...And the Other Friends...

Keith Mystery

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. ; )

(c) 2002 by Keith Mystery. 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.netwith the permission of the author.

I love email, so send any comments to the BRAND NEW E-MAIL ADDRESS
--> keith_hackwriter@lycos.com <--
My old carrier and I have been having Words since the last posting


Chapter 4

"Where were you all weekend?"

Drew popped up fast, slamming his head against the steel top of his locker. He muttered a few choice words while he rubbed the sore spot and staggered back, his eyes clamped shut. "Jesus Christ, Melissa," he muttered in an irritated voice. "You gotta sneak up on someone like that?"

"Don't try changing the subject," she said brusquely. Her face was locked into an unpleasant scowl, not an unfamiliar expression for Drew to see. "And I didn't sneak up on you, either. I walked over here at a normal pace, in full view of everyone. You'd have seen me if you didn't have your head buried in there." She frowned, or actually frowned more. Then, in curiosity, "What are you looking for in there, anyway?"

Drew suddenly felt a little queasy, but he wasn't sure if it was from the sudden blow to the head or just the sight (and sound) of Sweet Melissa. He'd hoped to avoid her until lunch, even parked on the opposite side of the building rather than the senior lot and then walked to yet another entrance to the school further down. The only time he'd be vulnerable was before he made it to his homeroom class, because that entailed going to his locker for the books he'd need. Another two minutes and he'd have made it. Where he'd been over the weekend didn't seem the best topic for discussion; he didn't relish informing his girl-friend that he'd spent Friday at a meeting for gay teens, and Saturday having sex with a long-haired (and insensitive) stud he'd met at the home center.

"My glasses," Drew answered truthfully, choosing to answer only the second question. "You know - the nice gold ones? I can't find 'em anywhere. I had to wear my geek glasses in public Saturday!" He shook his head.

Melissa gave him a disapproving scowl. "I don't like you wearing glasses, Drew. They're bad for your image - I've told you that before. Stick to the contacts."

Drew sighed. Melissa felt he looked like a geek no matter which pair he had on, and pitched a fit if he ever wore them around her. "Sometimes the contacts just don't work out, Melissa. I've told you that before. When my eyes are red and irritated -"

"Enough about the glasses!" she barked impatiently. Drew caught the look in her eye. It was one he wasn't fond of, and could easily do without. "Now, where were you all weekend?" she demanded, tapping her foot. "Your father and your grandmother both said you were at your aunt's. Care to explain?"

"Explain what?" Drew snapped, then realized that was the wrong tack, and his voice took on a more plaintive tone. "Jesus, Melissa! I had to go to my aunt's - she needed some help with some stuff. Honest!"

She wasn't buying it. She continued to fume, refusing to say a word now.

Drew rolled his eyes. "Oh, great," he said. "You don't believe me? Think about it Melissa - do you really think I could get both my father and my grandmother to lie for me?" Not for anything else, maybe, he thought to himself, but in your case they volunteered, 'cuz you're such a bitch.

She leaned forward and tapped on one of the nearby lockers with a long pink fingernail. "Blain's brother's girlfriend's cousin's neighbor saw you at Home Station with your old boyfriend Saturday, helping you load one of your dad's trucks. Care to explain what you were doing there with Alan Curran, of all people? It doesn't do my reputation any good for you to be seen with someone like him, you know! Oh, and when I drove by your house Sunday, I saw your Sebring in the driveway. And why didn't you call?"

Drew pulled the last of his books from the locker and slammed the door, sending a metallic clang echoing down the hallway. It was an interesting situation here. Normally he made sure to go out of his way to keep Melissa happy, just to protect his image. But right now, he looked at her from a different perspective.

How much of a damn did he care what anyone thought right now?

Not much. School was almost over. Just another three months and Lawrence Catholic Academy was a memory.

Did he really give a damn about hurting Melissa's feelings?

No. She didn't have any.

Was he worried about her walking out on him?

He tried not to chuckle as he recalled the nothing he felt when he was with her, vs. the way he'd felt with Steve. Even if the guy is a big dick, he thought, and shuddered. Now there's a REAL crummy analogy.

Drew narrowed his eyes as nearly two years of resentment began to ooze to the surface. He had to take a new initiative, and put her on the defensive for a change, to keep her from asking the next question - which was bound to be 'Well why didn't you call Friday or Saturday?' He still hadn't come up with a reasonable lie to cover that. But then, why did that matter?

He took a deep breath. "First of all, my aunt needed some work done at her place. Second, you and I made no plans this weekend. Third, I was at Home Station because the stuff I needed for her was there, and I can't help it if Alan works there now and they told him to help me load up. Now, if you think about the fact I was driving one of my dad's trucks, you might come up with why my car was still in the driveway on Sunday. It's because I had the pickup! And I didn't get home 'til Sunday night, like about ten o'clock, and it was too late to call then!"

Drew stepped back slightly and tried to look irritated instead of scared. He'd never snapped back at Melissa before. It felt good, almost exhilarating, but it was still a new feeling. The worst she can do is tell me to fuck off and say she wants to break up, he thought. As if that'd be a big deal right now.

"Like I said," he continued in a cold voice, "We had no plans, and I don't have to clear my schedule with you, okay? And what the hell were you doing checking up on me Sunday?"

This time it was Melissa who stepped back, open-mouthed, her eyes wide. Drew not only talking back but giving attitude wasn't - well, it wasn't the way things were supposed to be. Neither was his calling her on her behavior. "I wasn't checking up," she answered defensively. "We... we happened to be driving by, and I saw it there."

It was Drew's turn to look irritated and suspicious. "Melissa, I live out by Lake Cochichewic, for God's sake - almost to Georgetown. You gotta drive down back roads just to get to my street - we're not on the way to anywhere. So, you wanna explain? Who's this we? And what's with all the attitude?"

The girl was almost speechless. For over a year she'd called every single shot in their relationship, made every demand, and Drew had always done exactly what he was told. The concept of his having a backbone was one she'd dismissed a long time ago.

She blinked without comprehension at the new state of events - and Drew began to feel a cold sweat breaking out on his newly-discovered spine. He felt a sudden relief when the warning bell sounded. He turned away from her, snapping the locker combination lock, and hoping she didn't notice the nervous twitch at the corner of his jaw.

"I've gotta get to homeroom," he said, trying to at least sound calm. Thank God we got different homerooms, he thought to himself.

Melissa stared at his back as he turned and walked away. Definitely not part of her program. "Lunch," she called after him. "We'll discuss this at lunch, Drew McKinnon!"

He didn't stop or slow his pace, just turned his head in her general direction even if he did avoid her eyes, and spoke loudly enough for anyone in the crowded hallway to hear. "I got plans for lunch, Mel. Maybe I'll call you tonight. If I'm busy, we can talk some other time."

Drew caught a parting glance of Melissa Welsch in the distance, still standing by the lockers. Her eyes were bugged and her scowl had deepened. Gotcha, he thought, and chuckled. Melissa despised the nickname "Mel." He took more satisfaction when the second bell went off and he knew she had two minutes to make it to her own homeroom on the third floor. He caught a glimpse of some hapless Freshmen scurrying to get out of her way.

Drew took his seat and slumped down at his desk, ignoring the conversations around him. Someone said something to him but he didn't hear, and the speaker simply assumed Melissa was on the rag again or something and picked up talking to someone else. Drew paid no attention to old Brother Stanislaus - known as 'Stan the Hand' by generations of LCA students, which until only a few years before had been solely a boys' school - called the roll. Conventional wisdom had that Brother Stan resented the intrusion of girls as poaching his private preserve. It didn't lessen his penchant for occasionally indulging his friendly fingers, and also explained why no one but the incoming Freshmen were ever foolish enough to venture alone into the darkroom of Stan the Hand during his photography class.

"Here," Drew answered to his name, and returned to his thoughts. Brother Stanislaus finished the roll call, then droned the daily announcements in his thin, reedy voice. Most students other than the newest of the freshmen generally ignored him, and his Homeroom seniors seldom acknowledged his existence. Today was no different, and the buzz of conversation continued. Brother Matthew stuck his head in from the hall because of the noise, and silence suddenly reigned. Bother Matthew was also known to use his hands - just differently than Stan the Hand.

Saturday night and all day Sunday Drew had thought things over, especially the dual life he had been leading over the past year. From the day he'd gotten his driver license, Drew covertly indulged the part of his sexuality that he'd fought to leave behind him after he threw Alan away. He discovered cruising spots. His computer found site after site with pictures of men indulging in the things he secretly fantasized over, and he spent hours downloading the images until his hard drive strained. He's told himself he was bi - maybe - but each time he was with Melissa he felt little or no urge. Out with his friends, he'd feel the inevitable nudge in his ribs and them saying "man, check it out!" And he'd see the hot girl walk by, give her the eye just for effect, but if she was with a boyfriend, Drew always found himself checking out the guy.

Then there was Steve. Pissed as Drew was on Saturday afternoon, when he'd shut off his bedroom lights at 1AM, his mind replayed what they'd done on the couch and floor of Steve's apartment. Drew finally lurched out of the bed and searched his dresser drawer until he found a makeshift dildo he'd fashioned from wood and sanded smooth, covering it with layer after layer of urethane. He'd never had the nerve to try it before. A bit of petroleum jelly facilitated matters, and he probed himself until he rediscovered the spot Steve found so easily, and Drew successfully brought himself to a satisfying end before drifting comfortably off to sleep. In the morning he cleaned his toy, but instead of slipping it back into the dresser, he slid it into the nightstand, where he could lay his hands on it more easily in the future. He had to admit he was hooked.

Drew went from homeroom to Religion, and with Brother Matthew in charge he didn't dare let his attention wander far, which really wasn't difficult. Brother Matthew was a natural at lecturing and discussion techniques; he preferred teaching English, but more and more lay teachers were being hired by the school as the Marist presence gradually diminished. In just the past year the title of "Brother Headmaster" disappeared with the retirement of the aging Brother Lucien, and for the first time in its history, Lawrence Catholic hired someone from outside the Marist Community to run the school. But Brother Matthew still led the school drama society, which the school thought was fine, since the post was unpaid anyway.

The next period was civics and history, a class he shared with Melissa. Drew timed it to the last moment and stepped into the room just as the bell sounded, and he slipped into the first seat he came across since Mr. Archer permitted an open seat plan. Drew found himself sitting next to Reggie, and he could feel the daggers from Melissa in the back row.

"Wow, man - you're riskin' death today," Reggie said in a low voice, then nodded his head towards the back. "You and Mel-from-Hell have a fight?"

Drew shrugged. "Screw her. She's bein' a bitch today."

"Not with mine," Reggie said, grinning. "It'd freeze and break off. And her bein' a bitch is new... how?"

Drew grimaced. "Let's just say I've had enough of her crap, okay Reg? I'm bailing from the whole thing."

Mr. Archer gave them both a sharp look, and the boys clammed up. Rick Archer wasn't a terror for discipline like Brother Matthew, but he didn't hesitate with detentions, and Drew preferred to return to his own thoughts rather than talk with Reggie.

Satisfied that he'd set things in motion by telling the school's primary news source he wanted to break up with Melissa, Drew went over some other things on his mind, things he'd have to do. First, Melissa - and that was already in motion. He had no intention of announcing why he wanted to break off with his steady of over a year, but he intended to make it clear that he was going to steer clear of any relationship with anyone for the next three months. He may have admitted being gay to himself, but it wasn't something he wanted widely known. Conversations with his father and grandmother were inevitable, of course, but at least the worst part of that was over - they knew, and accepted.

Drew remembered something Marc said to him - about what some of the kids at the meeting would give to have that kind of acceptance from their families. He remembered the kid from Friday night - fifteen years-old and desperate enough not to be alone that he'd hitched rides from Salem, New Hampshire, down I-93, and then hiked the three miles in the cold from the exit to the Christian Formation Center. Ten o'clock on a Friday night and the kid - Martin? Yeah, Martin - was willing to go through the same routine again rather than risk having his family find out where he'd been.

Man, that takes balls, Drew told himself. Maybe its time I started growing a pair.

There was something else that had to be done, too, but he wasn't sure exactly how to go about it. Drew considered his options and hoped for an opportunity to present itself, but it wasn't until Wednesday that he finally pulled up the courage to do it. At lunch he grabbed a pre-wrapped sandwich from the cafeteria and wolfed it down in the hallway, then headed for the library on the second floor of the new annex, the site of the old Lawrence Jail. When the Civil War-era structure was finally de-certified by Essex County as a prison - something the State Supreme Court had ordered twenty years before - the city made a gift of the land to the jail's long-term neighbor, who'd been willing to buy the land for decades just to get rid of it. It certainly didn't hurt that three quarters of the city council and the mayor himself were LCA graduates, which if nothing else was a testimony to the state of the Lawrence Public School System, whose high school had been taken over by the state almost a decade before when it lost its accreditation, and still hadn't been fully turned back over to the School Committee.

Drew slipped quietly into the library, unnoticed by the retired Marist brother who still volunteered his time to take care of its needs, since he was bored silly by the idea of full retirement. Students on detention still did the heavy work, but Brother William still held the title of Chief Librarian, no matter how bad both his vision and his hearing got. The new computerized book index made his job a lot easier these days. Drew gave a quiet "Mornin', Brother Bill," which the monk didn't hear any more than he could see its source.

Drew padded down the length of the L-shaped room and turned the corner, where Alan Curran ate the sandwich from the brown paper bag he carried every day and quietly read.

The boy sat up with a start when he was aware of a chair pulling out from the seat in front of him, and his eyes widened when he recognized the face. Then it was as if the steel gates of Alan's mind slammed shut, and his hazel eyes suddenly hardened, cold and dead.

"What do you want?" he muttered in a low voice.

Drew felt the chill, something that cut him to the bone more than anything Melissa could ever say to him. He swallowed and took a deep breath.

"I'm here to say something I need to say. I'm here to say... I'm sorry."

There was an empty pause. Alan's eyes never left Drew's face, even if Drew had to look down at the table.

"Is that it?" Alan asked simply.

Drew nodded.

Alan glared at him. "Okay. You're sorry. But when you come down to it, sorry don't mean shit --- does it, McKinnon? It doesn't take away any of the isolation or the beatings. It doesn't take away the feeling you get when you find out your best friend is a total asshole. Now, will you just do me the favor of fucking off?" Alan returned his attention to his book.

Drew sat there for a half minute more, then pushed the chair back and rose. He started to walk away, hesitated, and spoke again. "Listen. I.... I know we can never be friends again, Alan. I just hope one of these days you can stop hating me."

Alan looked up. Drew saw the look on his face and felt a chill ran through his body. He'd seen it so many times as a child; it was the look of contempt, not hate, that Alan so often gave his father when the man pulled into the driveway and picked up the daily abuse to his son from where it left off in the morning.

"I don't hate you, Drew," Alan said quietly. "You're not worth the energy it would take to hate." He turned his eyes back to his book.

Drew's face reddened slightly, but he nodded, then turned and left. A few seconds later, Alan took another bite of his sandwich and turned the page of his book. His left hand came up instinctively to wipe away a lone tear.

No, he thought to himself. Not worth the energy. Even if you were my best friend. Even if you were the first guy I ever loved.

* * * * *

Marc Wildon clutched his robe shut and used his hip to kick the door to his room shut. It wasn't that he was particularly modest - anything but, most times - but he hated it when he ran into one of the other residents, particularly Justy, the old rummy at the end of the hall. Most wouldn't notice or even pay attention to Justy's stares, just write them off to a brain sodden with alcohol, weed, and pills, plus God knew what else the old man had pumped into himself over a lifetime of self-abuse. But Marc sensed something else in those rheumy eyes. There was no mistaking the feeling. He'd experienced it more times than he cared to think of. When Justy watched him, Marc felt like a piece of meat being weighed and judged in the beef section.

Whenever Marc stepped out of his room, it seemed Justy just appeared, staring, his washed-out gray eyes following the boy's every movement. Marc had even taken to blocking the door of the floor's communal bathroom whenever he took a shower. He'd never seen Justy staring at the shower stall when Marc was in it, but he knew the old man had been there because he could smell him; the acrid odor of stale cigarettes, the sharp stench of vodka burning out of the old man's pores. He'd tried to catch the old man at it, but it never worked. Justy may have been old, and whatever brain cells he may have been born with were probably burned out of his skull about two decades ago, but he was still swift enough to clear the room at the first movement of the curtain. But no matter how often he'd jumped out to catch the old man, all he'd ever seen was a blur and the door gently easing shut in its frame.

The last time was the worst, though. Marc decided to just ignore the old man, pretend he wasn't there, and just go on with his shower, taking his time. When he stepped out, of course the old man was gone. Then Marc's stomach took a flip when he set his right foot into a puddle of goo on the cold bathroom floor. It could have been many things... but Marc had a pretty good idea what it was. In addition to the smell of cigarettes and vodka, Marc could smell the sweat that accompanied a very specific act he was all too-familiar with.

After that, Marc blocked the bathroom door as best he could, since it had no lock. No one else on the floor complained -- yet. Marc hoped his luck held on that, because he didn't relish the thought of an argument with Stick, the manager. Stick liked Marc, but he tried not to treat him any differently than he did any other residents - which is to say, he didn't quite treat him like crap most of the time - but Marc just didn't want any hassle. The only way anyone ever got chucked out of the Mid-City Manor was for being behind in their rent, or caught dealing without giving Stick his cut. Oh, yeah, and if the police suddenly showed up asking about you for more than the usual parole violation, or maybe even for public brawling. But Stick had his way of getting even with someone he thought needed a lesson. Never anything much, of course - maybe suddenly finding some vermin scuttling in your room, or your heat would get shut off a few days a week, or a few things tucked away for safekeeping were suddenly lost. Or your room got changed to either one of the three basement rooms in winter, or up to the fifth floor in the midsummer heat.

Marc snapped the lock of his room, and shot home the deadbolt just to be sure. He dropped his robe onto the narrow bed and completed drying himself down, shivering slightly in the cold draft that wafted in from a nearby crack in the wall. He left his dirty sweatshirt stretched out on the windowsill to staunch the airflow. He kicked his work pants into a corner, then remembered that he'd never find them at five-thirty in the morning if they weren't in their usual place, and picked them up and folded them onto the back of the lone chair in the room, facing the "mini table" in his "kitchenette."

Yeah, right, a kitchenette, he thought, with a wry grin. Nice way of sayin' TV tray with a little dorm fridge and a hot plate/toaster oven combo.

No cabinets, just a few rough shelves to hold the basics of a kitchen - salt, pepper, a few cheap utensils. The counter was large enough for a half-sink, the sort seen in wet bars, and to support the hot plate. Those little things cost him an extra twenty-five bucks a week, but even so, it was better than eating at the McDonald's a few blocks away. Marc had the choice a few months ago of one of the small rooms with a private bath, or one of the "kitchenette suites." Tempting as it was to have a shower of his own - especially with Justy down the hall - economics dictated the kitchen. There were a few rooms that boasted both, but there was no way Marc could swing one of those without working his extra job, and he hated doing that if he didn't absolutely have to.

The teenager dressed quickly, more to escape the cold than anything else, then dug down to the bottom of the small footlocker he kept wedged under his bed. He slipped his fingers into a slit in the old cloth lining and pulled out a slim envelope. He sighed with relief when he saw the cash was still in it. He checked every day, of course. The envelope went to work with him in the morning, and sat in the trunk of his car. But living in the stolen car capital of Massachusetts made keeping it in his trunk overnight a bad idea, so the envelope came in with him each evening. The only time he couldn't keep an eye on it was when he was in the shower, and that's when the footlocker came in handy. He'd been robbed three times since moving into the Mid-City Manor. The thieves had never gotten cash - Marc rarely had enough to steal - but they'd gotten his boom box and TV, things he could bear to do without. But the four hundred and seventy-five dollars in the envelope he couldn't do without. His car was due for an inspection by the end of the month, and Massachusetts had one of the toughest emission standards tests in the country. If it didn't pass, he lost his registration and plates.

Marc's vintage Cavalier was on its last legs, but he had to make it last and that meant replacing the entire exhaust system all the way back to the manifold. Some other things needed fixing, too. Speedy Boys Exhaust checked the car out and told him to the penny what he had to spend in order to pass. Marc put up some extra cash from his regular job, but it hadn't been enough. In the end he'd had to pick up extra work over the weekends, something he'd hoped he wouldn't have to do. If the car didn't pass, it meant taking it off the road, and without the car, he wouldn't be able to get to his job. The job wasn't much and Marc hated it, but without it, he wouldn't be able to afford even the Mid-City. There weren't many alternatives left after that. Well, except for one - and Marc didn't want to consider it.

Marc pulled on a pair of Calvin briefs and dug into cubbyhole the management laughingly called a "closet." Things were hung in threes on hangers, and he'd never been able to close the door all the way. Fortunately, most of his good clothes were still in nice shape, and he tried to keep them that way. The first few weeks at his job told him it wasn't worth the effort to wear anything nice there, and gradually Marc had picked up cheap shirts and Bob's Brand jeans to wear. There was a time when he didn't flinch at the idea of dropping seventy bucks on a pair of Guess or Tommy's, but that was a time quickly fading from his memory. He liked to look good, but looking good didn't matter at work; filthy and sweaty mattered, and when you leaned against some fresh paint or aimed a bottle of spray adhesive the wrong way without thinking, it didn't matter whether the label on your clothes said Ralph Lauren or Kmart.

Work wear lay in clothes baskets under the bed, one for clean and the other for dirty. The good stuff was hung as neatly as possible. Marc pawed through and found a pair of soft, faded levis he always liked, and a royal blue Nautica button down shirt, but before pulling on either he slipped his lithe body into thermal long-johns and a tee. He pulled on the first pair of white sox he could find, since labels didn't mean a damn on those, and fished a pair of ankle-high leather boots out of the bottom of the closet. He draped a thick, heavy weight white cotton hooded sweatshirt over his arm and considered whether or not he should wear his black leather jacket. The liner wasn't worth much against the February cold, but the sweatshirt and thermal tee would take care of that. The only alternative was the cheap winter jacket he'd picked up at the beginning of winter. It smelled from wearing it back and forth to work every day, and he tried to remember the last time he'd bothered to toss it into the wash and couldn't.

"The leather it is," he murmured to himself. He looked up in the mirror, and smiled. "Damn, talking to myself again. I keep that up, they're gonna lock me up. Prob'ly with Justy's brother, knowin' my luck."

He dug out his cell phone next, and carefully calculated the time left. He'd used quite a bit the last few weekends, but he was sure he had at least another half hour before his plan started costing more than he could reasonably afford. It wasn't like there was anyone to talk to, anyway. But if something happened driving the car up, he at least wanted to be able to notify the police. Not that it would do him much good. He couldn't afford the tow anyway. But if it happened on the way to Speedy Boys, at least he could afford a cab home.

Marc pulled the sweatshirt on and glanced at himself in the mirror again. He opened the nearly empty bottle of hair gel and worked up his sandy brown hair. He'd have to remember to pick some more up over the weekend. He stuffed the envelope with the money into his back pocket and slipped on his jacket, digging around in the pockets to make sure his gloves were still there. He considered a hat for a moment, decided that would waste the effect of the gel. Besides, if it got that cold, there was always the hood. Marc hated hats, didn't give a damn about the fashion that said everyone should wear some sort of cap. Satisfied, he grabbed his car keys and was out the door into the hall, making sure the door was secure behind him.

Immediately he heard a door open a few feet down the hallway. Marc turned, and sure enough, Justy was peeking out at him.

"Jerk off on your own floor, Justy," he said mockingly, and the door quietly snicked shut as quickly as it had opened. Goddam old pervert, he thought. Bet he goes to Stick and bitches about me cussin' at him again. Let him. I'll spread the word how he likes beatin' off while he watches boys in the shower.

Marc jogged lightly down the three flights and stepped out into what passed as the lobby of the Mid-City Manor, a five-by-ten area featuring the turn-off to the stairway, the manager's barred window desk, and the door to Stick's private apartment. Of all the units in the building, only Stick's had the luxury of a full private bath, a separate bedroom, living room, and a complete kitchen. Another room on the side was filled with loaded bookshelves. Stick didn't look bright, but it was clear he read anything that he thought might be interesting. Marc had been in the apartment once. He'd only been at the Mid-City for a month, and already he'd fallen behind in his weekly rent. Not quite eighteen, he'd shown the building manager the false ID his brother, Adam, got for him at college. It wasn't much, would never get him into a club or anything. It just gave his age as eighteen. Minors weren't allowed at the hotel. But for a job he had to show his real papers, and since he was only seventeen, he couldn't work more than thirty hours without parental consent. He flipped burgers at McDonalds for a buck over the minimum wage, and he wasn't able to cut it. All too often, he had to make the choice between food and rent.

Stick showed him into the apartment, then just turned and stared at him, hands on his hips, chewing his Nicorette gum on the right side of his jaw. His washed-out gray eyes reminded Marc of Ethan Hawke, more because of their size and roundness than their color. The boy was nervous. He fully expected Stick meant to have him work off the rent another way, when he called him into one of his private rooms. It smelled a little musty, but it was surprisingly clean, especially given how the building looked on the outside.

"Guess you been havin' troubles," he said simply, chewing.

Marc said nothing, just looked away, embarrassed. If Stick asked for what Marc thought he wanted, he knew he'd have to do it. He had no place else to go. Stick was fit for a man near fifty, at least. The only time he seemed to leave the Manor was to walk up to the Y a few blocks over for his daily work-out.

A long half-minute passed as Marc stared at the floor and Stick did nothing. The only sounds were an old anniversary clock and Stick's constant chewing.

"C'mon, kid," the manager said. "When you really gonna be eighteen? And don't tell me you are. I ran a liquor store before this, and I know a phony card when I see it. I know you ain't a runaway. The guy who helped get your clothes in here was a brother, sure as shit, just lookin at you two. I figure you for a throw-away, which can mean drugs, but I can tell you ain't into that."

Marc just nodded, but didn't volunteer details.

Stick sighed and nodded. "I guess it's the other thing, then."

Here it comes, Marc thought. Hope he isn't into kink.

"So. When do you turn eighteen?"

Marc held his breath. "Three weeks," he said finally, trying to keep his voice from shaking. If he doesn't like to hit too much or anything, I can do this. I have to.

Stick warily eyed the boy up and down, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a card which he handed to a shaking Marc. "Stop shakin', kid. I ain't askin' ya to do nothin'."

He handed the card to Marc. It was for a company called New Era Millwork.

"The pay sucks but it's better than what you're getting' now. And they burn through people up there and sometimes you'll work so much overtime you'll think you live there, but at least it's a reg'lar paycheck 'till you find somethin' better. Beats flippin' burgers at Mickey D's," Stick said, still working his jaw on his never-ending supply of Nicorette gum.

"A few other guys here tried it," he continued, "but they didn't last. But you don't got a booze problem though, and if you're doin' drugs, I ain't heard of it - and if you was, believe me, I'd hear it. Give 'em a try. I'll carry you till you start getting' a check reg'lar - and if not, well... you gotta go. I'll have to forward your mail to the Central Hotel," he said, and laughed at his own joke. The 'Central Hotel' was the maze of warrens under the old Central Bridge, spanning the Merrimack River.

"Will they still be hiring in three weeks?" Marc asked nervously.

Stick snorted. "It's the kinda place that's always hirin'. Pay what you can between now and then. We'll work out somethin' about the arrears. Oh, and one more thing - keep your mouth shut about this. I hear any talk about me carryin' you, and you're out on your ass. And if I see you high or anything while you owe me money, you're out, too. Understood?"

Marc nodded.

"Okay, get out," he said in his direct way. It wasn't mean-spirited, but just a casual dismissal. Marc left. Three weeks later he applied for the job at New Era and got it. The job was a lousy one as promised, but they were doing big business and the overtime money paid off his debt quickly. Marc was able to walk away from McDonald's and another casual job with no worries. In the mid-fall, the overtime fell aside, but Marc mostly managed on his forty hours and didn't have to work on the side very often.

Still, Marc was grateful. Stick could have just locked him out any time. Sure, the law said you had to give notice and all that, but in a place like the Mid-City, the only lawyers anyone knew by name were appointed by the city's Legal Aid office. Not many of them took up eviction cases with no hope of payment.

Stick looked up, nodded as Marc passed, and he smiled at the old guy. The boy's hand was on the panic bar of the glass door when Stick called out to him.

His round, gray-blue eyes fixed on him. "Just thought you'd like to know. There's gonna be a openin' for a room on two with a shower and a kitch'nette."

Marc smiled. "Thanks Stick, but to tell you the truth, I can't swing it right now."

Stick didn't change his expression, just nodded and kept chewing. "OK, kid. Just thought I'd let you know and get first grab. Hey, I ever mention you got guest priv'leges?"

Marc raised an eyebrow. "Guest privileges?"

Stick nodded, still chewing. "Yup. Don't mean much, just every now and then you got someone who wants to stay over, it's cool. Just make sure it don't turn out to be a roommate deal, ok? That's against the rules. And no business on the premises - like I gotta tell you that."

Marc reddened but smiled and nodded. "Yeah. I get you, Stick. And thanks, okay? I appreciate it."

Stick shrugged his shoulders. "De nada, kid," he said. "You been real reg'lar since we had our talk. I don't mind cuttin' a good guest a break here and there, ya know? And keep in mind the new residence. I can do it for, like, ten extra a week."

Marc bit his lower lip. A room with a kitchen and a bath was usually an extra twenty-five on top of what he was already paying. Stick wasn't known for making bargain rates, but it wasn't unheard of for him to do so - just as long as you didn't talk about it to anyone.

"I dunno, Stick," he sighed. "Overtime at the Mill is like... nonexistent right now. I've been livin' pretty close as it is."

Stick nodded again. "Think about it. Lemme know for sure Monday when you get home from work. You're the only one I told." He chuckled. "Just think what a break it'd be not to have old Justy beatin' his meat while you're takin' a shower. And I don't have to listen to anyone else on your floor bitchin' about you blockin' the door when you're in there."

Marc felt his face burn, and Stick looked down and opened his newspaper. Finally Marc laughed softly and headed out to the street. That guy knows everything, he told himself and pushed out into the street.

Almost immediately his face stung from the icy blast of winter air. March wasn't far away, and that meant spring, and Marc couldn't remember looking forward to it so much before. He knew his old car would take forever to heat up, but the worst part wasn't just that. The worst part was going to be getting back to the Mid-City. Speedy Boys was over the border in Salem, New Hampshire, a good twelve miles away. He'd hoped to arrange a ride with a guy from work, but Jose bailed on him at the last minute. Marc didn't have any choice. Speedy said if he dropped off the car Friday night and left it there with the keys, they'd work on the car first thing in the morning and have it ready no later than noon. Getting the car there wasn't the problem; getting home would be.

Have to walk or thumb, Marc told himself. If I stick to route 28, it'll be a lot easier. Better shot at catchin' a ride, too.

He unlocked the door of the mostly-blue Cavalier (one fender was red and the trunk lid white, and rust was everywhere else) and strapped himself in. If he were cited for his exhaust system tonight, he didn't want another twenty-five dollar fine and a surcharge on his insurance on top of everything else. He turned the key in the ignition, listened to the starter moan about not getting enough current, and then finally began to kick over. Yeah, right, he thought. Gonna need a new battery soon, too. Does it ever end?

An angry roar from where his muffler should have connected to the manifold broke the peace of the cold, still evening. Downtown Lawrence was like a tomb after the sun went down. Not many took the chance of walking down the streets, even if the hotel was only three blocks from the police station and two from city hall itself. Driving up route 28 to Salem wouldn't take long, but Marc figured with his luck, the cops would pull him over. Not the Lawrence cops; God knew they were too lazy. But Methuen was a different story. Fortunately, the Salem police never pulled anyone over unless they were weaving or speeding. Marc took the long way out to I-93 and headed north.

The lot to Speedy Boys was half-full when he arrived, but Marc already knew it was just the oil-and-lube trade. The majority of the shop shut down at six, and it was already after seven. He walked into the office and saw the manager, Arnold - or at least that's who and what the tag on his blue jump suit claimed he was. Marc pulled out the estimate he'd been given three weeks ago, and Arnold slipped on his half-glasses and peered at the paper. Marc waited, and felt a cold shudder when he heard the man begin to 'tsk'. Not a good sign, Marc thought with a grimace.

Arnold looked up, shaking his head. "Jesus, kid, I don't know what to tell ya. This thing is way the hell off. I don't know how I coulda made this much of a bonehead error."

Marc sighed and let his body slump. The guy had him and he knew it. Marc needed the exhaust fixed that weekend; by next Tuesday it was March 1, when his annual sticker expired, and if he was stopped with an outdated one, the cops would impound the vehicle on the spot.

"Look," he started, that sinking feeling in his stomach. "I need the thing fixed, Arnold, but I don't have much more than what you quoted me. How much more is it gonna run?"

Arnold looked up with his mouth open, looking confused. Then he smiled and shook his head, laughing lightly. "Naw, kid - you got it all wrong. This estimate isn't low! It's way too high! Dunno how I did it, and I know this is my writing, but I added in stuff twice and completely mis-figured the labor charge. This thing is about a hundred and a quarter too high. I'm surprised you're back here at all with these kinda numbers. I'd've been down the street and waved goodbye with one finger if I got handed a price like this. Hell, as it is, you're lucky I'm an honest guy," he added with another chuckle.

Marc sighed with relief. "You got no idea what good news that is for me," he said gratefully.

Arnold cocked his head to one side. He dropped his voice when he spoke. "On your own, kid?"

Marc nodded, breathing easier. "Yeah. And I really need the car, man. I live in Lawrence and my job's over in Wilmington."

Arnold rubbed his chin and looked Marc over. He nodded. "Yeah. Fifteen miles don't sound like much 'til you gotta walk it. Been there, kid. If you was one of them young snots from Andover, I might've screwed you for the extra money, but I recognize this address. How's Stick doin' these days?"

Marc smiled. "He's pretty good, Arnold. And he's the reason I'm here. He said you were an honest guy, so when you gave me the estimate I just took it as the right price."

Arnold nodded. "Yeah, Stick sends me some customers he knows are good for the money. So - let's have the keys, and you can pick 'er up at... say, noon tomorrow or later. Is that good?"

Marc nodded happily. "That's the best, Arnold. Thanks again," he said, handing over the keys. He walked to the door, then smiled and waved again before he stepped out into the cold, pulling the hood up over his head and forcing his gloved hands deep into his pockets.

Arnold watched the boy's back disappear in the night. Sure that he was gone, the man pulled a check out of his pocket for a hundred and twenty-five dollars and smoothed it out before he paper-clipped it to the work order. There was a note attached already that said no one but Arnold was to take care of the customer, and no one at Speedy Boys was likely to question it.

No problem, kid, Arnold said to himself with a thin smile. You got Stick watchin' out for you, and that ain't a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

* * * * *

Marc plodded along Rockingham Road. He'd only walked about a half mile and already the cold was starting to get to him. His lungs ached, his teeth were chattering, and his fingers and toes were already slightly numb. Doesn't help that you didn't bother with dinner, he thought to himself. He was at the traffic light that intersected with Policy Road, and he could see the nearby Rockingham Park Mall lit up like an invitation. He checked his watch -- 8:30. Maybe I'll see someone I know and can cage a ride. At least I can get somethin' to munch on. And I can warm up a little, too.

He patted the cash in his pocket. It was nice to have a small windfall. The extra money his car didn't cost him would come in useful. Marc had been watching the sale fliers, and maybe he could swing himself a little luxury, like replacing his stolen TV set. He'd considered picking up a small boom box, but all his CDs disappeared when his television and stereo were taken, and he just couldn't afford to start replacing the music right now. Not for the first time he thought of the MP3 files he had on the hard drive of his old computer, and the player that let him burn ten hours of music to a disc at a shot. Gone now, like all the other toys, he thought with a trace of sadness. He'd picked up a small battery-operated radio and that supplied him with music at least, even if a lot of the stuff that came in over the air wasn't what he cared to listen to.

Marc shook off the feeling. Didn't do to spend too much time running over the past. Life was meant to be lived in the here and now and an eye to the future. At least the television would offer some other distraction, and the sound of voices in the background. There was a lounge at the Mid-City, but Marc hated going there. It only had basic cable, and every night the residents squabbled over watching wrestling, the Bruins hockey, or Celtics basketball. Marc didn't give a damn for any of the sports, so he usually didn't bother going down. He didn't have a problem with the group that hung out there, even if they did argue a lot, and they never hassled him - except Justy, of course, who always magically appeared whenever Marc drifted down that way. The old man never said anything, just stared at him. Marc was fairly sure the old man played pocket pool with himself over in the dark corner where he always sat.

The light changed and Marc sprinted across the intersection, jumped the small barrier along the road and cut across the parking lot of the mall, then slipped into the side door of Macy's. No one paid too much attention to him since he was dressed just well enough not to look out of place, but no clerks rushed to offer him service, either. Several of the female clerks looked him over appraisingly though, as well as at least one of the male floor managers. Marc turned a corner and came face to face with someone very familiar - who took one look at him, went white, and dashed off down another aisle. The boy hung his head a little but smiled in spite of the situation. Nothin' like mixin' with your public, he thought ruefully.

He exited Macy's for the main concourse and headed for the curving flight of steps in the center of the mall, taking them two at a time. His hands and feet were already starting to have some feeling again, and he could smell the mix of aromas from the Food Court, and that increased his pleasure. He considered the Wok In for Chinese food, but if he was going to pay top dollar for a munchie-type meal, it might as well at least be something decent. A few of the other places were tempting, but the Mall prices for anything were never reasonable. He spotted the Burger King booth at the far right of the court and decided on just a couple of cheeseburgers and a coffee. He wrinkled his nose at the thought of BK coffee and reconsidered. He finally decided to splurge a little at the Kwik Java and then order his food. He had just started off for the kiosk when he heard voices behind him.

"Hey, fuck off, faggot!"

Marc spun on his heel, a flash of anger on his face and then stopped. He felt his heart pound. It was Drew, the guy from the meeting at the CFC, standing in front of a younger kid, blocking him from two other kids about the same age, but tougher and stronger-looking. Marc recognized the smaller kid as one of Brunny's herd.

"Yeah, man, the guy's a fag," one of them sneered, a pimply fifteen year-old with his cap on backwards and decked out in black and way too much cheap silver jewelry, but tough-looking nevertheless. "What're you - his boyfriend or somethin'?"

Drew's upper lip curled and he pushed the Pimple back. There was definite menace in his voice. "No, I ain't his boyfriend, but I am his friend, zit face. So why don't you and the lard here just haul it away and leave him alone?"

"Or what?" demanded the original speaker, who was dressed almost exactly (and just as badly, in Marc's opinion) as his friend. "What're you gonna do about it?"

"Kick the livin' crap out of the both of you," Drew answered belligerently. "Wanna see how much damage I can do while you two jerk-offs are trippin' over your own pant legs?"

"And you wanna see how much I can help him?" Marc pitched in, closing the small gap between him and the rest of the group. He looked grim, and nodded to Drew. The two of them closed ranks. The smaller boy tried to step forward and join them but Drew just eased him back with the flat of his hand, forcing him back to safety.

"I told you to stay back there," Drew growled.

"I can help," he started plaintively. "I ain't no wuss."

"Don't worry, Martin. These two pussies ain't gonna start nothin'," Drew said in a low voice.

"Damn right they aren't," said a deep, new voice, and all of them turned to see a pair of Mall cops standing on the side, hands poised on their night sticks. The speaker was a solid wall of black muscle under a tapered blue shirt and tailored pants. Next to him was a nervous Spanish kid not much older than Drew and Marc, but no one paid any attention to him. They did pay attention to the six-four, black weightlifter with the scowl on his face. He looked directly at the two toughs. "You two was banned from here if I remember, weren't you?" he barked.

The two mid-teen tough-wannabes backed down. The acne case looked sullen but nervous. His chunky friend just looked scared. Neither said a word.

The big Mall cop nodded. "Uh-huh. I know you guys was banned from here, 'cuz I did the bannin'. So, I guess me and Felipe are gonna see you both to the nearest exit, and that should settle everything, huh? Or maybe you two would like me to call Salem's finest to give you a ride?"

He turned to Drew, Marc, and Martin. "You boys are okay. Just go about your business and no one'll bother you, 'specially these two. Whenever there's trouble and these jerks are around, I don't need to ask questions 'bout who started what."

He turned back to the two boys. "Well? You can walk out, or I can make you move and you might fall down the back steps of the Food Court like last time, with my footprint in your ass."

The fat one nudged his friend who still glared at the guard. "C'mon. You know he ain't bullshittin'." The four of them moved off.

Marc nodded to Drew and grinned. "So. This the reason you didn't call me? Jesus, you like 'em young!"

Drew went red and stammered. Martin just laughed in a his high voice. "Yeah, I wish!" he managed. Then he turned back to Drew. "Thanks, man. That's two I owe you now."

Drew recovered enough to speak. "Hey, it's nothin', guy. I mean, I'm sure you could've dealt with 'em, but - "

Martin snorted. "Yeah, right, I could've dealt with them. Once Stevie got his foot out of my throat like last time, I coulda dealt with 'em! I'm not kiddin' myself." He looked a little sad for a moment. "But I really could've helped. Just 'cuz I walk an' talk like my sister doesn't mean I'm chicken. Just, well..." he smiled up at Drew and Marc, but it was a miserable smile. "I guess I kinda flame."

Marc spoke up. "Ah, I've seen worse. A cousin of mine makes you look like van Damme, and he's totally straight. You go to school with those assholes?"

Martin shook his head and rolled his eyes. "God, no. I'd be dead by now if they did. I go to Salem High. Those two go to the Voke school, but they live in the same park as me."

Marc gave him a curious look. "Park?"

Drew broke in. "Trailer park. Martin lives a little ways down from here."

Marc nodded. He knew for sure Drew didn't come from any trailer park, but he didn't know anything else.

"Yeah, and you don't," Martin said with a giggle. "Dude, I hoped to see you again. I mean, it was real nice of you and your ol' man to give me a ride last week and all. I wasn't lookin' forward to thumbin' back to Salem. But I knew you guys were full of it when you said the trailer park was on your way home -- like I didn't see the Mass plates on the car when you pulled up. If I didn't recognize you as the guy Marc here was with all night, I'd've run like hell. Gotta tell you, man... you are just so lucky havin' your old man support you like that. My old man knew where I was last week, he'd kick the crap outta me worse 'n Stevie and Chunk ever thought of doin'."

Marc raised his eyebrows. After their final conversation the previous week, he didn't see Drew as the type to go out of his way to help someone else, especially a stranger. Marc recognized the kid, but hadn't met him; he'd been too busy trying to size up Drew, whom he took as the major closet case of the whole meeting, maybe for the year. And now here he was standing up for some kid who lived in a trailer park and was a bit of a screamer to boot.

Drew looked back and forth to both of them, but his eyes lingered on Marc a bit longer than they should have. "Um - well, I was headin' to get something to eat. You guys wanna join me?" He gave Martin a significant look.

"I was, too," Marc jumped in quickly. Maybe too quickly.

Martin looked back and forth at the two, saw the sudden awkwardness in both of them. "So was I, but I'm, uh... meetin' someone and it's, erm, gettin' late."

Drew was thankful for the diversion, but still decided a little teasing was in order. "Well... so l'il Marty got himself a hot date?" He thought of something and he gave the kid a serious look. "This isn't a net meeting thing or anything like that, is it?"

Martin snorted. "Hey, I might not be the butchest guy in this group, but that don't mean I'm the dumbest." He blushed as he continued. "Me and Ryan've been talkin' all week, on the phone and in the chats. We're gonna hang out at the Game Zone tonight."

"Ryan, huh?" Marc snickered. "Wait'll I see Brunny. Her matchmaking routine finally paid off!"

Martin turned redder than the Cardinals' cap on his head. "It's not a date-date thing," he stammered. "We're just - you know, just... hangin' out... sorta."

Drew smirked and spoke in a mocking tone. "Oh. Right. It's not a date, but it's a date. That's real clear."

Martin squinted an eye at him, and shook his head. "Jesus. I'm startin' to think maybe I woulda been better off if I just let Stevie and Chunk just kick me around for awhile," he pouted. "Be easier on my ego."

Drew chuckled. "Okay, we'll get off you. Hold on, though." He reached into his wallet and pulled out a scrap of paper, then fished a pen out of his front pocket and scribbled on it. "Serious, Martin, if you want to go up the CFC again next week, give me a call, 'kay? I'll pick you up. I don't wanna think about you thumbin' up the highway at night. And I can run you back after if you need it."

Martin took the number, a slightly awed expression on his face. "Wow, man -- thanks!" he said in a low voice. He looked up at Drew, who saw something in the kid's eyes that made him feel good. "Shit, if I couldn't see you was already taken and I didn't have a date with Ryan, I'd make a play for you myself." He grabbed Drew's arm, squeezed it firmly for a moment then released it. He looked up at Marc with an evil grin. "And if my Ryan's half as cool as this guy, then we both got winners."

Martin turned for a second to flash a silly grin and give a final wave, and trotted off to the Game Zone.

Drew snickered. "Poor kid. You'd never know five minutes ago he was about to get pounded." He looked at Marc, locked in on the soft doe-eyes. He felt the same urge he'd felt a week before, in spite of all his denial. He just liked being around him, like he radiated warmth around him.

Don't fuck this one up, McKinnon. But give it a try.

Drew felt his mouth go dry. "Hey... uh... if you were serious about grabbin' a bite, you want some company? I really was headin' for a snack when I ran into those guys."

"Yeah. I was ready for some BK." Oh, man, Marc thought. I'll snack on you. Just give me the word.

Drew wrinkled his nose. "Could I maybe talk you into the Wok In?"

Marc shrugged. Be cool. You can do this. You have done this. "Hey, it's all carry out. I'm just a little low on funds for the Wok. We can just meet at a table and..."

"No problem," Drew jumped in. "I'll tag it. Kinda make up for me being such a jerk last week."

Marc hesitated. The last thing he wanted to look like was a leach. "I dunno, man..."

"Hey, c'mon... I was a real dick last week, okay?" Drew said in an earnest voice. He reached out and rested a hand gently on Marc's arm. "I mean, you went out of your way to be as nice as you could, to make me relax, and I treated you like crap. Let me score us some dinner, ok? I'd feel better."

He read the boy's hesitation and uncertainty. "Look, Marc, if you want, we can play a game of pool for it later- loser picks up the tab, okay? So I'll just do it in advance and save us both some time. And the extra buck for the table."

Marc laughed, shook his head and raised his hands in mock surrender. "Okay, you're on. But I gotta warn you, I oink it on Chinese."

"Makes two of us!"

They moved into the Food Court, but not before Marc stopped at the Kwik Java for a large latte. Drew offered to pay but Marc insisted the deal was only good for the meal, unless Drew wanted a cup.

"Nah, I'm caffeined out. I'll just get a large coke or something."

Marc snorted and didn't make the obvious observation about the coke. They placed their order, and true to his word Drew ordered big after Marc asked for a small chicken finger plate. They picked a table and Drew started splitting his meal before the two of them.

"Hey!" Marc protested.

"Shuddap! I said I was gettin' you dinner, and you settle for two lousy chicken fingers, a chintzy egg-roll, and forkload of lo mein! Now, take the teriyaki and half the shrimp, or I'll give you what I was gonna give to Chubs and the Zit King. And don't forget the sauce. Or the fried rice."

Marc gave in to the inevitable and shoveled it in. Drew watched his every movement with a forced casualness, but when Marc dipped the end of his egg roll into the duck sauce, Drew froze when he watched the other boy's long, pink tongue zap out and almost wrap itself around the egg-roll when the sauce began to drip. Drew's eyes were wide, and his jaw hung open..

"That's... that's incredible," he managed in a whisper.

Marc blushed and smiled. "My brothers used to call me Lizard Boy. When I was four, the oldest wanted to take me to school for show and tell, but mom bitched. I was born missin' some of the muscles and tissue that anchor the tongue to the bottom of the mouth. Look," he said, and zapped out his tongue again, tapping the tip against the end of his nose. The tip actually wiggled.

"Oh, man, that's wild..." Drew trailed off, fascinated, thinking of the way the tongue wrapped itself around the egg-roll. Then his mind pictured it wrapped around something else. His face flushed, and Marc caught it.

He raised a mischievous eyebrow. "Yeah, I can," he said quietly, answering the obvious but unasked question, and chuckled quietly.

Drew reddened even more and pretended not only an innocence but a complete lack of knowledge of what had just transpired and tried desperately to change the subject.

"So, ah... what school are you in?"

Marc grimaced. "Um, I don't go to school, Drew. I work. I'm kinda on my own."

Drew nodded. Great. I don't say anything right tonight. "Yeah? Okay, I guess you graduated last year?"

Marc was about to speak and then paused, snapping his jaw shut. His brown eyes shifted back to Drew's face again, uncertainly. Bet this is where I lose him, he told himself. He took a deep breath.

"No, man. I went to Andover High, but I had to drop out," he said quietly.

Oh yeah, McKinnon. Fuckin' smooth as ever. Why don't we both go play handball in a minefield after dinner? Ain't you got the touch? "Oh," he said, feeling stupid.

They sat quietly, toying with the food, neither sure what to say, shooting quick, uneasy glances at each other.

"So..." Drew continued. "You're just not the student type, I guess?"

Marc figured he might as well lay everything out. He leaned back, looking directly into the dark blue eyes that were the perfect compliment to Drew's white skin and shiny black hair. Take a long look, Marc Wildon, he thought. This is prob'ly the last time you ever get to see it this close.

"No," he said quietly. "I was pretty good in school, no problems. Had every intention of goin' to college. I, uh... got kicked out of my house." He hesitated, stole a quick glance at Drew and then shifted his attention to dipping the remainder of his egg-roll into the sauce. "I guess you could say it was 'cuz I got caught. With my boyfriend."

Drew winced. Now I know why you were so pissed about my attitude about my dad making me go to that thing. "Wow. What happened? The 'rents walk in and find the two of you swallowing tongues on the couch or something?"

Marc shrugged. "Something like that, just a little more... well..."

Drew dipped a piece of his fried shrimp into the spicy mustard and popped it into his mouth, and immediately regretted it as the mustard scorched the tender, unsuspecting tissue inside. He pumped air rapidly, then reached out for his coke and began to chug it, skipping the straw, listening to Marc while his tongue burned.

"The old man walked in and we were naked on all fours while we - uh, well, I guess you could say I was snoggin' out Doug's backside."

Drew gagged, felt the combination of hot mustard and carbonated coke burning his nasal passages as the combined liquids spurt out his mouth and nose and all over the dinner plate, table, Marc, and himself. Tears were in his eyes from the burning sensation - combined with his laughter. Marc's face froze, and his shocked expression only made Drew laugh more. Then Marc began laughing too, his body shaking, their laughter echoing through the Food Court.

"Oh, Jesus," Drew babbled, gasping for air to ease the pain in his nose and at the back of his throat. His body shuddered from pain and laughter at the same time. "Marc... you - oh, God. You - you could at least give a guy some warning," he gasped, waving his hand in front of his mouth like it might actually have some cooling effect. He jumped to his feet, clutching his nose in pain, his eyes tearing up.

Marc grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser and handed them sheepishly to Drew, trying not to look him in the face, because every time he did he came down with the giggles again and that only seemed to start Drew off again. People all around them at the other tables were staring. Both boys silently prayed no one else heard the remark that started everything. Finally Drew stopped, and trying to avoid looking at Marc, looked down at his now-unappealing combo plate of Chinese, mustard and coke. He picked up the tray and tossed it into the trash.

"I gotta get out of here," he said, giggling again. Marc just nodded.

The two of them skulked out of the Food Court, forcing themselves to keep a straight face, and slid out of the side entry of the Mall, laughing on the steps that lead to the parking lot below. They leaned against the rails, protected from the late winter winds by the plate-glass wind break, but not the cold of February. After a few moments, their laughter finally stopped, and Drew spoke up.

"I gotta get out of the weather, but I can't go back in there," he said, jerking his head back to the building. He looked at Marc. "Hey, you working tonight?"

Marc shook his head. "Nah. That, ah... that was a temp thing I was doing, trying to get the money to get my car fixed. Um, kinda reminds me," Marc said uncertainly. "I mean, I don't wanna be a pain, but... could you maybe give me a ride? I had to drop the car off tonight so they could work on it first thing in the morning, and I could use a lift. I mean - if you got the time."

Drew felt his heart surge. Go for it! Go for it! Recovery time, you can be a hero here!

"Hey, sure, it's no problem," he said, forcing his voice to sound casual. "I mean, after I douse you with coke and snot, the least I can do is drive you home."

Drew paused uncertainly and looked down before looking back up at Marc with a lopsided grin. "Actually, I was gonna ask you if you were doing anything, like... special tonight. I thought maybe we could, well... do something. Together."

Marc gave him special look and raised an eyebrow.

Drew shook his head. "No. No, man, you got me wrong. I wasn't sayin' we could - uh... damn." He gestured apologetically. "I guess I've got the gift of stickin' my foot in my mouth sometimes. I just... I just meant maybe we could hang out together, you know? Kinda make up for the bad start we got off to at the meeting the other night. I mean, you're really a pretty cool guy, and - "

Marc leaned over and gave Drew's arm a light rub. "C'mon, Drew. You're cool, too, and no, I didn't think you were asking to jump my bones. That look was because you're a hundred an' eighty degrees from where you were last week. Then I find out you been makin' the move on a fifteen year old who has his heart set on some kid named Ryan."

"No," protested Drew, shaking his head. "I swear, the kid's not my type, and he's way too young -- "

Marc smiled at Drew's discomfort. "Okay. So you're just a casual acquaintance. Look, why don't we get into whatever the hell you're drivin', crank on the heater and get the hell out of the cold? We can discuss it then."

"Good plan," Drew answered and they hustled down the stairs. The wind caught them when they cleared the glass wall and the two huddled together. Drew found he liked the feeling of closeness. He imagined he could feel Marc's body heat. Well, something's feeling warm, anyway, he mused, and twitched his hips, hoping his other reaction didn't show. Nah, no chance - not enough there to show any reaction, he thought ruefully. He reached out and put a hand on Marc's shoulder, for no particular reason he could think of later.

Marc turned his head, looked at the hand, and Drew was satisfied that he made no move to shunt it off. "Tell me you're parked close," he said with his teeth chattering. "And what're we looking' for, anyway?"

"For that," Drew said, and pulled the key pad out of his pocket. The Sebring barked twice and the lights flashed. Then the engine caught. They still had twenty feet to go, and they sped up.

"Wow! Nice wheels, dude," Marc said with respect, looking over the Chrysler. "Gotta admit the Daimler designers beat the hell out of the K-Car guys. Just tell me something I want to hear, OK?"

Drew's teeth were chattering "What's that?"

Marc grinned, and his dimples made deep holes in his cheeks. "Tell me you got cloth seats, not leather. I don't care what they say - those damn things are like icicles against your ass in weather like this."

Drew jerked the door open and made a sweeping gesture. "By your command, oh great one," he said. "It may be a rag-top, but it's got the basic cloth interior package."

Marc hopped in the passenger side, then leaned across the car to open the driver's door for Drew, who piled in gratefully. "Crank the heat!" Marc cried in a teasing whine.

Drew shook his head as he slammed his door. "The beast has to warm up first. Otherwise we just get blown with cold air." He turned the key and let the engine idle.

Marc's teeth were still chattering. "Getting blown cold is good," he said with a grin, "but warm is better. In a bed is best. So turn on the heat, and I'll take you to my warm bed, if that's what it takes."

"Pig!" Drew said with a grin. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you're tryin' to corrupt me."

Marc shrugged. "Well, that's an improvement, I guess. Last Friday you were accusing me of trying to rape you. This week I'm just trying to corrupt you." He looked sideways at Drew. "So, I guess you've kinda looked things over the past few days? Maybe reconsidered some stuff?"

Drew sat, feeling awkward. How could he put this? Yeah, he thought, I got my ass broke in good last Saturday and loved it. Wanna go for sloppy seconds?

Instead he shrugged, feeling awkward but not ashamed for once. He looked into Marc's gentle brown eyes and came to a decision. He leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Yeah, I reconsidered some stuff. Like how I wanted to do that to you last week."

Marc couldn't see the blush in the dim light of the car dash but he could sense it, just as he'd felt the softness of two warm lips unexpectedly pressed against his flesh not two seconds before. He smiled, searching for Drew's piercing blue eyes in the shadows of his face. "Thanks. I wanted that. And I wanted to give you this. Last week and tonight."

He reached out and cupped Drew's jaw in his long fingers, tilted his face towards him, and leaned forward until his lips touched Drew's. They both hesitated, not knowing if the kiss should go any further when Drew just leaned in and slipped his arms around Marc's back and pulled him close. It wasn't an animal kiss like it was with Steve, but their mouths did open, and their tongues intertwined and danced. Drew felt Marc's hands gripping his shoulders, pulling him closer. They stayed that way for minutes, both of them sliding around, altering their positions to ease the growing pressure below the waist.

After a few moments, Marc broke the kiss first, and flopped back in the car seat. Drew's eyes were burning into him, and he realized the other boy was shaking, but not from the cold. Marc could hear his own breath.

"This is too fast," Drew heard himself saying.

Marc nodded, but reached out and brushed the top of Drew's hand with his fingers. "Yeah, it is." He swallowed, hard, then looked back at the boy. "I like you, Drew. Really. But... slow. Okay? Let's go slow."

Drew nodded, turned forward in his seat. He rubbed his eyes, then realized he'd shifted his contacts and blinked rapidly to refocus. "You gotta know this is new for me," he said in a low voice. "Not the sex part. I been there before. But..."

Marc swallowed, nodded. "Yeah. I know. And you know I haven't exactly saved myself for Mr. Right, either," he looked hard at Drew. "But I don't want you to be a Mr. Right Now, if you know what I mean."

Drew was silent, and Marc took that as a bad sign. "It's not that I'm not interested, Drew. Really, you gotta know that... I mean I was interested in you the minute I saw you last week." He snorted. "And I been waitin' all week for my phone to ring, you know?"

Drew chuckled and bit his lower lip. "Yeah. I'm kickin' myself for not doin' that. And I was hopin' like hell you'd be at the group next week. Tonight was just a total accident - I was here more to, well..." He paused, not wanting to finish.

"To what?" Marc asked suspiciously.

Drew made a face, then chuckled. "Basically to piss off my girl friend enough so we could break up. She was expectin' me to take her to a party she wanted to go to tonight. At least three of her friends saw me earlier," he finished, wondering just how lame that sounded.

Marc grinned, then sighed with relief. "Been there, done that - the girlfriend thing, I mean. Before the crap hit the fan at home. But mine was better... or worse. Depends on how you look at it."

Drew's face was a question mark.

"I told you about Doug, my old boyfriend?" he sniggered. Drew nodded. "His sister was my girlfriend."

Drew's eyes bugged, and his mouth was wide enough to drive in a Kia. "No way! Wow, and I thought I was a sleaze!"

They sat giggling in the dark before Drew spoke again. He swallowed hard. "Um, I gotta be fair. There's something else you should know," he said in a serious voice. "You... you might have second thoughts."

Marc looked him hard in the face. "Oh, man. Don't tell me you're sick or something."

"NO!" Drew shot back fast. "Um. Well, I sorta hate to even bring it up."

Drew looked down embarrassedly. "I guess you could call it a size issue..."

"Oh. Ummm, are you one of those guys who's, well..." Marc held his hands about a foot apart.

Drew sighed. "No, that's not it either. It's, ah... sort of the other direction."

They sat there silently for a half minute until Marc spoke again in a serious voice. "OK. It can be an issue, but it's not a big de - uh, not a major problem. What are we talking here?"

Drew held up fingers.

Marc smiled. "Oh, hell, that's plenty -- take my word, there's smaller ones, and they work just fine. Um, how about... you know. The other way.

Drew made a circle with his hands. "But only when things are kinda... well. You know," he added lamely.

Marc's eyebrows shot up. "Whoa! Guess nature has a way of giving and taking. That's good. Not a problem, really - I mean, as long as you're not stuck on preferences or anything..." And thank God my mouth's as big as the Joker's.

Drew leaned in and whispered in his ear.

Marc smiled and his eyes lit up. "No! That's great, really," he said eagerly. "But, every now and then, you gotta take a turn on top, okay?"

"Not a problem. Not with you," Drew said firmly.

They sat quietly in the dark, each looking straight ahead nervously, but not seeing anything.

Marc spoke first and began nodding happily. "Okay, then. We go easy, and make sure we can be friends before we take stuff too far, right? I mean, it'd be nice if we found out we liked each other out of bed first?"

"Yup," Drew replied. "But we get to kiss. Right?"

"Uh-huh. And cuddle?"

"Oh, yeah. Definitely cuddle. It's a good thing. And maybe a little groping here and there? Groping can be fun, too."

Drew giggled. "Right, right," he said, nodding his agreement. "A little groping is always good." He reached over to practice the groping, but Marc pushed his hand away.

"Maybe later, pervert." He nodded his head to the left. "Right now, we got a car parked about thirty feet away from us with 'Police' and 'Salem' written all over it, and he's been staring right at us for like five minutes now, enjoyin' the free show, so I suggest we get the hell out of here."

Drew jerked up and saw the cruiser parked facing them. He clicked on the heater, although it had been some time since either of them felt the cold. Drew dropped the Sebring into drive and headed out of the lot.

"So," Drew said simply. "We're hangin' out tonight. So where do we go now?"

Marc reached over and brushed his long fingers over Drew's upper leg. "I think we should go somewhere to practice the kissing, cuddling, and maybe some groping, too," he said swallowing hard. "Let's head for Lawrence. You know where the Mid-City Manor is?"

Drew nodded and gave an evil smile. "You know, I feel like I've known you forever."

"Same here," Marc replied, adjusting his pants and crossing his legs. "And, um, I got guest privileges, too, if you wanna stay over." He shot a quick look at Drew. You know - just friends. One guy helpin' out the other."

Drew swallowed and gunned the engine through the yellow light, heading for the highway. "Yup. Just friends. And I love helping out a friend."

To be Continued..........

(c)2002 by Keith Mystery

Thanks again to "MW", the Pecman himself, for his patience as my editor.
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