...And the Other Friends...



Ok, now for all the usual stuff: Don't read this story if you are under 18; it's illegal for you to do so;
or you don't like stories of young gay men that sometimes include sex.
All characters are fictional. Absolutely. I would never even THINK of using my story to even an old score.
Honest to God. ; )
© 2002 by Keith. No part of this story may be posted ANYWHERE without the express permission of the author.
You may copy it to a file or even print it out, but you may not distribute it for charge.
Not one word may be changed without permission.
This story also appears at www.archerland.net with the permission of the author, and no where else. Let me know
if you run across it someplace it isn't supposed to be.
I love email, so send any comments to
Oh, and if it looks suspiciously like I'm fishing for email... well
You're right. I have no pride


Chapter 10

Drew stood in the corridor, staring at his locker. And so it begins, he said to himself, rocking back on his heels. His lips twisted into a cross between a scowl and a smile. He dropped his bag and fished in his pocket for his keys. There was the murmur of voices around him, along with some laughter, but he and some laughter. It seemed most of his class had a reason to be in this end of the school this morning. Drew slid the key into the lock and opened the door, ignoring the target drawn onto it with a marker pen, and the pink triangle in the center instead of a bulls eye. The black marker drawing of a mouth stretched opened to accept three crudely-drawn cocks wasn't exactly artist-quality, either. Drew slipped off his coat and began to hang it.

"Out, all of you! Move it!"

Drew didn't have to look. He recognized Brother Paul's voice, the Disciplinarian for the school. If Brother Matthew's voice could intimidate a crowd, Brother Paul's could scare the living hell out of it. Drew hung his winter coat in the locker, straightened out his school blazer and adjusted his tie.

The brother stepped up beside him. "Mr. McKinnon, I'll send the janitor up with some things. I want that locker scrubbed down before you report to Brother Matthew this morning."

Drew eased the locker door shut and turned around, a grim smile on his face.


Brother Paul's bushy eyebrows shot up. Drew continued.

"I didn't put that there," he said, nodding his head to the graffiti, "and as far as I'm concerned, it can stay. If you want it cleaned off, go find the nut-less wonders that did it," he said in a polite voice, but still loud enough to carry down the hall. The crowd had retreated but hadn't dispersed. It hushed. No one talked back to Brother Paul.

"Mr. McKinnon," the monk said icily, "Lawrence Catholic has regulations about graffiti, and I said-"

"Yeah, the school has rules about defacing property, Brother Paul, and I didn't break `em. It's also got a zero tolerance level for harassment. If that locker had `KKK rules!' scrawled across it or `spic', you'd be all over yourself trying to find out who did it," Drew said calmly, although his body shook with a barely-controlled anger. "But that's not just graffiti, sir. That's a threat - and it's evidence."

"Evidence?" Brother Paul looked around at the group hanging back at a discreet distance and listening to every word. He leaned in closer to Drew, dropping his voice. "Listen, kid. I'm not your enemy. I'm - "

"You're trying to cover up evidence of a crime, Brother Paul." Drew said calmly, pointing to his locker. "That's not just an insult to me, it's a direct threat against me. The bull's eye is obvious. The pink triangle and... and the other stuff is `cuz I'm queer. This is a private school, so a lot of the state regulations about schools don't apply. But that's still a violation of the Massachusetts Hate Crime statute. I won't clean it off, and if I find out you sent Mr. DeCecca or one of his staff up here to wash it down, I'll file charges for obstruction of justice and evidence tampering. Filing those charges is my option, not yours."

Drew narrowed his eyes, looking directly into the monk's. "Don't forget, Brother," he said quietly. "Alan Curran's father is an Assistant Attorney General, and a couple of calls from the AG's office to the Essex County prosecutor, and the whole school has its ass in a sling. Oh, and you just know the Guardian-Post just loves stories like this, Brother. Remember the kid that got hazed at football camp last year and the school district tried to hush it up? The paper did a great write-up on him and his school, about how he was held down and tea-bagged*  by seniors, and then they tried to ram a banana up his ass. And he wasn't even gay... just some kid who was younger an' smaller than everyone else. His school gave him a football jersey and a place on the team to buy him off. Too bad he didn't stay bought. Neither will I. The paper had a fun time with that little scandal. Think they could do the same in this fine example of Catholic education?"

Brother Paul stood, clenching and unclenching his fists in frustration. Drew was openly defiant, but he hadn't even been disrespectful, except perhaps for some of his language. And that hadn't been aimed at the Marist, either. It galled him to know that the kid was right.

He's gonna cave, Drew thought, studying the man's reddening face. There's nothin' he can do and he knows it. "Or," the boy continued, "I could just be quiet, and let everyone see what ignorance and stupidity looks like. Hey," Drew said in mock exclamation. "Don't we have an open house coming up in a couple of weekends? New students and their parents? Wow, Brother, imagine the impression my locker is going to make on them! That oughta keep the tuition checks pouring in, huh?"

Brother Paul's chest slumped and he released the pressure on his hands. He yearned for the days when he could bark and students killed themselves to get out of his way. But then, in those days you didn't need zero-tolerance policies about threats of violence, either.

After a moment, he sighed wearily. "I think you and Mr. Curran would be best to report to Brother Matthew's office, McKinnon. We'll discuss this later."

Drew nodded and smiled, trying not to rub in his victory. He turned to Alan, who had just walked up at the end of Drew's speech. "C'mon, midget. We can't keep Brother Matt waiting or we'll pull even more detention," he said happily.

Alan closed his eyes for a moment, his mouth half-frown and half-grimace. Yeah, Drew on a mission... he thought, shaking his head. He did notice how quiet everyone was, and that they seemed to step back a little nervously as the two boys passed by. There wasn't a lot of eye contact, either.

"Right," Alan said in a low, sarcastic voice as they worked their way down the hall. "I can just see my father gettin' into this."

Drew opened the door to Brother Matt's office, stepped in and grinned. "Hey, they got no idea about what went down between you two. And if they did, they hid their Christian concern pretty good. Just like the Pope says guys like you an' me are evil... but they still let someone like Cardinal Law shunt around priests all over Massachusetts when they got caught molesting kids... and kept on doing it when they got caught again. They know your sister's your guardian, but they don't really know why. Gotta play the cards you got, boy!" he sniggered. "Even if you are stacking a shaved deck a little."

Alan gave a weak smile and slipped into his desk. He figured Drew should enjoy his victories while he could. There'd be more trouble coming for both of them, he knew that. But he also knew he was looking at a different Drew. The Drew he grew up with had been content to go with the flow and never take too many chances. This certainly wasn't the Drew that picked his high school friends based on the social charts of the high school. This Drew was... determined.

He felt a pang knowing that determination had nothing to do with Alan, and everything to do with Marc. He shook away the momentary flash of jealousy, then thought of David and an easy smile tugged at his lips. He reran the Sunday morning they'd spent with each other sprawled across his bed watching a movie, not all wrapped up together the way everyone said it was supposed to be in books. That usually lasted about ten minutes before they began to get uncomfortable. They'd touched, just barely, and talked and laughed. One hand carelessly stroking an arm meant more than all the heavy kissing and fancy speeches Alan could think of. And a little while later... well, David could love on a physical level as well as an emotional one, and Alan had no qualms about that at all.

* * * * *

Marc took in the extra squint at the corner of the eyes, and watched the thin lips press themselves thinner. Stick's hands were wrapped across his stomach, fingers interlocked, and his thumbs jabbed at one another. Marc saw the head lean forward an extra inch and braced himself. He knew the warning signs: Krakatoa's gonna blow.

"The only thing you need to know about our `relationship', Mr. Kinsella, is that Marc is your client. And I'm the guy who's spending money with Sciuoto, Milkowski & Kennelly to make sure he gets the best deal he can. I've known Al Sciuoto since he was trying to scratch enough money up each month to pay the rent on his old office off Water Street in Haverhill. I liked him, so I gave him my business."

He stared at the man on the other side of the table. "On the other hand, I don't like you," he continued."You've got a rotten attitude and your nose went into the air when you found out you had to defend a kid charged with being a male prostitute, and you saw us standing around in cheap jackets and jeans in your office. If you had any sense at all, you would've checked out my file and seen what I pay each year for you guys to do my legal work. Obviously, you didn't - because right now, you're acting like the night-shift manager at some fast-food joint who thinks he can talk down to the trash because he's in charge. I'm sure you have a rich daddy who paid all your bills at a nice college to get you a law degree. Me, I made my money by myself. And I didn't make it by taking shit from some snooty little prick who thinks he's better than the people who hire him. So do us all a favor: lose the attitude, lose the sarcasm, and lose the arrogance when you talk to us. Or I'll make a point of letting Al know why I won't be retaining his services any more."

The young lawyer sat stiff back in his chair, staring into the steel eyes of Leonard Stickman. He'd felt a cold grip on his heart when the fist came down on the desk at the beginning of the conversation. The rest of the face was just as grim and just as hard as the voice that hadn't risen much above the level of what most people would think of as a polite conversational tone. But the words came out of the thin lips in cold spurts, like frozen rain carried by hard winds in January.

Peter Kinsella thought quickly. He was new to Sciuoto, Milkowski & Kennelly, hired at his father's request after Peter stumbled for a year at a much more prestigious Boston firm. His lack of success there made it clear he was never going to go much further for a variety of reasons. Kinsella's one saving grace was that he'd had some small successes in criminal law cases, and while SMK didn't get to the criminal courts much, they still needed someone with at least basic experience. The young attorney was overjoyed when he got a call from Albert Sciuoto, the senior partner, telling him to make some room on his calendar for Tuesday afternoon.

Then he got the file, and wasn't so thrilled when he saw what the charges were. He decided there wouldn't be any need to break out one of his new suits. When he'd seen the two people who turned up in his office that Tuesday afternoon he'd been even less thrilled. Who the hell was Leonard Stickman? The man looked like he must have been Sciuoto's handyman or something the way he was dressed. He looked at the young man with him and drew his own conclusions about the relationship. Still, Albert Sciuoto had made a special request, so Peter decided he better appease the man.

"Look, ah... Lenny - " he began in his nasal voice, in what he hoped sounded to be a sincere tone.

Stick didn't bat an eye when he used a razor tongue and a quiet voice to chop him at the knees. "I'm about twenty-five years older than you, kid, and I don't like some smarmy wise-ass addressing me by my first name unless I ask `em too. Get this straight: we're not friends. We're not equals. Basically, I'm employing you to perform a service - just like I employ people to clean out toilets some times. So I'd appreciate it if you address me as Mr. Stickman, and my associate here as Mr. Wildon - just as a sign of some respect. Got that, Petey?"

Stick eased back in his chair then, his face not betraying the inward smile. He correctly assumed that Peter Kinsella detested any variation on his first name. Stick had taken an instant dislike to the young man the moment they'd laid eyes on one another, and Kinsella hadn't made much effort to conceal the fact he didn't much care to work with people from the wrong side of the tracks. It hadn't taken Stick a long stretch to figure the false assumptions the young attorney was making about the connection between Marc and himself. It also was of no importance whatever to the case at hand.

Kinsella's jaw twitched when he heard the corruption of his name. Even his mother knew better than to call him anything but Peter. He had to let is slide, though. For some reason, his boss instructed him personally to do everything he could to satisfy the man and his `boytoy.' The young attorney cleared his throat and made an attempt at a half-smile. "Sorry...uh, Mr. Stickman. I guess we're getting off on the wrong foot. I didn't mean to -"

"Whatever," Stick broke in. Marc watched Stick from the corner of his eye, trying not to smirk. Stick could be short but never really rude. At least until today.

The lawyer cocked his head to one side, then looked down and picked up the main copy of the police report, in which the arresting officers made note of every thing that happened the Sunday night before. "Okay. Well, I do have to ask one thing, Le'-"

Stick glared at him.

"-I mean... Mr. Stickman," Kinsella quickly corrected himself. "You've both read over the police statements. Is there anything in here that's substantially different from what actually happened? Did the officers embellish any detail? And will the audio tape they claim to have reveal any details other than what appears here?"

Marc flinched. "No. Everything they said is just like it happened. They never enticed me or anything, never made any suggestions. I set myself up and told them what I'd do and for how much."

Kinsella tried to hide the sneer in his voice, something he wouldn't have bothered to do a few minutes before. "Then there really isn't much to fight this case with," he said resignedly. "No legal tricks, no interpretation of law... not even claiming there was a misunderstanding of what you were willing to do for fifty bucks."

Marc shuffled uncomfortably in the chair and said nothing. Kinsella looked like he might want to gloat at his embarrassment. He'd defended women on this charge during his brief public defender days, but never a man - which was fine with Peter Kinsella, since he figured whores served a purpose, but fags... well, they just got what they deserved. He paused to enjoy Marc's embarrassment but caught another look from Stick warning him to do anything but.

"We're not talking about Marc having to serve time or anything, guys," the lawyer began, easing back in his chair and fighting an impulse to put his leg up. "We're pretty much just talking a fine, and that's about it. No one's out to get whor- uh, I mean prostitutes, really. Lawrence is just trying to clean up its streets a little, hoping everyone will forget they have wall-to-wall drug dealers everywhere. So they go out every now and then. You don't have any priors for anything, right?" he said, glancing over to the teenager.

Marc swallowed hard and looked up. "No. Nothing."

Kinsella shrugged. "So it's no big deal, then. We make the judge happy by pleading guilty and paying up. Case closed."

Stick shook his head. "That's not the way we're going to play this, counselor. I don't want the system having him listed as a male prostitute. That's a record he doesn't need hanging over him at eighteen. The `common nightwalker' charge can be anything. We both know it's just the state's fancy way of saying he was making trouble, and that could be anything from just ordinary kid screwing aroung to just short of a fist fight. What I was hoping you'd do was see if you can get the state to drop the prostitution charge. Get it completely off his record."

The attorney raised an eyebrow. Yeah, make it all nice-nice for your little pretty boy, huh? He shook his head. "I don't know if the prosecutor would go along with it. The Essex DA is a pretty straight bunch. We've got a ten-percent chance at best on something like this."

Stick nodded and noted the emphasis of the word `straight'. "Maybe so," Stick said calmly. "But I'd still like you to make the minimum effort here and give it a try." He shrugged. "Like you said, this isn't exactly a murder case or even an assault. This is just a dumb-ass kid who needed money fast and did something stupid." He shot Marc a quick look the boy didn't need to see to feel. "And it really won't require that much trouble on your part to at least ask."

Marc flinched at the words. They were true, of course, but he flinched nonetheless.

Kinsella began grinding his teeth nervously. He hadn't missed the crack about minimal efforts. He wasn't about to take much crap from the guy who fixed Al Sciuoto's drains or whatever, just to get the guy's boyfriend off the hook for hooking. He resisted the urge to snigger, and kept his tone professional. "It would help if you still had your job," he began.

Stick snorted. "I explained that earlier. Marc got into a beef with a co-worker and swung on him, and they both got fired. That's all anyone has to know - including you."

The lawyer idly brushed a piece of lint on his suit. "True, but if he'd just walked out... well, let's just say we could've gotten a piece of change for harassment on the job. You're sure this..." He paused and consulted his notes, then turned back to Marc. "... this Luis Semala won't bring an assault charge on you?"

The boy shook his head. "I doubt it. Him and half the guys he work with were all screaming for the cops... until Katy and Luz told my boss he'd... uh, exposed himself and offered me five bucks to do him."

Kinsella fought an impulse to laugh. Stick even smiled when he heard that one, and Marc grudgingly had to admit that it was funny to think about.

"They said if he pressed charges against me," Marc continued, his face slightly flush, "they'd press charges against him for flashing. In any event, they wound up firing both of us for fighting, and nothing else. They don't want any trouble."

The lawyer clicked his pencil against his desk. "Yeah, and they get rid of you, especially - which saves some embarrassment for them, along with any more potential trouble down the road." He shook his head idly. "Damn," he mused, half to himself. "We could've squeezed an easy ten grand out of them just to make you go away. But the real problem is, it helps if I can tell people you're gainfully employed. People - as in whoever's going to prosecute this. And the judge when it comes to court."

"Marc has a job," Stick broke in. "He's the assistant manager at the Mid-City Manor."

Marc raised an eyebrow but kept his mouth shut.

Kinsella snorted. "I've heard of that dump."

"Uh-huh," Stick added with a thin smile. "And I happen to own it. Or rather, S&M Realty Trust owns it - and S&M Realty Trust happens to be me."

Peter Kinsella stopped cold and re-evaluated the man opposite his desk. S&M Realty Trust wasn't his firm's biggest client, but it was an important one - a long-term, steady client that guaranteed a nice chunk of revenue every quarter. One of the junior partners told him that Albert Sciuoto had been happy to get that trust when he first set up in private practice. Kinsella began to understand why his boss was insistent on having a nickel-and-dime hustling case given special priority. Leonard Stickman didn't clean the boss' gutters - he paid forthem.

He cleared his throat and nervously straightened out some of the file folders on his desk, trying not to make eye contact. "I'm - I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Stickman. I didn't know you were - "

Stick stood up and leaned across the desk, forcing the man to look him in the eye. "It shouldn't have made any difference to you, Petey. This kid and I came in here like any other client, willing to pay for a service... the second oldest profession, I've heard it called, and judging from your behavior towards us, one deserving a lot less respect than what people call the oldest. You saw the charge, saw us dressed like this, and automatically assumed you could be patronizing, smug, and rude. But then you found out that I'm not exactly unemployed, and in fact I've got a few bucks."

Marc had to bite his tongue to avoid snickering at the panicked expression on Kinsella's face. Beads of sweat were appearing on the man's forehead now.

"Now, if I were to call Al and tell him what a little snot-nose he has working for him, I think you might also find yourself unemployed, too." Stick smiled thinly, then sat back in his chair and leaned back. "But I'm not that unreasonable a guy, Pete. I'll settle for understanding that from this moment on, both Marc and myself will be treated with the utmost respect whenever we're in your presence, and that you'll do everything you can to get the hustling charge dropped. Oh - and you might keep this in mind the next time someone comes into your office who isn't dressed that nice, or whose case is something you don't care for. We all know the charge don't mean a damn except if he gets caught doing something again, and I'll tell you right now, that's not going to happen."

The attorney began to stammer some protests, but Stick waved him into silence.

"C'mon, Kinsella. You know the boys back at the DA's office. Appeal to the prosecutor's sense of responsibility. If that doesn't work, just tell the guy you don't want to see a kid get hurt just for doing something incredibly dumb in the stupidest way possible." He turned to Marc. "Did I forget anything?"

Marc shifted him a nervous glance. "You didn't mention I might have a birth defect. You brought that up in the car a few times."

"Yeah, you're right," Stick nodded. "My theory, Mr. Kinsella, is that the kid was born without functioning brain cells."

Marc nodded. He'd done a lot of nodding since the late morning when he's shown up back at the Mid-City and told Stick about losing his job. After that Marc did a lot of listening, too. Marc was amazed how much a man as silent as Stick could talk when the dam opened. What made it even worse was Stick wasn't saying anything he hadn't heard from his own father over and over again... but it just seemed a damned sight funnier when he heard Stick saying it. Then he'd dragged the boy out to his car and ordered him inside the vehicle. When Marc hesitated, the man almost tossed him through the open door, then phoned ahead to the lawyer's office. He explained his theories of Marc's mental deficiencies in detail for the thirty minutes it took to drive to the offices in Haverhill. Marc slunk low in the seat, forcing a straight face. A few times he tried to stifle a laugh, which only worked Stick up even more. On the other hand, it was one of the few times Marc could remember seeing Stick almost smile.

They wrapped up their business with an energized Peter P. Kinsella and a livelier Leonard Stickman. The lawyer offered a hand which Stick declined to acknowledge.

On the way out, they paused at the main desk, where a woman with short gray hair and a smiling face was perched. "Hey, Grace, is this Kinsella guy worth a damn?"

Grace shrugged and smiled. "Well, from where I sit, Lenny, he's a dick. But he's really a smart dick when he gets in gear." She eyed the monitor in front of her, then the phone board. "And right now it looks like he's accessing the Lawrence Police computers, and he just punched in the number for the Essex County DA, so I guess you managed to motivate him with that magic way you have," she chuckled.

Stick actually showed teeth in his smile, something new. "C'mon Gracie! You know I'm not all that bad."

Grace gave him a mock look of amazement. "Lenny, I've known you since grammar school, and you were the only kid I ever saw who could freeze a nun in her tracks with a single look. Now, if you'll excuse me, I really think I better check in with dear Mr. Peter P. Kinsella. He might want me to order him some new underwear, judging from the look on your face."

Stick actually laughed and he put a hand on Marc's shoulder, spun him around, and steered him towards the door. A few minutes later they were in the street and Stick fumbled with the keys for his vintage Chevy Malibu. "Next, we're gonna get your car and drop it off at Arnold's place. I want to do that while traffic's still light, just in case those damn brakes of yours decide to go. Arnold told me they won't be able to work on it until tomorrow, but he'll keep it overnight."

Marc slid into the blue vinyl seat and nodded. "You know I can't pay yet, right?"

Stick nodded. "And I told you we'd work something out. You can get what your..." He made a wry face. "...your `business manager' owes you and we'll take it from there. I meant it about you working for me for awhile. I can actually use some help around the place. We've also got to talk about your room."

Marc swallowed, nodded. "Yeah. I figured with money being short and all... you want me to take one of the basement rooms?"

"No. You're moving in with me."

Marc sat very still, a chill running through him. It dawned on him that Stick might want more than just cash for repayment. He sank into the seat and crossed his arms, debating the price he might have to pay. It was one thing to sell yourself and then move on, putting whoever it was behind you. It was another to pay for the roof over your head with your body and have to look at the same face every day. It was the difference between being rented and being owned.

Stick glanced over in his direction. "Aw, settle down! I'm not interested in that bony ass of yours. My feeling here is you're just alone too damned much, an' that ain't healthy. The only company you've ever had in that place is that McKinnon kid. Well, my apartment has an extra room off the kitchen, and a door that leads out to the back parking lot. It's loaded with junk, but it shouldn't take long to straighten it out. You and him can come and go whenever you please. I just want you in a place where someone's nearby to talk to when you need it. Nobody needs the kind of crap you got in your life and no one to talk to."

Marc folded his arms and slouched down in his seat. "So, what you're saying is, you think I'm ready to my wrists or something?"

The older man nodded grimly, then cranked the engine, which roared to life. "Yes, I do."

It hung in the air between them as Stick pulled out of the parking garage and onto Water Street, heading back for the Interstate. Marc looked down to the dashboard, not wanting to look at the man beside him. He had to admit the thought had crossed his mind.

The voice came to him, low and comforting. "Listen to me," Stick said gently. "You're like an oak tree, Marc. There's nothin' stronger that grows from the ground in nature. It stands up to anyone and anything - just like you, solid and defiant. No ordinary storm can hurt it. But sometimes, the winds become a hurricane, and it's too much. The oak doesn't bend to the ground like the pine. It just shatters, and there's nothing left but to pick up the pieces." The older man glanced at him. "I sometimes get the feeling you're ready to shatter, kid. And I've seen enough firewood scattered around, thank you very much, and I'm tired of picking up kindling."

Marc shifted his long legs and squirmed around uncomfortably in his seat. "You're one to talk," the boy returned with a small smile.

The older man smiled his thin smile again and kept his attention to the road. "I'm a closed book, Marc - always was. I don't say much and I don't show much, but that's just my way. But what Grace said back there is true. She knew me in the first grade through the eighth, and we've bumped into each other through the years. She used to tease me and call me Stick - partly because of my last name, and partly because she used to say I could be as interesting as one to talk to. No, she wasn't mean or anything. Grace was always a sweetheart, it was just one kid teasing another. Jesus, after awhile everyone started calling me that and `Stick' stuck. That's how I even introduced myself after awhile. The only time I ever heard Leonard or Lenny was from the nuns at St. Patrick's and later the brothers at Lawrence Catholic. Anyway, being on the quiet side is natural for me... but not for you. You hold in everything. If you keep on doing it, you're gonna explode. Just as a guess, you told that boyfriend of yours about your trouble yet?"

Marc squirmed uncomfortably. "No."

Stick nodded. "Thought as much. Better start thinking it over, how you're gonna break it to him. If you don't, eventually somebody else will. And... well, I'm betting that he's not gonna take it too good, and that's human." The man sighed and changed lanes. "I'll be blunt. I pretty much know why you did it, and I don't like it. But I also know that to someone like you, sellin' yourself ain't something that came easy. We been over the rest, so I won't stir it up again. Just put it behind you, okay? But don't be determined to bury yourself away in your room. Talk to this Drew kid, and be patient, but don't expect miracles, okay? He's likely gonna go ballistic at first. But give it some time, and don't be afraid to talk about it with me, even if it's only to bitch and whine."

"I don't bitch, and I don't whine."

Stick grinned and punched the boys shoulder. "Try it sometime - it helps. Think of it as exploring your feminine side. All the psychologists have something to say about that."

Marc chuckled but otherwise stayed silent for the drive back to Lawrence. He did feel better having someone else to talk to. And living with Stick... it was a nice apartment, after all - more like a home. He stole glances at Stick from time to time, trying to piece the conflicting pieces of the puzzle together. Marc had always seen the man as a cold, uncaring type who didn't give a shit about anything or anyone as long as he got paid. It was the first time he'd ever come face to face with the fact that some people aren't always what you think they are.

They picked up Marc's car behind the Mid-City and made their way north, headed for Speedy Boys garage. Stick took a sick-looking Arnold aside and made all the arrangements, and Marc saw him passing the plastic to Tim, who told them the car would be ready late the next day. The final drive back to Lawrence was quiet, but not hostile. Stick was about to take their exit for Lawrence when Marc spoke up.

"Do me a favor. Head for the Andover exit - the one that takes you into Shawsheen Village."

Stick gave him a curious look, but passed his exit and worked up the Interstate to the Andover exit. Shawsheen Village was a historic part of the city... likely the very first commercially-planned neighborhood. It was a far cry from the Levitowns that would grow up after the second world war. William Wood built the homes when the twentieth century was still young, one of the perks for being a manager for the American Woolen Company. The twenty or so thousand of his immigrant workers may have crowded into the tenements and company boarding houses of Lawrence, but William Wood - who valiantly fought the good American fight against organized labor during Lawrence's 1912 strikes, but ultimately lost - magnanimously agreed to pay his workers twelve dollars a week, along with overtime after fifty-four hours, even for `weak' workers like women and children as young as twelve. Even with these stinging high expenses, Mr. Wood made sure his elite had nothing but the best, and all within view of Arden, his own estate house.

Wood dammed up the meandering Shawsheen River to make a pond. Then he hired French Canadian immigrants (who worked hard and cheap) to build his version of Corporate Utopia. The red brick homes were no novelty for New England houses, nor the stylized Federal and Georgian styles of the homes, columned and porticoed and dormered. The slate roofs were, plus the fact that although they had the look of houses built in the last century, they featured such rare luxuries as sewage, indoor plumbing, gas and electricity. The smaller homes of foremen were nearest North Main Street. But further down the wide roads shaded with oaks and maples, the size of the yards and the number of rooms increased as the neighborhood moved up the corporate ladder. William Wood built a school, a bank and a market for the convenience of his bosses. He donated to building funds for several small chapels nearby, even to a Catholic Church burned by the towns people of Andover a few years before. North Main Street had the trolleys, which brought in the serving class from Lawrence and transported the people who could not yet afford either a car or a carriage. The only thing William Wood never considered was that people who work together don't necessarily want to live together. But the houses of Shawsheen Village are still among the most prized for an Andover address.

Marc directed Stick over to one of the largest homes at the end of a cul-de-sac and told him to wait.

The boy lowered his head for a better view through the side window. He was glad to see no cars parked in the long driveway; the old carriage houses were too small for modern vehicles, and the historical association that ruled the neighborhood was reluctant to authorize many changes. He looked over the house, just shy of a mansion, safe behind its wrought-iron gates, set back nearly a hundred feet from the street and beautifully surrounded by lush, well-manicured landscaping. It wasn't exactly the ancestral home of an aristocracy, but the house was a rich one, with huge arched windows and even a small, pillared rotunda at the front.

"There's a pond in the back too," Marc said, pointing to the right, "You can't swim in it `cuz it's part of the local water supply, but there's an pool right next to it. And the tennis courts are the old clay type. There's a basketball hoop set up back there, too... the neighborhood association got its pants wet when it was hung in the drive way."

Stick raised an eyebrow. "How'd you know all that?"

"That's where I grew up," Marc said simply, staring out at the house, lost in thought. He yearned for the inside, the familiarity of the rooms and the sound of his brothers' voices. He even missed the hush that would descend on the house when they'd hear the door to his father's car slam in the drive way and they'd hustle off to the small TV room on the second floor, where the three boys were supposed to have their own living room of sorts. He felt a pang and turned his face away, embarrassed that Stick might see how affected he was at the memory.

Stick's voice was low and calm. "You miss this place? The nice neighborhood and all?"

Marc shook his head. "I miss my brothers. The rest... that's nothing. And even sitting here, I can still hear my father telling me what I loser I am, how I'd never be anything, how I'd always be looking for a handout because I could never make it on my own." He smiled wanly. "He sent Donald to Brooks, because he was the first, the son and heir. Dad was so proud when Don got into Notre Dame. It wasn't Ivy League, but it at least had the right amount of prestige to keep him happy. My younger brother Seth is the baby, and he even got into Philips Andover. Hell, the tuition for that place is higher than what the old man pays for Donnie at college. He's sure Seth'll get into Yale or Harvard."

"What about you?"

Marc shrugged. "Me, I was the one in the middle, the one taking up space between the first son and the favorite son. Dad always made it clear I didn't matter. I went to the public schools because he said I was too dumb for anything else and it'd be a waste of money. And I can't complain too much. The Andover schools have better equipment that a lot of colleges."

Marc caught some movement behind them and spun around in the seat. "A police car just parked at the end of the block. We better leave."

Stick shrugged. "It's not like my car's stolen or anything. And this is a public street."

"Yeah," Marc continued in a distant voice, "But it's the wrong kind of car for this neighborhood. They'll run your plates, and if anything suspicious happens around here anytime soon, you'll likely get a visit from the Andover cops. We really ought to leave anyway. My father got a court order against me to stay away from this place for my eighteenth birthday, and it's getting late enough my brother Seth might be getting home from school soon. I'm not supposed to go near him, either."

Stick circled the turn-around at the end of the cul-de-sac. His eyes took in the policeman sitting in his patrol car. Neither man flinched or looked away as they passed.

Marc glanced over his shoulder one more time, then sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. "You know, I'd give anything to have this year back. I'd give anything to be a senior in high school again... when my biggest real worries were what college I'd go to in the fall, and maybe what girl I could get to be my date for the prom. I'd put up with hiding what I am, dealing with the fag-baiting at school, and sneaking around with my old boyfriend. I'd put up with all of it, just to have my normal life again. I'd even deal with my father." His voice caught in his throat, then he continued. "I'm... I'm just so damn tired of being alone."

They left the street of elegant homes and rejoined the early afternoon rush traffic and sped back to Lawrence. Neither said much. There wasn't much to say.

* * * * *

"McKinnon? Dr. Roberts wants to talk to you." Brother Matthew's head disappeared from the door almost as quickly as it appeared.

"Shit," Drew grumbled, packing up his books. "Hey Alan, if you don't mind waiting, I can still run you home. I don't know how long I'll be in with the headmaster, though."

Alan actually felt relief. He had other plans for the afternoon and having Drew along wasn't part of them. "Hey, that's no problem. I can still catch the Methuen bus. I'll be okay."

Drew picked up the last of his notebooks and tucked them under his arm. He figured he'd drop everything off at his locker, then head for the main office for what he was sure was going to be round two of the locker debate. He'd been reasonably sure the argument with Brother Paul wasn't finished, and this was just confirmation.

Alone, Alan decided to lighten up his back pack, then opted to leave it behind altogether. When you had to spend the entire school day studying there, wasn't much point to bringing home books you wouldn't look at anyway. He pulled on his coat, popped his cap on, and cut into the busy corridor, filled with students grateful for the end of a Tuesday that got them closer to the real life of a weekend. Alan kept his head down as always, and wasn't aware of the cautious looks he was getting from some of the students. At first he took that as the natural obsession where some people have to see the sideshow freak, just as they'd treated him as for three years. But he noted a couple of startled red faces when he looked up at them. Alan shook his own head, not quite understanding what was going on.

People seemed to be a bit different where he and Drew were concerned today, ever since the public argument with Brother Paul and Drew. Lunch had been a solo affair for them, which they both expected, and while plenty of heads went down when they walked by different tables, they didn't hear the giggling they'd heard the day before. Whispered conversations maybe, but no jokes - or if there were, not many. They claimed a table from a group of Freshman who scarfed down the day's Mystery Entrée and scattered. Alan felt bad for it briefly until Drew reminded him of something fundamental to any school, public or private.

"They're underclassmen. It's their job to screw when we show up. It's, like... in the handbook - the secret handbook maybe, but it's there. Next year, they'll do the same with newbies. Just think of it as the natural order of things."

No incidents, no one making any broad jokes as they passed. Drew and Alan even spotted Melissa and the Spivett brothers, who seemed to cut a wide path from where they sat.

"Any bets about who our artists were?" Drew asked.

Alan shrugged. "Well, I know Kevin can't draw. But I got a feeling Shaun's looked at a lot more dicks than he wants anyone to know about."

Drew's right eyebrow went up as he chewed his over-cooked peas.

"Last year, Shaun used to talk to me when no one else was around to see us. He hinted we might have a sort of secret friendship... one where he could drop by my house and get together every now and then."

Drew sat back, incredulous. "Get out! You did stuff with Shaun?"

Alan shuddered. "Christ, no! Didn't take me much to figure out what he meant by a `secret friendship.' But then Kevin the Idiot saw him talking to me and razzed him, and he never came at me again except in attack mode. Not that it would've made much difference. I knew what he wanted, and it wasn't just me for a friend, y'know?"

Alan was close to one of the side doors that lead onto Hampshire Street and turned left, heading towards the old downtown area. It was a good walk, and Alan was again reminded of how much he needed a car of his own. Hooking rides was one thing... if you didn't mind having others know where you were going. He didn't want either Drew or David knowing where he was going today. For a ride back, he was hoping he might catch up with Chris. Alan had a cellphone, one of David's that he'd insisted that Alan keep, but he'd rarely used it except in emergencies. He paused halfway up the street to shed his outer coat. The March sunlight was stronger and his school blazer would be enough. The tie, of course, came off his neck and into his back pocket as soon as he'd cleared the doorway of the school.

When Hampshire intersected Haverhill Street, he changed direction again, deciding it was nice enough for a walk through the Lawrence Common. Pleasant enough in the afternoon, it was a dangerous spot after nightfall, when gangs scraped out their turf and challenged outsiders - and Alan was definitely an outsider. Lawrence High was getting out just as he passed, and while his Lawrence Catholic jacket brought a few derisive comments, Alan knew they didn't mean much. A lot was said about Lawrence's Hispanic population and not a lot of it complimentary, but Alan knew most of it was pure crap. He spotted Astazia, a girl he knew from Home Station, and waved. She was with two friends and shouted back she wanted `to sees his nice cheeks.' Alan flipped the tail of his blazer up and thrust his backside out and she and her friends laughed, and jogged across to join him. They walked together until he reached Essex Street.

"I'd give you my number you, but I hear it wouldn't do me much good," she said with a giggle when they were about to separate, and Alan smiled and shrugged. "Yeah, yeah, I know..." she said resignedly. "All the honey guys are either taken, or they into boys. And I seen your boy pickin' you up. Damn it! Two hotties, gone in one shot!"

Astazia promised to flip off the head cashier for him that night, since Alan had phoned in his resignation a few days ago and told them to mail his final check.

He walked slowly along the empty three lanes of Essex Street until he came to the Mid-City Manor. Alan looked into the back lot where he figured Marc kept his car and didn't see it, and assumed he was still at work. He walked inside but there was no one at the desk, and Alan hadn't any idea what room Marc lived in, so he decided to wait. He settled into a chair, and after twenty minutes, he wished he'd brought one of his texts home with him.

A sound at the door drew his attention and he saw a curious Marc coming through the lobby door just ahead of an older man and Alan smiled.

"I saw the paper last night," he began, "and I think I can help."

* * * * *

It was Wednesday afternoon and Martin slammed the door of the mobile home, then let out a shriek and stamped his foot. He wasn't scared, he wasn't particularly angry, but he was frustrated. He also knew for a fact that no one else would be in the house, and that he'd feel better letting out a howl.

After regaining his composure, he tore off his jacket and brushed the dirt off from where Stevie and Chunk shoved him into a blackened mound of snow just outside their mobile home park. The bastards always waited for him, but Martin truly thought he'd made it home free that afternoon. He'd been just one lot away from his home when they swung out from behind a GMC Blazer sitting on blocks in front of Peltzer's place. He wished Drew was there, like that time at the mall.

Yeah, he thought wistfully. Drew would wail both their sorry asses... then I'd invite him in here and... Suddenly, reality crept back into Martin's life. And then he'd tell me about all the hot stuff him and Marc did. Yeah, like I want to hear about what he'd do with him.

Satisfied the coat was only dirty and not ripped, he wiped it with a fresh swatch off the roll of Bounty, which of course flew off its dispenser and rolled across the kitchenette floor. He let out another yelp for the hell of it and gathered it up. Hungry, his mind told him, and Martin considered a peanut butter and banana sandwich, which would be perfect if he had some bacon to add to it. Then he eyed the bulge at his waist and reconsidered. If he had any hopes of catching himself a Drew, he'd better start laying off stuff like that. He settled for the banana and grabbed a two-liter bottle of Coke, then snagged a handful of Hershey's kisses and hustled down to his room, proud of the way he was taking his life in hand and curbing his appetites. He dropped everything on the desk in front of his computer and powered it up.

Martin was proud of his computer. He'd built this one from the ground up with what he could salvage from other people's cast-offs. At school, anyone who wanted an upgrade often went to Martin, because he knew what he was doing and he usually did it for not much more than the parts they were discarding. Plus, he had access to all kinds of software that he'd acquired off the net. He wouldn't give away a full operating system - they were too easy to trace because no matter what he told his customers, he knew that sooner or later they'd click into Microsoft for an upgrade, and the boy hadn't quite worked out how to crunch new registration numbers that would activate the passwords. But his own system was bootlegged from a newsgroup, as were the upgrade service patches, with a key number that was legendary on the net as the `Devil Disk.' Popular legend had it that it started off at Dell Computers, six months before XP Pro hit the market. By the time Microsoft hit the panic button and killed its access to upgrades, that one copy had over 50,000 users.

Martin knew better than to go for an update, he had access to the newsgroup where an unknown `they' posted the updates. But he was sure if any of his `clients' got a hold of a copy through him, Gates' Net Gestapo would be knocking at his door screaming lawsuit. Martin gave out the crappy ones like Windows ME. It was a dead product that never really took off, and no one gave a shit about it anyway, but it was certainly better than the aging '98 that would crash and burn just if you looked at the monitor wrong.

On the other hand, he got fifteen bucks a pop for the latest editions of the Norton package, and that paid for the new motherboard Martin wanted. All the rest just came his way. The guy that wanted the faster CD burner simply gave Martin his old one. Those big new hard drives were on the market, and Martin had himself two 20-gig Western Digitals and a 40-gig IBM. His biggest prize to date was the senior at Salem High who conned his father into paying for the latest Intel P4, and giving Martin the `obsolete' 1.7 chip in trade. Martin figured the desire for new toys made his life easier. Of course, the kid's system board was outdated, and it didn't have enough memory and the bus was too slow, so that faster processor wouldn't speed things up worth a damn, but that wasn't Martin's problem. He'd tried to warn the guy, a smart-mouthed senior who figured he'd save himself fifty bucks by not going to Best Buy for the installation and bought a cheap OEM version of the processor over the net. Martin finally figured out that it didn't matter. The kid didn't do anything much with his computer anyway, but just wanted to be able to brag he had the latest and best equipment. Martin chuckled, knowing that in three weeks, Intel was introducing its latest line of processors, and the one he'd just installed was going to drop about fifty to sixty dollars right away, and then slowly plummet to just under two hundred bucks by the beginning of summer. Martin knew the trends.

He clicked on Forte Agent and immediately went to alt-binaries-multimedia-teen-male and refreshed his browser. One of the regular posters, `Eurodude,' was from England and had all the latest releases in European porn, and ripped a new one every week. Eurodude always posted captures from the movie, and Martin swore one of them was almost a twin for Drew and he desperately wanted it. He already had roughly seventy-five porno movies stashed away for his `private' collection, although he picked up a few bucks at school for his copies of the straight stuff.

He smiled as he clicked on the screen, quickly bouncing from newsgroup to newsgroup, checking the new messages and binary files. Martin considered himself a future entrepreneur. He also knew if he got caught selling either bootleg software or porno at school, he was toast. But a copy of the latest Word program (with service pack #2) had already bought him a B+ in Spanish, a marked improvement over his previous D. That came with the understanding, of course, that he not take Spanish 2 his second year. Martin was very receptive to the deal. He only needed the one year of a foreign language to complete the requirement for his college track curriculum.

"YES!" he shouted, seeing that the first two scenes were already posted and complete. Martin thanked God for three wonderful things: the invention of the Internet, fast cable-modem connections, and disinterested parents. He double-clicked the headers and sat back, patiently waiting for the 320 megs of DivX-quality AVI files to download, and snacked on a handful of Hershey's Kisses. He eyed the half-open door but shrugged. No one would be home for hours.

Then he cursed himself for being an idiot. Usually he refreshed his browser for four other groups, including the one he got his software from, before he started downloads so he could set the program and minimize it. He figured he had almost two hours of download time for the porn movie. He could interrupt it but - he shrugged and minimized the screen. It didn't matter when he set up the rest of what he wanted that night; it wouldn't get done any faster, really.

He looked around for something to do, and dismissed homework without a second thought. Martin decided to view the last few scenes of a movie he'd caught the day before but hadn't checked yet. That was the trouble with collectin' porn, Martin mused. You spent all your time downloading it and burning it to disks and you had no time to watch it. He opened scene 4 of Russian Boys Can Cum in a small window viewer and minimized the soundtrack, which was in a language he couldn't understand (what little dialog there was, anyway), accompanied by what Martin thought of as bad elevator music. He was dying to see the new flick with the Drew-clone in it, but for right now there were two hot-bodied young Russian men doing things that six months before Martin could only imagine. Six months before, Martin hadn't even known about the movie groups. That was another great thing about the Net: even if you didn't say much in chat rooms, you could still pick up wonderful bits of information.

Martin watched the movie playing out in front of him, wondering at the curious sight of smooth chests and legs but thighs and asses so hairy they looked almost like a pair of shorts. Russians were built weird, he decided. In all the other porno movies, no one ever had hair anywhere but on top of their heads and perfect little triangles in the crotch. These Euro-studs were all uncut and au natural, not nearly as buffed-out and glamorous as American sex stars. Martin preferred it that way. He couldn't take his eyes off the action, his mouth open in amazement.

How do they do that without choking? he wondered, watching one of the Russians swallow a hefty length of man hose. There's gotta be a trick to it, like a sword-swallower.

Martin smacked his lips on the last Hershey kiss, then eyed the banana... and a sly smile crept across his lips. From what he'd seen, the banana was just about the right length, if a little on the thin side, and had the same slight hook to what he'd been watching. The boy peeled the jacket off, and giggled when he thought of it as a foreskin. He looked steadily at the white snack in front of him. The top wasn't exactly flared like the real thing but...

Martin held it in his right hand while leaning on the desk, figuring it made the angle a little more realistic, then leaned over and opened wide. He skinned his lips over his teeth, knowing in all the stories he'd read that this was important, and slowly lowered his head, not quite closing his mouth around the shaft, although he knew he'd have to eventually. Martin practiced what he thought of as the `butterfly pattern' on his tongue, and then decided that right now he needed to practice for length, and gently worked the banana to the back of his throat. He felt a slight gag and backed off a few inches until the feeling passed. Then he closed his lips around the tube he moved his head down again. He felt the tickling at the back of his throat and tried for ways to relax it. He was sure he could master the technique if he worked at it. Practice makes perfect, he thought. Once he figured out how to control his gag reflex, he was sure he could work his way up to something more realistic in girth - or at least, something more realistic according to everything he saw in the videos.

After a few experimental thrusts, Martin found a way to open his throat a little more and tested it. If his mouth were empty, he would have smiled from ear to ear. He managed to get the banana in an extra inch than previously, and was trying to find a way to accommodate even more, when he suddenly heard a noise from a few feet away.

"Martin, what the fuck are you doing?"

Martin's throat closed and the banana broke off. He choked for a second, the tasty tube mashing down as he desperately tried to swallow and spit at the same time. He was also quick enough to lash out with his left hand to hit the kill button on his monitor just as one of the Russian boys threw back his head and pulled out of the other's mouth just in time for a heavy spurt of white juice to erupt all over his partner's chin and chest. Hacking and spitting, Martin looked up into the face of his sixteen year-old sister.

"Mmmf! Hmpf?"

He spat and coughed and the rest of the banana came out. His eyes watered and his vision blurred, but there was no mistaking the sound of his sister's voice. She stood in the doorway, hands on hips, and as Martin's vision cleared he took in the sight of the incredulous look on Sandra's face. She began to laugh nastily.

"Honest to God, Martin! It's not enough that you walk like one and talk like one - you have to do shit like that where everyone can see? Jesus! Lucky it was only me. Learn to close your door, okay, you little perv?"

Martin coughed up the last of the banana and glared at his sister. "Walk and talk like what?" he growled.

Sandra shook her head. "Get off it, Martin. I saw the video on your screen, and I know you weren't exactly making banana splits," she said with a snigger. "Jesus, you got it down pretty far, too," she said, clearly impressed, as she entered the room.

Martin blushed red all the way to his bone and looked down. "Now I guess you're gonna tell everyone."

She sighed and ran her fingers through Martin's unruly hair. "No, I'm not gonna tell anyone," she said with a small laugh. "But I meant it about closing the door. You're lucky it was only me... and that I'm alone. And I'm home because practice got cancelled. Sheila Duncan slipped when we were making a pyramid and Candace sprained her ankle," she added, the tone of her voice suggesting that a Candace with a sprained ankle didn't loom large in her mind as a tragedy. "It's not like finding out is exactly a shock to me, Martin."

"Yeah, I know," he said miserably. "I walk like a fag and talk like a fag, so - "

She stroked his head and he looked up at her. "That's got nothing to do with it, Martin. I know a couple of boys that make you look and act like a Dallas Cowboy. And take my word for it, they are anything but queer."

She looked down at Martin and she sighed inside. Sandra's mind flashed back to when she was a little girl, no more than two, and her mother had come home after being gone for a few days, sat her in a chair, and placed an infant in her arms. Her mother was a much softer, prettier woman back then, and her father hadn't yet begun staring into a beer can for a purpose in his life. She remembered her mother's words. "This is your brother, and he's a gift. For the rest of your life, no one will ever be closer, or should mean more to you. You have to watch out for him, because you're the oldest. Later, he'll be able to watch out for you. One of you always has to be there for the other."

Sandra's voice softened. "And I don't care if you are or not, anyway. You're my brother - and one thing we both know is, the only one either of us has is each other. Daddy only cares about how many beers are left in the fridge, and mom... well, she'd probably care if she wasn't so damn tired all the time but... anyway..." The girl made a vague gesture of resignation and sighed.

"Then why did you say it was no shock?" he asked with tearing eyes.

Sandra smiled and looked down at him. "When we were little, you and me used to go places with mom and dad, and we always used to pick out the other kids we always thought were the prettiest. We always picked out the boys. You're eyes used to shine when you saw one that was really cute," she said, smoothing his hair again. "Well, we stopped that game somewhere along the line. But every now and then, I'd see you almost jump out of yourself when you saw somebody hot... and it was always a guy. And, you had damned good taste, too," she laughed.

Martin still reddened but smiled.

"I think mom knows it, too," she continued. "But she'll never say anything unless you do."

Martin swallowed. "And dad?"

She snorted, then smiled as an unhappy look spread over his face. "He don't care about anything unless it's on the tube or in a can, Martin - you know that. He's just a drunk. The only good thing about that is he isn't a mean drunk."

They fell silent, and Sandra just rubbed the boy's shoulder until he looked up. "So... it doesn't bother you?"

She shook her head. "I know a couple of kids like you, Martin. I mean... not for sure maybe, but I'd be surprised if they weren't. Two boys from school at least; one girl, too." She knitted her eyebrows. "Now, I have another question for you. I heard about you meeting with two older guys and getting in a car with them on Friday night."

Martin blinked uncertainly. "That's Drew and Marc. They're my friends. And they're boyfriends."

Sandra fumbled for words, then decided to give in. "Do they try to get you to... to do stuff with them?"

Martin looked up uncertainly. "Stuff?"

Sandra's face reddened. "Sex stuff. Do they try to do things with you? Get you to do things?"

Martin's mouth fell open. "C'mon, Sandy! They're my friends! They were just givin' me a ride!" Then he chuckled. "And Drew... I can only wish he'd want me to do stuff with him."

She smacked him off the side of the head. "Listen to me! You're not even fifteen yet! And older boys - well, a lot of older boys are only interested in one thing from younger kids at school. I don't figure the gay ones are any better than some of the straight ones sometimes, and they try to get you to..." She made a face. then continued. "...do things for them. They'll tell you how cool you are and everything else, then once they get what they want, they just move on to the next. Assholes."

Martin looked into his sister's deep brown eyes. Something told him she knew more about the things she was talking about than she wanted to say. "Neither one of `em ever touched me or hinted anything, Sandy. I've... I've been going to this thing for kids... kids like me."

She nodded, still rubbing her brother's shoulder. "I heard about some group in Andover for quee - for gay kids. Is that it?"

Martin nodded. "Yeah. I've been thumbin' back and forth there for a little while now. My friend Drew found out and he told me he'd pick me up and drive me home when I want to go. He doesn't want me walkin' down the highway alone at night. He thinks I'll get hurt or somethin'."

Sandra gave him a light slap off the side of the head. "You dummy. He's right about thumbin' being dangerous, too," Sandra said nodding. She didn't know this Drew, but decided that she could like him... as long as he never tried anything with her brother. Sandra knew too well what it was like to be treated like the Class Pump by older boys when she was a freshman at Salem High. If Martin was going to mess with other boys, they should at least be closer to his age - and if not, they'd damn well better be sincere. She didn't want Martin going through what she went through, shuddering at the memory.

She eyed what was left of the banana, fighting down the impulse to suggest next time he use a fair-sized pickle instead. The size was more accurate and it didn't mash in your throat. Way too much information, she thought with a smile.

"Look. Let's give mom a break tonight, okay? Help me clean up the place a little. I'll do the kitchen and get a nice dinner started, and you pick up in the living room," she said with a smile. "With luck, you, me and ma will finish dinner before Pops comes staggering in."

Martin smiled. He tried to remember the last time the family - well, at least three out of four of them - all sat down for a dinner together. And what Sandra said was true, after all. Their mother really wasn't mean; she was just a woman that had to work too much and for too long with too little help, and came home to a husband who didn't care. She was tired - nothing else - and only had a few pleasures left.

Sandra busied herself with mopping up the kitchen area of the mobile home, which was cluttered but not really dirty. She pulled things out and made preparations for a meal. Martin quickly worked around the living room, wiping down the furniture and picking up the odds and ends laying around. The biggest job by far was around his father's chair. Several days' worth of newspapers were strewn about, and empty beer cans and glasses were scattered on the floor. He retrieved the glasses first and dumped them in the sink, with Sandra telling him to just leave them there for her. Then he grabbed the beer cans and shoved them into the metal recycling container, which was already overflowing. The stacks of Guardian-Posts went into a separate container. He piled them up, fishing behind the chair and putting the pages back together, so they'd fit into the box better. He was sure he had everything and was just evening up the stack when he glanced down at the `Police Notes' section. A name stood out and he froze, his eyes and mouth open wide with fear and shock.

Jealous as he was of Marc, he really liked him. And if what he read were true, he could only imagine how Drew felt.

* * * * *

Alan looked up at Thursday's gray morning sky and shuddered. March was late for a major snow storm, but all the Boston stations were calling it, warning travelers of bad conditions by late day.

"Late day," Rita McKinnon said with derision. "That's like back in '78 when they talked about partly cloudy and minor snow flurries, and a foot of snow fell in less than an hour. Took `em almost two weeks to find all the cars buried on Interstate 93 and 128." And a few bodies, too, she recalled with a shudder. She remembered Arthur working with one of the excavation crews. Everyone with a plow truck had been called to service when a pre-presidential-run Governor Dukakis saw the enormity of a paralyzed state unable to dig out from under the snow clogging its roadways with miles of cars covered under a frigid white blanket. Arthur and his crew had come upon a small blue Datsun under a six-foot high drift, out of gas and stranded, and a young girl stretched out on the car seat curled up in a ball in a blanket. No one was sure if she'd frozen to death or died quietly from exhaust fumes. Massachusetts was among the heaviest-populated states, well-equipped against any sort of natural disaster. That girl's body - and others found in the days that followed - was mute testament to just what an untamable beast Northeastern winters could be.

Rita wanted their business cleared up and cleared up fast before the snow began to fall. She doubted an early spring storm could have the ferocity of that long ago February storm, but she really didn't want to tempt it.

She looked over to Alan and nudged his shoulder, smiling. "Go do what you have to do - it's all in here," she said, handing him a manila envelope. "And take this," she added, pressing a bill into Alan's hand. "Parking in the city isn't cheap, and afterwards you boys get some lunch." She turned to face Marc, who stood beside the open door of his Cavalier. "Stay close to him," she called out, giving Marc a warning look. She read the nervousness in his face, and the shame in his eyes as he looked down. He was embarrassed having her see him. Rita slid back into her car, and watched the two boys drive off. She had a thousand questions for each of them, but she had no right to ask one boy, and the other made it clear he didn't want to answer questions. She liked one of the boys; she loved the other far too much to press for details.

Marc sighed with relief as they pulled away. He'd almost freaked out when he picked up Alan at his bus stop and learned that they had to meet Nanny McKinnon. "She's got everything I need to make this work," Alan told him. "Nanny won't ask or say anything about seeing you."

Marc looked straight ahead. "You think she knows... about me, I mean?"

Alan nodded, remembering the frozen pause when he called Nanny Tuesday night and told her what he needed because he was going to help Marc. "Yeah. She knows what happened with you, but no one else does. If Drew already knew, I would've heard about it by now at school. Half the time all he does is talk about you, anyway. And if Andy knew, for damn sure Drew would have heard about it. But Nanny won't say anything unless she thinks you're a threat."

Marc shot the other boy a hard look. "You think she won't see me going out with her grandson as a threat?" he laughed bitterly, shaking his head.

Alan tried to think of something to say but couldn't. They drove in silence. It was late enough for the morning rush down I-93 to Boston to thin down, but traffic was never quick moving during business hours in Boston. The four lanes of 93 joined with Route 1 and Route 3 to create one of the largest traffic jams in the northeast corridor - three highways joining together into the two and occasionally three tight lanes that formed the Boston Expressway. More traffic crammed into it from the tunnels under the harbor to and from the airport, and finally Route 128 poured in just south of the city. Boston traffic was legendary as a nightmare, and Boston drivers made Russian Roulette look like a child's game. And to make it all a little worse, there was the interminable Big Dig - the ongoing excavation of the highway into tunnels under the city - made entries and exits to the roadway obsolete from one day to the next. It was a maze of temporary bridges and ramps that came and went. Critics called it the most massive waste of money in history, but no one ever seriously saw the funding drying up. Too much had already been spent, and the mess was too widespread to ever go back. Washington threatened, the Statehouse complained, and three governors pointed to the waste. Of course, they all pointed at each other as politics demanded. The Central Artery would one day be depressed... but until that day came, hell on earth was any given day you had to drive in Boston.

Marc bobbed and weaved in the cut-throat traffic, missed the exit he knew he needed, then got off on one he wasn't sure where it lead, and the two boys anxiously picked through the maze of streets that formed the city. Unlike other towns almost as old as Boston, most of it had never been designed on the logical grids of New York, Chicago or even Philadelphia. The main roads of Boston spread out haphazardly along the cattle tracks of early settlers, then meandered towards the Charles River. Streets arbitrarily became one-way or abruptly changed names without warning; many street signs didn't exist, and some of the state and local directional signs were out of date as the Big Dig progressed.

Marc cut onto what he took to be a side street and found himself in front of Charles Bullfinch's stately monument to government, the State House. They looked up at its red brick front and the graceful columns of the early 19th century, and its commanding view of Bullfinch's other legacy to a bygone Boston which still proudly wore what planners then called the `Emerald Necklace,' the Boston Common being one of its surviving jewels. Even in the dull sky of a threatening storm, the 24 karat-gilded dome caught the light and brightened the sky. The two paused in the car until a state police cruiser drew up behind them and blared its horn. All parking in the area was marked `Reserved - Great and General Court.' Marc gunned the engine and headed for the snarling traffic ahead of them. Alan stared at a map, turned it upside down and then sideways.

"Where the hell are we?" he wailed.

Alan shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me."

Marc jammed his foot on his newly repaired brakes. "It says Arlington Street," he said pointing to a sign. He edged over to the left, intending to circle the Common until they figured out where they were.

Alan scratched his head. "We have to find Ashburton Place and the McCormack Building."

"Which is where?"

Alan shrugged again and Marc glared at him. "You know, you said your Dad lived across the street from the McKinnons. Why didn't we just drive over there tonight instead?"

Alan shuddered. "I won't ever go into that fuckin' house again," he grumbled. "I want my old man at his office, so he knows I can screw him inside of ten minutes. Left here. LEFT!"

Marc cut off a cab and the turbaned driver screamed at him in what sounded like several angry words in Arabic. But the finger he held up made his meaning pretty clear. Marc smiled and waved back the same way. "Universal language," he muttered. "See? Now I can speak Farsi." They came up to another red light, and he glanced at a nearby sign. "It says Boylston. What do I do now?"

Alan's mouth hung open. He found two Boylston's that seemed to be broken up somehow, but he found the one close to the Boston Common and found Arlington Street by accident. "Left again."



Marc started cutting to the right lane and Alan looked up, flustered. "Dude, what are you doing?"

Marc looked at Alan and his eyes slitted. "You said `right'! I heard you!"

"You said left, and I said `right,' as in `correct'! You're in the wrong fucking lane!"

Marc swung hard to the left and heard a horn blare. He gave what he was coming to think of as the Boston Salute in recognition of the one he saw in his rear view mirror.

"Great. Which left?"

Alan looked up. There was a barrier running down the roadway splitting the street. There were no signs offering information He was frustrated. "How the fuck do I know? Try the left on the left. Worst we can do is circle the Common." They waited at the light. There was an SUV revving its engine in the right lane, edging over aggressively to make it clear he expected Marc to get out of his way so he could change lanes. Marc gunned the engine and lunged the car a few inches to close up any gap. If the guy had just pointed, he might've let him in.

"I see you're makin' another friend," Alan grumbled, noting the familiar hand signal.

"Does everyone in this city drive like an asshole?" Marc growled under his breath, returning the gesture with an extra emphasis.

"David says it's like a rule. He does pretty good around this town," Alan chuckled. "He just doesn't bother to wave back as much as you, though. He just smirks and cuts `em off."

They sat at the light on Arlington and Boylston, waiting endlessly. There was a church on the corner, and Marc noted the large group of kids hanging around the steps, all male, and most of them young. Some lingered near the street, peering anxiously into the cars. One jerked open a door and stood talking before getting in. Marc figured the kid for fourteen. He didn't need an explanation about what was going on. Alan had seen it too.

"That kid could be either of us, buddy," Alan said in a low voice.

Marc gave him a curious look. Alan was still looking out at the knot of teens gathered on the steps and standing along the road way. "Some of those kids are looking for a fix. Others are looking for maybe the price of a bed or a meal. That could have been either of us. You were thrown away; I would've been a run-away." His eyes snapped to the changing light. "Go. GO!"

Traffic moved again and Marc lunged forward, successfully cutting off the white SUV that had been trying to edge in front of him. He smiled, but then looked over to Alan when they covered the thirty feet before traffic stopped again. He peered at Alan. "I never heard your story, really. I mean, I know you hate your dad and you live with your sister, but that's it. What happened?"

Alan clinched his jaw, opened the envelope and passed the photos to Marc. Marc flipped through as they waited, his eyes bulging. I thought my life sucked, but I never had it this rough. "Jesus..." his voice trailed.

Alan looked ahead. "I haven't seen my Dad since the night these were taken," Alan said quietly. "The other two people - that's Andy McKinnon and Nanny - I owe them for being alive."

Marc shook his head. "That doesn't explain why you're helping me. I don't get that either." He stacked up the Polaroids and handed them back to Alan, who returned them to the envelope. "And don't tell me it's for Drew. I mean, after what he did to you, you can't think you owes him anything."

Alan stayed silent. He didn't know how to explain to Marc that deep inside, Alan still saw Drew as a brother, and the McKinon house was the only safe haven he ever had. If helping him made Andy and Nanny happy, then that was good enough for Alan. He looked down at the map again avoiding an answer. "You need to take a left onto Tremont up there."

"Can't. I can see the `No Left' sign from here."

"Shit," Alan grumbled, pouring over the map. "OK - here." He pointed. "Go through the light and one block more. That's Washington. Go left, count - God, seven side streets - and turn left again. Then you can cross over Tremont. You'll be near the State House."

Marc shook his head. "Dude, that's back where we started."

Alan shrugged. "This time take a right and go behind the State House. Follow all the way to the next light. The McCormack Building is right there. There's a parking garage."

Twenty minutes later Marc pulled into the parking garage they'd passed forty-five minutes before. He flinched when he saw the hourly rate. "Nanny gave me a few bucks," Alan said holding up a fifty. "She figured we'd both be broke."

Marc eyed the note in Alan's hand, thinking how much a bill slipped to Alan by an old lady would have meant to him a few days ago. He found a space on the fifth tier of the garage and they took the elevator down to street level. They stood at the lights, waiting. Braver souls ventured out into the five-way intersection without even looking at the traffic or seeming oblivious to the blaring horns of cars trying to avoid the walkers. Marc shook his head. Boston drivers aren't the only assholes on the roads around here, he thought. The lights changed and the streets filled with people. Finally both boys stood in front of the McCormack Building.

"It looks like a milk crate with windows, balanced on a cinder block," Marc said, thinking back to the low, Georgian grandeur of the State House atop the hill behind them.

Alan pointed to Boston City Hall across Government Center. "Beats that thing. It looks like a pregnant egg crate."

They passed their judgment on Boston's great Urban Renewal of the 60s - soulless and ugly, lacking any design or comfort to the eye, cheap functional government buildings on a scale so vast they made the stomach churn. I.M. Pei's curse on a city desperate to catch up with New York but finding only L.A. at its unimaginative worst. They entered the McCormack Building, passed through the check points. Marc had to drop his keys into a tray and walk through the metal detector twice. Another guard demanded that Alan open his envelope. He checked long enough to see documents and photos, not bothering to look at what they were. Alan found a directory and the offices of the Attorney General, and he and Marc found the right elevator.

They stepped up to a desk, where a harried, middle-aged woman sat working the phone bank. She looked up at the two boys.

"I need to speak to Robert Curran. He's - "

Her mouth twitched with distaste. "I know who he is, hon. But who are you?"

"I'm his son," Alan said, and reached for a pad of paper. He scribbled a note and asked for an envelope. The woman passed one to him. Alan placed the note into the envelope, then pulled two of the photos out of the larger envelope and slipped them in. He sealed the envelope with the note. "Most likely he won't want to speak to me. But if you can give him this, I'm sure he'll change his mind."

The woman called over a young man and gave him a few instructions. The man made a face when she told him who the envelope was for. He disappeared down the hall reluctantly.

Alan smiled. "I can see my dad's real popular here, too," he said.

The woman smiled and coughed. "I didn't know Robert Curran had a son."

Alan shrugged. "No one does, really; most of the time, not even him. But it's okay. I don't think he's much of a father."

Her eyebrows shot up, but she said nothing more. Marc leaned over to Alan. "Do you want me to go in with you?"

Alan shook his head. "No. If this doesn't go the way I want, I don't want you caught in the fallout."

The young man came back and leaned into the older woman to speak quietly. She looked up at Alan. "Your father says to go in. Just follow Eddie here," she said, indicating the young man with the blond curly hair. For laughs Alan gave the young man a long and obvious up and down glance, then nodded approvingly. This flustered the young man for a minute, but he finally smiled and motioned Alan forward. They found a door with `R Curran' painted on it. Alan let himself in without knocking.

His father was behind a metal desk in a small room loaded with cabinets and cardboard file boxes. Alan noted that even though the man had been in the Attorney General's Office for thirty years and had a senior title, he still didn't have an office with a window. It said a lot about what they thought of him here. Alan looked over the face he hadn't seen for two years. He noted the deeper lines under the eyes and the sallow skin. His father looked ten years older more than two. He caught the familiar smell of alcohol-saturated skin. Alan knew he hadn't been drinking that afternoon - not yet. It was just the body sweating out the residual vodka from the night before.

"Alright," Robert Curran said slowly. "What the hell do you want?"

Alan took a seat that wasn't offered. "I need a favor," Alan said quietly. "A favor - as in, you do something for me... or else."

The older man leaned back in the chair, he looked over his son with obvious distaste. "Getting brave, aren't you? Watch your mouth with me, you little faggot. I can still knock you silly."

Alan nodded. "You can try, anyway. But I don't just cringe in a corner anymore, daddy. I don't wait to be punished for stuff I didn't do or blame myself for things I didn't cause anymore. You even raise a hand to me and I'll knock you on your drunken ass."

Curran lurched out and across suddenly, and grabbed Alan's bad hand, trying to twist it. Alan's other open hand came up and bitch-slapped the man across the face, sending his glasses flying. Robert Curran recoiled back into his chair, startled.

Alan didn't stand or shout. "Listen to me, you son of a bitch. You even try to touch me again, and this time you'll have the broken bones," he said in a cold voice. "I don't wanna be here with you any more than you want me around. I always said the next time I saw you would be at your funeral. And I'd only go to that so I'd know where to go for a long piss after."

Curran scowled at leaned back in his chair. "So what do you want? More money? Forget it. I give your sister plenty as it is."

Alan shook his head. "For as long as I could remember, you used to brag to Nanny and Andy about how you could make paper disappear anywhere in the state. All you had to do was make a call and anything could disappear." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a slip. "Well, make this disappear," he said, tossing it onto the man's desk.

Robert Curran picked up the small square and squinted at it. "This looks like a court docket number," he said.

"It is. A friend of mine's in trouble. He got picked up for hustling."

Curran's mouth twisted into a sneer. "Right. Figures you'd be in with some queer whore." He crumpled up the paper and tossed it back to Alan. "Forget it."

Alan's eyes bored into his father's. "He's gay, and he screwed up, dad. Don't call him a whore. He's got more guts `n you'll ever have. And he happens to be a real nice guy, and you'll be doing me a big favor. Think of it that way," he held up the manila envelope. "Because if you don't do what I'm telling you, I'll pass these photos out to everyone on this floor, along with the copies of the hospital report and the affidavits that Social Services collected from the duty nurse. And keep in mind when my eighteenth birthday comes up, that agreement you have with Eileen won't mean anything if I decide to sue you in court."

He paused to let it sit in, then continued. "Wonder how long you'd last in this place once they found out what a bastard you really are? I understand child abusers aren't too popular, even with the good-buddies that make up state bureaucracies around here. Hiding away a scared little kid who can't defend himself is one thing. But take that same kid once he finds out he's really a human being, and arm him to the teeth with evidence, and... well, let's just say that kid isn't scared anymore. Far from it." He leaned forward. "Now do what I told you, old man, or you can kiss that state pension you're counting the days to good bye."

Robert Curran looked at the paper with a docket number and a name, then at the photos. He might weather a storm... maybe. He wondered if it were worth the chance. "I could lose my job if they find out I pulled these strings," he muttered. "Then you can kiss those checks to your sister good bye."

Alan shrugged. "In that case, I just sue and sell your house out from under you. Get something through your head, Dad: I don't care what happens to you. I don't care if you get fired over this and lose your pension. I don't care if you wind up in jail... either for this or what you did to me. I don't care if you lose your job. But I promise you, if you don't make that case disappear into dust, I'll make sure you don't have a goddamned thing left. Because finding out you died broke in a gutter some place would just make me feel sorry for the gutter."

Alan leaned forward and pushed the phone at the man. Then he sat back and waited, enjoying the man's frenzy as he dialed number after number, trying to call in the right favors. He enjoyed the sound of his father's voice almost crawling to get what he needed. He saw the man sweat. After twenty minutes, Alan began to feel a pang of guilt when he thought for a moment that the old man in front of him could easily drop dead from a heart attack... but then he thought of the pleasure of a private visit to the grave yard. Or maybe, when he was asked to step forward and throw the first clump of dirt into the open grave, he could instead open his fly and let loose on the coffin itself, right in front of the mourners. The idea had a certain appeal to it. And he couldn't think of anyone that might seriously object, except for maybe the priest.

Robert Curran worked the phone for nearly two hours. Alan ignored the suggestion that he wait outside, and idly flipped through an old magazine. At last, Curran senior hung up the phone.

"It's done," he said.

Alan didn't look up. "It's all done? All of it? Police photos, prints, and the court paper work?"

"I said it's done," the man replied wearily. "Now, get the hell out of here. I never want to - "

"We're not done yet, Dad," Alan said with a smile. The idea had been at the back of his mind for the last half hour and he decided it was worth a shot. "There's just one more thing we have to discuss," he said with a smile. "We need to talk about cars."

* * * * *

Marc jumped on the hood of his car and let out a woop with his fists clenched over his head. Alan stood laughing. The two of them had sprinted when the light changed, putting the McCormack building behind them. "I'm King of the fuckin' world!" he roared, dancing on the hood. An old man looked up from his Lincoln Town Car, smiled and shook his head.

Alan leaned against the decrepit Cavalier, grinning. "More like the Empress, Leo. Better get that fairy ass of yours back in the car. You weren't the only flake hittin' the street out there, and I want to get out of this town before the snow really starts to fly. Besides, you knock anymore rust out of this thing and the axel might snap."

Marc leapt off the roof and landed in front of Alan. He grabbed the smaller boy up in his arms, swung him round in a wild hug and then kissed him on the mouth. A startled but happy Alan hit the ground and Marc dropped his keys into Alan's hand. "You drive, dude. I'll hit something, I know it. I couldn't concentrate."

Alan looked at the keys. "I dunno... I mean, if I hit something - "

"You'd be doing me a favor if you put this bucket of crap out of its misery! Seriously, buddy. I'll ram us into a bus the way I am right now."

Marc hopped into the passenger seat, started playing his knee caps like drums. "I haven't felt this good since..." He stopped, then looked up and smiled sadly at Alan.

"Since you got Drew back to your place the first time?" Alan finished, still smiling.

Marc nodded his head rapidly, wrinkled his nose, and made silly sounds. Alan took in the dimples and the happy face, the bright light dancing in the soft brown eyes. Seeing a face that happy made him understand why Drew felt the way he did. Seeing a face that happy made the whole morning worthwhile. There was more of course, but that was between Drew and Marc. Alan had to settle for the knowledge that he'd done whatever he could do. He pulled out of the driveway and pointed the car down Causeway Street, aiming for the Northeast Expressway, hoping at least something in Boston was as easy to get to as it looked.

* * * * *

Drew stamped the snow off his feet on the rug at the kitchen door. Doing something they never did, the administration of Lawrence Catholic announced the shut down of the school just before the lunch sessions began. Forecasters had revised their estimates from possibly heavy snows in the late afternoon to full blizzard alert at any moment. He was grateful for the short day, especially when Brother Matt told him Alan was out sick. Plus it meant they would likely be off school for Friday, too. Marc had said they needed a week, but Drew had every intention of showing up at Marc's door Friday afternoon. He was determined they were going to work things out between them. Drew pulled out of the school parking lot thinking they were all crazy, there were no more than a few flakes settling on the ground. By the time he got to within a few miles of his house out on the edge of Lake Cochichewick, the road was a white out. Four inches were already in the driveway.

"Nanny?" he shouted, pulling off his coat. He was sure she was home. Her red Saturn was sitting in the driveway, but he wanted to be sure. The last thing he wanted to think about was his grandmother out on the roads on a day like this. Besides that, he caught the aroma of his grandmother's special beef stew cooking in the crock pot. Rita always made sure there was something hot ready for Andy and his men on bad nights. Other people would be out in the snow, but Andy and a few of his workmen would be out there plowing. Snow meant you couldn't build, but you could still make money, especially in the lean winter months. Rita made sure there was always something hot and ready when Andy brought in his workers. Drew felt his mouth water and cracked open the lid for a better whiff. He wasn't sure what his grandmother threw into the pot besides chunks of beef, carrots and potatoes, but it always tasted great.

He heard a rustling from the living room and there she was, ironing with the television set going. "Hey, kid," she said, catching an ash from her cigarette before it hit one of his father's dress shirts. "I figured the school'd be kicking you bums out soon. I made up some beef stew. It could do with another hour, but if you're hungry now, help yourself."

Drew was tempted, but he knew the stew would taste better later. He settled for toast and cut himself a piece of cheddar from the block. A little microwaved coffee and he was all set. Rita came in and looked at him, a little oddly, Drew thought. She's been like this all week, he mused. She keeps on looking at me like when Puffer died and she didn't want to tell me. The image of a fat, lazy, orange cat stretched out across his chest flashed through his mind. Drew remembered how he'd try to move, and the lazy thing would just dig in his claws and hang onto him when he tried to stand.

"What's the matter, Nan? You've been kinda down all week," he asked with a mouthful of cheese.

The old woman shook her head, lit another cigarette and filled her coffee cup, popping it into the microwave for thirty seconds. Drew wondered why she didn't come down on him for talking with his mouth full.

"Just... just stuff, kid. Old people stuff," she said, sipping the warmed up black coffee. She watched her grandson, seeing the father - black hair, blue eyes that sparkled... and, in the last few weeks, a nice kid again. Drew was so much more relaxed, so much happier. More like the old Drew, before he went to high school and decided that being popular was more important than just being himself. Was it all Marc?, she mused. And if it was, what's going to happen when he finds out? Alan flashed through her mind. She had a hunch about Alan and what he was up to. That might make one problem go away... but it didn't change the facts.

Her grandson wasn't going to run around with anyone like Marc - not if the newspaper story was true. She'd liked Marc, liked him a lot. Even now she could picture his long, gangly body hunkered down in a chair that first Saturday morning, wondering if the crazy woman was going to beat him with a broom. Rita could ignore a lot of faults when she liked someone, but she could only bend so far. Drew was her blood, and she wasn't going to see his life ruined by a common hustler. Who's going to tell him?

She blew a cloud of blue smoke across the table, and Drew made a face when it reached him. "Sorry," she said.

Drew shrugged and finished off the last of his toast and the last bit of cheese. He eyed the fridge. He'd skipped breakfast, and his usual lunch was an hour late. He got up and began pawing through the refrigerator when the back door flung open again and Andy came through.

Rita didn't have to look up. "Wipe your feet," she ordered just as Andy was halfway across the kitchen. He looked down and grunted at the soon-to-be puddles on the floor where clumps of fresh snow had fallen. He walked back to the mat by the door and kicked the snow off his boots.

"And clean up your mess," she added, still not turning. "The mop's by the door."

Andy crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out at her and grinned while Drew snickered, watching the show.

"I saw that," she said. "God will freeze your face like that if you're not careful."

"Still got the eyes in the back of your head, ma?"

She snorted. "I don't need those anymore. I just know what a smart ass I raised."

Drew turned to his father. "All shut down at the Hanson place, Dad?"

Andy mopped up his puddles and returned the mop and slipped off his coat. "Yup. Storm's gonna be a bad one, so I made sure their new windows were secured and everything, and sent the guys home for awhile. I told Mrs. Hanson she wouldn't see us until Monday. She's happy, at least she won't have a foot of snow in her new addition. Damn weather... I swore this stuff was all done. Almost fifty one day and a blizzard the next. Lucky we got everything shelled and up over there this week." He put the mop back in the plastic tray by the door, and Drew handed him a mug of nuked coffee.

Andy eyed the stew. "Good eats for the guys tonight, huh ma?"

"I figure you can take that pot with you. You've got that adapter in your truck to keep it warm," she said. "You and the boys are gonna need something hot and filling tonight. Winds are supposed to be coming up."

Drew looked at the pot like the world ended and his father made an evil laugh. Rita still didn't turn. "Stop that, both of you. Drew, I have the small pot going in the laundry room. You'll get your share. And Andy, stop rubbing it in on your son, or you won't get any. I'll tell Frank it's all his and Ted's."

"She will, too," Drew laughed.

"No respect!" Andy said in a comically-mournful voice. "Not from my son or my mother."

Rita finally did turn but her face was stern. "That's what you get for being a rotten kid," she said. "Think of this as retribution for something you did when you were twelve or something, and thought you got away with it."

"Hey, Dad," Drew said, finishing the last of the cheese. "You want me to ride shot gun tonight with the plows?"

Andy shook his head. "No offense, but you don't have enough experience with that thing yet, Drew, and it looks like this storm is going to run right into tomorrow afternoon. Frank and Ted will wind up short this week, and they'll need the extra money. And Frank's kid could use a few extra bucks, too. You understand, right?"

Drew nodded. Much as he wanted to try plowing, he understood that the money was just extra in his pocket. For Frank and Ted, it was their livelihood. Drew was always the first to get a layoff and the last to be hired.

Rita looked at the clock. "Well, my soap's coming on. You guys are on your own. Don't forget the pot, okay Andy?" She shuffled slowly out of the room.

Andy watched her, a little concerned. His mother hadn't been right all week. He realized it was the first time he had ever thought of her as being old - really old. He saw the expression on his son's face and realized he wasn't the only one to notice it.

Rita paused at the door. "Oh, Drew, I almost forgot - some kid called you earlier. Marvin? Martin-something? Sounded like a little one, but he was really frantic." She fished into her pocket. "He said he had to talk to you the moment you got home."

She handed him the paper. Drew noted the New Hampshire area code, confirming what he already knew. He reached over and picked up the phone and looked up at his father. It was only Martin, so he figured there was no reason to take the call in private.

"Lemme just make this call, and I'll help you hook up the plow to the truck, `kay, dad? You remember Martin, right?"

Andy eased back with his coffee. "No hurry, kid," he said, looking around carefully, making sure his mother was out of the room before putting his foot up on one of the kitchen chairs. "We got time. It'll be a couple hours before I have to hit the road for real."

Drew keyed in the numbers, wondering what could possibly be so important to Martin.

© 2002 by Keith (formerly Keith Mystery), all rights reserved.

Send any comments to keith_hackwriter@lycos.com

*Tea bagging - dragging ones testicles across someone else's face

Big thanks to a few people, as always; Marc, for his return as my editor; Jayne, for kicking me to get going; and a certain someone
who chooses to be nameless who gave me all KINDS of information about what you can find in the net News Groups! And of course,
all of us know about things like software piracy exist, but actually using it, well... to sort of quote Richard Nixon, "That would be wrong."