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  1. I knew there was no way I was getting back into the frat house unseen the next morning. That notion faded as quickly as the sun came up. Instead of trying, I put my shoes on as quietly as possible, and crept out of Peter’s room without waking him up. I could go into vivid detail about what Pete and I did the night before… the things we discussed, the drinks we had… but it all seems useless. Suffice it to say, nothing sexual happened. We talked. We talked about my family. We talked about his family. We talked about McKenzie Sutton. He asked me about my life on campus and how I’d managed to become an Old Dominion local celebrity. We talked for so long, I can honestly say it was better than some of the sex I’d had in life. The only portion of the conversation worth noting was when he asked me about my sex life. “I mean, I do pretty well for myself, I guess,” I replied after he came right out and asked if it was easy for a gay guy to get laid on campus. “Slut,” he retorted with a smile. I pushed him in the chest and he sort of rolled over on his bed. I looked at him as he faced the ceiling. “I don’t know,” I said. “I really just make out. I don’t usually do anything more than that unless I really like someone.” “Mmhmm… sure…” “You just think all gay guys are whores,” I said. He turned his head and smiled at me. It was midway through that conversation that I had decided to treat Pete as if he was straight, even if he turned out not to be. I had gone back and forth on it for two days, and I’d come to a conclusion. There was no use projecting my feelings on to his actions. Until he came out and told me different, no pun intended, I’d make a non-issue of his ambiguous sexuality. “Tell me they aren’t.” “I’m not a whore, Mr. Peterson,” I said. I would have been his whore, but he didn’t need to know that. He gave me a look, his eyes twinkling while we talked, and then he changed the subject. Some time later, I fell asleep on his floor while he fell asleep on his bed. At some point in the night, he told me to sleep on the mattress. I don’t remember having the conversation with him, but I did end up sleeping on his bed, facing him, in only my boxers. To the best of my knowledge, no physical contact was made. And as charmed as I was by him, I couldn’t forget what I’d seen the night before. Seeing him make out with McKenzie, watching his hand glide up her side, pull her in by the neck, tousle her hair… the memory of them rounding first and sliding into second in the corner of River Three irked me. I didn’t want it to. I shouldn’t have let it, but it did. I followed the rising sun through the alley and into the Chi Beta house. I collapsed onto my bed in my clothes and looked up at my own ceiling. I thought about how much I had started to like Peter in such a short amount of time. It was weird. Things like that never happened to me. The guy I’d probably had the most feelings for in life up to that point was Mike Loggerman the Cadet and it had taken me months to feel anything for him. I was usually guarded… safe… aware. But something about Pete disarmed me. It left me wanting. It left me hopeless. And it left me utterly and uselessly horny. Sleeping next to a hot guy two nights in a row without getting to touch him was torture. I was so hard up those days, I was liable to faint at any moment. My phone vibrated at eight, and for an exciting second, I thought it was Pete. I didn’t know why he’d be texting me on a Sunday morning that early, but it could have been him. I hoped for it… I lived on it. Instead, it was the frosh I’d helped move in the day before. To Corbin: Hey buddy, this is Lee from yesterday. I was wondering if the offer for Walmart was still good… I yawned, took a deep breath and responded. To Lee: Of course it is, buddy. Let me know when you’re ready. To Corbin: Let me grab a quick shower. Half an hour? To Lee: Perfect. I’ll pick you up in the quad. I laid my head back down and took a short, twenty minute nap. I woke up with a start, checked my watch and realized I told Lee I’d pick him up in ten minutes. I put my shoes back on, not bothering to change into anything fresh. I walked to the bathroom and blitzed my teeth, sprayed my face, and decided that my hair was going to be matted to the side of my head for the foreseeable future. I tip toed to Hutch’s room, checked the door and pushed it open slowly. There were two distinct mounds under his covers, and I remembered him bringing home that Haley girl last night. Trying not to look, I reached to the side of the wall where I knew he kept his Xterra keys, pulled them off the hook, and tried to make my escape. Just as I was exiting, I heard Hutch rustle in his bed behind me. I stopped in my tracks. “Corbs?” “Yeah,” I whispered, turning slowly. “I’m borrowing your car. I asked you yesterday.” Hutch sat up, revealing that, yes, in fact it was Hayley under the covers, and I could tell that she was in just her bra… at least up top. “Okay. What happened to you last night?” “We’ll recap when I get back,” I whispered. Hutch nodded. “Did you get your dick wet?” “Not yet,” I said. “Hurry the fuck up…” he laid back down, and a second later, I heard one lone snore. I crawled out of the room, ran downstairs before I could run into anyone else, and hit Hutch’s car. Two and half minutes later, I pulled up to the quad and waited for Lee. “Hey man, thanks so much for doing this.” He sounded genuinely thankful as I took Washington Avenue through downtown and onto the bypass that led to Walmart. “No worries,” I said. “I could tell your mom didn’t want to spend her last afternoon with you waiting in a grocery store line.” “Yeah, she was really glad you volunteered to drive me,” he replied. “She said I should take you to lunch sometime this week to repay you.” “No repayment necessary,” I said. I thought for a second, and then realized maybe this was my golden rush opportunity. “Actually, there is a way you can pay me back.” Lee looked over at me from the passenger’s side with a dubious eye. “It’s painless, I promise,” I asserted quickly. He smirked. “I’ve read about you frat guys.” “Oh please. Animal House doesn’t do us justice, trust me.” “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he laughed. “So what’s this favor?” “We’re having a pre-game tonight. Lots of shots, drinking games… free rides out to the country. You should come.” “That’s it? That’s how I pay you back? By coming to a party you’re throwing?” “Welcome to being a freshman,” I smiled. The guys at the house would be proud of me for turning a move-in into a rush opportunity. “You probably could have asked for more,” he said. It took me a second and a glance over to decipher what he’d meant, and even then, I couldn’t. It sounded like a come-on to me, but I couldn’t be sure, so I let it go. “Alright then. You can be my Beirut partner tonight.” “Beirut?” “Does no one know what Beirut is anymore? Beer pong?” “Oh, beer pong. Yeah, of course. I’m there.” It was settled. I told him the details of the pre-game and discussed the perks of being a frosh while we waded through Walmart, picking up a dozen or so things from a list his mom had left. I answered all of his questions about the upcoming year. An hour later, I dropped him off in the quad, leaving him with some sage advice. “Put your name on your laundry detergent,” I said as he got out of the car. “Trust me.” I watched him get out, walk across the street, turn to me and wave goodbye. Two minutes later, I pulled into Hutch’s parking spot, and went upstairs to face the firing squad. “Look who’s up, bright and early… and in yesterday’s clothes.” Hutch was the first to speak. They were all gathered on the couches in the Great Hall, greeting me as soon as I entered. I pulled my sunglasses off my face and perched them on my head, pulling my summer length hair back. “You had sex last night,” I deflected. “We’ve been through that. It’s your turn, killer.” “Nothing happened.” “Where were you last night?” Austin asked. “Nothing happened.” “Why didn’t you come home?” Roberto added his own flame to the fire. “Nothing happened.” “You know, saying nothing happened isn’t going to make us believe that nothing happened,” Brian chimed in. “Well believe it,” I asserted, sitting down on the floor between Roberto and Austin. “Because nothing happened.” “Okay, so tell us what happened,” Austin said, sounding genuinely interested in hearing how I came to be missing for an entire night. “Honest to God, we got home last night, I was really drunk and kind of upset from seeing Pete make out with that girl,” I explained. “Aye dios mio,” Roberto rolled his eyes. “Do you wanna know?” I snapped. “Sorry.” “As soon as I hit the hay, Peter texted me… he came up to my room, we talked, and then I walked him home.” “So why didn’t you come home after?” Hutch asked. I shook my head, embarrassed. It was how it went with us guys. Nothing happened without the other four hearing about it, and for some reason, it was worse when nothing had actually happened. “Because when we got to his place, he asked me to come in…” “What did he say?” “‘Do you want to come in and hang out? Adam isn’t here.’” “That is a booty call!” Hutch shouted. “Fuck yeah,” Brian echoed. I smiled, embarrassed at their reaction, and at the fact that I had thought the same thing… to no avail. “Sadly, nothing happened. I went in, and we talked. Literally, we talked. And then I fell asleep.” “What’d y’all talk about?” Hutch asked. “Everything. Nothing. He asked me about my sex life. I asked him about kissing McKenzie Slutton. He said it was a short, bad kiss, and he barely remembered doing it.” “Mmhmm… that’s what they all tell their gay boyfriends.” “Fuck you,” I retorted. I didn’t want my pledge brothers to know how let down I’d been the night before, so I tried to keep the subject of McKenzie light. I was all too ready to move on by the time Austin changed the subject. “Where’d you sleep? Bed, couch, or floor?” Austin asked. “He has no couch, and I slept on the floor to start…” I answered. “And then…” Roberto pressed on, knowing that what I’d left out was more important than what I’d included. “And then I might have moved to the bed.” “He didn’t kick you out?” “No, of course not,” I responded, answering their questions at rapid pace. “Anyway, what were y’all creepers doing looking for me last night?” “Nothing,” Hutch answered. “I came in to see if you still needed my car this morning, and your bedroom was empty. So were the halls and the bathroom. And even for you, day two is a little early to be blacking out and wandering off.” “Yeah, well,” I said. “I wish more had come from that blackout wander.” I started to stand to go downstairs and make a peanut butter and jelly when Roberto pushed my shoulder down. “Nuh, uh. We’re not done.” “I’m hungry,” I whined. “More protein for breakfast?” Austin snarked. I shot him a look. “That explains last night. We still want to know where you were this morning…” I looked up at Roberto and then up at Austin, and finally across at the other two. I felt like a kid being interrogated by his parents… only he had four instead of two… and they were all men. “I told Hutch. I went to Walmart with a freshman,” I replied. I looked around at their inquisitive glares. “I’m serious.” “We believe that’s what you did,” Brian said. “But why?” “Because… I met him during move in and I told his mom I’d take him to Walmart. It was a good deed.” “What does he look like?” Hutch asked. “Was he cute?” “This is why people think you’re gay,” Roberto shouted across the hall. “Um, I had sex with a girl last night. What did you do?” Hutch shot back. I saw Roberto shoot Hutch a look, and then the heat was back on me. “So you slept with your boyfriend last night, and then woke up and took your other boyfriend to the store… classy,” Brian smiled. “You are the worst former roommate ever. Nothing happened there either,” I said. “Although, I think the kid was flirting with me.” “You think?” Austin asked. He was always the dubious one when it came to me and flirting. He was convinced my mission was to turn every straight guy at Old Dominion into a cock sucker. “He said some things that were a little suspect, but whatever,” I replied. “Are you going to go after it?” Roberto asked. “Probably not,” I replied. “He’s a freshman.” “So? Hutch’s girl is a freshman,” Brian called out. “If she even goes here,” said Austin. We all laughed. “Honestly, y’all, it’s not like that,” I said as the laughter died down. “I’m just being a good frat brother. I’m rushing for the fraternity.” “Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Brian asked. “I hate you.” We joked around at mine and Hutch’s expense for a couple minutes until I really did need to get some food. I stood up, glad to escape the ruckus when Roberto offered some wisdom. “I think you should go after the freshman,” he said as I took a step towards the kitchen. “If you think he likes you. You can’t chase after an Englishman forever. Especially a straight one.” I kept walking, registering what he’d said. Maybe Roberto was right. Maybe chasing after Pete was futile. He’d shown me his level of interest when he face planted onto a Chi-Omega. If I kept after a guy that had had his chance twice and didn’t take it, what did that make me? Desperate. Maybe what I needed was a mind eraser to get Britain off the brain. Maybe this freshman was a good idea. I got some toast, and headed back up to the great hall, forming a plan in my mind to take Pete off of it. The guys were still sitting around, talking about how to spend the last lazy Sunday before classes started. “How about fifty-five cup after the meeting? Robbie? A?” I suggested, already putting my plan in motion. “Fifty-five? Really?” Austin asked. “Let’s do it,” I said. Roberto looked up at me. “I’m in as long as we hit the gym first,” he said. “Austin, are you his partner?” “As if Roberto can play without his wife,” Hutch snarked. “What about us?” Brian asked. “You can play winner,” I said, sitting back down and completing the circle. “Are you serious? You all are always so fucked up after one game, there’s no way.” “Mmm, sowee,” I said, my mouth full of bread, butter, and jam. “It was my idea and I already have a partner.” “You suck,” Brian said. “You swallow,” I shot back. The other guys laughed, and Brian shot me a look. “Now this partner of yours,” Hutch asked, not fazed by not getting to play fifty-five. “Is he British or Barely Legal?” “Now that sounds like the name of your next porno!” Austin finished right on beat, getting a laugh out of everyone. We hung out for most of the morning, and then filed into the chapter room for our first house meeting. The ins and outs of the event were completely boring until it was my turn to give the social status report. Before we went in, I sent a text to Lee asking what he was doing that afternoon. To Corbin: Just hanging out with a guy on my hall. I have nothing planned until hall dinner. To Lee: Mandatory? To Corbin: Yeah, unfortunately. To Lee: Can you go to dinner drunk? To Corbin: Probably. Why? To Lee: Have you ever played 55 cup beer pong? To Corbin: No… sounds intense. To Lee: Come to my house at 4. You’re my partner. Payback J To Corbin: You got it. “The calendar is pretty straight forward,” I said an hour later when it was my turn to present. I listed the dates of Homecoming, Parents Weekend, Alumni Weekend, Christmas Weekend (which I refused to refer to as Holiday Weekend as per the university’s politically correct initiative), and formal recruitment. Baring an emergency or an approved reason, attendance each weekend was mandatory. “What about mixers?” President Dominic asked. “We have Chi Beta Believe It Weekend lined up for November.” “And who are we mixing with that weekend?” “Chi-Omega is ready to go… as usual. The problem is, Kappa cancelled on us,” I answered. There was a chorus of mumbles. “They said they’ll mix with us next semester.” “Who the fuck do they think they are?” one sophomore said loudly. A couple of brothers hissed at him. I pursed my lips and turned my head. It was a matter of fact. Chi Beta Believe It Weekend was supposed to be a shit show that featured a pre-mixer dinner on Friday, a mixer on Friday night, a lawn party on Saturday afternoon, and another mixer on Saturday night. A couple years ago, it had culminated with a clam bake on Sunday with a bloody mary bar, but I doubted we had money to bring that feature back. And now, we were down one mixer, with the other being with a shitty sorority that no one particularly liked very much. “Is there anything we can do to get them to not cancel?” Dominic asked me. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Well, work on it,” he resigned. “This is your job.” “No, this is my Everest,” I said under my breath. Austin heard me and laughed. “There is an option,” I said out loud. “I’ve been talking to KD about mixing and the girls are on board, but their social chair is a little hesitant. The good news is that Emily Watts is their social chair’s best friend.” “No,” Roberto said before I could even finish. “And as we all know, Emily has a crush on Roberto.” “Absolutely not,” he said. “Come on, ‘Berto,” I said, addressing him directly. “This is literally our only shot.” “I’m not fucking someone just so you bitches can have a mixer,” he shouted. I saw Dominic give him a cold look, as if he really did want Roberto to whore himself out. It was a long shot, I knew, but if Roberto could flirt with Emily, she might be able to talk to Hannah Allison. “You’re already friends with her,” I said. “And she’s cute. Just flirt with her until they decide to book. What’s the big deal?” “Are you kidding me? You would actually have me lead on your friend just for a mixer? You’re an asshole,” Roberto said, raising his voice at me. “No, I’m the social chair,” I replied, growing slightly heated. “And I was put here in a tight spot. We aren’t riding high like we were in the old days, folks. Like we were when we pledged. We have some serious work to do, or else next year, our senior year, no one will be interested in mixing with us at all.” “I’ll sleep with Emily Watts,” Newby, a sophomore said. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help but smile. “Seriously, ‘Berto,” I said, my tone serious and unwavering. “Think about it.” He cut me a look. That was the end of my segment. The rest of the meeting was a bore. I looked at my clock. It was just after three. I yawned really loud, and Dominic gave me a short look, just as he kept talking about the new enforcement rules. I had heard all of this shit before, in various meetings, and it was annoying as hell. “Have somewhere to be, Corbin?” Dominic asked. All eyes turned to me. “Nowhere nearly as important as this, Dom,” I said sarcastically. “Continue.” This was why I got a reputation for being a bitch at Chi Beta. Instead of listening to Dominic finish his tirade, which I’m certain would be detailed in an email to follow, I pulled my phone out and started texting. To Lee: We probably won’t start at four. I’m stuck in this stupid meeting, and I still have to go get beer. To Corbin: No worries. Hey, can my friend Brandon hang out? I just found out hall dinner isn’t mandatory. To Lee: For sure. I’ll find him a partner. To Corbin: Sweet. He said he doesn’t have to play if the teams are already set. I looked at Austin, and then at Roberto. Of the two, Roberto was the better beer pong player, but Austin was the better sport when it came to rushing. Neither would be happy about being replaced. A second later, I had a thought. It shot through my brain like a missile. I didn’t care what Dom was talking about, I raised my hand really fast. “Can we go back to something really quick,” I interrupted before he even acknowledged me. Dominic sighed. “What?” “The rush event rule. When does that go into effect?” “Which one?” “The one that we just talked about. Two or more freshman constitutes a rush event and the house will cover half the cost. Four or more and the house will cover the whole cost.” “I guess it goes into effect as soon as you start rushing,” Dominic replied. I smiled. “Perfect. Are we reimbursing? Using the house credit card? What’s the protocol?” “Can we do this later?” Dominic asked through frustrated clenched teeth. “Yeah, we can. Except that I have an event set up at four. Fifty-five cup. Oh, Roberto, by the way, a frosh is taking your spot if that’s okay. Everyone is invited to watch.” I knew that my outburst and disregard for the fraternity meeting was amusing to some, and annoying to most, but I didn’t care. “Get what you need, bring back your receipt, and Austin will reimburse you from petty,” Dominic said definitively. I took his sentence as a command, so I stood up, and walked to the door of the chapter room. “Perfect. See y’all in an hour.” And with that, I made my escape. “Corbin,” I heard Dominic call out as I closed the door behind me, but I didn’t hesitate or look back. It wasn’t the first time I’d made a Houdini escape from a chapter meeting, and as the year was shaping up, I knew it wouldn’t be the last. I still had Hutch’s keys in my pocket, so I went straight to his Xterra outside, started it up, and drove to Walmart. As I picked up two cases of beer and enough Solo cups to sufficiently stock a small village for a year, I thought about what Roberto had said. Was it worth using the frosh to get my mind off of the Brit? Were the two correlated? I was young, unattached, and apparently attractive enough to attract them both, so why not diversify my portfolio? Why did I need to put my eggs into one basket when I had two available right in front of me? And yet, nothing was certain until it was certain. The Brit was yet to make a move, and there was a solid chance he’d never make one. There was a frosh who’d shown interest in flirting, but maybe that was all it was. Was I ready to be someone’s first college fling? And even if I was, did he want me to? It was almost as if Peter knew I was thinking about him and was determined not to give me any peace. As I walked down to the checkout counter, I felt my phone vibrate. For a split second, after I saw his name on my display screen, I thought about letting it roll to voicemail. I didn’t. I answered. “Hey,” I said as cheerfully as I could. “Hey there. What are you up to?” “Not much,” I answered. “Campus is pretty quiet today,” he replied. “Is Sunday always this dull?” “It’s early yet,” I replied. “And everyone is saving themselves to rage tonight.” “I see,” he said, his accent as strong as ever. “Where’s Adam?” I asked. I knew where Adam was. I had just left him at the house. “He just got home from your little meeting,” he said. “He mentioned something about a game of fifty-five cup. Beer pong?” “Yeah,” I said. I made it to the line and started unloading my cart. “I was wondering if maybe you needed a partner.” This was it. This was my chance. This was my opportunity to turn the screw. He had forced me into the ‘hard-to-get’ corner, and I was going to stay there for as long as it took. He needed to know I wasn’t going to wait in the wings forever. And so I told him. “I actually already have a partner,” I replied. “Sorry, I would have asked you, but I didn’t think you’d be interested.” I said it as casually as I possibly could. I wasn’t trying to make him jealous by any means, but he needed to know that you don’t hang out with a guy all night, not kiss him, kiss a girl, and still expect to be his Beirut partner. That’s not how it worked. “Oh.” He sounded slightly dejected. Whatever, I thought. If you’d made out with me last night, there would be no question about partners. He had made his bed, and he’d made it with only room for one. “I guess I’ll see you out then,” he said. “I mean, you can come watch the game,” I said quickly. “It’ll be epic. And we’re pre-gaming afterwards.” “No, I might just take a nap, or something,” he said. “Cool,” I replied. I checked out, told Pete to come over for drinks before a band party on Greek Row that night, and I wheeled everything out to Hutch’s car. When I got back to the house, the meeting was over, and Austin was setting up the beer pong table in the game room. “Dom is pissed at you,” he said as I hauled the cases of beer upstairs. I set them down and immediately pulled out my phone. “What’s new?” I asked, barely paying attention. I texted Lee to come over with his friend. I told him we were setting up and we’d start when they got there. “He’s determined to cut your antics this year,” Austin said. “What antics?” “You just left a chapter meeting halfway through.” “We were done,” I replied. “Not really. And you know he has every right to fine you. Hell, I won’t be surprised if he tells Hutch to put you down as absent.” “I wasn’t absent. I was present. He was rambling, I got bored, and I left. I had to set up a rush event, didn’t I?” “Don’t bullshit me, Corb,” Austin said. “Whatever, I’m just saying… what’s more important? A stupid meeting in which everything has been decided for us by the five guys on the EC or rushing freshmen who may or may not take over this place when we leave?” “Did you rehearse that on the drive back?” “There and back actually. Why? Was it that obvious? Did I rush the ending?” I said with a clear cut attitude. I decided to change the subject before Austin got into bitchy treasurer mode and I had to bring him down a peg. “Anyway, is Roberto mad that he got booted?” “Not really. He’s going to nap and rest up for tonight.” We set up the rest of the cups in silence, until both sides had fifty-five cups in a perfect triangle, about a foot from touching in the middle. A minute later, the freshmen showed up. Lee was dressed down in a pair of cargo shorts and a fitted v-neck t-shirt. He looked like a walking Gap mannequin and I didn’t mind one bit. His friend, Brandon, was equally as tall, almost as cute, and so slender, I was sure you could break him in half. “This is Brandon,” Lee introduced. “He’s on my hall.” “Cool,” I introduced myself. “I’m Corbin Crowley, this is Austin Whitacker. You’re gonna be his partner.” “Awesome,” Brandon said in a deep baritone voice. The voice definitely didn’t match the build, but it didn’t matter. My eye was on the guy closest to me. “How do we do this?” Lee asked, standing next to me. I pulled out the case and handed him an ice cold Natural Light. “We pour our beer in. One can for every five cups. And then we pick one cup to put a full can into. Normal rules, except no bouncing until we’re down to twenty-one cups. You get reracks at thirty-five, twenty-one, and ten. Everything is normal after that.” “Cool. Who goes first?” Lee asked as we finished pouring the beers. The stage was set. The game was ready. And so was I. “I think we’ll let y’all go first,” Austin said condescendingly. “Give you a chance to feel ahead.” I gave Lee a let’s do this look, grabbed a ball from the water cup, and sank it halfway through the other team’s monstrosity of a triangle. The playing beer pong came easy. The flirting came even easier. Once my muscles started to loosen, the flirting came naturally. It always did; in fact, most of the time I hardly even realized I was doing it. This afternoon, however, I was acutely aware of what I was doing, and I was greatly aware of how it was affecting the frosh. I stood close to him as he shot the ball. Every time I walked behind him, I touched the small of his back, and made eye contact. He’d smile at me, and I’d smile back. Occasionally, when I knew his friend from across the table wasn’t looking, I’d bite my lip. At one point, when we were down four cups, I reached across my body and patted his stomach as he finished a cup of beer. “Come on, buddy,” I encouraged. “We can do this.” He brought the cup down and smiled at me. I let my hand linger on his abs for a second longer. It got interesting around the second rerack, at twenty-one. We had caught up, and while they still had twenty-three cups to go, we sank one, and got the all-important rerack. “Sweet!” Lee shouted, louder than he had been forty-five minutes earlier. “Good shot!” He reached over and pulled me into a side hug, clutching my far shoulder and drawing me in. I looked up at him, and he smiled down at me. I pulled myself in a little closer, and our hips touched. I waited for him to react. I waited for him to move. He didn’t. He didn’t even flinch. Instead, he clutched my shoulder even harder. I looked up again, and he gave me a very knowing glance. I let out a fake cough. “Alright, killer,” I said to him. “Let’s do this.” The meaning was all over the place, and I knew he got it. I had to give him credit; as flirtatious as I was, he was that much more receptive. It was almost like he didn’t care that we were all over each other in front of his new friend. He encouraged it, and so I kept it going. At one point, while I was shooting our eleventh cup, one away from another rerack, I stood directly in front of him. The other side couldn’t see, and wouldn’t have cared even if they could see… those guys were down by six and their prospects of winning were fading. I pushed my ass out and made contact with his pelvis. I looked behind me, gave him a slutty glance, and he smiled. “Give me space,” I complained. “Are you sure you want me to?” he whispered. I pushed back even further and held my stance. I made the next cup. From then on, the game eased into a seamless victory. “I have to pee so bad,” Brandon said from across the table, nursing the beers he had left over to drink. “Me too,” Lee answered. The two freshmen exited the room, leaving Austin and I alone for a couple of minutes. “So you’re taking Roberto’s advice, are you?” he asked as I stacked cups on my side of the table. We’d beat them by three after they made a valiant run during rebuttal. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Oh come on. You’ve been all over that kid, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d already jizzed in his pants.” “That’s disgusting,” I scolded. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it much. I was just having fun. But I suppose, my body was having fun because it was telling me that there was no use waiting around for Pete. If the opportunity presented itself to relieve the pressure he’d helped build up, then I’d take it. “You’re disgusting. And completely obvious.” “Look, I’m just trying to cleanse the Brit off my palette and move on. Is that a crime?” “No,” Austin replied. “But be careful. You know how easy it is for freshman to get an impression.” I turned my head. “I like the guy,” I said. Austin gave me a glare. “I do.” “I don’t doubt that you like him now. But will you when the Brit changes his mind?” “If he changes his mind,” I replied. “And I’m not gonna sit around and not do anything with anyone waiting for that distinction.” A second later, Lee and Brandon walked back into the room, laughing. I was sort of upset by Austin’s accusation, but I was determined not to let it bother me. Just that morning, he’d sat there and listened to Roberto tell me to erase Pete from my memory, and if it took Lee to do that, then so be it. I told myself again that I wasn’t flirting with Lee to make Pete jealous. That would have required Pete to be there. “What’s the plan now?” Lee asked. It was almost six o’clock, and we should have been preparing for dinner. My stomach was so full of beer, though, that I couldn’t even fathom eating for at least a few hours. “We’re just gonna hang around and drink some more until we go out tonight. Maybe order a pizza later,” I said. “Cool,” Lee replied, clearly on bored for that. “I heard y’all have the best lawn on campus.” Our house was situated away from Greek Row, so instead of staring directly into another frat house, our front door opened into an expansive lawn, that was perfect for frat volleyball, slip and slide, and day parties. “We do,” I answered with pride. “Wanna hang out, Brand?” Lee asked. “No man,” he said quickly. Almost too quickly. “I’ve gotta finish unpacking before all the orientation sessions tomorrow.” Lee didn’t put up a single fight with his friend. Instead, he nodded, said he’d see him later, and watched Brandon take off, with four beers I’d given him for the road. It was almost like the two had discussed it before. Lee would stay. Brandon would go. “Wanna see the lawn?” I asked Lee as I finished stacking cups that we’d eventually rinse and reuse. Austin had been quietly cleaning his side the whole time. “Give me a tour of the house,” Lee answered. I shot Austin a look. Then I looked at Lee and smiled. “For sure,” I said. We stepped into the hallway and down towards the stairs. “We’ll start downstairs.” I let Lee walk in front of me, and as he went down the first step, I put my hand on his back and led him down. “Are you interested in seeing any part of the house in particular?” “Your bedroom,” he answered without hesitation. I stopped walking down the stairs. “It’s this way,” I made an about-face, and walked back up, down the hall, and into number 23 without once turning around. When Lee and I were both in my room, I reached around him and locked the door. “What do you think?” I asked, turning to face him. “It’s a nice room,” he said, locking eyes with me. We stood about a foot apart for a couple seconds. The room was silent. I could almost hear Lee breathing slowly. I watched him swallow, his Adam’s apple bouncing in his throat. I swallowed as well, wondering what my next move should be. I took a step towards him, into him almost, and instinctively put my hand on his hip. I drew him in. Another step and another swallow. “Wanna see the couch?” I asked slowly, raising my head slightly to be even with his. Two feet apart became less than one. “Or the bed?” A second later, Lee’s lips connected with mine. My first kiss junior year wasn’t with a British exchange student that I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about since I laid eyes on him. It was with a freshman. An impressionable, and yet very sexy, freshman. A guy that couldn’t get enough of me. And after that kiss, the feeling was mutual. I pushed Lee backwards, around my couch, and onto my bed. He sat down, resting on his hands, his legs spread. I could clearly make out a bulge in his cargo shorts, and I suddenly wanted his cock deep in my mouth at any cost. I turned around and walked to the window, careful to maintain graceful, sexy strides when all my body wanted to do was drunkenly stumble over. I pulled the blinds, casting a dark shadow over the room. I turned and gave Lee a wicked smile. I want to believe that what happened next was graceful and poised, when in all actuality it was probably sloppy and ridiculous. I slipped down to my knees and slowly crawled between Lee’s legs. I pushed my hands up his thigh, and immediately went for the lump that sat next to his right pocket. I felt his entire body jolt upwards when I clutched his dick through his khaki colored shorts. It was already hard. Really hard. And from where I knelt, it was a total handful. I looked up at Lee and smiled. “Are you okay?” I asked. I squeezed his dick through his shorts, and it pulsed in my hands. “Oh yeah,” he breathed. I relaxed, fully aware at that point that we both wanted what was about to happen. I lowered myself onto my legs, used both hands to fish around Lee’s crotch, and a second later, I pulled his cock out of his shorts. It glistened in the dimness of the room. I could tell there was already precum on the tip. I ran my right hand up his shirt, feeling his smooth body. As I made my way up his chest, I licked the tip of his dick, tasting the sweet and saltiness of his precum. I could tell right away that I would enjoy sucking this guy’s dick. It was one of those dicks that got impossibly hard, stood straight up, and reacted to every move you made. I undid his pants and lowered them, revealing that in addition to having a smooth stomach and chest, Lee also trimmed his package and legs. I smiled up at him again. He nodded at me, probably wondering why I was taking so long to get on his cock. I leaned down, put his dick in my mouth, and sucked all the way down to the base. It was incredible, feeling Lee writhe below my touch. He arched his back, knocked his dick deep into my throat, and a second later, shot spurts of cum through my mouth and down into my stomach. The total time, from touch to finish, was less than five minutes. Had Lee not been so beautiful naked, and had his cum not tasted so clean and sweet, I might have been disappointed. Also, had he not stayed impossibly hard, I might have given up on this five-minute freshman. But he did, and so I didn’t. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t warn you.” “It’s okay,” I replied, getting off my knees and climbing up to my bed. “It was good.” “Yeah? You sure?” “Of course,” I said. “It was really quick,” he answered. “I’m sorry.” “No worries,” I smiled. “I’ve been wanting that to happen since yesterday,” he said. I took my spot lying next to him, lightly fondling his chest and rubbing just above his dick. His breathing was still heavy but definitely tempered. “It looks like you could go again,” I whispered. He nodded. I leaned in further and kissed him. He hesitated to open his mouth to mine, probably because he could smell his semen on my breath. Eventually, he let his mouth open and slipped his tongue around mine. As soon as he tasted the remnants of himself on my breath, he dove in and kissed me harder. A second later, he climbed on top of me. I was still in my clothes, and Lee was still in his shirt. I felt him rub his hard dick over my jeans, probably trying to assess how hard I was underneath. Hard was the answer. Very, very hard. As brief as that blow job had been, there was something about Lee that I was discovering drove me absolutely crazy. Maybe it was his youthful exuberance. Maybe it was his sheer appreciation for everything I was doing. Maybe it was the smooth skin, hard stomach, and firm lines that formed his body. Or maybe he was just a damn good kisser. As we kissed, I wondered how many times Lee had done what we were doing. He kissed like a guy that was used to kissing girls. He put in most of the effort, forcing his tongue down my throat, feeling for objects around my body, grinding his dick across mine. I felt him go down for my belt line with his hands, not once letting go of my tongue once he had it. I helped him out, and a second later, crawled out of my own jeans. A second after that, Lee licked down my neck, skipped my torso, and made his way to my equally manscaped cock. He hovered over my dick in hesitation for a second. He looked up at me, as if he were asking for permission. I smiled, nodded slowly, and as he descended onto my cock, I leaned my head back in pleasure. The blow job itself was a little jolty. His movements were calculated, as if he’d read up on how to make me enjoy it. It was good, don’t get me wrong. His mouth was warm, wet, and eager. What it lacked in smoothness and fluidity, he made up for in sheer enthusiasm. He pumped my dick hard and fast, licking the precum off the tip every few seconds. In intervals, he’d lower his whole mouth over my dick and suck in slowly, then he’d return to the fast and furious pumping. I aided him along by making eye contact. I was a sexual sucker for eye contact. There was nothing that could make me cum faster than a good, old fashioned, stare down. I smiled down at him, encouraging him to keep going. To rev him up even more, I used my foot and leg to slowly rub against his hard cock. He repositioned himself between my legs so that while he sucked me off and rubbed me out, I could foot him off. It didn’t last long, mostly because I didn’t want it to. I could have gone for a while with this guy, but I sensed his urgency, especially once my foot was covered in his precum. He was ready to shoot again, and I guessed so was I. “Ready?” I asked, panting just a little. “Ready for me to cum?” “Yeah,” he panted, breathing harder than I was. “Yeah, I am.” “Where do you want it?” I asked. He pumped my cock even harder, but didn’t answer. Instead, he hovered over my dick, watching it like an inspector. I looked at him, turned on by how turned on he was, and a second later, I let my load fly. The majority of it ended up on my stomach. A little ended up on his face, and the rest ended up on his own chest and shirt. “Wow,” he said, standing up, and wiping his face with the bottom of his shirt. “That was a lot.” He simultaneously gasped and smiled at me. I sat up and pulled my jeans and boxers up. I pulled my shirt off and wiped the rest of my cum off my body and tossed the cloth into the corner. “Yeah, for sure,” I said. It was always hard for me to temper my emotions after a particularly heavy cum. Most of me was tired, but part of me wanted the other person to know I appreciated their hard work. A year ago, I wouldn’t even have entertained the idea of Lee hanging around after we both came, but he made no signs of being ready to leave, and I kind of liked having him around. “I um… can I borrow a shirt?” “Yeah, of course,” I said. I rummaged through one of my drawers, and pulled out a red and white baseball t-shirt I’d had since high school. It said Colleyville High in small letters on the right arm. I handed it to him with a smile. I watched him get undressed and into my shirt, which fit him snug. “Okay, what sport did you play?” “What do you mean?” he laughed. “Your body is… wow,” I said, unable to quite believe that a guy who was barely eighteen was that tightly built. He wasn’t big by any means, but it was almost as if his entire body had been wrapped in metal. I felt self-conscience, paunchy, and bloated in comparison. He laughed meekly and sat down next to me. A small wet spot separated us. “I swam in high school,” he said proudly. It all made perfect sense after that. I stood up and walked to my mini-fridge. “Drink?” I asked. I pulled out a bottle of vodka and the only mixer I had in the room… Crystal Light. “Are you going to swim for the Founders?” I asked. “Probably not,” he said. I asked him why not. “It’s a different beast up here. In New Orleans, where I went, I could win a race after smoking two bowls and barely stretching. Here, you know… it’s different.” Effort is involved, I wanted to say. He couldn’t have been that motivationally deficient. The kid was ripped. And for the time being, he was mine. We sat around and talked for a while, about nothing important, but it felt good to be in good company. At one point, he mentioned how much fun it’d be to get high and do what we just did. “Did you mess around with guys a lot?” I asked at some point, two vodka cocktails later. We’d moved from the bed to the couch, and were nursing our drinks while we looked at each other. “Not really,” he said. “I kind of kept it hidden in high school. I had one buddy who we messed around this summer. I guess that’s the most of it.” There was something he wasn’t saying, and I could tell. “Messed around, how?” I asked. He looked at me like he didn’t quite want to answer. “You know,” he said. I cocked my head to the side. “We fucked each other.” “Oh?” I replied. I scooted in just a little, reaching for my drink, and grazing past his arm. “Did you like it?” “It was okay, I guess. Not my favorite thing to do. But we mostly just gave each other head, and made out.” I felt almost as if he was drawing the line at what he and I would do and wouldn’t do. I was okay with that. I was okay with pretty much any and of all of it. If he wanted to make hooking up a regular thing, I was fine with that. If he never wanted me to touch him again… well I doubted he’d never want me to touch him again. But he’d served his purpose, and for that I was grateful. I had successfully gone all afternoon without thinking about someone I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about for forty-eight hours. And as soon as I let Pete into my mind, my phone rang. It was almost like he had a cerebral tracker on me. He wouldn’t let me go. And because of that, I couldn’t let go of him. And just like that, I felt low. It was like what was meant to eradicate my feelings for Pete had really only intensified them. Hooking up with Lee made me aware of Pete in a way I hadn’t before… ever really. I was annoyed. I forced myself to push the Brit to the back of my mind and focus on what was sitting right next to me. “Who’s Pete?” Lee asked, picking my phone up and handing it to me. “No one,” I replied quickly. I let it roll to voice mail, and then noticed that it was well past seven. My brothers and I had organized a pre-game in Hutch’s room for eight o’clock and I knew they’d be coming around to see where I was any second. “We should get a move on,” I said quickly. “For what?” “There’s a pre-game here in a little bit,” I replied. “Let’s get food. Unless you want to go home and change.” “No, I’m good.” He ran his hands over my shirt and beamed at me. I was in no condition to drive, and so I did the only thing I could think of. “Hey, Hutch,” I asked after knocking next door and letting myself in. “Do you wanna get food?” “No,” he replied. He was reading something out of a dull looking brown book. It was probably some English major bullshit classic that only served to highlight one’s pretention. “Take my car.” “I can’t drive,” I said, leaning against his door post. “People are coming over in like twenty minutes,” he said. “I can’t take you. Ask Austin.” “Austin is annoyed with me,” I said. “Please. I just wanna go to Wendy’s. It’ll take ten minutes, max.” I finished with the magic words to any frat star. “I’m with a freshman.” He sat up, pulled his reading glasses off and gave me a death stare. He looked at me as if he knew. I knew he knew, and at that point, he knew that I knew that he knew. Two minutes later, the three of us piled into his car and drove through Clifton Hill to Wendy’s. By the time we got back, everyone was lounging around the halls upstairs, waiting for our invited guests to show up. “Who’s even coming to this shindig?” I asked Hutch. “I dunno,” he said, sounding defeated. Lee and I followed him into his room. We ate while he changed. “I invited Sacha and her friends. I guess that includes Amanda. That freshman girl from yesterday said she’d come by. I think some of Adam’s friends are coming. I know that Jackson invited the Sig Eps, so… I don’t know.” I’m sure I was supposed to have invited someone to this little thing, but in all honesty, I’d been some level of buzzed the entire time I’d been on campus and clearly preoccupied. “Do you have any friends that want to come drink?” I asked Lee with a full mouth. “Brandon, I guess,” he answered. “Text him,” I said. “Tell him to bring people.” I looked at Hutch. “What an effective rusher you’ve turned out to be.” I shot him a look. Rule one of rush was to never talk about rush, allude to rush, or mention rush in any way in front of someone you were rushing. A flash of annoyance passed over me, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. Once you’ve slept with a rushee, I guess the rules kind of changed. Roberto came in as we were finishing up our burgers and fries, all while watching Hutch transform his bedroom into a party destination. He set up bar in the corner of the room, moved his rug and guitar out of the way, and set his air conditioning unit to high. He picked up what clutter had managed to accumulate in the short time since he’d moved back in. “Hey, mi maricón,” Roberto said to me. “Hi…” “Lee,” he introduced. “I’m Roberto. I was supposed to play fifty-five with you all today, but this bastard kicked me off the team.” He sat down next to me on Hutch’s leather couch. “It was fun,” Lee answered. “I can tell,” ‘Berto replied, looking from me to Lee and assessing how drunk we’d managed to get, and stay, since four o’clock. “Isn’t that your shirt?” I shot him a glare. And with that, my second pledge brother knew I’d slept with a freshman potential new member on the second day of school. “No,” I lied simply. “Really? Lee, you went to Colleyville High, too?” I was saved by Austin coming in and breaking up the conversation. “Lee, how’re you feeling, buddy?” Austin asked, clearly still a little drunk himself. “Good,” Lee replied, matching everyone else’s energy even though we’d been up and at it all day. “We’ve kept the ball rolling.” “I’m sure you have,” Hutch mumbled indiscreetly. I shot him a look quickly and did my best not to react. I stole a glance at Lee and I was glad to see he didn’t react at all either. Brian meandered in casually a minute later, and the room was set to begin receiving guests. First to arrive, simultaneously, were Brian’s girlfriend Cat and the girl that Hutch had slept with the night before, an indication if nothing else that Hutch’s girl was being noticed by Chi-Omega. Whether it was a good notice, or a bad notice, was yet to be seen. “Hey, Cat,” I said charmingly when she walked in. I offered up my seat. “How was your summer?” We caught up for a second before she sat down and Brian brought her and Hayley vodka tonic. “And it’s Haley, right?” I asked the younger girl. “Yeah,” she replied. I shook her hand. “I think I saw you this morning.” I raised an eyebrow. “Did you? From my vantage point, you were fast asleep.” “Alright, then,” Hutch interrupted loudly. “Who wants to play King’s Cup?” I shot him a look, Haley shot him a look, and Lee looked around like he had no idea what was happening. We pulled a deck of cards out of Hutch’s drawer and set up a game of King’s Cup. An assortment of people I knew and didn’t know trickled into the room and joined the game. First up were Sacha and her gaggle of loud friends. The fearless foursome, who could be found around Chi Beta on at least three of the seven nights of the week, were somewhat affectionately known as Beta Blockers. They could be counted on to entertain frosh, get embarrassingly drunk off our alcohol, and sleep with any of the brothers that were feeling low enough to go there—they were also experts at cock blocking other girls from coming in. Since our dip in social standing, the cornerstone of Pi Beta Phi’s rush was also the cornerstone of our own. As social chair, knowing what I had to work with for the year made me slightly sad. A while after the girls showed up, Brandon walked in with another freshman guy. The frosh were immediately doted upon by dutiful brothers and girls eager to see some fresh meat. A few of our upperclassmen came in behind them, and after about an hour of socializing, the music was turned up, the table was pushed aside, and the shot glasses were pulled out. I can’t lie and say I didn’t have one eye on the door. I played my part, entertaining the crowd, telling stories of my first two ridiculous years on campus, and encouraging those around me to reach my level of drunk, all the while hanging close to Lee and keeping him company. But I always had one eye on the door to see who else, especially him, would walk in. When Adam showed up with only ex Chi Beta social chair Jackson Pruitt in tow, I figured my frost over England had been successful. I didn’t see Pete showing up alone, and he never called me again, so when he didn’t come in with Adam, I loosened up and focused on the guy that was there. “Want another shot?” I asked Lee, leaning in close to whisper directly to him. “Hell yeah,” he answered loudly. We got up and made our way to the corner bar. Just as I was pouring a shot for myself, Lee, Brandon and the guy he’d come with, I turned to see Hutch’s door open. Amanda crept in with a tall, pale, beautiful stallion behind her. “Hey!” I heard her shout, greeting some of her sisters as she entered the room. I could tell that her and Pete had been drinking for quite a while, as both of them stumbled into the room with a wave of inebriated energy. “Corb,” someone said. I turned. “Huh?” “Ready?” I was knocked back into my current reality. I picked up the shot glass, cheersed with Lee, and downed another glass of vodka. And with that, my concentration was completely shot. The room, which had been lively, fast, and loud, was suddenly blurred. Everything was different. He was here. “Hey, there, asshole,” Amanda said when she’d made her way to the corner. She pushed passed me and grabbed for a bottle of Hutch’s vodka. “Asshole?” I asked, watching her top off the cup she’d come in the room with. “What’s with that?” “I called you, and I texted you.” “No way,” I replied. I pulled out my phone. “I’ve got nothing.” I clicked open my phone and saw that I did have three missed calls and a couple of unread texts. I hadn’t consulted my phone since Pete had called and I’d put it on silent. “Mmmhmm,” Amanda said, pursing her lips, and giving me serious attitude. “It’s okay. Pete and I played drunk Wii. It was all good.” “Wii!” Pete shouted behind Amanda. It was his turn with the liquor bottle, although, I was sure that neither of them needed it. “Have you played Wii Tennis?” “I have,” I answered, grabbing the bottle from him and pouring my own fresh cocktail. “You should have played. I would have knocked you,” he said. “I’m sure that would have been… thrilling,” I said, my voice tapering between sarcastic and flat out bitchy. I was instantly taken back. All of my hard work I’d put in to the forgetting process was slipping away, and so was any attraction to the Frosh. I noticed him posted up behind me, talking to his friends Brandon and David Marcossi, and keeping an eye on me. “You should have, but you were too busy ditching your friends,” he said with a hint of a smile and a glare. “Who said we were friends now?” “Who said I was talking about me?” “So… When did you start caring how I treated others?” I asked; my voice grew lower and my eyes locked in on his. “I guess what I’ve heard about you is true, then…” he trailed off, holding my gaze for just a second. And then he walked off as I watched. “Is everything cool?” Lee asked as my gaze followed the Brit across the room. I barely heard him. “Yeah,” I said as I trailed off and walked towards Pete. “What do you mean what you’ve heard about me?” I asked, louder than I’d intended. “Nothing, Corbin Crowley,” he said, emphasizing my name. “It was a dig. I didn’t mean anything by it.” “Are you sure?” I was suspicious. He had spent all afternoon with Amanda, after all, and if anyone knew dirt on me, it was her. And she could always be counted on to tell the truth. “I’m positive,” he said definitively. “Now go back to hanging out with your freshman. He looks like he misses you.” That cut me deeper than I’d expected it to. What had Amanda told him? What did he know? And was he actually trying to reverse my icing tactic back on me? I stood there for a second, unsure of how to proceed. I guess he was right. I was there with the Frosh; I should go back to the Frosh. And I did, but not before issuing one last dig of my own. “He’s not the only one,” I whispered right into Pete’s ear. I patted him on the small of his back, turned and walked back to where Lee, Brandon, and David were pouring another ill-advised shot. I didn’t look behind me, but I was fairly certain of what I would have seen had I turned. Pete would have been gazing towards me, watching me have the most fun in the world with a guy that was super cute. Pete would have been looking on, wondering if I really liked this freshman, picking up on any clue as to how far we’d gotten and how far we’d go. Just like I thought I was in control of my emotions, I’m sure Pete thought the same about his. I’m sure he’d come by thinking he could swoop in and show me he didn’t need me in order to have a good time. But the thing about emotions is that they hardly ever work the way you plan or intend. And when people say that they can get the better of you, I was beginning to see what they meant.
    10 points
  2. “Who are we picking up first?” Dillon asked. He was somewhat nervous about this. “Your date,” Mark answered, making a sharp turn down a street. So far, they hadn’t left their neighborhood. “Can I at least know her name at this point? So I’m not all like, hey… you,” Dillon frowned. “Allison,” Mark chuckled. And Dillon still didn’t know who that was. Dillon plopped back into his seat and watched the twilight sky. It was only seven, and the sun was mostly hidden between houses and trees. Mark pulled up along a curb and looked out the window. “Here we are,” he announced. “Am I supposed to go and get her at the door?” Dillon asked. He hoped not. “No, here she comes,” Mark said as the front door of the house opened. A girl with long, dark hair stepped out. Thankfully, there was no father lurking in the background. Dillon tried to piece together if he could recognize her from English class or not. She was a bit taller than most girls, and wearing jeans and a short-sleeved pastel blouse. And even without make-up, or for what very little she wore, she was pretty. Dillon opened the truck door and hopped out. He pulled the seat forward to open up into the back. “Uh, nice to meet you,” he grumbled awkwardly. Allison stuck out her hand. “Nice to meet you as well.” Dillon stiffly put his hand in hers, wondering if a handshake was a little weird. She shook his hand firmly, meeting his eyes the whole time. Dillon cleared his throat and finally looked down at the sidewalk. Maybe she was a little bit intimidating, too. She had some intense blue eyes. She climbed into the back, ducking her head from the roof and sliding over to behind Mark. Mark just grinned as Dillon got in, closing the door and pulling the seat back into place. Dillon slid another look over at Allison, who’s eyes were fixed outside the truck as they drove to Vickie’s house. He could barely place her as being in his first period class. But it would only be this one date, and maybe she would be a good partner in class. She was quiet, so she had to be smart, right? They stopped outside Vickie’s house, and Mark climbed out and went to the front door. He was gone for a few minutes, and Dillon tapped his fingers on his legs nervously, trying to come up with some sort of conversation. “Where’d you move from?” It turned out to be Allison that broke the silence. “Uh, Colorado,” Dillon answered. “My grandparents live out here, so…” Allison nodded. “Yeah my family has been in the area for a while, same with Mark’s. We used to own some farmland outside town, but I think we sold it when I was a kid.” “My grandparents live outside of town in their farmhouse, but I just moved into this neighborhood at the end of the summer… Mark lives pretty close by, too,” Dillon explained, watching as Mark headed back towards the truck with Vickie. The conversation died off as Vickie climbed in, all loud giggles as she swept her eyes over the back seats. “Oh,” she gasped. “Uh…” “Allison,” She stated and raised a dark eyebrow. “I was in your math class freshman year.” “Right,” Vickie snapped her fingers. “And hi, Dillon.” Dillon nodded quickly and sunk lower in his seat before remembering all his mother’s lectures about posture and straightening up again. Vickie chatted away in her front seat for the drive into Omaha. Dillon tried to tune it out, not really wanting to listen about cheerleader drama. He glanced over at Allison, and met her eyes. She gave a half smile and a roll of the eyes after looking towards Vickie. Dillon couldn’t help but smile a little bit, too. They got to the bowling alley, and Vickie went off about her flip flops and how she didn’t bring socks. Mark took her off to the vending machines that sold socks while Dillon paid for the shoes and lane. Vickie and Mark came over to get their shoes from the counter, and they all went to lane ten, in the middle of the building. Dillon and Allison roamed the ball racks, looking at the different weights. Dillon picked up a twelve pound ball, and Allison grabbed a ten. Vickie took much longer to find an eight pound ball, while Mark grabbed a twelve pound one as well. Allison put the names into the machine while Mark went and ordered food. Vickie huffed in her seat and squirmed, glaring down at her bowling shoes. “Red and yellow,” she complained. “They look so bad.” “Because if they were cute shoes, people would steal them,” Allison grumbled dryly from the tiny keyboard as she put in the last name. Vickie huffed again and Dillon bit back another laugh. Mark came back right as the game started up, with Vickie going first. Allison planted herself in a seat next to Dillon, and watched Vickie with an amused look. “We’ll see how this goes,” she pointed out as Vickie shuffled her way up to the lane. To her credit, the ball didn’t go in the gutter, but had lost too much momentum by the time it reached the pins and only knocked down two. The second time around she got three down, before everything reset for Mark’s turn. Mark grinned over at Dillon. “I bet I beat you,” he challenged again. Dillon snorted and folded his arms over his chest as Mark picked up his bowling ball. He sent it flying down the lane in a fluid movement, getting down eight of the ten pins. He cleared those out the second time though, earning himself a clean spare. He met Mark’s eyes as he walked back and sat next to Allison. Dillon went next, getting seven and then three and matching Mark’s spare. Allison took up her ball next, having put herself in as last. She stopped at the lane for a moment, focusing, before bowling a strike, on the first try. Dillon and Mark exchanged a look as Allison walked back and the lane reset. She looked over at Mark, and then Dillon, and smirked. “I beat you both,” Allison pointed out. “We just started,” Mark protested. “We’re warming up!” “Uh-huh,” Allison flicked her hair off her shoulder playfully. She sat next to Dillon and raised an eyebrow at him. “Nice,” Dillon commented roughly. Vickie took her turn with more vengeance, and only ended up doing worse. The first game was slow but steady, with Mark and Dillon earning more spares than strikes while Allison got a strike nearly every time. Mark and Dillon gave up on their competition, because it wasn’t fun if a third person was beating them both. The second game they managed to do better. Their arms had warmed up, and Dillon’s second game was always his best. They got closer to Allison’s score, but they still didn’t beat her. The food arrived, and Vickie elected herself to sit out the last game. She picked at the fries while Mark and Dillon tried to eat slowly in front of their dates. Dillon had already had dinner before coming here, but he was still hungry. Allison took over Vickie’s turn, and beat Mark and Dillon again in the third game. “That wasn’t fair,” Mark complained. “You didn’t say you were so good at bowling.” “Family thing,” Allison shrugged her shoulders. “Parents and grandparents were in leagues.” “Same here, but still,” Dillon groaned. “The second game, you got all strikes except three.” Allison just grinned and put her hands proudly on her hips. “Well come on, you guys were playing yourselves up, I just had to knock you down a few pegs.” Dillon rolled his eyes, taking his shoes up to the return counter. They all turned their shoes in, and Dillon tried to ignore Vickie’s now sour mood. They spent the next part of the evening driving around Omaha with the windows of Mark’s truck down, admiring the buildings and lights. By ten, Mark started the drive back to Gretna. He dropped off Vickie first, much to Allison and Dillon’s relief. “Why is he dating her?” Allison asked in the dark of the backseats. “She asked him out at a party before school.” Dillon shrugged. “Other than that, not sure. I don’t really like her.” “Same,” Allison admitted, shaking her head. Mark came back out to the truck and stopped at Allison’s house. Dillon got out with her, and walked her up to the door. “Your dad isn’t going to come at me with a shot gun or anything, right?” He asked, jokingly. “No,” Allison laughed. “We’re not that bad out here in Nebraska.” Dillon chuckled, standing around and fidgeting at Allison’s door. She stepped in closer and only had to tilt up a little bit to place a chaste kiss on Dillon’s cheek. “Well, I’ll see you Monday at school?” She asked. “Uh, yeah,” Dillon replied. “But you can text me before then,” Allison added, smiling briefly, and ducking inside her house. Dillon cleared his throat and walked back to the truck idling on the curb. He climbed into the passenger seat, trying to ignore the look Mark was giving him. “I saw that,” Mark teased. “Shut up,” Dillon hissed, smacking Mark in the arm. “She likes you,” Mark went on. “I told you you’d like her.” “Seriously,” Dillon groaned, feeling a bit embarrassed. “I’ll hit you again.” Mark laughed and put his truck into drive. “Want to hang out some more, or call it a night?” “I don’t think my mom would like me bringing someone home to hang out at ten-thirty… she’d rather you be gone by that time,” Dillon mumbled. “She’s not a night person.” “That’s fine.” Mark turned down a different street, not to either of their houses. “My parent’s have some property down this way.” Dillon sat up in his seat, a bit more interested. They stayed in the neighborhood, but Mark parked in a small gravel lot of a tiny, old church. Mark climbed out of the truck, and Dillon followed. “Your parents own this?” Dillon asked, looking up at the church. Most of the windows were boarded up, with some stain glass peeking out from under the boards. The church was white, but that was all Dillon could make out in the dark with street lights. “Yeah,” Mark said as he huddled in front of a combination lock on the front doors. “It hasn’t been used as a church in forever though. They use it as storage. A lot of random crap in here,” he explained as he pulled the lock off and opened the doors. “Come on.” He waved Dillon in. Dillon followed, surprised at the cluttered inside. There weren’t any pews, but there was an organ buried among piles of other furniture. “Upstairs,” Mark turned a corner and went up a narrow set of stairs. Dillon felt crammed going up them, but arrived on a small balcony that looked over the rest of the inside. It was cleaner up there, and more organized. “I hang out here sometimes,” Mark explained, sitting down on a small mattress. “When I don’t feel like dealing with my parents.” “It’s a cool place,” Dillon commented and sat on the mattress. “So why are you going out with Vickie, anyways?” He asked, going back to what Allison had brought up in the truck. Mark shrugged and pulled his knees up under his chin. “I haven’t dated anyone in a while, and people are up on me about it.” “Why?” Dillon pressed. “I don’t know, people just think I need a girlfriend, apparently,” Mark scoffed. “She’s not the best, but she’ll get them off my back for a while. I think I should have gone out with Allison instead though.” Mark smirked. “Kidding.” Dillon rolled his eyes. “Yeah, she’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind going out with her again.” “Good.” Mark smiled widely. The conversation fell off after that, and Dillon’s eyes started to feel heavy. He’d been up since six, and it was sometime after eleven, he had to figure. “I should go,” he let out with a yawn. “I can drive you home,” Mark said, jumping up and going for the stairs. Dillon followed and waited as Mark locked the church back up. He drove Dillon home and dropped him off outside. “Have a good night,” Dillon waved, fighting back another yawn. “You too.” Mark smiled as Dillon closed the truck door.
    4 points
  3. “Explain to me again why I should get married.” "I must not have been clear, just now, when I was explaining about the new law." Kit’s hands were folded neatly, businesslike, on the table. His foot tapped a silent, nervous staccato on the floor, out of sight from Tobias, the man seated across from him. "Ah yes, the new law" Tobias spoke softly, his voice a desert wind on a starry night. "This would be the law allowing same sex couples to marry?" "Not that one." Kit was appalled at his own curtness, yet another indication of his jacked up nerves. "I was referring to the proposed changes in mandatory prison terms for felons. The new law is under consideration due to the state’s budget shortfall. It’s your ticket out of here." Tobias' stern lips relaxed faintly in what might pass for a smile. "I beg your pardon for the inconvenience, but perhaps you could repeat the particulars for me. Those of us who aren’t attorneys sometimes struggle to follow the intricacies of the law." Kit's eyes narrowed. Was Tobias teasing him? Tobias was an extremely intelligent individual and they both knew it. He had been hailed as an innovative and strategically brilliant businessman prior to the fickle public's delight in painting him as a marauder of their personal bank accounts. Tobias certainly had not lagged in the handful of previous discussions with Kit regarding his legal situation. Maybe the plan was faulty, Kit worried. Tobias was staring across the table with his grey, freakily colorless eyes when Kit started in again. "The state assembly is due to pass the budget this month. They're having to make some deep cuts across the board, including the prison system. Housing prisoners is expensive. The jails, food, medical care. All the guards." His hand flew out in a vague indication of the uniformed officers who herded orange clad men down the halls, both captors and captives moving like zombies. "Yes, I understand the burden we prisoners place on the tax paying public." The words were carefully stripped of any emotion as if Tobias were making a matter-of-fact statement. Kit, however, was starting to pick up on the infinitesimal nuances of Tobias' speech. He was almost positive he heard some pain behind the words. "The state assembly would like to relieve the public, and itself, of that burden, at least partially. They plan to parole large numbers of non-violent prisoners after the new budget goes into effect.” Kit tapped the table to emphasize his next words. "The crimes for which you were convicted are non-violent." "You believe I'll be paroled if this legislation passes." "I believe you have a possibility of parole, yes." Kit leaned forward. "I believe your chances of parole are much stronger if you are married." "Because the parole board wants to see stability in the home life of released prisoners, connections to the community, that sort of thing." Tobias concluded for him. "Exactly. Statistics show lower recidivism rates if there are strong ties to community." Kit's smiled. Perhaps Tobias had been listening earlier after all. "I've watched the legislation move forward. Even if passed this week it will be at least July before they start paroling prisoners. That's eight months away. If you marry now, it won't look suspicious, as if you're only marrying to get out of jail." Kit sat back grinning. In his mind, they could order up a bottle, a whole friggin’ case, of champagne. Tobias was practically a free man. They still needed to clear his name, prove that it had been Tobias’ father who had run the Ponzi scheme and then framed his son when it unraveled. That would be so much easier to do with Tobias on the outside. Tobias eyes darkened speculatively. "There is still a lot left to chance here. The bill could fail to become law. I could still be denied parole." Kit sobered. He was a glass half full person. "All true. However I still think you should marry now. As you said, the legislature just legalized same sex marriage. Because of the press coverage during your trial, everyone knows you’re gay. No one would question your desire to marry now that it's legal. If you wait until the bill passes and the parole boards convene, it might look suspicious." "You seem to have thought this through. Tell me, have you found a husband-to-be for me as well?" Tobias lips had the faint smile again. Despite the working relationship Kit still felt intimidated by this man. Not unsafe. Even without guards stationed just outside the door of the tiny interview room, Kit would not have feared for his physical well-being. No, the intimidation came from sheer force of intellect and will. Both rolled off Tobias so powerfully Kit sometimes wasn't sure he could navigate the currents. He was a baby shark. Tobias was Jaws. "I rather thought you would be able to bring someone to mind." Kit frequently reminded himself to show no hesitation, no weakness, when working with Tobias. His nature exuberance helped. With access to his personal wealth cut off, Tobias had been forced to seek out pro bono legal representation for his appeal. Kit had been the only person to step forward. His plan to get Tobias out of jail would work. The legal situation could be addressed separately. Now, however, the matter of marriage rested with Tobias. Kit had tried, and failed, to picture the man Tobias would form a union with. Privately, only to himself, Kit had admitted to a visceral attraction to his client, one stronger than any he had experienced in his 27 years. Knowing that a reciprocal attraction was virtually impossible, Kit had refused to dwell on his fascination with the imprisoned mogul. Nonetheless, he was unable to suppress a stab of regret now that they were actually discussing specifics of Tobias' marrying another man. "You mentioned some friends had set you up on a blind date." Tobias finally responded to Kit's suggestion that he identify a marriage partner. "As I recall that was one of our shorter meetings since you had to get back to town." Kit's brow furrowed in confusion. "That's right." "Anything come of it?" "No" Kit's eyes flicked away and then back to Tobias. "I wasn't his type." "So, you're single. Unattached." "Yes." Kit nodded slowly, sensing a force moving towards him. Headlights. Bearing down on a deer. "Marriage then. You and me. Brilliant plan. Genius, if it gets me out of here. Next week. Wear a tie. Might as well have one of us look the part."
    2 points
  4. Mitch watched Josh idly flipping TV channels in only a pair of shorts and flip-flops. The bright afternoon sunshine streamed through the window and highlighted the hair on Josh's tanned legs, as well as a little in the center of his chest, creating a golden halo around his body that Mitch had to smile about. Mitch recognized that Josh's body was maturing; his beard was a little heavier, shoulders a bit broader, and he was starting to grow more body hair. Mitch thought Josh was becoming a very handsome man, and hoped Zach realized how lucky he was to be with Josh. But Mitch recognized the signs of a lover without his love, and moved to do something to at distract Josh so he wasn't sitting around the house moping all day. Mitch opened the freezer and pulled out the vanilla ice cream. He grinned to himself as he stuffed ice cream into a big tumbler until it was packed, and then started pouring Dr. Pepper around it. He poured slow, knowing that Josh wanted as much pop as possible. Once it had a tall brown cap on it, and as much pop as possible, he stuck in a long spoon and carried it to Josh. "Here, something to drown your sorrows," said Mitch with a smile. Josh reached up and wrapped his hands around the glass. Bringing it to his mouth, he sucked off part of the foam and licked his lips. Turning to look at Mitch, he gave a lopsided smile. "Not very subtle, huh." "Nope, you have Darrin's sad puppy look down pretty well though," joked Mitch. "Oh jeez, that bad?" asked Josh. Mitch nodded and laughed, "Yeah, pretty much." "He's only home for a month. He'll be back. I'm sure you can figure out how to entertain each other in the mean time," said Mitch with a throaty chuckle. Josh looked at Mitch with a look of confusion for a few moments, and then Mitch's insinuation dawned on him. "Oh jeez, Mitch! Why do you say shit like that?" said Josh. "Hey, it's the age of video chat. Might as well make a date of it," said Mitch with a huge grin on his face. "Come on, let's go grab the new fishing stuff Darrin insisted we needed and see if we can catch some catfish from the creek. Fried catfish and hushpuppies sounds good tonight." "Alright, alright. I'll show you Texans how to fish. First we need some bloodbait to catch the really big ones," said Josh as he pulled himself out of the chair and snagged his t-shirt. "Bloodbait? Damn, these Oklahoma fish are vicious!" said Mitch and then he snorted. Josh rolled his eyes as he stepped out on the porch. Heading for the barn, he quickly grabbed the new fishing equipment and tossed it into his pickup. Mitch climbed in seconds later and they headed to the combination bait shop, grocery store and gas station a few miles from the ranch to get the type of bait that Josh wanted. Heading back to the ranch, they turned into one of the pastures and Josh drove toward the creek. Mitch smiled to himself that Josh picked a spot that was nowhere close to where Mitch's accident happened. He found it a little funny that Josh seemed to be a superstitious. But the spot Josh chose was nice, with a decent stand of cottonwood trees and the creek had deepened into a good-sized fishing hole. Josh grabbed everything and carried it to the side of the creek. He pulled the lid off the bait and Mitch leaned over to look inside the plastic tub. "What the hell is that?" asked Mitch. "Bloodbait, I told you already," said Josh. "No, I mean what is it? It looks like some nasty shit!" "Oh," Josh paused for a few seconds and then replied, "I think its coagulated chicken blood, sometimes you'll find a feather or two in it." "Oh god, that's nasty! There's no way it will stay on the hook," sputtered Mitch. Josh gave Mitch a look usually reserved for small children and quickly rigged Mitch's pole. Moving a handful of yards away, he baited his rod. Once both of them had successfully cast into the pool, they settled down to fish. The cool breeze under the filtered shade actually felt very good. Mitch was starting to doze off when a loud whine announced a strike on his line. "Quick! Set the hook! Set the hook!" yelled Josh. Mitch quickly flicked the top of the rod back and then started reeling in the fish. For once he was glad that Darrin tended to over think things, because this was no small fish and it was testing his equipment. With Josh standing beside him, he finally landed the fish. Mitch estimated it was easily five-pounds. Carefully avoiding the spines of the thrashing catfish, he picked it up. Mitch pried the hook out of its mouth and put it on the stringer. Turning back to Josh, he smiled and chuckled. "I'm ahead. You better get fish'n", said Mitch. The afternoon passed quickly after that, with Josh catching a fish almost as large and both of them missing many more bites. As the late afternoon heat slowed down the fishing, Mitch looked over at Josh. "He'll be back you know. He's in love with you." Josh glanced over at Mitch and sighed. "I know. I just miss him." Mitch waited in the cicada serenaded atmosphere and then asked, "Do you miss him, or do you miss sex? There's a difference." Josh turned quickly to Mitch, but paused when he saw that the older man was asking a serious question. "Both I guess. I miss his company. He's got a few quirks," Josh chuckled softly, "But he's a nice guy." "He loves you, Josh. I kinda like the kid, even if he did cause me a lot of heartburn and weeks of itching when he kissed Darrin. Let him down easy if he isn't the one," said Mitch in a carefully toned request. Mitch looked at Josh with a smile, "And we all have quirks. If you think you are going to find the perfect man, you are going to end up alone and bitter with 13 Pomeranians." Josh chuckled and then let out a long sigh, "I know, I'm just not sure." "It's ok. Just give yourself time. You'll know when it's the right guy." "Did you know Darrin was the one from the beginning?" asked Josh. Mitch chuckled, "I thought Darrin was hot from the first time I saw him. And he's such a great guy. But it took almost a year before we became a couple." "Why?" "A lot of reasons, most of which you probably don't want to hear," said Mitch with a chuckle. "But like all good things it took some time before I knew it was serious between us." Josh nodded slightly and turned back to his fishing, thinking about their conversation. After a few minutes more, Mitch started reeling in his line. "I think we're done. These two will be plenty of fish for tonight." Josh nodded his agreement and quickly gathered up their gear, pulled the fish out of the creek and dropped them in a bucket of water to take to the house. The return trip was largely silent as both men thought about their conversation. Josh pulled in beside the barn and they quickly reduced the fish to a number of thick fillets. Leaving Mitch to clean up and stow their gear, Josh went into the kitchen and began supper. Mixing up the batch of hushpuppies, he soon had the fish breaded too and everything ready to begin making the meal. Darrin walked into the kitchen drying his hair just as the first fish fillet hit the hot oil. He tossed the towel back into the bedroom and moved to help Josh. Soon fish and hushpuppies were cooking as Darrin set the table for dinner. He walked back and leaned against the counter as he watched Josh cook. "How did you know you loved Mitch?" asked Josh seemingly out of the blue. Darrin was taken aback for a few moments and then studied Josh, realizing it wasn't just a random question. "I'm not sure when it moved to love, Josh. It wasn't like getting hit in the head with a frying pan. I thought he was amazingly good looking from the first time I met him, but it took some time before it became real love," Darrin said with a smile. "Mitch said it took a year for you to get together. How come?" "Because I didn't know he was gay, mainly," said Darrin. "How did you find out?" said Josh. "He busted me staring at him after he had taken a shower," said Darrin with a smile. "On no!" said Josh with a chuckle, "That's terrible." "Well, I wouldn't really recommend it. But it worked out for us. Why all the curiosity?" "Mitch asked me if I love Zach. I don't know how I feel about Zach. I really like him, and right now I really miss him. I love Zach, but I'm not sure I'm in love with him," said Josh with a little sadness. Darrin draped his arm over Josh and pulled him tight, planting a kiss on his forehead. "Be patient. You'll figure it all out." Josh nodded and then looked down. Realizing the food was close to burning, he quickly moved to save it. Soon he and Darrin had the table piled with food and Mitch came in to join them. Mitch regaled Darrin with stories of their fishing trip while Darrin laughed over Mitch's reaction to the bait they'd used. After dinner, Josh was playing video games in his bedroom while Darrin and Mitch did the final cleaning on the kitchen. Darrin glanced at Mitch and then said softly, "Josh was asking how I knew I loved you." "I thought he might. He talked a little to me about it too." "Damn, I'm glad I'm not that age again," said Darrin. "Me too!" agreed Mitch. <><><><> Darrin woke to a tray being slid over his waist as he tried to rub the sleep out of his eyes. Looking up with bleary eyes, he saw Mitch setting a breakfast tray across his lap. Darrin stared confused at the tray and then looked at Mitch's beaming face. He almost ruined it by asking what was the occasion, when his brain clicked and he realized that it was their anniversary. Smiling he pulled Mitch down and kissed him warmly. "Happy Anniversary, babe. This looks wonderful . . . who cooked it?" Darrin asked with a chuckle. Mitch grinned at him, "Well, some of it I did fix. But most of it ether Josh cooked, or I bought already done." "Ok, then it's safe to eat," said Darrin with a laugh. "Sit your ass down too. You're eating with me or I'll gain 10 pounds just from breakfast." Mitch obliged him and sat on the edge of the bed. They talked about their day, and the previous year while they quietly ate their breakfast. Between the prairie fire, Josh's arrival, the accident, prom and graduation, they'd had enough drama to last for a long time. But neither of them really believed it would by-pass them. Once they had polished off the last food from the tray, Mitch picked it up to go back into the kitchen. He smiled at Darrin's nude form that was faintly outlined under the crisp white sheet. He paused long enough to wink at Darrin. "Don't worry about getting dressed yet. I'll be right back," said Mitch with a smirk. "Oh, really? And what makes you think I'll still be here," teased Darrin. Mitch leaned in close and whispered, "Because I'm going to suck you dry." Darrin lay back on the bed and stretched thinking of Mitch, his erection already tenting the sheet. Mitch was back shortly and stripped off the shorts he was wearing. Crawling into bed with Darrin, he lay on top of his husband and kissed him gently on the lips. "Happy Anniversary, babe. It has been a hell of a year, but I can't imagine spending it with anyone else but you," said Mitch softly. Darrin rose, taking a quick kiss from Mitch and then smiling at him. "Nope, I can't either. Even if you are a crazy sumbitch some times." Mitch pushed Darrin back and gently traced his fingers down Darrin's chest, "We'll see how crazy I am . . ." said Mitch with a grin. Pressing his hand down, Mitch fastened his teeth over Darrin's lip and tugged on it before releasing it slowly. Pressing his lips hard against Darrin's, he opened his mouth slightly, letting his tongue flick out and taste his husband's lips. His hips were pressed against Darrin's as their slow movements sent delicious sensations through their bodies. Mitch turned his head and sent his tongue deep into Darrin's mouth. Quickly Darrin responded and the two tongues intertwined as their lovemaking progressed. The quiet pop of their saliva-coated lips as they glided over each other was a potent aphrodisiac to the pair. Mitch slowly separated their lips, then darted in for another kiss, another taste, as they shared their essence with each other. A thin strand of saliva extended from Darrin's lip to Mitch's, thinning and snapping as the air stirred. The two were the embodiment of masculine sex as their bodies shared pulses of passion. "Damn, you get me hot," said Mitch. "Ah fuck, you always get to me. I still can't believe you're with me," said Darrin with a slight sigh. "You're the one I need," said Mitch with a soft kiss. A smile flicked across his face and he added, "You complete me," in a high voice. Darrin groaned and laughed, "Oh god, you're quoting Sid from Ice Age during sex. Our life has come down to this." Darrin threw his arm over his head in a dramatic motion. But the next sensation refocused Darrin on their lovemaking as Mitch took his cock to the root, and swallowed. "Oh god, that feels so good." Darrin watched as Mitch took his cock in again and again. His rough, unshaven face and long dark lashes still made Darrin's heart sing. The sensations coming from his dick were overwhelming, and when combined with the scene Darrin was living, the ecstasy was crackling through his system. Realizing what he wanted, he gently lifted Mitch from his throbbing cock. "Turn, I want your cock too." Mitch smiled and quickly moved on the bed so they were on their sides. Mitch slowly slid Darrin's cock back into his mouth as he felt Darrin's hot lips surround the head of his dick. Their heads slowly moved up and down each other's cock, their passion growing with each pass. Mitch let his fingers drift below Mitch's hard shaft, rolling his balls in his sack. With each pass of his fingers, he was rewarded with a spurt of precum. Mitch pushed Darrin's cock deep inside his throat. With a few adjustments, he had it buried to the pubs and was sliding his head up and down its length. Mitch let his fingers slide between Darrin's legs, burrowing until they found his puckered hole. Gently, he started rubbing his finger over it as his tongue circled Darrin's cockhead. The combination was overwhelming for Darrin's already charged system and his cock exploded. "Oh, shit! Take it! Eat it all, babe!" yelled Darrin. Mitch clamped his lips around his lovers shooting cock, taking each volley of cum and swallowing as fast as possible. The bittersweet flavor was a heady elixir for Mitch. Soon the torrent was reduced to a small dribble that Mitch licked from Darrin's cock. As he began to soften, Mitch sucked his cock back in his mouth and nursed it, draining it of every drop of semen. Darrin was panting and twitching as his cock was drained of the last of his essence. Lying on the bed, he quickly recovered and dove onto Mitch's cock like a starving man. He lowered his head over Mitch's member until he could feel the soft tickle of hair against his lips. He slowly repeated the motion until he knew Mitch was at the brink. Clamping his mouth around Mitch's cockhead, he started jacking his cock. Darrin's hand was a blur on Mitch's shaft as he drilled his tongue into Mitch's slit. Mitch started bucking into his mouth, face-fucking Darrin as his orgasm began, his body shaking as cum filled Darrin's mouth. He could feel trails of jizz running down his cock as it escaped Darrin's lips. His hips convulsed as the last of his juice seeped from his cock. Darrin lifted Mitch's heavy cock and started licking it clean. Each escaped morsel of cum was sucked into his mouth. He greedily fed, gathering every fragment in his mouth. He pulled Mitch to him and kissed him hard, letting their cum combine as their tongues fought for dominance. The white cream flowed from one mouth to the other until it thinned to nothing. With a final hard kiss, Darrin pulled back slowly, letting a single translucent strand connect the two. He caressed Mitch's face gently and gave him a radiant smile. "Happy Anniversary, lover," said Darrin softly. Mitch kissed Darrin again and let his fingers trail across his hairy chest. "Happy Anniversary, babe. Just to let you know, this isn't the last of the celebration, I've got more planned." "But . . . I thought we weren't doing anything for our anniversary?" said Darrin with a concerned look on his face. "Yeah, well. I decided we needed a little celebration. Nothing big, just some alone time with just you and I. I've already sent Josh off on errands." Darrin laughed. "Thank god! I'm sure he would have heard us just now." Mitch nodded and chuckled in agreement. Standing up, he grabbed the blankets and pulled them off Darrin. "Come on! You're burn'n daylight!" said Mitch with a chuckle. Darrin grumbled as he crawled out of their bed and followed Mitch into the bathroom. Soon they were in the shower together, relaxing under the spray. Mitch was feeling very boisterous and began singing one of the latest country hits, at the top of his voice, and off key. Darrin was soon laughing hysterically and cheered Mitch's final note. Soon they had finished in the shower, were dressed and ready to begin the list of events that Mitch had planned, which started with stopping for pie at the café and getting hardy congratulations from Nina. <><><><> Darrin watched as Mitch loaded the ATV with a picnic basket. He was actually somewhat impressed that it was really a picnic basket like he'd seen on television, not the normal plastic cooler they usually had. He wasn't sure what Mitch had planned, but he saw towels and a blanket, so he was certain it wasn't going to be a short event. Once everything was stored to Mitch's satisfaction, they crawled onto the quad and Mitch took off with a shout and infectious laugh. Darrin was content to ride behind, with his arms wrapped around Mitch's waist. Soon Darrin realized they were going back to where they proposed to each other the year before. Mitch pulled up to the sandstone outcropping and dismounted from the 4-wheeler, pulling Darrin beside him. They stood arm in arm and watched the sun work its way across the azure afternoon sky, both wrapped in their memories of this spot. "Any regrets?" asked Darrin quietly. "Nope! Not a fuck'n one. How about you?" said Mitch. "Nope, me neither," Darrin said and then turned with a smile and kissed Mitch, "Not a fuck'n one." "Well this isn't where we're having our picnic. I just thought we should visit this place on our anniversary." "I agree, babe," said Darrin. When they turned to get back on the ATV, Mitch felt Darrin stiffen in his arms. "What's wrong, babe?" asked Mitch. "Ah, you're going to make fun of me," said Darrin with a smile. "Probably, but that's never stopped you before," replied Mitch with a grin. "Well, see those," Darrin said pointing to a small cluster of flowers. "Yeah . . ." said Mitch, "They're Blanket Flowers, what about 'em?" "Well, there aren't any others in sight . . ." "Nope, I don't see any," said Mitch, wondering where this was going. "Well—" "Oh for god's sake! Spit it out!" said Mitch with a roll of his eyes. "Ok, well that's where we . . . unloaded. In that exact spot, and now there are flowers growing there, with no others like them in sight," explained Darrin in a rush of words. "Babe, you're losing it. How could you possibly remember where exactly we jizzed, a year later." "I'm telling you those flowers are where we shot. Planted our seed, so to speak." Mitch moaned, rolled his eyes and remounted the quad. He listened to Darrin's explanation for the rest of the trip, with his responses mostly confined to grunts. While he didn't really think Darrin knew where they had ejaculated, Mitch did think it was fun that there were flowers on 'their' hill. As they moved next to the creek, Mitch pulled into the small grove of trees where he and Josh had gone fishing. "What'd you think?" asked Mitch. "For the picnic?" "Yeah." "I think it's fan-fucking-tastic," said Darrin with a laugh. "I think you've been hanging around college kids too long," said Mitch with a chuckle. Mitch climbed off the ATV and started setting up their picnic. Unfurling the blanket, he made short work of setting out the food. He soon had a meal arranged that was more reminiscent of a day in Central Park than an evening on the Oklahoma plains. Darrin had to smile when Mitch struggled to open the bottle of red wine that he had brought. Lifting himself off the 4-wheeler, Darrin walked over and rescued the bottle from Mitch before he threw it into the creek. He gently worked the cork out with a satisfying pop and then sat down on the blanket. As he looked at the meal, Darrin started laughing. While most people would expect caviar and cheese with their wine, Mitch had filled the basket with all of Darrin's favorites, including fried baloney sandwiches and deviled eggs. Reaching over, he pulled Mitch to him and kissed him gently. "This looks great, babe. All my favorites!" said Darrin. "Good! I'm starving, so lets eat!" said Mitch with a grin. Mitch filled a plate for Darrin and passed it to him. After filling his own plate, he settled in to enjoy the meal. They ate slowly, enjoying the slowly setting sun almost as much as the company. As they polished the last of the meal from their plates, Mitch pulled out a container and popped the lid. The aroma of chocolate drifted through the air, and Darrin suddenly had room for one more thing. "Are those what I think they are?" asked Darrin. "They're double chocolate fudge pecan brownies from the café. Is that what you were thinking?" asked Mitch with a chuckle. "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" said Darrin with sophomoric humor. Mitch handed him the huge brownie and chuckled as Darrin moaned when he bit into it. "Damn, these're good," said Darrin around a full mouth. Mitch slowly ate his, laughing as Darrin begged for part of Mitch's brownie after he licked his fingers clean from inhaling his own brownie. Relenting, Mitch broke what remained of his brownie in half and shared with Darrin. He laughed at his husband when Darrin lay across his lap and sighed. "Damn, I'm so full! I'm full as a tick!" said Darrin with a chuckle. "My, isn't Mr. Professor full of homespun sayings tonight," said Mitch. "Damn straight," said Darrin with a grin, "It's my anniversary and my husband packed us a wonderful picnic." "Yup, I sure did," said Mitch as he caressed Darrin's face, "But I'm hot, and that water looks inviting." Darrin rolled on his side and stared at the slowly running water with a groan. "Man, I think you're just trying to collect the life insurance when I sink to the bottom." Mitch chuckled at Darrin's antics and sighed softly. "What's up, babe?" asked Darrin. "You know we still haven't done all the legal paperwork for ourselves." Darrin inhaled deeply and then released it slowly, "I know, and I promise we will. But let's not talk about how to setup power of attorney and all that other shit today." Mitch nodded and a smile slowly crept across his face. "Yeah, you're right. We'll take care of it. Before classes start, deal?" "Yes, deal. And isn't it my job to worry? What's go'n on?" said Darrin. "You're wearing off on me," said Mitch with a chuckle, "Now come on, let's get in that water." Mitch pushed Darrin out of his lap, and into a comical roll that had Darrin looking back at him with a dramatically sad look on his face. He lay in place and watched as Mitch stripped, enjoying the view of his bare hairy ass as he walked into the creek. Darrin quickly followed suit and waded in behind him. The pair relaxed in the water, floating on their backs as the sun turned the world around them a brilliant crimson. Darrin was floating in the cool water, his eyes closed as he recalled all the good things in his life. Opening to the sound of a nearby splash, he watched as Mitch dove and played in the water. At one point Mitch was underwater for what seemed to be a long time to Darrin, but he surfaced with a gasp with the explanation that he'd got a foot caught in a snag for a few seconds. Suddenly Mitch pulled Darrin under, water going up his nose as he flailed the water. When he broke the surface, he saw Mitch standing in shallower water, laughing uproariously. "You asshole! I almost drowned!" screamed Darrin. "You so did not almost drown. But it was fuck'n funny," said Mitch with a big grin on his face. "Fucker! I'm gonna get you!" yelled Darrin. Darrin launched himself at Mitch and soon the two were having a riot playing. The years melted away as they played with the exuberance of 12 year olds. As the light began fading to dusk, they dragged themselves out of the water and flopped onto the blanket. Breathing hard from their play, Darrin propped his head on Mitch's stomach. "That was fun. This has been an amazing day, thank you," said Darrin softly. Mitch turned his head to look at Darrin and smiled. "Good, I'm glad you enjoyed it. You're too serious sometimes." "I know, I'm a worry wart. You tell me all the time," said Darrin with a chuckle. "Yeah, you are. But you're an incredibility sexy worry wart, so it all works out," said Mitch as he ran his fingers down Darrin's arm. Darrin rolled onto his hands and knees and moved between Mitch's legs, spreading them wide. Without a word, he leaned down and sucked the head of Mitch's soft cock into his mouth and started nursing it. Mitch sighed, his eyes drifting shut as the wonderful sensations began pulsing through his body. Lightly resting his hands on Darrin's head, he slowly thrust into his hot mouth. With only a few strokes, his cock was rock hard and the gentle warmth of need had become a roaring fire. He felt Darrin drill his tongue into his slit for a several delightful minutes before pulling him up. Staring into Darrin's eyes, Mitch kissed him hard, getting the faint taste of his precum from the kiss. "I want your ass. I want to pound your ass," said Mitch with a voice filled with lust. "Oh god, yes, please." Mitch reached back into the basket and pulled out a small bottle of lube with a smile. Squirting it over himself, he slowly stroked his cock as he watched Darrin smear the lube over his ass. Soon Darrin was poised over him, heartbeats away from what he wanted. Then, with a sigh, Darrin let himself drop quickly, pressing downward without a pause until he felt his ass grind against Mitch's pubes. Resting for a few moments, he started gyrating his ass, feeling Mitch's thick cock scrape along his gut, creating an amazing feeling that coursed through his body. Soon Darrin was riding Mitch with wild abandon. The thick column of flesh was again driving him wild with lust. But as he headed toward his climax, Darrin felt Mitch grip his hips, stopping him in mid thrust. "Ah, ah! Let me go! Fuck, so close," gasped out Darrin. "I want to fuck you hard," said Mitch with a growl, "Stand up." Darrin scrambled to comply and soon found himself braced against the 4-wheeler as Mitch entered him with a hard shove. Darrin pressed his ass back as Mitch took what he wanted. The hard, fast rhythm was driving Darrin over the edge as their lovemaking reached a fever pitch. With a primal moan, Mitch pinned Darrin against him as his orgasm began. The splash of scalding cum in his gut was the final push for Darrin too. His cock began ribboning across the ground under him as their orgasms raced to completion. With a final shudder, the last cum dripped from Darrin's cock and landed in the pool that had formed on the ground. Darrin could again feel his racing heart and labored breath as Mitch's climax rolled to an end. With a final abortive thrust, Mitch gave Darrin the last of his seed. He collapsed across Darrin as his exhausted body struggled for recovery. As he slowly recouped, he turned his head and planted a gentle kiss on Darrin's neck. "That was amazing, babe," said Mitch. "Oh, hell yes. I don't think I'll be able to walk right for a week though," said Darrin with a smile. "Whatda ya say to another little swim, to clean up?" asked Mitch. "Good plan," said Darrin. Pushing off, Mitch's soft cock slipped out of Darrin and some of his load followed, adding itself to the pool already on the ground. They slowly made their way to the water in the now dim light and eased into its depths. Mitch gave Darrin a soft kiss as they enjoyed themselves. "Babe?" "Hmm?" "Did you realize what just happened?" asked Mitch. "You mean other than you pleasuring me in an outstanding manner?" said Darrin with a chuckle. "Yeah, beside that," said Mitch with a laugh, then continued with a serious tone, "You didn't have a flash back." Darrin hesitated for a second, letting the information sink in. "You're right. I was just thinking about us, and how much I love you." Darrin pulled Mitch to him and kissed him again. "Apparently the love of a good man is the cure for all my troubles." Mitch laughed and pulled Darrin tight against him. "That's good to hear, babe. Very good to hear." <><><><> "Remind me again why we are up at the butt crack of dawn," said Darrin. "Because Doug is working his calves today and needs some help," replied Mitch. "It's so fuck'n early the cows won't even be up," complained Darrin. Mitch smiled at Darrin's bellyaching, but kept silent. When he walked out of the room to get his boots, Darrin was still grumbling about the early time. Personally, Mitch would just as soon start early and miss some of the Oklahoma heat. As he was pulling on his boots, Darrin stumbled into the kitchen and grabbed a pop from the refrigerator to get some much-needed caffeine in his system. After a few gulping swallows, he staggered over to Mitch. "You look like you have a hangover," said Mitch as he chuckled. Darrin laughed softly and gave Mitch a small grin, "No, I don't have a headache or feel like puking. I'll wake up before we get there." Darrin paused for a minute and gave Mitch a serious look, "Mitch, what about Doug's mother. We didn't exactly part on good terms last time." "Doug asked us for help, so I'm hoping she either won't be there, or that she has somehow changed." Darrin shrugged as he sat down to pull on his boots. "Ok, well so long as Doug asked us." He paused for a minute as a thought came to him and turned to Mitch, "Hey, Doug doesn't have Brahmans does he?" "No, he has Beefmaster," said Mitch with a smile, "Bang on Josh's door why don't ya. We need to get going." A few minutes later they had all piled into the pickup and were on their way to the neighbors. Josh was in the back seat, already asleep during the short ride, and Darrin was looking out the window at the grey pre-dawn landscape. They pulled up to the corral, along with several other trucks, and looked at the pens of cattle. They sat in the pickup for a few moments and watched the herd of cattle mill in front of them. After a particularly large bull walked the fence in front of them, Darrin turned to Mitch. "Let me guess. Beefmaster are part Brahman too . . ." said Darrin with a frown. "Maybe . . ." replied Mitch with a grin. "Asshole." Mitch chuckled and reached back and woke Josh. Climbing out of the pickup, they walked over and listened to the plans for the day. Soon they were spread out as the crew began working cattle. Darrin was operating one of the head gates and was getting better at using the mechanism, after he let the first calf escape through the gate – to his chagrin and the entertainment of everyone around him. He noticed when they were castrating calves that the testicles were carefully being tossed into an iced container. Darrin was curious why, and finally asked one of the people he was working with. "Levi, what are you doing with the calf nuts?" "Oh, that's dinner! Calf fries," said Levi. Darrin turned a little green, but managed to keep down his breakfast. He firmly decided that whenever supper came, he wasn't hungry. Settling back into their work, they steadily processed calf after calf. Darrin's stomach was starting to grumble when he heard a triangle ring. Looking around, he followed the rest of his crew to find himself in line for lunch. As he walked up, he saw that Doug's mother was passing out the sandwiches, and her lips tightened slightly as she handed Darrin his lunch, but she said nothing. He scanned the groups until he saw Mitch and Josh and walked over to join them. Settling down, he took a bite of his sandwich and smiled, egg salad was another old favorite. Washing down the sandwich with an ice-cold pop, he turned to the other two. "Do you have any idea what they are feeding us for supper?" asked Darrin. "Calf fries," came the simultaneous reply. "And you're ok with this?" "Yeah, they're good," said Josh. Mitch nodded his agreement as he took another bite of sandwich. "Barbarians, I'm surrounded by barbarians," said Darrin in mock disgust. They soon finished their lunch and were back at work. Darrin helped out in several locations in the afternoon, but he was glad they finished before the heat became unbearable. He and Mitch were loading into their pickup when they saw Doug walking over. "You guys are coming to the calf fry aren't ya?" asked Doug, "We're at the lake so we can go swimming and cool off." Mitch nodded, "Yeah, we're coming. Should be there in about an hour, unless you don't want us to have suits." Doug laughed and slapped Mitch on the shoulder as Josh walked up. Turning to look at Josh, he was still chuckling, "These two are such cards, can you imagine swimming without a suit? Lordie, just cracks me up." Josh smiled weakly, since he and Zach had been skinny dipping several times and wondered what everyone would think if they knew. But Josh climbed into the pickup and rode silently back to their house. Shortly before the appointed time, they were pulling through the gate to the local lake. Mitch thought 'lake' was a generous description. But it was wet and cool, both great things today. They helped setup for the get-together, which didn't take long with everyone pitching in, and then headed for the water. Soon almost everyone was swimming or just soaking in water. Darrin and Mitch watched from the side at the roughhousing, which included Josh. Darrin and Mitch enjoyed the spectacle, but had no interest in joining in. The sun and water were starting to relax them when they heard someone yell. "Hey! Where's Doug?" There was an immediate swarm of activity to find him as Mitch and Darrin hurried closer. Mitch spotted a tell-tail stump barely visible above the waterline and remembered his incident with the snag. He immediately dove and started feeling for Doug in the murky water. A few others realized what he was doing and rushed to help. As he was running out of air on his third dive, Mitch felt fabric slide across his fingertips. Kicking up to the surface, he inhaled quickly and then shouted. "Here! I found him!" And with that he did a quick dive and found Doug again. Grabbing an arm, he tugged several times, to no avail. Knowing he was running out of time, Mitch ran his hands along Doug and realized his trunks were tangled in the branches. He yanked on them, and felt them rip slightly. With another powerful tug, Doug floated free. Mitch grabbed his arm and pulled him to the surface. As their heads broke the surface, people surrounded them to help. Doug was on the beach in short order, but he had not started breathing. Mitch was beginning to panic, hoping someone knew how to do CPR, when he looked up to see Darrin charging through the crowd with a look of determination on his face. He quickly took control, to everyone's relief. Mitch watched Darrin go through the CPR steps with quick, quiet efficiency. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion for Mitch, but in a handful of seconds, Doug started to cough. Darrin rolled him to his side as he coughed out the water and waited quietly for his breathing to return to normal. By the time the sheriff and ambulance arrived, Doug was sitting up and breathing in ragged gasps. Darrin moved back as the EMT took over, giving Doug oxygen and checking for signs of anything more serious. Realizing what he had done, Darrin moved away from the crowd and sat down, trying to collect himself. When he felt a hand on his shoulder, he looked up to see Mitch beaming at him. "And, that's why I love you," said Mitch softly. Darrin shook his head and shrugged. "I don't know what came over me. I just took over." "Darn good thing you did too." They heard from their side and glanced up to see Sheriff White Cloud coming to them. "Is Doug ok?" asked Darrin. "He's fine. Thanks to you," said the sheriff. "Oh thank god," said Darrin with relief. "I keep telling everybody, two-spirits are a good thing. And you boys keep proving me right," said Sheriff White Cloud with a chuckle. "Now if you don't mind a few questions, I can wrap this up." Mitch helped Darrin up, and they told the sheriff everything they could remember about the accident. As they were wrapping up, Darrin looked over to see Doug's mother stalking toward them. Mitch and Darrin watched in silent trepidation as she covered the space between them and stopped. Looking at each of them and meeting their eyes, tears started rolling down her cheeks. "You saved my boy, and I treated you both so horribly. The EMT said another minute and he would have died. Oh god, I can't tell you how thankful I am for the two of you," she said while Darrin and Mitch stared at her with open mouths. They stood in shock as she gave each of them a kiss and then wrapped her arms around them both and held them tight for several minutes. Finally releasing them, the tears had slowed but she wasn't finished. "I'm so glad you boys are here. I think Josh can learn a lot from you. If you boys ever need anything, anything, you just let Ann know." She chuckled a little, "I'm Ann." Mitch nodded as Darrin tried several times to speak. Finally starting he said, "Ann, Doug is a good person. We like him. We're both really glad he's going to be ok." She squeezed them both again and then walked back to where the EMT was wrapping up things with her son. The pair turned back to the sheriff with stunned looks on their faces. Jim laughed softly at their perplexed looks. "Boys, I do believe Mizz Parker has had a come to Jesus meeting," said the sheriff with a smile. "But people don't change their minds that fast, they just don't," stammered Darrin. "You saved her son, after she tried to run you off. She's a smart lady, she connected the dots real quick." "Damn . . ." said Mitch softly. Sheriff White Cloud chuckled, "I still wouldn't cuss around her. She's a tough woman and she doesn't hold with cuss'n." "Ok, good to know," said Mitch almost in a whisper. They talked quietly for a few more minutes before the sheriff left. Soon the ambulance was also gone and things had settled back to something approaching normal. They saw Doug sitting with his mother hovering over him and walked over to see how he was. Looking up as they walked closer, Doug smiled at them. "My saviors. Man, I'm glad you guys were here." "We're just glad you're ok, Doug. You feeling alright?" Darrin asked. "All things considered, I feel great. They said to take it easy for a few days, and they told that to my mother. So I doubt I'll be doing anything for awhile." They talked with Doug for a little while longer, and then left him to find Josh. After a few minutes, they found him helping cook supper. Knowing he would be busy for quite some time, they wandered back to their chairs, sat down and sipped their beers as they quietly talked about the day. The next thing they knew, Ann appeared with plates piled high with food. Accepting the food with good-natured smiles, they dug into the meal, discovering, to their surprise, that they were starved. Darrin particularly enjoyed the small pieces of chicken fried steak that she had piled on their plates. Almost the second they finished, she was back with more, this time the plates were filled with desserts. Both ate until they were about to burst and then leaned back groaning. Josh walked up, eating the last morsels from his plate. He saw the empty plates and looked back at Darrin with a smile. "So, whatcha think of the calf fries?" "I didn't have any. I told you I wouldn't eat em." Mitch leaned forward with a crazy grin, "Babe, those little pieces of chicken fry that you had about 20 of, those were calf fries." "Oh god!" Darrin said and grabbed his mouth as his meal churned in his stomach and the other two laughed until they were gasping for air. <><><><> Darrin and Mitch ambled out of their room, to find breakfast on the table and Josh sitting on the counter smiling. They looked at each other and shrugged as they looked over the meal. Josh had made every possible combination of food that either of them might want, in quantities capable of feeding a high school football team. Darrin finally turned to Josh with a stifled yawn. "What's going on, Josh?" "Happy Fathers Day!" shouted Josh. "Holy crap," muttered Mitch. "Come on, sit down," said Josh with a huge grin plastered across his face. Darrin and Mitch drifted to their chairs and as soon as they sat down, Josh started filling their plates. He had made all their favorites, and once they got started it was an amazing meal. As their stomachs started complaining about the quantity of food, they slowed, and finally stopped. "Sorry Josh. But I can't eat another bite," said Darrin with a moan. "Me too," said Mitch, "I'm stuffed." "It's ok. I knew there would be leftovers. I just wanted to make it a really great meal," replied Josh. "Well it was fantastic," said Darrin, "Thanks for the father's day present." "Oh, no. This wasn't the present," said Josh. He quickly ran into his room, returning with two small boxes. Handing one to each of them, he stood smiling and motioned for them to open the gifts. Both men slowly opened the packages to find hand beaded key chains, one for each of them. They looked at them carefully, marveling at the detail and craftsmanship. Finally Mitch looked over at Josh. "These were too expensive. You needed to save your money for books for college." "Oh no, I made these. The sheriff's grandmother helped me. She's one of the best in the country," explained Josh. Josh waited while they looked over the gifts. Then, almost ready to explode, he began. "See the two thunderbirds? That's you two. Sheriff White Cloud said there's no symbol for two-spirit, so we decided that two thunderbirds would be good." Josh chuckled a little and smiled at Mitch, "I thought about using two penis', but the sheriff said he didn't think that would be a good idea." Darrin groaned at the idea of carrying around a keychain that had cocks on it. He looked over at Mitch who was chuckling softly. "That's your fault. You have been a very bad influence on this boy," scolded Darrin. Of course, that only served to send the two of them into giggling fits until Darrin finally threw up his hands in defeat. Turning back to examine his gift, he began turning the round piece of beadwork between his fingers, marveling at the amount of work that Josh put into the two gifts. He reached up and grabbed Josh's shoulder and squeezed it. "Thanks, Josh. These are wonderful. You put in a lot of work and we love them." "Yeah, they really are Josh," said Mitch in agreement. "Well, enjoy your day. Tonight I'm cooking supper, and I'll take care of everything," said Josh. Darrin and Mitch looked at each other, and shrugged. Josh's cooking couldn't be any worse than Mitch's, and they had survived it. With a chuckle and a nod, they committed themselves to Josh's cooking for dinner. <><><><> Josh was pacing and anxious, and it was starting to wear off on Mitch. Finally, when Josh had accidentally kicked his foot for the fifth time, Mitch spoke up. "Sit down, Josh. Or I'm going to get a rope from the barn and tie you up," said Mitch, only half kidding. Josh flopped bonelessly on the couch and looked at Mitch. "When's he going to get here? Zach is never late! He gets us to the movie before they even start the previews." "It'll be fine. He has a cell phone if something happens," said Darrin as he tried to calm Josh down. But another 15 minutes passed without Zach showing up and Josh was becoming frantic. Heading for the door to search for Zach, he stopped at the doorway when he saw the little silver Prius pulling into the driveway. With a sigh of relief from everyone, Josh ran to the car. Zach was out just as quick and they grabbed each other in a tight embrace. Josh planted a kiss on Zach's forehead and held him tight. "I was getting worried. You said you'd be here hours ago," said Josh. "I know, I know. I had a flat, and it took forever to get it someone out to change it," said Zach with a sigh. Josh started laughing, "You don't know how to change your own flat?" "No, it's not easy with this dinky car," said Zach, looking a little affronted, Josh realized he was upsetting Zach and stopped his questioning. With one last squeeze, he turned and walked Zach to the house with one arm draped over his shoulders. As they rounded the corner into the living room, Mitch and Darrin looked up and smiled. After a few minutes of small talk between the four of them, Darrin nudged Mitch with his elbow. "You ready to go?" asked Darrin. "Yeah, I'm ready," said Mitch. "Where are you going?" asked Josh. "We thought we'd try the new rib joint in Lawton. Maybe catch a movie later. It'll probably be late when we get back," explained Darrin. With a poorly concealed look of joy, Josh acknowledged the information. "Ok, well have a great time. I think we'll just chillax around here." "Chillax?" questioned Mitch. "Yeah, you know. Chill out and relax, chillax," explained Josh. "Oh god, I suddenly feel old," said Mitch. The two older men left to get ready and were soon getting into the pickup. They saw two silhouettes standing at the window as they left. As they pulled out of the driveway, Darrin settled back against the seat. "Is there really a new rib joint?" asked Mitch. "No fuck'n idea. But now we have an evening to kill," said Darrin with a chuckle. "Very nice of us if you asked me." Josh and Zach watched out the window until the taillights of the pickup disappeared. Josh let the curtain drop and took Zach in his arms. Pulling him tight against him, he kissed the smaller man gently. "I missed you," said Josh gently. "I missed you too," said Zach, already breathing hard from their contact. "I thought we might do something a little different tonight . . ." said Josh with a smile. Zach grinned broadly. "And what did you have in mind? Something to do with my ass I hope." Josh chuckled, "More like something to do with my ass. I thought you might like to top me tonight." "Oh. Ok. But you know I haven't done that before. I'm not sure how it'll go, Josh," said Zach as he bit on his lip. "It'll be amazing. Come on," said Josh as he wrapped his arms around Zach. Slowly they made their way to the bedroom with Josh kissing him gently and stroking his body as they went. Once they made their way to the room, Josh pulled the smaller boy with him as they fell into the bed. Their lips pressed hard together as they frantically tried to make up for their time apart. Josh ran his tongue up Zach's face, tasting cologne and boy as he did. Zach chuckled and wiped off the wet stripe with his hand, then started tugging Josh's shirt over his head. Diving in, he nursed first on one nipple and then the other, noticing a few short hairs had begun growing between Josh's pecs. Panting with building desire, Zach looked up at Josh and smiled. "Maybe I do want to fuck you. Maybe I want to fuck your tight hole hard," said Zach in a hormone-laced voice. To Zach's shock, Josh jumped off the bed and frantically stripped, quickly throwing clothes off and then climbed onto the bed and positioned himself on his hands and knees. Panting slightly, he looked at Zach. "Oh hell yes," said Josh with a moan, "Get me ready, Zach." Remembering how Josh had prepared him, Zach leaned in to Josh's exposed pucker. Moving cautiously and with much hesitancy, he slid in close to Josh's butt and inhaled. But in spite of his misgivings, all he experienced was the light smell of Josh's body wash. Steeling himself for a task he felt obligated to do, he gently dripped his tongue into the exposed folds of Josh's ass. "Oh shit!" yelled Josh, "Fuck! That's feels fuck'n amazing! More, do more," begged Josh. Zach slowly traced his tongue around the tight hole under his lips, amazed at Josh's response. His rimming slowly became more enthusiastic as his own sexual frenzy built. Soon he was prying Josh's ass open and wriggling his tongue over Josh's loosening hole. Josh was panting and pressing his hips back toward the pleasure Zach was giving him. Moaning louder with each passing moment, Josh was soon ready for more. "Fuck me, Zach! God I need it." Zach hesitated a second before grabbing the lube from Josh's dresser. He snapped open the bottle and held it above Josh's crack, letting the viscous liquid slowly drip into his crack. Josh sighed as the cool gel slowly traced its way down his crack. Its incrementally slow travel was driving Josh mad with desire. Each millimeter of skin it moved across added to his euphoric state. When it finally reached his convulsing hole, Josh's body was awash with pulsing signals of pleasure. "Oh god, Zach. Fuck me already, fuck." Zach smiled that his big, country boyfriend was reduced to begging him for release. Zach squeezed more lube over his fingers and then reached forward and rubbed them over Josh's ass. He pressed his slick middle finger against Josh's hole and rubbed it slowly, teasing Josh. Josh's escalating movements mesmerized Zach as he ratcheted up Josh's level of lust. Finally Josh screamed in frustration. "Oh damn it! Put it in me!" Zach almost giggled and then slowly pressed his finger inside. The tight heat made Zach need more and soon he had two slender fingers pushing in and out of Josh's ass. Josh was gasping for air, begging for more as he kept trying to ram himself back on Zach's fingers. Zach paused, letting his digits be expelled. Josh let out a huge sigh of disappointment and looked back. "Come on, man! Stop teasing! Damn, you have me so amped!" "Hang on! I'm just needing a little more go juice," said Zach with a chuckle. Coating his hand with lube, Zach brought three fingers to bear against Josh's hole and they slid in slowly. Air hissed from between Josh's teeth as the sharp pain of penetration shot through him. But Zach paused, caressing his ass until the pain dulled, then gently working in further. Slowly, ever so slowly, Zach opened Josh tenderly so he could enjoy what was coming next. Eventually Josh had stretched to accommodate the intrusion, and was experiencing only pleasure again. The room was drowning in the sounds of passionate lovemaking as the pair experienced this new part of their relationship. Zach could see strings of precum spinning from Josh's cock, and knew he was ready. Zach's fingers slipped out and he grabbed a condom from the stash beside Josh's bed. Looking at the wrapper he had a moment of anxiety when he realized they were magnum size. "Josh, these are too big for me. They'll fall off!" said Zach with a little panic in his voice. Josh waved to the bathroom and made incomprehensible noises. Zach cocked his eyebrow at his sex-inebriated boyfriend, and them walked quickly into the bathroom. On the sink was a line of condoms, normal sized condoms. With a sigh of relief, Zach grabbed a couple and moved back to the bed. Ripping one open, he unrolled it down his cock, this time not having difficulty. He paused for a second, then put on a second rubber, hoping he would last longer. Once it was double coated, Zach generously covered his pecker with lube. He lay on the bed beside Josh, reaching up to gently rub Josh's nipple. "Sit on it Josh, like you had me do. It does make it easier the first time," instructed Zach. Josh nodded and moved over Zach, his body shaking with his need. He felt Zach's hand slide between them and guide his cock to Josh's hole. Josh felt Zach's rock hard cock kiss his ass and slowly pushed down. He braced for the pain that never materialized as he steadily took more and more of his boyfriend into his gut. As Josh felt the delicious feeling of Zach's cock sliding over his prostate, he experienced the wonderful texture of Zach's pubic hair caressing his ass. Josh pressed himself down, feeling only amazing pleasure as he slowly started rotating his hips, causing electrical charges to course through his body. This was so much better than anything Tony was ever able to do. Zach certainly wasn't hung, but he wanted Josh to enjoy it, that was the difference. "Oh fuck, Zach. You feel so amazing! Damn! I can't believe how good this is," said Josh in a soft moan. Zach ran his hands over Josh's torso, tweaking his nipples as he began pumping up and down on Zach's cock. Josh was overwhelmed with the sensations coming from his ass, never wanting it to stop. Soon Josh was pounding himself on Zach's cock, ramming across his prostate with each thrust. He soon felt that familiar feeling deep inside him, only much stronger than ever before. Then a tsunami wave of desire hit him and with a guttural scream, Josh buried Zach's cock inside his gut and his cock began shooting. The jets of cum sprayed them as his orgasm overtook him. Cum erupted again and again from his trembling body. But eventually even Josh's substantial stores of semen were expended. With a final sigh of pleasure, he collapsed on top of Zach, pinning him. "Hey! Trapped boyfriend!" said Zach with a squeal. Josh laughed and lifted himself up, still gasping for air. "Sorry, babe. But damn that was good, it took everything out of me." "Well . . ." said Zach as he thrust his throbbing cock inside Josh. Josh chuckled and kissed him. Lifting his body off Zach, he lay on the bed face down and wiggled his ass at Zach. "Come on, babe. Fuck my ass, be my top." Zach looked at Josh for a heartbeat, and then lust won over and he moved between Josh's legs. Knowing there was no reason to hesitate, he rammed his cock into Josh and started pounding his ass. Soon the room was reverberating with the sounds of heavy breathing, and the slapping sound of hard sex. The double condom gave Zach a level of control he'd never had before, and he used it as he screwed Josh. Josh's moans and cries of delight had reached a fever pitch by the time Zach felt his climax building. Redoubling his efforts, Zach was slamming into Josh, his body tied in knots as he went over the edge. "Uh! Uh! Uuuhh! Fuck!" screamed Zach as he released his torrent into the condoms. His entire body convulsed as his cream poured out. His eyes rolled back as the natural ecstasy over came Zach's body. As the final wave crested and began to recede, his cock slithered out of Josh's well fucked orifice. Josh immediately flipped to his back, grabbed his again hard cock and stroked it furiously. Zach smiled and rubbed his fingers across Josh's perineum, spurring him onward. With a few last panted breaths, Josh crested again as cum oozed from his cock. The grunts of pleasure echoed in the small room as Josh came again. With a final flick of his hand, the glob flew off and hit the floor, causing Josh to chuckle softly, only dimly aware that Zach had eased himself off the bed. "At some point, I'll have to clean that up," said Josh with a satisfied groan. "I got it," said Zach as he came back from the bathroom. He cleaned Josh carefully, and then scrubbed the spot from the carpet while Josh watched with a smile. Finishing in the bathroom, he crawled back into bed with Josh and kissed him softly. "Thank you, babe. That was amazing. Fucking you was, mind blowing!" said Zach as his eyes glazed over. "It was amazing, wonderful, stupendous, and any other positive adjective you want to use," said Josh with a chuckle. Josh pulled Zach close to him to rest for just a second before getting dressed, but shortly they were sound asleep. <><><><> Darrin pulled the door shut quietly and then shook his head. "I know they're having sex, but I don't need to see the evidence every time. You should talk to him about closing his door." "Me? When did Josh become mine?" asked Mitch. Darrin chuckled, "When you became his daddy." "Ick, ick, no, no. Don't use daddy, please. Father, father is ok. But not daddy. I'm most definitely not Josh's daddy," said Mitch as he went off on a rant. "I don't even want to be your daddy! No. Ick." He ran down the hallway to catch his retreating husband, who was laughing hysterically. <><><><> Darrin pulled up to their house after a long day of dealing with students and faculty. For one of the few times since they had moved here, the house did not look inviting. Mitch had been in a progressively fouler mood lately, but didn't want to talk to Darrin about it. Sighing to himself, he gathered up his bag and walked in the house with no small amount of apprehension. Darrin dropped his stuff in the kitchen and rounded the corner to see Mitch sitting on the couch glaring at him. "Where have you been? You're late!" said Mitch. Darrin looked at him and raised his eyebrows. "I'm only about 30 minutes late, Mitch. Emma wanted to talk about the grant." Darrin walked over and set opposite his husband and looked at him. "So, what's crawled up your ass? I know you aren't really upset about me being home 30 minutes late," said Darrin. "What the fuck! Now you can read my goddamn mind. The fuck'n college professor can read the dumb ole redneck. Damn, ain't that fuck'n fantastic." Darrin reached out and gently put his hand on Mitch's knee. "Babe, what is it. This isn't like you." Mitch glared at him for a few minutes, then went to the kitchen and came back with a beer. He sat down across from Darrin, his leg bouncing in nervous agitation as Darrin quietly waited for him to respond. The tableau stretched on for several long minutes while Mitch drained the bottle. Banging the empty on the table, Mitch moved to stand in the window, looking over their ranch. Darrin moved behind him and wrapped his arms around his waist. Still in silence, he leaned in and gave Mitch a soft kiss on the cheek. With a sigh, Mitch finally relaxed in his arms. "Damn, this is so stupid," said Mitch quietly. "What's stupid, babe?" "This is going to sound like some bored housewife. I do not want to sound like that." "Ok, I'm sure it won't," said Darrin. Mitch chuckled, "Oh? You think so? Well here ya go then, I'm bored. I don't feel like there is much going on here and you and Josh are out doing things. And it's pissing me off. So there," said Mitch as he turned to Darrin. "Ok, well maybe a little like a bored housewife," said Darrin with a chuckle. "But mostly like someone who isn't dealing as well with a bunch of changes." "Fine, be all rational about it," said Mitch with a smile. Darrin laughed, "Oh yeah, I'm so rational. But I do have an idea to get both of us to relax." "What's that, babe?" asked Mitch. "Lets go riding for a little while. We haven't done that since your accident." Mitch paused for a few moments and then nodded. "Yeah, that sounds like a good plan. You get changed and I'll saddle the horses." Darrin gave him a peck on the cheek and headed toward the bedroom. In short order Darrin arrived at the corral to find Mitch mounted on Storm and holding Lady. He held Lady's reins while Darrin clambered into the saddle. They entered one of the pastures at a slow walk, moving into a canter as the horses loosened up. Darrin looked over and saw a smile of the like that he hadn't seen on Mitch for several weeks, if not months. With a whoop, Mitch leaned forward and Storm responded with a jump that ended in full gallop. Darrin couldn't help but laugh when Mitch yanked his cowboy hat off and was yelling at full volume while swinging it. The scene reminded Darrin of how a 12 year old might ride, which was exactly the kind of attitude that helped make Mitch so attractive to him. The outing lasted for several hours, freeing the guys from their worries, at least for a little while. After a time, both they and the horses were beginning to tire and they headed back to the house. The conversation was relaxed and Darrin was glad to see Mitch laughing again. He vowed to himself that they were going to do this more often so they could reconnect. With a last short race, they topped the hill to the house, and Mitch slid Storm to a stop. Looking toward the house, Darrin saw an older barrel-shape man with grey hair standing in the yard talking with Josh. When he turned to Mitch, he saw the muscles in his jaw knotting. Mitch was beyond tense, and Darrin wasn't sure what was happening. "Mitch, who is that? Do you know him?" asked Darrin. "His name is Steve. Yeah, I know him," replied Mitch through tightly clenched teeth. "Who is he?" "My ex. . ."
    2 points
  5. Epilogue – (10 Years Later) The woman, sitting in the plush leather chair, patiently waited. Her long blond hair was pulled into a sleek ponytail. Pale shimmery eye shadow and the slightest hint of pink lip gloss was a smart choice. She looked posh and confident, waiting for the man on the other side of the wide wooden desk to finish reviewing her qualifications. “Well, Mrs. Mitchell,” The man said looking up from the papers. “I’m sorry, Sir, but it’s Ms. Mitchell,” Shelby politely corrected him as she looked down at her hands resting in her lap, observing her perfectly manicured nails and long slender fingers that were presently absent jewelry; however, small pearls hung from both of her ears, as well as a strand of pearls, formed a dazzling collection at the base of her slim throat. “Yes, Ms. Mitchell, your qualifications are impeccable and the letter of recommendation from the Chief of Staff at Shepherd’s Crook Hospital is exemplary. Dr. Jonathan Robinson speaks very highly of you.” A faint blush crept across Shelby’s cheeks. “Thank you, Dr. Chaudry, but to be honest, Dr. Robinson is a tad biased. Jonathan’s a very dear family friend and he’s always dreamt that I would go to medical school someday like his son, Gibson.” Shelby smiled thinking about her best friend, Gibby. He had been through a lot over the last few years and she was glad that he was finally happy and in love with his boyfriend, Scott Becker. “But instead you chose a career in nursing?” A crease fell over Dr. Chaudry’s forehead as he listened to her explain. “I know that Gibson Robinson will make a wonderful doctor, just like his father, but I’ve always felt that my place was in the nursing field, that’s where I can make the most impact. My mother’s a nurse and it has been such a pleasure following in her footsteps these last few years.” The elderly doctor smiled at her thoughtful answers. “Tell me, Ms. Mitchell, why do you want to work here at The Beauchamp Psychiatric Hospital when you could have your pick at any number of positions in the medical field, and far more glamorous ones, too, I might add?” “I have always been fascinated with the human mind and working with patients such as yours, will be extremely challenging, but very rewarding.” Dr. Chaudry couldn’t hide his delight with her successful interview. “We would be pleased to offer you a position here in the women’s ward. You will be a wonderful asset to our team.” Shelby slowly nodded her head. “Would it be possible to tour the facility and maybe speak to your staff and some of your patients before accepting your offer?” Picking up the telephone as he answered her, “Of course, of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less; after all, you need to learn about us, just as much as we need to learn about you, before making such a big decision.” He turned his attention back to the receiver. “Tammy, would you please show Ms. Mitchell around?” Within moments, Tammy knocked on the door before stepping inside. Her turquoise scrubs were bright and cheerful. She looked far more casual than Shelby in her sharp business suit and expensive heels. After a quick introduction, Dr. Chaudry turned Shelby over to Nurse Tammy. The facility looked like every other in-patient mental facility across the country. Shelby smiled as the young woman explained the daily duties as they walked through the secured hallways. “So why are you moving clear across the country?” Tammy asked, glancing down at Shelby’s ringless finger. “You’re obviously not chasing after a guy?” The nurse’s sarcasm shined through. Shelby’s grin widened as she stepped closer to the woman and lowered her voice, “Maybe, I’m still looking for the right girl.” That remark had Tammy stumbling to put some distance between them. A look of horror flashed through the woman’s eyes, unaware that Shelby was just teasing, but Shelby didn’t care. She had traveled halfway across the country for one reason and it had nothing to do with Nurse Tammy. The woman looked relieved when they reached the Day Room. Dozens of patients sat in the bright sunshine, enjoying games, reading and drawing. Their ages ranged from late teens to elderly patients barely breathing, but one of them immediately caught Shelby’s attention. Greasy locks of matted blond hair hung over the woman’s face. Her hands were contorted into gnarled claws, clutched against her chest. Sitting alone in the far corner, her lifeless eyes stared out the big window. Shelby needed to get closer. She had to be sure. From this distance the woman looked more like a homeless vagrant than the remnants of the spoiled selfish princess, she remembered from childhood. Her pulse raced with anticipation. Tammy noticed Shelby staring at the patient and continued towards her lonely corner. “Mandy, darling, I want you to say hello to Nurse Shelby for me.” Shelby flinched when Tammy spoke. Her heart pounded in her chest. She had spent the last few years searching for Amanda Grady and it looked like she had finally found her. Stepping closer, Shelby could tell there was no way this patient could say hello, the woman apparently couldn’t even keep from pissing her own pants, the smell of urine was so strong. “This is Amanda Shepherd.” “Interesting,” The word slipped out before Shelby could stop it, luckily, Tammy just kept on rambling without missing a beat. “Interesting? No, not really. Amanda here is paralyzed from the chest down as the result of a tragic fall when she was a teenager. She’s been in a catatonic state for years, long before she was transferred here to Beauchamp a few months ago--” A crash in the hallway interrupted Tammy’s explanation, but Shelby had already heard enough to know that the woman sitting in front of her was Amanda Grady. Excusing herself to go investigate the commotion from outside the room, Tammy left them alone. Shelby dropped down to one knee to bring Amanda’s icy stare to eye level. At first Amanda’s gaze stayed fixed as she stared through the window, but as Shelby started to talk, her hallow eyes slowly shifted towards the familiar voice. “I got to hand it to Daddy Grady; that was very clever of him to change your name. I almost didn’t find you this time.” Noticing that she had Amanda’s full attention, Shelby smiled. The girl’s eyes widened with fear and she began to moan. “Shhh, Mandy, don’t get yourself all worked up. You know I’m not here to hurt you. On the contrary, I want you to live a long and miserable life, trapped in this rotting body for as long as possible. Death would be too good for you. I want you to suffer each and every day for the rest of your miserable life, and I want you spend every second think about all of the lives you have destroyed.” The noise in the hallway stopped. Shelby only had a few seconds before Nurse Tammy returned, so she quickly finished what she had to say. “I’ll be back again someday to check on you. Until then, just so you know, Tanner’s in Heaven and Ethan is in Hell, so when your pathetic body decides to finally crap out on you…when you die, wherever you go…either way, you’re fucked!” ~The End~
    2 points
  6. CHAPTER 43 --==Tom’s POV==-- At first I hated Taylan for having done that. But as we drove back, I knew he’d forced me to do a good thing; it just took me a while to see why he’d done it. I had wanted to scream. Scream at Taylan for being this huge asshole, bringing me out here, forcing me to do this, to say goodbye. I didn’t want to say goodbye, I didn’t need to say goodbye. Wasn’t it good enough that he was dead already? Did he have to rub it in again, by bringing me here? I wanted to scream at the grave when I knelt down on it. I wanted to break the stone itself and lift up the bones from the earth. Make them come together again, have sinew and flesh wrap around them and materialize back into human form, back into Sandro. In my minds’ eye, I could see it happen as I had sat there, kneeling. It all would knit together and there he would be, and he would laugh. It never happened, of course it wouldn’t. But in my mind I could see it. And it went all wrong. For one; the face didn’t match. It was not Hispanic but Caucasian. It was angular and smooth and handsome, not roughened with a three-day beard and somewhat plain. The hair was very dark brown, almost black but not pure black a sit was supposed to be. It wasn’t unruly, as it should’ve been, but parted on the left, some stray locks playfully tickling the eyebrows but otherwise combed to stay where it was. It nearly touched the collar of his dress-shirt. Sandro never had worn dress-shirts, only T-shirts. The eyes were not brown, they were blue. The nose was too big, not sculpted to perfection like Sandro’s had been, and the teeth in that smile were white and even; the crooked left corner one, marring an otherwise perfect row, wasn’t there. The smile was open, inviting. And then his shoulders; also wrong. They were wide and strong, true, but encased in a suit, not a weather-worn brown leather jacket. He wore a damn suit! And a tie! And the shirt was pink. Pink! If I never saw that color again, I’d be happy. Sandro’d would never wear pink. God, he’d have been the laughing stock of the gang. And his smell, that was off, too. He should smell like a man, the hint of sweat, tangy and pure, not this clean and fresh smell, like this woody-smelling toilet-freshener that made you think of taking a crap in the pinewoods up north. What the hell was Kit doing in this vision, anyway. He needed to get out. He wasn’t dead, he had no business here. Bring Sandro back! Although I wouldn’t mind the woody, clean smell, I guess. That could stay. No matter how hard I tried, to think it away, Kit’s image didn’t seem to want to be swayed. He persisted, smiling serenely, like he had some goddamn right to be there. “Go,” I whispered. “Neverrrr,” came the reply, playful yet serious. “Go!” “No. Mine.” Dammit. Yes. Alright. Yes. His. But for once, just bring him back. “Sandro?” No reply. Nothing. I waited. I waited for what felt like a long time. Nothing came, so finally I rose. My knees were aching. They felt wet, too. The grass must’ve been sprayed right before we came. And then I heard it. Or imagined hearing it, probably, when I turned to where Taylan was waiting. He was watching me, his expression concerned. I turned back. “Goodbye...” It was a whisper of a sound, like the rustle of leaves in the wind. And of course it was only in my mind. But I answered it just the same. “Bye…” No answer. He was truly gone. ********** When we arrived home, there was another car there. Uncle Mitchell and Kit were already back. Which meant it was after seven. I hadn’t noted the time. The kitchen door opened and I cursed. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me…” Beside me, Taylan turned and his hand shot out, connecting to the back of my head. “Watch the language!” “Pink! Fucking pink!” He stared for a few seconds and then followed my gaze to where Kit was standing in the doorway, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, his tie loosened and a button or two undone of the shirt he wore. A light-pink shirt. A sudden sound came from Tay’s direction and I looked. He was doing his best to hold himself in. I guess that’s what set me off. A laugh bubbled up, although it sounded more as a hiccup. Then I relaxed into my seat and rolled my eyes up, throwing my hands up as I hovered between more laughing and crying. My nose prickled inside like I was about to sneeze. In the doorway, Kit perked up, frowning as he was waiting. “Seriously? It’s a universal plot, now?” “Looks that way, doesn’t it?” Taylan snickered, opening the door. I did the same and exited the car. “Let’s bring all this stuff inside, and then I’ll make a start on some food.” “Leave it, for now. How long until dinner,” I asked, keeping my eyes on Kit, who’s frown deepened even further. “About an hour or so. Why?” “Because I seriously, seriously hate pink,” I answered, beginning to stalk towards the kitchen. Tay chuckled. “Oh boy. Fine, alright, but…be gentle?” “Yeah, yeah…” I reached Kit, not meeting his gaze, instead eying his stupid shirt. Then I grabbed his loosened tie and went past him, forcing him to come along, if he wanted to or not, the silk fabric of this appropriate noose pulling tight over my shoulder. “Hey!” “Shut up. Follow.” In reflex, he stiffened and then stumbled when I continued on, choosing his room since it was closest. “What the F...! What are you doing!” “I said shut up! Move!” The clamoring and sliding of his Italian shoes behind me was kinda satisfactory, as he stumbled into all sorts of things, trying to keep up on the slippery kitchen floor tiles. It was funny, in a way; long shanks unable to keep up. Once at his room, I opened the door and moved inside, then turned and let go of the tie, pushing the door closed behind him and then him against it. It took one try. Perhaps that was for the best; I might have lit a match to it, had it not yielded as it did. Buttons pelted me left and right as I yanked on the shirtfront. “Off.” “Are you crazy!?” “OFF! Off! Take it off!” He looked shocked and taken aback, and then just did it, his eyes showing a sort of helpless ‘what did I do now?’ expression. I grinned when the offending thing finally hit the floor, the tie still around his neck but his upper body naked. “Better.” Even to my own ears, my tone indicated pure satisfaction. “Tom?” “Shhh! I just need you to stand there. Don’t move, mmk?” “Okay…” He sounded uncertain but remained where he was, leaning against the door. I approached him and reached up, touching the column of his throat, the hollow where his collarbone flared to the left and right. I encountered the knot of his tie while tracing a finger to his sternum then continued down, following the silk over his chest down to his abs, his navel (the tip of the tie stopped there) and further… “Tom…” “Shhh….” It was the sound of his zipper that made him inhale sharply. I didn’t actually touch him yet. Then I moved my fingers, found the waistband of his boxers and slipped in there. Found him, still flaccid but thickening, hardening upon touch. Pulling him out, I then kneeled. He was in my mouth and growing rapidly and somewhere above me he muttered the F-word. I couldn’t really grin there, but yet again I had scored a curse from Mr. Nevercussedbeforehemetme. No other word came from him. He didn’t ask what I was doing, or what was going on, again. He didn’t call my name, nothing. Just hard breathing now. But as he grew to full strength between my lips, his hand cupped the back of my head and held me securely on his length, not letting himself escape from my mouth. And suddenly it became something else. For him, for me. The slide between my lips became a faster and faster rhythm, the hand on the back of my head firmly in place. Saliva coated him, it was dripping down my chin. Slurping sounds were all that were audible. He wasn’t directing me, there was no need for it. He was making sure I wouldn’t let him go. I didn’t plan on it. “I’m gonna come,” he gasped, somewhere above me, “Squeeze my balls…” Not on his life. I wanted to taste him, now. No delay. But I might get him a cockring. I sucked harder than I’d ever done before. “No! Wait!” Yes. Definitely yes. Harder, faster. His body went completely rigid and he swelled in my throat. Then he blew, just as the tip of his cock was dangerously close, almost escaping, the muscles in his stomach flexing as he began to convulse. Liquid heat, thick and salty-sweet, splashed into my throat, then rapidly filled my mouth and I swallowed, again and again while I kept my lips securely around him, the sucking action constant. His hand yanked on my hair, painfully, but he could’ve pulled the strands free and I still wouldn’t have stopped; no way was I gonna stop until he’d spilled the last drop. No. Way. ********** I finally let him escape when he was truly limp between my lips, a bodily shudder the reward. The taste of him richly in my mouth. As I traced my tongue over my teeth, I could still taste him there. Then I rose and stepped back, looking at the aftermath. And grinned, when he glared at me, his hands somewhat shaking as he put himself safely away behind the zipper. “What the hell, Tom!?” “What! I really hate pink. Now you know! So if you don’t want this to happen again? Don’t ever wear pink!” He stared at me as if he thought I was completely nuts. Perhaps I was. And then…he grinned too, and moved to his closet, yanking the door open, gesturing. Moving my eyes to what he was gesturing at, I sighed. Shit. He had at least five more shirts. In different shades of pink…
    1 point
  7. Two Adrian met them at the airport. Alexi drank in the sight of him like a starved animal. Adrian stood out in the small waiting crowd. He was handsome as always in black boots, long legs encased in sexy fit dark denim, and those broad shoulders looked inviting in a fitting black blazer. Adrian’s full smile showed off perfect teeth. Alexi met his deep green eyes and a fraction of the world righted itself. “It looks like he’s taken up art,” Lily noted beside him. Her comment brought attention to the sign Adrian was holding up. Someone had drawn brown eyes on the white paper. Below the eyes, was Adrian’s familiar chicken scratch, he’d written, ‘Looking for Brown Eyes’. Alexi laughed. “You don’t like it?” Adrian asked when he and Lily reached him. His expression was very serious, as though he would be upset if the answer was no. Grinning, Alexi took the sign and gave it a short study. “I love it,” he declared earning himself a huge hug. Strong arms wrapped around him tightly. It felt like coming home. “I’ve missed you, Alexi.” Alexi closed his eyes, taking in the words, letting them soak in, he pulled back slightly and reached up to touch Adrian’s very short hair. “You cut your hair. Have you joined the army in my absence?” Adrian smiled. “It’s for a new photo shoot campaign. I was bald; my hair is just starting to grow.” Adrian turned to Lily and flashed a wide smile. “Hi dominatrix, did you bring your whip?” “I have it in my purse. I’ll bring it out if you don’t behave.” Lily looked at her buzzing cell phone and sighed. “Come on, my little slaves, I have things to do.” Adrian lifted his hand up in mock salute before he took the handle of Alexi’s carryon bag from him. Lily led the way out, her heels clicking on the tiled floor. She had changed into a royal blue business suit just before they landed. Alexi couldn’t help but envy her energy. Lily had managed to sleep through the entire flight, waking up an hour before they landed. She looked refreshed. He, on the other hand, felt like a trailer truck had hit him without mercy. His eyes were gritty, and the world felt like a war zone. The sight of Adrian was the only thing keeping him sane. As if sensing his mood, Adrian slung an arm over his shoulder, guiding him toward the exit. A small thrill raced down his spine when Adrian leaned over and whispered into his left ear. “New York has been very lonely without you.” His besotted heart soaked in those words, but his muddled brain berated him. The wind was icy when they stepped out of the warm airport. Pulling up his jacket collar, he shivered. Adrian wrapped a very warm scarf around his neck and he murmured his thanks. Lily was talking into her phone at the curb where a black limousine stood waiting. She waved him into the car as Adrian went to help the driver with their luggage. Eager to escape the cold weather, he slid into the back. Once settled, he touched the black scarf Adrian had tied around his neck and buried his nose into the warm wool. Breathing in deep, he closed his eyes as Adrian’s scent filled him. “Alexi.” Lily leaned in to look at him. His head jerked up guiltily as he met her gaze. “I need to get to the studio’s offices. They have sent a car. Adrian will get you home. Try and get some sleep.” “Okay.” He smiled at her and she frowned. “What,” he asked. “No hanky-panky. I need you whole, Brown Eyes.” “What kind of warning is that?” “A strict warning, Alexi, don’t think I didn’t see that little sniff into that scarf.” Lily glared at him before she disappeared. Thinking her a witch who could see things through solid rock, he sat back determined to ignore the little tingles going through his brain. Adrian slid in a moment later closing the passenger door the same time the driver got in. Alexi gave him a wan smile and confessed. “I’m ready for a bed.” Adrian closed the distance between them. Sliding a hand around his shoulders, Adrian pulled him into a half hug so that Alexi’s head rested on his left shoulder. Adrian took his right hand and squeezed his fingers. “I’m glad you’re here.” “Me too,” Alexi said with a yawn. Adrian nodded, resting his chin on top of Alexi’s head. He brought Alexi’s hand up to his mouth and pressed a warm kiss on his palm. Alexi closed his eyes in wonder when warm delicious sensations crisscrossed through him from the simple caress. It was his curse; he thought dimly, this insane addiction to Adrian. His blood sang in excitement, his body wishing for more of those vibrations. Lily was right to be worried, he decided. He barely had any recollection of the drive to the Upper East Side. When they arrived, Adrian woke him gently and he stood on the curb while the doorman, the driver and Adrian handled the luggage. The penthouse condominium Lily had gotten for the duration of their stay was on the top floor. A full-floor spacious affair that boasted four bedrooms, three and a half baths, living room, kitchen and terraces, on a normal day he’d be running around exploring his new space, but not today. It was eight o’clock in the morning, snowing cold and he needed sleep. The moment Adrian showed him into the master bedroom, he stripped down to his boxers and climbed between the soft sheets on the extra-large bed. Adrian turned to leave, but he reached out in time to catch his shirtsleeve. “Stay with me ‘til I fall asleep.” Adrian paused for a moment. Alexi tugged on the sleeve he was holding until Adrian gave in and slid in to the bed fully clothed. Alexi sighed in contentment as Adrian pulled him into his arms. Closing his eyes, he rested his head on Adrian’s chest and promptly fell asleep. ***** Adrian watched Alexi sleep, a sigh escaping at the trusting way the younger man acted. He moved slightly, and the arms over his chest tightened slightly. Clearly, Alexi was still needy. It was always like this between them. Alexi clung to him and he allowed it because he wanted someone to need him. Reaching for an extra pillow, he fluffed it behind his back and settled in. He brought his left hand up to brush Alexi’s dyed brown hair away from his face. It was stylishly cut, but longer than he remembered. Pulling the covers over Alexi’s bare shoulder, he bit his lip to stop the groan at the thought of Alexi’s bare body lying over him. The memory of Alexi's slender, sexy body writhing in ecstasy under him was never far from his thoughts. There were things they hadn’t tried, things he wanted to do to Alexi, but hadn’t gotten the chance. He’d made mistakes in the past with Alexi. He still had to atone for his past behavior. Tracing a finger over Alexi’s nose, down to the kissable lips patted slightly in sleep, he wondered why they couldn’t seem to get their relationship right. They’d known each other for ten years. He was two years older than Alexi was, one would think he’d be ready to commit first, but instead, it was the other way round. A year ago, Alexi had offered to move permanently to New York so that they could live together. He didn’t even know what had brought about the decision. He hadn’t bothered to ask, too occupied with his issues to want to know. He’d refused the offer, urging Alexi to take on a world tour instead. To make sure that Alexi left, he’d hopped on a plane and gone to L.A. for a business meeting to start his model agency. Lily had been furious with him. She’d shown up at his new offices a month later and spent the better part of an hour ripping him a new one. Alexi moaned in his sleep and cuddled deeper into him. He sighed in frustration. Now that Alexi was back, what was he supposed to do? Their relationship was supposed to be platonic, but in the ten years they had known each other, they’d never managed to stay just friends. Always getting in each other’s way, he sighed again. “What am I going to do with you, Alexi?” he asked his sleeping friend not expecting answer. Adrian jerked awake an inordinate amount of time later to find Alexi had moved away from him in his sleep. Sitting up, he yawned and pulled the covers over Alexi, who was hugging a pillow tightly, before he got off the bed. Glancing at his watch, he sighed when he saw that it was already nine o’clock in the morning. Making sure to close the drapes, he left the darkened master bedroom and went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. He found Lily leaning on the Poggenpohl natural stone kitchen counter. She was sipping coffee from a red mug in her right hand, while typing rapidly into her Blackberry with her left. “You’re back.” He greeted walking to the coffee pot. “You should have woken me up. I still have to get to the office.” “Adrian.” Lily stopped typing to look at him with a critical eye. “I’ll tell you what I told Alexi. Make sure nothing happens here, I need him whole for this project.” “Meaning you expect me to chew him into small pieces and spit him out. You and Peter are so alike.” “We’re the ones who were there to see the mess you left behind last year.” Lily put her coffee mug on the kitchen counter and pointed a finger at him. “I wish there was someone else I could ask to do this. I really do, Adrian. I’d go to them and beg them on my knees.” “You’re stuck with me.” He pointed out with a grateful smile. “Alexi is just exhausted; you have been working him to the bone.” “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s a Kotaru. Overworking is in the DNA.” “I have missed you, you wicked princess.” Adrian gave her a small bow of respect before he sank into a seat at the kitchen island table. “I’m sorry for what happened last year, Lily. I’ll do my best to make it up to him.” “I’d be satisfied with a clear-headed Alexi for now.” Lily gave him a sharp glance before she picked up her coffee mug. “He might have forgiven you, Adrian, but the jury is still out with me. Don’t forget I saw you in L.A. You know what I found there. I’ll be watching you.” ***** Alexi woke up alone. Running a hand over the spot where Adrian had slept, he stared at the empty pillow, a hollow sensation settling in his stomach. He hadn’t meant to cling but seeing Adrian at the airport looking so vital-, he closed his eyes. He was here to work, not to rekindle lost dreams. But, it still hurt, he acknowledged. It hurt deep inside where he couldn’t ever revisit again. If he even tried, he might never recover. Pushing off the covers, he got out of bed and stalked to the attached master bathroom with determination. A long soak in hot water would get his thoughts back on track. He and Adrian were just friends now. No hanky panky, Alexi, he reminded his stupid weak heart. ***** Getting used to the cold New York weather was tough, he liked his morning runs and the cold restricted him to a treadmill in the penthouse gym. After that first day, Adrian seemed to be on a mission to avoid him. Adrian was perpetually busy with his modeling agency. He hardly ever saw Adrian unless it was late at night right before bed, or early in the morning before work. His mother called him daily, hounding him to look after himself. Allegra could be pushy, but he tolerated her calls because if he were to ignore them, she’d probably show up at the penthouse. The only good thing about his stay in New York so far was that he really liked working with the movie producers and director for the Night Guardians project. They knew what they wanted, and as he’d sat listening to their ideas and suggestions with the different scenes, his music creative juices were on overdrive. He was composing music again. March went by in a blur of creative meetings, research, and snowstorms that left him dreaming of sunny skies and hot weather. When April rolled in and the first spring shower fell, he jumped up and down, happy for the warm weather. To celebrate the promise of less cold, he started going to the park for his morning run. On the last week of April, Alexi woke up to a very bright Saturday to find Adrian busy in the kitchen making pancakes. Lily sat at the kitchen table chewing on a slice of toast while she worked on her laptop. He let out a lazy yawn as he leaned on the wall to pull on his socks. “Going for a run?” Adrian asked flipping a pancake expertly. He looked adorable in the red apron. Admiring Adrian’s tight ass in tailored dark brown trousers for a moment, he pulled on his sneakers and nodded. “I should be back in an hour. Will you be here?” “No, I have a meeting. Maybe we can hang out tomorrow?” Alexi stared at Adrian’s back. They hadn’t seen each other as much as he’d thought they would. Adrian was always in meetings or helping schedule his models, not to mention the business trips. Numerous business trips to L.A. that took Adrian away for days. Alexi was at a loss. Was Adrian avoiding him on purpose? Glancing at Lily, his frown deepened when she seemed to bury her head closer to her laptop screen, any closer and her nose was going to be reading her email notifications. Alexi ignored Lily’s peculiar behavior and answered Adrian. “Let’s make it a date. I’ll see you for dinner. I will cook.” “Stop the presses,” Lily muttered. “Adrian, are you sure you want to test your stomach?” “He cooks.” Adrian defended him. Turning around he winked at Alexi, his green eyes sparkling. Alexi’s stupid heart flipped like the pancakes in Adrian’s pan. “I’ll see you tomorrow evening.” Alexi stuck his tongue out at Lily, the childish action making him strangely happy. He headed out of the penthouse in a lighter mood. It was only seven o’clock when he started his run at the park. Pounding the path to One Republic’s Feel Again, he blocked out everything. He was in the zone, his breath the only thing interrupting his blank mind, when a thundering force tackled him to the ground. His attacker was unrelenting. Tight arms locked around him, as they fell hard on the edge of the tarmac path. It didn’t help that he wore shorts, the gravel cut into his left thigh like stinging nettle. His left arm burned hot, a sharp pain running up and down his upper arm. Shrieking in fright, he tried to roll away to save himself, but he was pushed down on his back. “Stay still, you idiot.” “Get off me,” he shouted punching the body holding him down. He couldn’t breathe for goodness sakes. When the weight kept pinning him down, hysteria struck. “What the hell are you doing? Oh my god, are you one of those perverts. I’ll have you know, I’m martial arts trained. I won’t stay down and let you hurt me. I might break your bones, so get off me before I hurt you really badly.” His attacker got off him and he sat up, pulling off his earphones to see what was going on. He blinked when he suddenly realized that there was a large hunk of stone statue a few feet away from him, the size of which would squash a house. It stood gracefully on the paved path where he’d just been running a few minutes ago. Too surprised to say anything, he turned to see who his attacker was, his gaze colliding with stunning electric blue eyes that had him gasping. The world seemed to fade after that, the only thing he could remember when he woke up fifteen minutes later, was the sight of electric blue. ****
    1 point
  8. Bad Day Stephen del Mar I hate winter. It’s dark when I go to work. It’s dark when I come home. Slush, snow, ice and the never-ending procession of potholes that threaten to rip a wheel off my car. I get home and I can’t even park the car in the garage. The fucking asshole I live with, aka my husband and the man I love, has filled the garage with so much shit all you can do is walk through it to get into the house. Note to self: next time I fall madly in love, and I’m in love, ask if he has hoarding tendencies. I kill the engine and turn off the car lights. I just sit in the dark car. Hard rain pelts the windshield. Freezing rain. Tomorrow, the car will be glazed with ice and need chipping and scraping. The morning commute will be deadly. Despite the best efforts of the fleets of sand and salt trucks someone will spin out, crash, die. Yes, there will be death in the morning. But I don’t need to worry about that, because I just lost my fucking job. I don’t have anywhere to go in the morning. I reach for the keys in the ignition. My hand is a little numb. Stress, I suppose. What are we going to do? The economy sucks and I am fifty-five; where will I find a new job? The mortgage. The house. We sunk everything into this house. Our dream of making a family. Our quarter acre in suburbia; rose bushes in the backyard and two cats by the fireplace. I click the garage door opener clipped to the sun visor. I hear the rumble of the door over the tick, tick, tick of falling rain pellets. The automatic light of the door opener casts all of the boxes and tubs in an un-natural ghastly white light. Will we have to move? What would we do with all of this stuff? How am I going to tell him? Did I fail? Was it my fault? I get out of the car and only slipped once getting into the garage. I stand in front of the door into the kitchen with my hand on the button to close the garage door. I look out into the blackness. The Wilsons, across the street, have their living room drapes open. They’re draping lights on a tree. Will we have a Christmas tree this year? Will we have Christmas? I push the button to close the garage door. I don’t want to look at the world anymore. Pain. God-awful stabbing pain. Icy fire shoots up my arm. Cold, gritty concrete slams into my face. I lay there on my side. So is this it? Am I dying? Am I really going to die in the garage? I’ll be cold and stiff when Dan finds me. Dead and frozen among all of his shit. Fuck it hurts. Why was it taking so long? Isn’t there supposed to be a retrospective montage of my life? Where is the white light? Can’t I get the floaty out-of-body experience? Apparently, I can’t even get death right. My heart is drumming. I feel like my chest is ripping open. I can’t even scream. I want to scream, to yell. To curse the world and this life while I still have some left. All I can do is look at the gritty concrete floor; why the hell didn’t we sweep more often? I don’t even think I can blink. Something wiggles out from under one of the boxes. It’s long and skinny. It has pinchers on the end of its snake-like abdomen. It’s an earwig. I hear drumming. My heart? The bug crawls closer. I get a flash back. Not my childhood, not quite. An old black and white TV show. The sound of African drums. A doctor telling a man that an earwig had crawled into his ear, burrowed into his brain and laid eggs. He would go slowly mad as the larva ate their way out. It crawls closer, its antenna feeling the way. Pinchers in the air ready for attack. Then everything goes black. The automatic garage door light turned off. Wind and rain pound the door. It’s getting harder to breath. Something touches my cheek and starts crawling up my face. Did I mention I wanted to scream? Did I mention I was having a bad day? _____________________ Thank you for reading this story. I’d appreciate any feedback. StephenDelMar.com or Facebook
    1 point
  9. Thought to be extinct, until… I read on this on the internet. I followed a link that I had seen on a news page. ‘Scientists make dead alive’. The title had captured my interest. This sounded like a sensation and I clicked the link out of curiosity. However, the article was not about what I had expected to find. They had not revived a corpse or brought back to life a deceased. No, the article was about scientists who were working on the genetic material of extinct species. They had made progress in the previous years. They were meanwhile able to analyze genetic material, and DNA sequencing was popular among scientists in these days. They sequenced the DNA of humans and animals. It was almost like kind of a sport. It seemed to totally intrigue these nerds. But, apparently, a few of them had slowly been getting bored. They had been looking for something new to do and they had found a new field of research: experimenting with the DNA of extinct species. Their goal was to find a complete and intact sequence of an extinct species and implant it in the egg of an animal that belonged to the nearest species alive. It sounded all plausible and easy to accomplish. They were confident that the embryo would develop and grow. Provided nothing unexpected happened, which they could not imagine it would, a specimen of an extinct species would thus be brought back into existence. They had not yet chosen which extinct species they would focus on, but chances were good that they reached a decision by the end of the following week as there was a meeting being held in Rio de Janeiro where the renowned scientists of the world would meet and discuss their findings and projects. I made a mental note to check out the news by the end of the following week as I was interested to learn which extinct species the scientists would finally choose. A thought crossed my mind, albeit for only a second. Was it legal to revive extinct species? What if they revived some dangerous animal? Were they really aware of what they were doing? Why revive an extinct species anyway? Just for the sake of science and in order to satisfy the ego of the scientists and researchers? Well, I had to admit, that the idea intrigued me as well. It was a bit like finding a long lost treasure. However, I forgot about the whole thing in the course of the week as I was busy with real life issues. I didn’t search for an article and I didn’t accidentally stumble across one. Perhaps I had missed the news, perhaps they had never published an article, in any case, a whole year passed before I was confronted again with the experiment on reviving extinct species. I did not read an article on the internet or in the newspaper, neither did I learn the news from TV. I was confronted with the matter personally and in a way that I would have never expected. Never would I have wished for a situation like this. Not even in my wildest dreams I would have dreamed about it. It was an accidental confrontation with a creature that seemed to have arisen from hell. The creature was classified phylum Arthropoda, subphylum Myriapoda, class Diplopoda. It was a millipede of two meters length. No one knew how it had escaped the lab. But it had, soon after it had hatched, when it was very small and only few segments had developed. Investigations later showed that it definitely was one of the extinct creatures that the scientists had worked on and had finally brought back into existence. I walked my dog on a November morning. Dawn had just come and the light was dim. The park was empty and I enjoyed the silence. I threw the branch of a tree and my dog hurried to get it. But then my dog barked loudly. It stood, yapping and snarling at some bushes and ferns. I hurried there, but I saw nothing. So I parted the ferns and then stepped through them. And there it lay, head raised and mouth opened. I gazed in horror at the giant worm’s jaws. A moment passed. It seemed the horrible creature was measuring me. And then it moved towards me, rapidly, blisteringly fast, thousands of feet pushing its body forward. I turned and I ran, as did my dog, but the beast was quick and it caught up. My dog snarled. I heard it yelp in pain. I glanced back and terror struck me. The sight was horrible and I stood in shock. The beast’s jaws chewed on my dog and blood flooded the ground of the park and streamed down the worm’s black body. I can’t say how I made it home. I called the police and they shot the beast that the scientists had brought back into existence. However, my dog died on that unfortunate day. A creature from hell, or of the depths of time, remade in a modern lab, had killed it. It will never be brought back to life.    
    1 point
  10. November 10, 2000 Redwood City, CA Will We went up into the stands, and I sat in between Stef and Claire. Grand was on the other side of Stef, while Uncle Jack was on the other side of Aunt Claire. Uncle Jack was a great guy, but he kind of made me nervous, because he was the kind of guy who had a friend’s back, and my dad was his friend. He almost always jumped in and stood up for my dad when there was a conflict. “When are you planning to tell your father?” Aunt Claire asked, as we watched the teams line up for the opening faceoff. “I was going to talk to him after they serve him the papers on Monday.” She raised her eyebrows, a gesture that all but accused me of being a coward. “He usually needs to digest shocking news before he can talk about it.” “I am wondering if you are viewing this as a conflict, or as a decision about what is best for you and your future?” Stef asked. “I guess I view it as both,” I told him. I could see the conflict side of it, because we were both so pissed off, but I was really doing this to get my life to a solid and stable place. “Why?” “If you want it to be a conflict, do not tell him. He will see it as a first strike, an attack. If you want him to deal with it, you’ll tell him, let him rant and rave, and then when he has calmed down, he will come talk to you about it.” I looked at Claire for validation. “That’s a pretty good guess as to how he’ll react.” “I need to go call him, then,” I said, almost in a panic. “You said the forms will not go out until Monday,” Stef said. “You probably have some time.” His words calmed me down, so I sat back and relaxed, focusing on the hockey game in front of me. “Did John call you yet?” Aunt Claire asked, changing the subject. “He said he was going to try to see what plans you had for the weekend.” “No,” I said, and then looked at my phone. “Duh. If I left it on, he might be able to call me.” “That is usually helpful,” Stef said, as they laughed with me. I turned it on and saw it light up with missed calls and messages. “Something is wrong,” I told them, even as I looked at it. “I’ll be back.” I got up and walked out to the lobby where I could hear better and hit the ‘play’ button on my phone. The first message was from my attorney. “Will, this is Darrin Burkhardt. Listen, we have a problem. The Sheriff’s department miscoded those orders. They set them up to be delivered over the weekend instead of on Monday. I tried to stop them, but they’d already gone out. I’m really sorry about that. If you have any problems, call me.” Fuck! I just stared at the message, as if in disbelief. I sat down in a chair at one of the tables, bracing myself to listen to the next messages. I looked at my phone for the longest time, totally unwilling to hit play and hear my father rant at me. Now I really was being a coward. “You OK?” Grand asked. He must have come out to go to the bathroom, and he’d seen me sitting here. I shook my head. “What’s wrong?” “They made a mistake and served those papers tonight.” “Has your father called you?” “He left me a message. I’m kind of afraid to listen to it.” He patted me on the back and sat next to me. “Play it.” I hit the button. “Will, what the hell is this? I got served papers that say you’re asking for emancipation? Are you kidding me? You ought to be grounded for the next ten years for this bullshit! I told you that I don’t need to clean up any of your messes, and this is just the kind of shit that I was talking about. You get your ass back here now, you got that!” He’d yelled, a loud roar, throughout the whole message. “He appears to be a bit agitated,” Grand said, making me actually chuckle a bit. How typical of him to ease the tension. “Just a bit. I feel so bad. I was going to call him, after Stef and Aunt Claire explained it to me. I completely fucked this up.” “It just means that explaining it will be harder. It is probably better that you are here. Maybe we can help him reason things through.” “Really? You think so?” I asked. “No,” he joked. “I was just trying to make you feel better.” “Here’s the next one,” I said fatalistically, and hit play. “Will, I can’t believe you’d do this to us,” I heard Robbie’s voice say. He was doing this thing he did when he was really upset, where he alternated between yelling and whining. “Your father is absolutely beside himself. I haven’t seen him this upset for a long time. I can’t believe you’d just drop this on us like that. You know, when we told you it was OK to live where you wanted, that pledge came with the expectation that you’d show us some common courtesy.” “So now they’re going to go back on their promise to let me live somewhere else?” “That’s Robbie. It’s probably just posturing.” His humor didn’t work this time. “See why I want to remove them from control over my life?” “It is possible that you have a point,” he said with a smile. “Why don’t you call your father. I was on my way to the bathroom. At my age, I spend a lot of time doing that. I’ll stop by here on my way back.” I nodded, and watched him walk off. I hoped I’d be in as good a condition as he was when I got to be that old, even if he did have to pee every ten minutes. I called my father, and was kind of surprised when the call went to voicemail. “Dad, this is Will. I had planned to talk to you about this before you got the papers. I’m sorry about that. They were sent out early by mistake.” It was lame, but it was all I could really do at this point. I sat there for a minute, then tried Robbie’s phone. I got voicemail, and left him a similar message. Grand came back and we headed back up into the stands together. “What is wrong?” Stef asked. He’d seen our concerned expressions even as we’d climbed back to our seats. “Did your conversation not go well?” “They sent out the papers early, by mistake.” I played the messages for them. “Well, the die is cast. We will just have to work with things as they are,” Aunt Claire said fatalistically. “And we’ll probably have to do it tonight,” I said. “Why?” Stef asked. “When I called Dad and Pop, neither one of them answered their phones. I’m assuming they’re in the air.” Stef held my hand in a caring way. “It will be alright. Trust me.” “I trust you, I just don’t trust them.” Then I sucked it up and smiled. “I hope they get here and we get this all resolved before Tony shows up.” He giggled, and that eased the tension a bit, but not entirely. We watched the game, which was pretty boring. Both teams looked flat. “This is kind of weird, watching hockey after getting so used to watching figure skating in Norway,” I said. “It certainly isn’t as elegant,” Aunt Claire noted. “Yet there is a raw masculinity about it, the way they crash into each other, that makes hockey appealing,” Stef said. “So you find hockey to be homoerotic?” I teased. “Stef finds everything to be homoerotic,” Grand said, cracking us up. I was having a pleasant enough time at the game, but it was tough, with this cloud of doom hanging over my head. I knew that Dad and Pop would probably appear at any moment. The rink was crowded tonight, because they were playing San Jose State, and there were fans from both schools here since they were so close to each other. I was keeping my eye on the door, so it was no surprise that I spotted Dad and Robbie first. They both looked really pissed off. I waved at them gamely anyway, so they could see where we were sitting. I saw my dad catch my gesture, and then his eyes zeroed in on mine. They had that cold, angry look that he got when he was so enraged he was incapable of listening. “I won’t be able to get through to him,” I said to Stef sadly. “He won’t listen.” “He will calm down in good time.” “I’ll give him about five years on this one,” I said. Aunt Claire nodded, but patted my leg supportively. I felt the stands creak as Dad and Pop sat in the seats behind us. “You’re going to follow us out of here, and we’re going to go home and fix this nightmare you’ve created,” Dad said into my ear. He was talking at a normal tone, but since it was supposed to be a whisper, it was like he was yelling. I turned to face him and Robbie, and the attitude he was giving me did two things. First of all, it validated my course of action, convincing me I was right. Secondly, it pissed me off, and that pulled me out of my pussified stage, where I was all worried about what they would do to me. “I’m going to watch the rest of this game, and then we’re going to go get dinner. If you can maintain a civil tone, I’d be happy to talk to you about it then.” I smiled inwardly at how I sounded just like Grand when I said that. “Do we have to drag you out of here?” Robbie almost yelled. “I’d like to see you try,” I taunted. “That should be good for a restraining order.” “I think that is enough from all of you,” Aunt Claire said, intervening. “We are at a hockey game, and you are not only disturbing me, you are disturbing the other people watching the game.” “I agree completely,” Stef said, turning to glare at them. “I don’t need you people telling me how to raise my son,” Dad snapped at them. “I think you do,” Stef said coldly, and that backed my father up. “If you cannot conduct yourself in a civil manner, I will see that you are removed from this rink. Do I make myself clear?” I watched Dad’s anger evaporate much as mine had when I’d realized my mistake in not calling him first. “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about this first,” I told Dad, hoping to ease some of his anger, but if anything, it seemed to backfire. I turned around and ignored him, and just watched the game. It was the most miserable hockey game any of us had probably seen, with Dad and Pop fuming behind me, and everyone else trying to ignore them. As if to make things just that much worse, the game ended in a 0-0 tie, and went into overtime. We sat through that, and it was still tied at 0-0. Now we had to sit through a shoot out. Matt was up first, and he made his goal, but so did the other guy from San Jose. Wade came up and he made his shot too. His San Jose counterpart also made his goal. It was like the goalies, both of whom had played so well before this, were suddenly porous, letting everything through. It ended up taking seven shots before San Jose finally won. That just added to our terrible moods. “It’s over. Let’s go,” Dad snapped. “Go where?” I asked. “Home. We’re going home, and we’re leaving now.” “I’m not going anywhere with you,” I snapped. “The hell you’re not!” he shouted, creating a scene. “Do I have to call 911?” I asked rudely. “This is unacceptable,” Grand said, intervening. “Your behavior is unacceptable. I will explain what we will do. We are going to go down and console Matt, Wade, and Gathan on their hard-fought loss, and then we will return to Escorial and discuss this calmly.” “You are dictating to me?” Dad asked, really pissed off. “I am. Based on the way you have been conducting yourself over the past week and a half, I feel remiss in not doing so before this. You will do as I have said, or you will leave. Defy me at your own risk.” There was such venom in Grand’s voice, and such animosity in his eyes, it really freaked us out. I’d never seen him lose it like that. Even Stef looked a little frightened. “Fine,” Dad said, glaring at me. “Let’s go,” I said. We all walked down to wait, with me staying out of reach of my father. I assumed that if he could grab me, he might just spirit me out of there. Then I relaxed. My family may not back me up on my decision, but they wouldn’t let Dad and Robbie mess with me either. We waited, none of us saying anything, but staying in separate clusters. I was all by myself, anxiously waiting for the guys to get done. Wade came out first, and came right up to me. I gave him a massive hug, all but clinging to him. “I’m going to need your help. Can you come back to Escorial for dinner tonight?” “What’s up?” “Dad and Robbie want to kill me and eat my body parts,” I said, making him chuckle. “We’ll be there.” “Can I ride back with you?” I asked. “Sure,” he said, then moved on to talk to everyone else. Matt was next, and he gave me a relatively perfunctory hug. He tended to side with JJ in our conflicts, so this was his way of telling me that he wasn’t happy about what had happened in Norway. That, and he was instinctively in my father’s corner. Gathan was right behind him, but he was much more demonstrative. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Come back to Escorial. There are going to be fireworks,” I said. “Dude, I don’t know about that,” he said, wanting to dodge a tense situation. “There’s food too.” “I’ll think about it,” he said dubiously, then went off to say hi to everyone else. “I want you to ride back with Pop and me,” Dad said to me firmly. “Matt and Wade said I could ride with them. I’ll see you there,” I said, just as definitively. He made to argue, but I stopped him. “I am not going to be in a position where I am alone with you two.” His eyes bulged, but Wade interceded for me. “I offered to let him come with us. I hope that’s alright.” “Fine. We’ll see you back at the house,” Dad said. He and Robbie stormed out. “Dude, what the fuck?” Matt asked me. “I’ll tell you on the way home,” I said. We got out to Matt’s GMC and I sat in the back, but in between the seats, so could lean in by the console and talk to them. “I made a couple of decisions about my life after my nightmare in Norway.” “What decisions?” Matt asked. I could see him roll his eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I decided that I had to be free from the control of my parents, and I decided to move up here. I’ll be up here starting in January.” “Doesn’t look like that idea is getting a very good reception,” Matt observed. He was almost being snarky, until a look from Wade shut him up. His attitude was pretty transparent, and he clearly didn’t want me around. I ignored him. “He’s pissed off, and he has a right to be,” I said. “I’ve been seeing an attorney, and I filed for emancipation.” I explained to them what that was. “No wonder he’s angry,” Wade said. “He’ll probably fight you on that one.” “I don’t think he will, not in the end. It’s too ugly for him. What he’s pissed about is that they screwed up and served them the papers tonight, before I could talk to him first, instead of Monday like they were supposed to.” “That’s pretty raw,” Matt said. I ignored his judgmental tone, but felt my patience with him fading fast. “It is. And I called and tried to apologize for that, but they’re too pissed off at me to listen.” “Should be an interesting dinner,” Matt said. “I’m excited that you’ll be living with us,” Wade said, and that got him a big smile. It occurred to me that he was the first person who seemed genuinely glad about that. “Thanks. I think it will be good for me.” “No ocean,” Matt said, and he finally annoyed me. “Look, if you don’t want me around, just go ahead and say so.” “I didn’t mean that,” he said nervously. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Grand has made it clear that I’m welcome, so if you don’t like it, you can just go fuck yourself.” I’d never stood up to Matt before, but I wasn’t putting up with shit from anyone. Not now, not anymore. “Dude, chill the fuck out,” he snapped. “I was just thinking this through,” he lied. “Whatever,” I said, and sat back, pouting like a kid. He could bitch all he wanted, but there was no way they were going to throw me out of Escorial just to placate Matt. We were quiet for the rest of the drive home, with all of us pissed off. I rationalized that I’d probably at least neutered Matt enough to keep him quiet at dinner. We pulled up to the house and I thanked them for the ride, remembering my manners. I got there just as Aunt Claire and Uncle Jack came in. Stef and Grand were right behind them. We took our seats at the table. Grandmaman and Frank came in, and were surprised by the tension in the room. I got up and went over to greet her. “Welcome Will,” she said. “How wonderful to see you.” I gave her the customary hug, with kisses on both cheeks. “I’ve brought some drama with me. Brace yourself,” I whispered in her ear. She smiled at me. I sat in between Aunt Claire and Stef, just like I had at the rink, and that made me feel comfortable, and safe. My father sat directly across from me, with Robbie to his left. Uncle Jack was on his other side. “Now that we’re not at the rink where we’re bothering other people, I’d like to know just what the hell you’re doing?” he demanded of me loudly. “I would like to remind you that yelling is not permitted in this house,” Grand said sternly. “That is correct,” Grandmaman said, backing Grand up. “When we were in Norway, we made a deal,” I said. “I agreed to help hush up Jeanine’s attack on me, and you agreed that she would give up her parental rights.” “I made no such deal,” he said. I felt Stef getting ready to jump in, because he’d been there when we’d worked this out, and he knew that was the deal. I put my hand on his leg to keep him out of the argument for the moment. “If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have agreed to hush it up, and Jeanine would probably still be in Norway,” I said logically. “You didn’t have the final say on that.” “Jeanine attacked me in front of my whole family at the rink, and no one did anything. Then she got me fired from my job at the ISU. After that, she arranged to have naked pictures of me sent to the USFSA, pictures she got from one of our employees. Do I have any of that wrong?” “That’s not the point.” “Do I have any of that wrong?” I demanded, barely keeping my voice in check. “No, you do not,” Claire said, answering for him, since he said nothing. “When you did nothing, and I was interrogated by the ISU people, I told them what happened, and they called in the Norwegian authorities.” “You blew that whole thing out of proportion,” Robbie said dismissively. “That you think so explains why you got that summons today,” I said to him snidely. I forced myself to calm down, then I turned back to my father. “You asked me to agree that Jeanine would be 20 feet away from me at all times, and if she was in the same building, I would have a guard with me. That sounds like the Norwegian authorities took things pretty damn seriously.” “What does that have to do with your emancipation?” Dad demanded, frustrated that I was rolling out the facts. “When I agreed, you and Stef were in the room, and I said I would go along with this, as long as we started from the premise that Jeanine was no longer my mother. I was clear that I wanted her to have no role, no control of my life.” “That’s not how I understood it,” he said dismissively. “Really? How else would you interpret that? What else was I talking about?” “It doesn’t matter, anyway.” “Yes it does matter,” I said definitively. “I took you at your word, and you lied to me. When we got back, you refused to do anything. I told you that if you wouldn’t handle things, then I would. So that’s what I’m doing.” “You’re not asking to have her parental rights removed, you’re asking for emancipation. That removes mine as well.” “That’s right. Because in addition to subjecting me to Jeanine in Norway, and your decision that would continue to subject me to Jeanine going forward, you let the man who took naked pictures of JJ and me go free, merely accepting his resignation and giving him a severance package.” “You gave Michael severance pay?” Stef asked, amazed. Everyone looked shocked about that except Grand and Wade, but then again, they rarely looked shocked. “I paid him for his vacation time,” Dad said. “More lies,” I said. “Quit calling me a liar!” he shouted. A look from Grand contained him. “If the shoe fits,” I said in a snarky way, but moved on quickly, since I hadn’t meant to be that obnoxious. “I called you on that, and even though you said you didn’t give him severance, that you just paid him for vacation days, you admitted that you paid him for more vacation days than he earned. That’s another way to figure in severance pay.” “You don’t understand how these things operate,” Dad said to me dismissively, as if this were some high-finance maneuver. “I do,” Stef said. “He is right. I cannot believe you did that.” “What was I supposed to do?” Dad demanded. “The pictures were taken in Norway. That brings two countries and a state into the equation. I was supposed to try and press charges against Michael across all those boundaries? And what happens then? Jeanine gets implicated in the whole thing. You think that’s good for her, to come out of a hospital to face charges?” “What about JJ, Dad?” “What do you mean?” “Did you look at the pictures?” “I destroyed them,” he said. “You destroyed evidence?” I asked. His eyes bulged. “If you’d bothered to look at them, you’d have seen that Michael took pictures of JJ masturbating, while he was in Malibu.” “You’ve seen them?” he asked, almost with a gasp. “I have.” “Do you have copies of them?” he asked, only this time he was nervous. “We’ll find out a week from Monday,” I said in my smart-ass tone. The threat was that if he lied, I may have evidence to back up my assertions. “You’re focusing on the minutiae of the situation. We don’t need a big scandal from this. The best thing to do was to get rid of Michael, to send him packing. JJ didn’t need the negative publicity, and neither did Pop or I, or our family. And your mother didn’t need to be embroiled in a big legal mess.” “So your decision was to send Michael away with basically a hug and a kiss, and to tell me that I can expect more of the same treatment from Jeanine when she gets out of the hospital, only in your mind, she’ll suddenly be nice to me.” “It is unfair to remove her rights while she’s in the hospital,” he said pompously. “My therapist disagrees with you. He says that he thinks that until the power equation changes, so that I’m not her pawn, she and I won’t be able to have any kind of relationship.” “So you want to kick her when she’s down? You want to remove her parental rights?” He was trying to sound all self-righteous now. “Yes,” I said simply. “I’ll think about it.” “There’s nothing to think about. We’re going to have this same conversation a week from Monday, only it’s going to be in front of a judge.” “We’re not going to a hearing,” he said. “Oh yes we are. We’re going to a hearing, and we’re going to air all of this dirty laundry in court, including the events with that idiot you hired to beat me up.” “You can’t be emancipated unless you don’t live at home, and you have to have means of support,” Robbie said, changing the direction of the argument. They must have talked to their lawyers about this already. “I’m going to live up here. That’s away from home,” I stated. “I’m not so sure that you’re welcome here,” Dad said foolishly. “Everyone except Matt has made it clear that I’m welcome to be here,” I said. “I didn’t say that!” Matt objected. I ignored him, and so did everyone else. “It is not your place to say who can and cannot stay in my house,” Grand said, intervening. “I have made it clear that any and all of my grandchildren are welcome here.” “It is my place if I forbid him to,” Dad snapped. That statement showed me, and most of the people at the table, how upset he was about this; so upset that his ability to think logically was seriously impaired. “That, as much as anything, shows why Will is seeking emancipation from your control,” Claire said evenly. Dad stared at her, and seemed shocked that she entered the discussion on my side of things. “What about financial support?” Robbie asked, getting back to his point. “He does not have to worry about that,” Stef said. “You support him on this?” Dad demanded of everyone in general. “Actually, I do,” Claire said. “As do I,” Grand echoed. “I think it is the best option for him,” Stef said. “I concur,” Grandmaman said, jumping in. Dad was stunned that the key players in our family had jumped in to back me up, and I was kind of stunned too. “He’s a loose cannon,” Dad said, shaking his head. “He’ll be out of control.” I stared at him, making him look at me. “You have made horrible decisions for me in the past few weeks, and I don’t trust you. I’m not going to subject myself to that again, not from you, and not from Jeanine. That’s where I’m at. I can’t possibly screw my life up more than you have.” He gave me an evil look. “I don’t think you’re being fair,” Robbie said, almost a whine. I saw both Stef and my father cringe; they hated it when he whined. “All of our major problems have come from you trying to control me,” I said to my dad. “I would like to have a good relationship with you, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible until I don’t have to worry about following your whacked-out edicts. Once that threat is removed, I think we’ll have a much better shot at getting along.” “You’re divorcing me. You’re ending our relationship. I don’t get how you see us going forward.” “No I’m not. I’m not doing that at all. I didn’t say I don’t love you. I do. I said I didn’t trust you. That’s going to take time to rebuild.” He shook his head. “When you have someone working for you who is a crappy manager, do you fire him?” “What does that have to do with anything?” “When you have someone who’s a crappy manager, do you fire him?” I asked again. “No. Not at first. Usually we would try to find that person another position in the company.” “So you don’t just fire them?” I emphasized, to make my point. “No.” “It’s the same thing. I don’t think you’re a very good manager. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you involved in my life.” He sighed. “I’ll think about this, and we’ll talk about it on Monday when you get home.” “No,” I insisted. “The two of you will corner me and try to browbeat me. It’s not going to work, and it will just make things worse.” “So you’re not coming home?” “Unless we resolve this issue, I’ll find somewhere else to stay until school ends.” I wasn’t giving an inch on this. I knew him too well. “I’ll think about it tonight,” he said. “I leave here on Monday evening.” “What about school?” he asked, and seemed happy, as if he’d caught me making a bad decision already. “I met with the headmaster at Harvard-Westlake today and told him I was moving to Palo Alto in January. I told him that I planned to stay up here on Monday and go talk to the admissions people at Menlo School. He’s agreed to give me a good reference, and an excused absence. Grand and Aunt Claire have agreed to go with me.” He stared at me, shocked at how organized I was, and how well I’d thought this through. “I see.” He sat there for a bit, thinking about things. “Excuse me,” he said, and got up and left. “I hope you’re happy,” Robbie said to me rudely. “I’m trying to be. That’s what this is all about,” I replied. He got up in a huff and followed Dad down to their room. I sat there, trying to be calm, but I was physically shaking. I’d spent way too much time and effort on this not to see it through. No way would I let him, or anyone else, decide my destiny. No way would I let someone else intervene and decide what was right and wrong for me. Stef put his hand on my shoulder to steady me, but all that did was bring tears to my eyes. I pretended they weren’t there, even as they streamed down my face. “The worst is over now,” Grandmaman said sagely. “Now things will get better.” I nodded, then excused myself and went outside. I stared out at the glittering lights around the bay. I would miss the ocean, but being in a stable place was much more important.
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  11. Chapter 17 High Rock - Part 1 “We promise to be careful and not do anything stupid. We just wanna show Joey around and some of the things we can do later when he’s 100 percent. It’s peaceful and beautiful up there.” I walked over to Joey, sat on the arm of the chair, and placed my hand on his shoulder. “He deserves a break from all this stuff he’s had to deal with.” “Wait just a minute, Andy.” Dad’s voice went from the sweet gentle, “Dad” voice, to one of “Judge” as he spoke. I couldn’t help but realize he was still worried. “It’s not for me to decide if Joey can go or do anything. The doctor said you’re fine and off restrictions, so I don’t have a problem with allowing you to camp out Friday night. However, you know when it comes to Roger and Joey, it’s totally up to Steve and Alice.” “Joey, do you really think you’re ready for a short camp out with Roger and Andy?” Uncle Steve asked, his voice betraying nothing. I glanced from Uncle Steve to Aunt Alice trying to get a feel for what their answer might be, I still couldn’t tell. “Yes Sir, I do. I haven’t had any pain at all in the last couple of days.” Joey paused, looked at everyone in the room, but focused back on Uncle Steve. “After listening to Andy and Roger, I’m excited about being able to camp out for the first time in my life. To be free to yell, free to take a leak on a tree if I want, to be out in God’s mountains and forest without any restraints. Not only do I want to go, I need to go. I need a chance to be me. I want to do what everyone else has been able to do.” Joey said passionately. Then his lips trembled. “I want to do the normal stuff any guy does, like going camping with my brother and my boyfriend.” Joey looked a little shaken, but determined. Uncle Steve glanced at Aunt Alice, and she nodded and smiled her approval. ‘Way to go Aunt Alice!’ I thought. Uncle Steve turned to dad, “You don’t have any concerns, Sam?” “None, as long as you take them up the Flat Gap side of the mountain and let them take the short route, up the back side AND they take their cell phones with them.” “I’m not sure I can take off from work in time to haul them up there by the time they would want to leave here.” I could sense trouble. “What if I could talk Randy into giving us a ride? He does have his driver’s license now.” Randy was a junior and a year older than the rest of us. “Would he take you up the Flat Gap side?” Dad asked. “I could call him right now and ask. He should be home.” “Why don’t you do that? I could pick you boys up Saturday afternoon, after we set a time.” Uncle Steve said. I used the phone in the kitchen, in case I had to do any begging. Randy had been a friend of the family since I was a kid. Mom used to babysit him occasionally, while his parents enjoyed a night on the town, with a dinner and a movie. I always felt Randy was cool, because he never ignored me because I was younger, and he been there for me when mom died. Roger and I helped him put up a basketball goal in his backyard one summer, and every time we went passed his yard when he was out shooting hoops, he would always invite us in for a game, no matter who or how many were already there playing. We still visited Randy’s family for a bar-b-que every year during June. He was almost like an older cousin. I figured I could call in a favor, if I paid for his gas. He had a sweet Jeep Cherokee, but it was a gas guzzler. With his jeep, we could ride all the way up past Bad Branch Falls. That would cut our ascent to about thirty minutes. Randy quickly agreed to help us out, after I promised to invite him for a weekend camp out, and offered to pay for his gas. I couldn’t blame him for the gas and it was only fair. Besides, Randy only worked a part time job at a local fast food joint and the pay was awful. His mother worked at our school, which is how my mom met them. I knew from listening to Dad and Uncle Steve, these sweet people weren’t making a load of money, just enough to keep themselves going and to help Randy through college. Most of his paycheck went into a bank account for college tuition fees. With all the recent mine lay-offs, many in town would soon be served with home foreclosure notices, if they couldn’t find more work. I was grateful that my friends and my family were blessed, but Dad, as judge, had to see them when things hit the wall. I hurried back into the living room. “Randy said he could give us a ride after school on Friday. And yes, he checked with his mom first.” I said, smirking, knowing that would have been the next question. “Alright, you boys can go.” Uncle Steve said, and winked. Roger punched the air with his fist, and Joey and I bumped fists. * * * * * * * * * * JT glared at his father from where he had fallen, in the middle of the small family corn field, after being struck on the side of the head. “I asked you, boy, why isn’t that faggot in the hospital?” Mr. McCray exclaimed. “I didn’t raise a pussy, did I?” JT slowly stood up. “Pa, I did get into a fight with Andy and he did have to go to the hospital. I told you that, Sir.” “How many faggots are there, JT?” “I don’t know if there are any, pa. No one has caught anyone at school doing anything. I just called Joey a fag because he’s shorter than most. Pa, I really don’t want to be caught fighting anymore during football season. Coach said I could be good enough to get a scholarship, if I really worked hard at it.” “That’s all well and good boy. You could be the first McCray to ever go to college. Play your football, but don’t ever let the name of McCray be dishonored. If you do, you will have to deal with me. You got that, boy?” Mr. McCray glared at his son. His fists clenched while he waited for an answer. “Yes Pa.” JT answered quickly. His side burned from the punch his father had delivered before he cold clocked him on the side of the face. He knew if he didn’t answer quickly, his father would hit him again. As soon as his father was out of sight, JT ran as fast as he could for the woods. He dodged the trees left and right, like a deer in fear of its life. The balls of his feet barely touched the ground. No one knew that this was how JT became such a good running back for the football team. Fear was something learned about at an early age. His father and his whole family on his father’s side were fighters, crooks, and abusers. Too many times to count, JT would find himself on the run from his father. He also knew no matter how fast, or how quick he could dodge a punch, eventually he had to come home to face his father, because he would need to eat and sleep. Sooner or later he would have to take his punishment. His heart pounded as he topped the hill that over looked his family’s homestead. He fell to his knees and cried out, “Help me God!” He dropped his head and swept his hand across his eyes to wipe away the tears. He looked up into the bright, cloudless, blue, sky and pleaded, “Please, help me.” * * * * * * * * * * Joey, Roger, and I met for school and Aunt Alice drove us in. The day had been uneventful, and I was looking forward to spending a little time with Joey. I was surprised when I found Joey and JT deep in conversation just outside the lunchroom. “Hi Andy. How’s it going?” JT called. “Hey, JT, what’s up?” “Not much, Andy, just asking Joey some personal questions, but I have to head out and see the coach. It was good seeing ya.” “Cool JT, I’m glad everything is better between us.” I said. We bumped fists and went our separate ways. “What was that about?” I asked. “He was asking about prayer,” Joey said. “I explained to him that prayer was just talking to God in a respectful way. He said he was trying to change his life, and he knew he couldn’t do it alone. I told him there was no one better to turn to.” “Oh. Okay. I’m glad he feels he can talk to us now. I know you won’t steer him in the wrong direction. This is going to be hard on him, but it does look like he’s trying.” “It happens that way sometimes, we never know what a person has been thinking or for how long.” “True.” My stomach decided on its own to growl, and I blushed. “Let’s eat, I’m starving.” Joey laughed. “You’re always starving.” That night Roger, Joey, and I made certain we had everything ready for the following day. I called Randy and made sure he was still willing to give us a ride. I told him there should be plenty of room in his jeep, since it was only a one-night camp out, and we weren’t taking much with us. We planned to ride home with him, collect our stuff, drive to Bad Branch Falls, walk the rest of the way to High Rock and then on to the spot where we would make camp with time to spare before dark. While talking to Randy and confirming plans, I couldn’t keep from wondering if Joey and I would be able to find some time to be alone. At the same time, I didn’t want Roger to feel like a third wheel among us. I needed to talk to Roger about it before they went home. “Randy is still willing to give us a ride tomorrow. We’ll meet him in the parking lot as soon as school lets out.” I sat down in my computer chair. “I’ve been meaning to buy a small refrigerator for my room and I always forget it when I’m anywhere that has one.” I looked over at Joey sitting on my bed, and with sad, puppy dog eyes asked, “Joey, would you grab us some drinks from downstairs, as I pull up a satellite map of where we’re going?” He chuckled, “No problem, as long as you promise to never make that face at me again.” I stared at him sadly. He pulled a horrific face. “OH NO, not the pouting face.” His laughter echoed all the way down the stairs, as he ran from the room. “Roger, we need to talk, and quickly before he gets back.” Roger regarded me suspiciously, and then said, “Okay, what’s up?” “Well, this isn’t easy to say, but the last thing in the world I ever wanna do is hurt you in any way. It’s about this weekend. I mean… Well crap,” I was so nervous I would make Roger mad at me. “Look, what I’m trying to say is, I just wanted to give you a heads up that while we’re camping tomorrow night, I want to, I need, I…” Roger laughed. “Just say it, Andy.” I blushed, and gazed down at a spot between my feet, took a big breath, and then quickly blurted out, “I would like some alone time with Joey tomorrow night. Do you think we can make that happen?” I straightened up in my chair and confidently looked Roger in the eyes for the first time since I started this conversation. “Joey means a lot to me, and I would like to be able to show him just how much.” “You were worried I would be hurt if you two took off for a make out session?” “Well… yeah.” I blushed again. “Not a problem bro.” “Thanks, Roger.” I walked over to him and pulled him off the bed into a hug. * * * * * * * * * * After Joey and Roger made it home, Joey asked, “Roger, can we talk for a minute in my room before we head to bed?” “Sure, lead the way.” Roger motioned. Joey sat down on his bed and said. “Come in and close the door.” Roger closed the door behind him. “What’s up, Joey?” “In the short time we’ve known each other, you’ve been nothing but nice to me in every way. You’ve taken me in and treated me like a member of the family.” Roger interrupted him, “Whoa right there Joey. As far as I’m concerned, you ARE a member of the family, if for no other reason than your relationship with Andy, but it’s more than that too. I like you, because you’re a good person. If I had a choice in what my brother would be like, you’re it. Okay?” “Yeah. I mean that’s more than okay.” Joey’s eyes filled the brightness of unshed tears. “Thanks, Roger, but I wasn’t looking for that. I meant would you understand if Andy and I took a walk alone tomorrow night?” Roger fell onto Joey’s bed, laughing so hard he could barely breathe. “OH MY GOD!” he gasped, “I should have…” He gulped in air as he realized he nearly gave away what Andy had asked of him not thirty minutes before. He wasn’t about to let his brother know what his best friend had asked of him and embarrass everyone. He smiled for a moment when he realized both Andy and Joey wanted the same thing. Joey sheepishly grinned at Roger. Roger finally regained control, and placed an arm around Joey’s shoulder. “What are brothers for? Sure Joey, no problem here, bro.” * * * * * * * * * * Dad gave us a ride to school the next morning. Today, instead of waiting on the bus to take us home, Randy would be our ride. “Good morning Roger, Hi Andy,” Mary Tillman said, she leaned against Roger’s locker and addressed him directly. “Our youth is having a back to school social this Sunday afternoon, and I was wondering if you, Andy, and Joey might be coming?” Roger glanced at me, I shrugged, before he turned back to her and said, “I’m not sure Mary. We’re going camping this weekend.” I noticed Roger’s eyes scan her, and I saw his normal smile widen at the completion of a full body scan. I decided to help him out a little and put my arm around his shoulder. “Roger, we should be back Saturday afternoon or evening.” I said. “We’ll be there Mary.” Mary’s face broke into a huge smile and she placed her hand on Roger’s arm. “I really hope I see you there Roger.” Roger smiled like a politician, “I look forward to seeing you there too, Mary.” She turned to walk away, and I hit Roger on the arm. “Way to go stud!” I whispered. “Thanks Andy, I wasn’t sure if you and Joey would want to go.” “Even if we didn’t, for you, we would. We’re all in this together, you know?” Roger put his arm over my shoulder and grinned. “Yeah, I do.” We walked to my homeroom, both of us clinging to each other, and when we arrived, Joey approached. Roger couldn’t hang about and dashed off for his homeroom. Joey smiled, “Goof offs.” “Yeah, but you love it, uh?” “Yup.” I hadn’t said anything to Joey, but I wasn’t too worried about JT anymore. Nor was I concerned about Kevin. However, Jonas was another story. Although, he was mostly a follower, it wasn’t unheard of for him to start stuff on his own. All day long, I kept an eye out for him. I had only seen him once between second and third period on the other end of the hallway from us, and he didn’t seem to notice us walking to class. However, at lunch while everyone at our table was engrossed in conversation, he approached from behind me and said, “You’re lucky, Collins. If Roger hadn’t sucker-punched me, you were in for a world of hurt.” I had decided that there was no way I was going to allow bullies to start their crap with Joey or me. Win, lose, or draw, if someone tried to threaten us physically, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind it wouldn’t be without a fight. I clinched my fist, and glared ferociously at him. As I looked up into his eyes, I know he could see how red my face had quickly become and the look of determination in my eyes, because he took a step back. “Listen Jonas, and listen well. It was YOU that shoved me head first into the lockers from behind like a coward. Not to mention, it was three of you that had Joey up against the lockers. Three big football players had to hit someone from behind, and turn it into three on one. On top of that, Roger didn’t sucker punch you, he freakin tackled you and turned your lights out. And we wouldn’t want to forget that when the odds evened up, your buddy Kevin ran like a little girl.” I was on a roll now, and I was about to explode. I was in his face now. “So, let me make this as plain as I can. We could have said something to Mrs. Moore or Mr. Horn, but we didn’t. The biggest mistake you can make from that information would be to think that’s because we’re afraid of you.” I was tired of assholes thinking they ran this school. I lowered my voice to just above a whisper and told him, “So, let’s cut to the chase. Either leave us alone or take a swing.” He studied me for a few seconds, and then reached out his hand. “You’re all right, Collins. The last few years you were always so quiet, most of us thought you were a pussy, but you ain’t. I’m sorry for the other day.” I looked down at his offered hand, thought about it for a second, and remembered the lesson I had learned from Joey on forgiveness. “Okay, Jonas. Clean slate.” I said, as I shook his hand. When I returned to my seat, I noticed everyone, all, but Joey and Roger, had their mouth hanging open in shock. “What? Can’t a guy make a new friend?” I leaned over to Joey, placed my hand on his thigh under the table, and whispered, “I learned the forgiveness from you.” He smiled, and squeezed my hand. School finally let out at three-thirty, and by four-ten, we were on our way to High Rock after we picked up our stuff at my house. With Randy at the wheel of his jeep, we were chatting about the plans for tomorrow. “Once we wake up and eat breakfast, we can hang out for a little while at High Rock before packing up. Then, I wanna walk down to Crawford’s Lake and skinning dip for a while. After that, maybe we can stop by Bad Branch Falls on the way to meet Uncle Steve.” I had been thinking about everything all day and thought I had a good plan. “Good ideas, Andy.” Roger said, and then added, “Hey, on the way to Crawford’s Lake, we can go by the cave just northeast of High Rock and look for arrowheads. Who knows, maybe one or two of us will get lucky.” He finished, with a wink. I knew exactly what he was implying, and when I looked at Joey, who was sitting beside me in the back seat, he was blushing scarlet red, with his head down, so Randy wouldn’t notice. I knew what Roger and I had talked about, but I was wondering why Joey was blushing. I don’t know what Randy thought about what Roger had said, because he never added anything to the discussion until we were on the other side of the mountain and pulled off Highway 119 onto Flat Gap Road. “Guys, I can take you about half way up this side of the mountain in the jeep. Actually, I could probably make it almost to Dairy Gap, if I was gonna stay with you, but since I need to get back, halfway will have to do.” Randy said, with a sigh. “Hey man, don’t worry about it. Halfway is good.” I assured him. “Besides, the next time, you can come with.” I told him as I laid my hand on his shoulder. “We’ll just have to plan in advance, so no one is left out.” “Cool.” Randy smiled. Besides being like family, Randy really was cool, not to mention kinda hot. I mean, think about it, how many people would drive three other boys, a year younger than him and not kin to him, twenty miles, part of it off road, and not get to stay for the fun? I guess I sorta felt a little guilty, because Randy really was more than the jack-off image I used to use in the mornings. Then again, not many gay boys could blame me, since he was at least six foot tall, he also had those killer eyes like mine, slim, but buff body, with a six-pack from all the running he did. He and Roger were a lot alike in the physical department. I figured with Roger at point and Randy at the shooting guard positions this year, our high school team had a chance to make the State Sweet 16 Championship Tournament. However, without a good man at center that could block shots and rebound, I didn’t think we had the team to win state, but we could win our region. “Okay guys, this is as far as I go.” Randy said, as it turned off his jeep and looked around at us. Randy had taken the top off his jeep before we left the school parking lot, so after Roger had gotten out of the jeep, Joey and I started handing things out to him from the back floorboard. Then Joey and I jumped out and took the rest of the gear out from behind the backseat, while Roger started getting the things we had handed him, organized. “I’d love to stay and go with you dudes, but I have to be heading back. Y’all have fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, ya hear?” Randy said, as he patted me on the back, with a grin from ear to ear. “Thanks, Randy. We really appreciate the ride, and I promise to I won’t forget it.” I told him. “No sweat, Andy. That’s what friends are for.” He said, then started his jeep and headed back off the mountain. As the sound of the jeep faded, Roger and I helped Joey slide his backpack over his shoulders. It appeared that the week and a half of recovery time from his last beating his father had given him had been enough time to heal, because as soon as we had it on him, he tightened the straps and jumped up and down a little to help the pack settle good on his back without any show of discomfort. That sight made me smile as I threw my backpack on and tightened the straps. Once Roger was all set, I picked up one of the six-pack coolers and Roger picked up the other one. “Wow! It’s so quiet.” Joey said, with wonder in his voice. “Look at those huge boulders down by that creek bed.” Joey pointed off down the hill, “How in the world did they get there?” “Mother nature, my lad, mother nature.” Roger joked, in a bad English accent. Joey laughed, but said, “That doesn’t tell me anything. They look like they were just dropped from the sky, or some giants had been using them as marbles.” “Remember I told you the other day that these mountains were once the highest in the world?” Roger asked. “Yeah, I do.” Joey said. “Well, millions of years of rain, snow, ice, and earthquakes have reduced them to what you see today. If you notice, this side of the mountain has a gentler slope to it. The other side is kinda straight up. That’s plate tectonics at work, where one plate is pushing into another plate. One will dive under the other, causing the other one to push up, which causes mountains to form. Here the boulders are from what use to be the top on the mountains and just fell down this way. The years of rain and ice have pushed them further down the mountain. I bet they use to be a lot bigger than what they are now.” “You must make straight A’s.” Joey said, staring at Roger. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Babe, the only A’s Professor Banks makes is in gym class, and that’s only because he shows up every day. Now, that’s not to say he couldn’t, he just don’t.” Roger stuck his tongue out at us, then turned and started up the mountain, with Joey following behind him and me bringing up the rear. The rear I had on my mind at the time and the rest of the way up the mountain was Joey’s butt that was right in front of my face. With every step Joey took, I watched his butt cheeks kinda rock from side to side like a well-oiled machine. He may not have been as muscled as Roger was, but his butt was perfect, heck, all of him was perfect to me. Only after about two minutes of watching his butt in action and having dirty thoughts because of it, I was beginning to become very uncomfortable making this climb, because I was harder than steel. However, with all the questions Joey asked most of the way up the mountain about the different plants and trees he noticed, it didn’t seem to take too long at all to reach our goal – High Rock. I couldn’t believe how out of breath I was when we made it to the top. I had made this climb before, even from the longer and steeper side of the mountain, and I couldn’t remember having problems catching my breath before. I looked over at Joey and he was barely breathing hard at all. However, once I got to where I could see High Rock and beyond, I felt totally rejuvenated. The view can be breathtaking, especially for someone like Joey, who loves nature and looks at it as proof that God existed. I’m not ashamed to admit it’s always breathtaking for me, too. It never fails to make me feel like I’m on top of the world, and honestly, being here with Joey, I was on top of the world. In only a couple of weeks, Joey has become the center of my universe, the sun to my world, and the stars to my mid-night sky. With each passing day, more and more of my thoughts turned to him. I often wondered what he was doing, how he was feeling, if he was having fun, and things like if there was anything I could be doing to make his life better. As he looked out over the vast expanse before him, the smile on his face told me a lot, but the sparkle in his eyes told me more. He clearly loved this place as much as I did. I moved beside him, wrapped my arm around his waist, and pulled him closer still. He leaned his head into mine, and said, “I love this Andy. It’s so... WOW. It’s beautiful.” Then he frowned. “What are those bare places in the hillsides? It looks like someone has cut out a part of the hills.” I followed his gaze to some strip-mines. I hadn’t thought of his reaction to those. Mining was how ninety percent of the people here made a living, including my own family roots. We didn’t give much thought how it looked to an outsider, at least by me, until now. Somehow, his frown embarrassed me. Not because he was frowning, but because I had never really taken a hard look at what we were doing to our land. I knew I could justify it by arguing it fed family and put roofs over their heads. Now, I wondered why no one ever considered raising revenue by some other means. I guess they did when logging was big here, but that damaged the environment as well. His frown had caused me to do a lot of thinking. When I looked back at Joey, he was smiling at me, as if he knew what I had been thinking. “What?” I stared at Joey for a moment. “I’ll give ya a penny for your thoughts.” Joey wrapped his arm around my waist as he moved closer. “Well, I’ve told you my family made money in the coal business, and you just pointed out the damage caused by mining to me. I had never considered that before, and I was considering it now.” He smiled and kissed me on the cheek. “What a Kodak moment!” Roger laughed from behind us, as he approached. We had completely forgotten he was even with us. I knew I was blushing, Joey was too, but I didn’t care. I was exactly where I wanted to be, and whispered to Joey, “Ignore him.” “Hey! Come on guys, I’m here too.” Roger whined, but I knew he wasn’t serious. As we turned to face Roger, Joey tripped, and the next thing I knew Joey was over the edge. I was flat on my stomach with pain shooting all across my chest, I held on to Joey with everything I had by his right hand. “Joey! Hang on. Please don’t let go.” I cried. No answer. “Joey, are you okay? Can you hear me?” Still no answer.
    1 point
  12. Nothing is Certain but Death and Texas Chicago, Illinois Death Gary was worried about Richard—the new Asclepius. Something was troubling the boy, something associated with death. Gary wouldn’t read him, but hoped that I could help. I joined them for a Saturday breakfast. Richard had been right: Saturday breakfast wasn’t about a meal. It was about ritual and celebration. Gary had begun the tradition the morning after Nemesis had rescued Bobby, and Gary had learned that for a long time Bobby had eaten little except dry cereal. Gary promised himself that this would never happen, again. Even though Bobby was now a citizen of Erewhon, he was a frequent guest in Gary’s home. Bobby wasn’t present, today; still, Saturday was a celebration. I thought Zhang looked at me a little oddly, until I remembered: I had been there. I had been there when the yakuza had cut Zhang’s throat all the way to the bones of his spinal column. I knew that Zhang had a role to play so I had reset reality until Asclepius could arrive and complete the healing. I had been there when the yakuza had stepped from the alley to see Richard holding Zhang. It was I they saw, standing behind Richard, and it was their fear of me that caused them to step back into the alley. I wondered, briefly, how I had appeared to them. None of this helped me understand Richard; however, his own thoughts would be the key to understanding. I had seen them on that day, and I remembered. After breakfast, Nemesis took Zhang to the gym for their martial arts lesson. Gary pushed Richard and me from the kitchen, claiming there wasn’t enough room at the sink for help with cleanup. I didn’t waste time. “It would have been a hard and lonely death,” I said. Richard raised his eyebrow. “You would have fallen into a crevasse. Broken limbs would have kept you from climbing out. Your foot would have wedged between two rocks, and you would have hung nearly upside down for hours until you no longer had the energy to breathe. You would have suffocated. It would have been very unpleasant.” Richard turned white, and then began to cry. I grabbed him, and hugged him while he sobbed into my chest. He had seen not only the words, but also the-possibility-that-might-have-been-reality. Then, he asked me. “How do you know? Who are you? Are you like Nemesis and Gary?” I shook my head. “No, my job is much easier than that of the gods. It is my responsibility to be present for untimely deaths, and for especially painful or significant deaths. Yours would have been especially painful. And, I think, significant.” I held Richard for a long time. He loves Zhang, I thought. They are matched. He can cry on my shoulder; he can relax in my hug. But, he cannot love me. That is as it should be. I saw Gary standing in the kitchen door. He gave me a thumbs up, and retreated into his office so not to intrude on Richard and me. Gary, too. He’s in love with Nemesis. Gary is my good friend … perhaps the only friend I have, really. How many other people in the entire world—human or god—would argue sports and play skee-ball with Death, and do it without fear or awe or … or condescension? In Gary, I had a friend: the first in the centuries since I had accepted this role. I think Caden also would become a friend. Richard? He had a lot to work through first, but yes, he too. In time, I think Richard would become my friend. After centuries with out them, I was gaining friends. I would, however, like someone to love. Third Rock Ranch, Near Silver City, Texas Calvin I shoved my feet into the boots and pulled the legs of the blue jeans down over them. Only dorks and stupid girls wore their blue jeans tucked inside their boots. I was a dork, according to most of the boys at school, but only because I was smarter than all of them put together, and they were too stupid to come up with a better nickname. I was also more of a cowboy than any of them. I lived on a real ranch. I did chores like taking care of cows and horses and, a couple of times a year, puppies. And, my cowboy boots had actually been inside the stirrups on a horse. Most of theirs hadn’t been any closer to a horse than the pony rides at the county fair. Speaking of which, my bull won a yellow ribbon at the state fair last month … in the adult division. Sounds like a good life, doesn’t it? Most of it was, except for the dork part. Would have been better, except that my stepfather ran the ranch, and he was a real jerk. I think the only reason he let me go to school was that he was afraid he would lose control of the trust fund if he didn’t. For sure, he would have lost everything if people knew what all went on at the ranch. Why didn’t I say anything? Mostly because I was afraid of what Fred—that was the stepfather’s name—might do to my mother and little sister. And because of what he would for sure have done to my little brother. Mother and Fred didn’t get along any more. It had started when she had been diagnosed with a prolapsed uterus. Fred figured that if he couldn’t have sex with Mommy, he’d have sex with me. Please don’t judge me … I know a lot more now than I did when I was ten; and Fred knew even more than I did. I was really afraid he would hurt Mommy and Susan and Casey. So, I did what he told me to do. The past couple of months, Fred started acting like he wasn’t interested in me … and started looking at Casey, who was twelve. And Susan, who was only eight. I didn’t know much about girls, then. In fact, and you’ve got to keep this secret, I didn’t know what a prolapsed uterus was, except that it pissed Fred off. I just figured that if Fred fucked Susan or Casey he’d really hurt them because they were so little. I was right. Two of the horses had to be shoed and the blacksmith was due around mid-afternoon. I had chased the horses down. (That was the fun part of the job: I rode Silver, the big stallion.) I was bringing them into the barn when I heard a whimper, and then a scream. It was Casey, and it was coming from the hayloft. I dropped the reins and scrambled up the ladder. Fred was lying on top of Casey. I had been where Casey was often enough to know exactly what was going on. I didn’t need to see Fred’s naked butt pumping up and down, and I didn’t need to hear Casey’s crying to know. I grabbed a pitchfork and ran toward Fred. He must have heard me, because he turned around and looked up. He grabbed Casey and rolled over. He held Casey in front of him. Before I could stop, I stuck the pitchfork into Casey! I was paralyzed, and that’s all Fred needed. He grabbed the pitchfork, pulled it out of Casey, twisted it around, and stuck it into my stomach. At least, that’s what I thought he did. Until I saw this guy standing beside Fred and holding onto the pitchfork. “Not their time, Fred,” the guy said. I couldn’t quite figure out his voice. It sounded like he was standing at the bottom of a deep well, and his words echoed all the way to the top. It was like he was standing somewhere in my head, too, because I understood all the words, even with the echoes. Weird. I ran to where Casey was, and realized that there weren’t any pitchfork holes in his tummy. I looked at the guy. “Not his time, Calvin. However, it is Fred’s. Please don’t look.” Naturally, I did. Looked, that is. I think the guy knew I looked, but he’d warned me, so I guess he figured it was on my head. He picked up Fred like he was a wisp of hay, and threw him over the edge of the hayloft. There was a really satisfying thump when Fred hit the barn floor. “Calvin?” the figure said. “Casey isn’t going to remember any of this. You shouldn’t, either. But you will. I’m sorry about that.” “Sorry?” I said. “Sorry? Who are you? How did you … do what you did to Casey? Why did you kill Fred? Oh, and where did you get those boots? They’re rad!” Death “You may call me Uncle George if you like. And, the boots were custom made for me in Tombstone, Arizona. About 1870, as I remember.” I looked at the boy as I spoke. There was something about this kid that called to me. Yeah, he was cute, but that wasn’t it. When he asked me about the boots … so soon after seeing me toss his stepfather over the edge of a hayloft … and when he didn’t flinch when he saw that his little brother wasn’t hurt, after being stabbed with a pitchfork … I realized there was something special about him. “George,” the kid said. “Uncle George.” His voice was calm. (See? I said he was special. He heard the 1870 and Tombstone, but they didn’t faze him.) “Right.” He drawled the word. “You weren't there a minute ago; then you were. Casey was hurt; then he wasn’t. Fred was fucking my little brother in the ass; then, Fred was dead. I think you owe me a little more than just, George. “Oh, and the truck you hear? That’s the blacksmith. He’s probably going to wonder why Fred’s dead.” The boy giggled at his own rhyme. “You take care of Casey,” the boy said to me—ordered me! “I’ll keep the blacksmith in the front of the barn. We’ll worry about Fred, later.” He scampered down the ladder. I stood there, wondering just what I had awakened. Calvin When I got back, the guy who called himself Uncle George was playing what looked like mumblety-peg with Casey. The blacksmith had finished shoeing the two horses, but hadn’t even looked in the direction of Fred’s body. “He’s gone,” I said. “Casey? Are you okay?” Uncle George waved his hand, and the knife Casey had tossed into the air stopped—frozen in midair. “It never happened,” the man said. “Casey was never raped. At least, there are no physical signs and Casey has no memory of it. You saw it; you remember.” He plucked Casey’s knife from mid-air, folded it closed, and handed it to me. Then, he asked, “As I said, you shouldn’t. Who are you?” Whoa! This mystery guy was asking me who I was? “I live here; Casey is my brother,” I said. “Fred the dead was our stepfather. Who are you?” I asked. The guy chuckled. “That’s a fair question. Calvin. I’m sorry, but I can’t answer it.” He looked like he meant he was sorry. Then, he disappeared … just wasn’t there. Well strike me for a rattlesnake, I thought. Then, I woke up Casey who thought he’d fallen asleep in the middle of chores, and who didn’t see Fred lying at the foot of the ladder, just like the vet hadn’t. It was later that night when the hands found Fred. The sheriff came out, and so did Doc Severs, but there weren’t any question. Fred had fallen to his death. So tragic. Susan and Casey and I acted sad. So did Mama … but I was pretty sure she wasn’t, really, and I know for sure I wasn’t. Now, I needed to get hold of this guy who said he was Uncle George. Who was he? He’d fixed Casey after I was pretty sure I’d killed him. Then, he’d killed Fred. Lowest common denominator: death. And, he was more than a hundred years old. The guy was Death. The person you usually saw in the black robe with a cowl hiding his face … and a skeleton hand and a huge, old-fashioned scythe. Crap! I thought. How am I going to find Death? At first, I thought I should hang out around the cemetery or the funeral home. Then I realized how stupid that would be. According to the Google search engine, more than 150,000 people die every day. That gives this guy less than a thousandth of a second for each one. And, I knew he’d spent most of the afternoon with Casey. Something didn’t add up. Still, I knew he was Death. So, I thought some more. There was no reason Death needed to be at every death, only the important and interesting ones. Or, like he said, when it wasn’t someone’s time. Whatever that meant. So, where did that leave me? Nowhere. I was so frustrated, I lay on my bed and started crying. “Calvin? I’m really sorry.” It was that voice from the bottom of the well, again. “I don’t know what to do. Will you help me? Please?” I looked up. The dude with the 1880 cowboy boots was sitting on the edge of my bed. He held his hand over me like he wanted to touch me, but was afraid to. He looked thoroughly miserable. “Uncle George!” I said. And then, I really started crying. I don’t know why I was crying. I wasn’t sad … in fact, I was really happy. I sat up and grabbed him and held on like I wasn’t going to let go. And, I wasn’t. I had found him, and there was no way I was going to let him go … at least until I found out some things. I looked up, and felt that Uncle George was really happy … happy for me? Happy for himself? Happy because I was happy? I wasn’t sure, but for now, happy was good enough. “Calvin, do you know how much I missed you? Do you know how much I wanted to be with you? Do you know how much …” Uncle George paused. I knew what he was worried about. “Uncle George, I know who you are, and I know why you want to be with me, and I love you, too, and I want to be with you, always, and I missed you and I love you and I want to know everything …” I wrapped my arms around him and, before he could stop me, kissed him … on the lips. I thought I was going to melt into a puddle of Jell-O on his lap. And, then, I felt him: he was afraid he was going to do the same thing. “Calvin,” he said. “I … I’m centuries older than you … I can’t love you like I do …” “Well, if you’re centuries older than me, then the age difference doesn’t make any difference.” I was absolutely sure of what I was saying. Disclaimers and Notes: Well, Jell-O is a trademark, and property of its owner.
    1 point
  13. A Botched Saturday “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” —Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac The boy licked salty blood from the cut on his lip. He was hungry, but the dumpster smelled too bad to look for food, there. Sometimes one of the girls from the bar would bring her trick into the alley. Sometimes, he could beg a dollar from the girl. Sometimes he could get enough money to buy a little food. Not often, and, so far, not tonight. His head spun, and he passed out. Gary My phone rang five or six times an hour. When it was during the day, I could handle it. And had to. I was still Gary Walters, and I was still the principal fundraiser for Erewhon. I was still the CEO of several corporations whose profits went to the orphanage. And, I was still something of a local celebrity. I don’t mean that in an “I’m great” way; but when I needed money or community support, it was nice to be able to put on my army uniform with the medals and speak to a school or a civic club or charity banquet. It got better when Cy started coming along. He was not only a “natural” pitcher, he was a natural speaker. The best thing was taking a couple of the boys with me. Bobby and Benji had become quite a team. They were just shy enough to capture people’s hearts; they were just bold enough to get across their message: kids need a safe place, especially when their parents can’t or won’t provide it. We didn’t push the notion that sometimes the parents were the problem, but we didn’t hide it, either. That started to come across more when Andy and Jeffie joined what I called the “speaking team.” The upside was that we were making and collecting enough money to keep Erewhon afloat. The downside was that I was on the phone or on the computer from early morning until … sometimes, midnight. I’d worried about burning out being a god-substitute; I should have worried about burning out just being me. It took a botched Saturday to bring me around. I’d let a batch of pancakes burn while I talked to someone who wanted to schedule a speech (and a fundraiser), a couple of months away. My little boy, my son, my heart-bound, Nemesis scraped the griddle into the trash. Then, he’d looked at me with sparks in his eyes. He was, after all, the god of retribution. Sparks came easily to him. “What happened to Saturday is for us?” he asked. “What happened to I won’t burn out?” he said. He set the griddle down, and hugged me. His face was pressed against my chest. I could feel his tears. I powered off the phone, set it on the counter, and then hugged him back. “I’m sorry, Nemesis. You know I have to—” “You have to live up to your promises,” he interrupted. “I know you made promises to all the boys at Erewhon. You did that before you met me. I know you made promises to the people who pay to keep Erewhon running. You did that, too, before you met me. I know you made promises to me. I know that the older promises … they are the most binding.” “You’ve made too many promises.” He pressed his head into my chest, again. I felt him shaking. It had taken a lot of courage for him to say that. I resolved, then, to do something about that. Father Donavon Whether I was Father Donavon or simply James Donavon was a matter of some dispute. I had written an article for a national magazine pointing out some of the more obvious errors in the Bible. They were the kind of errors that had made me question my faith. My faith didn’t rest on jots and tittles. It rested upon a rational, reasoned examination of nature that could not be reconciled with the church’s current, narrowed interpretation of the Bible, nor with the church’s insistence that the Bible, and not reason, was the sole source of the truth. I had been censured, ordered not to write anything more, and relieved of priestly duties. I had not been excommunicated, nor had I been prohibited from performing my duties as a priest. The difference between “relieved of” and “prohibited from” was a fine line, and one that I was unwilling to flout in the face of the local diocese. Rather than do that, I packed my possessions, said farewell to the Monsignor, and moved into the house that my parents had left to me. The house was a rambling … I won’t call it a mansion, because it was entirely too unattractive to be included in the homes of the rich and famous. It was large and had many rooms; it was situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan; and it came with a trust fund that was enough to keep it up and leave a little extra. I decided that with the little extra, I’d open an orphanage. This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’d spent hours thinking about this. When I was assigned to the diocesan school, I was supposed to be teaching mathematics, but I spent more of my time as a councilor, and most of that trying to keep abused kids from self-destructing. The abuse I saw ranged from beatings to neglect, which included not getting enough food and not getting hugs from moms and dads. Every morning at 5:00 AM, I was in my office. I had to get up early to make sure the paperwork was out of the way before the day began. It wasn’t a problem: I was accustomed to being up in time for a 6:00 AM mass. Now, there were too many things to do before our five boys woke. I was startled when I was interrupted. “Father?” A man’s husky tenor voice came from the doorway. I looked up. A very dark-haired man stood there. I had seen him, before. He was one of the Chicago policemen who had been ubiquitous in the ghetto that surrounded the diocesan school. Today, he was in civilian clothing—clothes that looked like a mismatch of stuff from the sale rack at Goodwill. I hope he doesn’t think he’s under cover, I thought. He’s not going to fool anyone. And if he’s not careful, his choice of clothes is going to get him killed. Beside him was a redheaded boy, about 12 years old. The boy wore torn and filthy clothes and a face full of bruises. I looked more closely: some of dirt on his clothes was dried blood. “Yes, good morning,” I said. “Please, come in.” I ushered the boy and the policeman to a couple of chairs in the corner of the office. “Would you like juice?” I asked the boy. Before he could respond, I looked at the policeman and added. “Coffee?” The cop nodded; so did the boy. It took only a few minutes for Bridget to bring things in. Bridget had been a nun; she’d left her vocation about the same time I’d been censured. We were a good match. “Father,” the policeman began. “Danny, here, well, he needs a place to stay for a while.” Danny looked scared. “Hello, Danny,” I said. “I’m Father James. If you’re not Catholic, you may call me Uncle James.” The boy’s face broke into a smile that lasted about seven milliseconds. I looked at the cop. “Um, Father, I’m probably way out of line, here. But Danny’s dad has been hurting him. I took Danny away. DHS isn’t the place for him. Can you, please, just keep him until I can get someone to take care of him? Please? I’ve got a friend, but I just can’t get in touch with him right away. Please?” “This isn’t an official placement?” I asked. The cop shook his head. He looked thoroughly miserable. “No, Father, it isn’t. Please?” There was a lot the cop wasn’t saying. That bothered me. I knew that both of us could get into a lot of trouble. Then I thought about it. The child must come first. Besides, I’ll bet that this cop and I could confuse things so much that no one would ever really get in trouble. Actually, I was kind of looking forward to that kind of challenge. “Officer, uh?” I said. “Kelly,” he said. “Timothy Kelly, Father.” “Officer Kelly. Of course, I’ll keep Danny as long as necessary. You and I, we’ll make sure he’s taken care of. Come to see Danny—and me, as soon as you can get things worked out on your end, okay? “Danny? You didn’t say if you were Catholic, and it really doesn’t matter. But, with a name like Danny, and your red hair, I’m bettin’ at least you’re Irish.” “Danny O’Grady,” the boy said. He rolled the “r” in O’Grady. “Mommy said I was Irish on her side. She had red hair. She died. “O’Grady was Mommy’s name. I’ll never be my father’s name!” The boy’s face was set, hard, when he said that. What had the man done to him? I wondered. “Well then, Danny O’Grady, welcome to your new home,” I said. I rolled the “r” in O’Grady. Danny caught that, and I got another seven- millisecond smile. Officer Tim Kelly I was nervous as heck when I got to Gary’s apartment building. I told Father I had a friend who could help Danny. I might have been lying, at least a little. I had met Gary at a hoity-toity charity banquet where he was the main speaker. I’d been a uniform, then, and was there for crowd control. There were a lot of really high-rollers and political people, and the mayor wanted things to go smoothly. Gary had been standing in a back hallway, looking at a handful of papers. He was wearing an army uniform. I figured right away who he was. After all, I was a Cubs fan. He looked up and saw me looking at him, and then smiled. “Hi, Officer … Kelly,” he said, reading my nametag. “I’m Gary Walters. Am I in the right place? I’m supposed to be … somewhere.” “Sure, Captain,” I said. “I’m kind of the traffic cop for backstage. You’re on the list, and are supposed to be through that door. “Um, sir?” I asked. “Can I have your autograph? I’m not supposed to ask, and most of the folks here? I couldn’t care less. But you? Well, my son … he’s only seven, but he’s the world’s biggest Cubs fan … it would really make him feel really good.” Gary signed the program I gave him, and then handed it to me. Then, he said something that would change my life. “Officer Kelly, if I can ever do anything for you or your son, get in touch with me. Okay?” I knew, then, that Gary was for real. I was about to call Gary’s hand. I wasn’t worried, actually. I knew he meant what he had said. “Mr. Walters? There’s an Officer Kelly of the Chicago Police—” The doorman stopped talking and listened. “Yes sir,” he said. “Officer Kelly, please take the elevator to the 45th floor. Mr. Walters is expecting you.” Gary “Tim!” I said. I had opened the door, and was waiting for him. “Um, it’s been nearly three years, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t tell the doorman my first name,” I said. Gary just grinned. “That’s my gift … I’ve got a memory for names and faces, and when Clinton … he’s the doorman … said Officer Kelly, I knew it had to be you. “Please,” he added. “Come in. This is my … son, Nemesis.” “How is your son, Stewart, doing?” Gary asked. “You told me he was a big Cubs fan. How’s he taking the current season?” Tim seemed surprised that I had remembered that. Something, however, seemed to get to him. “He’s not a happy camper, to say the least. And especially since Cyrus has left the team. Cy was his favorite player, and his favorite person in the world after Jessie Ventura.” “Cy will be happy to hear that,” I said. “When Stewart learns why Cy left the team, I hope he’ll appreciate why Cy did that.” Tim’s story was something I’d heard, before. Abused child. Cop’s standard procedure: DHS. However, DHS is almost always the wrong option. There are hundreds of kids like this every day. Only this time, someone had intervened. This one had its own twist. “I’m new undercover,” Tim said. “Assigned to vice squad. The older guys? They think it’s funny to initiate the new guy … tease him a little … so, they set me up. “Got a hooker to proposition me. Heck, that’s normally part of the job. But then, they got her pimp to show up. He got the drop on me, and shoved me into an alley. “I about shit my pants. Sorry. Then, the pimp saw the kid. The kid was lying on the ground by the back steps of a pub. His clothes were bloody. The whore? She ran. The pimp was right behind her. The cops who had put them up to this … I hadn’t seen them until now … came running up, wondering what was going on. By that time, the boy was awake. “The other cops shrugged it off. Seems like this alley was one of their regular locations for stings, and they’d seen the boy, before. His father parked him by the door of the pub every night, and then drank himself blind until closing time. “Yeah, the boy was a regular fixture, and he was always bruised, beaten. Sometimes, he’d beg for money to buy food. “Once, he’d sucked off one of the cops in exchange for money. They told me that. They thought it was funny.” “Where’s the boy, now?” I asked. “Um, with Father James Donovan,” Tim said. “He’s started an orphanage.” Tim gave the location. I nodded. “Sounds like you’ve done all the right things. What do you want me to do?” “Um, I didn’t notify Family Services,” Tim said. “I was afraid that they’d just run the boy into their system. I was also afraid that if Danny told about sucking off the cop, I’d get in a lot of trouble with the rest of the squad. “I want to do what’s right, but … sometimes, that isn’t easy. “I know you got some pull with the system. I was hoping you could get the boy placed with Father Donovan.” “What about the cop? The one who paid the kid for a blow job?” Gary asked. “I don’t know, but I do know I’ve got to do something about that—and I will …” I shut my mouth when Nemesis came into the room. He was wearing some kind of costume that didn’t cover him much. There was a sword strapped to his waist. His eyes were … glowing. Gary saw where I was looking, and gestured to Nemesis. The boy came in, and sat on Gary’s lap. His eyes dimmed, a little, but they were still bright. Nemesis Gary had told me not to eavesdrop on him and his guests, and promised that he would tell me everything I was entitled to know. He’d always been good about that. So, I wasn’t eavesdropping. But when Tim told Gary about the boy being beaten and left by the back door of a bar while his father drank his brains out … I heard it and knew it was my job—retribution. Once Tim’s mind opened me to that, I heard the part about the cop paying the boy for sex. Gary knew I was pissed. Hard to hide, even if he couldn’t read my mind, which he could. He hugged me. “Let’s find out a little more, okay?” Gary asked. “I think there’s more than one job for you. First, however, we’ve got to take care of Danny.” Tim “Um, Gary? What’s going on?” I stared at the boy Gary had called Nemesis. “How come his eyes do that? And how did you know Danny’s name?” I was starting to wonder if I’d done the right thing coming here. “Tim, I’m guessing that since you took Danny to Father Donovan, and your name is Kelly, that you’re Irish Catholic. That might make it harder for you to believe what I’m about to tell you. Please, at least listen all the way through.” Gary took a deep breath. “Nemesis is a very special little boy. He has the powers and authorities of the ancient Greek god of retribution. Actually, the original Nemesis was a goddess, but somehow, the powers started going to boys. “I was recently given some powers, too, and a job to protect children. Nemesis and I, we’re a team. I rescue, he punishes.” Gary stopped talking, and just looked at me. “Actually,” I said. “The Bible talks about powers, seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, and a whole lot of different kinds of angels. I never had trouble believing in them, and what you’re saying sort of fits.” “I’m pretty sure we aren’t angels,” Gary said. “Although a couple of the boys we rescued thought Nemesis was an angel. It fit their understanding. If it helps for you to think of us that way, that’s okay with us.” Gary looked at the boy. “Right?” Nemesis nodded. His eyes weren’t glowing any more. I guess he’d had time to calm down. “So, what do we do?” I asked. Gary answered. “Danny needs to make his own decision. All that we can do is show him the options, and, perhaps, make him aware of some of the consequences. ‘There’s different ways to handle this,” Gary continued. “Since you’ve turned the boy over to Father Donovan, the easiest is probably the legal way. Understand, however, that sometimes, we follow an older law. “That’s probably what we will do when we deal with Danny’s father and the cop who paid Danny for sex.” Gary pulled out his cell phone and poked a button. I didn’t hear all he said, but … … another half-dressed kid appeared … I mean, just appeared … in Gary’s living room. Nemesis jumped from Gary’s lap, and then he and the new kid hugged each other, and kissed. It was a serious kiss. I shook my head, but Gary was talking, so I paid attention. “Tim, this is Aiden. He’s our legal guy. He’s not yet a lawyer, ’cause he really is only 12 years old. But, he has contacts and influence. “Aiden,” Gary continued. “Officer Kelly has taken a boy from an abusive situation, and placed him in an orphanage run by a priest, Father James Donavon. Depending on what we learn, and the boy’s desires, he would be welcome at Erewhon, too. We need to make an official placement pending adoption. His name is Danny, Daniel Gaither Heriot—although he prefers Danny O’Grady. “Can you help?” I don’t know what surprised me more: half-naked kids popping into Gary’s living room; half-naked 12-year-old kids kissing each other like boyfriends and Gary not worrying about it; or Gary knowing stuff he shouldn’t have known. I guess I figured it all was part of the same thing—the bit about them not being angels—so I just sat there, waiting for the little boy to speak. “You’re right, sir,” Aiden said. “We need to begin with Danny. Under the circumstances, I think school clothes and your Land Rover would be appropriate.” Gary nodded, and asked me what my schedule was like. “We should get started right away,” he said. I had to get back to the station, but something about what was going on—no matter how weird—made me believe things would be okay. I said I would meet them at Father Donovan’s as soon as I could. Gary and I traded cell numbers and shook hands. Sometime during all this, the boys changed to school clothes … even through they didn’t leave the room. I got off the elevator at the lobby; Gary and the two boys went down to the parking garage. Nemesis Gary let me drive to the orphanage. It was about 30 miles north of Erewhon. The gate was open … in fact, it was hanging off one hinge so I guess it wouldn’t close. The house was huge, but I only saw two cars. I parked behind them, and we walked onto the porch. When no one answered the doorbell, Gary walked in and called, “Hello!” After a few minutes, a kid … maybe eight years old … came down the stairs. He agreed to take us to Father Donovan, and led us to the kitchen. A man, a woman, and two boys about 13 years old were preparing a meal. They all looked frazzled, and the woman snapped at them. She apologized, and then snapped again. And apologized, again. “Father? These people came to see you?” our escort said. “I’m Gary. This is Nemesis and Aiden. This seems to be a bad time,” Gary said. “Not if I help,” I said. Gary looked at me. “I’m really good in the kitchen,” I said. “You know I am.” Gary grinned and then nodded. After a couple of accidents, he wouldn’t let me do anything that involved flour. But he let me do about everything else. “If Nemesis helps, perhaps Father would have time, later, to talk,” Gary said. The woman looked at us, and then handed me a knife. She pointed to a pile of carrots. “Washed, scraped a little, and sliced about an inch thick. They’re going into a stew, and we don’t want them to be too small or they’ll overcook.” I nodded, and got to work. The woman looked at Gary, and raised her eyebrow. “I can help,” he said. She handed him another knife and pointed to a refrigerator. “Beef on the second shelf. About five pounds of it. Needs to be trimmed, cubed, floured, and seared in that kettle. Save the trimmings.” “How about me?” Aiden asked. “How are you at peeling potatoes?” the woman asked. Aiden grinned and reached out his hand for another knife. Gary Once the stew was on to simmer, Father took the boys and me to meet Danny. A former parishioner of Donovan’s, a doctor, had come in and looked at Danny. He’d documented the boy’s injuries, but agreed to misplace his report to Family Services until he heard from Donovan. “I guess the place to start is with introductions. My name is Gary Walters. This is my son, Nemesis and our friend Aiden. Both Nemesis and Aiden are very special boys. Please do not be surprised by anything they do or say. “We were contacted by Officer Tim Kelly, who asked us to help get Danny legally placed. We agreed to help with one stipulation.” Donovan raised an eyebrow. “Danny gets the final word on what happens to him. All we can do is tell him what his choices are, and maybe help him understand some of the most obvious consequences of those choices. Once he decides, we will make it happen.” Donovan’s eyebrow hadn’t gone down. “Gary Walters. Of Erewhon. Of course. You have a good reputation. I hope you can deliver on your promise.” He looked from me to Danny and back to me. I understood what Father wasn’t saying: you’d better not make promises to this boy unless you can keep them. I nodded. “I guarantee it, Father.” The way I saw it, Danny had two choices: go back to his father, or go elsewhere. Once he decided that, we’d be able to talk about elsewhere. It wasn’t hard to get that decision. Nor were any of us surprised. Still, it was a question that had to be asked. Danny was adamant: “I’m never going back to him. I’m never going to be his son, again. I’m Danny O’Grady, now.” “That’s fine, Danny,” I said. “Aiden? Can you take care of the name change?” Aiden nodded. “Yes, sir.” “Now, Danny. If Father agrees, you can join the boys at his orphanage. You can come to Erewhon, which is another orphanage, you can go into government-operated foster care, where you might be assigned to a family home or a group home … that’s like an orphanage, but smaller. You might be adopted, but that usually takes a while. Do you have any questions about these choices?” Danny’s first question was the most telling: “If I want to be adopted, which is best? One of the orphanages or foster care?” I was able to answer honestly. “Your best chance of being adopted is one of the orphanages. A lot of people think the kids in foster care are problem children. Some of them are: they’re sick and haven’t received proper medical treatment, they’ve been in foster care for so long their emotions have been worn down and they’re so calloused they can’t love anyone. There are other problems. Not all of them are bad kids, but a lot of people think that. It makes them hard to adopt. “I don’t know much about Father Donovan’s, but I do know that we have a much higher rate of adoption at Erewhon than any government social program does.” Father Donovan I had to jump in. “We’ve been in operation for only 2 months. There are five boys living here. Danny would make six. I don’t have any record to go on, but I believe we can find someone. We certainly would work on it.” “Then I want to stay here,” Danny said. About that time, Marky, at eight he’s our youngest, scampered into the room. “There’s a policeman comin’ to see you. I saw his badge! Are you in trouble?” Officer Kelly was close behind Marky. “Nobody is in trouble, little man,” he said. Danny stood and took a step toward Officer Kelly, and then hesitated. The officer saw, and understood. He held out his arms and the boy rushed to be hugged. Aiden and Nemesis scooted over to make room on the couch for them. Perceptive kids, I thought. Gary “Aiden? How long will it take to place Danny with Father Donavan?” “Daddy’s secretary will type the order this afternoon. He’ll sign it, tonight. I’ll deliver it, tomorrow. “Oh, the doctor? He needs to find his report and get it to DHS first thing in the morning, if only to protect himself. DHS will get a copy of the order of placement, so they’ll be out of the picture as far as Danny goes.” Nemesis looked at me. I caught what he was thinking. And I’ll get to Danny’s father before DHS can even get the report out of their inbox. Nemesis asked if Aiden could drive home. “Nobody’s going to see him, and he knows how to drive.” Nemesis blushed, and then added, “I kind of taught him …” I resolved to get to the bottom of that, and then agreed, and a somewhat white-knuckled Aiden took the wheel. I needn’t have worried. He did very well until we got on the Eisenhower Freeway. I’d have been antsy, then, myself. Father Donovan “Father? My name is Tom Clancy; I’m chief foreman of Walters Construction. Gary sent me. We’re going to start by installing new fire alarms and hanging extinguishers at strategic locations. That will be done, today. We’ll also begin building some additional fire escapes, especially from the second floor. We’ll be setting forms and pouring concrete for the footers, today. Once that dries, it will take about three days to finish. The big job will be putting in a sprinkler system. I’ll need to talk to you about that. We’ll have to run pipes along the ceilings of the halls and into every room. We’ll do our best to conceal them, especially on the first floor ...” “Are you okay, Father?” The electrical crew was in the kitchen. “We’ll be running new power lines to the kitchen. We have the specs on all the new equipment that will be coming in. After the equipment is installed … that should be Friday at the latest … Tom’s crew will install the halon hoods on the stove …” “Are you okay, ma’am?” Gary I knew it was Father Donovan as soon as the phone rang. Actually, I think I knew it was he before the phone rang. That was useful, but also a little scary. “Hi, Father,” I said. “Gary? What’s going on?” I knew exactly what he meant. “Do you remember the fire at that fundamentalist orphanage not too long ago?” I asked. “Yes, but …” “Father, Nemesis was there. He saw children die because there weren’t working alarms or a sprinkler system. I will never let him see that, again. When he saw that you weren’t up to code, he asked me if I could fix it. “So, we’re fixing it.” Meat Market Old eyes set in young faces. The boys had seen too much, done too much. “Twenty dollars for a blow job, either way. You can fuck me for fifty.” As the night wore on, the prices would drop. A new face caught the attention of a couple of the boys. They puffed up themselves, ready to tell him to move on—away from their territory. They didn’t have to; the boy kept walking until he passed all the others. Then, he stopped. He leaned against a fence. A telephone pole partly screened him. Bad spot, one of the older boys thought. Nobody’s going to see him until it’s too late to stop. Cars drove slowly past the boys. Occasionally, one would pull to the curb. A hand inside would gesture. The closest boy would step to the window. Words would be exchanged. More often than not, the boy would get into the car. The speed of the cars as they drove away was always faster than when they approached. A low-rider with spinning chrome wheels drove by. The boys looked away. Pimp. Bad news. There were enough stories to keep even the newest kids away from a pimp. A non-descript car pulled to the curb where the new boy was standing. Cop! Other boys recognized the car and faded away, more afraid of this cop than they were of the pimp. It was too late to warn the new boy. He got into the car. The driver pulled into traffic, cutting off another car. Squeal of brakes and honk of horn. A gesture by the cop. Then, he turned the corner and sped off. The boy watched the driver turn into the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center, and then drive behind the stores. The car stopped. The boy heard the man’s zipper. “Twenty dollars,” the boy said. The man slapped the boy, hard. “How about Juvie, punk? Huh? How about Juvie. The boy saw the badge clipped to the man’s belt. “Please … please … I’ll do anything …” the boy stuttered. The man grabbed the boy’s arm and dragged him from the car, and then pushed him against the wall of the loading dock. “Turn around and drop your pants,” the man said. “Please …” the boy whispered. “Please don’t hurt me.” The man looked at his own belt only long enough to release the buckle. He looked up as his pants dropped around his ankles. The boy was gone. “Where the fuck …?” A hand on his shoulder spun the cop around. The boy leaned against the unmarked police car. He wasn’t wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt any more. He wasn’t wearing anything like the cop had ever seen, and he was holding a huge sword that was pointed at the cop’s crotch. The sword grazed the man’s penis; his erection shriveled. “Officer Trump,” the boy said. “You were expecting something else, weren’t you? You were expecting a boy you could fuck … and then kill. You’ve done that, before. Instead of serving and protecting, you’ve been fucking and killing. “There are only two ways to stop you.” The boy with the sword took a deep breath. “One is to kill you. The other is to castrate you. Your choice, Officer Ryan Trump.” “Please, please don’t kill me!” the cop begged. “So be it.” The sword knew what to do. The boy struck the cop’s genitals with the sword. The man’s gonads shriveled. New hormones flooded his body. All sexual desire disappeared. An evil but essential part of his personality fled. He would never be the same. He would be a drone, sexless, impotent, slack. Until the day he died. Or until the day he took his own life. Nemesis It was easier to deal with Danny’s father. He was so drunk, I wasn’t sure he even knew he was dead. I told Aiden there would be fewer problems now to get Danny adopted since he was an orphan. Aiden just nodded.
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  14. I wish I was there too I wish more pictures (wink, wink)... We delivered tons of those from our London 2011 meet...
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  16. It sounds like you all had a great time. I so wish I could have been there. Damn health scare. Next time for sure.
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  17. Cassie, it sounds like you had a great time and got to see some of the neat stuff there.
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  18. Chapter 16 It’s in the Cards Dad made me stay home, while Joey and Roger went to school on Tuesday, but he promised if I didn’t have any problems, I could return to school on Wednesday. To say I was bored, would be like saying Justin Bieber had a few fans. Okay, I guess to be honest, for about two hours, I did enjoy myself. I had recorded Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and after breakfast, I watched the movie in my bedroom. It was a really good place to watch it, since Jake Gyllenhaal in my opinion, is a major hottie. While I was watching, every time I thought about Jake being naked, the image of Joey standing in front of me, with his crotch at eye level, his manhood hard, and that wet spot growing, kept replacing Jake in my mind. Who needs Hollywood actors when you have the real deal? While I was taking a nap, out of boredom that afternoon, I dreamed I was at the hospital again, and Joey stood in the same spot he had been after our kiss. This time, Roger wasn’t there. I looked up from Joey’s hard-on to his eyes, and he moved towards me. His hands came together at his belt; then he slowly unfastened it, unbuttoned his pants, and slowly unzipped. He leaned against the bed, and pushed his jeans and boxers down his thighs. I moved closer to his manhood when it was free, and mere inches from my face. It was beautiful, above average size, with blond hair hovering above it like a crown with perfectly proportional balls. As I leaned forward to lick it clean of his essence, I felt someone gently shaking me. I had been laying on my right side facing the door, and when I opened my eyes, I found myself in my own room, not at the hospital, and Joey’s crotch was in my face. I groaned and looked up into my angel’s face. “Hi,” I said, in a husky voice, still half asleep, and wishing the dream I had been woken from had been for real. “Sorry to wake you. Should we come back later?” Joey said, he gestured with a backward glance at Roger standing in the doorway to let me know Roger was there, too, and then bit his lower lip. “No, no, I’m awake now. What’s up?” I said. I sat up, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and motioned for both of them to take a seat on my bed. “What time is it?” I asked no one in particular. Roger looked at his watch, “ten after five.” “You all are just now getting home?” I asked. “Mmm… no,” Joey paused, with a smile on his lips. “Roger and I made a side trip before we came home.” I glanced at Roger. “Are you trying to steal my boyfriend?” I received a light punch in my arm from Joey, and Roger rolled his eyes. “No silly, I had an appointment with my lawyer, Mr. Bennett.” He had my attention now. Joey sat on my bed, Indian style, with his hands in his lap. I looked into his eyes, and I could tell he had happy news, for they sparkled. “Okay, what did Mr. Bennett want?” “Well, I didn’t tell you last night, but yesterday afternoon, I told Mr. Bennett, the lawyer we met at the hospital, that I would agree to testify against my parents if the commonwealth attorney really needed me to. I asked if there was any way I could help them, and he said that it was really in the hands of the judge. He said that the judge would want to talk to me before any decision was made.” Joey wore a sad smile, but reached out and patted my knee. “Today after school, I met with the Family Court judge, Mr. Bennett, my parents, Miss Anderson, and Aunt Alice. After I told the judge I no longer wanted to live with my parents, he asked me why. I just told him that I didn’t feel wanted or safe there anymore.” He said, sadly, but plowed on. “The judge reviewed the doctor’s notes and the recommendation of Miss Anderson to end my parent’s custodial rights. He stated it wasn’t something he did lightly, but for my safety and my future, I needed to be away from them.” When he finished, his lower lip was quivering. “After… after that…” He cleared his throat, and paused to compose himself. “About an hour later, they had another meeting to do with the criminal side of things.” Joey finally finished the sentence in tears. “Oh baby, come here.” I said, gathering him in my arms. He laid his head on my chest and his tears soaked my tee-shirt. “Joey, just remember you’re not alone. No matter what, I will never turn my back on you. I love you, and so do other people, not because of what you have been through, but because of who you are, baby.” “That’s right!” Roger spoke up, and put his arm around Joey and me. “Besides, you always have us. We are the three musketeers!” He announced. Joey turned his head and stared at Roger. I’m not sure if Roger was more shocked than me with what Joey did next. He sat up and wrapped his arms around Roger’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. Before I could enjoy seeing Roger turn several shades of red, my breath was taken away when Joey planted his sweet lips on mine. Too bad it didn’t last long, but I was over the moon that now, Joey seemed past his sadness. “I love you both so much! I dreamed of a boyfriend like you, Andy. And Roger, I couldn’t have asked for a better brother.” He beamed, and I felt awesome. Then his smile faded. “But, there’s more. After the meeting with the judge, my parents met with the prosecutor, and they reached a plea agreement. They plead guilty to child endangerment, and the commonwealth dropped all other charges. After they have another hearing before a trial judge and if that judge agrees, Dad will be sentenced to three years, with 32 months of it suspended, and five years of probation, with several conditions. I guess that means dad will have to spend six months in jail and if he breaks any of the conditions, he’ll have to serve the full three years. Mom was sentenced to a year, but the jail time was suspended, with three years of probation, with some of the same conditions as my dad has. So now, I don’t have to testify in court. Also, my parents have to leave me alone, and not spread rumors about me. There are other conditions, but they don’t concern me.” When he finished, he laid his head back on my chest, and I wrapped my arm around him. His voice was soft now, “I’m just so glad it’s all over.” “I’m glad too. I would have liked to see them get some jail time for what they did to you, but they are your mom and dad, so if you’re happy with it, I am too.” I hugged him a little tighter. Roger reached over and ruffled Joey’s hair. “There’s more still.” He smiled. “We’re going to try and adopt him.” Joey looked up at me with a huge smile. “Yeah, that’s the best news. I’m going to have a new family. A family that really loves me: loves me for who I am, and not for what I am.” His words reminded me of my experiences the last couple of days, and then the lyrics from Chasing Cars popped into my head. I need your grace To remind me To find my own “Joey, I read something in a series of stories online called, The Clan Short Universe, that help me deal with the visions I’ve had lately. It goes something like this, ‘…sometimes, bad things have to happen, so that good things can happen...’ So, I’m not worried about the future. You and I both are surrounded by people that love us. Mom taught me that with love, all things are possible.” His gaze met mine; he leaned in, and planted a soft kiss on my lips. I have no idea where Roger got it from, but the next thing I knew, Joey and I were hit with a pillow. “Get a room guys! Jeez.” Roger groaned, playfully. “We have one, numb nuts.” I teased back. “Andy, I’m home.” Dad called from downstairs. The next day at school was uneventful, thank God. However, the afternoon at the clinic, made up for it. Aunt Alice picked us up from school, and when she stopped to drop us off at the clinic for our check-ups, an old beat-up GMC pick-up truck almost hit us in the rear. We turned around to see what all the noise was about, but the truck quickly pulled away. It kinda looked like a truck that had been parked in the school’s parking lot when we were picked up, but I decided it probably wasn’t the same truck. Once we settled down from almost getting rear ended, Aunt Alice took Roger with her to do the grocery shopping. There was no doubt in my mind at all that Roger wasn’t a happy camper, about having to go with his mom. Once inside, Joey and I approached the receptionist, introduced ourselves, and told her our appointment times. She gestured to a seat where we waited for a nurse to call for us. “Lawd have mercy, if you two youngins aren’t lookin as fit as a fiddle.” I heard a familiar voice sing out. Both of us blushed. We turned to find Nurse Nancy standing there, a clipboard in her hand, and a huge smile on her face. “Hi, Nurse Nancy,” I said. “Why don’t both of you come in together, since you’re like brothers, and it would save everyone a heap of time.” She said, motioning for us to follow her. She weighed us, took our blood pressure, temperature, and then had us sit down. She removed a few vials from a drawer, and grabbed a plastic cord out of another drawer. “I hope you don’t mind,” she began, as she tied the plastic around my arm, “but please make a fist. I need to take a few vials of blood for the tests they wanted to run on you.” I didn’t mind, but it wasn’t my favorite thing to deal with. While the blood drained into the vials, she held my attention. “So, Andy, have you had any headaches? I see the swelling has gone down nicely.” “No, no headaches.” “Good.” “Is there anything I should be worried about?” “No dear. I’m just checking to make sure you are alright. Thank you. That was the last one.” She quickly bandaged my arm and then turned her attention to Joey. “Alright, strip to the waist young man. I need to check your bandages, and make sure you’re healing up nicely.” He blushed, but was able to slide the shirt off without my help. There were only a few bandages now. I could see the scars that had formed over what had been the open wounds. “These are doing nicely. The doctor has some cream he wants you to apply that should help eliminate scarring. If things don’t go as he expects, you might have to see one of the plastic surgeons.” He blushed again, and quickly tugged on his shirt. We were done long before our joint appointments were supposed to be over. Nurse Nancy looked at her watch, then turned to us and asked, “When is someone picking you boys up?” “We were told to call when we were ready.” I said, not sure where this was going. “Have you ever been to a carnival, where people will tell you your future for money?” “Well, yeah I have.” I said, and then looked at Joey, who was shaking his head. “Would it seem like fun if Nurse Nancy tried that for the both of you?” She asked, smiling. “Sure,” I laughed. “Sounds like more fun than grocery shopping.” Joey shrugged his shoulders. I was comfortable with her suggestion, however Joey appeared uneasy. His religion condemned such things, but she smiled kindly at him, and he seemed more at ease. “Good, let’s go into the break room and I’ll show you an old trick from the old country.” She said, and lead us down a hallway that opened up into a large kitchen area with soda and snack vending machines, a good size refrigerator, a large metal sink, multiple cabinets, and a large, round, white, cafeteria table, that had six chairs sitting around it. The table was large enough to easily seat eight people. There was also a tall, wide, metal cabinet that appeared to house lockers with six doors that had combination locks on them. Joey and I took a seat, and she pulled out a deck of cards from a purse in one of the lockers. She sat opposite us, and shuffled the deck of weird looking cards for about fifteen seconds, slid them across the table to me and asked me to cut the deck without putting the bottom half above the top half. She placed the bottom half on top of the other half, and laid cards out on the table, face up. The cards were all different, so I guessed they were face up. She studied them for what seemed like a long time before glancing up at me. “This spread is called the Celtic Cross. It’s one of the most popular spreads, and since I’m from a very long line of people that can trace our family ties all the way to the beginning of the Celtic traditions, it’s the one I like to use.” I observed her closely and asked, “Are we kin?” “In a manner of speaking. If we looked back far enough, I’m sure our branches, of the tree touches, and intertwine; but, there are other ways to be a family besides blood.” She said with a smile. “I’m going to tell you what each card means and what it means in the position it sits. Okay?” I nodded, not knowing what to say. I was spellbound by what laid before me. “Now, let me explain what I see. This first card tells us what influences currently surround you; it’s the Nine of Swords. It means that you know that you have troubles, but if you don’t face them, it will lead to despair. This isn't exactly a happy card to see, because it often shows deeply rooted emotional pain that simply refuses to go away. Usually this is either guilt or regret, and in either case you feel the pain because you wish you could go back and change what happened, but you cannot. The event is not as painful as the reminder that it is your fault, and that you can do nothing about it. Only by accepting responsibility can you ever hope to defeat this anguish, and in the majority of cases submitting to the pain is worse than trying to fight it. But if you do not, it remains to terrorize and taunt you.” “The second card is the Hang Man. It tells me that you are your biggest obstacle. Just by admitting to yourself that you are afraid will give you strength to conquer your fear. When you relinquish your desire for control, everything begins to work as it should. In a world in which you must run as fast as you can to stay where you are, the Hanged Man tells you to stop struggling and you can move forward.” She paused, and her face softened before she asked. “Are you still with me sweetie?” “I think so.” I said, without much conviction. “Listen honey, you know your life better than I do. After I explain the meanings of the cards and the positions, all you need have remember is to use them to guide your path. Okay?” “Yes, ma’am. I think I understand now.” “Okay, child. I’m going to turn a new card to see if there’s an influence in your life to help you with this.” She turned over a card that looked like a king of something. “This is the Emperor. He is the archetypal Father, wise in the ways of the world and knowledgeable of how to live as part of a structure along with everyone else. The Emperor does have a strong and powerful heart, as every father should, but he shows this side of himself through the imposition of strict guidelines and rules, as most fathers do. If anything he is even more protective than the Empress, because he has created order from chaos and wishes nothing to disturb that order. Underneath his royal robes, hides the suit of armor which the Emperor proudly wears when defending those under his protection. Andy, I think even you know who this card represent – your father.” I smiled at her and nodded. Joey squeezed my hand under the table. We had been holding hands since we both sat down, but out of sight. “She’s right. I feel there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you, Andy.” Joey said, and squeezed my hand again, which I returned, with a smile. “Okay, in the third position is Death, but don’t freak out on me. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die, like most people think. In the Tarot, as in reality, Death is nothing more than a transition to the next level of life. Whether you believe that a soul goes to heaven or back to Earth to be reincarnated, the fact remains that the soul lives on. The candle is extinguished, but only because the day has come. The river shown on many versions of the Death card is a symbol, showing that life will go on, no matter what disastrous things happen. The river water will reach the sea, rise into the clouds, then rain onto the land to flow into the river again. Nothing is destroyed, because nothing can be destroyed- there can be only transformation. In this position…” “Nurse Nancy,” a lady at the door paused to see if she had Nurse Nancy’s attention, when Nurse Nancy turned to consider her, she continued, “your next appointment is ready, and the Doctor will be ready to see the boys in about five minutes.” “Thank you, I’ll be with my next patient in about five minutes, too, and I’ll send the boys back to the examination room.” She said, before turning back towards us, and patted a card with her right hand that looked like a Queen sitting on a throne with a cup in her hand. “Andy, to quickly sum up what I see in the cards is this: you have been troubled by the death of your mother, but something recently happened that has helped you through it. It has given you a new beginning, which is what The Sun here means in this position. You have a lot of people willing and able to help you now and in the future. I see your dad, a pastor or religious man of some type, a woman or mother type, and many others as guides and helpers. There’s more troubles coming, but these people will help you through it. I also see a very long, healthy, loving, relationship.” She said, reaching over to take my hands. And then she said something in a language I didn’t understand, but it sounded like some old forgotten language. I didn’t know how I knew that, but somehow I did. I also knew for some reason that it was a blessing, so I bowed my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Joey had bowed his as well. She led us back to the same examination room we had been in. A minute later, the doctor walked in and took a quick look at us both. He told us we were doing fine. Joey asked him about camping this weekend, and the doc told us he didn’t see any reason we couldn’t, as long as we kept Joey’s back cleaned and bandaged. So, with our promise to do as he asked, he gave the idea his okay. He also told me I was cleared to go about my normal activities, and wrote a note for school lifting all restrictions. I was excited about the camping trip with Joey. However, I knew we needed our parent’s approval, too, but I didn’t think Dad would object; Aunt Alice was another story. I wasn’t sure how she felt about allowing Joey to romp about in the woods with Roger and me. If everything worked out, we could go camping Friday after school, since we didn’t have to work for Mr. Horn, with the team playing an away game this week. That way we could hike around Saturday morning, head home Saturday afternoon and still get Joey to church on Sunday morning. The key was going to be Aunt Alice. * * * * * * * * * * Coach Nettles was well liked by most and tried to get along with everyone. He was the kind of coach that didn’t believe winning was everything. That’s why he didn’t have to think twice about suspending JT from the football team during the same week he was suspended from school. After hearing the reasons surrounding JT’s suspension from Mr. Horn, Coach Nettles waited to cool off before talking to the boy. Coach had a cousin in Johnson City, Tennessee, who had been picked on during his high school years. Finally it became too much for him and he ran away from home. No one had heard from him in years. The coach and his cousin had been as close as two boys can be, even with the distance between them. The two had been inseparable at all the family reunions while they were growing up. They even wrote each other at least once a week, before there was the internet. When the coach learned that his cousin ran away, it hurt him that he hadn’t been able to help, and that his cousin hadn’t told him what was going on. From that point on in coach’s life, he made it a point to try and help those who needed it, and to stop bullies from hurting others. While in college, he learned how to deal with both the bullies and the bullied. He found out that there is always a reason behind a bully’s actions and learned how to deprogram most of them. By the time JT had entered his office, the day of the first fight, coach had cooled down and decided what he was going to do with JT. He had suspended him from practice and that week’s game, and punished him with an extra ten extra laps after practice for the rest of the year. However, what the coach hadn’t told him was if he noticed a change for the better in JT’s attitude, he would stop the extra laps. He believed that if a kid was given a reason and a way to change to be a better person, they would. When JT came to his office, on his first day after suspension, to confess what he, Jonas, and Kevin had done to Andy Collins and Joey Adams, the coach was both shocked that JT had learned nothing during the past week, and relieved that he finally got it, today. There was no doubt in coach’s mind that JT had changed as he sat there and watched JT confess in tears about how sorry he was, and that now he realized how wrong he had been. After JT had finished running his laps, at the end of practice Wednesday afternoon, Coach Nettles called him to one side. “JT, how are things at home?” He asked, placing a hand on his shoulder. JT answered in a sad, soft, voice. “Okay.” “Look at me son.” Slowly looking up from the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with coach, their eyes finally met. As soon as they did, the flood of tears JT had been trying so hard to hold back gushed from his eyes. Coach wrapped his arms around the boy, telling him everything would work out. He had figured correctly that JT’s troubled behavior started at home, as it usually did with kids in the same predicament. “Come on JT, we’ll go to my office. We can sit down where we’ll be more comfortable and talk about everything.” * * * * * * * * * * It had been about an hour since Aunt Alice had dropped us off, so I figured she was probably done shopping. Once we were outside of the clinic, I called her and told her we were ready. As it turned out, Aunt Alice and Roger were already on the way back. I looked over at Joey. “They’re on their way to pick us up.” Joey moved closer to me until our shoulders touched. From my short time with him, it was easy to tell he had never experienced the physical affection most of us kids received from our parents. I looked around to see if anyone was paying any attention to us and decided, fuck it, he was my boyfriend and I loved him. I didn’t care what anyone else thought about it. I was no longer concerned with anyone else except my Joey. I threw my arm around his shoulder and hugged him. The smile I got in return, made my day, just like the smiles he gave me at the hospital, for falling on my ass and bumping my head on the door. I’d do anything to bring a smile to his face. “Andy,” Joey started, bringing me out of my thoughts, “when should we talk to Steve and Alice?” “Well, probably after we tell her all the good things the doctor said, and ending with him saying it was okay for us to go camping this weekend.” Joey nodded just as Roger and his mom drove up. * * * * * * * * * * “I’m not sure what to make of this Joey kid.” Randy said, as he looked back and forth between Timmy, Gary, and Debbie. “I think he’s sweet.” Debbie said before taking a bite of a French fry. “I don’t think it matters much what we think about him. It’s clear to me that Andy has made him a friend, and in a way, Roger and Joey are like brothers now, right?” Gary said, after taking a drink from his coke. “No, but Joey is living with Roger and his family now. I get the feeling that they’ll adopt him soon.” Debbie said to Gary, and then she turned to Timmy sitting beside her in the booth they were all sitting in at the Quillen Drug Store, “Isn’t that what Roger hinted to you, Tim?” Looking a little put out for being put on the spot, Timmy stared at Debbie and said, “Look, it’s not my place to say anything, but if you asked me, I’d say Joey is queer and he’s turning Andy into a queer too.” Everyone stopped eating and anything else they were doing and stared at Timmy. He threw his hands up in defense, “Wait, before you say anything.” Timmy looked around to make sure no one else was listening. He leaned forward, followed by the other three, and spoke slightly above a whisper. “I didn’t mean to say that the way I did. I mean, I don’t care if Andy or Joey is gay or not. Andy is still Andy.” He shook his head. “I’ll admit I didn’t like Joey at first. He just looked like one of those pretty boys that loved attention, but after talking to Roger some, I’ve changed my mind for two reasons.” He held up two fingers. “One, Roger told me some of the stuff Joey has been through his whole life and some really bad things he’s had to deal with the last couple of years.” Timmy gathered his thoughts as he looked down at the table. Having reached a decision, he examined their eyes, “I think we should all give him a break for that, if for no other reason. But if you need another reason, here’s number two. If you wanna keep Andy and Roger as friends, you better be nice to Joey. And that alone tells me that Joey is cool, no matter anything else. Don’t forget that Andy and Roger already took on JT, Jonas, and Kevin, at the same time, over Joey. Not to mention that’s the second time Andy and JT have gotten into it, over Joey.” “I agree. I say we give Joey a chance.” Gary said, and then tapped the table with his index finger to punctuate every word he said next. “My cousin is gay, and anyone that gives Joey a hard time about it, if he is, will have to deal with me too.” “Personally, I think they make a cute couple.” Debbie said, with a grin. The guys groaned, rolled their eyes, and leaned back against the booth simultaneously. Debbie just laughed at their antics. * * * * * * * * * * As soon as Joey and I climbed in the back seat, Aunt Alice turned and asked, “How did the appointments go?” “My back is almost totally healed up, and the doctor asked that I not be rolling around in any pig pens in the near future.” Joey said, with a smile. I spoke up, “He told me I was good to go and released me from any restrictions at school. I guess that means I can play basketball during gym now.” “I’m glad to hear that, Andy. Did he have anything else to say about you, Joey?” “Yes, ma’am. He said if I kept my back clean, I could go camping this weekend with Andy and Roger.” “Oh, he did, did he?” Even though I couldn’t see Aunt Alice’s face, I could tell she was smiling. “Uh huh. He sure did. I think it would be a good idea. It would give me a chance to get out and see more of this beautiful place. My father never allowed me to go camping or even have sleepovers.” I reached over, took his hand in mine, and gave it a squeeze. When I looked up, I saw a single tear escape his eye and flowed down his cheek. I glanced up and saw Aunt Alice’s eyes on us in the rear-view mirror. I could see the sadness she felt for Joey in them. “Well, you’ll need to talk to your fathers, but I don’t see a problem with it either. In fact, I think it’s a great idea.” Joey’s face lit up. When he turned to look at me, even his eyes smiled at me. There was no doubt that Aunt Alice’s words had made him very happy. “Thank you, Aunt Alice.” Joey said. Roger turned around, and quickly laid out the game plan. “We’ll talk to our dads tonight when they get home. Since it’s only Friday night and part of Saturday, we’ll go light with our sleeping bags, hot dogs, and snacks. There’s plenty of water from that underground spring we found last year.” He looked at Joey. “You’ll love it, Joey. It’s the best water I ever had a drink of. It’s so cold, clear, and tasty. But more than that, you’ll love the sights. It’s really beautiful up there. It’s like a place time forgot.” Roger was in his tour guide mode. “Even after all this time, it’s not hard to find arrow heads. Who knows how long they have been there. They say these mountains are the oldest in the world. The reason they aren’t still the tallest mountains in the world today is because the weather and water caused erosion and wore them down to what they are today, after millions of years.” I slightly poked Joey in the ribs, and said with a smile, “Now, there’s one proud hillbilly.” We all busted up laughing. Even Aunt Alice joined in.
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  19. Walking in the front door, Gibby was greeted by the delicious aroma of tangy tomato and cheese that filled the house. The smell tingled his nose bringing a loud growl from his teenage stomach. He wasn’t hungry until now. That sandwich had done little to keep his hunger at bay and the thought of his dad’s twice baked spaghetti had his mouth watering. “Wow, you’re home early.” Gibby shouted towards the kitchen as he pulled out the small bundle of back-to-school paperwork that had to be completed before tomorrow, and carried it to the breakfast bar. “I wanted to be here when you got home.” Jonathan glanced up from the vegetables he was chopping on the countertop. “Soooo…how was your first day?” Gibby hid his frustration behind a fake smile, “It was fine.” Jonathan watched him for a moment, “What’s wrong? Did something happen?” There was no fooling his father. “No, Dad, it was fine, I promise. This place is going to take a little getting used to, that’s all.” “Just give it a chance.” Jonathan’s tone suddenly softened. The move was harder on his son then him. The last thing Gibby needed was Jonathan making things more difficult. “What are the kids like?” There was no way in hell that Gibby was going to tell his father about the kindergarten incident, so he shrugged his shoulders and picked a cucumber out of the salad bowl. “I met a girl at lunch. Her name’s Shelby and she was kind of cool.” Jonathan’s eyebrows quickly shot up bringing a giggle from Gibby. “Don’t get your hopes up, old man. Just because Shepherd’s Crook doesn’t have a GLBT welcoming committee, I’m not changing teams that fast.” “What about the other kids, did anyone feel like they were gay friendly?” Gibby thought for a second. The boys had given him lots of curious glances during the day, but he wouldn’t call any of them hopeful. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’m not interested in dating anyone any time soon.” Noticing the stack of papers, Jonathan nodded his head towards the pile, “Did they assign homework on the first day of school?” Gibby let out a chuckle, “Oh, it’s homework alright, but it’s not for me.” “That’s all for me?” Jonathan’s mouth dropped open as he stepped closer, reading the paper on top. “What kind of institution is Grady running?” Shaking his head tumbled auburn locks around Gibby’s forehead and ears. “Welcome to public education 101. If it happens at school, there’s a form for it…and in color-coded triplicate too.” Gibby continued to laugh at his father’s reaction. “Lockner didn’t have all that crap to complete each year--” The smile disappeared from Gibby’s face, “Yes, they did! You just didn’t see it.” He stopped himself before adding that his mother had always filled out his paperwork, but letting the unsaid words hang in the air. *** The rest of the week passed without any unexpected run-ins with Amanda. With the pep rally being scheduled for next Friday, the following week she had something else to focus her evil attention on other than trying to make Gibby’s life miserable. The first game of the season between Shepherd’s Crook and their biggest rival, Mt. Jackson, was the highlight of the entire season. The game was important and, as the girlfriend of the captain of the football team, Amanda designated herself as the head organizer of the pep rally committee which left Gibby alone to settle into life in Shepherd’s Crook. *** “Can anyone name a metal that remains liquid at room temperature?” Ms. Stein asked, perched from the corner of her big wooden desk in the front of her classroom. A hush fell over the room. Several students nervously flipped through their textbook, searching for the answers that they wouldn’t find. It wasn’t in the book. With a mischievous glint in her eyes, she glanced around the room, waiting for someone to attempt to answer the question. Several students lowered their eyes, not wanting to meet her gaze. “Come on…anyone?” She jumped up and walked between the aisles trying to engage her students, encouraging them to try. “Mercury,” Tanner spoke without looking up from the notebook he was covering with doodles. “Very good, Mr. Mitchell,” she praised her student, but continued to look at his other classmates, “but there’s more than just one. Does anyone else have any ideas?” Ms. Stein asked the silent classroom. She liked to challenge her students to think and waited to see if someone would attempt to answer. Gibby watched them twisting uncomfortable in their seats, “Francium.” He answered while everyone else stayed quiet. Ms. Stein’s face lit up. “Yes! Good job Gibby, and can you name the others?” She was putting him on the spot. The few times she had spoken to Gibby, she quickly realized that he was a very intelligent boy. Now, in front of his new peers, she hoped her question didn’t backfire and embarrass him. “Others? They might be liquid on a blazing hot July day, but I wouldn’t call it a comfortable room temperature,” Gibby snorted, trying to hide his grin. He really liked Ms. Stein and didn’t want to contradict her in front of her class. Once she knew that Gibby had the answer, she went for broke. “Since you obviously know the answer, Mr. Robinson, why don’t you enlighten the rest of the class?” Ms. Stein smiled, waiting for him to wow his classmates. "Rubidium, Cesium, and Gallium.” The students started to buzz as soon as he answered. Tanner stopped drawing to glance over his shoulder at Gibby sitting the next row over and two desks back. "A lot of people think Bromine is one too, but technically, it's not a metal." Tanner’s mouth was hidden behind his shoulder, but Gibby could tell by the crinkle of his bright blue eyes that he was smiling. “Excellent, Mr. Robinson. Just for that, you get first pick at the lab tables in the back.” She beamed at him as if he had won the lottery, but Gibby continued to look confused. The big black tables in the back of the room displayed test-tube racks and glass beakers, but until now the students had sat at the individual desks at the front of the classroom. “Today is lab partner day.” As soon as the words were in the air, Amanda’s face beamed as she glanced over to Ethan, making sure he understood that they would be each other’s partner. Gibby’s heart started to race. There were twenty-two students in the class, but what if nobody wanted to be his partner. Looking around the room, all eyes were on him. They all stared at him, but there wasn’t a friendly smile among their faces. “Go on, pick a table and take your things with you.” Ms. Stein encouraged him. Slowly easing out of the comfort of his desk, Gibby slung his satchel over his shoulder and walked to the back and picked a table near the window with a view of the overgrown oak tree in front of the school. “Who’s next?” Amanda demanded. A coy smirk glided over their teacher’s face. “That would be Ms. Blackfeather.” Sunshine glanced up and smiled. “Why does Sunny get to choose next?” Amanda whined in a high nasally tone. “Because,” Ms. Stein smirked as she walked back to her favorite spot on her desk, “Blackfeather is the first name in the alphabet.” Gibby enjoyed watching the frustration wash over Amanda’s face as Ms. Stein called students according to their last names to pick a lab table. When Mark Butler tried to squeeze into the chair beside Sunshine, Ms. Stein shook her head and told him to pick an empty table. The teacher had a plan, one that Amanda wasn’t going to like. Once all the tables held a single student, Ms. Stein pulled out a small blue box and walked around the room. Each of the remaining students drew a card labeled one through eleven. Glancing at the tables beside him, Gibby noticed they were all numbered and his was number eight. “Number eight! Go have a seat, Tanner.” Gibby’s head shot up in time to see Tanner walking right toward him. His blue eyes were kind and warm as he approached the table. For a moment, Gibby forgot to breathe. As Tanner sat down, the warm scent of his designer cologne filled the space between them. “Looks like we’re partners.” Tanner’s voice washed over Gibby, bringing a strange mixture of tingling chills and hot flush that peppered his skin. He wanted to answer him, yet Gibby had suddenly forgotten how to talk. *** Just when Gibby thought the day couldn’t get any better, Tanner looked up from his book and smiled at him when he walked into the busy cafeteria. It wasn’t a masked grin, but a genuine smile. Tanner’s eyes gazed over Gibby, taking in his long denim covered legs and gray hoodie before the blond boy quickly returned his attention back to his book. Gibby tried to make out the title, but it was too far away to read the small print. The usual tables were already filled, so Gibby made his way to the far corner where a few students appeared to be studying. Gibby hadn’t seen Shelby again since that first day. She looked younger than his other classmates, so she might be assigned to a different lunch schedule. That was too bad because Gibby had really wanted to talk to her. Nobody at the table looked up when he plopped down onto a chair warmed by the noon sunshine streaming into the cafeteria. Gibby fought the urge to look over at Tanner, seated at the center table surrounded by his popular friends, but he didn’t want anyone to catch him ogling the gorgeous teen dream. Instead he dug out the sandwich and Cheetos from his satchel and started to eat his lunch to keep his mind off Tanner. “Incoming!” The frantic shout was echoed by a squeal of laughter. Trying to ignoring the chaos behind him, Gibby never saw the pudding missile until the plastic cup hit and exploded on the table in front of him, splattering butterscotch across his face and hair. “What the fuck?” Gibby muttered as the other students sharing the table jumped up and away from him and the sticky mess. The sickening sweet stench made his stomach churn. He didn’t have to see it happen to know that Amanda Grady was behind the attack.
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  20. Chapter 15 Lessons “Andy… Andy… ANDY… Are you in there?” I groaned and turned my head towards the voice. “Ah, there you are. How are you feeling?” I opened my eyes to see Nurse Nancy standing beside me. “Where… where am I?” “You were brought in to the Emergency Room because of that nasty bump on your head, child.” She took my hand in hers for reassurance. The expression on her face was all knowing. Confidant. “You’ve had a visitation, haven’t you? She had opened up to Joey and me about her nephew the last time we spoke, to make us feel comfortable with the fact she knew there was more to us than friendship. There was something good about her. I kind of felt like I was with my mom again, and I figured if I could trust her with my relationship with Joey, I could be honest with her. “Yes.” She smiled at me, “We’ll talk about it some other time if you want, but for now let’s see how you’re doing.” She checked my vitals, starting with blood pressure. “How long have I been here? Where am I? Where are my Dad, Joey, and Roger?” I asked in rapid succession. “Easy child. I will answer them one at a time.” She finished taking my pulse and checked my temperature. “You have been unconscious for about three hours now. Your father, your friend, and your boyfriend,” I blushed at the mention of a boyfriend, “are in the waiting room waiting impatiently for me to come and get them. Once we have determined that you are out of the woods, I will call for them.” She patted my forearm a couple of times. Once she was sure I was comfortable, she hung up my chart at the foot of the bed. “Now remember to just rest when they visit with you.” She gave me a wink and headed out the door. She knew I had a vision. She knew I had spoken to someone, but she couldn’t know it was mom, could she? Maybe she meant the light that appeared to me in the nurse’s office. For the life of me, I just couldn’t figure out how she knew about either of them. The door opened. Dad walked in and the paleness in his face showed his concern. He maneuvered himself over to the side of the bed where I had an IV running into my arm and rested his hand in mine. He reached out with his other hand, brushed my hair off my brow, and kissed my forehead. “I love you, Andy.” His eyes were the same as mom’s, filled with the wash of unconditional love. “You gave us a scare. How are you feeling, son?” “My head hurts a little.” Being so glad to see my Dad and feeling safe with him here now, I just realized that dad came alone. Dad was a sharp man, not much escaped him. He smiled at me as he took his seat. “Don’t worry son, they’ll be here in a second. I asked them to give me some time with you first. After all, I am your father.” He pulled the chair up close to the bed and wrapped my hand in both of his. I noticed the concern play out on his face. When he spoke, it was gentle. “Do you feel ready to tell me what happened?” I cleared my throat. “It was JT. I kinda knew something bad would happen today. While Joey and I walked to my locker, I was telling him about the dream I had when JT and his friends approached, and one of them pushed me head first into the lockers. When I looked up from the floor, JT had a hold of Joey, and he was choking him with his forearm. Jonas and Kevin were the other two with him. I dunno, Dad. Before I knew what was happening I hit JT. I couldn’t help myself, Dad. Roger tackled Jonas and Kevin ran away like the coward he is. This is the second time JT has attacked us, Dad. I was about to finish JT off when Joey stopped me.” “Joey stopped you?” “It was so surreal. I heard someone say ‘stop’ just as I was about to hit JT again. It was like a voice that commanded it obeyed. I turned and realized that it had been Joey that had told me to stop. He placed his hand on my chest and suddenly all the anger was gone. Just like that. Then he did an even stranger thing. He forgave JT. He said he understood that it wasn’t JT, but his father who put him up to this. He forgave the jerk, Dad. Even helped him up.” “And JT didn’t fight back?” “Nope. He was shaking, like he was shocked, but the moment Joey reached out to help him. The moment their hands touched, Dad, it was like, like he was at peace. All calm. He couldn’t understand why Joey had forgiven him and Joey simply said to him that he understood. The next thing he apologized and walked off as though nothing had happened.” “Well, son, if Joey had not stopped you there would have been hell at school today.” “Dad, I don’t understand this myself and I don’t expect you to understand. I’m sure Joey will explain later.” “He’s a fine boy, Andy. He’s been through hell and back, and maybe he understands that what is happening is because certain people have no control over their lives. They are controlled by what others say and do.” “Maybe so, Dad, but something even stranger happened in the ambulance.” He raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead, son.” With tears in my eyes, I told him about Mom appearing to me and what she had said. After talking for twenty minutes or so about what he called my visions, he stood up to leave. His eyes were misty and at the door, he took a moment to compose himself. “I’m going to get Roger and Joey, and let them come in and visit awhile.” He wiped the tears from his eyes before he spoke again. “Now, you and Joey don’t get carried away. You need to take it easy for a few days,” he chuckled and winked at me, then left. I rolled my eyes and wanted to throw something at the door, but instead, I grinned at the thought of me and Joey getting carried away. I was alone, and in the next few minutes, I made peace with God. I prayed he would understand why I had been mad at Him, thanked Him for letting me see Mom, and asked Him to watch over my family and loved ones. I asked that He guide me, to help me limit my mistakes. I had just said ‘Amen’ when the door opened. “Andy, are you okay?” Joey asked, rushing to my side. He took my hand and held it tightly. His forehead was creased with worry lines. Tears ran a fine film over his eyes. Roger, beside Joey, nodded a greeting. “Yes, babe, I’m okay.” I squeezed his hand. Roger leaned over, his face tight with concern. “What did the doctors say?” “I don’t know. I haven’t seen any since I’ve been awake.” Joey lightly kissed my lips, like he was afraid to hurt me, but God, that felt so awesome. It pumped strength and health into me, like someone had shot adrenalin into my veins. I felt much better, and stronger. I wrapped my free arm around Joey’s neck and kissed him passionately. It wasn’t a tongue wrestling, spit swapping kiss; it was sweet and tender and it showed how we felt about each other. When we broke the kiss, he stood up all red faced, but his eyes were full of love and adoration. Roger grinned and Joey blushed brighter than ever before. I looked down at his crotch and noticed he was harder than a rock. As I looked closer, I knew it wasn’t just from being hard that had him so embarrassed. His pants had a slowly growing wet spot. He had shot his load just from our kiss alone. It was then that I realized my tummy was covered in jazz too. “Wow! That was some kiss.” Roger said, and patted Joey on the back. His eyes scanned my body and stopped at the tented sheet. He turned away from me, trying to suppress a laugh, but he wasn’t successful. I glared back, but he was trying really hard to stop laughing. With his face as red as a fire truck and a grin that cut across his face from ear to ear, Joey just shrugged, causing us both to laugh wildly, joining in with Roger. Oh God, it hurt my head, but it felt so good. After we all calmed down, I squeezed Joey’s hand. “Babe, you better clean up the best you can, and when you finish,” I said, “bring me back something to wipe my tummy.” I winked. Joey released my hand and retreated to the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Roger sat down in the chair dad had been sitting in earlier, shaking his head, and still chuckling. The smile and the jokes faded quickly. I felt nervous about what Roger was thinking. “You sure you’re okay?” He paused until I nodded. “You passed out on us twice; once in the nurse’s office, and again in the ambulance.” He paused again, shuffled the chair closer to the bed, and put his hand on mine. “You scared me in the ambulance, Andy. The EMT thought he’d lost you. He said something about you going into shock and that your vitals were crashing.” A tear streaked down his cheek. I turned my hand over and took his. I squeezed it and he dropped his head, as if humbled. “Andy, I love you bro. I don’t want to lose you. You’re more than my best friend, we’re brothers.” When he spoke, it was clear that he was losing the battle to hold back a sob. “I love you too, Roger. You have always been there for me. You were there for me this morning. You’re right; I love you more than just a best friend.” I paused “We are brothers.” We both squeezed the others hand and shed a few tears together. This was becoming an emotional morning for me. Just then, Joey returned. He knew that Roger and I had just had a special moment by the understanding turn of his lips. He stood on the opposite side of the bed and discreetly passed me a towel. I lifted the covers a little, and cleaned off my tummy and the gown I had on. It hit me then that someone had undressed me and put me in this hospital gown. Once I was done, Joey took the towel back to the bathroom. Dad returned with the doctor, the same doctor that had examined Joey the previous week. He took my chart and read it. Then he checked my pulse, took my blood pressure, and paused every few minutes to write something down. We watched him in silence. “Open,” he said, and stuck a thermometer under my tongue. He pulled it out, examined it, and wrote on my chart. After removing the IV from my arm, he asked, “how are you feeling, Andy?” “There’s just a slight ache where I hit my head.” “That’s good.” He smiled, and then turned to Dad standing beside him. “The x-rays came back negative for concussion. I believe that once he settled down from the fight, there was the realization of what could have happened, and it scared him enough that he went into shock. While in the nurse’s office, his system fought back and rebounded. However, when he realized he was being taken to the hospital, he went into shock again.” He turned and gazed at me, “You should thank the EMT for stabilizing you en-route, young man. He probably saved your life.” He looked at my dad before he continued, “Now, with the x-ray and the fact his vitals have returned to normal, I’m going to release him on the condition he takes it easy the rest of the week. That means nothing strenuous; no sports, and no tree climbing,” he glanced at Joey, “and no extracurricular activities.” Both Joey and I blushed. Dad and Roger chuckled. Dad shook his hand and thanked him. The doctor told him he would fill out the paper work and a nurse would bring the papers for him to sign. Before he left, he turned to me and put a hand on my arm. “Andy, you seem like a really good boy. And I would love to get to know you, but we have to stop meeting like this,” he paused, “while we are getting the paperwork taken care of, you may dress. Your clothes are hanging over there in the closet,” he pointed towards the closet. “I mean it, for the next few days, you are to take it easy, and let’s hope there aren’t any hidden injuries.” Turning back to dad he said, “Someone will be with you in a few minutes.” “Thank you, doctor.” Dad said, shaking his hand. Dad glanced at me, “Go ahead and get dressed, Andy. I’ll step out and give you some privacy. You seem to have enough help here.” “Extracurricular activities!” Roger laughed. “You’re lucky he didn’t catch the kiss and the aftermath.” He laughed harder and rolled off the chair onto the floor. Once again proving to me someone could ROTFLMAO. I looked over at Joey and rolled my eyes. He grinned and extended his hand to help me off the bed. I had finished dressing when Dad and Nurse Nancy returned. She nodded at Joey and said, “Don’t forget to come by the clinic Wednesday, Joey. We have to see if you are healing properly. Are you changing the bandages twice a day?” “Yes ma’am, and the last couple of days they have been a lot less, umm...messy, when we take them off.” “Good, good. Then I look forward to seeing you Wednesday.” Turning to me, she continued, “and you too, Andy. The doctor wants to see you both, Joey at 3:30 and you at 4:00. Are those appointment times okay?” “Yes ma’am.” I answered. Dad said, “Someone will pick them up from school and have them at the clinic on time.” “If Andy has any pain, the doctor advised acetaminophen, just the regular strength. Don’t worry about the stitches; they’ll dissolve in about a week, and be sure to keep the area clean. Does anyone have any questions?” She took her time and made sure she got an answer from Dad, Roger, and Joey, and then she glanced at me. “No ma’am.” I said. “Good,” she smiled. “The orderly will be in shortly to help you to your vehicle.” Pointing at Joey and me, “I’ll see you two Wednesday.” I wondered what she would have to say the next time we met. She turned her focus to dad, “Judge, if you like, by the time you pull your car around, they should be there.” “Thank you. I’ll see you boys out front.” They left together as the three of us waited for the orderly. At home, Joey and Roger helped me upstairs. Joey propped up the pillows so I could sit up with my back against the headboard and they sat on the bed Indian style, facing me. I told them about the dream and vision. I explained what the figure in it had said to me, including how I had lost faith, and that it was time to believe again. Then I told them about mom coming to me. It wasn’t easy to tell them what she told me, how she held me, or how I felt about the whole thing. They sat wide-eyed as I told my story, but I could tell they believed every word. “Wow, Andy, I’m glad you got to speak to your mom again. That’s so cool.” Joey smiled and held my hand. His gentle presence made me feel safe. “I’m glad too, Andy.” Roger said with a tear in his eye. He had loved my mother, like a second mother, just like I loved Aunt Alice. I knew he missed her, too. “It makes me happy she’s in heaven, she deserves it.” Roger’s voice was choked with emotion, and he tried not to sniffle. Dad stopped at the door, and looked in. “Boys, Andy needs to rest after today’s events.” “Okay, Uncle Sam.” Roger said, climbing off the bed. Joey did too, but stayed behind as Dad and Roger walked downstairs. He leaned over and gave me a butterfly kiss. “That’s all you get, cutie.” He said with a smile. “I can’t go home with my pants showing like they did at the hospital.” He grinned. “That’ll keep me until the next kiss.” I winked. “I love you Joey, forever.” “I love you too, Andy, forever and always.” * * * * * * * * * * Judge Daniel Whitt entered his closed courtroom and the bailiff instructed everyone rise. There were two defendants, who sat alone at the defense table, and two attorneys sat at the prosecution table. Behind them was Miss Anderson from the Department of Community Based Services. After the judge had taken his place, he motioned for them to be seated. He turned to the Commonwealth attorney, “This hearing is for the purpose of determining bail. Who are these other people with the Commonwealth?” “Your Honor, Tom Smith, representing the Commonwealth, and on my right is Carl Bennett, attorney for the victim. Seated behind me is Miss Anderson, Child Protective Services.” The assistant commonwealth attorney answered. “It is the Commonwealth’s position that neither of the two defendants receive bail due to the ruthless, brutal nature of their multiple assaults over several months and the felony child neglect after the severe injuries the victim sustained, by not allowing any medical attention be given for the same injuries.” Judge Whitt nodded, turned towards the defendants, and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Adams, do you have counsel?” “No, sir,” Pastor Adams answered the judge solemnly. “Mr. Adams, when addressing this court, you will stand.” The judge advised him. The pastor slowly rose, with his back straight, and his chin held high, “I’m sorry Sir, I didn’t know. I’ve never been in a courtroom before. As a God fearing man, I’ve always been on the right side of man’s law. As the Lord said, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ I pay my taxes, obey the speed laws, I do not…” The judge interrupted the pastor. “Mr. Adams, do you understand the charges being brought against you?” “No, Sir. I do not understand at all. I’ve committed no crime. Yet, I have been thrown into jail, just like Saint Paul and Saint Peter. All I did was to try to turn my wayward son from a life of sin. Our country is being torn asunder by the wicked, foul, disgusting homosexuals that are an abomination before God. I did what any God fearing father would have done. I laid down the law in a way my son would never forget. The evil acts he was committing are sinful, and that the road he was on was leading to damnation.” The judge’s eyes narrowed, “Is it by choice that neither of you are represented by counsel?” “That is correct. We don’t feel we need a lawyer, since we have done nothing wrong.” “It is always wise to have an attorney when you are involved in a court proceeding. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court can appoint one for you. Are you sure?” The judge waited until both of them said yes. “Very well,” turning to the commonwealth attorney he said, “what is the Commonwealth’s recommendation?” Standing up, Mr. Smith said, “Your Honor, the Commonwealth recommends, no bail in this case. However, if one must be granted, we recommend a one hundred thousand dollar cash bond on Mr. Adams, and a seventy-five thousand dollar cash bond on Mrs. Adams. We also recommend an order that neither defendant have any contact with the victim; a five hundred foot restraining order, and a gag order placed on both defendants from speaking publicly about this case, which includes said church. We also request an order that the Commonwealth, through Child Protective Services, be given temporary custody of the minor victim until this case has been decided. At which time, the foster family presently housing Joseph Matthew Adams, the minor victim in this case, may wish to proceed with adoption of said minor.” He paused, looked at both Mr. Bennett and Miss Anderson. After receiving a nod from both, he turned to the judge and said, “I believe that covers everything for the Commonwealth at this time.” “How in heavens name am I supposed to come up with that kind of money?” The pastor screamed at the prosecution. His face had become red and his hands gripped the edge of the table in front of him. Mrs. Adams sat quietly and glanced up at her husband as though in shock. “Order!” The judge banged his gavel. “I will not allow any outbursts in my courtroom!” He leaned forward, giving the pastor a stern look, and then he turned to the state attorney before he continued. “However, he makes a very good point.” “Your Honor, we have documented medical evidence that Mr. Adams, routinely beat his son with such severity that the boy has suffered broken bones, welts, and bruises from months of abuse. Mrs. Adams witnessed these beatings and did nothing to stop them, nor did she bother to have her son treated by a doctor afterwards, and she never reported these beatings to anyone. In fact, she assisted in the cover-up of the crimes. Therefore, your Honor, she is a co-conspirator in this case.” “Your Honor,” the pastor rose to address the judge. The earlier anger had faded and now his approach was meek. “Mr. Adams, you may address the court concerning the bond.” “Your Honor, my wife and I have done nothing wrong here. A million dollar bond, they say?” He glanced first at his wife then across to the table of lawyers sitting on the other side of the room. “Are they out of their minds? I don’t know what my lying son has told them, but all we did was to try and correct his life-style. I’m flabbergasted at the amount of money they want for just applying the rod instead of spoiling the child. Besides, doing the Lord’s work does not pay that kind of money, at least not here in Eastern Kentucky.” Judge Whitt sat back. The courtroom was silent. There was a look of concern on his face as he turned and focused on the Commonwealth Attorney. “Were photographs taken in this case?” “Yes, your Honor. May I approach?” “Approach.” Mr. Smith picked up a folder and gave it to the judge. Without betraying his thoughts, Judge Whitt looked through the folder, returned it to Mr. Smith, and with a wave of his hand, motioned for him to retake his seat. * * * * * * * * * * A light knocking on my open bedroom door woke me. I rolled over and looked up, and saw dad standing there with a smile on his face. “What would you like for supper, Andy?” “What time is it?” I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “It’s six o’clock. Do you feel well enough to have pizza for dinner?” He asked, knowing I would never turn down a pizza. “Um… I don’t know Dad.” He rolled his eyes, turned, and went downstairs. Suddenly, I felt very hungry. I guess my attitude backfired on me. I quickly got out of bed and followed him downstairs. After dinner, we sat in the living room watching the Reds get beat again when there was a knock at the front door. Dad told me he would see who it was, and handed me the TV remote. I heard voices and turned off the TV, and was just about get up when Joey stepped into the room. The Banks family were behind Dad. Joey sat down beside me on the couch. Roger took a seat on the other side of me. The adults walked off into another room, leaving us alone. Joey took my hand and stared into my eyes. “How are you feeling, Andy?” “I’m good, why?” I looked over at Roger to see if something was going on. “Roger and I have been talking about what you told us this afternoon. He also told me about some of the stuff you went through, a couple of years ago.” Joey squeezed my hand. A tear slipped down my cheek and dropped onto my arm. I forced myself to look at Joey, the tears in my eyes ready to follow the first that had fallen. Roger wrapped his arm around my shoulders and his head came to rest against mine. A sob exploded from deep within me and I lay my head against Joey’s chest as he wrapped his arms around me too. There we three sat, Joey and Roger comforting me, knowing that I needed a release of the emotions that had built up within me since mom’s death. My best friend and my boyfriend realized that I had refused to acknowledge my pain that had been growing since she died. My visions had chipped away at the dam holding my emotions back, and now, they broke through the dam, like a mighty rushing river, because the two guys I loved, one as a soul mate and the other like a brother, knew me better than I knew myself. All it took was to be embraced by their love and understanding. My mother’s death had affected me far more than I had let on. Even my recovery with my shrink’s help hadn’t been as complete as I had allowed my family to believe. I guess the reason had been that I hadn’t grieved the way I needed to, and it was still bottled up inside me. I had thought, by not accepting her death that she didn’t go through the pain she had in the end, and she wasn’t gone at all. I realized it was foolish to pretend she was still there, like she had never died, but it was my way of coping with it. Now, well now I knew she wasn’t in pain and happy. Mom was happy and still there! Though it wasn’t the way I had pretended it to be, but it was even better this way. She WAS in Heaven, and of that, I had no doubt. My mother and Joey had both given me a gift today. Joey showed me that forgiveness could change lives. My mom, through the seemingly impossible way she had spoken with me, reassured me, and showed me that nothing is impossible with love. The lessons they taught me are ones I will always strive to keep.
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  21. Chapter 14 Visions “Andy,” Joey whispered from behind me. With my name spoken so softly, he had my full attention. Everything else was forgotten, I turned and faced him. He shook his head and put his hand on my chest. The sympathy in his eyes broke my heart and immediately stilled my anger. He glanced at JT before he said anything more to me. “He’s not to blame. He’s only doing what he was told to do. I know his fear. I’ve lived it too. It’s his father.” Joey calmly walked over to JT and reached down his hand to help him up. “JT, I forgive you.” To say JT was as shocked as I was would be an understatement. At first, his eyes widened, his mouth hung open, and his lips trembled slightly. As JT took Joey’s hand, the hatred and scorn his face had shown earlier, changed to one of peace and tranquility. Joey pulled him to his feet and glanced at Roger. “It’s okay now Roger. You can let him go. There won’t be any more trouble from him today.” Roger released Jonas, but kept an eye on him. Jonas shook his head, bewildered, and then headed towards the door. JT was nervous, but he remained rooted to the spot, eying Joey up and down. Finally, the tension broke, and he asked, “Why?” “Because I understand why you did it,” Joey answered, placing a hand on JT’s shoulder. “I didn’t get hurt, but Andy did.” JT glanced at me. His body trembled. He turned his gaze to the floor out of sheer guilt. I’d never seen him show anything but anger. It felt like forever before he took a breath and said. “I’m sorry you were hurt. I didn’t do it, but I’m the one that caused it.” His gaze went back to the floor and his voice, barely louder than a whisper, reflected his remorse. “I’m sorry,” He said. This stunned me more than Joey’s commanding voice or having my head shoved into a locker, but I knew I had to reply, and choose my words wisely. “JT, we used to be friends a long time ago. I don’t know what I did or what happened that caused us not to be friends.” I paused, searching for the words, before continuing, “I trust Joey, and from what I’ve seen here this morning, I believe you mean it. You’re forgiven and I hope we can be friends again,” I said reaching out my hand. He cautiously took my offered hand and shook it just as Mrs. Moore came running up. She was a little out of breath, but quickly took control of the situation. “What’s going on here boys? I was told some guys were fighting.” I didn’t want to lie, nor did I want JT in trouble at this point, so, I had to be careful how I worded my explanation. “Mrs. Moore, as you can see no one is fighting. I lost my balance,” ‘Yeah right, with a lot of help,’ I thought. “And I fell into the lockers and cut my head. I was just thanking JT for his help. Do you think I should go and see the nurse about my head?” I hoped that I had given Mrs. Moore enough information to let her know that this was settled and that she should let it go. She was known to be fair with students and concerned with how we all handled our problems. Besides, my head had begun to really hurt, and felt light headed. She walked up to me, took my head in her hands, examined it carefully, and said, “I think you’re quite right.” She peered into my eyes. “Andy, how are you feeling now?” “I’m a little dizzy and kinda in shock to be honest.” I told her the truth, and I really just wanted to lie down. Mrs. Moore paused a moment and glared at JT. She shook her head in dismay and turned to Joey, who was standing beside me. “Will you take him to the nurse’s office and stay with him until she comes in?” “We both will,” Roger answered. She nodded in approval and chased the stragglers, who had stopped to watch, to their classrooms. JT’s expression of gratitude was genuine. “Thank you, Andy.” There was no doubt that he meant it. This sure wasn’t how I had expected my day to go, fighting and then making friends, with JT. I smiled and waved him off. “Forget it, JT.” “Come on.” Roger put his arm around my waist and pulled me towards the nurse’s office. I was glad both Joey and Roger were escorting me. I felt a little dizzy now that the fighting had stopped. I would have hated to pass out on Joey, on the way to the nurse, if he had been by himself. “You know we are going to talk about what happened this morning, don’t you.” I asked Joey. “I don’t know what to say, Andy, but if you feel we must, I’ll try to explain, but not now. First we need to get you examined.” He stiffened beside me and his voice was stronger than before. There was no denying my boyfriend was determined when he wanted to be. I nodded and followed their lead. By the time we got there, I really did need the two of them to hold me up. My knees had turned to jelly during the long walk to the nurse’s office and my vision had blurred. The office was open, but the nurse hadn’t arrived yet. Roger and Joey laid me down on one of those hospital examination beds, like the one Joey was on the first time we kissed. As soon as I lay my head on the pillow, I noticed the concern in Joey’s face. Then the world around me darkened, and everything faded. Finally, blackness. I became aware of being surrounded by darkness and of a figure stood in front of me. It glowed brightly and radiated warmth. “Michael Andrew Collins.” I couldn’t see the lips move in the bright light that emanated from it. I had the feeling that this wasn’t a dream, and that I was expected to answer. “Yes, sir?” I answered, as respectfully as I could. “A time of trials is coming for you. You have the strength of character and the courage of the heart. Be strong of faith, for faith will see you through all that comes against you and yours.” It paused, and then as if it could see into my heart, it said, “God did not take your mother from you, it was her time.” “How… how did you know that I blamed God? I’ve never shared that with anyone, not even my dad.” “God hast heard your prayers. He knows all things, and what is best for all of us. Sometimes we have to go through bad things for good things to happen.” I wasn’t totally convinced with that answer, but I had accepted it when I read it in the Clan Short stories. I mean, it made sense the way it was explained in the story that sometimes bad things had to happen so good things could happen. So why couldn’t I now? I decided to go with my heart. “Okay, I can believe that, so what do you want from me?” I had the feeling that my answer had pleased it, whoever it was. “Just be true to your own nature, and know that you do not stand alone. God moves through many people. Remember, God is known by many names, by many people. God is spirit, and God is love.” The figure began to fade as it spoke those last words. “Wait, don’t go yet!” “You cannot stay here no longer, Andy. You have much to do, and people who love you are waiting. For now, have faith.” As I watched, the figure faded from sight, and I was alone in total darkness once again. Great, a talking light that spoke in riddles. Well maybe not riddles, but it could have at least told me what was coming and what I was supposed to do about it. The ground beneath my feet trembled, and I fell flat on my back. Someone called my name. In the distance. Closer. The voice of a woman. “Andy, wake up.” My eyelids were heavy and they slowly drifted open. It took a moment to focus on the figure before me. Eventually I could make out Miss Pennington, the school nurse. She was concerned, and she stared nervously into my eyes. She waited a minute before speaking. “Good, you’re awake. Now you have to stay awake for me, okay. No more sleeping until we get you to the hospital.” She reached out and took my pulse, ignoring my puzzled expression. A moment later, she was marking down everything on a sheet of paper she had on a clipboard. “What happened?” I asked. “You passed out as soon as we laid you down. You kinda scared us for a minute.” Joey’s voice seemed like a life preserver to me. A moment later, he came into view beside Miss Pennington. It was a relief to know he was there with me. “I must have hit my head harder than I thought.” I tried to smile. “Nothing can hurt that hard head of yours too much,” Roger joked. I could tell he was worried, but he was trying hard to put me at ease. Just then, a EMT and the driver walked in pulling a stretcher. I wasn’t expecting that. “Has anyone called my Dad?” I asked. “He’ll meet you at the hospital,” Miss Pennington said, resting a hand on my arm. After the EMT had made me comfortable on the cot, they wheeled me out into the hallway with Joey and Roger behind me. Debbie, Timmy, Gary, Randy, and some other people were standing outside the nurse’s door. “Are you okay, Andy?” Debbie asked as I passed. I smiled and gave her an okay sign. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I hadn’t expected this many people to be so concerned about me. One thing was for sure: the okay sign may have been faked, but the smile was for real. As they wheeled me down the hall to the ambulance, I heard the nurse tell everyone they needed to head to class. Outside, the EMT explained to Joey and Roger that they couldn’t ride with me to the hospital. Roger was having none of that. “Sir, there’s no way we that aren’t going with Andy,” he said with a determined look. “Our parents told us we had to stick together. I fucked up this morning and walked away for just two minutes, and look what happened.” Roger pointed at me on the cot. “That’s Judge Collins’ son and my best friend, so either we go with Andy, or we deal with the judge at the hospital. If you don’t let us go with him, I’ll be on the phone to Judge Collins before you leave the parking lot.” When the EMT looked at Joey, Joey nodded towards Roger and said, “What he said.” “Fine, let us get him in first and you two can ride back here with me.” The EMT shook his head as he stared at Roger and Joey. The glare he shot them made it apparent that this wasn’t something he normally would put up with. Roger and Joey were silent while the EMT registered my vitals. After Joey and Roger had climbed into the ambulance the last thing I remembered was the mask being pulled over my mouth and nose, and someone mentioning that my vitals were crashing, and when I opened my eyes, I was standing in a large valley by a lake surrounded by green fields and tall, snow-capped mountains. I was at peace. I felt surrounded by love. The love flowed into me from everywhere, like the waters of a graceful river, on a warm summer day. The water in the lake was calm, and I could see the reflection of the mountains in it. A gentle breeze with heavenly smells calmed my soul. “It’s beautiful, is it not?” I would know that voice anywhere; a voice that had always been there. After she lost her battle with cancer, I thought I would never hear it again. The voice of the only woman in the world I would always love. Mom. Pure unconditional love. A love I had missed so much these last few years. My vision blurred from the tears flowing down my cheeks. “I’ve missed you so much!” I cried and fell into her open arms. “I know baby. I’ve missed holding you like this.” She rained kisses on the top of my head. “Is this heaven?” “In a way, it is. It’s a place I can talk to you for a few minutes.” She patted my back like she used to and gently hugged me to calm down. “Then, to me, it is heaven. I have my mom back, even if it is just for a few minutes.” She ruffled my hair. “You’re becoming a man, A Thaisce. It seems like it was just yesterday that I was rocking you in my arms and feeding you. And no you are as tall as I am.” One of the things I missed most about my mom was her calling me A Thaisce. It had been her private nickname for me since as far back as I could remember which always made me feel special. She told me once that it meant ‘my treasure’, and her father had called her the same nickname. It was nice to know it meant so much to her. Now, after three long years, I was hearing her call me that again and it made me feel ecstatic. Even though I hadn’t felt this good in, like, forever, and I have missed my mom like crazy, there had to be a reason that I was with her now, and Mom had always been honest with me, even during the roughest parts of her cancer. “It’s been three years, mom,” I grinned, and then turned serious, “but why are we here?” “My brave A Thaisce, you’re always asking the hard questions. I’m so proud of you. We are here so I can prepare you for what’s coming. You will soon be challenged. Just remember that you have been chosen to do this. It won’t be easy, baby, but I have faith in you. God will help you through this.” “What? What can I do? I’m just a boy.” “Honey, God can take your weaknesses and make them your strengths. All things are possible through Him. He is everywhere and in all things. Know that you will always have help. There will be guides, sent by God, to guide you through the coming years. They will teach you and train you to be the man you were meant to be. Just remember that people know God by different names, like The Great Spirit, or Sky Grandfather. Trust those sent by God. You can tell them by their spirit, for you have the ability to know if they have a good spirit or a bad spirit. If their fruit is good, then they are good. Have faith in God, and He will protect you and provide for you. Then you can do the same for those you love.” I was nervous. I had come out to my father and the rest of my family, but Mom had died before I could tell her. “You… you know about Joey and me?” I asked, averting my gaze for the first time. “Yes, Andy, and I approve.” She wrapped her arms around me. “A love that’s pure, like the one you share with Joey, can never be wrong in the sight of a loving mother, and I love you so very much, A Thaisce.” She hugged me tighter and tears washed my face when she accepted me. “Andy, we don’t have much longer,” she said as we pulled apart. “Remember everything I’ve told you. Listen to your father, for he is wise and knowledgeable. Let him guide you when you aren’t sure. Let Joey be your light in the darkness. He will guide your footsteps between right and wrong. Have faith in God, in your love for Joey, and his for you. And always remember that I love you, and I’m proud of you.” “Yes, Mom, I’ll do as you ask. I really miss you, Mom. Will I see you again?” She noticed the pleading in my eyes. “Only God knows the future, Andy. But I know one day, we will be together.” “I have so many questions, Mom. Are you all right? Are you happy?” I intertwined my hands with hers. “Oh Andy, you have no idea how happy I am. I miss you and your father very much, but there is so much joy and happiness in heaven. Remember the Bible verse ‘God is love?’” I nodded. “It’s so true. Always remember that. Love overcomes all things.” Her eyes had a little sadness in them. “When everything becomes dark and seems hopeless, call on God for help. He will answer.” I nodded again, afraid to speak. “Our time is up,” She said and kissed my forehead. I wrapped my arms around her tightly. “I love you Mom. I will never forget you.” Her hug tightened. “I know baby. I love you too.” When she kissed my forehead a second time, darkness surrounded me again. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard beeping noises far in the distance, growing louder and louder. My eyes were closed, but through my eyelids I could see the light growing brighter. When I opened my eyes, the light blinded me and I quickly closed them. Author Note: “A Thaisce” is a Gaelic term of endearment meaning “[my] treasure”
    1 point
  22. Two weeks later, and Dillon was still committed to football practice. All of his sunburn had turned to a tan, and his mother hated him for it. When she burned, she didn’t tan. Dillon was almost as tanned as Mark. Not that he noticed. Summer just suited Mark. He obviously liked the outdoor sports—the outdoors. And when he ran, or when Dillon was actually able to watch, Mark was amazing. His strong legs and wide stride down the field, the bunch of the muscles in his back as his arms pumped at his sides. Those moments were when Dillon was told to get his head back in the game. Half the team hated Mark for making them look bad, but that was only during practices. During the actual game season, they couldn’t be happier. After practice, most of the team sat in the shade changing out of cleats and into regular shoes. Dillon nursed his water bottle with one hand, while undoing the laces of his cleats with the other. Mark sat down next to him and began to take off his shoes as well. “Runza’s?” Mark asked. Going to Runza’s after practice had become somewhat of a routine, with usually a small group of guys going. Mark and Dillon were the only ones there daily. “I can’t.” Dillon sighed, setting his water bottle aside. “My mom insists that I go look at a house in town with her and Grandma, even though I have no say.” “Wow, unhappy much?” Mark teased. “She says she wants my opinion but it’s not like it’s going to change anything,” Dillon hissed. “Well there’s still two more weeks until school,” Mark pointed out. “So there’s plenty of other times to go out to lunch.” “I guess,” Dillon grumbled sourly, and with his cleats off, shoved his feet into his shoes. “Anyways, later,” Mark said and walked off towards his car. Dillon stared for a moment before screwing the cap back on his water and heading out towards his jeep. They had gotten him a ’97 Jeep Wrangler the week before—black, and a hard top. Dillon had taken the top off for the summer, though he hated it on dirt roads. He drove in town to a gas station to meet his mother and Grandma. What he really wanted to do was go home and shower. He was sweaty and hot, and… they were late. Dillon washed his face with water from his water bottle outside his jeep and waited. Ten minutes later Joann finally showed up with Grandma. Dillon followed them to where the house was. It was in an older, quiet neighborhood. Trees lined most of the sidewalks, tall and old and creating good shade for the summer. The real estate agent met them at the house, letting them inside. Dillon lingered around outside, admiring the front yard. It was lush and green, with at least two trees thick with leaves and shading the front of the house. The house was two stories and a white, almost grey, under the shade. The inside seemed wide and spacious from lack of furniture, but Dillon knew it was smaller than their last house. His Grandma was out towards the backyard, thinking she was talking to Joann. “You could put some tomato plants over in that corner… and you need a bird feeder. John and I will get you one, don’t worry.” Joann headed upstairs and motioned for Dillon to follow. “Your room is going to be second on the left,” she explained on their way up. “It over looks the backyard, so that should be nice.” Again, Dillon noted it was smaller than he was used to. A large window covered most of one of the walls, covered mostly by tree foliage. “A little small, but it’ll fit your bed. If you have your dresser it’ll be a tight fit, but I figure we can put that in storage and get you some closet shelves,” Joann said and headed for the closet. It was a decent sized walk in closet. “Sure,” Dillon agreed, thinking differently. He could so build a fort in there. They explored the rest of the house for a few minutes— it was smaller, but nicer. More yard space and more trees, which Dillon decided he liked. After saying good-bye to the real estate agent, Dillon followed his mother’s car to lunch. He was glad it wasn’t Runza’s. If anyone from the team was still lingering there, he didn’t want to be seen with his mother and Grandma. They went home afterwards, and the first thing Dillon did was take a shower. He was glad to feel human after that, and went downstairs to the kitchen for a snack. His mother and Grandpa were having another invalid conversation. “I can help you move!” Grandpa protested. “I’m not saying you can’t,” Joann soothed. “I’m not saying you can’t. You can help with boxes, just not heavy lifting.” She stopped when she noticed Dillon. “Oh, besides, Dillon has football friends to help.” “Mom!” Dillon complained. “Don’t just volunteer my friends like that!” “Free food,” Joann promised. “We only need about two or three of them, okay? We’re moving all the big stuff on Saturday, when the company delivers the rest of our furniture.” Dillon groaned and grabbed a box of cereal before going back upstairs. He saved asking his friends until the end of the week. Friday after practice he finally brought it up. “Hey Aaron, Mark, what are you doing this weekend?” “Nothing… shit, I still need to do my summer reading assignment. But I still have a week so I’m open. Why?” Aaron answered. “Same, thank you for reminding me about the reading Aaron—but I work Sunday,” Mark replied. “We’re moving into town,” Dillon sighed. “My mom kind of volunteered any football friends I have.” “Moving,” Aaron groaned. “I hate moving.” “I’ll help,” Mark said, reaching over to slap Aaron. “Fine, I’ll help too,” Aaron grumbled. Dillon told them where the house was, and that they were starting in the morning. “If you come over around nine or ten, that should be fine.” Mark frowned in thought. “In that neighborhood over by the pizza place?” “Yeah, lots of trees,” Dillon said and fanned out his fingers as if to help make a visual image. “What street again?” Mark asked. “Uh, Kennedy,” Dillon repeated. “Why?” “That’s my neighborhood,” Mark concluded, grinning widely. “I’m three blocks away! I could probably walk to your house faster than I could drive, with all those stupid stop signs.” “Isn’t there a stop sign on like every fucking corner?” Aaron asked, groaning again. “Damn, that’s going to be a pain! Mark, Dillon, why do you guys have to live over there?” As usual for after practice, a group of them headed to Runza’s. It was over lunch that Dillon recruited Tyler to help move, again with the promise of free food. What he was really looking forward to was Aaron showing up. He truly was over two-hundred pounds, and the amount he could eat… Dillon laughed to himself at the thought of his mother’s reaction. She wanted football players? Well now she would be paying as much for pizza as she could have hired people for. After lunch Dillon was the first to leave. He drove back to his grandparent’s house, showered, and then accompanied their U-Haul truck to the new house in town. Grandpa was allowed to help, as it was only boxes. John and Dillon carried in boxes as well, while Joann and Grandma read off labels for where things went. They spent the rest of Friday unloading boxes, stacking them strategically around the house in wait of furniture. The first thing Dillon wanted to get done was his bed so that he didn’t have the forty-five minute commute to and from the farmhouse. The new neighborhood was only five minutes from school, though that wasn’t including all the stop signs. As it got dark they went back to the farmhouse for dinner and bed. Dillon was exhausted, and glad that it was cool that night. He was out almost as soon as his face hit the pillow. Joann was there at eight telling him to wake up and get ready to meet the movers at the house. Dillon groaned and got dressed before lazing out to his jeep. His mother and father had already left in their own car, with Grandpa sulking around the house. “I’m not invalid,” he grumbled sourly. Dillon caught up to his parents on the dirt road through the cornfields, the stalks just shorter than his jeep. His grandparents owned the land and crops, but hired people to come in and harvest mostly. They got to the house just before nine, and Mark showed up not long after. He had indeed walked. “Dillon, you owe me rides to school,” Mark demanded. “Why?” Dillon frowned. “Because you have a car and you now owe me. You live close enough. You owe me for football camp, too, by the way,” Mark pointed out, smiling. Dillon rolled his eyes and waited for the trailer to be opened. Aaron showed up then, with Tyler in the passenger seat. Aaron lumbered out of the car, and Joann startled slightly. “He’s in high school?” She whispered harshly. “He’s only a junior,” Dillon added smugly. Aaron would be eating at least one whole pizza by himself. By what had been loaded in last, the bed frames were carried upstairs. John pretended to help by guiding things verbally through doors. Mark and Dillon worked in Dillon’s room putting together his bed. John supervised Tyler and Aaron putting the other bed together in the master bedroom. Once the frames were assembled, box springs and mattresses were drug inside and up the stairs. Dillon’s bed was only a twin, and he put the bed parallel to his far left bedroom wall in hopes of having open space in the rest of his room. The walk in closet was at the foot of his bed, and the window on the other side of his room. “Good shade,” Mark commented while shoving the mattress on top of the box spring. “Yeah, there’s two or three trees in the backyard, not including the trees from our neighbors that hang over the fence,” Dillon explained. “Big yard too.” Once the bedrooms were set up, the living room and dining room were next. The dining room seemed to take priority, getting the table and chairs set up for when lunch arrived. It took all four boys to carry in the couch, and two of them for the armchair in the living room. Dillon had never been so glad to have a simple TV stand instead of a whole wall unit. From there it was the small things like TVs and lamps while they waited on food. Aaron had talked Joann into getting extra pizzas and two liters of soda. “I can eat a whole one by myself,” he said. It didn’t take much convincing. When food came, two pizzas were shared between Dillon, Mark, and Tyler. Aaron had his own pizza, and John and Joann shared one. Once Aaron finished his pizza he went on to help John and Joann finish theirs. Joann tried not to say anything, but looked about ready to bite his hand off. “What’s the summer reading assignment?” Dillon thought to ask. “Uh,” Tyler struggled to remember as well. “I want to say something by… Dorian Grey?” “Dorian Grey is the name of the book, idiot,” Aaron spat playfully. Tyler scowled and tossed an empty plastic soda cup at Aaron. “Don’t start anything,” Joann piped up quickly, not wanting any sort of fighting in her house. Things would get broken… like the chairs. Once the food was finished, mostly by Tyler and Aaron, the clean up started. The pizza boxes were thrown away, and with the furniture all in place, Aaron and Tyler left. “In an hour, I bet they go out for ice cream,” Mark mumbled. “They better get me some.” “And go through all the stop signs to get it to you?” Dillon laughed. “Yeah, right.” Mark punched him in the arm, trying not to smile. “So you live near by?” Joann asked, stepping in on Mark. Dillon tried not to roll his eyes. “Yeah, just about three blocks away. Two blocks back and one block over,” Mark explained, pointing into the back of the house. “With a big weeping willow in our front yard.” Mark hung around for a few more minutes, before looking at the time. “I have to be at work at one,” he said. “I need to get home and change. I’ll see you Monday for practice.” Dillon nodded, and showed Mark out. Mark hesitated at the door and checked to make sure the parents were out of hearing distance. “Next Saturday there’s an end of summer party,” he informed quickly. “A lot of the team is going. You should come.” A party in Nebraska? Dillon wanted to laugh at the thought, but he smiled politely. “Sure. Fill me in later this week.” Mark nodded and hurried out the door and down the walk.
    1 point
  23. After the incident in the restaurant, Gibby didn’t leave his bedroom for two days. Loud alternative rock music shook the walls and rattled the window panes of the Robinsons’ rented home. Worried that the noise would disturb their new neighbors, Jonathan ventured out onto the front lawn to make sure that the nearby homes couldn’t hear the music beyond the muffled thump of the bass. The last thing he wanted was for one of the residents of Shepherd’s Crook to call the cops on them. If it weren’t for the occasional bang or thump coming from inside Gibby’s room, Jonathan would be beating down the locked door, but Gibby was upset and the boy needed to blow off steam, so Jonathan let him rage in his room alone. Sunday afternoon the music suddenly shut off. As fast as it started, it stopped, leaving a dizzying throbbing to the silence that hung in the air. Jonathan held his breath, waiting for footsteps or any other sign that Gibby was coming downstairs; when he didn’t, Jonathan went up and tapped on his door. “Hey kiddo, can I come in?” Jonathan spoke through the locked door. When Gibby opened the door he looked tired. The deep purple creases under his bloodshot eyes worried his father. His paint splattered camouflage shorts hung off his narrow hips. Gibby’s tall, lean frame was a sharp contrast to the athletic swimmer’s body that he had before the fire. “Hey Dad,” Gibby ran his fingers through his overgrown hair. “I’m sorry about the music.” “Don’t worry about it. Are you feeling better now that you got it out of your system?” Entering the bedroom, Jonathan sat down on the edge of the unmade bed. “You know the people here have probably never seen someone with severe burn injuries before.” “I know,” Gibby blew a long sigh through his lips. “We’re new here and we’ve got to find a way to fit in. With school starting tomorrow, I want you to try to make some friends…please?” It was an argument they’d had before. “I’m making spaghetti for dinner,” Jonathan knew that would bring a smile to Gibby’s face. “Why don’t you jump in the shower and meet me downstairs.” Gibby gave Jonathan a curious look bringing a deep chuckle from his father. “Really,” Jonathan cocked an eyebrow, “you mean to tell me that you can’t smell that teenage funk coming off you? Boy, I’m surprised you don’t have stink swivels rising around you, it smells that bad; now go hit the shower and then you can help me with dinner.” **** “Jeez, Dad, you really need to cut the cord already.” Gibby rolled his eyes at his father insisting on driving him to school on the first day. “I know where I’m going. I rode my bike past it on that first night we got here aaaaand” Gibby drew out the last word for emphasis, “It’s in the opposite direction of the hospital.” “I’m taking you. End of discussion--” “But Dad--” “No buts, Gibby, we’ve talked about this already.” “You talked,” Gibby grumbled under his breath. “Well I’m your father--” “And I’m eighteen,” Smirking at his attempt to irritate his dad. Now, Jonathan’s eye narrowed in on his son. “Yes, you are…you’re an eighteen year-old kid!” Gibby hated being treated like a child. “Mom would let me--” Jonathan reeled back as if he’d been slapped, “Don’t say her name!” He paced around the room as anger flushed his face, bringing a burning sensation to his scars. Since the fire, Jonathan never spoke about his wife, but he didn’t want to fight with his son. “How about a compromise?” Jonathan suggested, “I drive you to school in the morning and you can ride your bike home.” “Really?” Gibby jumped up, surprised that his father was giving in, even after he tried to piss him off by mentioning his mother. “Really, now come set the plates while I finish up the garlic bread.” **** The whirlwind of activity in front of the school was exquisitely choreographed. Yellow buses idled in a long line, patiently waiting to unload children of all different ages at the main entrance. Teachers were filling in the parking lot to the left of the school while parents were starting to drop off the walkers at the open space to the right. Jonathan pulled his SUV among the other parents’ cars and observed their routine. Each car would pull up to the sidewalk, a bright faced child would jump out and the waving mom or dad would drive off as their child rushed to join their classmates. It was a sight that was happening all across the country as children returned to school. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until Jonathan noticed a police car pulling up a few cars behind him. “I wonder what this is about.” Jonathan mumbled keeping his eyes focused on the rearview mirror. BEEP! Nervously watching the officer behind him, Jonathan hadn’t noticed that it was his turn to pull up to the designated drop off spot. Not wanting to upset any of the other parents, Jonathan jumped out to help Gibby get his bike off the back of the SUV. The last thing he wanted was to make a bad impression on the first day. Gibby loosened the straps while Jonathan lifted the bike to the ground. Before Jonathan let his son ride off to secure it in the school’s bike rack, he gave Gibby’s hand, still resting on the handlebar, he gave it a gentle squeeze. “Have a good day.” Auburn locks fell into Gibby’s eyes as he nodded. “Thanks for letting me ride home.” “Call me when you get home.” “I will.” Gibby quickly hopped on and pedaled towards the large metal rack. As Jonathan turned, he noticed the police officer’s passenger was a teenage girl. Their Native American features were the same. Both of them had long thin noses, piercing dark eyes and they had the same shiny black hair. His was cut very short, but her long locks were pulled back into a tight ponytail. The officer frowned as his daughter quickly exited the car before their turn. Jonathan felt guilty for holding up the line and rushed back to move his vehicle. Just as he climbed in, he heard the distinct echo of a police siren followed by a megaphone buzz. “Have a great day at school, sweetie!” The officer’s voice boomed over the loud speaker for all of the students to hear. The girl stopped in her tracks to glare at her father from across the sidewalk. Jonathan fought back his laughter at the cop’s twisted sense of humor. Before any other parents could honk their horn at the delay, Jonathan quickly pulled out onto the road heading north towards the hospital. **** Principal Grady stood on the front steps, greeting every student returning for a new year of school. “Hello Kelly…hi Tim…wow, Tony, you really grew over the summer!” He knew each of his students by name. Watching Gibby approach the entrance with his eyes cast down toward the sidewalk, he stepped aside to avoid having the boy crash into him. “Welcome to Shepherd’s Crook, Mr. Robinson,” Mr. Grady spoke with a kind, yet authoritative voice. Gibby’s head shot up at having someone address him by his last name. “Thank you,” Gibby’s mumbled. “The office is to the right, just past the double doors. Our secretary, Mrs. Bosley, is expecting you. She has your schedule all ready for you.” With that, he turned his attention back to the other students filing into the building. Gibby watched kids of all different ages rush off in different directions as soon as they entered the main hallway. Shepherd’s Crook educational complex was unlike anything Gibby had ever seen. Back home, kids were separated by grades and each school was independent, but here they had all ages in one huge complex. They were separated into their own grade sections, but all students used the common areas like the cafeteria and gymnasium. The school office was a flurry of activity with students and teachers getting ready for the first day of school. The short round woman behind the counter had to be Mrs. Bosley. She rushed back and forth from the counter to the file cabinets or to the stacks of multi-colored papers in the bookcase against the far wall getting everyone the materials that they needed. “Here you go, Kyle,” She cheerfully handed a student an armload of papers. “If Mr. Wilson needs anything else you just have him buzz the office.” The small blond child nodded his head before rushing back into the busy hallway. Gibby waited while the secretary helped everyone else first. After the last student left, he stepped up to the counter. “You must be Gibson,” her eyes almost disappeared when she smiled. He cringed. Nobody called him Gibson. “Call me Gibby.” Nodding furiously shook her gray curls like they were tiny silver slinkies attached to her head. “Okay, Gibby,” she tried out his name. “I’ve got your class schedule right here.” “Hey Mrs. B,” the blond haired girl came bouncing into the office followed by a second girl that almost looked like her clone. Both girls had short pleated skirts, tight fitting polo tops and tiny slip-on shoes embellished with sparkly designs. If it wasn’t for the first girl having super blond hair and the second girl having darker strawberry locks, they could almost pass for twins. “Hello Amanda and Bethany,” Mrs. Bosley looked up at them before returning her attention back to Gibby. “This is your schedule,” She said as she handed him the computer printout, “let me grab you a map of the complex.” The little secretary suddenly disappeared into a back office. “So…” Amanda looked Gibby up and down as if she was trying to decide if she liked him or not. “You’re the new guy?” Gibby nervously picked at the edge of his schedule. “Yep, that would be me…new guy.” Amanda let out a high pitched laugh that made Gibby cringe just as a bell rang through the building. The red-haired girl, Bethany, started backing toward the door. “C’mon, Mandy, we’re gonna be late.” Amanda turned to leave before stopping. “Hey, new boy, you had better get going, too.” Gibby glanced at the door where Mrs. Bosley had disappeared. Without a school map he had no idea where he was going. Glancing down at the schedule, he figured asking the girls for directions was better than wandering the halls aimlessly. “Who do you have for first period?” Amanda asked, almost into the deserted hallway where Bethany nervously danced around like she had to pee or something. Gibby followed them, the now empty hallway echoed. “I have Ms. Stein for Earth Science. Do you know where room S3 is?” “Yeah, that’s where--” “Wow, Ms. Stein,” Amanda interrupted Bethany and continued to talk over top of her. “She’s a real hard ass and hates for anyone to be late. You really don’t want to piss her off right from the start.” Gibby’s eyes widened with concern. The last thing he wanted was to be on some teacher’s shit-list from day one. The bell overhead rang again. “We’re going to be late, too.” Bethany pleaded with Amanda. “You better hurry,” Amanda looked scared for Gibby. “S3 is the last classroom in the North Wing. Make a left at the end of this hallway…it’s the last room on the right. You better hurry!” Gibby rushed off in the direction that she was still pointing. When he reached the end and saw how long the next corridor was Gibby started to run. “Run Forest Run!” Amanda giggled after Gibby disappeared in search of his classroom. The place was huge. Pulling all of the town’s resources into one educational complex was actually pretty genius, but the size of the place made the maze of hallways was confusing. Reaching the end of the hallway, Gibby swung open the last door and rushed inside. A class full of bright little faces looked up at Gibby. A plump little lady, presumably Mrs. O’Reilly since that was the name scrawled on the blackboard at the front of the classroom, noticed the confused expression on Gibby’s face and smiled. “Honey, are you lost?” She asked. “This isn’t Ms. Stein’s Earth Science class is it?” Gibby’s question was met with a round of laughter from the children. “No dear,” Mrs. O’Reilly shook her head. “Ms. Stein is on the third floor of the East Wing.” She noticed the bewilderment that flashed that crossed his face. “Oh, honey, didn’t anyone tell you that the high school students are in the East Wing…” Gibby’s expression didn’t show any recognition, so she explained exactly where his classes where. “The East Wing is the main entrance to the entire school. Ms. Stein’s room is the first class across from the top of the staircase.” As Gibby slowly backed out of her classroom, the kids waved goodbye to him and one of them even shouted, ‘good luck,’ which brought another round of laughter from the class. Making his way down the hallway and to the wide staircase that he had already rushed past once this morning, Gibby noticed the change in the decorations of the East Wing compared to the elementary designs outside of Mrs. O’Reilly’s classroom. He was in the right place. Gibby climbed the stairs and noticed the little plaque hanging over the closed door. It said S3. He let out a sigh of relief. He had finally found the classroom, but he was already very late. If Ms. Stein really was the bitch that Amanda had warned him about, this was going to be a bad start to the new school year.
    1 point
  24. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up, sleepy head!” Jonathan shouted from the bottom step as his voice carried up to Gibby’s bedroom. There was shuffling, followed by a thump, and then a loud groan from upstairs. “Oh my god, Dad, really? It’s not even eight o’clock yet.” Gibby grumbled from over the banister, glaring down at his father. Gibby’s t-shirt and boxer shorts were crumpled and his hair stuck out in every direction, making a halo around his head in the morning light. “I told Dr. Warner that I would meet him at the hospital this morning.” “You’re getting started really early. I thought you didn’t have to report to work until I started school on Monday?” Gibby asked between muffled yawns. While all of Gibby’s friends were heading off to college, he was starting his senior year of high school for the second time. The fire stole more than just the last ten months of his life. “The doctor wants me to meet the staff and get acquainted with the hospital’s protocol before throwing me to the wolves on Monday.” Jonathan shook his head and chuckled when Gibby scratched at his stomach before stumbling back to his bed. “Hey, I’m not finished with you…” He waited for Gibby’s head to appear at the top of the stairs again. “Why don’t you meet me in town for lunch today?” “Sure, Dad, text me the address and the time,” Without waiting for Jonathan’s response, Gibby went back to bed for a few more hours sleep. **** Becker Street Grill was busy for a small town café. Four of its five sidewalk tables were already filled, but only three of the inside booths had customers. The warm summer day was pleasant, but a little too hot for sitting outside in the direct sunlight. The thought wasn’t very appealing to Gibby, so he opted to find a table inside. Admiring the corny decor, Gibby chuckled as he read the quirky slogans written on antique tin signs that covered the restaurant’s walls while he waited to be seated. “Is this your first time here?” The deep voice jerked Gibby back to reality. Startled by the question, Gibby jumped as he whirled around on his heels. Swallowing a nervous chuckle when he noticed the good looking guy standing just inches away from him, Gibby’s tongue darted out, licking his lips that were suddenly too dry. The name on the waiter’s plastic nametag said, ‘Scott.’ Too nervous to face him, Gibby glanced from Scott, back to the humorous signs, before nodding his auburn head. He closed his eyes for a brief second, trying to compose himself, but when he glanced over his shoulder again; the guy was intensely watching him. The sudden rush of blood pumping through Gibby’s body wasn’t only pounding in his ears, it had his groin stirring to life. The waiter was the same height as him as they stood there looking into each other’s eyes. When Scott tilted his head and lowered his voice, “C’mon, I’ll take care of you,” Gibby almost groaned. The images that flashed through Gibby’s mind had nothing to do with lunch or food or anything else you could order off the menu. As Scott walked the few steps to an empty table, Gibby’s eyes dropped down to the guy’s tight black jeans. “How’s this look to you?” The waiter held out his hand indicating the booth in the center of the restaurant, but Gibby knew the other meaning behind his question. “Yep, looks good to me.” Gibby suddenly blushed. It had been a while since he flirted with anyone. Scott placed a bundle of silverware wrapped inside a napkin on the table beside a large vinyl menu. “So, what can I get you?” Gibby glanced at the single setting and frowned, “You can get me another place setting.” The waiter raised an eyebrow and placed another bundle on the table. “Do you want to start with a soda while you wait?” Scott gave Gibby a wink. He wasn’t much older than Gibby, but sporting a few days stubble over the sharp angles of his jaw made the guy look older than he was. “Can you bring me a Coke and he’ll take an ice tea.” Gibby bit at his lower lip to keep from grinning. “Coming right up,” Scott gave him another quick wink before going to fill his drink order. Stirring his soda with his straw, Gibby watched Scott tend to the other tables while he waited for his dad to show up. Scott’s long legs moved quickly as he carried trays, refilled drinks and cleared away used dishes. Every few minutes Scott glanced over to see if Gibby was still watching him, which he was. On the second refill, Scott gave Gibby a sympathetic smile. “Maybe he changed his mind?” “I really don’t think he stood me up,” Laughter lit up Gibby’s handsome face. “Maybe I should go ahead and order since I’m sure that he’ll be here at any moment.” Disappointment briefly flashed across Scott’s face, but he pushed it aside and opened his notepad and held his pencil, ready to take their orders. “I’ll take the grilled chicken sandwich with fries and he wants tuna on wheat.” “Fries for him too?” Gibby looked up from the menu and laughed. “Fries, no, bring him a side salad with vinaigrette dressing on the side.” “Sounds like you know what he likes.” Scott forced a smile. “I know him pretty well.” Just after Scott disappeared into the kitchen to prepare their order, Jonathan came rushing through the front door. “Sorry I’m late.” Shrugging his shoulders, Gibby glanced towards the back room to see if Scott had noticed his dad come in. “Don’t worry about it. The one thing that I learned about having parents that are doctors is that you guys are always late.” Jonathan handed Gibby a small white bag across the table. “I stopped by the pharmacy and got your prescription filled.” Anger flashed in Gibby’s eyes. “You said I could stop taking the meds. Dad, they make me feel like a zombie!” Gibby snatched the bag from Jonathan’s hand and dropped it onto the bench beside his leg. “I said that we would talk about it--” “But Dad--” “Gibby,” Jonathan’s voice was stern, “you were screaming in your sleep last night, again.” “Then I’ll take them before I go to bed, but I’m not going to a new school in a psychotic daze.” Jonathan opened his mouth, prepared to continue their argument when Scott arrived with their food. Noticing the family resemblance between Gibby and Jonathan, the waiter chuckled at himself for feeling jealous. “If there’s anything else I can get you guys, please just give me a shout.” Steam rose off Gibby’s grilled chicken when he lifted the bun off the sandwich to add some ketchup to the center. Since his food was still too hot to start eating, his gaze drifted to the patrons outside. Jonathan followed his son’s longing gaze. “We could have sat outside if you wanted.” Jonathan said softly. “It’s too hot out there.” “It’s pretty warm in here too.” Jonathan noticed the pink flush in Gibby’s cheeks. “You could take your sweat-jacket off.” Gibby glanced nervously around the nearly empty restaurant. A young couple came into the restaurant while he was waiting for Jonathan. They sat in the back, lost in conversation. Scott had returned to the kitchen leaving Jonathan and Gibby in the dining room; the only other customers near them were three little old ladies, but the women giggled and chatted among themselves. Picking at his fries, Gibby blew on them before popping a few into his mouth and immediately gasped. “Ooooh hot!” Grabbing his soda, Gibby downed half of the glass. Jonathan watched Gibby while he ate. No amount of pills or therapy was going to ever make his son whole again, but Gibby needed to learn how to deal with his scars, not just pretend like the fire never happened. Gibby’s scars were far more extensive then the burns marring the side of Jonathan’s face. He had spent nearly six months in the hospital recovering from second and third degree burns over forty percent of his body. Gibby had lost more than just his home, he almost lost his life. “I also talked to Dr. Warner about you using the therapy pool at the hospital--” “Not happening!” Gibby mumble with a mouth full of chicken. “The pool closes to the patients at six o’clock. He said that you could use it after hours to work on loosening the scar tissue” Gibby listened while he ate. “C’mon, Gib, I know you’re dying to get back in the water again.” Jonathan hoped the prospect of swimming would be enough to cheer up his son. “Maybe,” Gibby shrugged his shoulders out of his jacket, letting the soft cotton material drop behind him onto the bench seat. His dad was right. Gibby had been hiding behind his long sleeves as if they were a security blanket. Jonathan smiled. He tried not to react to Gibby letting down his guard. “A maybe is better than a flat out no. This is a chance for a new start. Speaking of new starts, are you ready to start school on Monday?” Gibby rolled his eyes and groaned, bringing a smile to Jonathan’s face. He liked to see his teenage son acting like a kid again. It was too often that Gibby acted more like a crabby old man instead of the carefree teen that he should be. “Yeah, I’m ready.” “Good, I think that--” “Oh my star!” A woman shrieked inside the restaurant. One of the old ladies was standing near their table, staring at the massive scars covering Gibby’s bare arms. Her raised voice drew the attention of the other patrons inside and a few of the ones outside stood up to glance in to see what was going on. The color drained from Gibby’s face before being quickly replaced by searing hot anger. “Well, Dr. Robinson, have you found a cure for this flesh eating bacteria that I contracted?” He spoke loud enough for everyone to hear him. “Gibby!” Jonathan hissed at his son before facing the growing crowd. “No, he doesn’t--” “Aaaand I wonder if I’m still contagious?” Now Gibby’s face was on fire. His body trembled as he fought to pull his jacket back on. Before the sleeves covered his arms, Scott appeared, ready to take control of the situation until he got a good look at Gibby’s burned skin. “Oh god, what’s wrong with him?” Scott balked at the sight of Gibby’s severe scars. Gibby pushed his way through the people gathering to gawk at him, fleeing the restaurant. “There’s nothing wrong with him!” Gibby heard Jonathan shout as he hit the door at a flat out run. Jonathan’s eyes flashed to the small minded town folk of Shepherd’s Crook. “He survived a fire that should have killed him…it would have killed any one of you!”
    1 point
  25. Dillon stared out the car window as they merged off the highway. The blur of green fields slowed into shapes—tall corn stalks, farms, and trees. Flat land. The occasional horse or a few cows. “We’re almost there!” Dillon’s mother, Joann, exclaimed and pointed at the fast approaching green and white sign. Gretna, Nebraska. Doom of all dooms. What right-minded family moved to Gretna, Nebraska? Dillon’s parents had moved away just before he was born, and seventeen years later they were moving back. Why? Because Joann’s parents weren’t getting any younger, yet refused to retire from their farmland and house. Joann had convinced her husband, John, to move back out and help them. John was the… third or fourth living “John” in the family. His dad was also named John, as were two cousins. Not including all the “John’s” in the family that were no longer alive. Dillon was glad to be a Dillon. He watched out the window, dark brown eyes following buildings as they passed through Gretna. It was decent sized, just on the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska. Being so close to the city allowed for most of Gretna to seem fairly normal, with the addition of an occasional Feed & Tack or Western Wear store. There was, of course, a church every few blocks as well… probably more churches than Dillon had ever seen, combined. As they passed the high school, Joann pointed it out. “You’ll start there in August,” she said, that was still a month away. Surprisingly, the school looked normal. He’d never paid attention to it before. It was about as big as his previous school, holding about 2000 students. The student car lot was abandoned for mid-summer, though. Since school was a ways off, they would be staying at the family farmhouse. It was forty-five minutes outside Gretna to the north. Most of the drive was on a dirt road, loud and bumpy. Wind rolled over the flat lands, turning the fields of high corn stalks into a rolling sea of dark and light greens. The white farmhouse was hidden from the road and fields by large trees, clustered around only the house. Most were taller than the two-story white building and two-floor barn. The only structure taller than the trees were the silo bins, tall and silver off in the distance of the corn fields. The house was taller than it was wide, with a wrap around porch. The barn was also white, instead of red. He property was at least 100 years old by now and had been in the family just as long. The car pulled up in front, with the U-Haul trailer in tow. Dillon took his time getting out, while Joann hopped from the car and up to the front door. Soon there was a greeting of hugs and kisses, and Dillon tried to keep a distance. “Oh you’ve grown!” His Grandma squealed, though it had only been a year. “You’re starting to look more and more like your Grandfather did every day!” Dillon had gotten his height from his mother’s side. His Grandpa was around six feet and two inches, and Dillon was about even with him. They even had the same broad shoulders and chest—his Grandpa’s from growing up on a farm, and Dillon from his time in playing football. Once upon a time, Dillon’s Grandpa had been blond, though now his hair was thin and white. Dillon inherited the light blond hair, but gotten his brown eyes from his father. John was a plain man with brown hair, brown eyes, and the pasty skin of an office worker. Joann had a lighter color of hair, somewhere between light brown and dirty blond. The height gene had skipped over her though, as she barely reached Dillon’s shoulder. “Is that a U-Haul truck?” Dillon’s Grandpa asked suspiciously. “Why do you have a U-Haul truck?” “We’re moving out here, dad,” Joann answered simply. “To help on the farm. We can live here till the summer ends then move in town for school and work.” “We don’t need help,” Grandpa scoffed, running a hand over his head. “Oh dad.” Joann frowned. “Dillon can help, and John. The land is big and you’re in your sixties… besides, you had that pacemaker put in a few years ago!” “Doesn’t mean I’m invalid,” Grandpa huffed, waving her off with a hand. “I’m goin’ into town. I need some things from the tack store.” “Dillon, go with him!” Joann whipped her head around to her son. “Help him lift.” “Mom,” Dillon pleaded. “He doesn’t need my help!” “Damn right!” Grandpa added, already heading for the door. “John!” Dillon’s Grandma finally spoke up. Dillon’s dad and Grandpa both responded to the name. “You take Dillon with you!” She added sternly, and turned to Joann. “Oh dear, I’m so happy you’re moving back! Your sister moved to Washington and your brother…” Dillon rolled his eyes, not looking forward to another car ride. He followed his Grandpa out to their truck, parked out by the barn. His Grandpa was grumbling along the whole time, and Dillon shared the feeling. Maybe he could hide in the cornfield? No, the burrs would stick to his shoes and he was wearing shorts… Sighing, Dillon turned his head outside the window. Neither he nor his Grandpa spoke on the ride, which was fine. They went back into town, and stopped at one of the tack and feed stores on the outskirts. Grandpa climbed out of the truck after parking behind the store. “C’mon, might as well be useful,” he said. Dillon groaned and slid out of the truck, following his Grandpa around to the front of the building. There was a boy about his age sitting in front on a barrel, gulping down a Gatorade. Dillon stared awkwardly, eyes fixed on the tanned and slightly muscled bare chest. “Mark,” his Grandpa called out. The boy stopped and wiped his mouth, coughing slightly on his drink. “Mr. Reed.” Mark grinned widely, eyes flickering over to Dillon for a brief moment. “I have your feed already stacked up in the back room.” Oddly enough, Mark didn’t have any overdone accent. He sounded just normal, and Dillon relaxed at that. He didn’t think he could handle thick accented drawls. “Good. I already parked out back,” Grandpa announced, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “This is my grandson, Dillon. He’s moving up here… I guess. About your age, Mark. How old are you?” “Seventeen,” Mark answered and gave Dillon a slight wave. Grandpa turned and set his eyes on Dillon. “And how old are you again?” Obviously it was Grandma that sent the birthday cards. “Seventeen as well,” Dillon answered. Grandpa grunted and stalked into the shop. Mark hopped off the barrel and followed inside, looking back briefly at Dillon. “Well, come on,” Mark said. Dillon stumbled along. Mark’s shirt was hanging out the waist of his pants, where it did not belong. It should be on him. Granted it was hot outside, but… “You play any sports?” Mark asked, ringing up a price on the register. “Uh, yeah,” Dillon answered. “Football.” “Same.” Mark smiled again. “I need some more riding blankets,” Grandpa spoke up, taking off to the shelves of the shop. “For the horses.” Dillon debated whether or not he should help with that, and decided no. “What position?” Dillon asked in turn. “Running back,” Mark answered cockily. “On varsity for the high school.” Dillon nodded. Mark was slightly on the small side for a football player. He wasn’t short, maybe just an inch or two shorter than Dillon, but was slimmer. Instead of being wide and bulky, his body was covered in tight, compact muscle. His pectorals were defined but not bulging, with only slight abs. “What about you?” Mark tilted his head off, blond hair falling across his forehead. His hair was a darker shade of blond, a few shades too light to be called light brown. His tanned skin made his green pop out. He was an attractive guy, Dillon mentally concluded, more attractive than himself. “Offensive line,” Dillon mumbled, as he wasn’t the biggest guy on the team either. He wasn’t fit for defense. “You should come to some of our morning practices.” Mark beamed happily. “I can talk to coach about it. We do a football camp every morning over the summer, seven to ten at the school. Kinda hard to make junior varsity or varsity without doing that extra work.” “Uh, sure.” Dillon finally managed a meek smile back. “It’ll give me something to do till school starts.” “Sweet.” Mark pulled out a pen and flipped over an old receipt. “Give me your number, and when I talk to coach tomorrow I’ll let you know if he wants you to come. A lot of our team graduated last year, and some of the underclassmen are on the small side for varsity and everything,” he explained. Dillon gave his cell phone number, with the warning it might change to a Nebraska number soon. Grandpa came out carrying a stack of thick blankets in his arms at that time, panting his way along. Dillon grabbed a few off the top and set them on the counter as Mark snapped back to work. He added the blankets to the charge of the feed, and offered to help load up. Despite all his grumbling, Grandpa stood off to the side and watched Mark and Dillon load up bags of feed and the blankets into the truck bed. “I’ll call you in a few days,” Mark said, closing the hatch on the truck. Dillon nodded deftly and got into the cab with his Grandpa. “What was that about?” Grandpa asked on the way back. “Football,” Dillon said, looking out the window again. His Grandpa just grunted. “Working on a farm back in my day got you more muscle than sports.” He pursed his lips sourly. “I helped with lifting since I was a kid, and look at me now.” He held his arm out. “I still have more muscle than you.” Dillon snorted. “That all looks pretty flabby to me,” he commented. “I’ve… lost my muscle tone!” His Grandpa stuttered. Dillon chuckled to himself, and his Grandpa went into an offended silence.
    1 point
  26. “Jeez, are we there yet?” Gibby impatiently whined, for the hundredth time, as he popped out his earbuds, draping the cords around his neck, still blaring alternative rock music. Dr. Jonathan Robinson rolled his eyes at his son and chuckled, “Yep, we’re there.” He said sarcastically, “Get the hell out of the car.” Gibby squirmed in his seat causing the stiff black leather to creak underneath him. There was no use trying to get comfortable. “Seriously, Dad, my ass fell asleep two states back. How much longer until we get there?” “It shouldn’t be too much longer now.” The late afternoon sun was blistering outside of the SUV, but the air conditioning kept the dark interior cool in the August heat. Gibby tugged at the long sleeves covering his arms, adjusting the hem until just the tips of his fingers stuck out. “Where are we going anyways…BFE?” Gibby mumbled under his breath. “No, if we were moving to bum-fuck-Egypt, we would have made a left at that last intersection about a mile back.” Laughter shook Gibby’s shoulders. “Real funny, Dad.” He glanced over at his father, who kept his gaze fixed on the road ahead. It had been over twenty minutes since they passed another vehicle. The road between Greenville and Shepherd’s Crook was narrow as it twisted through the foothills edging up against the looming mountains. He watched his father’s dark eyebrows pull together as he concentrated. From this angle, nobody could notice that half of his dad’s left eyebrow was missing. It wasn’t until Jonathan turned his attention back to his son that the angry red burn marks were now noticeable, as they marred his skin from his forehead, past his temple, down his left cheek and disappeared inside the collar of his shirt. “C’mon Gibby, I thought you were going to try to make the best of this.” Gibby stared at him in disbelief. “No,” when he suddenly snapped his mouth closed, the muscles in his jaw twitched. “You wanted to make the best out of this situation; I only agreed to stop complaining so much.” “And this is you complaining less?” As Jonathan glanced over at Gibby, his tone suddenly softened. He hated to see the pain lingering in his child’s eyes, those hauntingly familiar eyes. They had the same light brown eyes, the color of coffee with too much cream, but that is where the similarities ended. Jonathan had short dark hair, where Gibby’s overgrown auburn locks curled around his ears, hiding very little of the thick scars running along his neck and down his back. Jonathan knew that if Gibby gave him a lopsided grin, the same one his wife gave him when she stole his heart the night they first met, Jonathan would have to fight to keep the tears from burning the back of his eyes. “Hey kiddo, you know that if I could have found another job closer to home, we wouldn’t have moved so far away.” Jonathan kept his voice barely above a whisper. “I know…but…” Gibby didn’t have to finish his sentence; his father already knew what he was going to say. They had the same argument a dozen times this summer. The home that Gibby longed for was gone. Nothing was left, only a blackened burnt out shell of their previous life remained. Trying to quickly change the subject, Jonathan turned his attention back to the empty road. “Shepherd’s Crook should be over the next ridge.” Just as his words filled the cab, they crested the hill, setting their sights on the peaceful little town that was going to be their new home. Shepherd’s Crook had been founded by Father J.A. Tucket during the time of America’s biggest gold rush. When Gibby couldn’t find much information online, he checked out the local library looking for anything he could find. When other men were killing each other trying to make their fortune in gold, one simple priest led a group of men, women and children to this amazing valley. Tucket believed that it was a sign from God that this land was protected on three sides by mountains and the flat valley edged right up to the lush green foothills before swinging out, making a large semi-circle across the top. From the ridge, the outline of the shepherd’s staff was unmistakable. “Wow! Look at that.” Jonathan let out a whistle as he saw the entire town below them. The vision that Tucket began with had been transformed in the late fifties to the sight that they saw today. It was as if a Norman Rockwell painting had come to life. Gibby had to admit that it was incredible. Everything about the place was perfect. The buildings looked like pieces of a train set, placed in each precise spot, creating the pristine town. Town Hall sat at the center of Shepherd’s Crook. Rows of shops, various business, and cafés lined the crisp clean streets. A pharmacy, an ice-cream parlor, even an athletic facility rounded out the commerce of this little self-sustained community. “Turn left now.” Jonathan followed the directions from the GPS. The town was larger than it appeared from up on the ridge. Homes were tucked away on tree lined streets that made up the outer rings of town. Silver Forest Drive was on the west side of town. Taking the scenic route through the center of Shepherd’s Crook let Jonathan and Gibby familiarize themselves with what would be their new home. Mature trees lined the sidewalks flanking Silver Forest Drive. The houses along the quiet neighborhood were mostly cookie cutter homes, identical in almost every way. Each two story colonial home had a sharp hip roof; the only difference was that some of them had black shingles while others had gray or dark brown. Matching clapboard siding and the same slotted wooden shutters finished off the unoriginal package. The only house that was different was a little white cottage with three large dormer windows jutting out from the upstairs roof. A ‘for rent’ sign was still posted in the front lawn. “We’re here,” Jonathan’s tired voice held hope for a fresh new beginning. Before the SUV had come to a stop, Gibby jumped out and started to stretch his long legs. “God,” he grumbled, “I don’t think I’m ever going to get the feeling back in my ass. Great, it was always small, but now it’s as flat as a pancake,” Gibby complained as he rubbed his backside while making his way to the back of their vehicle. Jonathan stepped out and stared at the house. The whitewash on the siding looked fresh. The trees were pruned, the lawn mowed, and the front porch was lined with flowerpots that were filled with colorful plants. Everything looked inviting. Pointing to the flowers, “I guess the trees give them enough shade that they don’t burn up in the summer heat.” The late afternoon was warm, but a gentle breeze had started to stir. A few stray leaves tumbled around the front yard before continuing down the sidewalk. “Well, we got a lot of stuff to do before nightfall. Why don’t you start unpacking stuff while I figure out where the hospital is located?” Jonathan waited for Gibby’s reply, which never came. “Gibson Lewis Robinson!” Gibby cringed when his father called him by his full name. The first name was bad enough, but first, middle, and last meant he was in trouble. “Jeez, Dad,” Rolling his bike in front of him, Gibby pushed it out from behind their SUV. “What do you think you’re doing?” Jonathan’s eyes narrowed in on his son. Shrugging his shoulders, Gibby gave him a crooked smile. “What does it look like I’m doing?” “What about unpacking?” “For real? Dad, c’mon! Everything I own fits into one cardboard box. How long do you think it’s going to take me to unpack?” Jonathan didn’t argue with Gibby. They had both lost everything in the fire. “Fine,” Jonathan blew an exasperated breath through his lips, “But what if you get lost?” Gibby hopped on his bike and rode small tight circles in the empty street in front of the house. The sun was reaching the far side of the sky, the summer day was still warm, yet Gibby refused to take off his jacket or change out of his long jeans. It was another argument that Jonathan wouldn’t win with him. “You never batted an eye when I would jump on the metro and head into the city before--” “That was different.” “How? You think I’m not going to be able to find my way around this little rinky-dink town?” Jonathan knew that he was a street savvy kid, born and raised in the city. Gibby had a good head on his shoulders. “Just be back here by seven o’clock. We still need to go to the grocery store this evening.” “Yes sir…and if I get lost, you can activate that GPS tracking chip you implanted in my ass.” Gibby heard his father’s laughter rumble as he sped off to explore their new town. **** As the evening breeze grew stronger, a tiny dandelion puff was snatched from the lawn and spun around in the air. It twirled and danced as it flew towards the Robinson’s new home. Bumping against the living room window in the breeze, Jonathan immediately pushed open the sash as if the little fluff had been invited to come in. Cardboard boxes were sitting on the coffee table and couch. Jonathan opened them, retrieving the few possessions that he and his son still had. Peeling back the packing tape, the cardboard flaps popped up with a whoosh, sending the little white speck further into their rented home. From the front door, a narrow hallway ran the length of the house. A fully furnished living room sat to the left of the main entrance and just past it was a cozy study, filled with walls of books. Neutral hues of beige, cream and light gray offset the dark woodwork making the rooms feel more spacious. While the living area was to the left, a polished dining room table and chairs sat to the right. They looked like the kind of furniture that only got used once a year at holiday events. From the hallway, a country style kitchen was past the dining area. It had all the modern conveniences that a kitchen should have. Floating along inspecting the house, the fluff neared a closed door to the back of the house. It hovered there, bobbing on the air. Before retreating back to the outside world, Jonathan reached past the flower seed and opened the dark wooden door to his bedroom, stirring up the air, shooting the dandelion puff upwards to the second floor. A small spot at the top of the staircase had been made into a quiet sitting area with throw pillows, a throw blanket and more books lining the walls. The door just beyond the hand carved banister was open. Shadows cast across the floor as someone moved about inside the only bedroom upstairs. The puff drifted closer to the door. Gibby was inside. He pulled several items out of a cardboard box and quickly placed them in the desk drawer. The box was almost empty as Gibby grabbed the last item. It was a picture frame. The polished silver frame looked shiny and new, but the photograph behind the glass was warped and faded. Burn marks marred the tattered edges curling under the glass. Gibby’s fingers traced the faces in the photo. The woman and young boy had the same auburn hair, heart shaped face, and upturned pink lips. His hands trembled holding the last thing salvaged from the fire. Tears laced his eyes, but before they spilled over his cheeks, Gibby suddenly stiffened his shoulders. His ears perked as his hair stood on end. The feeling of being watched was overwhelming. This was a private moment and someone was intruding on him. A cold chill snaked down Gibby’s spine when the fluff floated closer to him, until it was inches from his shoulder. The unusual feeling increased. When he turned to place the photo on the nightstand beside the bed, Gibby saw a dark figure in the hallway and let out a yelp. “Oh my god!” Gibby jumped back and clutched the photo to his chest, eyes wide with fear while gasping for air. Jonathan’s arms were folded over his chest as he leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and grinned while watching his son move around his new bedroom. “You freaking scared the crap out of me,” Gibby growled, tossing the picture frame back into the empty box. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. You’re probably just jumpy because it’s a strange place,” He said, suppressing a smile. Pushing away from the door, Jonathan walked into Gibby’s new room and glanced around for the first time. The room had cream colored wainscoting covering the lower half of the walls and deep blue paint across the top half. The sharp angles of the ceiling and walls appeared even steeper with the dark color, but two of the wide dormer windows let in a lot of light, even if daylight was dwindling in the summer night. The third window was in Gibby’s bathroom. That was one of the reason’s Jonathan picked this house, both of the two big bedrooms had their own private bathroom. “We can buy you some new stuff to make it feel more like home--” “This isn’t home!” “Gibby,” Jonathan’s voice held an authoritative tone. He didn’t want to have the same old argument with his son, not again. Holding up his hands in surrender, “Look, Gib, we need to do some back to school shopping this weekend, anyways, so why don’t we pick up a few things for your room? A new bedspread and shower curtain will make this place feel a lot more comfortable.” Flexing the muscles in his jaw, Gibby waited for his father to finish so he could object. “I don’t need anything.” Jonathan’s eyes darted over to the frilly bedspread and pillowcases covered in big blue flowers. “Really?” Gibby tried to keep his gaze hard as he attempted to stare down his dad. “Nope, I don’t need anything…everything is fine just as it is.” Jonathan didn’t believe him, but he wouldn’t push the issue, not today.
    1 point
  27. Chapter 12 Answered Prayers We played a two hour game of cut-throat Risk, which I won. It was just too easy when I started off with most of North America from the draw of cards, but, I took it easy and kinda toyed with them until Roger, who started with Australia, tried to take over Asia. After the game, Aunt Alice fixed us hotdogs and chips for dinner. We took off for my house, after we ate, to watch some movies. Roger picked out Cowboys & Aliens. Roger has always been a Sci-Fi and Horror freak. If the movie didn’t have vampires, werewolves, aliens, long-dead dinosaurs, or magic, it had to be about sports, or he didn’t like it. I didn’t care about the genre as long it was a good story. We piled on my bed with me in the middle again. Roger got comfortable and held onto the remote for the movie. Meanwhile, Joey snuggled up to me and I wrapped my arm around his shoulders as he nuzzled his head between my chin and right shoulder. Right then and there, I finally realized as I held Joey close that the scent I had come to associate with him had to be his shampoo. It had a vague aroma of strawberries, which I really like. As I lay there holding him close to me, I inhaled deeply, allowing what I termed the ‘Essence of Joey’ to surround me. I heard both of them giggling. “What?” I looked at both of them. Roger smirked and elbowed me in the ribs. “Are you smelling him?” “Well,” I paused, trying to sound like I did nothing unusual. “Hell yeah, I was. What?” I looked back and forth between them and they started to laugh. So, in my defense, I admitted, “He smells good. I love his shampoo.” I blushed. “Awww, Andy.” Joey purred, as he turned his head and kissed me on my cheek. Roger just rolled his eyes. A smile lit my face like Times Square. Yes! Score one for me. After snuggling with Joey and watching the movie for about twenty minutes or so, I thought I recognized an actor. “Isn’t that the old dude from that last Indiana Jones movie? You know the movie about a crystal skull, what’s his name, uh, Harrison Ford?” I asked elbowing Roger. “Yes, in fact, he was Indiana Jones in all the Indy movies, and he was also in the first Star Wars movies.” Roger smiled, showing off his movie knowledge. “I think I read somewhere once where a lot of gay boys were all hot and bothered over him back in the day. Is that why you remember him?” “Okay smart ass, what other movies was he in?” I was only slightly annoyed by his last comment, because for an old dude he was sorta hot. “Well, he was in Blade Runner, Witness, Patriot Games, The Fugitive, Air Force One,” Roger continued to name films looking smugly at me, “and Six Days Seven Nights, to just name a few.” “And who is all hot and bothered, and knows everything about Mr. Ford?” I grinned. “Shut up!” Roger grabbed a pillow and smacked me with it, as he realized I had set him up. I chuckled to myself, ‘Andy two, Roger zero’. “Play nice.” Joey said, turning his head to look up at me with a smile. I rolled my eyes, but smiled back at Joey and nodded. I thought of the three of us laying there on my bed, what an awesome picture that would make. Then I remembered I wanted to take a bunch of pictures of Joey. Kissing the top of Joey’s head, “Joey, let me up. I need to talk to dad for a sec.” He rose up off of me so I could get up, and I took off to find my dad to take some pictures for us. I knew the camera was ready since I checked it the other night. All I needed was my Dad. First, I checked his bedroom, but he wasn’t there, so I headed downstairs. I wandered into the kitchen, but Dad wasn’t there either. While in the kitchen, I checked the clock and noticed it was only seven-thirty. I figured, even if it was a Saturday, he was probably working on court stuff, so he would more than likely be in his office. The door to his office was closed, so I knocked before I opened it. When I looked in he was on the phone, but he motioned for me to come on in. I took a seat in front of his desk. I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed he was talking to someone about Joey’s parents. Before I could understand what the call was about, Dad ended the call. “What can I do for you Andy?” Dad asked, while closing a folder on his desk. “I need a couple of favors Dad. First, will you take us to church tomorrow? We talked with Pastor Irvin today and Joey seems comfortable with him. I liked him too.” I paused, and Dad sat back smiling. He nodded his consent, so I continued. “When we were at Joey’s house the other day getting his clothes and things, I noticed the house was full of pictures, but there were none of Joey anywhere, not one. The second favor is I want fix that.” I paused while I figured out what to tell Dad. I didn’t want to out myself to Dad, at least not without talking to Joey first. I figured that I would borrow Roger’s act and used my sad puppy dog eyes as I continued. “We were lying in my bed just now watching movies and I thought that would make a great picture, but, if one of us took it, one of us would be missing from the picture. So, would you mind taking a couple of pictures for us?” When I finished, Dad laughed at my attempt to be coy. He sat smiling, and shook his head like I’d lost my mind. When he finished laughing, he finally spoke. “Of course I wouldn’t mind helping you boys out.” I hadn’t moved, and I think Dad could sense I had more to say, because he just sat there waiting on me to decide. “Joey, Roger, and I have been talking about the family meeting last night, and we are a little worried about how concerned you and Aunt Alice appeared,” I paused and looked Dad in the eyes as I asked, “What is it we aren’t being told?” “I’ve already told you about the history of the McCray family. I also told you JT’s dad was recently in my court room, and as a judge, I sometimes have to make rulings that can anger some of the people involved. That’s my concern.” I watched as Dad sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. Reopening his eyes, he leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him, while focusing on me. My heart began to beat a bit faster as he looked me in the eyes and began telling a story I’d never heard before. “Andy, there are things in this world that are hard to explain without experiencing them for yourself.” Dad looked out the window and he seemed lost in thought. “Your mother’s family has lived in this area for a very long time. Did you learn in school the history of this area, as far as who settled it?” Dad turned his attention back on me and I just slowly shook my head no. “I better fill you in then. A lot of Irish and Scottish immigrants settled here in the seventeen hundreds, leaving the east coast and shall we say, the modern ways.” Dad seemed to sense my confusion and paused. “Let’s say they came west to so they could practice the ways of the old country.” “What do you mean by that?” I stared at dad in confusion, trying to grasp what he was telling me. “Have you heard of the druids, Andy?” “Do you mean the religion?” “I know you have heard of Merlin.” Dad smiled. “Yes. He was a druid?” “Yes, he was one of many druids. A druid is a priest or priestess of an ancient Gaelic religion that predates the Roman conquest of the British Isles. It is still practiced today, although not to the same extent that it once was.” Dad sat back a moment. I could tell he was simply laying out the groundwork so that I’d be better able to understand the details when they came up later, just like he used to do in the courtroom before he became a judge. “Your mother’s family can trace their ancestry back to Ireland to a time before Christ was born. There are people still living here in the mountains that can also trace their lineage back to those times as well. And some of them still practice the old traditions. When they first moved here, a tribe of Shawnee Indians was already here. Daniel Boone, a person I know you have heard of, was a friend of the Shawnees, and he had been the person that had shown the first settlers how to get into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap, down at Middlesboro. Daniel introduced the settlers here in Letcher County to the Shawnees, and the two groups made fast friends because of their mutual respect for nature and their common religious beliefs.” Dad stopped and took a drink of water. While Dad took a drink, I considered what he had said so far. My mother’s family might have been druids? That wasn’t something you learned every day, but I knew Dad wasn’t done with his lessons yet. “The traditions of the old country, and the Shawnee’s traditions were shared among the two groups and they grew in knowledge. Over the years, most of what was learned has been lost. So now, in this region of the country, there are only a few women that continue the old traditions; they are known as ‘granny witches’.” All this talk about the settlers, granny witches, and Indians left me wondering if he was ever going to answer my question. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if I even remembered what my question was. “I have always believed that God isn’t restricted as to how He can work His will. Through experiences I’ve had with your mother’s family, I have learned to listen, with an open mind, to any advice given; and I have been advised that our family will soon come under attack. Andy, when I say family, I am including Steve, Alice, Roger and now, Joey,” Dad said, pausing briefly for emphasis. “Now, there are many ways that one can be attacked. What we asked you to do will help keep you away from physical harm. As for other ways of attack, I will do everything in my power to make sure we are all protected.” Dad gave me a weary half-smile, trying to reassure me that everything would be alright, and that we would all make it through this safely. “For now, that’s all I’m going to say on this subject.” “Okay Dad. I’m not sure that I understand everything you told me concerning mom’s family, witches, and wizards, but I won’t worry about that right now. I promise to do what you have asked us to do, and I understand better now why you were so worried.” “Great! Now, let’s go take some pictures.” Dad smiled, got up from behind his desk, and followed me back up to my room. Dad spent the next half-hour clicking away as the three of us struck all sorts of poses and goofed around. Eventually he gave up and set the camera down. “Okay, boys, I have some more work to finish. Don’t stay up too late.” Once Dad headed back to his office, we took turns with the camera. I took twenty or so pictures of Joey, then ten more of Joey and Roger together. Then Roger was sweet enough to take about a dozen of Joey and me together next. I was surprised, but by the time we were done, we had about eighty pictures which I uploaded to my PC. We then sat down, and I had Joey to pick out the ones he wanted copies of and e-mailed them to him, then repeated the process with Roger. Finally, I picked out some and sent them to my Wal-Mart account to have several prints made of all of us together, along with a special one of Joey and me. While we were looking through the photos that we wanted, I was trying to figure out how much of what Dad had told me I was going to pass on to Roger and Joey. I decided to keep it simple and to tell them only what I fully understood. Which, to be honest, wasn’t much. We talked about it for a while and decided to just do as we were asked, since it didn’t really change our daily routines anyways. By the time we finished talking, it was nearly ten o’clock. Joey and Roger decided they wanted to head home to make sure they had clothes ready for church, take a shower, and get to bed early. Roger gave me a hug and took off, leaving Joey and I alone. I wanted to give Joey a huge hug and a kiss, but I was still worried about his back. “How’s your back doing Joey?” I asked as I walked up to him. “It’s a lot better today, but I forgot to change bandages before we came over here.” He looked down at the floor like he had been caught doing something bad. “Awe Joey, I’m so sorry that I forgot.” I thought I’d take the blame so he wouldn’t feel bad about it. “But you can have Aunt Alice change them for you when you take a shower. A couple of hours shouldn’t make that much of a difference.” I hooked my index finger under his chin so I could look directly into his eyes. When he looked at me, he had that mischievous smile of his and I knew that I had been had. “You played me, huh?” He leaned in, and as his lips brushed mine, I wrapped my arms around his neck. His lips press harder and his passion built, as he wrapped his arms around my waist. Our mouths opened slightly, our tongues met, and battled for control. This was new for Joey, and I decided to submit to him by sucking his tongue as I would if it was little Joey in my mouth. He pushed his groin into mine, causing little Mikey to stand up and pay attention. Then, Joey moved his hands down and cupped my ass cheeks and squeezed. Oh my God, I think that caused me to make wet spot the size of a silver dollar on my shorts. I was starting to lose control. I pushed back against him, grinding our hard throbbing cocks together as I deepened our kiss. He sucked my tongue into his mouth and gave it the same treatment I had given his. My knees weakened and I fell back onto my bed pulling Joey on top of me. He slid his hands up the front of my shirt. As he moved them to my quarter-size nipples he was grinding our cocks together harder. Suddenly, like he had been hit with an ice ray from Mr. Freeze, he froze. “Oh God, Andy! I’m so sorry.” Joey was almost in tears. “What are you sorry for? I loved what we were doing.” I said softly, as I gently rubbed his neck reassuringly. “We agreed to go slow and I allowed myself to lose control,” Joey said, with his voice breaking as emotions overtook him, and he refused to look at me. “Joey, if we ever start doing something that I don’t want to do, believe me, I would stop it and tell you I didn’t want to do it. I was fine with what WE were doing.” Joey was still laying on top on me, and I could feel him trembling. I reached my hand up to cup his cheek as I kissed his sweet lips. He returned the kiss but he was beginning to pull away from me. “I need to get going,” he said rolling off me and standing up. He hurriedly wiped his tears away and got ready to head out the door. “Joey,” I said, stopping him as I grabbed his wrist before he could take off. He turned to look at me. “Please don’t be upset. You didn’t do anything that I wasn’t willing to do. Okay babe?” Joey nodded and grinned. “I love it when you call me babe.” I stood up and he gave me a beautiful, soft, good-bye kiss. Just before he walked out of my bedroom, he turned and gave me a cute little wave with a dazzling smile. When he turned and left, I noticed that those tight sweats he was wearing left little to the imagination. No wonder I could feel all of his manhood when he was grinding into me. I closed my eyes and fell backwards onto my bed as visions of Joey’s sweet butt filled my mind. I slept like a baby that night, and my dreams were filled with me and Joey doing all sorts of dirty things to each other. I’m sure that if I told Joey half of what I dreamt we did together, he would feel really guilty. Needless to say, I woke up a sticky mess and had to change my sheets. I just hoped that Dad wouldn’t notice. Dad and me met Joey, Roger, Uncle Steve, and Aunt Alice outside the church before service. Every Sunday, everyone seems to gather outside after Sunday school until about five minutes before church started. When I got to Joey and Roger, Sarah and Mary Tillman were talking to them. “Hey Andy,” Roger said, noticing me for the first time. “About time you got here.” “Hey guys. Good morning, Sarah, Mary; and I had to wait on Dad, Roger.” I smiled at Joey and tried to be calm. About that time, Dad walked by and gave me a little pat on the back of my head. “That’s not true. Someone had to change clothes four times before we could leave, and it wasn’t me.” Dad smiled before walking on. “Well, I had to look my best for church, you know.” I was trying to play it off, but I could tell the four of them weren’t buying it. At least Sarah and Mary didn’t know why. Thankfully, the girls walked off to join their parents. As they walked away, Mary whispered something to Sarah and giggled. Sarah looked back at us and blushed before she covered her mouth and whispered something back to Mary, which left them both in stitches. I hadn’t forgotten that Sarah was asking questions about Joey last week at the bus stop. I knew I had a hot boyfriend, and I intended on keeping him. We finally went inside and all sat together in the third pew from the front. Uncle Steve sat on one end, followed by Aunt Alice, Roger, Joey, me, and finally Dad. Soon the service began; the choir welcomed everyone with songs, and then led the entire congregation in a couple of songs. Things continued along until a Deacon offered a prayer and instructed the ushers to collect the offering. I noticed Joey was squirming a little, and I realized that he probably didn’t have any money on him. I didn’t want to see him upset, so I quickly reached into my billfold and discreetly handed him a ten. He turned with a smile, and I winked at him. Joey blushed and mouthed a “thank you.” Happy to have made him smile, I mouthed back, “You’re welcome.” Looking at him, I wondered what it had been like for him in the past, being the son of a minister. I hoped he had some good memories of church, but the stories he had told me so far seemed more like a horror story. Yet, his strong faith had to mean he did have some good times, even though he had an evil man for a father and minister. After the offering was taken up, Pastor Irvin walked to the pulpit, and welcomed everyone to church this morning, made some announcements, including what time the youth group for teens would meet that afternoon, and began his sermon. “My sermon this morning will be taken from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 22, and Verses 36 through 40. Please rise and join me in prayer.” I have to admit that I didn’t start out listening very closely to his words, but I started paying attention when Pastor Irvin started saying things like, “open our hearts with your love; let us hear your message with love; let every man, woman, and child know that you love them just as they were born; let them be filled with love.” Pastor Irvin instructed everyone to take their seats. “As Jesus sat teaching in the temple, the Sadducees and Pharisees tried to entangle and tempt Him with their questioning in Matthew, Chapter 22, and Verse 36 through 38. “A lawyer asked Jesus, Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? “Jesus said onto him, Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. “I knew a man once that loved to golf. He was on his high school golf team and earned a scholarship to play at a fine university. He was almost, but not quite, good enough to turn pro after college. Yet he didn’t care, because he played for the love of the game. While at college, he met a beautiful girl and they were married shortly after they graduated. However, his love of golf never diminished, and he could be found on the golf course most of his free time. Luckily, he had a very loving and understanding wife. She loved him so much that she was willing to let him enjoy what he loved to do without ever complaining. “One day, after a routine doctor’s visit, she was called to return to the doctor for a follow-up. The doctor had devastating news for her; she had been diagnosed with stage-four cancer, and the prognosis was not good. The man stopped playing golf and spent every free moment that she had left with her, because he loved her more than anything else on this earth. Not even golf was more important to him. Just as his wife never complained about his golfing, because she had loved him with all of her heart and wanted him to be happy, he put her needs and desires over his for the same reason, and never complained about giving it up. Putting someone ahead of our own desires is love. God loves us and He expects us to put his will ahead of our own. His will be done.” The pastor took a moment and I was shocked how passionately he was speaking. This sermon was about love but he was speaking about it in a way I’d never heard before. I couldn’t wait to hear what else he had to say. “Jesus had more to say to the Pharisees: “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. “If we follow these two commandments, and accept Jesus as the Son of God, then we are right with God. But I say to you, my brothers and sisters, how can we be right with God if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves? For if we hate a man because of the color of his skin, we have not the love of God in us, because that man is our neighbor, and we are breaking one of the two great commandments. “Jesus came to fulfill the Mosaic Law, the law handed to Moses. When Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.’ Once Jesus fulfilled them through His sacrifice, He had already given us the two commandments to follow. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love the rest of God’s children, your neighbor, as you love yourself. Think about it for a moment. If you love someone, would you steal from them? If you love someone, would to lie about them? If you truly love someone, would you kill them? No, you would not.” Wow! Pastor Irvin really did get it. Listening to the pastor I couldn’t help but look at the people most important to me. Dad was engrossed in the Pastor’s sermon, and Joey seemed ready to cry. Even Aunt Alice, Uncle Steve, and Roger seemed affected by Pastor Irvin’s sermon. “Now I ask you, if you love someone, would you persecute them for who they love? What gives us the right to condemn a person for loving another human being? God made us as we are, and God doesn’t make mistakes. Love is the greatest power in the universe; God is love. For as long as I am the pastor of Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church, I will not turn anyone away because they are gay or lesbian. For we are ALL God’s children and I shall not judge.” I have never been so shocked in my whole life as the entire church stood up clapping and saying amen. I was so glad Joey had asked us to come this morning. I looked over at Joey and saw he had tears flowing down his face. That’s when I first noticed that my face was wet with tears as well. I could feel the love coming from the entire congregation that morning. God’s love was descending on us all like a dove. My dad pulled me into a hug, and I noticed that everyone was hugging each other excitedly as I looked around the sanctuary. I let go of my dad and turned to Joey, who had just finished hugging Roger. We threw ourselves into each other’s arms in a hug like I had never experienced before. Our tears of joy and happiness mixed as our cheeks rested against one another. Mr. Horn was right; we did have support in Pine Hills. In fact, it appeared we had a whole church-full, but I still wasn’t ready to out myself or Joey. Pastor Irvin was smart enough to know this was a good place to end his sermon and quickly ended the service. As the choir was singing the final song, Pastor Irvin made his way to the door to shake everyone’s hand as they left the church. Dad was the first of our group to reach Pastor Irvin. I could hear the pastor tell him that he was glad to see Dad this morning, and hoped to see him more often. Dad assured him that he most certainly would. “It’s good to see you this morning Andy,” Pastor Irvin said reaching for my hand, “I hope you enjoyed the sermon this morning?” He asked, with a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye. “Yes Sir,” I smiled. “I really did like it and I’ll definitely be back.” Joey was next in line to shake hands. I could see him trembling, and I wasn’t sure why. The pastor reached out to shake Joey’s hand but instead found himself pulled into a hug by Joey. I could barely hear Joey whisper a ‘Thank you’. I was relieved that Joey was just still emotional from the sermon. I had worried that something was wrong. When Joey and I got to the sidewalk, Dad threw his arms around our shoulders. “What do you boys have planned for today?” Dad asked, giving my shoulder a squeeze as he smiled at me. “Well, we talked about some stuff, but never decided on anything. Why? Do you have something in mind?” As I looked over at Dad, I knew he must or he wouldn’t have asked. That was the thing about my dad; he always put Mom and me ahead of himself. “As matter of fact,” he explained, “I do. What do you say we all ride over to Norton for some Red Lobster?” “That would be sweet, dad.” I said, just as I realized something. “Do you think we could come back through Flat Gap and stop at the scenic viewing area on Pine Mountain, so I could show Joey a taste of the view we’d get from atop High Rock?” “If Steve and Alice don’t mind, you boys can ride back with me, and we can make a side trip.” Dad stood smiling while we rushed over to talk to Aunt Alice and Uncle Steve. We kept talking over each other, which had them laughing before they finally agreed to our trip. We couldn’t wait to get on the road, eat, and see the sights. And that’s what we did. The meal was wonderful and on the way home driving through Flat Gap, I pointed out a trail to High Rock and Bad Branch Falls to Joey. He was taken aback by the view on Pine Mountain when we stopped at the viewing area. You could easily see Pine Mountain junction from where we were which was at least ten miles away and about half a mile below us. By the time we got home, it was around five o’clock and too late to make it to the church’s youth group. Roger called home to let his parents know we were back, and that we were going to watch the baseball game with my dad. Uncle Steve and Aunt Alice came over and brought hamburgers for everyone to eat and watched the game with us. About half-way through the game I reached a decision. Looking at Joey, who was sitting next to me on the couch, I nodded for him to follow me. I got up without saying a word and headed to my bedroom. When Joey walked in behind me, I closed the door. “Joey, I think... no, I know I’m ready; but, I wanted to tell you first,” I said excitedly, the words literally rushing out of me. “Uh Andy, you’re ready for what?” He asked, biting his lower lip, as his nerves showed through. “I’m ready to tell the family about me. I mean, that I’m gay.” My palms were drenched with sweat as I anxiously awaited any response from Joey. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally looked up and smiled at me. I figured that I might as well go for broke. “I also would like to tell them about us. What do you think?” “Are you sure Andy? I mean, there’s no go backs once it’s done.” Joey’s voice was strong as he spoke to me. He never once looked away and his hands gripped mine. Joey looked me in the eyes as if trying to read me. I don’t know if he was searching for an answer, or if he was looking to see if I was serious, or what. I just opened myself up and bared my soul to him. He must have found whatever it was that he was looking for, because after a moment, he pulled back and smiled. There was no denying that he wanted me to make a choice that I could live with. I looked back at him and tried to explain how serious I was. That I wasn’t just acting on an impulse. “Joey, I’ve thought about it a lot. I know the road we will travel will have bumps, ditches, curves, ups, and downs, but I believe that as long as we stick together, it will be a wonderful journey. First, we know Uncle Steve, Aunt Alice, and Roger have accepted you; then there is what Dad said to me at McDonalds, Mr. Horn’s conversation with me on Friday night, and what Pastor Irvin said to us yesterday. Plus, his sermon this morning and the reaction it received were unreal. I think we have support here Joey. Most importantly, I know from the bottom of my heart that I’m ready to tell our loved ones, that I’m totally in love with you, Joseph Matthew Adams.” Joey threw his arms around me and gave me a kiss that just about made me pass out. Yep, I was in love. If what I felt for Joey wasn’t love, then there’s no such thing. Joey broke the kiss and backed-up just enough so that we could see each other’s eyes. “Andy, if you’re sure and you do seem to be,” Joey leaned his forehead against mine, looking into my eyes, “then I want to tell them about us, with you.” “Okay, let’s get back before they send a search party for us.” I stole one more kiss as I grabbed his hand and headed back to our family. We walked back downstairs, and reclaimed the spaces on the couch that we had vacated. Once we sat down, I looked around the room. Everyone was looking at us, and I knew that this was the moment. I cleared my throat. “Dad, Aunt Alice, Uncle Steve, I have something to tell you guys. First, Dad I want to tell you I love you very much. I have always been inspired by your honesty, the things you do for others and the love you have always shown me and everyone else that you meet. I’m so proud you’re my Father. “Aunt Alice, you have always been my second mom. When mom died,” I paused trying to control the tears that were suddenly threatening to fall, “you where there for me, just like you have always been there for me. I will never forget that. I love you Mom. Uncle Steve, I love you as my second dad, just like Aunt Alice, you have always been there for me too.” I paused again to wipe my eyes. Joey reached over and took my hand into his. I looked at him and smiled. He gave me the strength to continue. “I always knew that I could tell any of you everything, and I always have, at least, until recently.” My head dropped from the shame I felt: not for being gay, but for not having been honest with them from the beginning, even if I had been scared. Joey squeezed my hand. When I looked up, everyone was staring at me, waiting for me to continue. “You are my family, the people I turn to for love and support and I haven’t been totally honest with you. I hope you will forgive me. The truth is,” I paused as I looked at the people I loved the most, realizing that this was much harder than I thought it would be when I had been in the safety of my bedroom. I straightened my back and continued. “I’m gay and I’m in love with Joey and we are together, as a couple. I mean, Joey is my boyfriend and I’m his boyfriend, a couple, umm yes, together.”
    1 point
  28. Chapter 10 When it Rains it Pours Mr. Horn quickly stepped between JT and me, before any blows could be thrown. Mr. Horn’s presence reassured me, but wasn’t doing much to ease my anger. Before another word could be spoken, a city cop rushed up and asked JT and his father to follow him towards the parking lot. The officer made it clear that this wasn’t a request; they had to leave or they would be going to jail. As JT was turning to leave, he took one more look at me with pure hatred in his eyes which made me shiver. Mr. Horn looked around, and noticed the crowd that had surrounded us during the confrontation. “Okay folks, the show is over. You need to either head back to the game or leave.” Everyone could see he meant every word and didn’t hang around. I stood beside him shaking with a combination of anger and fear; because what had been said, and by what had almost happened. Both Joey and I had been threatened and unknowingly, he had correctly called Joey my boyfriend. I didn’t know how many people were there, or how many might have taken anything JT had said seriously. I realized with a growing horror that the truth would be coming out soon to everyone. Between Joey’s legal situation which would let everyone know he was gay, and JT’s ranting, it wouldn’t take much for people in this town to put two and two together, come to the conclusion that I was gay, and that we were boyfriends. As that realization struck home I started to shake uncontrollably and feel lightheaded. I fell back into my chair, resting my elbows on my knees, and I bent over, with my head down, watching my hands shake spastically. Mr. Horn took one look at me and saw that I was shaking like a leaf in a wind storm. He squatted down in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Andy, are you okay, son?” I raised my head and looked him in the eyes. I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t trust my voice. So, I just shook my head no. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * When Joey had first gotten to the concession stand, he was asked by Miss Stuart to help bring up the buckets of ice and fill the storage machine for the game. There was another student already turning on the popcorn maker and setting up trays marked Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and water. It didn’t take him long to fill the machine before he was asked to help the other student finish up with the drinks. Joey was busy filling paper cups with ice, as a girl filled them with drinks. He had noticed her stealing looks at him, when she thought he wouldn’t notice, and her actions brought a small smile to his face. He also noted that she was a very pretty girl and would turn heads in the near future, if not already. Hey, Joey might be gay, but he wasn’t blind. They were probably in the same grade and she was close to his height. She appeared to be nervous, because she was consistently overfilling the drinks with her shaky hands. Once the girl filled all the cups, she turned to Joey. “Hi. I’m Cindy.” Joey took a deep breath, turned to face her and put on his brightest smile. “Hi Cindy, my name is Joey.” “You’re new here aren’t you?” Cindy smiled shyly as she watched every move Joey made. “Yup, I just moved here last week.” Joey paused, as if he wasn’t sure what he was going do, but as Cindy seemed ready to ask another question he beat her to it. “Do you work the concession stand every game?” “Yes, my brother is on the team, and I try to do my part to help.” “Is there a game every week?” Joey put the question to her gently. Cindy smiled widely. “Nearly every week, yes. But only half of the games are home games. So I only work the concession stand then. At the away games I’m in the stand cheering Paul on. Paul’s my brother.” Just then they started getting busy, and neither had time to ask any personal questions, which was just fine with him. ** ***** ** Mr. Horn had me put my head between my legs and it seemed to work. In no time, I felt a lot better- at least physically. I still had several bad scenarios running through my head concerning Joey and me. With my head between my legs, I felt like was about to kiss my ass good-bye, because of the McCrays, I decided not to say anything to Joey about what happened. I’d deal with this on my own; Joey had enough to worry about already. “I think I’m better now Mr. Horn.” I had been so absorbed in my own thoughts that when I had finally glanced up, I found Mr. Horn watching me closely and appeared really worried. “Are you sure Andy? There’s no rush here.” I could hear the concern in his voice. I had gotten to know Mr. Horn over the last week and discovered I liked him. He really seemed to care about us, not only as his students, but as real people. “Yes Sir.” I stood to test my legs out and to show him I was better. The shakes were gone and I actually did feel better. “See? I’m good to go now,” I grinned. He patted me on the shoulder and looked me straight in the eyes as he talked to me. “Good, you’re done for the tonight. Go find your friend, and you two can watch the rest of the game.” I could tell he was as relieved as I was for me to be feeling better. “Thank you, Sir.” I smiled and I started to leave; but I stopped and turn back to him as he started to get the money and ticket stubs together. “I mean it, Mr. Horn, thanks for everything.” I added with a real show of respect for the man that stopped my night from becoming a nightmare. “That’s my job Andy, but you ARE welcome.” He put the money down for a moment as he smiled at me. He made sure he had my attention, before he continued speaking. “Don’t allow what JT’s father said get to you. As for JT, he’s just parroting his father. You shouldn’t allow the bigotry of others to control your own emotions and actions. When you do, you’ll be giving hate a place to live.” The more he spoke the more passionate he became. “Then it festers inside of you and takes over. You’ll end up just like those you hate. There’s a lot more support here in Pine Hills than it may seem; just remember to always be true to yourself. You’re a fine young man, Andy Collins, and I’m proud to be your principal. Now get out of here, and enjoy the game with your friends.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded. I turned and walked through the gate, headed towards the concession stand, with my mind racing. I couldn’t help but think of what JT said, and then I realized I had threatened his life, in front of God and everyone. I thought, ‘That was so stupid. I could have said a million different things, but no, I had to threaten to kill him.’ My mind jumped immediately to what Mr. Horn had just told me. I didn’t quite understand what he had meant by support, but I think I understood what he meant by not letting hatred get a toe-hold in my life. Hatred is like a cancer, which will only grow and consume you. It was then I realized how caring Mr. Horn really was. He had avoided the phrase; ‘hate is like a cancer,’ because of my mother. Yet, he had gotten his point across all the same; I was really starting to like Mr. Horn. I went to the side door of the concession stand, which was almost always open during football games, and stood there a couple of minutes watching Joey bag up popcorn from the popcorn machine. He had smiled a lot the last couple of days, and I couldn’t help but think of all the problems that were, hopefully, now behind him. Naturally, my thoughts didn’t stay too pure as I watched him move around, helping the people at the game get their popcorn. The way he filled out his new tight jeans had my heart pumping double-time. I looked up from his amazing bubble butt and realized that I had been caught by my boyfriend while I had been- checking him out. Joey broke into a huge knowing grin and was looking right at me. I grinned back with some especially naughty ideas for later tonight after the game. I motioned him over to me. “Hey Andy, what’s up?” He smiled. I looked into his eyes and had to fight back the urge to kiss him. “Mr. Horn said we were cut loose and could watch the game. But first, get three drinks and popcorn for us and Roger.” I said as I handed him a ten dollar bill out of my wallet. As he took the ten he caressed my fingers and smiled at my soft, barely audible, moan. “No problem. Let me tell Miss Stuart what Mr. Horn said, and then I’ll get the refreshments.” When he returned, he handed me the drinks, before grabbing the bags of popcorn. We walked side by side, talking down the sidelines, until we got to the student section. I looked up into the bleachers looking for Roger, who waved to get my attention, before we started the climb up to where he was sitting. Timmy was sitting with him and they had saved some room for us to sit together. I handed Roger his drink and he got his popcorn from Joey. “Sorry Timmy,” I began feeling guilty that we hadn’t brought anything for him, “I didn’t know you were even here.” He laughed, “Yeah, you seemed to be in a daze when you took my ticket stub.” “I swear, I don’t remember seeing you.” He playfully hit my arm. “I don’t doubt it. I was in line with a bunch of people and you were just taking the tickets and tearing them in two. You were almost robotic, the way you were handing our stubs back, not even looking up.” He smiled, “Don’t worry about it, you all can share, right?” “You’re right,” I smiled and handed my bag of popcorn to him and he took a handful. I turned my attention back to Joey and asked, “How did everything go in the concession stand?” “Actually, it was kinda fun, not bad at all.” His voice dropped to a whisper as he told me the next bit, his eyes never leaving mine. “Well, except Cindy was trying to flirt with me before it got too busy.” He saw my raised eyebrow and snickered before continuing. “Don’t worry. Before she could ask me a thousand questions, I started asking her questions, and then we got busy. End of story.” He smiled and leaned over to whisper in my ear, “So, there’s no reason to be jealous, even though it’s cute on you.” I swear, being gay in a backwater town was hard enough, but being gay AND in love in a backwater town was going to be the death of me. It was so unfair that we couldn’t show how we felt about each other like any straight couple did. A straight couple could walk down the streets holding hands ,or stop for a quick kiss, without anyone saying anything. But I was afraid that if Joey and I just held hands, we would be tarred and feathered and run out of town with signs around our necks saying fags. For the second time tonight I was so deeply consumed within my own thoughts that the outside world had ceased to exist for me. Then all of a sudden, everyone jumped up cheering, and yelling. I joined in, but I had no idea why we were cheering. I turned to Roger, “What happened?” Roger threw his arm around my shoulders with his other arm pumped into the air. “We scored again!” I looked at the scoreboard. We were up thirty-four to nothing, and it wasn’t even halftime. It seemed we had a good team, even without JT playing. At least I, well, Joey and I, wouldn’t have the football team mad at us over JT missing the game. Roger looked at me, “Do you and Joey wanna leave at halftime since the game is a blowout?” I turned to Joey, “Would you mind if we left at halftime?” The light in Joey’s eyes seemed to dance and his lips formed a naughty grin. “I’d love to.” I called my dad and told him what the three of us were planning. He was happy to pick us up early. That way he wouldn’t have to fight the post-game traffic. When he came, I climbed in the front seat to keep Dad from questioning why I always rode in the back now. That left Joey and Roger in the back seat. “How was the game?” Dad asked. “Well, we scored again after I called you. Levi Thomas intercepted a pass and ran it in for another touchdown.” I looked over at dad. “Either Harlan doesn’t have much this year or we are really good, because we’re up forty-two to nothing at halftime.” “Maybe it’s a little of both,” Dad offered. “It’s still too early in the season to know for sure.” Dad paused and looked over at me as we came to a stop sign. “Andy, when Roger and Joey go home to get their clothes for tonight, we’ll go with them so we can all sit down and talk about what took place at the game tonight. Mr. Horn called me and filled me in, but I want to hear it from your perspective.” Damn. I wasn’t going to tell Joey about it, but then my dad spilled the beans. Shit. I turned and looked back at Joey, he was frowning. Turning back to look at dad, I said. “Thanks Dad, I wasn’t going to mention anything about it to Joey. Especially since NOTHING actually happened. Now he has something else to worry about.” I was mad. I didn’t usually talk to my dad like that, but he fucked up. At least in my mind he had. “I would have told you about it Dad, but I would have waited for a better time.” I folded my arms across my chest and pouted. I realized I was acting like a spoiled child, but I didn’t care. I was mad. Joey leaned towards the front, putting his hand on my left shoulder, and with concern filling his voice asked, “What happened, Andy?” I unfolded my arms and placed my right hand on top of his. “JT’s dad wasn’t happy with Mr. Horn, because he wouldn’t let JT into the game since he is still suspended until Monday morning.” I paused. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell him the rest, but since dad had already started to tell them, I thought I should tell it all. “JT also threatened to beat both of us up and I suggested he shouldn’t.” I noticed dad quickly glanced at me as if he knew exactly what I had said.” “What a shit head.” Roger mumbled, but loud enough for us to hear. “Umm… Sorry Uncle Sam.” We were silent as we pulled onto our street. Dad didn’t slow down till he was in front of our house. I watched the nervous way his fingers gripped and released the steering wheel. “Andy, I just had Mr. McCray in my courtroom this week. He wasn’t on trial, but he would have been if he hadn’t turned state witness.” Dad paused, looked at me after he had stopped the SUV before continuing. “That family has a long history no one should be proud of. As long as I can remember, they have been involved in all sorts of questionable things, including various criminal activities.” He paused again and turned to look at Joey and Roger. There was no denying that Dad was trying hard to make sure we all listened to what he had to say. “All of you boys should be careful. I would prefer that none of you are alone for any length of time, but we’ll get into that later. Right now, we are all going to have a chat with Steve and Alice about what happened tonight for a few minutes before you boys come over to spend the night.” Dad was acting a little strange, but I was thinking about what he had told us. I could see Dad was taking this almost as seriously as I was, but for different reasons. I wasn’t concerned about fighting JT. Yeah, he could probably beat me in a fair fight, but it would be close and I would make it not worth his while to try again. But that was the thing, JT wasn’t known for fighting fair. Maybe Dad had a point there. I don’t know. All this passed through my head as I climbed out and followed Dad, Roger, and Joey towards Uncle Steve’s home. When we entered Roger’s house, Uncle Steve was sitting on the couch in the living room watching Sports Center on ESPN. When he saw us enter, he turned off the TV. “Come on in guys and have a seat. We want to talk to you before the sleepover.” Uncle Steve told us as Aunt Alice came in with some drinks for everyone. I suspected the adult’s were a little stronger and my guess was confirmed when Uncle Steve made a face after a drink. The fact that they felt they needed strong drinks showed just how worried they were about us, and that scared me. I looked over to Roger and I could see he felt the same way. “Boys,” Dad said slipping into his judge voice. “After the principal called tonight, Steve, Alice, and I came up with what we believe is the best solution for the time being.” Dad paused and looked over to Uncle Steve. Uncle Steve set down his drink and looked at us. Once he knew that he had our undivided attention, he began to speak. “First off, you boys will all carry your cell phones everywhere you go.” Uncle Steve waited till we each nodded our head. “None of you are to go anywhere without the other two. Until you are told otherwise, you three will be joined at the hip, like the three musketeers. Absolutely no exceptions, unless you clear it through one of the three of us. Is that understood?” He looked at each of us in turn as we nodded that we understood. “May I ask why?” I wanted to know what spooked them so badly. “Andy, the McCrays are a bad element here in Letcher County. JT threatened both you and Joey tonight and you, in turn, publicly threatened to kill him.” Dad started, but I interrupted him. “Dad, you know I didn’t mean that I’d literally kill him. I was just mad when he threatened Joey and I wanted him to understand I wouldn’t just stand there and let it happen.” I didn’t want anyone to think I would actually kill someone. “Yes, Andy, I know you didn’t literally mean it. But nevertheless, you did make the threat. I can also assure you that Mr. McCray took it literally, and as an insult to, not only JT, but to his entire family.” He paused to collect his thoughts before continuing, “Boys, I don’t believe anything will come of it, but there’s nothing wrong with taking precautions, and that’s what we’re doing here.” Joey, Roger, and I looked at each other uncomfortably. Something was going on that we didn’t fully understand, and it was making us nervous. Joey looked over at me, concern written all over his face. “Joey,” Aunt Alice said getting his attention. “Andy and Roger have been taught a code system that we would like to teach you now, in case you’re in trouble. If you find yourself alone, or as the only one, out of the three of you, able to make a call for help, remember that the quickest way is to dial nine-one-one; however, sometimes you may need to be a little more subtle.” Aunt Alice stopped and looked over at my dad, shaking her head. “No, Sam. Let’s just keep this simple.” Dad nodded his agreement. “Here’s what I want you to do, anytime you’re in trouble, call. Anytime you feel threatened, call. Anytime you FEEL like there’s trouble, call.” With the steady and controlled way she was trying to talk, everyone could tell how concerned Aunt Alice was. “I don’t want you three to feel like the world is after you, but for now, we want to know where you are at all times, who you are with, and when you will be home, absolutely NO exceptions. We want you to promise us that you will contact us, for any reason. Do I make myself clear?” The three of us said yes. Whatever was going on, the adults had evidently talked long before we were sat down before them. If I hadn’t been scared by the initial confrontation with JT, I would definitely be scared just based on the way that they were acting. I turned to my father, “I understand why, we should be careful. In fact, we should always be careful, considering it is JT and his family. But, it seems to me that you three are way too concerned over something that isn’t anything more than a school-yard shouting match.” “Sam,” Uncle Steve interrupted me, glaring at my dad. “I think Andy has a point here, as I told you two earlier.” Dad raised his hand to stop him from saying anymore. “Okay, I know that some, if not all, of you feel this way, but I’m asking you, as your father, Andy, and as a friend to all of you, to please just do as I recommend for a little while, at least.” There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as we each considered what had been said. Dad looked at each of us, his eyes full of determination, for us to accept his wishes. I guess he still saw some doubt in our eyes; he shook his head before softly speaking again. “I have my reasons. Please, trust me on this.” That’s all it took for me to climb fully on board with my dad. I did trust him and always had; he had never once given me a reason not to. The silence in the room was getting to me so I decided to speak up. “Okay, Dad,” I looked at both Joey and Roger and they nodded their approval, “we will do as you ask, because we trust you.” I got up and gave my dad a hug. “Good. Now you boys go get whatever you need so you can have some fun.” Dad was smiling and seemed relieved. Joey and Roger took off like a shot, and were back a few minutes later with the stuff they needed for the sleepover. Dad walked with us back across the yard to our house. When we got to my room Joey wanted to say something, but he was having trouble coming out with it. Roger wasn’t paying any attention, as he was too busy setting up the Wii, so I walked up to Joey and put my arm around his shoulder. “What’s up, Joey?” I asked as I looked into his eyes. “Would you help me with my bandages? I’d like to get them off before we get started” Joey kept eye contact with me, but I could tell that part of him wanted to look away. I just smiled at him and nodded. I looked over at Roger. “I’m going to help Joey with his bandages. We’ll be right back, okay?” “Sure, no problem. Oh, don’t take all night. You both have a date falling to me in NBA Jam.” Roger said with a huge grin. I gave Roger the one finger salute and lead Joey to my bathroom. “Wow! I never knew you had a bathroom like this!” Joey was surprised by how big my bathroom was, with the shower big enough for six people, complete with fancy shower heads. I turned and looked at him. “Joey, you’re welcome to use the shower anytime you want. Maybe it would even be good for your back?” I got a wicked grin. “Maybe we could even have a little fun if I helped wash your back for you.” He lightly punched me on the arm, but he too had a wicked grin. I slowly loosened the tape holding the bandages to his back and tenderly pulled them away from his skin. He looked a lot better than he did on Wednesday, but I could tell he was still in a lot of pain. Every time I saw these marks on the boy I loved, it strengthened my resolve to ensure that it never happened again. Damn his parents for hurting him for just being who he is, and the assholes like JT who want to beat him up just for sharing the same space. If I had my way, no one would ever hurt anyone like Joey had been ever again. As I helped get the rest of the bandages off Joey, I thought back to what Mr. Horn said about there being more support in this town than I had thought. He knew what JT had called Joey and me. Was Mr. Horn telling me that gays would be more accepted here than I thought? I wasn’t sure, but maybe he was right. I leaned over and kissed Joey’s back. I’d do whatever it took to keep my Joey safe. He turned and looked at me, his blond hair falling in his eyes. His long eye lashes batted at me and I got to kiss the boy of my dreams, as Joey moved closer to me. Our lips touched lightly at first. It was tender, and full of love, without the passion-driven lust of teenage love. It was wonderful, and it proved to both of us that this was for real; not just our hormones controlling us. I could feel Joey’s love flowing into me. I felt the tip of his tongue licking my bottom lip requesting entry. I decided then and there I would never refuse Joey anything. I may have had him at hello, but he had me the first time I saw the mop of blond hair on the school bus. Roger yelled for us to hurry up. He said the king was waiting for us. We both smiled through our kiss at the banter coming from Roger and the awesome feeling that was burning inside of us both. We knew we had a love that would stand the test of time. We broke our kiss and I rested my forehead on his. “Joey, I love you. I’ve loved you from the very first time I saw the back of your head on the bus. I didn’t know what it was then, but I do now.” I could feel my heart beating in my chest. “I love you, too. I have from the first moment I saw you in homeroom.” Joey was smiling as much as I was. I could tell from his eyes, he meant every word he said and that made me feel like the king of the world. I quickly, but carefully replaced his bandages with new ones. After I finished with the last one, I took his hand and we walked into the bedroom hand in hand. We played a few games, taking turns, but it wasn’t long till our attention wandered to other things. Before we all crashed in my bed, we had decided to take Joey camping next weekend, as long as he felt up to it with his bruises and cuts. I was hoping he would be healed by then and be up to the trip. He told us he had a doctor's appointment on Wednesday and would ask the doctor if he could go camping. Roger and I filled him in where we wanted to go, a great camping place near High Rock. I told him you could actually see High Rock from Main Street, and I would point it out to him the next time we’re downtown. We wouldn’t actually be camping on the rock, but just below High Rock. On the east side on the mountain, there was a small cave where we would be sheltered, even if it rained. It was late when we finally called it a night. As everyone got comfortable on the bed, I ended up in the middle. I rolled over onto my side and Joey backed up into me, spooning against my body. I draped my arm over him and pulled him tighter. I whispered in his ear, “Am I hurting you?” “No, I could spend the rest of my life here like this.” He purred, and I smiled. I wondered if this was what heaven was like. I thought back to the conversation with our parents tonight, and wonder if we really had anything to fear, I didn’t think so. As I drifted off to sleep, with my boyfriend snuggled up close in my arms, I figured the worst that could happen was I’d get the shit kicked out of me by JT. Boy was I wrong.
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  29. Chapter 9 His Knight “Uh, Roger, umm, this isn’t what it looks like. Uh…” I managed to stutter out. I knew I looked like a bank robber who had a trail of money that lead right to his feet with every shirt and pants pocket stuffed full of stolen money, and asked the cop that stopped him, ‘What money?’ I blushed furiously, while I tried to think of a quick cover story. “Okay, Andy,” began Roger, as he raised his eye brows, and leaned against the door frame. “What doesn’t it look like to me?” Roger simply folded his arms across his chest, and stood, watching us on the bed. “Uh, wait.” I was confused by Roger’s comment and attitude. I took a shy glance at him, while my stomach did flip-flops. “What did you just ask me?” As much as I loved Roger, there was no way I was going to get trapped into saying the wrong thing. I mean, I didn’t want to admit to something that I wasn’t even asked about. God, I’m confused. I sat there, with my mouth open, as I tried to figure out exactly what to say. Before I could make a bigger fool of myself, a grin split Roger’s face from ear to ear. I swear to God, he just fell rolling on the floor, tears streaming from his eyes, while he laughed his ass off at us. Now, I knew that when people type ROFLMAO, it really is possible. Who knew? I looked at Joey, he looked at me, then back at Roger, and shrugged. Here was my best friend, curled up, as he rolled around. Tears streamed from his eyes, and laughed like a hyena. As he gasped for breath on the floor, I just stared at him, flabbergasted. I got up off the bed and walked over to where he laid. “Uh, Roger, what’s up bud?” I wasn’t as concerned as I had been, because I felt that if this was Roger's reaction, then it was a good thing, or at least, I hoped it was. It took a while for Roger to regain control of himself. He finally leaned back against the door frame, and pulled his legs beneath him, Indian style. He chuckled, at first, as he sat there. Then, he looked back and forth between Joey and me. His face was as red as Rudolph’s nose, the proverbial reindeer. “Roger?” I was concerned, and tried to get something, anything, out of him. “Oh my God,” Roger gasped, as he continued to look back and forth between us. “I have never seen ANYONE look like you two did, when you realized I was here.” He paused, and patted the floor beside him. So, I sat down along beside him. I looked him in the eyes, and raised a questioning eyebrow at him, as Joey came and joined us on the floor. “This morning, when dad called mom, he told us some stuff about Joey’s Dad and why he needed somewhere to stay.” He quickly added, “I mean live. Going back over the last few days in my head,” Roger paused, and looked at me, before he continued, “I remember how much you kept talking about Joey. You also seemed overly concerned about him not being at school. Especially, considering you had just met him the day before.” The joking slowly subsided as Roger’s voice got serious. I moved nervously, and sat beside him. Roger took a good look at Joey before he spoke again. “When Andy was cleaning you up that day JT hit you, I noticed the way you looked at Andy. You looked at him the same way Tonya Marshall looks at me, when she doesn’t know I’m watching. That look only got magnified when Andy told me you were his friend.” Joey nodded, and blushed. I tried not to smile as I realized I hadn’t been the only one to be feeling something that day. My attention focused on Roger, though, when he turned to look at me again. “Then when you were on the phone with your Dad’s secretary this morning, you had that same look while you talked to Margie. Also, when we moved stuff around in Joey’s room, both of you stole looks at the other.” There was a pause as Roger looked at me. It was one of those looks best friends have when they have to tell you something they don’t really want to talk about. If it had been anyone else, I probably would have wanted to run, but instead I wanted to know what Roger knew. “Andy, I’ve known you my whole life. Not once have you ever had a crush on any girl. Never have you said to me, ‘wow, so and so is hot.’ There isn’t one poster in that box over there, or on your wall, that has a single girl on them.” Roger pointed at the box of posters, and then motioned around the room at the walls. “I’m kinda sorry I scared you both, but not totally.” He sighed, and looked down at the floor. “Andy, I’m really hurt you didn’t trust me enough to be honest with me. Joey, I can understand, but not you.” His face showed the hurt and then he frowned. “Have I ever given you a reason to think I would care if you were gay or not?” His voice held the pain. There was no denying that I had hurt him and I really never have kept anything from him before. Even when I was in the depths of depression, he was my safe harbor, my best friend; no matter what was going on around me. “Roger, I’m sorry.” I had a hard time looking him in the eyes. I felt bad for trying to hide this from him, but I also felt exposed. Finally, I met his eyes with mine. I really hope I could make him understand, so he would forgive me. “I really am sorry, but you also have to remember, I’ve only started to confront it the last couple of days. Until I met Joey, there was no way of knowing for sure. Joey is the first boy I’ve ever had these feelings for.” My throat felt dry, and my hands were sweaty, but one look at Joey, and I knew I could finally tell Roger everything. “To be totally honest with you though, I don’t know when I would have told you. I was, and still am, scared. You saw what happened to Joey at school before anyone even knew the truth. You know how this town is.” I paused and looked Roger square in the eyes, “Yet, you know as well as I do, if we’re both honest about it, I would have told you at some point.” “Fine, you’re right.” He said. I relaxed a bit as I realized my best friend was still my friend. “This town sucks about this type of stuff. You’re also right in that I know deep down, you would have told me, given the chance.” He paused, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “But, my God, it was awesome catching you two!” Both Joey and I hit his shoulders at the same time. “Ouch” he cried with a chuckle. I leaned over and pulled him into a hug. “I love you, bro.” I said, with tears in my eyes, as I realized Roger accepted me and Joey for who we were. “So, are you two like an item or something?” Roger watched as I slowly sat back down after the hug. He tilted his head and waited for me to answer him. I glanced over at Joey, and he nodded. “Yeah, I asked him to be my boyfriend before you scared the shit out of us and he said yes.” I paused, and looked at Roger, “Roger, we have to keep this quiet, for now anyway. Joey and I have agreed not to tell anyone we don’t both agree on. So, will you please let us decide who and when?” “Sure, no problem there. Who knows you guys are gay and about the two of you?” Leave it to Roger to ask the hard questions right away. I looked at Joey, who just nodded, and allowed me to field the question. I thought about it a moment before I answered. “My dad knows, but I didn’t actually confirm it to him, at least not in so many words. I guess from what you said, your family knows Joey is gay, but only you know for sure we’re boyfriends.” “Well, since I’m the first and only one so far, I guess it’s my job to keep you both on your toes and safe. Seeing how Joey is my new little brother,” Roger playfully smacked Joey’s shoulder, before turning to look at me, “my best friend just became my future brother-in-law. Seriously guys, I really don’t wanna see any sex stuff between you two.” Roger made a face and shook his head. “A little kissing I think I can handle; however, I think double dating is probably out of the question for now, too.” He smiled and winked at me. Joey sat and watched us. Up till now there had been worry and fear all over his face, but I could almost watch the tension melt from his body as he looked at Roger. Joey smiled and spoke for the first time since Roger caught us, “Roger, you’re like the brother I always wanted. I can’t believe you’re saying all this.” He paused, and with a hopeful look he asked, “Do you really mean it?” “You bet your ass I do. I saw what your old man did to you.” Roger looked sympathetically at Joey, “No one deserves that crap short of being a Hitler.” Then with deadly serious look, he said, “As for JT, if he gives you anymore trouble, I’ll be right there with you and Andy.” He reached out his right hand between us, I placed my right hand on top of Roger’s, and Joey placed his on top of mine. Then Roger said, “One for all,” then all three of us said at the same time, “and all for one!” Uncle Steve’s loud truck horn broke up our little brotherhood moment. Roger laughed and Joey smiled. It was nice to know we had Roger to count on. As we got up to head over to Joey’s old house, I walked over and grabbed the box of posters. Handing the box to Joey, I followed them downstairs “Joey, you can put this in your room while I lock up the house. Hey Roger, tell Uncle Steve I’ll be right there.” They took off and I locked the back door, closing the main door, and then locked the front door behind me. By the time I was done, they were already in the truck. Roger smiled at me as I rounded the front of the truck, because he had taken the front passenger seat, leaving Joey and me in the back. I smiled at Joey as I climbed in and fastened my seatbelt. I’m not sure why we buckled up since we were just going down the street, but it was second nature to us and safety first. “You boys ready?” Uncle Steve looked around to make sure we were set, before he started up the truck. “Alright, let’s get this over with.” Uncle Steve backed out of the driveway. I put my hand over in the middle of the back seat with my palm up and looked up at Joey. He smiled as he reached over and took my hand in his. I squeezed it reassuringly. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy on him, and I wanted to show all the support I could. When I glanced back towards the front, I noticed Uncle Steve eyes on me in the rear view mirror. I blushed. Damn it, I blushed like a fool every time I get caught with Joey. What’s up with that? I never used to blush. Thankfully, I was saved by the fact we had arrived at Joey’s house. When we pulled up to Joey’s, I noticed Deputy Bob and Mr. Bennett were already there. After we exited the truck, we headed towards the front door. Before we made it half way up the driveway Mr. Bennett came over to Joey and asked, “Joey, do you have a key for the house?” “Yes sir, I do.” Joey nodded, pulled out a key to show him. “Great.” Mr. Bennett paused, placed a hand on Joey’s shoulder, “Son, you take your time. There’s no reason to rush. No one will be interrupting you as you get your things. Let me explain to you what the court order says.” He smiled, trying to put Joey at ease. “Anything that was bought for you, or was given to you, as a gift, is yours; and you may take them with you. That includes all your school books and school supplies, all your clothes, bike, any electronic devices and accessories, like a DVD player, music player, or a watch for that matter, and anything else bought for you, or given to you as a gift. If you aren’t sure about something, I’m here to answer any of your questions.” Mr. Bennett paused, and looked Joey in the eyes. “Do you have any questions so far?” “No Sir. I really don’t have that much anyway, mostly clothes and even that isn’t much.” Joey’s voice was soft, but suddenly he looked up smiling. “I do have a bike though. It’s out in the shed.” “Okay boys, let’s get started.” Uncle Steve seemed like he was ready to get this show on the road. Then he reached over and ruffled Joey’s hair, “Why don’t you go ahead and unlock the house, then you guys can get started in your bedroom. After that, we can work our way out from there?” We nodded and took off for the front door. Uncle Steve and Mr. Bennett stopped in the yard to talk, but Deputy Bob came with us. After Joey opened the front door, he started to take his shoes off, but Bob stopped him, telling us we didn’t really have time to do that every trip in and out of the house. As I listened to him explain, I could understand why there was no time to be extra careful. No one wants cops in their house any longer than necessary. Plus, this was just part of his job today as a deputy, and he wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible. I was just grateful it was someone Joey had seen before. The first thing I noticed was all the religious stuff on the walls, crosses and pictures mostly. As I looked around the living room, something seemed to be missing. I knew Joey’s dad was a preacher, there was no surprise with what was there, but as I looked around, I knew something was missing; however, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. I shook it off and followed Joey and Roger down the hallway to Joey’s bedroom. “This is it.” Joey walked into his room and over to his closet. He told the truth about his situation, especially when it came to clothes. There were five sets of clothes hanging in his closet, along with a suit. He gathered them all together, as he took the hangers off the crossbar, and laid his clothes on his bed. His whole wardrobe would fit into the school bag of most little kids. Joey stood there looking miserable. “I’ll take those on out to the truck for you as you go through your drawers. Do you have something like a bag, box, or suitcase to put your underwear, shirts, and socks in?” I was felt a little nervous for Joey, because he looked embarrassed again. I just didn’t want him to feel like this was his fault. So, I tried hard to get him to think about what we were doing and not how things looked. Joey nodded and started getting the rest of his stuff together as I headed out to the truck. On my way out, I noticed the pictures lining the hallway walls. There were a lot of pictures of different churches, with I guess, church members standing out in front of them, and religious scenes, like Jesus on the cross, and Mary holding a baby Jesus. I hurried past them, because I wanted to get back to Joey, as quickly as possible. When I made it to the truck, I carefully laid Joey’s clothes on the back seat. I stood there, and stared at what little Joey owned. But more than that, I had an itch I couldn’t scratch. Something still nagged at me and had started to bug the crap out of me. On my way back in, I met Roger coming out with a small bag containing all of Joey’s underwear and socks. “Andy, he really doesn’t have much.” Roger looked sadly at the bag he was carrying. “You’re right; I’m going to talk to your dad about it. Could you help Joey finish up?” I asked feeling frustrated. “No problem, it won’t take us but a couple more minutes.” Roger stood, shook his head, and looked as frustrated as I felt. “Andy, I really feel sorry for Joey.” He paused, he seemed to try and find the words to express what he felt. I could see his face turn red, but whether it was from anger or embarrassment, I wasn’t sure. “When we’re done inside, I’ll go out to the shed with him to get his bike and we can put it in the bed of the truck.” Roger’s voice held sadness. He clearly felt as bad as I did about the situation. I was grateful to know I wasn’t the only one upset by how my boyfriend had been living. I put a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. “Thanks, Roger.” He nodded and headed on to the truck. I walked over to Uncle Steve and Mr. Bennett. “Uncle Steve, can I talk to you for a minute in private?” “Sure, Andy,” Uncle Steve put an arm around my shoulder, and led me towards the side of the house, “what’s on your mind son?” Uncle Steve faced me and waited for me to let him know what had me so worried. “Uncle Steve, did dad say when he would be home?” I asked, to give myself time, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to ask the question that was really on my mind. “He said he would be home as soon as he took care of some other business unrelated to Joey, maybe a couple of hours. Why do you ask?” Uncle Steve knew me all too well. He smiled and waited for me to ask what I really had on my mind. I shook my head. He was as hard to hide things from as dad was. “Uncle Steve, Joey doesn’t have anything. I don’t mean he doesn’t have big and fancy stuff, I mean he only has five sets of clothes. And those…” I paused, as I chocked back the anger that had built inside of me. “Uncle Steve, I’m going to call Dad and tell him I plan on calling Mr. Day to release some funds to me, so I can buy Joey everything he should have; but we’ll need a ride. Can you take Joey and me,” I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was about to ask him, “shopping?” Uncle Steve chuckled. He knew how much I hated to shop. “Sure Andy, I’d be glad too. Alice and I had planned on it anyway. If your dad agrees, you can buy Joey some clothes. Alice and I had already planned on taking Joey to Wal-Mart this evening to look for a computer desk and maybe a laptop.” I called Dad and explained why I wanted to help Joey without coming out and saying that he was my boyfriend. Dad agreed to allow me to call Mr. Day, my fund manager, that’s not really his title, but it works for me, to transfer an extra five thousand to my debit card account at the local bank. By the time I got finished with my phone calls, everyone was ready to head home. As much as I hated shopping, (especially for clothes), there was only one place we could go for it all …the mall. Joey couldn’t keep going to school with the same five outfits, especially knowing that one of them was totally ruined with the blood from his beating. Hell, I had more than five changes of clothes when I was an infant. I wanted Uncle Steve to take us to the mall in Pikeville to shop for both clothes and a computer for Joey. I didn’t want Joey getting cheated. I mean we all had things from Wal-Mart. It was fine for underwear and just plain tee shirts, but Joey was living with Uncle Steve and he was my boyfriend. Besides, he was cute as hell and deserved to be spoiled, especially after what his father had done to him. I was never going to forgive that man. “So, are you boys up for a trip to Wal-Mart?” “Can we go to the mall, too, Uncle Steve? I think Joey is going to need more than tee shirts and underwear. We can go into a few different stores so he can see what he likes, if we hit the mall?” God, I can’t believe I was asking to go there. I hated the mall. There was no way people weren’t going to understand that this was more than a friend. “Sure, we can go to the mall, Andy. Then we can check the prices on the computers there and see if they beat the ones at Wal-Mart.” That was Uncle Steve for you. He was always willing to check things out. Everything went smoothly at the mall. It went a lot better than I thought it would. Okay, I actually had a great time. Seeing Joey try on different clothes was, actually, kinda hot. I have to admit, there was a time or two, when he tried on some of those low cut tight jeans that showed off his cute butt, my jeans got really tight on me, because little Mikey was trying to stand up and get out to play. I talked him into letting me buy him one of those new Samsung Focus S cell phones. I wanted to get the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for him, but when he saw the price, he turned to me and said not only ‘no’, but ‘hell no’. I agreed, as long as he let me get him a cheap Sony Walkman for tunes. So by the time we got home, at ten that night, we had six bags of clothes he liked, a new laptop, a cell phone, an mp3 player, a new bedroom ensemble, and a desk for his room. I had planned to help Joey change his bandages, but Aunt Alice told me she and Uncle Steve would take care of it tonight. Dad had called, and wanted me home when we were back. So, I said an awkward good night to Joey, as everyone watched us, and then went home. After I woke up the next day, I went through my morning routine, but this time, there was only one image in my mind while I was in the shower, and that was of Joey. Of course, he was in varying stages of dress, starting in those new low cut jeans he agreed to buy because he knew I loved them on him. Before I knew it, the water was once again washing down the drain all the evidence of my naughtiness. As I was getting dressed, I remembered that Roger, Joey and I had agreed to get a ride to school with dad this morning. So I rushed downstairs to make sure I caught him before he left for work. I found him with his coffee in hand, and the newspaper spread out in front of him on the kitchen table. “Good morning, Dad.” I called out, as I walked over to the cabinets and poured myself a bowl of cereal. “Good morning, Andy. Did Joey find everything he needed last night?” “Yes sir, for now. Oh, we also need a ride this morning, if that’s okay?” “No problem son. You guys be ready in ten.” Dad stood and walked to the sink to rinsed out his cup. “Thanks Dad.” I finished off my cereal, then called Roger to tell him and Joey to come on over. The ride to school was uneventful. Roger sat up front, with Joey and me in the back. I did catch Dad as he stole glances at me, but nothing was said. The conversation was mostly about school and Dad inquired if Joey liked the stuff he had bought the night before at the mall. I could tell Joey was a little overwhelmed by it, but thankful for everyone’s help. He really looked hot in the new jeans, and the blue shirt he was wearing went great with his blue eyes and blond hair. It was then I realized he was going to have all the girls after him, and that could cause unintended problems with those girls’ boyfriends, but it was only a small problem. One I could handle, since the guy in question was Joey, and he was my hot boyfriend. When we got to school, Joey and I went straight to our homeroom, since we had left our books in there the day before. Roger took off for his locker. It was hard, no pun intended, not holding hands as we walked to Mr. Ison’s room, but we didn’t. * * * * * * * * * * After the jury had taken their seats, everyone else took theirs. Judge Collins looked around the courtroom as he waited for everyone to settle down. “The first order of business this morning is my ruling on the defense hearsay objection. Citing Rule 801a of Hearsay exceptions, defense objection is overruled. The State may continue” Judge Collins stated with authority. The commonwealth attorney rose, and walked over to where the witness was already seated in the witness chair. “Mr. McCray, what did Mr. Brown say to you the night in question concerning his intentions towards you?” Mr. McCray turned to look at the jury, and answered. “He said that if I didn’t pay him ten thousand dollars, he would kill me and my family.” “Why was he asking for ten thousand dollars? Did you owe him that amount of money?” He hadn’t expected that question and it left him squirming in his chair; but with his voice barely above a whisper, he answered. “No, I didn’t owe him any money.” “Then why, sir, was he demanding money from you?” “I don’t know.” “Mr. McCray, I remind you that you are under oath. Once again, I ask you, why was he demanding ten thousand dollars from you?” Mr. McCray looked nervously around the room, but didn’t answer. The Commonwealth Attorney looked up at Judge Collins, “Judge?” “The witness will answer the question or will be found in contempt of court.” Judge Collins said sternly. Mr. McCray looked at the judge, then looked back at the Commonwealth Attorney and said, “He caught me in bed with his wife, while I was at their house to work on the plumbing.” * * * * * * * * * * The morning went well, until third period. It’s not like I hated math. I could see where it could be helpful later on in life, but I knew I would never be a mathematician, or a statistician. I mean, come on, a mathematician is like a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat, which isn’t there, and a statistician is someone who is good with numbers, but lacks the personality to be an accountant. I was pulled from my philosophical thoughts by Mrs. Robinson as she told me to report to the principal's office. I was kinda concerned for a second; but then I remembered Uncle Steve had called and let the school know what was going on yesterday. “Hi, Mrs. Perry,” I said, as I walked into the office. “Mrs. Robinson said I needed to come by.” “Oh, hi Andy,” she smiled and picked up a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Mr. Horn wanted me to give you an excuse for your missed classes yesterday.” “Thank you, Mrs. Perry. I hope you have an awesome day.” I turned to leave and bumped into a smiling Joey. “Hey,” my day just shines brighter every time I see him. “Did you get called to the office too?” “Yep. I don’t know why though.” The urge to hug him, hold him, kiss him was so freakin’ strong, I had to look back at Mrs. Perry to get control of myself. When I looked back, even his eyes were smiling at me. I was so falling for this boy. “It’s for,” I paused. “Uh, what was the question again?” I couldn’t even think straight. Oops. I chuckled to myself. Of course I couldn’t think straight, I’m gay after all. He laughed, “There wasn’t a question.” Then he lightly punched me on the arm. “Oh, yeah,” I said, as I rubbed my arm. “It’s for an excused absence for yesterday.” He got his excuse from Mrs. Perry as I waited on him in the hall. When he met me in the hall, we both looked around, seeing no one, he leaned back against the wall by the lockers and smiled. I leaned into him for a quick kiss as we held hands. After we broke apart, we both looked around to make sure we hadn’t been seen and quickly dropped our hands to our sides. “I’m sorry Joey; I just had to have a kiss.” He smiled, “Me too, Andy. I thought you were going to kiss me in the principal’s office.” Then he turned serious. “We do need to be more careful. If we get outed here at school, I don’t know what we’d do.” “Yeah, you’re right. This is going to be harder than I thought.” Joey had me thinking, and a frown crossed my face. “We better head back to class. Hey, I want you to look for me at lunch, and we can sit together.” I smiled, and raised my eyebrows. “It’ll give you a chance to meet my other friends.” I said, as I tried to lighten the mood and give us something to look forward to. He smiled, and nodded, as we bumped fists. I back tracked my morning classes, showed my first, and second period teachers my excuse, before I headed back to math. By the time I got back, the end of class bell rung, as I showed Mrs. Robinson my excuse. I quickly grabbed my stuff and headed to lunch. Gary and Roger were ahead of me in line, and I noticed Joey was a couple of people behind me. I let the two girls between us go in front of me so I could be with Joey. “This will be your first taste of our friendly chow line, huh?” I teased Joey. “Yeah, I didn’t get a chance to eat the first day, thanks to JT.” He rolled his eyes and smiled. I swear, even rolling his eyes made him look adorable. “I wouldn’t recommend the Italian Surprise.” I said straight-faced. “However, the hotdogs and fries are safe. It’s kinda hard to mess those up.” I smiled, and lightly elbowed him in the side. When we sat down at the table, Roger, Gary, Debbie and Timmy were already there. “Hey guys, this is Joey.” I wasn’t sure how much to say about Joey. Should I say he lived with Roger now, or why it happened? This wasn’t going to be easy, and these were my friends. I figured I’d let Roger and Joey decide how much to say. Everyone was friendly to him, and asked the normal questions, like where are you from, but strangely, no one asked where he lived. I guessed Roger had talked to everyone. I watched as everyone interacted with him, and they seemed to like him. Even Timmy was nice to him. I still hadn’t figured out why he gave me such strange looks on Monday. I guess whatever it was, he worked it out. I still had to write that assignment for Mr. Ison, which was due tomorrow. So I spent forty minutes on it in study hall, during sixth period. On the ride home Roger let Joey and I sit together on the bus; and he sat in the seat in front of us, like Joey had on Monday. Joey seemed, to me anyway, to be less tense than he had been the last few days. Even though I wanted to spend time with him, I knew I had to get my homework done before I did anything. “Joey, I hope you don’t mind, but I need to get my government class paper finished for tomorrow and some other homework.” I said, and hoped he would understand. “Andy, it’s cool. I have the same paper, and I haven’t finished it either. Plus, I have a lot more homework, too.” He looked around to see if anyone could see us before he took my hand in his. “I wanted to ask you if it would be okay if I spent some time with Roger and his family, so we could get to know each other. Maybe after supper, I could come over to see you, or you could come over to our house?” I smiled, as I realized he was trying to fit into his new home. I was happy to hear it. “That sounds like a plan to me. Why don’t I call after supper and see what’s up?” We split up when we got to their house, and I went on home. I walked in, closed the door, pulled off my shoes, went into the living room, and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes and thought of Joey. Things were better for him, and having a boyfriend was a lot easier than I expected. I couldn’t help but smile when I thought of Joey and us being boyfriends. My thoughts drifted to my mom, and I wondered what she would think of me being gay. How would she feel about me having a boyfriend? What would she think of Joey? I stood, walked over to the fireplace, and looked at our family pictures. I looked at one dad had taken, of mom and me, we both smiled happily, as we looked at each other, with our foreheads together. I really missed her. I took the picture off the mantle and hugged it, as if I the picture was her. That is when it finally hit me. Now I knew what had bugged me the whole time I had been at Joey’s house. I didn’t see one picture, in the whole house, with Joey in it! I mean, one look in my living room, and you could see pictures of me with my parents’ at all different ages. Damn his parents, they didn’t even love him enough to have a picture of him up anywhere in the house. That is going to change tonight. I grabbed my backpack before I ran upstairs to my room. I took my camera out its case to make sure the batteries were charged, and to see if I had enough memory left on the card to take a bunch of pictures. After I found everything I needed, I smiled as I thought of Joey. Then I got to work on my paper and the rest of my homework. After supper, I still hadn’t finished my homework, so I called Joey and Roger. They still had homework left too. So we decided they would meet me here in the morning for a ride to school and to just wait until tomorrow afternoon to meet up, before the ball game. Besides, I thought, it was good they had some time to bond. We also agreed that everyone would spend the night at my house, after the game. I guess I would have to wait until tomorrow night, after the game, to take some pictures of Joey. With all the excitement of the last few days I was exhausted. It wasn’t five minutes after I finished the paper that I was sound asleep, dreaming of my beautiful Joey. After school the next day, Joey, Roger, and I hung out at my house playing some Madden football and Major League Baseball 2K10, on the Wii. It was awesome watching Joey play against Roger. He had the cutest facial expressions, and the way he would move was funny. He would actually dodge a tackle, just like he had his man perform in the game, it was almost comical. It brought a huge smile to my face, but once I thought about it, I guess I probably looked like a dork playing the game. When I tried to imagine what I looked like when I played: I cringed. So, I figured I wouldn’t mention anything about it. At about four thirty, we decided to call it quits, so we could get Joey’s bandages changed before we headed to the game. Aunt Alice took Joey and me to the game around five forty-five. Roger decided he would come later, because he didn’t want to hang out there for an hour and a half with nothing to do. “Boys, give me a call when you’re ready to come home and someone will come and pick you up, okay?” Aunt Alice asked as we exited her Park Avenue. She smiled at Joey as he stood alongside me. “I will, and tell Roger to look for us when he gets here.” I nodded, closed the door, and waved. We watched her drive away and turned to walk to the entrance of the football field. Joey was quiet beside me. Finally, he looked at me and asked, “What do you think Mr. Horn will have us doing?” Every time I looked into his eyes, it was like looking into my past, future, and present. I could see my life in them. Time would stop and nothing else mattered. I sort of got lost every time I looked into his eyes. “Andy? Hello? Are you with me?” Joey stopped, and grinned at me. I stared at him, lost in his eyes, and didn’t honestly hear a word he had said. “Uh, umm, yeah, what’s the question?” I stammered, and went into full blush mode. “Hello boys. You’re early. I like that.” Mr. Horn said, as he pulled a card table out of the storage building, by the entrance. One thing you could say about Mr. Horn, he was efficient. He quickly looked us both over and smiled. He turned to Joey first. “Son, why don’t you head over to the concession stand and help with popping the popcorn and setting up the cups for the drinks. Susan will show you what to do, okay?” “Yes sir.” Joey turned to me and smiled. I could tell he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of us being separated. “Mr. Horn, Joey and I aren’t going to be working together?” I wanted to know before Joey could leave. Joey stood frozen in place, and anxiously waited for Mr. Horn’s answer. Mr. Horn finished setting up the card table before he turned to look at us. “Andy, I need you to help me here at the gate taking in the money and handing out the ticket stubs.” I think Mr. Horn could tell we weren’t thrilled with this idea, because he added, “Since most everyone that’s coming will be here by mid-way in the first quarter, we usually stop making people pay then and close up shop.” He paused, and smiled at us both. “When we’re through here, you can go get Joey and watch the rest of the game. How’s that boys?” I looked over at Joey; he nodded and smiled at me. I guess knowing that we wouldn’t be separated for long, made this a lot easier to deal with. “That’s awesome Mr. Horn, thanks.” Joey and I bumped fists and he took off for the concession stand. Oh my god, his butt looked so hot in those new tight ass jeans he had on. Instantly, I started to feel a stirring from little Mikey. The naughty thoughts I received as looked at him would definitely get an XXX rating. However, now was not the time to out myself to the town, so I turned back to help Mr. Horn. I helped Mr. Horn set up everything the way he wanted it; and in no time, people started arriving for the game. I took my spot at the table and smiled, as I greeted everyone. I handed them a ticket stub after tearing it in two and putting my half in a bag. This was the school’s way of tracking how many people attended, and so they could check the money against stubs. Mr. Horn was took the money, so I didn’t have to worry about that part. Once I had gotten into a routine, I barely noticed who I greeted. Finally, I looked up and Roger stood there with his hand out as he waited for his ticket stub. “Hey Roger,” I started as I handed him his stub. “Save Joey and me a seat. We’ll catch up with you about half way through the first quarter.” “No problem. Just bring me a drink and some popcorn with you.” He smiled. “Deal,” I agreed. We bumped fists before he headed in. The crowd outside slowed down once it got near game time. People around here take their football very seriously. You tried to never be late for a game. As if I couldn’t tell from the noise of the crowd, I could see the scoreboard from where I sat. We were up fourteen to nothing in the first four minutes of the game. After a few more minutes, the number of people that wanted in to watch the game had slowed to just a trickle. I started to look around and daydream. I had been dreaming of what life with Joey might be like when I heard the yelling, and it wasn’t about the scores by the teams either. Confused? How you think I felt when I realized who was doing the yelling? “What do you mean he can’t go to the game? He served his five day suspension.” JT’s Dad yelled at Mr. Horn. “Mr. McCray, his suspension doesn’t end until Monday morning. While he is on suspension, he isn’t allowed on school grounds.” Mr. Horn stood up and faced Mr. McCray’s anger. That’s when I saw JT, as stood by his dad. Then he noticed me, too. “Dad, that’s the punk that sucker punched me!” Okay, I could see this was going to end badly, no matter what was said. So, I decided to just sit there, stay quiet, and let Mr. Horn handle it. After all, he is big enough to be a defensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers. “Why is that son-of-a-bitch allowed here and my son isn’t?” Mr. McCray asked, as he pointed at me with his eyes full of hate. “Mr. McCray, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I won’t allow any adult to verbally attack, or otherwise abuse, one of my students. If you won’t leave on your own, I’ll have a law enforcement officer remove you from school grounds.” Mr. Horn walked around the little card table and stood between Mr. McCray and me. By this time, with all the noise and shouting, people had started to gather around to see what was up. I began to feel penned in, even with Mr. Horn there. JT looked at me with fire in his eyes, he pointed his finger at me and with venom dripping off every word he yelled. “I’m going to kick your fag boyfriend’s ass, and when I’m done with him, you’re next.” I jumped up at that. I didn’t want to get in Mr. Horn’s way, but there was no way I was going to stay quiet after that threat. No one was going to threaten Joey, not after what he has been through. I looked at JT and saw red. Every muscle in my body tensed up, ready to strike. I bellowed back at him, “JT, if you ever lay a finger on Joey again, I swear to God, I’ll kill you!”
    1 point
  30. Upon waking the next morning, the first thing Blake did was reach for his phone to check if Haze had responded to his text message. After blinking the sleep from his tired, bleary eyes he tried to contain his disappointment as once again the usual backdrop to his phone came to life, but nothing more. No new texts. Nothing from Haze. To be fair, Blake quickly reasoned with himself, it wasn’t as if his text last night actually required a response. It hadn’t even really prompt for one. All he’d written in the end was: ‘this is my number, Blake’. Originally that had extended to: ‘thanks for your number, here is mine, Blake’, but then he’d decided thanking Haze sounded weird and so he’d deleted that part. After much debate. Truth be known, he’d deleted lots of other things too, dozens of messages in fact, some of which had spanned several texts. He’d agonised over what to send until long after it was likely Haze would be awake to read it, coming up with messages that later seemed crazy, desperate or embarrassing once re-read. He didn’t have to send a message at all of course, but he’d wanted to make sure Haze had his number. That way, Haze could message him about today, when and where, stuff to bring, that sort of thing. Or maybe to cancel, if he was feeling too hung over. Would Haze cancel? He hadn’t seemed that drunk. But maybe a hangover would be a convenient excuse? So he could spend the day in bed instead. Or with Patty. Blake felt his chest constrict at such a thought and he silently admonished himself for thinking it. It hadn’t even been a day since he’d promised to trust Haze more and already he was doubting the other boy. Doubting himself more than Haze really, but by extension he was also doubting Haze. He had to stop doing that. There were any number of reasons why Haze might not have read or felt the need to respond to such a simple text message. Dwelling over it would only make him anxious. More anxious, that is. Still, Blake compulsively checked the old messages just in case he’d somehow missed a text from Haze, before dragging his aching body out of bed. He felt sore from the his run the night before and a little queasy from the midnight snack he’d ended up eating after skipping dinner had proven detrimental to his ability to sleep. Or maybe that feeling was just his nervous excitement about today? Unless Haze cancelled. Quickly he checked the phone, but still nothing. He showered next and made his breakfast, being sure to check several times that his phone was on and had reception. Maybe Haze was still asleep? Maybe the text didn’t go through? Sometimes that happened. Then, at about 8am the phone finally rang, causing Blake, who had been holding it at the time, to jump in fright and to send the thing flying into the air. He snatched out his hand and managed to catch it after it’d bounced off his knee, but before it’d hit the floor. Luckily. He then quickly answered the call. “H-Hello?” “Blake? Where the bloody hell are ya?” a sharp feminine tone came down the line. It was Jill’s voice and she did not sound happy. “I ... um ... I-I didn’t think ... I thought there weren’t any bookings?” Blake stammered, as his heart began to race. He realised that he’d taken Haze’s word for that and hadn’t even thought to check, let alone turn up at the shop this morning. “Hmm ...” Jill growled down the phone. “How’d ya know that?” “Um ... Haze told me?” Blake squeaked. Jill huffed in response, sounding somewhat disappointed. “And if Haze told ya to jump of the harbour bridge would ya do that?” she retorted, childishly. Blake wondered about that for a moment, supposing to himself that it probably depended on how sexy Haze looked when giving the instruction, but he quickly stifled that train of thought and did his best to sound remorseful. “Sorry, Jill. I should’ve checked with you first.” “Exactly!” Jill agreed in a snappy tone of voice. “And ‘sides there’s other things to do round here ya know. Haze ain’t the boss, I am.” “Do you want me to come now?” Blake asked, mentally praying she would answer ‘no’. “No that’s alright mate,” she said, sounding a little calmer. “I probably woulda sent ya home anyway. But in future either show up or ring. Sometimes a whole bus load of tourists can show up first thing.” It didn’t seem very likely to Blake that a bus load of tourists would turn up in the early hours of the morning in a remote desert town expecting to dive without a booking, but he wasn’t about to argue the point. “Sure Jill. Sorry about that. It won’t happen again.” “Kay, well, I’ll let ya know about tomorrow. See ya.” “Bye.” Blake hung up and immediately began to wonder whether Haze had been trying to get through. How long did that call last? A few minutes maybe? Surely Haze would try again? He was really starting to worry now, even though he knew it would do him no good. He just had to wait for Haze to get up and to answer his text. Haze was probably still asleep, that’s all. He had been standing in this very room only about eight hours ago, after all. Hardly enough time to have changed his mind. Surely? Quick check of the phone, but still nothing. Blake busied himself cleaning up his breakfast and then for good measure, he decided to give the kitchen a bit of a clean. It didn’t really need a clean, but it would keep him occupied until Haze called or texted. Unless Haze didn’t get that text? Maybe he would have to ring Haze himself? Blake got even more anxious thinking about that prospect. Then the phone rang again and he practically dived across the room, landing half on top of the table as he picked it up. “Um ... Hello?” he answered, almost breathless with anticipation, elbows resting on the table. “Hey Blake what’s up?” came a cheery feminine voice. Nats. Damn. “Oh ... hi Nats,” he greeted, doing his best not to sound disappointed. “Nothing much.” “Awesome! So what ya doin today? Did Jill ring ya? We ain’t going out ya know? No tourists.” As usual she spoke at a million miles an hour, without pausing between questions. “Oh ... yeah. She just rang me, I um ...” he paused then nervously, wondering whether Haze would want Nats to know about their plans. Haze was so very secretive, it was hard to tell, but it was probably best not to mention anything, not even to Nats. “Er ... nothing. I’m not really doing anything today ... nothing at all,” he stammered, in a suddenly high pitched tone of voice. Not that Nats seemed to notice. “Great!” she responded eagerly. “Wanna drive to Bindalla with me and the girls?” Blake scrunched his face up and cursed, resting his head against the wooden table. “Um ... I can’t I ... um ... I’m busy,” he stumbled, wincing at how bad a lie that sounded even to his own ears. “Ya just said ya had nothin’ planned?” Nats retorted flatly. “I ... er ... forgot I had to um ... do something.” “If this is about Ronnie and Becks, I swear they’ll be nice. They’re not pissy at ya anymore.” “No, it’s not about them,” Blake responded, although he thought to himself that he probably would’ve found their company uncomfortable after getting drunk that night and embarrassing himself in front of them. “I just have some ... um ... chores to do.” “Chores?” she wailed. “How can ya have chores to do on a day off? What chores? Ya haven’t been in town long enough for chores!” “I’m ... I’m really sorry Nats, I just can’t.” There a came a sound down the phone just then and after that Nats’s voice sounded slightly louder and clearer, as if she was covering the phone with her hand. “Listen,” she said in a serious, low tone of voice. “What did we agree about this hidin’ away? Ya gotta get out more, man.” Blake rolled his eyes and suppressed a groan. “I know and you’re right,” he agreed reluctantly. “But just not today, I really can’t.” Nats huffed down the phone, but seemed to be relenting. “Next time ... I swear,” he pressed. “Just not today.” “Oh fine,” she muttered, her voice returning to its normal tone. “Well the girls are waitin’ so I’ll see ya later. Look after yourself Blake.” “Bye ... sorry!” “Later.” Again Blake checked his phone immediately after she’d hung up. No missed calls or messages, but he wasn’t even sure if his phone would tell him if Haze had rung while he was on another call. He couldn’t remember if that’d ever happen before with this phone. The simple way to solve everything, of course, would be to ring Haze himself, but he just couldn’t do that. Ringing Haze, after last night? No he just couldn’t. Anyway he had made the first move already, he had sent that text. It was Haze’s turn to respond now. Quick check of the phone, but still nothing. Next Blake decided he should probably think about what he was going to wear. It always took him forever to choose and he wanted to be ready to leave as soon as Haze rang. He went through his clean clothes and began to dismay that his ‘best’ clothes were all dirty. He tried on the only two t-shirts he had left and after agonising over the decision he decided on the older faded red t-shirt since he was a bit more comfortable in that one. He changed into his newer pair of board shorts and then braved the bathroom mirror, doing his best to focus on particular tasks, like cleaning his teeth, rather than give into his usual ‘checking’ temptations. He fussed with his hair, his teeth and then began to scrutinise his skin carefully until he sensed a familiar panicky feeling. He then abandoned the tiny bathroom mirror and returned to the living room. He began to pace then, muttering to himself and getting more and more worked up. Maybe Haze was too embarrassed to call? After all, he felt too embarrassed to call Haze. Maybe the worse had happened? Maybe Haze did wake up sober and regretting everything that had happened between them? Rapid breathing now, slight trembling of the arms too. Blake knew he was letting his anxiety get the better of him, he had to calm down. He sat himself down on the couch and focused on slowing his breathing. He closed his eyes, but peeked one lid open now and then to check his phone. Minutes past and soon it was 9am and then 9.30 and then 10. Still nothing! What time had Haze meant? He’d said ‘tomorrow’, maybe he meant ‘tomorrow afternoon’? Still he should be awake by now surely and at least responding to texts. Unless he didn’t check his phone that often. What kind of phone person was Haze anyway? Was he the type that took forever to answer text messages normally? Blake realised he had no idea. Dark thoughts began to circle inside his head, as his increasingly anxious mind came up with more and more sinister reasons why Haze might not be responding. Then at last, his phone chimed with a message. Blake picked it up anxiously and was thrilled to see four simple letters lighting up his screen. Haze. He quickly opened it. ‘Finally shes gone’, it read. ‘Head over bring swimmers mask and fins.’ Blake held the mobile to his chest for a moment and beamed, overwhelmed by that giddy, excited sensation. All dark thoughts were completely forgotten. He briefly wondered what Haze had in mind for their day together, but put aside such thoughts and instead gathered what he needed and left the house as quickly as he could manage. He power-walked down the street, towel over one shoulder, fins and mask in the other hand, holding his fins high enough so that they wouldn’t drag across the dusty gravely road as he went. It was then that he noticed something different in the air, something strange. It was hot, unusually hot even by Kulibari Bay’s standards. Humid as well, really humid. The air was completely still and the sun shone brightly. By the time he’d arrived at Haze’s house he felt soaked through with sweat. He looked at the darkened wet patches under his arms and the splotches across his chest and stomach despairingly. Why did he have to wear the red t-shirt? What would Haze think? He considered briefly whether he should go home and shower again, maybe wear that other, lighter coloured t-shirt, but he knew in this weather he would end up sweating no matter what he wore and he didn’t want to keep Haze waiting. So instead, he stood in the shade under the car-port of Haze’s home and tried to dry off with his towel as best he could. With that done, he took a deep breath, made his way down the garden path and rang the door bell. His insides twisted in unbearable anticipation as he heard movement in the house and saw a vague shape through the opaque glass circles of the front door. Then the door opened and there was Haze, as stunning as ever in that oversized, off-white t-shirt again, the one with the low-cut neckline that showed off his tanned, sexy chest. Blake felt a not unpleasant leap in his chest as he marvelled at just how easy on the eyes Haze was. Haze would never sweat. Or if he did it would still be sexy. Everything about Haze was sexy. Except for the hair again today. Why did he have to comb it down like that? It looked silly. “Hi,” Haze said, smiling shyly. “Hi,” Blake responded, torn from his inner musing, somewhat dumbstruck and lost for words. They paused there for a moment, smiling at each other, until Haze glanced over Blake’s shoulder with a slightly worried look. “Come in,” he said, before quickly ushering Blake inside. There was an awkward moment then, as they stood there in the hallway, exchanging nervous glances and uneasy laughs. Blake was wondering how he was supposed greet Haze now. Should they shake hands? Hug? Or maybe even ... kiss? What was Haze expecting? “You can leave ya fins there,” Haze said, breaking the uncomfortable silence and indicating a spot on the floor next to the door. “Huh?” Blake found himself answering dumbly, before looking down at his fins and mask. “Oh yeah. Right.” He bent down to off-load his gear, trying not to ogle Haze on the way back up. Then there was another awkward moment, as he realised just how close they were. Should he do something? Haze seemed to be waiting. But then the moment was gone. Haze had spun around and was heading down the hall, in the opposite direction from where Mrs Herrington had gone the day before. “Come on, I wanna show ya somethin’,” he said, pushing open a door at the end of the hallway. Blake followed him inside and his heart took a sudden plunge in his chest when he spied what he assumed to be Haze’s bed and realised where he was. Haze’s bedroom. Alone together. Why was Haze taking him here? All sorts of answers sprang to mind. However, as his eyes swept across the rather large room, his attention was drawn to the glaring lights on the far side wall and he quickly lost his train of thought. As he approached them, he realised what he was looking at. It was a gigantic aquarium, some twelve feet long, stretching across the entire length of the wall. He found himself squinting in the brightness at first, until his eyes could adjust. “Wow,” he muttered, involuntarily. He glanced over at Haze, who seemed delighted by the reaction. “What’s this?” he asked. “My aquarium,” Haze answered simply, moving closer and beckoning Blake to join him with a grin. There was so much to look at that Blake had difficulty taking it all in at first. It was like a miniature version of the reef, packed full of the colour and shapes of all kinds of marine life. There were corals and fish of every variety and colour and so many other things too. Across the front of the tank Blake could see the underside of a large blue starfish and he watched as its tiny suction-like feet move at a snail’s pace across the glass. Behind that was stripy red hermit crab with blue eyes on stalks. It seemed to watch him and it drew itself further into its shell as Blake pressed his nose against the glass to get a closer look. “It’s so bright,” he commented, taking a moment to look at the array of different coloured lights, hanging from the ceiling above them. Whites ones, blue ones, purple ones. Some were round and some were long tubes. There was a kind of UV glow to one of them. “That’s to mimic the sunlight,” Haze explained. “Have to get the right light frequencies to keep the corals happy. And under here,” he continued, opening the cupboard doors to the cabinet beneath the aquarium. “That’s the canister filter, that’s the refugium, that’s the UV steriliser, the chiller, the heater and that there’s the protein skimmer.” Blake gaped at the complex-looking array of smaller aquariums, lights, tubes and wires. “What’s all that for?” he asked curiously. “Stops the corals gettin’ too hot or too cold. Or poisoned by ammonia or nitrate build up. Or bacteria.” “Sounds complicated.” “Yeah,” Haze responded, sounding rather proud. “It’s a lot of work.” Blake continued to study the aquarium, pointing out fish and corals, with Haze supplying their names and odd pieces of information about them too, in a rather academic tone of voice. Then Blake moved to the far corner and was surprised to see a large orange and white clown fish leap out from its hiding spot amongst an anemone’s tentacles. It hurled itself against the glass, causing Blake to jerk his head backwards. “That’s Jonah,” Haze chuckled, his face beaming. “You have a pet clown fish?” Blake asked, feeling a sudden tightening across his chest as he saw the blue-eyed boy’s smile. Haze never looked more beautiful than when he was like this, smiling, happy, completely unguarded. “Well, he’s not actually a true clown fish,” Haze explained, his voice taking on that slightly academic tone again. “Ocellaris ... the true clowns, look a bit different, and they don’t have that spike behind the gill that Jonah has, but he’s from the same family.” “And he even lives in an anemone?” “Uh-huh,” Haze replied, proudly. “It took me a while to match the right fish to the right anemone, but once they take, they almost never leave their host anemone and they’re real protective. Watch.” Haze dragged over a nearby chair and then stood on top of it. He reached over the edge of the aquarium and placed half of a clam’s shell on the rock nearby and above the anemone. Blake noticed that all of the fish retreated and hid amongst the corals and rockwork until Haze’s hand left the tank and he’d climbed back down again. “Watch,” Haze said again. Blake watched as the nervous looking fish took a moment to reappear from behind the rocks and then he saw the clown fish make its way back to the anemone. It seemed to take an instant dislike to the clamshell’s resting place and it fussed about the much larger object in an agitated fashion. Blake chuckled at its antics. “What’s he doing?” “These anemones get 98% of their food from sunlight,” Haze explained. “They catch almost nothin’ in their tentacles, so without the light the anemone starves. The fish needs the anemone, so he looks after it.” Blake pressed his face up closer and watched as the fish nipped at the shell with its teeth and swatted at it with its tail. “There’s no way he’s gonna be able to move it,” Blake said. “It’s like ten times his size.” “Watch,” Haze instructed, his voice closer now, as he too pressed his face against the glass. Jonah then seemed to take a bit of a run up, before hurling himself at the clam shell, knocking it from the rocks and onto the white sand beneath. “Ha!” Blake exclaimed. “I can’t believe he just did that!” Haze chuckled. “It’s not so cute when he’s knockin’ over new corals when I’m tryin’ to plant ‘em.” Blake turned his head then, but whatever he was about to say next froze in his throat as he abruptly found himself nose-to-nose with Haze. The other boy had turned his head at the same time and now they were staring into each other’s eyes, lips mere inches apart. Haze’s smile disappeared, as a slightly more serious expression took its place, but this did nothing to diminish his sex appeal. Blake found the sight of him to be intoxicating. He had never been more attracted to Haze than at that moment. Slowly, hesitantly, he leaned a little forward and was delighted and the tiniest bit frightened to see Haze leaning forwards too, eyes closing softly. In an instant they were kissing, soft and gentle, their lips alone touching since neither had the space to move closer, pressed up against the aquarium as they were. This kiss was different again, Blake thought. It was more relaxed and tempered than that day on the boat and more hesitant and gentle than the night before. Haze tasted of mint and toothpaste and his lips moved with more deliberation and a sense of awareness. This was a romantic kiss, Blake decided to himself, soft and sweet, but every bit as full of desire and pleasure. After what seemed like an eternity like that, Haze pulled back and Blake could see the crimson colour of his cheeks clearly in the bright aquarium lights. “Hi,” he said, shyly, grinning ear to ear. “Hi,” Haze responded, equally as coy. They shared an exchange of silly chuckles and broad smiles. “What was that for?” Blake asked, even though he wasn’t really sure who had kissed who. “For likin’ my aquarium,” Haze said, moving a step or two away from the tank and taking hold of Blake’s hands in his own. “I was kinda hopin’ ya would.” Blake blushed and tried to hide his discomfort behind banter. “How do you know I’m not just pretending?” Haze’s smile fell a little and he cocked his head slightly as if considering the question seriously. “You’re not pretendin’,” he said in a strangely contemplative tone. “I can tell.” “Really?” “Really. Cause ya lookin’at it the right way,” he answered, seriously. “Other people I’ve shown it too, they look at it and see the colour and maybe even say that it’s beautiful, but they don’t get it, they don’t see all the things alive in there, the whole ecosystem and what it takes to keep them all happy. They just see somethin’ pretty like a paintin’. They say ‘it’s nice’ or somethin’. If that.” These last two words were spoken in a somewhat darker tone, Blake noted, and he felt the sudden need to stop that line of thought before the mood took hold of Haze. He tugged on the other boy’s hands and pulled him closer until their noses were touching again. “I think it’s amazing,” he said, honestly, although after the words left his mouth he felt a little embarrassed for saying so. “Thanks,” whispered Haze softly and then they were kissing again, deeper this time, but more comfortably, more naturally, hands free to explore. Blake was lost in the moment and thinking to himself that he could happily do this all day when Haze pulled apart, his eyes darting across the room to the bedside clock. “We gotta go before we miss the tide,” he said, leaning across for one more quick kiss before he pulled away. Blake frowned at the interruption, but Haze was across the room and poking through his wardrobe before he could argue. “You still haven’t told me what we’re doing,” Blake pointed out, not at all bothered by this detail. So long as whatever it was involved Haze, he knew would be happy. Haze appeared holding a small plastic container with handles and a couple of small fishing nets. He climbed back onto the chair and Blake noticed for the first time the square box of fine netting in the corner of the aquarium. “What’s in there?” he asked as Haze started fishing around with one of the nets. “A couple of nubies, a piece of coral and a boxfish,” Haze explained, fishing something out and dropping it into the smaller aquarium. “We’re gonna take em back. They ain’t doin’ so well.” “Why? What’s wrong?” “Not sure, really. Hard to tell. The nubies probably don’t have the right food, most species only eat one type of food and I couldn’t find any information on these two. They were doing alright at first but now they’re lookin’ a bit sick sick. Not havin’ much luck feedin’ this boxfish either. So we’re gonna put ‘em back and look for some replacements.” “Wait a minute, you mean you caught all of these yourself?” Blake asked, taking another look at the colourful display. “Well not all of them,” Haze answered. “I did order some of the fish and corals online, but only ‘cause I couldn’t catch those myself.” “So is that what we’re doing today?” Blake asked, a little surprised. “Yeah,” Haze said, getting down from the chair again. “We’re gonna go snorkellin’ and release these guys and hunt for some new stuff.” He had a happy, excited manner about him, like a kid in a candy store and as he rushed to gather bits and pieces Blake could tell he was itching to get going. He was stuffing things into a bag when all of a sudden he looked up and stopped what he was doing. “Unless ...” he paused then, looking a little worried. “Unless ya don’t wanna do that?” Blake thought about it for a moment and then smiled. It wasn’t at all what he’d had imagined, but right then he could think of nothing he would rather do than hunt for new critters with Haze. “That sounds like an awesome idea,” he said, honestly, and when Haze beamed at his response he felt a little weak at the knees. *** Haze drove them down the coast about an hour or so in his ute, pulling off the main road and down a dirt track towards, in his words, ‘a little place’ he knew. It was too noisy on the drive to really talk much, but for once Blake found he was comfortable with there being silence between them. He simply sat back and enjoyed the feeling of the wind in his hair as they swept through the vast desert landscape. Eventually they reached the ocean again and Haze soon brought the ute to a stop. “Feel that?” he asked, as his eyes scanned across the water. “Feel what?” Blake answered, his mood souring a little upon noticing the sweaty blotches all over his front again. “I feel hot and sticky,” he complained. “That’s it,” Haze answered, with a jovial smile. “The heat, the humidity, the stillness in the air ...” Blake sat a little higher in his seat. He knew what Haze was talking about now. He had felt it too, earlier that morning. Something ... different in the air. “What is it?” he asked curiously. “Calm before the storm,” Haze answered. Blake glanced across at him, looking a little worried, but Haze only chuckled. “There’s a storm out there,” he explained, pointing to the horizon. “But it’s a long way away.” Blake looked to the horizon, but he could see only sparkling water and clear blue sky. “Too far to see, for now,” Haze continued, smirking. “For now it’ll keep the wind away and without any wind this place gets hotter and hotter and more and more humid. Just a pity we ain’t divin’ today.” “How come?” “The reef comes alive in this weather,” Haze said, in a tone that made him sound like he was telling a ghost story. “This is when everythin’ comes out, where everythin’ happens on the reef. A tourist can spend weeks here and go out every day and not see as much as on one afternoon like this.” “Why?” “I dunno,” Haze shrugged. “Just seems to be that way, in my experience anyway. And low tide’s the best of the best,” he added with an excited looking glint to his eye. Blake loved that look and found Haze’s good mood to be infectious. “Well what are we waiting for then?” Haze positively glowed with delight. He then leaned over and gave Blake a quick kiss on the lips, before kicking open the car door and leaping outside. Blake was left sitting there, blushing profusely at the gesture, but delighted all the same. Unlike Kulibari Bay, where the white sandy beaches gave way to rolling sand dunes, the coastline here was made of a dark, red rock, porous and jagged. It formed a cliff-face along the ocean, dropping off about six feet to a short strip of white sandy beach. Haze hurried back and forth from the ute, carrying the portable aquarium, an esky, a rucksack and their snorkelling gear, each in turn. He placed them carefully along the edge of the cliff and then climbed to the bottom, calling for Blake to pass things down to him. Blake did so and then he climbed down too, his bare feet treading carefully upon rugged, red rocks, until he was far enough down to jump the remaining distance. His feet landed softly on white sand and he took a moment to pause there, taking in the brilliant sparkling water, clear and shallow. He breathed the fresh ocean air and surveyed the vast emptiness of the place. They were completely alone, he realised. Possibly the only human beings for miles in any direction. Despite the wide open space, there was a sense of intimacy. This was definitely a date, he decided to himself, if only secretly. He turned to check on Haze and his eyes widen as he caught sight of the other boy stripping down to his bathers. He couldn’t help but ogle a little, his gaze tracing a path across every tanned, chiselled feature until he reached Haze’s face and realised he’d been caught staring. “Perv,” Haze accused, but he was smiling shyly. Blake was mortified nonetheless and he blushed profusely as he stared pointedly at his feet. Haze only laughed. “It’s okay,” he said, closing the distance between them. He then reached out to join their hands, causing Blake to lift his head again, nervously. “I ... like it,” he confessed and then it was his turn to look away, embarrassed. Blake smiled and relaxed a little. This would take some getting used to, he thought to himself, not having to hide how he felt about Haze. After weeks of hasty, stolen glances and only the occasional ‘perv’ when he was sure no one was looking, the idea that he was now allowed to look, to appreciate Haze openly if he wanted to, seemed strange. Like in his dreams. There was still a part of him that expected to wake up at any moment. “But on one condition,” Haze added bashfully, his hands coming to rest on Blake’s waist as he leaned in close. “Ya have to ... let me perv too,” he whispered, his fingers lifting the hem of Blake’s shirt. In a flash, Blake was overwhelmed by sudden rush of panic and unexplained fury. He slapped Haze’s hand and roughly pushed the other boy away from him. Haze’s timid smile vanished in an instant and the look of hurt and confusion that replaced it made Blake feel horribly guilty. “Sorry!” he gasped, but he was unable to say much more as, all of a sudden, he felt sick to the pit of his stomach. He knew he was wrecking everything again, ruining things with Haze, but it was also Haze’s fault this time too. Why did he have to make fun like that? It wasn’t funny. Why would anyone want to perv on someone like himself? Haze’s expression quickly morphed from hurt to anger, his face scrunching up into a vicious looking scowl. However, as Blake began to shake and tremble before him, his expression visibly softened and then grew concerned. “Blake?” “I’m okay.” The words sounded choked and forced, even to his own ears. Haze sighed. “Why do ya only say that when you’re not okay?” “I’m okay,” Blake responded reflexively, proving the other boy’s point. Haze frowned. He then reached out and took a few hesitant steps forward, but Blake backed away, towards the clear shallow water gently lapping on the white sand. “What’d I do?” Haze asked, frustration evident in his voice. “Nothing. I’m okay.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t say that. It’s my fault.” “No its not it’s ...” but he didn’t finish what he was saying, his words ending with a frustrated sounding grunt and a helpless swing of his arms. Blake began to worry then as he felt the anxiety take hold. He worried that Haze would give up on him. That he would grow tired of having to deal with such a weirdo, freak. That he was about to call the whole date off and drive them home again. If it even was a date. But instead, Haze’s look of frustration softened and a strange sort of smile appeared in its place, a mischievous looking smirk. He began to take very slow and deliberate steps sideways, circling around Blake in a wide arch, facing him all the while. Blake watched on, confused, as Haze continued like this until he was standing ankle deep in the clear shallow water with the ocean now behind him. Then he stopped moving and wiggled his eyebrows. Blake just shook his head a little, having no idea what the other boy was doing. Haze promptly sank to his knees and scooped up some of the water with his hands. He then looked up and wiggled his eyebrows again. Blake’s eyes widened as he realised what the other boy was about to do. “No way.” “Splashy, splashy, splashy,” Haze sung in a childlike voice, scooping up and releasing handfuls of water. Blake glanced over his shoulder, trying to judge whether he could make it to the rocks in time, but before he had a chance to run he heard a splash and felt the slight shock of cool water soaking through his t-shirt, the droplets rolling down his dry hair and onto his face. “I can’t believe you just did that!” he spluttered, indignantly. Haze only howled with laugher. Blake narrowed his eyes and was about to protest further when he decided on another course of action. He charged forward sweeping his foot across the water, kicking great sheets of it towards Haze. However, Haze was too quick for him, getting to his feet with his usual agility and leaping out of range, just in time. “Missed me!” he taunted and then he turned and fled. Blake promptly ran after him, determined to get revenge. Haze feinted left and then right, but Blake matched his moves, blocking the other boy’s path, chasing him towards the ocean. The clear shallow water seemed to extend for ages, but gradually it began to get deeper and Haze’s pace began to slow as the effort of lifting his feet from the water proved more and more difficult. Finally, when he was knee deep, Blake closed the distance between them, repeatedly scooping up handfuls of water to toss at Haze until he was utterly soaked through, though this did nothing to diminish his laughter. “Ah-Ha!” Blake declared, with a note of childish satisfaction. Haze took an exaggerated breath, held his nose and then lay backwards, submerging himself beneath clear water that was barely waist deep. After a moment he then surfaced, swept the hair from his face and opened his eyes to grin that mischievous grin again. Blake’s eyes widened and he quickly turned to run, but Haze sprang forward, grabbing him around the waist and pulling him down, into the water, clothes and all. Blake felt the water soak through his t-shirt and his hair, cool at first, but then almost lukewarm as he got used to it. On bobbing to the surface again, Haze continued the assault, splashing water in his face with both hands. Blake got to his feet to return fire and soon they were both splashing water on each other like they were ten years old, turning their heads to keep the salty sting from their eyes as they laughed like children. Eventually, the splashing slowed and then stopped, leaving the two of them keeled over, resting hands on knees as they tried to catch their breath, dying chuckles still audible over their panting. “What was that for?” Blake demanded, with mock seriousness. Haze smiled as he stood tall and then came closer. He reached for Blake’s elbow, his hands tracing down the forearm to take hold of the wrist. He then cocked an eyebrow as if to study Blake’s hand carefully. Blake was momentarily confused by the gesture, but then he figured out what Haze was getting at. His hand wasn’t shaking anymore. His anxiety had gone away. He glanced up and took in Haze’s self-satisfied smirk. “Oh so you splashed me for my own good then huh?” he complained, pulling his hand free and crossing his arms in a half-hearted attempt at a sulk. Haze nodded in a playful and theatrical manner. “Well that won’t work twice you know.” Haze leaned forward and gave Blake a peck on the cheek, pausing there to whisper in his ear. “Then I’ll have to think up other ways.” Blake thought about that then, what it would be like to have someone around to keep him company, to keep his dark thoughts away. His expression grew more serious, more contemplative and apparently Haze must have noticed this. “Unless ... ya don’t want that?” Haze probed, in a hesitant sounding voice, having suddenly lost his confident, playful manner. Blake uncrossed his arms and placed his hands on Haze’s waist to draw him closer. “Oh Haze,” he breathed, lifting a hand to cup the other boy’s cheek. “I’d like that ... a lot ... it’s just, I guess I ... I didn’t dare hope.” Haze nuzzled his hand and seemed to smile serenely. “So it’s settled then.” Blake felt a pang of guilt, of something gnawing at his insides. He knew he really didn’t deserve this. “I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into,” he protested, because he felt he should. He felt he was tricking Haze somehow, deceiving him. Why else would he be so interested? “Guess I’ll find out,” Haze shrugged. “I’m pretty crazy you know.” Haze lifted his hands to take hold of Blake’s as it began to draw away. “Everyone’s a little crazy,” he breathed, leaning in close until their lips almost met. “I’m really crazy,” Blake protested with a little more force this time, unhappy with Haze’s dismissive responses. He felt that he had to warn him. “Blake?” “Yeah?” “Stop talking.” And then they were kissing, holding onto each other at the waist while they stood knee deep in sparking clear water, on a sandbar in the middle of nowhere. *** Despite feeling uncomfortable about having to get out of his soaking wet clothes, Blake managed to avoid a repeat performance of ‘crazy’ that afternoon. No doubt it helped that Haze wasn’t watching at the time. He’d gone on ahead a bit, whether deliberately or incidentally, Blake could not be sure. He wasn’t about to waste the opportunity though, so he quickly shrugged off his t-shirt and shorts before wringing them out and leaving them on the rocks to dry. The day was stifling hot and the water warm and inviting, but Blake had brought his wetsuit anyway, ostensibly for protection from the sun, although the real reason he put it on now had more to do with keeping his body hidden. With that done, he hurried off after Haze who was still only knee deep in water, stooping awkwardly to keep his sea creatures below the surface. They were stored in a kind of sack made of a fine white mesh with a plastic clip that could hook onto a wetsuit or board shorts. The reef was a long way out and they had to wade through the shallow water for ages before reaching the end of the sandbar, where clear water turned pale blue as it grew deeper. Once the water was past their shoulders, they put on their fins and masks and swam the remaining distance to the reef. Floating along the surface, breathing through his snorkel, Blake could see some fish and even a few stingrays nestled on the sandy ocean floor, but that was about all until they reached the edge of the reef, where flat white sand suddenly gave way to a burst of shapes and colour. Blake was surprised by how much there was to see at such shallow depths and he quickly lost track of time as he immersed himself in an underwater paradise of fish and corals. He’d never had much time for snorkelling before, having long thought it inferior to diving, but after that afternoon he decided he liked both. For different reasons. Diving was still his favourite, of course, but snorkelling had a lot going for it too. There was much more colour and light at these shallow depths and the sights could be enjoyed without bulky gear and the constant need to watch your depth and air gauges. This led to a more relaxed and casual feeling, one without time limits or the risk of decompression sickness if things went wrong. As an added bonus, he could actually listen and talk to Haze, which made it much easier to point things out to each other and to navigate. It also made the activity more social, more like a ‘date’ and Blake liked that aspect especially. Haze eventually found a spot to release the animals he’d brought, and Blake watched as his friend took special care in diving down to place them amongst the rocks and corals. After that, they spent an hour or so swimming about, looking for potential replacements. The first catch was a bright red shrimp with white feelers. It was small and delicate and Haze spent quite a lot of time trying to fish it out from a crevice with his net, repeatedly diving down after it for as long as he could hold his breath. He tried the same technique to catch a colourful fish later on, but it had proven more of a challenge. After several fail attempts, he’d enlisted Blake’s help to try to chase it out from the corals towards him, but they’d lost sight of it after a few more tries. Not that this did anything to dampen Haze’s spirits. He seemed to enjoy the chase more than the prize. As a consolation, he took a small colourful starfish. Blake had spotted it himself and he felt sure Haze only captured it for that reason. Not that he minded. Eventually they headed back, having to swim a lot further this time on account of the rising tide, which prevented either of them from touching bottom where before they had been wading. By the time they reached the shore, Blake was exhausted and feeling a little dehydrated. Haze busied himself transferring the animals to his portable aquarium, so Blake took the opportunity to change out of his wetsuit and back into his clothes, which had dried nicely on the sun-baked rocks. They then lay out their towels in the shade by the wall of red rock, which was tall enough to cover them from the afternoon sun. Haze dragged over the esky and they chatted comfortably over lunch, a picnic Haze had put together, roughly made sandwiches and ice cold soft drink. “So how would ya rate this date so far?” Haze asked, seemingly out of nowhere. Blake couldn’t hide the blush that crept across his cheeks, the bashful dip of his head. He felt embarrassed by the question, though he was pleased to have his secret hopes confirmed. So this was a date! “This is a date?” he asked out loud, trying to deflect his discomfort with some playful banter. “Ya didn’t know?” Haze sounded appalled, but his mischievous smile told Blake he wasn’t really upset. “Well it’s not the usual dinner and a movie kinda date now is it?” “No, it’s heaps better than that!” Blake laughed at the forceful declaration. “Yeah,” he said, with a coy smile. “It is.” Haze was lying on his side, propped up on one elbow and when he smiled in response, Blake felt that giddy pleasant feeling again and had to look away. “Better than any date ya been on in Sydney?” Haze ventured. “Yeah ... all those dates,” Blake replied, sounding more glum and bitter than he had intended. “Oh come on,” Haze goaded. “Ya expect me to believe that a good lookin’ dude like you ain’t been on dates with guys before?” Blake felt it again then, that rising rage, that sick feeling in his stomach, but he was ready for it this time and quickly suffocated the sensations with practised ease. It was just an expression, the ‘good looking dude like you’ comment. Haze hadn’t meant to tease him about his looks again. He was just making conversation, being polite. “What?” Haze prodded, having apparently noticed something was off, despite Blake’s best efforts to conceal his reactions. “Nothing, I ... worked a lot in Sydney ... didn’t get out much ...” he fumbled, trying to address the previous question and move on. Haze didn’t seem fooled though, so he quickly followed up with a question of his own. “What about you?” he asked. The diversion worked and with the tables turned it was now Haze’s turn to fumble with his words. “Erm ...nope ... no. Well, not with ... ya know ... not with a guy.” An image of Patty popped into Blake’s mind just then and he felt compelled to ask about her some more, but he didn’t. This was a date, his date with Haze and he wasn’t about to ruin it by bringing her into the conversation. He needed to change direction and quickly. “I’ve had plenty of secret crushes though,” he confessed. “That’s um ... more like me. You know, the whole unrequited thing, fancying guys from a distance, driving myself crazy over someone I never manage to say hello to.” Haze chuckled a little and seemed to relax once more. “Secret eh? Well ya certainly good at that. I couldn’t figure ya out.” “Me?” Blake exclaimed. “You’re the one who had a girlfriend!” Haze’s smile dropped while Blake winced and mentally berated himself for bringing up the very topic he’d been trying to avoid. Haze quickly recovered though and carried on without skipping a beat. “Well, ya gotta admit, ya acted pretty freaked out around Derrick,” he pointed out. “I thought ya were uncomfortable around ... ya know, guys like us.” Blake stopped to think about that then, realising that Haze was right. He had acted pretty hostile towards Derrick that night. In fact, he’d had something of a fight with the guy. No wonder Haze had got the wrong idea. It was particularly ironic to Blake, because he remembered how he too had watched Haze for reactions around Derrick, never stopping to think that Haze might be doing the same thing. “Yeah ... I was pretty awful to him.” “I wouldn’t worry about it. He was a dick.” Blake thought that was pretty unfair. Poor Derrick had done nothing but offer friendship really, even going so far as to take care of him when he’d had too much to drink. It wasn’t his fault he’d flipped out and picked a fight with the guy. However, Blake didn’t argue the point. He didn’t want to talk about Derrick. No more than he wanted to talk about Patty. He wanted to talk about Haze. “So who was your first crush then?” he asked after finishing another mouthful of his sandwich. Haze shifted about, suddenly very uncomfortable. “That ain’t the greatest story ...” he said, absently flicking at bits of sand, his eyes elsewhere now, out to the horizon. Blake could tell he didn’t want to talk about it, but his curiosity was now piqued. “Come on,” he goaded, flicking a bit of seashell towards his friend. It bounced off his chest, landing nearby and Haze flicked it back, starting a sort of game between them while they chatted. “It’s a long story.” “I got time.” “It’s stupid.” “I wanna hear it.” “Fine,” Haze relented. “His name was Jonathan.” Blake thought he would be happy to hear that it was a guy, but in fact he felt a little jealous. “And ...?” he asked, wondering who this ‘Jonathan’ was, praying that he was not still around. “And what?” Haze was being evasive. “Where’d you meet?” Blake asked, sounding a little more impatient than he’d meant to. “He worked at the resort, back when I was in high school and workin’ there too, over the summers.” High school. High school. Blake ran the numbers in his head and was pleased with what he came up with. It must’ve been years and years ago. Old news then this ‘Jonathan’. Surely? “And?” “And what?” Haze’s focus was on his towel and on lining up his next shot with the piece of sea shell, but once he’d flicked it over, Blake caught it instead of flicking it back. “What was he like?” he asked, forcing Haze to make eye contact. “He was ...” Haze paused and shifted about uncomfortably again, eyes flickering downwards. “He was older than me, mid twenties or something and he was ... cool. He had a cool car, wore cool clothes, said cool things, had cool friends. To a weedy high school kid who hadn’t started his growth spurt yet he was ... the bomb.” Now Blake really did feel jealous. “And ...” he said, drawing out the word. “And ... and well ... at first, I thought I just wanted to be him, ya know? Like I was just lookin’ up to him?” Blake nodded. “But I’d been havin’ these sorts of ... feelin’s ‘round guys at school too, just not as strong and ... well ... eventually I figured it was more. I didn’t just want to be him I wanted to be ... with him. I thought about him. A lot. Most often naked. That kinda thing. Ya know?” Blake nodded again. “Anyway, I’d kinda worried before I might be ... gay and well ... he kinda made me think about it again. A lot more.” Haze drifted off then, suddenly deep in thought, as if remembering something. His mood became melancholy. “So?” Blake prompted, when it seemed like he wouldn’t continue on his own. “Did you ever talk to him?” “Yeah, all the time,” Haze answered, his attention refocused. “At work I hung around him like a puppy and listened to his shit like it was music. But after his shift ended ... he headed off to hang with his real friends. Chase girls on the beach.” Haze drifted off again after that and Blake could now feel the waves of sadness rolling off him. Blake knew how this story went. Secret crushes on straight guys always end in heartbreak. He had a few stories like that of his own. “Sorry, you don’t have to go on if you don’t want to ... I can guess how this story goes.” Haze gave a short, bitter sounding laugh. “Can ya? Doubt that ... ya see, one day, outta the blue, he starts to notice me, starts to actually look at me when he’s tellin’ his stories. Made me shiver. Then he asks if I wanna hang out, after work, just him and me.” Haze shifted around, rolling from his side to his back, his hands coming to fold behind his head. “He put his hand on my shoulder when he asked and ... I ... I really felt somethin’ ... I just got this feelin’, like he was askin’ somethin’ else. That he knew how I felt and ... he was askin’ me out out.” “And was he?” Blake asked, sitting up now, thoroughly engrossed in the story. “He took me out to a spot on the dunes to watch the sunset and then he said he was ‘gay’ for me and asked me if I felt the same.” “Gay for you?” Blake retorted, trying to mask his growing alarm and jealousy with a teasing tone of voice. “Who says that?” He knew he’d said the wrong thing though, as he watched Haze’s lip curl into an angry-looking, spiteful frown. “People who aren’t gay, obviously. Any idiot should’a seen that one comin’. But I ...” he trailed off then, choking a bit on his words. “I was just a stupid kid who had his biggest wanking fantasy come true. So I told him how I really felt.” “Oh,” Blake mumbled awkwardly, guiltily. “What happen when you told him?” “Nothin’ really, he just laughed, got to his feet and left. First person I ever came out to and he just laughed at me and walked away.” “I’m sorry Haze that’s horrible,” Blake said, feeling outraged and helpless. “Why would anyone do such a thing?” The question was rhetorical, but Haze grinned darkly and answered anyway. “For a thousand bucks actually.” “A thousand dollars? Why? A dare?” Blake wondered aloud. Haze gave that short, bitter-sounding laugh again. “Yeah, like his dero friends had that kinda money. No, it was a job. It was a job for his employer. Mum.” Blake felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “Your ... mother?” he exclaimed in an astonished, almost hoarse whisper. “Why would she-” “For my own good,” Haze snapped, answering the question before Blake could finish asking it. “She noticed I was ... interested in him. She wanted to know why. To protect me.” Blake could not believe what he was hearing. Did Haze really think that made it alright? It was difficult to tell from his tone. Was he just repeating his mother’s justification or was this his own excuse for her behaviour? “She’s ... a bit controlling ... she worries a lot,” Haze added, having apparently noticed the look of horror on Blake’s face. “She thought she was doin’ what was best for me.” “By paying someone to humiliate you?” “She ... she ...” Haze seemed to run out of steam mid-sentence and then his voice began to waver as he went on. “I don’t ... I don’t think she told him to do it that way ... just to find out ... probably.” Blake lifted the esky out of the way and scootered closer to take hold of Haze’s hand, but the boy sat up and turned away. “It was my own stupid fault anyway,” he growled and though he was clearly trying to hide it, Blake could tell how much the story was affecting him. “No it wasn’t.” “Gay for you? You’re right. Who the fuck says that?” “Haze,” Blake said calmly. “NO!” Haze shouted back, suddenly turning around again, anger visibly taking hold of him. “I was a fuckin’ idiot and I learned my lesson the hard way!” Blake wasn’t sure how to respond to that. It was patently obvious to him who was to blame, but he felt he had to tread carefully. Haze was regressing into his angry self again and in this volatile state Blake knew he had to watch what he said or else things could quickly end up going backwards between them. So he said nothing for a while, meeting Haze’s angry stare with only a small frown on his face as he waited. Seconds ticked by like that until finally Haze blinked rapidly a few times and then shrank visibly, shoulders hunching, chin dropping to his chest. “Sorry,” he muttered, looking miserable. “I didn’t mean to get angry again. I didn’t mean to shout at ya.” “It’s okay,” Blake reassured. “No its not,” Haze grumbled. “I keep doin’ it, don’t I? Losin’ my temper over nothin’.” Blake reached out and took hold of Haze’s hand, drawing it into his lap. “It doesn’t matter that it happens,” he said, as he traced little circles on Haze’s open palm. “What matters is how you deal with it. And you did real good just then. Took you only a few seconds to see it was happening and to stop.” Haze glanced up through a curtain of hair and seemed to scrutinise carefully, as if he were looking for some evidence of trickery or sarcasm. Blake did his best to show his sincerity and after a moment, Haze seemed satisfied, his frown flattening out a little, his posture relaxing. “Thanks,” he muttered gruffly. Blake smiled and he lifted Haze’s hand to his mouth to kiss the fingers softly. “Anyway,” Haze muttered, sitting up cross-legged now as Blake had been doing. “Ya got two stories outta me. First crush and how mum found out I was gay. Seems like it’s your turn.” “But you didn’t finish the story.” “Yeah I did and don’t try to change the subject.” “I’m not ... it’s just ... well. What happen when she found out?” Haze’s slowly developing smile retreated again, as that thoughtful melancholy expression came back. “Nothin’ good. It was ... pretty ... bad for the rest of that holidays. She didn’t take it very well. But then school started and ... well ... next time holidays rolled around and I came home we just acted like it never happened. And I ...” he paused then to lick his lips. “I made up my mind it would never happen again. I would not be gay.” Blake nodded, wondering to himself when Haze had changed his mind on that. Was it a recent thing or had Haze come to terms with being gay ages ago? He was tempted to ask, but decided to avoid the whole ‘sexuality labels’ conversation for the moment. “And what happened to Jonathan?” he asked instead. “Did he give you a hard time?” Haze snorted. “Nope. She fired him, then gave him a filthy reference and made sure he couldn’t work anywhere from Perth to Broome.” “Serious?” Blake exclaimed, having quite some difficulty fathoming this women. “After she paid him to do it?” “Yeah.” “Guess that’s something at least,” Blake muttered, figuring the women must have had some sort of conscience, but Haze frowned in response to that. “I’m sure it wasn’t for me,” he added, bitterly. “She wouldn’t have wanted him sayin’ anythin’ to anyone. But yeah ... he got what he deserved, I suppose.” Blake wanted to say a few choice words along the lines of Mrs Herrington not getting what she deserved, but he wasn’t sure how Haze would react to that. This was his mother they were talking about, after all. Haze lived with her still and it sounded like she was the only family he had. And then another thought occurred. “Hey,” he said, tugging slightly on Haze’s hand. “Did you think your mum was using me to try to trick you?” Haze dipped his head, looking a little guilty. “At one stage ... yeah,” he admitted. Blake’s mind raced, as pieces of the boy he’d long been puzzling over suddenly seemed to fall into place, a coherent picture emerging. He thought back on the way Mrs Herrington had always acted towards him. So friendly. So familiar. Especially in front of Haze. Then he thought about the time she’d turned up at the shop, looking for Haze. The way she had casually mentioned their ‘little chat’ on the beach. The look of betrayal on Haze’s face when he’d heard that. No wonder Haze didn’t talk to him for the rest of that week. No wonder he was so suspicious, at least at first. But more than that, it made sense to Blake now why Haze was so suspicious of everyone. Why he was so cold and distant. Why he tried so hard to conceal how he felt. The story about Haze’s first crush was not an isolated incident. From what Blake knew of her, this was Mrs Herrington to the core. Haze probably had lots of stories like this. His mother had probably been manipulating, controlling and tricking him since he was a child. And what had Haze done? To get through that, to survive, he’d learnt to keep things hidden from her, to hide his emotions. In fact, he would’ve had to hide his feelings from others too, since his mother would’ve tricked or bullied information out of them as well. Haze must have bottled up all these feelings inside of himself, until it could only come out in bursts of uncontrollable anger. Blake felt his heart ache as he imagined what it would’ve been like for Haze, growing up like that. Then he wondered what someone like that would need to get better and the answer came to him instantly. Haze needed someone to teach him how to trust, how to have faith in other people. “Haze, I would never-” “Yeah I know that,” Haze interrupted, cutting him off. “No, listen,” Blake insisted, taking hold of both of Haze’s hands and encircling them in his own, forcing eye contact between them. He wanted to make sure this got through to Haze. Not just to his conscious mind, but to his subconscious mind as well. It was important. “I would never do that to you,” he said, taking care to emphasise every word while staring directly into Haze’s deep blue eyes. “I will never trick you, I will never manipulate you, I will never betray you.” He spoke forcefully, willing the words to take root inside Haze’s mind. “You can trust me.” Haze dropped his eyes to their hands and shrugged, but when he spoke his voice was thick with emotion. “I would ... like that ... it’s just,” he paused then, glancing up through a veil of shaggy hair. “I guess I just didn’t dare hope,” he added, a coy smile forming on his face as he repeated the same phrase Blake had used earlier. They both chuckled softly at that, but then a more serious expression overcame them and Blake knew what was coming next. His tongue darted forward, moistening his lips in anticipation and then his eyes fell close as he felt Haze move forward for another kiss. *** “They’re eating my starfish!” Blake cried out in alarm, pointing. Haze chuckled. “Calm down dude,” he said, climbing down from the chair with his now empty net to take a look. “I’m pretty sure nothin’ eats starfish in here.” “That one did,” Blake declared, his finger jabbing at the glass accusingly. “Who, Pokey?” “The green one with the evil looking horns.” “That’s Pokey, he doesn’t eat starfish.” “He bit it, I swear, when you dropped it in, he swam all the way from over there and he bit my starfish.” Blake motioned towards the tank and glared at offending fish. “He didn’t mean to,” Haze explained. “He was probably just curious, wanted to know what it was.” “So he tried to take a bite?” “Fish taste things to figure ‘em out.” Blake crouched to the level of the sand at the bottom of the tank and studied the colourful starfish carefully. It’d landed on its back, but its arms were moving and before long it was grappled to a rock, right-way-up. “I suppose it looks alright,” he said and then he pressed his nose against the glass where Pokey was swimming. To his surprise, the fish swam towards him. “Hey, how come Pokey’s not afraid like the rest of them?” he asked. “I’m not really sure,” Haze answered, putting the chair back in its place and then coming to join him by the aquarium. “I like to think it’s ‘cause I tamed him and he’s smart and knows I’m his friend. But the books say he’s poisonous and doesn’t have any natural predators, so maybe he just doesn’t know fear.” Blake peered at the thorny, lime-green fish with horns protruding from its head. “He’s an ugly thing that’s for sure.” “No he’s not!” Haze exclaimed, with mock outrage. “Pokey is one of my favourites.” “Hmmm,” Blake muttered and then he tapped the glass at Pokey. “Stay away from my starfish,” he told it. “Are you trying to threaten a fish?” Haze asked, bemused. “Well he bit my starfish,” Blake complained and then he felt hands snake around his waist from behind, joined by the slightly scratchy sensation of Haze’s stubbled chin brushing against the crook of his neck. “Your starfish huh?” Haze was breathing near his ear, his voice buoyant and teasing. “You said it was,” Blake pointed out, tensing a little at the intimacy of the situation. It still felt like he was in a parallel universe sometimes. Would he ever get used to being with Haze like this? “I just said that to get ya interested.” “Too late now, he’s mine.” “Ya gonna take him with ya then?” “Can I?” Haze chuckled. “Not unless ya got a few thousand bucks worth of aquarium gear hidin’ somewhere I ain’t seen.” “Well, you’ll have to look after him for me then.” Haze grinned broadly. “Will ya come visit him?” he asked. Blake smiled at the flirtatious suggestion. He was really enjoying this new side of Haze. He’d always suspected the boy was hiding his true self, but he hadn’t realised just how much until today. He’d caught glimpses of real Haze before, but mostly when he was either angry or sad. This new, talkative, playful and quiet touchy-feely Haze stood in stark contrast to the quiet, standoffish boy he’d met no so long ago, the one who barely spoke a word and whose smile seemed painted on. “Yeah, I’ll visit,” Blake promised, twisting around in Haze’s arms so that they were face-to-face. “That took a while to decide,” Haze noted, arching an eyebrow. “Sorry, I was just thinking.” “Spacin’ out ya mean, space cadet.” “Yeah.” Blake smiled and then he idly raised his hand to brush a lock of shaggy hair out of Haze’s face. “What were ya thinkin’ about?” Haze asked. “You.” “Just as well.” Blake laughed, his hands coming to rest around Haze’s neck. “When did you become so witty?” he mused aloud. Haze’s smile seemed to flatten out a little at that. “Just ‘cause I’m quiet, doesn’t mean that I’m stupid,” he retorted and although he still sounded playful, Blake felt the need to study him carefully, to check whether there wasn’t something deeper to those words. Haze was anything but stupid, in Blake’s opinion, despite what his mother had to say about the matter. Haze was certainly a fountain of knowledge when it came to marine life and from his description of the aquarium he knew a lot of chemistry too. Add to this his playful wit and Blake was in no doubt as to Haze’s intelligence. But did Haze know this? Or had his mother managed to destroy his self-confidence? Did she really think he was dumb or was that just her way of putting him down? Or did he manage to keep his true self so far hidden from her that she didn’t know any better? “Earth to Blake,” Haze quipped. “Sorry,” Blake mumbled, blushing. “What were ya thinking about this time?” “You again.” “Ya think about me a lot huh?” Blake chuckled at the irony of the question. “If only you knew.” “Maybe I’d think it’s not enough?” “Oh, I doubt that.” Haze started leading them away from the aquarium then, his hands glued to Blake’s waist. “I dunno, I like the idea of ya thinkin’ about me.” “Trust me, I think about you plenty.” Blake shuffled backwards at the other boy’s direction, until he felt the edge of Haze’s bed pressing against the back of his knees. “How about right now?” Haze asked, with a shy, but highly suggestive smile. Blake’s breath hitched as he felt Haze’s hands travel down and around his waist, to cup his backside. “Definitely now,” he squeaked and then they were kissing again and he was falling back onto the bed, drawing Haze on top of him. Despite the mindboggling sensations coursing through his body, Blake worried for a moment about where this was going, but then he felt Haze’s tongue in his mouth and he quickly surrendered to the pleasures of the moment. Haze was kneeling on all fours on top of him, so Blake reached out and pulled him down, crushing their bodies together until there was no space left between them. This elicited a noise from Haze, somewhere between a growl and a moan, a deeply arousing sound that left Blake’s blood burning with desire. He pulled apart momentarily, so as to take a breath, but as the pleasurable sensations of Haze’s mouth on his neck began to register, he arched his head back further to grant better access. Haze kissed and sucked at his throat, pausing to nip at the collar bone before making his way back up again, right up to Blake’s earlobe which he took into his mouth. Blake turned his head so as to capture Haze’s lips once more and soon their tongues were wrestling again, as they pawed and grouped at each other in a fever of passion. Then Blake started to notice the way Haze was grinding their groins together and soon he could feel the other boy’s erection through their board shorts, twitching and throbbing against his own. After a few minutes of this, Haze pulled back and sat up, his legs straddling Blake’s groin. He was panting, lips red and swollen and eyes wild, but he was also smiling. “What?” Blake asked, feeling a little self-conscious about the way Haze was looking at him. Was something wrong? Why had they stopped? Haze chuckled shyly and then leaned over, propping himself up with one hand on either side of Blake’s head. “I still can’t believe we’re doin’ this,” he said, a little breathlessly. Despite the sincere smile Haze was giving him and the happy look on his face, Blake began to feel anxious on hearing that. What was he trying to say? It did seem unlikely that someone like Haze would be interested in someone like him. Maybe there was a catch? Something he wasn’t seeing, or didn’t want to see. Haze could probably have any boy he wanted, so why him? It didn’t make sense. Blake suddenly found it difficult to maintain eye contact and so he stared at Haze’s shark-tooth pendant, which had come free from his shirt and was dangling between them. “Okay, what’d I say?” “Huh?” Blake mumbled, looking up again to see a pair of narrowed blue eyes scrutinizing him. “I said somethin’ wrong, I can tell.” “No you didn’t ... don’t worry about it.” “Yeah I did ... is it ... are ya ... are we moving too fast for ya?” Haze asked, sounding a little hesitant. “Are you okay with ... with this?” he shrugged, indicating the bed and the intimate position they were in. Blake hadn’t really thought that far ahead. He’d just been lost in the moment, going by his instincts, which was strange now that he thought about it. Ordinarily, he wasn’t that sort of person, the type to ‘let go’ like that. Haze just seemed to have this effect on him. “No, I’m fine with this ... more than fine,” he quickly added. “I was just thinking again.” “About what?” Blake didn’t want to venture down that path and so he reached up to grab at the necklace and pull Haze down. “You of course,” he replied, grinning. “No fair,” Haze protested. “Ya can’t just get outta tellin’ me by-” Blake silenced him with a kiss and when Haze seemed determined to put up a struggle he rolled them over and climbed on top, pressing Haze into the bed as he deepened the kiss. Haze seemed to give in after that and they returned to making out on his bed. However, before long, Blake heard a loud bang and he ripped his head away in alarm. “What was-” he started to whisper, but then he got his answer. “Hayden?” The stern, melodious voice was unmistakable as it echoed down the hallway. “Shit!” Haze whispered, pushing Blake off him and leaping to his feet. “She’s heaps early!” He frantically dashed across the room to the doorway and called out in a cold, terse voice. “What!” “I need your help carrying the shopping please,” Mrs Herrington answered. “Just a sec!” “Now Hayden,” she demanded, although it sounded like she was further away this time, heading back to the car again. Haze glanced around the room with a panicked look about him. “She can’t see you here,” he exclaimed, in a harsh, desperate-sounding whisper. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell her anything,” Blake whispered back, trying to sound reassuring. What was the big deal anyway? It’s not like Mrs Herrington would know just by looking at them. “I don’t want her to know we even talk to each other!” Haze declared, sounding incredulous, like that should have been obvious to anyone. Blake couldn’t help but feel a little hurt by that, but before he could respond, Haze was pushing him towards the built-in wardrobes. “Hide in there,” he ordered. “Wait ‘til I come get ya.” “Wait, Haze, surely I can just-” But Haze wasn’t listening and soon Blake found himself standing amongst shirts hanging in the wardrobe, his feet awkwardly straddling a pile of shoes and boxes. “Hayden!” came the angry sounding voice again. “Coming!” Haze shouted back and then with a last fearful glance, he rolled the sliding doors closed, plunging Blake into darkness. There was the thudding of feet down the hallway and then nothing, just the sound of Blake’s own breathing, echoing about the confined space of Haze’s wardrobe. The air was stuffy in there and the space cramped, but Blake dared not move in case he made a sound. He briefly thought about the absurdity of the situation. Hiding in the closet. Literally. However, the look on Haze’s face had been serious, dire even. This wasn’t a laughing matter for him. Blake listened carefully, but could hear only muffled sounds. Not so much voices as movement, footsteps, the banging of cupboard doors, that sort of thing. Next he thought he heard the front door closing and after that there was nothing at all. Silence. Time dragged on and soon Blake began to notice the various parts of his body that were uncomfortable. His right foot for instance. He didn’t know what he was standing on, but he couldn’t seem to rest any weight on it and crouched over as he was, his other leg soon started aching. Was it safe to move a bit? Just to get comfortable? He listened carefully, but couldn’t hear anything so he risked trying to move his foot. There was a rustle of sounds around his feet and he winced at the noise he was making. Everything sounded louder than it was, even his breathing seemed too noisy, but at last he managed to get a bit more comfortable and so he continued his wait. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been in there like that, but after hearing nothing at all for what seemed like forever, he decided he’d had enough. Maybe he could climb out the window or something? He just couldn’t handle the confined space any longer. It was starting to get to him. Being discovered in Haze’s room would be bad, but being discovered having a panic attack in Haze’s closet would be much worse. Slowly, he slid the door open, cursing at the unreasonable amount of noise it seemed to make as it rolled along its rails, catching on something. Then he poked his head out, delighting in the relatively cool, fresh air of Haze’s bedroom. He stayed still like that for a while longer, but after hearing nothing he stepped one foot out and then tried to get his other foot free too. There were coats and other clothes in the way. He couldn’t really see what he was caught on, but his foot seemed stuck. So, after a moment, he gave a tug and to his horror there was loud crashing sound, the clatter of upended things knocking over other things, creating an avalanche of noise. Blake froze, standing exactly where he was, deathly quiet, not even daring to take a breath. He was expecting to hear voices or to see the door suddenly fly open, but there was nothing, only the soft trickling sound of water, coming from the aquarium. The house was empty it seemed. Either that or the occupants were deaf. It had to be one or the other because no one could’ve missed that sound. Eventually, Blake released his breath and then began to survey the damage to Haze’s wardrobe. He dithered about whether he should fix the mess, but as a compulsive neat freak he just couldn’t bring himself to do nothing and so he got down onto his hands and knees and tried to gather up books and papers, which had come loose from a stack of folders. Haze’s wardrobe was packed with all sorts of things and it was difficult to tell what was upended and what was normally like that. It seemed that every space was cramped full of something and as Blake tried to put stuff back more things would come loose. He soon grew anxious about how long he was taking and so he gave up on being neat and just started scooping up handfuls of items, shoving them in wherever he could find a space. He was growing frantic at the futility of his efforts, when suddenly a shoebox came loose from somewhere above him and crashed to the floor, spraying its contents all around him. He cursed and started gathering up the bits and pieces in a frenzied state, all the while listening for any sound from the hallway. But then he stopped. Something had caught his eye and its strangeness was enough to make him forget for a second where he was and what he was doing. It was a photograph, a picture of a younger Haze standing on the beach with ... with Haze? It’d barely registered in Blake’s brain that he was gathering up photographs from the upended shoe box, but now it was all he could think about. There were hundreds of them, spread across the floor all around him and in each of them was someone, a person who looked just like Haze. Sometimes Blake felt certain that it was Haze in the photo, although he could not be sure in the case of the older ones. He picked up one photo for instance, in which the boys looked to be ten years old. Which one was Haze? The one on the right pointing to his fishing rod or the one on the left holding the net? They both had the same build, the same hair, the same silly hats. Then, in a more recent photo, he could definitely see the difference, Haze and ... and whoever this other guy was, were standing at the back of a boat, dressed in wetsuits and making hand gesturing for the camera. Some of the photos even had Mrs Herrington in them too, sitting at what looked like birthday dinners and other social events. Haze was in many of the photos, but Blake could tell he was not the subject of this collection. His appearance was incidental. The one person who was in every photo was this guy, this Haze look-alike. Who was he? Then Blake found one photo which stood out in particular. There were three people in it and their outline had been cut out from the original photo. On the left was definitely Haze, looking to be in his mid to late teens. To the right was the Haze look-alike and in between them both, with an arm around each of their shoulders was Patty. What struck Blake was the smile on Haze’s face. Everyone smiles for photos of course, but in this photo, Haze was old enough for Blake to really recognise and what he recognised was a real Haze smile. Real Haze had posed for this photograph and he was smiling openly amongst other people. Blake lowered the picture as his ever obsessive mind began to gorge itself on this treasure trove of new information, of new possibilities to think through. But then he stopped, suddenly feeling uncomfortable about what he was doing. It’d been an accident of course, but now he was doing more than just casually looking. He was prying. This was not something Haze would be happy with him doing. It wasn’t right. What had he just promised Haze that afternoon? With extreme reluctance and against all his instincts, Blake ripped his eyes away and gathered the remaining photographs together, stuffing them back into the shoe box. He wasn’t sure exactly where it had come from, so he just guessed as best as he could and then slid the doors closed. With that done, he made his way over the large windows near Haze’s bed, drawing back the curtains to see if he could climb out. The frames slid sideways and only one of the two windows had an insect screen, so it was easy enough to climb outside. He had to abandon half his stuff though. He wasn’t even sure where he’d left his towel and fins and mask, but he wasn’t game to leave Haze’s room to go look for them. He would have to trust Haze to figure that bit out. Once he’d climbed outside, he began to wonder whether he hadn’t made a mistake. The front portion of the Herrington home had a garden and a fence, but Haze’s room was towards the back of the house and beyond that was just desert. A featureless expanse of dunes. He couldn’t go that way. Instead, he followed the wall of the house until he reached the fence and then climbed over into the garden. He felt silly sneaking about as he was, but he’d gone with this ‘hiding’ plan of Haze’s and it would do no good to be found out now. He made his way through the garden until he could see the front of the house and was relieved to note that the black Land Rover wasn’t in the car port. Had they gone somewhere? It seemed strange after she’d only just got back, but try as he might Blake couldn’t see any sign of her car and the house seemed to be empty. He took a deep breath and then made a run for the street, leaping over the fence and then continuing on, until he was halfway down the street. Then he stopped to catch his breath, feeling a little ridiculous. He was pretty sure no one had been around. He could’ve just walked. He relaxed a little after that and started the walk home, whipping out his phone to send Haze a quick text: Climbed out your window. Wardrobe a mess. Couldn’t get my stuff. Date was awesome. Blake. Now all he had to do was figure out how not to obsess over those photos.
    1 point
  31. If Blake had been able to see all of the houses in Kulibari Bay at once, in some sort of police line-up, he felt certain he could have guessed this one belonged to Mrs Herrington. Standing in front of the place now, it seemed obvious to him, with its huge second floor balcony overlooking the bay, its wall-to-floor windows, and its spacious lawns and gardens. Whereas every other house in town seemed to be made of fibro, this one was at least partially concrete, the first story rendered and painted gleaming white, the second story weatherboard and painted a light-blue colour. While every other house had sand and rocks for a garden, this place was surrounded by absurdly green grass and lush shrubs, appearing, quite literally, like an oasis in the desert. It wasn’t just the property itself that gave away its occupants. Blake also spied a familiar shiny Black Land Rover parked under the carport and next to it, looking somewhat out of place, a rather beaten up old ute. Haze’s ute. Truth be known, Blake hadn’t stumbled across the house by accident. He had managed to obtain some vague directions first, from the nice lady with the long black hair, the one who worked at the mall. He couldn’t recall her name, but she was always chatty with him when he bought his morning coffee and seemed to know everyone in town. So, after loitering around the cafe until she was free to take his order, he’d struck up a conversation and casually gathered rough directions that way. Of course, it would have been much easier to ask someone from the dive shop where Haze lived, but for various reasons Blake didn’t want to do that. He felt uncomfortable about asking, partly because it made him feel like a bit of a stalker, but also because he didn’t want the others to know what he was planning. After all, this plan of his, this ‘drop by Haze’s house uninvited’ plan, was probably a pretty bad plan. Everything Blake knew about the mysterious young man with the maddening blue eyes told him as much. He knew Haze was an intensely private person, the type that didn’t like other people knowing anything about him, not even trivial details. Such a secretive person wouldn’t welcome surprises like this, wouldn’t welcome uninvited guests showing up at his home. He would have given Blake his address otherwise, or at least he would have given him his phone number. But Haze had done neither of these things. In fact, for most of the time they had known each other, Haze had done nothing to indicate he even considered Blake a friend, let alone someone who was welcome to ‘drop by’ his home at any time. That was forgetting, of course, the steamy make out sessions which, try as he might, Blake didn’t think he would ever be able to forget. But not just those moments, there were other times too. That night on the beach together, in the dark, sharing secrets. That day in the desert, riding the ATV far from town, eating lunch on top of a towering sand dune. And underwater too, on their first dive together, Haze blowing bubbles, showing off, the two of them holding hands in the vast empty blue. Such experiences had been nothing short of magical for Blake and could be counted amongst the best moments he could remember. Thinking back on them filled his heart with hope and with courage. They were part of the reason he was here right now, standing in front of the fancy looking front-door with the opaque glass circles. If it weren’t for such experiences, he would never have caught a glimpse of another kind of Haze, someone who was anything but cold, detached or hostile. Real Haze. Real Haze sat in complete contrast to the Haze that ignored him. Maybe real Haze would answer the door and be happy to see him? Blake’s fingers reached for the doorbell, but he hesitated for a second as he noticed his unsteady, trembling hand. The anxious churning sensation in his stomach had been steadily building since he’d left the mall, but now the feelings seemed to reach a crescendo, an overwhelming nausea, somewhere between anxiety and outright panic. He quickly reminded himself why he was here. It certainly wasn’t his preferred option, this ‘dropping by’ plan, but there seemed to be no other choice. He was really worried about Haze. The boy hadn’t shown up at work that day and Jill hadn’t explained why, even when he’d asked her outright. It troubled him. He still didn’t know much about what was going on inside Haze’s head, and the few things he did know seemed reason enough for him to worry. Haze might be in trouble. However, deep down, Blake knew that this was not the only reason he was here. Part of the reason was purely selfish. He simply could not bear another 24 hours thinking and worrying about all the ... stuff ... that had been going on between them. The kissing stuff. It was driving him insane. He needed to talk to Haze. He needed to talk about what, if anything, was going on between them. What did Haze want from him? Blake reasoned that even bad news was preferable to the vacuum of information he was currently confronted with. All the ambiguity and the mixed signals were feeding his anxious, obsessive mind. It was keeping him awake at night. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to do this. No matter how anxious and afraid he felt, he had to talk this out with Haze. With a renewed sense of courage, Blake reached for the doorbell again, but was startled as this time the door flew open by itself, Haze abruptly appearing in the doorway with a scowl marring his otherwise perfect features. “What are ya doin’ here?!” he demanded, in a harsh whisper, eyes wide. He did not look happy. Caught off-guard, Blake fumbled to remember how this was supposed to go, having rehearsed for the conversation at lengths, but now seemingly unable to remember his lines. “H-Hi ... um ... Haze, I just ... was in the neighbourhood ...” “Shhh!” Haze hushed, before turning to pull the door closed, leaving it opened just a crack behind him. Blake couldn’t figure out if Haze was more angry or fearful, but there was definitely a little of each of these two emotions playing back and forth across his unusually expressive face. “Ya have to go, now!” he ordered, pushing Blake backwards, none too gently, down the garden path and towards the white-painted fence. “But I ... I really need ... to talk ...” Blake protested, as doubts and fears began to fill his mind, sapping him of his resolve, of his determination to go through with this. “No. Not now. Ya have to go now.” “But-” “No!” “Oh ... well ... how about later-” “I’m busy later too,” Haze said, cutting him off while making shooing motions with his arms. Blake felt his shoulders sag as disappointment took hold. “Oh ... er ... okay ... well maybe I’ll just see you at work tomorrow?” he said dejectedly, the question somewhat rhetorical. He wasn’t really asking. “Yes. No! Maybe, I dunno,” Haze fumbled, sounding exasperated. “Just go now!” As had happened before, something about the other boy’s behaviour at that moment tripped some invisible line in Blake’s head, sending a flash of simmering anger through him. He felt defiant and argumentative all of a sudden. “Well when then?” he demanded, standing his ground and stubbornly refusing to take another step backwards. Haze, who apparently didn’t notice this, continued to walk forwards until he bumped into Blake’s chest, causing him to yelp and to jump back hastily, glancing from side to side. “I dunno, just not now!” Haze snapped angrily. “Not when mum’s around, I don’t want her to see ya here!” “She’s not gonna find out you’re gay just cause you’re talking to me!” Blake snapped back, irritably. But then he gasped and involuntarily drew a hand to cover his mouth as he realised what he’d just said out loud. He really hadn’t meant to say that. It’d just slipped out of this mouth. He hadn’t been intending to bring the ‘g’ word into this conversation at all, not unless Haze did first. For one thing, despite the physical intimacy he’d shared with the boy, several times now, Blake could not be sure that Haze was actually gay. He might just be confused. Or bi? At any rate, labels like ‘gay’ and ‘bi’ were scary and Blake wanted to avoid provoking or upsetting his friend. He remembered how unpleasant and confusing it had been all those years ago, coming to terms with his own sexuality. He wanted to make things easier for Haze, not harder. He’d planned out a conversation full of compassion and patience, but it wasn’t working out like he’d planned at all. Haze’s eyes widened in shock for a moment, his mouth a perfect ‘o’ shape, but then he narrowed his now blazing blue orbs and glared dangerously at Blake. “She figured that out a long time ago,” he spat, furiously, his face contorted with rage. “What the fuck do ya think you know anyway?” Blake was taken aback. Not just by intensity of Haze’s sudden wrath, but by what he was hearing too. Haze’s mother already knew? Wait ... Haze already knew? That didn’t seem to add up. Blake had spent countless hours puzzling over Haze, trying to make sense of the mysterious boy and his strange behaviour, but it had never occurred to him before that Haze might already know about his sexuality. That he might already have come to terms with it, even told other people. His mother no less! It just didn’t seem to make sense. Haze’s secretive behaviour, his paranoia around other people in particular, only seemed to make sense to Blake in the context of a confused bi or gay youth, struggling to come to terms with himself, desperate to hide or to deny his sexuality. At least, that was the conclusion Blake had come to the night before, after a great deal of time spent thinking about ... the kissing. And wait a minute ... did Haze just admit he was gay? “Fuck off!” Haze swore, snapping Blake from his internal musings. “I-I’m s-sorry,” Blake blubbered, the flames of anger now completely extinguished as all the fight quickly left him. He felt mortified. He couldn’t believe how badly this was going. Despite all of the time he had spent rehearsing, he was still ruining everything. Why did he always do this when it came to Haze? Why did he have to fuck it up all the time? “Just go AWAY!” Haze now shouted, apparently forgetting all about the need to keep his voice down. “Hayden, what do you think ...” came an angry sounding voice from behind them, before it abruptly relaxed into another tone entirely. “Oh ... Blake, dear!” Blake turned around, towards Penelope Herrington and did his best to smile. “Um ... hello Pen- ... err ... Mrs Herrington,” he fumbled, doing his best to look nonchalant. She seemed to regard him with a scrutinizing expression, her smile never faltering, but never quite reaching her eyes. “My, how lovely to see you again,” she sang, clasping her hands together in apparent delight. Blake wasn’t fooled though. He knew better than to fall for this ‘nice lady’ routine. The last time he’d seen those hands they’d been gripping a fistful of Haze’s hair while she shook the boy and yelled obscenities in his face. The last time he’d heard that musical voice it’d held an entirely different tone, malevolent and cruel. Blake would not soon forget that night, the other side of Mrs Herrington. “Um ... t-thanks ... it’s good to erm ... see you too.” She made her way down the path and as she did this, Blake noticed that she was dressed rather smartly, if not very modestly, in a well-fitted blue blouse and white jeans. This made him turn to regard Haze as well and for the first time he noticed that the blue-eyed boy was rather well-dressed too. He was wearing shoes for once and his short-sleeve shirt had buttons and a collar. Definitely not his usual style. Not to mention his hair, that horrid combed down look again, like the other night at the bar. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” Penelope asked, smiling brightly, her voice high pitched and pleasant sounding. “He just wanted to swap shifts,” Haze hastily interrupted, before Blake could open his mouth to say anything. She regarded her son for a moment and then turned back to Blake as if to seek confirmation. “Err ... yeah ... I wanted a day off ... for ... um ... something.” Blake wasn’t really sure why he was lying, but he could somehow feel Haze’s silent, invisible pleadings even though the boy’s mask was back in place, his expression cold and distant. Mrs Herrington’s cunning, calculating eyes seemed to swing backwards and forwards between the pair of them. “Thanks Blake, ya can go now mate,” Haze said, turning to look at Blake, his face unreadable. “Err ... yeah ... I should ... um ... probably go ... now.” A sly smile tugged at the corner of Mrs Herrington’s mouth, but she waited a few more moments before speaking up. “Nonsense!” she declared dramatically, reaching out to place her hand on Blake’s shoulder just before he’d managed to turn around to leave. “You are just in time for tea, you simply must stay.” She was watching her son, not Blake as she said this, and Blake felt certain that she too caught the brief lapse of concentration on Haze’s part, as the mask faltered and a look of horror crossed his otherwise neutral features. “He can’t!” Haze protested, forcefully. Blake tried hard to ignore the stab of hurt he felt at that, but hurried to agree all the same. He had made enough of a fool of himself for one day and didn’t want to stay unwelcomed. “Oh no ... I really couldn’t ...” “Oh, but you must!” Mrs Herrington insisted. “I won’t take no for an answer!” There was a pause then as no one said anything, until Haze broke the stalemate. “Whatever,” he shrugged at last, pushing past them both and heading back to the house. Blake wasn’t fooled by Haze’s sudden disinterest anymore than he was fooled by his mother’s behaviour. However, he was stuck now, unable to figure out what was happening and unsure as to what he should do next. He felt distinctly unwelcomed, but trapped into at least coming inside, if only for a short while. “I ... really should ... just go ...” “Nonsense,” Penelope insisted again. She then reached behind him and threaded her arm around his own, her hand coming to rest on his bicep as she towed him towards the house. “We were just about to have some tea and I have plenty for one more.” Despite her polite and friendly demeanour, Blake could feel his anxieties grow stronger in response to this unfolding turn of events. This wasn’t the way to win Haze over, that much was obvious. He needed to escape somehow. The inside of the Herrington household was as fancy as the outside Blake noticed. Polished wooden floorboards, minimalist, but expensive looking décor and a stainless steel kitchen greeted him as he nervously made his way through the home, Mrs Herrington leading the way. She pointed out a few things to him, but he didn’t really get the feeling this was a leisurely tour. She was taking him somewhere in particular, up the stairs and into a spacious living area, where wall to floor windows granted a spectacular view of the bay. Then she led him out through a glass sliding door and onto the Balcony, where his attention was drawn immediately to the large outdoor table, made up with a white tablecloth and scattered with various plates of food. Haze was there too, leaning on a nearby railing, his attention apparently fixated on the view. He was ostensibly ignoring them, but he was hovering close by and Blake got the distinct feeling he was keeping an eye on them. “I’ll just get the kettle dear,” Mrs Herrington said, sitting him down at one of the chairs. “Back in a jiffy.” She left via the living room and as Blake watched her head disappear down the stairs he was suddenly startled by Haze, who grabbed him by the shoulder to whip him around. “What are ya doin’?!” he hissed in that harsh whisper again. “I ... I ...” “Leave! Make up some excuse!” he ordered, the strange combination of fury and fear running across his features. “I ... I can’t ... she won’t listen,” Blake fumbled, but then he noticed the sudden change come over Haze once again, the mask drifting back into place as he drew away. “Tea okay for you?” Mrs Herrington sung, her head appearing at the top of the stairs. “Er ... um yeah ...” Blake stuttered, helplessly, stumbling to get to his feet for some reason. She smiled at him and then disappeared again. Haze quickly closed the distance he’d put between them and leaned in once more. “Don’t tell her anythin’,” he whispered angrily. “Nothin’ at all! Ya hear? Don’t tell her about the ... accident especially. Pretend you don’t really know me at all.” “I ... I won’t... I mean ... I won’t tell her ... I will pretend like ...” However, their chance to speak was over as once more Mrs Herrington appeared from the staircase, this time carrying a tray with a teapot and some cups resting on top. She chatted idly about the weather as she poured the tea and sat herself down right next to Blake, despite their being ample room at the table for her to sit anywhere. “Hayden come and get your tea,” she snapped at him, her expression momentarily souring. “I don’t want tea,” Haze snapped back, with just a hint of a sulk in his otherwise neutral tone. Mrs Herrington huffed and turned to regard Blake. “Is he this rude at work?” she asked, with a motherly look of admonishment on her face. “No ... well ... I don’t know,” Blake stumbled, Haze’s last words bouncing around inside his skull. “He’s pretty quiet and ... um ... we don’t talk all that much.” He couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as he tried to invent answers he thought Haze would want him to say. But then he realised, morosely, that he wasn’t even lying. Not really. Haze was quiet and he didn’t speak to him all that much, especially at work. “Oh dear,” Penelope sighed, shaking her head in apparent disappointment at what she was hearing. “I thought he might be better behaved there. He pretends to love Scuba so much after all.” Blake laughed nervously, not really sure what else to say upon hearing that. Pretends? He looked over to Haze, but the boy was ignoring them both, having apparently returned to his appreciation of the view. Over the next ten or fifteen minutes Mrs Herrington asked a series of questions, about the shop, about Haze and about the two of them working there. She was polite and friendly and yet at the same time Blake couldn’t shake the feeling he was being interrogated. It was the way she kept following each question with another, never talking much herself, except as necessary to keep him talking. On several occasions, Blake got the feeling she was repeating the same questions, but slightly differently, as if to trip him up or to confuse him. He was experienced with this sort of ‘cross examination’ tactic though, so he made sure to keep his answers consistent. However, the strange part was, nothing she asked seemed very important. At least, not in so far as he could tell. He tired to glance over to Haze now and then, hoping to get some indication of how he was doing, but the other boy had his back to them. Maybe this was a good sign? Surely Haze would interrupt if he was saying the wrong thing? Mrs Herrington had opened her mouth to ask yet another question when a loud buzzing sound could be heard coming from inside the house. The doorbell? Blake’s eyes once again swept across the table, noticing for the first time just how much food was there. Way too much for two or even three people. Just what was he interrupting? “Could you get that please Hayden?” Penelope asked of her son, her voice sickly sweet. Haze didn’t look happy about that, but he stomped past them all the same, into the living room and down the stairs until he was out of sight. Blake quickly decided that this was his chance to make an exit, but as he turned to face his host, he found Mrs Herrington nearer all of a sudden, leaning right in close. “I hear you saved my son’s life the other day?” she asked, suddenly very direct, her face watching his as if she were able to divine meaning from every twitch of his facial muscles. “I ... err ...” Blake made mumbling noises as his mind groped for something to say. He knew he couldn’t outright deny it. She was bound to have heard something and if she caught him lying it would only make her more suspicious of him and possibly more suspicious of Haze. “I ... I think that’s a ... huge ... um ... exaggeration ... I err ...” “But you did rescue him?” “Um ... no ... I wouldn’t say he needed ... err ... rescuing ... exactly.” “Well what would you say happened then?” She stared at his face as she asked him this and he had trouble meeting her intense eyes, so like Haze’s in colour and yet altogether different somehow. “N-Nothing ... nothing really. Just a ... bit of excitement ... tourists getting into trouble ... you know.” She continued her scrutiny of him like that for a moment, until he thought he would melt under the burning intensity of her gaze. However, then she looked away, distracted by a sudden ruckus coming from downstairs and when she next turned back she was smiling at him sweetly once more. “Well ... anyway. Such a dangerous sport this diving,” she sniffed, brushing at her blouse. “I may have to put a stop to it one day.” Blake released a nervous chuckle at that, but then quickly stifled the sound as Mrs Herrington returned to glaring at him. “I ... um ... don’t think you could err ... stop him,” Blake stumbled, feeling the need to explain himself all of a sudden. “He’s pretty attached to it and ... um ... well ... what can you do? He’s an adult and all.” Mrs Herrington began to laugh herself then, but it was a strange laugh, somewhat affected and fake. “Oh I have my ways!” she declared, her voice rising in pitch. Blake nervously joined in on the laughter, feeling the need to do so for some reason he couldn’t quite explain. Surely she was kidding? “I could always revoke the lease on the dive shop?” she suggested between chuckles and although her voice was sweet and jovial, there was something menacing about those words. Blake continued to chuckle along with her though, as best as he could manage, but his grin was slipping. “Oh!” she exclaimed, reaching out to touch his arm. “But then you would be out of a job too wouldn’t you?” There was a pause as she left her words to hang between them for a moment, but then she burst into a light hearted chuckle once again, as if the whole thing were just a silly joke. Blake couldn’t quite manage to join in this time though, as he felt a little rattled and even more anxious than he’d been feeling already. He was left with the distinct impression that he had just been threatened somehow. However, there was no time for him to reflect on that, because another, even greater shock was awaiting him. A man had appeared on the balcony, standing right behind Mrs Herrington. He was a rather large man in his late forties or so, barrel chested with muscular arms, covered in tattoos. Blake recognised him at once, even though he looked significantly different from when they’d last met. Not that they’d actually ‘met’ last time, unless dragging the mostly unconscious man through the resort counted. “Hello, Eric,” Mrs Herrington sung, dragging out the ‘o’ in ‘hello’. “This is Blake. Blake this is Eric.” Blake could feel his heart in his throat as he tried awkwardly to get to his feet, stumbling a little as he caught his foot on the leg of his chair. He then reached forward and they shook hands. “Pleased to m-meet you,” Blake said politely, his eyes scanning the man’s face for any hint of recognition. “G’day,” Eric responded, his handshake just a little too firm. He was regarding Blake with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, but Blake didn’t get the feeling this was because he recognised him. More likely, the man was just wondering who Blake was and why he was here, a question Blake was asking himself at that moment too. “Blake’s a friend of Hayden’s,” Penelope explained and Eric nodded and smiled at that, while Blake wondered to himself what Haze would make of the ‘friend’ part. Eric then sat down at the table and when his massive frame moved out of the way, Blake received his third shock in as many minutes. There was Haze. Haze and ... Patty. One arm wrapped around each other at the waist. “Hello, Aunt Penny,” Patty said, dragging Haze along with her as she approached. “Patty dear! How are you?” Mrs Herrington asked, smiling broadly as they embraced. “You can’t keep calling me Auntie you know,” she added, making a motion between Patty and Haze. “People will think you two are related!” Patty giggled with delight, turning to look at Haze with obvious affection, before turning back again, her smile quickly falling from her face as she met Blake’s eyes. “Um ... h-hi ... um Patty,” Blake greeted nervously, determined to ignore the way she was holding onto Haze’s hand. At least ignore it for now. He really didn’t need to think about what that meant right now. “Hello again, Brad,” she said flatly, making little effort to disguise her distaste. “Blake.” “Blake ... of course,” she said, before turning back to Penelope, her smile returning as she did so. A few minutes later they were all seated around the table and Blake could not remember having ever felt so intensely uncomfortable in his entire life. Penelope and Eric were talking between themselves to his left, but Blake forgot all about them as he tried his best not to be too obvious about the glares he was shooting Patty’s way. He hated the way she moved her chair so close to Haze, so that she was practically sitting on top of him. He hated the way that she constantly pawed at him too and fiddled with his clothes. Worst of all, he hated that Haze let her do this, without even the slightest hint of disapproval, not that he was giving off signals of any kind right then. He was as impassive and unreadable as ever. As she prattled on about something, Blake struggled to interpret the behaviour between them, their body language. Patty didn’t look terribly upset about the break up with Haze. In fact, she looked pretty happy. In fact, they didn’t look all that broken up and ... And then something happened which really got to Blake. Patty turned around in her chair, leaning forward until her lips met Haze’s in a sweet and tender looking kiss. Blake felt the floor disappear beneath him as a mixture of hurt, sadness and rage coursed through his body. He wanted to look away, to look elsewhere, but he couldn’t seem to draw his eyes away, no matter how much it hurt to watch the long, lingering kiss between the two of them. Finally the stew of emotions caused him to flinched, his legs knocking the table from underneath, causing the cups and plates to rattle. “S-sorry,” he mumbled when everyone stopped what they were doing to look at the table. For a moment, Blake thought he could see Haze trying to give him some kind of meaningful look, but he couldn’t bear to meet the other boy’s eyes. He didn’t even want to look at Haze right then. He felt sick, the already gnawing anxiety he’d been feeling since he’d turned up at this wretched house now mixed with hurt and with something else too. A deep seated sense of humiliation and self-loathing. How could he have been so stupid? The skerrick of hope he’d been holding onto until now, that’d kept the dark thoughts and fears at bay, died inside of him and suddenly the absurdity of his whole plan was laid bare before his eyes. Mentally, he began to reproach himself for being such a fool, for being so utterly stupid as to think, no, to hope, to blindly hope, that Haze might’ve wanted something else. Someone else. Not Patty. Chronically low on self-esteem as he was, Blake had not imagined this ‘drop by’ idea of his would turn out so badly. He’d envisaged some pretty bleak scenarios, but having to sit here silently and watch the boy he was crazy about lip-wrestle with his apparently ‘on again’ girlfriend was even outside of his worst case scenarios. This whole idea was stupid. It was never going to work. He was a fool for coming here. The next half-hour or so passed at an excruciating crawl as Blake found himself unable to bear looking in Haze’s direction, but equally unable to feel part of the conversation between Eric and Mrs Herrington. Once or twice, he was surprised to notice Haze trying to include him in the conversation he was having with Patty, but Blake could not meet those cool blue eyes let alone speak. Patty didn’t seem keen for him to join them anyway. At some stage the others had stopped talking in pairs and the conversation seemed to encompass the whole table, easing the pressure on Blake just a tad, since he was less obviously being excluded now. Then there was some movement as Mrs Herrington took Patty by the arm to show her some new dress she had ordered for the Christmas party on Sunday, leaving only the men at the table and a rather awkward silence. “Blake ... mate, do um ... do ya think ya can give me and Hayden a second?” Eric asked, looking at him with a serious expression on his face. Blake didn’t need to be asked twice. He was itching for an excuse to get away. He started to get to his feet before he’d even managed a reply, but in a flash Haze had lashed out his arm and placed it on Blake’s shoulder, forcing him to sit back down. “Blake is fine where he is,” Haze snapped, glaring at Eric who glared back at him. “I think you and me need to discuss somethin’ private, mate,” Eric muttered through grit teeth. “Nothing to talk about Uncle Eric,” Haze growled back, putting a particular emphasis on the word ‘uncle’. The tension between them was such that Blake dearly wanted to leave the table. Leave the whole house for that matter, never to return. However, Haze was holding him firmly in place. “Hayden, I know-” “She’s makin’ a fool of ya,” Haze spat, cutting off the much bigger man before he’d finished. For some reason, Blake took this statement literally, at least for the first few seconds. After all, the huge man did look a little ridiculous sitting down to afternoon tea. Kind of like a grownup sitting at a child’s tea party play set. Of course, Haze wasn’t likely to be talking about that, but as to what he was talking about, Blake had no idea. “And why would she do that?” Eric asked, his voice controlled, eyes narrowed. “Ya know why,” Haze growled. “Pull ya head outta the sand and think for a change.” There was a pause then as the two of them stared across the table at each other, pushing Blake’s level of discomfort even higher. However, soon there was the sound of the women returning and Haze’s fierce glare changed back into a blank smile, one that did not react to anything, not even Patty when she leaned down to kiss his forehead. After that the conversation seemed to resume as it had before, until a short while later, when Patty made a show of looking at her watch. “We better get going, Penny,” she said, getting to her feet and dragging Haze with her. “Of course dear, I have some things to discuss with your uncle anyway,” Mrs Herrington said sweetly. “I-I sh-should get going too,” Blake stuttered, scrambling to his feet all too eagerly. “Well, it was lovely to see you again Blake,” Penelope Herrington said, getting to her feet to take his hand in both of her own. “I did so enjoy our little chat,” she added, cocking her head slightly in a manner Blake found disconcerting. Eric likewise said his goodbyes and soon Blake found himself following Patty and Haze down the stairs and into the front yard. He felt a huge sense of relief as he left that house, but any good feelings quickly vanished when he saw Patty turn to kiss Haze once again. It was only a peck. Hardly passionate or even romantic for that matter. In fact, the gesture would not have looked out of place between siblings or friends. But Blake felt it like a punch to the gut all the same. Part of him was angry, furious enough to want to go over there and to shove Patty away from Haze. However, a larger part of him was just too hurt and embarrassed to put up a fight. This part seemed to win over, instilling within him the urgent need to run away, to escape these bad feelings before he did something stupid like cry in front of them. “Where are you going, Blake?” It was Haze’s voice calling out to him, stopping him just before he could open the front gate. Blake had every intention of ignoring them both, but the sound of his name caught him off guard a little and made him pause there for a moment. “Home,” he answered simply, unable to turn around less he lose control of his emotions. “Why dontcha come with us?” Haze asked. The question infuriated Blake and for a moment he was overwhelmed by anger and spite. He was tempted to turn around and to tell Haze just what he thought of such an invitation, but as it turned out he didn’t get the chance. “Oh I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Patty said, and now Blake really couldn’t help but turn around. “Why?” Haze asked her. “Derrick’s coming and err ... well ... he doesn’t really like Blake ... all that much.” She shrugged at them apologetically, but Blake didn’t get the feeling it was too heartfelt. “It’s okay,” he mumbled anyway. “I gotta go.” He turned away again, this time opening the gate and walking away from them as quickly as he could. He did not stop to look back at Haze as he half-walked, half-ran to get distance between them, down the road, past the resort and onwards until he neared his own street. He’d been holding it together quite well until then, but as he spied the sanctuary that was his home, his control began to slip. His eyes started to sting, as the hurt and the misery finally overwhelmed the last vestiges of his self-control. He broke into a sprint then, desperate to get inside before he fell to bits, but he kept stumbling as bleary eyes clouded his vision. At last he was at his front-door and after fumbling with his keys he managed to get inside, leaning his back against the door so as to close it. He then sank to the floor, covered his head with his arms and allowing the tears to flow freely. *** Blake spent the rest of that afternoon and most of the evening wallowing in hurt and in sadness. At first the pain was sharp, but as he lay there on the couch, brooding, the sensation gradually drained away until he was left with only a dull, numb kind of ache. Depression. He’d lost all track of time and didn’t move from the couch until his growling stomach finally dragged him from his thoughts, back to the real world. It was dark outside by now, but he hardly took notice of that as he made his way to the kitchen in search of food. Opening the fridge, he looked about for something to eat, but then stopped. He wasn’t sure he should be eating. Something was telling him not to eat. A voice or at least a presence of some kind. Whispering dark thoughts that had him involuntarily reaching for his stomach. He should not be eating at all. He didn’t deserve to eat. He was already too fat. Maybe if he wasn’t so disgusting to look at, Haze might ... The fridge door slammed close and Blake started looking about the room, as if searching for the source of these whispers. The hunt was in vain though. Of course it was. He’d done this enough times by now to know what was really happening. Just his usual ‘stuff’ coming to the surface again. This was always how it came out. He knew why too. Haze with Patty. He just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Nevertheless, there was just enough authenticity to what he was hearing in his head to keep him trapped up there. After all, he’d been eating such strange food since he’d got here and there was no gym at which he could work it all off. Maybe he was putting on weight? He wanted to check. He felt an overwhelming compulsion to check. Just in case. He marched back to the living room and retrieved the mirror from its hiding spot behind the couch, hanging it on the wall nearby. Deep down he knew this wouldn’t really help. The ‘checking’ would not provide him with any real comfort, only a kind of false sense of comfort, a distraction while he busied himself with the task. It wouldn’t last though, he knew it wouldn’t, and afterwards he would feel worse. But this voice of reason was lost, drowned out by all the other noises in his head. Voices, feelings and compulsions, demanding that he do this. He stripped off his clothes and then stared loathingly at his reflection. What an idiot he was for thinking someone like Haze, even if he was gay, could be interested in someone like him. With this thought in mind, he lost himself in the pointless rituals of checking his body, turning this way and that, angling and then straightening, flexing and then relaxing, standing tall and then slouching. He moved right up close, so as to study the pores of his skin and then back again, so as to take in the full picture. The whispers in his head muttered their poisons all the while, filling him with such horrible feelings that he soon began to recognise the tell tale signs of an emerging panic attack. He knew he should really go through some of his psych exercises, but that seemed like too much work. He just wasn’t in the mood. Instead, he changed into some light shorts and a singlet, deciding to go for a run. Convinced that he’d put on weight since coming to this wretched town, he figured some exercise would do him good. It would hopefully exhaust him too and that would help him to fall asleep when he got back. He really needed to sleep properly tonight, especially after the anxious, restless slumber from the night before. Fortunately the moon was bright that night and he found it easy to see in the darkness. He made his way to the beach, picked a direction and started to run, sneakers sinking into soft sand as he went. At first he ran at a almost a sprint, but having skipped dinner he soon lacked the energy for that kind of pace and settled on a steady jog instead. Every now and then, thoughts of Haze would bubble to the surface of his mind, but he did his best to banish them as soon as they did. He reminded himself that he had spent all the night before thinking about Haze and that had got him absolutely nowhere. A complete waste of time. Besides, there was a part of him that just didn’t care anymore. Haze was too great a source of pain. Painful to be around, painful to look at and, now, painful even to think about. Blake didn’t think he could take any more pain. He was sick of feeling like shit. Forget Haze, he told himself. Forget his crazy mother, his awful girlfriend and his strange uncle or father or whatever too. Forget the lot of them. Blake wasn’t sure how long the run lasted in the end. He hadn’t brought his phone, nor had he checked the time when he’d left home. However, as he made his way up the beach and towards the town he assumed it must be pretty late. Everything was quiet. Even the resort’s bar seemed quiet. He was damp with sweat, which trickled down his legs and arms, but he was feeling a little better overall. His body glowed with a warm sort of buzz from the exertion, masking the dull ache of depression nicely. He also felt a little less worried about the weight he was sure he’d been piling on too. Exhausted now, both physically and emotionally, it took him a while to notice the shape huddled on his doorstep as he neared his home. “Haze?” he croaked, the word leaving his mouth before his brain could even appreciate what his eyes were seeing. Haze quickly looked up from his lap and then rushed to get to his feet, seeming a little unsteady. “Um ... hey,” the blue-eyed boy mumbled, before glancing downwards at his fidgeting hands. Blake wasn’t sure how he felt about seeing Haze there. On any other occasion he probably would’ve been thrilled and delighted to see him waiting for him on his doorstep, but tonight things were different. Tonight, Blake was exhausted, confused, depressed and still pretty hurt. He’d had enough. He’d had enough of Haze. “What are you doing here?” he asked, unable to hide his lack of enthusiasm. At least he didn’t add: ‘where is your girlfriend?’, although the thought did occur to him, bitterly. Haze seemed to take a while to figure out what he wanted to say, shifting his weight about on his feet and fidgeting relentlessly. “Well ... ya said ya wanted to ... um ... talk,” he answered, begrudgingly, like a stubborn child being forced to say ‘sorry’ for something he didn’t really feel sorry for. For a moment Blake felt a flash of anger at this, spurred on by memories of Haze and Patty arm in arm. True, he had wanted to speak with Haze, but that was before, before he’d spent the afternoon watching Haze and Patty together. Now? Now he was just too exhausted to talk. He couldn’t even maintain this anger at Haze. He felt too numb. He just wanted to be left alone. “It doesn’t matter,” he sighed, wearily. “Not anymore.” Haze glanced up from his fidgeting hands at that, looking a little surprised. He’d clearly not anticipated this response. “Oh ... err ... okay.” He stood aside from the door, but hovered nearby, like he was waiting for something. Blake decided to ignore him, digging around for the key in his pocket and then fumbling with the lock. “I ... can I stay ... for a bit?” Haze asked, the words sounding forced, as if it were a struggle for him to request such a thing. It surprised Blake that he actually had to think about the request for a moment before answering. He had never refused anything Haze asked of him before, but right then, he was ready to do just that. Maybe even to tell Haze to ‘go away’ for once. “Why?” he asked instead, softly, resting his forehead against the door, wearily. He hadn’t thought that sounded too nasty. The question was a genuine one. He was tired and fed up. What did Haze want? Haze, however, clearly took offense. “Forget it,” he said, in a very different tone of voice, cold and aloof. He then plastered one of those polite smiles on his face, the type Blake knew to be phoney. “I’ll leave ya alone.” He pushed past and headed for the street. “Wait!” Blake cried, ashamed at how desperate his voice sounded, at how quickly he’d given in upon seeing Haze turn to leave. “You can come in ... I just ... I mean ...” he paused for a moment and then sighed. “Just come in.” He pushed open the door and made his way inside, not daring to check to see whether Haze was following him. He stood there, holding the door open for what seemed like ages, until finally he watched as the blue-eyed boy hesitantly came inside. It was then that Blake noticed the distinct smell of alcohol, which wafted past as Haze made his way into the house. Again Blake took in the boy’s unsteady footing and quickly surmised that Haze must be a little drunk. Not blind or anything, but somewhere past merely tipsy. As Blake turned to close the door behind them, he wondered to himself whether it was wise to have Haze over in such a state, but he soon had other things to think about. A hand had just appeared at his waist and Blake felt his eyes flutter closed as its soft, hesitant caress brought a shiver to his spine. Then the hand was travelling up his side a little, directing him, turning him around until he was face to face with Haze, his back pressed up against the now closed door. Daring to open his eyes, Blake marvelled at the captivating young man, who’s rebellious locks had sprung free from that ‘combed straight look’ and now fell across his face, obscuring cool blue eyes in an unbelievably seductive manner. Even in this intoxicated and dishevelled state, Haze was still a sight to behold. He took a moment to tuck his hair behind his ears and then he licked his lips a little. He’d started to give Blake that look again, the one he seemed to give just before he was about to move in for a kiss. And sure enough that’s what happened next. Haze slowly leaned forward, his other hand finding its place behind Blake’s head, pulling him nearer, fingers entwined in hair as he brought their mouths closer together. And it would’ve been so easy for Blake to have let him continue like this too. Despite everything that had happened that day, despite the suffering he’d endured, despite the exhaustion he was feeling, despite the rage and the hurt that bubbled to the surface whenever he pictured Haze with Patty. Despite all of these things, every ounce of Blake’s being wanted this, yearned for Haze’s touch, for his lips, for his body. It would have been so easy to give into these urges, to have lost himself once more in erotic sensations and hypnotic blue eyes. But Blake didn’t allow it. Not this time. At the last moment he turned his head away and whispered softly. “No.” He could feel Haze’s presence, the boy’s mouth stopping mere inches from his cheek, where his own mouth had been only a second before. “Why?” he heard the boy whisper. His voice sounded demanding, but also pleading too. Blake placed his hands on Haze’s chest and pushed gently, until the other boy was a safe distance away. “I can’t do this anymore,” he answered, surprised at how tired and yet how sure of himself he sounded. When Haze said nothing in response to that, Blake turned to glance at him and in the dimly lit room he saw a look of such anguish and misery that he wanted to take back what he’d said. He wanted to reach out and to pull Haze forward, to embrace him, kiss him, say that he was sorry. But he just couldn’t bring himself to do that. He simply wasn’t prepared to trade another moment’s worth of passion for another night’s worth of anxious worrying when it was all over. Another day’s worth of hurt after being ignored at work the next day. Another painful incident like the one this afternoon, seeing Haze and Patty arm in arm, kissing. He couldn’t put up with it anymore, not even for Haze. “Why do you keep doing this anyway?” Blake asked softly, bitterly. Haze scrunched up his face again, into a furious looking scowl. He then opened his mouth as if to shout. “I ...” “No!” Blake interrupted, cutting him off before he could get a word out. “I don’t want to hear your angry answer.” He watched as a confused and hesitant look crossed the other boy’s face. “You’re just picking anger ‘cause it feels better than something else,” Blake told him, surprised by the sudden conviction in his own voice. “The real feelings. The ones you’re avoiding.” Haze blinked a few times rapidly and then gulped, before his eyes suddenly stared down at the floor again, his arms crossed at the chest. He stayed like that, pouting, but not saying anything. Blake was still mad at him, but he couldn’t help reaching out then, closing the distance between them as he’d wanted to do so many times before. He’d always been too afraid to follow this instinct, but after everything that had happened, what was there to lose now? For once, he felt free of the all consuming anxiety and doubt, which usually held him back. Instead, he felt a strange sense of calm he’d never felt around Haze before. He even found that he could speak without stuttering or stumbling. He knew that he had to take advantage of this moment too. “Haze?” he said, placing his hand on Haze’s forearm and squeezing softly. Haze said nothing, but nodded slightly, his face tense, his eyes steadfastly looking downward. “I need to know what else you’re feeling, behind all that anger,” he said, trying to recall how his psych had once explained this to him. “Feel behind that anger, underneath it. The anger’s just there to block you from feeling something else. There’s something underneath it that you don’t want to feel. What’s that feeling?” “I dunno what ya mean,” Haze mumbled in a pouty sounding tone, but his scowl had softened a little and his eyes darted upwards momentarily. He was curious. Blake took a steadying breath and continued. “Feel what’s underneath.” “How?” Haze asked, his voice cracking into a whisper, an almost pleading whisper. “You say ‘thank you anger’,” Blake explained, as gently and as encouragingly as he could, but trying not to sound patronising either, trying to mimic the way his psych used to speak to him. “Thank you for blocking that feeling. You have an important role to play in looking after me, and I thank you for doing that job so well. But I don’t need you right now. I’m okay. Anger, you can go.” “Stupid,” Haze muttered, but his voice sounded thick with emotion. “You don’t have to say it out loud, just in your head. Can you do that?” After a moment Haze nodded, somewhat begrudgingly. “Thank you. Now, imagine that anger feeling going away, just relax and let what’s underneath come out.” “Don’t wanna,” Haze muttered, with half-hearted defiance, his arms wrapping even tighter around his chest. “Why?” Blake asked softly, patiently. “It’s bad.” “It feels bad?” Haze nodded. “What kind of bad? Sad bad? Scared bad? Shame bad?” Haze shrugged, but he did not look up. “Just bad,” he muttered after a few seconds thought. “Try to describe it to me then.” “Why?!” Haze demanded, looking up, his face bunched into a scowl his voice suddenly raised. “This is stupid!” Blake nodded patiently for a few moments. “Anger is back again, huh?” he pointed out, trying his best to tip-toe around the other boy’s triggers as best as he could. Haze stopped at once and then blinked rapidly as he’d done before. Then he seemed to shrink a little and fold his arms once more. “Say thank you anger,” Blake instructed again. “It’s okay, thank you, but you can go now.” Haze did nothing for a few seconds, but then he nodded again. “Done that?” He nodded once more. “Now can you feel the bad again? If not it’s okay ... maybe another time ... you don’t have to do anything you don’t want,” Blake promised, knowing from experience that he couldn’t force this, he could only encourage. “But if you could, ... just ... sit with it ... for a moment. Try to let it come and then tell me about it.” A look of concentration passed over Haze’s downcast face and for a moment Blake thought that he wasn’t going to say anything else, but then at last he spoke up in a tiny, almost childlike voice. “Bad is gonna happen.” “Going to hurt you bad?” Blake asked. Haze nodded. “Like you are going to be attacked?” Haze’s head moved about from side to side. Not really a nod, not really a shake of the head. “More like threatened? Suspicious bad?” Blake suggested, trying to make sense of Haze’s emotions as best he could. It seemed clear to him now that Haze didn’t have much experience with identifying or understanding this emotion. He only seemed to know how to avoid feeling it. In fact, from what Blake had seen of Haze the same was probably true of all other emotions too. Haze nodded this time, seeming a bit happier with this answer. “Sounds like you’re feeling vulnerable?” Blake suggested. “And you don’t like feeling like this.” Haze nodded his head again. “Feeling angry is better than feeling vulnerable, huh?” Haze seemed to think about that for a moment and then he nodded. “Is ...” he started to say, but then trailed off and paused for a moment, as if trying to decide whether he wanted to ask this next question. “Is that why I get so ... angry sometimes?” he asked, in a soft timid sounding voice. “I don’t know,” Blake answered, honestly, ponderously. “Maybe. At least some of the time. But there’s probably a lot more to it than just that. There are lots of reasons people get angry.” Haze said nothing in response to that, so Blake continued. “Anger is like nature’s booster,” he explained. “It can make you feel more optimistic, stronger and better able to respond to threats. It can help to protect you and the people you care about from danger. It can keep out bad feelings, like helplessness and despair and it give you a sense of control and power instead. All of this helps to keep human beings and even animals alive. That’s why it's there.” Haze was still mute and sullen looking, but he was clearly listening, Blake could sense his interest. “Of course,” he continued, “it can also be bad, especially when there’s too much of it or if it’s stored up for too long. Anger can lead to making bad judgements, like taking silly or dangerous risks. It leads to suspicion and a lack of trust in others, damaging relationships and creating conflict. At worst it can lead to violence and hate.” “How ... how do ya ... you know ... get rid of it then?” Haze asked in that same small and timid voice. “You can’t,” Blake explained. “Everyone feels feelings and sometimes that means anger too. There are ways of managing too much of it, but getting rid of feelings doesn’t work.” “That’s not true,” Haze declared, stubbornly, although his body language was still withdrawn and his eyes were on the floor. “I can make ... stuff ... go away. Nowadays ... I can feel nothin’ ... most of the time. Nothin’ at all.” Blake couldn’t help but release a bit of a nervous chuckle at that, but he immediately regretted doing so. “DON’T YOU LAUGH AT ME!” Haze abruptly roared, his eyes wild, filled with such rage as to make him appear frightening. He’d suddenly uncrossed his arms and was waving a threatening hand Blake’s way as his face scrunched up into a nasty looking scowl. Blake jumped a little at the unexpected outburst, holding his hands up in a sign of appeasement. “I wasn’t laughing at you, Haze,” he promised, trying to transmit sincerity with his eyes. Haze just glared at him though, looking unconvinced. Blake signed and shook his head. “Angry better than vulnerable again, huh?” This seemed to get through Blake was pleased to see. Haze blinked rapidly as he appeared to realise what had come over him. Then he visibly shrank again, crossing his arms at the chest and glaring at his feet. “Sorry,” he muttered, his voice still sounding a little tense and angry. “I ... sorry.” “I’m sorry too,” Blake replied, pleased that he’d managed to diffuse the situation much quicker this time, hoping it was a sign he was making progress. “I wasn’t laughing at you,” he explained. “It’s just ... well ... you see ...” Blake hesitated then, not sure how much he wanted to reveal, but pressing on all the same. “I ... I used to ... spend a lot of time trying not to feel,” he confessed, gulping at the sudden lump that had appeared in his throat. “It ... doesn’t work. It can’t work. Humans aren’t made that way.” Haze glanced up again briefly, curiously. “How come ... How come I can get rid of the ... feelings most of the time then?” he asked. “It’s like a balloon,” Blake explained, using the same analogy his psych had used when explaining this to him. “You can try to squeeze at one end, but the air just moves to the other end. You can try to squeeze that end too and it just bubbles up somewhere else. If you keep squeezing everywhere, eventually it just bursts and all comes out at once.” “So ... do ... you get angry too?” Haze asked, looking up through the curtain of hair which had fallen across his face. “Anger’s not my problem,” Blake admitted, after a moment’s hesitation. Haze seemed to frown a little, but then his expression brightened in understanding. “Oh ...” he mummbled, “ya mean ... your ... um ... nervous ... thing, huh?” Now it was Blake’s turn to look at his feet and nod sheepishly. Haze said nothing for a moment, but then he spoke up again in that soft, timid sounding voice. “How ... how do ya know ... all this ... stuff?” “I ... well ... I learned it, I guess,” Blake answered, knowing it wasn’t much of an answer, but not willing to offer up anything else. But Haze wasn’t happy to leave it at that. “Who ... who taught ya?” he asked, hesitantly. Blake licked his lips, feeling truly anxious for the first time since Haze had shown up on his doorstep that evening. “Dr Z ... that’s what I used to call him.” “Was he really a doctor?” Haze asked. “He is a doctor ... a psych actually,” Blake confessed, feeling his cheeks burn with shame. “Oh,” was all Haze said in response to that and then he returned to staring at his feet. There was an awkward pause then as neither of them seemed to know what to say next. Eventually, Blake, feeling past exhausted after a long day and a long run, made his way over to the couch and sat down heavily. He noticed Haze watching him again, so he patted a spot on the couch besides him and smiled, trying to appear more relaxed and confident than he truly felt. Haze looked at the couch, dithering for a moment. Then he hesitantly made his way over and sat down, choosing a spot some distance away, notably out of reach from where Blake was sitting. For some reason Blake thought of Patty and how close she seemed to like to sit next to Haze. How come Haze didn’t seem to have a problem sitting so close to her? The thought soured Blake’s mood and reminded him that he was still pretty angry and feeling vulnerable himself. “So, can you explain something to me?” Blake asked, trying not to sound bitter. “What?” Haze mumbled a little defensively, staring at the fidgeting hands in his lap. “What’s the deal with you and Patty?” Haze visibly winced, but kept his eyes downcast. “It’s complicated,” he muttered, his face darkening. Blake could feel the young man closing up again, but he pressed on anyway. This was not something he could just ignore. “Are you ...” he started to ask, but then he stopped. He knew Haze wouldn’t respond well to that kind of question. It was too direct. The boy was already moments away from an emotional shut down. Blake knew he needed to approach this in a different way. Then he thought about what Nats had told him, about how he needed to open up more himself if he wanted others to do the same. “It really ... hurt you know ... seeing you with ... her this afternoon. It really upset me,” he confessed and now it was his turn to stare into his lap and fidget, awkwardly. The effect on Haze was noticeable and instantaneous. “I’m really sorry,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper and sounding so miserable that Blake had no doubt in his mind that he was telling the truth. “I ... I really didn’t want ya to have to see that.” Blake could tell from the earnest sincerity in Haze’s voice that he didn’t quite mean it that way, but he couldn’t keep the bitterness from his own voice all the same. “Sorry I saw it ... not sorry it happened but?” Haze seemed to think for a moment and when he answered he was back to staring at his lap and fidgeting. “I don’t ... I don’t want to ... be ... with her ... not like that. If that’s what ya mean,” he said, hesitantly, his voice sounding small. “I just ain’t gotta choice. Not at the moment.” “Wh-,” Blake started to ask, but then stopped himself, foot tapping on the floor in an agitated fashion. “Can I ask why?” Haze shook his head. “It’s complicated.” “You can tell me,” Blake prodded. Haze just shook his head again. Blake sighed in frustration. “You remember on the boat?” he asked, because he couldn’t bring himself to add ‘when we were making out.’ Haze nodded and Blake somehow knew that Haze understood what he was talking about. “Why did you ... why do you ... you know ... keep doing that then?” he demanded. He then watched as waves of emotion ran over Haze’s face. First anger came again, but this time only briefly. Then the rapid blinking as that was fought back down along with what looked like the vulnerable feeling too. “Cause I ...” Haze eventually started to say softly, but his voice cracked and he had to swallow before he could continue. “I wanted to ... I really wanted to ... and I thought ... maybe ... you wanted to too and ... I wanted to tell ya, but ... I’m not good with talkin’ ... I couldn’t say it. I just thought I would ... show ya ... instead.” Blake positively beamed as a warm, excited kind of happy feeling bubbled up inside of him, bursting forth across his face in a manner he could not have contained if he’d tried. He felt such exhilaration, such joy that all the bitterness and jealousy of only a moment ago was now extinguished, completely smothered. He was light and free, and felt as if he were walking on air. However, when he finally managed to summon up the courage to look over at Haze, what he saw stopped him dead in his tracks. Haze was practically snarling at him, his face contorted with such rage and malice. Blake quickly surmised what was going on though. “I’m not laughing at you, Haze,” he rushed to explain, careful to look the other boy in the eye and maintain a deadly serious expression until he could see that Haze understood. “I’m smiling cause ... cause I ... well ...” he felt his cheeks flush and his shoulders hunch a little as he struggled to get the words out. “I really liked hearing you say that,” he confessed, although he couldn’t quite meet the other boy’s eyes when he’d said that last bit. “I ... I really did want you to ... you know ... kiss me.” He risked another glance and was relieved to see that Haze’s anger was now gone. The young man was grinning instead, looking sheepish and coy. For the next few minutes they sat together in silence, wearing nearly identical expressions, smitten and shy, but undeniably happy. Occasionally, they would take turns glancing over to the other, smiling broad smiles and even laughing just the tinniest bit, whenever they made fleeting eye contact. Blake soon felt anxious again, but it was not at all like the unpleasant feelings from the night before. This kind of nervousness felt fantastic. He felt his heart soar and for a long while it seemed that nothing could sober this mood. Until he thought about what they’d just been talking about. “But ... what about ... Patty?” he reluctantly asked, loathed to ruin the moment, but determined to put this issue to rest. “I ... I dunno ...” Haze said, visibly distressed. “I dunno what to do about that.” Blake frowned, the answer seemingly obvious to him. “You have to tell her how you feel,” he demanded, unhappy about the almost brattish tone of his own voice, but unable to deny that he’d meant every word. “I ... I know ... but it’s complicated ... I ... I don’t have a choice. Not right now.” “Why?” “I ... it’s ... a long story. I can’t really explain ...I will, but ... just ... just not now.” Blake wasn’t happy about that. Not by a long shot. However, he could sense Haze’s unwillingness to be pressed any further on the topic and he didn’t want to risk undoing all the progress they had made that night. So, reluctantly, he forced himself to drop the issue. At least Haze seemed to accept it was an issue and that they would have to speak about it again. For now, Blake told himself, that would have to do. Then he noticed that Haze was holding out his hand and turned to look. “What’s that?” he asked, glancing at the scrunched up piece of yellow paper Haze was holding in is outstretched hand. “My number,” Haze mumbled sheepishly, his eyes in his lap once more. Blake felt that warm, happy feeling again as he took the smudged and crumpled post-it note from Haze’s hand and looked at it, dumfounded. “So ...ya can ...ya know ... call me,” Haze suggested, his cheeks burning. “If ya want ... or somethin’,” he quickly added. “Anyway I ... I gotta get going ... but, I thought ... maybe ... well um ... tomorrow, since Jill ain’t got any bookins. Well ... maybe. Maybe ya might wanna ... um ... do somethin’? Like come over?” Haze seemed to struggle with every word, but to his credit, he did manage to make eye contact in the end, when he’d actually got to the invitation. “S-s-sure ... sure. Yeah ... um ... yeah, sure.” Blake stuttered, equally unable get the words out of his mouth, suddenly returning to his usual nervous stumbles. “That would be ... awesome ... oh, but ... but what about ... your mum?” he then added as an afterthought, realising with a sudden pang of anxiety that they hadn’t talked about Haze’s mother at all. Blake clearly remembered how desperate Haze had been to keep her away that afternoon. Surely this would prove to be a problem? Haze’s expression darkened a little at her mention, but only for a brief second. “She’s ... not gonna be there tomorrow,” he explained, though he did seem a little uncomfortable with the topic. “She’s leavin’ town in the mornin’, won’t be back till the night.” He then looked up and grinned. Blake smiled broadly too, happy to put to one side the issue of Haze’s mother as well, at least for now. He was too thrilled and excited by the prospect of spending a whole day with Haze to worry about either Patty or Penelope. He was going on a date with Haze! At least it sounded like they were going on a date? It was a date, surely? It had to be. “I ... I better get going,” Haze mumbled, nervously getting to his feet and interrupting Blake’s internal thoughts. “Oh ...um sure,” Blake responded, unable to hide his disappointment, but getting to his feet without protest all the same. He made a move for the door at the same time Haze did and then the two of them ended up dancing around the coffee table a few times, trying to get past each other. “Er ... after you,” Haze chuckled eventually, cringing awkwardly, but smiling too. Blake managed to get past this time and over to the door, where he suddenly seemed to have all sorts of trouble getting it opened. First he locked the door by mistake and then he had to unlock it again, the shaking of his nervous hands making it all the more difficult. However, if he’d felt uncomfortable before now, what followed brought new meaning to the term. There he stood, holding the door ajar, suddenly face to face with Haze, who was trying to get around him. Except Haze didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He just stood there, expectantly, as if waiting for something. Blake felt himself blush. Maybe Haze wanted to kiss him again? However, second after second ticked by and Haze didn’t move an inch. He just stood there looking at his shoes now and then, grinning. Doubts and fears began to creep into Blake’s mind. What was wrong? Didn’t Haze want to kiss him anymore? Why was he just standing there fidgeting? Then at last Blake remembered that he’d pushed Haze away the last time he’d tried to kiss him. The blue-eyed boy was probably too discouraged by that to try again so soon. Or maybe he just wasn’t sure anymore what to do? Blake realised, with a dawning sense of anxious dread that it would be up to him to initiate something this time. Except he had no idea how to do that. They were only inches apart and yet Haze may as well have been on the moon so far as Blake was concerned. But then, as the seconds continued to tick by, a small, unhappy looking frown started to descend upon Haze’s face, and Blake, terrified by the notion of the young man getting the wrong idea, finally sprang into action. He reached out and took each of Haze’s hands in his own, eyes downcast, watching as his gently caressing thumbs drew circles on the other boy’s palms. Then he pulled them closer, finally summoning up the courage to raise his head, just in time to see Haze’s eyes close. He leaned in and their lips touched, softly, hesitantly. And then they kissed some more. It was completely different to the other times they had kissed, Blake noted. It was full of the same need and naked desire, but it was not as forceful or urgent this time around. There was passion there, such passion, but it was calmer somehow, a dizzying kind of pleasure rather than a desperate hunger. Blake wasn’t sure which style of kissing he preferred more, but he was left with no doubt that either would do and both were mind-blowing. When finally they drew apart and Blake dared to open his eyes again, what he saw there, in Haze’s face, was different too. They were both breathing harder, but there was none of the wild, fearful shock in Haze’s eyes this time. Not like yesterday on the boat. This time, there was only a contented kind of wonder, mixed with shyness and a bit of a goofy grin as he stared into Blake’s eyes. Blake forgot about his nerves as he reached up to cup Haze’s cheek with his hand, his thumb stroking the skin above the boy’s cheekbone. Haze seemed to nuzzle the hand a little and offered no resistance when Blake drew their faces together once more. They kissed again, this time a little more vigorously, but still managing to maintain that romantic edge, rather than a more lustful hunger. Blake felt the other boy’s mouth part as their tongues entwined and teased and tasted. Haze tasted a little sour, Blake noted, like some kind of beer. At first this barely registered, but then a nagging thought brought him crashing back to earth. He pulled away and although he tried to quickly look at his feet, Haze noticed something was up. “What?” he asked, looking worried all of a sudden. “You taste like beer,” Blake answered honestly, his voice getting ahead of his brain once again. Haze backed away and covered his mouth with his hand, as a look of shame crossed his features. “Sorry ... I ... I didn’t mean ...” “Shh ...” Blake said, reaching out to press a finger across the other boy’s lips. “It’s ... not ... it’s not bad ... it’s ... it’s just ...” “What?” Haze asked again, reaching up to take hold of Blake’s hand at the wrist. “Are you ... are you just ... drunk?” Blake asked, unable to keep the fear from his voice. Haze’s brow furrowed. “Tomorrow ... are you gonna remember any of this tomorrow?” Blake finished, his voice now barely a whisper. Haze seemed to relax a little and he smiled shyly. He then took hold of Blake’s hand in both of his own, gently pulling it closer, towards his mouth and stooping to sweep soft kisses across the fingers and knuckles. “I’m not drunk silly,” he said, before adding, “... well ... maybe a little, but ... I’m not gonna forget.” Then he let go of the hand and reached out to lift Blake’s chin, forcing him to make eye contact as he spoke. “I’m not gonna forget this night ever,” he promised, face solemn. Blake felt that warm rush of happiness again and his insides strained as if his chest were about to burst. “I hope not,” he responded, as the smile returned to his face. “Trust me,” Haze said, breaking into another grin as well. “Okay,” Blake said, but then his smile faded a little. “But you have to trust me too, okay?” Haze quickly nodded. “I mean it,” Blake said, “I know it isn’t easy for you ... but ... it isn’t easy for me either.” Haze looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yeah ... I ... I’m not good at ... trustin’ ... feelin’ vulnerable ... feelin’ anythin’ really,” he admitted, his expression a little more serious too. “But I’ll try. I promise.” “Me too.” After that, they returned to grinning at each other like two crazies. “What?” Blake eventually asked, when his cheeks were burning too much to keep eye contact. “What yourself?” Haze responded, equally shy. He then leaned in and again they were kissing, if only briefly and chastely, before Haze drew back. “I really gotta go ... mum’s waitin’ for ... I ... I gotta go.” “Okay.” “Okay.” “Um ... see you tomorrow then?” “Yeah. Tomorrow.” With a last nervous chuckle and grinning like a maniac all the while, Haze finally made his way through the doorway and out into the warm summer night’s air. Blake continued to hold the door open, leaning on the handle as he watched Haze leave. The man was walking backwards down the path, smiling, staring back, as if reluctant to turn away. Then he tripped on something and glanced down at his feet, brining a huge smile to Blake’s face and an even bigger one to Haze’s. “Night, Blake.” “Night, Haze.” And with that Haze finally turned around and made a dash across the darkened street. Blake stood there and watched his shadowy form until he could no longer make it out from the surrounding darkness. He then finally closed the door and leaned his back against it, grinning inanely to himself.
    1 point
  32. Epilogue The next day was a master class in anticipation. It was weird; I looked forward to seeing Chase swim so badly, everything else just kind of melted into the background. Before I could hop in the passenger’s side of his car at 2:00 and make the one hour trip to Waco, I had several stops to make. I took the form that Mitchell had signed for me and returned it to the student health center so that my work there was done. There was one follow up course four weeks later, but I had essentially paid my drunken debt to society. After that, Tye wanted to meet with me about nationals the following week. “Look, Coop, I didn’t want to put too much pressure on you when we talked yesterday,” he said in his little cubicle. “I know you didn’t anticipate playing until the fall, let alone starting. But I really think you can do this.” “Tye, I’m up for the challenge,” I responded, feeling confident. “It sucks that Penny bailed, but the show must go on, so I’ll give it my all.” “You really are a good setter,” he smiled from across the desk. “I hope I’m here during your senior year to see how good you become.” “Or to see what freshman waltzes in and takes my spot,” I grinned. Too soon? Perhaps. Tye changed the subject to why he’d really asked me to his desk. “Is everything okay personally? Your black eye is fading, but I just want to make sure you’re alright.” “I’m alright, Tye,” I said sincerely. “Good. I know how it can be, I guess. Different. Small school, conservative. Just… I know how it can be.” It was one of those rare intimate moments between two people on the same page that didn’t need to be elaborated. I could just imagine a small but strong guy like Tye joining a volleyball league in a small town and being harassed for it while his other jock friends did more traditionally masculine sports. It was clear by the look in his eye that he had had to fight before, and he was worried about me. I appreciated the concern. After that meeting, I walked straight to the dorms to do what I had been putting off for nearly two weeks. I knew that Spencer would be swimming at the Baylor meet. I also knew that I’d most likely be crashing at their hotel, going to their dinner, and generally hanging out with swimmers for a couple of days. Avoiding him would be impossible. The rumors that I was dating Chase would be flying. I needed to nip our feud in the bud before it left Dallas, and I walked over to my old dorm room with that determination in my step. It felt weird knocking on my own door. It felt even weirder when Spencer opened it and looked at me like I was a stranger. “Can I come in?” I asked. He opened the door wider for me and let me through. The room was different. My bed had been lofted on top of Spencer’s, creating a space that appeared twice as big as before. He’d moved the desk to the side, added a brand new rug and a couple of bean bag chairs. All in all, it looked like a frat lounge had replaced my bedroom. “Your stuff is in the closet there,” he said, pointing to a small box filled with the things I’d left. “I’m sure I’ll run into more of your things, but that’s all I got so far.” “I didn’t come by to get my stuff.” He looked up and glared at me. “You mean you’re ready to talk?” “No,” I replied truthfully. “But we need to.” Spencer began shaking his head. I could tell that my usually in control ex-roommate was about to get emotional. “Look, Cooper. I know I screwed up big time, okay? I get that. I don’t even see Kyle that way, to be honest. And when it happened the one time, I swear one time, I knew it was wrong from the get-go.” “Okay.” “Believe me, if I could take it back, I would. Things have been super awkward between me and Kyle since then. I don’t know… I just… I never should have done it.” “You never should have done him,” I corrected with a smile. Spencer almost smiled at the joke. “I’m sorry I over reacted. Listen, the reason I was so pissed at you is because somewhere inside I always thought that Kyle and I would get back together.” “Ya’ll will get back together,” Spencer said with conviction as he went back to stuffing his duffle bag with a change of clothes. It was like emotional Spencer had gone out the window and things were melting back to normal. I sat down on a bean bag chair and put my feet up on his bed. “Mmm, I don’t think so.” “You can’t honestly be that serious about Chase,” he said. He flipped his curly hair back and I felt jealous that I didn’t have my brown hair to run my fingers through. “It’s definitely getting pretty serious with Chase,” I replied. “I’ve heard that a million times from you, Cooper,” he said. He reached over into what was once my desk and pulled out a blue notebook. “Remember this.” He tossed me the notebook and I knew immediately it was The List. I looked at it with reverence, almost like it was a sacred document or something. I flipped through the first few pages, remembering just how horned up I’d been nearly six months prior. What was strange was that I felt grown up. I knew I was a different kind of guy than I was at the beginning of mine and Spencer’s social experiment. I didn’t need anyone to tell me so, I just felt it. “Look at this thing,” I answered with a smile. “Not how I expected this to go.” “I didn’t expect you to fall in love with the third specimen,” Spencer laughed. “My best friend, too. Come on, guy.” “Shut up,” I replied. “Spence, I dunno. I don’t think I need this anymore. I mean things are going great with Chase and if they stay great, great. If they don’t, I don’t think bed hopping and collecting specimen is going to be my cure of choice anymore.” “I can’t listen to these words come out of your mouth,” Spencer laughed. “From the guy who, let me see that. From the guy who brought home a bartender while he was trying to convince Kyle he was ready to go steady. From the guy who sucked off a property manager just to feel single again even though he didn’t want to. And let’s not forget you blowing a Jason Mraz wannabe in the name of charity.” “He needed my help,” I laughed. I could see where Spencer wasn’t believing me, and I understood. But I knew things were different this time around. And if for some reason I screwed things up, I knew I could handle it. I’d handled the hardest break up of my life and I came out unscathed. Minus a black eye and a small contusion above my right ear. “I dunno. I’m going all in with Chase, so we’ll see what happens. I’m ready to date someone and give them my undivided attention. I’m coming to ya’lls meet with him today,” I added. Spencer’s face lit up and I was glad I’d come over. It took just a little effort to forget the whole thing between him and Kyle ever happened. When I left, I felt like things could actually return to normal. I had gotten over Kyle, and although I still didn’t feel the need to seek him out, I wouldn’t be awkward if I ran into him. I’d forgiven Spencer and I could foresee our friendship returning to normal. It would never be what it was simply because of proximity, but he was still my best friend here at SMU. You always miss a best friend. I usually had brunch on Saturdays with Sebastian. This Saturday, however, he had invited me to Srat Brunch at Kappa. Every third Saturday of the month, the girls opened up their sorority houses for their brother frats to come over and eat. It was the campus’ way of promoting healthy gender relations through sober, platonic events. I agreed to go only because Sebastian hated going by himself so much. I also thought it would be neat to see Devon for the first time in four days without looking like an ICU patient. “Well look who it is,” she said as soon as she saw me. She stood and gave me a big hug. “It’s good to see you in something other than a backless gown.” “How are you feeling sweetie?” Britney asked in her extremely fake and high pitched voice. “I’m good,” I replied, looking at Devon the whole time. She was the antithesis to Britney and I wondered how they got along so well. Even there at lunch, Britney was wearing a blue Lilly Pulitzer sun dress even though the sun was nowhere to be found. Devon was dressed more sensible in jeans and a cashmere sweater. “Your eye looks good,” Devon said, running her thumb under it. The small bump that remained hurt just a tad, but nothing compared to when she’d last seen it. We walked through the buffet line and filled our plates with the offerings of fried food designed specifically to cure the hangovers from Friday’s partying. There was even a virgin Bloody Mary bar and mock mimosas in the corner (I’m sure if I’d asked, someone would slipped me some liquor for a casual hair o’ the dog). For a people that appeared to barely eat, the food on Sorority Row was surprisingly good. An hour, ten chicken strips, and a plate of cheese fries later, I was surprised at how much fun I’d had. I looked at the door a couple of times, thinking that a socially astute Sigma might walk through the door at minute. Being members of the big four, it wouldn’t be unfeasible for them to be invited to Kappa for lunch. No one I recognized came in. “Thank you for coming,” Devon said as she walked me out. Sebastian was kissing Britney goodbye and I was thankful Devon was there to keep things from being awkward. “It was my pleasure,” I replied. “Consider this a standing invitation for my favorite non-Greek. Every third Saturday,” she said with a smile. She looked admittedly cute standing on their front porch with me, shielding her face from the sun that had made its first appearance all day. I accepted, gave her a hug, and left towards Sebastian’s car. It was weird that Devon smelled so much like ‘girl’. It was different. I was so used to smelling the manly scents of guys that I’d almost forgotten how delicate and dainty girls smelled when you got up close. I liked it. I told Chase about Devon an hour later on our way to Waco. He’d arranged with his coach to drive himself as long as he made it to Baylor by four. The coach didn’t object, probably because if Chase logged his slowest time of the season in the pre-lims that day, he would still finish a good three or four seconds before anyone else. He wasn’t only favored to win all of his events, he was expected to crush a couple pool records. “I told coach that you were my good luck charm,” he explained before we set off. “It better be true.” It was the last meet before the conference tournament, so I hoped indeed that it was. “So tell me more about this Devon girl that you have a crush on,” he said as we sailed down I-35 southbound. “Don’t make fun of me,” I said. “You’re in my car, gamin. I ask the questions.” “What do you want to know?” “I want to know what you like about her?” he asked. He looked at me as his Audi zoomed down the highway. “I don’t like her,” I replied defensively. “You totally like her,” he said. “You’re blushing.” I felt my face flush. “She’s fun,” I said finally. “She’s a good friend.” “I’m glad she doesn’t have a penis or else you’d leave me for her,” he joked. “Tell the truth. You’d leave me for those lovely lady lumps, wouldn’t you?” “You’re ridiculous,” I laughed. As I did, Chase reached over, took my hand and brought it to his crotch. “You know how to drive a stick, boy?” he asked in a cheesy Texan accent. I didn’t know how he expected me to take him seriously. “What are you doing?” I choked fully aware that it was high noon and I had my hand on my boyfriend’s crotch. “I’m asking if you’ve ever driven a stick,” he said. He squeezed down on my hand causing my hand to squeeze down on his gear shaft. “What happened to no fooling around before a meet?” “A hand job is hardly fooling around,” he replied. “Plus, you make me so very very horny. Swimming with a boner is so uncomfortable.” Without waiting for my answer, Chase pulled down his zipper and fished out his semi hard pecker. “Come on babe,” he said with a wicked smile. I blushed, took in a deep breath and clasped down on his dick. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he exclaimed triumphantly. I had never done anything like this before, and the sheer heat from Chase’s cock caused mine to tremble as well. “Put a little fist into it.” I pulsed down harder on his dick and it jumped in my grasp. I felt a trickle of precum slide down the side of my hand and I brought it to my lips and licked it off. “How’s that taste for you?” he asked. Truthfully, it tasted almost medicinal. Like there was a chemical coursing through his reproductive tract. Lustfully, it tasted amazing. “I’ll need a bigger sample,” I said with a grin. “Eyes on the road,” I added as I slid my seatbelt behind me and bent down, taking as much of his cock as this position would allow. “Holy shit,” Chase said, swerving the car just a bit. I felt his dick lurch to the back of my throat and I swallowed involuntarily, causing a vibration to travel up his body. He swerved again. “I said watch the road,” I repeated, coming up for a quick breath. I don’t know what came over me, but blowing Chase in that car as he cruised down the street felt both natural and completely spontaneous. For some reason, the sheer danger of it all made me double my efforts and I sucked him off harder than I ever thought possible. “Shit, babe, I’m about to cum,” he said. With one hand, he pushed my head further down on his cock. He steered with the other. It might have been safer for us to park the car for this little exercise, but roadhead was way more fun. Less than a mile after his warning, I felt warm sticky liquid pump out of Chase’s dick directly into my mouth. I couldn’t swallow it all fast enough as small dribbles escaped the side of my mouth. When I was confident he was done coming, I released his still hard dick and licked around for any stray cum. “That was fucking fantastic,” he said with a satisfied grin on his face. “Now it’s your turn,” I joked, not expecting him to take me seriously. The next thing I knew, Chase was pulling over. He parked the car on the service road, got out and ran to my door. A minute later, I was in the driver’s seat, careening down I-35 with my cock in Chase’s mouth. He was totally right. The adrenaline made the orgasm so much hotter, and just as I pulled past the Waco city limit sign, I let my load go straight to the back of Chase’s throat. We switched seats again so that he could navigate our way around Baylor. We didn’t have much time to spare and I had never been there. “I think that might be illegal in these city limits,” “It definitely is,” Chase laughed. “On a serious note,” he said as he slowed the car into a parking garage. I had no clue what he was about to ask. I didn’t think we had any reason to get serious. “I want to live with you next fall.” He must have noticed the shock on my face. I hadn’t even considered my fall term living arrangements, but I had never expected them to include shacking up. “Before you get all nervous on me,” he said. “The swimmers need to know if I’m resigning my Backstroke lease, because if not, they’re going to open it up to some freshmen. I need to make a decision here pretty soon, and I thought maybe you would be into living together.” “Chase, are we ready for something like this? I mean, we’ve only been together a couple of months.” “I can’t speak for you, Cooper, but I’m sure. This, right here, all of it. This is what I want. There’s no pressure, but I’m just thinking it could be a fun little adventure.” I still didn’t respond. My smile was plastered on, but my mind was racing. What was the big deal in living with him? It’s not like I had a steadfast rule or anything. And we had spent every night for the past several weeks sleeping together. It would diminish the decision making process of whose room we’d crash in. We could consolidate toiletries and save on gas driving back and forth. On paper, it seemed like a good idea both physically and economically. This was a step I hadn’t even considered with Kyle. Moving in seemed so official. So final. It was like crossing the commitment point of no return. Was I ready for that? I was on the precipice of an adult relationship, but surprisingly, I wasn’t afraid. By the time we parked, I had asked myself a million and one questions and I kept going back to the first one. ‘Why not?’ It made perfect and total sense to just do it. Take a leap, I told myself. Chase will catch you. I kept asking myself what would happen if we broke up. I’ll deal, I thought. But the back of my mind kept telling me that we weren’t going to break up. We were both all in. Being with Chase felt more real than anything leading up to it. The thing that scared me most about the whole thing was that I wasn’t all that scared about doing it at all. Was I unwittingly setting myself up for failure? Or was this the beginning of a long term relationship? “Chase,” I said as he rounded a corner and parked his car in front of the Baylor aquatic complex. With the confidence to let him hear me, I repeated what I had said the night before. “I love you.” He leaned over without a bit of hesitation and kissed me firmly on the lips. “I love you too,” he replied. “Does that mean we’re getting a place?” “We’re getting a place,” I said. “Now go, go race.” The meet itself was way more interesting and fun than I anticipated. I sat up in the bleachers way above the pool, keeping my eye on my boyfriend who stood a few inches above the rest. When it came to the other supporters, I felt slightly out of place as one of a handful of students and the only one from SMU. Everyone else in the bleachers was a parent of someone swimming with a few Baylor students peppered throughout the bleachers. I did get loud when Chase won his first heat, however. It was incredible watching him slide into the water so effortlessly. He glided back and forth, back and forth, gaining a lead with every turn. He was a pro among amateurs and everyone around knew it. “You’re friends with the fast one?” a lady asked after I cheered for Chase after a sprint that he won effortlessly. “Yeah,” I said cautiously. “Tell him he’s amazing, and that he has a fan here at Baylor. He just whooped my kid’s butt!” she laughed. I smelled a hint of gin and tonic on her breath and was jealous I hadn’t thought to flask it for the afternoon. By the end of the first night, Chase had qualified for the finals in 8 out of 8 events, including the butterfly which he subbed in for at the last minute. There was something about seeing him in the water that made him twice as sexy to me. He was in his element and he owned it. His coach’s generosity extended as far as the ride down. For the rest, I was on my own. I thought about driving back to Dallas and then waking up early and coming back down to Waco, but Chase’s first race was at 8:00 a.m., meaning I’d have to leave at about to get a good seat 6:00. The other option was to spend the night at home. From Waco, my parent’s house was only about 30 minutes away, which wasn’t bad. The idea of having to explain why I was showing up at 1 a.m. however, made that option the worst of the three. I opted to use my emergency credit card to book a room in the same hotel as our team. I got a decent deal on a Queen size single. We parted with a long kiss in the lobby in front of several of his teammates, including Spencer. “Get a room,” Spencer said, punching me in the back as he passed by. “I already have one, jealous,” I replied. When I checked into my room, the first thing I did was take a long, hot, hotel shower. Hotel toiletries were an obsession of mine; The Holiday Inn Express in Waco had a decent array. After what felt like an hour of steady smoking water, I toweled off and hopped into bed. “Ow!” I heard when I crawled in, taking up as much bed space as I wanted. It had been forever since I had crawled into a bed alone. The yelp startled me and I shot up, clicked on the light and pulled the cover. I took on a defensive stance, ready to kick the shit out of an intruder. “You fucking kicked my shin!” Chase yelled. I couldn’t help but laugh at him, lying there in a pair of shorts, holding on to his leg like I had paralyzed him. I must have been a sight as well, standing there naked, ready to kick ass and take names. “Um, you scared the living shit out of me,” I said, calming down and crawling back into bed. “What the fuck are you doing here? And how did you even get in?” “I snuck out. And I charmed the front desk clerk into getting a key to my ‘brother’s’ room. She’s really cute; you might like her. ” “You’re gonna get in so much trouble and your coach is gonna hate me. Oh my God, I’m going to be banned. They’re going to ban me from meets.” “He won’t ban you. People sneak out all the time. It’s mostly to make out with Baylor girls; believe me, everyone does it.” “So why are you here? No Baylor girls wanted to kiss your ugly mug tonight?” I jeered. “Please, I could get any Baylor babe I want, Monsieur,” he said with a grin. He kissed me softly; not a leading kiss, but a passionate one. I knew sex was out of the question the night before a meet, so I didn’t even touch him suggestively. Instead, we kissed for a few minutes until we started to doze off. “I think it was ballsy for you to show up here,” I said with a yawn. It was passed 2:00 a.m. and both of us were exhausted. “Oh yeah?” “Yeah. I could have had a hot stranger in here when you snuck in. What would you have done?” “Kicked his ass,” Chase replied flatly. I could tell he was almost asleep. I closed my eyes and dropped it. “I hope you don’t plan on sleeping with anyone else ever again.” The sentence was nonchalant, point blank. It wasn’t a threat or an ultimatum. It was just a fact. He wanted to be all there for me, everything I needed. “I’d hate for you to start getting into fights on account of me,” I whispered. “Plus I could get really used to this.” Chase hugged me closer and we fell asleep. I had every reason to be the proud boyfriend that I was the following day and I wasn’t shy about showing it. Spencer hadn’t qualified for any of the finals, so he got to sit up with me in the rafters, cheering Chase on. His first race was a longer free swim with more laps than I could count. He came in well before the second place finisher and ended up with a pool record. It was sublime seeing the officials change the name on the record board right then and there to Pallendrino, C. His next two races were a little bit shorter and were over before I could even tell. One was a simple there and back and he won that one handedly. The second was a 200 meter free and he just barely took first place, finishing right before a Longhorn. The next race was the butterfly that he wasn’t even trained for. He got a bronze medal on that one, a loss in his books but I was still really proud. “He’s incredible,” Spencer said after the butterfly upset. “Yeah,” I said. My eyes were glued to him toweling off and walking stealthily to the warming pool on the other side. “I can see why you liked him so much.” Spencer looked at me and smiled. “He’s all yours, buddy.” After lunch, Chase had a long break where they did events he wasn’t a part of. He came up and watched the backstroke events with me, explaining different things that I never would have known. “That guy has a terrible stroke,” he said as if we were discussing horses. “And his kick off is disgusting.” Other guys had legs too short or arms too wide to swim effectively. By the end of his teaching lesson, I was sure he was the only person in the world built perfectly to swim. It sure seemed like it when he reamed the competition in his final two events: both relays. The 4x400 was by far the most exciting thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. When the third swimmer touched the wall, alerting Chase that it was his turn, my boyfriend was a full body length behind the Baylor team. He was actually next to last. With only one lap and one turn to regain the lead, Chase swam faster than I’d ever seen a human swim. By the time he hit the first wall, he was just half a stroke behind the first place swimmer. It was like Chase kicked it into overdrive after the turn. I almost felt bad for the Baylor team who had been cheering for the first three swimmers but realized with Chase at the helm that their lead was gone. He touched the wall a split second before anyone else. My boyfriend was a swimming savant, and it felt good. “You know he’ll probably make the Olympic team,” Spencer said after everything was said and done. They’d played the Mustang song over the loud speaker signaling that we won the meet and people were filing out. I waited around with Spencer and the other guys who hadn’t qualified for our guys to come out of the locker room. “You think?” “He’s favored to win the division title, at least in the 100, 200 and 500 free. They’ll bring him on to the national team for the relay at least, if not to race individually,” Spencer said confidently. “I mean, he might have set an NCAA record here in the sprint. He’s incredible.” It was weird hearing someone else tell me that Chase could quite possibly make the Olympics. When Chase said it, it sounded like a dream or a goal. When Spencer said it, it sounded like a fact. “Hm,” was my only response. What did that mean for me? I did a quick calculation in my head. The Olympic games were the following year in London. That meant that Chase would have to qualify here pretty soon and train with the team. I didn’t even know where the team trained. As I followed Spencer downstairs to meet up with the rest of our guys, I couldn’t help but wonder if moving in with Chase was the best idea. If he was going to jet off to the Olympics in the fall, was it worth taking the risk? What if he made it? Would it be a problem for our relationship? I hadn’t considered the possibility, but it was now staring me in the face. Instead of staying in Waco that night where there was absolutely nothing to do, I hitched a ride with Chase back to campus. “You’re quiet,” he said a few minutes into the trip. I was admittedly distant after the bomb Spencer had dropped. “Sorry,” I replied flatly. “Is something eating you up, Gilbert Grape?” he asked. I moved my head to look at him. “What’s gonna happen if you go to the Olympics?” “Where did that come from?” “Spencer might have said something. And you talk about it so casually as if it’s a foregone conclusion,” I added quickly. “It isn’t. There’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion when it comes to something like that,” he said, sounding irritated for the first time I’d ever heard. “And if it happens, it happens. Nothing changes between us.” “I guess it just makes me nervous, that’s all,” I said. Chase didn’t say anything for about a mile. I looked at his hands and saw that they were clutching the steering wheel tightly. “Why does it make you nervous?” I took a deep breath. “I dunno, I just. If you go off to London or whatever. And before that, you’ll be training all the time. And then if you go and do well, you’ll be a huge celebrity. I just… I wonder where that’ll leave me, you know?” “Okay, first of all, if I make the team, I can train from here. Believe it or not, they have pools in Dallas. Second, the Olympics, last I checked at least, were in the summer. Will you miss a little school cheering me on in London? Maybe. Will it be worth it? I think so. Finally, who do you know on the men’s team right now? Michael Phelps. Maybe Ian Thorpe. That’s it. The chances I become a celebrity and leave you behind are none in a million, babe.” The words sounded perfect. I filed the speech under ‘right things to say’. I couldn’t deny that Chase had a way of easing my mind about things. But in the back of my mind, I still felt uneasy about it. I thought about the future for a few minutes, and it just seemed so inevitable. If this was Chase’s actual destiny, I foresaw us growing apart. I wondered if it was worth it, then. If I could already see us growing apart, was it worth taking the journey? As we neared campus, I realized why it was nagging at me so irritatingly. What I was feeling was the exact same thing Kyle had felt when he felt me slipping away. I felt in my heart like I wanted no other option than Chase, and here he had the world at his fingertips. I realized we wouldn’t have to deal with this for another year at least, but the question remained: is it worth it? The answer to me was 100 percent yes. If all I had was 365 days with Chase Pallendrino, they’d be great days. That was the difference between me and Kyle and that was why we couldn’t work. I was there for the adventure. He was in it for the ending. But being in his shoes made me understand where he had come from. I could feel what he had felt and it softened me towards him a little. “Monsieur, you are a million miles away,” Chase said, snapping me out of my deep thoughts. “I asked if you wanted to do my place or yours.” “Um, let’s do mine,” I said with a smile. “But I have a stop to make first.” “You make your stop, I’ll pick up some food and wine and we’ll have a quiet night in,” he said. He pulled up to the quad a minute later and I ran for stop one of two. When I walked into Spencer’s room, he had just gotten in from Waco and was unpacking his things. “What are you doing here?” “I want you to believe that I can do this,” I said firmly. He looked at me like I was a crazy person, so I elaborated. “I’m done with The List. This is it. Chase is the last entry I ever want to put in. So I’m done. And I want you to believe that I can do it.” “It’s not that I don’t believe you can do it,” Spencer said. “I think you can. I think when the right guy comes along, you have enough in you to love him forever.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Is Chase that guy?” “Spence, this is going to sound crazy, but I think he is,” I said. “I know that I don’t know a lot about this stuff and it’s weird and stupid, but I’m not afraid to be with him. With Kyle it was all such an uphill battle. With Chase, it just feels right. Easy. When you know, you know, right?” “I don’t want you to get hurt,” he said. “I cannot possibly hurt more than I did a few months ago. I can do this,” I said, more to myself than to Spencer. He looked at me and smiled. He grabbed the blue notebook and threw it in the trash. “It’s the end of The List, I guess,” he said. I gave Spencer a hug and knew that we’d be friends for a very long time. Seeking his opinion and approval felt too natural to dismiss. There are certain friends you never let go of no matter what and Spencer was clearly one of those. My second stop wasn’t nearly as dramatic. I knocked on Kyle’s door and he opened it almost immediately. “Coop,” he said, surprised. “What are you doing here?” It was pretty late for a social call on a Sunday, and Kyle was already in his pajamas. “Um, do you maybe want to go to lunch tomorrow?” I asked. It was my easy way of extending the white flag. I didn’t want to be indifferent towards him anymore. Regardless of whether or not we could be in love again, I wanted Kyle in my life. He’d taught me too much to discard. “Seriously?” “As friends,” I added quickly. “I miss talking to you, Kyle.” He softened his face and his posture for a rare moment of vulnerability and he flashed me a dazzling smile. “Lunch tomorrow,” he said. “Sounds good.” “I’ll call you then,” I said, desperately trying to ease the awkwardness. “My number is still the same,” he smiled. Things would never be the exact same for us, but the funny thing was, I knew they’d be good regardless. I felt good about my decision to reach out to him, and the fact that I could now understand his position when we broke up, even if I didn’t agree with it; it made me realize we were in it for the long haul. “It’s about time you got back,” Chase said when I finally walked back to my bedroom. He was sitting on my bed thumbing threw some Chinese takeout with chopsticks. He looked cute not knowing how to work them at all. “Let’s ditch the food,” I said seductively. I put the cartons of food on the floor and climbed on top of Chase. His larger than life grin told me he was okay skipping a meal or two if I was to be his meal replacement bar. “I love you, Mr. Pallendrino,” I said kissing him deeply and grinding my rock hard pecker into his. He looked me square in the eye, holding the most intimate gaze I’d ever felt. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of saying that.” “I love you too, Monsieur,” he smiled. We spent the next two and a half hours making love.
    1 point
  33. “Wait, wait, wait,” Jill interrupted, holding up her hand before Haze had managed to finish his first sentence. She sat bolt upright on her seat, Blake observed, hawkish and imposing, her voice stern and her eyes hard. “Why were they doin’ a swim-through in the first place?” she demanded. Everyone turned back to Haze. “Because they wanted to?” he answered, sardonically, defensively. “How should I know?” “And you let them?” she shrilled. There was the sound of people shifting uncomfortably upon the assortment of chairs that had been dragged across the shop’s carpet to form a roughly circular shape. “Come on mate,” Nats interjected softly, always the peacemaker, Blake noted. “It’s a tourist thing, I let ‘em do it too.” “So do I,” Matt added. “We all do,” Vicky chimed in. “Well then maybe that has to stop!” Jill snapped, clearly annoyed at the perceived challenge to her authority. Somehow she appeared to sit at the ‘head’ of this circle. There was certainly no mistaking who was in charge of the meeting, at any rate. Matt and Vicky had the good graces to appear admonished, but Haze was in a different sort of mood this evening. “Maybe we can stop ‘em goin’ into the water too while we’re at it?” he muttered, folding his arms and looking surly. “What did you say-” Jill began, but once again Nats rode to the rescue. “Maybe we can talk about that at the end?” she suggested, speaking over Jill without appearing to be rude about it. “Let Haze tell the story and then we can talk about what to do in future at the end?” She sounded very reasonable and Blake could see that Matt and Vicky were nodding vigorously in agreement. Jill glared across all of them for a moment, but then she huffed and folded her arms. “Fine. Haze?” Haze sat a little higher in his seat, but he didn’t appear to be any less sullen nor any less defensive. “They were doin’ a swim-through on this cave ... rock ... thing ... I dunno, it was near the pinnacle and she was halfway through when she got stuck-” “Before, you said it collapsed on her,” Jill interrupted, yet again. “Well it probably did, I didn’t see it happen ‘til after she got stuck, it was wedged in there pretty tight-” “She was wedged under a rock?” Matt asked curiously. “No,” Haze snapped, seeming exasperated at all the interruptions. “The tank was stuck, she was fine.” Blake watched him carefully, taking mental note of the way he acted. There was something about his tone, his posture, his behaviour in general, that didn’t seem quite right. To be annoyed at the repeated interruptions was understandable, but it just wasn’t like Haze to be so easily riled, or rather, to be so visibly riled. The blue-eyed boy was overly edgy and aggressive, a little too defensive in Blake’s opinion. Too real, given the audience. “So you swapped-” Matt began but was hushed loudly by his girlfriend. “Argh! Fine. Sorry.” After a moment’s silence, all eyes turned back to Haze. “So, I got her out of her BC and then ... well ...” he shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment, before continuing. “I guess I could’ve just taken her up, I admit ... but I thought I could get the tank free, save the gear ... ya know how Jill complains about the expensive gear.” “Hey!” Jill snapped. “I always say: safety first. I ain’t never suggested riskin’ ya life for a tank mate.” “I wasn’t riskin’ my life!” Haze snarled back. “Ha!” “Okay, okay, people!” Nats interrupted again. “At the end, bring it up at the end.” Jill made a point of scribbling something down on her notebook, but left the argument there for the moment. “So ... you stuck her in your gear?” Matt asked. “That’s the bit I don’t get.” “Shhh!” hushed Vicky. “Let him tell the story.” “There wasn’t enough room to get at it,” Haze explained, his voice sounding strained. “I thought if I stuck her in my gear I could get in closer and get her tank free.” “So you gave her your BC and tank?” “Yes!” Haze replied in that same overly aggressive tone. “I got outta mine and stuck her in it so she wasn’t in my face.” He glared at Matt, as if daring him to say something else, but the New Zealander stayed silent. “Then what happened Haze,” Nats prodded, softly, after a short pause. “Then she must’ve panicked or something and she ...” he trailed off for a bit, as if choosing his next words carefully. “She must’ve kicked me or something. That’s when I lost my mask so I couldn’t really tell what was happening. She must’ve taken off after that. Or got lost. I couldn’t see so I dunno.” There was a moment’s silence punctuated only by the clicking of Jill’s pen. “And then?” Nats prodded again, when Haze didn’t seem to have anything else to add. “And then I fucked around waiting for someone to come help me,” he snapped. “Why? What would you do?” “I would’ve tried for an emergency ascent,” Matt offered in a jovial tone. “Made a dash for it.” “At a hundred feet?” Vicky exclaimed. “Why not?” “You can’t hold your breath for five seconds baby.” “Better than drowning!” Blake could tell that Matt hadn’t meant anything in particular by that. He’d just been trying to lighten the mood a bit with some light-hearted banter. But the joke fell flat as everyone’s eyes quickly dropped to the floor or darted to some other corner of the room. An awkward silence descended upon them, as the unspoken possibility was left hanging. “Err ... anyway ... so ...” Matt stumbled, in an obvious attempt to back track the conversation. “So then Blake rescued you?” Blake felt himself flinch involuntarily at the mention of his name. He had hardly rescued anyone. That was a bit of an exaggeration. He had ended up needing to be rescued as it had turned out, much to his lasting shame and humiliation. He had barely a moment to think on this though, when a mighty crash from behind made him jump with fright. Abruptly, he spun around, eyes drawn immediately to the metal bucket as it rolled back and forth on the concrete floor, making a terrible din. He quickly surmised that he must have bumped the mop which he recalled seeing propped-up against the wall right next to him only a moment ago. When the noise had finally stopped, Blake peeked his head around the doorway again to see that everyone had turned in their chairs and were now looking his way. Everyone except Haze that was. “Sorry,” he muttered, his face burning with embarrassment as he stalked around the corner and into the shop, awkwardly. “Hey, hey, its aqua man!” Matt declared gregariously, amidst the warm smiles and good-natured jeers from the others. They meant well, Blake knew, but all the attention made him shrink back against the wall. “What are ya doin’ up?” Jill demanded in a stern tone. “You’re supposed to be resting.” “I-I c-can’t rest with all the noise,” Blake stammered, his protest sounding only half-heartedly at best. In truth he hadn’t even tried ‘resting’. He’d been snooping even before the others had entered the shop for the special ‘debrief’ meeting Jill had arranged. “You’re not well.” “I-I’m ... o-okay now,” he stuttered, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. “Go back to sickbay!” she ordered. “Oh come on Jill,” said Nats. “Sickbay is a couch in the back room.” Matt, Vicky and Carlos smirked, snorted and chortled amongst themselves, trying hard not to provoke Jill further as she glowered at them all. “Anyway,” Nats continued, her tone placating. “The doctor said-” “Nurse,” Jill snapped, cutting her off mid sentence as if the distinction were important. Nats rolled her eyes. “The nurse then ... said he was fine.” The town didn’t have a doctor, just a part-time, all-purpose, field-nurse who could call for a flying doctor if necessary. Burt was his name, Blake recalled. He was a big guy with a permanent scowl on his face and an attitude towards patients that seemed to suggest an unwillingness to take anything less than a severed limb seriously. Not that any kind of nurse or doctor, sympathetic or otherwise, would’ve been much help, had either Blake or Haze actually been suffering from decompression sickness. The only real treatment was to be put into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and the nearest one of those was probably in Perth. Maybe a patient could be flown there by emergency helicopter, but help would still be hours away. As it was though, Burt’s diagnosis was that Blake had suffered ‘a fainting spell’ and ‘bleeding nose’, brought on by a stressful situation and the strain caused by the rapid pressure changes. All Blake heard was: ‘nothing is wrong with you, except that you are weak and a nutcase’. He’d been feeling thoroughly ashamed and disgusted with himself ever since. The moment was etched into his memory. Jill had breathed an audible sigh of relief upon Burt’s pronouncement and collapsed herself onto a nearby chair, but Haze had become suddenly quiet and withdrawn. That was the last time they’d had any kind of interaction. After that everything changed between them and Haze wouldn’t even look at him now. Not that Blake felt he deserved anything more. “Blake’s still under observation,” Jill argued, refusing to let up. “We can observe him out here better than in there,” Nats pointed out, reasonably. Jill didn’t say anything else after that, so Blake took this to be acceptance and he awkwardly entered the room. Since there were no more chairs, sat himself down on the carpet, resting his back against the counter. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him, so he kept his face downcast, trying not to visibly wither under the intensity of their collective gaze. “Ya want my chair?” Nats offered kindly, but he shook his head at her. “I’m fine with the floor thanks,” he muttered, anxious to have everyone’s attention elsewhere. “Are ya feeling joint pain, swelling, sensations of insects crawling over the skin, numbness, itching-” “I’m fine,” Blake said a little louder, cringing with embarrassment. Jill put down the photocopied piece of paper she had just been reading from and then huffed. “Fine. Just don’t piss me off, I’m still mad at ya.” “Mad at Blake? What’d he do?” Matt asked, but he was promptly elbowed and hushed into silence again by Vicky. Jill glared at them both for a second, but then she turned her attention back to the circle. “So, for Blake’s benefit, the story so far goes like this. Haze decides to let one of the novice divers swim into a tiny hole, where she got stuck and then he decides to risk life and limb by performin’ a dangerous underwater swap of equipment just so he can go after her gear, rather than callin’ off the dive and takin’ ‘em back to the surface like any sensible person would’ve. Did I miss anything?” She glanced around the circle, but her eyes narrowed and trailed especially slowly as they passed over Haze. He ignored her though, folding his arms and looking pointedly in another direction. “Questions?” Jill asked of the room. Several burning questions leapt to Blake’s mind, but he had absolutely no intention of raising them. “So, where did the other girls go then?” Vicky asked, after several moments of silence had past. “Ask them,” was all that Haze muttered in response, his voice thick with sarcasm. “They’re Italian,” Nats explained to Vicky and Matt who seemed confused by Haze’s answer. “Don’t speak English.” “Did you speak to them then, Carlos?” Vicky asked, turning to face the young man next to her. “I wasn’t there, I was at the shop,” he explained, speaking up for the first time. “I spoke to them when I got back but ... errr ...” “But he mislead me as to his ability to speak Italian,” Jill sniped. “I speak Spanish, not Italian,” he huffed. “I can understand a lot of Italian, but I never said I could speak it.” “Well what did you understand?” Vicky asked. Carlos shrugged. “Same sort of thing. She got stuck. They swapped tanks. I didn’t understand the full details, but it’s like Haze says.” “What, so they just left him down there?” Vicky demanded, sounding scandalised by the possibility. “So much for the buddy system.” “The visibility was shit, Vicks,” Nats pointed out. “Ya couldn’t see ya hand in front of ya face. They probably got frightened and got lost.” “Still, they might’ve at least tried to help,” she sulked. “God, the number of times I’ve thought of leaving a tourist down there ...” Blake was only half paying attention to the back and forth quarrelling between his co-workers. Now that the others had forgotten about him down there on the carpet, he was free to study the one person he was truly interested in and very much worried about. Haze. Superficially it appeared as though Haze had retreated back into his shell again. He was facing away from the others with his arms crossed and a fairly bland scowl upon his face. Detached and avoidant. However, Blake knew better. He could tell that Haze was still listening intently to the conversation. He was not emotionally mute. He seemed tense and aggressive, especially when Matt next piped up. “So can we go back to the bit about swapping the gear? Cause I gotta say, I find that the most interesting part.” Matt’s tone and manner did not denote any level of seriousness. It was obvious to anyone that the New Zealander thought the whole saga amusing, but little more. He was not probing for details, he was merely interested. So, it was curious, Blake thought, that Haze seemed so on edge whenever Matt brought this bit up. “I mean, how do ya even go about that? Underwater I mean?” “It’s not that hard,” Haze responded, gruffly. “Did you take off your BC while she was still stuck?” Matt asked, grinning. “No ...” Haze paused and licked his lips for a moment. “Of course not.” “So she was breathing from your spare at the time?” “Yeah, so?” Blake knew that Haze was lying. He might’ve been able to guess as much based purely on his observations of the other boy, who flinched at the question and sounded far too defensive when responding. As it was though, he didn’t need to watch Haze to know that he was lying. Blake had inspected the blue-eyed boy’s diving gear afterwards and knew for a fact that the backup regulator wasn’t working on Haze’s gear. It was just one of the burning questions he wanted to ask about, but bringing that up here would do nothing to help Haze. Blake was worried that it would only make things worse for the other boy and right now Haze’s welfare was the most important thing, not his own curiosity. “So how did she take off on you, if you were both breathing from the same tank?” Vicky asked. “I ...” Haze hesitated for a moment. “I’d swapped to the tank that was stuck. So I could get in closer.” “I’d have stayed with the girl,” said Matt, adding a suggestive wiggle of his eyebrow and a laugh. “How did you manage that without getting tangled?” Vicky pressed, ignoring Matt’s antics. “Skill,” was Haze’s answer, his expression deadpan. “Skill my arse,” Matt goaded. “You’d be in a sorry state of affairs if Blake didn’t save your hide.” Blake started at the mention of his name, but since he had been watching Haze at the time, he didn’t have a chance to duck his head before the other boy looked over at him. Haze seemed every bit as unhappy about the eye contact himself though, and the two of them looked the other way almost simultaneously. This is how it had been between them since they’d left the medical centre. An invisible, yet impenetrable barrier of awkward, tension now kept them apart, making any form of interaction impossible. Even a fleeting glance from Haze was enough to make the hairs on the back of Blake’s neck stand on end. The idea of talking to or even approaching the blue-eyed boy now seemed fanciful. But before that, things had been entirely different between them. Blake recalled a completely different picture, lying in the cabin, his head in Haze’s lap as the other boy dabbed the blood off his face. Maybe he’d just been hallucinating at the time, but he seemed to remember a look of such tenderness on Haze’s face that it made his heart burst to think back on it now. Had that just been a dream? A wishful delusion created by his crazy desperate mind? Regardless, that time was now over. Everything had changed between them. Blake wasn’t entirely sure why, but he wasn’t wanting for possible explanations. For his part, the burning shame and humiliation he felt about blacking out in front of Haze mid ‘rescue’ certainly didn’t help matters. He couldn’t believe that he’d managed to hold it together for so long during the search only to fall apart right in front of Haze once the hard bit was over, once they were back on the surface. What a failure. Blake only wished that he really did have decompression sickness. At least then he would have an explanation, an excuse for appearing so weak and pathetic. A bit of a bleeding nose and some dizziness and he’d made Haze think he was dying. What a joke he must seem in Haze’s eyes now. If that wasn’t enough of a reason to feel uncomfortable, there was also the persistent memory of, what he had come to think of as, ‘the’ kiss. That terrifying, wondrous and confusing moment of bliss. It shook Blake to the core every time he thought back on it. What had possessed him to kiss his straight friend in the first place? As for why Haze was acting strangely too, Blake could only guess. Haze was probably furious, not to mention disgusted by the kiss for one thing. Blake couldn’t believe that he had been so stupid as to kiss Haze. Why had he done that? He’d been so deluded and crazy at the time that he’d even imagined it was Haze’s fault, that it was Haze who had initiated the kiss! How ridiculous that now seemed. Haze had only just broken up with his girlfriend. Why would he be kissing anyone, much less a boy, much less someone as unappealing as Blake himself? No. It wasn’t Haze’s doing. Blake had only himself to blame. He couldn’t remember how, but he knew it was his fault. He’d spent too much time obsessing over Haze and hadn’t been able to control himself. On top of that, Haze was also probably embarrassed about needing assistance from a weakling like Blake. The look Haze had given him when they first got to the surface had said it all. Or maybe he was put out by having to take over the failed rescue? He probably felt used too after taking Blake’s imaginary decompression sickness seriously, only to find out later it was nothing. That was the last time Haze had looked at him properly, anyway. Made sense. Whatever the reasons, the result was a tension between them so intense they were like magnets repelling each other from across the room. Blake couldn’t think of any way to breach the chasm that had grown between them, which was bad news, because he knew that he had to do just that. Because most troubling to Blake now was not the things that had happened on the boat that day, but the things that he’d learned afterwards, after he’d snooped through Haze’s diving gear. If it were possible, Blake was more worried about Haze now, than he had been when the boy was lost beneath the ocean earlier. But what could he do about it? How could he approach Haze? What would he say? He was running out of time to figure something out too. How much longer was this meeting going to go for? Where would Haze go after it had finished? Blake knew that he couldn’t let the other boy out of his sight, but what would his excuse be? He couldn’t just follow him around ... could he? “Blake!” Blake jumped at the sound of his name, glancing up to meet a sea of eyes staring at him. Except Haze’s beautiful blue eyes of course. They were looking elsewhere. “W-what?” he stammered nervously. “Did you faint again?” Matt joked in a teasing, but light-hearted tone, drawing a few giggles from the others. Blake tried to smile and to laugh with them, but he was far too raw from the experience to stifle the overpowering sense of shame and self-loathing evoked by the cutting remark. He felt sick to the pit of his stomach, the smothering feelings gnawing at his insides, but he managed to contain them and to half smile, half wince in response. He answered with only a downcast shake of his head, unable to trust that his voice wouldn’t give him away. “Shuddup you.” Jill scolded, and Vicky backed her up with another elbow to her boyfriend’s ribcage, much to his annoyance. “Are ya sure you’re okay mate?” Nats asked, leaning closer while the others were distracted by Matts loud complaining. “Y-Yeah s-sorry,” Blake mumbled quietly. “Just a bit ...” He trailed off for a moment, distracted by what he thought he saw just beyond her shoulder. A glance from Haze? He’d blinked though and it was gone. He must’ve imagined it. “Just a bit spacey,” he finished. “I’m fine though, really.” Nats seemed dissatisfied with his answer, but before she could say anything else, Matt had spoken up again. “So let’s hear Blake’s story then!” Nats drew back in her seat and left Blake facing everyone again, much to his discomfort. “I ... err ...” he paused to clear his throat in an awkward manner before continuing. “N-not much to t-tell really. I ... um ... followed the trail of air and ... was lucky to find H-Haze.” He risked an upwards glance just then, his eyes drawn involuntarily to the boy in question as he spoke his name, but Haze wasn’t looking his way. Haze was still pretending to ignore everyone. “He used my spare reg and we got back to the surface. I-I didn’t see the gear that well, but it was stuck under some rocks.” “I can’t believe you managed to follow the trail in that shit viz,” said Nats, sounding overly impressed. Blake knew she was just being a friend to him, trying to boost his self-esteem or something, but he really wished that she hadn’t said anything. He’d actually fucked up the search and had stumbled upon Haze quite by accident. He was not deserving of praise. The rescue had been a failure. “Luck I guess,” he mumbled, praying that this would be the end of it. “Lucky for Haze anyway,” she said, but Blake just shrugged in response to that, not wanting to draw out the story any longer than was necessary. “So was he freakin’ out when you found him?” Matt asked with a sly smile on her face. Blake risked another glance over towards Haze, but the other boy was withdrawn, still ignoring the discussion. Or at least pretending to. “N-no. He was ...” Blake felt a shiver go down his spine at the image his memory conjured up. Haze as still as a corpse. “He was ... calm.” Too calm, considering, but Blake wasn’t about to bring that up. After the story had finished and there were no more questions Jill took charge of the meeting again. “Okay people so what’ve we learned?” she asked, scanning down the list of scribbles she’d made on her note pad. “Never trust Italians?” Matt quipped, earning himself a laugh from the others and a glare from Jill. “Number one,” she began, speaking in what Blake thought of as her ‘teacher’s voice’. “Follow the rules. “Almost every diving accident happens when someone doesn’t follow the rules. “If ya buddy gets trapped, spend no more than three or four minutes tryin’ to get ‘em free. If ya can’t ... then get ‘em out of their gear and onto ya spare reg. Then immediately surface together. “Don’t!” and she paused to glare at Haze in particular as she said this next bit. “Don’t fluff about worryin’ over gear. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, we have to be careful with it. No, we don’t ever take risks with our safety for it. If it’s stuck, leave it.” She paused for a moment as if to underscore her point. “What else, what else ... ah ... the buddy system. “Everyone stays with their buddy. Especially when the visibility is bad. If ya lose track of your buddy, spend no more than 5 minutes lookin’ for them. If ya can’t find ‘em, return to the surface straight away ... meet up there.” She put the note book down for a moment and scanned across the room. “Everyone needs to hammer this into the tourists especially. Don’t leave ya buddy. Don’t leave ya buddy. Ya have to tell ‘em every single time, a hundred times, and don’t let ‘em forget it. “And don’t ever swap tanks with someone underwater either ... that’s just dumb.” A murmur of giggles arose from the others, but Blake noted that there was no reaction from Haze, who seemed to be back to his usual introverted self. Neutral, detached, avoidant. No sign of real Haze now. “Another thing, Matt mentioned this, emergency ascent. “If ya do get stuck and somehow ya can’t find a buddy, and ya run out of air, don’t forget the emergency ascent. “Drop your gear, drop your weight belt and swim to the surface as fast as you can, making sure that you breathe out slowly in one continuous breath. Never hold ya breath. The air in ya lungs will expand as the pressure drops and ya can burst a lung or somethin’. “Emergency ascents are dangerous and there is a good chance you will get decomp injuries, so it’s a last resort only. But ... yeah ... it’s there to remember if ya ... ever find yourself in ...” she trailed off, as if uncomfortable with where she was straying. “... in a position like ... like Hazewas in.” Jill continued her summary and debrief of the day’s incident, but Blake’s attention was elsewhere. He grew more and more restless, worrying about what he was going to do when the meeting was over. It was nearly 7 o’clock and getting quite late outside. There was no way Jill was likely to drag this meeting out much longer and no way anyone would stick around when it was over. What was he going to do? He couldn’t allow Haze out of his sight, of that much he was sure. He needed to keep an eye on him, to make sure Haze was safe, but how was he going to manage that? Especially since Haze was actively working to keep a distance between them. Maybe he could follow the blue-eyed boy around? Spy on him from a distance? It seemed ridiculous to Blake and yet infinitely preferable to any option that involved actually having to speak to him. Just then the room was filled with the sounds of movement, as everyone got to their feet and started to drag their chairs back to wherever they had got them from. Blake realised that he must’ve tuned out again and he felt a pang of alarm run through him as he watched Haze carry a chair through to the backroom. What if the blue-eyed boy left before he could catch up to him? Blake quickly got to his feet, but was stopped by Jill. “Could you stay behind a second Blake?” For a moment he thought about telling her ‘no’, but he knew he couldn’t do that. “See ya tomorrow Blake,” Nats said, patting him on the shoulder as she left. The others waved goodbye too. All except Haze of course. Haze had never returned from the backroom. He must have slipped out the back exit. Blake bounced on his toes, anxious to follow after Haze, but wary of getting Jill off-side by leaving. “Listen mate,” she began after everyone left the room. “Ya did good today, which is why I ain’t gonna punish ya for the way that ya acted on the boat. But. I gotta have confidence in my crew mate. I gotta know that you’ll do as I say next time. No arguin’.” Blake felt his shoulders hunch as he mutely studied the floor. He felt embarrassed at the thought of having shouted at her earlier that day. “Ya got lucky this time and it came good, maybe ya even saved Haze from ... from god know’s what. But if everyone was followin’ the rules – him included – this wouldn’t have happened. Next time I tell ya somethin’ ya gotta listen and do as I say okay?” Blake had no intention of arguing with her no matter what she said. He just wanted this to be over, so he nodded his head vigorously. “Yeah ... I’m really sorry Jill. Just got caught up in the moment.” He glanced up to give her as sincere a look as he could muster. It seemed to work, since she smiled in response and patted him on the shoulder. “Alright well you take care okay?” “Sure.” He began to back away, relieved that the conversation was finally over, but then Jill was speaking to him again. “Oh ... I got ya rostered on tomorrow too, but ya probably won’t be diving, so ... er ... ya want the day off or do ya need the money? Weather’s gettin’ worse. Cyclone might shut us down for a week or more ... so if ya want the work I can always put ya in the shop or get ya to ...” “I’ll come tomorrow and we can talk about it then,” he interrupted, trying not to sound too impatient with her rambling. “Sure,” she said, nodding slowly. “Well, goodnight Blake, rest up okay?” “Thanks. See you tomorrow.” The moment she turned away, Blake made a dash for the doorway. He bounded down the stairs of the shop and came to a halt on the footpath, glancing left and then right, an anxious feeling rising in his chest. There was no sign of Haze, nor was there any sign of his ute either. At least, not in the shop’s small car park on this side of the mall. So he dashed up the footpath to the back of the building, passing the skip bins and some bushes as he navigated his way around to the main car park on the other side. It was getting harder to see in the evening light and he stumbled a bit on the rocks and sand as he went, but he didn’t pause for a moment. On reaching the main car park, he quickly scanned the cars and was enormously relieved to spot Haze’s ute. It was parked neatly between two cars near the supermarket exit and it was empty. Blake worried about that for a moment. Perhaps Haze had left his car here and walked home? But he quickly shook these thoughts from his head. They were paranoid and silly. Why would Haze have done something like that? It made no sense. Haze would at least drive himself home in his own car. He had to be around here somewhere. Having decided this, Blake took a moment to relax a bit and to catch his breath. Even in the dwindling evening light the muggy summer heat was oppressive and the short sprint had left him puffed and sweaty. What he needed now was a plan. Still unable to fathom having to actually speak to Haze, Blake decided to keep an eye on the vehicle from a distance, instead. Preferably, from the comfort of the air-conditioned shopping centre, he figured. He made his way over, intent on finding a vantage point from where he could keep watch. However, he was only a few metres away from the supermarket when all of a sudden, there was Haze, leaving the supermarket with a bag of shopping. He was still wearing what now appeared to be a rather mangy looking uniform, crumpled and dirty, but he’d ditched the shop’s trademark cap, his messy locks now chaotic and free. He appeared to be lost in thought, withdrawn, but not in his usual introverted way. This was different. He seemed sad more than anything else. Blake froze and then, half-a-second later, he watched as Haze did exactly the same. It crossed Blake’s mind to make a run for it or to find a place to hide, but his feet wouldn’t move. He was in plain sight in the middle of the footpath anyway and there was no mistaking that Haze had already seen him. Haze had a look on his face that suggested he might have been thinking the same thing. It was certainly not welcoming and in made Blake gulp, nervously. After what seemed like forever, Haze ducked his head and then continued to walk towards Blake as he had been doing, albeit, without looking up from the pavement. For a moment, Blake thought he was going to ignore him and walk straight past, but he didn’t. Haze walked right up to him and then stopped a few paces away, intent on studying the footpath at his feet. “Hey,” he mumbled, his blue eyes darting up and down, but never lingering on Blake for more than half a second. He was clearly ill at ease. “Hi,” Blake responded, equally uncomfortable and struggling to make eye contact himself. There was a long and excruciatingly awkward pause, during which neither of them spoke. “Listen-” “So-” They spoke at once and then both stopped. “You go-” “Wha-” They stopped again. Blake recalled the first proper conversation he’d ever had with Haze starting out just like this. That afternoon, on the jetty, hosing down the boat together after Blake’s first day of diving. Except this time there was no amused chuckle from Haze to break the ice, only further awkward silence from them both. It saddened Blake to think about this. So much had happened since that day and yet somehow here they were, still acting like strangers. Despite all the obsessing and worrying and effort Blake had put into getting closer to the boy with the maddening blue eyes he had somehow managed to make no progress, no progress at all. Yet another failure to add to the list of his failures. “Listen...” said Haze, breaking the silence after what had seemed like forever. “Thanks for ...”, but then he seemed to peter out mid sentence, as if he’d changed his mind or forgotten what he was about to say. “Yeah,” Blake responded, eager to fill the gap and unable to think of anything else to add. “I ... er ...” “Sure.” “Yeah.” “Okay.” Did this tongue-tied overlay of mutterings count as a conversation? Even by their standards? There was another awkward silence before finally Haze spoke up again. “I gotta go,” he said, making a sudden move towards his car. The sight of Haze leaving sent a renewed rush of anxiety through Blake, a flutter in his chest that seemed to amplify with each step putting distance between them. It wasn’t that Blake wanted this unpleasant, uncomfortable encounter to continue. He wanted it to end just as much as Haze obviously did too, but he couldn’t allow that to happen. He couldn’t let Haze go off alone. He had to keep an eye on him, somehow. That meant staying close by. “Don’t go!” he exclaimed, a little louder and more urgently than he’d meant to. Haze stopped walking, but he didn’t turn around. “I ... I really have to ...” he started to say over his shoulder, but Blake interrupted him. “You can’t be alone,” he declared adamantly, wincing upon the replay of those words in his head. He was sounding crazy again. “I mean I can’t be alone.” Haze turned around, his brow furrowed. He still wasn’t quite making eye contact though. “I mean ...” Blake floundered, his mind desperately grasping for an idea. “I’m ... I’m feeling sick,” he finally said, grimacing to himself. Sick? Haze’s face quickly softened and then grew concerned. “Ya gettin’ the signs Burt talked about?” he asked, sounding a little more animated for the first time. “No ... I mean ... Yes! Well ... I mean, I ... don’t know.” Haze’s face seemed to harden into a scowl in response to that. “I mean, I’m not sure! I just ... I don’t think I should be alone ... right now ... for a while,” Blake managed to stumble, doing his best to look sincere. He felt horribly ashamed and guilty for lying to Haze, but he was unable to come up with any other plan to keep him around. Caught on the spot like this anyway. Haze shifted about uncomfortably. He seemed to be weighing up something, as if extremely reluctant to talk about it. “Look ... if ... if this is about ...” he began, but Blake didn’t even give him a chance to go anywhere with that sentence. “It’s not! It’s not about that!” he blurted out, instinct demanding that he shut down that line of conversation immediately. “Let’s just forget about that ...” Forget about what, he then wondered to himself? What was Haze about to say anyway? What were they now forgetting about? The meeting? The dive? The failed rescue? The no-longer-girlfriend? The drunken night at the bar? Or worse ... the kiss? Blake didn’t even know, but that didn’t matter. The discomfort he’d felt and could see mirrored in Haze’s body language seemed reason enough to stop that conversation. At any rate, the real reason Blake wanted to stay with Haze had to do with what he had surmised after snooping through Haze’s diving gear. Whatever else the blue-eyed boy was about to say, it couldn’t have be about that. “It’s not about anything, I just ... don’t feel that great ... and ... I don’t want to be alone ... just in case.” There was another long and awkward pause. “Okay,” Haze finally responded, in a neutral, almost disinterested tone of voice. The mask was back. “Come on then.” He walked the short distance to his ute, unlocking the nearer passenger-side door before making his way around to the driver’s side. Blake got into the car and sat rigid in the passenger seat, intent on facing the front windscreen at all times, but unable to resist the odd sideways glance at Haze, now and then. Neither of them spoke as the other boy got into the car and started the engine. But then Haze was suddenly leaning over towards the passenger side of the ute and Blake, catching the movement out of the corner of his eye, instinctively recoiled, knocking his head against window. He wasn’t sure why he had jumped like that. It had just felt like Haze was intruding on his space all of a sudden, which made him feel ... the need to back away. The collision hadn’t hurt exactly. It was just loud, stopping Haze in his tracks. The blue-eyed boy gave him an odd look for a moment, but then he dropped his gaze to Blake’s feet, depositing the bag of shopping there, before returning his hands to the steering wheel. Blake cringed, embarrassed by what an idiot he was yet again proving himself to be in front of Haze. Neither of them spoke at any time during the drive to the resort, not that Haze had ever been very talkative when he was driving. Not a word had been spoken between them the last time Blake was sitting in this seat either, he recalled. When the ute finally pulled into the rear car park of the resort, Blake was feeling thankful that the awkward trip was over, but things proved no less uncomfortable between them after that. Haze grabbed the shopping bag and got out of the ute without saying a word, seemingly indifferent to whether Blake followed him or not. He made his way over to a familiar building, the resort’s dining hall. Blake nervously undid his seatbelt, opening the door and then closing it again behind himself. He waited there for a moment, but then he figured that Haze wasn’t coming out again anytime soon, so he would have to follow. Inside, the resort’s dining hall appeared to be in considerably better shape, compared to the last time Blake had seen it. In fact, as he cautiously made his way further inside, it became apparent to him that everything seemed as good as new. There were a dozen or more tables evenly spaced around the room, each with ten or so chairs. Every table was the same, draped in a white table cloth and adorned with an assortment of green and red tinsel, Christmas crackers and other decorations. The Christmas tree at the centre of the room was fixed somehow too, its branches and decorations replaced or mended. Running along the nearest wall was another long table piled high with glassware, crockery and utensils. Not a broken piece of glass or plate could be seen. The floor was swept clean and even the lights were fixed. Blake wandered further into the room, marvelling at the sights around him. How had Haze managed to do all this in just a few days? He must have had time for nothing else. The boy in question was standing still a short way inside, surveying the room as if from a trance-like state of mind. His hands were in the pockets of his board shorts, the shopping bag on the floor at his feet. Timidly, Blake drew alongside, trying to glance at Haze’s face without being caught. He needn’t have worried though. Haze was in his own world. He didn’t even seem to notice Blake was there. He was ‘lost’ again, that terrible sad and lonely look to his face. There seemed to be a dullness about him, but one that went well beyond his usual detached and introverted expressions. This was real Haze, not a mask. The look of a young man who was hurting, bad. The sight made Blake’s heart ache too, as if he could feel that sadness resonating within himself. “It’s perfect,” he said softly, desperate to say something that would take away that pain. Haze’s vacant eyes dropped a bit and then his expression furrowed, as if he were contemplating something. For a moment Blake thought he was going to ignore the comment, but then he spoke in a soft, croaky voice. “Not perfect. I forgot somethin’.” He paused for a while without elaborating further, but before Blake could summon up the courage to say something else, Haze had bent over to pick up the bag at his feet. He peeled back the plastic to reveal packets of white candles, flat circular candles each sitting in a metal basin. He broke one of packets open and made his way over to the nearest table. He then set about placing one candle in each of the Christmas-styled candle holders. There were several types, Blake noted. Snowmen with hollowed bellies, reindeer with empty sleighs, Santas with open bags. Haze put a candle in each one and then moved to the next table. Blake didn’t quite know what to do with himself, so he just stood there and watched Haze go about this task. It occurred to him to offer to help, but Haze seemed intently focused on the activity, lost in his own world. Blake felt it would somehow be intruding to disturb him and so he just waited patiently. After Haze had made his way around the whole room and then back again, he placed the extra candles on the table with the dinnerware and then scrunched up the plastic, tossing it into the nearby bin. He then returned to his previous standing spot, although a little further way from Blake than before. “I really wanted to finish that yesterday,” he said, almost as if to himself. “But I didn’t finish in time.” “Well ... now it’s perfect then,” Blake said, watching Haze carefully for any insight on what the other boy was thinking. Haze’s expression darkened and then he snorted. “Hmph. I’m sure somethin’ will be wrong with it,” he muttered. “There usually is.” Blake wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, although the image of Mrs Herrington immediately sprung to mind. He was dying to ask, to prod Haze for further information, but he didn’t. As much as he wanted to know everything about the other boy, he didn’t want to take the conversation in any direction that might be upsetting. At least not tonight. Right now, Haze needed to get out of this dark place that he was in. He did not need to get dragged down further. “So ... what’s next then?” Blake asked, trying to inject a note of merriment he wasn’t actually feeling into his voice. Haze still didn’t look his way though, he just seemed to stare into nothing. After a long moment’s contemplation he spoke in a soft and terribly small voice. “I have absolutely no idea.” The emotion conveyed so much more than the words. Blake didn’t get the feeling Haze was talking about what to do next that evening. It sounded more as though he were answering the question of life itself. Blake found himself walking over to Haze, wanting to reach out to him, to comfort him, but then stopping short a few paces away. Though Haze still wasn’t looking his way, Blake felt that impenetrable wall between them again and he just couldn’t bring himself to breach it. At least not physically. “Well ... um ... I haven’t eaten ... so ...” but then he stopped as he realised that he sounded like he was asking Haze out to dinner or something. “I mean ... I’m just hungry is all ... like maybe we could grab something to eat ... like not at a restaurant or anything ... just ... errr ... maybe?” He squirmed on the spot as the question was left hanging between them. Haze’s lengthy silence was proving devastating to Blake’s nerves. “Sometimes I get somethin’ from the kitchen, like fish and chips,” he said and for the first time Blake saw him glance his way although it was only for a moment. “We can eat it on the beach ... um ... if ya don’t want to eat at the bistro.” Blake could feel the awkward tension between them building again, but it seemed benign compared to the horrible sadness and pain that had been there before, so he didn’t mind so much this time. “I-I um ... that sounds great,” he said, trying hard to ignore the voice in his head that muttered mutinously about the fat content of ‘fish and chips’. He could manage one meal. He had to stick with Haze. That was more important. However, Haze seemed to notice the indecision flashing across his face. “Unless ya feelin too sick?” he said, hurriedly backing away from his offer as if embarrassed. “No!” Blake rushed to say. “I’m not feeling sick at all!” Then he remembered his excuse for hanging around Haze. “In the tummy! Not sick like that ... at all, in that way. But maybe still from the diving ... sick that way ... but only maybe ...” he trailed off, embarrassed at how ridiculous he was sounding. “Erm ... so lead the way.” Haze nodded, appearing grateful for something to do. “Come on then,” he said, making for a double door at the far end of the room. Blake followed, pushing past the white, double-hinged doors, which swung open to reveal a kitchen bustling with movement and sound. A couple of the staff in chef aprons waved at Haze and shouted something over the din. They didn’t seem surprised to see him and were otherwise intent on doing their jobs. Blake tired to remain inconspicuous, keeping out of the way as Haze lifted a metal basket out of the deep-fryer and hung it up to drain. He then made his way over to the freezer, collecting various bits and pieces and tossing them into another metal basket. He shouted something at the staff and then placed the already cooked items into a nearby cardboard box, grabbing a few condiments and other things to put into a bag on his way out. A short while later, Blake found himself walking half a pace behind Haze as they crossed the front lawn of the resort, making their way towards the water. The sun had only just set and there was a blaze of orange and red still visible above the horizon of the ocean, even though the sky above was now dark. The manicured green lawns abruptly stopped at the boundary of the resort, giving way to stony red sand, scraggly grey grass and bushes. These too eventually disappeared, blending with the sand, first orange to yellow and then to white as finally they reached the beach. There was only just enough light by that stage to see the sand beneath them and the sea was already a dark, shapeless expanse. The night was still, but being so close to the water, Blake could feel a gentle breeze on his skin, wonderfully refreshing in the muggy summer air. The evening was calm and quiet, the silence punctuated only by the intermittent crash of tiny waves on the beach and the occasional noise from the resort, drifting ever so faintly over the dunes. After a while, Haze abruptly stopped walking, having apparently found a place to eat. He swept an area of sand flat with his bare feet and then dropped to the ground, sitting cross-legged, before placing the carton of food and the plastic bag besides him. Blake dithered awkwardly about where to sit for a moment, not sure if he should sit next to Haze or facing him. On the right or the left? Towards the ocean or the resort? How close? He knew it probably wouldn’t matter soon. It was getting too dark to see anything. However, he still held back until finally he took his cue from the way Haze was laying out the food. He kicked off his flip-flops and sat down on the sand just to the other boy’s left. Blake was thankful for the darkness. It helped him to hide the awkward tension coursing through his body. It also helped him to avoid thinking about how unhealthy the food was. Gratefully, he accepted a greasy piece of something from Haze, holding it steady while the other boy squeezed some lemon juice over it. Blake hadn’t realised how hungry he was until after that first bite. The food tasted surprisingly good and he quickly devoured the salty, greasy morsel before digging around in the box for more. He happened to glance over to Haze at that point and could just make out his bemused expression in the dimming light. “What?” he asked, feeling anxious and self-conscious under the other boy’s scrutiny. “Hungry huh?” Blake could just make out Haze’s eyes. They twinkled ever so faintly, as the now dark pools caught and reflected the dying rays of light. “Y-Yeah ...” he laughed nervously, again grateful for the darkness, praying it would conceal his reddening cheeks. “I missed lunch on the ... um ... boat ...” He trailed off, unwilling to bring up the circumstances surrounding lunch that day. The truth was he probably could’ve eaten on the boat, but he had been too busy acting like a wimp, convinced he was suffering from decompression sickness. “Yeah ... me too ...” said Haze, as a change of expression ran across his face. He seemed to become more thoughtful and melancholy again, although it was getting harder and harder to tell in the darkening evening light. Blake kicked himself mentally for taking the conversation down that path, for dragging Haze right back down again, just after he’d finally shown some good humour. “Pretty handy being able to grab food like that,” he ventured, aiming for a change of topic. “You must eat like a king.” It seemed to work. Haze appeared to snap out of whatever dark thoughts he was thinking about and his expression brightened. Perhaps the food was helping to lift his mood? Its warmth and nourishment had certainly helped to calm the anxious knot in Blake’s stomach. “Yeah well ... I don’t do it all the time,” he said, before reaching to grab a handful of chips. “Even some of the time must be awesome, not having to cook.” “I used to be a cook there actually.” “At the resort?” “Uh-huh.” “So you can cook huh?” Haze made a scoffing sound, but he sounded amused rather than bitter. “I mostly manned the deep fryer and waited tables.” “After school and stuff?” “No. Just holidays. I went to boarding school.” “Oh ... well ... it must have been great to come back here every summer?” Haze wiped his hands on his board shorts, brushing off the salt and grease before reaching for the can of soft drink. “Yeah ... I guess ... I hated school. Always hangin’ to get back to the water.” “For diving?” “Yeah ... well ... when I was old enough. Before that the beach, boats, snorkellin’ ... whatever. I always loved the sea.” “When did you get your diving licence?” “Fifteen, but before that, even when we were too young for our licence, I would go with ...” he paused then, his face darkening once more. “With Patty ... and her uncle ...” “Sounds like a great way to spend the summer,” said Blake, trying to salvage the conversation. But it was too late. Haze had withdrawn again. “Yeah,” he muttered, shifting his attention back to the food. Blake left that topic there, taking the opportunity to eat some more chips while he tried to think of something else to say. Haze didn’t seem to be very talkative, so Blake was surprised when he spoke up of his own accord, a short while later. “Blake?” he ventured in a soft uncertain sounding voice. Blake felt that familiar shiver of nervous excitement course through him. “Yeah?” he responded, trying to study Haze’s expression, but finding that impossible this time around. The night was truly upon them now and it had grown so dark that Haze was just a black shadow, barely distinguishable from all the other dark shapes on the beach. Blake wasn’t even sure which direction the other boy was facing. “Can I ask ya somethin’?” Blake swallowed, inaudibly. “Yeah.” “Why are ya here?” A sinking sensation spread through his body as Blake worried about the meaning behind such a question. What was Haze getting at? Had he figured out Blake was only pretending to be sick? Did he think he was acting weird or crazy? Was he wary now, about being left alone together after ... the kiss? Without the ability to read the other boy’s body language or facial expressions, Blake had only the tone of Haze’s voice to go by. He sounded uncertain, hesitant and kind of sad, but genuine. He didn’t sound accusatory. But what did all that mean? Blake decided to play it safe. “I ... I wasn’t feeling well ... still maybe not ... um ... and I just wanted-” “I didn’t mean that,” Haze interrupted, not forcefully or angrily. If anything he sounded ponderous, almost philosophical. “I mean why are ya here. In Kulibari Bay?” Blake found himself caught off guard by the question. It certainly hadn’t occurred to him that Haze might be asking such a thing. “Well err ... to be a ... um ... dive master, of course,” he fumbled, struggling to come up with an answer on the spot. He heard Haze shifting about on the sand besides him, but he couldn’t see what he was doing. “Yeah, but why?” Haze asked, his voice now coming from further away and lower down. “I ... I dunno,” Blake responded, honestly. He figured that Haze was lying down now and so he decided to do the same. He leaned back until his head was resting on the sand and then stared up at the stars in the sky. “I’m not sure I know what you mean?” Haze didn’t respond immediately and in the darkness Blake was unable to ascertain what he might be thinking. “Mum tells me ya come from a ritzy part of Sydney,” he said eventually, in a soft voice. “Fancy school. Fancy university. Good job as a lawyer ...” “Oh ...” Blake muttered, understanding the question now, but not entirely sure as to how he should answer it. Officially he was on a ‘career break’. A year without pay. Something that the firm he’d worked for, like most of the large Sydney law firms, offered as a way of trying to retain staff who were going through some midlife crisis. Of course he was too young for a midlife crisis, being only a few years out from law school. In fact he wasn’t really eligible for a career break under the firm’s employment terms and nor did he ask for one in any event. He had walked into the office that day meaning to resign forever, but the partners had made such a fuss about ‘throwing away his future’ that he’d ended up agreeing to this instead. It was a good deal, he could choose to come back at anytime in the next 12 months and get his old job back, but there was no obligation to, no commitment. This was good because deep down he knew he didn’t want to go back to being a lawyer in a big city firm. It was killing him. Nearly had killed him, he reminded himself bitterly. “I’m on an extended working holiday ...” he started to say, but then he stopped. That wasn’t really the full truth and hadn’t he decided that he needed to be more open and honest with Haze? How could he expect the other boy to confide in him, to be open in return when he was always hiding things? “Actually, to tell you the truth, I just quit one day. I ... didn’t want to be a lawyer.” “Couldn’t ya do somethin’ else in Sydney?” Haze asked after a brief pause. “Yeah ... I guess ... I just ... I wanted to do diving.” “Diving is huge in Sydney.” “Yeah ... but no reefs, nothing like this,” Blake argued, but it sounded unconvincing even to his own ears. “I guess,” came the flat reply. Blake could hear the unsatisfied tone in Haze’s voice, even without being able to see him through the darkness. “I suppose ... there’s more to it than that ...” he ventured, trying to ignore the part of his mind that was shouting at him not to take the conversation in this direction. Was this really a good idea? Haze most likely thought he was crazy already. And perverted and a wimp and fuck knows what else. Did he really have to add this to the list? “Ya don’t have to say if ya don’t want,” Haze offered, softly, apparently sensing the hesitation. Blake considered taking the out, changing to a safer topic and talking about something else, something that didn’t make him feel so vulnerable. But then another thought occurred to him. Maybe this is was a way he could broach with Haze the topic he’d been trying to get to all afternoon? He recalled Nats telling him how he needed to talk about himself more, to share more with others so that they would feel inclined to share their stories in return. This was one of those opportunities, he was sure of it. To say nothing would be to waste it. He took a deep breath and steeled his nerves, grateful for the comforting veil of darkness. Without a moon in the sky and with only the faintest star light above them, he could not see Haze at all now. The darkness and the quiet were reassuring somehow, like hiding under the covers of his bed. He felt emboldened, encouraged to say more. “Well ... I ... I was in a really ... bad space ... not so long ago,” he began, his voice barely above a whisper. “Unhappy, but not like ... you know ... just sad or something, this was unhappy until it hurt. Unhappy all the time. A hopeless, desperate kinda unhappy.” He took another breath and then swallowed, sensing the poisonous feelings arise within, as he recalled those last few months in Sydney. “Nothing was fun anymore, even my favourite things to do. No one ... got me and ... I didn’t want anyone around anyway. Had lost most my friends ... stopped talking to my family ... I was all alone and ...” he choked a bit, unable to suppress the involuntary sob from catching in his throat. “And the ... thoughts ... I would think ... all the time. They were so bad ... so bad they hurt. It hurt all the time.” He paused for a moment, trying to control the shallow, shuddering breaths he was now taking. The memories and the emotions they evoked were so powerful, even after all this time. It was like a panic attack, but different. That same ‘overwhelmed’ feeling, but this time because of the sadness and pain, rather than from fear or panic. Haze didn’t say anything and as to why that was, Blake could only guess. Maybe he was freaking out? Maybe he was backing away or getting ready to ridicule or to laugh or to run? Maybe he was just waiting ... giving Blake the chance to finish first, before letting fly with the condemnation? After a moment Blake could feel the emotions receded a little, but only just below the surface. They seemed to hover there, barely suppressed, waiting to get out again, to overwhelm him again. Blake gave himself a few more seconds to stabilise, grateful for the cover of complete darkness. He could hide here in the dark, try to forget that Haze was right there next to him. If Haze had been looking at him now, he doubted he could have continued, certainly not as far as this. He couldn’t believe he was about to talk about this. With someone other than his doctor. For the first time. “One day ...” he chocked, swallowing to clear his now croaky voice. “One day, everything was so bad and hurt so much I just ... wanted it to stop ... so ... I ... did something ... something stupid. Ended up in the hospital. I ... I nearly ...” he gulped again and could only bring himself to whisper the next bit. “I nearly died.” There. That was it. He had said it. And he could not recall ever having felt this vulnerable in his entire life. Anxiously he waited for some response from Haze. A gasp or an exclamation? A word or a statement? Even a jeer perhaps? A laugh even? Something. But there was only silence. Endless silence. Plenty of time for Blake’s mind to conjure up all sorts of horrible possibilities. Images of Haze and notions of what he might be thinking that were so terrifying they made Blake feel nauseous with fear and anxiety. But then he was startled by some movement near his arm. For a brief moment he thought something was crawling over him, but then he felt the warm flesh against his upper arm and realised that it must be Haze. The hand trailed lower, feeling its way down until finally it took hold of Blake’s hand and gave it the softest, gentlest squeeze. Blake choked and sobbed then, he couldn’t help it. He wasn’t even sure why. Maybe from relief or maybe he just couldn’t hold it back anymore? He felt a trickle of tears leak from his eyes and roll down his cheeks, falling to the sand as he took shuddering, shallow breaths. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, the familiar feelings of shame and self-loathing now joining the mix of profound sadness, of loss and grief. “Shhh,” Haze whispered back and Blake clutched his hand even harder. That is how it was between them for the next few minutes. Blake trying desperately to pull himself together, muttering apologies involuntarily, while Haze tried to hush him all the while, occasionally squeezing his hand. Eventually, Blake calmed himself enough to manage to talk again, to finish the story. “Anyway,” he sniffed, trying to put a bit of mirth into his voice, although it ended up sounding hollow. “The ... er ... doctor ...” He couldn’t quite bring himself to say ‘psychiatrist’. “He ... we ... talked about it ... had been talking about it for a while and ... well ... I ... just left ... and came here.” There was another pause while he thought about what he was trying to say. “You see ... that life ... my old life. Sydney. Being a lawyer. The people I knew. My family. My home. All of it ... it was ... sick ... it was a bad life.” He felt his voice firm a little as he moved away from those dark memories. “And so ... I needed to start again. A new life. I needed to start a new life and it had to be somewhere ... new. Completely different. So that’s... that’s why I came here.” With the story finally over a strange sort of calm descended upon Blake. He was still shaking from the intensity of the emotions he was feeling and he was still too terrified even to dare to wonder what Haze might be thinking. He was also hovering just below the line of a panic attack, or perhaps it was a complete mental breakdown, just barely contained. And yet there was also this strange sense of calm. Catharsis perhaps? Or perhaps it was release? As if he were sightly lighter somehow, more so than just a moment ago. “Blake?” Haze was no longer speaking softly, he was whispering and his voice sounded thick too. “Yeah?” Blake whispered back, not entirely sure why they were whispering, but certain that Haze wanted it this way. “I ... I did somethin’ stupid today too,” came the hoarse and hesitant whisper, only barely audible despite the near silence of the night. “Yeah ... I know ...” Blake whispered back. He wondered then, whether that wasn’t the right thing to say. Whether he should have asked for Haze to explain further, instead. After all, the truth was that he didn’t really know what Haze had done. Not really. All he knew was that a paperclip had somehow gotten lodged in Haze’s spare breathing regulator, peeling back the valve less than half-a-millimetre, just big enough to leak air at a rate that would not be visible to a buddy. The divers with Haze, the Italian girls, had all aborted the dive at about the same time. Less than halfway through, according to the logs on their dive computers. Two of the girls had nearly full tanks of air when they got back to the boat. Blake had checked all of their tanks at the shop that afternoon. But one of the girls had almost no air left. She had only just made it back to the boat, despite cutting the dive short by fifteen or twenty minutes. That was the girl who had been wearing Haze’s gear. Two people breathing from Haze’s tank would never have made it back at all. Not even one person could have made it back, had the dive not been cut short. Blake could guess what this all meant, but he didn’t really know what Haze had been thinking. However, he somehow knew for sure that to force Haze to say more out loud was unnecessary. “I know,” he repeated again, giving Haze’s hand a gentle squeeze back. “I didn’t mean to,” Haze whispered after another moment’s pause and it sounded to Blake as if he were snivelling a bit himself now too. Although he couldn’t be sure, not with the way Haze was whispering so softly. Not in the total darkness. “Yeah. I know.” “I ... didn’t really think it through,” Haze added, still whispering. “I know. Neither did I,” Blake told him. There was another drawn out silence, the two of them, laying there on the sand, in the dark, holding hands and staring at the stars in the sky. “Blake?” came the whisper again, thick with emotion, hesitant and so very, very small. “Yeah?” “Everything is fucked ... and ... I don’t know what to do to fix it.” Blake felt that terrible aching in his heart, that longing to reach out to Haze and to comfort him. But unlike every other time he had felt this feeling, this time Blake decided to act upon it. He shifted himself closer, unable to see what he was doing, but able to roughly judge where Haze was from the hand he was holding onto. He then reached over with his other arm and took hold of Haze’s hand in both of his own. Next he freed the first hand and snaked his arm around Haze’s neck. He wasn’t sure what the other boy was thinking, but he could feel him lift his head obligingly. With one arm now curled around Haze’s neck and shoulders and the other holding onto his hand, Blake did his best to comfort his friend, despite the slightly awkward angle. “Things will get better Haze,” he whispered, near to where he estimated the blue-eyed boy’s ear would be. He could feel Haze trembling against his arm. “How could ya know that?” Haze whispered back, an almost childish stubbornness to his voice. “Cause I’ve been there. It gets better. You just gotta make sure you’ll be around for when it does.” Blake wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, but it was the last time that they spoke for a very long while. Until the moon had risen and they had made their way silently back to the resort. Perhaps the truce that had somehow allowed this moment of intimacy had expired? Or perhaps they had simply progressed as far as they could in just one night? Without the darkness Blake felt certain he would not have been able to have this conversation at all. Perhaps the moonlight broke the spell? Whatever the reason, a not uncomfortable silence descended upon them and for a long while they just lay there, the silence broken only by the occasional crash of waves on the sand.
    1 point
  34. The assembly of people with Blake at the bar that night were spread across a long wooden table, seated two or three to each of the wooden, backless bench-chairs tucked underneath. It had been decided that everyone would sit inside the bar that night, at a table, so that they could order something to eat as well as to drink. Blake disliked most social settings, but in particular he hated the ‘beer hall’ configuration that so often seemed to occasion birthday dinners involving large groups of people at restaurants. The problem with this setup, so far as Blake saw it, was the tendency for smaller groups of between two to four people to form, each gathered around a single conversation. Since it was usually impossible to hear what someone was saying if they were more than one or two people away, there was always the risk that, in the chaotic formation and dispersal of these conversations, an individual could suddenly find themselves left out entirely and wind up feeling very foolish. In Blake’s experience that sort of person was generally someone like himself. Extroverts like Nats rarely found themselves in this sort of predicament. On this occasion, Blake was leaning over the table until he practically had his ear in his salad, as he tried hard to appear part of the group that had formed to his left. This group included Haze, Patty, Derrick, Matt and Carlos. Derrick sat at the head of the table, on a stool he’d dragged over from another table nearby. For the most part, the conversation seemed to revolve around him and Patty. Carlos and Matt sat on Blake’s left, meaning that Blake had to lean over every time the conversation passed to Derrick from Patty, which was often. He found this awkward and annoying, but he had little choice since he could barely make out what was being said, such was the din inside the Kulibari Billabong that night. Patty was across from Carlos and Matt, practically sitting on top of Haze. Her arms were wrapped around her boyfriend in imitation of some kind of strangling octopus-like-creature, one that had ensnared its prey and would never let go. At least that’s how Blake would have described it, had he been asked. He was truly grateful for the numbing effects of the medication right now. However, he still found himself unable to contain the loathing glares he would send Patty’s way every time she pawed at Haze. In particular, Blake hated the way she would slip a finger between the buttons of Haze’s shirt, so as to stroke and caress the skin of his chest. He hated that Haze was even wearing that boring, navy-blue button-up shirt, as a matter of fact, mostly because he could tell it was Patty’s selection. Haze was a casual sort of guy and she had clearly put him in what she’d considered a more ‘going out’ shirt. In addition, she’d dressed him in dark-coloured trousers, an item of clothing that was not only out of place in the casual atmosphere of the resort bar, but also quite unsuitable for the summer evening’s muggy heat. To top this off, Haze’s gorgeous shaggy locks, which Blake always thought looked their best windswept and wild, were tonight combed straight, parted down the middle and looking damp with some kind of greasy hair product. Blake had never seen Haze ‘dress-up’ for a night out before, but he felt certain this was not how the blue-eyed boy would choose to look, if he’d had a say in the matter. Of course, what Haze made of his appearance or the attentions of his girlfriend was anyone’s guess. For the most part he seemed to be unaware of the situation and equally oblivious to the intimate physical contact. However, Blake wasn’t entirely sure of this conclusion. Haze had been acting introverted for the entire evening thus far, so it was hard to tell for sure. Haze was smiling and apparently engaged in the conversation going on around him, but Blake could tell this wasn’t really the case. Haze wasn’t just being quiet, he was being detached and avoidant, his cheerful expression was a mere mask. That said, who would know what was really going on inside his head? At that moment, Blake felt himself flinch a little as Patty gave Haze another peck on the cheek. It was unpleasant to have to watch Haze being molested by her all night. Even more unpleasant than having to lean over his food, to feel part of the group. However, the alternative group of people to Blake’s right were an even less appealing bunch. This group consisted of Nats, her two friends from the night before and also Vicky. Their conversation was more of a ‘huddle’ and seemed to generate conspiratorial glares in Blake’s direction whenever he turned around casually, which was every time he needed to take a break from glaring himself at Patty. He didn’t need to hear what they were saying over the noise of the bar to know what they were talking about. They were talking about him and it wasn’t nice things they were saying either, judging from their facial expressions. Up to four people could squeeze onto the bench Blake was sitting on, but as it was he had almost the entire space to himself. The only other person sitting on his chair was one of Nats’s friends and she had scootered over as far away from Blake as she could manage. He was sure that if he stood up suddenly, her weight at the far end would be enough to tip the bench until it fell over. He’d considered testing the theory more than once. The noise, the crowds and the seating arrangements were anxiety-inducing enough, but added to the other social complexities Blake could keenly feel the building pressure, the panic rising, the risk of a complete mental meltdown, barely contained. However, safely medicated, ‘barely contained’ was sufficient enough for Blake. In fact, he felt he was holding it together quite well really. He may be uncomfortable and counting down the minutes until it was okay to leave, but emotionally he felt stable enough to last out the evening. That was until he heard the clunk of glass hitting the table beside him and turned around to find Derrick sitting there grinning at him. He had apparently abandoned his spot at the head of the table and had come over to make use of the space next to Blake. “I didn’t know what you like to drink, so I just got two of what I’m having,” he said, pushing a glass of beer over in Blake’s direction. Blake scowled at it, annoyed at the directness of this new approach to force alcohol down his throat. He had thus far managed to dodge the starter drinks by being strategically late and then the pre-dinner rounds of tequila shots by artfully making for the bathroom at the time. After that, when everyone had sat down to the table, he had managed to turn down every offer of a round of drinks by indicating the glass of soda water he had been nursing. The bartender had put it into a scotch glass with ice so as to make it look like vodka, at his request. “I said I didn’t want anything thank you,” Blake responded, smiling tightly. “I know,” Derrick said, wagging an eyebrow at him in an inebriated fashion. “It was very rude of you.” He lifted his own glass as if to toast. Blake glanced around the room looking for some excuse or source of rescue, but instead his eyes only landed on Patty and Haze again. She had just put some piece of food into Haze’s mouth and then followed it up with a kiss. The sight made Blake feel queasy, a sick sort of bitter, twisting, angry feeling inside, despite the effects of the medication. He quickly looked away and back over to Derrick, who was still holding his glass raised high, waiting for Blake to join him. Fuck it, Blake thought, before taking the beer and then clinking his glass against Derricks. “To a fun night out!” Derrick declared, before taking a swig. Blake snorted bitterly, but he doubted Derrick was sober enough to notice based on his silly grin and the slight sway of his glass. “Cheers,” Blake said simply, lifting his own glass and taking several large gulps all at once. The beer was refreshing and the taste familiar. “What is this?” he asked. “The beer I like to drink,” Derrick responded, winking at him. “Which is ... ?” “Pure blonde.” Figures, Blake thought to himself. Low-carb beer was the beer he drank too and that pointed to one thing: gay. Or at least body obsessed. It wasn’t the sole prerogative of gay men he supposed and to maintain such a toned body Derrick must surely take some care with his calorie intake. Perhaps he was just a health nut? “So whereabouts in Sydney are you from?” Derrick asked, interrupting Blake’s musings. Blake knew he hadn’t mentioned he was from Sydney before, nor had it come up so far this evening. Clearly, someone had been talking to Derrick during the time they had all gone home to change. “South-side, Cronulla,” Blake responded, more and more convinced he was right about Derrick’s sexuality, as he studied his companion’s choice of eveningwear. Derrick, like Haze, was also in a dark buttoned up shirt, but whereas Haze’s was shapeless and drab, Derrick’s was sleek, sharp and fitted, cut high up the arms to show off his biceps and low at the neck to show off his chest definition. Blake had to admit he did look damn good, a little too good for a straight guy. “I dunno where that is exactly. I’ve only been to Sydney a few times to go partying. Stayed with some friends of mine in Surry Hills.” The gay suburb, Blake thought, ticking-off another box in his head. He decided to go ‘fact fishing’ though, just to make sure. “Where’d you party?” “Oh ... err ... a few places.” Derrick looked a little unsure of himself for a moment, scratching at his head before continuing. “Clubs. Can’t really remember their names. Um ... Arq maybe?” Bingo, Blake thought to himself. Arq was definitely a gay club, at least most of the time. Every now and then it was ‘mixed’ so a safe answer to pick if you wanted to play your cards carefully, as Derrick was clearly doing now. “You heard of it?” Derrick asked, looking hopeful. “No, I haven’t heard of it, but I’m not really the partying type.” Blake told him, figuring to himself that at least half of that sentence was true. He definitely wasn’t the partying type. “Really?” Derrick said, drawing out the word. He was eyeing Blake sceptically and for a moment Blake was worried that he’d been caught out lying. “Y-Yeah ... why ...?” he asked nervously, reaching for his drink again so as to give himself an excuse to break eye contact. He took several more mouthfuls of the bitter liquid, pleased to be free of Derrick’s intense pale-blue eyes. “I dunno,” Derrick responded and then he took his time surveying Blake’s appearance, much to the other’s discomfort. “You just look like the clubbing type?” Blake glanced down. He was wearing his D&G t-shirt which he supposed was a little trendy. He couldn’t imagine what else Derrick might be talking about. Or was this code for something else? “Well ... I’m ... I’m not. I don’t really go out much at all, actually.” He realised that this must make him sound lame to Derrick, so he tried to cover over his discomfort by finishing off his beer with some impressively large gulps. He then placed the empty glass on the table. “Can’t imagine why not,” Derrick said, giving him that same unnerving look again. Despite the medication, Blake felt a little uneasy with the way Derrick was behaving. He went to reach for his beer again, but it was empty. Without a prop to hide behind, he felt naked and exposed before Derrick’s shrewd eyes. “Another round?” Blake asked, deciding that a trip to the bar would be a good excuse to put some distance between them. “Sure,” Derrick said, sculling the rest of his beer, which was still half full, before plonking it down on the table. “Same again?” “Why not.” Blake got to his feet, immediately noticing how difficult this seemed. He then tried to lift one leg over the bench, but caught his toe on the edge and stumbled instead. His hand ended up landing heavily on the table causing the glasses to jump. Derrick chortled at this. Blake blinked and tried again, feeling a rush of blood to his head and a little dizzy for his efforts. He soon stopped once more, this time with one leg on either side of the bench, leaning over to put both hands down for balance. He didn’t understand why this was so difficult. He figured it couldn’t be the effect of just one beer though, so he just shook it off with a side-to-side swish of his head. “I’ll come with,” Derrick said, moving along the bench to stand up as well. “No!” Blake interrupted a little more forcefully than he had meant to. Derrick looked down at the hand on his shoulder and Blake, realising that it was his own, whipped it backwards, almost losing balance in the process. An awkward moment passed between them. “It’s my round, I’ll get it,” Blake eventually said, feeling very embarrassed all of a sudden. He then briefly wondered why he would be feeling such embarrassment, since he’d only just taken his meds a few hours ago. He shouldn’t really be feeling much of anything at all. Weird. He didn’t spend too long thinking about this though. It seemed more important to put some distance between himself and Derrick, the source of the embarrassing feelings. With some difficulty, he managed to haul his other leg over the bench. “Be back in a tick.” “Hang on. I’ll give you a hand, carrying it.” “I’m fine, really,” Blake protested, swaying unconvincingly. “It’s no trouble,” Derrick told him, standing. As he lifted himself up off the bench, it started to rise up with him under the weight of Nats’s friend perched right at the other end. She squealed in shock, causing Derrick to snigger. She glared at both of them and all of a sudden Blake found himself laughing out loud, a big belly laugh that seemed totally disproportionate to what had just happened. He knew he should not be laughing. He was supposed to be feeling numb. Derrick stood up again, holding the bench down until the other girl could shift along a little and then he joined Blake, the two of them making their way over to the bar. The room was packed and Blake felt a little claustrophobic all of a sudden, to add to all the other strange things he was now feeling. He stopped to catch his breath and then wondered why on earth he would be out of breath in the first place, since they’d only walked about five metres. “What’s up?” Derrick shouted, leaning into his ear. Blake was about to respond when he felt Derricks hand on the small of his back, causing his breath to hitch. The contact was warm and not at all unpleasant, but it made him nervous and he forgot what he was about to say. “Come on,” Derrick shouted again, pushing them forward by applying pressure with that hand against Blake’s back. By the time they’d reached the bar Blake was feeling confused and forgetful. He wasn’t sure what they were doing at the bar anymore. He wasn’t really interested either. He was more interested in Derrick now. Blake hadn’t really noticed the guy much since he’d downed the drugs that afternoon, but now he couldn’t seem not to notice. Derrick was a distractingly good-looking guy. Derrick rested his forearms on the counter, causing his muscles to bludge as he leaned across to order some beers. He turned to wink at Blake as they waited and Blake felt himself squirm under the attention. When the bartender finally did return, Derrick handed him a twenty dollar note and it was this that jogged Blake’s foggy memory. “Hey! It’s my round!” he shouted leaning over towards Derrick and frowning crossly. He didn’t like being made to feel like a moocher. “Too late!” Derrick smirked, poking his tongue out a fraction. Blake felt quite put out by this. More than that, he felt challenged. So, when the bartender returned and gave Derrick his change, Blake decided to order something else. What had everyone been drinking before? “A couple of shots of tequila!” he shouted to the bartender who nodded and turned away. Blake spun towards to Derrick with a boastful expression, but the other boy only raised an eyebrow at him, seeming pleased, rather than confronted. The bartender returned placing the shots next to the beers, before taking Blake’s money. Blake felt an elated, giddy thrill rush through him as he knocked back the shot without really thinking about what he was doing. The recklessness felt good. He felt good. Derrick copied him and for some reason Blake found watching this hilarious. He laughed loudly and then grinned at the other boy. “Now we’re even!” he said, poking his tongue out at Derrick. “Nuh-huh,” Derrick shouted shaking his head. “I’m still one ahead.” He indicated the beers on the bar, just as the bartender was returning with Blake’s change. Blake felt competitive and irresponsible and for some reason he was consumed by an overwhelming urge to settle the score with Derrick. “Another round!” he shouted at the bartender, who just rolled his eyes and took the change back. “I thought you weren’t the partying type?” Derrick shouted. A moment of hesitancy crossed Blake’s mind as it occurred to him then that Derrick was right. He really didn’t party. This wasn’t like him at all. But then he felt that strange high, that elation and rush of energy and all of a sudden he felt sure of himself once more. “I lied!” he shouted back, reasoning that this was also a half-truth. He had been pretending not to know about the name of that nightclub before. So this lie sort of balanced that lie out. He felt a little dizzy thinking about it, but was sure it made sense. The bartender returned again with the shot glasses and Derrick took hold of his, raising it to his mouth with a cheeky grin while waiting for Blake to do likewise. Blake followed suit and then Derrick counted to three before they knocked the shots back together. Derrick had already had plenty to drink that night, yet these shots seemed to roll right off him. Blake on the other hand, coughed and spluttered at the fiery drink as it slid down his throat. He then pushed off from the bar and almost fell over, promptly launching into giggle fits about this. “Whoa there!” Derrick said, hand at Blake’s waist again, ostensibly to help him balance. “Maybe I’ll carry the drinks huh?” Blake didn’t feel challenged by the coddling anymore. He was having too good a time now to really think much about that. “Carry my drinks!” he ordered, with mock haughtiness. Derrick rolled his eyes and laughed, before taking hold of the pints and leading them back through the crowd. Blake was feeling great as they pushed through the throng of people. All those bodies helped to keep him upright and now they didn’t seem all that intimidating or anxiety-inducing after all. When they finally got back to the table, the dynamics of the group had shifted somewhat since everyone had finished eating dinner and were now more casually arranged. They had spread out a bit, claiming a few smaller tables nearby and also some barstools. More people had joined them and everyone seemed to be talking in smaller, more intimate groups. Derrick led Blake around the table that they had been sitting at before and then over to the other side where there was now some space. Nats and her friends stared at them from the other end, but rather than feel intimidated Blake felt majorly pissed off. Where did they get off hassling him like this? He made a face at one of Nats’s friends who quickly shied away. “What’s their problem?” Derrick asked, leaning over to shout near Blake’s ear as he placed the glasses on the table. Blake knew that he really shouldn’t be gossiping, but figured Derrick was only staying a couple of weeks at most anyway. What could it hurt? “They’re pissy at me,” he said gruffly, glaring back at the girls, as they sat down. “Why?” “Cause I don’t fancy one of them that tried to kiss me.” Derrick guffawed loudly at this and he slapped his knee. “Which one?” he asked, lifting and lowering his eyebrows. Blake knew that he really, really shouldn’t say anything this time, not with the way the girls were glaring at them, but inhibitions were absent and restraint seemed unnecessary. “The girl with the freckles,” he said finally, but then he immediately regretted opening his mouth when Derrick turned around to look. Drunk as he was, he was being really obvious about it. “Don’t look man!” “The one in the white shirt?” Derrick asked, pointing. “Don’t point!” “She’s hot, what’s wrong with her?” he asked, turning back to fix Blake with a strange, knowing look. “N-nothing,” Blake stuttered, feeling a sudden rush of anxiety. “She’s just ... not my type.” The anxiety had seemingly come from nowhere, powerful enough to make his head spin. He reached for his beer then and took another big swig. Beer would take away this anxiety. Surely? “So what is your type then?” Derrick asked, leaning over slyly. Alarm bells were going off inside Blake’s head, but just then, as quickly as it had arrived, his sudden rush of anxiety began to ebb and disappear. The elation and euphoria returned once more instead, that rush of confidence and recklessness consuming him. “Blondish, surfie type, with killer blue eyes,” he responded, feeling clever about his cryptic description of Haze. Derrick arched an eyebrow at this, the one that wasn’t pierced. “That girl seems pretty close to blondish, surfie chick to me?” he pointed out, his words sending Blake into another tailspin of anxiety. Blake briefly wondered about this rollercoaster of up and down emotions. One minute he was feeling the kind of extreme anxiety that normally took hours to build and then the next minute he was feeling on top of the world. This did seem very strange to him, but it was becoming too difficult to be self reflective about it. It was hard to concentrate now and analysing what was going on inside his crazy head took a lot of concentration at the best of times. The beer helped, he just needed to drink more beer. He grabbed his glass and took a few more gulps before crashing it back down on the table. “Well she’s not,” he told Derrick in a stubborn, defensive tone. Now Blake’s emotions had moved on to anger. He was sick of the way the girls were looking at him, at the way Nats was looking at him in particular. Accusingly. What was her problem? “They’re all bitches,” he spat. “Calm down dude ... sheez.” Blake’s fiery eyes flicked from Nats back to Derrick, ready to snap at him. However, instead he felt a flutter of still different emotions, the sensations dizzying and uncomfortable. He noticed that Derrick was closer now. He’d scootered up close sometime after they had sat down. Blake lowered his eyes and noticed that Derrick was straddling the bench they were sitting on, one leg on either side. Derrick’s crotch was almost touching Blake’s knee. When Blake next looked up Derrick was smiling at him, almost smugly. The rush of these confused and contradictory emotions started to overwhelm Blake. He was nauseous with anxiety again, but also excited and on top of this angry and spiteful towards ... towards what he wasn’t sure. He felt pretty certain now that Derrick was gay, but more than that, it was almost as if Derrick was making a pass at him. That didn’t make much sense though. Derrick was hot, super hot. Why would he be interested in someone like Blake? Thinking about this made Blake feel angry, but he didn’t know who he was angry at and that made everything even more confusing. His head was spinning and now the room was spinning too. It was just so hard to be sure of what was going on, of what he was feeling. “Maybe we can find you another girl then, that’ll really piss her off,” Derrick suggested, leaning in to be heard over the din of the bar. He placed his hand on Blake’s leg as he did this, an innocent enough gesture, but one that sent Blake’s heart aflutter and his breath racing. He could feel the wind of Derrick’s exhalations on his face, the smell of the bitter beer on his breath. Beer mixed with something else, kind of ... minty? Blake felt himself blush and his voice stumbled. “N-no thanks ... I’m okay ...” he fumbled, unable to meet Derrick’s scrutinising eyes. Even if Derrick was gay, Blake couldn’t understand why Derrick would be interested in him. Except, he probably wasn’t very interested, beyond maybe a bit of ‘fun’. Derrick was heading back to Perth in a week or so. Hardly enough time to be looking for a boyfriend. Maybe he just wanted a fuck? It was only a small town, probably no other options. Blake might be the centre of attention by default. It was the only way someone like him would ever get interest from someone like Derrick. “You are single, right?” Derrick asked. “Y-yeah.” Blake squirmed under the direct questioning, lifting his glass to give himself something to do, more than to drink. “So you’re not getting any?” Blake blushed, feeling that sick twisting in his gut, humiliation and anxiety and something else. It was hard to know what he was feeling, he just felt so dizzy. “So?” he responded gruffly. “And you’re ‘okay’ with that?” Derrick asked, with mock incredulity. It was meant as a joke. Blake knew that it was. But all of a sudden he felt awash with sadness and despair. There was a stinging at the corner of his eyes, a quiver of his jaw. The emotions were strong and they seemed to pile on top of everything else he had been feeling. Overwhelmed and baffled by these sensations, Blake wasn’t in the frame of mind to hide them from his face. Derrick quickly seemed to notice. “Whoa there dude,” he said, his voice immediately changing in tone. “Hey man I’m sorry, I was only joking.” Gone was the mocking, playful voice. Now he sounded concerned. Blake stared at his lap as he tried to regain control. Derrick’s compassionate tone of voice wasn’t helping things either. It only made Blake feel weak and pathetic. He clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to block out the overpowering emotions. But then he felt the pressure of Derrick’s hand move and he watched as the other boy reached out to place the side of his index finger softly beneath Blake’s chin. Derrick applied a gentle pressure there, forcing Blake’s head upwards to make eye contact. Blake was too stunned to stop him, but once he’d made eye contact with those pale blue eyes he discovered that he didn’t want Derrick to stop. The sensations felt good. Derrick looked good. Everything about this moment was good. Blake stopped breathing. He just gasped. “Hey Blake ... listen I ...” Derrick didn’t get to finish what he was saying though, as at that moment there was a terrific crash, causing him to jump and to move his hand away. The noise had managed to cut through the racket of the bar and was loud enough to draw the attention of everyone nearby. Blake forgot about everything that was happening with Derrick, as his eyes whipped over to the source of noise. There he saw some kind of commotion and an upended table and chair. Matt was standing, laughing. Patty was nearby, squawking angrily, dusting something off her clothes. Some other people around them seemed alternately angry or amused. However, Blake’s foggy, confused gaze landed on only one face for more than a second, a face that never failed to capture his attention. Haze was staring back at him too, glaring with intense blue eyes. Of everyone standing around the ruckus only Haze seemed uninterested in the fallen table. He just maintained his glare at Blake. As usual, his expression was difficult to read, but he seemed almost angry. For reasons Blake didn’t understand, he felt himself wilt guiltily under the intensity of the look Haze was giving him, but that only lasted for a brief moment. Haze’s attention was soon drawn away, almost reluctantly it seemed, as he appeared to finally notice Patty’s fists beating at his chest. Haze grabbed at her wrists distractedly, glancing over at Blake one more time before turning his full attention to his girlfriend. Blake could tell that Patty was angry with Haze. She pointed at the mess and shoved at him as she shouted something Blake couldn’t make out. “Uh-oh!” Derrick hollered, laughing. “Trouble in paradise!” Haze bent over and started to straighten the furniture, but he kept glancing over at Blake every now and then. Blake found this made him feel uncomfortable, so he turned away to clutch at his dizzying head. The noise of the bar soon returned to normal and Blake took another swig of his beer in the hope it would nullify some of the crazy emotions he was feeling. “Someone’s not gonna get his Christmas present at his rate,” Derrick joked, leaning in to Blake once again. Blake smiled at the joke, but then furrowed his brow in confusion. Despite the dizziness and crazy emotions he felt, Derrick’s words had cut through and piqued his interest. “What Christmas present?” Derrick turned back to meet Blake’s eyes, looking a little shy and guilty all of a sudden. “Err ... I err ... I probably shouldn’t say man ...” “Why not?” “Nah man, I can’t say.” Blake was very curious now and he wasn’t about to leave matters there. Derrick seemed to know something, something involving Haze. Blake was always desperate for more information on Haze. His obsessive mind just had to know what Derrick was hiding. He continued hassling for Derrick to tell him, but the other boy held firm, refusing to say anything more. He seemed to enjoy the attention Blake was giving him though, and this gave Blake an idea. He placed one hand on Derrick’s knee and leaned over to speak into his ear. “Come on,” he said, squeezing gently. “You can whisper it to me.” Derrick blushed, instantaneously changing from confident and macho to sheepish and pliant. For a moment Blake wondered to himself what on earth he was doing, behaving this way. What had gotten hold of him? He wasn’t being himself at all. But he ignored these thoughts. He was too consumed by his obsession with Haze. He had to get this information out of Derrick. He gave the inebriated boy a pouty smile and then watched as indecision seemed to race backwards and forwards across Derrick’s face as he tried to make up his mind. Eventually Derrick leaned in and spoke in a normal tone of voice, which Blake could only just make out over the noise of the bar. “You can’t say anything.” Blake just nodded in response. “Well ... err ... Patty’s planning to ... err ... you know ... become a woman tonight,” he said. He drew his head back, but Blake just looked at him blankly, so he sighed and leaned forward again. “They haven’t um ... you know ... done it yet. Patty’s a popular girl at uni ... but err ... well, she’s been saving herself ‘til end of semester ... for Haze ... and tonight’s the big night.” Blake felt the worse feeling imaginable inside as the meaning of Derricks words began to dawn on him. Haze and Patty were going to ... just forming the thoughts in his mind filled him with a strange mix of impotent rage and despair. He lifted a hand involuntarily to his chest as if to sooth the pain he was feeling. Then he noticed Derrick watching him and he tried to cover over all of this with an unconvincing smile. “Lucky Haze huh?” he managed to choke out without blubbering, without falling to pieces despite the storm of emotions inside. The room was noisy, but now it seemed like the noise was right in his ears. A rushing sound that got louder and louder. Everything was moving and part of Blake wanted to hold his hands to his ears and to scream at it all to stop. He had to stop this feeling. Maybe the beer would help. He shifted his weight to turn towards the table, causing Derrick to move backwards. He then grabbed his beer and gulped heavily at the bitter liquid, praying it would help. He sculled the rest of the glass and then crashed it to the table, to hoots and applause from Derrick. “Another round buddy?” he asked. “Shure,” Blake slurred, starting to feel a bit better already. It was quickly proving too hard to concentrate on what he’d just been upset about a moment ago. He really liked the way a heap of alcohol seemed to completely swing his emotions the other way around. It fixed everything. Took away the bad. He really should drink like this more often. Derrick hauled himself up and Blake was about to do likewise when he felt an arm on his other shoulder. He looked around to see Nats there, glaring down at him. “Can we talk?” she asked firmly. It was less of a question and more of an instruction. “We were just going to the bar,” Derrick interjected, placing a hand on Blake’s other shoulder as if to play tug-of-war. “You can get this round then,” she said, smiling sweetly at him. “I’ll get the next one.” Derrick seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he glanced down at Blake, as if to look for some indication. Blake just shrugged and waved him off. He seemed a little disappointed at that, but he quickly put on a smile. “Sure,” he said to Nats. “What’s your poison?” “Vodka lemon lime for me thanks,” she told him. Derrick nodded and then turned to Blake. “For you?” “He’s fine,” Nats answered. “I’ll have what you’re having,” Blake said to Derrick, pointedly ignoring Nats besides him. Derrick again seemed to hesitate for a moment, but he said nothing more as left, hurriedly. Blake watched him go and then he spun around to face Nats. He knew that he should be feeling nervous, especially at the way she was glaring at him, but he just didn’t. He straddled the bench as Derrick had done before, feeling confident, cocky and ready for a fight. “Howzya night Natssssss,” he slurred, dragging out the ‘s’ and then laughing at how this sounded. “Fine,” Nats responded curtly. “How’s your night goin?” Blake could hear the accusation in her voice, despite his confused and foggy brain, but he wasn’t at all intimidated by her. “Awesome!” he declared, partly to annoy her, but also partly because it was true. At that exact moment, he did feel awesome. Whether ‘awesome’ would last the next 60 seconds was beyond his ability to comprehend, but for now he felt great. “Goin’ a bit hard dontcha think?” He narrowed his eyes at her and raised a wavering hand to point. “Probably drunk less than you,” he retorted. Her eyes widened and she gawked at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she snapped, folding her arms and giving him a grievous look. The indignant behaviour and the tone of her voice really got under Blake’s skin. “It means maybe you should mind your own business,” he fired back. He saw the hurt cross her face, but he didn’t care. In fact, he felt satisfaction. She deserved it. She was being a bitch. “I just ... you said ya didn’t drink and ... I was just worried about ya ...” she told him in a stern, but somewhat hesitant voice. This really annoyed Blake. He was furious at her lies. What rubbish she was speaking. “Oh? Is that what you’ve been talking about with them all night?” he asked sarcastically, pointing at her friends at the other end of the table. She dropped her gaze for a moment in response, suddenly unable to maintain eye contact. Blake smelt blood and he didn’t feel the need to hold back. “Is that why they turn around and glare at me every 5 minutes? You telling them all how worried you are that I’m having a drink?” “Ya don’t have to be such a dick,” she growled at him, though her eyes were in her lap still. “And you don’t have to be such a bitch,” he snapped. She raised her head at that and now they were both glaring at each other. “I came over here ‘cause I was worried about a friend,” she told him, angrily. “Are you still my friend?” he asked, accusingly. “Because it sure didn’t feel like it today.” There was a pause after that as Nats seemed to deflate a little. She looked sad and miserable now, more than angry. Then she got up from the bench shakily and glared at him one more time. “Sorry for carin’,” she said sullenly. Then she stumbled around the chairs and back to the other end of the table to sit down with her friends again. One of her friends put an arm around her shoulder as the other glared at Blake. He wanted to give them all another ‘fuck off’ look, but he wasn’t feeling so sure of himself anymore. His mood was swinging around again and he no longer felt the strength or confidence of only a minute ago. He became acutely aware of the fact that he was alone now and promptly looked around for company. Matt and Vicky had a table for two and didn’t make for an appealing option. They were too busy acting like a couple in love. A fairly drunk couple in love. He could just see Carlos too, but he was over with some other people Blake didn’t know. That left only Haze and Patty. They had found an armchair against the back wall and she was sitting on his lap, stroking at his face. Blake felt the anger and despair from before returning as he remembered what Derrick had told him. He scanned the table for something to drink, but there was nothing nearby, so he tried to ignore them instead. But it didn’t work. He couldn’t keep his eyes away. His attention kept getting drawn back over to their corner of the room, again and again. She had entwined her hands around the hair at the back of his head and pulled him in for a kiss. Not a brief or chaste kiss either, more like a ‘make-out’ kiss. Blake felt that worst imaginable feeling building in his chest again and he clenched his jaw and shut his eyes tight in the hope of quelling the emotions before they escaped, before he screamed out loud. How he hated her, hated Haze, hated Nats and hate this whole stupid bar. Then he felt the bench move as Derrick edged his way in carrying a drinks tray. “Where’d Nats go?” he asked, looking over at the trio of girls at the other end of the table. “Dunno,” Blake responded, more concerned with hiding the feelings from his face. Derrick placed the circular black tray on the table and Blake eyed the drinks hungrily. Two beers, one vodka lemon lime and 3 shots of something colourful. He grabbed one of the shots and knocked it back in an instant. “Hey!” Derrick shouted. “Manners! You’re supposed to wait for me.” Blake took what was presumably Nats’s shot, lifted it to his lips and then gave Derrick an expectant ‘waiting’ look. Derrick laughed, lifting the remaining shot and then they each knocked that one back together. Blake closed his eyes as he felt the burning, satisfying liquid make its way down his throat. However, he soon found he was too dizzy for this and his eyes were forced open again to get a hold on the moving room. He spied Haze and Patty once more and despaired as he felt the same horrible feelings renew. The shots hadn’t worked. Or maybe it was just the awful view he had of them, lip-locked, Patty’s hand clutching at Haze’s chest. “So how long ya been in Kulibari Bay?” Derrick asked him. Blake gave perfunctory answers as he carried on talking to Derrick as best as he could manage given how drunk he felt. However, he was finding it increasingly difficult to focus on anything or anyone other than Haze. He sat so as to face Derrick, but every now and then his eyes moved to look for Haze. They moved as if beyond his control, as if they had a mind of their own. The room seemed to have gotten darker, the noise louder and yet somehow everything seemed further away. Blake’s vision was swimming, his head was spinning and yet still he looked over at Haze. It hurt so much, like a stabbing wound in his chest, so he drank more beer, but still he couldn’t take his eyes off Haze. Derrick seemed to notice he was looking at something and after he caught him looking that way a few times he turned in his seat to follow Blake’s gaze over to Patty and Haze. He turned back again with a strange look to his face, but he didn’t say anything about it, much to Blake’s relief. However, a while later, after having to repeat himself for about the fifth time in as many seconds, he suddenly banged his hand against the table with frustration. “How old are you Blake?” he demanded, looking tipsy and all of a sudden aggressive. “Huh?” Blake gasped. “How. Old. Are. You?” he repeated, emphasising every word. Blake felt himself flinch under the withering look Derrick was giving him. “T-twenty six ...” he stumbled, hesitant, uncertain at this new side of Derrick. “Why?” Derrick leaned forward until Blake could see the bloodshot veins in the white of his eyes, as his lip curled and his whole face scowled. “Aren’t you just a bit old to be closeted and doing the whole ‘secretly in love with my straight best friend’ thing?” Blake’s jaw dropped. “Most fags are over that by twenty six,” Derrick added, pulling back to fold his arms. Blake’s mouth formed a perfect ‘o’ shape and moved in imitation of a goldfish. Already nauseous from the alcohol and the horrible feelings inside, he was now catatonic. He knew he had to rebut what Derrick had just said, but his confused, foggy mind was having problems forming sentences. “I am not closeted!” he eventually shouted back at Derrick. Then he winced as he realised he’d practically admitted to being gay and in love with Haze. “I mean ... I ..” he fumbled for something to say, but it was so hard to move his mouth. All of a sudden the nauseas feeling increased tenfold and his face paled as his hand reached for his mouth to suppress a belching sound. Derrick went from looking angry to concerned in an instant as he jumped up from the table and quickly hauled Blake to his feet. Blake hadn’t even noticed he was falling over. He didn’t even know which way was up anymore. He tried to focus on keeping the bile down and clutching hold of Derrick. For a moment as they spun around he thought he saw Haze watching him, but he could no longer tell what was real from imaginary. He felt himself black out now and then or else he forgot what was happening. He couldn’t seem to remember what had taken place, but now he was looking at a mess of floating shapes in a toilet bowl. There was a burning sensation in his throat and a foul taste in his mouth. Another pang of nausea hit and he held onto the sides of the bowl on his knees now as he vomited. The gagging sound echoed around the stall. Blake wanted to collapse right there, not caring if he landed in the toilet itself, but he felt strong arms around his chest, holding him upright and pulling him back. “Whoa there dude,” he heard Derrick’s voice from behind and above him. “Just the puke goes in the toilet hey.” Too nauseas to feel embarrassed or humiliated, Blake thankfully leaned back and into the comforting embrace. “I feel sick ...” he groaned in a small and miserable sounding voice. “Yeah, I know.” Derrick answered. “It’s okay, better out than in hey?” Blake wasn’t sure how long they were there like that, but he was grateful for the comforting words Derrick repeated over and over. He felt several more pangs of nausea, but he didn’t throw up after that. Eventually, the nausea died down and he felt much better although he could tell he was still very wasted. Derrick helped him over to the sink and he washed out his mouth under the taps. Then he tried to use some soap suds from the hand washing liquid to clean around his mouth. Derrick kept one hand on his waist and wouldn’t leave although Blake kept insisting that he was fine now. It was true, he was definitely drunk, but he was no longer nauseas. He wished Derrick would stop fussing over him, he just wasn’t worth it. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse when he raised his head and finally noticed the full length mirror to the side of the sink. The sounds of the bathroom and the muffled noise from the bar seemed to tune out slowly until all that Blake could hear was the thudding of his heart beat, right inside his ears. Derrick was forgotten, the whole room seemed to vanish into a black fog and there was now only Blake, starting at his reflection. Nothing else in the universe existed. ‘Just look at yourself,’ the reflection seemed to say to him. It was his own face staring back and yet it seemed alive with an expression and personality that was not his own. “I didn’t mean to ...” ‘You are beyond disgusting right now.’ Blake clawed at his face. “No ... I ... No ...” ‘Look at your clothes.’ Blake looked down at the mess on his shirt and brushed at it futility. “Stop it!” ‘Look at your body.’ Blake spun around to check. “No! Stop it! Stop it now!” ‘Look at your face.’ Blake closed his eyes and covered his ears. “STOP SAYING THAT!” he screamed. He felt a shaking of his arm and he lashed out to grab at the presence preaching hate at him, but when he opened his eyes he found he was holding onto Derrick. “Blake!” Derrick’s face looked white and his eyes were wide. “What are you doing?!” Blake demanded of him. “What am I doing, what are you doing?” Blake realised then that he was holding Derrick’s arms above the elbow, restraining them at his sides as if to keep him from attacking. He slowly let go and took a few faltering steps backwards. Derrick didn’t follow him, he seemed rooted to the spot. “I’m sorry,” Blake mumbled, looking around the room wildly as his breathing started to come in shorter and shorter gasps. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He repeated himself over and over as he scanned the room for threats. There was some threat here, he knew that there was, but he couldn’t see it. He wrapped his arms around himself and then released them to claw at his head once more. “Dude, are you ... are you okay?” Derrick asked him. “I’m fine. I’m sorry.” His palms were sweaty though, his hands trembling too. “You ... don’t look fine man,” Derrick said warily, although he finally seemed to relax a little as the colour returned to his face. “Did you ... um ... take anything tonight man?” “I’m fine.” “You tripping? Or on pills?” “No. I’m fine. I’m sorry.” “Dude, I’ve done plenty of shit before, you can tell me, I’m not gonna judge. But I just think I need to know, you’re really not doing so well.” Blake’s heart was racing, his breath was quickening, the room was spinning. He was going to have another panic attack, he could feel it. “I’m fine!” he shouted, but then he caught sight of his reflection over Derrick’s shoulder again. “No, no, no,” he mumbled as he clutched at face once more. Derrick looked at the mirror and then back at Blake again. “Dude there’s nothing wrong.” “Can’t you see it?” Blake demanded in a despairing, frantic voice. “See what?” “Everything’s wrong!” “You look a little wasted man ... that’s it.” But Derrick’s voice was starting to fade away again as Blake’s reflection seemed to come alive once more, whispering insanity and poison. “Disgusting,” Blake muttered. “Dude! What the fuck man, you look fine. More than that you look fuckin hot!” With that the reflection lost all interest and Blake rounded on Derrick. “What did you say?” he asked, barely above a whisper, suddenly furious, his full attention on Derrick. “What do you want me to say man?” Derrick asked, apparently heedless of the warning tone in Blake’s voice. “You look great! You’re tall, you’re twice as built as me, cut, toned, you don’t have an inch of fat on you, your face is perfect, your skin is perfect, your teeth are prefect, your hair is perfect. Your’re a fucking catwalk model, every chick in that room wants you and you’re blind to all of them and-” He didn’t get to finish what he was saying though as the wind was pushed from his lungs by the force of Blake’s shove. Furious, white-hot rage burst inside of Blake and he didn’t care that he shoved Derrick with more force than was called for. The hurt and pain was palpable in his chest, fuelling his rage. Rage at Derrick for drawing attention to his disgusting body. Rage at himself for being so shameful and sickening in the first place. He wanted to tear the flesh from his bones and burn it, wasn’t that enough for him? Couldn’t he leave him alone? Did he have to mock him as well? Blake had spent most of his life in gyms and dieting, it just didn’t work for him. Why did everyone have to remind him how badly he still looked? How badly he had failed? “Shut up!” Blake roared, raising his fist. “Stop it!” “Fuck man what are you doing?” Derrick asked, cowering against the mirror now, holding his arms across his face. “Stop it!” Blake screamed again. “Okay man, okay!” Blake relaxed after that and Derrick quickly moved around him, holding his hands out in a placating fashion. He backed away until he felt the door of the bathroom behind him. “You’re fucking schizo man,” Derrick muttered. “You’re fucked up. You’re fucking crazy.” With that he fled the bathroom. Blake knew that what he was saying was true and that only made it hurt even more. Instinctively he turned to the mirror again, but he could no longer see his reflection. Several dark cracks ran across the glass surface, moving out from a central point like a spider web. His eyes darted around the room for an alternative, but when he found nothing else he was content to simply stand there breathing rapidly. He felt on the brink of a panic attack, but that feeling stayed for quite a few minutes without progressing. For some reason he was too exhausted or drunk to actually panic. Instead, the rapid breathing was starting to make him black out. He was going to faint, there was no air in here. The relative silence of the bathroom was abruptly shattered by noise from the bar as someone entered the bathroom. Blake turned around to see someone he didn’t recognise give him a funny look before walking over to the urinal. Blake fled the bathroom after that, pushing through the throngs of people jammed into the main room of the bar. The lights had gone down and the music was pumped up. There were disco lasers and a dance floor. Or at least he thought there was, he couldn’t be sure. People everywhere were shouting and laughing and carrying on. Their faces flashed before Blake’s confused eyes like ghastly caricatures from some psychedelic cartoon. Everyone seemed to have two or more heads as his vision blurred, refusing to focus. He couldn’t tell if he recognised any of them, but he couldn’t even recognise the room anymore. There seemed even less air to breathe in here than in the toilet, so Blake began to hasten his way through the crowd to find some way out. He felt someone grabbing at him and at first he tried to push them away, but then he stopped for some reason and allowed whoever it was to direct him through the bar. He didn’t really care who it was anymore, he was too weak and his vision was swimming. The next few minutes were even more confused as Blake felt himself black out for a bit once more. The next thing he became aware of was how great the ocean breeze on his face felt. His eyes rolled open and he could see now that he was outside. He was leaning against a wall, just around the corner from the outdoor area of the bar. There was some kind of commotion going on and he wearily opened his eyes again to try to make out what was happening. The shadows of the darkness played havoc with his already faltering vision. His eyelids sagged heavily, making it even harder to tell. Haze was there, and Patty and Derrick and some others as well. “I’ll take him home,” he thought he heard Haze say and then he wondered whether they were talking about him. Patty didn’t seem to like the sounds of what was being suggested. She seemed to want Derrick to do ‘it’. There was some yelling and arguing which Blake couldn’t properly make out. “I’m not doing it!” Derrick protested savagely, pointing at Blake. Blake cringed under the intensity of Derrick’s scornful expression, feeling sick to the pit of his stomach. The shame and the misery he felt were palpable and he couldn’t bear to watch them argue over who had to get stuck looking after him. It hurt too much. He was feeling nauseas again. Too weak to remain standing, he slid down the wall until he was sitting on the ground. He rested his head on his knees, buried his head under his arms and tried to hide his tears from the others. The worst part was Derrick had every right to say what he was saying. It was the truth. Blake thought worse about himself on almost a daily basis, but now that everyone else thought it too the pain was too much to bear. He sobbed quietly to himself, tuning in and out of the conversation. “.... but HAZE!” Patty seemed to shriek in protest. “Leave him here!” “Hey!” “I’ll take him!” “Why?” Nats? Was she here too, he briefly wondered. “No, I’ll do it!” “No! Derrick! You take him!” Blake blearily raised his head, heavy eyes struggling to remain open, to study the scene once more. “I am not going anywhere with that fucking freak!” Derrick shouted, snarling in Blake’s direction. What happened next was so sudden and confusing that Blake couldn’t comprehend it all that well. Haze had shoved Derrick, or maybe it had been the other way around first, it had happened so quickly. Half a second later the two were pushing and shoving back and forth giving murderous looks to each other as Matt and someone else tried to keep them apart. They shouted at each other too, but whatever they were saying it was drowned out by the yelling of others and Patty’s high pitched squawk. The noise and commotion was giving Blake a headache, so he went back to resting his head on his knees and covering himself with his arms. He wanted nothing more in the world just then than to be swallowed up by the earth beneath him, such was the disgust he felt towards his very being, the self-loathing and hatred. The others knew he was a freak now and, just as he had always feared, they wanted nothing more to do with him. They were even fighting about who had to get stuck with him. He couldn’t hold back the tears. He hurt so bad. He must have blacked out again sometime after that, because the next thing he clearly remembered was being lifted to his feet by two people taking each of his arms. He opened his eyes a little, but he could only see his feet through the blurry vision and so he just closed them again, groaning. He felt the support from one side disappear as someone else manoeuvred their arm around his waist. His own arm was lifted and then hung around the person’s neck. “Sorry ...” he felt himself mumble automatically. “Ya always sayin that,” came a gruff but not unkindly voice. He quickly recognised it was Haze. He wanted to protest, ashamed at the trouble and embarrassment he must be causing Haze, of all people, but a sudden wave of nausea kept his mouth closed and his mind focused on not throwing up. Another period of time passed without Blake really being aware of what had transpired. The next thing he knew he was looking at his feet again, but now someone else’s feet were right there too. They were stumbling down the street together, side by side. He next became aware of the intimate body contact and despite how ill he felt, a thrill ran through him when he realised how close he was to Haze. Derrick was right though, it was so pathetic being in love with a straight guy. “I’m sorry,” he blubbered out loud. “It’s okay,” Haze told him. But Blake knew that it wasn’t okay. Not really. If Haze knew what Blake was feeling right now he would probably drop him to the ground and run. He would be within his rights to as well. Blake felt that he deserved less. On top of everything else, he was being a disgusting perve towards Haze when Haze was doing nothing more than show him some kindness, a charity that he did not deserve. “I’m so sorry.” “Stop sayin that man.” Blake couldn’t help but notice how good Haze felt right then, how firm and sinewy his shoulders were and how warm and comforting that arm around the waist. “Sorry.” “Blake!” Blake felt a rush run through him at the sound of his name. They had seemed to stop walking, briefly. He felt Haze turn his head a bit, so that his mouth was closer to Blake’s ear. “It’s okay Blake, everyone has a bit too much now and then.” Blake nodded, not because he agreed with what Haze was saying, but because he didn’t want to burden Haze with an argument. He felt it would be too disrespectful to argue with him. They started walking again, but Blake found that he couldn’t really recall much of the trip clearly. He couldn’t remember getting home, nor could he remember how they got in through the front door. He certainly had no idea how he came to be lying on his bed either, but he was very grateful for its soft comfortable feel. He could easily have passed out at that point, but through the foggy, dizziness in his brain, he was aware of body contact. Someone was there with him, they were holding his hand. His eyes slowly blinked open and he found himself looking at Haze’s deep blue orbs. The light was still on in the room and Haze was sitting on a chair next to his bed. “I’m ...” he started to speak, but was cut off. “Sorry, yeah man I know, ya can stop sayin’ it.” Blake cringed. Haze was right to dismiss his apologies, what good were they now? “Derrick hates me ...” he moaned, sounding like a three-year-old complaining to his mother. “Derrick’s a dick.” “I pushed him.” “I pushed him too.” “I pushed him hard ... broke a mirror.” Haze snorted at that and smiled a little. “Good on ya.” As much as Blake enjoyed watching Haze’s beautiful face, especially when he smiled like that, he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. They fluttered closed. “Haze?” he called out softly. “Yeah man.” “I’m crazy.” “Ya aren’t crazy.” “Yeah I am.” “Everyone’s crazy.” “I’m more crazy.” “I dunno about that.” “I do.” “We’ll see.” There was a pause for a moment, for how long Blake wasn’t sure. He was drifting in and out of consciousness now. “Haze?” “Yeah.” “I’m sorry.” “I know man.” “I’m really sorry.” “Uh-huh.” “I’m ...” Blake coughed. His throat was sore and he swallowed loudly and uncomfortably. There was the sound of movement and he felt the hand release its hold on his own. “Here, drink this.” He felt a straw at his lips. He sucked at it greedily for a bit, but then choked and coughed. “Careful. Just sip.” He tried again and this time he managed to drink until he heard the straw sucking air. “Want more?” He just shook his head, still unable to open his eyes. Then he felt the warmth reappeared at his hand and he smiled. It was the only part of him that didn’t hurt right now. “Haze?” “Yeah?” “Thanks so much.” “That’s okay.” There was something about the way he said it that stopped Blake from arguing. “Nats hates me.” “Nats doesn’t hate ya.” “She does.” “No she doesn’t, she was worried about ya.” “She hates me.” “No one hates ya man. No one.” “Everyone thinks I’m a freak.” “No one thinks ya are a freak.” “I am but.” “No you’re not.” There was another long pause after that. Blake wasn’t sure if he had drifted off or not. Maybe it had only been a second or maybe it had been a few minutes. “Haze?” “Yeah man, I’m here.” “Patty ... you gotta go back to your girlfriend.” Haze shifted uncomfortably, releasing Blake’s hand, as if suddenly conscious of it. “She’s ... she’s okay.” “But your Christmas present.” “My what?” “You gotta get your present.” Blake couldn’t help it, his voice cracked and he sobbed a little. “Shhh. Man ya aren’t making sense.” “I’m so sorry.” “So ya keep saying.” “But I am.” “And I know already.” Again Blake felt it would be disrespectful to argue so he went silent for a moment. “Haze?” “Yeah man.” “Thanks for looking after me.” Haze snorted and there was a strange tone to his voice as he spoke next, one that Blake couldn’t really place. It was hesitant, sincere, but something else as well. “I am ... happy to ... Blake.” Blake felt a huge smile spread across his face, but he must have blacked out after that. The next time he opened his eyes there was light outside and he was alone. The night out was over.
    1 point
  35. Blake’s trembling right hand was buried inside his pocket, fingers caressing the tiny plastic bubble with the silvery foil that lay there, safely tucked away. It was calling to him and he touched it compulsively, longingly. Its enticing presence promised him relief. Relief from the pain, relief from the bad things he was feeling; an end to his suffering. Thus far, he had resisted the siren’s call, despite a hellish night of anxious dreams and restless sleep. However now, standing in front of the dive shop, he was seriously reconsidering this position. Abstaining from the medication was becoming too hard. He was barely holding himself together and so far he hadn’t even started work, hadn’t even begun to face the consequences of his colossal and comprehensive fuck-ups from the night before. Physically he was a wreck. Yesterday’s aching muscles had stiffened overnight until now painful. Insufficient rest had denied them a chance to heal, to recover. On top of this, a state of near constant anxiety and nervous tension had combined with the lack of sleep to produce a distressing, throbbing headache. There was almost no part of him that did not feel sore in some way. Mentally he was faring even worse. His nerves were shot to pieces. He felt a deep seated sense of self-loathing, inwardly directed disgust and fury for his failures, for his screw-ups. Yet worse than this was the miserable loneliness that had settled across his melancholy heart. Burdensome, heavy, it sapped him of his strength, of the will to keep going. In just one short night he had managed to completely ruin the only friendships he had managed to develop since coming to this wretched town, one after the other. Now there was no one left. He had no one to talk to, no one to share his problems with, but he did have one thing. He did have the drugs, right there in his pocket. Part of his brain reminded him that he had only brought them this morning as a precaution, as insurance against things getting worse. However, other parts of him whispered that this was just an excuse. Once he had torn that pill free from the others he was always going to take it, they told him. It wouldn’t be fair not to take it now. He had practically promised it to himself. Why break a promise? May as well take it now anyway rather than later. What good is later? Why not just take it? It would help. Make things better. Making things ... “Blake?” A hand on his shoulder caused him to flinch and to shrug it off violently. “Whoa there buddy!” Matt’s jovial voice and sunny face appeared right beside him. He held both hands high in mock surrender. “Peace man ... er ... what are you doing?” he asked. “N-Nothing ...” Blake stuttered, quickly removing his hand from his pocket. “You gonna go in there? Or just stand out here and stare at the door a while longer?” “I-I ... thought I forgot something ... for a minute ... but I didn’t,” Blake fumbled unconvincingly, embarrassment burning across his face. Matt smiled and ran a hand through his short dark hair. “Er ... okay,” he said. “See you inside.” He walked around Blake, bounding up the handful of steps and into the shop. Blake reached down again and caressed the packet of meds from the outside of his shorts, just to make sure it was still there, that it hadn’t fallen out. Then he took a deep breath to steel himself and followed Matt inside. The first thing he saw when he entered was Nats and Vicky looking at him, guiltily and then suddenly pulling apart. Nats seemed to become enthralled by the booking ledger on the counter and Vicky began ostensibly studying the contents of the glass cabinet nearby. Blake cringed inwardly at their unconvincing behaviour. They had obviously just been talking about him. Despite the nerves this gave him, he decided to ignore the behaviour and to pretend that everything was normal. Except that normal would mean he should be going over to Nats right now, to say ‘hello’. Suddenly, that seemed an impossible ask. He reached down to touch the contents of his pocket again. Maybe it was time? He wasn’t going to last the day anyway. Not like this. May as well take it now ... Fortunately, a couple of tourists chose that moment to enter the shop and Blake was upon them like a used car salesman. He greeted them enthusiastically, asked about their plans for the day and then led them over to the gear they would need to hire for their dives. He knew he should be dealing with Nats first, pulling her aside to have a talk to her before things started to get too busy. However, he wasn’t ready for that just yet, he decided. After all, he had to help the tourists first. Twenty minutes dragged by and neither of them had acknowledged each other’s presence yet. Clearly, she was avoiding him too and Blake grew more and more uneasy as he realised that he was going to have to be the one to initiate conversation. He had been hoping that Nats, being the more socially skilled and sane of them, would take it upon herself to fix everything. But clearly she wasn’t going to be doing that. It would have to be him. Blake began to debate the merits of taking his meds now, so they could take effect before he had to summon up the courage to talk to Nats, but Vicky interrupted this train of thought, hollering for everyone to gather around for a briefing. She first explained that Jill had taken the day off, leaving her in charge. Next she began assigning tasks for the day. Her boyfriend, Matt, would be skippering. She and Nats would be dive masters for the day. That left only Blake. “I thought you could look after the shop today Blake,” she suggested, surreptitiously sharing a quick glance with Nats. Blake caught the look and could tell this had been prearranged between them. He felt a sinking sensation in his chest, but then became gripped by a sudden resolve to fix things with Nats. Now, before she left for the day. Meds or no meds. He didn’t want to have to face her of course. The very idea was sending his already anxious mind into overdrive. But he was going to be anxious either way. He had been anxious all day and all the night before too. What he needed was relief from anxiety. To do that, he needed to tackle at least one of its current sources. Facing up to Nats was bad, but sitting around in the shop all day waiting to face up to her when she gets back would be even worse. Or ... he could just take the drugs? That would bring him relief! Reflexively he touched the packet again, but then shook his head to say ‘no’. If only to the voices in his own head. He waited until Vicky had stopped talking and then watched as Nats, pointedly ignoring him, left the shop to pack things onto the trailer outside. Against every instinct in his body, every feeling in his chest, every screaming voice in his head, he followed her outside and managed to get her attention. “M-morning Nats,” he stuttered, putting on what he hoped looked like a convincing smile. “Er ... h-hi ...” she responded. He had never heard her sound so hesitant before. She was always so sure of herself, so confident. But it didn’t make him feel any better. It only seemed to make him feel worse. “H-how was last night?” he asked and then visibly winced as he replayed those words to himself. Could he be any more insensitive? “What?” she asked, seeming incredulous. Her skin flushed red, approaching the colour of her freckles. “I mean! I ... um ...” he fumbled around hopelessly for the right words to say. “I didn’t mean ...” “Oh ... then don’t worry about that ...” she interjected, seeming equally unable to form words or to keep eye contact. “I hope we are still going out to that restaurant?” he proffered. She glanced up at that, confused, hopeful look to her big brown eyes. “As friends!” he quickly added upon noting her expression, abruptly raising his voice to almost a shout. “Oh,” was all she said. “T-to meet ... your friends ... and you know ... be friends ... and stuff ... well not other stuff ... just that ... really ...” She quickly looked down again and he could feel himself trembling as a swirl of inner criticism circled inside his head. Once again he was fucking things up on an epic scale. Could anyone possibly come up with lines worse than this to say? “S-sure ...” she muttered, stumbling a little. “Um ... not ... not tonight, but ... yeah ... another time.” “Great! That’s ... er ... that’s great.” “Yeah.” “Okay.” They nodded at each other for a while, avoiding direct eye contact. “I’ll just ...” he said, pointing over his shoulder. “Yeah,” she said turning back to what she was doing. He quickly turned around and once he was out of eyesight, screwed up his face with distaste and embarrassment, before beating a hasty retreat back to the shop. He didn’t try to broach things with her again and she didn’t come anywhere near him for the rest of that morning. He felt relieved when Vicky finally filed the tourists onto the bus and he was left all alone in the shop. He trudged over to the glass counter and collapsed on the chair heavily thinking to himself: Shit. *** For the most part, taking care of the shop had been quiet and dull, but Blake wasn’t complaining. He found it soothing, calming. His body had reached its limits anyway and he could no longer sustain the nervous energy that had been keeping him going. He was just too tired for that. So instead, as the day progressed, muscles slowly unwound and aches faded until finally he could relax. After some lunch and plenty to drink his headache had died down too and by late afternoon he was feeling exhausted, but on the whole, better. He still reached down to his pocket every now and then, to check that the medication was still there, but he felt less tempted to take it now. Its presence was comforting, reassuring, but no longer critical, no longer calling to him. He slumped heavily on his chair behind the counter, but was careful to keep an ear out for the radio in the other room. Depending on the weather conditions and the dive sites Matt had chosen for the day, the boat could be heading back at any time between now and in a couple of hours. It was probably a bit too soon right now, but he needed to be ready to answer the radio all the same. Despite the shop being fairly quiet for most of the day, there had been enough bookings to ensure tomorrow’s diving would go ahead as scheduled. All up there were eight divers booked, six of whom Blake had arranged himself that day. His first customers had arrived shortly after midday, interrupting him from his brooding over Nats. They were a trio of Italian girls, student backpackers living out of a van. None of them spoke English very well, so it took a great deal of effort to go through the diving rates with them and to explain what everything cost. They were friendly though and very keen, so he managed to muddle through without too much stress. After they had booked, they spent a while perusing the shop, pointing excitedly at the photos of the whale sharks on the walls. One of the girls, dark hair, dark eyes and bright smile flashing, pointed to a photo above Blake’s head and asked him something he didn’t understand. He tried to explain that they were out of season to see whale sharks, but this only made her screw up her face in confusion. He settled on telling her ‘no’ and she seemed to understand this, as she looked disappointed. The three of them shopped for a while, but they didn’t buy anything. Half-an-hour or so later another group of tourists arrived, four middle aged Germans. One of them spoke excellent English so booking them in was no trouble. Only three of them would be diving, but the fourth would come along for the day anyway. With the two that were already booked-in it was looking to be a full day tomorrow, with probably enough divers to break them into a couple of groups. Blake was pondering over this when a rowdy young couple burst in through the front door, giggling and carrying on. They were playing some kind of game which appeared to involve tickling, squealing and lots of unnecessary body contact. The kind of sickly sweet antics ‘new’ couples get up to. They made for a good-looking young couple too, he quickly noticed. The girl was slim and pretty with dark blue eyes and long, brown hair tied back in a pony tail. She was dressed in a pale yellow tank top and cut-off white shorts, which showed off her tanned smooth skin. She was definitely the eye-catching type, with her refined features and killer smile of pearly white teeth. In spite of this, it was more the guy that drew Blake’s attention, another good-looking sort. He was about six foot tall, nicely proportioned, with pale blue eyes and a striking smile. He had light-brown hair, fashioned in that ‘bed-head messy’ way, deliberately styled, but supposed to look wild and unkept. On his fingers were an assortment of rings and he also had an eyebrow piercing and a dark-coloured metal chain around his neck. He was wearing an oversized singlet, gaping at the sides so as to display his athletic chest whenever he lifted muscular arms to reach for her. Blake’s eyes followed the shapes of that body compulsively, until doing so set-off a familiar painful twinge in his gut. He quickly looked away as he became aware of these feelings and focused instead on suppressing them, on blocking out the images of the handsome guy and his chiselled body. It would do no good to start freaking out right now, to start obsessing over body-image stuff. However, the couple were making their way over to him, so he couldn’t avoid them. He took a deep breath and stood up from behind the counter. “Hey. How are you guys going?” “Oh!” the girl exclaimed after seeing him. “I didn’t see ya there!” She quickly batted away the guy’s hands and took a moment to straighten herself. He let go of her and turned to regard Blake as well, a strange sort of sparkle lighting his eyes, one that Blake found inexplicably unsettling. “When did you guys arrive?” Blake asked, launching into his standard shop assistant small-talk. The girl started to answer him, but the good-looking guy quickly spoke over her, putting himself in front and leaning over the counter so as to make the muscles of his arms bulge. “Flew in from Perth, just a couple of hours ago actually,” he said, flashing Blake an unnerving smile of perfect white teeth. “O-oh ...” Blake stumbled, feeling uncomfortable. “H-how long you guys staying before you have to head home?” He didn’t need to ask them where home was, he could tell they were Australian. They probably lived in Perth. Again the girl started to say something, but once more the guy spoke over her, this time making her huff at him in annoyance. “Just a couple of weeks, I’m off uni for the summer, but heading back after Christmas.” Blake found it difficult to maintain eye contact with the guy. His stare was intense and his good-looks the kind that provoked Blake’s insecurities and set his insides crawling. “G-great ... um ... well here’s our rates,” he said handing over a printed copy of the shop’s brochure. “You can see it get’s cheaper the more you book, so if you guys are here for a couple of weeks maybe you wanna book a few days in advance?” The guy’s face furrowed with confusion, drawing Blake’s attention to the silver ring dangling from his manicured eyebrow. “Huh?” “Um ... you are here to do some diving, right?” Blake asked, hesitantly. “This is a dive shop Derrick,” the girl said flatly, rolling her eyes at him. “Don’t you listen to anything I say?” “Oh!” the guy she’d called ‘Derrick’ exclaimed, looking around him as if for the first time. “Of course! Um ... Yes! Well ... actually ... no. I don’t really know how to dive. Is it difficult?” The girl sniggered and Derrick was soon joining her too. Blake tried his best to be polite and patient, but he couldn’t help giving them a bit of a funny look. Why were they in a dive shop then? “We’re not here to dive,” the girl explained, pushing Derrick aside. “Oh ... well ... what are you guys here for? Maybe I can point you in the right direction?” Blake asked, trying to be helpful. He was still finding his feet here in Kulibari Bay, but by now he knew about most of the other tourist shops and the kinds of activities they offered. “I’m here because she needs my professional assessment of someone.” Derrick said, emphasising the word ‘professional’ with hand-gestured quotation marks. “Derrick!” the girl shrieked, looking scandalised. “You most certainly are NOT here for that! You make stuff up, I swear. And I am pretty damn sure I don’t need you opinion on ...” she glanced over at Blake for a moment, paused, and then finishing with, “... on that!” Derrick laughed and then she was laughing too, sharing in their little in-joke. Then they started another round of that couples game they had been playing, much to Blake’s chagrin. He was uncomfortable enough without having to bear witness to straight people pawing at each other and acting all cutesy in front of him. “Stop it! Behave yourself or I’ll send you home!” she declared without a hint of being serious about that. She then turned to Blake and in another voice entirely said, “We don’t need assistance thanks.” “I do!” Derrick said over her head. “Derrick!” “What?” “Stop it!” The two of them carried on like that for a bit and then both of them burst out laughing again, at what, Blake had no idea. He was grateful when she finally dragged the guy away from the counter, although that feeling faded as he noted they were walking further into the shop, instead of leaving by the front door. They continued to carry on like this, arm in arm, trying on hats and sunglasses and doing silly things like balancing seashells on their heads, or in Derrick’s case, his nose. Blake decided he would go check the radio in the back room, mostly to put some distance between himself and the irritating couple. He wasn’t worried that they would steal something. They seemed too loud and too annoying to be shoplifters. He casually wandered away from their noise and into the back room, checking that the radio was switched on. It was of course, which didn’t really give him much to do in there, except hide. There was crash and another shriek from the other room and Blake started to worry that he was going to have to ask them to leave. Jill had gone over almost every imaginable detail of the business, but she hadn’t covered having to throw customers out of the shop. Blake wondered how on earth he would go about it. He moved over to the doorway between the shop and the backroom and leaned against the doorframe, watching them pointedly. Maybe they would see him staring and get the hint? Then he cringed at how pathetic he was being. He was so hopelessly non-confrontational, it was embarrassing. Obsessing over his failings such that he was, he barely noticed the back door to the shop opening, despite being only a few feet away. When he did hear something, he spun around and abruptly found himself almost face-to-face with a familiar set of cool blue eyes. Haze was standing there motionless, looking as shocked and as dazed as Blake imagined he must be looking back at him. “H-hi ...” Blake stuttered, mouth forming the words before his brain had caught up. “Um ... hey ...” Haze responded softly, before quickly looking down at his feet, awkwardly. Freed from the paralysing effect of those eyes, Blake could now scrutinise Haze carefully and he quickly sensed that something was wrong. Haze looked worse than Blake had ever seen him. He couldn’t have slept a wink last night judging by the dark bruises under his eyes and the exhausted expression on his face. His normally tanned smooth skin looked somehow paler, blotchy and clammy with sweat. However, most telling of all were his bloodshot eyes, dull, vacant with a kind of ‘lost’ look about them. Haze looked lost. Sad and alone and completely lost. Driven to the edge. Desperate. Blake felt an ache in his heart and more than anything in the world he wanted to reach out to the other boy and to comfort him. To give him a hug, to tell him everything would be okay. He wanted to bring back the Haze he knew, even the introverted version if necessary. The Haze in front of him now was just too much to bear. It made Blake hurt inside just to look at him. He felt his hand instinctively rise and reach out to touch the other boy. “I didn’t think you’d be back yet ...” Haze interrupted, mumbling into his chest, unable to look up. Blake felt his heart sink at this and he quickly withdrew his hand before Haze could see what he was doing. Haze obviously hadn’t meant to run into him. He must have come to the shop now, because he’d thought Blake would be out on the boat. He obviously wouldn’t want a hug from Blake either. Not now, not ever, for that matter. “I’m looking after the shop today,” Blake said, unable to staunch the bitterness in his voice, the accusation. “Oh,” was all Haze said, as he wringed his hands restlessly. An awkward moment passed. “I’ll ... leave you alone,” Blake mumbled sadly and then he turned around. “No!” Haze grabbed him by the arm, just above the elbow, sending a jolt of electricity up Blake’s shoulder, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. He turned back and stared at the hand that was having such a profound effect on him, watching with fascination the fingers that had fastened around the skin of his bicep. Haze followed his gaze downward and then quickly let go as if he’d just burnt his fingers, eyes wide, expression mortified. “I mean ... I ... wanted to speak with ya ...” he said, seeming to recover a bit and then go back to wringing his hands, to looking at his feet. Blake felt a pleasurable bubble of hope rising in his chest, but it was quickly swamped by confusion and doubt. How could Haze want to speak with him? He hadn’t thought Blake would even be here. Haze glanced upwards and seemed to be able to read the doubtful expression on Blake’s face. “I really did wanna speak with ya ... but I ... I thought I’d have more time to figure out ... to plan ... I mean ... I-I just wasn’t expectin’ ya to be here ... right now ... that’s all.” Blake nodded, trying not to think too much and to just let Haze speak. However, Haze seemed to have nothing else to offer and so Blake, ever the need to fill the silence, spoke up instead. “Well, here I am.” It didn’t sound funny, it sounded stupid. “Y-yeah,” Haze stumbled. There was another awkward pause during which Blake began to study Haze’s body language when no words seem to come from the boy. Haze appeared restless, unhappy, nervous and tired ... but he was not nothing. He was not masked, he was not introverted. Haze was being real. That counted for something. Whatever he was trying to say it had to really mean something to him. That filled Blake with cautious hope. Maybe everything wasn’t completely fucked between them? As he watched, a resolute expression seemed to fall over Haze’s face all at once. He seemed to have come to a decision. He raised his head high, took a deep break and looked Blake straight in the eye. “Blake ...” he said, forcefully, sending a flutter through Blake’s chest. Why did that always have to happen whenever Haze said his name? “I just wanna say ... about last night ... I ...” Again there was a silent pause as nothing else seemed to come out of Haze’s mouth. However, this time something was different. Haze’s expression had abruptly changed. What little colour he had left drained out of his face and he went from looking apprehensive to downright horrified. “P-Patty?” he muttered, barely above a whisper. “HAZE!” The shriek came from behind Blake, causing him to jump about ten feet into the air. He spun around in time to see a blur of yellow and white push past him and launch herself at Haze, wrapping her arms around his chest and kicking her legs into the air. “Haze!” she cried again, pulling back for a moment to regard him. She screeched and shrieked and laughed with delight before launching herself at him again, hugging him around the waist and nuzzling his neck this time. Blake felt his eyes narrow and his insides twist with an angry kind of bitterness and resentment. It was the same annoying, girl with the ponytail. What the hell did she think she was doing to Haze? “Hey Patty,” Haze said in a strained voice as they swayed back and forth like that for a while. “It’s so good to see ya!” she cried over his shoulder. “I-I thought ya were comin’ on Wednesday ...” Haze stumbled. Blake could clearly see Haze’s face over her shoulder. He seemed stunned and unable to gather his wits. None too happy either. “Surprise!” Patty shrieked, pulling back again. She took hold of his hands in her own and swung them from side to side enthusiastically. “W-wow” Haze blundered. He didn’t seem to be participating in her physical gestures of affection, but neither was he stopping her, Blake noticed. “Well don’t sound too pleased to see me,” she miffed, voice sounding unimpressed. Her huge smile and giggles took the bite out of her words though. “I-I am h-happy to see ya ... just shocked,” Haze explained, putting on a smile that Blake took great satisfaction in identifying as fake. Haze had managed to gather himself together now and Blake could tell that he was back to his usual masked form. Smiling and friendly, but fake and distant. Gone was the sadness, the restlessness, the ‘lost’ look. Gone was real Haze. “Derrick finished his exams early so I thought I’d surprise ya!” “That’s great, where ya stayin?” “Oh ... at mum and dad’s, but I reckon ya could convince me to stay at the resort tonight ... if ya got room?” She walked two fingers up his chest as she said this. He glanced at them momentarily, but didn’t appear to react otherwise. “I’ll ask mum, but I’m sure that’ll be fine. It’s quiet ‘round now, as ya know.” Blake glared at her as she touched Haze. He was imagining himself grabbing hold of that ponytail and yanking her away from him. Couldn’t she tell Haze didn’t want her touching him? But then, just as Blake was thinking this, he noticed a change come over Haze, ever so slightly. For a brief moment, the blue-eyed boy seemed to relax and his smile changed from fake to genuine as he initiated a hug of his own this time. “I am glad to see ya, Patty,” he said and Blake felt a stab of pain in his chest as he heard the sincerity behind those words. “I am just havin’ a really shitty week,” he added, sighing. “Ya look like shit too,” she said, pulling back again, frowning. His expression lightened in response, but Blake got the feeling the mask was back now. “Don’t worry, but babe,” she said, touching his chest again. “I’ll make everything better.” She closed the distance between them and then kissed him gently on the lips. Blake momentarily forgot himself and almost growled out loud. How dare this hussy kiss Haze when she’d only just been all over some other guy? What a bitch, slut, slag, wench from hell, who’s ... “Gross huh?” For the third time in almost as many minutes Blake jumped a little as he realised someone was right behind him. He spun around to discover he was being watched by the ‘other guy’ in question. Derrick smiled at him and then mimed putting a finger down his throat in mock disgust. Blake opened his mouth to say something, but then stopped as a thought occurred to him. He peered closely at Derrick, as if only now seeing him properly for the first time. It wasn’t that Derrick was acting different, it was just that now he wasn’t arm-in-arm with Patty the same body language told a different story. What had appeared to Blake before as ‘playful’ and ‘flirty’ now seemed ‘theatrical’ and ... well ... kind of ‘campy’. Then Blake did the mental arithmetic. Athletic body, plus, funky hair cut, plus, skimpy clothes, plus, too much jewellery, minus, unsightly hair between the eyebrows ... equals? Gay. “So ... I was thinking ... maybe you could teach me to dive?” Derrick suggested, smiling that same unnerving sort of smile from before, however, now it seemed even more unnerving to Blake. “Er ... um ... y-yeah ... we do cert. courses ...” Blake was fumbling, he knew he was, but now he’d figured out Derrick, he didn’t seem able to talk properly. Good-looking guys made him nervous. Good-looking gay guys were totally incapacitating. “Do you teach the courses?” Derrick asked, straight faced. “Derrick!” Patty shrieked and for the first time Blake found himself happy to hear her voice. “What?” he asked, looking over at her innocently. Patty moved to join them, tugging Haze along, since she seemed incapable of letting go of him. “Behave!” she chided, giggling. “I said ya could come only if ya behaved!” “I wanna learn to dive,” Derrick said, lifting up his arms in mock indignation. She waved him off and pulled Blake aside. “Don’t worry, he’s like that with everyone,” she explained. That made sense to Blake. Why the hell would someone like Derrick be flirting with someone like him anyway? Derrick was almost as good-looking as Haze. He was well out of Blake’s league. “H-hi ... I’m Blake,” Blake said, deciding to take the opportunity to introduce himself to Patty, if for no other reason than to escape Derrick’s unsettling gaze. “Oh! Blake! Hi! I’m Patty,” she recalled his name as if they’d met before. “Haze hasn’t stopped talkin’ about ya since ya arrived!” Blake felt as if a trapdoor had just opened up beneath him and he’d dropped ten stories. “R-really?” he asked, ashamed of how hopeful his voice sounded. He was practically begging for it to be true. He looked towards Haze for confirmation, but his heart sank when he saw the other boy violently shaking his head. Haze looked mortified, but only for a moment, the mask quickly slipped back into place. “We talk once a week Patty,” he said, giving a phony laugh. “Blake’s only been here a few weeks!” Ouch. “Ergh ...” Patty signed, turning back to Blake again. “Don’t mind my ill-mannered boyfriend, Blake. He’s been really happy that ya started at the shop.” Blake looked at his feet, a tangle of emotions clawing at his insides. He wanted to believe that Haze would talk about him, but he found Haze’s expression to be far more convincing than her kind words. Anyway, she’d completely undone her kindness by the use of the words ‘my’ and ‘boyfriend’. “I’m Derrick,” her friend interrupted, holding out his hand and fixing Blake with another intense gaze. “B-Blake,” Blake responded nervously, shaking Derrick’s hand. Derrick held on for a little longer than seemed necessary. “Derrick this is Haze,” Patty said, completing the introductions. “You know, Derrick? From uni?” “Yeah ... hi,” Haze said, shaking hands with Derrick as well. Blake watched carefully for any reaction Haze might have to shaking hands with a gay guy. However, then it occurred to Blake that perhaps Haze didn’t know Derrick was gay? Maybe Patty hadn’t told him? Maybe Patty didn’t know either? In fact, maybe Derrick wasn’t gay and this was just another one of Blake’s fanciful narratives? Hadn’t he learned his lesson about this yet? Just then the radio crackled into life and Blake found himself almost shouting. “I’ll get it!” He then turned to face Haze who had said exactly the same thing at the same time and in the same tone of voice. They shared a look for a moment, but Blake seized the initiative, pushing past Haze and Patty and quickly moving over to the radio at the far end of the room. He grabbed the microphone, but kept his attention on the others. The loud crackle of Matt’s voice over the speaker prevented him from hearing what they were saying, but he could tell that Patty was still introducing Derrick to her boyfriend. Blake felt a stab of jealousy at the thought. ‘Boyfriend’. Haze was Patty’s boyfriend. He knew this fact already and yet it hadn’t seemed real until now. He’d been obsessing over Haze so much that he’d glossed over him being someone else’s boyfriend. A girl someone at that. A girlfriend. Girlfriends and boyfriends. That’s what they were. Straight. How it hurt inside to think about that, to watch as her hands traced across his back, her head come to rest on his shoulder. “You there Blake? Over.” He knew he had no right to be feeling like this. Haze had always had a girlfriend. It was one of the first facts Blake had learned about him. He always knew this, so why did it feel so bad? Why did it feel like his whole world had just come crashing down? What was this stinging at the corners of his eyes, this pain clutching at his heart? Why was it so hard to breathe all of a sudden, to swallow properly? “Blake? You copy? Over?” He reached down and clutched at the pill through the pocket of his shorts. He was definitely going to take the drugs now. This was it, the final straw. He was exhausted and already emotionally fucked-up and now this? Now her? “Blake?” Blake wanted to scream at Haze, to heap blame on him, to accuse him and to accuse her. But even if he had the guts to say something out loud he knew he really couldn’t. He didn’t have the right to. Haze hadn’t done anything wrong. Blake knew deep down that this had always been the case. He had imagined something between them, that day on the bike. It had seemed ridiculous then and it seemed utterly ridiculous now. Yet he could not stop staring at Haze, willing him to do something. To throw her hands off him, to tell her ‘go away’ like he had screamed those words at Blake the night before. Then maybe she would be one hurting, hurting as much as he was hurting now, as much as he had been hurting all last night and for most of the day. Maybe then she would know what it was like to feel this bad, to feel so bad that you’d rather feel no emotions at all, ever again. Haze looked up and for a moment Blake’s breath hitched as he wondered if perhaps Haze could read his mind. But Haze just pointed at the radio besides him. “Blake? You there man? Come on pick up already! Over.” He’d been listening the radio, but for some reason he only now seemed to hear Matt’s voice. Spurred into action, he lifted the microphone to his mouth. “Blake here. That you Matt?” he asked, voice a little unsteady. “Over.” “Yeah man, where’ve you been? Listen we’re at the dock, bus is still here so you just hang tight we’ll be loaded and back there asap. Over.” “Okay. See ya soon. Over and out.” Blake put the microphone down and went back to watching the trio of joyous, laughing people, trying not to die inside when he saw Patty embrace her boyfriend. He then quickly fished the pill out of his shorts, bursting the foil, before taking the whole thing at once. He did not bother with halves this time, he wanted the full effect. For good measure, he held it between his teeth and then bit down, crushing it into powder. It would hit faster that way. Next he leaned over the back sink, took a sip of water from the tap and then swallowed. Now all he had to do was survive until the meds kicked in. Then he wouldn’t feel this bad anymore. Everything would be better soon. He didn’t want to risk joining the others, not when he was feeling this flaky, so instead he pretended to use the staff toilet behind him. He shut the door, put down the seat and then sat there, clutching at his temples, willing the drugs to work. After he began to feel like he had been in there too long, he flushed the unused toilet and decided that his next distraction should be to prepare for the returning tourists. He left the bathroom and gathered a couple of the huge plastic tubs. He carried them over to the back door, holding them high so as to obscure his face. “I’ll help,” offered Haze, his voice appearing from nowhere. Blake noticed that he’d separated from Derrick and Patty, who were back to playing their games again in the front of the shop. “No,” Blake said firmly, much more firmly than he intended to, judging by the look on Haze’s face. “Um ... I mean ... it’s your day off right? I can manage.” Haze nodded a little, eyes downcast. “Listen ... um ... Blake?” “What?!” Blake barked, unable to hide the frustration in his voice. Why the fuck was Haze always doing that? Using his name like that? Bring up those feelings? Making Blake feel all of the stuff he knew he shouldn’t feel ... knew he couldn’t feel, especially not now, not anymore. He couldn’t handle it, Haze was driving him insane. Couldn’t Haze see what he was doing to him? Couldn’t he at least wait a little longer? Until the drugs started working? Haze lifted his head and gave Blake a sad look. Worse, he gave Blake a real look. It didn’t help make those feelings go away. It only made them worse. It was hurting too much now and Blake blinked angrily at the tears that were forming at the corners of his eyes. “Um ... look ...” Haze stumbled, “I’m ... I’m ...” Don’t say it, don’t say it, Blake silently pleaded. He really couldn’t handle an apology. He knew now that he didn’t deserve one, not from Haze. Really, it should be the other way around. Blake knew that he should be apologising to Haze, for the inappropriate thoughts and feelings he had for him. Haze would be disgusted if he knew what was really going on inside Blake’s head. Far from apologising he would tell him to ‘go away’ again. Blake knew that was what he really deserved. “I’m sorry about last night Blake. Really sorry.” Blake managed to catch half of the choked sob and look away before Haze could see the tears fall. He nodded quickly, hoping that would suffice, not daring to open is mouth for fear of what his voice would sound like. “I ... are ... are ya okay?” Haze’s voice sounded concerned but Blake didn’t dare look up to check. He just squeezed his eyes tight and used every form of control he could muster to suffocate all emotion. Hold back everything he was feeling for just a bit longer. Haze could do it, why couldn’t he? “I ... didn’t mean to ...” “It’s fine,” Blake choked quickly, too briefly to reveal much of his feelings he hoped. He then pushed past, before Haze could say anything else and took the plastic tubs outside. Once outside he dumped them on the ground, roughly, feeling his eyes sting with tears, a breathlessness rising in his chest. He started taking shorter and shorter breaths and his hands were trembling. He was losing control, but he knew he couldn’t do that. Not here, not now. He couldn’t have a panic attack here, in front of everyone. He just had to distract himself for a bit longer. Just until the drugs could kick in. Not long now, they usually worked fast. He uncurled the hose and attached it to the tap near the back door. Next he started filling the tubs with fresh water, ready for rinsing the diving gear when the tourists returned. Before long he saw the mini-bus driving up to the shop and over towards where he was standing. He felt a little relieved for the approaching people. They would help to create a buffer between himself and Haze, between himself and Haze’s girlfriend too. Not to mention her hot gay friend. At least that is what he thought at first. However, then he saw Nats get off the bus and his insides took another plunge as despairingly he watched her ignore him, purposely. He lowered his eyes and mentally begged for the drugs to start working. Now. NOW! Then there was another scream and he jumped anxiously, his nerves already shattered. When he glanced up he saw Nats and Patty exchanging shrieks and squeals of delight as they gave each other hugs. Haze and Derrick had come outside to say hello too. Blake desperately prayed no one would notice him there, as Derrick was introduced to Nats and next both he and Patty met Vicky and Matt. Blake held onto the hose with both hands to stop it from trembling and from making a splashing sound that might attract attention. He was close to the point of breakdown when he felt a wave of sensation inside his skull. A heaviness was building and he felt his grip on the hose slacken even as the hose stopped shaking. Exhaustion was starting to take hold of his limbs. They felt heavy, but relaxed. Not much longer now, he thought to himself. Almost there. The tubs were soon full of water, but Blake hesitated for a while about what to do next. The tap was near the back door, near the others. He didn’t want to go over there and risk attracting attention to himself, not quite yet. However, the tubs started overflowing and the precious water was soaking into the desert sand. Deciding he had no other choice, Blake kept his eyes on his feet and tried to quickly move towards the tap without drawing attention to himself, without looking at anyone. Loud voices and plenty of chatter all around him, he thought he had succeeded and reached out to turn it off. But before he could place his hand over the metal bar he saw that another hand was there already. Blake raised his head, following that hand upwards, across a muscular arm and over sculpted shoulders until he was face-to-face with Derrick. Derrick was smiling at him again, but somehow it was a different kind of smile compared to those that came before. Without an audience of other people Derrick seemed different now, less confident and almost coy. “Th-thanks” Blake stuttered. “No problem,” Derrick said smiling, ducking his head a little. Blake took a moment to consider just how good-looking Derrick was and felt relieved to discover that this did not upset him. He could appreciate Derrick without feeling bad, without feeling anything really. Finally. This is what he’d been waiting for. The transition from nervous wreck to drugged-out zombie was complete. Finally he was feeling nothing. Blankness. Wondrous freedom from feeling. “Do you need a hand?” Derrick asked him. “No that’s okay.” Blake responded, noting with approval how firm and calm he sounded. Derrick seemed disappointed, but then the two of them were interrupted by the others calling out. “What do ya say guys?” “What?” Blake asked, turning to see that everyone was now facing him and Derrick. Normally, being the centre of attention like this would make him anxious, but now it didn’t seem to bother him at all. Vicky rolled her eyes at them. “Let’s finish-up quickly and all go to the pub!” “Sure!” said Derrick excitedly. “Yay!” cried Patty. Matt and Vicky were looking happy too, as was Nats although she was avoiding Blake’s eyes. Only Haze was unreadable, he was back to being introverted and masked, Blake noted. Fuck knows what he was thinking. And who cares anyway? “What about you Blake?” Blake could tell he was facing peer pressure, but he was feeling the opposite of pressured right now. He was feeling tired and exhausted, but relaxed and at ease. Nothing really mattered anyway, so why not go to the pub? “Sure,” he said after a moment, and when Vicky and Patty shrieked with delight he noticed that he no longer jumped. He was too chilled to be jumpy now. He looked over at Nats then and she finally met his eyes, giving him a questioning look. She seemed to be accusing him, thinking something like: ‘I thought you didn’t like going to the pub?’ Blake felt a little guilty about that, but not much, not really. What’s the drama? It’s just a pub, just a few drinks. When he looked over at Derrick, he saw him wink and smile at him. But so what? The guy’s a flirt. When he thought about the potential for mixing drugs with alcohol? No biggie. Medication always comes with those warnings and everyone ignores them. And when Haze said nothing at all, and didn’t even look at him, Blake got the best reaction of all. He didn’t feel pain. He felt nothing.
    1 point
  36. “Um ... son?” Blake snapped opened his eyes, forcing a reluctant mind to surface and to deal with the outside world once more. The first thing it noticed was that his breathing had slowed, back to a normal pace. He felt a great deal of relief for this. It meant that his panic attack was now over. “Err ... ya okay son?” Obviously, the ringing in his ears had abated too. He could clearly hear that someone was talking to him and the words were even making sense. He turned towards the voice, watching as the man made his way further into the room, stepping cautiously over broken bits glass. What had Haze called him? Joe? “I’m okay,” Blake said, automatically. He would’ve said the same thing regardless. He stood straighter and smoothed out his clothes reflexively, not because they were ruffled, just to give his stored tension an outlet, to give his now restless hands something to do. He may no longer be panicking, but he could still feel how tense his body was. Wound as tight as a spring. He could feel his legs in particular were aching, stiff and sore. “Ya been in here the whole time?” the officer asked him. He sounded surprised and a little curious. “Yeah,” Blake breathed, wondering himself just how much time had passed. How long had that panic attack lasted? How long had the officer been standing there? He couldn’t seem to focus on these questions though, as his legs screamed for attention. Suddenly, he would’ve given the world to sit down. They felt really sore. He must have been standing for ages. “Uh-huh ...” the officer replied, regarding him strangely for a moment from under the brim of his hat. “Well, I-ahh ... I glad ya hung ‘round son. Was hopin’ ya might be able ta help me?” Blake gulped guiltily, feeling a trickle of anxiety begin to return. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he had a habit of looking and feeling guilty. He couldn’t seem to help it. The officer appeared to notice this. “Nothin’ to worry about son, I’m just hopin’ to clarify a few points.” “S-Sure, okay ...” Blake stuttered and then, because he really felt he had to, he added “... can we sit over there?” He pointed through the doorway to a bench that ran along the outside of the building. It was the nearest seating possibility he could spot. Nothing in the banquet hall was useable. The officer nodded readily, leading them out through the wreckage of the room and over to the bench outside. Blake wasted no time in sitting himself down. His legs buckled the last few inches and he collapsed onto the bench heavily, making it creak loudly. The police officer remained standing. “I’m Senior Constable Bane,” he said and then he winked before adding, “Joe will do.” “Blake ...” Blake croaked, shaking the officer’s proffered hand, but not bothering to stand up to do so. “So Blake, I’m gonna ask ya a few questions if that’s alright?” Blake just nodded in response to that. He did not trust his voice enough to open his mouth unless he had to. “Thanks son. Now I am just gonna start off with the basics, so if you could just gimme ya full name, address, phone number and where abouts you work.” Trance like and stuttering Blake managed to mumble through the answers to these questions. It wasn’t easy though. His body ached and his mind was still reeling from everything that had just happened. On top of that, it didn’t help matters that he could see a gathering of people just over Joe’s shoulder. They were standing around the resort’s lawns and in the visitor’s car park. Quite a few of them were looking over at him and chattering amongst themselves. Tourists mostly, but some of the uniformed resort workers too. He tried to block them all out, focusing on the pavement at his feet instead, imagining he was alone. “Ya sure, ya okay son?” Blake snapped his attention back to the officer, realising he’d allowed his mind to wander just now. “Y-Yeah, sure.” “So Blake, I-er ... I noticed ya showin’ up ‘ere with Hayden.” “Y-Yeah.” “Ya been with him all day?” “I ... um ...” It occurred to Blake then that he really didn’t have any idea what time it was now or how long he had spent with Haze that day. The afternoon’s shadows made it seem pretty late in the day and it did feel like an eon ago since he’d left the shop that morning. “Since about one o’clock,” he answered slowly. He could remember that much at least. He’d been bored enough to be watching the clock up until the moment Haze had arrived. Joe scribbled something down in the small black book he was holding. “So did ya meet up here? At the resort?” “No, he ...” Blake’s voice failed him momentarily as he thought back on the moment. He’d been surprised, but happy to see Haze standing there on his doorstep. How pathetic that now seemed. “We met at my house.” “The address ya just gave me?” “Yes.” “Uh-huh. Ya guys had plans?” “No ... not really.” “He ring first?” “No... he ... he just showed up.” Blake visibly winced a little as he said this. It sounded so feeble to his ears now. Like admitting he was some kind of doormat. Some loser who sat around waiting for someone, anyone, to pay him some attention. Worse part was it fit too. That’s pretty much what he’d been doing. He was pathetic. Utterly pathetic. “Uh-huh.” The officer looked up from his notebook and scratched at his greying beard using the end of his pen. “He do that a lot?” “N-No, not really.” “You guys mates or sumthin?” An unpleasant stabbing sensation arose inside Blake’s chest in response to the question, bitter and painful. Maybe a few hours ago he would’ve liked to think he was ‘mates’ with Haze. Or at least getting towards something like that. But now? Now, he had no idea. He had no idea about anything to do with Haze. Not anymore. “We ... um ... we both work at the dive shop,” he eventually stammered, trying to be evasive while still answering the question. The officer nodded, seeming to accept the answer. He moved on. “So, first ya hear from Hayden today is when he just shows up at ya place at one o’clock? That right?” “Yeah.” “Ya notice anythin’ strange about him?” Now there was an uncomfortable, guilty twisting sensation, adding to the wretched bitterness and self-loathing already poisoning him from the inside. He recalled that moment clearly. The wild-eyed boy on his doorstep. Sweaty and out of breath. Rushing to be on his way. Acting with a sense of urgency about everything. “N-No. Nothing unusual.” “Uh-huh.” Another scribbled note. “So ya stayed at ya place all arvo?” “No, he took me out ... um ... we went out on the ATV.” “On a Bay Adventures Tour?” Joe asked, his voice raising an octave and one eyebrow arching sceptically. “No, we just ...” For a moment Blake was going to say that they had just ‘borrowed’ an ATV, but then he thought better of it. For all he knew Haze had stolen it. “It was just the two of us.” “Uh-huh. This Hayden’s idea?” “Y-Yeah.” “Uh-huh. Where’d ya boys go?” “To ...” To Haze’s ‘special spot’, Blake recalled, but then he cynically quashed that thought. Haze had probably made that up too. Fuck knows where they really went. “Just for a ride, out in the desert. Nowhere special.” “Uh-huh.” Another scribbled note. “Did Hayden say why he wanted ta go out on the ATVs?” “N-No.” Blake felt another gut wrenching stab at the memory, the bitterness and hurt in danger of overwhelming him now. He had to bite down on his tongue to stop anything from showing on his face. Truth was he had no fucking idea why Haze wanted to go anywhere with him. He had hoped that maybe ... After that moment on the bike ... Haze’s touch on his cheek ... That look he gave ... Maybe Haze wanted ... But then that was just his messed up mind playing tricks on him. Why did Haze want to go out on the ATV? Fuck knows. Why did Haze ask him to come along? Probably because he knew he was the only person in town pathetic enough to go with him and not even ask why. Probably because Blake was an idiot and Haze was happy to take advantage of an idiot. “Uh-huh. Did he say why he wanted ya to come along?” “I don’t know. He didn’t say.” “Didn’t ya ask him?” “No.” No, he hadn’t even asked Haze. It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought about why Haze was there, it’s just that he hadn’t cared why. He’d been so thrilled to be spending time with Haze that he hadn’t even dared ask, just in case his asking would changed the other boy’s mind. How pathetic can one person get? The hurt and bitterness was now mixed with a deep sense of shame and humiliation. It was a becoming more and more of a struggle to contain these emotions, to not let anything show. “Uh-huh.” Another scribbled note. “Did he mention anythin ‘bout where he’d come from, what he was doin before he came over?” “No.” “Did he mention any problems at home? Family problems maybe?” Blake’s curiosity was momentarily piqued, enough for him to ponder on that for a full second or two. But in all truth Haze had said nothing and Blake had no idea what was going on inside that boy’s head. Haze was a closed book and it really hit home to Blake then, just how little Haze talked about himself. Blake had no idea who Haze even was. Just some guy from work. Some guy he found hot. Hot enough that he acted blind and fucking stupid around him. “No. Nothing.” Constable Joe Bane looked up from his note book for a moment, a contemplative look crossing his rugged, lined face. “How long ya been in town Blake?” “About two weeks?” “Uh-huh,” he replied, drawing out the vowel this time as if Blake’s response was the most significant piece of evidence he’d heard so far. He promptly folded up his book and smiled. “Well, thanks for ya help son.” As he said this, he handed over a white card with a blue police emblem in one corner. “Gimma a call if ya think of anythin’ else, okay?” “S-Sure ... okay.” Black quickly took the card, relieved that the ordeal was over now. Just in time too. He had no idea how much longer he could keep the repugnant, bitter black feelings at bay. The hurt and the anger and the shame and the self-loathing swirled around inside him, eating away. He needed to go home, to be alone. He had to sort through this. Practice his techniques. Preferably, before he lost control and panicked again. However, as the officer turned away, Blake noticed he was heading for a white 4-door ute with blue markings on the bonnet. Leaning against the front door was another constable, a woman, and in the back of the ute was Haze. “Is Haz ... um is Hayden gonna be alright?” he found himself asking aloud, before he thought about whether it was a good idea to ask, whether he even cared about the answer. The officer turned back, regarding Blake with a stern, but kindly expression. “He’s in a bitta trouble Blake. But he’ll be okay.” Blake nodded, looking at his feet and feeling embarrassed and even more stupid for asking. “Oh, one more thing,” Joe said, turning back himself this time. “Ya dunno where Penelope Herrington is do ya? Folks round ‘ere can’t seem to track her down.” “N-No, I haven’t seen her.” “Uh-huh. Well ... if ya do see her, tell’a to gimme a call.” Blake just nodded, but in truth he had already forgotten about the request by the time Joe had reached his colleague and the two of them had climbed into the ute. He watched Haze just sitting there in the back seat, staring at the headrest in front of him. Haze was so still that he looked like a wax statute. His expression was blank, detached. Like some super, spaced-out version of even his most introverted version. Blake felt a flutter of something else now. An irregular heart beat mixing in with all of the other powerful emotions running rampant inside. He felt hurt, more upset than angry, but overall he wasn’t entirely sure what he was feeling, or why. His head was still reeling from everything that had happened and his body was aching. But it was these feelings that disturbed him the most. So much inner conflict. He didn’t know what to make of them. He couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Haze, but as soon as his mind arrived at this he felt furious at himself. He felt stupid and pathetic. The sound of the ute’s tyres on the gravel driveway dragged him from his reverie though and as he watched the vehicle leave he was suddenly hit by a wave of exhaustion. He felt a deep need to be home, to be alone. He could puzzle over all of this later. With no small amount of effort he hauled himself up from the bench and over towards the front lawns of the resort. However, there he stopped, glancing upwards to see the throng of people gathered around on the grass and in the visitor’s car park. Suddenly, they all seemed to be watching him, whispering suspiciously. Feeling even more uncomfortable than he already was, he quickly about-faced and headed back to the rear car park, behind the hall. He remembered the short cut through the resort to the back street. It would get him home faster anyway. As he took long angry strides down the dusty driveway and past the utility buildings he kicked at rocks and grumbled to himself. So much for his superior legal mind, he thought bitterly. So much for his supposed powers of deduction. He had failed to foresee this, failed comprehensively to figure out Haze in general actually. Did he even know one thing about the young man with the alluring blue eyes? One true thing about him? Like, for example, was Haze really a quiet person? A loner? Was that even true? Did Haze really keep away from other people? Or was it the case that other people kept away from Haze? Blake thought back on all the times Haze had seemed to melt away when other people were about. How he never really joined in on the group discussions, took a back seat during any group activity. He disappeared immediately after finishing work every day and never once seemed to socialise with anyone. Was that just the kind of person Haze was? Or was it that no one wanted to include him? Were they disapproving ... or worse, afraid of him? Stupid, he cursed at himself. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The reality was, ‘sexy to look’ at was about all Blake really knew about Haze. It was all he had ever known. He had failed to figure Haze out for the same classic reason most of his clients used to fail to win their legal disputes. Because they allowed emotions to cloud good judgement. Because they made up a story to fit the facts instead of using the facts to figure out the story. That’s exactly what he had done with Haze. He had found the young man infatuating and had then written a story about what a wonderful person he was, when actually he knew nothing about him. He’d created a narrative based on what he wanted to be true, not on what was true. Some sexy, fantasy, dream-boy. He’d even imagined this fantasy was ... on the bikes ... maybe ... interested ... Stupid. Idiot. Failure. Loser. Freak. *** Blake had spent the late afternoon and early evening practising his psych exercises. His body had responded well, so he was at least feeling a little calmer now, less tense. However, his mind was another matter. He was obsessing, he knew he was, but he just couldn’t seem to break free from the cycle of thoughts. He couldn’t keep his mind off Haze and whenever he pictured him he felt that overwhelming tangle of unpleasant emotions gnawing away inside. He tried to busy himself with routine. Cooking dinner, cleaning up, but none of that could stop these thoughts or feelings. However, at some stage he began to discern at least a partial solution. A way to feel a little bit ‘better’. He started to get angry. Sick of feeling stupid and upset and hurt and weak, he felt angry instead. Angry was better. It made him feel strong, powerful. Maybe not happy, but better than feeling weak, better than feeling hurt, better than feeling stupid. He began to pace around his home, expression darkening as his obsessive mind latched onto this new clarity of emotion. With renewed focus, other things began to occur to him now too. For one thing, Haze had tricked him. He could see that now. He’d kept secrets from him. He’d basically lied to him. Blake thought back to all of the times Haze had asked if he was making Blake feel ‘nervous’. Now things made more sense. Haze wasn’t really concerned. What he was really asking was: ‘Has anyone told you I’m crazy yet? No? Good.’ And it wasn’t just Haze who was lying to him either. The others had lied as well. Jill had said Haze was a ‘good bloke’. Yeah right, Blake scoffed to himself. ‘Good bloke’ except when he’s being handcuffed by the local police for criminal behaviour. Handcuffed ‘again’ for criminal behaviour, incidentally. And Nats too! Nats had said that all the girls were wild for Haze. But she seemed to have skipped the bit about that only applying when Haze wasn’t violently destroying property with a fire axe. Blake muttered these things to himself as he paced back and forth. He imagined what he would say to them all next time he saw them. How he would berate them, telling them off for their lies, for their trickery. He then yanked open the fridge door, to get a glass of water, but instead he cursed aloud when he noticed that there was no milk for breakfast tomorrow. Typical, he fumed to himself. He was supposed to pick some up after work, but since he was sent home early, he’d forgotten. Grabbing his wallet and keys he stalked out of the house, slamming the door behind him, harder than was necessary. He stomped down the darkened street, cursing as he kicked at the sand beneath his feet. Every minute he was getting angrier, more frustrated. He strode into the supermarket, walking past the checkout where two women stood gossiping. He couldn’t hear them clearly, but with comments like ‘total mess’ and ‘violent menace’ he had a pretty good idea what they were talking about. It did nothing to improve his mood. He tried to ignore them, grabbing a bottle of milk from the fridge at the back and roughly shoving the door closed again with his elbow. When he abruptly spun around, two other customers, down the aisle from him, suddenly looked the other way. He could tell they had been looking at him, talking about him. Well, fuck ‘em, he thought and then he smiled at that. It was good not to feel anxious about them staring. Angry really was better. Or at least better for a while. Soon he was back home again, buzzing with energy. He was nowhere near ready to sleep despite the weariness of his body. The walk to the shops and the pacing around had worked up his heart rate again. He’d undone all of the calming exercises from earlier and now, notwithstanding the anger, his natural anxiety began oozing back too. He could even feel low level amounts of panic begin to set in. Worse, all the bad feelings from before were coming back as well. He still felt hurt, betrayed, stupid, upset. But also angry. Downright angry and he latched onto that last one instead, to keep the rest at bay. At some point during his rabid pacing around the room he decided it was all Nats’s fault. She was supposed to be his friend. The one filling him in on the town and all its goings on. She had let him down on this one. Kept secrets from him. Basically lied to him, just like Haze had done. Blake decided to go find her then. Why not? There was no way he could sleep and he was sure he knew where she would be. Hanging out at the bar like the alcoholic bimbo she was. Focused, angry, he uncharacteristically forgot to worry about what he looked like. He just stalked out of the house over to the bar as he was. The night air was still, humid and sticky. It made his already smelly, damp t-shirt even worse. He felt uncomfortable and sweaty, but he made use of this. Used it to feed his anger, to make himself even angrier. The Kulibari Billabong was packed that night, which he supposed could be expected for a Saturday night. Tourists in singlets and Hawaiian shirts, milled around the outdoor furniture and pool tables. The inside portion of the bar was worse, packed in shoulder to shoulder. Everyone was drinking beer and laughing and generally making for a rowdy crowd. It amounted to precisely the sort of circumstances that would normally set off Blake’s anxiety, but right now he was okay. He could feel the anger sustaining him. It gave his weary body strength, his weary mind purpose. He scanned the crowds and before long he spied Nats standing near one of the outdoor bar tables. She was wearing a pink shirt and some cut-off jeans and her face was red with laughter and excitement. He made his way over, weaving and pushing his way past the other patrons until he was standing there right in front of her, glaring. “Blake!” she squealed excitedly, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him into a hug, which he did not return. “Ronnie, Becky, this is the guy I’ve been tellin’ ya about all week!” Blake gave the other girls a cursory nod and a smile that was in danger of looking more like a snarl. “Hi,” he said flatly, unimpressed at the tipsy, giggling women. He had no patience for them. “Come have a drink with us! I wanna-” “Can I talk with you for a minute?” he asked, loudly and abruptly cutting her short. The bar was noisy, but in the open air it wasn’t difficult to hear properly. He was being rude. Nats gave him a funny look, but her gregarious smile didn’t slip. “Um alright, shoot,” she said, turning to smile and shrug at her friends. “I meant in private,” Blake replied, frustrated. He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder. The other girls pulled faces at each other and gave a chorus of ‘ooos’. “Shut up!” Nats giggled at them. “We’re ... um ... kinda having a drink ...” she started to tell him, but then she trailed off when she saw the serious look he was giving her. “But I suppose ... sure.” He led her away from the noise and the people and over to a darker lit area of the resorts’ front lawn, just before it reached the beach. The bar was still within sight, but the open expanse of grass, sand and ocean swallowed up the sounds. The moon loomed large just over the horizon, casting a shimmering reflection on the water and granting them just enough light to see. Once the din of the bar had sufficiently faded and Blake felt there was enough privacy, he rounded on her, abruptly. “Why didn’t you tell me about Haze?” he snapped, relishing in the release, the anger, the indignity he felt towards Nats. “Huh?” she asked him, looking a little bewildered. “Whatcha talkin’ about?” “Haze!” he exclaimed, and then when she didn’t say anything he added, “he, went nuts with an axe?” He pointed to the building towards the back of the resort to emphasise his point, but Nats only furrowed her brow at him. “That was only this arvo and I’m only just seein’ ya now? When was I supposed to tell ya ‘bout that?” The merriment had left her voice and she too was beginning to sound annoyed. “You know what I mean,” he fumed at her. “This is not the first time, why didn’t you tell me?” Nats narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips, parting her shirt slightly around the cleavage. “Why didn’t I tell ya what?” There was a dangerous edge to her voice, a fire to her eyes, but he chose to ignore it. “You know what, you lied to me!” “Excuse me?” she exclaimed, voice rising to a shrill. She was clearly losing her own temper now, but he pressed on. “Why didn’t you tell me about Haze?” “Why didn’t I gossip to ya about a friend of mine’s personal problems?” She paused glaring at him as if to underscore her point. “Why didn’t I tell you, the guy I’ve known for ... what, two weeks? Why didn’t I tell you secrets about a guy I have been friends with for years, who I work with and see every day? Who you work with and see every day. Why didn’t I spread rumours at work about a long time friend’s personal problems? Is that the question? Is that really the question Blake?” Blake felt himself shrink a little as she ranted at him. His anger was still flaring, but now he wasn’t sure where to direct it. Nats didn’t pause for long when she spied his hesitant reaction. “A friend who, in addition ta being my friend and work colleague, has a mother who is the richest, meanest, toughest women in town? Who ... just by the way ... owns the shop that gives me my job. Why didn’t I tell ya that guy’s personal secrets?” Blake said nothing, but he held his glare at her. He was too stubborn to give ground, but he could feel himself losing it all the same. “And lie to you? How the fuck is not gossiping about a friend’s personal problems lying?” “You did lie!” Blake remembered one of his arguments now and he seized upon it feeling triumphant and vindicated. “You told me he was ... like ... the most eligible man in town. All the girls wanted him you said!” “I said no such thing,” she snapped, dismissing him with a furious wave of her hand. “Yeah I said girls flirt with him and they do! Are ya that thick about girls Blake that ya never heard of the bad-boy appeal? Anyway, what the fuck has his sex appeal got to do with anythin? Why do ya care who fancies Haze? What the fuck is your problem?” “You coulda told me,” Blake said, but his voice broke a little and he could feel it was losing authority now. The anger was abating and he was left with just the familiar nerves, the familiar stuttering. And then worse, t