"Randy! Come on, honey, get a move on! You're going to be late!"
Maura Shiner hustled around the kitchen, grabbing the plates for the rest of her son's quick breakfast, her eye on the clock. She'd gotten off to a slow start that morning and was already a little behind. That meant trouble - even a five-minute delay would mean hitting heavy traffic all the way to her job. She buttered up the toast for her son and carefully faced them buttered-side-to-buttered-side, a terry cloth towel dropped over the two pieces in a vain effort to keep them warm a little longer. The cereal was poured out in Randy's bowl, but she left the half-gallon of milk sitting next to it. Cold toast was bad enough; soggy cereal just made it worse. Maura wished for the hundredth time she didn't have to leave for work so early; she'd much prefer staying home and making her son a better breakfast in the morning. She smiled to herself. Who's kidding who? I wish I didn't have to work at all. Well, maybe someday… but not with college tuition just a few years down the road.
She heard a scuffling sound and spun around, knocking her coffee cup just enough for it to slop over. Maura saw Randy and fought an impulse. No, don't laugh at him. He's been nothing but nerves and worry for months now. Don't make being fifteen any tougher than it has to be.
She glanced at the boy, then shook her head, noting the short, dark hair too-carefully combed into place - then paused at the pale brown eyes that used to be so full of fun, but now filled with a sadness she couldn't fathom. The clothes grabbed her full attention: a full-sleeved white shirt buttoned to the neck, and a pair of dark, baggy pants that looked far too heavy for summer. Her eyes flicked down to the heavy black dress shoes. Her jaw twitched. "Randal, why are you dressed like that?"
Randal flipped the towel off his toast and slid into his chair. "I'll be representing the Church today - I should look like it. You know: simple and plain, the way God intended."
Maura rolled her eyes. "Simple is right - you certainly look it, dressed like that on a day like this. Honey, try and remember this is northern Massachusetts, not western Pennsylvania - and we're Methodists, not the Amish. You're representing the church, alright. But you're going on a bus to Salisbury Beach with a bunch of other city kids from Pilgrim Fellowship - not door-to-door handing out copies of Watchtower." She bent down and snatched a few items out of the clean laundry basket - a pair of blue nylon shorts that could double for swim wear and a white-and-red striped shirt. "So go put these on, okay? And please get rid of those damn shoes - and the black socks. Wear white cotton ones with sneakers, like normal kids do."
"Maybe I should stay home, Ma," Randy suggested earnestly. "I mean, God gave us the Bible to study when we have the opportunity - and maybe today's a good opportunity."
She shook her head in exasperation. Even your father isn't that strict… When did you become such a little pompous, self-righteous prig? I don't care what he says - no more of those right-wing idiots with their TV revival meetings
"True," Maura said carefully. "But He also gave us hot summer days in July with nice sandy beaches with cool ocean water - and a cheap thrills amusement center right next to it. Now go change your clothes. You're going on that trip and you're going to have fun. Get it?"
Randal screwed up his face to think of an out for himself. "Idle hands are the Devil's playground," he pointed out. "I think wasting a day at the beach is idolatry."
Maura rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Not unless you're going to worship some golden cows it isn't. And while you're up there looking for another way out, try this one on: `Honor thy father and mother.' Your father paid hard-earned money for the bus ticket, and your mother says you're going to the beach. Honor that."
Randal scowled and picked up the clothes, then stomped back up the stairs to his second floor bedroom, each slammed foot on a riser a testament to his displeasure, the door an exclamation point.
The boy began skinning off the shirt, caught sight of himself in the mirror - then spun around so he didn't have to see, eyes furtively checking the door lock at the same time to be sure he wouldn't be seen. He undid and dropped the pants on the floor next to the shirt, got his feet caught in the legs then kicked off the shoes as well. He grabbed the nylon shorts, and just as he'd feared, it had a liner in it. After another visual check of his door he dropped his boxers as well and slipped into the shorts and followed with the shirt. He turned nervously, looking at himself in the mirror, feeling uncomfortable with his arms and legs exposed. Randy hated showing so much of his body. The shorts were even worse than he remembered - they were on the long side, and that was good, but still a bit snug in the crotch. And he could see his bulge. He tried pulling down his shirttail, but it wasn't quite long enough to cover `it', and that really made him uncomfortable.
The last time Randy wore something like these, he'd caught someone staring at him, or at least thought they did. It didn't make any difference to Randal if they actually were or not. Dressing like this was wrong, because he knew it made him a temptation either for himself or for someone else. A memory of where temptation could lead flickered through his head, and the boy shuddered again. He debated wearing his old jock-strap; it was a lot tighter since he'd grown and would flatten things more, make it a little less obvious. But it would be uncomfortable, biting into his skin, and since it was a hot day, swimming was a possibility. Thick wet cotton dried a lot slower than nylon. Besides the discomfort, he'd start to itch and might be seen grabbing himself. Worse, the damp would seep through his shorts, and people would think he'd wet himself, or worse.
He frowned. He'd just have to be careful. Being a temptation to others wasn't as bad as touching yourself, but Randy knew it could lead to other terrible things if he wasn't careful. Sinful things. He closed his eyes and prayed for strength.
The boy opened his eyes in time to roll them, scowled again, then trudged back down to the kitchen. His mother was at the door, holding her work smock and ready to run.
"You have money?"
"Yes'm," he answered, resigned to the inevitable. "I got my paper-route money, and Russ is gonna cover for me today."
Maura nodded. "Well, I left you an extra twenty under your plate - and I want every cent of it wasted on games, rides, and junk food before you come home tonight. Now try not to be such a sour-puss."
Randy rolled his eyes and sighed while he poured his milk over the Rice Krispies. "Yes'm."
"One other thing," she added with a firm voice.
With his mouth crammed full of cereal, now Randy's raised eyebrows had to ask his question. His mother sounded serious.
"Listen, honey," she said, leaning towards him. "I've been watching you lately, and listening to what you've been saying to people - and there's a few things I think you should take into consideration."
Randy looked up expectantly and his mother continued. "If you're serious about pleasing God the way you claim, stop talking down to your friends about all their shortcomings for starters - I don't know when that started, but I want it to stop. And no more of your nonsense about how some people are sinners because they don't believe in what we believe - that's not right and it's not your place; your Dad may be strict about himself and setting an example for you, but it's not your place to decide what's right for others. If you're as determined to be `Godly' the way you claim, look for a kid today who doesn't have much money - then buy two burgers and a king-size fry and offer to share, because it's too much and you don't want to waste it. Or try to be a friend to someone who looks lonely… or just plain help someone because they need it."
Randy stirred his cereal, trying to avoid looking at his mother, but she didn't leave it there.
"Your father and I raised you to love God and be a Christian - and in spite of what you've been watching on TV, being a Christian doesn't mean a college with your name on it or raising money for someone else's politics. And it certainly doesn't mean rubbing someone's nose in something because you think it's wrong."
The boy started to respond, but she silenced him by raising her hand. "It's a single act of kindness for it's own sake, Randal Shiner, when someone - anyone - needs help. That means more to God than a lifetime spent in prayer, reading scripture - or cataloging other people's faults. Keep that in mind today."
The boy looked down and studied his cereal again, said nothing.
Maura shook her head. God, Randy, where's my kid? Try to be fifteen instead of fifty, will you? She tried brightening her voice and forced a smile. "Okay, honey. Just be good and pay attention to what Reverend Seton and her husband tell you." She glanced at her watch and sucked in her breath. "I have to get to work. Love you."
After giving the boy a quick peck on his forehead, Maura dashed out the door, and a moment or two later Randy heard the usual two false starts of her Chevy, counted to seven and then heard it catch on the third for real. The engine roared and she did the exact opposite of what her husband always told her - she floored the accelerator hard enough and long enough so the belts screeched before easing back. Randal listened to the car back out of the driveway and fade into the street.
He finished up breakfast, picked up the extra twenty under his plate and tucked it in with the rest of his cash, then double-checked the contents of the back pack his mother loaded up for him. His Red Sox hat was on top and that went onto his head. The next thing he pulled out was the zinc oxide for his nose - that wound up in the junk bowl in the middle of the table. If he had to go the beach, he'd rather run the risk of a red nose rather than get tagged for being even more of a geek. There was a light windbreaker and a sweatshirt, too, since the trip would stretch into the early evening unless the weather suddenly changed. She'd also remembered a beach towel, along with some sunscreen. Sunscreen was okay, not like zinc oxide.
For a moment, Randy debated taking his Bible but decided against it; it was too easy to lose something like that. Besides, although he'd never admit it, he had trouble making a lot of sense out of it - the language was just too hard sometimes. But perseverance and prayer helped, and he'd been shocked to discover so many web sites that could explain everything he needed to know in specific terms he could understand. And his copies of The Extreme Teen Bible and The Bible for Dummies by his bed were already dog-eared.
Randal scanned the room one last time from the doorway, then wished again he had the nerve to ditch the whole trip and lock up the house. In the garage that stored everything but a car, he pulled out his bike, after tossing the new helmet his father bought him into a bin, next to the elbow and knee pads he refused to wear. Helmets were like zinc-oxide - an adult way of making you look like a geek. Randal couldn't understand what all the nonsense was about. The things were silly looking and it wasn't like he was in some stupid bike race. It seemed to him a lot of people survived an awful long time without the extra gear.
The boy pulled on the back pack and straddled the bike, spun his cap around backwards so the wind wouldn't catch it and blow it off - then caught himself. He'd heard two guys at school talking about hats, and how they were worn: "I'm tellin' ya, the only one's who wear 'em backwards are queers. That way they can go down on each other easier."
Randal saw plenty of sports players and others like that, and those guys were definitely not queers. After a moment's reflection, he decided not to attract attention and risk fate. He shoved the hat into his back pocket for the time being.
There was plenty of time, so he bicycled slowly out of Colonial Heights and turned onto South Union Street, pedaling at a comfortable pace. It always struck him as a curious section of Lawrence - Colonial Heights was a tight neighborhood of nice single family homes on well-manicured lots. Then you turned off Marlboro Street onto South Union and were greeted with empty store fronts and the triple-decker houses with their rotting porches, right next to what used to be a factory. A few long blocks later, the neighborhood became even more densely-packed, and the stores displayed signs in Spanish and a few different Asian languages. Randal couldn't be sure which were Chinese, Cambodian or Korean, but they were all there. Every building he passed had heavy steel bars on their windows and doors, along with notices displaying dire warnings about security systems. Some of these stores, Randal knew, chose to buzz in only customers - and races - they approved of.
Randal took his bike as far as the South Common, then cut right down the shady end of Salem Street, another anomaly as the densely-packed tenements turned into nice, single and occasionally double early 20th-century houses with large yards, nice gardens and established shade trees. Most had generous roofed porches in front, although he rarely saw anyone sitting on them. He liked the looks of this part of the city. His own neighborhood was nice, but too many of the homes were just vague variations on the same basic ranch house. At least the buildings down here had some style. If it weren't for all the steel grids on the windows, he'd like to live there.
The boy steered his bike into the parking lot of South Side Methodist, where groups were already starting to gather. He uncoiled the heavy-duty chain that was supposed to be resistant to bolt cutters from around his seat, and used the heavy-gauge lock supposedly made of extra-tempered steel that was advertised `like titanium'. Randal wasn't sure if it really was or not, but it was two years since he'd last had a bike stolen and that was good enough for him. He carefully wove the long chain through the wheels, then around and through the main chain gear, and locked it into the bicycle rack, next to two others. He recognized the bikes - the same model as his own, one red and one blue, next to Kyle Sterner's silver-gray. Randal glanced around the groups of kids hanging around and, sure enough, spotted the Brayce twins, Robby and Paul, sitting on the back rail of a bench, with Kyle Sterner standing next to them. The twins were laughing and Randal caught enough of Kyle's voice to know he was a little pissed at them, but he was still smiling so Randal knew it wasn't serious.
"Listen, you assholes," Kyle growled. "It's called a yarmulke, not a Yamaha! And no, it ain't missin' the propeller, and it is definitely not called a Jew-beanie." Kyle smacked Robby lightly off the head with the tips of his fingers and Robby pretended to fall over, dragging his brother down with him. Kyle shouted "Hah!" and looked over to Randal and smiled his crooked grin. Randal felt his heart stop - two words always popped up in Randal's mind when he saw Kyle smile like that, no matter how much he tried not to admit it: Cute and hot.
"Hey, dude!" Kyle said, then nodded towards the other boys. "These two jerks here talked me into this - but I'm not sure I wanna put up with two anti-Semites all day. They're makin' fun of me again."
"Shoulda thought of that in first grade when we beat on Steevie O'Neal for you," Paul said, picking himself off the ground and brushing the dirt from his legs, elbowing his brother backwards again for knocking him over in the first place.
Kyle snorted. "Not right away, you didn't! You waited 'til the next day, remember?"
Robby shrugged. "Hey, somebody hadda tell us what `kike' meant. We didn't know why you was cryin' - no one saw him hit you or nothin'. We thought you was just bein' a wuss."
Kyle's face flushed and he looked away - he didn't like remembering how he'd let himself cry in public - even if it was ten years before and they'd all seen it anyway. He turned to Randal. "Your rabbi…"
"Minister," Paul corrected.
"Your minister and her husband said we're on the second bus, and that the four of us've been grouped - that means we gotta stay together all day. It's only older kids on this thing, so they said we could go anywhere we want if we all stay in groups of four, just meet back for lunch an' dinner for a head count."
"Right," Paul broke in firmly. "So listen, Rand… I'm tellin' you right now: we just wanna have a good time, chase chicks and have fun. If you wanna sit around with a long face an' pretend you're some kinda saint like you been doin' for months, that's cool - but do it without us, okay? You used to be fun, but - well…"
Randal shrugged. "I get it. We'll work out a time and place to meet up when we get there. You guys can do whatever it is you want." The four scuffled their feet in the awkward silence that followed. Randal looked down. "I'll see you on the bus," he said and began walking away.
He heard Robby's voice as he walked off. "Told ya he'd be a dick," followed by a loud thwack, a sound Randal associated with a whack in the gut. He assumed Paul or Kyle nailed Robby - most likely Kyle. Randal looked to his right and waved to the Setons, and Brad nodded in recognition and made a show of checking off his name on his clipboard. The boy greeted a few more people he met along the way, but as happened more and more lately, no one tried to get Randal into a conversation.
After a few minutes, he boarded the right bus, picked out a seat near the rear and dropped into it. Randal sat back and closed his eyes, his back pack resting on his lap. He heard sounds and looked up to see Kyle heading his way with his big lopsided smile. Randal felt a stirring inside him when he took in the lanky boy with his short brown hair, dark eyes and smooth skin. Kyle dropped down next to him.
"Those two are sniffin' out some quail already. Tiff Scott and Claire Moody," he said slouching back and closing his eyes, lifting his right leg and crossing the ankle over his left kneecap. "Robby might score something off Claire, but Paul can forget about Tiff." He snorted. "Shit - Paul can forget anyone. And Rand," Kyle said firmly when he saw his friend's disapproving look, "do me a favor and don't start in with the morality shit, okay? I volunteered to sit here when your other so-called friends wanted to toss for it - and the winner didn't get you."
Settled in and relaxed, Kyle closed his eyes while Randal fidgeted, trying not to stare at the long tanned leg with its light sprinkle of brown hairs. Worse, Kyle's shorts rode up and Randal could see his inner thigh. His mouth felt dry. After a few moments, he was happy for the pack covering his lap when he started getting hard, and he quickly looked away. Randal already knew what was further up those thighs. He'd seen it often enough in the school showers, and changing up after gym… and long before that, it was seen as Kyle's duty as the early-bloomer in their group not only to show what pubic hair looked like, but also to demonstrate the fundamentals of masturbation to his less-fortunate brethren. Randal had watched with a lot more intensity than either Robby or Paul, and wondered what it would feel like in his hand, but didn't voice it. Long before he knew being queer was a sin, he knew for sure it wasn't a good idea to have people think you were.
"So how come you're not out there sniffin' then?" he blurted.
Kyle raised a lazy eyelid and looked over, smirked nastily, and blew kisses at Randal. "'Cuz I only got eyes for you."
Randal slammed Kyle with his elbow "Cut it out! You know I don't like that crap, Kyle. That stuff's sick!"
Kyle rubbed his ribs. "Easy with the fuckin' elbow, okay?" Then, in a more serious voice: "C'mon, man. You know I'm just kiddin'."
The silence settled in again and Kyle fell into a doze. Finally the busses began to fill up, the church staff counted heads, and they started off. Kyle sat up, looked around, then fixed his yarmulke on the back of his head.
Randal eyed it. "What's with the head gear?" he asked. "I never seen you wear one of those unless it's, like… one of your holidays. Is today something special?"
A sadness fell over Kyle's face and he spoke in a low voice. "No. This is more like a reminder. My gram sent me this from Israel for my Bar Mitzvah." He looked around carefully, to make sure no one was listening, then lowered his voice. "They had to take her to the hospital in Tel Aviv last night."
Randal whistled. "What happened? Heart?"
"Uh-uh," Kyle said slowly, shaking his head and dropping his voice even more. "Don't tell the two twats, okay? They'll mean well but they'll say the wrong stuff and say it all day long. You're different, even if you been a pain in the ass since last winter." Kyle swallowed, and his voice shook a little. "Gram was out shoppin' and someone lobbed a grenade or something into the store. She caught some fragments, but she'll be okay."
Randal's eyes bugged. "How come you don't wanna tell Robby and Paul?"
Kyle's jaw twitched and his eyes darted around again. "'Cuz they'll start in with all that 9-11 and terrorist shit, that's why - callin' the Arabs `Hajjis' and stuff. Well, I don't wanna hear it. Most Arabs ain't bad people - they talk about that at schul and at temple. I'm a Jew, and I hear enough crap from people. Even the one's that're supposed to be my friends - except they ain't like Paul and Robby who only joke about stuff to my face. They don't bother me." His face darkened, and his voice grew grim. "It's the jerks who call me a Hebe when they think I can't hear 'em and `buddy' when they know I can," he said, with a touch of anger. "They bother me, even if I don't say anything. Worthless, two-faced cowards, all of 'em." Kyle frowned at the floor when he said it, then caught himself and looked up to flash his familiar signature grin.
"Besides," Kyle added in a loud, conspiratorial whisper. "Some of those Arabs got some way cool ideas too, you know? I mean they execute queers over there, right?"
* * * * *
The busses wheezed to a halt in a big lot about mid-way between the arcades in Salisbury Center and the State Reservation Beach, and groups started to peel off, heading their separate ways in groups of four. Randal tagged along with Paul, Robbie and Kyle for awhile, but then the three met a group of girls not connected with their group, and Randal excused himself. Kyle lent Randal his watch and they agreed to meet at the carousel and then head back to the busses for the noon head count. If everyone were younger, the Setons would've worried more; that's why this trip was restricted to fourteen and up from their Fellowship group, plus whatever friends of theirs who could pay for bus tickets and wanted a day at the shore. Reverend Seton didn't care what church anyone went to as long as the kids signed up a week in advance, with parental permission slips with signatures that could be verified; the ticket cost was only to offset the cost of gas and an extra driver. Some kids were taken aside and told they could ride for free when they didn't sign up, but to say nothing. Betty and Brad Seton were cool, and they knew they could never keep a group of teens penned up, but at least hammered into their heads to stay in teams for safety. But Randy wasn't concerned. He'd been in Salisbury too many times on his own before.
He wandered around the Center for awhile, poking around in the arcades. It was still early in the day, and it wasn't too busy yet but there was still plenty of activity, just none that interested him. Eventually he trudged down the road and away from the games and the rides, swinging his backpack beside him now and turned onto one of the frequent rights-of-way that cut through the densely packed old cottages and strode onto the beach. The surf was fairly calm, but there was still a clean breeze of the ocean that felt good and smelled even better, and Randal walked to the waterline, wishing someone was with him if only so he could drop his bag and they could spell each other for a swim in the cold Atlantic water. He had to settle for just wading out. Randal knew if he left the bag unattended, it would be snatched up in minutes.
He spread his towel onto the sand when he got tired of wading, checked around - no one was close enough to really see so he took off his shirt, began rubbing the sun screen over himself as best he could, then lay out in the sun, using the pack to prop up his head. He liked the feeling of the hot sun on his body, offset by the cool breeze from the water. He preferred being by the ocean to any lake. Lakes were alright for swimming, but it wasn't the mix of cool and heat he liked. Randal spread his slender legs in the sun, hiked up his shorts for extra exposure after checking to see if anyone was too close. A year ago he wore Speedos at this same beach and thought nothing of it, although even his mother was shocked when she saw him; his father mumbled they were nothing more than `ball slings,' and that made Randal laugh. But that was Then.
Now, Randal wondered how he could have been so foolish. He'd burned those Speedos privately when he found them in his bottom drawer when he began changing out clothes for the spring, then prayed for forgiveness. The garment was nothing but temptation, for himself as much as others - as sickening as the thoughts he'd let enter and then take over his mind. Looking at those skimpy garments as they burned, he understood why God had punished him so severely for most of the summer and all that winter, right into another spring.
He picked his clothing carefully now, not wanting much of himself on display. Randal used to get a lot of ideas when he saw boys looking and dressing a certain way. Some of them got the same ideas, he'd come to find. And not just boys his age.
Randal shuddered, fought back the memories. He desperately ran Bible stories through his head to drive away the thoughts and desires that kept coming back to him.
He sat up suddenly and looked around, wondering how long he'd been stretched out. Had he fallen asleep? A quick check of the watch told him yes, but not long enough for his skin to turn red. He began spreading on more sun screen. More people had shown up and spread themselves around at discreet distances. On weekends, the blankets and towels would be almost hem to hem, but this was a summer Monday, so it was still quiet.
Randal caught site of two young men nearby and he paused, appraising them. He couldn't be sure how old they were, but they were way older than him - at least nineteen or twenty, but probably not much more.
They were less than fifty feet away and that made him more uncomfortable. Worse, they were taking turns spreading sun lotion on each others back, and it seemed to Randal they took their time at it and lingered longer than they should. It was scary to watch, and the boy felt more nervous watching the ease with which they could touch one another and in public, too. Finally, almost in slow motion, one stretched out face down on a blanket, and Randal relaxed as the other slipped on a pair of sun glasses and leaned back slightly in a low-slung beach chair, his legs splayed out and directly in front of Randal. He started reading a book.
Randy's curious eyes slowly roamed up the well-made legs and then traced the line of the man's lithe, athletic body. They suddenly locked onto the bulge in the tight bathing suit. The boy knew he shouldn't linger there but he couldn't look away. Suddenly Randal caught a swift jerk of the man's head, just a little up from his book. The boy looked up, face instantly betraying his guilt. His heart stopped. Suddenly, the man's head tilted to one side and Randal saw the man with the sunglasses smile, then nudge his friend on the back and say something. The other young man's head popped up and the mouth spread in a wide grin, then both of them began to laugh as they shouted something and waved.
Randal turned beet red and scurried up, quickly grabbing his stuff and ran off the beach towards the cottages, not stopping to pull on his shirt until he found a public path through the maze of small, fenced-off little yards of the rental cottages, most no bigger than enough room for two beach loungers and a small barbecue. Once he reached the safety of the main road, he stuffed his towel back into the bag and pulled on his Red Sox cap again to keep the hot sun off his head, but with the visor pushed low so his face was shadowed. The boy shook slightly, mortified not only that he had yielded to temptation again, but that he'd been caught at it. Even worse: from their actions, the two men proved they were sinners, too, and Randal knew what that would lead to.
"Homos," he muttered savagely. "God curses all of 'em. Kyle's right about the Arabs havin' the right idea: round up all the fags an' execute 'em."
Randal hiked down the main road towards the Center, wondering what to do next, not certain what bothered him more - the fact that he'd been caught cruising the two guys on the beach, or that they didn't seem to mind.
He shook away the memory from his head, then wandered back, checking the time and seeing he had to meet his friends. A few minutes later, they gathered and headed back for the busses for the first head count, which took longer than it should have because of stragglers who were called back before the dismissal, likely so Reverend Betty and her husband Brad could lecture them about tardiness and responsibility. He listened to Robby and Paul lie to Kyle about how they had the two girls they'd met just about ready to `do it' - never exactly designating what `it' was, naturally - when they'd had to break off for the head count. Kyle listened, made all the right sounds, and dismissed it in his head as just the standard Brayce Brothers Bullshit. Randal said nothing - not even remarks about immorality and sin his friends expected from him. It was wearing thin with them, and they let him know if he didn't cool it soon he wouldn't have any friends left at all.
They split off again, and Randal once again found himself alone. He bought a pair of cheap sunglasses on an impulse in one of the stores around the Center, then wandered up a side-street to a mini-amusement park filled with mostly little kid rides and watched, bored. He wished it was all over, and they could all gather at the busses and head for home.
The only thing that caught his eye was the old Ferris wheel, and he stared at it as the machine spun slowly around and around. Randy's eyes scanned the short line to get on the wheel and he paused, smiling slightly when a boy about his own age caught his eye. He had round, red cheeks and a nice smile. Unlike Kyle or the Brayces or even those guys on the beach, this boy didn't seem to intimidate Randal when he watched him. There was something about the way the kid held himself that said he didn't really know how nice he was to look at. Kyle knew he was hot-looking; Robby and Paul thought they were, and most of the guys that caught Randal's eye usually had that attitude and it made them cocky. But whoever he was, this kid wasn't cocky at all.
Randal watched the hands and the way the boy moved and wrinkled his nose.
Shit, he's a flamer.
He groaned and made another face - but still watched, fascinated, and caught himself murmuring aloud. "He's fine-lookin', though." Randal looked around, startled by his own slip, but if anyone noticed they didn't say anything. I shouldn't be doing this, he thought. It's wrong. Is this why I bought sunglasses? To sneak looks at guys and think all that sick shit again?
The operator began slowing down the wheel, and the tedious emptying and refilling of the carts began. Randal's eye candy stood with someone else, and kept turning and talking to someone but Randal couldn't see who it was - they were almost the same height, and from where he stood, Randal couldn't see. Finally they moved up in the line enough to where it curved, and Randal saw him full face.
A cold, desperate panic set into him and he lost his breath while his throat clamped. He mouthed a word without sound.
Randal stared, beginning to shake. "Run," he said in a small voice, as much for himself as the stranger he found fascinating. "Run!" he squeaked in a cracked voice. Several people around him heard a vaguely panicky sound and turned to look at a trembling teenage boy wearing a cap and sun-glasses.
Danny didn't hear anything but he looked up, saw someone staring at him and angled his head curiously. Randal's body shook uncontrollably in anger and fear. It was Danny alright, and whoever the kid was with him would be headed for the same things he'd…
Randal swallowed, looking for his voice and suddenly found it, then screamed with everything he had.
"Get away from him, you piece of shit! Get out of there! Run!"
* * * * *
The only reason the door to Barrier Books didn't slam was because it was on an electric eye. David Sciuoto marched into work Monday, paused long enough for a casual glower, followed it up with a nasty scowl, then grunted and stormed off for the back of the store.
Chris St. Jacques took one quick glance at the expression on his friend's face and another quicker (and slyer) one at his boss, then shrewdly decided it might be a good idea to head for the Children's Lit section in the far end of the store and start reorganizing the shelves.
A small, well-manicured, but surprisingly strong hand locked onto his retreating arm and forced him not to just halt but pivot.
"No you don't."
Chris swallowed hard, smiled stupidly and even though he always swore it was just something people said to bug him, his nose twitched. Catching himself, he did his best to fake an innocent expression as Karen swooped down on him for the kill.
"Uh-uh," she continued. "No sneaking off, you. I get the feeling if I go back there and ask David why he's an hour late, I'll probably have to fire him. So I've got a special job for you."
"W-what?" Chris stammered. "You want me to be your pet rat now?"
Karen smiled malevolently and nodded. "Yeah, I'd say that pretty much sums it up. That kid's been walking around and looking like he's ready to explode for almost a week. So, what gives? What's going on? Out with it!" she demanded.
Chris flushed and looked uncomfortable. Karen studied him for a moment and her voice lowered. "Look," she continued gently, peering up over the black rims of her half-glasses, "I'm not trying to butt in, but David's always been one of the happiest and easiest going guys I've ever had working here. Hell, he even puts up with your rag-ass moods, even if I have to admit you've been pretty good lately. I'm really concerned about him, not just being nosey - so get back there and do your job, okay?"
Chris' right eyebrow shot up. "My job? Jesus, since when is digging dirt my job?"
Karen shook her head and her voice took on a more serious tone. "That's not what I meant, kid. You're the best friend, and finding out what's bugging him so you can help is your job - that's what I'm telling you to do. I'm not asking you to dig for dirt for me, he needs someone to talk to. If you guys decide it's something I can help with, fine. If not, well… I learned the hard way last winter about sticking my nose in. If it's something you think you can tell me, I'm here. If not…" She made an exasperated expression, but Chris didn't answer. "Well, whatever," she continued. "Just you remember, though: Dave was always there when it was the other way around, in case you've forgotten. Being the best friend means that's a two-way street."
Chris shook his head while Karen released his arm. "No, I haven't forgotten any of that, thank you very much," he answered, unconsciously rubbing the spot Karen closed her vice grip on. "And believe me, you're not the only one who's noticed how different he's been. But honest to God, Karen - he's like a clam lately! I've been tryin' to get him to talk for over a week, but every time I ask him what's goin' on he either ignores me or just tells me to take a hike and mind my own business. I mean, it's miserable just bein' around the guy these days."
Karen's lips pressed thin as she took it in. "Okay, as long as you're trying… but listen to me: go back there and keep him off the main floor at least, okay? Somehow I get the feeling the first time someone asks him a question today he's going to go off on them, and then I will have to fire him. It's mid-summer and it's a Monday afternoon, so it's dead quiet in here today, likely to stay that way, and the store already looks pretty good. You guys can unpack stock back there and load up the carts. Then clean the place."
She shook her head as she looked upward to the gods, arms extended to implore heaven. "Hell, you can even break the racks down and rebuild 'em if you want - but keep him out of sight, off the sales floor, and away from customers. And at least try to look busy, okay?" She dropped her arms and her eyes shifted over to the register and Karen's voice lowered. "That damn Wynona knows I'm getting my own store next month and she's determined to get my job here, and she doesn't care who she has to ruin to get it. Not that either of you are exactly her favorites."
They both eyed the hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton-clone doing her best to intimidate the new associate learning to handle the computer inventory system. The new girl scowled at Wynona, spotted Karen and decided to look interested all of a sudden.
Karen sneered. "The Witch of the West's been sucking up to both the general and district managers, trying to score brown-nose points. I already told Prendergast if either one of 'em stops fast it's a toss-up if she'll slide all the way in or just stop at the shoulders."
Chris snickered, and she affectionately put her hand on his shoulder.
"Listen, hon'," she said. "If that bitch starts needling David the way she usually does, he'll kill her - and if she sees him getting even a little mouthy, she'll bypass me and do a write-up on him - and get away with it because Fearless Leader gave her that `senior associate' title to shut her up last month. And I probably won't be able to stop it."
Chris eyed Karen and made a face. "Any chance of her getting your job for real?"
Karen chuckled, eyeing him. "Stop worrying - you guys are safe. Prendy already told the DM if she makes assistant, it has to be in another store, because no one here even wants to work with her, never mind for her. And she is definitely not on the list of AMs in my new store. They'll probably send her to one of the older places in the 128 belt around Boston," she said with a malicious grin. "Serve the bitch right to sit in traffic two extra hours every morning just to drive fifteen miles. Now - get back there and find out what's with David."
* * * * *

"That'll teach ya," David grunted angrily, breaking the silence. He plunged the blade in hard and ripped down. He smiled, pleased with the result.
"Lemme know if the box answers," Chris St. Jacques muttered, unpacking another case of books onto the roll cart. He stole a look at his friend, shuddered, and decided to keep his mouth shut - a rarity for Chris, but on occasion good judgment stopped his lightning tongue.
David Sciuoto flicked his hard, dark brown eyes on him. "I could really do without your sarcasm, you know." He tore at the rest of the box, and muttered again when he couldn't break the fiber tape with his hands. He ripped at it savagely instead of simply using his stock knife, and white plastic packing peanuts scattered all over the floor.
Chris snorted. David glared at him, kicked the cart and some books fell over. He scowled and started picking up his mess, eyeing his best friend, who pretended he hadn't seen the flash of temper. David immediately felt a pang of guilt. Why are you takin' it out on him, he thought. He's your friend, so ease up. Talk to him. And try not to be an asshole today.
"You're awful quiet for a change," he almost growled.
Chris humphed, and his pale, yellowy-brown eyes briefly and coldly ran over David before he busied himself unpacking books. "I believe after I said `Hey, buddy, what's up?' when I got back here, your reply was `Shut the fuck up,' followed by `and fuck off.'" Chris shrugged. "I figured that was pretty good advice."
David winced. So much for not being an asshole.
He finished unpacking the box, then David grabbed a broom to clean up the pellets scattered over the floor. "Sorry," he muttered. "Just got some things on my mind."
Chris shrugged and continued working off another cardboard case. He didn't say anything, but at least Chris' body relaxed enough so David understood he was off the hook… for the moment.
"So, ah… what's the deal here," David began, trying to sound almost pleasant with mixed success. "How'd you an' me manage to get exiled to the back room to do stock - at the same time?" He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "I suppose Karen sent you back here to dig?" Oh, yeah. That's easing up alright. Smooth, Sciuoto. Real smooth.
Chris tried to keep the tension out of his voice. "We're back here because you walked in late with a scowl across your puss so Karen decided the best thing to do was send you some place where you could work off whatever's got you pissed, as far away from actual humans as possible." He eyed the remains of the case, carefully avoiding looking at David. "And I think she's right."
Ouch. "Am I really that bad?"
Chris looked at him stone-faced and raised an eyebrow.
David sighed, then nodded. "Uh, guess I've been kind of a dick lately."
"Uh, guess I can't argue with that," Chris mimicked.
David grunted, made a face and both continued working in silence. David stole quick glances at his friend. It's not like you got a lot of friends, he reminded himself. Not real ones, anyway. At least not the kind you can talk free with. So how about not pissing off the ones you've got for awhile?
He sighed again. "So I guess both you and Karen are lookin' for dirt, huh?"
"No," Chris said firmly, then backed off his tone. "Well, yeah, but not like you think. She doesn't expect me to report back - she learned her lesson."
David flinched, remembering the night Karen made the mistake of taking concern and friendship a step too far, demanding to know if things were getting physical with David and Chris. It created a rift that took several weeks to heal, and Karen walked on eggshells not to re-cross a drawn line.
"I'm the best friend, remember?" Chris added. "Karen reminded me it's kinda my job to be there when you need it, at least until you fire me. She was hopin' maybe I could help with whatever's crawlin' up your ass these days."
David chuckled. "So you got to be the human sacrifice instead of her if I decided to go off, huh?"
Chris shrugged and began to smile again. "The way she put it, I'm the paid peon, and better my ass than hers - the rat. She also wanted to let you know she's willing to help - if you feel comfortable with it." He stopped for a moment, then looked his friend right in the eye. "But it's totally your call," he added.
David nodded, considering the last part. Maybe I can talk to her… but a little later.
Their voices faded and they fell into a routine again, but at least the silence was a more comfortable one. David mulled it over, watching Chris. He envied him. His coming out at home was easy with his mother - awkward but not difficult with his father. And my time with Dad is coming soon - I know it, David thought ruefully. He still wasn't sure how Albert Sciuoto would react, and that made him uneasy. Plus there was the strained silence with his mother, punctuated with mutual nastiness if they spent more than a few minutes together. It was wearing him down. David ripped open another case, then satisfied himself there was only wadded up newspaper for filler, and began to remove the books inside. He stopped for a moment, then looked at Chris.
"My mother's been all over me," he blurted.
This time Chris winced and he fought the impulse to make some smart-ass remark. Even in the best of times conversations usually went silent whenever David's mother got mentioned.
David considered a careful way to phrase what would come next but couldn't think of any. "Uh… and I don't suppose it's news to you that she doesn't have any use for you, either - is it?"
Chris looked up sharply but kept his face blank. Warning, warning! Danger Will Robinson! "Well, she's... uh, always been polite to me," he offered, knowing it sounded lame.
David chuckled. "That's a nice way to sidestep trouble. C'mon, Chris. I know what you think of her - and yeah, sometimes she is one, and on wheels, too. And the way she acts around you and… well, a few others - I don't blame you guys for thinkin' that." He swallowed hard and his face flushed. "Not that she's all bad," he added quickly, trying to convince himself as much as his friend. "She really does mean well, most of the time. But she's got some blind spots."
Chris caught himself before making a crack about macular degeneration and nodded politely, avoiding any eye contact as he continued to work. For once in your life, keep your foot out of your mouth, he told himself. Wanna make an instant enemy? Tell a guy his mother's a bitch. If he wants to trash her - hey, that's cool.
David started breaking down the empty boxes they'd left scattered, pouring the packing materials into a large bin and dumping the shippers into the nearby compactor. He loaded up another two-wheeler at the receiving door and rolled them back where both boys worked under the air conditioning vent in the steamy back room. Chris tried to smile when David got back.
David reached out and placed a hand on Chris' shoulder. "Look, I know how tough she can be to take some times, and I'm not tryin' to put you on the spot. If anything, I… I just need to talk to you about her, so all I'm tryin' to say here is I know what people think, okay? Yeah, she can be uppity. And she really isn't mean… but I won't bullshit you or ask you to make extra allowances. And I know you don't want to risk getting into a jam about it, and I really do appreciate that," he added reluctantly. "But if you wanna be my friend, I'd really like to ask you to be honest with me, okay? I need some help dealin' with her right now."
Chris cocked his head. "What's the sudden big deal, Davey? I mean-okay. I don't like your mom, but that's as much as I'll say. Hell, you always knew that - and she never hid the fact she exactly didn't approve of me, even if she never said anything outright. God knows, you apologized to me often enough for the way she acts, but we never had to really discuss what I thought. What's all of a sudden different?"
David hesitated and then dropped his voice after shooting a quick glance to the door. "She knows," he said quietly.
The pale, yellowy brown eyes locked in on David's deep brown. David swallowed, gave a weak smile and nodded.
"She finally figured it out and challenged me, okay? And not just about me, but about me and Alan. You, too," he added and swallowed hard. "And she made it pretty clear she doesn't much like it."
Over the next few minutes, David gave the full rundown, editing out only a few finer points.
Chris took it all in, then whistled. "Well, I guess it could've been worse. I mean, you don't have to give what's-his-name a call at that flop-house in Lawrence to book Marc's old place."
David chuckled "Stick? Nah, it ain't quite that bad. But it's bad enough." He shook his head ruefully. "Man, she and I always had to tread careful around each other, once I got old enough to start sayin' `no' about stuff and back it up. There has never been any middle ground with us - when things are cool, they're cool. But when we're in a fight, we're two pit bulls, and neither one of us gives unless my dad referees. And in this one, we're both avoiding him. Trust me, if there's anything my mom and I know how to do when we're pissed, it's pressin' each other's buttons. And for the past week, we can't even say `good morning' without shorting out the control panels."
"Is that why you were late today?"
David nodded. "Yeah - I asked where something was, she made a crack, the next thing you know we're in a screamin' match again. I wound up floorin' the car up and down the highway to calm down. And just to make things better - I picked up a nail or something on the highway - had to fight like hell to change the tire, too. I'm usin' one of those lame-ass donuts right now." He shook his head. "Jesus! I don't know where she gets that streak."
Chris chuckled. "That's the problem - you've both got that go-for-the-jugular instinct. Prob'ly 'cuz you're so much alike."
David gave him a dubious look.
"No, dude - seriously," Chris continued. "I mean… you look like her; you talk like her; and both of you got a thing for short, hairy guys," he sniggered. "What're the odds you'd both have a Hobbit fetish?"
David tossed a piece of cardboard at Chris but grinned. "You're never gonna let me forget about what my old man looked like at the pool party, are you? Yeah, well, at least Alan doesn't have to brush out his back a hundred strokes every night."
"Yet," Chris laughed. "Anyway, Alan'll be relieved. He was startin' to get worried about the way you've been since the beginning of summer - he was afraid you were, y'know... kinda losin' interest." His voice trailed off and he nervously looked away.
David looked up sharply, fumbled with his knife and swore when he nicked himself. The beginning of summer, he thought, sucking on his wounded thumb. Oh, shit. Has it been showing that long?
"So how come so long for reaction to set in?" Chris asked. "I mean, how come it didn't get real nasty until around a week ago?"
"Uh," David fumbled, trying to think up some quick reasons. "I mean… at the beginning of summer is when she got into the gay stuff," he lied. "But uh… well, last week, she pitched a bitch about Alan, and that's what set the rest off. She doesn't want him at the house at all - whether she's there or not."
Chris flinched. "Great. So you don't tell Alan?" He shook his head. "Not real smart, Davey. Because now he thinks he either did something wrong or you're lookin' to dump him. You better let him know what the deal is, and soon. Oh - and just in case it comes up: lie to him about how you're telling me before you tell him."
"Why lie?"
"'Cuz he's the boyfriend," Chris said, exasperated. "And he should be the first to know when there's trouble."
David's nostrils flared and he narrowed his eyes. "That's kinda hypocritical, isn't it? I mean, you told me about Jamie before you faced him."
Chris nodded. "Yeah, but there's a difference, Dave. Back then, the trouble was with Jamie. But with you two, it's someone makin' trouble for you. And to make it worse, Alan already thinks he's the problem."
"I'd never do anything to hurt him," David said softly. "I mean... even if we weren't together. He's already had enough crap in his life."
Chris shrugged and nodded. "Listen, I'm goin' nuts hangin' out back here. Are you cool with takin' some of this stuff out to the floor? I mean, it's Monday, and it's gonna be dead, and if we get busy puttin' this stuff away, at least it'll help the time zip by." He looked up smugly. "Plus if you're feelin' up to it, we can bait Wynona - that's always fun."
Dave snorted. "Wynona. That's like shootin' fish in a barrel - besides, she's been almost decent lately."
Chris shrugged. "Maybe - but it's only Wynona. Not like it's anyone that matters."
They rolled the carts out, and Karen looked over and caught Chris' eye, and he nodded it was okay. They packed out and straightened right into dinner, stopping only occasionally to work with the stray customer wandering in on a dead business day, and then burned the rest of the middle shift looking for things to do. David kept an eye on Karen, wondering when or even if she would approach him. She did stop a few times, but didn't probe, which was a relief. Meanwhile, David mulled the situation over in his mind; how much could he tell, and to who?
It scared him that Alan was worried. David told Alan over and over again how much he meant to him - and meant it. But when Alan looked at himself, all he ever saw were the drawbacks. But David liked Alan, not just a pretty face or a hot body. He liked who Alan was, and he loved how Alan felt in his arms, just because it was him. David knew he had to find out from Chris about what he'd done wrong. He finally decided telling Alan about his mother problems would help.
And the other stuff? What about Danny? How do you tell him you're a coward, that you screwed someone else to cover your own ass? Isn't that the same thing that happened to him?
David shuddered, but the answer came too easy, too quick. No one has to know - ever. Martin's safe, and it's all cool now - put it away.
Another part nagged him. Oh yeah, it's all put away, nice 'n neat. Then what about the dreams? How come you still wake up with the cold sweats?
"No," he muttered, earning himself a glance from a man in his mid-fifties browsing through the mystery section. "It's done. Over. Leave it behind like before."
David pushed the emptying cart across the sales floor. Karen signaled him to stop and walked over.
"Head out - shift's done."
David checked his watch, confused. "Wow. Uh, about that hour - I mean I can make it up if you want."
Karen shook her head. "I've got enough people - you and Chris are out of here at seven tonight, just like the schedule says. And as for being late - don't do it like that again," she said simply. "If you're going to be late, call me. If some emergency comes up, fine - let me know as soon as you can. But don't just come in here all pissed-off and not even bother to say something, alright? And you don't have to work it off… you'll just go a little light in your next check."
David nodded, aware he'd had his wrist slapped, and was lucky it was only that. They both knew David would never miss an hour in his check, but there didn't seem any point in reminding Karen. He looked around, didn't see Chris on the floor and headed for the back room. Chris was leaning against the time clock, eyes glued to the glass face, waiting for the last click.
"What're you doin' tonight?" David asked.
"No one," Chris answered, dropping his card in at precisely the right moment. "Just me and myself. And maybe later we'll visit my buddy, Harry Palm."
"Sick bitch. I might stop by later, maybe with Alan, but I'm not sure. Okay to come by?"
Chris agreed, since they were on the same shift. David punched his card, and they shot for the door. As soon as they hit the sidewalk, Chris' mouth stopped for a second and his head jerked to the right. David watched the eyebrows join the hairline.
"Damn! It's him!"
David looked around, mystified.
"No, dude!" Chris babbled. "I just saw a guy I... well, I've seen him twice before - once at a U-Mass thing, and again last week. He gave me the once over at the mall the night I saw Martin with his new little hunk. He just walked into that restaurant!"
David frowned. "Huh? What are you talkin' about? What guy?"
Chris licked his lips, craning his neck to see if he could catch sight of sandy-brown hair in the shadowy windows of the Not Your Average Joe restaurant. He turned back to David. "He's wicked cute. Honest."
David frowned more. "The guy with Martin?"
"No! The guy I caught checkin' me. He's got..."
David clamped a hand on Chris' shoulder. "Slow down, okay? Yeah, yeah... I got the part where you're cruisin' at the mall again, even after what happened last year."
"I was not cruising!" Chris protested. "I was just shopping, an' I ran into someone and we were..."
David shook his head impatiently, and Chris didn't pick up on how much what he said upset David. "Okay, you saw some hottie," David said, talking right over Chris before he could start up again. "I told you I got it. Now, tell me about the Martin part. He was with someone? What'd the guy look like? Think!"
"Dunno," Chris answered, craning his neck for a better look inside. "I only saw him from the back. About the same size, I guess, with blond hair, kinda long and maybe touched up a little." He chuckled. "I saw him grab Martin's ass when no one was lookin' - and again when someone was. And from the look on his face, Martin was in heaven." His eyes and attention shifted again. "Now, c'mon, Dave, I gotta get..."
"Chris! Focus will you! You'll see whoever he is," David growled, trying not to yell. "It's important. Now think! Have you ever seen this guy before - the one with Martin? Did he look older than him at all?"
Chris shook his head, then stole another glance at the restaurant. "Nope, I just saw the back of his head… he was about Martin's height, and kinda small, so I figure they were the same age." Chris frowned. "What's the big deal? So Martin met some kid - just 'cuz at his age all we did was dream doesn't mean he can't catch a break. And that kid really could use a break."
"Breaks are fine," David muttered. "I just don't want him broken." He checked his watch, tuning Chris out and debating. Should he go home and call? Or drive to Martin's house? "Go check for what's-his-name," he called back over his shoulder, making for his car. "I'll call ya!"
Chris stood blinking into the glare of the parking lot lights as David moved off almost at a run. He shook his head, watching David weave through the cars to the outer lot where Loop employees were supposed to park. "Now what's the matter with him?" he muttered, staring as his friend dodged through the parked cars.
David dug in his pockets, fumbling for his keys, barely conscious of a car behind him driving too fast, but he didn't pay any attention or even look back. He swore when he dropped the key to the Jetta, cursed more when he had to fish them out from under the car when they bounced on the pavement. David sprang up when he heard brakes squeal one row over, and popped up in time to see a burly shadow charging at him. David's eyes squinted under the glaring lights. Whoever it was started shouting for David to stop, then he saw who it was, and his heart jumped a beat
Leo? What's that jerk want? I don't have time for any of his crap. David swallowed, watching the figure as it dodged through the parked cars and charged out, almost getting clipped by another passing car. David caught sight of the jack and tire he'd tossed into the back seat earlier, then spotted the tire iron on the rear seat. He grabbed over the front seat and grasped the end, spinning just as the bulky ex-wrestler sprang across the roadway as the car cleared.
"Back off, Leo!" David shouted, bringing the heavy rod up over his shoulder, threatening. "So help me Christ, you lay one hand on me this time and I'll crush that skull of yours!" And if I miss, I'll go down swingin' anyway.
Leo came up fast but held his hands out, yelling for David to stop. He halted a few feet short of David, breathing heavily but far from out of breath. "You got me wrong, guy," he said with a wheeze. "I'm only here 'cuz I need your help."
David eyed him suspiciously but let the tool in his hand drop to chest level, then glanced back to Leo's car parked in the middle of the lane, a few rows away. He saw Leo's face close enough for the first time to read the expression: it wasn't any more attractive, but it wasn't angry. And it looked scared. Still…
"Yeah, right," David said, still keeping his grip on the tire iron. "Why the hell would I wanna do you any favors?"
Leo backed off a little more, holding his hands in front of him, palms out. "Just cool it willya? This ain't about us, okay? It's Martin… him and some other kid are in trouble, and they won't talk to anyone but you."
David Sciuoto froze, felt the air draining from his lungs. Not again, please, not again. He fought for breath; felt a cold fist clamping at the pit of his stomach.