Extreme Ways

by Richie

+   +   +

I fought for my sanity. Twenty-two years old now, twenty-three looming only a few months down the road, and I wondered if maybe I was finally losing it completely. The loneliness, the loneliness!—my little dominion, seven hundred square feet of cold hardwood and tall ceilings and metal pipes and faded paint and exposed red brick, deep in the Back Bay, felt like it was shrinking every day. Six hundred and eighty feet one day, six hundred and sixty-five the next. And didn't the kitchen seem deeper yesterday? Wasn't the balcony a little wider? Could the ceilings have been a little higher?

Below me in the waning light of the evening, a couple of preteens were throwing a baseball back and forth in the courtyard. They were illuminated by the soft yellow light emanating from the lobby of my building, and the tangled skeletons of dead winter trees obstructed my view of them—it was like I was watching through prison bars.

The crisp air scratched at my skin as if with invisible fingernails. Forty degrees now and here I was in a t-shirt and jeans, like some complete moron. Getting a cold didn't seem like such a bad idea. I could call out sick from work and skip class and bury myself in a mound of blankets and just watch TV and pretend that Eli was there to cuddle up with me and say yeah I know but then it'll be cool because we can be sick together.

I looked down at the boys—they had beaten the Yankees and were now whooping and hollering and dancing around the courtyard, and then they leapt on each other in a bear hug so tight you'd think they actually did beat the Yankees.

I sighed. I missed Eli so much it hurt physically—it was a dull ache in the muscles of my back that was starting to spread into my shoulders. I wanted to see him again—to hug and kiss him, to smell his unmistakable scent, to fuck him deep—no, make love—and marvel at how he had developed so much in the last seven years—he was sixteen now, my God, where did the time go?—but at the same time I wanted the nine year old Eli—the sweet angelic perfect innocent virgin Eli—Eli, the barrow boy—made of gold and silk Arabian thread—the Eli who I first knew, in the beginning, in the dawn of life—the dawn of my life as it mattered.

The boys below me now looked like they were trying to work up the nerve to whisper I dare you to kiss me on the lips. They want each other, I thought, I know the body language. Eli had lovers, I thought. He'd had Ian and now he had Joaquim. But despite them he always loved me, he never stopped loving me. His heart was so big—to still love and care for me like his older brother and so much more, even as he nurtured a younger boy, cared for him and shielded him from the burning wreckage of his destroyed family, taught him how to live and love and get the absolute most pleasure out of life, and oh, Joaquim—a lovelier boy there never was. I realized how lucky I was to have Eli, but he was so far away—I could never ever be close enough to him—and there again was the loneliness. I thought: more than ever I could use a coincidence.

I went back inside—there it was again, it felt smaller—and I curled up on the couch, not so much watching the TV as staring through it, and I started to wonder whether it was a mistake to come back to Boston at all. I was in a good place—I was in my first year as a graduate student and as an associate architect at Thursten & Roth. I was on the fast track to my AIA certification and all the success and respect it brings. I had a great apartment in a great part of town, I had a BMW and a plasma TV and fashionable clothes, but I realized just then that no matter what I used to think, the guy who said that money can't buy happiness knew exactly what he was talking about, because I had all this great stuff and I suddenly didn't give a shit about any of it because I had nobody to share it with.

Outside I heard the boys giggle with the kind of nervous excitement that could only come from one thing, and I felt a single cold tear running down my cheek.

Sixteen hundred miles away, dark clouds hung low over Houston as a brand new Volkswagen Passat raced down 19th Street, gleaming in olive green as it tore past banks and vintage shops. From the open windows came blaring the upbeat musings of The Shins: And I'm screamin' at the toppa my lungs, pretendin' the echoes belong—TO some-ONE... Someone I used to know!

The boy in the passenger seat howled with excitement as the driver cranked the wheel in a tire-squealing turn onto Heights Boulevard. "This is so cool, Eli," Joaquim shouted over the music, "you have a car!"

Eli's spirits were so high that he could not help but laugh.

As Eli zoomed past the steepled Victorian where he lived, the boy beside him was dancing and shouting along to the music, a cool wind whipped through their hair, and he felt an incredible sense of freedom: he could go wherever he wanted now, whenever he wanted.

Then they pulled into the parking garage, into a dark corner, and their breathless exchange was something like what time is it—are they here yet—okay yeah we have a few minutes—and then they squeezed over the center console into the back seat, and then it was all hands and skin and lips and tongue and then the exhilarating shudder of illicit orgasm.

At least, that's how I imagined it.

+   +   +

Some weeks later, I found myself in the lobby, checking my mailbox: empty, as always. With a glance out the French doors to the courtyard, fortressed in the greenery, I saw a boy—one of the boys I had watched from my balcony. He sat languid and splay-legged with his back against the big old oak. A fist was curled in a catcher's mitt, and he was staring off into space. I saw his little chest swell and fall again as he sighed.

I had to talk to him. God, I hadn't spoken to anyone for days now—I just had to talk to somebody—not about anything in particular, I just needed human interaction. I was so desperately lonely.

So I went out to the courtyard and fished through my bag, past my binders and stuff, into the pencil pocket, and I retrieved a single twisted cigarette. I had quit a month ago, but it seemed like as good a time as any to have one. I sat on the bench and the boy jumped when the dry scrape of my lighter tore through the silence. Our eyes met, and I offered him a polite hayya doun.

He nodded at me, and his eyes wandered back to the brick wall.

His age was hard to place: the stoic maturity of his expression belied his awkward boyish angles—he could have been nine or thirteen. He was defined by a soft bright face—so much like Eli's at that age, I thought—and short auburn hair that stuck up in all directions and glinted every autumn shade between brown and red. He was skinny to the point of being underfed. His eyes were big and bright and icy blue, and his skin by contrast looked warm and smooth and slightly bronzed. He seemed to glow in the soft light of the early evening. He was a lovely boy, so young and sweet and sad and lonely—so badly I wanted to be the one to cheer him up, to tell him hey you'll be alright.

I asked: "What are you doing out here all alone?"

He looked back at me and sighed. "I used to play out here with my best friend Corey. He moved away a few days ago."

"Hey, that's too bad. Did he go anyplace close, can you still hang out?"

He shook his head and grumbled: "Seattle."

"That sucks, I'm sorry to hear that." I finished my cigarette and put it out. "You know, my best friend lives far away too. His name's Eli and he lives in Houston. We still talk all the time though—just because Corey is on the other side of the country doesn't mean you have to stop being friends."

He nodded and took a breath. "It's just not fair," he said—his voice was high and delicate. "Why did he have to move away?"

I sighed. Why did I have to move away? "Life hurts," I said. "I know it sounds horrible, but... Buddha said it and I believe it." I chided myself—he'd have no idea what I was talking about.

He got up and sat down on the bench beside me. "I don't think that's true. I don't think life is supposed to hurt. I think friends exist to ease the pain. That's how it's sposta be."

I was amazed at his precocity and his profundity—especially given his age. I sighed: "That's probably the most uplifting thing I've ever heard." I offered him my hand: "I'm Tyler, by the way."

He shook my hand. "My name's Theo. Not Theodore."

"Nice to meet you, Theo."

I stood up, but he whined: "No, don't go."


"I'm just... I'm bored, and I can't go home yet."

I was concerned. "Are you locked out of your apartment?"

"No," he said, "my stepdad's home, but..."

"But what?"

He shook his head. "I don't..."

I sat back down. "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry."

"It's okay," he sighed. "Me and Jake don't get along very well."

"Well, I'll sit out here for a while, if you like."

"Oh no, you don't have to."

"No, it's okay," I said. I heard his stomach growl, and I added: "Or... If you wanted, I could order a pizza and you could come hang out with me for a while. See I'm bored too."

"I don't have any money," he said sadly.

"Oh, c'mon," I said. "What kind of a dick would I be if I asked you for pizza money?"

He blurted: "Why are you being so nice to me?"

I stopped. "Huh?"

"Everybody usually just ignores me. How come you're so nice?"

I felt his pain. I knew all too well what it was like to be ignored—the terrible smothering miserable coldness of it. I shrugged: "I guess you can't change who you are."

"But you don't think it'd be weird hanging out with a little kid?"

I turned: "You don't think it'd be weird hanging out with some old guy?"

He laughed. "You're not old. You're like, twenty, am I right?"

"Twenty-two," I corrected.

"So I'm eleven, and you wouldn't be weirded out if I wanted to hang out with you?"

I shook my head. "Nope."

His eyes met mine, suspicious. "And you're not like some psycho killer or something."

I laughed. "I swear I'm not a psycho killer. Why, are you?"

"No," he said, "at least, I don't think so."

I laughed again, and his melancholy faded into a grin. "Well, okay... but you have to promise you're not just doing this because you feel bad for me."

"I promise," I said. "I'd genuinely enjoy your company, Theo. But I mean if you don't want to that's—"

"See it's just I could really use a friend right now."

I hesitated. "So could I."

He stood up and stuck out his hand. "So we can be friends then. Deal?"

I smiled. "Deal." I shook his hand.

We went up to my apartment, and Theo was impressed to a point that embarrassed me. I let him wander around and inspect everything while I ordered a pizza. When it arrived we sat in front of the TV and he scarfed it down like he hadn't eaten for days.

He belched, and I said: "Man, you must have been hungry."

"Starving," he said. "I was in a hurry this morning and I had to skip breakfast."

"I mean you must have been dying. Did you skip lunch too?"

"Yeah," he said, grinning sheepishly. "I didn't have any lunch money."

"Geez, are your parents trying to starve you or something?"

He snorted and shook his head. "No, I'm just dumb."

I wasn't sure what to say. "So Theo... what is it that made you want to hang out with me?"

"I don't know really," he said. "I mean you wanted to hang out with me, first of all. And I just... I don't know."

I nodded. "Is it maybe because... you feel like you're a lot older than you really are?"

He gave me a funny look. "Yeah, that's... that's how I feel a lot of the time. How did you know that?"

"Because that's me, too," I sighed. "I've always just identified better with people who were older than me."

He frowned. "So you'd like me better if I were older?"

"No no no, it's not that, it's just... It's harder for me to relate to people my own age."

He nodded. "Yeah, me too—that's exactly it. I just never knew what to call it. See, that's why I miss Corey so much, he was the only person who was my age who I could ever really..." he meshed his fingers together: "y'know, connect with."

"It's hard, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he said softly. "So tell me about your friend—Evan, was it?"

"Eli," I said. "He lives in Houston. He's... from Israel, he's sixteen, he has blond hair and he has a brother who died nine years ago."

"So he was like your best friend?"

"Oh yes," I said. "I've known him since I was fifteen and he was nine. I guess I pretty much taught him everything he knows."

"Wow," he said. "That's a long time."

"I know. I wonder all the time—where did that time go? It just—it flew by. And then all of a sudden I moved back to Boston to go to college. A lot of the time I wish I hadn't."

I told him everything about Eli—but I carefully skirted around the parts about love and sex. When I was done, the sun had gone down, and I could swear Theo had slowly moved closer to me. "So now you tell me about Corey."

He shrugged. "I don't know what there is to tell... He was my best friend, ever since we were really little. I always liked hanging out at his place best, because at my place, it's kinda..." He shook his head. "I don't know, I don't like being at home very much. See my mom always wanted a girl, so she kinda lavished all the attention on my little sister and pretty much ignored me ever since she was born. My stepdad... he was nice at first, but then, I don't know, it's like he got bored of me. And then when he found out about me and Co—" He cut off abruptly.


"N-nothing," he said quickly, his cheeks a deep pink. "The point is Jake hates me."

I sighed. "Theo, I hate to bring this up, but... that bruise around your wrist..."

He looked at the floor and folded his arms tightly.

"Did Jake do that?"

He sat very still. "It's my own fault," he said in a choked whisper.

"Hey, it's okay," I said, "we don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

He scooted close to me—so close I could feel the warmth of his body. He said, his voice high and wavering: "Do you know what it's like to live in a house where nobody cares about you?"

"No," I murmured, "I don't. But Eli, he... he has a very special friend named Joaquim, who's a little older than you, and he comes from a house like that. I know how terrible it can be, I know what it can do to a boy."

He sniffled. "You and Eli were really close, huh."

I nodded. "Closer than you'd think."

"Closer than brothers?"

"I'd say so."

He looked up at me with something in his eyes that looked like hope. He whispered: "Closer than anyone could know?"

The realization came that this was his way of telling me about the exact nature of his relationship with Corey. "Yeah," I whispered.

"Yeah," he squeaked, and then he started to cry. I put an arm around his shoulders and he immediately tumbled into me, burying his face in my shoulder. He soaked my shirt with tears and I held him for the rest of the night.

+   +   +

A week or so later, I was in the lobby again, and I saw that Theo was back in the courtyard, just standing near the door and looking in at me. His gaze looked glassy, and the flesh around his eyes was a deep purple. I checked my watch: 12:27 AM.

I went out to talk to him: "Theo, what are you doing out here, it's after mid—" I gulped air like I had just been punched in the gut. There, crossing his throat from ear to ear, unsuccessfully hidden by a scarf, was a long hideous bruise. "Jesus Christ! Theo, what happened to you?"

He immediately began sobbing. "No, no, God, it was my own fault, it was my own damn fault, I'm so fucking stupid Tyler—" here he punched himself in the head, so I grabbed his wrist to stop him from doing it again.

"Oh my God, Theo—geez, come upstairs—"

I shepherded him up to my apartment and sat him down on the couch. He was still sobbing hysterically.

"Theo, tell me what happened. You have to tell me what happened. Please, Theo, what happened to you?"

He just shook his head. "It's my own fault," he screamed, "I'm so fucking stupid and it's my own fault he did it—"

"Jake?" I demanded, feeling cold sickness in my stomach. "Jake did this to you?"

"No, Tyler, no, you don't understand, if I had just been home on time this never woulda happened—"

I felt physically ill. What kind of a monster could do this? What twisted shell of a man was this Jake that he would throttle such a sweet and profound and wonderful boy—for breaking curfew?

"It's my own fault," he repeated. "I'm so stupid."

"Stop it Theo," I said firmly, "just stop it right now. It was not your fault. You did nothing wrong. It was his fault. It was his fault because he is a horrible man, he's a horrible stepdad and he's evil. He assaulted you, Theo. Do you hear me? This is not your fault."

He just shook his head and swallowed his sobs.

"Listen to me," I said. "You're going to sleep here tonight, because there's no way that I can, in good conscience, send you home to him. And if Jake ever tries to hurt you, you're going to come here. You hear me? You don't tell him about me and you don't tell him where I live. If he tries to hurt you, or if he starts acting like he's gonna hurt you, you just come straight here and lock yourself in. You are safe here, Theo, he cannot get to you here. Okay?"

He nodded and wrapped his arms tightly around my neck.

"Do you want something to drink?"

He nodded. "I'm r-really thirsty," he wheezed.

I got him a glass of water with lots of ice, and then I sat down beside him. He guzzled the water, and when he was done I took the glass from him. I pushed his shoulder so that he could lay back on the couch, and he sighed as he began to physically relax. I pulled a blanket over him and pushed a key into his hand: "This is the spare key to my apartment. If you don't feel safe at home, you come straight here and lock yourself in. If I'm not here, you can wait until I get home. Okay?"

He took my hand in his. "Thank you," he said, tears welling in his eyes again, "thank you so much, Tyler—you've done everything for me—you've given me everything—nobody has ever been so nice to me..."

I just sat next to him and let him squeeze my hand until he drifted into a deep sleep and his grip relaxed. I looked over his face—so soft and innocent, so angelic—so much like Eli's—but with so many scars, invisible scars left not by knives or razors but by cruel words and ignorance and malice.

I was filled with seething rage. Jake could have easily put him in the hospital—or the morgue—I shuddered at the thought. And how disaffected and cowed into submission must Theo's mother have been if she just sat by and let this happen?

I caressed Theo's face with the back of my hand, and then I got up to go get ready for bed. No sooner had I laid down than I glanced over to see the boy standing in the doorway.

I said: "Are you okay?"

He sniffled. "I just—I don't wanna be alone."

I swallowed and made a difficult decision. "Here," I said softly. "My bed's big enough for both of us."

He traipsed over and crawled under the covers, kicking his jeans off as he went.

I said: "Are you gonna sleep in your shirt?"

Without opening his eyes he leaned forward just long enough to yank his shirt off by the back of the neck. He left it in a pile on the covers, and lay back in his underwear. I inspected him in the moonlight—sure enough, there were several small bruises up his left arm, and one big one that started on his chest and wrapped around his left side. I didn't dare look any lower than that—I didn't know if I'd be able to take it. I shook my head in disgust, then I laid down.

Theo turned onto his side, cuddling up, and I put an arm around his small warm body.

"Theo," I murmured.


"These problems... with Jake—did they start, maybe, after he found out about something? Maybe something about Corey?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "Kinda."

"Maybe was it about something that you and Corey did?"

Theo hid his face.

I stroked his hair a little bit. "It's okay, you don't have to talk about it. Just... try and get some sleep."

He curled up into me, and I could feel his hot breath on my bare chest. As he fell asleep, I fought off tears of my own. Theo's story had to be the saddest, most unjust story I'd ever heard in my life. It was the sort of thing that you always hear about, but somehow it doesn't seem like it could be real. But then there I was, staring at the proof that it was real—and the proof had a bruised arm draped across my chest. I had to do something... but what could I do?

+   +   +

She sounded tired: "(sigh) Hello?"

"Hi," I said, "can I talk to Theo?"

"He—who is this?"

"It's Tyler."

"Oh... Yes, Theo's told me about you. This is his aunt Janie... He's... Theo's in the hospital right now."

My heart leapt into my throat. "Wait, what? What happened? Which hospital?"

"Tufts. It's alright, I just came from there, he'll be fine." I heard Theo's little sister yelling in the background, and Janie said: "Quiet, sweetie, I'm on the phone."

I hung up on her, and one minute later my 325i was screaming down Commonwealth, blowing through red lights pushing sixty miles an hour.

"Theo Connolly," I demanded as I charged through the lobby.

"I'm sorry," the nurse at the desk said. "What's your relation?"

"I'm—I'm his brother, okay, Jesus—"

I signed in and went up to the room where Theo was resting, thinking as I jumped up the stairwells—God, he's finally done it, if he's here right now I'm going to fucking kill him with my bare hands

But Jake wasn't there. A doctor with a clipboard was leaving Theo's room just as I found it.

I said: "This is Theo Connolly's room? I'm here to see him—"

"He's sleeping right now," the doctor said, "He was complaining about the pain, so I've given him a mild sedative."

I pushed past him into the room, terrified at what I would see: Theo, looking pale and sweaty, was lying in the bed wearing only a pair of black shorts and a white tank top undershirt that exposed all of his green and brown bruising. He had a freshly applied cast on his lower arm.

I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd feared—I'd had mental images of Theo with bandages and casts all over, or limbs bent back at impossible angles, or tubes stuck between his ribs to reinflate a collapsed lung, or inside a black bag that was just being zipped up by a nurse who would say something like one minute he was with us, and the next

I left the room and demanded of the doctor: "What happened to him?"

"It's a simple fracture of his left wrist. I've set it and it should heal completely."

I rubbed my temples. "How did it happen?"

The doctor said: "His stepfather admitted him. He claimed that the boy fell down the stairs in their home, but when I exa—"

Instantly I exploded with a ferocity that I didn't even know I possessed. I slapped the clipboard out of the doctor's hand, and I heard it crash against the wall and clatter on the floor. I cut him off, screaming: "There aren't any fucking stairs in his apartment!"

The doctor admonished sternly: "Sir, please calm down! This is a hospital! I'm sorry, I should have made myself more clear—his stepfather claimed he fell down the stairs, but my findings were more consistent with some sort of blunt force trauma." He took off his glasses and sighed. "The bruises on Theo's arms and back, on his neck, they... I'm not at liberty to discuss this any further, but Mr. Connolly was taken into custody early this afternoon."

I felt a rush of relief and I fell against the wall, sighing ohthankgod

I returned to my senses, and the doctor was saying: "...technically over, but you're welcome to stay as long as you'd like. I hope to release him in an hour or so."

I nodded and apologized for losing my temper. The doctor just smiled wryly and patted me on the back.

I sat down in the chair next to Theo's bed. I put my hand in his hair, and his eyes fluttered open. "Tyler?"

"Hey," I said, trying to sound strong as my eyes welled up. "How you feeling?"

"Better," he murmured. "But this thing itches. How did you get here?"

"I called for you, and your aunt Janie told me what happened."

He looked confused. "Aunt Janie?" he said slowly. "What's she doing there?"

"It's... look, don't worry about it right now. You're safe, okay? I'm here now."

He looked down at his cast. "When can I go home?"

"I think the doctor wants to keep you here for another hour or so. I'll take you with me as soon as he releases you. Where's your mom?"

"She went home, I guess" he said, "She hasta work a double tomorrow."

I couldn't believe it, but I was too tired to get angry. I just sat there watching over Theo as he drifted back to sleep. When the doctor came back in to examine him, he didn't even wake up. The doctor said he could go home, so I woke him up.

"Is it time to go?"

I nodded.

"Good," he said. "I don't like it here. It gives me the creeps."

I smiled. I helped him off the bed and into his coat and shoes. His movements were a bit uncoordinated—I imagined he was still woozy from the sedative.

In the car, he explored the cast on his wrist. It was white plaster with black gauze around it. He rapped his knuckles on it: "Man, this thing is really hard."

"It has to be," I said, "to keep the bones in the right places so they can heal right."


I yawned as I pulled into the garage. Before we were even out of the car Theo said: "Can I sleep over tonight?"

"Yeah," I said, "yes of course you can. C'mon, let's go—you must be tired."

He nodded: "Exhausted."

We went slowly up to my apartment. Without any questions or hesitation, he stripped down to his underwear and then crawled into the bed, cuddling up next to me—on my left side, so he wouldn't lay on his cast.

Theo was asleep immediately. As I held his warm little body and allowed myself to be filled by his beautiful scent, it occurred to me as if for the first time how much I loved him—so very much—maybe it was even more deeply than I loved Eli, because unlike Eli, Theo couldn't take care of himself—I was responsible for caring for him, for protecting him, and I was certain that I would die for him.

But I also felt horrible. I had failed him—I wasn't there when he needed me most, and in that time Jake put him in the hospital. But at least he was in jail now—and I could only pray that he would stay there for a long time. I tenderly kissed the sleeping boy on the forehead—his skin was so unbelievably smooth—I slowly brushed my lips back and forth across his satiny skin, thinking how beautifully exquisite it felt. I kissed him again and again, and he shifted and mumbled in his sleep. I hugged him tight and I felt a small erection poking into my thigh.

I started to cry—I was filled with such strong emotion that I couldn't contain it. I just held him tight and kissed his hair and his forehead and whispered through my tears—I love you, Theo, I love you so much, I swear I'll never let go of you, ever, I love you.

+   +   +

I woke up to feel Theo extracting himself from my arms as carefully as he could. He looked up at me: "Sorry, I didn't wanna wake you up."

"It's okay," I said, and yawned. "It's probably time to get up anyway."

"Can I use your shower? I feel kinda grimy."

"Go ahead."

I dressed and went to the kitchen to make some breakfast. I poured batter into the waffle press and made myself a cup of coffee.


I turned around: Theo was standing there, wearing only his cast, soaking wet and dripping all over the floor.

"I can't find the towels."

I gawked at his perfect nude form—I thought, with no small amount of guilt, that I wanted to dry him off with my tongue. "They're, uh... There's some spares in the linen closet."

"Okay. Sorry." He carefully stepped back to the bathroom, and he called: "Do I smell waffles?"

"Sure do," I called back. "They're warm and fresh." Like you, I thought. I set two plates at the table and waited for Theo to come back—he sat, freshly scrubbed, his lightly tanned skin glowing in his white tank top undershirt and black shorts, legs and feet and shoulders and underarms exposed. He smothered his waffles with syrup and inhaled both before I even finished my first.

I got him a fresh batch and I just sat back and watched him eat, gazing at the hideous bruises marring his otherwise flawless skin.

"Hey, can I use your phone?"

"Sure." I handed him my cell.

He dialed and held it to his ear. He waited a while, then: "Hi, can I talk to Nicole? Nicole Connolly. Yeah this is her son. Okay, I'll hold."

He waited a while longer, and then I heard yelling on the other end of the line. "I'm fine, God, relax, I'm at Tyler's house."

The yelling continued. "No," he said, "yeah, no, I'm fine. He took me home and I spent... God—y'know what Mom, stop acting like you're so fucking worried about me, okay?"

I was shocked that he would speak that way to her. He even looked shocked at himself—he set his fork down and wiped his eyes. His voice wavered: "I mean God, you just sit at home pretending like nothing is wrong. Y'know what? I was in the hospital, okay? Jake's in jail, okay? Would you, like, look around you?"

She gave him a long-winded explanation about something. "I'm sorry," he said very quietly. Then, louder: "Wait, no, I'm not sorry. This is all wrong. You're mad at me? Jesus Christ, what is wrong with this family?" Silent tears started to slide down his face. "No, Mom. I'm fine where I am. See the thing is Tyler actually gives a shit about me... No. Yes, I'll come home. No, in a little while—when I feel like it." She said something, and he sobbed once: "You just had to bring that up, didn't you, you just had to bring Corey into this. Y'know what? Maybe that's just who I am, okay, so deal with it."

I felt a knot in my stomach. Did he just come out to his mom?

Then he laughed, even through his tears: "You're here for me? You said, 'I'm here for you'? Yeah, it's easy when Jake's in jail, isn't it? I mean where the fuck were you before? Where do you think these bruises come from, baseball practice?" He sniffled. "No, Mom, you just d-don't get it. You sat by and let it happen and pretended it wasn't h-happening. I can't f-forgive you."

She said something very softly, and he nodded: "Uh-huh. No, I don't wanna talk about it... I told you, I'll come home when I'm ready. Okay. I'm hanging up now, Mom." He pulled the phone away from his ear and closed it, and then he broke down into sobs. I reached across the table and took his small hand in both of mine, feeling its warmth, its smoothness. He looked me in the eyes, and I felt the weight of the unspoken truth in the air: there it is, his eyes seemed to say, now you know the truth.

"You're young, Theo," I said, my voice dry. "Very young. Too young to really know for certain, I think."

He wiped his eyes with his cast. "Whatever you say," he said.

"You really think you're gay?"

He went red hearing the word—his eyes darted to his lap. He nodded sadly.

"Why do you think that?"

He looked at me and squinted, shaking his head a bit. "Why do I think that? I mean how am I supposed to answer that?"

My lips tightened. "Sorry," I said, "I shouldn't have asked."

"No," he said, "by all means. You wanna know about Corey? See I liked to look for dimes in his pocket, if you catch my drift."

I laughed at this strange euphemism.

"I don't know," he sighed, those blue eyes sparkling. "I just... the way he would smile at me, the way he moved, the way he smelled... God, he smelled good. We played with our dicks... I loved to touch his... we jerked each other off a couple of times. Then one day we didn't hear Jake come home." He held up his cast: "And then one thing led to another."

"Is that when he started... beating you?"

"No," he said, obviously uncomfortable: "he used to just kinda smack me around sometimes, since I was eight or nine. That just made things a lot worse. Like before he was just annoyed or whatever, but after that... there was so much anger, I could see it in his eyes—like he wanted to hurt me real bad."

I fought the knot in my throat. "He belongs in jail," I said. Just in case you forgot.

"I know. Can we talk about something else now?"

I nodded. "Yeah—please, let's. You wanna watch some TV?"

"Yeah... that sounds nice."

I turned on the TV and sat on the couch, and Theo laid back at the far end, stretching his legs across my lap. I couldn't do anything to avoid touching them—so I just put my hands over them, just above his ankles. Oh God. They were the warmest, smoothest, silkiest treasures I'd ever touched.

Theo sighed. "I like it when you touch me," he said softly. "It makes me feel special."

"You are special," I whispered back. My mouth felt dry as I let my hand slowly slide up his shin to his knee, then back down, then back up again. He scooted up a bit, and ran his fingers down my arm until they could play with my own fingers.

He murmured: "Do you like it when I touch you?"

I just nodded a bit.

"And you like to touch me?"


He then curled up and shifted suddenly, and before I knew what he was doing he was sitting on my lap. He leaned back against my chest, and his soft hair smelled so sweet.

He whispered: "You can touch me wherever you want."

With great temerity and a pounding heart, I put my hands on his narrow little shoulders, bare and exposed. I ran my hands all the way down his arms and then took his hands in mine, sighing as I did. He squeezed my hands. I let him hold one hand as the other moved to his knee.

Slowly my fingertips slid up his thigh—the skin was so tender and creamy—until they slipped under the leg of his silky shorts. He gasped—I asked if that was far enough.

He quickly shook his head. He whispered: "No... God, Tyler, I love the way you touch me... it feels... so good..."

I let my fingers venture upwards... and finally I reached the little hollow at the very top of his thigh. He wasn't wearing underwear.

He squeezed my hand: keep going!

So I kept going. He yelped a bit when I cupped his balls, quite suddenly. Then, as if to reassure me, he released my hand and stroked my forearm up and down.

I started to touch the boy's penis—achingly stiff, it fit so perfectly between my first two fingers and my thumb. Theo's breathing became quick, almost urgent.

My lips brushed his ear, and I whispered: "You really want this?"

He nodded vigorously and whimpered a bit.

I squeezed his dick gently. I kissed his earlobe and then his neck: he craned his head back to give me easier access. He bucked his hips a little bit, so I slowly and gingerly started to stimulate him, up and down, twisting very slightly left and right. I kissed my way down his neck, I slipped the shoulder strap of his undershirt down his arm so I could kiss his collarbone and his shoulder.

My hand slipped under the bottom of his shirt—his stomach fluttered when I touched it. It felt so wonderfully smooth and soft... my hand slid up to his chest—I sighed heavily—I brushed his nipples, I could feel his heartbeat.

He leaned forward to peel off his shirt and toss it across the room, and he twitched when I twisted his cock a bit. I moved my other arm up across his chest to his shoulder, pulling him tightly to my body. His little hand seized the arm that was manipulating him.

The skin of his penis was thick and tight and supple and pliable, and I worked it lovingly as he squirmed in my lap. My aching cock was bent uncomfortably downward, directly under the cleft of his buttocks. He whimpered as one finger brushed his tiny head, slipped down to stimulate that thick sensitive spot directly below it.

I looked down and watched the crotch of his shorts slowly rising and falling with my ministrations, and he groaned "Oh jeez..."

I kissed his neck again, up almost to his ear, and then back down to his throat. He twisted his head to kiss the side of my face—it was a sweet little peck, like he'd kiss his grandmother. As he repeated it, though, they grew looser and more loving—like the ones I was giving him: kisses you can taste.

I leaned my head way down until my neck strained, I kissed his beautiful chest and he kissed my neck. He bucked his hips once and squeaked.

I moved my head up from his chest. I let my face hover for a second or two, inches from his, and I took a moment to take in his serene beauty... and then I descended and let my lips touch his, tenderly, and then pushing hard into him—and he kissed back, and it might well have been the sweetest kiss I'd ever felt. I broke away, sucking a little bit at his lower lip, and then a vacant but somehow intense expression came over his face.

Watching Theo climax was the most intense and fulfilling thing I'd ever witnessed—the way his mouth gaped open and his eyelids fluttered and his cheeks flushed, the way his hips and legs started to squirm on my lap and then suddenly stopped, the way his breathing became shallow and noisy, the way his fingers slowly started to tighten around my arm until they were really squeezing, and then suddenly his little body lurched once and then just shuddered as he whispered uhhhhhh.

I kissed his lower lip as he shook with his orgasm, I sucked in his breath and let his long exhale fill my lungs, and he was unable to kiss back or even close his mouth. And then his eyes shut and he was a ragdoll, spilling all over me, filling whatever space my arms and legs would let him. He just panted, and I watched as his lovely narrow chest rose and fell, crowned by brown starfish nipples, the faintest sheen of sweat glimmering in the shallow depression of his breastbone.

We kissed once more, briefly, and then I leaned my head back, looking through the ceiling towards the heavens. Slowly I let my fingers slip out of his shorts and slide down his silky thigh. I traced it to the knee, and then Theo started giggling madly. He reached back behind him and wrapped his arms around my neck. "Tyler," he said softly, playing with the syllables: "Tie lurrrrr." And then suddenly he jumped off my lap and all but skipped towards the kitchen, calling to me: "You want some ice cream? I wanna have some ice cream."

I smiled to myself. "Yeah," I said, "why not?"

I listened to him open the freezer and the cupboards, rooting around for bowls and spoons. And then, to my delight, I heard Theo's loud, enthusiastic singing echoing through the hall: "Wha-wha-wha-wha-wha-wha, DO YOU say, goodbye, good-byyye, bye bye bye bye... Beeee-oooo! Oh nooo! Youuu say goodbye, and I say hello—hello, hel-lo! I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello!"

I could only laugh: I loved him so much just then. Theo was indomitable—indestructible. He had suffered terribly—he had lived through so much more pain and injustice than I had ever known, in half as many years—and yet here he was, still able to smile and laugh and sing, still able to enjoy today and still able to look forward to tomorrow.

I thought: There are big things in store for you, Theo, bigger and brigher things than you know. Things can only get better for you—you'll see. And if I can promise you only one thing, it is this: that I will be with you to see tomorrow, to laugh with you during the good times and hold you close during the bad, to cheer for you at your baseball games and help you work through especially difficult math problems, to someday watch you walk across the stage and receive your diploma. You have been ignored and shut out in the cold—but while I may not always understand what you do, I will never be angry with you and I will never ever hurt you, physically or otherwise. You will always have a place in my home and in my heart. We will spend the years teaching each other and learning from each other, and the most important thing I will teach you is that you are worth so much more and loved so much more and cherished so much more than you even know.

And there will be time enough for all of this, but for now, the day is new—we are only beginning our journey together, so just relax, Theo, and realize that this is here and this is now, this is today and you are you and I am me, and realize for the first time that you are loved, deeply—and then you will realize for the first time that you are truly happy.

Hello, hel-lo...

+   +   +

Well, that's pretty much it: the end. I hope you've enjoyed watching Tyler and Eli and Joaquim and Theo grow up and find a place in the world and in each other's hearts. I hope you feel for them as I do, and I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

+   +   +