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Some chapters of this story contain explicit sexual activity between teen males ranging from 14 to 18. These ages are based on the real ages of the individuals in the events. Many of the events are partially or completely fictitious, though some are true.

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Track 6

"Just Get Through This Night"

Part Three


I was fighting for one more breath of fresh air, but the fumes and smoke burned my lungs with each attempt. My heart beat against my ribs, throbbed through my ears, pulsed red flashes in my dimming vision.

My thoughts were to blame it on God, worry about not being with Toby in the afterlife, and how unfair it was that Jeff wanted me to burn.

The heat, the pain, the horrible suffocation, Jeff's laughter.

No! Why?

"You fucking slut! You'll let Tom, you'll even do Ryan, and you'll suck Erich like you're his bitch, you even want David, but not me! Never me!"

I do! But why do you want to hurt me?

I couldn't say it, though, as my lungs refused the smoke and heat.


He didn't sound right. He sounded more like one of the twins. Ryan maybe. But that didn't lessen the fire, the heat, the smoke, the horrible suffocation and coughing.

"Alex, wake up!"

I was in the van, but Ryan was shaking me by the shoulder.

"What? Why? What's going on?"

"You're having a nightmare. Wake up, man."

I was between the nightmare and awake, and I knew it. I opened my eyes. I didn't know where I was, but I knew that it wasn't the back of the van. Or my bed. I knew Ryan had seen me having the nightmare. I was humiliated.

"You okay?" he asked again.

"Just a nightmare," I said dismissively.

I felt his warmth in front of me and under my arm, remembered last night, realized where I was.

"It's cool. Go back to sleep," he said softly, nuzzling deeper.

I was too exhausted to argue or to think. I slept again, quickly.

But all too quickly, it seemed, I was woken again.

"Come on you love birds, day's ticking away," Brent said loudly from the open door.

I literally jumped out of my skin. We were naked, cuddling, barely covered by the blankets. I was humiliated again. Ryan didn't flinch.

"Fuck off," he said calmly, pulling my arm back over him.

"Fuck off? You mean, fuck until you get off?" he laughed. Then, after a pause, "Come on, guys. Wanna get breakfast, and be ready when they get here."

"After a shower," Ryan said, running his fingers through his hair.

"I'm going downstairs, I'm starved," he said, then closed the door.

After sighing deeply, Ryan moved away, stood up, and walked to his closet, naked. It was a blurry sight without my glasses, so I hurriedly put them on.

I was sorely tempted to follow him to the shower. I was sure that he would let me join him. The idea of showering with him was very tempting. A certain appendage began swelling. A certain tingle began in the same area. I followed him, naked.

"Uh, wanna share?" I asked, peeking around the corner.

He hadn't closed the door to the huge bathroom, and was standing next to the shower, his hand under the running water. He grinned, snickered, blushed, then nodded. He was more than a year younger than me, so he had some growing to do, but he was sure doing it. He was skinny, no doubts, but his chest and torso, sides and arms, looked almost toned. He had some softness at his belly and his butt, but it was nice.

We stepped in and pulled the glass door closed behind us. We took turns under the water, getting wet, soaping, shampooing, washing, rinsing. We snickered at each other at times, and at each others' erections.

Again, I was doing something very rare, though I had done a lot of sexual things. I had only showered with Toby before. Tom a couple of times, but nothing other than playful touching. Another guy, before Toby, once, and only to jerk each other off. But now, here I was again, for the first time since Toby, taking a sensual shower with someone.

And it was Ryan. I had to look, and he looked, too. And we giggled.

When he was rinsing the shampoo out of his hair, facing away from me. I put my hands on his shoulders and started rubbing them. I paused to turn the water temperature up a little. I returned to his shoulders, making him groan a little. I moved down his back, working his muscles gently. He was small and almost scrawny, but he had the upper body of a drummer, even at fourteen. He sighed often. I moved down his sides, kneading softly. I got to his narrow hips, then buttocks. His cheeks were soft and smooth, and nice. I rubbed them firmly, and wondered how he would react to what I suddenly considered doing.

He really likes dildos and being fucked, so, he'd probably like it, I figured. I leaned down some and spread his pale, little cheeks. I slid a thumb around the outside of his circle a few times, then gently pushed against it. He gasped and pushed against my thumb, taking it in. I slid it in and out a few times, then crooked it and pushed in and downward, finding his hard spot. He groaned and whined, one then the other.

After a minute or two, he said, "Thank you sir, may I have another?"

We laughed, and I gave him two fingers. I moved my other hand around him and began stroking him too. His dick was smooth and hard, and the water lubricated our skins. In the warm water, his small balls hung a little, making them even more fun to play with.

A while later, I added another finger to the two already sliding in and out of his tight hole. By then he was leaning against the wall, legs spread, gasping and groaning, pushing against my fingers and humping my fist. It was almost hypnotic watching my fingers move in and out of his hole as it gripped them. I dropped to my knees and admired it up close. I almost wanted to lick it. Another thing I hadn't done since Toby.

I got even closer for a better view, wondering how Ryan would react to my next thought. I pulled my fingers from him, then stuck the tip of my tongue against it and wiggled it.

He jerked and went, "Ooooo!"

He gasped as I licked around it, over it, beside it. It reacted considerably. He moaned a little. I probed it firmly, he gasped, it twitched, he pushed himself toward my tongue and wriggled.

"Dude! That's awesome!" he said gleefully.

He leaned forward with his forearms and elbows on the wall and spread his legs even further.

I reached under him and between his legs now to place my wet fist around his dick so that he could fuck it again while I licked and probed his behind with my tongue.

"Oh my gawd!" he said loudly. "Fucking... oh, shit!"

He quivered powerfully all over.

"Christ! You're gonna make me blow off! Stop!"

"Why stop?" I asked.

"Stand up," he said, turning around, taking his ass from my face, his cock from my hand.

He turned me around and bent me forward, then dropped to his knees. He copied what I had done to him. He was enthusiastic and thorough. It was extremely nice, and I knew right away that I wasn't going to last long either.

I started shivering in the hot water.

"Holy cow, Ry! What a student!"

He stopped as he laughed, then said, "Gonna get close soon?"

"Soon? I think I'm close already!"

He laughed and I felt a finger there. He pushed, I let it in. He moved it, soon joined another with it, found and toyed with that hard spot inside. I whimpered and panted.

He stopped and let go of my cock. I wondered what he was doing until I felt his hands pulling down on my shoulders. I spread my feet apart to lower myself until I felt something hot and soft, yet firm, against my hole. His hands held my hips as he pushed. I pushed, lowering myself a bit more, and let him in. He wasn't thick, so he gained entry easily. He pushed slowly into me until his hips met my butt, then he held there, shaking.

"Ooh, man, that's great!" he breathed behind my ear.

He wrapped his arms around me, one finding my throbbing cock, the other my balls. He withdrew, then reentered, slowly. He sighed. He began sliding in and out, slowly.

"Oh, yeah!" he breathed.

"Good," I said softly, quivering a little.

He was long enough to move in and out enough to matter, and wide enough to matter. He moved slowly, stroked me slowly.

"Hang on a sec," I said, pulling off of him.

I turned to face the side of the shower stall, so that the water landed on my back and ran down between my cheeks.

"Okay," I said, taking position.

He placed himself, then slid it up and down over my hole, teasing. I wondered how he knew to do that, or simply thought of doing it, or had seen it on a dirty movie, or heard about it. He pushed himself firmly against me, rubbing his head up and down through my crack, over my hole, making it quiver and me shake.

"Damn, Ry! Where'd you pick that up?"


"How'd you learn that?"

"Just, kinda, thought of doing it. Feeling okay?"


He laughed and said, "Cool."

Then he centered his aim and pushed. Not very hard, but hard enough to penetrate and slide in until his hips met my cheeks again.

"Awwwww!" I groaned loudly. "Damn!"

"Sorry!" he said quickly. "I didn't mean to make it hurt!"

"No! Not really. Just, kinda. It was okay."

"I'm sorry," he said gently, kissing my back, rubbing my sides.

"It wasn't that bad, honest. More a surprise than hurt. It's okay."

"I won't again. Honest."

He kissed my back more, tenderly stroked my sides and hips, then my buttocks.

"Okay?" he asked gently.

"Oh, yes!" I breathed.

He pulled back a bit, then moved so that only his head slid through my ring.

"Dang, that's so cool!" he said happily. "Yeah!"

"I know! It feels great!"

He did that for a while, then slid in deeply again, pushed firmly, held there, pushed more. He grunted. He pushed harder.


He pulled back, then entered again, deeply. He pushed firmly. It felt as if his dick swelled momentarily. He gasped. He started stroking in and out in a smooth rhythm. He grabbed my hips and sped up. The warm water hit my back and ran down between my cheeks, over his hardness and my softness, then down my thighs. It also slapped loudly between our skin.

He groaned a long, "M-m-m-m-m-m-m," repeating it several times as he fucked me at a moderate pace. He fell out from time to time, getting overly enthusiastic. I rather liked it, as the feeling of him re-entering was very good. He was doing well, and I was enjoying it immensely, but, I wanted more.

"Deeper, Ry."

He complied, shoving himself tightly up against me. I was sure I could feel his dick swell thicker.

"Give it to me. All of it."

He grunted and shoved.

"Oh, yeah!" he whispered.

He began fucking me a little faster and harder than before. He was doing magic back there. Toby had been the first to do that to me, and the only one until just a month ago. I hadn't known that I had missed it so much until Tom had, nor had I known I had missed it so much again until right then.

He nearly removed himself, then fully pushed his entire length inside me again. Once in a while he would pull back too far and fall out, but again, I liked the feeling of him going back in. I let him go like that for a while, but I wanted more.

"Faster," I nearly begged.

He complied. Our skin made loud slapping sounds, and the both of us made our own sounds, groaning and moaning, complementing each other. One of his hands went to my cock. It was sensitive and jerked as he wrapped his fingers around it and started stroking it, letting the water lubricate our skins.

"Geeze!" I almost cried out.

I shivered all over. That powerful tingling was rising between my thighs, under my balls, around Ryan's cock. I adjusted the water and now the nearly hot water hit my back and ran downward, then between my cheeks and around his hardness, over the sensitive skin between my ass and sack, then down the insides of my thighs. Those sensations were incredible!

"Oh, gawd, yeah!" I moaned.

"Yes!" he said onto my back. "Oh, fuck yeah!"

Soon I begged, "Harder! Fuck me, Ry!"

Our feet slipped a little, he was fucking me so hard, so fast, slamming himself deeply into me. The sound of our skin coming together was more a slamming sound than slapping, and our groans and moans were louder as well. He fell out a little more often at first, but in a little time he found his range and did so far less. His hand on my cock was working slowly, not rushing, and often stopped or moved so slowly that it was nearly the same as having stopped.

The sensation of his cock sliding through my ring of muscle and along the inside of me was bringing me close to an incredible finishing. His hand wasn't necessary at all, but it felt so very good, too, when he loosened his grip and moved his skin over the skin of my cock, never moving the skin of my cock on purpose. He began to slide his finger and thumb from the tip to the base.

I shivered powerfully, head to toe. Even deep inside.

"Oh, shit, Ry, you're making me cum!" I said, barely able to get the words out.

His hand on my cock sped up, tightened, but never moved the skin over the shaft, only giving friction with his skin. He suddenly concentrated on my head, and that was the final straw. I exploded. I clamped down on his cock with my ass, fought to stay on my feet and to breathe.

"Don't stop!" I repeated several times in a heavy, grunting whisper.

As I came, his fingers ran along only my head, over the hole at the tip, around the surface of the head, back to the edges, then forward again to the tip, spreading my warm, slippery cum. My hole clamped around his dick, the resistance increasing my pleasure. It was so intensely pleasurable that I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't see even though my eyes were open. I quaked, actually shook so hard that my head swayed back and forth on my neck, out of my control. Random muscles retracted and flexed all over my body. Again and again and again waves of cum fired from me. I knew that I couldn't have damaged any of the wall tiles with my cum, but it felt as if I could have with those first shots. Each time, I jerked uncontrollably, clamping down on his cock so powerfully that it almost hurt.

When I stopped cumming, I was weak, hardly able to stand. I was surprised that I still was. Shivers ran up and down my body. I finally gasped for air, suddenly panting. He didn't stop playing with my cock, giving me extreme pleasure.

"Holy fucking shit!" I exclaimed in ecstasy, fighting to not stop his hand.

Rampant, powerful tremors ran through every muscle, almost in time with his thrusts into me. He wasn't very big, so having him inside me as I came didn't hurt, but it did feel so intensely good that it almost hurt. Each contraction around him felt as if it might almost be tearing something, small, pinching pains that let me know something solid was in the way.

"Uh! My turn!" he grunted.

His hand on my hip went to my shoulder, pulling me down onto him. I complied, still wanting all of him inside of me, moving through me.

He grunted wordlessly and pushed deep, hard, then held. I thought that I felt his cock swelling larger inside me. I felt warmth and wetness spread inside of me. He quivered against me, panting, "Fuck!" with each heavy breath. I felt him swelling and pulsating inside of me as he otherwise held motionless, except for his efforts to push himself deeply into me.

After long moments of him pulsating inside me and shaking slightly as he shoved himself all the way into me, he collapsed with a long, drawn out, "A-h-h-h-h-h."

His hand began rubbing my cock head again, making me jerk spasmodically all over, but mostly my hole around his cock.

"Ooh!" I panted as his hand squeezed my head, rubbing the last of my cum around my hot, sensitive head. "Ooh, Ry! Stop already!"

He didn't.

"Oh, man! Almost hurts!" I said, not really complaining, my body tensing powerfully.

I shivered intensely and my legs gave out. I slid down the wall, his cock pulling from me, making him gasp. I turned my back to the wall and panted for breath. He joined me there, breathless, grinning, sitting directly in front of me, his back against my chest. I put my arms around him and held him. He held my arms with his hands. We let the hot water run over us for a few minutes, our breaths eventually returning to normal. I kissed the back of his neck. He giggled.

"We better get out there or he'll come in here looking for us," I said after a while, with more than a little sadness.

"Yeah, guess so," he said, sounding even more sad than I felt.

I wondered who felt worse about breaking apart, and why. We dried each other, laughing a little, losing the melancholy as we did certain areas. We dressed each other, snickering, especially as we paid close attention to tucking things away.

"Alex, thanks," he said as we walked toward the door.

I looked at him and saw his grin and his frown.

"What's wrong? But, uh, you're welcome, I guess. And, thanks, too. But, what's with the down kind of grin?"

He sighed deeply and stood with a hand on the doorknob.

"Man, it's just, I, I wish we had done that before. Not so late."

"So late?"

What's with this again?

He shook his head, letting me know that he couldn't or wouldn't say more.

I pulled his shoulder until he was facing me again.

"What's the deal?"

I had managed to not say, deal-e-o, but barely.

He wouldn't look at me, only stared at the floor.

"Trust me. It's nothing bad, but, I, I don't think we'll get to again."

"Just tell whoever it is that he better know how lucky he is. Or she. Or I'll steal you back from 'em."

He laughed and looked at me, blushing a little. His lopsided grin was adorable, and I found myself thinking that I would indeed be willing to steal him away from anyone who didn't treat him right.

He was still a little shorter than me, but growing fast, so I had to lean down just a little to kiss him. It felt odd suddenly. It was Ryan. I kissed Ryan.

We snickered.

"Thanks, Alex."

I hugged him. He hugged me back.

"If we don't ever again, I'll miss it. But we better not be less of friends. Got me?"

"Uh-huh," he said enthusiastically into my chest, nodding.

It was hard to let go of him, harder than I could have expected. I almost felt that by letting go of him then and there, I was somehow letting go of him forever. We were silent as we walked to the large room with the television and games, trying not to blush obviously, but we were failing.

"Got a joint ready?" I asked as we neared Brent from behind.

"Holy crap, you guys did survive," he said as he turned around to look at us. "Thought maybe I'd go back and find dried-out corpses, all drained dry."

We laughed shortly.

"Barely," Ryan said with a snicker.

I elbowed him as we rounded the end of the couch, blushing even further.

"Oh, please. Like I didn't know before I saw," Brent said with a roll of his eyes.

"You should've helped your brother out, man," I said at him, grinning evilly. "Alone, he barely kept up."

He laughed under a breath, turned red, and said, "Nah, it was fun, but not my thing anymore."

"Brent's got blue-balls for Dana Westhoven," Ryan said gleefully.

"Do not!" Brent lied loudly.

We watched "Caddyshack" on channel nine. I rolled a joint, lit it, hit it, and then passed it to Ryan. He smiled so nicely as he took the joint from me. He looked different. His smile was as cute as ever, his clean face and hair the usual Ryan, but there was something new. I couldn't put my finger on it.

I laughed, thinking of what I had put in him. And he in me.

Stop it! You want caught thinking that? Caught? By who? Brent just saw us naked in bed, hugging, and acted like it was no big deal, just a reason to crack a joke. And he knew why we had taken so long to come out. And he knew Ryan was going to take a shower. He also had to notice my hair was wet, too.

Ryan passed the joint to me, and I passed it to Brent.

I watched him hit it, his pale peach lips never touching it, just as I had taught them. I wished again that his lips had touched my cock, at least once. But it had been great doing what we had done all those times. Not as often, or as many times, or as many different things as his brother, but lots of fun times. And not just the sex. He was fun to be with, to talk to, to hang out with, and to play music with. His gray eyes, so like his brother's, caught me staring as he grinned around the joint after finishing his hit.

He kept grinning at me as I took the joint from him. I was fairly sure he knew where my mind was. It didn't matter. I wasn't embarrassed. I grinned back. I winked. I hit the joint deeply, held my breath, passed it to Ryan.

What'd he mean, last night and this morning, by not being able to do that again? Before what happened? Before what changed? What was happening that would mean we couldn't have sex with hugs and kisses again? Or mess around at all? Why would we have to stop? Is he going to ask someone out? Is there some other reason? What is it? I love doing it with him. Even before, the simple ways we had done things with only our hands and mouths. But I loved what we did last night and this morning. Both ways. At least he knows what he can expect from whoever. If it's a guy. Might be a chick. He said at my birthday party that he didn't see why anyone had to choose boys or girls, that he liked both. Whichever, or both, he's gonna break some hearts, no doubt. So fucking cute. In a little dorky sort of way. Not as much as before.

Just like Brent, I thought, passing the joint to him after double-hitting it from Ryan and getting away with it. He's changed, in looks, anyway. Going to change more. Both of them.

Change, change, change. In them, in me, in everyone, in everything. I wanted changes, and here they are, but so many suck. I want to change myself, but it's so hard. And what changes should I make? And would they really count?

And talk about change! Today's Sunday. Sorta had a Circle left-over party last night, and today I'm waiting for the band to come over. Instead of hoping their parents weren't or wouldn't be coming home, and maybe spending the day playing movies and games. And messing around at least a couple more times. But not anymore, according to Ryan. Probably never again.

It was his certainty of it that made it so certain to me. Getting stoned was still there, and that was about all, aside from the three of us.

We were all three silent, smoking, thinking. Well, I was thinking. They might have just been zoning. But then, so was I at times. I kept my grin going, though it cost a lot to. Brent grinned his happy, nothing to worry about, getting stoned, good times ahoy, grin. Ryan wore his, nothing to see here, nothing going on at all, just having a buzz, grin.

By the end of the joint, the guys began arriving. Brian and Riley both came this time. It was an even larger group than before. The twins were both excited and wired again, as was seemingly going to be the usual for practice. I was excited and wired too, but not naturally, and not as much so. I was pretty tired, though.

Kevin, Terry, Wil, Brian, Riley, Bill, Adam, David, the twins, and me. Eleven of us, set up and wired into a massive audio mixing deck that Adam had brought today. He was willing to leave it there until the gig Friday, if practices were going to be there daily. Microphones everywhere, even on both of the keyboards. Wires everywhere, but a clear attempt had been made to keep them somewhat orderly. Adam knew what he was doing.

I was amazed that I was sitting in with them. Such an incredible change.

It might have felt even more normal if the adorable David weren't there to remind me that I was a raging homosexual.

I couldn't help but wonder why I wasn't worried about what Ryan and I had done last night or this very morning. I assumed it was because I knew that it was only between the three of us, and that neither he nor his brother would ever reveal any of it. Though the snide, joking comments were coming, I knew.

As I thought about him, I glanced his way, and Ryan glanced my way, and I would have sworn he was thinking of me - or what we had done together - as our eyes met. We both threw on our snickering grin, and the moment ended. But I couldn't deny that the moment had happened.

"So, how did you guys all get together?" Brent asked as everyone neared readiness.

"Well, when you're good, everybody wants to join up. Me and Terry known each other since before school, and we both fucking love guitars. He got good on the bass, me on the rhythm. We can switch, but he's better on rhythm than I am on bass.

"But, we got good. In junior high, we ran into Brian here, and he was already good on rhythm, and was really good with acoustic. We ran into Wil, too. Best bassist I know, even then. Natural.

"We played all through junior high with James. The dick. Never liked him much, just the best drummer, is all. Good riddance, really."

He looked at the twins and grinned.

"Anyway, like I said, good attracts good. Best, the best. We was, the best. By end of freshman year, Riley here came callin', sayin' he was a better bassist than Terry. We still ain't decided.

Most of them laughed. Some inside joke, I realized.

"But he plays harmonica, pretty dang good, too. And Bill. He's good, just not fast. When he practices, he kicks ass, but his fat ass is too lazy to."

Bill flipped him off, as usual.

"Adam showed up last year when we put up a call on the school music board for a sax player. Three guys showed up, two could play the stuff we wanted to play, and Adam kicked the other guy's ass all over the place. Plus he's a whiz with the sound system and mixer.

"We put up for a piano and a keyboardist, too. Some guys showed up, but nobody could play any Styx, Foreigner, or Journey, and that's what we really wanted. David here could play almost everything else, but, uh, the other guy, he was better, so we went with him. He got hurt, David filled in. And there we were, when I heard you were the guy to talk about for some Styx synth."

He seemed done, but he had raised the same old question again.

"So, who's this other guy? Why's he out?"

"Like I said, he got his hands injured. Be back in a week or two. You'll meet him then. Right now, we're blowin' time. Let's practice."

Both hands injured? I thought. Nah. No way. He don't play any instrument.

They started with the sets they had planned for the student union next weekend. They were a good band, and it was good rock, with almost no synthesizer and little piano. We practiced "Cold As Ice" several times. I was getting better at it, and almost happy with it. More Foreigner songs, working with David, practicing my own parts.

We broke for a rest and a movie. The twins showed off their LaserDisc player and quadraphonic sound system, and we watched Alien. I loved the show, and the twins had gotten it expressly for me just a month ago. The disc was clear, crisp, and the sound was clear, loud, and full of rumbling bass. It was amazing, again. The other guys were amazed, too.

I joined them for some lines of coke during the short break we took after the movie. Again, David made it clear that he didn't like me doing lines. He was quiet for a while, but forgot it after a few minutes as we sat around, talking about music. Eventually Kevin mentioned Paradise Theater and his idea to play the entire album on stage. He was sure it would be a smash. Styx was immensely popular after the release of Paradise Theater two years ago, and had been a popular band ever since The Grand Illusion in 1977.

"I've been looking for a keyboardist to do Styx with since freshman year," he said, looking at me with a wide grin. "And now I got one, I'm gonna do this."

He got up and ended the break by heading toward his guitars.

I had known it was coming, and I knew it was going to hurt. Paradise Theater. The whole album, start to finish. It was Kevin's dream gig, and the rest of the guys were all looking forward to it, too. I was, in a way, but I was dreading it far more. Even the practice with them.

I had been asked to join mostly due to my Styx synthesizer experience. What had happened between Kevin and me at school may have played a part, but it wasn't why. I had played a few songs with them, easy stuff that was in demand and had little synthesizer, but the entire Paradise Theater album was heavy with synthesizers.

I had the shivers, shudders, more like, as I headed toward the Oberheim. It had started to become comfortable again, or, at least, not as nerve racking as it had been with them at first. But now, knowing what was coming, those nerves fired up all over again as I sat down at it. And, of course, I thought of Toby. And Jeff. But mostly, Toby.

Just him and me in my little room, door closed, and no one near. And hours of playing and singing, especially to Styx, and each other.

But now, with the twins again. And these guys, strangers for the most part. And soon, play the entire, beloved, deeply emotionally-laden music in public? I shuddered.

I tried to hold my hands still, pretending to go over the controls of the Oberheim. They were set, and I knew how to play it, for the most part. Just not in a room with mostly strangers, other than the twins.

Oh, how it helped to maintain that link with the twins, and the familiarity and support they provided. Their driving drums kept things grounded, and their humor and energy was empowering. I saw things they did and heard things they said that made me sure they were glad I was there as a familiar anchor as well.

"You said you learned to play with Styx?" Wil asked.

"After I learned the keys and stuff, I learned Equinox, Crystal Ball, Grand Illusion, Pieces, and Cornerstone. And then, Paradise Theater."

"You can do the synth on Midnight?" he asked, seeming surprised.

"Not totally. I mean they used tracking and shit. But I can do the main stuff, the rhythm notes. And yeah, the fast stuff just before half way through, just not that great until I get some practice again."

"Nice!" Kevin said, grinning. "We can work on getting to play that one, for sure."

We worked things out verbally. The guys knew their guitar parts, having practiced together. It was the twins, David, and I that were the unknowns, the unproven ones. David would take the piano work, and I would take the effects and organ sections. David wasn't comfortable with many sections yet, and warned us that he needed more practice.

With the details worked out, Kevin said it was time we got to the real work and did some playing. That sent my guts into another fit and my muscles into nearly epileptic spasms. I began sweating.

"Okay, guys. From the intro, on David."

David played the intro to "Rockin' The Paradise," just as I knew he would from his description. He played it, but not well. I knew that I could do it far better. Kevin sang, sounding nearly perfect. I got goose bumps.

Am I really fucking doing this? I asked myself.

Here goes.

I keyed the words, making the Oberheim sing.

Kevin visibly melted. It was good that he wasn't singing at that moment. He did come back in late, though. That he was late rejoining, and the line was, "so take your seats, and don't be late," got most of us laughing.

He was almost unable to sing, he was smiling so widely. When he sang, "we need your spirits high," his voice soared in his joy.

He rolled down smoothly, nicely, then circled his arm like a propeller, singing, "here, at the Par-ra-a-a-a-a," then brought his arm down sharply, "dise!"

Things went loud as the twins jumped in along with him, Terry, and David.

Kevin held that note, wavering, loud, smooth. He and Terry played the song well, the twins beat along perfectly.

I sat there, nearly stunned, almost not thinking, listening to "Rockin' The Paradise" being played live again. And I was right there, a part of the band. Everyone joined in on the choral section that led into the guitar and piano solos. Wil and Kevin were excellent. Both of them knew the part, and it sounded so good I wanted to hug them.

My eyes grew misty.

Not now, ya fag! Geeze! You're in a fucking band, don't wipe your eyes in front of 'em!

The song filled the room in the way that only the twins on drums and myself on synthesizer never could. The shivers of fear and worry gave way to joy and accomplishment. I was actually playing Paradise Theater with a real band! And it sounded wonderful!

They rolled out of the solos into the ending section, and they all hit the ending dead on.

"How was that?" Kevin asked Terry and Adam.

"Sounded good," they both said in unison.

"Alex, can you do the entire piano parts through the whole album?"

I nodded, wondering what was coming, if he was going where I feared he was.

"I mean, from hearing it. Obviously I didn't get all the notes right a lot. But I might be able to learn it all okay. With David's help."

"Wanna try both? See how rusty you are?"

No. But I saw the twins, waiting expectantly, smiling at me, urging me to.

"The twins are used to playing with you, so let's see how it goes with you doing it the way you know, huh?" Kevin urged.

The twins kept urging me onward. I nodded and Kevin grinned.

"Hit it," he said, nodding at me.

I hit the proper presets for the piano on the lower row, then hit the presets for the airy, synth voices for the upper keys. It required both hands for a lot of it.

I took control of my breath. I brought my meditation practice to mind, taking hold of my body. My hands were shaking, but I calmed them. I steadied my guts. I loosened the tension in my brow, my face, my neck, on down, finally popping my ankles as I stretched my feet. I exhaled. I nodded.

I started it, playing slow and easy, only punching on the first notes, just as done on the album. I didn't think of what I was doing, what I was playing, or who else was there. I just let myself hear the music and play. It felt good. No, it felt great.

I played it just as I had all those times on that very synthesizer with the twins, but I added the emotions of all the times I had played it on the cheap keyboard with Toby. I ended on that downbeat just before it segued into, "Rockin' The Paradise."

"Oh, suh-weet!" Adam said smoothly.

"Damn," Wil agreed, grinning even wider than Kevin.

"Fuckin' bril," David almost whispered.

I opened my eyes at the sound of his voice, and looked at him. He was smiling softly, but enthusiastically. His eyes almost sparkled. He was adorable.

"Okay, guys, let's do this." Kevin said enthusiastically, breaking the moment.

Everyone readied.

"From the top, on Alex, and go right into Rockin'."

I played the intro again, slightly better. Kevin's voice joined, and I grinned in joy.

I enjoyed hearing Kevin sing, and I enjoyed playing the beloved music. I keyed the upper board, playing the husky, whispering words. Kevin sang again. We toned down for the join, and suddenly the twins and the others joined Kevin's voice, and my keyboard, and "Rockin' The Paradise" filled the room with that wonderful music. This time, I was fully playing. I was fully part of it.

I felt only my hands and the keys. I heard the drums, the guitars, their voices, and my notes. And it was great. I sang softly, but energetically, and with the microphone pointed well away from me. I pounded the keys. I bounced on the seat. I shook my head side to side, bobbed it up and down. Then it was mostly Kevin and me, carrying that sound through the bridge. It was a challenging section, and one I had spent countless hours honing and working on with the twins. I pounded those keys like they threatened my very life.

Guitars wailed, Kevin's voice screamed, the others ranging with the chorus in joyful exuberance. And I rolled my fingers over the keys, nearly as well as I had ever done.

I felt joy.

As we trailed the song out, I knew I was grinning, but I felt too good to care.

I just played the first part of Paradise Theater with a real group! Wonder how bad I did? Will they let me play it? Do I want to play it on stage? Or would I freak and fuck up?

"Okay, Too Much Time," Kevin said, still looking at me.

I set up.

Brent tapped time, as we had done a hundred times in the past. I rolled down the keys, then back up slightly, those smooth, windy hisses sounding great. Then I rolled onto the lower keys and the rhythm section. The twins dropped their beats in, I played the tones on the top keys while maintaining the rhythm on the lower. Kevin and Wil dropped their strings in at the right times, sounding great.

I was a little rough, not having played it as much or recently, and not with both hands at the same time, so I dropped notes from time to time, but I was doing it. I was playing Styx with an actual band. I knew I was smiling, but I didn't have the time to really think about that, I had to concentrate on not concentrating on my hands.

The keyboard section during Kevin's solo was easy, so I got to listen to him play it, and I was impressed. But then it was time for those higher wavering notes on the top keys, which I got right, happy with myself.

The last section of the song was the challenge. I had to maintain the rhythm section with one hand, while changing settings on the top keys with the other. And those fingers were sore. I managed just in time.

Brent tapped the edge of a drum, sounding like a ticking clock. I rang the bells, sliding down the keys and raising the bass line on the settings.

"Holy fucking hell," Kevin said emphatically.

"Man, he did the piano and synth at the same fucking time," Wil said. "How can you do that?"

"It lets me set each row to different settings. I put piano on the bottom-"

"I mean," he said, interrupting me, but not rudely."How'd you learn to play with both hands like that?"

"He can do a lot of things with both hands," Ryan said, smiling widely.

I almost yelled at him, but I thought that would only make it worse. Brent snickered.

"I can write with both hands."

"Same time?" Kevin asked with a laugh, just kidding.

I nodded.

"You're kidding?" Terry said doubtfully.

I shook my head, starting to feel like a freak again, as I was used to feeling.

"And you're out of practice?" Kevin asked.

"Well, been playing Paradise the last few days," I said.

"Since when?"

"Last week."

"One week?"

I nodded.

"How long did you play before you stopped?"

"Pretty much the day it came out."

"I mean, play, at all."

"Five, maybe six years. Rock. I, um, played a lot of classical and country before."

"As a kid?" David asked.

I nodded, looked to him, saw something on his face I couldn't translate.

"When did you first play?"

"Don't remember."

"Before school?"

"Don't remember. Probably about the same time."

"You didn't play for how long until last week?" Kevin asked.

"Uh, about eight months."

He shook his head and turned toward the rest of the band, then shrugged.

"Okay, got any surprises for Nothing?" he asked me.

"Surprises?" I asked. "It's pretty straightforward."

He counted, the twins tapped time.

All of us jumped in. Kevin rocked the strings intro, and Terry took the vocal lead, his voice sounding great. The synthesizer was fairly slow and easy, and I knew what to do. I was startled when the saxophone was suddenly there. I hadn't thought of it, and hadn't been looking around. Adam was blowing on it, making those wonderful sounds. I wondered what he would sound like playing that horn section alone. I didn't have to wait long, and he sounded great. I hurriedly changed settings, then played the backing horns behind him. Kevin pumped air with his fist, nodding, grinning. Then Wil walked his guitar through the solo, making it sound almost as good as it should. He obviously played it a lot. It was incredible.

When Terry wailed up the scale, it was almost soul-inspiring. He sang about how he was still surprised, even when things still went wrong. Then Adam took his sax through the paces, sounding clear and strong. I wondered how long he had been playing to get that good. He wailed down and out to the final notes, and I had to blink rapidly or else wipe at my eyes.

"Nice," Kevin said. "Okay, Best Of Times. You can make that thing sing again?" he asked at me.

I nodded, setting controls and checking keys.

He counted, he started singing, I started playing the mellow piano notes. I walked my fingers over the upper keys, making the instrument almost sing the words. Kevin grinned at me. I felt odd, but wonderful. I played those soft notes with one hand, the piano with the other, grinning. The song built, the twins began hitting harder, the guitars jumped in. Kevin, Wil, and Terry sounded wonderful on the chorus. I loved it. Then we were trailing the song downward, into soft, round, beautiful notes. I came up behind their words with soft, smooth, notes. Then the song rose again, the crescendo of, "of times," bringing my smile to a new high.

Kevin took the high vocals, Wil the middle, Terry low, their voices soaring out over us. I was nearly in rapture. The harmony was so sweet, so smooth, so wonderful. I couldn't believe I was part of the music filling the room.

Then the song wound down to Kevin's gesture.

"Fucking, kick, fucking, ass," he said, grinning still. "Alex, magic! Guys," he said at the twins, "You bored yet?"

He laughed, and we all joined him, releasing energy. I felt elated. I had worried so much about feeling sad while playing the loved songs, but instead, I was nearly beaming. I had just played the first half of Paradise Theater with a real band, and the twins, and we had done well. I had done well.

I wished that Toby could have seen and heard, but then I knew that he had. I could almost feel him there. No, I could feel him there. I almost needed to wipe at my eyes, but enough blinking did the trick, keeping my head down, pretending to adjust settings on the keyboard.

"Awesome job, dudes! Let's break," Kevin said as he swung his guitar off over his shoulder.

"How about Wil's voice?" David asked.

"I know! He's got talent. It's hard to hit those notes and stay solid!"

I knew, having tried for over two years, until my voice was no longer even slightly capable of trying.

"And Kevin sounded so dead on!" I added.

"Yeah, no kiddin', that," David said, heavily accented.

I loved it.

I wanted to keep him talking. Not only to hear his soft, warm voice, not only to hear his wonderful accent, but so that I could keep looking into his cute, gentle face.

Kevin and the original band members went to the bathroom in several groups. I didn't want to anger David, so I went later to do another line from the coke Kevin had given me. David and I joined the twins on the short couch, smoking a joint, drinking sodas, talking about what we had just done. David and I sat together, with Ryan on the other side of me, and his brother on the far side of him. All of us were excited, but I doubted they were anything nearly as overjoyed as I was.

I wanted to play more, but I didn't know what I wanted to play. I had just played half of Paradise Theater, and without crying, much to my surprise. Other songs began swirling around in my head, many of them bringing a mix of emotions and thoughts of Toby. There were older songs, though, that didn't have memories of him. But the thoughts of him had come, and had done their work. His memory had become far less painful once I had learned for certain that he continued to exist, was merely out of reach, for now.

I wanted to play, "Tainted Love." It alone stood as a special reminder of Toby. There were other songs, too, but none so completely Toby that weren't country. I almost needed to play it. When, later, someone mentioned munchies, and they headed downstairs in a rowdy mass, I remained behind. I was left alone.

I grinned as I moved to sit at the Oberheim. I set up the controls and started playing. The song was unusual, and not of the kind that I usually found myself liking. It was quirky, which I liked somewhat, but it was also very electronic, which I found almost fake. "Tainted Love" took the synthesizer to a new level, and created new sounds with it. But it was what the song became between Toby and me that propelled it into something far more.

The melody was quick, and anything but easy. It came back by the end of the first try through, but not very well. The second time was better, and I sang. I sounded awful, trying to replicate the same voice I had used with Toby. I followed Jeff's advice from the time I had played and sung with him, and dropped my voice to near my new, natural voice. I liked it. I played it again, singing again. I felt good. Sad, a little lost, a bit of pain, but good.

I began the remixed version of, "Where Did Our Love Go," but almost instantly began feeling so sad that I gave up.

I sighed deeply. I was smiling a little, but feeling more sad than happy. I tapped a few keys randomly.

Things just don't go easy, do they? I asked myself, still smiling a little, but not feeling much happiness. I get Toby, for a couple short summers, and that's it. I get Jeff for a couple short weeks, that's it. I get the van for a couple short days, and that's it. Will this music thing be like that, too? Will something take it away from me too soon? Is something taking Ryan away? What about Tom? Jeff? The Circle? What else will I lose? And when?

I was back on the couch when they all returned. Kevin and the guys took the other couch, opposite David, the twins, and me. They asked us about songs we knew we could play, how long we had been able to play them, how much practice we would need with the ones needing it, and other such questions.

I felt as if David and I were competing for one space on the band. I hoped that wasn't the case. I found myself wanting to play with them, and him. At least once more, especially for the Paradise Theater show.

Just get through this night, I thought, and play decent, and you'll get to play Paradise Theater! Just think of that! With a real band! Just get through this night!

As others were asked questions, I took the time to look at the band members as they sat across from us newcomers. I had known Kevin for almost three years, almost our entire time in high school. Kevin looked the part of a band member, even a leader. He always wore jeans, some slightly torn, and a t-shirt, usually of an album or concert. His medium-brown hair was wavy, always a little long, right now almost touching his shoulders, and parted down the center and feathered back. He was a little tall, and a little soft, but not fat or round. His face was oval, and wasn't smooth, his acne under control most of the time. He had a beginning mustache over his average lips, under his wide nose. His dark-brown eyes below his heavy eyebrows were warm when you got to know him. He was a good guy, even though he had freaked out when he found out I was gay. He was getting around on his wrapped foot well now, almost never using both crutches. His blackened eyes were healing up, now barely marked, and his nose had returned to its normal size.

Terry was more attractive, to me, anyway. The bassist's lighter hair was always nicely ordered, and always a bit shorter, though still long by most parental standards, and it didn't curl like Kevin's. Terry's eyes were a nice blue, but nothing as stunning as Jeff's. His square, firm face was marred by acne at his temples and chin, but otherwise clear and still slightly tanned from the distant summer. He was as trim as Kevin, though he seemed to show a slightly more developed upper chest and arms. He was far quieter than Wil, but often funnier, and his voice was very good, especially at the high vocals I had hears from him so far. He had a voice that could reach those highs in Styx songs that I so wished that I could. I envied him that to no end.

Wil was even more attractive, to me. He had dark brown hair, almost black, and was the tallest there. His narrow, oval face had a prominent nose and weak chin. His light-gray eyes with those thick lashes were almost stunning under his thin, dark brows. Why I liked him so much, I wasn't sure, but I thought him very cute. Maybe it was his nice, rounded, full, red lips, and his constant, easy smile. He was slightly thinner than either Kevin or Terry, and wore baggier clothing, mostly black jeans and a black t-shirt. He was talkative, outgoing, and a guitar guru. He played different bass and rhythm guitars, and acoustic.

Brian was interesting, but not really attractive. And not just because he could also play bass, rhythm, and acoustic guitars. His mess of tightly-curly brown hair was in a frizzy, rough, 'fro style, wild and free. He was larger than anyone else there, but for Bill. He was taller than all of them except Wil. His face was narrow and long, with mostly clear skin and wide, narrow lips. His bright blue-gray eyes were always flashing and bright. He was one of the class clowns, and always in a great mood. I found that music made him even more so, though he was quieter when playing.

Bill was big. Tall and wide. The drummer's face was scarred with old acne, and fresh afflictions were almost always present. He had dark-brown eyes, heavy eyebrows of the same dark brown hair as crowned his head, and sideburns starting to fill in, but still rather weak. His wide face was almost always open, though. He seemed the type to always know what was going on around him, even when his face was in a book, which it often was, mostly of the hard science-fiction type. I wondered why I hadn't seen him at one club or another, but figured his music kept him busy when he wasn't reading, or eating.

Riley was probably the cutest of them all. Another bassist, and probably the best and most versatile. He could also play some harmonica. He was cute enough to want to get alone and see if he would be willing to experiment. He was shortish, his slim, almost skinny build lending itself well to his frame. His bright-blond hair was short and neat. His face was long and narrow, and completely clear. He had a wide smile framed with deeply-red, slightly-thin lips. He wore gold wire-framed glasses, much like my own and Tom's, but his were slightly rose tinted. I couldn't tell what color his eyes were, but they were dark, as were his lashes, but his brows were fair and faint. He dressed in jeans, a white, short sleeved, collared shirt, and tan hiking boots.

Adam was rather cute to my eyes as well. His sandy hair was a bit dark, but his brows were light and fair, though heavy, over his dark eyes. His face was somewhere between round and square, and his features fit it well; fairly strong nose, chin, and cheek bones. He had a slim build, but wide shoulders. He wasn't tall, probably the same height as me. He had an All-American healthy-teen kind of look. I loved his smile, his lips, the way he moved them when he spoke. He talked a bit slow and deliberately, not excitedly even when excited. Maybe it was that he played the sax, but I found him appealing, even though most girls would. He was clearly experienced and capable with the wiring and sound system.

Then there was David. Piano and vocals. Mostly chorus, but he could get high and clear, and good enough to solo, I was sure. Slim, a little short; deep-red hair down to between his shoulder blades; blue-gray eyes; fair, light complexion that was completely clear; red, firm lips around a nice smile. Those light, fair, almost invisible eyebrows. His delicate, slender fingers. His grace, his accent, his laugh. I knew he was going to be a huge distraction.

I wanted him. Badly. I knew it, and I knew it was a problem. But I wanted this band thing, now that I had a taste of it. I had liked playing Rick's party, and again at the student union last night. I knew it was getting into my blood. I was looking forward to playing, somewhat, though very worried over doing so in public. I knew I would be relieved when their regular keyboardist returned and I could back out if I wanted, without causing any trouble to what I was beginning to think of as new friends.

The question-and-answer session lasted for two joints on each couch, then Kevin gestured us toward the instruments.

I felt my guts churn yet again.

I'm gonna play, again. Shit. But, these guys are cool. They like how I play. I guess I ain't bad, or Kevin and the rest wouldn't be happy with me sitting in. Right?

Right, I said, almost convincing myself.

David and I took our seats at the keyboards, and they seemed different for a moment. They seemed unfamiliar. I shook my head then looked around. Only when I saw the twins did I seem to settle back into my familiar existence, though it was still a bit unfamiliar with all the new faces in the old, familiar room.

I sighed.

I wish I had brought Toby here, I thought with sadness. But if I had, he would've left a potent ghost here. At least this way, it's easier to not think about him so much. Jeff, though, now that's-

I was interrupted by Kevin.



"I asked if you had anything for Lonely People."

I realized that I had been caught daydreaming. And about Toby and Jeff, the two guys I had had relationships of sorts with. I shook myself back into the present.

"Uh, yeah. Um, I can do rain and thunder in the open. And I can mimic the horns a little."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Okay, cool, do your thing, let's see how it sounds. Adam'll do the horn. You guys mind if Bill fills in on this one?" he asked the twins. "He's good at it, and it'll make your break longer so you're fresher for Snowblind."

They agreed. He counted time.

Oh, cripes, here goes, I thought. I was still fighting down my nerves, trying to forget Toby and Jeff.

I played the rain in the background. I caused the thunder to roll softly. Adam wailed softly, Kevin knocked, then complained.

Kevin tapped time with his good foot, then Bill rolled in, Adam wailed, and the guys picked up the strings. It sounded great. Wil got the wah-wah sound just right. Kevin, Wil, and Terry had an excellent sound in harmony, giving me chills again. Adam played the horn section, and it sounded good. The synthesizer section in the middle was a favorite of mine, and wasn't hard at all, but actually playing while a guitar wailed along almost put me off my time without the twins keeping their own beat with their own structure.

I couldn't stop grinning when Kevin showed off on guitar. Adam and I punctuated the horns along with the guitar stabs. Then more wah-wah and soaring harmonies. They were killing me. Adam and I joined in for the fading ending. It was cool how he turned down everyone's volume with his foot.

"Well?" Kevin asked the audience.

Terry, Riley, and the twins had sat it out, and said they thought it sounded good.

"Okay, She Cares. Alex, you ready to impress again? This one is full of piano."

I nodded.

It was heavy with piano, and I loved playing it. It had sounded good with Toby on his guitar and me on the keyboards, and Toby singing it.


Wil tapped time, then started the song, then I came in almost immediately. Aside from the gentle drums, it was all Kevin's voice, Wil's guitar, and my keyboard for most of the first half of the song. It was smooth, easy, and sounded great. Kevin had a great voice for those middle-range vocals. With my Oberheim plugged into Adam's mixer, he had control over my volume, and turned it up. Then he joined with his sax, just him and me leading the song until Kevin sang again, Wil and Terry in chorus.

Brent started doing the odd percussion parts, which I hadn't even noticed were missing until they filled the empty spaces. It was amazing. Adam's sax was dead on, perfect, absolutely wonderful. Then they all chorused the song out.

"Okay?" Kevin asked Riley.

He nodded enthusiastically.

"Cool. Okay, twins, you ready to rock Snowblind this way Alex says is so hot?"

They grinned and took their seats. There was little piano, but a lot of synth. Kevin and Wil played strings, Terry adding the bass line. Ryan readied with the chimes.

I was interested in seeing who took the solo guitar in the center.

Kevin tapped time. I trailed those soft, mellow tones. Kevin raised his eyebrows at me then started singing. He was good at the vocals, making it sound almost perfect. He kept grinning as the twins did their custom percussion work. Soon they were working the drums in, building slowly, more and more, but so softly. Only when it was time, did they roll down, then pound in.

Adam brought the synth up again as I played the simple tune easily. Kevin broke into that wailing solo, backed by the twins custom work, and it was something worth paying for. Kevin leaned over his guitar, working the strings and almost dancing with his entire body.

Terry and Wil brought up the choral vocal, sounding bare but clean. Then it was just me and the twins for a few seconds, Kevin singing. We knew what we were doing, and it showed. I was grinning, so were they. Terry and Wil's choral work was pure and sweet, obviously long-practiced. The simplicity of the parts melded together, sounding good.

For that space, I was back in time, a year ago, enjoying myself with no heavy worries about Jeff and a relationship, or everyone knowing that I was gay

Then the haunting fade down, stretch, and out, Kevin, Terry, and Wil sounding smooth and clear, my notes rising and then leaving the air empty behind them.

"Fucking nice," Adam said before anyone asked.

"No shit," Bill added.

"That was sweet," Riley said enthusiastically.

"Okay. How about the stuff in Half-Penny?" he asked me.

"I can do the synth all through it. I can set up the bells here," I said of the upper board. "Or the twins can do 'em."

"You sure?" he asked.

I nodded.

"Okay, then, you do the bells. Less to drag to the show. Let's hit it."

Time was tapped, the count, and Wil and the twins hit on time, starting the powerful song almost perfectly. Kevin's voice rolled over us, almost growling. I had nothing to do for a while, so I enjoyed watching and listening.

When the chorus came in, I joined in, playing the tune dead on. Then it was all Kevin's voice, Wil's strings, and the twins' drums again for a bit. Kevin sang it very well, having the right tone and power to his voice. They all joined in for the chorus, sounding so wonderful.

It was great.

Then it was time for me to play the challenging synth on the lower keys and the first chimes on the upper board at the same time, then change the upper chimes to bells while still playing the synth lines on the lower keys. Not a problem. Easy. At one time, anyway. Now, I knew it would be more challenging. I did it. I had to drop a few notes to concentrate on the bells.

Then more of the energetic guitars and drums. Wil knew how to make his guitar wail those notes. Wil, Terry, and Kevin talked, filling in the voices from the album nicely. I couldn't believe this was going on.

Then Kevin blew me away with the guitar riffs. I was expecting Wil to, as he had been playing most of the guitar until then, but obviously Kevin was better at it.

Then I had the neat, swinging, dropping tones. I got set up in time, then put them in their proper place, Kevin's voice powerfully leading into another round of the chorus. More of everyone playing, making the room feel like an auditorium.

Then another round of the chorus, and then Kevin screaming, "We all wanna be free."

It was awesome!

Then the sweet, high guitar, which always made me wish I played it. Kevin again showed me why he was the best guitarist at school. And then there was the sax again, and I hadn't expected it, again. Adam filled in the usual empty place when the twins and I had played the song, and I felt chills.

Then the twins and Kevin, all softly. And me. And Adam's sax. Slowing, softening, stretching.

Then I got to play those last piano notes, this time with Adams sax. Just plain joy.

Without pause, I went into "A.D. 1958," struck with pure satisfaction. I played as sweetly as I could. I put those speaking keys to work, playing out the end of the song on both rows of keys for a space. I let the music end for only a second, as I switched both rows of keys to the last of the presets, then played, "State Street Sadie" as smoothly as I could. I trailed it off.

"Jesus Christ!" Wil said loudly.

"I knew he'd do better with some practice," Kevin said, grinning widely.

"Yeah, but... talk about blowin' the dust off," Wil said, shaking his head.

"Wow. Now that's how you end it," David said.

"Damn," Adam said appreciatively.

"That fucking took me the longest to learn," I said with joy, and a bit of pride.

"We got a Styx tribute band!" Kevin shouted.

They broke into cheers, surprising David, the twins, and me.

We took another break, smoked some grass, the guys did some coke in the bathroom. Not wanting to anger David by doing any coke, I slipped off to the bathroom on my own later and took the last speeder that Erich had given me instead. We practiced more, going until we ordered pizza at six, partied for a while, then broke up for the night.

I helped Kevin get his gear to his car, and when we were alone, he asked, "Are you sure you can't stick around, even when our regular guy comes back?"

"Dude, I ain't no musician. I like doing this, sure, but..."

"Well?" he asked expectantly.

I shrugged.

"Think about it?"

I rolled my eyes and sighed.

"I really doubt it."

"Just think about it," he almost begged, punching me on the shoulder softly.

"Fine. Just don't expect me to stick around. Once you get your guy back, I want my life back."

He laughed, punched me softly on the shoulder again, then got into his car.

He took me home, talking excitedly the entire way about finally being able to play Paradise Theater. I was in a great mood from playing it, and with a full band for the first time. I felt like I could actually, maybe, play it on a stage. But I did feel like I could have a lot of fun with the guys, either way.

I walked in the door at nine, which kept the folks from harping on me. I told them I had gotten a lot of studying done, but wasn't sure how much it would help for the finals next week. I told them how I had missed so much difficult material in so many classes, and being so close to the finals, the material had been important.

They assured me that I would do fine, which made me feel like a lying heel. I was in no way so sure, and feared that my grades would suffer horribly.

I took the night pills; there was only one dose remaining, and I was happy about that. The burn ointment was very low, and mom used it sparingly. I wished she would just lather on the last of it so I could be done with it. Fresh bandages over the worst of the burns, which felt mostly healed and only bothered me when I stretched that side too far or they were struck. Then the temple ointment and bandage, and I was released.

Upstairs, I opened my books and studied. Worries about Jeff, Tom, gym, and the usual things began stirring. I fought them off, doing my best to learn and polish my studies. I would get a little done, then find myself staring off, thinking about one of them or another of the many, many things.

I wrote in the journal for a few minutes, as a break. I turned on the television and watched Doctor Who. I looked at the synthesizer as the new opening graphics and theme music played, wondering if I could mimic the new style. That got the longing started. I kept at the studies a while longer, fighting the desire. I finished my homework before the Doctor finished dealing with Meglos. The ending music stirred my desires for music again. I turned off the television and sat down at the keyboard. I wanted those good feelings again, like I had when playing earlier with the twins, Kevin, and the rest. Thoughts of Jeff and Tom, the horrible, usual things, had been pushed away by the music, for the most part, and I had even forgotten them all afternoon, except the short times during certain songs.

Just a couple songs, I abjured myself. Just a few, just to get in a better mood. Then back to the books.

I powered up the cheap synthesizer. I played several songs from Paradise Theater, practicing the keying where I needed it, even if the sounds weren't right. I rolled a joint, then smoked it and played, now staying away from the more painful songs, instead working on happier ones, ones with no heavy emotional burdens from Toby. Or Jeff.

I spent far too long at it.

"You should be asleep," I heard dad say from the doorway.

I whipped my head around as if he had caught me naked, doing what most guys my age would be doing alone at night.

"Uh, just, working the fingers, like the doctor said to," I replied.

"It's after two," he said, not looking happy.

I started, looked at my alarm clock, then back at him.

"Geeze. Sorry. Had no idea it got so late."

"Well, get to bed. Full day of tests tomorrow," he needlessly reminded me. "At least you opened a book," he said, looking at my desk.

"I did study. For a while. Just, needed a break."

He nodded.

"Well, have a good day tomorrow. Good luck."

"Thanks. You too."

I wasn't ready to sleep, but I knew he was right, I needed to. I tried. As soon as I closed my eyes, though, the thoughts started up.

Jeff choosing baseball over me and over the Circle, losing him entirely as a friend. Tom, lying to me about working at Burger King, keeping secrets from me, having no time to be with him, even if I did promise that wouldn't happen. Erich being hurt because I wasn't there to anchor him, guilt over doing what I was doing with him, thoughts of how long we would keep it up. Gym, changing tomorrow, and whether the row of lockers was abandoned. Tests all week, and how poorly I was going to do. Grades overall, and how I could explain them to my disappointed parents. Lying to them about studying at the twins' and about the band. The band, playing the songs that meant so much with them, spending so much time with them instead of studying. The student union, what had happened there over a year ago, playing there now, and especially those songs. Gay, and everyone knowing it. Alone, everyone knowing I'm gay, and no one caring to be with me.

But especially Jeff, and Tom.

How much more? How long until I can't deal anymore? What will I do when I can't handle any more but I get more?

Eventually, though, eventually, sleep...

... then the smell of gasoline.

"Sure," I said, leaning forward, moving the medallion aside, grabbing the ignition key, and pumping the pedal once.

The engine turned for several seconds, almost catching, but not quite.

"Yeah. Old Chevy... " Dad began.

Jeff stood there, like always, looking cute in his uniform, catching his ball, grinning coldly, nodding.

I knew I was fated to die again and again, over and over, with Jeff watching, smiling so icily, looking so cute, wanting me to burn.

"See if you can pop that hatch cover, will ya, son?"

I watched from inside myself as I unlatched the one on the passenger's side easily. I pulled and yanked on the driver's side, shaking the van.

Dad asked me to try starting it again.

I joked about having not started it before. Dad grinned playfully. Jeff said, "Too bad."

I moved the medallion, turned the key. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. The engine caught with a pop.

Please, no. Please!

Another, louder pop, then a loud, whooshing boom, an orange light. I was knocked against the van door, the side of my head hitting the pillar.

Everything went fuzzy, wobbly, blurred. Dad yelled my name in horror. Jeff called my name mockingly, laughing.

Flames on the dashboard. Heat. Smoke. Fear.

I opened the driver's door, but Jeff was there, holding it closed.

"What a whore! Let Tom fuck you, let Ryan fuck you, sucking Erich's dick like a slut, and you want David, too. But me? Me, you won't let me have you."

I tried to respond, but only coughed uncontrollably, painfully. My eyes stung. I couldn't breathe.

Dad's voice calling my name again. Jeff laughing at me from the near window.

The smoke increased. The heat increased. My fear increased.

I shoved my face out the partially open window, Jeff pushed me back in.

"Take it!"

I saw my charred body being pulled from the van, my wailing parents held back by police, Jeff smiling, laughing.

Panic. Flames. Heat. Smoke. Fear. Jeff's laughter.

Agonizing coughing. Struggling for air, just one breath of clean air. My heart pounded against my ribs. I pushed against Jeff, but he kept pushing me back inside the window, laughing at me.

The pain in my temple flared with each cough. The familiar dizziness came.

I blamed God. I worried about not being with Toby in the afterlife. I was grief-stricken over Jeff wanting me to burn, enjoying the spectacle.

The heat, the pain, the horrible suffocation, the laughter.

All of it fading, but clearly Jeff saying, "Now I can play ball!"

Then only my thoughts, my fears, my stuttering heartbeat.

They grew dim, irregular, hazy, then ceased.

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The Circle parts I and 2 are now available as EPUB/Kindle/PDF at my website here.
The Circle 3 will be available around January 2014.
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