If you don't like to read about male/male relationships, then this story isn't for you. Please leave if this type of material is illegal in your area, or if you are legally too young to read it. This story is a work of fiction, and strictly a product of the authors imagination. Any similarities to characters, places, or names are completely coincidental.

Chapter One: I used to be a good boy

A/N: Thanks to Jim for editing!

"Happy birthday to you..."

It was way too early for this.

"Happy birthday to you..."

It had to be too early. I felt like I'd just gone to bed. The way I saw it, I needed those extra twenty minutes of sleep that I was about to miss before I actually got up.

"Happy birthday dear Nelson..."

But it wasn't every morning that I woke up to three off-key voices singing in my bedroom. Only every July fifteenth. The least I could do was open my eyes. I did so just as three smiling faces finished off the song.

"Happy birthday to you!"

And to top in all off, the one woman in the group leaned over me with a candle-lit chocolate cupcake with green icing. Her long, carmine hair, which usually cascaded all the way down her back fell forward and brushed my bed as I smiled up at her warm smile and dark eyes.

"Make a wish," she instructed.

"Mom," I groaned.

"No arguments," she insisted, and my brother and my dad laughed behind her as I lifted myself onto my elbows in my twin-sized bed and blew out the candle.

"Thanks," I told her as she leaned down, kissing my forehead as I placed a loose arm around her to give her a hug.

"Happy birthday," she whispered to me before she moved back so the tall man with a thinning head of dark hair, a beer belly and box-shaped glasses could move in. I commonly referred to him as Dad, even if I'd only known him since I was six.

"How does it feel to be seventeen?" he asked me as he wrapped me in a huge bear hug and I was forced to sit up entirely.

"Pretty much the same as it felt yesterday," I decided, and he gave me a hearty pat on the back before moving aside for my brother, who was a year older than me, but almost a foot shorter at five two. He didn't have to do much to lean down and hug me.

"Happy birthday, freak," he remarked.

He was one to talk. Currently, his shoulder-length hair was dyed an interesting pink color, which matched two of his three eyebrow piercings, and the one through his nose looked akin to a bull ring.

"Thanks, Chad," I replied, and as he moved back I looked at the three of them, staring at me expectantly. I hoped they didn't expect a speech. It was way too early for one of those. "Can you guys do me a favor?" I asked.

"Sure," my mother said.

"Can you get out of my room?" I asked, pulling my covers further up my bare chest. "I'm naked under here."

That was met with a mixture of groans and snickering, but my mom left the cupcake and announced breakfast would be ready soon, and the three of them left together, leaving me to close my eyes for five more minutes before my alarm went off, and I forced myself out of bed. No shower. My family had a system. My parents took theirs in the morning and I got mine in the evenings. It didn't matter when Chad took his because he didn't live with us. He just showed up for two meals a day. It kept him fed and my mom happy.

My brother had just recently moved into an apartment with his longtime best friend, Greg Hugh. He'd decided that when he started taking classes at Heywell Community College next month he didn't want to be living with his parents; and meanwhile, he was working at the only tattoo and piercing shop in town, Dane's House, named after the owner who happened to live in an apartment above the shop. Chad still made time to see us, though, just like he still made time to volunteer every Saturday to read to disabled children at the Heywell City Library, like he had every weekend since he was sixteen; and to drive across town twice a day to walk Blinky, the thirteen-year-old poodle who belonged to Mr. Helton, Chad's first-grade teacher, who'd broken his hip last year and landed himself in a wheel chair. Outwardly, my brother didn't look like it, but he was known as "that nice Larmont boy" around most of the community. That made me "that nice Larmont boy's little brother." I never really minded, though, as long as no one expected me to fill his shoes. I'd been in his shadow for as long as I could remember. I often wondered if that would be the case when I started my Junior year of high school in three weeks, now that my brother and most of his friends had graduated.

I pulled on my best pair of blue faded jeans over the same forest-green swim trunks that I'd been wearing all summer, and then an equally worn-out black t-shirt. But, before any of this I'd coated my entire body in the best waterproof sunscreen I could find. Like my mom, I was fair-skinned. Early on I'd learned that it was pointless to attempt a tan over the summers. My skin didn't tan; it would freckle, or blister, instead. This was the first summer since I'd turned fourteen that I'd managed to get through without acquiring either. I was very proud of that.

Next, I made my white-comforter-covered bed, and straightened up my room enough to be able to walk in it. I wasn't exactly messy. You wouldn't find layers of dust on my oval-shaped windowpane; or on my blue bookshelf, which matched the rug on the furry white carpet. But, I did manage to make a lot of clutter. Mostly, it was laptop accessories, markers, paper, pens, some colored pencils every now and then; and when I was in the mood for it, like I'd been the night before, paint. Sketching was like a hobby for me. I had stacks and stacks of homemade comic books dating back to when I was ten, mostly featuring my friends as silly superheroes in even sillier costumes and predicaments. I didn't read comic books, but creating them proved to be an entertaining pastime. Artistically I wasn't that bad, so I used it. But as far as passions went, I liked to write the most. My shelves were full of binders containing stories, mostly of the fantasy genre, and my computer had even more filed away. I loved writing. Only, unlike my comic books, I never actually finished anything I started to write. I also refused to let anyone, including my family, read anything that I wrote. As far as I was concerned, there was a huge difference between liking to write stories and actually being good at it. But at least my parents and my brother were respectful of this. In my family, we didn't hide things from each other as much as we were respectful of privacy. My mom had brought us up that way, and as a result, neither my brother nor I had ever really found it necessary to keep secrets from her, or lock our doors because we were afraid she'd snoop.

Kenny Larmont, my dad, was pretty much the same way. He had fit right in with our family, ever since the day that my mom married him eleven years ago; and she, my brother, and I took his last name and moved into his house, inherited from his grandmother, just like the three bakeries he owned were. As I grabbed the duffle bag I'd left under my bed and opened my door, I noticed that currently the house smelled like a bakery. Probably from the cupcakes. That reminded me to grab the one my mom had left me. It was gone in two bites, and as always, so sweet that I could hardly taste the chocolate.

When I left my room, I wasn't met with a hallway like most people. I was met with cement stairs leading up a narrow passage that could be downright creepy at night. My bedroom, which was decent in size but more long than wide, had once been used as storage. But when we moved into my dad's house, he'd let us choose our own rooms, and me and my friends had thought the room would make a great clubhouse because back then it seemed like a secret room to us, the way that the stairs wound up to the main level of the house. So, my dad had painted the walls, made sure the heater worked, put in new carpet and did everything he could to turn it into a bedroom that had lasted since I was six years old.

I stopped in the room that my mom commonly referred to as the family room. I referred to it as Mom's room, because it was all her stuff in it. I put down the duffle bag for a moment when I saw a large grey rat making its way across the beige carpeting, and smiled when it made no objection when I picked it up. Just like the piano, the various plants and fairy-figurine knickknacks, the large cage containing an African Grey parrot and another with two white rabbits--the rat belonged to my mother. She was a piano teacher who didn't seem to think normal pets, like a dog or cat, were for her. The rat got out all the time, but generally, he didn't get far, and I was easily able to return him to his own little home before I grabbed my bag and headed down the hall to the kitchen, which happened to be everyone's favorite room in the house. It was also the largest room in the house, round in shape with tall windows looking out towards a green field that, according to my dad, had at one time been filled with cattle when his grandmother was living. Now, there were a few apple trees that had actually produced a few fist-sized red apples this year, and a white goat with a gentle temperament and a healthy appetite for--apples. The goat was also my mother's.

Along with cupcakes, this morning my mom had made a rather large breakfast that seemed to cover the long table that she only brought out for company. And, it seemed, we already had company. Around the table with my brother, as my parents set out the rest of the food, were three faces that I was accustomed to seeing at my house, or anywhere else I went for that matter.

I'd been expecting my friends to be there. They were always there on my birthday. We'd be out celebrating all day, too, if Caleb Spangler had anything to say about it. The tall blond with wavy hair; a cleft chin; an interesting dream complex that he'd only share with his closest friends; and one of the most unpredictable temperaments in all of Heywell, was my best friend. Ever since third grade, when he told me that I was going to be his best friend, actually. Caleb had always been like that. He'd say something, and then he made it happen. That's why I didn't even bother to question it when he'd called the night before to tell me I needed to wear a swimsuit under my jeans and bring an extra pair of clothes today. I always had fun with Caleb, no matter what we were doing. Only, having fun with Caleb could occasionally result in trouble. He didn't always think things through before he did them. But that was okay, because Haily Geld and Joe Douglas were always around to keep him in line.

I'd known Haily for almost as long as I'd known Caleb. She was the biggest tomboy I knew, but even her boyish clothes and backwards hats couldn't hide the fact that she was a girl. She was hardly five-feet tall, slim, but all curves, and her long brunette hair was always pulled back into a neat braid. She also had a huge crush on me. I'd noticed last year, after Caleb pointed it out to me, but since then, I'd adamantly ignored the fact. It was better that way. No way was I going to confront her about it and risk our friendship. Besides, just because I knew about it didn't mean that I was interested. Haily was one of the prettiest girls I knew, and the nicest. But, still a girl. I wasn't interested in girls. Whatsoever.

I was interested in Joe Douglas, though. He was the hot friend. Every group has one. Joe was ours. He was disgustingly attractive. Dark hair. Slim build. A really appealing smile. And, I'd always liked his eyes. He had these really great, dark eyes. He was also Haily's cousin. He'd started hanging out with us just two years ago, and I'd had a huge crush on him ever since. It was too bad he was completely straight. And, really too bad that his personality didn't match his looks at all. To put it bluntly, Joe was a prick, and I'd had better conversations with toiletries. But, despite having an undesirable personality for ninety percent of the time when he was conscious, he was still one of us. He'd find flaws in everyone he encountered, but I'd never heard him say a bad thing about one of his friends; unless it was to our faces, and he was joking--he'd better be joking. And, that was at least something.

All of my friends scored bonus points because they treated my family like their family. Haily was like everyone's little sister, including Chad's. After I got `Happy birthdays' and hugs from everyone Haily spent the next half hour trying to talk Chad into piercing her belly button--but he refused, unless she could come up with her parents permission; and Joe spent his time convincing my parents that we weren't going to get into any trouble today because we were responsible, young adults and stand-up citizens; and at the other end of the table Caleb was promising that today I'd get so shitfaced that by the time the actual party started I wouldn't know my own name anymore.

"As long as it's not like the last time," I informed him.

He widened his chestnut-colored eyes at me. "But the last time was fucking great! You know I hooked you up," he added with a smile. I rolled my eyes at him. The last time, was at one of Caleb's parties. He'd talked me into a drinking game and the next morning I'd woken up so sick that I could hardly move for two days; but that wasn't half as bad as the fact that I'd woken up in Caleb's guest bedroom with Teresa Mildrum next to me. She was one of Caleb's on-again-off-again girlfriends. Thank god she had no hard feelings when I told her that I really wasn't interested in anything more than what had already happened; but I was a little miffed to discover she'd just been doing Caleb a favor. In this case, that would be taking my virginity, which no one really knew I still had, because like most guys, I'd make small embellishments to the truth. From what I remembered, the event hadn't been a complete disaster, but I wasn't exactly interested in repeating it. Especially the part where Haily walked in on Teresa and me as we were getting dressed and referred to me as a slut for the next month.

"We'll party," I promised Caleb. "But I'm not looking to hook up, okay?"

"Dude, everyone's looking to hook up," Caleb responded, looking exasperated with me. This was nothing new. Around the time we turned fifteen and Caleb lost his own virginity, he had decided that I didn't have enough sex. Which was true if you asked me. I just never felt like explaining to Caleb that I didn't have enough sex because I only knew of one gay guy in all of Heywell, and he was the forty-year-old flamer who owned the bookstore.

"Whatever. Where are we going today?" I asked Caleb. "Hangman?"

"Of course, Hangman," he responded, shoveling a large helping of strawberry-covered pancakes into his mouth in the process. "I've got a few surprises for you later, too."

"Cool." I swallowed down the rest of my orange juice, deciding not to ask what those surprises were. Caleb rarely disappointed, so long as his surprises didn't include throwing random girls in my direction. And Hangman, was Hangman Cove, a place at Haywell's lake. It was a spot mostly secluded from the main roads, and the perfect place for a bunch of teenagers to generally hang out and have a good time. Most of the older folk around town liked to stay on the other side of the water for this reason, but several venders knew where to find people who had the munchies, and Hangman was popular enough to stay busy. I liked busy, and crowded, and basically anywhere I could socialize, so it was one of my favorite places to be. Caleb knew this, and I'd suspected that we'd be going as soon as he told me to dress for swimming.

I was on my way out the door of our two-story--not including my room--white-brick house when Chad caught me at the door and pulled me aside.

"Got you an early birthday present," he announced, and I became suspicious when he waited for my friends to move out of sight with my dad, who wanted to look at Caleb's `89 black, hard-top jeep because my best friend was thinking about selling it.

I watched as Chad reached into the red-leather jacket that he'd taken to wearing lately, and I rolled my eyes as he presented me with a magazine, which happened to have an overly muscled, shirtless construction worker on the cover. "Studs in Love?" I read, trying really hard not to giggle.

"Yeah," Chad responded proudly. "Has some short stories in there, and Leanna says lots of man-pussy. I didn't look."

"Thanks," I responded, laughing. "You showed this to Leanna?"

"Who do you think bought it for me?"

Leanna was Chad's girlfriend, a dance instructor. Sometimes Chad accused me of liking Leanna more than I liked him. Usually I told him that he was right. They'd been dating for two years now, and my family was always telling Chad that if he ever broke up with her he'd have to find a new family, because we were hers. She was the only person other than my family who knew I was gay.

"What are you guys doing?" my mom asked, suddenly appearing next to us, and snatching the magazine out of my hands before I could hide it from her. Chad and I both turned an interesting shade of red as my mother stared at my birthday present in stunned silence before she flashed us a sidelong look that had, Oh you boys written all over it. "Chad!"

"What?" my brother replied innocently.

My mom snorted, and then stood on her toes to kiss my cheek and smooth down my short blond hair, which I hadn't spent much time combing this morning.

"You'd better get going," she told me. "I'll put this in your room."

"Mom..." I started.

"Where your friends won't run into it," she added, and I smiled at her. "Don't forget tomorrow. Six o'clock."

"We'll be back way before then."

"You'd better be," she insisted, and I promised again before I was out the door. Tomorrow would be Saturday, and at six o'clock we'd be having a barbeque--my family's way of celebrating my birthday. I'd made a habit of spending the actual day with my friends every summer since I was twelve, with no objection from my parents. They just cared that I made it home in one piece by the time my relatives and neighbors showed up to celebrate, and while Caleb liked to have a good time, Haily and Joe always made sure that everyone was sober when they needed to be. And I decided that I'd probably need both of them when the first thing Caleb did when we started driving away from the house was pass me a can of beer from under his seat, where I was riding shotgun.

"Happy Birthday, Nels."

I regarded him suspiciously while opening the can. "It's nine o'clock in the morning. Have you been drinking?"

"No," Joe and Haily both informed me.

I shrugged, and took a drink. I guessed that it would be Joe doing all of the driving later, because Haily was suddenly between the two front seats, asking me to pass her another beer. It was relatively safe in my neighborhood for a bunch of underagers to be driving around with alcohol. Heywell wasn't very big, and the sheriff's department usually stuck to the main roads. And, I did have a neighborhood. Paved roads, sidewalks and everything. There was a field behind our house because we lived on the hill, but most of the ranches and farms had disappeared years ago when the housing developments went up and came right to our front door--mostly ranch style houses and a few condos. My dad had donated a large portion of his grandmother's land to the city to build a public park on, and in return, we kept our long, gated driveway and no one tried to build on the rest of the land. And there were developers everywhere. Heywell was a growing community, and currently, a lakeside view was the popular theme. But, only north of the lake. The rest was public property, and as far as my friends and I were concerned, all ours.

I'd lived in Heywell my whole life. Never been anywhere else, actually. But that wasn't a huge deal to me, since as it was, it had taken me the last seventeen years to explore all of Heywell and get to know the people in it. And I still didn't know everything, or everyone. It would probably be a lifelong task that I wouldn't object to, as long as the view while driving down the hill never changed. In the summer, we never saw many clouds; the sky was blue and the rain usually came overnight; and from there we could see part of the lake, surrounded by mostly oak or whatever other species of trees kindergarten classes went to plant every year when school started. To the east were the older buildings, the court house, the sheriff's department, the only church that had an actual bell, and all of the old shops that had been there since the town had existed. The area, like many others, was surrounded by more housing developments; and to the west, were mostly shopping centers and other businesses that according to my dad, boosted our economy because outlet prices brought in customers from neighboring towns, and the campground near the north side of the lake with the big houses and private school brought in tourists. But, I'd never thought that we got many of those. I was probably wrong. I'm sure we did and I just didn't notice because my world revolved around people who tended to stay close to home. Like my friends.

I laughed at Caleb when he slowed down to give a black, stray dog a dirty look as he turned onto Chariot, the main road that would take us straight to the lake. I never quite knew why Caleb did some of the things he did, but usually he had a reason for it. When he actually growled at the dog, I looked towards the back seat, where Haily was laughing, and Joe was rolling his eyes.

"He had another dream, didn't he?" I asked.

Haily grinned at me and then took it upon herself to reach forward and tap Caleb on the back of the head. "Tell him your dream," she said, and Caleb glanced at me.

"I was a dog. Big one," he explained.

"That's it?" I was unimpressed. Caleb had strange dreams all the time. They were a constant source of entertainment for us.

"Julie kept kicking me, over, and over, and over..." he continued. Julie was Caleb's twenty-three-year-old sister who recently moved back home because her trucker husband was always on the road, and she was pregnant and miserable. A lot of Caleb's dreams had been about her lately, because when Julie wasn't happy, which was generally all the time, she'd take it out on Caleb.

"Oooh, poor baby," Haily crooned, leaning forward to scratch behind Caleb's ears. He glared at her through the rearview mirror and smacked her hand away. She giggled.

"Just get to the good part," Joe insisted.

"What good part?" Caleb responded. "It was a nightmare."

"Just say it!" Haily insisted, and as I polished off my drink and slid the can under the seat, Caleb looked at me sidelong, his full, top lip curling up in disgust.

"I was pregnant," he explained. "It was awful."

"You dreamed you were a bitch, getting kicked by your sister?" I responded, and laughed when he glared at me.

"It's not funny," he insisted, as Joe and Haily started laughing. "My nipples still hurt from it!" Caleb rubbed at his chest, as if to make the fact more obvious.

"Your nipples?" Joe repeated.

"Caleb, you know you're not really, pregnant, right?" Haily asked, still laughing.

Caleb grunted. "You all have permission to shut up now. Also, if you repeat any of this, I know where to bury bodies." No one doubted him, but we laughed, anyway.


There were no actual roads leading to Hangman Cove. Just the trails that people made walking to and from it. Most people found parking in the actual lot where everyone visiting the lake parked. Five dollars per vehicle would get you an all-day pass. We never did that. Like a few others, we knew about the old bike trail that always gave us enough room to park, since everyone who had a bike knew about the new and improved bike trail that pedestrians weren't allowed to walk on. That left us a short walk uphill, over the bridge that still covered an old irrigation ditch, and a careful walk through natural terrain famous for its poison oak before our feet hit white sand and the smell of food hit our nostrils. From there, we could see the lake, and the many people frequenting the area under the oak tree where a scarecrow was hanging by a rope from one of the branches. That's how Hangman Cove got its name. Back when my mom was first starting high school and Heywell was a farmer's town, it was rumored that a Freshman had stolen it from Francis Covlier, a trouble-making drunk farmer who liked to shoot at anything that came onto his property. It was an ugly scarecrow that the local youth had liked to call haunted. Except for the guy who stole it, I guess. People said that the kid's dog had wandered onto Covlier's property and never came back, but shots were heard. The scarecrow was stolen for retribution purposes. This rumor had never been proved true, but as easy as it would have been, the scarecrow was never taken down and not even the most juvenile of my peers would be disrespectful enough to attempt it. Although, it had been a longstanding tradition for guys who got laid at Hangman cove to hang their girlfriend's bras up there next to the scarecrow. It was also one of Caleb's favorite hobbies to point at some of those bras and say "Hey, I know that one!"

It was Friday, and summer, and venders were out in full force; but despite the traffic that the area got, Hangman Cove was still a great spot, and it was always clean. At least people, locals and visitors alike, knew what trash cans were for. I helped Haily pick a spot in the sun for our towels while Caleb and Joe went to get a second load from the jeep. Our first trip had consisted of my umbrella and the cooler. It was my birthday, so Haily said I didn't have to help with the rest of the stuff. After applying even more waterproof sunscreen, I was in the water with her and at least fifty other people. Some I knew, some I didn't. I took my time saying hi to those I did, and then more time out of the water following Caleb around to participate in another one of his favorite hobbies--flirting with every girl who didn't look familiar to him and listening to him as he tried to remember which ones he'd already slept with. Caleb liked girls. Always had. And lucky for Caleb, they liked him, too. I could pretty much get along with everyone. Caleb wasn't like that, though. Guys, were a different story. I think he had some sort of alpha-male complex. I was the only guy he ever actually liked. Until Joe had started hanging out with us, I'd wondered if the anomaly had occurred because I was gay, and perhaps on a subconscious level, Caleb knew I wasn't to be considered competition, even though I had just about as many girls coming onto me as Caleb had girls he came on to. I always credited most of the attention I got to Caleb, though. Girls just liked being around him, and sometimes that meant settling for being around his best friend. Not that it made much of a difference to me. I'd play my part, and while I was at it I tended to enjoy the scenery around me, especially at the lake, where guys with no shirts and drenched shorts hanging so low on their hips that I could see the clefts of their ass, passed by regularly.

Caleb and guys, were a different story. Two-hours and a twelve-pack-split-between-me-Haily-and-Caleb later, with Caleb having consumed most of it, he'd already scared the crap out of one poor guy he caught checking out Haily's ass, and he'd shoved another backwards into the water because a girl that Caleb had just met claimed that he'd been bothering her. This sort of thing happened a lot with Caleb. That second time, Haily had been worried that he might take it further as the other guy plucked himself out of the water, so I'd been recruited to get Caleb to go for a walk. This wasn't very difficult. All I had to do was point to a pretty brunette by the snow-cone vender and tell Caleb that she'd been checking him out. And, it was smarter than using physical force. Caleb's dad was a personal trainer, and Caleb had been mostly muscle for as long as I could remember. I preferred to keep in shape with running and playing tennis with Chad a few times a week, and while I wasn't scrawny or incapable of defending myself, I wasn't stupid enough to accidentally get in front of one of Caleb's fists during his testosterone-induced moments.

As we walked over, Caleb gave some of his plans for later today away when he mentioned that he might invite this girl to the party tonight if she looked as good up close as she did from a distance. When I mentioned that I thought we were already at the party, he'd explained simply, "This is the lake."

"Oh. I knew that," I replied, and he elbowed me with a goofy smile; but it faded and he made a disgruntled face when his attention was redirected somewhere else.

"Assface," Caleb remarked, and knowing Caleb, that could have only meant one thing. Jame Graham. In first grade, his name had been James. By fifth, he'd changed it to just Jame because there had been thirteen other Jameses in our year. But, whatever trouble he had with Caleb had been an ongoing problem ever since Assface, er...Jame, had been in Caleb's third-grade class. I wasn't exactly sure what had caused it, I just knew that there was something about Jame that Caleb just didn't like. Caleb had always said it was because Jame was a snob, which was kinda true, but I never did think it warranted Caleb's adamant dislike of the guy. By fifth grade, Caleb had pretty much everyone calling Jame Assface. I think the name was chosen because Jame, while being a tall, thin individual, had very round cheeks, which became even rounder when he smiled, and he was always smiling, even at Caleb. But I think that was only because Jame knew it annoyed him. Personally, I had no problem with the guy--other than the fact that he had a problem with my best friend.

"I don't see him," I replied after taking a quick look around. It was a long trail around the cove, and for all I knew, Caleb could have spotted Jame, or someone who looked like him, on the other side of it. Apparently not, though. Caleb stepped behind me, placed his hands on my shoulders and turned me to the left, where I immediately spotted Jame Graham, in front of a painting. Yes, painting, it looked like. Food venders weren't the only ones who'd taken to bringing their shops to Hangman. I'd never seen paintings there, though. Mostly homemade jewelry and every once in a while someone selling sunscreen for fifteen dollars a bottle.

I watched Jame scratch at his shaggy brownish locks of hair as he stood there shirtless, like most other people including Caleb and me. Only, because of his tan lines, it almost looked like Jame was wearing a shirt. He suddenly shrugged indifferently and turned, facing the guy who was very carefully propping the five-by-seven paintings up on a foldout table, and as my attention turned to the vendor, I almost lost my footing when I paused briefly to stare. Milo. He didn't go to my school. That's all I knew about him, really. I'd heard Jame call his name on the last day of school before summer. He'd been driving a green Honda with a dent in the driver's side door. I remembered him because he'd looked directly at me and held my gaze for ten seconds straight with very emerald eyes beneath thick, dark lashes. When you look at most people who you don't know, they tend to look away, or at least blink. He hadn't. Not until Jame got in his car and they drove away. That's the first, last and only time I'd ever seen him, but he'd stricken me enough that it caused me to go home and dedicate a poster-sized comic book over to him. I'd drawn him in a green costume; it matched his eyes without canceling them out. I gave him a cape, too. And, a nice bulge that I didn't bother giving most of my drawings.

I kind of got his hair wrong, though. I could see that now. I'd made it straight and black, slicked back on his head. It wasn't like that at all. It was more like a soft brunette and wavy, framing his face in a way that made his high cheekbones seemed less pronounced and his overall appearance seem more masculine. In the drawing, I'd made him shorter. Kind of stocky. But he was just as tall as I was with shoulders that matched a broad chest, his tanned body tapering down to a narrow waist, to which his black shorts were clinging low. They seemed kinda tight on his butt as he bent over to lift another painting out of a crate. I hadn't gotten the body in my drawing right at all. But hey, I hadn't done that bad, considering that before now, I'd only looked at the guy for ten seconds, and it had only been his face, I realized.

I turned my attention back to Caleb when he lightly backhanded my shoulder.

"Do you think we should go say hi?" he asked mischievously.

"To Assface?" Okay, so that's what I called Jame, too. It was expected, I think, as Caleb Spangler's best friend.

"Yeah, what's he doing here, anyway?" Caleb asked suspiciously.

I rolled my eyes and grabbed Caleb's thick, bicep on his right arm to pull him along. "He's not bothering you," I insisted. Normally, when Caleb and Jame met, there was less-than-friendly banter exchanged between them. But Caleb was still worked up from the last guy, and working on a pretty good buzz at this point. I didn't want to take any chances. "Hey, Sam's here," I said, pointing towards a short blond coming down the same trail we'd come down after parking.

"Oh, nice," Caleb said with a grin. "He said he'd be here--where'd that girl go?" He suddenly turned and looked to where the brunette I'd originally pointed out was walking further down the cove with her friends and suddenly looked torn before he faced me again. "I'm gonna talk to Sam. Could you..."

"Yeah, I've got it," I responded, knowing what was expected of me.

As Caleb went to talk to Sam, the guy who he only talked to when he needed one thing in particular, I caught up the brunette and easily began to flirt with one of her friends. I was good at flirting. It got me invited into their group long enough to go for a quick swim and to introduce Caleb to the brunette. I entertained myself by talking to the other girls for the next hour, figuring out who went to our school, who didn't, and in some cases, girls who were way too young for us to be talking to before Caleb got a phone number and we moved on.

Caleb kept handing me beer as we made our way around the cove. I'm not sure where it all came from, because he wasn't carrying it, but I was having one of those days where it just didn't matter. It was my birthday, and I was having a good time, so I didn't decline anything until I had that nice I-almost-can't-walk-straight feeling. I would have gone for the you-actually-expect-me-to-stand-up? feeling, but it was only two in the afternoon and I had the rest of the day to get there. Plus, the sun was definitely out today, and heat didn't exactly mix well with alcohol.

At least I could hold my liquor, though. That didn't mean that I was out getting wasted with my friends every day, either. Usually just at parties, or days like today when we found something to celebrate. And, I was celebrating as Caleb and I drifted from one group of people to the next. We didn't know all of them but at some point I began to tell everyone I could that it was my birthday, and I started passing out free hugs.

It was around three o'clock when Caleb told me that we were going to get going soon, and then I promptly lost him in the crowd when I saw some guys that I knew from school but hadn't seen since it let out. All four of them were on the swim team, and I went to talk to them mostly because they were all hot and half-naked. Almost drunk equaled shallow thinking for me, and being the only gay guy I knew, inviting the swim team to my own party, even though I didn't know where it was, was pretty much the closest kind of thing I ever did when it came to flirting with other guys. That, and when I'd pinched Caleb's nipple earlier in the day to ask him if it was still sore from his unplanned dream pregnancy.

I said goodbye to the swimmers around the time they headed for the water, and I went to find my friends. I didn't have to look very far when one of them abruptly wound their arms around my neck from behind and jumped on my back. Definitely Haily. She was the only one with boobs and I could feel them squashed against my back. Plus, she was really light, and I didn't lose my balance at all as I grabbed her legs, right behind her knees so I could better carry her as she kissed my cheek.

"We've been looking for ya, birthday boy," she announced. "Are you ready to go?"

"Where are we going?" I asked, noting that Haily was already dressed, having pulled her boy jeans and t-shirt back on over her black one-piece swimsuit.

"Caleb wouldn't say, but we need to hurry because him and Joe are about ready to head back to the car and they're threatening to leave you here."

I paused long enough to pout.

"The birthday boy?"

"Sorry," Haily responded indifferently, and then giggled against my ear as I spun us around so fast that her long braid flew over my shoulder and hit me in the face. She shrieked when I pulled the thick strand into my mouth and chewed on it before realizing it was covered in sand and I spit it out.

"Oh, Nelson! No!" she scolded around giggles.

"I'm hungry," I complained.

"Then hurry up!" She used her sandal-clad feet to give my thighs a kick and I laughed before I took off running across the sand with her holding on tightly and shouting for me to be careful while I tried to remember where we'd left the cooler. If I found the cooler, I'd find Caleb and Joe.

I apologized to a girl as I passed her too closely and she spilled her drink, earning me a dirty look from her girlfriend; and just as Haily began to order me to put her down, we started to pass the little foldout table with all the paintings, and rather than the vendor catching my eye this time, one of the five-by-seven framed pieces of art did. This caused me to stop paying attention to where I was putting my feet and the next thing I knew I was landing in the sand, going down face first. I let go of Haily to catch myself, and I still managed to break her fall as she came down hard on my back.

"Oh my god, are you okay, Nels?" Haily asked, already moving onto her knees in the sand next to me. I was still staring at the painting, but became distracted when I heard familiar male laughter above me and glared up at Assface, whose cheeks were nice and round as he laughed at me.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Nelson?" he remarked, and then turned his attention to Haily. "If your dog's gonna run wild you might wanna consider a leash," he told her.

"Fuck yourself," Haily responded. She was always quick and to the point when dealing with irritating people.

Assface threw some very pointed eyes at her.

"Well, if you're not busy, Haily..."

"Watch yourself," I warned Jame as I pushed myself up, and then pushed him aside because he was blocking my view of the painting.

"Hey!" Jame objected, and then objected again when Haily pushed him aside, too.

I was almost to the small table when I was met with emerald eyes and a body as tall as mine blocking my path. I blinked and took a moment to look Assface's friend, Mr. Nice-ass, over as he stood in front of me, arms crossed and his jaw set in a way that I'm sure was meant to be very intimidating. I just wanted to ruffle his wavy, dark hair and maybe brush it out of his eyes, which were narrowed at me. Didn't, though. Not that far gone.

"Can I help you?" he asked coldly, and I watched his eyes widen slightly as I carelessly stepped around him and lifted the painting with the black frame that had held my interest.

"Did you do this?" I asked as I looked over a very detailed portrait of the scarecrow hanging from the oak tree. He'd even painted in that the thing was missing one boot, and the tiny little tear in its left sleeve.

"Yes," he responded simply as he reached for the painting, and then looked seriously annoyed when I held it away from him as I looked at the others. They were all of Hangman Cove, or things in Hangman Cove, and all just as detailed, everything from the colors to proportion, each one looking almost like a photograph taken at different times during the day. The only thing identical on each one were the initials of MT on the bottom right-hand corner. The one I was holding was dark, but it didn't seem like sunset, more like dawn. He'd placed just enough warmth in the sky behind the hanging scarecrow to make it look like the sun was coming, not going.

"Nelson, why don't you just give it back?" I heard Assface say, and became a little surprised when he thought I was there to bully, and clearly wanted to help his hot friend. I resented that. I didn't bully. Caleb did. So, I ignored Jame and looked at Milo.

"How much are these?" I asked. "You're selling, right?"

I watched his perfectly proportioned dark brows raise slightly before he put on a very cute straight face.

"Twenty-five each."

"Fifty for you," Jame said, and I was surprised when I got a little smirk from Milo.

"I meant fifty," he informed me. This was irritating, but oddly enough, I found myself smiling at him. I blame it on my beverage choices.

"Hey, Haily, remember what I did with my wallet?" I asked, turning to her. She looked irritated by all of this. But both Jame and Milo seemed surprised, and that was just fun.

"You gave it to Joe to hold onto, remember?" she responded, hooking my arm. "Come on, Nels, let's get out of here, we don't have time..."

"I'll be right back," I told Milo, carefully handing back the painting. "Don't sell that one."

He regarded me curiously, while Haily released an exasperated sigh and pulled her own wallet out of her back pocket.

"Forget it, Nelson," she stated. "I've got it."

"I'll pay you back," I said, grinning at her.

"Forget it," she responded with a girly grin. "It's your birthday." I hugged her, but fully intended to pay her back. Knowing Haily, she'd already gotten me something for my birthday, and as it was I already had a hard time accepting gifts from her, knowing that she had feelings for me.

I watched Jame whisper something in Milo's ear as Haily held out the money for him, and then watched another smirk curl its way around Milo's red full mouth.

"He says it's only twenty-five for you," Milo told her, handing her change back. Haily looked unimpressed. I just got another glare from him as he passed the painting back into my waiting hands. I ignored the look.

"You're really good," I told him, right before Haily grabbed my arm and we were on our way again.


I'd wrapped my new painting in a shirt in my duffle bag after showing it off to both Joe and Caleb, who seemed impressed until Haily explained that we'd bought it from one of Assface's friends. Then, Caleb refused to talk to me. That lasted two whole minutes before he was handing me the last beer he had and insisting that I needed to drink it before dinner. I split it with him, since Haily wasn't interested and Joe wasn't drinking.

And we did go to dinner. We went to Velda's, a patio cafÉ on the north side of town. It was near the lake, but a fifteen-minute drive from Hangman Cove. Velda's wasn't exactly near anything for us. Not our school, not our hangouts, not our home; but according to Haily, it was the only place in town she could talk into making me a birthday cake and singing the song when they brought it out. Plus, according to Caleb, it was near the place where we were going next.

During dinner, it was just me and my friends, and when we were away from the crowds, it was just us. No subject was too meaningless to talk about. We made each other laugh and we were honest. For the most part. I'm sure we all had our secrets. I know I did. I guess I wondered all the time, if any of theirs was as big as mine. When we were just there, being us, like we were through dinner as my friends gave me their birthday presents--a new sketchbook from Joe, a goofy card from Caleb and a button-up shirt from Haily that she thought would look good on me--I found myself wondering if I'd still be able to sit with them like that if they ever did know my secret. I guessed it didn't matter now, though. I had no intention of telling them in the near future.

After we ate, we changed into the spare clothes we'd all brought using the cafÉ's bathrooms, and then sand-free, we drove around the block three times as Caleb lit up the very packed joint he'd gotten from Sam at the lake and we passed it back and forth until there was no more to smoke. Joe was the only one of us who smoked regularly, and driving for him didn't seem to be a problem, even as the rest of us broke into uncontrollable fits of laughter, distracting him from it a few times before he finally got Caleb to stop laughing long enough to tell him where we were going and we ended up in front of Heywell's only hotel. I didn't get it, not until we ended up in a rented hall full of people I knew, some that had been at the lake earlier that day.

According to Caleb, my parents had pitched in and he'd planned the party. It was something he was pretty good at, and he did good this time, I decided. There was food, dance, and more than just beer. It seemed that almost everyone there had raided a liquor cabinet, and Caleb insisted that it wasn't a problem as long as no one started trashing the room. The hotel had supplied the DJ, and he was kept busy with requests. Caleb started a whipped-cream bikini competition and just as he promised, I got wasted. I still remembered my name, but I might as well have forgotten that I was gay because I had no objection when two girls stuck their tongues down my throat. That was as far as it went, though, because dancing seemed to hold my interest more than they did, and I danced with pretty much anyone and everyone.

I borrowed Joe's cell phone and called Chad, who was working, and I told myself happy birthday. Chad told me that I'd better not behaving too much fun. He also told me it was time to stop drinking. But when I got off the phone with him, Caleb disagreed and the next thing I knew I was doing rum shots and taking off my shirt because the room felt too hot. It's never a good thing when hard liquor starts to taste like water because you're too drunk to feel the burn. Caleb got me to the bathroom right on time, and after fifteen minutes of puking and a pretty powerful breath mint from Joe, I was back on my feet, drinking plenty of water and back to the party where Haily started calling me a slut again because she'd heard about my kissing of random guests. But, I was confident that she meant it with love.

We were supposed to have the room until midnight, but Caleb, Joe, Haily and I left at eleven thirty, leaving it to the hotel to kick everyone out. We were supposed to drop Haily off, and then Joe was supposed to drive Caleb and me to his place to spend the night, which is why I couldn't figure out why we ended up joyriding through Stratfort Ranch, instead.

Stratfort, was basically the other side of town to us. It was where the big houses overlooking the lake were, with lawns so manicured that they looked fake; the private school with all the kids we didn't know; and apparently, hired security to roam their neighborhood. We never went there. We didn't know anyone there, and at first, my drunken mind decided that Caleb was up to something else as I sat in the back seat with Haily, trying to figure out if the world was spinning, or if it was just me. But then I heard Caleb ask Joe where we were going.

"I've got something to show you," Joe explained, checking his watch and then driving a little faster. Maybe a lot faster. It felt a lot faster. "Trust me, you'll appreciate it."

"Dude, slow down. You're gonna wreck my car," Caleb told him as he lifted a bottle of tequila he'd swiped from the party and brought it to his lips before attempting to pass it back to Haily and me. I reached for it, given that that was the popular theme tonight, but Haily swatted my hand.

"I'm cutting him off," Haily informed Caleb, and he stuck his tongue out at her. I stupidly giggled.

"Dude, I'm serious, slow down," Caleb said again, turning his attention back to Joe. "I'll kick your fucking ass if you wreck us."

"Caleb, wrecking this piece of shit is something you'd do," Joe countered, but slowed down as we reached a large grayish house that actually had some upstairs lights on.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"Check that out," Joe instructed, gesturing to one of the lit windows. "Every night at twelve-o-five on the dot."

I looked, and rolled my eyes when there appeared to be a very naked woman who looked to be in her thirties standing up in front of the lit window, inspecting a silky nightgown.

"Oh, shit!" Well, it got Caleb's attention. Haily just made a disgusted sound. "How'd you know about this?"

"Andre Louer," Joe explained. "He was telling everyone at work how his aunt's always getting her kicks by undressing in front of her windows."

"That's Andre's aunt?" Caleb asked, practically climbing out the window to get a better look. I closed my eyes and leaned back in my seat, but when closing my eyes made the spinning worse, I forced them open again. Joe was the only one of us who had a real summer job. He always said mine didn't count because it included helping my dad out at the bakeries. Andre worked with Joe at a gas station three miles from my house, and had been at my party tonight. I'd checked out his butt when he mooned me. Didn't really care about his naked aunt, though.

"Can we get out of here now, please?" Haily said irritably. "You guys brag about seeing breasts all the time, can't you see them somewhere else?"

Caleb turned into his seat to face Haily, looking scandalized. I laughed out loud at the look alone.

"Tits, Haily. Tits. God, you don't have to make it sound so dirty! Plus, these are old ones."

"Joe, start driving now, or I'll tell your mom," Haily threatened, and while I continued my uncontrollable laughter Caleb and Joe laughed at her, and then Caleb smiled back at me.

"How's it going, Nels? Having a good birthday?"

"Fine," I managed. "Now drive!"

"Two more minutes," Caleb insisted, laughing as he turned back out his window.

I tried to look as apologetic as possible as I looked at a very ticked-off Haily. After all, I had tried. And not much would have worked, anyway. Joe and Caleb were way too preoccupied to pay attention to reason. What did get their attention, however; what got everyone's attention, was the sudden flashing light coming from behind us. All four heads spun around and my eyes widened at the sight of a security car.

"Fuck!" Haily cursed, and glared at the tequila bottle in Caleb's hand. "Get rid of that, asshole!"

"Screw it," Caleb responded carelessly. "It's just a rent-a-cop. What's he gonna do?"

"Call the real ones?" Haily responded irritably as the security guard behind us left his vehicle to come towards ours. Haily's words brought a brief silence over us before Caleb looked at Joe. "Dude... get out of here."

"What?" I demanded, eyes widening as Joe laughed and hit the gas. We were speeding away before the security guard reached his vehicle and started following us. But no one seemed to care. Even Haily was laughing, I noticed, and since all my friends were, I started to, too.

I'm not sure what I expected really. Aside from Joe, we were all completely shitfaced, and no one actually knew how much pot Joe had smoked today. I'll be the first to admit that we weren't the most responsible bunch, but, this was really the closest we'd ever been to getting into trouble before, and the threat seemed gone because the next time I looked back, the security car was gone.

"I think you can slow down now, Joe," I said, feeling a little sick each time he took a turn.

"No way, I'm getting us out of here," Joe insisted, and I found myself clinging to my seat as he took another sharp turn. I felt like I'd left my entire stomach two blocks back. All I wanted to do was stop, but unfortunately, over the next sixty seconds, things only got worse.

"Oh, shit!" Joe suddenly laughed. "Look at that!"

"Assface!" Caleb chorused with Joe.

I sat up in my seat just long enough to see something I didn't want to see. Ahead of us in the headlights glare was the dented green car, off to the side of the road, and Jame Graham was standing over another figure who was switching out a flat tire. Behind them was the tire they'd taken off of the vehicle, and next to that, were two wooden crates.

"Watch this," Joe suddenly said, speeding up even more, and my eyes widened as I reached to clutch Joe's shoulder, wondering what the hell had gotten into him.

"Joe, stop!" I screamed, or maybe that was Haily screaming as he swerved Caleb's car towards the dented green one.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Caleb demanded, obviously as alarmed as the rest of us.

Joe continued to laugh like a fucking maniac, not turning away from our guaranteed deaths until the last second as Jame fell into the second figure, looking terrified. They were both safe, but I couldn't say the same for the crates. As they shattered under the tires of the jeep I spun around, my eyes widening as I saw torn-apart frames and familiar paintings, ruined and mixed in with the debris beneath the street light.

Joe brought the jeep screeching to a halt, and as I stared at the damage, watching Milo appear next to Jame to look over the damage, I felt horrified when there was laughter. My friends, stupidly laughing over this. Even Haily as she hit the back of Joe's seat.

"You're such an asshole!" she screamed at him.

"Will you guys just fucking stop!" I growled out, and to my surprise, they all did and turned to look at me, suddenly no humor on their faces. I felt like my heart was going a million beats per second, and I'm sure I looked furious.

"Dude," Caleb said gently. "It's fine, we..."

I jumped, and Haily screamed when a blunt force suddenly hit the front window in front of us, cracking it right in front of Caleb's head. It seemed to take everyone a moment to get their senses back together, but once we realized what was going on there was a thick silence as we stared at Jame Graham standing outside of the car, red in the face and hands shaking as he held over his head the jack they'd been using for the tire. For once, he wasn't smiling.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that this was going to be bad, especially as Caleb took a good look at his cracked window. Three sets of hands tried to stop Caleb Spangler as he abruptly opened the door and left the vehicle, all of us following him as he snatched the jack right out of Jame's hands, tossed it aside, and practically grabbed the tall, thin, fat-cheeked kid by the neck.

I reached Caleb first, for all the good it did me. He was pissed, and when Caleb got pissed, he didn't see much else around him. I did manage to stop his fist from hitting Jame, but when Caleb's elbow hooked me under the chin I went flying back, having absolutely no balance at this point. I collided with another body and we both went down. I was hoping that it was Joe, rather than Haily, but as I sat up on the asphalt road where I'd landed, amongst annihilated paintings, I realized that it was neither of them when I met emerald eyes, which first widened, and then narrowed before the guy who Jame had once called Milo tackled me, and in my current condition, it was difficult enough to keep his fists away from my face, let alone get him off of me. I managed to grab his shoulders and I rolled us, until I was over him, straddling his waist, my knees on the rough street surface; but as I looked at him, flustered and furious beneath me, I had no idea what to do with him, other than hold him down. I wasn't exactly interested in hitting him, or anyone for that matter.

I managed to look over my shoulder to see that Haily and Joe were in the process of getting Caleb away from Jame. That was all I saw, though, as a blinding pain erupted in my groin and spread from my stomach to my thighs after Milo did an excellent job of lifting his knee directly into my balls. I rolled off of him, rolling up in pain as I clutched myself, thinking only about protecting my assaulted area from further violation as Milo stood over me. As I sobered, I thought that pain could quite possibly be a cure for drunkenness. As I attempted to get up, Milo grabbed the front of my shirt--the button-up one that I'd gotten from Haily, because she'd asked me to wear it to the party--and it tore, buttons popping off as someone--thank god--grabbed Milo and pulled him off of me. I felt relieved for all of two seconds before I turned over on my back, holding my knees to my chest; but then I saw more flashing lights, and just before I turned to vomit on the street, I saw Mr. Nice-ass with a very nasty temper being held back by a very disgruntled-looking, young, police officer. A real one this time.

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