...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. ; )
© 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
Oh, and if it looks suspiciously like I'm fishing for email... well
You're right. I have no pride.

Chapter 7

Martin wasn't exactly bouncing up and down on the car seat - that would have been too childish, he reasoned, and the last thing he wanted to look was childish - but he did lean forward between the seats and chatter more like a hyper eight than the mature fifteen year-old he wanted to be. Well, he was almost 15, and that was close enough; just like a month after his next birthday, he'd be thinking of himself as almost sixteen. Tonight was special, though, and Martin wanted to put on his best act. He'd waited all week, praying Drew really would call, that he wouldn't forget how he'd promised him a ride to the gay teen meeting at the Christian Formation Center. He'd hovered by the phone so much that day, his mother wanted to know what was wrong.

"I get the idea that maybe someone might be calling?" she'd asked, eyeing him with suspicion.

Martin froze in place. "Uh... call, mom? Like, who would be calling?"

She buzzed around the small living room of the mobile home to make it presentable and gave him a sharp look. "That's what I want to know," she demanded. "Did you get into trouble at school again?"

Martin sighed with relief and gave a weak smile. "No way! Last thing I was gonna risk on a Friday was another detention!"

"Yeah," she grumbled, straightening out the stack of papers laying on the coffee table. "You're the perfect student... one day a week! And Christ knows, none of your friends call you anymore. So what's goin' on? How come you got the phone staked out?"

The boy froze. "It's, uh... private," he said weakly. His eyes begged her not to dig. Martin was good with that look, and knew it. It bought him out of a lot of trouble since kindergarten.

His mother sniffed. "Well, I know it's no girls calling you - that's for sure," she said off-handedly, and straightened out an afghan covering her husband's battered recliner. She wanted to replace it, but he wouldn't hear of it - claimed the chair was just his shape. And he has a point, she mused. Lumpy and worn out just about sums them both up. Distracted, she missed the hurt look that passed over her son's face. She turned to him. "Look, honey, go down and log onto your computer or something - we don't pay for that cable connection for nothing. Take that damn portable phone out of the kitchen and hover over it in your room."

She watched Martin happily collect the phone and head down the corridor into his small room. She shook her head. Poor Martin, she thought with a sigh. The kid not only gets short-changed with his old man's looks, but then he has to get my walk, too. He can't even hide it, poor thing. No wonder those boys give him so much crap at school, and there isn't a damned thing I can do about it. Ugly and a flamer just isn't gonna cut it.

The middle-aged woman shook her head, hating that things were going to be so hard for her son, then thoughtfully tapped her index finger on her cheek. One thing, though: he's tough, even if he can't fight for anything. They may slap him around and taunt him for being a sissy, but he doesn't lay back. He goes right back after `em. She nodded slightly as if in approval, then went back to picking up the remnants of a partially-eaten bagel and an empty beer can by the chair.

Martin kept the phone close, even at dinner. His father kept his head down and grunted, oblivious to everything except his paper. Martin and the old man didn't talk very much. After fifteen minutes of their almost silent meal, Martin dropped his empty plate in the sink and fled for the sanctity of his room at the back of the trailer, where he fired up his home-built computer. After carefully locking the door, he opened up his Yehaa! E-mail account and began sorting through the pictures from the different porn groups he belonged to, saving most of them to disk. Part of him wished he could find pictures of guys closer to his own age. Another part of him was also very aware that if someone sent those kinds of pictures to him, he'd better break the connection fast. He thought of messaging to see if Ryan was on line, but decided against it and left the chat function shut down.

Suddenly, the phone beside him chirped, and he grabbed it before the second ring. Martin was breathless. It was Drew.

"Hey - you all set to go, buddy?" Drew asked.

Martin all but stuttered.

"Great - I'm only about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes from you. I'm at Marc's place over in Lawrence. I'll meet you at the entrance of the trailer park, `kay?"

The boy mumbled a reply and heard the receiver click. He sighed, then reached over to put his computer in standby and walked down the narrow, dimly-lit corridor that led to the living room.

Martin waited all of five before slipping his coat on. His father was in his recliner, watching a re-run of The X-Files. He looked at Martin, grunted.

"Where you goin?"

"Out," Martin said simply.

And that was all. The balding, middle-aged man settled back in his recliner and opened another beer. Martin looked over at the kitchen, then remembered - his mother was at bingo. She'd bitch him out for not telling her he was going out, but then Martin was used to her bitching him out. He didn't mind it, really. At least his mother knew he was alive - or seemed to care that he was.

As Martin leaned against the ramshackle fence in front of the Caribou Trailer Park, shivering slightly in the early-evening cold, he suddenly pictured Drew and himself when summer came. They were in the older teen's flashy gray convertible, cruising down Ocean Boulevard in Hampton with the top down, and the two of them were wearing sunglasses, caps and shorts and not much else, heading for one of the nicer resorts. He pictured himself stretched out on the bed, watching breathlessly as Drew slowly stripped himself...

Suddenly, a loud car horn jerked him out of his fantasy.

"Yo! Squirt! Haul your ass or we'll be late!" Drew shouted out the window. Martin could see Marc sitting in the front, laughing at him.

And instead of being able to casually reach over and hold Drew's hand the way he had hoped, Martin found himself bunched up in the back seat leaning between the two boyfriends. He wasn't thrilled.

He turned his head to the left, catching Drew in profile. God-look-at-those-eyes-he's-fuckin'-gorgeous ran through his head. Drew had the starring role in his thoughts for the last week... and in his dreams. Dreams! Damn, I forgot, he thought. I gotta dig out all those face cloths under the bed and get `em rinsed out before mom goes in tomorrow lookin' for laundry.

"So, how'd your date go with Ryan last week?" Marc asked.

Martin blinked and swung his head in the direction of The Enemy. "Huh?"

"Ryan," Marc repeated. "You know - the guy you were meeting at The Game Zone on Friday?"

"`S okay," he replied, with an indifferent nod. He looked at Marc with small, hard eyes. He was doing his best not to like Marc. Marc was The Enemy. After all, Marc had Drew, and Martin wanted what Marc had.

"Just okay?" Marc answered, then looked around at Drew. "Gee, I had a pretty good time last Friday myself," he said with a snicker. Drew grinned back and his face flushed.

Yeah, I just bet you did, Martin thought, grinding his back molars in frustration. And how fast did those long legs take to peddle the air?

"Jeez, guys - do ya gotta dangle it in front of me like that?" Martin slid back in the seat, crossed his arms in resignation, and sighed. He knew there was no point in hating Marc. Martin was a kid, fifteen - well, almost fifteen. Drew was almost a man... almost eighteen. And Marc was already a man. What did men want with little boys? Well, something's not so little, he thought, feeling his groin throb in response. Bet I could beat Marc. Hell, I bet I'm as big as Drew, easy. Not that I'll ever find out, he added sullenly.

"Hey," Drew asked, looking into the rear-view at Martin. "Can I ask something?"

"Sure!" Martin jumped back. He was ready to give Drew anything he might ask for.

Drew looked at Marc, who closed his eyes and leaned his head against his hand, shaking his head.

"Have you ever, uh... you know - done it?" Drew asked.

"It?" Martin's face was a study in confusion, then a flash of recognition set in. "Oh, it! Um... no. Not exactly. But I've practiced. I practice a lot."

Marc cocked his head and knitted his brows. "Practice?"

How dim can you be, Marc? "Yeah. I practice a lot," he said smugly. "Shit, Ryan an' I been on-line all week long. Now, that guy knows how to cyber! And man, you should see the pics he's got!"

The grin on Martin's face was priceless, and Drew bit his lower lip to force himself not to laugh out loud. One glance told him that Marc's eyes were scrunched shut and his lips pressed firmly together, barely stifling what Martin was sure would be a sneering laugh. Unfortunately, so did Martin.

Martin frowned. Yeah, okay, asshole, laugh while you can. One of these days, he'll see you for the twat you are. Then it's MY turn.

He turned back to the object of his affection. "So, Drew," he said casually. "Can I ask another little favor?" Martin pitched his voice high and it cracked. He eyed Marc for a reaction but it surprised him when it was Drew that laughed.

"Sorry, bud. I didn't mean to laugh at you. Sure, what's the favor?"

Martin eased back into his seat. Well, as long as it's Drew, it's okay. Marc just looked over the seat, a curious expression on his face.

"Um, well..." the boy began, "would it be okay if you maybe gave Ryan a lift home tonight? I mean, he usually catches a ride with some other guys, but... I thought it might be nicer if him and me could... y'know, ride home together. I mean, not home, home. But his home and then maybe mine later. You know?"

"I get ya," Marc said with a grin. "I think Stubby here can help you out... maybe you an' Ryan can get a little lip-lockin' time for the ride?"

Martin colored at the remark and looked daggers at Marc. You gotta make me sound like an idiot? "Well, something like that... but I was asking Drew. I mean - it is his car, Marc," the boy threw back sharply.

Marc turned around in his seat, then rolled his eyes and made a face at Drew, who let the matter slide. Marc reached with his left and impishly slapped Drew's shoulder.

"Actually it's my old man's car, Martin," Drew replied, as he made the turn off the main highway. "But I guess me an' Marc could help you guys out. Tell you what - we could maybe stop off for a little something to eat on the way back. That way, you and Ryan could join us, and it's my treat... or you guys could sit here in the car. Alone. And, uh... I'd kinda park in a dark spot, too."

Drew looked over at Marc and smirked. Marc just looked straight ahead, scowling a little. Oh, man, Drew thought, mentally slapping himself. Now he's gonna be pissed `cuz I said I'd pick up the tab.

"Wow! Damn, Drew - that'd be too cool!" Martin sat back beaming. This guy Drew was really beyond words. For now, Martin would have to settle for Ryan, but at least Drew knew Martin was a player.

Drew pulled into the long parking lot of the Christian Formation Center. There were fewer cars than the last time he'd been here, but it was still early. They parked close to the front of the building and jumped out. Still far from being spring, it was still a much warmer night than when they'd left the place two weeks before, with tonight's temperature a relatively toasty forty degrees. Martin thought he saw Ryan in the foyer and ran ahead.

Drew paused with the boy gone and eyed Marc. "Stubby, huh? Thanks, love o' my life," he said sarcastically.

Marc snickered evilly. "Hey, I coulda called ya `Peanut.'"

He sulked. "Yeah, well... I could call you something, too, ya know."

Marc was all innocence. "What did you have in mind? Horse or Bull?"

Drew turned red in the darkness, then turned to walk towards the main building, as Marc walked alongside him.

Marc went on to a different subject. "You know you got an admirer, right?"


"Oh, come on!" Marc laughed. "That kid's so hooked on you, if you pissed on his trainers, he'd save `em as a trophy!"

Drew rolled his eyes. "That's gross!" he said, laughing. "C'mon! I gave the kid a lift, and then told him I'd give him some make-out time with his honey if he wanted. What's the big deal?"

"What's the big deal?" Marc said, chuckling. "You're his hero. I mean, two weeks ago you saved him a long, cold walk. Then last week you basically save his ass from getting the shit beat out of him. Now, you're chauffeuring him around in a hot car and givin' him an' his back-up boyfriend a chance to swap spit later. Oh, and just in case you didn't notice, he totally despises me, because you and me are together."

"Ah, that's total bull and you know it," Drew said, shaking his head.

Marc stopped at the entrance and pulled open the glass door. "Seriously, Drew. He thinks you're God's Gift, and I'm the Devil's Own. Watch him tonight - you'll see what I mean."

Drew looked worried. "Is it gonna bother you?"

Marc grinned. "Nah. Actually, Martin's kinda cute, in a weird sorta way. And he's got good taste," he added with a smile. Then his forehead wrinkled and he looked at Drew with slitted eyes. "But later we're gonna talk about this check-grabbin' thing you got a habit of doin'. Again."

Damn, thought I made it past that. Drew vividly remembered the chewing-out his boyfriend had given him Monday, when he'd driven back to the Mid-City to meet up with Marc and spring what he thought would be his surprise. He'd arrived to find Marc's room empty, and he'd panicked, thinking Marc had suddenly left town. Then Marc came up behind him and tapped on his shoulder, held his finger to his lips, and led Drew down the stairs to the new room, holding him by his hand. They came into the new room where Marc's things were still scattered. Then he grabbed Drew and deep-kissed him, and Drew closed his eyes and began thinking things couldn't be much better when Marc suddenly reached down and what started as a hot caress turned into a vice grip on his balls. Marc was smiling. And squeezing. Hard.

"Drew?" he began sweetly.

Drew made some strangled sounds in response, and his eyes began to bulge.

Marc spoke in his most casual voice. "Just to let you know... if you ever do anything like that again, I'm gonna tear these off. Got that? Keep your fuckin' wallet in your pants!"

Drew winced at the memory as they passed into the glass receiving area. Just ahead they could see Brunny in the same seat Marc sat in when Drew had first seen him. Next to her was a pretty, thinner girl with long auburn hair and good make-up that complemented a strong fashion sense. Definitely a lipstick lesbian if I ever saw one, he thought to himself. Then he shook his head and turned back to his boyfriend.

"Look," Drew began. "I'm just helpin' the kid out, is all. It'll give him some time to be with this Ryan guy. We said we'd split it tonight, and that was fine - but if there's gonna be two extra, I can't expect you to..."

Marc grimaced. "Yeah, okay - you're off the hook this time. But I'll get the movie tomorrow night, `kay?"

"Sunday," Drew corrected. "Saturday we can do something else. We'll get the matinee price if we go Sunday. Oh, and do me a favor when we're in here," he added, and his voice dropped to a whisper as they paused outside the second bank of doors. "Lay off the `Stubby' routine, ok?" he pleaded. "When we're in private, it's one thing. I mean... well dammit, it's kind of embarassin'," he said looking around furtively for prying ears.

Marc wrinkled his nose and smiled. "Aw, c'mon. I don't care about the size - you know that! Besides, it's kinda cute the way it spreads instead of lengthens."

Drew felt his face flush. "The last thing a guy wants to hear besides bein'... well, kinda short - is that it's cute," he groused. "Besides, I could come up with a name for you."

Marc shrugged. "Well, we covered the obvious choices out in the parking lot. What'd you have in mind?"

Drew grinned evilly. "Hook. With you, it's more like swingin' sideways than goin' down."

Marc nodded in agreement. "Yep, that's me - Hook. And that makes you my Peter Pansy." He was about to add more as they walked by the admissions desk, but then thought better of it when he glanced behind and saw the two girls giggling at them. Better cool it with those two around, he said to himself, and offered up a small smile when another thought flashed through his mind. They were in the main lobby when he saw Brunny turn to the other girl and speak.

"Told ya," she said smugly. "Pay up."

The pretty auburn-haired girl scowled, then dug into the pants pocket of her too-tight jeans and pulled out a crumpled ten dollar bill, which she passed over. Brunny kissed the ten, then her small mouth spread into what passed for a wide grin and she slipped the bill into her own. She wrinkled her nose at the girl who began to giggle.

Brunny looked at the confused faces of Marc and Drew. "Allison and I had a bet. If both you guys showed up here tonight, I said you'd be leaving together."

"It's not fair," Allison said in a pouty voice. "They came here together! It shouldn't count."

The large girl gave her a knowing look. "The bet wasn't about transportation, Allie," she said and turned to Marc with a look of concern and worry in her voice. "Something happen to you at work this week? You looked like you were walking funny comin' up the drive."

Marc unzipped his leather coat and slipped out of it, then nodded towards Drew. "Nah. That's `cuz `Beer Can' over here gets out of control some times," he said with a grin.

Drew closed his eyes and shook his head. He could hear, if not see, Brunny laughing, and the snorting had to be from Allison. Drew felt the red flush start at his toes and work its way up, as his temperature rose a couple of degrees. He opened his eyes again and Marc stuck out his tongue. Drew took a more-than-playful swipe at him and Marc ran down the hall laughing. He stopped at the entry of the meeting room to turn back and make a face, then kept on running.

The girls watched the side show. Allison gave him a sweet look, gripped her hands together in front of her chest and cried "It's just sooo cute!" to Brunny in the tone of voice an old lady uses when she talks to her pampered poodle. "I mean, it's almost precious!" The both of them fell on each other laughing.

Drew grumbled that the two of them were pathetic and tried to slink away, looking desperately for a crack to crawl into. It had no effect on the girls or their laughing. "You two see Martin?" he called back, pausing at the door. "Dark-haired kid, about yay-high. He ran in here so quick, I didn't see where he went."

Allison spoke up with her head cocked and a ready smile. Drew had to admit she had beautiful, pale blue eyes and a smile as pretty as her face. Another part of him still appreciated the look of a good rack, if not its potential uses. He'd settle for firm, rock-hard pecs and quarter-size nipples with hard tips any day, and felt a twinge of desire at the mental image. Yep, that's me. Just call me the Pecman, he thought wryly, preferring it to the sound of `Stubby'.

Brunny recovered from her laughing long enough. "Yeah, him and the other munchkin made tracks for the game room, I think they said."

"Thanks," he said in a raspy voice, not meaning it. He shuffled over to the door of the main meeting room

"No problem, Beer Can!" she howled over his shoulder, and both she and Brunny were ready to cave in on one another again. Drew froze and fought an overwhelming urge to chuck them the bird, then went for the meeting room. Then he reconsidered and did exactly that, only to be treated to more gales of taunting laughter.

"Damn dikes," he grumbled, skulking into the large room. He was in the mood for mayhem on Marc. Beer Can, he thought ruefully. That name's gonna haunt me in this place from now on, thanks to Marc and those two. Then he paused and smiled. Well, still - I gotta admit it beats the hell out of `Stubby.' I'll give him that.

Drew glanced around the nearly-empty room. It was still early, maybe another fifteen minutes or so before the `official' meeting began, but he only saw a third of the people that were there two weeks before. Most sat in small groups, chatting among themselves. A few sat removed from the rest, heads down and uncertain. Over to the right, there was a newcomer - a good-looking guy maybe a little older than himself by a year or two. He caught Drew's eye for a moment, nodded, and smiled, looking Drew over brazenly from head to toe.

Guess I know what he's after, Drew thought, and cut away from the guy. It wasn't hard to spot Marc, who would have stood out anyway, at least as far as Drew was concerned. He was sure all eyes were focused on Marc when they entered a room.

Sure enough, there he was... and Drew froze, a chill running up his spine. Marc was standing in the far corner of the room, his right foot propped up on a folding chair. He was leaning down, talking to someone seated. The guy's back was towards Drew, but he didn't need to see a face to know who it was.

Marc looked up, his eyebrows knitted together and a frown on his face. Alan spun his head quickly, his eyes narrowed but the trace of a smile on his face, even if his lips suddenly pulled tight over his teeth and his jaw clenched.

Drew felt panic. Oh shit. Marc knows. The little son of a bitch ratted me out, he thought angrily, and paused in mid-stride. It didn't register on him that his cruiser took that as a positive sign, and his eyes drilled back into Drew.

Yeah, like I should call the kid names. Drew sighed. He looked down, and shook his head in resignation. It's payback, that's all. Alan's just doin' to me what I did to him. I made a whole goddamned school hate him, and now he's gettin' even - doin' the same thing. And it's fuckin' gonna cost me the most important guy in my life.

Marc's face transformed back to a smile when he realized it was Drew approaching, and Drew felt a momentary relief. Even Alan suddenly seemed more relaxed when Drew resumed his approach.

"Alan's been filling me in on some stuff," Marc explained. "You didn't tell me you were playing hero again this week."

"Uh... hero?" Drew asked, uncomfortable with Alan standing nearby. Drew stood awkwardly to the side, keeping his distance from the smaller boy, and felt waves of nervousness twisting his stomach.

"Yeah," Marc continued. "You told me you got in a jam this week at school, but you didn't say why. Jesus, you jumpin' in to the rescue is starting to be a habit! That's twice in two weeks."

Alan looked up to Marc and raised an eyebrow. "Drew, a hero?" he said skeptically. "I said we just got in a little jamb - no big deal. What else's he been up to?"

Marc looked up at Alan. "You know that kid Martin?"

Alan nodded.

"Well, last week Martin got in a thing over at the Rockingham Mall with a couple of punks. Drew stepped in for the guy against two other kids that were pushin' him around - just like he did with you."

Alan turned towards Drew. His small face was hard and his eyes narrowed. Drew could feel the boy's eyes cut into his flesh, penetrate deep into his soul. The smaller boy's mouth was tight. Drew knew without thinking that his teeth were clenched, and he could see the slight bulge on his jaw line. But Alan's expression had to be the worst, because there really wasn't one: it was a complete blank. Drew knew that look, and feared it more than anything else the boy might do, or even say. He'd seen it often enough since early childhood. It was the dead look that spread over Alan's face when the two boys would be playing, and he'd look up to see Robert Curran's car turn into their street. Alan would change, go rigid, knowing that when his father came home, his parole from hell was over. Then he'd drop his head and silently walk back to his yard, waiting for the inevitable string of abuse, his face wiped of any emotion.

Drew avoided Alan's face. "Hey, it was no big deal," he muttered. "Just a couple of dickheads goin' after someone smaller'n them. I couldn't let that happen. Not now, anyway."

Alan gave Drew a long, hard look. "There's worse things than a fist thrown at you," he said quietly, and Drew all but cringed.

Marc looked from one face to the other, not sure what was happening, or why he felt the odd man out. He knew Alan and Drew went to the same school, knew that they were pulling some sort of punishment duty together for fighting, but knew little more beyond that. He'd heard parts of Alan's story, but not all of it, and given Drew's past pretense to homophobia, he suspected he'd said a few things to Alan. That might explain Drew's present embarrassment and Alan's clear resentment. He knew Alan had a tough time because he'd been outed by someone... someone he knew, and probably someone Drew knew as well. Whoever it was had been a neighbor and a friend. But Alan mentioned living in Methuen, and Drew was from the woodsier part of North Andover. Other than that, the only thing he knew about Alan was that he had a knockout for a boyfriend.

Just like I do, he mused.

It was an awkward moment as the three stood in triangle formation - one leaning, another sitting, and a third standing off to the side, no one quite ready to speak or move. After an uncomfortable lull in the conversation, Marc was reaching for something stupid to say when he saw an unhappy Martin trudging slowly across the hall, looking down at the floor. He nodded towards the boy in the distance.

"Uh-on. Looks like your back-up babe's got some trouble," he said in a quiet voice. He turned to Alan. "Don't repeat that, okay? Martin's got a crush on Drew. I don't want him thinkin' we're laughing at him."

Drew knitted his eyebrows together and turned, grateful for the distraction even if it was at Martin's expense. He read the boy's body language, taking in the slumped shoulders and the listless walk. When he was within a few feet of Drew, he looked up at the older boy and tried for a lame smile. Drew saw the eyes that held back tears, and read the determination on an unhappy face not to let them loose. He took in the clenched jaw, and the attempt at a grim smile.

Drew put his right hand on the younger teen's shoulder and squeezed it affectionately. "Hey - what's the matter, little dude? Somebody givin' you a hard time about something?"

"Yeah." The boy began. "No." Martin started to shake off the hand, but instead he just slumped down even more. "Shit, I don't know..." he said in a dejected tone. He looked up at Drew again, saw the same concern in his face that he heard in the voice and words, and decided that it was genuine. "Look, I don't wanna screw things up for you guys... I know you're here to hang out an' stuff, but... could you lend me the keys to the car? I can sit out there and wait. I just don't wanna have to hang around in here. I got a Walkman in my coat pocket and I can listen to the radio, so I won't run your battery down or nothin'."

Drew reached into his pocket, fishing for the keys uncertainly. "Yeah, well, I guess that's okay... but what about Ryan? Brunny said you two took off together and ran off to be alone. What happened?"

Martin looked from face to face. Alan's expression had softened when Martin came up, and Marc looked as worried as Drew. He didn't know Alan, but there was something about him he took to. His face shifted from a grim to a wry smile.

"Yeah," the boy said with a sigh. "He was glad to see me. Then I told him maybe we could all go out somewhere up in Lowell and grab some food, then you'd drive him home." The dejection came back to Martin's face and he looked down again. "But he totally freaked, said it wasn't a good idea. He couldn't risk be seeing seen with... me."

"What?" Drew half-shouted, incredulous.

Martin tried to shrug it off, didn't quite manage the casual tone of voice he wanted when he heard it crack. "He says I'm too fem - no, too much of a screamin' fag - to risk bein' seen in public with. He... he says if anyone from his school or neighborhood sees him with me, every one'll figure him out. He doesn't wanna risk it."

Drew shook his head and scowled. "I don't get it. A week ago he met you at the Game Zone. What's the big difference?"

Martin shrugged. "Ryan lives in Lowell. People from Lowell head for a mall, they go to Nashua. He said Salem was safe that way - he didn't have to worry about risking us bein' seen together."

Marc was disgusted. "Great guy," he said, shaking his head. "You're good enough to be his friend here and to, uh, chat with on-line, but he doesn't wanna be seen with you in public." He scowled. "How low is that? I mean - I had a bunch of straight `friends' turn away from me when they found out about me, and that was tough - but I can deal with that. Doesn't mean I like it, but I can understand ignorance. But Ryan... I mean, shit - he's gay, too, or he wouldn't be here! Him doin' something like that's got to be the lowest thing one guy can do to another. If someone I knew did that, I'd never want to have anything to do with the son-of-a-bitch again. And I'd cut him off at the fuckin' kneecaps if he even tried talkin' to me."

Alan shot a quick look at Drew, whose face went rigid. No one else saw it, though. Marc was looking down at the dejected Martin, his hand kneading the boy's other shoulder. Drew caught the hardness in Alan's eyes, and his own begged for silence. He couldn't read Alan, not past the passive, unresponsive stone mask on his one-time friend's face. Then something inside the smaller boy's face changed, and he gave a slight smile and shook his head. Drew silently breathed a sigh of relief.

"I can't help what I'm like, you know?" Martin continued. "I mean, I know the way my voice sounds is kinda femmy. And I don't move or walk like most guys sometimes." He looked around the three different faces, then shifted his gaze to the floor again. "I try to control it sometimes, you know? Then I slip up and everyone comes down on me, and I just get so damn mad I wind up getting' into trouble at school. Then my mom gets on my ass for that on top of everything else." He sighed. "Shit, it's tough enough bein' gay. Why do I have to be a total fuckin' fag on top of it? Why does everyone have to figure it out the minute I walk into a room or even open my mouth? Jesus, they hate my guts at school. Even people who don't know me hate me. You got any idea what that's like?"

"Yeah, I do," Alan said in a soft voice. Martin looked up at him, saw the gentle smile on Alan's face. "I had someone out me at school, and I know just what you mean. It sucks - totally. People you never even met avoid you or make fun of you. Some of `em even attack you. What's even worse, I thought the guy was my best friend. Maybe even something more than just that. But I was wrong."

"Yeah, he was just another asshole," Marc growled. "I'd nail that bastard one day if I could. Wouldn't matter about what. I'd do whatever just for the chance of nailing his sorry ass to the wall."

Alan shifted his again-expressionless eyes from Martin to Marc, and then they focused on Drew. Drew felt a wave of panic surge over him - everything was about to come out! Marc was going to hate him.

But Alan looked up at Marc again and smiled. "Wanna know something? I can't be bothered. In a way I owe him a thank you - if he hadn't done what he did, I'd probably still be with my dad, and that was worse than anything they could do to me at school. And I wouldn't have met some other people... like find this group. Or met David." He looked over to Martin. "David's my boyfriend," he explained.

Martin tried to smile. "Is David that total stud I saw you with last week?"

Alan nodded and smiled.

Martin grinned. "Man, if that's the reward for having a shit life at school, I'm in! He's even hotter'n Drew."

Martin's face froze when the last words slipped out of his mouth. He turned wide-eyed at Marc, whom he was sure would hate him now. The same wide eyes fixed on a startled Drew who was reacting totally to something else. Both Martin and Marc made the same assumption. Martin turned the color of a New England brick and clenched his eyes shut.

"Goddamn, I can be such a moron sometimes!" he muttered, mentally slapping his forehead.

Drew was too nervous to laugh but he smiled, and Marc did the laughing for him. "Don't worry, Martin. I kinda figured you had a thing for Drew. Just like I figure you're smart enough to know that he's spoken for - at least, `till he tells me something different."

"No worries about that," Drew shot back, trying to smile and look more relaxed than he felt. Then he thought about how that sounded to Martin. "Not that the offer isn't a good one, Martin. If Hook here tells me to get lost, I might take you up on your offer."

Marc shot Drew a quick look but still smiled. "Call me that again, and that might be sooner `n you think!"

Drew smirked. "Think of it as retribution for `Beer Can.'"

Alan snorted. One remark pretty much explained the other to him. "'Beer Can' - yeah, that's about right. And `Hook' I can guess."

Marc raised an eyebrow and shot Alan a look. "And you can understand it... how?"

Drew froze again. He didn't want Marc knowing any more about his history with Alan than was absolutely necessary. But Alan shrugged and affected a sly smile. Marc had no way of knowing the lie he was about to tell. "I take phys ed at school, Marc. I'm sneaky about it, but I look around."

"Yeah," Martin put in with a mischievous grin, nodding his head rapidly. "You always gotta check out the scenery."

Marc thought about it and decided the explanation was reasonable - he'd taken his share of sneak peeks in the locker rooms beginning with junior high. Drew gave a mental sigh of relief and felt some of the tension ease out of his body.

"Tell you what guys - this meeting looks like a bust tonight," Marc put in, looking from face to face. "What say we just head out someplace and grab some burgers or something and kick back together?" He looked at Alan and his smile broadened. "That means you, too Alan. Unless you gotta wait for that A&F model you hang out with."

Alan chuckled. He'd only met Marc a few times before, and only for a few minutes each time, but he liked him. "You mean David. No, him and Chris are workin' tonight up at Borders', then they're both scheduled to open the place again in the morning, so they won't be goin' out."

"That sucks," Martin put in.

Alan shook his head. "Not really, Mart. They both got tomorrow night off - which is good for me, because that means David'll be hanging out with Chris instead of out bein' hit on by every chick and about ten percent of the guys out there, because I gotta work tomorrow night - and all day Sunday." He shook his head ruefully. "Now, believe me, that totally sucks. Plus the way they schedule at Home Station, you don't know one week to the next when they want you on; the damn supervisor's got complete discretion about that stuff. They pinball you around one week to the next - plus they play favorites. Take my word for it, never work for that place."

Drew shook his head. "I don't know why you stay there, if they're as bad as that."

Alan shrugged. "Like I told you before, I wanna get myself a car. Once I get enough to pick up something and insure it an' all, I'll wave good-bye to the Station with one finger. Besides, come summer Chris' father said he might be able to get me into the place he runs - I can't run any of the equipment because I'm under eighteen, but he thinks he can twist the rules around enough to get me a job on the clean-up crew, and maybe some extra hours in the office to give me a full forty. I'll be eighteen next fall, and he can put me on anywhere after that, even part-time. Believe me, his company pays a lot better than Home Station, even their part-time help. Meanwhile there's only the Station... and the place is close enough for me to walk. If the weather's real bad, Lee can pick me up. That's my sister," Alan added, looking to Marc. "I live with her."

Drew momentarily blanched. Don't ask him where he used to live, Marc. Please, God, don't let him ask. "So, you gonna join us then?" Drew said with a false cheer, confident it was exactly dead last on things Alan wanted to do.

"Sounds like a plan to me," Alan said with a smirk, and watched Drew's eyes snap open wide - and try to cover his blunder by continuing to blink rapidly. That's right, McKinnon. Squirm.

"Damn contacts," Drew muttered. "It's a bitch when they float off to the side like that."

"Great!" Marc yelped jumping up, and started pulling on his coat. "I say we go to Tony's, down by the river. The place is a pit, but they're the only guys outside of Salisbury Beach that make curly fries, and we're in luck - they change their oil in months that end with the letters `ry', and this is March so it must be nice and broken in. You got a ride, Alan?"

He nodded. "Yup. Lee let me take her Escort."

"Okay, then. No sense in comin' back here, so we'll take both cars. Martin, where's your coat?"

Martin wrinkled his nose. "Damn - it's in the game room. I forgot it after Ryan told me to get lost." He looked around at the three faces around him, his eyes pleading. "Would one of you mind comin' with me?" he asked tentatively. "I mean, I'm not afraid of Ryan or anything but... well, I don't really want to see him. At least not alone, not right now."

Marc reached out his hand and ran his fingers through Martin's thick, dark hair. "Yeah, I'll go with you. And if Ryan starts anything, he'll regret it." Marc slipped an arm over Martin's shoulders. "So we can all meet out in the lobby, `kay?" he called back over his shoulder as they moved off in the direction of the game room, leaving Drew and Alan together.

Drew let out a breath as soon as he was sure they were out of earshot. He looked steadily at Alan. "Look, if you're gonna say something, just say it and get it over with, alright? I don't want any games, Alan. I mean, I've been tryin' to make it up to you, and..."

"You can't make anything up to me, Drew," Alan cut in simply, in a low, even voice. "And I'm not gonna say anything to Marc. Not now, not ever. What happened between you an' me is over, and I'm not lookin' to get even. I don't have to."

Drew blinked, and not because of his contacts.

"You screwed me, Drew," Alan said quietly. "I thought you were my best friend, and you totally screwed me. In spite of that, if you hadn't, I'd be sittin' in my old room with the door locked tonight, staring at an 8" black and white TV screen with the volume turned down as low as I could, just so the old man wouldn't start yellin' at me again. And I wouldn't have good friends like Chris and someone as decent as David standing by me."

The smaller boy paused, and then smiled. "You think David's good-looking, Drew? Let me tell ya something: how he looks on the outside is nothing compared to what he's like on the inside. And when he looks at me, I can see what's inside him. I don't know what he sees in me, but I know what I see in him, and it ain't just a nice face and the way he fills the front of his jeans. And you know what's funny Drew? I owe meeting him to you. I won't say I'm grateful for what you pulled on me - there's no way in hell I'll let myself believe you did what you did for any other reason than to cover your own ass when people started asking questions about us. You fucked me so you could have things easy and be popular and eat at one of the good tables with the right crowd. We knew each other since before I could walk, and you fucked me for that. But like I said, I can't waste my time hating you."

Drew started to reply, but Alan held up his hand to stop him. "I'll never say anything to Marc," he said, "but you heard what he thinks, and how he feels. Without knowin' it's you, he thinks the guy who screwed me over is the lowest kind of scum on earth. One of these days he's gonna hear someone from Lawrence Catholic talking about it - `cuz let's face it, Drew, it's no secret. Everyone that was ahead of us in school knows about it, and everyone that comes in until I graduate will hear about it. Then we'll just be a legend, and people will forget the names but they'll still talk about it now and again, every time someone's a little different than everyone else, or kinda `light in the loafers' like Martin. If you an' Marc stick together for awhile, sooner or later he's gonna hear the story. And there's only one thing you can do that'll maybe save your sorry ass."

Drew looked Alan in the face, looking for the malice he thought should be there, but didn't see it. Alan wasn't lying... he never could lie, Drew knew. When they were young and something got broken, Alan would just walk up and confess, and wait for his punishment, head down and shoulders slumped. But he didn't have his head down now, and his shoulders weren't slumped.

Drew towered over Alan but he felt small in front of the boy who stood relaxed in front of him. He swallowed hard. "Alright. What's gonna save my ass with Marc?"

"You tell him yourself," Alan said simply and quietly. "That way he'll at least think you got enough balls to be honest." He turned and picked up his coat. "Come on. They'll be waiting for us outside by now. Oh - and Drew?"

Drew stuffed his hands in his coat pocket and looked up at Alan.

"Just so you know, I like Marc. And I'm pretty sure David's gonna like Marc, so maybe you'll be seeing a lot of me." He smiled, more or less pleasantly. "But don't make any mistake about it. We're not friends, and I don't see us ever bein' that way again. But I'm not your enemy, either. Now, let's go."

Alan walked off, not looking back. Drew knew it didn't matter to Alan whether he followed or not. He hesitated, but took off after him. He caught up to Alan, Martin and Marc in the main lobby, talking to Brunny and Allison. Allison looked up, and Drew could see the devil in her eye.

"So - Marc says you guys are gonna blow this place."

Brunny looked at Marc and giggled. "Well, maybe not blow this place."

Marc's jaw fell and his eyes bugged out. "Jesus, what a sewer your mind turned out to be!"

Brunny cackled and Martin choked. Alan smirked off to the left, and even Drew found it in him to smile. Marc stood there looking at all of them. "Pigs! All of you. Not one of you got any sense of decency."

Allison slitted her eyes. "Gee, stuff like that ain't so funny when it's you on the receiving end, I guess." She waited for a return remark, but Marc stood there, his jaw moving and not much more than vague sounds coming out of his mouth.

"Tell you guys what," she said slyly. "We can forget about Beer Can and Hook... for a price."

"Alright. So what's it gonna cost us?" Marc muttered.

An eyebrow shot up to her hairline. "Brunny an' me get escorted into and out of Tony's. I mean, the food is great, but on a Friday night it's gonna be filled with animals. No one'll give you guys shit, but Brunny and I'll get mauled. And I would really love some curly fries."

Brunny sighed. "Well, I guess I could get a salad," she said to the air, since even she didn't believe it for a moment.

"What do you guys say? You gonna be real gentlemen, or do we start spreading the rumor about how Hook and BC took two of the little guys home for a four-way?"

Alan laughed and shook his head. "Man, you guys play dirty! Hate to see what you're like when you don't like someone."

"It's not pretty when that happens, believe me. But we're talkin' curly fries here, Munchkin, and I mean business," Allison said with her hands on her hips.

Drew sulked, and Marc was resigned. "Allie, your last name isn't Welsch, is it? You don't have a sister named Melissa, do you?"

Allison slitted her eyes like a cat's again and gave her best Cheshire grin, leveling Drew with a mock-malicious glance. "Nope. Not a sister." She leaned forward and spoke in her best seductress voice. "But she happens to be my cousin, so I know all about you... and - just so you know - I'm the one who taught her everything she knows about bein' a bitch."

Both girls cackled riotously, their laughter echoing down the plaster halls of the Center meeting rooms.

* * * * *

Drew pulled into the parking of Tony's, feeling more and more edgy by the moment. He would've preferred being alone with Marc right then, but Marc had decided to ride with Alan, to keep him company. Drew had Martin next to him - who had asked everyone gathered in the parking lot before they left to be referred to only as `Mart' from now on. He'd always hated the sound of `Marty,' discouraged anyone from using it. `Mart' was good, though. "And it don't sound as wussy as Martin," he'd added. "Maybe it'll help if I can change my image a little."

Allison had smiled and ruffled the younger teen's hair. "You don't need to change anything about yourself, kid," she'd said with a smile and an unusual level of sincerity in her voice. "You're a sweetie just the way you are."

Martin - Mart - wasn't quite sure he liked being a `sweetie,' but the way Allison said it somehow made him feel better. He just wished Ryan was there to see him fitting in so well with all the older guys - even Marc, whom Mart had decided wasn't quite so bad, after all.

Martin may have been happy but Drew was just plain scared. Cool night, he thought ruefully. My boyfriend's sitting with a guy I fucked over royal, even if he swore he wouldn't shoot his mouth off. Now I'm gonna walk into a place half my school goes to on the weekends with the school queer, two smart-mouth dikes, and a pint-sized screamer. Oh, yeah - this is gonna be one great night.

Drew looked over at the prattling, happy Martin and immediately felt ashamed for his attitude. He liked Martin, and he was thinking the same thing Ryan had said. I gotta get past this stuff, he thought. If I don't, I'll lose Marc for sure - he won't put up with me bein' like that. And who cares now? I got three months left in that school. If someone figures me out, who gives a shit? Alan's done it for more'n two years.

Still, he looked over the parking lot, and was relieved when he didn't recognize any of the cars. "Ready to go inside, twerp?"

Mart grinned. "Yeah, I'm ready. And what's with this `twerp' stuff, anyway? Bet I'm as big as you in some ways," he added with a leer.

Probably bigger, Drew thought wryly, but passed on letting Martin know he picked up on the meaning of the remark. "Hey, I've already been warned about you. Marc says if he catches us in a clinch, I'm dead meat," he chuckled.

"I can only dream," Martin said in a low voice but with a huge grin. They stood outside the car and Martin wanted to hold onto Drew's hand but decided that would be too much. Besides, he could see Alan and Marc leaning against a car further up, and Drew pointed out the girls pulling into another space a few cars away and they all joined up. Allison drove a tiny Kia Sephia, and the sight of Brunny trying to get into it was almost as funny as the sight of Allison yanking her out. They'd all tried not to laugh at Brunny back at the center when Allie had to practically shoe-horn the big girl into it. But the two girls squealed with laughter at the process, and the four boys had finally let go. Allie stuffed Brunny's left leg into the front seat and made a major production of trying to get the door closed. Now the two were going through a similar bit with Allison yanking on poor Brunny's arm. The heavy girl finally fell out of the car, and Allison collapsed on top of her and they laughed.

"God, I thought my old Cavalier was small," Marc giggled.

"A Cavalier is a Cadillac compared to this piece of crap," Allison returned. "My Dad calls it an Asian Edsel. It comes with a ten-year warranty, but the towing charges are higher than the car loan and the insurance combined." She squinted her eyes at Marc. "How's that rust bucket of yours doing?"

Marc shrugged. "I passed inspection after I got the exhaust fixed, but now the brakes are making some noises. One of the guys at work said I better get it to the shop... fast. I'm having `em checked tomorrow." He shook his head. "Hope it's not gonna be too pricey. I just dropped a bundle having it fixed."

The six were walking across the lot. "Hey, at least you got something," Alan tossed in. "I have to borrow my sister's car until I get something of my own."

"Hey, at least you got something you can borrow," Marc shot back with a grim face. "I lose that car, I can't get to work. I can't get to work, I don't have a place to live."

Drew looked up eagerly to speak when Marc caught his eye. "Don't even think it, Drew. We talked about that stuff."

Allison caught the look and the tone, and looked up at Marc.

"Drew's a check-grabber," Marc explained. "He likes to spend money."

Allison smiled and slinked her arm into Drew's, and looked up at him coyly. "Okay, Brunny, order up big tonight. The grubs' on Beer Can tonight." She linked her other arm into Martin's. "You, too, Munchkin. You're way too skinny, and even if Marc doesn't know how to use a Sugar Daddy, I sure as hell do." She wiggled her nose at Drew. "I used to go out with guys, remember? And Melissa always said you were an easy mark."

Drew looked up with a small smile, trying to feel an ease he still didn't feel with Alan nearby. "Hey - watch it with the `easy Marc' stuff, okay?"

Marc just smiled with his head leaned back at a cocky angle, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his leather coat, and didn't even glance at Drew's way. "Careful, Beer Can. Marc ain't always that easy."

Drew was exasperated. "And will you guys lay off this `Beer Can' shit? C'mon - you promised!"

"We'll be good inside," Allison chirped. "The teasing is just between us. And that's all it is, Studly. Teasing."

"Yeah, I believe that, too," Drew grumbled, and pulled open the door to Tony's and they stepped into what passed as the reception area.

Anthony Bernardinangelo opened his first sandwich shop in downtown Lawrence in the mid-fifties, and it thrived. His veal cutlets quickly became a legend in the area, and his spicy, curled fries were considered a delicacy. In the sixties, after his third robbery in a month, Anthony took a long, careful look at his location and how it had changed. The old Italian families were moving out of their tenements and into single-family houses that sprang up on Lawrence's south side, and in the old farm town of Methuen. A tight neighborhood had changed as the slumlords snapped up the well-kept triple-deckers and commercial properties. He noted that as the neighborhood declined, so did his business. The people with nice cars and the extra money for a sandwich that was pricier than the fare at the new fast-food places that had sprung up were starting to stay away from the place where parking was dear and crime rates were high.

He needed a new shop. He had some property along the Merrimack River and built a small diner just off the then-under construction I 93. His business picked up again and he started to see his family trade return. He added a fair size dining room, and extended an apron out over his picnic tables. Business was still good enough to warrant an addition to the dining room to keep their three-season business going year-round. Anthony and his sons looked at the cost, and found the solution: they hung metal-and-glass curtain walls from the apron that covered their picnic tables, but saved the cost of pouring a new concrete floor and built right over the tar. The air leaks were terrible, even with the two monstrous gas hot-air blowers blasting. But Tony, his two sons and his daughter reasoned that gas was still cheaper than a new excavation and left it that way. They kept the old picnic tables, too, and covered them with red and white oil cloth. His customers laughed about how tacky the place looked, but they still flooded his sandwich shop/restaurant.

Soaring gas prices forced the grandchildren who operated the restaurant in the late seventies and early eighties to reconsider their parents' and grandfather's business decision. But when they analyzed the cost of reconstruction and the new tax levies brought about by improvement, their solution was to close down in December and re-open the last week of February while they vacationed in Florida, Mexico, or wherever they wanted. The Bernardinangelos worked hard, but they lived very well in their fine, upscale suburban homes. And each year they reopened their doors to a hungry hoard of customers who arrived for their cutlets and curly fries - business men in suits next to the informed trade contractors and truck drivers for lunch, hoards of high school students in the afternoons, and families in the evenings. Later in the evenings, the crowd gave way to the young adults winding up a movie date; Tony's stayed open until 1AM, even without a liquor license. Life, reasoned the Bernardinangelos, was good; and in the late Grandpa Tony's words, "Don't fuck wit' the goose what lays the golden eggs."

Barbara Bernardinangelo Kelley swept in from out of nowhere, dressed in her white uniform and red apron, holding the big plastic-covered menus and bound by stitched red faux-leather covers that were likely as old as the diner itself. She was about Alan's height and maybe Martin's weight. Her hair was an almost dark brown that glowed with a touch of purple under the fluorescent lighting. She had a bulbous nose and revealed her usual smile, showing rows of perfectly-white, perfectly-straight teeth that her dentist swore looked perfectly real.

"Whoa - look at you four!" She bellowed in a voice twice her size, looking over the group, and eyeing the four boys. "I better tell the guys out back to turn off the heat in here, `cuz you four are gonna scorch the room!" She turned to the girls. "You girls sure know how to find the hotties. Wish I had your luck at your age... or maybe I did, and I just can't remember that far back. Six, right? I got a big table by the inside wall. View ain't much, but you won't freeze your tails off like over at the windows."

Barbara charged off down the aisle, letting the six wind through the tables behind her, and laid the six menus out on the table. She raised an eyebrow when she noticed how they seated themselves - the two girls on one side, the two larger boys on the other, and didn't miss that the boys sat a little closer together than they should. The remaining two boys sat on the extra chairs she'd pulled over from the side at the head and foot of the table. "Oh. I get it," she said with a smile. "So, you kids know what you want, or do you wanna stare at the menus for awhile?"

The ordering was quick and merciful, and Drew looked at Martin and told him not to worry about what he wanted. Martin protested that he had cash, but Drew was firm. "I told you I'd take care of it this time. You didn't expect this, so I'll treat. You guys gonna be okay?" he said, looking around. No one spoke up, and Martin smiled happily. He had a ten-dollar bill on him, expecting to play games with Ryan and maybe have a few sodas. He hadn't expected to go out for food, and the ten bucks was all the money he had for the week.

"I'll pay you back," the boy said quietly.

Drew shook his head. "No reason, Mart - I owed you one. If it wasn't for you, Marc and I wouldn't have gotten together last week. I'm gettin' off cheap on that debt," he said with a smile.

Allison rolled her eyes. "Soooo sweet!" she said in a high-pitched voice and stuck a finger in her mouth and gagged, enjoying the blush on Drew's face. "God, you're easy!" she complained.

"She's die if she knew just how easy," Marc said under his breath, and Drew's body quivered with a stifled laugh.

Martin relayed the story of `Drew to the Rescue,' and embellished it just enough for Drew to blush. The girls knew a crush when they saw one, thought it was funny and made no remarks, for which Drew was eternally grateful. Marc's leg rubbed against his, and Drew relaxed. Even Alan had a thin smile on his usually non-committed face and glanced around the room. He froze when he saw the door open.

"Oh, shit," he half-whispered, and eyed Drew, gesturing with his jaw. Drew looked around just in time to see Kevin Spivett step through the door. Matters got worse when he didn't see him with Shaun... but with Melissa.

Allison turned. "Oh, God. She's the last person I ever expected to see here."

"Tell me about it," Drew grumbled. "I suggested coming here once and she pitched a fit about how I wanted her to eat at a trough." Drew looked at Allison uneasily. "Did you mean it when you said she was your cousin?"

Allison shook her head. "No, I said that to get a rise out of you. I knew her in junior high - and we weren't exactly friends, let me put it that way. I knew Kevin, too... he thought he was a big deal because his father's a state rep. I've seen you and Melissa out a few times; I just didn't know your name. I really was surprised when I saw you at the Center last time."

Drew made a face. "I didn't even know you were there last time."

Brunny snorted. "That's `cuz you an' Marc didn't have eyes for anyone else but each other after you met. Hell, half the kids there went down to the game room to watch you two in that mating dance of yours. We thought you were gonna toss each other on the pool table and go at it."

Marc and Drew blushed equally.

"And about me teachin' her how to be a bitch? That was a lie. I had to learn how. With Melissa, it's a natural talent - kinda like the way she knows how to slither."

Alan nodded. "Then that makes her a perfect fit for Kevin Spivett, `cuz he's a natural born dick. I wonder where Shaun is?"

"Prob'ly looking for his asshole... he just doesn't know Melissa has it," Drew threw in.

Barbara swept back to the table, toting a tray almost as big as she was tall, loaded with drinks and food, which she scattered amongst them without a single mistake as to who got what. "Here ya go, kids. Just gimme a yell if you need anything else, okay? You get a free refill each on the sodas," she added conspiratorially.

She whooshed by a cart near the kitchen, dropped her tray and grabbed another load of menus and headed for the door and the newly-arrived couple standing there. Alan didn't miss the frown on Barbara's face when she saw who it was. There was no smile when she greeted the new customers. He saw her gesture sharply to the window tables at the front, but Kevin had seen the group in the back and pointed. Barbara shook her head. They heard Kevin's voice. "I'll sit wherever the fuck I want," he said loudly, and strode to the back, Melissa in tow.

"That's the guy me an' Drew got in a jam with at school this week," Alan quickly explained to Marc. "And that's Drew's old girlfriend with him. Perfect timing."

Marc groaned. Drew shook his head and leaned his chin into his open hands. He sighed and looked over to Brunny and Allison. "Get ready for a storm," he said quietly.

Kevin's sneer spoke volumes even before his jaw started to move. "Hey - look, 'Lissa, honey," he said sarcastically, his arm suddenly snaking around his new girlfriend's waist. Melissa practically melted into him, even if her eyes were focused on Drew. "Looks like the two boyfriends are on a date," he said, nodding towards the table. "Or maybe they're gonna have a four-way with the other two?" He looked at Brunny and Allison and shrugged. "I just can't figure out what the dike an' the hippo are for."

Drew felt the anger building up and he began to rise but Marc reached over and took his arm. Brunny's voice cut across the table. "Do I even know you?"

Kevin looked her up and down. "Christ, I hope not."

"I feel the same way, so why don't you drag your sorry ass out of here?"

"Leave her alone, Kevin," Alan broke in, bored and irritated. "It's me you don't like, remember? Leave those two out of it - and Marc, Drew and Mart over there, too. Say what you gotta say to me, make yourself a big man, and kiss off."

Kevin stepped back, momentarily confused. He wasn't sure how to handle Alan talking back to him twice in the same week, but having Melissa next to him forced him to take measures even he might have reconsidered had he been on his own. He'd made a point of going for Melissa after the fight with Alan and Drew. Melissa knew about the fight outside the school just like everyone else, and encouraged Kevin, even if she didn't much care about him.

"Okay," Barbara broke in with a loud voice. She stood with her hands on her hips and the same frown her father once had when he prepared to pick up a trouble-maker and launch him through the door. She was half her father's size, but she'd never lacked the older man's iron will. "That's it with you. These kids was just having their meal and behavin' themselves `til you two walked in. I want you both out of here, now." She thumbed towards the front door.

Kevin snorted derisively. "Yeah, right, lady. Gimme any of your shit and I'll see the health department inspectors down here in five minutes."

Barbara raised an eyebrow. She'd worked in her family's restaurant for as long as she could remember, and wasn't upset by someone like Kevin in the least. She's learned at an early age from her grandfather that no one's business was worth taking serious crap about. Small complaints about bills or even the food were one thing; belligerence and threats were another. She'd faced off everyone from drunks to cops, to cocky punks and politicians who thought they could push a Bernardinangelo around, and then found they couldn't.

"I know the inspector real well, kid," she said sweetly. "And I'll make him the same meal he has here every Thursday, and has for the last fifteen years. I know who you are, sweetie. I know who your father is, too... and how he comes around here every couple years asking for a donation to his campaign we've always been happy to give him, and the rental of that billboard at the end of our driveway he always wants from August through November. He might get a little shaken up this year when he comes around and finds out he can't have either. He especially might not be too happy to find out why." She folded her arms defiantly. "Now get the hell out."

Kevin stood there glaring, his upper lip curled. His eyes shifted to Drew and Alan, then back to Melissa. He was outflanked, knew it, and there was no out for him with any dignity. "Why would I wanna stay in a place with a buncha homos, anyway? That includes you two carpet munchers," he spat at the girls. He began to make his way back down the aisle.

Allison stood, picking up a yellow squeeze bottle of mustard, aimed it at Kevin's eyes and squeezed as hard as she could with both hands. "I know you'd rather this was something warmer and whiter, Kevin," she called, "and pink an' fleshy instead of yellow an' plastic, but it'll have to do!"

Kevin yelped and clawed at his eyes, but still lunged for Allison. Melissa moved in, swinging her bag at the girl, but Brunny moved quickly enough to hip-check the girl into another picnic table.

But Kevin wasn't through. Temporarily blinded, he swung wildly and caught Allison in the jaw, sending her over. Drew and Marc tried to jump up and help, but they were hindered by the stationary benches of the table.

Alan didn't have any bench, so he climbed over the table and dived right on top of Kevin and started pounding, fists balled together, the same way Shawn attacked Drew the Monday before. Their food flew in all directions and Barbara was screaming two names. Two bigger, younger men came out of the back.

"Get that one out of here!" she roared, pointing to Kevin. "No, not the little guy, he's okay. The other one. Toss that little bastard out, and he's never allowed in here again, got that? The girl, too! She don't leave, pick her up and throw her out! I don't care if the door's open or not."

Kevin spluttered and cursed, and neither of the burly men did much to protect his head as they carried and dragged him across the restaurant. He yelped when his forehead banged into the edge of a nearby countertop.

Melissa looked scared, but leveled her hate-filled eyes, first on Alan, then Drew, and then back to Alan. "I don't get you. You sit here with the guy that outed you to the whole fuckin' school, and you defend him and his friends. Are you that desperate?"

She picked up her bag and hat, running for the door before anyone could touch or speak to her.

Everyone was silent. Marc froze, brushing the food and sauce from Alan's clothes. Then he snapped around to Drew, who stood with open mouth and terrified eyes. Brunny and Allison watched them both. Martin didn't know what was going on but knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

Barbara's voice filled in the silence, oblivious to what had just been said. "Usually when people brawl, I toss everyone, but you kids weren't doin' anything except trying to have your meal. Tell you what, let's get this mess cleared and I'll have everything..."

Marc shook his head. "Don't bother with mine, ma'am. I don't think I'll be staying," he said, easing Alan down on the bench and standing up, staring into Drew's eyes, his face ashen.

Allison bit her lip. "Yeah, I think we'll all be going. We'll help you clean up the mess and..." Her voice trailed off.

Barbara shook her head. "That's okay, kids. I understand," she said in a quiet voice. "I got the boys to help me clean up. You kids just go about and have your fun. But next time you get hungry, I want you all in here, and it's on Tony's - you got that? We only care about nice people here, not..." She made a dismissive gesture towards the front door. "We only care about our nice customers," she said, then turned and bellowed for the two kitchen men, who had seen Kevin to his car and stood there while Melissa gunned it out of the parking lot, squealing the tires.

The group shuffled for the door in stone silence. Marc and Martin flanked Alan. The two girls walked behind Drew, who was alone in the middle. They cleared the front doors and were midway across the parking lot when Marc took Alan gently by the shoulders and turned him to face him.

"Was it true - what she said about you an' Drew? Was it true?"

Alan's face struggled, but he relaxed and found his voice. He looked at Drew who stood by himself. Martin looked at each of their faces, confused.

Alan tore his eyes away from Drew and shook his head, trying to smile. "No, Marc. She was full of it, just blowin' steam to..."

"Yes," Drew interrupted, in a low voice. "It's all true, Marc - everything she said. Alan's lying, because he said if you ever found out, it wouldn't be from him. And Alan's not like me. He's a lot tougher and a lot stronger, and a whole lot braver and more honest." He swallowed hard. "He also knows what it means to live up to his word. I don't."

Marc pressed his lips together firmly, and his nostrils flared with quiet anger. Part of Drew wanted to look away, but instead he looked into Marc's eyes. It hurt. He'd never seen such contempt before.

Frozen hours passed in brief seconds, and Marc finally looked away from Drew to Alan. "Could you give me a ride, Alan? I don't have my car tonight."

"Babe, please - " Drew started.

Marc wouldn't turn to look. "Don't talk to me right now. Okay? You're not who I thought you were." He spoke to Alan again. "Listen, I know we don't really know each other, and I hate to ask for a favor, but I really could use a ride."

Alan looked embarrassed and uncertain. He looked at Marc and Drew, saw the misery on both their faces. "It's no problem, Marc."

Drew watched them walk away. "You were right, Alan," he spoke softly after the two people that seemed to be vanishing from his life got out of earshot. "It should've come from me. The result would have been the same, but at least I'd have felt better for having the guts to be honest, rather than look like a coward and a liar."

He stood and watched them get into Alan's Escort, then watched as they drove away. He saw Alan look back, but Marc's head never turned.

Drew turned to a frightened Allison, and Brunny turned away. Martin was still staring at Drew. He gestured towards the younger boy. "Could you guys drive Martin home? I really feel like being alone right now."

"But I wanna go with Drew!" Martin protested. "What's goin' on? How come Marc's so pissed?"

"Shaddap, Munchkin," Brunny said gently, and slapped the boy on his shoulder. She motioned with her head to the car.

"Yeah... it's no problem, Drew. We understand," Allison said. She was embarrassed for him to be there, and walked away.

Drew walked over to his own car, killed the alarm and sat in the front seat, the keys in his hand. He felt cold tears running down his cheeks first, then the spasms silently wracked his body as he fought to keep it in.

Twenty minutes later, he started the car and drove away. He drove aimlessly for hours, until he decided he had to go home.

* * * * *

Drew backed into his slot in the driveway and looked over the house with a sigh. The spotlight was off - nothing new there. But so was the side door light, which meant his grandmother had waited up, decided he was over curfew, and again decided to play rough. If she's sittin' with that damn light in her lap again, he thought, at least I'll be ready this time. That'd be too predictable, though - and it's not as cold as it was that time, either. Hmm...

An idea came to him and he fished under the seat for something, found it, and pulled out a flashlight. He tested it, and, satisfied with the results, got out of the car and locked the door. He trained the light on the walkway and in spite of his mood felt some small satisfaction. Nanny had left a few `surprises' scattered on the path - not enough to cause him any damage, but enough to set him stumbling around in the darkness, and probably into the remnants of one of the snow piles or the row of shrubs. She'd pulled the same stunt a time or two the previous summer and fall, but had stopped when the winter set in - hence, the flashlight. He felt vindicated, and stepped around the barriers, enjoying his one victory of the night. His hand found the light switch and he flicked it on, blinking in the sudden burst of light. Good, he thought. The old bat's not all that pissed, then. Besides, I'm only a half-hour over... and I'm hungry, too, dammit.

Finally focusing again, he quickly scanned the room for any other little booby-traps and sighed with relief when he didn't see anything. He rubbed his eyes, still red and sore from the tears. He rummaged through one of the drawers near the back door of the house and came up with his spare contact case and a bottle of eyewash. He glanced up and peeled off first the left and then the right, careful to put them in the right container. He'd mixed them before, and had since learned to pay attention. A glimmer of gold caught his eye, and with a rueful look he found his the pair of glasses that seemed to disappear two weeks a ago. Still rubbing his eyes, he turned off the bright overhead light, leaving only the small spots under the counter. The room was left in a pale, comfortable light, and Drew felt more relaxed in the quieter glow. Somehow the shadows felt right.

An angry growl from his stomach reminded him he hadn't eaten in over eight hours. He rummaged through the fridge, found an aluminum foil-covered bowl and peeled back the top for a quick sniff. Wrinkling his nose he smoothed the foil back over and slipped the bowl back to the recesses of the bottom shelf. Eventually he came up with a small package of sliced turkey and grabbed the jar of mayonnaise. Nanny shopped on Mondays if she had a choice; she never went to the store from Thursday on if she could help it. Supplies were running low - if all you were looking for was snack food. The freezer would be stuffed with meats and frozen vegetables. Down below was a different matter.

Drew threw together a quick sandwich and poured himself a glass of milk. He was just sitting down to eat when he heard a noise behind him. He spoke without looking back. "Yeah, yeah, Nan. I know I'm late, and yes, I'll clean up my mess."

"You're not all that late," his father's voice said, and Drew turned with a start to see his father re-opening the package of sliced turkey he'd left on the counter. "I heard you pull up. I pretty much expect your grandmother left you a few gifts out there, but you seem to be in one piece. I heard her out there movin' some stuff awhile ago."

Drew chewed his mouthful of sandwich thoughtfully, then swallowed hard. "She's slipping. She's pulled that one often enough, I know how to be careful."

"If you got home on time, you wouldn't have any problems," Andy McKinnon replied, pulling up in a chair next to his son. He took a smaller and more manageable bite out of his snack than his son had. Drew studied his plate. Andy studied his son. They hadn't spoken much for the last week.

"I take it you went to the Center tonight?" Andy tried, hoping for a little conversation.

Drew swallowed, took a quick swig of his drink, and answered as succinctly as he could. "Yup."

Andy waited for more and of course didn't get it. He toyed with his sandwich and finally put it back on his plate. Drew crammed the last of his sandwich in his mouth, then eyed his father's meal.

"You gonna eat that?"

Andy grimaced, shook his head, and slid the plate halfway over. Drew smiled and grabbed the sandwich and began to gnaw on it happily, trying to ignore his troubles.

"I guess Marc went with you?"

Drew nodded. "Martin did, too," he said with a full mouth.

Andy's forehead wrinkled. "Who the hell is Martin?"

Drew swallowed the last of the sandwich and slugged down his glass of milk, then got up for a refill. "You remember - that kid we gave a lift to? I saw him last week. I told him I'd drive him up if he wanted tonight. I didn't like the idea of his walkin' up the breakdown lane of I-93 in the dark." He sat down again, this time sipping from his glass. "I saw Alan tonight, too," he offered tentatively. "He went out with us after." Drew waited for his father's reaction.

Andy nodded. "I haven't seen Alan for a long time. How's he doin'?"

Drew chose his words carefully. "He's okay. You don't seem surprised I ran into him there."

Andy shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not. He's how I knew about the group in the first place."

Drew fought not to freeze up again, to stay calm. Jesus Christ. How much does he know?

Andy looked down and folded his hands, let out a low sigh. "Alan talks to your grandmother all the time, Drew," he said in cool voice. "To him, she's still `Nanny' - just as much his grandmother and she is yours... probably always will be. That goes for her, too. Maybe you dumped him, but she never would." He shot Drew a hard look. "And neither will I. If there was ever a kid that needed help and friendship, it was him. Anyway, when I'm here, she passes me the phone for a little bit."

Drew was uncomfortable, and just the way he shifted in his chair told his father there was something he was hiding. "So... what happened?" he asked. "I mean, did he just come out and tell you he was... you know - gay?"

Andy shook his head. "I knew that a long time ago... just like I knew about you. Just like I knew about what you boys were doing in that cellar over there... Alan's cellar."

Drew looked up sharply, and what color he had drained from his face, but Andy went on. "I got home early one afternoon and I was looking for you. You guys weren't here so I walked over. I figured you were out back or something... and I saw the cellar light on and looked in. I saw what you were doin' with him." He looked directly at Drew and caught his eye until the boy turned away, embarrassed. "I saw what you were doin' to him, Drew."

Drew looked down, grimaced, and leaned back in his chair, head still down.

The older man continued. "I'm not gonna make a big deal about it. At the time... at the time, I just told myself it was just a stage - the two of you experimenting. I know some boys do when they're young. I didn't, but there were other reasons for that... reasons I'm not gonna get into right now. Someday maybe, but not right now."

Andy drew his terry robe closer around him for warmth and shuffled his feet, crossing them under the chair. This was an area he'd never entered before, one he didn't relish. "I don't know which one of you started it," he said quietly. "I didn't care then and I don't care now. And to be honest, I didn't even know how to bring it up." He looked off to the left, then sighed. "It's still hard for me to deal with. That's part of the reason why I was... well, such an asshole about Marc. It just goes against everything in me. I always thought that was what caused the rift between you and Alan, too - like maybe you wanted to stop and..." He made a vague gesture. "Well, then you started dating girls, so I figured it was done. And I was relieved - for awhile, anyway."

He looked over to his son who still stared down, and reached across, his fingers under the boy's chin, bringing Drew's head up. "That doesn't mean I think less of you Drew. The one thing on this earth I want is for my only son to be happy in his life. That's why I checked out that group up there and talked to Rob Elger and made you go to that thing after I walked in on you in your room." A small laugh rattled in his throat. "You remember, the night I walked in on you and - whoever the hell that was on the monitor. The only thing I meant to do was give you a chewin' out for being late again. But... well, there's no sense in going over it - we both know what I saw.

"And," he continued, "as uncomfortable as I was with the subject, I wanted what was best for you, so... I made you go. Part of me was hoping you'd move on from it, but even if you felt you belonged I intended to stand with you. I'm not ashamed of you, Drew... just - well, I just don't understand it, is all." He watched Drew's face, saw the small smile of understanding working its way in. "And, uh... if you were to bring Marc back here sometime soon, I'll... I'll give him a second chance." He shrugged. "I mean, if he's willing to give me a second chance, too. And I'll apologize for - well..."

"Bein' an asshole?" Drew put in, no more than half-joking. His father frowned. "Hey, your words, not mine," the boy quickly added.

Andy shrugged, accepting the humor. He leaned back in resignation, his hands behind his head. "What can I expect? Having a smart-mouth is in the genes, I guess. We both get it from my mother. And don't tell her I said that." Both of them chuckled, and the tension thinned.

Drew thought back to the previous events of the day, then sighed. "Listen, Dad. I don't think Marc'll be a problem. He doesn't want to see me anymore."

He waited for some reaction from his father, but the older man just sat and nodded, partly in relief. Drew expected questions, but Andy respected his privacy in this. Drew would tell what Drew felt needed telling.

The boy felt himself truly relaxing more than he had for the entire evening. Still, he couldn't help but feel surprised by his father's revelations. It seemed odd that both his father and his grandmother could keep contact with someone who was outside the family; that they knew his secrets, and still kept him as one of their own. Other questions bothered Drew, too - like his father knowing about what went on between the two boys almost three years before, and yet never said anything about it. Or that Alan could talk casually about his being gay with his father and grandmother.

"How did it come up?" Drew asked quietly. "I mean, Alan telling you guys - did you ask him?"

Andy shook his head. "No, nothing like that. It goes back to the last night Alan was with his father."

Drew perked up. "I was at camp, and when I came back he was gone. Neither of you would ever tell me what happened."

Andy nodded. "I know. That was your last summer on Prince Edward Island. You were fifteen, and we figured you'd be pretty bored with it after that. At least, it's what you told us."

Drew shrugged. "Well, yeah... and the next summer is when I started working for you. I mean, I really did miss the camp, but I liked working the jobs more. But what happened? The only time I asked Nan, she said it was Alan's story to tell."

Andy nodded, frowning. "It is. You know how your grandmother felt after you dropped him as a friend. God, she was mad at you, and the reason you gave... telling her that it just wasn't cool being known as Alan's friend because he was a geek. The kid wasn't a geek. He just didn't know how to act with other people, and some of that's your fault. You're the one that always pushed his way in whenever Alan walked into trouble. He was completely dependent on you, and he didn't know how to handle anything by himself." He looked up at Drew. "That's something you have to watch in yourself. You like to control people and make decisions for them, then you get all bent out of shape when they tell you to back off."

Andy settled back in his chair. He needed something to do with his hands, but there was nothing there. He rapped his knuckles on the tabletop three times and then got up and crossed the room, pulling open what was known as the "butt drawer," where the old woman kept her cartons of cigarettes. He pulled a package out and grabbed one of the extra Bic lighters that were always there, waiting. He tore the pack open and sparked the flame, inhaling deeply.

Drew sat with his hands folded, following his father with his eyes. "I haven't seen you do that since I was ten."

His father exhaled a heavy cloud of blue-gray smoke and coughed slightly. "And if we're both lucky, you won't see me doing this again after tonight." His face was grim. "I don't like talkin' about that night. And Alan didn't want your grandmother or me telling you this. He never said why. I'll probably regret this, but I'll tell you what happened."

Drew's eyes rounded, and he leaned forward and pricked up his ears.

Andrew McKinnon took another long drag on the cigarette and sucked the smoke deep into his lungs. He looked down at the slim, white cylinder in his hand. "You know what sucks about these things? Bad as they are for you, vile as they may taste, once you've had `em, you never really stop wantin' one - especially when you're dealin' with something that upsets you." He ground the cigarette out in an ashtray and leaned back with a sigh, but his fingers were already dancing on top of the fresh pack.

Andy stared off, not seeing a wall, but the past. "It was a week after you left for camp. Your grandmother was in bed, even if it wasn't that late, maybe nine o'clock. It'd been quiet over there for about an hour, but we'd heard Rob screaming at Alan earlier - louder than we ever heard him yell. But it was quiet over there for a long time and we hoped it was over. Then... we heard this sound." He shuddered, and even his voice shook. "God, what an awful sound... and it was coming from the Curran house. It was like nothin' I ever heard before, Your grandmother called it a `keening'." He snapped his head back to Drew. "You ever hear that word before? Do you know what it means?"

Drew nodded. "I've heard in English class. I guess it's... a kinda cry for help."

Andy shook his head, and pressed his lips. "No, it's nothing that clean, that simple. Your grandmother picked the word because it has a real meaning - and it's the truest word I ever heard that could describe what we heard." He turned and looked into his son's eyes, and Drew felt a chill in the fear he saw there. "A `keening' is the sound a creature makes when it knows there's no help, no end to its misery, no end to its pain. It's when something gives up completely, and just cries out for release... to let it get away from its own misery, because it has nothing left in the way of hope. Nothing."

Andy's body shuddered again, and Drew swore he could see the tears at the edges of the man's eyes. "If you're lucky, you'll never hear a sound like that in your life. It's gotta be the most horrible thing you can imagine. It just makes it worse when you know it's coming from a human's throat... because we both knew it was Alan."

The cigarette came to his mouth without his having to look, and the lighter flared again and caught. Andy paused while he took another deep drag of the acrid smoke.

"We stopped long enough to look at each other and we just ran over there. I swore if I saw Robert Curran hitting that kid, I was going to pound him into the ground. No living thing makes a sound like that without a reason. But when we got there, the bastard was gone. I saw Alan slumped on the ground near the car, holding his hand, his head just hanging off to the side. Blood all over his hand. Turns out Curran kicked the door on it - twice. That's why his fingers don't work very well on his right hand anymore; the bones were almost pulverized," he said, and took another deep drag.

"I didn't know that yet, but I saw the blood and that was enough. I pounded on the door and screamed for the son-of-a-bitch to come out. I was going to settle it myself this time - no cops, no social services. I'd filed enough abuse complaints against him and threatened him over and over again through the years, but that night I just wanted to murder him. If he'd gotten close enough to me, I probably would have. He hung out the second floor window, drunk, and laughed at me... laughed at Alan. He said the kid got what all - well, what all people like him should get. And somehow or other, he found out about Alan."

Andy McKinnon paused, his hands shaking, staring down at the table, fidgeting with the cigarette, inhaling again slowly this time. Drew sat back, his eyes wide. He'd never heard any of this...

Andy collected himself and continued. "That's why the kid was there like he was. I tried everything to get the worthless bastard to come down when your grandmother called me and showed me her hands... she'd tried picking Alan up because he was nothing more than dead weight. Her hands were covered with blood. I rolled him over and... God, there was so much blood..." he said, his voice cracking, his eyes tearing. "I just grabbed the kid up and pushed him into my truck and your Nan held onto him all the way to the General. He never made another sound all the way there - he was probably in shock. Inside, the emergency nurse took one look at him and immediately called the police and children's services. She told us we couldn't leave and made two orderlies guard us - they thought we were responsible! Shit, I was standing in my underwear, for God's sake, and I was covered with the kid's blood! Your grandmother was in an old robe!"

Drew stared at his father, open-mouthed. "They thought it was you? That you'd beaten him?"

Andy tightened his jaw. "He wasn't just beaten, Drew. He was whipped. They said it had to be with an appliance cord to make marks like that. That's why there was so much blood. A beating is bruise, but the cord slices into the skin like a razor."

Drew felt the ice in his veins, and swallowed hard; his dry mouth opened, but no sound came out.

Andy stared at the table as he continued the story in a low, steady voice. "We finally caught some luck. One of the nurses recognized Alan. He was one of those faces that turn up too often in the emergency room, you know? She knew him. She knew Nan, too, because she'd taken him there often enough. They'd even argued because she wasn't a relative, and Nan couldn't authorize treatment... until your grandmother explained to her that the only parent Alan had was the one responsible for his condition.

"The nurse took the duty nurse aside and explained things to her. Then we got together. Your grandmother didn't want the police involved - not just yet. One of the orderlies said he had a camera in his locker and we sent him for it. They photographed Alan - his hand and his back, with and without the shirt - and we collected some fragments of the shirt, too, just in case the police lost the evidence again. They photographed the copies of the medical reports and the report they prepared for the police. Robert Curran was too connected after twenty-five years in the Attorney General's office. He could - and did - manage to get reports and evidence buried before.

"Then we contacted Elger. He's the one who had Alan placed in foster care before. Curran made some phone calls and had him transferred to the worst areas of Boston after he got Alan back the last time - all he had to do was make a few calls to do it. But Elger isn't just a bureaucrat putting in his time. He always told us to get in touch with him if something else happened; he still had all his notes and private files on Alan's case. Then, after calling half the Curran's in the phone book, your grandmother came up with Lee - Alan's sister Eileen. Your Nan knew her, of course. I mean, Lee grew up in that house, and Phyllis Curran was Ma's best friend. But she just didn't know exactly where Lee lived anymore.

"Between all of them, they fixed it so Alan was out of there. We blackmailed him - Robert Curran, I mean. I wanted him prosecuted, but Elger said the guy was too political to touch, that everything would just get buried again. He said he'd have it handled as a simple custody case. As long as Alan was out of there - that was the important thing. Then he made your grandmother and me swear we'd hide the negatives of the pictures we took, and keep the shirt fragments if we ever did have to go to court. But there never was a court date. Curran knew he'd finally gone too far, and he had no way out. He didn't want to risk his pension, I guess." The older man smiled grimly and shook his head, then took another long drag on his cigarette. "He surrendered custody to Eileen and agreed to child support. The bastard didn't have the balls to face us in a court room. And I've never made a secret that I still have those damn pictures of a fourteen year-old boy reduced to a bloody mess."

Andy looked up, and Drew could see the anger in his father, an anger more intense than anything he'd ever seen. The man's hands flexed and twitched. Finally he picked up the glass ash tray and threw it against a wall as hard as he could. It shattered, and a chunk of old plaster fell to the floor with the shards of glass. "Every time I think of that night, I have to do something like that. God, I wanted to get my hands on that bastard so bad."

Drew sat, shaking and shaken, staring at the broken pieces of glass on the floor. "I never knew," he half-whispered. "He was just gone when I came home..."

"Like I said," Andy broke in. "One of the things Alan asked us was never to tell you about it. I shouldn't be tellin' you now. He wouldn't say why - he just didn't want you to know."

Drew looked up. "Just because his father heard that Alan was..." he faltered.

Andy shook his head. "There's more to it than that. It's not like he just woke up one morning and decided he hated Alan because of that." He went to flick his ashes and remembered the ashtray in pieces on the floor. Drew slid his plate across the table and Andy used that.

"Bob Curran was never exactly what you'd call a liberal," he explained, "even if this state's been electing exactly that for Governor and Attorney General for over twenty years. He's a career bureaucrat, and just because he enforces legislation doesn't mean he has to believe in it. Bob never believed in a lot of things it was his job to prosecute - and gay rights laws are right up there, but it's deeper than that. He hates Alan because he holds him responsible for Phyllis' death." Andy paused, and looked quizzically at Drew. "Do you remember Phyllis?"

Drew shook his head. "I just remember Alan's mother being there, then she wasn't. I can't really see a face or anything."

The cigarette was ground out in the plate, and without waiting for the embers to die Andy pulled another out of the pack and lit it. "Phyllis was a little too old to have a child - in her forties, which happens often enough, but that wasn't all of it. She had health problems, too, and that's why there was such a gap between Eileen and Alan. I know the doctors advised her not to have any more children; she told your grandmother that once. I don't know everything about it, but I do know the Currans considered abortion early on... but Phyllis finally refused and accepted the risks."

He looked wryly and Drew and tried to smile. "She's wasn't like you and me - she's wasn't a Catholic by accident. She couldn't accept that saving her life and giving up her child wasn't a sin... and more than that. She carried Alan to term, and even survived beyond that, which surprised the doctors. But she never bounced back completely, and it was just a matter of time. When she did finally die about four years later, Bob was devastated. Then he was just plain angry... and he channeled all that anger at Alan. He always drank a little too much but he was never that bad, he never flew into rages or anything. I can't even remember him saying anything that was even mean. But once Phyllis was gone, he just caved in. He used to be cold to Alan, but after that, he hated him. I think every time he saw Alan, he saw Phyllis in her coffin, and your grandmother always said that without her, there was no way to find any good in that man, because he didn't know where to find it himself. Finding out what he did about his son was just one more reason for Bob to hate him. It just happened to be the thing that sent him over the edge."

Andy squinted up at the clock on the wall. "It's late, and I'm tired, and there isn't much to tell that you don't already know." He smiled at Drew, ground out the cigarette and pushed the pack aside. "Hope I can do that tomorrow with those damn butts." He stood up and walked slowly to the door, then paused and turned.

"Listen, son, I just want you to know something, okay? If you and this Marc patch it up, I..." He hesitated for a moment, then continued. "I really will try. And if you two don't, well... if you don't, if you meet someone else, I want you to know he'll be welcome here. And I won't act like I did. Okay, kid?"

Drew gave a half smile he didn't feel and nodded. Andy began to slowly rise. "God, I'm tired."

Drew looked up from the table. "There's something I've got to tell you," he said. "I... I know you're tired, and I wish it could wait: but if I do, I won't say what I've got to say," he said softly.

Andy sat down. Drew dragged his eyes up from the table, and focused them on his father's. "I'm the one. I'm the one who started those stories about Alan at school. I did it to save my own ass, because people were starting to ask questions."

Andy's face sagged, and Drew looked for anger, but only saw sadness... and disappointment.

"I'm not even gonna try and bullshit you, Dad. There's no excuse I can come up with that might sound reasonable. Just that I was a coward, and selfish, and... stupid."

Andy looked down and away, began to rise and walk slowly to the door. "Clean up the glass for me, please," he said, his voice weak. He paused at the door, and looked at his son. Drew flinched but wouldn't look away.

"I have to believe one thing... that Alan had a reason for not wanting your grandmother and I to know. I won't pretend to understand why, but I'll respect why he held back telling us what you did. He seemed to think it was important that we didn't know what you did. But I'm going to tell you this - and I mean it. I'm disappointed in you. I've been seeing a new son the last few weeks... someone who actually cared about other people. You keep that up and there's hope for you. But don't ever run out on a friend again, Drew. If you do that, I'll lose every shred of respect I have for you." He leaned against the door frame for a moment.

"And do me a favor. Don't tell your grandmother. At least, not now."

Drew nodded, and Andy left the kitchen.

Drew sat at the table, going over everything in his mind. He had a lot to do ahead of him. Somehow, he had to find a way to make things up to Alan, but there was time for that and he knew it would be slow. The hardest thing was going to be finding a way to talk to Marc. And Nanny, he added to himself.

He sighed, and eyed the package of cigarettes. Drew decided that one wouldn't hurt before he swept up the glass on the floor.

To be continued...

©2002 By Keith Mystery. All rights reserved.

This story appears at Archerland with the permission of the author; all e-mail comments happily accepted at keith_hackwriter@lycos.com .

As always, special thanks to my editor Marc for his input---and Jayne for her advice.