Plan D: Lake Effect

by Driver

Chapter 9

Chris and I had a scrimmage game on Tuesday afternoon. The little projects that Aaron's grandfather had in mind were being completed rapidly, so we didn't feel bad about leaving for half a day. It turned out that a lot of people didn't mind taking that afternoon off.

Aaron wanted to go with me, and Justin and his friends wanted to come to scope out our team, and Billy wanted to see me and Chris play. Only Paul, Mark, Lee and Bruce stayed behind with Aaron's grandfather, and they were planning a boat ride rather than more work. Dean and John Balls left before we did to go exploring the area.

We put on our goofy glasses for the ride. Chris had the SUV, which we all fit into easily, so we took that. Along the way I explained once again what had been going on with our coach since he learned I was gay, and again nobody had any solid feeling for what he was up to. The best advice I got was to soak up the special lessons and not worry about things. The time to worry would come when he did something negative.

We stopped at my house for my baseball things, then to Chris' place, which impressed the other guys. It's not that he lived in some big, expensive mansion, but rather that the Humphrey's house looked so perfect for where it was. It was different in the neighborhood, too; low and wide where the other houses were two-story or split-level like ours.

Chris only ran inside for a second, then came back out and dropped his cleats, glove and hat into the back of the vehicle. Then we drove over to the school, and I apologized in advance for the sorry condition of our playing fields. That was kind of pointless, because Justin and his friends would never have to play there, but they'd watch us that afternoon, and that was worth an apology in advance anyhow.

We didn't think, and we wore our stupid shades out to the diamond. There was a reaction from the players on our team, and they just pointed and laughed happily. The players from the other team jeered and made snide remarks, and we yelled that they were just jealous, while taking off the glasses and putting them in our pockets.

It was too late. Coach stood right in front of me with his hand out, saying, "Give me those things. You too, Humphrey."

We complied and handed them to him, and he took a closer look. He eyed Chris sidelong, then asked me, "Where did you find these, Smiley?"

"In a store," I mumbled.

"What kind of store?" he barked.

I shuffled my feet at first, embarrassed, then I stood up to him. "It was a grocery store, sir. A supermarket."

"Which one?"

I stared at him. "I don't know. It's out of town."

He tapped the two pairs of glasses together impatiently, looked at them again, then handed them back to us. He said, "Keep these hidden," then he turned and walked away.

We warmed up after the visitors, and it felt really good to get out on the field and throw the ball around. It was a warm day and a little hazy, which made for perfect baseball weather. There was plenty of sunlight, but the haze diffused it just enough to soften the shadow, and to let the ball be seen against the sky, even in the direction of the sun.

When we got our assignments, I wasn't starting. Even though at one point I'd envisioned spending the entire season on the bench, it still stung when I didn't hear my name called.

The game started out slowly, too. It was a duel of the pitchers, and neither allowed so much as a walk during the first four innings. It was strikeouts and caught balls, and a big ho-hum when you're the designated bench sitter.

Then in the fifth inning, the opposing pitcher had to shag a grounder himself, hit by John Berman, and he stumbled on the uneven ground. That made him miss the ball, and allowed John to get on base. We all sat up, because John was a great base runner, and always fun to watch. Then I heard my name while Coach made the time out signal to the umpire.

"Smiley, get in there!"

That's all he said, and I had not been expecting it. Surprised and just a little bewildered, I took the batting helmet from the guy who should have batted next, then I found a bat I liked and took some practice swings.

I was nervous when I stepped into the batter's box, sweating a little. That was because I hadn't expected to be there, and I wasn't sure why I'd been called up right then. It was early in the game, and the other team wasn't threatening any more than we were.

I shook my head to clear it, while the pitcher talked to his own coach. This was how Coach won games sometimes, by stirring the pot when there was any opportunity at all where none had existed before.

The umpire called, "Play ball!" and I stepped into the batter's box. The pitcher set up and threw a slider that just missed. "Ball one!" The umpire called.

I took a step back, and watched John's action out on first. Then I noticed Coach, and he was signaling a bunt. I did a double take and I got the signal again. It made some sense, I guess. I'd sacrifice John over to second if I pulled it off, then start swinging if I didn't.

The pitcher set up to throw, and it was outside again. I looked at Coach and got the bunt signal again, and it still made sense because I hadn't telegraphed my intentions yet.

The pitcher set up, then spun around to try and pick John off first. As usual, John was back there in plenty of time, doing his taunting little dance, then taking his lead again.

This time the pitcher gave me a good one, and I dropped it to a dead stop on the third baseline. John made it to second, and I was thrown out on first.

That was the sum of the action until the eighth inning. John got stranded on second, and the next innings still saw no score. The upside was that I was playing third, even if there wasn't anything going on. A pitching duel was under way.

I was lead off hitter in the eighth, and still hitting against the same pitcher they'd started. I was out there, way out of the batter's box, swinging at his warmup pitches. Coach came out and said, "Where are those glasses you had?"

I must have looked at him like he was from Mars, and when I pulled them out of my pocket he said, "Put them on just when you get in the box."

I stared at him, and he nodded, then backed away.

Okay ....

The umpire once again called, "Play ball!" and I stepped into the batter's box, immediately taking a step out of it while I put the glasses on ... the ones like pink flamingoes, with heart-shaped lenses.

"Please," I thought, "Let me see the ball coming." The lenses had gotten scratched, and they had fingerprints on them. My field of vision was blurry to say the least, and at the last second I pushed the glasses up so I could see.

What I saw was a waist-high fastball, not the finesse I was used to from this guy. My pitch! I was set up just right, too, and the next thing anyone saw of that ball was when it raised a little dust hitting the ground ... the ground way out there behind the fence. It was foul, even if I was already rounding first when the ump called it. The power I hit it with had shaken the pitcher. His next slider went way low and outside, and he followed that with a curve that almost hit me.

His coach and the catcher went out to talk to him, and I had to wait. Whatever they said to him, it was effective. With two balls and a strike, I watched as his next fastball was called as a strike. I swung at the next fastball and just tipped it. Unfortunately the catcher had it, and I was out once again. I was disappointed, but not really frustrated. There were days like that where the pitcher held all the cards.

Jerry Brin was up after me, and when I turned around to head to the bench I had to do a double take. He had his cap pulled low, and was wearing a pair of shades with baby-blue dolphins. I stopped in my tracks, and he flashed me a toothy little grin. I looked over in the on-deck circle, and Chris was there warming up ... with orange puppy-dog glasses on.

I just grinned and handed my own shades to this guy Dwight, who was batting after Chris. I looked at Coach, who was leaning against the fence with his usual steely-eyed gaze. I didn't know what was going on, and I would never give the man credit for having a sense of humor, but I sure found it funny.

The phrase 'awesome, Dude!' had been used so many times to describe Jerry's play on the field that his nickname was Awesome Dude. Even the newspaper called him that. Jerry was skilled more than powerful, and he had the game down well past the science stage; with him it was an art form. If that pitcher thought he could shut Jerry Brin down four times in a row, Jerry Brin had other things in mind.

He took the first ball low, and the second one. He hit the next pitch; a hard, bouncing grounder that went right between second and short. He was on with a solid single, and the coach and catcher were back out with the pitcher. This time the coach took the ball, patted the kid on the shoulder, and called in his next pitcher. Even our side cheered for the guy who'd just been pulled because he'd been awesome.

We watched the next pitcher warm up; a really big kid named Ramirez. He had a thick neck and really spectacular shoulders for a high school kid, and he threw what you'd expect from a guy his size. Heat. Nothing but heat. No finesse, no nothing. If you could get around on him you'd get big hits. If you hesitated for a thousandth of a nanosecond you'd be part of his statistics, if not actually part of his lunch.

Chris wasn't one of our big guys, but he was right for this pitcher because he had a quick bat. He stepped in and waited, his bat at the ready. The first pitch got away from the catcher, and Jerry ran to second easily. Chris took the next pitch, and it hit the catcher's mitt so hard it raised a cloud of dust.

The rest of us started chanting, "Chris! Chris!" because that usually does some good. Chris had two strikes on two pitches, so he had to do something, and he did.

He got around on the next pitch, which was identical to the first two, and blooped it out to right field for a single. Jerry ran for third like he had a mind to head home, but the guy coaching third base saw that the right fielder had played the ball quickly so he held Jerry there.

The other coach changed pitchers again, and it turned out to be a long inning for their team. We scored five runs off three different pitchers, and our reliever shut them down in the ninth, so we didn't even have to play the last half of the inning.

I hadn't scored myself, nor even had any plays to make. Still, my long foul was the beginning of the end for their starter, so it was still the hit that broke out the game. We won and life was good, and I exulted with the rest of my teammates when it was all over.

As usual, it was short-lived. Coach called us over for a post game talk, and it was the assistant coach who rightly gave the game ball to our starting pitcher, who had hung tough for eight good innings. Coach came over to remind us that our next game would be for real. At that point, he would usually say something about who had played well and where we needed to improve, but that day it was all about pushing our offense even more. He said nothing about any individual. What mattered to me more than anything was that I was playing, and Coach seemed to be playing me strategically.

Justin and his friends congratulated us too, and on the way out to the car, Doug said, "I heard something, you guys. A couple of the other players were wondering who the gay guy was on Evan's team. Sorry, I mean Evan and Chris."

"What exactly did you hear?" I asked.

"Just two guys," Doug said. "They seemed to know that someone on your team is a 'faggot', as they called it, and they were trying to figure out who."

"Did they?" I asked tentatively.

"No ... they didn't really have a clue."

Strange. Two scrimmages, two teams who knew Mt. Harman had a gay guy playing. From what I'd heard after the last game, it was Coach who was telling people he had a gay player. I couldn't fathom why he'd do something like that, thinking it would only get him laughed at by the other coaches.

When we were opening the doors to Chris' car, I heard my name called, and turned around to see Coach coming toward us. He motioned me to one side and asked, "Where did you buy those glasses again?"

I gulped, "This store we went to. I don't know the name of it."

He glared at me, then softened his look, "Do you go there sometimes?"

I said, "We'll be going past it right now. What? You want sunglasses?"

His eyes darkened, "Let's say I do. How much are they? Do they have any with bears?"

Well, there was a clue. Our team was the Bears. "I didn't see any bears. They were two bucks a pair, but two-for one when I was there."

Coach stared at me, his look intent but unexplainable. "Pick up twenty-five pairs, Smiley. I'll pay you. Get bears if they have them, otherwise whatever those things you wear are."

"Flamingoes," I explained.

Coach looked at his feet, "Right. Flamingoes." Then he turned and walked off.

I for the life of me didn't know what that man had on his mind. It was like there was an on/off switch somewhere that I could press sometimes, but only when he'd let me.

I sat in back again with Aaron, wondering about coach until Aaron snuck a kiss and said, "Ohh, my hero! Can I call you slugger?"

I giggled and poked him in the ribs. "How about you call me hugger instead?" He pulled me into a big squeeze and I laughed, "Don't hold back now."

Aaron said "I'll call you both. Right now you're a huggerer, which is a hugger who can also hit the ball. When you're at bat you can be a sluggerer, and if you're paying attention you can figure that one out."

"Goofball," I laughed. "As long as I'm not a suckerer, because I'm not really good with innuendo."

Aaron laughed cheerfully, "That's what you call innuendo? What's your idea of a slur?"

I goosed him gently, and got goosed in return, and soon enough we were very happy that the Trail Blazer had the optional rear-facing back seat.

Billy, of course, wanted to know what we were up to. He was up front with Chris, and we heard his voice calling, "Hey! What's going on back there? Show of hands right now! Aah! Hands, I said, not fingers!"

I craned my neck to look, but I couldn't see Billy through Doug. I called, "Where are your hands, Bill? Oh wait, should I be asking Chris that?"

I swear I saw a little puff of smoke, and Billy promptly shut up, and everyone else snickered.

The trip didn't take long on a weekday mid-afternoon, and when we got off the highway I got up on my knees facing forward so I could tell Chris what store to stop at. We all went inside. Aaron and I went to the toy department for sunglasses and the other guys went wherever. They did have bears on sunglasses, but they were really little ones that would never fit a teenager's head. We had to settle for miscellaneous with the others, because there was nowhere close to twenty-five of any one style. They were still the same price, so I didn't think too long before scooping up a whole bunch of them. I hoped that Coach would pay for them even though they weren't exactly what he asked for. If he didn't ... well, I could always think of a new bumper sticker, and I'd have a lifetime supply of shades to boot.

I wanted some other things; chocolate milk primarily. I got cravings sometimes. I also picked some more of those good pineapples, then headed to the checkout counter. I was almost to one when Aaron said, "Go to the other end, Ev. That's the way we came in."

I looked at him, a big 'huh?' on my face, then I turned around and looked down the aisle and sure enough there were checkouts at the other end.

"That's it!" I cried. "I'm not crazy after all!"

"Sure you are," Aaron promised. "Are you feeling okay?"

I was excited. "Aaron," I said, "the last time I came here we got lost when we left. This place has two fronts, so now it makes sense." I was thinking it out, and it did make sense. We'd turned into the parking lot and come inside. Then, instead of going back out the way we came in, we went out the other end of the building, turning ourselves around. I just drove toward the exit and took a right from there, and that's how we ended up heading the wrong way. I almost did it again, too. Idiot! I could explain it to Bruce and Lee, now, I thought. Then my thoughts took an evil twist, and I decided we could go through that routine again and again, until they figured it out on their own. A weird part of the universe indeed!

When we turned into the driveway at Aaron's place, I could see my brother and Lee fishing off a dock with Aaron's grandfather. It took a moment to sink in, but that was my brother, and he was fishing! Never in a million years!

We put things away and I changed into shorts, then I walked with Aaron to the dock. They all felt us when we stepped on the boards, because it was a floating dock; not the kind of thing you could sneak up behind someone on. Bruce looked at us and turned back to his line in the water, but Lee grinned and reeled his in. He jumped up and grinned again, asking, "How was the game? We had fun here!"

"Evan hit a home run!" Aaron announced. "Except it was a foul." He turned his attention to their pail, "Did you catch a lot?"

"Not enough yet," his grandfather grumbled. "They're biting, though. Drop some lines in, the three of us won't catch enough."

Aaron made a face, but I was game. I was no fisherman, but I usually enjoyed fishing for at least a little while. I laughed at Aaron and said, "Come on, let's get some poles." He followed me, and I wondered aloud, "Feel like fishing in your wet suit?"

Aaron pushed me forward just hard enough to make me stumble. He snickered, "You're bad! Please tell me I don't have to wear a wet suit every time you get a hit!"

I turned and grinned, "Well, okay. You could not wear a wet suit when I get a hit. Am I easy or what?"

"What should I wear then?" Aaron asked innocently.

"I don't know, you tell me. If you were going to wear a wet suit and decided not to at the absolute last second, what would you have on?"

"You're evil!" Aaron grinned. He held up a finger and wagged it in the air, "I like your fashion sense, though. Heh, after all, it goes with everything!"

I chuckled, "What does?"


I knew what he was talking about, but it was fun playing with words. I was walking backwards. "Nothing goes with everything? I somehow thought that something would go with everything."

Aaron shook his head no. "No way. It's the other way around. Everything goes with something, but only nothing goes with everything!"

I laughed, "You're sure about that, now?"

We were at the house, and Aaron leered, "I can prove it! Get yourself upstairs before we have to go fishing." He laughed to himself, then followed me up the stairs.

I was learning from Aaron's fashion sense. For instance, wet suits looked far better on someone than they felt to the person wearing one. If your immediate future didn't involve immersion in something frightfully cold, then once was enough. Still, they had zippers in interesting places, and taking one off someone else, then having your own removed by other hands ... well, that could get pretty intense. My lesson for the day, though, was that nothing went with absolutely everything, and I found that to be a profound truth when I saw it from Aaron's point of view. His point of view was like mine on that, and I was dizzy when we went back down two flights of stairs.

"Are we still fishing?" I asked.

Aaron laughed, "No, we haven't gone yet. Do you still want to go fishing?"

I straightened up, "Of course!"

Aaron shrugged, "Let's get poles then. C'mon!"

For all his voiced reluctance, Aaron was an exuberant fisherman. He stood on the dock, cast his line out, and cried, "Come onnnn .... fishies!" and about two seconds later he snagged one. He reeled it in, then re-baited his hook, saying, "That's what you get for being a worm!"

Oh, he was funny. His grandfather snorted like he believed fishing should be more dignified, but Aaron had me almost wetting my pants, and Bruce and Lee weren't far behind.

The fish started biting on all of us, and we soon had a pail too full for any more. I looked in and asked, "What are these things, anyhow?"

"The bigger ones are Calico bass," Aaron's grandfather said. "Most of the others are yellow perch, and we'll eat well on this mess."

I'd heard that term before. Fishermen called a good catch 'a mess of fish'. Now I had a point of reference, and it meant more fish than you'd bother yourself with by counting them.

I was on and off about eating fish. Most people didn't cook them right, but I didn't know that then. Bruce and Lee were excited about the catch, so Aaron and I gratefully excused us from the fish-cleaning party and went for a walk. It was neat out front because the snapdragons were opening up and there was more color around the lovecock, which made it stand out all the more. Aaron looked at it for a minute, then motioned to me, saying "Come on," and I followed him back behind the house. He poked around in some weeds back where the lawn ended, then finally cried, "Yes!"

I looked, and he was toeing a small pile of white stones like the ones in the path to the lake.

We went back to work. I got the wheelbarrow and a shovel, and Aaron scooped up the stone until we had all he could get of it. Then we went back to the bird and Aaron stared for a while, until he had an idea. We dug out the sod from the area to the right of his little garden, then spread the stones there in a wide oval. We put the sod in the wheelbarrow and brought it out back, then walked to the lakefront and got two wooden rocking chairs. Those we placed on the stones beside the garden, and it was a fine little spot to sit. We plopped down in the chairs and admired our handiwork.

"We should have mint juleps," Aaron said.

"What's a mint julep?"

Aaron was looking out over the lake, a distant smile on his face. "I was hoping you knew," he murmured. "God, Evan! I always loved this lake, but I love it ten times as much with you here. I don't know about getting old, but if we have to ... well, then this is the spot I want to do it in."

Aaron's arm was dangling over the arm of his chair. I touched his wrist, then he held out his hand and I took it.

I didn't say anything. The way I felt right then, I could have sat there until I was old. "We can, you know," I said dreamily. "You're in charge now. If we wanted to sit here until we're ninety we could, right?"

Aaron didn't respond right away, and then he said gently, "I'm not in charge of the house, really. Grandpa isn't either. It belongs to the whole family. I'm sort of the ... the ..." He looked at me, "What's that term you use for that Hooky guy at work?"

I snickered, "It's Hokay, and we call him the 'go-to' guy."

Aaron nodded, "That's what I am here, then. It's more like a focus point than in charge. I keep a list of contractors, and if we need a plumber I'll have the right number to call. If our plumber retires, then I have to find a new one. For doing that I get free use, and I get my own permanent room."

I stared out at the water, finding nuances everywhere to enhance my enjoyment. I asked idly, "Could you keep the attic room we're in?"

Aaron asked, "Really? It's pretty small."

"What else is in the attic?" I asked. "Would it be hard to make the room bigger?"

Aaron was silent, then he laughed quietly, "You are asking the wrongest guy in the world about that, Evan. There's a big, old attic up there. It used to be full of things, but it's mostly empty now because people thought it was a fire hazard. I don't know anything about hard and easy when it comes to construction. All I know is that in the summer it's so hot up there that it hurts."

I sat there thinking; thinking about how much I already loved the view of the lake from that window in the turret. I knew people I could ask, too. Edie and Harlan Blaine had done a lot of the work themselves when they bought an old house. Aaron was a bright guy, and creative, and I could think things through. If the space in that attic couldn't be used for some reason, then it couldn't. If it was possible though, then air conditioning would enable anything else we wanted to do.

"Let's go up and look at the attic," I suggested.

Aaron stirred, and looked lazily at me, "Now?"

I grinned, "No, later. Let's sit here for now."

We did, and I swear I dozed off. I had Aaron's hand lightly in mine, the warm air enveloping me, and the view across the lawn, down to the lake and clear across. The next thing I knew, I jumped ... all startled, and there was no apparent reason. I think I have a self-startling mechanism somewhere in me, because that certainly wasn't the first time it happened. Sometimes, when I achieved that level of laziness that was just a little beyond goofing off, the place where thoughts become fuzzy, unimportant things, that startler of mine would set me off jumping, and that's exactly what happened that day at the lake.

My start gave Aaron his own, and we were both bolt-upright with 'what happened?' expressions on our faces. We smiled tentatively at each other, then Aaron shrugged, and after that we just smiled warmly.

That got us up at any rate. I had to pee, and I didn't wait to go inside to the bathroom. I got behind a bush unnecessarily. There was nobody who could see me on that side of the house, so it was just force of habit. After that we wandered around back, following the sounds of voices. We came upon Aaron's grandfather, Lee and Bruce, and they were all cleaning fish. Lee and Bruce were finishing about an eighth of what Mr. Castle could do, but they sure seemed to be having fun trying.

I was watching in amusement, thinking to myself that I never thought the day would come where Bruce Smiley would go fishing and enjoy himself. Still stranger was the fact that he was right there in front of me, his hands all bloody, and he was cleaning the fish they'd caught. And he was clearly having the time of his life.

I was just about to say something when things changed. I'd just turned my eyes away from my brother to see how Lee was doing when the right side of Lee's face and hair suddenly turned white. A little splat sound went along with that change. In the time it took to register what had happened, Lee's face took on an O-mouthed look of surprise that was really precious. It was like slow motion. Bruce looked up, and his face registered surprise at first, then great amusement.

The moment came back to reality and Bruce pointed at Lee, "Ha ha!. Ha ha ha ha ha! A bird pooped on your head! Ha ha ha ha ha!"

Lee looked cross at first, then revulsion spread across his features as the stuff oozed down the side of his face and around his ear. He put his hand up as if to feel it, but changed his mind soon enough. Aaron's grandfather muttered, "Gull. Load like that's gotta be a gull," while Bruce kept on laughing.

It was Aaron to the rescue. He said, "Come on, Lee. You can wash it off in the kitchen." Lee stood up hesitantly, probably afraid of how far that goop would spread before he got to the sink. He was funny, though, and when he turned his back I started laughing right along with Bruce.

They were inside for awhile, and we'd gotten over it before they came out, then we started laughing again. Lee, in a clean shirt, was wearing a giant sombrero.

Bruce started and I joined in, "Birdie, birdie in the sky ... dropped some whitewash in my eye. I didn't laugh and I didn't cry, but I'm sure glad that cows don't fly!"

Lee tried to give us a dirty look, but he didn't have one in him. He blushed and laughed, and eventually went back to cleaning fish.

Rakeed came out and announced that he was going to the store for salad fixings, and wondered if anyone wanted him to pick up other things. Aaron and I decided to go with him, more to avoid more work than for any other reason.

The local store was 'Elmore's IGA Supermarket' according to the sign, and it looked like a friendly place from the outside. There were barrels full of bright flowers around the parking lot and by the entrance, and there were awnings above the front windows, with hanging baskets and more flowers dangling from the frame.

Rakeed got a cart and we went inside, and it was like no supermarket I'd ever seen before. It wasn't tiny by any means, but neither was it one of the vast markets I was used to. The produce department was to the far right, which was the natural place to go first anyhow. In some ways it looked like any other produce department anywhere, but this one had an aisle behind the vegetables and fruits, and there were people working there, actually waiting on customers. It was neat, because you could shop either way; just pick out your own things, or ask someone to do it for you.

The employees wore dark green pants, white shirts with wide, matching dark green stripes, green baseball caps, and green aprons. The one who waited on us wore a name tag that read 'Sally', and she smiled when she approached us. She was middle-aged, short and wide, and she had a friendly face and a twinkle in her eye. She looked like she enjoyed her job.

"Hello, boys," she said in greeting. "What can I get for you?"

Rakeed smiled, "I want to make a salad that will go with fried fish." He looked at Aaron, "What are those little fish they caught?"

"Mostly perch," Aaron replied.

Sally looked critically at Aaron for a second, then smiled broadly. "I'll be! You're one of the Castle boys, aren't you?" Aaron nodded warily, and she smiled again, "There's no hiding that face. You all look so much alike it's uncanny. I'm Sally Everson, and I babysat you boys years ago." She sized Aaron up quickly and added wistfully as she stroked Aaron's cheek, "It's been so long. I haven't been out to that place since I got married myself. You're all healthy and doing well?"

Aaron nodded, "Yes, ma'am."

Sally smiled cheerfully and turned back to Rakeed after saying idly, "You remember me to your folks. They're real good people."

Aaron nodded and Rakeed said, "I thought maybe Island salad, with pineapple added to it."

"Ooh, that would be good," Sally said enthusiastically. "How are you spicing the fish?"

"I'm not cooking it," Rakeed replied. "I have no idea."

Sally's eyes narrowed momentarily while she murmured, "Hmmm. Island salad goes with spicy food, maybe not so well if it's bland."

Rakeed nudged Aaron, "Say something here, Aaron. Does your grandfather make it spicy?" His eyes opened wide, "Please say yes!"

Aaron looked worried, "Um, is salt a spice? He makes this batter, and .. and ... well, it's not spicy!"

"I'll tell you what," Sally said. "If it's bland fish you probably want a spicier salad. Why not have the pineapple for dessert and make a nice Mediterranean salad to go with the fish?"

Rakeed said, "You're the boss."

That she was. She set about selecting vegetables, which included lettuce, fresh olives, the ripest tomatoes she could find, and a few big onions. When she had that together she sent Rakeed looking for a particular brand of olive oil while Aaron and I went to find the tub of Feta cheese she recommended. When we all got back there was one more jar in the cart, and Sally came running to explain it.

"I put the fresh garlic back." She held out the jar that was about four inches high and as much around. "This garlic is already sliced, and let me tell you, you won't forget it," she said. "It's straight from Gilroy, California, and it's the most potent garlic you're likely to find in this neck of the woods." Her smile was wry, "It costs more, but if you're having bland fish it can still be a meal you'll remember."

Rakeed smiled, "You're good! I'll take it."

He checked to make sure he had everything he thought he did, and we went to the checkout counter. I was amused by the whole encounter, and even more so when Rakeed's salad fixings totaled twenty-six dollars and change. I'd paid that much just for fruit a few days earlier, and there sure wasn't any of that left.

That thought sent me back inside, and I found some plums that were on special so I filled a bag with those.

Rakeed bitched all the way back to the house about the price of vegetables. Aaron and I tried to suppress our laughter, because Rakeed pronounced it 'veg-tabbles', making it sound like two words. "I can't believe I spent all that for veg-tabbles!" he'd cry. "This is just one meal"

I said, "I think you better get used to it, Rakeed. Maybe talk to Aaron's grandfather, so you'll get an idea of what it costs to eat."

He said, "I know what it costs to eat! This is a salad! Rabbit food!"

Aaron was about hysterical with laughter by the time we got back to the house, and after Rakeed went inside he made a neat little bunny face for me. He could be so cute. He opened his mouth so that just his upper two front teeth were showing, and he did this little chomping thing, and it was my turn to laugh. It reminded me of one of my own grandfather's lame jokes. I grinned at Aaron, "Should I tell Mr. Turtell who is out by the well, and Mr. Lizard, who is out in the yard, that Mr. Rabbit is here with the shit?"

Aaron collapsed into me laughing, and we had ourselves a good one, surely jiggling off anything that might threaten to become fat.

It turned out that Rakeed's salad was the high point of the dinner. The fish was crispy and everything, but kind of tasteless except for salt, and it took gobs of tartar sauce to make it taste like anything at all. I oo'd and ah'd like everyone else to be polite, but it was the salad, and more specifically that garlic, that made the meal a good one.

Oh, that garlic was potent, and it seemed to cut straight to the center of my soul as well as my taste buds. I didn't know what my breath would be like for the next month or so, and I didn't particularly care right then. I was certain that if I dropped dead and had to be buried, that I'd resurrect as this colossal garlic bulb, and that bulb would be smiling for all it was worth.

Afterwards, Dean and John Balls got out their guitars, but they just fiddled with them while they told the rest of us about their day. They were both enthusiastic about what they'd seen for scenery, and it sounded like John and Dean were becoming pretty good friends as well as band mates. Still, I wondered about John out in nature. It wasn't that I worried about him, but rather about what nature itself might think when it saw him coming. It was funny in my mind. "Oh no! Look at this one. Alright, here's what we do. Sky, you disappear, and take this vegetation with you. Clear out, animals, you bugs too! Stop moving, water! You rocks and earth, stay where you are, but don't move a muscle!"

See what being brainwashed all your life does? I was thinking Mother Nature, and therefore all of nature was reacting like my mother might.

John was pretty talkative that night, as was Dean, and it seemed that both of them were pretty keen observers of the things around them. I decided that it was as good a time as any to ask, so I did. "John," I said, "what's your real name?"

His eyebrows went up a little, and he said, "It's János," pronouncing the 'J' like a 'Y'.

"John János?"

He snickered, "No, my first name is János. It's Hungarian for John, but I've always gone by John."

I laughed, "I was actually wondering about your last name. Is it really Balls?"

John smiled, "Close. It's spelled B-a-l-a-z-s, but in Hungarian the second syllable is barely pronounced. It sounds like Balls to Americans."

I started giggling, "That's a good one. I was kind of afraid you had something special between your legs."

John gave me a look, "I think I do!"

"Oh, God!" Aaron groaned. "Let's not get started here, okay? You must have fun with new teachers, John."

I gave Aaron a quick look because that was a pretty deft move. John chuckled, "Yeah, I've heard my name pronounced mongo ways, and I tell them to just say Balls. Heh, you can tell they don't want to, but it's as close as they'll come."

I was trying to think if I knew any other Hungarians and I came up empty. I asked, "How long has your family been in the U.S., John?"

"Since 1958," John said. "Dad's parents were killed in the revolution in '56, and he was finally brought here by his grandparents. They died before he was ten, and friends of theirs took him in. He turned out pretty cool though, at least I think he did."

"What's he do?" I asked.

"Plumber," John shrugged.

I said, "That's a good trade, isn't it?"

John smiled at the ground, "Yeah, it's a good trade. If I don't make it in music, I can probably make more money plumbing anyhow."

I laughed, "I think my father would agree. Jeez, he goes through the roof when he gets a bill from the plumber."

Aaron was more positive. "John, your destiny is the stage I think. You're really good to start with, and you have this," his hands started flapping while he searched for the right word, "You have a huge dynamic ... a .. a ... presence! I ..." Aaron flung his hands in the air, "I'm really kind of in awe of you." He grinned and leaned forward, his hands together in front of him as if in prayer, "My hero!"

John blushed enough to see it in the dark, and he was really at a loss for words. I could see that Aaron thought he was overboard and felt bad about it, but he soon smiled. "John Balls! You really, really, really have to learn how to take a compliment. I'm not trying to embarrass you, and I don't think I'm gushing. You ... are ... good!" Aaron grinned, "You are good!" He started clapping rhythmically and chanted, "John is good. John is awesome. Jon has style. John has grace. John has metal all over his face!"

We all started laughing, and John did too, though he still looked embarrassed. Aaron said more earnestly, "John, you have your own style and two tons of talent. You don't try to, but you really put on a show just being the way you are." He learned even closer, "I know that guitar didn't jump in your lap and start playing itself. You must have tons of work invested. When someone says you got it right, that should make you happy." He grinned again, "Ask Evan for lessons. He's an absolute master at sucking up compliments."

To prove Aaron right, I stood up and smiled, my hands up over my head.

John laughed, then looked at Aaron and blushed once again. Then he smiled and said softly, "Thanks. You really think I'm good?" He shook his head quickly, "Don't answer that! I ... I'm supposed to know I'm good, that's what you're saying." He fidgeted while Aaron nodded. John looked at the ground, "I know I can play, but I don't compare myself. I mean, Dean's good too. I play different than Dean, but we're compatible."

Lee piped in, "Why don't you play something?"

Dean, John and Aaron exchanged glances. Then, as if on some secret cue, Dean and John started playing at the same moment. I knew the song right away because I'd heard them play it before. It was called 'Mother Nature's Son' and it was originally by the Beatles. It was a simple and pretty little song, and with the two guitars and Aaron singing they did more than justice to the original. Actually, Aaron's voice was suited to the tune and the lyrics, and I liked it better than the recording.

We all listened in rapt silence, then cheered and clapped when the last note faded from Dean's guitar. As the applause waned, John started another song. It was one he'd written himself, and he'd brought it a long way since the first time I heard it. John's voice wasn't musical like Aaron's, and without amplification it wasn't powerful either. I marveled at his ability to play and sing at the same time. The guitar work wasn't elaborate, but it was still fairly intricate, and John's hands seemed to form an entity of their own, separate from his singing. After a long verse, Dean joined John with some guitar work, and then John resumed singing. This time Aaron sang a quiet counterpoint, and the three of them had me totally captivated. When that song ended it was like a story that wasn't quite long enough. I wanted more even though I felt satisfied from what I'd heard. It was an odd feeling.

After two more songs, they stopped playing. John and Aaron went inside, presumably to use the bathroom, and Dean dug into a cooler for something to drink. I saw Chris motioning me over to where he was sitting with Paul and Mark, and I went over there. Before I was sitting down all the way, Chris said, "You know, Ev, I've heard you bragging on Aaron, and I figured it was just bullshit boyfriend crap. I heard him sing before, too, but only in your living room. Now I don't know what to say. I'm like amazed ... more than amazed. I'm ... I'm ... dazzled!"

I snickered, "Boyfriend crap?" I put my hand on Chris's shoulder and rubbed him gently. "Listen, Chris. You had first dibs on me, and you chose to ... I won't say 'blow it' here. You chose to not blow it. Otherwise you, too, could be dazzling all your friends with me."

Chris started laughing. Paul and Mark started really laughing."

Chris sputtered, "How would you dazzle anyone? You can't sing." He suddenly looked worried, "You can't sing, right?"

I started laughing too soon, and I kind of blubbered out, "No, but I sure can hum!"

Poor Chris! He was one of those people who could easily die laughing, because he lost all control. He coughed and wheezed, his stomach bucked, and he snorted at all the wrong times. I was laughing too hard to help him, so Paul started patting his back rather rudely while Mark and I laughed in accompaniment.

Chris hadn't fully quieted down when Aaron came back out and sat beside me, asking, "What's so funny?"

"Nothing," I said, tears in my eyes. "Chris thought it was hysterical when he asked if he could sneak up to the third floor later on."

"You fuck!" Chris wailed, while Aaron's eyebrows went up in happy surprise. Chris put his hands around my neck and said, "Give me a second while I kill this bastard!" and he squeezed hard enough to make my eyes bulge.

I laughed when he let go, and said, "Two hummers is better than one, Chrissy boy! Tape some of those carpet squares to your knees and come on up!"

"What's with you?" Aaron asked.

I grinned and touched the end of his nose with my finger, mumbling, "Just boyfriend bullshit," before I kissed him.

That elicited gasps from more than one direction, and I immediately and humbly pulled back. One gasper had been Paul's brother, Mark, who was looking at me all wide-eyed. It made me feel bad, so I whispered, "Sorry, Mark."

Paul put his hand on his brother's shoulder and said, "Don't sweat it, Ev." He turned his face to Mark and said, "I was surprised at first, too, Marky. It's not a bad thing, so get used to it, okay?"

Mark still looked a little dumbstruck, but he nodded to Paul before looking away from us altogether.

Someone else had seemed surprised, but I think I'll always have to wonder who it was. Nobody else said a thing, and the gathering went on as before. It broke up just as gradually as the night before, except I left with Aaron while most people were still there. We didn't have a lot in mind, just an idea that it was a nice night, and the view from the turret window would be relaxing.

I washed up before going upstairs, then we pulled chairs up near the window, opened it, and just gazed out over the night scene. We could hear guitars and voices faintly in the distance, but they were down three stories and behind us, so it was just gentle background noise. We didn't speak, and I was learning to love how we could be quiet with each other, yet still communicate. We were watching the same scene, Aaron seeing what he did, and me viewing my version. There was a single power boat down at the far end from us, and we could only tell that from the front and rear lights. It didn't seem to be moving at all at first, but it gradually changed position. I figured it was some night fisherman, and it amused me when I sensed that Aaron thought otherwise.

I didn't know what he thought that boat was doing, but I sensed that it wasn't fishing. "See the fishermen?" I asked, hoping he'd tell me what he saw.

"Where?" Aaron asked.

"Down the other end. You can see the boat lights."

"There's only one boat," he said after looking around more carefully. "They're not fishing."

"What then?"

"Partying," he giggled.

I didn't get a chance to ask what he meant, because there was a tap on the door. "It's open," Aaron said.

Chris came in, followed by Billy. Chris looked a bit awkward at first, but that never lasted long with him. He looked around and said, "Whoa! Small! I thought you guys had this big opera suite or something going up here!"

Aaron giggled, "Well, I think it's sweet."

I looked at Chris and said, "Think sky box! Check out this view!" I stood up so he could have my seat, and Aaron did the same for Billy.

They sat, and I watched them for a long enough moment to realize that watching your friends look out a window wasn't way up there on the list of fun things to do. I knelt between them and looked out again myself, while Aaron made himself scarce with no explanation.

"Man, this is the spot!" Chris said after awhile. His voice had that rare quiet quality it could take on sometimes. "It reminds me of those Japanese calendars, all vertical and looking out to infinity."

Billy was silent, then he finally said, "You're right, Chris." He turned to me and said, "This must be really nice when it's light out." He turned back, "Even in the dark ... "

He kept the rest of that thought to himself, and we stayed there in silence for another few minutes. Chris stirred, then stood up. He smiled at me with a smile I rarely saw on his face; one of calm satisfaction. "It's nice, Ev," he said. "Let's have a hug, okay?"

I never questioned. I opened my arms to Chris and we hugged only briefly like we usually did. Then Chris turned to Aaron and held his arms out tentatively. Aaron grinned and gave him a good hug while Billy grinned. When Chris turned to leave, Billy held his hand out to shake, and said, "Gentlemen ..."

I held my hand out to shake his and he took it, pulling me right to him. He gave me a happy squeeze, then Aaron got a longer one, and then we were alone again. I looked at the closed door and wondered what brought that on, not that I minded at all. Aaron started stroking my neck, then he took my hand and led me to the bed.

It had been a nice day and a wonderful night. We were both tired, but being together in bed made us less tired, so we stayed up later than we should have after all.

The next morning I looked out the window on the way to the bathroom. It wasn't raining out, but the sky was a steely gray and the clouds were hanging low and dark. I did my business and went back upstairs, sleepy again because I knew I could stay in bed. I didn't look where I was going and stepped on a shoe just when I was ready to get in the bed, and I lost my balance. I put my hand out, and it landed with my full weight right on the small of Aaron's back. That elicited a healthy, "Oof!" from him, and when I got straightened out and crawled in beside him he giggled. "Um ... help?" he said in a small voice. "Is this an assault on my person?"

I considered that and said, "It could be if you want it to. It's crummy out, let's sleep some more first."

"No assault?"

"Later. I'll assault you later. Go back to sleep."

I closed my eyes and Aaron mumbled, "My back hurts."

Oh, no! I sat up and asked, "Where?" as I started to stroke the area I'd landed on.

"Mmm. A little lower." I moved my hand down. "More. Use both hands. Lower."

I smiled. I was stroking halfway up the mounds of his butt and Aaron was practically purring. Then he bounced about five times in rapid succession going "Woo ... oo-oo ... oooh!"

"What?" I pulled my hands away as if I'd burned them. "What'd I do?"

"I don't know," Aaron gasped, "just do it again!"

I snickered, "Wise guy!"

Aaron sighed breathily, "I"m not kidding. You just found a good spot. Maybe my best spot."

That amused me, and I went on a search mission. When I found that spot again near the top of his left cheek, I could feel the muscles spasm under my touch and that made me giggle.

I didn't keep my hand there, but rather kept coming back to the spot. I could tell that I was making Aaron crazy. I was making myself crazy, too. I'd been feeling his fine rump for about ten minutes, and ten seconds was plenty to get me ready for other things, so we switched to other things; things suitable for a dark, cloudy morning.

Another nice thing about that room on the third floor was that it wasn't directly over other rooms, but separated from the rest of the house because it sat over the porches that rose in front. The upper porch was small like the bedroom ... probably identical in size when I thought of it. It was what Aaron's grandfather called a 'public' porch; it was off a hallway rather than a room. In the summer people would sleep out there in a pinch, but when we were there it was just another layer of insulation between our aerie and the rest of the house. Until someone turned a radio on loudly, we couldn't hear a thing from downstairs.

When Aaron went downstairs to use the bathroom, he checked outside again and reported that it was still dark and threatening, and still not raining. We stayed in bed talking quietly and joking, and I absolutely loved when we had the time for things like that. I don't think we said one single important word between us, but that took nothing away from the importance of spending that kind of lazy time together. We'd fall totally silent for minutes at a time, then come up jabbering like magpies, thoughts and laughter just pouring from us.

It was hunger, as usual, that won out. We got dressed minimally in sweats and tees and headed downstairs. We didn't bother showering because we didn't smell bad. I combed my hair the best I could. Aaron took one look at his morning frizz and decided to forget it. He'd have to take a shower to make it better.

I didn't count, but it looked like everyone was up when we got downstairs. They were all laying about, either reading, watching television, or just dozing. The only ones in the kitchen were Violet and Aaron's grandfather, and they greeted us idly before going back to their talk.

Aaron asked, "What do you want?"


He grinned, "I meant to eat." He looked in the refrigerator, "We have bananas. How about cereal and bananas?"

I was always suspicious when Aaron mentioned cereal. He thought Trix was haute cuisine for breakfast. "What kind of cereal?"

He snickered, "No Trix!" He looked in a cabinet, "We have Coco Puffs, Cap'n Crunch and ... ah! Evan food! Total's good, right?"

I nodded and he handed me a box, which turned out to be practically empty. "There's not enough," I said.

Aaron frowned and looked deeper into the cabinet before shrugging, "How do you want your eggs?"

I laughed, "I'll make them." I didn't want to cook, but Aaron tended to cook eggs far too long to be good for you.

There was more of that good, strong cheese. I made omelettes with some of that, and with chopped tomato, and they came out pretty well. We ate them with toast and big glasses of milk, and I asked Aaron's grandfather and aunt if they knew where the cheese came from.

Grandpa brightened right up. "You like that? That's three-year-old cheddar, boy. Ah wait, maybe it's thirty months, but it's old just the same. You can't get that all the time, so let me know if it's getting used up.'

Aaron grinned, "It's used up."

His grandfather smiled, "Good. I'll get more." He smiled warmly, apparently happy that another generation liked that kind of cheese. It made me wonder a little, because that had been a big hunk just two days before, and we sure didn't use much for omelettes.

When we finished eating and made to clean up, Violet said, "I'll take care of that."

Aaron and I argued just enough to be polite, then took off out of there. Aaron said, "I want to check my bird. The flowers should be all out by now."

It was still just gray outside, no rain, so we went out barefoot just like we were. As soon as we got around front we saw a silver BMW by the road with the driver's door open, and when we got around the corner there was a youngish couple looking at the bird and laughing.

We approached quietly and looked ourselves. Aaron was right about the flowers. The snap dragons had opened up and were there in white, red, purple, dark red, yellow and orange. It was great at ground level with the dark mulch, and the blue of Aaron's tree was even more emphatic against the threatening sky.

The man looking at the bird, a thirty-something in khaki shorts and a pale yellow golf shirt asked, "What is this?" He was clearly more amused than anything, as was the somewhat chubby woman with him.

Aaron said mildly, "It's a lovecock come to roost. He's standing in the flowers and eating off the bottle tree, and I guess he's waiting for a suitable mate."

Let me tell you, that guy let out a wheeze, then he bowed his head and put his hand up as if to shield his eyes, and he proceeded to laugh like only people who are really comfortable in their own skin can laugh. It was funny to me, and I started to laugh too, as did the chubby lady.

Aaron didn't stop. "This one's probably gay. Look at the blue dots on his legs. Those aren't natural, he's been to a colorist. If he had ears, he'd probably have Egyptian things hanging from them."

"Stop it, Aaron!" I pleaded. "Egyptian things?"

The couple there were in hysterics by then. Aaron didn't care, he just went on. "Yeah, like big Egyptian jewelry. You may not know this yet, but in the avian world of gay birds, Egyptian history plays a huge part."

I gasped, "Stop! Gay birds?"

Aaron's voice sounded impatient, which I was certain he was putting on, "Gay birds. Yes. Next to people, there are more gay birds than gay anythings." He started to lose it, snorting, "The lovecock, of course, is the most common species, and this is a fine example ... of ... how ... they ... paint themselves!"

BMW guy and his mate were as lost in laughter as Aaron and I, and it was a solid minute before anyone drew something like a normal breath. When I thought I was up for air, one look at Aaron had me bent over again.

It took the chubby lady to say, "Oh, that's so funny!" She looked at Aaron, "I take it you made this bird?"

Aaron snickered once again, then lowered his head, "Yeah." He chuckled, "This is my lovecock!"

The guy said, "Well, you get high marks for creativity. I think it's great!"

"Thanks," Aaron said, and he winked at me. He looked back at the couple and smiled sweetly, "Stop by anytime."

"We will," the guy chuckled. We left them to walk down to the lake, where we sat on the dock.

I tested the water with my toes, and it didn't feel nearly as cold as I expected it to be, so I rolled up the legs of my sweats and plunged my feet in. I pulled them right back out, because only the top inch or so was warm water. Deeper than that and it was like the Antarctic stuff; cold enough that it hurt.

"Cold?" Aaron asked dryly.

"Uh huh," I shuddered, tucking my legs under me. "What should we do on a crummy day?"

Aaron shrugged, "We could go back to bed."

I snickered, "See? I told you a little sex was good, and you're getting smarter already!"

Aaron giggled, "Will a lot make me a genius?"

"I don't know," I said. "It might. Then again it might addle your brain."

"We could play cards," he suggested. "I'm too young to be addled."

I looked at him and couldn't tell if he was serious or not, so I decided not. "I'll still like you when you're all addled."

I caught his straight-ahead smirk when he said, "Nice try, Ev. You want me to get premature senility so you can have your way with me whenever you like."

"What's wrong with that?" I protested.

"Nothing. Nothing at all," he said, then he turned and kissed me quickly, pushing himself to his feet. "I think my back is ready to hurt again anyhow, so you better rub it some more."

I felt a few raindrops, so it was a good time to go inside anyhow. I took Aaron's hand and we walked back together through the dampening grass. It felt good on my bare feet, and I wouldn't have minded staying out for a little longer, but the mild sprinkle was becoming more insistent by the time we got to the house, so we just went in through the front porch.

John Balls and Dean were out there with their acoustics, and they were involved enough in what they were trying that they didn't even notice us.

Grandpa was in the living room in a recliner, asleep with a book on his lap. Violet and Rakeed were in there too, both thumbing through magazines, and they greeted us, saying the others were in the kitchen.

We went there to find Chris, Billy, Paul and Mark at the table playing cards. There was more coffee made, so I poured myself a cup and watched them play for a few minutes. They were playing seriously, and I asked quietly, "What's that game?"

"Setback," Billy said without looking up. "You want to play?"

I looked at Aaron and he shook his head, so I said, "Maybe later," and we slipped out of the room. I brought my coffee upstairs with me, and Aaron turned on the radio in the bedroom. It was fairly dark, so he switched on a wall lamp that looked like a candle to begin with, and it was suddenly romantic looking in there. I put my coffee down on the dresser and turned to Aaron. We looked at each other and smiled, then I pulled him to me and we danced to the music that was playing. It sounded like a country station and I'd never heard the song, but it was nice enough. It certainly got us in the mood, and we held that mood for a long time.

We danced and kissed, then kissed and danced, then we fell into bed. When we next came up for air we were both addled; stupefied, even. It didn't seem to matter, because what we really were was more in love than when we climbed those stairs.

We stayed and cuddled until our heads cleared, then pulled on shorts and went downstairs to the bathroom. We both peed and washed up, and when we were almost back upstairs Bruce called, "Evan? You want lunch?"

"Be right there," I called, noticing that it was still gray outside, but considerably brighter than it had been.

Aaron decided that he needed a haircut when he tried to do something with his frizz, so he went by himself after lunch. He saw my reluctance to go with him and made it easy for me not to. I stayed and putzed around with the other guys. We fished off the dock for awhile, then I took a canoe out with Chris, and Mark came with us sitting in the middle. Bruce and Lee were out in one too, and they were having fun even though they didn't know what they were doing. Justin and his friends had driven off to parts unknown. Dean and John were still playing guitars, and Paul was snoozing out on the porch while he listened to them. Grandpa had headed out to buy more cheese, and Rakeed and Violet were walking along the lake.

I was about as relaxed as I'd ever been, and even Chris wasn't saying much. We didn't venture very far in the canoe, mainly because we thought Bruce and Lee would follow us, but I also wanted to see when Aaron came back.

He still wasn't there when our bottoms told us that it was time to get out of the canoe. We all made it to shore without incident and tied up the boats, then I sat with Chris on the dock. It was a good spot, because I could see Aaron's car when he was still far down the lake. I could also pick out Rakeed and Lilac way down there, and they were headed back too. I sat back and just smiled, and I sensed that Chris was as calm and relaxed as I was.

Aaron had been worried about using a new barber, but he shouldn't have. He'd left looking like some mild explosive had detonated on his head, but his hair was back to looking just the way it had when I'd met him; short and kind of fuzzy.

He'd seen us on the dock, so I stayed with Chris and waited for him. When he got close he kind of modeled his head, tilting it this way and that until I smiled my approval.

"What'd you do?" he asked when he sat beside me.

"Not a lot," I said. "We fished for awhile, then took a canoe out."

Aaron seemed interested. "Hmm, want to help me put my Hobie in? We could take it out for a ride."

"I ... okay, I guess. The water's kind of cold," I said, remembering how it came right up through the bottom of the tarp.

"That's why they invented wet suits," Aaron said, standing up.

"What about Chris?" I asked.

Aaron grinned, "Chris can come. Four of us can go!"

"Wet suits?" I asked.

Aaron nodded, "Yeah, we have more wet suits." He smirked, "One should fit Chris, maybe a little tight."

I didn't say it, but I understood the smirk because tight would be good on Chris ... very good!

It didn't take long to pull the boat to the dock, but it seemed like it might take forever to put it together. The mast was laying on the boat, and the tarp we sat on was attached. Everything else was in two big cardboard cartons, and Aaron had us humming over that dock like busy bees. We uncoiled cables, took sails out of nylon sleeves, lined up itty bitty little parts that all looked expensive, then bigger parts that looked even more expensive. Aaron was fussing with the rudder assembly and the ropes that went with that, and I started praying that a wind would come up to make it all worth our while.

Eventually, we had the mainsail up and the jib attached. There were no parts left on the dock, and the boat looked great.

Aaron stood there checking it out one more time, then he clapped his hands together and announced, "Ready!"

He went onto the pontoon boat and took out wet suits, then we went to the house to put them on. Honestly, if the day ended right then ... nay, if the world ended right then in a gigantic boom, I would have been happy.

The wet suit Chris had on was indeed tight, and the legs were short too. It was colored like a crazy quilt, and bright. Lime green went right up the insides of the legs, and that color went up both his back and front until it ended in lightning bolts with smaller, pink and yellow lightning bolts crossing the green ones. Chris was in great physical condition, and with his blond hair soft on his head he looked positively indecent in that wet suit.

Aaron had followed Chris down to the dock, and he looked a bit weak in the knees from the experience.

Chris was indifferent, looking at the boat and asking Aaron, "What do I do? Where do I sit?"

I had some suggestions, actually, but I kept them to myself, and Aaron soon had us positioned on the tarp. He untied the boat and kicked it away from the dock, then picked up a paddle and moved the boat another fifty feet offshore before he even touched anything else. Then he saddled the oar and gave Chris a quick lesson in terms, which served as a reminder to me, and then we were off.

There wasn't much breeze, but there was a smiling amount. Aaron soon had the boat skimming the length of the lake, and we were all hooting with excitement and pleasure. He turned the boat a few times so Chris would know what to do, then we went to the far end. "We'll have to tack a lot going back," Aaron explained. "That means you'll duck a lot, okay?"

Chris and I just grinned like fools, then Aaron said, "Here we go. Prepare to come about ... coming about!"

The wind never did pick up, but we did the length of the lake and back twice in about two hours and it was enough. It wasn't wild excitement like that boat could provide in a strong breeze, but it was still exhilarating. It would be less work the next time, too. Aaron took the sails down and dropped the mast, but most of the rest stayed in place.

Chris stood looking at the boat when we were all done, and Aaron and I stood looking at Chris. His butt was right there in front of us, all perfect in lime green. "I want one of these!" Chris announced. "That was awesome!" He turned around and beamed at Aaron, "You'll show me how, right?"

Aaron nodded eagerly and said, "Any time, Chris! You really liked it?"

Chris gave Aaron a memorable look, wide-eyed and positively gleeful. "Yes! I never went sailing before. I really love it!"

Aaron glanced at me, then looked back at Chris, "One day this week I'll take you out and you can try it. Sailing gets involved, but it's not really hard at all."

Chris was excited. "Thanks! Oh man, I can't wait!"

I was happy for Chris. For one thing, if he really wanted a Hobie Cat his parents could buy him one, at least a used one. Other than peace and quiet, that was the real benefit of being an only. There was just one college fund being fed, and the rest of the disposable income was up for grabs. A boat like that would suit his parents' lifestyle, too. Probably the only reason they didn't already have one was lack of exposure. They certainly liked the water, and owned a canoe and kayaks already, along with a jet ski.

Aaron and I were both jockeying to walk behind Chris on the way to the house, but it was no good because Chris caught on. He called us perverts and stood there until we were one on each side of him. Chris saw the humor in it, but he was honestly a little embarrassed, too. I suppose anyone would be, but most people weren't wearing wet suits with their perfect shapes and their blond hair. Then again, there were some other seriously good looking people staying there that I would have liked seeing in wet suits. Most of the guys, actually, except my brother. I'm sure Aaron felt the same way about Justin, too.

Bruce was a very handsome kid, and I understood that, but I also knew his personal habits, and I knew what he smelled like, and too many other things for me to think of him as anything but a brother. Brothers don't count. Well, your own brothers don't count. Justin got high marks from me and probably none from Aaron. Billy and Dean would also look more than fine in tight wet suits, and John Balls would be fearsome.

That left Lee, who had me feeling conflicted. If I didn't know him from Adam and saw him walking down the street, I'd probably walk right into a lamp post when his good looks distracted me. Knowing him though, and knowing that past of his, all I felt for Lee was empathy. The sexual attraction was zero, when it should have been right up there pegging my meter. It wasn't any kind of a problem, but more like a curiosity that I should think about someday. Lee was very good looking, and with his coloring he was good looking in a singular kind of way. He had that grin and those dimples, and I honestly think I saw him as his grandmother might. It was the dimples that I'd squeeze on Lee, and not anything else.

Speak of the devil, when we approached the house Lee was just coming around the corner from the back yard, a book in one hand and a slice of melon in the other. He stopped and gave us an odd look when he noticed us, and it was funny. I realized right away that it was our wet suits, and we must have looked like foreign creatures to him at first glance. Then his smile came out, and it crossed my mind why I liked it so much. It wasn't the dimples, nor was it his teeth, not even his apparent happiness. I wondered if anyone but me ever noticed it, but there was hope in Lee's eyes. It was the kind of hope that was already fulfilled in a lot of ways, but apparently not cemented in Lee's mind yet. It was hope that we were really friends, hope that we wouldn't hurt him or turn on him, hope that the world really could be a good place, and he could face life with friends on his side.

We all greeted him, and I said, "Hey, Lee! You gonna try sailing?"

He bit his lip hesitantly and asked, "What's it like? I kinda like motorboats."

I shrugged, "It's different. Give it a try." I looked at his hand, "Where'd you get the melon?"

He said, "In the back yard. I was just going to look for you guys."

We were found, and we headed out back. The melon was a snack, and it was a good one. There were crackers, some more of the aged cheese that Mr. Castle knew where to get, and there was a dip that was spicy and good.

"High tea," Aaron called it laughingly, and he went inside to put regular clothes on. Chris went with Aaron, but I was hungrier than I was uncomfortable, so I ate some goodies and only went inside to change after they were already back.

Dinner that night was on our own, and that meant we cooked our own hot dogs and burgers on the grill, and the only things to share were leftovers from prior meals. It was good just the same, and we hung around outside again in groups afterwards.

It was nice, and I appreciated that place even more when I realized how totally relaxed I was. There were problems in the world, I knew, but that world wasn't where I was. The biggest problem on the lake wasn't being out, nor was it watching your friends getting killed, nor was it high school gambling.

No, not problems like that. Our problems were the price of veg-tabbles in the store, wondering if Lee Erasmus would like sailing, thinking way too much about remodeling an attic that truthfully didn't need it.

There was a lovecock in the front yard nibbling on a tree whose flowers were made of plastic bottles.

I decided I could be just as content nibbling on Aaron Castle.

... continued

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