THE FLIGHT OF BIRDY BRAFT

(A Disconnected Life)

Chapter 1

"Braft. This is Reynolds. Beckwith's dead. Ate a bullet. Funeral's Friday."

The answering machine clicked off before the stunned listener could comprehend the words and he replayed the short recording twice to make sure he heard it right. Boone Reynolds' forgotten voice was the last thing Braft expected to hear in his alternate life and he couldn't fathom how this lost part of his past had unexpectedly crashed into his present. He erased the recording and told himself to ignore the intrusive message.

But the spirit of Jacob Markley had invaded Braft's rented bungalow like he was Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Reynolds' ghostly voice haunted him and he couldn't get the image of his childhood friend Andy Beckwith out his mind. Would the disturbing call unlock a Pandora's Box against his will, flooding his mind with the skeletons of a bygone era, all because Boone Reynolds frigin' voice had risen up from another dimension thirty years removed?

Braft had escaped – abandoned really – his Hillsboro childhood two days after graduating from high school all those years ago, slipping out of his hometown like a runaway bride never to return, effectively deleting the first eighteen years of his life from his collective memory banks. As the years ticked by, he convinced himself that he had never lived in Hillsboro.

Braft spent twenty-eight years in the United States Navy avoiding the specifics of his roots, an amnesia victim with no reference to his own upbringing. He stablished a self-imposed mental block in his adult life and successfully erased Hillsboro from his mind, but that guarded discipline had been permanently broken by a telephone call from the abyss and as hard as he tried to stay anchored in the present, he found himself drifting to his denied past. Boone Reynold's grainy mystic voice was pulling him back to Hillsboro like a whale song calling him home, 3,000 miles away.

Braft had known Andy Beckwith since kindergarten and Beck remained forever young and happy in his mind's eye. He could hear Andy's laugh echoing in his memory as if the two had been together yesterday. It was impossible to stop the swell of buried memories from exploding forth like lava from a volcano.

Conflicted by his sudden outbreak of emotions. a confused Braft wondered if his thirty-year self-imposed exile had been a mistake. Paniced, he drove to the Roadside Diner to ask his boss Tamara, who operated the diner with her husband Ben, if he was crazy.

Ben and Tamara had been high school sweethearts and worked at the Roadside as teens, first opened as a grocery store and filling station in the 1930s by Ben's grandfather. Ben's dad took over the business in the 1950s and coverted it to a diner and Ben assumed managerial responsibility following his father's unexpected death when Ben was just 26 years old.

Ben was an uptight and controlling micro-manager, demanding and unrelenting in his expectations of his harried employees. He caused more problems than he solved with his choking oversight and second guessing style of leadership, and often took his frustrations out on his co-manager wife which made for a tense workplace.

The Navy chef Braft stumbled upon the diner by accident during his final months in the service. He stopped by for a bite during a Saturday drive and was attracted to the diner's friendly and down-home atmosphere. A trucker's favorite, The Roadside was located on the outskirts of Ellensburg and featured a motif of license plates, maps, model cars, and old postcards. The waitresses were loyal and dedicated middle-aged local women who had worked the tables for years.

The lonely Sailor returned to the diner several times in the ensuing weeks, often taking a room at the Super 8 by the interstate exchange for weekend getaways from the base. He made it a point to take his meals at the friendly diner and, once his relief reported to the Naval Base in Bremington, Braft's presence at the command became a nuisance rather than a necessity and he began spending even more time in Ellensburg.

The Sailor was peacefully eating at the Roadside one Saturday when the chef didn't show up for a shift. Chaos, calamity and crisis ensued until the Navy customer grabbed an apron and manned the kitchen as if being called to general quarters. Tamara was summoned to the diner and stood in the kitchen door with her arms folded across her chest watching the Navy hero save the day.

Braft had taken note of Tamara from the moment he first cane upon the Roadside. Her laugh brought music to the diner and she was a natural with the customers. Possessing a natural earthly beauty, she wore her frizzy hair in a ponytail with a standard wardrobe choice of jeans and a sweatshirt, but she was charmingly beautiful with a presence that filled the diner with hospitable friendliness.

"We've never had a knight in shining armor rescue us before," Tamara told the emergency cook with an appreciative smirk on the afternoon of his knighthood.

With that vote of confidence, the Sailor returned for good once the Navy piped him ashore after 28 years of faithful and honorable service to his country. He came to the Roadside mostly because he had nowhere else to go and Tamara gladly hired her knight as the Roadside's new cook. She even helped Braft find the dumpy bungalow to rent a few miles from the diner.

Tamara was rejuvenated by the Navy veteran's light hearted and good humored presence. He was refreshingly different from her moody and stressed husband and a welcomed breath of fresh air for everyone who worked at the diner. The retired Navy man was positive, easy going, and team-orientated in his work style. He was professional in his job ethic with an enjoyale sense of humor, always willing to poke fun at himself. The staff rallied around the modest and down to earth newcomer who went out of his way to help. Braft was not above bussing a table or washing a plate when the diner was slammed and he quickly became a favorite among the waitresses.

Tamara, whose dream of operating a diner became a nightmare under her husband's sufficating management style, was five blue plate specials away from walking out on her marriage and the business before the retired Navy chef joined the staff, but soon found her self enjoying the job again thanks to the Sailor's presence. Eventually, the manager's wife became smitten by the refreshing Braft and she enjoyed the emotional shadow dance she was playing with the mysterious cook.

Andy Beckwith's friend found Tamara preparing a large bowl of salad in the auxiliary kitchen. She looked angelically eloquent under the overhead light and thecook once again felt his suppressed temptation taunting him as he admired the married woman.

"I need to take a few days off.," he announced from the doorway.

She was pleasantly surprised to see him back and smiled warmly as she glanced up from her work. Her feelings of mutal attraction were becoming stronger with each passing shift, a welcomed diversion from her lacking marriage. The more Tamara was around the former Sailor, the more she wanted to be with him and that scandalous secret truth scared her.

"Seeing how you never take a day off, I don't see a problem." Tamara methodically cut a batch of carrots while studying his face. "Anything wrong?"

"Na," he replied with a shrug. "Just gotta go back East." He walked past her and stood in the window overlooking the delivery area behind the diner. "Beckwith died," he added, almost as an afterthought.

"Who's Beckwith?"

"A kid I grew up with."

"I'm sorry."

"Me too." He sighed with resignation and stepped to her side, watching her dice the carrots. He liked the smell of her as he stood close. When she was finished cutting, he slid the orange vegetables into the bowl with the rest of the salad.

"I have to go," he offered with confused uncertainty, not sure if he believed what he was saying. "It's been thirty years."

She sensed his apprehension and gave him a spontaneous hug. "You'll be fine. It'll be okay." She smiled and he wished he could melt in her arms.

Braft squeezed her and she let him hold her longer than etiquette would allow. Finally, she slowly broke from the embrace and returned to the salad preparation. Braft stepped toward the door.

"You are coming back, aren't you Bobby?" She was embarrassed to ask the question. "We'd miss you if you didn't come back," she awkwardly added.

"I'm coming back," he assured her. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Sailors ship out all the time."

"My sea days are over."

"Good." She smiled nervously. "See you when you get back."

He nodded, but couldn't bring himself to leave and lagged in the doorway like a dog waiting for scraps as he watched her finish the salad. She was beautiful and he loved being with her.

Tamara smiled as though reading his thoughts and he returned her smile before reluctantly returning to his pathetically lonely bungalow. That night, he dreamed he was on an aircraft carrier floating down the main street of Hillsboro with Tamara on his arm.

Braft was surprised to see Tamara's car parked in his driveway when he came out of the bungalow the following morning with a traveling bag in his hand. The day was foggy and dreary, appropriate weather for a farewell. He felt like he was deploying on a seven month Navy cruise and Tamara was his girl standing on the pier seeing him off! She got out of the car and stepped toward him.

"Round trip!" He waved his online ticket printout for her to see.

"That's good." She laughed anxiously.

"Why are you here?" He was happy but confused to see his dream standing in his driveway.

She shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted. "To thank you, I guess."

She didn't mean to sound like some love struck teenager and he was flattered that she cared enough to see him off.

"Man, you really like your cook, don't you!?" He gave her a spontaneous hug.

She squeezed him tightly. "Yes."

She broke their embrace and took his hand in hers. There was something different this time and that scared both of them. Sensing his uneasiness, she dropped his hand and stepped back. "I just wanted to say goodbye, in case."

He gestured toward the dumpy rented bungalow. "Why would I want to leave all this?"

"Why would you want to come back to a married woman, Bobby?"

There was a lump in his throat. "Because I'm her knight in shining armor."

"Yeah." She waved sheepishly and started for her car, but he grabbed her by the arm, pulled her close and did something he had been fantasizing about for months – he kissed her.

She smiled when their lips parted, then slipped into the car. He watched as the car vanished into the fog, feeling his stomach flip faster than the hotcakes on the Roadhouse grill.

He would be back. What could possibly keep him in Hillsboro knowing Tamara was waiting for him at the Roadside?

Chapter 2

He thought about Tamara during the flight east. He was englightened and encouraged by the intense moment of intimacy in the driveway, but he couldn't shake the image of Ben from his mind.

The plane touched down at Bradley Airport outside of Hartford, an airport he hadn't been in since the day he flew from it to begin his Navy career nearly thirty years earlier. The airport was noticably different from the last time he had been there.

He rented a car and drove north on the interstate as the familiarity of the area returned with each passing landmark and road sign announcing the recognizable names of area towns. He was traveling through a time warp and the knot in his stomach tightened as he neared his forgotten hometown. He had run about as far as he could go from his childhood but he had never really escaped because Hillsboro had always been a part of him no matter how hard he tried to deny it.

He exited the interstate at an earlier than necessary ramp and traveled the secondary route to Hillsboro. His heart leaped in his chest as the car passed recognizable roadside attractions. He was entering a back-to-the future timeline that was taking him along the memory lane of his youth. Some of the businesses along the state road had changed hands and names and others were gone, replaced by parking lots, houses or new buildings, but the images of what once was remained in his mind. It was like watching an old home movie play out before his eyes:

The rented Buick crossed the familiar Blue County Bridge spanning the Blue River and the missing native son found him self driving along Hillsboro's Main Street for the first time in four decades.

There had always been a Norman Rockwell appeal to the picturesque downtown of Hillsboro with its church steeples, factory smoke stacks, and the blue water of the aptly named Blue River running behind the downtown. Hillsboro was the type of town seen in old Andy Hardy movies.

Braft recalled writing a report on the sleepy town in junior high school social studies. The middle and upper class-homes of the Hilltop district above the downtown were built during the area's rapid growth in the later 1800s, illustrating the wealth and prosperity new opportunities Hillsboro offered during the start of the industrial revolution. The Hilltop neighborhood was developed by the upper class – those who owned, managed and flourished from the banks, stores, railroads and factories below. The town emerged as a transportation and manufacturing hub, and the Hilltop section featured elaborate Victorian houses originally occupied by industrialists and other upper class residents. The downtown area was where the tenements and apartment buildings were built to house the lower class workers.

Hillsboro prospered as the Blue River brought shipping, logging and railroad business northward. Blue County became one of the major shipment points for coal, lumber, cement and locally quarried stone while factories and sawmills were built along the banks of the river to take advantage of the water.

Braft's palms were sweaty and he was having trouble breathing as he drove along Hillsboro's main drag. He was struck by his ability to name every business that occupied the main street when he was a kid, but he still felt like an alien. He passed the familiar Pizza House and Hill's Barbershop before pulling to the curb across from Johnny C's café, which looked exactly as he remembered it in high school.

Braft was an Invisible Man as he stood on the sidewalk and stared at the diner that had been such an important part of his life growing up. People passed him without a second look and he had to fight the urge to ask, "Don't you know who I am?"

Chapter 3

(Then)

Young Birdy Braft was a well adjusted and contented child with a supportive stay-at-home mom and an attentive policeman dad who was always there for him. His early years were carefree and fun. Birdy met Andy Beckwith on the first day of kindergarten when his mother left him alone in the classroom, sitting at a small rectangular wooden table not knowing a soul. A grinning kid with a Moe Howard haircut took a seat across from him.

"Why did the skunk cross the road?" the kid asked.

"I don't know," Birdy muttered, feeling shy and insecure.

"To smell on the other side!" The kid burst out in a roar of self-satisfied laughter, and the two young boys became instant friends.

Andy Beckwith's goal in life was to make other people laugh and he did a good job keeping his friends doubled over in hysterics during those glory years. .Birdy made other friends in addition to the stand up comic Beckwith. Cynical Boone Reynolds, athletic Joe Bonds, and friendly Duston McQuinn were kids from the neighborhood who became his inner circle of pals. Heartwarming Cassie Emerson, a cute girl with long brown hair, fancied his attention and Birdy enjoyed being friendly with the prettiest girl in the class.

Young Birdy brought home good report cards and the assessments by his teachers were encouraging and complimentary. "Birdy is a joy to have in the class". "A helpful classmate to others". "Sociable, friendly and considerate." "A boy of valued principle and ethical strength." "A delight in all regards." "A young man with an unlimited future."

The boy's home life was unabashedly happy. Dinner was always on the table at six. Sundays was family ride day when Birdy's Dad would "get lost on purpose" and take the family on adventures all over New England. The family spent a week every August vacationing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Birdy loved his parents and enjoyed teasing his older sister Darlene, who could dish it right back but always with an understood level of affection and good natured playfulness.

Birdy Braft was an easy going and well adjusted eight year old third grader and it never occurred to him that his protective bubble could ever be shattered. But that perfect world changed in the flash of an out of control automobile and Birdy's happy life turned into an endless nightmare of pain and bitterness from the moment his father died.

The town cop was run over by a drunk driver while helping a young woman get her stuck car out of a snow bank during a New Year's Eve snowstorm. Eight-year old Birdy was awakened from a sound sleep that tragic snowy night by the sounds of voices in the living room. He stumbled from his room to find dozens of people in the house. Neighbors. Cops. The Mayor. A minister.

"There's been an accident," Joe Bonds' father told the confused Birdy, placing his hand on the boy's shoulder. The painful episode became a nightmarish fog for years and he never forgot that frightful night of horror.

"You're going to have to be the man of the family now," said an older cop who smelled like kielbasa.

Onlookers cleared a path for the boy dressed in fireman pajamas and he spotted his crying eleven year old sister Darlene sitting on the couch, clinging to her teddy bear.

"Daddy's dead," she wailed when she saw her baffled little brother among the sea of strangers.

That's when Birdy Braft's disconnected life began. He underwent an out of body experience the moment his sister uttered those cruelly horrendous words and the person he had been ceased to exist, forever changed by the unfathomable loss of his beloved father

The change in Birdy's mother was equally pronounced. She dealt with her husband's death by acting as if she hadn't known him. She never talked about him after he was put in the ground, behaving as if he had run off with another woman instead of getting his brains knocked out of his skull out on Route 36.

The Police Force was good to her – cops always take care of a fellow cop's widow - but Mrs. Braft ignored their efforts and could be down right rude and nasty when she wanted to be.

The widow returned to the workforce she left when she married Bill Braft, focusing on her career while basically abandoning her surviving family by pursuing a college degree at night and on weekends which meant she was never home. Supper rarely appeared on the table and the loving motherly support Birdy had enjoyed for the first eight years of his life vanished almost as if his mother had died too.

Birdy's sister Darlene did not escape damage either, becoming obsessed with trying to be popular and accepted by her peer group and, especially boys, as a substitute for her absent father. Darlene stopped paying attention to her kid brother because she was trying to survive herself and their relationship became distantly removed.

Alone and abandoned during those dark years of loss, a crushed Birdy became angry at the world. He was pissed at his father for dying and quit on God for killing his old man. He became disgusted with his mom for putting her career ahead of her family and gave up on his self-absorbed sister who was unable to think about anybody but herself.

The Police adopted the lost kid as their mascot and looked out for him as best they could. Officer Mike Kelly was ten years younger than Bill Braft, but considered the late cop his mentor and friend. Kelly, a burly Irish cop with red hair and a face full of freckles, took Bill Braft's boy under his wing. Birdy appreciated Mike's interest and concern but he gave the cop a hard time and took his anger out on those around him.

Birdy was unable to get beyond the "Why Me?" pity of his father's death and turned his internal victimization into an external campaign of hate and rage. He was a lost kid who took his frustrations out on others in a perverse 'I'll show you' mentality meant to deflect his own hurt and loss.

Unsuspecting innocents caught The Birdman's wrath of bullying behavior and a gruff in-your-face attitude. When he wasn't picking on, beating up or insulting some hapless victim, Birdy was expressing his displeasure at life by taking it out on the community: breaking windows, egging cars, smashing pumpkins, stealing money, shoplifting, and performing other localized terrorist attacks. He had his own seat in the principal's office and became the least popular kid in school, a trouble-making screwed up little shit everybody avoided.

Amazingly, Mrs. Braft never took her son's downward spiral seriously. "He's a good kid," she'd tell an exasperated teacher, frustrated principal, upset parent, or annoyed cop. "He just does bad things." And then she'd be off to her next business meeting.

Birdy could burn down the house and get away with it because his mother was to busy with her career to invest her time and energy in the welfare of her wayward son. She was oblivious to his acting out behaviors and cries for help. The kid knew the cops would cover up his criminal behavior which gave him the added freedom to be a bastard.

It was Mike Kelly and the Hillsboro cops who kept young Birdy out of juvenile court and that protection allowed the youngster to become the town's most notorious juvenile delinquent. He successfully alienated his friends and classmates with his aberrantly and mean behavior. Few classmates were willing to hang out with a creep who wrecked snowmen, knocked kids off their bicycles, threatened others for their lunch money, and went out of his way to scare, intimidate and pick on anybody who had the misfortune of crossing his path.

The bully deservingly earned the reputation as school hellion. His total fall from grace came the day he meanly made Cassie Emerson cry during school lunch and the prettiest girl in Hillsboro refused to have anything to do with the evil brat from then on.

Joe Bonds was one of the few kids who didn't give up on his friend's lost soul. Known around the neighborhood as "Joe Jock" because of his outstanding athlete talent and his love for sports, Joe was an intense competitor who would run over his own grandmother if it meant scoring a touchdown. Cool and popular, Joe was among the first guys in the neighborhood to grow his hair long.

The Jock would stop by his pal's house to say hi, even during the worse of times. Sometimes, in a vulnerable moment, Birdy might hang out with his friend and they'd toss the football around the backyard, but most times the moody Birdy would tell his friend to go fuck himself, treat him like shit, and act like the biggest asshole possible. Joe never quit on his fatherless friend and faithfully returned to try again, refusing to give up on Birdy Braft even when Birdy had given up on him self.

Beckwith was the other friend who remembered Birdy the way he was before the devil took possession: a level-headed, sensitive and happy kid who laughed at all his jokes and antics. Beck didn't let his friend's crappy behavior kill his act!

The humorous and comical Beck was popular and well liked because of his comedic talents, but Birdy didn't find anything funny anymore and went out of his way to mistreat his funny friend. Birdy's angry tirates never seemed to work because Beck continued to practice his material on Birdy no matter how many times The Birdman insulted him.

Sports was about the only thing Birdy stayed involved in during his lost years, although as time went on he had less opportunity to participate because of his unacceptable behavior. He got kicked off the Pop Warner football team in fifth grade for dirty play and inappropriate behavior and never played football again (mostly out of spite).

Birdy couldn't bring himself to play baseball because that had been the sport of his father. Every day after work, Bill Braft would take his young son to the backyard to play catch. He helped the boy practice hitting the ball too. The elder Braft loved baseball and Birdy was fascinated by his father's excited voice when he told stories about his exploits on the sandlots growing up. The two watched the Red Sox together on television and young Birdy came to love baseball because his father loved the game. His Dad promised to take the boy to Fenway Park, but they never made the trip.

One of the few photographs Birdy had of his father (other than his cop portrait in dress uniform) was taken at one of Birdy's little league games. His dad looks like a kid him self in the team uniform with his blond bangs sticking out from under his baseball cap, his eyes dancing with joy, his mouth smiling warmly at the camera like he's posing for a baseball card. Birdy played one year of little league ball with his father acting as an assistant coach, but the bitter boy never picked up a baseball again after his father died.

The only sport Birdy had even a remote interest in was basketball, mostly because it was Beckwith's favorite sport and Andy forced his friend to play in pick up games.

Birdy struggled to control his anger and aggressiveness when he played BB, especially after he nearly decapitated Josh Lenski in one back yard game, but he eventually learned to harness and channel his emotions into his game. With Beck as his tutor, The Birdman became a pretty good basketball player, although part of the reason he excelled was because his opponents were aware of his reputation and were afraid to challenge him on the court.

Birdy didn't have an epiphany from his experience with basketball and he didn't undergo a personality transplant because of his athletic success. He remained an asshole who went out of his way to cause trouble, but basketball had planted important seeds that, if watered properly, might bloom in the future.

Chapter 4

It was the ongoing encouragement and urgings of Jock Bonds and Andy Beckwith that got their moody pal to commit to a formal hoops tryout, if Birdy could just stay out of trouble and avoid detention and suspension long enough to make it to seventh grade basketball tryouts.

Birdy's tarnished reputation preceded him to junior high school. Other tough guys challenged the newcomer from Day One, convinced they could take him out. Many tried, few succeeded. Birdy never met a jerk he wouldn't confront and he soon became a regular visitor to Principal Barnett's Office.

The kids called Barnett 'The Warden' behind his back, a miserable man with a frown permanently painted on his face. The Warden hated his job and it didn't take Birdy long to figure out that The Warden hated him too. It was obvious The Warden didn't give a shit about the trouble maker and would be happy to kick the kid out the front door on his ass never to return. Birdy enjoyed the challenge of walking that tight rope knowing The Warden was itching to get rid of him and most of Birdy's junior high classmates were taking bets on how long it would take before Braft was expelled and sent off to reform school.

Birdy's interest in basketball intensified when it was announced that a celebrity was the new junior high basketball coach. Every kid in town hoped the new basketball hero coach would be their ticket to stardom.

Michael Francis Prelog was the greatest athlete Hillsboro High School ever produced – a three-sport superstar who won a basketball scholarship to Boston College where he excelled as a collegiate star playing for Boston Celtic legend Bob Cousey while earning his degree in sports education. Known as "The Panther", Prelog was good enough to be drafted into the NBA by the Milwaukee Bucks, for whom he played until a devastating injury ended his dreams for a storybook life.

The would-be all-star bounced around the European league and then tried to hold on in the Contential Basketball Association, praying for a second chance at the big time. The opportunity never came and The Panther finally gave up on his dream, convinced by his wife to return home and get on with his life.

Coaching junior high basketball and teaching gym was not what The Panther envisioned after experiencing the glory of his times. Coach Prelog figured he'd earn his stripes for a year or two with the snot nosed junior high losers then move on to the high school level, which would enable him to grab the necessary spotlight and press coverage that would lead to a possible college assignment.

The new coach had no investment in his first job as Hillsboro's junior high basketball leader and he certainly didn't give a shit about the little worms suiting up for him. He had once played with the greatest players in the world and Hillsboro Junior High was about as removed as The Panther could get from that experience. Naturally, he hated every moment he was on the job.

Most of Hillsboro was unaware of Mike Prelog's true feelings. They saw The Panther as an adored celebrity who could do no wrong returning to his hometown alma mater.

"That guy played basketball with the Gods," Birdy's awe-struck seventh grade classmate Tag Hendrix professed. "Jesus could never get off the bench if he played with The Panther!"

Hendrix was the school's gross out artist, but he was pretty good with the basketball and most overlooked the fact that he never bathed, constantly picked his nose in public, considered farting an art, and allegedly took pisses in the boy's communal shower. Tag wasn't exactly the most popular kid in his class thanks to his disgusting habits and cesspool sense of humor, but the basketball players accepted him mostly because of his jumpshot.

Having a famous new coach was the best thing to happen to Hillsboro in years and most townsfolk were naively unaware that Coach Prelog was a pompous, conceited, self-absorbed sadist who never should have been allowed around kids in the first place. The players were so impressed and motivated to have a chance to play for the God-Like Panther that they didn't stop to consider the possibility that the guy might be an asshole. Instead, the hero worshippers assumed the new Coach would be an icon worthy of their glory. After all, they were playing for a pro! .

The players gathered in the gym and waited with anticipated excitement to meet their new coach at the first tryout. The Panther introduced himself to his new junior high team by throwing a metal trashcan from the stands onto the gym floor. His projectile barely missed a couple of mingling players and smashed against the brick wall like an exploding bomb. The shocked players looked into the stands to see the Coach standing with his hands on his hips as if he was Superman.

"Gentlemen," he said. "I'm in charge."

The junior high players practically knelt in hero reverence on that first day, thrilled to be coached by a guy who played basketball in the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden. How could they not idolize him? They were glorified just to be in his presence.

The Panther existed in a perpetual NBA uniform in the eyes of his scribes. He came out of central casting for the All American Boy, complete with perfect hair, straight white teeth, and a Gentleman's Quarterly wardrobe worn in impeccable style. He even looked perfect wearing a pair of sweats!

Birdy was determined to become a part of The Panther's world knowing that Prelog's presence would give the outsider a purpose as a student athlete at Hillsboro Junior High School. With Prelog as Coach, The Birdman finally had something to focus on besides being the jerk of the school.

Unfortunately, Birdy nearly self destructed during the very first tryout when he laughed at goofy Spiffy Clark who tripped all over himself in his brief audition.

"What makes you think you're any better than him, dickhead?" The disgusted Coach challenged the chuckling Birdy.

The others stared at Braft who had been called out by the Coach and exposed as the smart assed jerk everybody knew him to be. The players realized The Panther was daring Braft to question his authority. The street-wise Birdy knew better than to defy The Panther and, for the first time in his career as King Asshole, Birdy Braft said nothing in reply.

"That's what I thought." The Panther looked at the humiliated Birdy with disgust "You're just a pussy with a big mouth."

That's how Birdy Braft's basketball career began – being placed on the new coach's shit list from day one and that's when The Birdman figured out that The Panther was bad news. It takes a jerk to know a jerk and Birdy quickly came to see that the walk on water Panther was one of the biggest jerks ever.

The Bird Man didn't bother trying to convince his awe-struck teammates of their new coach's character flaws. They'd figure it out for themselves. And he never told anybody how, on the second day of tryouts, The Panther threw him into the Equipment Closet after the wise-ass Birdy had been a bit too flippant on the court for The Coach's liking.

"Listen, Punk," the Coach growled, pinning Birdy against the wall amongst the smelly old practice uniforms. "Do it my way or I'll break your dick off." There was a rage in the coach's face that paralyzed the player. "Without me, you're just another loser," an enraged Prelog told him. "Remember that, scumbag."

The intensity of the coach's anger scared the hell out of the kid. Birdy thought Prelog was going to punch his lights out, but the sadistic coach tossed him into a pile of soiled towels instead and left the room with a disturbingly evil laugh.

As bad as that incident was, at least Birdy didn't get railroaded off the team like Eddie Frazier. Eddie was a bowling ball of a kid who loved basketball, but he was 5'3" and 175 pounds as a 7th Grader. Poor Eddie wasn't The Panther's idea of a player, so Prelog humiliated the good-natured Eddie during tryouts, turning Ed's love for the game into resentful bitterness. The coach ran the pudgy kid until he collapsed in his own vomit and Eddie never returned to the basketball court or talked about the sport again.

The Panther let the players know that Birdy Braft was a worthless piece of shit, but the bastard put Braft on the team anyway because he needed good players that would make him look good and get him the high school gig as soon as possible.

Braft knew he was in the coach's doghouse but he was desperately determined to prove to The Panther that he could cut the mustard. Birdy was finally somebody important – a basketball player – instead of the troublemaking bad boy everybody knew him to be.

Even though the coach despised him and the accidential player had his doubts about The Panther, Braft was indebted to Prelog for putting him on the team. He liked the status and privileges that came with being in The Panther's Pack, even if he was on the outs with the leader. Basketball filled the void Birdy felt for years and he now got to take his pain, anger, frustration and revenge out on the opposition. He was a physical player and The Panther encouraged him to be an asshole on the court. Birdy wasn't the most talented kid on the team, but he was driven not to fail, not to disappoint, and not to be returned to the void. He never wanted The Panther to question his manhood again.

With The Panther as coach, The Hillsboro Junior High School basketball program suddenly hit the big time and those who played for The Panther willingly followed him into every battle. The players became popular simply because they walked in the shadow of The Panther's legacy. The wide-eyed players loved hearing the Coach's stories about his life in the pros. Most of the young players dreamed that someday one of them would be as lucky as The Panther and make it to the Big Show and that's why they tolerated his abuse.

Choirboy Bink Baxter, the small but speedy guard, was the only seventh grader to crack the starting line up regularly. Nice guy Duston McQuinn, Disgusto Tag Hendrix, saracastic and oversexed Boone Reynolds, comedic Andy Beckwith, and good guy Phil Golinski were the other 7th graders good enough to make Prelog's cut with Braft. They watched the eighth graders play – guys like Dan Bailey, Torch Johnson, Mollie McAdams, Billy Aldrich, Cade Simpson and Doug Phelps.

Confident Dan Bailey had smooth hands. Gritty Torch Johnson was fearless under the basket. Moody Mollie McAdams was a tree in the middle. Tough guy Billy Aldrich was all about attitude. Heart throb Cade Simpson had style. Personable Doug Phelps could dribble the ball better than anybody in the league.

Birdy liked being with these guys – the team was the closest thing he had to a family and he finally felt like he belonged. The basketball team finished 10-6 in The Panther's debut season, the best record in collective memory. The Coach used vulgarity, humiliation, scare tactics, and a fear-of-God presence to get his team to perform but they won and that's all that mattered. Like the others, Birdy tolerated the abuse. Basketball had given him an outlet and kids actually accepted him as a Panther. For the first time in years, Birdy Braft felt normal and accepted.

Birdy continued to make strides in his popularity as he progressed into eighth grade, reinventing and re-establishing himself thanks to his basketball connection. He still caused trouble and life at home remained lonely, but The Birdman was accepted by his peers because of his basketball status. He didn't feel the urge to lash out as much and he valued and admired his teammates, dedicating himself to earning their trust.

With his confidence strong and self-image improved, Birdy Braft was feeling better about life. Teachers were more trusting of the student and The Warden found fewer reasons and opportunities to hassle the kid.

Birdy bided his time until basketball season began, eager to show The Panther that he was worthy of the coach's consideration, even if Prelog treated him like dogshit.

Eighth grade was time in the sun for Birdy and his teammates. Bink, Duston, Tag, Boone and Andy were the starters, with Birdy and Phil coming off the bench, joined by the new seventh graders: Barry Schwink, Donny Garvin, Moondog Currie, Clark Fitzgerald and Birdy's neighborhood pal Joe Jock Bonds.

Bink was the best of the group, a flashy player with speed and great ball control. The others deferred to Bink because of his talent and the special treatment Coach Prelog shined upon him. Everybody's best friend Duston was all work and poise. Tag The Fart King was a stick in the middle, but he refused to take anything too seriously, including The Panther. Bold Boone was the biggest guy on the team and his long wavy hair gave him a Sir Galavant persona. Andy was Bink's bookend as the other Guard, always the Team Comedian. It was Beck who had the knack to break a tense moment with a sarcastic one liner. Phil wasn't flashy but he was dependable and loyal. Birdy was the fearless enforcer – the first player to take on an opponent with an elbow or glare.

As for the new guys, burly Barry Schwink was a linebacker who could score from 30 feet out. Cocky Donny Garvin was tough, lighthearted Moondog Currie was quick, golden boy Clark Fitzgerald was smooth, and talented Joe Jock was the showboat guy who had everything come easy for him.

That team finished 14-2 and The Panther was a Baketball God around town. Because they won, the players forgot about the grueling practices when the Coach was borderline physically violent, verbally inappropriate, and emotionally terrorizing. Nobody was going to question the celebrity Coach's ethics and he had a free pass to conduct his practices as he saw fit. Prelog's team won because the players were afraid of what would happen if they lost. They remained silent about the true Panther, fearful that they would lose the prestige that came with playing for the famous personality if they spoke of his sins.

There were rumors about The Panther away from the basketball court, the sort of undercurrent gossip exchanged between kids but kept from adults. Katie McPeherson said Prelog always looked at her like she had no clothes on. George Kessler complained that the Panther gave the good looking girls special treatment in study hall and in the lunch room. Barb Johnson said Prelog once stroked her leg underneath a cafeteria table. Players revealed bits and pieces of the abuse they received to other kids. None of that scuttlebutt seemed to damage The Panther's overall reputation as a school guru, however.

Birdy didn't care about Prelog's indescresions because own life was beginning to make sense. He had happily found his place in his peer group and he was staying out of trouble, although he was still prone to smart-ass remarks or inappropriate behavior at any given moment. He dated Bobby Jo Sund, a tough girl who once beat the shit out of Jimmy Hicks in seventh grade after he made the mistake of calling her a lesbo. Bobby Jo smoked, swore, and farted. She didn't own a dress and always wore cowboy boots and a black leather motorcycle jacket. Most of the junior high was afraid of her.

Bobbi Jo was the first girl Birdy Braft kissed. And felt up. Not necessarily in that order.

Chapter 5

A few weeks after eighth grade basketball season ended, Birdy's journalism class was asked to solicit ads for the school's gala spring literary edition. The students were given permission to leave school to visit local businesses and make the sale's pitch.

The first time out, Andy Beckwith and Birdy sold about 10 ads. Actually, Beck sold them - all Braft had to do was listen as Andy told the business owners how great the school was, tell Panther stories, and crack some funny jokes.

Birdy's second time out was with Bryanna Gleason, a shy and quiet new kid who didn't talk much. Bryanna's teeth were barbed with braces, her wire rimmed glasses were tinted purple, and she wore her hair Twiggy short, but she was cute in a odd way. Still, Birdy was bored by the prospect of walking the streets with the silent girl and told her they'd be better off splitting up to cover more territory. He sent her on her way, saying they'd meet up at the drugstore at 2:15 and snuck home to kill an hour or two in front of the tube.

He noticed Darlene's car in the garage when he arrived, but she often drove to school with her friend Trixie Rogers and Birdy didn't think much of it, even when he saw beer cans on the counter and a couple of reefer roaches in an ashtray when he stepped into the kitchen. Music was coming from Darlene's bedroom and he assumed she was skipping school too, obviously as devious and corrupt as her kid brother!

Birdy was a 14 year-old eighth grader who thought he knew everything there was to know about life, but on this day he was dumber than a donkey. He didn't stop to consider the muffled moaning coming from Darlene's bedroom and it never occurred to him that Darlene might have brought some guy home for some action. He was clueless when he opened her bedroom door without knocking.

They were both naked on the bed, with Darlene mounted atop the Panther. Birdy couldn't comprehend his thirty-something year old married coach doing his seventeen-year old sister in the Braft house! He was to dumbstruck to react and stood frozen in the doorway with his jaw dropped like some peeping tom pervert.

"Leave, and close the door behind you," the surprisingly calm Panther ordered with gritted teeth when he saw the intruder in the doorway.

Birdy burst out laughing at the absurdity of what he was seeing. It was too unbelievable to comprehend, so the boy decided to adapt Andy Beckwick's philosophy of life: when in doubt, go with humor.

"Since you're fucking my sister, how 'bout I go fuck your wife?"

Birdy had no idea where those words came from or why he said them. Maybe it was the locker room trash talking he was exposed to at school. Boone Reynolds among others had commented on the good looking Mrs. Prelog, once claiming to have looked down her blouse from the bleachers during a practice. He said she had nipples the size of nickels.

Prelog's demeanor changed in an instant. He flipped Darlene off the bed like a rag doll and was on Birdy in a flash. Red faced with psychotic eyes, he punched the unsuspecting kid square in the face in machine gun fashion sending him sprawling back into Darlene's dresser. The boy was dazed and felt as though he was falling through outer space. Another blow struck his stomach and then an arm was wrapped around his neck, crushing his windpipe. Through his blurry haze, Birdy saw the rage in Prelog's face and he knew the coach wasn't going to let up until he had choked the life out of him.

The nude Darlene picked herself off the floor and leaped on the back of her naked lover.

"Stop! You'll kill him!" She screamed.

Prelog flipped the girl off him like a professional wrestler. She crashed onto her make up table and tumbled to the floor in a heap, but her intervention brought The Panther out of his homicidal trance and he released Birdy's neck from his death grasp. The boy slumped to the floor grasping for breath.

The Panther calmly dressed as though he was about to go on a Sunday drive, ignoring his victims who were both moaning on the floor.

"Losers," he announced with a sadistic laugh when he was done, giving Birdy one more kick to the gut before stepping over the kid's curled body "The Loser Brafts!" The Coach snickered as he left the room.

Birdy gasped for his lost breath as he crawled to his whimpering sister.

"Just leave me alone," she muttered with defeated surrender.

He dragged a quilt off the bed and covered her where she lay on the floor. He managed to stand and staggered from the room, closing the door behind him. He limped into the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. His nose was bleeding, a welt was rising under his eye, and a bruise was already forming around the socket. He spit blood and part of a tooth into the sink. He puked into the toilet and spat more blood from his mouth.

Once his head stopped spinning like a clothes dryer, Birdy dazedly found his balance and retreated into his bedroom with wet towels to nurse his wounds. He heard a crying Darlene shuffle into the bathroom. She took a long shower while he layed on his bed sponging the blood from the cuts on his face.

Darlene eventually opened the door to his room and gave him a hateful glare. "None of this ever happened," she warned him. "Not a word about any of it."

"What would I say?" He mumbled through the bloody towel he held to his face.

"I'm spending the weekend at Trixie's," she announced. "I can't be in the same house with you."

She slammed the door and stormed out of the house, leaving her brother behind to fend for himself.

He drifted in and out of sleep until the ringing of the front doorbell got him off the bed. He glanced at the clock on the living room wall and saw that it was nearly 3:30 in the afternoon.

Birdy opend the door and was surprised to see Bryanna Gleason standing with Officer Mike at the front door. She was equally as surprised to see him cluching a blood soaked towel to his face.

"Oh my God! What happened?" It was the loudest Birdy had ever heard the quiet girl speak.

"Nothing," Birdy muttered.

"Jesus Christ, Birdy," the exasperated cop said. "What did you get yourself into this time?"

"Nothing," he muttered again. "What are you two doing here?"

"You never showed at the drug store. Or back at school," Bryanna explained. "I got worried."

Mike stepped into the doorway, took Birdy by the arm and led him into the living room, forcing him down on the couch.

"You hurt bad?" the cop wanted to know.

"Not bad enough," Birdy replied.

The cop examined Birdy's face while Bryanna got fresh towels and some warm water. She sat next to him on the couch and took sympathetic pity on him as she tended to his wounds.

"What happened?" the cop demanded.

"A basketball hit me in the face," Birdy lied.

"Twenty-seven times?" the sarcastic cop wanted to know. "Where's your mother?"

"Convention in Saint Louis."

Officer Kelley did a thorough examination of the boy and wouldn't leave until he was convinced the kid was going to be okay. "I don't think anything's busted," he said. "You're going to be mighty sore, though."

Bryanna left some soup on the stove and Mike helped Birdy back to his bed. "Get some rest, kid." The cop ordered. "Sleep it off."

The sun was shining through the window when Birdy awoke in the morning. He slowly and cautiously walked to the bathroom and stared into the mirror. He face resembled a piece of rotted fruit - black, yellow and red, and his top lip looked like somebody had inflated it with a bicycle pump. A bruised ringed his neck like a piece of jewelry and his ribs were black and blue.

Officer Mike burst into the house dressed in civilian clothes a few hours later to find Birdy sulking on the living room couch.

"You gonna tell me what happened?" The cop asked, taking an authorative seat in one of the chairs.

"It was an accident."

Officer Mike gave him the death stare, waiting for the kid to volunteer more information.

"I know whatever I say, you'll say 'Do the right thing'," Birdy complained. "Well, in this case there is no right thing."

"Then you do the best thing," Mike instructed.

Birdy rolled his eyes, knowing Mike lived in an idealistic world.

"I'm a cop for christsakes," Mike barked. "Let me help you."

"It was an accident." A stubborn Birdy was sticking to his story.

"You're really going with that?"

"I'm just a kid," Birdy reasoned, beaten by the beating.

"Courage can come at any age."

"It was an accident," a withdrawn Birdy said one more time. "No report necessary."

"Suit yourself." The cop stood and headed for the front door. "Let me know if you change your mind."

Birdy spent the rest of the weekend hidingin the house and feeling sorry for him self. News Flash: Coach Prelog wasn't a Choir Boy Angel of Mercy sent to save Birdy Braft and his teammates. Instead, he was a sleaze-ball sadist capable of only God knew what. Birdy thought back on his two years of junior high basketball with The Panther. The team won for Coach Prelog by playing as an inspired and motivated group dedicated to the coach, mostly because they were afraid of him. The Panther was all about image. He was an egomaniac interested in his own advancement and didn't care about his players' success. The Panther was an "I" guy who endlessly talked about himself and his exploits as a pro basketball player, but rarely spoke about the talents of his own players. He was a user and – worse of all – he had used Darlene.

Birdy knew he couldn't scandalize his sister. Besides, Prelog was a God around town – who would believe the loser Brafts? The youngster hadn't felt this powerless since his father died. He became hatefully angry after that New Year's night, but now he was miserably defeated by Prelog's betrayal and felt nothing but numbness.

He was seated at the kitchen table when Darlene came home from Trixie's on Sunday evening. She gave her brother a cold, vengeful, soulless glare of contempt, disgust, betrayal, shame, hurt, anger, and indignation all rolled into one powerful stare that sent shivers down his spine. He had permanently ruined their relationship by wrecking her fantasy life.

"I'll never forgive you for this," she vowed in an emotionally flat, frost-filled tone. "You ruined everything."

"Me?!? Don't you mean him?"

"He didn't do anything wrong." She walked past him and out of his life forever.

Birdy told his mother he got hit in the face with a basketball and she believed the explanation without asking any questions, mostly because she didn't want to know the truth.

Birdy was the talk of the school when he showed up with a bruised face, black eye and fat lip. Most kids were happy to see him put in his place, believing the tough guy Birdy Braft had finally been taken out by someone tougher, meaner and stronger. Most assumed it was some high school kid who pounded the snot out of the 8th grader. His basketball teammates were supportive in their own perverse way, good naturedly razzing Birdy as a wimp and pansy.

"Hey, next time, duck Birdman!" Andy Beckwith advised, doing his Howard Cosell impersonation followed by his infectious laugh and Birdy couldn't help but smile at the absurdity of it all.

"Maybe this will finally shut you up," a sneering Cassie Emerson told him in third period study hall and her hatred reminded him of how much he had lost in his life. She had always been the perfect girl with the perfect looks from the perfect family and he missed the days when they were friends. He had turned on her just like he had turned on everyone else, purposely going out of his way to be mean and cruel to the one girl he loved, treating her like shit just like he did everybody else through his miserable years. He had been inexcusably cruel toward the girl, unfairly taking his anger, resentment and jealousy out on her. He made fun of her appearance, her personality, and her family

He called her Chicken Legs.

He said all she needed for a bra was a pair of band-aids.

He said not even a Frog would want to kiss her.

He said she wore her hair long to cover the hair on her back.

He said she didn't have acne on her face because it was all on her ass.

He said the only guy who liked her was her father.

He said her name should be Gassie, not Cassie, because she cut farts all the time.

He was a mean and miserable little bastard who unfairly inflicted the pain he was feeling onto innocent Cassie just to make her feel as bad as he did and she had refused to have anything to do with him since fourth grade. For that, he deserved a punch in the face.

But he still adored Cassie Emerson. He followed her around school just to look at her. He loved her long brown hair that she wore down to her ass and he thought about her everyday.

Birdy sat bruised and beaten in the study hall auditorium with Beck and Bonds pondering how screwed up his life had become. He was traumatized, defeated and lonely living with the Prelog secret.

"Sorry I was such a shit all that time," he confessed to his two friends.

"We didn't kill your father," Beckwith replied, using his Marlon Brando impersonation this time.

"Your father was a great man," Bonds added.

"Does this mean you're not going to be an asshole anymore?" asked Beck, using his Paul Lynde voice.

"Maybe getting my face mashed will be my salvation," Birdy theorized.

Birdy knew it wasn't going to be easy picking up the pieces of his messed up life, made even worse when Bobbi Jo Sund abruptly dumped him having lost interest in a guy who got beat up.

Birdy was brave enough to take a seat next to Bryanna Gleason who was sitting by herself in the cafeteria during lunch. The new girl had heard a lot of stories about the mean-spirted boy named Braft, but she couldn't help but feel sorry for him after seeing him crumpled on his couch with blood all over his face.

"I just wanted to say thanks for helping me out," he told her.

She shrugged. "I really didn't do much."

"Just being there helped."

"You never said what happened." She was curious more than anything else.

"Yeah," he acknowledged, pondering the situation. He had been carrying the burden of Prelog and his sister around for days. "Would you tell on an adult if they did something royally wrong?"

She shrugged again. "I guess it would depend on how royally bad it was."

"Biblically bad."

She looked at him with surprise. "If it's immoral, illegal, or indefensible, I'd probably tell."

"What about the other person involved?" he wondered aloud. "Somebody you care about?"

"Innocent bystander victim or participating criminal?"

"A little bit of both, probably."

"Tough call," concluded the thoughtful Bryanna. "But you should tell."

"I can't," Birdy sighed with defeat. "I have to protect somebody."

"The only one you're protecting is the person who did that to you," Bryanna replied, gesturing toward his minced face

"I suppose."

Birdy was morose for days and people left him alone, assuming he was a hurt puppy nursing his wounds after losing a fight. He avoided Prelog for as long as he could, skipping gym class until The Warden finally hauled him into the office to warn that he wouldn't move on to high school if he didn't pass PE. His lasting image of Prelog was looking up at his nakedness from where he lay on Darlene's bedroom floor. The Panther's balls were flapping over him like a flag and he thought about that disgusting image whenever he was around the pervert, but it was an appropriate symbol because Prelog was one big prick any way.

Prelog never looked at him, never acknowledged his presence, and never spoke to him in gym class. Birdy's teammates picked up on the silent treatment, but they never figured out that Coach was the one who shredded Birdy's face. They assumed Braft had pissed off The Panther and drew solitary confinement as a punishment.

Birdy gained stature with his basketball teammates who admired him for having the guts to hang in there. The respected Birdy was finally one of them.

Officer Mike Kelly wouldn't let his ward off the hook about the incident. The cop would pull up in his cruiser and ask, "How's It Hanging, Killer?" whenever he saw Birdy on the streets of Hillsboro.

It was the Tale of Two Mikes. On one shoulder stood The Panther (Mike Prelog), school celebrity and fraud and on the other shoulder stood Officer Mike Kelly, representing ethics, morality, law, and character, a guy who was truly interested in Birdy as a person. The cop saw the world as black and white, good and bad, one and ten: a world of extremes with no middle ground. You were either right or wrong, with no in between. As much as Birdy liked the cop, he found him to be rigid and annoying in his stance. Officer Mike wanted the kid to follow his moral compass and do the right thing, but Birdy was paralyzed by such thoughts. The cop became Birdy's conscious (as if he really needed one at that point).

Birdy left school one day to find Officer Mike waiting for him in his cruiser. The cop motioned the student to the car which generated all sorts of new rumors and gossip when kids saw The Birdman getting carted off in a cop car.

"So," Mike said as they drove through the neighborhoods of Hillsboro. "It's been a few weeks. Have you changed your mind?"

"I told you it was an accident." He wished the cop would leave him alone and let this all go away, even though it would never escape his head.

"Why can't you just stand up for the truth?" a frowning Mike wanted to know.

"Too many people would be hurt," Birdy replied from the passenger's seat. He looked directly at the cop with pleading eyes. "That's the truth."

What Bryanna Gleason said haunted him. She insinuated that Birdy was protecting Prelog with his silence and that bugged the hell out of him. What if The Panther picked up some other clueless high school airhead? Who's to say Darlene was his first twit? Would Birdy's protection allow Prelog to continue with similar transgressions? Bryanna Gleason's words were weighing on his conscious as much as Officer Mike's.

It was Ice Station Zebra around the Braft house. Darlene gave her disowned brother a 'drop dead' look whenever the two were in the same room together and the siblings avoided one another like the plague. His sister was never going to forgive him and Birdy couldn't blame her. He had embarrassed and humiliated her, plus she got her heart broken all because of him.

Darlene hadn't planned on becoming involved with her brother's coach. The high school girls had been pining and sighing about the famous basketball celebrity from the moment he arrived and Darlene took advantage of her brother's position on the team to get closer to the popular coach. Her intent was to one up her gossipy high school rivals, figuring she'd be even more popular if she could brag about how The Panther talked to her.

She strategically sat near The Panther during Birdy's practices, always smiling whenever the coach looked her way. Once, she gave him lemonade and that started an informal dialogue that went on for weeks.

The Panther missed the celebrity status of being a pro basketball player. He missed the crowds and the groupies and the screaming girls. Everywhere he went as a pro, women followed. The cute high school girl seductively smiling at The Panther at junior high practice reminded him of the power he no longer enjoyed. He resented his wife for forcing him out of the game and now she was preoccupied with being a mom living the small town life that he found boring and empty. It was easy for the coach to enjoy the attention of the sexy high school girl given what he had lost and he enjoyed the flirtation that came with her interest.

Coach Prelog came into Joe's Pizza one day to order a pizza and saw that the lemonade girl worked there for gas money. There was no doubt the girl was hot for him and, a week later, Prelog called the Pizza Joint for a home delivery when the wife and kids were out of town. Darlene made the delivery at her shift's end and didn't leave The Panther's house until five hours later. They continued their trysts at the Braft house during lunch time school breaks.

"Don't you think you should tell mom?" Birdy asked his sister out of the blue one morning as he poured a glass of orange juice. Their mother, of course, had already left the house for some early meeting somewhere.

Darlene glared at him with dagger eyes. "You keep quiet," she warned angrily.

"Did you do this just to spite me?" he asked with hurt in his voice.

She laughed at his absurdity. "This had nothing to do with you."

"He's married," a disgusted Birdy reminded his morally deficient sister.

"I wasn't planning on eloping with the guy, you brainless moron," Darlene said in her justification. "I was having a good time with a famous person. He liked me. He thought I was pretty."

"You never would have come to my basketball games if it wasn't for him," Birdy protested.

"Well, duh."

Birdy felt more rejected then ever by her admission. Both his mom and his sister were missing in action from his life and he realized he hated both of them. His mother was an attractive woman and successful in her business career, but she was a terrible parent as a widow - a workaholic who found her pleasure and delight in her career but who had no time for her children. In Birdy's eyes, the Braft family no longer existed.

"Don't screw this up for him," Darlene warned, sliding the morning newspaper across the kitchen counter before leaving the room.

'PANTHER TO COACH HILLSBORO HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL' announced the headline.

Prelog accomplished the first goal in his comeback plan by being named the new high school basketball coach, having successfully lobbied the school committee, Athletic Director and various community groups for months to get the position. The Panther would replace "venerable" Coach Timberlake who would take over the JV Team to make room for The Panther's promotion.

"Well, isn't that just peachy," Birdy said with repugnance, tossing the newspaper into the trash can.

Chapter 6

Birdy Braft's life sucked. His father was dead, his mother was a casualty of her work, and his sister despised him. His basketball coach was a slime ball. Half the school thought Birdy was an asshole; the other half figured he got his ass kicked for good reason. Beautiful Cassie Emerson hated him. And he still faced the biggest decision of his life – selling out his sister, or giving a creep a free pass. Would he be able to sleep at night and look at himself in the mirror in the morning if he didn't do what Officer Mike thought he should do (the right thing)?

Mike Kelly's cruiser pulled up in front of the Braft house the morning of the Prelog announcement.

"Get in," the cop ordered, opening the passenger door.

"We have to stop meeting like this," Birdy joked as he climbed into the front seat.

"This is the last time I'm going to ask you," the cop said as they drove through the neighborhood.

"Would you rat if you were me?"

The cop thought about it. "Yes," he finally concluded. "In the end, we always have to what is truthful, honest and right. Your Dad believed that too."

Birdy was conflicted, but how could he take on a Coach who was a popular celebrity? How could he challenge a town that wanted to capitalize on The Panther's status? Prelog might be a bastard and a sadist, but he was still the best thing that happened to the Hillsboro sports scene in years and Birdy knew it was pointless to question his status. The honored coach would be seen as the victim in the ugly mess if Birdy made an issue of his character, especially given Birdy's reputation around town.

"I can't, Mike." Birdy sighed with his final resolution to the situation.

The cop nodded with disappointed understanding. "Well," he concluded. "Even though I disagree, I know that you have proven yourself to be a man of character, virtue and integrity these past couple of years," the cop told him. "Your father would be proud of you."

"That and a dime will buy me a cup of coffee."

"No," Mike corrected him with sincerity. "It buys you your soul."

The cop urged his ward not to lose heart or faith because good always beats evil in the end.

"I'm not going to go off the deep end over this, Mike," Birdy assured his mentor. "You don't have to set up a suicide watch. I got hosed. Big deal."

"Sometimes life sucks," replied the cop. "You're going to be fine."

Officer Mike leaned across the seat and offered Birdy his hand when he pulled the cruiser to a stop in front of the Braft home. "You've got what it takes, buddy," he said. "I was worried about you, but you get it now."

Birdy accepted the cop's handshake with a smile. "Thanks Mike. Thanks for everything."

He went into the house – the house with no father, the house with an absent family. Birdy knew in his heart that he was better off when all was said and done. Sure, The Panther was still the Big Cheese on Campus who got away with statoury rape and child absue, but Prelog was also a small person with no class or character. Birdy would always know the truth about The Coach and that was good enough for him. He made a pledge to himself, vowing to never give in to the son of a bitch coach. Prelog could keep the player on the bench from now to doomsday, but he was going to play basketball for Hillsboro High School, The Panther be damned.

Chapter 7

Birdy landed a job washing dishes and bussing tables at Johnny C's Diner a few weeks after the basketball season ended, partly to break his financial dependency on his mother but mostly to keep himself busy and out of trouble.

Johnny C's was an old-fashioned diner car with an extension built off the side. Everything inside the place was metal. Historic photographs of the town decorated the walls, along with the mandatory yearly photos of the various high school sports teams and little league teams Johnny C. sponsored The Panther donated one of his Milwaukee Buck shirts, which was framed and hung on the wall. There was also a huge autographed portrait of Prelog in his NBA uniform.

Johnny C., who ran the joint with his wife, was about forty when Birdy started working for him. The story goes that when he was in his early twenties, Johnny C. (Carlisle) got off the bus in downtown Hillsboro to stretch his legs during a stop on his way to Albany. He saw the cafe (then known as the Hillsboro Diner) and said to him self, "Someday, I'm going to own that place."

Johnny C. never did make it to Albany. He got a room at the Hillsboro Inn, talked his way into a job at the diner, and never left. He bought the place when owner Pete McMillian was ready to sell a few years later, renamed it Johnny C's, and quickly became a town legend.

The diner was among the more popular places in town. It opened at 5:30 a.m., closed at 9:00 p.m and featured a menu with three or four daily specials and familiar regular offerings. Johnny C.'s was the place to go to catch up on the local gossip, discuss politics and sports, bring a date after a movie in Greenville, have breakfast on the weekend with out of town guests, or visit with neighbors.

Johnny C. was a great proprietor. He greeted every customer by name, went out of his way to help out folks, and wasn't shy to give out a free meal from time to time. He was extremely trusting of his customers, willing to collect tomorrow for a meal today. He made sure patrons were satisfied with the meal served and he treated his workers as if they were his children (he had three of his own!). Birdy never heard Johnny C. say a bad thing about anybody, even in the middle of a scandal.

Johnny C. walked with a limp from a childhood car accident and he stuttered when he got excited. He never got a joke. He wore his hair all wrong. Sometimes he forgot to shave. He worked every day, sometimes16 hours at a time. He was never seen in the diner without his chef hat and he wore the same cheesy orange tee shirts he made the staff wear – with its 'Johnny C' logo over the chest. He was a fixture in the town, with more prestige than the Mayor, Police Chief, and School Superintendent.

"Mrs. Johnny C." also worked at the diner, though not as many hours as her husband. Baking was her specialty (Johnny C's was famous for its pies and other desserts), but she also cooked and was the mother of the place, encouraging customers to eat up and have more just like moms did at home! She often looked worn down from working, but she never lost her excitement.

Johnny C. treated Birdy well. The kid started at the entry level but as he continued to prove himself as a worker, John gave him increased responsibility. The kid told Johnny that he wanted to learn how to cook and Johnny C. made him his protégé. That's the reason he was a natural when he joined the Navy: he already knew all the tricks of the trade by the time he got to training school, taught by the master – Johnny C himself, who remained the best cook Birdy Braft ever knew.

Birdy liked belonging to the Johnny C. "family". The waitresses pooled the tips and the kitchen crew was treated with the same respect and integrity as the head cook. The staff worked together and got along with one another because Johnny C. didn't keep problem workers around. Birdy's sense of work ethic and discipline came from his apprenticeship at Johnny C's and he took the job seriously, doing his best to make Johnny C. proud. He was more than willing to go above and beyond to get the job done and never missed a shift. By the time he left the joint when he was eighteen, Birdy was acting as the assistant manager, even though he was just a high school kid.

Birdy Braft was somebody when he worked at Johnny C's. Customers got to know him, talked with him, and asked after him – especially during basketball season. The cops who had watched over the troubled kid for years were all the more friendly and helpful when they saw him working at the diner.

He loved being around the waitresses. When Birdy first started out as a fourteen-year old goober, the waitresses seemed so much older, wiser and mature than anybody he knew. In reality, most of them were high school seniors or perhaps college co-eds, but from his young perspective they were mature Barbie Doll beauty queen Cinderella's and he was their slave. By the time he was a high school senior, most of the waitresses struck him as flaky, brain-dead dolts, but that's only because he saw the world differently by that age.

It was seventh heaven for a teenaged boy to work at Johnny C's. The staff worked in close quarters in a hectic environment, always bumping into one another, and Birdy frequently rubbed against the waitresses and observed them up close. When it was hot, Johnny C's became a sweat box and there was nothing sexier than standing in the kitchen watching some gorgeous blonde wipe her shiny forehead, or stick her arm down the front of her tee shirt to wipe away perspiration.

Birdy enjoyed the best of both worlds during his time at Johnny C's. He could be the mature, dependable and dedicated worker who treated the customers with respect, but he could also be the over-sexed, hormone-challenged adolescent pervert when he was around the waitresses!

Chapter 8

Becoming a freshman at Hillsboro High School meant Birdy had to share the same school with his sister Darlene who was now a senior. He loved the original Hillsboro High School (built in 1907), a brick building with windows 15 feet high. The school featured warped wooden floors; desks screwed into the floor, a beautiful library with a ceiling three stories high, maple wood walls, and classrooms with cranky radiators, busted clocks, and faded blackboards. The cafeteria used stoves and refrigerators from the 1940s, the auditorium had seats with no cushions, and the stage was a mile long and two miles deep. The balcony sagged over the rest of the room like the shadow of a cloud.

The school gym was nicknamed "The Pit" because the playing floor was sunken, surrounded on all four sides by the stands that were raised above the playing surface. Playing in the pit was like being inside the Roman Coliseum.

The cramped and smelly locker rooms were a floor below the gym and generations of sweat, mold, urine and sneaker odor hung in the stale air. The ancient metal lockers were dented and rusted, some missing doors, and the open bay shower area had the permanent scent of used dishwater. Two aged commodes and three floor urinals offered no privacy. The room was designed for maybe 10 guys, but when they had gym class, forty to fifty sweaty teenagers were stuffed into the tiny locker room. The coach's office was no bigger than a closet with forgotten trophies won by teams from distant eras collecting dust on a high shelf behind the coach's metal desk.

Birdy's favorite locker room feature was the cement wall outside the coach's office – dubbed the Wall of Fame. Generations of Hillsboro High School players etched their names onto the wall, some dating back to the 1930s when the gymnasium was built. He sensed he was in the presence of historic greatness whenever he passed those names of the past (though he always avoided looking at Prelog's name).

He loved the times spent in that dingy, barren, smelly old locker room with its health risk and hygiene challenge. That locker room was where friendships blossomed and camaraderie meant something. It's where the boys became true teammates, wed to each other in a common cause and joint sacrifice. He learned more about his teammates sharing that room together than he did in twelve years progressing through the school system. The locker-room was where they were the most vulnerable, the most real, the angriest, the most intense, the most dependable, the neediest, the most desperate, the happiest, and the most loved. That locker room is where they affectionately referred to each other as "fuck face", "Homo," "dick head," "numb nuts" and "ass wipe". It's where they made fun of body parts, body functions, sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation. It's where they shared their hopes, dreams, goals, sins, failures and faults. It's where they laughed, cried, cursed and fought. It's where they lied about their girlfriends and their sex lives. It's where they learned to snap towels like professional whip handlers. It's where nudity and penises were acceptable.

That old locker room was the one place they were safe (The Panther not withstanding) - a private Sanctuary and a world that only existed in that particular moment and space.

Chapter 9

Entering high school as a freshman can be frightening and stressful. Students go from being a big fish in a small junior high pond to a small fish in a big high school lake overnight. Birdy's transition was easier than most because he knew a lot of the upper classman from Johnny C's, basketball, and through his sister. The Braft house on Pinewood Avenue was Party Central during Denise's last few years of high school and Birdy was always bumping into kids coming or going from his house.

He was a good student and academics didn't present a problem for him in high school, though some of his basketball mates sweated out report card season, always fearful that they wouldn't have the grades to play.

Tall, lean, bowlegged, and brainless, High School Principal Arthur Dodson was a dufus pushover who let the high school students walk all over him, but the Vice Principal was a hard ass who made it clar he was in charge of discipline and law and order. "Holstein the Hammer" is what the students called him. The Hammer had a booming voice heard three floors away and he ran the school as if he personally owed it. He had a sign in his office that read, "I'll Talk, You'll Listen".

The Hammer was all about stature and presence. He wore a gray van dyke beard for effect and dressed in three-piece suits with a chain watch in his vest pocket to add to his demeanor. He carried a baton in his hand and loved to whack it against a locker or desk for affect.

The kids didn't necessarily like The Hammer, but they respected and admired him. Holdstein could scream, threaten and punish, but he was also the guy in the detention room talking to kids in trouble, or dropping by a study hall to shoot the shit with the students. Birdy had a few run-ins with the guy and saw that Holdstein really did care about the welfare and future of all the students.

Prelog transferred to the high school physical education program as part of his promotion to varsity basketball coach. Luckily for Birdy, there was another gym teacher and the Birdman was able to serve his PE time under the watch of Mr. Fudge instead of having to face The Panther, who ignored him anyway.

Mr. Fudge was a pudgy guy who didn't look like a gym teacher, but he was easy-going and didn't approach physical education as an ode to jock-hood. He let his students do their own thing without worrying about getting it right. The dufuses and spazs loved Fudge because he didn't make them climb ropes, do gymnastics or any of the other hard stuff. As long as the kids ran around and got their hearts going, Fudge really didn't care what the students did in gym. There was a method to his madness, because the kids under Mr. Fudge's tutelage were happier, more content, and actually did better, instead of trying to skip class or hide out to avoid the wrath of drill instructors like The Panther who despised weaklings.

There were other teachers besides Mr. Fudge whom Birdy Braft came to like. Mr. Bennington taught Government and challenged his students to think about how politics worked (and didn't work) in their country. He was the first teacher who got Birdy to start thinking about the world outside of Hillsboro. Mrs. Dunham taught English (and drama) as if she lived it. She was in her sixties, but she had more energy and enthusiasm than teachers half her age and it was hard not to get caught up in her classroom passion.

High schoolers begin defining their personality, discovering their independence, and learning about their individual talents and abilities. Friends change – both in their physical appearances and in their attitudes. Some kids who were once meek and shy become outgoing and popular. Kids previously unnoticed suddenly turn into leaders while others disappear – dropping out, or falling into different peer groups and clichés. Roles become more defined: the jocks, the brains, the losers, the druggies, the geeks, the sluts, the goody-two shoes, and the freaks are categorized and students decide which group to fall into.

The girls in the freshman class rarely pay attention to their male classmates because they have their sights set on the upper classmen, while the freshman guys become intimated by the older girls and end up dating eighth graders!

Birdy remained confused by sex. The incident with Prelog and his sister traumatized him, but he was also intrigued by what he had seen. He never told anybody of this fascination because they would think he was a pervert, but a part of him had been turned on when he opened the door and saw his sister getting it on. She was the first mature girl he ever saw naked in real life.

"You mean you got a boner?" That was Andy Beckwith's tag line. He'd say it (using all sorts of his impersonation voices) whenever someone made a comment about a date, a good-looking girl, or sex in any way.

Birdy didn't get a boner with his sister but he couldn't get the image of her having sex out of his mind and that scared the hell out of him. He flirted with and teased girls whenever the opportunity arose, but he didn't ask them out and avoided the school dances so he wouldn't have to worry about the whole sex thing.

Joe Bonds had been in love with Darlene for years and who could blame him? She was attractive, likeable and popular, with the classic Braft smirk of her father and the beautiful eyes of her mother. What guy wouldn't want her?

Birdy knew how boys thought. He was part of the locker room talk that bragged about girls. Teenaged boys are hyper-perverted to a fault, telling untrue stories about their exploits. Birdy volunteered tales about Bobbi Jo so he'd sound experienced and manly. If the guys believed him (and they probably didn't since he didn't believe most of what they said either), Birdy and Bobbi Jo had already done it on the town common, football field, and behind the police station. The truth was, except for one grope of her breast, all Bobbi Jo and Birdy had done was make out. He doubted anybody else had done much more either, though Boone Reynolds told great stories about his supposed conquests.

Birdy pictured Darlene's friends as girls having sex because, well, if Darlene was doing it, they had to be doing it too! Boone Reynolds's favorite locker room greeting was "Did you get laid last night?" and sometimes it felt like Boone was unwittingly provoking Birdy to seek a conquest of one of Darlene's friends. Girls were around the house constantly and he could easily pick one of them up, especially when they were half-bagged.

There was always pressure in high school to date, to be with someone, and to be able to say you have a girlfriend. It's not so much who you are, but who you are with. And when you aren't dating, when you don't have an identified girlfriend, you have to listen to Boone Reynolds asking, "What are you, a homo?" in the locker room.

Birdy spent the first few months of freshmen year biding his time until basketball season began. The freshmen knew there was little chance of making varsity, with the possible exception of Bink Baxter, who was a great player even as a ninth grader. The Panther was aware of the abilities of the freshmen players and none of them felt slighted getting passed over in their first year.

Coach Fred Timberlake was a modest and humble guy. Why else would a Varsity Head Coach be willing to step down a level to let his former player take over? Birdy quickly came to admire and respect Coach Timberlake because of his character.

"It's not about me," Coach T. remarked when someone said something about him being in The Panther's shadow. "It's about the players."

Coach Timberlake was old school. He said JV was a training ground and that it didn't matter if the team won or lost.

"This is where you learn so that when you get to Varsity, you'll know how to play the game," he'd tell his players over and over again. He ran endless drills, working on the fundamentals until the players were bored to tears, dreaming of the better days ahead.

Coach T. saw his JV Coach role as that of teacher, instructor and trainer. His voice would be horse by the end of some practices from his yelling, ordering, instructing and leading. During games, he was a windmill of action by the bench, always pointing, directing, and motioning. He'd jump, tap-dance, and twirl to make a point or express his displeasure. He was constantly raking his hands though his hair, especially when a game wasn't going well.

"They're killing me out there!" was his most favorite saying to those sitting on the bench as a game progressed.

He had a photographic memory and remembered every play of every game. Post game debriefs consisted mostly of his dissection of the contest, pointing out the mistakes, missteps and the bad choices his players had made. Birdy learned more from Coach T. in one week of JV basketball than he had in two years of junior high ball under The Panther, who used intimidation and fear as his teaching tools.

Timberlake looked strange in his middle age, wearing odd colored polyester pants, penny loafers, and corny ties, but he had been a great ballplayer in high school and college and he knew what he was doing. T was still a better shooter than any of his JV players and he had no problem taking any of them on to make a point during practice. He wasn't afraid to leave one of his players standing in his jockstrap by putting an unbelievable move to demonstrate a point. Coach ended every practice by sinking a shot from forty feet out and he'd laugh at his player's opened mouths as he walked off the court. Birdy never saw him miss a shot.

Coach had a speech impediment, which only intensified when he got excited or angry. Beckwith did a knock out impersonation of the guy and was always fooling his teammates in the locker room by calling out from the Coach's office in his Coach T. voice. Whenever there was a dramatic confrontation or tense showdown, it was usually Andy Beckwith's Coach T. impersonation of "They're killing me out there!" that broke up the moment.

Bink Baxter made Varsity as a freshman and the others were happy for him, though they'd miss him as part of their JV pack. The JV team Birdy's freshman year consisted of sophomores Dan "Pretty Boy" Bailey, Billy "The A for Asshole" Aldrich, Cade "Smirks" Simpson, and Henry "Hank" Harris, joined by freshmen Duston "The Man" McQuinn, Tag "You're It" Hendrix, Boone "Daniel" Reynolds, Andy "Beck" Beckwith, Phil "Good" Golinski, "Georgie Porgie" Kessler, and Birdy Braft. Junior Luke Lobush was also a hold over while Birdy's former junior high school teammates Torch Johnson, Mollie McAdams, and Doug Phelps, now sophomores, were the lucky stiffs who joined Bink on the varsity squad.

George Kessler was "big" to be polite ("Fat" was how the more blunt Boone Reynolds described him). George (or "Georgie Porgie" as he was called) didn't make the Junior High team with The Panther as The Dictator, but figured Coach Timberlake would work with him. George couldn't run or shoot, but he played with natural enthusiasm and focused on passing as his best asset.

The junior Luke LoBush was a head case who The Panther refused to add to the varsity team. His hair was almost as long as Cassie Emerson's, he smelled like reefer, and his vocabulary consisted mostly of "Wow", "Far Out", and "Hey, Man." He listened to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and was a regular at Darlene's parties.

"Hey, Man," is all he'd say to whenever Birdy bumped into him at the Braft party house.

His teammates couldn't dismiss "Loco Luke" as some stoned out druggie because it turned out he was the best player on the team and it was obvious that he should have been on the varsity squad. Luke's presence was not a good omen for Birdy – if The Panther passed on Lucas, did that mean Birdy would never make the varsity either?

Playing basketball in high school is a whole other league from the junior high experience. Junior High is played in the afternoon with about 17 people in the stands, most of them parents, girlfriends of the players and junior high students killing time after school. It's so quiet that the conversations taking place in the stands can be overheard and players have to watch their mouths because the refs hear everything said.

In high school, everything's different. The games are played at night in front of packed crowds. Girls scream out players' names and, if the contest is really good or played against a hated rival, the noise level is deafening. Players have to scream to be heard by teammates and they can insult the ref without being heard. High school ball has cheerleaders and sometimes a small band. The Greenville radio station broadcasts many of the games. A newspaper guy is there, and sometimes he'll ask a player a question and even quote him in the paper! Two cops are on security detail to prevent fan revolt or player fights. Players are mini-celebrities, and the really good ones are treated like Royalty.

It isn't quite that frantic for the JV guys, because sometimes the crowd arrives late, plus the atmosphere isn't as intense, but there's still a special thrill to be playing in front of a lot of people, under the lights, and in 'The Pit".

Coach Timberlake believed in playing everybody on the JV squad, so his players knew they'd get their time on the court. Birdy usually played on the second team with Hendrix, Reynolds, Aldrich and Simpson, plus Golinski sometimes. The JVs learned to play together as a unit, developing trust and a sense of each other's playing style. Nobody said it, but the JV players knew they were better off with Timberlake instead of Prelog.

Birdy loved playing JV basketball for Coach Timberlake because there was no implied threat like with The Panther. Even though Coach T. wailed "They're killing me out there!" at least twenty times a game, he didn't sweat the load about winning. He just wanted his team to play the best game they could and learn from the experience. He'd only get ticked if someone made the same mistakes over and over again.

"Don't you hear good?" he would ask with annoyance when someone pulled off the same bonehead play for the seventeenth time. "I've told you and I've told you, and I'm not going to tell you again!"

Birdy couldn't always avoid The Panther. JV rode with the varsity on the same bus to away games and if Prelog was on the bus first, Birdy would have to pass right by him. Sometimes during practice, the teams would work out together or scrimmage each other, but the Panther never said a word to The Birdman or acknowledged his presence. Hell, the coach never even looked at him! The treatment was brutal and Coach Timberlake had to relay any message or tell Birdy what to do if The Panther set up a drill or picked scrimmage teams and left Braft standing there, ignored and forgotten.

One or two JV guys got to suit up for the varsity game, but Birdy was never picked for that privilege in all his time with the team.

Coach T. knew that Birdy was in Prelog's permanent doghouse and went out of his way to be helpful to his penalized player, continuously telling him that he was good since he got zero feedback from The Panther.

The JV Squad finished 8-8 that year, while Prelog's first year as head coach resulted in a 9-7 record, not good enough for the playoffs.

"The Panther said the varsity team sucked," Bink Baxter reported, a striking contrast to Coach Timberlake who told his players how proud he was for their effort and for the improvement they demonstrated during the course of the season.

"You're fine boys and wonderful players," T said after the final game. "It was a pleasure to coach you this year and I know I won't be seeing some of you next year, because you'll be moving up."

Chapter 10

When the basketball season ended, Birdy focused on his work at Johnny C.'s. There was a party going on at his house almost every day as Darlene's graduation date loomed closer and he was on a first name basis with half of Darlene's senior class because he'd find most of them in his pot-smoked house whenever he came home.

Birdy didn't bother confronting Darlene about the partying, although he couldn't understand why she was such a partier when it was a drunk who killed their father. His only demand was that her partying friends stay out of his bedroom. He didn't want any drunks looking at his stuff, sitting on his bed, or doing anything disgusting in there, especially after finding a used condom under his bed.

He was embarrassed whenever he was around the drinking teenagers, in particular the good-looking girls who were cool at school but pathetic saps at his house. He once found Tina Orek puking all over herself on the front lawn. Patty O'Donnell, who never gave him the time of day at school, acted as if Birdy was her long lost lover one night when he tried to make his way through the crowds of revelers to get to his room.

"Birdy, come fly with me," she purred into his ear, hanging on him like a shadow. "You're a bird, make me fly."

Darlene's partying girlfriends were absurdly nice to Birdy at his house in their drunken whimsy, acting like total buffoons more often than not, but they'd either ignore him or act indifferent at school (when they were sober) which was strangely confusing for the kid.

Darlene's parties were notoriously wild. Darrell Russell fell off the roof one night trying to show some broad the bright stars. A bunch of guys picked up Becky Chapman's Volkswagen beetle and carried it into the backyard where they wedged it between two trees.

Guys Birdy barely knew engaged him in mindless and pointless conversations that made no sense. Jimmy Regman begged him to fix him up with his sister, offering a hundred bucks if Birdy could get Darlene to go out with him. There would be fights when two or three drunken morons confronted one another on their manhood or in competition for the affections of a shared girl.

Birdy came across basketball teammate Duston McQuinn's girlfriend Veronica one night sitting on the Braft couch lip-locking with some guy he didn't recognize. She rushed after Birdy, begging him not to say anything to Poor Duston.

"I really love Dusty!" Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she stood in the doorway of Birdy's bedroom, pleading for his silence.

"You sure have some way of showing it."

"I couldn't help myself."

"Does everybody forget how to act when there's a party?"

"Will you promise not to say anything to Duston?

He stared long and hard at Veronica. Even with her smeared lipstick, running mascara, and pathetic stare, she was still beautiful with her flaming red hair, dancing freckles and one of the best figures in school. How could he deny her?

"I guess I've gotten pretty good at keeping secrets."

She gave him an appreciative hug and he smelled the booze on her clothes.

"You're the best, Birdy." She laughed as she flew out of the room.

High school was the weirdest time of Birdy Braft's life.

One night, Birdy spotted Loco Luke Lobush camped out on the living room couch with a quart of beer between his legs. The junior was clearly trashed, but Birdy wanted to ask him something that bugged him all through basketball season.

"You deserved to be on varsity," Birdy told Luke.

"Yeah, man."

"Maybe next year."

"Na," he said. "Prick Prelog won't have me."

"How 'bout JV then?" The question had more to do with himself than Luke – would Birdy have the guts to play JV as a senior if the Panther was still the varsity coach?

"Can't," the drunken Luke mumbled. "Too good."

"Yeah, Man," Birdy agreed. "You're the best I've ever seen."

"I'll miss the game, man," Loco sighed. "I'll miss the game."

Loco Luke never did play again. He and two friends burned down a camp at Blue Lake that summer then, a few months later, Luke got nabbed for carrying a concealed weapon. Then he got busted for pot. Finally, he got pulled over for drunken driving – all before Christmas. Luke Lobush disappeared from school his senior year – Tag Hendrix claimed his folks put him into some military school somewhere.

Birdy was greeted by Officer Mike as he left work one night, the cop once again opening the door to his cruiser and motioning the kid inside.

"Long time no see," Birdy said with a friendly grin.

"Where's your mother?" The Cop was in his official mode.

"Utica on a two month temporary assignment," Birdy told him, knowing how ludicrous that decision looked.

"And she left you two home alone?" The cop stared at him with disbelief.

"She says she trusts us," Birdy reported, amused by such absurdity.

"No offense, but for a smart woman, your mom sure is dumb," said the cop as they drove through the neighborhoods of Hillsboro. "Just wanted to warn you, Bird-Man. It's only a matter of time before something bad happens."

"Hey, they ain't my parties!"

"Tell your sister," Mike ordered.

"She doesn't listen to me."

They drove in silence for a few minutes.

"What was my mother like before the old man died?" Birdy asked.

Mike smiled. "Funny. Charming. Delightful."

"I don't remember her that way."

"She went off the deep end," Mike explained. Couldn't deal with the loss."

"And we lost her in return." Birdy let loose a sorrowful sigh.

Birdy's goal for the rest of freshman year was to survive without a major bust at the house, a run in with the cops, or a scene with any of Darlene's friends. Darlene and her classmates made it to graduation night without dying, getting arrested, or killing someone.

Birdy attended the graduation ceremony with his mother. It was their first public appearance together since his father's funeral and it turned out to be the last. Plenty of speeches were delivered by various long-winded blowhards. Teachers said wonderful things about the graduating class and the valedictorian sounded intelligent and worldly, even though Birdy saw him passed out in the Braft's bathroom floor during one of Darlene's parties with his pants down around his ankles.

Student speakers spoke poetically about their futures – college, family, and careers; goals, dreams and callings; how those on the stage would become doctors, lawyers, and bankers to help save the world, but Birdy would remember many of them passed out in his living room, puking in his kitchen sink, or making out with different people at every other party.

Darlene and Trixie left Hillsboro a week after graduation for a Florida visit to Trixie's aunt, and that was the last time Darlene Braft was seen in Hillsboro. Birdy never got the complete story from his mother, but assumed Darlene met some guy in the sunshine state.

Darlene held true to her word and never forgave her brother. The two rarely had contact as adults and Birdy only met her family a few times, even though he spent eight years in Florida when he was in the Navy.

The house was strangely quiet and empty after Darlene left. With his mother working twelve-hour days and out of town on business trips every other week, Birdy was basically on his own. He cooked for himself and, as he became more proficient from his training with Johnny C., had little trouble preparing three course meals for a date while the other guys were taking their girls to McDonalds.

Chapter 11

Andy Beckwith began dating a girl he met at his summer job with the Hillsboro Park and Recreation Program run by Coach Timberlake. Her name was Collie but she wasn't a dog (that was Beckwith's line and he never tired of using it). Collie (nickname for Colleen), a private school student in Mt. Griffin, was a looker who usually dressed in halter-tops and short shorts. Her brown hair bounced off her shoulders, she had striking freckles, and her eyes were ocean deep blue.

Birdy enjoyed getting to know the worldly and beautiful Collie and, because she had no history with Braft, she was nice to him. She had a great sense of humor – perfect for Beck, of course – and she fit in nicely with Beck's peer group. Collie's private school background gave her confidence and maturity and Birdy feel older when he was around her. Birdy was happy for Beck and his new romance, but felt sad being reminded that he was the single guy who had blown it with Cassie Emerson during his ugly period.

"What are you, a homo?" Boone Reynolds wanted to know when he bumped into Birdy who was tagging along with Beck and Collie at the movies one evening. "Get your own damn girl."

The closest Birdy came to Reynolds' suggestion – and it was a stretch at best - involved Darlene's former classmate Becky Chapman, who was also a waitress at Johnny C's. Becky remembered him from Darlene's parties, especially since it was Birdy who phoned the basketball guys to get Becky's VW out of the backyard the morning after Becky's classmates stuffed her little car between two trees.

Becky called Birdy, "Hey, kid." She was 18 but with her killer body she looked 21 in his youthful eyes. Her sexiness wasn't the only reason she was the most popular waitress at Johnny C's. She was also an outgoing, personable, friendly and natural server who could strike up a conversation with anyone, spontaneously laughing at the dumbest of jokes and acting as if she was the closest confident of every customer. Everybody at Johnny C's loved Becky, including Birdy! He became her favorite co-worker, often requesting special chores and extra assignments from him.

"Hey, Kid, could you do this for me?" she'd say. He always did whatever she asked!

Sometimes, they'd close the place together and on those nights they'd talk. Nothing deep or particularly meaningful, but the fact that she was sharing her thoughts made him feel important. They usually talked about what happened in the diner - which waitress screwed up, what the customers were talking about, and how the food turned out.

Occasionally, Becky offered him a ride when she noticed Birdy was about to walk home. He always accepted and was disappointed on those nights when she didn't ask. Her white Volkswagen was an older model rattlebox with no frills but she said it got her where she needed to go. One night she took him to Reed's Creamie on the way home with an inviting, "Let's get an ice cream, Kid."

The place was packed on a summer's night and Birdy felt like the most important sophomore in town standing in line with the beautiful college bound Becky. Maybe the observing teens would actually think the two were out on a date! Birdy Braft and Becky Chapman!

Beckwith happened to be there that night. "Looks like you'll get a boner tonight," he assured his friend with a smirk

Another night, Becky took Birdy on a longer drive before dropping him off at his house. She confided that she wasn't sure about college because she didn't think she was smart enough but was feeling pressure to go because her parents were so insistent. Birdy asked her if she wanted to go.

"I have to, Kid," she replied. "If I don't, I'll be a waitress at Johnny C.'s when I'm sixty."

Hillsboro suffered through a killer heat wave that August. The air conditioners at Johnny C's had trouble keeping up with the 95-degree weather that lasted for an unbearable week. It was miserable for the workers and all Birdy could think of was Coach Timberlake's "They're killing me out there, they're killing me!"

"Need a lift, Kid?" It was a drained Becky who noticed the heat-stroked Birdy loafing across the blacktop of the parking lot, still hot even though it was past 11:00 at night.

She didn't drive directly to his house, telling him that she wanted to let the wind blow on their faces as she sped up the little bug car as fast as it could go, which was barely sixty. The night air felt great as Birdy leaned his head out the side window like a dog, allowing the blowing wind to refresh his overheated body. They ended up at Blue Lake and she navigated the little car down a tiny dirt road on the far side of the lake. She suggested that they take a dip once the car came to a stop in the shadows of the lakeside woods.

"We didn't bring our suits." Birdy naively observed the obvious.

She laughed as she jumped out of the car. "Gee, how silly of us, huh Kid?"

She pulled her sweat soaked orange Johnny C tee shirt over her head, revealing her amble breasts in the light of the moon. Andy Beckwith would be happy to know that his friend got the first legitimately produced boner of his life. She slid out of her shorts, turned and walked naked into the lake.

"Come on in, Kid," she invited. "Water's lovely."

"So are you." It was a dumb thing to say but she laughed with appreciation.

He'd never been naked in front of a girl before but he gladly discarded his clothes and joined her in the refreshing night lake. They made small talk while he kept his eyes focused on the mermaid, gladly catching glimpses of her breasts whenever the water surface dipped. He could have stayed there all night and was disappointed when she announced they needed to leave.

"I'm not the only one who knows about this place," she said. "We don't need someone finding us."

"Right," he agreed. "How could I possibly live down that scandal?"

She laughed. "You're pretty funny, Kid."

They swam to the shore and he gladly allowed her to lead the way to the car, focusing his eyes on her bare rear as his beacon. He was surprised by how unembarrassed he was walking naked through the woods with the glorious Becky Chapman in all her beauty. His unexpected fantasy adventure came felt natural and innocent. She leaned into the car and pulled a towel from the back, wiping the sparkling water from her skin as he watched with fascination. She tossed the towel to him when she was finished and he wiped himself off, watching with disappointment, as she dressed.

They drove home in silence, though occasionally one would look at the other and smile. Becky never took him back to the lake, but continued to treat him warmly during her last weeks at Johnny C's. Birdy always thought about her nakedness whenever they were together at the diner.

Becky gave him a ride home on a couple of occasions, but she never suggested another dip and he never asked. And then, one day, she was gone, off to college with no goodbye, no tear soaked farewell, no kiss. Not even a "See Ya, Kid."

Chapter 12

Sophomore year got off to a bummer start for both Beck and Birdy. Collie returned to her prep school life and although she promised to keep in touch, everybody knew it was just a summer fling and that Beckwith would never see the chick again. Birdy spent the first few weeks of 10th grade consoling the heartbroken Andy and, in a rare role reversal, tried to keep him laughing.

Meanwhile, Birdy was feeling sorry for himself longing for the absent Becky and his one magical night at the lake. He never told anybody about his moonlight swim, knowing his teammates wouldn't believe him. Besides, he didn't want to turn his special memory into trashy locker room fodder.

It was hard getting back into the swing of the school routine after a wonderful summer of Collie and Becky, especially with basketball season still four months away. Sometimes it felt as though the only reason Birdy went to Hillsboro High was to play basketball.

His secret love Cassie Emerson looked as beautiful as ever as the school year got underway and Birdy continued to miss her. He had rehabilitated his reputation around school with success, but not with Cassie who treated him with contempt. He hadn't said a mean thing to her in years, but he remained a jerk in her eyes for all the rottenness he perpetrated in his former life. He knew he couldn't blame the girl for hating him, but it still hurt knowing she was disgusted by the very thought of him.

Cassie began dating Freshman Clark Fitzgerald a few weeks into the school year which only added to Birdy's woes. Fitz was just as perfect as Cassie and they made a great couple. Birdy played hoops with Clark and liked the guy even if he was a spoiled and conceited snob and he tried not hold it against Clark for stealing his girl, but he couldn't help but feel resentment and jealousy toward both Cassie and Clark.

Rumor had it that the Sophomore Class was going to nominate popular Cassie as Duchess for the Football Booster Day Homecoming Queen's Court. In an entirely self-serving ploy, Birdy maneuvered himself to be put in a position to be picked as the Duchess' escort in an attempt to be near his lost love.

Birdy enlisted the help of the influential basketball guys and other school big wigs to aid his cause.

"Guess you're not a homo after all," said Boone Reynolds when Birdy explained how he wanted to be with Cassie.

"Just don't get a boner in the parade," advised Andy Beckwith.

The players used their popularity and Panther connections to convince the selection committee that Birdy Braft was the right choice for Sophomore Class Escort. It wasn't an easy sell given his long history as a troublemaking creep, but the committee finally gave in to the basketball player pressures and agreed to select Birdy for the privilege of escorting the Duchess.

On the day of the Booster Day Selections, the student body filled the auditorium for the announcement. Four sets of chairs sat on the stage behind a large podium where the winning Queen, Princess, Duchess, and Lady in Waiting and their escorts would make acceptance speeches.

Poor Cassie didn't know the fix was in. She went from jubilated excitement when her name was announced as Duchess to stone-cold disgust when she heard Birdy Braft's name called as the Duchess' escort.

The court and their escorts took the stage to thundering applause from the assembly. Cassie tried her best to look dignified and appreciative, but Birdy knew from her body language that she was angry and upset. He might just as well have been a leper when he sat down next to her.

"Come on, it's not that bad," he stage-whispered to her as Student Council President Harriett Wizlick made her remarks at the Podium. Birdy could hear Cassie's teeth grinding from where he sat.

"You've ruined what should have been a very special day for me," she growled under her breath.

"What did I do?" He insulted her by trying to play innocent.

"Oh, I can think of at least 420 mean, nasty, and insulting things." She snarled with contempt.

"Name one."

It was a dare he shouldn't have made.

"How 'bout the time I came downstairs one Saturday morning to find my father on his hands and knees scrapping egg off our front walk, porch, and door?" It was hurt more than anger in her voice. "Don't try to deny you're the one who threw those eggs."

"How long are you going too hold a screwed up sixth grader accountable for his mistakes?" It was a plea more than a question.

"Until you apologize to my father," she answered with disgust.

The escort let Cassie stew for a few minutes while Mousy Margie Szpiecenk, The Freshman Lady in Waiting, made her remarks. He felt shame and embarrassment about the egg incident, especially because he could offer no defense as to why he had egged the house to begin with.

Harriett Wizlick introduced the sophomore escort to the assembly. The Council President was called "Harriet the Horse" behind her back because, well, she looked like one! Tall, gawky, long-necked with a hooked nose and buckteeth, Harriett was one of the least attractive girls in the school. What was impressive about the Senior Class President and Student Council Leader was that she didn't let her unfortunate looks stop her from living a happy high school life. Harriett was easily one of the best-liked kids at Hillsboro High with an outgoing personality, a great sense of humor, and a natural ability to lead others. Harriett the Horse had more friends in her stable than anyone else in the school. Guys felt safe with her and didn't have to pretend to be somebody else to impress her. They didn't have to be fake or pretentious and Harriett Wizlick was a unique girl who enjoyed honest and meaningful friendships because she didn't care about what the person in the mirror looked like. She knew that it was what was on the inside that mattered most.

The escorts were supposed to take five seconds to say thanks before introducing to the assembly the court member he was escorting. Birdy Braft stepped to the podium with a mixed reaction from the crowd. The JV Basketball guys led the cheers, but Birdy knew he wasn't the best pick in the minds of many who sat in their seats looking at him with judgmental frowns of displeasure, knowing the escort was a prick.

"Thanks, Harriett," Birdy said into the microphone.

"Speak up!" A voice yelled and Birdy knew it was Andy Beckwith clowning around from the seats.

"I am both thrilled and honored to have the pleasure of escorting the lovely Cassie Emerson, our Duchess." That was supposed to be the end of his remarks, but he kept on going. "I accept this privilege on behalf of all those forgotten, misunderstood, and ignored guys who are never given this chance. I stand here before you representing those shy guys to afraid to speak up, those unnoticed guys in the corner of the lunchroom, those invisible guys in the back rows of the classroom, those guys who don't get asked to dance, and those uncoordinated guys who don't get to play sports. I'm here representing those guys who are shunned and stereotyped for mistakes they've made. I'm here representing the unforgiven guys, stuck in a past that no longer exists. I'm here representing those guys who have regular seats in Detention and who have personal audiences with The Hammer. I'm every guy in this school who will never stand here like I am today, just because we don't happen to be the best looking, smartest, or most popular kid in the school."

The reaction to his remarks was one of dead silence. He had broken every unwritten rule of high school etiquette by speaking truths that are never spoken or openly admitted.

He heard Andy Beckwith doing his Coach T. impersonation. "They're killing me out there!" Beck bellowed and that got a good laugh from most of the audience.

"So, anyway, without any further delay, please allow me to present to you, representing the Sophomore Class like nobody else can, the very beautiful and lovely Duchess, Cassie Emerson."

Cassie looked dumbfounded as she stepped toward the podium.

"Are you running for office?" She whispered to her dispised escort.

The Duchess gave a gracious acceptance speech and the rest of the introduction ceremony went without incident. The Court would be introduced again at the Friday Night Rally, ride in the Booster Day Parade on Saturday morning, and be brought onto the football field during half time of the game. Finally, there was the Booster Day Dance, so the escort Braft would have plenty of time to spend with Cassie.

The Duchess didn't hang around when the assembly was dismissed, determined to avoid the escort she loathed. Birdy was disappointed by her quick departure and felt stupid standing alone on the stage while the rest of the court accepted best wishes. Birdy hadn't realized the depth of Cassie's hatred toward him until she ditched him at the assembly.

Harriett Wizlick congratulated Birdy for his "bold" remarks and a few kids stopped him in the halls during the next few days to sheepishly thank him for saying what he did, while the basketball guys took great delight razzing their teammate for his stage appearance.

"That was the dumbest thing I've heard said by someone sober," Boone Reynolds said.

Government Teacher Mr. Bennington was impressed with Birdy's public speaking abilities.

"Perhaps we will use you on the debate team your senior year, Mr. Braft," the teacher told him. "You've got style."

Birdy made an unexpected visit to the Emerson house the evening of the Duchess selection. A surprised Mrs. Emerson assumed he was calling on her daughter and became confused when he stopped her from getting Cassie.

"I'm here to speak to Mr. Emerson," he explained.

Mrs. Emerson was an attractive woman with styled hair and expensive clothing. She asked the visitor to step into the formal living room while she got her husband. Birdy was thrilled to finally have made it inside Cassie Emerson's house!

Mr. Emerson, who ran Emerson and Emerson Insurance with his brother, was a tall man with graying hair. He was serious in demeanor and he struck Birdy as stoic and stuffy when his wife brought him into the room. The visitor noticed a horrified Cassie standing in the doorway with her two younger sisters, fearing the jerk was going to do something scandalous.

"May I help you, young man?" Mr. Emerson spoke with a booming voice.

"Sir, my name is Birdy Braft." The nervous kid spoke with a frog in his throat.

"Yes." Mr. Emerson was intimidating in his stature.

"Four years ago, I egged your house," the boy admitted. "I'm here to apologize for my inexcusable behavior."

"Very well," Mr. Emerson replied with an accepting nod.

There was an awkward pause. Birdy hadn't thought about what to say after he actually apologized to the guy.

"How do you propose to make amends, young man?" the serious Mr. Emerson finally asked.

"I just apologized, Sir," a uncertain Birdy replied.

"Yes, but how do you propose to restore the damage that was done?" Mr. Emerson sounded like a court room judge. "How do you make up for the injury brought upon this household?"

Birdy was now operating without a net. He foolishly assumed the old man would be gracious and impressed with his guts showing up to apologize. Apparently, that wasn't enough and there was an uncomfortable awkwardness hanging in the air while the accused tried to figure out what to say next.

"How 'bout I paint your front porch?" Birdy pulled the idea out of thin air and caught Cassie rolling her eyes behind her parents.

"That would be fine," a satisfied Mr. Emerson replied.

"When would you like me to start?"

"Four years ago!" Mr. Emerson burst out in a loud laugh that shook the windowpanes. "Cassandra, would you care to show Mr. Braft to the front door?"

Cassie gave Birdy the deathstare as she walked him from the room. He had humiliated and embarrassed her again, this time right in front of her parents!

"I can't believe you did this to me!" She was mortified by his very presence.

"You told me too!" He protested her protest.

"I never thought you'd actually do it!" She was exasperated.

"So, do you forgive me?" He asked hopefully.

"Not on your life," she hissed with venom. 'You still have about 419 offenses on your docket, so don't think for one minute that I'll ever have anything to do with you."

It was defeating to hear her stark rejection, not just because he liked her so much, but because it made him again realize that he would be carrying the sins of his past for a very long time.

"Find out how he wants me to do the porch," Birdy glumly told her, sounding like a condemned man as he left the house.

Birdy had wormed his way into the court so he could be with Cassie, but she gave him the cold shoulder during Homecoming Booster Week and he wondered if the ploy had been worth it.

"Clark will take me," became the girl's standard response whenever her escort offered to accompany Cassie to the various events, forcing poor Birdy to show up solo for the Friday night rally. He was around Cassie only long enough to walk her into the auditorium when the court was announced. She was a knock out dressed in a green maxi skirt and white rose blouse and voiced her annoyance at Birdy who showed up wearing a San Francisco 49er's football shirt and jeans.

"You're an escort!" She griped.

"It's a football rally!" It never occurred to him to dress up and he was embarrassed for being so socially inept.

Birdy spent the rest of the disappointing night with the guys while Cassie clung to Clark. (The guys consisted of Andy Beckwith, Joe Jock Bonds, Duston McQuinn, Boone Reynolds and Phil Golinski as the core group depending on who was dating, had jobs, weren't grounded, or weren't interested in hanging out on a particular night).

A mournful Birdy showed up on Saturday morning at the parade staging area at Hillsboro Freedom Park to find Cassie once again clinging to the arm of goody two shoes Clark, a perfect kid in every way and the winner of Cassie's heart.

Birdy killed time at the sophomore class float with the guys while keeping one eye on Cassie. The class entry was a piss poor attempt that failed to capture the likeness of the cartoon character Underdog, with the slogan, "Have No Fear, Underdog is here."

Sophomore Class President Lisa Drowling was in tears, having taken the float's failure personally. Lisa was an attractive girl, but she always tried to hard which drove her classmates crazy. Her peppy enthusiasm and her need to control every aspect of any project made her a pain in the ass to be around. Lisa was the kind of girl who insisted that her opinion, insight, advice, knowledge, and outlook was always correct and couldn't comprehend why people would second guess her. She acted as though God was dead and it was up to her to take over the job, adamant on doing everything herself. She began almost every sentence with "Well, I think……" and never stopped to consider that perhaps she thought wrong.

Andy Beckwith was doing his Coach Timberlake impersonation making fun of the float and the teary eyed Lisa went off on those classmates gathered at the float.

"Shut up!" She screamed. "Well, I think maybe if more than the same seven kids came to build this stupid thing, we'd have something to look at! It's supposed to be a class float," she sobbed, taking the project much too seriously. "Oh, tsk."

Birdy identified with Lisa who was an outcast like him because of her annoying personality, but he couldn't help but laugh with the others when she ranted and raved about the float.

Cassie waited until the last possible moment to join her unwanted attendant at the escort car for the parade, refusing his assistance while climbing onto the back of History Teacher Mr. Zwebla's red '57 Thunderbird convertible. She was wearing a brown turtleneck sweater with a wool skirt, black tights, and a yellow beret. Not wanting to disappoint her as he had done with his wardrobe selection for the rally, Birdy wore an open-collared yellow dress shirt underneath a white sweater, with jeans and hush puppy loafers. It was the most dressed up he had been since his father's funeral.

"You look fantastic," he told the Duchess as they waited for the parade to start.

"Just keep your hands to yourself," she acidly warned with true loathing

"Even if you fall off the back?" He attempted humor to hide his hurt.

Cassie's displeasure was tough to handle, but Birdy was happy to be at Cassie's side and a part of the parade. There were four floats (Underdog, Astro from the Jetsons, Top Cat, and Snoopy from Peanuts) with students from each respective class marching behind them, along with cheerleaders, color guards, the high school marching band and the Hillsboro Auxiliary Band, fire engines, cop cars, old cars, new cars, business folk, veterans, school alumni, boy scouts, girl scouts, jugglers, VIPs like the Mayor, and even a few clowns.

The main street of Hillsboro was lined with happy people cheering on the parade participants. Cassie and Birdy tossed candy to kids and as hard as the Duchess tried to act indifferent to her escort, Birdy could tell she was having a good time. The parade was their five minutes of 10th grade fame and they drank in every moment, waving to the crowds from the back of the T-bird like they were famous! The driver Mr. Zwebla kept the couple laughing with his irrelevant running monologue of observations along the parade route and there were a few instances when the escort caught the duchess smiling at him. Birdy vowed to keep those moments close to his heart forever.

The parade was over much too quickly and Birdy's fantasy abruptly ended as soon as he helped Cassie off of the car. Clark appeared out of nowhere just as Birdy was about to thank his Duchess and she gave Clark a happy hug, ignoring her escort as she disappeared into the crowd while telling her beau all about the parade experience. Good thing Birdy has reformed himself – otherwise he may have insulted Clark or given the kid a not so friendly shove.

A forlorn Birdy watched the first half of the game on the sidelines with the other escorts, counting the minutes off the scoreboard clock until half time when he'd be reunited with the Duchess Emerson. He didn't care that Hillsboro was beating Miller City 20-0 - he just wanted halftime to start!

The court finally met up with the Queen behind the bleachers a few minutes before the end of the half and a happy Birdy stood next to Cassie waiting for their big half time introduction in front of the hometown crowd.

"Nervous?" Birdy asked the Duchess.

"Yes. No. Maybe." Cassie laughed with anxious excitement.

"Enjoy the moment, Duchess." He wished she would enjoy him too.

When the cue was given, the court marched onto the field from the end zone and made its way to mid-field to the applause and cheers of the football faithful. Birdy memorized every second of the experience and replayed it in his mind a thousand times - the smell of the crisp fall air and the feel of the breeze on their faces, the music the band was playing as the court came onto the field, and the smell of the grass beneath their feet. He drank in Cassie's scent as he held her arm in his, proudly following the Princess and her escort in the procession. He embraced the smiles on the fans faces as they watched from the sidelines and bleachers. He committed to memory the sound of the raspy-voiced PA Announcer Charlie Marshall formally introducing them to the crowd.

"Representing the Sophomore Class, Duchess Cassie Emerson and her escort, Robert Braft," said Charlie M.

Birdy never felt prouder or happier than he did standing on the 40-yard line of Hillsboro High School's football gridiron with the Duchess on his arm. He would have sold his soul to have kept his life as magical and happy as it was for those brief minutes before the court was brisked from the field so the band could proceed with the half time show. Instead of leading Cassie off by holding her arm in the formal fashion, Birdy took her hand in his and they walked together to the sideline. He was encouraged when Cassie didn't pull her hand away. He knew he only had a few seconds left with her before it was over forever.

"Thanks for letting me do this." He shouted to be heard over the band and cheering. "It meant a lot to me." He hoped she'd understand how sincere he was in his expression of gratitude.

She nodded but said nothing and they quickly became engulfed by congratulatory friends and fellow students. The Queen gave Birdy a kiss and the Princess hugged him. The eight members of the court had bonded while sharing a unique experience. Birdy tried to stay with Cassie for as long as he could, but she was swept away in a sea of people and the guys wanted him to hang out with them.

Hillsboro won the football game, 28-14, which made the Booster Dance that night all the more victorious. The dance was Birdy's last hurrah, the end of his memorable and pleasurable escort experience that allowed him to spend soulful time with Cassie Emerson.

There was only problem: Birdy had never been to a dance before! He confessed his hopeless secret to Andy Beckwith who showed up at Birdy's house ninety minutes before the dance with his sister Lucy, a bright eyed and energetic ninth grader with the body of a gazelle.

"Lucy's been taking dance since she was four," Beck announced with a grin. "She'll show you the ropes."

"Is this some sort of set up?" An apprehensive Birdy frowned, fearing his teammate was about to pull of a prank to make him feel even worse than he already did.

"Hey, even insensitive stooges like me have a heart once in a while," Beck told Birdy in a rare moment of sensitivity, though he gave the line in his Groucho Marx voice.

"Besides, who do you think taught him?" Lucy added as they stepped into the living room.

Congenial Lucy possessed her brother's flare for humor and was genuine in her willingness to help a grateful Birdy. She gave Birdy enough of the basics so he wouldn't be a total novice in his dance debut.

"I bet this is the most pathetic thing you've ever done," he told the peppy Lucy.

"Na, the nicest," she said with a laugh.

Birdy was confident about his dancing thanks to the kindness of Andy Beckwith and his cute sister. The trio headed for Hillsboro High School and Birdy's final moments with the Duchess. The Queen and her Court gathered in the auditorium to wait for its final introduction. Birdy was smart enough to wear a sports jacket, though Lucy had him change the necktie he had originally picked. Cassie looked gorgous in a velvet dress, pearl necklace, white tights, and red shoes.

The group made small talk while waiting for the final introduction with Cassie going out of her way to talk about Clark, flaunting her boyfriend in Birdy's crushed face with unnecessary cruelity. Her mean public rebuking in front of the court left him defeated and deflated.

A broken Birdy didn't try to woo the Duchess in those final moments having come to the realization that Cassie truly detested him and that the magic of the last few days had been nothing more than an unrealistic sham. His idiotic plan to get closer to Cassie left him feeling more distant and disconnected than ever.

The court made its way into the gym packed with kids, banners, balloons, spinning colored lights, and a D.J. to play the music for the boosters' dancing pleasure.

Tradition called for the Queen and her escort to have the first dance. The rest of the Court joined her for the second number.

"This is cruel and unusual punishment," Cassie complained, referring to having to dance with Birdy and he had to bite his tongue not respond with an insult of his own.

Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" was the selection as the Duchess and her escort stepped onto the floor for their one dance together. Whenever he heard that song after that, Birdy's heart would skip and he'd be whisked back to Hillsboro High School gym on that special night.

Birdy didn't step on the Duchess' feet (thank you, Lucy Beckwith!) and he didn't say anything to his dream girl during their last dance because he wanted the moment to speak for itself. He prayed that she wouldn't wreck it by complaining or insulting him one last time.

When the dance ended, he bowed to her and stepped into the shadows, deferring to dutiful Clark who made sure he was there to rescue Cassie for her enemy.

Birdy didn't ask for another dance because he couldn't face the rejection. He was alone in a gym full of people and his heart sagged from sadness and loss. He had forced his presence on Cassie Emerson by fixing the escort selection but failed in his foolish attempt to get her to like him.

The Queen momentarily spared the depressed escort from his loneliness by asking for a dance and a grateful Birdy gladly accepted the kind offer.

"You always take pity on your lowly servants?" he defeatedly asked.

"You're okay, Birdy," The pretty Queen assured him with a smile. "You can't force a girl to like you," she advised. "It either happens or it doesn't."

"It didn't this time," he sighed.

"There will be other times," she said with an encouraging smile.

Birdy hung out with his dance teacher, Lucy Beckwith, who ended up as his unofficial date for the evening. She had eyes that danced, an infectious smile, and she was the breeziest girl he knew, but even her pleasant company couldn't save him from his own misery.

He tried to enjoy himself with Lucy, but it was hard watching Cassie dance the night away with Clark, especially during the slow numbers. He wanted to be her Duke, but knew he'd never belong to the Duchess because of the way he had treated her.

Birdy didn't make it to the end of the evening - he just couldn't take the pain of losing Cassie, the girl he never had in the first place.

"Is it me?" a disappointed Lucy asked when Birdy said his early goodnight.

Birdy gave her a spontaneous hug. "Of course not," he said candidly. "It's me."

What a heel. Lucy Beckwith was cute and delightful, but his heart belonged to another. The clock had struck midnight and Cinderfella trumped home alone, back to the pumpkin of his life.

Chapter 13

It took two weeks to paint the Emerson's damn porch, a huge structure that wrapped around both sides of the stately Victorian house. Birdy wanted to do the job right and rented a sanding machine and other equipment from Taylor Rental. He took his time with the project, paying attention to detail (as Johnny C taught him) and doing a professional job..

Birdy fantasized that the Emersons would warmly greet him with opened arms. The personable Mrs. Emerson would bring him milk and cookies, the enthralled younger Emerson girls would treat him like a favored big brother, and Cassie would respect his kind efforts by spending time with her hero while he painted. The two lost friends would get reacquainted after seven years of separation by sharing conversation and laughter. All would be forgiven and Birdy would become that nice Braft boy in the Emerson's eyes.

Instead, Birdy was subjected to two weeks of miserable punishment of his own making and the Emerson house quickly became the last place he wanted to be now that he knew Cassie really – really! - hated his guts. The offended Cassie didn't appreciate her former escort violating her space and she was conspicuous in her absence. Birdy knew the spiteful Cassie was going out of her way to avoid him which left him feeling pathetic and rejected. What a fool he had been to think he could win Cassie back.

Cassie's eleven-year old sister Bunny was a rambunctiously active kid with pigtails and P. F. Flyers. She spied on Birdy while he painted, as if he was a prisoner on a work release project. Bunny took great delight one afternoon when she stuck her face between two porch railings and proclaimed "My sister hates your guts!" successfully sticking the knife further into Birdy's already broken heart.

Bunny's stabbing insult hurt more than Prelog's fist and Birdy was shattered by her piercing words. The young girl's mean yet honest announcement helped him to finally understand why Cassie had been so injured by him. He shuttered thinking about the awful things he had said to her in the worst moments of his lost existence and was actually grateful to Bunny for teaching him such an eye-opening lesson.

Birdy knew he had been a mean bastard during those ugly years, lashing out and acting up in a perverted unsuccessful call for help. He was ashamed of his behavior and embarrassed by his obnoxious bully reputation, but he was paralyzed by the realization that there was nothing he could do about those indiscretions.

The broken Birdy hardly spoke the last few days he spent painting the Emerson's porch. Mrs. Emerson, bless her heart, was nice to him when she realized what a depressed mess he had become. Cassie came home a few times, but Birdy didn't even look at her. He was too humiliated and miserable to say anything.

His restorative painting detail finally came to a merciful conclusion. Mr. and Mrs. Emerson thanked the worker for his efforts and he mumbled his apologies one more time, unable to look them in the eyes, knowing he was the worse piece of shit Hillsboro had ever produced.

As ill timing would have it, Cassie walked up the front walk as Birdy was leaving the Emerson's on the last day. He stopped her by stepping into her path on the walkway.

"I said some really hurtful and awful things to you when we were younger," he bluntly admitted. "I wish I hadn't, but I can't change the past. All I can do is tell you I'm sorry." His voice broke and he had to catch himself from bursting out in tears.

Cassie looked at him with a stern frown. "I know I'm supposed to forgive you, but I can't," she openly confessed. "One apology can't erase all the pain. I want you to remember every day the deep hurt you caused. Then maybe you'll really be sorry."

He nodded in understanding and left without offering another word, but every week for the rest of the time he lived in Hillsboro (sometimes two or three times a week), a remorseful Birdy Baft mailed Cassie Emerson a card. Sometimes they were funny. Other times, the cards were poetic. In every card he wrote: "I remember and I am sorry."

Chapter 14

Birdy's life had become one long couldn't.

Couldn't have a normal family.

Couldn't play for Prelog.

Couldn't have the only girl he ever wanted.

Couldn't escape his past.

Although he sent Cassie the weekly cards, Birdy gave up on wooing her. Queen Carol Manning was right: he couldn't make the Duchess like him and he couldn't make her forgive him either, so he let her go.

Birdy slipped into the same type of defeated and depressed cycle he experienced after Prelog punched him in the face. He knew he needed to survive his current emotional trial until basketball started and he devoted himself to his job at Johnny C's as his main focus.

Birdy invited Andy and his sister Lucy to the house for a thank you dinner a few weeks after Booster Day and cooked a grand feast fit for a King.

"Geez Birdy, this is the best meal I've ever had," Beck marveled in his Julia Child voice, but Birdy knew Beck wasn't jerking his chain.

Birdy began spending time with Beck's sister Lucy, even though she was the rebound girl after the Duchess. Birdy wasn't beyond any of his old tricks, making sure Cassie saw them together whenever he could, foolishly believing such vain attempts might make Cassie jealous. Yes, he was using Lucy, but he enjoyed her company and she became the first girl he regularly cooked for. The two got along well together and he liked her bubbly easy going nature.

Lucy was happy to have gained Birdy's attention. Her brother's best friend had been around forever, of course, but now that she was of dating age, Lucy was eager for some romance. She played it cool at the Booster Day Dance and was flattered when Birdy started calling more regularly.

"Just don't get a boner with her," Andy warned Birdy when he figured out the two had become an item.

"I taught you how to dance, so now you can teach me how to kiss," Lucy announced one Saturday night after another dinner at Birdy's house and that's how the two often spent their evenings together: making out on the living room couch.

Of course, her brother's "Just don't get a boner" remark stayed in the back of Birdy's mind and he never went much farther than vapor-lock kissing with the girl. He could almost hear Boone Reynolds saying "What are you, a homo?" for not taking advantage of the ready and willing Lucy, but it just didn't feel right to do anything more than smooch. Occasionally, he would slip his hand down the back of her jeans and feel the roundness of her bare buns against his palm but that was as far as they went.

Birdy liked lying on the couch with Lucy on top watching a movie, feeling her backside, and kissing during the commercials and they both knew they were using the opportunity to feel wanted and needed. But he was never able to get Cassie Emerson out of his mind even with Lucy Beckwith in his arms.

The Panther held a combined basketball tryout with Coach T. the Monday following the Turkey Day football game. After three days of workouts, with The Panther never uttering a word to Birdy or acknowledging his presence, the cuts were made. Last year's 10th graders Dan Bailey, Billy Aldrich, and Henry Harris were advanced to the varsity squad as juniors. Tag Hendrix was the only sophomore to get picked, and freshman Joe Bonds was a surprise promotion to the varsity team, beating out Duston, Andy, and Phil Golinski for the backup guard position.

The promotions were met with mixed reactions for the varsity players. They were happy to have made the higher level, of course, but not all of them were thrilled to be back with The Panther whom they decided was a certified lunatic.

With Prelog making his picks, Coach T's junior varsity team consisted of lone Junior Cade Simpson joining 10th graders Duston, Boone, Andy, Phil Golinski, George Kessler and Birdy, along the freshmen newcomers of Barry Schwink, Donny Garvin, Moondog Currie, Frank Boubren, and Cassie Emerson's boyfriend Clark Fitzgerald.

Birdy was disappointed that Duston and Boone didn't get the nod to the varsity squad, but was glad to be playing with them on JV for another year. It was also great being reunited with the freshmen guys from their junior high days, though Birdy would miss his old friend Joe Jock Bonds who made the big leap.

The veteran JV players had fun in practice and broke in the freshmen to the ways of their Coach, The Timberlake. Cade, Duston, Boone, Andy and Phil were Coach T's starting five. Birdy played on the second squad with the four freshmen - Donny Garvin, Barry Schwink, Moondog Currie and – wouldn't you know, Clark Fitzgerald. Georgie Porgie and Frank Boubren were the alternates who filled in on both squads.

Birdy was uncommonly kind to Clark, who was civil enough not to throw Cassie in his teammate's face even though both players knew Clark got the girl. Birdy did play his own little secret private game of emotional revenge with Clark. The Birdman was generous, courteous and supportive in his words and behavior as a teammate, but anytime he could, Birdy would show Clark up or put him in his place on the basketball practice court. Fitz might be superior when it came to status and maybe Cassie was his girl, but Birdy made sure it was Braft who was held the upper hand on the basketball court and he would laugh to himself whenever Clark blew a play.

Birdy enjoyed basketball practice more than the actual games. Practice was where the guys hung out and played against each other, laughing while challenging, supporting while confronting, and working hard while still having fun.

The JV team was pretty good. Boone Reynolds, who smoked like a chimney, played angry all season, believing he was a better player than Junior Billy Aldrich and that Prelog had screwed him off the varsity team. The gentleman Duston displayed his usual courageous commitment and and was the JV team leader.

Cade Simpson was in a difficult position as the only junior on the JV team, but he was gracious in his seniority role and Birdy studied Simpson's attitude and actions, knowing he would undoubtedly be in the same position the following year.

Birdy's existence consisted of basketball, working at Johnny C's, and necking with Lucy Beckwith, but he continued to live a disconnected life. Holidays were especially tough. His mother didn't pay much attention to the ceremonies around such celebrations as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Birdy ended up spending Thanksgiving with the Kellys and was having a hard time getting excited about the Christmas holidays, which the Kellys noted with concern and compassion. .

Officer Mike pulled to the curb in his cruiser as Birdy walked home from practice one snowy Friday afternoon and told him to get in.

"Be outside your house at 11:45 on Christmas Eve," the cop ordered as he drove his ward home. Birdy did as instructed, stepping into the cold night of Christmas Eve to find Mike and his wife waiting in their car in front of his house.

"Where are we going?" Birdy asked as he got into the back seat.

"Church, of course," replied Mike. "It's Christmas Eve!"

The Braft family had never been particularly religious, even when Birdy's father was alive. His dad was Protestant but never went to Church and his mother was a Baptist who stopped practicing after her husband's death. Her decision to give up on religion only reinforced Birdy's abandonment of God and he never gave Church a second thought, so it felt strange walking into St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church for Christmas Eve Mass with the Irish Catholic Cop Mike Kelly and his equally as devout wife. The place was packed, the church was beautiful, and as much as he resisted the whole spiritual deal, Birdy couldn't help but be moved by the music, the prayers, the people, and the pageantry of the service. He recognized several kids from school serving on the altar, including Clark Fitzgerald.

"Christmas is my favorite Mass of the year," Mike gushed on the way home following the service. "It's a reminder that we're supposed to be praying for universal spirit and common good."

"What do you pray for, Mike?" Birdy wanted to know.

"Compassion, strength, guidance, humility, generosity, serenity and the welfare of others," answered Mike.

"We're not big on religion at my house," Birdy confessed

"Without God, without religion, life has no meaning," Mike rebutted, sounding like a preacher. "Our place in the universe and community is through Religion. It gives us pride and a sense of purpose."

"Let's not be trying to convert the boy, dear," Mrs. Kelly told her husband.

"No, no of course not," the cop laughed, embarrassed to be called out by his wife. "I just wanted to remind Birdy. He's been too pissed off to see and hear God."

"Maybe God doesn't hear me," Birdy challenged from the back seat.

"It takes two to have a relationship," Mike reminded him. "Maybe you forgot about Him."

"Maybe he's forgotten about me."

"God never forgets," Mike concluded as he pulled the car to the curb in front of the Braft house. "God only loves."

"Thanks, Father Mike!" Birdy joked as he opened the door. "Merry Christmas, folks!"

Birdy appreciated the Kellys' gesture and the spiritual refresher made Christmas feel like it had a purpose to it, even if the holiday at the Brafts was severely understated.

Birdy's Christmas Eve church visit became ironic a few days later when Clark Fitzgerald's brother Curt was killed in a freak skiing accident. It was the insensitive Boone Reynolds who gave Birdy the news.

"What kind of idiot plows himself into a tree?" Boone demanded when he informed Birdy of the tragic news during a shift at Johnny C's.

"I doubt he did it on purpose, Boone."

Birdy only met Curt a few times, but had noticed the entire Fitzgerald family at Christmas Eve Mass just a few days earlier. He felt guilty for considering Clark a pompous brat now that he had a dead brother. Nobody deserves that sort of heartbreak in life - Birdy knew that truth from his own experience.

Coach T. was noticeably somber and serious at basketball practice the next day, telling the team that it was their moral obligation as teammates to go to Curt's wake and funeral.

"God sucks," Clark's good friend and teammate Frank Bourben complained.

"God didn't kill the Fitzgerald boy," Coach T. told the team. "God created the snow slope and the trees that were on it, but the rest is up to us. This is not a punishment or a pay back by God. The kid simply skied into a tree. That's all there is to it."

So, had a drunk simply run over Birdy's father? Was that all there was to it?

Birdy attended the wake with some of the guys. The funeral home visit was his first since his father's death and it brought back horrible memories, especially with crying teenagers filling the room. The Fitzgeralds were a mess, shell shocked to the point of being comatose as they stood in the receiving line on autopilot, blankly thanking people for coming.

Birdy noticed Cassie Emerson with some of her friends. She looked drained and pale crying with the girls in the back of the parlor and he didn't bother saying anything to the duchess. He sat with his friends trying not to feel out of place since hanging out at a 17 year old's wake isn't exactly a fun way to spend an evening. The place was claustrophobically mobbed and the basketball players eventually left to make room for other grievers, glad to be done with the uncomfortable obligation.

Birdy attended the funeral too, knowing Cassie Emerson would be there and hoping the opportunity would give him another chance to be around her, although he didn't speak to her.

Clark tried to get back into some sort of normal life when school resumed after the Christmas vacation. Nobody talked to him about his dead brother, of course. Fifteen year olds don't do the death thing very well, but Birdy had seven years of experience in that department and what he recalled most about the aftermath of his father's death was Billy Sennott talking to him a few days later about his own father, who had dropped dead of a heart attack when Billy was in the second grade. Billy was the only kid who had the insight, strength and compassion to share his thoughts with the grieving Birdy.

Most avoided Clark around school, incapable of dealing with death on any real level, so Birdy took it upon himself to sit next to Clark in the locker room a few days after his return to let him know that the first year would be the worse.

"Every holiday, every birthday, every special event will be tough," Birdy told Clark, who sat on the bench with his shoulders sunk and head down. "You'll think you've seen him in a crowd, or you will be reminded of him by the sound of someone's voice or by something you see on television."

"Does it ever go away?" Clark wanted to know.

"No," Birdy admitted. "But it does get easier with time. You never forget. You just learn to live with it."

Clark looked up and nodded. "Thanks, Birdy," he said with sincerity. "Thanks for not treating me like I have scurvy like everybody else."

"Any time you need to talk, let me know," offered Birdy. We're members of the same club now."

A few weeks later, Birdy left the basketball practice floor to take a leak and found Clark sitting alone in the locker room openly sobbing.

"Having a tough day, huh?"

"We were supposed to go to a Celtics game this weekend," Clark explained through his weeping. "Got the tickets for Christmas."

"Go to the game anyway," Birdy suggested. "Enjoy it for him."

Birdy started for the urinal, but Clark stopped him by asking a strange question.

"Do you believe in God?"

Birdy was thrown by the unexpected inquiry. "Well, yeah, I guess," he decided, feeling exposed and vulnerable as he took a seat next to Clark

"God is supposed to be close to us and He's supposed to be with us during times like this, right?" Clark wanted to know.

"Yeah." What the hell did Birdy know about God?

"I really do believe that," Clark revealed. "I've been going to church every day since Curt died. Sometimes I just sit and think, in a quiet space, alone. I find comfort there. God is with me."

"That's great, Clark." Birdy wondered why he never felt that way when his father died.

"I think God is testing me," Clark continued, wiping his tears and running nose on a towel. "To see if I am truly faithful and accept His will."

"You were faithful before this happened, right?" Birdy asked.

"Oh, definitely," a proud Clark answered.

"So why would that change? I mean, isn't death the time when we're supposed to be the most faithful?"

Clark smiled. "Yes it is," he answered with confidence. "God exists to provide comfort, solace and love. Jesus is our redemption if we believe."

Birdy was a hypocrite for telling Clark such things. He never considered any of this when his own father died. He ran away from God and became a negative hellion instead of acting like Clark, who was turning to God and staying positive in his time of need.

"Do you believe that God never abandons us?" Clark asked.

"Depends on what kind of day I'm having," Birdy reluctantly admitted.

"Well, I believe it," Clark said confidently. "I believe in Him. I just need to remember that when I'm having bad days, huh?"

"Sure, Clark," Birdy sighed, squirming from the strange conversation.

"Do you believe in Heaven, Birdy?" Why did Clark suddenly consider Birdy his spiritual advisor?

"Sure," he replied half-heartedly, surprised to be having a God talk with Clark Fitzgerald.

"We'd better, right?" Clark laughed. "I mean, it's the only way we get to see our loved ones again."

"I guess." Birdy didn't know what he believed.

"I'm sure Curt died a good death," Clark stated.

Birdy frowned. "A good death? What's a good death?"

"When you die in the arms of the Lord," Clark explained. "When you die with a belief in Jesus. When you have faith in God. When you accept the will and the way of Christ himself."

"Oh." Would Birdy's life have been different if he had adopted that philosophy after his father's death?

Clark was suddenly serene, relaxed and calm. "Hey, thanks, Birdy," he said with a joyous smile. "I really appreciate you talking with me about this stuff."

Birdy wanted to say, 'Now go tell your girlfriend how great I am!' Instead, he slapped his teammate's leg, told him he'd be fine, and finally made it to the urinal to do his duty. How strange that Birdy was now considering Cassie's boyfriend as his friend!

Birdy didn't know how to react when he heard that Cassie and Clark broke up, especially since Lucy had dumped him a few weeks earlier.

"What did you do to screw that up?" Andy asked Birdy in the locker room after hearing from his sister that it was over.

"She said I'm a great guy, but I live a disconnected life," Birdy revealed.

"What the hell does that mean?" Beck asked with a frown.

"I don't have the heart of a dancer, apparently," a downcast Birdy said. "I'm not emotionally free."

"It means you didn't try to lay her," the more-worldly Boone Reynolds explained from a few lockers away.

"So, you didn't get a boner with my sister," noted Andy with an understanding nod. "Sorry if I ruined it for you."

"Well, there's always Boone's sister," Birdy joked and Reynolds threw a used towel in his face.

Birdy didn't bother telling Beck and Boone that the end with Lucy came after she walked into his bedroom with the idea of perhaps finally putting the moves on him, only to be thunderstruck seeing fourteen photographs of Cassie Emerson all over the place.

"I don't think you're really connected to me, Birdy," she commented as she stared at the numerous photos.

Birdy didn't put up much of an argument on that point, but the breakup with Lucy reminded him of his detached life. He let the willing Beckwith girl get away because he was unable to let go of Cassie. But now Clark had let Cassie go and Birdy couldn't resist the temptation of asking why.

"I broke up with her," Clark volunteered when Birdy broached the subject during a basketball practice break.

"A nice girl like Cassie?"

"Oh, she's a wonderful person," Clark agreed. "But she was getting in the way between me and God."

Birdy knew poor Clark had to be going off the deep end with all this religion and God stuff if he was willing to sacrificing the beautiful Cassie Emerson for the Deity!

"I know you like her, Birdy, but she's not ready to forgive you for whatever it was you did," Clark added without a prompt from The Birdman.

"I know," Birdy sighed. Then he grinned slyly at Clark. "Sorry I tried to move in on you during Booster Week."

"None of that matters now," the unaffected Clark told him.

"It matters to me," the salvation seeking Birdy replied.

"Have you forgiven your father for dying on you?" a quizzical Clark wanted to know.

The question was a cold smack to the face. It was the first time he had been asked how he felt about his father's death. "I know he didn't have a choice in the matter," Birdy finally decided, finding solace perhaps for the first time since Bill Braft's death.

"Forgiveness is a powerful gift, Birdy," Clark told him. "I hope you're able to experience it in your life."

Birdy looked at him with confused skepticism, but Clark was grinning as he trotted onto the basketball court and resumed drills.

Maybe Clark had discovered the truth. Maybe forgiveness is the first step on the path to healing. A few days later, Clark showed up late for basketball practice. The team was already in their uniforms and about to head upstairs to The Pit.

"You're late," Team Captain Cade Simpson chastised. "Get dressed!"

The serene Clark smiled and patted Simpson on the shoulder. "You're doing a great job, Cade. Keep up the good work."

Clark strolled to the Coach's office, closing the door behind him. A few minutes later, Coach Timberlake escorted Fitz from the office and joined the rest of the team in the open locker room area.

"Boys, Clark here has decided to leave the team at this time," the Coach announced. "We thank him for his contributions and wish him all the best. He'll always be a member of this team as far as I'm concerned."

"Man, finding God sure can mess up your head," Boone Reynolds complained.

Clark shook hands with the players and wished them well as he said his goodbyes.

A confused Birdy lingered behind after the others had gone upstairs for a private moment with Clark.

"But you love basketball," the surprised Birdy said. "How can you quit?"

"It wouldn't be fair to you guys," a peaceful Clark explained. "My heart just isn't in it."

"Are you sure?"

"My priorities have changed, Birdy," the confident Clark replied. "My family needs me. There's other stuff to do. I'm starting a youth group at the Church. It's going to be great. Don't worry about me."

Birdy shook the devout Christian's hand and wished him well. He was surprised at how disappointed he was that his former nemesis was leaving the team and he realized that he would miss Clark's spiritual energy and soothing presence. Birdy was struck by Clark's happiness, excitement, and vigor. Every time Clark saw him, he'd tell Birdy that he was praying for him. He never said goodbye either. It was always "God Bless." Birdy dealt with his tragedy by becoming negative. Clark dealt with his loss by being positive.

Frank Boubren took over Clark's slot on the squad and played on the second team. The JVs had a good basketball season for Coach Timberlake who didn't need to scream "They're killing me out there" quite as much as the team won 13 of its 16 scheduled games. JV's don't have a playoff system so the season ended with the last game.

"You're a good team," Coach Timberlake assured the group. "I think you guys have a chance to really do something when you get to varsity. Remember what you've learned here and don't forget the basics. That's what'll make you winners."

Cade Simpson had been the year's version of Luke LoBush as the Prelog outcast and Birdy asked him if he was going to try out for the varsity team the following year.

"Prelog will never play me," the discouraged junior replied.

"You're a good basketball player, Cade," the appreciative Birdy told him. "How'd you get in his death list?"

"Ah, he chewed me out in eighth grade for loafing," a baffled Cade replied. "Told me I had no chance of being as great as him. So I said, 'Gee Coach, if you're so great, what are you doing coaching junior high dipshits like us?' He never talked to me again. Didn't you notice how I didn't play in our last two games that year? Never got off the bench."

The Panther's Varsity won 12 of its sixteen games and made it to the playoffs. Enthusiastic Duston McQuinn and angry Boone Reynolds were added to the playoff roster, but the team got blown out in the first round and that was it for The Panther's glory run that season. Birdy felt bad for the guys, but reveled in Prelog's defeat.

Varsity Player Tag Hendrix, the nutty beanpole teammate with the disgusting hygene practices, explained the team's downfall.

"Prelog is way too uptight," Hendrix complained. "He takes every defeat as a personal affront. He says when we fail we make him a failure and that's the worse thing we can do. There's a lot of pressure playing for the Panther."

Chapter 15

Joe Jock Bonds and Birdy took driver's education classes together as soon as the basketball season was over. Birdy hadn't spent much time with Joe in the previous few years and welcomed the opportunity to hang out again, thankful their friendship survived Birdy's "dark years".

Joe Jock was aware that Birdy was on Prelog's shit list, though he never asked his friend why. Joe agreed Prelog was a questionable coach, but he didn't have a problem playing for The Panther because he was a "yes man" who did whatever the Coach ordered!

"I'm actually a better player now," Joe admitted. "I'm not a show boat anymore. I just make the play."

Both players agreed that there was a psychopathic element to Prelog's personality, but Joe gave The Panther more credit as a Coach than Birdy. Joe felt The Panther focused mostly on the guys he thought had a legitimate chance of making it beyond high school.

"He likes guys who are going to make him look good," was Birdy's cynical response.

"Yeah," Joe agreed. "If you're willing to kiss his ass, you're better off."

Driver's Ed was a whoop. Rosco Howell, who owned Howell's Driving School, looked like a truck driver with huge arms and no neck. He burst into the classroom the first night of class like a football linebacker breaking through an offensive line. He gave a seething and threatening speech and the class never saw him again.

"There are 20 of you kids in this room," Rosco announced opening the initial class. "Statistics tell us that 14 of you will be dumb enough to drink and drive. Five of you will have a serious accident and, well, sorry, but two of you will die in an automobile accident. Most of you will ignore the stuff we teach here and a majority of you will be the crazy and stupid drivers I see out there on the road all the time. For those morons, I have one request: stay the hell out of my lane! And for God sakes, don't tell them you're a proud graduate of Howell's Driving School when you screw up!"

Mr. Sandeen was the classroom instructor. He looked like a hamster, spoke with no emotion, and made the students write pages of notes about driving rules and procedures. He distributed 42 handouts every class. One night, he had the photographer from the Greenville News and Dispatch come in with tons of car accident photos taken over the years. The gruesome ones unfit for publication – with dead bodies hanging out of car doors and blood splattered all over the pavement.

"This is what happens when you don't take good notes," Mr. Sandeen told the class in his flat lone monotone, holding up a black and white photo of a twisted hunk of metal that used to be car smashed into a bridge pillar, with an arm lying on the ground next to it.

Another time, he had a guy wheeled into the room, paralyzed from the neck down trying to pass in a no passing zone. The quadriplegic spoke to the class between the breaths he took from the oxygen hose that kept him alive.

"That's what happens when you don't respect what a double yellow line means," Mr. Sandeen told the class after the guy was wheeled out. "Take good notes."

There were written tests with Mr. Sandeen almost every class. He didn't give standard Grades. Instead, students got a "Made it Home" (denotes an A), "Hit the Curb" (for a B), "Wrecked the Car" (for a C), "Crossed the Center Line" (for a D) and "Front Page Story" (if one flunked the exam).

The instructor showed reels of gruesome footage of smashed up cars and dead bodies, replaying certain parts in slow motion.

"It's one thing reading about it in the paper," Mr. Sandeen remarked. "It's something else when you see it up close and personal."

Joe and Birdy both passed the written permit exam and excitedly began their driving lessons on the open road. Rosco Howell's diverse staff of driving instructors included retired cops and military guys still wanting to have a say, school teachers looking to pick up some extra cash, and college students trying to supplement their wallets.

Joe and Birdy, along with a kid named Jenny Pella from Greenville, were assigned to the car of Jack Mellan, a burly college senior who was so big he barely fit in the front seat of the sedan. Jenny was about five foot one and had to push the front seat all the way up to reach the floor pedals, and this was pure torture for the robust driving instructor.

Joe and Birdy of Hillsboro razzed Greenville Jenny about school loyalty and hometown superiority, but Jack was from White River Junction, Vermont and cared less about those debates. Jack had the perfect personality and attitude to sit in a car with three teenagers learning how to drive. He never panicked, got excited, yelled, or insulted the student driver. He was so laid back that sometimes the students forget he was the instructor. He was witty with a dry sense of humor and a wry way of letting them know they did something wrong. It was fun traveling across Blue County in the "Howell Driving School" Dodge Dart with Jack as the instructor.

"I'll tell you when there's a problem," Jack said. "Otherwise, I'm getting paid to watch you drive. So, drive."

Jenny was a timid, nervous driver who made the others anxious just being in the same car with her.

"You have to drive the minimum speed limit," Jack would insist whenever Jenny putted down a roadway at 20 m.p.h. "Going to slow causes just as many accidents as going to fast."

Joe was oblivious in his driving faults, once entering the interstate from the off ramp at about 90 m.p.h. while never bothering to look for approaching traffic and nearly taking out a Cadillac in the process.

"They invented rear view mirrors for a purpose," was all Jack had to say.

Birdy was disciplined and practical in his driving approach and barely solicited a response from Jack in all the hours he logged behind the wheel.

Jack liked sports, so he and Joe Jock hit it off. Jenny played softball and she and Joe spent their time in the backseat when Birdy was driving challenging each other about their own athletic abilities and ended up dating as a result of their time together. Jenny was a pretty girl with piercing brown eyes, a happy smile, a good natured personality, and a shapely body. She was friendly and Birdy was at ease around the petite girl with sandy brown hair and an innocence that gave her the classic girl next-door presence.

The driving trio got along well and sometimes they'd be so busy talking – and getting Jack in on the conversation – that they'd forget that they were student drivers.

Joe spinned the car out on loose gravel taking a corner to fast one day, causing Jack to drop his coke in his lap.

"You might want to slow it down just a tad," was all Jack had to say on the incident.

Birdy enjoyed traveling just about every road in Blue County during their many hours of driving. He saw houses, cow fields, farms, and landmarks that he never knew existed, even though he grew up in the area.

Jack passed all three student drivers when they had logged the necessary hours. .

"Driving a car is a serious responsibility," the instructor reminded the trio upon graduation. "A car can be a privilege, a luxury, a necessity, or a weapon. It all depends on how you chose to use it. I always check the court logs to see if any of my former students end up with traffic offenses," Jack warned them. "Don't let me down."

Birdy was a few months older than Joe Jock and got his license first. It didn't hurt that he took his driver's test using Mike Kelly's car with his sponsor the cop sitting in uniform in the back seat.

With his new license safely tucked in his wallet, Birdy accompanied Andy Beckwith to Miller Motors where Beck's dad was a salesman. Mr. Beckwith sold the teen an eight-year old Chevy Impala that was within the kid's price range, a purchase made possible because Birdy had saved his money with a discipline that came from being on his own from such an early age.

Birdy paid a visit to Emerson and Emerson to purchase his car insurance. The girl in the front was going to handle the paperwork, but when Cassie's father saw Birdy, he directed the customer to his office and was kind enough to handle Birdy's account personally. Birdy was appreciative of the special treatment, which he assumed was pay back for the porch painting.

Birdy trusted Mr. Emerson to do right and he got a good package for his age, experience, and the age of the car.

When Mr. Emerson asked Birdy for a beneficiary for the policy in the event he was killed, Birdy replied, "Cassandra Emerson."

Mr. Emerson examined him over his reading glasses but said nothing as he wrote his daughter's name and address on the form.

"Let's keep this part between ourselves," the father suggested.

When they were done with the paperwork, Mr. Emerson stood and shook Birdy's hand.

"Congratulations, Mr. Braft. You now own an insured automobile."
"Thanks, Sir."

"Remember, your insurance payment will go up with any and every violation, so drive carefully," he advised.

Officer Mike drove Birdy to the Registry in Greenville and the new owner proudly registered his car. An hour later, with the plates attached to his first automobile, Birdy was driving through the streets of Hillsboro as a legal car owner!

"I guess this means I won't be giving you rides anymore," Officer Mike said when the newly licensed driver returned from his initial trek through town.

"Maybe now I can drive you around!" Birdy replied with an appreciative smile, aware of the coming of age moment brought by the ownership of a car.

Chapter 16

Once school let out for the summer, Birdy joined the 10 team county-wide Blue County Summer Basketball League for players between the ages of 16 and 20. Farnsworth Shoes sponsored one of Hillsboro's entries and Joe's Pizza was the other host. League rules required that each team stock at least six active players on the roster and that an identified Head Coach represent each squad. Summer league coaches were usually fathers, friends of sponsors, or former players. Occasionally, a teacher might sign on to help lead the kids.

Duston, Joe Jock Bonds, Phil Golinski and Birdy joined the Joe's Pizza team, along with Andy Beckwith, Cade Simpson and Torch Johnson. Some older guys Birdy didn't know were also on the team from previous summers: Red Candell (who brought beer in his water bottle), Shane Carter (all 5' 6" of him), Dizzy Caporone (a flake with a great jump shot), and Bob Foglenheim (who had the worse case of acne Birdy had ever seen). Joe's Pizza had eleven players, but rarely did everybody show given work schedules, vacations, dates and other commitments!

The Joe's Pizza Manager for Birdy's first year was a guy named John Nickerson, a retired accountant who knew nothing about basketball but agreed to helm the squad as a favor to his player nephew Shane Carter. "Nick" was a nice enough guy but was mostly a figure head presence so the team could play.

Playing in the summer basketball league was fun because it was a wide-open style of play that gave players a chance to compete with some of the best talent in Blue County while experimenting with different moves and strategies. Joe's Pizza didn't have a very good record that summer, but the team had fun playing together. The older guys were accommodating and let the new guys play a fair amount of time and there were no egos or jerks on the team.

When he wasn't playing basketball, Birdy was usually working at Johnny C's. He didn't have much of a social life and felt left out since most of his friends had their steady summer lovin', so he semi-sort-of-kind-of pretended that Jane Leary was his girl.

Jane was in Birdy's high school class. She was tall, blonde and extremely gorgeous, but she was also a ditz who could barely add up the bill when she waited on tables at Johnny C's. Jane was convinced that she had what it took to be a model and she changed her "professional" name to "Jaynee" to give herself a more artistic appeal. She was constantly having her photograph taken and had already appeared in local newspaper advertisements, one of which was framed and hung on the wall at Johnny C's. Jaynee always carried a bundle of fashion magazines with her and was at the hairdresser almost every other day. She had more makeup in her purse than was stocked at Drumgold's Department Store.

Folks didn't have the heart to tell Jaynee that few make it in the business and most of her acquaintances let her live her small town fantasy of someday becoming famous. Jaynee was fun to work with and it was impossible not to like her open heart, warm smile and even-tempered personality. She was sweet, gullible, naïve, nonchalant and innocent to a fault and her high-pitched mousie voice made her sound like a 45 record being played at 78 speed. With her good looks, Jaynee was the kind of girl who could easily be taken advantage of because it never occurred to her that someone might be using her. For this reason, her friends watched out for her at school and the staff was equally as protective of her at Johnny C's.

Birdy made it a point to hang out with Jaynee for no other reason than to be seen with a girl. He was lonely since Lucy dumped him and he could only watch Cassie Emerson from afar, but he liked the illusion of a romance with Jaynee. He took her to Reed's Creamie on the way home from work on a semi-regular basis, cooked her meals at his house, listened to her talk about glamour, let her read him passages from Cosmopolitan Magazine, and watched as she practiced her various make up experiments on her face. Jaynee loved telling him about a photo shoot here or a model opportunity there. She wanted to run away to New York but he convinced her that she should finish high school first.

Birdy thought about taking her to the secret place at Blue Lake where Becky brought him freshman year, but never quite worked up the nerve, especially after Jaynee unintentionally insulted him by claiming he was her "best friend", a sure way to kill any chance for romance!

The summer progressed without incident and school was upon them once again. Joe and Jenny were determined to make their relationship work even though they were attending rival schools.

"I got laid," Joe confided to Birdy with a combination of pride and embarrassment as they drove to school the first day. "It was dark and I couldn't find the hole at first, but we did it in the backseat of her old man's car up at Blue Lake last weekend. I'm no longer a virgin, Birdy."

"Congratulations." Birdy was happy that his long time friend had come of age and thought well enough of their friendship to share the news, but he was bummed that everybody was getting laid except him. He could hear Prelog laughing: What a Loser! Maybe he would have been better off he hadn't been such a noble gentleman with Lucy Beckwith and Jaynee Leary.

Birdy mistook Cassie Emerson for a new girl when he first saw her stuffing her possessions into her locker on the first day of junior year. When he realized it was her – without her beautiful, silky long hair - he stood frozen in the middle of the hallway with his mouth hanging open, staring at his unrecognizable dream girl. Her beautiful long hair had been cropped to a shag style around her collar that cupped her cheeks.

"Your hair!" he shouted, shocked at the unexpected sight of her missing mane.

Cassie frowned with annoyed embarrassment. "Please don't insult me with some stupid comment about my haircut."

"Oh no, no," Birdy stuttered in all sincerity. "I'm just……well…..I……" He couldn't find the words to express what he was thinking or feeling. He wandered off, too astounded to even engage her in a conversation.

As juniors, Birdy and his classmates played second fiddle to the seniors, but at least they had power and position over the freshmen and sophomores.

Birdy once again spent the fall biding his time until basketball season started in December. He continued to get the majority of his satisfaction from Johnny C's, where he was now the everyman employee, waiting tables, cooking, helping out in the kitchen, and cleaning up. He opened the place and closed it whenever needed. Staff came to him for advice and instruction. Customers greeted him with the same level of respect and authority as they showed the older workers. If it wasn't for basketball, Birdy might have quit school and worked at Johnny C's as a career choice.

With their busy and conflicting schedules, Birdy saw his mother on average of once a week. They rarely ate a meal together and while their relationship was cordial, it wasn't close. They were living their own lives and Birdy had been independently self-reliant for years. It occurred to him that his mother must have a social life linked to her career, but he never asked if she was involved and she never volunteered information about her personal life. She traveled to Albany three days every week to cover an office and he wondered if she was seeing someone there.

Birdy was shocked when Joe Jock Bonds' mother enlisted her son and Birdy to move her out of the Bonds' Pinewood Avenue house where the family lived since Joe was in first grade.

"You're not the only one in town with family problems," Joe said as they dragged furniture onto a rented U-Haul truck.

Mr. Bonds owed Hill's Barber Shop and Mrs. Bonds worked part time as a cab driver. It never occurred to Birdy that their marriage was on the rocks and it felt slimy to be helping Mrs. Bonds when Mr. Bonds had been just as good to him. Mr. Bonds was a friendly, affable guy who knew everybody in town. His barbershop was overstuffed with magazines and comics. A white radio sat on a counter and was always tuned in to "the barber shop station" that played Frank Sinatra, The Andrew Sisters, and Bing Crosby with local D.J. "Jim Knight all Day" giving news and weather updates.

Like Johnny C's, Hill's Barber Shop was a central point of social gathering in town, the place where men went not only to get their hair cut but to also talk sports, politics and the state of the nation. Mr. Bonds was skilled at asking questions and getting his customers to do all the talking. He knew the names of customers' wives and kids and what their general interests were. He was also able to keep up with the times, adapting and adjusting to the various "hair styles" instead of just "hair cuts". Mr. Bonds gave Birdy free haircuts sometimes (usually when nobody was around). The barber wore a blue smock and greeted the kids with a joke and gave out tootsie rolls as treats. Birdy liked the smell of the barber's aftershave. He thought it was ironic that Joe was one of the first kids to grow his hair long when he had a barber for a father. Joe's rebellion was the first time Birdy realized that there were problems at home, but his friend avoided talking about his father or family issues which was pretty much how Birdy was with his own family situation.

Mrs. Bonds, stereotypically Italian, was a great cook and she always gave Birdy tips, especially on pasta dishes. Joe grew annoyed when Birdy hung out in the Bonds' kitchen asking his mother all sorts of question and flipping through the recipe box of Joe's dead grandmother to study the various cards. Mrs. Bonds smoked too much and always had a cup of coffee in her hand. She was short while her husband was tall, plump while her husband was thin, but Birdy never sensed any animosity between the couple and the break up came out of the blue as far as he was concerned, but Jock didn't seem to be upset by the move.

"Anger turned inward will kill you," Birdy recalled Mrs. Bonds warning him after he smashed a window acting out in Joe's yard one day. "You need to find other ways to express your pain."

"You never really know what's going on inside people's houses," Officer Mike explained when Birdy expressed his disillusionment at the end of the Bonds' marriage. "Realities aren't always what they appear and perceptions are often wrong."

Joe didn't have much to say about his parents split, but Birdy sensed this was the final straw between Jock and his father.

"As long as your father is alive, you still have a chance with him," Birdy reminded his friend.

"I wouldn't care if he dropped dead today," was Joe's cold response.

Mrs. Bonds, Joe and his kid sister Terri moved into an apartment in the west end of downtown Hillsboro. A few weeks later, Mr. Bonds moved his new family into the Bonds' Pinewood Avenue home – a wife ten years his junior, along with a 12-year-old boy and 10 year old girl. Birdy assumed an affair was what ended Mr. Bonds first marriage and it felt weird seeing Joe's father around the neighborhood with his replacement family.

Beck's older sister got married a few weekends after Joe's family felt apart and Birdy was invited to the wedding, mostly so Beck would have someone to be bored with! A gala reception was held at the plush Blue Lake Inn. Plenty of great food, good music, and happy people kept Beck and Birdy entertained all afternoon. The bridegroom happened to have twin nineteen-year old cousins named Maddie and Maggie and the intrigued high school boys spent their time trying to interest the twins in their company, Beck working them with his Cary Grant impersonation. The girls were dark skinned with gem-like green eyes and wavy black hair, their features accented by the white dresses they were wearing. Maddie was introverted and quiet and Maggie was loud and borderline obnoxious.

Most rules of etiquette are suspended at weddings. Guests feel good about sharing in the ceremonial festivities and tend to let their guards down, especially after a few drinks when boundaries become skewed and undefined. Maggie was flattered by the attention and amused by Beckwith's impersonations, but Maddie was less interested than her demonstrative sister.

"I'm in college now," Maddie said. "Why do I want to hang around with a couple of high school boys?"

"Don't be such a tight-ass," Maggie told her sister.

Maggie revealed that she was the problem child in her family, the rebel-rouser who barely graduated from high school while breaking every rule in the book. Her twin, on the other hand, was a well-behaved, studious, and considerate girl who could do no wrong. Maggie worked for her father while figuring out what she wanted to do with her life, while Maddie headed off to an Ivy League college.

"Don't worry about it," Beck told Maggie. "The Birdman here was the problem child too."

Maggie convinced Birdy to skip out on the reception and the AWOL couple took a ride around the lake in Birdy's car. It was to cold for a swim, but he found the road Becky had taken and drove to the lake's edge.

Maggie had grabbed a bottle of champagne from her table and they sat in the front seat of Birdy's car watching the lake, swigging the bubbly and talking. He considered telling her about his night with Becky to appear more exciting and experienced, but didn't want to give her the wrong idea.

"What's the worse thing you ever did as the problem child?" he asked instead.

"Stole Christina Guidry's diary at summer camp," she replied, lighting up a cigarette. "Changed some stuff in it, made copies and spread it all over camp."

"What kind of stuff?" He asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Sexual stuff, of course," she answered with a laugh. "Made it sound like she and the lifeguard were doing it in the boat shack. That was pretty low, even for me." She blew rings with the cigarette smoke.

Maggie reviewed her top ten-list of problem child offenses, the strangest one in Birdy's view was Maggie having an entire bookcase of books in her bedroom taken from school and town libraries without being checked out.

"Stole them all," she admitted. "I'd just walk out of the place with a book I wanted to read and I never brought them back."

"I've been inside the house of just about every home on my street," Birdy revealed. "Whenever I knew the family was gone, I'd let myself in – or find a way in – and explore. Find out everybody's dirty little secrets. Snoop. Take things I liked. Watch TV for a while. If a girl from school lived there, I'd go through her bedroom looking for stuff."

"That was pretty brazen of you," Maggie said.

"I got naked and crawled into Marie Trumhold's bed one time!" He took a risk confessing that bizarre behavior.

"I don't need to hear the rest," Maggie warned.

He was able to match Maggie with some of his more horrible transgressions, including convincing little Stevie Stedman that his mother had been killed in a car accident (she was home cooking supper), pissing on crabby neighbor Mrs. Peterson's prized roses every night, accidentally killing the Clarkson's pain in the ass yip yip dog, stealing candy from kids on Halloween, smashing 57 pumpkins in one night, stealing shopping carts, a bike, and a tricycle and tossing them all into the Blue River, and opening up the windows of jerk neighbor Mr. Smithson's car during a blizzard.

"Wow, you were even more screwed up then me!" an impressed Maggie told him.

"I'm in recovery," Birdy replied, still hoping for redemption.

"How come?"

"I got a wake up call," he explained. "A punch in the face."

The problem children returned to the reception an hour later, light-headed and giggly from the champagne. They sat in front of the lobby's burning fireplace where Maggie took her shoes off and plopped her feet on a table. Maddie and Beck joined them. Maddie was noticeably relaxed and enjoying Beck's humorous company, no bi surprise since Beck's personality could win over almost any girl!

The group decided to make another road trip - Beck drove since he hadn't had any booze. The crew ended up bowling a couple of strings at the Ten Pin where they surely looked out of place with the twins in their fancy dresses and Birdy and Beck in their coats and ties. Maggie's voice boomed across the lanes and she showed her sister no mercy when she and Birdy outscored Beck and Maddie. The group stopped for ice cream at Johnny C's on the way back to the reception and, once again, Birdy felt important and popular being seen in public in the company of an attractive older woman.

The four returned to the inn long after the bride and groom left and were scolded by Beck's mom for missing the big departure.

"Your sister was so disappointed," she chastised, and even Lucy – who was standing behind her mom – agreed that Birdy and her brother had blown it big time.

The reception was winding down and Maggie said she and Maddie had better go hook up with their family, mostly in an attempt to avoid the further wrath of Mrs. Beckman Beck and Birdy said their goodbyes to the twins whose last names they never learned, thrilled to have turned a potentially boring family wedding into an unexpected date with a pair of older twins!

Chapter 17

Birdy's devastating experience with The Panther's negative influence taught him to be consciously aware of individuals and the roles they play. He looked for positive mentors in life and tried to avoid evil parasites like Prelog, knowing that people of character (like Officer Mike and Johnny C.) could help him on his quest to succeed in life.

Birdy wasn't sure how he felt about God (even after his conversations with Clark Fitzgerald), but he had come to realize that there were plenty of heroes in life to help him stay positive, ethical and morally grounded. He was too pissed off to notice such influences during his dark years, but he now appreciated Officer Mike, Johnny C, and Coach Timberlake, substitute fathers, available to lead him down the correct road in life.

Mr. Horace Q. Bennington, who was as square as a kid's toy block, was another guy whose advice and wisdom Birdy admired, respected and valued. Mr. B. was the high school's Government teacher, a passionate educator who loved politics and government. Birdy considered him a sage old fellow, but most students stereotyped the teacher as a dull dinosaur from the ice age. They called him "Mr. Borington" because his classes were considered a colossal bore by the masses.

Mr. Bennington wore bow ties, tweed jackets, polyester pants and brown penny loafers. He was over the hill and out of date. Nobody knew exactly how old he was, but he looked really old. He had balding hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a vocabulary out of the English middle ages. He was a demanding teacher who expected excellence from his students. He never gave breaks on quizzes, tests, or homework and constantly assigned mid terms and special projects. He was the best debater in the school, even if his students didn't agree with his points and he was forever holding the class to a higher standard – a measure they repeatedly argued they could never achieve. The teacher challenged his students not to accept the norm.

"Explore, find out!" He would plead. "Research. Read. Decide for yourself what is truth. Don't let some guy in front of a microphone decide reality for you."

Mr. Bennington was Birdy's favorite teacher, although he'd admit that to anybody. Mr. B. was one of the few reasons other than basketball and Cassie Emerson that made it worth Birdy's time to go to school.

Hillsboro High was abuzz with energy when Birdy arrived on a Monday morning, but he didn't pay attention to the excitement until he got to Home Room and overheard some of the kids shooting the breeze.

"I heard he bored himself to death," laughed Molly Loomis, an immature twit of a girl

"He probably couldn't take listening to himself anymore," agreed Andy Beckwith.

"What are you guys talking about?" Birdy was oblivious to the inside scoop.

"Boy, are you out of the loop!" said Tex Hendrix as he busily chewed on a pencil.

"Borington checked out," announced Boone Reynolds, once again delivering death news to Birdy.

Birdy stared blankly at his classmates.

"He died," Reynolds explained.

"They found him in his bed," reported Andy Beckwith. "Stiff as a board, blue as the ocean."

"As dead as his lectures," confirmed Boone Reynolds.

The clueless students kept on talking and laughing, but Birdy didn't join in. The stunning news left him feeling empty and lonely and he hated his friends for being so insensitive.

Principal Dodson came on the public address system and made the official announcement: "I have the sad responsibility of informing you that our beloved and admired teacher and friend Mr. Bennington passed away over the weekend. Please see me if you need to talk about this. Let us now have a moment of silence in his memory."

The self-imposed moratorium on Borington-bashing lasted about 12 seconds after the moment of silence was concluded before the jokes started up again. The basic consensus was that Borington was an old guy who supposed to die anyway.

Mr. Bennington's demise caused Birdy to relive his father's death all over again. It irked him that jerks like The Panther got to live their lives while good guys like Mr. Bennington and his father got taken away.

Birdy tried to mask his emotions as best he could knowing he'd be the biggest wimp in the school if anybody caught on that he was actually upset by Mr. Bennington's death.. He did tell Boone Reynolds to shut the fuck up when Boone made fun of the guy on the way to lunch.

"I liked him too," the insightful Bryanna Gleason quietly confessed while standing behind Birdy in the lunch line.

Birdy attended the Bennington wake at the Donnelly-Nolan Funeral Home, a three story Victorian house off of Main Street. Flowers packed the place and soft music could be heard playing in the background. And there – centered in the front of the room – was the open casket of Mr. Bennington, although he really didn't look like the Mr. Bennington Birdy remembered. His face was as tight as a piece of taunt canvas, his skin was the color of Elmer's Glue, and his mouth looked like somebody had stapled it shut. He was in an Army uniform and there was a flag covering most of the coffin. Several photographs were displayed around the casket, along with flower bouquets with all sorts of banners and messages – "Dad – We Love You and Miss You"; "Goodbye, Pappy"; "From Your Friends at Hillsboro High School" "Bennie – May God Bless You and Keep You."

An amazed Birdy studied the many photographs scattered about the room. There was a shot of a 10 year-old Mr. Bennington standing in front of an orphanage, a portrait of him as a young Army enlisted man, a snapshot of him standing in the middle of a bombed out town somewhere in Europe, a photo of him with his two young sons, and a Christmas card photo of the entire family from 1963. There was a newspaper clipping with a photo of him as Scrooge from the classic play "A Christmas Carol". There was a color portrait of him from one of the school yearbooks and a group shot of him surrounded by his grandchildren. It was mind-boggling to see Mr. Bennington in all walks of his life, and not just the guy from the classroom.

Mr. Bennington left behind two adult children and seven grandchildren, all of whom were at the wake. Birdy met countless people who had known and loved Mr. Bennington and heard stories and antidotes about "Dad", "Pappy", "Ha Ha", "Bennie", "The Major" and "Mr. Bennington". It was gratifying to realize how loved the guy had been, even if most of his students thought he was an old duff.

Birdy was lifted by the laughter, comforted by the tears, and enlightened by the many perspectives and stories being shared. He was embarrassed to realize that he knew practically nothing about Mr. Bennington the man. How he was a decorated World War II veteran and career Army Reservist. That he was the Headmaster for a private military school for several years. That he liked to perform and was involved in community theatre. Birdy hadn't known that Mrs. Bennington had been dead for nearly twenty years and that a son was killed in Vietnam.

Many former students paid their respects and recalled how Mr. Bennington had done or said something that made a difference for them. Army buddies told stories of Mr. Bennington's heroics, bravery, dedication, loyalty and friendship. Birdy heard countless tales of Mr. Bennington's generosity, his compassion, and his humanity, along with positive reflections about how admired, respected, honored and adored the man in the coffin had been. How could Birdy's peers have been so out to lunch about him? They lost a hero they never knew they had and Birdy was bowled over by a wave of sadness realizing he had gotten to know Mr. Bennington better in death than in life. There was something pathetic about that truth. He recalled how Mr. Bennington complimented him after his Booster Day Escort speech.

"Sorry I won't get a chance to be on your debate team, Sir," Birdy told the corpse as he said a prayer in front of the open coffin, knowing he had lost someone who would have made a big difference in his life.

Birdy was happy to see Bryanna Gleason arrive with her parents and sat with her while her parents visited with other mourners. Bryanna looked pale and uncomfortable in her surroundings.

"This is the first time I've seen a real live dead person," she squeamishly revealed.

"It's sort of weird," Birdy agreed. "Lots of kids don't like being around dead people.""

"I thought more kids would come," she said.

You can't blame them for hiding their feelings", Birdy explained. "Nobody wants to tell the truth about how they really feel."

"On the second day of school when I came as the new kid, I opened my locker and found a single rose in a vase," Bryanna told him. "There was a note that said 'Smile – and Welcome!' It took me about three weeks to figure out it came from Mr. Bennington. He never said a word, but I always appreciated his kind gesture."

Birdy wondered if people are perceived in death the same way they lived their lives. Had a piano fallen on him in sixth grade, would anybody have showed up at the service for a mean, fouled mouth juvenile delinquent named Birdy Braft? If he got splattered in a car accident now, would his reputation have been salvaged? Would people mourn his death? Would Cassie Emerson care? Birdy was becoming paranoid about his legacy, even at sixteen years of age.

Chapter 18

Superstar senior Doug Phelps was a key member of the varsity basketball team and The Panther was depending on him to help lead the squad to victory, but Doug was "driving to fast for road conditions" Thanksgiving weekend, hit a patch of ice and sailed off the road into a row of trees. Doug's high school basketball career was over: two busted legs, a broken pelvis, three severed toes, four broken ribs, a cracked shoulder and a fractured jaw ended any hope for a future in athletics.

The basketball guys visited Doug in the hospital even though he couldn't talk with his jaw wired shut.

"Look, another proud graduate of Howell's Driving School!" said Andy Beckwith in his George Jessel voice.

Losing a quality player like Doug before the season started put a damper on the season's prospects, but the players showed up for basketball tryouts with determination to do their best in Doug's honor.

"Let's win one for the Dougger," said Andy Beckwith, trying his best to sound like Ronald Reagan as George Gipp.

It was a given that Duston, Boone and Andy would make the varsity as juniors, but who would be given the slot vacated by Doug? The general consensus was it wouldn't be Birdy Braft!

Senior Cade Simpson didn't bother showing up for tryouts knowing he was on Prelog's Enemy List, but Birdy was surprised when long time teammate Phil Golinski was a no show too.

The Birdman saw Phil in the school library the next day and took a seat at the table with him.

"Phil, we missed you at tryouts."

"Not playing this year, Bird."

"How come?" .

"Just not interested, man" Phil replied without looking up from his book.

Birdy knew there had to be more to Phil's reasoning than that lame excuse. The guy had been a mainstain on baskeball courts all over town from the time he could walk.

"Did something happen with Prelog?" Birdy needed to know if Phil was being added to the shitlist of Panther casualties.

Phil shook his head no, but he kept his eyes focused on his book and Birdy knew his friend was lying.

"I'm still playing, Phil," Birdy reminded him.

"Yeah, well I guess I'm not as tough as you," Phil replied with an annoyed grimace.

Birdy leaned over to the table, close to Phil's face. "Regret is the one thing you can never take back." He spoke from experience. "Don't put yourself in a position where you spend the rest of your life saying 'I wish' all the time."

Phil looked hard at his friend. "There are plenty of things I wish," he said.

At the end of the second day of tryouts, Coach Timberlake called Birdy into his office.

"You're not making varsity, son," Coach T. announced from the coach's desk.

"Big surprise." The news was hardly unexpected and Birdy barely reacted to Prelog's vindictive decision.

"You'll be my Captain."

"I really appreciate that, Coach."

"Can't give you a whole hellva lot of minutes, Son," the Coach sighed. "You're too good."

"I understand."

"We've got a pretty young team this year," Coach T. stated. "I'll be counting on your leadership, okay?"

"You can depend on me, Coach." Birdy stood and offered his hand. "Thanks for being honest with me. I appreciate it."

The Doug Phelps-less Varsity basketball team consisted of Seniors Torch Johnson, Mollie McAdams, Dan Bailey, Billy Aldrich and Henry Harris, returning Juniors Bink Baxter and Tag Hendrix and junior newcomers Duston McQuinn, Boone Reynolds, and Andy Beckwith, along with Joe Bonds, now a sophomore. Doug Phelps' spot went to Sophomore Donny Garvin – a pretty good player, but Birdy knew he was better.

Birdy kept a tough upper lip even though he was bitterly disappointed and depressed about being left behind. He'd been playing with most of the guys since 7th grade and knew he belonged with them this year, but he wasn't going to short-change Coach Timberlake or the JV guys. It was an honor to be given the title of JV Captain and he was determined not to let Prelog's snub turn him into a resentful player.

"You know, you're probably better off playing for T then the rest of us are playing for Prelog," Andy Beckwith told his friend. "At least T is fun to play for."

Birdy led fellow Junior George Kessler (still the worse player on the team) and Sophomores Barry Schwink, Moon Dog Currie, and Frank Beauben, along with seven freshmen who joined the squad, kids Birdy didn't know at all.

Space Cadet Mel Krondecki was as fast as anybody Birdy had ever played with. Billy Bruno was small, but tough. Sunday Simmons was husky but slow. Pete Phaneuf was tall with long arms. The other three – boring Lou Howard, immature Joe Spanek, and flakey Bisby Rogers - looked average at best.

The JV squad wasn't very good. After Barry Schwink, Moondog Currie and Birdy, the talent level dropped off quickly and the team couldn't keep up with the depth and experience of the other schools. Hillsboro lost its first four games by an average of 15 points and Birdy realized that his role was not leading these guys to victory, but to teach them about character, commitment and dedication in the face of adversity.

Coach Timberlake went easier on this particular club than he had with previous teams. He didn't bother to yell "They're killing me out there!" very often because he realized the team was overmatched and overwhelmed.

Barry, Moondog, Frank, Mel and Birdy were the starters, but Pete Phaneuf rotated with Braft as Coach tried not to play the junior more than 7 minutes a half Sunday, Bruno, Howard, Spanek and Bisby and sometimes Pete and George were the second team – and that's when Hillsboro usually lost the game.

Birdy subscribed to Coach T's theory: don't worry about wins and losses; instead, concentrate on getting the guys to learn the basics and gain experience for varsity. Braft was an endless cheerleader in practice and during games, patting guys on the ass and giving them positive feedback. He enjoyed being a leader and used his work experience at Johnny C's to help him be as effective motivator. He patterned his style after guys like Officer Mike, Mr. Bennington and Johnny C. who always seemed to get the best out of people.

Birdy gave it his all whenever the JVs scrubbed and scrimmaged with the varsity and, because the JVs practiced first, Birdy often hung around and chewed the fat with the varsity guys during their practices. The varsity players treated him as an equal and even an honorary teammate, knowing he deserved to be on the senior squad but was getting hosed by The Panther for some undetermined reason. Prelog continued to ignore the loser Braft, even when Birdy out-hustled his guys in scrimmages.

Barry and Moondog were usually the JV players who got picked to suit up for the Varsity games, leaving Birdy behind to sit in the stands in street clothes and watch his friends, wishing he were on the bench in uniform with them.

Beckwith was dating pretty but sad classmate Zoey Jameson, whose parents had divorced the previous year. Zoey had been moody at best during her family troubles but Andy made her laugh, of course, and that's what brought them together as a couple. Birdy sometimes kept her company in the stands during games while watching Beck play. Sometimes Zoey showed up with her long time friend and fellow classmate Noreen Bozeman, who had been near Birdy on "locker row" since seventh grade. Noreen was among the prettiest and smartest kids in the school, a brainy beauty who intimated Birdy whenever he was around her. She looked like she belonged in a beauty pageant with her long curly blonde hair, deep blue eyes and sexy figure.

The girls didn't know much about basketball, so Birdy sat between them and tried to explain what was happening on the court. As much as he wanted to be down there with the guys, somehow it didn't feel so bad to be seen in the stands in the company of two pretty girls. As the season went on, Birdy became all the more infatuated with popular Noreen who seemed to enjoy his company too.

Sophomore Frank Boubren wasn't having a very good year on the JV basketball court. He had been an impressive player as a freshman, hustling and outplaying other guys but, as a sophomore, Boubren was sluggish and often lagged behind plays. Coach T. started substituting the freshmen for Frank more often as the season progressed.

The JVs were 1-8 by the middle of February and Birdy was doing all he could to keep team morale from going into the toilet. Frank asked Coach Timberlake to bench him when he continued to struggle, even against the worse teams in the league.

"Something's wrong, Birdy," Frank confided on the bench during one game. "I just don't feel right. I have no energy. Sorry I suck."

"Go see your doctor," Birdy advised. "Find out if it's something physical. Maybe you have mono – Mollie McAdams had that a few years ago."

Frank didn't practice or play for the next few weeks and underwent tests at the hospital. The team was a horrible 2-10, but Coach Timberlake congratulated Birdy for keeping the guys positive, upbeat, and together.

"You've been an outstanding team captain this year, son," he privately told his player. "You're one of the best leaders I've had in a long time."

Coach T. said that that half the time all he's doing is planting seeds for the future.

"It's usually ten years later when guys figure out what it's all about," said the Coach. "You seem to know a lot of it already, son."

Coach T's vote of confidence meant a lot to Birdy, a kid who was destined to be an extra in a Blackboard Jungle movie just a few years earlier. Maybe Cassie Emerson would never see it, but Birdy had rehabilitated himself from the dark days.

Birdy was sitting in the locker room one afternoon reviewing the team stats when Frank Boubren came in, looking like he lost his dog.

"Hey, Frank," Birdy greeted the ailing player. "Haven't seen you around for awhile."

Boubren looked like a rag doll as he took a seat next to Birdy and The Captain knew the news couldn't be good. He waited for the kid to gather his thoughts.

"I got Leukemia, Birdy," Frank revealed with a vacant stare.

"Leukemia?" It was the last thing Birdy expected to hear. "I thought only old people got that."

"Looks like I'm old enough," Frank replied with a self-depicting laugh.

The breath was taken out of the stunned Birdy. "Wow," was all he could lamely manage to say.

"Yeah. Wow," Frank agreed.

They sat in silence for a few minutes with Birdy, the noble leader of wisdom, struggling to find the right thing to say.

Frank finally spoke. "Do you ever think about dying?"

"You're not going to die, Frank." Birdy tried to sound convincing.

"We're all going to die, Birdy."

"Maybe I'm not the guy to be talking to about this stuff," said a nervous Birdy.

"I just want to talk to a normal guy who's going to be straight with me," Frank said. "I'm tired of all the sweet talking doctors and nurses."

It was the first time somebody referred to Birdy as normal! He was flattered!

"Sure, Frank. I think about dying," Birdy answered. "My old man died when I was in third grade, so it's been a big part of my life."

"Do you think I should be afraid?"

"Everybody's afraid of something," Birdy replied. "It's how we deal with fear that matters."

"What are you afraid of?" Frank asked.

Birdy thought for a moment. "Of not being forgiven."

"I'm going to Boston every week for treatment," Frank revealed.

"You'll be fine," Birdy offered hopefully.

"I don't think so," Frank replied with a sad smile. "I can see it in my mother's face."

"We started the season 0-4," Birdy said. "Now we're 2-10. Should we bother playing the last four games?" He waited for Frank's answer.

"You have to," the 10th grader replied. "It's the rules."

"And you have to, too," Birdy told him.

"Have to what?"

"Play the game, Frank. It's not over until the final buzzer goes off."

"Maybe you guys will win a couple," Frank agreed.

"And maybe you will too," Birdy said with a hopeful glance at the ill kid.

Frank raised his eyebrows with a new sense of purpose. "Yeah, maybe."

"You'll be back playing next year," Birdy predicted with a grin.

"Thanks for talking, Birdy." Frank reached his hand out and Birdy took it in a strong shake.

"You'll be surprised at how courageous you can be when you have too," Birdy told him. "Don't let fear defeat you."

Frank nodded, stood, smiled, gave a wave, and left the room, walking like an old man in a nusing home.

Frank Boubren was the guy Birdy thought about whenever he felt sorry for himself. It was the power of Frank's character and example in the locker room that day that constantly motivated Birdy to be as strong as Frank whenever he faced adversity in his life.

Birdy stopped by Officer Mike's house that evening and asked the nurse Mrs. Kelly what she knew about what Frank had. She said Leukemia affects the blood cells and bone marrow. Chemo, radiation, drug therapy, transplants, and sometimes surgery can treat the disease.

"What are his chances?" Birdy wanted to know.

She shrugged. "50-50."

"Wow."

"Birdy, the best thing you can do for the kid is not treat him like he's sick or dying," Mrs. Kelly advised. "Act normal and he'll feel normal too."

Frank began showing up the practices and games and the rest of the guys never knew he was seriously sick. Birdy remembered what Mrs. Kelly suggested and didn't treat Frank any differently than before. They'd sit together during the games when Birdy was off the court and discuss strategy together.

The team finished 4-12 on the lost season and Birdy felt responsible as Team Captain and Leader for the collective failure, but Coach T said it was a good year and that the team should be proud of what it accomplished.

"You never quit on me or yourselves, boys," he said after the last game. "You did good."

Most observers thought Prelog's Panthers would go far into the playoffs. The varsity squad posted an impressive 12-4 record with a deep roster of talented guys. Barry Schwink and Moondog Currie from the JV Squad got to suit up for the big playoff game; rubbing salt into Birdy's open wound one more time.

Hillsboro lost a hard fought first round game by one point, dispatched early for the second year in a row. It killed Birdy to watch from the stands as the guys he played with for years went down in defeat, though he secretly laughed at Prelog for not getting it done again.

"We'll go all the way next year," a committed Bink guaranteed and Birdy wondered if he'd be a part of that group senior year.

Chapter 19

Focus that spring shifted from basketball to the Junior Prom, but Birdy had no plans of attending the gala and invested his energy at Johnny C's. His heart sank when he heard that Cassie Emerson had accepted Sam Provost's invitation to attend the Prom.

Sam Provost was the next generation's answer to Mike Prelog, a star athlete who was pitching shutouts and striking out 20 batters a game by the time he was eight years old. Baseball scouts had been coming to Hillsboro for years to watch the kid pitch.

Birdy saw Sam as another stuck-up self-absorbed pretty boy and he was sure Cassie said yes mostly because it would look good on her social resume. The Provost family owned half the real estate in town, Sam had defeated the all-knowing Lisa Drowling for Class President in September, and he was destined to be playing in the Big Show. Why not go to the Prom with a guy like that!? He was the latest big deal celebrity pretty boy at Hillsboro and Cassie didn't do badly for herself, but Birdy knew in his heart that he was the right one for the Duchess and decided a week before the big event that he'd better attend the prom to keep an eye on her!

Birdy asked Lucy Beckwith if she was interested in going with him (she wasn't).

"You already had your chance, Birdy," Lucy told him. "You blew it."

Lucky stiff Duston McQuinn had already asked Birdy's fake girlfriend Jaynee Leary, and Zoey's friend Noreen Bozeman was going with Mollie McAdams.

"Ah gee, you should have asked me last week, Birdy," Noreen told him with an affectionate wink. "It would have been great going with you." He was flattered that Noreen was at least willing to be seen with him.

Molly Loomis, the silly and immature twit of a girl, laughed incessantly when Birdy asked her and he couldn't understand what she found so funny, but he took her reaction as a no.

Bryanna Gleason apologized while declining his offer, stating she wasn't allowed to attend such activities. Birdy was surprised that there were still parents who had such a strict influence over a high school junior.

He thought about Lisa Drowling, the disgraced ex-Class President who spent most of the year in social exile for her peer group failings. Lisa was bitter that her classmates had voted her out of office.

"Well, I think you're all wrong," she let the class know when the election results were announced, calling her peers ignorant buffoons who wouldn't survive without her as their President.

Lisa was way to hyper for Birdy's tastes and her know-it-all attitude was irritating, but she was pretty with the straightest bangs in school and brown hair that hung just below her shoulders. Lisa's physical attractiveness was offset by her tendency to drive people crazy. She spoke with a nasally voice and had the annoying habit of saying "tsk" with every other sentence. She was best known for talking too much, but Birdy could identify with being the outcast. Maybe they belonged together.

He tracked Lisa down in the hall one day between periods and asked if anyone had asked her to the prom.

"I'm still under house arrest."

"You mean by your parents?"

"No, by you guys," she replied with hurt. "I think that everybody hates me."

"They don't hate you, Lisa. You just drive everybody crazy."

"Thanks a lot for your input, Birdy." She was offended by his honesty and walked away in a huff.

He followed her down the hall. "I'd like to take you to the Prom."

She was understandably suspicious as she stopped and studied him. "Well, I think this some sort of gag. I think your basketball buddies put you up to this."

"Not at all," he assured her.

"Oh tsk," she said with a displeased frown. "Aren't you the guy who embarrassed Hollie Fredrickson that time?"

Hollie was the seventh grade spelling bee champion. Nobody saw the intentional typo Birdy made in the school newspaper that referred to her as Hollie Fuckerson. Dozens of copies were circulated around the school before The Warden caught on.

"The statue of limitations is up on that," Birdy said.

"Well, tsk." She looked long and hard at him considering her options.. "Okee-dookey, Birdy. I think I'll go to the Prom with you. But you'd better be on your best behavior." She poked him hard in the chest with her finger before disappearing into the crowd of students making their way through the halls.

Birdy stopped by the Drowling house a few days before the prom to give Lisa's parents a chance to meet the guy was who was taking their daughter to the dance. Lisa's old man, a short plump guy who drove a bakery delivery truck, recognized him from Johnny C's and Birdy passed the test on that alone.

He rented a white tux with all the fixings including corsage, had a dozen roses delivered to Lisa's house on the day of the prom, and showed up on her doorstep with a corsage for her as well.

Lisa looked strikingly gorgeous in her low cut light yellow gown that allowed just a peek of the top of her breasts. She wore her hair up in a bun with a flowered crown on her head.

"You look radiant!" Birdy exclaimed when he saw her all dolled up.

"Oh, tsk," she said with an embarrassed laugh.

Her mother, a carbon copy older version of her daughter, took a dozen photographs of the couple on the front lawn as Lisa's younger sister and brother looked on with giggles and Mr. Drowling yawned.

"Is there a curfew, Sir?" the dutiful Birdy asked Mr. Drowling.

"Try to have her home before the sun comes up," he deadpanly replied.

"Well, I think I've never been courted like this before," an impressed Lisa admitted as Birdy drove them to the Blue Lake Inn.

"That's because guys feel intimidated by you sometimes, Lisa," the forthright Birdy informed her.

"By me?" She was oblivious. "Oh tsk"

"You sound more like their mom yelling at them instead of a girl interested in what they're thinking."

"Boy, Birdy, I think you sure don't beat around the bush, do you?"

"Just trying to help out, Lisa. You're a pretty girl. You just need to relax and enjoy high school instead of worrying about everything all the time."

She looked at him like he was an alien from Star Trek. "Oh, tsk," was all she had to say.

The couple walked the gauntlet line with the other decked out prom goers, passing the onlookers of parents and family members who came to see the gowns.

The Banquet Room at the Blue Lake Inn was plastered in fancy decorations, including tons of multi-colored balloons and dozens of smelly flowers.

"Well, I think I could have done a better job," observed Lisa when she stepped into the room.

"Let it go, Lisa!" Birdy commanded with a laugh, taking her by the arm and swooshing her onto the dance floor for everyone to see.

"Oh, tsk!"

It was his first night out since the Booster Day dance the previous school year and Birdy was dazzled by the live band, scrumptious sit down dinner, and the formality of the evening. Everybody in his class had turned 30 overnight! His friends looked mature and adult dressed in their formal gowns and tuxedos and he welcomed the opportunity to socialize in the unusual setting.

Andy Beckwith called the guys "The Penguins" because of their tuxes and they were on their best behavior throughout the night, finally having matured to a point that lighting stink bombs was no longer the main thrill of the night.

Lisa and Birdy joined the table of Duston and Jaynee, Noreen Bozeman and Mollie McAdams, Zoey and Andy, and Boone and Cathy Snapper, and it proved to be the most fun table in the room.

Cathy was pretty, but she had the reputation of a party-girl and had already dated a half-dozen guys before getting to Boone. They called her "Cathy Snatcher" in the locker-room before Boone started dating her. Birdy heard gossip about her, but didn't know if the stories were true. Cathy excused herself every half hour for a smoke outside and who knows what else.

Duston, a popular guy who got along with every peer group in the school, was pleased with himself for landing "future model" Jaynee Leary as his big date for the evening and Birdy felt a pang of envy knowing Duston had beat him to the punch..

Zoey was the only girl who hadn't gone all out in an Academy Award fashion expression, but the simple flowered maxi dress she wore was attractive and Beck didn't seem to mind how she looked.

Other couples of note were Bink Baxter who showed up with the very pretty and popular Denise Daniels (best female athlete in the school) on his arm, and Phil Golinski who was in the company of class tomboy Laureen White.

Truces were in effect as petty squabbles and peer competitions of high school life were put on hold for the evening. People were nice to Lisa and she happily told Birdy every two minutes that she was having a good time.

Cassie Emerson was drop dead gorgeous in her high-necked white gown and Birdy sighed every time he caught sight of her. All the girls looked remarkable in their formal attire, even the girls he hardly noticed during the course of the regular school day.

Birdy hadn't had much personal interaction with Cassie Emerson during the year, although he made it a point to plan his hall routes to coincide with her pattern between classes without her being aware of his surveillance. The school day wasn't a success unless he saw Cassie at least twice during the six period changes.

His locker was within eyesight of Cassie's and he secretly checked on her every morning before first bell, relieved to know she wasn't absent for the day. Occasionally, he'd sit within radar range of her in the cafeteria or in the auditorium study halls and, if he noticed Cassie was getting a library pass, he'd get one too. He rarely talked to the girl, but he got his fix from his daily sightings and the weekly cards he sent.

Mollie McAdams informed the table that he had rented a room upstairs as "a safety valve" and invited the group to take breaks in his VIP Suite. A bathtub full of ice and smuggled booze and munchies were available for the visitors.

Birdy and Lisa happened to be in Mollie's party pad when Cassie and Sam made their grand entrance. McAdams and Provost were battery mates on the baseball team and it was natural that Sam would drop by say hi to his teammate.

"Are you having a good time?" Birdy asked his Duchess as they stood in the second floor room packed with so many people it resembled the scene from the famous Marx Brothers movie when Groucho and company are squashed into a ship's stateroom.

"Sam is a lovely date," Cassie reported.

"Great," Birdy lied.

Provost was shooting the breeze with Mollie who was stretched out in an armchair with Noreen practically sitting in his lap. "I think I liked Clark better," Birdy whispered in Cassie's ear.

She frowned, not quite sure what that remark was supposed to mean.

"Lisa, are you having a good time?" Birdy couldn't resist the set up in front of Cassie.

"Well, I think you're a great date," Lisa replied, and Birdy could have kissed her for making the perfect comment.

Lisa and Birdy were a hit on the dance floor and became one of the surprise successes of the evening. Who would have thought two of the class's most famous social outcasts would be such prom successes!?

As tempted as he was, Birdy resisted asking Cassie for a dance, but he made sure he danced near her whenever possible. Lisa took up most of his dance card, but he also danced with Jaynee and Noreen.

"I really wish you asked me," Noreen admitted when they danced a slow dance together.

"Really?" Birdy was surprised. "What about Mollie?"

"Turns out he's kind of a jerk," she whispered into his ear.

Birdy nodded knowingly. "Aren't I a jerk too?" he asked with a smirk.

"Not to me," she said and he wished he could dance with Noreen all night.

Birdy noticed Beatrice Homendale sitting with a group of girlfriends in a far corner of the room. Beatrice was one of the forgotten ones who came for the meal and night out with her friends, with little hope of romance. She was short and plump with acne and purple glasses, the kind of kid who had "koodees" since third grade.

Beatrice appreciated what Birdy said during his Booster escort acceptance speech and slipped an anonymous note in his locker, but Birdy recognized it as hers a few days later when Mr. Bennington held up an essay she had written on the same flowered paper that ended up in his locker.

Birdy remembered Coach Timberlake's comment about planting seeds for the future and thought about that philosophy as he observed Beatrice on the other side of the room. Maybe asking a girl like Beatrice for a dance would be a nice way to plant a seed for her future.

Beatrice was embarrassed and said no when Birdy first approached her, but he remained patient while her friends coaxed her into accepting. The unexpected couple danced to a fast song and Beatrice was clearly nervous as she clumsily tried to look natural on the dance floor.

"Relax," Birdy told her. "Nobody's looking." A slight lie since he could feel half the eyes in the room on them!

The song ended and Bea mumbled thanks as she started her escape route, but he reached for her arm and said, "One more."

It was a slow number and he could feel her heart beating against his chest as she tried to avoid stepping on his toes. She smelled like dove soap and her back was soaked with nervous perspiration.

"Just close your eyes and pretend you're on a merry-go-round," he whispered.

Bea relaxed and they danced through the song with the band playing an extra few refrains for her benefit. When the number finally ended, Beatrice stepped back and opened her eyes. She was startled to find that everybody else had stepped back to leave her and Birdy as the only ones on the dance floor.

Somebody starting clapping and others joined in before the band drowned it out with their next number. Beatrice was wiping tears from her eyes as Birdy brought her back to the table where her giggling girlfriends engulfed her in a congratulatory group circle.

"Thanks, Bobby," she said, barely able to look at him.

"The pleasure was mine," he replied with an earnest grin.

"They're killing me out there!" said Andy Beckwith, doing his Coach Timberlake impersonation when Birdy returned to his table.

"You must be a homo to do something that pathetic," noted Boone Reynolds, but he was grinning too.

"Oh tsk," said Lisa. "That was the sweetest thing I ever saw." She planted a kiss smack on her date's lips.

The night went by much too quickly for Birdy who was enjoying his special evening with his classmates. There was a unique excitement in the air as the juniors looked forward to senior year and beyond. SAT scores were the main topic of conversation and many of Birdy's classmates talked about their college choices. Several asked Birdy of his plans and he realized he didn't have any.

The entire room was disappointed when the band played the last song. It was a slow one, of course, giving Birdy a romantic last dance with Lisa who hung close as she and Birdy danced to a tearjerker. He pressed her close to his body for their final hurrah.

There was talk by some of making out on the shores of the lake, going to the all night pancake joint in Greenville, or even to a party at someone's house but Birdy didn't offer his date any options. They visited Mollie's room one last time and, by then, Cathy Snapper was pretty well sauced and most of the others weren't feeling much pain either, although Noreen looked frazzled and annoyed as she sat with Mollie in a chair. Someone handed Lisa a bottle of hard stuff and Birdy was surprised when she took a couple of long swigs. There weren't any further Cassie Emerson sightings and Birdy wasn't interested in hanging out with his increasingly drunken classmates if Cassie was nowhere to be found.

"Oh tsk, Birdy, I think we should have some fun!" Lisa complained when Birdy hinted it was time to go.

"Nothing good comes from drinking," he advised her.

"Oh, tsk."

She reluctantly agreed to leave but not before another fifteen minutes of shooting the breeze and a few more hits of booze.

Noreen stopped them at the door. "Take me with you," she requested with a certain sense of urgency.

"I think you have your own date," Lisa replied.

"It's not going very well," Noreen said. "I'd rather leave now."

"Lisa, I don't mind if……" Birdy began, but Lisa stepped between Birdy and Noreen.

"I think you're not going to wreck my date," Lisa warned Noreen. "Catch a lift with someone else."

Noreen made a face at Lisa and looked once last time at Birdy for help, but he shrugged in helplessness knowing that his first allegance was to his date, Lisa.

"We could have helped out Noreen," Birdy protested as they left the inn.

"That girl never did anything for me," Lisa replied. "I don't owe her any favors."

Birdy didn't bother debating Lisa but he knew he had made the wrong decision leaving Noreen behind.

"Well, I didn't think you were a temperance kind of guy," Lisa said as they walked to the car.

"I've seen some pretty pathetic stuff when booze is involved."

Birdy couldn't shake the image of poor Noreen left behind and suddenly his night of enjoyment felt slimmy.

"Oh tsk, don't take me home yet, Birdy," Lisa pleaded when she realized they were on her street.

"I gotta be at Johnny C's at seven," he explained, glancing at his watch and noting that it was after 1 a.m.

"Well, I think we should stay out a little while longer."

He was surprised that he was so submissive to this particular girl, driving without protest to Hillsboro High School and parking behind The Pit. It was a warm spring night with a starry sky and they walked around the dark football field holding hands and talking about football memories before climbing onto the bleachers where the band held court. Birdy was smart enough not to mention his favorite image – Booster Day on the football field with Cassie Emerson sophomore year!

It was Lisa who initiated the making out and they spent a good half hour kissing, Birdy's first such opportunity since Lucy Beckwith. Lisa was aggressive and passionate in her smooching style and she made Birdy's personal historical file as the first girl to "tongue" him. Her breath smelled of mint from the liquor.

Birdy undid Lisa's bun and let her hair fall down around her shoulders. His jaw was getting sore from the heavy duty making out and Lisa sat back to take a break. She smiled suggestively and candidly lifted the top of her dress down, revealing her lovely ample breasts.

"How do they look?" she asked with inviting raised eyebrows.

"They look perfect," he assured her with an appreciative glance at her buoys.

She took his hand and placed it on her naked right breast. "How does it feel?"

"Wonderful," he replied, kissing her while allowing his hand to explore the shape of both breasts.

"Well tsk, I just wanted to give you something to remember me by." She was practically biting his lips.

"Why, are you going somewhere?" he asked with a laugh.

"No, but I think we won't be seeing either other like this again."

He stopped kissing her, dropped his hand from her breast, and gave her a puzzled look. "Is something wrong?"

She smiled as she slid her dress back up over her breasts. "Oh tsk, Birdy. Don't you remember calling me Looney Lisa all the time when I ran for student council in seventh grade?"

He remembered. He was especially mean to the girl during her campaign but her revelation was confusing to him. "Then why did you go to the prom with me?"

"Well, I think I had a good time, Birdy. But why would I want to date you, someone who doesn't even respect me?"

His face crumbled as his past once again jumped up and bit him in the ass.

"Oh, tsk." She patted his leg with an assuring smile. "I think its okay, Birdy. This is just how high school is sometimes. We all want the attention, don't we?"

He was insulted and hurt. "You went to the prom with me for the attention?"

"That and to let you know what you'll be missing."

Birdy shook his head in confused defeat.

"Well, I think you can take me home now," Lisa announced, apparently done with her little game. He obliged and they were quiet until they got to her house.

"The sun isn't up yet," Birdy observed when he pulled the car to the curb.

"Well, I think my father will be glad." She opened the passenger's door and gave him one last look. "Well, I think I had a lovely time, all things considered. I bet you regret being so mean to me now, don't you?"'

"Yes," he said limply.

"Good bye Birdy." There was ice in her voice as she shut the door and headed for the front door of the house

Lisa and Birdy were cordial to each other after that night but Birdy knew she wanted nothing to do with him. He would always be the kid who called her Looney Lisa and, as far as Birdy was concerned, Lisa would always be the girl who willingly left Noreen behind in McAdam's inn room. He wasn't sure which offense was worse.

Chapter 20

Birdy went to the senior class graduation ceremony (his first since Darlene's) to watch guys like Cade Simpson, Torch Johnson, and Dan Phelps get the send off. He enjoyed playing ball with those guys and wondered what would become of them now that they were out in the real world.

With the seniors gone, Birdy and the rest of his junior class became defacto seniors for the rest of the school year. They clebrated their new found seniority with various pranks and other carefree events as the school year played out. He was among the guys who put a large piece of plxyglass across the door of the locker room's communial shower to plug up the drains and turn the shower into a five foot deep tank (it took three periods to make the pool).

Gym teacher Mr. Fudge was rendered speechless when he walked into the locker room to see six or seven naked guys swimming around in the make shift swimming pool, some diving off a step ladder to get into the tank. Nice guy that he was, Fudge didn't report the incident though he made them dismantle the invention.

It rained for three consecutive days and "School Field Day" was forced inside, although Birdy was among the handful of guys who sneaked out of The Pit to play tag football in the muddy field behind the school. Soon others – including several of the girls (Noreen and Jaynee among them) - joined the fun, turning the game into a rain soaked mud bath with screaming, laughing, tackling, chasing and all around good fun. Surprisingly, The Hammer didn't stop the chaos and let the kids enjoy the wild and crazy activity.

Birdy was delighted to see Cassie Emerson among those girls participanting in the fun, although she was mud surfing with Sam Provost most of the time. Zoey was with Beck who was giving a play by play description in his Howard Cosell voice when he wasn't on his ass in the mud. Boone Reynolds had Cathy Snapper on his back as he bulled kids over like a giant bowling ball.

That particular field day was the most fun Birdy ever had with his classmates and he found himself laughing like he had never laughed before, even when he got a mouthful of mud after getting blindsided by Ellen Thurbert. It was those innocent, carefree moments of youth that Birdy loved most about his high school life because he could forget about his past and how much of an outsider he had been.

But, as Lisa Dowling had reminded him, Birdy Braft could never really escape the sins of the past and, no matter how hard he worked to prove himself to be a positive person of good character, either his past found a way to knock him down again or he made a por choice that came back to haunt him..

He was being a typical high school kid fooling around with the guys as school was dismissed one afternoon. The mischievous pals piled into Birdy's car and tore out of the student parking lot, happy to be free for another day It was a rainy afternoon and the car fishtailed as Birdy took a hard left onto the street in front of the school. A girl on a bike a good fifty yards down the road saw the skidding car, panicked and wiped out, landing head over heels into some bushes as the carload of high schoolers whizzed by.

"What a spaz," laughed Boone Reynolds noticing the girl on her back in the mud, but Birdy didn't think much of the incident having failed to realize he was the cause of her spill.

Birdy was working at Johnny C.'s an hour later when waitress Hannah Brown told him there was a man wanting to see him in the parking lot. He went out the back kitchen and stepped around the counter to see a frowning man in his late thirties, hand on hips with a lasered death stare in his eyes.

"That your blue Chevy over there?" the angry man demanded when Birdy reached him.

"Yeah," Birdy admitted.

The man grabbed Birdy by the back of his shirt and forced him across the lot. Standing in the drizzle was the girl from the bike with mud on her clothes and grass stains on her knees. It was obvious that she had been crying and was still upset from the scary incident.

"You could have killed her," the concerned father barked.

"We weren't that close," Birdy lamely attempted to defend himself.

"Apologize to my daughter," the father ordered.

"I didn't realize I made you fall," Birdy told the girl.

"That's not an apology," the man protested, giving Birdy a threatening glare.

"I'm sorry we scared you," Birdy said sheepishly while clearing his throat. "We should have stopped to make sure you were okay."

"Damn right," the father said bitterly. He looked hard at the teenager. "Pay attention!" He ordered. "She didn't know what to think and you weren't thinking at all."

Birdy nodded in submissive agreement.

"Do you have anything else to say for yourself?" the unconvinced father wanted to know.

"I take responsibility for your daughter's accident."

The father peered at Birdy for a long moment, not sure if he truly believed the kid's sincerity.

"Make sure it doesn't happen again." The father took his daughter's hand in his and led her to his car, leaving a humiliated Birdy behind to wallow in his own self pity.

He felt several judgemental eyes on him when he returned to the diner and slinked into the back room to die of embarrassment alone.

Word got back to the guys about the father's wrath and they told Birdy he got a bum rap. The silly girl had clearly overreacted and caused her own spill they argued and, while Birdy agreed in theory, he knew he deserved the father's reprimand. He saw the father's anger as symbolic justice for all the rotten things he had done (usually without being confronted). Birdy felt that he was deserving of everything bad that happened to him. He considered it as pay back for all his past sins.

Chapter 21

Beck and Birdy were killing time on the boring Saturday evening of the last weekend before school got out for the summer by cruising around town in Birdy's car. The duo eventually ended up at Blue Lake where they came across a group of their clearly blitzed classmates staggering along the shore road. Becky had proven that the lake was a nice place to skinny dip and Birdy heard countless stories of making out and partying at various places along the shore. Blue Lake was the unofficial party place for generations of kids.

"Show us your tits!" Beck commanded from the car window in his John Wayne voice and a sloshed Peggy Fisher obligated by lifting up her halter top and flashing her breasts at them. It was all Birdy could do not to drive into the lake as he skidded the car to a jolting halt!

"Oh, it's only you," a disappointed Cathy Snapper said when she saw Birdy sitting behind the wheel.

Cathy ordered Birdy to drive them to a supposed party at Jeremy Walsh's house. Birdy agreed, knowing it wasn't smart to leave a group of drunken girls in the middle of a dark road late at night. The seven girls piled into Birdy's car like they were on some college prank – five in the back and two in the front, with the wide-hipped Ellen Thurbert ending up in Beck's lap.

"I wear boy's underwear," Ellen drunkenly informed Andy.

It was a bizarre ride with seven drunken girls laughing, yelling, swearing and jabbering the whole way. Molly Loomis leaned her head out the back window and puked down the side of the car and a girl Birdy didn't recognized was sitting passed out in the front seat next to him with her head slumped against Birdy's shoulder the entire trip. The top of her shirt was stretched out and he could see her breasts when he glanced down.

Cathy spent her time trying to convince Beck that Boone was the best player on the basketball team.

"The best in bed maybe, huh Cathy?" slurred the inebriated Debbie Wallace and the drunken girls burst out laughing.

"I'm sure you wouldn't know, Deb!" Cathy rebutted.

They made it to Walsh's house only to find no party, leaving Birdy with the dilemma of what to do with a carload full of drunken girls.

"How 'bout strip poker?" giggled Debbie Wallace, but Molly Loomis vomited again – this time all over Cathy Snappers's feet and that killed any potential for further activity. Cathy and Debbie announced they were walking home and stumbled off into the night in a huff.

"I'm going to California," Peggy Fisher announced and she disappeared before Birdy and Beck could convince her that a ride home was safer.

Birdy drove to Molly Loomis house where Amanda Joltz literally fell out of the car. A laughing Molly helped her drunken friend into the house.

"I'll tell her mother we have malaria," Molly illogically explained.

The passed out girl stirred but didn't wake up. Birdy slid her out of the front and laid her down across the back seat.

"She's still breathing isn't she?" Ellen Thurburt wanted to know, slipping off Beck's lap and sitting in the middle of the front seat.

Birdy leaned over the girl to see if she was still breathing. All he needed was a dead drunk girl in the car! The stranger opened her eyes and made a face when she saw him hanging above her.

"Girble gar gish," she slurred, before passing out again.

Ellen Thurbert burst into tears and sobbed all the way to her house, though Birdy and Beck couldn't understand exactly what she was blubbering about. A guy, they assumed.

"I'm pretty aren't I?" she wailed, looking back and forth between the two boys in the front seat.

"You're very pretty, Ellen," Birdy assured her.

"I'm fuckable, aren't I?"

"Well, yeah, sure," Beck admitted, using his Jimmy Stewart voice this time.

"Then what I am doing spending my Friday nights with a bunch of drunk girls?"

"Isn't high school grand?" replied Birdy.

They stopped the car in front of the sobbing Ellen's house.

"Kiss me, God Damn it!" she ordered Beckwith who had exited the car to let her out.

"I'm dating….." he began, but Ellen didn't let him finish, wrapping her arms around Beck's neck and giving him a long pluck.

"I'm a good kisser, aren't I?" She asked as she broke off the embrace.

"Sure are," Beck assured her.

"Okay. I feel better. Thanks, guys. See you around." With that, Ellen Thurbert waffled off to her house and a grinning Beck climbed back into the car.

"It's crazy what you observe when you're sober and everybody else is drunk," Birdy remarked as he drove Beckwith home.

It was a wild night to remember and Birdy drove home from Beck's shaking his head at the strangeness of it all. He parked the car in the garage since his mother was in Albany and started for the house when he heard moans coming from the car.

Oh, shit! The passed out girl! Who was she? Where did she live? Birdy turned on the garage light and peered into the back seat at the kid he had never seen before. She had long auburn red hair, pale skin and was wearing a wrinkled white top and jeans, a leathered collar necklace, and an expensive watch. He noticed that she was only had one sneaker. Worse of all, he had unknowingly laid her down in some of Molly Loomis's vomit which was smeared across her back.

"Hey, girl, you awake?"

No response.

"Kid. Wake up!" He was more desperate now, shaking her in vain.

She mumbled incoherently, but didn't open her eyes.

"Where do you live?"

Another unclear mumble.

"Isn't this great?" Birdy complained aloud, opening the door and half sliding, half lifting the girl out of the back.

"Please tell me who you are." He begged one more time.

"Arghf."

He was insane to bring an under aged girl into the house, but what choice did he have? He carried her into Darlene's old bedroom, abandoned since his sister left for Florida three years earlier. Most of Darlene's stuff was still there, as if she was expected back tomorrow.

He kept the girl standing as he unsnapped the front of her jeans and let the puke covered pants fall to the floor. She was wearing flowered panties and he sat her on the bed to pull off the white top which had puke streamed across the back. Braless, she had small breasts that looked like little tomatoes.

Birdy let her fall onto the bed on her back. He watched her, sprawled topless in her panties, almost as if she was a prize trophy. She was out cold. Nobody was in the house. He thought about that reality for a moment: he could do anything he wanted! He realized how strongly he was tempted, especially knowing nobody would be a witness He reached his hand to her panties and lifted up the elastic waist band just to see what it looked like down there. Nobody would ever know he had snuck a peek!

His crotch ached and he wanted so desperately to kiss her, to take off his clothes, lie down next to her and rub himself against her. His heart was thumping in his chest.

But he knew what the right thing to do was and slowly covered her with a blanket. He dug out one of Darlene's old shirts for the kid to wear in the morning, took her soiled clothes to the washing machine, and retired to his own bedroom, leaving the doors to both rooms open. What a strange way to go spend the night!

"Excuse me."

It was a far off voice calling Birdy from his deep sleep.

"Excuse me."

He opened his eyes and realized it was dawn. The mystery girl was standing in the early morning light of his bedroom doorway, wearing the shirt he had left for her. She was frightened, confused and nervous.

"Where am I?" She asked.

He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "My house."

"Where are my clothes?" She was embarrassed and humiliated.

"Washing machine. Somebody puked on you."

She rubbed her temples. "I don't remember."

"What's your name?" He slipped out of his bed wearing a tee shirt and his gym shorts.

"Maybe I'd better not tell you anything." She sounded like a person under arrest exercising her Miranda rights.

He frowned at her response and tried to read her eyes, but she was starring blankly at the floor and wouldn't volunteer any further information.

"Let's go into the other room," he gently suggested and she cautiously followed him into the kitchen. He motioned for her to take a seat at the table.

"I have to be at work for 7:00," he told the girl with no name as he took a seat opposite her. She shrugged indifferently.

"My name's Birdy Braft."

A flash of familiarity crossed her face and she looked at with with surprise, but said nothing.

"How old are you?"

"Thirteen," she admitted weakly.

"That's what I was afraid of." He heard the jail cell door clicking behind him.

"Is there anything I need to know?" She asked suspiciously.

"Nothing happened," he assured her forcefully. "I gotta go clean the puke out of my car." He slid away the table and headed for the garage.

The thirteen year old was still sitting at the kitchen table looking like a kid in detention when he returned ten minutes later.

"My head hurts," she sighed, rubbing her temples again. "I don't feel good."

"Me either," Birdy said with a self-deprecating laugh, knowing the joke was squarely on him facing arrest for contributing to the delinquency of a minor have dragged a drunk underage girl into his house, getting a look at her breasts and a sneak peak of her bush.

"What's your name?" he asked, returning to the seat across from her.

"I don't think I should tell you."

"Where do you live then?"

"I probably shouldn't tell you that either," she decided nervously.

"Do you remember what you were doing last night?"

"Sleep over at Julie's. We snuck out. Something about a party at the lake. I don't remember much after that."

"You're lucky nothing happened."

She looked directly at him. "I know."

He had to admit she was a cute kid, even in her state of disarray. There was something innocent and vulnerable about her.

"Tell me your name," he asked again.

"Make one up."

"Red." Birdy decided with a smile, remembering her tomato breasts.

"Okay," she said with an unknowing shrug. "I'm Red."

"I need to go to work," he told her. "What are you going to do?"

"Julie's mom will cover for me. Where are we?"

"Hillsboro. Pinewood Drive."

"I can walk from here."

"You can stay as long as you want. Nobody will be here. I'll start the wash before I leave. You'll just need to put your clothes in the dryer when the cycle is done. Relax. Take a shower. Have something to eat if you're up to it."

"I appreciate you being…… nice to me."

"Yeah, sure," he muttered. Nice guys finish last, he thought to himself.

Birdy washed up and changed his clothes, but he couldn't stop thinking about Red, wondering if she was meant to be a test. Maybe if a punch to the face hadn't come along, Birdy would have been the kind of jerk to take advantage of a drunken young teen like Red caught in a compromising situation Was he really a better person for doing the right thing or was he a sap for not taking advantage of the vulnerable situation?

Red was still seated at the table when Birdy returned to the kitchen.

"My father would kill both of us if he ever found out." She was shaken by the thought.

"Let's see to it he never does."

"Thanks for making sure nothing happened," she added gratefully, her eyes filling with tears.

"Sometimes things happen for a reason."

He started the washing machine in the laundry room, then stepped back into the kitchen to say goodbye.

"Good luck with basketball," she said as he started for the door.

He was surprised by the remark. "How'd you know?"

She shrugged. "I've seen a game or two."

.He nodded goodbye and left her sitting in his kitchen. When he returned from work fifteen hours later, he found a note on the kitchen table, with Darlene's shirt hung across the back of the chair.

Birdy,

I will always be indebted to you.

God Bless - Red

.

Chapter 22

At school on Monday morning, a curious Birdy asked Cathy Snapper if she knew who the passed out girl was.

"You mean the private snot?" she laughed. "That's Prelog's daughter, of course. I forget how she ended up with us. I was pretty wasted."

"Jesus Christ!" His mouth dropped in shocked disbelief and his face turned three shades of green.

Cathy peered at him. 'You didn't do anything stupid did you?"

"No, no, of course not," he assured her. "I just didn't know who she was."

"Boy, you'd better pray her old man doesn't find out."

"And you thought Coach hated you before!?" Beckwith commented with alarm when he found out who the mystery girl was. "Maybe you'd better leave for Canada right now!"

Birdy waited weeks for the bomb to drop, but Prelog never came after him and he never saw Red again. Junior year finished without fanfare and Birdy transitioned to the summer routine that consisted of working at Johnny C's and playing summer basketball at the Greenville outdoor courts.

Duston McQuinn, Joe Jock Bonds, and Birdy returned for another summer playing for Joe's Pizza. Phil Golinski was back too, confirming Birdy's hunch that something happened between him and Prelog to force him from the school basketball program. Cade Simpson, Torch Johnson, Red Candell, and Dizzy Caporone were the other guys back from last year's squad, and the team added Barry Schwink and Moon Dog Currie to the roster.

With Shane Carter no longer with the squad, Mr. Nickerson didn't return as coach and the team scrambled to find someone to take over the helm. Beckwith had dislocated his shoulder and fractured his wrist sliding into third base during the last game of baseball season and couldn't play summer basketball, but he figured coaching was the next best thing. It was unusual but not unprecedented to have a high school kid leading a summer league team and Birdy was glad to have his friend running the show

"Our main goal this year is to get Birdy the ball," Beck announced at one of the few pre-season practices. "We're going to play Birdy as much as we can and he's going to be the go-to guy. Let's get Birdy to the top of the league stat sheets by the end of the summer to help his cause with The Panther."

Birdy was touched by Beck's gesture of generosity and his willingness to give The Birdman special treatment in an effort to further his dream of playing with the varsity team. The other guys were willing to go along with the coach's plan and Birdy played almost every minute of every game, finishing in the top four of league scorers at season's end.

Beck did a terrific job as Coach and proved to be a natural leader. He was surprisingly serious in his authority role, meshed with the older players, and didn't have a problem going toe to toe with the manager of another team, no matter what the guy's stature or size. He was also able to crack everybody up whenever he wanted.

Zoey came to most of the games to be with Coach Beck and Noreen sometimes tagged along too. Birdy often joined the trio after a game for an ice cream at Reed's and he enjoyed being Noreen's quasi-boyfriend, at least in appearance. She could be pretentious at times, but she also had an enjoyable sense of humor and Birdy was definitely attracted to the pretty girl.

Birdy was thrilled to be playing with Phil Golinski again and he was supportive of his Joe's Pizza teammate, hoping to earn his trust and confidence in order to find out what went down between him and Prelog. Sadly, Phil never volunteered anything of substance regarding The Panther, no matter how hard Birdy tried to secure his confidence.

"I guess I'm just not the same sort of man as you, Birdy," was all Phil had to say whenever his friend attempted to prod him on the subject of playing high school ball.

Joe's Pizza had a successful summer and finished fourth in the ten-team league, the best season in a decade and Birdy's most rewarding basketball experience ever, made even more special playing for his best friend coach, Beck.

With the summer league over, Beck told Birdy that he and Zoey were taking an overnight get-away to New Hampshire's Hampton Beach. Unfortunately, Mrs. Beckwith refused to let her son go alone with Zoey, so Beck told her that his pal Birdy and Zoey's friend Noreen would be going too, assuring his mother that separate sleeping accommodations had been made for the girls and boys.

Birdy had never seen the ocean before and wanted to stick his foot in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in his life. He didn't care about Beck's social agenda as long as it got him to the beach! Besides, hanging out with the brilliant and beautiful Noreen Bozeman for a couple of days would be a blast too.

Beck drove his old man's Lincoln Continental with Zoey riding shotgun. Noreen and Birdy sat in the back seat and it didn't Birdy long to figure out that Noreen was not a willing participant in Andy's little plan. Miss Bozeman was moody and silent which left Birdy feeling like a third wheel as Noreen spent most of the ride reading a book and ignoring the others.

The dark clouds began forming about thirty miles from the beach and by the time the Lincoln was off the interstate, the rains started.

"It will let up," the positive thinking Birdy assured the group.

"Yeah," agreed Noreen. "Next week."

Birdy wasn't going to let the weather or Noreen's mood wreck his vacation. He was awe struck when he saw the ocean appearing before them as Andy drove onto the oceanfront drive from behind a row of hotels and cottages. The water went on forever and Birdy stared at the horizon in wonderment. Seeing the ocean made Birdy all the more excited by the prospect of spending a few days at the water's edge, even in the rain.

A gleeful Beck found the motel, a run down dive a few blocks off the beach.

"Gee, I thought we were staying at the Hilton," Birdy joked as they parked in the lot of the two story white clapboard building with a lame fishing motif. The motel sign had burnt out lights and some of the screen doors to the rooms were tattered, torn, or even missing.

A gitty Beck, oblivious to Noreen's foul mood, ran inside to check in while Zoey talked about the magic of the rain.

"I got the room key," a happy Beck announced when he returned, holding it up as if it was trophy.

"Room?" Noreen was furious. "Zoey, you told me we were getting separate accommodations."

"We are," laughed Zoey. "One bed for me and Andrew, and one bed for you and Birdy! All in the same room. It will be quaint, don't you think?"

Noreen was too angry to reply. Beck and Zoey's romantic dream beach getaway had become an awkward nightmare for the simmering Noreen who refused to get out of the car with the others

. Birdy didn't say anything as he helped Beck drag the luggage to the second floor room, a plain and uninviting cubical with a linoleum floor and ugly wood paneled walls. Two double beds were cramped into the space with a tiny end table between them. A twenty-year old black and white television that brought in two snowy channels sat on the one dresser in the room. The bathroom was the size of a closet with an ugly pink commode, rusted sink, and a shower barely big enough for a person from Oz.

"I'm sure the room service is excellent!" Birdy joked.

"Room service in this place is a cop bust," grumbled the unhappy Noreen who reluctantly stood in the doorway having been pried from the car by Zoey.

It was nearly noontime and the foursome walked the boardwalk to find a place for lunch, settling on a fish shack with a sulking Noreen buried in her book which Birdy interpreted as a bad sign for his social opportunities!

The rain kept day-trippers away, but those who were at the beach for the week were, like the teens from Hillsboro, trying to find alternative plans while it rained. For most, that meant visiting the arcades, gift shops, junk food shacks, beach stores, and restaurants – and not much else!

Zoey and Beck were wrapped up in their own self-absorbed table conversation and failed to notice that Noreen wasn't speaking to them. Birdy didn't bother talking much since Beck and Zoey were caught up with themselves and Noreen was mute. He spent his time taking in the surroundings and smelling the salt air.

When they were done eating, Zoey announced that she and Beck were going back to the room "to nap".

"I'm sure you and Birdy want to explore the boardwalk, right Noreen?" Zoey asked her friend hopefully

Noreen gave them a death stare for a response, but the two romantics didn't seem to care and departed for their "nap", leaving Birdy sitting alone with the seething Noreen.

"The problem with Zoey is that she thinks she's twenty-seven, not seventeen," Noreen bitterly complained.

"The divorce screwed her up," a sensitive Birdy offered.

"And gives her the excuse to do whatever she wants," noted an unsympathetic Noreen.

She stormed out the restaurant and Birdy had to run to catch up as she walked along the rainy boardwalk.

"I get the impression you didn't want to come."

"Zoey tricked me," the disgusted Noreen growled with annoyance. "Laid on the whole 'If you were really my friend' guilt trip. I didn't realize we were going to be muses so those two could have sex the whole time."

"If the weather had cooperated, we'd be on the beach catching rays all afternoon," Birdy reminded her

"Yeah, well the sun ain't out, is it?"

"That doesn't mean it has to rain on our parade."

Noreen looked at him and burst out laughing. "Our parade!? Oh Birdy. "You're such a goof." She stopped walking and studied him. "Well," she said after a few moments of consideration. "I don't suppose it's your fault."

Noreen took his arm in hers and the two explored the various shops along the historic boardwalk. The accidental beachgoers killed time looking at merchandise they had no interest in buying and watching activities they never thought about before. They watched novelty tee shirts being made and learned how saltwater taffy, cotton candy, and peanut brittle were made. They went into a novelty photo shop, dressed in costumes, and had their photo taken as Bonnie and Clyde. They played every game in all three arcades. Noreen made a beaded necklace and they had a cartoon caricature of themselves drawn by a sketch artist. They also had their photo taken in one of those little booths that charge a $1.00 for four black and white shots.

Noreen's disposition slowly improved with each passing activity and she lightened up as Birdy got her to laugh in spite of herself.

"Sorry I've been such a bitch." She made her apology over cotton candy. "I'm really pissed at Zoey, but I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"I'm having fun," Birdy assured her. "I haven't been on a vacation since third grade when my father died."

"Really?" She was surprised. "My family goes to Lake George every year."

The rain let up to a light drizzle and Birdy suggested they walk the beach. The duo removed their shoes and socks and Birdy rolled up his pant legs (Noreen was wearing shorts). They strolled along the shore's edge with a handful of other determined couples and families. A few diehards even braved going into the surf. Another group was making a huge sand castle. Crying seagulls circled above them, hoping for some food droppings.

Noreen's curly blond hair flapped in the ocean breeze as they walked along the shoreline, the salty drizzle blowing in their faces.

"The rain makes it kind of mystic," Birdy observed, sensing for the first time the magic of the ocean that would never leave him.

"I'd rather be working on my tan," Noreen complained.

"I noticed you had a fake one for the prom," recalled Birdy

"My mother has one of those sun lamp things."

"It looked good."

"Turned out to be a wasted effort," she revealed with a scowl.

"I thought the night went well."

"You didn't go with Mollie McAdams," she grumbled. "I wish you had let me leave with you."

"I felt bad about that." Birdy grimiced knowing his intuition that night had been right McAdams was one of those guys who could be belligerent, chauvinistic and crude, popular because he was a star athletic and good looking, but the jock had nothing in common with the educated and refined Noreen and he had no idea why a girl like Noreen agreed to be McAdams date in the first place.

"I hope you didn't get hurt," Birdy said with guilty regret.

"A knee to the balls saved me," she answered. "But I had to call my father at three in the morning to come get me. He didn't appreciate the ripped dress or the fact that I had been drinking."

"What were you doing with McAdams to begin with?"

"You sound like my father," Noreen remarked with annoyance.

"I would have gone with you."

She punched him in the arm. "You didn't ask in time, jerk!"

"I'm really sorry I left you there," Birdy sighed. "I shouldn't have let Lisa pull rank."

"Did Lisa have to knee you in the balls?"

"Of course not. Not all guys are pigs, Noreen."

"Yeah, but in high school it's always about sex."

"It's about thinking about sex," he rebutted.

"Sex is implied, or expected, or promised, or pursued, or threatened, or dared, or coerced, or even forced," she argued. :"What do you think Beck and Zoey are doing right now, for Christ sakes."

"That's because hormones are in overdrive," Birdy said, surprised to be having this conversation with this girl. "Peer pressure is tough. Temptation is always there. Sure, there are morons and perverts and bastards out there. But I don't think it's always about just sex."

"Tell me you wouldn't go take a nap with me right now if I offered," she said snidely

"Look, kids just want to fit in," he answered, looking out at the ocean. "Be accepted. Be liked. Be loved. It's pretty tough trying to pull that stuff off, so sex becomes the distracter."

"Girls have sex to get love. Boys promise love for sex," Noreen theorized.

"Sometimes," he agreed. "It's seen as a right of passage. A sign of maturity. A badge of honor, even. But high school isn't always about just sex. There are plenty of girls I've liked and haven't seduced."

"But you have had sex."

"Nope." It was a bold admission.

She stopped in her sandy tracks and looked at him with surprise. "Really?"

"Sure." He wasn't embarrassed to admit it. "I told you not all guys are like that."

They'd walked a good mile along the foggy coastline. A lonely foghorn called out in the distance and a lone fishing trawler bounced its way along the choppy ocean's surface, trailed by a flock of hopeful seagulls. The walkers were soaked from the drizzle and the spray of the ocean and agreed to begin the journey back, retracting those footprints that hadn't been obliterated by the tide.

"Ogie McKenzie was the first guy I really liked," Noreen revealed.

"That brainy kid who graduated a few years ago?"

"We flirted and teased all through freshman year. He pursued me over the summer. We were dating by the beginning of sophomore year. 'Going Steady'. We had sex over the Christmas vacation. By Valentine's Day, it was over."

"Sorry."

"Ogie was nice to me and I know he liked me and everything, but once we did it, he seemed to loose interest. It was as if the conquest was the real goal."

"That's why having sex isn't always a smart thing at fifteen," said Birdy, surprised to be sounding like Doctor Joyce Brothers.

"I gave him my virginity and he broke my heart."

"High school romance is tough."

"I took a year off," she said. "No dating. No relationships. But Mollie McAdams took an interest. Part of me just wanted to be noticed again. I was flattered."

"I understand."

"We hadn't been going out very long when the prom came along," continued Noreen. "He wasn't the guy I wanted to be with."

"So he tried to push the issue that night."

"How am I supposed to trust guys again?"

Birdy thought about Prelog. Now Mollie. There for the grace of God could have been him had he taken advantage of Red. "Trust is earned, not given," he said, wondering if that's what Cassie Emerson's philosophy was too.

They continued the rest of the walk in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. It was well after five o'clock by the time they got back to the motel.

"Think they're done napping?" Birdy asked.

"They're not on their honeymoon for God sakes."

Beck was sitting on the bed in his bathing suit watching the Bowery Boys on the snowy TV while Zoey took a shower. When Zoey was done, Noreen did the same while Birdy showed the lovebirds what he and Noreen had bought during the course of the afternoon.

"I told you guys you'd enjoy the boardwalk," Zoey laughed.

Noreen emerged from the bathroom in jeans and a flowered blouse. After Birdy showered, the foursome went to dinner at a semi-fancy restaurant, then listened to a folk singer perform at the Casino Playhouse. The rain had stopped by the time the show finished and they walked the boardwalk with the tons of cabin-fevered vacationers set free from the weather restrictions.

Noreen was pleasant, polite, and sociable with Birdy, but was short and rude with Beck and Zoey. The romantics decided to take an evening stroll along the beach while Noreen and Birdy stayed on the boardwalk and had ice cream.

"You gotta lighten up on those two," Birdy advised. "It's getting pretty tense."

"Well, I'm sorry, but I really resent what they did to us," she replied. "I was there for Zoey when her parents split up. I've been a loyal friend through thick and thin. But I don't like being used and taken for granted just so those two can have their little romp."

"Fair enough," he agreed. "But you're only wrecking it for yourself by letting it get to you."

Birdy and Noreen returned to the motel room ahead of the romantics. Birdy changed into gym shorts and a tee shirt and climbed under the sheets while Noreen was in the bathroom. She emerged wearing cotton pajamas.

"You have clothes on under there, right?"

"You can trust me, Noreen," he calmly reminded her.

She turned off the light and reluctantly slipped under the covers beside him, back to back.

"'Night, Noreen."

"'Night, Birdy."

He couldn't believe he was sharing the same bed with the beautiful Noreen. He wanted to hug her and feel her body close to his, but knew respecting her and maintaining her trust was more important than his teenaged sexual fantasies.

He pretended to be asleep when Beck and Zoey returned, but Noreen was still awake and sounded pleasantly civil engaging in a friendly and polite conversation for a few moments while they prepared for bed. Birdy felt good that Noreen had taken his advice.

Birdy was the first to awake in the morning. Noreen looked peacefully lovely as she slept on her back next to him. Another entry in the annals of the disconnected life of Birdy Braft: he had finally slept with a girl, but didn't have sex!

It was a beautiful summer beach morning and Birdy took a tranquil early morning walk with a few other early risers out getting coffee or the morning paper. Occasionally, a dad walking with a son or daughter would pass by and that made Birdy think of his own father. He strolled along the shore, taking in the fresh salt air while the rising sun did battle with the morning fog.

There was plenty of blue sky to the west and he knew they were in for a sunny beach day. Birdy sensed that the sea was somehow calling to him. There was a peaceful serenity to the music of the waves and he felt a harmony he hadn't sensed before as he stared at where the ocean met the sky. He sat for a long time on one of the wooden benches by the rail of the beach walkway and let the pounding surf talk to him in a most intimate way. He had fallen in love with the sea.

The renewed Birdy returned to the motel room with some pastry, juice, the morning paper, a kite, and a paperback book to read in the sand. The others were just stirring, so he sat in a rusty lawn chair on the balcony and watched the traffic pass by below.

Noreen stepped outside to catch a glimpse of the morning sun.

"I told you it would clear up!" Birdy told her with a happy grin.

She smiled back and nodded at the picturesque morning with relieved approval. She sat on his knee and rested her head on his shoulder. "Thanks for everything, Birdy. You're a sweetheart."

The foursome eventually checked out of the motel, moved the car to a paid parking lot, and staked their claim on the beach for the day. The Hillsboroers were there long enough to watch the tide come in and go out. They worked on their suntans, took walks along the shore, tossed around a football, flew the kite, bikini-watched, swam (and threw Zoey in the water when she didn't want to join in), and dozed in the summer sun.

Now that Birdy had secured her trust, Noreen was relaxed and fun to be with. She was an eye-catcher in her bright yellow bathing suit and Birdy was pleased to lay on the same blanket with her. Noreen asked Birdy to put sun tan lotion on her several times and it was a unique experience rubbing liquid over the girl's bare skin He resisted the temptation to slide his hand beneth the cloth of her suit.

They brought lunch from the boardwalk, struck up conversations with beachgoers around them, built their own sand castle (with the help of a couple of eight year olds), and buried Andy in the sand.

The getaway turned into an enjoyable and friendly day with the resentment and tenseness of the previous day washed away with the tide.

The Hillsboro Four were among the last to leave the beach as the sun disappeared behind the buildings of the boardwalk. They stopped for seafood at Browns Clam Shack in Seabrook on the way out and then drove the two hours home in the darkness of the New England summer night. The teens were too mellowed to talk much and let the music from the tape player be their comfort. Birdy was happy when Noreen leaned her head on his shoulder and he gently stroked her hair as she dozed.

Birdy was the first to be dropped off when they reached Hillsboro. Noreen got out of car to wish him a good night.

"I heard a lot of bad stuff about you before I got to know you through Beck," she said as they stood on the sidewalk in front of his house.

"Most of it undoubtedly true," he confessed.

"I just wanted to say you're the nicest guy I've ever been around." She hugged him. "You're great, Birdy."

He wished Cassie Emerson and the girl on the bike were both there to hear Noreen's verdict, but he was glad to have earned her vote of confidence.

She let him kiss her goodnight.

Chapter 23

Senior year. Birdy made it! He and his classmates were now the school's big cheeses beginning their final year of high school before moving on to bigger and hopefully better things. Being seniors meant special treatment and privileges and Birdy enjoyed being part of the elite.

He spent quality time with Noreen following their Hampton Beach adventure and he was thinking of asking her out, but she started dating a freshman from Green College which left Birdy feeling confused and left out.

"I thought maybe she sort of liked me," Birdy sighed to Beck.

"She does. But what's the point? You're obsessed with Emerson." Beck pointed out.

Ah, Cassie. His thoughts were always concentrated on the Duchess. He was happy to be back at school mostly because it meant daily Cassie Emerson sightings. In the summer, Birdy was forced to drive by the Emerson house a few times a day to satisfy his obsessive need to know that Cassie was okay. And, of course, he continued with the weekly card mailings. He was tickled to be in some of the same classes with her senior year. Cassie had always been in advanced classes and, with the exception of a couple of study halls and a music appreciation class, their schedules never crossed. But senior year featured plenty of electives and they ended up in the same groupings. Maybe now he'd get a chance to interact with his secret love from a closer venue.

Birdy was pleased to see Frank Boubren in school. His return at the start of the school year had to be good news as far as his illness was concerned, although the junior looked pale and thin and was wearing his hair in a weird curly style.

Frankie B. looked to be in good spirits and Birdy made it a point of saying hi to him whenever their paths crossed. Birdy was sitting in the cafeteria having lunch with Beck, Boone and Bonds. Frank was sitting a few tables away with a couple of his eleventh grade friends.

Jessie Kidd – also known as "Jessie the Kid" – was a mini-version of Birdy Braft in his dark days. Kidd was a sophomore with a sophomoric sense of humor and a wise-ass attitude. He had a well-deserved reputation around the school of being a real jerk off with a knack for picking on vulnerable students. On this particular day, Jessie approached Frank in the cafeteria.

"Hey, Boubren, nice haircut," he said, lifting what turned out to be a wig Frank wore to mask his chemo treatment. Kidd whirled the wig around on his finger until it took off like a Frisbee and flew across the room, landing in Emma Bradford's bowl of soup.

There was laughter and general gawking as poor hairless Frank sat in his chair with a mortified look on his face.

Birdy was out of his chair and on Kidd in a heartbeat, shoving him so hard that Jessie sailed across two cafeteria tables.

"It was like a saloon fight in one of those old westerns." An amused Andy later described the scene in his Chill Wills voice.

Birdy lifted the dazed Kidd by his shirt collar and belt buckle and heaved him through the window where students place their used lunch trays. Birdy raced through the kitchen door, met Kidd on the other side, lifted him off the tray roller belt and dunked him head first into a sink of used dishwater. He then tossed The Kid head first into a rubbish bin full of garbage, which tipped over and spilled Jessie the Kid on the floor, covered in crap.

That's when Mr. Fudge intervened and led Birdy from the crime scene!

"Well, you almost made it through all four years without a major incident," Holstein the Hammer said when Birdy was delivered to his office. The Vice Principal sat in his large high-backed leathered swivel chair tapping his baton in the opened palm of his hand. Birdy glanced at the sign on the wall that read "I'll Talk, You'll Listen".

The Hammer gestured for the assailant to take a seat in the wooden chair in front of his huge desk. He scratched his van dyke beard, pulled out the chain watch from his vest pocket to check the time, then looked at the perpetrator of the cafeteria assault.

"My sister died of Leukemia," he told Birdy. "It's a tough disease. But Kidd didn't know the Boubren kid is sick."

"Stupidity is no excuse," Birdy replied.

"You know Braft, I hear you did plenty of stupid stuff," The Hammer replied. "I was expecting to have that chair you're sitting in named after you when you came here as a freshman."

"I stopped being stupid."

"So you say," The Hammer said.

"Until today," Birdy noted.

He waved him off. "You played ball with Bourbren. You defended him. I can't fault you for that."

"Thanks, Sir."

"Still gotta punish you, though. Can't have seniors squashing sophomores into the garbage in front of a hundred kids can we?"

"Doesn't look good," Birdy acknowledged.

"Braft, you're suspended from school for a week," The Hammer dropped the hammer! "When you get back, you'll have two months detention."

"Okay, Sir."

The Hammer was surprised by Braft's accepting reaction. "Really? No pleading? No begging for mercy? No excuses?"

Birdy shrugged. "What's the point? I did what I did." The girl on the bike's father would be impressed.

"Ah, you take all the fun out of it, Braft," The Hammer complained. "I like to see them squirm."

The VP stared at the high school senior. "Okay, I waive the punishment. There's a restraining order, though. Stay away from the Kidd kid."

"I can do that, Sir."

"Get out of my office."

The parolee stood and began to leave.

"Braft."

"Sir?" Birdy turned at the door to face The Hammer who continued to slap the baton into the palm of his hand.

"You've done good."

"Thanks, Sir."

"Don't blow it in the homestretch," he warned.

"I understand."

Birdy hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should confide in the Hammer about The Panther and his chances of playing varsity this year. Maybe even come clean about the scuz ball coach.

":Something else?" The Hammer asked.

Birdy thought better of it and left the office.

At the end of the school day, Birdy sat in his car peering at himself in the rear view mirror. He rubbed his fingers through his hair, which he cut shorter for basketball season but generally wore in the styles of the time – covering his ears and hanging well over his collar. He sighed, shook his head, said "Ah, what the hell," and drove to Hill's Barber Shop.

"Shave it," he said when he got into the barber chair.

"You mean a crew cut?" Mr. Bonds The Barber asked.

"No, shave it to the skin," he ordered. "Bald."

"You taking some kid's dare?"

"No."

"Lost a bet?"

"Na. There's a sick kid at school."

"Oh," Mr. Bonds said. "Well, you're sure then?"

Birdy nodded and closed his eyes as Mr. Bonds got the clippers and shaved his head down to a nub. The barber then took the shaving cream and razor and shaved Birdy's head bare.

"As smooth as a baby's behind," Mr. Bonds said when he was done.

"Just don't call me Kojak," Birdy said, stepping out of the chair. He started to pull money out of his wallet, but Mr. Bonds shook his head.

"You're helping out a sick kid, Birdy. Keep your money."

"Does this mean I don't get a tootsie roll?"

Mr. Bonds laughed and dug the candy out of his jar.

Birdy thanked the barber for his time and reported to work at Johnny C's wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, but he still got a few ogles.

The following morning, ignoring the stares and gawks, the bald-headed Birdy sought out Frank who was standing at his locker wearing his wig.

"Morning, Frank."

Frank looked like he was going to burst out in tears when he saw the Bald Braft, but he managed to smile and he lifted up his wig as if he was tipping his hat. "Good Morning, Birdy," he said, putting the wig into his locker. "You're looking good today."

"Ditto," Birdy replied with a grin

Some kids thought Braft was nuts, but others were touched by his kind gesture. Noreen Bozeman made it a point of tracking him down and giving him a kiss. "That's the nicest thing anybody has ever done for anybody here," she proclaimed.

Even Lisa Drowling was impressed. "Well, I think you should run for class president," she told him.

"That's Sam Provost's gig," Birdy replied.

"Oh, tsk."

Within a few days, three or four of the braver JV players had also shaved their heads to show their support for Frank Boubren and nobody messed with the kid for the rest of the school year.

Birdy's classmates continued talking about college choices. Some were planning campus visits to check out various universities and colleges. Birdy had no plans and wondered if Johnny C's was his future. It wasn't until he saw the local Navy recruiter standing in the school lobby one day handing out brochures that Birdy began to realize he might have other options.

He knew nothing about the military except that the service could offer a trade, a chance to see the world, and perhaps a way to get to college down the road. A lot of the town cops were former military or in the Reserves. Seeing the Recruiter in his dress uniform got Birdy thinking. Maybe the military would be his ticket out. His dad was in the Navy and if Birdy joined, he could establish another link to his father.

Birdy visited the Armed Forces Reserve Station in Greenville a few days later and looked at literature offered by the branches. Each service had a recruiter with their own office, but shared an open lobby and waiting area.

The Birdman knew he didn't want to be a "grunt" Marine with the stereotyped dumb jar head image. He viewed the Army in much the same way – crawling with a rifle through six feet of mud in a rainstorm wasn't appealing! The Air Force and Coast Guard pamphlets didn't present any specialized skills that caught his interest, Navy offerings appealed to his sense of adventure. Seeing the ocean posters made him think about how he felt when he was at Hampton Beach. Once again, the ocean beckoned to him. There was a romantic calling to a life at sea and an information booklet on "Mess Management Specialist" caught his interest. If the Navy was good enough for his father, it was good enough for him.

The Army guy wearing a green dress uniform tried to engage the young visitor in a conversation but Birdy told him he was thinking Navy. That brought the Sailor he had seen at the high school out of his office.

"Let's talk then, my hairless friend." The Recruiter shook Birdy's hand. "Name's Joe Smith."

"Is that really your name?"

He pointed to the nametag on his "undress blues" work shirt. "Says so right here. What's yours?"

"Birdy Braft."

"Is that really your name?"

"Well, it's Robert Braft," he explained. "But everybody calls me Birdy."

"Why's that?" The Recruiter asked, leading the teen into his office.

"I had stomach problems as a young kid. My father said I ate like a bird. The name stuck."

The Recruiter's Office featured a metal desk, three chairs, two metal bookcases full of training manuals, recruiting books, job classification sheets, aptitude tests, Blue Jacket Manuals, and other Naval books. The rug was blue and the walls were covered with Navy posters and pictures. A model of an aircraft carrier was on Joe's desk and a couple of Navy airplane models were suspended from the ceiling tiles.

The Sailor took a seat in his chair behind the desk. "Well, Birdy, you can call me Smitty."

Joe Smith was a Gunner's Mate First Class – GMG1 for short – a first class petty officer in the United States Navy. He had black hair with a black beard, black-framed glasses, and several tattoos on both arms. He smoked a pipe the entire time Birdy was in his office.

"What happened to your hair?"

"Shaved it off for a sick kid."

"You do drugs?"

"No."

"Been in any trouble with the law?"

"Nothing on record."

"You like girls?"

"Sure. Do you know any?"

"You gonna graduate from high school?"

"Yeah."

"Any physical problems you know of?"

"Nope."

"Okay. I guess we can proceed," said the personable Recruiter. "I'm supposed to give you the standard sales pitch and tell you everything you want to hear about how great the Navy is, but let's skip all that bullshit and get right to the point – do you want to join the Navy?"

"I'm thinking it's the right thing to do."

"Great. I need to let you know that I'm not the greatest recruiter in Uncle Sam's Canoe Corps. Know why?"

"Why?"

"Because I refuse to lie to kids," Smitty candidly confessed. "So I'm not going sit here and promise you hometown duty or shore duty or a job you don't have the skills for. I talk to a hundred Joe Schmuckitellys a week but only two or three are serious about the Navy. I get the feeling you're serious."

"I'm serious, Smitty."

"Good. That makes it a whole hell of a lot easier for both of us, Birdy."

Smitty offered his candidate an overview of the Navy and talked about himself – how he joined the Navy right out of high school in Boston, saw plenty of duty in Vietnam and had been recruiting for about a year. GMG1 Smith was now a fourteen-year career veteran.

"Recruiting sucks," he announced. "I hate it. But when I can be honest with a kid and get him to join anyway, I think I've done my job. The payoff comes when the kid thanks me."

Joe opened up his desk drawer and pulled out a pile of letters. "Most of these are atta boy letters – guys I brought in writing from the fleet to say thanks. That makes me feel good."

"I promise I'll write," Birdy joked.

Smitty laughed. "Where you from, Birdy?"

Hillsboro."

"Oh yeah? I've been talking to kids over there." He sorted through a couple of piles on his desk and pulled out some manila folders. Do you know Beckwith?"

"Sure."

"He'll probably end up going Army, but he's helping out this other guy……Reynolds? Know him?"

"Yeah, I know him."

Birdy was surprised those guys hadn't told him they were thinking military.

"I got a couple of other hooks in over there, but you guys seem to be my strongest candidates right now."

"Great."

"I'll try to schedule stuff so you guys are together."

"That would be neat."

The trio of Boone, Beckwith and Braft took the required vocational/intelligence tests together, which Smitty said were the first step in the process.

"It's important to see how stupid you are," he joked.

The three Hillsboro pals packed into the backseat of Smitty's white Navy Recruiter car and made the interstate trip to the entrance processing station in Springfield. Birdy appreciated Smitty as his recruiter all the more after hanging out at the enlisted processing station a few times and watching other recruiters with their perspective recruits. It was clear that they were snowing their guys, buttering them up, and making them feel like they was the next Admiral in waiting. Later, he'd hear horror stories from shipmates who had recruiters who lied to them and filled them with bullshit. Joe Smith never lied once and Birdy always appreciated Smitty's integrity and honesty. Smitty became Birdy's first Navy role model.

GMG1 Smith brought Birdy and the others to the Armed Forces Enlistment Entrance Station (AFEES) several times during the next few months. The experiences at the processing center gave Birdy a sneak preview of what the future would hold. The recruits were nameless ghosts, cattle-called through different rooms as drones, doing what the uniformed personnel and grumpy authorized civilians told them. The recruits weren't individuals or persons – they were merely numbers to be processed through the system.

Birdy met many potential recruits during those trips to the AFEES station. Some were there because a probation officer, a local judge, or an exhausted parent forced them there. Some were older, more seasoned, perhaps a bit more jaded than Braft. Others appeared to be a lot like Birdy – nervous, uncertain, naïve and, most of all, powerless.

The recruits knew they were nothing more than a quota, present to do what they were told if they wanted to join the service. Nobody smiled or shot the breeze in those rooms. Birdy recognized a few guys from playing basketball against them. Guys might identify themselves by mentioning what service they were joining or what town they came from, but nobody offered much more information. They were each in their own private little world of uncertainty, concerned with their own future, perhaps even a bit embarrassed to be undergoing such a degrading experience as group hernia checks.

Birdy was surprised to see young women (especially attractive young ladies) undergoing the same demeaning process as the rest of them. He thought, "Why does she want to put herself through all this – can't she get a date for Saturday night?" It was clearly an ignorant, chauvinistic and stereotypical attitude on his part – those young ladies had every right to be there as he did and it was an early lesson about equality in the Navy.

Birdy passed the physicals and did well in the aptitude tests. Smitty told him he was more than qualified for Mess Management Specialist.

"It's a fancy word for cook, but what the hell," said Smitty.

By the time it came to decide for real, Boone and Andy bother turned down the Navy. Andy felt that the Army had more to offer toward his interest in military police. Boone was thinking about becoming a Navy Seabee to learn a construction skill and he and Birdy seriously talked about joining under "the buddy system" that guaranteed the same boot camp company together, but when the time came to join the pre-enlistment "Cache" program, Boone backed out.

"I don't think I'm ready for this shit, Birdy," Boone admitted.

Smitty told Birdy the only step left was to have his parents sign some paperwork since he was still seventeen.

"My father's dead."

"Sorry to hear that, Birdman. But your mother can sign."

"If we can get her to find the time anyway," Birdy replied.

His mother did find the time to accompany her son to the Recruiters Office and signed the paperwork giving the Navy permission to enlist her son. Birdy got the feeling she was happy to sign his life away. Now she would be completely free to live her career. He returned to the AFEES Station and took his first enlistment pledge – into the "CACHE" Program, which basically commenced his Pay Entry Base Date (PEBD) affecting his pay when he went active duty.

Birdy's photo ran in the Greenville newspaper under the "Military News" banner, announcing that he had joined the Navy and would be leaving for Recruit Training at the Great Lakes Naval Station in June. He was surprised by how many kids at school made a point of stopping him in the halls to congratulate him and wish him the best of luck. He was beginning to understand that his life in Hillsboro was coming to an end.

Smitty told Birdy he was supposed to attend monthly "DEP" (Delayed Entry Program) meetings to view films about boot camp, sit through sea power presentations, and work on basic military requirement courses.

"Between you and me, go if you have the time, but don't worry about it if you don't show up," Smitty said. "It's for the Joe Schmuckatellys who are paranoid."

Birdy never went.

Smitty dropped by Johnny C's a few times for a meal – sometimes in uniform, other times in jeans and a sweatshirt. Birdy was flattered that his recruiter cared enough to stop by and say hi. Smitty said it was clear to him watching Birdy around the diner that he was going to make a great Navy cook and a good Sailor.

"You may be my best catch yet, Birdy."

Chapter 24

With much of his focus on the preliminaries of joining the Navy, Birdy hadn't had time to think about his final year of playing high school basketball or his status with the varsity squad., but he showed up for tryouts during the first week of December ready to prove his worth.

Coach Timberlake called him into the hall outside of the pit an hour into the first day's tryout.

"I can't let you play JV this season, Birdy," he said. "It's not fair to the other kids to put a senior on the team."

"I'm here to make Varsity."

"Coach Prelog won't put you on the team, son," Coach T. replied bluntly.

"I deserve to be on the team."

"Yes, you do," he agreed. Then the coach sighed. "Look. I could go to the Athletic Director and have you added to the roster, but Prelog will never play you."

"I'll be on the team, Coach," Birdy told him. "That's all I'm asking."

"He won't play you," Coach T. emphatically repeated.

"I'll be on the team." Birdy was just as ardent in his response.

Birdy was stupid enough to do what Loco Luke LoBush and Cade Simpson were unwilling to try by going to a higher authority above Prelog to make the team.

Athletic Director Larry "Lucky" Taylor was a long time science teacher at the high school who coached football and baseball for generations before taking on the oversight of all the school's sports programs. He had been on the job for nearly twenty years and was considered the "Dean" of area athletic directors.

Lucky was always chewing on a stogie and wore a gray sweatshirt to all the events. He was in his mid-sixties, half-deaf, and wore his graying hair in a crew cut. He had the mole the size of a quarter on one cheek and a scar across his chin that he never talked about. He was a decent guy who loved high school athletics and was a great booster for student athletes. He said 'nice game' to Birdy a few times when he watched the JVs play.

Luckily for Birdy, Lucky agreed that the senior deserved to be on the varsity squad and Braft ended up bumping sophomore Pete Phaneuf off the team. He felt bad about that, but Pete would have two more years to play varsity.

Thanks to Lucky, Birdy was reunited with the guys - Duston, Bink, Tag, Boone, Beck, Joe Jock Bonds, and Donny Garvin – which was all he wanted: the chance to be on the same team with the guys he started out with. Barry Schwink, Moondog Currie, Mel Krondecki and Sunday Simmons joined Birdy as first time varsity players.

Duston was voted team captain for his leadership and character traits, quite a compliment since McQ was not as good a player as Bink or Joe Jock in the guard position.

Unfortunately for Birdy, his instance on being added to the team only made it worse when it came to Prelog. The coach despised Braft for going over his head and never acknowledged his presence or even looked at him. Andy Beckwith called his friend 'The Great Invisible Braft'.

Prelog made it a point to let the rest of the team know that they were to shun Braft as well, especially after Andy Beckwith made the mistake of having Birdy go in for him during an early practice drill.

The Panther blew his whistle, stopped play, and went ballistic.

"God damn it Beckwith, I'm running this team. Who in the hell gave you the authority to make substitutions? The next guy who decides he's in charge is off the team, you understand me?"

The message from that day forward: stay away from the ostracized Braft. When Prelog was anywhere within eyesight or earshot, Birdy had the plague and everybody ignored him. Because Prelog excluded him from all drills, Birdy would jog around the gym or up and down the bleacher stairs during practice. Or he'd practice his shots alone at the other end of the floor. Sometimes Coach Timberlake let the varsity outsider work out with the JVs so he could sharpen his rebounding and defense.

Birdy knew Prelog was trying to make him so miserable that he'd quit. The Panther wanted to break him the same way he had broken the others, but Birdy was determined not to give in to the bastard.

The guys were afraid to be seen with him, fearing the loss of playing time if they disobeyed The Panther. Birdy was ignored by the others in the gym and even in the locker room when Prelog was around. They also knew better than to mention his name in The Panther's presence.

It was only when the coach wasn't in the immediate vicinity that the guys treated The Birdman normally. They felt sorry for him and guilty for their complicity in the situation, but nobody had the balls to take a stand Maybe if the team had staged a protest or a walkout, it would have forced Prelog to include Birdy in the process, but nobody was willing to put their own varsity career on the line.

"I've never seen anybody hate somebody as much as Prelog hates you," Beck observed. "Whatever you did, it must have been really cosmically bad."

"What makes you think I'm the one who did something?" Birdy asked.

Beckwith shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you used to do some really horrible stuff, Birdy."

Phil Golinski told Birdy he was nuts. "Why are you putting yourself through this ordeal when you're never getting off the bench?" he asked during lunch one day.

"Because I deserve to be on the team, Phil," was Birdy's response. "I don't care if I get cobwebs. He's not keeping me off the team."

The Coach stated publicly that Birdy Braft was being disciplined for violating team rules although Prelog declined to be specific in describing the offending infractions. Given Braft's reputation, most observers assumed the player screwed up and didn't question the Coach's decision.

The Panther wasn't a very good coach and it surprised Birdy that Prelog was still getting a free pass after five years of abusing his players. He may have been a high school legend in his day, a college superstar who made it to the NBA, and he had his degree in physical education, but that didn't make him a good leader or teacher.

Prelog's biggest problem was that he constantly tripped over his own ego. He was reliving his washed up glory days through the team, constantly retelling his own amazing story, but he had become a bore rehashing his greatest moments. It worked when the players were in seventh grade, but now the guys who had been around for a while didn't care about that crap. The Panther had no credibility with his players because of the way he treated them. He had been out of the NBA for years and the celebrity novelty had worn off, leaving him with only intimidation and fear to motivate. The Panther shamed, ridiculed, insulted and embarrassed kids, especially the ones he didn't like.

"We're all pieces of shit in Prelog's world," observed Boone Reynolds.

"The guy doesn't know how to be humble," Clark Fitzgerald explained to Birdy during a visit to Johnny C's. "Instead of being grateful for what he had, he's resentful for what he has. So he takes it out on you guys."

Coach Timberlake's teams were loose and energetic; The Panther's squads were tense, uptight, stiff and self-conscious. Duston and Bink were the starting guards. Tag and Andy started at forwards, and Boone was the center. Tag moved to center sometimes to spell Boone, and Donny Garvin was the rotating forward. Joe Bonds was the first substitute guard and the rest of the guys filled in as needed.

Captain Duston McQuinn called the team together before the first game of the season when The Panther wasn't around and suggested that the squad dedicate the season to Birdy, who appreciated the gesture although he secretly resented his teammates for not standing up to Prelog on his behalf.

"You're the one who insisted on doing this," Phil Golinski reminded Birdy. "You can't blame those guys for your misery."

"We're playing this season for The Great Invisible Braft!" said Andy Beckwith, this time as Johnny Carson

Birdy never took off his warm ups during the entire season. Even in blow out games when Hilltop was up by 30, he never got the nod. Coach Timberlake advocated a couple of times during those situations, but The Panther reminded the JV Coach that this was his team and he'd coach the way he saw fit.

Birdy ran through the warm up drills with the team at the beginning of the game and after the half time break, but that was the only time he got on the court. In the locker room, he remained the Invisible Braft and the coach talked strategy and diagramed plays without mentioning Birdy's name or calling his number.

"Have enough yet?" Officer Mike would periodically ask the non-playing player, but Birdy refused to quit the team.

Birdy was the best teammate who never played the game! He was a cheerleader who led from the bench – encouraging guys, spiriting guys on, getting the crowd going, joking with the refs, and exchanging thoughts with Coach Timberlake who always sat next to him on the bench during the varsity games

Chapter 25

Duston McQuinn was accepted at Boston College, thanks in part to a letter of recommendation written by famous alumni Mike "The Panther" Prelog. McQ was one of the few players Prelog liked and it was the first time most players saw the coach do something positive for one of his players.

McQ took an overnight trip to Boston during the Christmas school break to visit the college campus and say hello to some of The Panther's old basketball pals, even though McQ would not be playing college hoop for the BC Eagles. Teammates Beck, Boone and Birdy joined the team captain with plans to take in a Celtics game.

The foursome got a second rate motel room outside of town and rode the T into the city, enjoying an early dinner at the famous Southend pierside 'No Name' restaurant, then taking a cab to the Celtics game.

It was the first time any of them had been to a pro basketball game or stepped inside the famous Boston Garden. It was a thrill to see players like John Halick, Paul Silas and Dave Cowens in person on the parquet floor and former player Tom Heinsohn coaching the team on the sidelines. It didn't escape Birdy's thoughts that The Panther had also played in the great house during his professional career, such a far leap from The Pit in Hillsboro. The high school ballplayers drank in every moment of the night and were among the last to leave the Garden after the Celtics beat the New Orlean Jazz, 110-106

The late night subway ride back to the motel was an interesting experience for the small town boys and the four stayed awake long into the night talking about their trip, the game and, as it turned out, themselves.

There was no booze or dope, although Boone smoked atleast two packs of Marlboros. None of the four wanted to violate team rules and risk getting kicked off the squad, but Boone was the only drinker among the four so booze wasn't an issue on the trip. McQ, in fact, hadn't had a sip of liquor in his lfie, Birdy's only venture was the champagne he drank with Maggie at the Lake wedding, and Beck had laid off the stuff after getting kicked off the soceer team for drinking the previous fall.

The four teammates were seniors now, in the twilight of their youth, facing the scary reality that in a matter of only months they would be adults living in the adult world. They had known each other for a long time, survived twelve years of schooling together, played on the same sports teams, and experienced shared adventures that made them friends of significance.

Yet, on that particular night, sitting in the motel room drinking soda and eating potato chips, the four realized that perhaps they didn't quite know everything about each other afterall.

Duston admitted that he really didn't want to attend the Catholic Boston College, but was doing so out of respect for his devout Irish-Catholic mother. McQ himself had rejected his Catholic faith long ago, although his mother knew nothing of this life change. He considered himself an atheist who saw all organized religion as an evil fraud and hypocritical joke.

"Organized religion is spooky, dark, sad and guilt-inducing," Duston told the other three. ":I have a moral dread of all of it."

McQ's revelation surprised the others, mostly because Duston was probably the most down to earth, well-behaved, likable, sociable and nicest guy at Hillsboro.

"If you don't believe in hell, why bother being a good guy?" Boone wondered. "You have nothing to lose being an asshole in that case."

"You don't have to believe in God to live a good life," Duston replied. "I believe in a cosmic social justice that says good begets good and bad begets bad."

Birdy wondered what old friend Clark Fitzgerald would think of Duston's thesis. He was also surprised to find himself disagreeing with McQ, arguing that there had to be a God. Otherwise, what's the payoff for a life well-lived?

Boone revealed that his father, a well known Hillsboro business man, waa a full-blown alcoholic who was destroying the family. The admission was a surprise revelation to the others who were completely unware of the Reynolds family secret.

"My mother is an emotional basketcase, my brother moved out, my sister hates the old man, and I'm left with all the chaos," sighed Boone. He admitted being embarrassed by his father and went out of his way to avoid him. "My biggest fear is that he'll show up at a game cocked," said the basketball player.

"As bad as it gets, at least your dad is still alive," offered Birdy, giving the same advice he gave Joe Jock Bonds. "There's always a chance as long as he's still alive."

"Sometimes I wish he was dead," Boone remarked. "Maybe then the misery would end."

Birdy said being an orphan was no fun. "I've been living a disconnected life for years," he complained. "I have no family, the girl I love will have nothing to do with me, and the coach won't let me play basketball. I'm a screwed up mess."

"What did you do to piss off The Panther so bad?" Boone wanted to know.

Birdy considered revealing his own secret to the others, but he didn't want to be responsible for wrecking the basketball season or causing a scandalous controversy that would divide the town. Besides, it had been four years since Prelog cleaned his clock. Hadn't the statue of limitations run out?

"Ah, who knows?" .lied The Birdman in response to Boone's inquiry.

"You were a baaaaaaaaaddddddddd boy!" Beck interjected in his Lou Costello voice.

"You don't always have to be funny, Beck," Boone complained. "We're having a serious talk here."

"I know that," Beck countered. "But you're wrong. I do always have to be funny."

"Why's that?" asked McQ.

"Because being funny keeps me from having to deal with myself."

"What does that mean?" frowned Boone.

"There are times when I'm alone with myself, thinking about how I feel, when I realize how much I don't like myself," Beck revealed. "It's easier being funny that it is being myself."

"Come on, Andy," McQ said. "You're a great guy."

"With a deep, dark, empty hole inside of me," Beck revealed, sending an erie shiver down Birdy's spine. "Sometimes, I wonder if it's all worth it."

"You're seventeen years old for Christ sakes," said Boone. "You have your whole life ahead of you."

"Yeah, sure," Beck said, shaking off his momentarily downer. Then, in his Paul Lynde voice, he added, "I'm the luckiest guy alive!"

Beck continued with some humorous remarks but he had scared Birdy who, for the first time in their friendship, saw a peak of Andy Beckwith's darkside.

It was nearly three in the morning and the group decided to catch some shut eye. McQ insisted on sleeping on the floor and Boone had ordered a rollaway bed when he saw that there were two double beds in the room.

"What are you, a homo?" he had remarked when Beck had suggested that two of them could share one bed.

Boone took the cot while Beck and Birdy each had a bed to themselves.

They checked out of the motel in the morning and drove to Boston College. Duston gave them a quick tour of the campus before they showed up at the school's sports complex as invited. They met the coach and his staff and watched the team practice. The small town high school players were amazed at the size and talent of the college level players.

Near the end of the session, the four Hillsboro players were invited to scrimmage with some of the second team players and it was a humbling experience to be so totally outmatched and outplayed by the older guys who were clearly light years ahead of them in skill, ability and knowledge.

"Now I know why no college team was interested in me," said an impressed Duston after they finished playing.

They showered and were preparing to leave when Stan Halloway, one of the assistant coaches, approached them. He was about six foot eight with a friendly grin and huge hands.

"So, you guys play for The Panther, huh?"

"Yeah," Boone replied.

"We were teammates together here in college," Coach Halloway revelaed.

"Oh yeah? Was he an asshole then too?" Boone asked.

An embarrassed McQ elbowed Boone in the ribs to shut up but Halloway was laughing.

"Panther was arrogant, conceited, cocky and a real pain in the ass," agreed the Coach. "But he always backed it up with his play. That was his edge in college."

"Now he's just edgy," observed Beck.

Halloway laughed again. "Panther stepped on a lot of people on his way up," said the coach. "I guess that's why I'm coaching here now instead of him."

"We'll tell him you said hi," offered Birdy.

"Don't bother, man," Halloway said. "He treated me like shit just like I'm sure he's treating you guys now. My best advice to you is stay out of his way."

The high school boys nodded in agreement, shook the coach's hand, and left for the return trip to Hillsboro. They felt better knowing that Coach Prelog had always been a jerk.

Chapter 26

The Hillsboro High School basketball team got off to a bad start by losing to rival Greenville by 15 points to open the schedule, much to the predicted disgust of Coach Prelog who reamed the team unmercifully. But then a strange thing happened, especially for a team playing with a lot of pressure: Hillsboro won seven straight before playing Greenville again. The Green was still undefeated and Hillsboro lost to them again, this time by eight points.

Hillsboro didn't lose again and finished the season as a Cinderella Surprise at 14-2, even without Team Captain Duston McQuinn who missed the last two games of the regular season with a cracked bone in his foot. Remarkably, Greenville had the league's first undefeated season in twenty-four years, winning all sixteen games played.

The good news for Hillsboro and The Panther: the team was going to the playoffs for the third time in three years. The bad news: they were playing its undefeated arch rivals in the first round, so the chances of winning a playoff game for the first time in the Panther era didn't look good, especially with Duston out of the playoffs with his bum foot.

And then things got horribly worse. Barry Schwink, Sunday Simmons, and Pete Phaneuf (who had been added to the roster to replace Duston) violated team and school rules by getting caught at a party the Saturday night before the playoff game, which meant an automatic suspension from the team.

A panicked Prelog went to Lucky Taylor and begged for a waiver, asking that the suspensions go into effect at the beginning of the next regular season instead of the playoffs, but the Athletic Director didn't want a public controversy and declined The Panther's request.

Hillsboro faced the big Tuesday night playoff game against the undefeated Greenville Giants in the Green's large modern gym with just nine guys in uniform. Bink and Joe Bonds would start at Guards, Tag and Andy at Forward, and Boone at Center. Donny Garvin, Moondog Currie, and Mel Krondecki would be on the bench with some forgotten guy named Birdy Braft.

Tag Hendrix showed up in the locker room before the big game looking as green as the Greenville Giant uniforms.

"I think I got food poisoning," he groaned before stumbling to the bathroom to heave his guts out.

The Panther hoped that Tag could puke his way into feeling better, but it was clear that the guy was in no shape for action, so Donny Garvin was given the starting assignment, leaving just two guys coming off the bench ahead of the Invisible Braft.

Coach Timberlake looked at Birdy in the locker room and winked. Maybe, just maybe, fate was going to play out on this night.

But Hillsboro was going to get killed. The team had no height or depth and the two guys coming off the bench were guards. The players wondered if Prelog would be willing to swallow his ego and control long enough to give the forgotten Braft some minutes. Birdy had the height needed out there.

The Panther's new game plan: forget about defense and try to score as many points as possible. The team's strategy was to give Bink Baxter the ball. He was the best player and became only the fifth player in school history to break the 1,000 point barrier (Panther held the all time record, of course).

Duston, dressed in street clothes, called the team together in the locker room after Prelog had given his final instructions and disappeared into his office to talk over a few last minute details with Coach T.

"Okay, guys," Duston said. "In seventh grade, we told ourselves this was our ultimate goal. And here we are. I went back and checked the records. Hillsboro Varsity has only beaten Greenville twice in the past fourteen games. We need to get it done tonight. We're down and we're facing adversity, but we have a guy on our team who has shown us what character, commitment, determination, dedication and resolve is all about. Birdy Braft is our example of courage. If we go out there with the same determination and bravery that he's shown us all season, we can win the game."

Let's win one for the Brafter," Andy Beckwith said as Ronald Reagan and Birdy was humbled by the recognition.

Greenville was aware its opponent was short on players and the Green came out running, employing a strategy of fatiguing Hillsboro into submission by using multiple rotations to wear them down. But Panther's Pack hung tough, stuck to the game plan of getting Bink Baxter the ball, and kept up with Greenville's speed.

"Old time run and shoot basketball!" an excited Coach Timberlake said triumphantly.

The game was tied 33-33 at the half, with Bink scoring 24 points and the Hillsoboro players were sky high going into the locker room.

"Well, those fuckers came out with all guns firing and they didn't sink us," an impressed Panther said in a rare moment of praise. "We'll need to withstand the next fury in the second half. They're going to adjust, so we need to change up too. Get the ball to Bonds in the second half. Use Baxter as the decoy. I want those assholes humiliated out there."

Donny Garvin and Boone Reynolds both had three fouls and Prelog was forced to use the bench more than he wanted to in the second half. The exhausted players knew The Invisible Braft was fresh and ready to go, but nobody had the guts to suggest to the Panther that Birdy should be allowed to fly.

"The boys seem to be getting tired out there," Coach Timberlake told The Panther. "They need some breathers."

"I don't want to hear it," the irritated head coach barked.

Prelog glanced at the drained Tag Hendrix who looked like dog shit after spending the first half either sitting on the commode or kneeling on his knees puking into the bowl. "Got anything to give, Hendrix?"

"Sure Coach," he said, before rushing back into the bathroom with dry heaves.

The team sprinted onto the court for the second half warm-ups.

"He'll lose this game before he plays me, won't he?" a disheartened Birdy asked Coach Timberlake when they were out of Prelog's earshot.

"I can't believe he'd be that pigheaded," Coach T. replied. "Don't say anything, though. Let him decide for himself. You've waited this long. Can you wait a few more minutes?"

"Sure, Coach." But he knew he'd never get off the bench.

The second half played out much the same way the first half unfolded. Greenville ran, ran and ran. Hillsboro did its best to use its speed to keep up, but the Green was wearing them down. They double-teamed Bink as The Panther had predicted, so Joe Jock Bonds got the ball and kept his team in the game with some key shots.

Donny Garvin fouled out with 10 minutes left in the game, leaving Boone Reynolds as the only true big guy. Tag Hendrix dragged himself out of the locker room about five minutes into the second half and The Panther sent him in for a minute or two, but it was clear that Tag had nothing and he took himself out to go puke again. Krondecki played for Garvin but was four inches shorter than the Greenville forward.

Hillsboro was down by seven points with four and a half minutes to play when Boone Reynolds was called for his final foul. Tag Hendrix was no where to be seen as Boone walked off the court to a standing ovation, perhaps playing in the final game of his school boy career. He waved and grinned to the crowd, knowing this was probably his last moment of glory.

There was nobody left to play except the average Moondog Currie, who was 5'8, and the forgotten Birdy Braft who had sat mummified all season at the end of the bench.

Prelog called time and the team collapsed onto the bench, drained, exhausted, and emotionally spent. They had given it their all. The players looked at Panther, waiting to see if the stubborn coach had the gumption to let the forgotten and invisible Birdy Braft play the final minutes of what was probably the last game of the season.

Prelog never looked at Braft. "Currie, you're in for Reynolds," There was a profound sag of disappointment from the rest of the players when The Panther made the announcement.

Birdy felt a wave of rage building within him like a volcano about to erupt. He looked at Prelog who continued to ignore him. The bastard would rather lose the damn game then give Braft the satisfaction of playing the final four minutes.

"You're going to fuck the team just to keep me from playing?" Braft asked. The others looked at him with admired surprise.

Prelog ignored Braft and turned his back to him.

"You are a complete and total fuckhead," Birdy growled. Prelog refused to acknowledge him and Birdy took a step toward him. He probably would have cold cocked the son of a bitch had Coach T not grabbed him and physically pushed him away.

"It's over, son." T told him.

Defeated and destroyed, the forgotten basketball player slumped onto the end of the bench, trying to stuff his rage without bursting out in tears. He wished he had followed Lobush and Simpson's lead and quit after junior year.

The others hesitated for a moment, wondering if they should rally around Braft and walk off the court.

"Do you want to forfeit the game?" The Panther asked when the team failed to move. "Get your asses out there or so help me god I'll call it off right now."

The five players reluctantly took to the court and the remainder of the game played out in a blur. The deflated Hillsboro players had nothing left when Greenville turned it on and The Green blew Hillsboro off the court by scoring 16 unanswered points. Birdy could hardly focus on anything but his desire to assault Prelog.

The final buzzer mercifully went off and the Greenville Players hugged each other in excited celebration while the Giant fans went nuts with happiness. The dejected Hillsboro players looked on in disgusted defeat, pissed at The Panther for refusing to give Braft a chance.

"In four years, you candy asses never won the big game for me," Coach Prelog rebuffed them when they reached the bench. "What a bunch of losers."

"Maybe we would had a chance if you let Birdy play, you unbelievable asshole." It was Andy Beckwith finally taking a stand, though much too late now that it was all over with nothing to lose.

Prelog gave Beckwith a death stare but said nothing. The coach walked off the floor and wasn't seen again for the rest of the night.

Duston, Andy, Boone, Tag, Bink and Birdy – the five seniors who had played their last high school game – sat dejectedly on the bench and watched the happy fans slowly exit the building and the lingering Greenville players finish their post game celebrations. The Hilltoppers were crushed realizing they had been sold out by their own Coach.

Coach T. stepped up to the group and told them not to feel ashamed. "It's hard to win a game when your own coach is against you," he told them. "No matter what you experience in your life, remember this night. You climbed Mount Everest. You fought a noble struggle against all odds. You never gave up. And you lost with grace, dignity and integrity. I've never been any prouder of any group of players as I am with you guys here now."

Birdy was struck by how great Coach Timberlake was and wondered why he wasn't the damn varsity coach. Not once in four years could Birdy recall T being insulting, negative or a bad influence. He never heard T swear or disparage another person. Contrast that to The Panther, a guy who endlessly berated, humiliated and shamed his players, and whose regular vocabulary in practice included such vulgarities as "douchbag", "pussy", "faggot", "girly girl", "mama's boy" and "cocksucker".

"Let's get out of here," Coach T. suggested.

The players slowly left the gym, but Coach T. pulled Birdy aside as the others walked ahead of them.

"I don't know why he treated you the way he did these past four years, but I hope you won't let it affect the rest of your life. You're a good kid."

"Thanks, Coach." Birdy replied with appreciation.

"Worse mistake of my career was stepping down," he told Birdy in a moment of open candor. "Who knew he'd be this awful?"

The team rode the bus back to Hillsboro for the final time as a group, even though the Panther wasn't with them. There was a small group of loyal fans waiting when the bus arrived at the high school parking lot. Girlfriends hugged their boyfriend players, and supportive fathers shook the hands of their downtrodden sons.

Birdy left alone. There was no one to greet him. Until he got home, that is, and found Officer Mike sitting on the hood of his cruiser parked outside the Braft house.

"You got screwed big time," the cop told him.

He shrugged. "I'm still the better person though, aren't I?"

Officer Mike nodded with understanding. "That you are, son. That you are."

Chapter 27

The basketball season was quickly forgotten and the players got on with the rest of their school lives. Birdy's hair had grown in and he asked Media Teacher Mr. DeNoakes to take an instantmatic photograph for the yearbook on the day of the publication deadline. It wouldn't be the formal studio shot most of the others had taken in the fall, but he didn't care. A picture is a picture.

Mrs. Braft informed her son that she had accepted a job transfer to Atlanta, but wouldn't sell the house until he was done with school in June. She took most of the furniture when she left in early March and Birdy never saw her in Hillsboro again. Not that he saw a whole lot of her when she was in Hillsboro! All that was left in the house was his bedroom furniture, an old armchair he hauled out of Duston McQuinn's cellar, and a television set. He didn't go home much, except to sleep.

Twenty-something Ms. Marceline, the late great Mr. Bennington's replacement, was easily the prettiest teacher in the school. The guys were more interested in flirting with her than learning and spent most of their time trying to find out stuff about her. Like, did she have a boyfriend!?

Ms. Marceline was magazine model tall with styled brown hair and a constant smile. She made it a point to say hello to students in the halls and was able to get kids to feel good about themselves by taking the time to notice them and treating them with respect and kindness.

Birdy took Ms. Marceline's "Politics and the Media" class as a final elective in January. He liked the class and found the teacher well-informed and interesting. He enjoyed the way she engaged the class in thought-provoking topics and, in an ode to Mr. Bennington, The Birdman routinely debated, challenged and questioned Ms. Marceline. Cassie was in the same class and Birdy was extra expressive if not down right flirty with Ms. Marceline in hopes Miss Emerson would notice with envy. .

Birdy closed Johnny C's one night and noticed a woman standing beside a beat up import station wagon with its hood up. He crossed the street to see if he could be of help and was surprised to realize it was Ms. Marceline.

A little girl scared the shit out of him when she poked her head out of the dark car like a puppet in a puppet show and said "Hello."

"This is my daughter, Haley," Ms. Marceline said.

"Oh," he replied with surprise. "I didn't know you were married."

"I'm not," she said with a hint of awkwardness.

He wanted to crawl away in humiliation having put his foot in his mouth.

"I don't have a Daddy," Haley informed him.

"Doesn't look like you have a car that works either," he replied.

"Battery's been giving us trouble lately," his teacher said.

"Can I give you a ride home?"

"That would be helpful."

She closed the hood and told Haley to come along. The youngster was wearing a Sesame Street t-shirt and carrying a Barbie doll bag.

"We just had a pizza at Joe's," Ms. Marceline explained. "I know it's late for Haley, but we were busy earlier."

"I'm six years old," Haley announced from the back seat of his car.

Ms. Marceline didn't say much else and it was weird being with a beautiful teacher away from school. Luckily, Haley was a chatterbox, filling him in on Kermit the Frog and Big Bird. She also sang a song in her sweet child's voice

Birdy dropped the mother and daughter off at their house and a smiling Ms. Marceline thanked him for his kindness. Haley said good night and sweet dreams.

It was easy to fantasize about Ms. Marceline that night. Birdy met her kid and saw her house, crossing the unspoken boundary between student and teacher. Nobody else could brag about that achievement – not that he was about to tell anybody his little secret.

Birdy closed Johnny C's a few nights later again noticed Ms. Marceline standing next to her stalled car, its hood opened in an SOS call.

He stopped to check on the teacher. "Battery again?"

"It's brand new," she grumbled, obviously frustrated.

"Must be something electrical," he theorized.

She was perturbed by the situation. "I wish I could afford to buy a new car, damn it."

"Where's Haley?" he asked, noticing that the little puppet girl had failed to pop her head out of the window like last time.

"She's with my parents tonight."

"I'll give you a ride again," Birdy offered, tickled by the second opportunity to be with her.

She looked at him, considering his offer. She had been living a saintly life from the moment she found out she was pregnant with Haley in order to make the right appearance and be the correct role model. That was great for her image, but she was tired of being alone and lonely. She needed to break a rule, even just one time.

"Ah, what the heck," she said, closing the hood and getting her pocketbook and a small pizza box out of the car. She got into Birdy's Chevy, glancing around as if she had just robbed a bank.

"Something wrong?" Birdy picked up on her nervous energy.

"Are you kidding? I could get fired for this."

"For getting a ride home?"

She gazed at him, not sure if he was kidding or just plain stupid.

Birdy was surprised but flattered when the teacher suggested they take a ride. "I need to calm down," she explained. "That damn car's got me rattled."

She ate her pizza while Birdy drove.

"No traffic violations," she warned. "That would be the end."

He still didn't understand why she was so edgy. It wasn't as if they were out on a date!

"Sometimes I think coming back was a mistake," she remarked after a few miles of quiet driving. "I can't fart without somebody knowing about it."

"You're from here?"

"Born and raised. Proud graduate of Hillsboro High School."

"Did you have Mr. Bennington?"

"Sure did."

"He'd be glad to know a former student was teaching his classes."

"Maybe not this former student."

"What do you mean?"

"Let's just say I made some mistakes."

"Everybody makes mistakes." He spoke from experience.

"I'm talking major mistakes."

"Me too. What happened to you?"

"I wanted to be popular."

"Wanting to be popular isn't a crime," he reasoned. "If it was, most kids would be under arrest."

"I made stupid choices that weren't always the best for me."

"I know the feeling," he muttered.

They were on the outskirts of town and he pulled the car into a field he knew from driving school, parking behind an old abandoned barn far from the nearest house. There wasn't a soul within three miles.

"What kind of mistakes?" He asked.

"A mistake named Jimmy Mac."

"Jimmy Mac?"

"Jim McNamara. Met him sophomore year in college."

"Oh."

"I dropped out and ran away to California with him, for reasons I still haven't figured out."

"California is pretty, I hear."

"Not when you're pregnant and Jimmy Mac takes off," she reported sorrowfully. "I never heard from him again. That's my biggest sin – not giving Haley the father she deserves."

Ms. Marceline got out of the car and walked to the barn. Birdy hesitated for a moment, not sure if he should follow. He watched her standing in the darkness and finally joined her at the barn's entrance when it became obvious she wasn't coming back to the car.

"What did you do after he left?" Birdy wanted to know.

"Came home with my tail between my legs," she sighed. "It was the love and support of my family that got me through those tough times. I took night classes and finished my degree. My parents helped out with Haley. Now I'm trying to do the best for my child."

She looked at her naïve student. "I guess I'm not so great a teacher after all, huh?"

There was a lump in his throat. "I think you're the best teacher I'll ever have."

She smiled.

"Anyway," he said. "Things turned out okay for you."

"Except that I can't make another mistake," she said with frustrated annoyance. "There's a lot of pressure being the perfect daughter. The perfect mom. The perfect teacher. Can you imagine what's it like trying to be perfect all the time?"

"Nobody's perfect."

"I suppose not," she admitted.

"I went out of my way not to be perfect," Birdy admitted. "That was my sin."

"Your dad stopped me for speeding one time when I was in high school," Ms. Marceline told him. "He was very nice and let me go without even a warning – just a talk about safety and responsibility. It was a memorable lesson in kindness."

Birdy wanted to kiss her. He wanted to love her. He wanted to lift her in his arms and carry her triumphantly to the hay inside the barn. He very well might have brazenly made such a move had Prelog not hit him like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, for the first time since that fateful day in 8th grade, he understood what his sister was doing with The Panther. He realized how easy it was to be tempted and vulnerable when the setting was right. How seductive it was to be thought of as special by a popular teacher. He was startled by his revelation and actually felt pity for Darlene.

"I should take you home," he announced.

She was surprised by his abruptness. "Did I say something wrong?"

"I'll be the biggest hypocrite ever born if we don't leave now."

She pondered the moment then slowly nodded her head in agreement. They quietly returned to the car while Boone Reynolds' "What are you, a homo?" raced through Birdy's mind. He ached not being able to kiss her.

They drove home in silence, both aware of how close they had come to stepping into the vortex.

"Maybe you should drop me off around the corner," she suggested when they got within a few blocks of her home. He dimmed the lights and rolled the car to a quiet stop in front of an empty lot two streets away from her house as if he was an undercover cop on a stakeout. "I'll just watch to make sure you make it home okay," he said.

"Sure."

"See you around." He tried not to sound crushed

"See you around." She smiled sadly, hesitating for the briefest of moments and he knew that's where the kiss should have come. Instead she nodded, got out of the car and began walking toward her house. He waited until she was a good forty feet away before getting out of the car and following until he saw that she had made it to her house.

Birdy slowly walked back to the car thinking about his disconnected life and how Ms. Marceline had become another fragmented piece of his severed existence. She reminded him that he was a lonely guy, lost and abandoned in his own hometown.

Birdy was gratefully relieved that Ms. Marceline didn't treat him any differently in school after that strange night. In fact, she was extra nice to him after "the ride" and Ms. Marceline and Haley began eating regularly at Johnny C's, although Birdy was never quite sure if it was just a coincidence.

Chapter 28

Flyers were posted throughout the school advertising auditions for the senior play, one of the last major activities before graduation. Birdy had no interest in such a theatrical endeavor, until he learned that Cassie Emerson was trying out. Like Booster Day Sophomore year and the Prom junior year, he realized the play was an excellent opportunity to get involved in something that included Cassie Emerson, perhaps for the last time before school ended for good.

Birdy was successful in convincing some of the guys to try out too and had his posse of Andy Beckwith, Boone Reynolds and Duston McQuinn with him when he showed up for tryouts. Beckwith, of course, couldn't pass on any opportunity to entertain an audience, while Duston liked to sing. Boone Reynolds tagged along mostly "because all the babes try out!"

Talented Todd Vose and the creative Sarah Johns were the resident senior class actors who would undoubtedly get the leads in this year's production, but maybe Birdy could be a stage hand or a member of the company just to be around the Duchess. He continued to send her cards every week ("I remember and I am sorry"), but she was still dating baseball egotist Sam Provost, who received a $60,000 signing bonus from the Baltimore Orioles in February. One week later, Sammy Boy was driving around town in a $25,000 sports car.

English Teacher Mrs. Dunham would be directing the Irving Berlin musical "Annie Get Your Gun." The drama leader was an infectious teacher who had a trusting and direct way of communicating with her students. She was everybody's grandmother and the kids adored her enthusiastic ability to transport them beyond the pages of a novel, poem, or play.

Those interested showed up at auditions in the high school auditorium and Mrs. Dunham thanked them for their dedication to the arts, assuring the students that she was excited to have so many talented kids willing to become involved in the process.

Mrs. Durham offered the group a synopsis of the play, a story based on the legend of the Old West, including the famous Buffalo Bill. According to the enthusastic director, Annie Oakley is a rough and tumble backwoods girl who stars as a female rifle shooter in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. She meets Frank Butler of Pawnee Bill's Show who is also a shooting expert. Annie is unsophisticated and uncivilized but the egotistical Frank is attracted to the sweet and modest girl, and it helps that both love show business The competitive rivals butt heads but, before long, they develop affection for another and the couple will have to decide whether they want to be the best shooter in the country, or be successful in love.

"It's the classic battle of the sexes," Mrs. Dunham concluded. "But in the end, isn't love the only thing that really matters?"

The teacher asked each student to list what parts, roles, or jobs they were interested in. Birdy noticed that Cassie had signed up for the Annie Oakley lead and the supporting role of Dolly Tate, so he signed up to audition for Frank Butler and either Charlie Davenport or Pawnee Bill (associates of Dolly Tate, in case Cassie got that role).

Auditions were spread across two days. Todd and Sarah read for the leads as expected and Mrs. Dunham asked other couples to read for those roles too. She also traded off various matches to try to find the right chemistry between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler.

Birdy read as Frank against Sarah, Deb Wallace, and Jaynee Leary. He also read as Charlie Danvenport against Ellen Thurbert, Molly Loomis and Sarah as Dolly Tate.

Mrs. Dunham then asked Cassie Emerson to read Annie against Birdy's Frank.

"Can't I read with someone else?" Cassie pleaded.

"Are you casting the show or am I, Dear?" Mrs. Dunham asked with a smile.

Cassie sucked it up and joined Birdy on the stage to read lines together. It was one of the confrontational "I can do anything you can do better" scenes between the two characters and Birdy noticed that an excited Mrs. Dunham was intrigued by what he and Cassie were doing.

"That was interesting!" the director said when they finished their first exchange. "You two really give off the emotional energy I'm looking for. Do it again!"

Cassie was stunned. It never occurred to her that she might beat out Sarah Johns for the part. But at a big price: old nemesis Birdy Braft was her ticket to the lead role!

"What is it with you?" She muttered under her breath and Birdy laughed with delight.

The two tried a couple of more scenes together and Mrs. Dunham switched off a few other matchings, but those present got the sense that the director had found her Annie and Frank.

Mrs. Dunham asked Cassie and Birdy to read together again on the second day of auditions.

"Can you sing, Robert?"

"Mostly in the shower."

"Cassandra?"

"I've been in the chorus since seventh grade."

"Robert, I know you play basketball. So you won't trip over your own two feet if you have to do a dance step or two?"

"Not if I have a basketball in my hands."

"Cassandra?"

"I can dance."

"Thank you." Mrs. Dunham excused them and asked other candidates to read various parts.

"You don't think she's actually considering us, do you?" a panicked Cassie asked Birdy when they returned to their auditorium seats.

"Wouldn't that be the highlight of your high school career? The star of the show!"

It was almost as if the spotlight clicked on her right there and then. "You have to promise me you'll take this seriously," she pleaded.

"Come on, Cassie." He was hurt by her implication. "You know I'd do anything for you."

"Promise me," she said sternly.

He was upset and insulted by her distrust. "This is important to me too." He was openly annoyed at her and wasn't afraid to let her know she was out of line. "I wish you would cut me some slack for once in your life."

She was taken aback by his blunt challenge and didn't say anything in reply.

Judgment time came at noon the following day when the final casting was announced. The hopefuls gathered around the door to the auditorium and waited for Stage Manager Phil Golinski to appear with Mrs. Dunham's final selections. Phil didn't say a word as he posted the list to the door:

Annie Oakley Cassandra Emerson

Frank Butler Robert Braft

Dolly Tate Sarah Johns

Charlie Danvenport Todd Vose

Buffalo Bill Boone Reynolds

Pawnee Bill Andrew Beckwith

Mac Duston McQuinn

Sitting Bull George Kessler

Foster Wilson Archibald Smith, Jr.

Cassie was stunned. "I'm Annie! I don't believe it. I got the lead! I got the lead!"

Birdy knew he was the luckiest guy in the school getting the chance to play Cassie's love interest, even if it was only make believe! Maybe he couldn't get Cassie Emerson to like Birdy Braft, but he knew that Annie Oakley would fall for Frank Butler and that would have to do.

Having the guys' assigned major roles was an added bonus for Birdy. Boone getting cast as Buffalo Bill was almost as surprising as Birdy landing the lead, but Mrs. Durham liked Boone's physical appearance on stage and thought he could pull the part off. Ironically, the usually cynical Reynolds became one of the most serious performers in the play and rarely fooled around.

Not surprisingly, Beck was the clown during rehearsals and kept the others loose with his antics, but he was instantly in character whenever Mrs. Durham wanted Pawnee Bill on stage.

Mrs. Dunham constantly talked about "character" and "motivation." She asked questions about why the actors thought Annie might act this way, or why Frank would react in that way. Her challenges forced the performers to explore the character beyond the lines on the page and her exploration made them better actors.

Birdy enjoyed being involved in a troupe. Everybody connected to the production was interested in putting on the best show possible. Cast and crew alike were inspired by Mrs. Dunham's contagious enthusiasm and by the script itself with its "there's no business like show business" theme.

Sarah Johns and Todd Vose were gracious in their secondary roles and offered Cassie and Birdy the necessary insight and support to help the leads excel. Birdy didn't know what "stage left," "stage right," "upstage" and downstage" meant until Sarah was kind enough to explain it to him.

Birdy didn't get caught up in the fact that he was "the male lead" because he was just happy to be a part of the show. The group pulled together like they were Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a show in "Babes in Arms" and Birdy got to know his school mates in a new and different venue.

Some in the company remembered Birdy from his creep days and he spent extra time working on his credibility with those who were guarded and suspicious of him. He interacted with everybody in the company, including Lucy Beckwith who didn't hold the past against him.

Devoting hours and weeks to rehearsing a play allowed the cast to develop a family feeling. Mrs. Dunham sculptured a committed team of performers working toward the common goal of giving the audience a good show on opening night. A few romances bloomed between company members during the rehearsal run and plenty of friendships were strengthened and renewed too. Birdy loved the camaraderie of working closely together for a common cause.

The family feeling became even more evident later in the schedule when the children were added to the mix, most of whom were younger siblings of cast, crew and teachers. Annie Oakley had brothers and sisters, and there were six other kids in the show too. Birdy was friendly and funny with the youngsters during rehearsals and especially when the show was running to keep them relaxed and happy. He went out of his way to spend time with Cassie's little sister Joanie who was in the show and tried to be a big brother influence for the youngster.

It was important to have that family feeling because everybody depended on each other and asked one another for favors. Jaynee Leary was happy to run lines with Birdy whenever he asked. Todd Vose offered helpful hints about how to memorize lines and get off book faster. The company players bent over backwards to make things work for the lead actors.

The production generally rehearsed for two or three hours after school each day, sometimes in shifts. Later on, when "crunch time" as the officious stage manager Phil Golinski called it drew near, the company met on weekends, especially to work on the dance numbers. As rehearsals progressed, the actors added new twists to their characters, a new look, a new double take, or a new pause to flush out the scene as best they could.

Birdy hadn't realized how much work it took to pull off a musical. He had to memorize his lines, get the blocking down, learn the songs and music, and become familiar with the dance steps. As opening night got closer, he had to deal with wardrobe, make up and publicity. All this was in addition to school and working at Johnny C's.

The show had two acts, seven scenes, and 20 musical numbers. It was fascinating to watch it all come together like pieces of a puzzle.

Mrs. Dunham understood how the "acting" scenes inter-spliced with the songs, how the company players interacted with the featured actors, and how the set, artistic design, lightning, wardrobe and make-up all came together to make one big production. She never doubted that it would turn out successfully.

The musical director was Mrs. Hoover, the school's music teacher. She was a female version of Jim Nabors because she talked with a high-pitched wail, but sang like an operatic singer. She was as thin as a rail with a sunken face that collapsed into her cheeks. She wore clothes off the rack from K-Mart and operated under the assumption that anybody could sing and that everybody should understand and appreciate music, but she was extremely patient with Birdy as he experienced music for the first time in his life. They'd meet at lunch or other free time to work on the songs.

Later, Cassie and Birdy spent an entire Saturday with Mrs. Hoover to smooth out their numbers. He was nervously worried the first time he and Cassie met to work on their songs, but the musical director picked up on the awkwardness and treated them with gentleness and compassion, aware that two teenagers singing love songs to one another wasn't the easiest task. Her tutoring kept the two leads from freaking out and as long as they approached the situation from their character's perspective, they were fine.

Birdy originally got involved in the play to be around his Duchess, but there were so many responsibilities and obligations to worry about that he nearly forgot about how he felt about her. Frank had almost as many songs and scenes with the featured actors and company as he did with Annie, so Birdy was spending just as much time with Todd Vose (Charlie Davenport) Boone Reynolds (Buffalo Bill), Sarah Johns (Dolly Tate), Andy Beckwith (Pawnee Bill) and the company players as he was with Annie.

Birdy's time with Cassie was extra special, not just because she was his dream girl, but also because they were collaboratively involved in a project together. There were many people depending on them and Cassie forgot to hate him for the good of the show. Birdy suspended his emotions toward her in order to be professional, positive, supportive and helpful. Mrs. Dunham told them that they set the tone for the others to emulate and they both took that charge seriously.

Cassie played Annie as a confident but uneducated young woman instead of a hick. Frank Butler is usually a loud, cocky character, but Birdy didn't have the voice to boom the songs out, so he played him with vulnerability, a feeling he knew something about. The conflict between Annie and Frank came off well because of the natural tension between the actors playing the parts. That's what Mrs. Dunham had picked up on during auditions and the relationship worked well on stage, particularly in the big show down scene between Frank and Annie at Governor's Island, featuring the classic song "Anything You Can Do".

The genius talent of songwriter Irving Berlin gave the show some amazingly fun songs to perform. Cassie and the kids sang the hilarious "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and the lovely "Moonshine Lullaby", while Birdy and the guys had a blast with "My Defenses are Down", which Hilltop Dance Studio Instructor Sunny Kendell choreographed perfectly. The bickering "Anything You Can Do" between Annie and Frank became the highlight of the entire show and Cassie's solo with the funny "You Can't Get a Man With A Gun" was beyond cute. Birdy sang "I'm a Bad, Bad Man" with Ellen Thurbert and Ellie Bagwell and Cassie refered to the number as Birdy's theme song! She said it with a laugh and Birdy didn't take it as a swipe against him. Cassie also soloed with a silent George Kessler as Sitting Bull with "I'm An Indian Too" which was laugh out loud funny

There were also some romantic tunes, including Frank's solo of "The Girl That I Marry", Frank and Annie's duet of "They Say It's Wonderful" and "An Old Fashioned Wedding", plus Dolly and Charlie getting their moment in "Who Do You Love?"

Charlie, Dolly and Company introduce the show with "Colonel Buffalo Bill", Charlie, Buffalo Bill and Frank sing the entertainment anthem "There's No Business Like Show Business", and the entire company gets to sing "Wild West Dance" and "I Got the Sun in The Morning".

Birdy had a blast being Frank to Cassie's Annie and loved every moment of the amazing experience. They laughed, teased each other and the other actors, and forgot about their differences, working hard to make sure their duets were as real as possible. Birdy wanted to hug Cassie every time they sang "They Say It's Wonderful" and "An Old Fashioned Wedding" and he understood why so many leads fall in love with each other given the nature of the work, the amount of time spent together, and the themes being acted out. Of course, he was in love with his co-star before the production started so that scenario didn't matter much and his fantasy had come true thanks to the magic of make believe.

Annie and Frank kiss in the play. Mrs. Dunham would say "And then they kiss" during rehearsals but when they were a few days from opening night, she pulled her leads aside during a break.

"You're going to have to kiss," she told them. "I know this is high school, but we can't have Frank kissing her hand or pecking her on the cheek. It will wreck the whole play."

"I understand," Cassie said, trying to be as professional as possible.

"You can do it for the first time on opening night if you want, or you can start now," Mrs. Dunham said. "If you want to practice, you can go out back."

The Director didn't intend her comment to sound so silly, but Cassie and Birdy both burst out laughing at her suggestion.

"We know how to kiss, Mrs. Dunham," a cocky Birdy assured her.

"Have you kissed each other?" She asked with a scowl.

"Well, no," he admitted, embarrassed to be called out.

"Well then," she replied all knowingly. "When do you want the first time to be? That's all I'm asking."

"Why don't we wait until dress rehearsal?" a nervous Birdy suggested.

"That sounds good," agreed a relieved Cassie and the two teens walked away from each other to avoid further embarrassment.

Birdy asked Todd Vose how he handled kissing in a play.

"Make sure your breath is clean," he advised. "Always suck on a mint before going on. Don't tongue her. Stay in character."

"And don't get a boner," added Andy Beckwith, who overheard the conversation.

The company players established characters and shticks for their various scenes, whether they were playing cowpokes, Indians, town folk, train passengers, fair-goers, ballroom dancers, or rodeo guys. The Birdman was fascinated watching the performers develop different quirks and attitudes for each scene.

Company members Paul Carson, Duffy Davidson, Fred Mendozza, Mike Morrison, Peter Thompson, and Harold White became Birdy's band of brothers. The group had a blast doing the song "My Defenses Are Down" together, humorously designed by Sunny Kendall, and it was hard not to laugh during the number. Those guys were also there for Birdy during the many crowd scenes, and backstage when he was a bundle of nerves.

Ellen Thurbert and Ellie Bagwell were Birdy's diversions from Carrie and the trio had fun doing "I'm A Bad, Bad Man" near the top of the show. Birdy was generous to the two girls when they were together in the spotlight and Sunny's choreography gave them some magical moments on stage.

Singing "There's No Business Like Show Business" with Todd Vose and Boone Reynolds (and the reprise with Sarah and Andy) was a hoot. Birdy never thought he'd see the day when Boone Reynolds would sing in public!

The Costumer was the Home Economics Teacher Mrs. Wilson, a large middle-aged woman with a jolly personality and an "I can do that" attitude about any request asked of her. She had the leads fully wardrobed with a week to go before opening night.

Mr. Judinski, the industrial arts teacher, assisted Boone Reynolds and several shop guys in the design and building of the set which was still being painted during the dress rehearsal. Mr. Judinski was about 6' 9" and never talked. He wore a doctor's smock, had a pencil behind his ear at all times, and seemed disinterested in the play, but he stood in the wings on opening night and went hysterical watching the show.

The Art Teacher Mr. Garland, a flamboyant guy with a flare to see things conceptually, helped with the scenic artistry.

Mrs. Dunham's husband Martin showed up the day before dress rehearsal to finalize the lights and sounds. He was a friendly man who looked twenty years younger than his actual age, and he and his wife acted like they were newlyweds instead of a couple who had been together nearly forty years. Birdy's jaw dropped the first time the stage dimmed and he saw how moods, attitudes, settings, seasons, time, and feelings could be altered through the filter of lighting. He almost tripped over himself the first time the lights changed when he was on stage and he forgot his line the first time a sound affect blasted through the speaker system.

The Birdman had a similar reaction when the Orchestra was present for the first time. Under the guidance of Mrs. Hoover, some of the more talented members of the high school band joined a group of musicians from the community to comprise the eighteen-member ensemble that featured three violins, a viola, a cello, bass, drums, three clarinets, two trumpets, two horns, two trombones and the piano. The cast was thrown off the first time they sang to the live instruments but Mrs. Hoover was very good at keeping up – or slowing down – for them.

Zoey Jameson and Noreen Bozeman agreed to be in charge of props and were in full force with a week to go making sure the actors had what they needed and that the props were always where they were supposed to be for any given scene. Zoey signed on mostly to be around Beck and Noreen enjoyed flirting with Birdy, even though she had a college boyfriend.

The band room underneath the stage became the dressing room. There were two exits to the backstage, plus one to the band pit out front, which Mrs. Dunham used to open the show by having the entire company come out from the pit singing "There's No Business Like Show Business" to get the show off to an entertaining kick off.

The community dressing room became the participants' home away from home. Stage Manager Phil Golinski posted a check in sheet for all cast members, along with various production rules. Privacy for costume changes was assured with sheets and portable blackboards in the corners.

Some cast members were nervous, others gitty, and still others excited preparing for dress rehearsal. That night's audience was limited to parents of the younger kids, fellow teachers, and friends of the crew, as well as students from a couple of Mrs. Dunham's classes. It would be the production's first performance in front of an audience.

Actors were seen in makeup for the first time. Boone Reynolds was unrecognizable in his white Buffalo Bill wig and goatee, ten-gallon cowboy hat, and yellow cowboy suit. George Kessler really did look like an Indian with his brown-face make up, braided wig, and head dress.

Mrs. Dunham said she would only stop the dress rehearsal if something major happened. "My work is done," she told them. "Now it is your show. Mr. Golinski is your stage manager and he's the boss. Good luck. Have fun. Enjoy yourselves. You've worked very hard. The pay off comes the first time you hear a laugh, the first time you generate applause. You'll feel the exhilaration and you'll be glad you worked hard to make it to this moment."

Mrs. Hoover insisted on voice ups before every show. Others did relaxation drills, or used other escape methods to relax. Andy was a joke a minute, while Todd Vose took a brief nap and Duston juggled.

An awed Birdy stood in the wings watching the play start with the company coming out of the pit singing "There's No Business Like Show Business." Before he knew it, Birdy was making his stage debut in a blur and then singing, "I'm A Bad, Bad Man" with Ellie and Ellen. He marveled at Cassie in her first scene and with her first song.

It was thrilling to watch the expressions on people's faces as they came off after a particular scene.

"Man, we nailed that!" Todd Vose exclaimed.

"I thought you forgot your line for a second there," laughed Sarah Johns.

"Did you hear them laugh?" A wide-eyed Andy Beckwith marveled. "They loved us!"

Birdy gave the thumbs up signal to the performers as they came off stage.

"Great Job, Lynn!"

"Funny stuff, Mike!"

"That was terrific, Mary!"

Phil Golinski was all business as stage manager, but Birdy could tell he was having a ball. Phil was wearing a headset with a small microphone linked to the crew in the lighting booth and was constantly whispering directions and orders, either into the headset or at people waiting in the wings.

"Get out of the way, I'm about to close the curtain."

"Where's your prop for this scene?"

"You still got two minutes before you go on, relax."

"Your entrance is from the other side, remember?"

"Cueing light cue #34 now."

When Birdy was on stage, he really was Frank Butler. And that was Buffalo Bill, not Boone Reynolds. And that was Annie Oakley, not Cassie Emerson.

Naturally, the kiss between Annie and Frank got a lot of ooh's and ahh's from the audience. Birdy didn't even think about kissing his true love and the moment came naturally and freely knowing Frank Butler would kiss Annie Oakley.

The company got a great hand at the end of its reprise of "There's No Business Like Show Business" sung by the entire group to end the show and they knew they had a successful high school senior play to present to the community.

Mrs. Dunham didn't have to stop the show. The lighting guys (Pete LaFrank and Dave Chester) were a little slow on a few cues, the spotlight girl Cathy Smith missed half a song, and a gun didn't go off when it was supposed to, but otherwise the performance went as smoothly as could be expected for a high school production.

"The only time an audience knows there's a mistake is if you tell them," Mrs. Dunham said during notes after the dress rehearsal. "If you stay in character, ad lib and wait it out or cover up the gaff, the audience will be oblivious to any difficulty, unless it's obvious like lights not working or something breaking on stage."

Mrs. Dunham took a few minutes to set up the curtain call after the dress rehearsal.

"Phil Golinski will determine whether you get a second curtain call!" she told them once the curtain call was set.

Performances were Friday and Saturday night, with a Sunday afternoon matinee finale.

"Go home and rest up," Mrs. Dunham ordered at the end of the long night. Tomorrow we have a real live paying audience."

But nobody wanted to go home after their successful dress rehearsal. Cast mates hung around congratulating one another and reviewing the night until reluctantly making their way out of the dressing room.

Cassie and Birdy sparked as Annie and Frank, confirmed by the feedback from those in the audience, including Mrs. Emerson.

"There was electricity in the air," Cassie's mom told them after the final curtain. "I believed you were Annie, Cassie, and Birdy you convinced me that you were really Frank Butler."

It was the best compliment of the entire three show run.

Birdy saw the shadow of a person resting against his car in the nearly empty parking lot when he finally left the auditorium and was excitedly surprised when he realized it was his co-star, Cassie Emerson. She was in street clothes, but still had her stage makeup on.

"You did a great job tonight, Annie," he said when he reached her.

"Thanks. You too." She kept looking down at her feet.

"Are you having fun?"

"The most fun ever," she laughed.

"But that's not why you're here, I'm guessing." His heart was pounding.

She looked at him for the first time. "I just wanted to let you know that…..well, that I forgive you."

He felt his eyes welt up. "That means a lot."

"It's just that……" But she stopped whatever it was she was going to say.

"It's just that what?" he gently prodded.

"It's just that I don't know if I can trust you."

"I understand," he replied with a heavy sigh. "Trust is earned, not given."

"Yeah."

"I'll keep trying to earn your trust, Cassie," he vowed.

She nodded, mumbled good night and headed for her car.

From then on, he wrote, "Thanks for forgiving me. I will work to earn your trust" in his weekly cards.

Chapter 29

A revived Birdy wanted to call Navy Gunner's Mate First Class Petty Officer Joe Smith and tell the recruiter the enlistment was off! His dream girl had granted him absolution for his past sins and hope always springs eternal!

It was easy to be caught in a fantasy when he was playing a fantasy. He had been waiting years for Cassie's forgiveness and now that he finally received it, he wanted to dance down the street singing "I Got the Sun In Morning!" from the play! It was a whole new world and Birdy would dump the Navy, stay home, make a career for himself at Johnny C's, and court his Duchess.

But it didn't take long for reality and his insecurity to return him to his senses. Cassie was about to graduate from high school and would be leaving for college in a different state. She was dating a potential major league baseball player while Birdy sloshed hash. Who was he kidding? There would be no happy ending no matter how much Frank Butler wooed Annie Oakley.

Birdy refused to bum out over the boomerang effect of Cassie's forgiveness. He needed to stay centered, positive and fired up so he could be the best Frank Butler possible. The production had come too far to have his disconnected life wreck the show.

It took forever for the Friday school day to be over. Kids stopped cast members in the halls to say good luck and "Break A Leg". A humbled Birdy was startled to see his photo next to Cassie's on the play board in the lobby of the auditorium. A few years earlier, the only public photograph he had a chance for public display was an FBI Wanted Poster in the Post Office!

As a naïve seventh grader, Birdy assumed The Panther and Basketball would be his salvation but as he stood in front of the play board with his black and white glossy hanging next to the lovely Cassie Emerson, he realized that Frank Butler was his true redemption.

Birdy was a nervous wreck waiting for opening night to begin. With Cassie's forgiveness, he felt added pressure to give the perfect performance so he wouldn't let her down again. He didn't bother leaving the school after the last period, even though the curtain didn't go up until 7:30. He wandered the halls of the empty building, sat alone in the bleachers of The Pit, and in the auditorium seats staring at the stage where The Wilson House of Act 1, Scene 1 waited for the show to start. Would he be able to overcome Prelog's pronouncement of him being a loser? Would he be booed off the stage? Or would he be the star of the night?

Typing Teacher Mrs. Merritt, the House Manager, showed up at 4:30 with a group of volunteer kids to start getting the lobby ready. Mrs. Merritt used to be Miss Greene until she broke every guy's heart by getting married the previous year. The popular and attractive teacher was uncommonly gullible and kids were always pulling fast ones on her. Her students couldn't help but love her for her innocence and honesty, but sometimes Birdy would shake his head at her vulnerability.

The male lead helped Mrs. Merritt and her crew move tables and set out the programs. He was humbled to see his name listed second in the cast list and to see himself included in the cast notes of the program.

Cassie Emerson (Annie Oakley) will attend Syracuse University as an English Major in the fall. Cassie had a small role in the Hillsboro High Production of Oklahoma! her freshman year and is a member of the school chorus, student council, ski club, and the Athletic Club. She was Booster Day Duchess and is a member of the National Honor Society. Cassie would like to thank her family for their love and support during this production.

Robert Braft (Frank Butler) is making his acting debut with "Annie Get Your Gun". "Birdy" is a familiar face at Johnny C's Diner, played basketball for Hillsboro, and will be joining the Navy in June. Birdy would like to thank the cast and crew for their support, especially Mrs. Dunham for believing in him.

Sarah Johns (Dolly Tate) is making her fourth consecutive appearance on the Hillsboro High stage. She was featured in Oklahoma! Bye Bye Birdie, and last year starred as Nellie in South Pacific. Sarah has worked in local community theatre productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, A Christmas Carol, and Babes in Arms. Sarah plans on attending Emerson College in the fall and will major in acting. She would like to thank Mrs. Dunham for her loyal support.

Todd Vose (Charlie Davenport) is also well known to Hillsboro High audiences, with featured roles in Oklahoma! and Bye Bye Birdie. Todd played Lt. Cable in last year's production of South Pacific. Todd has participated in community theatre productions since he was eight years old. Todd played football for four years at Hillsboro High and was a tri-captain this past season. Todd plans to pursue a career in early childhood education. Todd would like to thank his dog Bruce for always wagging his tail.

Boone Reynolds (Buffalo Bill) hasn't acted since his fifth grade performance in "Noah's Ark". Boone was a great basketball player for Hillsboro High. He hopes to one day own his own construction company and helped build the set for this production. Boone would like to thank his grandfather for showing him how to act old.

Andy Beckwith (Pawnee Bill) sings in the school chorus, played soccer, basketball and baseball at Hillsboro High, and performs great impersonations of local personalities and national celebrities. Andy won first place in this year's talent show for his stand-up routine. Andy is interested in law enforcement and would like to thank Vice Principal Holdstein for helping him stay out of trouble.

Duston McQuinn (Mac) was Captain of this year's basketball team. He represented Hillsboro High in the State Regional Student Representatives Council, moonlights on Greenville Radio Station WGRN as the DJ "McQ", and plays guitar with the local group "Johnny and the Moondogs". Duston is attending Boston College in the fall and would like to dedicate his performance to his mother.

George Kessler (Sitting Bull) played football and basketball at Hillsboro High. He was a sailor in last year's production of South Pacific and has appeared with other family members in several local community theatre productions. George plans on a career in business and would like to thank Cassie Emerson for her patience during the number "I'm an Indian Too".

Archibald Smith Jr. (Foster Wilson) has been active in the school's music program and won a state award in last year's Science Fair. Archie is a National Honor Society student and a member of the student council. Archie returns to Hillsboro High next year as a member of the senior class.

Phil Golinski was surprised to find Birdy Braft sitting in a chair reading Sports Illustrated when he stepped into the dressing room at 5:48 pm. He looked at the actor and considered him for a long moment.

"I have to admit, I thought Vose should have been Frank," the stage manager confessed.

"Me too," Birdy admitted.

"But you proved me wrong," Phil continued. "I've been on the crew four years running and you've been the most gracious lead I've ever seen."

Birdy nodded with gratitude. "I really didn't think I'd pull this off," he admitted.

"How many actors does it take to change a light bulb, Birdy?" Phil asked.

Birdy shrugged.

"One hundred," Phil answered with a grin. "One to do it, and ninety-nine others to say 'I could do that'."

Others slowly began to trickle into the dressing room. Birdy played a game of checkers with young Bobby Bagwell and helped ten-year old Marie Kessler with her homework. Later, he did voice warms up with some of the company.

June Davis helped with Birdy's make up. She was a nice lady in her mid thirties with a cropped haircut and penetrating eyes. June graduated from beauty school and worked in a salon, then fell in love with Josh Davis, who happened to be an undertaker. Most of June's make up work now took place on dead people!

The actors were keyed up knowing it was opening night, but Sarah, Todd and the other experienced veterans kept them grounded.

"The performance is really just the conclusion of what we've been doing for the past two months," Todd Vose explained. "I call it the pay off for all our hard work."

Cassie was as nervous as a bride on her wedding night and paced back and forth in the dressing room.

"My entire family is out there, including my great Aunt Mabel," she fretted. "What if I screw up?"

"You won't screw up," Birdy assured her with a smile. "You know how to ride the bike. All you have to do is pedal."

"Play to one person, not the entire house," Sarah suggested. "I usually play to the guy in the light booth!"

"Fifteen Minutes!" Stage Manager Phil Golinski warned, sounding like a prison guard announcing lights out in fifteen minutes!

Birdy joked with whoever was nearby to stay loose and relax while waiting for "Show time" as Todd Vose called it. When they heard the orchestra start up with the overture, everyone knew it was "Gentlemen, start your engines" time.

"Opening night is the best high there is," Todd Vose told the group. "Enjoy the experience, people."

Once the opening cue was given, Mrs. Dunham's dedicated group was confidently energetic, the show flowed effortlessly, and every performer turned in a near flawless performance.

"We're a hit," a cheerleading Sarah Johns broadcasted during intermission. "The audience loves us. It's a great house tonight."

"I've heard athletes say they get into a zone sometimes," said Cassie. "That's how I'm feeling playing Annie. It's really a trip."

"Thanks for bringing the rest of us along for the ride," Birdy said to the delighted Cassie.

"The Kiss" during the performance appeared meaningfully real to the audience, but the actors were too busy making sure the second act stayed sharp to think about it.

The production got a standing ovation during the curtain call, and Phil Golinski gave them a second opportunity to take a bow.

Birdy understood that acting in front of an audience is a different experience than playing sports in front of a crowd. In a play, the performer knows what the end result is going to be and he or she is trying to get the audience to take the ride with them. In sports, nobody (including the players) knows what the results will be, so it's a different exhilaration – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as the famous television lead-in says.

"When you're acting, you're inviting others into a fantasy world," Todd Vose explained. "When you're playing a sport, everybody's part of a real world with no script."

The ecstasy of getting a "Standing O" was like nothing Birdy had experienced before. If he was to describe a perfect moment in his life, it would be that night, on that stage, holding Cassie Emerson's hand and taking a bow in front of an auditorium full of people standing and applauding the entertainment they had provided. Irving Berlin was right – Birdy learned that night that there is no business like show business!

For the first time since his father's death, Birdy felt as though he had broken through into a new dimension. He had proven himself as an actor, as a cast member, as a student, and as a person. He was finally connected – as Frank Butler.

An ecstatic Cassie nearly leaped into Birdy's arms when Phil closed the curtain after the second call. He happily hugged her and laughed, feeling the same excited joy and sense of accomplishment that she was spontaneously expressing. For the first time ever, Cassie had demonstrated an impulsive moment of affection toward him which caused Birdy's heart to melt.

"No matter what happens, I just want to thank you for tonight," he told her.

She had a perplexed look on her face. "You are the strangest boy I have ever known."

He wasn't sure if she meant it as a compliment or an insult.

He watched her retreat to the dressing room where her proud family was waiting. Plenty of parents and other family members were congratulating their student actors on their wonderful performances. Birdy accepted kudos from several appreciative fans, but the reality that he had no one special in his life to praise him couldn't be denied.

A group of the victorious performers decided to have a post-show celebration at Joe's Pizza. Birdy was feeling so good about the positive experience of a successful opening night that he didn't let the appearance of Cassie on Sam Provost's arm wreck the evening.

Sam was big news since signing his baseball contract, destined to become the next Prelog success story in Hillsboro's celebrity lore. The pitcher drew a crowd whenever he appeared in public and some of the Annie cast made it a point to schmooze him at Joe's.

Most of his high school male peers resented Sam for being King Among Jocks and overshadowing the accomplishments of the rest. Andy Beckwith was a pretty good ball player, but said playing with Provost senior year was like being a back up singer for the Beatles.

"Nobody knows who you are," Beck observed. "You could hit four home runs in a game and it'll still be 'Hey, how 'bout that shutout by Provost!'"

Birdy sat with the guys while Cassie and Sam held court at another table. Cassie was the most popular girl in school: not only was she the successful lead in a hit school play, but she was also dating the biggest star at Hillsboro High since the days of The Panther. Poor Birdy could be the best Frank Butler ever, but he was still chopped liver next to Sammy-boy.

Gaining Cassie's respect had been important, but Birdy had been given so much more by getting involved in the senior play. Working with Boone and Beck in the theatre environment had given their high school friendship a new facet. The friends had fun existing in a make believe world, being people they really weren't, and being appreciated for their efforts. Boone was a hoot as Buffalo Bill and Andy got great laughs for his portrayal of Pawnee Bill. For Birdy, establishing himself as a credible member of the production was what was most important.

Birdy flirted with cast mate Ellie Bagwell at Joe's Pizza, partly to let Cassie know that he could be popular too. It would have been easy to ride the emotions of the show and take advantage of the opportunity with Ellie, but he didn't want to complicate the last few days of the production and he let her leave with her friends when the gathering was over.

Sam Provost's expensive sports car pulled to the curb in front of the Braft house as Birdy walked from the driveway toward the front door. A second car pulled up behind Sam's wheels and three big guys Birdy didn't recognize emerged from the second automobile. He got the sinking feeling that Provost wasn't showing up to sign autographs.

"Is there a problem, Sam?" Birdy was sugary polite as Provost and his goons approached.

"You've been kissing my girlfriend," the all-state pitcher growled.

"It's called acting, Sam." Birdy replied. "We're in a play."

"Everybody knows you've been after her for years."

"Yeah, but you got her."

"And I intend to keep it that way. Mind if we come in for a minute? I hear you live alone"

"Gee, it's kind of late, guys," Birdy replied, still trying to sound sincere though he was edgy about the unfolding situation before him.

"Just for a minute," Sam overruled, motioning to his bodyguards standing behind him. The enforcers stepped past the pitcher, took Birdy by his arms and forcefully pushed him to the front door. The thugs were in their early twenties, muscle men in jeans and tee shirts who didn't offer any words. They smelled of beer, cigarettes and body odor.

"Who are your friends, Sam?" Birdy asked, opening the front door. They shoved him into the house.

"Members of the Sam Provost fan club," the smirking baseball star replied. "Helping me pave my way to the Big Show."

Birdy stepped into the empty living room and the others followed. "Sorry I can't ask you to sit," he sarcastically remarked as the group stood in the room with no furniture.

"I don't like you, Braft," Sam stated bluntly. "You're a wise-ass." He nodded to his goons and two of the bodyguards grabbed Birdy's arms, pinning them behind his back.

"I've signed a major league baseball contract and got $65,000 up front," Sam stated proudly. "I'm 8-0 with a 0.48 ERA and more than 100 strike outs this season. I'm the biggest story in high school sports for fifty miles."

"Congratulations." Birdy tried to sound genuine.

"You would think my girl would be happy for me. Interested in my accomplishments."

"I'm sure she is." Birdy tried to sound encouraging.

"All I've heard for the past three weeks is Annie Oakley, There's No Business Like Show Business, and Frank Butler." An offended Sam was exasperated by this reality. "Who gives a fuck?"

"It'll be over in a few days."

"I've had it to here with this play shit," Sam growled, holding his hand up to his forehead "I'm going to the bigs, damn it, and all I hear is how great it is to be acting with all you clowns."

"She's really having a good time, Sam," Birdy tried to sound reasonable. "You should cut her a break."

"I can't handle all these distractions," Sam complained, rubbing his hand through his hair. He stared long and hard at Birdy. "And I can't have my girl interested in a loser like you."

"She's not interested in a loser like me," Birdy assured the baseball star, though he was flattered that Sammy Boy felt threatened.

"I'm not so sure of that anymore," an uncertain Sam admitted.

"There are two performances left, Sam," Birdy said. "Then it's all over."

"Oh, believe me, my fan club's here to make sure of that. See you around, Braft." Sam started for the front door, then turned and gave Birdy one last look. 'Oh yeah," he ordered. "Stay away from my girl."

Sam Provost, a Prelog wanna be? How could a seventeen-year old kid be so corrupted already? The guy had always been a self-centered egotistical small town jock, but he was never abusive or threatening in his demeanor and Birdy couldn't believe Sam would stoop to this bizarre level just to prove a point.

Birdy foolishly thought the fan club was there for show only. Okay, they'd intimidate him, make a few warning threats to scare him off, and then they'd be on their way. The trio of thugs waited until they heard Provost's car take off before the two holding Birdy forcefully threw him backwards. His head smacked against the wall so sharply that it punctured a hole in the plaster.

A bemused Birdy laughed at the absurdity of the situation. A blow to Birdy's head caught him totally flat footed. He couldn't believe he was getting beat up for the second time in five years.

He lost count of the blows having been knocked silly after the second or third punch and he lost consciousness before they were done with him.

It was dark when Sam's victim came to and it took him a few minutes to gain his bearings and realize that he was lying on the living room floor in a puddle of blood and plaster. His head was throbbing, his face hurt, and his ribs felt like somebody had snapped them with lock cutters. He didn't bother moving until his head stopped spinning. Once he figured he wasn't going to pass out, he picked himself off the floor and stumbled into the bathroom, flicking on the light and staring at the horror peering back at him from the mirror. Frank Butler had a face of raw hamburg. Birdy slumped to the ground and spent the rest of the night lying on the bathroom tiles drifting in out of sleep and semi-consciousness, mixed with flashbacks of the Prelog incident

Chapter 30

Birdy called in sick the next morning, missing a scheduled shift at Johnny C's for the only time in his career. He phoned Joe Bonds, waking his pal on a Saturday morning and asking him to come to the house with girlfriend Jenny, a future nurse who volunteered as a candy striper at the Greenville hospital. .

"Holy shit," Joe said when he saw his friend's puffed up face. "What brick wall did you run into?"

Jenny scrubbed the blood off Birdy's face and tried to clean the cuts and scratches as best she could. She packed his face in ice, hoping the swelling and bruising would go down before that night's show. She repeatedly suggested that maybe he should go to the ER, but Birdy refused.

Joe cleaned the blood in the living room and bathroom, and swept up the plaster from where Birdy's head went through the wall.

"You stupid ass, I thought you cured yourself," was all Joe had to say on his friend's apparent behavioral set back.

Birdy didn't offer much in explanation or conversation. He was too depressed to talk, having gone from the Penthouse to the outhouse overnight. Just when he reached a level of emotional satisfaction with Cassie, he gets the shit kicked out of him to put that night's performance at risk.

He spent his high school career rehabilitating himself in hopes of proving to one girl that he was worthy of her consideration. She hated his guts for the longest of insufferable time, but then – through the magic of theatre – she found the kindness to forgive him. With that new lease on life, Birdy had committed himself to earning her trust. Now, with his face the color of a rotting tomato, she would certainly reject him once again.

There was no point in telling her the truth. She'd never believe her boyfriend ordered the hit. Hell, Birdy still didn't believe it and he was there!

A disillusioned Birdy was dumbfounded to find himself in a repeat of the Prelog Syndrome. Should he tell Officer Mike that Hillsboro's would be future all star major league pitcher had him beaten up? Would Birdy be ridiculed for derailing a star? Would Cassie despise him all the more for accusing her boyfriend?

Birdy was miserable because he couldn't shake the words of The Panther, who had laughingly called him a loser that cruel day in Darlene's bedroom. Sam had called him the same thing. Maybe Prelog and Provost were right. Maybe he was a pathetic hopeless loser who didn't deserve a beautiful girl like Cassie Emerson.

Joe came and went during the day but the caring Jenny stayed, standing watch for the duration, changing the ice, checking the bruises on Birdy's ribs, and keeping an eye on his mood, having never seen him so morose and down before.

Jen was sitting in a chair in the bedroom reading a copy of People magazine while absent-mindedly twirling her long auburn hair when Birdy spoke to her for the first time that day.

"Do you think I'm a loser?" .

She looked at her ward with pity and compassion. "Of course not!"

Jenny hadn't known Birdy before Driver's Ed. By then, he well into his rehabilitated "new life" and she had never been a victim of his hurtful words or bullying behavior.

"I've been accused of being a loser" Birdy said.

"Joe told me some of the stories about you," she revealed. "I thought he was making them up. You've been nice to me," she said. "I trust you."

He winced. If only Cassie Emerson could utter those words.

Joe tossed the Saturday paper into Birdy's lap when he returned to check in on Frank Butler and his nurse. "Congratulations," Joe said sarcastically. "You're a hit."

Annie Gets Her Gun In Hillsboro

Play Review

By Grace St. Ormand

It was hard to tell who was having more fun at Hillsboro High School last night – the audience who came to see the senior play of "Annie Get Your Gun", or the cast performing the show on stage.

Hillsboro High School's production of the Irving Berlin classic musical was, in a word, fantastic. The audience knew it was in for a treat the moment the company emerged from beneath the stage to open the show with a rousing rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business."

The story of wild-west show sharpshooter Annie Oakley as performed by the Hillsboro High Players rivals many legitimate theatre productions produced by area community theatre outfits. That's how good this production was presented by the high school performers.

Ruth Dunham's crisp and fast paced direction, Sunny Kendall's well-choreographed dance numbers, and Judy Hoover's excellent musical direction makes for a well formed show. It's all there, including those amazing Berlin songs that you can sing in your sleep.

Cassandra Emerson is marvelous as Annie Oakley and the audience roots for her from the start. As Annie, Miss Emerson is doin' what comes naturally as an actress. She confidently delivers a convincing portrayal of the likable Annie and the audience is on her side her from her first appearance on stage. Whether she's singing the comical "I'm An Indian Too" or the tender "Moonshine Lullaby" in harmony with her four young siblings, the lovely Miss Emerson is consistently entertaining.

Robert Braft is cast as Frank Butler, Annie's professional rival and the man she loves. Braft plays well against Emerson's Annie, with a mysterious vulnerability that adds to the relationship. Braft's voice is weak, but he makes up for his vocal shortcomings with a gutsy performance that brings believability to his feelings for Annie. The character of Frank Butler is usually presented as a flamboyant, womanizing, devil-may-care adventurer sharpshooter. Braft doesn't go there in his interpretation. Instead, he gives Frank a level of weakness that allows the audience to almost feel sorry for him.

The rest of the cast, even down to the bit players and especially the half-dozen children featured in the show, are enjoyable to watch. Of particular note are Todd Vose's Charlie Danvenport, Sarah Johns' Dolly Tate, and Andy Beckwith's Pawnee Bill. These three bring comic relief and a rollicking presence to every scene in which they appear. They are rude and outrageous, but deliciously pleasurable.

The whirlwind production allows the audience to look past the blatant caricatures of Native Americans, women, and rural people, a weakness of the script – not the actors. The story was written in the 1940s and the play is set in the years immediately after the white expansion into the west, not exactly the best era to be portraying Indians and women.

But the focus should stay on Annie, a young woman of promise and hope. She is strong, works for a living, cares for her four younger siblings, and stands up for herself. She is also an excellent sharpshooter who can do anything Frank (or any man) can do, better. And, as performed by Cassandra Emerson, you believe in everything Annie stands for.

"Annie Get Your Gun" plays again tonight at the high school at 7:30, and concludes with a 2:00 matinee on Sunday afternoon.

Birdy was proud of – and happy for – Cassie, the star of the show who made the rest of the cast better. To bad he was going to make everybody forget about the review when he showed up for that evening's performance.

In panicked desperation, Birdy called Make up Specialist June Davis and asked if she could stop by his house with her make up kit on her way to the high school. She showed up a little after five o'clock.

"Oh, great," she groaned when she saw the actor sitting on his bed with his bacon face. His right eye was half swollen shut, his lip was puffed and purple, he had a black eye, and his face was bruised and cut.

"Now playing Frank Butler, Boxer Jerry Quarry," June said.

"Can you do anything?" he asked hopefully.

She sat on the bed and examined his face. "I can cover the bruising, but I can't do anything about the eye and lip swelling, unless you were dead."

"I wish I were dead."

"Ah, don't worry about it, Birdy," she said with a carefree laugh. "The show must go on, right?"

Mrs. Davis spent fifteen minutes doing the best she could, but she wasn't satisfied with the results. "It just looks like you have a lot of make up on, Birdy. I think it would be better not to try to cover it up beyond what you've been wearing. I'll give Mrs. Dunham a call and meet you in the dressing room."

"Thanks for trying," a defeated Birdy told her. "I really appreciate you coming over."

"Its okay, Killer."

"Two months of hard work wasted," he said to Jenny after Mrs. Davis left.

"You're not in a wheelchair or hospital bed, Birdy," Jenny reminded him. "You can still do the play."

"Looking like a palooka." He shook his head in disgusted defeat.

She patted his knee for encouragement. "Are you going to be okay?"

He nodded yes.

"You're not going to do anything stupid are you?" she asked. "I've never seen you this down before."

"The show must go on," he declared, trying to sound positive. "This isn't the first time I've been beaten up, Jenny. Don't worry about me, I'm a survivor."

"You're a friend, Birdy," Jenny told him. "Don't forget that." She hugged him and left the room, leaving him alone in his misery until he had to show up at the high school.

Birdy didn't want to face the music until absolutely necessary and waited until 7:10 before appearing in the dressing room.

"Where the hell have you been?" Stage Manager Phil Golinski demanded as the lead came through the door, but he let up when he saw Birdy's face. "Sweet mother of God, Birdy."

"Oh boy," Andy Beckwith said in his Ed Sullivan voice when he saw Birdy's condition. "Here we go again!"

"Looks like you lost again, pal," observed Boone Braft. "You really must be a homo."

Birdy took a seat in the corner of the dressing room, hoping to hide from everybody. Mrs. Dunham swooshed in with June at her side and took a look at her actor.

"Well dear, you don't look too good," The Director said.

"I don't feel too good either."

"Oh well," she said with an easy dismissal. "We'll toss a few lines in about Frank Butler falling off his horse. Where's Pawnee Bill?" Mrs. Dunham went off to find Andy Beckwith and Birdy was relieved to not have the riot act read by the director in front of the entire company.

Cassie came across the room and stared at him, her eyes filling with tears.

"This is why I can never trust you," she said with hurtful disappointment.

He hung his head in defeated resignation, pained to have let her down yet again.

Birdy put on his costume and sat sullenly in his chair, ashamed and afraid to look anybody in the eye. He was lost in his thoughts, feeling miserable and crushed, wishing there was a hole he could go hide in.

"Birdy?" It was Ellie Bagwell's voice interrupting his dejected thoughts.

He glanced up and was surprised to see most of the company standing in a semi-circle around him, including the kids.

"We just want to tell you something," Jaynee Leary announced.

They broke into a verse of "There's No Business Like Show Business". When they were done singing, one by one, they passed by him and said (or sang) "So Let's Go On With The Show". Some patted his leg or hugged him, others rubbed his head.

Sarah Johns had been nice to him during the past two months, but hadn't demonstrated affection during their time together. Birdy was bowled over when she sat on his knee, wrapped her arms around his neck, and rested her head on his shoulder.

"Don't let this affect your performance," she urged. He was overwhelmed by her emotional expression of support. "I believe in you," she said with an encouraging smile, squeezing his arm one final time before getting up and moving on.

"I had to give a performance with a cast on my foot one time," Todd Vose told him. "The audience will go with whatever we tell them."

"I got a black eye once, Frank," innocent little Bobby Bagwell said. "Stepped on a rake."

As miserable as he felt, Birdy couldn't help but laugh at the little guy's cuteness.

Cassie didn't participate in the ritual. Birdy saw her standing in the opposite corner with her arms folded across her chest watching the spontaneous ritual.

"Congratulations on a great review," Birdy called to her, but she didn't say anything back.

The company made their opening entrance to "There's No Business Like Show Business" while Birdy sat in the near empty dressing room trying to get a grip on his emotional free fall. Would the support and love of the cast be enough to save him from his despair?

The show had to go on! So what if Birdy Braft got taken out by a jealous moron with a multi-thousand dollar signing bonus? Frank Butler may have fallen off his horse, but he had to get back on and keep on riding. Annie Oakley will still love him, even if Cassie Emerson couldn't trust Birdy Braft.

Birdy noticed multiple Xeroxed copies of the review plastered on the walls throughout the dressing room. He let those endorsements be his final rallying cry and took his place in the wings next to Stage Manager Phil Golinski to wait for his cue.

"My neighbors are going through some hard times," Phil told him.

"I know the feeling," Birdy sighed.

"Financial hard times," Phil explained. "The husband told the wife that if she could learn to cook, they could fire the chef."

"Makes sense," the distracted Birdy replied.

"So the wife said to him, 'And if you could learn to fuck, we could fire the chauffeur.'"

Birdy's cue came almost at the exact same moment Phil delivered the punch line and it was all Birdy could do to enter the stage without laughing.

The actor's fear was that the show was going to be flat and strained because of him, but the opposite happened. The company was giving it an extra push to pick him up and the scenes between Annie and Frank seemed even more charged, partly because Cassie was pissed and that brought an added edge to her performance.

The show was clicking on all cylinders even though George Kessler screwed up a cue as Sitting Bull during Annie's "I'm An Indian Too" number and Boone Reynolds was about forty seconds late for one his entrances, forcing Andy Beckwith and Todd Vose to ad lib the entire time. They chatted about Frank Butler falling off his horse again, and nobody realized they were watching a gaff unfold onstage.

"I was in the crapper," Boone later explained.

It physically hurt when Birdy kissed Cassie because of his fat lip and he tried not to show pain and ruin the important stage moment, but he could feel Cassie's tenseness.

Despite the minor obstacles, the audience was laughing, clapping and into the show and weren't concerned with the lead's messed up face.

"How does it feel from here?" Birdy asked Phil half way through the performance while waiting in the wings between entrances.

"Almost as alive as last night," Phil answered with relief. "We're okay."

"Even with the ugliest Frank Butler on record," noted Birdy.

The cast got another standing ovation at the end of the show and Phil opened the curtain for a second call. Cassie let go of Birdy's hand as soon as the curtain closed and left the stage without saying a word. Her cold shoulder was disheartening considering how warm and nice she had treated him the previous night, but Birdy didn't blame her for feeling let down, betrayed and deceived.

Birdy lingered backstage licking his emotional wounds while the others headed for the dressing room. Mrs. Dunham stepped out from the wings.

"You're a real trooper, Robert," she told him with conviction. "You made sure the show went on."

"Sorry I'm such a loser, Mrs. Dunham," he dejectedly sighed. "Sorry I let you down."

"Now, now, Robert. Don't be ridiculous. Life is drama. It's how we handle the drama that makes all the difference in the world." She glanced around the stage. "I never get tired of the feeling, young man. I hope you won't either."

She left him to his thoughts and he walked back and forth behind the curtain trying to figure out if he could handle any more drama in his life.

"Fell off your horse, huh? Only a Joe Scmuckatelly could be that stupid."

It was Smitty, of course, Birdy's Navy recruiter who had been kind enough to attend the show. The Navy Man stepped onto the stage and took a close up look at Birdy's face. "Did you take on a group of Marines, Sailor?"

"It was a blanket party," he said, hoping his Recruiter wouldn't think of him as a wimp.

Smitty nodded his head in understanding. "They held an awards ceremony on the day I transferred from my last command to thank me for my outstanding performance," he said. "The night before, I went out on the town with the guys and got into an altercation. So there I am the next day in my dress blues getting my award from the Admiral with my glasses taped together, blood in my eye, and a broken nose. It was not the way I wanted to go out."

Birdy grinned despite his bleak mood. "At least I'm in good company, huh Smitty?"

"You're a talented guy," GMG1 Smith told him. "With or without your horse."

"Thanks, Joe."

"Anchor's Aweigh, Frank."

Smitty departed and Phil Golinski returned to open the curtain now that the house had emptied out. Birdy stepped off the stage and took a seat in the auditorium, still wearing his Frank costume, with his cowboy boots slung over the row of seats in front of him. Various cast members walked out of the band room underneath the stage and traipsed through the house to the lobby exit, acknowledging Birdy on their way out.

Cassie emerged with Sarah and frowned when she saw her co-lead sitting in the seats. Sarah smiled and told him that he did a great job before continuing up the aisle. Cassie hung back for a moment.

"What was it this time?" She angrily demanded. "You call some guy's girlfriend a dyke? Refer to some body builder as a fag?"

"Why do you automatically assume that I was the one who did something wrong?" a hurt Birdy asked, tired of still being cast as the villain.

"Come on, Birdy," she said with irritation. "People don't get beat up for no good reason."

"Oh, really?"

She scowled and continued on her way.

Phil appeared from the wings and trotted down the stage steps to the house.

"A bunch of us are getting together at the pancake house in Greenville," he said. "You in?"

"Na. I need to rest my face."

"I don't think that will help!"

"Thanks, Phil." Birdy appreciated the support he had been given during his most recent crisis. He followed Phil into the dressing room and changed into his street clothes. They were the only ones left in the place by the time Birdy was ready to leave.

"One more to go," Phil said with a sigh.

"You spend two months building up to opening night, and then just like that it's finished," Birdy observed sadly. "What a let down to realize it's over."

"Sort of like Christmas," agreed Phil.

Birdy was walking to his car when Ellen Thurbert pulled up behind the wheel of her brother's '66 Mustang. She was wearing jeans and a brown "Annie Get Your Gun" tee shirt produced for the show. They must have looked like twins because that's what Birdy was wearing too!

"Hey, Sailor," she greeted him with a seductive smile "Wanna go for a ride?"

Birdy had become friendly with Ellen during the production run. She was one of the girls in his 'Bad Bad Man' number and they spent extra time together rehearsing. And, of course, she was the girl sitting on Beckwith's lap the night they picked up Red and the rest at Blue Lake. It was the drunken Ellen who wanted to know if she was fuckable.

Birdy knew he should say no. His face really did hurt! But his heart hurt worse, knowing the disappointment he had brought to Cassie and others. Getting into a car with Ellen probably wasn't the smartest thing to do in his vulnerable emotional condition, but he was to busy feeling sorry for himself to think twice. He slipped into the front seat, having to remove a quart of vodka, a carton of orange juice, and two twelve ounce plastic cups from the seat to sit. He put the bottles in his lap.

"Thirsty, are we?"

She laughed as she laid rubber peeling out of the parking lot.

"Where can we go drink?" she asked.

Birdy shrugged. "Your house?"

"Parents are home," she groaned "How 'bout your house?"

"No furniture."

She laughed, thinking he was joking. "How 'bout Blue Lake, then?" she suggested hopefully.

"Everybody goes there. I know a better secret place."

Birdy directed her to the abandoned barn where he had taken Ms. Marceline. Ellen parked the car behind the barn and they went inside, finding a comfortable spot in the hay. It was a bright starry night with plenty of light inside the structure.

"I bet you take all the girls here," Ellen giggled as she poured herself a stiff drink.

"You're the first," he lied.

"Goody." She leaned over to kiss him.

"My lip really hurts," he said, stopping her with his hand.

She peered at his bruised and puffy lip. "Oh, yeah, bummer. Well, I can kiss you somewhere else if you like." It was the most seductive line a girl had said to him and he blushed.

"How'd I do in the show?" Ellen asked as she poured herself a second drink. Birdy nursed an orange juice and Ellen didn't notice that he hadn't put any vodka in it.

"You've been great," he told her. And it was the truth. Ellen had a terrific singing voice and she played the number with just the right amount of seductiveness to make it effective, yet understated. Her appearance in other scenes (as other characters) was equally impressive, making Ellen one of the most valuable company members of the show. Birdy was surprised that such a talented girl had been so vulnerable and sad that night when he and Beck picked her up at Blue Lake. Sure, she was drunk but she was also expressing her true feelings when she broke into tears and sobbed about not having a steady boyfriend.

Ellen was definitely attractive, with a larger than usual set of hips that gave her notice around school. She had her hair done differently for the show, which revealed a face with faded freckles and dancing eyes.

"How come you wear boy's underwear?" Birdy asked her.

"Who told you that?" she snickered.

"You did."

"I did?"

"That night when we picked you up at Blue Lake."

"Oh, yeah. Boy, I was a mess that night, huh? Because they're more comfortable. She stood, unsnapped her Wranglers and let her jeans fall to the straw covered ground. "See? Fruit of the Looms. Boys."

"Yep, those are definitely Fruit of the Looms, Boys," he replied, giving her hips a long stare.

She kicked the jeans off her feet and sat in the hay. "What kind do you wear?" She raised her eyebrows in a seductive fashion.

"BVDs."

"Let me see," she ordered.

Danger, Will Robinson!!!! But a trampled Birdy was intrigued by her attention and willingness to go farther than either of them should. Accepting her dare, he stood, unsnapped his Levis and let them fall to the same straw covered ground.

"Yep, BVDs," she concurred.

Birdy kicked away his pants and sat down next to Ellen, both of them in their boys' underwear. She was on her third strong drink now and feeling no pain. "You know why I picked you up tonight, don't you?" she asked.

"Well, I assumed it was for my autograph like everybody else," he joked.

She laughed. "No!"

"To show me your underwear?"

"Well, for a start maybe. Kiss me, damn it."

"My lip." he reminded her, pointing to his bruised face.

"Well, let's fuck then."

Her bluntness caught him off guard. She stared at him when he didn't immediately respond to her suggestion. "I am fuckable, aren't I?"

"Where did this fuckable thing come from?" He figured stalling would give him time to think of a way to get out of this awkward situation.

She giggled. "A party last year. We were all getting wasted in Brian Gordon's cellar."

Brian Gordon was a Luke LoBush clone who graduated the previous year and rivaled Birdy's sister Darlene's record for most parties thrown.

"Some of the guys had a pile of Sports Illustrated," Ellen continued. "They'd open it up to the Faces in the Crowd section.

"Where they recognize local sports people for their athletic accomplishments," Birdy said.

"They'd look at the photos of the girls and rate them as 'fuckable' or 'not fuckable'. Pretty sick, huh?"

"But typical for drunk high school guys," Birdy said.

He glanced at Ellen who was well blitzed as she continued taking slurps from the vodka bottle. She was the most forward and experienced girl Birdy knew, especially when drinking.

"Where did you learn so much?" he asked.

"About what?"

"Sex."

Ellen snickered. "I've been planning this night for a month," she said proudly, taking another swig from the vodka bottle. She stood and pulled off her fruit of the looms. "See what I did to my bush?"

Her pubic hair was trimmed in the shape of a cowboy hat and Birdy felt himself become hard.

"In honor of Frank Butler," she announced proudly.

Ellen peeled off her tee shirt and beamingly stood naked before him, the first girl to be in all her glory since the skinny dipping night with Becky. Birdy's BVDs had become a pup tent.

"Will you miss me when you join the Navy?" she purred.

Birdy knew what Boone Reynolds and Andy Beckwith would be saying if they saw that Birdy was being presented with a free gift in the secluded barn. But he couldn't get the image (and hurt) of Cassie Emerson out of his mind and he knew his own pain wouldn't go away with a meaningless role in the literal hay with a drunken Ellen. He knew what Boone Reynolds and Andy Beckwith would also say if they knew Birdy was about to turn a willing Ellen down.

Sure, it was Birdy's first almost sexual experience and the sensation in his crotch was fantastic, but his heart wasn't in it. He had no emotional ties to Ellen's willingness to give him pleasure and his thoughts were elsewhere, mainly on the girl who didn't trust him. His disconnected life was once again well in evidence and if Boone Reynolds found out that he was taking a pass on Ellen, he'd call him a homo for sure.

Ellen stepped close to him and rubbed herself against his body. "Come on, Birdy. I'm yours."

"I don't think I can do this," he weakly confessed as he stood

She slid her hand down the front of his BVDs and held him, the first girl to be so bold and forward. He slowly reached down and lifted her hand away.

"What's wrong?" She wanted to know.

"I'm disconnected," he mumbled.

She burst into tears. "You don't think I'm fuckable!" she wailed.

"Of course I do."

"I really like you, Birdy," she sobbed.

"And I like you, Ellen." There was a lump in his throat.

"Like? Or really like?"

Birdy wished he had taken Phil up on the offer for the pancake house. Anything would have been better than this awkward moment. He was flattered that Ellen liked him and he appreciated what she was willing to do for him, but he simply couldn't bring himself to take advantage of the drunken girl, just as he had respected Red enough not to do anything stupid that night either.

Birdy had no romantic feelings for likable (and fuckable) Ellen and the drunken attempted intimacy felt faked, forced, and pointless. How many other guys did Ellen like? How many other drunken nights had turned into unabashed sex, forgotten or denied the next morning?

His silence gave the drunken Ellen the answer she didn't want to hear and she pushed him away. "You don't really like me."

"It's not like that."

"I may be drunk, but I'm not stupid." She turned her back to him and picked up her clothes.

"Ellen, I'm sorry," he lamely offered.

"Go straight to fucking hell, you fucker." His rejection and the booze threw her into an ugly mood. "Go beat off for all I care." She dressed with her back to him.

Birdy hated what booze did to people. It was booze that killed his father. It was booze that turned his house into a party joint. And now it was booze that was ruining this night

Ellen didn't say anything as she finished dressing, but she was crying. "I just want to be fuckable," she moaned through her drunken sobs as she left the barn. Birdy didn't follow.

"Birdy Braft is a dickhead fucking god damn asshole loser!" Ellen yelled into the night.

The mustang roared to life and Birdy heard the tires spinning in the dirt as the car sped away into the night. He put on his jeans and left the barn.

What a dismal way to end a disastrous twenty-four hours. Last night, Birdy Braft was on top of the world at Joe's Pizza. Tonight, he was a lonely loser with a broken face and a duchess who hated him again, abandoned by a drunken girl he wouldn't have sex with.

A depressed Birdy hiked the three miles back to town feeling more disconnected than ever. The stillness of the night gave him time to think about his never-ending plight. Maybe Prelog, Provost and Ellen were right. Maybe he really was a loser.

It was after one in the morning by the time Birdy reached town. Boone Reynolds happened to pass by in the neat '54 Chevy pickup he had been driving for the past few years. He pulled the truck to a stop along side the road.

"What's wrong, you fall off your horse?" Boone got a good laugh at Birdy's expense, but motioned him to the truck.

"Where's your car?" Boone asked as Birdy climbed into the cab.

"Still at the school," the down trotted Birdy replied. "Where have you been?"

"Pancake house with the others. Then took Cathy to her sister's house" Boone put the truck in gear and headed for the high school. "What about you? Did you get lucky?" Could Boone have asked a more ironic question?

Birdy didn't know if he should laugh or cry. "Not exactly."

"Homo," Boone replied and Birdy couldn't help but laugh at how ridiculousness it all was.

Boone was chewing on his lip, obviously bugged about something.

"What's wrong?" Birdy asked. Maybe hearing somebody else's problem would make him feel better.

"Damn it," Boone grumbled. "How come they didn't mention me in the paper?" The actor was offended that the review had left out his name.

"Reviewer's discretion," Birdy explained. "But don't take it personally. You're a great Buffalo Bill."

"Really?" Boone asked hopefully.

"Really." Birdy was certain of that fact. He had been awed that his tough guy cynical friend had been such a believable actor. "'And a sturdy performance was turned in by Boone Reynolds who flawlessly captured the essence of Buffalo Bill'".

Boone seemed satisfied with Birdy's compliment and smiled contently to himself.

"You didn't really fall off your horse, did you?" Boone asked his wayward passenger.

"Not exactly."

Buffalo Bill peered at his co-star. "You know, Birdman, being your friend is like being pals with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Birdy glanced at his friend and shrugged. "It has been an interesting few years, hasn't it?"

"Yeah," Boone agreed with a smirk. "That it has."

Chapter 31

Birdy had volunteered his house for the cast party following set strike on Sunday long before he got his face mashed. He recruited Officer Mike and some of the guys from Johnny C's to set up folding tables and chairs in the otherwise empty house and hired a caterer to prepare a buffet style meal (meatballs, kielbasa, chicken wings, baked beans, potato salad, chips). Johnny C's wife baked a huge cake in the shape of a cowboy hat (not to be confused with Ellen's more private hat!) and Birdy filled the refrigerator with soda and fruit punch, letting it be known well in advance that it was a booze free gathering, suitable for family and friends.

The host had been looking forward to the cast gathering for weeks, viewing it as his chance to give a final thank you to all the people who had helped make Annie Get Your Gun the success it was. That was before Sam Provost left his calling card, of course, and now a crushed Birdy just wanted to get through the finale without any further incidents, disappointments, fights, or drunken crying girls.

Officer Mike woke the exhausted actor on Sunday morning, arriving with the guys from Johnny C's to deliver the tables and chairs from the Knights of Columbus. The swelling on Birdy's face had gone down some, but Frank Butler still looked like he went a couple of rounds with his horse – and lost.

"I'm sure it was another accident, whatever happened," Mike sarcastically commented with a frown.

"Yeah, an accident," a gloomy Birdy sighed.

Noreen and Zoey came to spruce up the place for the party. Noreen had the balloons while Zoey brought small plastic toy horses for added decoration. The two girls tried to cheer up their friend as best they could, but Birdy remained beaten and sad.

Mrs. Johnny C. dropped the cowboy hat cake off at noon, and Birdy left the door open for the caterer's arrival later in the day.

Birdy's was melancholy driving to the school knowing he was about to participate in his last show as Frank Butler. He wished could enjoy the performance the way he had on Friday night, before Sam and Ellen sent his life into a downward spiral.

Birdy found Ellen sitting at the makeup table in the dressing room preparing her face, refusing to look at him. He knelt down beside her and handed her a single red rose.

"You must be kidding." She was as cold as a morning's frost.

"I just want to apologize."

She crumpled the rose and tossed it in his face. "Go fuck yourself, Braft."

How much more rejection could he take? Birdy left Ellen in her misery. He tried to apologize – she wasn't interested, and there wasn't anything else for him to do.

Birdy played one last game of checkers with young Bobby Bagwell, did voice warms with the gang, and let June Davis put his make up on for the last time.

Still feeling vulnerable, exposed, and guilty, Birdy snuck into The Pit behind the auditorium for a few minutes of alone time to collect his thoughts and get into a Frank Butler frame of mind. Mostly though, he wanted to avoid the sad looks of pity the rest of the cast kept giving him.

He could hear the sounds of the audience making its way into the auditorium, and that brought the nervous excitement back one more time. Todd Vose was right, there was a high that came from acting and the response received from the audience.

Birdy had enjoyed every moment of his time on the Hillsboro High School stage and he knew he would miss it. He stood in the window of the gym doorway staring out across the athletic fields behind the school wishing he could live the make-believe life forever.

"How come everybody seems to like you, in spite of yourself?"

Birdy turned to see Cassie Emerson standing in the doorway leading to the back of the stage. She was dressed as Annie Oakley and ready for her first entrance. The orchestra had started the overture and the music drifted into the gym.

"This is your show and you've done an incredible job," Birdy told her. "Sorry I messed things up."

He wanted to fall on his knees and beg for absolution. He wanted her to smile and laugh and look at him like she did on Friday night when everything was perfect.

"You don't make it easy, that's for sure," she said with a pout.

"But you make it fun. Let's have a great last show. For the sake of all the work we put into this."

"Well, I can do anything you can do, better." She quoted the song.

"Yes, that's for sure," he agreed with a laugh, hoping she was ending the iceberg treatment. He tipped his Frank Butler hat to her. "Break a leg, Duchess."

She let out a sad sigh, shook her head in confusion, and left to take her place in the wings. Birdy sucked in the air as he listened to the company singing "There's No Business Like Show Business," making their final opening entrance of the run.

The third time was a charm. Birdy didn't think it was possible to top their opening night performance, but Phil Golinski insisted the ensemble had surpassed their own expectations with their final tour de force on Sunday afternoon. It was their final high school fling and the last time some of them would be performing in front of a live audience, so they went out on what Andy Beckman called "an orgasm of entertainment."

The only noticeable blemish was Birdy's "I'm a Bad Bad Man," number with Ellie and Ellen.

"Thurbert must be on the rag," Phil observed when Birdy exited at the end of the scene.

"Whatta mean?"

"She looked like she wanted to kill somebody."

Birdy's moment of truth came with the kiss and he milked it for all he could get as his personal valentine to Cassie Emerson. In his swan song as Frank Butler, and a farewell to both Annie Oakley and Cassie Emerson, Birdy took Cassie's hand in his and lifted it to his heart while placing his other hand underneath her chin. He made a slow, deliberate, dramatic gesture by slowly bringing his lips to hers. And he held the kiss longer than in the previous outings. Sam Provost could go to hell!

"Sakes Alive," adlibbed Cassie as Annie, not expecting the extra passion.

Phil had his arms crossed when Birdy exited stage right at the end of the scene. "Nice moment, lover boy."

"You know, it's unprofessional for actors to change anything during a performance, especially if the other player doesn't know it's coming," Todd Vose remarked as he and Birdy stood in the wings. "But, in this case, you're excused."

The company sang the reprise of "There's No Show Business Like Show Business" with extra gusto as the show drew to its finale. The curtain closed to the third straight standing ovation and Phil opened the curtain a second time, closed it, and then opened it for a third time since the applause was still there. Birdy held Cassie's hand in his and lifted their arms in a final thank you salute. Phil reluctantly closed the curtain for the last time and the show was officially over.

Birdy gave Cassie a final meanginful hug before breaking off to congratulate the others. There was laughter and tears everywhere. Poor little Martha Wilson was crying hysterically, not wanting the fun ride to be over and Birdy gave her his Frank Butler hat, telling her that Frank would always be with her and that she could always remember the show whenever she looked at the hat. The young girl was awed by the gesture.

There was plenty of mingling with audience and family members who came backstage and into the dressing room to offer final congratulations. Ms. Marceline and little Haley showed up to let Birdy know he did a great job.

"You really are a talented young man, Birdy!" an impressed Ms. Marceline remarked with a heartfelt smile. "That was fantastic stuff out there."

"Thanks, Ms. Marceline." He bashfully accepted her accolades. "Coming from you, that means a lot."

Birdy signed kindergartener Haley's program and let her examine his make up. He gave her one of his Frank Butler neckerchiefs as a remembrance.

Once all the visitors left, the cast changed from their costumes for the last time and struck the set – tearing down everything they had built. In less than an hour, the stage was bare and a truck behind The Pit was full of debris that had once been their fantasy world. The dressing room morphed back into the band room with little evidence of make up tables, wardrobes, scripts, props, cowboy hats, coke cans, popcorn bags, or checker boards.

"How do you deal with the loss?" Birdy asked Sarah Johns as they stood together on the empty stage.

"By looking forward to the next show," was her answer.

But Birdy knew there would be no more shows.

Chapter 32

Birdy's house was full of people when he arrived following set strike. Thank God the caterer came through and the food was all set, filling the house with a delicious aroma. Zoey and Noreen had assumed the role of co-hosts in Birdy's absence and the cast party was off to a smooth start. Various cast members came and went throughout the evening and Birdy was relieved when Ellen Thurbert failed to make an appearance, crossing his fingers and hoping she wouldn't show up in a drunken stupor to make a scene.

"I showed him my underwear! I showed him my underwear!" He could just imagine her screaming.

Parents, teachers, friends, families, and most of the cast and crew attended the strike party. Mrs. Dunham, Musical Boss Mrs. Hoover and Danceable Sunny Kendall all came, as did Make Up guru June Davis.

Cassie arrived with her mother and little sister Joanie.

"Gee, where's Sam?" Birdy asked, trying to sound innocent and sincere.

"He said this was my night and he didn't want to interfere," an unknowing Cassie answered.

"What a noble guy."

Cassie excused herself to mix with other attendees and Birdy escorted Mrs. Emerson and Joanie to the food in the dining room, but Joanie ran off to be with the other kids.

"Are you excited about the Navy, Birdy?" Mrs. Emerson asked in an effort to make polite conversation.

"It's going to be a whole new way of life," he replied, tickled to being having a conversation with Cassie's mom. "But I think the change will be good for me."

"It's an exciting adventure," Mrs. Emerson agreed. "I had an uncle who was career Navy."

"Do you think the Navy is a more gallant choice than baseball?"

"Oh no you don't," she said with a laugh. "I'm not going there with that one."

Mrs. Dunham made a gracious speech saluting the outstanding performances and great work of everybody involved in the production. "I always think the show I'm doing now is the best ever, and that's how I feel about this one," she remarked proudly.

The director took the time to speak individually with every cast member present.

"Everybody says I took a chance casting you, but I had faith and you proved me right," Mrs. Dunham told Birdy as they stood in an empty corner of the living room. "Your interpretation of the character presentation is one of the best I've ever seen."

"I'll never forget the confidence you had in me," was all the teary-eyed Birdy could say in response.

Todd Vose said a cast party is a cheerful wake where the show is buried and the survivors move on. The group enjoyed one another's company in the relaxed setting of Birdy's house, retelling show stories and experiences one last time, reliving their greatest moments for final prosperity.

Duston McQuinn played his guitar and others joined in with various sing-a-longs, including television theme songs! A few presents were exchanged and Mike Morrison issued some mock awards. Jenny Castle read the comedic Cast Will ("Birdy Braft leaves the horse he fell off"). There were tons of photographs from opening night that someone had developed at an overnight place and it was surreal to see everybody in character on Kodak. Cast members signed souvenir programs for each other.

The host had cleaned the house for the occasion, making sure his bedroom was presentable and usable, but he foolishly neglected to remove the numerous photographs of Cassie slapped all over the walls.

"I can't believe you still have those up," Lucy Beckwith reprimanded Birdy when she came into the room and found Birdy talking to Boone Reynolds who was sprawled out on the bed with Cathy Snapper. "Especially when she's in the house!"

"Maybe I'd better take them down," a concerned Birdy agreed.

"Too late." It was a smirking Andy Beckwith standing in the doorway with Cassie.

"You really scare me." Cassie stared at the various photos on the wall with uneasiness. "How did you get all these?"

Birdy shrugged. "Stole them off bulletin boards at school. Paid off some of your friends. Cut a couple out of the newspaper. Hired a kid at booster day. Took some myself."

"Here's a few more to add to your collection," laughed Beck, tossing Birdy assorted shots of Cassie from the show.

"Are you a stalker?" Boone teased from the bed.

"What the hell," Birdy replied without embarrassment or shame. "I'm leaving for the Navy in a few weeks. What difference does it make now?"

He reached into his desk drawer and retrieved a photo album. "Here're the rest of them." There were photos of Cassie dating back to first grade in the book.

"Do they let crazy people join the Navy?" Cassie wanted to know.

"It's like having your own fan club, Cassie," Boone laughed.

"It gives me the creeps," Lucy stated for the record.

"You may be in need of psychiatric help," Cassie agreed, but Birdy sensed she was flattered by his zeal.

Cassie glanced around the room to see what other horrors she might find. But, except for the baseball photo of his father and a snapshot of that year's basketball team, there wasn't anything else to be seen. Birdy was glad Cassie had been exposed to this intimate part of his life. He wanted her to realize just how serious he was in his affection for her

"I remember your dad," Cassie said as she studied Officer Braft's photograph. "He helped us find our lost cat once."

Birdy nodded with appreciation, glad his dream girl had something nice to say about his father.

Birdy wished the party would never end, but it was a school night and most kids had curfews. Cassie was catching a ride with Sarah Johns, who gave Birdy an emotional hug when the two girls left a little after eleven. "You were a leader as the lead," Sarah told him. "I'm glad you did this show. You were an inspiration for all of us."

Sarah turned to Cassie. "I'll meet you in the car, Cass." She was generous enough to give the two leads a moment alone.

They stepped out onto the front stoop, where two nights earlier Cassie's beloved boyfriend and his fan club had confronted Birdy.

"Will I ever be able to figure you out?" Cassie asked.

He knew this was probably their last special moment together. The euphoria of the play would dissipate in a day or two and they'd be focused on graduation and the rest of their lives.

"I haven't been the most consistent person over the years," he admitted.

"I remember how sweet and nice you were when we were little kids. You even bought me an ice cream sandwich during second grade Flag Day festivities."

"I remember."

"Then you're the meanest kid in the world," she said, hurt still in her voice. "I never hated anybody as much as I hated you."

"I don't blame you." He stood tall in his accountability.

"Then you're painting my father's porch. And being nice to me. Calling me Duchess. And making unbelievable speeches. And sending cards. Tons of cards. And dancing with Beatrice. And being nice to Clark, even when he was still dating me. And shaving your head for Frankie B. And being a star at Johnny C's. And being a basketball intrigue. And playing checkers with the kids. And being the best Frank Butler in history."

"The only reason was you."

"Everywhere I go I hear about how Birdy Braft did this and Birdy Braft did that." She was looking deep into his eyes, trying to figure out who the real Birdy Braft was. "Girls like you. Pine over you, even. That's all I heard for the entire rehearsal run. And then, just when I'm ready to finally believe in you, you show up Saturday with a monster's face."

"And you hated me all over again," he said with pained regret.

"No," she said with bewilderment. "You just confuse the hell out of me. I'm saying to myself, 'Which Birdy Braft is it this time?'"

"I'm sorry I wrecked everything."

"How can I hold it against you?" She wanted to know, throwing her hands up in mystified surrender. "When I see that photo album? Or when you kissed me on stage like that today?"

"Mrs. Dunham said timing is the most important aspect of any production," he remarked with a sense of exploration. "I get the feeling our timing together has been off somehow all these years."

"I'm sorry your dad died, Birdy."

"Yeah," he sighed.

She kissed him. He wasn't Frank and she wasn't Annie. "Your intensity scares me," she admitted when their lips parted.

"I love you." He had never said those words to anybody before.

"It's too late," she whispered with tears in her eyes.

He watched her trot down the front walk and jump into Sarah's car.

He probably should have hollered, "Just don't tell Sam!"

The cast party limped on until just after midnight. Cathy Snapper fell asleep on Birdy's bed and those who hadn't left sat around the living room finishing the food the caterer had left behind. Boone finally roused Cathy and the couple headed out just after the bewitching hour. Andy Beckwith told a few final jokes and Todd Vose made a concluding burial speech, and then it was officially over, for good.

Birdy sat in the empty house alone well into the night, thinking about Cassie Emerson. He told her how he felt and she accepted it without insult or anger, but she still wasn't his. His disconnected life continued.

Chapter 33

Todd Vose warned about the post-production blues. When actors invest their heart, soul, talent and time into an intense and intimate activity for two months and suddenly it's over like a sudden death, there's bound to be a let down.

Birdy returned to his shifts at Johnny C's, but felt a empty loneliness without Annie, Buffalo Bill, Charlie Davenport, Pawnee Bill, Dolly Tate, Frank's boys, the kids, and even Stage Manager Phil Golinski around anymore.

Johnny C customers who had seen the play congratulated Birdy for a great job and it was encouraging to see cast and crewmembers occasionally show up for a meal. Cassie even brought her kid sister Joanie in a few times "to see Frank."

But the transition from senior play to graduation was surprisingly quick. The yearbooks arrived, marking the first graduation-preparation milestone. Zoey Jameson was the yearbook editor and she did a fine job, even though she crowded some of the pages with her own poetry. It was a pleasure seeing everybody's graduation photos and their legacies, as well as all the activities and events captured forever on film. The class dedicated the annual to the late great Mr. Bennington.

The seniors spent their days signing each other's yearbook, making up nice things to say and promising to stay friends forever. It was bullshit for the most part, of course, but sincere in the moment.

"An exercise in disingenuousness gone mad," was how Andy Beckwith described the process.

Birdy was flattered that Johnny C's contribution in the yearbook's ad section included a photo of the diner with Johnny C and Birdy standing in front of it.

The scorned Ellen Thurbert avoided The Birdman during the final weeks of high school. He tried to talk to her a few times, but it was clear that he had degraded her to a point of total repudiation and she was giving him the Prelog Treatment as her payback. Birdy was a casualty of teenaged sex gone bad, but he wasn't going to let it wreck his final days in Hillsboro. Ellen could hate him all she wanted, but what was she going to tell people? 'He didn't think I was fuckable'?

The graduates were on happy pills the last few weeks of senior year, acutely aware that the life they had lived, the school existence they had known, and the kids they'd been friends with all these years, was coming to a rapid and swift conclusion.

Teachers were also prone to this phenomenon, becoming sentimental, nostalgic and philosophical in their interactions with the almost graduates. Ms. Marceline was noticeably extra-nice to Birdy, devoting an entire Media and Politics class to a discussion about the military, making Birdy the featured subject by talking about the Navy.

There were plenty of parties leading up to graduation night but Birdy didn't attend them. On the days the seniors were dismissed early, he put in extra hours at Johnny C's. He didn't even participate in Senior Skip Day, or the senior class trip to Cape Cod.

"Come on Birdy, you gotta live a little," an annoyed Boone complained after Birdy no showed a few times. "This is our last hurrah."

"Get with the program!" agreed Beck, in his John Wayne voice.

But Birdy wanted to be on his best behavior and avoid any potential scandal or problem. He didn't need to disappoint Cassie one last time, compromise Smitty and the Navy, or attract the wrath of The Hammer.

The graduation caps and gowns arrived a few days before awards night and reality was setting in. In just a few days, they would be high school graduates! How scholarly and intelligent they looked in the getups, with the tassels hanging off the cap.

The graduates practiced the graduation ceremonies a few times so everybody would know what was expected of them. Mr. Lambert was the class advisor, a curly haired, baby-faced short guy who looked more like a student than a teacher. He was counting the days until the ceremony and didn't care how the kids acted during practice, which gave guys like Beck and Boone a license to be as humorous as they wanted. Such rambunctiousness frustrated people like Lisa Drowling who took the pomp and circumstances very seriously and resented those who chose to fool around.

"Oh, tsk," she complained to Boone after one particularly foolish prank. "Well, I think you guys are a bunch of immature morons."

There was a clash going on as the seniors felt themselves moving toward a mature adult world while struggling to let go of the safety of high school. That's why Andy was performing his shtick right up to the final diploma. He wanted to be Beck for as long as he could.

Birdy marched with Noreen Bozeman as his partner. She was still dating the college guy, but it was clear in Birdy's mind that Noreen also had a crush on him and he enjoyed the innocent flirting, especially after the trauma of Ellen. Boone and Cathy Snapper were behind them, while Tag Hendrix and Laura-Lee White were in front of them in the procession.

The awards ceremony was a yawn as 472 different awards, scholarships and appreciations were given out to the same eight people! There was a lot of grumbling about unfair favoritism, but because Cassie Emerson, Duston McQuinn and Phil Golinski were among those lucky individuals being recognized, Birdy wasn't going to complain.

Graduation night finally arrived on a Friday, held in the auditorium where echoes of "There's No Business Like Show Business" could still be heard.

The class marched in to the "Pomp and Circumstances" theme, circled the outside aisles of the auditorium once for all to see (and take countless photographs!) and then took their assigned seats. Andy Beckwith was sitting in front of Birdy and spent most of the night doing his funny impersonations of the principal, vice principal, and class advisor, among others.

The guest speaker was a bore from a bogus think tank and nobody could remember one thing he said ten minutes after he was finished, but the Valedictorian Blythe Burrows was terrific. She had her classmates laughing and crying at the same time and she captured the essence of the high school experience amazingly well in her nine-minute missive. Blythe was 4' 11" and needed to stand on a box behind the podium to be seen, but she stood tall in stature and confidence while delivering her speech.

After she talked about her friends, the class, and some of their adventures and memories, Blythe revealed that her Hillsboro High School alumni brother Byron had been killed in Vietnam

"I carry his last letter with me all the time," Blythe told the assembly. "And I would like to conclude my speech by reading it to you now."

Dear Sis,

Thanks for all your letters. You're certainly the one who writes to me the most and I really appreciate having a kid sister who is so thoughtful and considerate.

I am well and staying as safe as I can, although there are never any guarantees over here. .It wasn't until I left home and found myself in the most forsaken place in the world that I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Hillsboro and attend Hillsboro High School. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

I read somewhere that memory is 20 percent made up! I don't know if that is true, but if it is, I think I've made up some pretty good stuff about Hillsboro!

I thought graduating from high school would be the answer to all my problems. I would broaden my horizons once I got out of Dodge. Now I find myself in a gruesome world full of death, dying, boredom, heat, depression, rain and latrines and I can't help but think, 'You know, the second floor boys room at Hillsboro High ain't so bad after all!'.

I guess what I miss most are the friends I had in high school. Many high school friendships are usually inseparable. The good ones will last beyond high school, career changes, relationships, marriages and even a war.

As I sit here in the mud writing you this letter from a world away, my sometimes gloomy, sometimes charming, sometimes overwhelming memories of Hillsboro are really all I have to draw on as I try to survive this hellhole. My advice to you is to be kind, honest and full of heart. Enjoy the unique experience that is high school, so much so that you'll wish it would never end. It's different once you get out into the real world.

And when it does end, take with you those memories of youth, of innocence, and of friendship because they will guide you all the rest of your days. High school challenges us to come out from the shadow of our moms and dads, without forgetting what our moms and dads taught us. I remember mom's most famous quote: "Remember who you are, remember where you came from."

I think of my high school friends often, here in this scary and lonely place. And that helps me get through it all. And I hope, fifty years from now, it will still be true.

Enjoy high school, sis. It may sound corny, but they really are the best years of your life.

All my love,

Your Brother Byron

Blythe told the room that her brother died a few weeks after writing that letter. His class had a reunion and she knows they missed seeing a good friend. She said she hoped she wouldn't miss seeing any of her classmates at their reunions in the years to come.

It was hard not to get choked up listening to Blythe talk about her brother. Birdy was overwhelmed by a sense of loss, knowing Darlene would never be uttering such kind words about him.

When it came time for the students to receive their diplomas, Birdy realized that he was about to become Byron – stepping out into the real world, away from Hillsboro.

The biggest challenge about receiving the diploma? Don't trip going up the stairs to the stage! The Superintendent of Schools and the School Committee Chairman presented the diploma to each proud graduate. The Superintendent was nicknamed "Soupy" and all Birdy knew about him was that he wore the worse toupee of all time! Birdy wanted to ask him, "You realize you look like a dufus, don't you?" Soupy's balding hair was a yellowy gray, but he blobbed down this hideous black fur ball and it look like a black cat was sleeping on his head.

Nobody had any idea who the School Committee guy was, but he looked like Don Knotts as Mr. Lippett!

One by one, the graduates received their diplomas, each in their own personality and style. Some were serious. Some were proud. Some were emotional. Some were bored. Some were funny. Todd Vose did a formal bow. Duston McQuinn did a cart wheel across the stage. Andy Beckwith did his "They're killing me out there!" Coach T. Impersonation. Lisa Drowling was a basket case, sobbing and embracing Soupy like he was her long lost uncle. Zoey Jameson and a few others altered their cap and gowns, even though it was against the rules. Zoey had peace signs and flowers all over hers. Boone Reynolds had basketball stickers on his.

The graduates cheered each other on, some getting louder applause than others. Birdy stood and cheered when Cassie received her certificate.

When all the formalities were concluded, Soupy told the graduates to stand, and then announced "Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Graduates." Caps flew into the air and the auditorium erupted in a long and sustained cheerful applause as the graduates hugged, kissed, and shook hands with their now ex-classmates. High school was over and they were free, but Birdy wasn't sure if that was necessarily a good thing.

The graduates collected their caps, got organized, and marched out of the auditorium and into the real world. They spilled onto the front lawn of the beloved old high school, broke out of the formal formation, and danced in delight, celebrating with more hugs, kisses, back slaps, and euphoria.

Andy Beckman was teary-eyed, unable to come up with a joke for the occasion. Sam Provost was telling anybody dumb enough to listen, "Next stop, Baltimore!" Boone Reynolds remarked, "Thank God, that's over." Lisa Drowling was kissing everybody in sight. Birdy gave his procession partner Noreen a heartfelt kiss of gratitude and affection, and accepted a kiss from any girl willing to participate.

Birdy tracked down Cassie in the massive crowd, but she was with Sam so he played it safe and offered her only a hug. Parents, family, friends, and teachers soon joined in the outside celebration, flowing out of the auditorium in a steady stream of jubilation.

Officer Mike, Sailor Smitty, Cook Johnny C., Coach T., Ms. Marceline, Mr. and Mrs. Emerson, Mrs. Bonds, Mrs. Dunham, and even The Hammer were among those people who approached Birdy to offer their congratulations. These were the influential people who pitched in as his family surrogates and helped guide him through his successful high school career. He easily could have ended up in reform school, military school, juvenile detention, or even a coffin if it wasn't for the guidance and mentorship of these individuals who showed him the right thing to do.

The moral compass that Cop Kelly talked about must have meant something, because Birdy was overwhelmed by a sense of appreciation and thankfulness for these people who had helped him survive. His life had meaning on this graduation night because he had overcome the loss of his father, the collapse of his family, the perversion of Prelog, and his own faults, anger, insecurities and loneliness to succeed – as a basketball player, as Frank Butler, as an employee at Johnny C.'s, as a teammate, and as a friend.

Birdy found peace with Cassie Emerson and although it hurt to have lost her in love, he could feel good that she no longer hated him, that she had forgiven him, and that she had come to believe in him.

Birdy could leave Hillsboro, not in shame or scandal, but with pride and satisfaction. Joe Bonds asked him why he was leaving seeing how he had effectively rehabilitated himself from the stigma of his ugly past.

"To many ghosts, Jock," Birdy explained with sad and knowing insight. "Not just a dead father, but a missing mother and a lost sister. I don't need to spend the next sixty-five years hanging around Hillsboro yearning for Cassie Emerson. There's a life for me somewhere else, without the haunts."

The grads turned in their caps and gowns in the gym, and Birdy realized it was the last time he'd be standing inside "The Pit". Prelog made it the pits for him, but he had also found his character and depth of strength during his years in that hall and he was grateful for the experience. Nothing the Navy could dish out would be as painful as what The Panther had done to him during his last four years in Hillsboro.

Boone, Andy, Duston, Tag, Bink and Birdy stood at mid-court of the gym for one last photograph together as teammates. Boone was going to the vocational college, Andy had signed an enlistment contract with the Army, Duston was off to Boston College, Tag was still undecided about his future, Bink was headed to UMASS, and Birdy was Navy-bound. Each knew it would never be like this again.

Beck broke from the group, pantomimed making a lay up at the basket at the far end of the court, and disappeared out the exit door, with a "That's the Way it is" in his Walter Cronkite impersonation.

Chapter 34

Community volunteers and businesses sponsored a non-drinking graduation party to ensure a safe haven for graduating Hillsboro students who were locked in the bowling alley with a handful of chaperones for the night, with movies, free food, bowling, pinball, pool, and other activities to keep them occupied and safe.

Some foolish kids insisted on drinking before arriving while others attempted to smuggle in "contraband", but most of the graduates honored the sober restrictions. Attendees were required to be in the bowling alley by 11:00 and weren't allowed out until 6:00 the next morning.

There was a lot of petulance about a sober party and some protesters boycotted, but Birdy liked the idea of spending time with his fellow graduates in a temperate setting instead of worrying about puking, crying, sexual assaults, and other embarrassing occurrences. Ellen Thurbert was among those who elected to party elsewhere, but most of the kids Birdy was interested in seeing showed up, including Cassie, Duston, Zoey, Noreen, Boone, Beck, Tag, Bink, Jaynne Leary, Phil Golinski, Todd Vose, Sarah Johns, Lisa Drowling, Bryanna Gleason, Ellie Bagwell, Molly Loomis, Freddie Mendozza, Cathy Snapper, Lauren White, and Blythe Burrows, and about fifty others from a graduating class of 107. Unfortunately, Sam Provost was also in attendance!

The chaperones were Athletic Director Lucky Taylor, Coach T., Jaynee Leary's father, Phil Golinski's mother, and June Davis, the make up lady from the play. Birdy had as much fun shooting the shit with the chaperones as he did with his classmates.

What Birdy valued most about the evening was how overly friendly everybody acted. Kids he barely knew treated him as though he was their best friend of all time, and he was amused by the nice things kids were saying, including some he treated like shit during his ugly years.

Birdy attempted to make amends to some of those kids he had disenfranchised, including Greg Willard who's head he stuck in the urinal in sixth grade, Brad Bashl, who's guppies he killed in fourth grade, Mary Armstrong, who's fancy white dress he threw a bowl of spaghetti on in sixth grade, and Lauren White who he shamefully called a fat bitch whore in seventh grade.

The graduates rolled plenty of bowling balls. Guys against girls. Couples vs. Couples. Jocks vs. Brains. Students vs. Chaperones. Football players vs. baseball players. Basketball players vs. chess club members. Office Girls vs. Student Council members.

Birdy played on Cassie's team once, and against her twice which, of course, brought on several refrains of "Anything You Can Do," which greatly annoyed Sammy-Boy.

Noreen's college boyfriend was not in attendance, so when Birdy wasn't shadowing Cassie Emerson, he hung out with his surrogate girl friend Noreen.

Birdy got a chance to talk to Cassie alone during the night when her egotistical baseball star boyfriend was holding court elsewhere.

"Are you going to follow Cy Young around the minor leagues?" Birdy asked his Duchess as they sat together at one of the empty scoring tables sharing a bag of popcorn.

"I'm going to Syracuse."

"What about Sam?"

"What about him?"

"Aren't you guys going to stay together?"

"Birdy, this is high school," she said with a wave of her hand. "Romances rarely last, especially when people go in different directions."

"You're not just talking miles, are you?"

"How long do you think Sam will last in some of those confederate towns in the low minors before he meets some southern belle he can't resist? He won't stay true to me."

"What if he actually makes it to the bigs?"

"That's not the life for me," she replied.

"Does Sam know he's terminal?" a puzzled Birdy wanted to know.

"He'll figure it out eventually," she answered with a smile.

Birdy smiled too, glad to be in on Cassie's little secret.

"Aren't you glad we didn't date?" she asked with a wink. "I'm not a Navy person either."

"If we were dating, I'd be going to Syracuse with you," Birdy replied point-blank.

She sat back in her chair and studied him. "You know something? I bet you would."

Birdy leaned close to her, so near that he could smell her hair. "I'm never going to love another woman the way I've love you," he stated with steadfast resolve.

She leaned toward him, resting her forehead against his.

"You'll meet plenty of interesting women in your Navy travels," she whispered. "But I won't love them the way I'll always love you," he whispered back.

"I bet in thirty years, you won't even remember who I am."

"I bet I'll still be in love with you," he vowed with conviction.

"Maybe it's the idea of being in love with me that interests you," she suggested nervously, overwhelmed by the depth of his emotion.

"You want to know when I first fell in love with you?"

"When?"

"Third grade. About two weeks before my father died. I was in Drumgold's Department Store and saw you looking at some perfume or something." Birdy closed his eyes to better see the moment in his mind's eye. "You were standing in front of that eight-dimension mirror so I was looking at eight of you. You were smiling as you picked out a bottle."

Cassie was amazed by his ability to totally recall the moment. "The perfume was for my mother." She was surprised that the lost memory was coming back to her. "A Christmas Present." She studied him with fascination. "I can't believe I remember that. I can't believe you remember that!"

Birdy looked deep into her eyes. "You didn't see me, but I stood and watched you for maybe five minutes. You were wearing that white wool winter hat you had, and that long orange coat. Your hair had flakes of snow in it, and it was glistening in the lights of the store."

She put her hands on her chest. "Wow, Birdy," she said, shaking her head with amazement. "That's when you fell in love with me?"

"Yeah. I knew I'd never see another girl as beautiful as you were at that moment."

"Jesus, Birdy." She was too awed to say anything else.

They stared at one another, as though they were both back at Drumgold's Department Store on that snowy day.

"I bought you a present that day," Birdy reminded her.

"A gold heart locket," she said, as if she had been hypnotized.

"Ah, you remember." He was saddened by the memory. "You refused it when I tried to give to you on the last day of school before Christmas vacation."

"No boy had ever given me something before," she explained, feeling awkward. "I didn't know what to do. It was third grade."

"I was crushed," Birdy confessed, surprised at how affected he still was by the memory. "And then a week later, my father was dead. Life sucked from then on."

He bowed his head in sad reflection.

"And I never said anything to you about any of it," she sorrowfully stated.

"Well, I think I called you a stuck up bitch the next time I saw you," Birdy admitted with embarrassment. Then he sighed, realizing how fast and hard his life fell apart after that moment. "You had no reason to talk to me. It was never the same. I was never the same."

She took his hand in hers. "I'm sorry, Birdy."

He kissed her hand. "It wasn't your fault."

"What's the last thing you remember about your dad?"

He smiled, happy to be asked the question. "On the morning he died, I went with him to get the car fixed. We walked around Miller's car lot looking at all the new cars while we waited."

"That's nice," Cassie said with a sentimental smile.

"The car I drive now? It was one of the new models I remember seeing on the lot that day."

"That's got to be a good omen."

Birdy sighed. "My father's been dead longer than I was alive with him." He looked at her with pleading eyes. "I wouldn't have called you a stuck up bitch if he hadn't died."

"I know."

"He would have told me how to handle the locket."

"Yeah."

"I still have it."

"You're kidding! You've been saving it all this time?"

"Just in case," he grinned. "Stop by Johnny C.'s tomorrow. I'll give it to you. Again."

"You're working at Johnny C.'s after being up all night?"

"It's the last shift I'll ever work."

She put her hand in her chin and studied Birdy. "I think I dated the wrong guys in high school."

"I know," he replied and they both laughed.

"Cass!" It was Sam screaming from across the room, wrecking their special private conversation. "Come play air hockey with me, Sweetheart." He was trotting toward them, cheerfully smiling when he reached the couple, but Birdy knew he was seething underneath his cool exterior.

"Your face healed pretty good, Birdy," Sam remarked. "Sure hope nothing bad happens again."

Birdy stood and gave Sam a threatening glare. "It won't."

Cassie stood too and smiled awkwardly at Birdy. "It was nice chatting with you," she said, trying to appear discreet in front of her boyfriend.

Cassie waved her farewell as Sam took her by the hand and whisked her away. The ball player didn't leave her side the rest of the night.

Birdy didn't let Sam's implied threat bother him. He was as good as gone anyway, but he couldn't stop thinking about Cassie and his disconnected life. The best relationship he had was with the only girl he ever loved, but never dated. If only the conversation they just had took place four or five years earlier. He felt an unspoken bond between them and he now realized that they were meant to be together.

Birdy began fantasizing about not joining the Navy, just as he had during the play production when Cassie was nice to him. He could work at Johnny C's for the summer, apply for late admission at Syracuse and finally be with Cassie, the girl of his dreams. So what if he hadn't took the SATs, had no place to live for the summer, would sell out Smitty, and probably face a breach of contract suit from the U.S. Navy? It would be worth it if Cassie were willing to have him.

Birdy kept his eyes on her for the rest of the night and occasionally she would sneak a peek at him and smile. Maybe she was thinking the same thing! He was willing to take the risk of altering the course of his life for the chance to be with her. Ms. Marceline had done it with Johnny Mac when she ran away with him. It didn't work out for her, but who's to say it wouldn't be a success for Cassie and The Birdman?

Birdy experienced a revelation. Suddenly, his life made sense. He had a purpose. His disconnected life had found a true connection: Cassie Emerson! He would reveal his plan in a private moment, without Sam or any other distraction around. Maybe when she stopped by Johnny C's to pick up the locket.

.Most of the graduates were too tired to get overly emotional when they were released from the bowling alley captivity in the morning, so the farewells were brief and hurried. Birdy did get to hug Cassie before Sam lugged her away, and he got a welcomed kiss from Noreen who said she had a good time with her Hampton Beach roomie.

Birdy drove home into the sunrise with an excited anticipation about what the day was going to bring. He showered, grabbed the locket still in its original velvet case, and headed for Johnny C.'s for what was supposed to be his swan song. But maybe not, once Cassie heard his idea. It was anticlimactic to be working his final shift at Johnny C.'s because he believed he'd be back on Monday. Cassie was going to profess her love and they'd spend the summer together in Hillsboro before heading to Syracuse as a couple.

Birdy looked with nervous expectation each time a customer came through the door, hoping it was Cassie. Waitresses and other staff were gushingly nice to him. Johnny C. told every person who entered that it was Birdy's final day and they wished him well in the Navy. Birdy didn't have the guts to tell them he wasn't leaving after all!

It was well after 4:00 when Cassie finally appeared. She was dolled up in an attractive fancy summer dress with a spiffy hairdo and attractive makeup. She was a knockout and poor exhausted Birdy looked like a mope in his greasy apron and stained Johnny C's orange tee shirt.

"Sam and I are going out to dinner," she blushingly explained when Johnny C exclaimed "Wowie wow wow."

"Must be some dinner," said waitress Marcia Ravish, who always had five sticks of bubble gum in her mouth at any one time.

"Expensive place up in Vermont," revealed Cassie. Sam's leaving tomorrow for extended spring training in Florida."

"Next stop, the big show!" a sports fan customer sitting at the counter suggested.

"Sam's in the car, Birdy," Cassie warned. "I told him I left something here the other day. We only have a second."

So much for springing his big idea on her. Birdy grabbed the case from where he stashed it on top of the cereal boxes and handed it to her. She clutched it to her chest.

"This really means a lot to me, Birdy."

"You look great," he told her.

She beamed, pecked him on his cheek, and rushed out of the diner for her big night with Sammy boy before Birdy could say another word.

Birdy was disappointed by her quick exit, but knew there was still tomorrow to tell her his happy plan of their new life together, especially now that he knew Sam was leaving town.

The remainder of the shift was a let down and Birdy was exhausted from being up all night. He continued with his goodbyes to folks and he joked around with his coworkers, but he was counting the minutes until closing time.

Mr. And Mrs. Johnny C surprised Birdy with a going away cake in the shape of a Navy aircraft carrier brought out fifteen minutes before closing time. The shift shared a piece of cake and said their goodbyes. Johnny refused to let Birdy work beyond closing time, so he clocked out for what Johnny assumed would be the last time at 9:00.

Birdy thanked Johnny C. for his mentorship and said he owed his career to him. He wanted to tell John he'd be back on Monday, but thought it better to wait until Cassie was in on the new deal.

He drove by the Emerson house, but it was dark and he assumed Cassie wasn't home yet. He thought about waiting for her, but he smelled like a deep fryer and could barely keep his eyes open having been awake for nearly forty hours.

He went home to an empty and spooky house since he had the electricity, phone, and cable shut off on Friday. The closing was on Monday – the realtor had sold the place to a young couple with two kids by proxy for Birdy's mother in Atlanta. It was strange to see the "sale pending" sticker slapped across the Nolan and Cosby Realtor sign on the front lawn. All that was left in the house was a mattress on Birdy's bare bedroom floor. Everything else had been hauled off to the Salvation Army or the dump earlier in the week. He had boxed up his personal keepsakes and lugged them to the Kelly's cellar for storage

He wondered where he'd live once Cassie said, "Yes, yes, oh yes, my love." Officer Mike's? Beckwith's cellar? Should he rent his own place? He collapsed onto the mattress and immediately fell into a deep and exhausted slumber.

He was surprised when he woke and saw by his watch that it was after 11:00 on Sunday morning. He had slept solidly for twelve straight hours. He took a shower, changed into his last fresh clothes, and drove with anticipated enthusiasm to the Emersons'.on a sunny and warm June morning.

Mrs. Emerson answered the front door and was taken aback to see Birdy standing before her.

"Hello, Mrs. Emerson. Isn't it a lovely morning?"

"It certainly is, Birdy. How are you?"

"Fantastic!" Why not? His life was about to be fulfilled.

"How can I be of help?" Mrs. Emerson asked politely.

"I'd like to talk to Cassie," he blissfully announced, barely able to curtail his enthusiasm. "I have something really important to say."

"I'm surprised she didn't tell you."

"Tell me what?" He was still grinning like a happy drunk.

"She and a couple of her girl friends left for Disney World this morning. Graduation trip."

"Oh," he croaked with stunned dismay. "I……I……. didn't know."

"I'm terribly sorry, Birdy."

"When will she be back?" He weakly asked, the blood draining from his face.

"I'm not sure. I'm afraid she may stay awhile if Sam can work it out. He's down there too, you know."

"Yeah," a crushed Birdy mumbled. "I know."

Mrs. Emerson looked at him with pity and compassion. "Is there anything you want me to tell her?"

"Yeah," he sighed heavily, his eyes filling with tears. "Tell her I said goodbye."

She nodded with understanding, watching him crumble before her eyes. "When do you leave?"

"Tomorrow," he sighed.

"Good luck to you, Birdy."

"Thanks, Mrs. Emerson." He could barely get the words out. He felt dizzy and his legs were buckling underneath him.

He started to leave the porch he painted, but Mrs. Emerson stopped him by calling out his name. He turned and faced her, trying to regain his composure.

"I think the Navy is a much nobler calling than baseball." She smiled; answering the question he teased her with at the cast party. It meant a lot to know that she like him better than Sam.

Birdy nodded and left with weak knees and a broken heart. It was all he could do not to burst out balling as he walked to the car. His disconnected life had reeled its ugly head one more cruel time. Everything Cassie had told him at the cast party and at the graduation party was a pile of crap. She played him for the sap he was, The Loser Braft as Prelog so rightly called him.

Thank God he hadn't told anybody about his foolishly asinine plan. He nearly made a complete buffoon of himself and he was thankful nobody was aware of his stupidity.

Fuck Hillsboro. And to hell with Cassie. With the backstabbing girlfriend of Sam Provost on her way to Florida to be with Mr. Cy Young, it was clear that Smitty was Birdy's savior after all. The Navy would be his salvation, but he would never forgive Cassie Emerson for her betrayal. He vowed that day that he would hate her forever.

Beckwith joined the moody and despondent Birdy for lunch with the Kellys. Andy hated to see his pal so morose on his last day in town, but he didn't try to cheer him up. Let the guy feel the pain of losing Cassie - again.

Mike the Cop put a positive spin on Birdy's departure, talking about new horizons and exciting experiences, but the cop was saying goodbye to Birdy's father all over again and that was a bummer for all of them.

Birdy returned home after the farewell lunch still crushed by Cassie's departure. Why didn't she tell him about Florida? Why did she leave without a proper farewell? Except for the mattress and a few candles, the house was empty, devoid of any evidence of a prior Braft existence. He stepped into his parent's bedroom and remembered the happy times when he was just a tyke. His mother would read him stories in their bed, and on Saturday mornings he would wake his father to watch cartoons together. That was somebody else's life, spent in a different universe.

Joe Bonds and his girl Jenny stopped by for their final goodbye. Joe still had another year of high school to finish and Jen was heading for Blue County Community College, but the Navy bound Birdy felt light years ahead of them. The trio got an ice cream at Reed's Creamie and took a ride around town, even though Birdy's mood remained sullen.

When they returned to Birdy's house, Jenny gave her boyfriend's friend a tearful embrace goodbye.

"It won't be the same around here without you," she told him.

"I'm sure you'll get over it," he grumbled with a lack of appreciation.

"You don't have to be an asshole on your last day," an annoyed Joe scolded his friend. "It's not Jenny's fault Carrie left."

Birdy mumbled an apology and hugged the girl, though he was unable to break out of the funk Cassie had put him in.

When Joe and Jenny left, Birdy took ride to the cemetery and visited his father. The Police Bereavement Fund helped pay for an impressive stone and Officer Braft's grave was on a hill in the back section, along a ridge with a row of trees. Birdy used to ride his bike to the cemetery and sit next to the grave when his dad first died, usually to yell and swear at him. One day, after something stupid happened at school, the boy bicycled to the cemetery and gave his father a piece of his mind without noticing an elderly gentleman on the other side of the hill.

"There's no yelling in heaven." The old guy scared the hell out of young Birdy. For a moment, the kid thought it was God himself talking! "So yelling don't help much here neither."

The distinguished old man was well dressed, with a 1950s-style feathered hat on his gray head and a carved walking cane in his hand. The tip of the handle had a Lion's Head on it.

"I didn't know you were here," Birdy mumbled, embarrassed to be seen yelling in a graveyard.

"Shh," the old man said, putting his finger to his lips. "Listen." He remained silent for a moment. "What do you hear?"

"Nothing." The old guy was giving him the creeps.

"You're not listening. Try again. What do you hear? Close your eyes and tell me."

Young Birdy closed his eyes and listened again.

"Birds," he told him, pretending he was taking one of those hearing tests at school. "I hear birds singing."

"What else?" The Old Man was forcefully gentle.

"The leaves. There's a breeze."

"It's the sound of peace," the old guy explained.

Birdy opened his eyes and looked at the stranger.

"This is a peaceful place," the old man told him. "The dead are resting. My wife's over there." He gestured to the other side of the hill with his cane. "I come here to mediate. And to pray. Yelling don't do no good."

He glanced past Birdy and saw the stone. "Your father?"

"He's the one I'm yelling at."

"He's at peace. You need to find your peace when you come here." The old man tipped the rim of his hat with the end of his cane and wandered back to his wife's burial site.

Birdy was unable to find his own peace as the old man suggested, so he stopped going to the cemetery to yell at his father's gravestone. Maybe that's why he remained such a jerk. Now he was stopping by for the final time before leaving the place of his father's burial spot, for who knew how long.

The gravestone was beautiful - purple granite with a gold police badge embedded in the stone and Birdy valued the words inscribed on the stone:

"He died in service to the town of Hillsboro."

A respected Police Officer, a loving husband, a devoted father,

And a good friend."

Korean War Veteran – Signalman, U.S. Navy

His father had been dead for nine and a half years and Birdy wondered how different things would be had he not died. He always thought of that concept whenever he saw "It's A Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart during the Christmas season. The premise of the movie is that Stewart's character George Bailey wishes he had never been born, so Clarence his Guardian Angel shows him what the world would have been like without him.

Birdy wanted his Guardian Angel to show him how his world would have been if his father had never been killed. Maybe his mother wouldn't have lost herself in work and maybe Darlene wouldn't have turned to men for attention. Maybe Birdy wouldn't have become an angry hoodlum. He doubted the Perverted Prelog would have been in Darlene's bedroom –or that Darlene would have sought The Panther out in the first place. Birdy probably would have played varsity basketball for two or three years and he may or may not have joined the Navy. Maybe he would have dated Cassie since there would be no reason for her to hate him since there wouldn't have been any ugly years.

Birdy could wish all he wanted, but it wasn't going to change a damn thing.

"So long, Dad," he said, leaving a quarter on the gravestone.

He left the cemetery and drove his car to Ms. Marceline's house. She was still driving that junky station wagon while his well-maintained car was in great shape. It would be a better vehicle for Ms. Marceline and Haley.

Nobody was home which was just as well. Birdy parked the car in the Marceline driveway and placed the registration, title and a bill of sales all signed over to her on the front seat, along with a note that read, "To the best teacher I'll ever have. I promise this car will start!"

He walked home as dusk started to settle in. There was a peaceful stillness to the air and he drank in the sights, sounds, and memories of each house, street, and neighborhood. He returned to the empty house and, even though he was angry at her, Birdy wrote a final card to Cassie Emerson (he couldn't help himself!). The cover was of a sunrise.

Dear Duchess Annie,

You told me sophomore year that I had about 419 incidents to apologize for. I've only sent around 290 cards, but I hope you will forgive the remaining incidents.

This is my last card. I wish you a long, happy, rewarding, and meaningful life. You may think I'm being "high school" when I tell you that I love you, but I know how I feel – and how I will always feel – about you.

Birdy

P.S. I wish you had told me about Florida.

Birdy walked the letter downtown and dropped it in the mailbox in front of the post office. Who knew when the Florida Girl would read it, but he felt completed now that he had closed the final loop with her. He would always regret the missed chance to ask her to be with him, but she chose to follow Sam to Florida and that was a clear answer for him.

He took a final journey along Hillsboro's main street, past the various stores and businesses of his hometown. He stood in the window of Johnny C.'s (Closed Sundays) where he had apprenticed for the future. He thought about the people he had known during his years working the counter, good people who countered the evil Panther and he would not forget the lessons they taught him. How could he not feel melancholy as he walked home in the dusk of the early summer evening? He thought it would be easy to bail on this town and these people, but now he understood how much had been given to him and how much this place had protected him.

But he had to leave. There was too much pain here. The pain of his father. The pain of his mother. The pain of his sister. The pain of The Panther. Most of all, the pain of Cassie Emerson.

Chapter 35

He was surprised to see his car parked in his driveway as he walked along Pinewood Avenue. Was Ms. Marceline rejecting him like Cassie? The teacher was sitting in the driver's seat, so Birdy slipped into the passenger's seat from the other side of the car.

"I thought maybe you already left." She was relieved to see him.

"The recruiter picks me up at 6:15. Why are you here?"

She handed him a crisp one-dollar bill. "The bill of sales isn't legal unless a transaction is actually exchanged," she explained with a smile.

He laughed and accepted the bill. "Transaction completed."

"Are you sure you're not going to want the car back when you return?"

"I won't be returning, Ms. Marceline."

"You sound sure of yourself."

"I won't be returning," he repeated with true conviction.

She peered at him. "I believe you."

They sat in silence for a long moment. He was so desperately lonely and alone – hurt and defeated. He wanted to bury his head in her bosom and cry.

"A lot has changed since the last time we sat together in this car," she said.

"How so?"

"Well, you graduated for one. That means that technically, you're not my student any more."

He gawked at her, not sure if she was implying what he fantasized she was saying.

"I don't want to join the Navy a virgin."

She looked down with red-faced doubt. "This is all wrong, you know."

"I've done wrong before."

"You won't feel guilty afterward?"

"It's a price worth paying." His answer freed them from the sin they were about to commit. "I'm very good at keeping secrets," he added.

They sat in the car for another long moment, neither sure what to do next.

"Jesus, I feel like a high school kid out on a date," she laughed. "I'm so out of practice, I'm nervous as hell."

"Just be the best teacher I've ever had."

And she was.

Hours later, the teacher and student laid on the mattress intertwined like two wrestlers as the dawn began breaking in the eastern sky.

"Thanks for making me a man tonight."

"Thanks for letting me feel like a woman again."

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure." She propped herself up on her elbow and studied him.

"What's your first name?"

They both laughed at the ridiculousness of the fact that he had been making love to "Ms. Marceline" all night.

"Danielle."

"Thanks for the life lesson, Danielle."

"I'm going to hell for this," she said with a sigh, rolling off the mattress and looking for her clothes. He drank in her lovely nudeness one last time.

"I have to be at work in a few hours."

"I'm leaving for the Navy in a few hours."

She looked at him with forlornness. "I'm your first girl in a port."

Birdy wrapped the sheet around his waist, stood and watched while she dressed in the early morning light. All the pain, hurt, rejection and loneliness of the previous day was gone – at least temporarily.

"They say you never forget your first time," he remarked with a sad smile. "So I won't be forgetting you."

She was dressed now. She brushed her hair out with her hand and gave him an appreciative smile. "I'm flattered."

She kissed him goodbye and disappeared from the room. He fell back onto the mattress, smelling the sex that was left behind. He listened as his car – Ms. Marceline's car now – backed out of the driveway and faded down Pinewood Avenue.

There was nothing to do now but wait for Smitty to show up. He took a long shower, dressed in the same clothes he wore the day before and placed his soiled clothes from Saturday, the sheets, the towel, and any other items left behind in a large black plastic trash bag. Joe Bonds would take the bag and the mattress to the dump later in the day.

The commode was the only place left in the house for him to sit and Birdy waited for the recruiter to arrive as though he was waiting for the warden to come get him for the death chamber.

Joe Smith finally stepped through the front door, hollering "Reveille! Reveille!" like a boot camp commander surprising his company on the first day of training.

The condemned recruit joined Smitty in the living room. There had been so much going on the last few days that he hadn't thought about this final countdown moment. Smitty was St. Peter taking him through the pearly gates.

"Ready?" The Recruiter wanted to know.

"Let's do it," the recruit replied.

Smitty led him out the front door and Birdy was confused when the Navy man announced, "Attention on Deck!" The recruit stepped into the morning sun and was stunned to see several of his friends lining the front walk, saluting him. Beck. Joe Jock Bonds. Boone Reynolds. Duston. Noreen. Phil Golinski. Clark Fitzgerald! Frank Boubren! Todd Vose. Jaynee Leary.

It was a poignant parting gesture that brought tears to his eyes. (Thank God Ms. Marceline was smart enough to inconspicuously leave earlier!)

His friends began applauding as he stepped onto the walk.

"Good Luck, Birdy." "You're the best, Birdy." "We'll miss you, Birdy." "Anchor's Aweigh, Sailor". "We love you, Birdy."

An overwhelmed Birdy stuttered his thanks to the wonderful kids as he drifted down the front walk. He was a different person now because of what Ms. Marceline had given him the night before - a mature man and not some loser kid.

Birdy shook hands and high fived the guys while Beck did his Sinatra impersonation singing "My Way". Birdy hugged Jaynee, and embraced Noreen long and hard. He gave Miss Bozeman a long and passionate farewell smooch that made the girl blush as she wiped tears from her eyes.

Officer Mike was standing at the curb in front of his cruiser and Birdy embraced the burly cop when he reached the end of the walkway.

"I don't think I would have made it without you," he confessed. "Thanks for everything."

Mike patted him on the back. "Go and make us proud, kid."

Birdy made a final hand salute to those terrific people present for his farewell, climbed into Smitty's car and looked straight ahead as the Recruiter drove them away.

"I had some great friends back there, didn't I?" A wide-eyed Birdy said

"I'm sure they're saying the same thing about you, Birdy," Smitty assured him.

He never looked back.

Chapter 36

(NOW)

Bob Braft checked into the Greenville Super 8 Motel near the interstate and registered as Ronnie Sye (the guy who relieved him in Bremerton!), though he had no idea why he felt he needed an alias like some criminal in hiding.

He unlocked the door to his room and collapsed onto the bed once inside. Beckwith, O Beckwith, what happened to you, friend Andy Beckwith?

The Navy teaches its Sailors to depend on shipmates for survival. A fire onboard a ship is certain death unless everyone on the crew works as a team. Sailors serve together, live together, eat together, work together, and sleep together. A mate has to know that the shipmate next to him is going to cover his back in any given situation. Sailors are initiated into the Navy Core Values of Honor, Courage and Commitment. Each Navy man is accountable for his professional and personal behavior. They are mindful of the privilege they have to serve their fellow Americans. Sailors honor courage, the value that gives them the moral and mental strength to do what is right, with confidence and resolution, even in the face of temptation or adversity. And Sailors have the commitment in the day-to-day duty of service to join together as a team to improve the quality of their work, their people and themselves.

Laying on the bed in the Greenville Super 8 Motel room remembering his life in Hillsboro, Braft realized that his friends had served much the same purpose during his lost years of youth. They had gone to war together and watched each other's backs through the tough times. You don't forget guys like that. Guys like Andy Beckwith, Joe Bonds, Phil Golinski and Boone Reynolds were always there for Birdy during his down times. That's why he came back for Beck's funeral. Andy would have done the same for him.

Braft flipped through the telephone white pages, found Beckwith's number, and dialed. He knew he was making the call thirty years to late, but he needed to feel like he was reaching out to Beck.

"This is Andy Beckwith. Leave a message at the beep and I'll get back to you."

Hearing Beck's voice from the grave sent shutters down Braft's spine, but he found himself calling the number three more times just to hear Andy's voice again. He noticed that the recording was monotone and emotionless, nothing like the multi-voiced talent of the high school Beck.

He bought a Greenville News and Dispatch newspaper in the motel lobby. The paper hadn't changed much from his youth, but a small front-page article caught his eye:

Former Officer's Death A Suicide

By Erica Shelton-Fudge

Dispatch Writer

Hillsboro Police Chief Michael Kelly confirmed that former Hillsboro Police Officer Andrew J. Beckwith died of a self-inflicted gunshot early Sunday morning.

Beckwith was discovered dead in his car from a single gunshot wound to the head. The car was found parked along the bank of Blue Lake by a jogger passing by.

"We grieve the loss of this fine police officer," Chief Kelly said yesterday. "Andy was a terrific cop and a great person."

Kelly refused to comment further on the case, citing confidentiality issues and the family's right to privacy.

A native of Hillsboro, Beckwith joined his hometown police department following a tour with the Army.

Beckwith was suspended from the force on two occasions in the past several years and was finally granted a medical disability retirement early last year. He was employed by the Boone the Builder Construction Company at the time of his death.

Braft recognized the by-line – Erica was a year behind him at Hillsboro, and she was a company member in Annie Get Your Gun. Her hyphenated byline made him wonder if she married the gym teacher's son. And Officer Mike was the police chief! Braft wasn't surprised by that news.

Seeing the stark reality of Andy's death in newsprint left him with an eerie feeling. Beck spent his entire high school existence trying to make others laugh. What left him so despondent that he took his own life?

He knew he couldn't hide out in his motel room until the wake. Sooner or later, the long lost Braft would have to make himself known to somebody in his former home town. It was after 7:00 that evening when he finally mustered enough courage to leave the safety of the motel and venture across the Blue River to Hillsboro.

He drove to his old house on Pinewood Avenue and stood on the front lawn staring at the home of his youth. It had new siding of a different color, modern windows, and a new breezeway. The front landscape was different from the Braft days and he had a hard time recognizing the place as he remembered it.

"May I help you?" The voice brought Braft out of his thoughts and he turned to see an athletic guy in his thirties dressed in a nylon sweat suit with a dog on a leash standing in the driveway, apparently returning from a walk

"I lived here as a kid," an embarrassed Braft told the guy. "It's been a while since I've seen it."

The guy studied him, not sure if the intruder was some crazed lunatic. "Care to see the inside?" The understanding owner finally asked.

Braft hesitated for a moment before accepting the kind invitation, then wondered if he had ever been in the house before once they were inside. With the modern furniture, new interior decoration and atmosphere, the visitor had a hard time accepting the reality that this was the same house he had lived in for 17 years. The wall between the dining room and kitchen had been ripped out, the kitchen was modernized and expanded, and a deck had been built off the back of the house. Braft walked down the hall to the bedrooms. Darlene's old room was now used as an office and his bedroom apparently belonged to a girl as evidenced by the pink wallpaper and stuffed animals on the bed. The home of his childhood was long gone and Braft felt more disconnected than ever. He thanked the owner for his kindness and left, not sure if seeing the old homestead again was a good idea. Maybe it was smarter to leave the ghosts in the past.

He drove to 223 Maple Street which was, according to the phone book, the home of Boone and Cathy Reynolds (nee Snapper). Maple Street ended at about 100 when he was a kid, but the woods that once existed at the end of the street were gone and dozens of new houses were built on the extended street. Braft parked across from 223 and examined the huge modern barn behind the attractive ranch that was the Reynolds' home. The stained pine barn featured a huge "Boone The Builder" sign with red lettering and a white background. Several pickup trucks and vans with the "Boone The Builder" logo on their sides were parked in the lot beside the barn.

A teenage girl with pink hair and at least fourteen rings on her fingers came out the front door of the Reynolds home. She had on hip hugger jeans that barely covered her ass and a thin tube top that left her mid drift exposed, along with a denim jacket with sparkles all over it. She had a cell phone to her ear and was ignoring her father who appeared on the porch behind her.

"It's still a school night, Arianna. Be home by midnight or don't come home at all."

The father was Boone Reynolds. It took the approaching Braft a second to recognize him without his high school mop of hair. Boone's head was shaved in the style of the times, and Reynolds had put on twenty pounds since the last time Braft saw him, but it was all muscle with arms the size of small tree trunks. Boone was well tanned and in great shape from his construction work. He wore a gray goatee to augment his shiny bald head and there was a small tattoo on the side of his neck.

A huffy Arianna walked past Braft without a second look, but Boone lost interest in his daughter when he noticed who was slowly strolling up his front walk.

"Well, I'll be damned," Boone Reynolds exclaimed as a grin slowly came to his face.

"Hi, Boone." Robert Braft extended his hand as he hopped the steps of the front porch.

"Birdy Braft! Long time no see!." Boone accepted his lost friend's handshake in a hardy grip.

He hadn't been called "Birdy" for 30 years having left the name behind when he abandoned Hillsboro and he was surprised at how easy the name fit hearing it again.

"You build this place?"

"Built the whole damn street," Boone bragged. "Bought out Crosby Construction way back when. Hit it big with this project, been rolling ever since."

"Congratulations." Birdy glanced around the neighborhood. "You talked about this since seventh grade shop class."

"Come on in," Boone invited. "Cathy's gonna shit when she sees you."

Boone had built an impressive home. Open. Expansive. Bright. Cheerful.

"Cathy! Get down here and see what the cat dragged in!" Boone yelled up the stairs when they were inside the home. "She didn't think you'd come," he told Birdy.

Birdy was shocked at how awful Cathy looked when she appeared at the top of the stairs in a purple pantsuit, wearing more makeup than a clown. Even with the makeup, her skin was pale and her complexion pasty. Although she was thinner than she had been in high school, her stomach was bloated from an abused liver. Cathy wore her frosted hair short, had long fingernails painted orange, and was covered with excessive jewelry. Her face was drawn and sickly thin.

"Recognize this old bastard?" Boone asked.

"Well, whatta know," she said, giving the guest the look over. "It's the ghost of Birdy Braft!"

Cathy joined her husband at the bottom of the stairs and examined Birdy. His hair was sandy gray not much longer than his Navy style and he wore a silvering beard, but he was still within 10 pounds of his high school playing weight.

"I thought you were dead," Cathy announced, stepping to the portable bar on the other side of the room. "Drink?"

"I'm okay," Birdy said.

"Well, I'll just fix myself one," she said. "Boone, why don't you take Birdy downstairs? I'll join you in a minute."

"Take your time," Boone told his wife and Birdy could feel tension in the room.

The cellar was Boone's domain. There was a deer head mounted on one of the paneled walls, a long bar, a huge screen television, a couch, three or four overstuffed lazy-boy chairs, a thick carpet, a pool table, a microwave, a refrigerator, and a full bath.

Birdy noticed a portrait of Boone as Buffalo Bill and a group picture of the basketball team senior year, but that was the only evidence of his high school life. The rest of the decor were posters of contemporary sports and celebrity stars, plus a whole bunch of "Boone The Builder" artifacts.

Boone tossed his guest a can of coca-cola and motioned him to the lazy-boys. Boone collapsed into a leather chair and took a hard look at the long missing Birdy Braft as he sipped from a bottle of water. "You married?" He asked his guest

"Na."

Boone frowned. "What are you, a homo?"

Birdy hadn't heard that line for thirty years and he burst out laughing. Boone grinned, aware of the historic significance of the remark.

"How'd you find me?"

"Christ, it wasn't easy," Boone groaned. "Trudy whats-her-name lives over in Mt. Griffin. She still knows your sister down in Florida.

"I'm surprised Darlene helped you out."

"She wasn't very responsive," confirmed Boone. "But she inadvertently mentioned Washington State, so I did an Internet search from there."

"Thank God for the world wide web, huh?"

"I found an old address at the Navy Base," Boone explained, sounding like a CIA operative. "Some guy said you retired to Ellensburg. Did a check there, and found you in the listings.

"And here I am."

"Boy, when you said you weren't coming back, you really meant it, didn't you?" Boone was accusatory in his tone.

Birdy shrugged, realizing any explaination would sound lame with Beckwith on a slab at the funeral home.

"You never had any contact with anybody back here all this time?" A skeptical Boone asked.

"Saw Smitty the Recruiter in San Diego once several years later," Birdy answered. "Bumped into Archie Smith's parents during a layover in Atlanta one time. That's about it." Birdy stared hard at Boone. "So, what the hell happened to Beck?"

Boone shook his head in perplexed sorrow. "Fuck if I know."

"The Army screwed him up." It was Cathy joining them in the cellar domain. She had a yearbook under her arm and a pile of photographs in one hand, a drink in the other. She positioned herself on the couch with her legs tucked under her.

"Yeah, he never was the same after he came back," agreed Boone.

Cathy pulled a photo from the pile she was holding. "Here he is about six months ago." Cathy headed to the refrigerator for a beer and Boone gave her a disapproving glance.

Birdy stared at the image of Andrew Beckwith captured on film. He was in good physical shape and retained his youthful handsomeness, but there was no color in his face and his eyes were vacantly blank.

"I asked Beck about a year ago when the last time he was happy," Boone revealed. "He said the night we graduated from high school."

"It was supposed to be the beginning of the rest of our lives," said a thoughtful Cathy, returning to the couch with her beer.

"It was the beginning of the end of his," Boone replied.

"Father Fitz says he's at peace now." Cathy was comforted by the thought.

"Father Fitz?" A surprised Birdy glanced at the bemused Boone.

"Clark Fitzgerald!" Boone confirmed with amusement. "He's a priest! Finally got assigned to St. Anthony's about five years ago."

"I remember him telling dirty jokes in the cafeteria in 8th grade," Cathy said.

"He brought a Playboy into the locker room once," added Boone.

"They aren't born priests, guys," Birdy reminded his former classmates.

Cathy showed Birdy photographs of the family. She and Boone would celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 10 months. The couple had three children – the oldest (Chris) was 23 and worked with Boone in the business. Gary was 20 and away at college. Arianna was still at home, a junior in high school.

"When I think of the stuff we were doing at her age, I want to lock her in her room!" Boone admitted.

"Okay, Birdy, time to play trivia pursuit," Cathy said, tossing the yearbook to him. "Don't you want to hear the update? It's been thirty fuckin' years for Christ sakes."

"You mean, there's more besides a dead Beckwith and a priest Fitzgerald?" Birdy joked. He flipped open the yearbook and saw Mr. Bennington's picture staring back at him from the dedication page. It was nice to see his face again. "Is Mr. Bennington still dead?"

"Last time I checked," confirmed Boone.

Birdy flipped to the senior pages. He had forgotten how they looked back then with their long hair, afros, bell-bottom jeans, platform shoes, "burr shirt" tee-shirts, and motorcycle wire-rimmed glasses. He examined the senior class photos, photographs he hadn't seen in a lifetime and got the update and run down from the Reynolds'.

Ellie Bagwell was married, lived in Hartford, and worked as a physical therapist. Bink Baxter was a disgraced and forgotten school sports hero. Married and divorced from fellow athlete Denise Daniels, Bink was scandalized in a fraud case while working as a Controller for a local corporation and had been bouncing around dead end jobs ever since. His ex-wife Denise, meanwhile, remarried a successful business man and was still in great shape. She jogged by the Reynolds house every day much to Cathy's disgust.

Noreen Bozeman married a lawyer and lived in Maine. Blythe Burks was a successful network executive in New York City. Lisa Downing was still in charge, running her own cleaning business, married with five kids. Bryanna Gleason had her share of problems – a marriage that went bad early and health issues including a rumored eating disorder. Phil Golinski, out of the closet for several years, was the owner and operator of the former Johnson Book Store downtown. Tag Hendrix made it big – earning millions as the owner of a greeting card company in Rhode Island. Beatrice Homendale was happily married and worked as a librarian at Blue County Community College. Molly Loomis was divorced and worked as a hairdresser. Zoey married some rich French guy for a while and was now a divorced writer living on Long Island. Sarah Johns had been ill for quite some time, married to a former college professor who now ran a local charter school. Georgie Porgie owned the Donnelly-Nolan Funeral Home. Jaynee Leary married some guy from Houston and moved to Texas. Duston was a big-wheel lawyer in Washington D.C, married with a couple of kids. Sammy Boy Provost never made it to pro ball, washing out of the minors after a couple of years and currently lived in California. Former town slut Ellen Thurbert was a born again Christian, living a saintly life - married to a minister with a parish in Mt. Griffin. Todd Vose worked in maintenance for the school department. Cathy's old pal Deb Wallace was divorced and worked as a waitress in Greenville.

Birdy turned to the sports section and got the update on the names and faces on those pages. Joe Jock Bonds was married and lived on his wife's family farm in South County, managing a small grocery store. Dan Bailey died in a car accident 15 years earlier. Mollie McAdams was a drunk and a bum, usually homeless when he wasn't in jail. Last time Boone saw poor Mollie, he was drying cars at a car wash for tips. Billy the Asshole Aldrich was "Billy the Good" these days, a vice president with the local utility company, married with three great kids, coaching little league, involved in the church, politically active, popular and well liked in the community. Cade Simpson was a divorced self-employed computer geek who owned his own local internet service. Gossip claimed his wife cheated on him to end the marriage. Torch Johnson worked in the mills. Doug Phelps was a banker. Barry Schwink taught and was the head football coach at Riverside High. Dan Garvin was a self-employed electrician. Moondog Currie was a local radio personality who still played guitar at public events. Mel Krondecki died in college from a drug overdose. Sunday Simmons owned the former Reed's Creamie, now known as "Sunday's Sundaes". Frank Bourbren beat his adolescent cancer and was a doctor in the medical building downtown.

Birdy flipped to the faculty page. Soupy the not-so-super-superintendent died of a heart attack several years ago. Principal Dunce Dodson stroked out and checked out too. The Hammer was alive and retired, active in town politics and volunteer work. Lucky Taylor became UnLucky Taylor, having wasted away to cancer, the victim of too many stogies. Mr. Fudge had also passed away, felled by a brain tumor. The long retired Coach T. was still going strong, stopping by Johnny C.'s for dinner every night. (Johnny C. was still the owner of Johnny C's, but Mrs. Johnny C. had died a few years back. Rumors had been flying around for a while that Johnny was selling the place). Remarkably, theatre director Mrs. Dunham was still on the stage of life, presently residing at the Blue County Nursing Home.

"Did Prelog win any state titles?" Birdy asked, staring at the chilling photo of his long ago abuser.

"Na," Boone said, shaking his head with dismay. "The asshole finally got run a couple of years after we finished. The team wasn't winning and complaints about his methods finally began to stick."

"He owns the fitness center downtown," said Cathy. "His wife divorced him about the same time he got canned from the school. He married some floozy after that."

"Coach T got his old job back," reported Boone. "He won a couple more championships."

Birdy was perversely glad to learn The Panther failed to become a thirty-year legend at Hillsboro High School and it was satisfying to know that Prelog washed out as coach. Hopefully not too many others had to pay the tough price Birdy paid.

Birdy returned his attention to the yearbook and saw his beloved teacher staring up from the page at him.

"Ms. Marceline?" He asked, still playing dead or alive, but never expecting that beautiful Danielle could possibly be deceased.

"Dead," Boone replied.

Birdy looked at him, dumbfounded. "What?"

"Cancer. About five years ago," offered Cathy.

Birdy stared at Ms. Marceline's beautiful picture in the yearbook. "But she wasn't that old," he croaked despondently.

His hosts were surprised by Birdy's emotional reaction. "You okay, Birdy?" Cathy asked.

His eyes filled with tears. "She was a very good teacher," he said.

"Jesus, Birdy. You got it bad," observed Boone.

"She married a few years after you left," Cathy said softly. "Nice guy from Greenville."

"That's good to know," Birdy said, wiping a tear away. "What about her daughter?"

"I'm not sure," Cathy admitted with a shrug.

The shock of Ms. Marceline's death left him bummed to the max and he closed the yearbook. "I don't want to do this anymore."

"Wait a minute, Birdy," Cathy protested. "You haven't asked the $64,000 question yet."

"Well, we can't talk about all 107 kids in our class," Birdy reasoned. "We'll be here 'till midnight."

"I was thinking of just one kid," Cathy replied.

"Come on, Birdman. We know you want to know," Boone said.

"Okay, okay. So, how's Lauren White doing anyway?"

"I'm talking about Cassie!" Cathy groaned.

"Cassie who?" Birdy tried to sound as carefree and disinterested as possible.

"Cassie Zoar," revealed Boone.

"She's married?" Birdy tried not to sound disappointed. He was expecting such news – a beautiful girl like Cassie was sure to marry – but it was tough hearing it for real.

"Some guy from college," confirmed Cathy.

"At least it wasn't Sam," Birdy rationalized.

"He's a big sports radio dude in Boston," explained Boone. "Soar with Billy Zoar!"

"Cassie teaches," added Cathy. "They have a couple of kids."

"I'm happy for her," Birdy said, faking a smile and trying not to choke over the lump in his throat. "Sounds like she's doing well." He really was glad for her – she deserved the best. He just felt sorry for himself, even after thirty years.

"What about you, Birdy?" wondered Boone. "You didn't waste these years because of her, did you?"

"The Navy's a tough place for successful relationships," was the Sailor's rationale. "But I did okay."

"You're not with someone now?" asked Cathy.

"Not really." He decided not to mention Tamara, his married boss.

After listening to the litany of his former classmates and their marriages and kids, Birdy realized he lived his disconnected life to the fullest extent possible. He had plenty of relationships with plenty of wonderful women, but none of them lasted more than a few years. Had he wasted all these years because of Cassie? Had he accomplish anything after all this time?

"We've been adults for twice as long as we were kids together," Birdy told the Reynolds', holding up the yearbook. "Does any of this stuff really matter anymore?"

"It shaped our lives," Cathy explained. "It was a shared experience that had a lot to do with who we are now."

His old friends asked about his Navy career and Birdy told them about his various tours and career choices. He trained as a Navy cook (Mess Management Specialist) and served twenty eight years, including tours in Jacksonville, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; Guam; Diego Garcia; Great Lakes; San Diego; Washington, D.C.; and Bremerton, WA, and had tours on three different aircraft carriers, advancing all the way to Master Chief Petty Officer. Birdy threw in a couple of juicy sea stories to make it sound like he lived a life of intrigue and excitement, especially when he was stationed in DC and met important people, including the President.

"Hey, we should go out," suggested Cathy, having polished off three beers and one mixed drink since Birdy's arrival.

"I'm beat," Boone replied, stifling a fake yawn.

"Well, me and Birdy can go out," an undeterred Cathy said.

"I'm pretty jet lagged," Birdy lied, picking up on Boone's lead.

Cathy stared at Birdy and shook her head. "What kind of Sailor are you?"

"That's enough, Cathy." It was an order from her husband.

She stood with a dramatic flair. "Okay, fine. Nice to see you again, Birdy. Catch you in another thirty fuckin' years." She left the room in an obvious huff.

"I try to keep her in at night," Boone explained. "Keeps her out of trouble."

"It's okay," Birdy replied.

"I grew up with a drunk and now I'm married to one," sighed Boone. "Can you beat that?"

Birdy shrugged, not sure how to respond to Boone's situation. "I haven't seen you smoke."

"Gave it up about ten years ago," Boone reported. "Got tired of hacking up a lung every morning. Got a stint put in a few years back. Don't drink no more neither."

"Good for you."

"I got a full day tomorrow, but maybe we can meet for breakfast at Johnny C.'s?" Boone asked.

"Sure, sure," Birdy agreed. They stood and Boone gave his old friend a grateful gaze. "Thanks for coming back, Birdy. Beck would have appreciated it."

"Thanks for tracking me down."

"Sorry about Ms. Marceline. I didn't know you had the hots for her."

"Yeah," he sighed.

"Sometimes, it all seems like a lifetime ago," Boone said as he walked Birdy to his car.

"High school, you mean?"

"Christ, I'm a middle aged guy with a pretty good business going." He gestured to the new houses on the Maple Street extension. "But sometimes I wish I was back there trying to beat Greenville one last time."

"We would have won Senior Year if Coach T. was in charge," Birdy theorized. "That was a great team."

"We'll never know though, will we?" sighed Boone.

"We know in our guts," Birdy stated confidently.

He left Boone standing in the middle of Maple Street and drove into the night, overwhelmed by what he had learned, especially the news of poor Ms. Marceline. Danielle. His best teacher! He was glad that she found love and married, but he wished God could have granted her a longer life.

Birdy swung past the Emerson house on Hilltop Avenue, wondering where Bunny and Joanie were these days. The big old Victorian house must feel empty for Mr. and Mrs. Emerson with the kids long gone and he was surprised they still lived in the big house.

Wow. He and his old classmates were now older than their parents were when he was in high school. That was a mind-boggling realization for Birdy as he sat in his car parked across the street from the Emerson house remembering the times he secretly visited the house, just to see if Cassie's bedroom light was still on. He'd climb a tree and sit for hours. Not stalking. Not being a peeping tom. Just watching out for Cassie to make sure everything was okay.

Now she was married with children, living a good and happy life. And he still loved her, thirty years later. Just as he knew he would.

An emotionally spent Birdy returned to the motel. It was after midnight in Hillsboro, but it was only 9:00 on the west coast and Birdy decided to call Tamara for some grounding after his whirlwind day of lost memories and forgotten ghosts.

"Hi, Tammy," he said when he heard her "Hello?" on the other end of the line.

"Bobby?" She sounded like she was in the next room.

"Do you miss me?"

She laughed. "It's only been 18 hours."

"Seems like 18 years," he replied, overwhelmed by his Hillsboro return.

"How's it going?"

"It's like stepping into a Twilight Zone episode," he said. "Ben there?"

"Down closing up," she answered.

"What are you doing?"

"Eating Oreos," she said with a giggle.

"What are you wearing?"

"Bobby! Did you fly all the way across the country just so you could have phone sex with me?"

"No, no, no." He was flustered that she took it that way. "I was just trying to picture you in my mind."

"Are you glad you went back?"

"Tell me what you're wearing and I'll answer the question," he joked.

"Answer the question and I'll tell you I'm naked," she teased, but they both got quiet realizing she had stepped over the invisible line.

"Did you have a high school love?" Birdy asked, mostly to fill in the awkward silence.

"Ben!" She was amused by her own answer.

"Nobody else?"

"No," she sighed. "It was always Ben. Maybe that's part of the problem."

"I didn't recognize the house I grew up in."

"I'm glad you thought to call me tonight," she replied, not caring about the Hillsboro report.

"It's nice to hear your voice," he admitted. "It's kind of lonely here."

"Will you call me tomorrow night?" She asked hopefully.

"Sure."

"Then I'll let you go for now," she replied. "I know how much motels charge for long distance."

"Goodnight, Tamara".

"Goodnight," she whispered. The line went dead.

He fell back on the bed and closed his eyes. Would his disconnected life follow him forever?

Chapter 37

The front desk rang at 6:15 with the wake up call Birdy requested. He "shit, showered and shaved" as they say in the Navy, though he didn't shave much anymore with the beard.

Birdy parked his car in front of Johnny C's and watched customers coming and going. He might have recognized a few faces, though he wasn't sure after thirty years.

A "Boone the Builder" pick-up truck pulled into the parking lot and Boone emerged, wearing jeans, a tool belt, a "Boone the Builder" Sweatshirt, orange "shit kicker' work boots, and a Boston Red Sox ball cap covering his domed head.

Birdy met him at the front door. "Don't say anything," he warned Boone.

"Huh?" A confused Boone looked blankly at his old friend.

"No big announcement. No trivia pursuit questions," Birdy requested.

"It's been thirty fuckin' years, Birdman," Boone reminded him. "Most of the folks you knew in there are either dead or forgot about you a long time ago. Christ, you weren't that important."

A chagrined Birdy grinned, having been put in his place by the local townie.

Johnny C's was in a permanent time capsule and it was hard to notice anything different from the last time Birdy was there. The same historic photographs of the town still decorated the walls, along with the mandatory yearly photos of the various high school sports teams and the little league teams Johnny C. sponsored The Panther's Milwaukee Bucks Portrait and framed shirt still hung on the wall over the counter, along with a young Sam Provost in some minor league uniform.

Birdy was surprised to see a photograph of him standing between Mr. and Mrs. Johnny C. on one of the far walls. Everything else was the same. A new soda machine, maybe. A few other minor changes he couldn't place, but the menu was the same. The uniforms were the same. The counter was the same. It smelled the same. Tasted the same. Sounded the same. Felt the same. Everything was the same!

Boone led Birdy to a couple of stools at the counter and Birdy buried his face in the menu, afraid he might be found out.

"Hi ya, Kid."

He looked up to see a middle aged waitress standing on the other side of the counter holding an order pad and wearing a café tee-shirt.

"Becky!"

"Can you believe it, Kid?" she laughed. "I went to college and still ended up back here!"

Becky Chapman was in her early fifties and wore her faded blonde hair in a ponytail. Her jowls hung a bit, she wore reading glasses, and she appeared tired, but she was still the Becky he remembered.

"How are you? Birdy asked.

She held up her finger to show the ring. "Third time's a charm!" she announced.

He studied her for a moment. "How come you never said goodbye when you left for college?"

She burst out laughing. "Oh, I knew I'd break your heart, kid."

Boone and Birdy placed their orders and Becky moved on to the other customers. She was still her friendly, outgoing, talkative self, greeting everybody by first names and talking about last night's sport scores.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Boone joked.

"You have competition?" Birdy asked, gesturing toward his Boone The Builder logo.

"Dalton Construction is still big in Greenville," he said. "We're the two biggest. Lots of small independent guys around, but they aren't a threat."

"You've done good, Boone."

"Everything would be great if I could get Cathy straightened out," he confessed.

"Give it time. Maybe Beck's demise will scare her into getting help."

A miniature version of Boone walked through the door and sat at the empty stool to Birdy's left. The kid had the same build, facial features, and grin as Boone, plus a lot more hair!

"Here's Chris." Boone introduced his son. "This is Birdy Braft."

"The legendary Birdy Braft?" Chris was genuinely glad to meet him. He took Birdy's hand in an earnest shake. "Dad told me all about you. Frank Butler, right?"

"Your dad was a better Buffalo Bill," Birdy replied.

Chris ordered coffee and eggs.

"You knew Beck, right?" Chris asked.

"He was one of us," Birdy confirmed. "Funniest guy I've met in my life."

"I didn't think he was funny," Chris admitted.

"You didn't know him like we did," Boone pointed out.

"Man, I still can't believe it," Chris said, shaking his head. "We just had breakfast with him in here about a week ago, huh Dad?"

"Yeah. I think that was the last time I saw him." Boone was subdued.

"No note?" Birdy asked.

"Nobody's saying," Boone replied.

"They're doing a psychological autopsy." The guy on the other side of Boone spoke up. "You know, try to figure out his last few days, what he did, what he said. How he looked. That sort of stuff."

"Thanks, Ralph," Boone replied.

"You guys went to school with my big sister," Ralph told Birdy. "Liz Forrest?"

"Oh sure, Liz," Birdy replied, nodding his head. "Nice girl." Birdy peered at him. "Weren't you a boy scout?"

"You threw me in mud puddle in my uniform one time when I was a cub scout," Ralph confirmed.

"Sorry about that," Birdy sighed, disappointed to be reminded about his ugly years.

Ralphie Forrest was a cute little kid who had the misfortune of crossing Birdy's path one day when the jerk wasn't in the mood for cuteness. It had rained the night before and Birdy tossed the poor kid into a mud paddy for no particular reason other than he felt like it. Ralphie was covered from head to toe in slime and went home in tears.

"What do you do now, Ralph?" Birdy politely asked.

"Deliver oil," he said, gesturing to the Ryan Oil Company uniform he was wearing. He was husky with long hair and a frizzle moustache.

"And Liz?"

"Hospice care giver."

"Tell her I said hi," said Birdy.

"You were a mean bastard," Ralph told him, standing and tossing some bills onto the counter.

"I know," Birdy replied. There wasn't much else to say.

There was awkward silence as Ralph left the dinner.

"You can never escape your past," Birdy stated when Ralph was gone. "That's why I didn't come back," he said to Boone. "There are a hundred Ralphs out there."

"Maybe," Boone agreed. "But there are also a hundred Frank Boubrens with bald heads, and Beatrices' getting a dance," he reminded his friend. "You weren't always a dickhead."

"Anybody else from the old days still work here?" Birdy asked Becky when she brought their breakfast order.

"Are you crazy?" She looked at him with disbelief. "Me and Johnny C are the only ones dumb enough to hang around this long!"

"Well, it sure is good to see you, Becky," the sentimental Birdy admitted.

"You too, kid," she said. "Sorry about your friend."

"Yeah."

She turned her attention to Boone the Builder. "So, Boone. I'm still waiting for my dream house. What about it?"

"I'm working on the plans right now," he mumbled as he ate his breakfast.

Birdy listened to the conversations around him, the friendly banter with – and between – the staff, debates about politics, sports, local issues, and general questions about family and events. It was a lot like the Roadhouse back in Ellensburg, but with a more familiar flare. He grew up here.

Chris was talking across Birdy to his father, asking for his dad's advice on a problem with his wife.

"I've only been married a year," Chris explained to Birdy. "It's still pretty strange not being able to leave my socks on the floor."

"Just say 'Yes, Dear,'" Boone told his son. "That's the best way to handle anything."

"Gee Dad, I've never heard you say 'Yes, Dear' to Mom."

"And look at us," replied Boone. "Don't make the same mistake!"

"What do you think, Birdy?" Chris asked.

"I've never been married," Birdy said with a shrug. "What do I know?"

"Well, you've had girlfriends, haven't you?"

"Sure."

"How many?" Chris wondered.

"More than I needed, less than I wanted," the Navy man answered. "Socks never came up."

"We're burning daylight," Boone announced. "Let's get to work."

"Tell Johnny C. I'll come back later," Birdy said to Becky when they paid the bill.

"He'll be tickled to see you."

"Catch up with you later?" Boone asked as they exited the café.

"Sure," Birdy said. "I'll be around."

Boone frowned as they walked through the parking lot. "Never found Cassie in any of those girlfriends of yours, did you?"

Birdy shrugged. "I've lived a pretty disconnected life, Boone."

He was on his own once Boone's pickup truck sped off carrying the construction owner to his work day. Birdy wondered what in hell he was supposed to do with his time, feeling like a lost tourist in a foreign land. He heard the church bells of St. Anthony's and decided to walk along Main Street toward the church. There was an eight o'clock Mass and he might just as well catch a glimpse of Father Fitzgerald on the pulpit.

Birdy had only been in the church three times – the Christmas Eve Mass with Officer Mike, and the funerals for Clark's brother and Mr. Bennington. St. Anthony's was an impressively large red bricked structure with ornate fixtures, paintings, lighting, and pillars. Birdy sat in a pew five rows from the front altar and found himself praying as he waited for the Mass to begin. He wasn't the praying type, but he prayed for Beck and for Ms. Marceline and for his father. He also prayed for himself, asking God to help him figure out what to do with his life.

Father Fitzgerald looked impressive in his vestments when he emerged from the sacristy to celebrate Mass. The priest spoke well – loud and clear – with a noticeable passion in his voice as he recited the various prayers and offerings. He read the Gospel with authority and presented his Homily with confidence and style. Birdy was happy that Clark had found his calling. He wore his gray hair unusually long for a priest and had a bit of a gut on him, but he was still good looking and had a serine presence about him.

Birdy remained in the pew after Mass ended, still feeling the need to pray to God. He stared at the Statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and asked for advice, though it was strange to be in a Roman Catholic Church as a non-Catholic asking Jesus for help. He had to admit he felt comforted by a peaceful and quiet serenity as he sat in the now empty church.

Father Fitzgerald, dressed in his black priest garb with white collar, came out of the sacristy, genuflected in front of the tabernacle, then stepped off the altar and slipped into Birdy's pew. .

"I wasn't sure if I was seeing a ghost or an angel out here," Father Fitzgerald said with a grin, shaking Birdy's hand.

"I'm glad you didn't think I was the devil," Birdy replied.

The priest laughed. He wore aftershave that smelled like holy water.

"What do I call you?" Birdy asked. "Clark? Father? Hey you?"

"Most call me Father Fitz," the priest replied, amused that Birdy hadn't lost his sense of humor.

"Good to see you, Father."

"Surprised to see me like this?"

"When I first heard, yeah," Birdy admitted. "But when I thought about it, it made perfect sense."

"How are you, Birdy?" The priest asked with concern.

Birdy shrugged, wondering if could trust his old basketball teammate as his confessor. "I spent last night listening to Boone and Cathy Reynolds' update on the people I used to know here," he reported.

"You've been gone a long time."

"Coming back makes me realize how alone I've been all these years," Birdy admitted.

"Isn't that why you left?"

"My life has been a mess no matter where I've been," he said. "Has been since I was eight."

"You really haven't been alone," Father Fitz advised. "You chose to be alone. God has always been with you; you just weren't listening." The priest looked at him with interest. "You never married?"

Birdy shook his head no.

"No serious relationship?"

"I had a great career in the Navy, Father," Birdy told him. "Why do I feel like a failure?"

"Because you never came to terms with what you were running from," the priest answered. "In all the years you were out sailing the seven seas, did you ever once think about God?"

The Sailor looked at the priest and shrugged. "What for?"

"Birdy, you have the free will to make whatever choices you wish to make," the priest said. "Through the Grace of God, I'm living a life worthy of Jesus."

"I ran into a guy this morning who remembers me because I pushed him into a mud puddle when he was seven years old," sighed Birdy. "How worthy is that?"

"All of us have done things we aren't proud of," said the Priest. "The good news is it's never too late to find redemption."

Father Fitz raised his hand above Birdy's head. "Lord of all men, I ask you to free this man's mind and heart from the pain and disappointment of his past. Dear God, help Birdy master his emotions that he surrenders to you, My Lord My King. I ask that you help Birdy strengthen his heart and soul so he will know that the only thing that really matters is your Love. I know you brought him here for a reason and I ask for your assistance in helping lead Birdy to faith renewed, hope restored and love revived."

Birdy had never heard anybody pray for him before and he felt chills running down his spine. "I've spent the last forty years of my life asking myself what if?" He told Father Fitz.

"What if what?"

"What if my father hadn't died?"

"And what answer did you come up with?"

"Oh, a lot of fantasy stuff," he admitted. "A happy childhood. A perfect family. Love. A successful high school basketball career. Staying here in Hillsboro, raising a family, working at Johnny C.'s. That sort of stuff."

"It's not what if – it's what now," Father Fitz told him. "What do I do now that I feel lost? What do I do now to become a better person? What do I do now to prepare for Jesus? What do I do now to make myself feel better? What do I do now to get closer to God?"

"Is all your advice and answers going to involve God and Jesus?"

"I'm a priest, Birdy," he said with a smile. "It's my job!" Father Fitz peered at him. "How come you could never commit to a relationship?"

Birdy's head dropped down in sad defeat. "Cassie."

"Cassie?" Father Fitz was surprised. "Wow. Still?"

"She was the one right from the start."

"She's gone," the priest informed him. "You must let her go."

"I know," he admitted.

"She's why you bailed out of Hillsboro, isn't it? Escaping her was your only mission in life, wasn't it?"

"Yeah." He looked at the priest with sadness. "But I never really left, did I?"

"I don't think so. You were looking for the wrong answers. When our relationship with God takes its proper place as the number one priority of our life, we experience changes in our thinking," the priest explained. "You couldn't see clearly because your vision was blurred by values and priorities that led you away."

"From God?"

"All that God has to give comes when we listen to and follow Him," reported Father Fitz with a peacefulness that put Birdy at ease. "We have the mercy and grace of God, but we often choose that which is destructive and life defeating. Humankind, it seems, is spiritually self-destructive."

"My mother stopped believing in God when my father died," Birdy said

"I started believing in God when my brother died," Father Fitz countered.

"How come people lose their faith?" Birdy wanted to know.

"Other things block out the message," Father Fitz explained. "They forget or ignore what they were taught. Or they think they know it all. Or they just plain don't get it. You paid the price for the sins of your mother who failed to provide you with a spiritual life."

"Has it been weird for you, coming back?" A curious Birdy wondered.

"It's been a privilege to give back to so many people who were part of my life growing up," Father Fitz replied. "I am their pastor now. What better gift is there than that?"

"You can't go out drinking with the guys or be seen being a jerk around town."

"A small price to pay in comparison, don't you think?" Father Fitz asked. "You can come home too, you know."

"What for? All there is here now are painful old ghosts."

"We all get second chances, Birdy," said Father Fitz. "God the Father is always patiently waiting for us. Every night when we go to sleep, we should ask ourselves what we did with our life today. Was I constructive or was my time wasted? Did I enrich my soul and honor God? Did people see Jesus in me? Did I love others as Jesus loves me?"

"So, if I just find God, I'll be okay is what you're trying to tell me," a cynical Birdy grumbled.

"The root of your problem is a lack of spirituality, a distance from Jesus," Father Fitz told him. "You're a great guy, Birdy. I witnessed it first hand. I'll never forget what you did for Frankie B. I know you've tried to do good in your life. But you've lived your life without meaning. You have no soul"

The realization left Birdy feeling empty and there was a momentary pause while Birdy considered the priest's perspective. Then he remembered why he was back in the first place. "What about Beck?" he asked Father Fitz.

"A real shame."

"Do you believe he's in heaven?"

"I know he's in heaven," the priest replied.

"Even though he took God's gift by killing himself?"

"He wasn't himself," Father Fitz explained. "God will forgive him for that."

The priest glanced at his wristwatch. "I gotta go, Birdy," he announced apologetically, standing and offering his hand. "It's been great chatting with you. I hope you'll find your way back while you're here."

Birdy wasn't sure what the priest meant. Back home to Hillsboro? Back to God? Back to himself?

"Come talk any time," Father Fitz advised. "I'd like to help you."

"Sure, Father." Birdy nodded to him. "Thanks for the ear, Clark. I appreciate your concern and compassion."

"Think about what I said, Birdy," the priest urged. "You need to find the answers so you don't waste the next thirty years of your life."

"Yeah." That much Birdy knew. He remained at the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for a long time after Father Fitz left.

Chapter 38

Birdy eventually left the church, forced out by a parish volunteer who wanted to lock the building. He walked along Main Street to retrieve his car at Johnny C's, but stopped when he reached the storefront of Johnson's Book Store.

Old Man Johnson loved books. The place was packed with them when Birdy was a kid. The old man bought, traded, and sold books. He had new books. Old books. Used Books. Out of print books. Rare books. Birdy always liked the feel of the place – rustic, crowded. There'd be books piled everywhere. On shelves. On tables. On the floor.

Old Man Johnson constantly had music playing on a beat up old stereo. He was a big guy and he'd sit behind the counter in a Captain's chair watching over the sea of books. The most amazing thing about the old man was that he seemed to know where every book in the store was. If you went in and said 'I'm looking for a copy of Stuart Little', he'd say 'back row, fourth shelf'. And he'd be right!

Phil Golinski owned the store now, which is why Birdy was there. The windows were new, with modern etched writings of "Johnson's Book Store" across the panes. Mr. Johnson always had fliers, posters, advertisements, and other junk stuck all over the glass, so much so that you couldn't even see into the store. But now the windows were clear of clutter, with just a few small flyers in the corner.

The big old wood front door to the store was gone, replaced by a modern glass business door that easily swung open and shut. Once inside, it was like being in a completely different shop from the one of Birdy's childhood. The store was neat and orderly, with no books on the floor. There was a carpet with some armchairs and tables for people to sit. The store still possessed a unique charm, but there was also a tidy and antiseptic look that seemed out of place. Johnson's beat up old counter was gone, replaced by a small desk with an office chair behind it.

A bell jingled when Birdy opened the door. He was the only customer in the place and a guy came out of the back room wearing khaki trousers and a Hawaiian shirt. He wore spectacles, had an earring in his right ear, with his long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"Can I help you?" The proprietor asked.

"Do you have 'The Mouse and The Motorcycle' by Beverly Clearly?" Birdy asked.

"Let's look," he said, but then he stopped and peered at the customer. "Well, I'll be," he said, grinning as the recognition came to him. "It's Birdy Braft."

"Hi, Phil," he replied, accepting his hand. "Good to see you."

"You came back for Beck," a moved Phil stated. "How gracious of you."

"What happened to Mr. Johnson?"

"Dead. The landlord didn't know what to do with 10 million books, so I took the business over. It's been twenty years now. I live in the apartment upstairs"

"You certainly organized the place."

"I always was a neat freak," he confessed with a self-mocking laugh. "I couldn't handle the clutter." Phil gestured to the chairs and invited Birdy to sit.

"It's great to see you, Birdy," a happy Phil said, taking a seat next to him. "I've often thought about you."

"I came to apologize."

He laughed. "For what?"

"For all the gay and homophobic crap we put you through in high school."

"Oh, so you heard I'm the token gay guy of our class," Phil said with a nod.

"Yeah, and I feel bad about all that stuff."

"That was high school, don't worry about it" dismissed Phil. "I never took it personally."

"It must have been tough hearing Boone Reynolds say 'What are you a homo?' every other day."

"Actually, it was pretty funny. He got good at delivering that line."

"Sorry nobody was there for you."

"Lauren White was," Phil revealed. "But it was tough back then. There's all sorts of teen gay and lesbian services and agencies now. Back then, it was unheard of. You just kept it to yourself."

"I can only imagine." But, in truth, Birdy really had no idea.

"I almost told you once," Phil confessed.

"Oh yeah?" Birdy was surprised to hear the revelation.

"During the play," said Phil. "The night you got beat up and were down on yourself. I wanted to tell you that you could deal with anything. Just like me."

"What about Prelog?"

Phil fell back in his chair as though he had been shot. "What about him?"

"What happened……." And then Birdy knew. "Holy shit, he found out, didn't he? That's why you quit the team."

Phil looked stricken. "I hate that son of a bitch."

"How'd he find out?"

"Best I can figure, he must have overheard me and Lauren talking," Phil theorized. "That 's the only way he could have known. I didn't tell anyone else."

"You sure Lauren kept your secret?"

"Of course. She had the same secret."

"What did Prelog do?"

. "He called me into his office a couple of days before junior year season started. Said he wasn't going to have any pecker checkers in his locker room. Didn't need any faggots playing for him."

"I'm sorry, Phil."

"I kept waiting for him to tell everybody." Panic was in Phil's voice, even now thirty-two years later. "He never did. Don't know why, really."

"He had his own secrets to worry about."

"The Panther said he could spot queers a mile away, but I didn't believe him. He found out somehow."

"Sorry you didn't play those last two years."

"Summer basketball was good enough."

"It must have been hell living in constant fear of Prelog outing you."

"You had it worse," Phil replied. "I really admired your for hanging in until the end."

"And now you sell books." Birdy was happy that everything worked out for his old friend and stage manager.

"It's a quaint little business," Phil said with a contented smile. "My parents helped me financially to get it going. But I'm doing pretty well. I've developed a cliental and a reputation. People come from all over."

"That's great, Phil."

"And you? Navy, right?"

"Twenty eight years. Retired a couple of years ago."

"We're too young to be retired!" Phil laughed. "Where you living?"

"Washington State."

"Married?"

"Na. You?"

He laughed. "I was in a long term committed relationship, thanks. I'm single, presently."

"And it's been okay for you? Staying in town?"

"As a gay person, you mean? Yeah. Some keep away. Others don't care. Father Fitz is a regular, God Bless him. Boone comes in a lot. He still doesn't know what to say. Beck couldn't deal with it."

"From what I understand, Beck couldn't deal with anything," Birdy observed.

"A real tragedy, what happened," said Phil. "But we didn't get along."

"What about Prelog?"

"He stays on his side of the street, I stay on mine."

The door opened and a customer entered the book store.

"I should move along," Birdy told Phil as they both stood. "You've got a business to run."

Phil shook his hand again. "Thanks for dropping in, Birdy. It means a lot."

Birdy nodded and left the store. Birdy didn't understand homosexuality, mostly because he loved women. Plenty of them in his lifetime! But what he really didn't understand was the homophobic hysteria that clouded the debate. He saw guys in the Navy drummed out for telling when somebody asked, good Sailors who worked hard and did nothing wrong. They kept their sexuality private and their sex in the bedroom. But they were shamed, ridiculed and driven out. Yet womanizing drunks got a free pass, sexual politics in the workplace was tolerated, and people looked the other way when harassment was taking place. Such attitudes made no sense to Birdy who always tried to be ethical and honorable throughout his career.

A female Sailor came to Chief Braft once and said she was afraid to take a shower because she heard a woman co-worker was gay and might attack her in the shower. A perplexed Birdy reminded this individual that assault is assault, no matter what the sexual preference of the attacker happened to be. In the Navy, Sailors follow codes of conduct and those are the standards they answer to – character, behavior, and ethical choices. Sexual orientation was irrelevant as long as expected norms were respected.

Birdy walked along Hillsboro's Main Street checking out the windows of the various businesses. He stepped into Hill's Barber Shop to see if Mr. Bonds was still around, though he had to be in his seventies by now. Four older guys waited for a cut and two women were working the chairs.

"Hello," one of the barbers greeted with a friendly demeanor.

"Hi," he replied. "I was just checking to see if the guy who ran this place when I was a kid was still around."

"Mr. Bonds?" the first cutter asked.

"That's the guy."

"I'm sorry," she replied with sensitivity. "He passed away several years ago."

"Dropped dead almost exactly where you're standing, Braft."

Birdy turned to the row of waiting chairs to see a guy looking at him. He had a newspaper over his face when Birdy first came in, but had dropped it to reveal his identity. He was wearing a three-piece suit and had a pocket watch in his vest.

"Where's your baton, Hammer?"

"I retired it when I retired," he said. "Kind of feels like I'm missing an arm!"

Birdy sat in the chair next to the former vice principal. Mr. Holdstein folded his paper and looked at his long lost student.

"Where've you been?"

"Navy."

"Came home for Beckwith?"

"Yeah. What happened to Mr. Bonds?"

"Massive coronary. Opened up one morning and dropped dead. Mailman found him."

"Man, everybody is turning up dead."

"People don't live forever," The Hammer reminded him. "How you like what the girls did to the place?"

The piles of magazines and comics that practically papered the place were gone. Two neat stacks of magazines were on a wall rack. There were games for children in one corner and a fancy checker/chess table-board in the opposite corner. Flowery framed paintings and knitted designs were on the wall. A new stereo system played FM music, replacing the old white Zenith on a counter that was always tuned in to Jim Knight all Day. The barbershop was domesticated and almost feminine in its appearance.

"Do you still give out tootsie rolls as treats?" Birdy asked the lady barbers.

"Granola bars now." The second haircutter spoke for the first time.

"That's un-American!" Birdy joked.

"Say hello to Stacy and Gerry." The Hammer said.

"How'd you guys end up here?" Birdy asked.

"Oh, I knew Rich," Stacy (the first barber) said. She was in her mid forties, hefty with tons of make up and jewelry, and a hairstyle that looked like she had a beehive on her head. "I worked for him. I was the first female barber in Blue County!"

"And I came a few years ago from Miller City," Gerry volunteered. She was in her early thirties, thin, wearing her blonde hair in a female butch style. She wore tattoos on her shoulder, neck and both wrists. "We're business partners."

"Took me awhile to get used to lady barbers," The Hammer admitted. "I don't mind now."

"Besides, Bigfoot still comes in on weekends or when one of us is on vacation," said Stacy.

Bigfoot was a part timer who filled in for Mr. Bonds. What was interesting about Bigfoot was that he never talked. What kind of Barber never talks?

"Hey, wait a minute," Stacy said, looking at the newcomer. "What did you say your name was?"

"I didn't."

"Well, Mr. Holdstein said Braft, right?"

"Birdy Braft," The Hammer confirmed.

"Rich loved telling that story about you coming in here and shaving your hair off for that sick kid," an excited Stacy revealed. "That was you, right?"

"That was him," confirmed The Hammer. "Craziest thing I ever saw."

"I was balder than you, Hammer!" grinned Birdy.

"That kid is Dr. Boubren now," The Hammer told the ladies.

"That's a great story," said Gerry.

Birdy stood. "Nice to see you again, Mr. Holdstein."

"You too, Braft. Welcome home."

Welcome Home? Birdy kept thinking about that as he walked along Main Street. Was he really home?

A car pulled along the side of the curb and the passenger door flew open.

"Get in," a voice ordered.

Birdy slid into the passenger seat of the unmarked cop car and said hello to Chief Kelly, who was behind the wheel wearing his police uniform with the chief insignias.

"I was a Chief too, Mike. In the Navy."

The cop's red hair was mostly gray now and he put on a few pounds, but Mike was in great shape and health, especially for a guy who had to be pushing 65 years of age.

"Not even a postcard, you prick." Kelly drove the car through town, just like the old days.

"Huh?"

"Not one fucking postcard in 30 years."

"Oh, yeah. Couldn't afford the stamps, Mike."

"You do good?"

"Made Master Chief. Had a good career."

"You're retired?"

"Yeah."

"Why didn't you come home, asshole?"

He thought about that question for a moment. "I'm not sure."

"What are you doing now?"

"Work in a diner."

"We have a diner here, moron."

"Oh yeah? Where?"

"You married?"

"Na."

"Kids?"

"Not that I know of," he joked.

"So, come home for Christ Sakes. Haven't you been gone long enough?"

"What happened to Beck?"

"He died."

The son of Bill Braft looked at the cop and frowned. "What happened to Beck?" he asked again.

"Sorry Birdy, I'm not at liberty to say," The Police Chief replied.

"It's me, Mike," Birdy reminded him.

"Look, confidentiality regulations restrict what I can say. Beck had problems. To the point he was unable to function. Let's just leave it at that."

"Damn," a frustrated Birdy complained.

"He was psychotic much of the last twenty years, Birdy," the cop revealed "It's been tough on all of us."

Officer Mike pulled the car into the driveway of his house. "The wife would love to see you."

The Kellys still lived in the same house. Mrs. Kelly greeted Birdy with a hug when they stepped into the kitchen. She remained attractive in her sixties, her gray hair in a bun exposing her wrinkleless face.

"I made some lunch," she said.

The three sat at the kitchen table and ate hoagies with chips and milk while Birdy entertained them with Navy stories. These two individuals were the closest thing Birdy had to parents growing up and he was happy to be with them again.

"The smartest guy I ever knew in the Navy killed himself," Birdy revealed "This guy had the most beautiful daughter you could imagine. Ten years old. And a lovely wife too. But Greg just couldn't get beyond his demons."

"We don't always know everything about our friends," Mike said.

"I'll remember the Andy who made us laugh," Birdy decided.

"Instead of the one who made us cry," agreed Mrs. Kelly.

"Of all the things that could have happened, this is one thing I never thought possible," Birdy sighed. ."Poor Beck."

"We still have your things in the cellar, if you want to look," Mrs. Kelly said as she began to clear the table

"Sure," he agreed.

"I'll come back later and get you," Officer Mike said. He headed for the door while Mrs. Kelly led Birdy to the cellar.

There were three covered plastic bins containing his belongings. The memories came rushing back as Birdy went through the bins. His yearbook was the first memento he picked up. A piece of paper slipped out of the back when he lifted it.

"The Girls of Birdy Braft." The list was in his own handwriting.

Bobbi Jo Sund.

Becky Chapman

Lucy Beckwith

Lisa Drowling

Jane Leary

Maggie

Red

Noreen Bozeman

Ellen Thurbert

Cassie Emerson (her name was underlined seven times).

Birdy had packed away his stuff before Ms. Marceline came to the house that last night, or her name would have been added to the list.

A program from Annie Get Your Gun was included in the collectables, signed by most of the cast members. Also: The play review from the newspaper. His father's obituary. Mr. Bennington's obituary. Curt Fitzgerald's obituary. The Bonnie and Clyde photo, cartoon drawings, and photo booth snapshots of Birdy and Noreen Bozeman from Hampton Beach. The scrapbook with all of Cassie Emerson's photographs. An essay he wrote for Ms. Marceline's class. His Joe's Pizza basketball jersey from summer league. A cocktail napkin from junior prom. A photograph of the senior year basketball team. A note Lucy Beckwith wrote to him one time. The program from Awards night. The program from Graduation night. A photo of his car. The insurance policy on his car from Mr. Emerson. A family photo of his parents, sister and him standing in front of their house. The photo of his dad in his baseball uniform. The cop portrait of his dad. A wedding photo of his parents. Darlene's sixth grade school picture – the last year they were close as brother and sister – the year their father died. A newspaper article and photo on Joe Jock Bonds. A tee shirt from Johnny C's. A listing of the Booster Day Court and escorts from sophomore year. His class schedule from junior year. A report card from 8th grade. The bill receipt from Taylor Rental when he rented the equipment to paint the Emerson's porch. His Driver's Ed. Notebook. A tootsie roll from Hill's Barber Shop – the one Mr. Bonds gave him when he shaved his head. The note Beatrice anonymously stuffed in his locker sophomore year. Joe Smith's Recruiter Business Card. The note Red left on his kitchen table that morning.

Mrs. Kelly returned to the cellar after an hour of Birdy's private walk down memory lane.

"It's amazing how your entire life can fit into a couple of boxes," he said as he sat on a wood crate staring at the mementos. "It's almost as if it was somebody else's life."

"Your life isn't just there in those boxes Birdy," Mrs. Kelly said. "It's in your heart and your soul too."

"Maybe."

"How come you never came back?"

"Everybody keeps asking me that," he said, embarrassed by the attention.

"What kept you away?" She was forceful in her tone.

He shoved his past back into the boxes. "Ghosts."

She helped put the boxes back on the shelves.

"Sometimes I wondered if you'd ever come back," Mrs. Kelly said after they had gone upstairs and sat in the living room. "Mike thinks of you as a son. He worried about you. You could have contacted us." There was tautness in her tone.

"I've been back less than twenty-four hours and I feel lost," he confessed, feeling vulnerable and confused as he slumped in his seat on the couch. "I thought my life was in order, but now I have no idea what I'm doing."

"You belong here, Birdy. This is your home."

"I've felt disconnected my whole life."

"Your connection is here," she reasoned. "Your roots are here. I don't hold it against you for leaving. You needed to go. You served your country. You saw the world. You healed yourself from the terrible things that happened to you here. Now it is time to come home."

Birdy sat in silence trying to figure out the truth. "I was rejected here," he told her.

"By whom?"

"My mother. My sister. My coach. A couple of girls."

"And what about all those who embraced you? Loved you? Cared for you?."

"There's a lot of hurt here."

"Did you take that hurt with you?" She asked point blank.

"Yeah."

"So what difference does it make where you are?" She challenged. "There's a lot of love here too, Birdy. If I can't convince you of that, then the hell with you."

Irritated, she stormed out of the room and it was the first time he could recall seeing Mrs. Kelly angry.

It never occurred to him that he caused other people pain with his absence. Maybe dropping out and not contacting anybody had been cruel, insensitive and pointless revenge on his part.

Upset that he had upset Mrs. Kelly, Birdy left the Kelly house and took a walk to try to figure out the truth. He recognized plenty of houses and remembered the names of families who lived in them. He wondered how many still resided in those homes. Many moved away, others died. New families replaced old ones and began writing their own Hillsboro memories. The family living in his old house probably never heard of the Brafts.

Could he start his life all over again? Was it possible to erase every ugly thing he ever did in his life? Could he start blissfully clean, innocently pretending that his life began yesterday? Should he stop beating himself up because he was once a mean bastard?

It was after two in the afternoon, the lunch crowd at Johnny C.'s had cleared out, and only a few customers were eating when Birdy stepped into the establishment. In another hour or so, the after school crowd and early dinner folks would start appearing.

Birdy wondered why Johnny C. kept Prelog's photo and Milwaukee Buck's uniform on the wall thirty-five years after the fact. He hated being greeted by The Panther's face every time he walked into the restaurant but The Panther would always be a celebrity in Hillsboro for his brief moment of glory.

Birdy spotted Johnny C seated at the counter, sipping a spoon from a bowl of soup and enjoying a few quiet moments during the business lull. The owner looked tuckered out from life.

The former bus boy walked behind the counter, grabbed the coffee pot and refreshed Johnny C's cup as if he were the customer and Birdy was the staff.

Johnny barely looked up. "Thanks, Birdy," he said, acting as though they had just seen each other yesterday.

"Excuse me, Sir, but customers aren't allowed behind the counter." One of the waitresses reprimanded Birdy. She was young, short and Asian, attractive but serious and authoritative.

"Relax, Claudia," Johnny C. told her. "That's the new owner."

"You're fired!" Birdy did his best Donald Trump impersonation and Claudia looked horrified, but Birdy smiled. "Just kidding," he assured her.

Johnny's white hair was thinning, his face was haggard, and his shoulders were hunched as he sat. His glasses were as thick as ice cubes, his hands twitched, and his fingers were arthritic.

Birdy poured himself a fountain coke and took a seat on the stool next to Johnny.

"So here's the story," the owner said. "I'm about to sell out to some corporation, but now that you're back, you can save the place."

"I'm only in town for Beckwith's funeral."

"I'm sorry to hear that," a disappointed Johnny C. replied, never looking directly at Birdy. "Looks like that's it for Johnny C's then."

"You're really going to sell?" Birdy couldn't comprehend Johnny C's without Johnny C.

"I'm a 73 year old widower, Birdy. I want to enjoy my grandkids while I can still pick them up. This has been my life for forty-five years, but it's time to get out."

"I can't imagine this place without you."

"I've done the best I can," Johnny C. sighed, the burden of the world on his shoulders.

"You're a Hillsboro institution."

"Nothing lasts forever."

Johnny gestured to a professional woman dressed in business suit who was sitting in one of the booths working on some paperwork.

"That's Elizabeth," Johnny told Birdy. "My real estate agent."

Johnny C motioned for her to join them at the counter. She was a strikingly beautiful woman with long brown hair and wide eyes. Birdy got the feeling he was supposed to know her from somewhere.

"I got a developer all lined up," Elizabeth informed Birdy. "Dunkin Donuts with a drive through."

"You're going to let them tear this place down for a fat farm?" Birdy was shocked.

"I can't keep doing this," the worn out Johnny C. revealed. "I can't stop what happens."

"Don't you feel bad being a part of the conspiracy?" Birdy asked Elizabeth.

"It's my job to sell the place for Johnny," she replied. "There'd be no conspiracy if you bought it," she added.

Birdy sat in silence as Johnny C. finished his soup. Claudia took the empty bowl away and slid a dish of rice pudding in front of her boss.

"You really think I could run this place?" Birdy asked the owner, surprising himself with the question.

"You were born to run this place," Johnny C. replied.

Birdy sipped on his coke trying to figure out if he believed in destiny. Was this all part of God's master plan? Was 'better late than never' in the cards?

"Can you wait a few days for an answer?" Birdy was surprised to hear such words coming from his mouth.

"I've been waiting for years," Johnny C. said. "A few more days won't matter much."

Was Birdy really entertaining the thought of coming back, even after assuring Tamara it wouldn't happen? What would she think if he reneged on their secret little arrangement?

"Sorry to hear about Mrs. Johnny C.," he told Johnny. "She was great to me."

"I still expect to see her coming out of the kitchen with some pies," Johnny C. admitted sadly. "It's been almost four years and I still can't get used to her being gone."

Johnny gestured to the photo of the three of them in their orange Johnny C. tee shirts hanging on the far wall. "She hung that a few days after you left. She thought you'd be back in four years."

"Guess I'm a little late." He didn't say it to be sarcastic. He was simply making a statement of truth. Birdy stayed away to avoid the pain of the past without realizing how much he was depriving himself and others with such a self-centered and stubborn attitude. He hadn't been conscious of the pain he inflicted on folks like the Kellys and the Johnny C's by staying away

Now he was back, but it was too late when it came to kind folks like Mrs. Johnny C., Ms. Marceline, Mr. Bonds, Beck and a host of others from his former life.

Birdy honestly believed that no one would remember him or care about him once a few months passed after his initial departure, but thirty years later he heard how folks waited for his return as if he was Jesus Christ and the Second Coming. Mrs. Kelly had put him in his place and he felt guilty for turning his back on these people all these years. They never gave up on him, even when he was ignoring them. Was his purpose in life now to save Johnny C's for Hillsboro?

An annoyed Chief Kelly came into the café. "I thought I was going to pick you up at the house?"

"Your wife got mad at me."

"How come?" Officer Mike sat on the stool next to Birdy as Claudia poured him a cup of coffee.

"I didn't E.T. call home all these years."

"Sorry about that, Birdy." Mike was clearly embarrassed. "You have a right to live your life the way you so choose."

"I really didn't think anybody cared," he admitted. "I wasn't intentionally being an asshole."

"There's a proposal on the table," Johnny C. informed Mike. The owner finished his pudding and excused himself to begin preparing for the after school wave.

"Do you think this town is big enough for both me and Prelog?" Birdy asked the Chief. "That guy wrecked my life," he added for the record.

Mike stole a glance at Elizabeth who was still seated at the counter. "Does Birdy know who you are?"

"I'm Elizabeth Miller, John's real estate agent," she answered.

"Are you related to the Miller Motors Family?" Birdy asked.

"I was married to one of them for about five minutes," she replied

I bought my first car from those guys," Birdy said.

"What do you think, Elizabeth, John's real estate agent?" Mike asked. "Is this town big enough for both Birdy and the Panther?"

"I don't think that would be a problem," she told the cop.

"Besides," Mike said, returning his attention to Birdy. "Does it really matter? What can he do to you now?"

Birdy spent thirty-five years of his life being afraid, intimidated and defeated by The Panther. But Mike was right – he was an adult now who no longer needed to fear Prelog, even if that victimized kid was still inside – and probably always would be.

"Are you seriously considering buying this place?" Elizabeth wanted to know.

Birdy grinned but didn't answer as he called out his goodbyes to Johnny C. and began to leave the restaurant.

"Nice to have you back, Birdy," the low-key café owner stated from behind the counter. "Let me know what you decide."

Birdy stopped at the photo of Prelog and his framed Bucks uniform on the wall. "If I buy this place, those will be the first things to go!" He said with conviction.

Mike looked at Elizabeth who sighed sadly from her spot at the counter. "Nice talking to you, Mr. Braft," the real estate agent called out.

He looked at her with a perplexed frown. There was something strangely familiar about her. "Do I know her?" Birdy asked Mike.

"I don't think so," the cop answered.

Birdy stepped outside to catch his breath and figure out what in hell just happened .He was no longer missing in action but he knew he needed to reconnect with his past if he had any hopes for a future here.

Birdy drove to the Blue County Nursing Home in Greenville. He remembered visiting Beckwith's Grandmother there when they were teenagers, but that was the old place – a run down, cramped one-story wooden building built long before the industry took off. The present nursing home was an impressive modern facility - a two story three wing gallant brick structure with porches, balconies, pillars, large open windows and manicured grounds.

The receptionist directed Birdy to Room 104, the home of Mrs. Ruth Dunham. He found his old teacher seated in a wheelchair by the window, her feet propped up and covered with a pretty colored quilt. She was frail and her skin literally hung off her bones. Birdy could see her pink scalp through her thin white hair. She was wearing hearing aids and thick glasses, but still looked dignified even in her old age and ailing health. There were cards and drawings hung on the walls and large print books and a giant magnifying glass on the bedside table.

Mrs. Durham squinted at Birdy as he stood in the doorway across the room. "Who's that?" She wanted to know.

"An old student of yours."

"What'd ya say? Come closer. Annunciate."

Birdy entered the room and sat in a chair opposite her. "I said I'm one of your old students." He spoke louder.

She squinted at her guest. "I had plenty of students."

"I was in one of your plays."

"Which one?"

He sang: "The girl that I marry will have to be as soft and pink as a nursery."

"Well, Well, Well," she said. "If it ain't Frank Butler in the flesh."

"Hello, Mrs. Dunham."

"Hello, Robert," she answered.

"You look well," he said.

"For a prune, maybe." She laughed. "I look well? You must be blind!"

"Just polite," he grinned.

She pointed to her temple. "Up here? I'm still with it for a 94 year-old broad. But my body quit on me. Can't Walk. Can barely stand. My back is as brittle as a dead twig. I hurt all over."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

She waved him off with her hand. "It's what happens when you get to be 94, Robert. No complaints from me. My dear Martin was fit as a fiddle when he died. But he didn't know who he was for the last five years of his life. I'm not sure which way is worse."

She studied him for a moment, trying to remember everything she knew about her former student. "If I recall, you went off to join the Navy."

"That I did," he said with pride. "Twenty-eight years."

"Good for you!" She was genuinely pleased by the news. "Oh, Robert Braft. I don't think you ever comprehended how good you were in that play."

"I had a good director."

She rubbed her wrinkled chin. "Seems to be there was something else that motivated you. What was that girl's name who played Annie Oakley?"

"Cassie Emerson."

"Of course, Cassandra." She smiled. "I knew there were sparks between the two of you. That was one of the best casting choices I ever made."

"I've seen the world, done plenty of exciting and meaningful things with my life, and enjoyed a pretty good career in the Navy," he told her with sincerity. "But nothing I did came close to the feeling I had being Frank Butler in that play."

"Did you ever do any more acting?" she asked hopefully.

"No," he replied. "I knew I couldn't top that perfect experience."

"That's too bad. You were good."

"How 'bout you?"

"Oh, they made me retire when I was 72. They were afraid I might drop dead in front of the students. Twenty-two years later and I'm still here!"

They both laughed.

"Martin and I enjoyed our retirement," Mrs. Dunham told him. "We traveled. I saw plenty of shows in New York. We had a good ten-year run before the poor dear started forgetting his lines. Then it was five years of off-Broadway hell. And then my props started falling apart. Ah well, there you have it, then. Just waiting for the curtain to come down."

"You still have a few scenes left to play, Mrs. Dunham."

She smiled. "Can you believe I have great grandchildren now? That's worth hanging around for, don't you think?"

"Yes I do," Birdy said with a smile.

"What about you, Robert?" She asked. "Are you happy?'

He shrugged, embarrassed to be found out.

"I didn't think so," she observed.

"I got two scripts to pick from and I don't know which one to play," he told her.

"Which has the better part?"

"Coming back here, I guess. You know, happy ending and all that."

"And what does the other one offer?" She asked with raised eyebrows.

"Intrigue. Excitement. Scandal. Drama. Inappropriate sex. Unsatisfied ending."

"Ah," she said with a smile. "A shorter but more exhilarating run."

It occurred to him that was how most of his relationships played out. He'd pick intrigue, excitement, scandal, and drama in the women he pursued, usually with disastrous endings. Would he fall into the same trap picking Tamara over Hillsboro?

"What would make you most happy, Robert?" Mrs. Dunham asked.

"What would make me most happy is something I can't have," he sighed. "She's happily married."

"Well, what else would make you happy?"

He thought about it for a few moments. "I'd like to live a connected life," he decided.

"And how could you do that?"

"Come back here," he realized aloud. "There are people here who care about me".

She sighed. "Oh, Robert. Why did you waste your life so?"

"I kept rejecting the scripts."

"You know which script you must now choose to make yourself connected?"

"The only question is do I have the guts to do it," he replied.

"Come back and tell me how the final scene plays out in this little drama of yours." She smiled at him. "I wanted you kids to understand that life is worth living to its fullest."

"I'm finally starting to figure that part out," he said.

"It's never too late, Robert."

"Thanks, Mrs. Dunham." He stood and smiled at her. "You're still a great teacher."

"Come back any time, Robert," she said with a smile.

"I will."

Birdy stopped in front of the activity room on his way out and watched a group of elders listening to a guy show and discuss photographs from the 1930s. The people in that room and throughout the facility were folks like Mrs. Dunham. Many had parents who came from distant lands in the hopes of finding a better life. They passed Lady Liberty in New York's harbor, praying that her promise for peace, liberty, and happiness would be their blessing in their new home.

The newcomers spread out across the vast country called America, settling in various towns and communities for reasons specific to their own stories. Many came to Blue County and, like Mrs. Dunham, found jobs, raised families, and strived to live a life that was pleasing to God. They endeavored to be good spouses, good parents, good friends, good neighbors, good community members, and good people. They loved and laughed, worked and played, lived, and eventually died.

In the end, isn't that the meaning of a life lived? Would that be Birdy's homily were he fortunate enough to grow old and end up in the Blue County Nursing Home? Would he be remembered for the life he lived?

"What are you doing here?"

Birdy looked up to see a uncomfortably nervous Elizabeth the Realtor standing before him.

"Visiting an old teacher of mine," he said, surprised by her accusatory tone.

"Oh?" She remained jumpy.

"Mrs. Dunham. English and Theatre."

"Oh, of course," she said with a relieved laugh. "Mrs. Dunham."

"What are you doing here?" Birdy asked.

"Visiting my father," she revealed. "He's dying," she added, almost as an after thought.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Birdy replied politely. "Would you like me to come along?"

She was surprised by the offer but shook her head no, looking as if she were about to cry.

"Well, okay then," Birdy replied with understanding. "Take care of yourself."

She looked at him for a long moment. "Goodbye, Mr. Braft," she said before disappearing down one of the halls.

"Excuse me, did she say 'Mr. Braft'?"

Birdy turned to see a man standing in the middle of the hall with his arms folded across his chest. "Birdy Braft!?" The man asked.

Birdy peered at him trying to figure out if he knew the guy. His return was becoming a giant game of 'Mystery Guest, Sign In Please' as Birdy was constantly bumping into people he hadn't seen in thirty years.

"I'm the kid with no hair," the guy revealed with a grin.

"Hi, Frank."

"That's Doctor Frank to you." Dr. Bourbren shook Birdy's hand.

The Good Doctor was slight in build and still had his boyish charm, especially for a guy in his mid forties He had hair too – brown with streaks of gray along the sides, to go along with a bushy moustache and round wire rim glasses.

"You make nursing home calls?"

"My mom's here, rehabbing from hip surgery," he explained.

"Why was I not surprised to hear you became a doctor?" Birdy asked.

"I have a photograph in my office," Frank reported. "It's of the two of us– bald – standing in the hallway of Hillsboro High smiling at the camera. I use it as motivation for patients – especially kids - going through hard times," he explained with a pleased smile. "I always tell the story about you shaving your head for me," Frank said. "Most of them ask, 'What happened to that guy' and I always have to reply 'Gee, I really don't know'."

"Well, here I am," Birdy announced.

"Here you are," agreed the amused Frank. "It's great to know you're still alive."

"Ditto for you!" laughed Birdy.

They shook hands before going their separate ways.

Chapter 39

Birdy stopped at the motel to freshen up before driving to Southton, two exits south of Greenville on the interstate. South Country Road was easy to find and Birdy slowed at #49, which was a large New England farmhouse with a wrap around porch, two unattached red barns, two silos, a huge pasture, and several tractors, pick-up trucks, hayers and other farm equipment. There were also plenty of animals – horses, cows, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, and who knows what else – not to mention a built in swimming pool that looked strangely out of place.

There were two families listed on the huge black mailbox along the side of the road: Louis and Nora Clements shared the top line, Joseph and Rose Clements-Bonds was on the second row.

The Birdman pulled into the long paved driveway and parked in an open lot next to four or five other vehicles. Four barking dogs circled the car as if they were a pack of wolves and he wasn't sure if he should get out of the car. He did so gingerly as the dogs sniffed, smelled and continued to bark with their tails wagging. One hound dog jumped on him to say hi.

"Homer! Get down, you crazy old mutt!"

An older gentleman came out the side porch door. Birdy could smell the aroma of cooking supper drifting from the farm house.

"Everybody, heel!" The four dogs ran to the old guy and sat by his feet.

"May I help you, Sir?" The old man asked.

"I was looking for Joe," Birdy explained.

"Well, you're looking in the right place." He turned and called inside. "Mother, let Joseph know he has a visitor, please and thank you."

The guy was in his late 70s, stocky and in good health. He was tanned and his skin was made out of leather. He had a goatee, wore wire-rimmed glasses, and featured hands the size of the Jolly Green Giant. Birdy's hand was lost in his when they shook. He wore bib overhauls, a red flannel shirt and a John Deere ball cap.

"I take it you're Mr. Clements," guessed Birdy.

"You take it correctly."

"I'm an old friend of Joe's," Birdy introduced himself. "Birdy Braft. From Hillsboro.

"A-up."

"Nice place you have here." Birdy felt he had to make small talk.

"Thank you kindly. I'm sure Joseph will be with you shortly. I got chores to tend to. Come on, fellers." The dogs followed Mr. Clements as he strolled to the first barn.

Birdy was studying the weathervanes atop the barns when somebody yelled "Catch!"

He turned toward the house in time to see a football spiraling directly at his face. He raised his hands and caught the pigskin in the nick of time.

"Is this the same football?" he asked, examining the aged and cracked yet familiar sphere.

"Of course," Joe replied as he stepped off the porch with a noticeable gimp to his walk. How many times had they tossed this ball back and forth during their childhood?

Joe had traded in his thick teen hairstyle for a short regular, but it was still the same shade of blonde. He wore what Birdy called an Amish beard (no moustache) and was in great physical condition, not counting his arthritic knees that made him walk like Tim Conway's old man character from The Carol Burnett Show.

"I paid the price for being Joe Jock," he said as they tossed the ball back and forth. "I can't run from here to the mailbox."

Joe assumed Birdy was dead (just like Cathy Reynolds had theorized!), unable to think of any other explanation for why his friend dropped off the face of the earth for thirty years.

"When Reynolds said he found you, I was relieved," he said. "But then I got pissed off. What, were you boycotting?"

"Escaping," Birdy replied, once again hearing the wrath of those who were offended by his lack of sensitivity over the years.

"Just think of all the weddings, births, and deaths you've missed, Birdy," Joe complained. "Not to mention five class reunions."

"Yeah."

"When I glanced out the window and saw you standing there, it was like looking at a ghost."

"I stopped by the barber shop today. Sure seems different."

"I wouldn't have gone to his funeral if my mother hadn't made me," Joe admitted.

"Can't you forgive him now that he's dead?" Birdy was echoing Clark Fitzgerald from a long time ago.

"I'm still working on it."

"How's your mom?"

"She's doing fine," Joe reported. "I got her in one of those retirement communities in Greenville. My sister lives in Ohio."

A mini-van pulled into the driveway. "Here's my family," Joe said, walking to the car to greet his wife, a woman in her mid-forties with dark skin, darker hair, and eyes that sparkled.

"Rose," Joe said as his wife stepped out of the car. "Say hello to the undead Birdy Braft."

Mrs. Clements-Bonds smiled and shook his hand. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you. I was beginning to think Joseph made you up."

Two teenagers jumped from the van – a 15 year old boy with his father's blonde hair wearing a judo outfit, and a 13 year old girl with her mother's dark features wearing dance leotards.

"This is our son Mark and our daughter Mia." Rose introduced the two kids who nodded hello and ran into the house.

"I should check to see if Mama needs help," Rose said. "Please stay for supper, Birdy."

She followed the children into the house while Joe and Birdy walked to the pasture fence where a horse had meandered, sticking his head over the wire for some attention.

"What happened to Jenny?" Birdy asked.

"The two-school relationship eventually caught up to us," Joe replied. "She fell for some college guy and that was that. Last I heard, she was living in Colorado."

"Where'd you meet Rose?"

"Moondog Currie's wedding," Joe said, as he stroked the horse's nose. "We were both in the wedding party."

He looked at Birdy's ring finger. "You ever get married?"

"Just to the Navy," The Sailor joked. He glanced around the huge farm. "Seems like you found yourself a nice life."

"I wasn't doing much when Rose and I started dating," he confessed. "Taking a few courses at the community college, working nights at a warehouse. I wasn't going anywhere. Her father took me under his wings, gave me a job here and they made me part of the family. My father in law has been everything my father never was."

"I thought Cathy Reynolds said you were managing a supermarket."

"Rose's Uncle Bernie ran the small grocery store in town," Joe said. "He got sick, so I started helping out about 15 years ago. I never left."

"I'm glad life worked out so well for you, Joe."

"It all fell into place," he agreed. "I'm content. I just wish I could walk! Guess I'll have to get the knees replaced eventually."

He reached his hand into his pocket. "I want to show you something," Joe said. "I've been saving this for thirty years, waiting to ask you about it." He opened his fist to reveal an earring.

"Jenny's?" Birdy asked.

"Better not be! I found it under your mattress the day you left," Joe revealed. "Remember you asked me to get rid of the mattress for you?"

"Yeah." He peered at earring. "I don't recognize it."

"I didn't at first either," Joe replied. "Tossed it my car ash tray and forgot about it. But then, about a week later, I was looking at the yearbook."

"Yeah?" Birdy was still clueless

Joe was grinning. "Ms. Marceline's photo. She's wearing earrings just like this."

Birdy took the earring from Joe and rubbed it in his hand. "You didn't say anything, did you?"

"You mean it's true?" Joe had a wide-eyed look of shocked amusement. "You fulfilled every high school guys' fantasy?"

"It wasn't like that," Birdy replied. "Did you say anything to anybody?" He asked again, concerned that gossip, rumor and innuendo flew through the halls of Hillsboro High and that poor Ms. Marceline had been scandalized.

"Of course not, Birdy. But man, I wanted to! I had her for Ethics and Morality senior year. I had to bite my tongue not to ask about the rights and wrongs about teacher-student sex."

"Technically, I wasn't her student any more," Birdy rationalized. "And it was just that one night."

"Boy, what a send off."

"We were both lonely people, Joe. It just sort of happened."

"I used to see her driving around in your car. I'd smile every time."

"I couldn't believe it when I heard she died," Birdy sighed, still overwhelmed by the profound sadness he was feeling.

Joe looked at him. "Was she your first?"

Birdy sighed with romantic angst. "They say you never forget your first time."

"Especially when you're doing it with an older woman who happens to be your teacher!" noted Joe.

"It was the nicest night of my life," Birdy told his friend with fond remembrance, slipping the earring into his pocket. "Thanks for not saying anything, Joe."

He nodded. "I knew it was a big deal."

A dinner bell clanged from the house. Mr. Clements met his son in law and guest in the driveway and the three men strolled into the house where Birdy was privileged to a sit down home cooked meal in a family setting for the first time in eons.

Mr. Clements told farming stories, the kids talked about school, and Birdy shared a couple of Navy "sea stories" including the time they chased a Russian submarine for nearly 900 miles "just to see where they were going".

Birdy was happy to be around a strong family structure. It was clear that Joe and his father in law Lou got along well and that his mother in law Nora adored him. Rose was most kind to her husband's long lost friend. After dinner, she gave him a tour of the farm where she was born and raised. She knew every nook and cranny like the back of her hand.

"While you and Joe were playing summer basketball, I was here picking vegetables," she said with a laugh.

"Well, I was probably cooking the vegetables you picked, at Johnny C's."

"Joe really missed you," she revealed. "He could never understand why you never came back."

"I was hiding," he confessed.

"From what?"

"Myself, mostly," he admitted. "Didn't Joe tell you all the horror stories?"

"All I heard about you is how much of a good friend you were."

"I guess he didn't want to speak badly of the dead," Birdy concluded.

The ex-Jock caught up to them in one of the pastures.

"You guys have a nice place here," Birdy observed.

"Things pretty much fell into place for us," Rose said. "It's been a wonderful life here on the farm."

Rose excused herself and Joe and Birdy continued the walk.

"Did you see Beckwith often?" Birdy asked

"I did my best to avoid him," Joe stated bluntly. "He wasn't the same guy we knew as kids."

"How so?"

"Well, you know how you were an asshole for four or five years? Beck was like that for over twenty."

Birdy shook his head with pity. "Isn't it ironic that Beck became the kind of person you and he saved me from becoming?"

"He stopped me for speeding once about seven years ago," Joe recalled. "Let me off, but he wasn't very nice about it. Went out of his way to humiliate me with my son in the car."

"How could the funniest guy in high school morph into such a miserable bastard?" Birdy wanted to know, but Joe didn't have the answers.

"So, did you have a girl in every port?" Joe asked. "After your training lesson with Ms. Marceline, you must have been a regular Casanova."

"I never stayed with any one girl very long," he confessed.

They walked around the farm and Birdy told his old friend of his loves and why none of them ever lasted, including southern belle Savannah, older waitress Julie and fellow Sailor Lois in Jacksonville, the married LeeAnne in Diego Garcia, wealthy socialite Marcie at the Great Lakes Training Camp when Birdy was pushing boots, African American broker Penny and college professor A. J. in San Diego, federal worker Nicky and the senator's daughter Boo in D.C, and finally ex-stripper Trish and Navy Chief Audry in Bremerton, along with numerous one night stands along the way.

Lois was the weirdest tale. Birdy was with her for two years in Jacksonville until she transferred to Spain. That should have been the end of their romance, but for some reason the two stayed in contact over the years and enjoyed trysts whenever their paths crossed.

They had a private code. If one of them said "the fleet is in" that meant he or she was with somebody and they (usually) wouldn't meet up. But "the fleet is out" meant they were available to get together, relive old times, and renew their sexual relationship. This arrangement went on for fifteen years. Birdy and Lois had sex in Jacksonville; Rota Spain; Chicago; San Diego; Washington D.C.; Los Angeles, Norfolk, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Bremerton. Their last 'Same Time Next Year' meeting took place when Lois came to Bremerton for a Chief's Seminar. They had a memorable what turned out to be a final fling together. Birdy got an e-mail from her a few months after their last encounter letting him know that she was marrying a retired warrant officer in Mobile, Alabama. The fleet was in permanently and Birdy never heard from her again, but Lois was by far his longest relationship and, even though it sounded pretty disconnected in theory, he felt closer to her than anybody else, even when they went a year or two without seeing one another.

Joe and Birdy ended up sitting on the back of an abandoned old pickup truck left rusting behind the second barn. It was well past dusk with just a hint of light in the western sky.

"Geez Birdy, you really were quite the womanizer, weren't you?"

"I have another one waiting for me back in Washington," Birdy revealed.

"What's the disconnection with this one?" A frowning Joe wanted to know.

"I work for her and she's the owner's wife," he answered.

Joe looked at his friend with disbelief. "Have you ever had a normal relationship?"

"Not really," he admitted. "They say you only have one true love in your life."

"And you're still looking, obviously."

"No. I lost her a long time ago."

"Who?" pondered Joe. "Ms. Marceline?"

"Cassie."

Jock was surprised by the admission, apparently forgetting how crazy Birdy had been for the Emerson's daughter.

"That was high school," Joe said.

"I'm convinced she was the one. But life's circumstances messed it up."

"How so?"

"My father died, and that screwed me up. And then Prelog………."

Birdy stopped talking, not sure if he wanted to tell Joe the story, even after thirty years.

"And then Prelog what?"

Birdy glanced at his watch. "I told Boone I'd stop by," he said. "I should go." He leapt off the end of the truck bed and Joe gently climbed down to protect his sensitive knees.

"Anyway, my point about Cassie was that for the longest time she thought I was a jerk," Birdy said as they walked toward the farmhouse.

"You were a jerk," Joe reminded him.

"By the time she figured out I was an okay guy, it was too late. Life is mostly timing. Only problem is, we're usually unaware of the significance of certain moments until it's to late."

"You didn't have to stay away," Joe told him. "You could have come home on leaves, kept in contact. Stayed connected all these years. It might have made a difference."

"Maybe. But I have to figure what to do now."

"Is it really that hard?"

"Old habits are hard to change," Birdy sighed. "Tamara attracts me."

They were back in the driveway now, not far from Birdy's car. The windows of the farmhouse were full of light and somebody was playing the piano inside.

"Nora," Joe said. "She's a great player."

"You going to the wake?" Birdy asked the former Joe Jock.

"Beck was a good teammate," Joe replied. "I'll be there."

They said their goodnights and Birdy drove to Hillsboro to check in with Boone, adding his old friend Joe Jock Bonds to the growing list of disgruntled people who were unhappy that he had disappeared from the face of the earth for thirty years.

Chapter 40

A fatigued looking Boone stepped onto the porch when he answered the door. "Tonight's not a good night for an inside visit," he informed the visitor. "Cathy is off the deep end."

They took seats on the porch chairs.

"What'd you do all day?" Boone asked.

"Saw Father Fitz. Phil Golinski. Mike Kelly and his wife. Johnny C. Mrs. Dunham. Had dinner with Joe Bonds and his family."

"Geez, you sure got around."

"Everybody's pissed at me for disappearing all these years," the guilt-ridden Birdy said.

"It'd be one thing if it turned out you died during your first tour or something," Boone replied. "But when we figured out you were alive and well and just dropped out for all this time, well some folks took it personal."

"Did you?"

Boone shrugged. "I suppose I was offended," he admitted. "Even a Christmas card would have been nice. And, now with the Internet, well – gee, there really wasn't any excuse, Birdy."

"I didn't think anybody would care."

"You're back here for Beck, aren't you?"

"Yeah."

"It's the same thing."

An enraged Arianna stormed out of the front door. "Shut up, you stupid drunk!" she yelled, slamming the door behind her.

"We have company," Boone calmly informed his daughter.

The angry teen looked at Birdy with humiliated surprise, wiping tears from her eyes. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"Sit down for a second," Boone gently told his daughter. "Collect yourself."

She collapsed into a sliding swing opposite the two men. "God I hate her when she's like this."

"Tomorrow she won't even remember," Boone pointed out.

"My mother made my life pretty miserable too," the understanding Birdy volunteered to Arianna.

She looked at him with uncertainty. "Did she drink?"

"No, her addiction was work," he explained. "I never saw her."

"Mrs. Braft actually moved away and left Birdy here alone in high school," Boone reported.

"I don't see that as a bad thing," Arianna remarked.

"My father died when I was eight," Birdy told the teenager. "Just when I needed my mother the most, she abandoned me. I hated her just as much as you hate your mom right now."

"Do you still hate her?" Arianna wanted to know.

Birdy thought about it for a moment. "No," he revealed. "That's just who she was. I can't hold it against her. She did the best she could under the circumstances. She couldn't handle my father dying, so she lost herself in another world. That world just didn't include me."

"I'll always hate my mother," Arianna coldly stated.

"Please don't say that, Arianna," her father begged.

"My mother is in her seventies now," Birdy told Arianna. "Retired. She has plenty of time to sit back and reflect on her life. I know she feels bad. I know she feels guilty. How can I hate someone who feels so sad about what happened?"

"My mother doesn't feel bad about drinking," Arianna protested.

"All we can do is be there to help her when we can," Birdy advised.

"You don't have to live with her," Arianna grumbled, rolling her eyes at the Pollyanna pep talk.

"I lived with a girl named Boo once," Birdy said, standing up. "She was even more messed up then your mom, Arianna. I know how it feels being around an alcoholic. Boo was doing drugs too. But when I look back on it now, I feel good that I tried to help her. I was at wits end and I hated her for what she did to herself, but I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I hadn't tried to help her in any way I could."

"Thanks, Birdy," Boone said, sliding over to the swing where his sulking daughter sat. "See you tomorrow."

Birdy nodded his goodnight and left the two for their father and daughter alone time moment. He didn't envy Boone and he feared for Arianna, hoping her home life wouldn't doom her for the future like so many kids brought up in troubled and problematic environments.

Birdy swung by the Emerson house on his way out of town just to be reminded of Cassie one more time. Seeing her house was a powerful way to visualize her in his mind's eye the way she used to be when she lived there.

He was dreading returning to the motel because that meant calling Tamara and coming clean about the Johnny C. offer. It was ludicrous to feel guilty, of course. It's impossible to cheat on someone who is already married, but he was full of anxiety just thinking about ruining their private little fantasy.

He'd been on the go all day and took a few moments to vegetate, unwind, process some of what he saw, heard and did that day, and collect himself as he tried to come to terms with the conflicts in his life as he saw them. He could go back to Washington, continue working at the Roadhouse, and pursue a fatalistic relationship destined for failure, or he could return to the only home he ever knew, purchase his dream restaurant, and spend the rest of his life in a community with people who knew, valued and missed him. The choice was obvious, but why was he leaning toward Tamara, the no-win solution?

He showered, caught an old movie on the tube for a while, and finally called Tamara just after midnight his time (9:00 again her time), knowing Ben would be off to close the diner.

She answered before the first ring had even finished.

"Bobby?"

"Tamara."

She breathed a sigh of relief. "I was afraid maybe you wouldn't call."

"Why wouldn't I call?"

"What did you do today?"

"Saw a whole bunch of people from my past," he told her. "It's like being a presidential candidate on the campaign stump."

"I'd vote for you."

"Have you ever thought about leaving Washington?" he asked.

"Sometimes," she admitted. "But most of my family is here and I don't think I could move far from them." There was a pause. "Why do you ask?"

"Johnny C. is selling his restaurant." There, he said it.

"The place you worked at as a kid?"

"He wants me to buy it." There, he said that too.

"I knew this was going to happen," she said with a heavy exhaling breath. "I know it's totally selfish of me, but I don't want you to go."

"I know," he told her. "You know how I feel about you."

"Do I?"

He took a deep breath.. "If I came back and stayed, would you consider leaving Ben?" He asked point blank.

More silence. "I've been thinking about that question for a long time, you know," she finally said.

"Yeah, I know."

Neither said anything for a good ten seconds. "We're doomed, aren't we?" She finally asked.

He didn't' want to acknowledge the inevitable.

"Are you?" She finally spoke after a long pause.

"Am I what?" He asked nervously.

"Going to buy the restaurant?"

"I don't know," he admitted.

"So you haven't decided yet." She was surprised.

"No," he said. "Have you?"

"I need to think about this, Bobby," she replied. "Call me back tomorrow night."

"You okay?" He asked, fearing he had ruined everything.

"I'm glad you were honest with me, Bobby," she said openly. "You could have lied, taken advantage of me, and then left anyway."

"That's not my way."

"I know," she said, her voice cracking.

"I've lived my life with no instruction book," he complained. "I do stuff and people think I'm nuts. Or they get mad at me. Or they leave me."

"You're the one who left," she pointed out.

"Yeah, and they're all pissed at me for it."

"Can you blame them?"

He sighed. "Maybe it was easier to see myself as the victimized martyr."

"Call me tomorrow, Bobby."

"Are you mad at me?"

"I'm mad at myself for falling in love with you," she replied and he almost dropped the phone. "I can't believe I just said that," she admitted with a defeated laugh.

"I'm glad you did," he said, his heart pumping in his chest.

"Good night," she whispered and once again the line went dead.

Chapter 41

The phone rang at 6:25 a.m. the next morning, yanking Birdy from his sleep.

"Who the fuck is Ronnie Sye?" It was Boone's annoyed voice.

"A Navy guy."

"Why in the hell did you register under his name?"

"I don't' know."

"I've called every frigin' motel in Blue County. Finally had to call back a second time and ask if they had anybody registered from Washington State."

"I wonder why I didn't say Georgia."

"Meet me at Beck's apartment at 7:00."

"Beck's?"

"His mother wants to display stuff at the wake. She can't bring herself to go in there. We're doing it."

Birdy got the directions from Boone and quickly showered before driving to Hillsboro in the early morning peacefulness. He had forgotten how beautiful New England could be and took a few moments to notice the scenery as he drove.

Hillview Terrace didn't exist when Birdy was a kid. The complex was one of the places Boone built twenty years later. Birdy parked in an open space in front of 2B and glanced at the apartments. The buildings were an attractively simple design with 25 units in each complex.

A Boone the Builder pickup truck whizzed into the lot and Boone emerged with a coffee cup in his hand. He was wearing basically the same construction clothes as the previous morning.

"Nice work," Birdy told him, motioning to the buildings.

He nodded his thanks as he dug a key out of his pocket. They walked to the front door of 2B and Boone let them into Andy's apartment.

The place was surprisingly non-descript and antiseptic in its appearance, resembling a hotel room more than a personal apartment. There was very little personality to the place and it was noticeably spotless, organized and clean.

"Must have been his Army training," Birdy remarked.

"To bad his life wasn't this neat," replied Boone.

"It doesn't look like he had any personal stuff," Birdy noted, glancing around for evidence of photos, awards or anything else from his life.

They checked drawers, looked under the bed, and glanced in the closet but found nothing.

"There's gotta be a picture of him with his kid or something," a perplexed Boone said.

Birdy stepped into the small linen closet off the kitchen with a washer and dryer and noticed a large cardboard box on the top shelf. He reached up and lifted it down from its perch.

"Bingo," he announced, carrying the box to the kitchen table.

Inside the carton, they found Army photos, a portrait of Andy as a Hillsboro cop early in his career, the photo of their senior year high school basketball team, his yearbook, the trophy Beck won at the talent show senior year, a couple of photos from the play, some shots of his daughter, some family photos, and an unopened bottle of champagne.

Boone picked up the bottle and looked on the label. "Senior Year playoff – Greenville" was written in magic marker.

"Guess this was in case we won," Boone said with a sad smile.

"Why did he keep his life in a box on a shelf in a closet?" Birdy wanted to know. He glanced around the apartment. "Why did this happen to Beck?"

"Beats the fuck out of me," Boone grumbled.

"Did he ever do his impersonations?"

"Said he was hearing too many voices to do any voices," Boone replied. He took the champagne bottle and headed for the front door. Birdy followed with the box.

"The thing is," Boone said when they were outside, "It never occurred to me that he'd off himself. I feel guilty for not knowing."

"It had nothing to do with you," Birdy assured his old friend.

"Yeah, sure." Boone climbed into his pickup truck and zoomed off without even saying goodbye.

Birdy drove to the Walgreens (one of the many new businesses that hadn't been around when he lived there) and bought poster paper, scissors, and tape. He returned to the motel and arranged the photographs as best he could on the various poster sheets. In the shots from his young family life and high school years, Andy is constantly mugging for the camera. He's smiling, laughing, grinning, and having a good time. He still looks cheerful and positive in the early Army shots, but it is clear from his demeanor and facial expressions that he's not as happy later in his tour. His cop portrait is serious to the point of eeriness. Beck looks cheerful in the shots with his daughter when she's young, but later it's noticeable that they both are unhappy.

Birdy dialed Beck's phone number just to hear his voice again.

"This is Andy Beckwith. Leave a message at the beep and I'll get back to you."

"Wish you were here," Birdy said into the receiver.

He returned to Hillsboro, parking in front of the Donnelly-Nolan funeral home, the three-story Victorian house behind Main Street. He carried the poster boards – and Andy's talent show trophy – to the front door and rang the bell. After a few moments, the door opened and if he hadn't known that Georgie Porgie owned the funeral home Birdy never would have recognized him. Kessler was well over three hundred pounds and had just a little bit of gray hair left on the back of his otherwise bald head. He was wearing a white body length apron that made him look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

"I have some stuff for the Beckwith wake," Birdy said.

"Bring it in," George replied warmly, opening the door wider. Birdy lugged the poster boards into the parlor that would host Andy's wake later in the afternoon. The coffin wasn't there yet, but flowers had already started arriving.

George hadn't recognized his old teammate, so Birdy stood in the parlor and grinned at him.

"Is there anything else, sir?" A clueless Kessler wanted to know.

"Who's the greatest JV player you ever played with?"

The light bulb finally went on and George broke out in a happy laugh. "Birdy Braft! I heard you were in town!" He shook his hand with vigor. "Hey, it's great to see you."
"You too, George."

"Do you want to see Beck? He's downstairs."

The question threw him for a loop. Did he want to see Beck?

"Mrs. Beckwith's insisting on a closed casket, so here's your chance," George explained. "I think I did a pretty good job on him."

"Okay," Birdy agreed, figuring he owed that much to Andy.

George led him to the embalming room and body storage units in the cellar. It was like being in a Frankenstein movie.

"I once accidentally walked in on a corpsman training session in the Navy," Birdy told George as they stood in the lab. "They were showing an embalming film from the 1950s. It was grossly fascinating – you know, sewing the mouth shut, corking the cavities, draining all the fluids."

"Ah, that's the easy part," George replied. "It's the reconstruction stuff that's the real challenge. You know, maimed car accident victims, burned bodies, post-autopsy cadavers. And, in Andy's case, gun shot wounds to the head."

George pointed to a casket in the corner. "There he is. I think he looks pretty good, considering he blew the back of his head off."

Birdy stepped to the coffin and looked at the corpse of Andy Beckwith, but the body barely resembled the Andy he remembered. George was right, though: his head was all in one piece.

Birdy looked at Andy and shook his head. "You stupid asshole," he said.

George patted Birdy on the back. "He's at peace now, Birdy. Don't hold it against him."

"How do you do it?" Birdy asked his old JV teammate. "How can you handle death so well?"

"It's just a corpse. It's not really Andy in there. His spirit lives on somewhere else. The hard part is dealing with the grieving family. Being strong, sensitive, and compassionate for them during their pain and sorrow. I always think of Mrs. Dunham and what she used to say about transforming ourselves into different people when we were acting. That's how I do this job."

"It must be weird to be the undertaker for people you know."

"I consider it a blessing," George replied with a proud smile. "I'm really doing a service for them and their families. It's an honor I take very seriously. Me and Father Fitz make a great team!"

Birdy didn't like the feel of death. "I should let you get on with your work," he said.

"Yeah, I'm just getting ready to embalm Mrs. Liebowitz."

"From Drumgolds?"

"Ah, you remember. She worked in the candy section for fifty years!"

"The lady with the orange hair."

"That's her!"

They both laughed as George escorted him to the front door.

"I'll see you at the wake, Birdy," George said. He really did have the compassionate sensitivity down to an art.

Birdy decided to take a walk and was strolling along Main Street when he noticed Elizabeth the real estate agent wrapping up a conversation with an individual in front of one of the store fronts.

Birdy stopped and waited for her to finish.

"Hello, Mr. Braft" she said to Birdy once she was done with her business.

"Hello," Birdy replied. "We seem to keep bumping into one another."

"Have you decided what you're going to do about Johnny?" she asked.

"Have you decided what you're going to do about Johnny?" he challenged

"Look, I don't like a Dunkin Donuts any more than you do," she assured him.

Birdy squinted as he looked around the downtown area. "Are you from around here?" he asked.

"Moved here when I was eight," she replied.

"How was it for you growing up here?"

"My parents divorced when I was fourteen," she said "It wasn't much fun after that." She followed his gaze down the street. "But I always liked the town. I guess that's why I'm still here."

"I've been gone for thirty years," Birdy remarked as he watched the traffic go by.

"You're back now," she replied with an encouraging smile.

"Am I?" He said it with a sigh.

"Well," she said, "If you'll excuse me, I'm off to visit my father again."

He looked at her with sympathy. "Want me to go with you?"

She was intrigued that he made the offer a second time. "That's not necessary," she answered, nodding her appreciation before making her way down the street. He watched her disappear into the crowd before he continued his way in the opposite direction, nearly knocking over Cathy Reynolds who was coming out one of the stores with a few bags in her arms.

"Oh. It's only you," Cathy said with annoyance when she recognized Birdy.

He took a bag from her grasp and followed her to a new model Mercedes.

"Nice car," he said.

"Boone buys me anything I want, most of the time," she replied with a hint of conceit.

He helped her place the bags in the trunk. Cathy motioned for him to join her inside the car.

"So, how's the homecoming of the Great Birdy Braft going?" she wanted to know once they had arranged themselves on the front seat.

"You sound like you don't want me here," he said as they watched the people walking along the sidewalk in front of them.

"I don't want you judging me," she said. "I'm sure Boone's told you all sorts of untrue stories."

"He hasn't said much at all."

"Did he tell you how he has me banned from all the bars and liquor stores?" she asked bitterly. "Treats me like a child."

"No, he didn't tell me."

"Did he tell you how unhappy I am?"

"I can see how unhappy you are."

"Ah, you don't know shit."

Birdy reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and slipped a faded newspaper obituary from one of the pockets. He handed the clipping to Cathy.

She glanced at the yellowed newspaper piece. "Who was Roberta Murzkuyski and why should I care?" she asked, tossing the obituary back at him.

"Her nickname was Boo," Birdy said. "I met her when I was stationed in D.C. Turns out she was a Senator's daughter."

"What happened to her?" Cathy asked, taking the obituary back and looking at the faded photograph of the young woman.

"Drugs and booze," Birdy replied, staring at the haunting newspaper photograph in Cathy's hand. "She had all sorts of stories too."

Cathy stared at the picture for a long moment. "Did you love her?"

"Yeah, but that wasn't enough," he replied. "I couldn't get her to stop."

Cathy handed the newspaper article back to him and glanced out the side window of the car.

"A couple of months ago I went off on Arianna," Cathy revealed after a long moment of quietness. "I was yelling at her because she was going to be late for school. I thought it was 7:00 in the morning. Turns out it was 7:00 at night. I must have been in a blackout."

"Boone's doing what he thinks is best," an understanding Birdy told her. "He may not be doing it right and he may not be doing it the way he should, but he's operating without a net."

"Just like me," she sighed. She looked at Birdy for a long moment. "You were chickenshit. You disappeared for thirty years so nobody knew your secrets. I had to stay here and try to hide mine."

"Maybe it's time both of us stop trying to hide," he suggested.

She sucked in a few sobs and Birdy reached his arm out to comfort her, but she pushed it away.

"I don't need your pity, Birdy," she barked bitterly. "Sorry your girlfriend died, but that won't happen to me."

"I'm sure Beck said the same thing," Birdy replied.
"Get out of my car, Birdy," Cathy ordered .

"You don't look well," he told her.

"Get out of my car," she repeated angerly.

He did as she asked and she drove away before he even closed the door.

Birdy walked through the neighborhoods of Hillsboro for the second consecutive afternoon. A cool breeze of the stubborn early spring refused to give way to more balmy weather.

This time, his route took him past the old Hillsboro High School, which had been replaced with a new high school five years earlier. Birdy approached the building from the back. Gone were the football field, bleachers, press box, and goal posts, replaced by two little league diamonds, back to back. The high school baseball diamond was also gone, substituted with several playground structures. Even the tennis courts had been removed to make way for a new parking area.

Birdy circled to the front of the complex and discovered that the former junior high school now housed the school's administrative offices, head start, after school care program, and a special needs curriculum. The old high school was home to elementary classes, but The Pit and the auditorium appeared unchanged from the outside.

The former student walked to the auditorium landing and checked to see if any doors were unlocked. He was able to gain entry through a side auxiliary door that led to a hallway between the old Pit and the auditorium.

The auditorium was painted an ugly pink, but was otherwise unchanged. The stage was cluttered with music stands, band equipment, risers, and chairs.

He sat in one of the old wooden seats and drank in the memories of study halls, assemblies, concerts, the play, and graduation. He could hear the echoes of the voices he once knew. He strolled onto the stage and stood in the wings where Phil Golinski manned his stage manager post and Frank Butler made most of his entrances. He strolled to center stage where he and Cassie had their "Anything You Can Do," showdown. The applause, music, and exhilaration all came rushing back in one intense wave.

"What are you doing in here?" A demanding voice bellowed from the back of the house. A middle-aged guy wearing jeans and a yellow tee shirt came down the center aisle with a dust mop in his hand. Birdy waited until the guy got closer to be sure it was who he thought it was and then broke out into a refrain from "My Defenses Are Down."

Todd Vose applauded when the singer was done.

"Unfortunately, I can't remember any of my numbers," he said.

"Who Do You Love, I Hope," Birdy reminded him.

"Oh, yeah."

"I have the original Broadway soundtrack," Birdy explained, not mentioning that he played it at least once a week.

"Sorry I yelled," Todd said. "Always need to be on the prowl for stalkers, perverts and abductors in today's screwed up world."

Birdy took a seat on the top step of the stage stairs while Todd sat in the first seat in the front row (stage left).

"Haven't seen you in a while," .Todd remarked sarcastically.

"Did you keep acting after high school?" Birdy asked.

"One show that summer," Todd replied. "That was it. I work with the kids here, though."

"That's good."

"Surprised to find me sweeping floors?" Todd asked.

"Yeah." Birdy wanted to be honest.

"Do you remember Beesly?" Todd asked. "He must have been the janitor here for forty five years."

Beesely was a big man who always wore those green janitorial uniforms. Birdy never saw the guy in a bad mood and he had the knack for telling the least funny jokes in the world – which is what made them funny.

"I always thought he had the ultimate job," Todd admitted. "A no stress occupation, plus helping out kids in an informal way. I was a week away from leaving for Worcester State when it hit me – I didn't want to do the college thing."

"So you stayed here."

"Coach T. helped me get into the school's maintenance department. I started at Hillview Elementary, but. I've been here 24 years. People think I'm nuts," Todd sighed, resenting such attitudes. "'You're a janitor'"?

"Maintenance Coordinator," Birdy corrected with a grin.

"I'm content," Todd told him. "I like my job. I like what I do. I like the people."

"Then who cares what other people think?" Birdy said with a reassuring nod.

"Exactly!" Todd appreciated Birdy's supportive understanding. "I was insulted when I lost Frank Butler to you," he admitted to Birdy's surprise. "Mrs. Dunham told me I'd never make it in life without humility. That's why I didn't bother going to college. I was going because I thought I was supposed to. I fooled myself into thinking that's what I wanted. And then it occurred to me that I didn't want to do any of that. That's when I found humility and it all made sense."

"I've bumped into a lot of people in the last few days," Birdy said. "Some are doing okay. Some are struggling. And some, like you, are right where they want to be."

"And some are dead." Todd's realization was tough to accept.

"Poor Pawnee Bill." Birdy sighed. He glanced at his watch. It was nearly three o'clock. "Speaking of that, I guess I'd better go get ready for the wake," he said.

They both stood and Birdy shook Todd's hand. "Great seeing you." He paused and shrugged. "Sorry about Frank Butler."

Todd laughed. "To tell you the truth, the best thing that ever happened to me was losing that part to you. And you were great, by the way."

Birdy thanked his former co-star and left the auditorium. People were gathering in front of the Donnelly-Nolan Funeral Home by the time Birdy walked from the former high school to retrieve his car that he had left outside the funeral home that morning.

He returned to the motel to change into his one "Sunday Go To Meeting" (as his father used to say) suit for the occasion. He was in no hurry to return to the funeral home to face a dead Beck, his grieving family, and all the people from his past amassed in one place for such a sorrowful occasion. He sat in the motel room in his underwear for an hour mindlessly switching through the cable channels.

It occurred to him that he hadn't eaten all day so, once dressed, Birdy stopped at a Greenville eatery on his way to Hillsboro. He was a critic when it came to diners, small restaurants, and cafes. How's the food? How's the service? How are the accommodations? How's the atmosphere? How are the prices? He compared everything to Johnny C's standards, of course.

It was after six o'clock when he arrived at the funeral home. Two hours down, three to go. He was forced to park the car two streets away and the line of mourners was out the door when he got to Donnelly-Nolan's.

He hoped to look inconspicuous as he stood in the line with his hands buried in his pockets and his head bowed, but he felt a pull on my arm.

"Hello, Birdy." He looked up to see a serine Ellen Thurbert smiling at him. Her hair was cropped to her cheekbones and she was conservatively dressed in a plain white blouse under a yellow cardigan sweater and a gray maxi skirt with black "warden" shoes. Birdy was surprised at how radiant her eyes and smile struck him..

"I saw you crossing the street," she said. "My husband and I were just leaving." She pointed to a guy standing at the corner who waved at them.

"Are you still mad at me?" A forlorn Birdy asked.

She nodded no with enthusiasm "I thank you," she said with a warm glow.

"For hurting you?"

"You were the first guy who chose not to take advantage of me," she said with reflective appreciation. "It took about five years for your example to sink in, but I finally realized what you gave me that night."

"I'm sorry if I hurt you."

"God loves you, Birdy," she said with open resolve. "Remember that, tonight especially." She gave him a hug, smiling with such a peaceful magnetism that for a moment he thought he was in the presence of an Angel. She glowed happily as she trotted off to rejoin her husband. It felt strangely peaceful to have found resolution with Ellen after all these years.

Clark Fitzgerald and Ellen Thurbert had both found God and were two of the most secure and joyful people he had met during his return. There had to be a message in that symbolism.

Birdy glanced around hoping nobody had noticed his vulnerability, but most people were in their own sorrowful places waiting to greet the grieving family and admit that Andy Beckwith was truly dead.

Several people flowed from the funeral home as the line slowly moved forward. There were a few individuals he thought he recognized – somebody's mother, a guy from school, a former teacher, a customer from Johnny C.'s, but he didn't say anything unless he was absolutely certain of the identity, or unless someone greeted him first.

The line continued to slowly move forward and he eventually found himself standing underneath the awning when he noticed a sickly woman carefully walking down the steps on the arm of an older gentleman whom Birdy assumed was her husband. She looked frail and weak, and it was shocking to see a person in such a wasted condition out in public. A bandana covered her hairless head and her sunken eyes were surrounded by blackened sockets

The woman stopped when she noticed Birdy standing in line. "Birdy?" she asked with uncertainty, her tiny voice weak and soft.

"Yes," he acknowledged, but he had no idea who he was talking to.

"It's Sarah, Birdy," she revealed in what was almost a whisper. "Sarah Johns."

He was stunned to the point that he couldn't even respond, staring at Annie's Dolly Tate in shocked horror and disbelief. He tried to sound upbeat when he recovered from his initial astonishment. "Hi, Sarah! He said with a warm smile.

She gave him a hug. "It's so wonderful to see you!"

"You too." He tried to sound cheerful, but was devastated by her appearance.

Sarah picked up on his reaction. "What can you do?" She asked with a sigh.

I'm so sorry," was all Birdy could think to say.

"I've been in tough shape for a while," she told him. "But I get the feeling Andy had it even worse."

"Yeah," Birdy sighed.

Sarah introduced her husband Owen, a scholarly gentleman, about fifteen years older than his wife. He wore a pencil moustache and was in tweeds with a sweater.

"I'm really tired, Birdy," Sarah said with an exhausted sigh. "I've got to go."

"Take care of yourself, Sarah." His voice choked and his eyes watered up

She smiled and hugged him one last time. He could feel every bone on her skeletal frame through her jacket.

"Be well, my old friend," she whispered into his ear. "Live a happy life, for me."

It was all he could do to control himself as she broke the embrace and Owen continued helping her down the steps.

It was bad enough Ms. Marceline had been taken out. Now it looked like Sarah Johns was facing the same fate, yet she found the time to suck up her pain and come say goodbye to Pawnee Bill, who chose to throw his life away.

The line slowly made its way inside the door. The interior lobby was mobbed with people, including more cops than Birdy could count. George Kessler and his staff were doing an admirable job working crowd control. Funeral Home workers reminded Birdy of Secret Service Agents – well dressed and spending a lot of time standing around waiting for something to happen.

The Birdman finally made it to the sign-in table and scratched his name into the guest book, recognizing several names already entered on the pages.

The sobs and crying in the parlor could be heard from the lobby. The room was packed with people and Birdy noticed most of the basketball group standing in the back looking like mafia members.

Boone Reynolds stepped to the front of the room when he saw Birdy enter. "I thought you went and disappeared on us again," he said with annoyance.

"I'm here, Boone," Birdy assured him. He noticed Cathy sitting alone in the back, sobbing uncontrollably.

"She's coming to terms with the fact that life sucks," Boone explained before returning to the back of the room.

Mrs. Beckwith hadn't changed her mind about the closed casket. A flag draped coffin was in the front of the room, surrounded by flowers, photographs, Birdy's poster boards, and other mementos of the life that was Andy Beckwith.

The receiving line consisted of the widowed Mrs. Beckwith who sat in a chair, her older daughter and her husband who's wedding Birdy attended with Beck, and Beck's kid sister Lucy with her husband. A woman in her twenties who Birdy assumed was Beck's daughter was also in the line.

Birdy stood in quiet reflection in front of the casket then followed the line along the side of the room until he reached Mrs. Beckman He knew Andy got his sense of humor from her, but laughter was the last thing on her mind today. She looked old and drained mourning her fallen son.

"Oh Birdy, thank you so much for coming home for Andy," Mrs. Beckwith said through her tears, holding tightly to his hands "He always thought the world of you."

"And I him," he replied.

"Hey you." It was his one time would be girl friend Lucy Beckwith, beloved sister of Andrew. She collapsed in his arms and Birdy hugged her tightly as she wept on his shoulder.

"Andy always said you and Boone were the brothers he never had," she said through her sobs.

"You, me and Andy had some good times together."

"I know, I know," she sobbed. "Birdy, this is my husband Larry. Larry," she said, dabbing her eyes. "This is the infamous Birdy Braft, back from who knows where."

Larry was stocky with strong shoulders and a full set of hair. Birdy shook his hand and said hello.

"This is Amy, Andy's daughter." Lucy introduced Beck's flesh and blood. The girl had her father's mouth and eyes and Birdy shook her gentle hand.

"Your father made me laugh." However stupid, it was the only thing he could think to say, but she was on autopilot and could only blankly nod in return.

Beck had never married Amy's mother. "Both of them were incapable of having a normal relationship," was how Cathy summed up their time together.

Birdy made his way to the back of the room and met up with the basketball guys who had thought enough of Andy Beckwith to show up. Duston McQuinn the lawyer grabbed The Birdman in a bear hug and refused to let go. Radio personality Moondog Currie hadn't aged a day from the last time Birdy saw him thirty years earlier – his hair was still red and his beard was the color of a flamethrower.

"Birdy Braft," Moondog greeted him with a handshake. "I wrote a song about you. 'Has Anybody Seen The Late Great Birdy Braft?'"

"Thanks, Moondog." Birdy couldn't help but laugh, tickled to have made Moondog's song list.

Tag Hendrix, dressed in a $1200 suit with a scarf as a wardrobe choice, looked like he just came from the Ritz.

"Hey, Birdy, how's it hanging?" Tag asked with a grin.

Birdy shook his hand. "You may have overdressed for the occasion, Tag."

"It's all about the wardrobe, Birdman," the wealthy greeting card company owner remarked.

Joe Jock was underdressed in a pair of corduroys and a sports shirt. "I don't own a suit," he explained to The Birdman. "I never go anywhere."

Molly McAdams looked like a bum, wearing a tattered army jacket, scuffed jeans and a Budweiser tee shirt. It was hard to tell who needed a drink worse – Molly or Cathy Reynolds. McAdams had never been one of Birdy's favs, but he couldn't help but feel sorry for the down on his luck fellow.

Billy Aldrich, Cade Simpson, and Doug Phelps were appropriately dressed and greeted Birdy with handshakes. All three were impressively handsome and professional in their middle age appearance.

"Johnny C tells me you might be interested in buying the diner," Doug noted as they exchanged pleasantries.

"Will you be my guy if I do?" Birdy asked, feeling odd making a business deal at a wake.

"I'm standing by," the appreciative Doug replied, and they shook a businessman's handshake to cement the commitment.

Torch Johnson and Donny Garvin were working stiffs who didn't bother dressing for the wake. They both acknowledged Birdy's presence with head nods and he assumed they weren't interested in a conversation given their body language.

The scandalized Bink Baxter had lost whatever stature he once enjoyed as a high school basketball star. Paunchy and bloated, he didn't like being reminded of how great he used to be and how forgotten he had become. Bink had always been aloof and detached when he was popular, but now he was shunned and put out, almost jealous of the attention Beck was getting in death that Bink no longer received in life.

Barry Schwink had put on a few pounds in the intervening years, but he was still all muscle with no neck.

"Did Prelog let you play your senior year?" Birdy asked Barry after they shook hands, remembering how Barry, Sunday Simmons and Pete Phaneuf missed the playoffs his last year after getting kicked off the team for drinking.

"Nope," Barry replied. "I made the enemies list."

"He never talked to the three of us again," Sunday Simmons grumbled, still offended by the treatment thirty years later. "What a miserable excuse for a coach that guy was, NBA be damned."

Birdy wasn't about to argue.

Boone Reynolds informed his former teammates that they were gathering as a group in the locker room of The Pit at the old high school. Skipping this mandatory basketball meeting was not an option, he added.

People were genuinely happy to see the long absent Birdy and he engaged in catch up conversations with several folks throughout the room. Classmates who missed him at the various reunions reconnected. Long time Johnny C. customers exchanged pleasantries with the former diner worker. Sports enthusiasts remembering Birdy as the guy who never got off the bench senior year swapped basketball stories. And old timers who remembered Officer Bill Braft killed in the line of duty reminisced with the cop's son.

Wakes aren't the greatest places for reunions – it's hard to laugh over all the crying – but Birdy enjoyed his chats in the subdued environment, although he understood that the gathering wasn't about his return. It was about remembering and mourning Andy Beckwith

"Andy did a pretty good impersonation of you," Birdy reminded Coach T. when his high school mentor stopped by to say hello to his former players..

"Oh boy," The Coach said with a hearty laugh. "I'd hear 'They're killing me out there!' at least once a day when he was around."

The Good Coach was in terrific shape for a man in his late seventies. His silver hair was thinning, he was a bit hard of hearing, and he walked at a snail's pace, but his weight was good and he was mentally sharp, spending several months of the year traveling on various senior cruises.

"Wow, look at Bozeman!"

It was Tag Hendrix who noticed Noreen's entrance first. The guys were people watching from their perch in the back and it was easy to notice their former classmate once she was in the room. Noreen looked twenty years younger than anybody in her peer group with the same figure she had in high school. Her hair was darker and less curly than it had been thirty years earlier but she remained strikingly beautiful. She wore a tight knee-length black dress with white pearls, black stockings and heels.

"Man, she looks better than anybody our age has a right too!" said Boone.

"Which is why all the wives are glad she lives in Maine," said Moondog.

Noreen knelt in front of Beck's casket in quiet prayer before making her way down the receiving line. Once she paid her respects to the Beckwith family, she interacted with a few people seated in the rows of chairs set up in the middle of the room.

Birdy waited until there was a quiet moment when Noreen was seated alone, staring in reflective meditation at the coffin and artifacts in the front of the room, before joining her.

"Hello," Birdy said as he slid into the chair next to her.

"Hello," she replied politely with hardly a glance, not interested in conversing with a stranger at a wake.

Birdy sat quietly in his chair and looked at the photos displayed by Andy's coffin. "No Zoey?" he asked after a few moments,

"She doesn't do wake or funerals." Noreen wasn't paying attention and answered the question while lost in her own thoughts and memories.

"Well, as long as she isn't napping at Hampton Beach," Birdy responded.

Noreen slowly turned and looked at the man sitting next to her, seeing him for the first time.

"Birdy?" She was both confused and surprised.

"Noreen."

"Oh my God!" she shouted. "Holy Shit!"

Heads turned. Noreen's voice was louder than it needed to be given the circumstances and she shrugged in apologetic embarrassment.

"Birdy!" She whispered with amazement, giving the Birdman a hug. "I can't believe it's you!"

"So, how's the first girl I ever slept with doing?"

"Birdy!" She punched his arm. "Shh. I'm a married woman. People might get the wrong idea!"

He laughed with tickled amusement.

"The four of us spent a lot of time together, didn't we?" Noreen asked.

"I enjoyed every minute of it."

"Really?"

"Really," he confirmed.

"So how come you never asked me out then?" She challenged. "It bothered me for years."

"I could ask you the same question," Birdy boldly responded.

She smiled. "I guess I was old fashioned back then. Andy said you'd be crushing on Cassie forever. I didn't want to be second fiddle."

"My mistake," Birdy confessed. "Maybe we could get together later?" he suggested hopefully. "For old times sake."

"I'm heading back to Maine tonight," she announced sadly. "My daughter has a school thing tomorrow."

"You came all the way down here for Beck?" Birdy was impressed.

"Well, I had dinner with my mom, but yeah." She took his hand in hers. "High school was a very special time for me, Birdy," Noreen said. "This was the least I could do for Andy."

"I'm having a hard time with all this," Birdy told her.

"Andy's death, you mean?"

"That and cosmic justice," Birdy said with a sigh. "I don't deserve any better fate than McAdams back there for all the terrible things I did. Or, from what I'm hearing, from what Andy did in his adult life."

"Let's just say the Andy we knew and loved died a long time ago," agreed Noreen.

"Yet here I am. Alive and well."

"You were the nicest guy I ever knew," she told him, squeezing his hand tightly. "Believe me, if I had it to do over again, we'd have napped together."

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "Thanks, Noreen." He stared into her eyes. "You look wonderful."

"It's to late for Andy," Noreen sighed. "But that doesn't mean you can't be happy." She leaned over and kissed him. "I was in love with you once," she whispered. "And I still love you." He almost fell out of his chair hearing her honest confession.

Noreen stood. "I have a long drive. I should go."

Birdy stood and took both her hands in his. "I was too messed up back then to realize what I had."

"The past is over, Birdy," she reminded him. "Live your life now."

She was gone before he could say another word, slipping from the row of chairs and disappearing into the crowd of mourners in a flash.. He fell back in his chair and wondered if his life-long obsession with Cassie Emerson had cheated him from a normal life.

Birdy noticed that the basketball guys had begun slipping away from the parlor. Most of the team stood on the sidewalk outside the funeral home shooting the breeze, talking about family, work, and catching one another up on life (and death). Some of them ribbed The Birdman about Noreen when he joined the group outside, remincent of the old locker room fodder of their youth.

"The Pit," Boone ordered. "Fifteen minutes."

The gym was lit up as if a game was about to be played when Birdy arrived at the old school. The door to the former locker room was open, thanks to Todd Vose. Birdy hopped down the steps and walked past the old wall of fame in front of the former coach's office, which was still covered with the names from the past.

The old locker room wasn't a locker room anymore. The showers and commodes had been ripped out and the walls were painted in an off pink hue. The lockers and anchored benches were also removed, and the room was one open space, used for storage. Even after all these years, there was still a hint of sweat hanging in the air.

Todd had set up a few dozen folding chairs in the room and the team gathered as if they were having a team meeting before a game. Duston, Boone, Tag, Birdy and Bink Baxter – the last senior survivors from that team – were there, along with fellow players from the various teams - Joe Jock, Mollie McAdams, Billy the A., Cade Simpson, Torch Johnson, Doug Phelps, Donny Garvin, Moondog Currie, Phil Golinski., Barry Schwink, and Sunday Simmons. Some of the guys had brought beer along and wasted little time in opening the cans of suds.

Back then, they were pimply faced adolescents trying to fit in. Now they were priests, doctors, lawyers, business owners, managers, cooks, factory workers, utility workers, educators, and tradesmen. Husbands and fathers too. Hillsboro High School had produced some quality graduates.

Birdy was happy to see that Coach Timberlake, Todd Vose, Cathy Reynolds and Officer Mike were also present for the team meeting.

"Thanks for coming," Boone said once everybody was in the room. "Birdy and I found this in Beck's stuff," Boone lifted the bottle of champagne out of a backpack. "It was meant for after the Greenville game, had we won."

Boone passed out paper cups and poured a dab of champagne into each one.

"To Beck," Boone said, giving a toast.

"To Beck." They lifted their cups in a salute to their fallen teammate.

"And Mel and Dan," added Team Captain Duston McQuinn. .

"Here, Here," the group said in unity.

"And to Birdy Braft who's back from the dead," said Phil Golinski.

They raised their cups in appreciation, welcoming their long missing teammate home.

"There's more business we need to take care of tonight," Boone informed the group once the bubbly was consumed. "Right, Birdy?"

Birdy looked at Boone with surprise. "Whatta mean?"

"He means what happened between you and Prelog?" Joe Jock Bonds stated bluntly.

Birdy became nervous at the inquisition. "What difference does it make now?"

"It makes all the difference," Boone replied. "We need to sort some stuff out tonight once and for all."

"There had to be reason why The Panther treated you like shit for five years," Joe Bonds said.

"He treated a lot of us like shit for plenty of years, Joe," Birdy reminded his friend. "Luke Lobush. Cade. Georgie Porgie. Doug. Phil. Barry. Sunday. He wasn't a very good coach. Where's the news flash in that?"

"It was extra personal with you," Duston stated.

Birdy glanced around the room and noticed everybody intensely staring him down, waiting for an explanation. Maybe thirty-five years was long enough to be carrying a secret. He supposed he owed it to these guys to own up to his censure.

"You remember in eighth grade when I showed up at school with my face beat in?" he asked the group.

"What about it?" Boone wanted to know.

"You guys never figured out who did it."

"Who did do that to you, Birdy?" Duston asked.

He gave McQ a deadpan look, as if to say, 'Who do you think?'

"Prelog beat the shit out of you?" a shocked Boone Reynolds stared at him in disbelief.

Chief Kelly kicked a chair across the room. "God damn it!" he shouted. "I knew it! I fucking knew it!"

"What happened, Birdy?" Joe asked. "It wasn't even basketball season."

"I caught him fucking my sister." Birdy looked at Bonds with ironic pity. "Sorry, Joe. I know you liked Darlene."

"You can't make this stuff up," Boone said, shaking his head.

"We were out selling ads," Birdy told the gathered. "I skipped out on Bryanna Gleason and went home. Heard some noises coming out of Darlene's room, opened the door, and….. show time."

"It was really Prelog?" A surprised Duston wanted to know.

"Yeah," Birdy confirmed. "I said to him, 'Gee, since you're fucking my sister, how 'bout I go fuck your wife?'"

"Great line, Birdy," an impressed Boone commented. "Not a particularly smart one, unfortunately."

"He punched my lights out," Birdy told the group.

The others looked at Birdy with a newly discovered level of respect and appreciation.

"Why didn't you tell anybody? Boone wanted to know.

"Tell them what?" Birdy wondered aloud.

Coach T. stood up and looked the group down as if he was giving a pre-game pep talk. "I'm sorry for what he put you boys through. He was a lunatic. I should have done something sooner."

"It wasn't your fault," a sympathetic Birdy assured the old man. "Nobody knew about my sister."

"For the record, Coach T is the guy who finally got Prelog sacked," revealed Officer Mike.

"I knew Coach crossed the line several times," said Coach T. "He done you all wrong."

"Why did you keep it a secret, Birdy?" an awed Cathy asked, seeing Birdy Braft for who he really was for the first time in her life.

"What was the point of saying something?" Birdy reasoned. "Scandalize my sister? Embarrass his wife? Ruin his family? Remember, everybody thought Prelog was a God those first few years. He was the golden boy. The whole town thought he was great. I was the schmuck. Who was going to believe me?"

"I would have," Joe Bonds replied.

"Me too," Duston McQuinn said.

"You should have told me, son," Chief Kelly sighed. "We could have nailed the bastard then and there."

Birdy felt relieved and released. "Maybe I should have trusted you guys," he said. "I thought it was more important to protect people." .

"The only guy you really protected was Prelog," observed Joe Bonds, echoing the words of Bryanna Gleason all those years ago.

"It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time," was Birdy's only defense.

"Would you do it again the same way?" an intrigued Chief Kelly wanted to know.

The Birdman thought about it for a moment. "I don't know," Birdy decided. "That single incident pretty much ruined my entire life. I suppose if I knew then what I know now, I never would have opened that damn bedroom door in the first place."

"But you demonstrated great character," Coach T. told his former player with pride. "You were an inspiration for you teammates, especially senior year."

"You weren't his only victim, Birdy," Phil Golinski was quick to point out.

Several of the guys shared Prelog horror stories. Cade mentioned his smart-assed remark to Prelog in 8th grade that effectively ended his varsity career before it started. Phil talked about the shame and fear of potentially being exposed by the coach. Tag Hendrix revealed that during half time of the Greenville playoff game, he was hunched over the commode puking what was left of his guts out when Prelog came in the bathroom and shoved his head into the toilet water.

"He was really pissed I couldn't play," Tag recalled.

"Prelog was the only teacher who called me Billy the Asshole to my face," Billy Aldrich recalled. "He'd always say, 'You know, you really are an asshole'."

"He never visited me in the hospital when I had my accident," Dougie Phelps confessed. "He never acknowledged me again the rest of the time I was at Hillsboro."

"He threw a basketball at my head," Torch Johnson said. "I was sitting on the bench fooling around with Dan Bailey during a practice, didn't hear Prelog saying something to me, so he threw a rocket shot at my face."

"I remember that!" said Mollie McAdams. "Blood was everywhere."

"Broke my damn nose," confirmed Torch.

"He was very good at making sure there weren't any witnesses when he did go off," Phil Golinski recalled. "It was always his word against ours."

"And he always said, 'Who's going to believe a punk like you?' remembered Boone.

"He roughed me up in the equipment room another time before he beat me up," Birdy revealed.

"He pushed me down the stairs," Donny Garvin told the group, gesturing to the steps outside the locker room door that led to the Pit. "Coming in here at half time of a game. He was pissed that I blew a couple of plays and was yelling at me from behind. All of a sudden, I'm flying head first down the landing."

"He told me I was a piece of shit after one bad game," Boone Reynolds admitted. "I came close to punching him in the mouth that time. He dared me to go ahead and try. 'Think you can take me, Reynolds?' He was laughing at me. Called me a pussy for not fighting him."

"How could they leave a guy like that in charge for so long?" Cathy was shocked by the ugly revelations.

"He was the darling of Hillsboro," Coach T. sighed sadly. "A local boy who did good. Made it to the NBA. Those were all the credentials he needed."

"Well, we all agree that Prelog was a nut job who never should have been our coach, right?" asked Boone.

The others nodded in agreement.

"And we hereby offer our unconditional apology to Birdy Braft for not supporting him during his tough years," offered Duston McQuinn

"You guys didn't know." Birdy tried to excuse them, but Boone raised his hand to stop The Birdman from continuing.

"We knew something major happened," Boone replied. "Beck was the guy who wanted to stage a walk out a couple of times. The rest of us didn't have the balls."

"We all did what we had to do to survive," Birdy rationalized their schoolboy behavior. "There's no need to have a press conference about this," he added. "This can stay here, in this locker room, between us."

Most heads nodded in agreement.

"What about Senior Play, Birdy?" Joe wanted to know. "Was that Prelog too?"

"No, that was another jerk altogether," the former Frank Butler replied.

"Who?" Boone asked.

Birdy debated whether he should come clean on that one too. The statues of limitation was up and, in the interest of full disclosure, Birdy figured he might as well cleanse his soul completely.

"Sam Provost had three goons take me out," he told the group.

"Provost?" Even Sammy-boy's old battery mate Molly McAdams was surprised to learn that the star pitcher had been involved in something so seedy.

"A Prelog in training, apparently," Birdy confirmed. "He thought me and Cassie were getting too close."

"Why didn't you rat him out?" an annoyed Boone asked.

"He was on his way to the show," Birdy answered with a shrug. "Who was I to screw that up for him?"

"Man, I can't believe you took the collar for that guy," said Joe Bonds.

"Especially since he never made it," agreed Boone.

"And it cost you any chance with Cassie," Joe pointed out.

"Yeah," Birdy admitted sadly, but he was relieved that thirty-five years of baggage had been lifted from his shoulders. "Now that true confessions have been revealed, we can go now, right?"

"Beck was right all along," Boone said with a sigh. "He's the one who kept insisting something terrible happened to The Birdman. He wanted us to quit senior year when Prelog wouldn't play you, Birdy."

"And he's the only one who had the guts to say something to Prelog at the end of the Greenville game," Duston added.

"I think that's the best tribute we can offer Andy," Coach T. concluded. "He stood up for his friend."

There was silent reflection for a few minutes. Some of the guys began to drift out of the locker room, either for a nostalgic walk through the Pit or to go home, while others hung around and shot the breeze in the locker area.

"I'm sorry you had to go through what you went through, son," a shamed Coach T. said. "I should have done more."

"You did plenty, Coach," Birdy assured him. "We're all indebted to you."

Barry Schwink took Coach T. home, while Torch and Cade Simpson escorted Mollie McAdams from the room.

A humbled Cathy Reynolds approached Birdy. "You carried a lot of other people's stuff around for a long time," she said with a degree of new found respect.

"It's time we both let it all go," Birdy said to her in response.

"Prelog should have gone to jail for what he did to you and your sister," Duston stated.

"We were your friends, Birdy," a frowning Joe Jock told him, unhappy to learn his secrets thirty years after the fact. "We could have helped you if you had said something."

"I guess we buried a lot of ghosts tonight," Birdy replied.

"If only Andy was here to be part of it all," Boone sighed.

"I finally did what you asked," Birdy told Officer Mike. "I did the right thing. It just took a little longer than you hoped."

Mike smiled at him. "Better late than never."

Birdy and the others left the locker room of their past. Birdy hesitated in front of the coach's office.

"It's over, Panther," he said with conviction. "We win."

Todd Vose turned off the lights while the rest stepped into the night. Mike said his goodnights and headed home, while the rest loitered in the parking area.

Boone looked at Birdy and grinned. 'Since you're fucking my sister, how 'bout I go fuck your wife?'" They laughed at the absurdity of the entire scenario.

"Turns out you weren't a homo after all," Boone joked. He nodded his appreciation to Birdy before escorting Cathy to his Boone the Builder pickup truck.

Birdy thanked Todd Vose for letting the squad have their final team meeting in the old locker room.

"That was some pretty intense stuff," Todd replied. "Sorry about Provost. That was dirty pool."

Birdy shook Todd's hand and Duston wished his old friend a goodnight before walking with Todd to their cars.

"I guess I can understand why you didn't want to come back," Joe told Birdy. "But all that's over now. You can come home now."

Joe disappeared into the darkness, leaving Birdy behind – the only one left. He glanced out to where the football stands once stood. "Oh, tsk," he said with a smile, honoring Lisa. He turned and looked at the darkened Pit one final time. There were no ghosts looking back at him.

Birdy drove pass the Emerson house on his way back to the motel but, of course, there was no sign of Cassie! Okay, maybe there still was one ghost left.

It was after midnight when he returned to his room – 9 o'clock on the west coast. He called Tamara as they agreed and she answered the phone on the first ring.

"Hello?" Her voice sounded nervous.

"Hi, Tamara. How are you?"

There was a long pause. "Bobby?" she finally said with uneasiness.

"That's me." He never saw it coming.

"You're fired."

He laughed, thinking she was kidding, but then he realized from her silence that she was dead serious.

"I'm fired?" Her unexpected decision caught him by surprise.

"I put your stuff from the diner on your front porch," she informed him in a business like tone. "I slid your last paycheck under your door. Don't come back to the diner. I'll tell Ben you were hitting on me if you try to contact me in any way."

He was stunned, feeling the same emotions he felt that Sunday morning on the Emerson porch when he learned Cassie had gone to Florida. He had been fantasizing all week that Tamara would agree to run away with him, perhaps back to Hillsboro, or that she would leave Ben and they could start fresh together, but he never considered getting fired as an option.

"Why are you doing this?" He was unable to keep the hurt out of his voice.

"I'm making the right decision for you," she replied sadly. "Otherwise, you'd come back to be my knight in shining armor."

"What's wrong with that?"

"It won't work, Bobby." He could hear her crying on the other end of the line.

He couldn't argue because he knew she was right. "This is a tough way to say goodbye, Tamara."

"It's the only way," she stated through her sniffles.

Neither of them said anything for a few moments. He wanted to tell her something meaningful, loving and memorable, but there were no words that could express how he was feeling – about her, about himself, about his life.

"I'm sorry," he finally said with a sigh.

"Goodbye, Bobby," she whispered into the line.

"Goodbye, Tamara."

The line went dead.

Like Cassie, he had lost Tamara – a woman he never had in the first place.

Chapter 42

Birdy awoke the following morning before dawn, down in the dumps missing Tamara and feeling badly about their abrupt ending. He was also feeling ovewhelmed facing a funeral to say goodbye to a dead friend. He showered, put his 'Sunday go to meeting' suit back on, and headed for Hillsboro before first light. He parked by the church and noticed Father Fitz coming out of the Rectory, dressed in a jogging suit.

"No collar?" Birdy joked when the priest met him in the parking lot.

"There's an exemption for running suits and pajamas," Father Fitz replied. "What brings you out this early?"

"Why does bad stuff happen to good people?" Birdy asked.

"They don't," the priest replied. "Life happens."

"I saw Sarah Johns last night, one of the nicest girls in our class," said Birdy. "Now she's Dead Woman Walking. And you're about to celebrate the funeral for the funniest kid any of us ever knew."

"Birdy, there's the natural order of life and there's the spiritual order of life," Father Fitz explained as he did some stretching on the curb of the parking lot. "The natural order is the sun coming up." He pointed to the rising sun in the eastern sky. "It's a hurricane drowning folks in New Orleans. It's cancer attacking Sarah. We can't do much about the natural order."

"And the spiritual order?"

"The spiritual order is the Coming of Christ. The Power of God. It's Faith, religion and prayer. We have a say in the spiritual order."

"Beck didn't."

"Sure he did," Father Fitz replied. "He wasn't going to church and he had tough problems that got in the way of his faith, but I can you he was in the confessional every few months asking for God's forgiveness and reconciliation. He was in touch with his spiritual roots."

"I think I'm suffering from survivor's guilt, Clark," Birdy confessed.

"Whatta mean?"

"I was a sinner with a capital S and here I am alive and well. But nice people like Andy and Sarah are suffering."

"It doesn't work that way, Birdy," the priest assured him. "There is no such thing as cosmic payback. You can't live your life wrapped in guilt."

"Why am I any more deserving for a good life than anybody else?"

"You aren't," Father Fitz replied. "But the whole point of Jesus coming to Earth was for redemption. We all get second chances, Birdy."

"How many second chances?" he asked with a sigh.

"Seven times. Seven times seven. And then seven times seven times seventy."

"Wow." Birdy laughed. ":That many?"

"That many," Father Fitz confirmed with a grin. "I really gotta get this run in or I'll be off all day, Birdy. We can talk later."

"Sure, sure, Father," Birdy replied, waving him away. "So much for the stereotype of the old fat priest, huh?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty young in priest years," Father Fitz agreed as he jogged down the street.

Birdy took a leisurely stroll toward the funeral home with plenty of time to kill before the service. He wondered if Father Fitz was right – had he been forgiven for all his past sins? Was he deserving of living a happy life?

Birdy hadn't thought much about Prelog's Hillsboro business until he found himself standing in front of Panther's Gym glancing into the storefront window. He was amused when he noticed Elizabeth the Realtor Lady on the treadmill.

Birdy strolled into enemy territory. NBA logos, sportswear, posters, and promotions were hanging everywhere. Giant likenesses of Prelog himself hung on the walls – as a Hillsboro Topper, A Boston College Eagle, and especially as a Milwaukee Buck, but Birdy was relieved not to see the real-life Panther anywhere in the building.

He approached Elizabeth's treadmill and said good morning to the early exerciser.

"I didn't think you'd ever step foot in this place," she said, surprised to find him standing in front of her. "I heard you tell the Chief how much you hated Coach Prelog."

"Is the Panther here?" He nervously looked around the room.

"He doesn't come by much anymore," Elizabeth said, wiping perspiration from her forehead with a towel as she continued running on the treadmill.

"How's your dad doing?" Birdy asked, making conversation.

"Not good," she replied. "But we all have our trials and tribulations."

"My father died when I was eight," Birdy offered. "Might as well been yesterday."

"What was it like for you?" Elizabeth wondered. "After he died, I mean."

"My life became disconnected," he said. "Like an out of body experience. I couldn't get beyond 'Why Me'."

"What saved you?"

"A punch in the face from my basketball coach."

Elizabeth looked at him with surprise. "Your coach beat you up?"

"Michael Francis Prelog," Birdy laughed, waving to one of the Panther posters on the wall. "My hero," he added sarcastically.

"Coach Prelog beat you up?" She studied him intensely.

"Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this," Birdy sighed. "I mean, we're in his gym."

"He beat you up?" She asked again.

"The Panther was a legend who came back to Hillsboro as an Icon, A God," Birdy explained. "He started out as my junior high basketball coach. The town loved him. Only the players knew he was a fraud, but who was going to listen to us? Nobody wanted to hear the truth."

"What truth?"

"That The Panther was an obnoxious, self-centered, vulgar, berating and abusive egomaniac jerk."

"But why did he beat you up?"

"I caught him having sex with my sister."

Elizabeth stopped running so suddenly that she almost fell off the treadmill. Birdy reached out and caught her before she tumbled to the floor. She turned off the machine and stared at him with disbelief.

"Sorry," he said with a shrug. "I know this is tabloid material." Birdy looked around to make sure nobody was nearby to overhear their conversation.

A pale Elizabeth dazedly walked to a bench by the window. Birdy followed, taking a seat next to her.

"Are you sure you're not making this up?" She asked.

"Believe me, I wish I was. I played hokey one day and sneaked home."

"The Coach was at your house?"

"With my seventeen-year old sister."

Elizabeth stared blankly out the storefront's window. "I'm sorry that happened to you," she said weakly. "You didn't tell anyone about it?"

"Not until last night."

"Why not?"

"He was a God."

"Even the Greek Gods eventually died off," Elizabeth sighed.

"Besides, I had to protect my sister."

"Maybe she didn't deserve your help," Elizabeth said.

"I'd been angry at the world since my father died, but after that happened I was defeated by it," Birdy confessed. "That's the day I began my transformation. I vowed I'd never end up like Prelog."

"And here you are," Elizabeth said.

"Would you have told?" All these years later, and Birdy was still questioning himself.

"Any type of violence is unacceptable in my book," she said. "An adult hitting a kid is immoral. Your coach also broke every ethical rule in the book with your sister."

"It was hard carrying such a heavy secret."

"Everybody has secrets," she said.

Birdy felt the ghost of Prelog all around him as he sat in the Panther's gym. He glanced out the window, wondering why he came back to the roots of his pain.

"I got dumped over the phone by a married woman 3,000 miles away last night." Birdy had no idea why he was blurting out this news to Elizabeth, a woman he barely knew. "She fired me."

"Good" Elizabeth was unconcerned about his personal problems. "Now you can buy Johnny C's," she stated matter-of-factly as she stood up. "I need to hit the showers," she told him.

"And I need to go bury my friend," Birdy sighed, standing himself.

She nodded with understanding. "It's going to be okay," she assured him with a smile. He got the feeling he somehow knew her from somewhere as he watched her stroll across the room to the woman's locker room.

Birdy walked to Johnny C's for breakfast, shooting the breeze with waitress Becky over hash and eggs at the counter. He walked breakfast off with a stroll around downtown before finally heading to the funeral home to begin the Beck farewell.

Chapter 43

The basketball pallbearers of Duston, Boone, Tag, Bink, Joe and Birdy stood in the hallway of the funeral home quietly talking while the secret agent funeral home staff went about their business.

George Kessler said he'd open the coffin one last time if the guys wanted to say so long to Andy. They agreed and followed Porgie into the parlor. George lifted the casket top to expose Beck, allowing each teammate a private moment to say a few words before stepping back. Birdy took Beck's Talent Show trophy from one of the nearby stands and put it in the coffin.

"Here Beck," he said. "Take this with you. Give Peter one of your impersonations at the Pearly Gates."

The grieving family arrived a few minutes later, along with Father Fitz who said a couple of prayers before the secret agent funeral home staff began hauling the flowers from the parlor. After the grieving family left, the funeral home staff wheeled the casket to the front door where the basketball pallbearers carried it through an honor guard of cops to the waiting hearse for the short ride to the church. It was a cool, gray and overcast day, but there was no rain as Beck's teammates climbed into a waiting limousine.

The front of the church was lined with a hundred cops. The church bells quietly tolled a repeated single chime. A bagpipe could be heard in the distance. Beck's teammates carried their fallen friend into the packed Church and Birdy was startled when the loud organ began trumpeting out a solemn march.

Father Fitzgerald, in his white vestments, blessed the coffin at the church entrance before leading the procession with the casket down the center aisle to the front altar.

It didn't take long for Birdy's radar to hone in on Cassie Emerson Zoar, seated with Sarah and Owen about 10 pew rows back on the right side of the church. His heart skipped a few beats, but his military training enabled him to stay focused on the task at hand.

The six pallbearers sat in the front pew for the Mass. The parish choir graced the service with several moving hymns, including Praise to the Lord, Here I am Lord, Prayer of St. Francis, Amazing Grace, and God Bless America!

Birdy listened to the opening prayer, the readings (first one by Andy's Sister Lucy, the responsorial psalm by his daughter Amy, and the second reading by Cathy Reynolds), and Father Fitz read the gospel ("I Have Prepared A Place For You") before delivering a moving Homily.

"The Church discourages sermons at funerals from dwelling on the individual too much. In the old days, sermons were never given at Catholic funerals, unless the service happened to be for a priest or another noteworthy individual. The focus at Catholic Funerals is always supposed to be on the Gospel and Christian living, but sometimes you have to make exceptions. Today is one of those exceptions.

You know, whenever I do a funeral Mass, even one of a total stranger, I can't help but want to cry. Today, I really want to cry for my friend, especially when I see his lovely family and faithful friends mourning here with me. I can't help but feel for you – and me. Celebrating this funeral is emotionally draining. But if I believe in the Resurrection, why do I want to cry? That's what I think in my head, as a priest. But how I feel in my heart, as a friend, well, that's a little different.

Nobody beyond the confines of this Church will remember Andy much beyond this day. Life will go on in Hillsboro and beyond. But you and I will remember him. We'll remember him because he made all of us extraordinary people simply because we were given the miracle of knowing him. As a son. As a brother. As a father. As a friend. As a classmate. As a teammate. As a brethren officer.

I went to school with Andy. I played basketball with Andy. Everybody who went to Hillsboro High School with Andy will tell you that Andy Beckwith was the funniest guy in the school. And he was. Everybody here can tell a funny Beck story. There are hundreds if not thousands of them to be told. But we're not laughing today.

We feel sad for ourselves because we don't have Andy in our life anymore. That's a natural human reaction. But may I remind you that Jesus has prepared a kingdom for us in His Father's house. 'Whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.' Those of us left behind need not feel sorry for Beck because he has found his Glory with God and we should rejoice for him.

Andy's death – as painful as it is for us spoiled mortals - reminds us that we are not of this world. Our inheritance awaits us in Heaven. We are all going home because HE will raise us up on the last day.

I must stop now…..before I cry. Goodbye, Beck – See You In Heaven. I know you'll be laughing.

When the Funeral Mass was concluded, Father Fitz placed final blessings on Beck's casket. The Panther Six wheeled the casket down the center aisle where it was blessed again before being taken from the Church – God's House. Andy's teammates loaded the box into the hearse for the ride to the cemetery a few miles away. Tag Hendrix told the other pallbearers about the time his dog got hit by a car in 8th Grade.

"When I got to the Animal Hospital later that day to visit Buster, Beck was sitting there waiting for me," Tag revealed. "It was a simple gesture, but it was also one of the nicest things anybody ever did for me. Just acknowledging that my dog was important said a lot about Beck's sensitivity and compassion."

Birdy was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of loss and sadness. It was finally hitting home: Andy Beckwith was gone. The laughing friend who helped him learn to dance. The guy with dozens of voices, all of them funny. The kid who coached the summer basketball team. The comedian who kept his teammates laughing in the locker-room. The guy who made Pawnee Bill come alive. Andy Beckwith, the ultimate friend and teammate.

Birdy was caught off guard when a swell of emotions burst from him like an exploding fire works factory. The sobs launched out of his stomach like a stream of vomit and Birdy couldn't control the tears flowing out of his eyes like twin water facets. The uncontrolled outburst was not just because of Andy dying. It was also the release of all the crap Birdy had been carrying inside since that terrible New Year's Eve night when he was in third grade.

He hadn't cried at his father's funeral. He hadn't cried when Prelog abused him. He hadn't cried for Cassie. He didn't cry for Boo. But now he was crying for all of the unresolved hurts and for his wasted and lost disconnected existence. For the first time in his life, Birdy had lost command of his controlled emotions: he was unable to stop the sobbing, weeping, and tears. He was a mess, but it had been a long time coming and the others let him experience his meltdown with respected silence

The long line of limos, hearses, and cars made its way into St. Anthony's Cemetery to "plant" Andy alongside his father. A drained Birdy had to struggle to collect himself before getting out of the limo.

"Take all the time you need," Boone advised. "They have to wait for us anyway."

"Sorry I lost it, guys." Birdy said, trying to suck in his emotions.

"Don't worry about it," Boone told him.

"Let's do our duty," Birdy said, wiping the tears from his face and taking in deep breaths.

The pallbearers carried the flag-draped coffin to the gravesite where Father Fitz recited the burial prayers. An Army honor guard folded the flag into a triangle and an officer presented it to a sobbing Mrs. Beckwith "on behalf of a grateful nation". Six police honor guard riflemen fired three rounds into the air, scaring half the crowd while making the rest cry. Many others couldn't help but cry when a lone bugler on a distant hill played TAPS. The priest made a cross from dirt on the coffin while announcing the final prayers and, just like that, the service was over. The bagpipe player played a lonesome rendition of "Amazing Grace" as the crowd slowly dispersed.

"Goodbye, Andy," Birdy said before leaving the gravesite.

He surveyed the landscape as he walked to the limousine and thought he saw Cassie getting into a car parked three or four rows away, but he couldn't' be sure.

Birdy collapsed into the limo, weary from his emotional dam burst. He felt shamed, embarrassed and weak for losing it in front of the others.

"Sorry I'm such a sap," he apologized again.

"You don't have to apologize to us, Birdy," Joe Bonds said. "You've been to hell and back."

Chapter 44

The post-funeral gathering at the VFW Club Social Hall had a strangely festive, celebrative, almost freeing mood now that the emotional formalities were finally over. People had a chance to talk and visit one more time (over food) before returning to the routine of their lives. Even Andy's family seemed relieved. Birdy actually saw Mrs. Beckwith laugh.

Birdy mingled while keeping one eye peeled for another Cassie Emerson sighting. He was able to catch a few Andy Beckwith stories he hadn't heard before as he circulated through the room.

Kids used to call Mike Morrison "Tiny" because he was a small guy. Morrison hated the name and got into more than one fight over it.

"Beck pulled me aside in the cafeteria one day and told me to embrace the nickname instead of fighting it," Mike revealed. "He said I should wear it like a badge of honor and make it a part of me. Once I accepted the name, I had an identity in the school. I liked being called Tiny after that. Beck showed me how to turn a negative into a positive."

"He went to my Uncle's wake in 10th grade," Molly Loomis revealed. "Uncle Lou had a lot of problems and wasn't very well liked in the community. Beck was the one guy from school who showed up."

"When I mashed my legs in the car accident, my biggest fear was I'd never be able to play sports again," Doug Phelps admitted. "Beck told me that if I put all my life's weight on sports I'd never stand on my own two feet anyway."

"What happened to that guy?" Birdy asked with a heavy sigh.

Later, Birdy was seated at a table with Joe Jock and Boone Reynolds eating a plate of pasta when Joe raised his eyebrows, noticing someone behind Birdy.

"Are you ready for your final ghost?" Joe asked his friend

"Cassie." Birdy knew without turning around.

Joe nodded. "Good luck, Birdy."

She was talking with Father Fitz on the other side of the room. Her hair was light blond, short just over her collar. She was heavier than she had been in high school, but she was as beautiful as ever, especially in the black dress she was wearing.

"Birdy." A smiling Cassie greeted him with a warm smile when Birdy joined the Duchess and the Priest.

"This week was supposed to be about Beck, but I heard just as many conversations about Birdy Braft," Father Fitz told Cassie. "You've done well, my friend," he added, turning to Birdy You've lived a life pleasing to God."

Birdy nodded his appreciation and Father Fitz excused himself.

Cassie shook her head. "I still can't get over it. Every time I talk to him, I think to myself, 'This priest used to be my boyfriend!'"

Birdy was happy to be in her presence and taking in her essence again after thirty years of separation.

"I can't stay long," she revealed. "I told my husband I'd be back this afternoon."

"I'm glad you came." He gestured to a nearby empty table. She accepted, taking a seat next to him.

"I debated whether I should." She sounded like a snitch meeting an undercover cop.

"Why?"

"I remember what you said…..at the bowling alley that night," she admitted with hesitation.

He closed his eyes and put his finger to his temple. "That I'm never going to love another woman the way I've loved you?"

"Yeah, that," she said, shaking her head with amazement. "And I said you'd meet plenty of interesting women in your Navy travels."

"And I said I wouldn't love them the way I'd always love you," he reminded her, as though they were collecting on a forgotten bet.

"Did you?"

"What?"

"Meet women in your Navy travels?"

"Yeah." He looked deep into her eyes. "But I never loved them the way I loved you."

"Oh, God. You're unbelievable. Even after all this time." She reached under the collar of her dress and pulled out the locket, still on the same chain. "I've never forgotten, either."

His eyes welted up with tears of salvation.

"Why didn't you tell me Sam was the one who made Frank fall off his horse?" she demanded. "I can't tell you how badly I felt about that."

"He told you?" Birdy was surprised.

"During our last fight. I guess he was trying to stick it to me." She looked long and hard at him. "I remember you telling me that life is all about timing," she said. "I'm sorry our timing was off. I should have gone with my gut."

"What did your gut tell you?"

"When you made that speech as the escort in 10th grade? That's when I knew."

There was a lump in his throat. "Any regrets?"

"I have two beautiful children, Birdy." The pride was obvious. "A wonderful husband. How can I have regrets?"

"You can't."

She nodded in agreement.

"I hated you for a very long time," Birdy told her.

"Because I left without saying goodbye." She nodded in understanding. "I knew you'd probably do something rash if you had the chance."

Birdy smirked at her ability to figure him out. "Your loss was the Navy's gain."

Cassie smiled as she stood. "Goodbye, Birdy."

Birdy stood too. "Goodbye, Cassie."

They embraced and it felt like heaven to hold her in his arms after all this time.

"Take care of yourself, Birdy."

"You too, Duchess." He kissed her like he was Frank and she was Annie. And then she was gone. Exit, Stage Left. How many women was he going to watch walk out of his life?

Birdy returned to the table where Joe and Boone were still seated. Finally, he was released: a huge burden had been lifted from his soul and he felt satisfaction knowing he had been right all along. They didn't end up together, but knowing that they were supposed to was good enough for him.

"You okay?" Joe Jock wanted to know when Birdy slipped into his seat.

He nodded contently. "I'm fine." And for the first time in his life, he meant it.

"That was anticlimactic," Boone observed. "You wait thirty years for a chance to see the love of your life again and it's over in a five minute conversation?"

"It was a great five minutes," Birdy said with a warm smile. "It's like I've been in a Time Tunnel episode all this time," Birdy noted. "All my experiences and memories of this place were frozen in time thirty years ago. Meanwhile, everybody here went on with their lives. Now I have to catch up."

"Remembering the past is okay," Boone told him. "But it's important to live in the present."

"Tell anybody interested to show up at Johnny C's at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning to hear 'a major political announcement'," Birdy advised.

"Is that when we learn the fate of Birdy Braft?" Boone wanted to know.

"It's when we find out what the present will bring," Birdy replied.

The Beckwith family was ready to wrap up the reception and Lucy found Birdy before leaving with her mother.

"Thank you for loving my brother," she said, kissing him smack on the lips.

"It was because of him that you were my first real girl friend," Birdy said softly, holding her in a long embrace. "You were both very special to me."

He watched the Beckwiths' leave the hall and wondered if all the ghosts of his past were now buried with Andy.

Chapter 45

When the reception was officially over, Birdy took a solidary ride to the cemetery and visited his father's grave for the first time in thirty years.

What amazed him the most as he walked through the boneyard was the number of gravestones featuring the names of people he actually knew: parents of kids he grew up with, business folks, town leaders, and others who had come before. He was overcome by a sense of sadness realizing how much had been given, how much had been lost, and especially - as Joe Bonds had pointed out – how much he had missed.

Birdy was pleased to see that his father's gravestone was well tended (he assumed by the Kellys). There were fresh flowers on the stone and the grass was well manicured around the base.

Officer Bill Braft would have been 74 years old had he lived and his surviving son wondered what kind of life his father would have enjoyed and how different his own world might have been if he had his father in his life. With Tamara giving him the boot, Birdy needed to figure out what to do with the rest of his life and he came to the cemetery looking for advice.

"What do you say, Dad?" he asked as he stood in front of the gravestone. "Stay or go?"

He returned downtown and parked in front of the Roger T. Nolan and Associates Realty Agency. Elizabeth's portrait hung alongside four or five other associates on the lobby wall. "Elizabeth Miller, Gold Award Winner," the nameplate under her photograph read. A much larger portrait of Roger T. Nolan took up most of the wall.

Birdy asked the receptionist if Elizabeth was available.

"Have a seat, Sir," the receptionist said.

He took a seat in the waiting area and leafed through a magazine until Elizabeth greeted him.

"What brings you here? She asked with a professional smile.

"Would you be my agent for a house?"

"Does this mean you're staying?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Depends on the house!" he joked.

She led him down a hall and into her office at the end of the passageway. It was small but attractively pleasant, with one wall covered with numerous awards and another with several framed photographs of happy and satisfied customers posing with their realtor in front of their new homes.

"How come it's not Nolan and Miller Reality?" he asked, taking a seat in front of her desk.

She laughed, slightly embarrassed as she sat behind the desk. "Mr. Nolan doesn't like me that much."

"I was thinking about a small house in Hillsboro," he told her. "Two bedroom, maybe."

"That shouldn't be a problem." She thought for a moment. "You know, there's a house that's just coming available. Do you have a minute to take a look?"

"Wow," he said, greatly impressed. "Just like that?"

She smiled. "I try to take care of my customers," she explained.

In a matter of minutes, Elizabeth was pulling her car into the paved driveway of a small ranch painted an awful lime green with a single car attached garage.

"This is the Liebowitz house," Birdy stated from the passenger's seat.

She was impressed by his memory. "Mrs. Liebowitz just passed. She was in the nursing home for a few months. You're the first to see the house."

"Who's selling it?"

"Her brother," Elizabeth said as she climbed out of car. "Mr. and Mrs. Liebowitiz didn't have children.

"How much?" he asked, joining her in the driveway.

"Oh, I'm sure you'll say too much," she answered with a smile, handing him the home's information fact sheet.

"The house was built sixty years ago," he noted from the sheet. "The Liebowitzs lived here for as long as I can remember. Which means the house was probably paid off at least thirty years ago. Why is the brother trying to milk it for every penny he can get? It's all profit for heaven sakes."

"The asking price is reasonable," she responded like a real estate agent should.

He gave her a blank stare. "Would you live in a house painted that awful color?"

She laughed. "It wouldn't be my first choice," she agreed. "But they put on a new roof about five years ago and the driveway was repaved recently."

"Yeah, but the windows look like the originals," he pointed out.

"You're not interested in this one?" She didn't want to waste time if the deal was already a bust.

"I'm interested," he replied. "I just resent the brother trying to rip me off before his sister is even in the ground."

Elizabeth led her customer through the front door and gave a tour of the house which featured a spacious living room, small dining room, sizable kitchen, a large master bedroom, a smaller second bedroom, and a bathroom.

Elizabeth was an impressive realtor who had the shtick down pat and she gave a great selling performance, but she wasn't pulling the wool over Birdy's eyes. The faded wallpaper was ancient and peeling, the kitchen linoleum was cracked and worn, the appliances were thirty years old, the bathroom hadn't been touched since the house was built, and the cellar was dingy. On the positive side, the house was in relatively good shape and structurally solid on a sizeable lot and Birdy liked the neighborhood - it was only a few blocks from where he grew up.

"Tell the guy I'll pay $25,000 below what he's asking," Birdy informed the Real Estate Agent.

"I don't think he'll go that low," she replied.

"This is an old lady's house, Liz," Birdy said with annoyance. "You know it needs work. Can you seriously tell me you'd pay what he's asking?"

"You understand I get a commission based on a percentage of the selling price," she said with a grin.

"In that case, you'll think it's worth twice as much!"

She laughed. "Let me see what he says."

Elizabeth drove through the Hillsboro neighborhoods returning them to the realty office. Birdy's stomach churned as he struggled with the idea that he was actually coming home.

"Can you really afford the diner and the house at the same time?" a concerned Elizabeth wondered.

"Thanks to Dino Coulter, yes," Birdy replied.

"Dino Coulter?"

"A Navy pal of mine," Birdy explained. "A money guy who got me involved in investments early on. Now I've got a pretty impressive portfolio. Money won't be a problem."

Elizabeth nodded. "Guess Christmas is coming early."

"I'm in Room 114 at the Super 8 Motel in Greenville," he said when they reached the parking lot of her office building. "I'm heading out tomorrow afternoon. Let me know if there's anything on the house, otherwise, I'll call you from the northwest."

"Okay," she agreed.

"Thanks for helping me out."

"That's my job."

They shook hands in the parking lot and he watched as Elizabeth slipped through the back door to the office. It was well after 5:00 and Birdy decided to swing by Joe's Pizza for a bite to eat after a long day. The Pizza Parlor had changed hands since his days of youth, but it was still a nice place to eat.

Birdy ordered a small pizza and sat in a corner table reading a magazine. He noticed a couple in their mid thirties with two children – maybe six and eight – sitting at one of the center tables enjoying a pizza together.

He couldn't take his eyes off the woman. She was attractive, but in a haunting way and he had the feeling he knew her from somewhere. He tried not to stare, but it was hard not to keep the surveillance up.

The mystery woman stood to throw some trash away.

"Get a couple of napkins, Haley," the guy Birdy assumed was her husband called, and Birdy knew he was looking at Ms. Marceline's daughter.

He waited for Haley to return to her seat before approaching another ghost.

"Excuse me," Birdy said, feeling like a kid on a blind date. "Are you Haley Marceline?"

She looked at him with surprise. "It's Haley Pinkham now," she said.

He apologized for the name error. "Your mom was a teacher of mine a long time ago," he told her. "I met you a few times when you were six."

She nodded.

"I just heard about your mom's passing the other day," he added, still having trouble coming to terms with his teacher's death. "I wanted to tell you how sorry I am."

"Thanks," she said, though she was distracted by the six year old who was asking a question.

"I'll let you get back to your meal," he said with a polite smile. He returned to his table, missing Ms. Marceline all over again.

"Are you the guy with the car?"

It was five minutes later. Birdy looked up to see Haley standing in front of his table.

"That's me," he confirmed, motioning for her to take a seat.

"I remember," Haley said with a smile as she sat down. "I remember going to the play. I still have the neckerchief you gave me "

He smiled, happy to be remembered.

"And my mom taking me to Johnny C's," she continued.

"I worked there."

"Mostly, I remember the car."

He smiled. "Me too."

"Hello, Birdy," she said.

"Hi, Haley."

"My mom and I used to come to Joe's Pizza almost every Friday night," she told him. "I'm keeping the family tradition alive." She motioned to her family. "That's my husband Eddie and our children Eric and Ericka."

"I heard your mom got married too."

She nodded. "Jake Farland. A very nice guy. Good step-dad for me. He remarried a few years ago."

"That's nice."

"You moved away after high school?"

"Career Navy. This is my first time back."

She leaned over the table. "I helped Jake clean out some of mom's stuff after she died," she said softly. "I found an envelope in one of her jewelry boxes."

"Oh?"

"There was the bill of sale for the car you gave her."

"I sold it to her," he insisted. "One dollar."

"There was also a note that read, 'To the best teacher I'll ever have.' and a photo of you, me and my mom standing at the counter at Johnny C's."

"I don't remember that," he confessed.

And there was an earring."

"Just one?" he asked innocently.

"My mother used to tell me she had a special someone before she met Jake," Haley revealed. She gave him a long look "Was she talking about you?"

"I was just a goofy high school kid." He tried to deflect suspicion.

Haley was unconvinced. "Listen, if my mom was happy, I don't care what happened between the two of you."

His eyes welted up. "Nobody else knows," he assured her.

"It's okay, Birdy."

He nodded his head but couldn't bring himself to say anything.

She smiled. "It was nice to bump into you after all these years."

He watched as Ms. Marceline's daughter returned to her family. It felt good to have a healthy closure on the issue and it warmed his heart to know Mrs. Marceline thought enough of him to keep some mementos of their time together.

Chapter 46

With Andy buried, Birdy found himself straddling a fence between his dying Ellensburg existence and his proposed new life unfolding in his old hometown.

He returned to his motel room emotionally drained. It was weird to be sitting alone in a room two miles from his hometown with nothing to do and nowhere to go. He sat on the edge of the bed watching the local news, surprised to see that the same weather guy was still on Channel 32. Although a lot seemed different, some things didn't change!

Birdy called Andy Beckwith's number one more time just to hear his "This is Andy Beckwith. Leave a message at the beep and I'll get back to you" again. The sound of his voice somehow made him feel better.

"Goodbye, Andy," he said into the receiver.

The phone rang almost as soon as he hung up from calling Andy's machine.

"Hello?"

"It's Elizabeth Miller, Birdy."

"Hi!" He was thrilled she called.

"I talked to Mrs. Liebowitz's brother and informed him of your concerns," she reported.

"Thank you."

"He says he'll take ten grand off the asking price."

"Gee, isn't that nice of him."

She laughed at his sarcasm "Does that mean you're interested?"

"How much do I need to put down?"

"As much as you can," she advised.

"How 'bout I meet you at Johnny C's tomorrow morning at ten? I'll have a cashier's check for ten grand."

"Okay," she agreed, sounding contently happy to have made a deal so quickly and easily.

"Thanks for calling from home. I appreciate the dedication."

"Actually, I'm still at the office."

"That's terrible! It's Friday."

"I had some paperwork to catch up on." He could hear the loneliness in her voice.

"Would you like to have a drink with me?" he asked, surprised by his own boldness

"You mean now?" There was amusement in her voice.

"Sure! Why not?"

"I was planning on visiting my father before I went home."

"How 'bout I meet you at the nursing home then?"

"That wouldn't be a good idea," she replied. "But maybe we could get together afterwards."

"How 'bout Duffy's in about an hour?"

"Okay," she agreed.

Birdy realized as soon as he hung up that waiting around the motel room for an hour was stupid. He threw on a pair of jeans and a sports shirt and drove to the nursing home. He took a seat in one of the lobby chairs and waited for Elizabeth to arrive. She was surprised to see him waving to her when she came through the front door.

"I thought we were meeting at Duffys," she said with confusion.

"No daughter should have to visit her dying father on a Friday night alone," Birdy explained. "I'll keep you company."

"This really isn't a good idea, Birdy," she said nervously.

"Why not?"

She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment. "Okay," she finally decided with a sigh. "But remember, this was your idea."

She She was anxious as Birdy escorted her down the hall, stopping with uncertainty when they reached room 107.

"You're not the only one with secrets," she said quietly as she stepped into the room. A confused Birdy followed and saw her father in the far bed. He was frail and weak with ashen skin hanging from his skeleton body. An oxygen tube ran from his nose and an IV bag was hooked to his arm.

"Hi Dad," Elizabeth cheerfully greeted the sickly man, who was struggling to maintain a sense of dignity. "You remember Birdy Braft?"

A stunned Birdy stared at his former basketball coach, Michael Francis Prelog, a shadow of his former self wasting away on the bed. Elizabeth had a pleading look on her face as she waited for Birdy to react to the unexpected situation.

The Birdman was a trapped animal as he stood at the foot of The Panther's bed. What was he supposed to do? Laugh? Cry? Yell? Swear? Throw the bed pan? Punch him in the face?

"Hey Coach, how's it going?" He was as surprised as Elizabeth by his calm tone.

"Come to dance on my death bed, Braft?" The Coach's voice was weak and scratchy.

"No…….ah…….I just wanted to say………get well soon," Birdy stammered, suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of conflicting emotions. He looked at Elizabeth standing at her father's bedside, her eyes filled with tears. "You're Red," he realized.

She smiled at the memory. "Yes."

The Panther, clearly too weak to care, wasn't interested in continuing a conversation with his former non-player.

"I'm sure you want some alone time," Birdy said to Elizabeth. "I'll wait in the lobby."

Birdy nodded to the Coach and left the room, walked to the lobby in a fog, and collapsed onto a sofa in a dazed state of disbelief. He always thought that revenge and justice would bring him final satisfaction when it came to Prelog, but the sight of the dying Panther and the discovery that Elizabeth was the Coach's daughter left him feeling confused and conflicted.

A vulnerable Elizabeth appeared in the lobby when she was done with her visit. She peered questionably at Birdy as she took a place next to him on the couch. "You okay?" she guardedly asked.

"I wouldn't have said all those horrible things had I known." He was full of remorse and shame.

"It's okay. It's not as if I haven't heard most of that stuff before," she replied with a sad smile. "Except for your sister, of course," she added in a broken voice.

"I wish I hadn't said anything," he said with a sigh. "You forgive me?"

"You've been most kind to me all week, Birdy," Elizabeth assured him.

"You're doing an amazing thing with your father," he offered.

"I hated him for the longest time," she admitted. "Even more than you, probably. I hated what he did to my mother. I hated what he did to our family. I hated him for who he was."

"But now you're standing by him."

"I'm the only one left," she offered weakly. "His three ex-wives will have nothing to do with him. He disowned my brother, who's gay. No man should have to die alone."

"You have remarkable courage."

"It took a long time to find the strength and compassion to forgive him," she admitted. "But once I did, I was finally free."

"Free from what?"

"The pain. The hurt. The embarrassment. The shame. When I came to terms with who my father was and what his limitations were, I was able to accept him as he was. Imperfect. Faulted."

"I don't understand why I didn't want to kill him when I finally saw him after all this time," Birdy confessed.

"Maybe you've let it go too," she reasoned. "He let a bad knee define the rest of his life. But you're different. You stood tall. You overcame your pain and disappointment and you're a better person because of it. You're the strongest person I've ever known."

He shrugged, embarrassed by her praise. "I think you're being slightly overdramatic."

"I went to all your games senior year," she revealed. "I'd sit way in the back and watch you."

"I never played."

"That's my point," she said. "You never quit." She took his hand in hers. "Why did you put yourself through all that misery? Of riding the bench all year?"

"Because I wasn't giving him the satisfaction of having me quit," he said with controlled anger. "I didn't care what he did – he wasn't getting me off the team."

"I admire your sense of conviction, as misguided as it was."

He laughed at her remark. They continued sitting on the lobby couch as though they were in a private living room.

"You and I are not so different," she decided. "I grew up hating my father and then I married an abusive man. But I never gave in either."

"And look at you now." He said it with pride.

"I thought about you a lot, you know," she told him. "I never forgot your kindness. You saved my life that night," she told him. "When I was Red."

"It wasn't that much of a big deal."

"Yes it was." She was strong in her conviction. "That night completely changed who I was about to become, all because I had a guardian angel watching over me. You."

"Maybe it was the other way around," Birdy said.

"I have a confession to make," she told him. "When you left me at your house that morning?"

"Yeah?"

"I stayed a long time. Took a shower. Had some crackers."

"That was fine."

"I also went into your room," she admitted, still embarrassed all these years later.

"Oh?" He raised his eyebrows.

"Went through your stuff," she revealed.

"What did you find?"

"Lots of obituaries."

Birdy shrugged. "To remember people I knew."

"Tons of photographs of one girl."

"She's married with children now."

"Some momentos from your junior prom."

"That was a nice night."

"Pictures of your family."

"Back when we were a family."

"Anyway, I nosed around your life and I wanted to apologize for the invation of privacy."

"It was a long time ago, Elizabeth. It hardly matters now."

"It was a violation."

"I understand why you did it." He didn't think it necessary to tell her he did the same thing several times in his own neighborhood.

"I learned that day you really are a good person," Elizabeth said.

"Why would you have thought otherwise?" Birdy asked.

"I heard things," she acknowledged.

"From your father?"

"I asked him how come you didn't play."

He hesitated to ask the next question. "What did he say?"

"That you were really bad news and had done bad things and broken team rules and didn't deserve to play."

"Maybe we should go get that drink now," Birdy suggested, stung to hear Prelog's lies once again.

"I don't drink, Birdy," Elizabeth told him. "When I woke up in your sister's room that morning with no memory of what I did or how I got there, I vowed never to drink again."

"Kids say that all the time after a bad experience," Birdy noted. "I'm impressed you stuck to your word."

"Where did Red come from?" she wanted to know.

He blushed. "I don't remember," he lied. What a coward!

He knew she didn't believe him and decided that more lying wasn't the right thing to do. It was bad enough her own father had lied to her all these years.

"You were covered in puke, so I took your clothes off," he told her. "I saw your breasts."

"They were red?" she asked with a confused frown.

"They were as ripe as tomatos," he mumbled.

She nodded with understanding.

"I apologize for my violation," Birdy said.

"I believe you when you tell me nothing happened, Birdy."

He nodded to confirm the truth.

"Hi, Liz!" A woman walking through the lobby stopped and greeted the real estate agent with a friendly smile.

"Hello, Helen" Elizabeth stood and shook the woman's hand. "How's your mom doing?"

"Hanging tough. Hanging tough."

"Did you finish remodeling the kitchen yet?"

"It turned out just the way you said it would!" Helen beamed. "It's a great house. Thanks again for everything you did for us."

Helen smiled a farewell to Elizabeth before leaving the nursing home.

"I bet everybody in town knows you," Birdy said, still sitting on the couch.

"Just about," she agreed, re-taking a seat next to Birdy. "I had to learn how to become part salesman, part politician, part friend, part counselor, and part actress to be successful in this business," she explained. "I figured out early on if I weren't sincere, I wouldn't get far. In the end, all I have is my credibility."

"How'd you get involved in real estate anyway?"

"I needed to do something after my marriage fell apart," she said. "So I got my real estate license and the rest is history."

"Do you like it?"

"I like helping people," she said. "I like making them happy. Buying or selling a home can be a life event."

"What's your most bizarre realtor story?"

She was amused by the question. "A couple who insisted their house was haunted," she laughed. "They were convinced that the ghost of the dead previous owner was still in the house. They called me for months after they bought it. They'd see the guy sitting in their living room or standing in the backyard."

"What's so strange about that?" he joked.

"You experience a lot of weird stuff selling houses," she said. "You see parts of peoples lives most never know about. You hear and see all sorts of personal stories you'd rather not know."

"I was walking around some of the old neighborhoods the other day thinking about all the houses that have turned over since we were kids," he said. "I'm sure people will be calling my house 'the Liebowitz place' for years after I move in."

"I find that's how I relate to people," she confessed. "Yes, the Andersons. They live in the old Rieter place. Ah, the Johnsons. They bought the Morrison house. You remember the Fredricksons. They used to live in the Demrest house."

Birdy stifled a yawn and stood. "I guess it's too late for ice cream."

"But it's been quite a night, huh?" She stood, took his arm in hers and led him toward the front door.

"Were you having sex with your married boss?" she boldly asked as he walked her to her car.

"We hadn't gotten beyond the flirtation stage," he admitted.

She nodded with understanding but didn't say anything else. "Why don't you get in?" she suggested when they reached the automobile.

He was surprised by the invitation. "I have a car here."

"We can get it later," she replied as she got into the vehicle.

Birdy joined her in the front seat, feeling a renewed sense of hope and satisfaction as he let her drive him wherever she wanted to go. It was like being with Becky all those years ago. Still, he was surprised when she steered the car into the parking lot of his motel a few minutes later.

"Room 114, right?" she asked as she got out of the car. She let him lead her to the door.

"Are you sure this is something you want to be doing?" he asked when they stepped into the room.

"I'm as sure as I am Red," she replied. "I always knew someday we would be together again, somehow."

Chapter 47

Birdy awoke in the morning to find Elizabeth still wrapped around him. She was awake and looking into his eyes.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

"Like I've been resurrected."

At 10:00, with Elizabeth on his arm, Birdy Braft strolled into Johnny C's. Several recognizable faces were at the counter – Boone and his son Chris, Joe Jock, Phil Golinski, Todd Vose, and Officer Mike and his wife. Elizabeth joined Banker Doug Phelps who was seated in a booth.

Johnny C. was standing at the cash register finishing with a customer's bill.

"I won't change the name," Birdy assured the owner as he stood next to him.

"That's very flattering," Johnny C replied without emotion.

"Can your grandkids wait a couple of weeks?" Birdy offered Johnny C. his hand and they embraced in a hug.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," Johnny C. announced to the entire diner. "Allow me to please introduce to you the new owner of Johnny C's, Birdy Braft."

"Christ John, you're the last to know!" Boone remarked as the establishment broke out in a round of applause.

"Breakfast is on me," A thrilled Birdy announced to more cheers.

Customers slapped his back and shook his hand. He was finally home.

Birdy joined Elizabeth and Doug in the booth. "Let's get the paperwork going," he suggested, handing Elizabeth the cashier's check to hold the house and Doug a second check to secure the Johnny C. deal. "I should be back in town in a week at the most."

"Welcome home, Birdy," Doug said, shaking Birdy's hand as he slipped out of the booth.

"There's one last piece of business," Birdy announced. Boone, Joe, Phil, Doug and Mike followed the Birdman and Elizabeth to the front door and watched as he pulled The Panther's portrait off the wall.

"Let's put Beck's picture up instead," Birdy suggested.

The place cheered in response and Boone handed Birdy Andy's framed cop photograph rescued from the funeral home.

Birdy hung it on the wall where Prelog used to be. "Nice to see you, Beck," he said.

Birdy hung Prelog's photo on the wall above the newspaper rack.

"I respect his daughter," Birdy told Mike who was watching with confusion.

More hand shakes and backslaps as Birdy made his way back to the booth with Elizabeth

Waitress Becky Chapman came to the booth to take their breakfast order.

"Hi, Boss," Becky said to Birdy.

"That's Kid to you," he replied.

"How you feelin'?" she wanted to know.

He thought about it for a moment as he glanced about the diner and saw the faces of so many familiar friends and acquaintances. His eyes came to rest on Elizabeth's face.

"Connected," he told Becky.