Love & Loss

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle


My mother stood in the open doorway that opened from our kitchen to our backyard. Outside, kids shrieked while my mother smoked and kept one eye on them and the other on her phone. An underlying, mild odor of decay floated in the air, likely from something that was once edible and now only fit for flies. The kitchen was stacked with dirty dishes, empty food packages and I don't know what else. I think it was the mess in the kitchen that brought me up short and made me panic.

Just as I'd always known I was different from other boys, I realized my family was different from my friends' families. On paper we were similar—most lived in homes rather than apartments, but I think that's because we don't have that many apartment buildings in town. Most of those homes had yards and quite a few of those had fences. Some had pools, which we didn't. Most of my friends had two parents, even if they were divorced or had a step parent. Mine were still married, for all it meant to them. Things changed, from there, though. Like the kitchen.

Granted, my mother ran a daycare from the house and there was always a mad dash to clean up when it got near inspection time. Kids' parents didn't come into the house; she always arranged drop off and pickup through the side gate, and the basement was where the kids went for rainy days and meals. As a result anything that people would not see got neglected. Like the kitchen, living room, bedrooms and, oh by the way, her own kids.

When I went to my friend Hannah's home, things were different. Where our patio furniture was cheap plastic hers was metal with seat cushions and covers and was actually taken care of. One summer I even saw her father strip the old paint from the metal frame of the furniture and repaint it all. She had a pool with landscaping around it and a fence. Her kitchen had nice granite counter-tops; I'd forgotten what ours looked like because they were perpetually covered, but I think they were Formica. White with gold glitter or something. Well, at one time it was white.

Clothes were everywhere in our house, but not in Hannah's. Not at Nate's, either. Of course, his old house, a town house, hadn't been in great shape but it was clean. Now, he lived with his aunt and uncle and their cute son, and their house was nicer than mine and his old one, but not as nice as Hannah's. Their kitchen was clean and their laundry was put away, too.

All of a sudden all of it seemed overwhelming. I grabbed what I'd come for, a soda, and went back upstairs to my room. Music pounded from the room next door, my brother Adam's. He had gone away to boot camp for the air force, but then they'd arrested him for trying to deal pot at boot camp and then sent him home. My parents were kind of pissed he was back, and he'd been pretty weird since his return. I had a feeling he was getting into some bad shit and I just tried to stay away from him.

I know how that sounds, but just like other people had siblings who take care of and look out for each other, our relationship was very different. When I was younger, Adam would beat me up because I had to 'toughen up'. If I cried, like over a movie or whatever, he'd beat on me because guys don't cry. When I got older and he caught me fapping to gay porn, he forced me to watch straight porn with him and then he made me let this slut he knew give me a blowjob in order to 'straighten me out'.

Adam was also into drugs on some level, in case I wasn't clear about that. I'm pretty sure he's some sort of small time dealer and that his idea to go into the military was something he thought would be a 'smart business decision'. I avoided him for the most part and these days, he seemed busy enough to not care what I was doing. I didn't want that to change.

Closing my door, I sat down and tried to slow my breathing to stop the uneven feel of my heart. I didn't want this, living like this. I didn't have much choice as far as growing up this way. But I could prepare for the choices I could make later in life and I could start right now. Feeling better, feeling optimistic, I popped the top on my can, took a swig and then started to clean my room in earnest. I picked up clothes, made my bed, ran downstairs for a garbage bag, some cleaner and a roll of paper towels, and just went to town. I cleaned the windows, the top of my dresser—I even got the cobwebs down and wiped the greasy bits that accumulated on my bedroom door from where fingers would push it closed.

Glancing around at what I'd done, I felt better. I took my laundry downstairs and, of course, there was a sour load left over in the washer because someone hadn't taken their clothes out and put them in the dryer. I restarted it, with some bleach added to try to kill the smell, and then checked the time to see how long I should wait before coming down to swap things and start my own clothes. I bounded back upstairs and hit the bathroom. As I did, or more accurately as I was leaving, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My hair was shaggy, no doubt, and I was sort of used to that. I began to wonder if it was something I should change about myself. Did the way I dressed or wore my hair mark me in the same way my kitchen did? Getting a haircut would require money and, unfortunately, I didn't have either that or a job. Also unfortunately, asking my parents for money usually got me a foul word or two or ignored outright.

I went back into my room and picked up my phone. It was a prepaid model that my crazy Aunt Mina had gotten for my last birthday. She bought it from the TV and it came with a lot of minutes. Aunt Mina was on a fixed income and she lived in public housing, but she had always liked me for some reason, and I'd always liked her.

I sent a text to Hannah and Nate to see what they were doing. As I waited for them to respond I reclined on my bed and wondered what else I needed to change in order to not turn out like my folks. I jumped as a really loud engine noise rattled the house. Peeking out the window, I confirmed that my father was home and 'tuning' his motorcycle while drinking a beer. He revved the engine a few more times and that was enough for me. I slipped my shoes on and headed out the back door to visit my Aunt Mina.

As I walked my phone buzzed—my friends had got back to me. Hannah was going on a date with Josh Ridley, a guy she'd had on her list for a while now. Nate was hanging out with his cousins' friends at a pool somewhere. I slowed my steps as an image of Nate in his swim trunks filled my imagination and I felt my stomach flip. In a flash I realized there was something I needed—a quality boyfriend—and I was determined it was going to be Nate.

Frowning, I recalled how excited he'd been, telling me about kissing that Nikolai kid. I grumbled to myself, wondering if I'd have to fake an accent to get him more interested in me. At the very least, I should probably get a haircut, but that took money. I had tried to catch on with a local farm, but I was too late to get hired for this season and I didn't see another way to make any bucks right now. I was too young for convenience stores and stuff like that and the IGA had no openings, and the other grocery store, a chain, was too far away. So much for getting a haircut and landing Nate.

Ever since I'd first kissed Nate and discovered how willing he was to keep it up, it had become something to look forward to. Poor Nate, with his mom being so frail but still hanging on, was sweet as could be—except he was playing this whole bisexual thing to the hilt and was kissing everyone. Add to that, at the end of last summer, he'd gone to some camp thing and old Nik had jerked him off. I'd felt some pressure at that point and, not that I hadn't been interested in trying, I had decided to blow Nate.

It had been a little weird because I knew what I was going to do and Nate, I think, just assumed we were going to make out and pass out—it had become a pattern to sneak a few beers when he stayed over. Seeing him naked for the first time had been pretty damn amazing, though tasting his pre-cum was sort of weird. Not bad, but weird. It sort of sat on my tongue, thicker than water but not like something you'd drink and yet slightly sweet. I was pretty sure Nik hadn't done that with him, so I felt like I was winning. Problem was, I had no idea where the finish line was, exactly.

Nate was lucky, too, in a way. Not with his mom's health problems and his dad being the world's biggest asshole, but because of where he landed with his extended family. His cousin, Devyn, had a lot of gay friends—who I'd love to meet and hang out with, but was never invited. My spirits sank a little at the thought and I wondered if that was chance or deliberate. A city bus passed me and I wrinkled my nose in response to the diesel fumes. I kicked a stone from the sidewalk and turned up the path toward the Mildred Eddy housing complex. These were a series of single story retirement apartments and my aunt Mina had lived in one of them for several years. Her apartment had always been a 'go to' place for me and I had spent a decent amount of time with her to escape my family. Reaching her door I knocked and then let myself in. She was in her recliner watching TV, a game show, and was just struggling to stand when she saw me come through the door.

“Oh, Dylan! Oh, how nice!” she said as she gained her feet.

“Hi, Aunt Mina,” I greeted her. I stepped close and gave her a hug that she returned warmly. She rocked from side to side and cooed in my ear and I grinned; it's nice to be so welcome somewhere. Leaning back and holding me by the shoulders, she said, “You're taller! And more handsome! I didn't think you could be more handsome, but there it is!”

I rolled my eyes and smiled at her.

“Would you like some tea? I have a kettle on the stove, and it just needs to be turned on,” she said.

“Sure, Aunt Mina. I'll go switch it on, okay? Sit down, the commercial is over.”

“Oh?” she asked and turned to look owlishly at the TV. “So it is! Okay, I'll just wait here, then.”

I crossed her small living room and entered her cluttered but clean kitchen. My mother calls her sister, that's Mina, crazy because of her little personality quirks. For instance, I don't really care for tea but Aunt Mina loves it. Instead of asking me to make tea for her, she'll ask me if I'd like some so I'll make it for her. Same thing if she's hungry or whatever. I don't think it's crazy, just kind of endearing, really.

I checked the kettle, topped it off, and put it on the burner. I walked back to the doorway and leaned against it while I waited for the commercial. On TV the host was talking about the great prizes that were up for grabs and my aunt watched raptly. My mind drifted back to my line of thought about my future and I realized that this wasn't what I wanted, either. My poor aunt had been living alone ever since her husband died, which I think was before I was born. Her whole life seemed to be the TV and that was sad.

A commercial came on and I called out to her and asked which tea she'd like. She was an herbal tea person, as she avoided caffeine.

“Oh!” she exclaimed as she turned in her chair. “You know what? I bought a new one; it's a raspberry tea. Doesn't that sound good?”

“Sure does. Is that what you want?”

“I think so, sweetheart,” she replied with a smile. My lips twitched, returning her smile without thinking about it. I went back into the kitchen and rooted through her tea cabinet to find the one she'd mentioned. Just because she said she'd bought it and it was new didn't mean it was recent. She could be thinking of a tea she'd purchased months ago and never opened. I found it and took down two cups—her little game didn't work if I didn't drink a cup with her. I'd discovered that one day when she'd been kind of pitiful about drinking alone. Now I always made sure to have a cup with her to protect her feelings.

I put two teaspoonfuls of sugar into each cup, added the tea bags and poured the steaming hot water over the both of them. I went back to the doorway and poked my head out.

“Do you want your tea in the living room or the kitchen?”

“Kitchen, sweetheart,” she said as she began to struggle to her feet again. I crossed the room and helped her get steady. She smiled again, patting my face as she thanked me and then shuffled to the kitchen. “I bought some cookies. You like cookies, don't you?”

“I do. Where did you hide them this time?” Aunt Mina had a habit of trying to hide things from herself so that she wouldn't gorge on them. It largely worked.

“Maybe over the microwave? No, in the cupboard over the dishes, my love,” she said as she shuffled her feet around to take her preferred seat at her little dinette. “I hide them up there so I won't be tempted to eat them without you.”

I smiled at her and brought her cup of tea to the table and then fetched the cookies. She loved cookies with her tea, and I knew she ate them regularly. Finally I brought my cup to the table and settled in across from her. She stirred her tea and smiled broadly at me.

“So tell me what's new in your life, dear?”

“Not much,” I replied as I idly stirred my tea as well. The smell wafted up from the cup and my stomach stirred. “I was just thinking today a little about my future. What I might want.” I shrugged.

“Oh? Have you made any decisions?” She lifted her cup and sloshed a bit over the side as her hand had a slight tremor.

“Not really,” I replied. I stood and grabbed a napkin and placed it by her saucer. “I was just looking at Mom and Dad—our house—and thinking that, whatever I wanted, this wasn't it.”

Her cup clinked as she placed it back on the saucer, and she was nodding and wiping up the bit she'd spilled. “Their marriage wasn't really planned, so I can understand why you'd feel that way. They never really settled into ideas of romance or family.”

I sipped my tea as I thought about what she'd said. Something tickled in my mind and, without thinking further, I asked, “What do you mean it wasn't planned?”

“Oh, well! Deep and dark family secrets, you know!” she said and grinned conspiratorially. “You see, my mother got pregnant before she was married and in that time, that just wasn't done. So many women would be rushed off to Florida or somewhere along those lines to give up their child for adoption. That was her fate, as well. She always carried that loss with her, wondering if the child she'd been forced to give up was okay, if it was happy. It weighed on her soul, you see.”

“Why did she have to give it up? Didn't she have a choice?”

She snorted. “Women had the illusion of choice, my love. In matters like this, they either gave the child up for adoption or had a back alley abortion. It was a scary thing, no doubt.”

Silence fell in the kitchen, save for the distant sound of the TV in the next room and the sipping of tea and clanking of cup and saucer. The ceiling fan creaked out a slow rhythm, pushing stale air around the room. I found what she'd said interesting, but I didn't understand how that affected my mother. I was just opening my mouth to ask when she spoke.

“Would you like a cookie, dear?”

I smiled back at her and said I would. I opened the package and lifted two out, placing them on her saucer. She thanked me and I helped myself to a pair of cookies as well.

“So how did grandma's problems make my parent's have an unplanned wedding?” I asked before taking a bite.

“Oh, I didn't say, did I?” she exclaimed, small crumbs on her lips. “Well, mother carried all those old rules and attitudes with her, right to the grave I'm sorry to say. And, because of how unhappy that trip to Florida had made her, she didn't want that for her daughter. When your mother got pregnant she found herself in the middle of a shotgun wedding. Do you know what that is?”

“I think I can guess.”

“Well, it was very realistic, let me tell you. Your grandfather was an absolute nut for firearms of any kind and he grabbed the meanest looking thing he had and goose-marched your father down to the justice of the peace.” Aunt Mina's eyes went out of focus and her face tilted away from me just a bit. Then, in a faraway voice, she said, “Of course, your mother lost the baby. That would have been before Adam, you know.”

I thought for a moment and then asked, “Why did they stay together?”

Her gaze didn't waver from that faraway point she seemed to be focused on. In a way, I think, she was looking into the past and reliving that unhappy time. I stayed silent for a moment and sipped my tea and ignored the TV. I tried to picture my mom as a young woman, pregnant and married to a fellow who probably hadn't wanted to be married. Did she feel as though her virtue or whatever had been protected? Was her reputation worth being married to...what? A one night stand? Or had she felt like this was for the best? Knowing my mother as I did now, she probably didn't care all that much, one way or the other.

“You know, people are peculiar,” Aunt Mina said, her eyes still focused elsewhere. I remained silent as she slowly came back to the present, like an automaton who is being re-energized one system at a time. Her tongue darted out for the cookie crumbs on her lips. Her hand moved for the saucer, idly stroking the other cookie and then her eyes shifted in their sockets and her gaze returned to me. Finally, a faint smile crossed her lips.

“After your uncle Gordon died it took me a while to get used to being alone. I was in my early forties and never had had children—couldn't, in fact. It was a source of sadness for us both.” She lifted the cookie to her mouth and nibbled the edge, just getting a taste in bits a mouse would have found wanting. “After he was gone, I found it comforting that his things were still around the house, almost as if he would be home at any time. After a while, that feeling faded and I was losing the house, you may remember. So I pared down my belongings and moved here. It's funny, though, that I can't really picture living with another man, being married or any of that. I've gotten used to what my life is. That's kind of what happened with your parents, I think, although for them it was the opposite. They couldn’t imagine being alone, not sharing their life with a partner, even if they’re not the most romantic couple going.”

I thought about that for a moment, wondering if that's really all that kept them together—inertia. Maybe just that they were too lazy to affect change in their own lives. Was that genetic? Had they taught me that over time through their own relationship? If it was true, had that screwed up my chances at having a good relationship with someone else?

“So, you think they just got used to each other?” I asked.

She sipped her tea and nibbled her cookie, then repeated the process. The slight breeze from the overhead fan moved wisps of her hair around, playing with it the way a small child might.

“I think that was part of it. Another part may be that your mother got pregnant again, quickly.”


“No. No, she lost that baby, too. I...” her voice trailed off as she hunted for words. “I remember being over to help my mother with her laundry—she hung it on a line to dry, but it was getting harder for her to do all that by then. She developed arthritis earlier than one might expect. Anyway,” she said with a wave of her hand, “I heard her talking to my father—they'd left the kitchen window open, you see—and I think your father might have...made her lose the baby.”

I frowned. “You mean, like, he hit her or something?” That didn't really jive with my father. He didn't seem to have the ambition to attack anyone.

Aunt Mina's were locked on mine. “Yes, I think he did. My father went over to talk to him. My father did that with a lot of men. They would meet in a barn or a stockroom and, by the time they were done, either they saw things my father's way or he saw it theirs. That day, I think your father saw it your grandfather's way.”

I leaned back and blew a breath out. “What a way to solve problems.”

“A different way of thinking, that's true. Anyway, sometime later your mother gave birth to Adam, and my parents were thrilled.” She paused and reached across the table to pat my hand. “My mother so loved babies. She hung on just long enough to hold you, you know. ”

“I didn't,” I replied.

“She was overjoyed when your mother was born, a late surprise. That's why I'm an old biddy and your mother isn't.” She leaned back, smiling at me, and took a few more sips of her tea before eating the rest of her cookie. “So that's why I understand you not wanting that kind of relationship. I certainly hope you find something better, or make it for yourself.”

I sipped my tea and thought about that for a minute, especially with respect to Nathan. He's not TV star pretty or anything, but I think he's above average. He loves sports and he stays pretty fit because of it with toned muscles and a firm body. He's been thinking for himself a little more than he used to, but I think his ego was getting kind of big with all the attention he was getting. It was almost like people saw him as a prize in a competition, but not as a person. Guiltily I realized I was doing some of that, too. So who was Nate, really?

“Where did you go, my love?” Aunt Mina asked, her voice teasing. “Is there someone special in your mind right now?”

I smiled at her, and felt a little flushed. “Yeah. My friend, Nate. I'm kind of trying to build a relationship with him.”

“Hmm,” she said and tapped a finger to her chin while looking up and away from me. “Nate. Have I met this young man?”

“I don't think so. He used to...well, he's changed a lot in the last year. Good changes.”

Her gaze returned to me and she grinned. “You mean muscles?”

I smiled at her. “Those, too.”

She patted the table with her hands in a display of impatience. “Well, tell me all about him! What changes?”

I leaned back in the chair. “Well, his dad is a real jerk. He's always opening his mouth about things: gays, blacks, immigrants—you name it, he has a lame opinion. For a while, Nate would kind of repeat things his dad said.”

“Oh. Oh dear, that's not a good thing. Why would you be friends with a boy like that?”

“Well, I always got the idea that Nate wasn't saying what he thought, know, echoing what he'd heard at home. But, then, last year his mom got sick and he started to change.” I paused and she nodded at me to go on. I cleared my throat and glanced out of the little window that sat over her sink and overlooked the small sidewalk that separated her building from the next.

“You see, Aunt Mina, Nate never acted on anything his dad said. Like, he was friends with whoever he played on teams with—skin color or any of those other things didn't seem to matter. When his mom got sick, though, his words started to change, too. Not on everything, but you could see that his world was kind of shaken up and, maybe, he was reconsidering things.”

“What was wrong with his mother?”

“Breast cancer.”

Aunt Mina took a sharp intake of breath and shook her head. “So very frightening.”

I nodded in agreement. “Yeah. Nate started trying to get involved in stuff, like he ran in the breast cancer research 5k in town and he told me he was getting these pink socks because it was the color of breast cancer awareness.”

“I'm starting to like this boy,” she said, her tone both warm and teasing simultaneously.

I smiled at her and continued, “His mom had surgery, a double mastectomy.” She winced and looked at me with a sympathetic expression. “Nate was really worried about her. He didn't go out for whatever school team was going on then—did I mention he loves sports? Yeah, so, that was a big deal. I guess his dad kept up being a real jerk, too. Told his mom some pretty mean things because she didn't have breasts anymore. He even shot her.”

“Oh my goodness!” Her hand shot up to her throat and she stared at me in shock.

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “Then Nate moved in with his cousin, who is gay, and he just started to...change. Like, he questioned things his dad had said, and he'd never done that before. He went from this...I don't know what, a potentially nice guy? To an actual nice guy that I...well, I started to like him a lot.”

“I can imagine!” she replied and then drained the last of her tea. “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Well, I'm not sure,” I admitted. I knotted my hands together and said, “I'm thinking that I need to change a little to really get his attention—get my hair cut, some different clothes. But that takes money.”

“Yes, yes it does. I wish I could help you—”

“Oh, no, I wasn't asking!”

“I know, I know,” she replied and let out a sigh. “Dylan, my love, listen to me very carefully. Your uncle Gordon had the kindest heart, the strongest soul and the weakest chin.” She chuckled and said, “For that reason I preferred him with a beard. I didn't love him any less, but I did find him more physically attractive. How does that apply to you, you may ask?”

“No, I think I get it,” I replied. She raised her eyebrow in challenge and I explained, “If he likes me for me, then he already does. But changing the way I look, might get his attention.”

“Just so.”

I cleaned up her kitchen for her while she moved back out to the living room. By the time the cups and saucers were in the draining board and I had double checked that the stove was off and the cookies were put away, she was sleeping quietly in her chair. I kissed her forehead and let myself out the door. As I walked back to my home I turned over what she'd said, but still came up against the same problem: money. I liked Nate and I thought that perhaps he liked me, but I want to make him see me the right way, the way that would make his eyes pop and put me over the hump to catch him.

A few days later I still had no answer to my money problems. There was no money to be had 'working' for my mom and her daycare; I wasn't old enough or something. I asked about doing jobs around the house but my dad told me if he had work for me I'd just better do it because I lived there. As it happened, an answer presented itself, but it left me queasy. My brother, Adam, had entered my room and asked me point blank if I wanted to make a few bucks. I let him know I didn't want to be involved with drugs.

“It's not that,” he said impatiently. “Been doing some work, driving for this lady. She's really into me,” he said with a knowing grin. “Anyway, she said her friend needs a young guy to do some odd jobs and stuff, but not me. She needs me close by.”

“What kind of odd jobs?” I asked, interested despite my misgivings about my brother.

“I don't know. Moving shit, cleaning shit, lawn mowing—fuck if I know. He said if I find someone in good shape to help, he'd pay me fifty. So I'm taking you there, even though you're a little scrawny, got it?”

I frowned. “Why would he pay you?”

“Duh! I'm like a reference!”

My frown deepened. “Who trusts you as a reference?”

He leaned in. “Fuck you, boy scout. Put your sneakers on and let's go make a few bucks.”

I turned it over quickly and pulled my shoes on. I did need the money and, as long as it wasn't illegal, why not? Adam had a beat up Mustang, but all that really mattered to him was what it was, not the condition. As far as he was concerned having his beat up 'Stang was worlds better than a new Audi or anything else. A real status symbol. We left town and, when I asked where we were headed, he merely nodded his head forward and said we were getting close.

I watched the scenery go by and spotted a small sign announcing we were crossing the Susquehanna River, so I knew we were somewhere over by Binghamton. He took a few turns and finally pulled into the driveway of a house with an unkempt lawn. He drove behind the place and parked there. The house was two stories with white paint, but it somehow looked worn out. Off to one side was an above ground pool and a path to it had been beaten through the grass and beyond that a seriously over-sized shed. I looked at it all with suspicion, but followed Adam's lead as he climbed out of the car; I trailed behind him to the back door. He didn't knock, just opened the door and we entered directly into the kitchen. It was cleaner than you'd expect, given the exterior. Adam paused at the fridge and took a beer out. Twisting the top off, he drank and then called out.

“I'm here! I brought him!”

The house remained still for a few moments, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Don't ask me why, I knew I was here to do odd jobs and to get some bucks, but something was weird. Adam went deeper into the house and, just because I didn't want to be alone, I followed. The living room was covered in photo frames of all sizes—literally the entire wall with frames that interlocked like puzzle pieces. Glancing to be sure he hadn't left me behind, I leaned in and looked at the landscapes, the people and things that filled the walls. There were fields and country roads, people working, kids playing or simply looking into the camera and old cars; a little bit of everything.

Somewhere in the house I heard movement and then a woman appeared in a hallway. She was pretty, I guess, and was showing off a lot of skin. He blouse was a low cut scoop and her shorts were, well, Daisy Duke would have blushed. She paused and gave Adam a lazy smile before her gaze drifted to me.

“So this is Dylan, huh?” she asked. Her voice was trying very hard to ooze sexiness, which seemed to work on Adam but to me only sounded sleazy. Footsteps echoed upstairs and then thundered down the steps. A sloppily dressed, heavyset man with short cut hair and bright eyes appeared. A camera dangled from around his neck, a camera that made me think he took photography seriously and explained the pictures on the wall.

“This him?” the guy asked.

“Yep,” Adam replied. “He's ready to go. Speaking of, am I ready?” he asked, directing his question to the woman.

“Yeah. Head over to the building and pick up the van, the address for delivery will be in the glove box like usual. Drop it back off and come back here,” she replied with no enthusiasm.

“Wait, you're leaving?” I demanded.

Adam glanced at me and smirked. “You're here to do a job and so am I. I can't just watch you and get paid, right?”

I didn't like his logic, but wasn't ready to completely give in. “How am I going to get home?”

“Relax, boy scout. I'll be back.” His tone made it sound like I was overreacting. He walked out the door, beer in hand, and I took a step toward him, but no more. Adam wasn't a safe person for me, but I hadn't thought he'd leave me with strangers, either.

“Like the pictures?” the man asked. He strolled past me and let his gaze flicker over the framed photos.

“Some of them are really cool,” I replied.

“I bet you like the cars, am I right?” he smiled and I shrugged in reply.

Thinking that might be seen as rude and remembering I was alone with strangers I pointed at one that had caught my attention. “That car is neat. I never saw one like that, before.”

“This?” he said, pointing to the image. “It's called a Kaiser. They made it during the 40s and 50s. Kind of rare these days, one of the reasons I took the picture but more than that was the way it fit inot the image.”

“What do you mean?”

He turned and glanced at me before looking down to fiddle with his camera. “Small towns used to have a downtown area and some, like in the picture, had these slanted parking spots in front of the storefronts. So when you look at this picture and see the old hardware store in front of the old car and, in the background, you see a modern car and a cell phone store it makes for an interesting scene.”

“Oh, yeah. I see what you mean,” I replied. “Um, my brother said you had odd jobs?”

“Yes, yes I do,” the guy replied. “You noticed how long the lawn is?”

I nodded in response and he directed me to follow him. He paused several times as we walked in the direction of the shed and he took pictures. Maybe before and after shots of the lawn, I thought to myself as there didn't seem to be anything interesting to photograph. Reaching the shed he opened one of the barn style doors and, reaching inside, flipped on a light. The space was large and stuffed to the rafters.

“Okay, mower is right there,” he said, pointing to a small self-propelled unit. “Gas and oil are over here on the shelf.” He walked over to the wall where shelves went from waist height up past the top of my head. He pulled the gas can off the shelf and gave it a shake, satisfied with its weight and the sound of fuel sloshing.

“Okay, so here's the job,” he said as he turned and set the can down. “A photographer takes hundreds of pictures and keeps only the very best, usually only a couple out of the whole shoot. I want to document you mowing the lawn and see if I get a few good shots. Gig pays fifty bucks.”

I frowned. “How could you get an interesting picture of a lawn being mowed?”

He grinned. “Ever hear of stock photos? No? Someone like me takes pictures of random things and other people, usually in advertising, try to match an image to an idea they want. For instance, let's say I get a great shot of you mowing the lawn. A smile, maybe part of the sun, clean cut grass behind and long grass ahead, okay? Now imagine some guy looking to sell lawnmowers. Or allergy medicine. Or lawn service. Or, I don't know, teenage boys. See? They buy that picture to use for an ad campaign.”

I looked at him skeptically. “You can make money like that?”

He shrugged. “Kind of like panning for gold. So, you in or out?”

What the hell, I was here with no way out and lawn mowing I could do. Who cares if he took pictures of that? “In,” I replied.

“Cool beans, buddy boy.”

I pulled the mower out and checked the gas and oil. After topping them off I struggled a bit to get the mower going, but it eventually spluttered to life. I took a quick glance around and decided on a plan of attack and started in. The sun beat down and a slight breeze sprang up from time to time to mitigate the heat. At first I felt a little weird when I'd catch that guy in my peripheral vision taking pictures, but I eventually blocked him out. Instead, I started to think about what I could get for the fifty bucks—a haircut for sure, maybe a pair of jeans and a cool shirt if I found a sale. I wondered what colors I should wear to best catch Nate's attention? Should I wear his favorite color or should I try to pick something that looked good with my skin tone? Pink had become important to him since his mom got sick; should I consider that?

From there I let my mind wander to the two of us being out on a date and how Nate, seeing me like this, might ask me to be his boyfriend. The thought made a shiver run up my spine and I kept replaying in my mind all the different ways that situation might play out. I thought about me asking him, where to do that, different settings, different conversations, all with one thing in common: they all ended with a kiss. Every one of them.

In what seemed like no time at all, probably due to my woolgathering, the mower quit. I wiped my brow and squatted down to check the gas, which was empty. I pulled the bottom of my shirt up to mop my face, but pulled back as the wet cloth came into contact with my skin; I'd sweated so much that my shirt was soaked through. I pulled it off and draped it over the handle of the mower and started pushing it back toward the shed.

“Hey!” I turned my head toward the guy's voice. His camera was facing me and I felt a little weird again. He lifted his head away from the camera and pointed to a small table near him on the porch. “I put some ice water out for you.”

“Thanks,” I replied and gave him a halfhearted wave. Back at the shed, I refilled the mower, tossed my shirt on the door handle and hiked up my jeans. My legs felt like they were enveloped in hot, wet velvet and it was thoroughly disgusting. A bead of sweat ran down my leg and it tickled as it made its way down my hot skin. The breeze picked up and prickled my sweaty skin and, with a sigh, I decided to walk over and get that drink of water.

I pushed the mower ahead of me and the camera was focused on me the whole way. With a nervous smile I mounted the steps and poured the water into a plastic cup and drank it down greedily. I did that twice more, suppressed a small burp and then turned to go back to the mower.

“Looking a little red on your arms,” he said. I glanced down and, sure enough, my arms were tinged with red. “Let me grab some spray so you don't burn.”

The screen door squeaked open and slapped shut and I waited, wiping my forehead and looking out at the lawn to see how much I had left to do. A few minutes later he returned and handed me a can of sun block—specially formulated to let you tan, but not burn!—and I sprayed my exposed arms, chest and face. He offered to spray my back and, reluctantly, I handed him the can. He didn't touch me or anything, but I still felt weird that this fellow, whose name I didn't know, and who was taking pictures of me, was spraying me. It was just a weird feeling.

Once I got the mower started and I was moving again, it was easier to ignore the photographer. I let my mind drift back to my fantasies about Nate and lost myself in the daydream. I was almost done when I felt a pebble rolling around in my shoe. It didn't hurt, just irritated me, so I dealt with it until I finished. I put the lawn mower away and walked up to the porch and sat on the step. As I reached for my shoe the guy practically vaulted to the bottom of the steps and aimed his camera at me.

I looked up at him in confusion, my hands frozen on my shoe.

“Perfect picture. Long day, lots of work, pulling off shoes and socks to walk on the fresh cut grass—”

“I have a rock in my shoe,” I replied flatly.

“Same difference,” he shrugged.

I gave him one last uncertain look before I pulled my shoe off and tipped it to try and get the pebble out. I didn't hear anything and mentally groaned. Setting the shoe down I pulled my foot up and, yes, there was a hole in my sock and the pebble had managed to get inside the sock. I gave the guy some side eye but pulled the sock off and upended it, hearing the tapping noise of the pebble hitting the sidewalk. His camera clicked continuously.

“Okay,” he said as he stood up and let the camera dangle around his neck. “I'm going to go start sifting through these images and see what I might be able to use. Hey, do me a favor? Take off the other sock and shoe and roll up the cuffs of your pants?”

I looked at him uncertainly. I didn't want to ask him why he wanted me to do this, as it was obviously for a photo. Problem was, while all his explanations had sounded okay, they somehow still felt wrong. Then I figured: what the hell? If he gets off on feet, what do I care? He's paying me fifty bucks. For that he can have the socks, too. So I pulled off the other shoe and sock, then rolled up the cuffs of my pants. I was still pulling off the shoe when his camera started making noise, telling me he was taking pictures already. I leaned back on my elbows and smiled at the camera and he started to mutter under his breath. Suddenly feeling uncomfortable I stood up and got myself some of the cool, if no longer cold water.

“Thanks a lot. I'll add in a little extra for that,” he said as he mounted the steps. “I'm going to be inside going through all these, I'll show you the good ones if you like. Meantime, feel free to cool down in the pool or something until your brother gets back.”

He started back toward the house and then paused. He turned back and said, “I just had an idea. If I might get revenue from pictures of lawn mowing, what about other kinds of yard work? I know, I know, you're hot and sticky and just mowed a whole lawn, so not real work. How about just holding the handle of a rake or pretending to rake a bit, huh? Maybe with a pair of pruning shears or other things?”

I tilted my head as I thought of that, harmless though it sounded. “Will I make any more for that?”

“I'll give you a few extra bucks,” he agreed. “If the pictures get sold, maybe a little cut.”

I shrugged and agreed. After all the logic was the same: he was taking pictures of me, clothed, and what real harm was there in that? We walked back to the large shed and we took maybe twenty minutes as I pretended to rake, use the pruning shears to trim and other things. He snapped photos and gave me minor direction but, for the most part just let me go.

Afterward we walked back to the porch and he thanked me for the extra shots. I nodded to him and he hesitated before heading back inside the house. I drank until the pitcher was empty and stretched. Glancing at the door and the nearest window to reassure myself I was no longer being photographed, I walked down the front steps and glanced down at my socks and shoes. Maybe, if he gave me enough, I could replace those too. Would Nate like it if I got pink socks like his? I picked up my stuff and walked over to the shed for my shirt, now dry but funky. I thought I might rinse it out in the pool so I trekked over across the soft lawn, grass sticking to my feet, and mounted the steps to the wooden deck that surrounded the pool.

I turned to look around. The house looked much nicer with its surrounding lawn mowed. I noticed a few bushes near the house that could use trimming, but otherwise it was a big improvement. I looked at each of the windows, just to be sure I wasn't being looked at, and turned my attention back to the pool. While the yard hadn’t had much attention, someone was keeping the pool in good shape. The water looked clear and blue, and so, so inviting. I wiped my feet and then stuck them in the pool waster, but pulled back as my jeans were going to get soaked. Considering for a moment, I hopped in with my jeans on and the cold water shocked my skin, but also felt fantastic. I wiped the water from my eyes, dunked my shirt and squeezed it out, then repeated the process before climbing out. I spread my shirt out over the railing and, with a final glance at the windows, pushed my jeans down and, remembering to unroll the cuffs, hung them as well. Hopefully they'd smell less.

Clad in my boxers I decided to hop back in the pool, lest the camera guy come back out and see me. I paddled around a little and wondered what time it was. Belatedly I realized I'd forgotten my phone. As I thought about it I figured I'd been here for three hours or so. I had no idea where Adam's delivery was, so I couldn't say how much longer I'd be here—but the pool was nice. I started to daydream about Nate and me in a pool, perhaps having a midnight swim—skinny dipping, even—when I heard feet on the steps. I turned and was surprised to see the woman in a two piece swimsuit.

“Hey, Dylan,” she said. Her tone sounded like she was teasing me about something, but I hadn't a clue what it was.

“Hi,” I replied.

She lay a towel on a chair and slid into the water feet first. She didn't stop until she was submerged and then popped up near me.

“Oh, that feels good. I just couldn't get by without a pool, could you?”

I shrugged. “We don't have one, so I don't have a choice.”

“Oh? Well, you can use this one. I'm sure Todd has other things for you to do.” She smiled, “I saw the lawn—nice job.”

“Thanks,” I replied and relaxed a touch. “It was a huge lawn.”

“Oh, I know,” she said with a wide smile and then pushed backward in the water, drifting away from me. “Todd's nephew used to do it, but I think he has a sports team or something he's involved in right now.”

Before I could think better of it I blurted out, “Did Todd take pictures of him, too?”

She giggled. “Todd takes pictures of everything. Me, cars, bugs, dogs screwing—everything.”

“That's weird,” I said and she laughed again.

“You get used to it. So,” she said, her voice dropping as she moved closer to me. “Adam's your big brother, huh?”

“Yeah, for what that's worth,” I replied. I moved my hands underwater, feeling the resistance on my hand and arms. I enjoyed the cool ripples passing over my skin.

She moved a bit closer. “He seems good at stuff.”

I glanced up as she moved to a distance that was right on the edge of my personal space bubble. “Like what?” I asked.

She shrugged, but kept smiling. “Stuff.”

I started to feel uncomfortable and then, for some reason, realized that if Adam showed up now, I'd have to wear damp clothes and wet boxers. Since boxers are thin and dry out fast, I moved to the edge of the pool and, after dunking myself once to stay cool, climbed out.

“Jeez, you work out or something?” she asked.

I glanced down at myself and back at her, wondering why she'd ask such a question. It was obvious I didn't work out! I was skinny as hell!

“No. My friend Nate does, I think.”

“He have muscles?” she asked, waving her arms slowly underwater.

“Yeah,” I replied, thinking of all the muscles I'd seen of Nate's. Of course, that brought to mind thoughts of seeing him laid bare and a familiar heat bloomed on my face. Conscious of my thin underwear clinging to me, I moved to a lounge chair and stretched out on it to dry out my underwear. If I was brave or crazy, I'd hang them next to my pants, but I wasn't either.

A breeze crossed my wet skin, but unlike before it didn't prickle. Instead, I got goose bumps and my nipples hardened, which was kind of weird, and a shiver rippled through me. The breeze tickling around my dick felt weirder and, with embarrassment, I realized I was starting to get hard. I rolled over and decided to dry the back of my underwear first.

The woman, who had never given her name, pulled herself up onto the deck and sat with her feet in the water. She pushed her fingers through her hair, dislodging pool water which ran in rivulets down her back. Turning toward me she smiled again.

“So, does Adam have any other family besides you?”

“Just our folks,” I replied.

“Not a big family, huh? He seems like a nice guy.”

I snorted by way of response.

“You guys aren't close, huh?” She laughed lightly and then said, “I guess he doesn't always think, if he's bringing you out to a strangers house to work—and then leaves you there, right?”

I rolled my head from side to side, my chin pressed into the seat back. “We aren't close. He said he'd get a finders fee for bringing me.”

“Probably from Todd,” she replied. “He's always looking for photogenic people and places. It's kind of amazing, really, that he trashes so many of the pictures he takes. I mean, he probably took a few hundred images of you working today, but he'll cut that down to ten or twenty of the best images, usually. He's pretty good.”

I thought about that for a moment and realized it made me feel little better that he really was kind of legitimate and not perving on me, which I'd kind of been thinking. I decided to get off that topic, however, and find out who this person was my brother seemed to be involved with.

“So, Mrs...?”

Grinning she said, “Lynne. No missus. necessary.”

“Lynne,” I said, nodding. “So you and my brother work together? Going out?”

Her face took on a coy expression and she lowered her eyes demurely. “I'm testing the waters with him. He does some driving for me, kind of a freelancer.”

I sat up, twisted a little sideways, and was about to ask her what sort of thing he was delivering for her, but she cut me off.

“He's pretty good in bed. If you're as good as he is, I'll bet you make your boyfriend really happy.”

I was a little shocked at her crass statement and some slithering thoughts I'd had about her being seedy white trash felt entirely justified. Along with that, all thoughts of what my brother was doing flew out of my head to be replaced by wondering why he was talking about me at all, specifically why he was talking about my sexuality, which he seemed to be disgusted by. I sat up and, I suppose, the questions were plain on my face.

“Grab my phone would you?” she asked. “It's with my stuff.”

I glanced at her pile of stuff, the phone resting atop her towel and some flip flops peeking out from under it all. I sat up, stretched and crossed the deck to get her phone and bring it back to her. As I approached she patted the deck next to her and, with a thread of misgiving, I dropped down next to her and let my feet dangle in the water. I shivered as the cool water lapped around the top of my calves, caressing my sun-warmed skin. She checked her phone and then placed it beside her.

“ brother talked about me? That's kind of weird.”

She leaned back and waved her feet in the water. “We were sitting up the other night while Todd was doing whatever with his pictures. He has some computer programs he uses to do things to them; I don't know what. So we were hanging out, partying a little and just talking about stuff. I asked Adam about his family and he brought you up. Todd told him to bring you by for modeling.”

“Oh,” I replied, unsure what else to say. She giggled next to me.

“Cute expression on your face. I guess you think Todd is a pedo or something.” She covered her mouth and laughed a little harder. Heat exploded across my face and an embarrassed smile twitched on my lips.

“He's not, I promise.”

I cleared my throat and directed my gaze into the pool. “So I guess you and Todd aren't together?”

“Oh, on again, off again,” she replied in a casual voice. “We've never really dated, just kind of slept together when the mood struck us. He's good like that, not territorial or something—just likes to wet his dick once in a while.”

I was slightly surprised at her level of detail, but this only reinforced the idea of the kind of person I felt her to be. She didn't know me from anyone, why would she speak like that to a more or less innocent question?

I kept my gaze firmly on the water as my mind turned over the idea of being so free with your body and not seeming to mind if the other person liked you enough to make it a formal thing. I guessed it must be easier for straight people, being that there are so many of them and so few of us gays. Our conversation stopped then, and I felt it was a little awkward. I was fighting myself, wondering if I should jump into the pool or just return to my chair with some weak explanation about trying to get a tan. My thoughts were broken up by the sound of a vehicle pulling up behind the house and I stood up, along with Lynne, hoping it was my brother and we could go.

Instead it was a small blue extended cab pickup truck; a Ranger, I think. Lynne started waving and Todd appeared, pushing the screen door open. The truck doors popped open and the driver stepped out, a slim guy with wavy, brass colored blond hair. A girl with flaming red hair and pale features exited the passenger side and Lynne began to call to them as she continued her waving.

“Mellie! Crispin! Come here, you two!”

The both turned toward the sound of her voice, but my gaze was drawn to Todd who was making some weird two handed push kind of gesture. Before I could decide what the hell he was doing—some kind of fit, maybe?—Lynne pushed me sideways. I tottered for a moment, hanging in space, and then I was underwater. My skin having warmed and dried, I felt the stinging shock of the deliciously cool water. I surfaced to find Lynne not even looking at me, but hugging the girl as she stepped up onto the deck. Frowning and wondering what the hell she did that for, I moved to the edge and pulled myself out of the water.

“Mellie, you look fantastic!” Lynne enthused.

“It's the sunblock. Otherwise, I'd be beet red and peeling like old paint,” the girl replied.

I stood dripping, clad only in my boxers, as Lynne turned and pointed at me. “Mellie, Cris, this is Dylan Whalen. He's Adam's little brother. He came to do some modeling work for Todd.”

I cleared my throat and clarified, “Actually, I was told odd jobs.”

“Doesn't get more odd that modeling for my uncle, does it?” the boy, Crispin, replied. He took a few steps toward me on feet that didn't seem entirely steady, which was weird because the deck wasn't really wet and he was wearing expensive Sperry boat shoes, blue leather ones, so he should have had a steady tread. Tan khaki shorts and a simple gray tee completed his look, which I took in at a glance as he extended his hand to me. “Crispin Wolfe.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied as I shook his hand. His girlfriend stepped up wearing a pretty sundress, that went well with her pale skin, and strappy sandals. She held her hand out as well, and we murmured greetings. Needless to say, I felt foolish standing in my thin, wet boxers. The deck reverberated with Todd's heavy footsteps.

“Hey, guys, nice of you to stop by,” he said and hugged Cris tightly and then gave Mellie a warm hug as well. “I made some lunch; Dylan, you have to be hungry, why don't you join us?”

Gazes turned toward me and heat absolutely burned my face. “Uh. My clothes are kind of wet and, um, I'm okay.”

“Nonsense. I'll get you a towel. Crispin may have left a swimsuit here, right Cris?”

“Um, yeah. Guestroom, I think.”

Cris was studiously avoiding looking at me and his girlfriend was smiling and, well, not avoiding looking at me. I crossed my hands over my crotch self-consciously.

“Good, settled then. Cris, show him to those dry shorts and let's get everyone out of this heat, huh?” Todd said, threw an arm around Mellie and started the trek back to the house. Lynne patted the side of my face and walked past me, stooping to gather her things and follow Todd and Mellie. Cris glanced at me, blushed at my state of undress and said, very softly, “He won't take no for an answer. Come on.”

I touched my clothes and found my shirt to be wearably dry, so I pulled it on and left my seriously damp jeans where they were. I crossed the lawn with Cris, neither of us speaking, and entered the house, letting the screen door slap shut behind us. He led me to a small room with a single bed and dresser and pulled the top drawer open.

“I keep some things here—uh, what size are you?” he asked, turning to look at me.

“Uh, twenty-nine.”

“I', about that, too. Let me see,” he stammered and then turned from me and pushed clothes around in the drawer. I suppose being told to let someone wear your clothes was sufficiently weird to make him nervous, digging around in his dresser. He pulled up a pair of cargo shorts, a well-faded red, and handed them to me. “Try these on. If you want, we can toss your wet stuff in the dryer.”

“Um, yeah. That'd be cool.”

He stood still for a moment, the two of us just looking at one another awkwardly and then he started, as if someone had scared him. “Oh, uh, you want some privacy to change. Right. Um, I'll grab your jeans and meet you in the kitchen, okay? Laundry is in the basement.”

“Sure, thanks, Crispin,” I replied. He sort of twitched again and then left the room quickly, stating that he'd grab me a towel. Once he'd delivered the towel and departed, I skinned off my damp underwear and dried off thoroughly before pulling on the shorts. They fit well and were soft against my skin. I wasn't entirely used to being commando, even though I'd had to do it a few times, but this was more awkward than normal just because I wasn't wearing my own clothes.

I met Cris in the kitchen and we descended into the finished basement and put my clothes in the dryer before joining the others for lunch. It was a simple meal, sandwiches sliced in half and lemonade in a pitcher. Todd was fairly quiet, but Lynne was talking and gesturing toward Mellie, who seemed to be putting up with it rather than enjoying the conversation. Crispin and I were quiet; I didn't know these people and didn't have anything to converse with them about. That all changed when Todd asked if I'd like to see some of the images that he thought worthwhile from the shots he'd taken that day. Mellie declared that she did and Todd needed no further encouragement.

He left to retrieve a laptop and returned quickly, setting it up right on the table. He flipped through a few shots that, honestly, surprised me. I wasn't sure if he'd done something to enhance them or if they were just as he'd taken them, but I had to admit they looked pretty good. Then, with some excitement, he showed me the picture where I'd gotten a little carried away and had leaned back on the steps, torso and feet bare with my pant cuffs rolled up, and a little smile on my lips. There was a sheen of sweat on my chest and my hair, normally shaggy, was weighed down from perspiration and curling a bit at my ears.

There was a chorus of compliments and disbelief that I was the person in the image. Probably because my hair was dry, now, and poofed out.

“Did you do anything to the picture?” I asked.

“You mean filters? No. This is the raw image. Just the right lens, the right light, the right subject at the right time.” Todd looked at the screen with a satisfied look on his face.

“I'll take a copy of that!” Mellie said, laughing and I blushed.

“Hey!” Crispin replied in a teasing tone of voice and he began to poke his girlfriend in her sides, making her squeal with laughter as he demanded to know why she wanted that picture. It was nice to watch and I wondered if Nate would ever do something like that with me; have that kind of moment. With a sense of sadness, or perhaps reality, I admitted to myself that there would need to be changes for that to happen. He wasn't really reciprocating anything I felt or expressed, unless we had a few beers first. He wasn't inviting me to hang out with his cousin and the gay friends I was so curious about. Glancing once more at the image on the screen I wondered, if Nate could see this, would it affect him the way I wanted? With a sigh I felt resigned to the idea that no, it wouldn't.

Nate was a good guy, but he was enjoying all the attention he was getting way too much. That wasn't something I could compete with and I suddenly felt stupid for thinking I could wear new clothes or change my haircut and that, suddenly, Nate would realize he wanted to be with me. No, he knew who I was and he liked me for me, but not as his boyfriend. That kind of stung.

My pity party was interrupted by the obnoxious sound of Lynne's phone ringing. She glanced at me and mouthed 'Adam' before picking the phone up.

“Hello, lover,” she purred. Her face switched gears in an instant, going from languid to disbelief, to anger and then outright fear in moments. “You what? Don't say that! You got caught and you're calling my phone? They record this shit, you moron! They have my number! I have to go. I have to go!”

She stood, clutching her phone but not hanging up. Adam's tinny voice was calling out to her, but she was muttering about leaving in a panicked tone of voice and she raced down the hall. We looked at each other in confusion, and as Mellie asked what that was all about, Lynne came back down the hallway in a hurry with her purse on her shoulder and her keys dangling in her hand.

“Lynne? Is my brother all right?” I asked, stepping around the table.

“He won't be the next time I see him,” she snapped. She opened the screen door and then paused. Turning her head, but not looking over her shoulder, she said, “The cops have him. You better find another ride home, Dylan.” Then she was gone.

I stood still, not really surprised that he was in trouble, not even surprised that he wasn't coming back to get me. Maybe it was her tone, maybe it was just the weirdness of the day, but I found myself kind of disconnected...not knowing what to do next. This was followed with tiredness setting in from all the mowing out in the sun, having some food in my belly and just not wanting to put in the effort to figure out how I was going to get home.

Todd cleared his throat and said, “Dylan, why don't I get the money I promised you and then, if Crispin isn't too busy, maybe I can give him a few bucks for gas and he can run you home. I'll be right back.”

I turned to look at Crispin, who gave me a tight smile. I said, “I can walk, you don't have to go out of your way.” Of course this was patently false—I wouldn't get home that night, walking, even if I left right now.

“Um, where do you live?” he asked.

“Sanitaria Springs.”

“Oh. Not sure how long your stride is but, I don't think you'd make it,” he replied, adding a little chuckle.

“Cool, let's go for a ride!” Mellie added and began to pick up things from lunch. Todd bustled back into the room and handed me a plain white envelope that had a hard bulge inside it.

“I put a thumb drive in there with your pictures. I thought you might like some of them,” he explained before turning to Crispin. “Here, use this for your tank—will that be enough, buddy?”

“Yeah, Uncle Todd, more than enough,” Crispin replied.

“Okay. Well, Dylan,” Todd said, turning back to me. “Your pants are still going so how about you come back next Saturday and do some more work and you can get them back then. That work for you?”

I started a bit, surprised at his offer. “Um, sure. I mean, I would but, I don't have a ride.”

“I can pick you up,” Crispin replied and flashed a smile. “That is, if Uncle Todd is financing the gas.”

“You just think I'm an easy touch because you're my favorite nephew,” he grumped at Crispin, but good naturedly.

“Aww, you say that to all your nephews” he replied, grinning.

I looked at him. “How many does he have?”

“Just me,” he said, his grin turning into a laugh.

Crispin's little truck had a half-door that let me into a small seating area behind the front seats. The seats were turned sideways, so I was able to stretch my legs out as we got on the road. He stopped shortly to gas up, but as soon as we were back on the road, Mellie knelt in the front seat so she could face me and started firing questions.

“So what did your brother do for Lynne?”

“I don't know,” I said with a shrug. “Had something to do with driving something somewhere for her.”

She pursed her lips. “That sounds sketchy. What do you think it was? Drugs? Human body parts? Kids being sold into white slavery?”

My mouth dropped open in surprise and Crispin started to laugh. “Maybe he was smuggling Cuban cigars? Or alcohol or something simple. Why do you jump to those dramatic ideas?”

“Because,” she stated primly as she glanced at him, “those are boring. Can you imagine him being pulled over with a beer cooler full of human organs? I mean, that's how they transport that stuff, you know? Kidney, liver and a six pack for the flight.”

I burst out laughing and she smiled at me and leaned in a little bit. “So, Dylan Whalen, are you seeing anyone?”

I shook my head, still smiling from her comments. “No. I was trying to make something work, but I think it's probably not going to happen. Why?”

“Oh, I just know the perfect guy for you,” she said casually.

I tilted my head and a smile crossed my lips. “And how do you know I want a guy?”

“Lynne has a big mouth,” she replied promptly. The truck swerved a little, probably to avoid something in the road—I couldn't see what it was—and Mellie chastised Crispin for his driving.

“Wow. I feel like a celebrity; everyone is hearing about me through gossip,” I replied with a chuckle.

“Well, that was about all she knew. As a source of information she kind of sucked.”

“Did you know her well?” I asked, placing her in the past tense since I was sure Lynne was in the wind.

“Not really. She hangs around Todd's off and on, but she's always been weirdly happy to see us.” She turned her head and spoke to Crispin. “Did you see her at the table? I thought she'd never shut up!”

I laughed and she looked back toward me, smiling. “You didn't look all that excited to talk to her.”

“I swear she has a thing for me,” Mellie answered and then looked at me, “She never talks to Crispin like that.”

Mellie kept up the conversation, mostly with me, but occasionally dragging Crispin into the mix. She peppered me with questions, put me into her cell phone and took my picture for her contacts. Then she took Crispins phone and did the same, reasoning that he'd need it if I were to come back for my pants. When she mentioned that, I suddenly recalled I was wearing Crispin's shorts, though he waved it off and told me to keep them.

Pulling up in front of my house I was confronted with two sheriff's vehicles in the driveway. I presumed they'd want to talk about my brother so I thanked them both profusely for the ride and bid them goodnight. Before I could even take a step step out of the car, Mellie hit me with another round of questions.

“Dylan, what kind of guy is your type? Like, muscles or not so much? Pretty boy or jock? Intellectual or nerdy gamer? What do you like?”

I paused for a moment in and thought, and what came to mind were the positive things I'd been noticing about Nate. So I said, “I just like them to be nice. They can be into sports or games or books; I can get into most anything. I don't care if they have a six pack,” I said and then winked at her, “But I don't mind if they do. I think a sweet guy who'd like to spend time with me would be great. Still think you have the perfect guy for me?”

“You have no idea,” she said, dropping her voice an octave and then laughing. I waved to them as she waved back and Crispin honked, and then they were gone. I liked them, I decided, and enjoyed their company and was looking forward to seeing them again. Right after I talked to the cops and put on underwear, hopefully not in that order.

The cops were something of an ordeal. While they weren't much on telling us what Adam had done, they were armed with a search warrant and had torn up the house. As far as I knew the only thing they found was some pot in his room, thankfully not enough to get my folks busted for intent to distribute—they said that since it was their home, they would have been charged. They asked me several questions and perked right up when they realized I'd been with Lynne that day and that led to all kinds of extra questions that I couldn't answer.

They finally departed and my parents made a half-hearted attempt to put the living room back together and I did the same with my room. I was getting ready for bed when the envelope Todd had given me tumbled from my back pocket. I tipped the open envelope and out slid a thumb drive and seventy-five dollars. I counted the money twice, amazed at my good fortune. I lay back on my bed and drifted to sleep thinking of what I could get with that money.

The next day, Sunday, I was disappointed to find out Nate was going out with his cousin and I nearly asked why he never invited me, but if he'd wanted me to go, he'd have asked. Right? I went down for breakfast and Hannah texted to see what I was doing and I sent her a picture of our kitchen; she suggested we go out for a bite. I accepted, knowing she was planning to pay and was taking satisfaction from the knowledge I could treat her this time.

We met at The Four Aces, a diner downtown that was only open for breakfast and lunch, and I asked how her date with Josh Ridley had gone. She sipped her water, frowned a bit while looking down and said, “Not that well, actually.”

I leaned back and asked what had happened.

She sighed and looked at me ruefully. “I've dated a string of jerks, you know that? I can pick them without even trying. You think that's my problem? I need to vet these guys or something?”

I smiled. “You mean research your date?”

“Yeah.” She placed her chin on her hand and said, “He grabbed my tit and squeezed it.”

I paused and when she didn't continue I asked, “Did you want...him to? I mean, there wasn't any context with that statement.”

“Well, I might have wanted him to at some point. First date? Little presumptive, no? When I told him to stop he thought he was cool or something and just smiled at me and squeezed again.”

I stared at her. “What a fuck-head. What did you do?”

“Well, we were at the movies so it was dark. I pulled his pants open—he thought he was going to get a blowjob or something, can you believe him?—and I poured my drink down his pants.”

“That's my girl,” I said with a smile. Her lips curled up and then faltered, and then her lip trembled and she sniffed and wiped her eyes as she sat up.

“Actually, it really sucked, Dyl. I thought he was nice and he was pretty scary.”

I leaned forward, clasping my hands on the table. “I'll bet. But you handled it. Why didn't you call me? I would have come over, you know.”

She picked up her napkin and daubed her eyes and then just under her nose. The waitress brought our food, refilled our glasses and departed. By then Hannah seemed to have gathered herself and she looked at me apologetically.

“Dyl, you're a great friend, but I couldn't call you.” She paused and looked down and said, softly, “You're a guy. I didn't feel like I could, sort of, be around a guy.”

“I'm...but you know me. I'm not...I could never...”

“I know,” she said, looking away. “It wasn't rational. I was just...feeling emotional, and...I'm sorry.”

I shook my head and pushed my hand across the table and waited for her to notice and then to place her hand in mine. “Don't be sorry. I'm sorry he did that to you. I'm sorry he made you feel like I couldn't be there for you. I would have been, you know. I'd have come over in a minute if you'd needed me.”

She smiled and sniffed, wiped at her nose and nodded. “I know. You're sure you're not mad?”

“At you? Ha. I may have to kick Ridley's ass, though,” I said with a chuckle. She smiled at me and shook her head, gathering herself.

We started to eat and she asked what happened with Adam. I explained what I knew, which wasn't all that much, and then she asked how things were with Nate and me. So I told her that, despite my efforts, things seemed to be going nowhere. I told her about the idea I'd had to upgrade my image and the work Adam had gotten me into, which then lead to her wanting to see the pictures. I told her I had the drive with the images, and we could go to her house after we ate to see them. Instead she pulled out some weird item and plugged it onto her phone and held her hand out for the drive.

It was kind of interesting to me, watching her as she looked at the images. I scooted over to share her side of the booth and I watched her and her phone at the same time. Hannah and I have been friends for three or four years, ever since we'd met in junior high. Her eyes were wide and a smile stretched across her face as she turned the image of me on the steps toward me.

“Dylan, this is amazing. I mean, you look amazing!”

I was completely unused to such statements. I smiled, blushed and tilted my head from side to side.

“Seriously. Screw Nate, let's go get you a haircut and some new clothes. Just because he won't get to see you in them means it's his loss.”

After I paid for breakfast I explained how much I'd earned the previous day and we spent the rest of that Sunday changing my appearance. I elected to trim my hair rather than go radically short, and she helped me pick out a style. Then I got a pair of jeans, a few shirts and a pair of sneakers on clearance. While we were out, Crispin and Mellie texted separately and I filled Hannah in on them while we shopped. It was great how, for a few hours, I didn't think once about Nate and how I was no closer to dating him than I ever had been.

Monday came and I was hit first thing with the news that Nate and Erica Sawyer were an item. I sighed inwardly as I felt the last of my hope for a relationship with Nate dry up. In fact, if he was like every other guy I've ever known, I probably wouldn't see him for a while as he got immersed in his new relationship.

I did run into him, though, since we shared a few classes together and he didn't notice my hair or clothes. Instead he was talked about how far Erica seemed willing to go. I honestly tried to tune as much out as I could, even though thoughts of Nate and sex were still interesting to me. It was kind of weird, though, because Nate seemed to just be talking to talk. There was no real emotion like excitement or lust; he was just filling the air between us. I thought about that conversation on my way home from school that day, and I felt oddly relieved that any lingering doubt about Nate and me was gone. Nate was not be my boyfriend.

While that didn’t bother me nearly as badly as I’d expected it to, what left me a little depressed was there weren't any other boys in my class that I might be able to date. That Boomer guy had transferred in at the beginning of the year and he was dating that pervert, Phil. They seemed to get on all right and I figured that was because Phil was kinky or something. Phil was in my grade, too, but I'd heard too many rumors about him to consider speaking to him. Boomer was a year behind him, so that was kind of unusual.

Sean Kelly was dating Asher Ellis and I so wished I could see a porn of those two! They looked so perfect together, though I'd heard there had been trouble in paradise at some point over the winter. The only other guys in my age range were Austin Hamilton and his boyfriend, Derek Pellegrini; after that, there were only seniors. With a sigh I decided I'd have to resign myself to porn and my memories of Nate: an idealized version, not the guy he really was.

I exchanged texts all week with Mellie and Cris and chatted happily with them on the way back out to Todd's the next Saturday—and they both noticed my haircut. They dropped me off, promising to return in short order, and I did more yard work for Todd—trimming the out-of-control bushes I'd noticed the week before and clearing out the gutter that ran along the roof of his porch. True to their word, Cris and Mellie returned and asked if I were ready to swim. I dropped my jaw as I realized I hadn't remembered a suit, even though I knew I might go swimming.

“It's okay, I brought an extra—even though I reminded you a few times this week,” Crispin teased.

“I just figured I'd put on the same show I did last week,” I joked. Cris flushed as he laughed and Mellie jubilantly said she'd like that. Todd came out of the house, probably hearing the commotion, and told me to take a break with them. So I climbed down and got changed and reflected that hanging out with Cris and Mellie was helping to take the sting out of losing Nate. It also helped that they were such welcoming, easy people to get along with.

As we walked to the pool I couldn't help but notice the physical differences between them. Mellie was shapely with the classic hourglass figure that made many hearts beat faster. Her skin was paler than milk and there were tiny freckles along the tops of her shoulders, as well as a smattering on her face. Like her skin, they were fairly light in color and not immediately noticeable. Her hair, a natural, fiery red, had volume to it and her smile was always ready.

Crispin was her opposite: where she was shapely, he was all flat planes with toned muscle. His stomach was taut with hints of his abdominal muscles showing and his pecs stood out just a bit, but with none of the curves of his girlfriend. His skin had colored to a very nice golden glow and beside some light hair on his lower legs and forearms, he seemed almost as smooth as she was. He looked like his tight form came from being active but not from lifting or anything like that.

I was distracted from comparing them when Mellie tapped me with her tube of sunscreen. “Hey, I know I'm a girl, but Crispin won't wear sunblock. You'll have to settle for me.”

“Um, okay,” I replied and looked at Cris. He shook his head and coughed; rosy spots appeared on his cheeks.

“You weren't even listening to me, were you?” Mellie teased. Not waiting for me to reply she sat down and squeezed some sunblock into Cris's waiting hands, who proceeded to apply the sunblock to her lower legs. Squeezing a healthy amount into her hand she handed me the tube and then she spread the paste on her arms. “I said I want to get in the water as fast as I can, so everyone needs to pitch in and put sun screen on the pale-as-death girl so I don't go up in a pillar of flame out here.”

“Oh. Oh!” I said and chuckled before applying the sunscreen to her back. She started to coo as I rubbed the paste over her skin.

“Oh, Cris, you have competition! Dylan's hands are so soft!”

Cris looked at me and said, “She says that about every guy she meets, so don't get excited.”

We laughed as Mellie told him to put more sunblock on her. She switched subjects seamlessly and went back to teasing me about knowing the perfect guy for me, and Cris kept chiding her to leave me alone. It was a little amusing and, I admit, I was enjoying the attention. Soon we were in the pool and it turned out it wasn't for a relaxing cool down but full on playing in the water.

“Seriously, though,” Mellie said after aggressively dunking Cris. “You said this whole Nate situation was too long for a text. What's his problem?”

I leaned back in the water and dunked my head, plastering my hair to my head and then shrugged. “He was kind of testing the waters and, I think, he just found someone willing to go farther than others were.”

“Um, kind of cryptic. You mean farther sexually? And he just dumped you for another guy?”

“Not really. Nate is, maybe, bi, and he was figuring out some of that with me. Although,” I said while nodding, “this guy who's a year behind us, Nikolai, they kind of hooked up a little. But I guess this Erica chick is willing to do more or something; I don't really know where Nate's head is right now.”

“Hmm. You haven't asked him?”

“Mel,” Cris chided, “why are you getting all in his business?”

“Research,” she told him and they tussled in the water, ending with him picking her up and tossing her. She shrieked in delight and this went on for several minutes before they both turned on me. Mellie was happy to be thrown in the water, but Cris was slippery and I got upended at least as much I got him. Mellie was content to instigate by splashing or pushing while we were locked in watery combat. This degenerated into cannonballs to thoroughly splash one another and seemed to go on forever.

Somewhere along the way, I began to notice that Mellie kept forcing Cris and me to tangle while she slipped away unscathed. I also became aware that being in contact with Cris, considering the friction of our play, was making my body take notice of his. The cool water helped and I was only plumping a little but I didn't want anything to get awkward. I quickly whispered to him that she was getting away with it all and we turned on her, going so far as to catch her on the deck and swing her, me holding her arms and Cris her legs, and tossing her in the water. She was loving it, but more importantly it kept me from boning up over Cris.

Some time later we climbed from the water and stretched out on the wooden deck, side by side. I opined that I hoped Todd was still going to pay me, considering I'd been in his pool half the time I'd been there. I closed my eyes as I spoke and then heard a giggle and a body moving spastically on the deck.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Cris said. I opened my eyes and turned my head toward him. He was leaning back on his elbows, looking very relaxed except for the spots of color on his cheeks. “Todd wants to rent a dumpster and clean out that old shed and some stuff from his basement next weekend. Think you can stay for the whole weekend?”

I wrinkled my nose and glanced over at Todd's house; my misgivings about his picture-taking and potential intent roiled my emotions. “Stay here, you mean?”

“Uh, no. You could stay at my house, if you wanted.”

I turned back toward him and smiled. “Oh, okay then.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Mellie said, sitting up. “Dylan, you don't have any designs on my boyfriend do you?”

Both Cris and I erupted in protests and Mellie just laughed at us. Todd called from the house and announced he'd made lunch, so we all stood and Mellie got revenge, pushing us both at once and sending us back into the cool water. As we surfaced she scampered down the steps and across the lawn, laughing as she did. Cris and I looked at each other and hollered before racing to the side and chasing after her. We caught up to her close to the house and simply shook our wet heads at her like dogs and splattered her with drops of water as she squealed.

Todd had prepared another simple lunch of egg salad sandwiches and a pitcher of lemonade. Fruit was set out as a dessert and we teased and carried on as we ate. Cris mentioned the following weekends' plans to Todd, who was pleased that it was settled. Mellie glanced at me and asked if I wouldn't need to ask my parents first?

I shrugged. “I'll tell them, but they won't care.”

Talk turned somber and Adam was brought up. Apparently the vehicle he was driving for Lynne was loaded with drugs one direction and cash another. The police had been waiting for Adam to make the delivery and they pinched him. I sat back and shook my head. “A whole van load? He's going to jail for a long time.”

Looks were traded around the table and a silence that felt uncomfortable descended. Cris cleared his throat and said, “Uh, did you know what kind of stuff he was into? Adam, I mean.”

I shrugged and said, “I knew he was into some shady stuff, but I always told him to leave me out of it. He got kicked out of boot camp, but he never really said why. He's always been kind of sketchy.”

Cris glanced at Mellie and she looked from him to me and asked, “But you were never part of his crap?”

“Me? No!” I said, firmly shaking my head. “He used to call me 'boy scout' to taunt me for not wanting to be involved.”

“That's why he called you that!” Todd said, slapping his hand on the table. “I had wondered!”

“Were the cops at your place a long time? I saw a few cars when I dropped you off last week, “Cris asked.

“A while, yeah. They searched the house and then got really interested in me because my folks told them I was with Adam. Of course,” I said, shrugging, “He had only dropped me off but I told them about meeting Lynne and all.”

“They stopped here, too,” Todd said and leaned back in his chair. “I wouldn't let them in without a warrant, just because of my electronics. Cops search, they take computers and stuff and I'd have lost everything. I did talk to them about Lynne, though.”

“Sorry if that was my fault. I didn't know what else to say to them,” I said, apologetically.

“Oh, no, no worries. I think we all would do that. Plus, there was nothing shady going on here, I didn't have anything to hide. I did back everything up, though, just in case they come back and want my stuff.”

“What about Lynne?” I asked them. “Did you guys know she was into this sort of thing?”

Todd took a breath and replied slowly, “Not precisely, no. Lynne was always a little bit of a free spirit, coming and going. I wouldn't hear from her for months and then she'd swoop in for a bit and we'd get on for a while. I don't think staying in one place is her thing, or perhaps I didn't know her as well as I thought and moving around is more of a necessity than a whim.”

After lunch Cris left with Mellie, promising to return to bring me home. I got back to work, and was tired and glad to see his truck pull back into the driveway about an hour later. He'd changed into navy blue khaki shorts and a white v-neck tee and his familiar blue boat shoes. He wore the shoes without socks and there was something vaguely sexy about seeing his skin down to the top of his foot. Todd came out shortly afterward and asked me to put the ladder and other items away and handed me an envelope and I thanked him before cleaning up and departing with Cris.

We talked easily, after an initial silence that felt awkward for some reason. He filled me in a bit about himself—he played baseball for the school team, alternating between second base and relief pitching. His folks were kind of conservative, his father owning a small electronics repair business and his mother working at an industrial laundry in the billing department. I was honestly surprised when we arrived at my house, the time had flown by while I'd listened to him and asked a few questions. It was more just chatting than anything else, with him doing most of it.

“Man, you just let me blab! I still don't know much about you,” he said, leaning back in his seat and smiling at me. “When I pick you up Saturday, it's your turn.”

“Deal,” I replied and grinned at him. We said goodbye and I headed back into my house and made plans with Hannah to go to breakfast the next day. After showering I was surprised to have a text waiting from Nate asking if he could come hang out that night. I thought about that for a minute, finding it odd that he'd want to hang out since he was in a relationship, but then maybe she was busy. In the end, though, I told him to come over because Nate was, above everything else, my friend. He'd always been a little dense about people around him, but he has a good heart and there was no way I could punish him for not being gay or not dating me.

While I waited for him I started to clean my closet out of old, raggedy things. Now that I was getting some new clothes I had decided to get rid of the worst of my old things and I was going through my stuff mercilessly.

Nate showed up around seven and we went upstairs to play video games, but I never even got to turn the system on. I looked back over my shoulder to ask what he wanted to play and he was leaning against the door, looking down and shaking. I stepped back toward him and Nate latched onto me, hugging me like a limpet. I put my arms around him, almost a reflex action, and he shook helplessly in my arms. I held him tightly while his breathing dragged raggedly past my ear and he began to sob. I held on tightly and rubbed his back and waited for him to tell me what was wrong.

“Dyl, I'm scared,” he said, finally.

“What's wrong, Nate?”

Instead of answering he pulled away and wiped his eyes and then turned away from me for a moment, rubbing his face with his hands and taking deep breaths. I stayed silent while he did this and then he finally sidled over and sat on my bed, which gave a dull squeak at his weight. I moved slowly and sat beside him, looping an arm over his shoulders.

“You're my best friend, you know that?” he asked me, his voice pitched low. He shook his head before I could reply and continued, “You've stuck by me, even when I wasn't the nicest or brightest guy.”

I squeezed him and said, “Maybe I just wanted to get in your pants?”

It had the desired effect and he chuckled and I joined him. He leaned against me slowly and sighed softly.

“So many of my so-called friends didn't have time for my 'drama' after my dad went full asshole.” He paused and looked up at me. “I don't blame them all. After you told me what you thought of me before I...started to think for myself a little. But were always there for me.”

I curled up the corners of my mouth in a smile and tried to keep him heading away from his tears and more into a conversation about what was hurting him so much. “I always felt like there was a good guy under those things you said; a decent guy worth my time. I even said that to my Aunt Mina the other day,” I told him and then grinned widely. “Plus, you were cute.”

He chuckled again and shook his head. “Even if that were true, you never forgot you were my friend before anything else.” He paused again and when he continued it was almost like I wasn't in the room.

“Devyn has been so nice to me, trying to distract me; taking me places, getting me hanging out with his friends but it was a lot of work to try pretending everything was okay when it wasn't. I'm...I'm sorry for the times I wasn't that good a friend to you, Dylan.” He turned his gaze and met mine briefly and a regretful smile flickered across his face and was gone. “But I really appreciate you being there for me.”

To say I was stunned was highly accurate. This was probably the least expected outcome for the evening and the most deeply personal conversation I could remember us having. I cleared my throat and said, “I'll always be your friend, Nate. I promise.”

He nodded slowly and straightened up. “Always is a long time, Dyl.” He glanced at me and said, “She's going to die, Dyl. My Mom. I'm going to lose her.”

A wave of sadness hit me. What kid our age can lose his mom and not be devastated? “Are you sure, Nate? I mean, really sure?”

He shook a little more and then sat up, sniffing. “It doesn't look good at all. The doctors are trying to boost her up, but she doesn't want to eat and she's tired and so, so pale. It's like her body is just giving up.”

I rubbed his back as I spoke, “Did the cancer come back, though?”

He was silent for a moment, looking down and letting large tears fall. Then he nodded and burst out again in sobs. We spent most of the next hour on my bed, me holding him until he cried himself out. Eventually I went down and found us a snack and got him to play a few games, but it didn't last long. He was tired from his crying and I wasn't that interested in playing. My mind was filled with the impending horror of Nate's pain when his mother passed. Instead we went to bed early and I ended up with Nate cuddled up next to me, breathing softly. Just a few days ago this would have led to something physical between us, but I was relieved that my body wasn't reacting to Nate being pressed against me. Despite the state of our undress, even my dick seemed to realize that now was not the time.

I was surprised when he spoke, as his steady, regular breathing made me think he was sleeping. “Dyl? You awake?”

“Yeah. I thought you were sleeping.”

“Just thinking. Do you mind?” he asked, squeezing me.

“No. I like it when you think.”

“I meant holding you like this, jerk,” he said with a snort.

I patted his back. “Of course it's okay, Nate. You can hold me any time.”

A brief silence ensued, one where noises from outside filtered through the glass and thin curtains, filling the space until he spoke again. “I was thinking about Erica, and, well, about dating in general. Then, it occurred to me that I'm pretty selfish.”

“What makes you say that?” I let my fingers brush the skin of his back lightly, enjoying the fact that he was taking such comfort from me. In fact, I was really glad he could come to me right now, when he was hurting so badly.

Once more he fell silent and I rubbed his back and waited until he said, “Did you, like...want to date me?”

“You're dating Erica,” I said and stilled my hand.

“No,” he said and sat up, pulling back from me and reclining on his elbow so he could look down at me. “I mean...well, we fooled around some. I know me. And I like you, Dyl. But we never talked about doing anything, you know, formal. Dating. I was sitting here and thinking about stuff and it just kind of occurred to me...” he hesitated and, to his credit, looked me in the eye and asked, “Were you hoping we'd date?”

“Crossed my mind,” I admitted.

He let out a long breath. “Are you mad at me?”

“No,” I said softly. “I was a little hurt, wondering why you didn't seem to notice me. Wondering why you were spending so much time with Devyn and not inviting me, but I get that now. Not because I deserved to be invited but, you know...I guess it's complicated. But no, I was hurt a little, and disappointed, but I was never mad.”

He sat up and leaned back against the headboard and looked down at his hands. “I thought about it, too. I really did,” he said earnestly and then licked his lips. “But I have a shitty track record with dating, Dyl. I know this is selfish of me, but I need you to be my friend. I can't afford have us break up, you know, a bad break up and lose you for good.”


“I've had a lot of girlfriends, done plenty of dating and fooling around but...only one best friend, Dyl. I'm sorry if that changes things, I hope it doesn't. I promise you if it wasn't for that, if...if I couldn't afford to risk it, I would have. I swear, Dyl, I would have been your boyfriend so fast... But, I just...I need you in my life. I think I'm going to need you more than ever.” He glanced away and his voice hitched as he said, “I love you, man. I need you—too much to risk dating you.”

I took his hand and said, “And I'll be right here, Nate.”

~The End~