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The Circle

Chapter 2

Tuesday After School: Like An Open Book

I smiled behind my multi-colored scarf as I rode to the bookstore, remembering that first day with Toby last summer. Thoughts of Toby warmed and comforted me, and, as always, left me with feelings of loss and despair. The times with him were among the most dearly held of my life. The loss of him was the worst thing in my life. But six months later, I was finally beginning to feel that his loss wasn't the most important thing in my daily life.

I realized that Jeff was encroaching more and more into that part of me. We had never seen very much of each other except at school, he lived too far away. It wasn't just the distance, but the lack of methods to get there as well. A major interstate highway, four lanes in both directions, with a wide meridian between, separated us, as well as nearly five miles of other major highways and their overpasses as well. Only a few major streets passed over it all, and those were all dangerous on bike. No sidewalk, of course, but no shoulder, either. Not even a curb. And the steel guardrail was damaged continuously. More than one bike rider was smashed on each of those roads every year.

Over the years, Jeff and Todd had made it to nearly every Friday night meeting of the Circle, usually getting a ride from their mother, sometimes from Jon. Often he stayed at my house for Saturday night as well, with or without his little brother. Tom also stayed over most Saturday nights, as we had been doing at one or the other's house for years. Recently he had been doing other things Saturday nights, instead, especially if Todd didn't stay. Those weekends alone with Jeff on Saturday nights were pretty much our only times alone. If I tried to see if he was interested in anything sexual, he seemed interested, yet reluctant. And if we did do anything, he almost always left. And I ended up riding my bike instead of the bus. 

Jeff had become my out of reach apple. I knew I was well past the crush stage, and was into love territory; I just didn't know how much I did, or wanted to, love him. I was sure that I had loved Toby, and that I still did. I knew what love was, I was sure, and I was feeling it for Jeff. But Jeff wasn't gay, was Catholic, and didn't like messing around very often, or very much. It was clear there was no future with Jeff other than as friends.

Friends! I scoffed, as I turned into another alley. After two weeks ago, even that's gone. He ain't been to a Circle meeting since I made that move on him and he left. I been riding my bike to school since, and I bet he don't come to the party tonight. Fuck! I guess Jeff being my friend, let alone anything like Toby, just ain't meant for me.

I followed the alley through several blocks of houses until coming out between the old auto parts store and the La Vista restaurant on a wide, busy street with four lanes of traffic and diagonal parking on both sides. I turned right, onto the sidewalk, steering between the piles of snow and slush along the side at the alley. The bookstore was still several blocks away. There was little activity along the sidewalks that early in the afternoon, so I let go of the handlebars, leaned back, and steered by balance.

I got out of school one period earlier than most of the other students. I was two credits ahead of the required amount to pass my junior year, and in no risk of anything less than a C. I was one of about a hundred students who didn't have to take a full day of classes, so my last period of the day was eighth instead of ninth.

After eighth period I could do about anything that I wanted, even leave. Some days I went to the computer lab, some days I went to the library, and others the cafeteria. Sometimes I waited in the appropriate classroom for one or another club to meet after school; the D&D, Chess, Computer, or Gaming clubs met every week, sometimes several times, but I wasn't a regular among any of them, just an occasional visitor and sometimes unofficial member. I rarely left school for that last period. When I rode the bus, I had to wait for it, of course. When I rode my bike, I usually rode with Tom, so I waited for him to get out after ninth period. Today, though, I had told Tom that I would meet him at the bookstore.

I had three hours before I had to be home, and I intended to spend most of it at the bookstore with Tom. I didn't have to be home until after five, when my parents got home and expected me there doing stuff for the party later. It was only a few of my friends and my parents for the party, it wasn't as if we were going to decorate, so as long as I got home before them, it was all good.

I knew that my parents were planning something special for the early party on Friday, and I was sure something was being planned by my friends for the later one, but I couldn't get a bit of information from anyone about either one. Not even from Todd, the youngest of the Circle, and I was able to exert considerable pressure on the twelve year old. Just being four years older than Todd was quite a pressure itself, but I had other, more potent tools to apply. None of them caused Todd to reveal any useful information about the plans my friends had for me for the second party Friday night.

Most likely the guys wisely didn't say anything to Todd, but, still, it was fun trying to wring the information out of the boy, I remembered with a smirk. I'll just have to deal with what they've in store for me. But I swear, if they try to hook me up with some chick . . .

I let the threat die, as I had no idea what I would do if that eventuality, and indeed, quite distinct possibility, were to occur. This led to my again moping upon the fact that my usual Friday night get-together and activities with the Circle would not occur.

Usually the Circle got together each Friday for a sleepover at one or another of the guys' house for the night. Video games, movies, music, jokes, teasing, laughter, and more were the usual order to start things off, but it was what almost always happened later in the night that I was sure that we all looked forward to. It usually started after the adults were sure to be in bed, or at least very unlikely to bother us for the rest of the night. It was usually pot and porn magazines. I knew some of the group was not all that into what sometimes went on, but we were all horny teenaged boys, and horny teenaged boys will be horny teenaged boys.

Yeah, the usual Friday stuff may be on hold, but for a fucking good reason! Considering the amount of secrecy and plotting going on, it'll be well worth the loss of the Friday night stuff, I considered as I pulled up across the street from the bookstore, waiting to cross the busy street.

I heard the familiar sound of Tim Miller's van, then spotted it just as it was almost even with the bookstore across the street, it's brakes squealing as it slowed in the heavy traffic.

Man, I thought, that is a ride!

More than a few times I had dreamed of owning that van, and fantasized about Tim and various friends doing various things in the curved bed in the back. The only windows back there were the two in the rear doors that had black slotted covers over them outside, and heavy black velvet curtains inside. I loved the black and red velvet interior, the small curved bed, and the sink; it even had red, old-fashioned lantern style lights on the walls. Red velour curtains hung between the front seats and the rest of the interior. The plain black paint was dull, but it was definitely one of the neatest rides around if anyone asked me.

Tim Miller was always in trouble, and had skipped more school than he went to, and was probably going to fail senior year again. Being a major pothead, Tim Miller was no part of my circle of friends, even though he was my pot dealer. About twenty years-old, he looked the stereotypical stoner. He had slightly long brown hair, brown eyes, and was athletic. Tim had been in a few of my fantasies; but that black, Chevy G-10, "Shortie" van continued to play parts in my fantasies, even without the owner. What little pot I needed, I got from Tim. Usually with cash, sometimes with what we called credit.

I hadn't seen the van around for a couple of days, and had been wondering where Tim had been. I was going to need another baggie for the Friday party with my buddies, and I needed to get hold of him. I waved and yelled Tim's name, but there was no way he was going to hear me over the music blaring out of it. Besides, Tim was looking the other way, across the street, away from me.

Dexys Midnight Runners' are sure to be rock legends soon, I thought, wondering what great songs they would be coming out with next. It's a great song, and it's number one finally! It's going to be number one for weeks, and so will all their songs I bet. But I need Tim to see me! I need a baggie for Friday night!

Suddenly I saw Tom come out of the bookstore with a package, then disappear behind the van before I could call his name. I waited to cross the street, the traffic was too heavy to risk it. The van pulled away before I had any opportunity, and Tom was now nowhere in sight in either direction.

I was puzzled: Tom was supposed to be meeting me at the bookstore later to look over the new books that would be out on the shelves. He had no way to get to the store, and had no business missing a class, let alone the two he would miss by being there at that time.

I left school almost two hours before Tom would get out, so how did Tom got here ahead of me? And why did he leave instead of waiting for me to get here? And where did he go? Was that a present for my birthday he was carrying? The van stopped in the far lane, but that's normal on this street about all day long because of the diagonal parking on both sides. Tom would have had time to get in the van, I figure. But why would Tim be giving Tom a ride? During school?

I stood there on the city street, straddling my bike in the cold wind, wondering what I should do. I thought of just going home, since maybe the promised books were not in after all, and that was why Tom left.

But what did he leave with, then? Or, maybe Tom had pissed off the storeowner, and was told to leave? What if Tom actually stole one of the books? But then why would he be carrying a sack from the store? Why was he even here this early? And what the fuck is going on?

I stood with both feet on the sidewalk, rocking my bike front to back on its wheels, the seat brushing inside my thighs each pass, trying to decide what to do. Earlier in the day, Tom and I had reminded each other to meet there after school.

Tom should right now be sitting in eighth period, I thought, noting the time on the clock outside the bank on the corner.

"What the fuck?" I said loud enough for a passing elderly lady to throw me a bad look.

The new books had been on all our minds, and had been the most popular topic of conversation between most of us for months, ever since TSR announced the release of the updated version. Not just the Circle guys, but my friends at school, too. It was an important day, and Tom had been looking forward to it as much as I had. We both knew the only way we could afford them was to save up and share the costs. I had saved up most of the seemingly outrageous fifteen dollars for the DM's Guide, and Tom had managed to save most of the money for the Player's Manual. That would leave the Monstrous Manual that we had agreed to share the cost of in the future. There were also other books on the various classes and races that we would need to keep up with everyone else.

"What the fuck?" I asked aloud again.

I had gone as far as to skip eighth period History early, and was able to convince the teacher to not mark me absent, provided that I helped with the regular level class a couple of days next week. It meant that I would be busy for ninth period a few days, but that wasn't much to pay to get an extra hour to peek at the changes for the new version without having to do so with the other kids in the store bothering us. I should have had almost two hours to read before Tom or anyone else would have gotten there. Instead, Tom had apparently skipped two classes to get there and leave before me, and Tom was in no way ahead in his classes. In fact, Tom was in danger of a couple of Ds.

"What the fuck is going on?" I wondered again, pushing my bike ahead of me and leaping onto the pedals to take advantage in a lull in traffic to cross the street to the bookstore.

I put my bike in the rack and rushed inside. The fantasy gaming section was in the center aisle of the store, in full view of the register and anyone coming or going through the doors. That was often embarrassing, as kids who routinely made fun of the "fantasy freaks," as they called us, also came to this store to get the stuff they needed for their "real hobbies."

"Now what the hell was Tom up to in here?" I asked aloud to myself as I unwrapped the long scarf so I could inhale deeply, as I always did, of the aromas of the shop. I could not name all of the many different smells, but I could make out glues, paints, and, most importantly, freshly printed books.

I removed my fogging glasses as I took the steps to the large racks that held the books of my desire. Well before I could touch them, my eyes spotted and locked onto them easily; there, on the top row, at eye height. My hands reached out to take one of them and paused. My gloves were dirty from street slush and I didn't want to risk staining or damaging one of the books, so I used my teeth to remove the left glove and used my left hand to pull off the right glove, then I pushed them absently into my coat pocket. After rubbing my hands together, I gently took the Dungeon Masters Guide from the rack and cradled it, balanced on my left arm and hand as I softly brushed the cover with my right fingertips.

It was beautiful! I could feel the texture of the image with my fingers. Instead of the ugly orange from the previous versions, the cover was mostly black, shiny black, with a square image in the center and the title in large, yellow letters across the top. The image was well done, both intricate and colorful. I stood, literally transfixed by the book, and held it for a long minute before turning it over to examine and read the back. Finally daring to open it at last, the spine cracked and popped as I held the book just under my nose so that I could inhale the fragrance of the freshly printed pages.

I smiled widely as all thoughts of why Tom had been here earlier were forgotten. I lost myself in the tome of knowledge as long minutes ticked by. I stood, unmoving, unaware of movements and conversations around me; I had only eyes for this object of my desire.

I was surprised when the storeowner walked up to me and said, "Hi, there. Is it all you hoped? And do you have it memorized yet so you don't have to buy it?"

After a quick smile and a laugh, I replied, "Yeah, it rules! And no, I don't have it memorized yet! And I will buy it! I have the money now."

"I know how you love the game and the books, and I know you want one, but I also know you won't be able to buy them all. Especially when you can't use it unless your players have the right ones, too. Don't be mad, I don't mean to make fun, I just know after the years you and your friend come in here, your family isn't one of the usual kind from around here. Your mom and dad have to work, like me I might add, and money is tight, so, well, I've got a deal for you, if you're interested . . . "

"What, kind of deal?" I asked, immediately suspicious, placing my now de-fogged glasses back on.

The storeowner was old enough to be my grandpa. He had silver-white hair, lots of wrinkles, and his back was bent with years of work. His little square glasses sat near the end of heavy nose.

"See, my son used to come help me here at the store, but lately he is just so busy with his family and the likes, he just doesn't have the time anymore. So, I'm way behind. There are about a dozen boxes of new things stacked up in back that need to come out here, and more stuff that needs to go into the back. I just can't keep up alone anymore," he explained.

"Why don't you hire someone, then?" I asked, suspicious.

"That, is easier said than done. Very few kids around here are willing to actually work. Most just get what they want from their parents. I'm thinking about running a help wanted ad, but I don't have the time to do any interviews. I have a shop to run, and I can't even keep up without doing all those interviews, or even setting up an ad," the elderly man answered.

"So, you want me to do some work around here to earn the book?" I asked, not believing my luck.

"Well, yes. Just come in after school tomorrow, and I'll show you what comes off the shelves, and what goes out to replace it. It should only take a couple of hours tomorrow, and maybe a couple on Monday, and in return, I will give you that book you're holding. I'm sure we can find other things to do to earn the rest of the books. A couple of hours a coupld of days a week, and each week another one of the books. What d'ya say?"

Fuck, I thought, how cool! I could put in a couple days a week and end up with the entire library by summer when the gaming season really takes off!

"Are you serious? Just do the work you need around here? I mean, really serious? Having me around here might not be good for your business."

"What? Just because you're gay that would hurt my business? Not as if everyone who sees you is going to know, anyway. You're not open about it, or the kids that came in here would be harder on you than they are," the shopkeeper stated.

I was stunned; absolutely shocked into total silence. My mouth hung open and my eyes turned into perfectly round, white orbs behind my glasses. I hadn't been referring to that, I had meant my unpopularity, my reputation as a poor kid, a geek, and a nerd.

"Uh, er, buh," was all I stammered out.

I was suddenly as nervous and embarrassed as I could remember ever being. I felt my face and skin get prickly, then warm, and then start to sweat. No one had ever before spoken to me about my being gay, except my best friend, Tom. And of course, Toby. Having an adult mention it to me so casually, demonstrating his obvious knowledge of my sexuality was extremely uncomfortable, even if he had done so positively.

"Ah, don't be so shocked. I've raised six boys, and one of them was gay from before your age. He told me when I caught him with one of his friends. I didn't do or say what I should have, and things got bad between us for a time. But I recognize the signs in you. Most folk wouldn't, but I can see it. "

"What. . . signs?" I quietly asked, my voice still cracking despite the fact that I had spoken in a near whisper.

"Oh, the way you and your friend look at each other, the way you are so gentle with the books, your mannerisms. Don't worry, though, you don't scream it or act like a sissy, but the subtle stuff is there, just like my son at your age. "

"I, but I, aahhh, shit!"

I didn't know what to think. My mind kept starting over on another train of thought as soon as I tried to grasp at the current one. I felt as if I were running around in circles inside of my own head, chanting la-la-la with my hands over my ears.

"Hey, like I said, most folk won't notice. I doubt you get much grief from the other kids at school because you don't lisp, swagger or swish, so I doubt any have picked up on it. Maybe some other gay guys would notice, so don't be too surprised if you get a lot of attention from some of the guys," the old man said with a wink.

"Yeah, well, I did wonder why so many guys in the preserve come on to me," I said slowly. "I always just thought they were guessing, or maybe kinda hoping, but I guess they could tell, after all. . . "

"Who knows? And don't let them talk you into anything, or take any kind of risks with any of them! And what do you expect, hanging out in the preserves? I suggest you stop that, especially alone. And never at night. And never go for any rides or get in anyone's car! Boys come up missing from time to time there, you know."

I knew it full well. Thoughts of the time that I had gotten into a stranger's van, and the things that had happened because of that decision - changing my life - played out in my mind briefly.

"Yeah, I heard that. I just like to ride my bike there. It's quicker a lot, and quieter, and it's nice."

"You just be careful, hear me?"

I nodded.

"You said the way I look at my friend? How do I look at him?" I asked, worried.

"Oh, just like my son looked at his friend before I caught them. Soft eyed, always smiling. And you and he stand right up next to each other, like my son and his friend did. And, most of all, neither one of you have even noticed the pretty girls when they come in."

"We must be so obvious!"

The sudden realization made me feel light-headed and queasy.

"Hey, like I said, you or your buddy aren't obvious. Not to most. I just have a better perspective. Other parents of gay kids might notice, but not most folk. Don't worry about it now! So, what d'ya say to working those books off?" the old man said, placing his hand on my shoulder.

"Are you serious? Knowing I'm, uh, knowing what you know and all? And how, uh, unpopular I am?"

"Heck, yeah, I'm serious. Look, I grew up with working parents, and I know how hard it can be. And today, things are only more expensive. And these books are no exception! Even your parents would balk at the cost of these books. I know you and your friend are good kids. You come in here, look at the stuff, buy what you can afford, never damage the stuff, act decent, and don't give the stuck-up kids a reason to cause trouble. In fact, I've seen you and your buddy go way out of your way to avoid trouble. You even put things back where you know they belong, even when they've been moved before you came in. I appreciate that, even if you are doing it out of your own reasons. I need some help, you want the books. We both get something out of this. "

"You, don't, you know, want anything else?"

"What? You afraid I'm gonna want you?" the old guy said, leaning in closer and lowering his voice. "I ain't that way, and at my age, all I'm interested in is how comfortable my shoes are, and what the wife is cooking for dinner when I get home." He finished with a wink.

"Wow, I don't know what to say."

"How about, see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah, okay! I'll do it. And, thanks. For, well, for . . . knowing, and . . . not saying . . . "

"No, thank you. And I'm glad you agreed. You and your buddy have been coming in here for, what, three, four years? And you have not once broken anything, tried to take anything, bent a single page in the books you guys looked through, or done anything even close to what those haughty-taughty kids try to pull. The least I can do is reward you in some small way, and if it helps me too, all the better!"

"Wow, this is cool! Thanks, man, really!"

"Like I said, thank you. I will see you tomorrow, about the usual time?"

"Sure, I get out about two o'clock, and'll be here in twenty minutes!"

"Good. One thing, go ahead and keep that book, take it home. But do me a small favor and don't tell anyone about our deal. I don't want half the school coming in here trying to make a deal. I have precious little time as it is, and right now, Mr. Sweeney is lookin' my way with a dirty look for making His Highness wait, so I got to go take his money now. He has no idea how much I fleece him for," he said, tapping me on the shoulder. "See you tomorrow, Alex"

"Okay, will do, and thanks again!" I said as the shopkeeper walked to the front counter.

I stood there, smiling stupidly, looking down at the shiny book in my hands. My book! My Dungeon Master's Guide! My stomach felt as if a hundred butterflies were trying to find a place to fly, all at once, in the same place. All I had to do was help at the store for a couple of days, and then I would have earned it as good as if I had paid for it. That left me with a few bucks for something else. I stood there and actually hugged the book to my chest, holding it close, just under my nose, smelling the fresh ink and paper and binding glue; it smelled like heaven!

I shrugged the strap off my shoulders and swung the pack around to the floor. I squatted and made a safe and secure place to hold the new treasure. Satisfied it was not going to take any scratches or creases from the other contents, I zipped the pack closed and gently hung the strap on my shoulder. The extra weight felt wonderful.

Now that I had a DM's Guide of my own, and I could read it at home, I turned my attention to the other, shiny black books on the rack. I was lost in the Player's Manual when I noticed a gloved hand reach for another copy of it off the shelves.

"Worth the wait?" I heard a smooth, high voice ask.

I turned to answer, and saw a guy of about my age, bundled in a big, blue, down coat and hood with matching gloves and boots. It was all very expensive stuff. I could only see the round lenses of the guy's glasses, which were fogging, hiding his eyes. He reached up with his gloved hands and fumbled them off. He placed one of the earpieces into his straight, white teeth behind his dark red lips. His padded coat had a large, fluffy hood that was up, covering his head and hair.

"They always fog up in the winter, you know?" the boy said around the glasses. "So, are they worth it?" he asked again.

"Yeah, the art is great, and the way they printed it with the backgrounds on the pages is cool. And it looks like some new characters and classes and races, and lots of tables for each," I answered, still looking at the smooth, round face.

He had thin, pale brown eyebrows over big, green eyes, almost the same green as Toby's. I had never seen this kid before, so he was probably one of the kids that went to the private, Catholic school. He had the right color dark blue pants on, creases and all, and the right kind of shiny shoes.

"Cool, look'it, orc classes!" he said, smiling even wider and uttering more approving sounds.

"Yeah. You from around here?" I asked. "I don't think I seen you around before."

"Yeah, I live on Madison Street," he answered, telling me all I needed to know.

He was one of the richest of the rich. Madison Street was a curved, wooded road that led along the border of the forest preserves with about a dozen of the largest houses in Cook County on it. Only the super-rich lived on Madison Street. Just turning onto either end of Madison off County Line Road meant stopping at the security gate.

"You play at your school?" I asked.

"Yup. And at camp, a bunch of us play there. I promised to bring the books this year. We didn't have a Monster Manual and had to make up the numbers best we could remember. So I promised to have them this year for everybody."

"You the DM?"

"Nuh-uh, but the DM will have his books this year he says. I'm going to bring the books for us players. And some sheets and other stuff. When I told dad the books came out today he ordered them from Mr. Broft. He just went in back to get them for me. "

"Wow, bet that was expensive!" I exclaimed, eyes wide with jealousy, wishing I hadn't.

"I dunno. Dad said he paid for it already, I just need to pick up stuff other than the books. Stollers said Mr. Broft said he would have the six books ready and I should pick out anything else I need. Like the dice and papers. And I want mods too, so the DM don't have to make everything up. We played The Tomb of Horrors last year but it was the only one we had, so we played it about hundred times," he laughed. "Not this year." He picked a dozen of the new modules and added them to his stack of books.

I goggled. He already had more than a hundred dollars worth of things, and was still adding to it.

"Last year we left everything behind by accident. Stollers called, but they said they always throw away any belongings without names because they had some law problem once and it was just easier that way. So we lost the books and dice and all sorts of stuff, and so this year we'll put our names in them," he went on as if he had no reason to stop for air.

I let the sound of his rambling speech fade into the background, ignoring him. Jealousy and anger together had me ready to scream at him, "You spoiled, rotten, shit-sucking son-of-a-bitch" while pounding him with the entire row of metal shelves. I wanted to grind the guy's gory stain into the hardwood floor and piss on the mark until it was washed away. But his face was sure cute.

What a waste of these great books. It's too bad they end up in the hands of such bastards, I thought. If the guy only knew how much they cost, and what most people had to do to earn even one. Sick, I concluded. Not his fault. Parents spoiled him and he had no idea what it took to earn anything.

Before long, he staggered off with a huge stack of books and supplies. I watched as he pointed out eight complete sets of dice; another forty bucks. He picked them without care or thought. He just wanted, didn't care which, obviously just greedy. I was never so glad my family wasn't rich.

Although I wouldn't call myself poor, I concluded, turning my eyes back to the book in my hands. My parents both work their butts off, and do pretty well. They moved to this neighborhood so I wouldn't have to live far from the best school they could find for me. They made sure I knew what it took to make it, and what they had to give up to keep it.

I thought of how my life had gone since moving, and knew it had improved dramatically. I would never have met Toby if I hadn't moved. I had two best friends, one of which I was as close to as I had been with anyone, except Toby. I had the Circle, and some friends at school.

I considered myself rich, if not wealthy.

"Hey! So, whatd'ya think?" Tom asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.

I had been on the same page, thinking rather than reading, and Tom had snuck up on me. I glanced at the clock high on the wall behind him and noticed that he was there earlier than he should have been.

"I think I'm richer than I think," I said, looking back to the page I hadn't been reading.

"Huh?" Tom asked, perplexed. "I mean the books, moron!" he said as he reached for a copy of the Player's Manual, leaving only one left on the rack.

"Yeah, I know," I said slowly. "I know."

"Awesome!" Tom exclaimed, flipping pages as he took up position next to me. "The new classes are in here, and new playable races, and new weapons, magic, everything, man, too much stuff!" Tom said, paging through the book quickly after removing his fogged glasses.

Tom had leaned closer, absently, to share the images and tables in the book: I noticed. I leaned a bit away, and then took a step away, remembering the shop owner's words.

"What? I got bee-oh?" Tom asked, smiling and sniffing the air.

"Nah. Just, talk to ya later about it, 'kay?" I said, not wanting to talk about it in public, and not at all sure how to do so in private, either. And there was a far more imperative matter at hand. "Tom, why were you here earlier?" I asked, looking up from the book to Tom's face, noticing his cheeks were the splotchy bright red they always got in the cold.

"Couldn't wait. Didn't take any books to class and asked to go to the john. Didn't go back," he explained without looking up.

"No, not early now, earlier."

"What? When?" he asked, looking up and raising his dark, thin eyebrows.

"Today, earlier. Just as I got across the street I saw you leave."

I watched Tom's cold-blush turn into the deeper, fuller blush of emotional origins.

"Nuh-uh," he replied, turning back to the book in his hands.

"Dude, you so were! I saw you!" I insisted, closing the book and turning to face him fully.

"Uh, okay, whatever!" Tom said in his best valley-girl imitation. "You get out an hour earlier than I do, how could I get here before you?"

"Oh, gonna be that way, huh?" I said, crossing my arms over the book on my chest.

"Don't know what you are talking 'bout," Tom said, tilting his head up as if raising his nose above the level of some unpleasant smell, staring down his nose at the book.

"Fine, okay. You got me a book, didn't you?" I asked, placing the one I had been holding back on the rack.

"Yeah, sure, I bought two of all of 'em while I was at it."

He still hadn't looked back at me since I had asked about his being there earlier. I calculated quickly and figured that even if he hadn't been there earlier, he was still at least ten minutes too early to have gotten there after school would have let out.

"Okay, don't tell me," I said, pulling my pack off my shoulders. "But when I open your present, and it's one of these. . . " I said as I pulled the DM's Guide out of the pack, "don't cry to me about it!"

"Dude, you were gonna snake that?" Tom asked in a hissing whisper. "Mr. Broft's a nice guy!"

"No! Get this. The old guy needs some help around here and he asked me to come in tomorrow to help out! He said I could have this for a day's work, and maybe earn the other books next couple weeks!" I said with a huge grin. 

"Cool! How about that?" Tom said, smiling. "You gonna earn me a copy too?"

"Yeah, right," I said sarcastically, then after a moments reflection added, "I don't know, maybe. I don't know how much work he has, but I can ask."

"Man, I was kidding, you don't have to do that."

"I might make it your birthday present, ya know?" I offered.

"Huh, maybe. I want the same gift you got me last year and you know it. See what he says first," Tom said, nodding toward the counter where the old man was ringing up another sale. "Right now, since you have a DM's Guide, and I'll get some of the others anyway, what say we head to your house and get some food and hit the game I'm gonna give you tonight? Maybe play around?"

Tom tried his usual pathetic attempt to bounce his eyebrows at me, grinning with one side of his face. Not feeling as comfortable about referring to sex in public now, not with what the old man had said still rolling around in my head, I focused instead on the game, ignoring his obvious comment.

"You got the game with you?" I asked, hoping to point the topic away from that sore point.

"Nah, it's at home, and it's in one of those gift boxes so you can open then close it right back up, and then open again in front of your parents later!"

"Yeah, since I got this one, and now I know I'll get the others, we might as well go get something hot to warm up with instead of staring at them. Now we can read the DM's Guide at my house anyway."

"You mean you can read the Guide, I don't think you want me cruising through it, and I don't wanna know the stuff anyway. Right now I wanna check out the Monster Manual and these other new ones," Tom said, turning his attention to them.

"Sure you don't wanna head to my house and let me play with some of my birthday presents, instead?" I asked, smiling widely, the idea of sex beginning to matter more than the embarrassment earlier.

Tom's blush returned as he said, "Now, now, today is about the books, remember? I've been waiting to see these for months, and damn it, I'm gonna see 'em!"

"Yeah, okay, I know what ya mean," I said, picking up one of the books about the new classes.

As I flipped through it, I wondered why he had at first offered to head home, then changed his mind and wanted to stay. Not caring, or seeing any reason to dwell on it, I let the contradiction go. I didn't forget about it, I just put it and the fact he was here earlier, and then a bit too early still, all on the back burners.

I felt as if I was missing something, though. There was something nagging at the back of my thoughts, trying to be noticed. I was oblivious, except to know it was there, somewhere. Something the old guy and Tom had said, it seemed. Something tying them together somehow. I ran over their words since arriving at the shop, but nothing stood out. I put it away as well. Another piece of a puzzle that remained unplaced for then, the overall image hinting at its absence.

We lost ourselves in the new books and manuals. Tom began glancing at his watch often, and at four-thirty he decreed it time to head out before my parents got home. Tom had volunteered to help with the preparations for the small party tonight, and my parents had accepted his help.

"Good to go, then," I said as I closed my pack over the precious cargo. "Why don't you go ahead and pay for the PH and I'll meet you outside?"

"Uh, I, didn't bring my money," Tom said.

"Right, sure. You always have your money with you. Go pay for it and I'll meet you outside," I repeated.

"I told ya, I didn't bring it today," he said, already turning and heading for the front door, having placed the book back on the shelves.

"Yeah, sure," I mumbled, knowing Tom always had his money with him.

Tom, you don't trust your brothers not to find it if you kept it at home, I thought looking at his back. I know you bought one of the books. That was probably why you got here earlier, left, and then returned to meet me. It's what you was carrying out of the store when I saw you leave earlier, wasn't it?

Tom waved and called, "Bye Mr. Broft!" as we passed the front counter.

The old man nodded and replied, "Good bye Tommy, Alex."

Once outside, I felt as if I ran into something solid as I realized that the old guy had not only called me by name, but had Tom as well. My stomach twanged, and then I remembered that he had known my name earlier, as well, when I was looking at the new books alone, during our private conversation. In the entire time we had been going there we had shared a few words in passing with the old man, but I never remembered any of us knowing or using any names before.

"When did he learn our names?" I asked as we unlocked our bikes.

"What?" Tom replied, blushing again, far too early for it to be the cold.

"Something is going on," I said slowly, standing on a pedal, watching Tom get on his own bike. "How do I find out just exactly what?"

"Call Sherlock Holmes?" Tom shot back with a shrug.

That was the usual reply from one us to the other when one intended to say nothing further about the current topic of discussion, whatever it might be.

"Well, one thing, I think we might be a bit obvious, you know, about, it" I tried to explain with a knowing nod.

"Huh?" Tom asked, totally perplexed, canting his hooded head to the side.

"The old guy, he said, he, uh, he hinted that, maybe, we might, sometimes, act, um, gay, ish, sorta . . . "

"Um, I guess we should talk about that when we get there," Tom said, referring to my house. "And when we gonna ride the bus again?"

"You can ride anytime, ya know. You did Monday."

"Yeah, and you know why. But when you gonna again?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Why? Because it's fucking cold, is why! And you know he's gonna come tonight, even if you don't know. Ya know?"

"He might. But I don't know. And even if he does, it don't mean everything's right and everything. I'll prob'ly ride the bus for . . . a long time."

I wrapped the ridiculous scarf around my face a few times, signaling the end to the conversation, and followed Tom toward my house.

Tom had always been a bit of a never-ending puzzle. Just when I would think I had enough knowledge about him to see his overall pattern, something would come along and surprise me about him. Again and again, Tom would hand me a new, surprising revelation, most often about himself, but sometimes about myself. Occasionally he would show me something about someone else that I had never noticed. Nothing was as simple as I thought when Tom was done revealing the hidden aspects to me. Life with Tom was always interesting, and often complicated.

His wild claims of Jeff being gay are sure proved wrong, I thought. If he was, he wouldn't of run when I made the move two weeks ago. Jeff's straight, and now he knows I'm gay. And if he wanted to, he'd call me. He ain't, so that's that. He didn't come to the last two weeks Circle meetings, either. He's so not coming tonight. Fuck. I really fucked up. And I really think I might like him as much as Toby.

Toby. Just the name brought all other thoughts to a crashing halt. His name brought every emotion in existence to me instantly, all in varying and altering intensities. Love and loss, anger and love, rage and peace, joy and despair. They changed importance and relevance constantly as the memories attempted to take me over. Six months after it all, six months after everything, those swirling, confusing, terrifying whirlwinds of emotions could still control me at times.

Complicated. Everything is always so complicated anymore, I moaned.

Since it was a bit of a ride home, and we had to ride one in front of the other on the narrow sidewalk, unable to talk much, I let my mind go back to the days when things were simpler, and only one thing mattered . . .

Toby's Secret