AUTHOR'S NOTE: I know! I know! I've been very remiss and very bad to the readers of my stories! I'm so sorry about that. My mom's health problems, coupled with trouble at work have kept me really busy lately. But I'm trying to get everything updated as soon as I can! Please take this peace offering and know that I am working of more to come!
Manny smiled as he spotted Henry on his way in to the comic shop. The older man's face broke into a wrinkled grin of his own and he waved the younger man over. When he reached the counter, Manny saw that Henry was pulling out three new titles he'd never heard of, though they looked interesting all the same.
"Hey, Henry," he greeted his elderly friend. "How are you today?"
"Could be worse," the man smiled wryly. "Look what I saved here for you."
Manny looked over the colorful covers reverently. They all looked well drawn and filled with action. One cover depicted a blond woman brandishing a sword with a hell of a determined look on her face. She was wearing what looked like medieval clothing, though it was decidedly male. Another cover had a young dark haired mage standing upon a rocky cliff with his arms held out and lightening flashing all around him. And the last cover showed a group of what appeared to be high school kids, though their clothing was torn and they all looked to have been fresh from some sort of fight. There were a few smoldering piles of rubble in the background that indicated it might be an end-of-the-world type of story. All looked like things Manny would browse on his own.
"These by anyone I've read before?" he asked, gingerly taking them from Henry's outstretched hands.
"All newbies," the old man replied. "But they looked up your alley, so I put them aside for you."
Manny nodded as he paged through the high school kid-covered book first. Yep, just as he'd thought. And end-of-the-world piece. It looked like the kids had to find a way to work together to figure out what was happening, and some of them seemed reluctant to do so. Manny liked those kinds of stories.
"How much?" he asked, reaching for his wallet in his back pocket.
"Nothing," Henry smiled.
"Oh ... no ... I couldn't!"
"Hey, with all the business you've given me over the years, you deserve it! Besides, I got them at a great discount because the publisher is trying to get exposure for them."
Manny quirked an eyebrow suspiciously but made no further argument. He didn't like feeling as if he was taking advantage of the old man, but what could he say to that, other than call Henry a liar. And that would be infinitely more rude, in his opinion. He thanked Henry instead and took the proffered plastic bag to carry his new prizes in. After another few minutes of chat he thanked Henry again and left the store. It was hot again and he was sweating as he walked. On the way to his car he could hear someone speaking softly into a cell phone not far away.
"Yeah, I told you he's here, man," the male voice hissed.
Manny instantly recognized it as Jim's and froze in mid-step. He ducked behind the SUV he was standing near and waited for Jim to walk away. But the other guy didn't and instead began speaking again.
"I know! He's so pathetic!" Jim chuckled. "And my uncle is probably about his only friend in the world ... well, except for you. But we know where that's going to lead him eventually, don't we?"
Jim laughed heartily again and Manny's blood chilled. Who was he talking to? Derek? Could it be? Was the blonde only hanging around him to help Jim with yet another installment in Manny's humiliation? But he'd seemed so sincere when they hung around together.
"This will be the best plan ever, man!" Jim went on. "I can't wait to see his face this time! Let's get it on film!"
Feeling sick, Manny slowly stumbled away as quietly as possible to his mother's Honda. Once he got in, he sat there silently and stared out the windshield. He knew he should have trusted his instincts. He never should have given Derek the chance to get to know him. What the hell was he going top to do now? He and Derek were supposed to be going to the Indy movie house later than night. Derek was set to pick him up in just over an hour. He couldn't go now. He just couldn't. But how was he going to get out of it without a confrontation? As miserable as he felt right then, he still couldn't bring himself to consider having it out with his so-called friend.
Jim chuckled at Manny's retreating wide back. He marveled at how easy it was to trick the guy into believing he was on the phone. Gullible dork! Now all he had to do was sit back and wait for Derek to call, seeing as he would no longer have anything to do once Porky dropped him. He wasn't even worried the kid would confront Derek on what he'd heard. He never had the balls in high school, and Jim doubted anything had changed since then. He shook his head and walked back into the comic store once Manny's taillights disappeared from view.
"That was a pretty long trip to the garbage dumpster," his uncle said coolly from behind the counter where he'd been organizing some new inventory.
"I saw the kid and figured I would give him some time," Jim shrugged, keeping his face neutral. He knew his uncle was aware of the tension between his nephew and one of his favorite customers, and decided it would be in his best interest not to raise the old codger's interest in the whole ordeal.
"That was ... surprisingly mature of you," Henry said skeptically.
Jim just shrugged and picked up a box of comics that he'd been told to restock, allowing himself a smirk when he turned away.
Derek raised a skeptical eyebrow of his own later that evening as Manny tried to beg off going out as they'd planned. He knew the other guy had been as excited about the new Spanish film as he was, and didn't believe his story of a sudden headache. Something was up here. He read Manny's furtive gaze carefully as the other tried to keep from meeting his eyes. Manny's mom was trying to be discreet and all, staying in the background. But Derek saw her pleading gaze find him more than once. He knew she was happy her son was getting out more this summer. Whatever happened, she knew about it and was wringing her hands nervously.
"Really," Manny mumbled. "I just ... I don't feel well tonight." His cheeks were red and he seemed to want to fade into the nearest wall again.
"What happened?" Derek finally demanded, never one for playing these kinds of games.
"Bull shit!" he exclaimed, then remembered Manny's mom. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Hallow. I didn't mean to curse in front of you."
She nodded her head slightly and he turned back to Manny. "I know something happened because you were excited to see this movie as I was, and tonight's it's last showing. Only blunt force trauma could keep you away. Now spill it."
"There's nothing to spill!" Manny finally hissed back. I'm not going, and that's it!" Then he turned and huffed away up the stairs before Derek could say anything more.
"I'm sorry about him," Mrs. Hallow murmured, finally coming out completely from the kitchen area. "He can get very stubborn sometimes."
"You think?" Derek smiled wryly. "I just wish I knew what happened. He called me before he left work to let me know what time he'd be home, so I know he was still planning to go at that point."
The older woman shook her head and looked as if she wanted to say something but thought it might now be her place. Derek decided not to leave just yet, to see if he couldn't entice her into telling him what she knew of what had happened.
"Did he tell you anything?" he asked.
Her cheeks colored a bit and she shrugged, but stopped meeting his gaze. Apparently Manny gets his shyness from his mom, Derek thought as he looked for a way to get the information he wanted.
"I tells me things in confidence," she finally sighed. "I couldn't break that."
"But if there's any way for me to know what happened, I could possibly fix it," the blonde reasoned.
She sighed again and looked away. He knew he was on the right track now, and waited quietly while she decided what to do.
"He's not had the best time of it, you know," she said, looking at her son's friend pointedly. "Not for a very long time."
Derek nodded and hoped she would continue.
"High school was hell for him," she added, granting him his wish. "We tried to help him, but he didn't seem to want to bother us with his problems, so we pretended that we didn't know what was happening, and he never talked about it to us. But that awful Dusette boy never left him alone."
Jim? What the hell was going here? Derek cleared his throat and replied," But that was years ago, Mrs. Hallow. I know he had a hard time back then. I'm not happy to admit I even helped Jim on occasion, and believe me I regret it. But it's different now. we're out of high school and have grown up."
"Perhaps you have," she sniffed then her gaze hardened. "But your old friend hasn't. So, when was the last time you spoke to him?"
"Jim?" Derek asked, bemused. "Why?"
"Just answer the question, if you please, Mr. Carter," she said firmly. "Have you spoken to him at all today?"
"Not at all? on your cell phone maybe?"
"I swear! I haven't spoken to him since I told him I wasn't going to a party with him last Friday!"
Manny's mother looked as if she was weighing his believability factor while he stood there. He was innocent of whatever she thought had happened. Now if he could just find out what the hell that was maybe he wouldn't feel like he'd just dropped into an alternate universe and all.
"Mom, why is he still here?" Manny demanded as he tromped back down the stairs, apparently in the act of ensuring Derek was gone.
Manny's mom said nothing at first, her gaze not leaving Derek's for an instant. She seemed to be trying to see through him. Well, he had nothing to hide so he stood firmly rooted in place and waited while Manny watched from the bottom of the staircase.
"He's not lying," Mrs. Hallow finally declared and turned to her son. "I believe him. And I also think he deserves an explanation."
"Don't 'But, mom' me!" she argued. "I've never made you explain yourself when you weren't in the wrong before, and I'm not starting now! Whatever you heard that nasty boy say before, he wasn't talking to Derek! Now, explain yourself to him, dear. He's done nothing wrong. And you've been so happy these last couple of weeks when you've gone out. I'd hate to see you go back to being your old hermit self, especially over something someone so insignificant said."
Manny grunted and looked away again but Derek finally felt he was getting somewhere.