My Favorite Season

For recent high school graduate Eric Sterling, the summer of 1980 will be his last. He wants to spend that summer alone, but new neighbor Jayson won't let that happen.
Jayson has also just graduated, and is seeking his own final summer adventure before college and "adulthood" change him forever--a change he fears more than he lets on.
For reasons he doesn't fully understand, Eric is reluctant to tell the truth about his leukemia to his brilliant, capricious friend. Will Jayson pity him? Avoid him?
However, Jayson finds out anyway... and their real summer adventure begins...

[Thirty Chapters]


10. Chapter Ten

               It's my season,

               It's the time life's really for...


                                        Unorchestrated Songs


     I stood on the porch the next morning; instead of jogging, I was watching an event I thought I'd never see: Jayson Murdock was dancing.

     He stood on the shore, wearing a large black shirt, and black shorts. The shirt, unbuttoned, gave him wings as he moved. These movements were not related to current styles I was aware of; yet they were not Jayson; the great sweeping arms and thrusting legs swung to subtle rhythms.

     I had awakened to find Jayson already awake and gone; I had assumed he was in the music room, practicing. By the time I had reached the porch to start warming up, he was already well into... whatever it was.

     One moment, he was a ballet—making slow, graceful turns, melting into the sand—then next, a dervish, birthing sand-geysers.

     After ten more minutes, he appeared to draw to a close, moving more slowly, and finally stood motionless, arms stretched toward the sea, for a full minute.

     Then he collapsed on the sand.

     By the time I reached him, he had sat up, panting. He was holding a pad of staff paper on his lap, and was filling the top sheet with notes. Next to him was a pile of at least two dozen completed pages.

     I sat down next to him. "'Morning, Jayson."

     He did not look up. "Good morning, Eric. In a minute, I'm almost..." He trailed off, continuing his manic glyphs.

     I watched him, thinking that I couldn't even play it that fast.

     He tore off another page and continued, saying, "You're wondering about the dancing?"

     "Among other things."

     "An experiment. It failed, largely." He stopped abruptly and looked up from the page. "That's it." He tossed the pad onto the pile and turned to me. "What other things?"

     I shook my head. "It's so easy for you."

     "Too easy." He gathered the pages and began to rearrange them. "I thought the dance would somehow make it...oh, well, it didn't. I was moving with the music, not because of it."

     He placed the final sheet, and I read the title: "Scheherezade."

     "Music is so easy for me to write because I don't really have anything to do with it. All of a sudden, I hear it, and I write it down."

     "What's wrong with that? It's great music."

     He looked at me. "I didn't create it." He turned away, shaking his head "It's not mine. And look." He pulled a piece of paper from the shirt pocket. I recognized it as the napkin he'd written on the night I met Philip and Roxanne. "Where did this come from? I found it in my jacket pocket. Sure, I wrote it, but when? And where? And why?" He returned it to a pocket.

     As we stood, he asked, "Is there any sand in my hair?"

     "You're almost blond."

     "That's all I need. Shower time." We walked back toward the house.

     Jayson said, "I have a question. When you write a poem... what's it like? How does it feel?"

     I raised my shoulders. "Oh, I don't know."

     He stopped. I moved two more steps and stopped, turning to him.

     He said, "How does it feel? What do you do?"

     I paused. "I've never thought about it." I frowned. "Well, I...think about what theme I want to write about...then I try to come up with images that go with that theme, and then I think about words and stories that...well, that fit."

     Jayson grimaced. "That's what Roxanne said about her drawing— and Philip, essentially, about his acting. Only it doesn't work for me. When I try that, it takes hours just to write even a simple piece, and there's always something missing when I'm through."

     I started to walk again. "It's a gift. Don't knock it."

     He snorted. "A gift? Spare me your Protestant platitudes, if you don't mind."

     "I'll say it again: What's wrong with that? I wish I was gifted."

     "Well, you are, but it's not something to wish for."

     We reached the porch, and sat on the steps.

     "Let me tell you a small story. In 1975, I took some tests. Mental, physical, everything they could think of." He stared at the bay. "It took two weeks. Then everything changed. Before that, when I first got there, they were really nice and friendly...'Hey, champ, how's it going, pal?' But by the end of the second week, they were all looking at me as if to say, 'What are you?'

     "They wouldn't tell me the results, so I broke in that last night and made a copy of my file."

     I laughed. "Did they ever find out?"

     He sighed. "Yeah, but they considered it another test." He smiled and shook his head. "So I had to stay another three days while they went over things like percentiles and 'do you know what this score means,' and 'do you know how special you are,' and all that crap.

     "They must have told Mom and Dad that, too, because...after that, when we got home, they left me alone. They didn't stop me from doing anything, or going anywhere, but they didn't talk to me much, either, or tuck me in, or go fishing...or touch me...they never touched me after that."

     He buttoned his shirt. "Well, that wore me out. Think I'll go back to sleep."

He stood up and climbed. When he reached the top step, I heard him stop. He was silent for a moment, then said, "Are you okay?"

I didn't turn around. I was still chagrinned about last night. "Yeah. Thanks."

"Anytime. Anytime at all. I hope you know that."

Still without turning, I nodded.

A moment later, I heard the smack of the screen door.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I remember that on Christmas Eve last year, I had managed to run eight miles. Six months later, on my first morning at Scotland West, I could barely make three. I get too tired, too fast.

     But those three were exhilarating. When I run, I feel re-energized, giving a lie to the death inside me. In fact, Chapter Nine of The Diagnosis was devoted to the week I believed that exercise would strengthen my healthy cells, helping them to resist their murderous brothers. Chapter Nine ended quickly.

     I was glad, in a way, that Jayson didn't jog. It would have been more fun with him, but I didn't want him to see me gasping and wheezing. He knew how I felt about being helped along, and he was pretty good about it, but the fewer opportunities he had the better. I saw how it hurt him to stand and do nothing.

     I stopped, and stood, letting the water slap-slap my feet. This was the farthest point east for some distance, so if I stood without turning my head too far in either direction, it looked like I was surrounded by the sea.

     I remembered Jayson's words of the day before: "—like standing on the edge of the world."

     Then another memory returned. I saw an image of a mouse named Reepicheep, sailing up and over the edge of the world, in a book from Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

     —And a line from a song: "...and I'd sail the old Dawn Treader across the sea..."

     —And Jayson Murdock in the hospital, asking me what it felt like to be dying—"

     —"You had to be there—"

     —"It wasn't just the pain, it was the whole experience—"

     —And suddenly, I saw Jayson's Great Adventure for what it really was, what it had become since we met. Horrified, I couldn't move, or see, or feel.

     It was impossible but it made sense. It was ridiculous, but it made sense. It wasn't real, but it made sense.

     Jayson's Great Adventure would be his last.

                                                *                  *                   *

     That's not all. As all this occurred to me, it was like a Polaroid photograph developing in front of me: vague hues and shapes, growing in detail, then the whole thing was clear. And I knew, I finally knew what my purpose was. And yes, it involved Jayson Murdock after all. Stop him?

     Hell, no.

     I'm going with him.

                                                    *                  *                   *

     As I rounded the dune that cut me off from Scotland West, I saw someone standing, silhouetted in the grey eastern sky. Jayson?

     I slowed. As I approached, I saw that it was Roxanne, in a thick terrycloth robe, her long black hair moving lazily in the sea breeze. Good Grief, I thought, how could I have mistaken her for Jayson?

     "Good morning, Roxanne."

     "'Morning, Eric." She yawned.

     "I didn't know you were a morning person," I said.

     She smiled and shook her head. "I didn't even know that my clock had an 'am' setting. I just have a question for you."

     "For me? Couldn't it wait until—"

     "Did you mean what you said," she interrupted, "About cheap, easy meals?"

     I blinked, confused. "Well...yes. Yes, I did."

     She nodded, her eyes fixed on me but miles away. Then abruptly she turned away, saying, "thank you." She moved back towards the house.

     I wanted to stop her and ask what that was all about, but I didn't quite know how. By the time I finished my cool-downs and went inside, she was already back upstairs.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I heard Jayson stirring as I finished my shower.

     I stared at my face in the mirror. Then I did a double-take.

     I called out to Jayson from the bathroom. "Hey! Look! I think I'm growing a moustache!"

     Jayson stumbled into the room, still half asleep. "Are you sure you just didn't sneeze, or something?"


     "Okay, okay. Let me see." He stared. "Yep, that's hair, all right."

     At least, I thought, not all of me is dying.

                                                *                  *                   *

     On our first morning at Scotland West, Jayson asked me to help raise the flags. Traditionally, on his first day at Scotland West, he would run the United States flag, the North Carolina flag, and Scotland West's own sovereign colors. Thereafter, except for holidays, only the Scotland West flag flew.

                                                *                  *                   *

     It was actually chilly as we stepped across the grass, our bare feet plastered with dew and grass cuttings. The flagpole's concrete pad felt warm after that.

     As the morning sun caught the bright colors, Jayson explained the symbols of the Scotland West flag: 

     "It's proportions are a golden rectangle, which stands for justice. It's blue, for peace; the bird is a phoenix, for freedom —what's more free than something that isn't real?—it is white for truth. And it is in flight for people who think that the ground is a nice place to visit, but..." he shrugged. "Imagination."

     There was a sudden chill, and the flag moved toward the sea.

     He looked around. "Oh, God, what a world."

     For awhile, we just stood there, watching the sun warm the world again, a sliver, a meridian at a time.

                                                *                  *                   *

     Not really paying attention, I almost ran into Jayson, who had stopped a few steps into the kitchen. I moved past him and saw what had given him pause.

     Roxanne was cooking breakfast. And not just any breakfast, but Jayson's favorite: strawberry pancakes. And she was humming.

     Jayson moved toward her, slowly.

     She looked up at him with a smile that did more for that little room than an hour of morning sun. "Good morning, Jayson. Good morning, Eric." In the eyeblink that it took to move from Jayson to me, the smile had changed; it was now an ordinary smile for an ordinary person. I didn't mind.

     Jayson said, "Good morning, Roxanne. You didn't have to do this."

     "I don't mind."

     "But you didn't have to." Jayson's eyes wandered from the stove to the wall behind it, but never to her. I wondered what was bothering him.

     "I know. I wanted to."

     "Well..." he shrugged. "They smell great."

     "I hope you like them."

     "We will." Jayson pushed me out of the kitchen ahead of him. In the hallway at the base of the stairs, he said, "Maude Findlay would have had a fit."

     "What's wrong, Jayson? Not enough strawberries?"

     He glanced at me witheringly. "I don't want her to cook. I mean, I don't want her to think that that's why I asked her to come out here."

     "She said she wanted to cook. What's wrong with that?"

     "What, indeed?"

     We both looked up. Philip had come down the stairs without us hearing.

     He continued. "If she were a fish, I'd say let her swim in the ocean. If she were a bird, I'd say let her fly in the air. She's a woman; let her cook in the kitchen."

     Jayson closed his eyes. "That's just the kind of attitude I don't want her to think I have."

     Philip shook his head. "Oh, come on, Jayson. She knows better than that. Just because she's a woman, doesn't mean she's stupid." He looked around quickly. "Who said that?"

     "I'd feel better if someone else was clearly designated to cook."

     I said, "Like you?"

     Jayson grimaced. "I cook like I dance."

     Philip's eyes widened. "God help us."

     I said, "Philip, can you cook?"

     "If you use the word as a romantic metaphor, then you'd better believe it. Otherwise, not so's you'd notice. How about you?"

     Now get this. Reading all those Nero Wolfe stories got me interested in cooking. I've invaded a pantry or two in the past few years. "Well, I'm a fair cook."

     Jayson glanced at Philip, then back to me. "Fair as in just, fair as in fair-to-middlin', or fair as in towheaded?"

     "Well, I haven't killed anyone—"

     Philip said, "That's good enough for me. Now, gentlemen, I believe there's a stack of jacks in there with my name on it—I hope she spelled it right this time."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Jayson stood quickly as Roxanne approached the table with a pitcher of orange juice. I followed, nudging Philip, who had a loaded fork headed home. He looked up, dropped the fork and stood, with a twisted brow that said, "Don't make a habit of this." But Jayson and Roxanne were staring at each other, and Philip and I no longer existed.      

     As we sat down, Jayson said, "Eric's growing a moustache."

     Philip stared at me. "I don't see any moustache."

     "Well, I do," Jayson said, "I can see it from here. If his eyes were a little straighter, he'd look like Ben Turpin."

     Philip stared at my lip. "Are you kidding? I've got more hair on my palm than—well, forget it." He poured an inhuman amount of syrup, then asked me, "how did you manage to sleep through his snoring?"

     Jayson said, "I do not snore."

     I said, "I didn't hear him snore."

     I was sitting so that I could see them both, and I saw both pairs of eyebrows disappear simultaneously into their respective hairlines.

     Philip snorted. "Your moustache must have grown around to your ears and plugged them up."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Philip said, "Don't you sometimes wish that this were all over—the growing up part, and school—and we were where we wanted to be already?  Except for those of us who would marry a school if it were legal..."

     Jayson smiled. "Who? I'm with you. Sometimes I'd just like to get started with the real stuff." He moved to the sink, and stared through the window at the sea. "Sometimes it's hard to wait."

     Philip stiffened. Roxanne turned to him quickly, reproachfully; she caught me watching and, forcing a smile, turned to Jayson. "Why don't we all go down to the beach? We've been inside all morning."

     What happened next was frightening: He did not turn around when she spoke. Twice.

     Roxanne moved to his side and touched his shoulder. He jerked around, startled, and blinked at her, then me, then Philip. He wasn't even here, I thought, He just now came back.


     Roxanne repeated her question.

     He smiled at her. "Good idea."

     Roxanne and Philip relaxed. I let out a breath, not realizing I had been holding it, and certainly not knowing why.

     Jayson moved to the door to the hall. "There are some blankets and towels in—"

     Roxanne moved quickly and slipped her arm around his. "That's all right, we'll just walk around awhile."

     As we stepped out from the protection of the porch, the land breeze touched us, forcing its way around our group and scooting across the lawn, eastward ho.

     But Jayson's eyes had the same look as they'd had at the sink, a look I recognized. He held the same expression when he read, when words carried him away, like a raft in the Appalachians.

     The sun was now behind us, but he squinted—more like frowning —watching the ocean. He walked slowly for him, but Roxanne was putting up an obvious effort to match him. He did not slow down when the grass gave way to sand.

     Roxanne looked at him anxiously, and tugged at his arm. He did not respond.

     "Jayson?" She pulled harder.

     Philip moved quickly ahead of us all, and jumped in front of Jayson before he stepped into the water.

     Jayson stopped abruptly and blinked. "Philip." He looked around. "Well. We're here."

     And the wind was here, behind us, and gone, like laughter.

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