The Orange and The Black: Brooke and Jared Nescott

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Brooke Nescott and her son Jared are once again embroiled in an enigma.

The Orange and the Black: Brooke and Jared Nescott
by Devon Pitlor
I. Another episode in Brooke Nescott's strange life is about to open.
Something new was poised to happen, but Brooke Nescott, at age thirty-six, did not see it coming. She had, as the reader knows, lived a life punctuated by moments of utter improbability and would probably not be surprised if more were to come. But the imposition of strange events into otherwise ordinary lives, and Brooke lived a boringly ordinary life, must by definition come when one least expects it, and as the fall approached and the college crowds returned to Aristock, Brooke expected very little. The only thing new in her life was that, mostly on her son Jared's request, she had begun with some reluctance dating once more. By September, 2010, she had given up hope of ever seeing the almost mythical Dragonsnort again, except in the eyes, thoughts and expressions of his son Jared, and it was characteristically Jared who dominated most of Brooke's activities outside of work, save for the occasional social encounter. One of the latter was going to become very peculiar and once again force Brooke to make choices and see perspectives that ordinary people rarely see. But first we have to visit the trigger point which will begin this new adventure.
II. A call from Jared's teacher
Jared's fifth grade teacher, a Mrs. Umberly whom Brooke knew rather well from previous visits to Casgrove Elementary, was an even-tempered woman who did her job well and was not given to drama. If she called a parent, as she did suddenly in Brooke's case, it was for a good reason, and there was every reason to return her call as soon as possible. Mrs. Umberly had left a rather tense-sounding voice mail on Brooke's phone about needing to see her regarding some peculiarity regarding Jared. That was totally unexpected because Jared had always led his class in attentiveness, ability to learn, inquisitiveness and interest in school.. Perhaps, thought Brooke, the promotion ahead of his class to the fifth grade had been a mistake and that was what the call was about. Maybe it was good news. Some new, creative, achievement on Jared's part. Certainly the news couldn't be bad.
So when Brooke finally reached Sarah Umberly after school on Monday of the second week of classes, she was shocked by the serious tone in the woman's voice. "I think we need to schedule a brief meeting," she said. “I have something rather odd to convey to you about Jared’s behavior last week."
Brooke agreed to a meeting that very day at five o'clock after she left work. She drove up to Casgrove Elementary school expecting the worst. She kept Jared on the longest leash possible, giving him all possible freedom to develop, remembering always that he was Dragonsnort’s son and that would have been the way Dragonsnort would have wanted it. But there was a limit to Jared’s freedom too, and Brooke ardently hoped that her son had not passed it. 
Sarah Umberly was known far and wide to be an animated and captivating teacher who could--without reservation--hold the interest of the children in her room. Jared had always been fascinated with her in previous years, and he was thrilled, or so he said, that she was going to be his teacher this year.
That being mentioned, the problem was that on Thursday of the previous week during a lesson on geometry--a subject that enthralled Jared---the boy had suddenly gone blank right in the middle of class. His eyes had glazed over and his eyelids drooped. "He was totally out of it," Sarah Umberly said. "For a lot of less alert children that would have not been surprising but for Jared that is nothing short of shocking. I had to call his name aloud several times, and still he would not come out of his...his trance. It was kind of like a reverie. Finally, I patted him on the shoulder, and he blinked open his eyes, looked around and was, I guess, surprised that my demonstration of isosceles triangles was over and that the other kids were already bent over doing problems. All in all, it was really not all that much. I'd say we lost him for less than three minutes, but with Jared..."
"I know," said Brooke, concerned. "Maybe he was just tired. We had a exhausting two weeks before school began."
"At a nature camp in Tennessee? Jared told the class all about it. Sounded like fun."
"It was, except for the...."
"Ticks," concluded Mrs. Umberly. "He told us about those too. I hope you had him checked."
" I did," said Brooke. "The doctor said that if he or any of the others had contracted any sort of virus or bacteria, the symptoms would have shown up by now. Things like trouble breathing and fever. He has had nothing of the kind. Besides, I had the tick checked. I took it to the county extension office and they found no trace of microbes. It was an ordinary spotted dog flea. The deep woods in Loudon County, Tennessee, where we were, were bursting with them. I took them off several other children too. Their mothers were too hysterical."
"With your pocket knife," smiled Mrs. Umberly. "Jared told us about that too. You don't seem to be squeamish in the least. I like that. You seem like a very capable and unshakeable person."
"I'm not easily upset. They were just ticks. No one had a tweezers, so I popped them off with a knife, saved them in a bottle full of alcohol and took them to the county office. Nothing more. I don't suppose they cause trances."
"Well, let's just keep an eye on Jared," concluded Mrs. Umberly. "He is the most attentive child in my class. It is not like him to phase out."
Brooke agreed and took polite leave of the alarmed teacher, making a mental note to ask Jared about the incident.
What she did not tell Mrs. Umberly was that the head of Central State University's entomology department had contacted her with a further confirmation of the innocuous nature of the ticks, but had asked to see her briefly in his office just the same. Then what she did not tell Mrs. Umberly is that for some strange reason---and it was novel---she had found the man attractive in a very odd sort of way and had agreed to meet him for a drink one evening during the week. She had, after all, promised her gifted son that she would get out more and see more men. That was something Jared, at age nine, was going to hold her to.
III. A casual date with Eric Palobay, PhD.
They met shortly after Brooke's meeting with Mrs. Umberly. It was an early September evening and still hot enough in Aristock to fill the streets and café terraces with crowds after dusk. They sat for a long time just staring at one another when, out of the crowd on the sidewalk before them came, Jewel Narsikov, a long-time co-worker of Brooke's at the histotechnology lab where both of them had been employed for over ten years. Jewel had never liked Brooke, and the feeling was mildly mutual. Jewel eyed Brooke with her new companion, nodded her head and passed on. Later she would say at work the following rather revealing thing: "It's just like Brooke to be with a weird looking guy like him, another Dragonsnort, if you ask me. Strange, zany appearance. Nothing like the regular sort of guy Brooke could get if she wanted. Not handsome at all. Just outlandish. How typical of her."
Jewel's statement about summed up what most observers might note about Dr. Palobay: He was odd looking, but swollen with the kind of inner self-assurance that had always attracted Brooke, and that was one thing he did indeed have in common with Dragonsnort. Palobay was around six feet tall and extremely muscular in the upper torso and shoulders. In fact, his shoulders were so square as to look almost unnatural. His lower body was barrel shaped and thick, although not fat in the slightest, but the most striking part of his physique was the strange curvature of his back. Later, Jewel would describe him as a "hunchback" but not a crooked over hunchback, just a large man with a symmetrically rounded protrusion in the middle of his back. His legs were long and powerful as well. As for his face, he had deep-set brown eyes and a prominent but well-shaped nose. His cheekbones were abnormally high, and his skin seemed stretched around his facial muscles like a tight but slightly worn canvas cover. His face, although not aged, was weathered in spots, and his too-long hair hung down to his shoulders in uneven tendrils. It was black and shiny, and, as Jewel would later relate to other co-workers, it was impossible to gauge the age of such a creature. 
Brooke had taken a liking to Dr. Palobay almost at once after she had visited his laboratory on campus. Palobay had assured her immediately that the tick specimens sent to him by the county extension office were free of disease, but then he abruptly said: "You're a very pretty woman. I'd like to meet you for a drink sometime if you do that sort of thing." He then arched his eye at her with an overabundance of self-confidence, exactly the way Dragonsnort had once conducted himself. Brooke wondered how he knew she was not in a relationship and wondered, naturally, whether Palobay had been stalking her as Dragonsnort had once done prior to their romantic union. Everything about Eric Palobay was puzzling and, above all, direct. Brooke was intrigued by him from the start. She had always been repelled by run of the mill people and had likewise always been immediately attracted by those who stood apart from the herd both in looks and personality. She sensed an animal attraction within herself to Palobay and accepted the idea of a casual meeting almost at once.
Now as she sat waiting for a tossed salad and a second glass of red wine, she started noticing small things about Eric Palobay that put her on guard. The first thing was, strangely, a tattoo that he had on his upper right arm. Dragonsnort had, of course, been covered with tattoos, and Brooke had grown to like them very much on men. But Palobay's large purple tattoo gave her a particular pause and a definite chill. It was a tattoo of nothing, a wholly unsuccessful rendering of some kind of picture that had been completely distorted by the tension and or slackening of the man's skin. It looked more like a strange, deformed apparition than a tattoo, and what was worse, it was impossible to read the script that had been written under it. What on Earth was that supposed to say? So Brooke finally asked. 
"Something really stupid," replied Eric Palobay. "Something that I'm glad has been disfigured. The whole tattoo was really bad. I should go have it removed. All it is is a blob now. Bad tattoo."
For some reason that set off an alarm in Brooke but she really couldn't think of why. Later she would remember, but that would be much later.
As they talked, Brooke found herself answering a lot of questions about herself and Jared, and that set off another alarm. She was well aware that certain men only dated single mothers in order to get close to their children for reasons too perverted to mention, and she had always been cautious when it came to that. But then Palobay, the bug specialist, began an interrogation about the summer nature camp field trip Jared and his mother had been on in the Tennessee woods. He wanted to know lots of particulars. Like where exactly in Loudon County they had been, and since the Boys' Club had hired a bus to drive them there, Brooke really couldn't say. It was somewhere in the dense woods along some of the lesser branches of the Tennessee River. She wasn't sure where. Why did this man want to know that so much? He had already declared the ticks harmless.
Eric Palobay rocked back in his chair and said "Hmmm" about a dozen times as Brooke explained the scant details of the summer nature camp excursion. The boys had gone off to collect water bugs, amphibians and skinks for their collections. The whole area was swampy and, of course, chock full of ticks. 
"I know Loudon County pretty well," said Palobay with a kind of snappy suddenness that scared Brooke. "That part of the Tennessee River has hundreds of hidden lagoons nestled in those little swamps and swales. There are some people that claim that certain branches of the river and the pools they flow into have never been totally explored by anyone, but that may just be a rumor."
"Aristock is a long, long way from Loudon County," said Brooke suspiciously. "It took us almost a whole day to get there. The camp was creepy too. Just wooden cabins, and the mosquitoes were terrible. Why do you know so much about Loudon County?"
"I just do," said Eric. "Listen, have any of those boys had any trouble concentrating that you know of?"
Brooke was floored by the question. How in the world could Eric know about Jared's little lapse of the week before? Was he in touch with everything the way Dragonsnort had been? She told him about the small problem with Jared's attention, and he nodded his head keenly. He was far too interested in Brooke's description of what she now deemed to be a minor event.
"Listen," he said with a assured earnestness. "I asked you here because I am attracted to you. You can do whatever you want, and I assume that will be to dismiss me. I am prepared for that. But now I must ask you a few more questions about your son and his companions. Please bear with me. I know I'm ruining our evening, but it may be important."
Eric Palobay went on to ask about Jared's examination following the excursion. Did the doctor ask him to strip naked and look at every part of his body? Brooke blushed at the directness of the question. But Palobay followed up with another blunt assertion:
"Jared is a nine year old boy," he began with intensity. "I understand what that means. That means he is shy about showing himself. I was a boy once too. He is probably starting to get pubic hair, and I'm betting that neither you nor the doctor looked over his crotch, inner buttocks, or even felt under his arms."
"True," Brooke stammered..."he's sensitive....the doctor didn't want to probe too much. Jared is at that age..."
"I understand," said Palobay firmly, "but he may need to get over it."
"Now you're scaring me."
"As well I should." Palobay wasn't softening anything. He said that the question about concentration problems should be asked of each of the boys who had been on the field trip. Would Brooke call their parents and do it? She reluctantly agreed to do so. Palobay was compelling enough to defy denial just by his tone of voice alone.
"And another thing," continued Eric Palobay. "I am a full professor in good standing at Central State. I am not a pervert or a child molester as you may be thinking. What I want to do is to take that whole bunch of boys who were there out for ice cream on Saturday. I presume they all live in town. How many were there from Aristock?"
"Only five," said Brooke. "What does taking them out for ice cream prove?"
"Just humor me. Tell their parents to come along. The more mothers the better. Tell their parents about what I found about the ticks, that they are harmless, etc. And don't tell them anything else. Tell them I am interested in kids who have bug collections for the obvious reason that a scientist of my standing would be. Get as many as you can of them to meet you, me and Jared at the flagstand by the stadium at ten o'clock on Saturday. That's the day after tomorrow. Do you promise you can do that?"
Brooke promised only to try. She still had the phone list from the nature excursion and would try to speak to the parents. A nice university professor wanted to take a bunch of nine and ten year old boys out for ice cream. That would never fly. Palobay must have seen the worry on her face.
"Tell them I am going to give them a lesson on ticks," he said finally. "How to protect yourself from them. What to do if one embeds itself in your skin, etc. That might be excuse enough to bring them."
"For ice cream?"
"Yeah, and a little something else to contribute to their knowledge."
"I suppose you are going to want them all to undress in front of you so you can go over their bodies with a magnifying glass?"
"Not at all. I said ice cream. On me. Then a little walk here in town, and that is all."
"I'll try," repeated Brooke again. "I think this evening is over," she sighed pushing her second glass of red wine into the center of the table and standing up. "I'm not sure I want to talk to you any more right now."
"I would always like to talk to you, but, you know, sometimes things happen that are more important. I wasn't expecting much anyway. I'm not exactly a movie star."
"I thought you were okay until you started this creepy stuff. Now I don't know. You haven't said a thing about yourself since I told you about Jared."
"Okay, I'll tell you the one little thing about me that you probably want to know. My back. That interests you, doesn't it?"
"Not until you mentioned it."
"I have to wear a permanent trussed body cast over that part of my spine. It makes a bulge. I know it is unattractive. But that is all it is. The result of an accident a long time ago."
Brooke smiled and stood up. It was time to twist away from Eric Palobay and get back home to Jared. Something was dreadfully wrong with this man, but the burning intensity in his eyes told her that she needed to try to get the five boys and their parents together....the boys who had been along with Jared in Tennessee at the nature camp. The boys who had had ticks on their bare chests and legs. Ticks she had flipped off with her pocket knife. Ticks that were harmless and disease free. Or were they?
IV. A brief exchange between Brooke and Jared
"So, if I'm understanding you right, you have been seeing this college professor who specializes in bugs, and he said all our ticks you took off were harmless, but you like him because he's strange, and he likes you because you're pretty, but what he really wants is to see me and all the guys from the Boys' Club naked after he buys us some ice cream. Do I have it right, Mom?"
Brooke, annoyed because Jared did not have it right and he knew it, countered her precocious son in kind with:
"So, if I am understanding you right, you dozed off in Mrs. Umberley's class for a few minutes and have no idea where you were or what you were thinking."
Jared paused for a minute and buried his forehead in his palms. The repartee had gone a little farther than he had planned. He felt very sorry for his mental lapse in Mrs. Umberley's class and had never been able to recapture any of the thoughts he had had before or after the incident, and that bothered him because he knew he had been thinking about something, but what it was he could not summon up, try as he would. "It was something important," he gurgled half sobbing. "I know it was something I was supposed to remember."
"Like your geometry."
"No!" screamed Jared, pushed into frustration and anger now. "Not like geometry. Something else." Then he began crying and ran off to his room. Later when he came down and snuggled with Brooke as he always did on the sofa in front of the television, he said "I'm sorry." Brooke said "I'm sorry too," and hugged her son. Every day he was growing more independent and more like Dragonsnort, his father. That both pleased and frightened Brooke. She felt him slipping out into a world that she had never particularly liked, but a world nonetheless where he belonged and where he needed to forge his own separate destiny. There would be no apron strings in the Nescott family. Jared would grow up and maybe take care of her some day. He would be strong, maybe even a little wild. He would make mistakes and find solutions to rectify them. He would meet girls and teachers and guides and whole host of other people that did not live in the Nescott house. He would be as normal or as abnormal as he wanted to be. In short, he would grow up into himself, and she would watch and hope for the best, and she could already see the best coming. It didn't seem to need much of her guidance. 
"Anyway, Dr. Palobay is not a pervert. He only wanted to check you boys over for more ticks. If he does that us mothers will be right there to make sure..."
"That you see us too. Uh uh, I do not want to get undressed for anyone. I tell you I have no ticks anywhere on my body. You have seen my back. I have felt everywhere else. They swell up and itch too. I don't have anything like that. Far as I know, the other guys don't either. I think you did a good job, Mom. We were lucky to have you there. You got all the ticks. If it had just been Malachi's or Tyshawn's or even Subaru's mother, we'd be covered with bumps now and probably sick. All they could do was scream."
Brooke was proud that her son had appreciated her immediate response with the pocket knife. It was true that in the dusk of that first night in the crude wooden camp cabin by lantern light, the other mothers had simply gone hysteric. Still it bothered her why such a learned man as Eric Palobay wanted a further examination. Maybe he was attracted to little boys. One never knew these days.
V. The ice cream party and a short journey on foot
Saturday morning found Brooke, Jared and three of the five boys who had been with them to Tennessee standing beside the huge flagstand at the town athletic stadium. The other boys had skeptical looking mothers milling around with them too, mothers that Brooke had done her best to calm, but mothers who were all thinking the same thought. And when Eric Palobay finally appeared, his broad smile and friendly brown eyes could not dispel the distrust written across the faces of the women. With almost stilted gentility he shook each of their hands, introduced himself---making sure to let them know he was Doctor Palobay from the university. Then he shouted to the boys to line up with their mothers at the ice cream stand. He stood at the counter and assented to each of their purchases, some of which were noticeably large and expensive in the fruity combinations of various flavored dips, candy sprinkles and exotic syrups. There was no skimping on ice cream treats that morning and the boys knew it. Jared sat with Tyshawn behind something that looked like a latter day banana split covered with chocolate cannon balls and drizzled with a sparkling neon lava that at times looked almost radioactive. Subaru had an enormous dish of straight vanilla swimming in a mélange of five separate syrups. Malachi was eating something out of a cone the size of a megaphone. The mothers huddled together behind their children, eating only small single dip cones and nattering together about things that no one could distinguish. It was clear they did not like Dr. Palobay, and a couple of them kept glancing at the rounded bump in the middle of his back. Palobay, for his part, chose to stick with Brooke and keep her apart from the others. "Let's give them something to talk about," he laughed. Then he put an arm around her shoulder. Brooke did not flinch away. Instead, she found herself feeling rather warm and safe with Eric, much as she had once done with Dragonsnort. In reality, the other mothers were as irrelevant to her as they would have been twenty years before in high school, where she may have even known at least one of them. But she never asked, and the subject was not brought up.
As the boys finished their huge treats and began to throw the leftovers in the trash bins, Doctor Palobay called for them all to assemble around his table. The mothers naturally followed. "Listen up," he began in a unassailable voice that made them straighten their necks and listen. "You can all tell me thank you all at once and loud too. So do it. One, two, three..." The boys and mothers shouted “Thank You.”
"Okay, now that that's over, let's get one thing straight one more time. Those of you like Jared and Subaru who had a tick on them, none of you have had headaches, muscle pains, fever or anything else wrong with you. Am I right?" A general assent of YES came from the four boys standing by the table. "And your two missing trip mates, what are their names, Ian and Cody, they haven't complained of anything either. Right?"
Tyshawn piped up and said "Cody couldn't poop for two days." A ripple of laughter went through the crowd.
"Has he finally pooped?" asked Eric, winking an eye.
"Yeah, and a big one too. In the school john. You could smell it...." Tyshawn's mother put her hand over the boy’s mouth to end the description of Cody's toileting escapade.
"And Ian is okay?" continued Palobay. A nearby mother shook her head in total assent, saying she was his neighbor and she would know if anything had been wrong in the last week.
"Okay then. None of you have any disease from those ticks. I presume you all thanked Mrs. Nescott for removing them. Now as for me, put yourselves at ease. I am not a doctor of medicine. I am a doctor of entomology. I know you fifth graders know what entomology is. The study of bugs. Doctors of entomology do not tell boys or anyone else to take their clothes off, so you can all quit whispering about that."
Another ripple went through the crowd of boys. It was clear that all of them, and their mothers, were relieved. God, this man is strong and direct, thought Brooke, slightly spellbound. He was becoming more and more like Dragonsnort every day.
"So we can forget this whole tick thing now," continued Palobay. "The ticks did not have germs, and you are not sick. You have all checked yourselves over for stray ticks, bumps and itches, haven't you?"
"I have a lot of mosquito bites," shouted Subaru, whose real name was Neal, but he had refused to use it since starting school at age five. 
"Mosquito bites don't count. You are boys. Boys are supposed to be outdoors and exploring, collecting these giant water bugs and skinks you have been showing me. It must have been a great trip. Take good care of your prizes. Don't forget that the giant water bugs will bite you if you let them, but their bite is never poisonous. It just hurts. Keep the skinks and flatworms in water all year around and don't let them get cold. And next time you're in such a deep wet woods, wear oil of citronella all over your exposed bodies. That will usually keep the ticks away. Wear boots and check yourself often. If a tick gets into you, try to take it off the way Mrs. Nescott did and keep it for one of us to examine. That is about all I can tell you. Some bugs can really hurt you, but most can't and won't. And nothing should ever stop you from exploring. Not even mosquitoes. That's what the Boys' Club is about, isn't it?"
Then Palobay raised his head and addressed the mothers standing behind. "Let's end the day with a little detour on the way back to the parking lot," he said. "I want to show these boys and all of you the small art gallery that is just over there in that house." Palobay pointed toward a dark, three story Victorian town house complete with decorative filigree and chiseled newel posts leading up the stairs toward a set of two massive oak doors. On one of the doors was written Overholt Art Exhibits...Visitors Welcome. It was, in effect, one of the miniature and almost inconspicuous galleries that dotted the historical section of Aristock. On the same street there were several more like it, houses converted into art and sculpture showrooms for the small but trendy art community that fringed the university campus.
A general groan went up from the boys when Eric Palobay suggested a museum. Even the normally curious Jared looked over at his mother and said "I don't like art." Brooke shushed him with a finger. There was something more going on here than just a trip to a chic museum, and seeing a few paintings couldn't hurt any of them. Brooke, however, knew that while the entry was free to these kind of places, the artists---starving, as the expression went---always appreciated if not expected a small homage or gratuity from visitors upon exiting. Four boys and five adults would probably be worth about twenty dollars, she calculated as she dug through her purse. She was determined not to let Eric Palobay pay for the museum as he had so generously for the mountains of ice cream. Eric put his hand on Brooke's arm as if to say stop. He would take care of the support offering too. 
"Let's go," he commanded, and the group turned and walked down Ascott Street to the tiny Overholt Museum, where a pleasant college-age girl met them at the door, all smiles. She seemed a bit confused, however, and sought out Palobay who stood confidently in back of the group. "We don't have much here today," she said. "I mean things these boys would like. Apart from the Swedish piece, it's all abstract. It's...well, you know Eric...the black and the orange."
The words the black and the orange were spoken with slightly strange intonation, as if whatever these paintings were was an inside secret between Palobay and the girl. Brooke, always perceptive, noticed this, as well as she noticed the term Swedish piece, as if whatever that was was known to everyone in Aristock except her. The girl shrugged her shoulders and continued: "Well, the boys will get a little scare from the Swedish piece, but it's not all that bad. Just a mystery and so on."
Subaru, listening, heard the word mystery and bolted forward into the house. "I want to see the Swedish piece," he cried. The other boys followed. In the central sitting room of the huge mansion was an easel set up and covered with two burgundy curtains. The girl motioned for the boys to stand in front of it and for their mothers not to worry and just stand behind them. Brooke squeezed Eric's hand, and he squeezed back as if to say "It's nothing." The girl explained that the Swedish piece had been found by an Aristock traveler in a Swedish farmhouse during the last century. It was not a painting but rather a large, blown up tintype, a "spooky" thing but not really all that bad. She drew back the curtains to reveal a black and white photograph of several somber, adult-faced children standing outside of some raised graves on a country hillside. Beside them, a few withered and craggy grandmothers looked on with dour and piercing expressions. It was a funeral scene of sorts, a photo montage taken by an unknown artist around the last part of the Nineteenth Century. That was all that was known about it.
Tyshawn said "Creepy." Subaru groaned. And Malachi yawned. It took only a few seconds for the boys to become totally disenchanted with the ugly photo, and they started to shuffle away. "Not even an eerie legend to go with it?" whispered Brooke. "Nope, 'fraid not," laughed Eric.
"What's next?" said Jared, growing impatient.
"All that we have on display now is in the abstract room, and it's a collection of black and orange oil and acrylic paintings by different artists from many places," said the girl, rolling her eyes for direction toward Eric Palobay.
Eric released Brooke's hand and took the lead. "Let's have a quick look and go home," he said briskly. The girl shook her head helplessly as if she really didn't want to admit the boys and their mothers, but Palobay was insistent, so she stood aside. Eric threw open the door to a gallery lined with oil or acrylic on canvas paintings of all sizes. Each one was quite different from the next in size and pattern, but all were essentially the same in that they consisted of a bright orange background shot through with tangles and mazes and webs of twisted and tortured black veins...or tentacles...or branches...or roots. Some also had explosions or bursts of black laid upon the orange matte. No two were the same in pattern, but all were similar in theme. Black "invasions" into an orange field. Black snaking its way through orange. Black exploding on orange. Black intruding on orange. Black blossoming on orange.
The boys and their mothers were not impressed. Quickly they passed in front of each picture and moved on. Brooke noted that Eric Palobay was watching every parent and child carefully as they took a fleeting look at the black and orange paintings. He concentrated on the boys and their mothers. Why was he looking at them so inquisitively? Just more strange, thought Brooke. Jared was last in line. He moved slower than the rest.
Unexpectedly, Eric Palobay was up behind him. The other boys had all but filed out of the room, but Jared at the rear lingered. Eric darted quickly behind him. "I feel faint," said Jared.
Eric grabbed his small shoulders and lifted him before he hit the floor. He cradled the boy in his arms and took him out the opposite way and put him on a couch. He ordered Brooke to stay close to her son while he dismissed the others, which he did quickly by shaking hands on the sidewalk and saying thank you and you're welcome in haste about a dozen times. By the time the group had all walked off toward the parking lot, Jared was sitting up and staring at his mother. The girl had brought him some water. "He was just a little overcome by the stuffiness," she blurted. "That sometimes happens here."
Eric Palobay returned to the main room and sat down on the edge of the sofa. Without speaking, he looked at both Jared and his mother. Then quietly he said "We need to get out of here and talk...all three of us. I think I know what you're going to say, Jared. Just don't say it here. All three of us need to get back to your place and fast." There was an urgency in Eric Palobay's voice that told Brooke not to ask any questions.  She and Eric helped Jared to his feet, and the three of them left for the parking lot. Eric insisted that they all ride together in his truck. "We can come back for your car later," he said solemnly. "Right now, we have an emergency on our hands. You need to trust me. Do you think you can do that, Brooke?"
With eyes as wide as pie tins, Brooke stared at this slightly misshapen man. She looked at the distorted and unreadable tattoo on his right arm, at the round hump on his back, at the burning potency of his eyes. She knew she had to trust him. Something was dreadfully wrong with Jared. Something that the other boys had not experienced. Something Eric Palobay was expecting all along. She knew she needed his help.
VI. Eric Palobay, Jared and Brooke Nescott together
With Jared stretched languidly across the living room sofa, Eric Palobay motioned for Brooke to sit down beside him and take his hand. Eric likewise pulled up a chair and rubbed the boy's shoulder. Jared still seemed as if in a daze. His lips moved, attempting to form words, but none issued from his mouth. 
"I'm scared shitless," screamed Brooke suddenly breaking the silence.
"You have every reason to be," said Palobay. "And I'm giving it to you straight. What we do now we are going to have to do fast, and it may not be the most pleasant thing Jared has ever experienced either. Jared is going to have to be a man."
"I am a man," said Jared feebly. 
"I know," said Palobay. "And all I'm asking is that you remember that."
"It was moving," said Jared turning his head toward the back of the sofa.
"I know all about it," said Eric. 
"What in the name of god are you two talking about?" shouted Brooke. "I need to call!!!"
"No," said Eric. "Don't do that. Just listen to me. I am the only one here who knows what I am doing. 911 would just confuse things. Too many questions that can't be answered. You need to trust me like you said you would.Jared's life may be in grave danger. Minutes count here. If you get hysterical and fall back on the police, we may lose him."
Brooke remembered her almost insane hatred of police and their conventional ways of conducting interrogations and getting information. She knew that Eric Palobay was probably her only chance.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked, stroking her son's face.
"Just sit and listen and learn. You may see something today that few outside of a select group have ever witnessed. You may even learn all about it. You might become an insider to something that will never let you become an outsider again. I hope you are ready. You said there has been strangeness in your life. Well, here comes some more."
Rougher than usual, Eric Palobay flipped Jared back over on the sofa so that the boy's eyes were facing him. "You were quite the little explorer, weren't you? You went ahead of the other boys. You went into a muddy lagoon or some dark place that they didn't want to follow. You went there because you are always in front. You are the bravest. You sank in the mud, didn't you?"
"How did you know that?" murmured Brooke. "He was covered with mud right up into his hair. I was worried that it may have been quicksand, but I didn't say anything. He jumped into the lake and I washed his clothes in a sink."
"Oh, he sank in the mud all right," continued Palobay. "He would have had to. Now let's get serious, champ. I am a boy and you are a boy, and this is your mother. She gave birth to you and you were naked then. She changed your diapers for years and gave you baths. She has seen your little skinny bod naked a million times. And between us boys, I'm not queer or anything. I've seen a lot of naked people myself. So you, my son, are going to have to take off all of your clothes right now, right here in front of me and your mother. You need to consider this a crisis and forget your modesty. We have all seen boys. Now stand up and get undressed, and don't say a damn word."
Jared, overcome by the stentorian tone of Eric's voice, climbed dutifully to his feet and began undressing. He stared at the ceiling and whispered to himself again "It was moving."
Once again, Eric said "I know" but this time in a kinder tone. Within seconds the wiry young man was naked in his mother's living room standing in front of her and an eccentric hunchbacked man. Eric wasted no time. He spread Jared's buttocks and carefully examined his anal region, probing at times with a finger. Then he sorted through the scant pubic hair which was just starting to sprout in the boy's crotch. He pulled back each testicle and examined Jared's penis. Then came his navel and his arm pits. Eric brought his eyes closer to Jared's body, private parts and all, than any other person ever had. Then he repeated the whole routine again. "It has to be here," he said with growing frustration.
"What???" stammered Brooke, embarrassed for her son and herself. 
"The vap," barked Eric. "The vap. Don't bother me now. I'll explain everything later.” 
As Eric continued his examination of the Jared's skin, its folds and private parts, Brooke chanced to glance up over the mantel piece. There as always hung a military photo of her father, the late Colonel Nescott, US Special Forces, Clandestine Operative. Brooke had never been close to her father and because of his frequent absences, she had seen very little of the man during her childhood, but at once she remembered one thing: his tattoo. The only thing in any way remarkable, especially for the child that Brooke was, about her father's tattoo was its essential ugliness. Often Brooke had asked her father what the tattoo was supposed to be, and always he shirked off her question with "Nothing. It was supposed to be a fish once. But the ink ran. They did tattoos differently back then, not like today. The ink always blurred as you got older." Her father's tattoo thus had become formless just like Eric Palobay's. Its image had been lost. This made Brooke briefly glance at the man who was still minutely examining her son's body. How old is he, anyway? thought Brooke, and what is he looking for?
Jared stood patiently frozen as the tall man bent over squinting at each part of his naked frame. Finally, he burst out: "I don't have any more ticks. I could feel them if I did."
Palobay was quick to answer: "You won't feel what I am looking for. Not until it is too late." He continued his search over Jared's body. Finally, he glanced up at the boy, stared at his head for a moment, and said "Of course!!" In an instant, Eric was on his feet and looking down at Jared. He spun him around so that his back was facing him. Then he plunged his fingers into the long ringlets of Jared's hair which fell half way down his neck. Finding nothing, he proceeded to part Jared's thick mane as it fell over his left then right ear. Holding a lock of hair up and pushing Jared's right ear forward at an almost painful angle, Eric exclaimed "There you are, you little son of a bitch!" He put his finger on a small lump about the size of tick or small horsefly which was lodged in the crack between Jared's ear and skull and obscured by his hair. 
"I don't feel anything," muttered Jared.
"You won't. If anything, that's a good sign. If you told me it felt good back here, I might start getting really worried. Remember what you said about being a man. Just stand here." Then Eric turned to Brooke and pointed for her to look. She squinted behind Jared's ear and said "Another tick. I'll get my knife." 
"Don't even think of it," snapped Eric. "Go get a big handful of dirt from the yard. Put it in a glass and make some mud. Stir it around. When it is muddy enough, pour about three capfuls of vinegar in it. Then stir it up some more and bring it to me. Jared, you put your clothes on." 
Both mother and son were obeying Eric Palobay now, and quickly. By the time Jared had tied his shoes and buckled his belt, Brooke returned with the muddy mixture in a glass. Eric at once plunged two fingers into the concoction and smelled it. "Seems right," he said mostly to himself. Then he proceeded to pack the muddy substance into the crack of Jared's ear, holding it in place with his thumb and securing his grip with Jared's hair. "Ow," said Jared at one point, "my hair." "Be a man," said Eric.
Eric stood there for a moment at Jared's side as if waiting for a sign of some movement. "There it comes," he said at length with some satisfaction. "Now Jared, when this thing comes totally out of your head---and a part of it is in your head, make no mistake about that---you are going to feel exhausted and tired. You will need to lie down right away, and you will probably drift off to sleep. There is nothing to be afraid of now. Just take your nap. We can discuss the whole thing when you wake up."
"You mean the bug," said Jared with obvious disgust.
"Yeah, the bug," said Eric. Then to Brooke: "Bring me a small bowl or dish." By the time Brooke returned with a bowl, Eric had taken his hand away from Jared's ear and had the mud and whatever else it contained cupped in his hand. He dumped the mud quickly into the bowl and set it aside. "Don't touch it," he said to Brooke. Then he looked at Jared. "I know you are feeling faint, so just lie down." Jared, his eyelids slightly fluttering, immediately curled up on the couch and fell asleep. Eric looked satisfied at Brooke. "Jared's problems are over," he said. "Yours may be just beginning."
VII. Vapus vapici
They sat in Brooke's kitchen alcove, each with a tumbler of brandy in front of them. Brooke felt relieved that this strange man had saved her son from some evil parasite, but natural curiosity kicked in and she started asking questions. What was this bug? What had it done to Jared?
Up to this point Eric had refused to let Brooke look into the mud in the bowl.
He took a big swallow of brandy and stared once again keenly at Brooke. And once again Brooke was taken in by t

Submitted: August 12, 2010

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