...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. And I swear, I never worked for any of the company's mentioned in here. At least under the names that I give 'em, anyway. Honest to God. ; )

© 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.
Stop by and check out the works of other fine writers on this site.

I love email, so send any comments to the BRAND NEW E-MAIL ADDRESS
--> keith_hackwriter@lycos.com <--
My old carrier and I exchanged a few, erm, Words awhile ago,
and that address is pretty much dead.

Chapter 6

Drew pushed open the glass door of the Mid-City Manor and stood in the lobby, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. He heard the drone of the TV set in the lounge on the left and a few voices arguing about something -- he couldn't make out what -- but paid no attention. Drew was only interested in one thing, and it wasn't going to be found there. He heard a door open to the right and saw the shadowy figure of Stick. Drew nodded. Stick gestured with his chin to the stairs and the door closed.

Drew took the stairs two at a time until he came to the third floor landing. He spotted an old man with thick glasses peering out at him from behind an open door. Drew paused long enough to take him in.

"You Justy?" he asked, baring his teeth.

The old man nodded.

"Fuck off, you old perv," Drew said with a sneer, and barreled past the man down the hall. He could feel the eyes on his back, but he didn't turn to look. When he paused at a door that sat slightly ajar, he heard a lock catch quietly behind him. Drew debated knocking for a second, then gently pushed the door open.

Marc sat with his eyes closed on the bed, cross-legged, his chin resting on fists. His arms were propped on his knees.

"You shouldn't be here," he said in a flat, toneless voice, not opening his eyes.

Drew eased the door shut, slipped off his coat and tossed it onto the hard, round-back chair pulled up to the small table. He slipped in beside Marc on the bed and slid an arm around the thinner boy's waist. "Where should I be?"

"At home. It's where you belong."

Drew pulled Marc closer to him, and Marc rested his head against Drew's chest. Drew leaned back against the wall, drawing Marc closer, and began to slide his fingers across Marc's face.

"I belong right here," he said quietly. "Next to you. You're my boyfriend."

Marc shook his head. "You don't belong in a dump like this, sitting with a loser. You got a family. You belong there."

Drew shook his head. "You're part of my family, and I belong with you. You're more important to me than some friggin' car and an easy-money job. You gotta know... you have to have figured it out, how I feel and all... I -- "

"Don't say it," Marc broke in sharply. He looked up at Drew for the first time, his brown eyes rimmed with red. "If you say that word, then you gotta mean it. `Cuz if you don't, and you go away, then I got nothing left. I heard it from Doug, and he dropped me as soon as it got tough. To him, I was just someone to hang with, have some fun with, and drop a load in when we could manage it."

He paused. "I thought my parents loved me, and they threw me out." He looked away again, his voice trailing. "We only met nine days ago, Drew, and we been together for three. What you were gonna say is a four letter word I just can't afford to deal with right now. And neither one of us even knows what it means."

Marc sighed. "I thought it was gonna be so cool," he said with a catch in his throat. He turned to Drew and smiled. "Your grandmother... she's great, you know? I mean, there she was, giving us both hell, and I knew it was just her way of taking me in and telling me I belonged... I wish one of my grans was like that. I haven't seen my Dad's mom since I was maybe five or something. She lives in California and collects husbands, from what he says. Shit, they don't even talk. The other one -- at least from what I hear -- she lives in a convent or something and prays all the time. I've never even seen her." He swallowed hard. "My brothers are good guys, but Dad watches Paul's expenses at school like a hawk. He sends me stuff when he can. And I hate to ask him. And Seth's forbidden to even mention my name. Dad found out we had breakfast together one Saturday a few months back, and grounded the kid for a month. And I got a letter from his fuckin' lawyer threatening me with court action -- and a note scribbled into the margin stating Seth would be shipped off to a boarding school if we got caught meeting again."

Marc stared off into the corner of the room again, hardly aware that Drew was next to him. Drew reached out and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. Marc flinched for a second at the contact, then relaxed again.

"You know," he said," when I heard it was your father that made you go to those meetings, and then I thought of my own folks, I figured, `Now, how cool is that?' Why couldn't mine be even half as decent? I kinda... kinda had this idea... you know... maybe I could be on the edges of your family, and get a little taste of what it feels like to belong again. Not like I was his kid or anything, but just a little feeling of knowing what it's like to have someone care..."

"I care," Drew said softly. Marc reached out, picked up Drew's hand, and rubbed it against his face.

Marc fell silent, but he suddenly slid his arms around Drew and began to squeeze tight, turning his face into Drew's chest. His body began to quiver as he clung to Drew, then the quivering turned to a violent shaking and Drew was aware of the dampness of his shirt. He ran one hand through Marc's thick, spikey hair and rocked gently, making the same soft shushing sounds he remembered from his childhood -- the comforting sounds he recalled hearing first from his mother and later, his grandmother. He felt his own eyes sting with salty tears and he clung to the boy in his arms. His other arm gently caressed Marc's side, and he felt the violent spasms that shook the long, lanky body in his arms.

Marc's hands suddenly gripped Drew so hard his fingers felt like they could break through the skin. His entire body shook as a year's worth of pain and anguish poured out of him. He cried for himself, a lost home, and a lost way of living. He cried for his brothers. He cried for a mother and father he would likely never see again. And all the time he clung to Drew, terrified that if he let him go, Drew would turn into smoke and disappear before his eyes, and he'd be alone again.

The tears passed, but the pain didn't. They sat for hours as the sun set, sat there until the evening became the night, neither saying much, or having to. At some point Drew leaned back against the wall, propping the lone pillow behind him, and drew Marc's limp, tired body against him. Marc's head rested on his stomach, and Drew leaned back, and they dozed. Voices passed in the hall, and a distant radio played too loud for a time, and then the drone of a TV set was heard but neither stirred. Drew didn't want to let go, and Marc was afraid that if he did, he'd be alone, maybe for good.

Drew's eyes opened when he felt warm lips against his and saw the soft brown eyes only inches from his own. Marc smiled and leaned in and kissed him again, deeper and longer, before drawing back and smiling.

"I know I'm just a big wuss... but thanks. Thanks for being here with me."

Drew returned the smile and rubbed his hands over Marc's back. "I'll always be here for you," he said gently.

Marc nodded. "I know you want to try, and that's enough for me. But right now, you've gotta go. Like I said before, you got a family waiting."

Drew began to shake his head but Marc interrupted. "I know what you said. You'll stand by me, and that's great, baby. But you got others waiting for you too, and they care -- even your dad. He didn't throw you away like mine did. He thinks he's doin' the right thing. Let him get used to you being what you are... and then eventually, what we are together. Give him a chance, okay, Drew? I promise, we'll still see each other, and maybe I can come by your place again when he's had time to work out some of his own problems and him and me can take it from there."

Drew twisted his mouth and wrinkled his nose. "So, you don't want me to stay tonight?"

Marc laughed gently. "More than you know, baby, but the timing just ain't right. We'll have plenty of time together, but you got school and everything else... don't be dumb and throw away all the good stuff just for me so you can piss off your old man. If you do that, then the only thing that's gonna be holding us together is how pissed-off you are at him, and then it's just a matter of time before you resent me for that."

He paused, and brushed his fingers across Drew's lips. "I want you with me as much as we can manage," Marc continued, "but I don't want you goin' through all the crap I've had to deal with just to prove something to someone else. Your Nan's with us -- we both know that. I wish I'd had someone like her behind me when things went to hell. And from what you told me before, your Dad might be acting on the asshole side right now, but basically he's a decent guy. Let him get to know me."

Drew thought it over, looked away with a scowl, then back to Marc. "You know, it really does suck when you're right."

Marc reached over and mussed Drew's hair, and the two giggled like a pair of bad five year-olds in the sandbox. Then Drew leaned in and connected with Marc for a longer, deeper kiss.

He leaned back again, staring into Marc's eyes. "You know, I could stay a little longer." He licked his lips slightly and wiggled both eyebrows, a thin smile on his lips.

Marc gave him one of his dimpled grins. "Yeah, and if you get home one minute past your school night curfew, that's one more thing for your old man to hold against me. And I got a feeling Nanny might do something, and then neither one of us'll have anything to play with anymore."

Drew held up his right hand and spoke to it with a sigh. "Guess it's just you `n me again tonight, buddy. But I'm warning you now -- be ready for seconds."

Marc swatted Drew playfully, then got up and flicked on the floor lamp. He picked up Drew's winter parka and handed it to him. They paused again at the door for a last evening kiss. Drew reached behind and gripped Marc's buttocks, pulling him closer.

"Be okay if I come by again tomorrow?" he asked quietly.

Marc unconsciously ground his groin into Drew's, flicked his tongue at the end of the boy's nose. "You better. Otherwise, my fuckin' arm might fall off."

They both grinned and Marc eased Drew into the hall with a sigh, hating to have him go but knowing that he had to. He listened to the footsteps move down the hall, then fade when they reached the staircase. Marc dimmed the light and looked out into the street, catching sight of Drew striding out the front door of the Mid-City and then turn for the parking lot.

"God, I want you so much," he whispered. "Please, be real. Don't let this be some cruel dream."


Drew pulled up to the house, took in the spotlight on the drive, and noted the single light from the living room. He saw a corner of the curtain pull back and knew immediately it was his father. Nanny would have left on the backdoor light and figured it was enough -- unless it was after eleven and his curfew, in which case she would have left things pitch dark. And Nanny would never be so clumsy as to allow anything so obvious as a curtain movement. She knew about stealth long before the government named a plane after it.

He entered through the back door, flicked on the kitchen light, and dropped his coat on the back of a kitchen chair, then remembered he had to keep his allies and picked it up and hung it on the hanger in the laundry room. He went to drop the keys to the pickup into the bowl near the door and spotted his own key ring. He inspected briefly and grimaced. The key to the Sebring was missing.

Yeah, well... I expected that, he thought to himself.

He turned and left the kitchen, pausing at the base of the stairs, then leaned his head into the living room where he saw his father with his glasses on the end of his nose staring at the paper.

Wrong pair, Pops. Those ain't your reading glasses, he thought wryly.

"The keys to the pickup are where they should be," Drew called. "I'll ask Nan for a ride into school tomorrow."

His father continued to stare at the paper. "I can run you in," he said vaguely.

"Don't bother, Dad. Oh, and I'll be at Marc's tomorrow night, but I'll be home by curfew. I'll have him pick me up at the end of the street and he can drop me off later."

Drew waited for an answer, but Andy didn't offer one. He shrugged and headed up the stairs for his room, easing the door shut.

Jesus. Just how the hell AM I gonna get around?

He settled in and flicked off the light, prepared for a restless night since he'd napped so much during the day, but before his mind could stir up an image of Marc the way Drew wanted him, he was deep asleep.


Drew sat on his side of the table, looking down at the plate in front of him, mystified. He looked at the ham-and-cheese omelet (no onions -- ever -- on pain of endless bitching on his part) and a side of fresh hash browns. He couldn't remember when breakfast on a school morning was much more than toast he made himself, juice his grandmother handed him, and maybe some strawberry jam if he felt in the mood to walk across the room and get it. In the last year or so, he'd added coffee to the mix and the glass of juice shrank in size, but that was it. The previous Saturday morning breakfast, with Nan in attendance and a nervous Marc sitting next to him, was a rare event, and something that only happened on weekends.

"Um, Nanny..." he said, staring at the full platter on the table, "I don't know if I can --"

"Shut up," his grandmother answered calmly. "I'm making a statement here."


"Shh!" the old lady hissed, and filled his coffee cup.

Drew shrugged and picked up his fork. His grandmother rapped his fingers with the spatula.

"Jesus Christ!" Drew yelped, drawing back his hand and rubbing his knuckles, staring up at his grandmother. "What the fu--uh, what did I do?"

"Nothing," she answered gruffly, rolling her Marlboro to the far corner of her mouth and once again managing to avoid having the ashes fall into anything edible -- something Drew always marveled at. She never managed to get to an ashtray in time, but always managed to evade disaster. "I want the scene to be just right."

Drew watched her warily, wondering if Alzheimer's had finally kicked in. Rita busied herself preparing a second omelet, and Drew sat there eyeing his breakfast but unwilling to take a chance for as long as the old lady held onto her solid cooking utensils. Finally they heard noises in the hall and she turned back to Drew. "Start shoveling it in."

He hesitated, rubbing his red knuckles.

"Now! Eat!" she barked.

Drew grabbed his fork, happy to oblige, but kept a wary eye on the spatula in his grandmother's hand. He'd only managed a couple of tasty mouthfuls when his father stepped into the kitchen. Drew gave him a sidelong glance but ignored the man. Had he looked, he would have seen the same reaction from his father. Both pretended the other didn't exist, but Andy did take careful note of the omelet and hash browns. An eyebrow went up and he looked at his mother, pointing at the plate.

"Um, don't suppose we have another of those, do we?"

Rita smiled sweetly. "Sure do," she cooed, and Andy slipped into his spot at the kitchen table. He watched her fill a plate, walk over to the kitchen table and sit down with the same breakfast in front of her. She started eating careful bites.

Andy narrowed his eyes. "Funny, Ma. Real funny."

Rita paused, beamed at him for a moment, then went back to eating. Drew snorted in spite of himself and she nailed his shin with her foot as hard as she could. No bunny slippers this morning, Drew noted, as he rubbed his right leg. Nice, solid shoes with sharp toes.

Andy frowned, got up, and went to pour himself a cup of coffee, then saw that the carafe was empty. He muttered a few choice words he seldom said in front of his mother, but she pretended not to notice.

"Guess I can get my own coffee," he ended lamely.

Rita actually chirped. "Instant's in the cupboard next to the fridge," she told him. "We're out of the real stuff. Silly of me, but I somehow forgot to buy coffee over the weekend. There was just enough for my grandson and myself."

Andy looked at the jar, tried to remember the last time it had been opened. He also noted the green label and the word "decaffeinated" on the label, and made a face.

"Fine," he sighed. "I guess we can play games all morning. Okay, I'll make my own breakfast," he added, and opened the refrigerator.

Rita made a show of slurping her coffee, something she never did. "We're out of eggs and there's no more ham. Milk's gone, too. But hold on a sec, I'll set you up just fine."

Rita slid her plate to one side and rose, rummaging in the back of the cabinet and coming up with a box of evaporated milk. "Just add some water, hon. You'll do just fine, I'm sure." A second foraging in the refrigerator and a box of Egg Beaters showed up on the counter. She opened the freezer and tossed a box of frozen waffles onto the counter. "And a little treat, just for you," she added and sat down to her breakfast again.

Andy McKinnon pressed his lips together and glared at his mother. Drew snorted again but managed to shift his legs enough so all he felt was the swish of the foot against the cloth of his pants. He eyed his grandmother, who sat perfectly still otherwise, a small smile on her lips.

The older man frowned. "Guess I'll be eating at Rosalie's Diner -- as usual. Point taken, Ma, okay?" He pulled his coat out of the closet and yanked on his cap, fishing for his gloves in the pocket. He was almost to the door and pulled the keys out of the bowl when he turned to Drew. He tossed the keys to the Sebring to his son and they clattered across the table. "You'll be needing these, I guess. I don't want the Crazy Lady driving on the ice until the sanders get down here, which won't be for awhile. Might as well hang on to `em, too."

The door rattled in its frame as he slammed it behind him.

Drew scarffed the keys and eyed his grandmother. "I didn't know it snowed last night," he said doubtfully. "And I know it didn't get warm enough yesterday for anything to melt and re-freeze over night."

Rita smiled into her coffee cup and held it with both hands. "It didn't. But he's starting to cave and he needs an excuse. Just take the keys and be happy for now. Don't expect miracles about the rest. But I don't think he'll give you too many hassles -- not directly, anyway. And I think you'll find you still have a job keeping the books and being his go-fer." She allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction. "My son's stubborn, but he isn't too stupid -- he knows his limits. And you're still a lot cheaper than a regular bookkeeper."

Drew gulped down the rest of his coffee and eyed the empty carafe with a sigh.

Rita looked over at the drained cup. "Oh, yeah," she said, suddenly remembering. "I need some more, too. Grab that thermos around the corner in the laundry room, will you? The jumbo one. The half-and-half and the milk's sitting there, too. I don't want `em to spoil."

Rita shoved both items back into the refrigerator, then reached down into the crisper to remove the box of eggs she'd put there. Then she opened the freezer, pulled out two steaks for herself and Drew and slipped them into the lower compartment. She dug into the rear, looking for something she'd been meaning to throw away for months. She came up with a frost-encrusted Hungry Man dinner. She patted it, and placed it in a more accessible spot in the freezer, a satisfied smile on her lips. She'd be needing it later.


Drew pulled into the senior lot at Lawrence Catholic and checked his watch. He had plenty of time for once... almost too much time. He had a full forty-five minutes before he had to get to homeroom. He debated going in early but opted for sitting back with the heater set low and the radio on high. He eased the seat back and felt the sunlight on his face and enjoyed the clear February morning. It was supposed to warm up today, and he looked forward to it. The winter snow banks would finally start their shrinking now that it was almost March. And in his mind, March triggered the count down to graduation. LCA traditionally held its graduation exercises on Memorial Day Sunday, and that meant just three months of high school left.

Freedom. Liberation!

No more worrying about what was popular and what wasn't. No more bullshit about being hassled if you didn't project the `right' image. Everything he'd heard from guys who'd graduated the year before told him college was a different world, that he could do whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted. He suspected that maybe joining a fraternity might be the same sort of deal as high school, but Drew didn't give a damn about joining anything like that. He'd told himself long ago that when he got out of high school he just plain wasn't going to be concerned with joining another pack. And even though he'd dodged admitting it to himself in so many terms, he also felt it would be his opportunity to explore... other parts of himself.

Other parts of me, he thought. Guess I don't have to worry about that anymore. No more cruising dark places. No more strangers. No more bullshitting myself. He paused and chuckled. Hey, I got me a Marc, now.

Drew's thoughts drifted to Marc and the weekend, minus a Sunday afternoon. He saw the big, happy smile he'd spotted on Friday... and mentally relived the touch of Marc's hand upon his flesh for the first time, and the electricity he'd felt when his body brushed against his as they stood awkwardly in a small room, both wondering what to do next. He remembered the feel of the other boy's hand closing on his, showing him how to grip a pool cue properly... Then the feeling of those same hands slowly running over his own naked back, and the combination of terror and elation he'd felt when their naked bodies came into contact for the first time.

And long after, when he'd sat naked on a wood chair turned backwards, chin propped on his folded hands and leaning forward on the back of a hard chair, he'd looked at Marc's long, naked body sprawled across the narrow bed, sleeping. Drew liked to remember the romance of the moment more than any other... but somehow the snoring worked its way in, too, and Drew had to chuckle. Marc could make quite a racket, something he absolutely denied. Still, Drew closed his eyes, and relived the view of Marc naked in the half-light filtering in through the cheap mini blinds from the street lights, and the drone of a TV down the hall being played too loud. He smiled. Not exactly the most muscular body in the world, but lean and firm... and curved in just the right places.

He'd just sat and stared at the sleeping Marc... and felt the last, lingering doubts of his real sexuality ebb away from him, and he didn't care or remember how much that had frightened him before. As he sat and stared at the still (if noisy) figure before him, his hands trembled as he reached out and slowly dragged his finger tips across Marc's back, linger at his buttocks, gently caressing each cheek. Then he'd slowly, quietly, stood and slipped back into the bed beside Marc, facing him, kissed the soft cheek and drawing his arms around him. Marc woke for a moment and smiled, then nuzzled his head onto Drew's chest. The bed wasn't comfortable, and was far too small for the both of them, but Drew hadn't cared. He'd felt himself harden but didn't try to probe and waken Marc, who slept in his arms, making his grunts and small snores. Drew didn't want sex just then, even if part of himself said he should try for it. Drew wanted the closeness. He'd had the sex earlier and would have it again in few hours, but at that moment he only wanted to feel Marc's body against his.

Drew sat up in his seat with a start and looked down at the front of his pants. Great. Nothin' like walkin' into first period with a tent in front of you, he thought to himself. Damn, I gotta start wearin' briefs instead of boxers. Except when Marc's around to lend a hand... Oh yeah, and that's JUST the thing to think of when I'm trying to get things down!

Drew fixed his front and closed his eyes again, trying to manufacture an image that would quiet him down. Melissa came to mind, and it did the trick. He checked his watch again. He still had a half hour.

He heard another car and turned to see a black Jetta pulling up to the curb and recognized Alan Curran. He saw the other figure lean over to and kiss Alan before he could jump out of the car. Drew grinned.

That your honey, Alan? Yeah... it's the hotty from the CFC. Jesus, boy, where'd you find something that fine? Just be careful, guy. This ain't exactly the best place to be lip-lockin' with the boyfriend.

Drew stayed down in the car seat. He'd caused Alan enough trouble and didn't want to scare him. Alan crossed through the gate, swung his back-pack up and over one shoulder, headed for the main door when it swung open and two impossibly large figures stepped out. It was Kevin Spivett and his younger brother, Shaun. They'd seen Alan in the car. Kevin was a senior but his younger brother seemed to have control of the dominant hemisphere of the brain they shared.

"Yo, Cock-boy!" Kevin roared. "That your new suck-pump in the pretty car?"

Alan stood still and locked eyes with Kevin. He said something in return, too quiet for Drew to catch it, but he grabbed at his door handle when he saw the expression on Kevin's face switch from sneer to rage. Kevin grabbed Alan by the front of his jacket and hauled off to take a back-handed swing at him. Drew was out of the car and running when he saw Alan jerk his knee up hard into Kevin's crotch and then lash out with his fist. Spivett dropped him and staggered back, clutching his face. His face was covered with blood and the larger boy was staring at the red streak running down his white shirt.

"Shit," he said dazed. "The little homo never fights back!"

Shaun Spivett shouted "Faggot!" and was on top of Alan, slamming him into the ground when Drew came up and caught Shaun by the back of his blazer and yanked so hard the collar tore off. Shaun's fist connected with Alan however, and the smaller boy was on the ground. Drew began punching Shaun furiously until he rolled away from the both of them.

"What the fuck's with you, McKinnon?" Kevin bellowed.

"Leave him alone!" Drew spat. "The fuckin' kid's only half your size!"

"Since when do you give a shit?" Shaun sneered, rubbing the side of his jaw.

"I give a shit now, Spivett!"

"He suckin' your cock too, now, Drew?" Shaun Spivett sneered. "Or are you back to doin' him again?"

"Fuck you, Shaun!" Alan screamed, two years of rage and a lifetime of suppressed anger suddenly coming to the surface. He launched himself at his classmate, a blur of swinging arms.

Drew froze for a moment. He'd never seen Alan go after anyone else before and he was shocked enough not to turn in time to see Kevin Spivett balling his hands together and using them to club the side of his head, which sent Drew on a collision course with the poured-concrete walls of the new LCA Main Annex. He felt himself slide to the ground, and felt a foot in his stomach before he rolled over.

Somewhere, he heard deeper, adult voices, and the shouts and curses of the Spivett brothers and Alan jumbled together, trying to shout one another down. Then he saw several black-robed men dragging them apart, and felt a hand on his shoulder trying to draw Drew to his feet. He looked up into the face of Brother Matthew, noted the deep scowl and the burning dark eyes.

"I expect this kind of crap from those two, but not you," he growled. "Can you walk?"

"I'm okay, Brother Matt," Drew mumbled, and climbed unsteadily to his feet. Brother Matthew guided him through the hall. It didn't take much to figure out he was on the way to the Headmaster's office. Then Brother Matt surprised him when he pulled him up short at the door.

"This is off the record, you understand," he said in a low, steady voice. "You're still knee-deep in high shit, McKinnon. But it's about time you did something to make it up to that kid. I guess you're not as worthless as I thought, after all."

Drew stared round-eyed at Brother Matthew. It was the first time a faculty member even suggested knowing what Drew had done two years ago.

Brother Matt motioned him through the door. The Spivett brothers were arguing with Dr. Roberts, the new Headmaster, Alan, and each other. Shaun hurled insults at Alan, who swore back at him and had to be restrained again by Brother Paul, the official Dean of Boys and de-facto school disciplinarian. Drew was pushed towards a chair next to the furious Alan. Kevin Spivett whined about the blood on his shirt and how his nose was broken. The room was nothing but shouting and curses when Brother Paul brought his fist down on the desk so hard he cracked the glass top.

"All of you -- shut-up!"

Both Spivetts sat with their mouths opened, looking ridiculous. Drew leaned back in his chair, wide-eyed. Alan glared sullenly at the two Spivetts but kept silent. Brother Paul was Disciplinarian for good reason.

"Thank you, Brother Paul," Dr. Roberts said calmly in his clipped, mid-western accent. He turned and looked the boys over. His eyes were owlish, reinforced by the magnification of his thick lenses. "The four of you are in here for brawling on school property. Good thing. If it was in the street, it could be a criminal matter, too. It could still be, once we get everything sorted out."

He turned his sharp eyes on the smaller boy. "Alan, I understand you threw the first punch, although Brother Matthew says you were being verbally abused and Kevin here was getting ready to strike first. Then McKinnon and Shaun got involved, and basically the four of you were getting ready to pummel each other into the pavement."

"It's the little fag's fault, Dr. Roberts!" Kevin protested. "Shaun and me saw him an' his..."

Roberts cut in. "Spivett, one more unsolicited word out of you, and you're history -- got that? And if that word happens to be `fag,' or anything akin to it, I'll see that charges are brought against you under the Massachusetts Hate Crimes Act for this whole thing. That could still happen, so you're going to have to make an effort to do something that doesn't come real easy to you -- think before you say one more word. Your father's a state representative, and I am just sure he'd love to see your arrest featured in the newspapers that go to every house in his district."

Kevin stood for a few moments, as that last sentence rolled around in his ape-like brain, then slowly closed his mouth. Brother Paul smiled his death-mask smile at him, and Kevin cringed.

Dr. Roberts eased back in his chair, slipping his hands behind his head. "This is an easy one, gentlemen. It can get complicated, but only if you make it so. By rights, I can expel the lot of you -- I don't have to explain anything to a school board. The Marist Brothers hired me to run this school and maintain discipline, and they've made it clear they'll back my decisions in that regard. As you know, I've already expelled one student this year."

He paused to let it sink in.

"The only problem here is, if I expel the two that deserve it the most, I have to expel the other two, since they broke the same regulations. And I don't want to be responsible for screwing up two other young men for basically doing the right thing just to get at two jerks." Dr. Roberts glared at the Spivetts. He didn't leave much doubt about who he considered to be what.

The older man sat back in his chair and stared at the four teenagers. "The fairest thing I can think of right now is to hand the four of you a two-week suspension."

"Hah!" Shaun barked. "High five me, bro'! We're on vacation!"

The Death Mask turned its eyes on him. "It's not that kind of suspension, younger Spivett," he said wearily.

Brother Paul broke in with a grin. "Dr. Roberts and I have been talking over a new policy, and you boys are going to be the test case. It's an in-house suspension, guys. That means you report to this office every morning. You two," he said, pointing to the Spivett brothers, "will spend the day in my office under my direct supervision. Your teachers will provide me with copies of their lesson plans, and you will cover that material in your texts. You will be examined every day, in each subject. If you can't pass the tests we give, an extra hour will be added to your school day for you to brush up on your problem areas."

"What about them?" Kevin whined, indicating Drew and Alan. "You gonna let them get off?"

"No, Elder Spivett," Brother Matthew broke in. "Misters Curran and McKinnon will receive the same treatment. They'll just be under my supervision."

Shaun pouted. "You gonna give them tests, too?"

"That's none of your business, Younger Spivett," Brother Matthew replied with an infuriating smirk. "Of course, if you boys don't like the options we've laid out for you, you can talk it over with your parents and withdraw from the school. Your tuitions are paid, and we're long past the point where any sort of pro-rated refund might kick in, so your parents might not like the idea. Oh, and speaking of parents, we'll be setting up conferences with all your parents. Dr. Roberts has a call in to the State House for your father, guys. Been awhile since we've had a coffee together. I'll be looking forward to it."

The two brothers sat, alternately glaring at one another and Dr. Roberts, who sat with a thin smile on his lips.

Drew looked over at Alan. If he'd ever seen a face filled with true loathing, it was his. "I think I'd rather take the expulsion than have to sit next to that asshole, Dr. Roberts."


Monday morning, and Marc eased his now-blessedly quiet Cavalier into the parking lot of New Era Millwork. He still had a few days before the end of the month to get his inspection sticker, and had the forty dollars it would cost safely locked up in his trunk. He'd never lost his wallet at work or anyplace else, but the forty dollars was precious enough at the moment that Marc wasn't about to risk losing it now. That's how much an inspection cost, and his car had to be checked out by Wednesday, the last day of the month. The two-week pay period didn't close until Friday, when he'd get his next check. If something did happen, he could probably get away with it for a few days... but his route to work brought him directly past the Andover Police Station every morning, followed by the State Police Barracks once he turned onto Rte. 125 to get to the aging Industrial Park where New Era stood. Marc didn't want to tempt fate if he didn't have to. Besides, lacking a bank account meant a long wait at the check-cashing service on South Union Street in Lawrence, not far from the old mill district. History told him that would be a two-hour wait if he managed to get out of work after a mere eight hours, which effectively killed any chance of getting to an Inspection station before the following Monday. Mondays were usually a safe bet with a light workload, but there were exceptions. Marc had already cleared it with his foreman, Art. Art was always reasonable about things as long as you gave him some warning when something was up.

Marc was about to swing open his door when Youm Sun roared up in his green Mitsubishi Eclipse, threw it into reverse, and parked next to Marc -- close. Close enough so Marc had trouble getting out of his car. He struggled to get out, swearing under his breath as Sun trotted by clutching his lunch box.

"Jesus, man. You gotta park so close?"

Sun paused, sneered in Marc's direction, and spoke with his Cambodian accent in his formal manner. "You must move your car. You are too close to me."

Marc stood dumb-founded. "I should move? You're the one that backed in too close! I was already parked!"

Sun stood erect, and snapped his fingers at Marc. "I park in same spot each day. My door is long so I need more room to swing it open. My car is new and expensive, not like your old junk. You should move, or I complain!"

Marc told Sun where he could insert his complaint and walked towards the aging warehouse building with Sun following behind, shouting in a combination of Cambodian and English. Friggin' guy's been in the country since he was seven, and he still sounds like Hop Sing in a Bonanza re-run. Marc kicked the door shut in Sun's face and punched his card, then headed for the break room, hoping that Luz and Katy were early as usual and made a pot of coffee. A few feet from the door and his nose told him they were. Once the door was opened, his ears confirmed what the nose already knew.

Katy was scolding one of the Dominican men in Spanish for spilling his coffee and leaving it there until the culprit -- Felipe -- finally started mopping it up with a rag. Katy was chattering to Jose and Luis about her weekend. The two men looked up and greeted Marc with smiles and small waves. Felipe would have, too, but he was too busy mopping and listening to Luz scold him. Luz smiled when she saw Marc, gave Felipe another verbal blast then sprang for the coffee pot, chasing Marc away and then squeezing his cheek. She poured and added creamer with one sugar, which was how Marc liked it.

"Sit, sit, honey," the attractive, older Latina insisted. "I do it."

As always, Marc protested. As always, Luz blew it off. "You still cute, an' you talk nice to women," she giggled, handing him the Styrofoam cup and then glared at Jose and Luis. Not like those lazy bastid!"

She and Kathy had "smoothed the way" for Marc with the Dominican men who had tried to take advantage of him when he first started, scolding them in a mix of Spanish and English when they tried to foist all the heavy work on him. They saw Marc carrying door after door, and hauling full carts alone to empty them into the shipping runs. They gathered the men together and Katie had laid into them in a rapid Spanish Marc never heard in his high-school classroom, except for when she wanted to make a point, which was usually in English and boiled down to "lazy bastid!" Marc had been nervous about their favoritism, but soon saw that the men didn't resent it in the least, since they basically expected the women to scold them, and Marc never had a problem again except for Juan, who was eventually fired for complaining about everything and doing nothing.

Katy whispered something to Luz and the two of them giggled. Nan Kly, Sun's cousin heard it and laughed. "Hey," he shouted in his high-pitched voice. "They say you look happy for change -- like maybe you get a little chickychicky this weekend?"

`Chickychicky' was Kly's favorite expression for sex. Marc blushed, the girls laughed even more, and the other Dominican's teased him in their various degrees of English... halting for Jose. but clear enough from Luis and Felipe, who pounded him on the back and cheered him. Marc blushed, which set the women off giggling again and Luz gave his cheek a second pinch.

"You just don't get her in no trouble, you. You too young to be married," she scolded.

"No marry!" Luis laughed. "I got tree his age, and no married yet!"

Katy looked up with her big, soulful eyes. "Yeah, but he not conio pendejo like you. He decent guy an' do right thing!"

Sun kicked open the break room door. Luz made a face and poured the last of the coffee out for Kly, who didn't ask for a cup. Sun eyed the empty pot and Luz made a show of snubbing him and stuck out her tongue. Then he walked over and started shouting at both his cousin Kly and his brother, Youm Sophal. Marc had no clue what was being said but heard his name several times. Finally Sun stormed out of the room.

Kly looked over to Marc and grinned, flashing the gold tooth in the front of his mouth. "Man, you got him pissed. What you say to him?"

"You say good morning to Sun an' that piss him off," Sophal threw in, draining the last of his coffee. "My brother born pissed!"

No one disagreed any more than they paid any attention to Sun. The buzzer sounded, and they filed out to the work floor to begin their day.

Marc was at his station, filled his staple gun and watched Jose, Martin and Felipe do the same. In the next eight hours -- or more, if necessary -- they would assemble three to four hundred pre-hung doors, most of them requiring casing over split-jambs. It was tedious, time-consuming work with low pay, and he hated it, but Marc reminded himself it was still better money than what he got for flipping burgers at Mickey D's.

He heard Sun's raised voice and looked over to the Northfield 5000, the machine that started the manufacturing process. It routed and set the hinges to the operating jamb, and bored the lock set. Sun was shouting at Art and pointing down the line, presumably at Marc. Art had his usual expression when he had to deal with Sun: bored and openly contemptuous. Sun had been furious when he'd been passed over for foreman and Art was given the position, and basically refused any order until it was reinforced by Ron, the production manager. At first, Marc couldn't understand why they put up with it, but then he had to grudgingly admit that Sun was good at his job, and faster than anyone else. In a pinch, Art could run the machine, but he was older and his arthritic fingers weren't as nimble at mounting the eighteen screws to secure the three hinges. Sun was easily the fastest operator the company ever had. They argued constantly though, and it was a given that at least once a day Art would have to go and get the Production Manger who would order Sun to follow his instructions.

Sun would protest, and at some point storm into the Operations Manager's office and protest his treatment. The Ops Manager always mollified him, for no reason anyone could figure out and Sun would brag to every one about how he was so great the company didn't dare to fire him.

Ron walked up and the three of them faced off. Then Sun picked up a two-inch staple gun, pointed it at the two men and squeezed the trigger. His expression changed and his volume increased when he realized the gun wasn't hooked to an air hose so it wouldn't fire, and he threw the gun at Ron and shouted at Art as he stormed off, presumably to the Ops manager. He shouted something else and threw a block of wood at Ron and strutted off.

Art and Ron picked up the staple gun and the wood block and went after him.

"I think Sun resign," Luis said with a grin. "They not gonna take his shit this time!"

As usual when Sun stormed off in one of his fits, the four casers busied themselves folding boots, the cardboard protectors for the doors. There was a lot of joking in Spanish which Marc couldn't follow, but he got the feeling bets were being laid about whether or not Sun would be coming back.

Fifteen minutes later a smiling Art returned to the line, grabbed Sun's lunch box and left. He said something to Luz and Katy and he heard them cheer, and even Kly looked happy. Faintly, they could hear Sun's voice in the distance, until there was a loud SLAM! And then relative silence.

Art returned, picked up the work-apron that was on the floor and filled the pockets with screws.


Marc almost ran to the front of the line, nervous that it was his turn to be chewed out for setting Sun off. Art looked up at him with an unexpectedly-pleasant smile on his face. "I understand I owe you a big thank you for getting rid of the biggest pain in my ass in this place," he said softly. "So, to get even, I'm gonna train you to do his job."

Marc was wide-eyed, waiting for the blast. But Art just started up the cycle and showed Marc what to do, which wasn't all that complicated -- just required speed and nimble fingers. They worked steadily. After break, Art began to stand back and just watch Marc, reminding him from time to time to watch his handings and reset the stops for the type of jamb they were using. After lunch, he stepped back even more and watched Marc work, not having to say much. At three o'clock the last scheduled door spat out of the machine and began its way down the assembly line. Art leaned over and looked approvingly at the counter.

"Two hundred and twenty-five doors in like seven hours. Not bad at all, especially for a new guy. Just clean down and I'll be right back."

Marc began air-blowing the parts of the machine as Jose, Luis and Felipe began sweeping up. Katy had been called over to case in Marc's place that day, but she went back to her usual place in the prep department and helped Luz and Kly clean up. She patted Marc on the back. "You doin' good, Marc. Tell your lady to give you one a little better than this when you see her tonight, okay?" she said, and kissed Marc on the cheek. He heard the guys razz him and blushed.

Ron came down with Art. Ron was always direct.

"Want the job?"

Marc nodded. Ron always made him nervous.

"Good. Now, Rich is gonna try and low ball you at like a half buck raise. Hold out for two. You should be able to nail the cheap bastard for at least one-fifty, maybe one seventy-five an hour. Refuse anything less than one-fifty. I'll guarantee another seventy-five cents in two months if you're as good as Art says. Just don't fuck up."


They sat in the small office, each in a desk with their textbooks piled high. Brother Matthew made a point of telling them they were on the honor system and left to teach his own classes.

Not much chance of us just talking all day, Alan thought, eyeing Drew. He picked up his Algebra 2 text. Might as well see what I can make of this stuff. Maybe I can surprise Chris tonight... for a change.

"You still suck in math?" Drew asked.

Alan looked up, fixed a dead look on Drew, then looked back at his text.

Drew shuffled uncomfortably in his chair and began re-reading his section of European History. He was supposed to have read it and made notes the night before, but had blown it off Friday and Saturday, and Sunday was too busy for him. Drew cleared his throat and Alan looked up.

"You always used to have a hard time with it," Drew said. "Maybe I can give you a hand."

"And I'll give you a finger," Alan replied, holding one up.

Like I didn't teach you that one when we were like six, he thought. "C'mon, Alan. I got a B+ in Algebra 2 last year. Sure you don't need a hand?"

Alan closed the book and gave Drew a long, withering look. "Drew, try to get something through your head, okay? I mean, it was nice you trying to help me out this morning, and I appreciate it. But you gotta understand a couple things. We're not neighbors anymore. We're not friends. You're just someone I used to know but don't want to know anymore. Does that sound familiar? It should. We're stuck here for another nine school days, and I'm used to things being quiet. So why don't you just fuck off and leave me alone?"

The door swung open and Brother Matthew loomed in the doorway. Behind him were two smaller boys -- freshmen, Drew figured. He wondered if he looked like that much of a baby when he started at Lawrence Catholic.

"Okay, gentlemen, it's lunch time. I caught these two copying homework this morning, so they've drawn special duty for the rest of the week: they'll be your waiters. They'll drop off the trays, race like hell to buy their own lunch, then come back here to pick up your trays. You guys'll be staying right here. The only time your out of the room is for a bathroom break, and if I catch you out in the hallway, you'll draw an extra week in solitary here. Enjoy your lunch." He turned to the smaller boys, who stared down at the floor. "As for you two -- scram!"

Both boys lunged for the door.

Brother Matthew looked at Drew and Alan with a grin. "Don't you just love the shrimps before they pick up the attitude? Both of `em are convinced they'll be expelled or excommunicated if they cross me again. Or that I'll call their parents." He chuckled to himself and shook his head, then his face grew a little more serious. "By the way, Drew, I talked to Rita this morning. She'll be dropping by this afternoon for some coffee with Dr. Roberts and myself. Haven't reached your sister yet, Alan -- her office says they sent her to Portland for the day. Well, see you boys later."

Drew watched the door shut. "Shit."

Alan chortled. "Think she'll wail your ass the way she did when she found out you swiped Sister Cordelia's grade book in third grade?"

Drew grimaced at the memory. "Nah. Nan's gotten more sophisticated. She'll just lay on the sarcasm at dinner every night for a month. Then bring it up every time I bring friends over." He looked at Alan. "Besides, it's not like I was doing anything for myself here."

Except maybe trying to buy some gratitude, Alan thought, picking at the food on his plate. He wrinkled his nose. "Jesus -- Mystery Meat again. Wonder what died in the alley this weekend?"

"Remember to flush twice tonight. It's a long way back to the caf."

In spite of himself, Alan giggled at the old joke and Drew smiled at him. "Hey, I saw you with that guy this morning. Is he the one from the meeting? Pretty hot stuff!"

Alan looked up suspiciously. "Yeah, that's David. Since when do you care about what another guy looks like? You're the normal one, remember?"

Drew took a bite of the Mystery Meat, made a face and spat it out. He toyed with the gray green beans. "Well, I was at that thing for a reason, y'know."

Alan shrugged and plunged his spoon into the watery chocolate pudding. Drew waited for a comment, but nothing came out of Alan's mouth. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"I've got one, too," Drew said uncertainly.

Alan swallowed the chocolate and said nothing.

"A boyfriend, I mean. I think you know him. Marc? Marc Wildon?"

Alan picked up the lone piece of bread on the tray and spread a pat of margarine over it. "I know Marc. He's a nice guy. But he's got some problems, too." He twisted his head up and looked Drew square in the eye. "When you get tired of havin' him play with your dick, try not to screw him over too bad, okay?"

Drew fell silent, picked up his tray and left it on the chair near the door. A few minutes later Alan followed suit. Both of them re-opened their texts. Drew looked away from Alan and tried to think of Marc. He wanted to do something good for Marc, especially after yesterday, but he wasn't sure what. Then something came to him and he smiled.

Oh yeah, he thought, his heart perking up at the mental image. I'm gonna make my babe real happy tonight.


Marc swung the door of the Mid-City Manor wide and strutted in with a huge grin on his face. "Stick, buddy!" he roared. "That room on Two still up for grabs?"

Stick looked up from the trash bag he was filling with discarded newspapers and soda cans, but not missing a single jaw movement as he worked over his Nicorette gum. He narrowed his pale eyes slightly as he searched Marc's face for any sign of drug use -- the kid was usually a quiet one, and this wasn't like him at all. He'd never figured Marc for a user, but there was a first time for everything. Stick checked his eyes and they seemed clear enough, so he relaxed. Marc had enough problems; Stick didn't want to see him with anymore.

Stick stood in place and chewed, still studying the boy. "Yup," he replied, shoving an old copy of Auto Buyer Guide into the black plastic bag. "Told ya I'd hold it for you until the end of the week. You interested? I thought you couldn't swing it. What's changed?"

Marc's grin widened. "Got me a promotion and a raise today! I can even afford the full twenty-five it's supposed to go for! My car's even legal for another year!"

Stick nodded, approving. Most guys would have just tried to get the cheap price and continued to cry poor. The kid was honest, something Stick didn't run into much running the Mid-City. That was one of the things that caught Stick's eye with Marc. "I told you a price, kid. I keep to it," he said quietly. Besides, he thought, if anyone in this place needs a break, it's you.

The older man dug into the pockets of his chinos and came up with a key on a plastic tab. "Ready to go look?"

Marc nodded eagerly, pressing his lips tight but still smiling. He didn't care what the room looked like; he just wanted the privacy of his own bath. He'd heard the rooms on Two were bigger, dating back to the days when the Mid-City was a real hotel and serviced the buyers who flocked to Lawrence buying shoes, textiles, and paper. In addition to its big business trade, the Mid-City also played host to the never-ending visitors who traveled to Salem's Rockingham Racetrack during the season, catching the trolley service and later the busses to rural Salem, New Hampshire. Of course, Salem was no longer rural, and cheap motels grew up around the track until the popularity of horse racing began to wane. Today's gamblers flocked to Foxwoods in Connecticut or one of the many "Cruises to Nowhere" out of Boston Harbor.

Long before that, the mills closed and the buyers didn't come anymore, since Lawrence had nothing to sell. That's when the Mid-City became a `resident hotel', renting rooms by the week. The comfortable single rooms on Two remained just that, but the suites above were chopped up into smaller singles with partition walls, and the aging individual bathrooms were more trouble to maintain than to replace with group facilities. Two survived, since the rooms were smaller than the originals above, and now were considered the big luxury units -- with kitchenettes and a private bath at the disposal of the lucky tenant.

They walked past the caged elevator that had given up the ghost several decades or more ago, and trotted up the stairs. Not for the first time, Marc was surprised at how quick Stick could move for a guy pushing fifty. He knew the man worked out daily at the Y a few blocks away, but even so he had more energy than most others at that age.

Guy's got a great ass, too, Marc thought, following behind Stick on the staircase. He raise an eyebrow. Almost as good as Drew's. Hope I can look that good when I'm an old fart.

He followed Stick to the top of the stairs and they turned right, stopping at the last door. Stick inserted the key, jiggled it around, lifted the handle in a sharp jerk and gave the door a slight boost with his shoulder. "It's an end unit, too. Two windows. Plus this one, you got a view of the parking lot instead of the `CCM Radio dish. Faces the back so it gets plenty of late day shade, and there's no noise after about 7pm. Beats listenin' to the bullshit on Essex Street when the bars close." Stick opened the door and stood back for Marc to take it all in.

Marc bit his lower lip, took a tentative step inside, and slowly turned to get the full view. The paint was fresher here, a very soft shade of gray with white molding trimmed out pretty well, and there were no holes in the wall, although a few patches were noticeable here and there. The rug was a light shade of blue tweed, still the low-pile glue down stuff that ran throughout the building, but it was in better shape than what he was used to. The closet didn't seem much better, but there was an old bureau against one wall with a mirror that would easily hold twice what the tiny chest of drawers up in his old room would handle. One thing did bother him: there was a couch, but no bed.

He looked up at Stick. "Uh, no bed? I mean, the couch don't look bad, but..."

"Opens out into a full size bed. Last guy who lived here bought it used from Richard's Second-Hand. Said he couldn't sleep on the bed we had and he liked more floor space. He moved on, but don't want it no more." Stick studied Marc for a moment and decided to give him a rise. "Don't worry, though. I sprayed it down good so you won't have any extra company at night."

Marc felt a slight shudder run down his back at the implications of `extra company' and decided not to ask about who lived here last. He didn't know many of the residents, and someone was always moving in or out. Stick walked over and pulled off the two cushions, then tugged on the mattress and the bed opened up. "You and your, uh, buddy can get a decent night rest on this, I guess."

Marc looked up warily. "Uh... my buddy?"

Stick nodded, fought to keep a straight face. "Yeah, the good-lookin' kid with the black hair that's been comin' around."

Marc looked nervous, but said nothing. The right side of Stick's mouth twitched, which was a broad smile for him. He couldn't resist the next part.

"It's okay. I told you guests were cool -- just so long as he ain't here every night. Then I gotta charge extra rent." Stick paused, pretending to inspect a small crack in the ceiling. "Seems kinda young, though," he said thoughtfully, again for a rise out of Marc. "I just don't want any trouble with his family, got that? Otherwise, who does what to who is your business."

Marc pretended to be interested in the texture of the paint on the walls. "Yeah. Drew's a good friend. We're real close."

Uh-huh, Stick thought. I just bet you are. "One other thing, too," he continued. "Move the couch against the outer wall and keep it there, okay Marc? The guys up on your old floor don't gripe too much about the noise you guys make, but old man Schreiber's next door and he bitches like hell when there's too much noise. His hearin' kinda sucks, so if you guys are on the other side of the room, chances are he won't complain... much."

Marc's face reddened. Goddam Drew and those squeaky-girly sounds he makes when we --

Stick made a low, deep moaning sound ending with a light, raspy catch in his throat and looked away. Marc felt the heat rising to his cheeks and searched Stick's face for reaction, but really wasn't surprised when he didn't see anything. Stick rarely gave anything away. He wondered what the other roomers on his old floor heard Friday night and again on Saturday, not to mention Sunday afternoon. Marc decided he was better off in not knowing.

Guess it ain't just Drew that makes with the sound effects, he thought.

There wasn't much else to see in the way of furniture besides a small table with two old round back chairs and a cheap floor lamp, but the good news was there was space for a few other odds and ends like a TV stand and a chair.

The room had other pleasant surprises though. The room to the left of the door was a real kitchenette -- complete with a narrow gas stove with four burners and a small oven. The refrigerator was an ancient 1978 Kenmore, and a little on the small side, but was still huge compared to the dorm-room special Marc was used to. The sparse counter space between the two was half-eaten by an old ceramic sink, but Marc didn't much care. But the real treasure for the room was just to the right of the `kitchen' and Marc swung the door open. His mouth fell open in surprise.

"God damn," he half-whispered.

To the right was an old-fashioned claw-foot tub, easily big enough for two -- something that gave him an idea he'd have to file away for later. Above was a shower ring attached to a pole that connected to the spigot with a clamped hose. There was no curtain attached, but he could pick one up cheap enough from the nearby Dollar Store on Essex Street, where the old Sears used to be. The sink was free-hung on the wall with a small shaving mirror just above it. Opposite that was an old wood cabinet screwed to the wall that would handle odds and ends that Marc could keep in the bathroom, just above the newer toilet. He noticed the seat was cracked, but didn't care. At least now when he stepped out of the shower he didn't have to wonder if he was going to slide on Justy's splooge.

Compared to the way he'd been living, this room was a palace.

Marc looked around, then faced Stick, who looked at him expectantly. "Dude," Marc said, "you got yourself a deal -- this room's got my name on it."

The corners of Stick's mouth stuck up slightly. "That's what I figured. And like I said, I'll keep to the original bargain -- ten bucks extra a week."

Marc waggled his head. "This is just so cool..." he trailed off, then looked up sharply. "Look, I get paid this Friday, so I can give you the extra money then, okay? But would it be alright if I start moving my stuff in? I mean -- I'll pay you extra for this week, but not until Friday. If that's okay."

Stick wrinkled his forehead. "Of course, it's okay. I mean, after all -- it's already paid for."

Marc's face became a question mark.

"That kid," Stick said. "Your, uh, friend -- Drew is it? He swung by this afternoon in that fancy car of his and said you'd be taking the room and gave me the money up-front for the next two months. Not your full rent, just the eighty bucks difference -- cash. I figured you had to know."

Stick paused, taking in the surprised expression on Marc's face. "That brings us back to something else. Uh, you mind tellin' him not to wear that damn Lawrence Catholic blazer when he comes around here? I mean, if he is underage, I don't wanna be drawin' any attention to it -- know what I mean? But as for the room, you can start movin' in any time. Your old room'll be easy enough to rent."

Marc's eyes narrowed and he pressed his lips firmly shut. "Drew was here today? And he paid my rent?"

Stick nodded uncomfortably, not knowing what else to do. "Uh, he said he'd been talking to you and that you wanted to grab the room, and that you asked him to stop in. So, when you came in tonight and asked about the room, I figured... well, it don't matter what I thought now."

Marc clenched his jaw, then tried to control his voice. "Stick, listen to me. If Drew McKinnon ever comes in here offering to pay for something for me again, you say no. Got that? The only one paying my bills around here is me!"

Stick paused in mid chomp on his gum, his eyes wide as he stared at Marc. Marc stepped back, forgetting his own anger when he saw the dead expression on Stick's face. He hadn't meant to shout; after all, Stick hadn't done anything wrong.

His voice shook when he spoke... not anger, but something else, and there was a hesitancy in him. "Jeez, I'm sorry, kid. Tell ya the truth, I never even thought to ask him his last name..." he trailed. Marc wasn't certain, but he swore his hands shook slightly.

Oh, man, Marc thought. He'll pop on me for sure now. So why am I yelling at Stick? "Look dude," he said. "I'm... I'm sorry I yelled, okay? I mean, you got no way of knowing that Drew was full of -- I mean, that he was doing something he shouldn't be doing. I still want the room. But if... if Drew ever comes in here sayin' he's droppin' off a payment for me, and I didn't say anything to you, just don't take it, ok?"

Marc's heart still thumped in his chest from anger. Who the fuck does Drew think he is, he thought. I'm gonna call that son-of-a-bitch boyfriend of mine and tell him to keep his wallet in his pants from now on if he wants something else in his pants kept happy.

They stood there in an uneasy silence for a few moments. Stick still looked rattled, but Marc sighed with relief when he saw that the manager wasn't going to shout back at him. Not that Stick was ever heard to shout at anyone. But he was big enough to pick up someone Marc's size and throw him against a wall -- or out the front door of the hotel. Marc had seen it happen several times when it was suddenly decided that a resident had to move. The last thing Marc wanted was Stick giving him the same treatment.

"It's okay," Stick said slowly. "Yeah... yeah start movin' in... and I won't take any more cash from your boy..."

Marc eyed him.

"Uh, I mean... your buddy," Stick corrected himself. He looked around nervously, then turned to the door. "I -- I gotta go."

Marc peered at the man's back as he hustled away. Now, what's up with him? Never seen him like that before.

Then he remembered Drew, and he frowned. And now I gotta call my sugar-daddy-wanna-be and rip into his ass a way he won't like.

* * * * *

Alan Curran stared down at the Algebra 2 text and tried to decipher the hieroglyphics on the page. His eyes were slits and his tongue stuck out from the right corner of his mouth as he tried to work out the problem. Chris St. Jacques sat next to him, droning the mathematical terms in his ear as if he thought Alan might have a chance of knowing what he was talking about. Alan leaned back and eyed Chris' hair again. Chris ran his mouth as per usual -- way too fast and all too sure of what he was saying.

After a few moments, Chris stopped in mid-sentence, looked up, and caught Alan staring. He narrowed his eyes and frowned.

"C'mon, runt. Say it. You've been dying to make a crack since you opened the door," he said sarcastically. "Just run your mouth and get it over with, okay? I mean -- everyone else has! Your `honey boi' has been having a field day with me since Saturday. You don't wanna hear what my mom and dad've been saying."

His nose twitched and Alan had to stifle a laugh.

"And my boss Karen's come up with entire monologues about my hair," Chris continued. He handed Alan a table knife sitting on the corner of a snack plate next to a bar of cheddar, and leaned his head over. "So, feel free to slash away. Maybe it'll actually be something I haven't heard."

Chris sat back, then folded his arms, crossed his legs crossed, and glared at Alan. "You know, I used to think you were a pretty nice guy. But of course, that was before that evil-bitch-boyfriend of yours sunk his fangs into you."

Alan tried to look innocent, didn't quite manage it, then tried looking back down at his textbook. "Honest to God, C. I mean... it really looks cool," he lied. "Really. I mean that."

If you consider day-glow orange hair cool, he thought. He looked up at Chris again. He wasn't buying it.

"Uh, just one question though, `kay?" Alan asked innocently.

Chris sighed and put the text down. "Get it over with."

"Does it glow in the dark?"

Alan ducked fast when Chris' hand came up to swat him off the side of the head and fell backwards onto the floor. Chris jumped on top of him and started tickling. Alan began giggling at first and then broke into a howl. He tried frantically to return the tickles to Chris but he kept drawing up reflexively into a ball. He had one hope of winning left.

He widened his eyes. "Man. David was right about you!"

Chris paused. "Huh?"

"David said all you gotta do is brush against a guy and they can call you Thumper!"

Before Chris could respond, they heard a voice on the right.


Chris looked over first, and caught sight of a pair of black shoes that gave in to a pair of legs housed in nude pantyhose that ended at a blue wool hem. Alan got enough control over himself and managed to steal a look. He pushed up and Chris rolled off. They both sat on the floor, feeling more than a little sheepish.

"Well, well," Lee Curran said, pretending to frown. "You guys made so much noise, you never even heard me come in. With all the racket, I thought David was here again. Probably a good thing it isn't, because God knows what I would've seen then."

Alan blushed and Chris looked away.

She looked at Chris and started to chuckle. "Oh... my... God! What the hell did you do to your hair?"

"Everyone's gotta make some remark," Chris muttered, climbing to his feet while Alan scrambled back into his chair. "It was supposed to be streaked a little... You know -- those summer blond streaks I get?"

Lee tried not to laugh in his face. "Yeah, in the summer. Where'd that orange come from?" she asked. "I didn't think that shade even existed on planet Earth."

Chris shrugged. "I talked to a guy at the drug store near me. He said the stuff was good."

Alan looked up. "You mean that Raven guy? The one with blue hair and purple nails?" He sniggered. "Yeah, now there's someone to give ya beauty tips."

Chris scowled. "No one ever makes fun of his hair," he muttered, on the edge of a sulk

Alan's snigger was turning into an evil laugh. "That's `cuz the guy's 6'2", weighs in at like two-thirty, and teaches wrestling at the Y. No one's about to give him any crap."

Chris caught himself before a few choice words came to his lips but kicked Alan in the ankle before turning his attention to Lee Curran. "Look, mange-breath over here said you used to work in a hair place a long time ago. You think you could... I dunno -- like, fix it?"

Lee cocked her head thoughtfully, then reached over and ran her fingers through the stiff hair. "Well, I guess we could always buzz it," she offered.

Chris' face became a study in horror. "Buzz it? Like to the skull?"

Alan went for blood. "Yeah, C. That way you can get a better picture of what you're gonna look like when you're old. Like twenty-five or something."

Go ahead, asshole, Chris' eyes said. Hide behind your sister. You'll die later. "At least I don't have to brush out my arms and legs twice a day, fur-ball," he threw out lamely.

Lee held her hands up. "Okay," she ordered. "That's enough, the two of you. Chris -- stay for dinner. After I'll give you a short cut, then I'll get some stripper, remove the dye, and re-color it back to something closer to your real shade. Then in about two or three weeks I'll give you another clip and there won't be any dye left at all. Okay?"

Chris ran his fingers through his hair and he had a pained look on his face. He liked it on the long side. "How short?" he asked nervously.

"I'll do it the same as Alan's. Maybe a little longer on the top."

Chris looked at Alan. Not quite a flat top, but close on the sides with a little spiking on top, pushed forward. Alan's mouth split into an enormous grin

"Look at it this way, C. It's your only chance to be the butch one."

Chris ignored Alan and nodded to Lee. "Okay, we'll give it a shot. I mean..." He gestured helplessly at his head. "Anything's better than this."

Lee nodded. "Fine. I'll give Alan a list of things to get while I cut it and we'll start after dinner. But first," she added, now focusing on Alan. "I have a couple of questions for you. Why do I have a message on my machine at work asking me to call Brother Matthew at Lawrence Catholic?"

Alan sighed and gave her the quick run-down of the morning events. Most of it was news to Chris, who sat silent and round-eyed.

Eileen Curran frowned as she listened, and sat down on the corner of Alan's bed. "You said they called you some stuff," she stated, rather than asked.

Alan fidgeted and lowered his head. "The usual, Lee. You know," he said in a strained voice.

She nodded. "Okay, I got the picture. And I know it's not the first time you've been in a fight, but it has to be the last. I'm not going to lecture you. I'm sure you got enough of that at school today. And an in-house suspension might even give you a chance to catch up on a few things. But maybe next time you won't be so lucky."

She paused, taking in the miserable look on Alan's face. "And stop staring at the ground like you're ashamed of it! Look, Dad made sure I knew you were gay when I got you out of there. It didn't make any difference to me then, and it doesn't now." She eyed Chris. "And I figured a few other things out along the way, too, and that includes you and David. So it's not like anyone in this room is hearing something for the first time."

Chris kept silent, and looked down at the textbook. Alan made a point of taking a sudden interest in a poster on the opposite wall.

Eileen sighed, knowing there was only so far she could push the point. She stood up and started for the door. "Okay," she said. "I guess that's enough of the heavy stuff tonight. Dinner in half an hour, then Alan can run out for me. I'll make a list of what I need -- no substitutions, or Chris might find himself really bald for life."

Chris' face momentarily blanched.

"I'll leave you two alone," Eileen continued. "By the way, where is David?"

Chris spoke up. "He had a school interview today out in Amherst."

Eileen nodded. "U-Mass -- not a bad school."

"No," Alan added. "Not U-Mass Amherst. Amherst College."

She sighed. "Yeah, I keep forgetting. Not just beauty, but money and brains. Wish I could find one like that," she said with a sigh, and left the room.

A few minutes of nervous silence followed, except for the sound of chairs scuffing on the wood floor as both boys fidgeted.

"I figured she knew, Alan," he said quietly. "I mean, it's not like you gotta be embarrassed in front of me."

Alan shrugged. "Yeah, I know. It's just... well, we never talk about it. It's understood. Like with your parents -- they never ask about me and David, but they gotta know what's going on. Do they ever ask about us?"

Chris did a double take. "Hell, no! I mean -- they're cool about it, but we just don't... we don't talk about it. I mean, they ask me about Glenn and stuff, but it's general stuff. Same with you and David. The closest it gets is `You two goin' out again tonight?' and that's the end of it. Kind of a `don't ask, don't tell' policy." Chris shifted in his chair, pulled the Algebra textbook forward, and pointed to the page. "We really gotta get back to work on this."

"I don't think I'm ever gonna get this stuff, C," Alan said in a tired voice. "None of it makes any sense to me. And what the hell do I need to know Algebra for -- much less Algebra 2? This is hopeless."

Chris looked up and blinked. Alan always swore his friend's nose twitched when he hit one of the frequent brick walls in their tutoring sessions. Alan appreciated the fact that Chris was giving up his own time to help Alan get at least a C in his math course -- especially since he seemed to have a `thing' going at the moment. Both Chris and David were working with him, trying to get his grades up high enough so Alan would have a chance to get into a halfway decent college.

Chris leaned back in his chair, and he seemed to sniff the air, his yellowy-brown eyes big and round. "Alan, you're not stupid -- you're just used to being told you are, and you gave up. You can do this! I know it... David knows it... your sister knows it. The only one who doesn't seem to know it is you. Face the facts, Toto: you're not dumb."

Alan grunted scornfully. "Yeah, right. Try telling my father that. And my teachers."

Chris shook his head. "Your dad's got nothin' to say that you need to hear. Even you said he's totally past tense. Besides, he couldn't have thought you were that dumb if he shells out seven fat ones a year for you to go to Lawrence Catholic."

Alan snorted. "There's only one reason he spent that kind of money on me, Chris. That was to cover his own ass."

Chris gave him a quizzical look. "How do you mean?"

His answer was a shrug, and the corner of Alan's mouth twitched. "What's it take to get exempted from PE at Haverhill High?"

"Either a wheel chair or an act of the legislature."

"In a private school, all it takes is a doctor's note."

Chris shook his head. "I don't get you."

Alan's voice dropped. "You seen my back, Chris. Those aren't the only marks on me, you know."

Chris remembered the night he'd driven across Haverhill into the wealthy Bradford district in the season's first ice storm back in November, the night things ended between him and Jamie. He remembered the sight of the long, mottled scars along Alan's back, and the shock he'd felt when he'd seen them. He'd almost commented, but David caught his attention and shook his head. Even in his half-dazed state Chris had understood the secret `don't ask' look he'd been given.

He nodded. "Yeah, I've seen `em, Alan. And I know what they're from, too."

The smaller boy looked Chris full in the face instead of turning away. "Yeah," he said matter-of-factly, like they were talking about homework again. "Those were from the cord of an old iron. Guess it's lucky the iron ripped off the cord when Daddy Dearest winged it at me, or I'd have had more that just some scars."

He paused, and a different look fell over his face. "That night was something, Chris. It was weird. I remember actually bein' sad because the iron ripped off the cord. I was like I really wanted it to hit me."

Chris fixed his pale, questioning eyes on Alan. "I don't get it. Why would you want it to hit you?"

Alan gave him a thin, distant, smile. "If he did it right, and got me in the head, then maybe it'd be over. Then I wouldn't have to be afraid anymore," he said in a soft voice.

Chris felt a cold, silent shudder run through his body. The biggest fear he'd ever had growing up was that his parents might yell at him, or maybe slap him a few times. He never once considered that dying could be seen as a blessed relief. What was even scarier was the matter-of-fact way Alan said it.

Alan pointed absent-mindedly to his stomach and upper torso. "I've had two broken ribs, and my left shoulder's been dislocated twice. I have an eight-inch scar on the top of my skull where I split it open when he pushed -- no, tossed -- me down a flight of stairs... one lousy finish nail with forty years of paint on it, and I somehow manage to find it. I've seen the emergency rooms at the Hale, Lawrence General, and Holy Family hospitals. I've got no way of knowing how many times I've had a black eye or a split lip."

He held up his hand, showing the two fingers that always sat an odd angle. "You've seen these," he said. "They're never gonna be right. The bones had multiple breaks the first time he kicked the car door closed on them. But when he kicked it shut the second time, he pulverized the bones. That was the same night he worked me over with the cord."

Chris sat stunned, listening to the story. He reached out and put his hand on Alan's shoulder -- then yanked it back when Alan flinched violently away, his eyes burning embers when he looked at Chris. Then Alan remembered where he was, and who he was with, and he relaxed.

"Sorry, Chris," he said hoarsely. "That... that wasn't meant for you."

Chris tentatively reached out and touched the smaller boy's shoulder, and Alan reached up and gently squeezed his hand. Alan looked in the distance, as if he were replaying a scene from a movie. He cleared his throat and continued the story. "He said I was stealing his car. He was right, and I knew how to drive it. I was gonna drive to the emergency ward again. But I started screaming when he mangled my hand, and that's when Nanny came running out of the house." He paused and smiled. "She had a baseball bat in her hands, too. I never knew Nanny could say the words she was screaming before that."

Chris wrinkled his forehead. "Nanny? Who's that?"

"Our neighbor -- Nanny McKinnon. I mean, that's what my best friend called his grandmother, and I did, too. Well, he was my best friend. Drew McKinnon. He's the one you got in the jam with last fall. At the beach. You know, the T-shirt thing."

Chris stiffened. "That homophobic asshole? He was your best friend?" Then something occurred to him. "Oh, God -- he's the one! He's the one that outed you at Lawrence Catholic."

Alan nodded, and gave Chris a sharp look. "Yeah. And don't say anything to David, either."

"Why the hell not?"

Alan swallowed. "David's uncle... the one that lives in Andover?"

Chris nodded again. "Uh-huh. The junkyard guy. The one with the big yellow Cadillac."

"The salvage guy, you mean. If you live in Lawrence or Methuen, you're the junk guy. If you have a big house in Andover sitting on a hill just so you can look down on your neighbors, you're in the `salvage' business."

Chris waved his hands. "Okay, okay. Back to the main point. What's his uncle got to do with it?"

Alan swallowed, looked nervous. "David would be off the walls if he knew I told you this, so don't repeat it. His Uncle Lou... he knows people. And he's in a position to ask for favors. David knows it. And Lou loves David like he was his own kid."

Alan paused to let it sink in. Chris' memory flashed on a detail, something David said, standing in the middle of his iced-over driveway, staring at a friend covered in blood.

"He did this? Jamie? I'll contract him, I swear! I'll call my uncle and --"

But that was as far as it went, and Chris never brought it up again. Just in case.

"He'd do it, Chris. David would call Lou."

Chris swallowed hard. "Why would you even care?"

Alan pressed his lips thin, then leaned over and rested his chin on the flat Algebra text. "It's not like I owe him anything -- Drew, I mean. But Nanny, I owe her... and Andy, Drew's father. Both of them did what they could. They filed complaints, they chased the Social Services people... shit, I know Andy physically threatened my father more than once... and followed it through. But you gotta remember -- my father's a career politician. He's got favors owed everywhere. He calls people and buries stuff, and it stays buried."

Chris considered it, and Alan continued. "Even though I was unconscious, I know it was Nanny that got me to the hospital that night. And she got someone down there and made the bastard look at what my father did to me. That was Rob Elger, the guy that runs the gay group. Worst thing was, even though they had every kind of evidence a court could ask for, the case was gettin' buried again. That's when Rob found out about Eileen. Nanny, Andy and Rob told her what was going on... but Lee had no clue. I mean, there's nineteen years difference between us. We were like second cousins or something -- we'd see each other twice a year maybe, that was it. Rob showed her the marks... and got her to threaten to sue for custody in open court. She said she'd go to the papers if she had to... they'd love a story about two blood relatives suing for the care of a child. That would have done it. He'd be exposed. At the least, he'd get fired; at the worst, he'd get sent to jail. So they struck a deal. He surrendered custody of me. And then they forced him to pay support and that included my education. He has to keep on paying until I'm out of school." He chuckled. "Shit, maybe I should go for a Ph.D."

Chris looked down, and fiddled with a rubber band. "What about Drew? Did he know about that night?"

Alan shook his head. "Not unless Nanny told him, and I doubt it. She was pretty pissed at Drew when he dumped me. They used to send Drew to this cool summer camp for July, out on Prince Edward Island. He usually left a few days after school ended. That was the last year they sent him though, I think."

Chris launched the rubber band at the shade, then began fingering a paper clip. "Can I ask what started it? What triggered your father that night?"

Alan looked up at Chris and smiled. "Don't repeat this. Nanny and Andy asked me the same question, and I wouldn't tell `em. I don't want them to know. Swear it -- not David, not anyone else. Not even Eileen."

Chris searched the hard lines of the small face in front of him. He pictured the face covered with bruises and cuts, and it sickened him.

"I'll never tell. Anyone."

Alan leaned down and forward on the desk, his hands propping up his head. "That was the night he finally heard the stories about me goin' around at school, the stuff Drew said. It just sent him off the walls, totally confirmed everything he ever suspected about me." He closed his eyes at the memory.

Chris leaned over and pulled Alan close, and they sat still for a few moments.

Neither saw Eileen Curran in the door way, who'd heard almost everything said. She hadn't meant to listen, but wasn't able to stop. She wouldn't have heard if Alan hadn't been phobic about closed doors... still afraid of being locked in.

She looked at Chris and nodded. Alan's lucky to have friends like that, she thought. Luckier than most.

She'd give them five minutes more, and then call them for dinner.

To be continued...

©2002 by Keith Mystery. All rights reserved.
Email comments happily accepted at keith_hackwriter@lycos.com
Special thanks to The Pecman, as always, for his time as my editor and advisor.

Please note that I always try to answer any e-mail -- but sometimes my letters come back as undeliverable because of the restraints on an individuals mail account. If you've written me and thought "Jesus, what a lazy mother -- he doesn't even acknowledge you!" it's probably because I couldn't get through your spam guards. Sorry about that. At least three of those last time around.

Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Stevie Jr. who turned 17 on July 29!