knew. He was though different. For a start he was somewhat dark skinned, not black, but darker than any suntan could produce. He was also slim like me and perhaps an inch or so taller, but his hair was black, jet black which made me think that perhaps there was some native American in his genes. His hair hung down a few inches below the collar of the somewhat grubby, and certainly well worn, blue denim jacket he seemed to always wear. The jacket went with a pair of similarly grubby and well worn, loose fitting thick denim jeans. He sure stood out dressed like that when almost all of the kids went to school wearing shorts and polo or t shirts. He always had a black t shirt under his denim jacket and his outfit was completed with a nondescript pair of black sneakers. His face though had something about it that I had noticed. There was a combination of sadness and delicacy if you caught sight of him unawares, but if you came face to face with him the expression changed to one of almost anger.

He'd intrigued me over the past few weeks. Now based on the conversation I'd overheard I definitely wanted to get to know him. And I thought I knew how to do that.

After starting at Southfields Valley I quickly found out that there were some days where the school cafeteria lunch offering was reasonably decent, there were other days when it was best avoided. You didn't always know in advance which day was to be avoided, so I'd quickly got into the habit of either making some sandwiches for myself or asking my mom to make them for me. She was thus a little surprised when the next morning I headed out of the house without any.

"Hey, Ethan. Forgotten your sandwiches today?" she asked as I walked towards the door.

"No, mom. Decided to give school lunch a try again today."

She laughed. "Got some Pepto-Bismol with you?"

"Aw, mom. It shouldn't be that bad, but a steak tonight would be nice!"

She laughed again. "No promises Ethan, but I'll see what I can do."

My mom was great and I loved her to bits. I loved my father too of course, but somehow mom and I had always had an extra something between us.

I knew I had the same lunch period as Wayne and from the few times I had eaten it, I also knew that he sat at a table by himself. Thus when I went into the cafeteria I quickly spotted him. I suspected he came early, perhaps to try and hide the fact that his meal was on a voucher. Today's lunch was pizza I was pleased to discover as that was one of the more edible offerings. I got mine with some salad, added a glass of orange juice to my tray and paid for it before heading over to where Wayne was sat. He didn't look up as I arrived to stand behind the chair opposite his.

"Hey, Wayne. Anyone sitting here?"

He glanced up before answering. "Does it look like it?"

"Mind if I sit here then?"

"Please yourself. But I dunno why you want to."

I pulled the chair out, put my tray on the table and sat down.

"I'm Ethan, by the way." I thought I'd best introduce myself but decided offering to shake hands or any sort of contact wasn't the way to go.

He half smiled. "I know that, but I still dunno why you want to sit here. I ain't exactly the popular sort of guy a newbie should wanna know, or even be seen with."

"Ah well, that's the thing. I am a newbie and nobody much wants to be seen with me let alone work with me. So I decided to try someone who might."

A puzzled look crossed his face. "Work with you? Doing what? You got a pile of shit you need shifting? That's the sorta work most people see me doing."

On the basis that he could only say 'No', although probably more explicitly than that, I decided to plough on.

"No shit Wayne." I said and laughed gently. I saw that half smile around his lips and carried on. "I need someone to work with me on that project Mr Jorgensen set for us in US History – 'Something not many people know about World War 2' , or words to that effect."

"He don't expect me to do that 'cos nobody ever works with me, so he just gives me a 'D' grade. Suits me."

"But I can't afford to get a 'D' grade, so how about you help me out?"

"You gonna pay me?"

"No, but if you come over to my place to do the work, my mom'll feed you and she's a great cook."

Mom was a great cook and I couldn't think she'd object, but I wasn't sure what she'd make of Wayne on first sight.

To my relief, he grinned. "Looks like you've got yourself a pardner, pardner."

I extended my hand toward him across the table. "Okay. Thanks, pardner," giving him the benefit of my worst impression of a Texan accent.

He grinned before extending his own to shake it saying, "You're weird, Ethan. Really weird."

"Do you want to come over after school and we can knock some ideas around. I cycle to school, but it's not too far to walk."

"No problemo. I've got a bike too."

Just then the bell sounded to signify the end of the lunch period. I knew we had the same last period – World Geography – so we could go and collect our bikes when that finished.

I was very surprised when we did collect our bikes. Mine was a fairly decent model, but while I'd been expecting Wayne to have something nondescript, his was very close to top of the range. He noticed the expression on my face.

"Not what you were expecting eh?"


He had the good grace to laugh. "I understand. Most people probably think I stole it, but I actually found it in a dumpster outside a house a few months ago. The front wheel was busted, but otherwise it looked alright. So I knocked on the door and this fat rich guy opened it. I asked him if he wanted it and he told me it was his son's and how he'd wrecked it but he'd got him a new one. I asked him if I could have it and he told me to help myself, so I did. Luckily I did have the good sense to ask him to give me a letter saying that, and I got him to fix his business card to it."

"Good thinking."

"Yeah, the cops stopped me a few times until the word got round."

"Was it a big job to fix?"

"Nope, just needed a new wheel and a few other bits."

It took about five minutes to get to my house. When we arrived I looked round to find he'd stopped at the start of the drive.

"What's up Wayne?"

"This was a mistake. I'm going home."

He started to turn his bike round but I called him to stop and came back alongside him. The house my parents had bought here was impressive, standing in good grounds. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, family room, double garage and a games room.

"It's just a house Wayne. Come inside and meet my mom."

He followed me as I pushed my bike into the garage before walking into the house with him tailing behind me a bit like a reluctant dog. I went into the kitchen where I was sure mom would be.

"Hi mom. This is Wayne from school. He's going to work with me on a History project. I only got him to agree to do so 'cos I told him what a good cook you are and how you'd feed him tonight."

Because I knew her I picked up on the quick flash of surprise that vanished as quickly as it appeared on her face, but I didn't believe Wayne would have noticed. After that, Mom took it in her stride as I knew she would.

"Hello, Wayne. Pleased to meet you." She walked over to him, hand extended.

"Good afternoon, Ma'am." He replied as he sort of touched her hand.

"You can forget the Ma'am Wayne. I'm not royalty. Mrs Berenson is fine. So I guess you boys have a lot to talk about. Why don't you find some drinks and cookies Ethan and go upstairs."

"Aaw, no cake today mom?"

"There's still some of that Red Velvet cake I made at the weekend if you want. Take Wayne up to your room while I find it."

I knew she didn't need to find it, but realized she wanted a chance to talk to me on my own, so I led Wayne upstairs to my room. I suppose I should have expected it, but of course he was as unhappy on seeing my room as he had been on seeing the house. It was understandable with a double bed, my own TV, a desk, computer, a couple of chairs, plus two wardrobes and two chests of drawers and still space to swing plenty of cats. I left him there to start coming to terms and went back to my mother.

"What's going on, Ethan. He doesn't look the sort of boy you'd want to get involved with."

"Look mom, hardly anyone has spoken to me since I started at this school. He's also an outcast. I don't know why but there is something going on and I want to find out what."

"Well, you always were one for the waifs and strays. Remember those kittens you brought home?"

I didn't need reminding. I was probably about seven at the time and I'd found these three kittens in a cardboard box on the street. Mom tried very hard to save them and even took them to a vet, but they were just so dehydrated when I found them that they couldn't be saved.

Having got the cake I went back upstairs to find Wayne standing in the middle of the room looking uncomfortable. I sat down on one of the chairs by the desk and told him to sit at the other, where over the next few minutes we disposed of the cookies, soda and the cake. We then spent a few minutes talking about nothing in particular, during which time Wayne removed his denim jacket. Like everything else Wayne wore his black t-shirt wasn't new, but although well faded it had an imprint of a native American headdress. Seeing that made me more hopeful that my idea could work. I'd decided to give it a few minutes and see if he would raise the subject of the project first and just before I gave in, he did.

"So what's this stupid project about again? You know I ain't gonna be any help don't you?"

"I wouldn't be so sure about that. I was thinking of doing something about the Native Americans in World War 2."

His head jerked round and he looked at me. "Seriously?"

"Yeah. It'll be different to what anyone else does."

"And that's why you picked on me, 'cos I'm one of them so you'd get an inside track?"

He almost sneered at me as he said that.

"I thought you might be, but that wasn't why. I think we whites have given the Indians a raw deal right from the start, so perhaps we could do something to maybe change a few minds."

"You ain't gonna change minds in this town... but it might be fun to try."

There was the hint of a smile on his face now.

"So you're in?"

"Yeah, and I know where to start. My grandpaw was in the army in the Pacific."

"That's great. So you can talk to him for a start. Perhaps he can give us an idea."

Mom called us down for dinner later. It was chicken fried steak, with mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy. Dad had come home from work by then and Mom had evidently prepared him as he didn't even raise an eyebrow on seeing Wayne. He set to on the meal with gusto and even had a double helping of the blueberry pie that followed. After that he helped me clear the table and load the dishwasher before we went back up to my room. We both stretched out on my bed and watched a couple of horror films until I realized it was getting late and at the same time a thunderstorm broke.

"I orta be heading home," said Wayne.

"You can't go out in this." I responded. "Why not stay the night? There is a guest room you can sleep in, or I can bring another mattress in here, or..."

"I can share your bed," he cut in with a grin..

"That's up to you – but it is a big bed."

"Yeah, but I've got no clean underwear."

"If that's all that's stopping you, I've got plenty you can borrow. Yes?"

He nodded. "Right, I'll go and square it with my folks. My bathroom is next door, so you go and use it while I talk to them." Before going downstairs I took out of my underwear drawer a pair of black boxer briefs for him to change into. As I was leaving the room a thought crossed my mind.

"What about your folks? Do you want to call them and let them know where you are? They might not want you to stay with someone they don't know."

That sad look appeared on his face again. "No point. My mom will be working."

I registered the non mentioning of his father, but didn't want to pry further at this point. After all, we'd only known each other for a few hours.

Intentionally I stayed downstairs talking with my folks for some minutes in order to give Wayne plenty of time to do whatever he wanted. They both pressed me for more details of him, but there wasn't a lot I could add. When I did get back to my room I found Wayne already in bed, so I took a shower myself, put on a clean pair of light grey boxer briefs and slid into bed on the opposite side to him. We mumbled a 'goodnight' to each other and then, much to my surprise my alarm was ringing to announce that it was Wednesday morning and time to get up.

Mom made us both a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast before we bid her goodbye and mounted our bikes to head to school.

"Do you want to come over again tonight Wayne and get started on this project?"

"Can't tonight Ethan. I've got a little job in the local grocery store and anyway, I guess I need to talk to grandpaw first. I could come Thursday though, if you want?"

"That'd make sense. Seeing you don't snore or fart, you're welcome to sleepover again if you want."

I'd stuck my neck out with that comment but hoped he know I was joking.

"Yeah, well I guess your farts aren't too strong," he said, laughing and riding his bike close enough to be able to punch me in the arm. "Can we speed up? I've got to report to Jackson before school and I don't want to be late as well."

That was my chance to say something, to ask the question, but having made the comment he did indeed speed up and drew ahead of me. It would have to wait, but I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on.

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