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The following is an original work of fiction and has no basis in reality.

Do not read this story if:

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Perry and Jesse:  The Incredibly Romantic (and slightly kinky) Adventures of Two Boys In Love  

Part V  Truths and Lies

Chapter 8 Hode Ranch Part III

He seemed to recognize me as well despite my hood, and the cold and cocky look on his boyish face was replaced first by confused recognition and then...annoyance?

"You boys ready to mix it up?" Gus asked.

My totally ad libbed reply was a resounding belch full of the potently sweet and sour taste of beer.

"I betcha this one won't last a minute!" the Karate Kid sneered in a smug, but undeniably youthful voice.

"Word is, he's hot stuff!" Gus noted somewhat skeptically.  I wondered how the 'word' had gotten out about me?  

"I know this is your first time," he said, addressing me, "but you've been watching, no?  You seen how it goes down.  Get in the Cage, stand facing each other in the center circle and shake hands.  Wait for me to lock you guys in.  Then the referee will blow his whistle.  As soon as you hear that, you mix it up.  You win by either pinning your opponent for a ten count, or knocking him down so hard, he can't get up on his own.  When the referee blows the whistle again, back off right away!  None of those theatrics like in the last round.  If that guy wasn't reigning champ, and popular with the regulars, he'd be banned from all future competitions.  The boss runs a clean operation here."

Yeah, except for strip searching fourteen year old kids!

Gus spoke quickly with a slight Hispanic accent, some of his words drowned out by the noisy crowd.  I wasn't really listening anyway.  I felt like my world was collapsing.  I had been completely, utterly, undeniably wrong.  Jesse wasn't here.  The Karate Kid was the altar boy I had seen at Mass just last Sunday as I sat three rows from the front with Jessica and her family.  He was  a genuine martial arts phenom and he was going to destroy me, make Gary's nightmare vision come true in the worst possible way.  I realized that I needed to get out of here now, before we got locked in that damned Cage.  Then, no one'd be able to help me.  But where the hell was Gary?  Had Al-Jihuad had a change of plan?  Could he have had Gary taken out back?  Or for that matter, had Gary been spotted by Fred Goreski or Mario Hernandez, and taken out back?  

"Hey, you look familiar..." Gus was saying.

I quashed my initial wave of panic, realizing that maybe this was a good thing.  Gus would surely realize that I didn't belong here and stop the fight.  I tugged my hood off, waiting for the look of recognition in his eyes.  And he was looking, but didn't seem to be able to recall me.  Of course, he and Julio had been focusing their attention on Jesse that All Saints' Day.  I just happened to be standing there at the time and was of no interest to them.

"Man, you look familiar..." he mused, straining his eyes a little as he stared at me.  "Maybe I have seen you fight after all..."  he said, groping for some memory to corroborate his sense of recognition.

Maybe the fact that my hair was a lot shorter than it had been when we had met on the Kennedy High basketball court had something to do with it.  Finally though, his eyes did open wide.  "Oh yeah, now I remember.  You were with..."  Then his face took on a perplexed expression.   "What...the...fuck...?"  Recovering quickly from his initial confusion, his eyes lit up excitedly.  "Is your friend here?"

That was the million dollar question, wasn't it?

Suddenly, the slight figure of the referee was standing next to us.  "Is there a problem?" he asked in his thin, high pitched voice.

"You bet there is!" I blurted out.  "I don't belong here.  I'm no blackbelt--tell him, Gus!"  I urged.

"What the fuck are you trying to pull?" the cherubic altar boy asked suspiciously.

"This is all a big mistake. You see, I thought that..."  I began to explain.

"Enough of this bullshit," Gus said irritably.  "The crowd's expecting a fight and you're gonna give 'em one!" he declared impatiently.  He climbed the steps and opened the Cage door.

The Karate Kid gave me an impatient look which turned into a confidant sneer.  He climbed the steps and entered the Cage to tumultuous cheering and whistling from the crowd.  

"No...this is all a mistake!" I insisted, turning to the referee to plead my case.

"Should of thought about that before, son," he said sympathetically, pushing me up the stairs from behind.  "I've seen grown men have pre-fight jitters, but I honest to God don't know what twelve year old kids are doing here--it's insane!"

Before I could tell him that today was my birthday and I had just turned fourteen, I  was stumbling into the Cage.  I had no chance to protest further.  I turned just in time to see the  thick chain link door slammed in my face.

"Will the contestants please enter the inner circle!"  came the thundering announcement over the p.a. system.

The Karate Kid stood to one side and shrugged off his jacket.  Underneath he was wearing a simple white tank top that clearly showed off his well honed physique much better than the red collared, white vestments he wore at Sunday Mass.  The rest of his outfit consisted of black sweat pants and Asics crosstrainers.  He barely glanced at me.

I watched with unmasked trepidation as Gus turned the key on the oversized padlock, showing the crowd that we were indeed locked in.   Still, I just stood there with my hands stuffed in the pockets of my jacket.

"Will the contestants please enter the inner circle!"  the announcer repeated.

The crowd started jeering and booing, anxious to see two young teenagers beat each other bloody.  I realized what was happening even though I was powerless to stop it.  I was being completely overtaken by pure, blinding panic and I could hardly breath.  "Gary!!!!" I screamed, facing the crowd.  But it was just like a dream.  When I opened my mouth, nothing but a harsh whisper came out!  I just stood there, my feet glued to the floor.  The bright spot lights focusing on the Cage made it impossible for me to make out anyone but Gus and the referee, who were still standing at the bottom of the steps, only a few feet away.  "Gary--someone--help me!!!!" I screamed in my mind.

"Let's get this show on the road, Thompson!"  It was the Karate Kid, and he was standing just a couple feet away from me.
Hearing the altar boy speak my own name somehow shook me out of my nightmare state.  " know who I am?"  I stammered.

"I've seen you at church.  You're mom's in the choir.  You always have all those pretty girls hangin' on you...I didn't know you were a blackbelt though..." he added.   "Where's your dojo?"

"Will the contestants please enter the inner circle so that the round may begin!!!!" the announcer declared impatiently.

"This is all a big mistake!" I explained as quickly as I could.  "I thought my friend was going to be here.  He is a blackbelt, and I thought he was going to fight 'cause we met Gus and..."

"I don't know what you're trying to pull, but you're wastin' your time if you think you can psyche me out!"  the Karate Kid said.  "Obviously, you had one too many beers and you're head is all fucked up!"  He gave me a little shove.  "C'mon, let's get in there and shake so we can get this over with!"

The crowd was now chanting:  "Fight!  Fight!  Fight!  Fight!" in thundering unison.

I was astonished to discover that my feet were now leading me further into the Cage entirely of their own volition.

"You gonna fight with your goddamn jacket on?" the Karate Kid asked with a snort of disgust.

"Whatever..." I mumbled, dazedly stepping into the circle.  Before I could do or say anything else, the young blond haired boy grabbed my arm out of my pocket and shook my hand hard enough to send a painful jolt up my shoulder to my neck.  The crowd cheered again, worked up into a frenzy of anticipation by my stalling.  Still clutching my hand in an iron grip, the boy pulled me close enough that I could feel his hot breath on my face.

"Name's Craig, by the way," he whispered quickly.  "I honestly don't know what to make of your story," he admitted.  "They say the betting was extra heavy on this one, and that the big boss himself was leveraging it in your favor.  Why would he do that if he didn't think you could beat me, huh?"

I had no response to that!

"But I'm no chicken shit!  I'm here to kick ass and collect my winnings--plain and simple.  So I'm gonna take you down no matter what."  He looked me over quickly.  "I have no idea if you know what you're doing or not...You really don't look like a fighter."  He paused for a brief second and then smiled coldly.   "Then again,  people say the same about me!" he noted with an evil grin.

He stepped back to one corner of the Cage, which in actuality was really not that big.  Obviously, there was no place to run and I had now seen for myself that the links that made up the barrier walls were much thicker than the average backyard fence and probably were designed not to yield even under the stressful impact of large, fully grown wrestler types.

Again the crowd began to chant:  "Fight!  Fight!  Fight!  Fight!'

I felt my heart sink into my bowels as the referee's whistle blew.  But I hardly had time to feel sorry for myself.  The Karate Kid moved quickly, and he was soon in striking distance.  For whatever it was worth, I took on a defensive stance and the two of us circled, much as Gus and Jesse had done on the basketball court.  But this didn't last very long, because the sweet little altar boy shot out his leg and his right foot made powerful contact with my solar plexus. All the air was forced out of my lungs as I was flung back.  It was like I was being pulled towards the fence rather than pushed, and when I slammed into it, my back and shoulders immediately felt like they were on fire.

Craig was on me immediately, and it was obvious that he was ready to land a few blows.  My chest filled with pain as I struggled just to breath.  I literally cringed, flinging my hands up the way any helpless person would to avoid being attacked.  I saw him from between my upstretched arms hesitate for a moment.

There was a commotion out in the crowd.  The cheering was suddenly interrupted by harsh cries, shouts clearly tinged with panic.  "Policia!  Policia!"  someone was bellowing.  

"Fuck!  It's a raid!" someone else grunted.

The Karate Kid still looked like he was ready to pummel me, and I kept my arms in front of my face as I hunched against the wall.  But the shouts became more widespread and people were starting to leave their seats.  Apparently the Hode Ranch tournament had been discovered despite Billy's best efforts to hide it.

"Damn!  I can't believe this!" Craig spat angrily, still holding his tightly balled fists just inches from my huddled body.  He looked undecided for a few moments, and glanced back and forth between my crouching form, and the commotion outside, and then finally lowered his arms.

We both turned at the same time to see a wide eyed Gus hastily unlocking the Cage.

"It's true, guys!  It's a raid!  Somehow the cops found us out!  Must be a fuckin' informer!"  He got the padlock off and flung open the Cage.  Craig immediately raced for the open door.  When he got to the stairs, he finally turned to me.

"C'mon, you moron!  We gotta get outta here!  I don't know about the fuckin' police, but if I get caught here, my dad'll kill me!"

Well, he certainly had a point there!  We ran directly into the swarming crowd that was pouring off the bleachers.  The neatly dressed men in the VIP section had already vanished from sight.  

"This way!" Craig called, waving to me from within a sea of much taller people.  But before I could catch up to him, his curly blond head was lost to me and I began to be buffeted around by those that were trying frantically to escape before the police arrived.

Somebody grabbed me by the arm and I smiled, relieved that Gary had finally found me.  But my moment of happiness  instantly turned to one of shock and horror as I saw the wide, red face of Fred Goreski!

"What the fuck you doin' here you little cunt?" he asked pointedly.  "You ain't no fighter!" he growled.

I looked around to see if any of his support crew were near by, but he seemed to be alone, at least for the moment.

"I'm looking for Jesse!" I explained stupidly.  

"Goldilocks?  He here too?" Goreski asked excitedly.  "Man, I'd love to fuckin' meet him again, me and my trusty tire iron!"  He began dragging me through the crowd by my arm.

"What're you doing?" I cried, struggling vainly to loosen his grip.  "Where are we going?"

"Outta here.  Then we'll take care of business..."

"Not today!" came a deep and familiar voice.  I felt my other arm being grabbed and I was forcefully wrenched from Goreski's grip.

"Gary!  Where were you?!" I asked, my head spinning in confusion as he hastily pulled me along.  "Did you see what happened to me in the Cage?  The Karate Kid wasn't Jesse.  He was the altar boy!  He almost beat me up!  Do you know what happened after you went downstairs?"  I began spewing out all the things I wanted to share with him.

"Not now, Per.  We gotta haul ass!" he said.

I turned to see Goreski standing open mouthed in the middle of the panicking crowd.  It seemed like he was getting ready to follow us when Mario Hernandez came up to him, blocking my view of the flabbergasted wrestler.

"How're we gonna get away?" I asked as he pulled me towards the back where we had first entered the building.

"Listen to me," Gary said emphatically.  "Whatever you do, you stick to me?  Got it? It's the only way--the only way outta here!  Got it?!"  He almost sounded angry he was so adamant.

"Sh...sure, Gary, sure," I promised him.

Just before we got to the door leading to the back corridor I pulled away.  "My stuff--my cellphone, my wallet--they're all back in that room!" I remembered.

Gary hesitated for a second.  "Fuck that, Perry.  We gotta get outta here.  There's gonna be police swarming all over this place in about two minutes!"

"But I gotta have my cellphone!  My mom'll kill me if I lose it!"

"I'll buy ya a new one if we get outta here!" he assured me as he grappled with the doorknob.  "Fuck--it's locked!" he exclaimed frustratedly as he rattled the metal door over and over again in vain.

"Here.."  I said, turning the little knob in the middle of the bigger knob.  The door opened easily and we slipped into the corridor through which we had originally entered.  Gary slammed the door closed behind us.  It didn't seem like Goreski was following us.  He probably had his own worries right now.

There were various people running helter skelter through the narrow passage way and into and out of small offices.  There was paper flying everywhere and I got buffeted several times by panicked and self involved worker types.  No doubt they were firing up the paper shredders.  But Gary made a bee line for the back door and we were soon out into the cold night air.  Our eyes were still getting used to the near darkness when we heard a shout.

"Hey, you there!"  It was the two guards from the parking lot, and they were heading right for us--and this time, they had their guns drawn!

Getting shot was high on my list of things I was curious about but never wanted to actually happen.  I mean, what did it actually feel like to have a bullet rip through your flesh, slice through your organs, and come out the other side?  Why could one or two of those little pieces of metal cause so much damage?  Did people really drop dead right after getting shot, or was that just something that happened in the movies?

Gary froze and I bumped right into him.  He looked frantically around and I wondered why we didn't just keep running.  The guards were only about  thirty yards from us now and coming in at a fast clip.  "The boss wants to see you guys!" one of them shouted even as they continued to close the distance between us.

"Gary, we gotta make a run for it!"  I told him, tugging forcefully on his arm.  "If we can get into the woods, it'll be harder for them to find us!"

But he just kept looking around, his shaggy black hair flopping around every which way as he swivelled his head quickly from one direction to the next.

Suddenly there was a loud--and familiar--roar.  Abruptly, the two guards were lit up by oncoming headlights.  Gary's Nissan screeched to a halt, kicking up a cloud of dusty earth as a dark haired gal poked her head out the driver's window.  "Are we splitting or what?" she asked.

Gary shoved me quickly into the cramped backseat and then jumped in himself.  The young woman had the Nissan moving before Gary even had the door closed.  She drove right towards the two guards, who were trying to bring their weapons up to fire.  But they didn't have time because the car with its glaring headlights was bearing right down on them.  At the last second, they leapt away in opposite directions and we were off, tearing around the building back towards the parking lot and the road out of here.

As we got closer to the parking lot, it was obvious that the place was in a complete uproar.  Most of the people were running to their cars but a few seemed determined to ditch into the surrounding woods, perhaps figuring they'd have a better chance of eluding the police that way.  Even as we spotted the dirt road that led back to the gatekeeper's house, we saw the bright blue, red, and yellow flashing lights of the San Diego Sheriff's Department illuminating the edge of the woods.  Out they came in single file, one, two, three, four, five cars with their brilliantly gyrating crowns of light.

A few of the people from inside had managed to get to their cars and were also wending their way through the sea of parked vehicles toward the only road out, but now it was blocked.  Police sprang out of each squad car, guns drawn.  There was shouting and screaming and all around pandemonium.  A police chopper roared over the area, it's spotlight  slicing through the darkness to momentarily illuminate what ever activity it could capture in its all seeing eye.

"By the way, this is Theresa," Gary said quickly.  "Theresa, Perry."

"Are you sure about this?" Theresa asked skeptically, momentarily ignoring our formal introduction.  She just kept driving straight towards the police blockade.  She didn't look particularly frightened, just uncertain.

"No, but what choice do we have?" my friend grunted.

Are we turning ourselves in?" I asked in surprised disbelief.  Oh man, was I ever gonna be grounded!  There went the Disneyland trip right down the drain!

As we approached, one of the police officers motioned for us to stop.  Two others backed him up with drawn weapons.  Gary rolled down his window.  "We're looking for Sergeant Peabody," he said.

The policeman pointed a bright flashlight at us, looking all three of us over carefully, and then gestured for us to go ahead.  I couldn't believe it!  Theresa slowly drove the Nissan around the blockade and then made a sharp turn so that she could get back on the narrow dirt road before entering the thickly wooded area.  I looked back and noticed other cars trying to pass the blockade, but so far, we were the only ones who had made it.  I wondered who Sergeant Peabody was, but right now, I just wanted to get out of here.

Theresa guided the old Nissan skillfully down the narrow road which was tightly surrounded by dense, towering groves of pine trees in what was now total darkness, the kind you only experienced way out in the country far from city lights.  But eventually, we saw the now familiar flash of those blue, red, and yellow lights, and when we left the woods, it was to see four more squad cars surrounding the gatekeeper's rundown dwelling.  I noticed these were from the Escondido police force.  As we left the woods behind us, more squad cars plunged in, heading back towards the arena building.

"Here we go again," Theresa muttered, slowing her speed and then coming to a stop as she was waved down by a tall female officer.

"We're lookin' for Sergeant Peabody!" Gary repeated.

The uniformed cop looked each of us over carefully and then nodded stiffly, signalling us to move on.  I couldn't believe it!  Who was this Sergeant Peabody and why did we have to see him or her?

Theresa wasted no time moving us on down the road.  We all had a few minutes to catch our breath as we passed through the barren and hilly terrain that led back to the main road.  It seemed like everyone was lost in their own thoughts, but my mind was just totally overloaded.  I saw the two guards chasing us with drawn guns, Zhen Woo standing impassively first at the door to Al-Jihuad's headquarters, and then in the 'back room,'  and how could I forget that wild look in Billy's eyes?    Still, I felt bad for the things I had said to him.  He couldn't help those feelings he had and it had been Al-Jihuad who had set both of us up.

Finally, I couldn't stand the silence in the small car any longer.  "Who's Sergeant Peabody?" I asked.

"Sorry, dude," Gary explained, his voice still filled with nervous tension.  "After that Zhen Woo character took me back downstairs I looked everywhere I could for Jesse without drawing too much attention to myself.  But of course, who'd I run in to?"

"Goreski!" I guessed.

Gary just nodded.  "Those guys would totally love to kick my ass, but I guess dating Mario's sister has kept them off my backs so far.  Still, I had to keep a low profile, not wanting to get into any more trouble than we were already in.  I spotted T. pretty early on, but I wasn't sure if I should approach her or not at that point.  I figured the best thing was just to stay in that section with the suit and cigar dudes.  I tell you, Per,  my mind was just like--blank or something.  I didn't have a clue what to do and I didn't know what they were doing with you up there.  That Al-Jihuad fucker--man, what a creep!  They didn't try anything, did they Perry?" he asked with fearful concern.

"Well..."  I hesitated.

Just then, we topped a hill and looked down on the ranch entrance.  There were several squad cars just inside the gate, and at least a half dozen more strewn along Hode Ranch Road, setting up blockades.  I noticed that some of them were from the Sheriff's department.  Again Theresa slowed the car down, and again an officer waved for us to stop.

"We're looking for Sergeant Peabody," Gary repeated anxiously.  I noticed none of the officers had drawn their weapons this time.

"You done good, kid!" the bulky officer smiled tersely.  "Now get the hell outta here--There's gonna be reporters and choppers swarming all over this place in a few minutes!"

"You heard the officer!" Gary said with some relief.  But before Theresa could even shift the car into drive, we felt a low rumble.

"Holy shit!" one of the officers exclaimed.  

They were all looking back over the hills and so we did too.  Suddenly, the sky in the distance turned bright orange.  This was followed by another rumbling, like a moderate earthquake.  A huge plume of brilliantly colored flame rose into the air before vanishing back into the night.  This was followed by a billowing column of smoke, colored a hellishly undulating orange by what must have been a large fire back...back by the...

"Oh no!" I cried, springing from my seat.

"Go, T.--get us the fuck outta here!" Gary urged, and Theresa didn't seem to have a problem with that, because she pulled out onto the road with squealing tires as the officers waved us by.

I knelt on the back seat looking back as the thick column of glowing smoke rose into the pitch black night.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Al-Jihuad had the whole place rigged to go!" Gary noted grimly.

"But what if there were people inside?" I asked disbelievingly.  "Craig, Billy, Zhen Woo, Jaime, Gus, Mr. Al-Jihuad, Goreski!"

"You're a sweet kid, Perry, to think of all those people, but that was bad business.  Everyone there knew it--just like we did!  Besides, if anyone got away scott free, you can bet it was Al-Jihuad."

I sensed that he was probably right.  Al-Jihuad was obviously a very shrewd businessman.  He had an almost casual confidence about himself that hinted at many years of experience being involved in shady ventures like this one.  The  person I was most worried about was Billy Zanterman.  Poor Billy...I tried to imagine what his childhood must have been like.  Probably a lonely, mixed-up, gay  kid with an incredible intellect but no real friends and no one to encourage him.   Bored and scorned by his peers, he turned to hacking, and got involved with bad people...bad business.  I felt a tear trickle down my cheek.

"Hey, dude, it's over," Gary said sympathetically.  "Jesse wasn't there..."

"I know...I was just thinkin' about Billy..."  I sniffed.

He obviously didn't understand why I would be so concerned about someone I had only met a couple of hours ago, someone who had actually tried to do something terrible to me.  I had to wonder how far Billy would have gone.  Would he have been content to conduct his 'visual' examination of my naked form, or would he have wanted more?  And if he had wanted more, would Zhen Woo have allowed it?  Knowing that Al-Jihuad himself had sanctioned the strip search, I had to shudder when I thought about the likely answer.  Still, I didn't want to see Billy killed in a fire.  He didn't deserve that.  No one did, not even Fred Goreski.

"What happened to you upstairs?" Gary asked gently.

I shook my head.  "I don't want to talk about," I told him, trying to get my emotions under control.  My chest still ached from Craig's powerful kick, my back and shoulder throbbed from where I had slammed into the side of the Cage, and my head was swimming with...with everything!  "Tell me what happened to you...Why were you looking for Sergeant Peabody?"

Gary nodded reluctantly, obviously wanting to hear what had become of me after we were separated, but seeing that this indeed wasn't the time.  "Well, like I said, Jesse was nowhere to be found, but I figured I wouldn't have to wait long since the Karate Kid was in the second contest--and then the third--and the fourth!  He was fuckin' amazing--leaping, kicking, flipping big high school guys--but he obviously wasn't Jesse."

"I know..."  I said, still having a hard time reconciling the altar boy I had thought was kind of cute at church and the steely cold fighter I had encountered in the Cage.  What would he have done to me if it hadn't been for the timely disruption of the police raid?

"So basically dude, I panicked.  I found the quietest corner I could and first I called Jesse and got the machine again--but I did leave a message this time with my cell number--and then, shit man, I called the fuckin' cops!"

"It was you!" I said in shocked disbelief.

"I told them I knew where the fights were, but they had to promise me that...that you'd be safe...allowed to go free--no hassles."

I was extremely touched by Gary's gesture.  If he had ever meant me any harm, it was certainly now fully erased in whatever book kept track of such things.

He saw the look of gratitude in my eyes and smiled warmly.  "Hey man, I told you, I never want anything bad to happen to you.  I meant that!" he assured me.

While my earlier vision had been of embracing my beautiful, rescued angel as we made good our escape, it now seemed perfectly clear to me what I needed to do.  I leaned over and wrapped my arms around the big high schooler.

"Thank you, Gary.  Thank you so much for everything..." I blubbered, the tears coming freely now.

Gary said nothing, but I felt his arms reach around my back and we just held each other for a long time.


We rode on in silence, through the darkened canyon.  An occasional set of headlights popped up in front of us and the cars and news vans zoomed by us.  One thing I noticed though was that no one was behind us.  

"Hey, I hate to break up your little lovefest back there," Theresa said after a while, "but we're runnin' on fumes here.  I don't know why you don't keep some gas in this damn hunka junk, Gar.  I don't think I've ever seen the gage at more than half full!"

Gary sighed and slowly released me.  I turned away and quickly wiped the tears from my eyes.  I noticed him doing the same.

"Ah...yeah.  Sorry, this was definitely not a scheduled trip," he noted in a raspy voice.

"I think we passed a gas station on the way out here," I noted.

"Well, the sooner the better," she said apprehensively.

How ironic if, after all that had happened, we'd end up running out of gas in the middle of nowhere!  I glanced at my watch, and then realized that it had probably been burned up with everything else.  The cool sports watch my dad had given me for Christmas last year...

"Oh man..." I moaned despondently.

"What is it?" Gary asked with serious concern.

"My cellphone, my wallet, my keys, my watch!" I groaned.  "What am I gonna tell my mom?"

"That's a good question dude.  Something we should seriously talk about," Gary answered.

Just then, the lonely lights of the no name gas station appeared over the next crest.

"None too soon," Theresa muttered as we slowed and pulled in.  "I suppose I'm paying..." she complained, but not too seriously.

"I'll cover it!" Gary said exasperatedly, as if the two had repeated this conversation in some form or another many times before.

I reached for my wallet, thinking it was the least I could do, and slumped back in my seat when I realized it was gone, along with my library card, my St. Boniface picture ID, my Blockbuster card, and fifty three dollars in cash.  

"You thirsty, or hungry?" Gary asked me.

I realized that I was both and nodded emphatically.  "You up to takin' a little trip to the quickie mart?" he asked with an awkward grin.

I nodded and followed him in.  I knew he didn't have too much money so I looked around carefully for what would tide me over until I got home.  The hot dogs looked more like withered twigs than pieces of meat.  My stomach definitely wasn't up for nachos.  It was too cold for a frosty freeze.  I decided on a Hostess Twinkie--I hadn't had one for a long time.  Gary noticed my choice.

"Hey, just grab a whole box.  We can pop a couple of those babies each," he suggested.

I didn't think Coke would go well with Twinkies, so I got myself a small carton of milk.  I had a feeling Gary probably wanted a beer, but he was way too young to buy it himself.  He grabbed a Mountain Dew for himself and a Diet Coke for Theresa.

"Theresa seems really nice," I noted as we waited at the checkout stand.  Glancing outside, I saw her pumping gas into the tired old Nissan.  She had a wild hairdo that sort of fanned out from both sides of her head.  Her hair was black, but contained numerous streaks of blond as well.   Her eyebrows were thin and arched and her lipstick was a dark red.  She had high cheekbones and a long face.  It bothered me a little that she had the same sort of eyes as Mario--kind of small and slanted, but in her sleek leather jacket  and hip hugging black jeans, she still looked pretty sexy.

"She's great," Gary acknowledged.  "She's really good to me…incredibly patient..." he laughed at some unspoken joke.  "I'm really glad she didn't ditch me after that business with Goreski."

"I know.  You'd think her brother wouldn't want her seeing you," I noted.

"You're right about that.  But like I said, they're two very different people.  Besides, Theresa's nearly a year older than him and she don't let her kid brothers tell her what to do!" he laughed knowingly.

"But they're both seniors?"

"Yup.  I for sure won't miss Goreski and that crew stalking the halls next year...T.'ll be out too, but it's gonna be so cool having you and Jesse there," he added.

When we got outside, Theresa was just finishing up.  Gary handed her the box of Twinkies and her drink.

"Hey, me and Per need to have a little one on one.  It'll just take a couple of minutes."

"Fine, but you guys can gab out here.  I'm getting in and turning up the heat--it's freezing out here!"

She was right about that.  My thin fleece jacket and short sleeved polo seemed inadequate to the frosty air.  It was the coldest night I could recall so far this year, and being out in the wide open countryside seemed to intensify the chill.

Gary took me over to the side of the station, his hands stuffed in his pockets.  "Listen, Per.  We gotta come up with...with something to tell your ma.  Any ideas?"

The first thing that popped into my head was that I wanted to tell the whole truth...well, maybe not the whole truth, but mostly--except for the part about the strip search, and getting kicked by Craig, and about the guards chasing us with guns, and the explosion and fire....I sighed, realizing that this was going to be a big problem.  Should I go ahead and introduce Gary as Gene's brother George?  There was absolutely no physical resemblance between them although they were two of the nicest guys I had ever met.  And how would I explain Theresa?  And Gene's absence?   And the fact that I had lost my cellphone, wallet, house keys, and watch?  And the biggest problem of all was how I was going to manage to explain my motivation for running off in the first place.  Would I have to tell my mother about Jesse's fight with Gus on the basketball court at Kennedy High?  To explain that, I'd have to describe to her the night at the mall when Julio and his buds tried to beat us up.  And somehow I'd have to explain Gary's involvement without telling her about the horrible business with Goreski in the john at the St. Agnus rummage sale.  'Gees, mom, while you were selling antiques to blue haired old ladies, this big high schooler was trying to get me to suck his dick in the bathroom!'  Sigh...I thought sardonically that Jesse would be able to come up with something.   He had such a good imagination and was able to think so quickly on his feet.

Still, I could only come to one conclusion..."I think we have to tell her the truth," I admitted reluctantly, "just without the really scary parts."

Gary nodded understandingly.

"I really want her to meet you...and Theresa.  I mean, you were so willing to just go off on this crazy chase, just because I had a weird feeling, and you ended up saving my life--both of you..."  I felt myself tearing up again.  "I'll never forget that," I whispered.

Gary started to reach out for me, but backed off at the last second, looking uncomfortable, despite the sympathetic expression on his rugged face.

"Tell me what happened to you after I went downstairs," he asked again, and this time, I knew that he wouldn't let me off the hook.

"Well, at first, everyone was all nice--joking and stuff.  They had me sign some papers--mostly so I wouldn't sue them if I got hurt I guess..."

Gary watched me intently.  Obviously, he was waiting for something.

"It was Mr. Al-Jihuad's idea!" I blurted out, feeling my throat constricting with strong emotions.

"What was?" he asked with concern.

"The security the back room..."

"Back room?"

"Yeah, I got pretty scared when he said that, and I thought that maybe they were taking you to get know...beat up and stuff?  So they showed me that you were okay downstairs and I felt a lot better."

"No one hassled me at all," Gary assured me.  "I even got myself a gin and tonic!"

"That...that's cool..." I said unenthusiastically.

"But tell me what happened, dude.  What's all this back room shit?"

"Well, Mr. Al-Jihuad had Billy take me into this little room--it looked just like a nice office with a desk and sofa and stuff...Mr. Woo came with us..."

"He did?" Gary asked with alarm.

"Yeah, but he was...pretty cool, I guess," I offered, even though I still wasn't sure if the Asian bodyguard would have stopped Billy if it wasn't for the phone call.  "And first, he didn't want to do it...then it was like he sorta did but..."

"Do what?" Gary asked, frustrated and impatient with my babbling.  He took a deep breath, realizing that he was just making me more nervous.  "Go ahead, Perry.  Tell me what happened...Take your time..."

I shrugged.  "Well, it was pretty simple, really.  They were going to do a strip search..."

"What?!" Gary exclaimed.  I could see his face harden with anger.  "Those fuckers!" he screamed between gritted teeth.  He looked around frantically, and then just slammed his fist into the outside wall of the gas station.  "Those fuckers..." he repeated disdainfully.  Then his face became all contorted and he covered himself with his arm.  I saw his shoulders shake and I realized he was crying.

"What is it, Gary?"  I asked worriedly.  "What're you crying about?"

He shook his head, but wouldn't show me his face.  "Aw man, Perry.  I'm so fuckin' sorry...I shouldn'ta left you...I just knew I shouldn'ta left you with those creeps!"

"There wasn't anything else we could do, remember?" I told him, finding it a little odd that I was the one having to console him!  When he didn't respond, I went on.  "This was all my fault, all my idea.  I'm totally responsible for getting us into this mess..."

Gary finally turned and lowered his arm.  The tears and redness around his eyes was clear to see in the glaring lights of the filling station lot.  "Tell me what happened..." he pleaded, his jaw quivering with barely suppressed emotion.  It was clear he was still angry with Al-Jihuad and those people, as well as with himself.

"Well, we went into this room and Zhen Woo stood guard of course.  Then Billy told me to take off my jacket and I thought it was kinda weird the way he took it and crumpled it up and stuff, but I didn't think it was any big deal.  He made me turn off my cellphone and leave it on the desk.  Then he had me sit on the sofa while he sat at the desk.  He had some forms to fill out and..." I laughed a little even though it really wasn't funny.  "And I thought he was just gonna ask me some questions or something..."

"I can't believe they'd do that to a sweet,  innocent boy..." Gary muttered quietly.

"Yeah, well, when he told me it was gonna be a strip search, I really did freak out.  I begged him not to do it, but then he showed me that there was a camera monitoring the room...and probably a mike too, and he said we both had to do what Mr. J.--Mr. Al-Jihuad wanted or we'd be in big trouble."

"That sick bastard!  That sick, slimely, Arabian bastard!"  Gary spat.

"Well, the thing is, I think he knew that Billy was gay--or at least that he liked boys," I noted.

"Gay?" Gary asked, perplexed.  "What're you talking about?  That hacker dude was gay?  How'd you know?"

"Didn't you hear him, when we were in that little office downstairs.  He said I didn't look like the Ninja of Death but more like the Cute Ninja?"  I reminded him uneasily.

Gary pondered for a moment, trying to go back to that time that seemed so long ago now.  "Yeah, I guess he did say that.  Funny that I didn't think anything of it at the time."

"I noticed it, but I didn't think anything of it at the time either," I shrugged.

"Then what happened?" Gary asked, still sniffling and wiping the tears from his face with the sleeve of his well worn denim jacket.

"Well, it was really creepy, knowing that not just Billy and Zhen Woo, but all those people out in the room, were all watching what was going on.  I mean, this is gonna sound kinda stupid but...I'm really shy about my body..."

"Perry...dude," Gary said, his voice thick with emotion.  "That's not stupid.  No one has a right to do that to you. violate you like that...No one!"  I could see the anger building again as his jaw tensed.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about this anymore," I suggested quickly.

Gary looked at me, fierce determination in his dark eyes.  "Goddamn those fuckers--I hope they all burned and I hope it took a long time, trapped in that metal barn, frying to a crisp...!"

I was shocked at Gary's words.  "Don't say that.  I can't stand thinking about it.  I mean, poor Billy.   And Zhen Woo, he was just doing his job as best he could and..."

"Poor Billy?  How can you say that?" Gary asked exasperatedly.  "I mean, Al-Jihuad sent him in there with you, knowing that this computer geek was into guys, and here you are, this incredibly beautiful kid--"  He stopped as he realized what he had said.  Then the look of anger melted from his features and his eyes teared up again.  He turned his back to me, facing the whitewashed wall.

"Do me a favor, Perry.  Just get in the car," he requested quietly.

"But we're not done..."

"For Christssake, Perry!  Get in the Goddamn Fuckin' Car!" Gary shouted at me.

His anger hit me like an unexpectedly violent gust of wind.  I just stood there in shock for a few moments, not believing that he had screamed at me like that.  When he buried his face in his arms again,  I slowly backed off, and then turned and headed for the car trying to figure out what I had done to get him so upset.  The engine was running.  I got in the back again and the warmth of the interior felt good.

"Everything okay?" Theresa asked, her voice tinged with concern.

I didn't know if she had heard Gary's shouting, but she could probably see that he was really upset.

"I...I don't know..." I answered honestly.  "Maybe you should go to him..."

"Nah, kid.  That's not the way with Gar.  Best to just let him chill for a few minutes.  In this weather, that shouldn't take long!" she joked, but neither one of us laughed.

We watched with concern as Gary just stood there with his arms propped against the wall, his face buried.  Finally, he straightened himself out, but instead of heading back toward the car, he started walking off the other way, around the back of the station.

"Hey, where's he going?" I asked worriedly.

"Probably just wants to clear his head," Theresa said, sounding as if she had seen him behave this way before.  She turned to face me in the backseat.  "Listen, Perry.  Gar's told me a lot about you...about what happened that day at St. Agnus..."

I felt the heat of my blushing cheeks.  

"I know he's told you how bad he feels about all that..." she continued.

I kept my head bowed but nodded.

"He said you and your friend were really special, and now that I've met you, I can only imagine what your friend is like..."

"Jesse..." I told her.

She nodded.  "Yeah, Jesse.  He's the one who took care of Goreski, right?"

I nodded.  "And we thought he might be at the fights tonight," I added.

"Yeah, Gar told me all that," she said dismissively.  "But here's the thing, and this is gonna sound pretty weird, especially coming from his girlfriend!" she smiled tensely.

I lifted my head to hear what she had to say that was so important.

"He'll be so pissed that I told you this, but if I don't, well things just aren't going to get any better..."

"Is he angry with me?" I asked worriedly.  "Does he hate me for ruining everything for him with his friends?"  I knew Gary had told me otherwise, but I secretly wondered if he had just been trying to spare my feelings.

She shook her head.  "No, Perry, it's nothing like that.  He was glad to get away from that crowd--and I was glad too, so in that sense, you and Jesse did him a big favor."

I thought she might be joking, but the look on her face was sincere and she gave me a reassuring smile.  

"The thing is, Perry...The thing is...Gary has a little crush on you..."  She pursed her lips thoughtfully.  "Maybe not so little..."

Suddenly the guns, the fire, the Cage, Billy's breakdown, all seemed to disappear into some distant place in the back of my mind.  I felt thunderstruck.  Yeah, that was the perfect word--or lighteningstruck if there was such a thing.   Now the things Gary had said on the way to the ranch started to make some sense.  After my initial shock, I felt weak and disoriented.

"You okay?" Theresa asked with some concern.

"...And Jesse too?" I managed to ask.

"From the things he's said--and not said--I don't think he sees Jesse quite the same way...but I'll admit, I'm kinda reading between the lines here."

"I think Gary's just a little mixed up," I told her.  "You see, a long time ago, he had a friend named Shane..."

"Yes, I know all about Shane," she said sadly.

"I think maybe I reminded him a little of his friend and that maybe he...missed doing some of that stuff like when he was a kid and experimenting and stuff..."

"Gary was so right about you," she said with a gentle smile.  


"That you have no clue..."

"That's for sure!" I snorted.  "I never know what's going on or why people say all the crazy things they do or what I'm supposed to be doing or..."

Theresa actually laughed and it was a rather harsh and raucous sound.  I felt like sinking into the ripped and worn upholstery.

"Oh Perry, I'm not laughing at you..." she explained.  "I mean, it is you, but not what you think!  It's just that Gar said you have no idea how attractive you are and I told him I didn't believe it--that the ones with the looks are always the stuck up ones.  They know what they have, and they use their looks to get what they want."

I thought about my sweet angel--the most beautiful boy on the planet.  He was nothing like that.  Sure, he was a little bashful, a little reticent to open up to strangers, a little self-conscious--well, a lot self-conscious! But he was kind and considerate and responsible, and yet gorgeous beyond belief.

"Don't tell me that you aren't popular with the girls at your school!" she said.  

I shrugged.  "I guess I have a girlfriend...sorta..."

"Sorta!" she repeated with a little snort.   "Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if there were even one or two boys in your class that went to bed thinking about you!"

I rolled my eyes, wishing she would just stop.  People were too involved in looks, even good, sane people like Tom and Jessica and Gary.  I couldn't help the way I looked.  I was born that way for christssake!  Knowing that every time my mom looked at me, it reminded her of my dad, it just made me burn up inside.

"Perry, don't be angry!" Theresa said with some alarm.  "I'm only telling you this because I want you to understand why Gary's acting the way he is.  He was really scared for you tonight...and he cares about you...He cares about you a lot!"

"I'm not angry...with Gary," I told her quietly.  "It's just that, he doesn't know me--and you don't know me..."  And Billy didn't know me, but he sure knew what he wanted...

"I hear what you're saying, " she assured me, "but you'll be patient with him if he acts...a little weird?" she asked cautiously, and her clear concern for her boyfriend touched my heart.

"Of course.  I'll do anything for him.  I can't believe he went through all this" I stammered, starting to feel myself choke up again.  "I mean, he saved my life--both of you did!"

"Oh God, you're so sweet, Perry!  And handsome!  If you were three or four years older, I'd dump Gar in a New York minute for you!"

I knew she was just joking, but I also knew how much she meant to Gary.  "I hope you'll always be with him...He really thinks you're the greatest," I told her.

"Well, sometimes I do have to remind him...just a little!" she joked with a playful wink.  

I really liked Theresa and I could understand why Gary was so taken with her.  But I also realized I had to take Gary's feelings seriously.  There was no point in pondering why he'd get such a crazy idea in his head.  I had to accept the fact that his feelings were real, whatever the source or motivation.  Of course, I wasn't exactly sure how to deal with it.  I sure didn't want to hurt his feelings or anything.  Tonight he had proven what I had felt all along--that he was a totally great guy who had just gotten himself in a bad spot that day at the rummage sale.  I wondered if Billy would have come to his senses at the last minute the way Gary had.  I had to admit that it was unlikely.  The look in Billy's eyes at the end was pretty scary and something I'd not soon forget.  Still, I hoped he had gotten out of that building.  It would be better if he had been arrested than if he had still been in that building when it exploded.

"Theresa?  Can I ask you something?"

"Of course..." she answered somberly, seeing how serious I was.

"Your brother...Mario...Why does he hate me?"

"Did you see him tonight?" she asked with obvious concern.

I shook my head.  "Well, just for a second...but I did run into him and Arnie Hollister at the mall the day after Thanksgiving and..."

"And what?"

"Well, I was with my cousin, Derrin, see?  And we were in the arcade really blazing through this one game called...well, never mind that.  But then, all of a sudden, Arnie Hollister just popped up and even though we'd never met before, I knew it was him because Gary had told us about him and...and your brother.  He told me to go outside with him and I was really scared for my cousin, because he's just twelve, you know?"

She nodded sympathetically, her arm hooked around the head rest of her seat.  

"So I thought it would be better to just go with Arnie, even though now I think it was really stupid of me to just leave Derrin like that but..."  I shrugged regretfully.  It was done now, and things had worked out okay, but it scared me to the pit of my stomach, imagining that something could have happened to my young cousin.  "So we were out in the corridor and there were a lot of people around, but suddenly I heard a guy behind me, and I knew it was your brother..."

"Mario...that bastard!" Theresa hissed.

I nodded.  "Thing is...the thing is..."  Gosh, this was hard to say!  And what if I was wrong?  What if it had only been a pen or a laser pointer or...something else?  "I think he had a knife in my back..."  I said quickly.

I cringed, figuring Theresa would laugh at me again, but instead, her face had a thoughtful expression on it, one that soon hardened into something closer to anger.  She put her hand to her head as if she were physically hurt.

"Dios mio...oh my God!" she muttered half to herself.  "My brother has completely lost it!  I can't fuckin' believe it!" she moaned.  Then she seemed to remember that I was sitting there with a wide eyed expression on my face.

"Oh Perry..."  she crooned.  "My brother...God, how do I say it?  He's a bully--that's all--an insecure bully!  He hangs around with Goreski and that bunch of steroid popping jocks, thinking he owns the whole fuckin' school!  Makes him feel like Mr. Machismo, ya know?"

"But what does he have against me?"  I asked sheepishly.  "I mean, I didn't do anything to him.  Jesse didn't do anything to him or Arnie either...But I really felt like they they wanted to hurt me or...or something..." my voice trailed off uneasily.

"Well, it's all that gangsta crap!"  Theresa spat disdainfully.  "They're all into that shit!  They ain't no gang and any real gang'd kick their asses all the way to Tiajuana and back!  But they think they're tough.  Think they have to live by some stupid code.  What you do to one, you do to all of 'em, or some hokey bullshit like that!"

I was glad Theresa was at least sympathetic to my concerns and it made me feel like maybe I had made a friend tonight despite all the craziness.   "The thing is...I'm afraid of him," I admitted shamefully.

"Yeah, well...why wouldn't ya be?" she smiled painfully.  "He's a senior and you're a thirteen year old eighth grader..."

"I'm fourteen--I just turned fourteen!"  I reminded her petulantly.

She offered me a slight nod of acknowledgement.  "Yeah, you're fourteen now..."  she noted wistfully.  "I already feel like that was such a long time ago...God, I think I used to still wear ponytails when I was in the eighth grade...!"

"Did you go to St. Boniface?" I asked, curious about Theresa's past.

Before she had a chance to answer, a tapping at her window jolted us both into sudden awareness of where and when we were.  It was Gary, and he was clutching his denim jacket tightly around his neck.

"Looks like Gary wants to drive!" Theresa declared, and I could hear the sense of relief in her voice that her boyfriend had finally gotten his act together after all.  She got  out and Gary climbed in.  Neither one said anything so I just kept my mouth shut.  

I realized that I also had feelings for him--not sexual feelings, but strong feelings of admiration and affection.  I'd try to lay low for now, but I wasn't going to hide those feelings from him either.  It was important to me that he understand what an impact he had on my life since that day he saved me from Fred Goreski.

I thought about borrowing someone's phone and trying Jesse again, but what was the point?  We'd be home in less than half an hour and I could call him then and tell him everything that had happened--well, maybe not everything...

"Oh, did I tell you I talked to Jesse?" Gary said after a few minutes.

"What?!" I gasped in disbelief, spewing half chewed pieces of Hostess Twinkie all over the back of the car.

"Calm down now, Perry, please?" he asked.  "Everything's totally cool..."

I nodded, but my heart was beating quickly in my chest.

"I guess he got my message, 'cause he called me back.  This was like right before they announced that the Iron Ninja was versing the Karate Kid."

"What did he say?  Where was he?"

"Well, I think he and his folks were at McDonald's," Gary recalled.  

"Did you tell him where you were--where we were?"

Gary nodded, keeping his focus on the dark road in front of us.  "I had to be pretty careful what I said, just in case someone might over hear.  But I did say that we were at the cage fights and you were worried that he might be there!"

"And what did he say?"  I asked anxiously.

Gary shrugged.  "That's when they announced the rescheduled fight and I couldn't believe it.  I just told Jesse I had to run, but that we were definitely gonna be heading home right away..."  He paused.  "I didn't tell him we had been separated.  And right after that, I called the cops!"

I felt some sense of relief knowing that Jesse was okay.  But now I would have to face him and admit to him that I had betrayed his trust.  How despicable was that?  What kind of messed up person was I?  I loved Jesse to the depths of my heart and knew that the two of us connected at the deepest levels.  Still, I hadn't taken his word that he wouldn't get involved in one of those stupid cage fights and because of that, Gary might've been killed.

The rest of the trip was spent in relative silence.  I guessed everyone could tell that I was just feeling so bad about this whole thing, and they just left me to my own miserable thoughts.  Theresa and Gary munched on Twinkies, but my stomach was just too tied up in knots to think about food right now (and having Craig's foot smashed against my chest hadn't helped any).  I thought about everything that had happened, and everything that was going to happen when I faced my mom...

Gary had a keen sense of direction and I only had to remind him of one turn once we got into the hilly maze of small streets and cul de sacs that made up the community of Coronado Hills.  I had to admit that I was as terrified at the prospect of facing my mom and telling her what had happened as I had been about going into that back room with Billy and Zhen Woo.  Both situations seemed fraught with untold dangers--including the threat of violence!  What I was most worried about at the moment was her cancelling the Disneyland trip and I knew that I would get down on my knees and beg if she even suggested that as a potential punishment for my irresponsible behavior.

I noticed an old white pick up truck in our driveway.  It was the kind with ladders on the back, and the bed was full of parts, coils of wire and cable, and tool chests.  I wondered if there had been some sort of plumbing emergency or something.  Then I noticed the name on the side of the cab door:  Dieberneck Electric: For All Your Electrical Needs--Big Or Small.  So it was some sort of electrical emergency.  Well, whatever it was, either it had been fixed or it wasn't that bad, because all the lights were on including the big yard light.

"Looks like your ma's got company," Gary noted.  "Anyone you know?"

"I'm not sure what's going on," I admitted uncertainly.

I started to get out of the car.  Gary turned to me.  "Look, Per.   Are you sure you want to do this tonight?  I mean, we'll absolutely come in with you, back you up on everything.  But are you sure you don't want to maybe put this off for another time--maybe after things have calmed down a little?"

I had no doubt my mom would be beyond pissed, but putting it off, especially when the trip was so close, didn't seem like a viable option.

"You can go if you want, but I'm going to tell her what really happened--without the really scary parts," I added.

"Then we're with you, dude!" Gary assured me and we all got out of the car together.

We went to the kitchen entrance and I fumbled for my keys.  Of course, I didn't have them, so I was forced to knock.  I think my mom had already spotted the car coming up the driveway and she was at the door before I knocked twice.

"Perry!  Thank God!" she said, grabbing me and pulling me into a fierce embrace.    She was really worked up and I sensed this was only the beginning of a long and difficult night.  But I felt good that Gary and Theresa were here with me.  Maybe they'd at least keep my mom from yelling too much.

I glanced at the clock above the sink.  It was just quarter to nine.  The whole crazy adventure had only taken a grand total of three hours and forty five minutes!  But that was  two hundred and twenty five minutes that would be burned into my memory forever.

"I'm okay mom...Gees..." I protested weakly, but I also hugged her tightly, realizing there was nothing like a mother's embrace to make you feel safe and loved.

She obviously noticed my two friends and stepped back, waiting for introductions.

"This is my friend Gary Van Driesen," I said.  "We met at the rummage sale.  He was helping out."

"You do look vaguely familiar," was the best my mom could manage.  She didn't make any attempt to hide the look of confusion on her face as she tentatively reached out a hand.

Gary took it and gave it a light shake.  "Nice to meet you, ma'am," he said with a nod of his head.

"And this is his girlfriend, Theresa...Hernandez.  She's uh...really cool and helpful and...stuff."

"Wonderful to meet you, Mrs. Thompson.  You have a remarkable son," she said, sounding so calm and mature.

"Where's Gene and his brother?" my mom asked, and by the way she said it, it was clear that she already had some idea that they might not be making an appearance.  

I was about to ask her about that, when my eyes nearly popped out of my head.  When I first saw him hesitantly enter the kitchen from the den, I couldn't believe my eyes.  It was like a dream.  He looked so incredibly beautiful even though he was just dressed in the same school clothes I had seen him in earlier today.   But there was something about that golden blond hair and that smooth, perfectly sculpted face and those bright, crystal blue eyes that made him seem fantastical, and it took me a few moments to realize my mouth was hanging open.  But then I  flashed back to the cage fight I had seen, and how the Terrorist had jumped on the back of the Crusher, and how Gus and his friends had to drag that poor kid out, broken and bloody...And I realized that could have been Jesse.  That could have been my sweet angel!  Everything swirled around and I felt myself sinking...

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