"You guys hungry again?"
The two boys were huddled together in front of the monitor and working at their PS2 game controllers. Without bothering to turn or even look up, each let out a grunt that Alan Curran read as a negative response.
Alan grimaced, for the first time truly understanding the frustration his sister felt at times. "How about sodas? We're out of Coke, but we got root beer."
Two more grunts, but higher-pitched and they registered as positive on Alan's newly developing Kidometer.
Randy let out a whoop. "Gotcha! Kiss your advance tacticals good-bye, sucker!"
Martin turned his head and gave Randy a smug look. "True. But that was your last SAM and I still got nukes. Kiss your ass goodbye, sucker!" he crowed. An even louder roar came from the speaker and the screen glowed red, then dissolved to white.
Randy muttered something and the two heads went down again. Alan shrugged and stepped out of the doorway of his bedroom and headed back to the kitchen. He knew he'd ceased to exist.
He eyed the clock above the kitchen table as he walked by and wondered again where David was. Alan had collected the bruised-up Randy behind the Brighter World Carpets building at eight-thirty - spotted the boy lurking in the brush when he circled into the back. In spite of Randy's stoic insistence that everything was okay, Alan had checked Randy's injured knee and satisfied himself that the damage wasn't much more than bruising with surface scrapes. He and Martin helped Randy into the Jeep Wrangler and the three of them had been together ever since. Alan hadn't missed the fact that Martin insisted on riding in the back with Randy. Even after they'd arrived at Alan's home, the two boys avoided staying more than a few inches apart, even sharing the same chair at the computer when Alan gave them some games to kill time with.
For a straight boy who doesn't like fags, Randy doesn't seem to have issues about body contact with one. He smiled to himself as he poured out the soda into a pair of tall glasses.
He heard two sharp knuckle raps against glass and looked up just as David pushed the back door open. He kicked it shut and swept in behind Alan and wrapped his arms around the shorter boy's waist and leaned his head on Alan's shoulder. "Hey, babe. Got somethin' sweet to give me?" he asked, then making lip-smack sounds.
Alan grinned and slid the root beer bottle away before turning around in David's arms. David wiggled his eyebrows and puckered his mouth, bouncing his middle lightly against Alan. Alan planted a hand on David's chest and looked down below their waists, then pouted. "You know, after me not gettin' much for months, you seem pretty determined about makin' up for lost time." He raised an eyebrow. "Pool house tonight?"
David leaned in and their lips closed together in a deep kiss. Suddenly Alan had an odd feeling… why couldn't he hear the sound effects from the game anymore? He opened his eyes and spotted two heads poking out from behind his bedroom door.
"Company," he murmured to David after breaking the kiss.
David pressed his crotch into Alan and began to gyrate his hips slightly and leaning his face into Alan's again. "So what?" he murmured. "Martin's seen us snoggin' before."
"Randy - remember? He freaks too easy."
"Damn," David muttered and twisted his head. Martin was the same as always when he caught them kissing - all eyes, except for his open mouth. Randy was poker-faced.
"Uh… hi, guys," David said in a glum voice. He edged away from Alan, and quickly rearranged the front of his pants before turning around. Martin grinned and bolted into the room, with Randy right behind him. David dug into his back pocket and took out two rigid disk cases. "Randy - these are for you," he said quietly, holding them out.
Randy eyed them like they were poisonous snakes for a few seconds before he carefully took them from David's hand. He looked up at the older boy with nervous eyes that spoke for him.
"Danny's gone," David said in a low voice. "I got these from him, and he never got the chance to upload anything. You're safe."
Randy studied him suspiciously. "How do you know he's gone for sure? And what about Griff?"
"Never mind about him," David said firmly. "Just take my word - Danny's out of your life for good. As for Griff - well, I doubt if he has any idea how to get at you, so…" his voice trailed and he shrugged.
Randy rubbed his fingers over the disk cases slowly, popped one open for a minute, then snapped it shut. Suddenly he looked up into David's eyes, and for the first time, David saw that the boy looked relaxed.
"Thanks," he said simply. "For everything. Thanks. Uh…" He swallowed, then looked up. "Did you look at 'em?"
"Only to make sure they were what I wanted," David answered, and decided not to mention Leo having a glance. "I do know they're copies, but I'm pretty sure the originals are somewhere that Danny can't get to - at least, not any more. And Danny had nothing to gain by making more copies, so I wouldn't worry about it. As for the originals… well, if they ever get traced back to you, I doubt it'll be by anyone who would want to hurt you. I can't do better than that."
Randy eyed the disks again, wondering if he should destroy them in front of everyone, then decided to slide them into his back pocket instead. "You still didn't say what happened to Griff."
"He'll be taken care of," David said evasively. "That's all I can tell you, because that's all I know. You're gonna have to trust me."
The boy nodded slowly, tried to smile. Martin nudged him and grinned a huge grin. After a moment, Randy smiled for real when their eyes made contact. "I told you these guys were cool," Martin said with an air of smugness.
Alan handed them their drinks and poured more for himself and David. "We can do the champagne toast bit later," he said with a grin. "This is all I got for now." He eyed David. "And I got something special for you later."
"Yeah… at the pool house," Martin giggled. David and Randy both blushed.
"Just one more thing," David added after sipping his tonic. He looked at both Martin and Randy. "I need everyone - and I mean everyone - who had a hand in this deal available tomorrow. We'll be having a pool party at my uncle's… and Uncle Lou says it's got to be a loud one."
"Won't the neighbors complain?" asked Martin.
"I think that's the idea," David replied. "That way, plenty of people know where we were and that it's gonna run all day. Martin, I already called Leo, and your sister will be coming with him, so you're all set for a lift. Randy, I can pick you up - can you manage it?"
Randy shrugged. "My mom works Saturdays at the store most weeks," he said. "And I know my Dad'll be working overtime at the dealership - they had a recall on their best-seller and they've got people screaming to get the fix. Something about failing brakes."
Alan poked David. "Just do your cute-boy weasel thing on his mother," he teased. "Flash those big brown eyes and give her your best Crest smile. Everyone falls for that routine."
"How come we have to be there together?" Martin broke in.
"Because we have to," David stated and three sets of skeptical eyes focused on him, noting the use of adult logic. He sighed and shook his head. "Look… all I know is, something's gonna go down at Griff's tomorrow, and it's important."
"How's your uncle in this?" Martin quizzed.
The room suddenly grew quiet, and David's eyes had a hooded look. "Friends of his," was the only reply.
Alan heard the emphasis on the first word and arched an eyebrow before shooting Martin a warning look, followed by a light kick just as the boy's mouth opened. Martin snapped his mouth shut with a pop.
As soon as Randy heard `Griff,' that was enough for him. Then he surprised everyone. "Stay at my house tonight," he said to Martin out of the blue. "My parents won't bitch. They never complain when someone stays over. All four of us can ride over together."
Martin looked skeptical. "What about your parents? I mean… they're gonna take one look at me and ask some questions," he said uncertainly. "Are you sure?"
Randy surprised him even more when he answered without hesitation. "C'mon, man," he said, squeezing his shoulder. "You're my friend. We already talked about you comin' down on the bus so we could hang out - they might as well get used to it now."
A shocked Martin called home about an overnight as soon as he thought his mother might be there and was surprised when his father answered. Friday was payday, and that usually meant stopping off `for a couple of drinks' that lasted until seven or eight. He gave Martin a brusque "Whatever" and was about to hang up when Martin asked for Sandy, mostly to make sure that his mother got the message.
The four of them piled into Alan's Jeep and drove a quiet Randy and an excited Martin back to the Shiner house. David poured on the charm with Maura Shiner, explaining that Randy was more than welcome at his Uncle's house the next day. He dropped Betty Seton's name for good measure - didn't actually claim they were friends, but said nothing that gave any other impression. Like most people, Maura fell for good looks, a polite demeanor and a good line.
Martin waited for something negative to be said, but Randy's parents were happy to see their son with a friend, so they couldn't have been nicer. When they said good night to the boys, Walter Shiner made a point of telling Martin he was always welcome.
The only awkward moment was when Randy and Martin went up to bed. It was a full-size bed, but Martin saw the inflatable mattress as soon as he walked in the door, and wondered whether someone was sending a message.
"My mom always does that," Randy explained hurriedly when he saw the look on Martin's face. "Kyle's the only one who ever stayed over, and he's got a thing about sharin' a bed - she's not sayin' nuthin'." Randy looked embarrassed for a second as both of them started chucking off their clothes until they were down to their boxers. "Hop in it with me," Randy said, nodding towards the bed. "But you gotta know - it's just to sleep."
Martin shot him a hard look. "Did I say it was gonna be anything else?"
Randy flushed and they turned out the light and hunkered down together under the quilt. Even though the night air was uncommonly cool for July, Randy liked to crank up the air conditioner as high as it could go.
In spite of himself, Martin was fully aroused being so close to Randy in a bed. As the minutes ticked on, he tried to force the images out of his mind, and kept still, listening to Randy's breathing. Once it slowed enough to signify sleep, he planned on a quick trip to the bathroom for some much-needed relief. Twenty minutes later, it got worse: Randy rolled into him first, then Martin felt the body press hard against his back. There was no grinding, but Martin was suddenly aware of something rock-solid pressing against his buttocks.
An arm snaked around him and Randy snuggled closer. Agony was when the hand nestled in the small of Martin's stomach slowly drifted up to Martin's chest, sought out a nipple and played with the hardened tip.
Martin jerked away and spun around, facing the other boy. Even in the dim night shadows, he could see that Randy's eyes were open and very much awake. They stared for an endless play of seconds… until Martin saw the hand slowly extend towards him again, followed by nervous fingertips slowly brushing his thigh. Martin swallowed while the fingers found a spot and kept still; he slowly licked lips suddenly so dry they felt like sandpaper against his tongue. Martin brought up a hand of his own suddenly and gripped the other boy's shoulder. They stared in the dark, both taking shallow breaths, and Randy's fingers kneaded Martin's flesh again. Finding courage, Martin leaned in…
As soon as their lips touched, Randy began to tremble and Martin heard a whimpering. When he pulled his head back the whimpering turned into strangled sobs and Randy wrenched himself away before curling up tight in a ball.
"I can't," he said over and over. "I can't, Martin! I want to - for you - but… but - "
Martin stammered, not knowing what to say and not able to find the right words except "It's okay, it's okay," over and over again. He started to reach out but thought better of it; Randy sensed movement and pulled back even more.
Then Randy lunged at Martin and wrapped his arms around the boy, begging him to hold him. Martin felt the warm tears running over his own trembling flesh, and strengthened his grip the more Randy clenched him. Martin made small sounds of encouragement that weren't quite words - just murmurs of satisfaction, as a wave of relief shuddered over their bodies.
Neither was sure how long they clutched each other, but in time Randy's tension began to ebb and he relaxed his bear hug. The tears went away, and finally the shakes began to subside.
"I told myself I could do it," Randy said in a low voice. "All day long, I told myself I could do all the stuff you'd like - all the stuff you wanna do. I been thinkin' of it since we went to Treadwells, and…" His voice trailed off.
Martin felt the body in his arms relax but still held the boy close. "I don't get it," he replied softly. "You said you weren't like that - and dude, it was cool. You know I'd never ask you to - "
Randy pushed away now and dropped his head back. When he spoke his voice was filled with shame. "But I am like that," he said miserably. "Even David called me on it the other day in the car, when I was mouthing off! I met Danny in a gay chat room because I wanted to be there. I cybered with him on-line because I wanted to. And when I met him, well…" He swallowed hard and looked desperately up at Martin. "I already knew exactly what was gonna happen between us, okay? That's why I agreed to meet him in the first place - I wanted to suck him and I wanted him to suck me."
Martin brushed Randy's hair out of his eyes, then wiped away a tear that was trickling down the boy's cheek.
"That first time," Randy continued with a sniffle, "I liked everything we did together - and we did a lot more stuff than I ever thought about, stuff I couldn't even heard of. And I didn't care. I liked what he did to me and I wanted to the same stuff to him. And I did." He wrinkled his nose. "And some of it was kinda gross when I think about it now, but… when it was happening, I didn't care."
He closed his eyes and looked away from Martin, and his voice faded again. "That was the first time, and I thought it was all cool. On the ride home I kept at him to set up something the next day. When we got on-line again that night, gettin' it on again was the first thing I brought up. Except when we got to his house again… well, that's when I found out about Griff and the cameras and all that crap," he muttered miserably. "It was all different then… and Danny was different. I mean, the first time - he did everything he could to make me feel good about what was happening, like he really liked me. But later, when it was the three of us…"
Randy stopped, then stared up at Martin. Now there was anger in the eyes, equal to the bitterness that crept into Randy's voice.
He suddenly kicked away the rest of the covers and clambered across Martin and hopped out of the bed. He moved swiftly to his computer in the corner of the room and flicked the power switch without bothering to look, then started digging in the desk drawer and pulled out the two disks David had given him earlier in the day. When the system was booted, he dropped one into his ROM, hit a button, then looked back over his shoulder at Martin. "C'mere," he said.
Martin nervously crept across the room and came up beside Randy. "You don't have to - "
"Screw it," Randy said bitterly. He opened up a window and clicked the mouse. The contents of the disk stared back at them. "Forget the pics," he said firmly. "They don't even begin to show what it was really like. Open a vid and watch for yourself."
Martin hesitated but Randy pushed the mouse into his hand. "Do it," he ordered. "Doesn't matter which. I haven't looked at any of these - I don't have to, I know what's there. So just do it an' watch."
Nervously, Martin double-clicked one of the AVI files and the movie started. There were three figures - Martin saw the brown hair of the boy in the middle who was face down, and assumed it had to be Randy. Almost out of range he could make out the legs of a slim, boyish figure, but nothing else - Danny, he figured. But the third was an older, overweight man coming up behind Randy. The face was blurred, but Martin knew it had to be Griff. He grabbed the boy by the hair on the back of his head and yanked - Martin saw the features then. Randy's face lacked all trace of emotion or even caring; his eyes were dead, unfocused. The heavy man jerked the boy's head again and Randy got into a crouch while the man reached down and seemed to be probing… until Randy's face changed. Griff suddenly rammed forward, his hips slamming hard against the boy's backside. There was no audio but Randy's mouth opened in a howl and Martin could see the pain in the expression, almost hear the gasping for breath. Then the third slender figure repositioned himself in front of Danny and thrust the boys head between his legs.
"Some days they really liked it when they knew it hurt me," he said coldly. "At least, after the first time… I know Danny liked it to hurt, 'cuz he always giggled when he'd hear me cry. And Griff used to go nuts when I'd tighten up because I was afraid. But sometimes he took it easy… and that's when Danny used to look down at me, grinning, because he knew I hated him - and worse, 'cuz sometimes he'd see that I started really gettin' into the sex if they took it easy on me. Then Danny would see that, and make fun of me for it later."
Martin glanced at the monitor again, then shuddered and turned back to his friend.
"Once he got what he wanted he'd get bored after awhile," Randy continued, "then Griff would leave us alone. Danny would call me names. Tell me how the only use I had was bein' a hole for some queer's cock." Randy scowled. "He liked to toss the used rubbers at me. At least they used those… for the anal stuff anyway." His eyebrows knitted. "That's when I started thinkin' about it - figurin' it all out," he said slowly. "I'd go home, feelin' guilty about how sometimes I got turned on when we did it. I was afraid to talk to anyone so I started checkin' out web sites. Dude - there are hundreds, maybe thousands - of web sites tellin me how bein' like that is evil, that God always punished queers. That's when I started to… well, think of it like I was bein' punished for wanting to do that shit in the first place. I was being punished for bein' a faggot," he spat.
Martin clamped his eyes shut and clicked the mouse shutting the player down. "Don't call me a - "
Randy reached over and grabbed him by the arm. "I'm not," he said slowly. "Honest, I'm not. I'm just tellin' you what I started to think, okay? Even after they let me go I thought that. I read all that stuff from these church sites, and they said the same stuff, over and over." He choked back a sob, then forced himself to continue. "Honest, Martin - I tried to get rid of all those sex thoughts, but they kept comin' back before I realized it." He snorted. "Damn, the first time I saw you… well, I kept watchin' you 'cuz I thought you were cute. Then I felt bad about thinkin' of you like that." The hardness came back to his voice. "Then when I saw Danny with you, I knew what was gonna happen to you, same as me. That's why I yelled, Mart," he said suddenly, and his voice began to crack as tears started forming in the corners of his eyes. "I knew what was gonna happen, and I couldn't let it. Not again." He dropped into the desk chair, staring down miserably.
Martin opened the CD-ROM drive and took out the disk before shutting down the computer. Randy kept staring at their reflections in the blank monitor, lost in his misery. Martin put his hand on the other boy's shoulder, hesitating in case Randy pulled away again, then felt a rush when Randy not only didn't pull away, but reached up and gripped Martin's hand.
Randy spoke in a low, soothing voice. "After that, I saw David, an' how nice he was." His jaw twitched. "And when I started sayin' some nasty stuff about… well, kind of about you and about him, he's the one that reminded me that no one forced me to meet Danny that first time. Reminded me that you and him went outta your way to help me." He swallowed hard. "And today, meetin' Alan - the same thing. Alan was a totally cool guy, nothing like Danny or Griff. You guys bailed me out. I mean… after Danny called, I got no doubt what was gonna happen today. What would happen if it wasn't for all you guys." He looked up at Martin, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "That's… that's when I knew. And all day - even when I was in the car with that - with Danny, I kept on thinking about how I had to give you something good. I wanted to do everything I could to please you."
"You already did," Martin said in a halting voice. "I won't lie - I kept on thinkin' how easy it might be to start up and do some stuff," Martin said slowly. He let out a half-hearted laugh. "Dude, tomorrow if you see a hole in the mattress, you'll know why. But - honest Randy, it's okay if you can't. And I wasn't gonna touch you no matter how much I thought about it if you didn't want me to."
"It ain't 'cuz I don't want you to," Randy insisted, shaking his head. "I dunno why I freaked - and I don't know why I can't go through with it right now."
Martin rubbed Randy's head gently. "I know you got stuff to sort out. I mean, you said you like girls too, so…"
"I do," the boy said with a snort. "I do like chicks, but… well, they ain't what I'm thinkin' about when I wake up with crusty sheets."
Martin sniggered. "Then you got me beat by a mile. The only time I ever think of a girl is when I talk to one!"
Randy giggled and squeezed Martin's hand a little before he looked up. "Can we…" he began, and hesitated. "Reverend Betty hinted around there was this group you an' David go, for guys like us."
"Yeah, sure," Martin said nodding. "The gay youth group up at the Franciscan Center. But the Unitarians run it."
Randy frowned, wondering why a Catholic church would rent space to a protestant group for gay kids, but shrugged it off as unimportant… at least for now. "Uh, maybe this fall…?"
"You can come with us," Martin said eagerly. "Dude, it's way cool. And - "
"Yeah," Randy interrupted. "And maybe - well, she didn't say nuthin' direct about it. But, uh… well, Reverend Seton said me and her could talk about anything, and no one had to know about what we talked about." He swallowed hard again. "Uh, maybe… well, maybe if you were there, it might be easier for me to talk. Um… well, you know what the worst of it is, anyway." He gave Martin a hopeful look. "But don't bring up about me wantin' to have sex with you, okay? I mean - if I can work out some stuff in my head… well, I just don't want to spell out it out that you're my boyfriend, okay? Later, maybe - but not yet."
Martin's heart leapt to his mouth. He wanted to shout, dance - anything and everything! Slow down, he ordered himself. "That's cool," he said calmly as his mind raced. "Yeah… no one has to know that you and me are…" He made a vague gesture. "Uh, that's cool. Really."
"It's not like I'm ashamed of you or anything, Martin, but…" He looked up, then took a breath and shook his head. "God, I've gotta get used to the idea myself." Suddenly, Randy looked at his friend and his eyes widened. "Damn," he said, embarrassedly. "I never asked you how you felt about me."
Dude, I'd light fireworks and spell it out in the air if I could! "No, it's okay" Martin said quickly, fighting to stay low-key and casual. "I mean… I'm totally cool with the idea, so… well, I guess it's you an' me. If you want."
Randy flinched. "But the sex stuff. I mean - "
Martin fought back the groan. Don't fuck this up, he told himself. It's him you want - you can get off with your hand if that's the way it's gotta be. You'll have Randy, and that's the important part. He took everything he had to sound calm. "Listen, dude," he said quietly. "Bein' gay isn't just about the sex, y'know. Sometimes, it's just hanging out with a good friend and talking. I swear. I mean, sex is good, but you gotta do somethin' else the other 23 hours in the day."
"Make that 22," Randy said, smiling.
They both laughed.
Martin stood up, then yawned. "Like I said - it's all good. Now, can we go back to bed? Uh… I mean, we gotta get up early."
A smiling, much more-relaxed Randy got up and slid his arm around Martin again and they made their way across the room to the bed. Suddenly aware of the chill in the air, they pulled the quilt up to their necks. This time it was Randy who leaned into Martin and gave him a kiss - just a small peck, nothing like the one Martin had gotten from Danny that first time, but one that almost had the same result. Martin shifted himself and lay face down in the bed next to Randy again, hoping desperately to hide his erection. His mind fleetingly decided on a bathroom run the second he thought Randy was asleep.
Then Randy snuggled up closer to Martin and wrapped his arm around him again, let out a long sigh, then kept it there until he nodded off.
Martin sighed with resignation and tried to readjust his position to give his aching crotch a break, but each time he pulled away from Randy, the boy followed him and held tighter.
That friggin' old song is right, Martin told himself with a grimace, accepting that there was no escape until morning. Love really does hurt. I just hope nothin' breaks off before morning.
He closed his eyes, and prayed he didn't make a mess.

* * * * *
Hours later, Martin pushed the blanket back, blinking rapidly as he looked around the unfamiliar room, a bit of morning wood poking out and sending its impatient message. In his morning fog, he desperately tried to remember where the bathroom was, but it was no good. After carefully removing the arm coiled around his waist, he leaned over and nudged Randy.
"Dude. Where's the head?"
Randy grumbled, mumbled the words "left" and "hall" before he rolled over and pulled the blanket over his head again. Martin shivered in the cold air blowing out of the air conditioner, then stumbled on the air mattress on the floor where he was supposed to have slept. He kicked it out of the way and stood in the middle of the room, wondering if he should pull on his pants before he opened the door, then decided his boxer shorts were good enough. But he still took the time to pull his shirt on, hoping the tail would hide the evidence if he ran into anyone. He crept out into the upstairs hall of the Shiner house, hoping he didn't bump into either of Randy's parents.
There were only two more doors in the hall besides Randy's room… both to the left. The groggy Martin hoped Randy meant the door on the far left. He edged it open a tad, spotted the porcelain fixtures in the dim light and murmured the word "Yes!" and darted in, fumbling with his shorts. A satisfied smile of relief spread over his face as he stood, gently swaying back and forth. When he finished, he perked up his ears - decided it was safe, then locked the door and gave himself another type of relief that didn't take long at all.
Slipping quietly back into Randy's bedroom and closing the door, he walked up to the bed and poked the body under the blankets. "C'mon, Randy. You said you had to be up by six to deliver your papers. David said he'd be by for us around nine, remember? He said it's important we all be together today." Martin jerked the blue quilt off the bed.
Randy opened one eye and made a sound that sounded an awful lot like `asshole' but Martin ignored it. Finally, Randy gave in and staggered out of the bed and the two of them pulled on clothes; they'd be in a pool later anyway, so a shower was a waste of time. Randy gave yesterday's shirt a sniff and wrinkled his nose as he tossed it aside, then debated switching his underwear too. Well, he mused, it ain't like I'll be wearing 'em long.
"Here, put this on," he told Martin, tossing him his favorite shirt before he started digging into his bottom drawer. "Yours prob'ly stinks as bad as mine, and the color'll look good on you."
Martin smiled and pulled on the red jersey. He didn't care how it looked… Randy liked it, and that was enough for him. Then he eyed the two swim suits Randy pulled out and tossed on the bed. His eyebrows shot up. "Speedos? I thought you were all into the modesty stuff?"
Randy reddened but shrugged. "My mom bought me new ones this spring," he explained. "She didn't know I'd got rid of the old ones. Besides, you already seen everything else I got anyway."
Martin grinned, then continued pulling up his socks.
"Look," Randy said. "We really should hurry. Do you mind if we skip breakfast for now? I wanna make sure my papers get delivered before anyone complains. We can wolf Pop Tarts."
They crept into the hallway and gently walked down the hall, then both trotted blithely - and noisily - down the stairs once they got past the halfway mark. Once in the kitchen, Randy fished two Pop Tarts out of the freezer and tossed them into the microwave. After 30 seconds, he yanked them back out and wrapped them in paper towels, then the two boys lunged out of the house, Randy's eye on the clock. He grabbed the beat-up delivery sack from the garage and the two boys hit the street.
Both boys avoided any mention of their night conversation, but neither felt any regret about what was said, at least. Martin noticed that for the first time in the few days he'd actually known Randy, the other boy actually looked relaxed. They fell into a quiet comfort zone and rushed through the neighborhood, dropping copies of Saturday's Guardian Post inside back doors unless there were dogs loose on the property. When that happened Randy went by himself - the dogs knew him but not Martin. Randy called him a wuss but for once the familiar taunt was just a joke so Martin didn't bristle.
With the last paper dropped off, the two boys walked down Emerald Avenue before cutting over to Randy's own D'Urso Ave. Randy was looking down and making some entries in his notebooks, checking names off against the payment envelopes they came across inside the screened doors when Martin elbowed him slightly.
"Heads up," he said, nodding ahead to something in the distance. "You got company."
Randy looked up, then scowled when he saw a familiar figure sitting on his front steps. He scanned the driveway - both his parents had already left for work. "Great," he muttered. "What's Kyle doin' here?"
The taller boy sitting on the steps looked up and saw Martin and Randy walking to the house. He stood and waited until the two turned into the drive.
Martin tried not to smile - Kyle's nose was still slightly swollen and there was an ugly, yellowy-brown discoloration around one eye.
Kyle was suddenly very nervous when he realized it was Martin with Randy. The two of them smiled thin smiles at one another, but neither felt much like offering a hand, so they settled for nods until Kyle spoke up.
"Uh, what's he doin' here?" he asked Randy, still with a wary eye on Martin.
"He's my friend," Randy said quietly. "He spent the night and we're doin' some stuff later. What're you here for?"
Kyle's eyes shifted back and forth for a few seconds before he spoke. "Uh… well, I've sorta been grounded since the trip," he said slowly. "When he found out what happened, my Dad was wicked pissed. He made me call your minister and apologize. But he said I had to come over here and talk to you myself."
Randy's eyebrow shot up. "So you had to come over, huh?"
Kyle fidgeted, gave them both uncertain looks. "I didn't have to," he hedged. "He said I should, okay?"
"But to get outta bein' grounded," Randy said, "you had to come over - right?"
Kyle scowled. "Look, I only had to get through today, okay? I coulda waited it out if I'd wanted to. I mean… as it is, I still gotta get to Temple and after that there's Hebrew School. So I could've just said screw it and not come at all - Sunday I'd be home free anyway."
Randy didn't mention that would have meant missing a Saturday night out and let it pass. "How grounded?" he asked.
Kyle rolled his eyes. "More like house arrest than grounded. Dad was pissed when he saw me beat up and almost called Reverend Betty to complain, so I had to tell him the rest," Kyle muttered. His eyes flitted off the two boys and sought out the ground again. "When he heard what happened, he went ballistic. I wasn't jokin' about bein' like house arrest - he yanked out the TV, and the computer went bye-bye so I couldn't use it to play games. He even took out my receiver, so forget music. Phone calls? Yeah, well my cell's gone, maybe for good 'cuz he caught me sneakin' a call after he pulled the hard line one out of my room. I have to stay in there except for meals and bathroom breaks. The only thing he left me were these books - in Hebrew. He figured I could use the time to practice." He shook his head and his voice dropped. "Then Robby an' Paul came by and things got worse. The old man banned 'em from the house."
Randy grunted. "That ain't a first."
Kyle's eyes widened. "Yeah, but I really think this time might be the last - they were hollerin' up stuff from the back yard when the old man was home. When he heard what they said he launched a second strike." He eyed Martin. "Uh, they were talkin' about you guys," he said nervously. "And they were kind of free with the `f' word. And I don't mean the regular one."
Martin didn't need any clarification, but Randy took a step forward.
"Like what?" he asked.
Kyle avoided looking at Martin altogether and spoke only to Randy. "I mean… well, is it true? Is he one?"
"Just spit it out," Randy snapped. "Hey, Kyle - don't look away from me!"
Kyle flinched and gave him a guilty look.
"And another thing," Randy continued. "Quit actin' like Martin ain't here - got that? Martin's a friend of mine - a real good friend," he said slipping an arm across Martin's shoulders. "He's gonna be around a lot. So if you and me are gonna stay friends, you better get used to it."
Kyle's eyes widened and he swallowed. "Good friends, huh?" He shook his head. Seeing the two boys standing much too close and far too comfortable with it registered on him. Kyle took a step back.
"Damn," he said slowly, "I just didn't believe what Robby and Paul were sayin'. But those two retards are right for once. You are into dick!"
Kyle waited for a denial. Randy's jaw clamped shut and he didn't flinch. Martin ground his back teeth and was ready to finish the job he'd started on Kyle's nose but wasn't about to make a move unless one of the other two did.
Finally Randy spoke up. "You n' me have known each other since first grade, Kyle. Did I ever ask or even hint about wantin' to get in your pants?"
Kyle flinched. "No."
"Even when the four of us used to pull it together lookin' at those magazines Robby filched from his dad's stash? Who's idea was that?"
"Uh," he swallowed. "Well, it was usually the Brayce's," he muttered.
"Only when it wasn't you," Randy cut in. "And as I recall, a couple of times, you an' Robby kinda helped each other out. And both of you were always after me an' Paul to join you guys! "
"Okay, okay!" Kyle broke in, suddenly scarlet and giving Martin an embarrassed look. No one ever brought up that subject - it was understood that was always verboten. "You made your point, Randy!" He looked at Martin. "Look, dude… all I wanted to say is, I'm sorry for what I said on the bus. And what I just said now - well..."
"'S okay," Martin said, not bothering to hide the pleasure he felt at Kyle's expense. "But just so you know: sounds like you got more experience than me about that stuff."
Kyle went even redder and shook his head. He turned back to Randy. "Look… You gotta know. Robby and Paul've been mouthin' off ever since the bus trip. They just about told everyone we know you're hangin' with a flamer." He eyed Martin again. "Sorry - but that's how they been sayin' it. I want you to know that." He stole a quick look at his watch. "Listen, I can come back later an we can talk - I got to get changed for Temple."
"We'll be gone all day. Together. Feel free to tell everyone that if you wanna," Randy said stiffly. "Oh, and in case you missed what I said before? Martin slept over here last night, and he'll be doin' it again. And we shared the same bed, if that's what you're wonderin', and anything else is just plain none of your friggin' business… which is just what I'm gonna tell the Brayce twins if I see 'em. You guys can shoot your mouths off as much as you want - but if you do, don't come back here again, Kyle. Got that? It's like you said to me on the bus the other day: the real slime-bags are the guys who say one thing to your face, and talk shit behind your back. You can tell those other two assholes the same thing."
Kyle looked down sheepishly and swung his leg over his ten-speed and pedaled off.
Martin looked at Randy. "Are you sure you wanna do this?" he said in a low voice. "What about your parents?"
Randy scowled. "It'd be nice to say I was gonna do the whole nine yards on this and tell 'em, but…" He shook his head wearily, then turned to his friend. "Look, lemme sort out a bunch of stuff before we get to that, okay? If they hear something, they might ask. I'll deal with it when I have to. If they don't bring it up - like I said, after I get used to this."
Martin nodded. "Yeah. `Don't ask, don't tell.'" He sighed for a moment. "I think my family's known about me since I was like six. How're your folks gonna take it?"
Randy mulled it over, staring off into the street. "I really don't know what they might say. My Dad's kinda funny that way: he's real conservative about some stuff, but on other things…" Randy shrugged. "Either way, even when I thought it was God punishin' me, I can't say I ever heard either my mom or my dad say anything mean. And when Governor Romney was screamin' for a marriage defense act, my Dad said he'd had enough right-wing bullshit and turned off the TV." He looked into Martin's eyes and gripped both shoulders. "But understand this: maybe I'm not the bravest guy about this comin' out stuff, but I'm not gonna hide you away from my friends and pretend like I don't know you. They wanna guess at stuff, let 'em. You might think I'm a nut-less wonder for not telling 'em everything but… well, I'd kinda like to figure it out for myself first. Can you deal with that for now?"
Martin smiled. "I only got one real question to ask."
"Kyle's pretty hot," he said with a sly look. "Is it true you never thought about him as anything but a friend?"
Randy flashed a quick grin. "Maybe a little."
"A little?"
"Alright, maybe more than a little," Randy admitted. "In fact, until all the stuff with Griff and Danny went down, I pumped off twice a day thinkin' about Kyle - just like he said he did it thinkin' of Ruthie Sullivan. Of course, he never told her about it. And you don't think I'm gonna tell him that, do you?"
Suddenly, a horn beeped twice, and both boys looked up. Alan's bright yellow Wrangler rolled down the driveway. The jeep was in full party-mode, minus the soft-top, the music set for a low rumble. Alan and David were wearing shades, shorts, and no shirts.
"Whoa!" said Martin.
Randy had an idea he thought was utterly cool. "Get in the car," he said breathlessly. "I'll grab the swimsuits and some other stuff. Tell 'em five minutes, tops." He raced into the house.
A smiling and incredibly content Martin slid into the back seat of the Wrangler, wishing he had a pair of cool sunglasses. He settled for skinning out of Randy's shirt, and tossed it behind the seat.
Alan twisted around and grinned. "Someone looks like the earth just moved for him," he said chuckling. "Did you guys get somethin' worked out last night?"
Martin leaned back and tucked his hands behind his head. "You tell me what you guys did in the pool house, and I'll tell you what we did in Randy's bed."
The two older boys hooted and razzed Martin in a good-natured way but didn't push for details. They heard a door slam and Alan spun his head again and let out a low whistle. Martin's eyes widened.
Randy was running to the car wearing his sneakers, a towel slung around his neck and a bright-yellow Speedo, holding a bag with clothing in it. Randy jumped into the back seat with him and tossed Martin a bright blue and silver version of what he was wearing and Martin gulped, hardly noticing the pair of Terminator shades that landed in his lap. If Randy was going to be dressed like that all day, Martin hoped for his own sake the pool water was ice-cold.
He held up what appeared to be no more than a blue and silver fabric swatch, then closed his eyes and bit his lower lip; there was still the problem of getting everything he had into the suit… and before that happened, Martin definitely needed more solo time in the bathroom.

* * * * *

"Danny? Goddammit, I'm getting real tired of this shit!"
Griff Robinson stalked around his house, livid with rage. It was past 9:00AM, and the house hadn't been cleaned up and his coffee wasn't ready. He'd even come home and seen the clothes he'd worn the day before, still sitting in the middle of his bedroom floor. There was still no sign of Danny.
The man stormed out to the garage and checked, but the Taurus was still there, parked right where it was supposed to be. It wouldn't have been too bad, except the boy had promised him something `special' the day before, and Griff had gone through his entire work day, anticipating an especially hot session with someone Danny called only a `blast from the past,' after admitting his original plan had somehow fallen through.
Griff licked his lips. He had a good idea who it was - probably the kid they'd cut loose a few months before. Griff hadn't wanted Danny to cut the boy loose, but he had to agree: it was too risky forcing the same boys to keep coming back for too long. They might get angry and start talking as they got older. They'd kept that particular kid around for a year or even more, and that was pushing the envelope. Still, Griff liked the idea of a return engagement from a boy as frightened as Randy. He smiled to himself. Knowing a boy was scared some how always made things hotter.
Griff slammed the door off the kitchen that connected to the garage, then swore. Danny was not only slipping up around the house, but pulling a no-show was really pushing his luck. He scowled, realizing that he was going to have to dump Danny soon. Maybe the kid looked younger, but Danny was at least eighteen, and no amount of Nair cream or shaving could hide that. Worse, his friends were griping: Danny was just too familiar a face now. If the kid hadn't been so good at breaking in new meat, Griff would have traded him off long ago.
He dropped into his chair at the kitchen table, drummed his fingers as the coffee brewed. Griff wasn't sure how he was going to get rid of Danny. A few years ago, he knew he could have palmed him off on someone, but with the kid legal and everything now, well… it just made it too complicated. He didn't dare do what Sam did: when his Mexican boys turned thirteen or so and worn out their welcome, he was serious about just dropping them off - just not in Boston as he claimed. Sam would slip them something so they'd sleep, then load them into the back of his van and drive them someplace big, like New York. Sometimes he made his investment back by making a deal with the owner of a brothel he knew there. Other times he found boy lovers that simply liked their `sons' in their mid-teens, the way Griff did. Sam was serious about not letting the boys learn English, and even went to pains to only let them watch Spanish language movies or TV. Some of his friends said it wasn't right, keeping them locked up almost like they were in prison, but Sam didn't care what anyone thought. And as long as they got the use of favors, their friends didn't protest much. Certainly, no one was ever going to the police.
Griff called out the boy's name again, then cursed. It was possible he could set Danny up with someone who liked their chicken legal, but what if Danny made a fuss? Danny was absolutely devoted to him, he was certain of it. Besides, Griff knew the kid wasn't smart enough to cause any real trouble, and the only training he had outside pleasuring men were minor house-keeping skills, hardly something he could turn into a career.
The man picked up his coffee cup and went up the stairs to make sure - again - that Danny hadn't slipped quietly back into the house during the night. Griff looked around the room and squinted at the boy's computer. Something didn't look right, but the machine was still in the under-desk box where it belonged, so he didn't pay much attention. He noticed a dent in the wall he hadn't seen before and wondered what the kid had done. Then Griff took in the condition of the room: it looked like a sty, clothing and junk scattered over the floor. He almost opened the closet but didn't bother.
"Stupid, lazy little shit," he muttered under his breath. "You're done here."
Griff weighed his options for the future as he walked back down the stairs to the living room. His finances were a lot better than they were five years ago; then, it had been tough to find what he wanted, because he lacked the cash. Today was different; he had the right contacts now, and could pretty much just place an order for exactly what he wanted. He didn't care for the dark meat Sam yearned for; Griff figured if he wanted a spic, he didn't have to go to Mexico to get one. There were so many poor Spanish families in New England, he could practically buy one without having to look far. Lawrence, Lowell, and Haverhill were loaded with new immigrants who were dirt-poor. Plus, with so many of them into the drug scene, they were always desperate for money. In a group that large, there had to be families keen to lose an extra mouth to feed for quick, hard cash. Sam did it the old-fashioned way because he liked the adventure… although Griff had to admit there was something to be said for just driving up to some orphanage and taking the pick of the litter - that had appeal. But Griff was picky. When it came to chicken, it was white meat only.
"Too bad Europe's such a bitch to get 'em out of these days," he muttered to himself. "Shoulda made those contacts in Romania and Yugoslavia. Shit, even the Russian market's gotten tough."
Suddenly he turned his head at a sound from outside the house - engines coming up his driveway. He yanked a drape open in the living room and scowled. Two pick-up trucks, both pulling something. One was a cart loaded up with looked like gardening gear, and the other towed some sort of machine Griff couldn't identify. He squinted at the sign on one of the trucks - one of those magnetic jobs a lot of small-time contractors used when their vehicles did double-duty as private vehicles.
What're the lawn guys doing here? Griff wondered with a deeper scowl. They were already here Thursday. Damned if I'm gonna get charged twice.
He ran out to the yard, oblivious to the fact he was only wearing his underwear. Two men were disappearing around the corner of the house into the back and two remained near the old trucks. Griff dismissed the obviously Hispanic man - Javier, if the name stitched on his shirt were accurate -  and focused instead on the tall, broad-shouldered white guy standing next to the ancient International pick-up, who smiled and pushed back his cap.
"Mr. Robinson? Nice to meet you. I'm Dennis from New England Clippers," he said, holding out his hand to shake.
Griff looked the big man over cautiously - there didn't seem to be an ounce of fat on the man, and the big hand being extended was nearly twice the size of his own. After an uncomfortable moment, the man let his hand drop to his side.
"You guys were here Thursday," Griff began, somewhat flustered, intimidated by the man's size in spite of the smile. "I have the invoice inside. You're not supposed to come back until…"
"We're not here to do the lawn, Mr. R," Dennis interrupted, trying to sound casual and offering an easy smile. "My boss was out here last Thursday - said the perimeter was getting a little ragged. He told us to come out and clear away the brush and stuff. There's no extra charge." He leaned in and spoke confidentially. "To be honest with you, this business is getting kind of cut-throat, so… well, the boss is throwing in a few extras for his long term-customers. And I promise, it won't take long, either - a couple of hours at the most, and we'll have everything cleaned up and cleared out." Dennis gestured to the machine attached to his pickup. "We even brought up a chipper to take care of the crap wood," he added.
Griff rubbed his unshaven chin. He'd never seen the lawn people before… but the name on the sign was right, and whoever Dennis was seemed easy-going enough. "And this is free?"
Dennis held out a work order from New England Clipper marked `No Charge,' and the paperwork was signed with a name Griff vaguely recalled writing checks. Griff was suddenly aware that he was standing in his boxer shorts and a tee shirt, and that made him less comfortable in front of the big man. Suddenly feeling foolish, he wanted more than anything else to get back inside and make himself decent - it would never do to let the help see you at a disadvantage.
He glanced at the paperwork and shrugged. "Knock yourself out," he muttered and turned back to the house. First no Danny, he thought. And now these jerks show up. Anymore goddam surprises today? He folded the invoice and turned away. "I'll be inside if you need me," he threw over his shoulder and slammed the door.
Griff pulled on the wrinkled slacks he'd left in the middle of his bedroom the night before. Somewhere in the back of his mind it clicked in that the central air unit had shut down, but he paid no attention, nor did he notice that the display on his clock was blank as he buttoned his short-sleeve shirt. He was on his way back to the kitchen to finish his coffee when he heard the noise from chain saws. Awful damn close, he thought. I swear the guy said they'd be cutting brush along the edge. What the hell are they doing in the front yard?
Instead of turning into the kitchen, Griff veered off into the living room - just in time to see a large branch drop from the single, ornamental red maple he'd paid dearly to have planted in the front for shade.
"Son of a bitch!" he bellowed. "That fucker cost me fifteen hundred bucks!"
Griff stumbled into an ottoman as he hustled for the door. He saw the older Spanish man over by one of the trucks cutting strips of duct tape for something or other, but he didn't see Dennis. "You guys!" he roared at the two men cutting at the tree, just as a second long branch crashed to the ground, barely missing the tall Palladian window. "Stop!"
Suddenly, Griff felt something slam into the back of his legs and he stumbled to the ground. A second blow between his shoulders knocked the wind out of him and he collapsed face-first on the ground, helpless. His arms were wrenched behind him and Griff felt something cold against his wrists, then a sharp click as the metal bit into his thick wrists. A foot to his ribs forced Griff to turn over. Looking up now, he could see Dennis - no longer with a friendly smile and slowly slapping a cop's nightstick against the palm of his hand. This time the eyes were cold and calculating, and the politely deferential voice was replaced by something low and mean. He slapped the stick one last time so it made a solid thwack against his open hand.
Christ, Griff thought to himself. It's the cops.
"I know my rights," he began. "My attorney…"
"Keep your fuckin' mouth shut or the next one splits your skull," Dennis said coldly. The short Spanish man came up beside him and seemed to wait for an order. Dennis turned to him and merely nodded.
Javier grinned and slapped a piece of duct tape over Griff's mouth, just as the other two men came up, still holding onto the idling chainsaws. Dennis took one of the saws and gestured to the wood chipper. One worker started up the machine, and the other began unwrapping something in the back of the truck.
"I was gonna feed you to that thing an inch at a time," Dennis said with an ugly smile. "But it's got a lot of pull. If I lost my grip, well…" He made a vague gesture and frowned. "Well, the fun might be over too quick. So I figured we might start with something small."
He jammed the blade into Griff's crotch and revved the motor... after carefully disengaging the clutch.
Griff scream was strangled in his throat behind the duct tape, suddenly all too aware that these weren't cops. He writhed on the ground trying to pull back from the blade as the motor roared and strained at the handcuffs to get free.
Dennis stepped back and began to chuckle, pointing at the stain spreading across the front of the big man's pants. "Jesus, Javier, looks like he sprung a leak!"
"That ain't the only end leaking," the other man grumbled, looking down at the prisoner, who kicked helplessly in the dirt. Javier wrinkled his nose in disgust and began fanning the air, wondering what in the world someone could possibly eat to produce that much of a stink.
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