This story is a work of erotic fiction involving teenage boys. All the usual rules apply. If you shouldn't be reading this now then don't continue on.

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A New Life Chapter 39

The Root Of All Evil

Thanks to Rebecca and Rush, it had rapidly turned into one of those roller-coaster days. My school day started learning about Rebecca's feelings towards me. That alone wasn't so bad. After second period English I pulled Keith aside and kissed him in the school hallway. That was the high point of the day. But after final exam reviews and with Mike's birthday dinner planned for that evening; I really didn't need my hound dog destroying things in the Hundser's bedroom. On top of all that, Keith and I were disagreeing, just like I had dreamt of on Sunday afternoon. Summer vacation was only a few days away but it couldn't arrive fast enough, as far as I was concerned.

Keith's head sagged and he sighed, "I'm sorry, Prez."

I tilted my head curiously and said, "There's no reason for you to be sorry. It's just been a hectic day. Between Rebecca, finals and now hound dog damages..." Trailing off, I forced a smile and said, "I want to hear everything you have to say."

Keith stepped closer, put his arms around my waist and gently explained, "I don't need expensive presents. You already give me way more than money could buy, ya know?"

Hugging him tightly, I whispered, "I know. But I feel like I need to do something more."

"Why baby?"

Unable to keep myself from bringing it up again, I softly said, "Because you're singing with the band..."

Before I could continue, Keith enthusiastically said, "It's fun! I really do enjoy it, until I have to stand up and sing in front of an audience." Hearing him say that made me so happy that I giggled and squeezed him tight. "It's true," Keith insisted, "I really enjoy the jams in the garage. It's getting in front of lots of people that still freaks me out."

"Okay. Last summer you told me how you wished our relationship could be and how you wished other people could deal with homosexuals better."

"And it's been that way, don't you think?"

I sighed, "Yeah, but you'd rather play it safer."

"I can't help that," Keith giggled, "it's the way I was raised. Happy and safe was drilled into my head before I knew how to spell the words. Now I know those words contradict each other plenty of times. We're finding a pretty good balance. I honestly believed that most people would be homophobic. But the effects of coming out have been far more positive than negative. There's way less homophobes than I thought." After a short pause, Keith sighed, "It's weird though. Every bad thing that happens, the fight, the name calling, getting confronted, they all make me wonder if it's worth it. But so far, it's definitely been worth it." Then he pulled back, held my shoulders firmly, looked deep into my eyes and said, "Don't believe for a second that I didn't want to go to the prom. Even though I worried about it, I really wanted to. It turned out to be worth the risks. I had a great time and it was obvious that you did too. At school today, no one said a word to me about the prom. Did anyone say anything to you?"

No one had said an unkind word to me the entire day. I shook my head and Keith smiled happily, "I'm already looking forward to our senior prom."

Searching his eyes and finding no deception, I began to shed a few tears. But I didn't know why exactly.

Part of the reason was because I didn't like the way I had gotten him singing with the band last December. Back then, we were both healing and learning that we could live together. But Mike and Derrick's enthusiasm that day was so infectious that I couldn't help myself. Another reason was because back in April, I had hid Mike's frolics plan from Keith.

It was the six-month anniversary of my mom's accident. On that one day, Keith got hit with my morning tears, the frolics and the prom. When we went out that night, I was hell bent on apologizing for everything but Keith seemed only slightly miffed over the frolics. He spoke mostly of the prom and coming out at school. That night I knew that there was no way I could ever find someone as understanding as Keith.

Hugging him tightly, I rested my head on his shoulder. Keith began gently rubbing my back. Relaxing, I whispered, "I just didn't see the same level of risk that you saw. Under other circumstances, like if this were Texas or Oklahoma, it might've turned out differently."

He said nothing but squeezed me tightly for a few seconds. While holding each other I began thinking. All last summer we were teetering on the line, wanting and needing to show affection often but not quite ready to take too many risks in public. It remained that way well past my mom's accident. Occasionally, one or both of us would complain about some stereotype on TV or the radio. But we often spoke of perfect worlds, where there was no bias or bigotry. We'd take the odd tangent or two, imagining a place where no greed and hatreds existed a Nirvana of our own creation, heaven on Earth.

By April seventeenth, we had talked about those things for many months. And then the fight with Jake happened a week later. I wondered about what Doug and Brian had said to me. Is everybody capable of creating his or her own idea of perfection just by chatting about it? That must mean that a majority of people concentrated more on the problems in their lives instead of trying to find solutions. Obviously Jake's ideas of a perfect world consisted of no homosexuals. The two opposite extremes were bound to cause a confrontation.

Keith whispered, "You're trembling. What's wrong, baby?"

Shaking my head, I softly answered, "Nothin's wrong."

Keith's chest heaved and he chuckled, "Is my ass gonna get pinched?"

Again, I shook my head and grinned, "Not this time."

After a few moments silence, Keith whispered, "We did it Prez. Hell, we did more than just go to the prom. We danced to every fast song and to our ballad. We even kissed in school! Not just once but today makes twice! And nobody said a word about it! We talked about it way more than any one else. Can you believe it? I barely can."

The front door opened. Drew and John walked in to find us still holding each other. Drew casually said, "Hey, how's it goin'?" then headed for his room. I saw Rush sneak out of our room and follow Drew.

Putting his books down on the loveseat, John giggled, "Break it up!" then went to the kitchen.

Nuzzling my ear, Keith whispered, "Let's find out if they're staying or going out. And I'll give Mike a call too." Then he kissed my cheek, stepped back and went to the kitchen. I went down the hall to talk with Drew.

Drew's bedroom door was open. Rush was bouncing around and begging for attention while Drew took off his shirt. The moment he noticed me though, Rush's ears went back, lying almost flat against his head. All I did was point at the doorway and he slithered past me, back to his crate. Drew saw Rush escape and said, "Uh-oh. What happened?"

"We forgot to close the bedroom door this morning," I briefly explained. Drew's eyes widened and I frowned, "Rush decided to spend the day playing in your parent's bedroom."

Sounding frighteningly like his older brother, Drew softly said, "Oh no!"

I nodded, "That's how I feel about it too." Then I asked, "Are you going over Corey's?"

Shaking his head, Drew said, "Never on Monday's lately. He goes somewhere with his mom." Then he grimaced, "Wish I knew where they were going though."

I asked, "He won't tell you?" and Drew shook his head. "It might be some family thing," I suggested. Then I said, "Keith and I are going out for a while. Do you want to come with us?"

Drew nodded then went to his dresser, got a clean T-shirt and pulled it over his head. He then looked in the mirror, fixed his hair a bit and said, "Ready."

I left Drew's room then went into our room to lock Rush in his crate. He's really a very good dog, I thought. He knows his pet apartment is the place to go. It's always been his place and he willingly goes there. When I give him a special treat, that's where he goes to eat it. I just couldn't figure out why he suddenly decided to become destructive. Rush had plenty of dog toys; rawhides, hard rubber bones and ropes to play tug with. The floor of our room is an obstacle course of dog toys but there are more than a few special ones that Rush keeps in the crate. Why he chose to make a mess in the Hundser's bedroom, I had no idea. He's had our entire bedroom to himself every weekday for a pretty long time but never once chewed up any of our stuff.

Standing behind me, Drew asked, "What did he do?"

I turned around and frowned, "He shredded a roll of toilet paper, some clothes, and the bedspread."

Drew nervously chuckled, "Oh shit! The bedspread? Mom's gonna flip!"

Keith entered the room and I told Drew, "That's why I'm ignoring him." Then I turned to Keith and asked, "Ready to roll?"

He replied, "Yeah, let's jet," then turned to Drew and asked, "You're coming too?"

Drew nodded and Keith turned my way, appearing a little sad for an instant. Turning and leaving the room, Keith hollered, "We're outta here John. See ya later." It hadn't occurred to me when I invited Drew that Keith probably wanted to continue our conversation alone. Just as we reached the entryway, I leaned close and whispered, "Would you rather we were alone?"

Keith softly giggled, "At least ninety-nine percent of the time." Drew opened the door and stepped outside. Keith held me back and whispered, "It's cool baby. We could continue this in front of Drew, if you don't mind?"

I kissed him then stepped outside. While I unlocked the truck, Drew asked where we were going and I told him, "Shopping for an acoustic bass." We all got in and buckled up.

"Oh," Drew said, "I thought you were going to J.C. Penney's."

I started the truck and Keith turned around asking, "Why would we go to Penney's?"

Just as I was about to put the truck in gear, Drew casually said, "That's where mom got the bedspread."

Hearing that, I turned to Keith and grinned widely.

Turning in his seat, Keith asked, "You were with mom when she bought it?"

Watching from the rearview mirror, I saw Drew nod. "Corey wasn't around so it must've been back in January or February, I guess."

Keith and I grinned insanely. From the backseat, Drew giggled at us.

I playfully asked, "Another change of plans?" and Keith nodded. Putting the truck in gear, I glanced at Keith and nodded towards the back seat. Once we were moving gaily forward, as if Drew wasn't there to hear it, I teased, "Your brother's really something, babe."

Keith giggled, "I taught him everything he knows."

Barely containing my laughter, I chuckled, "Bet we could teach him a few more things?"

I glanced in the mirror again and Drew nervously grinned, "You're both scaring me again!"

Smiling insanely, Keith shrugged and said, "There's nothing to be frightened of. It's not like you're a total virgin anymore. Anxious, okay, maybe. Excited, definitely!"

Drew cautiously said, "You can let me out any where around here. I'll walk back home."

Keith and I cracked up.

After we calmed down, Drew said, "I can't believe you're coming out at school."

Keith and I grinned at each other briefly. Then Keith said, "Not much has been said. Really, we're just starting to do what we've always wanted to do but wouldn't let ourselves. Actions speak louder than words."

I said, "It's not like we can hide how much we care for each other."

From the rearview mirror I saw Drew nod. He then said, "Lotsa dudes are tight. I can tell because they're always together and seem to always have fun. That's exactly the way you two seem to be most of the time."

I said, "But you and John know better."

Keith added, "And so does Mike, Derrick, Jessy, Nelson, Mike's mom and Derrick's folks too, more than likely. We're really only taking our relationship a little bit further by having sex."

Tapping Keith's hand, I asked, "Have you noticed Nelson around some of his jock buds?"

Keith nodded, "He never stays with them for very long if Jessy is around."

I said, "I think he might perceive a little competition."

Keith shrugged and nodded, "Could be. Jessy's sure got the looks and personality. I'd consider her one of the more attractive girls in our school."

I reminded, "But he'll hang with us, like last Friday."

Keith said, "Because we're no threat to any of them. A full time relationship with a girl would be impossible for me. Imagine having a crush on a straight dude? You'd eventually turn into a means to an end, just a way for him to get his rocks off."

I nodded and said, "You should've seen it, Drew. There were eight straight guys watching us jam. By the end of the afternoon, they were all singin' and dancin' together while we played."

Keith said, "That's the way all straight dudes should act."

I said, "And that's what we'll try to get across in the alliance meetings. It makes more sense for straight females to dislike us. But lots of them seem to feel safe and comfortable around us too! Some refuse to pickup the signs and get their hopes up."

Drew asked, "Didn't anyone goof on you?"

I remembered, "For a few minutes. But they were goofing on each other too."

Keith looked back and told his brother, "One of Nelson's friends jokingly said that no one could stare at his bulge." In the rearview mirror, I saw Drew's eyes widen and he was grinning.

I added, "He was probably just nervous, expecting us to be like stereotypical queers and wanting some action. Drew, you can either be the brunt of a joke or share the wealth, so to speak."

Keith then chuckled, "I told the dude, I was looking up at the ceiling above them while I was singing. Then Prez said he wasn't interested. Then Mike looked back at Derrick and joked, you'd better not! Then Derrick grinned and mumbled that he was too busy watching Mike's ass shakin' around to notice much of anything else." Drew cracked up and Keith finished, "Then Nelson leaned over and looked down at the dudes crotch and so did the other two dudes!"

I chuckled, "That was the joke of the day. Everybody was told not to stare at the dude's bulge! Of course, they all did, just to freak him out!"

Keith loudly laughed, "Zach asked the dude if his pecker was deformed and worthy of being stared at!"

Drew giggled, "Did he have a package worth staring at?"

Keith and I roared laughing. We stopped at a nearby Wells Fargo branch office and I unbuckled my seat belt. Then Keith smiled, "There was obviously something under his shorts, not that it mattered or anything."

Smiling widely, I hummed jealously and then got out of the truck.

Not knowing what a bedspread might cost, I went inside and withdrew five hundred bucks from my account. I hoped that would be enough for the spread and, if there was still time, to make a deposit on an acoustic bass. With crisp new Ben Franklin's in my pocket, I returned to the truck.

On the way to the mall, Keith said, "I called Mike and told him what was going on. He said that he'd like you to be there for dinner and suggested that I talk to my folks about Rush"

I thought for a few seconds then said, "That's kind of backwards, isn't it? After all, he's been your best friend for years. I'd rather deal with your parents and drop you off at Mike's for dinner. When I'm done with your folks, I'll get to Mike's as quickly as possible."

"That's fine with me," Keith said. He then asked, "You'll be okay with the `rents?"

I quickly answered, "No problem," and then asked, "What's John doing?"

Keith answered, "He said that Tommy was coming over."

Drew grumbled, "There goes our room." Grinning, Keith and I both glanced back. Drew said, "It's not Tommy either, it's John. Lately, whatever he takes out stays out. It's driving me nuts too! Yesterday, when we got back from Mike's, I found his wet shower towel on my pillow!" Keith and I started half-groaning and half-chuckling.

Keith asked, "What did you do?"

Grinning, Drew shrugged, "His bed wasn't made, as usual. I opened up the towel so half was on his pillow and half was on the sheet. Then I made his bed, with the wet towel between the sheets and got myself a fresh pillow case." Keith and I snickered evilly. Drew chuckled, "He walked in the room twice while Corey and I were playing video games and didn't even notice!" We all roared laughing. Then Drew grinned, "I was sitting on my bed writing when he was ready to crash and found the towel. He looked at me and I tried not to smile." Keith grabbed his stomach, doubled over and started turning purple! Over the sound of our laughter, Drew loudly finished, "He bitched and moaned the whole time he was remaking his bed!"

At the next stoplight, Keith turned and said; "Mike's mom is part Italian. She makes the greatest pasta and sauce. Wait till you taste her lasagna!"

I smiled, "If it's that good, I'll have to ask her to teach me how to make it."

The light changed and I turned into the mall parking lot, parking as near to Penney's as I could get. Drew got out of the back and waited for Keith and I. Then Drew fell in step at my side. Together, we started across the parking lot.

At my right side, Keith reached for my hand and softly said, "I wish you'd tell me why you feel the need to get all of us gifts." Then he sighed and said, "That's your money, Prez. You're the one that lost the most. You could spend every last cent of that money on the things that you want and I won't say a word. Nothing could ever replace your mom. But the things you buy would be a distraction, ya know? You need to get the things that you want. It's small compensation. You can't have her back but you can have things that you want to keep you occupied."

I was becoming emotional. Not because of anything Keith was saying but because I felt that showing a little appreciation for all the Hundser's have done was exactly what my mom would expect. Every lesson she ever taught me seemed to be echoing around my skull. When I didn't pay attention, those echoes seemed to get much louder too.

Squeezing his hand for a moment, I tried to contain my emotions and explained, "She would want me to do something, Keith. I've been living with you all these months for free. Your folks haven't asked me for anything. It just doesn't feel right." Pausing, I glanced his way and saw that Keith was watching me as much as he was watching where we were walking. But he remained silent.

Drew opened the door for us. As we walked past him, he noticed that we were holding hands. Grinning widely, Drew rolled his eyes. Keith only let go of my hand for an instant as we stepped inside then reached for my hand again. Stepping in behind us, Drew snickered briefly.

Keith smiled at his brother then turned to me and said; "I don't need to be voted Best Dressed when we graduate. Its not like I care a whole hell of a lot what most of them think, is it? I mean, I have learned to distance myself from what other people think and say, haven't I?"

Grinning widely, I nodded enthusiastically and said, "That's just another good reason for me to get you something!"

Keith's eyes got wide and he snickered, "I can't win!"

Outside J.C.Penney's, Drew took the lead saying, "I think the sheets and spreads are over this way."

We followed Drew down the left side isle, past the cosmetics counters. It stunk to the high heavens and I wrinkled my nose. Once we were beyond the stinky stuff and I could breath normally again, I asked, "So for you it would be cool if I spent all that money on things I want?"

Keith nodded and said, "Definitely. Remember what you asked me this morning? When it comes right down to it, I'd much rather see you get both a guitar and a piano for yourself."

About twenty feet ahead of us, Drew pointed left, toward the wall and then headed in that direction. Weaving through the isles of linens, we were soon standing in front of a wall of packaged bedspreads.

Drew said, "It was like an off-white color, with red and yellow roses and stuff, wasn't it?"

We began searching the stacks and Keith nodded, "Yep. For a queen size bed."

Drew mumbled, "Don't say queen," then giggled at himself.

I turned to Drew and he smiled at me, still snickering. Returning to the spreads, I softly said, "You might be coming here with Corey pretty soon."

Drew stopped searching and asked, "Huh? Why?"

Smiling, I turned to Keith and gently nudged his arm then said, "I hear that Corey's thinking of getting a twin size bed." Keith softly snickered beside me.

Drew's face went blank for an instant then he turned crimson red! Returning to the bedspreads, Drew giggled, "Next summer you two will be hitting all the department stores to set up your first love nest! I can see you picking out china patterns already!"

Keith said, "We've already got china. And good silverware too."

"Services for eight," I added.

And Keith giggled, "With fancy little gold leaf tea cups!"

Drew stopped what he was doing, chuckling so hard that his shoulders were bouncing. "Please don't tell me that there's flowers painted on them!" he giggled.

Keith and I grinned at each other. "They're not painted on," Keith giggled.

I explained, "More like a flower relief embossed around the plate edges."

Drew laughed loudly, "Oooo kay!"

Suddenly, I missed seeing those things. While we lived in Texas, I had seen the china set every time I passed through the dining room, arranged neatly in the hutch. When we moved to California, my mom kept them in the kitchen, in a low cabinet so an earthquake wouldn't destroy them. The last time they were used was my birthday. It was only my mom and Keith and I. But mom made my favorite - roast beef, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob for dinner. She didn't make a birthday cake for me because I asked her not to go to extra trouble. I was so looking forward to sharing my birthday with Keith's and suggested it would be better to have the cake then. After dinner, while Keith and I were watching TV, she returned to the living room and served me a Hostess chocolate cupcake with a lit candle on it. She just had to give me birthday cake anyhow!

Thinking of my mom, our apartment and the things she owned that were now packed away, I began daydreaming.

I remembered the party that the Hundser's had for us only a week or so later. Specifically, I recalled Keith's mom serving my cake and my mom serving Keith's cake. That was a fantastic day!

The Saturday before the accident was my mom's birthday. She was born October 11, 1957 and had just turned forty.

I was talking with Keith about it the week prior to her birthday. His parents heard what I had said about making her dinner and getting a cake somewhere. All I did was ask where a good bakery was and before I knew it, they were making plans to have her birthday dinner at their house!

Being of almost completely Irish descent, my mom's favorite dinner was ham, cabbage and boiled potatoes. I insisted on getting the stuff from the store and cooked dinner. Mrs. Hundser whipped up her famous rum cake. That was a really good night too.

The next afternoon, some coworkers took her out for another birthday dinner. That night she came home with balloons, a bottle of wine and a few other small gifts. During all those times she was happy. The happiest I'd ever seen her.

Thankfully, she got to experience all those things.

God, I miss her.

Everything that I am is a reflection of her. When I showed some interest in learning an instrument, she encouraged me. If I needed help with homework, she helped me. When I'd had a bad day, she'd make me laugh. That's what Keith and I try to do for each other now.

I felt her within me, occupying every cell. A powerful shudder raced through me. I felt strength but mixed with compassion and a little sorrow. It was sort of like glancing over a test page and realizing that it would be easy. Inhaling deeply, I could smell her!

Looking around for someone that might be wearing her brand of perfume, I noticed Keith and then Drew watching me.

Reaching for me, Keith said, "You okay baby?"

There were little flashing lights around him, like very bright white fireflies. Suddenly, it seemed the store was getting darker. Everything and everybody was out of focus.

It was so weird! He was fine one second and then he got quiet. Then Prez stopped browsing through the stacks of bedspreads and just stood there, with his hands at his sides. He was softly muttering all this stuff about his birthday and our birthday party and then his mom's birthday. I stopped browsing and looked at him; not quite believing he had said it all in front of Drew. If I had known that talking about the china and silverware was going to do this, I never would've went along with it!

Then Drew stopped and looked over. Prez glanced to his right at me, then to his left at Drew and finally back at me. I asked him if he was okay but he didn't reply in any way, not a shrug or a nod or anything! He just stood there nodding and smiling another few seconds. Then his knees buckled.

Reaching for him, I shouted, "Prez!" and, virtually simultaneously, Drew hollered, "Oh damn!" I caught Prez around the waist and Drew's arms slid under Prez's armpits. Together we got him down onto the floor.

Before his ass even touched the floor though, Prez's eyes fluttered then opened and he softly smiled, "Oops!"

Kneeling beside him and stroking the side of his face, I softly asked, "What happened?"

Prez looked around at the people gathering and then at me. Smirking slightly, he whispered, "A very intense visualization, I guess."

A woman about my mom's age came over. She wore a JC Penney nametag on her blouse and asked, "Did he faint?"

Prez started to stand but I held him down. Turning redder, he said, "I didn't faint."

Drew said, "It sure looked like a faint to me!"

Turning to look at Drew, Prez loudly chuckled, "I did not faint!" and then started to get up again. I still held him down. Prez looked directly into my eyes and smiled, "I'm fine, really."

I was nervous as hell! Why the fuck did Prez faint? He didn't skip lunch. Since we got out of school, he's been fine! For the last few weeks though, I'd noticed his mood swings seemed to be becoming more extreme. And Prez had recently told me that last year around this time his mom told him about moving to California. He was fighting memories almost daily again. I looked at him carefully. His eyes seemed clear and bright, the color in his face was fine. If anything, he looked embarrassed.

Prez looked up at the Penney's employee and said, "I'm fine. Sorry for any trouble."

She said; "If no one was hurt and nothing was damaged, then there's no need to file a report," and then turned and walked away.

Watching her walk away, in apparent disbelief, Drew mumbled, "And thank you for shopping at J.C. Penney's."

Still frightened, I stood and offered Prez my hand.

He took my hand and bounced up effortlessly, stopping really close to me. He was smiling ever so slightly and his eyebrows were pointing up. I stopped shaking with fear during the few seconds we looked at each other. I held his shoulders and looked him square in the eyes saying, "You scared me."

He nodded sorrowfully, "I know, I'm sorry babe. I had no idea it would happen." He grinned and blushed; "That was so embarrassing!"

"Are you really okay?"

He nodded and winked, "Better than ever," and then reached for my hips like we were going to start dancing! But he only guided me out of the way then let go of me, squatted down and reached for the bottom of the stack of bedspreads.

Unbelievably, there it was!

Looking up at Drew and I, he asked, "Does this look right to you?"

I nodded slowly then looked at Drew. His eyes were bugging out of their sockets!

Stunned, I asked, "It's queen size?"

Prez hummed yes, pulled the package out, stood up and looked at Drew and I. Noticing our confused expressions, his head tilted then he shrugged, "What?"

Drew asked, "How did you know that was down there?"

His brow furled and he chuckled, "I was sitting down on the floor, remember? Everything happens for a reason." Prez then glanced at his watch. He said, "Come on, we can still make Guitar Center before heading back home," and then started towards the cashier.

Drew looked at me and shrugged. Quickly I went after Prez and Drew followed.

I hollered, "Slow down, Prez." He stopped and waited for us. As soon as we were gathered and walking together, Prez said, "I really do feel fine." Then he turned to me, saying, "It's no biggie! I was remembering my mom and just lost track of where I was for an instant." He started speeding up again. His hands were full with the bedspread so I reached for his belt and held him back saying, "Make me happy and slow down? We'll get to Guitar Center."

The cashier was the same lady that checked on us when Prez was still sitting on the floor. While paying for the spread, Prez apologized again and explained that he was just reminiscing and got a little dizzy. The lady was nice and, in a motherly tone, reminded Prez to be careful driving.

While we walked out of the store and across the parking lot, Drew and I told Prez about what he did and said. Nothing surprised him. He even embellished some of it! He knew exactly what he had said because it was exactly what he was thinking about at the time. He just didn't realize he was speaking, which worried me a little. But he insisted that he was simply feeling peaceful and relaxed, thinking pleasant thoughts.

When we got to the truck, Prez unlocked the back and stuffed the bedspread inside. Closing the tailgate of the truck, he turned to me and asked, "You want to drive?"

Wide-eyed, I nodded and chuckled, "Please!"

Heading toward the passenger side door, Prez giggled, "I'm fine!"

I opened the doors and we all got in. I started the engine and Prez turned to me saying, "You can drive this truck anytime babe, for whatever reason or no reason at all."

Smiling at him, I stepped on the brake and the clutch, put the truck in gear, and looked back. Just as I was lifting my feet off the brake and clutch, a car whizzed down the parking lot aisle going way faster than fifteen or twenty miles an hour! I slammed on the brake.

Surprised and a little annoyed, I looked at Prez and said, "I wonder what his hurry is!"

Drew said, "A few seconds difference and he would've smeared us!" But then Drew quickly turned crimson red, embarrassed with his choice of words.

Prez leaned back in his seat and whispered, "It's okay now." Then he turned to me and asked, "You okay?" I nodded then looked back at Drew and nodded. Carefully and slowly, I began to back out.

We managed to get out of the mall parking lot without incident. Prez turned on the radio and flipped to a jazz station. After only a few seconds sampling, he flipped to his favorite classic rock station. A heavy metal tune was playing but not something I recognized. Prez snickered, "Deep Purple, Highway Star, viciously fast bass playing." He leaned back and closed his eyes. Reaching for my hand, he began tapping out the rhythm.

I drove on and occasionally glanced at Prez. His eyes remained closed most of the time, only opening briefly when I slowed to turn or had to stop. That was odd. He seemed completely peaceful and content. Since his mom's accident, I couldn't recall too many times where he'd sit quietly with his eyes closed. He'd always watch, as if he were driving. For a short while after the accident, Prez would even stomp on imaginary brakes in everyone's cars.

Immediately after the first song ended another began. I recognized it but didn't know more than it was by the Beatles. Still leaning back with his eyes closed, Prez chuckled, "Drive My Car. My mom loved this tune."

Although I was calming down since he seemed more at ease, I began really wondering what Prez was doing and what had happened to him since fainting. He had said he was tired earlier. Was he burnt out on the crazy things that happened to him today? Why wasn't he more worried about his own well being? If I had unexpectedly crumbled in a department store, I think I'd be a little concerned.

The second tune ended and seconds after the third song started, Prez chuckled, "Sammy Hagar, I Can't Drive Fifty-five! I think they're goofin' on us babe!"

Briefly, I glanced over at him and forced a grin.

Turning to me, Prez said, "There's really nothing to worry about. I've got a plan for everything that was bugging me. Tomorrow, I'm going to talk with Rebecca anyway. Drew, would you feed Rush later, after Keith and I leave for Mike's?"

Drew said, "Sure, no problem."

Prez smiled and said, "Thanks. If I don't feed him, maybe he'll realize that he's been very bad today. The shredded bedspread has been replaced..." Prez paused and chuckled, "Shit! While we were at Penney's, I could've gotten your dad some T-shirts. If I had checked the bra size, I could've replaced that too!"

I laughed, "Prez! They're gonna be so happy that the mess was cleaned and that you replaced the spread. I don't think they'll care about one bra and two T-shirts."

Prez grinned and shrugged, "Another time, is all."

My baby is unbelievable sometimes.

I said, "I'm thinking of calling Mike when we get home."

Prez turned and asked, "What for?"

"I don't know, Prez. I'd just feel more comfortable if you had the chance to lay down and chill out."

"Aww, don't to that to Mike," Prez whined, "It's his birthday and he's expecting us. Let's not disappoint him."

A few seconds later, I had to stop for a light. Turning to him, I asked, "What were you doing just now, with your eyes closed?"

Prez softly answered, "Slaying demon truck drivers, learning to relax a little bit more on the road. I figured since I trust your driving, what better time?"

I whispered, "You're pushing yourself again, baby."

"I'm totally calm and relaxed. I really do feel fine."

The light turned green and we started forward again. I asked, "Did something happen today, besides the thing with Rebecca?"

Prez shook his head saying, "Tim Shefield had to make dirty looks. But since that was right after I kissed you, I didn't care and probably smiled during most of the class anyway."

Drew giggled from the back seat.

I asked, "Anything else?"


"And remembering your mom made you faint?"

Prez loudly snickered, "I did not faint!"

Grinning, I reminded, "Your knees buckled."

From the backseat, Drew said, "And we had to catch you."

Prez chuckled, "It might've looked like a faint but it wasn't. I was just a little woozy, honest."

As I pulled into the Guitar Center parking lot, I said, "I hope you don't get woozy again any time soon."

Prez looked at me curiously. Just before I parked and turned off the engine, Prez said, "Don't tell your mom about it, please. She doesn't need to worry." Then he looked back at Drew saying, "Neither of you need to worry. I'm perfectly alright."

Drew nodded and said uncertainly, "I won't say anything."

I nodded too but was already planning on keeping things slow and easy for the rest of the night. We all got out of the truck. Dropping the keys in my pocket, I said, "I'm driving us home too."

Prez chuckled, "And over Mike's and back home again after that."

He opened the door for us and, as I walked past him, I smirked, "Damn skippy!"

Stepping inside, Prez grinned, "You just want to drive my new truck."

I shook my head and snickered, "I want to keep you safe! You're obviously already plenty happy!"

Stopping beside me, Prez didn't say a word but his eyes were seductive. In an unspoken manner, he was telling me that he appreciated the way I was watching over him but that it really wasn't necessary. I know he showered after PE but the scent of Drakkar Noir was still on his clothes. Now I was getting woozy! Prez was considering kissing me again; I could see it in his eyes. His eyebrows bounced and he sighed and then turned and started down the aisle.

Following Prez, I looked around for Drew. He'd never been to Guitar Center with us before but he didn't even wait for us. Obviously something caught his eye. I checked my watch and said, "I'm gonna find my brother. It's almost five."

Pointing to his left, Prez said, "They've only got three models. This won't take very long."

Glaring at him, I warned, "Don't go fallin' over anyplace!"

Nodding, Prez giggled, "I'll be over here and ready when you guys get back," and then walked away.

While searching for Drew, I wondered about Prez. He always acts and looks and feels better after remembering his mom. But this time it was different. If he hadn't fainted, I'd be inclined to believe that something clicked and he was another step closer to being healed. During the last few weeks, people have been mentioning death and dying around him but Prez hasn't even blinked. And that asshole speed-demon whizzing down the mall parking lot could've stirred up something more. But Prez wasn't upset by any of that. That speeding driver would've normally instigated at least one expletive. The fact that he was so calm about it was really a good thing. Something still nagged at me though.

I found Drew in a soundproofed room where all the DJ and PA equipment was. Opening the sliding door, I almost got blown backwards by the volume of sound! Drew wasn't looking my way but hovering over a huge mixing board. There was no other choice but to go in after him. Holding my hands over my ears, I stepped up behind him and briefly tapped his shoulder, waved for him to follow me and then covered my ears again!

Shaking his head, Drew then looked down and lowered the volume. He then turned to me with sparkling eyes and the biggest smile saying, "And that was only about a quarter of the way up! I love playing with dials, buttons and sliders! This is awesome! I hope you guys get one of these things someday!"

I laughed and exaggerated, "That was loud enough to fill the Hollywood Bowl!"

Drew smiled and pointed down to a rack of equipment. "Three separate thousand watt amps," Drew said. And then he pointed at the columns of speakers and explained; "Tri-amped with huge eighteen inch subwoofers. It's the subwoofers that make the big difference though, don't you think?"

I felt like saying, hello? I'm looking for Drew Hundser and you look just like him but... Instead, I chuckled, "What the hell did you just say?"

Drew giggled and pointed behind me. I turned and saw a salesman with two customers. Drew said, "When I came in here and sat in front of this board, that dude showed me how this works. We have to have a sound system like this!"

I said, "Not any time soon. But if I know Prez..." I paused and sternly told Drew, "Don't even mention this to Prez!"

Drew frowned and tilted his head whining, "Why not? It's not like he could afford it. The sales dude said this system costs like eight thousand bucks! Prez might wish..."

Grabbing him by the shirt, I interrupted, "Don't you dare mention this to Prez!"

Smiling insanely, we glared at each other. Drew asked, "Does he have that much money? Really?"

Rather than answer, I grinned, "Didn't mom tell you not to touch things you can't afford to buy!" I then snickered, "Come on," and pulled Drew out of the room with me.

Drew softly said, "Wow! When he mentioned getting us presents, I was thinking like a video game or two."

Sternly but softly, I said, "That's his money. Since he paid the biggest price, let him get the things he wants."

Drew sighed and nodded. Then he looked over and said, "Its fun dreaming though."

I sighed, "Don't I know it."

We found Prez talking to a much older salesman and holding an acoustic bass in his hand. As we walked up, I heard Prez ask, "To make up the difference, is a check okay?"

The man sighed and asked, "Do you have a drivers license or any photo ID?"

It was the way the guy asked that bugged me. But Prez nodded and reached into his back pocket for his wallet. He showed the salesmen his ID.

The salesman nodded and explained, "Before I let you walk out with a eight-hundred dollar guitar, I just need to be sure. Is a parent here with you?"

Prez shook his head and said, "My mother died."

Stunned silent for a few seconds, the salesmen then smirked, "Sorry kid, you'll have to do better than that," then reached to take the guitar from Prez.

That salesman was a total asshole! I was fuming and wanting to take him out back for a little geezer abuse!

Before I could, Drew said, "His mom really did die, back in October."

Turning to Drew and I, Prez smiled, closed his eyes and shook his head, silently asking us not to press it. Watching the salesman return the guitar to the display wall, Prez reached in his back pocket again, this time for his checkbook. Drew and I watched.

The salesman came down the ladder and started walking past us. But Prez said, "I've done a lot of business in here before and probably will again." The man stopped, appearing more than a little annoyed that a bunch of kids were wasting his time. Prez stepped up to the man with his wallet and checkbook open and showed them to him. Softly, Prez said, "This is me and this is my account. You could've had a sale today but right now, I just don't have the time." Then he snapped closed his checkbook and wallet, nodded at us with the widest shit-eating grin on his face and headed for the exit!

Dumbfounded, Drew and I looked at each other, started chuckling and then hurried after Prez.

The moment we stepped outside, Prez started shaking his head and chuckling.

Again, Drew looked at me and appeared at least as concerned as I was.

I asked, "You okay baby?"

Prez nodded and chuckled, "I wish I could've gotten that bass. We gotta get home though."

Drew giggled, "Bet the dude is kicking himself about now."

Prez nodded, "I'll let him sell me something someday, at a drastic discount, of course!" and then started laughing at himself again! He was still grinning as we got in the truck and buckled up. After I had backed out, Prez looked at his watch and said, "Your dad will be home by the time we get there. We'll run in, explain what happened and hand him the new spread then run right back out again."

I said, "We'll do all that but walking in the house and out again. And I'll tell them we'll be home around nine."

Prez asked, "Why so early?"

At the next light I glanced at him long enough to be sure he got the message you asked me to tell you when you were overdoing it. You're overdoing now, baby. Just slow down for me, okay?

Taking a deep breath and smiling, Prez nodded. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes!

The light turned green and, as we drove on, I said, "I need to look over some chemistry later anyway."

Not until I heard myself saying it did I realize what I had said. Prez could easily turn implied chemistry homework into something completely different! I glanced over at him. His shoulders were bouncing, trying to hold it in but he eventually snickered.

Grinning insanely, I glanced into the rearview mirror at Drew. He was looking out the side window, seemingly oblivious. Naturally, I looked out my side window briefly. Running along the side of the street, there were a bunch of dudes wearing our school colors. It was a pretty warm day and lots of them had their shirts off.

My bisexual kid brother was watching eye candy! And not very discretely either! That set me off and I started chuckling. Drew asked twice, "What's so funny?" but I only shook my head. He was self conscious enough and didn't need me hassling him. But it was cute and I couldn't help but laugh a little bit.

From the corner of our street I could see my dad's car. I glanced at the digital clock. It read five twenty-eight. As I pulled along the curb in front of our house, Prez said, "Ten minutes here, ten minute drive to Mike's and it'll be ten to six when we get there. Works for me!"

When we walked inside, my dad and John were in the living room watching baseball, with Rush lying on the floor between them. Drew went and sat beside them on the sofa. Noticing Prez holding the large Penney's bag, my dad grinned, "I saw the bedroom already and John told me what happened." Then he asked, "What's in the bag?"

Prez answered, "A replacement bedspread. We think it's the same as the one Rush shredded."

Closing his eyes but still smiling, my dad muttered something and John giggled.

Standing and coming over to us, my dad peeked in the bag then smiled, "I can't tell any difference. Thank you, that was unbelievably responsible. But the effort was more than enough."

Prez frowned and shrugged, "I could've gotten a package of T-shirts too but spaced it."

Looking at Prez and slowly shaking his head, my dad chuckled, "You are really too much."

Giggling, I interjected, "Haven't I been saying that for the last year?" Drew and John thought it was funny.

Prez smiled and shushed me. I kept snickering and then Prez turned back to my dad saying, "A lesson learned the hard way. We'll be double checking our bedroom door for a long while."

My dad said, "He's never done anything like this before. Didn't you wonder why he did it?"

Prez nodded and mumbled, "I have no idea."

Turning around, my dad called Rush. The dog trotted over then sat down, wagging the tip of his fluffy white tail.

Squatting down beside the dog, my dad petted him a few times then spread Rush's jowls and explained, "He's about eight months old, almost fully grown."

Prez and I looked at each other and loudly said, "He's teething!" Drew and John laughed again.

My dad stood and said, "Shred any old T-shirts and socks then tie them up into tight knot balls. That should keep his jaws exercised."

Prez said, "That's why he's been so content playing with his rope toys lately. I'll get him another one." And then he asked, "How long will this last?"

"Probably two or three months, maybe longer," my dad answered.

Prez nodded and smiled down at Rush. They stared at each other only a few seconds. At first Rush only wagged his tail. Then he got up and walked behind Prez, heeling at his left side. Prez rubbed behind Rush's ear and said, "Good boy."

I reminded my dad, "We're heading over Mike's for his birthday dinner."

My dad nodded and asked, "When will you be back home?"

I answered, "Around nine."

Prez snickered, "He's got chemistry!"

Turning and heading down the hall for Mike's birthday presents, I could tell he wasn't talking about my homework!

Sitting on top of the PC monitor was the birthday picture of Prez and I. Getting Mike's presents from the bottom desk drawer, I glanced at the photo again, remembering some of what Prez was mumbling earlier. The picture was taken right after we cut our cakes. We couldn't have moved any closer and we couldn't have smiled any wider. It's really the only picture that I'm in that I like. Shortly after the photo was taken, my mom dropped a piece of cake in Prez's lap and all hell broke loose!

I asked myself, have we gone through some changes since then or what? It felt like such a long time ago but it hadn't even been a year yet. On my way out of the room, I glanced at the photos of Mrs. O'Brian and smiled.

Facing the sofa and near the loveseat, Prez was sitting down on the living room carpet, his legs extended, with Rush sitting between them, panting contentedly. I stopped beside them but was in no hurry. Prez smiled up at me and so did Rush.

Prez whispered to his dog, "Can't take ya with me this time. I promise to take you with me lots this summer though. You stay here and be good. I'll try and bring home a new rope toy for ya." Then he scratched behind the dog's ears for a few seconds and softly repeated, "Good boy". Pushing the dog back, Prez started to stand. I held my hand out but he didn't take it until he was upright beside me.

He kissed my cheek then said, "I'm gonna feed Rush real quick," and took off for the kitchen with Rush trotting happily beside him. I waited on the sofa and watched the Dodgers leave two men on base then head for the field. The phone rang and seconds later, Prez hollered, "For you Drew." They passed each other when Prez returned and he said, "The hound's been fed. We'll be back around nine."

My dad said, "Have a good time," and we walked out the front door.

Noticing my mom pulling in the driveway, we veered off course slightly and Prez said, "Let's at least give her a little warning."

Immediately, I began softly snickering, "Warn her that the dog made a mess, we cleaned it up and replaced the damaged spread. She'll be really upset!"

My mom got out of her car and wearily smiled, "Hi. You're going to Mike's?"

I nodded and asked, "You had a rough drive home?"

She sighed, "The hill up the 405 to the 101 interchange again. It's like naptime for kindergartners sometimes. There were no major incidents though, thank goodness."

Prez said, "Unfortunately, things weren't totally calm at home during the day either. Rush got loose... and decided to play in your bedroom."

Before my mom said a word, I added, "After we cleaned up, we went out and Prez replaced the tattered bedspread."

Turning to Prez, my mom smirked, "You didn't?"

Prez smiled and nodded, "He's my dog and we messed up so..."

My mom asked; "What time will you be home?" and I answered her. She nodded, took two steps forward and hugged Prez. Then my mom adjusted her purse, gathered her things and said, "We'll talk more about this later."

Looking pitiful, Prez nodded. Fairly certain that my parents would somehow find a way to reimburse Prez for the spread, I nodded too but smiled widely. Prez wouldn't accept any sort of "reimbursement" and my parents wouldn't give in either. At least I hoped that they wouldn't!

First, let me just say that I may have teetered but I did not faint!

And I really did feel good when I stood up again. Suddenly everything seemed clearer. There were things I had to do.

Rebecca would be greeted each morning, just as she came over and greeted me the last few months. I would still be friendly unless she decided to get really nasty. Only then would I leave her alone. But I didn't believe it would ever come to that.

Floating around my brain were some other ideas that I had to talk with Keith's parents about too. And then, when Keith was done with his chemistry, I would set things right with him. In the mean while, we would go to Mike's and have a good dinner.

Getting in my truck, I noticed that Keith was still smiling widely. We buckled up and he started the engine. I said, "It was the right thing to do."

Keith loudly giggled, "You're gonna hear it later though!"

We pulled away from the curb and I grinned, "I expect so."

Keith asked, "Did that money come out of the money market account or your savings account?"

I answered, "The money market account."

Keith laughed, "Don't tell them that!"

I nodded, smiled and turned the radio on. During the rest of the drive to Mike's, I kicked back with my eyes closed and planned my conversation with Keith folks. On the way, Don't Stop Believin' by Journey came on the radio. Keith turned it way up and sang along. We pulled in front of Mike's house. I opened my eyes and noticed Brian's Firebird then watched Keith while he sang the last few repeated choruses.

He perfectly matched every single note the guy sang too! Keith shut off the engine then turned to me. I gently tugged his shirt, pulling him towards me and then kissed him deeply.

We got out of the car and I waited for him saying, "It's a good thing today's not Tuesday."

Keith asked, "Why is that baby?" and took my hand. That was the third time Keith reached for my hand since we left school. I wondered briefly if he was doing it for a reason or if he was simply more comfortable doing it.

I grinned and answered, "Two-fers on Tuesday's. Two Journey songs from you and we would've had to change our plans again!"

He snickered all the way to the front door.

Mike's house is two stories. On the first floor, as you walk in the front door, the first thing you see is the stairway going up. To the left is a doublewide doorway into the dining room and to the right is a large living room with a fireplace. The living room carpet is a dark burgundy wine color and the walls are painted an off-white color but with a small papered border along the ceiling edge. Mrs. Gibbon has a thirty-six inch TV and entertainment center with all Sony integrated components. Beyond the living room is a large kitchen with a small dinette set. To the left of the kitchen is a hallway leading to the dining room, a bathroom and two bedrooms - Mike's and Derrick's bedrooms. Upstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Mike moved his bedroom downstairs when he and Derrick got together last year.

I rang the bell and Derrick soon answered. He glanced at his watch and grinned, "Cutting it close, dudes," and then stepped aside.

Entering, I couldn't help myself and said, "Today was our reminder that plan is a four letter word," then smiled and waved at Doug and Brian.

Keith added, "Since we walked in the house every little thing fell slightly asunder."

Smiling widely and looking at his wrapped present, Mike asked, "Did you get a bass?"

I grinned, "Tried but got a geezer salesman that wanted my mommy's blessings before selling it to me. Needless to say, he lost a sale."

Keith's eyes shot open when I said that. Mike and I cracked up.

I handed Mike his present and he loudly giggled, "Weeheee!"

From the kitchen, Mrs. Gibbon's hollered, "Michael? Open one present and you'll be cleaning up after every dinner for the rest of the week!"

Mike's head sagged and he handed the box to Derrick. Giggling insanely, D turned and took it into the dining room. Keith sat on the sofa beside Doug.

So Mrs. Gibbon's could hear, I loudly said, "Something smells incredible!"

She hollered back, "Just a few more minutes."

I walked into kitchen and offered, "Let me know if you need help serving." But really, everything smelled so good and I just wanted to watch and learn.

Stepping up beside me, Derrick said, "It's covered dude." He then went to the kitchen, put on oven mitts and lifted a huge pan of lasagna then took it to the dining room.

Behind me, Mike had picked up his new electric and was playing a very familiar tune. The guitar wasn't plugged in though so I could barely make it out. Taking a seat on the floor in front of Keith, I asked Mike, "What's the tune?"

Still playing, Mike smiled, "Alice Cooper, School's Out For Summer. It's easy, E blues dude. We'll try it out Wednesday."

I excitedly said, "Cool! Very appropriate too!" Looking up at Doug and Brian, I asked, "Did you dudes teach him this?"

They chuckled and Brian answered, "Indirectly. We lent him the disk."

Mike then suggested, "Friday afternoon too, if you're into it?"

Keith and I had other plans for that day. I looked at Keith and asked, "Is that cool babe?"

Keith shrugged and grinned, "We'll need to be alone the rest of Friday night then?"

Ooo! That sounded good to me! I turned to Mike and nodded, "Cool."

Repeatedly nodding back towards the kitchen, Mike giggled, "We have something to take care of Friday night too." Mike's sister Lindsay came down the stairs. She waved and said hello then went into the dining room. Mike then said, "I hope you dudes are hungry."

From behind me, Keith said, "I'll bet you're starved, Mike."

Standing in the dining room doorway, Derrick said, "Dinner's ready."

Mike nodded and quickly got up then returned the guitar to its case. When he turned around again, Mike said, "Prez, you'll never think about the Olive Garden the same way again."

Beside me, Keith giggled, "But you'll have to wear a birthday hat."

Taking a seat at the head of the table, Mike grinned, "My dad started it. We pass out hats for every birthday party." Then he giggled, "Don't fight it."

Crossing the threshold into the dining room I noticed that beside every plate was a paper birthday hat.

Behind me, Doug loudly said, "I want the propeller hat!"

Keith giggled; "You would!" then took a seat at the table. Smiling up at me, he patted the seat to his left. I sat down and Derrick came in the room with two big baskets of toasted garlic bread. He put one basket down at one end of the table; walked around and put the other down in front of Mike. Derrick then sat down near the end of the table, across from me and between Mike and Brian.

Brian and Doug were the first to put on their hats. Then they turned to each other and Brain adjusted Doug's hat then Doug adjusted Brian's! On the right side of Keith, Lindsay began giggling and put her hat on. Mike put his hat on and the rest of us followed suit.

With a camera in her hand, Mrs. Gibbons returned and smiled, "I didn't have to beg everyone to put hats on!" Then she held the camera up and took the first of many photos.

As soon as Mike's mom sat down, the bowls of salad were passed around. While we ate, we talked about school mostly. Mike told his mom about the meeting with his guidance counselor. Then the four of us began talking about which classes we would take during our senior year. Keith and I knew we didn't want to take physics but were wondering whether to take calculus or statistics. Doug suggested that we go for statistics and Brian agreed. Mike and Derrick would take the math review class.

Derrick and Mrs. Gibbons gathered the salad plates and took them to the kitchen. By the time they returned Doug was serving the lasagna and the baskets of bread were being passed around. Mrs. Gibbons smiled at Doug, snapped another few photos then said, "Thank you."

Looking down the table to my right, I told Mrs. Gibbons, "It smells great!" and then asked, "Did you make it from scratch?"

She smiled and said, "Mostly, it's boxed lasagna noodles though. Making the pasta dough is an all day process."

Mike excitedly said, "That's when it tastes the best!"

Mrs. Gibbons looked at her son sternly and started, "You said that I could go out this weekend..."

Nodding, Mike interrupted, "And that the noodles didn't matter. They don't matter all that much. But when you do go to the trouble, it's definitely worth the time it takes."

I passed my plate to Doug and started snickering. He was almost forty years old but wore that paper birthday hat proudly, like he always wanted one as a permanent part of his wardrobe!

Mrs. Gibbons grinned, "It was one or the other."

Mike then said, "We had a good time Saturday night."

Derrick smiled widely at Keith and I. Obviously they had told Mike's mom that there was some sort of gathering Saturday night. Wordlessly, Keith and I decided not to comment, fearing we would deviate from Mike and Derrick's story somehow.

Slicing off a small piece of her lasagna, Mrs. Gibbons said, "I was very pleased to find everything cleaned up when I got home last night."

Derrick said, "We tracked lots of mud and grass into the house - kinda had to this time."

Just to make it sound a little better, Mike mentioned, "Rush was here adding to the mess too." I smiled and nodded then dug into my lasagna.

For the next few minutes we were all virtually silent while we enjoyed Mrs. Gibbons' masterpiece. Everything on the table was far better than the Olive Garden, which up to that point, I thought was the world's greatest Italian food. I began asking Mrs. Gibbons how she made her sauce. Across the table from me, Doug and Brian seemed to be listening intently. Then they began suggesting various spices and things too.

When we were all finished eating and the plates had been taken to the kitchen, Mrs. Gibbons returned with a large guitar shaped sheet cake. The second he saw it, Mike smiled widely and excitedly said, "Yes!" Lindsay snapped another photo.

Mrs. Gibbons giggled, "God forbid I forgot it again!"

Keith whispered, "Last year Mike's mom made a home made cake instead."

Turning to Mike, I chuckled, "Most people would prefer home made."

Grinning insanely, Mike stood and said, "Home made is fine too. But it's got to be guitar shaped."

I giggled, "Just a wee bit obsessed!"

Putting the cake down in front of her son, Mrs. Gibbons said, "I can't find the guitar shaped pans anywhere." Then she handed Mike a knife and smiled, "Make a wish."

Glancing at Derrick, Mike grinned, "Most have already come true," but then closed his eyes for a few moments anyway. Opening them again, Mike cut the cake and we all hollered, Happy Birthday! Doug and Brian began singing the birthday song as if they were drunk, slurring and exaggerating every phrase. Giggling, Mike served himself then Mrs. Gibbons took over.

By the time everyone had been served a piece of cake, Mike and Derrick had finished their cake. Derrick moved back by the small table where the gifts were stacked. Mrs. Gibbons nodded and D handed Mike the first present from the stack. It was from Lindsay and Mike tore into the wrapping paper. Inside the box was a set of acoustic guitar strings and a T-shirt covered with pictures of various acoustic and electric guitars. Mike said, "Very cool, thank you," and then stood, removed the T-shirt he was wearing and put on the new one.

Derrick handed Mike the next box and announced, "From Doug and Brian."

Immediately, Mike began giggling and tore into the wrapping. He opened the box and roared laughing as he pulled a Tinky Winky Teletubby stuffed doll out for everyone to see. Mike giggled, "This little guy will be sitting on my amplifier from now on!"

I softly chuckled, "That's real subtle, Mike!" Beside me, Keith was hysterical but holding it in, turning as purple as Tinky Winky! Mrs. Gibbons and Lindsay giggled and shook their heads.

Derrick handed the next box to Mike and said, "From Keith and Prez."

It was a very large box and Mike smiled at us then tore into the wrapping paper. Inside the box was some crumpled newspaper and a second smaller wrapped box. Mike giggled, looked at Keith and huffed, "You did this?" Keith nodded and giggled while Mike tore into the second box. Of course, there was a third even smaller box inside the second box. It wasn't wrapped though and Mike quickly opened it then said, "I can always use strings. Thanks dudes!"

Keith said, "Look under the strings bro."

Mike pulled the sets of strings out then some more crumpled newspaper and loudly said, "Sweet!" He then showed everyone the glass slide, nine-volt batteries and E-bow saying, "These will work great on a few songs we already play. Excellent choices, thanks!"

The next few boxes were clothes from Mike's mom. After Mike had opened all four boxes, Mrs. Gibbon's said, "Later on tonight we'll talk about the other present some more." Derrick, Lindsay and Mike nodded.

I assumed that the other present was most likely the bigger bed Mike was hoping for.

Mike was handed cards from his grandparents. One card contained a check and the other contained an Old Navy gift certificate. Finally, Derrick handed the last and smallest box to Mike saying, "And this is from me."

Giggling, Mike opened his last present. His eyes closed when he saw the label then he began laughing loudly as he removed a small Marshall practice amp and set it on the table. It was very small, maybe nine inches tall and three inches wide.

Derrick grinned, "You wanted a Marshall stack. This is the best I could do this year. We'll trade up another time."

Mike giggled, "It's great! This has been my best birthday ever in so many ways!"

Lindsay then turned to her mother and said, "I need to call Veronica. May I be excused?"

Mrs. Gibbons nodded and Lindsay left the room. Then Brian offered to scrub the lasagna pan. He and Doug and Mrs. Gibbons wandered into the kitchen.

Once the coast was clear, I leaned forward and whispered, "Did your mom suspect anything?"

Grinning widely, Derrick shook his head. Mike whispered, "She's sure that something's up but can't figure out what it is I want."

Derrick smiled and nodded. Turning to Mike, he whispered, "Let's go back to your room where we can talk. You can try out and try on your presents too." Mike nodded and the four us got up then headed for his bedroom. Derrick asked, "Where did you go bass shopping, Prez?"

I answered, "We only got to Guitar Center today. I found a really nice Fender acoustic but the salesman was a dick."

As we stepped into Mike's room, Derrick said, "Check Carvin out dude."

Mike closed the door behind us and I nodded, "Work tomorrow and rehearsal Wednesday. It's probably gonna have to wait until Thursday now."

Keith then grinned at Mike and asked, "Are you finally getting a bigger bed?"

Mike nodded and snickered, "We're working on it," and then turned on his stereo.

Derrick softly added, "It would be nice if we could sleep together when we move back in again around September."

Mike said, "My mom just wants to be sure we won't get completely out of control, boinkin' our brains out half the day and all night long too." Pausing to glare at Keith and I, he snickered, "How she got the idea that might happen, I have no idea!"

Keith laughed, "It's not our fault!"

Derrick mumbled, "Not directly, I guess."

Still glaring at Keith, Mike added, "You're lucky to have two brothers and not a little sister."

I said, "We still try to be careful... most of the time!" Derrick chuckled evilly. To change the subject slightly, I asked, "Why is the bed the first thing seen as anyone walks in this room? If you swapped your dresser and bed, it would be slightly more private, don't ya think?"

Turning to Derrick, Mike shrugged. He then looked at me and said, "It's not been much of an issue. Our only chances are weekday afternoons, before Lindsay gets home."

Derrick added, "Occasionally on weekends too. But even then we have to be very careful. More often than not, we don't have a clue where Mike's mom or sister have gone or when they'll be back home." Grinning devilishly, D added, "They've walked in the house while we've been messin' around in here. Everything has to stop and it's a mad rush to make everything look totally innocent."

Mike said, "I thought blue balls was just one of those things straight dudes complained about, to make their girlfriends feel guilty or something. When you're in the middle of it and have to stop before finishing though, Omigod! Ten or fifteen minutes later... talk about pain!"

Taking a seat on the bed, Derrick smiled innocently. That cracked me up. Keith chuckled, "Come on, let's move this room around."

Surprised, Mike hollered, "Now?"

I nodded and said, "You and Derrick grab the bed. Keith and I will move the dresser." Wiping my hands quickly as if the task were already done, I said, "Lickity-split, done in two minutes."

Mike's eyes got wide. Derrick roared, "HAHAHAA! Lickity-split? Oh dude, heehee, ya kill me sometimes!" and then fell back on the bed, laughing hysterically. Softly snickering, Keith came over, wrapped his arms around me and squeezed tightly.

Keith giggled, "Lickity-split? Where did that come from?"

Grinning, I shrugged, "I only wanted to emphasize how quick and easy it would be."

After a quick kiss, Keith buried his face in my neck and started snacking on my ear lobe. Humming my approval, I closed my eyes and reached up to run my fingers through his hair.

Moments later, I noticed Derrick and Mike were very quiet. When I looked over again, Mike had crawled onto the bed and was lying on top of Derrick.

After taking a few minutes to show some affection, we then moved the bed and dresser.

While still centering the dresser against the other wall, Mike asked, "Is everything working out better with your bed on the floor?"

Enthusiastically, Keith nodded, "It's been so quiet that the `rents thought we were having some sort of big disagreement last week."

Then Mike tried out his new Marshall practice amp alone and with the GT-3 attached. Considering that it ran off a nine-volt battery and only had a small speaker, the little amp was pretty loud.

While Mike was still playing with the E-bow, there was a knock at the bedroom door. Derrick opened the door and Doug loudly asked, "We're gonna take a ride down to Zuma, if any one is interested?"

Immediately, Mike stopped playing and said, "Sounds good to me," and then put his guitar away.

Smiling at Keith, I made it plain that I really wanted to feel the sand between my toes and smell the fresh salt air.

He checked his watch and nodded, "Just for a little while."

Bouncing my eyebrows, I whispered, "Chemistry," and began giggling again.

As we were walking out of Mike's room, Derrick asked, "Why no shorts today, Prez?"

I answered, "I felt a little chilled this morning and wore jeans to school. I just didn't get the chance to change."

Mike asked, "Did your folks have a fit when they found out what Rush got into?"

I shook my head and Keith turned to me chuckling, "Not yet!"

Doug and Brian said goodbye to Mike's mom and thanked her for dinner. Then Mike explained that we were all taking a trip down to the beach. We said goodbye then followed Doug and Brian out of the house.

Waiting by the curb, Brian said, "There's very little room in the back of the Firebird but it's only a ten minute drive."

Derrick said, "We'll ride with you."

Keith nodded and said, "We'll catch up with you there," and then unlocked my truck.

Once we were situated and on our way, I asked, "You think your folks will be upset?"

Keith smiled, "Not over the ruined bedspread but because of the new one."

"I had to at least try and replace it, didn't I?"

Keith shrugged, "I guess. But it was pretty expensive baby. And it was an accident, we didn't plan on Rush being loose all day."

"But he's my dog and my responsibility. It was the right thing to do, wasn't it?"

Keith nodded and we stopped at the light. Then Keith turned to me and said, "They've always said that your money is yours. They'll find a way to reimburse you, one way or another."

I said, "Not if I can help it. I think I should be paying room and board too."

Keith laughed loudly, "Room and board? Prez! Come on!"

"I know, legally I am their son too. But I have so much money and I make an awful lot in tips. It's not like I can't afford it." The light changed and we pulled onto the 101.

Shaking his head, Keith said, "The majority of that money is for college, remember?"

"But between paychecks and tips, I'll make about two hundred and fifty bucks every week this summer."

We followed Brian's Firebird off the 101 and onto Malibu Canyon. Keith said, "That's gas, insurance and maintenance for your car, with a little play money left over. Don't start dipping into the bulk of the money for everyday stuff."

He was right and I knew it. I sighed, "I'm not selling off my investments. I've added to them. I just feel that I need to do more. I don't know what more means but I'm going to try and offer to pay room and board."

Keith sighed, "You can try but I'd doubt it will work."

"What can I do then?"

"The same stuff you always do, baby. You clean our bathroom. You've helped my mom with dinner lots of times. And usually you help clean up afterwards too. Your grades are better than mine and Drew's and John's. What else is there to do?" Keith waited a long minute for me to suggest something. When I didn't, he said, "It's time to do for you, Prez. You've done stuff for Mike, Derrick and me. You've done stuff for Drew and John too. Since Christmas, Rush has only gotten into major trouble this one time. Why is that? Because you do stuff for Rush too. You trained him. My dad may have shown you a few things but you trained him."

We drove on but were silent for a few minutes.

More softly, Keith reminded, "The other day, my dad was telling me some of what he and mom were thinking back in October. They didn't just fling open the door for you Prez. They thought about it and they talked with my brothers and me about it too. It wasn't just to keep me sane. And it wasn't just because it was the right thing to do for you. Your aunt lives over in Glendale. That's only twenty minutes away. It could've worked out that way too."

Last October and November, I surely would've collapsed under my own weight if it weren't for Keith and his family. We turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway and I said, "That's another thing I'm gonna do this summer, visit my aunt."

Keith nodded, "Good."

"I think we're a little afraid of each other. I know I'm apprehensive about seeing her." I paused and smiled, "What am I saying? I'm really scared that I'm just gonna start bawling the second I see her."

"She's your mom's sister. They look a little alike."

"And I look a little like my mom too. It's gonna be freaky for both of us."

"I'd like to go with you but if you'd rather, I'll stay home..."

"I won't go unless you can come too."

"Check first Prez. She might not be as ready. If she'd rather see you alone, I can manage for a few hours."

I sighed, "I don't know that I could though."

Keith pulled into the Zuma beach parking lot and parked the car. He turned to face me and forced a grin. I noticed his eyes were glistening, probably every bit as much as my own. He pulled me to him and kissed me softly then leaned his forehead against mine. "I've been thinking," Keith said, "you feel sad sometimes because your mom is missing so many big things in your life. Why don't you try to get your aunt to fill that void?"

I uncontrollably heaved and shuddered. A huge chill ran up my spine. Why I hadn't thought of it before, I don't know.

Keith softly said, "Sorry, I shouldn't have mentioned it."

Pulling back and wiping my eyes, I smiled, "That's a great idea."

Keith whispered, "Really?"

I nodded enthusiastically; "The very best!" then leaned over to kiss him. We closed our eyes and really got into the kiss too, remaining that way for a good minute or more. When I opened my eyes again, I noticed Keith's eyes were already open. And beyond him, Mike and Derrick had their faces smashed against driver's side windows! Pulling away from Keith and pointing, I cracked up!

Opening the passenger side door, I then took my sneakers and socks off before getting out of the truck. The second I opened my door and took a breath; I was on top of the world. I wasn't sure but I thought Keith's suggestion was just what I had been looking for but missing. Visiting and seeing my aunt for the first time since October was a scary idea for me. I hadn't thought of sharing my life with her. She had always lived in California so I didn't really know her at all. And she had only been to the apartment a few times. My mom had gone to my aunt's house a few times while I was out with Keith though. But if we could become friends, like my mom and I had, then maybe she would want to know about the frolics and the prom. It was still frightening but now I had more of a reason to pick up the phone and give her a call.

Brian had a volleyball in his trunk and challenged us to a game. Mike and Derrick took them on first while I took the opportunity to show Keith just how much I liked his idea. We sat in the sand and watched the others play. The whole while I was sitting there, I was being naughty, passing extremely suggestive ideas to Keith for bedtime. He couldn't take it and attacked me, pushing me back into the sand. The area between the top of my left hip and the bottom of my ribs is the only area of my body that's extremely ticklish. Keith grabbed me there and we started rolling around, tickling each other. It's exactly what I wanted and needed. Also, Keith needed to know that I really was feeling fine after my little episode in Penney's.

A little while later, Mike came to a halt beside us and huffed, "Your turn dudes."

Leaning over with his hands on his knees, Derrick complained, "They kicked our butts, twenty to nine!"

Rolling off me, Keith yelled, "You let geezers whoop you?"

Looking over my shoulder, I watched Brian and Doug do a whacky victory dance! Sitting up and brushing the sand off, I told Mike, "You should be ashamed."

He nodded, "I am... but they're good."

Derrick added, "Find out for yourself," then nodded towards the water.

I said, "I hope you at least wore them down a little bit."

Keith hopped up onto his feet and said, "Save our place for us," then offered his hand to help me up.

I hopped into Keith's arms saying, "They forfeited, just so they could play in the sand."

Mike shook his head, "We're gonna go play in the water," then reached for Derrick's hand and they started down the beach.

Taking hold of me, Keith softly asked, "Are you sure you're okay?" I smiled and nodded then Keith said, "Say something if you feel weak or anything."

No matter what I did or said, I knew that Keith would be watching me like a hawk for the rest of the night. I smiled, "I will, don't worry."

Keith grinned, "Block Brian. He'll be spiking every chance he gets."

I nodded, "And try not to give Doug any chance at a good setup."

As we walked over, Brian hollered, "Challengers serve first," and tossed the ball over the net to me.

Grinning insanely, I teased, "Be careful now. I don't wanna have to give anyone CPR."

Keith chuckled, "Not that we know how or anything!"

Doug laughed insanely, "Just press and blow, press and blow! Very repetitive!"

I served first, directly into the far right corner. Uncertainly, Doug moved in that direction. When he realized the ball would fall inside the marker, he quickly punched it up in the air and ran towards the net. Keith was moving along the net. I hung back just a meter or two behind, near the center court position. Brian setup the ball for Doug. Watching us and grinning, Doug slammed the ball into the far corner of our side of the court. It was gonna stay in! I flung myself into the sand, scooped it up into the air again and hurried to stand up again.

Keith hollered, "Set?"

Pushing myself up and out of the sand, I yelled, "Yeah!"

Keith popped the ball up nicely. I had plenty of time to notice where Doug and Brian were, and I swung hard. But Brian was right there and blocked it.

Quickly backing up, Keith yelled, "Shit!" and reached to set it up for me. I popped it back up in the air for him. Jumping up, Keith swung his arm and really belted the ball. It made it past Brian and Doug scrambled to keep the ball off the ground. He just barely managed but it wasn't high enough for Brian to do much with and Doug was slow getting up again. We won the first point.

For the rest of the game we battled pretty evenly. The score was ten to seven in our favor when Mike and Derrick wandered back, completely soaked.

Standing back behind the line, Doug was preparing to serve when he shouted, "Preston, are you ambidextrous?"

I snickered and yelled back, "Yep!"

Shaking his head, Doug hollered, "Damn it boy! Make up yer mind!" then lobbed the ball across the net while I was still laughing.

During the remainder of the game, every time that Doug and I were faced off, he'd start complaining and I'd start laughing at him. It wasn't enough to distract me though. Finally, after one of the most challenging games of my life, we had won but by only three points. For geezers, Doug and Brian played very well. But they've had almost twenty years of practicing together too.

It was a little after eight and the sun was going down. Brian, Doug, Mike and Derrick went down to the water. As hot and sweaty as I was, I still zoned out watching the sunset colors in the sky. Keith stepped up beside me and asked, "Ya wanna cool off a bit before we head home?"

I had taken my shirt off but was still wearing jeans so I wondered briefly why he asked. Then I noticed his mischievous smirk.

I glanced up and down the deserted beach then asked, "Go in with me?"

Keith nodded and we started for the water. When we got to the water's edge, I unfastened my belt.

Keith laughed, "You're really gonna do it?"

I nodded but said, "Unless you think it's not safe."

Keith looked both ways down the beach and so did I. Besides the six of us, there was only one other person in sight, way down the beach. I couldn't even tell if the person was a male or a female, they were so far away. Mike, Derrick, Doug and Brian were already in the water, far from shore. I lifted my leg and began pulling my jeans off.

Keith snickered, "I love you."

Wobbling on one leg, I giggled, "Don't start that now!" and then asked, "Can we just leave our clothes here on the beach?"

Keith nodded; "It'll be okay." He unbuttoned and pushed off his shorts. Standing there wearing only his boxers, Keith waited for me.

When I was pushing down my C.K.'s, Mike hollered, "Woohoo! White Irish butt alert!"

There was no one else around but I still blushed. Taking my undies off, I looked at Keith and grumbled, "As if he hasn't seen my white Irish ass about two hundred times in gym class."

Pushing down his boxers, Keith chuckled, "Don't worry about him. Just watch for fiddler crabs and stuff!"

Turning and shooting him a playful glance, I said, "It's not snack time... yet!" then we ran into deeper water and dove into the ocean. The surf seemed to oblige for a few moments. But then a swell headed for the shore and tried to push us backwards. Underwater, I swam harder and faster until the tide reversed.

There's no doubt about it - I was born in the wrong place. Sherman, Texas is about five or six hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico. I remembered the last time I was at the Gulf coast. The water was very warm, like bath water. And the waves were between six and twelve inches, at best. The Pacific Ocean is completely different. Sometimes, when the current is coming out of the North, the water is very cold. But on this day the current was out of the south and the water pleasantly cool.

Swimming in the ocean was exactly what I needed to adjust and realign my attitude. We were only in the water a few minutes when we noticed Mike and Derrick rapidly swimming for shore.

Wide eyed, Keith and I glared at each other. Visions of us stranded nude at Zuma flashed through my head as I swam fast and furious for the beach. Paddling and kicking like mad, my fingertip brushed the sand. I then stood and started running. We got to our clothes first but only by two or three paces!

Keith scooped up his clothes and kept running with Derrick running behind him, laughing hysterically. I stopped and picked up my jeans and Mike flew by me, grabbing on to a leg.

I yelled, "Don't fuck around!" and held on for dear life! It was a tug of war and my jeans were the rope!

Hysterical, Mike kept looking over his shoulder for Derrick and Keith. That's when I noticed that Keith had gone into overdrive and was a fair distance away from Derrick. In one smooth motion, Keith opened his shorts then jumped up and into them in record time. Holding his underwear high in his hand, Keith yelled, "Ya wanna smell my sweaty boxers?" and took off after Derrick!

Derrick hollered and bolted further up the beach, toward the parking lot. But Keith continued running towards Mike and me!

I giggled at Mike, "Better give it up dude. You're gonna get a nose full of Keith's undies any second!"

Mike loudly laughed, "Oh fuck!" But for whatever twisted reason, Mike didn't let go of my jeans until Keith was only a few steps away. Then he took off running and I could finally pull my jeans on. Keith didn't pursue Mike very far. He then turned around and jogged back to me.

Keith shook his head and huffed, "You okay?"

Zipping up, I nodded and grinned, "He's gonna get his when he least expects it."

Stuffing his underwear into his shorts' pocket, Keith nodded, "Make sure I'm there to see it."

We started for the parking lot and I said, "You know that nice present I was gonna get for Mike?" Keith nodded and giggled. I then said, "He can forget that now! I might even tell him!"

Keith said, "Neither of them deserve any gifts. Neither of them really needs any gifts either."

Reaching for his hand, I said, "I won't be impulsive."

Keith smiled, "Buying that spread today was pretty impulsive."

"I know but it's for your parents. No one deserves an impulsive gift more."

After a few moments silence, Keith asked, "Did you really mean what you said before?"

"Umm... which something was that?"

"About bed time?"

I turned and smiled widely. "Course. Be quick with your chemistry."

Keith giggled but shook his head; "I'll try. It's been kicking my ass this quarter."

"Ya want some help? I could use a review myself."

"I'm just hoping that I pass the finals."

"Did you do alright on the labs and quizzes?"

Keith shrugged, "Okay on the labs this quarter, not so okay on the quizzes." I glanced over at him and he said, "First quarter a B, second quarter a C plus, third quarter a C. This last quarter has been really rough."

I gently reminded, "Even if you got a D this quarter, you'd still pass. It's not like you want to be a scientist of any sort. Just freshen some ideas in your mind and give it your best shot."

Keith agreed then reminded, "I'll meet with my guidance counselor tomorrow."

"I'll meet with mine Thursday morning."

"Derrick's is Friday morning."

"We'll check out all the local schools first."

"Maybe we'll drive around some campuses during the summer."

Mike, Derrick, Brian and Doug were waiting in the parking lot. Amid all the insanity, I never even saw Doug and Brian heading for the parking lot. As we got closer, Mike and Derrick moved around to the other side of Brian's Firebird, a safer distance from Keith and I.

Doug grinned, "I don't suppose you'd like to give them a ride home?"

Looking past Doug, Keith smirked, "They can walk up the mountain for all I care!"

But I shook my head and said, "It's okay, we'll drop them off." I wanted them to believe that everything was all right. Retribution would be so much sweeter if they didn't see it coming.

Brian and Doug looked at me for a long while then both began chuckling. Okay then," Brian loudly said. He walked around to Mike and Derrick and instructed, "Remember what we said."

They both nodded and smiled then Mike said, "We'll see ya Saturday."

Brain unlocked the Firebird then he and Doug got in. When Brian started the engine, Mike and Derrick stepped back from the car and waved. The Firebird backed out and drove off. Mike and Derrick stood there giggling at us for a few seconds. I turned and grinned at Keith then we both headed for my Four-Runner. As Keith unlocked the truck and I walked around to the passenger side, Mike and Derrick ran up, quickly opening the back door and climbed inside before I had even opened my door.

I got in and Keith started the engine.

Mike leaned forward and said, "Hey Prez? Sorry dude, I was just playing."

Derrick said, "Same here Keith." Then he giggled, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Mike added, "No one was around anyway."

Keith shifted into reverse and we grinned at each other. I nodded and softly said, "It's okay, no harm done."

Keith backed out and then we started home.

Mike giggled, "You're not gonna get even with us?"

Keith shook his head. "Not tonight."

I shrugged and then turned on the radio, switched it to the FM classical station and cranked it.

Mike hollered, "Noooooooooo!"

What made it really sweet was it wasn't just a classical orchestra it was opera! I kept it on that station and cranked all the way to Mike's house. I'm sure Derrick didn't mind too much but it irritated Mike to no end. We pulled up in front of Mike's house and I lowered the volume. Then I turned around and smiled, "Happy Birthday!"

Shaking his head, Mike sarcastically grinned, "Umm... yeah! Thanks for coming over. I'll be sure to invite you dudes again real soon!" Then he opened his door and shuffled out. Derrick slid over and asked "See ya in the morning?"

I smiled and nodded enthusiastically then he chuckled and got out of the car. Rolling down my window as we pulled away, I heard Derrick say, "We went too far, dude." Looking over, I saw Mike nod but didn't hear if he said anything.

Quickly I switched over to Keith's favorite station and asked, "Parents first or homework first?"

Keith hummed thoughtfully then asked, "Do you want me there while you talk with my folks?"

I shrugged, "It really doesn't matter."

Keith nodded, "I'll slip away and start my homework when I get the chance then."

I said, "Cool. And when I'm done with your folks, I'll see what I can do to improve your retention."

Keith snickered insanely.

A few minutes later we walked in the house and Rush greeted us. Everyone was watching TV in the living room. Drew and John were sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of their parents.

As we sat on the loveseat, Mr. Hundser asked, "Did you have a good time?"

We chit chatted for a few minutes about dinner, Mike's presents and our trip to the beach but didn't mention skinny-dipping. Then Mrs. Hundser smiled and said, "Thank you for being so generous today. We've been thinking of a way to show our appreciation."

I waved my hand and smiled, "It's really not necessary. Proper compensation, as I see it."

Mr. Hundser grinned, "But it is necessary."

And Mrs. Hundser continued, "We've been talking about something recently. We thought it could wait until after school was over but now you've given us an excuse." She paused and smiled at her husband and then, just as I was about to ask, she turned and said, "Rush needs to be fixed."

Simultaneously, Drew and John grabbed their privates, rolled over into fetal positions and yelled, "Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Mom!" Ready to play, Rush bounced over to them.

Smiling insanely, Mrs. Hundser turned towards her sons for a moment. She had obviously planned that and took great pleasure in it! Mr. Hundser and Keith roared laughing.

John said, "Don't do it, Prez."

Drew added, "It's just too horrible a thought!"

I chuckled, "If I don't, he'll be wandering the neighborhood, probably humping our legs and the furniture too!"

Grimacing insanely, John doubled over a bit, cupped his crotch and giggled, "It's just too gruesome!" Then he got up and headed for his bedroom.

Drew called Rush and held on to the dog tightly. He giggled, "See what you did? Now they're after yer nads!"

I chuckled, "I get to take care of that, right?"

The Hundser's shook their heads. Then Mrs. Hundser said, "We'll take care of it."

"I insist. You've all been too kind for so long."

Mrs. Hundser sighed, "It's not like you're in the way, sweetheart."

"But you don't even ask for room and board."

Mrs. Hundser loudly giggled, "Room and board?" Beside me, Keith shuddered and smiled widely.

I said, "An extra person around must cost something."

Mrs. Hundser lost it at that point and began laughing harder than I've ever seen! Twice she tried to excuse herself but only laughed harder! Finally, she got up and went to the kitchen, still giggling.

Mr. Hundser snickered, "On top of three boys? I don't think we spend more than fifty bucks a month more. And most of that comes from those long hot showers you take with Keith!"

Drew snickered then got up to join his mother in the kitchen. Beside me, Keith smiled widely and giggled.

Shaking his head, Mr. Hundser watched Drew then turned back to me and said, "We really don't need your money, Preston. You do plenty around the house already."

With both Keith's mom and Drew laughing, I couldn't cry but I was becoming really upset. Keith obviously felt it and wrapped an arm around me.

No one in this family wanted a dime from me! I softly begged, "Please, take something. I really feel like I need to contribute more. It's been bothering me more and more for about a month now. At least let me pay for Rush's surgery."

Slowly, the smile on Mr. Hundser's face vanished. He asked, "It's really that important to you?"

I wiped my eyes and nodded.

Mrs. Hundser returned with a glass of water and said, "Room and board is out of the question. For us to accept you into our family and then take any sort of monetary reimbursement would be highly questionable. John and Drew take out the garbage. All four of you have done yard work. I haven't spent more than ten minutes cleaning anything in that bathroom since you moved in. I can't think of a single chore."

Mr. Hundser then said, "Don't forget Federal and State income taxes, Preston. I can almost guarantee that you'll need to pay taxes next winter. How much exactly, remains to be seen."

I asked, "Do I need to be concerned?"

Mr. Hundser quickly answered, "No. We'll find you some deductions. Be sure you have around five grand liquid by next April, just in case."

Drew walked by and waved then headed down the hallway.

Keith leaned close and whispered, "I gotta hit the books." Rush got up and followed Keith.

I nodded and said, "I'll be right there." Then Keith got up and returned to our room. Turning back to the Hundser's I asked, "If I hadn't gotten the bedspread today then you would've let me take care of the vet bill?" Slowly, the Hundser's nodded. "That doesn't seem right to me. I mean, the dog damaged your spread and I willingly took care of it. You even get his dog food while you're grocery shopping. You folks won't accept any room and board money either but you want to cover the vet bill too? I can't swallow that, not with all I've been thinking about lately."

The Hundser's turned to each other and held a brief wordless conversation during which time, Rush returned with a rope toy and lay down at my feet. Then Mrs. Hundser turned to me and said, "Fine, you take care of Rush but not another word about room and board, Preston. I'm serious, this is not the nineteen-fifties."

Mr. Hundser added, "And don't go crazy with birthday and Christmas presents either."

Then Mrs. Hundser smiled and softly apologized, "I'm sorry for laughing earlier but I was completely unprepared. You are not a burden on us. Considering all you've been through, you've been a joy to have around."

Hearing her say that was really sweet. I nodded and said, "Last winter I know that I did things and said things but a lot of it is forgotten. And some of what I can remember doesn't make me very happy either."

Mrs. Hundser explained, "It's all part of the healing process, sweetheart."

Mr. Hundser added, "My parents died about five years ago, one right after the other. Even though I have my own family and hadn't lived with them for many years, I still went through the same process. While I was grieving, I spent so much time remembering them that I often felt like I was neglecting every other part of my life."

I shrugged, "I guess I feel like I've been neglecting everyone too."

Mr. Hundser said, "Its obvious when you've been thinking about your mom."

Mrs. Hundser said, "And it's natural to want to try and make up for the past."

I shed a bitter tear and softly said, "Guess I still feel guilty."

Mr. Hundser said, "If you can identify reasons, we might be able to help?"

I shook my head then looked up at the ceiling and asked, "Sometimes I still ask myself if I was the reason that my mom left my dad? As if I inadvertently instigated what's happened?"

Mrs. Hundser said, "You can put that one to rest. More than once, she and I talked about the divorce. Your mom left because your father was becoming more cold and uncaring with every passing year. She said that he worked too hard and felt he was struggling for nothing sometimes. She also said that she tried for many years to point out the downward spiral. All he had to do was pay more attention to being home instead of worrying so much about business. He chose not to listen. It was affecting you but that was only a part of the whole equation. Over time they fell out of love and couldn't live with one another. She left because of him and for herself. When she was ready to move on, she was actually frightened that you might not want to switch schools and start all over."

Relieved, I smiled, "Really?" Mrs. Hundser smiled and nodded. I was glad to know that I made her happy in that regard. My curiosity was sparked. I then asked, "Was she sad or lonely because I was here with Keith so much?"

Quickly, Mr. Hundser said, "She was glad to see you with friends again, Preston. She worried about you disappearing into your room for hours on end."

I quickly said, "It was better than accidentally doing or saying something that might set off my father." I grimaced and remembered, "He hated it when I practiced for too long while he was home. So I played in the afternoon's, after school. Then, after dinner, I'd play for another thirty or so minutes with the amp and then do my homework. If there was no homework, I'd listen to music with head phones on or maybe play my bass but without the amp."

Mrs. Hundser said, "Just as you arranged your life around your father, so did your mom. And, as I understood it, he was still very melancholy."

Mr. Hundser leaned forward and said, "Everyone has to reconcile the past in their hearts and minds."

Mrs. Hundser then added, "Your wanting to contribute more, offering gifts and room and board is just a symptom of some need for atonement."

I nodded and said, "Keith mentioned visiting my aunt, rebuilding family ties. It was a great idea and kind of gave me a reason to call. It's probably too late to call right now but I will be visiting her soon."

Leaning back again, Mr. Hundser smiled and nodded. Enthusiastically, Mrs. Hundser said, "That is good news. Remember Preston, she may be like your mom in many ways but she's not your mom. Accept her for what she is."

I sighed, "I hope she can accept me for what I am." The Hundser's glanced at each other briefly and I explained, "I don't really know her. She's always lived here and I never even met her until we moved. Not to mention the fact that she does look a little like my mom."

Mrs. Hundser nodded, "We only met her those few times at the wakes and funeral. She was every bit as distraught as you were. I don't think there's anything to worry about."

Mr. Hundser asked, "Are you willing to try?"

I smiled and wiped my eyes saying, "I intend to, very soon." My mind felt a little numb for a few seconds there. I felt sorrow because I had chosen to ignore my aunt for so long. But I was also glad that I realized it and hoped that starting a relationship with my aunt would work out. I smiled and said, "I'll call the vet next Monday."

Mrs. Hundser giggled, "I already called but don't have a firm appointment yet."

I grinned and said, "I'll start getting Rush's chow and anything else he needs."

Mr. Hundser nodded and said, "That's fine."

I smiled and happily said, "Keith and I will be working Saturday's through Tuesday's this summer. If we could take Rush to the vet on one of our days off, that would work." I then asked, "Will he need to stay overnight?"

Mrs. Hundser said, "Probably not. When Aldo was fixed we dropped him off in the morning and picked him up on the way home that afternoon."

I stood and smiled, "Thanks." Then I looked down at Rush and asked, "Time to go out, hound dog?" Rush got up with his rope toy and trotted to the back door.

Ten or so minutes later, Rush and I said goodnight then went to our room. From the hallway I could hear that Keith had turned the stereo on and was singing. I opened the door and saw him lying across the bed, hovered over a book but facing away from me while he sang the Savage Garden tune Truly Madly Deeply. I would've been happy to just stand there listening but Rush ran in and Keith looked up. Only momentarily surprised, he rolled over and sang to me.

"And when the stars are shining brightly in the velvet sky
I'll make a wish send it to heaven
Then make you want to cry
The tears of joy for all the pleasure in the certainty
That we're surrounded by the comfort and protection of
The highest powers
In lonely hours
The tears devour you"

Closing the door, I went and lay down beside my lover while he continued singing.

"I want to stand with you on a mountain
I want to bathe with you in the sea
I want to lay like this forever
Until the sky falls down on me
Oh can't you see it baby?
You don't have to close your eyes
'Cause it's standing right here before you
All that you need will surely come
I'll be your dream I'll be your wish
I'll be your fantasy
I'll be your hope I'll be your love
Be everything that you need
I'll love you more with every breath
Truly, madly, deeply do
I want to stand with you on a mountain
I want to bathe with you in the sea
I want to live like this forever
Until the sky falls down on me"

We kissed long and deep while song faded out. The DJ started rambling and Keith pulled back smiling. He asked, "Have I mentioned that I hate chemistry?" I started giggling and Keith went off the deep end. "I'm serious, true hate, the blackest of black kind of hate. The shit these dudes dreamt up, they must've been tripping!"

I laughed, "Are you ready to hang it up?" and bounced my eyebrows playfully.

Keith nodded, closed the chemistry book and shoved it off the edge of the bed. It fell to the floor and Rush went over to check it out. Then Keith asked, "Did everything work out with the `rents?"

I nodded, "Room and board is out of the question but next week, I'll take Rush to the vet. I mentioned visiting my aunt too. They liked the idea a lot. Thanks for suggesting it."

Keith leaned down and kissed me again then smiled, "You're very welcome."

I asked, "Are you still worried about me?"

Keith shrugged and sighed, "A little. You've seemed fine ever since Penney's but seeing you collapse like that really freaked me out."

I nodded and smiled understandingly then explained, "I couldn't go into it before in front of Drew. You know that light headed feeling, like after a visualization?" Keith nodded and I continued, "It was just like that. I was remembering things from Texas and from the apartment but it was so vivid, like watching movies of myself at both places. And then, what really freaked me out was that I smelled my mom's perfume somewhere. Did you smell it?"

Keith grinned and shook his head saying, "I dunno. At the time, I was a bit preoccupied with catching you and wondering why you fainted in the first place."

I softly snickered, "I did not faint!"

Keith smirked, "Whatever you want to call it, Prez. It's not such a safe thing, ya know? What if you were alone? What if you were driving? Please tell me if it ever happens again." He stopped speaking but I could feel his heart beating rapidly against my chest, proof that he was honestly worried about me.

Pulling him over and completely on top of me, I whispered, "If anything remotely similar ever happens, I'll tell you, I promise."

Keith softly said, "I've been thinking about a few things since you keeled over. You don't remember which day you arrived in California?"

I thought aloud, "School ended the second Friday of the June. We left Sherman Saturday morning and made it to Albuquerque by that night. The whole next day was spent driving too so it must've been Monday that we arrived. We went to my aunt's place then my mom and I followed her to the apartment. We met the following Tuesday, after our stuff was delivered by the movers."

Keith hummed thoughtfully for a moment then softly said, "You arrived in California on Monday, June 16th, 1997 a week and a day before we met."

"You still want to celebrate that day?"

Keith sighed, "I'd like to but I'll leave it up to you."

"Why wouldn't I want to?"

"Think about it Prez. You left the only home you'd ever known and crossed half the country to start over."

I nodded and said, "The day we moved into the apartment my mom said this was our chance to change lots of things. She wanted to see me getting out more, having fun more often. I told her that I was embarrassed of dad and that was why I didn't invite any one over. It was just easier to hide. She asked if I was embarrassed of her too. Of course I wasn't so she told me to try and meet new people, to take a few chances..." I paused and giggled, "A week later I was taking twenty chances a day with you!"

Keith chuckled softly for a few moments. He then said, "I don't know how I'd feel with so many changes happening in my life."

"My mom and I allowed one set of changes to bring about lots of other changes."

After a long period of silence, Keith whispered, "Then the accident happened and turned everything upside down again. I think you're just now realizing all that's happened over the last year. You were justifiably preoccupied with your mom..."

I interrupted, "I still am, to a point."

"And beyond that point, there's still been an awful lot to deal with," Keith said. He paused again then whispered, "Is it possible that you're a little scared?"

"Scared of what?"

Keith suggested, "Of summer vacation? Or maybe the anniversary of your arrival in California? Of having less to do and more time to think about everything that's changed?"

A tremendous shudder raced around my body and my eyes overflowed with tears. Keith pulled back and looked down at me. He wiped my tears then kissed my cheek and whispered, "I'm sorry baby."

Unable to speak, I shook my head, forced a smile and pulled him back down on top of me. That was the third time he had apologized to me and this time was just as unnecessary as the other two. I sniffed, "You're the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me," and squeezed him tightly while I softly sobbed.

Carefully, I considered what he said. Maybe my conscious mind has been fighting my subconscious. Pulling myself together a little, I softly said, "The only thing I'd want to change is the one thing that I can't change. I went from a three-person family to a two-person family to a six-person family, all in about six months. I've been trying to deal with it babe, honest I have."

"I know. Don't push so hard baby. No one needs or wants expensive gifts from you. Mike was happy with our presents and you didn't spend a small fortune."

I asked, "Did I mention that I'll be buying Rush's food and supplies from now on?" and Keith hummed no. "I couldn't talk your folks into room and board but it's something."

Pulling back and looking down at me, Keith again suggested, "Concentrate on you this summer, Prez. I heard what my dad said about taxes. That's about half of what's in your money market account. Use the other half on things you want. When more money gets deposited into the account, you can spend a little more."

I smiled and nodded. A stray thought flickered across my mind and I giggled, "More dividends will be deposited some time this month and again in September, hopefully just before your birthday!"

Keith laughed, "I'm never gonna win!"

Sliding one hand up under his shirt and the other into his shorts' back pocket, I grinned, "Yeah ya have the one thing money can't buy."

I hope you enjoyed the story. Happy Holloween!
Comments and constructive critisisms are always welcome.