...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.net with 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 5

Rita McKinnon sat motionless in her rocker, eyes closed - to any observer, deep in sleep - as her chin rested on her chest. She stopped the gentle rocking and killed the small reading lamp when she heard a car pause at the end of the driveway and then pull in. They hadn't come up close to the house; that much she knew. Then she'd heard the muffled slams - not slam - of the car doors in the distance, and she knew what was about to happen. Her sharp ears heard the feet crunching the slight ridge of crusty snow along the drive, then the low voices. They halted a few feet from the door, and she heard the drone of a conversation, if not the words.

Rita reached down towards the floor in the dark, and her felt the cold metal with her fingertips. She gripped the handle, and slowly brought it up to her lap. Her hand tightened its grip, and her thumb and forefinger poised for action. She didn't need the small lamp to know where her hand had to be. It had been years since she'd needed to take action like this, but she was as resolved now as much as then. No one gets by me, she told herself. They might think I'm just some silly old bat, but this old bat has fangs and can draw blood. Her fingers were stiffer these days, and maybe her hands shook a bit, but she knew exactly what to do when the back door swung open, as she was sure it would.

She heard a harsh "Shhh!" from the porch and got ready.

Try to get past a silly old woman, huh? I might be old, but I've still got a few tricks left. Something you'll be finding out about real soon.

She sat still, breathing slow, with her hands ready, prepared to take aim the moment the shadow of a head leaned past the door.

Rita heard the scratching at the lockset, then the smart jiggle of the metal. She was sure she heard a muffled curse, followed by more jiggling. Finally there was the solid clunk! of metal against metal as the Yale lockset flipped over.

She braced herself, ready to attack.

Timing's everything here, Rita, she told herself. Don't screw it up. Do just what Art told you to do when he gave you this. Wait until the head leans in past the door - then let 'er rip.

The door swung open smartly, fast so the cold hinges couldn't make much sound. Then she saw the faint outline in the dying moonlight - a suggestion of spikey hair, and then a nose in silhouette. She brought her hand up, and readied her fingers. She was ready. Rita deliberately made a small coughing sound and the head swung in her direction.

Uh-huh. They always got to look. Then you get 'em full in the face.

She squeezed, and -

"Jesus!" Drew howled, throwing his hands up to protect his face, but it was too late. He staggered backwards, and rapped his head on the cabinet door so deliberately left open. He dropped to the floor, holding his head in his left hand and rubbing his eyes with his right.

Rita aimed the light away, lit a Marlboro, and stuck it into the right corner of her mouth. She flicked another switch and her reading light came back on, then turned off the large floodlight in her hand.

"Careful rubbing the eyes, kid," she said. "If you rip the contacts, that's another two hundred bucks - of your own money this time, I might add."

Her head turned back to the door. She knew there was someone else there; she'd heard two voices outside. All she could see at the moment was the tip of a nose and a bit of shoe. "Get in here, you," she called, spilling a few stray ashes on the floor. "It's freezing, and this place costs enough to heat as it is."

The first thing she noticed about the face was that it was a nice face. The second thing she noticed was that it was a nice-looking one, too. The brown eyes were soft, and were opened very wide and round at the moment. The mouth was a large one, but she pictured it with a terrific smile. Right at the moment, it was more than a bit puckered, and opened into a relatively small 'O'. Kinda thin, she thought, checking out the rest. And right about now, probably wondering just how much of a lunatic I am. Cute one, though.

"What's your name, kid?" she snapped.

Round saucers of brown eyes stared back at her, and she could hear the gulp. "Marc - Marc Wildon. That's Marc with a 'c'," he added, for no reason other than long habit.

That's it, honey. Shake a little with the crazy old bat glaring at you.

Her face softened slightly, but she made an effort to keep from smiling. "Okay, Marc with a 'c'," she said, "I'm Rita McKinnon. You can call me Mrs. McKinnon. Plant your tail in a chair at the table, and I'll be right with you after I'm done with this one." She squinted, looking downward. "And what are those?" She pointed to the two large black plastic bags Marc was dragging across the room.

"Um," was the limit of Marc's immediate response

Rita nodded. "Uh-huh. 'Um.' Now, why do I get the idea I'm seeing a man's idea of a laundry basket there?" She looked back at her grandson, who was still sitting on the floor rubbing his head and blinking. "As if you and your dad don't dirty up enough stuff around, you gotta start taking it in?"

Drew started to answer.

"Shut up," she said quietly, and turned back to Marc and pointed towards a chair at a nearby table. "I said to plant it right over there. I'll get back to you in a minute."

Marc let the bags go and sat, grateful to be out of the way. His rounded lips pressed to a thin line across his face. He wanted to laugh, but didn't dare. The old woman was a sight in what looked like pink bunny slippers, red sweat pants, and a turquoise quilted robe embroidered with little pink bears and yellow flowers. Her hair was covered with some kind of sheer white thing, and he saw some curlers with pink spikes sticking out. All this, and a half-burnt cigarette hanging out of the left corner of her mouth, her eyes squinted against the coils of blue-gray smoke. Marc wasn't sure what to expect, but one thing came across clearly, and it was shouted in every movement of the old lady's body: "Don't fuck with me, fellahs."

He sat very quietly, too nervous to even lean back in the chair.

Rita looked back at her grandson, who was still on the floor groaning, even if he had stopped rubbing his eyes.

"You'll live, so quit the bitching," she growled.

Drew was still rubbing the back of his head. "Jesus, Nanny! What was that thing?"

Marc noted the evil smile on the old ladies face. "Nothing much. Just your ordinary construction clip light - with a two hundred-watt spot bulb in it. Gives the eyes quite the dazzle, doesn't it?"

"Okay, that's the what," he said, leaning forward and shaking his head. "Now, how 'bout the why?"

Rita raised an eyebrow but still narrowed her eyes. "Why? Because a few hours ago, this little snake called me and said he was going to be just a tad late tonight - but it was okay, because he'd be home in just a little while, and that I should just head on up to bed."

She took a deep drag of her cigarette for effect, then lost some of it when she had to stifle a cough and a wheeze before she could continue. "A little bit, little boy, is when you stay out an hour or so past your curfew. And you don't come sneaking up the driveway and into the house forty minutes before sun-up!"

"I wasn't sneaking," Drew lied defensively. "I was, uh... trying to be considerate. You know -- not wake up you or dad."

Rita shook her head in disgust. "Nothing changes. Ever! Your father used to try running crap by me like that, too. Then I'd hit him with something just to show how much I believed him. I'm sure his father did the same, and I remember Frieda McKinnon well enough to believe she probably winged a flat iron at him. Now, separate that behind of yours from the linoleum, and go sit next to the cutie you dragged home to meet your crazy granny at a quarter to dawn. I'll put on some coffee."

Drew struggled to his feet, keeping a wary eye on his grandmother. She'd been known to take an extra swipe at the back of the head before.

Rita smiled and gave Marc an evil look. "Make a note, kid: I never read any modern books on parenting. I had six brothers and my mother weighed ninety pounds, and she raised those guys with the back of her hand. I'm from the same school."

Drew scuttled by, watching her hands. Rita's nose wrinkled as he angled past her. She stepped over to Marc, caught another whiff. "God! I want the both of you to take showers and change. The two of you smell like a New Orleans cat house on a sticky night in July, only without the cheap perfume. Drew can lend you some clothes while I take care of these," she added looking at Marc, tapping one of the black plastic sacks with her pink-bunny clad foot.

Marc looked up nervously. "Um, well... I was gonna do it myself, Mrs. McKinnon. Drew said it'd be okay if I used your machine. I don't expect anyone to..."

Rita sighed. "Look, kid - don't knock a free ride. You can explain to me why you do your own laundry over breakfast. And then the two of you can explain why someone didn't just say 'I'm staying at a friends house tonight, Nan' and just leave a phone number so I'd know, instead of trying to BS someone who's been through three generations of Irish liars." Her eyes narrowed and she pointed towards the staircase. "Now, the two of you head upstairs and use that shower -- separately. And don't make too much noise. I want all the dirt first, then we can sit around and sanitize it enough for later when your dad asks what's going on."

They filed out sheepishly, Drew's ears particularly red. Rita was tempted to crack her grandson a good one, but let the moment pass.

"She's cool," she heard Marc say once they were safely around the corner.

"She's quick, too," warned Drew. "Watch out for those hands. She's got knuckles that'll loosen your teeth."

Rita chuckled softly to herself as she heard the soft sounds of their feet on the carpeted stairs. She took another long drag on her cigarette, pulled the two trash sacks into the laundry room, then spilled their contents on the floor and leaned over to pick through enough to come up with a cold wash for starters. She was tempted to go for the whites first, but fought the impulse. The kid would need a clean pair of jeans first - his legs were far too long to wear anything of Drew's, she mused, and his waist was narrower, too. She looked up as the ceiling creaked softly, echoing a pair of feet that crept quietly down the hall and into the bathroom directly overhead. The sound of the footfalls weren't familiar, and they hesitated once in the bathroom. She knew it had to be Marc. She loaded up the washer, added liquid detergent, then filled the water softener cup and sat back in the old lawn chair she'd parked there years ago - used as a convenient catch-all then, but more of a comfort now.

Marc hurried through his shower, and then Rita heard Drew's plodding feet, marked by the sound of the door being kicked shut as usual, then kicked easier when it bounced open. She heard the water begin running and waited, giving her grandson a chance to get nice and soaped up. She reached across the washer and flicked the lid shut, then quickly reset the temperature to hot on the old Maytag and listened to the water gush into the over-sized tank directly from the water heater a scant five feet away. Immediately, there was a strangled cry from above and a sudden thud - the sort of sound a body makes when it slams against tile walls. A smile of satisfaction spread over her face, then she turned off the fill and reset the water temperature to cold.

Sweet revenge, she thought smiling, and lit another Marlboro. You'll think twice about keeping me up half the night worried about you next time, Drew.

* * * * *

Rita had already laid out the bacon and was mixing the batter for pancakes when Marc and a slightly blue-lipped Drew came down the stairs. Drew was dressed for the day of course - a work day for him, as Marc knew. Marc was in a sweats and white cotton socks, since Drew's clothes wouldn't fit him in either the leg or the waist. Rita told him to just keep quiet and he'd have clean clothes soon enough, then sent Drew back upstairs for the "brothel rags," as she called them.

Rita turned to Marc. "Relax, kid. My grandson may be a thoughtless pinhead about things like calling home, and he's a lousy judge of women, but I trust his judgment in a lot of things. He's really pretty good at sizing up people, even if he makes some lousy choices about what's important about someone."

She took a long drag and exhaled another blue cloud of smoke as she eyed the blonde-haired boy, then smiled. "You look like a nice person," she said, "so for the time being, I'm gonna believe that you are one. If I'm wrong, I'll know it, and you'll know it too. If you didn't notice, I tend to say what I think. I'm taking it for granted that you're boyfriend material, and not just something easy he picked up along the way. Right?"

Marc flushed as red as Rita's sweat pants. "Um..."

Rita tsk-tsked and shook her head. "Um again! Real fond of that word, aren't you, hon? You into eastern religions or something? And relax, I don't bite." She paused, taking note of the boy's dubious expression, and her face softened. "Well, not hard usually, and rarely in the first meeting. You are gay, right?"

Avoiding his favorite verbal dodge was a trial, but Marc managed. He looked her right in the eye. "Yeah. And... yeah, I like Drew."

She nodded, flipping a hotcake then stirring up the spattering bacon. "He likes you, too, or he wouldn't have brought you here. He went out with that girl of his for months until I got him to drag her over - and then I wished she hadn't come after five minutes. She knew it, too. You don't talk much, but you sure know how to listen. And definitely know when to keep your mouth shut."

Marc smiled and laughed softly. Rita liked the natural sound of it, and the smile that leaped so easily to the lips. She read every part of him before he ever spoke - by looking at his eyes, and his smile, and the sound of his voice when he laughed and finally when he spoke. "Thanks," he said. "Knowing when to keep your mouth shut is kinda easy when you're the middle kid."

Rita tested the skillet, saw it was ready, and started pouring off the pancake batter. Marc caught a whiff, and felt his mouth water.

"Okay, I get some details, now," she said. "Middle kid. Brothers? Sisters? A mix?"

Marc's smile began to broaden, and Rita realized just how right she was about his being a happy face. "Two brothers; one two years older and the other's three younger."

Rita glanced over to him carefully. "But you live on your own, and you're still kind of young for that. I mean, if you lived with your family, I wouldn't being looking at a couple extra loads of wash today."

The smile faded and Marc looked down, and Rita saw the wave of sadness spread over the boy's face. Okay, girl, that's deep enough, she thought. He doesn't want to go there, he's seen some trouble, so don't make him feel ashamed now. You already know what you need to know -- he's a good kid.

Her voice took on a gentler tone. "When you're ready, I can listen pretty good. If you're ready. I already know what I need to know about you. And so far, I like what I see."

They heard Drew's feet on the stairs, and she saw the light in Marc's eyes re-ignite when her grandson stepped through the double archway into the kitchen. She didn't miss where her grandson's eyes focused first, either. Rita giggled silently watching the two of them trying so hard to be casual, when it was perfectly obvious to her that each wanted to just grab the other. They sat side by side as she began serving up breakfast, and as usual she watched how men forgot table etiquette after the first two bites and just started cramming the food in like trash going down a chute. No sense in bitching about it, she thought resignedly. Just let 'em eat. Especially Marc -- that one's too damned skinny. She mixed up another batch of batter and cooked it up before she sat back with her coffee and a single pancake for herself. The sneak peaks they took at one another were priceless.

Aimless conversation followed, and Rita made mental notes of what Marc did for a living, of being raised in Andover of all places, and his careful avoidance of any mention of his family and where he was living now except to say "in Lawrence." Lawrence was filled with low-cost apartments, but she didn't get the impression he had one. Young people living in their first apartment usually loved to talk about it - what they'd done to fix it up, what they were planning to do. Marc side stepped that part of the conversation. And Lawrence was 'Poor Town', a densely populated area of seven square miles crammed with old tenements and empty mills, in clear testimony to its past as the invention of mid-nineteenth century industrialists who needed a convenient place to store the new waves of immigrants they needed to fill their textile and shoe factories. Nowadays, the area kept the 'less desirables' separate from the wealthier old Yankee towns, but close enough to provide a serving class for themselves from the more educated and intelligent new comers.

Lawrence was a good place to move from, not to move to. And Andover to Lawrence was not something to be considered unless it was out of desperation.

Rita wondered exactly where Marc fit in. He came from good family; she could see that in his manner and hear it in his speech. He was far from stupid, yet he worked a low-end job as a caser in a door factory. He came from one of the wealthiest suburban towns north of Boston with a public school system that was better than most private schools except perhaps for the alma mater of both George Bushes -- Phillips-Andover Academy -- but she had the feeling he'd never finished high school, just from the references to time on his own and his apparent age, which couldn't have been much more than Drew's.

Rita was patient. She'd get the story in time, piecemeal. She didn't distrust Marc, even if he was evasive. She could see that his avoidance of the truth seemed more from embarrassment than malicious intent. And she'd get the truth for no better reason than she was determined to protect her only grandchild. She was a good judge, but she'd been wrong before; that time, the wrong had cost her dearly - one third of her family. This time, she wasn't going to lose anything. Only gain.

The wash cycle ended, and Rita shifted the load and started another, over Marc's protests that he'd take care of it. Rita just poured more coffee for him and told him gruffly to shut up, that she wasn't ready for the nursing home yet. Not long after the sun began to rise in the late February sky, she handed Marc some dry clothes and sent him upstairs to change.

The boy trotted up the staircase with the warm cotton in his hands, then Rita turned to her grandson. "He's nice. But I'm telling you right now - be careful."

Drew gave his grandmother a flinty look and chose his words carefully. "He's a nice guy, Nan. He's not gonna cause me trouble."

Rita wrinkled her forehead, fished in her pocket for the ever-present pack of Marlboros, and looked Drew directly in the eyes. Drew felt a chill run through him.

"I know that," she said in a hard voice. "I was talking about you. That kid's already seen more pain and trouble than he should, and he's still a sweetie. It's pretty plain his family's tossed him out. What I meant was, don't you get tired of him and dump him the way you did Alan -- or sneak away, like you're doing with Melissa."

Drew's face reddened momentarily, but he stayed silent.

"Not that I'll waste sympathy on her," his grandmother continued. "But I don't think Marc could handle having his life pulled out from under him twice in less than a year."

He nodded, then made his way back up the stairs, intent on escaping the inquisition as quickly as he could. The old woman called up after him.

"Just keep that in mind when things get tough!"

* * * * *

Marc sat on the edge of his bed while Drew fiddled with wires and groused about how there wasn't a good way to properly align the speakers to the small Philips home surround/DVD system they'd just unpacked. Marc sincerely didn't want it. He felt guilty about the whole thing.

"I really think you should return it, Drew," he protested. "It's too much money! All I wanted was a cheap TV, something to help me burn time during the week. I'd've been happy with one of the sets we saw at Kmart."

Drew snorted. "Yeah, those brands. My grandfather used to say those initials stood for 'General Enema' and 'Radio Crap of America'. C'mon, babe - those pictures were awful, and you know it," he said reassuringly. "I got the money. I don't mind."

Marc shook his head, and fiddled with the instruction booklet that Drew had chosen to ignore. "Maybe you don't, but I do. Okay, the 20" TV set you came out with is one thing -- I coulda paid you from my next few checks and the extra bucks left over from the car repair. But that thing," he said, pointing at the DVD/Surround Sound system. "I saw what those go for, Drew. That was another four hundred bucks! Maybe four hundred bucks isn't much for you, but that's close to my rent here every month. I'm on straight forty hours at work right now because things are slow. I can't afford to pay you back any time soon."

Drew shrugged. "Then don't. I sent you out to get the car warmed up for a reason. I bought this stuff for a gift. I got no intention of ever seein' the money again."

Marc shook his head firmly. "No, Drew, I can't. I'm not a leach. Buying me dinner last night was one thing. Yeah, and lunch today too, even if I did tell you it was my treat. And even getting your grandmother to do my laundry was okay. But that..." he pointed to the new, sleek-looking system and the Panasonic TV. "That makes me feel like I'm being paid. For services rendered last night."

Drew dropped the wires and turned, shocked, and saw the look on Marc's face. Sorrow was there; resentment, too, along with hurt pride. That was something Drew didn't expect. His gift was meant to make Marc happy.

Drew bit his lower lip and Marc looked down at the floor. On an impulse, Drew moved across the room and slipped an arm around Marc's neck and pulled his head to his middle. He was afraid Marc would pull back, but instead he reached over and slid a long arm around Drew's waist. He hooked a long finger into a belt loop, and pulled Drew down beside him on the bed.

"We gotta come to some understanding, Drew," he said uncomfortably. "I don't have much right now. When my dad threw me out, all I had was my clothes and a couple little things my brother pulled out. Everything else got left behind. As for money - hell, I never saved anything." He shook his head ruefully and sighed. "We always had plenty, and like most kids I blew whatever I laid my hands on. I never even had a part-time job after school. My dad said that kinda stuff was beneath us."

Marc rubbed his hand unconsciously over his jaw, his eyes drifting away from Drew at some abstract point in space. "For almost a year, I've had to learn to survive by doing without," he said quietly. "Sure, my brother Don gave me a hand -- he bought me that old shitbox of a car with what he had, and came up with the first few week's rent with what was left. But since then, I've had to learn to do things on my own. Don tries to help, but he's trying to make it through college and he's a thousand miles away. Seth's only fifteen. And my parents..." Marc made a vague gesture, then shook his head. Drew thought he saw the glint of tears at the corners of the boy's eyes. "The last I heard from my dad was him cursing at me the last time I left the house."

They sat still on the edge of the narrow, uncomfortable bed. Marc's eyes were lowered, staring at the worn, used-to-be-blue wrinkles in the carpet where the adhesive and backing had been pulverized into dust.

Drew's voice was strained and hushed, struggling to keep steady. "What about your mother?"

Marc leaned his head against Drew's shoulder, still staring down. "I talked to her on my birthday for a little bit, late last summer. She told me it wasn't a good idea for me to call the house again, and hung up."

Drew fell silent for a moment. "It's been awhile. Think they might've come around?"

Marc snorted, then wiped his eyes and stared at him. "Let me tell you about my dad, Drew. He thinks Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps are stand-up guys. One of his favorite stories is how he was an alternate delegate to the '92 Republican National Convention -- that's the one where a gay AIDS spokesman addressed the delegates, and half the crowd booed and turned their backs on him. My dad thought that was the right thing to do in the defense of Family Values. Some contract with America, huh?"

His voice grew louder, more angry, yet still on the verge of tears. "And my mom - well, she lives in another world, and does what she's told. My whole family does what they're told. My little brother Seth's as scared of Dad as I was. And Don - Don just doesn't get in his way."

Drew tightened his jaw. "Your dad sounds like a total asshole."

Marc shook his head. "He's not cruel, Drew," he said. "I mean, he never hit me or anything, but he was demanding - his way or the highway, y'know? And bein' gay just is not his way. Catchin' me with Doug like he did was like a capital offense. In his mind, I got what I deserved." His voice caught, then he cleared his throat and continued. "I've been executed."

Drew rubbed Marc's back, and Marc leaned into him, closing his eyes and smiling, trying to put away the hurt. "What about Doug?" Drew asked gently. "That guy you were seeing. Did he ever try to help you?"

Marc shook his head with a rueful grin. "When he saw my old man, he grabbed his pants and shirt and went out a window, right through a screen. He never even bothered to get dressed. For all I know, his shoes are still sittin' next to the couch. Doug never talked to me again. Even for the little bit I still tried goin' to school, he wouldn't come near me." Marc sighed. "Man, that really hurt, too. That was the guy who said he loved me, you know? I mean, I knew he didn't really love me -- you know, like 'together-forever-love-me.' But... but I thought he'd at least try to be there for me, even if it was just to say the things I needed to hear. You know, for support."

Marc swallowed hard, then looked deep into Drew's eyes. "Guess I was only a little bit better than a hand job, as far as he was concerned," he said ruefully. "It really sucks when someone you thought was that close just turns away from you, like you don't even exist. That's gotta be the cruelest thing there is."

Drew felt a chill run up his spine when he heard those words, and his body went rigid when Alan's face suddenly flashed in front of his eyes. Marc sensed something wrong and read the wrong message and pulled his hand away, but Drew reached over and gently took those long fingers into his and gripped them. The tenseness drained away. "And school," Drew said. "Why'd you leave?"

A chuckle came out of Marc's throat. "Kinda obvious, isn't it? I could go to school and starve, or I could work and eat. I had less than a month of my junior year left, and I had to leave..." His voice trailed off, and his eyes had a faraway look.

"I used to be kinda popular, you know? Everyone wanted to be my friend. I had the flashy car, plenty of bucks. At first, everyone thought it was just some hassle with the old man. A few guys told me it'd be okay to crash at their place for awhile."

"What happened?" Drew asked quietly.

Marc looked the other boy in the eye. "Ever notice how word can get around sometimes, Drew? One day, you're okay... then something comes out, and people start to whisper. Who knows? Maybe my dad said something to some friend of his and word started to travel. Or maybe Seth said something he wasn't supposed to. He caught the tail end of things the night I had to get out. Whatever, the big 'G' word started to trail me at school, and the offers stopped. I was stayin' with one guy and he just walked up to me in the caf at lunch and told me I had to clear out of his place that afternoon - no reason. And as for everyone else... Once word got out why I had to leave the house, my friends weren't so quick to offer a couch in their rec room anymore."

Marc stretched out, then leaned back against the cracked wallboard, closing his eyes but still with a hand on Drew's lower arm.

"Don helped me get a job at the McDonald's up the street from the Mid-City. That's how I got by until I turned eighteen, and I could work in an industrial area." He paused and smiled. "I mean, I'm a well-educated rich kid, Drew. Unfortunately, that means I don't know how to do anything."

He laughed nervously, then let out a long sigh. "So, I put casing on pre-hung doors on an assembly line at New Era Millwork for $8.75 an hour. It's not much, but lemme tell ya, it was a fortune after flipping burgers for $6.85." Marc straightened up again and looked hard and deep into Drew's eyes, speaking in a low, conspiratorial voice. "Ever try to live on $8.75 an hour, Drew? I don't mean pocket money to blow over the weekend - I mean live on it. Pay your rent. Buy food and clothing for yourself. Keep a junk heap of a car going, because without it you can't even get to work. Yeah, and the insurance, too. Seven hundred bucks just for the minimum compulsory in this state. Don had to pay half of it up front for me - we were counting the change in our pockets at the insurance agency. And if I ever fall late one day, they yank the policy and the state cancels my plates. It just don't make for a lot of luxury living."

Drew spoke in a smooth, conciliatory voice. "Babe, I told you. I got money. And I -- "

Marc jumped to his feet and glared at Drew.


His voice thundered in the room, and Drew looked up at him sharply, scared he had gone too far somehow. He saw the fire in Marc's brown eyes, the flush in the face, and the knitted forehead. His voice lowered, but Drew could still feel the intensity, the edge.

"I don't beg, Drew. I'm not asking you to reach in your pocket, and I'm not whining about my situation. But that's what my life is right now, and I don't want you seeing me as deadweight you gotta pick up the slack for." He held both hands to his head, rocking on the balls of his feet. "God, I dunno why I ever even made a play for you in the first place... One look told me you were just like I used to be - you had everything and didn't have to lift a finger for it: car, clothes, all that stuff. And the toys at home. You look around here, and all you see is how much I don't have. I look, and I see everything I've got."

Marc looked away, his voice almost a whisper. "We gotta have an understanding, Drew, if we're gonna go out together," he said. "You have to know something - something real important. There's only one thing I want from you, and that's you. Nothing else."

Drew reached out and took Marc's hand again and pulled him back down beside him on the bed. They sat silently for a few minutes, Marc's body rigid. He reached behind him and began rubbing Drew's neck until he felt the tension drain away, and then Drew leaned his head on Marc's shoulder, and whispered in his ear.

"You're not a leach, Marc. I never thought that for a minute. I - I just wanted this stuff to be a surprise for you, that's all. I just want you to have some nice stuff. That's why I sent you out and went back and grabbed this stuff and switched the TV for a better one. Things are tough for you right now, and I got some money. I don't mind sharing it with you and helping you out. And I wasn't trying to buy you -- I just wanted to surprise you with something nice." He reached out, and turned Marc's face to his with a finger on the other boy's chin. "But I gotta admit something to you. I do have an ulterior motive."

Marc looked up suspiciously, but relaxed when he saw the laughing glint in Drew's eyes and the bad-boy expression on his face. His own eyes and mouth were testimony that they shared the same devil.

"I know trouble when I see it," Marc said with a low laugh. "You had that same look last night when we decided that just kissing, hugging, and groping weren't gonna cut it. And, uh, for a guy who was totally straight last week, you seemed to know pretty well what you were doing - and how to do it," he said with a leer. "I kinda got the impression that you've been there before."

Drew leaned forward and kissed the end of Marc's nose. "So, are you telling me it's all over? I'm not exactly a virgin, so maybe we should call it off?"

Marc shook his head. "Uh-uh. That just means I don't have to train you as much. Seems to me we stopped way short of the Big Event, though," Marc tilted his head. "Not that what we did wasn't just fine." He paused and dug a toe into the carpet, and stole a sidewise glance at Drew. "You, uh, think you might be up to that any time soon?"

Drew pondered the story of Steve, and decided it was a memory he needn't share at the moment. He lay back on the bed and pulled Marc on top of him, locking his arms around the other boy's waist, bucking his hips up slightly. "Could be. Just as long as you accept my gift for what it was -- a gift, not a bribe. Besides," he added, raising an eyebrow again. "Like I said, I had other motives for buying you that." He gestured to the sound system.

Marc leaned down and kissed Drew lightly on the lips. "What are you gonna do? Haul out a porn flick on DVD as a kind of instruction manual? I kinda know what to do already."

Drew wrinkled his nose. "Nah. All I got is a bunch of mpeg clips, not enough to really get into. But that thing plays MP3 discs, and I got sixty gigs of music files on my D drive. I can burn you enough tunes tomorrow to keep you listening for months without a repeat, and all you gotta do is spend the day with me at my house tomorrow and pick it out. Plus, you can meet my dad. But you gotta keep the system, or there's no point to it."

Marc struck a silly, thoughtful pose as best he could stretched out on top of his boyfriend's body. "Hmm. Tough choice. A whole day with you -- again." He considered his options, smiled, and raised an eyebrow. "Um, I don't suppose we could throw in another night, too?"

Drew giggled. "Don't think so. If I stay over again tonight, my Nan'll wanna castrate both of us, and then we wouldn't have anything to play with. But curfew's midnight, and it's only four in the afternoon. I think we got plenty of time."

Marc smiled. "Yeah, I guess."

They lay there, looking into each other's eyes until a thought came to Drew.

"Uh, we talked about the Big Event tonight. Before we get too involved, should we, like, sorta go shopping or anything? You know... to the drugstore?"

Marc wiggled his eyebrows and grinned. "Nope. I just happen to have a nice selection of latex goods on hand, plus other necessities. We don't have to do go anywhere. Not until maybe 11:30 tonight, anyway, when you gotta leave. I don't want Nanny McKinnon beating on my door 'cuz she thinks I'm corrupting her grandson -- again."

They both laughed, then Drew pulled Marc's head down, and their lips connected, their mouths opened, and their hands wandered. They had plenty of time, and they intended to make the most of it.

"So, let's get into the corrupting, ok? We've only got seven hours."

"Seven and a half," Marc corrected, and nipped at Drew's lower lip. "No short-changing me with a fast clock, 'kay?"

* * * * *

Andy McKinnon stood in the doorway, watching them, side by side, sitting at the computer desk. He saw the blond reach up and casually stroke his son's thick, black hair with his long, graceful fingers and rub the back of Drew's neck. He watched Drew's hand come up behind Marc, and hook his thumb in Marc's belt loop, patting him. He couldn't hear their words with the music playing, and was fairly certain he didn't want to, either.

He hated the sight before him.

He hated the tall, slender blond kid just for who he was, and what he meant to his son. Everything told Andy he should walk into the room, drag the son of a bitch out and throw him out of his house. Send him off in his junk heap of a car and tell him never to come back. He didn't care if the boy got hurt or bloodied in the process. It would serve him right for what Andy knew he was doing to his son.

It's not right, he told himself. Jesus, I wanted him to explore his feelings and find himself but... but...

This is too goddam fast. The kid is taking advantage of Drew, twisting him up and using him.

He cleared his throat, which of course neither of them could hear.

"Hey!" he yelled.

Drew spun in the chair, and Marc looked over his shoulder. Andy immediately felt ridiculous. "So, uh, what are you guys doing?"

"Just burning some discs, dad," Drew said with a grin. "Marc's got this really cool DVD player that plays MP3's. I'm just fixin' him up with some tunes."

Andy nodded. "Oh."

They waited, and Andy suddenly felt foolish standing in the door way. "Well, that's good. Tell you what though - I kinda like that stuff you're playing. How about leaving the door open so I can hear it downstairs?"

Drew leaned back with a look of disbelief on his face. His father never, ever, asked to listen to any music Drew liked. Usually he bitched about its being too loud and slammed the bedroom door shut.

The pod people are here -- they gotta be, Drew thought. "Yeah, dad. Sure," he said uncertainly. "I can leave the door open. Want me to turn it up so you can hear it better?"

"No, no," Andy said hastily. "That's okay. I can hear it just fine - with the door open." He stood watching them for a moment more. "Well, I'm going downstairs. You guys go ahead with what you were doing."

And not a goddam thing more, he thought.

"Yeah... sure, Dad," Drew answered, mystified.

They listened to the footfalls in the hall, then the slow padding down the flight of stairs.

Drew pretended a double take. "Wonder what the hell brought that on?" he asked no one in particular.

Marc grinned. "You can't be that dense, Drew. I mean, you gotta know what he's thinking. He wants that door open so we don't try doin' anything."

"Like what?" Drew asked innocently. Then he made a face. "Oh, gross! With him and my grandmother around? What's he think we're gonna do?"

Marc sniggered. "Pretty much what we did last night, is my guess."

Drew hauled off and gave Marc a playful swat on the arm. "You're sick, you know that? I mean... well, yeah, if it was late and I knew they were asleep... maybe."

"And you got the room soundproofed."

Drew felt his face flush. "I wasn't that loud, and you know it. Besides," he added with a mock sneer, "I'm not the one that lets out a scream when he arrives."

"Maybe," Marc said with a laugh. "But one good holler is a lot easier to deal with than someone who lets out a high pitched squeal every time I - "

Drew put his hand over Marc's mouth. "Okay, that's enough," Drew broke in. He clicked open a folder and dragged in a triple album compilation. "You like these guys, right?"

Marc looked over. "Yeah, they're cool."

Drew leaned in and kissed Marc hard on the mouth.

Marc giggled when they broke the kiss. "That's all your dad would've needed to see -- us swappin' spits." Then he spoke more seriously. "He hates me already, Drew. Don't give him reason to hate me even more."

Drew tried to blow it off. "He doesn't hate you. I don't know where you get that idea. Besides, you know he's okay about me being, you know..." His voice trailed off.

"Gay. The word is gay, Drew. Try and get used to it as something other than an insult, okay?"

Drew made a wry smile. "Yeah, I'm sorry. It's just - well, I'm sorta trying to put things together again, alright? I mean... well, it's an adjustment."

Marc snorted lightly, then pointed to another folder on the screen. "Hey, throw in some of those guys, too... And maybe it's an adjustment, but you seemed to adjust pretty well back at my place, the last couple nights."

Drew clicked in the last music set and loaded up a blank disc in his burner. "This'll prob'ly run about eight hours or so before it starts to repeat - I usually try to get 160 or better when I rip. 192 is best for over-sampling, but anything more is a waste unless we're talkin' studio grade equipment. Take about ten minutes. And, I'll be right back."

Marc looked up, a quizzical expression on his face.

"Gonna get us some sodas."

He nodded and leaned back in the chair as Drew disappeared into the hall. He spun around in the chair, looking over the room and liking it. About the same size as his, or at least what was his room when he lived with his parents. Don't really think of it as home anymore, he thought. Home is a place called Mid-City Manor.

Marc reran the events of the last few days and nights, then reflected on Drew. He'd seen such a radical change in the guy, he wasn't sure how to deal with it. Marc had been fairly certain what Drew was into the night they met - he'd seen the furtive looks at other guys at the meeting, just as he'd heard the harsh denials. Marc wasn't sure how dependable his so-called gaydar was, but Drew registered pretty clearly on it. And somehow, in a week's time, the guy had completely turned around - not that Marc was complaining. Just like he hadn't complained when it became pretty obvious to Marc that Drew seemed to know exactly what to do in bed and how it was done. Marc had no intention of asking about the past, just as he hoped he'd have no need to answer about his. Drew knew he'd had a boyfriend before. Drew also assumed - correctly - that Marc hadn't exactly lived a monk's life since he'd been forced to move. He sighed.

Drew just doesn't know just how un-monastic a life it's been.

Marc eased back in the chair, and looked around the room. Smaller than his old room, but large by most people's standards. Hell, it was larger than some people's living rooms. Large enough for a queen size bed, a computer hutch, and an aging entertainment center complete with sagging shelves loaded with CDs, tapes, and books. The whole thing looked ready to cave in. It was definitely the $99.99 as-advertised Kmart special. Not too long ago he would have looked at something like that and sneered. But that time was almost a year in the past.

Marc looked over the rest of the room. It felt like Drew in here, from the posters on the walls to the clothes draped over everything except a hanger. No maids in this place, Marc thought to himself. And somehow I don't see Nanny McK doin' much more than opening the door, shaking her head with disgust and tossin' in the clean clothes.

He chuckled at the mental image of the old woman walking away to look over the rest of her Spartan house. Marc liked Nan, from the moment she told him to call her Nanny before he left the previous morning. And earlier this afternoon, when he'd shown up at the door, and she presented him with neatly folded laundry in cardboard boxes.

"I shake and fold. I don't do ironing," she'd told him bluntly. "And next week, bring your own hangars for the shirts." Marc protested that there was no need - he'd just go to the Laundromat like always. Nanny had been direct as ever. "Shut up. Think of it as incentive to stay on my good side. I'm definitely someone you don't want to piss off."

Better yet, she never grilled him, never asked too many questions. Marc had a feeling the old woman had filled in most of the blanks herself. He knew he'd passed some sort of unknown test with her.

Andy McKinnon was another matter. The man took one look at him and was convinced Marc was the Devil's spawn. His hard blue eyes, so much like his mother's, exactly like his son's, bore into him like a laser beam. His questions weren't just questions; more like a courtroom interrogation, followed by the man's voiced conclusions. He set Marc on edge, badgering him with rapid-fire questions.

"That car's a real heap. The repair bills must keep you pretty broke, huh?"

"You work for New Era? That pit? Kinda young for that. What, you drop out of school or something?"

"You were raised in Andover? What, your family give you the boot after you dropped out?"

"You live where? Christ, that place is a flop house!"

Then Nanny McKinnon looked up sharply, her voice steel. "That'll be enough. I raised you to have manners. Try acting like it." She's turned to the two boys. Marc desperately wished he could drop through the floor he was staring at. Drew was ashamed to look at either of them.

Andy McKinnon glared at his mother. "This is my house, my family. I got a right to know who my son's hangin' out with."

She raised an eyebrow, then spread mustard on her ham sandwich. "You've also got an obligation not to act like an asshole in front of guests," she said quietly. Andy flushed. Nan turned to Marc and Drew, who were both round-eyed with fear, but she didn't try to fake the happy hostess routine trying to smooth things over. "Why don't you two head upstairs," she said gently. "Take your plates and you can pick. You were going to make those music thingies, right?"

"CDs," Drew said tonelessly. "We're gonna pack 'em with MP3 files."

She nodded. "You can explain what that means later. I've got something to go over with your father."

The two made themselves very scarce very quickly, retreating upstairs to Drew's bedroom.

After Drew closed the door behind them, he made an effort to gloss it over. "My dad'll come around, Marc. He's just bein' an asshole right now. I dunno why."

"That's easy," Marc answered sarcastically. "He sees me, and the only thing on his mind is what he thinks we might be doing. And he'd be right, too."

"C'mon," Drew said, playfully punching Marc's shoulder. "He's the one that pushed me into goin' to that meeting in the first place. It can't be 'cuz of that."

Marc did a double-take and stood with his mouth open, mocking Drew. "Gee, Drew," he said in a sarcastic, sing-song voice. "Maybe he doesn't have a problem with having a gay son... as long as he's not doin' anything! You think he might have a problem with a gay son that's actually doin' gay stuff?"

Marc sat up with a jerk from his memory of all too recent events as the last track of the selection played out and Winamp shut down. But instead of the expected silence, Marc could hear the voices that carried from the bottom of the steps. The tone was familiar to Marc, one he'd heard far too often growing up. It was that forced whisper that sounded like a shout.

"Goddamit, Drew, he's a bum! Even his own don't want him - he's prob'ly even dealing drugs!"

Drew's voice was angry and exasperated. "Dad, that's total bullshit! Marc works for what he's got -- If he was dealin', he'd be doin' a lot better than a beat-up Cavalier and where he's livin' now."

"Tell you what," Andy McKinnon said sarcastically. "Let's say I take back that fancy car I let you drive. And let's say I fire you from that easy job I gave you. Wonder how much he'll be around if you're broke and stranded?"

"Fine! Keep the friggin' car, if that's what you think!" Drew snapped. "And go back to buyin' your own stuff -- if you can afford the loss. Keep your own books, too -- we'll see how long it takes the damn IRS to start breathin' down your back, 'cuz you can't keep decent records. And your payroll? Good luck keepin' a crew when the paychecks bounce because you can't remember to transfer funds into the right account. Nan's too old to do it anymore. That's why you had her show me what to do. But everything's in your computer, dad," he added sarcastically. "IF you can figure out how to turn the piece of shit on!"

Marc heard the sound of flesh striking flesh, and listened hard to the deafening silence that followed. He looked down at the floor and sighed.

Just not in the cards, he told himself.

He rose very quietly, and moved quickly to the door and stood at the top of the steps. He saw the two Andrew McKinnon's glaring at each other. Marc braced himself and smiled, walking slowly and deliberately down the stairs. Their heads turned. Drew was angry but his eyes cried out to Marc. Andy just looked angry.

"I'll be going now," Marc said quietly, a thin smile on his lips. He looked past the two of them. "I never wanted to be anyone else's problem. And Mr. McKinnon, you don't have to worry - I won't be back."

Drew started to speak, but Marc held his hand up and looked at the dark-haired boy's deep blue eyes. He fought to keep his voice free of the rage and pain deep inside him. "You can do better, Drew," he said in a soft voice. "I told you that before. But I'm pretty sure your father won't like any of them, either. I'll mail you a money order for the balance I owe for the TV set when I get paid Friday, okay? That other stuff you left - I'll pack it up and leave it at the desk. Stick's cool, he'll take care of it."

Drew watched Marc walk quickly into the kitchen, pull on his coat and step out of the house. Too late, he ran for the door when he heard the engine of the Cavalier catch, and the noise of the car as it pulled away.

He turned and looked back at his father, said nothing. In the background he could see his grandmother. Her face was expressionless, but Drew could hear her voice.

Be careful... He's seen enough pain and trouble... I don't think Marc could handle having his life pulled out from under him twice in less than a year... keep that in mind when things get tough.

"It doesn't get any tougher than this, does it, Nanny?" he said quietly, and fished the keys to the old pick-up truck off the counter and headed for the door.

"Where the hell are you going?" his father demanded.

Drew paused, and looked back at his father. "After my boyfriend, dad," he said quietly. "If you wanna call the cops and report the truck stolen, that's fine. Otherwise... I'll be home when I'm ready to come home, okay?"

He opened the door and pulled it shut gently behind him.

Andrew McKinnon stood fuming.

"Nice job, Artie," his mother said behind him.

He turned, noted the dead look on his mother's face. He tried to grin. It came off as a sneer. "You slippin' the tracks, Ma? Dad was Arthur. I'm Andy, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember," she said in a tired voice. "I'm just a confused, old woman. And you and your father were always so much alike... Why, just now, I could've sworn that was him speaking ... And that was your brother Brian walking out of this house for the last time."

She turned and walked from the room, not deigning to look back.

"I only want what's best for him," he said in a low, confused voice, more for himself than for her.

Andrew McKinnon heard her slow footsteps down the hall, then a pause. Finally he heard the door to her room close. The sound seemed to echo through the empty house.

To be continued...

(c) 2002 by Keith Mystery. All rights reserved.
Comments always appreciated at Keith_hackwriter@Lycos.com
As always, thanks to Marc W for his editing skills.