AU - AFT (Past)
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Betaed and edited by LT, including extensive and invaluable help with football plays.
To look at him you'd say he was about seventeen, a tall, lanky boy, all arms and legs, not yet grown into his height. His hair was thick, dark and wavy, soft curls threatening to fall into his eyes and cascading over the collar of his shirt. His smile was wide and kind, his eyes a stunning dark blue, with a twinkle of mischief. He was a good looking boy, with open, regular features and a strong jaw. At a distance, he as was the very picture of the all American boy; up close, however the tee shirt was faded and frayed, the bottom of the jeans had lines around the hems, indicating they had been purchased too big, taken up and then let down, the canvas sneakers below these too short jeans, were frayed and split. Yet for all their wear and tear, the clothes were clean and pressed.
Buck Wilmington pushed his hand into his pocket one more time, fingering the bills his mother had given him. Tomorrow, he started high school; today, he would get some new clothes, pants that weren't too short, a shirt that wasn't faded, shoes that fit him. To save money, he planned to walk the four miles from the trailer park, where he lived with his mother, rather than take the bus. His mother had told him to get new clothes, but he had other plans. His first stop was a mile short of his final destination. The thrift store was large and had a wide, if ever changing, selection of stock. It didn't take him long to find a pair of jeans that looked almost new. They were a good inch too long - his mother would take them up. He also purchased an army surplus tee shirt and a plain blue denim shirt.
From the thrift store, he walked the mile to the mall, where he visited a big shoe store. In the shop, he tried on all kinds of footwear. He tried on snakeskin cowboy boots, leather lace up shoes and top brand sneakers, but it the end he purchased the cheapest pair of sneakers he could get. They weren't fashionable, they weren't flashy and they would probably begin to fall apart before he out grew them, but they were cheap and that was what mattered. Outside the store, wearing his new purchase, he pulled out his remaining money and counted it. With a broad smile, he headed for chocolate shop.
By the time he'd walked home, his mother was up.
"Where have you been?" she interrogated, as he walked in.
"I know that, but were did you go? Henderson? What took you so long?"
Buck looked hurt. "It's not that late."
"It's almost seven."
Buck looked at his watch. "Oh, yeah, I guess I didn't realise how late it was. Sorry Ma."
Her frown dissolved into a smile, she never could stay cross with him for long. "Well you're here now. What did you get?"
He showed her his new purchases. The jeans and denim shirt he had placed in a bag he'd found from a popular men's store, careful not to let her see the small scorch mark on the shirt. There was no way to pretend that the green army tee shirt was anything other than what it was, but he convinced her that the 'army look' was all the rage at school.
"I had a bit left over, so I got you these." He pulled out the box of chocolate truffles, her favourite.
"Oh darlin' you shouldn't have, that money was for you."
It was an old argument. He always loved to treat her; she wanted to be able to give him the best. When she had gone to work, he would slip the remaining money into the purse she kept behind a panel in her bedroom. She would never know how little he had actually spent of the money she had given him.
He stepped down from the bus outside the high school and took a deep breath. His mother had offered to go with him on his first day. She knew he'd say no, and he knew she knew, but it was important to them both that the offer was made. This was Centennial High and it wasn't the high school he had expected to attend. All the other kids from his junior high school would be going to a high school near the city centre. Buck lived right on the edge of the catchment area for this school and during the summer vacation, the school board had changed the boundaries. This high school was newer, much further out of town. He didn't want to be there, he wanted to go to the school all his friends were going to. When they got the letter, the one that said the school catchment zones had been redrawn and he wouldn't be going to Johnson High, his mother had been so happy. So happy that he'd kept his own fears and unhappiness to himself. She saw it as a wonderful opportunity, this school was only about ten years old. It had better facilities, it was in a nice neighbourhood, compared to the other school it had a far better academic record and almost none of it's pupils and former pupils had criminal records - not something Johnson High could claim.
When the trailer park had been built, it was on the very edge of the city, now the city had enveloped it. There had once been desert on two sides. Behind it now, there were light industrial units and workshops. From his small room Buck had a wonderful view of a decaying chin link fence and beyond it an auto repair shop, a kitchen fitters, a wholesale electrical suppliers and a company making custom made windows. The auto repair shop was the closest, as well as fixing cars they also did paint work. When the wind was right, the smell of paint was sometimes so strong it filled the trailer. The fence and the ground just in front of it were stained by millions of tiny paint droplets. To one side of the park there was now a rather down market casino, behind which there was a 'gentleman's' club. To the other side there was a small strip mall, a gas station, several used car dealerships, a DIY warehouses and more light industry. The road that ran past the entrance to the trailer park was now twice as wide and ten times as busy. On the far side of the road was a wall, a long wall, which hid the nice new family houses behind it from the road and the ugly, unplanned developments on the far side. This was were the children who attended Centennial High lived. The upscale housing development was vast, street after street of houses, similar but not identical, all with nice neat gardens and yards, all with two cars and the requisite two point four children and a dog.
Buck looked up at the school and took a deep breath. He didn't belong here! These kids weren't his people, they weren't like him, they didn't live were he lived, they didn't get their clothes from a thrift shop, they didn't work weekends at the Laundromat by the trailer park entrance. They had fathers; they didn't go to bed at night knowing they were alone, knowing their mother wouldn't be home until the small hours of the morning, sometimes not even then. He suddenly gave a little laugh; he would bet most of them couldn't even work a washing machine, let alone cook.
"Wilmingtons aren't quitters!" he said determinedly to himself. Putting on his mask of confidence, he walked into the school wearing his brightest smile.
The induction process went smoothly, and before long, he found himself with a homeroom, a locker, a schedule and even a map of the school campus. Most of the other pupils he'd met weren't as different as he'd feared. Some of them were even dressed in clothes so scruffy; his mother would have had a fit if he'd even tried crossing the threshold in them.
The first week of high school went reasonably well. Buck wasn't an A student, mostly he got B's. foreign languages were his worst subjects, if he got a C in Spanish he considered it a job well done. Of course, when it came to phys ed. he was an A student all the way. If it involved throwing, running, jumping, swimming, kicking or catching, Buck was good at it. Football tryouts for freshmen were some time after school finished on the first Friday of the new school year. Las Vegas being in the desert, school started very early and finished just after noon, to avoid the real heat of the day. Football practice and games were played in the evenings and as far as Buck was concerned, it couldn't come fast enough.
As he returned home on Friday evening, his mother was waiting for him.
"So?" she asked as he walked in.
"I'm in, and get this, I'm in the junior varsity team!"
"Yes!" She gave a little jump and punched the air.
"And you don't need to worry about the gear, they provide most of it and I've been saving my money, I've got enough for anything I need."
Cindy Wilmington shook her head. "What did I do to get such a great son?"
"We're a team, ain't we?" That was what she always told him, it was just the two of them, Team Wilmington, and together there was nothing they couldn't overcome.
As time went along, he settled in. The other kids seemed to accept him, not being as snobbish as he'd feared. It was true that most of them had come to school with people they already knew, relationships already formed, but in the melting pot of high school, many old allegiances lost their power while new ones were formed. That first year went faster than he could have imagined; he was getting on well in class, he'd even got more than the occasional A, better still, he was picked as the quarterback. And he'd made friends. He'd never had trouble making friends before, after all, since he and his mother had moved around so much, he'd had lots of practice. Yet somehow, he was relieved to find he'd made some this time. Both girls and boys liked him. He was a 'jock', taller and physically more mature than most of his peers, he was a hero of the football team, he was friendly and easygoing and yet... Even after more than six months, he hadn't found a best friend; he didn't have a friend whose company he actively sought out. True, he'd never had a best friend before, but as he got older he became more aware that it was something he was missing out on.
It was cold that evening, Las Vegas might be in the desert, but in February, when the sun starts to go down, so does the temperature. Buck blew out a cloud of condensation as he finished his three laps of the track before training. It was only then that he noticed the boy the coach was putting through his paces. He was close to Buck's height, whipcord slim, with thick, blond hair and from what Buck could see, he was lightening fast.
"Hey Buck!" the coach called, waving him over.
"Yes Coach?" Buck asked as he jogged up.
"Buck, this is Chris Larabee, he's a sophomore, just started this week, he's gonna start training with the team from today. Chris, this is our quarterback, Buck Wilmington."
"Hey," Chris greeted.
"Hey," Buck responded.
The two of them began to walk away from the coach.
"Just moved here or did you transfer from some other school?" Buck asked.
"We just moved here."
"Cool, where from?"
"I lived there once."
Chris turned to face him. "Really, which school did you go to?"
"We were only there for a mouth or two, in the summer, it was a while back." Buck suddenly realised he'd said too much, let too much slip. He didn't make mistakes like that. For as long as he could remember, he'd been taught to say nothing about his home life, never to let anything slip that could lead anyone to suspect there was anything unusual about it. "So, how come you moved?" he asked, desperate to turn the conversation back to the new boy.
"My dad's in the Air Force, he got transferred."
"Didn't think the Nellis kids went to school here?"
"Mom's a midwife, she's got a job, so we live off base, closer to the hospital." He looked at Buck and grinned. "Mom hates living on base."
"Hey you two, this isn't the debate club!" the coach shouted at them.
Both boys turned to face him, looking slightly puzzled.
"More running, less talking!"
It was too late in the season for Chris to join the team, but he trained with them and came to every game. The coach told Buck, that from what he'd seen; Chris would make the varsity team come September. Come the summer, they both made the baseball teams and the track team, Chris in the sprints, Buck threw the javelin.
Almost before he knew it, Buck had the best friend he'd always wanted. It didn't even seem to matter that Chris was in the year above him at school and since his birthday was in September and Buck's was in August, almost two years his senior, chronologically. They seemed to click almost instantly; similar enough to get on, but not so similar that they rubbed each other up the wrong way.
Buck's mother's name was Cynthia Wilmington, that's what it said on her birth certificate, but Wilmington was her mother's maiden name. When she was born, her mother was unwed and her father, a soldier, had been killed over in Korea, without ever knowing he was soon to be a father. The name on Cindy's drivers licence and social security card was Cynthia Gilroy; Gilroy being her stepfather's name. Having married her mother when Cindy was only six months old, he formally adopted her when she was two. Maybe her mother should have known he was the wrong man, but an unwed mother with a baby in tow didn't have many options, not then, not in the South, so she married the first man who asked her. The trouble was, she quickly discovered that Dan Gilroy was a drinker and as the years went by, he became more and more dependent on alcohol. With that dependence came neglect, abuse and poverty. As the years went by and Cindy began to grow from a tall, skinny, ungainly child into a curvaceous young woman, the ever present abuse and violence began to carry other threats. A hand on her growing breast, a grope of her buttocks, leering looks her mother couldn't or wouldn't see.
The only thing that made Cindy's life bearable during that time, were the two horses that lived in the field behind her house, which was little more than a shack deep in the Tennessee woods. They were elderly, but still rideable, if your were a scrawny teenage girl. Their widowed owner was also elderly and though he loved the horses dearly, he found it hard to keep on top of the work needed to keep them healthy. So he was more than happy to let an eager, horse mad girl come across the field everyday she could, to help him out and learn to ride. He was sad on the days she didn't come and even sadder when she couldn't hide the bruises.
One day, she crossed that field and it was empty, so was the rundown little cabin on the far side. The old man had died and the authorities had taken the horses away - no doubt to a slaughterhouse. Cindy was fifteen when her three best friends, one human, two equine, died and that was all that had been keeping her at home. A just a few weeks later, she ran way and never went back.
She had no education, she had no skills, and she was utterly alone in the world. All she had were her looks. Survival forced her into the 'oldest profession' but it didn't destroy her. She was still learning how to survive and take care of herself when she found herself pregnant. Scared and alone, but too poor for a proper abortion and too frightened to go to a back street 'butcher' she determined to have the baby. Her plan, however, was to leave it somewhere were it would be found and taken care of, like a hospital or a church. However, once she had that baby boy in her arms, she couldn't do it, nothing and no one was going to separate her from him!
Keeping a low profile with the child welfare services was easier when you can separate your 'professional' life and your home life, so she gave him her birth name, and used her original birth certificate to get a second social security number, the first one having been issued under her adoptive name. Cindy Wilmington was a hard working, loving, single mother. Cindy Gilroy was a hard working, streetwise prostitute, working out of motels and hotels. She had two complete sets of ID, and rarely, if ever, did anyone other than her son know they were one and the same person.
It was her love of horses that had sustained her as a child; the memories of time spent with that kindly old man and his horses were what made her childhood happy, so she passed that love on to her son.
After arriving in Las Vegas they'd tried out a number of dude ranches, though generally those that took children were just a little too 'wholesome' for them. Buck was interested in riding and working with horses and that was it, he didn't want to go on hayrides, play horse shoes, or soft ball or participate in equine fancy dress or any other 'kids' activity. Likewise, his mother hated that she had to watch her language around the other parents. It wasn't that she swore or used course language excessively, but she was used to talking to Buck as an equal, and she was used to talking to adults as adults, about adult subjects.
Most working ranches that took guests wouldn't take children or set an age limit, which was usually fourteen, but they found one in Arizona that would let twelve year olds come. Cindy lied about his age the first year - but since it was only a month to his birthday and he looked older, no one questioned or noticed. It turned out to be perfect, and since they were prepared to go in July - the hottest and there for the cheapest month - the price was right too. Buck would be up at dawn, helping the men bring in the horses, groom and saddle them. At the end of the ride, he'd be the last to leave for the cookhouse, staying to help until the last horse was seen to. In the evening, while the adult guests, including his mother, were sitting by the grill chatting, he'd be in and around the barn, cleaning saddles, sweeping up, fetching and carrying and just soaking up every thing the cowboys told and showed him.
This summer was their fourth trip to the Bar Benny Ranch, named after the current owner's grandfather, and they had enough money for three weeks - as far as Buck was concerned, that equalled paradise.
It was summer football camp before Buck and Chris met up again. While Buck was riding in Arizona, Chris had been on his grandparent's ranch in Colorado. Their first meeting was spent swapping ranch and horse stories. This mutual love of horses and the cowboy life was just one more thing that linked the two boys. The coach had moved Chris up to the varsity team but kept Buck in junior varsity.
"It's not that you're not good enough, but you're still only fifteen, and Ramon is a damn good quarterback, you'd hardly get a game. Next year, that slot is yours, for two years - okay?"
Buck shrugged. "Sure, no sweat." In all honesty, he hadn't expected to move up this year. Ramon was a senior, he'd been a great quarterback for the varsity team as a junior and there was no reason to replace him. His only regret was that he and Chris would now be on different teams.
Before they knew it, it was Halloween and Chris invited Buck to a party. In the past, he'd always declined such invitations. The rule was don't get too close, don't go to other's houses, then they won't get offended or suspicious when they don't get invited over to your house. It wasn't that there was anything at the trailer that they didn't want the outside world to see, or even that they were ashamed of their home. It might not look like much but it was clean and though the park might be down at heel, most of the residents were decent enough folk. Yet they kept people at arms length, that way there was less chance they could accidentally let something slip. To do that was to risk losing everything. Cindy and Buck lived under a great threat, a fear that was ever present in the back of their minds, the fear that someone would come and take Buck away. There was always the chance that the police, the school or family services would put two and two together and come up with 'unfit mother'.
Buck was older now, and he and Chris had been close, even best friends for almost a year.
"Go if you want to," his mother advised. "You said it wasn't at his house?"
"It's at the base social club. Chris said his dad would take us."
"It's your choice, darling, but I'm happy for you to go."
Buck's face broke out into a grin. "For real, you're not just saying that?"
"Would I lie to my baby boy?" she asked.
"Want some help with your costume?"
"Nope, go it all worked out."
The Halloween party had been a great success! Chris had discovered very quickly that his best friend had a 'way with girls'. He was relaxed and easy in their company, he didn't get tongue tied, he didn't stammer and blush, he didn't say dumb things. And, as Chris observed, the girls really seemed to respond to this easy confidence. Buck never tried to impress them and, in response, they were impressed. Chris hated to admit it; but he learned a lot from watching Buck with girls. The base girls were as responsive to the Wilmington charm as the girls at school, the James Bond costume didn't hurt either.
Major Larabee dropped Buck off where he'd picked him up, at the entrance to a smart looking housing development.
"It was a pleasure to finally meet you, young man," he said as Buck prepared to exit the car. "I hope you'll come and visit us again sometime."
"Um, yeah, that'd be cool. Thanks for the lift, Sir." He looked over at Chris. "See you at school."
Chris watched as Buck headed up the street, it wasn't that late, and there were still plenty of Halloween revellers about. His father prepared to move off.
"Dad, can you go up the road and turn around?"
Larabee looked across at his son, still dressed as Clint Eastwood's 'Man with No Name'.
"So we can park up the road, there, where the street light is out." Chris pointed to the dark area of the street, a few hundred yards ahead of them.
"And why would we want to do that?"
"Buck don't live up there. He lives on the other side."
Now Rob Larabee turned to face his son.
"Please Dad, he won't go anywhere until he thinks we've gone."
Once he had done as his son requested, Robert Larabee requested more information from his son. "I saw his address, the other day, when I was in the school office. I wasn't looking for it, it was just that there was a letter to his mom on the desk, and I happened to see the address."
"And it's not up there?" Rob asked, pointing to the street Buck had headed up.
"No, it's on this side of the road. I just want to make sure he gets home okay, you know with all these people about. Look, there he is."
They watched Buck cross the multiple lanes of traffic and jog down the street, past the strip mall. A few minutes later, he disappeared into a side turning. Larabee put the car in gear and pulled out. As they passed the place were Buck had turned, he slowed the car. They could see a small parking lot outside a laundromat, besides the building there was a gateway - with no gate. The road beyond it was unmade and unlit, but in the gloom it was possible to pick out the glow from a number of windows and the outlines of trailers, parked at an angle to the road, extending into the darkness.
As they drove home, Major Larabee wanted to make sure his son didn't inadvertently destroy what was becoming an important friendship. The military life meant they were forever moving, which made making friends hard, especially for Chris who didn't go out and actively seek friends and seemed to demand very high standards from those he did called friend. He seemed reluctant to invest in people until he really knew them. In most cases by the time he'd figured out who to trust, they had moved again.
"Chris, I know you only wanted to make sure Buck got home safe, but you need to be very careful here," he began.
"For what ever reason, Buck doesn't want us to know he lives in that trailer park, and you need to respect that. You can't let him know you know."
"It doesn't make any difference to me were he lives."
"Of course not, nor to me or your mother."
Chris relaxed a fraction.
"I know I can't let him know I know, I'm not an idiot, Dad. I guess he's embarrassed or something. How do I let him know it doesn't bother me?"
Rob shrugged. "That is not an easy one, son. For now, you just carry on as you have been, be his friend, win his trust, hopefully he'll tell you and you know what?"
"When he does, you can be very proud of yourself. It'll mean he really trusts you, and if he's taking this much trouble to hide where he lives from you, that is a trust that is not easily given."
"You make him sound like a stray dog."
Rob smiled. "Not a bad analogy. Buck seems to be a nice guy, he's polite and courteous and the girls seem to like him," he added with a wry smile.
"All the girls like Buck, Dad, don't ask me why."
"Well it's always a good sigh, woman - girls - they generally have good instincts about us men."
"Sure doesn't hurt to be around him."
"You picking up the cast offs?"
"More like basking in reflected glory."
"Good for you. What I'm saying is, he's done nothing to make us distrust him, so let him build this friendship at his own pace. I suspect he's been betrayed in the past."
"Okay, thanks Dad."
Their lives revolved around football, and while Chris was having a good run of games, Buck was the undisputed star of the junior varsity team. The coach was already talking about collages and scholarships. Chris wanted to invite Buck and his mother - he was fairly certain his mother was the only family Buck had, he never mentioned any one else - to lunch on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, he just wasn't sure how to go about it. He'd settled on the Sunday after some considerable thought. Thursday was for family, so that was out. Friday his mother went shopping, why he wasn't sure, she seemed to hate it and always came back bad tempered, none the less she always went. Saturday would have been a possibility, except his mother was working that day. So that left Sunday, which was good, because he and Buck and his dad could watch the game on TV and for once, his mother would have someone to talk to.
A few days after Halloween, the two of them were walking in after evening training.
"What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" Chris asked suddenly.
"Oh, um, well, not much, lunch on Thursday."
"Any family coming?"
Buck shook his head.
"Same with us, Dad's an only child and his parents are dead. Mom's got to work on Saturday, so we can't get up to Denver and my grandparents can't leave the stock of course. Mom's got a sister, my aunt Clare, but she lives in Hawaii - her husband's not in the Navy but he works for them. So it's just the three of us. Mom 'll still cook for a whole army of course!"
Chris was hoping that by sharing something of his family's plans he might give Buck the confidence to share as well.
"Ma don't cook on Thanksgiving," Buck said quietly. "We always go out. I mean she could cook, if she wanted to," he added hastily. "Ma's a great cook, but it's only two of us; so we go out, 'cause you can't really get a turkey small enough for two and no one has to wash up."
"You can't get a turkey small enough for three, which is why I'll be eating turkey pie, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup and turkey Vol-au-vents, for months!" Chris told him with a laugh.
"What's a Vol-au-vent?" Buck asked.
"Sort of pastry cup thing with meat and sauce in it, taste nicer than they sound. If Mom could make turkey pizza, we'd have that too, I swear. And, well, me and Dad were thinking, that if we had guests, on say - Sunday, Mom would cook something other than left over turkey, so..." He looked over at Buck and smiled. "Would you and your Ma come over for dinner?"
"Dinner?" Buck asked, almost as a reflex rather than a need for clarification.
"Yeah, say at about twelve thirty on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, then stay and watch the game. Mom would like it, 'cause she doesn't really watch football much. I mean she'll watch me play, when she's not working, but not on TV, so when there's a game on she's kinda bored."
By now they were almost back at the locker room.
Buck looked hesitant, but Chris thought he could see something else, possibly hope. "That's real kind of you, I'll ask Ma."
"Darlin', you know it's not a good idea," Cindy said gently when Buck mentioned the invitation.
"But this is different," Buck protested. "I never had a friend like Chris, and neither did he." Cindy looked sceptical. "It's true, the Air Force keeps sending Major Larabee to different bases, so they're always movin', just like us. I've met his dad and he's a real nice guy, you know friendly, not stuck up or tight assed. I don't..."
"Don't think they'd take it bad if we didn't ask them back." He gave his mother his best lost puppy look. "Please Ma."
"Buck Wilmington you're too old to be giving me the sad eyes, but... I'll think about it."
Buck knew not to push the issue any further, but he was hopeful, after all she'd never even considered such an invitation before.
"Are you sure I look okay?" Cindy asked her son for what felt like the twentieth time.
"You look fine, honest," he reassured her.
They were driving to the Larabee's house, with Buck carefully balancing a fresh home made cheesecake on his knees. He knew his mother didn't want to be there, but she was doing it for him. She'd changed her clothes three times that morning, put on make up, taken it off, put it back on. He kept telling her it was okay; what ever she wore would be fine. She'd been up at five to make the cheesecake.
"I want it to be really fresh," she explained, when he asked why she hadn't made it the day before.
She took her eyes of the road for a second. "Yes?"
"For my darlin' baby boy, anything. I think we're here."
The Larabee house looked, like every other house in Las Vegas, although it was a little bigger and seemed to have more garden then most.
"Last chance Ma."
Buck looked up, to see Chris and a woman he presumed to be his friend's mother standing on the front step.
Maggie Larabee was short; perhaps no more than five foot two or three, slim, with blonde hair falling past her shoulders. Despite the fact that Chris' parents came to the football games almost every week, Buck had never met them, other than meeting Major Larabee at Halloween. But then, his mother came to every game and Chris had never met her either. Cindy always sat at the top of the stands and left to wait for Buck in the truck as soon as the game was over, avoiding all the other parents.
The meal went well, not a scrap of turkey in sight. The cheesecake was a huge hit. By mid afternoon, it was like any other American house on Thanksgiving. The men were spread in front of the TV watching football, while the woman were in the kitchen, cleaning up, although since the Larabee's had a dishwasher there wasn't as much cleaning up to do as Cindy was used to.
"Chris and Buck seem to get on very well," Maggie stated by way of a conversation opener.
"Yes, it's wonderful for Buck, he's never had a real best friend."
"The same with Chris. So what do you do?"
Cindy looked up from the glass she was drying. "Do?"
"For a living? Chris is under the impression that you're a single parent?" Maggie suddenly had the feeling she'd over stepped the mark. "You have to forgive me, I'm used to being rather direct. But you're my son's best friend's mom, and I want to know as much about him and therefor you as I can - sorry, over protective mom."
"You're a midwife - right?" Cindy asked by way of reply.
"Yes, I am. Sometimes, when you're faced with a fifteen year old, who's about to deliver and is intent on walking out, you don't have time to stand on ceremony - you just need to get through to her."
Cindy smiled. "I can relate to that. Yes, it's just me and my boy."
"Can I ask where his father is?"
"His father doesn't even know he exists and I have no idea where he is."
Maggie put a pot of coffee on. "Is that a good or a bad thing?"
"Good, definitely good."
"Good for you." Maggie winked at her. "I wouldn't be without my man, but ones as good as Robert are few and far between. I've seen plenty of woman who'd be better off without the looser they've settled for."
"Honey, for every one you've seen, I've seen ten, and they never seem to learn!"
"Ain't that the truth!"
When Robert came into the kitchen looking got for his coffee, he found two women grinning like Cheshire cats who burst into fits of giggles as soon as they saw him.
"What?" he asked, but he got no reply, only more laughter.
As well as things had gone; Cindy was weary of getting too close. An invitation to supper on the Saturday after Christmas was politely declined; nonetheless, she did begin to say hello to the Larabee's at the football games and promised Buck they'd invite the Larabee's to a picnic at Easter.
It was March, Easter was a month away and Cindy had gone to work on Friday night, as usual. When Buck woke up on Saturday she wasn't there. He wasn't worried, she was sometimes late. By the time he left for work just before noon, she still wasn't back. All afternoon, as he worked, he kept one eye on the road outside, watching for his mother's old red truck turning into the trailer park. It never came. She didn't come home on Saturday. He waited up all that night, but she never arrived. He was due to work all day on Sunday, but he couldn't concentrate.
Two days was too long, one day was too long, but two ... Never ever had she left him alone that long, not with out leaving some message. He tried desperately to convince himself that there was a perfectly good reason she hadn't been in contact. The best case scenario would be a win party. Sometimes when people won big, they would throw a party. Casinos were all too keen to keep big winners long enough for them to lose back some, if not all of their winnings. To this end, they offered them luxury suits, with all kinds of complimentary gifts. Single men almost always wanted some 'companionship' at these parties, and while officially the casinos had nothing to do with such requests, unofficially there was nothing they wouldn't do to hang on to a big winner. Cindy always likes these jobs; the host was happy and usually feeling generous. The parties were held in the best suites in the big hotels, and there would be endless food and drink. If she were really lucky, he'd be so drunk she'd get paid and tipped without ever having to do anything other then have fun. Maybe the party was going on a long time? Maybe there was no phone? Maybe...
By noon he could wait no longer. He told his boss at the Laundromat that he had to go out on personal business. She wasn't too annoyed, Buck was a good worker and there was little trade on a Sunday afternoon anyway. Leaving a note on the kitchen counter in case his mother came back, he grabbed the spare keys to the truck and took some money from the stash behind the bed and headed out into the city. He knew were his mother usually parked. Their vehicle, an old, but reliable pick up, was the only thing that linked Cindy Gilroy to Cynthia Wilmington, since it was registered and insured under Wilmington. When she was working, Cindy parked on an empty lot behind an adult supplies shop; for a small fee the owner kept an eye on it and all the others that were parked there, many belonging to other workers in the sex industry.
It took Buck more than an hour to reach the lot. When he spotted the truck he wasn't sure if he was relived or more worried, it meant she hadn't had a car crash but it also meant she wasn't driving home and he'd just missed her. Leaving the truck were it was, he headed over to the 'Sunset Dunes Resort', which was a very glamorous sounding name for a very unglamorous place. The Sunset Dunes had been one of Las Vegas' earlier motels, but it had suffered over the years from a lack of investment and poor position. Unable to compete with the big chain, budget motels, the owners had converted it to cheap rent, one room apartments, let out by the week. The majority of these apartments were now rented by 'working girls', like Cindy.
Buck had never been inside his mother's place of work. He knew the address, he had a key and he'd seen it from the outside, but never had he been over the threshold. He was apprehensive; the one thing he really didn't want to see, was his mother at work with a client. As he approached he saw yellow tape over the door he was heading for. Quickly he glanced at the door beside him, it was number 4, two doors down had to be number 6, he was heading for number 6. Fear gripped his guts as he came closer. 'POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS' the tape read, in big, black, ominous, letters. He tried to look though the window, but the drapes were pulled, he stepped back and took a look about him. There were black fingerprints all over the door, each had a chalk ring around it, each ring had a chalk number beside it. Other than the tape and the black fingerprints, nothing else looked out of place. No other doors were taped, there were no police to be seen anywhere. As he stood there, a man came out of one of the apartments opposite, he was short and fat and was still doing up his shirt. Buck turned away.
Feeling physically sick, he made his way to what had once been the motels reception office. These days it formed part of the supervisor's accommodation. Closed, it said on the door, but he rang the bell anyway. He rang the bell four times, but no one came.
"He ain't in," someone called.
Buck spun around to see a tall black woman, in skin-tight jeans, and an equally tight top walking past, carrying a bag of groceries.
"Pardon?" he asked.
"Old man Spear, he ain't in, won't be back 'till Monday most likely." She stopped walking. "What'd you want with him anyway?"
Buck forced his legs, which seemed to have started to shake, to walk toward her. "I was, um, that is, can you tell me what happened at number 6?" **Please say a man died, or got hurt or maybe he just hurt Ma and she's in the hospital, but she's okay, say that! SAY IT!** he silently pleaded.
She looked over at the taped up door. "Oh that, yeah." Her voice was sounding full of regret. "Poor Cindy, she was okay - you know?"
**Was? NO! Don't say that, that's not what you were meant to say! You've got it wrong!**
"So what happened?" he asked again.
"Some john offed her."
"Offed?" he asked, hardly able to form the word.
"I wasn't here myself," she added hastily. "I was out that night - it was Friday - anyway, I heard from Mable, the trannie over at number eleven, that one of the cops told her, she was knifed."
"Cindy, someone stuck her, which is a real shame, 'cause she was decent. Some of the bitches around her would steal your last dime and your best customers, but not her, she was a real lady."
Buck was trying to get his brain to process what he'd just been told. "She's dead? You're sure?"
"Sure I'm sure, Mable told me the girl opposite saw the paramedics work on her, but she was already dead, they took her out in a body bag."
The woman continued to talk, Buck knew this because he could see her mouth moving, but he could no longer hear her. Instead, there was this kind of buzzing sound in his head.
"Hey? You okay?" The woman shook Buck by the shoulder.
"You don't look so good, boy. You need 't sit down?"
Buck shook his head.
"Did you know Cindy?"
"Ah hell, I'm sorry kid. You gonna be okay?"
"Do they know...?"
"Who did it?"
"Apparently the girl opposite, the one that saw them work on her, she said the guy that found her - he was one of her regulars - he told the cops, that some car passed him going out as he was coming in, said it was doing - like a 110. Apparently it was some fancy sports car. That's all I heard. You sure you're okay, you're looking kinda peaked."
Buck just nodded and mumbled his thanks, as he turned and walked away. The next thing he knew he was standing beside the truck. He wasn't sure how long he'd been there before he pulled out the key and opened the driver's door. More time passed before he actually turned on the engine. He had no driver's licence of course, but he could drive, though he'd never driven in the city. All of his driving had been done on straight, mostly deserted highways and back roads. Not that he'd even thought about that as he pulled out. Only now did he notice that it was dark, and the roads were as deserted as they ever got in Sin City. He glanced at his watch, it was 2AM.
He made it home. Parked the truck. Walked into the house. Closed the door and sank to his knees. His whole body shook as he was over come by great, heart-wrenching sobs that felt as if they would never end.
He woke up, fully dressed, sitting against the front door in their living room. He there he sat, fully dressed, wondering how he had come to be sitting on the floor all night. It took at least a minute for the truth it to hit him, for him to remember what had happened. And when he did remember, his stomach threatened to rebel. He sat up straight, taking deep breaths, forcing it to calm down. From where he was sitting, he could see the window. Outside, the sun was shining - how dare it, how could there be sunshine on such a day? How could the shops open? How could children laugh and play? How could those tourists on the Strip, go about joyfully loosing there money? Didn't they know, didn't they understand that the world had stopped?
He stayed there, sitting against the door, staring at nothing, trying to work out what he was going to do. He looked at his watch; it was just after ten. He was late for school, not that he was planning to go. It suddenly occurred to him, that he'd have to come up with some reason he was absent today. He couldn't tell them he was absent because his mother had been murdered in a seedy apartment where she was turning tricks. He hated that word, but what other word was there? His mother called it 'entertaining', but he didn't like that, what she did wasn't entertaining. Entertaining was something that was fun, it was enjoyable, it was something you could talk about. No, there was no way he could tell anyone what had happened.
For some reason he suddenly remembered that he was meant to be at a weight training session that afternoon. Coach Woodward, the football coach, was adamant all his players continue conditioning training though out the year. The junior varsity team had been undefeated and made it to the state play offs, were they eventually came third. The coach had told Buck he had a shot at making 'all state' but in the end it went to the quarterback of the winning team. Since the end of the football season he'd been training with the swim team, he'd even made the team a few times. Coach approved of his players swimming, it was good exercise and there was little risk of injury.
Somehow, sport didn't seem important anymore, nothing did, there was just this horrid emptiness inside that nothing could ever fill. Suddenly it was all too much. He rolled over to lie on his side and pulled his knees up into a foetal position and gave into his grief as the tears returned.
Sometime later, he became aware of being thirsty. Glancing at his watch he was surprised to see it was almost three in the afternoon. He pulled himself up and headed to the kitchen to get a drink. While he stood there drinking a Coke, his stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten since he'd had a sandwich at lunchtime the previous day. Opening the fridge, he stared at its contents with little interest. Finally, he pulled out the milk and poured himself a bowl of cereal.
"There's a whole meal in a bowl of cereal," he could hear his mother saying. They didn't have much money, but as little as they had now, there were times in the past when they'd had a lot less. Buck could remember there being so little money his mother had gone hungry - but not him. Come what may, no matter how hard she had to work, no matter what she had to give up, Buck had never missed a meal, never been cold, never had to wear dirty or torn clothes. As he looked down at that bowl of cereal, simple, supermarket brand, budget, cereal, he knew what he had to do - carry on.
His mother had fought tooth and nail, all her adult life - and even some of her childhood, to maintain her independence. She took shit from no one, let no one push her around and ran her own life.
"There are people out there who think they're better then us - that only proves they ain't," she told him. "There are people who want you to live the way they live, they'll say its better for you - that just means they ain't happy with their own life. Then there are the ones who think they know what God is thinking, that they can talk for him and make judgements for him, so that gives them the right to tell you how to live your life and what to believe. And do you know what that means?" she asked.
He'd obediently shook his head.
"Means they don't trust God to decide who can get into heaven and how can you believe in a God you don't trust?"
"So they don't really believe in God?" Buck had asked.
His mother had just given him her shrug, the one that said 'what do you think?'.
He loved that shrug. His mother had a whole lot of shrugs. There was the 'I know you're lying, but suit your self' shrug, the 'like I care' shrug, the 'what ever' shrug and the 'you're talking total crap, but I can't be bothered to argue with you' shrug. His mother could hold a whole conversation with just her shoulders.
Suddenly his hand was trembling, and he was forced to put the bowl he was holding down. He was never going to see that shrug again, never see those wonderful brown eyes smile so kindly, never hear that wonderful, soft southern voice tell him everything was okay.
"Damn it!" he slammed his fist down on the counter, then backhanded his tears way.
He would not let the system get him, he would not give up the independence his mother had worked so hard to get and keep! The trouble was, it wasn't going to be that easy.
He walked to his mother's room, and stood there in the doorway, unable to move into the room. This was her space, her own private place, her haven. She kept it immaculately clean, always with white sheets and cream covers, other then a silver framed picture of Buck on the bedside cabinet and a print of a Remington painting on the wall, there were no pictures, no momentous, no souvenirs, no clutter. On the dressing table her, hairbrush and comb sat neatly, strands of auburn hair still entwined in them.
The tears returned as he stood there. It smelled of her scent and he could almost hear her calling him. **Buck honey, come and do me up!** He was an expert at doing up zips and press studs, he could even do the little clasps on necklaces.
**Get a grip,** he told himself. **You have to go on, it's what she'd want.**
He forced himself to cross the small room and placed his knee on the bed so he could reach behind the bed, push the loose panel aside, and retrieve his mother's stash of cash. As soon as he had it, he stepped back and carefully straightened the covers. The cash didn't represent all the money his mother had saved, she had a savings account. Unfortunately, he had no way to access it, not without admitting she was dead. Once back in the living room he counted it, to him it seemed like a fortune, but he was well aware that once he started to pay the rent and the bills, it wouldn't last long. It was clear he was going to have to get a job, some job that wouldn't get in the way of school or football. As unimportant as football seemed now, if he suddenly quit, people would ask questions, they might even try to talk to his mother. Come what may, he had to keep a low profile and not draw attention to himself. Nor was he prepared to deliberately play badly so he'd be dropped, because next year's championship meant so much to the other guys on the team - and he wasn't so modest that he didn't recognise he was the team's key player.
Keeping a low profile had to be his first priority, and to that end, he had to explain why he was absent from school. The school was very hot on attendance, he'd have to produce a letter explaining his absence. There was no way he could forge his mother's hand writing, nor could he write it himself and claim she had dictated it to him because she'd hurt her hand - that dodge was as old as the hills and the school would be instantly suspicious. Suddenly, he remembered something, which sent him hurrying back to his mother's room. As before, he hesitated on the threshold, before walking in and opening the wardrobe. There at the bottom, to the back, was what he was looking for, a small portable typewriter.
There had been a time when his mother had tried to get out of her 'profession' once Buck was older. She had tried to get a job that would fit in with school hours. The trouble was, so were a lot of other mothers and they had references and employment records, they paid taxes, hell they even had a high school diploma! It hadn't ever really worked, partly because she didn't have the skills that were most in demand. With this in mind, she's picked up the typewriter in a thrift shop and 'teach you self to type' book. Her quest to learn to type hadn't lasted long, it was harder than it looked and took far too much practice, practice she just didn't have the time for. Even on the odd occasions when she had managed to get a job, she hadn't lasted long. It was hard to be the lowest of the low, to take orders, to get to work on time, everyday, when all your life, since you were fifteen, you'd been your own boss. She found the petty rules, politics, inevitable uniforms and name badges too restrictive. The predictable result was that she was fired or she quit. Buck had never minded, he'd liked that his mother was there when he needed her, liked that they had the freedom to take off for a day or a week or a month without having to plan ahead. Sure there were risks, but they were risks he'd been living with his whole life, he was used to it. Indeed, it had been many years before he'd realised that not all children lived they way he and his mother did - he knew better now.
After setting up the typewriter on the table, he investigated it a little more. He practised on some of his lined school paper, relieved to find the ink had not dried up. It took some time to find the right keys and learn how to change case and do indents, but he made progress. By late afternoon, he felt confident enough to put in some of the plain paper he'd found with the machine and type the actual letter. Four attempts later he had one he was happy with. The next problem was his mother's signature. He tried copying it, but his attempts weren't very convincing. Then he had an idea. He placed a letter with his mother's signature on it over his newly typed letter - which explained that he'd been up all night with a stomach bug, but was now fine - and positioned it so that the signature was over where he wanted it to be on his. Then he took a pencil and went over the real one, making sure he pressed hard. Once he was done, he pulled the original letter back and examined his letter. There was his mother's signature, indented into the paper. All he had to do was take a ballpoint pen and go over it - perfect!
Buck spun around to see Chris jogging up to join him as he headed into school. "Yeah," he responded.
"What about yesterday?"
"Yesterday? Oh yeah, bad stomach upset, puking my guts out all night."
Chris looked even more concerned. "You okay now?"
"You sure, you look horrible."
"Gee thanks Larabee," he commented sarcastically. He looked over at his friend, who was still frowning. "Honestly, I'm fine."
Part of him ached to tell Chris what had happened, to share his burden, to hear Chris say - 'I'm sorry, don't worry, you can come home with me'. But he didn't, it was too risky, it went against everything his mother had taught him all his life. All he could do, all he knew how to do, was carry on.
He might have resolved to carry on as normal, but it was easier to say than do. He found it hard to concentrate, he had to force himself to eat and talk and walk. He had to force himself to do anything and when he got home, there was just emptiness. No meal being cooked, no one to listen to his problems, no one to share is triumphs, just an empty old trailer that was no longer a home. One day merged into another, he went to work at the weekend. After a week he went out looking for a second job, something that would fit in with school and his existing job, the trouble was he was still only fifteen, which restricted what he could do. Eventually he got a job at the gas station, working from seven in the evening until midnight. It would do for now, but it he knew it was only temporary. He set himself a goal - the summer vacation. All he had to do was get to the summer vacation, one day at a time.
As spring gave way to summer, and baseball started but only one of them tried out for the baseball team. Chris was good at baseball; he was a pitcher, with a mean curve ball. Buck wasn't much for pitching, but he could hit the ball a long way. The trouble was, as often as he hit it over the fence, he ground out to one of the infielders. Buck just never had the patience for baseball, besides Coach Woodward kept telling him to make sure he didn't get injured before the next season. So while Chris pitched, Buck was on the track, running. He was good at running, 400 meters was his best event. He didn't have to think much when he ran, there wasn't much technique to it, no skills to master other than run. The coach kept trying to teach him to be a better runner, tactics, starts, dipping for the tape, but all Buck cared about was running. When he ran flat out, when he ran until his brain was all but starved of oxygen, he could block out everything else. When he ran so hard it hurt, then that was the only hurt he could feel. It wasn't pretty to watch, but there was no denying he was fast, so they kept putting him on the team.
With the difference in their ages and being on different sports teams, Buck and Chris didn't see much of each other at school, and with Buck working evenings and weekends there wasn't time to socialise, and yet their friendship seemed to be thrive. They didn't need to live in each other's pockets to be friends. The end of the school year drew close, there was a prom, and they both went. Buck took Becky Marshall. There had been some competition for him; Chris likened it to watching lionesses fighting over the leader of the pride. If Chris had been asked, he would have said Jessica Rossi had the inside track, she was a cheerleader and very well 'equipped'. He was really surprised when Buck asked Becky, she wasn't a cheerleader, she wasn't much of an athlete at all. Just a little on the plump side, she always wore a hat and long sleeves so she was rather pale with red hair and freckles. Becky might not have been an athlete, but she was on the debate team and in the drama club, plus she had a lot of 'personality'.
A few days before the prom they had been sitting on a wall, after a weight training session, waiting for Major Larabee, when Chris asked him about his choice of date.
Buck said. "If you're gonna spend all evening with a girl, you better pick one you can talk to and like what she says," he explained.
"And you can't talk to Jessica?" Chris asked.
"No, that girl has a one track mind and that mind has a mind to take hold of a guy and not let go!"
Chris had just stared at him, trying to work out what he'd just said, finally the penny dropped. "Okay, if you say so."
"So who are your taking?" Buck asked.
"Maria Santos." Maria had been interested in Buck, she was another cheerleader, but seeing she had no chance, she'd turned her attention on Chris.
Buck smiled. "Good choice."
Chris looked over at his friend, his fifteen year old friend. "Have you ever done it?" he asked. He didn't need to say what 'it' was, everyone knew what 'it' was.
Buck smiled casually. "Yeah."
Somehow Chris didn't doubt him. "Was it as good as the guys all say it is?"
"Well, you gotta know most of them are bullshittin' - right? I don't reckon even half of them that say they did it, have done it."
Chris had pretty much worked that out himself, he suspected the ones who shouted the loudest were the ones who were most likely to be making it up.
"What you gotta know is, it takes practice, and it's not about you having fun, it's about her enjoying it," Buck continued.
"Are you good at it?" Chris asked.
"Not yet," his friend admitted, with a wry smile. "What about you?"
"Done it once, reckon I need more practice, a lot more!"
"I'd say practice makes perfect, but I don't think you ever get to be perfect at it and after all, it's one subject I'm happy to keep practising!"
They both laughed. They were still laughing when Chris' father pulled up.
"Hey, want a lift home?" Chris asked. "It's no problem."
It had been a good afternoon, it had been normal, two friends, sitting on a wall, talking about girls and sex. Then suddenly Chris' innocent question brought the reality of Buck's world crashing back down.
"No, no that's fine, I've got some errands to run," he lied smoothly.
Chris was now walking toward his father's car. "Okay, if you're sure, see you tomorrow."
Buck waited until the car was out of sight, before turning, not for home, but for the gas station to start his shift. From school it took almost an hour to walk to work, he could run it in less than half that, and as soon as Chris was out of sight, he was going to have to run for it!
As he arrived at the gas station, the manager, Juan Henandez, looked at his watch, making Buck look at his.
Six fifty seven. "I ain't late," he pointed out.
"When you are ready to work, then you are not late," Juan pointed out.
He was a compact Mexican man, who took his job and his responsibilities seriously, and although he was tough, he'd always been fair.
"Right," Buck, gasped, his chest still heaving after his run.
In record time, he had his name badge on and was back, smiling and not panting, though his chest was still heaving.
Juan's expression softened. "Why are you leaving me, Buck? You're a good worker, it's hard to find kids who know how to work."
"I told you, school's almost over, I've got a vacation job in Arizona."
Buck knew he'd need to work all summer, but he didn't think he could manage a three whole months cooped up in the trailer - alone. He'd taken out the typewriter and written to the owners of the Bar Benny Ranch. Writing as his mother, he explained that she was going to have to work all summer but that Buck really wanted to come to the ranch. She went on to explain that they had a slight cash flow crisis and wondered if Buck could possibly work for his bed and board in the bunkhouse. To his relief and surprise, they wrote back immediately, saying yes.
"I tell you what, when you come back, you call me, if there's a job, it's yours," Juan told him.
"'Preciate that Mr Henandez." Buck looked around. "So, what do you want me to do?"
"Re-stock the sodas."
The sun was just coming up as he drove the truck up the ranch's long dusty drive. The drive had been tense, he had no license after all, and he'd never had to drive and navigate on his own before, but he'd made it. When the ranch came into sight, it was if a great weight had been lifted. Here, no one would wonder where his mother was; no one would ask questions. All he had to do was work and sleep and be with the horses. And for one blissful week that was what he did. He worked from dawn until dusk, if he wasn't sleeping or eating, he was working. He groomed, swept, mucked out, cleaned tack, put out feed, helped clients mount up in the morning, helped them when they came back, he did his best to keep the bunk house tidy.
At the end of the week, the owner called Buck over.
"I told your mother that this first week would be a trial period," he began.
"Yes Sir," Buck responded, a worry of butterflies building in his gut.
"I believe in a man doing a fair day's work for a fair day's pay."
Buck wanted to point out he was a boy, working for bed and board only, but he just said. "Yes, Sir."
"Which is why I'm going to be paying you."
"You may be young, but, damn boy, you work. You're doing as much as the other hands, so you deserve more than room and board. I can't afford to pay you what I pay them, but it's cash and it's tax free." He handed over $50. "Plus you get to keep any tips you make."
"Um, thanks Sir, thanks a lot!"
"Slow down just a little, you're making the others look bad." With that he gave Buck a friendly wink and headed back to the house.
He wished he could stay at the ranch forever, but that wasn't an option. He couldn't even stay until school started because he had to be back in time for summer football camp. It had been a wonderful summer; he'd learned so much. In the space of just eleven weeks he'd gone from everybody's gopher, to doing almost everything the professional cowboys did. He hadn't had to worry about keeping his fitness up, toting bales of hay, digging postholes, shovelling shit and lifting heavy saddles all day was as good as any work out. Reluctantly, he said his goodbyes to his friends at the ranch; both two and four legged. With wages and tips, he had almost $800 in his pocket.
"Here, take this." The boss handed him a sealed letter. "It's a reference, if you ever need to get a job at some other ranch, show them that. Of course, you're welcome back here next summer, if you want to come?"
Buck grinned. "I really appreciate this Sir, and I'd love to come back next year if I can."
He set out late in the evening, so he'd be arrive back at the city in the small hours of the morning, when the traffic was at it's lightest. Having made it safely back home, he pushed the door open and dropped his bag. The trailer smelled stale and was unbelievably hot and stuffy. He had told Bea, the lady who ran the Laundromat where he worked, that he and his mother were going to be away for the whole summer. He asked her to make sure the mailbox didn't over flow and to air the trailer once a week. She, like Mr Henandez, was sorry Buck was leaving, but while she was prepared to hold his job for three week, a whole summer was too long, so she'd have to find someone to take his place and couldn't guarantee the job would still be there when he got back.
There was a pile of mail on the counter in the kitchen, which he ignored as he went around opening all the windows. The trailer did have an air conditioner, one unit that blew air into the big living area at the front. The trouble was, it was old, inefficient, loud and very expensive to run, which was why his mother hardly ever used it and why he hadn't once turned it on since she died. They did have an awning that kept the sun off the south-west facing side, plus three big fans, and with all the windows open, it was just about bearable - most of the time. He'd stopped at a big all night supermarket on his way home, and once he'd got all the supplies inside and squared away, he headed for his bed. Heat or no heat, he'd been up for 24 hours and he needed sleep. Besides, things wouldn't look so bleak when he wasn't dog tired - right?
Two days later, he reported for football practice. He and Chris were now on the same team again, so spent much of the first session catching up. As usual, Chris had spent his summer at his grandparents' ranch in Colorado, so they compared ranch and horse stories - when the coach wasn't watching. Football camp ended and school began. For the first week, things went fine - mostly. Being a junior, the work was noticeably more demanding, S.A.T.s and collage, that once looked so far way, were now looking ominously close. Chris had warned him what it was like, but he hadn't really taken it on board, still he had always been a solid B student and he didn't see why that would change. Coach Woodward had told him several collage scouts had him in their sights already, he'd even met the guy from UCLA.
"You keep playing the way I know you can, and you will make all state, maybe not this year, there's that guy in Reno, made all state in his junior varsity team, he's a senior now, he's the favourite this year, but people get injured, so you never know. Next year - I'd lay good money on you. That guy's got USC, UCLA and Arizona State all over him right now, and that can be you in a year."
"What about Chris?" Buck asked.
"You and I know Chris is a good player, but he doesn't have your talent. Besides, I believe he has other things in mind for his collage career."
Coach didn't elaborate, and Buck had to admit he'd never bothered to ask his friend what his plans were post high school and Chris had never volunteered anything about it. He resolved to ask him as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
While he had football and school under control, he still needed a job. He'd called Mr Henandez, but he had no openings. Bea at the Laundromat was able to offer him a job, all day on Sunday, but one day a week wasn't going to pay him nearly enough. His ranch money wouldn't last for long. He needed a job, a job that fitted in with school and football, and paid enough to cover the rent, utilities and leave him enough to eat.
In the days and weeks after his mother's murder, sleep had been hard to come by; he'd spent many a night, kneeling on his bed, gazing out of the window into the night. The Strip was clearly visible on the horizon, but what was of more interest was the auto shop, just the other side of the chain link fence. He'd watched it in the past, he knew they worked nights, but this was the first time he'd watched night after night. They worked very odd hours, even for Vegas. In fact, as far as Buck could work out, they worked all night, every night, except Sunday. Now, in a city with so many night and shift workers, this wasn't that unusual, but they didn't seem to have any real customers.
Every now and again, two cars would appear, one was ordinary, unremarkable, the kind of car that would blend into the background. The other was usually something special, a sport car or high end sedan, almost always European - BMWs, Mercedes, Porsche, Ferrari, Jaguar etc. When the cars came, the doors opened, throwing harsh white light out, illuminating the cars and their drivers. The expensive car was driven inside. Then someone, presumably the driver, came out and got into the nondescript car. On occasion, Buck has seen someone, usually a large man in blue overalls with what looked like a goatee beard, hand something to the presumed driver.
He didn't watch every night, but he watched enough nights, to begin to recognise some of the regular callers. The same delivery driver would always turn up with the same nondescript car, delivering cars - stolen cars, there was no other explanation. And if he needed conformation, in the daytime, he'd see those same expensive European cars leaving. They were a different colour and he would bet they had different plates, but he was sure they were the same cars.
He'd been back at school for two weeks and he couldn't sleep, so he watched the auto shop like always. It was still unbearable hot, and the window was wide open. The still night air carried the sound perfectly.
"All you had to do was show up on time, sweep up, clean cars and keep your mouth shut!" a man in jeans and a black tee shirt shouted.
He was speaking, or rather hollering at a man in overalls. The man said something, but Buck couldn't catch what it was.
"Too late!" the other man shouted, "You've had your chance, and if you ever..."
What else he said was lost as they moved just a little bit further way and were partly hidden behind the open doors. A little while later, a car drove away. Then, the man with the goatee walked up to jeans man.
"Happy now?" he asked.
"He had it coming," goatee man told him.
"Is he safe?"
"He won't ..."
Buck couldn't make out the rest of what was said, except at the end.
"... well you better find someone, 'cause I ain't sweeping up!" goatee man shouted as he disappeared inside, closing the doors behind him.
It looked like any other auto repair shop; there were two cars being worked on, cars parked outside, loud music, risqué pictures on the wall. Buck felt as if he should edge in, but stopped himself. He squared his shoulders and walked in, projecting as much confidence as he could muster. There seemed to be a glass fronted office to one side, so he headed for that. He could see goatee man inside as he knocked on the open door.
"Yeah?" the man responded, with out looking up.
"Excuse me, Sir," Buck began, stepping into the office. "I was wondering if you were hiring at all?" Goatee man looked up, but before he could say anything, Buck pressed on. "I'm not a mechanic, although I do know the basics, but I can wash cars, polish, wax and I can sweep up. I'm a hard worker and reliable."
Goatee man looked at him. "Easy to say, kid."
Buck put the reference letter from the ranch on the desk. "I know it's not the same kind of work, but..."
The man looked at the letter, showing nothing on his face. When he was done, he put it back into the envelope and handed it back.
"This ain't no ranch, I don't need no one right now."
"I really need a job, something that fits in with school. I can work afternoons and nights and I can keep my mouth shut too," Buck persisted.
That got the man's attention, though he hid it well. There was no point holding anything back, if this man was going to give him a job, he needed to prove he was honest.
"I live over in the trailer park, the one right at the end. I've seen you guys a bunch of times, working at night. I saw you last night. You need someone to sweep up."
Goatee man stood up and walked around his desk. Without saying a word, he walked past Buck and out of the office. Not knowing what else to do, Buck followed him. The man walked out of the shop and around the building, until he could see the fence and edge of the trailer.
"You live there?"
"Um, five years."
"Who else lives there?"
"No one else?"
The man stood and stared at the trailer. The trailers were set at an angle, which had the effect of masking his workshop, from all but the end trailer. On the side that faced the trailer park, the auto shop had no windows, clearly he'd never realised that the doors were visible.
"So you've been watching?" he finally asked.
"It gets hot, hard to sleep some nights," Buck replied.
"Costs too much to run."
"Yeah, and those trailers do get hot," the man commented in such a way that made Buck believe he had personal knowledge of the problem.
"You need the money?"
"Yer mother working?"
"All I got now is four hours, two in the afternoon, two in the morning - three thirty to five thirty. Reckon you can get up that early?"
"Pays sixteen bucks a day, six days a week."
Ninety six dollars a week was more then he was getting in Arizona, for a fraction of the hours. Four dollars an hour was well over the going rate for someone his age, it was clear he was being paid for his continued silence. With the money he was making on Sundays at the Laundromat, he'd have just enough to get by on.
"You want the job?"
"You call me Mr Smith or Sir, everyone else goes by their first name. What's yours?"
"See you tonight Buck, three thirty - don't be late."
He'd promised his new boss, Mr Smith, he'd be punctual, but that wasn't going to be easy. Work started at three thirty and school ended at one thirty, it was a half hour walk - no problem, except he had fitness training every day after school from a quarter to two until a quarter to three. He should still have had time for a quick shower before jogging to work, which took about twenty minutes. The trouble was the sessions often over ran.
If they were really late, he didn't bother to shower; he just pulled his clothes on and took off. Sometimes he was so late leaving; he had to run, really run, all the way to make it on time. The first time he'd been to the auto shop, he'd walked all the way to the end of the road and around the long way. The day he got the job, he took time to check the fence behind the trailers for holes that he could slip through. It didn't take long to find one not for from his home. With only minimal work, he made it big enough to get though easily. Between him and his new job there was a second obstacle, a concrete lined ditch, part of the system of channels that protected the city from flash floods. It was about ten feet wide and eight feed deep, too wide to jump and while he could have dropped into it with no difficulty, there was no way he could scale the steep, smooth sides unaided.
Not one to give up easily, that night he went out hunting on some of the construction sites in the area - in Las Vegas something is always being built. It didn't take long to find what he was looking for - a nice, strong, plank. It was just long enough and made a convenient, if slightly wobbly, bridge.
Mr Smith, and Buck was sure that wasn't his real name, proved to be a bit of a dichotomy. He was good to his workers, so long as they worked hard. He was loyal to them if they were loyal to him but, he was a totally ruthless businessman and criminal. Cross him, try to cheat him and, although nothing was said, there was an ever present threat of violence
The people who stole the cars were called 'lifters'. The driver who would rendezvous with them and then shadowed them back, helping to check for police tails and driving them back into the city after the car was delivered, were the 'chauffeurs'. Chauffeurs cars were always plain, boring and, in all ways, unremarkable. Lifters and chauffeurs always worked as a pair. As Buck had observed, there were only four pairs. Marc and Adam, were young, black, pushy and brothers. Then there was Jorge and Enrique, a pair of Latino guys. Buck had been surprised to find that one couple were entirely female. He wasn't surprised because they were girls, but that he hadn't spotted the fact that they were girls while he had been watching. Monica and Fran were young and pretty, but several of the guys in the garage warned him about not trying to put any moves on them.
"They're not interested, if you get my meaning," Stan, who wasn't that much older than Buck, told him. "The only people those little hotties got eyes for is each other."
The last pair were also a couple, like the girls they were white, and looked like an average, middle class couple. They even had average names, Joe and Sara.
"When you're in a neighbourhood, scouting for a car, you need to blend in," Mr Smith had told him one night, when the girls arrived with a nice convertible, dressed like collage students out partying.
When you looked at them, it was true, between them there weren't many parts of the city and its suburbs where they would have looked out of place.
Chris had been worrying about Buck for some time. When he looked back, he thought it began in the spring, when his friend had been ill. He'd only missed one day of school, but despite assurances he was 'fine', Chris was sure he'd been ill for sometime. Buck's spirit, his spark had gone, he was just going though the motions. It was so clear to Chris, he couldn't believe that no one else could see the change. This was Buck after all, he was the very definition of 'life' and it had all gone. But no one else had noticed, as far as he could see and Buck kept insisting he was okay.
The trouble was, he was having personal problems of his own at the time. He had decisions to make, big, huge, life changing decisions and then there was his father - that was a whole other level of complication. With his own life so complicated at the time, he hadn't really noticed how Buck was doing or taken the time to ask. It wasn't that he didn't care, he did, but he had to concentrate on his own problems first. He did note that, little by little, Buck had regained some of his old spirit. He was working most evenings, not that he'd told Chris, but it was clear that's where he went everyday after fitness training. Remembering his father's advice, Chris hadn't pushed or asked why, but clearly money was tight.
As the summer vacation drew closer, Chris' own life became less complicated and he had a chance to draw a breath and take a look at Buck. He was happy to find his friend more relaxed, more his old self, though there was still something missing. Some spark was just gone somehow. Chris had resolved to wait until after the vacation. If Buck wasn't back to 'normal' when they returned to school, somehow he was going to find out what the problem was, somehow.
But, when they met again in August, he had to admit, Buck looked great. He was tanned, lean, fit and had clearly had a fantastic summer working on the ranch. School started, but apart from finding the class work that much harder, Buck seemed to be Buck again - until their first game.
Expectations were high, and most of those expectations rested on Buck's throwing arm.
The school they were playing did not have a strong team, Bicentennial High had always beaten them easily, and by half time they were ahead, but only by three points. The problem was clear to everyone, especially Chris. Buck was as fit, fast and agile as he'd ever been, he could still throw, he was still deadly accurate, but then so were a lot of quarterbacks. What was missing were those qualities that made Buck so much better then all those others - his imagination, his creativity, his ability to think on his feet.
Before Chris could say anything though, the coach pulled Buck aside.
"Buck, what is the matter with you?" he asked. "You're playing like a zombie."
"I'm doing my best," he protested.
"No you're not, you could play better than this in you're sleep! I don't need some Sunday in the park wanna-be, I need the guy that took the junior varsity team to the play offs. You need to get it together! We should be taking these guys to the cleaners, not scraping by."
Buck looked at his teammates, at Chris, then nodded his acceptance of the comment. He did play much better in the second half of the game and they went on to win, if not convincingly, at least comfortably.
"You coming?" Chris asked, as he was pulling on his jeans, his hair still wet from the shower.
"Coming?" Buck asked.
"To celebrate, you're on the Varsity team now boy!" Chris explained, with what sounded a lot like glee. "We're gonna take a trip to the strip, just hang out for awhile, get some pizza."
"Oh, no, no sorry, I gotta get home."
Buck was already dressed.
"I, errr, I didn't see your mom at the game?"
"No, she's got a new job, so she's at work, now," Buck stumbled though the explanation. "I gotta go now, see you Monday." With that he was heading for the exit.
"See you Monday," Chris called as Buck reached the door.
"Yeah!" came the reply and his was gone.
"Mom?" Chris came into the kitchen while his mother was cooking.
"Yes dear?" she asked, rolling out pastry for an apple pie.
"I'm worried about Buck."
Maggie Larabee looked up, pushing hair out of her face with the back of her hand. "Why's that dear?"
"Well, you know about him lying about where he lives?"
"To be fair, he didn't lie as such."
"Well, I know, but you know what I mean?" Maggie nodded. "And Dad told me not to push, just be a good friend and let him set the pace."
"I know and it's still good advice."
"Except he's changed, last year he was ill, just for one day, but he's never been the same since." Chris went on to detail his observations. "Didn't you notice at the game today, he played like shit, oops, sorry Mom."
Maggie looked at her son, now was not the time to admonish him for cursing, Chris was clearly concerned about his friend. "He looked okay to me, I mean I know I'm not an expert or anything, but you won. Buck made some good passes, didn't he?"
"Mom, Buck's not just a good quarterback, he's a great one, really amazing, but some how the spark's just gone out of him. I'd seen it last year, but, well with everything else that was going on, I wasn't much of a friend. I thought whatever was bothering him was - I don't know - over. When he came back after the summer, he seemed fine, until the game."
"Is Buck in danger of losing his place on the team?"
"No, he could play twice as bad and still be better than Tom Russell, and he's the next best we've got at the moment. But it's not about the football; it's just a symptom. I'm worried about him."
Maggie put her rolling pin down. "I can see that, and so you should be, he's your friend. If you really are worried, then maybe it's time to be a little more pro active?"
Chris secretly sighed a sigh of relief. This was what he'd decided to do, but it was good to have it confirmed.
"Hi," Chris walked over to the table where Buck habitually his lunch. Putting his own tray of food down, he settled on the other side of the table.
"Hi," Buck greeted breezily, around his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"So, what happened?"
Buck looked puzzled.
"The game? You weren't exactly at your best."
For a moment he though his friend was going protest that he'd played as well as he could. "Yeah, well, it's only the first game, I'm out of practice. I'll be okay next week, don't worry." He took another big bite out of his sandwich.
"It's just that - well, you've not been yourself lately. Is there something wrong, something bothering you? I'd like to help if I can?"
Buck frowned, then grinned. "I'm fine, you're worrying like an old mother hen," he asserted confidently. Then before Chris could say anything else he asked a question of his own. "I been meaning to ask you something."
"Yeah?" Chris responded automatically.
"I asked coach if you we gonna go for a football scholarship and he sort of said you had different plans, made it sound kinda mysterious."
"Oh, yeah, that. I guess I should have told you. I'm - that is I've applied for Annapolis."
It took Buck a moment or two to process the information. "Annapolis - like the Navy Academy?"
"Shit! Really, that's what you want to do?"
"All my life, for as long as I can remember."
"But your dad's in the Air Force."
Chris sat back, raking his hand though his thick fair hair. "Yeah, and don't I know it."
"He doesn't want you go?"
"He's cool now, but when I first told him, man he was pissed. He said I was letting the family down."
Buck clearly didn't understand this, and he realised there was no reason he should.
"See," Chris began. "My granddad, he was in the Air Force in world war two, he was a mechanic, stationed in England. He came home after he was wounded and got sent to Denver, where he met Gran and got married - in a hurry!" Chris laughed, giving Buck a knowing smile.
"You mean it was a shot gun wedding?"
"Mom and Dad deny it, but once Granddad's had a few beers that's the way he tells it. Anyway, he liked the Air Force so much he signed on for life. I can understand why, the family had been farmers, but their farm turned to dust. My great granddad, he packed the family off to the nearest town to find work. They moved from town to town looking for work but never staying anyplace for long. I guess he thought the Air Force would give his family a better life than he'd had. Granddad never got higher than master sergeant, so when Dad became an officer he was just as proud as a man can be. But dad's not a pilot." Buck knew Chris' father was an air traffic controller. "And neither was his father, so the plan was for me to be a pilot, each generation of the Larabee's taking on more step up the Air Force ladder - God knows what they expect any son of mine to be - an astronaut?"
"But you don't want to be a pilot?" Buck asked.
"No, in fact, truth be told, I hate flying. I don't mind the big passenger planes, they're not too bad, but those little ones?" He gave a shudder. "And as for the big transports? Oh. My. God! You do not want to fly in one of those - cold, draughty, hard seats and so bumpy you feel like your teeth are gonna fall out and you're gonna spew at any moment!"
"And you think the Navy's gonna be better?"
"No, just different. I can't explain it, it's not like any of my family were ever in the Navy or even lived by the sea, but joining the Navy has always been my dream."
Just then the bell rang, indicating it was time to get back to classes. As his friend was collecting their lunch time trash, Chris cursed. He'd let Buck distract him and steered the conversation away from his problems - the problems he said he didn't have.