Reservations – A Novel

 

By Drew Filchak

 

 

Chapter Eight:  "Attitudes"

 

 

          "Did that really happen, Joel?  I mean, did he actually come to us?"

          "You may be the emotional one between the two of us, but ... yes, that really happened.  He did come in and actually speak to us.  He even let me pull him into a hug.  I mean, Blair ... he needed to touch your tears and stop you from crying for him and, god, his body trembled at my touch, but he let us hug him.  Maybe we aren't so crazy to think that we're doing something right here."

          "All I know," I said as we moved together into the center of our bed, "is that after all of the shit that's happened between us with the boys, I need you more now than I've ever needed you before.  And ... I need you a number of times in a row ... without question or explanation."

          "I'm your man, lover.  You can have me as many times as you need me.  But you need sleep.  It's been a hell of a day.  Still, I ... I think I understand."

 

          The sudden quiet, expectant and mocked by the previous moment's intensity, continued to fill the room.  Our stilled breath helped to suspend the moment as we teetered on the edge of release.  Joel's rich, brown eyes, locked and utterly focused on mine, begged for consummation as they flared brightly then darkened with lust and paused desire.  His full lips pulled back trembling with self-imposed control. 

          "Do it."  My guttural command broke the silence, hissed through a clenched shudder of prolonged sexual desire.  His slender hips trembled between my widespread legs.  "Now!"

          His lips stretched upward in a satisfied, commanding smile then dropped once again as his mouth opened, then turned to bite the firm muscle of my calf.  His slender butt clenched once, and as he sank his teeth into my leg, drove his hips downward -- masterfully spearing the hardened knot at the very center of my aching need.

          A growl escaped from deep within him, combining with my unintelligible moan.  His hips retracted then plunged the rigid shaft forward again, repeatedly slamming past my inflamed nut and causing my eyes to roll back, giving way to senseless and unseeing, unknowing pleasure. 

          My fists, held firmly above my head, clenched tightly as I fought against the restraint of his unyielding grasp.  In a lust-driven response, my own hips arched upward in desire and surrender, further, reaching toward the sun as Icharus did with his waxen wings, sensing but not knowing that his own immolation lay in the receipt of what he desperately needed to be fulfilled.  My testicles contracted and launched their essence explosively onto my stomach, chest and face where it combined with the pooled sweat.  His lips muffled my guttural scream as they smothered my mouth; his tongue, a second spear-like invader seeking purchase into my very soul.  I had nothing left to hide, nothing left to surrender.  I finally utterly submitted.

          Strangled cries filled the room as he slammed one final time against my hot, reddened buttocks, reaching deeper than ever before.  In shared, simultaneous release he emptied a second, blazing offering into my depths then collapsed against my panting, semen covered chest.

          Strong, muscled arms enveloped me as our tongues continued their lovemaking.  Finally pulling from my warm and wet depths, he stared into my soul.  My eyes clenched shut once then opened, again projecting the insatiable lust and need which gnawed at me.

          "Again.  Do it again, Joel.  Please …," I begged.  "I need it … one more time."

          Joel stared at me, his eyes searching.  "You'll have to give me some recharge time, love.  What's this about?"

          "Can I tell you later?"  Now wasn't the time to talk about the need that consumed me or the chasm he’d opened where my overriding desire to submit lay hidden all these years -- I couldn't talk about it right now.  I simply needed it met and Joel had the cock to satisfy me.  I rolled around and grasped his hips and buttocks, feeling the strength contained in his wiry form.  I needed to touch his body, his strength -- now more than ever before.  I buried my face between his legs and lost myself in his musky, sexual scent.  I needed to block everything out, remove myself from the intensity that the past few days had thrown at us.  And in doing so, I hoped to remove the doubts that lingered even after repeated confirmation and assurance from not only Joel, but also myself that I was doing the right thing.  I was doing what I needed to do, even though I felt like I was outside of myself, outside of what was normal and natural for me.

          I growled into the cavern created by his spread legs and attacked it with raw lust, burying my face.  I savored his most private scent and hungrily blasted past his minimally resisting barrier. 

          "Now you're talking, stud.  It's your turn.  I've put out twice, now it's time for payback.  I need it as badly as you do."  His voice strained lustfully as I felt his organ expand to its full, thick form in my grasp. 

          I buried myself into his dark crevice, hoping that I could quench the burning need for normalcy with the passion his capitulation offered me.  Were we truly balanced in our ultimate submission to each other?

 

          Later, he pulled me into his arms even though I wanted nothing more than to remain seated, forever buried between his legs … and at the same time, I wanted to throw my shoes on and run until I was exhausted.  Forget about the fact that it was midnight and that I'd had an hour and a half of sleep in the past forty some hours, I needed to move. 

          "Blair."  His voice lurched into my thoughts, invading me with its jarring tone.  In reality, he spoke softly.

          I refused to look at him.  I didn't want talk.  Not now.  I needed to keep going and I allowed my hand to speak for me.  It touched his lips while I studied the valley of hair between his reddened, puffy nipples.  His delight, realized over the past month, of just how sensitive and erotic his nipples were, charged me earlier to work them hard with my teeth as I pounded into him.  I gave him what he obviously wanted, not that I'd had much choice -- his hands had pressed me forcefully against his chest demanding more.

          "Blair."  I couldn't ignore him this time.

          "What?"

          "You're exhausted and wired.  I see it in your eyes.  You're actually trembling with the need for sleep.  We both needed a good fucking, but you gotta let me in.  What's upsetting you so much?"

          How was I supposed to explain it to him?  How could I even share the thoughts that were blasting through my mind?  I wanted the boys to go away, to not be our responsibility while at the same time, I wanted to take them into my arms and hold them close to me -- protect them.  With the first part of that thought came shame.

          "I'm going to Chicago on Thursday when you're skiing with the boys."

          "You don't need to do that, Blair.  You know that."

          "Are you telling me not too?"

          His eyes narrowed in surprise.  "You know I'm not.  So don't try and put that out there.  Now, what gives?  The truth, Blair."

          "What gives, Joel?  I'll tell you what gives."  The strain in my voice gave way to a sudden, flaring anger.  "I'm tired beyond belief and I don't see any end to the ongoing need these boys have.  The whole romantic notion that we can make a difference and settle into a life of happy, queer parenthood is a bunch of crap."

          I pushed away from his chest and swung my legs off the bed.  "I was all up for the whirlwind romance that seemed to come with just being around you, but Christ, Joel … suddenly we have a whole fucking family.  And tonight before Mau came in, when I was blubbering into your crotch, I just wanted to open your zipper and suck you off, even though I was crying like a baby.  It's stupid, I know, but I feel like now we can't even kiss in front of them because we have to set a good example.  And … after everything today, my heart broke into a million fucking pieces when Mau spoke to us.  I don't know how much more I can take of this constant fucking emotional roller coaster."

          "So … I don't understand.  Are you saying that I haven't been giving you enough attention?"

          My snort, full of disdain and sarcasm, caused him to flinch.  "Yeah, Joel.  That's it." 

          I pushed off the bed and slipped into my discarded briefs, then headed for the door.

          "Blair, don't leave.  Please.  Come back to bed."

          I ran my fingers through my hair and left the bedroom.  I stopped outside of Megan's room and thought about crashing in there, but couldn't bring myself to breach the sanctuary it offered.  Instead, I went to the study and grabbed the blanket I used to cover Cody with this morning. 

          "Well, Blair," I muttered to myself angrily.  "You fucked that up just fine all by yourself."

___________________________

 

          The sound of my shoes striking the pavement in regular rhythm calmed me.  My thoughts quieted, unwillingly.  Constant reminders though were needed to quell my spinning deliberations into complacent stillness.  The six hours of sleep helped to calm me also.

          'Can I go with you?'  I couldn't stop hearing Ben's question nor stop myself from seeing the look of hurt in his eyes when I told him that I just needed a long, quiet run by myself.  If I hadn't stopped to leave a note for Joel explaining that I was out running, I would have been able to slip from the apartment before Ben had made his morning appearance.  But after the way I'd selfishly ignored Joel's plea to come back to bed, I needed to minimize any further damage on that front.  In the end, I'd hurt Ben also. 

          ’Christ!'  I just couldn't win.  Not at the moment, anyway.  I promised Ben a run later in the afternoon and then ducked out the door, shame nearly stopping me as I reached for the elevator call button.  I wasn't sure what the answer was to all of the angst I felt, but I knew I'd only be postponing its resolution if Ben had joined me.  I needed to think or maybe just time to feel stuff in order to understand why I'd become so upset last night. 

          I crossed Broadway and headed down 19th towards the park.  My internal fight for peaceful solitude was over.  I had lost.  I needed to find my mental bearings and the memory of Hank telling me to share my thoughts with Joel in the hope of working through the ambiguous feelings I had, seemed like good advice.  But it sure as hell wasn't going to do shit about helping me work around the tremendous sense of pending loss of my own identity.

          I didn't feel like myself anymore.

          The last time I'd had feelings that were even close to what I now felt, was after I'd spent three months in a relationship with a jerk named Don.  That had been fifteen years ago.  He'd been a manipulator from the start.  He constantly manipulated people intentionally, though I hadn’t realized it at the time.  But I'd ventured down some pretty dark paths during those three months, paths filled with questions about my previously, very clear direction in life.  Luckily, I'd come to my senses and ended it before the forming patterns of self-doubt took hold.  I'd been very close to just giving myself over to whatever Don wanted … and that just wasn't me.  I'd learned my lesson with Baxter.  But Don had expected it.

          'You know Joel doesn't want that.'

          The thought stopped me in mid-stride. 

          'He's never given me the slightest hint that he wants me to be anything but myself.'

          I walked a few paces as the truth contained in my realization sank in.  And following the realization was the question of where my new martyr attitude had come from.  I never feel like a victim.  It wasn't in my nature.

          'But you've sure been acting like one!  Fuck!  What an ass.'  And now I'd hurt both Joel and Ben with my victim mentality.  I hit my forehead repeatedly with the palm of my hand trying to knock some sense back into my thoughts.  I had to make it up to both of them and at the same time, I had to figure out why I kept feeling as if I wasn't in control of my actions or my feelings -- or myself.

          I looked around to see how far from the apartment I was and realized that I could easily go back and see if Ben still wanted to join me.  I turned to begin my ten-block jog back to the building then stopped.  Ben stood on the far corner behind me, his chest heaving with the obvious exertion he'd expended in trying to catch up to me.  My face broke into a wide smile as I moved to the curb.

          "You following me, punk?  You don't have a knife on you this time, do you?" 

          His wary, worried look at being caught following me slowly dropped as a grin raised his lips.  "No way, gay boy.  Don't need no blade.  I got the Fu Man to show me a few moves."

          I laughed and headed towards his corner.  "You're huffing and puffing pretty badly for someone that’s supposedly been 'running all over the city'.  What?  Are you living the easy life now?"

          "Yeah.  I got me some sweet sugar daddies now, man."  His eyebrows rose once in play.

          I stopped as I reached his corner.  "I was just heading back to the apartment to get you, Ben.  I'm sorry I just left you there.  I was wrapped up in feeling sorry for myself and I took it out on you."

          He shrugged.  "That's cool.  I figured it was something."

          I shook my head.  "Well, it's not cool.  I shouldn't have given you the attitude."

          He shrugged again then grinned.  "You're worried about giving me attitude?  Why?  I figured it was just payback for all the 'tude I've given you."

          "That's not the way it should work, bud.  I'll admit that bad moods do happen.  It's a pretty normal part of being human, but taking them out on someone else or trying to even a score in payback is petty.  I'm sorry for making you think that's what I was doing.  You've been nothing but a great kid since I met you."

          Ben snorted.  "Yeah, right.  I pulled a knife on you, Blair."  His blue eyes scanned the pavement then looked back at me, the morning light enhancing the azure color of his eyes, making them iridescent.  All he's going to need to do in the future to win somebody's heart is to look their way and smile.

          "Okay," I grinned.  "Since the point after that, you've been a great kid.  The way you take care of things for your boys, always looking after them, it makes my heart fill with pride."

          The look coming back at me narrowed as he tried to hold in his pleasure at my words.  "Pride, huh?"

          I nodded.  "I am proud of you, Ben.  After everything you've been through, you've somehow held your shit together and haven't let yourself get bitter.  It makes me want to hug you tightly and tell you over and over what a great kid you are."

          The grin he was trying to hold back surfaced.  "That'd be all right."

          I smiled broadly and reached to pull him to me, but he jumped back and quickly looked around.

          "Not here, man.  Damn.  Someone will see us and think I'm one of them wiggly boys."

          I laughed loudly.  "Sorry, pup.  I forgot where I was."

          "No shit.  That just ain't cool in public."  He said with a grin and a roll of his eyes.  I clapped him on the shoulder and gave his neck a light squeeze then pulled him into the street.

          "You still want to run with me?"

          "Yeah, duh.  I'm not out here for my health you know."  Another grin, another roll of his eyes. 

          Laughing, I took off.  "Well, try and keep up, pup."

          After completing a circuit around the golf course, zoo and the east side of the park, we slowed to a walk as we approached 17th and Adams.  We'd both worked up a sweat and the slight chill in the air helped to cool us down as we walked toward my house.

          "What do you think about living over here, Ben?  I noticed when we were here on Monday that you got pretty quiet."

          I thought that all I was going to receive in response was his trademark shrug, but eventually he replied.  "It'll be okay, I guess.  Your house is down and all."

          "Huh.  I sense a 'but' in your voice.  Am I right?  But, what?"  I looked over at him as we walked and saw him turn his gaze from the sidewalk to the street once quickly.  He shrugged.

          "Bill is cool and all.  We all like him, but … I don't know.  You and the Fu Man won't be there and we won't be able to run together and … you know."

          I laid my arm across his shoulder as we walked.  "I know, bud.  I've been thinking about the same thing.  But the apartment just can't fit us all and we travel so much."

          "I know."  He shrugged under my arm.  "I wish I could go with you."

          I pulled him to me briefly as we walked.  "Me, too.  But, will you give living with Bill an honest try, Ben?  For me?"

          He nodded.  "Yeah."

          "Thanks."

          The comfortable feeling between us warmed me inside and I was thankful.  It felt like my earlier transgression has dissipated to memory and my thoughts switched to Mau.  "Did you guys talk any with Mau last night?"

          "Not much.  Cody and Chris tried, but they could tell that Mau wasn't in the mood."

          "You know, he came into the study last night when Joel and I were on the couch.  I was pretty much a mess with all that had happened and he, uh, actually talked with us."

          Ben stopped walking and turned to look at me.  His face scanned mine as his eyes opened wide in surprise.  "You shittin' me?"

          "Nope.  And by the way, nice language there, pup.  You really should try and clean it up a little."  I smirked.  He rolled his eyes up once.

          "What'd he say?"

          I smiled wryly.  "He told the Fu Man to not let me cry for him.  Like I said, I was kind of a mess and then he touched Joel's arm and then my face and told me not to cry.  He even let Joel put his arm around his waist and hug him.  Joel talked to him a little bit about if the test results came back positive again on Friday that he didn't want Mau to worry about anything.  And then I told him that with all the different treatments now and the meds they've developed that there was no reason why he couldn't do whatever he wanted with his life."

          "That's rad, Blair!"  His face brightened excitedly.  "I can't believe he talked to you.  So fuc … so cool!  Chris said some of the same things to him and he also told him that you and the Fu Man would help him out."

          I nodded.  "I'll have to thank Chris for that.  We kind of dropped the ball when we spoke to all of you with telling him not to worry.  But he smiled at us and said 'okay' and 'thanks'.  He even let me hold his hand as we talked with him.  And he let me hug him.  He's such a great kid.  All of you are."

          He shook his head and grinned.  "You gotta stop saying that or else I'm gonna start believing it."

          I laughed.  "Well we can't have that now, can we?"  He grinned.  "So … how are you doing with the whole Mauricio thing?  It kind of got lost in all of yesterday's drama."

          His grin faded.  "I don't know.  Ranus told Cleats about some of the stuff that Mauricio did with the Brood for Ice and even though it sucks, he kind of did it to himself.  Ranus said that he knew that Mauricio didn't do any of the drugs so it was either Ice or one of the fucks that work for him that shot him up.  Cleats said the cops didn't take him seriously which sucks major dick."

          I nodded as I absorbed his words.  "I'll have Joel talk with Cleats and then maybe he'll talk with the Police Chief.  People in this city take Joel pretty seriously."

          Ben grinned.  "He's so fuckin' cool, Blair.  He's got everyone kissin' his butt and the thing is, he's so cool about it."

          "Yeah, he is," I replied as my eyes darkened at the thought of my actions last night.  I waved my hand and nodded towards my house.  "Let's go see if Mikey will have anything to do with me.  Besides, I need to call Joel and do a little butt-kissing myself."

          The progress on the house was nothing short of miraculous.  A new entrance to the attic had been cut into the ceiling above the upstairs landing and rough planking littered the open rafters.  Framing for low walls stood in place with bare electrical and phone wire run through it.  The frame for the new bathroom walls was also in place.  I shook my head in surprise at the realization that all of this had been completed in two days.  Maybe Paul's completion date of the end of next week might be feasible. 

          The carpet in the three, second floor bedrooms had been removed and I noticed the trim and molding around the window and floorboards had been taped off for painting.  The stove in the kitchen had been removed along with the refrigerator.  Joel was planning for a six-burner stove and a considerably larger fridge.  The remaining furniture on the first floor lay beneath white sheets for protection from any construction dust. 

          We found Mikey in his basket next to the sofa.  Surprisingly, he allowed me to hold him for an ear rub before he pulled from my touch and ran to his bowl in the kitchen.  As Ben mixed the cat food, I made a pot of coffee and looked at the clock.  It was already seven and I knew that Joel would be awake. 

          His slightly chilly greeting left me fully aware of his upset.

          "I take it you have Ben with you?"  He asked.  No 'good morning, lover' or 'hello'.

          "Yeah.  He followed me."

          "That's what I figured when I saw his 'me too' on the note you left me."  A slight pause followed his words.  "So where's your head at this morning, Blair?  It was pretty clear last night that you are thinking about throwing in the towel on us."

          I cringed at his words.  I couldn't blame him for thinking that after my explosion the night before.  I didn't want to end anything, but I needed to find a balance in the middle of the seeming chaos. 

          "So I take it by your silence that you're still thinking about it."  Joel's voice had hardened even though it was softer now than at first.

          "No, Joel.  I'm not still thinking about it.  I never was. I was just a little out of my mind and the sleep helped to settle me down."  I wandered to the back patio as we talked and stood looking at the long grass in desperate need of a serious mowing.  "I need to apologize to you."

          Joel interrupted me.  "I don't need your apology, Blair.  I need to know if we are still viable as a couple.  You just left me last night."

          "I know.  I'm sorry.  I needed to get out of the bedroom."

          "Well it made me feel like I had screwed something up.  Maybe I did.  I'm not the best at this relationship stuff, but you left before I could figure out what was really wrong."

          "You were right.  I was wired and more than a little bit off balance, which I seem to have been for a while now.  Hank told me I should talk to you about it and not try and go it alone.  There just hasn't been a chance."

          Silence met my statement and I wondered what Joel was thinking. 

          "Joel?"

          "You talked to Hank about us?  When?"  His voice threatened anger, but remained quiet.

          "No.  It wasn't like that.  He read my face Monday morning and then proceeded to tell me exactly what I was feeling, including being more than a little overwhelmed by you.  He also said that even though he doesn't know you well at all, that he felt the best thing for me would be to share what I was feeling with you and to see if I could get a little perspective from you on how to deal with everything coming so fast."

          "Huh."

          "Yeah.  That's what I said, but then the day was another whirlwind with the shopping and the judge and then Ranus' phone call and everything that happened yesterday.  There just wasn't time, Joel, so it came pouring out of me last night all garbled up and I needed to remove myself before I really lost it."

          The question formed in my mind about just how two people, who had successfully made their marks on the business world, could have failed so completely with their personal communication.  Part of me wanted to say that I was the one who had failed, but it wasn't the whole truth.  We both had spent the past five or six days enmeshed in the drama that our fateful encounter with Ben had prompted, and during which time, we each had independently flown by the seat of our separate pants.  It was suddenly very clear to me.

           "I'm sorry again, Joel.  We haven't done a very good job of communicating with each other.  And I'm extremely sorry I led you to believe that I wanted to end anything.  I wouldn't want to even try to go on without you.  You're my Arthur and while there is no Gwenivere between us, there are now the boys.  I love you so much, Joel."  And I did, I knew it was true without a single reservation.  "Please believe me when I tell you that I want to be your Lancelot for good, forever … but there are times when you move so fast and so decisively that I just need a few moments to catch up."

          "God, Blair …" his voice trembled with released emotion, then fell to a mere whisper.  “You can’t even begin to imagine the extent to which I desperately need you in my life, baby.” 

          I stood on the deck with the phone to my ear.  Just his presence on the other end of the line was enough for me in the moment.  I felt spent of all emotion in that second before he spoke again.  In the month or more that we'd been together, our connection had been constant.  And over the past seven hours since I'd left him in the bedroom, I'd felt disconnected from him, my Arthur.

          And I'd hated it.

          Quietly, I heard his voice in my ear.  "What are your plans now?"

          My heart melted, soft and malleable like putty on a knife, at his words.  "No plans, Lover.  We just got here and I left Ben to feed Mikey while I called you.  I'm out on the deck looking at the jungle of a yard I have.  I think I'm going to mow it quickly and then I'd thought I'd take Ben over to Goodfriends for some breakfast.  That is, if I have some cash here at the house.  I left without my wallet."

          "I see," he replied.  "Would you mind putting Ben on the phone for a second, babe?"

          I shrugged to myself in surprise.  "No, hold on."

          I took the phone into Ben and then returned to the porch.  Thirty seconds later, Ben joined me. 

          "The Fu Man's on his way over.  He wants to help you mow your lawn and then join you for breakfast.  I'm gonna head back to the apartment so you can have time to kiss and make up.  You know, suck face."

          I looked at the grin on his face in surprise.  "What?"

          "The 'suck face' was Joel's words, not mine.  He said he needs some time alone with his stud."

          "He did not say that, Ben.  You're making it up."

          He shrugged while his grin narrowed.  "Believe what you will.  I'm just the messenger.  Besides, I'm hungry and you don't have anything to eat except cat food, so I'm gonna run back home and get some food."

          While the thought of Joel and me mowing the yard together sounded wonderful, I didn't want Ben to think we were in effect, sending him to 'go play in the street' while the adults got some nookie.  Inwardly though, I reveled at his calling the apartment 'home'. 

          "Why don't I call you a cab?  My car's not here or else I'd run you home."

          He shook his head and then rolled his eyes.  "It's cool, Blair.  I'll just run back there.  I need to build up some stamina if I'm gonna keep up with you.  Today was a long run and you didn't even break a sweat."

          Mikey darted through his cat door and joined us as he rubbed against Ben. 

          "I wonder what he thinks of all of this construction noise?"

          His question hit me deep in my guilt center.  I'd wondered the same thing as I saw the extent of the upstairs construction project.  "I bet he doesn't like it one bit," I said.

          "So let's bring him to the apartment until it's done with.  That won't freak him out too badly will it?"

          I nodded.  "Yeah, it will, but I think this is probably worse.  We'll bring him back with us after we finish here."

          "Good.  If I were him, I'd be pissed."

          I grinned and nodded again.  "Well, it's obvious that he's pissed.  Maybe you and the rest of the guys can help make him feel at home."

          His grin and an exaggerated roll of his eyes prefaced his reply.  "Someone's gotta."

_________________

 

          Mikey was a hit with the boys.  He even curled up in the center of Ben's bed within an hour of being at the apartment.  My guilt swelled at my actions of keeping him at the house, even with the honest consideration of it being the best for him.  He was a people cat and I'd forgotten how much he loved being around someone to give him attention.  Now there were seven additional people to do the honor. 

          The quiet in the apartment unsettled me a little when we arrived home from breakfast.  We found Mau in the media room entertaining himself in front of a video game, his cell phone clipped neatly to the waistband of his jeans.  Timmy lay on the couch with his face buried in another book.  Mau waved and gave us a bright smile when we said hello and Timmy said with all seriousness without bothering to look up, that he was going to be a pilot for the airlines when he grew up. 

          Joel grinned.  "Do you want to fly a 747, Tim?  That's quite a lot of plane, you know."

          Timmy nodded and gave Joel a quick smile.  "But I have to start on something smaller first so I can get my pilot's license."

          "Well, you know, Tim, I have a four-seater plane.  Maybe we'll have to go up flying one of these days."

          My head turned with a jerk to look at Joel in surprise at the same time that Timmy and Mau gave him their full attention; wide-eyed and open mouthed.

          "Really, Fu Man?!"  Timmy's voice was filled with excitement.  "You have a plane?  Are you a pilot?"

          Joel nodded enthusiastically.  I watched as Mau set down the game controller and stood up facing us.  Timmy launched from the couch and hurried in our direction with his book opened.  Joel continued.  "I take it you guys would like that, huh?"

          Surprisingly, the first reply to come from the two boys was from Mau.  "Yes," he said grinning and nodding his head.

          Timmy didn't notice Mau's response due to his own excitement.  "Is it a plane like one of these?"  He asked holding the book for Joel to see. 

          Joel gave Mau a wink and a quick nod of affirmation then turned to look at the picture Timmy held before him.  Mau looked from Joel to me and I raised my eyebrows excitedly as his face erupted with the largest smile I'd seen from him in the last five days.  His sudden excitement caused the haunted look that I'd become accustomed to seeing to fade from his eyes briefly.  His face radiated excitement.  The sight nearly took my breath from me. 

          I heard Joel continue with Timmy.  "No.  It's not one of those, it's …," he paused as he flipped a few pages forward in the book.  "It's one of these.  A Beechcraft.  Not too big, but she purrs like a contented lion after a feeding when she's up in the air doing her thing."

          "Wow."  Timmy's excitement and awe spilled forth.  "Can we go flying today, Joel?"  His blue eyes stared up at Joel expectantly.

          Joel grinned.  "Not today, sport.  How about on Friday?"  He gave me a quick, sideways look.  "I got my boyfriend over there to promise to spend the day with me.  He has to work some tomorrow when the rest of us are going skiing."

          Timmy looked at me with a disappointed expression then his excitement surged again and he turned back to Joel.  "Okay.  Friday.  When?"

          Joel laughed.  "Why don't we plan on early Friday afternoon?  How about after lunch, say one o'clock?"

          "Good."  Timmy replied then turned back towards the couch refusing to take his eyes off of the picture.

          "Sound good to you, Mau?"  Joel asked.

          Mau grinned and nodded.

          "Have you seen the others?"  I asked. 

          Mau pointed towards their bedroom then shrugged.

          I nodded.  "Thanks, bud."

          Joel and I left the boys and headed towards the bedroom.  As we approached, we heard giggling coming through the open door.  I looked into the room and found it empty.

          I knocked.  "Hello?" 

          Immediately, the giggling stopped and I looked at Joel in question.

          "Are you guys decent?  Can we come in?"

          I heard some snorting and then a suppressed giggle.  "Uh, yeah.  We're in the bathroom."

          As we entered the bathroom I saw both Ben and Cody standing in front of the mirror in their jockey shorts and neither Joel nor I could hold in our laughter.  The boys had used some styling gel, actually quite a lot of it, to make their hair stand up in wild styles.  Cody's hair was swept up straight into a six-inch fin that actually sagged from the weight of hair and gel.  Ben had spiked his hair in all directions, giving him the look of a young lion's mane.  Both boys were blushing through their giggles as Joel and I continued to chuckle.

          "Uh …" Ben began, "we kind of borrowed your hair gel, Fu Man.  Cody wanted to see if it would make his hair stand up more."

          "I see that, Ben," he grinned.  "And you couldn't help but get into the act, right?"

          Ben's eyes twinkled playfully and Cody turned from the mirror to face us.  "You like my new look?  I call it my shark look."

          I laughed.  "Yeah, it could be a shark, but you really look more like Flipper to me."

          Joel laughed and nodded.  The boys looked at each other in confusion.

          "What's a Flipper?"  Ben asked as Cody nodded.

          Joel rolled his eyes at me dramatically as I shook my head.  "Flipper's a TV star dolphin from the old days and it's a damn shame that you guys are only exposed to the crap on today's TV anymore."

          "Whatever, Fu Man," Cody said rolling his eyes back at Joel.  "You guys are just old.  Was the show in black and white or did they invent color TV by that time?"

          I snorted at his come back.  "He's got you there, old man."

          "Old?  I'm a spring chicken compared to you."

          I felt his hand swat my butt playfully and I winked at the boys.  "I wasn't the one that needed recharge time last night."

          Joel groaned.  "I can't believe you just said that.  I give up."  He threw his hands in the air as his smile widened.  "Forget he said that, guys.  He's incorrigible."  He blew me a kiss and his eyes told me he'd get me back.  "Where are Chris and Cleats?"

          "Out being macho studs," Ben said.  "They went to find a pick-up b-ball game over near the high school by your house, Blair.  They said something about a church lot on Colfax that always had a game going."

          "Good," Joel said in response.  I could see his mind working on some thought, but I put it aside and looked at Cody.

          "You know, Codes, you look just fine as a dolphin, but you ought to let me show you how much better you could look with a little refined styling."

          "It's a shark, man, not some stupid dolphin.  But sure, go ahead."

          I raised my eyebrows mischievously and winked at Joel.  "This won't take but a minute or two.  I'll catch up with you in the bedroom."

          "Okay," Joel replied.  "But I'm ready to get cleaned up after the yard work and you did promise to spend the day with me."

          I shook my head at Joel's persistence and inwardly beamed.  His unsolicited promise to do everything in his power to give us the most time possible together today filled me with a warm, embracing tingle. 

          I turned my attention to Cody.  "Now.  Let's see if we can change your looks from the ever-popular TV star Flipper to the classic and still yet-to-be-topped stud of the silver screen, James Dean."

"Who's that?"  Cody asked.

I sighed.

_______________________

 

          Two hours later, I heard whispering outside the office door in the hallway.  Joel and I were on a videoconference with the executive team, being brought up to speed on the past three days.  I motioned for Joel to continue and stuck my head out the door.  Ben and Cody stood at the end of the hallway, hunkered over Cody's phone.  The whispered discussion seemed to leave the two boys at slight odds with each other.

          "I told you, Codes, Blair says Mau talked to them and touched them last night.  I just know he'll answer it if it rings."

          "And what if he does answer it and doesn't say anything?  Then he'll know it's us … or me calling and he'll think we're making fun of him or something."

          "Ah, c'mon, man.  I've said 'hi' to him three times since I got back from Blair's and he hasn't said a word back to me.  I want him to talk with us.  It's number six on the speed dial, just do it."

          Cody shook his head.  "Use your phone if you wanna call so fuckin' badly."

          Ben sighed then pulled his phone from his pocket.

          As I watched and listened, I found myself at a loss as far as what to do.  I wasn't sure if I should intervene on Mau's part or let the natural course of things flow.  It was inevitable that the boys would try to call Mau.  Last night, Cleats and Mau had been text messaging each other, so this seemed like the next logical step.  But what if Cody was right?  What if Mau thought they were making fun of him?

          My musings took too much time.  Ben punched the speed dial then turned to Cody.

          "Baby," he taunted.  I heard a phone ring elsewhere in the apartment.

          I watched Ben's face light up as if he'd just walked into a surprise birthday party.

          "Hey, Mau!  What's happening?  It's me, Ben."  He paused for a quick second, then continued.  "You gotta talk louder, dude.  Did you say you knew it was me?"  His eyes flashed open widely at Cody whose face shared equal excitement.  "Because I wanted to hear your voice man.  I've missed it all this time.  That's why, bud … Mau?  C'mon, dude, talk … no, wait … Fuck!"  He exclaimed quietly.

          I sighed unintentionally.  I guess I too wanted Mau to talk more.  The boys heard my sigh and turned to look at me.  I shrugged and gave them a tight-lipped smile then shook my head slightly.

          "What?"  Ben asked, his voice projecting minor irritation.  "At least he talked to me like he did with you guys."

          "I know, Ben.  And I'm glad you tried, but you can't force him to talk until he's ready."

          "That's just fucked up, Blair, and you know it."  His voice filled with anger and frustration.  "If he'd talk to us and tell us what happened to him then we can help him.  I know we can.  It pisses me off …"

          I caught a movement behind him and saw Mau stop just down the hallway outside the media room door.  I lifted my eyebrows to try and catch Ben's attention, but he barreled on.

          "What?" he asked as he saw my expression change.  "It does make me mad.  And you guys sure ain't gonna tell us anything you know.  It's not fair.  What happened to him, huh?  I just want to help."

          "Ben, stop a second," I said.  Cody looked beyond Ben and saw Mau standing there, listening, his eyes staring at Ben flatly.

          "Hey, Mau Man."  Cody's voice filled the sudden silence.

          Ben turned towards Mau, his eyes looking like he'd been caught doing something wrong.  Mau stared at him, his face a mask of pain, flushed with embarrassment.  Then his jaw clenched in obvious unwanted memory and his shoulders shook with barely restrained control.  His eyes filled noticeably with tears then he turned quickly and headed towards the kitchen in obvious route to their bedroom.

          "Mau, wait, man."  Ben cried, moving to follow his friend.  Cody grabbed his arm to stop his pursuit.

          "Hold up, Bone."  Cody turned to me.  "Maybe you should go B-man."

          "I can do it," Ben hissed, trying to pull his arm from Cody's grasp.

          "Yeah, you can, but Blair's the one that should do it."

          Ben glared at me, his eyes spouting anger and frustration.

          "Ben, please.  I'm not trying to take your place with your boys.  You know that don't you?"  I moved from my spot outside the office door and approached them.  Ben flipped his head in dismissal and I automatically reached to tuck his hair behind his ear then cupped the back of his head affectionately.  "Just let me go check to see if he's all right, then you two can go gang up on him like usual, okay?"

          He shrugged, but remained silent.  I winked at Cody and offered him a tight smile.

 

          Mau lay curled up against three pillows on the mattress furthest from the door.  His body shook with the release his tears precipitated in the hallway.  I knocked gently.

          "Hey, bud.  Can I come in for a minute?"

          Instead of a response, he buried his face into the pillows.  I slowly made my way to the edge of the mattress and dropped onto the rumpled covers.  The desire to sweep him into my arms and comfort him almost overrode my self-control. 

          "You know Ben and Cody love you, don't you?"  My words seemed to break into his pain.  I saw a slight lessening of the trembling that wracked his young body.  "All of your boys love you, Mau.  And even though Joel and I will never be 'one of your boys', we love you too.  Do you believe me when I say that, Mau?"

           His tears slowed and the trembling dropped to minor tremors as he lifted his head from the pillow to look at me.  His beautiful face looked exhausted from the emotional release.  Emotion caused his cheeks, covered with spent tears and red blotches, to quiver.  He sniffed a few times then nodded his head once.  I offered him a soft smile.  The corner of his lip raised minutely in response.

          "Honey, Ben and Cody just want to help you somehow—we all do, but not until you're ready.  I mean that.  They're just frustrated and feel impotent.  That means they want to do something to help because they care so much for you, but they don't know how or what to do.  You know they weren't trying to make fun of you, right?"

          He nodded once and then wiped his face with the back of his hand.  I spied a box of Kleenex on a nearby dresser.  "Let me get you some tissue so you don't have to use the back of your hand." 

          I winked at him, which brought a slight smile.  I grabbed the box of tissues then moved closer to Mau on the mattress.  He didn't seem to mind my closeness.

          "Thanks," he whispered as he sat up and took the offered tissues.  He wiped his face and cleared his nose.  I offered my hand for him to discard the used tissues and he rolled his eyes then placed the tissues in his pocket.  I smiled.

          "You're welcome, Cubbo."

          He looked at me questioningly.  I grinned.

          "Well, with your beautiful, black hair all spiked like that, you look like a bear cub."

          He grinned slightly and rolled his eyes. 

          "Don't roll those big, brown eyes at me, bud.  You do look like a bear cub and you're going to knock the socks off of some girl one day soon with those eyes of yours.  Mark my words, Mau Man."

          He didn't try to hide his grin this time and I couldn't resist the chance to see if I could make his grin remain a bit longer. 

          "Oh!  You like the thought of that, don't you?  I don't think that Cody and Chris and Cleats are the only horndogs in the group."

          His grin widened into a smile.  His bright, white teeth were like spotlights on opening night.  They illuminated his face.  He giggled softly at my words causing my own face to light up further in witness to his lightened mood.

          "So did you mind so terribly that Ben called you on your phone?"  I finished my words with a wink.

          His grin remained as he shook his head.  His hand automatically reached for his phone on his belt and touched it as if to reassure himself that it was still there. 

          "Good.  In his own way, he was just trying to tell you he loved you and wanted to help."

          Mau nodded.

          I continued.  "And I want you to know something, honey.  If you ever need to just get a little reassurance that things are okay, you can come to Joel or me at anytime.  I mean that.  I know you don't want to talk about the stuff that happened to you, but if you just need to talk to someone other than your boys, you can come to us, okay?"

          He nodded again.

          "Even in the middle of the night.  Don't worry about waking us up.  I'm not just saying that, Mau, I mean it.  Or if you want to call us during the day and we're not here, just call, even if you don't say anything, we'll know it's you and we'll just talk with you about whatever we're doing.  Deal, Cubbo?"

          Mau went to nod again, but his eyes suddenly filled with tears.

          "What's wrong, bud?  Did I say something wrong?"

          He shook his head once then, surprisingly, he launched into my arms and buried his face in my neck.  The renewed tears spilled down his cheeks and I felt his body shake as his sobs -- of what I could only imagine came from his fears -- shook his slight frame.  I pulled him tightly into my arms and he settled onto my lap as he continued to hold me in a fierce, clinging hug.  I brushed the back of his head with my hand and whispered that everything was going to be okay from now on.

          "No one's ever going to hurt you again, honey.  I swear to you, Mau.  Neither Joel nor I will let anything happen to you.  Shhhh … son.  You're safe now."  I rocked him in my arms, holding him close in my lap while I uttered soothing words and sounds and placed small kisses onto his hair.

          My heart was in my throat as my own eyes overflowed with tears.  I felt that finally a connection had been made with our most-wounded charge, one that was real and something that could be built on.  The worry and fear that I felt about not having whatever it took within me to handle these boys melted in that instant.  My heart exploded with love and tenderness, not just for Mau and his pain, but for all of the boys -- our boys.

          "It's all gonna be okay, Mau.  I love you so much."  My hand continued its soothing caress of his hair and my other hand gently patted his back offering what comfort there was to be found in the gesture.

          We sat like that, gently rocking, for a long time.  His sobs ended and his breathing calmed.  Eventually, he pulled back and looked at me.  Then, in the most surprising action of all, he leaned forward and kissed my cheek once.  Unable to contain myself, a huge grin covered my face.

           "I love you too, Mau."

          He smiled tight-lipped, then dropped his eyes as though he were embarrassed.  I ruffled his hair lightly and went to pull from our hug, but he quickly looked back at me.

          "Don't go."

          In that instant, there was no power on earth that could have forced me to leave.  I pulled him back against me and he snuggled into my arms sideways, placing the side of his face against my chest.  My mind flooded with horrid images of what he'd endured and knew that what he now needed more than anything else was to be held in the safety offered by my arms.  I was, at the same time, stunned and overwhelmed by the fact that only four, short days ago he'd flinched away from me as I offered my hand in introduction. 

          I whispered.  "I'm not going anywhere, bud." 

          A few minutes passed and my mind drifted to the memory of complete excitement on his face earlier when Joel had promised to take the boys flying.

          "It was quite a surprise this morning that Joel dropped on us about the plane and flying, huh?"

          He nodded, but remained silent.  I continued.

          "I was even surprised.  Joel and I have only been together for a little over a month.  I guess there's still a lot we don't know about each other.  I love flying in small aircraft.  Have you ever been in one before?"

          A small shake of his head spelled the extent of his response.  I continued to hold him while I rocked slightly in my place on the mattress.  I felt him hug me tighter.  He caught me off guard with his quiet question.

          "You and Fu Man really love each other, don't you?"

          It was the longest, most complete sentence I'd heard come from his mouth.  I was simply amazed and quickly nodded.

          "Yeah, Mau, we do.  It's been the most incredible month of my life.  Well, actually about two-and-a-half months now.  Did you know that I developed a huge crush on him from the very first moment I saw him?"

          Mau shook his head and then I heard a very soft giggle.  I grinned at the sound.

          "I did.  It was awful.  Hank, he's the manager and head bartender of Joel's restaurant downstairs … well, he told me that I didn't have a chance.  I guess I proved ole Hank wrong, now didn't I?"

          Mau nodded as his giggle increased in volume.  I felt his chuckles against my chest and suddenly had an inkling of what parents felt like when they held their child or witnessed their joys and sorrows.  It was an overwhelming and powerful feeling and one of which I definitely wanted more.

          "I'm almost giddy when I think about spending the rest of my life with him.  You'll know this same feeling one day when you meet the right person."

          He pulled from me and stared fixedly into my eyes.  I could see the question in his gaze as clearly as if he'd put it into words. 

          "You will, Mau."  I winked at him.  "If you'll let it happen.  Have you ever had a girlfriend … or a boyfriend?"  I grinned.

          He rolled his eyes at me and tentatively nodded his head. 

          My grin expanded playfully.  "Which one?  A girlfriend or a boyfriend?  Or maybe it was one of each?"

          He laughed then shook his head.  "A girlfriend."

          "Ahh.  Was she pretty?"

          He nodded.

          "Did you suck face?"  I smiled playfully.

          He gave me another nod and roll of his eyes. 

          "Was this back home," I asked tentatively, not sure I wanted to push too far, but he nodded readily.  "The boys said that you were from Maui, right?"

          He nodded again.

          "Hmm … is she still your girlfriend?"

          He scowled and shook his head with a sigh.

          I put a comical look of shock and dismay on my face.  "Oh no!  She didn't leave you for another man, did she?  The tramp!"

          He giggled even though I knew he didn't want to.  He shook his head.  "She moved."

          I sighed.  "Women."

          He actually laughed out loud at my comment.  The sound filled the room like the clang and pinging of bells on a bright morning.  "Blair!"  He shook his head with a dramatic roll of his eyes saying 'what would I know about women'.

          "What?  I dated a couple of girls once when I was just a little bit older than you.  That was enough.  I just figured that women were better left to the straight men."

          He grinned and pulled further from me.  I felt the weight lessen from his half-seat on my lap and groaned quietly. 

          "I hope you had enough close hugs for the time being.  You may still have somewhat of a slight build, but my legs are starving for blood!  Sheesh!"

          "Sorry."

          "Don't be, bud.  I loved every minute of it and I want you to know that anytime you need a hug or want a hug, that I'm your man.  And we don't have to tell your boys about it either.  I'm sure Cleats would never let you live it down, right?"

          He nodded and grinned. 

          "Well, then.  How about we go see what the rest of the crew is up to?  I want to check on how Joel is doing with our conference call.  Who knows, I might have ditched out at the right time and missed the end of it.  That wouldn't be all bad, huh?  Kind of like skipping class."

          We stood up and I gave Mau one last hug and a smile then we moved towards the kitchen where I heard Ben and Cody talking.  As we entered, they looked towards us expectantly.

          "What were you guys laughing about?"  Cody asked.

          Mau and I looked at each other and grinned.  "Mau seemed to think it was pretty funny that I was giving him advice on women."

          Ben gave us a sideways look then grinned along with us.  He nodded at my words and looked intently at Mau. 

          "Sorry if I upset you earlier.  I didn't mean too."  He held his fist towards Mau, looking for a bump.  "We cool, Mau Man?"

          Mau grinned and touched his fist to Ben's with a nod.  "Yeah, Bone."

_____________________

 

          Joel and the boys made an early start the next morning beginning with a major breakfast in the restaurant downstairs.  We commandeered a large booth in the closed section and Hank simply shook his head at the amount of food the boys ordered.  His amazement grew as he watched how quickly they made the food disappear.  Hank and I joked about how we wished we could still put away that many calories and stay fit. 

          The boys were adequately pleased when Hank informed them as they were leaving, that he'd already spread the word to the other employees about how if any of Joel and Blair's boys came looking for food, they were to throw the doors wide open for them.  Ben bumped fists with Hank on the way out and I saw the pleasure in Hank's face at the gesture.  I winked at Ben and messed his hair then spotted the longing, wanting look in Mau's eyes and gave him the same.  His quick smile would be with me for a good part of the day.

          I moved to my spot at the bar for a last cup of coffee with Hank.  After pouring us both a cup, Hank studied me for a moment before speaking. 

          "You don't seem too worse for the wear, man.  How's it been?"  His look conveyed his sincere interest, telling me without words that he knew the past few days hadn't been too easy on me.

          "Let's just say that I'm surviving," I responded, then shook my head.  "Actually, Hank, I'm thriving.  It hasn't been all sweet smelling, that's for sure, but finally yesterday, Joel and I synced up again and I'm feeling a lot more balanced."  I sipped from my cup.  "You can't believe how intense these boys are."

          "I bet.  And just so you know, I've missed you and Joel coming around every morning.  One of the fairly regular customers asked me where the two of you were.  Then he said that he'd noticed you weren't around because you were always here in the mornings, just like you owned the place or something."

          I laughed as he continued.  "I told him that I didn't know anything about it and he got the hint to mind his own business."

          "That's what I admire about you, Hank.  You're a man of principle."  I chuckled.  "I told Mau yesterday about how you almost physically warned me away from Joel and that I didn't listen.  Mau actually liked the story."

          "Mau," Hank said pensively, "is he the one with the dark, spiky hair?"

          I nodded a few times as my mind jumped to my hope that he enjoyed himself today.  Hank's comment snatched me back to the bar.

          "You probably already know this, bud, but some really heavy shit has happened to that kid.  You can see it in his eyes.  I mean, they're way beyond having a haunted look."

          His gaze locked with mine as I slowly nodded my head.  "He's really just said his first words to us yesterday.  He's been with the boys for two or three months and the total extent he's said to them in all of that time was 'Maui' when asked where he was from.  From what we saw of his body with the doctor, the kid has been through some unspeakable horrors.  And he's only sixteen."

          Hank ran his hand across his shaved head and licked his lips.  "And what about the other boys?”

          I snorted.  My disdain for their parents was very much alive and in front of my eyes.  How can one human being be so filled with hate and fear that they'd do such things to another person?  How could parents allow themselves to toss their children out into the world unprotected, unloved?  We didn't know how Mau ended up in the situation he had, but the others … the others had parents that had turned their backs on their kids, on their responsibilities to love and care for their offspring.  Even Timmy's parents had done this -- his father in prison for life, his mother dead from an overdose. 

          I closed my eyes as the feeling of impotence rose in my throat like erupting, bitter bile. 

          "You don't have to tell me, Blair, if it's too much to talk about."

          I quickly shook my head then opened my eyes and looked at my friend.  "Chris, the tall one, was the football player that was caught in bed with his coach last fall in Colorado Springs.  His father tried to force his conversion back to hetero through the mind-fuck techniques used by the conversion groups.  He booked to Denver instead.  All of his teammates were taking shots at him and he'd been beaten up pretty badly before he got away.  Cody, the one with the messy brown hair that sat next to Ben … he also was caught in bed with his best friend by his religious right father who kicked him out in the middle of November without a coat … in fucking Cheyenne, Wyoming!  God!  How could someone do that?  He's only just sixteen, too!"

          Hank's head shook back and forth slowly and I just looked at him then continued.  "Timmy just turned thirteen and has been in the foster system since his mother died of an overdose in some hole in the Holly.  His dad's in the supermax prison in Florence for a double homicide.  Cleats' father beat the shit out of him because he wouldn't go to church or stop hanging with his buddies.  His father insisted they were a gang and the bitch of it all was that Cleats and his friends hung together in order to avoid the Chicago gangs.  Finally, as Cleats told us, his dad was going for broke, wailing on him one night, drunk and Cleats finally got his knife out of his pocket and slashed the prick's face to get away."

          My hands trembled as I lifted my cup.  The coffee helped to settle me a bit.  "And then Ben … fuck!"  I hissed.  "Ben … was raped anally by his drunken uncle and when he tried to tell his father about it, his father backhanded him and sent him flying, calling him a liar even though there was blood everywhere and gave him ten minutes to get out of his house.  That night he was supposed to have his first date with this girl that he was just wild about.  I mean, c'mon Hank?  Tell me how all of this could happen?"

          "Man, I don't know what to tell you.  My upbringing was nothing like that.  Neither was yours.  But the absolutely amazing thing is that they all found each other and then found you two before it was too late."  His head shook repeatedly in disbelief. 

          'We were too late for Mauricio,' I thought.

          "So yeah, it's been a hell of a few days."

          "I guess it has been, man.  I was bullshittin' you when I said you didn't look too worse for the wear.  You actually look somewhat worn out.  But you say that you and Joel are connecting?"

          "Yeah.  We spent the whole day together yesterday.  Hell, Tuesday night, I was deadset on flying to Chicago today while they were skiing just to get away from it all.  But I finally got my head on straight."

          "Well, you let me know if and when I can help you guys.  I'm serious.  If you want to go out or away for a while, I'm your man to cover the guys.  I know Chris is seventeen, but still, I can look in on them."

          "Thanks, Hank.  I mean that."

          My cell phone rang as I clasped hands with him.  His smile and nod was good to receive.  He turned to his other customers while I answered my call.  There was no number on the caller ID. 

          "Hello?"

          "Yeah.  Let me talk to Cleats, man."  I recognized the voice from Monday night.  It was Ranus, Cleats' friend.

          "He's not here now.  He's up in the mountains for the day."

          "You bullshittin' me, man?"

          "No.  Why would I do that?  Can I get a number for him to call you back, Ranus?"

          Silence filled the space following my words.  I wanted to know why Ranus was calling, so I pushed on.

          "This is Blair.  I think you know who I am."

          "Yeah, I know about you."

          "Does this have something to do about Mauricio?  Do you know anything more?"

          "Fuck.  Why should I tell you?  I don't owe you shit, man."

          "No, you're right, you don't owe me anything, but the boys trust you and we care for the boys.  We've been trying to find out something about Mauricio to help the boys deal with his death, but we haven't gotten anywhere yet.  We're just trying to help them."

          More silence.  I waited and locked eyes with Hank as he stood in front of his terminal. 

          "Tell Cleats it wasn't Ice that did it."

          An automated voice broke into the phone call instructing the caller to insert an additional fifty cents into the slot to continue the call.

          "I gotta go," Ranus' raspy voice growl.  "I don't got another fifty cents."

          "Give me the number.  I'll call back immediately."  No response.  "C'mon, man."

          "6..5..0..9..5..0..3.  Don't make me wait, man.  I got other things to do than deal with this shit."

          I chuckled quietly and disconnected the call, then dialed the number.  He answered it on the first ring.

          "What do you mean that it wasn't Ice that did it?  You mean he wasn't the one that shot Mauricio up with enough shit to kill him?"

          "That's what I'm saying, man."

          "Then who did it?"

          "Mauricio."

          As his words sunk in, I immediately realized the effect this news would have on the boys.  Each of them had nodded adamantly when Cleats had sworn that Mauricio wasn't doing drugs. 

          "The boys all swore that Mauricio wasn't doing anything."

          "Yeah, well, they's all just naïve little boys at times, now ain't they?  That's why I been watching out for 'em.  They done okay by theyselves most of the time, but shit, they's also just stupid kids."

          I smirked at his words.  "How do you know this about Mauricio, Ranus?"

          "Cuz I found the guy that shot up with Mauricio, man, and he told me.  Mauricio didn't borrow no money from Ice, he owed it to him for some rock, man, and when he gave Ice the money, Ice refused to gib him anymore crack cuz he knew he'd just owe him more shit.  So he gabe him some H and sent him away figurin' that would solve the problem for good."

          "This is what this other guy told you?"

          "Yeah, man.  Said he was with Mauricio and since he'd done it before, he showed our boy what to do then did it his self.  When he woke up, Mauricio was dead cause he'd shot the whole bang instead of just half.  So yeah, Ice had his hand in it, but he didn't do nothing but give him the smack, man."

          "Fuck."

          "That's right.  I knew he was getting too far into shit with Ice and tried to tell him."

          "Thanks for that, Ranus.  And thanks for looking out for the boys.  They've come to mean a lot to Joel and me."

          "Cleats said you was cool."

          I smiled.  "Uh … can I thank you for all of this in some other way than with words?  I mean … can I help you out with some cash or something.  Don't take me wrong, but I'd really like to do something for you."

          His voice hissed over the phone line.  "I don't need your charity, man.  I do just fine by myself.  What I need is a job.  You got one of them in your back pocket next to all your cash?"

          His words caused me to stop for a second.  I'd heard how difficult it was to get a job when you're living on the streets because no one wants the headaches that so often come with hiring a derelict.

          A sarcastic, annoyed chuckle reached my ears.  "That's what I thought, man."

          "No, wait," I said.  "Yes, I do have a job or at least I'm pretty sure I do.  Cleats told me about a time you two were watching some guys painting a house or a building downtown … no it was the trim on a church.  And he said you went on about how the painters were doing everything all wrong.  So I take it you know about painting things the right way, right?"

          "Yeah, I know about the paint.  But I ain't got no brushes no more and people ain't gonna hire you if you don't got the tools, man."

          "Well, did Cleats tell you about how we're fixing my house so the boys can live in it?"

          "Yeah."

          "Well, the whole thing needs painting before they move in," my heart lurched at the thought of the boys leaving.  I just didn't think I was going to be able to handle that, but I set the thought aside and continued.  "So here's the deal.  I'm gonna call the contractor working on the house and tell him that I've found a painter that can start today and then I'm gonna leave you whatever money I have in my pocket with the bartender at the diner on 18th and Stout.  You get the brushes and drop cloths and whatever else you need and show up at my house later on.  I'll pay you the going rate.  How's that sound?"

          "You ain't shittin' me, are you?"

          "Nope.  No charity either."

          "Tell your boy the bartender that I'll be there in an hour.  I gotta take care of some stuff with my own boys then I'll be there."

          A smile slowly covered my face.  "Good.  Thanks, man."

          He chuckled with a low, gravelly tone.  "Don't thank me until it's done.  I ain't painted in five years, but I'm down with the job, man.  Thanks."

          The line disconnected and as I closed my phone, I noticed Hank leaning against the pillar with his arms crossed over his face, slowly shaking his head at me.

          "What?"  I asked.

          "Are you and Joel trying to be canonized for sainthood or something?"

          I sighed.  I wasn't up for one of Hank's lectures, even though I was certain that he probably had something worth listening to say.

          "Not today, Hank.  Would you mind saving it for later?  I'm certain I need to hear whatever you have to say, but how about when you get off?  Why don't you come up for a beer after your shift and you can lay it on me then?"

_______________________

 

           I stood outside the locked bathroom door in the boy's bedroom waiting for an answer that I wasn't sure was forthcoming.  I didn't know how to push any harder without Mau pulling away from me, but I knew I had to try.  The thought of losing the precious and hard-fought-for ground that I'd made with Mau was untenable. 

          "Would that be okay with you, Mau?"  I asked a second time through the closed door.

          Finally, I heard a soft 'yeah' from within the bathroom. 

          "Good.  Let me know if you need anything, bud."

          I moved to one of the chairs and dropped into it heavily.  Joel's phone call from an hour ago ripped again through mind and my heart. 

 

          "Blair, something major bad just happened with Mau."

          His words stopped me in my tracks as I moved from the terrace back into the living room. 

          "Where are you?  What happened?"

          "I'm in the parking lot of the ski area, watching as the boys lead Mau back to the car.  He's all right physically I think, but mentally I'm not so sure."

          "Joel!  What happened?" 

          "God.  I'm not even sure, but I think he just recognized someone from his past … someone from the horrible part of his past.  We were checking in our equipment and I was standing next to Mau at the counter when the worker came out from behind the racks of boards and skis.  Mau went to hand him his board then he just froze as he looked at the guy.  I saw that he recognized him and the guy recognized Mau.  Anyway, Mau dropped the board on the counter and took a step backwards.  There was this horrible look of fear on his face.  It was terrible, Blair.  The guy behind the counter smirked at Mau and Mau started to shake and then he took another step backwards right into Cleats.  Then, fuck Blair, Mau lost control and actually urinated in his jeans.  I don't think he realized it.  The look on his face … it was just like a trapped animal, Blair.  Then he plowed his way through a number of people and knocked over a display and was out the door before I knew what was happening."

          "Christ, Joel.  Do you think the guy was the same person that raped him?"

          "I don't know, but if you could have seen Mau's face you'd of … I don't know.  I yelled for the boys to go after Mau then lunged at the guy.  I yelled at him to tell me how he knew Mau and he slammed me in the head with his clipboard and ran into the back of the place.  Fuck, Blair, his punch caught me off guard so I was a little bit behind him, but I followed him out the back and saw him run to a car.  He left before I could get there, but I got the license number."

          My mind raced with questions and simultaneously stalled out with worry.  "Where's Mau now?"

          "The boys have just made it to the car and I'm on my way over there.  I'm not sure what to do.  You're the one he talks to and feels the most comfortable with.  Chris is in the far back seat with Mau so I think it's best we just get home.  What do you think?"

          "Yes.  You're at Loveland, right?"

          "Yeah.  We'll be home in less than an hour."

         

          I heard the shower stop as I finished replaying the conversation with Joel in my head.  A minute or two later, the door opened part way, but Mau didn't exit the bathroom.

          "Blair?"  His voice sounded like that of a lost child.

          "Mau?  Are you okay?"  I received no response and approached the door.  "Can I come in, bud?"

          I heard the faint 'yes' so I pushed the door open and found Mau sitting on the floor in the corner with a towel wrapped around his waist.  I approached slowly then dropped to the floor myself.  Tears covered his face as I reached for his shoulder.

          "Is it okay if I touch you, buddy?"

          He nodded and I moved my hand to his neck, giving it a gentle squeeze.

          "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

          He shook his head, but I continued.  "Did that man you recognized … uh, was he the one that raped you?"

          His head jerked to look at me, his eyes stood widely open with a look of fear and sudden distrust.

          "Mau, it's okay.  It's me, Blair.  Did that man hurt you?"

          The subtle, tentative nod of his head brought frustrated and impotent tears to my eyes and I slowly reached for his other shoulder, pulling him to me in a hug. 

          "I'm so sorry, Mau," I said as I held him close.  His tears and sniffs stopped.  "Can you tell me anything about where the cops can find him?"

          He pulled from my embrace with a forceful shake of his head.  His voice was low and devoid of any emotion except for loathing.  "I hate him," he growled as he stared into my eyes.  His look contained a fury that I'd never previously witnessed in another human being.  "I hate them all.  I want to kill them … all of them."

          Then, he went silent again.  My repeated questions were left unanswered, but he did allow me to hold him.  We sat there for about five minutes in silence when I heard a knock on the door jam and saw Chris standing in the doorway.

          "Can I help?"

          Mau shook his head, but I nodded.  "Grab some of his sweats, would you?"

          When Chris returned, I tried to move Mau into a sitting position, but he refused to move anywhere outside my arms.  I whispered soothing words and gradually, Chris and I were able to get his sweats on him and we moved into the bedroom.  When I went to leave, Mau cried for me to stay, but I told him that I had to talk to Joel and that Chris would take my place if he'd let him. 

          My glance from the door saw Chris holding Mau tightly in his arms.

 

          Joel waited for me in the kitchen and I shared with him that Mau admitted that the guy was one of the men that had raped him.  Joel immediately picked up the phone and called the Governor's office.  He was put through within seconds.  After a brief bit of background, the Governor's assistant took the information regarding the man's description, rough location and his license plate number then assured Joel that the Governor would have the State Patrol and local authorities locate the man. 

          When I returned to the boy's room, the rest of the boys were camped in a circle around Chris and Mau.  I couldn't hear what they were saying to him, but I felt better seeing Chris' arm around him and Mau looking a little more relaxed.  I returned to the kitchen as Joel was finishing a phone call.

          "Okay, Paul.  I'm still a little confused, but I'm glad you're happy.  I'll talk to Blair.  Thanks."

          I closed my eyes as I realized that Paul must have been calling Joel about Ranus.  The issues with Mau had obviously superseded my attentions. 

          "Sorry," I said looking at him with a wry smile.  "I kind of forgot to mention the call I received from Ranus this morning after you guys headed into the mountains.  What did Paul say?"

          Joel grinned and pulled me into his arms.  "That he's found himself a new painter.  What happened?"

          I shared the morning's conversation with Joel, including the news about Mauricio.  His smile, while initially bright and strong, faded as he realized the impact the news of Mauricio's drug use would have on the boys.

          "Rob called me around noon to tell me that he'd found out that the funeral for Mauricio is tomorrow morning.  The only one of the boys that wants to go is Cleats.  He said the other guys were being cold to a friend, but even then, none of them wanted to go, so I'm taking Cleats."

          "You know, Joel, I don't think we should tell them about what Ranus said until later.  I think they've had enough for the week."

          Joel agreed.  We needed a distraction of our own and began to prepare dinner for the eight of us.  Forty-five minutes later, I called the boys for the meal and felt relief when I saw Mau come to the kitchen with the other boys.  He looked at me once, quickly then took his place at the table.

          The five boys shared the events of the day with a measured amount of enthusiasm.  Mau remained mute.  Overshadowing their conversation was Mau's reaction in the ski rental shop.  They didn't know what had caused Mau to run from the shop and I caught Ben studying me intensely several times.  My offered smile wasn't returned.

          Later, as they watched a movie, Joel and I had some wine in the study.  Ben came in and immediately started in with his questions.

          "What happened today?"

          I looked quickly at Joel.  "I can't tell you that, Ben.  Please understand."

          "That's bullshit, Blair, and you know it.  Now tell me what happened.  He's our friend."

          Ben's emphasis on 'our' left no room for misunderstanding.  He felt, and probably rightly so, that they had a right to know what was going on because of their history with Mau.  But it felt wrong to share what we knew about the rape or rapes.

          "Ben, sit down here, please."  I said, patting the couch.

          Reluctantly, he moved to the coffee table in front of us and sat on the edge. 

          "Look," I began.  "It's not right to tell you everything that we've found out.  You have to understand that, but today in the shop, Mau recognized a guy that hurt him very badly.  Joel's called the Governor's office and they are tracking the man down now.  We're just waiting to hear something."

          "I know he was raped, Blair.  I'm not stupid."

          I nodded, but didn't know how to respond.  Joel picked up where I left off.

          "What he needs right now, Ben, is for you guys to treat him just like you always do.  He needs to feel secure, and you guys are the ones to do that for him."

          Ben sighed angrily then looked at me accusingly.  "You're the one he's opened up to.  You're the only one he wants."

          I didn't know how to respond to the anger and hurt in eyes and voice.  I sensed that Ben was feeling like he'd become second best suddenly.  Our relationship had deepened so quickly that we both knew there was something special between us.  But I didn't know how to voice my feelings for him.

          "You're right, Ben," Joel continued, "Mau has attached himself to Blair, but that doesn't mean you guys don't hold the same place with him.  Mau needs a good and loving adult figure in his life very badly right now and thankfully, he connected with Blair.  Please, try and understand that."

           After a moment of consideration, Ben looked at Joel and tipped his chin up in acknowledgement.  "Just … man, let us know what's happening."

          Joel nodded and Ben left without looking at me.

          My jaw clenched as I turned to Joel.  "Fuck."

________________________ 

 

          I sensed a presence standing over me and I immediately sat up.  In the darkness of the bedroom, I made out the figure of Mau standing next to my side of the bed in his boxers and t-shirt.  I glanced at the clock.  It was one-thirty in the morning. 

          "Hey, bud.  What's wrong?"

          He simply looked at me and I reached for his hand.  "Are you okay, Mau?"  I whispered.  I felt his hand tremble and felt his fear through my fingertips.  "Did you have a nightmare?"

          He nodded once and I saw a tear roll down his cheek.  I pulled him to the bed and as he sat next to me, I placed my arm around his shoulder. 

          "This may sound stupid and all, but do you want to lay down here with us for a while?"

          He nodded and I hugged him close again.

          "Okay.  Climb on in.  It's a big bed, but I'm warning you, Joel's a bed hog."

          I pulled the covers back and Mau slipped in between us.  Once covered, he snuggled into the pillow facing me and I patted his shoulder. 

          "Better?"

          He nodded. 

          A few minutes later I heard his breathing even out as he dropped into sleep. 

          My weary mind had a last thought before I too dozed off.

          'We've got to get this boy some help.'

 

Special thanks goes to Rock Hunter for his endless efforts to edit this mess.  Thanks, Bud! 

 

Please send any comments to  drewfilchak@gmail.com