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Beyond the rain

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chapter 3

Wizard of Oz: As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don't know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.

Tin Man: But I still want one.
~~~~~

Billy Carmedy

He was back.

I remembered the official story that his parents told the school; that he had gone to his uncle's ranch to help out after his uncle had a heart attack.

I had heard the rumors that drifted up and down the hallways: he was in drug rehab; he had run away to California to join a rock band; he had gotten some girl at another school pregnant and had to marry her. They were all so lame.

No one knew for sure why Aaron Sorensen had been gone all these weeks, but when he came back he wasn't the same person. Gone was the happy laughing boy I had watched from under my eyelashes. He dropped off the baseball team, out of scouts and the only extracurricular thing he did seemed to be church, church and more church. It was like he'd been abducted by aliens, mind probed, lobotomized, and sent back. There just wasn't much of Aaron left.

I'd always wanted to know Aaron again, but just never worked up the nerve to do much more than say 'Hey' in the halls. We'd worked on a few committees together, but our friends weren't friends, so we never bummed around together. He and I were nothing alike anyway. He was very religious, all caught up in "The Church".  My parents hadn't been raised in a strict church environment and, though they went on Christmas and Easter, they put no pressure on me or my little brother. I believe in God and I respect other people's right to their faith, but I've got better things to do with my time than worry about them. I need to worry about myself.

So, when I just kept seeing that lost look in Aaron's eyes when he thought no one was looking, I found myself worrying about him and wondered why. I wondered what had happened in those weeks to cause those brown eyes to dim and Aaron to close down around himself.

We had that one class together and I sat in the back, so I watched him. He had come back to school that Monday with all his hair chopped off and wearing plain jeans and shirts. He'd always had the latest wicked clothes and long curly brown hair. Before, he had always sat slouched in his desk like the rest of us, doodling and yawning.

Now, he sat up straight and glanced at the clock every few minutes as if willing the time to go by faster. I wondered what he was waiting for. Something was eating at him, and I sure hoped he could handle whatever it was.

I heard that he had dumped Sissy Conklin and she had been royally pissed. It was like nothing could get to him now. He was totally a different person.

"Mr. Carmedy, if I could have your attention..........

The teacher's voice jerked me back into Psych class and I looked up to the front of the room.

"Perhaps you could explain why a person would hold onto a value or a belief when everyone around him says it's false?"

"Ummm," I muttered, trying to buy time, "I think you have to be true to what you know in your heart is right."

"But," the teacher prodded, "What if your belief hurts you, makes you different, an outcast?"

"Are we talking religious or personal here?" I asked, feeling this question came a little too close to home for comfort.

"Personal."

For some reason, in my frantic casting around for an answer that would satisfy Mr. Cantor, I looked at Aaron. He was staring directly into my eyes as if waiting for my answer.

"I think, if you really know something is right, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. You have to be true to yourself. You may be alone in what you believe, but to do anything else is wrong."

Class went on and I slid down in my desk thinking about what I'd said. I didn't really know if I could do that, I mean, stand by my beliefs and be different. I hoped I could. One day soon, I'd have to test my words.

The bell rang and everyone shoved up out of their stupors to crowd into the hall. I gathered my junk and headed for my locker. I was dumping my books in and grabbing my trig book when I heard a soft voice behind me.

"Billy, did you really mean what you said?"

I swung my head around to find Aaron by my elbow. He had an almost frightened look on his face.

"You mean that stuff in Psych? I just winged that off the top of my head for Mr. Cantor."

"Oh," he sighed. "Okay, sorry I bothered you."

I watched him walk away and I let him get a few feet before I called, "Hey, wait up, Aaron." Slamming my locker shut, I caught up with him and we walked the hall, neither of us speaking. I got to my math class and touched his arm hesitantly, stopping him.

"Aaron, you wanna talk?"

He looked around to see who might be watching. No one seemed to be paying us any mind and his eyes came to rest on mine. "I just liked what you said, you know, about standing up for yourself and, even if you're all alone. It's wrong to hide."

The halls were full of kids milling to and from classes. They were pushing and shoving, holding hands, making rude remarks, laughing, bullying, crying. Life in the halls of a high school is like this tiny planet within a planet; a world within a world. Life and death decisions are made in the blink of an eye, the toss of a cruel word.

We stood in the middle of the hall, kids teeming around us on either side, all caught up in their own dramas and I could see into Aaron Sorensen's eyes. He needed help or he might drown along with so many of the other kids.

"I've got Trig and then I work after school," I told him.

"Oh," he said, turning away.

"No, I didn't mean it like that. Come on over to the feed store. You know where Strickland Ranch Supply is over on 9th Street?"

"You work there?"

"Yeah, but you can help me load bags of feed. We can talk."

Aaron hesitated, but I just let him take his time. Finally, he nodded his head and said,

"See ya, Billy."

I tipped my head and replied, "See ya, Aaron."

I sat all through Trig wondering what he needed to say so badly. It was obvious that he was gonna explode. I just hoped I had some answers. God knows, I didn't understand why people did what they did or what to say when there was trouble. But, I had a feeling that maybe Aaron just needed someone to talk to, someone to listen, a friend. I just didn't know why he couldn't go to all of his real friends. Why me?

***********************

I was out back, loading 50 pound bags of cattle feed onto the flatbed, before I delivered it out to the Blue Mesa Ranch. I heaved a heavy bag up onto the boards when I heard Aaron's voice.

"Whoa, you gotta load all these?"

"Yeah, this flatbed holds a lot, so I gotta load 120 bags up on here and then drive out to the Blue Mesa."

Aaron dropped his books on the steps and pulled off his jacket. He reached down and levered a big bag up onto his shoulders, dumping it onto the flatbed. "I can bring 'em this far and then you pile 'em, okay?"

I grinned, never one to say 'No' to a helping hand. We worked for half an hour, breaking sweat, not saying much. The afternoon sun was warm and, when the last bag flopped ungracefully onto the last pile, we sat on the edge of the steps, sucking in deep breaths.

"I have to deliver these out to the ranch now. You wanna ride out with me?"

Aaron laughed and the smile that had been missing for a few weeks popped onto his face. He looked younger and vulnerable when he smiled.

"You just need someone to help you unload all these," he snorted.

"My mama didn't raise no fool," I laughed. I checked into the office, told Mr. Strickland that I was leaving as he handed me the invoice for the foreman to sign.

"You got a helper today?"

"Yes sir. My friend Aaron."

"Well, drive careful and grab sodas on the way out."

We drove slowly through town, my eyes on the rearview, watching the feed for slippage. The bungee cords were holding them secure. I glanced over at Aaron and saw that he was staring out the window, watching the buildings fall away as we began the ten mile drive out to the ranch.

The quiet in the cab turned into silence that got too heavy. I cleared my throat and said, "How's school going since you got back?"

He jerked his head, giving me a startled look. It faded, but the feeling it gave me didn't. Wherever he'd been made him very nervous.

"Okay," he said, "It's going okay. I kinda got behind but," he mumbled, "It's okay."

I decided to prod just a little. "Your uncle....how's he doing?"

"Huh? My uncle?" Aaron frowned, obviously wondering what his uncle had to do with me. Then, he remembered. His face, clouded over and he said slowly, "He's okay."

"I bet you liked working on a ranch a lot more than school, didn't ya?" By now, I was pretty sure he hadn't been anywhere near his uncle's ranch for all those weeks, but I'd pushed at him and I'd just let him talk now......if he wanted to.

"Billy?" Aaron's voice was soft, almost a whisper.

"Yeah?" I reached up and turned off the radio so I could hear him clearly. I wanted to let him know I was listening.

Aaron's leg started bouncing, creating a nervous rhythm. He kept looking out the window and he was biting his bottom lip. Finally, he said hesitantly, "Billy, can I talk to you? If I don't talk to somebody, I'm gonna bust."

"Sure, Aaron," I replied, glancing over at his wide eyes. "I know that feeling. Sometimes, I think if I could just talk to someone, things wouldn't look so dark."

"You too?" he sighed.

"Yeah, we all have our bad days."

"Can I trust you to keep it quiet?"

There was no reason for him to trust me. We weren't friends. But maybe, right now, he needed someone who didn't know him well, someone who wouldn't judge him. He needed to talk and I would listen.

"Yeah, I've got things of my own that I wish I could tell too. I won't repeat what you say. I swear, Aaron."

He seemed to think it over, and then, with a deep sigh, he said, "I wasn't at my uncle's ranch."

I didn't ask where. I just waited after I said, "It's okay, Aaron. Say what you want to if it'll lighten that load you're carrying."

He cleared his throat and said, "You know what you said in class about being alone in what you believe is true?"

I didn't think he wanted an answer, so I waited.

"Billy, I did something stupid. I thought my parents would love me no matter what I told them as long as I hadn't hurt anyone."

"You told them something they didn't like?"

He shuddered, remembering the look on his father's face. "Yeah, I told them something, a secret, and they tried to make it go away."

"Did it?" I asked, knowing the answer. "Did it go away, Aaron?"

I heard a sniffle, but his face still faced the window. "No." He moved his arms so that he was hugging onto himself and the flood broke.

"I told them something and asked them to help me, but instead they stopped loving me. They tried to fix me. They.........I've..........I had to go to this place."

"This place?" I was hurting for him. No one should ever feel like this.

"A place where they fix kids who get mixed up."

He told me about the place; the silence, the rules, the absolute lack of love. How the people talked one way to the parents and another after they left. He left out one thing. Why was he there?

I pulled into the drive under the arch that said Blue Mesa Ranch. We could see that big white house at the end of the long road lined with tall cottonwoods. The barns and the feed lots were out to the right and the Herefords milled in the far pastures. I put my foot on the brake and shifted into park. Turning in the seat, I ran my arm lightly along the back of the seat and tapped Aaron on the shoulder. He turned his head, but not his face. I couldn't see his eyes.

"I won't tell anyone. I promise. You didn't deserve what happened, no matter what you told your family. Don't hold it in anymore until it hurts too much to bear."

He sighed. "Thank you, Billy, for listening and, I guess, for................,"

"Being a friend?"

"Yeah."

***********************

We unloaded the feed and got the invoice signed. Driving back was faster with the lighter load, and I hated to see it end. I had a new friend and, for the first time in my life, I felt like someone needed me. I wanted to know why he had gone to that place, but I'd wait until he was ready to tell me. It couldn't be anything really bad. Aaron just wasn't a bad person. I didn't think he did drugs or anything. What could he possibly have told them that started all this?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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