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Dabeagle last won the day on June 3 2020

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  1. Dabeagle

    Chapter 2

    I made it home by five and headed to my room. My dad wouldn't be home for another thirty minutes or so, but my mom should be here any minute. I breezed into my room – I love my room. It's the most unique room in the house. I put my own baseboards in and built a wooden canal around my ceiling into which I'd put a rope light that I could dim; it offered indirect light throughout my space. My closet was little more than a two-by-two cubby, and I'd hung a gauzy curtain over it with little white holiday lights in strands hanging from the curtain rod. I'd found a perfect off-white shade – Vanilla Sundae – for my walls with a bright white for the trim. It was a classic, understated look that didn't clash with any of the props I made for my photo shoots. I admit my bed had been taken apart and stacked against the wall more times than I'd like to count, but I can do that in my sleep now, anyway. I glanced at my reflection and smiled at the cut, even with the lack of product. Chop Shop does a great job on hair, but they are definitely lacking when it comes to good hair product. I ran my fingers through my hair and bit my lip, striking the pose a million fuckboys online have made. It was pretty good, though I really needed to stop screwing around and get ready to go. I showered and then ensconced myself in my room to go through my pre-evening-out routine, which I really should trademark. I have a fantastic lavender cream moisturizer that makes my skin glow and feel soft as a bunny – bonus points, it smells good but not overwhelming. Well, that's not really a bonus – more of a requirement, but it does it, so...whatever. Then I put on some comfy-yet sexy underwear and sweatpants – note to Caleb Montgomery, this is the time and place for sweatpants – and applied my face mask. Then it was off to the bathroom to make my hair look the way it should after a fresh cut, and I set about my task. I think anyone can have nice hair if they pay a little attention to it, and it makes me feel good to get dressed nicely and look good. It makes my confidence bump up a little, and most people could use that, I think. My hair, as it grew out, tended to go in large curls and waves. I grabbed my favorite hair cream and worked it into my locks to get the right shine and bounce to it. My cut had the sides and back very short and the top growing out, but with the curls it looked a bit messier, but chic. Or cute at least. It also added balance, because I have a long face, and longer hair makes my face look too long. “Are you almost done primping?” my mother asked. I looked in the mirror critically. “It'll have to do,” I mumbled. Opening the door, my mother glanced up at my hair. “Oh, they did a nice job. You always make it look so much better than the salon does,” she said with a little smile. “Thanks, Mom,” I said with a grin. “Date tonight?” I grinned wider. “It's Friday, isn't it?” “When do we get to meet this boy you're seeing?” “Mom, I'm not nailed down to one yet,” I said teasingly. “When I know, you'll know.” I dashed into my room and closed the door. My sister gave me enough grief about having a sugar daddy – my folks would Lose. Their. Shit. Seriously though, how many gay boys did they think I could possibly be dating in this little burg? Tossing away the sweatpants I went to my mirror and peeled the mask, removing so much dead skin and – ugh! Gross! I pulled out a skin wipe from my pouch and rubbed my face vigorously. I know, some people like to pat their face, but not me. After that it was time for clothes. I found the jeans I'd worn last time, but I'd worn and washed them a few times and they had faded far more than the brand name said they should have. No, they wouldn't do. No ripped jeans, either. They can be sexy, but totally not the image I want with the places he takes me to. I pulled out the bag of clothes I had purchased the night before but not put away yet. I spread a few of the items out, but I knew I was going to go with the navy chinos with the white stripe down the leg. When you're as tall as I am you can try to minimize your legs or you can accentuate them. I walked and ran enough that they weren't stork legs, so the line drew attention, but subtly. I hunted around for the shirt Gary had liked on me, then got out my portable steamer to get the wrinkles out from being hung with too many other clothes. I had a dresser for underclothes and things that didn't wrinkle, but I'd bought and freshened up a vintage wardrobe – which was heavy as fuck and had to be moved for most of my photo shoots – that was crammed with my hanging shirts and pants. I am such a clothes whore. I ran to the bathroom to fill the little reservoir on my steamer and set it to heating while I went to pick out my other clothes. My underwear were gray because I wasn’t intending on being seen in them, and I didn't want them to draw attention – not like some other things I have. Time and place, baby. I picked out some thin gray dress socks to match and then studied my shoes. I don't mind being colorful sometimes, if I can do it tastefully, but again, with Gary I didn't want to go too nuts. I decided on some dark blue leather boat shoes, which were preppy enough for my look, but also casual enough to be comfortable and not as dressy as my patent leather ones. Sometimes I overthink my wardrobe. A little hiss let me know the steamer was ready and I used it liberally to get all the offending creases from my shirt before laying it out and unplugging the steamer. I went back to my mirror and ran a delicate line around my eyes to make them stand out a little and give a boost to my too-washed-out-for-my-taste blues, then I started my dressing routine. Socks first, then a white undershirt so my nipples wouldn't cause a scene. Then the chinos with my undershirt carefully tucked, and then the button up, untucked. A white leather belt and my boat shoes completed the look, and I spent a few minutes checking myself over. Well, I don't think Gary will be disappointed. My phone dinged and I went to see to the message: the ride-share was fifteen minutes away. Wow, I really do take too much time to get ready. After getting my wallet and taking the steamer reservoir to the bathroom so I could empty it and let it air dry, I took the stairs quickly. I paused in the doorway to the living room where my dad was stretched out in his easy chair in his work clothes, shoes cast to one side. “Hi, Dad. How was your day?” I leaned against the decorative pillar that framed the entryway. He shrugged with just one shoulder. “Long. Terry Gordon came in, was bitching about the lumber like he does every few weeks. He's a ray of fucking sunshine,” he said and rubbed the side of his face. “How about you? Headed out for a hot date?” “Remains to be seen,” I said with a grin. He shifted to look at me more directly. “Hunter, your mom and I would like to meet whoever is special to you.” My face felt warmer. “When I figure that out, I'll let you know. Right now is just about seeing what's out there.” He let out a breath and nodded. “Be safe.” I swallowed. “Not a problem for me.” He looked back toward the TV. “Where is your sister?” “Work.” She was quitting as soon as school ended and she could get hired with the town. I didn't feel the need to tell him where she'd go after work. I saw the car pull up the drive, and I said goodbye to my dad and called out to my mom before heading down to head out for the evening. I wondered where Gary would take me for the evening, but I stopped that line of thinking and focused on what he'd talked about last time. He worked in an office downtown that had something to do with insurance. He tended to talk about office politics and maneuvers that people were making to move up the ladder – or to another, larger office. Those usually went hand in hand. Gary said he'd like to run his department, but he didn't think he wanted the hassle of running the whole office. He and his wife had been married fifteen years, had two kids named...Nancy and Drew. I shit you not. I guess the mom was a lit major, but I'm not sure what place Nancy Drew Mysteries held in literature – besides being a landmark for the first mass-market adventure stories for girls. Oh, and they had a cat who apparently hated Gary. Nancy was nine or ten and Drew was thirteenish and playing football for some league or other. The cab brought me near the Phelps Mansion, which is where Gary picked me up when we went out. Part of the rules was that he didn't know where I lived and I didn't know where he lived - although I had enough details that I could probably figure it out with very little trouble. I climbed from the car into the warm night, enjoying the little breeze that played with my hair. It never plays with it like it does in the movies, more like a toddler grabbing and pulling. I smoothed down my hair and saw Gary leaning against his car, looking down at his phone. “Hello,” I said, trying to mix warmth and excitement into my voice as I greeted him. He looked up at me, smiled widely and tucked his phone in his pocket. “Love the outfit,” he said with a grin that made him look younger. He was dressed for the office – red and white vertically striped shirt with a blue power-tie, khakis with brown tasseled loafers and matching belt. I held my arms wide and twirled, adding in a little laugh. “It was by request, I think.” He hugged me to him and I returned the embrace. He pecked me on the corner of my mouth – which was closer than he usually did – and he waved toward his car. “I thought we'd do something different tonight,” he said with a grin. “I like different.” I returned his grin. I settled into the passenger seat and buckled while he climbed in and pointed us down the street. Traffic was moderate so we didn't get going quickly, but I decided it was show time so I'd best get started and earn my shekels. “How has work been going?” “Steady,” he replied as he negotiated traffic. “Not a great deal to report.” “What about Robert?” He chuckled. “Well, okay, maybe a little to report.” Robert was a co-worker that seemed so inept it was amazing he managed to stay employed. Gary felt there was some political reason the guy still had a job, though he didn’t know what it was. He told me a story about Robert screwing up and I listened attentively and gave the right responses – shock at his ineptitude, laughter at the fallout and a rueful shake of my head that Robert would stay employed to screw up another day. We arrived at a Mexican restaurant I'd never tried called Mucho Burrito. As we walked from the car Gary rested his hand at the small of my back, which he'd done before when ushering me through a doorway, but not for as long as a parking lot. It must have felt awkward, I'd imagine. We were seated quickly and ordered appetizers and a drink. “Have you had Mexican food before?” he asked. “Frozen stuff or from a chain,” I replied. “I'm looking forward to seeing what it's really supposed to taste like!” He chuckled. “I hope my son ends up with some of your qualities.” That sounded weird. “Like what?” “Your curiosity and willingness to try new things. To learn from people older than you instead of looking at them like they are too stupid to breathe.” I smiled crookedly. “He's what, twelve? Thirteen? I think boys that age are pre-programmed to be assholes. Lack of frontal lobe development and all that.” I paused and grinned. “I'll bet you were a real dickhead.” He threw his head back and laughed. “Well, I did have a few misadventures, I can admit that.” “Tell me one?” One side of his face pulled into a weird grin and his brought his fingertips together. “Well, once my friend Chuck and I decided to set a toy car on fire. So we put a little gas in a coffee can and dropped the car in. We went to a small alleyway between houses and lit it.” I tilted my head. “Kind of a lame story so far.” He tilted his head from side to side and smiled wider. “Well, we saw the black smoke from the gas burning and got worried someone would see it and we'd get into trouble. So we knocked the can over to put it out.” He paused. “Of course, the fire went with the gas, right under an evergreen bush and it lit up like a bonfire, burning the overhead power line and bringing it down on the roof of a car.” I stared at him. “Shut up.” “If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'.” He held a hand up as if taking an oath. “Oh my God!” I practically squealed and laughed. “You were a badass!” He chuckled. “I don't think the insurance company or fire department would agree with you.” The waitress brought our orders, and I dug into the platter I'd ordered. I like sampler platters because you get a little of everything, so if you don't like one thing you don't have a plate full of it. Gary talked throughout dinner, adding in some work frustrations and saying how his wife had decided to write a novel and it was eating up a lot of her time. His daughter had some developmental delays and they were struggling to find appropriate classes for her within the district. His son had started up some summer training thing to play football in the fall. His expression soured as he explained that his son was big for his age and he thought he was bullying other kids. Knowing what my sister and I get away with, not sure I want kids – not going to lie. After we'd stuffed ourselves we took a walk. Gary touched my shoulders and the small of my back again as he guided us down the busy street a few blocks until we came to a place with a neon sign that said Nirvana. “Has anyone ever taken you out dancing?” he asked with a playful grin. I glanced at the club and back to him. “I think that's soon to be a 'yes',” I said, grinning at him. There was a bouncer at the door who took one look at me and said to Gary, “There's no way someone will try to tell me this gorgeous creature is twenty-one, right?” “He's here to dance with me,” Gary replied with a smile. One cover fee and a hand stamp later we were inside. There were neon lights everywhere of men in different poses, all suggestive. There were large bird cage-like platforms with guys dancing in a few of them. A disco ball threw light everywhere and an automated light ball made the whole place a visual assault – and I loved it. Gary steered me to the dance floor with his hand on my back, and we took a space on the edge and started to to dance. I was a little hesitant at first, feeling like someone would scream out how I didn't belong there, but that fear disappeared in the rush of the thumping music, the bass making my chest vibrate. Gary was smiling at me and dancing while I closed my eyes and grinned, soaking in the waves of sound and the freedom to move as I pleased openly. I opened my eyes and grinned at Gary. We moved closer and danced kind of dirty, I guess. I didn't think about it because it was so much fun. Gary put his hands on my hips and I turned within the embrace. We ground together to the music, then he put his hands on my shoulders and held me a bit away from him, turning me and then we bumped hips together, one arm in the air and laughing. Eventually we were sweaty messes and I must have looked horrible – but I didn't give one shit. Gary took my hand and threaded his way to the bar where he ordered waters for us. The bartender handed me mine and I downed it quickly, gulping in the cold liquid like manna from heaven. We were near one of the cages and I looked up to see a guy close to my age with dark hair, twisting and spinning inside the cage. A small drama played out as another guy close to my age pushed his way between a small knot of people in front of the cage. I couldn't hear over the music, but two of the guys exchanged words, then the guy who'd pushed past tapped the bottom of the other guy's glass, spilling his drink. They got a little closer and I thought there might be a fight, but then the small knot moved away. A few guys moved into the space the other group had been occupying and some tips were placed for the dancer while the guy who'd pushed his way in moved to one side. I wondered about that. I trembled at the idea of a fight so close to me, but also at the realization that even as a group gay people didn't get along all the time. I wondered if the guy dancing and the guy who forced his way in were dating or related. I was interrupted in my musing by Gary leaning toward me, and I leaned in to hear him over the walls of sound. “You look so gorgeous out there,” he said, his breath rolling over my ear and making it tickle. I smiled and tried to sound charming as I thanked him through a song that was suddenly all bass. “Want to dance more?” he yelled and I nodded. He took me by the hand, and we danced our asses off. I looked at some of the other dancers and saw a few that were attractive to me, but I also saw a few looks that I didn't know how to interpret directed at me or us. I tried to put them out of my head and just enjoy dancing. We got water twice more, and then we were just exhausted and sweating like pigs. I was such a mess! When we finally exited the building the night air felt heavenly after the pressure cooker of the club. “I think I lost some of my hearing,” Gary said with a chuckle. “What?” I asked, playing along. We walked back to the car, and Gary came to my side – I thought to open the door – but instead he leaned against the car and reached up to touch the side of my face. “You were unbelievable out there. Some kind of sexy angel.” I've done the sexy angel outfit. Probably time for a devil, I thought. “Aww, that's so sweet of you,” I cooed. He took a step closer and caressed the side of my face with the back of his hand and his gaze was locked to my face. “You're extraordinary. Have you ever considered modeling of some kind? Or do you dance at any other time?” “I don't dan-” His lips were touching mine, feather light and then he was pulling back. I began to feel uncomfortable. Kissing wasn't one allowed under my rules. I cleared my throat. “I should get home. Work in the morning, you know.” He took a step back. He looked uncomfortable as well. “You're right. It's getting late. I'll drop you back at the mansion,” he said quietly. The ride back to the landmark building we had agreed would be our meeting place was quiet. The radio was on low, and I looked outside at the evening traffic. Gary pulled to the curb and then placed his hand over mine, which was on my thigh. “Hunter...I'd like to renegotiate our terms.” I turned and looked at him nervously. “What do you mean?” He shook his head slowly, looking at me with a gentle expression. “I want to be able to touch you. I want so badly to give you a kiss goodnight. I've been thinking about seeing you all week, driving me crazy. I can't focus.” He paused. “I want to make love to you.” I pushed the door open and fumbled with the seat belt. He was reaching for me and I slapped his hands away in a frenzy and launched myself from the seat. “Hunter!” I ignored his voice and pulled out my phone, flipping to the ride-share app and ordering a ride as I walked quickly away from his car. “Hunter,” he said, his voice much closer. I whirled and held a hand out, stilling him as he'd been approaching me. “No! Just...no. We had a deal.” His arms hung limply. “Do you find me that repulsive?” I cocked my head. Was he serious? “No. You're very nice, and I enjoy spending time with you. I'm not selling my body to...quite that extent.” A sad look settled on his face. “Okay. I get it. We can just stick with our current agreement. You can't blame a guy for asking. Right?” Maybe I can and maybe I can't. “Well, we'll see. Goodnight, Gary.” His voice was a tortured whisper. “Please, don't do this. I'm sorry. I didn't cross the lines, I just asked. I haven't done anything wrong.” The truth was, I thought he would do something wrong sooner than later. Call it a gut feeling. I'd done a lot of reading about being a sugar baby, and more than one account had the sugar daddy pushing the issue and then drawing back, only to push harder the next time – or to outright assault or rape someone. I was nervous, feeling pressure from the situation, yet playing for time to get my ride here and Gary gone. “You're right,” I said with a nod. “You didn't do anything wrong. Your statements were just...intense. You caught me off guard.” “I would never hurt you,” he said, his voice sad. “You're going to ghost me, aren't you?” I opened my mouth to protest, but it wouldn't come. He half-turned from me. “For what it's worth, Hunter – I am sorry. I thought this was turning into something special.” He then turned to his car, his footfalls clicking on the concrete as he walked, got in and drove away. I let out a breath and gulped another. “Actually, Gary, you enjoyed thinking every little thing we did was somehow virgin territory for me. You liked having that power of being more worldly than I am.” I paused in my one-sided conversation. “And the truth is....” I glanced around at the very few people moving down the sidewalk. I moved a bit away from the overhead light and looked in the direction he'd gone. “The truth is you were just trying to manipulate me into bed. To take my virginity.” The words felt right as I said them. I opened my eyes wide in surprise at what my sub-conscious had worked out while I'd been busy enjoying dinners out and art galleries and hearing about Gary's job. I looked out the window of the car as I rode home, my ideas of how things should work shaken. I couldn't really blame Gary. He hadn't agreed to be my sugar daddy because he thought I was pitiable. But when the idea had come to me several months ago I'd dove into as many things as I could find about being a sugar baby – seeing what I did and didn't want from the experience. I didn't want to be manipulated into bed. Maybe my feelings for Gary would have grown over time, but maybe not. My phone vibrated and I checked the update. My payment app showed Gary had paid me the hundred bucks we'd agreed on for dates. I guess...maybe I need to think about this. Where I'd felt sure about Gary's motivations at the beginning of the evening, then stood them on their head as much as five minutes ago, I was second-guessing myself again. I rated my driver five stars as I climbed from the vehicle and said goodnight to them, not even having noted their appearance. Andy's truck was in the driveway behind my parent's cars. I took a steadying breath and opened the front door. “There he is,” my father said. He was walking down the hallway with a bowl of popcorn, probably going to watch a horror movie. He claimed it was the best way to get his wife to cuddle with him. “Hi, Dad,” I said and took my shoes off, dangling them with a finger in each heel. “What are you watching?” “Oh, Ghost Ship. Ghosts and gore where people can't get away – at sea,” he said with a grin. “Just what no one needs,” my mother said as she descended the stairs. “How was your date?” “It was okay,” I said. “Probably not going to see him again.” “You're so choosy,” my mom said affectionately. “Not like it was for me and my Rose,” my dad said, sweeping an arm behind my mother and practically lifting her down the last stair. She laughed and slapped his chest lightly. “Put me down,” she said and turned to me. “Well, there's nothing wrong with being choosy. I was and look what I got.” What did you get, Mom? I wondered. A small house on the edge of not-quite-somewhere with two kids and a day job. Are you sure this is what you want to say for encouragement? “Little sliver of heaven is what you got,” my dad sat and swatted her behind. “Okay then,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “I'm going upstairs.” They barely noticed as they giggled their way into the living room. I took the stairs two at a time, passed my sister’s closed door and headed into my room. I got changed into comfortable stuff – shorts and a tee – then fired up my laptop to finish tweaking the pictures from my fairy shoot, tirelessly running my fingers through my hair, a nervous habit, as I studied the images and tried to make them as professional looking as I could make them. There were an array of filters to choose from, and sometimes I used them, but I tried not to. It wasn't easy, though, to get the right image and have it be in focus the way it should be, where it should be. Like the fairy shoot was supposed to focus on my upper body and not quite be in focus on the wings, so any shortcomings in their construction would be hidden. By making that area the focus, other things sometimes got blurred as a consequence – like my face. So it was a balancing act. As I scrutinized the images I did find a couple where the wings came out rather well, so the blur effect was less of a need and more about style – which didn't fit if I wanted my face seen. I tweaked and edited until I had three images I thought were of good quality, and one I could put on my Only Fans for, I hoped, a few bucks. I think I do good work. I posted the images, then added them to a slideshow. I posted my more revealing one on my subscription account. I retained my style on that one, but I tended to dress a little more scandalously to keep the dollar bills coming in each month. I studied my posted images – if there is a major flaw, I tend to find it just seconds after sharing it with the world. I looked long and hard, but I didn't find anything glaring and definitely nothing that would warrant taking a picture down to tweak it more. To my pleasure comments started coming in, but most were hearts or little fires. A few eggplants and water splashes. On a whim I announced I'd read followers questions live the next night. Why not? It was sometimes interesting what they asked me. I put my laptop away, my spirits buoyed by the comments I'd already seen. I started my evening routine, moisturizing my arms, then taking off the fine silver ankle chain that Gary had given me and working the lotion into my legs. The last thing I wanted was to have my skin start sagging like an old lady's tits. I debated doing a mask, but it was getting late and I had to work in the morning. ** I loved opening shift, except that it happened so early. Other than that, arriving with my coffee and plenty of time to make sure things were in order on the shelves, to check my stash to make sure no one had raided it – I had to move it, sometimes. People knew I set aside great stuff. Well, that and I wasn't supposed to – the manager, Anita, would put things back on the floor with a glare at me. Why does she think I work here? For the discount, duh. My whole damn check goes to new clothes as it is. The uniform was basically anything the store sold, so I had on some skinny jeans rolled at the bottom to expose my ankles with the thin silver chain hugging my skin, and a long sleeved tee that was a bit big on me. I sipped my coffee as I made my rounds, straightening the displays of clothes, then heading to the back room. I was a little surprised to find two of my co-workers in the back room, as I thought I'd been alone, but then it occurred to me that I hadn't had to turn the alarm off. They were standing around a pallet of boxes. Without me. “Oh. My. God. Were you trying to hide this from me?” I demanded. “Like you didn't smell a shipment when you got here,” Nicole said with a roll of her eyes. “Let me see,” I said as I slid closer to look at the manifest. “Yes! Oh, I have to have that shirt!” “I don't think we got any of that one,” Kari said, teasing me. “I didn't say which one. Don't be mean,” I told her. “I am seriously thinking I need to get Brandon to buy some of these for Isaac,” Kari said with a considering look. She glanced at me. “Maybe you could dress him for me.” “Your brother is adorable,” I told her, holding up the shirt I wanted. It had a paisley pattern with deep maroons and teal and a dash of vanilla. It sounds terrible, but it was fucking fantastic. I glanced at Kari. “But he's too young for me. If I dress a man, I expect him to start nude and I go from there.” “Well, he's not a man, so maybe let him start with clothes on?” “Standards, hon,” I said with a laugh. “You'd like his friend. Red hair. Taken, though. Zac says he's got a boyfriend.” “Then why would I like him? I need one for me,” I told her. “And no, I won't date your brother.” She just laughed. He was a cute bugger, that was true enough. But he was also too young and not really my type. I stashed a couple items, and then it was time to open. I work in an outlet mall, but rather than the traditional mall with an interior hallway, all of our entrances were facing outside. I don't know why. In the winter you had to brave the elements, in the summer the heat. Having a common indoor hallway would be a far nicer shopping experience, I'd think. We stood behind the counter for the first hour drinking our coffees and chatting. Nicole came from a nice family and had the most gorgeous mahogany skin you've ever seen. We talked moisturizers sometimes and were always game for trying a new product. I loved the way her hair cascaded; if I were a girl, I'd want her hair. Like I might have to shave it off her, make a wig and go with that. Kari was new, but she fit right in. Her brother was gay and had just married, but I was trying not to be a jerk and ask why she was living with her brother and his husband, and her sort-of-brother, Isaac. It was also interesting because her brother was several years younger than his husband. Take that, Andy – it can work. I don't know which way Isaac swings, but she keeps pointing him out to me as if I forgot what he looks like. He was at that stage, for me, where I wanted to touch him, but with his clothes on. While he looked a bit angular, I bet he was a good cuddle, but that's where my impure thoughts ended – if that could even be called impure. The customers came in dribs and drabs until about eleven-thirty, then it was pretty steady. One universal truth about customers – people are pigs. They unfold things and don't put them back, they drop things and leave them – both our product and their trash. All in all it wasn't an eventful shift, not until about three-thirty as I was figuring out which of my stash I was going to buy that week – a sweet pair of trunk-style shorts and a tank top that should make my arms look good – when the most unlikely and weird thing possible happened. And uncomfortable, did I say that? It was. Gary.
  2. Dabeagle

    Chapter 8

    I was getting ready for work the next day feeling tired. I'd had to shut my phone off, because my mom had been blowing it up with 'ideas' for making the move easier. Selling my car, going down with just clothes and really making an adventure out of it. She really called it that. When I turned my phone on I got a bunch of notifications – all these stupid things about the town she wanted to go to, pictures of beaches and articles about the area she had in mind. I made sure to have a coffee to perk me up on my way in, and I met Zac in the basement room where we assembled for our assignments. I guess we did okay, because they paired me and Zac together again, and we started talking on the way to the floor we were supposed to work on. “You look tired,” he said. “Yeah,” I said with a nod. “My parents were at the house last night at the same time. Mom thinks I should move out of state with her.” “Oh,” he said. “Well, I was going to ask if your boyfriend kept you up, but that's kind of shitty.” “Hah. I wish I was tired because of Jack,” I said with a chuckle. “But no, just drama.” “Parents. They can be so shitty. Like my mom.” “How are your folks now?” “They are totally different,” he said as we arrived at the custodian's closet and began to gather the supplies for cleaning out the classrooms on that floor. “Hal is younger, and he's good at stuff I'm being taught in school now, and he's annoying as fuck with all his 'This education is for you, not me' talk. I like him, but he's a pain in the ass.” I chuckled. “Brandon is more patient, and he explains things like you have a brain. Even when he pisses me off, I can see his point – even if I won't admit it,” he said and grinned. “Yeah. I'm like my mom in that way, too. Like, I can get mad quick, but then I can calm down fast – and neither of us admits we were wrong, most of the time.” “That sounds dickish,” Zac said and looked at me with a frown. “Like, what, you can't say you fucked up or what?” “No, not like that. I'm saying it wrong.” I thought for a moment. “Like, I'll say I'm sorry, but I won't be all like 'Oh, yeah, totally my bad' or anything. I figure if I get pissed, I get pissed. I get over it, other people should too.” He shrugged. “I guess.” “What? You have no flaws?” “I'm pretty perfect,” he said and laughed as I shoved him. “I guess I just don't think it's so bad if you admit you were wrong. I mean, if you get really pissed at me and you're not really right for doing it? I'm going to be expecting a lot more than, 'Sorry, bro. My bad.'” “Well, it's probably all you'll get,” I told him. “I don't get pissed like, screaming at people. How did we get on this business of my flaws, anyway?” “Because mine are massive.” Zac smiled in a defiant yet rueful way that is really hard to describe. “Okay. Tell me one huge thing you did wrong.” He tilted his head from side to side and rolled his eyes before saying, “Okay so, I was on this message board, and these guys would send you stuff from a wish list if you did certain things. Like this guy gave me a laptop – admittedly it was a shitty one, but I didn't know that when I picked it out – and all I had to do was send him a pair of my used underwear. I was like, here! Take them!” I raised an eyebrow. “Really, Zac? That's some sketchy shit.” “Well, it was a dumb move,” he admitted. “But my real mistake was I sent him the box – and my own address was on the return label.” I goggled at him. “No way!” “Totally. Guy showed up and tried to steal me.” “You're fucking with me,” I stated. “Ask my dad. When I fuck up, I'm not screwing around, so I try to limit them,” he said and shook his head. “Okay, let's change subjects – this crap brings me down.” We skipped out on talking as we emptied a class room of its desks and chairs, moving them into the hallway so we could begin to dust the vents and light fixtures before moving to sweeping and mopping. “So. Have you decided if you should date Liz or Tim?” “I figure I should lead them both on, just to fuck with them,” he said in a considering tone. “I mean, they like to mess with me. It's fair, right?” “Yeah, fair,” I agreed. “Glad you agree, 'cause I told them how I'm spending the days with you, and they are probably laying a VooDoo curse on you right now,” he said with a mischievous grin. “Wait, what now?” I asked, laughing. “I did what you said,” he replied with a shrug. “Told em you licked me. They keep asking where and I'm being quiet, so...they're drawing conclusions, and it's funny as fuck.” “You shithead!” I exclaimed and laughed harder. “You did not!” “Did,” he said with a quick nod and a fierce grin. “Tied both of those connivers up in knots. Kari – my sister – she started a new job, too. She says there's this guy she works with that's gay, so I told her I need a picture with him to screw with Tim and one with another co-worker to mess with Liz.” “Don't you think that'd screw with them both?” “Yeah. But don't you think Tim'd be more jelly of a guy than a girl? I mean, if it's a guy he thinks he has a chance, right?” “So you're saying he has no chance?” He sighed. “I'm saying that would aggravate him more, using his own assumptions against him. Right?” I thought for a moment. “Did you always think this strategically?” “No. Having two parents instead of my half-missing mother meant I had to up my game.” Too cute. We talked for the rest of the day, covering a wide range of topics. My mom kept texting me, and around two she called. “Derry, have you followed some of those links I sent you? You should really read them,” she said with enthusiasm. “Mom, I'm at work.” “Well, you can find a new job down there, and-” “Mom!” I snapped. “I'm not moving. My life is here. I think it sucks ass you're taking off and I think you should be the one thinking this over a little harder, because you're leaving me behind for what? A fresh start? What does that even mean? You don't know anybody there!” “Well that's kind of the point, Derry. A fresh start means you don't have any of that to weigh you down,” she said in a clipped tone. “You think a failed marriage and that you have a teenage son won't follow you there? Mom, come on!” “How can you want to stay with him?” she demanded. I growled. “It's not about choosing one of you. Why are you stuck on that? If you were staying and he was going I'd be saying the same thing. I want to finish my schooling here and then figure out my next step, not be forced into a final year with new people and no Jack – and I wish you'd see that.” I angrily disconnected and hissed a breath out. “Harsh, man. At least your mom wanted you to go with her. Mine just up and left my ass behind,” Zac said quietly. I took a breath. “What about your father?” “Never knew a bio-dad – not sure my mom knew him, either. Brandon's all I need. Well, him and Hal – if Hal would quit riding my ass so much.” I smiled weakly and then looked at him. “My dad has said to me before what Hal is saying to you about your school work. If it makes you feel any better, it's probably what I'd say to my own kid. He's probably passing on the same advice he got. Pretty dad-like stuff.” Zac rolled his eyes. “I didn't say he didn't mean well. Doesn't change that it's annoying.” He grinned and I laughed lightly. “I see what you mean about getting mad and getting over it. Maybe you're right about others getting over it.” “Yeah? I don't stay mad that long, but sometimes I can say something stupid or hurtful. Gift from my mom. Which one of your dads are you most like?” “Hmm. Probably Hal, just because he can stay up past ten o'clock.” He grinned and I laughed at him. “Do you talk this much shit to your dads?” “All the time,” he said confidently. “But, you know...I say other things, too. Like, not normal stuff.” “Like what?” He was quiet for a minute and I glanced over at him. He was looking out the window at the sports fields and the sound of a mower drifted on the breeze. “Zac?” “Yeah,” he said, without distraction. He wasn't lost in thought, but I don't know what he was thinking. “You don't have to answer me. You say a lot of personal stuff, but I don't really mean to pry,” I told him, taking a few steps toward the guy. He glanced at me. “No, I was just thinking. I don't know if this will make any sense to you...I never knew what I was missing. Like – didn't know. I was never sitting at home and going 'Gee, wish I had a dad'. Things just...were. My sister and I got along off and on, Mom was kind of not there even when she was there.” “I'm sorry, dude,” I said quietly. “I'm not,” he said quickly. “Not now. I give Hal and Brandon a lot of crap, but I also give them all the credit. I used to...well hate is a little strong. I wasn't much of a school guy. I didn't see the point. My world didn't include educated people with goals or anything. Now I'm on the honor roll. Now Brandon is talking to me about colleges and careers and pushing me to try new things – which sometimes totally sucks, let's be honest.” He paused. “But other times, I think I can see...buying a house. My own house. Putting crap in it that I actually like. Learning something new and being able to accomplish something with it.” Softly I said, “That sounds awesome, Zac. Why would you struggle to say that?” He tilted his head to one side. “Because you're losing a parent. You've had what I have now for your whole life, and that's changing. I didn't want to be a dick.” I admit that hit my heart way harder than it should, considering I barely know this kid. “It's cool, Zac. My parents still love me, just not each other so much. Once my mom calms down...this will change. Won't be so hard.” Zac looked away. “I hope so.” ** The next week was filled with my mother putting various forms of pressure on me – she even told me she was going to see what 'we' could get for my car. The lows at my house were filling me with dread about being there as my mom's stuff disappeared into boxes. She even packed some of my shit, and I had to go take it back. It was fucking stressful. Jack's parents were fighting openly, bitterly, and we both wanted to be anywhere but at our own homes. We hid out some at Jared's – his dad told us we could crash in Kyrstie's old room. We talked to Luke and got to know his boyfriend via phone apps and speaker phone. We made another trip to the Springs the following weekend, and then Nik came to visit the weekend after that. Jared distracted us with stuff to do – paintball, movies, even hide-n-seek at dusk, which made me feel ten for a little while. “Nik, tell me about Romania,” I said to him one day as we all hung out at my house around the pool. “The capitol city is called Bucharest,” he said with enthusiasm. “It was built to look like Paris – a true capital. There are streets with fountains down the middle and a big...arch! Like the one in Paris.” “Really?” I asked, my interest piqued. “Did you live in the capitol?” He shook his head. “My parents had a small home in the country, small town. I lived in the capitol for a time after my parents died.” “Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories.” “I used to be very sad, it's true,” Nik said. “But I cannot change things in the past. I have my family – my brothers and papas. My best friend in all of Romania is huge pain in the ass, but I am very happy to have him here.” “Mat, right?” Luke asked. “He's pretty cute.” “Yes, very,” Nik agreed. “But past with him is complex. He is happy Averi likes him so much – and forgives him being huge pain in the ass.” “You keep saying that,” Jack said, looking up from his sketch pad. “What does he do?” “He is like Loki – trickster. He thinks he is funny,” Nik said with a roll of his eyes. “And he's cute,” Luke said. I thought that was weird until Nik playfully shoved him. “You want me to ask him if he will date you? Jerk.” “Nah. I like my boyfriend better,” Luke said, leaning into Nik. Nik said something I couldn't hear and they both laughed. “Luke,” Jack said quietly. “Put your arm around Nik's shoulders.” “What is?” Nik asked as Luke complied with Jack's direction. “My boyfriend is an amazing artist. He's drawing you guys,” I told him. “Oh!” Nik said in a pleasantly surprised tone, and he looked more fully at Jack. “You are sneaky, but nice – not like my Matei.” “I like drawing new people,” Jack said in an absent tone of voice. “And you have great features. Weird choices in boyfriends, but great features.” “Asshole,” Luke told him, and Jack just smiled. “So Nik, you were first attracted to Luke because of his butt?” I teased. Nik turned a little red and laughed, looking at Luke, who also blushed a little. “Yes. He was the umpire, so we could not see his face. Very nice butt, though.” I glanced at Luke. “What about you, Luke?” “Well, I also think I have a very nice butt,” he said, laughing as Nik pushed him. “Come on,” I said, once they'd calmed a little. “What drew you to Nik?” Luke leaned against Nik and looked at me. “He's cute, but when we were texting...he accepted me with all my baggage. We talked a lot and were friends before we dated. I guess his patience is pretty sexy.” Aww. “Nik, what's the deal with Matei anyway? Is he from Romania, too?” Nik groaned. “Yes. Matei is my best friend from Romania. We live together in the orphanage in Bucharest.” “Okay,” I said with a chuckle. 'Why did you groan?” “Can I tell him,” Luke asked. Nik rolled his eyes but nodded. “So Nik used to date this guy, Nate. But part of the reason he liked Nate was because he reminded him of his friend, Matei. So last summer there was some high-level shit that happened, and Matei came to live with Nik. Nik claims he's been a pain in the ass ever since!” Luke started to laugh, and Nik did too. “Is true,” Nik said, nodding. “In Matei head he is still in Romania, sometimes. He is much better, but for some time....” He held his hands together and mimed strangling. The words finally connected for me. “Oh! That's why Mat looked familiar! I met Nate, I think!” Nik's eyes widened. “You know Nathan?” “Is his boyfriend Elliot?” Nik nodded. “Yep! Nate was hanging out while Elliot played piano for my singing group. Remember, Jack?” He nodded his assent. “Kind of cool. Small world,” I mused. All in all it was a pleasant afternoon with my friends, and Jack did a really nice job of drawing Luke and Nik together. I felt good for Luke, to see him being more of the person I thought he was when we'd dated, and Nik bringing it out in him. The real solace, though, came from Jack. We needed each other in the most intimate way possible, and we shared our bodies with one another over and over. As my mother pressed harder and Jack's parents made life at his house a misery, Jack became my world, and in the dark all there was to be had was Jack – the way he felt, his scent, his heart were all right there exposed. I lost count of the number of times we made love. The need to be together was consuming. That weekend both houses blew up at the same time. The Tuesday from Hell started with me walking out to go to work and finding my mom talking to some guy in the driveway. They were by my car, and I wasn't in any mood for her to talk to me about moving – she hadn't even been staying at the house, so I knew her being here wasn't for anything good. I didn't see a moving truck, so it wasn't for her stuff. “Yeah, it's in really good shape for the year – it was my mother's – but I thought three thousand was fair,” my mother said. “What's going on?” I asked, suspicion lacing my voice. “Oh!” my mother said in her Realtor-sales voice, “And this is my son, Derry.” The guy waved half-heartedly at me. “Well, three is a little high for what it is. I'm closer to two.” “Hey! Are you selling my car? Mom! What the fuck?” “Whoa!” the guy said and put his hands up. “I don't want any part of that. I'm out.” “No, we can negotiate!” my mom said, her voice rising. “No, you can't!” I yelled, standing in front of her as the guy turned and walked to his car to leave. “Derry! You lost me a sale!” “You're selling my car! One titled and licensed to me! They call that stealing!” “What's all the yelling?” my dad asked loudly, walking out of the house in his sleep pants. “We can use that money, Derry. I told you!” my mother said, her tone sharp. “And I told you I'm not fucking going anywhere. If you're going to run, go ahead – but your problems will be right there with you – and stealing my car doesn't make me want to be closer to you!” “For Christ's sake, his car?” my dad thundered. “Don't you start!” my mother shrieked. I was beyond pissed and got in my car, driving too fast as I blasted into reverse and squeaked the tires pulling away. Engine has no balls – can't really squeal the tires. I pulled over for a coffee, even though I was wide the fuck awake and my hands were still shaking. I called Jack. When he answered I could hear the raised voices. “Derry? You okay?” “No. My mom tried to sell my car. What's going on? Are you okay?” “I'm just leaving,” he said. “You going in to work?” “Yeah. Was going to get a coffee, but my hands are shaking,” I confessed. “Just wanted to talk to you.” “I'm glad you did,” he said. The voices cut off with the sound of the door closing. “Listen, go to work. I'll get you a coffee on my way. I'll come see you.” “Oh,” I said, smiling a little. “That would be perfect. Um, can you grab something for Zac? He's my work buddy.” He chuckled. “Sure. I know he's been keeping you sane.” I sighed in release. “Thank you, Jack. You're a fucking miracle.” I went in to work, and Zac and I got put on cleaning classrooms again. We headed to the third floor. Zac was making me laugh. “So Kari worked last night and I went with my Grandma to pick her up – plus Gram was saying I could use a few things for summer, so new clothes, you know?” “Always nice. Go on,” I urged. I loved his stories. “So I get there, and that guy I told you about? The gay one? He's talking to this skater guy and this hot chick – who turns out is the gay guy’s sister – comes in and starts to scream at him.” He raised his pitch. “I knew it! Stop fucking helping him! I'll fucking kill you!” I know my eyes were bugged out and I was laughing – it's just in the way he tells a story. “I couldn't get the details, but man – I need to know what that was all about. Kari didn't know, but I told her I needed the details.” I chuckled. “So the sister was hot, but not the gay guy? Does he have a name so we can stop calling him the gay guy?” “His name is Hunter,” Zac said. “And I guess he's hot, too. Kari said they're fraternal twins, so if one is hot the other must be, right?” “Uh huh. You're riding this not picking a sexuality thing like a rodeo cowboy,” I said, teasingly. “It's part of my mystique,” he said with a grin. Jack texted and I told him where we were. “Want to meet Jack?” “Yeah, sure.” Moments later Jack strolled in with a drink carrier and handed me my preferred drink, and then he handed Zac the super sweet shit he likes. “Dude! I like you already,” Zac said. Turning to me he added, “You should keep him.” “Thanks, I'll keep that in mind,” I said with a roll of my eyes. Jack and I walked a few feet away, and I leaned into him as he put an arm around my shoulders. “What was going on at your house?” I asked quietly. He sighed. “I'm not sure what started it. I heard a bunch of things being said, and I'm honestly trying to flush the whole thing from my mind – which is why I came to see you.” “I'm sorry to bring it up,” I said. “I was pissed this morning, and I thought you might be upset, from what I heard.” “Don't be sorry. I hate not knowing what they’re going to do. They’re screaming about how to divide things, who deserves what share of what things – I'm just wishing it was over. Whatever the end is, just get there.” “Yeah. I guess I can understand that.” “So your mom tried to sell your car? What was that about?” “She seems to think it'll make me want to leave town with her,” I said with derision. “You know...if you go, I'd understand.” I leaned away from him. “No. Fuck you for saying that. I'm not leaving you.” He smiled a little. “I just meant I'd support you if-” “Fuck. Off. I'm not leaving you,” I said, enunciating my words. I paused. “Are you leaving me?” “God, no,” he said and moved closer. “I'm just saying I want to preserve us no matter where we are.” “Well. I want to be here. With you here. It's where I'll be. You?” “I'm with you.” I looked at him uncertainly for a moment. “He gets mad fast, but calms down.” We both looked at Zac, who was watching us, then innocently sipped his drink as we stared. Then he said, “You got loud. I just want to see if Jack gets over you being pissed like you say everyone else should.” I looked at Jack. “Did I say I liked him?” Jack chuckled and kissed me. He looked at Zac. “I don't stay mad at him.” Zac sipped his drink and then tilted his head. “Interesting. I should try that on Tim and Liz, just to see what they do.” “Oh, please record it if you do!” I said with a laugh.
  3. Dabeagle

    Chapter 7

    Monday I was up early and dressed in jeans and a plain tee shirt, since I had no idea what the actual dress code was. I grabbed a coffee on my way in and followed the directions the woman from the interview had given me. In the basement of the school, where I'd never been, was a long hallway stacked with crap on either side – broken desks, a popcorn maker and other junk – and I could hear voices coming from somewhere farther on. I found the room where one of the custodians was talking to a few people my age – two girls and three guys. “You Keefe?” the custodian asked. “Yeah,” I replied with a nod. “Okay, gang's all here.” He went on to explain how the day would flow and then told us to partner up into pairs for assignments. “Hey, Derry,” Isaac greeted me as he moved to stand beside me. “Want to partner up?” “Morning,” I replied and stifled a yawn. “Sure thing.” Isaac and I were given bags and outfitted with a pointy stick, essentially, to pick up trash, beginning with the grassy areas by the parking lot. Easy enough. We stayed fairly close to each other and struck up an easy conversation. “First summer job?” I asked. “Yeah. My dad – Brandon – said it was a good idea. I wanted cash for myself, so I figured why not? Did you have a job before the grocery store?” “Nah. I'd been there since I was fifteen; worked my way up.” “Can't believe you went nuclear,” he said with a snicker. “That was just epic.” I grunted, but said no more about the inciting incident. “Your grandpa seems pretty cool. I was lucky he stepped in to help me out with a new job.” “My grandparents rock, even though they can be a little weird,” he replied. “Like they always want to spend time with me and know what I'm thinking and doing. It's almost like having best friends, but they're eighty. They’re also schizophrenic and can act twelve whenever they feel like it.” I stared for a second and then just burst out laughing. He grinned at me, and I asked, “Really?” “No shit. I'm glad to have them, but sometimes I wish they'd back off, too. Like, I have friends, you know?” He shook his head. “They just liked me right off, just like they did you.” I raised an eyebrow. “It is interesting how we get along. Your grandpa went out of his way to help me out.” “Yeah. He said you just don't find that many people who actually provide customer service anymore. People are douches in general, and people behind counters are starting to figure out they don't have to put up with other people’s shit, I guess.” “I thought I was his lucky lottery clerk?” “He has, like, three of those.” I grunted. “I mean, really, how many times did you actually see him cash in a winner?” I paused and thought. “Not much. He told me after – you mean he was cheating on me?” I asked, faking outrage, and we laughed. “Please. He did the same thing to you he does to me. He asks me to look at something and then goes 'Oh, look! A ten dollar bill just laying on the ground. Grab it, Isaac!'” He rolled his eyes. “All his tips to you were just because he felt like it.” “That's...weird,” I said. “Who does that?” Isaac paused his work and looked at me. “My family is weird. My dad – pain in the ass that he is – is awesome. I think he got that from his parents.” Remembering he had said dads before I asked, “Are you adopted?” “Yeah. Month ago. Dads are on their honeymoon, so I'm staying with the grandparents while they're gone. Kari, too.” A month? “Huh.” “What?” I shrugged uncomfortably. “I just assumed your dads adopted you as a baby. Kind of old for adopting, you know?” “I think Hal was about ten when I was born, so that would have been hard,” he said and laughed. I paused and looked at him in confusion. “Are your dads college kids or something?” I laughed, even though the question was sort-of serious. “Brandon is older, like forty” he said, resuming his task of picking up trash, and I followed suit. “Hal is younger – twenty-six. My mom used to up and leave me and my sister for a few months, and the last time I ended up staying with Brandon. He decided to keep me.” I laughed at his explanation, his tone, which was that this all was no big deal. I was a bit amazed that he was blurting out such personal business to a relative stranger. It's different when people do it on social media – no one is right there to question or judge you; it’s just faceless statements on a screen. “Wait, back up,” I said. “What about your mom?” He looked over at me. “She did this thing where she'd bail. Go with someone or some damn thing. She'd be gone for months. Me and my sister would have to figure shit out for ourselves for a while. This last time they were going to evict me, and my sister acted like my mom and bailed. Brandon seemed like a decent guy, and I asked him some questions after he helped me out a little.” “Helped you out a little?” “Yeah. I did something stupid and someone showed up at my door. Brandon got rid of them, so...did me a solid, you know?” I wanted to ask about the stupid thing Isaac had done, but I got the feeling he was skirting it intentionally, so I let it be. What could be more embarrassing than a parent who abandoned you repeatedly? “Brandon sounds like good people,” I said. “He's a pain in the ass,” Isaac said and laughed. “But yeah, he's the best. He's got a way of explaining things that is annoying as fuck, but makes hella sense.” I laughed. “Yeah. Sucks when they're right,” I agreed. “Not that I have to admit it,” he replied cheerfully. “It's awesome you landed on your feet. Is it weird having guys that are such different ages?” “Funny, actually,” he said, “At first I had this idea that Brandon was after me, but then we did exactly what I was just saying – he was talking about how sexuality had nothing to do with age or a bunch of other things.” “What's that have to do with if he was after you?” I asked. He paused and seemed to think. “Oh, wait, I'm mixing my talks up. He talks so damn much!” he said, laughing. “So with him and Hal – he's like people are attracted to what they're attracted to. Hal got his attention from his appearance, but he really likes blah, blah and more blah. I stopped listening – they love each other and it's cooler than it should be.” I laughed at him. “You have a cool way of looking at shit.” He shrugged. “Hal says I contain multitudes. So that's my story, what's yours?” I chuckled. “Before I do, can I just say you are pretty up front about personal stuff in your life?” He nodded. “I get it from Brandon. People do what they do because of how they were raised – partly. Like my aunt Maureen. You'd never know my dad was related to her. She's drunk on Jesus juice, or she was.” “Don't like religion?” “Don't care, really,” he said, shrugging again. “Personally I have no use, but I don't care if someone else wants that. It’s just she was so overboard for a while – had a mental breakdown overboard – and it affects everyone around her. It's selfish. My grandpa says she seems like she popped her head out of her ass for now, so I guess there is hope. I mean, Christ, I don't want her to go batshit again – I might have my cousin living with me, and my room just isn't big enough for that farting menace.” I roared with laughter and he giggled at my amusement. “Isaac, you're a funny dude,” I said, trailing off into snickers. “So tell me. My grandpa hasn't been wrong about anyone I know yet, so...what's your story?” I shrugged. “Not much to tell. Until a few days ago I was just your average guy – part-time job, going to school, started dating my boyfriend about three or four months ago-” “You don't know when you started dating?” he asked. “Dude! I know people that are all about the one week anniversary. Its insane!” I chuckled. “We got together under weird circumstances. He's an artist and I figured out he used me as a muse for a school art competition.” I shrugged, not wanting to go into all the details because it was long and probably didn't matter to him. “But then we just found out my dad cheated with his mom so...weird.” “Dude. Really? That's bullshit,” he said. “Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “It's like a slow motion train wreck. We'll get through it.” “You and your boyfriend are still together? It didn't break you up?” “No,” I said with a smile. “Jack and I are solid. I admit – I did worry this would be too hard for us to get through, but Jack's proven to be a pleasant surprise every time I turn around. Um, how about you? Dating?” “Jesus. My dating life is a fucking mess.” I chuckled. “Why's that?” “I'm like a chew toy between two of my best friends, Tim and Liz. Liz is a model – literally. Her mom doesn't take her to pageants, just to photo shoots. She's done national work for department stores and stuff.” “Damn,” I said, impressed. “Successful.” “Tim's the geeky cool kid that thinks math is fun and doesn't mind helping other people understand it.” “People he thinks are cute...like you?” I teased. “And others,” he said, not bothering to fight the idea Tim liked him “So first Liz is hanging out with me and we go to a school dance or two, then she's away for work for a few weeks, and Tim takes over and we're hanging out – oh, and you know what's funny? Tim's freaked out by my dads.” “How does that work?” I asked, laughing. “I totally don't know. He's weird. My point is I start to notice Tim acts like Liz does – we sit close, hug to say hello, stuff like that.” “Close friends,” I said with a shrug. “Yeah, but then they start having this discussion about who should get to date me. I mean, I'm sitting there and I'm not even being asked, they're just talking about me like I'm up for bid, you know?” I burst out laughing. “Awkward.” “They do it to get under my skin,” he said, snorting. “And they licked me!” “They what?” I couldn't stop laughing. “How? Where?” “In the lunchroom,” he said, seeming exasperated. “We were talking about things parents say that aren't true. You know, things they say to stop you from doing stuff – don't swallow gum because it'll sit in your stomach for seven years. Shit like that.” “Okay,” I said, urging him on. “So I said how my sister had licked this kid’s face once on the playground and the school told my mom, so she had this big 'We don't lick people' conversation with her.” He was grinning and I was trying to hold my laughter in. “So first Liz leaned in and licked the side of my face, and I was like, what the hell? And before I saw him coming, Tim licked the other side – and they both said it was justified, because our parents lied and we do lick people. I mean – really?” I doubled over laughing at his story. This kid was seriously funny. “Does your boyfriend pull weird stuff on you?” he asked when I'd stopped laughing quite so much. “Eh, he's an artist and he likes to draw me,” I said, wiping my eyes. “Like, how?” I decided to put something embarrassing out there, since he'd basically opened his life to me. “He wants to do a nude.” Isaac's eyes bugged for a moment. “Are you going to let him?” “I wasn't so sure before, but I think I will. Some time.” “What changed your mind?” Ugh. Well, I did that to myself. “I figured he should want to see me naked for other reasons than drawing. Now that he has, I'm more open to the drawing thing.” “Ohh,” he said, drawing the word out. “I swear to God I think I'm going to lose my virginity in a three way.” I burst out laughing again. Later on we walked down the street to a sandwich shop for lunch. My new friend and I traded numbers and were texting our friends and took selfies to better illustrate who we were with. I guess Issac's friends were both telling him I'd better not be into him. “Tell them I licked you,” I said, snorting with laughter. When I headed home for the day I felt pretty good. The work was a nice change, even though none of it was exciting or difficult on its own. Zac, as I'd taken to calling Isaac, was so much fun to spend the day with, it hardly seemed like work anyway. I walked into my home in that happy mood to find my parents standing awkwardly in the living room. “Mom,” I said with some relief. At least it was normal to see her home. I hugged her and she gripped me tightly for a few moments before we let each other go. “So. New job?” she asked, delaying whatever was causing the tension in the air. “Yeah. It's good. Made a new friend. Worked out nice. How are you?” She tilted her head a bit. “I've had some time to clear my head and focus. I'm sorry I wasn't here to help you deal with this...situation. I had to get some distance and clarity.” “Yeah, I figured,” I said. My dad sat down in a chair, and my mom swept her dress tighter to her legs and sat on the couch, so I sat on the couch as well. “I made some calls, talked to a lot of people,” she said. “And I think we should go to South Carolina.” I blinked. “For vacation? Now?” Where the hell had that come from? “No!” she said, laughing nervously. “To live. Just think! Your last year in high school, maybe able to go to the beach and swim in the ocean every day! Then you can go to the state university there and....” She stopped talking as she looked at my face and then down at her hands. “I think it's a good, fresh start for us, Derry.” “Mom,” I said gently, trying to master my swirling emotions, kicked up like dirt when you walk through stream water. “I'm a senior this year. I want to finish school here with my friends. I have Jack now. I don't want to lose him. I don't want to move away.” She let out a shuddering breath and nodded her head. “I can understand your hesitation – it's a big move. Bold. I hear what you're saying about Jack, but I think...there are a lot of other boys out there. Not all of them have mothers that slept with your father.” “Mom! That's not Jack's fault, for Christ's sake!” “Well, you can't want to stay here,” she said. Her tone was a confusing mix of reasonable and scoffing. “If anyone deserves to live alone, it's your father. After all, he broke this family!” “I'm sitting right here,” my father said gently. “I know where you are,” my mother snapped. “At least I do now. I didn't figure out where you were before, of course. How could you?” “Stop!” I said loudly. “Just – what the hell? Didn't you guys already scream at each other?” My mother frowned. “How can you take his side?” “I'm not taking any sides!” I exclaimed. “We were talking and you went from 'We should move’ to 'Leaving is a way to punish your father'. I'm pissed at dad, too! I lost my shit on him once when he told me, I'm sure I'll do it again – but that doesn't make me want to run to another state!” “Well, why would you want to stay with him?” she demanded. “He cheated, not me!” “Because I'm not a fucking prize? I don't go to whoever behaves best, maybe? And it's not just about that. I'm going to be a senior, my last year with my friends before we all scatter and lose each other. And I have Jack, who I love. So it's not just about dad.” She rubbed her forehead. “I think we should maybe take a break,” my dad said. “Oh, shut up!” she snapped. She looked up at him, eyes flashing – and you could see right there where I got my temper from. “You don't get a vote. If you think I'm going to leave my son with you, to learn the finer points of infidelity from his father, you've got another thing coming!” “I'm not cheating!” I snapped. “Be reasonable!” my father said, losing his patience. “Are there any other sluts?” my mother demanded, voice growing louder. “Does Derry have any half-siblings he might want to meet? Is that the real reason we only had one child? Because you were so busy planting seeds elsewhere?” “If you wanted more children, maybe you could have had fewer headaches!” My father sighed and covered his face with his hands for a moment. “No,” he said softly. “There weren't any others. This was the single biggest mistake of my life, and I'll regret it as long as I live.” My mother looked at me. “You're coming with me.” “The fuck I am,” I said with a snort. She glared daggers. “We'll see about that.” She paused and changed her tone. “You know, you could have Jack come visit – if you guys are even together in a month or whatever.” I frowned. “I love Jack and he loves me. Why would you say that?” She looked down at her hands. “Forget I said it, sweetheart. My mind...my mouth is running a little wild.” My blood was getting tired from going to boiling to cooling off to boiling and back again. I was actually starting to feel sorry for my dad. I absolutely don't think cheating is the way to go, but this was another example of my mom being unreasonable and sticking with it. She'd done that a lot – it was a huge character flaw. The reason she got her Realtor's license was because my dad didn't make enough for her to spend the way she wanted to – and her paycheck was just that – hers. I'd heard them talking about finances before, and my mom's temper always flared. I think my dad should have asked for a divorce instead of cheating. I won't change my mind on that, but I was getting seriously worried that this was about to snowball into a bigger problem. At least my mom seemed to be calming down again. “Mom...are you sure you should do this now?” She bobbed her head. “Yes. I've wanted to move for years, but your father's...job was important as well. Now...I need to follow my own dreams for a while.” I sighed, unhappy with the situation. I couldn't quite give her an indication that I agreed or was happy in any way. This had been a messy discussion – or argument. It had been a series of lightning quick strikes, and now...now she was going to leave. Leave me behind, leave me with dad. Resentment flashed through me that she'd go, that she'd offer to take me at the cost of leaving everything else in my life behind. Maybe it was childish to feel that way, but I didn't care – she was my mom, damn it. I should count for more than a way to punish my dad. We talked some more, but it inevitably flared up again, because my mom wasn't getting her way with me. She began issuing threats, then taking them back, then making more. It was exhausting. Eventually she stormed out of the house, screaming that we were both against her. It broke my heart. Losing my family was bad enough, but to be treated like a bargaining chip was...demeaning. Dispiriting. It pissed me off. It left my emotions in a confusing swirl. I hadn't cried in my dad's arms since I'd been a kid with a skinned knee, but that night I indulged. It brought a weird sense of relief to have my dad rubbing my back like he did when I was little and I'd skinned my knee or some other little injury and – at that age – could imagine no worse pain. I showered, but felt restless and headed back down to the kitchen. My dad was sitting on a stool by the long center island with a cup of herbal tea when I wandered in, the tiles feeling cool and smooth under my feet. “You're up late,” he said quietly. “Yeah. My mind won't stop.” “How about some tea?” I hesitated. My feelings were still mixed, and I was still angry with him, but it was hard to keep it up. “Okay.” Dad is serious about his tea. He has an electric kettle with a tea infuser; he makes a whole pot at a time and reheats as necessary. He put some Stevia in a mug, because he's kind of anti-sugar, and poured the Chamomile I knew I'd smelled. I sat on a stool near him and sipped the tea. My thoughts tumbled, and before I knew it, my mouth was running. “Were you and mom unhappy? I mean together?” He let out a small sigh and placed his hands around his cup. “One of the great truths in life is that things always change. Sometimes the things you don't mind as much when you're younger or when a relationship is fresh become more and more...difficult to deal with.” “Like what?” “Well, with your mom and I, she always thought I was too financially conservative. She never understood how credit really works and how she paid more for things than she needed to, as a for instance.” “I know you've sort of talked to me...but I don't totally get it.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “Or you weren't listening?” I tilted my head. “Maybe,” I agreed. “Well, it's like this. I tell you I'll give you money, but in thirty days every dollar you use of mine means you have to give me a dollar and ten cents. So if you buy something for ten bucks, you owe me eleven. Use one hundred, it costs you one ten. With me?” “Sure.” “Okay, so let's say you want some nice headphones. Three hundred bucks, but you don't have the cash. So you use my credit.” “And they cost me three-hundred and thirty instead of three-hundred.” He raised a finger. “Only if you pay it all right away, because here is the next wrinkle. If you don't pay me the whole thing plus my ten percent – like on that original dollar you borrowed – then you pay ten percent on the one dollar and ten cents – effectively paying interest on your interest. If you're late, I charge you three dollars. And you pay interest the next month on your late fee, too.” He tilted his head at me, asking if I were getting it. “Okay, so far it doesn't seem that hard.” “Now is where you have to apply it all, though. So you buy these headphones, but instead of paying it all off – and by the way, usually if you pay it all within thirty days there is no interest, so credit cards can be useful in the short term for emergencies. But let's say you just pay the minimum payment, which is twenty-five dollars.” “But that's less than I get charged in interest,” I said. He pointed at me. “Right. So now you have a bill of three hundred and five dollars going forward to next month. You get charged the ten percent – let's just keep it at thirty dollars for convenience – and so the next month your bill is three-hundred-thirty-five dollars. You pay twenty five again – so each month you keep paying, and eventually you pay more – a ton more – for the item, which you may not even have anymore.” I frowned. “Mom didn't get this?” “There are a lot of people that forget the idea behind credit companies is to make money,” he said seriously. “They have their place – like for big purchases like homes or cars. But even then – let's say you have three hundred bucks a month you can afford to pay for a car per month. You find a car that ticks all your boxes, but a three year loan puts you at three-seventy-five a month. The salesman says 'No problem, Derry! We'll get you seventy-two months'. And for a seventy-two month loan, you get a nice two-hundred-seventy dollar payment, and you feel happy. Until you realize you're paying interest for five years instead of three, paying more for that vehicle than if you had a shorter loan.” I thought for a minute. “Is that why mom leases?” “That's exactly why. She always wanted a newer car, but the payments and interest were never ending. Now, I'm not a fan of leases in general, because you pay for a few years and then give the car back – with nothing to show for all the payments. It's like a rental, in some ways.” I thought again. “So mom wasn't good with money?” “Well, I'd say she had expensive tastes,” he said quietly. “But you loved her.” He looked up at me. “Of course. Everyone has flaws, kiddo. Sometimes we love them because of their flaws – it makes them a real person.” “So...why did you do it, dad?” I asked quietly. He let out a tired sigh and took a sip of his tea. “Your mom and I disagreed on more things as time went by. I don't think either of us was happy, but neither did we seem to know what to do about it. Nobody wanted to be the bad guy and ask for a divorce – but then you could argue it wasn't so bad that we had to get one. And we were so...used to it. The inertia of the way we lived. Money was getting tighter, in my opinion, and we weren't...being intimate. It was a lot of small things that led to a big messy picture of a stagnant marriage.” I sipped my tea and waited for him to continue. “So. The pharmaceutical account came up. I met Grace. We were both in the same boat. We commiserated about the pile of little and not-so-little things that were not right in our lives and...it was enough. We took some...solace in each other.” I looked down into my cup. I'm not sure what I'd expected, but it wasn't that. Maybe I felt like it should have been more...intentionally malicious or something. Something to feel angry and self-righteous about and pound my chest with how wrong he was. I don't know. It just sounded sad. “I wish you guys would have tried. Or just divorced.” I looked up at him. “This might sound really selfish, but I love Jack and I hate to see him so unhappy.” He nodded and his expression was sadness personified. “I know, Derry. I let you down.” After a moment of quiet I asked, “So. What now? I know you screwed up, and you always taught me to take responsibility for my mistakes, and I guess you have. But what happens now?” He pursed his lips in thought, and I always thought that was kind of funny. He looked like he was sucking on a lemon when he did that. “A lot has been said. A lot of ideas floated. I heard you tonight, and I don't see why you can't be here to do your senior year and graduate.” He paused and looked up at me. “Just being coldly analytical, Jack isn't the best reason not to move. School districts, college opportunities, living expenses – all those are considerations.” He took a breath. “But cold analysis doesn't work for human lives, not unless you’re a computer or a corporation.” “Jack is important to me.” He nodded. “I know, son. He's your first real love – and maybe more. Many times these things don't last as long as we think they should or could, which is why it rates a little lower when you weigh pros and cons. But,” he said with a little smile, “you also have to weigh quality of life issues. Your comfort at your school, the security of your friends – the stress of changing schools can be tough, and you're going to have to deal with those new surroundings when you hit college anyway.” I shifted on the seat. “Mom seemed like she was determined to make me leave with her.” He nodded his head slowly. “Well. She's angry, and with reason. When we get too emotional we can make hasty decisions and say things...we don't want to.” “What if she says we have to sell this house?” “We deal with that with the lawyers, and you shouldn't worry too much about it. Spouses usually can come to an arrangement, though it may take some time until your mom feels a little more stability.” “Mom's unstable?” I asked doubtfully. He smiled. “Not what I meant. I mean the situation has her off-kilter and when things have calmed down, she will see things a little differently. That's all. She'll gain some perspective, and she loves you. She's not trying to hurt you, she's trying to hurt me because I hurt her.” I leaned back a little. “I haven't really heard you, like, yell or anything during this. Why are you so...chill?” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Because the situation, quite frankly, is fucked. I know what I did, and I know why my family is angry with me. I'm not especially pleased with me, either.” He sighed. “I've lost my wife. I don't want to lose my son, too. Being heavy-handed with you while you deal with your own emotions and fallout from this doesn't help you, and I never wanted to hurt you, Derry. I didn't really want to hurt your mother. I made a terrible, horrible decision. I should have either talked to your mom about fixing our issues or asked for a civil divorce. “What can I say, buddy? I fucked up.” I hugged him goodnight and went up to stretch out and wait for sleep to claim me. He was right – he had fucked up. But I realized he was showing me how to have a little grace and tact while being wrong.
  4. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    The best stories are always the ones that are the most unlikely. Boy and boy hate each other, but gradually fall for each other. They are romantically epic and you can imagine the swelling orchestra music when they finally get over hating each other, have spent a month or two slowly getting closer and then – bam! Love. Kissing. Sex that's better than any porn. That's my dark secret – I love those stories. I sit up late reading stories on my phone about guys who slowly circle each other and are dumb enough not to see it coming while I'm screaming in my head 'Kiss him! Kiss him now!' and of course they don't listen. Sometimes I get wrapped in my blanket at night and think about what that would be like – the unrealness. The romance. The sex. Then I wake up. ** Park Terrace sounds nicer than it is. I find people name crappy things with fancy names to make it sound better to live there. Like how basic is it to just put 'new' in front of a name and have the place be cool? Like New York? Simple and awesome. I don't know if it works for everything – I once saw a show where they named a planet New Earth, and that just seemed stupid. Or did they just randomly add it? Like...New Zealand. Was there a Zealand? A quick check of my phone informed me that there had been a Zeeland, so lack of imagination but it was named for a pretty cool place. My theory holds. Park Terrace is part of Binghamton, but also thinks it's its own place. I mean, it is and it isn't. Like our school system is tied to Binghamton city schools, but then our elementary school is just for us. We don't mix with the 'city crowd' until we hit middle school. Out here in the wider open space – I say that because it's not like we have miles between houses, exactly, but there is more space than in the city. So out here you kind of got to know all the kids and make connections or not before hitting middle school. You can learn a lot about people just from high school. There's the haves and the have-nots, but that's really just too broad. There's the Haves that know it and flaunt it, the ones that have it and don't care or realize it. There's also have-nots that don't care or don't realize it or who are perversely proud of being a future beast of burden for some corporation – breaking their backs working construction or for road crews. There's also the have-nots who want to be haves. The haves parents wanted their little haves to stay in charge, so they got good schools and trust funds and inherited the family business. My family was different. We weren't exactly have-nots, but we weren't haves at all. What do you call the middle class in that case? The almost haves? The nearly haves? My phone had no answers for that one. “Hunter. Hunter, will you fucking wake up?” I turned to my sister, who was driving us to school on this fine spring day nearing the end of our senior year. My fraternal twin. “I'm awake, Gatherer,” I teased. Her eyes narrowed. “Don't make me hurt you.” “Whatever. I can't wait for this nightmare to be over.” She snorted. We climbed from her truck, an ancient Ford that she'd taken an obscene liking to. My sister intimidated most guys – she was tall, like me, and at six foot was enough to intimidate some of the lesser boys. She was also a tomboy – she liked auto work, for instance, and could change a tire faster than any guy I knew. She even knew the difference between a box wrench and a ratchet, which I admit I did know now, but I couldn't think of many other girls who would care to. We walked side by side from the back of the parking lot. “I'd do him,” she said. I glanced where she was looking. Jessie Stewart. Nice body, stable personality for a jock. His brown hair was always short and fuzzy and made me think of woodland creatures. “I heard he did steroids. Might have shrunk his package.” “You've looked,” she said, looking away from him. “Notice any shrinkage?” “Don't think so,” I replied. “I'd do him, too,” she said. Again I looked. Caleb Montgomery. We'd grown up with him. His parents owned one of the largest hothouses around. Slob. Apparently can't dress himself because sweats and other athletic gear seems to be the only thing he ever wore. And his barber must be blind or drunk. Renowned for being calm in just about any circumstance. It was creepy. All that and sparkly green eyes made me think about something gross like a gargoyle with a scrunched face and these all too human eyes. I mean, he wasn't ugly, but his ensemble needed work. I really wish he'd do something with his golden-red hair. “I'm not sure he'd react to you riding his Johnson,” I said. She snorted again. “If I was riding his Johnson, it wouldn't matter – he'd be fulfilling his purpose.” I laughed and she grinned salaciously. “Him, too. I'd destroy him.” This eye candy was Kelvin Richards. He was mixed race, and puberty had hit him like a truck. He was probably one of the prettiest guys in our class – and one of the dumbest. Maybe that's harsh. Maybe more like...he has no sense, common or otherwise. “Please.” “Maybe him.” “Nial Henderson? Do you want stupid children?” “Who said anything about children?” “Wow, are you ever horny this morning.” I laughed. “Where's your old standby?” She pushed me, and we separated to go to our first classes. We were in the final weeks of school. Finals were looming, and I was busting my ass to get good grades. I had a spot at SUNY Binghamton in the art and design department calling my name, but I think more than a few of my classmates were majoring in working fast food or convenience stores forever. Which, you know, it's an honest living. Not what I wanted for me, though. I passed Bruce Clarkson, the guy my sister always ended up with. My sister's real name was Andrea, but people called her Andy – which suited her masculine endeavors pretty well. If I wanted to tweak her I could bring up her middle name – Larkspur, a flower. Of course then she'd bring up mine, Aciano – which people didn't realize was a flower, but then she'd tell them. Most of the time we kept our flowery middle names to ourselves, or like most middle names, largely forgotten. Bruce was a decent guy, but not exactly built like a football player. He was about five foot ten with an easy smile and light brown eyes. He was reasonably smart, but always seemed to find himself in the middle of trouble – and frequently that trouble was my sister. Over the winter she'd get frustrated with something and she'd throw her coat on to leave. I'd ask where she was going and she'd snarl, “I need some dick.” “Say hi to Bruce for me,” I'd tell her. I don't know why she doesn't just date the guy. He likes her. They've already seen each other naked and not run screaming. What’s the holdup? She isn't big on talking about it. I breezed through my classes, talking to people and being friendly, though I really had no patience left for high school. I usually enjoyed guys wearing lighter clothes that showed off some skin, but not even that did much for me at this stage. I just wanted to be done. All of our classes were down to the review stage. It was nearly over except for the testing and the McDonald's applications. I busied myself with my social media accounts to take my mind off the stupid tests to come. I glanced down the list of hearts, a fire icon, emojis with hearts in their eyes and peaches with eggplants and water squirting. It all ran together sometimes. There were several of the same kinds of messages: 'OMG You're Gorgeous'. 'Why are you so perfect?'. 'I love you!' I'm not immune to flattery, and I admit the comments were good for my ego. At the same time, they were just comments from a screen name, a means to increase my follower count. I flipped through my other accounts on different platforms, and when I had exhausted that I checked out my image stash to evaluate the stuff I hadn't posted yet. I'd originally stuck to a rigid posting schedule so they'd know when to expect stuff, but now I posted at odd times, to keep them on their toes – but, my fuck, it was exhausting. Andy had helped me this past weekend – she was usually game as long as I don't make her dress up. I have to guilt her into costumes, but she's so damn gorgeous when she does it. Anyway, she'd gotten into this one because she got to work with metal. We got some metal stock and piano wire from the local hobby store and made wings out of them – like fairy wings. Then I added gauzy cloth, tacked into place with hot glue, to spread out behind me. Attaching it to my back was much harder. A harness would look weird. I was going for the whole magical fairy motif, not a leather kink vibe. Although...I made myself a note to give thought to a leather vibe shot. My slender build and baby face don't lend themselves readily to more rough-trade ideas, but with some make-up and good camera angles, I may be able to pull off something cool. Back to the wings. I'd let the idea of how to attach them sit in the back of my mind while I worked on the rest of the costume. I used the same gauzy material to fashion a multi-colored vest that would fall apart if you washed it, and then I went nuts and made pants as well. The material is so cheap and flimsy I couldn't use the costume for very long, but I could probably salvage the remnants for a later project. Light tan bikini briefs completed the look – except for the damn wings. And I had to leave holes through the vest to attach the wings to my back. In the end I'd used double sided tape, and the effect was great, but taking the tape off afterward had hurt like a motherfucker. I'd used a white background with some house plants I'd swiped from around our home, and I was pretty pleased with the whole 'male fairy in the wild' thing I created. My followers were pretty pleased too. I had a link tree that sent them to different ways to support me and my efforts. Among other things, that netted me underwear they wanted to see me in – which was part of another platform, for the most part. I got gadgets, gift cards and things of that sort, so it was lucrative enough to beat my head against the wall to express my creativity. The edge of my screen lit up and a new incoming message flashed across the top of my screen. “Hunter?” I looked up, startled. “Do you have your packet done?” the teacher asked. “Oh, yes, I'm sorry,” I said and opened my laptop. “Just turn it in for me, okay?” “Right now,” I promised. Stupid school machine was so slow. Once it was awake I navigated to the right class and opened the folder with my review packet. Ninety-eight percent complete? What the hell? I opened the packet and scanned it until I found a true/false question I'd missed. Once answered I sent it to the teacher. Weird. I thought I'd sent that. Glad I hadn't; don't need to take points away by skipping a question. The bell rang and I left with the class, heading to lunch. I met Andy in the parking lot and we sat on folding chairs in the bed of her truck. She kept a cooler with our lunch in the extended cab area, so we sat back and worked on our food. Well, mine was food. I had fruit, sprouted grain bread to get actual nutrition from it, lean meat and my one vice – cheese. I had two slices of cheese, but I think my body can handle it. Andy had a sandwich with a jar of mayo on it, white bread that was soaked through with said mayo, and liverwurst. I mean...fucking eww. Oh, that and her stash – a handy little bag of diabetes that she kept in her glove box. “Tests next week, then we are done,” she said with a note of finality. “Yep. Can't wait.” “When are you posting your Tinkerbell set?” “It's a male fairy,” I said with a trace of sourness. “Probably tonight.” “The wings were fucking awesome,” she said. “You should do more stuff where I can work with metal. Maybe a steampunk thing?” “Oh! That would be fucking cool!” I said. “I need to write that down. How would I do that?” “We can make you look like a Borg,” she said and snorted with laughter. “A gear over one eye like an eye patch?” I mused. “That's not half bad,” she said agreeably. “Maybe use more wire to - oh yeah! Use a big gear to hide your junk!” “Hmm. Kind of edgy. It might actually work,” I said, turning the idea over. I definitely used my body to my advantage in my creative endeavors, but I walked a fine line between smut and something more elegant. I like elegant versus classy. Classy sounds like a word people use when they don't know things can be elegant. “Jesus. I so want his dick,” Andy said. I turned to see who she was looking at. Some guys were throwing a football around. I recognized them all, but wasn't sure who she meant. “Who?” “Caleb. Look at his chest,” she said and bit her sandwich with lust in her eye, leaving mayo around her mouth that was both funny and obscene. I turned from her and sought out Caleb. She was right, his chest was nice to look at – lean and showing the muscles he had, even if they weren't huge. His sweatpants sagged down and he would pull the waistband periodically. His hair...well, a bird may land in it. A few feet away from Caleb, Kelvin lifted his shirt to wipe his face with the bottom, which is nasty even if necessary, and Andy growled. “Jesus, why do you need to get laid so badly?” I asked, chuckling. “Ugh. This testing crap, it's eating at me. I know I need it, and I don't want people to think I'm dumb, but I want to build shit. I can't wait for the summer to start so I get on that building crew.” She looked at me. “There will be some real dick there. But for now...I'm just going to get Caleb. I'm afraid if I keep fucking Bruce he's going to develop feelings.” “Are you afraid to develop them back?” “Every bit as much as you are,” she said with a pointed snort. “Fear isn't part of it,” I scoffed. She grunted, but dropped that line for now. “Heard we're all invited to Caleb's one more time,” she said. “Stress relief? Yay. Well, those are kind of fun,” I said. It was true. Caleb's family had a big house – they'd needed it with five kids – and they had stress relief parties to celebrate the end of each quarter of school. They reasoned that we worked hard and stressed over our grades and it was nice to have a relaxing time to have fun and acknowledge our hard work. In truth it was really nice of them, even if they offered way too many junk food options. They had indoor activities like you'd expect – movies, video games, a VR. They also did board games and let the music be louder than most adults could tolerate. Outside they'd do silly things like bag races, lawn twister and junk like that. It was an innocently good time for the local kids who'd all grown up living near each other – or was supposed to be. For the last year-and-a-half there had been some competition that had been just about good fun before, but now was worth some kind of mysterious bragging rights. It had taken on a seriousness that I found baffling. The highlight was the Mario Kart tournament, complete with brackets. Caleb was the reigning champ and the pressure had begun to escalate, especially the focus on distraction. It started out as moving in front of someone to break their line of sight and progressed to making sudden loud noises, which is pretty tame. The last two times, though, things had shifted. There were tongues in ears, kisses, caresses – anything to distract the player. So far Caleb was impervious. It wasn't human the way he just never got stressed or whatever. “I'm going to get a piece of Caleb,” Andy growled. As she did a group of people passed by our perch – some that we'd known forever and some from in town. They gave true meaning to 'birds of a feather flock together'. In this case, buzzards. They giggled at Andy's statement. “Going to eat the piece you get, slut?” one asked. “Don't blame me because you're not getting any,” Andy snorted. “Not everyone wants to be the town pump,” another said disdainfully. “I pick who and when. If they get a chance to pump, it's usually by accident and I flip them on their back so I can do my thing,” Andy said, grinning evilly at them. “Bitch,” one muttered as they drifted away, tittering among themselves. “So you don't care if they enjoy themselves?” I asked. “Who?” “The guys you have sex with?” “Who says they aren't having fun?” she demanded. I just laughed. “Seriously, who says?” she asked. I laughed again, but turned as I saw something from the corner of my eye. The buzzards were circling the guys throwing the ball, and two of them were talking to Caleb. “I think your dinner is being stolen,” I said, tipping my head toward the scene before me. Andy looked and scowled. “Damn it. I wanted him.” “Yeah, I know. Maybe you can try again after he has a haircut or something,” I suggested. “Why don't you ever need to get laid?” she grumbled. “Oh, because you have your old man?” “We don't do that,” I replied with a sigh. “It's weird.” “And I'm so eager to have this argument again,” I groaned. “Go kill one of the buzzards and then you can fuck Caleb in victory. You'll feel better.” She grunted at me and put her trash in the cooler. “I'm going to find Bruce,” she said. “Good gathering,” I said cheerfully. She flipped me off and I laughed. She hated my wit, but if I was a Hunter what then did that make her? I finished my meal and took a yogurt out for dessert. My phone buzzed – probably another reaction to a picture – but it reminded me I'd missed a message earlier. I fished my phone out and thumbed to the new message. 'How would you feel about dinner tonight?' I grinned. 'Hungry'. A happy face popped up on my screen. 'Meet you at 7?' 'Sending me the address?' 'Yes. Wear what you did last time? Or close to it?' 'I'll try. You know I like to keep things fresh.' A heart popped up and I sighed. Gary was my sugar daddy, with restrictions. While I have no qualms about sex work in theory, I'm not a sex worker – not in that sense. He pays me to accompany him for a meal, sometimes a show or gallery viewing. It's all public and he's allowed light displays of affection. I provide companionship, conversation, but mainly I'm an ear with a pretty face for him to talk to. I like Gary, and while older men aren't really my thing, I could see myself arranging something with him down the line. Like when I'm eighteen next month. However, as much as Gary is enamored with me, he's also a married man who thinks I'm eighteen already and in college. I think he's happy enough in his marriage, but I provide something he doesn't get elsewhere. He takes me to nice places, and I've gotten to see art I might not have, which definitely feeds my creativity. I tried to remember what I wore last time. I'd just gotten a pair of black jeans that were slim-fit, and he likes those on me – says my butt looks amazing. But what about the- oh, right. My eyes are a pale, pale blue. I didn't get the nice piercing, electric blue eyes or the deep sea blues or even the ones that looked like chips of arctic ice. Mine were just...washed out. But I'd found a button up shirt with a white background and subtle blue stripes that matched my eyes, and Gary had raved. I hadn't really worn it since, so I could pull that back out. I opened the camera on my phone and looked at my reflection. Yeah, I needed a haircut if I was going on a job. I couldn't stay out late either since I had to be up for work in the morning. Lunch ended and the day drifted irritatingly slowly. I met up with Andy at her truck once that interminable Friday had ended and asked if she was going out that night. She mumbled something. “What?” She gripped the steering wheel. “I'm going to fuck Bruce later. After work, if he answers his damn phone.” “Oh. Can you drop me at the convenience store about six-fifteen?” “Work at six, so no.” She shot me some side eye. “Got a hot date with Ebeneezer?” “Gary is a decent guy.” “That you aren't attracted to.” “Firstly, I don't have to be attracted to do this job. Secondly, he's not repulsive.” “Thirdly, he's married, and you have no future.” I sighed. “He's a sugar daddy, not my fiancé,” I said. “I give him things he doesn't get elsewhere, and it's been a good thing. Why does it bother you so much? It's not you sitting and listening to him about his job or his kids or his wife.” “What's the point?” she demanded. “Money? You have practically no expenses. Sex? You claim there isn't any.” “There isn't!” I protested. “Then what?” she demanded. I sighed and put my hands out in front of me as if to tell the dashboard to back off. “He's opening doors for me. He talks to me about the business world he works in. He's in management, and that takes a certain amount of experience to do well. He takes me to restaurants that I wouldn't experience and to gallery openings for artwork that sets me on fire, creatively.” I looked at her. “Just because he's older than I am doesn't mean I couldn't fall for him. He's kind and generous.” She looked back at me for a moment, then back out the windshield and tromped on the gas. Quietly she said, “But it seems wrong-” “I don't.” “Someone so much older wanting you. Your time, your...whatever.” I took a calming breath and folded my hands over each other. “I think I look pretty good when I get myself put together. He thinks I'm in college, and he enjoys my company and that I listen to him. If he goes home and jerks off thinking about me, I have no problem with that – what someone else thinks about me isn't any of my business. Besides, have you ever looked at the way porn gets marketed? Young, beautiful people together. Older with younger. I don't think I've ever seen an ad or something for 'mature sex' or anything like that. As soon as we can view porn we're programmed to think it should only happen between two young, pretty people.” She glanced at me and laughed. “Okay, professor! Clearly you watch too much porn!” I grinned. “Maybe. But it's a good way to gauge people accurately. Look at the charts they put out about the categories people search for – the repressed south is always highest in gay and lesbian porn. Why isn't it okay for people to be honest about what attracts them?” “Well-” “Judgment, that's what,” I said, cutting her off. “If a guy like Gary is attracted to younger men, people judge and call him a manther. A woman is a cougar. And what about younger people who are attracted to people older than they are?” “But you said you weren't attracted to him.” “He's handsome, but no, I'm not interested romantically. I want to learn from him. But if I was attracted, who am I hurting?” “Well, if you were eighteen,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “He's got a good job and a house he might not lose in the divorce. What do you bring besides your virgin butthole and being a weird age to be step-daddy to his tweens?” I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Who says Gary would be the older person I'd be interested in? I mean, Brad Pitt is still hot and he's like old enough for AARP!” She burst out laughing. “Oh, oh, stop! Drop me at the Chop Shop,” I told her. The Chop Shop was a salon and my go-to place for a haircut. She shook her head and put her blinker on before pulling into the lot and stopping. “When are you going to learn how to drive?” she asked. “When I need to, I guess,” I replied with a shrug. “Good thing you're getting a haircut,” she said, looking away from me as she did. “You look like a lesbian.” “I do not!” I stated hotly, closing the door behind me harder than I strictly needed to. She looked back at me, grinning and resting her arms on the steering wheel. “You look like a butch lesbian, so essentially a flat chested boy. You're going to fight with that?” “A lesbian has no dick. I have one and I like other dicks,” I told her firmly. “Oh, hi, Mrs. Walters!” she said cheerily, looking past me and waving. I whipped around, mortified that I may have spoken like that in front of our retired town librarian, only to find an empty sidewalk behind me. I turned back to her with narrowed eyes. “I'll get you, my pretty,” I told her. “Yeah. Later, Toto,” she snickered and was gone.
  5. Dabeagle


    Hunter has plans and reasons. Get the hell out of Park Terrace, power through college to get to New York City where he can be himself - because there is nothing and no one to tie him down, unless you could coming back to visit the parents. New York City would bring the romance he loves so much, maybe even one of those 'hate them at first sight and grudgingly learn to love them' type stories. No. Those are too much work. Image used with permission. If you like the model you can see more on Instagram @Chriswalshthestar
  6. Dabeagle

    Chapter 6

    I figured I'd skip going home and head to Jack's, but when I texted to let him know he told me he was leaving and heading to Jared's. I asked him if I should meet him there, and he said definitely, so I was off. Bit of a jerk moment, but I was wondering what happened that he was going to Jared instead of me. I hate myself sometimes, and maybe I am a little jealous of how much regard Jack has for Jared – Jesus. I did not want to be a controlling bitch and drive Jack away. Why am I so neurotic about Jared? If anything it made me more angry and completely unenthused to confront this right now, but there you go. I pulled up to the Benson's and found a fleet of vehicles – Jack's, Jared's, Mr. Benson and the hooptie Luke couldn't get started but bought because he thought it looked cool. I parked on the street and rang the bell. Jared answered the door, admitting me, and had no sooner closed the door than he enveloped me in a hug. I froze. “I'm so sorry for you guys,” he said quietly. “Um.” “I'm here if you need me, okay? I know you have Jack, but I'll be the backup plan, okay?” I will never be able to explain why. Maybe it was because my brain was processing shit in the background. Maybe I wasn't as over it as I seemed or was trying to be. Maybe I just knew it wasn't over, because my mom had yet to weigh in and was hiding out. Maybe it was because all I had been able to control was going to Jack to try and preserve us. I'd been completely not me when I bailed on my job that morning – I'm quick tempered, but usually not to that degree. I'm responsible. And that was why, maybe, I started crying on Jared Benson's shoulder. That was why I tentatively hugged him back. I think about that moment from time to time, and that's the best answer I can give; it was all building up inside me, and I had to let some of the pressure off. Of course my crying brought Jack running, with Luke not far behind him. I turned from Jared and fell into Jack's arms like some damsel in distress – and I just didn't care. I was ugly crying, and Jared had brought it out of me. We shifted off into the living room, and Luke brought out some fuzzy blankets for us to curl up with. I was huddled next to Jack, who was rubbing his hand up and down my back. Luke was on the other end of the couch, his feet tucked up under him and a blanket tossed about his shoulders like a shawl. Jared had brought out some chips and stuff and settled into a chair while his dad wandered out to take another chair. I guess crying brings all the boys to the living room. I hope to Christ that's not my superpower. “You boys are having a rough time of it. I'm so sorry you have to go through this,” Mr. Benson said into the silence. I felt Jack's chest vibrate as he spoke. “Things haven't been good with my parents for a while, but they never fought like they are now.” He paused. “I just couldn't hang around there. And with Derry's dad being the other half, going there didn't seem like the right thing to do.” There it was. That's why he came to Jared's. I am such an asshole. “I can understand, and you know you boys are always welcome here,” Mr. Benson said. “You were practically an extra Benson as it was.” He smiled wanly. Jared and Luke murmured words of agreement. After a few minutes of silence Mr. Benson spoke again. “Divorce is no easy thing. Not for anyone involved.” He looked at each of us, taking the group in with a sweep of his tired eyes. “When my wife and I separated I went through a litany of phases: was it my fault? Had she simply chosen to be with a woman? Why did she hate her life with us so much that she had to leave?” He shook his head. “The truth is always simpler and at the same time more complex than we imagine.” “You never talked much about mom...after,” Luke said, his voice tiny. His father looked at him and smiled sadly. “It would have been all bad if I had, at least at first. Once I'd said things against her, you'd have always remembered my words.” He let out a breath. “No. It wasn't fair to you kids to burden you with my own emotions toward your mother then. I won't speak badly because, in the end, it wasn't about fault.” “What do you mean?” Jared asked. “I mean, statistically? Like fifty percent of people divorce, so was it just unlucky?” His dad snorted out a laugh. “No. It was because your mom was raised in the same dumb way a lot of people our age were. She was repressed and got married because it was what she was supposed to do – what she was taught was expected of her. We care about each other, I'd say we love each other – but you boys should know all about there being different types of love.” He closed his eyes and said softly, “She tried. She was a good mother, but she wasn't good with me. It wasn't her fault, not in the end.” He put his hands over his nose as if in prayer and let out another breath, dropping his hands back down. “Living as someone she wasn't would have killed her. Some people think they should stay together for the children, but that's a bad idea. Take the pain you guys felt at our divorce and compare it to growing up around two people who were miserable and fighting your entire lives. But that's how people in our generation were raised – taught that if your marriage failed you were damaged. That you hadn't worked hard enough.” “Sounds like pastors who say bad things only happen if you don't pray enough or the right way.” Oh, I'd said that. I hadn't even thought to speak and it was happening. “Very like that,” their dad said with a nod of his head. “So as tough as this is on you guys, you have us to fall back on. Your parents are hurting and trying to find their way forward. At some point you reach the cruel realization that your parents are only people. Just humans who don't have all the answers, but who are doing the best they can.” “But...she had kids,” Luke said softly. His dad rubbed his forehead and sighed. “Yeah. Leaving was still for your benefit, Luke. Your mom loves you guys – a lot. But what you may not understand yet is that you have to be stable yourself to be able to support others.” “But she just dumped us on you!” Jared said, hurt evident in his voice. His dad held up a hand. “She did what she had to do. Jared, imagine if you and I didn't accept Luke for who he is and kept piling on and forcing him toward relationships he couldn't be himself in.” His dad stared at him hard. “Sometimes people feel like there is no point to living anymore. If that happens they can't help anyone, not even themselves. You may not have the best relationship with your mom, but you do have one. She still provided some financial support and she's managed to build a life.” There was a pregnant pause, and then Luke asked, “What about you?” His dad looked at him. “I got most of what I wanted. Yes, I'd have liked to have a partner to share my family with, but I got three full-time kids and my adoptee,” he said, nodding toward Jack. “I love being a dad. I don't get the same satisfaction from work or sports or anything else that I do from you guys.” “Even Kyrstie?” Jared asked with an impish grin. Their dad chuckled. “She's had a hard road, but even your sister. She's grown a lot, being out on her own.” “I just don't know how she affords it,” Luke said. “Her apartment?” Jared asked. “She's got a job, right?” Jack asked. “Sure. But she lives with friends,” Luke said. “How does she have a job that pays enough for rent and to pay people to be her friends. Huh?” Laughter erupted in the room and Mr. Benson had a hard time not laughing while trying to tell his son he shouldn't say things like that about his sister. A question was swirling in the back of my mind, and I guess I was caught up in the mood of the situation. “How does that affect me and Jack? I mean...I don't know how Jack feels, but I'm not sure I can forgive my dad.” Jack's arms flexed, pulling me to him a bit tighter. I felt the vibration of his voice through his chest as he spoke. “I honestly don't know if I can forgive my mom,” he said quietly. Maybe he and I had worried about the same thing. “I can only offer you some advice from the outside, guys,” Mr. Benson said quietly. “What your parents did wasn't about you. Yes, it affects you and it sucks. It hurts. But you have to remember that they didn't do this with the intention of hurting you. They did it for other reasons – unhappiness, the need to feel...something other than what they did. We may never know, and frankly you may not want to know.” He sighed. “They are still the same people. They still feel the same way toward you. Yes, it will take time to work through your feelings, but try to keep in mind that you guys have us and they weren't aiming at you. They were aiming at themselves.” I was feeling a little overwhelmed, and pressure was building in my skull. I had to change the mood and the topic quickly. “So, Jared. Sorry, but I guess Delia is having some weird rebounding thing with her Ex.” He waved a hand. “Eh. Lauren came around and was pretty contrite. I think I believed her enough to give her another chance.” “Oh, Christ,” Jack muttered. “Come on now, Jacky!” Jared said, his tone teasing. “Making up isn't so bad. Wait till you guys fight and make up.” I rolled my eyes. “Besides, we shouldn't be talking about my love life when Luke's is so much more interesting,” Jared said with a wicked grin. “Oh, jeez, look at the time!” Luke said making to stand. “Whoa, whoa,” his dad said, holding up a hand. “You're dating again?” “Ugh,” Luke groaned, falling back into his chair. “I met this guy last summer when I was doing the umpiring for little league. He lives a little bit away, so we didn't do any more than chat.” He paused. “We've been talking for a long time now, though. We like some of the same stuff and...I don't know. I like him. A lot.” “Where's a bit away?” I asked. “Sanitaria Springs,” he said. “Come on, let's see a picture,” Jack said, and Jared grinned at having switched the conversation. I wasn't going to let him off completely. “Yeah, find a good picture while we tell Jared what a bad idea Lauren is,” I said. “You too, Derry? Come on, man!” Jared groaned and laughed all in one. There was a round of teasing that lifted the spirits in the room, and then we eventually got a look at this boy Luke was falling for. He was nice looking, with rich brown hair, blue eyes, pale skin and a slender figure. I looked up at Luke with his clear complexion, dark eyes and brown hair that was already lightening from the summer sun. “So when do we get to meet him?” I teased. “Oh. Well, you know, he lives like an hour away,” Luke said. “Yes! Road trip!” Jared said with enthusiasm. “Jacky? Derry? What do you say? Shall we help this romance along?” “I'm getting out of here,” their dad said, exiting the room chuckling. “Seriously?” Luke asked, and then grinned. “Let me text him and see if he's around tomorrow.” Jared helped Jack pull the couch out into a bed, joking that this would be the first time Jack had slept over and used the couch. “Did you guys share a bed before?” I asked, curious. “Nah,” Jared said. “We were usually awake all night talking about deep shit that would have seemed dumb at two in the afternoon.” He laughed and Jack grinned in agreement. “There's an air mattress in the closet. We'd crash wherever – sometimes he got the bed, sometimes I did. Depended on who fell asleep first or whatever.” Luke eventually wandered out, happily telling us this boy, named Nik, was free the next day. We watched a movie and then called it a night. I had mixed feelings, but I texted my dad to let him know I was okay and staying at Jared's. Part of me felt like he didn't deserve to know, but another felt guilty that he might worry – as if he didn't feel bad enough already. Jack told me his parents knew where he'd go, so it wasn't a problem for him. “So,” I said once we were alone and the house was dark. I told him about quitting my job and how Mr. Maddox had lined me up with a new one. Jack told me he was going to follow up with the burger joint because he hated where he was. Thinking of why we were here – Jack's parents fighting, our parents’ infidelity – I laid my head on Jack's chest. “How are you holding up, babe?” He sighed and rested his arm around me. “Honestly? I think a part of me is relieved.” “How's that work?” “It's like...things around my house have been tense for a while. Long time. Like when Mr. Benson said that it was better for people to break up than to keep that constant misery around their kids forever? I've had that at home, kind of. Ever since things started going bad at my mom's old job, things have been weird and tense between her and my dad. I get along with both of them, but they were like...not fighting, but just this huge space opened up between them.” He paused. “I hope something good comes out if this in the end. What else can I do?” “I don't think I knew how bad it was for you at home,” I said quietly. “It wasn't. I mean, not as bad as it could have been.” He paused again. “I guess, maybe, I'm not that hard to get along with? I don't know. I guess it didn't seem so bad because I was used to it, and now that everything kind of blew up...I can see it better for what it was. Does that make sense?” “As much as anything else,” I said. “How about you? Quitting jobs doesn't sound like a you sort of thing.” “It's not,” I agreed. “I was aggravated this morning, because I had pubes of steel-” He broke out into giggles. “You what?” “Don't laugh! It's your fault,” I grumbled and proceeded to tell him about my morning in greater detail. He started to laugh and I grinned, poking him, and then he started to poke me, and soon enough we were giggling and trying to make the other laugh without getting too loud. Last thing we needed was to get Jared or Luke out there, much less thinking we were getting it on in their living room. “What do you think about Luke getting back into dating?” Jack hummed a moment. “I think it's good the guy he likes lives far away. Maybe Luke won't feel so...I don't know. Trapped? It's not like they'll see each other at school and stuff. Might be a good thing.” I grunted. “Maybe. I hope he's going into this with a new perspective. He lost out on you and you'd have done anything for him, so he has to find someone else.” I squeezed him. “You're mine.” He chuckled. “There was a time you were right – I'd have done anything. But...I don't know. I learned from that.” He rolled toward me. “Kind of found a perfect guy for me. Tells me when he wants stuff so I don't miss out.” “Like me telling you what to do, huh?” “More like...I realize I need a pointer sometimes. I don't like it when you're direct and pissed at me, but I like it when you tell me what you want.” “I kind of feel like you should be able to take a hint,” I said. “Like, I'm your boyfriend. Of course I want you to touch me. You know?” “Didn't we just have this conversation?” he asked, rolling his eyes. “And until you get it,” I said, poking him in the chest. He chuckled and pulled me on top of him. Softly he said, “I did get it, though.” I dropped my forehead to his chest and chuckled. “Okay, confession.” I lifted my gaze to meet his. “I tell you I want us to touch and stuff, and now that we have? I'm obsessed. I have stupid sex-related answers to innocent questions in my head – all day!” We laughed softly together. “I just had a little trouble sitting,” Jack said. He ran his fingers through my hair. “But it was worth it. I needed you. Being that close. I know I'll never forget it.” Then I kissed him a little. Words are great, but kissing has its place too. ** Jared drove us the next day, so Jack and I were in the back seat. I rested my head on his thigh while Jared kept coming up with stupid facts that were kind of entertaining. “Did you know most males only come about a teaspoon or less? It's a weird fact, but I have to wonder how they did that. I mean, it stands to reason you come less as you get older, right? Do you think they averaged out the ages or what?” I looked up at Jack and we started to laugh. “I'm serious!” Jared said, kind-of seriously. “I mean, compare us to blue whales.” “What? How? Why?” Luke asked, laughing. “The average blue whale has a penis that's a whole foot thick and ten feet long! Imagine the mess after they have a wet dream! Ridiculous!” We all broke up laughing. And that is how we ended up talking about whale cum. We pulled up to a nice house on a pleasant street. Luke had been texting as we got closer, letting his boy know we were almost there. We stretched as we climbed from the car – I'd never been a fan of long car rides, but what the hell. It might be fun, and it beat the hell out of staying at home. A boy who looked familiar to me leaned out of the front door and called out to us with an unusual accent. “Go side of house, out back. Ham...ham...sandwich. You know, the cook sandwich? Ah, come. Eat.” He closed the door and we all looked at each other. “Was that for us?” Jared asked Luke. “Um. I think that was his friend. Mat.” Luke looked uncertain and a bit nervous. “Well, let's go around back and see, then,” Jared said. We fell in behind him and were met on the side of the house by a boy I recognized from the picture Luke had shown us: this was Nik. And he was blushing. “Hello,” he said with a wave of one hand while the other was in his pocket. He had an accent similar to Mat, and I was dying to ask where he was from. “Hi, Nik.” Luke was suddenly awkward. I felt badly for him. He hadn't done right by me or Jack, but it wasn't because he was trying to hurt anyone. Everyone has their own demons, and if I was going to tell Jack not to hang onto things, I had to take my own advice. “Hi, Nik,” I said with a smile. “I'm Derry, one of Luke's friends. This is my boyfriend, Jack, and his best friend Jared. Oh, Jared is Luke's brother.” “Wow. Lots of people,” Nik said with a smile. “Come into the back yard, we are grilling. Papas are making hamburgers and hot dogs. We have salad and corns on the cobs and pasta salad – is very good. Come. Eat.” We filed into the back yard and were introduced to Nik's papas, his best friend Matei and Matei’s girlfriend, Averi. Averi's parents were also there. We were welcomed, given plates and told where the bathrooms were, and essentially left alone. The adults were talking and carrying on, obviously having a good time. Nik and Luke sat across from each other, and we all fell in around the table. “This is excellent,” Jared said. “A lot of people think pasta salad is Italian, but it's not. Italians like their pasta hot – this is an American thing.” “My brother spits out random facts. Sorry,” Luke said to Nik. “Is funny,” Nik said with a nice smile. “So how do you guys know each other?” Averi asked Luke. “Don't you live a few towns over or something?” “Um. I was umpiring a little league game,” Luke began. “Oh!” Averi said with a grin. “You're that umpire.” “Oh, what?” Luke asked, reddening. “We have other girl with us, yes?” Matei said, warming to the story. His accent was adorable, but I couldn't shake the idea that he looked familiar. “Girl says 'Look, umpire has cute butt. You think he has cute butt? I think he has cute butt.'” We started to laugh and Nik smiled, reddening. Luke was a little embarrassed, but he was smiling. “So then girl says 'I have idea! We must see if he like boy or the girl! So I will give him paper that says on one side my information and on the other side Nikolai information.' But then!” He raised a finger dramatically. “Someone ask if they want to date just because of cute butt. I tell Nikolai, this person with the butt, he must look better than me for Nikolai to date.” “Ugh!” Nik groaned, leaning back and looking up at the sky, but grinning. “So then girl goes up to umpire to give note – and water, so she can see face. She comes back and says 'He's ugly, you no want him, Nik.' ” “She did not!” Nik exclaimed and then laughed. He turned to Luke and said, “She say you have kissing lips. Nice skin. Soft voice.” His face was red, but he was smiling. “Uh. Okay,” Luke said, seeming uncertain. “I guess we'll have to test some of that out at some point.” “Ooohhh,” I said, teasing. They both blushed, but it was fun. We ended up playing some games – lawn twister, which was a first for me. We all took a break for watermelon, but the twister was stupidly fun. Nik mentioned a place we could get ice cream that was a short walk away, so we all ambled over. Couples matched up, so we got stuck with Jared – the only single guy in the group. He threatened to hold one of our hands. We wandered to the town park and fooled around on the swings and gym set that were clearly for younger kids. Hey, some people never outgrow monkey bars. We slowly made our way back to Nik's, topped up on leftover food and hit the bathrooms before heading back to town. We did let Nik and Luke go ahead of us to the car so they could get in a little kissing time, since they seemed to like each other once the awkwardness of first meeting had worn off. We were quiet in the car on the way home, but of course that couldn't last – and we were all dying to know. Jared broke the subject wide open with, “So? What did you think of him?” Luke turned in his seat and let his gaze go back and forth to us and his brother. “I...don't want to screw this up.” “Well,” I said looking at Jack and smiling. “I guess Nik's lips must have been good for kissing, too!” I looked back to Luke and he smiled slightly. “Very good. But...you know how tough it is for me to be in a relationship. I have been talking to him for months, and he's the sweetest fucking guy ever. He's been through a bunch of shit, and he's caused a fair amount – like made mistakes – like I have. I just...I really like him. I want to make this work.” I cleared my throat. “Can I offer you some advice?” He bobbed his head and looked at me with such an open expression it was nearly painful. I could see how badly he really did want this to work. “If you start to stress...talk to one of us. Get some perspective. You have friends so...let us be your friends.” He swallowed and then nodded. “I will.” Jared hummed to himself for a moment. “Kind of cool he admits to having caused shit before.” “Why?” Luke asked warily. “I think it's good to have someone that admits faults,” Jared said and shrugged. “If he can admit he screwed up before, then maybe he's learned from it. You have your own stuff. You know what it is, and you know we all hope you learned from it for you – not because it benefits any of us.” “Well. Not entirely true,” Jack said, his tone teasing. “I mean, if Luke's learned, then we don't have to console him. Right?” Luke narrowed his eyes. “You used to be so much nicer to me.” “Yeah. Maybe I was less honest,” Jack said with a nod. “But I'm only teasing. I'm glad you have someone you like and who very obviously likes you back. I agree with Jared. It's good that you guys aren't hiding stuff you've messed up on – or are you?” “I told him about my...dating stupidity,” Luke said, starting defensively and then trailing off. “He still wants to take the risk. He says we've been talking a long time and he thinks he knows me, enough to try.” “What do you think?” I asked gently. Luke looked at me. “I told you. I want this to work. I'm still...tense, but it feels different going into this having told him how I've imploded my relationships before. I mean, I guess I understand myself better.” I chuckled lightly. “You know, if you'd asked me if you and I would ever be friends after we broke up, I'd probably have said fuck no. But...” I glanced at Jack and then back to Luke. “Maybe...I grew a little, too.” ** The weekend passed slowly. Jack and I were both in our own homes Saturday night, and Sunday was just a drag. Jack was working and I was at loose ends. I could have gone to Delia's or to see the Bensons, but I just wasn't feeling it. Instead I was moody and didn't want to deal with anyone, so I didn't. I thought about calling my mom, but when she goes somewhere to clear her head you don't bug her. That didn't stop me worrying about what she might want to do in a divorce. You heard all kinds of shitty things about what adults did in divorces, how they hurt their kids. What if one of my parents decides to leave town? What if that parent wanted custody? What if they both want to get out of town, where does that leave me? Jack and I had clung to each other through this, but what if something like that – clearly out of our control – tears us apart? That led me to thinking the same thing about Jack's parents. What if...I don't know, what if his dad can't keep the house? Assuming his mom moves out or leaves permanently. Like...what if it's just too expensive for one person? What if his dad just can't take it anymore and bails, leaving Jack with that drunk wreck of a mother? Jesus Christ, I wish Jack were here. Jack called when he left work, and I vented my worries at him. “Yeah. I hear you,” he said in a tired tone. “Well..I mean, what do you think?” “I think...I can't control any of it. I think I'm neurotic enough without thinking constantly about another thing that could take you away from me, so I'm not going to do it.” He sounded so resolute. “But-” “No,” he said with a little chuckle. “Look, if you want to get philosophical, we're both less than specks in the universe. The world will keep going if we don't stay together.” “But, Jack!” “Wait, wait,” he chided me, and I bit my tongue as he continued. “Losing you would be devastating to my universe. But I can't stop it, and I can't control it until something happens. If my parents decide to sell my house, I'll fight for them to stay in the district for my senior year or close enough to see you. My parents love me, just...just not each other, so much. I know they'll listen, if it comes to that. I hold onto that, whenever I think too much about losing you,” he said, his voice growing soft. “My parents love me, too,” I said, my pitch matching his. “I want the same things you do. So I guess....” “Yeah. Wait for that problem to come to you. It's not one you can fix before it gets here. In the meantime, we can keep each other whole.” I sighed. “I wish you were here.”
  7. Dabeagle

    Chapter 5

    “Don't talk like-” Ken said behind me, but he was cut off, first by the Important Guy hollering about his groceries, now soaked in milk, and then, surprisingly, by Mr. Maddox. I paused in the doorway as the old guy just went off. “The quality of this store has gone completely downhill since you arrived. I saw you stand here and allow this self-important prick to abuse one of your employees and do absolutely nothing! Next you'll be kissing his ass. I plan to call your regional manager and let them know exactly how you treat your employees.” “Sir, hang on, if you could just give me a moment,” Ken was begging, caught between Important Guy and Mr. Maddox. Hah. Let him be on the defensive for once. I headed out into the parking lot, my anger fading, and the worry began to set in about how I was going to pay for insurance and gas, among other things. Maybe I should head over to that other grocery store to try and get hired before they found out about this little meltdown. I leaned against my car and decided I needed to enjoy this before I beat myself over the head with reality. “Derry! Yo, Derry!” I glanced up in confusion at the guy and girl that had been with the Maddoxes. The guy was waving his hand and trotting toward me with a grin while the girl followed at a slightly more sedate pace. “That. Was. Epic!” the kid said to me and held his hand up. With a bit of wry amusement I slapped his hand, and he grinned. “You're a legend, dude.” I chuckled. “Yeah. Ways to make sure you never work in a grocery store again.” The girl joined us and grinned. “I got it all on video. This is going to be the best thing on the internet.” I raised an eyebrow. “How did you happen to film that?” “When that guy with the phone was being a douche, I started to record. The way you finished him was just epic, though.” She grinned widely and I laughed. “So you guys are Maddoxes?” “Maddox,” the boy said. “Isaac.” “Sweet,” I said with a nod and glanced at the girl. “I'm Kari Fremont. My brother is married to...he's one of his dads. I'm still not good at explaining it.” Dads? Huh. “So you guys are hanging out with-” “Can you believe that asshole?” Mrs. Maddox said, stomping up to our group. “What a jerk! No one should have to put up with that!” She looked at me. “While I was greatly amused, I hope you didn't just screw yourself.” “I was wondering that myself,” I admitted, a little off-balance from her entrance. “My husband will help you with that,” she said with confidence. She looked at Kari, “Did you get it all?” “It's posted,” she said, nodding. “That guy was such a douche. I'm addicted to my phone-” “Duh,” Isaac teased. “But I know to put it down if you're talking to someone,” she said, giving Isaac some side-eye. Well, they had sibling dynamics down. Her brother being Isaac's adopted dad...part of a 'dads' parenting team had me curious, though – and asking about that seemed way better than thinking about where to get a new job. “So...” I said, letting my finger go back and forth between Kari and Isaac. “Brother sister? Kind of act it, but you said your brother is his dad so...nephew?” “She's my sister-aunt,” Isaac said evilly and Kari frowned at him. “Stop saying that, twerp!” she snarled. “Yeah, going with brother-sister,” I said with a chuckle. “My son, Brandon, married Hal, who is Kari's older brother. Brandon already had Isaac with him, but technically Kari is a half-sibling and an aunt by marriage,” Mrs. Maddox said. “And Isaac plays the evil little brother too well, even though they are only a few months apart in age.” Her tone was doting, so she obviously thought it wasn't a big deal. “As your aunt I should kick your ass,” Kari said taking a step toward Isaac, who danced back and laughed at her. Yeah, brother-sister for sure. “What. An. Asshole.” Mr. Maddox joined the group and nodded toward me. “You have a temper. Good to know.” “Well...yeah,” I said with a smile and shrugged. “Might be better to say I have a limit.” He nodded and smiled widely. “That was brilliant and quite entertaining. Have you ever walked off a job like that before?” “Nah. I've worked here for a little over a year, and it was fine until Ken came along.” “I noticed the Dingbat Barbie he put in customer service,” Kari said and tossed her hair. “She's dumb.” “I always thought you were polite and professional,” Mr. Maddox said. “You even poured his milk efficiently and didn't spill a drop!” He roared with laughter and I got the impression he'd been holding it in. I couldn't help but laugh a little with him. “Not my best move, but I'm glad the performance was good, anyway.” “Besides that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” Mr. Maddox's mirth trailed off and he put his hands in his pockets. “So. What's next for you, then?” I blew out a breath. “Probably go over to that grocery store a few blocks over and check up on my application, then go get some lunch with my boyfriend.” He frowned lightly. “Do you really want to go back into the same line of work right away?” I shrugged. “I'm not sure they'll hire me, but it's my first stop.” I tapped the side of my car. “Need to pay gas and insurance.” “I hope you two are paying attention to priorities,” Mrs. Maddox said with a comical wink at her grand kids. “Priorities would be not pouring the guy's milk out, Gram?” Isaac said with an impressive eye roll. “No offense. It was epic, but it won't pay your bills unless you can make a channel and get a paying following. It's not stable like being a streaming gamer, you know?” “Streaming games is a stable income? Who told you that? Tim or Liz?” Kari asked with a chortle. “It's legit,” Isaac said in a bored tone. “Leaving that heady discussion for a moment,” Mr. Maddox said in an indulgent tone much like his wife's – they must really like their grand kids – he turned his gaze back to me. “I used to work for the school district. I got Isaac a summer job doing maintenance for the summer that starts next week. I could pull a string, if you might be interested.” “Aw, yeah!” Isaac said with enthusiasm. “After I do this for the summer, next year I can apply to landscaping places. Do you have any idea what people pay just to have someone else mow their lawn? It's nuts!” Hmm. I'd be outside, which I like. Have to bring sunscreen, but having weekends and every night for myself would be ideal for my practices and being with Jack. I looked at Mr. Maddox. “I'd appreciate that.” He smiled warmly. “I'm glad to help. Give Isaac your number and I'll get it to June Hughes over at the school. She may call you today to get you to fill out paperwork, so be near your phone – as if you kids are ever far away from those things!” he said with a laugh. “Thank you, Mr. Maddox,” I said and held my hand out. He smiled warmly and shook my hand. “Now I just need to find a lucky person to run my lottery, and it's not what's-her-name,” he said with a chuckle. “Dingbat Barbie,” Kari said without looking up from her phone. I gave Isaac my number and we parted ways. I decided to delay going home long enough to have lunch with Jack. When I arrived Jack wasn't behind the counter, so I texted him to let him know I was there. Moments later he came to the front desk to greet me and I ordered some of their specialty hot dogs and took a table where he'd be able to come chat off and on. That was the plan, but there was a rush of people and my phone rang while I was polishing off a hot dog. “Hi, is this Derry?” “Yep,” I replied. “This is June Hughes. James Maddox told you to expect a call?” “Oh, yes!” I said, realizing who it was. “Yes, he did.” “Good,” she said, sounding better at my enthusiastic response. “Can you swing by the district office over on Farson street? It's by the old Endicott-Johnson building.” “Sure. Any time better for you?” I asked. “I'm going to lunch now, so after one would be great.” “I'll see you then,” I said with a grin. This was a stroke of good luck in the middle of all the weirdness that my life was turning into. I glanced at my phone and figured I had time to go home, shower and look decent for Mrs. Hughes. As I tossed my trash Jack popped over by my side. “Hey. Sorry, got busy there. How are you?” he asked. “Quit my job this morning, have an interview at one. I'll fill you in tonight?” I asked. Mild shock and confusion warred on his face. “Um, yeah. You okay?” I tilted my head to one side. “Not completely, but I have you so...I'll be okay.” His features relaxed and then morphed into a pleased, if somewhat shy smile. “Okay, see you tonight.” “What about you?” I asked. “Little sorer than I thought I'd be. Not doing a lot of sitting today,” he said and I flushed. “I meant...you know, our parents and stuff,” I said. “Oh!” he said, and that was just my lovable, clueless Jack. “You know, I have you and...I hate what they are doing, but it's bigger than me. Easy to say, but I'm trying to hang onto that – and remember that I have you. I'll be okay, eventually.” I shook my head and smiled at him. “Jared will be so jealous if you don't tell him you need him to get you through this.” “That's both fair and amazingly unfair,” he said solemnly. “I feel bad enough that I haven't told him, yet.” “I'm sorry,” I said. “I was teasing.” “He'll be there for you, too, you know. He's a good friend.” “I know he is, Jack...but I don't need him. I need you. Okay?” “Yeah, I'm just saying...can't have too many good friends. Right?” I nodded. “Yeah. You're totally right,” I admitted. “Order up!” the cook called out and Jack bobbed his head before taking off to deliver the order. I headed home, kicking myself about Jared. Why had I said that? I really didn't have anything against Jared, or Luke for that matter – was it just plain jealousy? Maybe I just wished Jack and I had the years of a relationship under our belts like Jack did with Jared. Was I that bad? Once home I had every intention of heading right to the shower, but my father was in the kitchen and saw me come in. My step faltered as I saw him and I came to a stop. “You're home early,” he said softly. “Everything okay?” “I quit,” I said, for some reason feeling surreal. His brows drew down. “Quit? What happened?” “Ken's been dicking me around since he arrived. Today I had a rude customer and...I just hit my limit.” He pursed his lips lightly. “Well, that's unfortunate. What's your next move?” Interesting. No 'Derry, you can't do things like that.' No 'Derry, you have responsibilities – you have to work though things.' Not even that old one of his, 'Derry, no matter where you work or learn there will always be people you have to learn to get along with even if you don't like them.' It wasn't interesting enough that I'd ask him about it. “I have an interview for a maintenance job at the school for the summer at one.” He took on a thoughtful expression.”That's one way to land on your feet.” “Have you...heard from mom?” I asked. He shook his head slowly. “I figured I'd let her decide when to talk to me. She needs some space and time.” I bit back a retort, wondering how he thought he knew what mom needed. Instead I nodded and headed up to shower. I spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning dried cum from my pubes and was aggravated. I was sure Jack'd had time for a shower this morning, since we'd been at his house, but I'd had to put up with the pulling and general annoyance of having my crotch glued in place. I glanced at my alarm clock and thought of Jack, stuck at work for three more hours. I pulled underwear from my dresser and glanced down at myself, smiling slowly. I was going to have fun and get even with Jack for having gotten away with not having Glue Crotch. First damn thing I did was lock my door, then I opened the curtain so that it spilled bright natural light across my bed. Then I stretched out and texted Jack. Still working? I placed the underwear over my dick and leaned back, holding the phone so that it would take a picture of me from about the shoulder down and he could see I'd covered up. He'd also get a bit teased with the rest of me exposed. My dick started to inflate as I thought about how Jack would feel, seeing me like this. Who was I that suddenly was ready to send my boyfriend racy pictures? Well, why shouldn't I? He'd appreciate them more than one way. I felt good that he'd stare, that his fingers would twitch with the desire to touch me and draw me all at once. My phone buzzed. Yeah. Stuck until 3. I grinned to myself. Maybe this will make the time go by faster. I added a wink, because I'm feeling like a tease. I waited impatiently for him to reply. My jaw may never close. I snorted and then laughed giddily. I tossed my phone aside and pulled my underwear up over my soft-on. “I'm not touching you in case Jack wants to touch you later,” I told my dick. Okay, that's twice as weird: once for talking to my appendage and twice because Jack and I had had sex just the one time. Who says he's going to want to touch it again? Well, okay, that's dumb. Jack loves me and he's attracted to me. Wasn't it weird though that we went from cuddles to full on sex? No in-between, no first base, second base – I hit a fucking home run, so of course he was going to want to. Right? Just in case, I might ask him to let me touch his. Shaking off the thought, I dressed in khakis and a thin, long-sleeved tee. The darker color of the shirt made my skin pop, and my eyes were brighter just because of the contrast. Minutes later I was on the road and headed to my interview. ** “You look kind of nice,” Delia said as we walked into her kitchen an hour and a half later. The interview had been nothing more than a formality; some paperwork, an admonition to be there at 7am sharp on Monday, and I was back in the car. I guess old Mr. Maddox really did have some juice in the school district. “Job interview,” I replied as she reached into the fridge for drinks. “After you left I kind of hit my limit and quit.” She handed me a can of soda and raised an eyebrow. “You? Quit?” “I know,” I said, bobbing my head. “It was a weak moment. I just didn't want to take anyone's crap anymore. So...I didn't.” “Huh,” she said and popped her can open. I followed her down the hall to the living room where we stretched out on her worn furniture. “So what about your parents?” “Just...I don't know.” I sipped from the can and then cradled it between my hands and tapped its sides with my fingertips. “I've had a little time to cool down. My dad...he knows he fucked up, you know?” I looked up at her. “He's not dodging or anything. He's not making any excuses or giving me anything to stay mad about except he blew our family up.” “Kind of a big thing,” she observed. “Yeah, not trying to say it isn't,” I said. “Just that...it's hard to stay mad when I can see how sorry he is. I guess.” After a few moments of silence she said, “I wouldn't know. My dad just went out for milk and bread and never came back. For all I know he died or he's out living with a new family or maybe joined a circus. At least your dad gives a shit.” I nodded slowly. “I always hated that phrase 'at least'. Anything that starts with that kinda means you're scraping the bottom, right? Like it's the bare minimum?” “Yeah, facts,” she said. “But besides unfucking Jack's mom, what else is he going to do?” I shrugged and a feeling of irritation crept up my spine. “Do what he's doing, I guess. Tell me what's up, talk to his wife even though he knows it's going to bring pain.” I looked up at her. “I don't even know why he decided to tell my mom and me, or if mom found out or what. I was too pissed when he told me.” “I would have been,” Delia said. “But Jack wasn't too weirded out?” I shook my head. “Dad had told me that Jack's mom was supposed to be telling him that night as well, but she hadn't. When I got there I had to tell Jack – it wasn't fair not to.” “That was the right call,” she said with a curt nod. “I don't play that 'tiptoe around things' game where you hope someone else does the dirty work for you.” “Please. You love other people doing your dirty work,” I said with a laugh. “True,” she said and then smiled. “But I like it when other people are honest with me, so I can be honest with them. You know, if I care about them.” “Uh huh,” I said with a trace of suspicion. “How did Jack take it?” My suddenly sex-obsessed lizard brain retorted 'very well', but fortunately my mouth was still under my own control. Slowly I said, “A little stunned at first. Then angry. Very angry.” “At you?” I looked up at her. “No. His mother. I could hear him yelling all the way across the house.” “Uncomfortable. What did you do?” “I stayed in his room. Didn't want to make it worse somehow, you know?” I said. “I was looking at the latest thing he was making – he's amazing, you know?” “I know. What was he drawing?” “Me-” “Of course. What else does he draw?” she asked and snorted out a laugh. “It wasn't just me,” I said a little defensively. “I was on stage singing, and in the foreground he had our piano player, Elliot – and the details were so good. He's got such a talent, it's insane.” “Yes, and all he needed was to draw you and it was all unlocked, I've heard it before, and yes – he's amazing.” She paused and got a devilish look on her face. “Does he still want to draw you naked?” I tried my best at a poker face. “Probably more than ever.” She tilted her head a bit to one side. “Why more – wait. Did you – oh shit! You're so red in the face! You did! How can you sit down?” Her questions were so odd that I struggled to catch up for a second. “Sitting has nothing – hey! Why would you assume that?” She shrugged with perfect insolence. “He's a football player, and you're a singer and dancer. I'm guessing you're more flexible. Easier to put your legs behind your ears than for him.” She smiled wickedly. I was going to reply hotly, but something in her posture caused me to think before I popped off. With a start I realized she was under the impression that we'd had some kind of...something less than what we'd actually done. Something less meaningful. “We did something...beautiful,” I said hesitantly. “I know, everyone says things like that. Maybe your first time is always special in some way. But Jack and I...we needed each other. I've never felt so...necessary to someone.” Delia's face cleared of her devilish look, and she asked gently, “Was it perfect?” I barked a laugh and looked away. “I was a stereotype of every virgin boy everywhere – popping way too soon. But you know...he didn't care. And now I'm just craving him.” I looked up at her. “Do you feel like that? Now that you and Ahmed crossed that bridge?” She looked away in thought and then said, “A little. People talk about sex like it's the greatest thing. It was...exciting, especially at first. I mean, first dick I've seen in person, so sort of cool.” She looked at me and grinned a bit. “It looks big on him since he's a twig otherwise.” I chuckled nervously. “But how do you feel, now?” She furrowed her brow. “Like this is a friends-with-benefits kind of situation. He said some of the right things, and maybe he believed it when he said it...but he's gotten what he wanted, right? That's probably all it was.” I frowned. “He didn't seem like that. I always thought he liked you.” “Well, yeah. Look at me. Lots of guys like me.” I rolled my eyes. “Not that, you narcissist. I mean he liked you. Bitchy you, spontaneous you, happy you and all the things between that.” She stared at me. “You're not going to sing, are you? I feel like I'm in a musical, and this is where the scene calls for a song.” “Like now: Bitchy you.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “I don't know, Der. I think I'm better off keeping him close enough to play with, but not so close he burns me.” I shook my head slowly. “I'd rather Jack burned me to a cinder than to back off. I know him now. I completely understand why he's different from everyone else, and he's mine. I mean, he's not flawless, you know?” “Name one way Jack isn't perfect,” she teased. “He's spacey. He dreams instead of living now.” I paused and said dramatically, “He puts toilet paper on the spindle backward.” “He's spacey and dreamy because he's thinking about your pale, naked ass,” Delia said while laughing. “And the toilet paper is just barbaric. Trainable, but barbaric.” Her eyes narrowed a little. “So, if Jack's a bottom...what did it feel like for you?” “Um, what?” I asked, choking out a laugh. “Well, I figured we'd always be able to talk about how it felt when a guy got all up in one of us, but you go and find the one guy in the world that thinks you're a top – don't you laugh at me!” she said, trying to sound serious. “I-I can't,” I spluttered, laughing at her. “Jack and I both have dicks, why would one of us be one thing or another?” “Well. Obviously you have options. I guess I just thought...Jack's a big guy. I guess I just figured that's the way it'd go.” I trailed off into chuckles and smiled at her. “You have options, too. You can always peg Ahmed.” I burst out laughing. She did too, but cussed at me at the same time. She scrambled closer and leaned in. “Seriously. What was it like for you?” I smiled a little, shook my head slightly and said, “It was...unexpected. I felt – he felt – better than I imagined. It was more than I'd hoped for, honestly. I can't wait to do it again.” I paused. “He's the right person for me.” She sighed. “I wish I had that...you know, being sure.” “Certainty?” “Is that like the clap?” she asked, pretending and then laughing at me. Composing herself she continued, “No, I mean...at first, when I talked to you, I was thinking 'Well, I want to try again' and I did. Want to. I still do, but now I'm second guessing if all his flowery talk was just a boy trying to get laid or if he meant it.” “Sort of seems to me he'd have gone home, with or without getting laid,” I said. “Ahmed isn't your dad. You're right to be careful, but don't cut off things just because you're afraid.” She studied my face. “Not the same, but what about if you're wrong about Jack?” I let out a long, slow breath. “If I were wrong it'd hurt me worse than anything I can think of – even my parents. I always assumed my parents were...my now. My 'get me started right and let me go'. I never expected them to be my future, but now...all I can see is Jack ahead of me. It's overwhelming, sometimes. But...he really loves me. And I love him back.” She leaned back slowly. “I'm not sure if I love Ahmed, or if I ever really did. But...I'm fond of the boy.” I shrugged and smiled at her. “Gotta start somewhere.” “Yeah. Guess so.”
  8. Dabeagle

    Chapter 4

    In the meantime I tried to absorb the details of the image. Elliot had a little smile on his face that made him seem confident, and his fingers were defined, yet clearly in motion. Above and behind him I was in a pose, one hand flung wide and the other with my fingers splayed across my sternum. My mouth was open and I looked graceful. The other players on stage with me were blurred, as though this were a camera shot that had somehow focused on myself and Elliot. Although...that wasn't strictly true. Features of the stage and piano were clear, and off to the left, behind Elliot, was his boyfriend. Nate was leaning forward, elbows on his knees and his hands pressed together as he watched Elliot play. I was amazed at how much Jack saw when he drew. How had he picked up on Nate as he related to Elliot? I assumed that to be the case because Nate was as clear as Elliot and myself. It took time, but eventually the screaming stopped. There was a feel of tension in the air as I waited for Jack to return. My mind worked overtime developing scenarios about the state he would be in. Angry. Sad. Anxious. Maybe I was just describing myself. I won't go so far as to say Jack was emotional or over-sensitive, but he can get in his own way. He has a lot of doubt unless you're talking about art, then he feels safer – I think. For all I know he's as insecure there as he – or any of us – is the rest of the time. A door closed somewhere in the house, and I heard quiet steps getting nearer. I wiped my palms on my thighs and stood to face whoever it might be – and my heart raced, froze and a million other things all at the same time – or maybe one after the other so fast that I couldn't tell. It was Jack. His eyes were red and his shoulders were slumped. He stood in his doorway, framed in a dangling moment of time that might determine what future we had. We hadn't had enough time yet. “Well,” he said and stopped as if he couldn't remember how to speak. “Are you...is there anything I can do?” He wiped under one of his eyes. “I'm sorry.” Sorry? My heart ached. Was he breaking up with me? “Why w-would you be sorry?” His hands fluttered uselessly at his sides. “For what she did. For your family.” He sighed. “For mine.” “They made their choices,” I said softly. “It's fucked, but...I'm sorry I was the one to tell you. My dad said...he told me that....” He nodded. “She admitted it. She got to drinking instead. Told me how much she loved me and how she didn't have the courage to confess to me. It...explains everything around here. How distant my parents are with each other. How my mother drinks. Why she lost her job. She's in pain, and I feel badly for her, but I also feel angry, and it's hard to figure out which one is right.” I took a tentative step toward him. “Maybe they both are. Who says we can only feel a single thing at a time?” The fingers of his right hand tapped his leg and a tear tracked down from his right eye as another welled in his left. “What about us?” Here it was. Was he giving me a choice or asking to rip the bandage off a painful discussion? “Jack, I love you. I hate what they did, but it changes nothing about what I feel for you.” His tears only intensified as he crossed the space between us to engulf me. The hug didn't last as he pulled back and pressed his lips to mine fervently, repeatedly – demanding. I grabbed the sides of his face and wiped his tears with my thumbs, though my own vision was a bit blurry. “I love you, Derry. So much,” he said quietly. “Will you stay with me?” I kissed him lightly. “Yeah. Of course.” He nodded and turned to close his door. He came back and reached around me for a tissue, first to clear his sinuses, and then a fresh one to wipe away some of his stray tears. I took one as well, wiping my eyes and tossing it toward his waste basket, which I missed. He tossed his tissue in, then snagged mine from the floor for me. He turned and snapped off the light, leaving us with just the glow from his computer monitor and the glowing numbers of his clock. He stood before me and studied my face. “I don't know why you love me, but it's not something I question – I'm just grateful for you. Whenever I look at your face I find a new detail to love, and a feeling that I don't dare to call you mine. Like saying it out loud or thinking it too hard means the universe will take you away from me.” I narrowed my eyes. “Let the universe try. I am yours. And you're mine, no matter what. Mine, Jack.” He bit his lip for a moment and then reached for me. The kiss was filled with a quality I can't pin down. The moment was charged with all the emotions we'd been subjected to that night – the enjoyment of our meeting at my practice, the slice of time where I'd seen him as if he were singled out by a ray of light, the kiss and aborted whatever that was in the parking lot. Of course there were also the emotions, the exhaustion and the need to feel valued and loved that the disaster of our parents’ mistakes had placed on us. The kiss lingered and then his hands were on my hips, moving up my sides to push my shirt up. I let my arms rise so he could pull the tee off and discard it. Emboldened, I pulled at the bottom of his shirt, and he obliged, letting me lift it away from his skin. I lowered my head and kissed the middle of his chest, taking in his scent. I stayed in place, my lips moving softly in small kisses, and he stroked the skin of my back, his breathing growing quicker. Was this it? I wouldn't question it. It was time. This was right and I needed Jack deeply in my soul. I lifted my hand, brushing past his flank, and placed my fingers on his nipple, softly twirling my fingertips to tease the skin. He shuddered lightly and his breath hitched. I moved my mouth to his nipple, alternating between kissing, licking and lightly sucking on it. As I did I raised my other hand to find his other nipple was already standing up and it was...nearly indescribable. This wasn't even sex, but it was so...sensual. He grabbed the sides of my face and pulled me up to kiss him, and now the kiss included a hunger I could name easily. We needed each other. His erection pressed into me behind the thin cloth of his pajamas, and there was no way he couldn't feel my own straining at the cloth of my joggers. I pushed on the waistband of his pajamas, forcing them past his erection, and then he was in my hand. He gasped, his breath hitching for endless moments as I slowly squeezed and stroked him. I was fascinated by the feel, the heat and the control I felt as I pushed my hand down, cupping his balls and then kissing him again. “You, too,” he mumbled breathlessly as he broke the kiss and pulled at my waistband. He yanked them down awkwardly and then just stared at my erection. I looked down at him, wondering why he'd stopped and what was going through his mind. Was I too small? Did it seem deformed to him in some way? Was he regretting getting my pants down? He looked up at me and smiled shyly. “One day I want you to lie back and let me draw you like this. You're the most beautiful person I've ever seen.” “I'm not art, Jack. I'm your half-naked boyfriend who needs his naked boyfriend. Right now.” “I love it when you talk like that,” he said and grabbed my hips, turning me awkwardly until he could shove me backward onto his bed, where I bounced once. He yanked my shoes off, then pulled my joggers the rest of the way off, until all I had left was a single sock dangling halfway from my foot. He stood, doing an odd jig to get out of his pajamas bottoms, and then we were in bed together, hands roaming and lips pressing. The heat of his body was like a radiator, leaving skin that wasn't touching him feeling cold and alone. I rolled on top of him, his body beneath mine feeling as if he were my foundation. Our kissing intensified and we ground into each other – and it was ecstasy. I'd never been so hard, so turned on, and sooner than I'd have thought I felt him arch into me and his seed spilled between us; hot liquid that was quickly spread thin between our thrusting bodies. His hands moved to my behind and he pulled me harder against him, forcing me to grind harder. Perhaps a minute later I added my own seed to his, trapped between us and merging into one warm mess. He pulled my head down and kissed me with a combination of tenderness and passion that is too hard to describe, or even to hold in my mind. We were breathing hard, and a sheen of sweat coated us. “I need more, Derry,” he said softly. “More?” I panted. He twisted under me, reached down to the dresser beside his bed, and pulled the bottom drawer out. He fumbled, pushed up against me as he dug around, then pulled back and showed me a bottle of lube. “I want you inside me,” he said. “Please, Derry. I need this. I need you.” “I...you want me like that?” “Yes. God, yes,” he said softly. He pushed my shoulder back and I sat on my heels, dick standing up and ready for round two. He popped the cap with his thumb and tilted it over my dick, telling me to coat the whole thing. I slowly worked the slippery stuff on my skin as he took a dollop and reached between his legs, lifting his knees for access and lubed up his entrance. He did this three or four times, continually adding lube and putting more in my own hand to add to my dick. With a snap he closed the top of the lube and tossed it to the side. He urged me to inch forward and then he took me in his hand, guiding me to him. “Go slow, okay?” he said softly as I made contact. I pushed forward and felt the ring of muscle against the soft head of my erection, and then I slipped off and my dick was rubbing against his balls. He realigned me and I pushed forward again. I felt the ring of muscle again, but this time he let out a slow breath and I felt the ring open a little at a time. I felt anxious to get inside him – amazed that he wanted this from me. I hadn't really thought of roles for us in sex. I figured we'd both try having a go at each other and see what worked best. Plus, Jack was a bigger guy than me, so there was that idea that he'd be kind of...dominant. Those random thoughts swirled away as I suddenly popped forward and the head was in. He let out a hiss and held my hips; I had to work to stop myself from pushing forward, to finish sheathing myself in the heat of him. He puffed a few breaths out and I reached forward and stroked his nipples a time or two and then remembered how much I liked to touch his dick. So I did. My hand was slick from lubing myself, so I used that to rub his dick and fondle his balls, stroking up with my hand flat until I started back down, loosely gripping his dick for a slow stroke. I felt his ring tighten on me, pulsing almost as I stroked him slowly. Then he pulled forward slightly on my hips and I sank in a bit farther. He hissed and let out a tiny gasp. “Are you-” “Shh,” he said and gritted his teeth. I went back to my ministrations until he pulled me forward again. My cock was pulsing as if throbbing to the beat of my heart. Suddenly the sensory overload was too much and I gasped, arching involuntarily and emptying inside him. He gasped as well, probably at my sudden forward movement. “Hold still,” he gasped and gritted his teeth again. “Jack, you don't-” “Shh. I want you.” While my dick was sensitive, it wasn't softening. Not in its current environs. I went back to stroking his dick, and used my other hand to stimulate his nipple. A minute later he pulled me forward until I was fully engulfed. He moved a hand from my hip and up to my chest, stroking my skin. “You're so fucking beautiful,” he whispered and moved his big hand up, slipping toward the side of my face. I moved forward to meet his hand and he slid his fingers behind my neck, pulling me down for a kiss. The movement caused me to slide back out of him a bit, but then the kiss ended and he lifted his legs back, changing the angle and I was once again sheathed to the hilt. “Go slow, babe.” I did as instructed, and my senses were pushed beyond my experience. Touching him, looking at him, making love to him left no room for anything else. No doubts, no worries, no fears. No past, no future – just here, just Jack. That was all that mattered. I settled into a rhythm and Jack started thrusting up into my hand, and I matched my strokes to my ministrations on him. It was too much and I felt myself pulsing, throbbing inside him and emptying anything I may have had left in my balls. Jack began to push himself, grinding against me, and I increased my speed and pressure on his dick, my hand a blur. His lower legs wrapped around my lower back and pulled me to him. “Gah!” he grunted and suddenly he was spraying hot seed over my hand and his stomach. I continued to stroke him until he chuckled and pushed my hand away. “It's sensitive,” he said. I pulled back slowly and imagined a slight 'pop' sound as I left his warmth. I lay atop him, once more squishing his spend between us, and I pressed my cheek to his. “I love you, Jack.” “I love you more – I win,” he said confidently. Eventually we cleaned up a bit before settling in under the covers, he in his pajama bottoms and me with my underwear. Somehow I think being nude would have been too sensual, and things were emotionally charged as it was. However, I also felt at peace. Tired beyond belief, but calm. “Are you okay?” I asked him in the dark. “From sex or our parents?” “Either. Both. I don't know.” He was quiet for a minute and I wondered if he was going to answer, but then he spoke quietly. “I've thought about us for a while. Somehow I still feel guilty about how we first met. It drags me down sometimes, and I can't believe that you want to be with me.” “Jack. I love you,” I said with all the finality I could muster. “I know,” he said softly. “It's...part of who I am, I guess. Tonight I was hurting, more than I can remember. I needed you. I needed the intimacy. I wanted it, but I also very badly needed it. You....” “What?” I probed gently. He cleared his throat. “You might think I see you just as...art. A muse. I do, to a point. But I also...want you. Sometimes it's all I can think about. I want to be with you all the time. I want to...touch you. For you to touch me. It's almost an obsession,” he said, trailing into a nervous chuckle. “I'm glad,” I stated. “I want you to feel like that, and God knows I've wanted us to take some steps in the romance department. Jack, for fuck’s sake, you're my boyfriend. You're kind of supposed to want me.” I paused. “But it's fucking sexy to hear you say it. Just so you know. Also...I guess that means I'm obsessed with you, too.” His lips curled into a smile that looked heartbreaking; I wasn't sure why. “As far as our parents...it's maddening. I hate it. My family was already hanging by a thread, and mom just pulled out a bazooka to finish it off. I just...have to be thankful I have you to get through this with.” He pulled me to him and I rested my cheek on his shoulder and he kissed my forehead, which was oddly endearing. I curled against his warmth and drifted slowly into sleep. ** I woke in semi-darkness, light filtering through the curtains and across the bed. I was on my back, covers just under my rib cage and there was no Jack. I sat up a bit and spied him at his computer, focused intently, and I shook my head in indulgent amusement. I had to pee, so I climbed from the bed, and he noticed me moving. “It's early, babe. Go back to sleep.” “I missed my boyfriend,” I said tiredly. “I'm going to pee, then you come back and warm me up.” “Okay,” he said with a little smile. I went down the hall and took care of my business, washed my hands and headed back to his room. He was still right where I knew he'd be – at his PC, working on his latest masterpiece. I leaned in, expecting that he'd be working on the one with me dancing and Elliot playing piano, but no. The sneaky bugger had sketched me as I slept. “C'mon, stalker. In bed,” I told him. He jumped, smiled guiltily and switched the monitor off. We settled back in and he molded himself to me. I sighed in contentment and...couldn't sleep. I was tired, and I do mean tired. But I couldn't sleep. Instead I let my mind wander, feeling Jack’s reassuring body pressed to mine and enjoying the scent of him in the room. My mind went back to our lovemaking – I was no longer a virgin, that was for damn sure. Neither was Jack – and I'd be able to remember that forever. I'd envisioned many ways to have had my first time, but having it spring from a mutual need under stress hadn't occurred to me. In some ways, it was the best thing – best way – that could have happened. I started awake sometime later, confused as to how my inability to sleep had suddenly turned into sleep. I glanced at his clock and groaned. “Shit! I'm going to be late!” “Whatsamatta?” he mumbled. “I have to go to work. Go back to sleep, babe,” I said to him and went about pulling on my clothes. Where did my shoe go? There! I leaned down and kissed his cheek. “Call you later.” He mumbled something incoherent and I headed out to my car. I had to run home to get my work clothes – no time for a shower. My crotch felt a little stiff – and then I realized I must not have cleaned everything away. Ugh, it was like having glue pulling my pubes. As I drove it occurred to me that the weight I was carrying the night before was lighter, if only because of Jack. That weight wasn't gone – the reality was still there, waiting for me to look at it, but for now I only had the weight of its stare. Once home I changed in record time and dashed back out, arriving at work ten minutes late. I punched in and headed over to see Tonya – and hopefully avoid Ken. “Oh, there you are!” Tonya said with a morning cheerfulness I find creepy. “I got your drawer. Ken said to take five today.” I accepted the drawer, thanked her and opened my register. I breathed a sigh of relief, checked to see that I was unobserved, and adjusted my package. I really, really wished I could have showered. People checked out through my line at a steady clip, and it was making the day go by faster. I had no doubt Ken would bust my balls about being late, but as it was he seemed to be distracted with something in the back room. I was thankful that kept him there until well past nine, giving me a breather without his foolishness. “Hey. Where's your douchebag boss?” I turned in confusion, only to smile at the sight of Delia at the end of my checkout. “Hey, Delia. He's in back – some disaster or other. It's kept him there most of the morning, thank Cthulhu.” She giggled. “Taking the Lord's name in vain is too much recognition for you, huh?” “If you use it in an argument-” “Yeah yeah, heard it all before.” She paused. “How are you? Really?” I bobbed my head a few times. “Actually, I'm holding my shit together right now. I talked to Jack and....” I didn't want to tell her about our first time, not yet – and not here. “We talked. I still have him, maybe more than ever.” She looked at me for a moment and then nodded. “Good.” “What are you doing here? Not just to see me, right?” “Well, it's not like you can answer your phone with that Nazi you work for, right?” she asked. I stared at her. She put a hand on her hip. Oh, that's a dead giveaway. I stared some more. She flung a hand in the air. “Okay, fine! The rugrats are with my aunt for a few hours so I can help my mom with grabbing some groceries. Happy? God! Control freak....” “You just hate me being right,” I said smugly and turned to ring a customer out. “Come over when you get off work, okay?” she said, starting to turn away. The customer stopped and glanced in her basket. “Wait, I forgot the avocados. They're on sale. Be right back,” she said and left her shit on the conveyor while she speed-walked to the produce section. I turned to Delia, who hadn't made it more than a few feet away. “Coming over might not be best, you know,” I said. She looked at me with the question plain on her face. I rubbed the back of my neck. “I just don't want there to be any expectations.” “What the Jesus are you talking about?” she asked. “Well. Last time you had a guy over to your house-” “Oh, Christ, Derry!” she waved a hand at me repeatedly. “Say it louder so my mom knows, will you? Want to grab the microphone and announce it to the store?” “Are you open?” someone asked, looking at my conveyor in confusion. “Avocados are on sale, lady ran to – there she is,” I said. “I'm here! I'm here! Sorry,” she said to me, to the person next in line, and then to me again as she put an avocado on the belt. One. I mentally rolled my eyes and got back to work. Twenty minutes later Delia and her mom went through my line. Her mom was super sweet to me – probably heard about my folks from Delia, so that explains that. Mrs. Hernandez is a nice lady, but not that kind of nice. It was like mourning nice, when you are gentle with someone after they lost someone. It was creepy, and I was happy to see them go. Delia reminded me to stop by when I got off. In my head I wanted to say I'd already done that, but wow – that was totally not like me. I blame Jack. All things considered, I was having an okay day until about ten-thirty. I saw Mr. Maddox come in with his wife, a pretty teenage girl and the skinny guy I'd noted with them before. Mr. Maddox went to the service counter, waved his hand at Kimberly-Anne and turned away from her, stuffing the plastic sleeve with his lottery slips in his pocket. Maybe ten minutes later my line filled up. Kimberly-Anne didn't so much as peek over from her spot at customer service, as if offering to ring out a few customers was beneath her. I worked quickly, getting people through, but then it happened. This guy – an 'important guy' with muscles under a tight polo shirt and khakis who was on his phone so, you know, doing 'important guy' stuff – he plopped things down on the belt and ignored my greeting. One of the dumber things we have to do as cashiers is to ask people if they want their meat separated from other products – I mean, what? The onions and ground beef may reproduce? There might be a garlic smell on your cooked pork chop? It was supposed to reduce cross-contamination, like germs and stuff from the meat infesting your baked goods, but really – what wasn't packaged anymore? I could see it if the thing were dripping blood. Another rule was to ask if certain items should be bagged, and one of them was milk. So just as Ken appeared the scene is: 'important guy' is on his phone, and I go full on 'perfect employee', because Ken has entered the center ring of this circus where he looked at the front end and started directing some folks to customer service and to the self-checkout. Most people hate the self-checkout. “Good afternoon, sir. How are you today?” I inquired again so Ken could hear, and I began scanning his items. He didn't do more than frown slightly at me as he kept talking. “Would you like the meat in a separate bag?” I asked. He ignored me, so I put it in with the detergent. “Hey, hey – hold on a sec – hey, moron, don't put meat in with a cleaner. How dumb can you be?” he grumbled at me and went back to his conversation. I moved the meat to its own bag and continued to ring him out, my temper simmering. And then I scanned the milk. “Would you like your milk in a bag, sir?” I asked. He kept talking on the phone, fiddling with getting his wallet out. Ken stepped up and started to help me bag. “Sir? Would you like your milk in a bag?” I asked again, conscious of Ken being close by to catch me screwing up. I waited as the guy continued to talk, and then Mr. Maddox called out to him. “Hey! Get off your phone and finish up, will you?” The guy jerked slightly and looked around, telling the person to hang on again. He fumbled with his wallet and I took the opportunity to be excellent in customer service and asked yet again, “Would you like your milk in a bag, sir?” “What? Whatever – yeah. Jesus, any other questions?” He stuck the phone back to his ear. “No, just this stupid clerk.” That was it. The simmer went to a boil. I calmly snapped out a plastic bag and informed him of his total, uncapped the milk and poured it into the bag. “What the fuck are you doing?” Important Guy demanded. “Putting your milk in a bag, sir,” I said as blandly as I could. I then dropped the nearly full bag into his cart, soaking all his purchases. “Derry!” Ken roared. “Fuck you. I quit,” I said, walking to the door and dropping my apron on the way.
  9. Dabeagle

    Chapter 3

    When I got home the house was quiet. I bounded upstairs and grabbed a tee and underwear before taking a much needed shower. Sweat is nasty when it's all dried out on your skin. Once clean I retreated to my room to find some joggers before heading to the kitchen to see what food I could find. I was wondering if there were leftovers from dinner or if I'd have to whip up some pasta or something. I opened the fridge and nearly jumped out of my skin when my dad spoke. “Derry.” “Jesus!” I whipped around to find my dad approaching from beyond the island that separated the kitchen from the living room area. “Way to sneak up, Dad!” He smiled grimly and something seemed off about him. “Dad? Is something wrong?” He seemed to struggle for a moment and then let out a sigh. “Yes. I need to speak with you.” “What did I do?” I asked, mystified. He let out a tired sound, somewhere between a sigh and a moan. “It's not you, son. It's me.” I moved up to the island, while my dad took up the other side and placed his hands, palm down, on the marble top. “What's wrong, Dad?” I'd never seen him like this, even when he'd lost his job. He pursed his lips lightly and a tremble ran through them. He seemed to be trying not to cry. “Um. Look, this is going to be awkward and painful no matter how I say it,” he said and looked up at me. “I had an affair.” I stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. “You...what?” He bobbed his head and his eyes filled and he rubbed his chin. “I did. I...cheated.” I was stunned. I felt like I'd been clobbered over the head and nothing could go through my brain to be processed. I just stared at my dad, my jaw moving slowly, making no sounds. This was the steady, boring if dependable accountant who'd been the calm voice of our family since I could remember. The stabilizing influence to my mother's more...outgoing attitude. “There is a lot you need to know,” he said, his voice breaking. “But first is I want you to know your mother and I will keep you here as long as you need a home. It'll be a provision of the divorce.” “Div-divorce?” My mind slammed into gear and just as quickly fell out. I stumbled back from him, and my butt banged into the counter behind me, then my head hit the cupboard door. It hurt – a bright pain that sliced through my shock. “Divorce? You guys...our family. What. The. Fuck!” He looked away from me. “You have every right to be angry.” “Oh, thanks!” I spat. “A divorce? How could you do this to us?” Anger built, along with fear, anxiety, and frustration, until everything came out in one ear-shattering scream. “What the fuck have you done?” He frowned and wiped his eyes. “I'm sorry, Derry.” “Sorry.” My tone had switched entirely to something flat. “You're sorry. You just killed our family, and you're sorry.” He nodded his head. “More than you know. I'm going to let you process some of this-” “Process. That's great. I need to process how you fucked us all over.” I paused, and a whine entered my voice. “I thought we were happy. I thought you guys loved...love-” “We do, Derry,” he said. “This is all on me.” “How. Who?” He sucked in his lips, looked down and then up at me. “The reason my company – former company – is in a financial death spiral is that they were cooking the books for Sinclair Pharmaceuticals. You heard about some of that in the news, no doubt.” “Something. So?” He sighed. “I met someone there, while we were digging through options and trying to salvage both companies from the people who'd been embezzling.” He looked up. “Her name is Linda Kaniecki.” My heart stopped. I tried to draw breath, but it felt as if there was none to be had. I looked away from my father, seeing nothing. Everything came to a halt – breathing, moving, thinking – none of it mattered. It was one shock too many, perhaps, and my system overloaded. One thought stood out. My father had slept with Jack’s mother. I was shaken from my stupor by my father holding my shoulders, shaking my body, and saying my name sharply. I pulled myself from his grip and stared at him, seeing not my parent but someone I didn't recognize. “Derry, please,” he said, his tone filled with desperation. “Fucking up one relationship wasn't enough for you?” I asked, my voice shaking. “Now you're destroying mine, too?” Tears stung my eyes and I pointed a finger at him. “Fuck you. Fuck you to hell, you cheating bastard.” I turned and left him, sprinting up the stairs that had fascinated me as a child as they simply sprung from the wall – floating stairs – and into my room. I closed my door and leaned against it, then locked it and resumed holding it firm with my body. My mind raced. What was I going to do? What was Jack going to think? Had my father seduced her? Or had she come onto him? Did it matter? Oh my God, did Jack even know? My thoughts spun in circles, whirling about as a tornado of ideas that became more disjointed and unlikely the longer I stood there. I crossed the room and dug my phone from my bag and was on the verge of telling it to call Jack, but I stopped. What would I tell him? Should I say this? Over the phone? I paced back and forth, mind racing. I needed to tell someone, but I couldn't call Jack. Not yet. Instead I called Delia. She was used to drama; she'd help me. “Hey,” she said on the third ring. “Home from practice?” “My dad cheated with Jack's mom,” I blurted and put a hand to my forehead. Get a grip! “Whoa, what? Back the hell up. Where are you getting this from?” “My dad,” I said, resuming my pacing and running a hand through my hair. “I was trying to get some food and he comes up and he's telling me my family is over. He's divorcing my mom, he slept with Jack's mother, and I don't know what to do about anything!” “Okay, okay, breathe!” she commanded. “Just slow down a second and breathe. Slow. Down.” I realized I'd started to hyperventilate, and I closed my eyes and tried to slow my breathing. I thought of Jack and how he looked in that special moment of just being himself that had felt so epic to me. I opened my eyes. “Okay,” I said, my voice unsteady. “I don't know what to do about any of this.” “Well, you're not going to lose your shit for starters,” she said flatly. “Your dad fucked up – or your dad and Jack's mom. They are adults doing fucked up adult things. You will be okay. Your mom will need you – I know mine did when my dad walked out.” “Yeah, you're right,” I breathed. “I don't even know where my mom is.” I suddenly felt stupid and self-centered. “”She's probably dealing with your dad,” she opined. “Is your dad moving out?” “I don't know,” I said and collapsed onto my bed. “He said I'd be living at the house as long as I needed to – but what that means, I don't know.” “Okay, well...at least the fucker isn't trying to make you move, too.” She sighed. “I'm sorry, Der. Have you talked to Jack?” I snorted. “How do I do that? Hey, Jack! Did you hear our parents cheated – with each other? We're almost related.” “Don't be a dick. It won't help,” she snapped. “Fact is you don't know how Jack will respond. Do you blame your dad or his mom?” I sighed and deflated. “I don't fucking know.” “Well, maybe he doesn't, either. Maybe you're the thing he needs now to make things...make sense.” I thought for a minute. I wanted to see Jack. I wanted him to hold me so I could feel that something was still real. But I needed to check on my mom. I needed a list of priorities. “I have to go find my mom.” She let out a small breath, maybe one she'd been holding. “Okay. I'll be up.” “Thanks,” I told her with sincerity. Sticking my phone in my pocket I strode to my door and opened it, heading back downstairs with purpose. My father was in the living room, but I bypassed him and went right to their bedroom, only to find it empty. I returned to the living room to find him sitting still, watching me. “Where's mom?” Slowly he said, “She went to your Aunt Kate's. She needed some space to think.” I approached him slowly. “About what?” He sighed. “I don't know, Derry. Probably about how the whole world just changed for us.” I looked away from him. He looked beaten, and I didn't want to feel sorry for him, but I couldn't help it, seeing him like that. He was in the living room where we'd had Christmas presents and movie nights. It's where we had family conversations, where everything good and bad got processed. It was the history of my family in one room. Priorities. I knew where my mom was, now it was time to try and figure some shit out. “What did you mean about me living here as long as I needed to?” He wrung his hands together helplessly. “It's one of the few things your mother and I agreed on, once we decided we were going to divorce. You're going into senior year, and we wanted to do what we could to let you finish. If you go to college locally then we'll work that out.” I wanted to ask him why he did it, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. If he took responsibility or laid the blame on Jack's mom, what did it change? I couldn't help myself, though. Maybe I have some streak where I just want to be punished. I sat across from my father and asked, “Why?” He sighed and hunched a bit. “It's a bunch of different things that all came together at the worst time,” he said slowly. “I'd been working too much, and with me not at home your mom was working more as well. We weren't communicating like we used to.” He paused and looked up toward me. “We'd been growing apart for some time. Not to the point I think either of us was worried, but I...it came as a shock to us both just how far we'd drifted from each other.” “I didn't notice anything,” I said, sounding petulant to myself but unable to do anything about it. He smiled weakly. “Why should you? We're busier than ever – work, school, your relationship, your singing, and that's not to mention that Mom and I have our own stuff going on.” He shook his head. “It's not a clear line where you say 'Whoa, things have changed,' Derry. It's more like...a sudden realization that things changed, and you feel the loss, but...are bewildered as to the when and why of it all.” I looked at him doubtfully. “But...why, Dad?” He sighed. “There was a team working on the Sinclair account. Regulators came in and started to sniff, and the owner sent a crew of us in to figure out what was going on – an audit. What started as a routine checkup on a client account uncovered a massive fraud – one that could sink both companies. Professionally I'd never be able to wash the stink off myself from just having been employed at a company with the reputational beating we had coming. “Linda was the...the main point of communication for the inquiry that I was in charge of. We both felt the stress of trying to save the companies, our reputations and livelihoods. We had people pressuring us to make things go away, to hide things and try to cover the situation up until the regulators were gone and we could do mathematical calisthenics to recover from the fraud.” I waited, dread coiled in my stomach. He looked down at his clasped hands. “Linda wasn't happy at home. I realize now that I wasn't, but then it was too late. When I should have come home to my wife with the realization we'd grown apart and needed to either mend things or let each other go, I did the exact wrong thing and took comfort elsewhere.” I wanted to yell, or I had. Instead I felt tired. Anxious and disappointed. Sad beyond belief. “Derry...It's important that you know how deeply sorry I am that I've hurt you and your mother.” “Isn't that...I mean, why do you care about hurting mom?” I asked softly. “Didn't you know it would? Didn't you...I don't know. Wasn't it a choice?” He nodded slowly. “Just because things weren't good between us doesn't mean I set out to hurt her. I'd say we were more...drifting than we were trying to be awful to each other.” He paused. “Yes, it was a choice. A choice made with little to no forethought, something that happened in secret and has caused a great deal of grief already. Something that has cost me the chance to repair my marriage and cost me the esteem of my son.” I wiped my eyes and rubbed the back of my hand on my forehead. “Do you know that as a father, I always wanted your respect? That it was important to me that my son approved of who his father was?” I looked up at him. “What are you talking about?” He smiled sadly. “When you were little you thought I could do anything. Didn't work? Get Dad. Got hurt? Get Dad. Needed help? Get Dad.” He sighed wistfully. “As you grew older you began to see me as more human. I went from knowing it all to knowing a lot to you wondering how I managed to breathe on my own without instructions,” he said with a chuckle. “You were such a jerk at twelve.” I let out a bark of a laugh. “Yeah. I guess I was.” He bobbed his head for a moment. “But then things started to swing back. You started to ask me things again. You started to think, 'Well, maybe my old man does know a few things', and I felt like I was headed the right way as a dad.” He let out a shuddering breath. “Now I've screwed up in one of the worst ways a person can.” “Dad....” He shook his head slowly. “Derry. I know you very well – like a father should love the person that brought him joy for every year he's been alive. So listen to me when I say this,” he said quietly, yet firmly. “When you get angry you snap, but that flame goes out almost immediately, and then you think. You have every right to pass judgment on me for this, for what it's going to cost you. You have every right to be angry. But...in the coming days and weeks you're going to have to decide for yourself if that's it. If everything else we had isn't worth saving. “I don't say this to guilt you into keeping me in your life, Derry. Just...when you're able, when it doesn't hurt quite so much, I hope you can see me as a flawed person who made a huge mistake. But I don't want that to be what defines what we mean to each other for the rest of our lives.” I thought on that for a minute. “What now? Are you moving? Is mom? What about Jack's mom?” He let out a deep breath, not quite a sigh. “Your mom and I will talk more. Right now she wanted some space and it was my responsibility to tell you what was going on. Beyond that, I don't know.” He hesitated. “As far as Linda goes...she's supposed to be telling her husband tonight and asking for a divorce.” My mouth felt dry. “Are you two...and what about Jack?” He licked his lips. “She's supposed to tell Jack. Linda and I...aren't going to be a couple. This situation is no way to build a relationship – nothing good is coming from it.” I covered my mouth and nose with my hands and rocked back and forth a little. “Jack's going to lose it.” My dad nodded tiredly. “Yeah. It's going to be rough.” “I should go over there,” I said quietly and looked at him. He hesitated and then nodded. “Maybe you should.” I waited a beat and then stood. “I hate that you did this. I hate all of it. I've never been madder or more...disappointed,” I said softly as his eyes filled with unshed tears. “But you're still my dad.” Huge drops rolled down his cheeks, and he nodded. “Yeah. I am.” I didn't want to hug him, but I felt like we both needed it. It was a scary feeling to hold him and to feel him shaking violently against me. His pain and regret were palpable. Not enough yet to consider forgiving, but it was undeniable. Who would I be to not give him the tiniest bit of comfort, especially when I desperately needed it myself. We parted slowly and he patted my upper arms before we broke contact. “I'm going to go over to Jack's. I need to see him and he...might need me.” My dad nodded. “If he's good, he needs you. If he's smart, he'll know it.” Despite my troubled feelings toward my dad, I still felt pride flare in my chest at his words. I went up to my room and looked around for a minute for my jeans and retrieved my wallet and keys. My mind went blank and I stood still, thinking I needed something else, but not being able to form any ideas about what it might be. Phone! I jerked into motion, hunting for my phone. I slipped that into my pocket but still felt like I was missing something. I glanced around the room and eventually looked down. Oh. Shoes. Right. I pulled on fresh socks, slipped on my sneakers and headed downstairs. “Derry,” my dad said, standing in the living room. I turned to look at him. “Drive safe. It's late and people are weird on the road at night.” I paused a beat. “Okay.” We looked at each other for a moment, and then I turned and went out into the night. I took my time driving over to Jack's, though I didn't know what the big deal was. I couldn't help but drive a bit faster than usual, but I arrived in one piece and without getting a ticket. I climbed from my car and caught a flash of myself in the side that made me pause and look down at myself. Tee shirt and joggers. Fucking slob is what I look like. With a sigh I walked up to the front door and pressed the bell. Moments later the front porch light came on and Jack's dad was standing in the doorway looking tired – like his soul was tired. “Hi, Mr. Kanieki. Is Jack still up?” The corner of his mouth lifted. “He's probably drawing you in some exotic locale as we speak. Come on in, Derry.” “Thanks,” I said, feeling a flush from his insinuation. His dad was cool, always had been with our relationship. I made my way through the house with a feeling of unreality – of being welcome and yet being alien. I found Jack in his room, sitting at his desk and working on his art on his computer. I'd found this used pad that connected to a PC that could be used for drawing, and he'd taken to it with amazing skill. Well, amazing to me. I stared at his back for a moment, thinking to myself he looked so calm and focused. He also looked ridiculous in a loose white tee shirt and pajama bottoms, but at the same time my chest swelled to see him. Jack turned and looked pleasantly surprised. “Hi!” he said, climbing to his feet. I didn't say anything. I was just happy he wasn't upset at me. As I fell into his arms and pressed myself to him I felt a relief wash through me like a cold mountain stream, sluicing away my stress. He wrapped his arms around me and I relished his warmth and scent. We stood like that as seconds passed into minutes. He turned me slowly side to side and rubbed my back and I could almost put the events of the evening out of my mind completely. It hit me then: he wasn't upset, not even a little bit. And then came the realization: he didn't know. The warmth in my chest flushed down a bottomless hole that opened up in my stomach. His mother was supposed to tell him! My dad had said...he wouldn't lie, would he? Why would he? That made no sense, but the thought burned the back of my mind like an accusatory finger. He'd cheated, why not lie? “I'm really happy to see you, but why are you showing up so late?” Jack asked. In response I pushed my cheek against his and shivered, his warmth no longer enough to ward the chill of what I felt I had to do. “I had to see you,” I said into his ear. “I thought you might need me or...be angry with me.” “With you?” Jack asked, jerking his head back and pushing me out, holding my upper arms. “Why would I ever be mad at you?” He squinted one of his eyes a bit comically. “What have you done?” I shook my head. “It's not me. Um. Is your mom home?” He tilted his head to one side. “My mom? Uh, she was home all night, I think.” He paused and lowered his voice. “Drinking again.” Maybe she'd decided to drink rather than confront her life. “My dad talked to me tonight,” I said slowly. “I needed to see you. To talk to you.” “Okay,” he said with concern. “What's going on?” I pressed my lips together and fresh moisture welled in my eyes as I thought about how much this was going to hurt Jack. Damn his mother for not doing this one thing! “First, my parents are divorcing,” I said. “Oh! Oh, no! I'm so sorry, Derry,” he said with just a ton of compassion in his voice. “I can't...well, I guess I kind of can imagine. You know how distant my folks are with each other.” I nodded. “Well, that was just the tip of the iceberg,” I said. “My dad cheated. With your mom.” I could see the shock hit him, his features still and then slowly going slack. “Wh-what do you mean? How? When?” I related my father's story about the embezzling at Sinclair and how my father's company was going down the tubes because of it, and how the two of them had come together. “And my dad said that your mom was supposed to tell you tonight. But I'm guessing...?” He shook his head slowly. Then his gentle face grew hard and yet harder still. A red flush built from his neck like an old cartoon, making me hysterically wonder if his head would explode. He pressed his lips together. “It makes so much sense. Dad has been like a zombie the last few days. My mother has started two or three conversations, but like...awkward talks. She didn't seem to know what she wanted to say. God damn it.” He darted from the room, and I stood there, unsure what to do. I should follow him – but no, I shouldn't. What if he doesn’t want me to see him fight or to listen? I dropped that idea when I heard his voice from the other side of the house. I paced aimlessly in his room, trying to still the quake in my heart as the situation unfolded. Jack’s mother screamed back at him, and I heard his father's calmer, more deliberate tone. The words were too soft to be understood; I just had a sense of tone and volume. I glanced around Jack's room – he'd framed the picture he'd drawn of me at my poolside. I never thought of myself as that attractive, but I had to admit the guy drawn on the deckchair was hot, and he'd been me. It just bent my mind to think Jack looked at me and saw that. I looked away, toward his desk. His pencils were in a wooden case beside his sketch pad, which was open so he could see it as he worked on the computer. Jack loved to draw. He'd sketch something and then go home to redo the sketch on the computer, partly because he loved art and partly, he said, because he needed the practice. Curious and needing a distraction, I crossed the room to look at his screen. I recognized the scene immediately: I was on stage, caught mid-step in a dance; in the foreground was Elliot at the baby-grand, his fingers an artful blur on the keyboard. I sat down in Jack's chair and, for my own sanity, fell into his work to block out the madness of his family imploding. I'd be here when he came back, and if he still wanted me, I'd give him everything I had.
  10. Dabeagle

    Chapter 2

    Jack brought me back to my car. I had to run home to take care of a couple of things and get permission to skip dinner at home – usually not a problem – and Jack had to do the same. I parked on the street, since my mom would be home soon and my dad's car was already in the driveway. Until recently my dad had worked at an accounting firm, but they'd gone through another round of layoffs. One of their accounts, a tire chain, had gotten into serious financial trouble, and they’d discovered that one of the teams at my dad's office was skimming cash from the client's account. How they survived as long as they did, I don't know. They'd been bleeding clients since the news came out. My dad had stayed out of loyalty, but the second round of layoffs had come just a week ago, and dad was now out of work. I opened the front door, and my dad called out, asking if it was me. “Yeah, it's me,” I called out and followed the sound of his voice to his home office. “Hey, Dad. What's up?” He looked at me over the rim of his glasses. He was seated at his desk, dressed comfortably in sweatpants and a tee shirt. “Oh, just getting things in order here. I have to get my resume spiffed up and try to sanitize myself from the stink of my old company,” he said with a tired chuckle. “How was work?” I leaned against the door frame. “Ken's a jerk. The bookkeeper bitches non-stop, because her normal person isn't there. The girl they put behind the counter in my place called out sick, so I was at customer service today. My lottery player tipped me ten bucks from a winner he had.” I shrugged. “Not bad.” He chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Maybe you should start looking around for a new job?” “Jack said the same thing. We went over to the grocery store on Tremain. Filled out an application. Oh, and Luke stopped by the store with his dad. We're invited to their house for dinner. Is it cool if I go?” “Sure,” he said with a nod. “Mom said she might be late; she's got a showing this afternoon. Fingers crossed, we could use the commission from a sale right about now.” “Are we in trouble?” I asked. “Nothing serious,” he said with a little smile. “It makes me nervous not having both checks coming in. I applied for unemployment. They have some programs I may be able to take advantage of to polish up my skills – been a while since college, you know.” “Right. Okay, well, I'm going to do my chores and get changed before I go out,” I said. “Okay. Um, hey, Derry,” he said in a thoughtful tone. “Yeah?” “How're things with Jack? I mean, are you happy?” I was kind of surprised. My parents didn't really address my sexuality. By that I mean there was never a big coming out thing, and they also didn't go get woke or anything. It just kind of was. They liked Jack, I think, and included him like anyone else I was friends with, I suppose. “Yeah. Jack loves me and I love him. He is a little thick. I have to tell him things sometimes, but I really love him.” He looked at me steadily, and his gaze softened. “That's great, Derry. I'm glad you're happy. It's been, what, a few months now, right?” “Yeah,” I said, warming to the conversation. “We met in early spring. We got warm weather early, opened up the pool – remember?” “Yes! Beautiful weather. Maybe we should move somewhere where the weather is nicer year-round?” he asked, smiling. “Um, not leaving Jack. Not now,” I said firmly, yet smiling. “Whoa! Serious stuff!” he teased. I shrugged and grinned. “Jack's great.” I was tempted to ask why he was showing interest, but what the heck? I was glad he was doing it. Wasn't that enough? I went and emptied the dishwasher and wiped down the counter. I hated the job, but it was way less hassle than doing a crappy job or skipping it, as my parents would get on me about it. After I was done I ran upstairs to get changed. Closing my door, I tossed aside my work shirt and paused to assess myself in the mirror that hung behind my door. What the hell does Jack see that he likes so much? I look all right – I'm not down on my body or anything. But Jack looks at me and somehow sees something bordering on the divine. I was a stereotype – red hair, green eyes and pale skin, with some freckles thrown in just in case. The summer sun burned my skin and lightened my hair. There was literally nothing special about me – yet Jack looked at me and he froze, only his mind and his fingers working as he transposed his version of me to paper. I rubbed a nipple and it perked up. “Jack, you really need to spend some time getting handsy with me,” I muttered and went to look for a shirt to wear to dinner. ~DM~ Dinner was okay. Mr. Benson was warm-ish and clearly glad to see Jack. Luke was funny, and Jared was his usually calm self. He regaled us with some weird facts, but the only one that stuck with me was that the medical term for a butt crack was the 'intergluteal cleft'. Kid was full of random facts. Jack and I retired to Jared's room after, and he dropped the bomb on us. “So, Lauren and I are done,” he said. “What? When?” Jack asked. “A few days ago,” Jared said. “It's no big deal. It's like the third time, right? I just said ‘Fuck this,’ you know? She can be so shallow.” “What did she do?” I asked. It wasn't even a question if Jared had done something – he'd have admitted it, I think. “General bitchiness. I just hit a limit, you know? Hey Derry, you have a sister?” Jared joked. “No, but Delia is single. Looking for a rental? She dumps guys every few months,” I replied. “Delia? Hernandez?” Jared asked, tone curious. “Pray to God there's only one,” I said seriously and chuckled. She'd kill me for setting her up with Jared, but he might be able to tame her a bit. And monkeys might fly out of my ass. “Handful, huh?” Jared asked. “Well,” I said, not wanting to run down my best friend. “She can be choosy. She's a good person.” “Closest thing you have to a sister?” Jared asked, grinning. “Pretty much,” I agreed. “I'm sorry about Lauren, for you. Delia told me she was a bitch.” “Most girls seem to say that about other girls,” Jared said with a sigh. “I never know who to believe.” Luke wandered in, and we all ended up in his room playing video games for a few hours before his dad reminded us everyone needed to get up for work the next day. Jack walked me to my car and leaned against my door, pulling me to him by my hips. “So. You work tomorrow morning, right?” he asked. I snaked my arms up behind his head. “Yeah. Unfortunately.” “This is our first summer together. I hope you're ready to do a lot of modeling for me.” I couldn't help but smile at him, though I felt silly. “No nudes.” “Come on!” he whined. “It's for art!” “Yeah, uh huh.” We went our separate ways and I thought about Jack's request to draw me again. It was sort of old territory, and I didn't feel like Jack was pushing me; I just wasn't sure I wanted to do it. If he were to see me naked, shouldn't it be under different circumstances? I knew he was passionate about his art – I mean he made me look great – but it just seemed...odd. I wasn’t exactly uncomfortable with the idea, but...oh, hell, I wasn’t sure how I really felt. A little curious, a little excited, a little weirded out. ** Patience isn't my strong suit, I'll admit – and that’s not something I can hide very well. Especially when I'm tired. Why was I tired? First, I went to bed thinking of Jack and decided to do something about it. Moments after I had, Delia called. Answering it was a monumentally bad thing to do, but I'm kind of like one of Pavlov's dogs – if the phone rings, I answer it. If it's a telemarketer I keep them on the phone as long as I can to fuck with them. So there I was, underwear puddled around one ankle – so I could better spread my legs – and with the back of my hand and my stomach a mess. With my left hand I fumbled to answer and push the phone up against my face. “Hello?” “We did it,” Delia said, somewhat breathlessly. “What?” I asked distractedly as I awkwardly got out of bed and went to my hamper for a tee shirt. I trapped my phone between my shoulder and my head as I wiped my hand and tried to look down to finish cleaning up. “Ahmed. Me. Sex.” I dropped the phone. I leaned forward too much and lost the phone while I was trying to clean up, but the timing was about right. I picked it up, checked for damage, and lifted it back to my ear. “You did? You guys broke up!” I had just told Jared earlier that evening she was single. “I know!” she said, as if it had been a surprise to her as well. “My mom got called into work, so I was home watching the rug rats,” she explained. “He came over and wanted to talk. I was bored and I'm single, so I figured sure – why not?” “Uh huh,” I said, pulling underwear from a drawer and looking for a fresh tee to sleep in. “So I went to the front porch and we sat and talked, and he got all flowery and shit,” she said. Her tone was aiming for offhand and dismissive, but I knew her too well. She was more than likely blushing and trying not to smile. “Not the first guy to try that. I mean, close, but still – you've heard something like it before.” She hesitated. “This was different. I don't know. He can be so sweet.” “Whoa, what? You've never, ever said anything about a guy being sweet or kind or...anything positive besides maybe has a nice set of lips or something.” Delia guarded herself from admitting too much about what she liked. I think it was so she doesn't get disappointed. Her dad walking out was a huge blow to her – and her whole family – and she never invested much in her romantic relationships. She sighed. “Yeah. I know,” she said quietly. “Did I tell you he cried when I broke up with him?” I got back in bed, settling in comfortably. “No, I don't think so. Why does that matter? You were dumping him.” “He cried, but he wasn't fighting me. He said he respected me and my decision, but that he'd be there if I changed my mind. He said he'd wait.” Well. That was some seriously romantic shit right there. I narrowed my eyes. Suspiciously I asked, “Did he tell you he'd been waiting long enough? Did he manipulate you?” “What? No! God, Derry, don't be a pig,” she snapped. “Do you think I'd fall for that, even if he did?” “Everyone's human, even you, Delia,” I reminded her. “I just don't want to see you get hurt.” “I didn't. I won't,” she said, sounding conciliatory. “Anyway. We talked on the porch, and after a while a cold breeze kind of set in-” “Delia.” “Okay, fine! I wanted to go inside, but I was enjoying talking to him! Jesus, you can't cut me a little slack?” “Slack? That wasn't slack. That was lying. Moving along.” She made a small noise, blowing air between her lips and I knew she was pouting. “We sat on the couch. He smelled good. One thing led to another and...well, I'm not a virgin.” I held my tongue for just a moment, thinking about her and Ahmed. Ahmed was a decent looking guy, and I'd liked him well enough, but then I hadn't been dating him. He was too skinny for my tastes. He maybe reminded me of a much darker version of myself, since I think I'm too skinny. Not thin, skinny. As in could use a few pounds. It was a point Jack and I disagreed on. “So. Did you like it?” “Um. Some, yeah.” “Some?” “Well, it was kind of awkward seeing him naked. Plus hard. Never seen a dick in person, you know?” “I can relate,” I said, glancing down at the bump of my sated sex. “Then what?” “I don't know. Trying to get in position. Fumbling around.” She hesitated. “I touched it. It was...good. I don't know! What are you supposed to say when you've had someone's dick in your hand? I mean really? Who tells you what you're supposed to say?” I chewed on that for a moment. Jack and I hadn't been that far, but then we were only a few months along – you were supposed to wait or something. Right? “So...did you, you know, like the sex?” “I think...I could have liked it more. It was really, really short. He only had the one condom. I don't know, it's not that romantic to pull one off and slap a new one on to go for round two. Right?” “Doesn't sound like it,” I admitted. “So. Are you guys, like, dating now? Or friends with benefits or what?” She sighed. “I don't know what I want. I think...for now, I want to try seeing him naked again.” She giggled a little and I chuckled. “Well, I guess he must look okay without clothes, then.” “Don't you be digging for information on my man's D,” she said, teasing. “You have your own man, who would probably worship your naked body if you'd let him.” It was my turn to let out a noise, blowing air between my pursed lips. “If Jack wanted that, he's not really trying.” “I bet if you pose naked, he won't be able to resist.” “Yeah, I'll take that under advisement,” I said with a roll of my eyes. We hung up shortly after and I went to my bed to pick up my underwear. “Jesus. I spent an entire phone conversation naked while Delia tells me about getting laid.” I glanced down and thought of Jack asking to draw me nude. And would he be unable to resist me, considering how plainly attracted he was? My dick seemed to think so as it began to plump. “Jack,” I said with a sigh. “You really need to take a hint.” After that I'd slept all right, but I had to be up really early to head to the store. I stopped for a hot breakfast on the way and wolfed the sandwich in my car, electing to take the coffee inside with me. Once inside my day took a turn for the worse when I spotted Kimberly-Anne punching in just outside of the office. Shit. That means Ken scheduled her behind the customer service desk, and with that thought in mind I glanced at the express lane. Well, of course it was empty – no need for it yet, but you wait. Ken was going to stick me there. “Hi, Derry,” my nemesis said. “Hi, Kimberly-Anne,” I said tiredly. “I so needed a beach day yesterday,” she said, and I noted her face was a bit darker – she'd clearly gotten some sun. “My boyfriend has a convertible, and we took the drive down to the lake and cooked out and had such a nice day!” I raised one eyebrow. “Ken said you were sick.” “Mental health day,” she said with a grin. “Morning, you two,” Ken said, practically appearing from nowhere. “Kim, are you punched in?” “Yep!” she said sunnily. “Great. Go check in with Tonya. Derry, grab a drawer and open up on four. At nine, switch on the express light.” “Ken,” I said with a sigh. “When you took me from CS you asked me what I preferred to do. The only thing I asked you to keep me from was the express line, but it seems like I spend most of my shifts there.” He looked at me steadily. “Done?” I was slightly taken aback. “I just thought-” “Doesn't matter. When I get more cashiers hired, you won't have to worry about working express. But so we're clear? Business needs always come before personal preference. Job is a cashier right now and on the express line. You don't like it, there's the door.” I bit my tongue so damned hard. “Okay,” I grunted. He nodded his head as if we'd had a meeting of the minds and stalked off to wreck his next thing for the day. The next two days were like that. I kept hoping I'd hear from the other grocery store, but nothing was happening as I wanted it to. Jack was a bright spot. The other thing I loved was to sing. I'm not great, I'm the first to say that, but I can carry a tune and dance at the same time. The group I was working with for the summer was doing a section on the FM Staples as a Billy Joel review, and I looked forward to the rehearsals. I had my part of the songs down cold, as we only sang a line or two at a time, but the rehearsals got us dancing as well, and I needed to have the others around me to make sure I was doing the right moves. It's easy to miss a step, practice like a maniac and then when you group up, well, you discover you've left a step out and feel like an idiot – and you can screw the others up. Thursday night I was exhausted. I'd danced my ass off, and my voice was a little raspy from singing for the last few hours. I hopped off the stage and waved at our piano player, Elliot. Rumor was he'd been bound for Julliard, but something had derailed him. I was sorry for him for losing that opportunity, but I was thrilled to have someone with his obvious talent and love of music to help us. I was pleasantly surprised to see a handsome, athletic looking guy wrap his arms around Elliot's waist from behind and nuzzle his neck lightly, causing Elliot to grin and squirm a little. Huh. Nice couple. “I didn't know you could dance.” I turned with pleasant surprise to find Jack drawing up beside me. “I can't, really. It's just a lot of practice so it looks like I can.” “You really can't take a compliment,” he said with a grin. “I don't think that's true,” I protested. “If you'd said I sing pretty well, then I'd be more inclined to agree with you.” “Well, you sing like an angel,” he said. “Not that good,” I demurred. “See? Can't take a compliment,” he said, snickering. I smiled at him thinking he was so clever. Jack looked down as he put his sketch pad into his messenger bag, and I had a moment. Once in a while there are these little slices of time where something is damn-near perfect. I think Jack has those moments when he draws me, because I don't look nearly as good as he makes me look. Jack is handsome – not cute. Handsome. He's solid, but not filled with muscle. He had a big frame and a gentle heart. He'd done football with Jared as a social standing kind of thing, but his real passion was his art. I suppose people might stereotypically think of an artistic soul as someone who was skinny, absent minded, maybe emo or egotistical. You know, a snob who knows he's good. Jack was just figuring out he was good – special – at what he loved. He didn't look like an artist. He looked like some guy who may be able to body slam you, yet the thought would never occur to him. But in that small slice of time when he glanced at me, a little smile on his lips as he looked down to put his sketchpad away, something about him hit me deeply. Somewhere near my core there was this...echo. A reverberation – and for the first time in my life, I had a song for a moment. “What?” he asked. I tilted my head a bit to one side and smiled at him. “How long were you here?” “Um, I got here just as you guys were finishing the group warm ups. Why?” “Did you hear me sing? When we would pop forward and get a few lines?” He smiled. “Yeah. You were spot on.” I felt a blush coming on. “I wasn't so sure about doing the Billy Joel review part of the show,” I confessed as I pulled a hoodie from my bag and got ready to leave. “But the director was really passionate about it. I still wasn't convinced, but he's the director, right?” He nodded. “But the little bit I sing...makes me think of you.” His lips curved into an inquisitive smile and he paused for a moment, perhaps in thought. “This is the time to remember,” I said sotto voce, and tried to give him an affectionate look. I have no idea what my face actually looks like when I aim for that, but I think it worked. His eyes got damp in a heartbeat – and there was that sweet soul looking back at me. I could see it in his eyes, that artistic gentleness that was at odds with his physical self. “I love you,” he said, tone gentle and delicate like spun sugar. I felt light, like I could get back up and dance and sing as if I hadn't been doing that for hours and been exhausted just five minutes ago. “I love you most, so I win,” I told him. He swallowed and smiled. “I wanted to say that to you before, but I wasn't sure if I...you know.” “I don't. Tell me.” He moved his lips together, squishing this way and that. “I just carry guilt from how I made you feel after our first kiss.” I pursed my lips and let out a slow breath. “You have to let that go. I have. Why do you beat yourself up? Still?” His expression fell a bit. “Because I hurt you. I don't want to do that. And it makes me...disappointed and sad that I did.” “Jack. We're going to piss each other off,” I said with a little chuckle. “Plus you didn't make a point of trying to hurt me, you were just in an awkward head-space. We both did fall for Luke once, after all.” He grimaced. “I know. I mean, logically I know. It just bothers me that-” “Jack,” I said, cutting him off. “Think about this. I feel so good right now that you said those words to me. You're kind of ruining it by beating yourself up and holding back from saying things like that to me because you feel bad over something we both should have gotten over. I have. I love you and I get you all the time now. Who cares that we had a weird road to get where we are? We can handle weird. Can't we?” He smiled then, a genuine one. “If you spit out a random fact right now, you'll sound like Jared.” I narrowed my eyes. “How come Jared has to talk to you the way I do? Are you and Jared a thing?” I was teasing, but he missed that as his eyes went wide. “What?” “I'm joking, calm down,” I said with a chuckle. “We've never been a thing,” he grumbled. I picked up my bag and took his hand to lead him from the building. I nearly ran into Elliot, and we made awkward 'excuse me's to each other. “Nice work tonight, Derry,” he said. “I could tune my piano off your voice.” “Don't do that! I'm using your piano to find the right key!” I said with a grin. I lifted my hand, still holding Jack's. “Elliot, this is my boyfriend, Jack. Jack, Eliot is our piano player extraordinaire.” “Oh, hi!” Jack said with more enthusiasm than I'd have expected. “You play so well. I really enjoy the practices with Derry singing and you playing. It's like a free concert.” Elliot smiled in appreciation. “Thanks, Jack. I love music, and this is a great thing to help round out my experiences. Oh, I also love my own boyfriend, this guy right here – meet Nate.” Where Jack was solid, Nate was athletic. The difference was between a workhorse and a thoroughbred – both beautiful creatures, yet functionally different. Nate smiled and gave a little wave. Jack and I greeted him, then we turned as a group and headed outside. “If you like music,” Nate said to Jack, “You should hear Elliot's band.” “It's not my band,” Elliot corrected. “I just play in it.” “Yeah. He just plays in it like a grand slam is just a base hit,” Nate said with an eye roll. “They play out once or twice a week. You should totally check them out.” “If you're going to do that, you should also come check out Nate's games – that way you too can discover a grand slam isn't just something on the Denny's menu,” Elliot said with a laugh. “Or you could, if he were playing locally. Summer travel league.” “Baseball player?” I guessed. I know some terms, but I'm not a fan of anything in particular. “Yep. Did some winter ball, had to leave this guy for some of that to play in Florida tournaments, but I'm mostly local for the summer.” “He's going to be drafted,” Elliot said with certainty. Nate gave a humble shrug and said, “We'll see.” “Text me,” I said. “Jack and I like going out, so shoot me some dates.” “Will do,” Elliot said, flashing two fingers. “Peace.” “And I'll make sure he doesn't just send you my game schedule. Seriously, the band is fun and the company is great,” Nate said. Elliot laughed and swatted at him, probably for acting like he'd only include Nate's team information. We said good night and walked to my car. I wasn't surprised to find Jacks' car beside mine. He opened his back door and put his bag on the floor and then turned back to me. I'd just closed my trunk after depositing my bag, and I raised an eyebrow at him. “Am I too smelly from sweating, or are you going to come kiss me?” I asked. His only response was to pull me to him and...I liked kissing Jack the first time we did it. I'd thought I was decent at kissing and had been confused when that make-out hadn't turned into something else. Now that Jack and I had been making out for a few months, I could really appreciate the tenderness and thought he put into pulling me close, molding me to him and making it a full body experience. And that was fine, most of the time. But sometimes...I wanted it to be a bit more...aggressive. Now was one of those times. So I escalated the kiss from the gentle stroke of his lips to one where I was grabbing his hair in my hand and trying my best to feel every inch of his tongue with mine. His hands held me tightly to him, and I could feel us both growing aroused. I couldn't take it anymore. I reached down and cupped his package. He jumped in surprise and started to cough. I took a half-step back from him as he started to inhale and broke down coughing again. Not really how I thought that might go. I patted his back as he coughed and his eyes watered – I guess he'd swallowed down the wrong pipe. Once he'd mastered himself we kissed lightly and said goodnight, but driving home I was obsessed with the feel of his length in my hand for that too brief moment. That had to happen again, and soon.
  11. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    The first day of summer vacation should be spent sleeping in until noon because you stayed up until four the night before. It should be about a lazy taste of freedom and the release from educational obligations. Unfortunately, my parents don't see it the same way. That's why I found myself in the shower and getting ready for work, instead of lying in bed being mildly aggravated with my boyfriend. Jack is a reason all on his own for mild aggravation. I love the guy, but that doesn't mean he's perfect. He can be so dense sometimes. He really can't take hints, and while he prefers it if I'm direct with him, it almost feels mean in a way. I mean, shouldn't there be some subtlety? Like, he should know I want to cuddle on the couch with him, right? It's been months since we started being a couple, but he's always hesitating. Kind of knocks the old ego for a loop sometimes. But when he gets the message and cuddles? God damn. There isn't a better one out there for cuddles. I checked myself out in the mirror as I dried off. I look good, I think. Not as good as Jack thinks, but hey – I'll take it. At least that’s one thing I’m sure of with Jack – he is attracted to me. He likes me just the way I am, even if he does seem confused about life in general. It may be stereotypical; you wouldn't think him to be an artist to look at him. He's a solid guy with a soft heart – and sometimes a soft head, too. The magic in dating Jack – the secret – is in the small things. As an artist Jack can be very detail oriented. He’s passionate about his work, especially if I’m his subject. It still blows my mind and definitely is good for my ego. The little things are many – how he smiles when he's pleased me and he knows it. A different smile, with more blushing, when I say the exact right thing to him. He's content not to talk when I'm busy – being near seems to be enough for Jack. He makes little pencil drawings – sometimes of me as a cartoon, sometimes of us the same way. Sweet things like us sitting on a bench at sunset. Us holding hands. Us leaning into each other's shoulder. I keep every one of them, and I'm trying to be artsy myself by saving them into some kind of collage. I thought about all the small, emotional and lovable things about Jack. There are a million more, and I still had to go to work – but I couldn’t skip over how Jack kisses me. How he holds me. How his cuddles create this bubble where I feel safe – which is jarring, because I don’t feel unsafe at other times, but he can make me feel...desired. Wanted. Sexy. Loved. I glanced down at what thinking of Jack had caused, then at the clock and grumbled. That would have to wait, or I'd be late. That wasn't my only reason to be cranky. My old manager had gotten promoted, and they moved him to a new store. His replacement, Ken, had arrived two weeks ago, and the difference was night and day. Ken was all about revamping and revitalizing, generally ignoring that things worked just fine before he got there. The first day he'd asked me why I was behind the customer service desk. I was kind of thrown off my game, not expecting him to challenge my usual work space first thing. From that point it had all been downhill. He thought customers would respond better to a pretty girl in customer service, and I was bumped back out to the registers. When he asked if I had a preference I told him anything but the express line. They start new people there, and there are always jerks who come though with an entire cart of crap and pretend not to notice where they are. Customers get angry, and I am allowed to do zero about it. So what does he do? Puts me on express every chance he gets. Today I was going to be back in my old spot. There was a woman who usually worked days, but she was out pregnant, and the girl who'd stolen my place was out. I dressed quickly and ran out to the driveway. Last month my grandfather admitted he shouldn't drive anymore, and he gifted me his old car. It was an ancient Chevy, and while it got me from one place to another, the original radio it came with really can just bite me. Instead of saving for a car, I was just going to get a better radio. Nothing crazy – I didn't want to be one of those guys with a radio worth more than his car. At work I checked my phone, then turned the ringer off and got behind the customer service desk. I couldn't help but smile as Mr. Maddox smiled at me and moved up to the lottery machine. Mr. Maddox wouldn't let Kimberly-Anne, my replacement, run his lottery numbers. He was very particular and said I was his lucky person. “Good morning, Derry. How's your mother?” he asked. “She's well, Mr. Maddox, thanks,” I said. “How are you?” “Happier than a two-peckered billy goat in a nanny farm,” he said with a grin. “Okay,” I said with a chuckle. “What are we playing today?” Mr. Maddox and his wife had used my mom as their Realtor when they sold their home and downsized into a condo to be nearer to their family. He was a nice guy and liked to play a lot of three and four-digit lottery games. He pulled an envelope from his pocket and unfolded it, revealing the backside covered in numbers. For the next few minutes I tapped in his wagers, which was easy enough, if time consuming. He paid for his tickets, then smiled. “I almost forgot!” He pulled out ten dollars, made a show out of looking to either side and then slid it across the counter to me. “My grandson helps me pick out my numbers, but you’re my lucky clerk. I hit for a nice win last week – just don't tell anyone it's a tip.” He winked and walked away from the counter. I looked side to side without moving my head and pocketed the ten. We weren't allowed to accept tips, but Mr. Maddox wasn't a big believer in stupid rules, as he'd told me. I watched him join his wife, who was now at a checkout, and noted a cute guy just a little younger than me with them – probably his grandson – and a pretty girl about the same age. Idly I wondered about the parents of those kids, as they were very different. He had dark blond hair that shone with a few early summer highlights and a very slender build. The girl was physically above average and looked like she exercised regularly, whereas the boy might struggle to put on weight. She was above-average tall with long, dark hair – next to the guy she looked Amazonian. I worked the morning steadily, and the only real downside was Tonya, the bookkeeper. She was cranky as hell, unhappy that I was working the counter, because she missed her friend Georgine, the one who was out on maternity leave. I know this because she told me about five billion times how much she missed George and that I didn't do things the same way. I hadn't had to work with Tonya much before; I'd been nights and weekends, while day shift was all hers. Then she'd get fussy and strict about how I did minor things. Did she think making me miserable would get George back any faster? Christ, she and Ken should get married. I took my lunch break at ten, bought a sandwich from our deli, and sat outside to eat. I checked my messages and was rewarded with a few lines from Jack – basically grumbling about having to go to work as well. He worked at a hot dog place that was relatively well known and had cheap eats, but had crappy politics. Jack said he just kept his head down and did his job, but he was looking around for something else. “Hey, Derry.” I glanced up from my phone at Luke Benson, former boyfriend and tentative friend. Kid was a hot mess, but I'd come to realize he wasn't evil – just messed up. Aren't we all? “Sup? Why are you out of bed?” I asked. He plopped down beside me. “Dad took a week off, and he decided to get grocery shopping done early in the week. Plus Jared woke me up before he left for work, just for shits and giggles,” he said and stretched out as if speaking of sleep were enough to remind his body that it was awakened too early. “Jack working today?” “Yeah. He texted to bitch,” I said, my lips curling in amusement. Glancing at Luke, I responded to his look of curiosity. “He had to work today, too.” “Oh, gotcha. I don't start until next week.” “Where did you get a job?” “The grocery store a few blocks over. You'd think stores would spread out more instead of competing for the same customers,” he opined. After all these months, I liked Luke better than I had when we'd been dating. He'd grown comfortable with me and was pretty supportive of Jack and me being together. “Haven't seen Jack around for a week or two. Where are you hiding him?” Luke asked, grinning. I tilted my head side-to-side. “Mostly hanging out on my couch,” I told him. “We've been bingeing a few shows. Popcorn, something to drink and a nice snuggle. You know?” “Sounds good,” he said with a smile. “Things good, then?” “Yeah. Why?” The unasked follow-up question: What have you heard? “Just asking,” he said and held up a hand. “I haven't seen Jack, so I figured he's busy. I miss having him around some.” I pursed my lips. “I don't know how to take that,” I admitted. Jack had once had a pretty large crush on Luke – maybe even loved him. Although I rationally knew Jack loved me, maybe even was crazy about me, I could still be a little insecure. Luke looked chagrined. “Bad way to say it. Jack's a friend – a great friend, but that's all. He practically lived with us for years, so I notice he's not around as much. That's all. It's different. Uncomfortable.” He hesitated. “Kind of like when my parents divorced. Everything was different, yet still awkwardly the same. I don't know. Maybe I just need to sleep more.” I sighed to myself for being stupid. Of course Luke wasn't trying to steal Jack. “Has Jack always been kind of...spacey?” Luke tilted his head in thought. “Um. I guess you could say that. I always thought he was just polite, but I guess if he was crushing then maybe he was just blanking out or something. Why? Is something wrong?” I shook my head slowly. “It just seems like he's got to be told stuff. I don't know. I'm probably being stupid.” Luke tilted his head a bit. “I think with Jack you have to ask for what you want. He's not always...there. He's creative, kind and a great brother – but I think he's not sure where he fits. Or something. I don't know – why would I know anything? I almost drove him away by not seeing what was there.” “Boys.” I glanced up and stood as I recognized Luke's dad. “Hi, Mr. Benson.” “Done already?” Luke asked. “Just needed a few things. Derry, haven't seen you or Jack in a bit. You guys should come visit once in a while, you know,” he said. There was something about his tone that rankled – like I was responsible for his not seeing Jack. Well, so what if I was? Mr. Benson isn't dating Jack, I am. “We will,” I said, swallowing my thoughts in the very best retail way. They headed off, and I sighed before heading back into work. ** “Number eighty!” “What number were we?” Jack asked. “Eighty-four,” I replied. “Eighty?” “Eighty-four. Eight four.” “Oh,” he said. “Hard to hear.” He wasn't wrong. Flubberbuster Burger was a small chain in our area, but they had some new chicken sandwich that had people losing their shit. They were known for burgers, but it seems like everyone is adding a chicken sandwich to their menu. I mean, it was good, but I'm not sure about all the fuss. Jack liked them a lot, so we had met up when I got out of work. “Look,” said this woman on a phone a few feet away. “I thought I'd be nice and bring food since you're watching my babies, but you're asking me to spend real money, now!” Jack sipped his drink loudly. “Imma punch you in the throat,” the woman said, and I buckled over laughing. She glanced at me and smiled. “Now you got some boy laughing in here 'cause I'm going to beat you. Lord have mercy.” “Seventy-nine!” “They're going backward,” Jack whined. “What was our number? Eighty-four?” “Aww, you remembered our number!” I teased. “Maybe you're not getting Alzheimer's just yet.” He raised his eyebrow at me. “I'm not sure who you are, but you're kind of cute,” he said. God, this is the Jack I enjoy so much. “Hah,” I scoffed and he stepped in close behind me. “When is your next practice?” he asked. I thought for a moment. “I can't remember,” I admitted before pulling my phone out to look at my calendar. “Thursday.” “Good, I don't have to work.” “Eighty-four!” Jack grabbed our bags and we picked out a table near the window. “How bad was Ken today?” Jack asked. “They were short at customer service, so I filled in there,” I said. “I may get more shifts there until Georgine comes back. Christa called out – not sure what's up with her.” “Mike,” he said, meaning the owner of the shop he worked for, “is telling us he wants us to go put out political signs around town. I'm really not comfortable with that, especially given what the guy believes.” “Well, quit,” I said. “I can't. I have car insurance to pay and gas to buy,” he said with a sigh. “Well, put the car away for now until you find a new job, and I'll haul you around,” I said, thinking this sounded reasonable. “I like my freedom,” he said. “But I will start looking. Hey, I wonder if Flubberbusters is hiring?” “Probably,” I said with a shrug. He pulled out his phone and flipped through some screens while I finished my sandwich. “Here it is,” he muttered, and I assumed he applied for a job while I stole some of his fries. I almost suggested he come to work at my store, but only because it'd make my day more tolerable. Ken would be a jerk to him too, if he got hired. Instead I waited while he finished up and then he looked up at me, blinked as if he'd forgotten I was with him, and then smiled at the discovery. “Your food is getting cold,” I told him. He glanced down, again seeming to be pleasantly surprised. My phone buzzed and I thumbed open the text app. Jared. Can you guys come for dinner tonight? Jared would typically check with me to see if Jack and I had stuff scheduled. He said that way Jack couldn't forget or feel conflicted. I appreciated that he was so respectful of the relationship Jack and I were building. I'll check. We're eating burgers now, what time were you thinking? Like 6:30. Tell Jack, would you? GTG. Huh. Jared wasn't into using much shorthand, like GTG – got to go. It wasn't unheard of for us all to hang out, either. Maybe his dad mentioned something to him? After all he'd just said this morning that he hadn't seen much of us. I knew he meant Jack, but still. “What's up?” Jack asked. “What do you mean?” I asked and putting my phone down. “Your phone buzzed. You got all frowny. What's up?” I frowned. “I did not get frowny.” He pointed at me. “Yep, you did. Still doing it.” “That's because you're making me frown, now,” I stated and took one of his fries. He moved a hand to prevent me from taking more, but he watched me. I waited, wondering what was going on in his head. “You going to tell me?” I rolled my eyes. “Jared wants us to come to dinner tonight. But I didn't frown!” “Do you not want to go?” “I said we would,” I replied. Well, I hadn't actually said that. Now I was committed, though. He looked down, picked up a stray loop of onion and chewed. Glancing back to me he asked, “Do you not like Jared?” I sat back and crossed my arms. “He's all right. I don't even mind Luke, really. His sister though?” I shuddered. “Hmm,” he grunted in agreement. “She's mostly always been like that. Once in a while I think she's going to be nice, but it's really just less annoying – but it seems almost nice in comparison to her normal attitude.” I snorted and he chuckled, which got us both to laughing. “Jared has actually been cool,” I allowed, and Jack smiled. “What?” He shook his head. “Jared's Jared. He can really get under my skin, but I love the guy.” “Oh. Best friend crush, huh?” I asked, teasing though trying to hide it. “What? No!” he said quickly. “I know. Luke was just an appetizer, right? Jared's the whole meal?” I couldn't stop myself from smiling at him, and he narrowed his eyes at me. “You're being evil. Why are you so evil to me?” “Lack of cuddles,” I said breezily. “Oh, yeah, right!” he said with a chuckle, his cheeks turning red. “Seriously, though. You did frown.” “I wasn't conscious of frowning,” I told him. “I wouldn't read into it.” “You like Jared though, right?” he pressed. I tilted my head. “I just said he was cool. What are you worried about?” He moved his hands as if bouncing an imaginary ball back and forth between them. “Boyfriend, best friend? Be great if they didn't hate each other.” I snorted. “I never said anything about hating him.” “Then why the frown?” I sighed. “You're like a dog with a bone sometimes, you know?” He looked at me steadily. He knows me too well, and I growled at him. “He asked us to dinner tonight.” “And I asked, do you not want to go?” “I already agreed! Why are we covering this again?” “Because going seems to be an issue!” he replied, getting frustrated with me. I sighed and leaned forward. “I'm just wanting you to myself, that's all.” He blushed. “Are you working tomorrow?” “In the morning,” I said morosely. “Georgine is out for maternity, but I don't know if the girl that called in today will be in tomorrow. Probably stick me on the express line again.” “Luke just got a job a few blocks away. I bet you could get hired fast just because you have experience,” he said. I grunted. “And work with Luke?” I paused and shook my head. “I shouldn't say that. He's being nice.” “Well, maybe you should, then.” His tone was tentative and I felt bad. I was a little uncomfortable around Luke, having dated him and knowing how much my boyfriend had been in love with the guy. But why should I let those insecurities win? Why would I stay miserable at a job when I could work where Luke did? It wasn't like Luke and I were an item, and Jack loved me, damn it. “Yeah, I will,” I decided. “Options, right?” He smiled at me. “I've been thinking about using that new stuff you gave me for a drawing,” he said. I raised my eyebrows. “Not using your pencils? What changed?” He grimaced a little. “I'm used to pencils, and if I want to continue and maybe do something professionally with art, I should be learning other methods. Otherwise I'll get stuck doing caricatures on some boardwalk somewhere for tourists, right?” I shrugged. “Maybe. When I saw it I just thought...you know, art. When I think art, I think Jack.” He smiled warmly. A shiver ran up my spine. “I could use a subject,” he said, still keeping his smile in place. “I'm not posing nude,” I joked, even though we'd had the discussion before. It felt weird to think of someone looking at me without any clothes. “There is a famous pose,” he said as he looked intently at me. “It's seated, and the viewer is looking at the subject’s back. The subject has their head turned to one side, over the shoulder so you see their face in profile. There is a sheet puddled around the bottom of their back, no shirt. What do you think?” I studied him for a minute. “Not nude?” He shook his head, then his cheeks flushed. “I do want to draw you, though.” I know I was blushing at that point. “Well, maybe someday.” The truth was we'd not even seen each other naked in a sexual sense. Being naked in front of someone took more bravery than I had – especially if it was to be saved and maybe seen by others. “I look forward to it,” he said in a strange tone that I wasn't able to parse. It was important, that tone. Important to him. Meaningful. Maybe I could come up with more words that mean the same thing if I think about it. “So. Dinner with Jared?” I asked. He smiled. “It'd be good to see them. I haven't hung out with him in a few weeks, and he's starting to get back at me for when I didn't like him shutting me out while he was dating.” I felt guilty, then angry for feeling guilty. “Sorry, I guess.” He tilted his head. “I love you.” I looked back at him and saw that he was seeing right through me. I sighed and gave him a little smile. “I love you, too.” “What time is dinner?” “Six-thirty.” “Okay. Want to go by the grocery store? See if they are hiring?” “Sure.” We left my car in the lot and rode together. We held hands as I talked to him about the song I was working on as a solo for the singing group I was involved with for the summer. My voice was shifting into a lower range, and I was working on my transition from tenor to baritone. The show we were working on was a review of 'FM Staples', which confused me at first. I don't get my music through the radio very much, and I didn't realize the title referred to the FM radio band. Some of the songs were really old and others were fairly recent. I wasn't a fan of mine, initially. “Your Song”, by Elton John, seems like something a middle schooler would write about eternal love. I say that because what the hell does anyone in middle school know about it? Granted, some of the stuff was way out of date, and listening to the original recording didn't do it any favors. I listened to a few live recordings and started to feel some of the energy, and then I did the obvious thing and thought about what it would be like to sing this to someone I loved. I could feel my emotions filling out the words and making the vocals more intense and realized with some amusement that Jack was my muse as much as I was his. Then I stumbled on a soundtrack from a movie I'd never heard of where they sang a version that was radically different, though with the same bones underneath. It set me to experimenting with lengthening certain sounds and shortening others, to make the song my own. So now “Your Song” is becoming “My Song.” “I can't wait to hear it,” Jack said with a grin. “I love listening to you sing.” I gave him a crooked smile, feeling odd and yet good at his praise. Once in the grocery store I asked Lacy Franklin, a girl from school, if the store did online or paper applications. “Oh, they're trying to set things up online, but it screws up. Let me take you to get one,” she said. I thanked her and followed her to a door next to the customer service desk, where she knocked. The lady that opened the door looked frazzled. “What do you need, hun?” she asked impatiently. “Derry needs an application,” she said, pointing at me. “Okay, give me two shakes,” the lady said. Lacy turned back to me. “JoAnne is really nice, but ever since they caught the girl behind the counter stealing last week, she's been doing the bookkeeping and the customer service desk,” she explained. This was perfect! “I have experience with the desk at the store I'm at now,” I said to her. “Gotta run. Good luck, Derry!” she said as she headed back to the register area. “Okay,” JoAnne said as she pulled the door open again. She smiled at me and said, “Lacy ran off and left you, huh? Here's the application, sweetie.” “Thank you,” I said, and then thought maybe I could get in with JoAnne if I touted my experience. “I work over at the store on East Branch right now, but there's a new manager and he took me from the customer service desk.” She paused visibly. “Oh really? Why did he do that? Fill it out while you talk, handsome,” she said. “Do you have a pen I could borrow?” I asked. She grabbed one from the counter beside her, and I started to fill out the form. “Ken thinks that people prefer a pretty girl behind the counter, so he moved me back to registers. I liked the CS desk, though. I have my regulars, and the lottery players liked me.” “I hate lottery,” she grumbled. “It takes way too much of my time.” “It does take time,” I conceded. “Do you know if this store is hiring?” “I think so. Gary – the store manager – is usually looking for good help. How long have you worked on East Branch?” she asked, looking at what I was writing on the form. “A year and a half. I started on the registers and then got bumped to CS. My old manager was pretty good. I'm not happy with the new one, so I'm looking around.” I handed her the application, and she looked over the form. “Don't steal my pen,” she said, holding her hand out while she kept looking at my application. “I hate losing pens,” I said, handing it back. She smiled at me and waved my app, and we said goodbye. I felt good. It was one of those times where you could hope things were lining up for the better.
  12. Set a few months after the conclusion of Panic! The story switches to Derry's point of view and the challenges of dating life, complicated by the problems of other people and how they affect your relationship.
  13. It took a few days but Pat came back to me one morning while I was working on an old Toyota's exhaust. “Hey,” he said. “Uh, we still mad at that person?” I looked at him seriously. “Yes, we are.” He rubbed his chin. “Okay, so. I was down at the pub, and this guy I know...well, know is kind of strong, but we're acquaintances I guess you'd say.” “Yeah.” “So he works over at this place on Creek Road, right? A dealer went out and this guy bought the building thinking it looks all big and official, so he could run a used car lot from it – guaranteed money, right?” “If you leave out that the previous guy just went belly up, sure,” I replied. “Yeah, shows you where the brain trust is. So this was about eight months ago, and now the place is hemorrhaging cash, desperate to sell, so they're cutting corners and getting people angry – all that kind of stuff.” I smiled. “They have a problematic small SUV for sale?” He smiled back. “So happens they do. Talk to Phil Ashmore senior. Guy is a douche-bag's douche bag. Doesn't know fuck-all about cars, but he's sleazy enough to sell anything to anyone as long as it keeps him in beer and pretzels, you know?” “Sounds like just who I need,” I said with a grin. “It's a buy here, pay here kind of place, so they really put the screws to people. You sure you want to go nuclear on this person we're mad at?” I sighed and nodded. “She's been cheating Benji – my boyfriend – out of thousands by tricking him into paying all but a hundred or so bucks of the rent each month, and then hitting him for a fake application fee to renew the lease every six months.” His jaw dropped. “What a cunt! Fuck her, but good!” “Exactly.” The next two weeks involved me going to pick up Benji's stuff a little at a time so Barney didn't realize that he was leaving. My mom made him take a day off from the bank to get registered for school, then took him to lunch and threatened to never give him back to me. My family is so weird. Lilly was around as many mornings as she was nights, and I was really wanting to get this move done with so Benji would be with me full time. “I need for us to delay our normal Saturday stuff,” he said to me Friday night as we lounged on the couch. Lilly and Luca had gone to some film geek thing, so we had the place to ourselves. “Okay. What are we doing?” “Well, you told me about that car? The shifty sales guy?” “Right. What about him? You never filled me in on the plan.” “Part one is I move in here Thursday next week, the day before rent is due.” I grinned. “You're not paying her.” “I'm not paying her,” he agreed. “So what's with the car?” His lips moved in and out as if he were sucking on his teeth. “She's wanted an SUV forever. For the last few weeks I keep doing things to ramp it up in her head that she should get a car – like that now is the time and implying how much more dependent I'd be on her. She's ready to go look. She hates you so much, I want you to bring us there, of course so we're not riding the bus to see the car, and then tell her the car is junk or something, so she’ll want it more just to spite you.” I smiled wider. “You shaft her on rent, get her into a crappy car that she can’t afford, and then you ghost her. I like it.” “If the car is expensive enough, maybe she’ll blow all the money I wasted on her in the last year.” “That's worth going in late.” ~WYLB~ That Saturday I woke up to a cup of coffee and Benji stroking my hair. I downed my coffee and got cleaned up while Benji excitedly showed Gwen the SUV on his phone over at the crooked car lot. When I entered the living room after dressing Benji started begging me to take them to go look at this car before someone else bought it. I looked at Gwen skeptically, and she looked away. “I have to go to the garage, you know that,” I said. “Go in a little later? Please? This car is perfect for Gwen!” I sighed. “Okay, babe.” Fifteen minutes later we were in the car and motoring across town. I was keeping myself calm, though I was on edge. I wanted to make sure Benji's plan went though for some revenge on this rotten girl, but I was afraid my eagerness would prove my undoing. We got to the lot, Gwen having called the number Benji had gotten from me, and as we climbed from my car a greasy looking man in a bad-fitting suit strolled over toward us. “Gwen Didier? Lady who is ready to drive home in an SUV?” “That's me,” she said, smiling at the attention. “Phil Ashmore senior, glad to meet you. I can't wait to show you this little honey! It's been on the lot less than a week and I've had two couples look at it already, so it's not going to last,” he said as he guided her toward the waiting vehicle. He stared listing its features, and a lot of it was wrong. I knew he'd had the vehicle for over a month, it was overpriced and it had high miles. The biggest flag about it, though, was it was a luxury brand – and those don't age well. They never do. In essence the more bells and whistles a car has when its new, the more things break on it later on. Now some things that were once in that category have become standard and stable, like the computerized brain that controls a litany of things. But luxury vehicles tended to offer new things, things that don't get the kinks ironed out to make them more durable for general consumption. So your luxury car has a first generation bell or whistle, and as a result it tends not to last. Gwen was interested, but hesitant about the price. Good Old Phil assured her they'd find payments that fit her budget and she had the bonus of being able to deal with them directly – they'd do all the legwork of a lender and then she could just pay them – easy peasy. He didn't mention making the payments smaller meant she'd pay more in the long run and be in debt long after this car stopped working. He also didn't mention that this kind of deal always comes with higher interest and the possibility of the debt being sold and things like balloon payments at the end. The smaller payment means you pay more interest and you pay longer, so they make more money with fewer sales and less work. We went for a test drive, and Gwen was falling hard. She was wanting to, but not quite there. Then my boyfriend said, “What do you think, Ryan?” I pursed my lips and looked from the car to Gwen. “Well. Seems a little fancy for a hostess. Right? Maybe something a little less...luxurious?” Her nostrils flared. “You don't think I'm good enough for this car? I work hard. I've been saving. Plus, I won't be a hostess forever.” “I don't know,” I said, shaking my head. Gwen turned to Ashmore. “Let's do the paperwork.” ~WYLB~ A week later we were clustered in the living room – Me, Luca, Lilly, Tris and Ehren – while Benji laid out the story of how Gwen had screwed him, and how he'd screwed her back. Seems the car was a little hard on her budget, but she could manage if Benji was still duped into paying almost all the rent. When he'd told her that he was leaving and handed her the key there'd been a god-awful fight. She screamed about how he can't break a lease and better have her money, and he demanded to see where his name was on the lease. Each threat she'd made, he'd neatly countered. You'd have never guessed he was nervous about the confrontation just because he doesn't like them, but he had a steel backbone and she was practically frothing at the mouth. Then he told her to enjoy the overpriced car that she couldn't afford without him subsidizing her. Her face had gone white. “You did this on purpose?” she'd asked. “Fucking right I did,” he told her. “But why? I was so good to you! I took you in, you had a place to stay when you had no credit score!” He'd leaned in, and he did so now as he got into the telling of the story, and said, “They don't have six-month leases here, Gwen. And apartments like this one don't lease for sixteen-hundred a month. Oh yeah, you helped – yourself right into my pocket when I was desperate. Good luck with making rent.” It was a good story. One of those pro-revenge things. We'd played a card game then that was completely inappropriate and freaking hilarious. We carried on until early morning, when our friends crashed at our place again and we retired to our rooms. The first morning light was coming in through the window as I slowly, deliberately made love to Benji. Nothing moves my soul like physically connecting with him, though I took my time getting there. Each shudder of pleasure from him reminded me that my emotions for him, translated to touch, were returned in kind. There's a pace to making love, a commitment to taking one's time, I've discovered. You have to look and feel carefully to find each curve, every dimple and inhale the very essence of your partner if you really want to make love and you can't do it if you're rushing. I don't yet have the patience to make love every time. Sometimes I want him so badly I can't think of anything else. But sometimes I can slow down and really love him in the way he deserves. In the way we deserve. We all should be made love to, from time to time. As I lay in the darkness, arm curled around Benji while he slept with his cheek on my chest, I couldn't help but reflect on the wisdom of my new friends Ehren and Tristan. Ehren was right – you had to leave things behind, but so was Tris – you had to take good things forward with you. I squeezed Benji slightly and closed my eyes, dreaming of taking Luca, Benji and my new friends into my future.
  14. Wednesday morning was a glorious clusterfuck. I've never seen Benji before his coffee, and it was fucking hilarious. His hair was sticking up, his eyes were blinking like the idea of light was a new thing and he seemed to have no real sense of depth perception. It was adorable and hilarious wrapped up in one. I got him to the shower and woke him up before bringing him back to his apartment. “No more sleepovers until you have a coffee machine,” he grumbled. “I'll get one today after work,” I promised. He made us coffee and Gwen wandered out from the bathroom where she'd been getting ready for work. Her expression soured when she saw me. “Hi, Gwen. How are you?” I asked, forcing myself to be nice for the sake of whatever plan Benji was cooking up. “Getting ready for work. Don't you have a job? Oh, you live at home, right? Just us adults have to earn a living?” she stated. She shifted her gaze to Benji. “Working tonight?” “Yeah,” he said as if she weren't being a witch. “Rent in three weeks, so no time to waste.” He let out a sigh. “I wish you had a car, Gwen. Then we could share a ride to work.” “Yeah.” She paused and then headed for her room. I studied him for a minute, wondering what he had up his sleeve. Benji glanced at his phone. “Shit, I'm going to miss the bus. I have to go get my suit on.” “I can drop you,” I said to his back as he crossed the room, then stopped. He didn't turn to me, he didn't speak, but simply held still. Moments later Gwen emerged from her room and picked up a scarf to complete her look – whatever it was. “I'm leaving – Benji! Jesus, you're missing the bus. You better not get fired!” she said as she headed for the door and left. Benji looked at me and grinned. “Dropping me off isn't a problem?” “Nah.” I sipped my coffee and read stuff on my phone while he finished getting ready. On the way over to the bank where he worked he was quiet and I let him be. Eventually he broke the silence. “Can you do me a favor?” “Sure. What do you need?” He looked at me. “Find me a small SUV for sale so I can point it out to Gwen? But, you know, make sure it's a piece of shit without looking like one?” I raised an eyebrow. “I'll see what I can do.” Pat opened his arms wide when I got to work. “Oh! Oh, look who came to work! What happened? Figured out you can't actually live on sweet lovin' alone?” he asked and cackled. “Like you know what that even is,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “I do know it can be awful damn hard to pry yourself out of bed with a beauty by your side and a bottle of tequila – worm included – in your belly,” he said and frowned. “Least I think it was a worm.” “You're a legend, Pat,” I said with a chuckle. “I know,” he beamed. He sidled a bit closer. “Your dad's been worried.” In a quieter tone I said, “I know.” “With his treasure bay half done, he can't find a damn thing – not that he could before!” he said with a gleeful laugh. I let out a nervous laugh, misunderstanding what Pat had thought my dad was nervous about. He leaned back and held his knuckles out. “Grats on the boyfriend. You happy?” I bumped his fist. “Yeah. Totally.” “Good for you,” he lowered his voice. “Less competition for the ladies for me!” “Uh huh,” I said with a roll of my eyes. He cackled a little and started walking away. “Hey, Pat.” “Yeah?” “You've been around the car business for a while,” I said, thinking. “You trying to call me old? I can still get women, you know,” he growled. “Not busting you this time,” I said with a grin. “If you wanted to steer a jerk to a car they'd get taken on, any place you'd send them?” “Huh? Explain how much I don't like this person,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Imagine they've been cheating you for a year on rent, making you pay way more than your fair share for a dump to live in, lied to you so they could overcharge you and-” “Whoa,” he said holding up a hand. “How does the car figure?” I frowned. “It's revenge. I think he wants to help her burn some of the money he'll never get back by having her sink it into a crap vehicle she pays too much for. He hasn't given me all the details.” He thought for a minute, turned half away from me and then let out a breath. “You sure we don't want to just stick her in a fifty-five-gallon drum?” I chuckled. “I think the idea is to make her suffer, not end it all. Plus, you know, murder. Prison.” “I'm too good looking for prison.” He chuckled. “Okay. You know Apex Motors? Over on...uh...what's that....” “Yeah, I know the place. They shifty?” “Well, I know a guy...let me talk to him first. I'll get back to you, okay?” “Sure, thanks.” After that my day was busy. Dad had me help to pull a transmission to be sent out for rebuild, and then he sent me to hone cylinders on the engine they had pulled the week before and worked with me to put new bearings in it in preparation for putting it back together. All of that made the day go by quickly. Once done I headed over to a big box store to find a good coffee maker. Luca texted to ask when I was going to be home, as he wanted to order food. I told him where I was, and we argued about which kind of coffee machine to get. If he wants a goddamn espresso machine, he can buy it himself. I called Benji instead. “Hey, babe, how was work?” “Ugh. Legion of Karens today. How about you? Install some whatchamacalits and doohickeys?” I chuckled. “A few. Hey, I'm shopping for a coffee machine and I was thinking-” “Bunn. Makes a pot in three minutes.” “Oh, nice. Um,” I muttered as I scanned the display models. “Don't see that brand here.” “We may have to order one online. I'll search up something.” “Need a coffee pot at the apartment now,” I told him. “Why?” “Because my boyfriend said no more sleepovers until I got one,” I reminded him. “Wow. You do listen to me!” “Shut up. Are you getting ready for work?” “Yeah, got home about twenty minutes ago.” “Dancing tonight?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral. He sighed. “Do you not want me to?” I hemmed and hawed for a minute. “I don't like other guys ogling you,” I admitted. “You have a lot of other jobs. Can't this one...I don't know, can't you do without it?” He waited a moment to reply. “Are you jealous? Is that what I'm hearing?” “Yes,” I said, fingering a shelf label. “You're sexy and beautiful and I want that for me, not for the boozy crowd at Nirvana. Especially not for Peter and his snappy crowd, as Jace called them.” “Hm,” he said. “So is this a request?” I snorted. “Like I get to tell you want to do? Yeah, it's a request.” “Oh. Well, in that case, granted. I'm suddenly free tonight, but I need to leave because Barney. Come and get me?” “On my way.” ~WYLB~ Benji didn't stay over most nights, but he did spend more of his evenings with me when one of his side hustles wasn't demanding his attention. It was essential that Barney not catch on that he wasn't working, he told me, though he didn't really explain things. I assumed it was part of his master plan for revenge and left him to plan it – after all he'd been cheated. I, on the other hand, was getting tons of Benji time, which suited me fine. Saturday we went to the garage and got going again on the inventory. We'd only been involved for about an hour when we heard a car pull in to the parking lot. I poked my head out of the bay door, hoping it was just someone turning around rather than a situation like with Chloe, but it was neither. “We brought pizza!” my dad called out as he climbed from the car. My mother was opening the back door and retrieving the pizza from the back seat. I looked back into the bay at Benji, who had frozen, completely unsure what to do. “So. Ready to meet my folks?” I quipped. “Um,” was all he said as he tried to wipe the dust from his hands. Then they were on us. “I hope you haven't lost anything,” my father grumped from the opening of the bay door. “Like you'd know,” my mother teased. “RJ, I'm bringing these to the office. Let's eat while it's hot and discuss strategy.” “Strategy?” I asked, lost. “Yeah. Your mother and I figured we'd come down and work with you guys to get this bay all organized.” I looked back at Benji who gave a small shrug of his shoulders. I turned back to my father. “Mom is going to get dirty?” “Nah. Brought her laptop to start a spreadsheet.” “Oh. That's excellent,” Benji said, then blushed at having spoken. Benji trailed after me as we hit the bathroom to wash our hands and then we crowded into the office with my parents. “Here you are, one of each,” my mother said as she handed me a plate. “Give that to Benjamin, won't you? Hi, it's nice to meet you.” “Hi, um, Mrs. Owens. Mr. Owens.” “Come! Sit!” my mother said, sitting on a bench and patting the space beside her. I started to move and she held up a finger. “Not you. Benjamin?” I looked back at him and he blew out a breath and let his eyes go wide for a moment before taking the offered – suggested – seat. “RJ has been very cryptic about you, Benjamin,” my mother said. She looked up at him and smiled. “Do you like pizza?” “Wh- oh, yeah. Yes, I do,” he said. “You should know,” my dad said. “My wife's side of the family is pure evil.” “Please,” she said. “Yours could teach mules to be stubborn.” My dad looked up toward me. “It was your mom's idea to ambush you guys at the shop.” “She just lured you with pizza? That the story?” I asked, chuckling. “It was all her!” my dad insisted. “How quickly co-conspirators turn on you,” my mother said dryly. She turned to Benji. “Tell me about this organizing project.” “Oh! Well,” Benji said, setting his slice down. “Ryan and I were-” “No, wait, I'm sorry,” My mother interrupted and smiled. “First tell me how he roped you into helping. Then we can talk details.” “I didn't rope him,” I protested. “You owe me twenty bucks,” my dad said to my mom. “What? Oh, eww! You two are sick!” I told them and they just laughed at me. “So?” my mom prompted Benji. The corner of Benji's mouth curled up in amusement. “Well, he'd done some things that I like to do – he took me out to a park that was inspired after the Boboli gardens in Florence, Italy, for example, and I asked him to take me to do something that he liked.” “And he brought you here?” she asked in disbelief. She looked at me with wide eyes. “You brought a date to a garage? To work with dirty parts?” “Well, I do get to clean him up after,” I said and winked, just to tweak her. She pointed at me. “That's your father through and through. He's a pig,” she said to my dad. “Are you happy now?” “Let me ask you something,” my dad said to Benji. “Do you ever win an argument with RJ? Because I lose before my wife opens her mouth. Everything is my fault. Do you have that problem?” “He was telling a story. Stop,” my mom said and looked back at Benji. He chuckled and continued. “He told me how much the stuff in that bay meant to his dad and how he'd found a whole car in there – and I had to see that! A mess that covered a whole car?” “Sounds like his bedroom,” my mom said. “Sounds like your side of the room,” my father countered. “Go on, Benjamin.” “Well he showed me how he wanted to organize it, and then I added some ideas, so now we've been taking inventory – but some of the thingamabobs don't have labels, and a few of the chummies are a total mystery to us both,” he said. “See?” my father demanded, looking up at me. “You need me for this.” “No one can just do something nice for you, can they?” I asked. “It's true,” my mother said. “He can't help himself. His whole family is like that, you know.” She looked at Benji. “RJ was never like that, of course. Are you stubborn?” “Like a rock,” I muttered loudly enough for him to hear. “I don't think you have any room – or cooking skills – to talk,” he said. “Hey!” my dad said with a grin. “Look what he got from you!” “There is nothing wrong with my cooking,” my mother said and threw a string of cheese at him, which he tried to catch, but it stuck to his chin and dangled. We finished lunch and headed into the bay. Benji showed my mom the list we'd put together, and I showed my dad how we'd organized them but had yet to put them on the shelves. For the next few hours we four worked together and talked as we put the kind of organization on this bay it hadn't seen since it was first built. There were some odds and ends that didn't really fit into a category, so there was some mess, but my dad said he could get some racking to store the last few things away. I pulled the cover off my grandfather's car and gave it an appreciative look. “I like this.” “What you have now is probably better. And for how long this has been sitting, it's going to need work. It's a money pit – rubber is probably bad, have to flush the fluids and – hey, look! The paint is perfect, huh? I can't remember if we left a battery in it. Pop the hood and let's check,” my dad said. “No. You two can waste time on that later,” my mom said, cutting into my dad's enthusiasm. “Let's get washed up. We have to head back and make sure Anne hasn't sold Stan into slavery somewhere.” “Anne still wound up?” I asked. “She's still grounded,” my mother replied. She turned and regarded Benji. “Benjamin, I like you.” “Uh, thank you?” he asked and then smiled. “I like you, too. I like your marriage.” “You do?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah. You guys tease each other so much, but it's just a sign of how close you are. I love that.” “How cute,” my dad said and threw an arm around my shoulders. “He thinks we're teasing.” “Okay,” my mother said with some finality and looked at my father with a questioning expression. He squeezed my shoulder, but I was too late to see whatever expression he gave to my mother. Instead she turned to Benji and said, “RJ tells me you want to be a teacher, but that you're working a ridiculous amount and struggling to save enough, and that your apartment situation might be untenable.” Benji smiled and me, a sour smile if I ever saw one. “Ryan has a big mouth.” “He does,” my father said with an exaggerated nod. He let go of me and took a few steps toward Benji. “He's also got the biggest heart of anyone I know. I'm intensely proud of my boy. Since you've won his heart, you must be just as special.” Benji looked off balance, and my mother swooped in. “Now. The living situation.” “I, um, asked him to move in with me,” I interjected. My mother looked over her shoulder in thought. “Montanino's are paying?” I nodded. “Well, they aren't completely worthless.” She turned back to Benji. “So. School. When do you register?” Benji straightened up a little. “Look, I get that you're protective of your son, but I'm willing to pay my way. I'm working every chance I get and I'm saving and I will go to school.” “Of course you will,” my father said as if it were done already. “Being a teacher takes a long time. Some districts require a masters. You can't wait – so, what? Is it money?” Benji pressed his lips together and I stepped between my parents to stand between them. “Stop. You're making him uncomfortable.” “It's okay,” he said quietly and moved to stand beside me. He took my hand and said, “I promise you I'm not trying to take advantage of Ryan. I love him.” My mother smiled and reached out, putting her palm to the side of his face. “No one is thinking that. We believe in education. It's your future and RJ's. As his parents we want the best for him – have always.” She withdrew her hand. “We got him tutors and took away parts of his childhood with the idea that we were securing his future.” She turned her gaze to me. “As well intentioned as we were, that wasn't his path.” Her gaze swiveled back to him. “You are. This isn't something you throw back, Benji.” I started at her use of the diminutive. “This isn't a car or something extravagant. It's not an attempt to buy you off.” She leaned in. “It's an investment in you. If your parents can't or won't do the right thing and put the one my son loves into school, then we will.” Benji opened his mouth and my mother raised a finger. “Don't even think of arguing with me, or it goes back to Benjamin.” Benji looked at me and I smiled, shrugging at him. He looked back at my parents, as my father had moved up behind my mom and was resting his chin on her shoulder while hugging her from behind. “Won't,” Benji said. “What's that?” my dad asked. “You said if my parent's can't or won't. It’s won't. They don't approve of my sexuality and want me to...hide. It.” My mother lifted her fingertips to her mouth and looked at my dad. “I don't even think your side of the family would be that bad.” “I have to admit, yours either, “he replied. “Dad. You told me last week-” “Ah, ah, ah! This is a bonding moment!” he said. “What? What did you say about my family? RJ?” my mother asked. “Oh, you know, the usual. Disappearing neighbors. Murder. Moving trucks in the night.” “I didn't say anything about moving trucks!” my dad protested. “I'll deal with you later,” my mom told him and turned back to Benji. She reached out and took his hand. “This is a wise investment. Maybe one of our best. You'll do good things.” After a moment Benji said in a choked voice, “Thank you.” My parents smiled. My dad cleared his throat. “With you guys living on your own, you really can't do much work. I can use some stuff here on weekends of course, but...Ryan, I wanted you to learn something by working in the shop after you came home from college. I didn't expect it to be this, but you did learn.” I squeezed Benji's hand lightly. “Yeah, I did,” I agreed. “Working in the shop wasn't supposed to be a punishment, not really,” he said. “But you'll need things. So I wanted you to know it wasn't a gift.” “What wasn't a gift?” “The money in your account,” my mother said. “Did you really think we were charging you rent?” “Well, yeah. It seemed fair,” I said. “See? We could have kept it!” my dad stage whispered. “You see? Evil. His entire family,” my mother said with a knowing smile. “But no, RJ. All that 'rent' money is yours for school and living expenses.” She paused. “I'm proud of you.” “Okay, let's go, in case Annie decided to go get pregnant,” my father said. “She hasn't had time,” my mother said as they turned to leave. “Don't you remember how quick teenage boys are?” “Move it!” my mother snapped and moments later my dad beeped the horn and waved as they left. I looked at Benji. “You said you loved me.” “Yeah,” he said with a little smile. “Not quite how I envisioned telling you, but...the important part was I said it.” ~WYLB~ The next day was a beach day, declared by Luca. As it happens, it had been stated so by Lilly, but we were all going. On a whim I reached out to Tris and Ehren and they jumped at the chance to go, so we caravaned our way down to the lake and spent some time lying in the sun and grilling greasy things that were deliciously bad for you. We swam and played, dunked each other and floated in the bright afternoon sunshine. Ehren and Tris were a pleasant contrast to each other. Ehren had an edge to him that was coupled with a sweet shyness, while Tris was obviously used to being social and, perhaps, popular. They were both good looking, but that changed when they got side-by-side and you could see how well they fit. They were like asymmetric pieces that became a pleasing, symmetrical whole when put together. Later Lilly and Luca went for a walk and Benji and I sat at a picnic table with Ehren and Tris. “So. Seems like you figured some things out,” Ehren said to me with a little smile on his face. “I did,” I said, wrapping an arm around Benji's shoulders. He responded by placing his head on my shoulder. “You were the one that told him about leaving things behind, right?” Benji asked. “Yeah,” Ehren replied with a nod. “He left out part of it,” Tristan said, pulling Ehren into his side and smiling at him with unvarnished fondness. “He forgot to tell you it's just as important what you take with you.” “I take it you took Ehren with you?” Benji asked, chuckling. Tris looked at Benji. “Yeah. My parents don't like our relationship, which is sad. But Ehren and I have been through more than anyone else I know to be together.” “Have your parents cut you off?” Benji asked. “No. They just make their position clear, and that's unacceptable. Ehren is the most wonderful-” “Oh my God, stop!” Ehren said, covering his face. “He's not so good at compliments,” Tris stage whispered. “Shut. Up,” Ehren told him and we laughed at them. “Well, my parents don't approve of who I am. They don't even know about Ryan,” Benji said to them. “But I like your statement. Both of them. I'm working on leaving the crap from my parents behind and embracing Ryan's family – taking that with me.” “Doesn't hurt my parents love him,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “What about your folks, Ehren?” “My moms love Tris,” Ehren said. “They helped us when Tris's parents balked at us moving in together. They came around some, but they still don't like me.” “What jerks. Come to Ryan's house. I bet his family loves you, too,” Benji said with a grin. “Oh! And you guys should totally come hang out with us. We have a really nice apartment – we could do dinner and a game night or something.” “That sounds awesome,” Tris said. “I have to confess, the club scene isn't too exciting. I can't decide if it's just lame here or if it's not for me.” We chatted until the sun dropped from the sky, though the evening was still warm, about Ehren's love of books, Tris's interest in education, which led to Benji's interest in being a teacher and finally to my own interest in cars. It was weird. There was a chemistry in the air and I felt undeniably optimistic about...life. It was a moment, a moment that I felt I needed to hold on to. Recognizing when one of the really cool moments is happening in your life and sinking into it is really a form of magic. I felt like the secrets of the universe were on the tip of my tongue, like I was on the cusp of understanding...everything. It wasn't maddening to not know, to not take than final step. Instead I felt like there was nothing but possibility in front of me. Eventually Luca and Lilly returned and we all headed for the apartment, only to end up staying up most of the night playing games and hanging out. Ehren and Tris ended up crashing at our place, and I was confident I'd made my first real friends in the new community I belonged to. Benji and I climbed into bed, and I ran my palm appreciatively over his behind. “Hmm. I just want to-” “Babe,” he said with a yawn. “Can you just cuddle me? I'm sleepy.” “Of course,” I said, huddling in beside him. I couldn't help that I was poking him in the side for a bit; some things are beyond my control. He smiled at me and in a slow, tired voice said, “I'll give you some love after I sleep. And one day, when I'm in the mood, I'm going to climb on top of you and give you some dick instead of the other way around.” I raised an eyebrow, not that he could see since his eyes were closed. “Oh?” I asked. It had never occurred to me that he'd want to fuck me, considering how our roles had played out. Didn't you just pick one? Top or bottom? “Babe? Babe, are you serious?” He let out a soft snore and left me wondering about that. Shit. Was he being influenced just by meeting my parents? Was he being evil? “Babe?”
  15. After a few hours at the school, Luca and I had lunch, and then we decided to head back to our apartment. I put my phone on the bed and turned the speaker on to call my mom. I figured I should go through all the clothes I'd brought with me and make some space for Benji's stuff – he sure as hell was going to be spending some nights here. “Ryan? Where are you?” my mother asked, voice tight. “At my apartment,” I said, voice feeling strained. “Luca and I moved in. Didn't dad tell you?” “Well he...Ryan, this is a rash decision. Why don't we talk about it?” I shrugged, though she couldn't see. “Things have changed, Mom. I'm not a little kid. I don't want to be a doctor. I don't want to fight about it.” She sighed. “I don't understand. Or maybe I do. You've been different. Your father tells me...there's someone new in your life. Benjamin. Has he...this just seems sudden.” I paused and closed my eyes. “Mom, Benji is...I knew him a little in high school. He's saving to go to school. He wants to be a teacher. He's excited I'm going back to school. He's very supportive. I think you'd love him if you give him a chance...because I think I do.” “Oh, Ryan...so soon after Julia? Are you sure?” “This is different,” I replied. “I feel different. The initial excitement...it's not going away. I look forward to seeing him, talking to him. I miss him when he's not with me. I see things and think that I want to share them with him, or hear what he thinks.” I paused. “How was it with you and dad? How did you know?” She laughed lightly. “He was a pest. He kept telling me he'd make me happy, and I admit I enjoyed the attention. I didn't exactly say no, and he kept up his nonsense until I actually did say yes.” “That makes dad sound like a stalker,” I said, laughing as I sat on the bed. “I don't mean it like that. Times were different, yes, but I don't feel as if he crossed any lines. As I said, I never told him no, but for the longest time I didn't say yes, either.” She paused. “Sometimes the chase is exciting.” “So's what comes after,” I said quietly. She snorted. “Sons change lifelong plans, daughters become strangers and little sons have such a fascination with vegetables in orifices I have to wonder if he's not part vegetable himself.” I sighed. “I'm sorry if you're disappointed. Medicine was never...maybe at one time I thought it was a good idea. That it would make you happy or proud. Maybe even a year ago, because it seemed like it was solid, like I could almost hold it. But it's not for me.” She let out a slow breath. “No. It's not for you. I suppose it's for the best. You'd be diagnosing your brother, I think.” I chuckled. “Stan's not that bad.” “No, no, I'm sure he'll make us proud. Guinness book for most peas in a human nose.” We both started to laugh. “Did you register today? Your father said you would.” “Yes. I'm signed up.” “Okay. And...Benjamin. When can we meet him?” “I don't know. I'll have to talk to him.” I told her about the confusion about his living situation and how it was affecting his plans for college. “Well, maybe you should stop being an investigator and just ask him?” she suggested. “Thanks, Inspector,” I said with a chuckle. “What if he's being taken advantage of? What will you do?” I bit my lip. What would I do? “This is your father's fault. His whole side of the family is like this, you know,” she said breezily. “What do you mean?” “Remember when Luca wanted to play basketball, but his parents couldn't bring him? Your father was appalled that they were so detached from him. What was to become of him if his parents aren't involved, he would rave.” She paused. “So I asked him – what will you do, then? ‘I don't know!’ he'd say irritably – you know that tone he gets.” I chuckled. I did know that tone. “So he shows up everyday for you and Luca, like I knew he would. He starts bringing snacks for when you guys get done with practice. He suggests Luca come study with you because if his parents aren't watching his games, are they watching his studies?” She said all this with an air of amused exasperation. “I know dad loves Luca like an extra son,” I told her. “I'm not sure what you're trying to say, though.” “That your father already knew what he was going to do – help. And that's what you'll do because you're our son.” I smiled. “Wouldn't that just make me his son?” “Who do you think packed those snacks? Your father? Please! He'd have given you a Tic-Tac and called it good! Don't protest. You know how your father is!” she exclaimed, and we both laughed. “Yeah. I have to help him. I don't know how, yet.” Luca and I cooked dinner for Lilly and Benji that night. It wasn't fancy, but Benji and Lilly kind of teamed up and teased us before praising us. “Look. I'm not exactly a stranger to a kitchen,” I told Benji. “You know how those high school athletes go,” Lilly said to Benji. “You're going to have to watch his diet.” “I know,” Benji said with a sigh. “Ha, ha,” I said. “Well,” Benji said, leaning back into me, “I can always keep him well exercised.” “You talk about me like I'm a poodle.” They both just laughed at me. We settled in after with some music and just hung out together. I thought we might go the way of a movie or video games, but the conversation flowed very well. We talked about the classes Luca had picked, choosing to go with a flexible liberal arts program. We talked about the conversation I'd had with my mother and Lilly asked Benji if he was nervous to meet my parents. “Well, duh,” he said with a nervous laugh. He glanced at me as he said, “This is the most solid relationship I've ever had. It feels serious and I'm, like, feeling so adult right now. It's weird!” “You think that's adult?” Luca asked. “My girlfriend and I go to art galleries and talk about things I pretend to understand because they sound so nice when she she says them.” “Luca!” she said while slapping his leg. “That's not adult at all!” He laughed and pulled her to him, but it reminded me of something. “You know, that makes me think of something I asked my mom once. We were at a friend's house for dinner and my dad told one of his stories – one he'd told a hundred times – and my mother laughed like it was the first time. So later I asked her why she laughs even though she's heard it before and she told me 'that's love'.” I chuckled. “Joking aside...when you can still smile or laugh at something just because your partner does – like a husband enjoying telling an old story – then maybe it's pretty damn adult. And serious.” “Oh. Uh huh,” Lilly said and rolled her eyes. “Do you guys do things like that?” “Sure!” Benji said enthusiastically and I raised an eyebrow. “Like I put up with him being so proud of pretending to cook. I'm sure that won't grow ol – ah!” He was cut off as I dug my fingers into his sides and tickled the fuck out of him. “I. Can. Cook!” I firmly told him as he squealed under my assault. “Okay, okay!” he said, breathless. “We agree – you can order out.” He paused and I darted my hands toward him. “You can cook! You can cook! No more!” he almost yelled and broke down in giggles, holding his hands up as if to intercept mine. Eventually Lilly stood and stretched. “Well, I have to work in the morning.” “I could drive you home in the morning, if you're tired,” Luca said quietly. “Could you?” she asked, her lips curling into a smile as he stood and leaned in to kiss her. “And you? I can drive you home in the morning, too,” I said to Benji. He snorted. “You? Drive without coffee? I didn't see a machine out there.” “Keep forgetting that,” Luca said before I could. “We'll see you guys in the morning.” “Night,” we both said as they disappeared into Luca's bedroom and closed the door behind them. “So. Wanna have a sleepover with me?” I asked, nibbling at his neck. “What are you, twelve?” he asked, chuckling. I pulled him back against me and pushed my nose into his hair, then made obnoxious sniffing noises which sent him off into giggles again. 'I love you,' I thought. That's what's different. Was it too early to think that? What were the rules? Can I tell him what I think I feel? Luca would. He's braver than I am. “Where did you go?” Benji asked, a smile fluttering about the edges of his lips. “Talked to my mom today,” I said quietly. “You didn't mention...how did that go?” “Good,” I said and smiled at his concerned expression. “I told her about you. How I miss you when you're not with me. How I do something or hear something and wonder what you'd say or think.” Guardedly he asked, “And what did she say to that?” “She wanted to know when she gets to meet you.” He paused, then asked, “And you said?” I shrugged. “I said I'd have to talk to you, first.” He tilted his head. “Do you want me to meet them?” “Oh, I don't know. I mean, I'd have no secrets at all, then. No mystery.” He studied my face for a moment. “I'm kind of jealous, you know. You've been this golden boy for so long, dating Julia and your parents don't bat an eye that you're dating me. Your ex seems to have no problem with you switching teams and is even friendly to me. Who does that?” I let out a breath. “Julia and I...we changed. I still care for her. Love her. But it's not the same. I dated around a little, but when we settled in it was partly because we were friends, partly because it was easier to manage a single relationship than trying to start new relationships with my schedule...and we liked each other. “Now that's...matured into something that isn't romantic,” I said, thinking over the conversations Julia and I had had. “We each want the other to be happy. Did I tell you she wanted us – me and Luca – to help her find a new boyfriend?” “No,” he said with a grin. “How'd that go?” “It was kind of funny,” I said, enjoying his weight on me as I wiggled to stretch out beneath him. “She liked these two guys who work at this coffee place in the mall-” “What coffee place?” “Um...Oh, Cuppa Joes I think.” “Did she like Mason or Ethan better?” I raised an eyebrow. “You know these guys? These attractive guys?” The corner of his mouth pulled up in amusement. “I tried their coffee once just because I thought they were cute. It wasn't bad, but the boys are cute together.” “They weren't a couple, I didn't think?” I asked, furrowing my brow. “Besties, clearly,” Benji said with a small snort. “I hung around a little to gather intel, you know.” “Oh? And when was this?” I asked, digging a finger into his ribs. He jumped and grinned down at me. “Last year, no need to be jealous,” he teased. “Uh huh,” I said with suspicion. “Anyway, Mason – the blond? He's – or he was – dating a pretty girl with kind of curly, wavy hair. And Ethan was dating this little blond guy who – I mean you just look at how the little guy would stare at Ethan like he was his whole world. It was intense.” “Huh. Well, I think their status is the same. When we went those guys were working. There was a girl that looked like you were describing who was teasing Mason, said something about knowing what she likes. But the little guy you were talking about? When he and Ethan looked at each other, man...his smile took him from nice-looking to something else.” “Yeah. They are cute together. I haven't seen them out, so maybe they are still in high school or something.” “I haven't seen Jace out,” I said absently. “Actually, I have to reach out to Tris and Ehren.” Benji frowned lightly. “I feel like I know them.” “Yeah. They talked to us the night you and I agreed to meet – remember? You almost blew me off?” “Hah. Keep it up,” he growled. “I think I remember them. Didn't you go eat with them or something while I was dancing one night?” “Yeah. Nice guys.” I paused. “Ehren said something interesting. He told me about things you have to leave behind.” “What does that mean?” he asked, frowning. “He was kind of general about it at the time, but I think I understand it now,” I said. I looked at him, his warm eyes and sighed. “I was carrying a lot of stuff. Luca told me I was tearing things down and remaking my life, kind of. But I think it's more like Ehren was saying – I was putting things down I didn't need anymore. I don't need the tutoring, the scheduling and pressure of being a doctor or trying to get into med school – because I don't want it. So I can leave that behind me. “My old relationship with Julia? Left behind. Whatever idea of who I was without you? Left behind.” His expression softened to one of indulgence, much as he looked on me when he brought me coffee in the morning. “And who are you with me?” Yes. Now was the time to leave fear behind, too. Luca'd given me the example, now it was up to me to use it. “I'm in love. That's who I am.” His expression shifted and he leaned back a bit. “What?” “I know. It seems like it's early. Maybe I'm not supposed to say that; I don't know what the rules are. But I'm kind of leaving my fear – or some of it – behind me and telling you...answering your question.” He sat up and I immediately missed his weight and warmth on me. I sat up as well, curious and nervous, but not fearful of his reaction. He fidgeted and glanced at me, seemingly on edge. “What's wrong, Babe?” I asked. “Was that too much pressure? I don't expect you to say it back.” He stood from the couch abruptly and wrapped his arms around himself, and then sat down at the edge of the cushion. “She said you'd say...fuck,” he muttered. “What?” I asked, mystified. I moved toward him and he seemed to squeeze himself tighter. I maneuvered to sit beside him and put my arm around his shoulders, holding him to me lightly. I felt like I could be more supportive of him feeling his solid warmth beside me. “What is it?” “I told you I'm the youngest, right?” “Youngest of six,” I confirmed. “My parents...they're...unimaginative people,” he said haltingly. “Everything is done with a firm eye toward pragmatism. It's why I'm so stupid about organizing things and making stuff orderly. I mean, those things have helped me with work and stuff – not exactly the worst qualities to have, but it's all part of it.” “Okay,” I said. “Go on.” “My...they're kind of severe when I say pragmatic. No pets because they were more work. Toys were frowned on after a certain age because they weren't teaching us anything anymore. Books were the one big thing...but not fiction, really. They allowed one PC and it was strictly monitored for use with work or looking up 'wholesome' things like, I don't know, Wikipedia.” “I've spent whole nights paging through some of their articles,” I said. He gave me a wan smile. “My siblings all moved out when they could, and they don't come back. Except my brother, Mark. He's like my parents. Joyless.” He shook himself. “Their objection to my sexuality is, to them, pragmatic. Sex equals sexuality equals a waste of time because I can't have kids, and it's a good thing because it's an expense.” “Um. What?” “Exactly,” he said. “So when I moved out to save for school, it was really tense at home. Mark said I was being stupid and I should do as my parents asked and take their money for school. He pointed out that my other siblings had done similar things based on my parents strings to college money.” He looked up at me sadly. “But I was out. It took me a long time to get there and the idea of going back was just too painful. So I stuck to my guns.” “Sounds like the right thing to me,” I said. He shrugged. “Only they escalated. It went from school to car to place to live – slowly peeling back the things they provided to make me do what they wanted. I was desperate to get out, and that's when I hooked up with Gwen.” “Oh, joy. Let's talk about Barney,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “I'll keep it short,” he said quietly. “She told me I had no credit history, so getting my own apartment under my own name was out of the question. She offered to help me out.” “That bitch,” I whispered. “Hey, did you talk to her? Is that what this story is heading toward?” “Yeah, it is,” he said quietly. He took a breath before continuing. “We had a fight this morning. It pissed me off royally, but it's also been eating at me all day.” He wiped his eyes. “Don't say that you love me. You can't.” “Uh, what? I think I know better how I feel than anyone – except maybe Luca. He can be annoyingly perceptive about me.” His lips quivered. “Look, I'm a basket case. You saw how I was that first day, just because you didn't text me back.” “And we talked about that.” “And I fall too easily. I sleep with someone and sometimes I think it means way more than it does,” he said, as if I hadn't spoken. Turning to me he continued, “and you have to admit, I spread my legs whenever you want.” I frowned. “I thought you enjoyed sex with me?” His eyes went wide. “I do! I mean, I wanted to have sex, too. Just...you know I've been...easy.” I blinked at him a few times. “I don't see it that way. I don't see you that way.” He looked at me, his expression shifting between two points I couldn't pin down. “She told me...I was reading too much into this. That you just wanted to get laid on the regular. That I was doing what I always do and that I'd be smarter to not do this again and work on saving – keep my head down.” “That manipulative cunt,” I said flatly. His eyes widened in surprise. “Okay, look, let me dismantle this whole thing, because I see what she's doing and I don't fucking like it.” He licked his lips. “Okay.” “First, she's using your parents’ training against you,” I said. “This whole 'keep your head down, focus on your goal' is great advice sometimes, but it's also a direct reinforcement of what your parents hammered you with – and what you ran away from. Secondly, I had to have liked what I saw and felt for us to go to bed together to begin with. Do I want sex on the regular? With you? Definitely. But isn't that part of a relationship? Showing physical affection from bringing someone coffee in bed to making love?” “Well...yeah. But, I mean, I just give it up-” “You're giving it up to your boyfriend,” I pointed out. “It's not like she makes it sound – like you're down at the club every night bringing home a new guy every hour. You're not a fucking whore,” I said, my tone biting. “I just...she said you'd say you loved me, not because you did but because...because I wanted to hear it and it would make me...weak. And that-” “And fuck Barney. I mean it. Fuck Barney right in all her holes,” I said with a sigh. “Benji, you've turned my world upside down. That's a good thing.” I squeezed him tightly to my side. “This thing I have with you is the best thing that's ever happened to me. Ever since I met you, you're on my mind. I don't care what Barney thinks, except that she's upsetting you and being a toxic friend. I'm not trying to say who you should be friends with, but she's gotten inside your defenses. She's a snake.” He nodded slowly, looking a little lost. “I've been thinking about her a lot. She hates you, now. She's never liked anyone I brought home, never supported my relationships. I mean, she said they were going to fail, but did they because of...I don't know.” He shook his head and then looked up at me. “But I do know I feel the same way. I think about you all the time. Sometimes I think it's unhealthy.” I hugged him again and spoke into his hair. “When is your lease up?” “I don't know – hello, non-sequitur.” I squeezed him. “I left room for some of your stuff in my closet.” “Y-you did?” he asked, turning just enough to look at me. I smiled and stroked his cheek. “When is your lease up?” He pushed me back and lay atop me, looking at me with curiosity. “Are you...suggesting we move in together?” “Would that be so crazy?” “It kind of is,” he said quietly. “Is that why you're asking about my lease?” “Partially,” I said, playing with his hair. “Partially? What other parts can there be?” I pursed my lips and narrowed my eyes at him. “I want to take you to bed.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled at me. “Nice deflection. Sex later, you do this talking thing now.” I ran my fingers through his hair again and he slowly lowered his jaw to my chest, trying to look up at my face through his hair. “Your building doesn't have six-month leases.” He sat up a bit, frowning. “What?” “Something started rolling around in my head this morning,” I said. “After you left I was thinking about you. Where you live. How much you pay. How hard you work and how far away from your dreams that rent keeps you.” I paused and caressed the side of his face. “You're not spendy with your cash.” “Spendy isn't a word,” he replied, staring at me. “I mean...you're frugal. Even so, it seemed like rent was crushing you. Are you on the lease?” “N-no,” he said slowly. “When things went down with my parents, Gwen was... I mean, I admit what she quoted was kind of high...wait, what did you say about no six-month leases?” I explained about going to the office to check on the prices for apartments and what I'd learned, and how much apartments went for and how they only did twelve-month leases. “I couldn't figure out why she told you six months,” I told him. He sat up and crossed his arms. “Because I'm an idiot. That's why.” I sat up straighter. “What do you mean?” He pursed his lips and let out a long breath through his nose. “Every six months she's hit me up for half of the application renewal fee – a hefty hundred bucks. God damn, she's been shafting me and keeping me there and I just rolled over and took it!” I could feel his frustration and humiliation rolling off him in waves. “Then that should make this a simple thing. You leave and move in with me.” He looked at me and frowned. “How much would my part of the rent be?” “Zero. Luca's folks are paying the rent while he's going to school.” He frowned more. “Then why would they let me live here?” I shrugged. “Because you're living with me. Because they'll never be here to know. They assumed I'd move in with Luca, thus multiple bedrooms – well,” I amended, “Luca may have implied that to them. Still, Luca already green lighted you moving in. So all your earnings can get you into school faster.” He sighed and looked away. “I don't think I can.” “Why not?” I asked, my throat feeling tight. “Because I'm not a charity case?” he asked, though it wasn't really a question. “Because I'm not waiting for a white knight to save me? I've worked my ass off to get as far as I have and-” “And how far is that, babe?” “What?” “I agree. You work your butt off, but for what? How much closer to school are you than you were a year ago?” He licked his lips. “Well. I.” “This isn't...buying you. I'm not rich, I'm not buying anyone,” I said and chuckled. “This is wanting you with me and listing the benefits of us being together.” He looked at me skeptically and raised an eyebrow. “I get you, coffee in bed, you in bed-” “Uh huh, you were getting that already.” I took one of his hands and rubbed my thumb across his knuckles. “Waking up to you every day. Arguing with you about whether moving in with me was ever a good idea, about how you disrespect my cooking skills-” “What skills?” he said, laughing. I grinned. “I get you and you get me. And that makes me happy.” He tilted his head and his expression shifted to that indulgent look I loved so much. “Okay. But not yet.” I frowned. “Why not?” “Because I need to get even with Barney.” He looked at me and smiled. “And I have a plan.”
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