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The Circle

Chapter 6

Tuesday Evening: Big Birthday Surprises

Those times with Toby were so great. I want those feelings again with someone, but what if I do and they make Toby seem . . . less? And with who? Tom? Jeff? Only Jeff really makes me feel like Toby did just by looking at him. But Jeff isn't into anything. Those hand-jobs were work to get, and I doubt Jeff'll be willing to jack each other off again. His religious upbringing isn't gonna to allow that, I'm sure. It was experimentation for him, and nothing for a prolonged time. That rules out anything like I really want with him. No kind of relationship like I had with Toby.

Why do I even want to love someone else? How could I love someone new, and still love someone from earlier? Or love them as much? Surely a new guy to love would erase or at least weaken the memories and feelings of the old one? If I fall for someone, even Jeff, and even if he falls for me, and we went that far, and I loved him that much, would I forget Toby? At the least, I would forget so much of how I felt for him. Right? Wouldn't it mean that Toby never meant as much to me ever again?

Do I want that to happen? There is no way I would ever want to forget him, or do anything to make him seem less important. He's the best thing that had ever happened to me, and I want to hold onto what little of him I have to enjoy forever, and never let any of those wonderful memories go. He was the worst thing to happen, too. But I still miss him so much!

Like I miss Jeff. Is Jeff even coming tonight? Tom sure seems sure so! But he was so wrong about how Jeff is. One of the first time's Tom's ever been wrong about somebody. Jeff's deep. That's all. He's so deep! Fuck, he's so . . . Stop it. He's not coming. If he does, cool! But, be ready for him not. That way you won't be let down when he don't. He's not coming. Not after what I did two weeks ago. Not after two weeks of not talking. Not after finding out how much of a fag I am.

I knew I was getting bummed out, and to stop that I turned on the radio and got cleaned up. In the bathroom I took a good look at my boring, dull, ugly self. My face and eyes were still puffy and red from mom and dad's surprise talk a few minutes ago. My guts twisted momentarily at the remembrance, until the fact that it was over and out now between us made me feel wonderful.

My parents know I'm gay! repeated endlessly in my head. I danced around, feeling so light and carefree! Not only do they know, they don't care! They do care! They care so much about me that they don't care I'm gay! Or that I like pot! They love me no matter what, and they just want me happy!

I smiled at myself in the mirror for the first time in a long while, probably since Toby had been there over the summer. Thoughts of him tried to take me down again, but the radio station played "Renegade" by Styx and that got my head bouncing on my shoulders. I danced and jumped around, playing air-synthesizer. I was leaning back with my knees bent, miming playing keyboards and barking out the lyrics when I heard someone laughing.

Popping my eyes open, Jeff and his little brother, Todd were at the top of the stairs. Todd was pointing and laughing out loud. Jeff, though, was only smiling widely, his eyes flashing as he rested his head on his hand, his arm supported by his elbow on the railing.

I had rarely felt so embarrassed! Todd, still laughing out loud, came strolling in. Jeff shook his head and rolled his eyes as he started in.

This is the most embarrassing day of my life! I wailed silently to myself before taking in the fact that Jeff was there.

Holy shit! You made it! I suddenly wanted to shout as I ran to him and hugged him, kissed his luscious lips, held his wonderful body. Holy shit! And the first thing I wanna do is faggy! Fucking stop it! He's here! He actually came! Play it cool! Be his friend! Fuck man, don't fuck things up!

"You don't have to be that happy about turning sixteen," Jeff teased as he held out his hand for the Circle shake.

I covered my eyes with my left hand in embarrassment as we twisted fingers together in hello.

"I'm just in a good mood, is all," I said.

Another One Bites The Dust blared out of the radio, and all three of us sang along with it. None of us could dance at all, but the three of us 'danced' around my room, making fools of ourselves.

I felt so lucky to have Jeff as my friend. I wanted so much more with him, but I knew it wasn't going to happen. His face as we danced and laughed was adorable! His blue eyes and blond hair were so cute. His face was so smooth and soft, his plump lips begging to be kissed and nibbled. His broad build and lush butt made me feel like reaching out and drawing him into my arms to hug, and let my hands roam all over him. His braces never subtracted from his looks, and in fact only added to his attractiveness as far as I was concerned.

I already knew my own taste in guys ran more to the less typical ones women seemed to have for men, and wasn't the same as what I had seen on the front of the gay magazines that could be see behind the counter at some places. Those huge, muscle-bound guys never seemed as hot to me as the guys most women called boring, or even ugly. Jeff was a geek, sure, but a cute one! Most of the hunky guys at school that the girls all drooled over did little for me compared to the average guys, and had little chance against the geekier ones.

I knew Jeff wasn't the typical handsome type, and neither was Toby, but my own taste was out of my own control. I was attracted to what I was attracted to, and that wasn't the hot-bodied, weight-lifting, jock type. It was the odder guys, the skinny guys, the stocky guys, the taller guys, and the redheaded guys.

Jeff was a lot like Toby in ways: Both had light colored hair, were taller than me, older than me, and had fair, light complexions. Jeff was broader, too. Their taste in music was about the same as mine, movies as well. Jeff was more intelligent, though I hated to admit that Toby wasn't the brightest guy, but he wasn't. He wasn't stupid, he was rather smart, but his intellect was limited by his lack of reading and life experiences. Jeff read as much as I did, sometimes more, and usually the same kinds of fantasy and sci-fi books as well. Jeff had lived in and around big cities, with their things to do and better schools, too.

The differences in their private body parts were dramatic as well, though both were well endowed. I had glimpses of Jeff's girth and length during Circle meeting overnights, but nothing complete or totally revealing. The very few hand-jobs we had done were in the dark, or half-dressed and under blankets. Still, there wasn't any doubt that Jeff beat Toby for girth if not length. I had barely gotten to touch Jeff's balls in the dark, and they had felt great! Not as large as mine, but larger than any others I had felt. I wanted to see them up close, touch, lick, and taste them.

I fought off thoughts of his parts as we danced though, not wanting to make that moment of fun anything other than fun with my great friend and his little, pain-in-the-ass, but still a good guy, brother.

Jeff! Wow. I am so falling for you, or have. Or will. I know. And I shouldn't even. You ain't interested and won't ever be, but I can dream. As long as you stay my friend, that's all that matters I think. I don't want to lose you, ever. And even if I could have something with you, it'd end or you'd go away. I sure wouldn't have it long, that's for sure.

I'm going to tell Jeff and see how Jeff takes it, then see if he can handle that I think I'm in love with him. Even if he says no way, I'll at least have it out and over with! And who knows? Maybe he'd be willing to stay friends and mess around some, like Tom. Once he knew.

Damn! Tom! Fucking best friend a guy could ever have! I don't even know how many times he's done stuff I still don't know about to help me out somehow. And he rides his bike to school with me even though he could take the bus earlier and ride it with Jeff. And he knows why I ride my bike, and he don't care. And he helped me meet Jeff! I fucking owe him so much!

And where is he? Why isn't he back yet? It's time to be downstairs and ready for the guys to get here. I wish I could have time to talk to Jeff alone, but I'd just fuck it up. Later maybe. He's here though! He's fucking here!

The song ended and a commercial break began. I shut off the radio and said that we should head downstairs. We had barely gotten to the bottom of the stairs when the front doorbell rang and a familiar knock announced the arrival of more party guests; Eric if the melodic knock following the bell was any indication, and it was. As I opened the door, I noticed it was snowing harder, more snow already covering what had been on the ground earlier.

"Hey! Happy sixteen, Alex!" Eric said, passing me a large box wrapped in blue paper.

"Ooo, lemme guess," I said, hefting the box and shaking it gently. It was about one foot to each side and didn't make a noise despite my violent handling; it felt like one, solid, unmoving object. "What the. . . "

"You won't guess, don't even try! Just wait 'till you open it!" Eric stated, shrugging off his heavy winter coat.

It had become a long-standing tradition, the guessing what a gift was before opening it. Birthdays, Christmas, any time I received a gift. The guys had started getting wise to the game and had begun to do whatever they could to try to fool me, or at least prevent any kind of reasonable guess.

I smiled, stopped shaking the box, and told Eric to drop his coat on the chair and come on in.

"Hey, Tom!" Eric called as Tom entered the front room, waving already, pushing his glasses up his nose with his other hand.

When did he get back? I wondered. And why didn't he come up?

"Hey, Eric. What's up?" Tom said smiling and trading a Circle handshake. "Jeff, Todd," he said, waving at them.

"Dude's age, it's up by another year! And now he can start driving us around!" Eric said, slapping hands with Tom.

Tom's glare at Eric said something, but I didn't have a clue what. It was true; I could drive the guys around, technically, after I got my license next week anyway.

"Yeah, sure, if you buy me a car!" I said, walking past Tom toward the dinning room with the large box in hand.

"Damn, he could almost fit one in that box!" Tom teased.

"Just the engine. Brent is bringin' the body, Ryan the frame, and Jeff the interior!" Eric laughed.

"And where would you put it together?" dad asked as we entered the dining room.

"We thought we would use your garage," Eric piped up.

"Oh, you supposed, did you? And what if I object to that? Having my tools spread all over the garage for months?"

"Guess we could put the thing together in my garage and use my tools," Tom offered.

"Yeah, everything we need, a bent screwdriver and a set of tiny crescent wrenches!" Eric teased.

"Yeah, more than you got!" Tom shot back.

"No arguments over how many tools you have," dad proclaimed. "Or how big they are." Dad pretended not to notice as all of us shared sly laughter and snickers. "You boys, guys, go watch a movie, we got some new ones on the coffee table, until the rest get here," he said, taking the large box from me.

I couldn't help but notice that Dad stood in such a way as to block the door to the kitchen.

We turned and went into the living room through the double doors, pushing each other along. Once there, Tom and Eric quickly started squabbling over who was going to sit in the big lounge chair.

The Dukes were on later, and I wasn't going to be able to watch it, unless my party got really boring. The episode sounded interesting. The Dukes would find a bale of pot and go on the run from a detective. The VCR was ready to tape it, and I had a tape ready to go for it, I just had to remember to put it in and set the timer button after the movie we watched was over. The very last episode of M.A.S.H. was on the beginning of the tape. That had been just Monday, and I still hadn't seen it. I really regretted that they had stopped it, but it wasn't as good as it once was. I'd heard some of the story from everyone else who had seen it, and found it necessary to talk about it. I couldn't blame them, and I wasn't happy that I hadn't seen it already.

Eric and Tom were still quibbling over the chair. Eric was a year younger than Tom, but was almost the same height. Eric was thin, really thin, so thin you could see his ribs when he had his shirt off, and almost everyone had seen him that way. What most didn't know was that you could also see his hipbones all the way around his waist, and his pelvic bone almost seemed to push out the front of his groin.

That boy needs some fat and muscle, I thought, watching Eric's narrow butt in the jeans he was wearing, noticing his hips seemed wider, and that his almost non-existent butt was more full. Was he gaining weight? Or just growing? I wondered.

Eric had cut his hair down to a crew cut, and it looked like sunburn on a bald head. Eric's hair, all of it, as I knew well, was red. I could see Eric's pale blue eyes, so pale they almost seemed gray, glinting in laughter as he and Tom continued to wrestle over the comfy recliner that Jeff had usurped in the meantime.

I hope they take their time, 'cause I'm already watching what I want to see, I thought, watching the guys start to wrestle over who got the big recliner. Tom had about a year on Eric, and some muscle, but Eric was used to defending himself against the other guys and was holding his own. Eric got under Tom, who was now bent over Eric's back, trying to grasp hands around Eric's waist. Eric got out of Tom's arms and locked his own arms around Tom's legs, his head turned to the side and butted into Tom's groin.

Hey, now! Don't be hurting those, I thought. Those are my toys, and I don't want them damaged!

The doorbell rang, interrupting the match and another of my fantasies. The knocking pattern revealed that the twins, Brent and Ryan, had arrived. I met dad, who was already opening it, at the door. Both twins rushed inside in a blizzard of energy and falling snow.

"Hey, Alex!" and "Happy birthday!" they exclaimed in unison, presenting two identical packages wrapped in white, tissue-type paper.

Both twins left their coats in the chair at the door and were dressed in black jeans and button-front shirts. Naturally, I let my eyes wander over the two almost identical fourteen year-olds. Both had the same height and build, about five foot two, about one-hundred and twenty pounds, blond-brown hair, and clear complexions. Both also shared the same bright gray eyes, otherwise the similarities ended. Brent's face was long and narrow, his nose the same, and his front teeth were always visible, as his thin lips rarely met. Ryan, though, had a shorter, rounder face, and fuller lips. Ryan also wore wire-rimmed glasses. Both were trim and lean looking in the dark clothing, and as attractive as ever, seeming to become sexier every month.

Dad told me to take them in to the living room. He added that he or mom would get the door, for me to enjoy myself with my friends. Back in the living room, Tom and Eric had decided the great match, and of course Eric was on the small recliner on the other side of the couch. I put "Prophecy" in the VCR and hit play, then fast forwarded through the previews.

We were filling the couch, and I wished that Jeff had sat next to me. I wished we could be alone on that couch right then. I also realized I should have sat close to Jeff and made the twins split up and take the ends. Then I realized I wouldn't have had the guts to make such a show of doing so. The memory of his fleeing my house two weeks ago reminded me of where things stood.

Why do I like Jeff so much, knowing he's straight? Hell, all the members of the Circle are straight, I reminded myself. This whole Sally thing should have made me realize things, and stop feeling that way about Jeff. Even Tom. I'm the only fag among them, and only Tom knows that much.

I found something sexy about nearly every one of my friends, not just the Circle members, but most especially of all, Jeff and Tom. There was something more about how I felt about Jeff, something I couldn't label. If there was one of the guys I didn't understand how I really felt about, it was Jeff. I wanted Jeff, sexually, but I was deeply worried about how Jeff saw me. I was terrified Jeff would start thinking of me as a total fag. I could handle it if about anyone else thought so and abandoned me; but not if Jeff did it. Worse, though, would be Jeff thinking I was chasing after him, so I just let Jeff have his space, as painful as it was to do so.

Before the thoughts of Jeff and the worry of the situation caught hold, both twins started fighting for a bit more room on the couch, pushing each other into either Jeff or me, who pushed back. The whole thing was about to boil over into a wrestling match, and my libido was starting to stir. Brent gave Ryan a tittie-twister and Ryan paid him back with a fist to his groin; a bull's-eye. Brent grunted and doubled over his crotch, moaning.

"Ooops, sorry, bro," Ryan said, snickering.

"Okay you heathens, the food is ready!" mom called from the doorway. "Come and get it!"

The movie wasn't over, but it didn't matter, I couldn't remember anything about it.

***

Dinner was done, the dishes gone, the cake lit, blown out, and mostly devoured. The adults had left with the last of the cake and had told us to hang out a minute and they would be right back, leaving the rest of us arrayed messily about the long table in the formal living room.

"Okay, time for presents!" dad exclaimed as both he and mom carried them in and placed them in the center of the table.

"YES!" we all echoed.

"Which one first, which one first. . . " Dad teased, ranging his hands over the assorted packages.

I grabbed the one in purple paper that had "Hands Off!" printed all over it in gold lettering. I had to know which one of them would dare use purple paper and gold glitter marker.

"This one!" I said, already tearing into the card on the outside.

The card was white with just the word, "Sixteen?!?" on the front, in purple lettering. Inside was Jeff's name and the phrase "Friends are what friends are, whatever they are, always friends. For my best friend" written by hand.

Best friend? I wondered. And what was all that about? Whatever they are?

I felt a pang of worry, and couldn't help but glance up at Jeff momentarily. He grinned rather cutely, shyly. I grinned back and felt myself blush.

I shook the box, hearing only a slight crumpling sound. It felt heavy, but not as heavy as the size made me expect. I shrugged, not knowing, and gave up to gasps of mock surprise. Inside the box was wads of newspaper and another, smaller box in the same paper. Inside that one was another box with another even smaller box, all wrapped in crumpled newspaper. I held the latest one up, about the size of a brick. It was nicely heavy and rattled in a solid, satisfying way, and was wrapped in more of the purple paper.

"Cassette tapes?" I said, smiling, certain that was indeed what was inside.

After opening the paper and revealing the accuracy of the guess, I smiled and said, "Cool, blank Memorex Metals!"

This would have taken most of Jeff's allowance for several weeks.

FLASH-CLICK

"MOM! Do you have to take pictures?"

"Yes," she said flatly, as if I had asked if she had to stand on her feet instead of her elbows.

"Happy birthday, Alex," Jeff said, smiling.

"Thanks, Jeff! I can really use some more. I can get you a copy of The Game first thing."

"Okay, one for one," dad said. "Next?"

"This one," Tom said as he handed over the box we had re-closed earlier, before my parents got home. "I wanna see what ya think!"

I feigned guessing its contents, and quickly said, "Simple one. Game for the Atari," and tore into it; of course I was right.

FLASH-CLICK

"Two for two," dad stated.

"And the twins, next, cause I already know what Eric got," I said.

"How?" Eric demanded.

"Dude, I can read you like a book! I know exactly what's inside that oversized box!" I stated with a broad smile. I shook each of the twins' identical packages, listening to the sounds they made as I felt the mass and weight. The sounds gave it away.

"Yeah, too easy! Models! Probably cars, and probably Fords!" Opening them only proved I was correct twice more. One was a fifties Ford pickup, the other a sixty-five Mustang. "Cool! Thanks guys!"

"Three for three," dad said.

I insisted that it was four for four.

"Hmmm, four for four, I guess, but that should count as just one," dad said with some reluctance, and a bit of suspicion in his voice.

FLASH-CLICK

Next was mom and dad's gifts. First was a shirt with "I'm with dumb-ass" with an upward pointing arrow. The shirt sent all of us into laughter, with dares for me to wear it to school tomorrow. I had correctly guessed the shirt, as it was in a typical sized box, as well as the weight and sliding hiss as it moved around,

The contents of the small box had eluded me; a key ring with an oversized fob that had, "I lost my keys, again!" printed on it. 

"Now don't lose your keys anymore!" Dad laughed.

FLASH-CLICK

"Five for six, and your mom and I got you!" dad bragged.

They did get me with the key ring. I had lost my key to the house and my bike lock more than once, but I doubted I would actually use the enormous, ugly thing.

"Cool gifts, everybody, thanks!" I said after verifying that Eric's gift was a Monopoly board game and another FLASH-CLICK had occurred.

"Six for seven. And I suspect foul play," dad concluded.

"Why? Just because Eric wants to play Monopoly all the time and the one we have is so old it's been taped together and missing stuff?" I countered.

"One more," Tom said, handing over a small package in white, snowy Christmas paper.

"What? Two?" I asked, surprised, and suspicious.

"Yeah, I thought I would surprise you this year," Tom offered, passing over the package with an evil grin.

Surprise me? You always do! I thought silently

"I saw what you keep in your footlocker!" Tom stated, laughing.

My footlocker? I grew worried. Tom! You wouldn't!

"Yup. I know what he keeps in that footlocker!" Tom exclaimed to all the guests who had turned toward him by then, making him the center of attention. "Go ahead, open it!" Tom said with an enormous grin.

More than once, one or another of them, even in teams, had tried to get me to open the big, blue footlocker. I never, not once, ever opened that footlocker with anyone but Tom around, and kept it locked with a padlock, despite the two small locks, one on each latch. Those keys were harder to lose as I kept them hidden under the desk.

There is no way he could know what I hide in there, even if he was around when I opened it a couple of times! What I hide in there he's never seen, I'm sure. He saw in the footlocker while it was open a couple times, but never seen any of the things hidden at the bottom. What could he possibly get me that had anything to do with Toby? He had to mean the gay porn I found. The three gay magazines with weird foreign names I'd shown him after I told him I was into guys more than girls, to prove it. As if I needed to anyway. Surely he wouldn't!

What the fuck is he up to? That's his 'gonna-blow-some-minds' grin. He's up to fucking something! And about what stuff in my footlocker? He wouldn't! And why even bring it up? What exactly is this thing, I wondered, hefting the gift.

It was about the size of a thick paperback book, like Dune, but lighter, and when I shook it, it rattled with an almost familiar sound.

"What?" came from several of them in demand of Tom.

I peeled the paper off the long side and around, revealing two new 8-track tapes, hoping opening it would keep Tom from revealing anything about what was in my footlocker that he would know about.

 "Kenny Rogers?" I exclaimed, trying to seem as if I didn't understand the gift, but relieved inside that it was only music.

The real puzzle is the eight-track format instead of album or cassette. I don't even have an eight-track player!

FLASH-CLICK

"Country music!" Tom said, exposing a well-hidden weakness of mine.

I did have quite a few country-western tapes and some albums, but they were behind other music in the stereo cabinet now, and no longer in the footlocker. Tom didn't know that I had moved them. So far no one had found them, and I had a ready dismissal of them as simply old stuff I didn't throw away yet if they should be discovered.

Laughter rang out and I blushed. It wasn't rude laughter, or teasing, or mean, it was good-natured laughter, made even more evident as Eric yelled, "Closet country case!"

"Closet country case!" the rest of the guys mimicked, all laughing.

I blushed deeper, laughed, and glanced at Tom who was smiling widely.

"We've heard you playing it, but we didn't think about buying you any," dad offered. "We didn't know who to buy, anyway."

"I heard you singing to one of those songs a few times, so I knew you liked the stuff, and since that one just came out, I didn't think you would have it," Tom concluded.

"I don't, and I wanted it, too!" I said. "Thanks, Tom, a lot."

I suddenly got an evil idea, and tried to hide the light bulb. I snickered inside.

"Well, I guess I have to admit it and come out of the closet." I took a deep breath, enjoying the look on Tom's face. " Guys, I like country music!"

More laughter followed. I noticed the looks my parents gave each other, then me.

Maybe now would be a good time to really come out of the closet? I thought.

I saw Tom shrug and take a long drink of his soda, returning the looks the other boys were aiming his way.

No, definitely not now, I have to protect Tom. If I come out now, it would be a mess with Tom. And I don't even want to risk it.

"Okay then, six for eight. Good job, Tom!" dad said, high-fiving Tom for the other missed guess. "Well, that leaves one last bit of unfinished business. If you will all follow me, mom will get Alex ready," he said, gathering the guys into a group and leading them into the kitchen.

"What's going on?" I asked as mom picked up a linen napkin and placed it over my eyes like a blindfold.

"Your dad and I have a surprise for you, just wait a minute while your dad gets everything ready."

"What? What's going on?" I kept asking.

I felt that I'd had enough surprises already. The 'talk' from my parents earlier had burned me out on surprises from them. I wasn't concerned that something similar was coming, there wasn't anything left to worry about, not that way, but I knew something was definitely up.

I tried to anticipate the surprise. I looked back over everything I could remember anyone saying today or over the last few days. Nothing fit; nothing seemed to offer a clue.

"You know, your dad and I almost lost it when they yelled closet country case! I saw his eyes get so wide! And I thought I was about to faint! Then you said that time to come out stuff! Goodness!" she said, the emotions clear in her voice.

"It was sorta funny, and scary! Do you think I should tell them?" I asked, hoping for some of the best advice mom had ever given me.

"Honey, I think you should do what feels right. But I don't think right now is the best time, though. Enjoy your birthday party. Worry about that some other time."

"Thanks, mom," I said after a short bit of time to consider it, during which I came to agree.

It was, as I hoped, some of the best advice she had ever given, and she always gave great advice.

Mom wrapped her arms around me from behind and hugged me tight. "Love you."

"Love you, too!" I said, returning the hug by holding her forearms tight, and wondering why guys said you got to old to say such things to your mom.

I felt a bit strange saying it then, yes, and I guessed I knew why they might say or think that, but I was okay with it, and I liked how good it felt to say it.

I had seen everyone go through the kitchen door to the garage, so I knew I was being led that way eventually. I guessed by the steps taken, the kind of floor under my socks, and directions turned, that we had gone around the kitchen, through the dinning room, then back into the kitchen from the front room, and now were near the kitchen table. She stopped there and spun me around in a circle several times.

"Mom!" I complained.

"Just wait," she said slowly.

She sat me down and I felt her putting what I assumed were my slippers on my feet. She helped me stand and then led me a few steps across what I was sure was the kitchen. I heard a door open and then hushed voices and laughter, snickers and urgings to keep quiet. What the hell? I wondered. She pulled me a few steps ahead and told me to watch out for a small step down. It was colder, I smelled gas and oil, and I was sure we were in the garage when mom pulled me to a stop.

"Now," she said, " guess this present," and then softly, in my ear and only to me, "you smart ass."

She held my arms out in front of me and I felt a cold, even, rough, vertical surface. It was huge! I spread my arms apart and stepped forward, closer to it. It went on out of reach in both directions, as far up as I could reach, and down until I bumped my head against it leaning forward to follow its curving surface downward.

When I struck my head, laughter was stifled from all directions, making me smile at the mood in the garage, and the fact this was one unusual present. The surface gently curved away from about waist height to top and bottom, but seemed straight from left to right. It was smooth, but not slick, and cold.

I was pulled to my right, along the solid surface, step after step.

"Any ideas?" dad asked.

"Not a freaking clue!" I said, shaking my head. "A boat?"

Barely restrained laughter from everyone.

A boat? Why the hell would my parents get me a boat? If they could afford one, they might even get one, but give me one? No way.

"You have to guess!" Tom said firmly. "Come on!"

"Fine. Only thing I can think is a boat? Flying saucer?"

"Oh come on! Close, but for real!" Jeff said, and I could hear his laughter in his tone of voice.

It was huge, no doubt. An image of a box van came to mind. It was all I could think of that would be the right size. Or a wall.

"Come on! Guess!" several of my friends prompted.

I was out of guesses, and gave the only one I had left.

"A moving van?"

Laughter led me to believe I was wrong.

"Nope, too bad, six for nine," dad said, pulling me back a couple of steps where he held me in position, then removed the blindfold.

The garage lights nearly blinded me when it was pulled away. I was facing a large, black, object. My eyes adjusted after several seconds of blinking, and I realized I was looking at a black van. An early seventies, Chevy, short van, just like Tim Miller's. Looking closer, I saw the aluminum Jellybean rims, the familiar scratches, the familiar rust spots on the body and around the wheel wells.

"Tim's van?" I asked, wondering who had invited him, and why I was being led to believe it was a gift.

Everyone said in unison. "Your van! Happy birthday!"

"My?" I asked weakly. "My, van? You bought me Tim's van!?" I asked, touching it.

It was real, I could feel the cold materials as my hand ran across the driver's window and then the door handle. I could see the black and red velvet interior through the window even through the tears welling in my eyes.

Dad grabbed my right hand, and holding it at chest height, said, "Yours," as he dropped something into my palm.

I stared at the keys and the medallion, stunned. It was the same kind of Styx medallion that I had given Toby over two years ago. I had noticed it on Tim's keyring before, but seeing it now, and holding it, and the van's keys, made what Toby had told me echo loudly in my head once again. I shivered.

FLASH-CLICK

"Uh, no way!" I said, "This can't be happening! No, absolutely way!" I went on, not even noticing the flashing and whining of the camera. "I never, not once, ever mentioned this van! How could you know?"

Looking into dad's face, I was feeling the tears starting down my cheeks, and my face growing hot and red in embarrassment of crying in front of my friends.

"Well, when you go out riding with your buds, and you stop and ogle this van every time it goes by, your buddies notice!" he explained. "They noticed, mentioned it to us, and we worked a deal with Tim."

"But, he would never sell it!" I exclaimed, knowing for a fact that he wouldn't.

"He had too," dad explained. "He lost his license for driving while his was suspended, and did a deal where he has to join the army or go to jail. He signed up and leaves Monday."

"The army? For driving without a license?" I asked, knowing full well that wasn't normal.

I wiped at my eyes, feeling like a child for crying in front of my friends.

"He also had some other charges, I didn't ask. Ask Tom, he was the middle man on the deal," dad said.

"Tom? You managed this?"

"Well, I mentioned it. The van, that is," Tom finished, looking guilty and blushing darkly.

"Like I said earlier, you can give us rides now!" Eric said, beaming.

"You knew, too?" I asked, incredulous.

"Yup. We all knew," Eric answered, beaming with pride at having kept such a secret, and so well.

I glanced at Todd in shock. He grinned back in glee. I knew then that there was more to him than I had suspected.

"Tom met Tim and his dad this afternoon and rode with them here. I got home to pay him for it, and get this from him," dad said, handing the title to me. "I guess he missed a couple classes, but his parents said it was worth it, if you help him with his schoolwork, that is."

"So, I did see you at the bookstore! That's what you were doing! You got a ride with Tim, brought him here to drop it off! That explains your wallet in the drive! And the trampled snow! And the tire tracks."

"You found my wallet?"

"I've got it upstairs," I explained absently, turning to look at my van.

I don't freaking believe it! I got a car! And it's the van!

I reached out and opened the driver's door. No lights came on, as those lights were disconnected; one of many things half-done by Tim to the van.

I'll fix that no problem! I thought gleefully. And the lights in back, and the muffler, and the door latches and the side door, and all the little things that need fixing!

"Well, hop in," dad said, slapping me on the shoulder. "Why don't you all crawl in, and me and mom will go clean up inside. I took the liberty of putting the ice chest inside with some sodas, and some chips. Have a good time, but if that thing starts, you will be able to vote before you touch it again!" dad warned, smiling.

I froze suddenly. My face felt as cold as ice, my breathing stopped, and I couldn't move a muscle. I tried to inhale but all that happened was my throat clenched shut. Those words from dad struck me like I had fallen into the cold arctic ocean. I remembered Toby's warning in what I had accepted as an hallucination six months ago. Dream, grief induced vision, or something; something not real.

"What?" dad asked, putting his hand on my shoulder.

It would sound insane! I thought, and decided to heed the words from long-lost Toby, the words that made absolutely no sense whatsoever when I had first heard them, but suddenly seemed so important.

Did I really dream him? I wondered. How would I know about the van, so many months ago? It's not fucking possible! Only if he knew! So only if he knew, and he really had come to see me!

 I swayed a bit on my feet, feeling queasy and dizzy, breathless, my heart pounding.

"Yeah, I'm okay, just surprised, dad," I said, putting a smile on as I hugged him, not caring it was in front of my friends.

I hoped and prayed he didn't notice how much I leaned on him to keep myself upright. My legs wobbled a bit as I took several shaky breaths.

At least he'll only think it's over the van!

The whole crew of boys filed into the vehicle, pouring into it through all the doors at the same time. Cries of "Cool!" and "Awesome," and "Neat" emanated from inside it.

"I am serious, son, don't start it in here," dad repeated.

Dad's warning forced the very sight and sound of Toby warning me all those months ago to play in my mind's eye. I mentally shook my head, trying to clear it. I was also trying to breathe and think.

"I know, carbon monoxide and about a hundred other chemicals," I finally said.

"I don't know what, but, yes, no starting it. You can wait until tomorrow and we can open the garage door and you can rev it up then, okay?"

"Yeah, okay, don't worry. If I started it, you could easy hear it inside, anyway, huh?" I said, wiping teary eyes again, still a bit stunned at those old sentences from Toby now coming from my dad, and right here in front of the van, too.

"And we are going to talk about that exhaust! We'll leave you alone with your friends for a while, now. Their parents are picking them up in just over an hour, so go have some fun in your van. Mom and I won't come out here until a ride arrives, okay?" dad said, hugging me one more time. "And, happy birthday, son," he finished.

"Happy birthday, Alex," Mom said, wrapping me in a tight hug as well.

"Okay, Mom, you'll make me cry again . . . " I whispered, sniffling, thinking the word, "more."

Both parents turned and started to leave when Mom spoke up, "Oh, I forgot!" and spun around, whipping the camera out and up and drawing a bead on me like some Elvin archer loading a bow and taking a shot.

FLASH-CLICK

"Got it! Another precious face for the album!" she said.

"Sorry, son," dad apologized, shrugging and leading her back into the house.

I smiled after them, loving them, and turned to climb into my van with my friends.

"Dude, let's hear that stereo!" Eric piped up.

"Yeah, and have a soda," Ryan said, handing one up.

"Wish we could smoke a doobie in here, to christen it!" Tom stated.

"Yeah, right, my parents would smell it no problem!" I said, meaning it, and knowing for a fact that they would indeed.

"Yeah, but they told you . . . uh, yeah, never mind, duh," Tom said, after remembering that I didn't want anyone to know what my parents knew. "Just have to wait until you get it on the streets," he added.

"Imagine the sex you could have on this funky bed!" Ryan said, bouncing his butt on the curved, chez-style bed filling the back quarter of the van's interior as if fucking someone sitting on his lap.

"Think of the sex that Tim Miller had on this funky bed!" Brent added.

"Ewwwwwwwwwww!" both boys said in unison, hopping off of it.

Don't get me started thinking about what I did to Tim on that bed! I thought as I put the key in the ignition and fumbled around the bulky medallion. I turned  the ignition until it clicked. I was excruciatingly careful not to start it, still remembering the warning, or dream, or whatever it had been. I turned on the radio and the sounds of AC/DC filled the van and the garage.

"Man! He left his tapes in here!" Tom exclaimed upon opening the compartment in the center of the engine cover. "Tons of them! AC, Def, Metallica, Santana, Queen . . . uh, Alex, it's got a bow on it, and your name," Tom said, handing it to me.

An eight-track! I thought, looking at Tom. He had time to buy that Kenny Rogers eight-track! He knew for a couple days I was getting the van! How long? The fucker!

I stared at the eight-track in my hands. A blue bow, like for Christmas, and the words "Happy Birthday, Alex. From Tim" written in black magic marker on the clear plastic wrapping it came in from the store.

"I didn't know he even liked you," Eric said, surprised, as were all the guys.

"Yeah, I guess he did, kinda," I answered. "At least, he gave me some tapes to play in the stereo."

I held the Queen tape, not quite knowing how to react. That tape was a secret Tim and I shared. It meant something to the two of us that wasn't anyone else's business. I didn't want to listen to Queen right then, especially not that album. And even more especially not in front of the guys.

"It has an eight-track player?" Eric asked.

"Put it in?" Tom asked.

"Ewww! Queen is fag music," Brent declared. "Let the radio go, he's got it on the best station!"

"It's not the radio," Tom answered back absently, eyeing my reaction to the gift.

"It's a tape, rich boy," Jeff shot, emphasizing the derogative.

"Well, who's a grumpy fuck?" Ryan said, laughing. "Not gettin' any off Sally? Or she not as good?" he teased.

"None of your business!" Jeff replied angrily at the other twin.

"Ooooo! Guess not!" Ryan said, making hugging gestures and kissing noises.

"Cut it out or I'll come back there and make the first stain on than bed a bloody one!" Jeff said, totally out of character.

Most of the guys were stunned into silence. Jeff never talked that way. He was the gentle one. This was the first real threat we had ever heard him make to anyone but his little brother, and then only when Todd had really pushed too far for too long. Ryan clearly didn't know how to react. He settled for giving a mumbled apology and withdrawing into an embarrassed silence.

"Sorry," Jeff said softly after Ryan's apology.

"Naw, Ryan should've apologized, not you, Jeff," Tom said, breaking the awkward silence. "And since he's my slave for another three days, he's gonna be yours until then instead. Hear me, Ryan?"

Trading slave contracts was nothing new, but offering one like this, for nothing in return, was new.

"Nah. He's your slave. I don't want him. Just make him do something gross before he's done," Jeff said, grinning evilly at Tom.

"Not a problem," Tom said, copying Jeff's grin and flashing it Ryan's way.

Ryan tossed his head, rolled his eyes, and sighed. Everyone knew that if Tom considered something gross, it was going to be gross. While some of the guys may actually have felt bad for Ryan at the moment, they all took part in the collective "O-o-o" that followed Tom's promise.

I suddenly felt like having a few minutes alone. I just needed to think about Tim and his leaving, and why he didn't mention it to me. It had been a while since I had seen him, but it was too weird. And the gift, that made me feel strange, too. My parents had told me that they knew I was gay. Even in front of Tom. Jeff was back after I had pushed him too far, and the guys were making gay comments about him and me. And I had a van, the best van in school as far as I was concerned. The van in which I had spent so much time with Tim on that very bed. A van that Toby had seemingly known about six months ago, after he had died. I needed a few minutes to regroup!

"Guys, I'm going to use the john," I said, already opening the driver's door and stepping out of the van.

It seemed so far down from that seat. I had been in and out of the passenger's side of the van, and the sliding door, but never the driver's side. I didn't close the door behind me as I headed inside, feeling down despite the happy mood in the garage.

Inside, I didn't see my parents anywhere as I walked to the gifts and placed the Queen tape on the table, touching it once before I looked at the clock. I had less than five minutes before the Dukes started, so I headed to the den and put the tape in the VCR, moved the switch to SP for the medium recording speed. I locked the record and play buttons down together and made sure it started and was on the right station. Now it would record until the tape ended, if no one stopped it before then.

Back in the kitchen, I stared at the Queen tape. That Queen tape held many memories of Tim. It had played while I had made my first "credit" deal with Tim, and several times later as well.

The same album had been a favorite of Toby's. We had played it many times, almost as much as Styx. We had sang and played along to nearly all of the songs on it. I knew the album would always bring back memories of the both of them.

It was then I understood that anything I could of had with Jeff, if anything were ever possible, would never diminish the memories of Toby. Most certainly not like my worries had me thinking they would. I understood then that you could have more than one love in your lifetime, and newer loves didn't necessarily diminish the older ones.

Those memories of Toby would be with me forever, I knew. And suddenly they were; or rather, a certain memory was suddenly with me as I sat alone in the kitchen.

Toby's Gone