“The Buddy” by Michael J. Lee
--page 2

        One day, in the spring of that year, Robert was out walking the dusty path along the shore of Amoring Lake. He carried a sharpened stick, spearing anything he found clinging to the fenceline: shiny bags of chips, candy-colored condoms, moldering library books. He headed to the Shell station to buy himself Coke and bubblegum. Baby things, he knew, things that would make him feel ugly after he ate them. But he wanted them nonetheless. Arriving at the intersection, he saw Scott skating around in the gas station parking lot, jumping steps and abandoned tires, being effortlessly cool. A younger boy sat watching him on the curb, eating an ice cream cone.
        “What’s up, Robjob?” Scott said. The nickname was Scott’s invention. Robert was proud of it, in a way.
        “Just walking around,” he said. “Gonna try and buy cigarettes.” He had never smoked in his life.
        “Good luck. I think you can only get em after midnight.” He pointed to the kid at the curb, who had chocolate running down his pale arm. “This is Stewart, my little brother.” Stewart giggled, and held out a dripping hand.
        “Puterthere,” Stewart said. He giggled again.
        Robert spied a piece of animal feces in the weeds. He smeared his right hand in it and bent low to shake hands. “Puterthere,” he said, making the frog voice. “Puterthere.”
        Stewart dropped the half-eaten cone away and looked uncertainly at his brother. Scott was doubled-over.
        “Robjob is the nastiest!” Scott howled. “The nastiest! Come hang out for a while.”
        Robert felt happy, or at least less depressed, as the three of them walked down Fairfield in the late afternoon sun. Stewart ran ahead chasing butterflies, his curls flopping. Scott’s house was dusty and cluttered and smelled of overripe produce. It had two cramped bedrooms and in one, Scott shared a bunk bed with Stewart. The entire house was smaller and filthier than Robert ever imagined, but he was still grateful for Scott’s invitation. Scott picked up a crusty-looking book entitled “The History of Philosophy” from his pillow and thumbed through it. “Lot of cool ideas in there,” he said. When Robert asked what they were, Scott made a haughty expression and shook his head, and explained to Robert that he would simply have to read it for himself. Robert asked to borrow the book, but Scott squinched up his eyes and said, “Nah.”
        Then Scott showed Robert his father’s collection of dirty videotapes hidden in a plastic bag behind the refrigerator. The covers were so filthy that Robert was more scared than titillated. Then the two friends went to the backyard and scooped dirt into a pie tin that they had also found behind the refrigerator. They tried to serve it to Stewart, telling him it was chocolate, but Stewart covered his mouth with both hands and shook his head violently. They took him to play rocketship instead, placed him in the middle of the trampoline, and bounced him until he lost his footing and rolled off onto the concrete. Stewart laughed and smiled affectionately at his brother. Scott told him to go inside and take a nap, and Stewart ran into the house.
        “My brother doesn’t know a damn thing,” Scott said. “When I was his age I had already run away from home, twice.” Robert was unsure of how to take Scott’s admissions, but he lied and said he understood. If he was going to be a friend, he decided, he was going to have to understand. The afternoon passed, and Scott rushed Robert out the side yard when he heard his father open the garage door. “I’m not allowed to have friends over,” he said. “My dad’s only rule. Stewart knows I’ll kill him if he tells.”
        Robert ran home with a feeling close to hope. When he arrived in his apartment, he found his father lying face down on the couch. Robert crept past him, knowing there were certain things in this world one didn’t want to mess with.
        The following day, after school, a throng of kids stood at the bus stop beneath a budding elm tree. Robert’s allergies, and the medication his mother had given him to combat them, made him feel frantic. His head felt like a water balloon, and even a slight parting of his lips would bring on a horrendous sneeze. He swore he could see the enemy pollen in the air, churning in the sunlight. To make matters worse, he had an erection—born of nothing—that had been with him since fifth period. He stood and waited with his hands clasped inconspicuously across his crotch, occasionally smiling at Scott. Scott stood anxiously on his skateboard, snapping his bubblegum.

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