The Shadow of a Soul

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Chapter 9: Tests

The bumpy roads worked their magic again and there wasn't any way that I could keep the smile off my face.

I noticed that Beau hid a few giggles as we were riding, but I don't think it was too obvious.

Joe Bob took us into town, and as we went I noticed the buildings getting older and shabbier.

We passed through an area which I supposed was 'downtown' although I wouldn't say that it was that much different than anyplace else we'd been.

And he kept on driving.

I think that maybe what was throwing me off is that back in Michigan, people tended to build up, but it seemed like here, people tended to build out.

I don't know, maybe it has to do with the wind.

Anyway, he drove and drove and drove.

Finally, he came to a place, I don't think you'd call it a mobile home park, exactly. It was more like a mobile home village.

Instead of having lots of trailer homes shoved into tight slots, like hard drives in a server (yeah, I'm a nerd. Sue me). Each of the mobile homes was on what looked to be a decent sized piece of land where they could have a large (scraggly, dried out) yard. There were one or two with what looked to be gardens, although I can't imagine what you could grow in this sweltering heat.

When Joe Bob pulled up in front of the trailer, I was a little bit confused at what I was looking at. It seemed that unlike any of their neighbors, they had chosen to park their trailer on a diagonal across the lot. That left them a triangular lawn in front (or it would be a lawn if anything would grow there).

I got out of the car more slowly than the rest, mostly due to helping Enoch get himself situated, but also from trying to get my footing in the staggering, sweltering, mind-blowing heat. (Did I ever mention that it's hot here?)

When I walked up the steps to the small porch in front of the trailer, I could feel a rush of cool air gushing out of the open door in front of me.

I knew this to be the work of the legendary evaporative coolers that Grandpa had mentioned when we first arrived.

* * * * *

As I walked into the trailer, Jim Bob and Beau had turned right, and Joe Bob had turned left.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the much dimmer interior of the trailer. But once I could focus, I could tell that I was standing in a hallway. To my right were what I presumed to be bedrooms, and to my left was a respectable sized living room.

When I walked into the living room, I could see that it led into the kitchen area with a large oblong dining table, surrounded by various types and styles of chairs. There was a woman quietly working in the kitchen, and when she saw me she whispered, "Y'all be quiet. I just put the baby down."

I nodded that I had heard, then saw Joe Bob walk into the kitchen through a doorway that didn't make sense.

I mean, the trailer is basically a long rectangular box. The doorway that he stepped through would take him outside the box.

"I got the computer booting up. It'll take a minute." Joe Bob said quietly, then carefully added, "Mark, this here's my ma. Her name is Lindie."

"It's nice to meet you. But I'm not sure if I'm supposed to call you Cousin Lindie or Aunt Lindie." I said cautiously.

"Just call me Lindie. It's nice to meet you, Mark. Joe Bob's had nothin but good to say 'bout you. How'd things go with Jim Bob?" She asked with concern.

"I think everything's going to work out." I said simply.

I wasn't about to 'out' Jim Bob to his mom, or anyone else.

"Computer's back here." Joe Bob said in his endearing, abrupt way, then led me through the doorway he had used earlier.

Suddenly, it all became clear to me. What I was seeing is where they had taken two single wide trailers and sort of 'T-Boned' them together, making the kitchen on the end of one trailer butt up against the side of the kitchen in the middle of the other trailer, that we were in.

I had to step up to get into the second trailer, but then I was in another kitchen area, albeit with a different type of cabinetry and linoleum.

To one side, in what I suppose might have once been a dining area,? there was a small sturdy table with a computer keyboard sitting on it. I think the thing that caught me most by surprise was the 'big butt' CRT monitor taking up half the table. I hadn't seen one of those things in a few years.

I turned at a movement and saw that Jim Bob and Beau had joined us.

I glanced under the table to verify that there was an enormous, 'old school' tower down there, and from the sound of it, it probably had enough fans running to cool an entire room.

"Internet's kinda iffy out in this part of town. But it seems to be working at the moment." Jim Bob assured me. I glanced over my shoulder to see that Joe Bob had fallen back to silently supervise. Unbeknownst to Joe Bob, Enoch was standing right beside him, with basically the same posture and expression.

Although I felt a little odd doing it while everyone else was standing, I sat on the wooden chair in front of the computer and opened a browser.

As I started typing on the keyboard, it was like a trip down memory lane. The big clunky keyboard had fantastic action. I didn't realize what I'd been missing, using the latest and greatest.

Saying that their Internet was slow was being kind about it. But I did eventually get my search results to come up. I clicked on a couple different sites before I found one that seemed to have everything that we would be needing.

"Do you have a printer?" I asked as I looked around.

"Yeah. It's over here. Hang on." Jim Bob began to say, but Joe Bob moved from behind us and beat him to it. It turned out that their printer was sitting on the other side of a little wall, on one of the kitchen counters, a few feet away from where I was sitting.

From my other side, Jim Bob quietly said, "That map's not going to print. You need to switch it to directions only."

I've had my own printer issues over the years. I once had an ink sucking beast that could drain a cartridge in four pages. So I was perfectly happy to do as Jim Bob suggested.

The sound when the printer started printing, however, just about made me come up out of my chair. It whirred and chattered so loudly that I was afraid that I might have broken something.

I couldn't help it. I had to see what was happening, in case I had to unplug it or throw water on it or something.

When I moved around the little wall, all was explained.

I don't think I ever actually 'saw' a dot matrix printer before. I heard of them, and I'd seen pictures, but I'd never seen one in use. The paper was in a folded stack behind the printer and it looked like it was one long continuous piece of paper. It had faded green and white lines on it and there were holes running up and down both sides.

When the noisy thing finally stopped chattering, the paper advanced and Jim Bob stepped around me to tear it off. I'd seen stuff like this before in movies from, like, the 60's.

"Re-inking the ribbons is a chore, but we make it work." Jim Bob explained as he tore the perforated 'tractor feeds' off the edges of the paper.

"Pa found us six new ribbons down at the Goodwill last month, so we'll probably be keeping this thing going for a while longer." Joe Bob interjected.

It'd be really easy to say something mean about the antique setup that they've been using, but I've got to hand it to them. Even though some of this equipment was probably made before I was born, they get it to do what they need it to and make it work. You've got to admire that.

Just as Jim Bob was handing the printout to me, Emmylou and a younger girl stepped out of the hallway further back in the trailer.

"Y'all need to keep quiet. The twins is having their nap." Emmylou said in a harsh whisper.

"Mark needed to print some directions." Jim Bob told her simply.

Emmylou apparently didn't see me when she entered, because when she looked at me, her whole demeanor changed.

"Pa told us that you like dick." Emmylou said in a slightly challenging voice.

"I'm guessing we have that in common." I responded before I could think better of it.

"Who's Dick?" The little girl at Emmylou's side asked curiously.

"Reba, this is your cousin, Mark. You remember Pa telling us that him and his ma was coming?" Joe Bob asked as he gave Emmylou a disapproving glare.

"Yeah. They said you was gonna live at the old house. I wish I could live there. It's so big and nice!" Reba said excitedly.

"Shhh. Daisy and Dixie is sleepin." Emmylou warned her sister.

"Garth's asleep in the living room, too." Jim Bob told them frankly.

"Mark. Is that everything we was needin here?" Joe Bob asked curiously.

"Yeah. This should do it." I said as I glanced at the paper to be sure that all the directions had printed.

* * * * *

Whoever came up with that saying about 'out of the frying pan' must have been from West Texas.




It's hot!

Don't get me wrong, having Enoch on my lap again made it totally worth it, but I can't for the life of me figure out who was travelling through a place that resembles the fifth circle of hell and decided, 'Hey! This'd be a nice place to stop and raise a family.'

Anyway, I ended up giving Jim Bob the paper with the directions and Joe Bob took us right where we needed to be.

Joe Bob pulled in through the alley and there was a nice big parking lot in the back.

"Y'all go on in and do what you need to do. Beau and I will stay out here." Joe Bob said in a tone of voice that didn't invite argument.

Considering how far out of his way Joe Bob has gone to help his brother, I can't fault him a bit for not wanting to go in to a LGBT resource center, especially when there really isn't anything he could do.

"We'll try not to be too long." I said, and noticed that Jim Bob looked to be about two seconds from passing out.

"Take a deep breath, then let's get this over with. We don't want your brothers baking to death waiting on us." I said in what I hoped was a soothing voice.

Jim Bob took in a shaky, nervous breath, then nodded that he was ready to go.

I glanced to my other side to find Enoch standing, waiting to be shown where we were going.

"Come on." I said with a smile as much to Enoch as to Jim Bob, then led the way.

* * * * *

It was considerably cooler inside the building.

Well, it kinda had to be.

I guess I had expected something more like a doctor's office waiting room, but what I found looked to be more like a gift shop.

There were shelves and racks scattered around everywhere. Rainbows were in abundance.

"Are you boys sure you're in the right place?" A middle aged man asked when he saw us enter.

"Listen, my cousin needs an HIV test. Can you do that here?" I asked bluntly. I didn't want to be rude, but engaging the man in casual conversation was likely to bring up questions that Jim Bob didn't want to answer. And besides, Joe Bob and Beau were out in the car in the sweltering heat.

"Yes. We certainly can. There are some forms that we'd like to have you fill out." The man said as he ducked into a side room for just a second, then came back with two clipboards.

"By the way, my name is Boyce." The man said as he returned and held out a clipboard to each of us.

"Mark doesn't need a test." Jim Bob said regretfully.

"It's okay. I don't mind taking one." I said seriously.

At Jim Bob's look of question, I continued, "It's not a big deal. These days, it's just a fact of life, so I'd better get used to it."

Jim Bob looked to be about two seconds from running away and hiding under something.

"Just how truthful do we have to be on these things?" I asked Boyce curiously.

"Officially, every single word should be the God's honest truth." Boyce said seriously, then broke into an evil grin as he continued, "Unofficially, we'd appreciate an active phone number and that the person answering the phone be able to give you a message."

"Our phone isn't hooked up yet, so I'll give you my mom's cell phone." I said as I quickly filled in the information.

"I can't..." Jim Bob began to say in a trembling voice.

I walked to his side and saw that he hadn't filled anything out at all.

"Just copy mine, well, except for your name. We'll need to know whose test they're calling about." I said as I handed my clipboard to him.

"If you want to come on back, we can get you taken care of in just a few minutes." Boyce said to me with a smile.

"Do you mind if Jim Bob comes back with me? I think it'll make him feel better if he can see that it's not something horrible." I asked hopefully.

"Yes. I think that's a very good idea." Boyce said with a warm smile.

* * * * *

"Hugh, we have two young men here who've made a very wise and courageous decision. Would you please take care of them while I keep an eye on the front?" Boyce asked pleasantly as he handed off the clipboards.

While Boyce looked like the type of person you'd expect to meet walking into any market or shop, Hugh, on the other hand, looked like what you'd expect to find walking into any biker bar or tattoo parlor.

I was taken aback by the man's appearance. I mean, first of all, he was bald. He had piercings and tattoos everywhere (well, everywhere that I could see, I can't even imagine what's been done to what I couldn't see). I guess the only thing that snapped me out of it was seeing Enoch's reaction. I suppose in his time, he only got to see someone like Hugh when the circus came to town.

"First time for both of you?" Hugh asked curiously.

We both nodded.

"Alright, then. Who wants to be first?" Hugh asked as he glanced at the clipboards.

To my surprise, Jim Bob stepped forward and said, "I will."

That was fine with me. I was just as happy to stand back and watch it all happen.

"Would you be Mark or James?" Hugh asked curiously.

"I'm James." Jim Bob said quietly.

Hugh wrote something on the clipboard, then wrote something else on a sheet of labels on the countertop. We were both silent as we watched him take one of the labels and stick it to the paper on the clipboard.

"Just come over here and have a seat and I'll have this done before you know what happened." Hugh said as he seemed to have finished all his preparations.

Jim Bob sat down and waited. He looked a lot less nervous than before. In fact, he looked to be less nervous than I felt.

"If you don't mind me asking, what made you think to come in for a blood test today?" Hugh asked casually.

"Why do you need to know that?" I asked suspiciously. I mean, yeah, I'm scared, but no one gets to hurt Jim Bob while I'm around.

"Everything I need to know is on the clipboard. You don't have to tell me anything. Just, with you being so young, I was curious." Hugh answered honestly.

It seems that Jim Bob accepted his explanation, because he finally said, "I guess I was being stupid, because I believed my boyfriend when he said we didn't need to be safe."

Hugh gave a sympathetic chuckle, then said, "Yeah. I know how it is. Hook up with the wrong guy and they'll have you believing all kinds of crazy things."

Jim Bob sadly nodded.

"This will only hurt for a second. Just a pinch." Hugh said, then expertly inserted the needle into Jim Bob's arm.

To his credit, Jim Bob gave very little reaction.

"So, this boyfriend of yours, is he being any trouble?" Hugh asked as he slowly drew the blood.

"No. Mark helped me see that he's been lying to me and I broke up with him today. I don't think I have to worry about him anymore." Jim Bob said quietly.

"Are you alright? If you need someone to talk to, we've got a list of people who will listen and won't judge you." Hugh said seriously.

"I think I'm going to be okay." Jim Bob said with a timid smile at me.

"Well, if you end up needing to talk to someone. Remember us." Hugh said sympathetically, then held a cotton ball in place as he withdrew the needle and added, "You're all done."

"That's it?" Jim Bob asked in surprise.

"Yep. We'll send this off and have your results in about a week. We'll call you when the results are in." Hugh said simply as he took the vial of blood and stuck the already filled out label on it.

"Thanks for being so nice. I was really scared coming in here." Jim Bob said as he stood.

"That's what I'm here for." Hugh said simply, then looked at me and asked, "You ready?"

I hope I didn't look anywhere as nervous as I felt. I mean, Jim Bob did it. Mousey, timid little Jim Bob did it. So why am I feeling like I just want to run and hide.

Oh yeah, the big scary biker with the big fucking needle, that's why.

Somehow, and don't ask me how, I got up the courage to go over and take the seat where Jim Bob had been sitting.

"So, what's your story, Mark?" Hugh asked as he went through the same routine of writing on the clipboard and filling out the labels.

Enoch was watching me with concern, but not saying anything.

"I just wanted to come with Jim Bob so he wouldn't have to go through this alone." I said quietly.

Hugh looked at Jim Bob, then back at me before seriously saying, "It gives me hope, seeing kids your age not only taking responsibility for yourselves, but also helping each other do the responsible thing."

"We'll probably grow out of it." I said with a nervous chuckle.

Yeah. Weird dry humor is one of my defense mechanisms. Who would have guessed?

"Just a little prick." Hugh said softly with a grin, then stuck my arm.

"Hey, it's not that little." I responded in playful mock anger.

"Don't make the guy with the needle laugh." Hugh said with a smile.

I glanced beside me and saw that Enoch was still watching, but not looking as nervous as before. I suppose my weak attempts at humor encouraged him.

"You guys make sure that you check out the literature when we're done here. It's all free, and we've got the latest information on HIV, AIDS and safe sex. I mean, condoms are important, but the best way you can protect yourselves is with knowledge. There's a lot of half-truths and some outright lies going around out there, especially on the Internet. It's important to know what's real." Hugh said firmly.

"I just moved here from Michigan. My school was pretty good about teaching us about this stuff, but I guess you're right. It's good to know that there's a place where we can get the facts if we need to." I said seriously.

I felt when he placed the cotton ball on my arm, then withdrew the needle.

"Well, that's it. I feel like I should have a trophy or something to give you." Hugh said with a grin.

"The cotton balls are enough." I said as I stood.

"You're easy to please. I need to find a guy like you." Hugh said playfully.

"Too late. I'm seeing someone." I said as I smiled at Enoch.

"I guess it's true. All the good ones are taken." Hugh said dramatically, then led us to the door.

* * * * *

When we stepped back into the shop, we saw that Beau and Joe Bob were standing just inside the entry door.

"Are they with you?" Boyce asked in a whisper as he approached us.

"Yeah, that's my brother. He drove me here." Jim Bob said quietly.

"Good. When he wouldn't meet my eyes, I started to get nervous." Boyce said honestly.

"He's still a little freaked about the whole 'gay' thing. Jim Bob just came out to him this morning." I said carefully.

"And he volunteered to drive you here?" Boyce asked to confirm.

Both Jim Bob and I nodded.

Boyce looked at Joe Bob for a moment, then quietly said, "We need more straight people like him."

"Yeah. I think so, too." I said with a smile.

"Hugh said you had some literature about HIV and stuff." Jim Bob muttered nervously.

"Yes. Right over here. You can help yourself." Boyce said as he directed Jim Bob to a rack of pamphlets.

While he did that, I walked over to Joe Bob and asked, "How are you guys doing?"

"It got a little too hot to be sittin out in the car." Joe Bob muttered.

I could see how uncomfortable he was, and wanted to do something to make him feel better.

I glanced around and spotted the answer.

"Do you guys like Snickers?" I asked curiously.

"Yeah!" Beau said immediately.

When Joe Bob saw that I was waiting for an answer, he reluctantly nodded.

I motioned for them to walk with me to the sales counter as I said, "This is a store. It's got some things that you don't need, but it's got Snickers, too. It's no different from any other store."

"What are those guys doing?" Beau asked as he pointed at a rather graphic matted poster.

"They're being gay." I said simply, then asked, "Do you want a Snickers?"

As I had hoped, Beau turned his full attention back to me.

* * * * *

"Boyce, I'd like to introduce my other cousins, Joe Bob and Beau. This is Boyce. He runs this place." I said as I tried to sound somewhat formal.

"It's nice to meet you. Can I get you anything?" Boyce asked pleasantly.

"Can I have four Snickers?" I asked casually.

"Coming right up, that'll be two dollars." Boyce said as he placed them on the counter.

I paid the man, then handed one each to Beau and Joe Bob.

Just then, Jim Bob approached with about eight or ten pamphlets in his hands.

"I got this for you." I said as I handed him a Snickers bar, then asked, "Are we done here?"

"Yeah. Thanks." Jim Bob said shyly, but I could definitely hear the gratitude under his words.

I turned to look for Enoch, but didn't have to look far. He was right by my side.

"Have a good day, Boyce." I said as we started to leave.

He waved and smiled.

* * * * *

Seriously... fucking... hot...

I mean, really, how in the hell do these people live like this?

"How was it?" Joe Bob asked his brother curiously.

"Not bad." Jim Bob said consideringly, then added, "I was kinda scared for a minute, but the guy who took our blood looked a lot like Bubba Ray. That relaxed me a lot."

First, Bubba Ray? Seriously?

Second, a big bald pierced tattooed biker looking guy puts Jim Bob at ease?

I think I'm getting a taste of what Enoch's going through. It's a big, weird world and I'm a million miles away from anything that seems 'normal'.

"What'd you do in there?" Beau asked his brother curiously.

Jim Bob looked back at me from the front seat, silently begging me to explain.

"We just got blood tests." I said simply to Beau, who was sitting at my side in the back seat.

"Why? Are you sick?" Beau asked curiously.

"Probably not. But if we were sick, we'd want to know about it so we wouldn't accidentally make someone else sick." I said carefully.

Beau thought about that for a moment, then seemed to accept the answer.

"What do I do now?" Jim Bob asked distantly, and I wasn't sure that he was talking to me.

"You live your life the best way you know how." I answered.

Jim Bob looked at me as if I'd just said something incredibly stupid.

"Jim Bob, it's natural to be depressed and feel lost. I get that. But try and think about what you used to enjoy doing before..." I almost said it, but caught myself in time. "...the piano lessons."

"All I'd do is read. I've never done much else." Jim Bob admitted regretfully.

"Then find some really good books that make you feel good and read those. I bet it'll help." I said confidently, as if I really knew what I was talking about.

After a few quiet minutes of riding in silence, Jim bob finally said, "I haven't read anything but school stuff for quite a while. I miss that."

"Then it's settled. And if you run out of things to read, I happen to know a few websites that you'll probably like." I finished with a grin.

"I brought my army men." Beau said from beside me, breaking the mood.

"We'll play with them when we get back to the house." I said with a smile, then saw an answering smile on Enoch's face.

When he noticed, he quietly said, "You're amazing."

Since we were around other people, all I could do was look at him inquisitively.

"I don't understand all of what happened today. But what I do understand is that you go out of your way to help and protect those you care about. You have uncommon wisdom and a tremendous heart." Enoch said passionately.

I don't know if I believe in karma or anything like that, but when Joe Bob turned onto the bumpy road, right at that moment... well, life was good.

* * * * *

When I got out of the car, I was going to tell the guys what the plan was. Unfortunately, I need to learn to take into account the two or three minutes it takes for me to be able to talk when the breath has been knocked out of me by searing, relentless heat.

By the time we got to the front door, I was finally able to say, "I think Beau had something planned for us involving plastic soldiers. So you guys have time if you need to go and do anything."

They were both silent for a moment, but Joe Bob finally turned to Jim bob and said, "Mark was thinkin you might want to learn some a the self defense moves that Pa taught me."

Jim Bob looked at me with surprise.

"I just thought that since shooting the gun helped, this might help some more." I said weakly.

Jim Bob thought it over for a few seconds, then turned to his brother and said, "Yeah. It might."

"Beau and I will be in the living room if you need us for anything." I said as I started walking away.

Joe Bob nodded and led Jim Bob off in another direction.

"If you guys want to go into the living room and get the soldiers out, I'm going to get my flute." I said with a smile.

"Should I stay here?" Enoch asked uncertainly.

"Yeah. Stay with Beau. I'll be back in a minute." I said with a quick smile.

"Where is he?" Beau whispered as he looked around.

"He's here next to me, but if you put out your soldiers, I bet he'll move over there with you." I said with a smile.

Deciding to let them work it out, I left to go up to my room.

* * * * *

I grabbed my flute and made a point of looking at the mirror to see if the rift had opened any more.

No such luck.

When I entered the living room, I had to stop and smile.

Beau and Enoch were on their knees at the coffee table, arranging two camps of little green soldiers, preparing them for battle.

I silently watched for a few minutes, then walked fully into the room and said, "It looks like you guys might need some inspirational music for this epic campaign."

"Do you know some?" Beau asked hopefully.

"As a matter of fact, I do. That's the type of music they taught us to play in band class." I said as I moved to the couch and began to assemble my flute.

"I like your music. It makes me feel stuff." Beau said as he kept the majority of his attention on the soldiers.

"Thank you, Beau. That really means a lot to me." I said honestly as I quickly worked the valves to make sure that nothing was sticking.

Once I was assured that everything was working the way it was supposed to, I started playing 'Time in a Bottle', to warm up.

When I was finished with that, I said, "You guys let me know when you're ready for some inspirational music."

"My guys need it now. They're scared, so they need you to help them to be brave." Beau said as he looked at me seriously.

"You got it." I said with a smile, then started into one of many band pieces that I knew that were specifically written to inspire.

* * * * *

I don't know where the time went.

Beau and Enoch had some epic battles while I played just about every 'fight' song that I knew or had ever heard. I could tell that Enoch was enjoying the play as much as Beau was.

When I had finished playing one particularly spirited piece, I looked up and saw Joe Bob watching us. I felt a spark of fear at what he might have witnessed, before I reminded myself that he already knew about Enoch.

"We should be leaving for Grandpa's soon." Joe Bob said quietly.

"Okay. It'll just take us a minute to put things away." I said with a smile at him.

"You play really good." Joe Bob said before walking out of the room.

"Are you guys ready?" I asked as I turned my attention to Enoch and Beau.

"We was having fun." Beau whined.

"I know. I was having fun, too. But Grandma's expecting us for dinner, and we don't want to make her mad, do we?" I asked as I tried to maintain a serious expression.

"No. You don't wanna ever make Grandma mad." Beau said as he began to gather his army men back into their gallon ziplock bag.

"It bothers me that you have to slow your pace and change your plans for me to accompany you. Perhaps I should stay here." Enoch said regretfully.

"No way, E. We're going to visit the family graveyard." I said firmly.

Beau looked at me curiously, then to Enoch's place at the other end of the coffee table.

"He's thinking about staying here while we go to grandma's for dinner." I said simply.

"You gotta go with us! It won't be any fun without you." Beau said earnestly.

From the expression on Enoch's face, I could see it as his resolved crumbled.

"With Beau's help, it won't be any problem at all. What do you say?" I asked in a wheedling tone as I continued to break down my flute.

"If you really want me to go, I will accompany you." Enoch finally relented.

I looked to Beau and said, "He said that he'll go with us."

"That's awesome!" Beau said happily.

I looked around to see if there were any stray casualties left over from the battles, then asked, "Are we ready to go?"

Beau hopped up and seemed to be overflowing with energy.

Enoch and I got up more slowly and followed as he left the room.

* * * * *

Jim Bob looked a little worse for wear. I don't know exactly what he and Joe Bob did, but from the stiff way he was walking and his slightly disheveled appearance, I'm guessing that they had some rather spirited hand-to-hand combat training of some sort.

The ride to Grandpa's house was quiet, but everyone seemed to be of good cheer.

When we finally arrived, Beau was the one to jump out of the car and run ahead to open the gate.

Pulling up in front of the house, I spotted Grandpa walking around the side of the barn, with a large turkey slowly following him.

Beau took off like a shot across the yard as Enoch and I got out of the car much more slowly.

Since Joe Bob and Jim Bob were both moving stiffly, I don't think anyone noticed.

By the time the rest of us had caught up to Beau and Grandpa, I guess Beau had already asked him about us going to visit the family graveyard (possibly more than once).

"The real family graveyard is over at the other property..." Grandpa was saying when Beau interrupted.

"We went there this morning. But we was wantin to see this one, too." Beau said excitedly.

"Beau, mind your manners. Don't interrupt Grandpa." Joe Bob said firmly.

Grandpa smiled with appreciation at Joe Bob, then placed a hand on Beau's head and ruffled his hair a little before saying, "I suppose that we can walk over and take a quick look. A little exercise is probably just what we need before dinner."

* * * * *

At what temperature does human flesh melt? Because, I think we're about there. But this was something important to Enoch, and Beau was helping us out, in his own unique way. So there was no way I could get out of it.

"Give me a minute." Joe Bob said as he hurried back to the car.

"Bobo, do you want to get us a few bottles of water from the back fridge?" Grandpa asked with a smile.

Beau didn't have to be asked twice.

"How'd things go today?" Grandpa asked me and Jim Bob with concern.

As much as I would like to have told him, it's not my place. I looked to Jim Bob with question, with no real clue of what his answer might be.

"I think things are going to be better, now." Jim Bob said consideringly.

"That's what I like to hear." Grandpa said with a contented smile.

And that's all he needed to know to be satisfied. I don't know exactly why it is that that surprised me so much, but it did. I guess I expected a game of 'twenty questions', but Grandpa seemed to be assured that everything was being handled.

When Joe Bob walked up, I immediately noticed that he now had a pistol in a holster at his side.

"Good thinkin, Joey Bob." Grandpa said decisively, then started walking back toward the house.

When I looked at Joe Bob, I'm sure that I must have had a look of question or concern.

"In case of low flying snakes." Joe Bob said with the slightest hint of a smile.

I swear, a straight man that cute should be illegal.

Beau showed up next with an armload of water bottles, and handed one to each of us as we waited for Grandpa to return.

The small rifle that Grandpa was carrying caught my immediate attention.

"Watch your step out here. Won't be much in the way of wildlife, this time of day, but the rattlers like to lay out and sun themselves." Grandpa said as he led the way toward the gate that led into the pasture.

Beau and Jim Bob raced ahead of us and climbed over the gate.

Grandpa smiled at their energy, but stopped and opened the gate for Joe Bob and me to walk through.

* * * * *

Enoch seemed nervous, but remained silent as we walked.

No one was talking, and I took the opportunity to appreciate the bizarre, barren beauty of the unspoiled West Texas open range. Then again, it might just be the heat playing with my perception of things.

I don't know how long we walked before the little fenced in graveyard finally came into view.

It was small.

It wasn't quite as creepy as the graveyard at the 'big house' but, let's face it, it's a graveyard. It's creepy by definition.

* * * * *

"This graveyard dates to before we owned this land. Most of our relatives are buried at the other property, but there's a few of us here." Grandpa said as he slowly walked among the tombstones.

It was curious to me that although many of the stones were weather worn, that there were others that looked as though they were only a few years old. When I looked at one of the newer looking stones, I could see that the date on it was nearly one hundred years old.

"Some of these gravestones look almost new." I said in puzzlement.

Grandpa smiled at me and said, "Somehow, I ended up being the keeper of the family history. Along with making sure that the genealogy is kept up to date, I also tend to the graveyards to be sure that they don't get too overgrown, and that the gravestones are replaced when needed, so no one will be forgotten."

"So you know about everyone who's buried here?" Beau asked curiously.

"Not as much as I'd like, but I think I know a little bit about most of them." Grandpa said quietly.

I looked around for a moment, to see if I could spot the grave that I was looking for, but finally asked, "Do you know where Elsbeth Miller is buried?"

Grandpa seemed surprised by the question, but didn't ask how I knew that name. He simply motioned for me to follow him.

"Here's Elsbeth and her husband Jeremiah. He used to own this land. From what I hear, Elsbeth died not long after arriving here. Spider bite, if memory serves. After that, Jeremiah drank himself into an early grave." Grandpa said from distant memory.

I walked to Elsbeth's grave and put one hand on her headstone. Well, for a few seconds, anyway. The thing was so hot that my hand would have started to sizzle if I kept it there any longer.

Enoch reluctantly followed me, then went down on one knee and brought one hand up to trace the writing carved into his mother's headstone.

"They had two sons." Grandpa continued, "The older one, Paul, went to Silver City, New Mexico, to try and make his fortune. It didn't turn out that way, and by the time he came back to check on his family, they had all passed away."

"Do you know what happened to him?" I asked as I kept a close watch on Enoch, in case he needed me.

"No. He left here and never returned." Grandpa said quietly, then added, "After Jeremiah's death, it was left to the younger son, Enoch, to settle the family's affairs. It seems that my grandfather, Marshall James, felt sympathy for the boy and took him in as a member of the family. Enoch sold his father's land to Marshall James, but was still despondent over his mother's death. One night, he left, taking nothing with him. It's supposed that he must have died, but no body was ever found. Marshall was so heartbroken over losing his adopted son that he had a stone placed in the 'new' family graveyard, to prove to anyone who might ask that Enoch was counted as a member of our family."

"That's so sad." Jim Bob said quietly.

"Yes. There was a lot of tragedy in those days. It was a fact of living on the frontier." Grandpa said regretfully.

Enoch was still and silent as he stared at his mother's grave. The sight broke my heart, but a part of me was glad that he was finally able to take this step in his grieving process.

"Well, we'd better be getting back to the house or we'll be facing a modern day tragedy, inflicted by your grandmother for being late for dinner." Grandpa said as he turned to leave.

"You ready?" I whispered to Enoch with concern.

"Yes. I have seen what I needed to." Enoch said as he slowly stood.

There were so many things I wished that I could say or do right then to comfort him, but it just wasn't possible in front of so many people.

"I don't have words big enough to express my gratitude to your family for how they have attended to my family. I would have been grateful to know that their remains had been respectfully inturned. But to attend to their final resting places with such care and reverence is beyond my wildest expectation." Enoch said as he walked at my side.

Had I said anything, I would have drawn the attention of the others, but I had a feeling that Enoch knew what I wanted to say, anyway.

"You know, I've been the keeper of the family history for nearly forty years now. I think it's just about time for me to start training someone in the up-and-coming generation to take over for me." Grandpa said in a casual tone as we walked.

Even though I've only known my Grandpa for a few days, I already know that I love and respect him more than I ever would have thought possible. That being said, there was no freakin way I wanted him to choose me.

"Jimmy Bob, if you'd be willing, I think you'd be perfect for the job." Grandpa said as he stopped to look Jim Bob in the eyes.

After a moment to consider, Jim Bob quietly said, "But I'm not a James."

Grandpa gave a weary chuckle as he continued walking then said, "I don't know if you've been keeping track of the family, but no one in your generation has the last name 'James'. I suppose it's still possible that your Uncle Petey might have a son to carry on the family name, but so far, his personality has proven to be an effective means of birth control."

I gave Grandpa a quick smile, then looked at Enoch with concern. I was surprised to see that rather than looking depressed, he seemed to have a slight, wistful smile.

"Do you really want me to keep the family history for you?" Jim Bob asked cautiously.

"Not just for me. For the whole family. We need someone to let the next generations know where they came from." Grandpa said seriously.

"I think I'd really like to do it." Jim Bob finally said.

"Good. Then I'll get to work on having the family papers reproduced, so you can have your own copy. It's a good thing that you're just beginning your summer vacation, because we're going to be spending a lot of time touring the family graveyards, so I can show you who's who and tell you their stories." Grandpa said happily.

"That sounds great, Grandpa." Jim Bob said with a sincere smile.

Jim Bob seems to have this whole Cowboy/Goth thing going on, where he always looks gloomy. But on the rare occasion when he smiles, he's actually kinda cute.

* * * * *

Yeah, Grandma was pissed off.

She lined us up and bitched us out, moving up and down the line to be sure that every one of us knew just how inconsiderate we were.

Once we were sufficiently chastised, she hurried away and the rest of us went into the dining room and sat down to have dinner.

Grandma came in a few minutes later with Aunt Alma on her arm. I immediately got up from my place and gave Aunt Alma a hug and a kiss in greeting.

Enoch seemed confused for a moment, but when I called her 'Allie', he realized who she was.

When I went back to my seat, I noticed that Enoch had moved across the room and was striking up a conversation with George.

The dinner conversation around the table was good natured and fun. I guess that Grandma got it all out of her system when we first came in, because she was as pleasant as could be while we were eating.

When the dinner was finally over, Allie asked that I help her back to her room. Of course, as soon as we started walking toward the door, Enoch and George noticed and started following close behind.

Once we were away from the rest of the family, Allie quietly said, "Now I see why you knew about Enoch."

"Yeah. I just didn't know how much to tell you, since I'd only just met you." I admitted shyly.

"It just does my heart good to see George enjoying conversation with someone else after all these years." Allie said tenderly.

"I promise, we'll come and visit as often as we can. I think it does Enoch a lot of good to be able to talk to someone besides me." I said honestly.

"It's in the genes, you know." Allie confided to me as we walked through her doorway.

"What's that?" I asked curiously.

"Being able to speak with the departed. I saw my grandmother do it when I was a child." Allie said frankly as she slowly sat in the armchair by the bed.

"But then, why can't anyone else see Enoch or George?" I asked curiously.

"Not everyone gets the gift. Or, maybe, they don't choose to use it. But I'm glad to see that it's still being passed on. I had hoped that someday one of my children..." Allie trailed off sadly.

I didn't really know what that was about, but I could guess.

"I'm sorry." I whispered.

"No parent should outlive their children. It's not right." Allie said as she firmed up her self control and fought down her tears.

"No. It's not." I agreed.

"As much as I wanted to, I never did see any of their spirits." She said quietly, then added, "George says that it's because they moved on to whatever's next. He chose to stay with me because he didn't want for me to have to be all alone."

"I think that he made a really good choice. And this way, when it's time, you can go and find out what's next together." I said gently.

Allie smiled at me, then said, "Thank you, Mark. That's how we feel, too. It's really nice to have someone that I can talk to about this. Too many people are afraid to even approach the subject."

"Well, I don't know much about it, but not talking about it won't make it go away." I said simply.

She nodded, then added, "And not thinking about it doesn't prepare you for it. From what George tells me, the newly departed sometimes can't make the adjustment and become deranged. He says that it's them that give all ghosts a bad name."

"A few rotten apples..." I said with a smile.

Allie chuckled as she nodded her agreement.

We sat silently for a few minutes, until I finally said, "Enoch and I are going to have to go soon."

"That isn't fair. I haven't even had a chance to speak with him." Allie said in a pouty voice.

"Can you hear him?" I asked curiously.

"No. But George can tell me what he's saying." Allie said seriously.

I turned and smiled when I saw how animatedly Enoch was talking with the formless blur in front of him.

"Enoch, would you and George like to come over here and join us? Allie would like to catch up on old times with you." I asked hopefully.

Both Enoch and George moved over to our side of the room.

"You're looking well, Enoch. Just as I remember you." Allie said fondly.

"It's very good to see you, too, Allie. George has told me some of what your life has been like, and I am happy for you." Enoch said warmly.

"She can't hear you, E. Either George or I will tell her what you said." I told him with a smile.

Taking that as a cue, George relayed the sentiment of what Enoch had said.

Before I knew it, the four of us were having a long conversation about how many things had changed in the world over the years. I have a feeling that being included in a conversation like that is something that few people ever get to experience in their lives. Even though I didn't have much to contribute, I felt incredibly lucky to be a part of it.

* * * * *

"Joe Bob says we need to get going before it gets too late." Beau said as he peeked in through the doorway.

"Come on in here and give your Aunt Alma a hug." Allie said warmly.

Beau slowly stepped forward and as soon as he was within reach, he was engulfed in her arms.

I felt a spark of sympathy for the boy. I've been lured in by her 'frail old lady' routine and lived to tell the tale.

When she finally released him from the hug, I said, "Enoch and I will be there in a minute."

"He knows about Enoch?" Allie asked curiously.

"Yeah. Beau's helped us out a lot today and he hasn't told anyone." I said with a warm smile at him.

"Well, in that case, I suppose it's only right that I introduce you to your Great Great Uncle George." Allie said as she gestured toward her dearly departed husband.

"But I thought you said that 'cause you was crazy." Beau said cautiously as he looked where she indicated.

"We don't know why it works the way it does, but Allie and I can see George and Enoch when other people can't." I said honestly.

Beau thought about that for a moment, then quietly asked, "Where are they?"

"Enoch is right here beside me, and George is beside Allie." I said carefully, hoping that if Beau looked hard enough, that he could see one of them.

When he obviously couldn't, I added, "When I first met George, all I could see of him was a little spot, like a speck of dust floating in the air."

Beau looked around curiously, then suddenly pointed at George and asked, "Is that him, there?"

"That's your Uncle George." I said with a relieved smile.

"Wow! I can really see him! I did it!" Beau said happily.

"Yeah. You did a great job." I chuckled.

"Hi Uncle George! Do you like to play army men?" Beau asked excitedly.

"Why don't you save that for your next visit? Didn't you say that Joe Bob's ready to go?" I asked as I fought to contain my smile.

"Yeah. I guess." Beau reluctantly said.

"Allie, I hope that you and Uncle George have a good night. Enoch and I will visit again as soon as we can." I said gently.

"We'll be happy to see you again as soon and as often as you want to visit." Allie said warmly.

"Joe Bob wants to know if you guys are coming or not." Jim Bob said as he entered the room.

"We're just saying goodbye." I told him, then leaned in to give Allie a kiss on the cheek.

Once I was done, Beau and Jim Bob took their turns.

Much sooner than any of us would have liked, we walked together out of Allie's room.

* * * * *

"Did y'all have a good visit?" Joe Bob asked once we were in the car.

"Yeah. Sorry I didn't come when you sent Beau to get me. We got to talking..." I trailed off with a shrug.

"I suppose it's good that you and Aunt Alma can talk like that. I never had that with her and I suppose a person needs that kind of connection." Joe Bob said introspectively. I got the sense that he felt like he had neglected Allie in some way, by not being closer to her.

"She's just missing her brother, who left home without a backward glance, nearly a hundred years ago. I happen to look like him and I even have his first name, so that's what started us talking." I said simply.

When we got to the gate, Beau jumped out of the car and ran to open it for us.

Once he was back in the car, Joe Bob cautiously said, "I hear that Aunt Alma's been a little off her nut ever since her husband died. She knows you're not her brother, doesn't she?"

I could really appreciate the fact that Joe Bob could ask such a blunt, straight to the point question without it sounding the least bit rude or pushy.

"I think when she saw me, for the first few minutes, that she was confused and thought that I might somehow be him. But after we talked for a few minutes, we got that all sorted out and now she knows who I am." I said confidently, then shared a smile at Enoch who was cuddled close to me, sitting on my lap.

"I feel bad for her, but I don't know what to do." Joe Bob admitted quietly.

"Don't worry about Allie, she's doing fine." I assured him.

* * * * *

The rest of the ride to the house was made in silence.

Every now and then I'd glance over at Beau and find him fighting to stay awake.

Once Joe Bob pulled up in front of the house, he quietly said, "If you want, we could come in and wait with you till your ma gets home."

I laughed goodnaturedly at the suggestion, then said, "She said that she'll be in late. Don't worry, I'll be fine."

After opening the door and helping Enoch to get out of the car before me, I turned to Jim Bob and asked, "Are you going to be alright?

"Yeah. I got this." Jim Bob said in a low voice.

I nodded at him, then started to climb out of the back seat of the car.

"Keep a watch out for low flying snakes." Joe Bob said to me with a grin.

"Yeah. I'll do that." I chuckled.

Enoch and I walked up the steps to the front porch, then turned and watched as my cousins drove away.

Living in Michigan all my life, I'd never had much contact with family before. Every now and then we'd get together with some of my dad's relatives, usually when someone was born or died, but we never really had any relationship with them. Somehow, it made me sad to think about what I might have missed out on. Then again, it's possible that they're horrible people and that my parents kept their distance for very good reasons. I guess I'll have to figure that out someday.

* * * * *

Once we were safely back in our bedroom, Enoch and I sat on the bed, resting back against the pillows on the headboard, and held each other for a few long silent minutes.

When Enoch made a movement, I thought it might be an indication that he was finally ready to talk, but no. He moved from my side and settled in on top of me, then proceeded to kiss me like I've never been kissed before.

And I let him.

I've never been the object of someone's affection before.

I highly recommend it.

* * * * *

When Enoch eventually settled back at my side to cuddle with me, he quietly said, "Today was filled with so many incredible things, many of which, I didn't understand. But it was amazing to accompany you."

"You didn't just accompany me. You helped me and helped my... our family." I said seriously.

Enoch didn't seem to agree with my statement, and I felt that it was important that he understand.

"When I nearly stepped on that snake, you protected me. You saved my life." I said simply.

I could feel Enoch's reluctant nod on my shoulder.

"When we went to Lonny's house, you helped me to figure out Jim Bob's problem, then helped me to help him." I said seriously.

After a moment, Enoch nodded again.

"You were there with me, watching and helping every step of the way. Sometimes, even if you didn't do anything, just me knowing that you were there helped me to be more confident or reminded me to make an extra effort to try and do the right thing." I explained carefully.

"I heard what you told Beau about the blood test that you took, but I don't really understand." Enoch said quietly.

"There's a disease that you can get from having unprotected sex." I began to explain carefully.

"Like the syphilis?" Enoch asked cautiously.

"Yes. Something like that. Except that now we have antibiotics that can cure syphilis. So far, there's no cure for HIV." I said informatively.

"And you're afraid that Jim Bob has that?" Enoch asked in a whisper.

"No. I really don't think that he does. But he did the things that you need to do to catch it, so it would be stupid for us to not even check for it." I said seriously.

"And you took that test, just so Jim Bob wouldn't have to do it alone?" Enoch asked hesitantly.

"That's right. I've fooled around with a couple guys, back home, but I've never done anything unsafe. I just thought that Jim Bob might be more comfortable if he weren't the only one being tested." I finished with a smile.

"Today has been so incredible. To find out that Marshall James considered me to be like a son to him... I suppose that I should have been able to see that, based on his actions. I was blinded by losing Mark... the other one." Enoch finished as he cuddled closer to me.

"That just makes you more a part of my family." I said as I returned the cuddle.

"I just want to tell you again how much I appreciate how much trouble you and Beau went to so that I could visit my mother's grave." Enoch said in a peaceful whisper.

"We were happy to do it, E." I said as I felt myself starting to drift into sleep.

* * * * *

A noise woke me.

Before I even opened my eyes, I was aware of Enoch, still at my side.

Another noise, the sound of a door closing, kept me from drifting back to sleep.

"Mom must be home." I said as I slowly started to get out of bed.

"Do you want for me to go with you?" Enoch asked curiously.

"No. I'm just going to see how her interview went, then I'll be right back." I said to him with a smile.

Enoch returned the smile and watched as I left.

* * * * *

"I didn't expect for you to be up this late." My mom said when she spotted me on the stairs.

"I wasn't. I just kind of fell asleep and never changed for bed." I said sheepishly, then quickly asked, "How did your interview go?"

"I was probably the most nervous that I've ever been, but I think it went very well. One of the other candidates already asked not to be considered for the job. She said that she couldn't bear to leave her 'Church Family'." Mom finished with an eyeroll.

I smiled at her expression and waited expectantly for more.

"The other person in the interview seemed to have been born with no personality whatsoever. If they look at the job as being primarily focused on dealing with numbers and computers, then he has the college degrees and experience that he needs to be a shoo in for the job. But if the powers that be take into account that he may have to deal with clients, then I may really have a shot at this." Mom said happily.

"That sounds great. I'm glad it went well for you." I said sincerely.

"Right now, it's about a one in a hundred chance that I'll be considered, but this morning it was a one in a million, so I'm feeling pretty good about it." Mom said with a smile, then asked, "How was your day with your cousins?"

"I had a good time." I said simply.

"I'm so glad. Well, I'm beat. I'll see you in the morning." Mom said before heading up the stairs.

I followed more slowly as I began to consider what her 'good news' meant to me.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Note:

Now that was a very interesting chapter in several ways. The first is that I have been waiting for a new chapter of this story for ever so long. Thank you MultiMapper for writing this new installment. I love the way that Mark and Enoch are able to help themselves and others to feel better about their situations and I hope fervently that if Mark's mom gets that job that Mark and Enoch don't have to be separated.? It's nice that George and Enoch can communicate with one another, and that Allie can see both George and Enoch, even if her family thinks she's a loonie.

MultiMapper has told me he has some interesting plans for Mark and Enoch, and he has had a difficult time figuring out how to actually get to the point in the story where he can tell us about what's going to happen. Hopefully, this chapter has opened the door to moving the story along and going forward with what will be an exciting adventure to say the least.

I can hardly wait for the next chapter.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher