My thanks to Cole for editing and Ryan for beta reading. The feedback was crucial in the finished product.
Breathing hard and covered in sweat I came to a stop at the end of the block. Across the street was Columbia High School, what was to be my new school in the fall. For now, in August, the building was quiet and appeared lightly occupied. I jogged across the street and started to circle the building, just to get a look at the grounds. The building didn't strike me as anything special – but for some reason the architecture alone told me it was a school; no need for a sign. Coming around to the back I found football fields and groups of players in knots spread across the practice fields.
Off on the right the soccer teams were going through their fall activities as well. I trotted around the fields, watching the groups of kids as they called to one another, kicked balls back and forth and sweated through drills. I spotted a water fountain on the side of the school building and headed for it. Once I'd had my drink I walked over to the nearby bleachers and watched one of the football squads for a moment.
“Why is it I always think this will be the time they catch him and hurt him?”
Peering to my left I saw two boys near me. They looked close to my age. One responded to what the other had just said.
“Robin, he's wearing pads and a helmet and playing football. They are supposed to try and hit him.”
“I know,” replied the dark haired boy, whom I could now identify as Robin. “But after last week, I'm just waiting for someone to hit him him extra hard and put a tombstone over him.”
“He said he worked it out. Look, babe, it could have been worse,” the other boy said. “It was only a matter of time before Jamie's mouth ran into something that was going to make him pay. At least he seems to have learned something from it.”
“You're right, I know. When I saw Sean's eye...ugh.”
“He's fine too. I know, he seems nice, but they'll have to work some of that stuff out on their own.”
I looked at them curiously. In this small town, how likely was it that I'd stumble so quickly on a set of boyfriends? Not only that, a set who talked openly, just like other people. I felt encouraged by this move, now. Glancing at the field I saw a player catch the ball, turn and get tackled – hard. In my peripheral vision I saw Robin was on his feet, being held back by his boyfriend's hand.
“He's fine. Look at him,” the other said, and then mumbled.
“Did you just cheer for the guy that tackled him?” Robin asked, laughing and hitting his boyfriend.
I grinned. Overprotective older brother, I assumed. I stretched and turned away from the fields, back to wandering. On arriving in this town I'd not been very interested. Hard as it was to believe, my dad had a very good job opportunity in town and we were here to see if he could make it work.
We were from another smallish town and when my parents marriage broke down, my dad couldn't keep his business. He'd been part owner of an independent grocery store and, to afford certain terms of the divorce, he'd had to sell his interest in the store. Of course, his partner was the man who was now sleeping with my mother. Anyway, my dad heard through the grapevine that a small chain market in Sanitaria Springs was looking for a manager – but the right someone. So, here we were, while Dad was on a three month trial.
We had a nice apartment downtown. It looked like it had been a whole house at one time, but now it was a two-family and we lived upstairs. The floors were hardwood and it had tin ceilings with really pretty wood railings and wainscoting. The bedrooms were small, not what I had before the divorce, but it was enough. Plus, if things worked out, maybe there'd be a nice old Victorian in our future.
The thing I liked about the idea of a Victorian was the many rooms it came with so I could have some space from my sister. Even though we got along the vast majority of the time, we were still siblings and neither one of us was happy with our situation. She was shuttling back and forth to visit our mother, whom I wasn't speaking to. My sister, Chloe, was due back in a few days and until then I was on my own.
I'd spent the time running, electing not to join the soccer team because I didn't want to make friends or feel like I was part of a team and then have to leave. At the same time, there was little to do at home. I could sit inside and text my old friends, but that only went so far in terms of entertainment. I also realized, unhappily, that I was already getting disconnected from everyone.
It wasn't intentional, I just wasn't there. I couldn't talk about the last dance or that great birthday party or go hang out with everyone at the lake. It just sucked. So, I ran. I explored the town because, as my dad said, 'it's too small to get lost in'.
That wasn't entirely true – once you left the town proper you were in cow country. Lots of ways to get lost. I turned back down my street and jogged up to my stoop, my chest heaving and my legs trembling from the exercise. I mounted the steps to the house and took the key from around my neck. I let myself in and climbed the stairs to the second floor. After a shower and checking my phone I sat down to play some video games – but as I played I thought about the guys I'd seen. Would there be anyone for me?
Before I could spend much time in speculation our doorbell sounded. I went down the stairs to find our neighbor, Mrs. Abramowitz, waiting at the bottom.
“Derek, sweetie, are your lights on?” she asked. She was a nice lady who lived alone. She'd clucked about how nice it would be to have men in the house – I'd quickly realized this was because she needed some things sometimes and it was easy to call on us. I didn't feel all that gracious towards her requests, small though they were.
“Yeah, Mrs. Abramowitz, they are. I was just playing some games. What's up?”
“Oh, sweetie, mine are out – at least in the kitchen. A breaker must have tripped. Would you go into the basement and reset it for me?”
“Oh, thank you,” she said and turned for the door of her apartment. She talked about how she couldn't go down into the basement, not alone, in case she fell and things like that. Her apartment smelled odd, something I couldn't identify. Her furniture was flowery and the same woodwork that adorned the upstairs was present here as well. In the kitchen she opened a door and then made a fuss about trying to find me a flashlight, but I used the app on my phone and headed down the stairs.
“Turn right at the bottom of the stairs, the electric box is right under the stairs,” she called.
“Okay,” I replied. Once at the bottom I was seized by a case of the creeps. The basement was unfinished, of course, but the walls were rock. I mean, honest to goodness, they'd dug a hole in the rock and put a house over it. Dust motes floated through the air and I moved slowly, not wanting to kick up more dust and not wanting to upset the local mouse colony I was sure had to be here.
Under the stairs I found the electric box and it opened with a metallic squeak. I identified which breaker was tripped and reset it, hearing my neighbor clap her hands in approval. Then the basement was filled with the light of a couple of naked bulbs – there must have been a switch up by the top of the stairs on the same circuit as the kitchen.
I mounted the stairs to a hero's welcome and the insistence I stay for a cup of tea. She wouldn't take no for an answer so I reluctantly took a seat at her kitchen table while she bustled to put the kettle on the stove.
“I do love a good cup of tea. Do you enjoy it?”
“I haven't really had much of it,” I replied.
“Oh, well I'll try and pick out something you'd like. It's just nice to have a hot cup and chat. You know,” she said with a smile. “It's always nice to sit down with friends and just catch up.”
I smiled uncertainly as she placed cups and saucers on the table and a small creamer and sugar set. She then seated herself to wait for the kettle to scream and smiled at me.
“I know it has to be a pain in the butt for you to come down and help an old biddy, even more to sit and take tea with her but I appreciate you being polite enough to indulge me.”
“It's okay,” she waved at the air and smiled. “I was young once. I know how it feels to have something – anything – you'd rather do than be trapped with some boring old person. It's a sign of your good manners that you bear it so graciously.”
“I'm not sure what to say,” I replied honestly.
“Yes, I've put you in quite the pickle, haven't I? Tell the old gal a white lie and say you love visiting – because you know that means I'll expect visits, then. Or hold your tongue about my discomfiture and escape when I can. Well,” she smiled, “don't you worry. I'll do my best not to drag you down here too often – though it does get dreadfully lonely, sometimes.”
“Don't...I mean, do you have anyone that visits?”
“My children are grown with lives of their own. They are good about remembering to call every so often, but it gets tedious with no one to talk to. I know, we may not have very much in common, but it's been years since I've had a handsome young man in my home – so there's always that.”
I smiled, since this was something I'd been hearing from my mother's friends since I was a little boy. I knew it was a polite thing to say, a throwaway compliment, and I accepted it as such.
“So your father is trying to turn around the old IGA; at least that's the rumor,” she said.
“Yes, ma'am. He used to own the grocery store in our old town so he has some experience.”
“He seems like a competent man. Will you be working at the store as well?”
“Once he's passed his evaluation period, then I'd say so. He said it doesn't look good to be the new guy and hire your kid,” I pushed a stray hair from my face and continued. “When he owned the store there were different laws too, I guess, about working for a family business.”
“Of course, yes. My father ran a dry cleaner's and I used to work the counter after school and on weekends. I know just what you mean,” she said, nodding. The kettle began to whine and she stood to retrieve it. By the time she'd switched off the heat the kettle was screaming. She brought it to the table and poured the water into each cup and I watched the tea bag float in the scalding water. She set the kettle on a trivet and picked up the conversation.
“Your father seems like such a nice man, I do hope it works out for him. Will you stay in this house if he gets the job, do you think?”
“I don't know,” I told her honestly. “Dad doesn't talk about the finances with me. I hope we can have a house and maybe get a dog someday.”
The conversation continued on in this vein and I found that I didn't mind talking with her and the tea wasn't bad. It sure beat staring at my phone and missing my old friends.
“First day of tenth grade, are you excited?” my dad asked as he cooked omelets at the stove. “Chloe! Breakfast!”
“Yeah, kind of,” I replied.
“Onions? Green peppers?” he asked.
“Please.” I hung my back pack off the chair, poured a cup of coffee and accepted a plate from him. “Thanks, dad.”
“Eat up, buddy.”
“I'm here, I'm here,” Chloe said, tossing her bag on the floor next to her chair. Dad added ingredients to make her food and she turned her attention to me as she tied back her long chestnut hair.
“How do my tits look with this new bra?”
A mere mortal might have choked on their food at such a question, but I had years of training. I looked at her critically before making a decision.
“The only way to get more attention is put nozzles on your nipples and use them to hose people down.”
She stopped fiddling with her hair to stare at me. “Vivid.”
“You're asking me for advice on your boobs. What did you expect?”
“If you were straight, a decent opinion.”
“Okay,” I said as I set my fork down. “Let's think about that for a second. Asking your brother for advice about your boobs is bad enough but wishing I was straight? If I was, would I be into incest too for the sake of having an opinion you'd want?”
“Hey, stop talking about your sister like that,” Dad said. I rolled my eyes.
Dad can't cook anything but breakfast foods, but thankfully he does those very well. I know my friends were used to cereal for breakfast but my dad cooked every weekday morning. He sat down across from me minutes later and tucked into his own breakfast.
“Chloe, you still dating that boy?” Dad asked.
“No, I told him a long - distance thing wasn't going to work,” she said, starting to eat.
“You're going to see Mom almost every weekend,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but it wasn't really a good relationship anyway. Hey, did I tell you how I broke up with him?”
“No,” I said, covering my eyes. My sister is particularly cruel about break ups.
“I gave him a sock and told him he was a free elf.”
“Huh?” My father looked to me for clarification.
“Harry Potter, Dad. You give those ugly house elves clothing to set them free – Dobby got a sock.” I told him.
“How're things at the store?” I asked, changing the subject.
“So far, so good. They do things a little differently, of course, but I'm bringing some changes to the day-to-day operations that I hope will make things better. There is a big difference in running a big chain store and being a local grocer, where you know your customers. Some of these employees seem to think they work for a national chain and don't have to be nice to folks.”
“So I'll be working there soon?”
“If things keep going well. Miss it?” he grinned.
“I miss having a few bucks in my pocket,” I admitted. “I don't know anyone so it'd break up the boredom.”
“Yeah,” he said, putting down his fork. “Guys, I know this hasn't been an easy time for us.”
“It's okay, Dad. You don't have to go into it again,” I replied.
“Please don't, Mom does it every time I see her,” Chloe pleaded.
“I...I just want you to know I'm doing my best and I hope it gets better for all of us. I like this town; I hope we can put down some roots.”
“I know, Dad. I'm cool, really.”
We hit the sidewalk and sat on my front steps to wait for the bus. Dad had been like this since my folks had separated, I reflected, and it always left me feeling bad. I wanted to be supportive and not be a pain and I was trying not to be a jerk. Things would have been worse if I'd ended up with my mom and her new boyfriend – awkward doesn't even describe it. I have to assume my sister spends all her time away from them when she visits.
Duane, her new man and my dad's former partner, used to be an okay sort. It was hard to deal with him, though, knowing he'd been sleeping with my mom while slapping me on the back and calling me 'sport' at the store. He had a daughter from a previous marriage, and we'd always gotten along but it was all very awkward now.
Then there was my mom. I was pretty angry with her and didn't understand why she'd broken up our home. Neither of my parents could give me much of an answer on that, but the divorce had been acrimonious and Dad had lost a lot. My mom didn't even seek custody of me. My dad, on the other hand, talked to me like I was a person with feelings through this whole thing.
I was old enough, as well, to make my own choice about which parent to live with. So when the judge asked, I told him I wanted to live with my dad. That was when my mother opened her mouth and called me all kinds of names. My sister, by contrast, said she wanted to see them both. Ironically, Duane was in a bad financial way and had lost his house, so he and mom were in a two bedroom apartment and couldn't have either of us full time, anyway. That, in a nutshell, was what happened to my old life.
We rode the bus and arrived at school with no problems. I hung around by myself and tried to spot the gay couple I'd seen over the summer. I was curious how other people treated them and if they were as open at school as they had been on the bleachers. As my eyes wandered I took in all the new faces and wondered if I'd fit in here. Once inside I made my way to my homeroom, disappointed to have not seen the couple. I liked the idea of members of my own species being visible and accepted here.
I drifted through the day, meeting new teachers and not really making friends, yet. At lunch I decided to eat outside and I was pretty happy when I spotted my guys. Their table wasn't full yet, so I decided to play dumb and wandered over to where they were sitting.
“Hi,” I said to the seated group. “I'm new at school and trying to avoid looking like a loser with no friends to sit with. Can you guys help a fellow out?”
They broke into chuckles and one girl waved me to a seat, “We can do our part to help out the less fortunate. I'm Sophie, this is my boyfriend Gavin. Those lovebirds are Lucien and Robin and that sweet thing is Hamster.”
“What about me?” a boy asked.
“Oh, no one could forget about you, mouth,” she laughed. He scowled.
“You know what?” he said, but was unable to finish his thought as several people said 'bleep!' all at once and then laughed.
“Hey! That's not fair! I didn't even say anything yet!” the kid protested.
“That's what you call a pre emptive strike,” Sophie laughed.
“No,” the boy shook his head, “that's profiling and profiling is wrong.”
Sophie grinned at him and then looked at me, “This is Jamie, one of Robin's brothers.”
She named a few more people, but I'd already learned my guys' names and was pleased they greeted me with smiles. I made a mental note to ask what the whole 'bleep' thing was about. There was some chatter, typical new kid questions, and I was pleased that my guys took some interest in chatting with me. I was enjoying, also, just watching them. It was so alien to me to see two guys who were so clearly a couple and yet so open about it like it didn't matter – and, actually, it didn't seem to.
“Hey. Derek. No staring at my boyfriend, he's mine,” Lucien scolded me.
“I...” I blushed. “I wasn't meaning to. I'm just enjoying that you guys are like, out and no one is paying it any attention.”
“Trust me, they pay each other enough attention,” Hamster laughed.
“That's not what I meant,” I chuckled.
“Don't worry, Derek, he says that to everyone,” Robin said, smiling indulgently at Lucien. “He thinks everyone is secretly after me.”
“Jealous?” I asked.
“You have no idea,” Hamster laughed.
“Hey!” Lucien reached around Robin to give Hamster a playful push.
“What's next on your class list? Mind if I see your schedule?” The guy who'd been identified as Gavin asked. I dug out my schedule and handed it to him. He spread it flat on the table and people were taking glances, comparing it to their own.
“You and I have the next one and you'll see Hamster in the next two after that. Looks like Lucien is in your last class,” Gavin said as he glanced around at the other schedules.
“I'm the only one you probably won't have a class with,” Robin said. “I'm a year ahead. My boyfriend is taking double the classes to graduate with me, though.”
“Really? Wow.” They must have something pretty special for that kind of work.
“Yeah,” Lucien said. “We're going to be doing a homework group at night, so if you want to join in...”
“Oh, thanks, I appreciate that,” I replied. I was getting a decidedly good vibe from this group and was pleased with myself for taking the risk to try and sit with them. Once the period ended I walked with Gavin to the next class.
“So, listen,” Gavin said. “You're gay, right?”
“I thought so, from what you said about Robin and Lucien. You know, enjoying that they were open?”
“Yeah,” I said again. I'd said it intentionally, since the table seemed so accepting. I'd felt a thrill at saying it – a streak of fear and excitement – and had mixed feelings that no one had commented on that.
“Look, I'm not trying to pry. My girl, Sophie? She's always telling me I need to learn stuff from gay guys – so I'm hoping you can help me out. You know, before you get a boyfriend and are always busy.”
“Uh,” I felt my face contorting into a confused smile. “Help you with what, exactly?”
“You know. Being sensitive, paying attention to other people's feelings. She told me if it wasn't for Robin and Lucien dating each other, well,” he licked his lips. “She was angling for one of them before me. Please?”
“Gavin, just because I'm gay doesn't mean I'm some kind of authority...”
“Sophie says it doesn't get much worse than me. Please?”
I laughed and Gavin grinned at me. “I don't know, man. What's the problem, anyway?”
“I got a long history,” Gavin explained as we sat down. “Last year? I thought she'd think it was sexy if I gave her these candies?”
“Romantic maybe,” I allowed.
“No, sexy, see? They were shaped like little cock's and balls.”
I burst out laughing. Gavin looked confused and I brought my giggles under control.
“I'm sorry. But why,” I snorted, “why would you think that was a good idea?”
“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, girls like candy, right? Why not spice it up a little?” Gavin reasoned.
“Okay, girls like candy as a special gesture – something romantic. Penis candy isn't romantic. What it says to her is you want to see her with a penis in her mouth.”
“Well...oh. Yeah, okay. 'Cause, I mean, I do – but maybe that's not the way to get there,” he said, slumping in his seat. “Nobody would just say that, though! They just keep telling me I'm a dumbass.”
“Why didn't you ask Robin or Lucien? You all seem to be friends.” I asked him, wisely not agreeing with 'their' observation.
“Yeah, I did once. I mean, they are masters of sappy shit. They do all kinds of crap like pass notes and leave each other presents. It's enough to make a guy throw up how much they do stuff like that,” he scoffed.
“Well, what happened? You said you asked them once?”
“Their suggestions – they just ain't me, you know? I like Sophie a lot, but I'm not going to drop notes in her locker like some lovesick third grader.”
“But aren't you kind of...love sick?”
“Well, yeah. But in a more manly way.”
“Oh. Right,” I smiled. The teacher brought the class to order and we set about the business of learning, somewhat. Being the first day, there wasn't a great deal to cover and we were turned relatively loose afterward. Gavin was engaged with other people he knew in the class, which was fine with me. I tried to think about Gavin's problem, a little, but the fact was that he was treating me like a stereotype undermined that. I'm not an accessory to straight relationships and I don't have any innate ability to know what the right thing to say or do in any relationship is. All I really was, I thought, was a guy who was in a place where he could finally get a chance to experience some of those things for himself.
I entered the next class and spotted Hamster sitting by himself and reading a book. If there was someone who didn't fit a stereotype it was him. He was kind of built, though not overly so – like he didn't cross over in to Hulk territory – and yet he was focused completely on a paperback. I walked over and dropped into the seat next to him and coughed.
He hadn't heard me. I smiled as I watched him, his brow furrowed as his eyes moved back and forth, taking in the words on the page. He had short hair, but it looked soft and fuzzy, and I wondered if that was why they called him Hamster. I watched as he turned the page, consumed by the novel. I leaned forward to try and get a glimpse of the cover, but something in my movement caught his attention and he finally noticed me.
“Oh, hey,” he said with a smile.
“Hi,” I returned the smile. “I still don't know anyone so I hope you don't mind I horned in on the seat next to you.”
“No, not at all,” he said easily and placed a book mark on the page and closed the book. “Looks like you picked the right table to sit at for lunch, anyway. You know someone in all your afternoon classes at least.”
“Yeah,” I replied a little guiltily. “But I picked the table because I'd already seen Lucien and Robin as a couple. It was cool so I wanted an excuse to get to know them.”
“Oh,” Hamster smiled. “Pretty slick. I thought that came off pretty natural the way you asked to sit – did you plan it out?”
“Totally off the cuff,” I said confidently then laughed.
“Well, you won't have any problems getting to know Robin and Lu. They love everyone – it's disgusting,” Hamster said with a grin.
“Gavin said something last class about them being kind of...”
“Mushy? Corny? So sweet you feel sick? Yeah, that's them,” Hamster snickered.
“Oh, they're that couple, huh?”
“Well,” he put a hand up, “they don't go around and use a ton of stupid pet names or anything – thank God!”
“Oh. Okay. What do they do, then?”
“Little presents, surprises. I'm not sure which one of them is worse – actually,” Hamster smiled. “Robin is the worst one with gifts. Lu is worse about PDA.”
“Not bad problems to have,” I observed.
“Yeah, I guess. I'd rather have someone slip me books than paper hearts,” he chuckled. We were interrupted as the teacher actually wanted to take attendance and all that. After going over some basics we were allowed to talk amongst ourselves.
“So, what else do you want to know about Lu and Robin?” Hamster asked. “I can tell you their relationship is solid, they're great guys and you couldn't ask for better friends.”
“That's a mouthful,” I observed.
“Well,” he said with a shrug, “I'm their best friend so...”
“Wait, your each of their best friend?” I asked in confusion.
“Yeah,” he bobbed his head. “I know, it's weird. They both insist and it's just not worth it to argue. Besides, my brother – well technically my cousin – is away at college. Two best friends is better than none.”
“Hang on – how do you get a brother that's your cousin?” I asked with a chuckle.
“Well, I had to move in with them. Chase, my cousin, wanted to be a big brother and he started acting like one as soon as I got there. I figure it's what he wants and he's earned it,” Hamster shrugged. “He's pretty great as a big brother, though.”
“That sounds,” I furrowed my brow and smiled, “oddly cool.”
“Yeah. So, how about you?”
“I'm sixteen, my folks got divorced and my sister and I moved here with my dad. He's on trial to manage the IGA,” I told him.
“How old's your sister?”
“Seventeen - she's a year ahead of me.”
“Having a sister must be weird.”
“It's messy,” I told him. “She looks all put together when she leaves the house but places like the bathroom are total wrecks. Bottles and brushes – don't get me started on her earrings.”
“Now I have to know, what about the earrings?” Hamster asked, planting his elbow on the desk and holding his head up with his hand.
“Oh, dude,” I shook my head. “She's always buying cheap sets – she has a billion earrings. Once I was going to get in the shower, right? So I stepped right on one of her earrings – with the post facing up.”
“Oh,” Hamster said with a wince.
“Yeah. Drove it right up into my heel. I could feel it, like, pushing at the skin 'cause it's thick there, right? Then it just popped through. It was even worse having to pull the thing out!”
“Okay, you win,” Hamster laughed. “Chase makes a mess in the bathroom with all his 'product', but he doesn't have any earrings.”
We shared a few more details about our families before the period ended and we went on to our next class. We'd barely found places to sit before the teacher started in, but as before, there wasn't much to do for about half the class. I turned to Hamster and resumed our conversation.
“So, hey, I have two questions – what was up with people 'bleeping' that kid at lunch? And why do they call you Hamster?”
“My last name is Hamilton, everyone just calls me Hamster,” he replied.
“What's your actual name?”
“Huh. I think I like Austin better.”
“I respond either way,” he said with a shrug. “The bleeping, that's all Jamie's own fault.”
“Oh, that was his name, Jamie,” I said with a snap of my fingers.
“Yeah. Trust me, you won't forget it. I won't say Jamie's a bad kid, he's not, but he's kind of in your face. But this bleep thing? It's because he got his brother punched out and he's trying to get better about his mouth.”
“How...I don't even begin to know how to ask you the circumstances!”
“It's not as complicated as I made it sound,” he grinned. “Jamie and his brother, Sean, are on the freshy football team. Jamie was running his mouth pretty hard at some guy for the defense that he'd burnt a couple times. Well, the kid saw Sean in the parking lot and thought he was Jamie – he popped him one.”
“Ouch,” I replied.
“Yeah. To make it worse, Sean's a nice, quiet kid. Jamie felt pretty guilty about that – I think he's gone all soft over having a brother his age.”
“Sean just got to their house, lives with them now,” Austin shrugged. “He's a nice kid, the little I know of him.”
“Oh. Um, so now you guys say bleep to Jamie when he's going to...”
“Sound like an asshole, yeah.”
“It's hilarious,” Austin laughed. “The kid can be so inappropriate – and when he said stuff in front of his parents, man, I was ducking! If I'd said anything like what he did in front of my mom? I'd have been checking for loose teeth!”
“Wow, that bad?”
“Well...” He rolled his eyes. “I don't think he thought about it all that much to be honest. But now that his mouth got him grounded and got his brother hurt? I guess he's making the effort.”
“Huh,” I said. “When you said his brother got hit, I thought you meant Robin.”
“Nah, if someone hit Robin he'd probably break into sugar cubes.”
“Was that your way of saying he's a sweet guy?” I laughed.
“Sort of,” he grinned. “But I almost think it would have been worse if Robin had gotten hurt. There's an older brother, Kale? He dates my brother, by the way. Anyway, I'm pretty sure Jamie would have heard it pretty bad from him if Robin had gotten hurt.”
“You know, it's funny,” I said to him, relating the conversation I'd overheard between Robin and Lu a few weeks ago – where Robin had been concerned about Jamie getting hit on the field. “I remember thinking that Robin sounded overprotective.”
“That's just them. Actually, it's all of us, it's just easiest to see in the Kirkwoods. But there's a whole group of us that look out for each other. It's like having family.”
“Hm. If I get into that family, can I leave my sister out of it?” I grinned.
“Probably not,” Austin laughed. “They seem to take everyone in. I mean, not to bag on the kid, but if Jamie hadn't had two brothers in the group?” He just shook his head.
“I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I think he just needed to do some growing up is all.”
We chatted a little bit more and the class came to an end – but I scored his number and I counted that a plus. I made my way to my last class and spotted Lucien. I ambled over to him and he grinned as I took a seat.
“Hi, Derek. How's it going so far?”
“Good, good,” I said as I took a seat. “Gavin wants me to make him more sensitive and save his relationship.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Lu laughed. “He asked Robin and me the same thing – but he wants to be all macho about it. Such a dork.”
“I was a little put out that he thought, you know, just because I'm gay I could solve all his problems.”
“Yeah. Gavin isn't anywhere near as bad as his little brother, Phil. Talk about two guys that were raised in caves!”
“I...don't know what to say to that,” I laughed.
“Did Hamster tell you all bout how Robin and I are so sicky sweet and shit?”
“He, uh, may have mentioned something,” I grinned.
“I tell you. The Hamster needs to get back in the dating game. He wasn't so critical when he was getting some,” Lu laughed.
I wondered if I should ask which team Austin played for, but decided it was a little early for that. After all, if I didn't want to join the soccer team in case I'd leave, why try to start a romance? Of course, the counter argument to that was that I should take a chance once it presented itself – who knew how long it might take to find someone else?
“Hey, you're not crushing on my best friend, are you?” Lu asked.
“On the first day of school? Hardly,” I said, trying to play it cool. “Besides, why would you ask that?”
“Well, let's see. I mention he needs to date and you clam up. You had no problem talking before that.”
“Oh. Well, I was just...”
“Yeah, yeah. It's okay – even if you were head over heels Hamster takes things at his own pace. So since you've gotten details on us, thanks to my best friend, what about you? What's your story?”
So I filled him in between the teacher taking attendance and discussing what we'd be learning. By the end of the school day I felt pretty good about this school – and I got Lu's number with an invite to hang out with them. I thought he and Robin made a nice looking couple and I was filled with hope after spending the day with their friends.
Well, except Gavin. Maybe.
The week cruised by and I got more and more comfortable with my new friends. I had decided not to worry about whether my dad got the job permanently or not – that was out of my control. Doing that allowed me the freedom to make friends, to relax and enjoy whatever this was for as long as I could. Through the course of conversation I found out that I had just missed meeting some out guys to hang around with as they had graduated and were away at college. I hadn't yet had the conversation about any other out guys who might be available, but I was hopeful.
In the meantime, I continued to enjoy being around Robin and Lucien and their openness. Just seeing them being treated like anyone else – any other lovesick couple, that is – was incredibly empowering. They got teased for the silly things they did and gave it right back. I was afraid I was falling in love with their relationship, silly as that sounds.
By Thursday my sister had started dating, some guy named Brian. Thursday was more remarkable because we got hit with our first heavy wave of homework and my phone was buzzing with an invitation to do homework with a group at Lucien's after dinner. I'd never tried to get homework done as a group, but I was more than looking forward to spending time outside the school with my new friends and being invited felt like I hadn't been wrong in thinking things were going well.
My dad had worked the morning and was home by the time I got off the school bus, so I approached him right way about tonight.
“I don't know. How much homework do you have?” he asked.
“A decent amount,” I admitted. “Probably half my classes assigned work. I know I've never tried doing homework with someone else but I'd like to try. Plus, I think it's going to be an actual homework group.”
“Well...I'll let you try it this time and see how it goes. Show me what you have so I can check it when you get back.”
I was showing my father my agenda with the assignments when my sister arrived at home, after having been driven by her boyfriend.
She introduced him and I was sort of impressed. He seemed polite and he was attractive in a wholesome way. I could see him working in fields with his family on the farm or something; he just had that country boy look about him.
Once he left I went to get cleaned up before dinner, and it wasn't lost on anyone that I was acting like this was a date. I defended this by saying it was my first time going to one of their homes and I wanted to make a good impression.
“There are a lot of gay guys in this town,” Chloe said at dinner. “I heard there was, like, four of them that graduated and a few more still going to the school.”
“My friends Robin and Lucien are boyfriends,” I supplied.
“You found your tribe,” she joked.
“I did. They're cool,” I said, nodding. “I made friends with them and their friend Austin and there's Sophie and her boyfriend Gavin.”
“Who is going to be there tonight?” my dad asked.
“It's at Lucien's house and Robin and Austin will be there, too,” I supplied. “I texted Robin our address - he's going to pick Austin and me up.”
“I'd like to meet this boy before you go getting in a car with him,” Dad said.
After dinner I put my agenda back into my bag and double checked to be sure I had things to write with and wasn't missing anything important. I was pacing in my room as I waited for Robin to arrive and I kept checking my phone even though it hadn't announced an incoming message. I practically ran to the front door when our door bell went off, taking the stairs two at a time to the grand front doors of the house – ornate carved wood with enormous, thick beveled glass set into them.
“Hi!” I greeted Robin as I opened the door.
“Hi, Derek,” he said with a sunny smile.
“Come on in. My dad wants to meet you,” I said, standing aside and letting him step in. He followed me up the stairs, which squeaked and groaned like old wooden stairs are wont to, and back into our apartment. I paused outside the door and pointed to the pile of shoes.
“Do you mind leaving your shoes here?”
“No problem,” Robin said, toeing off his sneakers. He had on some colorful socks that I knew were expensive – lots of the guys wore them. I'd asked for them once but Dad had choked on the price tag.
“Dad, Chloe this is Robin,” I said. “Robin, my sister Chloe and my dad.”
“Hi,” Robin said, extending his hand and shaking my dad's. “I'm Robin Kirkwood.” He repeated the hand shake with my sister who raised an eyebrow at me.
“Nice to meet you, Robin,” my sister said, dragging out the phrase.
“Chloe? I did tell you he was dating Lucien?”
“Doesn't mean he can't be appreciated,” Chloe laughed.
“Chloe,” my dad said in a warning tone. “Don't embarrass your brother.”
“But Dad,” she said dramatically, “ I live for that!” She laughed and patted Robin on the arm before retreating to the couch in the living room.
“Robin, what's the address you'll be studying at?” my dad asked, emphasizing the word 'study'.
“I can text it to you, would that be good? And don't worry Mr...?”
“Mr. Pellegrini,” Robin smiled again. “My boyfriend doubled up on his classes to graduate with me a year ahead of schedule. We really will be getting homework done.”
“That's...impressive,” my dad said. The look he flashed me was one of approval.
Once Robin had provided the address I gave him a short tour of the apartment on the way to my room, so I could retrieve my bag.
“This is pretty well organized,” Robin commented as he stood in the doorway of my room.
“Well, it's smaller than I'm used to. A lot of our stuff is in storage,” I explained. I grabbed my bag and we headed back to the door. With a wave to my dad we were on the landing and putting our shoes on.
“Are those socks really worth it?” I asked, pointing to his feet.
Robin shrugged. “They're socks. To be honest, I just wear the clothes my mom brings home for me. Unless Lucien tells me he likes me in certain clothes or colors, I usually don't pay a lot of attention.”
“That's completely against stereotype, you know. You may have to turn in your gay card,” I laughed and we trotted down the stairs.
“Well,” Robin said as he hit the sidewalk, “I don't spend much time thinking about my orientation – I'm kind of fluid, I guess. I just love a boy and I don't really question what that makes me other than being Lucien's boyfriend.”
He unlocked the car, a little VW hatchback, and I tossed my bag in the back seat before joining him.
“So, you don't find other guys attractive?” I asked.
“I do,” he said demurely. “But I also find girls attractive. The difference is how Lucien makes me feel, which is something no one else can do.”
“How...ugh, I'm sorry,” I laughed nervously. “You guys are the first gay couple I've met and I'm bursting with questions.”
“That's okay,” he said with a crooked smile. “I think we're pretty open. But, honestly, our older brothers could probably answer questions better since they do identify as gay – Lucien too, for that matter.”
“Actually, I'm more interested in you guys. You're relationship seems kind of perfect.”
“It is, kind of,” Robin laughed. He stopped for a light and put his blinker on. “I mean, we fight sometimes but not for long and never over anything serious. When we got together – officially got together – we didn't want any secrets, even if they weren't nice or happy things.”
“I have a hard time picturing you guys fighting,” I admitted.
He pulled through the intersection and accelerated down the street before answering. “It's usually me, to be honest. When it comes to Lucien,” he sighed, “I can be pretty unreasonable.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, before he and I got together I had my moments, you know, getting in trouble. Nothing major, I don't think, but I got into my fair share. Once Lucien and I got together, though...” he moved his lips around as he thought of how he wanted to express himself. “Let me put it to you this way. My mom? Not someone you want to defy. But I've been more defiant with her over Lucien than about anything else, ever.”
“So, wait,” I said with a grin. “You don't actually fight with Lucien, you fight with your mom about him?”
“Sort of,” he laughed. “But then Lucien and I argue about my being stubborn. It really is a complete argument!”
“Like what? Give me a for instance.”
“Oh, okay. Well, my cousins are getting married in Lake George.” He turned to glance at me as he said, “that's a touristy place up in the Adirondacks.”
“Well, it's going to be over a weekend and everyone is supposed to stay up there. I'm digging in my heels because it'll be a weekend without Lucien.”
“I'll bet your mom loves that!” I laughed.
“She has no sympathy,” Robin confirmed. “But I told her I didn't want to go without him. We never even see these cousins! They don't care if I show up!”
We were both laughing. “So what happened?”
“Well, I was careful not to say I wouldn't go – because as soon as you tell my mom 'no', it's a whole new level of trouble. So she tries being reasonable and tells me things that make sense – like that matters when it comes to Lucien, you know? She starts telling me how he wasn't invited and there's a cost for every person that comes.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“Hey, you're either for me or against me, here,” Robin said, jabbing a finger at me with a grin. “So I told her, Lucien and I will shovel this winter and repay the money to make up the for the difference.”
“Wait, when is this wedding?”
“You're fighting about it now?” I said with a laugh.
“Well, yeah!” he said, grinning. “I need all the time I can get before I have to refuse to go. I know, once I say that, it's going to get bad.”
“But...why? It's only a few days.”
“I know, it's seems silly. But, to put it in perspective, he and I don't want to be separated so badly that he's trying to graduate a year early.” We pulled into the long driveway of a stately home and Robin tapped the horn. He glanced at me and smiled, shyly.
“Since you're asking about us, though, well, you've seen us together – how Lucien is always giving me little touches?”
“Before him, I never needed that. But now, it's something that gives me confidence and...I don't know, I don't really have the words to express it. My older brother, Kale? He was my first friend and my oldest teacher – he was the guy I made mistakes with and who taught me that if I hit him over the head with a plastic baseball bat, he'd take it and hit me back!”
We chuckled and Robin looked down to his hands, which were folded in his lap as we waited, presumably for Austin, to join us.
“I used to talk things over with Kale and, it used to be, I felt like I knew what to do after that. But the confidence I have from Lucien...nothing really comes close to what he gives me.”
The front door opened and Austin stepped out awkwardly. He turned to close the door and was trying to mash his foot into a sneaker when one of his books tumbled from his school bag. I imagined I could hear him grunt as he knelt down to deal with the shoe and the escaped text book.
“Robin, how come you always call him Lucien? I've heard Austin call him Lu, but you never shorten it.”
“That's funny you noticed,” Robin smiled shyly again. “I say it because he likes it. I like making him happy.”
I opened the door then, stepping out to let Austin in. He greeted me and jumped into the back seat and I resumed my spot.
“Can you believe neither one of them believed me that we were going to do homework?” Austin asked. “They wanted to see a list of what I had to do so they could check it afterward. I swear, they don't trust me at all.”
I twisted in my seat to grin at him. “Don't feel bad, my dad did the same thing. I'm honestly shocked he let me come.”
“Really?” Austin asked. “I figured they were just being suspicious of me.”
“Isn't that better, now?” Robin asked as we headed back the way we'd come.
“It comes and goes,” Austin said. “I get along better with Uncle George – at least we have books in common. But now, with Chase at school? My aunt keeps looking at me funny.”
“That sounds uncomfortable. Does Chase know?”
“No, and you're not going to tell him or Kale,” Austin said firmly. “I can handle them.”
I glanced back and forth between them curiously. Robin gave me a crooked grin and said, “Chase would be back from school in a few hours if he knew his parents weren't being decent to Hamster. He's Chase's biggest weakness.”
“Oh, stop it!” Austin grumbled.
“He gets embarrassed when anyone mentions it,” Robin stage whispered and Austin kicked the back of his seat.
“He has enough to deal with between school and your randy brother,” Austin grumped.
“Uh, Hamster, they like to have sex with each other – it's not all one way,” Robin laughed.
“Yeah, but the rest of it? I bet that was all Kale. He's like the librarian that looks all straight laced but has on crotchless undies under that sensible skirt and frumpy sweater.”
There was a few seconds of confused looks exchanged between us before we were all laughing. “What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“Our older brothers decided to have a freaking orgy. I'm telling you,” Austin pointed at me. “It wasn't Chase's idea!”
“He was naked in bed with three other guys. I think he approved,” Robin giggled.
“What?” I asked, shocked and titillated.
“I know, it's scandalous,” Robin said. “But every time I bring it up with Kale, he won't talk about it. When I mention it to Lucien, he just clams right up – I'm not sure if he knows something he doesn't want to talk about or if he's afraid I'll ask him to try it.”
“Wow. Did this conversation just go...wow.” I said.
“Get used to it,” Austin grinned. Robin pulled into the driveway of a nice home with a small front porch with three pillars supporting a small roof. As we climbed out I noticed a large blue box parked off to the side of the driveway.
“What is this?” I asked curiously as I shouldered my bag and walked over for a closer look. It was a van and it looked like it had a ton of room inside.
“You know, everyone asks some form of that question,” Austin said. “It's Lu's bus. We all put some time in working on it and, now that Robin can drive, we go on little parts - finding trips.”
“This is so cool,” I said, grinning as I walked around it. “It's pretty unique.”
“If my boyfriend really likes you, he'll invite you to work on it with us,” Robin said.
“You all worked on it?” I glanced at Austin.
“Yeah. He played the best-friend card on me, I had to,” Austin laughed. I glanced back at the bus and wondered if it would be fun to work on.
“Hey! It's not for sale!” I turned to see Lu at the front door, calling out to us. He was grinning and waving us inside. “Come on, let's get this stuff done.”
The home was warm and I noticed something as soon as I entered that had been missing from my own home for a long time – it felt alive. There was an energy that permeated the space from the people inside that was vibrant and made the structure seem warm and inviting. We all kicked our shoes off by the door and Lucien gave me a short tour and introduced me to his parents. Then we were gathering around the dining room table and bringing our books out.
We worked steadily for the next hour or so. There was some reading to be done and there was a lot of comparing answers once we'd completed a problem or worksheet. It was nice as well because if something didn't make sense, you had other people who were learning the same things to consult with. Asking my dad anything about schoolwork was always a gamble, especially with math. We took a break when Robin's phone went off and he left the room to speak to someone.
“So, Derek,” Lu said, tilting back in his chair. “You got your eye on anyone?”
“Oh,” I blew out a breath. “Well, I'm not sure who's out yet, you know? There's a few pretty faces but I'm not in a rush. I was just telling Robin on the way over, I'm just kind of enjoying you guys, actually.”
“Of course you are,” Lucien said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I have the perfect boyfriend, everybody's jealous.”
“I didn't say I was jealous,” I grinned.
“Didn't have to,” he grinned back. “It's natural.”
“Your bus is pretty cool,” I said, changing the subject.
“Jeez,” Lu said to Austin. “First it's my boyfriend and now it's my bus. Anything else you want from me?”
“Hey!” I laughed. “I was just giving you a compliment.”
“Yeah, uh huh. I'm got my eye on you. In fact,” he said tilting his chair back on the floor, “you have to come help me work on it this weekend – just so I know where you are.”
“Now you did it, you're screwed,” Austin laughed. “Lu, you have some snacks or something?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” he said getting to his feet. “Let me grab drinks, too”
A few minutes later Robin rejoined us and we resumed our homework, finishing everything on the list. We spent some time talking afterward, and I was really enjoying being part of the group and found I was really looking forward to working on the bus – not because I knew squat about car repair but because I thought it was more about bonding and having fun than work.
Later, after Robin had dropped me off, I lay in bed and smiled contentedly. I hoped I could get the same things from a relationship that Robin and Lucien had. Knowing what was possible, I decided I should start taking a closer look at the guys at school. When it came to that, though, it seemed like there wasn't much to choose from – not much that was known, at any rate.
There was Robin and Lucien and then who? I'd heard rumors of others but...well, of course there was always Phil. But from everything I'd heard, there wasn't a ghost of a chance of a real relationship there. Besides, I liked the idea of getting to know someone and not think they were a pervert before I'd even met them.
Saturday came and Robin picked me up again for the ride to Lucien's. Since it was one of the few times I had one of my friends to myself, unlike at school, I decided to pose my question to Robin.
“Rob, do you know of any other out guys at school?”
“Well, not single ones,” Robin replied. “There's Zap and Travis but, I haven't been to a GSA meeting this year – and to be honest, when our brothers were around, we didn't feel like we needed the extra support of a group; I mean Lucien and I, by the way. I know Alec and Sasha used to go and Kale and Chase went during their senior year.”
“Oh. Well, I guess it can't be that easy, can it? How did you and Lucien find each other?”
“It's a long story, and Lucien tells it better than I do,” Robin said before running a free hand through his medium length dark hair. “But the short version is he was a good friend to me and then he became a wonderful boyfriend. There's more to it than that, of course, but...I'm not sure how that helps you.”
“I guess being someone's friend first helps.”
“If Kale were here he could probably give you better advice, but...do you have a type? Like, what interests you in a guy?”
“Um. I like smart people. Someone who'd be good to me, let us...grow into a relationship. I don't want to rush into something just to climb into bed. I mean,” I covered my face. “It's not like I'm a prude, I want to get laid but you only get that first time once.”
“I understand exactly,” Robin said. We arrived at Austin's house and then headed over to Lucien's We didn't even get a chance to get out of the car before he came barreling out.
“Don't get out! We have to go to Binghamton for the gas tank.”
I opened the door for Lu but he unceremoniously pushed me in the back with Austin. “If you get tired, Austin is really comfortable,” he said.
I looked uncertainly at Austin who gave Lucien a put upon look. Turning to me as we headed back out he said, “My first time in a car with these guys, one of them slept on me on the way to Albany and the other slept on the way back. Apparently, that's how Lu flirts.”
“That wasn't flirting,”Lucien protested, “it was sleeping.” Robin, however, was laughing at him.
“Hmm, I don't quite believe you, Lu,” I told him.
“Yeah, yeah. Just remember what I said – you get tired, you take advantage of the Hamster, there.”
“Don't pay him any attention,” Austin said. “He's been trying to pawn me off on people so he can be alone with Robin.”
“Now that is just not true,” Lu said, turning in his seat to face us. “I'm just letting our new friend know you have cuddling potential.”
“Drooling on my sleeve was not cuddling, Lu!” Austin laughed.
“Why were you guys sleeping on Austin?” I asked, trying to make sense of the situation.
“It all goes back to Lu,” Austin began but Lucien stared making 'nah, nah, nah' noises and covering up anything Austin tried to say. Robin and Austin were laughing at Lu, who just grinned and wouldn't let Austin talk.
We pulled into a gas station and, after asking if we wanted a drink, Robin got out to put gas in the car and Lu ran into the convenience store.
“So, what was all that about?” I asked.
Austin chuckled, “Before I was in the picture I guess Lu was pretty taken with Robin, but Rob was dating another guy.”
“That's weird. He told me he wasn't gay, but he's had two boyfriends?”
“That's what I was told,” Austin shrugged. “But to be honest, he really doesn't seem to get hot for anyone but Lu – he's never said anything about anyone else, really. I think he just happened to find...whatever he needs, from a guy.”
I decided to shelve that for later. “So, about this sleeping on you thing?”
“Oh, right. So I guess Lu wanted to be close to Rob, so he pretended to fall asleep on him.”
“Aww,” I said with a chuckle. “But how does that relate to you?”
“When we went up to Albany last Christmas for shopping, they were in the back seat with me. On the way up, Robin slept on me and on the way back, Lu did. They're just like that, I guess.”
“Nah. I mean, it was a little odd since we didn't know each other – but these guys, once they get their paws on you, you can't fight it – you just belong.”
“I don't understand that,” I said, a confused smile crossing my face.
“The whole group of them, they just take in new people like you were always there. Like when we went shopping? They were telling me, straight up, you got family now. I got four older brothers and two best friends in one car ride.”
Lu returned and plopped down in the passenger seat and handed us drinks. “He spilling his guts?”
“About your history of sleeping on people? Yeah, all spilled.”
“Hey, what was I supposed to do? Robin was just laying there – you've seen my boyfriend, right? Can you blame me?”
“Why do I sense there is no right answer to that?” I asked with a laugh.
“Oh, man. He's got you figured,” Austin chuckled at a grinning Lu. Robin climbed back into the car and, taking one look at our faces, started to shake his head.
“Do I even want to know?”
“Probably not, but you should,” I said seriously. “Your boyfriend is trying to trap me into...”
I was drowned out by Lu and his 'nah, nah, nah' chant again. There was plenty of chatter on the trip out to Binghamton and we had a little bit of lunch while we were there. The gas tank was safely ensconced in the tail of the car and we were settled in for the ride back with full bellies. The radio was put low enough that we could talk, but high enough that you could hear it. With us on the highway the stick shift was in 6th gear and I could see Robin and Lu holding hands, thumbs idly stroking knuckles.
I yawned, lulled by the hum of the cars tires over the road, having eaten and...whoa. Austin had been swaying a bit, slouching in his seat and now he was sliding a bit, his soft hair touching my bicep. My heart rate picked up – I was definitely awake now. I felt tense as I tried to decide if I should shrink from him, in case he'd be embarrassed, or to...put my arm around him and make us both more comfortable. He swayed a little more and now my arm was uncomfortable, pinned a little from his weight.
I slid down a hair in the seat, getting more comfortable myself and slowly moved my arm up and out of the way. He shifted again in time with the car rolling over some uneven road, and his face was against my chest. I slowly lowered my arm, kind of excited – more than I had a right to be – but also not wanting to wake him. Once my arm was down, my hand on Austin's hip I noted eyes on me.
They were Robin's, looking in the rear view. I didn't need to see his face to know he was smiling; his eyes twinkled enough to tell me that. Tentatively I tilted my head and rested a cheek on Austin's head, the soft hair tickling my face. He grunted, snuggled a little, and was still. I glanced up at movement, too late to do anything about it, as Lu took a picture.
“Lu!” I whispered, lifting my head away from Austin regretfully. “Don't, you'll embarrass him!”
“That's the idea,” he whispered back.
“No, come on,” I said. “Please?”
He got a speculative look in his eye and nodded before turning around. Glancing down and confirming that Austin was still breathing steadily in sleep, I put my head back down and enjoyed holding him. This could be addictive.
Once back at Lucien's we untangled from the back seat, Austin looking a little abashed but I ignored it. I was actually looking at Hamster – Austin – in a way I hadn't before. That's not to say I hadn't noticed he was a good looking guy, it's just I hadn't thought of him as a possibility. In fact, when I'd asked Robin about single guys he hadn't brought up Austin. Was I just suffering from anticipation of a first boyfriend coupled with a little jealousy over Robin and Lu? Was I reading too much into a straight boy napping on me?
I didn't get too much time to think about it as we started in on the repair. Robin was in charge of the manual and schematics and he was pointing things out both in the engine compartment and the underside where the tank lay. Lu climbed underneath and sprayed the bolts with something to loosen them up and Austin and I worked to clamp off the return fuel line in the engine and start to replace it. This line was about five feet long and ran from the engine straight back to the tank, so I was in charge of feeding it through the grommet in the firewall and Austin dragged it forward and then used a zip tie to put it up out of the way.
Surprisingly, my hands were filthy just from that. Then Lu and Austin started working on the rusted bolts that held everything in place. Robin showed me the diagram that showed two flat metal straps that ran under the tank and held it all in place. Meanwhile, the other two sweated and swore under the bus.
“I never asked, why are we replacing this?”
“It's got a small leak. If you fill it over halfway or so, it dribbles through a spot where it's rusted through,” Robin explained. I listened to Lu and Robin calling the stubborn nuts names and crowing in victory when they finally came loose. They dragged the leaking tank out from under the bus like big game hunters, hooting and hollering and finally posing for Robin's phone with a foot up on the old tank and an arm around each other's shoulders.
For our part, Robin and I laughed at them and gave them a clap or two. Robin kissed Lu and then there was an awkward moment where I felt like I wanted to copy him, but with Austin. The moment was fleeting, and likely all in my head, and then they guys were dragging the new tank in place and getting it bolted up.
Robin dropped me off, again, and I refrained from asking him about Austin and his availability. There must be a reason he hadn't said anything, right? Maybe I just needed to talk to Austin myself – damn those straight boys, anyway.
As the weeks went by I became more and more fond of Austin. I began to ask him about the books he was reading and enjoyed listening to him talk about whatever he'd read or his current adventure. I continued to hang out with the guys and the only real worry in the back of my mind was if my dad would get the job and we'd be able to stay. Unlike my old friends, these guys got me on a whole different level and how I felt about them had quickly surpassed those same feelings for the old crowd.
The last week of September Austin and I were walking to our next to last class of the day when an unlikely series of events played out.
There was some kind of argument going on between a guy and girl. He was saying something stupid about him owning her and she was telling him just how wrong he was. She decided to prove it and grabbed the nearest guy to her – little Jamie Kirkwood, who happened to be passing by. She laid a lip lock on the surprised kid and set the people in the hall to tittering. Unfortunately, her apparently ex-boyfriend misplaced his anger and went after Jamie.
“You little shit!” the guy said, giving Jamie a shove.
“Hey, if you took better care of her, she wouldn't have come running to me!” Jamie boasted. Although his words were filled with bravado, his face looked like he was working on not crapping himself as the bigger guy took a menacing step towards him.
“I wouldn't, if I were you,” Austin said.
The guy barely glanced at him and then he was reaching for Jamie, who dodged his grip once but had no where to go in the throng of people now surrounding them. The guy pulled his fist back and Austin just reached out and grabbed him by the wrist and put him in a hammer lock, forcing him to the ground with a lot of swearing.
“I warned you,” Austin said, putting more pressure on the arm and causing the guy to grunt out in anger. “You touch that guy and you're going to regret it. You might not think so, but I just did you a favor.”
A teacher called out, realizing that the knot of students that had developed in the hallway couldn't be there for any good purpose and was making his way through the crowd. Austin let the guy go and backed up a few steps in case he tried to swing, but it seemed as though he'd had enough for the moment. Jamie sidled over to Austin and held his hand up.
“Hamster! Thanks for the assist!”
“What?” Jamie's face faltered.
“You didn't have to egg him on. You could have said she kissed you – anyone could see that's how it happened.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, dropping his hand. “But he saw it and was going to plug me anyway.”
“Still, the point is there is a problem and then there's making it worse, right? What if I hadn't been here?”
“Well...give me some credit, I didn't freak out entirely.”
Austin smiled, “That's true. It was also a pretty good comeback.”
Jamie smiled at the compliment, and Austin patted his shoulder. The warning bell rang and we all headed out quickly.
“He doesn't even have to think before he has a comeback, does he?” I asked.
“Nope, he's a little wise guy. I hope he keeps growing up, though. Sean's been good for him – have you met Sean yet?”
“No, I haven't.”
“Oh, you'll like him. He's kind of mellow like Robin. I think he's rubbing off on Jamie, he's making Jamie mature without really trying to.”
We took our seats and I did my best to pay attention in class. As it was we were meeting almost every night for homework and, so far, my dad was pleased. I was getting better grades than I ever had, actually. As the bell rang to signal the end of class, Austin stopped me before I walked away.
“Uh, I thought you might like this,” he said, handing a book to me. “You were asking me about books I liked and...I thought...”
I accepted the book, glancing at the spaceship on the cover. “Thanks, Austin. I'll read it and let you know what I thought.”
“Cool,” he said, ducking his head and smiling. Then we were off to our last class. I rushed in and grabbed my seat next to Lu and pulled out my stuff. Once I had room I grabbed the paperback to slip it into a side pocket when Lu stopped my hand.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Is that a book?”
“Well, yes. And aren't you just eagle eyed?” I said with a laugh.
“Hah. Where did the book come from?”
“Likely a bookstore,” I said. “Austin loaned it to me.”
“Hamster gave you a book?” he said, eyes growing wide.
“What?' I asked.
“Well, Hamster loves his books. He's sort of obsessive about them. I'm just saying.”
I glanced down at the paperback in my hand, wondering if it meant more than I thought it did.
“Hey, my birthday party is this Saturday, the fifth. My actual birthday is the third, but we're waiting until Saturday to celebrate. We're doing an overnight and my brother will be in town. Can you come?”
“Really? Yeah, I'd love to,” I replied enthusiastically. “Is there anything you'd like for your birthday?”
“Don't worry about it, this is kind of last minute for you,” Lu said with a wave of his hand. I decided not to argue, but I wasn't going to come empty handed.
I got home that night, Monday, and excitedly told my dad about the party and that I wanted to order something online, likely, for the present since it was short notice. Dad agreed and went into his bedroom to dig out his laptop. Ten minutes later, when Chloe walked in with a scowling Brian in tow, I fairly bounced as I told her.
“Lucien's birthday is Saturday, I got invited to a sleepover!” I said, my smile feeling as if it might stretch all the way to the back of my head.
“Seriously? Go, Derek,” she smiled. “Is that little cutie Robin going to be there? He's all I met, are they all cute like that?”
“You're going to a party with them? Better not bend over,” Brian laughed.
“They're my friends,” I said, my betraying far more hurt than I liked. “What's your problem?”
“Seriously?” Chloe said, looking at Brian and putting a hand on her hip.
“What? They're a couple'a fags, so what? I'm just telling your brother not to drop the soap.”
“Or what? They might rape me?” I asked. “That's what you're implying.”
“Dude, two on one. Gay guys want ass.”
“Brian. We need to break up.”
“What? What the hell, Chloe?” he said, unconsciously copying her by putting his own hand on his hip. My father appeared in his doorway, lap top in hand.
“Well, partially 'cause you're homophobic and my brother is the cutest little gay boy around,” Chloe said and then added, “sorry about your little dick, I guess you shouldn't have put so much of it into your personality.”
“Hey! Don't you dare talk to my daughter like that! Get out of my house, now!” my dad roared. Brian saw him, grew visibly angrier and threw the door open and stomped quickly down the stairs.
We all stood, looking at each other for a moment before my father broke the silence. Looking at Chloe he said, “Please tell me you're kidding about knowing anything about the size of his penis?”
“Dad, seriously? The easiest way to take a boy down a few notches is to question the size of his tool,” she told him, then looked and me and shoved me. “Especially if he is a tool.”
Dad dropped me off at Lucien's on Saturday. On the way I had a conversation with him about getting my own license once he'd gotten the job. He liked the way I phrased that.
I met some new people at the party including Alec, Lu's older brother, and Alec's fiancee whom Lu told me to call uncle Sasha. Lu was pretty adorable with his brother and Uncle, offering unexpected hugs and a litany of 'I'm so glad to see you's'. The presents were a delight – mostly things for Lu's bus and he proudly showed everyone his license and said he was taking it for its maiden voyage the next day.
Then there was a pair of late arrivals – Kale and Chase, whom I'd heard about as Robin and Austin's older brothers, respectively. Lu greeted them as enthusiastically as he had Alec – it was a stupidly emotional scene. I'd never seen so many guys look like they wanted to cry from happiness before. It was just weird. It was also uncomfortable being the outsider in such an obviously close-knit group.
Fortunately, I wasn't the only one. I was standing off to the side, avoiding all the flying hugs and random emotions when I bumped up against another guy.
“Oh, sorry Jamie,” I said.
“I'm Sean,” he said with a smile. “We look sort of alike.”
“Yeah, I guess you do. I hear you're the good twin though?”
“Jamie's not evil,” he defended his brother. “But yeah, people like to say that. I really wish they'd stop, though. Jamie's been pretty good to me.”
“Well, I can respect that. From what I hear you and I are the new guys, here,” I said, changing the subject. “Do you feel as weird as I do?”
“Well, I'm kind of divided about it. On the one hand, it's looks like an emotional train wreck with all these hugs and shit,” he said. “But on the other hand, it's pretty cool when they turn all that energy on you. Embarrassing, but it feels pretty good, too.”
“Oh, right, you met the older ones before they went to college, right?”
“Yeah. Alec and Kale both got Jamie and me sweatshirts from their college and told us not to tell the other. It's kind of like having competing relatives that are trying to spoil you. You ask me? I love it.”
“You and Jamie going to wear the stuff in front of them?”
“Yeah. Jamie says we have to pick the right time, because they'll both chase us so we need to piss them off one at time,” he said, grinning. Jamie bounced over and greeted me, out of breath from playing with Kale and Alec.
“Let's put one sweatshirt on each when it's time to leave. They can't catch us outside!” Jamie said.
“But then they'll just wait at the car,” Sean said. “Let's climb in opposite cars – whoever has Albany gets in Alec's car and the other, with Cornell, gets in Kale's.”
“Yes! That'll piss them off and they'll have to defend us! It's brilliant!”
I shook my head and smiled.
“Okay, as the older brother, you get to open my present first!” Alec said pushing a box into Lu's hands. Lu beamed at Alec and ripped the paper off the box and removed the top nearly as quick. But then he froze. His finger tips twitched toward the item, but stilled as he glanced up at Alec and back at the box.
“Alec,” Lu said. “This is yours.”
“Not anymore,” Alec said cheerfully. “Sash isn't impressed anymore, so I had your name put on it, see?” Alec lifted the letterman jacket from the box. It was a beautiful powder blue with gold thread and on the back it had the family name, 'Kutsenko' and Alec flipped it around, pushing it onto Lucien's chest. Clearly, across the heart, it said Lucien.
“Alec...” Lu just looked dumbstruck.
“Hey. You have to carry on the Kutsenko name, this'll help,” Alec said and held the jacket open for Lu, who turned and allowed Alec to put it on him. “Look at you! It fits like a glove!”
At least I think glove was what he said, because Lucien had him in the grip of a mighty hug.
“Okay, okay, break it up,” Kale said, slipping up to the gifts. “Here, open mine before you bruise your brother.”
Lu wiped his eyes and accepted the package from Kale. He opened this one more slowly, but was brought up short once more.
“I figured with you guys joining the swim team this year, you should look the part,” Kale said. Lu lifted up a red hoodie with the name 'Cornell Swimming' on the front with Lucien's name over the heart. “Now, once you break a few records, you'll be all set to join Cornell's team and do our family proud. Hey, how about you give me a hug before I say anything else sappy since you say I suck at giving those?”
It took no more than that before Lu was hugging Kale and saying something into his ear. Whatever it was, Kale's ears went bright red and when he pulled away, his face was a matching shade.
“Lu. My gift is better, right?” Alec said, making some silly motions with his neck and eyebrows.
“No. Tell him Lu, mine's better.” Kale put a hand on Lu's shoulder. Alec dropped his hand on Lu's other shoulder and before you knew it, Kale had Lu by the arms and Alec had his legs and they were pulling on him, each claiming he belonged to them.
Uncle Sasha and Chase were rolling their eyes so hard it was comical and I got the impression they'd masterminded their boyfriend's purchases for this very circumstance. Lu loved the VW tee shirt and hat I got him as well as the expensive floor mats Chase and Sasha had chipped in on; they even had bright VW logo's embroidered on them! Eventually it was time for Robin's gift, and I dare say there were more than a few people paying close attention. Word was Lu had given Robin a whopper of a gift a few months ago for his birthday.
Robin held his gift in his hand and stood waiting for everyone's attention.
“So, my boyfriend gave me the most wonderful gift a few months ago. He took so many important things to me and brought it all together,” he said, holding his arm up briefly to show off the bracelet he wore.
“Everyone knows about Lucien before he came to us, became part of us. Everyone knows the losses he suffered and,” he looked down affectionately, “everyone knows how jealous he is.”
A round of chuckles greeted that.
“But I think that comes from having had things taken away from you. So, my gift is something to remind Lucien that I'm not going anywhere.”
He handed the package, about the size of a shoe box, to Lucien who tore the paper off and pulled the lid to reveal another box. This went on until the box was quite small, and inside it was a braided ring made from blue and green metals. Lu's eyes met Robin's and something was said that neither I, nor I think anyone else, could hear. And then they were in each other's arms, Lu crying like he'd just had his heart broken.
Later there was cake and ice cream, and karaoke. Sean and Jamie each wore a college sweatshirt and Kale and Alec chased them as predicted. However, their plan to hide in the appropriate cars didn't work as Kale and Alec swapped keys and the cute little buggers were caught.
By the time everyone had gone home it was close to ten and Lucien pulled out a couple of inflatable mattresses and I helped with pushing the furniture out to make room. We got changed for bed, Robin and Lu going upstairs and Austin and I taking turns in the downstairs bathroom. I got my mind blown when Austin walked out in sleep pants and a tank top type undershirt. His arms looked exactly like what you want to pull you close!
I got changed into sleep pants and a old batman tee and wandered back out. Austin was leaning with his back on the couch and his legs crossed on the mattress. There was clearly room for one person to his right and two to his left – which meant we were going to be in pretty close quarters. He was reading a book and I had no idea where he'd gotten it from. I had to assume he'd stashed it with his clothes in case he got some reading time.
He smiled as he saw me coming and marked his spot, tossing the book onto his bag.
“They'll be a couple minutes, I'm sure.”
“Boyfriends in a bedroom? No,” I said sarcastically and we shared a laugh.
“What did you think of the crowd?”
“A little intimidating,” I said, taking a seat by his crossed ankles.
“Yeah. There's a lot going on with them,” he agreed. “So, Lu is supposed to drive us into town tomorrow. There's supposed to be a big garage sale sort of thing...some books. I thought it might be nice to walk around. You want to?”
“Yeah, that sounds great, Austin,” I smiled.
“Hey...how come you never call me Hamster?”
“I like Austin better. It's a nice name.” I blushed a bit, feeling the temperature rise in my cheeks.
“I, uh, should tell you...I've liked getting to know you.”
“I feel the same,” I said, my heart pounding.
“I'd kind of like to...” But he got no farther as there was noise on the stairs, giggling and whispered 'No's' and 'Yeah, come on!'
Lu appeared first wearing shorts and a tee. He was adorable, when I thought about it. I wanted to buy him hot chocolate and give him a cookie. Robin came down slowly, and I began to giggle as soon as I saw him. He had on green shorts and a red shirt, and they both had the stylized 'R' for Batman's sidekick, Robin. They both padded over to us and Lu enlisted Austin's help to grab a few snacks for the movie.
“With all that giggling, I'd have thought you'd have something skimpier on, Robin,” I teased. “In fact, looking at that shirt? I was thinking about those Underoo things? Remember them? Little bikini briefs and a tee shirt to look like your favorite super hero?"
Robin's face went very red and he burst out giggling. With a glance at the kitchen he turned back to me and pulled the side of the shorts down.
“Wow. Those are the very definition of brief,” I said and we both started giggling.
“What are you guys laughing about?” Austin asked as he and Lu returned.
“Robin was just proving to me he's”...I burst out laughing but managed to choke out, “He's the boy wonder!”
“Babe! Did you pull them down? Now you have to show Hamster!”
“I'm good,” Austin said, holding a hand up. There was some more giggling and pushing and shoving, but we eventually settled in. Now that we were laying down, with the TV going on some comedy that no one was paying any attention to, I was aware of Austin's body heat next to me. The movie ended and the TV flicked off. Lu went around turning off lights until just the glow from the light over the stove in the kitchen gave us illumination.
I heard Lu settle back in and soon there was the sound of slow, even breathing.
“Derek. You awake?”
Austin. Butterflies took flight in my stomach. “Yeah,” I managed to say.
“So...I got out of a relationship a while ago – just a few weeks before we met, actually. Um,” he shifted a bit and continued. “It was kind of a long distance thing. But...he was the first guy I ever tried dating.”
I rolled onto my side and propped my head up on my hand. “Did it end badly?”
“I wouldn't say that. He was a nice guy, we just lived kind of far apart and...I guess I move kind of slow.”
“I'm okay with slow,” I said softly.
“Yeah. I am.” I sat up and glanced at Lu and Robin, who were out cold. Lu was sleeping with his head on Robin's chest, an arm holding Robin close.
“Austin...is it okay...would you hold me like that?”
He lifted his arm in response and I moved over, laying my head on his chest. His hand came down on my back, tentatively, and then he pulled me just a little tighter, urging the rest of my body closer. This...this was good.
The next morning Lu's parents woke us with the smell of pancakes. We wandered out, following the smell of food. Robin, still in his superhero gear, was standing by the eat in counter and Lu was leaning sleepily against him. I turned on my heel and grabbed my phone and snapped a picture before they moved. Someday, that was going to be me.
“Oh, can I have a cup of that coffee?” Austin was asking.
“Me too, please?” I asked as I went back into the room.
“You like coffee?” Austin asked me, grinning.
“Yep,” I replied. I showed him the picture I took and he shook his head, grinning.
“They're a gay Hallmark card, the Valentine's one. Every day of the year.” We giggled and then I took a seat at the counter on a stool and accepted the paper cup of coffee with a grateful thank you.
I turned and caught Lu taking my picture. “Two can play this game. Hey, Hamster, I got one of you sleeping.”
“Well, you weren't really sleeping. Your eyes were open.”
“It was, what, a week or two ago? Coming back from getting the gas tank?” Lu looked at Robin for confirmation. I strolled over to Austin and cocked my head.
“Eyes open, huh?”
His lips trembled as he tried not to smile. “Maybe.”
“Everyone laughs at my methods, but look how it works out,” Lu said, shaking his head at us.
After breakfast everyone showered and Lu fired up his bus for the first time with the intention of leaving the house. His folks stood on the porch and watched as he put it into reverse, backed out and headed towards town. His bus was the greatest thing, ever. Austin and I sat in the far back, holding hands as we rode down to the sale.
The fair was spread out over several blocks and was quite busy by the time we arrived. We walked around for a while and Austin was the only one that found anything – books, of course. We said goodbye to Lu and Robin and, after getting our things from the bus, walked back to my house. We left our shoes at the door and walked into the apartment. Chloe was at the sink, just setting a plate down, when she saw us come in.
“This is my sister, Chloe,” I said to Austin.
“Oh,” Chloe said, staring at Austin and putting a hand over her stomach. “My ovaries.”
“Okay, so you noticed that Austin, my boyfriend, is pretty good looking.”
“Wait, boyfriend?” Chloe looked to Austin for confirmation.
“Well, as of last night we were taking it slow...but I think I like the sound of it.”
“Ugh. You guys are adorable. I'm just going to go to my room and wonder why I find nothing but jerks.” So saying, she closed the door to her room and music commenced from behind the door.
“So...” Austin said.
“Which book are you going to read first?” I asked, pointing to his bag.
“Oh, still have that other one I wasn't done with. It's in my bag.”
“Why don't you grab it and we can lie on the couch and read?”
“Really?” he asked, smiling.
“Yeah, why not?”
He lay with his back in the corner of the couch and I lay between his legs, using his stomach for a pillow. I glanced down at his socks, not the fancy ones Robin wore, but bright white socks that contrasted with his old jeans. I idly snuggled into him and opened chapter one. I'm convinced I'm going to love reading, especially if I get to do it like this.