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The Circle

Chapter 33

A Circle Never Ends

I woke up laying on my front, my shin burns itching and prickly. The numb kind of ache from the numerous, small burns there seemed much better though. I inhaled carefully, used to the first morning breath sending me into a coughing fit. When I didn't start coughing I let myself yawn.

"Alex?" Jeff's voice asked.



"Morning. What time is it?"

"Almost eleven. Eric and the twins gotta take off soon."

"Why didn't you guys wake me up sooner?"

I was a bit angry, but I knew why they had let me sleep. I opened my eyes and saw him looking back at me. He was gorgeous. His head was tilted as he peered into the room around the door, but the strands stayed smoothly in order, even hanging at that angle. The blue of his eyes glowed at me as I noted the concern on his adorable face.


"I know. I'll be out in a few seconds, okay?"

He stepped in and left the door mostly closed behind him. He was wearing a dark blue t-shirt and jeans, both of which were baggy and lose. That didn't matter, as I could see the smooth lines of his body through them as he moved. I thought of yelling, "oh, yes" or such again, but his intent and serious look changed my mind.

"What's the deal-e-o?" I asked as he stepped toward the bed and I propped myself up on an elbow.

Jeff smiled softly, but it was easy to see he had something serious on his mind.

"Uh, Tom. He's, he's in an okay mood and all, but he's, I don't know, not the same."

I knew it would be that way, at least for a while.

"He'll be okay, just let him adjust to the new way of things is all. He's still probably a little worried I won't want him around so much. And, Jeff, we do gotta be careful of that. I, the last thing I want is Tom to be left out. Or even seem like it. Okay? We can do all kinds of stuff, but I gotta be careful I don't hurt him."

Jeff sat on the edge of the bed, smiled wider and leaned down to kiss me. His hair swayed and hung as he moved, but it kept neat and in order. His bright blue eyes shone, as if he had switched on the lights inside them. His grin widened and showed a bit of his braces. It was an incredible thrill to be kissed by him, let alone so close to the others.

"That's why I like you so much. It's not just your cute grins, and your warm eyes, it's how you treat your friends. Man, I so love you."

His wording couldn't have been more perfect. I had no words for him then. I only pulled him to me for more kisses. I released him when our hands roamed a bit, not wanting to start anything with the guys right next door. It was growing obvious that Jeff was out of his cocoon and well on his way to being more outgoing about being gay; at least with me.

"I know a few ways to keep Tom happier. Follow my lead, huh?"

He smiled and shook his head slowly as he said, "I figured you'd have a plan."

"Hmmm, so I am getting predictable."

"Ahem! You're taking an awful long time in there," Eric's teasing voice said through the door. "Wocka, wocka, wocka!"

"Give it a rest, Fozzie," Jon warned him. "I've always hated the Muppets, so beatin' the hell outta one would be cool."

"Oh yes! Jeff! Yes! Just like that!" I yelled with a wide grin.

He didn't move, just grinned and yelled at the guys, telling them that they knew better. The horror occurred when he turned back toward me, and when he saw the little stereo system on the table. He hit the power button, probably to give us a bit of privacy to talk, I guess. I was too far away to hope to stop him. He started to say something, then his eyes widened.

I was horrified, but it was out.

"That is not disco I hear in there!" Todd yelled.

Jeff hit the off switch immediately, turning to me with a red face.

"Sorry!" he said, looking embarrassed.

"S'okay. Last of the secrets, I guess," I said, resigned. "It's just Wild Cherry!" I shouted to the guys.

Boos and hisses came back at me. At least they hadn't been able to look through the drawer by the bed. Jeff grinned, making me. He turned it back on and turned it up. We sang along to it, just to rub it in. I was shocked that Jeff knew the words as well as I did. I wondered if my eyes did the same thing to him that his did to me as we shared a quiet moment, just staring after "Play That Funky Music." I was ready for what was ahead, I hoped. I hoped he was too.

"Can you go down and get me something to drink? Juice, I guess. I'll have Tom help me out there, so he don't, you know. And my momom has my pills for mornings ready to come shove 'em down my throat if Tom ain't got 'em already. Okay?"

"Sure. Tom already got 'em. You're really something, ya know it?" he asked, beaming at me.

I was near to asking why he was so happy, but I figured it out as I considered why I was. I smiled wider.

"Tom, can you come help me out a sec?" I called loudly.

An "Oooooo!" a, "Two-timing cheater!" a nearly-matched, paired yell of, "Three-way!" followed by a shout of, "Can I join in?" greeted that simple request, of course; they are the Circle after all.

He was in the room before the cat-calls were finished, looking like a dog called to his master waving a bone, even while he flipped the bird and a snide smile at the commentators. I felt bad about that, but I knew I was only making him feel better. Jeff nodded and left.

"Can you help me out there? I ain't gonna lay around while the twins take off."

Tom 'helped' me out of the secret room and into my own room. Most of the guys were huddled around Todd as he headed for a new Dig-Dug record. Jeff watched quietly, after he had returned with apple juice and Pop Tarts, as his record fell. When he was teased about how long it would take him to beat his brother's score, he stunned us all.

"I won't even try. Todd can have it. Good luck to you guys if you even try. I got other things I wanna go chasing after," he said, bouncing his eyebrows at me in front of the rest of the Circle.

Even Tom laughed and smiled honestly at that one.

In Jeff's comment and display I saw him moving forward, readying to take the lead. I knew he would at some point, it was his nature, but so soon?. Jeff could not follow; not for long. In any new endeavor he naturally followed at first, as he learned his way, but he naturally took the lead once he knew enough, felt comfortable enough, and wanted to continue in the activity. I knew if he started playing Dungeons and Dragons that it wouldn't be too long before he was leading the party of adventurers; and not long after that before becoming a Dungeon Master. I was aware that it wouldn't be too long before Jeff was leading things between us. I wasn't sure if I was happy or not about that, but the knowledge did give me a thrill as I considered it.

Just a few minutes later, we all said bye to Eric. He promised to be any kind of help I needed at school to catch up. I told him that I knew I could count on him if I did. I was glad for his friendship. The twins left soon, too, lunch with the parents, then a social event, then dinner alone with them. I didn't envy them, but I was glad that I knew them and counted them as my friends. Jon left shortly after, telling me my bike was in the garage. I thanked him for bringing it home, but he said to thank Tom who had asked him to do it. Tom put up both hands and then pointed at Jeff. I looked at Jeff.

"I told him it was there is all. Just mentioned it."

"Jeff!" Tom cried at him. "He don't need to think I do everything!"

"Why not? You do!" Jeff and I declared together.

Again, there was no perdiddle, and I knew those were over as Jeff and I grinned at each other.

Tom, Todd, Jeff, and I watched music videos and tinkered with this or that, passing a Saturday morning after a sleepover as friends sometimes do; not doing much. At three, after lunch with my parents and grands, Todd and Jeff's mom arrived to pick them up. Jeff and I had planned on asking if he could stay over for the night. We tried to talk of it quietly, just between us, but there was no such thing in a room with any third member of the Circle, let alone the two such enthusiastic members. Todd and Tom were soon helping us figure a way to get Jeff to be able to stay the night. It didn't seem to occur to any of us that it was just another Saturday night. Before long the four of us had come up with reasons and arguments, but our carefully laid plans were thwarted by their mother.

When my dad called up that their mother was there, and ready to go in a few minutes, we finalized the plans and arguments, reviewed our parts and lines, and headed downstairs. Jeff's mom was waiting in the living room as we all arrived there, Todd and Jeff carrying their coats and looking a bit down - on cue.

"Ready to go?" she asked as we entered the room.

I nearly panicked when I saw my parents and Jeff's mom sitting and talking with my grands. Then I almost cried with relief as all of the facts stormed through my head, pointing out that everyone there knew I was gay, and all about how I felt about Jeff.

Todd nodded, then told Tom and I that he would see us next Friday for the Circle meeting at Eric's. His mother offered to drop them off at my house Wednesday night about six when she went to play Bridge, if they liked, and she would pick them up about nine. We all accepted the offer and thanked her.

"Then thank me by getting Jeff's grades back up. That D in science has to go. And math! If you don't pass all your classes, you're in so much trouble, young man!"

Jeff rolled his eyes and put his hands into his pockets. 

"I could study more if I stayed over more. We do ride the same bus," he hinted.

"Talk about pushing it!" she responded.

"He's got a point," Todd offered on cue.

"He sure does, but a dunce's cap is not a big help in life," she countered, just as Jeff had suggested she would.

"He won't be wearing a dunce cap if I tutor him more," I offered, maybe too quickly.

She squinted her eyes at me, not in a mean way, in that "I'm onto you" look that mothers all have.

Tom didn't notice, or didn't recognize it, as he pressed on with the plan.

"Me and Alex are doing some math homework tonight anyway, Jeff could-"

"Oh, give me a break!" she almost screamed.

I was startled, worried that we had gone over the line she had asked me not to cross, and I had so sincerely promised not to. I began to feel awful, and I wished that we hadn't even thought of Jeff staying the night.

"You boys are so transparent! How in the world did I not notice it?" she asked my mom.

"I don't know. I sometimes think we're blind when it comes to our sons."

"Forty-two years and I still think the same thing," grandma said, obviously referring to Uncle Frank.

"Look at them. Like lost sheep," Jeff's mother said with a mother's grin at her child's simple play.

The four of us were flabbergasted, staring confusedly at each other. We did make noises somewhat similar to sheep as we tried to come up with a coherent question or statement, frantically looking to each other for a clue.

"Come on, Todd, we have some shopping to do on the way home. I expect Jeff will want to get his own clothes from now on, but you I can still dress how I want to," she said, gathering her purse and standing. "And don't even try asking to stay the night again. I have a feeling even Tom won't be staying for tonight. Jeff, hon, I'll come by around seven or so. Be sure you're ready to come home. I understand you have an engagement and should be back by then. And give me a hug at least before I go. You're not too old for that yet."

Todd turned an angry glare on his brother as he walked toward his mother. The promise of payback was obvious; so was the love and friendship in the smile he gave us directly after, when he turned back to us momentarily and his mother couldn't see his expression.

 Todd, Jeff, my parents, and I walked them to the door and then watched them pull out of the drive. The entire time I was trying to decide if I wanted to even ask what that mothers' thing had been about, let alone if I really wanted to know. I decided that they'd not tell me anything useful, anyway, and put it into the 'mothers are strange' file for future reference.

They think they're back in control, or at least that they aren't irrelevant, and either way, it means they're comfortable. Let them think they're in charge, it'll do them good. And off our backs. I hope.

"So what are the the Three Musketeers up to today?" Dad asked as he closed the door.

"Three Musketeers?" Mom sneered. She pointed at Tom, Jeff, then me, saying, "Moe, Larry, and Curly, more like."

"Are they high?" Tom asked, as if seriously asking that question, crossing his arms and leaning back on one leg, the fingers of one hand on his chin.

I played along, crossing my arms, holding my chin, and leaning back as well.

"I think so. I gotta check my stash for missing buds."

Jeff stroked his chin theatrically while taking the pose, and said flatly, "I pinched a couple while you was laid up, by the way."

I didn't know if he got Mom or Dad with that one, because he got me! I stared at him for a moment before returning to position, watching my parents.

"Cool. Glad you wasn't dry," I added, giving my mom the evil eye. "And there's a question that begs asking of my dear mother."

"Mother," she called, requesting the big guns for backup.

"No, no! I'll be asking this one again anyway. You can answer now or I'll bug you on it until you do."

Knowing that they were trapped, and obviously seeing that I was serious, they waited.

"Just how was Jeff's mom so cool about, him staying over? And then saying that Todd wasn't staying because Tom wasn't staying over. Hmmm?"

I knew the answer, or the obvious answer anyway, and I could have asked Tom, but I wanted to put my parents on the spot. After daring to be in on the stairs joke with the Circle guys, it was time, I figured anyway, that they get in on another other side of Circle life; interrogations.

"Er," Dad delayed, looking at Mom.

"Well . . ." Mom started, sharing a worried look at Dad.

They looked very uncomfortable, so much so that I had to let them off the hook. Neither had looked at either Tom or Jeff, so when I leaned forward and turned toward Tom with a questioning look, Jeff seemed surprised when he glanced at me - then he turned an admonishing look onto Tom.

That cornered-puppy look returned to Tom's face.


"All he did," Dad said, defending his informant, "was to tell us that you and Jeff and him had figured things out. He wouldn't tell us what, and we tried to get him to, but he said it was private and we should talk to you if we wanted to know anything else. All he thought we should know is that things are great. And figured out, as he put it."

I had kept my eye on Tom the entire time that Dad explained, seeing the truth of it in his reactions and gestures. He was so cute, looking almost hurt, and trying to explain that he had meant well with merely his gestures at my dad's words. His dark eyes and hair contrasted so strongly against his pale, Irish complexion. His thin but dark lips were open in a slightly shocked 'O'. His thin, black eyebrows were tilted to fit his worried and cornered emotions. I started snickering, and by the end of dad's explanation I was grinning and laughing a bit.

"It's cool, Tom. Just, like, take a break once in a while, okay?"

I could not help feeling taken care of. While I didn't normally like that feeling, I was comfortable with it, and I knew it was just the way Tom was. The way he would always be. I could live with it. He visibly relaxed and grinned. He nodded and grinned wider, then glanced at Jeff who was pursing his lips.

"What?" I asked, looking at Jeff as he still looked at Tom.

I made note to think how people can tell when they are being spoken to even when they have no outward clue. Jeff could not have known by sight, I knew, as he wasn't looking at me, yet he knew to turn with a questioning look to me.

"Uh, still don't answer how Mom, shit, I mean, sorry," he said with a glance at my folks. My eyes followed out of natural reaction, and I noticed my grands had joined us. "Uh, how did Mom like, know Tom wasn't, likely to stay over? And, I mean, crap! She... "

I knew what he wanted to ask, but he wasn't able to in front of my parents and grands.

"Why she's cool with us being alone, now? Knowing we're, uh, whatever?"

That was wholly unsatisfying! And so fucking embarrassing! Shit. And I so copped out! Fuck it!

"You want to know why she's cool leaving us alone to mess around? So do I," I said quickly, nearly running the words together.

Jeff turned Coca-Cola red instantly. I probably did too. Mom and Dad snickered as my grands shared a grin and a look together. Tom covered his mouth to stifle his laughter.

Jeff's tisk was satisfying and rewarding. When he cocked his lips to his left after it, exposing his braces, I had to sigh. His scrunched eyes were adorable. It was instantly worth it. I wanted to lean to him and kiss him. I knew I could, since it was only my parents, grands, and Tom, but I didn't want to. I was afraid he would back away. All I could do was try to moderate my enormous grin.

"I'm sure she's aware there won't be any stopping you two, anyway," Gramdma said softly.

It was in the way she had said it. I had no doubt. When I asked her without my voice, she grinned wider and nodded.

"Gross! My grandma talked to your mom about us having sex!"

Another rewarding tisk and horrified grin from Jeff, more laughter from Tom, and nervous shuffling from the adults.

"Now, Alex, Jeff, all I did was to point out that if she tried to ignore it and pretend it didn't happen, that the more it would bother her, and the more it would bother Jeff. If she wanted to become comfortable with it, she had best come to grips with the fact that two teen-aged boys are just that, and they'd find ways and places and times without her having a clue. And I pointed out how that might lead to something risky being done someplace unsafe. She understood."

"Oh, my, gawd!" Jeff chanted slowly in shock.

"I, know!" I agreed, horrified and disgusted.

"I'm so glad I'm not in on this one!" Tom said, laughing, taking one step away from Jeff and I.

"Oh?" Grandma asked, using a tone that told me Tom was about to be pruned back a tad; if you considered cutting down a tree at its roots as pruning it back a tad.

I elbowed Jeff slyly and nodded at grandma, raising my eyebrows and grinning, then nodded upward at Tom. Jeff understood and turned to watch Tom as the chainsaw started up.

"From what I understand, Jeff would have to move in to catch up to the kind of time you and Alex have spent together. And even then they'd have to work hard at it to be caught as often as you two were. And should I go into-"

"NO!" Tom shouted, executing the first cut-off of my grandmother in mid-speech in my memory.

Sufficiently cowed, Tom returned to my side, grinning a bit despite the cuts.

"Moo?" I asked Jeff.

"Grade-A, whole, homogenized," he replied with a huge grin.

"Fill ya in upstairs," I informed Tom. The adults suitably confused, therefore the round going to us in our eyes, "We should get upstairs before we lose," I suggested.

I was wordlessly agreed with and followed up the stairs. I overheard my grandmother ask my mother what she had called her for, and my mother reply that she had done fine.

"I like your grandma," Jeff said simply.

"Me too," I said, grinning at her.

"I used to," Tom said very angrily, grinning. "Now what's this moo business?"

Once in my room, I explained, "Sometimes you gotta fight for something, right? So, I said once to Jeff, sometimes you gotta grab the bull by his balls and shake the fuck outta him until he moos and gives milk."

Tom enjoyed it. Jeff looked a bit embarrassed. Tom noticed. Tom looked to me questioningly, then obviously decided to drop it. Instead he grumbled about being compared to a transsexual bovine.

I considered it for a moment, and I saw that it made a perfect introduction to what I wanted to speak to them about.

"I mentioned it to Jeff when we were talking about, uh, getting his mom in on things."

It was difficult, but I had opened the topic. Tom, Jeff, and I talked talked frankly of the situation for a while. Eventually Tom told us to grab hands, kiss, and get it over with, that he was tired of watching us wanting to.

"I'm gonna be a third wheel a while. I know it. But it's cool. I'm jealous, sure, some, but it makes me feel happy you guys are. And I'm not into what you guys are. It was, uh, really cool, Al, and I'm glad we did. When Jeff dumps you for a chick, and I'm not dating a supermodel or two or something at the time... "

We all laughed together.

"So don't bug on it. When it's just us three, don't worry about holding hands or stuff. Just no making out in front of me. And just don't be tearing each other's clothes off in front of me! It might end up a three-way! Ya never know!"

We all laughed together again.


I knew he was, and the three of us raised eyebrows together.

"So I'm glad you guys made it. I mean, I busted my ass for this! You wanted to know what I did before? Shit, man, I tried to list it last night! I got a page with two sides filled in! And someday I'm gonna show it to you guys. But I did it because it's you guys. And if you guys are happy with each other, man, I can't be happier!"

"Are you done?" I asked, being as serious as I could.

"Uh, yeah. Why?" he asked, worried.

"Because if you wasn't, I was gonna get some Kleenex," I said, letting my voice crack.

"Drama queen," Tom said, rolling his eyes.

Tom stayed until nearly midnight, then stretching, he said, "Well, Saturday Night's comin' on, so, I'm gonna head home to watch my shows. See ya about noon tomorrow for Toby's folks?"

"Sure thing. Don't be late."

"No way! Well, have a goodnight, guys. Sleep well and all that shit. And Jeff," he said with a grin as he pulled his coat on, and I knew something snide was coming, "the Vaseline is under the headboard."

He walked out before our shocked replies would matter, our mutual tisks echoing off the closed door.

"Oh, he's, so... " Jeff started, not knowing how to finish the threat.

"Tom," I answered.

"Yup," Jeff answered, popping his cheeks.

We turned to look at each other. He leaned closer, slowly, grinning his crooked, sexy grin, his braces and gorgeous light-blue eyes glinting. We clasped hands and leaned closer.


I woke to thunder, an unusual occurrence in February. Sunday morning had dawned, but it was well hidden by heavy, low clouds that spat snow and drizzle in alternating waves. My thoughts were centered around Jeff as I was looking at him sleeping on my arm, until Mom knocked on the door.

"Morning, sunshines," she said loudly. "Can I come in?"

I grinned and thought about shouting no, and hold on, and yelling at Jeff to get dressed. I laughed as Jeff yanked the sheet and blanket over himself. I figured he was getting it bad enough.

"Come on in, Mom," I said between giggles.

She entered with a large tray. Jeff slid deeper under the covers, as if he was actually able to hide there. I giggled louder. Jeff peeked out from under the sheets, only his tousled hair and wide eyes visible. I laughed out loud.

"She's just getting you used to it, so it won't be something you got hanging over your head is all. Now it's over and no big deal. Sit up and have breakfast for crying out loud."

"Oh, is that right?" Mom asked in a way that told me she was surprised.

"Oh please. You're my mom. I sorta know ya."

"And you wonder why I knew? About you and being gay?" she said, shaking her head.

"Fair enough," I agreed.

She brandished a tube of salve and fresh bandages from the tray, asking, "You want a shower first?"

"Heck ya!"

"Then I'll be downstairs with it when you're done. Or does Jeff want to... " she trailed off.

His grimace from just above the sheet was answer enough.

"If you don't sit up and help me with these pancakes, I'm gonna tear the sheet off a ya," I said with a look that told him there was little threat and much promise in the statement.

"You can't be serious, can ya?"

"Get it over with. Mom knows. Dad knows. Your mom knows. Todd knows. Tom kno-"

"Freaking fine!" he said as he finally sat upright with an adorably embarrassed face.

Breakfast was a bit awkward, in bed and all, but it was a nice touch from mom. Her breaking the awkward found-in-bed-together ice was welcomed after Jeff realized it for what it was.

"At least I don't really have to worry about if it happens, now."

"She won't come up to the door again, don't worry. She'll just yell from downstairs like normal. That was just so it was over with."

"Yeah. Good thing, huh? And, man, I don't know why, but it feels like I wanna tell ya something all of a sudden."

"What?" I asked simply.

"You been hinting at something happening at school? I didn't wanna tell everybody, but I had to when they heard other stuff that wasn't true, ya know? But, I wanted to tell the whole thing to just you. I really hope I didn't mess stuff up. I really do!" he said, suddenly seeming upset.

That sentence piqued my curiosity in the same way a nuke lights a cigarette.

"Hey! What? Don't bug on it, man, just what?" I asked, worried, turning toward him the bed and taking his hand. "I promise, it's going to be cool. And fine."

Whatever it is, I'll get it straightened out if I have to kill someone.

"You been the talk of school since the fight with Derek," Jeff said, looking worried.

I thought that I knew where he was going. I was sure he was worried about being seen with me on the bus, at school, and being associated with the fag, even if the fag had friends to back him up and help him out.

"Don't," I said, holding his cheek. "Just don't. It's just between us. And you know the guys will take it to the end before they say anything about it. Nobody at school knows."

He looked even more worried suddenly.

"What? What is it?"

"Um, yeah, they do. Curt Maxwell said you was a fag and deserved the fire. He started saying he wished you had died in the fire, I knew that was what he was gonna say, when I hit him."

"You what?"

"I knocked the shit outta him! And Misses Canton told him to go see the nurse. That's all!"

My eyes were wide and my mouth hung open in surprise. It was his first fight, I knew. He had never thrown a punch in his life in real anger or real conflict. It wasn't in him to do so. I was truly impressed. Not only that he had it in him, but that he had it in him over me.

"Then he asked why I gave a fuck. If I was a queer too. I, uh, I said yes. And that I thought you are my best friend, even if you wasn't more."

"No shit?"

"No shit."

So it was true, I knew.

"I don't care. Everybody knows I'm gay after Derek. I don't care if they know about us. I like it, sorta. But I don't think we'll be holding hands at school."

"No way! I mean, not like it's gross, or anything, I just mean-"

I kissed him.

"I know!"

"Some of the guys whistled, not mean, like wow kind of whistles? When I popped him one and told him off? Then Cara Stevens goes... " he blushed and grinned so shyly that I had to wriggle involuntarily, "... she goes... so, I can't ask you out?"

We laughed, more than it deserved.

"Did you say yes?" I asked, looking downcast and sad, giving him the puppy-dog eyes.

"I said no! But I said that if you," he poked my chest, "didn't, I might think about it."

He was so absolutely adorable at that moment. His hair was mussed, he was blushing, he was grinning widely, and he had fought over me, defending me at school over my being gay, and he had outed himself doing so.

"You did not!"

"I so did," he said, obviously proud.

"Then she's outta luck!" I said, pulling him to me.

"Luck ain't got nothin' to do with it," Toby's voice echoed from the past.


At eleven-thirty, Tom knocked on the bedroom door. There were several loud scuffling noises, then I said, "Just, just a minute!" frantically.

"Lemme get dressed!" Jeff almost yelled, then counted to three before he threw open the door and grinned.

I smiled from the bed, still playing Missile Command, saying, "Morning, Tom!"

"Assholes," he said, grinning as he entered.

"Partial payback for the Eric-Derek stunt," I said absently, grinning.

"Don't get me! You know it was Eric!"

"Oh, he's so going to be gotten!" Jeff promised.

"Why? You were in on it. You knew about the stairs thing," Tom pointed out with another grin and bouncing eyebrows.

"I didn't know about the Vaseline on the toilet seat," Jeff answered with pursed lips.

Tom snickered, trying to hide it, but completely unable to. That triggered me off, joining him instantly.

"Yeah, funny, ha- ha, it is to laugh," Jeff recited.

"Oh! Talking about funny! Did you guys see Buckwheat get shot last night?" Tom asked, obviously knowing, judging by his grin, that we hadn't.

Jeff and I knew he knew that we hadn't seen it when he produced a video tape and asked if we'd like to see last night's Saturday Night Live. It was the first time that Tom had ever recorded something.

We passed the hour in laughter, watching Saturday Night Live. Before I knew it, it was nearly one, and my mom was calling from downstairs.

"So, you guys sure you wanna go?" I asked them.

Confused, questioning looks were shot at me before they shook their heads and picked up their coats.


I uncovered, unlocked, and opened the blue footlocker. I removed the precious envelope and looked at the rest of the junk inside of it. The only really important things, the only things that I would do anything of any real measure to preserve, I held in the clasp envelope and took with me to visit Toby's family.

I felt a mixture of potent emotions at the prospect of spending the day, Toby's birthday, with his parents, my own, and my mom's. That my two best friends couldn't be kept away was only more joy on top, like whipped cream on a cheesecake. I thought how it might get uncomfortable if Toby's parents learned about Jeff, but I wanted them to know. Hiding anything from them seemed absurd, and just the thought of trying to hide Jeff felt wrong. Toby had told me to find the next person, had written it to me, and had even made me promise to in person - more than once, depending on how you looked at things. There was not only no reason to deny Jeff's importance to me to Toby's folks, I felt, it was important to me that I do tell them.

The drive was short and quiet. I was fine until we pulled into the drive and I saw their muddy truck. My eyes were glued to it as we climbed out. It was all I saw until Toby's family was there in front of me. I only remember tears and welcomes until we were seated in the large room with the many sofas and the brass animals.

"We had t'come after your accident. After Toby, we know how short our time here can be. We really wanted ya to have the things a' Toby's, and God almost took you away already. So we came when we could t'make sure we didn't wait too long. And with it being Toby's birthday today, and you gettin' out Friday almost for sure, we took a week off each and headed up Wednesday. We was glad to make your party, so we could meet your friends. They was around that first summer some, but we didn't meet any, and we didn't see a soul last summer."

"I'm sorry you didn't, but they were all on vacations and busy, and, uh, Tob and I kinda wanted our privacy anyway," I answered his mother, blushing at where the wandering sentence had led.

"We kinda knew, already, but wasn't sure. You had video games and cable television and your music, so you had all you kids cared about!"

I laughed with them, and with my family and two best friends. Gramps kept insisting that he knew Toby's aunt from somewhere, and it didn't take him long to remember where.

"The young nurse at the Vets Hopsital! Nineteen-forty-five! Sure!"

She turned red and smiled widely.

"You were an injured soldier?" she asked.

"Yup. Hip and, uh, posterior, it was."

"That sounds like an interesting story!" I hinted.

"Some other time, kidd-, Alex. Right now... "

He turned back to Toby's aunt and they were off. The rest of us listened a bit, talked about other things, and waited. It was fairly entertaining, and I had little J.T. in my arms, so I could entertain myself anyway.

Toby's mom asked what had happened to my head, and seeing as how I'd explained the damaged blood vessels and the the burns at the party, she asked what had caused the damaged blood vessels to begin with.

"Just, got hit by the unexpected," I offered. "Accident," I explained when she apparently wasn't satisfied at first. "And my own fault for not watching where I was walking."

There was no way I was going to lay that onto Tom, not in front of him, especially.

"Would any of you like a soft drink? Or I have coffee or tea? Milk or water if you prefer?" Barb asked once her reminiscence with my granddad wore down.

After taking orders she moved off to get them, but she had yet to ask me.

"Uh, root beer, if you please, if you have any left around."

"Oh, honey," she said, turning back to me, "I just assumed you'd want a Mason's. You guys get back to chatting, I'll be back in a few."

"How did she know?" I asked of Toby's parents.

"Mason's Root Beer? It's all you guys drank, both summers. Back home he missed it and wished you could send a bunch," Toby's mom said with a smile.

"So, I guess there's no secrets, then."

I was torn between the sheer embarrassment and the sheer relief of knowing that there were almost no secrets between the ten of us. I looked forward to making that the eleven of us.

"No, Alex, there's not. The police told us 'bout the teacher, and the cop. We know 'bout that. We feared it was somethin' Toby'd done, but it was almost worse that what we feared," she said, sniffling.

"Alex, we understand why you didn't tell us. If Toby hadn't told us, you didn't want to, either. We understand," Toby's dad said.

"Yeah. I sorta made him. I knew something was wrong. I didn't know about, about his disease. I guess he told me about the teacher to keep from telling me about that."

Both of Toby's parents waved me to come sit between them on the couch, and I did so quickly, wanting their contact. And not only because it was as close to Toby as I could get in this life aside from holding his little brother. We sat close, all of us letting our grief over Toby run its course in small sniffles and light tears, all huddled over his little brother. After a long time, what seemed hours to me, I saw a cold, frosty mug of dark, foamy liquid in front of me. I reached for it, breaking the warm contact, but wanting and needing the fluid. Not just any fluid, either, but nearly frozen, in a frosted mug, thick, rich, spicy Mason's Root Beer. Just the smell was a reward. I inhaled with the mug at my lips before I took several slow drinks. I waited, then burped, muting it for company.

"Perfect," I said to her.

"Thanks, sweety," Barb said, smiling at me warmly. "I found it in Willamette, still. They only sell it locally, so I had to send the car up to get some. I'll have it delivered to your house. Consider it my birthday present."

"Oh, my, gawd! So cool! Thanks! I thought when the little store on Madison stopped carrying it it was gone for good! He said he was too far for them to deliver it anymore. I was so pissed!"

"They're struggling against the big companies, but they're holding out for now. Hope they give 'em hell!" Barb said, shocking me; and not only me. "What? I can root for a little guy even if I own most of one of the big guys," she said sternly. "And they have an excellent product!" she finished, hoisting her own mug.

It was only then that I noticed that everyone had an identical frosted mug, and that they had similar heads, though I remembered some had asked for coffee. Obviously my puzzled look was the reward they sought, as it clearly satisfied them.

I smelled a Circle plot. Tom was the obvious culprit, as he knew about the Mason's, and he was stifling himself the hardest.

"Well?" I asked him.

"Just a little one," he replied, measuring and inch with his thumb and forefinger.

"Is this going to be on the list?" I asked with a chuckle.

"I'll add it later. Got any extra paper? I'm running low."

I sighed and released Tom from the eye. I was struck at how I felt just as high above any problems as I had ever felt under them. Even the days after Toby's death seemed remote and paled, but there if I wanted to recall them vividly; I didn't. I smiled and looked at everyone holding their Mason's, waiting, and offered the obvious toast.

"Happy Birthday, Toby."

We talked about him for a while, sharing short stories of his hijinks at home or his entirely competent Circle antics. At dinner I was seated directly opposite the long table from Toby's aunt. I guessed it was a place of honor. Toby's parents were at the end of the table on either side of me. Tom and Toby were next, across from each other, then my parents sat talking quietly with his aunt. His mom and aunt fixed a huge amount of barbecued fried chicken, lumpy mashed potatoes, lumpy heavy gravy, big, buttered biscuits, and corn on the cob,. I knew why they chose that menu, but I doubted anyone else did. It wasn't mentioned except by eye contact between his family and myself. I had the seconds I knew Toby would have. And of the rhubarb pie - so sweet and bitter it hurt your jaw to eat it - under whipped cream; I loved it.

Shortly after the meal, after the dishes were cleared and the chat had gotten a bit heavier, Toby's mom asked if I wanted to read the letter Toby had left in the car for them, and some other things, and if I was ready for the things of Toby's they had brought.

I wasn't surprised, thinking along the same lines as we had just discussed the reasons Toby had done what he did. After I had sighed deeply and nodded, and as I leaned heavily onto the tabletop, Toby's mom returned with and placed on my lap a white box. It was as at least as long and wide as a sheet of paper, and six inches tall.

"It's all yours. It's your private things, between you and Toby. You should probably go through it alone, hon."

I wasn't ready for it. I stared at it, afraid to so much as touch it. I had thought I was ready.

"I'd like that," I said, still afraid to touch the box.

"These," she said, holding a large paper package, "are the ones we want ya t'read now. All y'all, anyone who'd like to. They're the ones he wrote in the car on the way home, like he did your letter I mailed ya."

She pulled the small, green, three-ring binder out of the paper enclosure. I choked up at the sight of it, as it forced so many memories of Toby to the surface.

"We found his binder open on the back seat when we got back to the car, open to this," she said as she held out the notebook to me, open to the letter.

toby2folks.jpg  or tobyslettertoparents1.html

I was crying solidly long before I finished the letter. I ran my fingers over the paper, and the words on it, lovingly, even after I had finished reading it. I passed it to his father who passed it to Jeff. He looked as if he had just been handed the Pink Panther diamond.

"Toby had left a longer letter at home before leavin' for vacation," she said, pulling a single page of paper from the envelope.

I saw Tom get up from the table, and I could only think that perhaps I had insulted him by passing the letter to Toby's dad, and thus to Jeff first. He walked out of the room quickly and without looking back. I felt terrible, but there was nothing I could do at the moment as I took the letter from Toby from his mother.

toby2folks2.jpg  or  tobyslettertoparents2.html

Eventually I handed it to his dad to pass around. Once I had wiped my eyes clear, I saw that Tom was back, and that he didn't look upset or angry. He even threw me a short smile of reassurance.

"Alex, honey. He had somethin' to do here. And, well, there was somethin' else. We, we wanted t'tell ya sooner, on the phone, but it just didn't seem right then. Alex, honey, didn't you notice he knew he had a little brother? We didn't tell him I was even pregnant."

"It's right here," Jeff said, still reading the letter. "Give my bike to my little brother and tell him its from his brother who loves him and will be watching out for him."

Jeff's eyes were wide as he read it, seemingly awed by something I found completely believable. There was absolute silence around the table until Toby's mom spoke again.

"There was something else. The driver of that truck, he, he had some things in his truck that belonged to a missing child from Tennessee. Alex, he had done some bad things, and because Toby had, had done what he did when he did, he was caught. Toby obviously had, something, or, I don't know what or how to explain it," she said, choking up.

"He's one of God's chosen," I said firmly. "I'd like for you to read what he wrote to me," I said, making to stand.

Tom pushed my clasp-envelope across the table to me with a nod. The guardian angel had struck again. I opened the envelope as I grinned at Tom, then I passed Toby's letter to his mother.


Hours and gallons of tears later, a very few painful, the evening came to a close.

"We have to hit the road by six. I only have 'til Wednesday off, then it's back to the grind," Toby's dad explained.

They extended an offer for us to visit them, and I voiced my opinion that it was a mandatory trip. I knew that I would make it at some point, I just hoped to make it as soon as possible. Mom and Dad agreed to consider it with grins that all but promised it would be so. I felt that there was something there for me. I knew that there was. I had to get there.

Tom and Jeff both said that they were very glad to have met Toby's parents, and again said they thought they had done a great job with him, and would do another great job with his little brother. I added my agreement.

"Ya know, we was worried how you was doin', and all, and how you held up after Toby passed, but with these guys as friends, we didn't have a worry in the world. And Jeff, you best think how good a guy you got there. He made Toby very happy, and if he makes you even a little as happy, you're one lucky young man."

"Yeah, I know. I've been seeing how he is," Jeff said softly, blushing.

I wanted to hold his hand so badly right then. He glanced at me, blushing more, then reached for my hand.

"We should'a called right away, should't we've?"

"I wouldn't a minded. It would've, been, really hard, but, I think I would'a liked that."

"You have our phone, and address. Call or write. I'd love that."

"I will. And you too. I'm gonna miss you guys," I said, not worried about crying in front of Jeff, Tom and my parents, not to mention my grands and Toby's aunt. "Bye Jeremy Tobias! You be good, and not too much like your brother."

"And don't you worry about him not knowin' Toby. We're gonna show him his older brother very often. And show him the pictures of his friends he made in Chicago. And tell him 'bout the guy he loved there."

There were a few tears in a few eyes, and while some were sad, of mine, none were of the grief and loss I would have felt just a couple of weeks ago.

There was a last round of farewells and hugs as we left. I stood on the porch, looking at the muddy truck that had taken Toby away those times, and especially that last time on that stormy summer day. I remembered the smell of the green grass, the trees and the flowers, and imminent rain. I felt warm, and safe, and loved. I wished that Toby could know, and I knew that he would - that he did. I let myself see him at that old Suburban, leaning against it and grinning his 'told ya so' grin.

The ride home was silent, but not awkward. We all smiled to ourselves, lost in thought. A light snow was starting as we pulled up at my house, and the silence that late Sunday evening snowfall brought seemed a nearly holy thing. The night air seemed more crisp, more fresh, more clean than ever before. There was hardly a sound as they walked into the house.

"You coming in or going to freeze to death outside?" Dad asked.

I stood in the drive, looking up at the night sky. It was rare to see more than a dozen or so stars from near the city, but that night there were several very bright ones overhead. It was cold and still, and my breath was visible as I told him that I'd be there in a minute or two.

I heard the door close and the porch light was shut off. There were almost no sounds, a true rarity, as I watched the last patch of clear sky being covered by low, ragged clouds that reflected the orange lights of the city. The box in my hands felt heavy. I thought of how it held everything I had left of Toby. Only momentarily, though. They were the only physical things I had of him. I realized that I had far more numerous and valuable things of him; things that I couldn't touch, but that I could enjoy far more. As the last visible star faded, I felt changed.

I knew that somewhere, someplace not there, that Toby was seeing me at that moment. At the very least, I needed to feel that was so. My mind filled with our times together, and my heart overflowed with the emotions. I let the tears roll down each cheek as I stared at nothing in the cloud-filled night sky, seeing only the light snowflakes falling toward me from a low, irregular, orange ceiling.

I knew there were ways to feel whole in this life, but it was rarely satisfying if there wasn't someone to share it with. I knew that the best way to feel whole in this chaotic, uncertain, bizarre life, was to find someone who completed you. I knew there was more than one person who could complete me, or anyone, and that for now it would be Jeff for me, and I hoped me for him. I also knew that in time it would be someone else; for both of us. But for now, we were both whole, and we both had each other, and we both had Tom, The Circle, and others.

I felt like the luckiest guy in the world until Toby's voice reminded me that there wasn't any such thing as luck.

I grinned and turned to rejoin the living. Inside, they all sat at the kitchen table, obviously waiting for me.

"Jeff's mom is gonna be here in about an hour, and I wanna do this before they take off, okay?"

I placed the white box on the table as I sat down.

"I want to open this with you all."

I was watching my hand on the box, and the long silence had me curious, so I looked up. They were sitting near, waiting. Mom, Dad, and the grands literally glowed, both Jeff and Tom smiled and looked embarrassed.

It felt right. The idea hadn't occurred to me until I entered the house and saw them. Once inside my home, with Mom and Dad, grandma and granddad, Tom and Jeff all there, it seemed too perfect; especially after the mood of the night had soaked into me outside.

I opened the box gingerly and placed the top aside. I removed my clasp-envelope that I had placed inside earlier, without looking inside the box as I had done so. First was a photo of Toby. It was a nine-by-twelve from his school. He had strawberry-blond hair just past his ears, and was tanned, smiling dutifully, his green eyes flashing. It looked to be from the school year before the summer we first met.

My breath was taken from me as I saw the familiar face grinning back at me for the first time since I had seen it in person so long ago. He had changed so much by the second summer than I had nearly forgotten what he looked like that first one, before his illness had robbed him of his vitality.

I eventually handed it to them to pass around the table and looked into the box for the next item. It was a pack of five-by-seven photos. The first one was of Toby swimming near his home from before he had begun to lose weight and had longer, still reddish-blond hair. I knew it was after our first summer, and before our last. He was all smiles, and looked as nearly happy as I had ever seen him, obviously caught in mid-laugh. His body was tanned, well muscled and, rounded out; healthy looking. I noticed the creek in the background, and knew it was the same one that ran through his private place where the boulder waited, hiding what he had left for me there. I wondered what it was, and why Toby had not mentioned it, yet I knew it was there suddenly.

Paper-clipped below that was another five-by-seven photo. It was of Toby and I taken by Toby's mom at the patio table in Toby's aunt's backyard. It had been during that cookout the second summer. We had been caught sitting close together, talking privately, interrupted, blushing, and grinning embarrassedly. I remembered the conversation well, and the sudden surprise of being photographed. I laughed and sniffled, explaining the photo to them. Several more photos from last summer were in the pack, almost all of them were of Toby alone. One more, though, was of the both of us. I had forgotten it had been taken. Toby and I were side by side, arm in arm, singing to "A Country Boy Can Survive." The song was new then, and we had been caught in a shared, secret love of country music.

Several more photos were clipped behind those first two. All were of Toby over the last few months, most likely just before they came to Chicago. They showed him dutifully and reluctantly posing for the camera in front of his house and the woods behind it, a few animals in one picture, and his parents in the last one.

Seeing him smiling for the camera, I knew that he knew those pictures would be among the last of him. His smile wasn't sincere, but it was wide. I could easily tell he had let them take the pictures, and that he wanted them to be worth looking at.

Next was a manila envelope full of the letters Toby had written and never mailed. I put them aside for later, alone. I knew what it was before I checked inside it, and it hurt to even momentarily see his handwriting.

Another manila envelope held dozens of photographs. They were mostly Polaroid Instants, with descriptions and names in the white rectangle below the image. They were mostly of Toby, a few of him and his relatives, from almost his entire life. The top was a faded baby photo. The similarity to Jeremy was shocking. They progressed through his life up to one with him arm in arm with his friend, Terry. It was obvious, and I wasn't jealous. It was warming and reassuring. It was dated almost a year before Toby and I had met. His parents had to have known, I thought, looking at the two of them together.

Next were the tapes I had given Toby of Styx, Queen, and various rock and roll songs. Each one had a white label that I had applied and written on. They were worn, the letters illegible, obviously well-handled and often played. They smelled of him; that hurt the most.

Next was a copy of Toby's school yearbook. I found his picture in it. It was small, and in black and white, but I saw the handsomeness there all the same. As I closed it, I saw there there were several signatures on the inside of both the front and back covers. Some were generic wishes for the future, mostly from teachers, a very few seemed to be from friends; it was his yearbook! Inside the front cover there was a page of writing paper with several names, addresses, and phone numbers on it, in a hand that clearly was not Toby's. As I read down the list, then the paragraph at the bottom, I understood. 

These are Toby's friends. We have told them about you, and about you and Toby. They all would like to hear from you. 

Love, Angela

Last was a certificate of merit from the Georgia State Police. It was filled out to "An Anonymous Citizen". A small note from Toby's mother, attached by a paperclip, explained.

This was given to us to give to you. The officer said you agreed it was best to keep your name out of it. He also sends his thanks appreciation and gratitude for a job well done. So do we.

Love, Angela

In the very bottom of the box, was a plain, white envelope. Inside were several newspaper clippings.

September 7th, County Examiner

A pedestrian-truck accident at the Interstate Exchange Stop N Drop travel and truck stop left one 17-year-old dead and a 38 year old truck driver, originally from College Park, Maryland, in jail, suspected of abducting several missing youths over the last several months.
When police responded to a call involving a semi-truck and a pedestrian with a fatality, they found a befuddled and confused Terrence Dealy, the driver of the semi-truck that had struck and killed the 17-year-old pedestrian.
The driver and witnesses agreed that the youth deliberately walked into the path of the truck on the highway after walking out of the restaurant where he was dining with his parents. The youth and his parents were returning to rural Georgia from a vacation in Chicago when they stopped at the restaurant. The youth reportedly left his family and walked out calmly after making a phone call, then stood by the highway for several minutes before throwing himself in front of Mr. Dealy's truck.
The youth's parents did not comment and were not held for questioning. 
The driver of the truck was later found to be under the influence of amphetamines and tested positive for cocaine. Inside his vehicle police found substantial amounts of both items. Also found were items verified to belong to several missing children. He is being held without bail for hearing.

September 28th, Warren County: Yesterday morning a teacher at the county secondary school was arrested on multiple counts, ranging from possession of a controlled substance to multiple counts of sexual misconduct with minors, as well as charges under child pornography laws. He is being held without bond.
  Captain Freeley of the Georgia State Police made a statement in which he said that Coach Benny Maxweil, had been under investigation for several weeks over allegations of forced sexual activity with a male student that led to that student's suicide earlier in the month. The student was not named, nor were the other students Mr. Maxweil had allegedly blackmailed into sexual activities. Captain Freeley explained that a tip by an out-of-state minor led to the investigation, during which Mr. Maxweil and his home and office had been under close observation.
  A lawyer for Mr. Maxweil had no comment. Initial hearings are to be held on the 23rd of October and it is expected Mr. Maxweil will not be allowed bond at that time.
  Mr. Maxweil's home was searched, and authorities discovered drugs as well as pictures of his actions with students in his office and home. Also found were personal clothing items from several male students.
  The sheriff of Warren County was also arrested after he had been recorded talking to Mr. Maxweil about his activities, and promising him protection and assistance. They mentioned students by name, allowing investigators to easily gather witnesses, victims and more evidence of their activities. While the sheriff is not charged with indecent acts with any minors, nor possession of any controlled substances, he is being charged as an accessory to many of Mr. Maxweil's crimes, and for possession of child pornography. The sheriff was released on bond and is on indefinite, unpaid leave.
  Officials said that several other students have come forward, been questioned, and have verified the activities under investigation, and that Mr. Maxweil may have molested many more students over the years.
  No other details were available as of the time of the printing of this edition, but we will be following this story.

November 4th, State Penitentiary: Benny Maxweil,the Warren County secondary school physical education teacher who had been arrested last month on charges of drug possession and blackmailing minors into sexual activities, was found dead in his cell early this morning.
  Officials stated all precautions were taken, as are always provided for high-risk inmates. Officials stated that Mr. Maxweil was violently sodomized and beaten before being strangulated in his cell.
  He faced multiple counts of possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, manufacture and possession of child pornography, sodomy, rape, deviant sexual misconduct with minors, blackmail including sexual favors, and prosecutors were attempting to charge him with murder for the suicide of a unnamed student, who last summer committed suicide after multiple episodes of blackmail, sodomy and rape by Mr. Maxweil in his office at the school.      

November 12th, State Courthouse: Today, officials released the information related to the bizarre case in Warren county of secondary school educator Mr. Benny Maxweil. 
  Mr. Maxweil had been charged with multiple crimes, from possession of drugs to making child pornographic material, as well as sodomy and rape of minors, after a call from another minor aware of the situation. After an initial investigation let to his arrest, a search of his home revealed evidence validating the charges.
  A Warren County Sheriff was relieved of duty and is charged as an accomplice. Photographs of Mr. Maxweil's activities with male students were found in the sheriff's home and office. He is currently awaiting sentencing and is expected to serve at least ten years.
  Mr. Maxweil was murdered in his state prison cell earlier this month by other inmates that have yet to be identified. Officials at the prison say it is not unusual for inmates to protect other inmates in situations where a child molester had been accosted, or worse, and that such inmates were high risk and special precautions are always taken. Nevertheless, Mr. Maxweil's brutal sodomy and murder remain unsolved.
  Several current students, and dozens of past students, have come forward since this story broke in October, and have made statements to the state police concerning their own victimization at Mr. Maxweil's hand. 
  Before his death, he faced at least twenty years in prison before parole, and the possibility of up to sixty years.
  Former Sheriff of Warren County, Seth Anderson, will face up to twelve years in prison. He plead guilty and is awaiting sentencing in the same prison his accomplice was detained and later murdered.

"Revenge is mine, sayeth the Lord, but sometimes even God needs a hand," I said aloud.

"You sound like Mom," Jeff said, trying to lighten the mood.

"You're mom isn't stupid. She was just lost for a while."

"Don't get all preachy," Tom said with a grin.

I grinned back and picked up the large photo of a happy, healthy, smiling Toby, the one from school. Toby's longish hair needed a bit of combing, and he was wearing a dark blue t-shirt, and the two things together were perfect. I caressed the face with my fingertips, following the line of the cheek, the jaw, and the chin before I slid the photo into the pages of Toby's yearbook.

There were tears, though few, and not so bad.

I turned to the many letters, and looked forward to reading them, but another time and alone. For then, I placed them back into the box. As the last things made their way around the table and back to me, they went carefully back into the white box.

There weren't any words as my parents hugged me to say goodnight. My grands also said a silent goodnight with hugs. Tom and Jeff moved to sit next to me and we talked for a bit. Some of those horrible questions and worries that Jeff and I had discovered in the pizza parlor were answered, ironed out, or at least aired out a bit.

We were drinking sodas and cracking jokes about Toby at the kitchen table when we heard a car pull into the drive. Todd opened the door, surprised to find us there.

"Whuh, uh, so, like mom's here. You ready, bro?"

"No. But yeah. Tell her I'll be out in a sec."

"He'll be out in a sec!" Todd yelled out the door as he held it open.

"Damn, you're an idiot," Jeff said with his older brother voice.

"Yeah, well I got kissed before you did! And you're older!"

"Yeah, but I got somebody to kiss," Jeff answered, then immediately demonstrated on me.

It was odd, and I felt self-conscious and embarrassed momentarily.

Jeff is kissing me in front of Tom, and Todd! Finally!

It was new, and strange, and wonderful. I knew I would soon be following his lead, and I wondered where he would lead us.

"They're not doing tongues are they?" Todd asked as if he was about to blow chunks.

"Nah, but I think Alex is sucking his lip," Tom informed him.

"Stop doing play by play, you bastards," I demanded.

"Freaks," Todd intoned.

"Freaks in love."


"Come on Todd! Let them say goodnight! Get back in the car! And tell him not be long!" we all heard their mom demand.

Todd nodded in agreement and said, "Yeah, what she said!"

 "Go talk to your mom and keep her busy. I'll be out in a sec and help ya."

"Cool. Know any good places for rent? We can keep her busy on that for a while."

"Yeah. And I bet she's really wanting to talk to Alex's friend who knows he's gay. I bet she's got a few questions and we can milk that for a bit."

"Tom," I said warningly.

"You want some time alone, don't'cha?" he asked bobbing his eyebrows.

"Gotcha! Night, Alex! Don't be real long, bro." Then at Tom, "You start or me now?"

"You get started and take the lead, I'll follow when I get out there, Toddster."

"Roger and out."

After Todd closed the door I looked at my closest friends; my best friend and guardian angel, and my other best friend and lover. I thought of Toby; my other best friend, my other guardian angel, my other lover.

"It's all changed, but it's all the same."

"It always changes, don't it?" Tom said with a knowing smile.

"Be boring otherwise," Jeff added with an uncharacteristic, but oh so cute wink.

"How long you think you can get us?" I asked Tom.

"Don't know. Whad'ya think, Jeff? She gotta be home soon?"

"Depends what the Sunday night movies are," he said, obviously not knowing.

"Mom was talking about that John The Baptist one on channel five... " I hinted.

"She's gonna wanna watch that," Jeff said emphatically.

"So, best is about ten minutes I think. And I bet she's already ready to go. Don't look good, but I'll get 'ya what I can. Jeff, fucking cool you guys are gonna go for it. Al, man, if ya need anything, just let me know."

He threw us both a thumbs-up as he headed toward the door.

"I think you'll know before I do. Just leave something for me to do, okay?"

Laughing, he said, "See ya both on the bus, finally!"

He got us almost half an hour. I never asked how. The next morning on the bus, Jeff said that his mother had been in a good mood on the drive home, that's all I learned. Jeff and I used few words in that half hour until Tom knocked and then opened the door slowly. We were still seated next to each at the table, obviously surprising him.

"Um, she remembered the movie and really wants to get home and see what she can of it."

"Okay. Goodnight Alex. See you on the bus tomorrow. Fucking finally," he said, his wonderful eyes meeting mine, glinting like wet arctic ice.

"Tell me! How stupid can we get?"

"You're both about to find out."

"Cool," we said in unison, still looking at each other.

We lost it in laughter.

"Freaks," Todd added from the door. "Come on bro, you're about to blow your goodwill levels with Mom all to shit."

"Bye, Alex. Love you!" he said hurriedly and kissed me again. He was up and out of the door before I thought to say how much I loved him; I was too absorbed in adoring him.

"Later Al!" Todd yelled as he followed his brother.

"Night, Al. See ya on the bus in the morning. And about fucking time. I got to save the little Tommies, ya know? Might want kids someday!"

"Wait, Tom. You wanna go upstairs and fire one up? I still gotta try catching your Asteroids score."

He looked to say no, and I couldn't blame him. Like we agreed, it was all different now.

"What about the Sunday night shows?"

"If you're here you can watch the tape I make when I record 'em downstairs while we play. Or we can watch 'em upstairs and forget the game. Or whatever."

"Sure. You take first round and I'll roll. We can get two or maybe three rounds in before Benny. Lemme call Mom and I'll meet ya upstairs."

Upstairs, I walked to the blue footlocker and thought of replacing the precious envelope, now inside the equally precious white box, into it. I paused and looked at the things inside of the footlocker. Every little thing was a piece of my life, and almost all of it was junk, I realized. A well-used Rubik's Cube, last years yearbook, my junior high yearbook, cap and gown and diploma, a T.A.R.D.I.S magazine, a tiny coin collection, several letters from a pen-pal in Australia, a gay porn magazine, and all the other things I once thought so important. The only really important things, the things I would do anything to preserve, I held in my hands, as before.

But it's all my junk. It's all part of my time here, sure, but none of it matters an iota in the mess of chaos this life is, not really. But to me, this junk means things. It's the things they stand for that are important. These things are all pieces of the puzzle of my life, and each one is part of what I am now. And what I will always be.

I placed the envelope and the white box inside the footlocker with all the other pieces of my life, where they all belonged.

I never locked that footlocker again.