Jay & Miles

by ColumbusGuy

Chapter 52


POV: Denny, Kevin, Jay

"Well, why can't he?" I asked Reb for what seemed the third time since Saturday's adventure at the drive-in. Despite the Beckels' words, I still felt uncomfortable arriving to study empty-handed, so my Southern swain was driving my Corvair convertible toward Roscoe's Supermarket for snacks.

As much as Dirck protested, I usually picked up a half-gallon of chocolate milk for Mikey. Greg would always give the genial man a shit-eating grin while making a mooing noise and reminding him of there not being 'chocolate cows' when we first arrived. Dirck would make a swipe at my Reb's head every time, and we would laugh as we removed and stacked our shoes on the back porch.

We did this run twice a week, so I was becoming familiar with the layout of the aisles in the store, but that didn't save us much time since there were a lot of things to choose from. Greg always wanted to try fairly healthy things—except for his Moon Pie addiction—and I had no real problem with that as long as I could grab a small carton of IBC Root Beer or Stewart's Orange Crème soda.

Last week, he'd picked a small bag of Dorito's Tortilla chips, and that was when I put my foot down—compared to Frito's they were bland and boring. I was lucky the other guys agreed with me, and we shied away from them from that point on. Benny had said he'd tried Taco Bell's version of Mexican food once, but I didn't think it would catch on with the rest of us.

The snack runs went a lot easier now that my Reb and I had come to an agreement, and Jay's mor almost always had some sort of cookies or dessert ready to fuel our studies. We bought fewer things now—and I was more sensitive to Greg's feelings about sharing the cost—so we tended to keep things pretty evenly divided moneywise.

I couldn't help but smile when he'd pull out his two-dollar bills to cover his portion, because the clerks would look funny at them…they were still rare in circulation. His dad had told him how people were saving them in case they became valuable, so that didn't help with their public familiarity either.

Out in the parking lot again, near the huge white-and-blue store sign, I popped the metal cap off one of the root beers while Reb doled out two of his precious Moon Pies—chocolate this time. Cal's Pizza was in a separate building at the south end of the small hill the grocery store sat on, and some kids' cars were already gathering there after a rough day at school. My new friends told me they had good pizza, but I hadn't tried it yet. Their dining room filled up pretty fast most evenings, so a lot of kids just walked into the carry-out section, and then took it elsewhere to eat.

"Hey, wanna grab some pizza to take with us?" I heard Greg ask. I knew from the group's trip to Pizza Hut that it was a universal crowd-pleaser, so I nodded and let him move the car the short distance to our new destination. The smell of cooking and the heat from the ovens poured out as we entered the small space for picking up orders. I suddenly remembered that Greg hadn't answered my question from inside the store: 'Why can't Bill study with us?'

We settled on two extra-large pepperonis with extra cheese, and the guy behind the counter took our money and said "Twenty minutes," before walking back to prepare our order. The only cooling was from a fan mounted in one of the tiny area's corners, near the ceiling, but through the large open doorway into the kitchen I could hear the rumble of an exhaust-fan. I was already beginning to sweat. "Let's go outside to wait—I'm already melting in here."

"Guess that explains the guy's appearance then…," Reb said with a grin. I was more than a little put off by the kid's looks, but Greg said the pizza was worth the risk. 'Dirty-blond' hair—whether that was it's true color or from sweat was hard to tell—along with denim cut-offs and a damp white tee-shirt did nothing to calm my fears. I could only hope his long white apron had been washed recently as he'd wiped his hands on it fairly regularly. At least his longish hair was confined by a hair-net. There were health inspections in small towns, weren't there?

We spent the time leaning on the hood for a while, then opened the doors and sat in the front seats when our legs got tired. We split my bottle of root beer...my Reb said it was the best he'd ever had, but lamented the bottles were smaller than those of other sodas we'd seen on the shelves. For a good part of this time, we were holding hands across the center console, just enjoying the contact. It was nice. I soon shifted the conversation back to my still-unanswered question about why Bill couldn't study with us; I was of the opinion it would make Kevin feel more comfortable in a group where he barely knew anyone, but Reb held another view.

"Yank, the biggest problem is he's in another district—and even though Ohio has guidelines for what ought to be taught at each grade level, every district can set its own local preferences. They can choose a textbook from a list, and they're all pretty similar, but how they approach things can be different…and if that wasn't enough, they teach at different speeds and have different tests on the material…."

I chewed that over for a few minutes but I still wasn't convinced. "Okay, maybe that's true…but the basics are the same, and even if he's a little ahead or behind in a subject, we could still help him some…and it would make Kevin feel better."

Greg sighed and gave my hand a squeeze since he couldn't lean over and kiss me in the middle of a parking lot. The hand-holding was okay because our bodies were blocking the view through the open doors, and all you could see through the windshield was from our shoulders upwards. "All right, here's one of the other big points: it's about forty miles round-trip from Jay's to Reynoldsburg—that's almost three gallons of gas—a buck-and-a-half every day. We don't know how many hours he works a week, or what tips he gets to keep, but minimum wage is only $2.30 and he has to cover gas, oil and who knows what else. If he has to pay his own insurance, he's gotta be pretty strapped for cash."

That one hit me harder than Greg intended, I'm sure. I still received my allowance like I had at The Academy, but my parents covered all my other expenses, including insurance on my car and any repairs it might need. For some reason known only to them, they also put money toward my gas costs, but if I went over that, the extra came out of my own pocket. I was better off than a lot of kids in school because I didn't need a part-time job to earn spending money. That one at least I knew—it would look bad if their only son had to get a job at a grocery store or gas station where their friends might see me. Still, my 'allowance' worked out to about six dollars a week, which was probably more than most kids got. I hadn't asked my friends what they received from their parents, or mentioned that I didn't really have any chores other than keeping my room clean and the trash emptied.

I gave in on that point, and received another hand-squeeze for it, but I wasn't ready to give up the idea completely. "You know, Bill doesn't have to come out every day…it could be twice a week, or maybe even just on a week-end." This form of the studying-together idea sounded even better—on a Saturday or Sunday we'd have the whole day to get them together, which was my real goal to be honest. The studying was important too, but I knew the rest of us were happier paired-up, so why not do the same for Bill and Kevin, who already had some history?

The clock on the dashboard said our twenty minutes were about up, so we climbed out and re-entered the stifling pick-up area again. This time, the inner solid door was open, leaving only the screen for us to pass through, but that didn't help much with the ovens blasting continuous heat.

The tinkle of the bell let the guy know he had customers, and he stuck his head around the corner to see who it was. "Two more minutes, just cutting and boxing it now." What we could see of his tee-shirt under the apron was clinging to his torso by this time, and was nearly transparent. He was probably twenty or so, and could have been nice looking if he wasn't so sweaty from the heat—I almost chuckled when a thought hit me: I bet he can't stand pizza after making them day after day.

The smell of the pizza was amazing as we left the building and headed for my car, and I couldn't resist lifting one corner of the top box's lid to peek inside. Golden-yellow cheese bubbled slightly in a gooey mess and tiny circles of pepperoni swam like little islands on top of that. The burst of aroma was enough to make my stomach growl in frustration. I saw it had been cut into thin strips rather than the wedges we'd seen at Pizza Hut, which came as a surprise…was it easier to eat that way, or just the way this place did it?

The boxes were really hot through my jeans as Greg drove us over to Jay's for our afternoon session…hot enough I had to keep lifting them off my lap. I had to force myself not to swipe a piece from the cardboard-covered molten goodness so invitingly close.

I think Greg was reading my mind or something, or else maybe he was thinking the same thing because I had to laugh at his next words. "Don't even think about it—you'll burn your lips off! Not to mention that other part I love wrestling with when we kiss." He followed up by showing me the pink tip of his tongue.

With his hands still on the wheel and no traffic coming toward us on the narrow road, my Reb gave me a quick worried look. "Y'know, we're making one huge assumption here—what if Kevin doesn't want to be with Bill?"

All I could do was gape in astonishment, and I had to stop and think about that statement. We just didn't know enough about either of them to be sure there was the same kind of bond the rest of us shared. Had we read more into things than there really was? Kevin's 'confession of love' had been made while he was stoned, and that same weekend, he'd vanished out of Bill's life…were we just guessing it was because his parents had tossed him out? That seemed a little extreme to me, but I didn't know the redhead at all, and neither did the rest of us. For that matter, even if he moved against his will, why hadn't he tried to call Bill since Winter Break? Bill certainly hadn't gone anywhere….

Everybody thinks kids have it easy; 'they have such a good life—no big problems, no responsibilities to worry about—yep, gotta envy them….' It's all crap, just ask any of us—me, I don't need to ask anybody about shit, because I live it every day of my life. Always have, probably always will. I don't see living with my Aunt being any different…there's always a fuckin' price to pay. I'm just waiting to see what it is.

I know what caused it too...all those stupid shows like Leave It To Beaver telling our parents life was all sweetness and light. Utter fucking bullshit. Yeah, find somebody to pump out kids and have a never-ending source of love and joy until you die, surrounded by grandkids, and never have a moment's doubt that 'God's in His Heaven, and all's right with the world.' Well, sorry to burst your little bubble, but life sucks no matter how you look at it, and there's not one second of happiness that doesn't come mixed with some sort of pain to remind you how things really are.

Kids are The Universe's way of letting parents exact some revenge for the things their lives lack. A sort of kewpie-doll consolation prize to bend into whatever shape they want, to help make up for their own shortcomings. Yeah, got that lesson in spades. I've heard it all my life: 'Straighten up and fly right…you'll never amount to anything the way you're going now'…and their very latest Commandment since I started high school: 'You'll do what we say, when we say it and how we say it—or you can hit the streets!'

Listening to other kids in school from the very first day—they were never allowed to visit my house—I figured my parents were just like anybody else's, until I had to work on a school project with another boy and we went to his house to write it up. I didn't know what to think…she made cookies for Chrissakes…and gave us a fuckin' glass of milk to go with them! And then, they actually talked to each other over dinner rather than issuing edicts and listing yet more of my latest 'disappointing behaviors.'

I was so shocked, I wasn't thinking straight, and when I got home, I did a dumb-ass thing. I talked about what it was like at that kid's house. What a fucking idiot, I was. Sure enough, a note was sent to the teacher saying any projects in future needed to be done at school, or complaints would be lodged with the Principal.

Why I thought things would improve when I got my driver's license I don't know—I guess it was a last hope I held onto...having some sort of life for myself. Of course I wasn't allowed my own car, and I only got to drive one on errands for my parents. And, of course the mileage was checked before and after each trip to see that I went nowhere else, and of course every extra minute had to be accounted for. My parents seemed determined my life should be as joyless as their own—and if it weren't for the fact I shared a lot of features with my Aunt, such as my eye and hair color, I'd have thought I was adopted. There was no way they could have had sex, and they treated me like the proverbial red-headed step-child, which I found highly ironic due to my hair's fiery hue.

Church was the exception—my parents were adept at playing 'loving family' in front of their fellow parishioners; I had a nice suit and tie for Sunday and Wednesday night services, and was urged to mingle with the other Youth Ministry morons who would 'set me a good example.'

That group's activities were the only ones I could even consider attending since they were chaperoned, so I wasn't going to do anything to endanger even that little bit of freedom. No fuckin' way was I going to let my parents know I first smoked pot on one of their Youth camp-outs…or that the girl from the group they'd tried to set me up with, during first semester of my junior year, would give every boy on their Retreats a hand-job before the weekend was over.

Because I'd found I could do it better myself, with my own hand, the only reason for us to go out at all after that was for that precious bit of time we could be unsupervised. She was a 'good girl' in the eyes of our families…and that's why I wound up living with my Aunt and my spooky cousins. I'd pick her up at her house and then we'd split up to do our own thing until the time we agreed upon to get back, taking pains that our stories matched in every detail because we were sure to be interrogated as soon as we got home. She'd spend time with her girlfriends or some guy her parents would never allow her to date, and I'd often end up scoring some beer or weed off one of the church's 'good boys.'

It was all going great until I met Billy….

I was used to not having any close friends—okay, no friends at all really. I was that kid, who kept to himself and never asked anybody over, so I never got asked to go anywhere after the first few times I'd had to say no. The answer was always 'No,' and then I'd get a lecture on how privileges had to be earned. By the time I was in second grade, I'd already figured out nothing I did would be worthy of getting any rewards. I think the shrinks call it 'positive reinforcement' or something—you know—do something right and get a treat? Experiments proved it worked in training animals to run mazes, or even perform in movies…but that theory makes the assumption that the experimenters want to give out those coveted rewards. My only reward was more criticism.

See, I know I have problems, and I'm not just talking about my parents—I don't like calling them that because the only thing they ever did in that role was fuck—in every other way, I was more of a burden than a son. I don't know what it's called, but I have trouble studying, or even keeping still for long periods of time; it's not that I'm dumb—a dumb-ass sometimes, yeah, but I have a brain.

Some I.Q. tests, a long time ago, actually showed me I was pretty bright—and for a while I was put on some drug called Ritalin which was supposed to help. Maybe it did for a while, but I think the side-effects were worse—I started to put on a little weight since I wasn't running around like a loon—and my grades got worse because it made my brain operate like it was stuck in neutral all the time. That was the end of that little trial after my next grade card, and then it was back to nagging, harping, and lengthy sermons about applying myself and the benefits of toil. Did I mention my parents are religious whackos?

Oh yeah, this was supposed to be about Billy….I first met him in one of my English classes junior year, even though he was only in 10th Grade. He's smart as shit which makes him sort of an outsider like me, which may be why we hit it off. It wasn't quick because I could never have him at my house, and I couldn't go to his, both things due to my crazy parents, so the only time we saw each other was in class or during lunch…but we both recognized some sort of bond within a week or two. He was the 'Brain' and I was the 'Bad Boy', even if it isn't true in my case—well, not entirely anyway. You have to have a reason to be a loner, and for most everybody, it was because I could get angry in a flash—but the only one who ever knew the reason for that was me.

Word also got out at school that I did pot, and 'God knows what else'…and even though that was the only drug I did, and three-quarters of us tried it, I was the one seen as a 'bad-ass' since it fit well with my apparent 'loser' status. One more thing I can chalk up to my parents' tender mercies. If they'd let me have a normal childhood, I think I wouldn't have most of my current problems. All I know about marijuana is this: it's one of mankind's oldest and most benevolent drugs…and it slows my brain down just enough that I can concentrate on studying. Even though it's so easy to get, I know not to over-do it because I don't need much at one time, and not every day—and that's the second reason why I'm now living at my Aunt's house in 'Nowheres-ville'.

I suppose there's one more thread to bring up here to tie all this together…about Billy and me and my current living situation. There is a common theme to this whole bag, but it might be hard to figure out from my talking about it. I don't know if this is one my parents are responsible for, but if they knew about it…it would solve all my problems in one stroke: I'd be dead. Maybe not at their own hands, but certainly as a result of their actions—in any event—I'd be on the streets turning tricks to earn a meal or pay for a place to sleep at night. Since Columbus isn't a big city like New York, I'd probably starve to death before the Pigs could toss me in jail or beat me up for some bogus trumped-up offense.

So here goes…parents, pot, 'girlfriend' scheme that allowed me to find a few hours to spend with unapproved company (anybody outside our church)...toss in the fact that I had no experience with real friends until then…and it all falls into place. Given a little time to spend at Billy's house on a weekend, and sharing a joint with him—more than I usually toked at one time—I was relaxed and free enough to let a little of myself see the light of day for the first time I can remember.

Maybe I could blame it on Billy, but I think this also rests with the two people who created me. I was the one who leaned in for a kiss. I was the one who said 'I love you.' It was me who missed the curfew that had been set for my date that night with Miss Hand-Job.

It was definitely my father who dragged me to my room and packed my clothes and few measly possessions while my mother called her sister to arrange for a 'vacation visit' to start the next day. I was barely given time to piss before I was locked in my room for the remainder of the night. The next morning I was escorted to the car after a quick shower, and then driven into exile.

Not having had anything like a regular childhood, with family reunions or even simple visits, I had no idea what to expect from my new Warden. I think I might have seen her for a few hours in the past seventeen years, but I couldn't swear to it. Another cold emotionless robot just like the ones I grew up with….

Okay, so I can be wrong sometimes—nobody's perfect. Sue me. Cold? Emotionless? Fuck no—and sure as hell no June Cleaver. Even at barely 9:30 on a Sunday morning—my dad had to get home to be on time for church—the woman who stormed out of her front door on this cold December day made even me flinch at the vehemence of her tone and acidity of her tongue. I won't go into details because I don't talk like that in front of my parents—but I'd learned to swear the same way I'd learned to smoke weed—at Youth camp-outs when we were supposed to be asleep. The chaperons were in bed once the bonfire was burning low, but us boys would put these stolen moments to good use partaking of any vice we could think of—and teenagers could be very imaginative.

I may have been surprised by my Aunt and her actions, but not my father's; there was no reaction at all. I was told to get out of the car and take my bag to the porch, and then he turned his cold countenance on his sister-in-law. "The boy is yours now. We want no part of him until he learns obedience." I saw him hand over a large manila envelope I would later learn contained my birth certificate and health and school records. The only unexpected thing from this chain of events was the addition of a check, made out to my Aunt for $1500—to be used for my needs until I reached eighteen in ten months' time. I was not surprised when I was told it had taken the threat of legal action to produce those funds.

The threat of legal action or any sort of resulting scandal was anathema to my parents—it would sully their good name and that of the chain of furniture stores they owned across Ohio, compliments of my dead grandfather. Don't expect me to sound sad at that statement—he was gone before I was born, and I'd later learn my father was the proverbial 'chip off the old block' where disposition was concerned. Without any further word to me or my incensed Aunt, I watched my dear ol' dad get back in his car and head down the tree-lined drive to the recently-plowed one lane road that went south to Route 40, and thence to what had once been my home town of Reynoldsburg.

I could make a list of all the things that happened from that morning during Christmas Break until this moment during the first week of May, but we only have so many hours here, and my hand would get writer's-cramp if I tried. From the time I followed my Aunt into her house, until mid-March at least, the best word I could use to describe events would be confusing, and the word to explain the relationship I had personally with this quartet of strangers was cautious. Like I said before, 'there's always a price to pay, and I'm waiting for the bill…'

Notice how I got things back to the topic of Billy? Pretty clever if I say so myself…but I bet Mark Twain used similar tricks back in his day, so it's probably not original. I'm better at writing angry poetry than anything else, so I guess that's another difference between him and me. Nobody knows about that bit either—the poetry thing I mean. I don't show those poems to anybody. I bet the police would lock me up for some of them as 'intent to commit grievous bodily harm' or something…but it would only be on my parents, so that's not too different from thoughts a lot of kids have when they're angry, right? I'd never do it…create a scandal to ruin their image, hell yeah—at the drop of a hat…but nothing worse since that is their most prized possession. God knows it wasn't me.

It was a major freak-out when I ran into Billy last Saturday at the drive-in…if I had any idea he'd be there, I'd have stayed away. I almost said 'home', but my Aunt's house doesn't feel like that yet, though it's better than the place I grew up in.

So why would I have avoided him after I'd kissed him? What do you think? Embarrassment, sure…but also guilt. I mean, boys don't kiss each other—and sure as fuck don't say they love another boy. That was the guilt part rather than the kiss—those few seconds were fun—but I didn't have any experience to back up the words I'd said in my euphoria. To know what love is, you have to receive it from somebody, and I'd never had that from anybody in my life until then…except maybe my Aunt, but that came later. Five months after being dumped on her door-step, it was still hard to figure her out, and my cousins. She was doing everything she could think of to make me feel welcome, and I was polite, helpful, and quiet, as much as I could manage anyway, with my other problem. I think she was working on some big plan to change my outlook on life, but I couldn't let her in—only Billy had come anywhere near breaching my ramparts.

I also had no idea how he felt about our 'moment', which was one of the reasons I was glad to be living in a different school district now. Since I'd last seen him, I'd had time to look at things more clearly, and by that I mean mainly myself; I had problems aplenty and most of them were not my fault, but the one that screwed with my head the most was this: Loneliness. It had been hidden beneath an angry exterior for God knows how long, so I had no idea when it started, but I think the first clue I had that it even existed was while hanging around with Billy at school. The other big shock for me was that it felt good to have him to talk to even a little bit, and I'd really missed him since my abrupt move away. Of course, you'd think I'd call him or something…but I couldn't because I was certain I'd fucked things up by kissing him. No experience with friends, remember? I'm fuckin' clueless.

And there he was out-of-the-blue at the movies. I might have run even then, but the snack bar's door had closed behind me, and he'd taken a place in the most direct route I would use to escape. I confess I was in sort of a daze from seeing him again, and followed him to a nearby table without thinking…but my eyes were drinking in his every movement, and every contour I could imagine under his light jacket. Maybe you think that's weird or something for a guy to do, especially one like me with little history of sex? You know the two involved from what I've said so far, so I didn't have much to go on…but standing in front of me at that moment was the one who stirred the most feelings inside me.

I didn't know enough about life or people yet to figure out if I was into girls or guys, or even both at the same time…but this was Billy, my one-time friend. One of the first things we'd talked about before our movie started, was why I hadn't called, so I told him straight out. I may be a lot of things—fucked-up kid, angry teen with a boulder on his shoulder—but I'm always honest, if too blunt about it at times. That was one thing we'd sorted out within days of getting to know each other, and I think he'd appreciated my candor, and was maybe even amused by it too. I was trying to explain things to him as we sat with the concrete table-top between us, my Coke and bag of chips sitting next to my left hand, when I got almost the last reaction from him I'd thought possible.

He'd ran his thumb across the back of my hand, and smiled. "I kissed you back, or did you forget?" Fuck me—I had forgotten that!

I knew Mikey would have words with me once the other guys had gone home after studying, and he did…but I also knew they would be full of his love for me, and ultimately help me see things in a clearer light rather than be critical of the way I'd reacted to Kevin in the parking lot at school. I had to swallow the lump in my throat as the three of us drove to my house because his hand had come to rest on my thigh and given it a gentle squeeze and a subtle caress. I'd have leaned over to kiss him, but Kevin was sitting on his other side, although I think he saw my elskede's sweet reassuring move. He didn't say anything about it, but I saw his eyes flick from my thigh to first Mikey's face and then mine, still without speaking. I couldn't read him at all, which was unusual since I was good at picking up on those things, and that little bit of doubt kept me from fully relaxing into the warm vibes I always got from Mikey.

For my boyfriend's sake, and the fact that Kevin had said nothing bad during their talk, I was going to give him a chance to become part of our group of friends. Until I met Mikey, I hadn't lacked for people to talk with every day, but there was no strong connection to any of them—certainly not like I felt with my kæreste. Because of the things that had happened with Timmy Zane, the other guys in our study group had become friends, and after the cook-out in Mikey's back yard where we'd shared our feelings with one another, that level of friendship has risen to another level. Nothing came close to my connection with the guy beside me, though…nothing.

I let Mikey lead the conversation on the way to my house, since I was not as familiar with his giant Pontiac as my ancient Ford pick-up, and listened as he explained how the six of us had gotten together, first singly and then finally as a fully-formed unit. I noted he made no mention of our being gay at all, just that my family's farm was a friendly place to get away from the stresses of high school cliques. He went on to say we did other things together besides studying, like going out to eat or seeing movies—which was a smooth lead-in to Saturday's events.

Kevin asked how we'd met Billy, and learned about our trip into town for lunch on Good Friday when we'd eaten at Pizza Hut, which was where the guy worked. Still nothing about us being gay, but Mikey did tell of the jibes about school teams that led to us trading phone numbers. I thought I saw a flicker of a smile then, but wasn't sure—he knew Billy's allegiance was to the Reynoldsburg Raiders rather than his cousin's Licking Heights Hornets. Mikey told him we were as surprised as he was to see Billy on Saturday, but left no doubt we were glad to see him there. "We'd love to have him visit more often, but it's a long trip for him to Jay's, and the way gas is now, pretty expensive to do too often."

"Yeah…it is." The tone in the red-head's voice was reserved, but I thought it might also be tinged with regret. Was that a tiny crack in his exterior walls? That brought to mind the question of the van, so I mentioned it as I turned into my driveway.

The words he might have said died on his lips when he heard our cows in the field near the barn, and saw Gulliver in his board-fenced corral. "You've got a fuckin' horse?"

I laughed, and poked Mikey's ribs as I answered. "Yep…and if you don't get dirty thoughts like my boyf—my guy Mikey here, you could ride him if you want." That got a strange look from our new friend, but I wasn't sure if it was due to the slip I'd almost made, or the 'dirty' remark. I went on quickly to divert him, though I'd have felt better being open about our relationship…but Mikey was taking the lead here, and I got the feeling he didn't think Kevin was ready for that yet.

"Mikey isn't a farm boy, so when he saw me coming toward him with a bunch of leather straps for Gulliver's bridle—well, I don't know what kind of magazines he reads—but he thought I was going to put it on him!"

Okay, that was a definite grin, and my boyfriend's next words got genuine laughter, especially as he punctuated them with a none-too-delicate punch to my arm. "I wouldn't have thought that if you hadn't said we were going to 'play horsey'…."

Gulliver was watching the three of us with his warm brown eyes as we approached him, and I was shocked when he immediately pushed his huge velvet nose into Kevin's chest and snorted out a long sigh. I told a very startled Kevin to reach up and stroke his neck, and scratch between his ears. When he did, Gulliver pushed into him a little harder and moved his head to nuzzle the nervously stroking hand.

"Looks like you're in…Gulli approves of you. So call your Aunt to see if you can stay for dinner, and then we'll figure a way to get you home whenever you're here." I was bowled over by my horse's reaction to this new guy, but he had an innate ability to tell good guys from bad, and he'd similarly approved of all the other guys in our group. The meeting with far and mor wouldn't be a problem at all as I knew from experience…and it wasn't. Linda was more cautious, but she'd also come to like the other guys, so she cut him some slack too.

After Kevin used the kitchen phone to call home, he gingerly handed it to my mom. "She wants to talk to you…." I heard doors slamming in the drive, and then a babble of voices and clatter of shoes hitting the floor from the back porch. Kevin was the subject of some looks, but none were too long, and everybody gave him a warm greeting in their own ways before mor shooed us all out of her kitchen. Kevin waited a few seconds before he too got waved on into the house with a nod and a broad smile. He went with us, reluctantly.

We took seats in the family room and chatted in a 'get-to-know-you' sort of way until mom came in with drinks and snacks, not forgetting Mikey's chocolate milk…but mixing her own cookies in with the snacks brought by Greg and Denny. Underneath the plate of cookies she had two white pizza boxes, also courtesy of our two inveterate shoppers. "Dinner will be in three hours, so I hope this will tide you over," she grinned knowing how much seven boys could have as a snack. "Kevin, you just need to be home by 10:00, and I'll have Jay run you home…"

"Oh, don't worry about that, Rosalie…I can take him home since he lives up in my direction," Calvin put in. We'd learned he lived on York Road just as we'd guessed, and though his Aunt was his mother's sister, they had the same last name because his father and his uncle were distant cousins, also as we'd speculated. How Kevin's uncle's family wound up out here in the sticks was unknown, but there wasn't any rule to say relatives had to live in the same town, as I well knew with my grandparents living north of Columbus, and my Uncle Mikkel living outside Toronto.

As we studied, we chatted some. Kevin had mostly the same classes as the rest of us, but like Mikey, he wasn't doing Algebra II either. He didn't have the Algebra allergy...just didn't like it and saw no reason to learn it…he could do all he'd need in life without all the complications of higher Math. He wasn't sure he would go to college—not since he'd been kicked out of his home—and he didn't seem too worried about it. He figured there was always trade school, or even the military if he ran out of other options.

While we were doing home-work and during dinner—mor's version of pot roast—some of the guys would give each other loving looks, or even hold hands briefly. There hadn't been time to warn them to cool it until we could put Kevin in the picture, so I kept an eye on him; the first few times I'd seen his eyes go wide and then dart furtively around to see our reactions, but after about an hour he'd just let his gaze linger for a moment before going on with whatever he'd been doing prior to these distractions. Mikey got some of his reactions, but not all, so I gave his hand a squeeze where it lay next to my leg on one of the couches. I gave him a small smile and nod when he turned to look at me, and his own face lit up as he figured out what I was telling him.

Kevin might or might not be gay, but at least he could associate with guys who he thought might be with no obvious problems. Only time would tell if he was one of 'our crowd' in every way, but I no longer had any worries that he'd disrupt our little sanctuary…at least not on purpose.

As we were packing our stuff away around 9:30, we finalized plans to go to 40 East again before the movies changed on Saturday. Greg asked if he should invite Billy, and Kevin gave a short nod, though he looked a little nervous about it. Nobody teased him or said anything other than it would be nice to see him again, because the guys had picked up on Kevin's awkwardness around people. In time he'd be tormented with bad jokes and not-so-subtle bawdiness just like the rest of us. I almost forgot something as the guys put on their shoes to leave.

"Guys, Mikey and I won't be able to go on Friday—other plans—so we're going on Thursday instead…" That came as a surprise to my boyfriend for a second, then his brow unfurrowed and he blushed a little, not obvious in the dim light of the porch, but I knew my elskede far too well to doubt its presence.

Friday was our one month 'anniversary', and I hoped Mikey would remember it for many years to come as one of the happiest days of his life—I already knew it would be one of mine because I'd spent more than a week coming up with those plans….

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