Not Always Easy
Chapter 17 - A Den Of Friends
During the week following our trip to Alton Towers there was so much going on that I must admit I didn't give much thought to James. On Sunday I spent all day with Dan and his family, and Steve stayed with us until early evening. The following day I went to Dan's house straight from school. We tried to do our homework together but found we were too distracted to get much done, so we decided to change our schedule so that in future I would do my homework, then go to Dan's house for the rest of the evening.
My time at school wasn't as enjoyable as it used to be because I regretted the fact that Dan wasn't there, and that regret turned to resentment in the evenings when homework continued to keep us apart. Despite that, Dan and I agreed that our studies were important and we made sure we did a reasonable amount of work. Seeing that we were acting responsibly, our parents didn't object when we started spending every evening together, and they allowed us to stay overnight with each other on Friday and Saturday.
We still enjoyed being with our friends, and most evenings Mike or Steve, and sometimes both joined us. John joined us less often as he was usually with either Marie or Alex. Rob had his calculus exam on the Tuesday and his last exam on the Thursday, so on Thursday night Rob, Steve, Mike, Dan and myself went out for a celebratory Indian meal together.
When Dan and I were together we often behaved a little childishly, and being with him often made me feel carefree and innocent like a little boy. Even though none of us had any alcohol that night, the atmosphere of celebration made us all feel a little light-headed. We joked and giggled like a pack of little kids, and several times we attracted disapproving glances from the other customers. However, the cute Indian youth who served us was always grinning at us and looked as if he would have liked to join in the fun. While we were waiting for our food to be brought to the table, Steve mentioned seeing Rob's mum at the DIY store where he worked. As I'd told him on Sunday that she also worked there, he'd recognised her by the nametag she wore.
"Oh," Rob said, "Mum didn't mention meeting you."
"She didn't actually meet me," Steve said, "cos I didn't go over and speak to her."
"Why not?" Rob asked with a grin. "She won't bite, ya know!"
"Well, how could I introduce myself? Our connection's a bit, erm, complicated and I think that even I'd get confused if I said 'Hello, Mrs Streeter, I'm Steve. I know your son because his friend is my best friend's boyfriend'!"
"Okay," Rob said as we all giggled. "When I get home tonight I'll just tell her to look out for you tomorrow at work because you're a friend I met through Paul."
The meal was excellent, and my happiness was increased by the presence of my closest friends. By the end of the meal it seemed to me that the members of our group had bonded even more closely, and I felt proud that Dan and I had proved to be the catalyst which had brought Mike, Steve, and Rob together. When I got home that night there was even more cause for celebration when John told me that Marie had agreed to be his girlfriend.
After I'd taken Dan home the following Sunday night, I was getting my things ready for school when John tapped on my open bedroom door. Having just said farewell to Dan, I was already feeling sad, and from the expression on John's face I could tell that what he had to say wasn't going to cheer me up.
"I've been trying to talk to James all week," he said as he sat on my bed.
"Most of the time either no one answers the phone at all or his dad answers and says James isn't home. The only time that James answered, he said he couldn't talk as he was just going out."
"Maybe he's just been busy," I suggested without really believing it.
"Nah, I don't think so. When he spoke to me he sounded panicked, and as it was after ten o'clock on a Wednesday night I doubt that he was really going out. I think he's just avoiding me."
"Perhaps he just needs more time."
I was beginning to lose hope that we could salvage our friendship with James, but I didn't want to admit that to John.
"There's something else..."
After he said that, he paused for several seconds and looked at his feet. While I waited for him to continue, I sat on the other bed so that there were just a couple of feet between us.
"About James?" I prompted.
He sighed deeply, looked at my face then looked back at his feet.
"Ya know, I realise that keeping a friend's secret is really important," he said hesitantly, "but I'm worried about James, and I wonder if what he said in the car had anything to do with something he and I promised not to tell anyone about."
There was another long pause, and his fingers began plucking at the quilt.
"Of course it's important that you don't give away secrets," I said, "but if you think that telling me something will help our friendship with James, then it should be alright. You know you can trust me not tell anyone else."
"Trouble is, I don't know if it'll help or not. And it's not just James' secret, it's my secret as well."
"Well, why don't you take more time to think about it?" I said, beginning to stand up.
"No!" he said quickly. "I've been thinking about it all week and I've already decided to tell you."
I settled back down onto the bed and waited for him to continue.
"Ya know James and I were really close friends when we were little kids," he said then took a deep breath before continuing, "and that sometimes he spent the night in my room. Well, a few times we messed around...."
"Like playing doctors?" I said with an encouraging grin. "Lots of little kids do that. Even Mike and I did that."
"Yeah, well not just when we were little kids. We did it when we could cum."
As he said that he blushed deeply, something that was very rare for John.
"Well, Mike and I sometimes used to watch one another wank," I said, also blushing. "The last time was when I was fourteen. It's just kids experimenting and it doesn't mean anything."
"We did that a few times as well," he said, then paused for several seconds before continuing. "Ya know I'm not gay, right?"
He looked into my eyes, and when he saw me nod 'yes', he looked back down to the floor before he began to speak again.
"One night I suggested we do it to one another, and he was really keen on it, so first he did me, then I did him. Then, a couple of weeks later, one afternoon when school finished, we both wanked one another at the same time. I thought it was okay and just a bit of fun, but he seemed to go weird, and as soon as we cleaned ourselves up he ran off home."
"When was that?" I asked.
"We were both twelve. It was just a week or so before his mum died."
"And it was after that he started drifting away," I mused.
My comment was intended mainly for myself, but John appeared to take it as an accusation aimed directly at him.
"I didn't make him do anything. He was even more keen than I was!" he protested with a frown. After a brief pause he added, "You don't think that made him want to stop being friends do ya?"
"I dunno," I answered honestly. "I can't see why he should react like that. Lots of boys do stuff like that and it doesn't mean they're gay or ruin their friendships."
As I was saying that last sentence, I was thinking about Steve and Dan, though of course I didn't mention that to John. We both sat in silence for a while.
"What should we do about James?" John asked eventually.
"Not much we can do really, though I s'pose you can keep trying to talk to him. At least he's not said straight out that he won't ever talk to you, so there's always hope." I paused in thought for a couple of seconds before adding, "I'll ask Mike and Dan to keep an eye out for him at school."
John just stared unhappily at the floor without responding.
"Well, I'd better get ready for bed," I continued, "and for what it's worth, I think you were right to tell me, if only to get it off your chest. There was nothing wrong with what you and James did, but I guess with his dad's religious background I can see that James might think there was."
John nodded his head and that ended our conversation. We stood up, said 'goodnight', and prepared for bed.
Over the next week Dan and I developed a routine that lasted from then until the end of term. This meant that we didn't need to spend a lot of time planning or deciding on arrangements to meet. To an outsider, having such a routine may have seemed regimented and complicated, but it developed naturally and was convenient for us. By the end of that week both sets of parents seemed to have accepted that they had acquired an extra son.
I spent Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at Dan's house, usually arriving in time for dinner. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I collected him and brought him to my house for dinner, and on Saturdays and Sundays we alternated between our two houses. On Fridays and Saturdays, the nights we slept together, we made love at least once each night, though we never went all the way to anal sex.
There were two reasons for not going 'all the way' in our sexual relationship. The first was that we wanted it to be a symbol of our total and permanent commitment to one another. Although Dan said he was prepared for such a commitment already, he was content to wait until I too felt completely ready. He appreciated the fact that I was scared of committing myself totally because he knew that once I'd done so I would consider myself irrevocably bound. The second reason for not having anal sex was that I was scared of the physical pain that I believed would accompany it, at least at first. To help allay this fear, we began to include 'stretching exercises' in our love play. Often, while performing oral sex, one of us would lube up a finger and insert it gently into the other's anus. As well as getting us used to having something put inside us, it also enabled us to find the internal 'magic spot' that increased our mutual pleasure.
As the next few weeks went by, Mike, Steve, Dan and I spent a lot of time together, and quite often Rob joined us. John was spending more and more time with Marie, though her parents kept an eagle eye on the two of them. Steve was reasonably content with his job and was becoming quite friendly with one of the girls he worked with. Mike was seeing Sally quite regularly, and though he continued to deny that it was 'serious', I had the strong impression that their relationship wasn't totally platonic.
After Rob had finished his exams, he started going to the GLYG meetings again, and on one occasion Dan and I went with him. From the way Rob looked at cute guys and made comments about them, it was clear to us that he was looking for someone to 'have fun' with. However, he was too shy to make the initial approach himself and was just hoping that one of the lads he fancied would come over and speak to him.
One Thursday, a couple of weeks after John told me that Marie was his girlfriend, he returned from her house and came straight to my room. Having just taken Dan home, I was alone and lying on my bed watching TV, though without much interest.
"Marie told me about Chris tonight," John said without any greeting or preamble.
"Oh?" I said, raising an eyebrow.
"You never told me," he said accusingly.
"It wasn't for me to say anything."
"But it's not like it's anything secret!" he protested.
"No, but it's a private family thing."
"Well, they're like family now..."
"And that's probably why Marie told ya," I interrupted.
"She also told me that apart from Rob, you're the only person to go into his room since Chris died."
I nodded 'yes' and he stood looking at me, apparently lost in thought.
"Don't you think that's weird?" he asked eventually.
"Maybe a little unusual," I said, trying to be diplomatic.
"Marie said her parents tried to get him to see a counsellor, but he refused. She also said that before Rob met you they were even thinking of trying to make him, but now they think he may be getting over it, especially since he let you into his room."
Rob had opened his heart to me, so I probably knew him better than anyone else, and I felt that he still needed professional help. I was tempted to say that, but I remained silent because I thought that breaching the deep trust that Rob had shown in me would damage him even more.
"Anyway," John said when I remained silent, "her parents think you're the best thing that ever happened to Rob."
He smiled at me, clearly proud of his big brother, and I hoped that Rob's parents were correct and that John's pride in me was justified. Blushing, I nodded my acknowledgement of the compliment, and John went off to see our parents.
For about a month after John's birthday, everything seemed to be going well and everyone, except possibly James, seemed happy. John had managed to have a couple of very brief phone conversations with him, but couldn't get to see him in person. During one call John just happened to mention my name, at which point James quickly made some excuse and hung up. On James' fifteenth birthday, John, Mike, and I, each sent him a birthday card, but none of us received any acknowledgement. Mike and Dan saw James occasionally at school, but often they didn't see him for days at a time. I was saddened to hear that not only was James 'looking rough' but that he was also spending a lot of time with a group of boys and girls who were always getting into trouble.
The Sunday preceding the last week of term marked the start of a hectic few days. John had gone to Marie's house, and Mike and his mum had joined my parents, Dan, and myself for lunch. After the meal, the adults were drinking coffee in the living room while we three teenagers were in my bedroom chatting about our plans for the long summer holidays. While we were chatting, the doorbell rang, and shortly after that Mum shouted upstairs.
"Paul! Keith's here and he wants to speak with you."
We broke off our conversation and I racked my brain trying to remember if I knew a Keith who would call round to my house. I could think of only one Keith who knew where I lived, and he was a kid who lived at the far end of our street. Puzzled, I sighed and went downstairs.
When I got down to the hallway I found that it was, in fact, the Keith I was thinking of, but that still left me wondering why he should want to see me. Keith was a nice kid, twelve years old if I remembered correctly, and he was one of the local kids who sometimes played soccer with John. For some reason it occurred to me that this cute boy, with his short brown hair and piercing grey-blue eyes, would probably grow up to be a very attractive young man.
"John's not home," I said, ignoring the fact that Mum had said that Keith wanted to speak to me.
"Yeah, yer mum said," Keith replied, looking very uncomfortable. "That's why I asked her if you were in."
He paused, and appeared to be trying to decide what to say next. Standing in the doorway, I could also see his brother Tony, who was a couple of years younger than Keith, together with another boy who looked to be about Tony's age. Somehow I got the impression this was a delegation and that Keith was their spokesman.
"Ya know James?" Keith said eventually. "That friend of John's who sometimes plays soccer with us? He's your friend as well, right?"
"Yeah, what about him?" I asked, wondering what was going on.
"Well, he's in our den and won't come out!" Keith blurted out.
"The one we built in the Little Dell," he responded with a hint of exasperation. "He won't let us in and sez he'll hit us if we don't leave him alone!"
The Little Dell, which was about fifteen minutes walk from my house, had been one of the favourite play areas for our 'Gang of Four'.
"And he smells!" piped up Tony from behind his big brother.
"Yeah, it's our den and he's stinkin' it out!" Keith said indignantly.
I was so amazed by what they were saying about James that for a moment I thought they must be talking about someone else, and I just stood in silence.
"We thought John could help us," Keith continued, "but as he's not home and you're James' friend as well, maybe you could get him to come out?"
All three boys looked at me hopefully, so I decided to see what I could do to help them.
"Okay," I said with a sigh. "Give me a minute and then you can show me where this den is."
I went back upstairs and told Dan and Mike about my conversation with Keith. Mike was as surprised and puzzled as I was, and Dan just looked concerned. They both volunteered to join me and I was grateful to have them along. I doubted that I would need them for anything more than their company because even if James threatened violence, something I found hard to believe, I could probably handle him myself.
The three of us went downstairs and followed the younger boys to the Little Dell. On such a warm summer afternoon the walk was quite pleasant, but we were all concerned about James so we didn't talk much. Maybe as an escape from my thoughts about James, or maybe just because I'm weird, I wondered idly about the name 'Little Dell'. As a very small child I just accepted the name, but as I grew older it occurred to me that I had never heard of a 'Big Dell' or any other 'Dell' for that matter, so I wondered why was this called the 'Little Dell'.
The place itself was a small wooded valley cut deeply into the surrounding land. It averaged about 50 yards in width and about 250 yards in doglegged length. While this in itself was not particularly amazing, it did stand out because it was in the middle of a relatively built-up area. There was a rather puny wire fence around the valley but there were no signs anywhere to indicate who owned the land. Local parents warned their children to keep away from it because they might get hurt, or even drowned in the small stream, but despite that it was the favourite play area of all but the most timid of the local children.
The den, which was located near the far end of the valley and close to the stream, was made from canvas placed over the trunk of a fallen tree. As we got near to it, the three younger boys held back, so I took the lead and approached the entrance. When I was close enough, I leaned over to peer inside and was immediately repulsed by the smell. It made me think of a long-unwashed tramp, and I found it difficult to believe that James could smell like that.
I crouched down, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness underneath the canvas, I could see someone curled up into a foetal position on a piece of old carpet. I recognised James' slim outline, though I couldn't see his face. He was dressed in T-shirt and dark blue jeans, and his face was buried in his arms. Despite the lack of light, I could just see that there was a backpack in the far corner of the den.
"James," I said tentatively.
There was no reply or movement, so I got on my knees and shuffled further inside where the smell was even stronger. Although it was pleasantly warm outside, the interior of the den was stiflingly hot, causing me to break out in a sweat.
"James," I repeated more loudly.
Although there was still no movement, I heard his muffled voice.
When he remained motionless with his face still hidden, I leaned over and touched his shoulder. He tried to move away when I touched him, but in the confined space of the den there was nowhere for him to go.
"Leave me alone!" he screamed.
Although his voice was muffled by his arm, it was still loud enough to get Mike and Dan to look in through the entrance at us. I may have become somewhat desensitised, so the smell didnt seem to bad to me anymore, but I could see their noses wrinkling as they detected it.
"You okay?" asked Dan.
I nodded 'yes' and waved them away. From the expression on their faces I guessed they were relieved that I hadn't asked them to come inside the hot, smelly den.
"James," I said again, trying unsuccessfully to get him to look at me.
"Why're you here?" he asked, sounding totally miserable.
"Keith came to get me."
He moved his arm away from the lower half of his face, but kept his head turned away from me.
"Okay," he said and sighed with resignation. "If you leave me alone I'll go away and let them have their den back."
"That's not why I'm here!" I protested, shocked and saddened at the hopelessness in his voice.
"Then what d'ya want?"
"We came to see if you were okay."
"Why should you care? I bet you hate me now," he said with so much misery in his voice that it made me want to cry.
"We're your friends and we'd never hate you."
"But I said such horrible things in the car."
"James, I've known you for years, ever since you were a little kid, and all that time you've been my friend and one of the nicest people I know. I don't believe that little outburst in the car shows the real James, and I'm not going to let a little thing like that wipe out years of friendship. And I'm sure John and Mike feel the same way. It'll take a lot more than that to break up the Gang of Four!"
My last words were meant to lighten the mood a little, but it didn't succeed for either of us, and I, too, felt tears begin to form when I heard his painful sobs. My hand was still on his shoulder, so I could feel his body shake with each sob, and although he'd always been small for his age, suddenly he seemed even smaller and very frail.
"If John's still my friend, why didn't he come here with you?"
"He doesn't know you're here. He's at Marie's house."
He remained silent and didn't move. Not knowing what else to do, I began to stroke his shoulder and upper arm.
"James, please look at me," I said, sniffing away my tears.
Finally, he turned to look at me and I was shocked at what I saw. Despite the semi-darkness of the den and the dirt on his tear-stained face, I could clearly see that his left eye was swollen and bruised and both his lips were cut and swollen. There also appeared to be traces of dried blood round his nostrils.
"Oh, James! What happened?" I exclaimed, sitting back on my heels.
He didn't respond, but instead he just winced as he tried to dab the tears from his nose and eyes.
"C'mon, let's get you home," I said, twisting my body to take my phone from my pocket. "I'll just phone to see if your dad's in."
"No!" he shouted as he quickly sat up. "I'm not going back there. I'm never going back there!"
There was anguish in his voice and fear in his eyes, and the implications of what he'd just said shocked me even more than his battered face.
"Did your dad do that to you?"
He didn't say anything, but from the expression on his face I knew that the answer was 'yes'. My parents never used violence, certainly not with me or with John, and the fact that a parent could inflict such injuries on their child filled me with anger.
"We'd better go to the police," I said with a trembling voice.
"No!" he yelled, his face full of panic.
He stared at me with a mixture of pleading and fear then a look of determination overlaid those emotions.
"No," he said in a softer voice, "if you tell the police anything I'll deny it and say I fell down the stairs."
From the way his face was marked, I doubted anyone would believe that he'd hurt himself in a fall. However, I could see that he felt very strongly about not involving the police, and I didn't want to cause him any further distress.
"Okay, then," I said with a sigh, "you'd better come home with me."
"I can't," he said quietly as he lay down on his back, turning his face away from me.
""Why not?" I asked, feeling a little exasperated.
"Because of what I said about queers. I don't deserve your help," he stated as if it was a matter of unquestionable fact.
"You're our friend!" I protested, my voice cracking with emotion. "You don't have to deserve help from your friends."
There was no response, apart from a renewed outburst of sobs, and he didn't move. Even if I could have dragged him out, I knew it wouldn't have been the right thing to do. So I did the only thing I could think of, I lay down next to him, put an arm over his chest, and hugged him. His sobs grew louder and his whole body was shaking, so I just held onto him, waiting for him to recover. We stayed like that for what seemed a long time, and at one point Dan looked in to see what was going on. His eyes widened at first when he saw the two of us lying there, but then I blew him a silent kiss and he smiled before withdrawing. Gradually, James' sobs died away.
"I wouldn't have said anything if I'd known about you," he said eventually.
"I know," I said soothingly.
Then I thought of something, and although I didn't want to upset him again, my curiosity made me ask the question out loud.
"But why did you make such a big deal about it, especially after I told you I'm gay?"
His body became rigid and there was no answer for a while. Just as I was beginning to curse myself for asking such an insensitive question, he spoke.
"Cos I wasn't sure if you were testing me and I didn't think the other's, especially Alex, would accept you being que... gay. I didn't want anyone to think I was gay. "
"Testing you?" I asked, puzzled. "And would it be so terrible if they thought you were gay?"
"I thought maybe you were pretending to be gay to trap me into saying something. And I thought it could've been terrible cos... cos... I think I am gay..."
As he said this, his voice faded away until the last word was barely audible. For a few moments I was stunned into silence.
"Well," I said eventually, "now you can see from how they treat me that your friends don't mind if you're gay or not."
"No," he whispered, "but my dad does."
I couldn't think of any response to that, so we lay together for a few more minutes as the tension gradually drained from his body. I could hear Mike and Dan talking quietly outside, and although I couldn't hear their words, I could tell they were getting impatient.
"Let's go back to my house," I said, "and we'll get you cleaned up."
Of all the responses that he could have given, I would not have predicted the one he actually gave.
"Yeah," he giggled, "I do stink a bit, don't I?"
Leaving the den, I noticed that Keith, Tony and their young friend had gone, probably because they'd become bored while waiting for us. We walked back to my house with James between Mike and me, while Dan, who'd volunteered to carry James' backpack, was by my side. James was silent during the whole journey, and the rest of us didn't speak much, either. When we got back home, I escorted James directly to the shower while Dan and Mike went to tell my parents what was going on. As soon as I left James in the bathroom with fresh towels, I went downstairs to join the others in the living room. Dad was in his favourite armchair, Mum was next to Mike's mum on the sofa, while Mike and Dan stood in the doorway. As I entered the room, Dan moved close to me and placed his arm firmly but discreetly round my waist.
"Rescuing more strays, I see!" Mum said with a smile as I entered the room.
"Sorry I didn't consult you first, but I couldn't think of anything else to do."
"Don't be silly!" she responded. "There's nothing to apologise for, especially as James is part of the family. But what on earth's been going on? Mike and Dan don't seem to have any idea."
I was sure that James wouldn't want me to announce the details of our talk to everyone, so I looked around the room, wondering what to say. After a few seconds I decided to say as little as possible.
"Well, I'm still not sure exactly. What I do know is that he's had a row with his dad and can't go home, at least not immediately."
"Oh no! Not James as well!" Mum exclaimed enigmatically. "Is he alright?"
As I'd taken him straight up to the shower, our parents hadn't seen his injuries, and it occurred to me that if they had they might have insisted on calling the police. Knowing James' feelings about that, I hoped that he'd look better by the time he came downstairs.
"Well, he's a bit battered and bruised," I replied, "but nothing serious, and he'll be much better once he's showered and cleaned up."
"So will you," said Dan as he sniffed at my shoulder. "You're a bit stinky yourself!"
I blushed and looked indignantly at him, trying to think of a suitable retort. However, he just smiled, squeezed my waist, and pulled me closer to him, making it clear that he wanted to be close to me even if I did smell.
"Well James is welcome to stay here as long as he needs to," Mum said. After a pause for thought, she added, "When did he last eat? How long has he been camping out?"
"I don't know, Mum," I said with a sigh. "I never got around to asking him for all the details."
"In that case," she said, "as soon as he's finished his shower we'll give him something to eat and then find out what's happened to him."
"In the meantime," Dad said as he stood up, "I'd better phone James' dad to let him know where he is."
Mum went to the kitchen to prepare soup and sandwiches while Dad went to make the phone call. The rest of us followed Mum, ostensibly to see if she needed help but really just to keep her company, and we all chatted for a couple of minutes until Dad came into the kitchen. From the expression on his red face, I could tell he was furious. I'd never seen him so angry, and his voice shook when he spoke.
"That bastard!" he said, almost shouting the words.
All of us, except Dan, who hadn't known my father long, stared at him in shock. I'd never known my father to use strong language, and for him the word 'bastard', at least when spoken in that tone of voice, was definitely strong language.
"That bastard," he continued more quietly, "just told me that James deserved what he got and that he'd do the same again if he tried to come back..."
"But James is his son!" Mike's mum interrupted.
"He said he didn't have any sons," Dad said as he looked at her, "that the devil had taken them both away."
"So it's just like what happened with Tim?" Mum asked Dad.
"Well, he didn't say why he'd thrown James out of the house..."
"But at least Tim wasn't a child!" Mum interrupted.
"What happened with Tim?" I asked, puzzled and a little frustrated.
Mum and Dad looked at one another, then at me.
"When Tim was 20, he got a girl pregnant," Mum said, "and even though they were planning to get married, it didn't matter to his dad, who beat him up and threw him out of the house. Tim and his girlfriend moved down to London and got married, but even after that his dad refused to have anything to do with them or the baby."
"What about Tim's mum," I asked. "Didn't she stay in touch with him?"
"I don't know," Mum replied. "If she did, she wouldn't have dared to let her husband find out."
We were all silent for a few seconds, and I was still considering the situation when James called my name from the top of the stairs. Dan and I went upstairs together and found James with a towel round his waist, looking embarrassed and uncertain. His arms and his smooth, almost skinny chest were marked with bruises, but his face no longer looked quite so bad.
He seemed even more embarrassed when he saw that Dan had accompanied me, and I wondered if, like me, Dan was admiring James' well-defined abdominal muscles. It suddenly occurred to me that I'd never properly introduced Dan to James.
"Oh, James, I'm sorry it slipped my mind before. This is Dan, my boyfriend."
The two of them nodded at one another, and James looked rather uncomfortable.
"Erm, Paul," James said apologetically, "the clothes in my backpack are dirty and I don't have anything clean to wear."
"No problem," I said with a smile. "Just go to John's room and I'm sure you can find something to fit you."
"Won't he mind?" James asked hesitantly.
"Of course not," I reassured him. Then, to lighten the mood, I grinned and added, "Unless you want to come down to eat dressed like that?"
He blushed and went into John's room.
"Why don't you have a quick shower while he gets dressed," Dan suggested. "I'll make sure he's okay."
"I smell that bad, eh?" I asked.
Dan just nodded and smiled, so I pecked him on the cheek and went to have a shower.
When I'd showered and quickly dressed in fresh clothes, I went downstairs to find Dan, James, and Mum sitting at the kitchen table. As I entered the room, Dan gave me a huge grin and James smiled shyly at me. Both were eating sandwiches and soup while Mum sipped a cup of tea.
"You hungry, Paul?" Mum asked.
"No, thanks, but I'd love some tea."
When I sat down opposite Dan, Mum, got up to make us some fresh tea, and as she often does, seemed to read my mind.
"Mike and his mum have gone home, and your dad's got a headache, so he took a couple of aspirins and went to lie down."
I guessed that the headache had been brought on by what had obviously been a stressful phone conversation with James' dad, but I didn't want to speculate aloud in front of James.
"Not eating again, are ya?" I teased Dan.
"Hey, it's almost four hours since lunch!" he responded with a grin.
"Leave him alone," Mum said with a smile. "He's a growing boy."
"So there!" Dan said, sticking his tongue out at me.
The childlike delight that Dan and I had in one another's presence made us behave like kids, and we both giggled. Even though his lips were sore, James managed a smile, and Mum made a 'tut-tut' sound.
"How're you feeling now?" I asked, turning toward James.
"Much better, thanks," he replied before taking a huge gulp of orange juice.
"He's not had anything to eat since Friday afternoon," Mum said with a frown.
"So what's happened since then?" I blurted out.
As usual I'd spoken without thinking first. Dan kicked my shin under the table and James blushed, stopped eating, and looked down at his plate.
"Paul!" Mum scolded. "Don't badger the poor boy while he's eating!"
"James," she said, looking at him and speaking in much gentler voice, "just ignore him and concentrate on your food."
"Yeah, sorry James," I said blushing. "I guess you've got a lot of eating to catch up on."
James gave Mum a grateful look and picked up a sandwich, but for the next few minutes he avoided looking directly into my eyes. Mum placed a mug of tea in front of me then took a second mug upstairs to my dad. When she'd left the room, James cast a quick, sidelong glance at Dan and leaned nearer to me.
"Did you tell them about... about me?" he said in a very low voice.
Dan looked at us both, then smiled and stood up.
"I think there's a program on TV that I wanted to watch," he said. "Is it okay if I go and watch it in you room?"
"Sure," I replied, smiling and marvelling at his sensitivity.
James' face wore a slightly guilty expression as Dan went to the doorway. However, his expression lightened when Dan turned, grinned, and winked theatrically at both of us before leaving the room.
"No," I said, smiling at James, "I've not told anyone about anything you said in the den, not even Dan."
"Thanks," he said as he looked into my eyes for the first time in several minutes.
"You know my dad phoned your dad?" I asked.
He nodded 'yes' and frowned slightly.
"Well," I continued, "he didn't tell my dad why he threw you out. Actually, I'm still not sure I know why he did. Is it really because you're gay?"
James hesitated then nodded ''yes' again.
"Well, I won't tell anyone unless you say it's okay," I continued, "but I know for certain that Mum, Dad, John, Mike and his mum will all accept you no matter what. Look how they treat me and how nice they are to Dan."
James frowned and didn't speak for a couple minutes, giving me the impression that he was wrestling with his thoughts.
"The thing is," he said with a huge sigh, "I'm not really sure that I am... gay, that is."
"Oh!" I said, raising my eyebrows. "Well, do you fancy boys or girls?"
"Both," he replied as he blushed and looked down at his empty plate.
"And do you feel you could, erm, fall in love with a boy, or a girl?"
"Dunno. I've only ever been in love with one person."
"It was a boy," he said after a brief pause.
From his tone of voice and his whole body language, including the way he deliberately looked away from me, it was clear to me that he had no intention of telling me who the boy was. I didn't want to put him under any pressure, so we both sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
"Look," I said, "you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, but whatever you tell me won't go any further unless you specifically tell me it's okay. Do you trust me?"
He nodded 'yes' and gave his unique little shy smile.
"Well, I have some questions then, and they're not just because I'm curious either. You see, the more I know about your situation, the more I might be able to help, but I'll understand if you don't want to answer me, though, okay?"
"Okay," he said a little hesitantly.
"First, were you thrown out on Friday night?"
"Well, early Saturday morning, really."
"And you stayed in the den all the time since then?"
"No, at first I wandered around for awhile, then I slept on a bench in Hayden Park till dawn. But that wasn't very comfortable, and I knew I'd need somewhere more sheltered if it rained. Then I remembered seeing the kids' den last time I was at the Little Dell."
"You must have known you couldn't stay there forever. Did you have any long-term plans?"
"Well, I thought I'd go to London and maybe try to find Tim," he said uncertainly.
"Don't you have his address?"
"No," he said with a sad sigh. "I think Mum might have had it, but Dad would've got rid of it after she died."
"I wish you'd come here or to Mike's house."
He frowned even more and looked at me as if I had said something totally stupid or as if I had gone mad.
"You've got to be joking, right?" he said, studying my face as if trying to read my mind.
"No," I said, feeling a little hurt that he should doubt my sincerity. "How could you think we wouldn't give you somewhere to stay?"
He looked anxiously into my eyes but he didn't respond. Despite what I 'd told him in the den, he still seemed to think that I could no longer be his friend. I was amazed and saddened that he should think that one argument could end years of friendship.
"I really can't believe that you thought a few angry words in the car could break up the Gang of Four," I said, feeling a little frustrated.
"But the 'Gang of Four' hasn't existed since my mum died..."
"Well, we didn't break it up!" I interrupted, still feeling a little hurt.
He looked at me, startled, and I immediately regretted what I'd said.
"I'm sorry," I added in my most soothing voice. "I didn't mean it like that. What I meant was that we were sad when you didn't seem interested in being part of it anymore... Why did you stop coming round?"
"I don't want to talk about that," he said firmly. "But, anyway, even if you still wanted to be friends, well, I was ashamed of myself and couldn't bear to face you all."
He fixed his gaze onto the tabletop and tears began to flow down his bruised cheeks as he began to cry silently. Seeing him like that brought a lump to my throat, and my own eyes began to water. I reached out to hold his hand, which was resting next to his plate. At first he tensed, and I thought he'd pull away, but then he relaxed, so I gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
"You were just scared and you couldn't help the way you reacted," I said. "We all do things we're ashamed of sometimes, especially when we're scared, but I'm sure my friends will stick by me when I do something I'm ashamed of."
He looked up at me, sniffed, and tried to smile through his damaged lips. I squeezed his hand again, then with my other hand I picked up one of the spare paper napkins from the table and gently dabbed the tears from his cheeks.
"So you really forgive me?" he asked, his voice hoarse with emotion.
"As far as I'm concerned there's nothing to forgive, but if you think there is, then of course I forgive you."
"Dad doesn't believe in forgiveness," he said bitterly, "at least not without lots of penance. And he'd never forgive bringing shame on his family name... like Tim did."
"Do you really think what Tim did was so shameful?"
"Well, Dad kept saying it was, and how bad it was to have sex before marriage. I thought he'd forgive Tim after he got married, but he didn't. And he'd never forgive me for being queer!"
"Don't call yourself that, at least not in that tone of voice!" I said irritably. Then in a more soothing tone I added, "Anyway, from what you say, you're probably bisexual, but you're only just fifteen so you shouldn't get too stuck on labels."
"Whatever," he said, sounding disinterested and depressed.
There was another pause in the conversation, and again it seemed that James was going through some sort of internal struggle.
"There's another reason that I didn't think anyone would let me stay with them," he said hesitantly, and after a pause, he added, "Are you sure my dad didn't say anything about me to your dad?"
"Well, I guess he said quite a bit, but he never said anything about you being gay or whatever. And there's nothing he could've said that would stop us letting you stay here."
"What if he said I did drugs?" he said, giving me a challenging look.
"Do you?" I asked in surprise.
"No, but what if my dad said I did?"
"Then we'd all believe you and not him," I said with absolute certainty. "And even if you did do drugs, you could stay here as long as you didn't bring any into the house."
Of course, I'd never discussed that particular possibility with my parents, but after more than seventeen years living with them, I knew that they would agree with what I'd just told him. They would never abandon any child to live on the streets, much less a kid like James who, over the years, had become a member of our family.
"Why would your dad say you were into drugs?" I asked, giving way to my curiosity.
"He said he wanted to make sure that no decent person would let me into their home."
The neutral tone of his reply gave the impression that he thought there was nothing unusual, or even particularly bad, about his father's vindictive threat. However, the thought of anyone treating his child like that made my blood boil. I was angrier than I could ever remember, and although I'd never really hated anyone before, at that moment I hated James' father. For a couple of minutes my emotions prevented me from speaking, and as I brought my feelings back under control, I saw an expression of pain on James' face. Then I realised that I'd been gripping his hand so tightly that it must have been hurting him, yet he hadn't moved or complained.
"Sorry," I said sheepishly as I relaxed my grip.
"S'okay," he said with a small smile. "I feel like that sometimes as well."
Just as I was about to ask him how his dad had found out he wasn't straight, and why he might have threatened to spread that particular lie about him doing drugs, my thoughts were interrupted by Dan clearing his throat.
"Sorry to interrupt you two," Dan said with a smile as he came into the room, "but I should be getting home."
I was surprised to see it was almost nine o'clock and felt guilty that I'd been neglecting Dan so much since lunchtime.
"Oh, Dan," I said contritely as I stood up, "I'm sorry. I hadn't realised we'd been talking for so long!"
"Yeah," James added, equally contrite and with a hint of fear, "I'm sorry I kept Paul away from you all this time. I didn't mean to, honest!"
"Hey, no problem!" Dan said as he walked over to me and threw his arm over my shoulder. "School tomorrow, so I just have to go. Shall I phone home and ask them to pick me up?"
"No, of course not. I'll take you," I said, feeling even more guilty that Dan should consider asking his parents to collect him.
"You sure?" Dan asked.
I felt a bit guilty at leaving James, who seemed to have collapsed into himself on the chair, but I knew that he'd be safe with my parents, and I desperately needed to be with Dan. Leaving the two of them in friendly silence, I went upstairs to my parents' bedroom, and when I tapped on the door Mum came out.
"Shh," she said, putting a finger to her lips. "Your dad's asleep."
"Sorry," I whispered. "I just came to let you know that I'm taking Dan home."
"Okay," Mum said and smiled. "I'll keep my eye on James, and the Streeters will be bringing John home soon anyway."
"Oh!" I said, suddenly remembering. "Has anyone told John yet?"
"Don't worry, I phoned him a few minutes ago, so he won't be surprised when he gets back. He was going to come straight home, but I told him you had everything under control and we didn't want to overwhelm James with too many people all at once."
"Thanks, Mum," I said and kissed her on the cheek.
"What for?" she asked, startled.
I didn't answer her question, but instead just gave her a big cheesy grin.
"See you in about an hour," I said, and turned to go downstairs.
Back in the kitchen I found Dan and James chatting quietly, but they stopped speaking and both looked at me as I stood in the doorway.
"Okay, James," I said, "make yourself at home. Help yourself to food and drinks, and Mum will be down in a minute, so you can ask her if you need anything. Feel free to go up to my room and watch TV or listen to the stereo if you want. John will be home soon, and I won't be long, but is there anything you need before I go?"
As Dan and I were leaving the room, James spoke up again.
"Oh, Paul, thanks for everything," he said, then with a little smile he added, "And Dan, thanks for letting me borrow your boyfriend all evening."
"No problem!" Dan said with a grin.
"And one more thing," James added, looking at me and blushing. "You can tell Dan anything you like about me, cos I trust you both."
When I stopped the car outside Dan's house at about nine thirty, I turned off the engine because I expected him to invite me in for a goodnight cuddle. However, he just leaned over and gave me one of his special kisses, with his tongue caressing my lips.
"See you here for dinner tomorrow?" he asked as he stroked my cheek.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" I asked, disappointed.
"Do you have time? It's school tomorrow."
"Well, it's only nine thirty."
"But you have a guest to look after."
"There's Mum, Dad, and John to look after him, so can't I come in for a cuddle and a kiss?" I pleaded in my most pathetic voice.
"Well," he said grinning, "I s'pose we can have a half hour."
"Goody!" I said with childlike glee, and I was out of the car almost before he'd finished speaking.
We went indoors, and after a quick greeting to his parents, he told them we were going up to his room 'to say a proper goodnight'. His mother smiled and his father raised an eyebrow, but we were upstairs before they could make any other response. As soon as we closed the door behind us, I pulled him into my arms and gave him a deep, passionate kiss.
"I've been dying for that since lunch time!" I said when I came up to breathe.
"So've I!" he replied, and pulled me down onto his bed.
For the next half hour or so we rolled around on the bed, kissing, cuddling, hugging, and stroking one another in an effort to make up for lost time. Finally, I realised that if I didn't leave soon, I would probably not be able to leave for a long time.
"I think I'd better go," I said regretfully as I lay on top of him, gazing into his beautiful deep brown eyes.
He nodded and kissed the tip of my nose.
"Will you come over after doing your homework tomorrow?"
"Yes, of course," I responded, surprised that he should ask. "And as it's the last week of term, with a bit of luck I won't have much homework. Anyway, I always come round on Mondays, so why do you ask?"
"Well, someone should look after James. He's very sweet and he's hurting a lot inside."
"And you're very sweet to think of him when you hardly know him. But don't worry, he's got Mike and his Mum as well as me and my family."
"He needs someone he can talk to," he said very seriously. "And someone should give him a hug soon."
"You were just talking to him, so why didn't you give him a hug?" I joked.
He frowned at me and shook his head, then gave me a hug and whispered in my ear.
"Paul, Paul," he said with an exasperated sigh, "I love you more than anything in the world, but sometimes you can be a bit, erm, insensitive. James needs a family at the moment. I can be his friend, but it'll be a long time before I can be like his family. Mike and your family are already close to him, but you're the only gay person he really knows. You're the only one he can really talk to."
"You were just talking to him!" I said breezily and lifted myself up to kiss his cheeks.
I was still trying to lighten the conversation because, quite honestly, I was scared of the sense of responsibility that Dan was trying to lay on me. James was like a brother, but I was concerned by the idea that he might be relying mostly on me. Besides that, I'm ashamed to admit that there was an even more selfish consideration. My time with Dan was very precious to me, and I didn't want too much of that time to be taken up by James.
"James and I were just chatting," Dan said, interrupting my thoughts. "Mostly about you and how I met you. That's not the same as really talking."
He gazed into my eyes for a couple of seconds before he continued speaking.
"Don't worry," he said, "there will still be plenty of time for you and me, and I'll always be there to give my support."
I was startled because he seemed to have read my thoughts, but then it occurred to me that maybe he'd merely seen my worried frown. Whatever the case, I became concerned that not only did it seem that Mum could sometimes read my mind, but my boyfriend could as well. However, I was comforted by the knowledge that I could trust him not to use those skills against me.
"Did I ever tell you how wonderful you are?" I asked with a smile before kissing his forehead.
"Quite often, actually," he said with a grin, "but I don't mind you repeating yourself."
"Okay," I sighed. "I'll make sure that I'm there for him and that he knows he can talk to me."
"And don't forget the hugs!"
"Well, we're not really a very 'huggy' family," I said, feeling a bit uncomfortable.
"You hug me a lot."
"Yes, but I'm madly in love with you!" I said, pointing out the obvious.
"And you've had lots of practice hugging me. Try hugging James. He needs it and hasn't had enough of it in his life."
"How come you seem to know him better than I do?" I asked in wonderment.
"Maybe I just see him with a fresh eye, just how he is now and not through layers of earlier experiences."
"Anyway," I teased after a few seconds of thought, "won't you be jealous of me hugging someone else?"
"Of course not. I trust you completely," he said confidently. Then, joking, he added, "And it's not as if you've got a limited supply of hugs that you have to ration."
After exchanging a few more kisses, I reluctantly left him, and as I drove home my thoughts wandered back to the conversation I'd had with Steve on Summer Hill. What Steve had said was certainly true. Being loved by Dan is a wonderful gift and a great responsibility.
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