A Horse Named Phil

by Driver

Chapter 9

I thought the next few days would be really crazy, but they turned out not to be. Aaron came over on Thursday afternoon and we went out to buy the things I needed. Aaron called it shopping and said I was no fun. In a couple of hours I had what I thought I should have, though. By the time I was done, I was officially a prep. I hadn't bought a single baggy item save for one pair of painter pants that had my name on them. Not literally, but when I laid eyes on them I knew the designer had me in mind, so I felt obligated.

Aaron was seriously into rump, as in seeing mine, which made me immediately suspicious of his intentions. He assured me that tighter-fitting pants and shorts were merely a visual aid kind of thing, and he still thought, as I did, that sex involving fannies was kind of out there. It might fit into our life at some point, but a whole lot of rethinking would be involved first. I liked the looks of Aaron's backside, too, but it stopped at looks. Well, feels too. Aaron's bum was a pretty alluring thing, and I'd even noticed guys who were decidedly not gay checking him out. I did too, and I'd had the luxury of seeing it uncovered, and I'd sent shudders through him stroking it with my fingertips. I have never once used this word in my life, but pert is the adjective that best pertains to Aaron's butt. For all his mannerisms his shape is all man, and his rear, when he stretches out on his tummy, rises from the rest of him like Indian burial mounds on the plains. It's unmistakable, and perfect in every proportion.

I'm just saying this so nobody will think I can't appreciate a nice ass, because I can and do. But I know what comes out of there and what it feels like. I just can't imagine that something going in the opposite direction would turn that particular sensation into a pleasure. But hey, that's me.

When we got back to the house I had several messages, and one was from Mike Mastracchio, so I called him first. I'd honestly not thought about going to his house, and I figured this was a reminder.

His mother answered the phone, and after I introduced myself she said, "Oh, Evan. Michael has gone out, but he was calling to ask you to dinner tonight. We're just having chicken on the grill, but we'd all be pleased if you would join us."

I stammered, "I ... I, um, have a friend here from out of town. I could try to get over there tomorrow. After that, I'm gone for the summer."

She said, "Oh, bring your friend; that's fine. Some other people you know will be here, too. We're trying to at least meet all the people who helped so much. Please say you'll come?"

I smiled at the phone. She reminded me of Aaron's mother. "Let me ask Aaron. I'll call right back, okay?"

"That's fine," she said. "I'll wait to hear from you."

I found Aaron waiting for me in my room, taking tags and stickers off my purchases. "Hey," I said, and I suddenly didn't know how to ask him if he wanted to go and still make sense. He looked the question at me and I said, "Um, we're invited for chicken on the grill tonight."

Aaron licked his lips and said, "Really? I love chicken. Where?"

I snickered, "Well, it's this family, the Mastracchios. I go to school with the kids, but I don't know them very well. Ron ... he's the older one, is the guy who got shot at school last winter." Aaron winced, and I went on. "They're trying to meet the people who took up Ron's cause." I smiled, "It's just yes or no, Aar. If I go, it'll be to be polite. Ron's not exactly my favorite person."

Aaron looked at me kind of dumbly, then he practically leered. "Oh, let's go then! I can't wait to see you with someone you don't like. This will be a first!"

I looked at Aaron and giggled, "I'm just too nice a guy? Does this mean I should say yes?"

"Up to you," Aaron shrugged.

I though for a second and figured, 'why not'? It would give me a chance to see the hole in Ron before it got fixed, and I'd never seen a real bullet hole in a person before. I had done precious little to help him out of the jam he was in, but if that didn't matter to them, then it didn't matter to me.

I called back and said, "We'll come."

"Oh, that's wonderful, Evan," Mrs. Mastracchio said.

"I didn't do much, you know."

Her voice got serious. "I understand that, Evan. That's exactly what everyone else says, too. You were one of the first to go to bat for Ronnie, though, and your help came just when we despaired of finding any help at all." She took a long breath and said, "Listen, Evan. If someone doesn't start a thing like this, it doesn't get started. Whether it took effort or not, it took those first few people and things grew from there. Before long there were lots of people like you making noise, and the noise is what got heard, and thank God!"

I smiled, thinking I'd try to figure that out later. "What time should we be there?" I asked.

"Oh, silly me! Come after six.  We'll eat at seven! It's back yard, so casual is fine."

"We'll see you then," I said, feeling that woman's warmth right through the phone line.

After I hung up, I called Chris because he'd left a message. He was going to Mastracchios too, and wondered if I'd been invited. Nancy was going as well, so Chris said he'd pick us up and we could ride together. And no, I didn't know the way either, but I'd find out.

We got there on the dot of six-thirteen, pulled into the driveway, and I got a look at the house from the outside. They lived in a good-sized brick ranch, and it was on a double-wide lot that sloped down to the street. It wasn't spectacular like Chris' place, but it was substantial and looked well kept.

We all got out of the car tentatively, like you do when you haven't been somewhere before, and stood in the driveway for a second while deciding which door to go to.

None, it turned out. Mike appeared in a breezeway between the house and garage and beckoned to us excitedly. "We're out back," he said when we got to him. "Don't look so nervous, we don't bite!"

We all laughed nervously, and followed him out to a big patio in back. It was then that I understood what was going on. It was only the people from that first night at the church, and the truth was that all we'd accomplished was to recruit others.

I felt better knowing everyone, and Aaron took to introductions with his usual enthusiasm, although I noticed right off that he was 'acting' that night. He could do that, and he did it so well that I didn't always realize he was doing it. The difference was very subtle; practically subliminal. He basically turned off the swish in him, and then he was any neighbor's kid. If you happened to own a teenage boy or two, Aaron would be watching them for sure, but you'd never notice. Nobody would notice except me. I wouldn't question him, though. Aaron had this built-in sense that told him when to be himself and when to 'act', and when he decided to act I pretty much ignored the fact.

We were introduced to Mike and Ron's mother first. She was like most of ours that I knew; a concerned parent, a good mother, a good housekeeper, and blah, blah, blah. She had one son with a major league problem, which she faced up to, learned what she could about it, and she was clearly back in charge.

"Oh Evan!" she exclaimed after Mike introduced us. "I'm happy that you came. Make yourselves comfortable. Find something to drink, and the food will be ready soon!"

We wandered for a moment, until we spotted coolers where people were finding drinks, then got things for ourselves. There were snacks around; veggies and dip here, chips there, that sort of thing. We munched and stayed together for a few minutes, then a man approached us. He was a big guy, paunchy, and he was bald except for the sides, and the hair he had was hippy-long. He had a sizeable nose, a ring in his ear, and a great smile. He approached us with his hand out to shake, and said, "Rick Mastracchio! Welcome to our home!"

He turned out to be a real character. He was macho-man personified on the surface, but a real gentleman lived right beneath that. A kind gentleman, and a concerned father we learned later, but he was the kind of guy where liking him on the surface was easy, so we started there. We were all embraced briefly when introduced, and before he went to check on the chicken we all knew him. I liked that in people. What you see is what you get. I got that with Aaron's family, with Harlan, and I hoped I came across that way.

It's in the vibes, like 'I will like you until I love you, and it's up to you to screw it up!' It must be in the genes a little too, because I'd never really gotten to know the Mastracchio kids, but they had that in them, at least until recently. They'd always been friendly and outgoing without actually being the so-called alpha-male types. They just seemed to like people, and I liked people like that.

Then I saw Ron coming out from the house, and he'd changed a lot from the last time I saw him. It was probably due to being down with an injury, but he'd put on lots of weight. I'd normally say that it didn't become him, but right then I didn't know. I focused on his neck and the bullet hole, and even after all those months that injury was his primary feature.

I didn't really have a good mental image of what a bullet wound should look like. I knew that Ron had been struck by a relatively little piece of lead, and that he'd been truly lucky in the long run. It was higher than I expected, to begin with, and just a fraction of an inch higher would have hit him in the chin. The wound itself was major ugly. It wasn't black and blue anymore, but the point of entry was red, and the skin leading to there was all pulled in and tight looking. It was hard for me to look at him, and I turned away, only to hear Ron say, "Hi, Evan. I'm glad you came."

I looked at him then, and focused my eyes above that ugly hole. His face actually looked better with a bit of plump to it. I could see his father in him, and I wouldn't have in a million years if he was still bony. I smiled, "You'll get that fixed, right?" I asked, pointing at his injury.

He nodded, "Yeah, pretty soon."

I asked, "You're okay now?"

His eyebrows went up and he frowned, "I don't know. Medically I'm a-ok." He looked at me and squared his shoulders. "I'm a compulsive gambler, Evan. It's called pathological." His face was sad and his shoulders slumped. "I have no retreat from that. It's an addiction, just like drugs or booze. A compulsion." He looked at me and his eyes were sorrowful. "It's something I have to avoid, not a thing I can get over. I'm like an alcoholic, so it's one day at a time, now and forever."

I looked at Ron and tried for a smile, which I couldn't quite come up with. He was talking things I knew about but didn't understand. Compulsions. Addictions. Isms. Those I didn't know about first hand, not in my short life. I had a second cousin who was a drunk, but our family was too polite to call him that, and they'd never call him an alcoholic, even if that was closer to the truth. I had a first cousin who'd been in rehab for heroin abuse, and nobody even called her a user. No, they both had 'problems', and that was as strong as the language ever got. Now I was looking at Ron Mastracchio, who was sadly telling me about his own problem. It occurred to me right then that Ron would be the one to survive it, if only because he recognized his addiction and was willing to face it. I found my smile.

Ron noticed and let a tiny, quick smile out, then turned serious again. "Evan," he said. "I did you wrong, and for no reason." He shrugged his shoulders, "I'm sorry." He looked at me hopefully, "I don't know what else to say."

I stared at him for a moment, then said, "One question?"

He nodded, so I asked, "You were getting down on gays big time ..."

Ron interrupted, his hand up for emphasis. He indicated some lawn chairs and we sat down semi-facing each other. "I know I did that." He eyed me, "You in particular. I didn't know you were actually gay. I guess I was trying to be macho. It was me doing gay things. For money." His eyes bored into mine, "I was in a hole, Evan. So deep I can't start to explain it. I had to come up with at least some money. I ... I ..." Ron dropped his head and started spitting onto the ground like he had a bad taste in his mouth.

"Ron," I said softly. "Don't think you're upsetting me." I struggled for words, "It seems to me that you made bad choices. I'm no shrink, but it looks like you're looking your problem in the face now, and as far as I know, that's how you start to fix things."

Ron looked up, "I know. I was just down in that hole and I never saw that I was. It's like a blindness, something only other people can see." He touched his neck, "If I didn't have this hole in me, I might have never really seen how bad things were getting."

I looked at Ron, more questions in my mind, but I decided not to ask them. They were about details of the shooting and how things came to pass to begin with, but they didn't seem worth my breath. Ron had never really been a friend, and he still wasn't. We were amiable acquaintances, and that was fine. I didn't even ask him if he was gay, and that was because I doubted it up front. He'd done gay sex for money, and that was sad whatever he was. He did nothing else to suggest that he was gay, and my inner sense told me he probably wasn't. "I'm not gay, Evan," Ron said, as if to confirm my own thoughts, but he went on, "I did things to make money, no other reason."

He looked at me, "Don't take this as an insult, but it made me sick every time. Then I realized I had to be worried about being sick. I'm not, and for that I'm grateful." He looked away, then back at me and suddenly grinned, "Listen to me! Come on, Smiley! You have ten reasons to punch me in the head! Take your best shot!"

I grinned myself, then balled up my fist and took a mighty swing. I stopped a half-inch from his eye, then tapped it ever so gently. "Not yet," I said softly. "I don't piss off that easily."

Ron smiled at me, and suddenly Aaron was there with a plate piled high with chicken parts. "Get salad and something to drink, Ev," he said. "I'll find a place to sit."

Lord, that food smelled good, and I really started salivating. I was tempted to snag a leg to munch on while I got some salad, but I knew how that went. I'd have greasy fingers and a greasy mouth, and I'd end up finishing the chicken first anyhow, just so I'd have two hands. I munched on a crouton while I dished up green salad and some macaroni salad, then I joined Aaron, who was sitting with Mike and Ron. I didn't know if that was a great idea on his part, but I was too interested in the food to worry much. The tossed salad looked wonderful with bits of egg yolk and tiny shrimp mixed into it.

I smiled when I sat, because Aaron was already holding court with the Mastracchio boys, and they were rapt with the joke he was telling. They exploded into laughter when Aaron got to the punch line, and I laughed with them. I'd missed most of the story, but I knew it already so the punch line was enough. I ate some salad, and when there was room on my plate I took a couple of pieces of chicken. The chicken was tasty, spiced and cooked just right, and we fell pretty silent while we ate.

And oh, weren't we all greased up when we finished! It was the kind of slime that mere napkins wouldn't do justice to, so we followed Mike to a ground floor bathroom and washed up in there, then took private turns with the toilet.

We felt good afterwards; well fed and cleaned up. I'd missed something when we didn't sit with the adults, and that was the fact that Mr. Mastracchio was a furniture maker whose shop was right there beside the house. Aaron wanted to see it and the work he did, so a bunch of us followed the man over there. The building looked small from the outside, like a three-car garage, but it was deep when we went inside, probably eighty feet long.

The space was bright and modern, and the furniture he made turned out to be heirloom stuff. I thought the place smelled really nice, but we were in the end where he just worked with wood. When we later got to the finishing area it had a completely different, and almost overpowering, aura of finishes and solvents. The woodworking part smelled like wood, and not a particular one. There were exotic woods from Africa and Asia, mundane things like oak, maple, birch, walnut and cherry that were local. Then he had pieces of different fruit woods that you wouldn't associate with anything except fruits, but he had apple, pear, peach, apricot ... a whole lot of them, and he explained that those were used for trim, where he wanted to offset too much of one color on a larger piece.

Anyhow, the good smell in there came from plain old cedar, which he used for lining the insides of drawers and chests. I followed Mr. Mastracchio around like everyone else, kind of in awe of the man. For the things he created there were beyond beautiful; it was all spectacular. He was justly proud of what he did. I'd not seen anything called furniture before that was so gorgeous. It was just unbelievable; the colors and the finishes, the designs and the beauty of the wood.

He didn't drop names, but a few pieces in the finished area had tags on them. At least a few of those items were destined to be enjoyed by some very famous people. I was dying to know what some of the things might cost, but I didn't ask, thinking it would be rude.

Thank God for Chris. He pointed at a big chest that looked to have two dozen drawers and asked, "Can I ask what something like this is worth?"

Mr. Mastracchio asked wryly, "Why? You want one?" Then he smiled and said, "Twenty-two grand for that one. Interesting that you like this, because it's probably the biggest piece on earth made from burl briar." He came closer and looked at his work, stroking it with his fingers, saying, "It's beautiful wood ... the same thing they make briar smoking pipes with. It's very hard, and you can put amazing detail into it." He turned to us, "The problem is it's from a pricker bush, not a tree. This chest has over four hundred separate pieces of wood in it, and probably from over a hundred different shrubs." I could hear the pride in his voice: "I worked on this for nine months. It's just like a baby to me; my third child."

We all laughed, then took closer looks at the workmanship, and suddenly twenty-two thousand seemed like a bargain. You could see how just one type of wood could have been too much, but he'd matched the pieces beautifully, and there was a darker wood for trim that drew your attention. Awesome!

* * * * * * * *

On the way back in the car I announced, "I really had a good time there." and everyone agreed. "Was that furniture awesome or what?"

Chris and Nancy agreed that it was from the front seat, and Aaron kissed my cheek. That made me turn to him and he kissed my lips, and that made me smile. I giggled and whispered, "My first furniture kiss," and kissed him back.

It wasn't late, so we went to soak in the important sounding 'Humphrey Hot Tub'. Oh, God, it was precious watching Aaron come to terms with Nancy's shapeliness. Even Aaron, as gay as he was, almost choked when she changed into a baby-blue bikini. Me too, to tell the truth, and I secretly wondered if Larry Flynt paid finder's fees.

I relaxed into the bubbling, hot water and at first simply enjoyed all the skin around me. "You're leering," Aaron whispered.

"I know," I said back, and I leered some more. I was there with three very sexy people, though I kept that thought to myself. Aaron was dark-skinned compared to the rest of us, but he and Nancy shared a certain smoothness with their skin. It seemed drawn tighter across both of them than on Chris and me, and it looked almost like they didn't have the same requirements for pores as most people. I knew Aaron must because I'd seen him sweat, even felt his sweat, but parts of him were so devoid of texture that he could have been made of some kind of flexible plastic. His upper arms, his butt, the insides of his thighs ... all so perfectly smooth you might mistake them for sculpture if they weren't warm and pulsing.

And Nancy had great skin, too. I came up with a new title for myself right then, and it was 'Evan Smiley, CP', for certified pervert. I'd never get the words out myself, but if anyone else had suggested an orgy right then, my bathing suit would have been the first to go flying.

Instead, we talked seriously about compulsions and addictions. Ron Mastracchio was the only person our age that we knew who had problems like that, but we all had family members somewhere who drank too much, or who had other potentially deadly habits. Chris had a cousin just a few years older than him who was an outright criminal. He was the third of four otherwise good kids, and he'd been bad from the get-go, so I guess it happens. Chris said the other three were all good kids: strivers. This kid, Danny, looked like an angel he said, but he was incapable of telling the truth. He also stole anything he could get his hands on, did drugs and drank to excess, and when he was fourteen he took off for parts unknown with his mother's car.

They didn't know where he was for over a year, and then he got busted in Idaho for breaking and entering. The parents bailed him out and brought him home that time, and a lot of times after that, but now he's in prison for a long, long time for an armed home-invasion he did in Washington state. Born bad, Chris called it, and it made us all think. Here's a guy nineteen years old, and he's in prison for twenty years. Yet he's from a family of good citizens, brought up the same way as his brother and sisters, but he still went sour. What explains that? And I think we'd seen an example that very night.

Ron Mastracchio was a clean-cut kid who was born into a nice family. He should have had a life similar to mine or Chris' or Aaron's. Instead he had a hole in his neck, a prosecution hanging over his head, and he'd managed to alienate most of the people he thought were friends, and also to stoop so low as selling his body to stay afloat.

I couldn't always separate things enough in my mind. I'd actually had a nice day, and it was ending well in the hot tub. My arm would be good enough when I went to work, and in the meantime I had friends volunteering to do anything I was leery of. I had a big circle of family and friends I could fall back on, but I had this niggle in the back of my head.

What if it all fell apart on me? What if it all became too much and I started subdividing? I sometimes worried that I'd find a real weakness in myself and succumb to it. I was afraid of it even though it didn't make a lot of sense. I just had it in my mind that one day I'd take a drug that I liked too much, or get a sip of some booze that really turned me on. If people stopped hurting me, I'd probably be alright. If I had to keep getting prescription pain pills, I could see myself getting hooked even on them, just like Ron Mastracchio got hooked on gambling. The one thing didn't have much to do with the other, but addiction and pathological behavior sure do.

I was too comfortable to hold onto any bad thoughts, and being skin-on-skin with Aaron in the hot tub started giving me other, happier thoughts. I nudged him and asked the question with my eyes, to which he responded with an eager smile.

Chris and Nancy put up a false protest when I said we had to get going, and an absolutely phony one when I said we didn't need a ride. Crocodile tears. I didn't mind. Aaron and I got our clothes on right over our trunks, said we'd see them the next day, and we took off out into the night.

Some clouds had rolled in, so the sky wasn't starry at all, but it was still balmy and nice for walking, and we took it easy getting to my house. It felt nice to be alone with Aaron, and we probably would have dawdled even more if we weren't both horny as all get out. We walked into my house through the family room, and my parents were there, watching television and reading. They greeted us and my father asked, "How was it?"

"Nice enough," I said. "It wasn't tense at all, the food was good, and we saw some really awesome furniture. Did you know Mr. Mastracchio has his own furniture company, and he sells to famous people?"

Dad shook his head, and I turned to leave, looking over my shoulder to say, "Well he does. You should go see it someday. We're going to bed now.  Big doings tomorrow."

Dad smiled, "Good night, guys," and my mother echoed his sentiment.

* * * * * * * *

There was no real good reason not to sleep in the next morning, but I still had my alarm set for school. I turned it off immediately when it woke me up, but the deed was done. I don't think Aaron even heard it, because he was still conked out, but I couldn't get back to sleep after I went to the bathroom. I looked out the window before going back to bed, and it was gray outside. Not dark like it would rain, but a high overcast.

I got back up and locked the door to my bedroom. If I couldn't get back to sleep I could sure enough wake Aaron up, and I knew he wouldn't get angry with what I had in mind.

* * * * * * * *

We had a late, lazy breakfast; just cereal with bananas, and since we were alone bananas were the source of a lot of humor. They were funny until we got to the point of actually slicing them up, anyhow. We were on our second cups of coffee when the phone rang, and to my surprise it was Billy O'Shea. He rarely called me, relying instead on Aaron to incur the long-distance charges.

"Billy!" I exclaimed, getting Aaron's attention.

"Grins! You're moving back over here when? Tomorrow?"

I snickered, "Yeah, such as it is. What's up?"

"Do you have plans for Sunday?"

I looked at Aaron and couldn't think of any, but I asked him anyhow and we didn't. "Not yet. You have something in mind?"

"I hope so," Billy said. "Do you like horseback riding? If you don't know, which would be my response, do you think you would?"

"Horses ..." I said dumbly.

"I'm asking," Billy said, "because there's this Spanish family across the river ... Mexican, actually, and they're trying to get a ranch together. Sunday they'll have a lesson, a lunch and a trail ride for thirty bucks. Me and Huck are going, Dean and John said they will. Justin's coming with Cindy. I want to help them out, Evan, that's all. It'll be a good time."

"It sounds good," I said. "Let me ask Aaron."

Like I had to. Aaron was instantly enthusiastic and he called me 'pard', so I told Billy, "We'll go. What time?"

He said, "It's not far from here, so we can leave around ten thirty." I could hear the humor in his voice, "You'll love it, pard!"

I laughed, "Ugh, Kemo Sabe. You put head to road tomorrow to hear when we come! Maybe get it squished flat on pavement!"

Billy was silent for a second, then he laughed. "Ha ha! You know, my dad always calls me a pointy-headed liberal! I'll be over to help you unload tomorrow."

We hung up, and it was time for me to start packing in earnest. I wasn't limited to what I could carry like the year before, so I was uninhibited while I put things out, and ended up with most of what I owned that still fit me. Aaron had to go home that night and I couldn't go with him, so there was more than enough room in his car for most of my things. I'd bring the rest with me in my own car.

My brother, Matthew, had the nerve to ask Aaron to help him sort out clothes for his trip, and Aaron went to help him somewhat reluctantly. I didn't mind that Aaron got asked, only that I didn't. I kind of sulked in the kitchen for a few minutes after they left, then cleaned up after us and thought about barking toads. That got me laughing to myself, and gave me an idea.

I looked in the linen closet and got two different bars of soap, one blue and one green, then some wash cloths. I wrapped each bar of soap in a cloth and brought them to Matt's room. I hesitated, then marched right in. "You'll need these," I said. "You come from an area of barking toads, and your underwear is likely infected. Bruce says they can be deadly." I put one bar in his bag at the near end, then the other one at the other end. "Toads hate this stuff, so you should be okay now. You're protected by Dial and Irish Spring."

I turned and walked out, and could hear Aaron snickering helplessly behind me. I think I heard Matt just when I got out of hearing range, but when I leaned back in it was silence. I got mad and turned around.

"God dammit, Matt!" I yelled. "If you have a fucking case, I wish you'd state it! I have the upper hand now, so if you don't want to walk to your fucking plane, tell me what's in your head or you sure will walk!"

Matt looked at me in surprise for a second, then he seemed angry before he sat back on his bed, still eying me. His angry look faded before he spoke, and his voice was steady. "My case is this, Evan. I came back from Kuwait all ready to rejoin the human race, and about the first thing I get hit with is that I have a gay brother. That's not news that I was prepared to hear, and it's not news that I wanted to hear." He looked at the floor and put his hands between his knees, sitting kind of knock-kneed. "I thought I'd be the star of the show for awhile. After all, I survived the invasion of Iraq and I'm here to tell about it. Does anybody care, though?" His voice took on a bitter tone, "Not here, not in my house. No, it's more important that you're gay, and despite that, you're this wonderful human being, all full of achievement." He looked straight at me. "Tell me what I'm supposed to think, Evan. Huh? Is you being gay important at all? Is it more important than me being home?"

That's not what I expected to hear. Matt seemed jealous of me. Not because I was gay, but because he sensed that I was getting special treatment. I didn't think I was really being treated specially, but I could see where he might make the case that my gayness was being over-sold, or maybe it was under-sold. It was being held up to him as an issue basically, and I got annoyed myself when I realized that fact. I muttered, "That's what it's about? I guess I'd get mad myself." I looked at him, "That's not me, though, it's everyone else. I really don't think I need them to compensate like that."

Matt stared at me, and I thought I detected a trace of hopefulness in his expression. "Still," I said, "I am gay. I ran away last year because I was afraid of what Dad would think. I was positive he'd disown me, and I was already sure Bruce hated me. Where I ran to turned out to be a very lucky choice. Anyhow, I'm not special. Well, if I am, it's not because I like guys." I looked at Matt in earnest, "I like myself, Matt. Not every second of every day, but I know what I want to be like and I really try. Gay gets in the way sometimes. I've been stabbed and shot at, pushed around by smelly old men, treated very weirdly by my baseball coach, and that's all fine. Now you come home, and believe me, I'm glad you came home, but you ... my own brother ... make me feel weirder than all that put together did." I glanced at Aaron and had to work at not snickering at his expression of disbelief. "You okay there?" I asked him.

Aaron nodded dumbly and I went on. "You know, Matt, when Dad picked me up last fall it was him I was scared of. I thought I was dead meat for sure, but to this day he hasn't said a negative thing about me being gay. I thought he knew before then, but it was a shot from the blue when I told him I'm gay. It took Mom way longer to come to terms, and I'm not sure she's totally there yet. Alton doesn't care. Bruce did at first, but it was like a mechanical defect to him. Now we're actually closer than ever."

Matt eyed me and said, "I can see that."

I was feeling a little exasperated. "You know, all through this Aaron has been coming over. Right from the beginning everyone knew we were together, and nobody gave us any grief about our relationship. Now you're here, and you don't say anything about me and Aaron, just about me. If I didn't know better, I'd guess that you like Aaron!"

Matt shrugged, glancing at Aaron then back at me. "What's not to like?" He looked back at Aaron and smiled, "I like you just fine, Aaron."

My hands made a big slapping sound as they both hit my head at the same time. I sputtered, "I don't get it! Aaron's gay just like me, and you like him just fine. You've known me since forever, lived in the same house, and I can't be gay? Explain, please!"

Matt looked at me, and his eyes gave me the feeling he thought I was pathetic. "Aaron's not my brother. You are." He almost smiled and said, "It takes longer."

"What? With brothers?" I asked incredulously.

Matt nodded, and Aaron changed the subject. He said excitedly, "I didn't tell you, Matt. We're going to learn to ride horses on Sunday!"

With that, he engaged Matt in conversation. I wandered out of the room muttering, "I'll be in the kitchen. With my head in the sink. If I begin to drown don't give it a second thought, and don't worry. I'll use the cold water."

I went to my room and started carrying things downstairs. I felt a little better because Matt had at least talked to me. I felt a little worse too, because it seemed then that my gayness was an embarrassment to him. Aaron could be liked, gay as he was, because he wasn't related. And I did find some comfort in the fact that even Matt liked Aaron, because that meant everyone in my family liked Aaron. I wasn't doing as well, and I was more and more looking forward to the comfort factor I knew in Riverton. One more day.

Aaron had to leave at around four, and his car was pretty well loaded up with my things when he went. "I'll see you in the morning," I said, standing in the road holding his door wide. "I'll stop at your house first, then you can bring this down to the apartment." I leaned in and kissed him, then again. Then he was gone, and I watched him drive away.

Oh, Aaron. I know he knew what he did to me, and I can't put words to how much I anticipated spending the summer with him right around the corner. I looked forward to repeating our walks between his house and my place. It was nice just to think that we could part for the night without one of us having to get into a car. I was still standing at the edge of the yard staring after Aaron when Chris drove up.

He was ready, and he was anxious to go, so we both went in to get Matt, who was coming down the stairs with his carry-on bag. His big suitcase was already by the door, and he seemed as excited as Chris. He went through his things to make sure he had his passport, his credit card and his money. Mrs. Humphrey had his plane tickets, so he was good to go. We put his bags in the back of the big SUV and Chris handed me the keys.

I was only driving them to a local hotel, where they'd catch the airport bus, so we went to Chris' house and loaded up more bags while his parents closed up the house. Everyone but me was edgy, which amused me. My brother checked his paperwork for the tenth time while the Humphreys checked theirs over and over again until they finally got into the car.

The drive to the hotel was only about fifteen minutes, and they were early for the airport transport by at least a half-hour. I stopped at the pickup point and helped with their bags, then I parked and went back to wait with them.

The area in front of the hotel was nice, with a circular drive and sidewalks of ceramic tiles. There were shade trees here and there and flowers everywhere, but they did little to calm a bunch of edgy travelers. I was still amused, but I didn't make fun of anyone. Their next stop was Warsaw, and that seemed kind of intimidating even to me, and I wasn't going. The countries, Poland and Bulgaria, sounded cold and intimidating too, though I'd seen enough pictures to know they really weren't. Both countries looked beautiful.

I sat on a bench with Chris. We talked quietly at first; about his trip and about his goodbye with Nancy Johnson. Then, when quiet wouldn't work for us anymore, we decided on a little Cossack dance. We did it facing each other, our faces all stern until my knees gave out. Then I plopped down on the walk, and Chris did right after me. We grinned at each other, and a few people clapped. We looked and they seemed to be waiting for the same airport bus. One of them said, "Here it comes!" and we stood up.

The bus was still down the road, so I gave Chris a quick hug and said, "Have fun, man. Bring me home a kielbasa or something!" Chris snickered and gave me a squeeze, then I turned to his parents and got hugs from both of them.

When I looked at Matt, he was already looking at me. I smiled, held out my hand to shake, and said, "I hope you have a great time. Maybe when you get back we can talk."

He shook my hand and looked at me with a curious expression on his face. "Yeah, when I get back."

The bus pulled in, and the next few minutes were a blur of activity, what with bags going underneath and people getting on.

I bopped Chris on the shoulder when he was on the step, then backed up. Matt stood there in the door of the bus for a moment looking at me, and I said, "Mawg dilligs, Matty."

I couldn't hear what he said, but he held up a hand in a half-hearted wave and I could read his lips: "Mawg dilligs, Ev."

When the bus started to move I stood there and waved. I couldn't really see in because of the dark-tinted windows, but hands were waving from in there so I could imagine they were for me.

The bus didn't waste any time, it was out of there fast. With no reason to stay, I drove the car back to Chris' house, locked it with the key over the visor, and then walked home.

I took my time, my hands sunk in my pockets. This would be my second summer without Chris, though only half of one really. He'd be back. It would be my second summer with Aaron, and there was something almost magical about my memories of the last one.

God, some of the most perfect moments of my life seemed burned into my memory. That first night I met Aaron. Forget that, it was the second night! It was both nights! Hot, steamy summer nights. Aaron yelling at a car; Aaron in a wet, musical bathing suit. I don't know why I didn't just have a heart attack and drop dead, but I'm glad that didn't happen.

Instead I got to meet Aaron, got to know him. It was dark, and he was a voice at first, a voice like I'd never heard. Then he had a face and it was alluring to me, and when I saw his body under the streetlights it was all over. Chris had been my ideal guy until then, and in a lot of ways he would always be my ideal. Being my best friend helped his cause, but he was my best friend because he was such an excellent person. Chris and I had empathy for each other that went way beyond what was normal.

We used to look after each other about equally, but for the entire school year it seemed like Chris was doing most of the looking, and I was always the one needing help. I never had to ask though, not once, and Chris never reminded me of the things he did. If it stayed lopsided like that for the rest of our lives I knew Chris would never resent me, and I'd never feel beholding to him. Things could change at any time, and over a long time things would almost certainly change. I'd get to do for him again in time, and I wouldn't have to feel like I was paying him back for something because I'd do it anyhow.

I noticed my progress towards home was almost nil, so I was really dawdling. I was just feeling good. Chris and Matt were on their way to Europe, I had a free night to do whatever I wanted, and I'd move the next day. School was out, the grass was cut, and I owed nothing to anybody. I didn't pick up my pace because there was no reason to. I came across Lee and Carly sitting on the grass under a tree in front of her house, and I stopped to talk to them.

It turned out that Lee was basically saying goodbye to Carly. "When are you moving?" I asked him.

"We're starting tomorrow," Lee said. "The storage company is bringing the big stuff on Tuesday, but we'll be back and forth all weekend. I think the phone's in and the power is on. Cable's coming on Tuesday, too." He smirked a little and asked, "How about you?"

"Tomorrow," I said. "Aaron brought most of my things home with him. You should give me your new phone number before you go." Then I thought, "I won't have a phone, but I can give you Aaron's number."

Carly looked aghast, "No phone? That's so Stone Age, Evan!"

I snickered at first, but she was right. I didn't spend tons of time on the phone, but things were different than they were the year before. I couldn't or wouldn't call home then, but now I had reasons to. I'd have to think about getting phone service on my own. Kevin and Arnie just plain didn't want a telephone, and the last I knew Shane had a cell phone, so I'd be on my own.

We sat and talked for awhile, and I learned that Carly was leaving that weekend to go to Cape May in New Jersey. When her father pulled into the driveway, she had to go inside. She gave Lee a big hug and a little kiss, then I got just a little hug and a smack on the cheek, and we all said goodbye. I told Lee I'd give him a ride home, so he walked down to my house with me.

I didn't really know what to say to him, so it came out, "New adventures, huh?" I looked at Lee.

He smiled, then his dimples came out when it turned into a grin. "Yeah, adventures! I like that! I like it here, and I made some friends, but I think the Falls is where I belong." He screwed up his face and stopped walking, so I turned to him. "It's my past, Evan. I should be done with it, but I'm not."

I looked a question at him and he went on. "Not really ... not yet. My Mom's not, either. We're not going back exactly, either. She has the house sold, but we never had a real goodbye in that town." He looked at me and asked, "Is this stupid?" and I shook my head no. I didn't think it was dumb at all for them to want to go back to where they came from, even if it was only to make a more graceful exit if they decided to leave permanently.

"Lee," I said. "I think you and your mother are very cool people. Special people!" I looked off at nothing, trying to gather words. "I guess we all get the good and the bad, but you've had the very extremes, especially at the bad end of things. And look at you!" I grinned, "You're looking ahead to the next part, and the part after that!" I looked away again and mumbled, "I hope I have half your strength if things ever turn to shit for me."

Lee patted my shoulder, "You will," he said lightly. "You're not even afraid that we'll be living in the same town again. I do need to get home now, so can give me that ride?"

"I think I can," I said, meaning just that. I hadn't driven my own car since Shit Brown hurt my arm, and I had no idea if Matt had left me with any gas. I didn't think he would go out of his way to buy gas for me, but he'd been using the car so he might have at least filled it for himself.

Bruce was home when we got to my house, so I got my car keys and he came with us when I drove Lee home. The car had just about a half tank of gas which was plenty for a few days. On the way to Lee's, Bruce was agreeing to help him out over the weekend, and that struck me in the wrong way. "What about me, Bruce?" I asked. "I'm moving, too, and I don't hear you offering to help me!"

That shut him up, then he said meekly, "I can help you if you want. I didn't think ..."

I snickered, "Never mind. I'll just do it myself ... with my bad arm. There's only one turn in the narrow stairway, and it's really no more than a hundred feet from the driveway. No big deal. I'll just make eighty or ninety trips."

I only wanted to hear what he'd say, because I was certain of Aaron's and Billy's help, and I was halfway counting on Huck and Dean to be there, too. I was only moving personal things anyhow, not anything big like furniture, so I was just busting Bruce's stones. His problem was that he didn't catch onto things like that, so I had the potential for hours of entertainment.

He said, from the back seat, "I can help you, Ev."

"No, no, no, that's alright," I said. "I have friends, I'll be just fine. If I could use my arm I could do it myself, so don't worry about me. I can just go back and forth to the car and get one thing at a time." I kept him going after we dropped Lee off, and all the way back home.

My father was there when we got home, and I asked, "Dad, what's a cell phone cost?"

He gave me a look and said, "I think that depends on a lot of things. Why? Do you want one all of a sudden?"

"I'm thinking about it," I said. "There's no phone where I'll be living, and I think I'd like to have one."

Dad beckoned me into his office saying, "Let me look. I think you can piggy-back onto mine for a lot less than getting your own." He sat at his desk and started looking through a file drawer. He glanced at me and said, "I got my phone when you ran off last year. I wanted to be in touch all the time, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered. Here we go," he said, pulling a folder from the drawer. "This is from last year, but then you could get a phone on the same account for twenty bucks a month." He looked at me, "Verizon has a store at the mall. Go after dinner and make your best deal."

That's just what I did. I brought Bruce with me, and I was armed with Dad's account number and phone number. There was a slick, twenty-something dude named Kirk who tried his best to get me off-mission and sell me something I absolutely didn't need. I could find a use for a color picture phone, but I didn't know who I'd possibly spend six hundred daytime minutes talking to, much less how I'd use the unlimited nights and weekends minutes. When I asked if I could just get the free minutes, he set me up with a woman who wrote contracts. I had to buy the phone, and I got a nice one for seventy dollars. After an in-store rebate and a mail-in rebate I'd only pay the tax, and it turned out to only cost ten dollars a month to piggy-back onto my father's account. Of course, I paid more for a spare battery and a charger, but I left the mall with my own cell phone, my own phone number, and a twenty dollar coupon for any Outback Steakhouse on the planet. I called Aaron on the way to my car, just because I could. Free minutes!

Back at the house, I sent e-mails to everyone I could think of with my new cell phone number, then I got into an IM chat with Barrett, and that was always a treat. For someone I'd only spent a single afternoon with, he'd turned out to be a good friend on the Internet. Almost everyone I knew was bad about responding to email, etc, but Barrett was rock solid just like he was in real life. He was going to be in Riverton at Harlan's for the weekend, and he'd been waiting online to see if I would log in.

He was very much interested in going horseback riding with us that Sunday. I knew Billy was trying hard to get people to go, so I didn't even ask if it would be alright. I just told Barrett my new phone number and said he should call sometime on Saturday. "You know," I said, "I'll probably go somewhere with Aaron tomorrow night, and I'll be moving in during the day, but maybe we could get together anyhow. I just feel like I have a lot to tell you."

Barrett wrote, "I'll just call you when I get to my uncle's. I'm really only going because I thought I'd see you."

"All right then!" I wrote. "Holler at me when you get in, and we'll figure it out from there!"

After he signed off, I went downstairs thinking I should spend some time with my parents. Dad was out in the garage at the time, so I sat beside my mother to watch television. I knew that she was resigned to me spending the summer in Riverton, but she didn't like the idea that much. Still, at least she'd know where I was and why, not like the prior summer. I didn't know what I could do about that to make her feel better. I was growing up, and my job at Harlan's paid some serious money. I had two more years of high school, and after that who knew what? I certainly had the grades to get into college, and I'd have the money. I just didn't know if I'd go.

It wasn't a problem yet, but it would be. I loved school; loved to study and to learn. By that measure, it stood to reason that I'd go on to college and earn a degree, maybe even an advanced one. I also liked to work and earn money, and my hero in that department was Harlan Blaine. Hard work was fun to me, at least if it was challenging. I'd proven my worth, too, and at the age of fifteen. Out on the job I was just another body, but in the shop I made headlines, and lots of people knew they could rely on me. At work I was Evan! and that experience kept me Evan! long after I moved back home. I had a confidence that I'd never known before, and it came straight from within me. Harlan gave me the opportunity, but it was me who took him up on it. To the men I worked with, I was a man in my own right, and I came through for them time and again.

I didn't know how to put that to my parents in any meaningful way. In most respects, I was still another kid to them, and I might always be. I think that's how it works anyhow, so I just edged closer to my mother until she smiled. I said, "I'll miss you."

"And I'll miss you," she said. "You'll take care of yourself, right?"

I smiled and said, "I will, and if I don't Aaron will. I had practice last year, like a trial by fire. I still ate right, brushed my teeth ... all that." I felt a sudden grin coming on and I turned it to her, and just then my father came in so he heard it too. "You taught me, Mom. I'm more important than the things I have, and I didn't forget. I ate healthy when I could, and I stayed clean." I started ticking things off on my fingers. "I didn't take up drinking booze, no smoking, I didn't take drugs." I giggled, "I didn't start lying or stealing either. Well ... I guess I lied about my age."

I softened my smile, and tried to include Dad in it. "I'm your son. Of all things in the world, I respect that, and I hope I never let you down." I shrugged and snickered, "I'm sure I already let you down by being gay, but I hope that's the worst of it."

Dad said, "Evan, that's not ... "

"I know," I interrupted. "That was a bad choice of words. I don't know," I said. I smiled sadly, "I could be a lot of things, I guess, and gay isn't even close to the worst of them. I know it's not what you expected though, but I'm pretty happy being me just like I am. That wouldn't be possible without you, and I really am a happy person."

My mother stroked my hair and Dad patted my shoulder. I relaxed back into the sofa for a few minutes, then without warning I yawned hugely, which made both my parents snicker. "Go to bed, sweetheart," my mother said. "What time are you leaving tomorrow?"

"When I get up," I said. "It's the last time I get to sleep on Saturday, and I'm not wasting it."

I got up and kissed my mother on the cheek, then I did the same to my father, and I think that surprised both me and him, but it was a happy surprise. I grinned and said, "G'night," and headed off to my room. I didn't go directly to bed when I got there. While I was taking off my clothes, I poked around to see if I'd neglected anything I might want. One thing I hadn't packed was something to read, and I remembered the lack of reading material where I was going. There was nothing new and unread in my room, but that didn't stop me from setting out a half-dozen books to read again.

After that I was really done. Matthew would be well on his way across the Atlantic. Who knew where Bruce and Al were that night. I didn't keep track of them, but I knew I'd have a busy day when I woke up, and I knew that Aaron would be waiting for me. I didn't take it for granted, either. I was fully aware that the last time I left home it was due to duress. My future then was a total unknown, and I was scared to death. Now I was going back happily: eagerly. I was full of enough anticipation that I dreamed while I was still awake. They're visions when you're awake, right?

So okay, I envisioned a happy and triumphant return to Riverton. I'd go back there with a place to stay, a job, friends, and a boyfriend. Even a car of my own. There was more, too. I really liked Riverton, the kind of town it was. It had a rich history that I'd only begun to understand, and it stood apart from most places because it preserved and cherished that history. That was evident in the neighborhoods, and in the fact that modernization hadn't run rampant. It had the University, too, so the old underlayment was offset by an active element of new ideas and fresh thinking.

The architecture was old and new, and a lot of the old was in wonderful states of preservation, although right along the waterfront there was ramshackle mixed with more modern elements. The best part was that it was all busy and in use. The old Opera House was an Italian restaurant, where the wait staff was prone to singing opera, maybe to keep traditions alive. A former church was a night club, as was an old bank building. Old department stores along the main street had been converted into mini-malls, and I can't think of a town that had more restaurants per-capita.

At some point my visions turned into real dreams, and the next thing I knew sunlight shining through the window woke me up. I don't know for sure if I smiled like Aaron would before I opened my eyes, but I felt like I had. I felt lazy but in a fine mood, and I made my way to the bathroom with nothing much in mind other than taking a shower and remembering my bathroom things.

Both of my parents were in the kitchen when I went down, and I'd barely sat down with a coffee before Bruce came in. He looked at me lazily and said, "Hi."

It was kind of an awkward meal. My folks were trying to be pleasant, but their manners had an edge to them that kept me feeling kind of uneasy, even if the opposite is what they were trying for. Mom offered to cook something for me, but I didn't want to eat a lot. I had an English muffin with a little jelly on it and that was all I needed. I was anxious to get going, and at the same time reluctant to leave, so I sat there with a second coffee and not much to say.

It was my mother who finally broke the mood. She chuckled and said, "Look at us." She touched my hand and looked at me. "Go, Evan," she smiled. "We'll be here, and you can come home any time you like." She smirked, "I may even stop by to check up on you, so behave yourself."

"I will," I said, smiling. "Thanks, Mom."

"Mind your havens, Evan," she said gently as she stood. "Let's have a big hug, then you get on your way."

We did. I hugged my mother, then my father, and I told Bruce to come visit if he got a chance. After that I got the last things from my room, and everyone followed me out to my car. Before I got in myself, I faced my folks and Bruce and said, "Well, this is it." I grinned suddenly and said, "Bye!" and with that I was on my way.

Fifteen minutes into the trip, my cell phone rang. That was the first time I'd heard it and I wasn't sure what the sound was, but it dawned on me before it was too late. It was Aaron checking up on me. "Evan! Tell me your status!"

I laughed, "Really, my status? Here goes: White, American boy, age sixteen, brown and brown, five-ten and one-seventy. Queer as all get-out, and on my way to you right now. What's your status?"

Hopeless is what I got from Aaron's hysterical laughter. He finally gasped out, "I meant 'where are you?'."

"And that's what I told you. Traffic's slow, so I don't know ... maybe another half hour." I thought about it and added, "You know, if we end up rich a helicopter might be nice."

Aaron hesitated, "Well, it's one more way to die, I guess. Like we don't have enough options as it is."

Traffic started moving again, so I said goodbye and concentrated on my driving. The holdup turned out to be a telephone crew blocking half the lane with their truck while they worked on a pole. After I passed them traffic sped up to the usual crawl, then it lightened up as I approached Riverton.

I went straight to Aaron's house, and Justin was just coming out when I pulled in. I hadn't seen him since he graduated, so we talked for a little while after I congratulated him. He was pretty excited about being out of high school, and was looking forward to starting college in the fall. Aaron came out while we were talking, and it was good to see him, especially knowing that I'd be staying for awhile.

When Justin took off, Aaron and I drove to my place in separate cars, then went upstairs empty-handed the first time to make sure the porch was habitable. The door was open like Kevin had promised, and I was impressed when I went out on the porch. Kevin had said he'd paint it, and he did a nice job. The walls were painted off-white and the wood floor was a very deep blue, what I could see of it.

Most of the floor was covered in a beige, short-pile rug that looked new. The main event was a bed, though. Not a mattress on top of trash bags on the floor, but an honest-to-God bed, with a headboard, box spring and mattress. It wasn't new by any stretch, but he'd painted the wood the same dark blue as the floor, so it looked nice. The mattress looked suspiciously like the one I'd slept on the last year, but I was impressed just the same. There was still no closet, but now there was a clothes rack like you might see in a store. At least I could hang things up instead of keeping them in piles.

The place was stark and undecorated, but with two walls of jalousie windows it was very bright, and everything looked spotless. To say I was pleased would be an understatement. I was delighted, and I was suddenly anxious to get my things inside so I could do a little decorating. Walking back down, I said, "I thought Billy was coming to help. Did he change his mind?"

Aaron said, "No, I'm just an idiot. I said I'd call when you got here, and I forgot all about it.”

I proudly produced my cell phone and said, "Call away, Aaron. I put his number on voice, so just say his name."

Aaron eyed the phone and said, "Billy." Nothing happened, so he said, "Billy," with a little emphasis, and still nothing happened. "BILLY!" he cried.

"Let me try," I said, and when Aaron handed me the phone Billy's name and number were on the display, so I muttered, "I guess you still have to push the call button." Aaron peered at it, and I showed him how, then it made the call, which made Aaron smile.

"They'll be right here," he said after he talked to Bill, so we each took a box from Aaron's car and brought them up. Billy pulled in with Dean and Huck when we were back at the car, and they were all looking good. Huck had grown taller without getting proportionately broader, and the new slimness was becoming. Billy and Dean both had beginning tans, and they'd both grown too. Billy would probably never be tall, but he was keeping pace. Dean was as tall as me but twenty pounds lighter. He'd let his hair grow out some and he looked good with it longer.

With five of us, it took no time at all to bring everything upstairs. I offered to buy lunch for everyone, then was surprised again when I went to the bathroom to wash up. That had been redone too, and the sink and toilet were both new. There was new tile on the floor, and new paint as well. It was bright and shiny with new lights and mirrors, and it was kind of odor-neutral. I was stunned, because no matter what I did to that bathroom, the things growing in there had still unnerved me on the day I left.

Wondering what else had changed, I wandered through the apartment while the others took their turns in the bathroom. The kitchen had been updated too:  new flooring, fresh paint, a new stove and refrigerator, new table and chairs, and some additional cabinets over an actual counter. It wasn't anything that I would have expected from the guys who lived there, either. It was painted a sunny yellow with white trim. The windows had curtains on them, and there were decorations on the walls; even a live fern on the table in front of the windows. I looked in the other rooms and, except for the lack of marijuana stench, not much else had changed.

Still, for a reality check I opened the refrigerator. I was in the right house for sure, because it was full of beer, vodka, orange juice and tomato juice. To be fair, there was some food in there too, but not much relative to the liquor. I was impressed just the same. It was a quantum shift from what I'd encountered that first day the year before. I'd been appalled then that anyone could live in such a sty, and I'd literally polished off my fingerprints by scrubbing and scouring with the strongest cleaning agents known to man.

Now it was obvious that they were looking after the place they lived in. When I paid attention, I got a clue as to why. The refrigerator door, which I'd paid no attention to, had a bunch of pictures and notes held on with magnets. It wasn't all from Shane's little girl, either. There were also things signed by 'Joanie', who was Kevin's daughter, Joanne, and some things from Arnie's children as well. I hoped it meant that they were trying to be parents to their kids, because that had been the one real sticking point I had with those guys before.

I never knew Shane had a kid until just when I left, and I'd never yet seen Arnie's son and daughter. Kevin's little girl lived right downstairs in the same house, though, and his interaction with her was almost non-existent. I'd never said anything because it wasn't my place to, but it really irked the hell out of me. Joanne was cute, bright and sweet. I paid more attention to her than her own father did, and that wasn't right.

I sighed, because I was nobody's judge either. I didn't know what had gone on, didn't know ex-wives, didn't know anything. I did know that once you got to know them, Kevin, Arnie and Shane were decent guys. They worked hard and paid their bills, and they drank too much along the way. They had routines that weren't especially healthful or helpful, but they didn't bother people, and they had friends.

Aaron saying, "We're ready, Ev," broke my reverie, and I hurried outside behind everyone. "Where to?" Aaron asked when I was down there, and Huck suggested a diner I liked, so that was it.

We had a good time there. We got a booth with a big window overlooking the parking lot, and a ballsy old waitress. I liked the place because it seemed so old fashioned, complete with jukebox gizmos on each table and a pinball machine in the entranceway. They made a mean Caesar dressing, too; one so punched up with garlic that it could make your hair curl, and the salad was very largh.  That’s what I ordered.

I had things still to do at the apartment, but I could poke around putting my things away on my own time. We were really having fun just being together again, and managed to catch up with each others' lives in no time at all. Aaron asked Billy about going horseback riding the next day, and Billy took over the conversation.

He leaned forward, "You guys are going to love this place. The ranch is beautiful, and a lot of the riding trails are in the State Forest right along the river. There are lots of other streams there too, and a waterfall. Actually, wear a bathing suit under your clothes. There's a nice swimming hole at the falls, and if it's good weather we can go in the water."

"How did you find out about it?" I asked.

Bill's ears went a little red, but he smiled and said, "I met a girl, and it’s her family’s farm. They moved from Mexico last year.  They’ve put a lot into this operation, and I really hope they can make a go of it. They're decent people, and they did a beautiful job on the ranch and everything. All they need now is a lot of customers."

I smiled, "Is that the girl I met last fall?"

Billy blushed a little more and smiled dreamily. "I forgot you met her.  Yeah, Romi. Romi Maria Vizcarrondo-Rosa." Billy rolled each r like he'd been practicing, and added, "Isn't that a great name? She has an older brother, Paolo, and a younger one named Diego. If enough people are there, they'll put on a little rodeo show during lunch." He looked at us in turn and decided, "You're gonna love it!"

Aaron asked, "Who teaches us to ride?"

Billy shrugged, "They'll all do that. The basic lessons are just in the corral, and all you'll learn are the real fundamentals. Get on, get off. Go and stop. Turn right, turn left, and do as I say without any horsey nonsense."

"It's easy?" Huck asked.

Billy smiled again, "Huck, don't think you're going there to learn stunt riding. After your lesson, you'll know enough to go on the trail ride. If you end up loving it, you can go for more advanced lessons, and learn things like running the horse. Tomorrow's just the intro, and I know you'll love it. If all you ever do is ride trails, you'll still love it." He grinned, "If you don't like it, then you'll know something new about yourself, so you can't possibly lose."

Huck laughed, "Yeah, well ... okay, Bill. Just make sure I get a black horse so I'm sure I can trust it."

We all laughed, and we sat there long enough that the waitress asked sarcastically if we wanted dinner menus. We laughed some more, left her a big tip, and took off. Huck got off at his house saying he had things to do, like writing a last will and testament. Dean wanted to go home too, so we stopped at his house to let him off. When we got back to my place, Billy decided to take off too.

That left Aaron and me, and over an hour before anyone else should show up. Aaron smirked at me and asked, "What should we do?"

I smirked right back and said, "Let's make the bed." I wiggled my eyebrows, "Maybe test it out?"

Aaron's eyes went wide and he said, "Race you!" and he was gone up the stairs. I chased after, and was sorely disappointed to learn that I'd completely overlooked the fact that pillows were nice to have on beds. That didn't stop us then, of course, but later on we were at K-Mart in the pillow department, and I bought four of them. I remembered all the pillows on the bed at Harlan's house and how nice it was to sleep with them, so my reasoning was born of experience.

I was pleased when we got back and set the bed up. We both plopped down on it, and extra pillows made sense. Then we heard footsteps outside, and voices. I looked at Aaron and said, "You can stay here if you want."

"No, no," Aaron said. "I'm with you, so I'm going with you."

I looked at Aaron, somewhat surprised. Then I snickered, "Listen, I'm not even sure of who else lives here now. Are you sure?" Aaron nodded, albeit worriedly. I said, "Let's go, then."

We walked out into the kitchen where Kevin was passing cans of beer to Arnie and Shane. To my surprise, a much-changed Eli was there with them. Everyone noticed me at once, and the next few minutes were kind of chaotic with all of us trying to say a lot at once. It stayed like that until, one by one they took off to get cleaned up.

Eli was the first one, and when he'd changed I really had to keep looking at him. The year before he'd been this pasty looking kid, all zits, a poor shave, a bad haircut, and not a whole lot going for him. He lived for his pot and his television, and that was about it. Now he was there with longer hair that had been styled, a tan from his winter in Florida, and he just looked totally different than I remembered. I smiled hesitantly, "Eli ..."

"Evan," he smiled. "Hello. I'm glad we could meet again."

I stared, wondering how a person could change so much. The Eli I remembered stayed in an incommunicado state, smoked pot and watched television incessantly. Now he was there, willing to talk if I wanted to, and he looked way better than I remembered. Eli would never be handsome, but cleaned up like he was, with a shave and a decent haircut ... I don't know. He was, at the minimum, kind of attractive, and his always-bloodshot eyes were now clear and bright. And friendly.

Brilliant me, I said, "You're sober!"

He grinned, "Yeah! Surprise, huh?"

I nodded, "Yeah, big time. Can I ask what changed?"

Eli laughed, and it was absolutely the first time I'd seen any sense of mirth come from him. "I changed, Evan! I joined this huge Temple in Florida, and they had a big youth group." He smiled, "You can say I've seen the light. I don't need drugs and booze to be good, and I sure don't need television." He smiled warmly, and he actually looked nice the way he was. He became suddenly serious and said, "I'm not your judge, Evan. I don't know gay, and maybe I don't want to." His look warmed and he added, "I know you, though. If you're gay, then it's okay." His look warmed even more, "You're a good person, Evan. You treat everyone with respect, so you have my respect in return." He smiled brightly at Aaron and winked, and I could tell Aaron had to restrain himself from making a face. He hated being winked at.

Just then Kevin's daughter came rushing in, and she called for him. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw me, then smiled broadly. "You did come back!" She stared at me for a second, then came over and hugged me. I smiled down, and she smiled up and I still liked her. I kissed her forehead and whispered, "It's good to see you, Joanie," which made her beam all the brighter.

Then Kevin came out and she dropped me like a hot potato. "Daddy!" she shrieked, and she jumped halfway up his body, where he caught her up into a squeeze.

"Hi Sweetie," he said. "Ready for a night on the town?" She nodded, and he grinned at me. "Where are you eating, Evan? We're going out to Denny's if you want to join us."

Aaron spoke up, "Um, he's eating at my house tonight. Sorry."

Kevin shrugged, "Don't apologize. That's probably better than Denny's any day. Maybe next time, huh?"

Shane had been standing there for a moment, and he said happily, "Dudes! You're lookin' good, little dude!"

"How's your foot?" I asked.

Shane shrugged, "As good as it's gonna be. I don't pay it any attention. It's kind of numb back there, but everything works fine."

"That's good," I said. "It didn't sound too good at first." Then I thought to ask, "How's your daughter doing?"

He beamed, "She's trying to make me crazy, but she's just fine. I hope you noticed that I started something around here," and he nodded toward Kevin, who was sitting with Joanne happily on his lap. "Arnie too. He made peace with his ex, and now we have little ones here all the time." He looked around the room looking satisfied, "It's nice."

I said, "The place really looks good. Who's the decorator?"

Kevin said, "All of us worked on it. My mother picked out the colors." He looked around the kitchen and smiled, "Nice, huh?"

I nodded enthusiastically. The room was a sea change from what it had been when I left, just from being clean, but it was also coordinated and very pleasant to be in.

When Arnie joined us, he was all smiles. He studied me for a moment, then said, "Bigger, that's what it is. You got bigger, Evan. You're looking good. How'd things go at home?"

I shrugged, not wanting to get into that story right then. "It's been interesting," I said. "Things are good with my family. Well, except for my oldest brother." I smirked, "Don't worry though, I sent him to Poland to think it over."

That drew some stares, then Eli chuckled, "The Nazis are gone, Evan. I don't think Poland is a punishment anymore."

I smiled benignly, "Did I say punishment? That's not what I said. He's in Poland on a kielbasa and kishke tasting mission, then he'll go to Bulgaria to eat whatever they have there, and maybe raid some Thracian tombs. When he comes back, I'm hoping to learn if it was really Yashu who stole the kishke."

That drew blank stares from everyone except Aaron, who was trying hard not to laugh. I smiled brightly and said, "It's great to be back. I guess we'll go now." I had an idea, "We're going for horseback lessons tomorrow if anyone's interested. It's some place right across the river."

Kevin gave me a dirty look when Joanne got excited and said she wanted to go, but he didn't commit anything. Aaron and I said goodbye and made our exit. When we were going down the back stairs he said, "They're nice guys, Ev. I like when people take me at face value. I like it a lot."

I looked at Aaron when we got to the bottom, and I felt bad for him. He probably didn't get much practice being taken at face value for who he was. I'd seen him 'act', and he hadn't with those guys. To their credit, they all treated Aaron like just another guy in the room. On the surface they were the kind of men you'd expect might give gays a hard time, but for whatever reason they didn't seem to care at all. Well, to be honest, I'd looked at them as low-lives when I first came there, so maybe they just knew what it felt like to be looked down on. I suppose there were lots of possibilities, maybe even all the time they spent in bars.

I couldn't dissect it without knowing more, but the reasons didn't matter. They liked me, and they seemed to like Aaron. They knew what we were and it didn't appear to bother them, or even to matter. That was good. I'd still temper it with Aaron around those guys, but it wouldn't be from fear of them. We'd just keep a respectful distance, just like I knew they'd do what they would with the occasional bimbo in private.

Our dinner with Aaron's family was really great. Cindy was with Justin, I was with Aaron, and his parents were cheerful hosts. They stuffed us, too, with a very garlicky leg of lamb. The conversation ranged wide, and a lot of funny things were said. A lot of wine was poured too, and we stayed at that happy table long after dessert had been cleared.

When Justin and Cindy made a move to leave, I got up myself. "I guess I should get going, too," I said. "The meal was really wonderful. Thank you for having me over."

Aaron's mother smiled, "Why thank you, Evan. We've enjoyed your company, too."

"Do you need help with anything before I leave?"

She shooed us out, "No, it's all taken care of. You boys run along." She looked at Aaron and said, "Don't stay up too late, honey. You boys are still growing, and you need your rest."

I underscored that by yawning as soon as she turned around, which made Aaron snicker. "Want me to walk you home?" he asked shyly.

"I'd like that," I said, and I was never more serious about anything in my life. I was so happy that Aaron asked instead of me asking him, because that was the way it always had been. I even liked that there was an 'always' already, even though it hadn't been a full year yet since we met. That doesn't sound right. It had been a very full year, but only been eleven months of it.

It wasn't quite summer yet, either, and it was cool enough out that Aaron lent me one of Justin's sweatshirts for the walk.

When we went outside we didn't say anything, and I wondered if it was something conscious at that point. Aaron had walked me home probably forty times the prior summer and it was always the same. We had lots to say to each other, but the first words never seemed to come out until we reached the corner. When we got there, Aaron took my hand just after we turned, and he stopped walking suddenly enough that I dangled there for a moment at arm's length. "What?" I asked, grinning.

Aaron appraised me, then raised his eyebrows. "Are you still just like me, Evan?"

He was serious. I said, "I think I was wrong when I said that the first time, Aar. I'm more like you now, but I was an airhead then. I can't be just like you ever, because you're too special and I'm not." I wiggled my eyebrows, "I'm just as queer as you though, and I'd like to prove that!"

Aaron laughed out loud, then stared at me for a long moment, happiness in his eyes. "I'll take you up on that, but remember that I'm a skeptic. The proof is in the pudding."

"Pud-ing?" I asked, laughing.

Aaron said, feigning indignity, "Don't be gross." He looked around, "Are we gonna do it right here in the street?"

"Uh-uh." I grinned. "How's a nice bed with piles of pillows on it sound?"

Aaron smiled and nodded. I put my arm across his shoulders and marveled at my luck as we headed home to my little porch. I hummed a little nothing and Aaron joined in after a bit. It sounded awful enough to make us both stop humming, and we laughed instead. And that laughter was the music we made best together.

Continued ...