Plan C: Mawg Dilligs

by Driver

Chapter 4

I heard the shout, or was it a scream? My mother's voice, loud and shrill, crying, "Fire!"

That's a word that doesn't take any time to sink in, and I was immediately on my feet, forgetting my homework in a split second. Then dread was my only feeling. Fire? Where? Here in our house? I had to get out!

I was down the stairs in just a few seconds, and when I got to the living room I knew it wasn't our house. The fire was across and up the street, I could see that from the front window. It still almost paralyzed me with fear, because it was my friend Paul's house. It was burning furiously, too, and a kind of terror gripped me. I didn't know if Paul and his family were in or out to start with, but just seeing the house with flames shooting out like that was more terrifying than I can explain.

I ran back upstairs for my shoes, then I hurriedly pulled my coat on and went outside. We were back in deep-freeze mode, and the flimsy sweat pants I had on did almost nothing to keep my legs warm, but I was too excited to care.

The first fire engine was just turning into our street, and from my new position I could see that the fire seemed to be in the garage part of the house. There weren't any cars in the driveway, and I didn't see any of the Dawson family outside, though the rest of the neighborhood was out there with me, shivering in the cold.

I watched for awhile, but it was too cold for the way I was dressed so I went back inside and watched out the window. I felt bad, but the fire was soon out, and it didn't look like it had spread beyond the garage.

Paul was the oldest Dawson kid. He had a brother and three sisters, all much younger than him. His grandparents on his mother's side also lived with them, so a lot of people lived in that house. If I knew them, they were all at Wal-Mart, too, except for Paul. They were always at Wal-Mart, it seemed, and I guess with that many people they always needed something.

It was a school night and getting late, so I went up and finished my homework, then went to bed. I tried to think of Aaron, but instead Paul Dawson came to mind. I was concerned, of course. They were out somewhere, and probably didn't know yet that their house was a mess. My father worked with Mr. Dawson, so I wouldn't be surprised if he waited up for them, then made some kind of offer for at least that night if they couldn't stay in their house.

I had an odd relationship with Paul. He wasn't a close friend, but he was still one of my favorite people. He was older than me by two years, a senior now. I suppose I should cut through it right now and just say that I liked the way he looked. I loved the way Paul looked, and it had to be just me, because I don't think many people would have found him attractive.

He was big: six foot and close to two hundred pounds anyhow, but he was all softness. He was a blond with brown eyes and straight hair, and he almost always dressed in black, at least his shirts. If he'd ever shaved, it was to fool around. He had no whiskers. He wasn't fat at all, but he had no real shape either, except his butt.

It's one of those undefined things, I guess. If I gave into it, I'd say that Paul was the first boy I lusted after, but that's a stretch because it went back to when I was five or six. It's a long time to unravel, but my feelings toward Paul had always felt like yearnings. By the time I figured out things about sex, I knew I desired Paul Dawson, and therefore that I was on the far side of normal. That, luckily, is about the time I was getting close to Chris. I talked to Chris first, and he saw right through me. Gay, he'd called me. "Queer, that's what you are, Evan!" He looked at me closely with his twelve year old eyes, and he started wiggling his fingers. "This is cool! But, Paul Dawson? He's a meathead, man, he doesn't do anything."

True enough, but I'd learned a few things from Paul, and years later I still liked him.

Paul was a leader in his own way, too. He had this circle of bad-boy friends, and he had a walk-out basement that they hung out in. These people were older than me, and maybe because of that, or perhaps because they were tightwads, I never got invited to partake of the booze they drank or the pot they smoked.

I still learned a lot about being a teenager from them, and I learned to talk about all kinds of things, and I learned about practical jokes. I decided on my own against drugs. That was just from observation. Some of the kids messed around, got high, went home, and that was it. Others were at it every day, and Paul was one of them. He was funny when high, and I loved his cackling laugh.

It was other kids who turned me off to the whole idea. They'd get funny, then obnoxious, then sick. I liked the funny, but not the rest of it, and the smell of pot made me feel ill anyhow, so I never tried it.

When somebody came up with wine or beer, though, I liked it. There was never enough to go around to begin with, and I was just a hanger-on so I never got more than a taste, but it still made me feel like I was one with the older guys.

I wasn't surprised when my father tapped on my door, then came in. "Ev," he said, "I asked Clint and his family to stay here for the night. Can Paulie sleep in with you?"

Wasn't that the question? I grinned and, probably foolishly, said, "If he dares." Then I thought better, "Um, sorry. I mean, sure he can. How's their house?"

Dad sighed, "The garage is pretty much gone. The house got smoke and some water in it. It's not bad, but it needs to be inspected before they can sleep there."

I asked, "Do we have room for all of them?"

He chuckled, "I don't think so. Paul can sleep in here, and Mark will stay with Bruce. The girls can camp out in the family room, and Alton can use the living room. That leaves his room and Matt's for the adults."

I shrugged, "It's fine with me." I wasn't going to wait up anyhow. "Tell him to just come in when he gets here, okay?"

My father grunted and left, closing the door behind him. I rolled onto my back and put my hands under my head, then this smile broke out on my face for nobody to see, but I couldn't help it. I was going to sleep with Paul Dawson, maybe even see him in his underwear, and I had spent an enormous percentage of my life envisioning just such a thing.

I was, of course, dead to the world when he came in, and the first I saw of him was in the morning when the alarm went off. I reached to hit the snooze button, and hit a brick wall. I reached again, and the impediment was still there, so I opened my eyes. All I saw at first was the back of a mussy blond head, and it took a while to register who it was.

Then I smiled. I reached over and smacked the radio, then I put my head under the covers to see what I could. I'm bad, right? Sorry, but this was my first, last and only chance to satisfy a curiosity that I'd carried from an early age. I couldn't see anything anyhow, but being under the covers like that with Paul was pretty satisfactory in its own right. I'd probably never be able to explain the attraction I felt toward him. Thankfully, nobody knew about it except Chris, so I could save explanations for more important things.

I let the snooze go off twice more before I decided to get up. The thought had entered my head that a lot more people would need showers and bathroom time that morning, so I got up a little early. I didn't mind, and I took the liberty of uncovering Paul Dawson when I clambered over him, and I got a good look.


I could give you a million reasons why I found Aaron sexy. I could come up with half that many about Chris or Billy, but there were no obvious reasons for Paul. He was sexy to me just the same. Maybe because he always had been, but maybe not, too. I headed off to the bathroom wondering about it, but the feeling didn't leave me.

I was more awake when I came back to the room, and Paul was up, sitting at my computer and laughing at whatever he was looking at. He had the laugh of a witch; a high pitched cackle, but I had loved hearing it for many years by then.

I grinned at the sound, "Hi, Paul. What's so funny?"

He turned, and his face was puffy from just getting up. He grinned, "Hey, Ev. It's this website, it's the funniest thing. Come and look."

I took his place at the computer and he left for the bathroom. It was funny stuff for sure, and I was certain it was a joke site. Paul was in a 'police log', but it called drunks 'cocktail enhanced', 'semi-cocktailed' and 'drunkeneers'. There was a bit about a pooch with 'issues', and I was lost in laughter when Paul came back. He laughed because I was laughing, and said, "I told you it was funny." He patted my shoulder, "Do you people eat around here?"

I nodded and got up. I hadn't even put my clothes on yet, so a bit of hurry-up was now involved. Still in my bathrobe, I pulled on clean underpants, then the jeans I'd worn the day before. Then I got a clean undershirt, shirt and socks, and when my shoes were on all I had to do was stuff my pockets.

Paul was ready when I was, and we went to the kitchen. It was empty, but someone had already been there because the coffee was made.

I looked at Paul, "I'm not cooking." I pointed at a cabinet, "Cereal's up there, there's bread on the counter, bagels in the freezer. Just help yourself, okay?"

He nodded, and I got him a cereal bowl when I got mine out. We both ate Total with sliced up bananas, toast, and glasses of juice. We didn't talk much because we were hurrying through the meal. Others came in while we were eating, but there was no real attempt at communication. When we were done, I picked up our dishes and brought them to the sink, and Paul said, "Thanks, Evan. Want to ride in with me?"

I nodded and grinned, "I got a car, you know."

He said, "I saw your car, and it's exactly and totally gorgeous!" He made a cranking motion with his hand, "You won't win on horsepower, but you get all the style points. I'd primer it, though. It's too shiny."

I looked to see if he was serious, and he wasn't. Paul's Mustang was a work in progress, and when the body panels had taken on too many colors he painted the whole thing in black primer. It had been that way for the better part of a year by then, and it honestly looked good like that, like a stealth car.

It, unfortunately, smelled like a party car inside, and there was ample evidence of exuberant youthful behavior all over the floor and the console. I picked up what looked like a condom wrapper and held it up, "Uh huh, what's this, Paul? You've been fucking around behind my back, haven't you?"

Paul swerved the car when he laughed, "Behind your back? I don't think so. Anyhow, I thought you were gay. What do you care what I do with women?"

I was incredulous, "Where'd you hear that?"

"It's around, Evan." He suddenly looked worried and looked at me, "It's not true? I heard it more than one place."

I sat back in the seat and crossed my arms over my chest. I wanted to say something, but I wasn't sure what I should say, and I took a moment to think. I finally equivocated, "If it's a problem then it doesn't have to be true."

Paul slowed and took a cautious look at me. He said gently, "Did I say problem? I don't remember saying problem, Ev. You're like me, and you're like everyone else. You get your one shot at life, and you do what you will with it. If you're gay, then that's what you are, and you should be looking at men instead of women. If you try not to, you're going to be one miserable mother fucker."

I think my jaw dropped, and I'm not sure why. Paul was a wild kid in his way, but it suddenly became clear to me that it was his innate sensitivity that I liked so much. Paul could party with the best of them, and in fact he may have been the best of them. He was always the last man standing, and that often involved tending to someone who had over-done.

Paul looked after his friends, I had to give him that. He'd been looking after me, too, which I hadn't realized before. It was always Paul taking the beer can from me after one sip, saying, "You get yours after the big boys are done, kid," and he'd ease me out of there if things were getting too wild.

I smiled at him and said, "It's true, then. I'm gay and I'm in love with a guy from Riverton."

He stopped at a light and turned to me, "Oh, in love, too? Good going, man. This all happened last summer?"

I nodded. "His name's Aaron. That's why I don't come around much anymore. Either I'm at his house or he's here. Well, there's everything else, too."

The light changed and we drove the half-block more to the school entrance. When Paul was turning in he grinned suddenly, "This is pretty cool, you know, and it was Larry Blum who told me about you. He thought I knew. And don't worry, I haven't spread it around."

"Thanks. My best friends know, and I don't know why anyone else should."

He pulled into an empty spot and turned the car off, turning to look at me. "It's not anything to worry about, Ev." His face suddenly went pale, "Oh. Oh! Is that what your house getting shot up was about? That was it, right? It is a big deal."

I muttered, "I hope that's all done with, but yeah, it was a big deal, to one guy anyhow." I opened my door and Paul just looked at me, so I got out of the car and waited for him. I had to suppress a smile, because he still looked edible to me, but better in clothes than not.

When Paul got out and stood on the opposite side of the car, he smiled at me and it made me feel good. I'd grown up thinking I was in his shadow or something, but now I knew he was always aware of me, keeping an eye on me.

We walked to the building together, then split up. He offered me a ride home after school, but I declined because I had other things going.

All day long, though, I thought about Paul, both actively and idly. I felt somehow justified for my feelings about him, and I wished I'd talked to him about things long ago. I always saw him as a wild kid, but never put it together that he might be smart and sensitive and wild at the same time.

My loss, because Paul deserved more than I gave him.

I didn't know how to tell him what I thought, and I didn't see him anyhow. I wanted to tell him that I appreciated him. Well, that's a half truth. What I wanted to do was jump his body and have my uncensored way with him ... just once.

It was a good day in school. Chris and I had second period English together, and we saw our teacher walking away from the classroom just before we went in, so we performed a giant, loud pratfall that knocked over four desks and caused me to get bonked in the head by a big book. That was a small price to pay when I saw our wake and the expressions on people's faces. Like they say in the credit card ads; priceless!

It was basketball in gym and, once the teacher left us to our own devices, we heated up the play and had some real fun until he came back. By lunch time I had a sore hip from getting knocked down in gym, and I had an egg on my head from our English class antics. I was smiling just the same, and had a bowl of okay chili and a big Caesar salad for my meal. I told the friends I ate with about the fire the night before, and how nine extra people slept at our house.

After classes, there was a rehearsal for the play, and it was falling into place by then. It was a complicated musical by school standards, and it had been rearranged and rearranged for simplicity by Mr. Kennedy and the cast. I thought the things they were doing were brilliant. The guy playing the lead, Andy Waxman, was a big senior who was also on the football team. He didn't have a great singing voice, but he was on key. He did have a fantastic, off the wall, sense of humor, though. He was quick, too, and a lot of the rewrites involved his recoveries to his own flubs. A new part of my duties now was to set up a video camera at every rehearsal, then Mr. Kennedy would use Andy's work to make changes. Kennedy was on cloud nine because it was working out so well, and the rehearsals were lots of fun to be at.

It was fun for all of us, and I got to know some new people. I liked theater anyhow, and I loved being a part of it. It was neat being around others who liked it, too, and the whole thing seemed a little larger than life. This particular play morphed a little every day, and it kept on getting better and funnier. There was this creative energy in the air, and it came from everyone; our teacher, the players, and all the support staff. Everyone had ideas, and all ideas were listened to and generally given a try.

I was feeling warm, happy, and a little boisterous when we left that day. A crowd of us left together, and as we walked, people dropped off to go their own ways. I wasn't alone until two houses up from my own, and I paused in my driveway to admire the Acura. Cars were in the driveway at Paul's house, so they had to be back there.

It wasn't good that they had a fire, but I was glad that it made me spend that time with Paul. I had a whole new appreciation for a guy who'd been good to me for most of my life. And, well, he was still sexy, too.

I read my history assignment until dinner time, and our meal was a quiet one. After I ate, I went up to my room to call Aaron, but before I could Bruce appeared at the door. "Got a minute, Evan?" he asked.

I nodded and he came in. He hemmed and hawed, and I snickered. "What's up, Bruce? Are you nervous?"

He eyed me seriously and said, "Not nervous, really, I just don't know how to put this."

That sounded ominous, "Well, why don't you just say it? Get the words out, then you can refine it if you have to."

He gave me a glare that may have contained some anger, then he softened. "Okay. I ... um ... uh. Okay ... how ... I mean when ... I mean ..."

I smiled, "That was nice and slow, Bruce. I appreciate you taking your time with me. Is there anything else?"

That was mean and I knew it, but Bruce laughed. "You're funny, Evan. Okay, what I want to know is how you know if a girl you like likes you, too."

I grinned, "Brucie's in love?"

He blushed a fine crimson and muttered, "I didn't say that. I just want to know."

I changed my tone, "It depends, Bruce. Does she know you like her?" I should have asked if she knew he existed, but with his looks I'm sure she did.

He shook his head. "I never know what to say. I don't know how to just talk to someone."

"You're talking to me," I said.

He rolled his eyes, "I know I am. I meant someone like that!"

I looked at my brother and empathized. "Tell me about her, Bruce, starting with a name, then what she looks like, then what you like so much."

His face took on this hopeful, and somewhat dreamy look. "Her name's Jackie Williams, and she's tall and thin, and," his hand looked like he was ready to pick up a baseball, "she's got these ..." He looked a question at me, "Can I say tits?"

I snorted, "Tits is a fine word!"

"She does, Evan, and a better ass than yours, and little, itty-bitty freckles, and a beautiful smile, and this skin you wouldn't believe, and ..."

"Bruce," I interrupted. "You just said itty-bitty."

"I did?"

I nodded. "Is that a new scientific term?"

Here's where my younger brother differs from most people. He nodded and said, "Scientists say itty-bitty all the time, Evan. It means like really small. It's like the total opposite of humongous!"

See what I mean? I couldn't keep from laughing, and when I got it out I said, "I know what it means, Bruce. You haven't told me what the attraction is."

His eyes bugged, "What? What did I just say?"

I grinned, "Oh, she looks good." Bruce looked hopeful, so I went on, "I should be telling you about mental attractions, too. I think I won't in your case," and I didn't try to continue that line of thought. Instead, I said, "Looks are good, and I think sometimes you might be the only one looking. Try what Aaron did with me. Offer to walk her home, Bruce. Get to know her, and see how it goes."

"Walk her home," Bruce muttered, then he relaxed, "I can do that!" He stood up grinning, "Thanks, Evan! You're a good brother."

I wanted to laugh, but I saved it. Instead, I said, "Yeah, and so are you. That's what brothers are supposed to be for, too. Tell me one thing, Bruce. Why did you choose me to ask about girls?"

He leaned against the wall and seemed to be thinking about it, and he finally said, and seriously, "Because you're the one person I know who's really in love." He grinned, "You're the source, Ev! You like men, and I like women. What else is different?" He came closer, "Thanks man," he said when he put a hand on my shoulder. "I learn from you, you know. You and Chris, and I love it!"

I didn't say anything, and I watched him leave. My brother. Too smart for his own good. Too good looking to do anybody justice. Now he had feelings for a girl, and suddenly he was a cute, love-struck kid.

And I was an ill unit, charmed way too easily by little things like that.

Chris came over that night, and he waited patiently while I talked to Aaron, then we worked on our homework. We didn't have but one class together, so we were working in the same place more than on the same things. We had some music playing quietly, and there were normal household noises in the background. At some point, my father showed up at the door, which was open, and said, "Evan, find your brothers and come downstairs. We need to talk."

He looked worried, so I put my pen down and went to Alton's room, which was closest. It was empty, but Bruce was in his own room and he followed us downstairs. Alton was already there with my parents. Dad still seemed nervous, and Mom seemed on the verge of a breakdown. Chris sat in a chair and I sat on the floor beside him and asked, "What's going on?"

I thought for sure it would be about me, because everything seemed to be about me lately, but Dad had a paper in his hand and said, "It's Matthew, boys. He's going to war in Iraq. He's in Kuwait now with his unit. That's all we know other than what's on the news."

I'd never seen my parents look so tense, and I asked, "He'll be alright, won't he?" I didn't even know what my brother did for the Air Force specifically, only that he was in some support group. He didn't fly planes or anything, although I think he may have put gas in them for the guys who did.

Dad nodded, "He's in a supply unit, but everyone's a target in a war. He'll probably stay at the base in Kuwait. I'm telling you so you'll know. Also, I want you boys to start writing to Matt. Every day, if you can. He'll be afraid for his life now, every hour of every day. He needs to know that his family cares, that we're interested, and that we want him home safely when this is over."

Alton said, "We knew at Christmas that he would probably go. Why's it a big deal now?"

I winced, knowing what would come from my father. He narrowed his eyes at Alton and said, in a taut voice, "Alton, shame on you. Matthew is our son and your brother! It's a big deal now because he's in Kuwait waiting for a war to start. He'll be there. There, not here watching it on CNN. It's a big deal because he's now in mortal danger! Saddam isn't going to roll over and play dead, he's going to kill as many of our troops as he can, and your brother is one of those troops!"

By that last exclamation point, Dad had the windows rattling and Alton almost cowering. For once, I saw the truth in his outburst, and a certain eloquence in his anger. He was good in his own way, if a yelling father can be described as good. I did the sensible thing and said, "I'm going up to write to Matty right now!" I looked at Chris, "Come on, Chris! You can write, too."

Bruce said, "So can I."

I was on the stairs already when Al said, "Me too," and I could hear my mother exhale finally.

I did write to Matthew, and so did Chris. I hadn't seen my oldest brother in almost two years. He didn't know I was gay yet, and with him I expected problems about it. Still, he was my brother, and like Dad said, he was in danger now, so I did my best. I didn't know what to say, so I just made something up about people named Orville. I asked Matt if he knew any Orvilles, and mentioned that the two most important ones in my life were Wright and Redenbacher, and asked if he was personally cursing Orville Wright for inventing the damned airplane, or if he thought it was still a good deal. Then I praised Orville Redenbacher for his invention of popcorn, and particularly the microwave kind.

When I was done, I read the letter over. I could see it was mostly nonsense, and I felt silly at first, almost petty. Then I thought about Matt, and nonsense could have been his middle name. He loved silly things, particularly British humor. He liked Americans, too. Ogden Nash was his favorite poet, and Twain his favorite writer.

He could add Evan Smiley, his brother. I signed off, 'Mawg dilligs, Evan'. I was pretty sure it meant absolutely nothing in any language, and hoped it would get a laugh from Matt.

I laughed and looked at Chris, who was still writing. "When you're done," I said, "sign it mawg dilligs."

Chris didn't look up, "Spell that," he said, "then explain it."

I spelled it the way I wrote it and added, "There's no explanation, Chris. It's kind of the written equivalent of knocking over desks in class. There is no point, it's just fun."

"Mawg dilligs, then," Chris said as he wrote. "There!" He looked at me, "You're right, that was fun to write."

I blinked my eyes, "You're just saying that."

"Well, yeah," Chris said. "Sometimes I know better than to complain."

"Mawg dilligs," I said.


* * * * * * * *

Aaron spent that weekend at my house, and it was really rotten outside. Where we'd had freezing cold, now we just had cold, and it was windy and raining when he got there on Friday. Both of his parents brought him, and we, including Bruce, joined them when they went to eat at an Italian place that had just opened.

The place was okay. It was in a strip mall and had no history yet, but they had pictures of their former place on the walls, and newspaper clippings, etc, from that one saying how good it was. We had to wait for a table, and our parents left us while they went to the bar.

It wasn't long, and when we got seated, this girl from school was our waitress. Her name was Linda, and it turned out her parents owned the restaurant. I'd known her since sixth grade, and since then we'd been in a lot of classes together, so we were friendly.

She knew my parents, too, and there were happy greetings. Then she looked at Aaron's parents, then him, and she asked politely, "Are you all related?"

My father explained that we weren't and introduced everyone, then I took a chance. I looked at Linda, and she was pretty if a bit chunky. "Aaron's with me." I gulped, "He's my boyfriend." She looked shocked, and I added, "Sorry to drop it on you like this."

She stood and stared for too long, and just when I was going to say something else, she looked around quickly and said, "No, that's alright. I ... people .. I mean ... everyone does their own thing these days." That came out too fast.

Aaron's mother giggled and said, "Linda, your reaction just tickles me. I think it might be prudent if you kept what Evan just said to yourself for now. Leave some mystery around it, if you don't mind."

Oh, God! What a look that brought on, but Linda wisely left it there and asked, "May I take your orders then?"

The food was really good, and we all wolfed down our meals. I especially liked their take on garlic bread.

I smiled when my father left more tip money on top of what Mr. Castle left. I knew him, and he did that when the waitresses were young and good looking.

Aaron and I had some experience in taking the blahs out of dreary weather, and that night was anything but dismal. We were well fed, the house was warm, and we were both in good condition. Aaron brought a cd set that he got for Christmas; a collection of old Motown hits from the sixties. I'd heard some of the songs, of course, but Aaron had time to get into it, and he'd learned to love the music. I learned about the 'Mo' while we went to town on each other, and by the time we went to sleep I was into it, too. The music.

Winter rain sucks. When it's warm and raining, it's okay to go out in it if you feel like it. In the cold, though, it's best to just look out the window or watch television. We did the latter. I lent Aaron my moosie slippers and wore the tiger ones myself, and we ate our cereal while watching cartoons.

There was a time in my life when Saturday morning meant cartoons, and anything else could wait. At sixteen, though, they only bored me.

I said to Aaron, "I'm bored. Want to watch a movie instead?"


I went through the stations, but there was nothing. We went to sort through our family's little collection of tapes and dvd's, and there was still nothing. I said, "How about the mall?"

"Uh-uh. No thanks," he said.

"What, then? Want to mess around online?"

Aaron shrugged, "Yeah, that's okay."

We had just started up the stairs when the doorbell rang, and I left it for someone else to answer. Just as we crested the top landing, Bruce called, "Evan! Company!"

I figured it would be Chris, but instead it was Paul Dawson in the front hall, and I remembered that Chris was playing ball at the Y. Paul noticed our footwear and smiled, then said "Hi." He looked at Aaron, and it was clear that he came up with a blank.

I said, "Hey, Paul. This is Aaron Castle. Aaron, this is Paul from across the street. I've told you about him."

They shook, and Aaron asked about the fire damage.

Paul shrugged, "We lost the garage and that's about it. The house is good except for that one wall and some carpets and stuff." He looked at me, "Feel like hanging around? I've kind of missed you."

I snickered, "You must really be bored. That's okay, so are we!"

He was, and we went up to my room, deciding to Google stupid things to see what came up.

Our first try was 'biggest fart'. It didn't take long before we were all laughing like crazy. There was, of course, a biggest fart website, but there was also a design-your-own fart website, and it was hilarious. We got to choose our options using the wonderful FartMatic 500, combine them, then play the result through the speakers. Minus smell, of course. Paul's came out the best, and we were laughing hard enough to hurt ourselves.

After we wired down, I had the thought to look up the name Erasmus. I had to put it together with murder, then a lot of things came up.

"Why are we looking at this?" Paul asked.

I explained the best I could, and he was a good listener. To the credit of everyone, he never even knew about the knife attack on me, just that our house got shot up.

"Wow!" he said when I finished. "Oh, man. I never knew. And this kid lives here in town now?"

I nodded, "Yeah, and he really seems okay. It's just ..."

Aaron went through the motions of a knife attack on me for just a second, then Paul really got it. His eyes got big and he murmured, "Holy shit. Oh, man, that must have scared you right to death." His face was funny for a moment, as it went from Aaron to me, and Aaron tried to cuddle into me so I'd feel protected. "Oh," he said. "Oh! Sorry, I didn't get it at first." His eyes met mine, "Aaron's your ... um ... special friend."

"Boyfriend," I said.

"Boyfriend," Aaron added.

"Boyfriend," Paul said in understanding, then he looked away.

"What?" I asked.

Paul shrugged and looked back, not quite at me. "Nothing, Evan." He looked up, a timid smile showing, "It's .. um, ... it's odd is all." He glanced at Aaron, then back at me, then he smiled. "Yeah, odd! Before today, I never really thought about this, and that's odd. I should have, man. You're ten-percenters, right? Just like movie agents? I know way more than ten people, so there must be other guys like you, I just don't know who they are, that's all." He turned his smile to Aaron, then broke out in a cackly laugh He was the Wicked Witch of the West, only there was a lot of humor in it. Then he said, "Welcome, Aaron. Any friend of Evan's is a friend of mine." He held out his hand to shake, which they'd already done.

We decided to go to the mall after all, since Paul had wheels, so Aaron and I got changed while Paul went downstairs. As soon as the door closed behind Paul, Aaron asked, "How do you stand it, Ev? Paul is a doll! Ohmigod, what an ass!"

I grinned at Aaron, "You think so, too? I thought I was alone in that department."

Aaron gave me a look that I understood. I guess there were some things that only gay boys like us would appreciate.

We drove through the rain to the mall, and it was really coming down when we got there. Paul parked in the garage, and we hurried across the bridge into the second level. The wind was blowing, and the rain was sideways enough that we got wet even there. We all laughed with relief when the doors closed behind us and we were in the nice, warm mall.

The Mt. Harman Shopping Center was probably the ho-hum mall of all time, but it was what we had, and on that particular day it was providing refuge to a whole lot of people.

We headed toward the food court, which was at the other end. We all wanted something hot, and I got a coffee. Aaron got a hot chocolate, and Paul bought a cup of soup. We didn't see a table right away, so we sat on a bench outside a store that sold computer games. That was good, because if I was going to run into any friends, that would be the place.

It was kind of funny. Even gay kids are guys, and when I got that first sip of hot coffee down, I grunted in appreciation. "Um!"

Paul had a spoonful of soup and agreed, "Um! Um hum!"

Aaron sipped his chocolate and sighed, "Mmmmmm!"

"Good?" I asked, and they both made noises. I took another, bigger sip of my coffee and said, "Mm, hmm, mine too."

We sat there making satisfied sounds until we were done, then headed off into the mall proper. I'd had an idea in my mind that I should get a down vest. I had one when I was around twelve, and I really liked it. I just never got another when I outgrew that one, and the mall had an Eddie Bauer store, so that was our first stop.

It was a good deal, too, because the sign outside said, 50% off all Down, and when I found the vest I wanted, which was a really heavy one, it said, "20% of Marked Price."

"Holy shit!" I said. It's a ninety-five dollar vest for less than forty!"

Aaron said, "Try it on!" and I did, and I really loved it. When I paid for it, I had the lady take all the tags off, then I put it on and put my jacket in the bag she gave me.

I got a feeling that didn't come to me all that often. I wasn't a clothes hound like Aaron, but that vest felt really perfect on me, and I just knew I looked good in it. I looked at myself in it every time I caught my reflection, which happens pretty often in a mall. In glass, in chrome, that image of me in a boss-assed vest pleased me to no end.

Paul snickered when I stopped to pose one time too often. "Jesus, Evan! Why don't you just call the picture guy from Abercrombie and Fitch? Take your pants off, and you'll fit right in their catalog."

I smiled, "Jealous, are you? Maybe if you took your pants off, you'd fit in my catalog."

Well, as soon as I said that I must have blushed like a beet, but Paul looked like a tomato himself, and Aaron just laughed. Then I snickered, and in a minute we were all giggling about it.

We'd been walking all the time, and we were at a different entrance, this one on the lower level, and it came right in from outside. The rain was coming down hard outside, the drops bouncing right up off the pavement. We looked for a minute, probably all of us as thankful as me that we weren't out there, then turned to go the other direction.

I got a glimpse of someone hurrying in from outside, and it was a soaked Lee Erasmus. He was startled. "Evan?"

"Lee!" I said, startled myself. "You just got here?"

He dipped his head and chased the rain from his hair with his fingers. When he stood back up straight he was a sight, hair every which-a-way, and he grinned, "Yeah, just now. You?"

I snickered at the condition of his head, and said, "We came in the sane way. Who're you with?"

Lee said, "Nobody, I just got dropped off. Are you with anyone?"

I was suddenly embarrassed by my rudeness. "Oh! I'm sorry." I put my hand on Aaron's shoulder and said, "This is Aaron Castle," then I indicated Paul and said, "and this is my neighbor, Paul." I looked at Aaron and said, "This is Lee Erasmus, Aaron."

Aaron gave me the briefest, most pleading look I'd ever seen on a face, then he turned to Lee, smiled, and they shook hands. Then he looked at me again while Paul and Lee greeted each other.

Paul asked, "Where do you know each other from?" and I almost lost it.

I looked at him and said, "Oh, Lee keeps trying to kill me. He's kind of a special friend in that regard."

That brought silence all around, so I added, "Oh, it's true!" I laughed out loud, "First it's knives, then it's guns. I don't know what's next, so for now I just squash him on the ice." I looked at Lee, "Right, guy?"

I was kidding, but I could see in his eyes that I'd hurt him. I looked at Aaron and Paul and said, "Give us a minute, okay?" then I turned back to Lee and said, "I'm sorry for that. I didn't mean anything, I'm just a little demented sometimes."

He didn't look any better, and I put a hand on his shoulder and said, "I mean it, Lee. I don't want to hurt you, it was just a joke."

He looked at me, hurt still in those eyes, and he didn't say anything. "Lee," I said. "I mean it, I was just kidding around."

He smiled weakly, "Okay, no harm." His hand started reaching toward me, then it landed on my new vest and he said, "Nice. Real nice. Where'd you find it?"

I almost choked, "Um, Eddie Bauer." I felt strange, really strange. Lee had just touched me, and it was to feel my new vest. I was put off by it, because his touch still, in my head, represented the touch of death. I think he sensed that, too, because he pulled his hand away like it got burned, and he muttered, "Nice."

I made myself look at him, and I held a stare until his eyes met mine. I still didn't know. For the first time since I'd known him, I wished Aaron wasn't there, because I knew I had to do something to come to terms with Lee, and I didn't want Aaron to see it, or even know about it.

I turned to Aaron and Paul and said, "I have to work this out, guys. Give us some time?"

Paul nodded, and Aaron looked like he might cry, but he ended up nodding, too. They walked off and left us there, and I asked Lee, "Food Court?"

He looked down, then back up, and said, "Okay. I don't have much money."

I said, "I have some money," and we walked back the length of the mall, then turned left into the wing that had the food court.

When we turned the corner, Lee asked, "Why are you doing this?"

I looked at him, "Doing what?"

Lee looked away and shrugged, "I don't know, this is just weird."

"Weird, how?" I asked.

Lee looked right and left, and said in a lowered voice, "I tried to kill you, Evan. I tried to make you die!"

I looked at Lee in surprise, "You did, or your father did? What are you saying, Lee?" I glanced at him, and he seemed glum. "I don't know what to make of you, man, and I don't like that I don't. Can you tell me? Am I friend or foe? Or just neither. I need to know something, Lee. It's like you're in my shadow all the time, like you're hiding in my shadow."

We kept walking, then he said, "I'm not, you know. Maybe I'm weird, I don't know. My dad wanted to kill you, not me. He wanted to kill everything gay in the world." He pulled on my arm, so I stopped and looked at him. His eyes got wet, "I'm not my father, Evan." He shook his head, "My father wasn't a monster, either." Lee's eyes started leaking tears, "He was my father, Evan. I loved him, and even when I knew he was crazy."

I pulled Lee to me right there in the middle of the mall, and he gulped out, "I don't hate you. He didn't hate you. Not really. You were gay, are gay, and he thought it was gay that got me." Lee was on the verge of losing it, I thought. "It wasn't a gay thing, Evan, not really. I was raped, and by a man, but I don't even know that he was gay. He was just on this power trip, and he was crazy, too." He hugged into me, "Everybody's crazy, Evan! I don't get it!"

I held on, and I almost started crying. I don't know what people thought, but when a security guard came by and asked what was wrong, I said, "Leave us alone, okay?" and he did. Well, he left. That seemed funny to me, and when I relaxed a little, Lee did too. When he thought that I'd been crying, too, he put a finger to my cheek, then looked at it. Then he was back into me, sniffling hard, and I just held on. I was patting his back, saying it's okay and all that, but I knew it wouldn't be okay, not for Lee Erasmus, not for a long time.

He'd seen too much, had too many bad things happen to just hope for normal. Still, I hoped for him, that this boy could somehow find happiness, but I couldn't seem to keep my own eyes dry. Still, I hoped.

That's how we were when Aaron and Paul found us, just standing in a mall, hugging and on-and-off again crying; hugging for all that life was worth.

My fear, my biggest terror, was for this kid who soaked my new vest with his tears. He wasn't a monster, just a kid who'd met a monster, and whose life had been transformed by that man.

By then I was all teary and snot-nosed in front of Aaron, and after a moment Paul pulled us apart and said to Lee, "Come on. Let's go to the toilet."

I was still sniffling, and Aaron asked, "You don't think that was funny? How about you go to the toilets with me, little boy?"

Suddenly it was funny, and I laughed out my tears on the way to the mall men's room. I had every reason to doubt that Aaron would ever turn into a dirty old man, but he was a good enough actor to be convincing in the role.

Aaron had only come to that mall with me once before. I had no idea where the toilets were, and neither did he. We found them after asking, and walked down a long hallway to get there.

When we went in, Lee was sitting up on the counter next to a sink, and Paul was leaning against a wall talking to him. They acknowledged us and kept talking. Aaron and I both went, then I stood in front of the mirror with the intention of washing my face. I did the best I could without a washcloth, and dried myself on paper towels. I felt presentable again, and Aaron was waiting, but Paul and Lee were still talking. I didn't want to interrupt them if it was important, so I leaned against the stalls with Aaron until Lee noticed us.

He stopped talking to Paul, which caused Paul to turn, and he said, "You guys can go, we'll find you."

"You sure?" I asked, and they both nodded, so I looked at Aaron. He shrugged, and we walked back out into the mall.

"What's this all about?" Aaron asked.

"I don't know," I sighed. "I feel so bad for Lee, but I don't know how to fix anything. I wonder if it even can be fixed."

Aaron was silent for a moment, then he asked, "Why, Ev? Why are you worrying?" He stopped walking and I turned to face him. "You don't owe him anything, do you? All he ever tried to do was to hurt ..." He saw my face change, I think, and looked shocked for a second, then the look softened. "Ahhh ... I see it now." He smiled genuinely, "That's one thing I really love about you, Evan. I'm right, aren't I, that you won't let Lee suffer this alone?" Now he had tears in his eyes, and he looked around stealthily, and I think he meant to kiss me right there, but he didn't.

I mumbled, "I don't know what I'm doing, Aar, but you're right. Lee was just a kid when he got kidnaped, and he got raped. His father went nuts and killed a guy, then he tried to kill me, then he killed himself! Why the kid's not looney tunes I'll never know, but he's not. I don't think he is, anyhow. He's trying really, really, really hard to be normal. He does good at looking normal, too. I mean, the first time I saw him he was just another skater on the pond."

Aaron looked at me for what seemed like a long time, then he asked, "So, what now?"

"I don't know," I said, and that was the truth. "What I do know," and I grinned and mussed his fuzzy head, "is that I love you! I like Lee, too, and I feel bad for him, but there's not much I can do. I just feel helpless."

Aaron held a blank stare for a few seconds, then looked down. "No, I guess not." He looked back at me, "You know, there were times when I wished I was someone else, and what I really wanted was to not be me. It wasn't always easy, especially when I was little." He grimaced, "I was always left out. I wasn't like the boys, and I wasn't like the girls, so nobody ever wanted to play with me." Aaron gave me a sad look, "Then Billy came around," and he smiled. "He was lonely like me, but for different reasons, but lonely is lonely. I never felt alone after that, but I still had these .. I don't know .. longings, I guess. I was with people, and we had fun. I felt that I was liked and all that, but there was still this big hole with nothing in it, and I was too young to understand what it was."

We were in a mall, with people walking all around us. Aaron so rarely talked about himself, about his past, and he chose there to start. I loved it just the same, and said, "What it was, was first degree ignorance, Aaron. Look at it this way. Everybody loves you now. I'm, um, I'm on the top of that list, you know."

Aaron smiled so happily that I wanted to eat him right there.

"That's what I'm saying, Ev. When I met you, I don't know, like everything changed." He grinned, "My dream came true! I don't know if I can ever say how happy you've made me, and it started when you said you were just like me!" He shook his head and grinned, "Did you hear that? Just like me, you said, and I was already thinking you were like my dream!" He quieted, "That was the best night of my life, Evan. Heh, then the next day I didn't know if I should believe you or not, and I made everyone crazy." He smiled, "Then you showed up and ... and ... well," he smiled, "the rest is like history, right? Our history? Our own personal history that I love so much."

I remembered, and I smiled, too. Our relationship had started on shaky ground, maybe, but once we found our footing we both seemed to know the way. Once I got to know Aaron, I can honestly say that he never gave me a single reason to doubt his honesty, his integrity, or his feelings toward me. I was certain that I'd never given him reason for doubt either, so our love was based on our friendship, or maybe the other way around. Either way, both were based on pure honesty and devotion to each other.

Aaron was fingering my new vest admiringly, and he muttered, "This is really nice, Evan. It suits you, too, and it looks like it'll last a long time."

I smiled, then I had an idea. "Do you have any money on you, Aar? Like twenty bucks or something?"

He looked at me, "I have exactly twenty dollars, Ev," and he reached in his pocket and pulled out some coins, "and let's see, forty two cents."

I said, "Loan me the twenty, I'll give it back when we get home," and I led him back to the Eddie Bauer store. Call me crazy, but Lee had admired that vest, too, and he was going to have one of his own.

I led Aaron to the rack, and that's when he got his first clue. "Lee's about my size, don't you think?" I asked.

Aaron looked like I'd just come down from Pluto. "I think he's a little taller, Evan, and a little thinner. Are you, um, thinking of buying clothes for him?"

I said, "This is a vest, Aaron. It comes in small, medium and large, and probably XXX. And I am getting one for Lee."

Aaron leaned against a corner and folded his arms, "If I attempt murder on you, do I get a vest, too?" he asked dryly. "What are you doing, Ev?"

The vests came in navy and an ugly brown/green color, so I held up a twin to mine and smiled, "I'm making a friend, Aaron."

Aaron's foot started tapping like he was waiting for me to come to my senses, "Making a friend? It looks more like you're trying to buy one."

I grinned, "Shush, Aaron. I'm not buying a friend, I'm buying Lee a present, and one I'm sure he'll really like. Come on, cough up that twenty, and let's get moving."

Aaron pulled out his wallet and handed me the money, and I brought it to the register. "Do you still have free gift wrapping?" I asked, and the girl waiting on me nodded. She put the vest in a box and wrapped it up handsomely, then thanked me for the purchase.

Aaron still looked doubtful, so while we walked back into the mall I tried to explain. I was confident that I was doing something right, and I wanted him to agree with me.

"Look at me, Aaron. Let's sit over there," I said, pointing at a bench. When we sat, I said, "You know Lee's life, Aaron, at least the last few years of it. He was kidnaped, and he was molested. When he got free, his father killed the guy who did it, then he went to jail. Then he got out, and they were getting things together again, and I left home. That made the news, and they were more interested than most people because of Lee. Then I come home, and their fucking relative is there to film me, and he goes home and tells them I'm gay."

Aaron looked at me wide-eyed, "I know all that."

"You probably know this too, but listen anyhow." He smiled at my mild dementia, and I went on. "His dad was off the deep end already. I mean, sane people don't shoot other people. From what I know, his father was a decent guy, but he lost it, and at least he had a reason to lose it. Lee said something once, and I wonder about it. He did go to prison, and what if what happened to Lee happened to his father in jail? That would make him even crazier, and give him more reasons to hate gays, right?"

Aaron nodded dumbly, but I wasn't waiting for it anyhow. "So, the father is out of jail, and one of the first things he hears is that Lee's going to school, and I'm going to school, and I'm gay. You with me?"

Aaron smiled and indicated that he was. "Okay, this is where I'm the bad guy, regardless that they don't know me. I had to be, Aaron, do you see it? Gay equals bad, equals me, and I'm a target. Then I just disappear, and Lee's father didn't know what to do. He was threatening his own family, probably petrified of going back to jail again, so he took himself out. I don't know that, Aaron, not for a fact, but it makes sense when nothing else does."

Aaron was nodding steadily by then, and I could see the understanding in his eyes. He smiled thinly and said, "Could be, Ev, could be. It makes sense, even if you don't know all the facts." He looked at me curiously, "So, where does a present for Lee fit in?"

I stared, "It's just something nice, Aar. Lee has had one brutal loss after another, after another. It was just Thanksgiving that his father killed himself, and he blew up a whole house to do it." I leaned forward, "I'm not sure, and for all I know he had a great Christmas, but I'm betting he didn't, and I'm giving him a present just in case I'm right. Actually," I handed the bag to Aaron, "You're giving him a present."

Aaron rolled his eyes in exasperation, "Oh, no. Not me!" He leveled his gaze on me, "Evan, you just said crazy about ten times in a row, and I think it's starting to rub off on you. What am I supposed to do here, reward the guy who tried to take you away from me? Uh uh, I don't think so!" He held the package back out.

I had to think fast. "It's not a reward, Aaron, more like a ... a ... a consolation prize." I got serious, "Look at it this way. I'm still here, you're still here. I'm all better, and what Lee did gave me a chance to see what you're made of. If anybody on Earth ever needed a friend, it's Lee. He's seen his friends murdered, Aaron. Everybody knows that he was used by a sexual pervert for months and months. They know that his father was a jailbird, and now that he killed himself and blew up a house." I felt myself getting louder, but I couldn't quiet down, so I stopped altogether. Then I started again in almost a hiss, "Lee needs a friend, Aaron, somebody he can unload this crap on. I'll work on Paul and my brother, but I want you to give him that vest. Don't make a big deal out of it, just say you saw him looking at mine."

Aaron stared at me, and his face seemed to melt into a smile. He sat back and chuckled, then reached out for the gift. "I love you, Evan, and you keep reminding me why. I'll give this to Lee, and I'll be his friend with you. I understand now."

I smiled, and Aaron added, "You're beautiful, you know that?"

I felt embarrassed, "Um, kinda cute maybe, but hardly beautiful."

Aaron shook his head and beamed pure sunshine at me, "I'm not talking about your looks, it's the rest of you that's in a different category."

I wasn't good with flattery, so I looked at my crotch and said, "Ah! I see what you mean. Can we do it right here in the mall?"

Aaron leaned forward with a dopey, happy grin on his face, and I thought he meant to kiss me, but instead he whispered, "No, we can't."

We decided to stay where we were until we saw Paul and Lee, and it was quite awhile. They were approaching from the opposite direction than I expected, but they saw us just about when we saw them.

They'd gone right by us and walked the whole mall. We went back to the food court for drinks when I learned that Paul had some money, and that's where Aaron gave Lee his gift. We sat down with sodas, and he just handed him the bag, saying, "Here, this is for you."

Lee looked startled, but happily so.

"For me?" he asked when he reached for the shopping bag. "What's this about?" He grinned, "Does it explode?"

Aaron wisely said, "Just open it."

Lee looked back and forth between us, then at Paul, who shrugged unknowingly. He took the wrapped box out of the bag and tore right into it. I guess that how you open gifts is something you catch from your family. Aaron was just like Lee, and wrappings flew in every direction. At our house, wrappings were admired and commented on, then removed more carefully, and to no real purpose other than having nicely folded trash rather than exuberantly shredded trash.

"Wow!" Lee said, "It's just like yours, Evan!" He stood up and peeled his coat off, dropping it on the chair, and he put the vest on, while he admired it out loud. It looked great on him, too. I think athleticism buys you the right to wear certain things that would look idiotic on other people, and down vests were on that list. Aaron and Paul both liked the look, but I didn't see them lusting after ones of their own. They'd look like poseurs in something like that, and they both knew it, where the vests seemed as natural as skin on me and Lee.

Lee looked at Aaron, "I don't know what to say, man. I love this, but I don't get it. Why me?"

Aaron looked lost for just a second, then he looked innocently up at Lee and said, "Um, ho ho ho?"

I laughed out loud, and said, "That's it, Lee! Ho ho ho! Aaron is the real Santa!"

Lee sat back down, looking kind of tentative. "I don't know what to say."

"Say thank you," Paul offered. He looked at his watch, "I have to go pretty soon." He looked at Lee, "You want a ride?"

"I can call my mother," Lee said. "I ." He suddenly smiled, "I'd love a ride! You guys are for real, aren't you?"

I didn't have an answer, nor did Paul, so Aaron started pinching himself. He said, "Yup, real," then he pinched me and said, "Real over there, too," and then Paul. He smirked at Lee, "We're for real. What about you?"

Lee smiled, then his eyes seemed to lose focus. "I don't know," he muttered. "I used to be real ... I don't know now."

I said gently, "We'll help, Lee. Right?" I looked at Aaron, and he nodded.

When I looked at Paul, he smiled weakly, "Me, too." He poked Lee's shoulder, "But we'll have to be quick about it. I graduate this year." Then he laughed that high-pitched cackle that I liked so much, and he put his arm across Lee's shoulder and we headed back out into the weather.

Continued ...

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