Dressed in black jeans and a trendy black tee, Ryan still looked completely drawn; the kind of worn out that has nothing to do with exercise. Returning to the back deck with another glass of coke, Luke passed it across. While he perched on the edge of one of the other chairs and waited, Ryan took a long swallow.
Now what happened?
Luke hesitated, fearing saying the wrong thing. He doubted Ry had come all the way over just to fire-off at him again, but he was still wary. It should have been an ordinary summer's afternoon—the kind where he'd already be digging in his wardrobe to find some swim shorts to bike around to Ryan's for a dip. However, there was too much hurt for that. Even Ryan turning up like this was a miracle!
Finally, Ryan broke the silence.
“Thanks for that,” he murmured. He set the glass down carefully. “I won’t stay long. I just wanted to come and…well…" He hesitated before adding, "I wasn’t that nice this morning.” If he was trying to sound gracious, then it was a pretty good act. “And I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Luke shrugged, feeling on edge. Him okay? He had to be kidding! “Don't sweat it. We were all a bit tense."
"He's fine. A bit shook up at first, but he's got some good friends."
Luke winced at the way that the concept of ‘good friends’ brought a tightening in Ryan's face, and pushed on quickly.
"Mitchell kicked off after you’d gone. You know what he’s like—spreading his usual crap. The guys were ready to lynch you by recess!" Ryan didn’t respond, and Luke frowned as he recalled the face off. "That was until I told them what really happened! It didn’t take them long to figure out that the asshole got what he deserved!"
Silent though he continued to be, Ryan seemed to be listening, so Luke pushed out the boat a little. "Breaking his nose must have felt sweet?"
"Maybe." The reply that came eventually, sounded indifferent.
"He was out of school this afternoon, too,” Luke added. “At the dentist, I bet!"
He didn’t know what else to add and they sat in silence for long moments to the point where it became uncomfortable. Ryan studied his watch as though deciding he might have somewhere else to be. It was disappointing, but Luke guessed he didn't have any right to ask for more. At least Ryan had come over. That was something. A start.
“We missed you today,” Luke said, trying to restart the conversation. He took a sip from his own glass and then kept going. “Where did you go?”
Ryan shrugged. “Home…you know.... Sorry, I couldn’t stick it anymore.” He looked at his watch again. Time seemed to be up, but just then, Simon’s voice drifted through from inside the house.
Luke called back. “We're out back.”
We? He hadn't expected to be able to say that anytime soon!
“I’m just off.” Simon put his head through the kitchen door. “I’ll be at Tob—” He stopped, and his eyes popped. “Ryan?”
“Hey, Simon!” Ryan’s tone became deceptively light.
Despite it, Simon remained careful as he asked, “Are you okay?”
“Sure.” Ryan shrugged and continued to make the effort to sound upbeat. “I’m fine. I just popped by to check that you were.”
It was just like Simon to do the right thing, and he did, coming around the back of where Ryan was seated.
“Thanks for earlier," Simon said, giving Ryan a quick hug from behind. “And that’s for breaking his face!”
Luke smiled at the exchange. It was something his brother had the ability to get away with. Simon was one of the most transparent people he knew—a kid who hated secrets, who wore his emotions on his shoulder and, in a squeeze, could be counted on to say it how it was!
Simon’s gratitude seemed to breathe life into Ryan as his face creased into a grin. “Happy to oblige…”
“Okay, I gotta go.” Abruptly, Simon headed back inside, motoring in the direction of the garage. “See you guys later!”
Within a few moments, they heard the garage door clatter open as Simon made ready to pedal off in the direction of the Skerrit place.
Yet the legacy of that simple gesture seemed to have had a profound effect on Ryan who, now Simon had gone, became less certain. He started to speak, but coughed and stopped. Luke had the premonition that, far from Ryan eyeing the time so that he could leave, they were only just getting started.
Ryan started speaking. “Yesterday…when we got the SmartKlamp off…I shouldn’t have…” He sounded uncomfortably tight, and flushed as he trailed off. It didn’t take too many guesses to know what he was talking about.
"It's okay." Despite the assertion, Luke couldn't look him in the eye. "It doesn't matter."
"The hell it doesn't! It wasn't your fault." Ryan stared at his knees and his voice was dull. "What I did...after...I'm really sorry...you didn't deserve that."
"Ry..." Luke stopped. He didn't know how to tell him that it really was his fault. He did deserve it. He was as guilty as hell.
It should have been me!
Ryan hurried on. "It was just a really crap day." Hunched over the low table, the bitter recrimination began to spill out. "Afterwards, all anyone was talking about was how much I'd fucking spunked!"
"Who cares what other people think!" Luke cringed as Ryan put a name to the unavoidable outcome of those unfortunate enough to find themselves facing the wretched ordeal euphemistically called the 'Pleasure Trip'! It brought onto the table everything from the moment Ryan was dragged across the floor until he was finally milked out. But at least the subject was now open for discussion.
"Just ignore the bastards," Luke pleaded. Ryan continued to glower, and Luke tried again.
"Look, Ry, you know how it is." Injecting as much optimism as he could into his voice, he began to marshal all the tried and tested expressions of consolation that would help his best friend onto the road to recovery. "It could have happened to anyone!
"Let's face it, it's not your fault—almost everyone jizzes in the end. Hell, if it was me, I’m sure I would!" He tried to make light of it to ease the moment as Ryan's eyes flicked away.
"You couldn't help it. I mean, remember Kier? You're not the only one, and he didn't do much better, either. Come on," Luke urged, pouring all his reassurance into his tone. "Next week it'll be someone else and then it'll all be forgotten. Hell...it might even be me!"
For God's sake, I hope not! He’d only said it to try to smooth the waters, but Ryan didn't even seem to hear him.
"Ja—" Ryan stopped and swallowed before continuing. "At the end, some kid was jerking himself off, right in front of me. Like I was some porn movie—" He faltered and his voice became strained. "You've no idea how fucking cheap that makes you feel!" Staring into nothing, his eyes glazed and he seemed to drift. Finally, in a voice that seemed ready to fall apart, he murmured, “It was fucking awful.”
Unable to bear it, Luke dropped his eyes.
"I need to tell you something." Ryan’s voice remained tight. “When that bastard Landon started smacking me, it was—”
"You don't have to explain anything," Luke interrupted hurriedly. He really did not want to know! "It was a crap thing to do. Even Kieran said that if anyone had done that to him, their teeth would be on the floor! Landon had it coming!"
Ryan simply ignored Luke. Looking haunted, scrunched up on the chair, he said. "My father used to hit me."
Luke’s head jerked up and he flinched. He heard what Ryan had said well enough—it was just that it was so awful that he didn't know what to even think, let alone say. Fortunately, Ryan didn’t seem to need him to respond, just to listen. Not daring to move a muscle, Luke swallowed hard as the nightmare unfolded.
“I could never tell anyone, but you don’t know what it was like." Ryan's face was strained. "I just need you to know why. How I reacted…it’s not your fault.
“If ever I did something wrong or disobeyed him, he would strip me and beat the fucking shit out of my backside ’til I cried.” Ryan scrubbed a hand across his eyes as he swore. Luke could see how so desperately the guy was trying to hold it all in, and he had no idea how to respond.
There was no need for Ryan to spell out what that all meant as Luke’s memory fired with the flashbacks of convulsion and the unrelenting punishment of Ryan’s backside. With shocked realization, he could only begin to guess what that must have been like.
“It was like being back there all over again.” Ryan lowered his head and seemed lost. Finally, he finished, murmuring, “With a crowd watching.”
It disturbed Luke to his core. He had thought he knew Ryan as well as—if not better than—most. Always so confidant and capable, nothing fazed him. So he watched in horror as his friend began to shake and then sob as he crumpled into a deep heaving, exposing his raw pain.
Holy fucking Christ!
It was appalling, but Luke did the only thing that seemed to feel right. He didn’t try to put his arm around Ryan, or offer any words that would just be trite and meaningless. He probably did the best thing possible just by sitting there quietly, and waiting. Maybe crying was good? Maybe, when you’re really hurting, you need to cry as much as you need to laugh? All Luke knew was that his own eyes were wet, and he kept rubbing them in an effort to keep a tight control of his own emotions.
Ryan didn’t weep for long, but it took some time before he seemed ready to speak again as he remained folded into himself on the sofa. He seemed completely worn out, and by the look on his face, Luke wondered if he regretted much of what he’d said. The problem was, it was out there now whether he liked it or not.
“Shit...sorry...” Ryan gulped and finally broke the silence with a voice like dead wood, rubbing at his eyes and nose. "I'm such a fucking idiot."
"No! It's me that's the fucking idiot." Luke’s eyes prickled, and he stared at the floor trying not to show how wet they were. He felt miserable, and he ardently wished he could go back thirty-six hours and start Monday afresh. How he wished he hadn't been such a shitting asshole and had jumped straight into the fray when Mitchell first called out the hang. And more than anything, he wished he could take back his own ridicule at the sight of Ryan squealing as his backside was being tanned.
"Some fucking friend I turned out to be!" In the end, Luke was more angry with himself than he ever was with Landon!
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” With deliberate care, Ryan rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. “About what I said about my father?”
“You know I won’t!” Luke bit his lip. He hated to think that Ry could even think that! Did he think that little of him, now? “But when it comes to Mitchell and Landon tomorrow, I’ll kick the shit out of them myself!"
“WHY NOT?” Luke glared, unable to get over how disappointed he was in himself. “I mean it, Ry! I’m gonna bloody brain Landon!" He was getting riled up, and jumped up to pace around the decking. "And Mitchell, too! It was him that put that weak shit up to it!”
He could see the anger flare in Ryan again, and it seemed to revitalize his friend. Then Ryan pulled a deep cleansing breath and shook his head. “Because it’s not your fault and it’ll just keep it all going. And anyway, I’m not going to let that bastard Landon find something else to have a go at!”
“His face will fucking change when we have a go at him,” Luke countered. “I'll bet you there would be plenty of guys ready to pull the shit up into a hang and get a taste of it himself! See how he likes it!”
Ryan shook his head. “Tempting, but I wouldn’t wish it even on him! Anyway—" an unexpected smirk crept onto Ryan's face, "—how do you think that would go down in your condition?” He nodded to where Luke was recently cut.
“No fucking idea!” Luke admitted, grimacing as he made a show of adjusting his pants. It was good to see Ry smiling, and Luke deserved it being at his own expense.
“Oh, sorry.” Ryan eyes flashed. “Not sure where I heard it, but they say it’s like sensory overload down there straight after you get skinned!”
Luke had no idea where Ry might have heard that, but he wasn’t wrong! Before Luke had time to respond, Ryan added, “You’re really gonna take them all on when you can't even walk straight, for chrissake?" He watched Luke speculatively and another grin broke out. "You look like some demented crab!”
“Shit, don’t laugh—it chafes like crazy!"
"Oh my God," Ryan sat up. "What a retard—I completely forgot. You had your appointment this morning!"
Luke nodded. "First thing—that's why I was in late in." He picked up the two empty glasses. "Do you want another?"
"Anyway, it’s not my fault." Luke said, trying not to waddle like a crab as they both went through into the kitchen. “My boxers are way too baggy and it just keeps rubbing. I’m gonna have to get something different…this is killing me!”
"For God's sake, sit down then!" Ryan took the glasses off him and opened the fridge door. “Come on, then, what did he say?"
“The urologist guy?” Luke eased himself onto a chair and chuckled, sensing they had turned a corner. “He said he liked your handiwork, but I don't think he was offering any refunds.”
Stopping in the middle of pouring, Ryan looked surprised. “You told him I did it?”
“Yep. Pliers, spoon and everything.” Luke sniggered. “Actually, I told him you helped a bit. Take it from me, he and mum were a bit surprised!”
“Your mom was there?” Ryan seemed taken aback, now. “Crap—I’d never let my mom anywhere near something like that!”
Luke pulled a face as he recalled that particular unfortunate moment and muttered, "Yeah, tell me about it! She kinda sneaked in. You know what she’s like.” He cringed at the memory. Okay, while he had invited her to come into the consultation room, he’d never planned on having to take his clothes off in front of her.
Enough said. There was NO WAY he was going to admit to throwing a chub in front of his mother! Even to Ry!
Ryan, on the other hand, was still dwelling on something else. “You told your mom that I helped take off your circumcision device?” He appeared cautious.
“What else was I going to tell her?” Luke rolled his eyes. “That a butcher at the meat market did it?” They stared at each other as both faces twitched into a grin. He hadn’t meant it to be funny, but within moments, they were both creased up. They were still sniggering when the front door opened, heralding the arrival of Luke’s mum.
She bustled into the kitchen and spotted Ryan. “Hello there Ryan.” She seemed in a good mood. “So is it an extra plate for dinner?”
“Oooops!” Luke pulled a face. “Sorry…I forgot to ask.”
“Luke!” There was a tinge of exasperation in Lucy's voice. Sidestepping him, she switched to Ryan, though seemed to have enough sense not to get all inquisitive on him or try to dig out what had been wrong the last few days. Apparently satisfied that Ryan looked healthy enough, she said, “I’m baking a fish pie for supper. We’d love you to stay if you can."
Seeing some hesitation in Ryan, Luke kicked in. It seemed that they were just getting back on track again, and hanging around together for the rest of the afternoon—and maybe the evening, too—had to be better than Ryan mooching at home by himself.
“Please,” Luke begged, making it a little theatrical, “don’t make me eat Mum’s fish pie on my own!” Gratified, he saw the corners of a mouth that was quite partial to his mum’s cooking, twitch. Still, it seemed to hang on a knife-edge before Ryan relented.
“Fish pie? Mmmm…” He grinned and seemed to relax at last. “That would be great, Lucy…thanks. I’ll have to check with Mom, but I’m sure it’d be okay. What time?”
“I’ve not started on it yet.” Her eyes flicked to the wall clock. “Probably around five.”
“Plenty of time for us to shoot some hoops,” Luke injected quickly, just in case Ryan thought he might go home and come back later. “We could even do some homework if you want?” He caught his mum’s skeptical glint and grinned.
“Let me just go and get changed,” Luke added. “I’ll see you out the front.”
“Cool!” Ryan looked buoyant once again.
Luke bounded up the stairs as quickly as his tender schlong would let him and tried to take stock. On the outside at least, Ryan seemed to be getting back to the same old Ry. Even if the stuff about his father was out there, he seemed to be getting past it.
But fucking hell...how crap could it get? A father that beat you? Badly enough to make you weep like that? Luke hated the bastard as much as he hated Landon. Normally tough and resilient as Ryan was, it was the first time Luke had ever seen him cry. Really cry. All he knew was that for Ryan to break down so completely like that, what he'd endured had to have been worse than just bad. And yet, despite it all, he still had it in him to forgive Luke!
Not hanging around, Luke swapped formal school wear for cargoes and a tee and bounded down the stairs.
* * *
Extract from Luke's notes:
It was such a relief to see Ryan in a better mood—laughing again after he'd been so cut up.
'The Meat Market Man!' Christ! Even now, and despite it all, it still makes me chuckle—and you've no idea the number of times I've been in there since, and sniggering as I watched the guy behind the counter working with his great big chopper!
Relaxed yet energetic around the hoop, we played one-on-one for ages. The game was a good way to let out the tension, and I was just relieved that Ryan seemed to be on the mend. Even the stuff with his father I doubted would ever come up—I certainly wasn’t planning on mentioning it again!
It was an afternoon to forget the crap stuff. The kind of time that afternoons after school were meant for—larking around outside with a best friend, enjoying being young. Ry was relaxed and on his game, quite happy to take advantage of the fact that I was temporarily what might be called 'wiener wary'! He kept backing into me and it's hard to defend when you're trying to keep your dick out of the way!
At the same time, it was hard to keep my eyes off his backside…and I know this is stupid, but I kept wondering if he was wearing boxers that said 'EUROBOY on them. I had to resist the urge to tweak the back of his jeans and take a quick peek!
Goon or not, I was at peace. Not just because he was there and still had the ability to press my buttons, but discovering that he could be so fragile—with good reason considering what he'd had to live through—really touched me. I'd always known him as the self-reliant one; not aloof but certainly never needing anything from me…from anyone in fact. And yet, underneath it all, he did. He really did.
It’s not that it diminished him in some way, or made him pitiable. In fact, quite the opposite. To me, he became more real. Not just sexy, but authentic.
Look, I don't know if I'm describing it very well, but as he backed into me, I found myself just wanting to put my arms around him, to hold him close and tell him it was okay. His black tee was as sweaty as mine, but who cared? I’d take in his scent and probably end up nibbling his ear!
Yeah I know, I know…you don’t have to remind me. Like THAT was ever going to happen! Only if I planned to lose more teeth than Landon!
So, I kept it safe, and we played hard until the drips were falling off us.
* * *
Luke emptied his glass in one long swig. He’d needed that! He sniffed the air.
“That smells good, Mum!” The first spicy aromas of the delicious fish dish his mum was good at making were emanating from the oven, and the work surface showed the fallout of her preparations. “I’m starving! When did you say dinner was?”
“It’ll be about five-thirty,” she said, glancing at the wall clock. She eyed him with disapproval as he lifted up the front of his tee shirt to wipe his face. “Plenty of time for you to take a shower.”
He sniffed his pits and grinned. "You’re probably right.” On the other hand, he wasn't the only one with quite a bit more than a sweaty face, though why Ry had chosen to put on black jeans on that hot afternoon instead of shorts was beyond him.
He caught Ryan's eye. “You?"
Ryan shook his head and picked up the coke bottle. "I’m okay. I just need to cool off a bit—maybe stick my head under the cold tap." He wiped his own face with the sleeve of his tee. "I could do with borrowing a tee, though, if you don't mind?"
"Are you sure?" Lucy eyed him doubtfully. "We don't charge, you know."
"We don't charge for what?" a voice said from beyond the kitchen door.
"Oh…hi Dad!" Luke's eyes drifted through the doorway that led to the hall, and then to the wall clock. "You're back early."
He'd not even heard his dad come in the front door let alone hear his car pulling onto the drive. With his jacket hanging off his shoulder, Geoff breezed into the kitchen looking cheery.
"They let me out for good behavior!” Resting his case on the table, Geoff dropped onto a chair and spotted the bottle of Coke Ryan had a hold of. "Hello, Ryan. Be a friend and pour me one will you? I'm parched."
Geoff nodded, and Ryan, who knew their home and family well enough that he didn't need to be told where stuff was, stood to reach for a fresh glass. Back at the fridge, the ice dispenser rumbled and chunks clinked into the tall glass. He filled it to the brim with fizzy liquid and handed it over.
Fifteen seconds later Geoff smacked his lips after chugging down the whole glassful.
"That," he declared, "was perfect!" He held it out for a refill, and as Ryan obliged, added, "So help me, young man, I'm seriously thinking we should swap Luke for you!"
"Maybe we should adopt him?" Luke smirked. He tried make it sound funny, but regretted the comment as the look that crossed Ryan's face was complicated. It made Luke feel oddly guilty.
Shit, nice work! Remind him his real family is crap why don't you?
However, why Luke really felt guilty was because,eight times out of ten, he pushed to go to the Alexis place…but only because they had a pool and he wanted to be in it. Less frequently did Ryan come round to their home. Ryan never made much of it, but it felt to Luke now like he'd let him down. Again.
“So, you two.” Geoff stretched out his legs, getting himself comfortable. He seemed to be unaware of the covert exchange as he leaned back on his chair. Lucy disappeared in the direction of the garage “How’s things?”
All at once Geoff’s head flicked Luke’s direction as if he seemed to remember something.
“Crumbs, I forgot. The docs. How did it go this morning?” He sat up and smirked. “And did I hear it right, Ryan? A pair of pliers?”
Ryan looked momentarily unbalanced, but not for long. “Gardening and Urology,” he chuckled easily. “They say I have a great future.”
Luke burst out laughing. This was the Ryan he knew. Smart, quick, funny…and a whole lot more!
Geoff grinned too. “Urology, huh? You know your stuff!"
He winked wickedly and nodded towards Luke. "Don’t tell anyone, but he likes to call it his wi—”
“DAD!” Luke squeaked as, nearly dropping the bottle, Ryan snorted with laughter. Glaring at his dad, Luke muttered, “Don’t you dare!”
Geoff put his hands to his lips, but winked. “Ooops…my bad…sorry!”
"Don't you dare what?" Lucy bustled in again. She was holding a huge basket of freshly laundered washing.
"Men's talk, dearest."
"Really?" She seemed unimpressed.
She gave Geoff a winning smile as she dumped the basket onto the table in front of him. “As you’re back early, be a dear and just iron these for me would you, while I go get the sheets out. It won't take you a few moments and there’s a couple of more loads just drying."
She turned back towards where the washer and dryer were set up in the garage adding, "Dinner will be in about an hour. Ryan’s eating with us, too."
Geoff’s face was a picture of dismay as he studied the overloaded basket…as did Luke himself. It was, he felt, a little indelicate of his mother to leave several pairs of his less-than-immaculate boxers trailing indiscreetly over the side.
“You’re staying for dinner, Ryan?” Geoff asked.
"Yes, if that's okay," Ryan replied. He seemed to be studying the basket, too. "That's quite a load," he added.
Luke pulled a face. "Don't you dare pretend you're good at ironing!" He was fairly sure the Alexis family had a maid for that!
Geoff let out a dispirited sigh, probably regretting coming home so soon. He stood and made to lift the basket to one side, but then spotted his case, brightened. "Oh, I almost forgot, I've got something for you, Luke."
Watching him, Luke boggled as his dad reached into his bag and pulled out a spanking brand new iPhone.
"You're kidding!” Luke cried. “You got me one?" Even Ryan seemed surprised and slipped into a chair opposite to watch.
Geoff shook his head. "In your dreams, kiddo. I got me one."
Putting the iPhone to one side, he drew out his old and rather battered, Motorola flip. "But you can have this one now, if you want. It's on contract to the end of the month, then you can do your own thing."
Ignoring the Motorola, Luke picked up the Apple product and fondled it longingly. "Are you sure you don't want to swap?"
"Mmmm…let me think about that." Geoff plucked the iPhone from Luke’s hand. "I would make that a no."
Ryan looked eager, too. "I was thinking about getting one of those," he said.
Luke shot daggers at his dad who then seemed more than happy to pass the device to Ryan, who played with it for a few moments before returning it. Ryan pulled his current phone from his pocket and showed it to Luke. "If I get one, you could have my old one if you wanted it?"
"Great! So I just get everyone's cast offs!"
Ry's phone wasn't bad though.
Geoff waved the Motorola. "Your choice, pal. Take it or leave it. I can always give it to Simon."
Luke quickly grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket, and the three of them settled again around the table as the coke got passed around once more.
Geoff held up his glass. “A toast, gentlemen?”
"To Apple?" proposed Ryan, helpfully.
“The ironing?” smirked Luke, unable to help rubbing it in.
Geoff only partially smothered a groan as they all glanced again at the overflowing basket, and he pulled a face. "Maybe not," he sighed. He turned the glass in his fingers, contemplating both it and, it seemed, searching for some appropriate toast. Luke wasn’t taken in. He knew how his Dad worked and wondered where he was going with this.
“I dunno,” said Geoff eventually. “They let me out for good behavior at the office today, but I still have to go back.” He shrugged and then grinned. “And you, Luke survived being a total moron and smashing your circumcision Klamp!”
“Hey! Do you mind!”
His dad smirked, and didn’t look remorseful in the slightest, then raised his glass. “So…what about ‘to better tomorrows’?”
Luke went still. In that one exchange, everything shifted. His dad knew some crap things had gone on at school and that Ry had been in the middle of it, so Luke didn’t believe for one minute that it was accidental—though whether his dad was being brilliant or stupid was yet to be seen.
Apprehensive, Luke raised his own glass and repeated the prayer. “To better tomorrows.” His eyes flicked across the table and he wondered how Ryan would take it.
To him, it seemed like the room sat on a knife-edge— or was he the only one who felt that? It felt like a tight silence before Ryan slowly raised his glass to join them. His voice was a soft admission, something real, when he said. “You know…I could really do with some of that, too.”
The glasses came together with a gentle clink. In the silence that followed, Luke took a drink and waited. He knew it must have been hard for Ry to voice that—especially in front of Geoff.
It was Ryan that broke the stillness.
“I…” he began. He lifted his glass and took another drink, but by the time he put down the glass, his face had lost the brimming emotion and his tone was controlled. “I guess I will go for that shower now, if that’s okay.”
For his sake, Luke grinned brightly. “Sure. Come on—let’s leave the old man to get on with the ironing.” Escaping, they emptied their glasses and left them in the sink before going upstairs.