Picket Fences

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Israfil & Dabeagle



My seat jerked as the plane touched down on the tarmac with a bump and began to taxi down the runway. Africa had been fun, no doubt about it, but it was good to finally be back.

“Home, sweet home,” Geoff commented next to me.

“Welcome to New York City,” the captain announced, sounding way too cheery for a guy who'd just completed a transatlantic flight. “The local time is 3:37 p.m. and the temperature is 82 degrees and sunny. You may now use cell phones and other electronic devices. Please remain seated until the fasten seatbelt sign has been turned off, and on behalf of American Airlines we wish you a pleasant stay and thank you for flying with us.”

“Do you both have all your things?” Richard asked. “Make sure you didn’t leave anything in the seat pockets.”

I checked the pocket in the seat in front of me, even though I knew I hadn’t used it for anything other than napkins and snack wrappers, and took my phone off airplane mode. A few minutes later a bunch of notifications popped up on my home screen - Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, a few Tinder messages, and one text. I smiled when I saw who it was from. He didn’t have a smartphone so couldn’t send messages over Wi-Fi, so I wouldn’t get them until now when I was back in U.S. cell territory. It was from about halfway through my trip, so we’d exchanged a couple Facebook messages since then, but I clicked reply anyway when I saw what it said.

Hey Jon, I just read online that South Africa’s had some tourist kidnappings. Be careful, okay?

Honestly, I was touched. I couldn’t see any of my other friends - actual friends, that is - sending concerned messages about something they saw on the news. I mean, I’m sure Greg and the gang back in Boston would be worried if something actually happened to me, but none of them would reach out telling me to be careful. It just wasn’t their thing. So, I gave him a proper response.

Mr. Thayer, we have Jon Ellesier. If you wish to see him again intact, wire a payment of one million U.S. dollars to this number. I put the phone back and grinned. Moments later it buzzed with an incoming text.

$5 take it or leave it.

Baggage claim and customs were the usual nightmare, but otherwise we got through the airport pretty smoothly. That was probably because Richard clamped a hand over Geoff’s mouth when the customs guy asked if we had anything to declare. Then it was just a three hour drive home, which kind of sucked what with having to be cooped up again, but I had the backseat to myself - after the plane it felt like sweet freedom. I was all set to sleep the whole way, but the radio, my brothers bickering, heck, even my own thoughts, made that tough. Also, it was a rented car - ever tried to sleep in a car that’s not your own? It’s like sleeping in a strange bed - you can do it, obviously, but it takes a little longer.

I could tune out the radio and my brothers’ voices if I tried hard enough, but your thoughts are always at the highest volume, no matter how jetlagged you are. Only alcohol can help with that. There was one other thing that relaxed me though, so I took out my phone.

So I’m back. The reply was almost instantaneous.

Yeah, I kind of figured. Then a second. How was the flight?

Long as fuck. Driving home now. Stuck in a car with Rich and Geoff. Shoot me.

Lol. I could almost see Jake rolling his eyes. You were just on a plane with them. And been with them for the last six weeks. I think you’ll be okay.

Different, I argued. Plane had movies and drinks. And in Capetown I could get away. Cars are a special kind of hell. Save me, I added, because I knew he found my whining endearing. He denied it but I knew.

Be strong. The force is with you, he replied. I think I started typing a response - probably something calling him a nerd or about the dark side - but my brain finally got the message and shut down before I could finish.

“Jon. Jon, we’re home.” Richard’s voice echoed over the savannah, and I opened my eyes expecting to be back at the lodge. Instead we were parked in Richard’s rented car in our own driveway. I shook my head to get rid of the last bits of the dream before getting out with my brothers. By the time all our luggage was inside, I was feeling more awake and even a little restless.

Pacing my room, I took out my phone and was surprised to find a text from Jake, simply saying Lol.

Scrolling up I saw it was a response to a message from me - The dank sife glowq thru ne. What was I even trying to say there? Whatever.

So, ignoring that, I wrote, you around tonight?

For about five minutes there was nothing. I’d just set my phone on my desk when it buzzed. Yeah. But didn’t you just get back?

Exactly. I’m back and Geoff’s leaving tomorrow. Let’s celebrate ;) Another few minutes of pacing and -

My dad said okay. When should I come over?

No time like the present.

My relationship with Jake Thayer is what you’d probably call complicated. We became close friends ridiculously quickly after I moved to Sanitaria Springs, which is pretty weird since I don’t exactly make a habit of getting close to people. Sure, I’ve always had friends as in people I hang with, but they come and go. Either my family will scare them off, they’ll get whatever it is they want from me, or they’ll just get bored. I learned a long time ago it wasn’t worth it to get attached. The ones who stayed I can count on one hand. In just a few months Jake’s become as important to me as any of them.

And that’s fucking scary.

It still surprised me how much I missed him while on vacation. I mean, it was pretty long, so there was enough downtime to be bored or miss things about home, but a lot of times I caught myself wishing he was there.

So how much would I miss him when he finally decided he didn’t want to put up with my crap? Jake’s presence was good for me, I know that - it’s why I texted him in the car to calm my thoughts and relax. Outside of my brothers, he’s one of the few people I feel I can be myself around, because he’s not expecting me to be anyone other than who I am. I might say he’s my best friend if I didn’t feel weird taking that title away from Greg - even if I haven’t seen him in months.

Trying to keep Jake from drifting away is where things got messy - and ironically what almost pushed him away. I picked up he had a crush on me a little way into our lessons - I taught him self-defense, he taught me baking. He never actually said he was gay or into guys, but I like to think living with Geoff gave me halfway good gaydar.

I’m not proud of what happened next, but at the time it was fun to play along. Even knowing that this game could blow up in my face at any time and fuck this friendship to hell, I guess it was exciting that something so precious was on the line. Like that rush you used to get from playing on the train tracks when you were kid. You knew it wasn’t good a idea and the train could come at any moment, but you didn’t want to stop.

I guess a part of me was getting off on being wanted, but that wasn’t the only thing. It’s being wanted by a particular kind of person, someone good and kind. The kind of person the world needs more of. It can make you believe, if only for a little while, that you’re one of those people too.

“Expecting company?”

I’d gone downstairs to grab a couple glasses and a bottle of Bailey's when Geoff’s voice almost made me jump out of my skin. He was sitting at the kitchen table in sweatpants and tank top with an open bottle in front of him.

“Shit, you scared me.”

“You really were out of it, huh?” he raised an eyebrow.

“I was just thinking.”

“Don’t strain yourself.”

“Fuck off. Shouldn’t you be packing?” I asked. He shrugged.

“And shouldn’t you be unpacking?”

“Jake’s coming over soon. He’ll probably help a bit.”

“Of course he would.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I couldn’t help taking the bait. My brother chuckled and sipped his beer.

“Nothing. Have fun.” At that moment the bell rang and I decided that Geoff’s cryptic comments could wait.

Jake was a sight for sore eyes. He was in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, his usual red and black sneakers worn out from use. I was proud to see he’d been keeping up with the exercise - his frame looking about the same as when I’d left. His face was relaxed and unguarded with a wide grin and I could feel mine growing to match it.

I was a little unprepared for how happy I was to see him and the sudden urge I had to hug him. It was the same feeling whenever I had been separated from one of my brothers for too long, like when Geoff had come back from his first semester at college. A wave of relief and a sense that all’s right with the world again, that a piece of me is back in the right place.

I might have separation issues.

But Jake wasn’t family. How did he do this to me?

“So you got away from your kidnappers?” Jake asked as I let him in.

“Yeah, no thanks to you, cheapskate,” I retorted. “Five bucks? Is that all I’m worth to you?” I did my best to look wounded.

“Ehh….” Jake shrugged before we both laughed. I stopped by the kitchen to grab the glasses and Bailey’s, noticing Geoff was gone, before bounding up to my room after Jake. He raised an eyebrow when I closed the door and he saw the bottle.

“I told you,” I said, “we need to celebrate.” I unscrewed the bottle and poured - half a glass for him, a full one for me. “Just try it, it’s basically chocolate milk.” Jake frowned.

“Then why not just have that?”

“Because,” I grinned, “this is way more expensive.” He rolled his eyes and I wondered why it felt so good to see that again. “But wait!” I spun around and dashed across the room. I must have seemed manic, because Jake had an almost deer in the headlights expression, but I was suddenly bursting with excitement. I clambered over my bed to where the luggage that still needed to be unpacked was lying on the other side and rummaged through one of my suitcases. I dug through clothes and toiletries before hopping to the next one, tossing aside shirts and underwear before I found what I was looking for.

“I got this for you.” I retrieved a small paper wrapped package from my bag, turning around in time to see Jake’s pale blue eyes widen slightly. Honestly, those things look like they’re glowing sometimes.

“You...did?” he asked, as if he couldn’t believe it.

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” I laughed. “Hope you like it.” I was suddenly a little nervous. What if he thought it was stupid? I knew Jake was too nice to say anything less than positive, but for most people, their real thoughts show on their face or in their body language in the first second - you just have to be watching for it. Not a lot of people can hide their feelings, and I didn’t think Jake was one of them - he was too honest.

He took it from me delicately. It was heavier than it looked, so his hands dipped a little at the unexpected weight, but he placed it on the table and carefully unwrapped it. I wanted to tell him to hurry up but kept my mouth shut. He got through the paper and tore off the tape holding the bubble wrap before pulling that away.

“Jon, it’s beautiful.” I released a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding when I saw his face.

The sculpture was a little over four inches tall with a steel finish, depicting a running zebra on an obsidian base. Jake gently rotated it this way and that, looking at it from all angles, his eyes brighter than ever. Wait -

“Are you cry-”

“No.” He blinked hard and they were gone. I didn’t push him.

“To a lot of cultures in Africa, the zebra is a symbol of freedom and individuality,” I explained, smiling at the irony like I had when I’d first heard it from the shopkeeper, but it made sense when he explained it. “They roam all over the savannah and each one has different stripes so they all bring something unique to the herd.” I paused, hoping this next part didn’t sound too cheesy and Jake looked up. “They also represent unity and friendship, 'cause they live in huge herds that include lots of other animals and they all seem to get along. Also,” I added with a grin, “they’re tough sons of bitches that don’t take crap from anyone - the ranger on our safari said they can take on leopards sometimes.”

Jake chuckled and turned back to the sculpture. “Jon…” he began, then suddenly stood up and hugged me. After a second, I melted into it and lifted my arms to hug him back, enjoying being able to act on my impulse from earlier. We stayed like that for a minute before he leaned back to make eye contact, arms still around my neck. Right then, it would have been so easy to just lean down and kiss him. I swear I even felt my head moving imperceptibly forward.

The doorbell rang and we both jumped.

“That’ll be the pizza! Turn on the Playstation - pick whatever game you want,” I said breaking away and darting out the bedroom door.

I trotted down the stairs, heart pounding, thankful we’d been interrupted before I did anything stupid. The pizza couldn’t have come at a better time. Who knows what would have happened a few seconds later. Actually, I knew, and it would have been all kinds of not good.

I hated that I’d led him on, had never really wanted to do it in the first place and wanted even less to do it again. So why had I almost kissed him - not just kissed him back, but fucking initiated it?

Did I like him the same way he liked me? Things would probably be a lot simpler if I did, at least between us. The problem was I didn’t know and couldn’t afford to give him any more mixed signals.

The pizza guy gave me a sour look when I opened the door, probably pissed at having to wait a whole minute. I took the pizzas, checking to make sure they were the right ones before paying. “Keep the change,” I said, tipping him a little more than usual since his timing has been pretty awesome, if not his attitude. The kid’s face did an immediate 180 and he gave me a mega-watt grin and bolted back to his car, as if afraid I’d change my mind.

Carrying the two large pizza boxes up the stairs was slow going, giving me time to think before I got back to my room. I got a few extra minutes to think as I made a stop in the kitchen for paper towels. The thing is, I wanted to express how much he meant to me, and the best way was to give him something he wanted. He wasn’t interested in anything I could buy him though, and he probably wouldn’t have told me even if he was, 'cause he was just that kind of person. Could I give him what he really wanted? I wanted to make him happy but did that mean I wanted him? Fuck, this was confusing. Was I trying to be romantic just to keep him with me? I reached my bedroom door. Questions for later, I guess.

I pushed open the door with my foot, balancing the pizzas in one hand. Jake had started a game and looked up from the T.V. “What’d you get?”

“Two large pizzas. One’s half Hawaiian and bacon cheeseburger and the other’s spicy jalapeno and Philly Cheese steak.” I took a moment to enjoy the expression on his face as I set them down on the desk. He broke into a grin.

“Well played!” He got up and tore off some paper towels for napkins/plates and we dug in. “I’m kind a surprised you didn’t just get four pizzas,” he commented through a mouthful of pizza.

“I almost did. But Richard hates filling up the fridge with leftover pizza.” I finished chewing and swallowed. “I could do without the silent stare of judgment for the next few days.” We ate in silence for a few minutes.

“It’s awesome, Jon,” Jake said, looking over at the zebra sculpture.

“Well, I’m glad you like it. Cheers?” I lifted my glass and was kind of surprised when he smiled and did the same, clinking glasses with me and throwing it back. His face went funny for a second before nodding.

“This...actually isn’t bad.” Yes, a convert!

“Told you so,” I smirked. “You don’t have to down it all like that though. We’re not doing shots here.”

“It’s in the small glasses, I just assumed we were.” Jake looked at his glass carefully. I couldn’t help laugh at how much thought he was giving this.

“Nah, shot glasses are even smaller. Anyway, that’s for straight whiskey when you don’t really want to taste it. You can sip this stuff normally - like I said, it’s more chocolate than anything else.”

“And still gets you wasted. Sounds like your perfect drink,” he commented. I sighed, picking up on the edge in his voice. I really didn’t want to have this argument now.

“Come on, don’t be like that…” I began.

“Yeah, I’m sorry.” He paused. “Actually, it’s good. Pour me a little more.” I hesitated - it was pretty clear he was doing it just to smooth things over. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to. Then again, he’d liked it well enough, so I accepted the olive branch and poured him a glass. Jake took it and sipped before sitting back with a smile. “So, tell me about South Africa. The pictures you sent were amazing.”

“Alright, what do you want to know?” I wasn’t sure where to start. Six weeks from “the beginning” would get a little tedious, but there was so much that I was still trying to process it myself.

“Dude, everything.” That sure as hell didn’t make it any easier. “I haven’t even been out of the state in my life. Forget other countries, another continent is just...wow. I can’t believe you saw lions, elephants… Or Cape Town - was it really different? Or just like another city?”

His excitement made me smile. “Alright, the safari is basically a trip all its own, so we’ll start with Cape Town.” I tore off another slice, sipped my Bailey’s and took a deep breath. “Cape Town's one of the most beautiful cities you’ve ever seen. It’s surrounded by the ocean and mountains on all sides, and it’s basically on the line between the Pacific and Indian oceans…”

Three hours later, the pizza was almost gone, and we’d only just started playing a game in the past twenty minutes. I’d jumped around a bit and he’d had to keep me on track, but we’d pretty much covered all the highlights - safari, city, sightseeing and whatever - so I was just telling him random memories as they came.

“Dude, the clubs were amazing. There was this place called Vice City-”

“That doesn’t sound sketchy at all,” Jake mumbled, but I just laughed. I'd known he was going to say that.

“It was a techno club. Thing is I’d ditched Geoff, and I guess he spent half the night looking for me. He was ready to freaking murder me - almost threw me off the balcony the next morning, he was so pissed.” It had actually been kind of scary at the time, but alcohol and hindsight helped me look back at it and laugh.

Jake paused and glanced at me. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t blame him. I know it’s not like crazy dangerous, but you still ran off in a strange country. He must have been scared. You could have been kidnapped or something.”

I started to laugh, thinking he was joking about the text he’d sent me, but when I looked at him his face was totally serious. Probably should have seen that coming. I could feel my ears heating up and felt just a little bit stupid.

“I wasn’t running around the city the whole night, though. I was headed back to the hotel just a little after midnight when I met this chick, Lyra. I was probably with her half the time he was...looking for me…” Forget little bit, I felt really stupid after that. Sure, I still hooked up with girls and Jake knew that, but knowing how he felt about me, while I didn’t try to hide it, I did make an effort not to rub it in his face either. Without looking at him, I turned back to the game, hoping to gloss over the awkward comment.

“So anyway, it wasn’t like I was going through dark alleys and getting high or whatever,” I finished lamely. Way to put your foot in it, Jon. “But Geoff got over it when he met up with a hot bartender he’d met that night or something. Speaking of which, have another drink.”

Jake smiled weakly and handed me his glass. We were good.


My head felt a little fuzzy as I sat up and looked around the unfamiliar bedroom. Jon Ellesier's room was large and had enough comforts to fit a modest home. The king bed was comfortable, especially with the soft comforter that I was sitting on. Beside me, Jon slept. He was sprawled on his back in a pair of sweatpants, and his mouth was parted just a tiny bit. I ran a hand through my hair and then, enjoying the odd sensation it created while being tipsy, I did it again. I gave Jon a longing look, and I was glad he couldn't see my face, because I'm sure the naked desire written on it would have been...awkward.

His chest was lean and toned, and the muscles of his stomach, if flexed, showed an enviable six-pack. My gaze raked upward to his face, peaceful in sleep. Angelic, even. Yet my thoughts were anything but pious as I stared at his lips and wondered about kissing him. I'd kissed him once before, and despite the outcome of that situation, I'd enjoyed kissing him. I'd thought of it often while he'd been gone for the majority of the summer, and now he was lying there, practically gift-wrapped.

I lifted a hand toward him tentatively, dreaming of a slight release of the precious ache that filled me with the desire just to touch him. His chest rose and fell gently and I thought to caress just one side of his chest, perhaps, but was distracted by seeing my hand trembling. I pulled my hand back and looked away from him. A rush of shame welled up inside me, and I rose from the bed and made my way to the bathroom. Closing the door behind me, I flipped on the light switch and leaned my back against the door. Across from me the large mirror over the sink showed me an unhappy guy, a little weary of wishing for something—someone—and coping with the never-ending tension of that wait. Interminable. And was Jon worth waiting for?

I thought so.

My reflection showed my somewhat rumpled hair, my tee and a pair of shorts Jon had loaned me. Sleeping in jeans wasn't comfortable, he'd told me, and while I agreed, jeans would have been more comfortable than underwear. Then all kinds of embarrassing things might have come up. The face in the mirror was leaner than the one I'd grown used to, yet there was a sadness that I'd developed that was unmistakable.

That sadness had lingered with me and it brought me back to a conversation I'd had that summer while Jon had been away and I shamelessly pined for him.

I did't have many friends. My therapist is kind of a hard-nosed lady, and she didn't spare me the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it was. And it was. The truth, I mean. My mom hadn't ever really wanted to be a mom, but she ended up having me. For a long time—years—she'd told one doctor after another about my fidgety nature and my hyperactive episodes that she endured at home and that were complained of at school. It took me some time to accept my therapist's word that I don't actually have ADHD or anything else my mother had convinced the doctors I'd had. She'd medicated me for her convenience and, as one side effect, I'd gained a lot of weight.

So I'd been fat and sort of seemed sleepy all the time. I wasn't allowed to go to people's homes or join teams, though I'd almost gotten to once. When my mother realized I'd need a ride home from practice, that ended. When someone had asked I just told them she was overprotective, but no one seemed to really care. In fact, I wonder if anyone had ever actually asked why I'd dropped from lacrosse.

My dad had been in the military and had been overseas. I'd barely seen him, but then he'd gotten out of the military and been more than a little upset when he came home, expecting to find a healthy, active boy and instead found out he'd fathered a couch potato. I didn't even know he cared that much, but he swooped in and got custody, got me weaned off the pills and got me moving around. It was a great surprise, and a wonderful one. Inside I mostly still felt like that fat kid, but he insisted I was more.

I'd met Seth McAllister first and, through him, Logan Whitmore and Grayson Anderson. Eventually Seth also introduced me to his new boyfriend, Foster McGuire—the two Micks is what I called them in my head. More importantly, Seth had introduced me to Jon, and I still wasn't sure if it had been entirely by accident. Seth has a sneaky streak. Playful, but sneaky. I liked them all, but they were a group that was dating, so there weren't many things for a fifth person to join them on, though I still did sometimes.

Jon had been different, though. He was a bit taller than I was, and the day I met him he kicked David Mullins’s ass, saving mine in the process. It was incredibly badass to watch him, and I was seriously impressed and more than a little frightened. In a way Jon was like a loaded gun, and I was happier not having that aimed at me, so to speak. I was more impressed and pleased when we worked out a trade of his training me to defend myself and me teaching him how to cook.

Jon had a refined wall around himself, emotionally. It took me a little while to really work it out, but in my mind I saw it as a white picket fence—something meant to be a polite reminder that fences make good neighbors. But, to continue the metaphor, Jon began leaving the gate unlatched more and more, and I grew to know him better. I was certain Jon still had secrets, and I was content to let that be. He shared the most important things with me freely—his time and friendship—and I returned them willingly.

As the spring had worn on I began to slim down due to his energetic regimen in the gym. He'd set a difficult pace but was never mean about the whole thing. As we'd spent time together I'd grown to like his witty comments, to worry that he drank as much as he claimed, and I was thoroughly charmed by this well-to-do bad boy with an apparent heart of gold.

So, of course, I'd kissed him. It wasn't a complete disaster, but it was more than a little heartbreaking. There was part of me that yearned desperately for him, while another part insisted I move on. But what did that mean, exactly, to move on? To end the friendship was unthinkable and, quite frankly, stupid and shortsighted. While moving on from him romantically was smarter, it was easier said than done. Things only got worse once Jon left for a summer vacation. He was gone for almost six weeks and, though I loathed to admit it, because it only served to prove how little I was 'moving on', I'd missed him terribly. During that time I'd had the conversation that I was now recalling.

I'd gone down to Perks ostensibly to see Seth and Grayson, but there was a rush on when I arrived. I'd gotten something to drink and sat at a booth and just stared out the window and replayed kissing Jon over and over in my mind. The more I thought of it, the more I was sure he'd kissed me back. A little.

“Hey, what's up?” Grayson asked as he flopped into the seat across from me.

I turned to look at him and gave him a wan smile. “Not much. Just getting out of the house for a bit. Jon told me I have to run a little every day so I don't lose any of the progress we've made.”

“So you run and come here for...what is that, exactly?” he asked, pointing at my cup.

I looked down at my drink and then back up at Grayson. “No, I walked here, and I have no idea. Seth just said I'd like it.”

Grayson grinned. “And do you?”

I shrugged and said, “I haven't tried it yet.”

Gray's gaze roamed over my face briefly, then he asked, “Something bothering you? You seem kind of down. Maybe just thoughtful.”

Our conversation had been interrupted just then by a pretty girl with hips that were slightly too wide for many, breasts generous enough to be coveted and a pretty, but not beautiful, face. She had long brown hair styled into endless curls that had highlights of blond in them. She smiled at me and I smiled back, uncertainly.

“Are you new? I know everyone, and I don't recognize you,” she asked.

I paused for a moment, sure this was some kind of joke. But as the seconds of silence gathered I spoke, uncertainly, “Katrina, we've been in the same school for years.”

She blinked and her expression became uncertain and then turned into one of surprise. “Jake? Jake Thayer? Wow! Puberty hit you, but hard!”

Heat rushed into my face and I shifted uncomfortably. “Uh, thanks.”

“No, really,” she said and spared a glance at Grayson. “When I finally hit a 'C', things really changed for me. I know what I'm talking about.” She gestured toward her chest and I understood, with more heat in my face, that she meant cup size. “You dating?”

I coughed. “Uh, no. Just here to see my friends,” I said, nodding at Gray.

There was a giggle behind me and I caught Katrina looking over and smiling at someone or someones. She turned her attention back to me and I felt it. A very bad thing about to happen. She was going to ask me out or tell me the giggler behind me was interested. This could go bad in so many ways. But before I could completely lose my shit over a potentially stressful coming out, some of my training with Jon kicked in. Don't ask me how, I didn't have a Mr. Miyagi moment in my head, but I did take control of the situation.

“I'm gay, Katrina. If your brother is available, have him call me,” I said. My heart fluttered in caged fear and I tried to take a calming breath.

She paused, wondering if I were joking and eventually realized I wasn't. She burst out laughing and between chuckles said, “If Brett ever gets his hands off a Playstation controller, I'll let him know. As far as I know, though, he only fears sunlight and girls.”

She walked away chuckling and I let out a breath I hadn't been aware I'd been holding. Before I could do more than look at Gray, though, Katrina was back with another girl, Kelsey Grigham. Probably better known to me right now as 'The Giggler'.

“Wow, it really is you, Jake!” Kelsey said and then, yes, giggled. “I saw you hanging out with Jon Ellesier at the end of the year. Is he single? Or is he your boyfriend?”

Oh. Crap. My mind swirled with jealousy that Giggles would have a better shot with Jon than I would, bitterness that boiled up from my stomach at the idea of Jon with someone so vapid, and anger at myself for not being able to let Jon be. I thought of telling her we were dating just to get her to back off him, but then what would I do when the rumor hit school that he was gay and I was his boyfriend? Would he be mad? Did I really want a loaded Jon going off in my face? I mean...angry Jon not...oh, Christ.

“It's complicated,” I muttered.

“Oh. Oh, I'm sorry,” she said. Then, tentatively, “You look nice together.” I heard them shuffle away and was thankful they had tact enough not to ask me to give him their number when things didn't work out. I glanced up to see Gray looking at me with curiosity. I sighed and glanced out of the window. In a very low voice I asked, “Have you ever fallen for a straight guy?”

“Sort of,” he replied. I turned to face him, rapt with attention and tilted my head in question. Grayson smiled and said, “Logan. I tried forever to get close to him but I thought he was straight. It took Seth to build a bridge between us and, well, Logan's not so straight.”

“Wait, so...did he date girls or something? Why did you think he was straight?”

“Yeah, he dated girls. Then I, uh, thought he'd figured me out and wasn't happy about it. But Seth convinced me to take a risk and believe that Logan wouldn't have any issue with my feelings for him.”

“Is this the kissing booth story?” I asked, smiling in spite of my moody thoughts.

“Yeah,” Gray said with a dopey smile.

I leaned back and shook my head. “That story...it's like a fairy tale.”

“Totally,” Gray agreed and rested his forearms on the table. “What does that have to do with you? You have your eye on someone?”

I coughed in response, knowing he had to be thinking of Jon. I asked, “Don't you worry Logan will date girls again? Or is he totally gay?”

He narrowed his eyes at me dodging his question, but answered mine. “No, I'm not worried. He's probably bi but leaning female, but I don't care about that. For the longest time I wanted Logan in my life, and now that I have him...I'm just going to enjoy him.” He paused and cleared his throat. “If someone tries to steal him, you'll help me hide the body though, right?”

I smiled at him. “What are friends for?”

He nodded and chuckled. “Now, let this friend do his job. What's going on with you?”

I looked down at my untouched drink for a moment and tried to figure out where to start. I guess the beginning was best. “I'm not totally sure when it went from...lust to more. I mean, that first day I met him he was so...so fucking cool. Suave. Scary as all hell. But then we hung out and I found out he was funny, if in a sarcastic way. He was kind of painfully honest, but he always followed up with encouragement. We'd hang out without needing a workout or cooking lessons and...I just loved being with him.”

Gray blew out a breath. “Jon Ellesier?”

I nodded and let out a sigh, turning my gaze to the window. “I misread things, a bit. He flirted with me; he even admitted it. So I went for it.”

“Went for it...how, exactly?”

I looked at him quizzically. “I kissed him. How else would I?”

“I don't know, feel him up? My favorite way is to ambush Logan when he gets out of the shower.”

Heat flushed my cheeks and I looked away. Logan was nice looking and a sweet guy, but not like my Jon. In fact I'm not sure Jon could really be termed sweet.

“Um, so how'd the kiss go?”

I gazed out the window again and spoke softly. “He'd flirted with me. I moved in and he didn't back off. In fact he kind of...I'm sure he kissed me back. A little. But, um, not enough.”

I looked back to Gray's face and his expression was clear that he felt sorry for me. “I'm sorry, J,” he said. “You and Jon would make a nice couple. You balance each other, I think. Did you guys fight after or something?”

I let out a long breath. “A little, yeah. I was mortally embarrassed, but he wouldn't let it lie. He kept calling and then he showed up. He was really sorry and we worked through it.”

Gray frowned. “What's the issue, then?”

I sighed and looked anywhere but at Grayson. “I...still feel...have feelings for him. And I wonder, since he's been gone all summer....and I've missed him so much...I wonder if he's missed me, too. You know? I mean, he did kind of kiss me back. Maybe he's...reconsidered? It could happen, right?”

Gray shook his head slowly. “I don't think so, J. I wish I could say something else, honestly. I can see you're in pain, man. I wish Jon would just wake up and see you there but...Look,” he said and pushed his fingers through his hair. “I can understand where you're coming from. I always held out hope for Logan, and I hit the lottery. I mean, I know the odds were stacked against me, so I understand you carrying that torch. I just...don't want you to get burned.”

Coming back to the present my reflection became blurry as my eyes watered. I sniffled, wiped my tears away, and shuffled to the toilet to see about the business of emptying my bladder.

I had been overjoyed that Jon was home and wanted to see me. Of course I had gone over to see him right away. We'd greeted one another warmly and he'd been excited to talk and share details of his trip. I was enjoying his nearly manic state, so like a toddler on a sugar rush, that I'd been caught unprepared when he'd suddenly dialed up his energy level to even greater heights. He'd bounced across his bed and begun digging through his bags in earnest, only to turn and hand me a small, paper-wrapped package.

He'd brought me a gift. My heart soared as I busied myself with removing the paper and protective wrapping to reveal a statuette of a zebra. I was overwhelmed with its significance to me and what it indicated about Jon and our time apart. He'd thought of me, missed me perhaps. The statue was heavy, and I felt my eyes watering and blinked madly to keep him from seeing. I knew right where I'd place this in my room, so that I could see it anytime I walked into my private space.

Jon explained what zebras signify and tied that into everyone bringing unique things to the herd or group and, essentially, being powerful together. Right then I felt like it was a metaphor for us, because I was definitely stronger with him. I didn't know what to say. In fact I'm sure I was damn near speechless, so instead of flowery words that might embarrass us both I hugged him. And, oh man, he returned it.

I was still riding that thought when he offered me a chocolate alcoholic drink, and for once I didn't shy away from the alcohol. I don't like drugs, I was on them too long involuntarily. But, damn it, he'd missed me too. So I drank with him.

We played games in his room, and he regaled me with stories about his trip and all was going well. Then he blew a fist sized hole in my balloon by casually bragging about some random girl he'd hooked up with. He was focused on the game, and I turned my face to hide my broken heart from him. I think I managed. I held it together, but when I'd stood to go home I'd found it was harder than I'd have suspected. Jon said in a worried tone that I couldn't go home like that, my dad would kill me and then kill Jon.

He was right. I'd called and gotten permission to stay, but I wasn't pleased with it.

Back in the now I flushed, washed my hands and wet my face. With a final glance at my empty eyes in the mirror I turned off the light and went back to his room. He hadn't stirred. His foot twitched and his mouth closed for a moment, then his lips parted once more. I sat on the bed and then, by slow measures, moved up to lie beside him. I watched his chest rise and fall. One of his nipples had hardened in his sleep, and I stared at the nub. I licked my lips and wondered what it would feel like, what it would taste like. Some unknown time later I let my gaze travel down his chest to the barest outline of his abs. Slowly, ever so slowly, I moved my gaze up until I was staring at the smooth skin of his neck and finally to his full lips. I was filled with longing.

It would be so easy. He might not even wake, not with the alcohol in him. Would that be so bad? To kiss him? My addled brain flopped back and forth on the issue, but I finally decided it would be wrong. It would be taking advantage of him, and one thing Jon valued about me was that I wanted him around for him, not for what he could give me—materially or physically. I couldn't betray that no matter how big the temptation.

A wave of exhaustion washed over me, and I flopped onto my back. I wiggled the fingers on my right hand and slowly moved over, casting about in the dim light, until I found his hand. I covered his hand with mine. Very quietly I spoke to the darkened room; I released to the shadows the words from my heart of hearts.

“I love you, Jon.”


Soccer practice started the week before school and I'd decided to go for it. I could run. In fact I'd been doing a lot of it while Jon had been gone all summer, and soccer looked like a lot of running. Plus, as much as I wanted to hang around with Jon, I didn't want to drag him down by always having to be around him. I was very pleased to have made the team, and pleased again when I was paired with Derek Pellegrini for daily warm ups in order to sharpen my passing skills. My nearly non-existent passing skills.

Derek was easy going, and it didn't take me long to become comfortable around him. Shortly after school began he'd introduced me to his boyfriend, Austin 'Hamster' Hamilton and his friends Robin Kirkwood and Lucien Kutsenko. I was familiar with the names and faces, but not with who they actually were. I'd admired Robin from afar, but assumed that good looking guys like him were likely very aware of their appeal and were more inclined to be douchebags.

That was a poor assumption. Instead I was made welcome and accepted almost as if I'd always been there. Robin was anything but full of himself and made horrible jokes that were funny regardless. That first week of school I'd gone to the Kirkwoods' on a Friday night to watch a movie. It had been sort of weird with so many couples, but it was also nice to be around people who understood how I felt, being attracted to other guys. I got wedged between a couple of guys, and thankfully the movie wasn't an excuse to make out in the semi-darkness of the room. We actually had fun, cracking jokes and trying to scare each other. In fact, wedged as I was between guys, I couldn't have been more a part of things.

I related this to Jon as we sat on the bench after our workout the middle of the following week. Jon was wearing his form fitting Under Armor shirt, the one lacking sleeves, and I think had done it to distract me for an advantage of some sort, but it hardly mattered since he soundly defeats me on a regular basis during these sessions. He was turd enough to do it just to tease me though, probably.

“So, you just were squeezing up against some guys? I don't know, man,” Jon said with a shake of his head.

“Don't know about what?” I asked as I leaned against the padded wall and fought to bring my breathing back to some semblance of normality.

Jon pursed his lips and then clasped his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. “Maybe nothing. I mean, you aren't like that so....”

“Like what?” I asked with real curiosity. Jon turned his head away slightly.

“Gay guys can be nice when they are face to face, but they kind of turn into bitches behind people's backs. You know, fake nice? Backstabbing and stuff like that,” he said with some confidence.

“Um, I don't think that's what's going on for one, and for two, how did you come by that...opinion?”

Jon looked at me. “Did you forget Geoff?”

“Sadly, no,” I said with a chuckle and he cracked a smile. “Look, Geoff is kind of...in his own category, I think. But....” I held a hand up to forestall him as he opened his mouth to reply, “I do appreciate the warning, though. Geoff can't be the only one, after all.”

Jon pursed his lips and then nodded. Casually he asked, “Anyone there boyfriend material?”

I blushed a little, but was very pleased Jon asked the question. I'd always feared coming out, but fortunately, I had some friends who were gay and my best friend treated me like anyone else. Well, anyone else who might be his friend.

“All of them!” I replied and then laughed at the look on his face.

“Slut!” he said, recovering quickly.

“Please. We both know who the man-whore here is,” I said with a snicker. “Besides, all of them are really cool in their own way. But...they are all dating already. So, no boyfriend for me.”

A look ran across Jon's face, and though I wouldn't swear to it, I thought it looked an awful lot like relief.


“Excuse me?” I closed my locker to find a girl watching me cautiously.

“Hey,” I replied politely. A girl walks up to me, my default setting tends to be flirty - typical guy, I know, but that doesn’t mean I always plan to follow through. Here I didn’t even feel like putting on the pretense of interest. Maybe her black shirt with a bible verse had something to do with it. Lev 18:22, it said. My biblical knowledge pretty much began and ended with the fact that it was a book of archaic rules that were the recipe for a perfectly joyless existence. No thanks.

“My name’s Claire,” she introduced herself.

I cocked my head. “I’m Jon. Pleased to meet you,” I lied. I wasn’t super interested in chatting with a random church girl at the moment. Lunch was starting and I wanted to beat the line.

“I - I know who you are, actually,” Claire replied with an awkward smile. I’d kind of figured that. It’s not hard to tell when someone’s deliberately approached you. So what did she want from me? Class notes? I didn’t think we had any classes together, but it was possible. Claire looked like the kind of girl who went out of her way not to be noticed. Unless… Oh crap, was she trying to score a date? Bible thumper or not, I’d feel a little bad turning her down. It’s tough psyching yourself up to ask someone out.

It’s not that she was bad looking - a round, relatively pretty face with medium length blond hair done up in a ponytail - but her attitude was as if she was watching a new and possibly dangerous animal. Geoff might have fun with that, and sometimes I guess so did I but now it just bugged me. That and if the shirt was anything to go by, she’d spend all evening talking about Jesus.

“I’m new here,” she continued, “and, well, you know how it is, I heard about how you kind of were too...”

Not that new anymore, I thought. But I guess it was relative, since I’d been here since last year as opposed to forever. I was about done with this conversation - lunch was calling my name, and—judging from the buzz in my pocket—so was Jake. “Welcome to town.” I made to move past her. “I got to get to lunch. Guess I’ll see you around.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t take the hint and fell into step next to me. “So, um, there’s a youth group at our church on Fridays…” Alright, date or conversion? Probably both.

“Uh-huh…” I had literally a million better things to do with my Friday night than spend it with a bunch of church kids. “Well, I actually have plans Friday…”

“Oh, that’s fine - it’s every Friday so-”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” I cut her off and picked up my pace.

“Wait, please,” she said with a bit of a plaintive tone to her voice. I hate how that could bring me to a stop. I turned around.

“Yes…?” I still wanted to be polite, but she’d changed the game with that tone. She knew I didn’t want to be here, and I knew she knew.

“I’m afraid I’m botching this all up, and I can see I’m upsetting you. I apologize, and if I can just try to start again. Please? Just a minute of your time?”

Damn. They say chivalry is dead - and sometimes I really wish it was. But the way she was asking made it way too hard to just walk away, no matter how much I wanted to. “Okay,” I said. “But we need to walk and talk. That cafeteria line is a bitch.” She winced at the word, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel too bad.

“Thank you. I, ah, wanted to find you for a couple of reasons. You see,” she said with a prim and proper tone, “I have a brother here in the school. We don’t live together but, despite our differences, I love him a great deal.” Great, now a little sentimental part of me actually wanted to listen. Guess sibling stories get to me, and it wasn’t hard to see where this was going.

“Sounds like you don’t get along.”

“We have our issues, that’s true. In some ways he’s a lot like you, I suspect.” That irritated me a little - this girl didn’t know the first thing about me - but I kept quiet. “That’s part of why I sought you out, actually. He’s quite handsome as well, you see.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere. Except not really.” Okay, I know the snark wasn’t exactly gentlemanly, but I needed to show she wasn’t going to get anywhere by stroking my ego.

“Oh,” she said as if in surprise and placed a hand on my arm to slow me. “I wasn’t being forward. I have a boyfriend. I was just stating a fact.” She had me there. It was a fact. “I’m sure most people would look at either of you and find you attractive. I certainly didn’t mean...I’m not....” I let her off the hook with a chuckle.

“Okay, so you want to patch things up with your brother, who may or may not be kind of like me. Still not sure what this has to do with me. I mean, I hope it works out, but…”

“I know. I haven’t been clear.” She threw a hand in the air. “Clear as mud, that’s what my mother likes to say.” She paused. “The thing is, Lucien has been on his path for a long time. I need to have more time to understand how best to lead him back. If you’ll excuse me for saying so, I’d heard you’ve been, erm, active with a few of the...less...well, some girls at school.”

Lucien…why did that name ring a bell? And less what girls? I knew what she meant but what was she going to say? Less well behaved? This girl sounded like somebody’s grandmother.

“I’ve dated a bit, yeah,” I replied coldly. “So what - your brother’s dating the wrong kind of girl?”

Claire took a breath. “Not...exactly.”

“Doing the mud thing again, Claire.”

“Let me put it this way. Would you agree that family is important? Maybe nearly the most important thing in a person’s life?”

That...was a tough question. Not cause I didn’t know the answer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it to a complete stranger who was starting to piss me off. I turned to look at her, and she was watching me closely, in an almost desperate way. Like I had the answer to her problems. Fuck it. If it was a trick question I could just tell her to get lost. Politely, of course.

“I think,” I began, “family should be who you can always depend on to have your back. For good or bad. You can be a complete dick, and they’ll take the time to find out why instead of just leaving you. They’ll always ask you what’s wrong.”

“I think that’s a lovely way of putting it. You sound like you have a lovely family. My brother and I weren’t so lucky, and to be honest with you, I think he paid the higher price between us. That’s why I am speaking to you today, Jon.”

“What do you know about my family?” I asked, more curious than anything else. “What makes you think we’re anything alike?”

“Naturally I don’t know any such thing. However,” she said slowly, “I think one could infer that if you have that sort of opinion about family, perhaps that’s what you get from yours. Or, maybe, it’s what you lack but...Oh, what do I know?”

“That’s a good question,” I muttered not quite under my breath. Louder, I asked, “What do you want from me, Claire?”

“Just this, Jonathan,” she said and stopped walking. My veneer of civility brought me to a stop beside her, but only just. Looking up at me she said, “My brother never had the support of a family. Now he’s...well, he’s misguided but has a great heart. He thinks he’s in love, you see.”

“Lots of kids think they’re in love,” I chuckled. Good god, was I encouraging her? I should just shut up and let her finish so I can get away from this weird girl.

“Well, he thinks he’s in love with Robin. A boy. And while that’s none of your nevermind, I’m sure, they are friends with two other...misguided people named Derek and Austin.” I could feel my sympathy evaporating with every word. “I know, still nothing to concern you, but they have another friend. Jonathan, he has a tragic, hurtful past. A shameful betrayal by a parent and a total lack of support and direction; I heard all the horrible details at our youth group meeting. He’s a truly tragic figure, and I’m afraid, in your compassion, you may fall for the false idea of love he must even now be trying to convince you of.”

It took me a second, but as she rambled on I realized who she was talking about. I hoped, for her sake, she wasn’t.

“I could hardly believe it when I heard. He's so starved for affection that it’s no wonder the boy thinks he’s homosexual—of course there is no such thing. But I implore you, don’t fall for the ideas Jake Thayer is peddling. We can support you at our meet—”

“I’m going to stop you right there, cupcake,” I cut in. “First off, my sexuality is none of your business, but as you yourself said, I’m pretty straight. Second, my friends and what they do are also none of your business. You sound like you mean well and that’s nice, but don’t you ever talk about my fa - friends like that again, or make damn sure I never find out about it.” I turned on my heel and strode to the cafeteria. There was so much else I wanted to say to her, but this silly little girl wasn’t worth any more time than it took to say “Fuck off,” so I’d already wasted enough on her. However… I spun around. She was standing right where I’d left her.

“Oh, and tell your little bible buddies to stay away from Jake.” I paused for a moment and then added, “And any of his friends. Or there will be Hell to pay.”

“Please don’t be mad! Jonathan, Jake can’t love you, not like that! You might care for him, but please, look closely, it’s not the way! Love, true love, is expressed through the biblical definition, one man and one woman, and two men can never hope to find love like that together. Oh, please come to our group meeting! You’ll see! I’ll bet there is a nice girl there who could give you that which you so badly need!”

“Did I say anything about romance? And please, do I look like I need help finding nice girls?” I gave her my most seductive grin, turned my back on her and let the cafeteria door close behind me. A slam would have been more satisfactory but the pneumatic arm on the door wouldn't allow it.

It took a lot of effort to cool down before I reached the lunch line. How dare she… No, forget her, she was just a dumb bitch who believed an old man in the sky controlled the universe. What did it matter what she thought?

I suppose it mattered because a bunch of other people thought the same way. And they didn’t try to fake the concern for your soul either. They just beat the shit out of you.

“What took you so long?” Jake asked as he handed me a tray. “Girl trouble?”

I laughed. That was truer than he realized. “Not really. Just some crazy chick.”

“So not a…” Jake trailed off.

“Nope,” I said firmly. The thought almost made me shudder. Did she scream bible verses when she… Ugh, why did I go there? “Anyways, what’s up?”

Watching Jake as he spoke, I wondered. He'd been doing well in our lessons, though he didn't have the fighter’s instinct. I was pretty sure he could hold his own, but in a real fight his best bet would probably be to buy time to run away, rather than try to lay the other guy out. That was fine, but mainly for a one on one, and most bullies didn't work alone.

I was scared for him.

While Jake filled me in on his day, I glanced across the room to a table where a bunch of kids in black shirts—including Claire—sat with their heads together in some kind of huddle. Occasionally one would pop up like a prairie dog and scan the room. I caught his eye and waved, laughing as he froze up.

“What’s so funny?” Jake asked suspiciously. I found myself slinging my arm over his shoulder.

“Nothing. Just making a statement,” I answered.

I wondered if it was a good idea to provoke them like this—especially if I was worried someone might go for Jake. On the other hand, I wasn't going to be intimidated by a colony of church mice. Fuck what they thought. Jake was mine.

Yes, I was scared for him. But he also gave me courage.


The last of summer's heat had faded by the third week of September and the air took on a much milder temperature, though it was unseasonably warm through October. Jon and I were in a holding pattern of sorts, at least the way I saw it. I knew Jon valued me just as I did him, and for the most part that was enough. More than enough on some days, because he left me feeling like we were dating, even though we didn't hug or kiss or hold hands, nothing like that. It was all mental stimulation and the sharing of who we were on the inside.

Jon still had his picket fence of polite distance to throw up from time to time, but I found he didn't bother with it the vast majority of the time he and I were together. We sparred now, mostly for exercise, and we were having so much fun as he tried and failed, repeatedly, to master making Tiramisu. He went on the odd date but usually ended up texting me by eleven. I spent a decent amount of time with my new friends, because my feelings for Jon hadn't gone away, and I didn't want to risk losing the relationship because I endlessly mooned over him. Thankfully he didn't seem to have much interest in a girlfriend.

Come October, though, the game changed. The soccer season was going well, and it even looked as if we might be headed to some regional playoffs, but that took a backseat to the arrival of a new gay guy in my grade named Trace Harries.

Sunday had become a movie night for some reason, and that particular Sunday had been long. Jon had gotten more aggressive about our training sessions and workouts, and that Sunday he'd worked me to the point of exhaustion. In fact, I'd almost declined to go with Derek and the guys, but I so enjoyed being with them that I wanted to push through and try to get a second wind. We were all gathering in the basement when Griffin showed up with a slender red-headed boy trailing behind him. Introductions were made: he was Trace Harries.

There was a tense moment when Trace kind of got in Jamie's face about some movie or something—I didn't know and I didn't ask. Turned out it was some sort of joke Trace and Griffin Douglas had cooked up. There was joking, some at my expense, because Damon down at Perks had embarrassed me one day in front of other people. I really hate that. Pinching my cheek and waggling my face in front of these people from school...just shoot me. Then casual conversation had revealed that Trace had recently lost his mother and it brought a round of discomfort and offers of support from a few guys who'd lost their own mothers. I knew something about losing a mother, but it was an entirely different type of loss.

Anyway, when it came time to get a seat I saved a spot for Trace and patted the spot for him when he started to look for a place to sit. Nothing else really happened; he and I didn't really talk, and the movie was one of those action things that are only good about half the time. During one of those lags and because of the way Jon had been working me I ended up falling asleep long before the first car chase. I really hadn't wanted to. I'd hoped to talk to Trace and get to know him, but even when Jon wasn't there his influence was felt.

For some reason I was a little reluctant to tell Jon about Trace. I thought about that for a while, trying to figure out what was stopping me. After all, Jon had gone on a few dates and hadn't kept them secret from me. Was this more about me? If I dated someone—or had a date at all—did that somehow betray my feelings toward Jon? Or was that a path to finally letting go of the tatters of my romantic dreams of him?

In the end I elected not to tell him that I was interested in Trace, at least until Trace had asked me out. Then, I think, it would be unfair to not say something to Jon. He was my best friend and I really didn't want to be secretive when it came to him.

“So,” I said to him one Wednesday in October. “I got asked out. On a date.”

A slight frown creased his forehead. “You didn't mention anyone breaking up. Who is it?”

“Breaking...oh, no!” I said with a nervous laugh. “A new guy’s started at school, and he's gay and out. His name is Trace Harries, and he's in our grade.”

He looked off for a moment and then shook his head. “I can't think of anyone with that name. Should I run a background check on him?”

I raised an eyebrow at him and wondered, briefly, if he could or would actually attempt such a thing. “Thanks. I think he's safe enough.”

“Well, what do you know about him?”

“Well,” I said as I settled onto the mat while his gaze roamed the rack of dumbbells. “Like I said, he's in our grade. He's from Canada, and his mom died not that long ago. Um, he's got red hair and he's related to coach Whitmore somehow.”

Jon pursed his lips. “That's it? Are you going someplace public?”

My emotions swirled inside me as I wondered why he was asking such a thing. “Uh, yeah. Starbucks.”

Jon chewed his lip. “When?”

“Sunday. Why?” I asked as I stood up.

Jon turned his gaze to me and then seemed to shake himself. With a smile he said, “I just wondered if I should be close by, but I guess you've learned a lot in our lessons. You should be able to handle a Canadian.”

“Yeah. I don't think Trace is looking for a fight,” I said with a chuckle.

“Good, because you just might be able to give him one,” Jon said and then paused. “Maybe.”

I jutted my chin at him and in a mock belligerent tone asked, “You want to go?”

He assumed a cocky stance. “You think you can—”

His words were cut off as I dropped down and swept the back of his knee. He stumbled a bit awkwardly and then dropped to his butt.

“You are so dead,” he growled. I laughed at him but I ended up getting dropped to the mat several times to Jon’s taunting. It didn’t matter, I’d gotten him and he knew it—and it was irritating him which made all the drops to the mat completely worth it.

I made it up to him by inviting him over for Tiramisu afterward, but then spoiled it by asking him how his own attempts were going.

“Yours is way better,” he said with a shake of his head and licked his lips. “It’s all light and fluffy, and for some reason mine comes out like a brick. I have no idea what I’m doing wrong.”

“I don’t either, honestly,” I said before taking another bite.

“Well, why don’t you come over Sunday after our run? Maybe we can try it at my house? Oh, wait, you have your date, right?”

“Yeah, but not until the evening,” I told him. “Is Geoff back home yet?”

“No, why?”

“I was just wondering if someone was messing with your cooking and he leapt to mind, don’t ask me why,” I said and then laughed.

He grinned and shook his head. “If anything Geoff would add alcohol to it.”

“Pft, don’t need him for that. You’re there.”

“Stop,” Jon whined. “You’ve seen my life. I need my medicine.”

“You need a twelve step,” I replied sourly.

“What’s your problem with my alcohol. Huh? Why so...parental?”

I snorted. “Someone in your house has to be.”

“Hey. Richard can be pretty annoyingly parental when he wants to be,” Jon said defensively.

“Then he wouldn’t let you turn into a teenage alcoholic. Do you know how much damage—”

“Whoa. Where is this coming from? You even said you liked that little drink we had the night I came home.”

I sat back in my chair and fiddled with the remains of the dessert with my fork. It’s true I’d liked the flavor as a novelty, but I hadn’t liked the lack of control it brought with it. Jon had also let me know that, when we’d met, his driving was limited because he’d driven drunk. The idea of him dead in some stupid car accident because he wanted a drink….

I shook my head and finally replied, softly, “I was on drugs for years, basically. I don’t like anything that takes away some of my control. I’d think you’d understand that since, other than that, you’re always in control.”

Jon shifted in his seat, but I only knew from the sound as my gaze was locked to my slowly turning fork.

“Jake...I can handle it. It’s just a few drinks. I can quit anytime, no problem. I’m totally in control.”

I dropped my fork and snorted as I brought my gaze up to meet his. “Do you know you sound like every after-school special cliche about someone being confronted about being a closet alcoholic? I mean, seriously. You don’t need it, you’re freaking Jon Ellesier. You don’t need anything else to make you...you know what? Whatever.”

Jon frowned and looked down at his plate, then cleared his throat. “I get why you don’t like it. I don’t think that means I should change but...I hear you. I, um, I’ll knock it off if it’ll make you feel better. Or, you know, try to.”

“Try? I thought you were in control.”

He frowned and glared at me. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Why are you acting like I do?”

“Because the next time you crash your car from driving drunk you could die?” I said and stood up quickly and grabbed our dirty plates roughly. I would not tear up over this sudden...whatever this was. Damn stubborn ass! I marched to the sink, rinsed our things off, and put them in the dishwasher, just to have something to do.


I leaned on the counter and took a deep breath before turning around to look at him. It was funny in a way how utterly unlike himself he appeared. There was no suave bad-boy in my kitchen with a bit of dessert on his face. He looked...vulnerable.

I hesitated, then said softly, “I just don’t want you to get hurt. That’s all.”

He swallowed. “I understand.”

I smiled slightly. “You have chocolate on your face.”

The corners of his mouth turned up. I sighed; we were okay.

Sunday came and Jon acted like he’d drunk a case of Red Bull as he set a blistering pace for our run. I was in much better shape than I’d ever been, but Jon was positively punishing the both of us. We didn’t run our normal route, either. He took some extended path that more or less had us doing a loop around the whole town. By the time we came to a halt in front of my house I was sucking wind and sweating like I were baking and my feet were incredibly sore. I was pretty sure I had a blister on each foot.

“Why don’t you shower and I’ll wait for you?” he asked through his heavy breaths. “After you get cleaned up we can figure out how I’m screwing up the Tiramisu.”

“Sure. Come in. Let’s get water,” I agreed. I left him in the kitchen with a pitcher of water and made my way up the narrow stairs to my room. My dad was just coming out of his room and he yawned as he nodded at me.

“You and Jon out for another Sunday stroll?” he asked, pausing outside the bathroom.

“Stroll? I think my feet are gone and nothing but bloody stumps are left. I swear it’s like he’s trying to train me for an Ironman competition or something.”

“Yeah, you do look pretty worn out after you guys work out. What are your plans today?”

“After I shower I was going to go over to Jon’s. We’re trying to figure out why his Tiramisu comes out hard instead of light and fluffy. Then, um, I have a date tonight.”

He scratched his side and tilted his chin down as he eyed me. “How does Jon feel about that?”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “You guys are so close, honestly I thought you’d get together.”

“Well, I would but Jon...it’s not his thing, I guess,” I said as I leaned against the wall. “I mean, it’s not like he didn’t have first choice.”

“Jon is your, what, your type?”

I shrugged and laughed. “Jon is a type all by himself. I have no idea what my type is.”

He nodded and stretched. “Okay. Let me pee then the bathroom is all yours. We have that new store opening tomorrow, so I have to go in tonight for some last minute setup and make sure nobody screwed up anything since whatever time it was that I left there this morning.”

“Okay,” I replied and headed into my room. My dad was working to launch new stores for a convenience chain that was expanding. My dad said they were going too fast and either wanted to be bought out or they’d end up going bankrupt from expanding too quickly. I kicked off my sneakers and my feet instantly felt cooler. I sat on my bed and peeled off my socks, balled them up and tossed them into the hamper. Maybe in the general vicinity of the hamper. I pulled my feet up one at a time and examined them. Yep, big toe, huge blister on each one that had already burst. Damnit, I’d be walking funny for days.


“So Jon, feel like you’re finally settling in around here?” Mr. Thayer asked before sipping his coffee. “How long has it been again?”

“Yeah,” I replied cautiously. “It was a bit of a change, but I think I’ve adjusted okay. And since last spring,” I added to answer his second question.

I hadn’t really talked to Mr. Thayer much, just the standard pleasantries - “Hello, sir, how are you?” - that kind of thing and never one on one like this. Jake said he was in the army, and he definitely somehow struck me as a military man. I wasn’t nervous or anything; it’s just awkward talking to your friend’s parents when you're alone with them.

Nope. Not nervous at all.

Mr. Thayer nodded. “New school, new town - it takes some getting used to. Especially during, what? Sophomore year?”

Yeah, I’m seventeen and starting my junior year - I’m a bit old for my grade thanks to Geoff holding me back one year when he decided my friends at the time weren’t good for my grades. Hopefully this guy didn’t pick up on that if he asked my age, but I wasn’t banking on it. He didn’t seem like the type to miss much.

“Yup. My brother wanted to wait till the summer before moving but, well, stuff happened, I guess.” I shrugged and gave a little smile.

“Your brother?” Here we go - it always comes up sooner or later. I don’t try and hide it or anything, but some people get weird about it.

“Yeah, I live with my two older brothers,” I explained.

“And your parents…?”

“They died when I was twelve.” The calm attitude didn’t falter but his expression softened a little.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I nodded acknowledgment and took another swig of water. Not much you can say to that. “So,” he asked in that tone people always use when they’re trying to change the subject, “how exactly did you and Jake meet?”

That, despite sounding like a totally innocent question, was not the best direction he could have taken. I didn’t think he needed to hear the whole story - “Oh, we met through a mutual friend and love of peach cobbler, but we really bonded when I beat the shit out of these two kids trying to mug him.”

“Through a mutual friend,” I said aloud. “He let me have a little of his peach cobbler and the rest is history, I guess.” Though Jake’s dad chuckled at my lame joke and sipped his coffee, his eyes told me he knew there was more to the story.

“So you guys run with the same sort of crowd, then?”

Did we? I mean, Jake was friends with Seth, who had been the first actually interesting person to reach out to me (besides Damon, but pulling you from a car wreck is kind of a special case) when I first moved here. Seth was actually the one who introduced us. I liked to chill with his group - Logan, Grayson, Maggie and Kristen and the rest. So I guess…

“Kind of?” I answered lamely.

Damn, I’m usually better than this - I was off my game this morning.

Normally I make a hobby out of reading people - it’s fun and easy if you know how to do it. People are pretty much the same when you get down to it. We all use the same type of signals - body language, facial expressions, verbal cues, whatever - figure out what they mean and bam! You’ve cracked the code. Sure, some people are harder than others, but everyone has their code. Mr. Thayer didn’t seem like anything special.

So why was this so hard?

It wasn’t him; it was me. I couldn’t focus - I was too nervous. It was like when I took a test and froze up on every question, even as my brain yelled at me that I knew this shit. I was taking a test. The guy was sizing me up and I was nervous. Bastard.

I didn’t want to fail this test.

“So—” for God’s sake stop saying “so” all the time, I wanted to yell. “—how did you guys work out this trade you have going now?”

Dang, how did I explain that? How much had Jake told him? If it was everything then I was going to look like an idiot, but I had to bank on the assumption that most kids don’t tell their parents that kind of thing. I wasn’t bullied much as a kid (Geoff probably had something to do with that), but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been keen on telling my parents after getting a beating.

“Well, I think, uh, it just kind of came up, really. Talking about hobbies and stuff, you know? We got to talking about martial arts and he asked if I could teach him - my sweet tooth probably gave him a bit of leverage,” I grinned.

“I bet it did,” Mr. Thayer chuckled. “I’ve probably gained a few pounds since coming back myself.” Mr. Thayer glanced up at the sound of the shower turning on and took two quick steps and occupied the seat across from me in a very efficient manner.

“Okay, look Jon, I’m going to be straight with you. I like you. You’re a decent kid. As a father who hasn’t been here very often to earn the title I don’t want to push my son too hard. You and he spend a lot of time together and you’re a good influence.”

“Uh, thanks.” Wasn’t sure what else to say and I sensed a “but” coming on.

“I know, not what you expected. But I don’t really know you and I want to. My son is important to me.” Kids should be, I thought, but I couldn’t help thinking of my own dad. Snap out of it, Jonathan. Stay in the moment and keep your head in the game.

“I know you’re...important to him. Right?” I wasn’t sure how to take that. For the second time in the last few minutes, I found myself wondering how much this guy knew about my complicated relationship with Jake.

“He’s...I do know he’s important to me,” I said, deciding to return the honesty. “But what do you want from me?”

He nodded and leaned back a bit in his chair, sipping his coffee and studying me. He set the cup down and clasped his hands on the table, leaning forward a bit.

“Look, I’m not trying to make this awkward, though I’m not really sure how to avoid that. I like to think...that my son is reasonably honest with me. I know he has a date tonight and I was a little surprised it wasn’t with you.” He paused and let out a light cough. “I appreciate that you’re mature enough to handle his feelings for you. I did wonder, though, how you felt about his dating someone else.”

I could feel my ears heating up. “He’s my friend before anything else, sir. That...I mean his crush, shouldn’t change that.” I took another sip of water.

He nodded slowly. “Well. Again, I appreciate your maturity. I don’t know many guys, at your age, that could handle this. I really thought you guys were going to get together. Um,” he said and then sighed, not finishing his thought.

“The important thing is he’s happy.” I knew enough to say that at least. I wasn’t sure if he bought it or not, but he didn’t press it.

“Do you have, uh, plans for college?” he said a little awkwardly. Well, this was more familiar territory, even if I didn’t like it much better. College hadn’t exactly been front and center in my mind yet - I mean, I know it was coming up and I was looking forward to it, but details like a possible major were still hazy. And by hazy I mean I had no clue.

“I’m...still feeling out my options, actually.” It was the start of junior year - I could get away with saying that, right?

He nodded in response. Turning the cup in his hands he spoke to me in a low voice, one of regret and fear. He didn’t look at me and it was a little unsettling. Whatever he was going to say was hard for him.

“Jake’s had a hard time of it. I know other people have had it worse; you, for instance, have an unorthodox support system with your family, but you had them. Jake never did. When I came home from overseas I….” His gaze turned and met mine. “I want the best for him. I don’t get to pick his friends or much else. God only knows why the boy respects me as he does. I do know he...I know you mean a lot to him. I figure you must know that. He said…” he cleared his throat. This sounded like the time to step in with...something.

I opened my mouth to speak but he held up hand. “He said you had first choice and turned him down.” Before I could even think of a reply he waved me off again. “That’s okay, I know this is awkward. You’re probably wondering what my point is, and I’m not sure I know. I will say this much, though. If you guys need something, I’m here. If he needs something and hasn’t told me, I’m here. If...if you change your mind about him, I’m begging you...be careful with him.”

It was hard not to tell him he didn’t have to say that - that I’d happily pound into paste anyone who even thought about hurting him. That wasn’t the sort of thing you said to your best friend’s dad. Or maybe…

“Well, sir,” I began hesitantly, “I understand and I think we’re on the same page here. You asked me earlier what I thought about his date, and,” I quirked a tiny grin, “let’s just say that I may not have a shotgun, but my brother has an antique sword somewhere that I could probably dig up.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “You know, he was right about you. He said ‘Dad, some people might dismiss Jon as a spoiled rich brat. And he is, but he’s way more than just that.’” His expression sobered slightly. “And if this guy he’s seeing—hey, you know anything about him?”

It took me a moment to respond. I was still mulling over what Jake had said about me. You’re always curious to hear what other people say about you - especially those you care about. I was torn between being annoyed at the “spoiled rich brat” comment and complimented by the “way more” part. But seriously, come on, Jake!

“Oh, um.” I went over what Jake had told me to make sure there was nothing his dad shouldn’t know - hey, we may be doing this cards on the table thing, but he was still a parent and I was a teenager - but couldn’t think of anything. “Well, he just moved here from Canada. His step-dad works at the school - a coach, I think, and he has red hair.” I tried to remember anything else and came up blank. Even though I knew Mr. Thayer wasn’t expecting a detailed file or anything, I still felt a little bad and kind of wished I really could run a background check on this Trace guy. “Sorry, I don’t know much more.”

He spun his empty cup, glancing down at it between his fingers. “Well, I’m glad you’re there for him. I know he...well, that’s neither here nor there.” He stood and picked up his cup and, as he walked to the sink he said, “Jon, I don’t want to meddle, I really don’t. But I hope you’ve...thought through all your options.” He paused in the doorway and looked back at me. “I’d really like to see Jake with a guy like you. I want him happy.” He rapped the doorway with his knuckles just as the sound of running water cut off upstairs. “I have to go get ready for work. This was between you and me, okay?”

“Yeah. Totally,” I agreed, still a little bemused.

He smiled. “I appreciate it.”


I finished stripping down and grabbed my towel and hit the shower. Twenty minutes later I headed back downstairs to find Jon staring off into space at the kitchen table.

As I entered the kitchen he looked up and smiled. “All set?”

“Yep, I’m all yours. See you later, Dad,” I yelled as we headed out the door.

We went to the store for a few ingredients and then to Jon’s house. He had a really nice kitchen to work in, and after he'd showered, we were soon hard at work on our favorite dessert. I have no idea what he was doing wrong, because he seemed to know what to do. Of course, I hadn’t sampled any of his so called disasters, so I wasn’t sure just what was wrong with them except his descriptions.

In any case, we spent a good chunk of the day in his kitchen, laughing and making fun of each other as we cooked. Jon made us lunch, nothing fancy but tasty, and we played a few games before I told him I had to go.

“Nervous?” Jon asked as he trailed me down the stairs.

“Um, yeah, a little.”

“Why? He should be the nervous one.”

“Oh? Why is that?” I asked him as I stood in the doorway of his home.

“'Cause you can kick his butt. He’s Canadian.”

I rolled my eyes. “Night, Jon.”

“Text me if you need help moving the body!” he called as I walked down the block. I turned and waved, laughing at him.


“Is something wrong?” Richard’s voice startled me and I jumped a little in my chair, looking up from my homework. My brother stood at the edge of the dining room and kitchen, leaning against the doorway.

“What? Um, no, why?” It sounded totally unconvincing, but he’d caught me off guard. He cocked his head to one side, studying me, and I looked away. I had a pretty good idea what he was going to say.

“Just wondering,” he replied neutrally. “You’ve been a little subdued all evening. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” It came out a little more forcefully than I intended and I bit my lip. Could I be any easier to read?

Richard just nodded. He usually didn’t push these things - he left that to Geoff. “Alright. Just checking.” He crossed the dining room towards his study but stopped a little past my chair. “But when something is bothering you, whenever that is, you can always talk to me, Little Prince. That hasn’t changed.”

“I know,” I mumbled. I didn’t turn around but heard him start walking again. I tried to focus on my algebra homework again but no luck. I was still too distracted. I knew Richard meant what he said, but sometimes it felt like he was more responsible for Geoff, who in turn was responsible for me. And the rest of the time he was working to make sure we stayed together and had money and were generally keeping our lives going - it didn’t feel right to pile more onto him after our parents died, so I usually went to our middle brother for this kind of thing.

But Geoff wasn’t here now, our family situation was kind of stable, and it wasn’t like I could talk to my dad. Richard would never replace him, but he was as close as I was going to get, and honestly, he’d probably get what I was going through a little more than my dad would have anyways. So was I doing this? I guess so.

I sighed and pushed back my chair.

His door was slightly open and I gave it a light knock, feeling it open a little under my fist. He looked up from his desk and gave a small smile. “Jon, hey.”

“Hey,” I tried to return his smile. “You busy?”

“No, just the usual management nonsense. Pam thinks Cheryl isn’t pulling her weight, and Cheryl thinks she’s being shut out. Someone needs to be the adult.” Richard pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s nothing that can’t wait though. Come in. What’s up?”

I had to smile at that. I didn’t exactly have a lot of experience with startups, but Richard’s company in Binghamton sounded like a pretty crazy place to work. He usually kept quiet about work stuff, but if you got him to open up the stories could be funny as hell.

I slumped down in the chair across from him and spun around slowly in it like a little kid. “It’s about Jake.” If Richard had been expecting this he didn’t let it show. He just put aside his laptop and leaned back in his chair, listening. “He’s become a really good friend, I guess.” Still nothing, but I was really just stating the obvious. “Thing is, he kind of - he does - have feelings for me.”

“How do you feel about that?” Richard asked.

“I don’t know. I mean, I guess I do. I’m okay with it - I liked it even, but it wasn’t just an ego boost…”

“Do you feel the same way about him?” I knew Richard would be totally fine with the idea, but I thought he’d sound a little more surprised. After all, this was me we were talking about. I went through girls almost as profusely as Geoff went through guys. But Richard’s voice remained calm and matter-of-fact, as if we were talking about my grades.

“Now that,” I sighed, “I really have no idea.” Richard raised an eyebrow - probably waiting for me to change my answer again. “No really, it’s like a little bit of everything. Mostly he’s just my best friend—” I noticed I didn’t mind giving him the title anymore - sorry, Greg “—but sometimes it feels like we’re dating, and I’m okay with that, but I don’t know if it’s because I want to keep him with me, but I know I can’t do it all the time 'cause I can’t be…” I stopped and took a breath when I realized how fast I was talking. “And now he’s out on a date.”

“Does that bother you?”

“I - he - yeah, a little,” I sputtered.


Because he’s not with me, I wanted to say, but that would sound just too childish. Richard probably read it on my face, though he didn’t say anything. He was waiting for me to do that. “I should be happy for him. I am happy for him. He deserves this. But I’m also kind of nervous. What if he hits it off with this guy, and things aren’t the same?” I hated how needy and cliched I sounded. “But it’s more than that,” I went on before Richard could say anything. “There’s this other bunch of guys he hangs out with - they’re all gay, or at least all dating other guys. If he pairs off too, then he might be like, more in with them now and…”

Richard raised an eyebrow. “You two are pretty close. Don’t you think you should give him a little more credit than that?”

“That’s just it though,” I said, finally voicing the thought that had been haunting me all evening, “I don’t know how much of that closeness is because he likes me or because we’re friends. So when he’s over me will he-”

“Alright, I’m going to stop you there,” Richard cut in. “You’re talking about romance and friendship like they’re completely separate things. Yes, there’s something to be said for physical desire, but from what you’ve said it’s a deeper connection here, and that can’t happen if you don’t care for someone first as a friend. That won’t change when he doesn’t have a crush on you anymore.” I wanted to believe him. It made sense logically, but hey, if logic was any help I’d probably have felt a lot better before now. Richard considered me for a moment before he shook his head. “Look, let me put it another way. Judging from how much he means to you, trust me when I say it’s safe to assume you mean a lot to him too.”

“That’s not always how it works-” I began before he held up a hand.

“True, usually when one of the two parties is manipulating or using the other. Is Jake manipulating or using you?”

“No!” I answered without even thinking. It came out slightly louder than I meant and I opened my mouth to apologize but Richard just smiled.

“There you go.” He leaned back and put his arms behind his head.

“Wait.” Something had just occurred to me. “You’re trusting what I think about Jake? That’s what you’re basing all this on?” Geoff often said I had a problem with “poor judgment” in people, and I’d always believed Richard agreed with him.

He just shrugged. “Your brother and I think your judge of character has improved a bit since you were fourteen.”

“That’s...okay, cool.” Food for thought later. “So what do I do about my… I mean, how do I know if I...like him?”

“Like him?” Richard cocked his head again. “It’s pretty clear you like him quite a lot. I thought that was the one thing you weren’t wondering about.”

“You know what I mean!”

My brother just chuckled. “That’s actually not as hard to figure out as you think.” I narrowed my eyes at him. This had been tearing me up, so if he gave me some kind of bullshit philosophy solution I’d be pissed.

“I understand you’re not thrilled about him dating - it’s one thing to encourage him to meet people, another if he actually does it. But ask yourself - can you be with him - right now? In the way he wants you to?”

I wanted to say yes. I wished I could say yes.

I looked away.

Richard nodded. “Thought so. Then what are you going to do? Lock him up in a tower until you decide how you feel about him? Do you think he’ll be happy just to stand at your side forever? The way you’re feeling now, he’s probably felt every time you’ve gone out with some girl - which, I might add, hasn’t changed anything between you. What makes you so sure his going on a single date will spell the end of everything as you know it?” His words hit hard and I felt like a hypocritical ass. “You have to let him live his life,” Richard concluded, “and trust that he’ll want you to stay a part of it.”

There wasn’t much I could say to that.

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Look, at least wait till you find out how this date went before panicking.” Richard leaned forward conspiratorially. “If we hear wedding bells, we’ll figure something out, okay?”

I laughed as I stood up to leave. “Thanks, Richard.”

“Anytime, Little Prince.”


Our local Starbucks does a decent business, even though I’m not a big fan of their coffee. It seemed kind of bitter, though I’m told better coffee does taste like that. I enjoyed the sweeter hot drinks and some of their cold summer drinks, and as I walked enjoying the cool evening I tried to think of what I might order. Should I be ready to order when I got there? Or should I wait in case he needed time to think of what he wanted? I wondered if he liked the same things I did?

When I arrived Trace was already seated and looking down at his phone. He must have been glancing up each time the door opened, though, as his gaze met mine before I’d gotten more than a step inside the store. He smiled and a light blush flowed across his cheeks, and I felt a little warm myself.

“Hi. You look..nice. Is that chocolate on your shirt?” he asked with a little laugh.

I looked down and, sure enough, some of the chocolate from this afternoon’s kitchen adventure was stuck on it.

“Uh, yeah. Ugh,” I said and tried to wipe it off, but it only smeared and made things worse.

He chuckled. “Well, the important part is you made it. You want to get in line?”

“Sure. You know what you want?” I asked as I turned toward the line, bumping into a girl from school.

“Oh! Sorry, Theresa,” I said. “You okay?”

She laughed. “I’m fine, no worries. It’s kind of hard to knock me over!” She waved and headed out the door with her drink.

“Jeez. I wonder if she could get back up if someone knocks her over,” Trace said and then groaned as he took in my face. “I’m sorry. Is she a friend of yours?”

“Um, no. Small town and everyone kind of knows everyone else.” In truth Theresa and I had been, sort of, bookends in school. We’d always been the overweight ones, although I have no idea why she had the extra weight. She wasn’t sleepy looking like her folks doped her up, so I had no idea if it was glands or if she ate too much or too much of the wrong things. I did know we were the butt of a lot of fat jokes and I felt a bit defensive.

Trace coughed. “Um, so...now that I’ve embarrassed myself, shall we get in line?”

I vacillated for a moment and then nodded my head and we moved to the end of the line.

“So I was kind of excited for today. It’s been a good day, you know? I made up with my cousin and I have a date...pretty perfect day!” Trace said nervously. Why was he nervous? I should be nervous.

No. I would not be nervous. Like Jon said, he’s Canadian. I can take him. I smirked to myself.

“Why did you have to make up with your cousin?”

“Because I've been a dick to him since I got to town,” he said promptly. I chuckled and was somewhat impressed he admitted to a fault like that. Jon usually covered things like that up to the point of silliness.

“Why did you do that? Who’s your cousin?”

“You know Logan Whitmore?”

“Um, yeah. Grade behind me, I think. He’s dating….”

“Gray. They seem nice together.”

“Yeah. Logan’s always been nice. Gray was always getting injured! I mean, he got close to a ball or a jockstrap or a gym and something on him would break or sprain or bruise!” I said with a chuckle.

Trace laughed with me. “He's a klutz?”

“I have no idea. We weren’t friends or anything,” I replied. It was our turn and I placed an order, Trace added his in and then insisted on paying, since he’d asked me out. I tried to argue with him, but it was a nice gesture. It was always a game with Jon if we went out for a coffee or something. He’d go so far as to order while I was in the bathroom just so I couldn’t buy. It was sweet but kind of aggravating, too. I’m sure he knew it aggravated me, thus its appeal.

Trace and I sat down and sipped our drinks. “Mm,” he said and closed his eyes. “It’s almost like being back in Vancouver.”

“You miss it?” I asked.

“Some things,” he said and bobbed his head. “So did that guy at Perks ask you out? Am I your second choice?” he teased.

I rolled my eyes. Jon liked busting my nuts about Damon over at Perks as well and his calling me a cutie-pie.

“As if. He’s a little old for me, I think. Want me to give him your number?” I teased right back.

“Oh, I think one person with bright hair is enough for any relationship,” he laughed as he ran a hand over his fiery hair.

We fell into an awkward silence, and we both covered by sipping our drinks. Trace had gotten something with a white froth, and it lay on his upper lip like milk on a small child. I took in the shape of his face and the sparkle in his eyes and then dodged his gaze, embarrassed at being caught checking him out.

“Hamster was teasing me,” he said.

“Uh, well, non-sequitur anyone?” I asked with a chuckle.

“Let me explain,” he said with a smile. “He kind of knew I liked you. I guess he and Derek kind of played fairy matchmaker.”

I stiffened in my seat a bit. I hated that term ‘fairy’ as it related to me. I’d heard it way too many times. Of course, he couldn’t know that and I needed to just relax.

“Was that why Derek asked me? That sneaky shit,” I said with a chuckle.

“Asked you what?”

“If I was interested in you,” I said, my voice trailing off into shyness.

“Ah. We, um, really were set up then,” he said with a nervous chuckle.


We paid some attention to our drinks, but before things could get overly awkward, Trace saved us.

“So. Are you a chocolate fiend or something?” he asked, pointing at my shirt. I glanced down, even though I knew the smudge was there.

I smiled and turned my gaze to Trace. “Not really. My friend Jon and I were making Tiramisu. I like to cook and Jon...well, he likes to eat,” I said and chuckled.

“Oh yeah? I don't enjoy cooking,” he lifted an arm and flexed an average looking bicep. “Me manly. Me no cook,” he said in a basso voice.

I laughed. “Well, I have to make sure Jon eats, otherwise—” I choked off the rest of my response, realizing I was about to say 'otherwise he'd only drink.' It certainly wasn't my place to air Jon's business nor to criticize him to someone who amounted to a virtual stranger.

“What? TV dinners? Frozen meals?”

“Worse,” I said, recovering lamely. “Junk food.”

He smiled and nodded and, thankfully, changed the subject. “So have you lived here your whole life?”

“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “For good or bad. So, uh, coming from Vancouver you couldn't have known your cousin, really. Why were you so mean to him?”

He coughed and a blush ran down from his face to his neck. “Well, without getting into all the details....actually, you know my mom passed a few weeks ago, right?”

“Yeah. I'm sorry about that.”

“Thanks,” he replied and then took a breath. “My mom always told me that my dad left us for another man but...I guess that wasn't really true. But it's the story I knew when I got here, so I wasn't really...um, disposed to like any of my dad's...extended family.”

“Oh. Oh, I see,” I said as I sat back. “Wow. You fixed it, though? I mean, with your dad and Logan?”

“Started to, anyway,” he said with a nod. “My dad forgave me pretty fast. I mean, he hasn't even said anything mean about my mom, and I guess, you know, he must really hate her. I mean, he seems happy to have me here, you know?”

“I know what you mean, actually,” I told him.

“You do?” he asked in confusion.

“Sure. My mom fed me drugs to keep me docile for years. When my dad got back from overseas—he was in the army—he was really upset to find the kind of shape I was in. He got custody and I'm totally different. I owe that to my dad, otherwise I wouldn't have any of my friends or Jon.”

Trace cleared his throat. “Jon sounds like he's pretty important. Best friend?”

“Best ever,” I said with a nod. “But I hang out with the guys you met, too. Derek is super nice and I like all of them.”

“Amazing that they are all gay and not a troll in the bunch!” Trace said with a chuckle. My stomach tightened a little, but I pushed forward.

“And of course Seth and Gray are my friends now.”

“Gray? As in Logan's boyfriend? I thought you said you weren't friends?”

“Not while he was busy injuring himself to get Logan's attention, no,” I said with a chuckle.

Trace smiled. “When did that change?”

“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “there wasn't a single moment that stands out. I was kind of fuzzy when I was on the stuff my mom was giving me. When you're more or less stoned and fat, people don't go out of their way to befriend you.

“Seth used to be really kind of a wise guy, fooling around and making jokes. But, see, a few years ago this guy got beat up pretty bad in a hazing thing on the football team. The whole school changed after that, like someone turned a hose of cold water on it.”

“What does...?”

“Well, Seth, I heard, made fun of one of the guys who got suspended or expelled or whatever it was and the guy knocked him through a plate glass window or door or something. Seth changed after that, was real quiet. Kind of fell off my consciousness, since I only noticed things that weren't in the background with me.

“After my dad got custody and got me off the drugs, I started to drop the weight and get involved in other stuff that got me out of the house. As far as Seth goes, one day he just started talking to me, I think, and before I knew it he was saying hello in the hallways, and that brought in Gray and Logan. Eventually it brought Foster, too, but he's still kind of a mystery.

“But Seth introduced me to Jon and I spend most of my time hanging out with him.”

“Wow. So, um, my cousin....”

“Very cute, yes he is,” I said with a blush.

Trace chuckled. “Yeah, I noticed. But, um, he's a nice guy?”

“Yeah,” I said with a tone of bewilderment. “Logan has always been nice. I mean, I'm sure he can be a jerk if he wants to be, but not that I ever saw.”

“Yeah, kind of what I thought. Makes me feel even worse,” Trace muttered.

I cleared my throat. “Well, I think it's good you took responsibility. Maybe you can teach Jon.” We fell silent again and, as I sipped my drink, I realized I was doing a lot of comparing Trace to Jon and of bringing Jon up in conversation. But that's to be expected, right? We talk about ourselves and the people in our lives? I wonder if the answer is that I'm just not getting Trace to talk about himself, then.

“So, how'd you patch things up with Logan?”

Trace blew out a breath. “Basically I told him I knew I'd been a jerk and asked him to give me another shot. I didn't think it would work as easy as that, but I guess it did.” Trace looked up and smiled. “Maybe he wanted me to try again.”

“Maybe. I know he's a nice guy, but that's about it. I've spent more time with Seth and Gray than Logan.” I mentally kicked myself for turning the conversation back to myself. “So, did you date in Vancouver?”

“Eh, a little,” he replied and sipped his drink. I took the opportunity to do the same and was surprised that I'd emptied my cup. “There were a few out people, and we probably all gave it a try with one another, but, you know...no sparks or anything.”

I nodded. Well, he was a step ahead of me on that, anyway. Thinking of his earlier statement about there being 'no trolls' in the group I asked, “So, any trolls in your Vancouver crew?”

“Crew?” he asked and snorted out a laugh. “Yeah. Not that I'd ever say it to them, of course, but some folks didn't really take care of themselves.”

Irritation rose in my chest. How did he know or why was he judging? I opened my mouth to say something but was cut off as he continued his thought.

“They were friends of mine, so I never said something, of course.”

In an even tone I asked, “So, what constitutes a troll in your book?”

Trace seemed to pick up on my tone. “Um, did I do something wrong?”

My hands flitted around my empty cup. “Nope. Just wondering what your definition is.”

“Well,” he said in an uncertain tone. “Just someone that doesn't fit my personal preferences, I guess. Someone I'm not attracted to.”

“Like what?” I asked, perhaps a bit testily.

He shrugged. “I don't know. Dirty people who don't take care of themselves. Unhealthy people. Assholes.”

I dropped my chin and gave him a look of disbelief. “And you had friends that fit in that category?”

“Yeah,” he said with a curt nod. “My friend Jerry was someone only I could take. He was kind of a dick; I can't tell you why we got on. Noreen went through a phase where she wasn't washing her hair for some reason, and it was nasty. My friend Trevor had a ton of acne until his parents got him some medicine that helped out. He was kind of nice looking after that.”

I grumbled to myself, somewhat pleased and yet somewhat displeased. I was overly sensitive to the issue of judging folks by their looks, and I thought it shallow to call people 'trolls' or any other name, really. But, I reminded myself, Trace was a different person and he didn't know these things, and even if he did he wasn't obliged to change himself.

We wrapped up our little date and swapped phone numbers. Trace asked if we could get together later in the week and I agreed. I smiled at him and made my way home, pondering the entire evening.

“So, how'd it go?” my dad asked as I closed the door behind me.

“Okay,” I replied and hung up my jacket. “Hey, I need to boost my Spanish grade, and I offered to make Flan for extra credit, but I have to make enough for the whole class to try at least a taste.”

“Okay. Make me a list.”

“Well, I have the money you've been giving me....” I said, but he started to chuckle and I trailed off.

“Jake, that 'money I've been giving you' is your allowance. We've been over this a hundred times, why is it so hard for you to accept an allowance?” he asked, clearly amused with me.

“I guess I just think I should earn it, that's all,” I grumbled.

“You keep your room up and do your chores well. You help out and, like I've told you, boy, you missed out on a lot of time just being a kid. No need to piss more of it away on a job if you don't have to. Trust me, you'll work most of your life. Don't rush into it!”

I sighed and nodded in thanks. I headed into the kitchen, and since thoughts of my date were still rolling around in my head, I called on one of the two things that makes me happy: my baking supplies. I opened my patchwork recipe book and started flipping through it, and as I did started texting the other thing that frequently makes me happy.

'So...should I try croissants?'

I flipped a few more pages and absentmindedly toyed with my cooking utensils.

“So, this date,” my dad said as he leaned against the counter and broke my train of thought. “Who was this guy?”

“Trace? Um, he's new in town. He's Coach Whitmore's step-son, I guess.”

“Was he nice? What did you talk about?”

My phone buzzed but I answered my father before I picked it up. “Yeah, he was pretty nice. Said a few things that rankled me a little, but nothing major. I mean, I guess you have to spend time with people to get comfortable, right? It's not just bam! And fall for each other instantly?” I glanced at my phone to read Jon's reply.

'Fuck French stuff.'

I snorted out a laugh and thought to myself, 'I can literally get behind that, Monsieur Ellesier'. However I texted back. 'You saying you won't eat them?'

“Well,” my father said, switching me back to his conversation. “I think relationships can start hot and burn out fast, or start slow and go on for a long time. Of course, some things start slow and never improve. Some things start fast and then mellow into something strong. There's no one set path. What does your gut tell you?”

I mulled that for a second. My phone buzzed and I glanced down. 'If you insist I can sacrifice myself'

I burst out laughing.

“Jon?” my dad asked.

I nodded and looked over at him. “Yeah. He thinks he's funny.”

“He made you laugh,” he pointed out. “Does he do that a lot?”

“Jon? Yeah. He's pretty unique.”

“So...did Jon come out and say you guys wouldn't work out?” my dad asked and then covered his mouth to mask a yawn.

I paused in turning the pages of my book. “Yeah, pretty much. I thought, maybe, I had a chance with him but...not so much.”

“I'm sorry, buddy,” he said and patted my shoulder.

“I'm dealing,” I said with a sigh. I glanced at him and said, “Not that I wouldn't do just about anything to change that situation, but I guess I'm only human, after all.”

“Jake,” he said with a shake of his head. “What do you see in this boy that's made you fall so hard?”

I let my fingers turn pages idly as I spoke in a measured tone. “He's made me stronger, more confident. He makes me laugh, and we usually have fun together.”


“Yeah,” I replied as I settled on a favorite coffee cake recipe. I began to select items I'd need almost automatically as I spoke to my dad. “We fight sometimes, disagree about stuff. It doesn't last, though. He'd be lost without me.” I rolled my eyes and laughed as I said so, and my dad joined me.

“It just seems like you have given Jon an awful lot of loyalty, and you want something from him he can't seem to give you. Are you sure that's...wise?”

I frowned and stilled my hands. I was annoyed with the question, but the very fact it annoyed me told me I should probably consider it. I replied slowly, speaking as the thoughts flowed into my head. “When we first met he scared me, a little. For a long time I was just...tired of being scared. He probably didn't want to teach me, to be honest,” I said and looked over at my dad. “In fact he did tell me he wasn't really qualified to teach.”

“Well, he's what? Seventeen or so? Not all that surprising.”

“Yeah, he's seventeen,” I confirmed needlessly. “But he doesn't have a lack of ego or anything, so if I'd been, I don't know, a girl with a nice rack he'd probably have agreed.” We both chuckled and I sighed. “So, as you know, I traded teaching my only skill so he'd teach me his skill. But the longer I spent with him...it's weird.”

“People grow on us,” my dad agreed.

“Yeah,” I said and looked back down at my supplies. Gripping the counter I said, “I give him my loyalty because he's earned it, Dad. He put in the work both in teaching me and learning from me. I think a lot of people could easily dismiss him as some spoiled rich kid—sometimes I think he does that, too. He is, by the way, a spoiled rich kid, but that's not all there is. He's got a heart worth having and a brain worth knowing. I know, maybe I'm biased because he's my first real friend, and, yeah, maybe he wouldn't have spent any time with me when I was a fat bastard—”

“Hey, none of that.”

“—but you know, I'd like to think that Jon would still have given me the chance to learn. Traded me, like we have. I mean, I was still kind of chubby when we met, but he's been really supportive and encouraging as I've made progress on goals I set.”

I turned my gaze to my dad and smiled. “He helped me achieve my goals, Dad. In my experience that's pretty damn special.”

He nodded and let his chin drop to his chest as he thought. “So this Trace guy...he worth a second date?”

“Um, yeah. I mean, I didn't fall in love or anything, but I'll go out with him again and see what happens. I mean, seriously, there is no downside. If we don't end up dating, maybe we'll be friends, but there's not a lot of guys to choose from, so I should take opportunities when they come, right?”

“Sure. Just don't lock yourself down because you think no one who fits better with you will come along.” He yawned again and said goodnight. We hugged and then I was alone in the kitchen with my baking goods.

'So, we Frenching it up tomorrow?'

I shook my head and smiled. 'You want to find out, you be here to give me a ride to school.'

'Fuck. I suppose I have to bring you coffee, too?'

'Yep. Wear that cute little skirt, too, bitch.' I giggled and I knew he was laughing as he read my message.

'Not after the last time, no way.' There was a pause of several minutes while I began making my coffee cake and then my phone buzzed again: 'Qwsdczzzx'

I shook my head. He'd fallen asleep with the stupid phone. If he rolled his face over it I could get some really weird messages. Christ, that guy falls asleep texting me so often—either I'm boring or he's faking it.


“So we're not doing French after all?” Jon mumbled as I buckled my seat belt.

“Well, as much as I'd have loved to 'do French',” I said in an uncharacteristic display of flirtation, “I decided that coffee cake would taste better with our coffee.”

He grunted.

“Well, you don't have to eat it.”

“I showed with the coffee. Gimme,” Jon said with a smile and I handed him a generous slice, wrapped in a paper towel.

We rode in companionable silence, sipping coffee and eating my coffee cake. The radio was down low, but neither of us seemed compelled to speak. There was something very domestic about our morning car rides, because they frequently went just like this morning: a low radio for background noise, a warm drink and something I'd made; we often rode with little to no conversation.

We parted at school and I reminded Jon not to wait for me after school as I had my last soccer meeting of the year. Ostensibly it was to congratulate everyone on a good season and hand out some small awards. In reality it was for getting us into an indoor league so we'd get in more practice, and I might even do it if Derek joined.

My school day passed uneventfully, and when it ended I made my way to the locker room and joined Derek on a bench.

“There's our most improved player,” Derek said with a smile.

“When you're on the bottom, no place to go but up,” I said with a grin. We bumped fists and Derek's eyes sparkled.

“So. How was your date?”

I rolled my eyes. “It was okay.”

He frowned. “Just okay?”

“Yeah. You know, we talked. Tried to get to know each other a bit without the buffer of the group. It went okay.”

Derek studied me for a moment. “Okay enough for a second date?”

“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “We didn't say when, but yeah.”

He smirked. “Was there a kiss goodnight?”

“Uh. No. Was I supposed to?” I asked in all seriousness. After all I'd never been on a date. Derek's response would have to wait as our coach called for attention and began praising the team, handing out rewards and certificates—and yes, I was awarded most improved player. Then came the sales pitch that really was for the sport of soccer. The coach was obviously passionate about the sport and handed out forms for all of us to join the indoor circuit that would start in a month's time.

It was over faster than I'd have thought, and I regretted telling Jon not to wait. There was a susurrus of white noise as guys stood and picked up their bags and filed out the door. Once in the corridor Derek fell into step beside me.

“I thought you liked Trace?”

I chuckled. “I do. He's cute and has a great butt. We just didn't fall madly in love on a first date, that's all.”

“Hm. Jon driving you home today?”

We exited the school and wandered over under a tree on the school's front lawn. “No. I told him I had this last meeting, but I wish I'd asked him to wait. I had no idea it would be such a quick meeting.”

“Yeah, the last one usually is. You going out for indoor soccer?”

“Maybe,” I said as I leaned against the tree. “Are you?”

“Yeah, definitely. You should play, too. Develop your skills for next year.”

I liked that Derek wanted me to join and I smiled at him. “Sounds like a good time.”

“So. What did Jon think of your date?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean he asked, right? You guys are like Siamese twins. I assumed he'd have said something,” Derek said with a laugh. I shook my head and chuckled.

“Yeah, Jon's my buddy,” I said. “He knew I was going, but funny... Now that you mention it, he didn't ask how it went.”

Derek tossed his backpack to the ground and sat on it, and I dropped down to the ground as well. “That's weird. I mean, we're friends, but not like you guys are and I asked. We're all dying to know, actually,” he said with a grin.

I chuckled. “Why?”

“I don't know. 'Cause you guys look cute together?”

I blushed and shook my head. “I don't know. Talking to Trace made me realize that things like this take time for me.”

“How so?”

“Just that I don't warm to people right away, I guess. I don't know.” I bit my lip and then burst forth, “Actually...I do kind of know. Um. It's Jon. See....”

“Oh. Oh, man, really?” Derek said with compassion. “Shit. Falling for a straight friend is, well, that's harsh.”

I nodded slowly. “It's funny, in a way. Hanging around with Jon sometimes feels like we're dating. It's so...easy, you know?” I glanced at him and lifted an eyebrow and he nodded, gesturing for me to continue.

“When I first met Jon I thought he was good looking, but not enough that I'd stop and stare or anything, you know?”

“Sure. There are a few nice looking guys at our school.”

“Exactly. So then Mullins tried to rob me and Jon kicked his ass six ways from Sunday, right? And I was shaking in my sneakers—you should have seen it. It was scary, way more than any movie fight, because it was so fast and it was right there, you know what I mean?”

“I've never been in a fight,” Derek said with a shake of his head. “I hope I'm never in one, either.”

“Seconded,” I said with a nod. “So anyway, I traded Jon baking lessons for fighting lessons. And somewhere along the way, as we hung out and got to know each other...I fell in love with him.”

Derek winced. “Does he know?”

I tilted my head. “I never told him I loved him, if that's what you mean,” I said. Telling him while he was asleep didn't count. “But yeah, he knows I have a crush. He thinks that's all it is, though.”

Derek bit his lip and then said, “Are you going to tell him or just, what? Wait for it to fade?”

I sighed and picked at a stray blade of grass. “Well, I think I got a rude awakening last night. Like I said, I like Trace and he's cute. But I kept comparing him to Jon. I mean, not being judgy or anything, just thinking that Jon would have done this or said that, that kind of thing. I even talked to Trace about Jon a bit, you know, like you would about your friends.”

Derek sighed. “Sounds like Trace isn't getting a fair shake.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, I was thinking that, too. But if I can't have Jon—and trust me, if I thought there was a way I'd be doing whatever it was. But failing that...I need to date and see what's out there. I figured Trace, being the only single gay guy I can think of, would be a good place to start. I don't know,” I said with a sigh. “Maybe Trace and I will grow into something.”

“Maybe,” Derek agreed. “But what will you do about Jon?”

I shrugged. “What can I do? He's my best friend, even though that doesn't cover what he really means to me, and I'm not going to drive him away or anything.”

“Yeah, but you were saying something about being friends with him was almost like dating?”

“Yeah,” I said with a smile. “It's almost what I'd picture, you know? We do everything together, and sometimes I'd swear we're only a split-second from holding hands or hugging. Sometimes I get the idea he really wants to, but then, I don't know, it's probably just my 'please be gaydar' going off.”

Derek laughed aloud and I smiled. “Please be gaydar? I love it.”

“Listen, I kissed Jon once. Pretty sure he did some kissing back. I just want some more,” I told him and chuckled.

“Well, it sort of sounds like a close friendship as opposed to romance. I hang out with the guys and feel similar things. Hey, how come you never brought Jon to hang out with us?”

I laughed aloud. “Two reasons. One is that everyone else is dating. It would look like Jon was my date, and I'm pretty sure he'd be uncomfortable with that thought floating around.”

Derek wrinkled his nose. “Is he a 'phobe?”

“Oh, no! Not at all!” I said quickly. “I mean he might feel like I was setting him up or something. Jon's brother Geoff is gay and they get along well, but...Geoff is actually the second problem.”

“How's that?” Derek asked while tilting his head.

“Well, because of Geoff, Jon has some ideas about how all gay men are. Like, he was all concerned about my date with Trace and wanted to know what I knew about him and if we would be in a public place and all. In fact he thinks all gay men are catty and cheat on each other and are promiscuous.”

“Uh. You know, I love the guys and, were I and he single, I'd be after Lucien in a heartbeat but...”

I leaned back sharply in surprise. “What about Hamster?”

Derek waved his hand. “If he weren't in the picture. But there is no way I'd make a move on anyone, not while I have Austin.”

“Oh. Well, yeah.” I paused and then blurted, “You have a thing for Lu?”

He blushed and smiled. “Yeah. Robin's always talking about what a sex god Lu is. A guy can't help but wonder.”

I shook my head in wonder and laughed, and he joined me.

“You know,” I said speculatively. “I really would like to get Jon to meet everyone. He needs to know Geoff is the exception, not the rule, and who better to show him than you guys?”

“I'd love to meet him. He always seems so...aloof, but cleverly so. Like....”


“Yeah, good word for it.”

“He's a smooth talker when he wants to be,” I said. “Which is to say after he's had his morning coffee.”

“Jesus, you do sound like a couple!” he roared with laughter.

“I know,” I whined. “If only he'd get the memo.”

“Ah well. What about Trace, then?”

“I'm going to date him a few times and see what happens. My theory is I didn't fall for Jon right away, and it's not like I can just unplug how I feel about him. So I'll see if something develops with Trace.”

Derek shook his head. “I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure how you could fall for someone when you already gave your heart away.”

I shrugged. “Well, maybe it isn't just my imagination and one of these days, right out of the blue, Jon's going to put a lip lock on me that'll curl my toes.”

“Sure. Right after he drops off...what girl is he seeing now?”

“Shut up, Derek. I liked you better a minute ago,” I told him sternly and he chuckled at me.

He opened his mouth and then glanced over at the parking lot. “Austin is here. You want a ride?”

“Sure, thanks.”

“Or do you want to wait and ride Jon? I mean get a ride from Jon? Wow, it still sounds perverse.”

I fixed him with a stern look and he started to laugh, and it wasn't but a moment later that I joined him.

As we walked I took on a speculative tone. “Would it still be considered riding if I push his face down and take him from behind? Or is there another word for that?”

Derek looked at me, and we fell against one another in laughter.


“So…” Jon asked as he filled two mugs with hot chocolate, “how’d it go?”

“How’d what go?” I replied, pretending to look confused as I took the drink. I gave it a brief sniff, just to be sure.

“Don’t worry, I left out the tequila,” Jon grinned.

“Just checking,” I took a sip. “Delicious! How-”

“Don’t change the subject,” he cut me off. “You’ve sounded different since you got back from your date with Trace last night. Spill.”

“So, you like my fag hag now?” I teased. Jon shrugged.

“Whatever. You’re going to tell me anyways.” He smirked and sipped his hot chocolate.

I followed suit, and didn’t say a word. The warm liquid almost scalded my lips, so hot I could barely taste it, and I wondered how many taste buds I had just burned off. It was worth it, though, when it traveled down my throat radiating waves of warmth through my chest. November had brought a cold front with it, and a hot drink had been just what was needed to keep out the chill.

A gust of wind tapped the bare branches against the window pane, but other than that the kitchen remained deafeningly silent. You know those times you can’t even hear yourself think, it’s so quiet? The silence is just too distracting. Jon knew this, so he just sat there with that cocky smile on his face. It was true, I was going to break sooner or later, but there was such a thing as going down fighting.

Jon took another sip, content to wait all day. I sighed.

“He’s nice…” Yeah, not much of a fight.

“Just nice?” he prodded.

“No, really. He’s a good guy. But I just…”

“Not that into him?”

I had been avoiding that phrase but it fit. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Why?” The question was simple and to the point - too much so. I wasn’t sure I had a real answer yet, or one I could put into words.

“He’s… I started to see that we’re too different. I mean, I like him but...” Jon’s eyes continued to bore into me, as if trying to peel back the layers to get at my thoughts. It was unnerving. “Stop it,” I blurted.

“Stop what?” Jon asked.

“Looking at me like that. It’s like you’re x-raying me.”

Jon smiled. “Sorry, man. I’m just trying to understand. I thought you were stoked to meet a guy in this town, with everyone else all paired up.”

“I was,” I admitted. “It’s just I’m not sure if this...works. I don’t feel we have that connection, you know?” I thought back to last night and our first date - it had been cool to hang with a guy who was actually into me and clear about his intentions for a change.

“So you’re going to end it?”

I sighed again. “I don’t know.”

“If you’re not into him, what’s stopping you?” he persisted.

“I mean, I guess that’s not totally true. Like, he’s cute, and you’re right, I do want a boyfriend. And he is nice...”

Jon chuckled. “I don’t really see a problem here. So you’re not soulmates. It’s fine. This is high school, dude, and your first relationship. You probably won’t - shouldn’t - meet ‘the one.’” Tell that to half the gay guys in this school, I thought but didn’t interrupt. “Don’t write someone off just 'cause you’re not going to spend the rest of your lives together. Do you have fun with him?”

“Yeah…” Hanging with Trace wasn’t not fun.

“Do you think he’s cute? I think you said you did.” Again, couldn’t deny this, so I made a vague affirmative noise. Jon leaned back, looking smug. “There you go. Keep him around for a bit. Cute and fun. If he feels the same way then that’s all the connection you really need. Doesn’t mean it has to be particularly deep. Just relax and enjoy the ride.” My uncertainty must have shown on my face. “Trust me, dude, it’ll be good for you,” Jon assured me.

I just nodded. His words made sense. Jon was probably right.

So why did it feel wrong?

End Part One of Two