Jay & Miles

by ColumbusGuy

Chapter 24

Building Friendships

POV: Jay, Jay, Jay, Greg

"Tak for mad, " Denny said when he laid down his fork for the last time…he'd enjoyed the meal a great deal, though I saw he was still a bit shy about joining in the conversation over the table. Mor and far smiled and both said "Velbekomme ," as they'd done the first time Mikey came to dinner on Saturday. A lot of joking had gone on since the steaks had been left until nearly the last minute before far remembered that was what we were having for dinner, and we were stuck with store-bought steak sauce rather than the marinade that usually went with them. We deliberately didn't talk about the 'fight' or Linda breaking up with Bob Thomas.

When I wasn't devoting my attention to Mikey, I kept an eye on her—and on Denny. I knew she'd liked Bobby a lot, and I hoped she would find someone else quickly, but with less than two months left in the semester, she probably wouldn't try. Going to OSU in September would open up a whole new crop of boys for her to look over. Yeah, she'd told Bobby they'd talk if he stopped hanging out with Timmy Zane—but I knew her—and it wouldn't be the same if they got back together: she'd be more guarded about things, not quite willing to open up to him again, so I was pretty sure it wouldn't last even if it did happen.

Denny was fairly quiet as we ate, and I got the impression that that was normal for him; he answered questions about himself and his family—it had been his great-grandfather who was the local doctor—the first in the area—and the man our high school was named after. His grandfather had also been a doctor, but his dad was in business in Columbus, and his mother spent time working with several charities and women's clubs. Sending him to school in Maine was a tradition for them, though his mom had argued against it. She won enough of the argument to have him attend only after the 6th Grade rather than earlier. From the car he drove and his clothes, I assumed he lived in the rich subdivision on the north edge of town, but he didn't—they lived in one of the few old brick houses built around the middle of the last century located east of town. Hell, it even had a name—Dderwencelliwhich meant something like Oak Wood in Welsh. Even with all that, Denny didn't act like the other kids in school who came from money; I could tell he was a good guy despite his shyness and would never look down on anyone else.

Mor started to get up, but I pulled Mikey up as I grabbed our plates, and carried them over to the sink, then we started making the rounds taking plates and silverware and adding them to the stack beginning to soak in the sudsy water. I suppose they saw us share a peck on the cheek or two, but I didn't care, and I even thought it was cute to see my boy turn red. After putting the leftovers in Tupperware containers in the fridge, I began to wonder about dessert—I knew from the earlier scrounging that there wasn't anything made, but my parents knew me too well. "There's ice cream in the freezer,"Mor said with a laugh. When I opened the door, I got a huge smile on my face—she'd gotten my favorite, vanilla-orange—and chocolate for Mikey. Armed with the metal scoop, I turned to see what everybody wanted: Linda and Denny opted for the vanilla-orange, and my parents always had chocolate, so I served two scoops of each in the dessert bowls while Mikey handed out spoons. When I looked at him, I saw a pained expression on his face. "What's wrong, elskede? I know you want chocolate…."

"That's just it—I like both.…" He looked even more worried, and it finally hit me—he didn't want to appear greedy by asking for some of each. I gave him a little grin and picked up the scoop to put one of each in his dish, but he stopped me. "I'm sorry, but that will make them be all together when they melt." I felt bad for making him uncomfortable, if I hadn't offered him a choice he'd have been fine, but the solution was easy enough to fix. As I put one scoop of chocolate in his dish, I thought back to other times I'd seen him eat, and it dawned on me that he rarely mixed his food together; each had to be separated on his plate, and he'd take bites of each in turn rather than pick up two different kinds at the same time. The only exception I could recall was mashed potatoes and gravy. "You worry about the weirdest things—thinking I'd be upset with you over this…" I put three scoops of vanilla-orange in my bowl and put the two containers back in the freezer before sitting down to eat. I put my dish between us and took a bite, then took another spoon-full and held it up to Mikey's lips. He took it, staring into my eyes the whole time, and I leaned over to kiss him. Fairly quickly, we were nearing the end of our treat, and Linda shook her head.

"That's just…"

"Beautiful?" Denny said with a grin. That gave me hope that our new friend was a romantic at heart, and that would make our task for 'Operation Boyfriend' easier. Before I could get too wrapped up in that thought, the spell was broken by Linda's snort.

"I was going to say sick— but why shouldn't you guys do what other couples do—as long as it's here and not at school." She stood to put her dish in the sink, then put a hand on Denny's shoulder. His face betrayed the surprised expression it held when he looked up at her. "I'm giving you a job to do, Denny…keep an eye on the two Romeos over there—try not to let them do anything too sappy at school, okay?"

Denny nodded to her and gave us an example of his laugh—it was nice and I hoped he'd do it more often. "Why do I get the feeling it's going to be a full-time job?" The rest of us joined him, then mor gathered up the dessert things and shooed us upstairs to do homework.

"Quit it."

"You quit it—you started it.

"I did not—all I did was stretch my legs to get more comfortable; I can't help it if I bumped yours."

Mikey's retort would have been more believable if he hadn't been rubbing his calf against mine for the last ten minutes, and his 'stretch' hadn't ended up with his leg resting between mine. Not that I minded, but it was distracting me from my reading for American History. I had read the same section three times now and didn't remember any of it. We had been in my room for an hour, Denny sitting at my desk, and me and Mikey side by side on the bed, books open between our elbows, which were propping up our heads. To counter the movements of his leg, I'd begun to jostle his left arm, which was right next to my shoulder. "Mikey, we have to get serious…if our grades slip we won't be allowed to study together any more."

Studying with Mikey and Denny was a whole new experience for me—I'd never had anyone to do homework with other than in study halls, but this was nothing like that: Denny could have been one of those kids I was familiar with, but not Mikey. Denny worked on his subjects quietly, scribbling notes as he read the assignments, or filling in the homework sheets—only once did he ask for help, and that was in Algebra. "Guys, what did you get for number 14? I worked it twice and came up with a different answer each time…why are you laughing, Jay?"

I pointed to my boyfriend lying on the bed next to me; his face had gone pale and he looked like he was going to be sick. I swear I almost expected him to turn green any minute or start spouting a string of profanity. "Somebody hated Algebra so much he begged Mrs. Blair to transfer him out…"

I winced when Mikey punched me in the arm and gave me a shove. "I did not! She asked me if I wanted to do it so I wouldn't lose all the credit for the class—I can't help it if math freaks me out, and that the only other course open was Poetry."

I gave him my 'evil' grin, and leaned in to kiss him, then pulled back to whisper in his ear. "Yes, I know how much you hate poetry—I could tell by the one you wrote for me Saturday." His blush was just as I thought it would be, starting slow but moving rapidly to his cheeks. I don't think he knew it, but that poem was now in my desk drawer waiting to be framed so it could take pride of place on my wall above my desk. That way I could look at it every night before I went to sleep. I thought of making a frame for it, but I remembered that there were some old ones up in the attic I could go through. "I had inspiration," he replied softly, then went on in a louder voice so Denny could hear too. "I'm going to get something to drink so you guys can talk Algebra. Want me to bring something back?"

"I'm cool, kæreste." Denny also said he was fine, so I watched Mikey as he wriggled off the bed and out the door. Although I'd been with him naked now, there was just something about seeing him clothed that gave me an instant hard-on—not that I didn't get one when he was naked—but it was the anticipation that really got my imagination fired up. I tried being subtle as I lifted up slightly to readjust myself, but I heard Denny chuckle as he handed me his math paper. "Number 14? I can't figure out where I goofed." I gave him a grin and took his paper, and in just a few seconds, I saw where he went wrong—he left out a step. I pointed it out to him, but then spent about ten minutes showing him the whole process, and he was fine now. Mrs. Blair was an experienced teacher, and a nice lady, but sometimes she went a little fast in her demonstrations—I had the feeling that was what had given Mikey problems since he wasn't stupid by a long shot.

"So, are you done with all your homework? I just have to go over my notes for Lit." I groaned at thinking of our assignment and told him that was my last bit too, but I didn't know what she wanted us to do. Since I knew Mikey was the word guru, I suggested we go find him and see what he thought. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he wouldn't come back up until anything math-related was safely locked away. Heading down the back stairs, Denny and I detoured into the kitchen for tea, and then we went to the living room where the television was playing Match Game '76 . Mikey was laughing at some of the answers the panelists gave, and Linda was reading on the couch. When I asked, Linda said that our parents had gone for a drive. I plopped down next to my boyfriend on the second couch, and Denny took up a spot on the floor next to us.

"It's safe to come up now, the evil Algebra monster has been caged…now we're trying to figure out that Lit assignment from Mrs. Wilson." Mikey looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "I don't know what she wants us to do…' discuss the social impact of the media in the modern world '…that could mean anything—it's just words to me."

"Is that her big year-end project, due in three weeks?" Linda's question surprised us all since we thought she was absorbed in reading her book, but she'd obviously been keeping tabs on us. When she saw us all nod, she laughed. "You guys are dumb—that's one of the easiest things she can ask you to do—it can be about anything at all: a film, a book, a newspaper article…just show how it affects people today."

"That's it?" Denny asked, probably thinking that this was a different assignment than what was used before…I guess he wasn't used to rural schools where lesson plans rarely changed from year to year. It was only when a new teacher started, or a new text was used, that things could get more interesting. For proof, I only had to look at Mikey in our Art class—he had the same teacher as his oldest sister from ten years earlier, and the first thing she asked him was if he could paint like her.

Linda laughed again, but not in a mean way at his confusion. "Definitely. I did mine on the movie Sleeper by Woody Allen, how it showed the growing gap between people and technology and the classic abuse of power by big government. I think Jerry did his on Bored of the Rings , the parody of Tolkien's books, though I'm not sure what his point was in doing that."

"Dammit," Mikey growled, "I was gonna do that book. Now I have to find another topic." Denny laughed and shook his head. "You and me both, Mikey." I watched my boyfriend and new friend exchange grins, and then Mikey said, barely holding back his giggles, "What has it got in its pocketses?"

A loaded 38! " Denny howled, and they both looked at each other and said, "It's a pity I've run out of bullets! " When they finally noticed I wasn't joining in, I saw both of them staring open-mouthed and incredulous. "Don't tell us you haven't read it?"

"Jeez, I'm sorry…Jerry went and had all his books shipped to him once he got to his posting in San Francisco. I was reading Mad Magazine and Magnus Robot Fighter two years ago." I felt bad when Denny's face fell, I hadn't meant for him to take me seriously; I forgot that he didn't know me well enough yet to figure out when I was joking with people, like Mikey could. "Maybe you can loan it to me so I can catch up?"

"Sure—I'll bring it tomorrow. It's my second copy, so you can keep it." As we went back upstairs, talking about the English assignment, Mikey gave me a peck on the cheek. "You're nice, that's one of the reasons I like you," he whispered. Seeing my look of confusion, he added, "You always try to find ways for people to fit in."

Back in my room, we decided it would take more time to come up with a topic for English Lit, so we put our books away and Denny said he should take off. We walked him out to his car and he showed us the engine—the first I'd seen mounted in the back except for in a Volkswagen—and he promised us a ride with the top down when the weather got warm enough. "So, same time tomorrow?" I asked.

Denny stopped and turned to face us after his pack landed in the passenger seat. "Huh? You want me to come back? I thought this was a one-time deal?" He fumbled with the crank for his window and started rolling it down. When he looked up again, his voice was quiet. "I don't want to intrude on your time with Mikey…"What was it with all the blushing around here—it was like everything had a dirty meaning or something.

"Look, doofus, Operation Boyfriend won't work unless we know all about you. How can we do that just over lunch? Me and Mikey like you, and that means we spend time with you when we can, so you better get used to it." I gave him a squeeze on his shoulder, letting my fingers knead the muscles bunched there for a few seconds. "Besides, I don't have to get Mr. Foxy here home until 10:30, so that gives us plenty of time to do shit."

Mikey cut off his next words by walking over to Denny and ruffling his sandy curls. "Never you mind, Denny…unless you have other plans, count on studying with us. Once Jay has an idea, it takes root in his head and you just have to give up. We'll see you at lunch tomorrow…now get lost so I can make out with my guy for a while!"

Denny was laughing as he got into his car and closed the door. After a few seconds his engine roared to life and he revved it a few times to keep it going, but I think it was really just to show off his baby. I leaned against Mikey as we watched him disappear up the drive and turn onto the gravel road. With one arm around his waist, I let my other hand find its way under his polo shirt and the smooth skin beneath.

"Make out, huh?" My grin got wider when he placed his right hand on the growing bulge in my jeans and gave it a little caress.

"Got a problem with that, elskede ?" I found out just how hard it could be for two people to walk with their arms around each other as we headed upstairs again, but I decided it was a skill well worth learning. We were worn out from the tension of the day's events at school, and just lay together cuddling and caressing until it was time to take Mikey home. I got used to an occasional twinge from my lip as I kissed his stomach to make his bruise feel better, and his lips did the same for my own injury.

When I dropped him at his house, he was carrying his books in an olive drab Army kit bag Jerry had used for that purpose—it was large enough for his books and a couple spiral-bound notebooks, with a thick brown leather shoulder strap and the canvas top was held shut with two smaller leather straps and buckles. He got it from a local Army surplus depot but didn't know if it was from World War II or Korea…Mikey thought it was cool, and that's all I cared about.

Tuesday was a little drizzly as I drove to Mikey's house in the pre-dawn darkness. I'd used a cold compress on my lip after I got back home last night, so my lip was feeling better and was not nearly as swollen, but the bruise had shocked me in the mirror this morning. If Zane hadn't been hampered by Denny, it would have been black and blue for sure—as it was, greenish-yellow seemed to be the color of choice for today. Over my bowl of Rice Chex with far , I related what Mikey's dad had said about painting the truck maroon. I explained how he went over the truck with me and said he'd loan us a sander and some supplies…and I told far that I thought he wanted to help us. He thought the maroon color would be great—it had been his favorite on cars back then too—and suggested that he and Mr. Stevenson could do the bed of the truck since it would involve a lot of woodworking skills, but the paint and body prep would be for me and Mikey if that's how we wanted it. When I asked about the electrical system, he scratched his head for a bit, then remembered that Jerry and his friend Tommy had redone some of it to give the truck more power. I was thrilled to hear that they'd also bought a new stereo radio to put in but hadn't had time to do that before their Graduation.

"I'll tell you what I told them—don't go cutting holes in her to put in the extra speakers or the new stereo system—mounting a bracket under the dash is okay, but you'll have to find another way for the stereo speakers. I think it's either in the barn somewhere, or the attic." When I jumped up to go find it, he motioned me back down to finish my cereal. "Not so fast, Speedy—you can do that after school—you don't have time now, especially if you're going to pick up Mikey."

We hadn't discussed it, but I intended to pick my elskede up every morning until he told me not to. It gave me more time with him, and it had the added advantage of giving him a few more minutes sleep since he didn't have that long bus ride. I couldn't help but get hard as I thought about what we'd done yesterday, and hoped we'd be able to cuddle and make out a bit every morning. Once Denny left last night, I'd asked about my 'reward' for guessing the right color for our little underwear game, he'd smirked and said it didn't count because the hint of 'grape' was too obvious and was just a demonstration of how it would work. Further clues would be subtler and be given before I took him home after studying. When I'd stood at my underwear drawer, I was wracking my brain for the clue. Mikey had scratched at his chest a time or two, which could indicate the red pair, but he'd also played with my hair and stuck his hand into my undies, which could mean yellow or purple again…there was just so much it could be—he'd commented on how he loved my eyes which obviously meant blue…but then he'd been chewing on his #2 yellow pencil a lot as we studied, which brought me back to yellow again.

Shit, was flirting part of the clues or just things he said ? "Fuck it," I'd finally decided and grabbed the yellow pair. I really hoped I was right, because I was desperate to know what my reward would be. I think I surprised Mikey when I pulled into his drive—he had just come out of the garage to head out to the road, and Mr. Stevenson was about to climb into his Suburban. I hopped out and ran over to him, wishing him a good morning. "My dad said maroon would be a great color for the truck—so maybe you could let me know where to take it to be painted? He also asked if you'd help him work on the bed—it's a lot of woodworking which I don't know anything about…can you help us do it?"

I was a bit shocked when this tall, tanned man gripped both my hands in his and gave them a gentle squeeze. His eyes seemed to cloud over for a second before he spoke. "You're a good man, Jay. I'll talk to your father and see when we can set things up—I guess most of the work will be done on weekends?" When I nodded, he smiled and motioned toward the truck where Mikey was standing with the passenger door open and making broad motions with his arms for me to get my ass over there. "Somebody is impatient…get going, now."

Mikey was looking darn good today in his black jeans and bright orange tee-shirt. I couldn't tell if it had any printing on it under his black windbreaker, but I forgot about that when he placed his hand on my thigh and gave it a little rub. What really got to me was that he left his hand there rather than help me shift gears, and even moved it a little closer to my goodies. He turned slightly on the seat and leaned in until his lips just brushed my right ear. "I love you, Jay Beckel." Remembering those words from his journal, and how they had transformed our relationship into something far more than a sexual one, made my eyes tear up. I pulled the truck into the same dirt road we'd stopped in yesterday, and leaned over to kiss his pale pink lips.

I pulled Mikey against my chest and wrapped my arms around him so they could delve under his jacket and shirt to reach bare skin. His sigh was drawn out when I kissed the back of his neck and over to his left ear. "With all that went on yesterday, I forgot to tell you that I talked to Uncle Mikkel Sunday night…I told him and Sam that I had a boyfriend…he's sending me a package this week with some stuff to help us out." I was a little worried about this next part. "I asked him about fucking …."

I began to panic when Mikey pulled out of my arms and turned until he was glaring at me through fiery eyes. His hands were clenched in his lap. Holy shit—did I just ruin our relationship? I was afraid we'd been moving too fast…. After a couple deep breaths, Mikey took my hands in his and shook them as his words came out in clipped tones. "Jens Per Beckel—we will never 'fuck' or 'screw', or anything else like that!" He then leaned in closer to my face and looked me right in the eyes. I thought he might still be angry until he nipped the end of my nose. "The only thing we'll ever do is make love… you got that?"

All that was missing was the wagging finger and the angrily tapping foot. "Yes, dear."

The gravel crunched under my tires as we pulled into the parking spot next to Denny's Corvair toward the back of the lot. There were almost always empty spaces since only juniors and seniors could drive, and most of the teachers parked in front of the building rather than the north lot by the gym. The mist had cleared a bit now that the sun began to peek over the horizon, and we met in front of our vehicles. Right away, I could feel the tension radiating off Denny as he looked toward the nearest entrance to the school. I was about to tell him things would be okay when Benny and Linda pulled up in his '70 Barracuda convertible. Of all the people I knew, only the big wrestler could get away with driving a purple car. It amazed me how Ben could fit behind the steering wheel.

Linda looked us over and shook her head. "Listen, guys—it's going to be okay. Benny and I got the word out, and Zane won't bother any of you—with all the trouble he's caused over the years, there's going to be someone sticking close to him all day long. If you count the girls I know, there'll be more than one person." We watched as the two of them joined a few of their friends closer to the doors—some jocks, others not. The real surprise for me was when I recognized one of the guys from the Council Bowl quiz team among them. I knew Linda had been asked to participate, but she'd turned it down, not wanting to appear on the local televised competitions.

I patted Denny and Mikey on the back and grinned, pulling them into my sides for a moment before we went in. " Once more unto the breach, dear friends... ." I was doing my best to be serious, but Denny snorted and Mikey jabbed me in the ribs.

"Did I ever tell you just how full of shit you are?" I tried to look hurt, but that only caused all three of us to break out into laughter. As we walked down the halls before splitting up for our home rooms and first period classes, it began to dawn on me that people were staring at us, some openly, others furtively, and more than one would smile at us or give us a little wave. I was used to nods from friends and the occasional hand slap, but neither Mikey nor Denny had experienced it before, and my boyfriend especially looked shocked when several people called him by name. "Hey, Miles…how's it goin' Miles…Far out, Miles." The same thing happened to Denny, and I couldn't help but smile as my two friends turned faintly red. Word must have spread about the fight yesterday, and it sure looked like most of the others had just been waiting for someone to stand up to Timmy Zane. One or two of his cronies gave us evil looks, but something always seemed to prevent them from approaching us—someone trying to pass them in the hall but always choosing the wrong direction, somebody else stopping to talk with them or another person tying his shoe while we passed.

By gym class at 5th Period, I was sure Linda's plan was going full-swing, but also that there was something else going on at the same time—I kept hearing whispers and then laughter as I went from class to class, but every time I looked I'd see nothing but the usual smiles. I did get a few inquiries about my jaw, and whether it still hurt, but I just grinned and said it was fine. Going into the locker room to change, I got a lot of waves and smiles, and a couple pats on the back, and when Denny showed up right after me, it was the same for him. Timmy Zane entered just before the bell rang and the room fell into an uneasy silence. He glared at Denny and me and was about to say something when Bobby Thomas came up behind him and pushed him toward their side of the locker room.

Even though it was our day to have outside gym, Mr. Burton decided it was too wet to use the track, so he set us to doing calisthenics and gymnastics. I wasn't bad at the rings or parallel bars, but that damn horse-thing you had to vault over or do somersaults over was just a shade too high for me…and there was no way I'd climb that stupid ladder-thing up to the ceiling—I swear that had to be fifty feet up. After some push-ups and jumping jacks, I did the rings for a few minutes then began doing laps around the gym like I had yesterday. Pretty soon, I was coming up on Denny in his red shorts and gray tee-shirt, and admiring the view before he slugged me in the arm. "Quit it, you're taken," he whispered through his wide grin.

Every time I caught sight of Timmy during gym, he was glaring at me, and he'd occasionally punch one fist into his palm and get a look of eagerness on his face. I'm sure he thought it would intimidate me, and while I might be a little anxious, I wasn't going to let him psyche me out. At the usual time for us to hit the showers, Denny and I grabbed our towels and headed into the white-tiled room along with about twenty other guys, and I saw Denny look around to see where Zane was. I didn't see him, or Bobby either…and then one of the football players put a hand on my shoulder, which made me jump. Linda had said none of the football players liked him, but could we be sure of that?

The big blond guy grinned at Denny and me as he took the shower next to us. "Relax dudes. Timmy decided to take his shower once you guys were done…we don't let nobody mess with Jabber and Dancer."What the hell? Who are 'Jabber' and 'Dancer'? When the guy pulled his head out from under the spray, I asked him just that. He slapped me on the back, which jolted me a bit, and laughed. He pointed at me, then Denny. I must have been confused longer than him, because it wasn't until he spoke that I got it. "Hey—how come I'm 'Dancer'—isn't that one of Santa's reindeer?"

The whole shower room erupted in laughter, and Denny turned red as a beet. There was no chance of me missing this: "Maybe we should call you 'Rudolph' instead, if you're gonna get all red like that!"

Standing behind the lunch counter, I couldn't believe it—word was spreading all over the school that the fight yesterday in the parking lot had finally brought down Timmy Zane. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. That asshole had been bullying smaller kids for as long as I could remember—at least since 7th Grade. Before that, I'd gone to a different elementary school than him, so I couldn't say whether it was true back then or not…and my mouth literally fell open when I heard who he'd been fighting: Jay and Miles, of all people. I just might have believed it of Jay since he was known to stand up for what was right…but Miles had never made trouble for anyone, preferring to stay in the background. I had to wonder what brought out such behavior in him, and all I could think of was that he and Jay were friends.

My job, besides clearing out the trays from the cafeteria and emptying garbage, was to man the à la carte section of the lunch line: I handed out desserts, fruit, milk, snack items and the alternate choices to the main menu, mostly bologna, cheese or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. The snacks were usually peanuts, raisins, chips, granola bars or fruit juices…on good days the ice cream cups would last all through lunch, but on hot days, you couldn't count on that. There was talk of pretzels, but that hadn't started yet, if it ever would. I took over from Donnie who worked the second lunch period, while he went to finish his 5th period class. I felt sorry for those who had 'B' Lunch, they had a half hour of class, lunch, then the last twenty-five minutes of class; the first and last lunch sections had the period like normal classes, all in one go.

I didn't say much to the other kids filing past since they could pick the desserts from the shelf above the counter, but my smile was more genuinely friendly to some than others. Most of the kids just told me if they wanted something different, and I'd put it on their pale green trays in an open spot: each tray had five sections, one round one in the lower left corner, a rectangular large one next to it on the lower right, and three identical square ones across the top. I noticed most people opted for the frank-on-a-bun, baked beans and sauerkraut, so that meant there'd be a demand for milk to wash down the beans. Dessert today was lime or strawberry Jell-O with whipped cream on top, and that was going well too. On the days we had cake, it would be a zoo, there being a good chance it would all be gone by the time I started. That's one reason I was good friends with Donnie—he always set a few things like that aside for my friends, and I'd done the same for him last semester when we'd had our shifts reversed.

I heard some commotion in the line nearer the entrance and saw Miles joining the queue, some whispers went up and down among the kids, and several smiled at him and said 'hi'. As he moved along, I saw him pick the hot dog too, but asked for a double helping of baked beans rather than sauerkraut, and when he got to me, he made his usual complaint about the Jell-O having whipped cream on it. I shook my head and put two cartons of chocolate milk on his tray. "We've got chocolate ice cream left, want one?" He nodded eagerly and said I was cool. I laughed and said, "Tell it to the newspapers," and he moved down to pay the cashier. A few minutes later I heard a girl whisper to one of her friends: "That 'Mauler Miles' is so cool—even with a broken rib, he laid Zane out with a 2x4 across the back of his head." Her friend, a giggly blonde, replied as they exited the lunch line, so I only caught "That's not how I heard it…" before they vanished.

Jay and Denny came down the line together, and I got my first look at them today; Jay and I were in 4-H together, but most business was handled in Vocational Agriculture classes, and we had it the same period. I could see where his lip had been split, but it wasn't swollen anymore, though the bruise was a nice shade of yellow-green like succotash. I thought Jay was pretty brave, taking two hot dogs and extra kraut, while Denny stuck with the standard proportions. I whistled when I saw his jaw. "You need a straw for that, Jay?"

He laughed and shot back with "No, but I'm sure I'll need some Rolaids —got any back there?"

I laughed, and then added, "Want some ice cream? It'll help with settling that spicy kraut…." I put it on his tray after setting his milk in its spot on the upper right.

Now Denny was standing in front of me, and I met his silvery gaze with a smile. I hadn't really paid attention to him, so I didn't know what he wanted, though I recalled it was fairly healthy—and he'd asked about fresh fruit yesterday. As I let my eyes wander from his curly hair down to his toned chest and arms, my eyes widened when I noted the scraped knuckles on his left hand—I hadn't heard that he was involved in yesterday's fight, and wondered if he'd suffered any other damage. I hoped my voice didn't sound as worried as I felt inside. "You okay, Denny? Does it hurt much?" He gave me a small smile, and I managed to get back onto the topic of lunch. "I'm sorry, we ran out of oranges just after I got here..." I pulled a Golden Delicious apple and a Chiquita banana from the cooler below my section and held them up. I noticed he'd taken smaller portions of our lunch items, so I put both on his tray. I felt a bit guilty at not having any oranges left for him, but I'd thought there were more in the big refrigerator. "Milk or juice?" I wasn't surprised when he said juice— that we had in orange, along with apple. I was already putting the orange juice on his tray, and he held my gaze for a minute and said 'thanks' in a soft voice before moving to the cashier.

"What do you want for lunch, dear?" I jerked and turned my head to look at Mrs. Carter, the head Cook. I saw that while I'd been daydreaming the line had thinned out, and she was getting my own tray ready; I asked for the hot dog, baked beans and no kraut, and watched as she heaped my tray up. I put a carton of milk on it, and thanked her—she was a great cook, and her baked beans were the best I'd ever tasted. Her real skills came into play when we had cookies or cakes…if there was a better baker in town, I had yet to meet her. She put one of the apples on my tray and pushed me past the cashier. "You eat all that, and don't rush—we'll get the garbage today—you catch up with your friends."

I had to laugh at her statement—'catch up' was her way of saying she wanted me to get the real details on the fight yesterday. She never passed stories on, and never had a mean word to say about anyone. Most of the staff and a lot of the students here called her 'Mama Carter' or just 'Mamaw C' if your parents grew up nearer the hills in the southeastern part of Ohio. She was the perfect model of a grandmother. With four younger brothers and sisters, we qualified for half-price lunches, but she never let me pay, nor did my sister and two brothers who were here in the high school and junior high. Only my littlest sister in 5th Grade paid anything at all, and that would change when she got to the junior high. Mrs. Carter had told me that there would be a job for the next one of us when the oldest graduated. I knew better than to thank her more than once because she'd just wave it off, so I put my apron on the stool I'd been sitting on and took my tray out to the cafeteria, letting my eyes scan the room for Jay and Miles…and Denny.

When I entered the cafeteria, the sound of conversation was the same as always, but I noted more glances toward the 'jocks tables' by the front windows. I noticed two things right away: Zane and Bobby Thomas were sitting at one end by themselves with no one talking to them, and Jay's sister was over at the far end with her cheerleader friends rather than with Bobby. I thought that was really strange because the tall basketball player was popular and had a good word for everybody…then I saw one of the other players go over to him and say something, but Bobby shook his head and the guy went back to his seat. One of Timmy's two cronies started to sit next to him, but Bobby clearly told the guy to get lost and took up his conversation again as I headed toward the far corner where I finally spotted my three friends.

I let my eyes go around the room one last time before getting to Jay's table, and saw my two 'possibles' sitting near the opposite corner to Jay. I wasn't sure about either of them yet, but the vibes I felt were strongly in favor of them being gay. Both were cute, one blond, the other red-haired; I think they were both on the Council Bowl team, at least as alternates. Other than that, I knew the blond was named Ricky…I was working on finding their last names and phone numbers so I could work my 'magic' over the phone. I did spot one of my 'definites', and detoured to pause at his table for a moment. He looked up, pushing his long blond hair out of his eyes, and gave me a small smile. I never understood why he wore army fatigues all the time, but they did fit his body nicely. He was one of the first people I talked to last summer, and we'd had several conversations since. He had talked about joining the wrestling team, and even went to a tryout and some practices; then quit. In the space of a week, he'd changed, becoming a loner and much quieter. When we'd first talked, his reaction wasn't what I'd expected at all—he thanked me and then started to cry. Our talks became weekly things, and they weren't about sex anymore. I think I was the only person who knew why he'd changed: he'd gone hunting in the fall, and his shot hadn't been a clean one—it had taken almost an hour for him to track the deer down, and he'd had to slit its throat before he could pull out his quarrel. He took the kill to the ranger station so they could donate it to feed the poor, and swore off any form of violent activity, whether it was hunting or sports after that day.

"Hey Vinnie…have you talked to him yet?" I was also the only one who knew that he had a crush on one of the school's top wrestlers. At least I'd gotten him to start talking to him, but he still hadn't told the guy about his feelings. He growled at me, saying it was too soon, but I waved that aside. "Look, do you want me to call him for you?" I knew that would spur him to action since he had no doubt I'd do it if he waited too long. "Vinnie, he's a nice guy—will you trust my instincts on this?" My instincts hadn't been wrong yet, and this was one thing I was sure of.

"Why do you care about this?" he asked quietly.

That was one I could answer without evasion, unlike how I knew he'd get a positive reaction from his friend. "Because, Calvin Schuyler, there's a lot of pain in life, and if you can share it with someone special, you can ride it out and come out on top." I didn't move on until I'd gotten him to promise he'd talk about his feelings for Benny Ross by the weekend.

I think it was having relationships on my mind that made me more observant as I sat across from Denny at Jay's table. It was subtle, but I could tell from the tone of their voices that something had changed between them since last week. Sure, I'd seen them yesterday, but none of them had been acting normally with Dennis joining them. I had also been distracted by Denny himself…I felt definite vibes coming from him, and now to find he'd been involved in the fight further piqued my curiosity. All the details I'd heard were exaggerated, so I wanted to get to the real story, not just for Mamaw C, but for myself as well.

"Hey guys, tell me about the fight yesterday! All I know is what I heard two girls say in line." Jay and Denny groaned, but Miles gave me his usual inquiring stare. "What did you hear?" Jay asked with a hint of exasperation.

I jerked my thumb at Mikey and gave it my best stage whisper. "From what I heard, 'Mauler Miles' here laid out Timmy Zane with a 2x4 to the back of the head…." Jay just stared with his mouth open while Denny choked on his orange juice. A clatter from Miles' direction told me his fork had just hit the floor.

"What the fuck ?!"

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