The Second Time Around

by Geron Kees

© 2017 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction and depicts sexual activities between minors. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

If you are not 18, you shouldn't be reading this at all. Go find a boyfriend and talk stuff over with him.

This story is a sequel to Thrift Shop Nation, by the same author. You really should read that one first.

Steve Henson couldn't help grinning as he walked a small circle around the plump little statue. Nearby, his boyfriend, Chris Horne, stood beside the owner of the house, a Mrs. Karticker, and made every attempt to look serious as the woman glared at the lifelike creature spewing water into the air of the little garden.

"This was one of my husband's ideas," she said, her lip curling faintly at even the mention of the man. "One of the reasons I divorced him was that he was never home, and when he was, he spent all his time in his den or here in the garden, tinkering with junk like this, while I tended the house and watched soap operas." She looked at Chris, her expression adding revulsion to the mix. "Soaps are insidious little devils, let me tell you. I started by just turning on the TV for background noise while I worked. Then I started hearing what the characters were saying, and then I started listening. And then I started watching." She sighed. "It was when I started talking to the TV - to the characters - that I suddenly realized where my life was going." She nodded at them. "Nowhere."

She glared anew at the statue. "That gets old after twenty years, let me tell you. Soaps will make you really see how dull your own world actually is. All those beautiful people, running around with each other behind all the other's backs, having a grand old time, while I dusted things carefully and put it back where you got it, Joyce." Her voice had taken on a caustic note, and she shook her head. "Not this girl. Life's too short. So I cornered Arnold one day and said I wanted to go some place. Some place away from all of...of this." She waved her hand at the house and garden. "Madrid, actually, although just about any place out of this crummy town would have served." She shook her head. "You know what he did?"

Steve stopped his inspection, his eyes briefly touching Chris's. They'd been picking up Items for Debbi Hannibal's second-hand store, Thrift Shop Nation, for the entire summer now, and it never failed to amaze them how talkative - and personal - some people became when disposing of their unwanted items.

"," Chris said, mostly because it was expected of him. He looked a little uncomfortable, and Steve tried not to smile.

Mrs. Karticker put her hands on her hips and glared again at the statue. "He said we couldn't afford to travel, and instead he went out and bought that."

Chris's eyes went to the statue, and Steve's followed.

It was kind of cute, actually. A small elephant, obviously a baby, with a look of playful joy somehow placed on its features by the caster. About three feet in height, the creature stood in the middle of a small circle of water edged with stones, in which a few tiny lily pads floated lazily about. The elephant's trunk was curved so that the end was turned skyward, and a thin fountain of water jetted upwards another foot from the end of it, spread, and tinkled pleasingly back into the water below.

"You really want us to take this?" Steve asked, scratching his chin and wondering what kind of plumbing would be involved in the job.

"It's his," the woman grated, "so it's going."

Chris cleared his throat. "We weren't expecting anything like this, ma'am. I'm not sure we could get this out of here in one piece."

That only caused the woman to grin evilly. "Well, no one said it had to be in one piece. I just want it gone, as well as his other stuff."

When Debbi had received the phone call for a pick up at this address, the woman caller had simply stated she had some things she wanted to donate to the shop. For donations, the boys could do a pick up on their own. For purchases of material, Debbi had to come along to choose what she wanted, and spend the store's money to buy it.

So when the boys had pulled up at 4597 Harper's Ranch Road in Chris's Renault truck, they had been surprised to see that the house was big and expensive-looking. The yard went way back from the street, was beautifully green in only the way that professional care could provide, and was landscaped to within an inch of its life. The house was a fairly massive colonial, of the southern variety, with four columns out front and grand double doors leading within.

The inside of the place was what the term magnificent had been coined to cover. The rooms were large, the furniture elegant, and dollar signs apparent everywhere that they looked. Steve and Chris had been led to a room that Mrs. Karticker described as a den, even though it was larger than the living room at Steve's house. "Everything in here goes but the furniture," Mrs. Karticker had told them, and then launched into her tale of divorce, and of finally having it finalized.

Steve had looked around the room doubtfully. There was a high-end audio system in an expensive cabinet, a massive flat-screen TV, two computers, several bookcases full of books, and artwork of all kinds hanging on the walls.

"You'll need to point out what you'd like to donate," he'd said.

"I told you - everything but the furniture. All the electronics go. The stupid pictures on the walls, the books, those things in the cabinets over there."

The 'things in the cabinets' proved to be baseball stuff: cards, pictures, hats, bats, balls - many autographed. "This, too?" Steve asked, incredulously.

"Especially that."

Chris had gaped at some of the cards under glass in their little metal frames. "Um, I'm pretty sure an autographed Mickey Mantle rookie card would be worth a lot of money."

Mrs. Karticker had nodded. "I know the collection is worth a lot. After you take it, I intend to photograph this room with nothing in it but the furniture and send the photo to my ex-husband, along with the caption, 'Guess what's burning in the patio fireplace?'"

Steve and Chris both had both looked amazed, neither ever having experienced this level of malice for another human being.

"I'm surprised he didn't want it as part of his settlement," Steve had hazarded to say.

"Oh, he wanted it, all right." Mrs. Karticker had again grinned like the Cheshire Cat. "But we had some land, and a boat, and a cottage in the Adirondacks, and the Mercedes, and some other things that I never got to use, that Arnold used with his friends. He wanted those things, and I let him have them. He wanted everything, actually. But the judge was a fine lady, and she didn't see it that way. So Arnold got the cottage, the land, the boat, the Mercedes, and half the bank accounts. I got the rest of the money, the house, and everything in it." Her grin this time showed some teeth. Pointed ones. "You should have seen his face when he agreed to give up the contents of the house."

Steve had looked at his boyfriend, unable to imagine loving someone like he was coming to love Chris, but then someday feeling such animosity for him that he would want to hurt him like this.

Chris seemed to be thinking along the same lines. His gold-flecked brown eyes smiled a moment at Steve, and then he looked back at the odd woman that had brought them there. "I think we'll need to call our boss. This stuff is too valuable for us just to take."

Steve had nodded at that, relieved to have the responsibility of the decision removed from their shoulders.

"It's what?" Debbi had said, once Steve had described the room full of treasures over the phone. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Nope. It's just like I said. I'll bet the baseball stuff is worth thousands all by itself. And there are books - first editions, looks to me, and some signed - and paintings on the walls she wants to give, too." He mentioned some of the names of the artists he'd written down, and Debbi sputtered like mad over the phone. "Let me talk to her."

Steve had sighed, and handed the phone to Mrs. Karticker. Then he had pulled Chris aside and they had stood before one of the glass cabinets and stared down at some of the baseball stuff together.

"Awesome, huh?" Chris had said.

"Crazy is the word I was thinking," Steve whispered, glancing back over his shoulder at Mrs. Karticker, who seemed to be having an animated discussion with Debbi. "I'm not sure I don't feel a little sorry for Mr. Karticker here."

Chris laughed, and reached out and squeezed Steve's wrist. "Gotta be a story in all this, somewhere."

Steve laughed, too. "You make one up, and you can tell it to me on our next ride out to get stuff."

"I might just do that."

They heard Mrs. Karticker say goodbye, and then the woman was back, handing Steve his phone. "Your boss? I like her. She said she understood very well that I wanted to kick Arnold in the balls a few times, but that this was not the way to go about it. She said I'd have a lot more fun spending the money that came in from selling Arnold's stuff. I think she's right."

Steve and Chris both had smiled at what was said, recognizing Debbi's no-holds-barred tone in the words spoken. Debbi could be very sweet, and both boys were fond of her; but she had also been around, seen and done a lot of things, and didn't pull any punches when they needed to be delivered with authority.

"What did she recommend?" Steve asked.

"An auction. She said she can have it done for me, for ten percent of the proceeds, and another ten percent donated to some children's mission in Columbus. I said okay." Mrs. Karticker sighed. "So you can leave this stuff here for now, and just get that thing out of my back yard. The thing that started it all."

Steve had grinned at Chris at the mention of the children's charity. It was just like Debbi to cut one of her favorite soft spots in on the action.

"What's the thing in the backyard?" Chris had asked.

"Come on. I'll show you."

Hence the elephant, and their present examination of its ability to be moved.

Chris got down on his knees, reached under the water, and felt around. "Oh. I feel some braided line here. Um, three-eighths, I think. And a valve. Probably runs to a feed somewhere nearby." He looked up at Steve. "Feels like there's a fitting on this thing that can be unscrewed. Then we can just take Dumbo here along to the truck."

Steve grinned. "I just realized something: it's white."

Chris stood, and brushed his hands together, looking over at him. "What's so special about that?"

Steve laughed. "We'll be bringing Debbi a white elephant."

Chris squinted a moment, and then he laughed, too. "Aw, man. I love it!" He winked, and turned to Mrs. Karticker. "Uh...did there used to be something here before the elephant? Another fountain or something?"

"Yes. A little one with a bowl that held water. It was pretty, and the birds loved it." She shook her head. "This thing just scares away the birds."

Chris nodded. "What happened to the fountain?"

Mrs. Karticker frowned. "Now that you mention it, I think I saw it in the garage."

"We can put it back for you," Chris offered. "Then you'll have birds again."

The woman's mouth dropped open, and an honest smile covered her features. "Why, you little doll. That's so sweet. Please, I would appreciate it very much."

Steve tried not to laugh as his boyfriend's face reddened slightly at the compliment.

So they went to the garage, and found the little fountain. It was stone, and didn't weigh a 'little' bit at all.

"Must have been some big guys that moved this," Steve said, as they wrestled it onto a flat dolly. It took them fifteen minutes to get the thing wheeled back to its original spot, another half hour to shut off the water source, disconnect the elephant, and trade the fountain into its place. Finally, they had the little elephant on the dolly and were slowly wheeling it out to the truck.

"All in a day's work," Chris said, grinning. "I knew I'd like this job."

Steve looked around, spotted no witnesses, and leaned across the elephant and gave his boyfriend a quick kiss. Chris grinned, the little gold flecks in his brown eyes sparkling in the sun. "Mmm. This job has some sweet perks."

Steve laughed, but had to agree.

They got the little elephant to the Renault, and managed to hoist it into the back.

"Man, that thing's heavy!" Steve said afterwards, sitting on the truck's bumper and wiping his brow. He shaded his eyes and glanced into the sky. "Not a cloud in sight. Gonna be a scorcher later."

"It's hot now," Chris said. He wiped his hands on his shorts, went around to the door of the truck, and Steve heard him rummaging in the little cooler behind the seat. Chris returned with two bottled iced teas, each dripping with perspiration, and handed one to Steve. "Here. Wet your whistle while I close up."

Steve stepped back while Chris climbed into the back of the Renault and secured the elephant in place with lines to stays on the inner walls of the box. Then he climbed out and slammed the truck's rear door.

"Let's say goodbye to Mrs. Karticker, and hit the road."

They went back to the house, and Mrs. Karticker let them in. "Oh! I was going to offer you guys drinks, but I see you have them." She smiled. "Look...I hope I didn't give you the impression I was a bitch or anything. I'm just reacting to being free for the first time in twenty years."

Steve nodded. "Well, good luck with that. I'm sure my boss will be back in touch with you about the auction."

Chris leaned forward. "Um... it's not my business, but are you still gonna tell your husband you burned all his stuff after it's gone?'

The woman grinned. "Maybe. Although it might be more fun to tell him it was all sold at an auction. An auction he missed."

Steve whistled. "I never want to get on your bad side, Mrs. Karticker."

"Oh, I'm nice, really. You two aren't old enough yet to have been stuck in a loveless relationship with a guy who thought you just existed to dust his collections." She winked. "Somehow, I don't think you ever will be, either."

Steve and Chris looked at each other, unsure of what to make of that one.

Mrs. Karticker just laughed, reached out, and tucked something into the pocket of Steve's tee-shirt. "You guys share, okay?"

Steve was about to reach into his pocket to see what the woman had placed there; but then he remembered an admonition his mom had given him once about doing exactly that. "Gifts of that sort are not to be examined and rated in front of the giver. You simply smile, and say thank you."

So Steve smiled, offered his thanks; and then the boys said their goodbyes, and headed back to the truck.

"'Odd duck', as my old man would say," Chris said, as he started the Renault and headed it down the long drive back to the road. The truck made a few noises as it got rolling - noises that sounded off to Steve - but his boyfriend just slammed his hand down on the dash a few times, and they went away.

"I kind of liked her, once my neck fur laid down," Steve said, grinning. "Bet she left some hellacious claw marks in that court room during the divorce."

Chris grinned, cleared his throat. "Now, son, you oughtn't be...I aughtn't be talking about that woman thatta way."

Steve laughed. Chris's interpretation of the old cartoon rooster, Foghorn Leghorn, was a favorite of them both. Chris would whip the character out when he wanted to emphasize something, and Steve just loved the look on his boyfriend's face when he did it. But at the moment, something else had Steve's attention.

"Time for that later, Mr. Leghorn." He reached into his pocket and pulled forth a folded piece of paper, and looked at it.

And then gaped at it. "Holy crap! It's a hundred dollar bill!"

Chris peered at the paper in Steve's hand. "What? No shit?"

Steve laughed. "Man. That was really cool of her." He rolled his eyes a bit. "But it just confirms in my mind that she was a little bonkers."

Chris shook his head. "Aw, that's not right, man. She was just being nice."

"I know. Maybe a hundred isn't much money to her. Hell, she was set to give us thousands in collectible merchandise." Steve smiled at that thought. "How about that Debbi? Some dealers would have taken advantage of Mrs. Karticker's mood."

"Yeah. It's one reason I like working for Debbi. She's cool like that."

Steve grinned. "Yeah? Any other reasons you like working for Debbi?"

Chris smiled, and pretended to concentrate mightily on the road. "Nope. Can't think of any."

Steve feigned a hurt look. "Not even one?"

Chris looked over at him, laughed, and then reached over and picked up Steve's hand from where it rested on his thigh. Chris gave it a fond squeeze. "Well, maybe one."

Steve sighed, feeling a sense of satisfaction flood throughout his body. If someone had told him, even at the start of summer, that in a short period of time he'd have the boyfriend he'd long dreamed of having, and feel like he was maybe, seriously - really - in love...he would have just shrugged it off. I don't have that kind of luck, he would have said.

But he had, and he did.

Steve squeezed back, and then drew Chris's hand back to him and kissed the back side of it.

Chris grinned. "Trying to tell me something?"

It was Steve's turn to play thick. "No. Just that my lips itched. Thanks for taking care of that for me."

Chris nodded. "No problem. Anything else itch?"

Steve was tempted to make a smart reply, one maybe a little bit sexy. But as he gazed into the twinkles of gold in his boyfriend's eyes, the temptation to make light of the moment vanished. "Just my heart," he said, quietly.

Chris looked surprised, and then touched. He grinned. "Aw. Love you."

Steve nodded. "Love you back."

They were coming up on a driveway into a small shopping center. Chris slowed the truck and turned in, and Steve relinquished the other boy's hand so that he could downshift. The Renault grunted, shook once, and then stopped. Chris waved the shifter into neutral, and set the brake. Then he leaned across towards Steve.

Steve met him halfway, wrapped his arms around Chris's shoulders, pushed his face against the other boy's. They both sighed, and touched tongues, and then proceeded to trade some spit in serious fashion. They both laughed, and Steve felt a rising tension between his legs. "God, you make me horny."

"Really?" Chris dropped a hand to Steve's crotch, and gently massaged what he found there. "Uh oh. I think your dipstick says you're a quart low."

Steve grinned into the kiss they were sharing. "I'm always up for an oil change. Wanna stay at my place tonight?"

Chris drew back incrementally, so that he could see into Steve's eyes. "Seriously? You don't think your folks would mind?"

"No. I asked them. My dad said I was old enough to decide, and my mom agreed. It's not like they have to worry about you getting pregnant, or anything."

Chris laughed. "Or you."

Steve nodded. "Josh and Kelly said that when we had a free night to call them, and maybe we could drop by and talk some. You up for something like that?"

Chris looked thoughtful. Josh and Kelly were the only other gay couple they had ever met. The four of them had spoken - a little - at the thrift shop; but that place was not private enough for the kind of conversation that they all longed to share.

"I could do that," Chris decided. He sighed. "Be nice to know what goes on in other guy's heads - other guys with guys, I mean."

Steve nodded, closed his eyes, and pushed his face back to Chris's. They rubbed noses and cheeks, gently, kissing here and there, and Steve slid a hand up Chris's thigh and discovered that his boyfriend was just as aroused as he was.

"I guess you make me horny, too," Chris breathed.

Steve heard a light tap-tap behind him, and turned his head. Someone was standing at the window, looking in at them. Steve's eyes registered the billed hat, and then the badge on the front of the shirt, and then the frown on the man's face. Stern, serious green eyes watched him, beneath a furrowed brow with a touch of gray hair at the temples. A no-nonsense face, if Steve had ever seen one.

For a second his voice would not come, he was so startled. But then it did, sounding a little weak and breathless. "Uh...hi...officer."

The man sighed. "Hi fellas. Can I see some ID, and the vehicle's registration, please?"

Steve blinked, disengaged himself from Chris, and reached into the back pocket of his shorts for his wallet. Chris also produced his, and the boys handed their licenses over. Chris looked through his wallet some more, and produced the registration card, which Steve also passed to the cop. The officer took them, examined them, and nodded. "Hold tight a second, guys. Please do not exit the vehicle."

He backed off and stepped towards the back of the truck. Steve looked in the side mirror, and could see the police car behind them now. The officer went to it, got inside, and bent over the computer on the console within.

Steve looked at Chris. They stared at each other a moment...and then both boys started laughing. But quietly.

"Shh," Chris said, through a large grin. "Let's not piss this guy off, okay?"

Steve nodded, returning his gaze to the side mirror. "I don't believe he just walked up on us like that," he whispered, still grinning.

Chris reached over and rubbed Steve's thigh. "I do. When I've got you close to me like that you could burn the whole world down and I wouldn't notice.

Steve turned and smiled into Chris's eyes. "What a sweet thing to say. Except the burning part, I mean."

Chris was staring past Steve at the mirror. "Shh. Here he comes."

The police officer came back to Steve's window, looked in, and then walked around the nose of the truck to Chris's side.

"I should be addressing the driver, by rights." He laid an arm along the top of the door and leaned closer to Chris. "Know why we're talking right now?"

Chris nodded. "Um - where I'm stopped?"

"That's right. You're blocking ingress to the shopping center."

"I'm sorry. I didn't think. I just meant to stop for a moment."

The officer nodded, and handed their cards back through the window. "Okay. Just be more careful in the future, huh?"

Chris took the IDs, looking surprised. "No ticket?"

The officer shook his head. "No ticket. Next time you guys want to get close, find somewhere a little more private." He stood back and patted the rim of the window. "And someplace not in the way, okay?"

Steve and Chris both nodded. "Thanks," Steve said.

The cop shook his head, looking a little puzzled, but nodded at them. "Have a nice day."

And then he turned and headed back to his car.

"Wow," Steve mused aloud. "That was pretty cool. He could have made you pay."

"Yup." Chris started the truck, put it into gear, checked his mirrors, and pulled off. He coasted further up the drive, turned, found a parking place at the side of the lot, and backed the truck into it. "Better." He shut the engine off and turned to Steve, reaching for him. "Now, where were we?"

Steve gaped, and then laughed. He looked back in the side mirror at the police car, which was just driving off. "Bet he has a story to tell the guys in the locker room at the station."

Chris laughed, and pressed close. "I have a story to tell you right here and now."

They kissed, and rubbed their faces together, and kissed some more. Steve sighed, and turned his head so that his cheek was against Chris's. "So I take it you'll stay at my place tonight?"

"Sure. Looking forward to it."

Steve grinned and opened his eyes.

He noticed then that there was an SUV parked in the line of cars across from them. The back window was raised, and a line of little kids was hanging over the top of the tailgate, watching them. Two girls and a boy, ranging maybe seven to nine years old. All had big smiles on their faces.

Steve laughed. "Man, you sure know how to pick a great parking spot. That's twice now."

Chris opened his own eyes, gave a startled laugh. Then he raised a hand and waved. The little kids waved back, laughing.

"Maybe a sign on the front of the truck?" Steve mused aloud. "Gay guys kissing inside - do not disturb."

Chris laughed, but he started the Renault and put it into gear. "You worry too much."

They pulled out, and both of them waved at the kids, who were still grinning at them.

"They're not too young to learn about love," Chris said. "I'm sure they've seen their parents kissing before."

"We're two guys," Steve pointed out. "Bet they haven't seen that before."

Chris nodded. "Maybe. Then it's time they did. The earlier they learn tolerance, the better off the world will be."

Steve groaned in delight, grabbed for Chris's free hand. "Gimme. My lips itch again."

Chris made a show of sighing, but the speed with which he offered his hand killed any notion of disapproval. "Lotta things itch on you, boy."

Steve kissed his boyfriend's hand, and nodded. "If you're staying the night, you can scratch all of them later."

Chris sighed again. "Son...I say, son...ya talked me into it."

Debbi came out onto the front porch of the store as Chris backed the truck up near the steps and stopped. The boys got out, and headed around to the rear of the truck.

"You weren't supposed to bring any of the Karticker collection back here," she said, eying them both pointedly.

"We didn't," Steve said, as Chris opened the rear door of the Renault. "This is something else she had."

Debbi came down the steps and peered into the back of the truck. Steve was watching her as she squinted inside, and he grinned as her eyebrows arched upwards. "Is that --?"

Steve laughed. "It's a fountain. Mrs. Karticker's husband had it in his garden out back. Mrs. Karticker said it started their divorce."

Debbi grinned. "It's cute, what I can see of it. Can you guys get it out?"

Chris nodded, and climbed up into the rear of the truck. He loosened the lines securing the baby elephant, and then tossed the cords towards the front of the box. "Ready?"

Steve nodded, and both boys grunted as they walked the elephant to the edge of the floor panel. Then Chris jumped out, and the boys grunted again as they wrestled the beast to the grass.

"Man, that thing is heavy!" Steve reiterated, rubbing at the sweat that had immediately popped out on his brow.

Debbi was walking back and forth, examining the critter, a little smile on her face. "You say it's a fountain?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah. The water squirts up out of the trunk."

"Think you can sell it?" Steve asked, smiling. "It's a white elephant, after all."

Debbi laughed. "That fact was not lost on me. But there's no way I can sell this."

Steve felt a momentary disappointment. He kind of liked the expression of joy on the little elephant's face. "I'd hate to have to cart it to the dump."

Debbi stared at him. "Are you kidding? This thing's a treasure! I'd sell it before I trashed it, and I am not selling it." She reached out and patted the end of the upraised trunk, and then looked around the front yard. "I'm just trying to decide where to put it. I'll have to get a plumber out here to run some water, and a landscaper to make a little pond it can stand in."

Steve and Chris stared at each other. "You want to keep it?" Chris asked, uncertainly.

Debbi rolled her eyes. "Use some imagination, guys. Can you think of a better ad for a second-hand shop than a white elephant?" She looked around again, and raised a hand to her chin. "If I put it by the flagstone steps, people can get a good look at it when they drive by, and an even better one when they come up to the house."

Chris laughed, and Steve joined him.

Debbi grinned at them, and then walked out into the yard, turned and looked up at the sign running across the roof of the old Kennally house.

Thrift Shop Nation. Everything's Better the Second Time Around.

"I can get Mel - he's the guy that painted the sign - to come down from Columbus and paint a little, smiling white elephant face there on the left side of the sign, right before the store's name. Maybe make the elephant winking, or something. It'll be great."

Steve could imagine that, and nodded. "You have a flair for this, Deb."

"I should. It's all I've been thinking about for the last two years." The woman eyeballed them then, and frowned. "Hey, you guys look hot. And tired. There are some subs in the fridge in the office, and some cold ice teas. Put the truck down in the lot and come up and take a break, okay?"

Steve grinned at Chris as they got back into the truck. Chris started the Renault, and turned it back to the left and drove back down through the trees to the gravel lot just off the road.

Steve had become almost as fond of the odd truck as he had of the boy that it belonged to, having discovered that both Chris and the Renault had fascinating and hidden facets to their personalities that charmed him to the core. The fact that the Renault had been built for the UK market and featured right-hand drive was a source of humor to Steve, who had made affectionate jokes to Chris about him having a truck that was just like him: it was designed to drive on the other side of the street.

Chris took it all in good humor, understanding that the words were offered with love, and not a little insight into his nature, which Steve seemed unusually good at scoping out. Chris had never dreamed he would meet someone he could love, either, and had retreated into a world of loneliness and distrust - until Steve had pulled him back into the light.

It had been a summer of dreams, really. Emboldened by having a partner - one who would watch his back no matter what might come - Steve had come out, to his parents and to the town, and finally managed to shake off the attentions of Sharon Carpenter, who had at first been miffed, and then chagrined, and then actually pleasant about the announcement that she was wasting her time pursuing a gay guy. Steve being gay had actually made them friends after a fashion, with him being able to relax around Sharon now that the heat of pursuit was off, and her suddenly finding that there was an interesting person inside the shell she had been lusting after.

Kelly and Josh had come out not long after, to no one's real surprise, as the two had been so happy around each other for so long that they might as well have been wearing signs that proclaimed their love for each other. Aside from some kidding here and there - which both boys had simply smiled at and ignored - neither Josh nor Kelly had experienced much in the way of trouble aimed at them. Part of it was that people had known them their whole lives, and Claymore was a town that kind of looked out for its own. And some of it was Josh's size - he'd been JV football this past year, and would be varsity next - and at just shy of six feet and weighing in at two hundred pounds, he wasn't the sort of guy you said things to without expecting payment in return. The first time that Josh had jerked someone off their feet for kidding a little too deeply had been the last time that anyone had pushed the limits of the beefy boy's tolerance.

It had turned out better than Steve had expected. Sure, there were some adults in town that smiled knowingly at him now, and he had not failed to miss the occasional laugh and pointed finger from among the local kids. There had even been a few dark looks and uncomprehending shakes of the head - but the important thing was that no one had gone confrontational about it. His own parents had been nothing but supportive, and had welcomed Chris into the house almost like a long-lost second son. Chris's parents had been maybe a little less accepting; but after seeing the change in their son's attitude towards life, they had made the decision in favor of his happiness, and had been pretty good-natured about things ever since.

It was easy to be happy with Chris. He was bright and creative, with a genuine artistic bent that ran deep in many areas, and he was - at least to Steve - absolutely gorgeous to look at. Even Sharon had admitted that Chris was cute - after she had gotten over being mad at him as the competition that had stolen Steve right out from underneath her very nose.

Chris, too, seemed happy. He had jumped with both feet into being loved, and had returned nothing but the same since the first day they had decided to be together.

"You're staring at me again," Chris said, as he parked the truck.

Steve grinned. "Can't help it. My eyes are attracted to good looking stuff."

Chris sighed, but the twinkle in his eyes could not be missed. "Look who's talking." He leaned forward, gave Steve a small but very meaningful kiss. "I'm hungry. Let's go get those subs, huh?"

They got out of the truck and crossed the crushed bluestone lot, and ascended the flagstone steps to the walk to the porch. Steve's eyes took in the old Kennally house as they approached - a house looking far sharper now than it ever had before in his lifetime. The exterior had been cleaned, the shutters fixed and opened wide, and they and the house's trim painted in a crisp, deep red that offset the white cedar shingles nicely. The sign across the porch roof had drawn in much of the town since the doors had first opened, and there had proved to be more than enough business to convince Debbi Hannibal that she had made the right decision in opening a second hand store in this town. People loved a good deal - useful merchandise at an inexpensive and fair price - and there simply was no competition until you got all the way to Bentonville - Chris's home town.

It had proved to be a wonderful summer job for both boys, allowing them not only to meet, but to continue to work together and share life afterwards. Debbi had been supportive of them, had come to trust and rely on them, and so far things had been almost idyllic. Both boys had asked to be allowed to continue on with their jobs once school started. The shop opened at ten and closed at six during the week, and it would mean half-days only for Steve and Chris, who didn't get home from school until after two p.m. On the weekends it wouldn't make any difference, and they could both still get full days. wasn't the money that mattered, so much as the experience of belonging. Both Steve and Chris had found something special about the old house now refitted as a second-hand store, and the bright and different woman who ran it. They had become unified in some fashion that could not be exactly specified by any of them. It wasn't just a job for Steve and Chris, it was a special experience they both had come to love.

"Sure. I was hoping you guys could find a way to stay on," Debbi had said, grinning in her infectious manner. "I'm spoiled now. If I had to break in a pair of new guys I'd get all grumpy and business would suffer after I started eating customers for breakfast."

Steve and Chris had just laughed, pleased to be considered necessary and accepted someplace they had already learned to view as special.

"But," Debbi had said then, with emphasis, "this can work only as long as it doesn't interfere with your schooling. It's going to mean a long day for you guys. So we'll play it by ear and see what happens." She shrugged. "You can both keep working on the weekends, even if the weekdays somehow don't work out."

Steve and Chris had both promised each other that it would work out.

The subs were turkey and cheese, and were delicious. The boys kicked back at the desk in the little office, and luxuriated in front of a small box fan that had a price tag of five dollars on it. Like the little stool that Debbi sat on when she was sorting and pricing things on the floor of the front room, the fan had been copped right off a shelf in the store, trading its sale value for useful value in the daily operations of the shop. A number of other things entering the store in boxes to be sold had found their way to either Steve's or Chris's bedrooms, sold to them by Debbi at a discount and on a payment plan of a few bucks a week.

"If a job doesn't have perks, it's not a job you can grow in," Debbi had told them, winking. Dispensing wisdom she had gained from just a very short working life was something that Debbi loved to do, often making it humorous as a reminder to herself that she was fairly new at the game as well. A rich party girl in her youth, Debbi had one day suddenly realized that she was wasting her life doing meaningless things, and had set out to make a place for herself in the world that was not dependent upon her family's money.

Thrift Shop Nation was based on a second hand store that Debbi had discovered in Paris, run by two old ladies who sold mostly used woman's clothing, but who had great fun doing it and obviously loved their little shop. The idea that things that other people had once owned and used could be recycled into new life with new owners was an epiphany for Debbi, who had been raised with the moneyed attitude that when something was done, it was to be disposed of.

So when she had set out to make her own way, it was to this business model she had turned for her first go at the world. And - so far, at least - she seemed to be doing a good job of rescuing things bound for the dumpster, and finding new life for them in new homes. Steve and Chris both were of a mind to help her with that business model, and not at all embarrassed about the fact that it sometimes resulted in cool stuff that they wanted for themselves.

Debbi came into the office and grinned at them, got herself an iced tea, then pulled another chair from the corner and sat down. "You guys did good. That little elephant is going to add some life to the place. I called Derek Hambledon and made an appointment for him and his partner to come and run some plumbing and electricity for me, and with Greenlawns to come and make the little pond. I couldn't get Mel on the phone, but I left him some voice mail. He's probably out on a job, hanging from the rafters somewhere, and couldn't put down his brush to answer the phone."

Steve grinned around a bite of his sub, chewed and swallowed. "Mrs. Karticker mentioned that some of the proceeds from the auction were going to the kid's mission in Columbus."

Debbi scratched her neck and looked the other way. "I may have mentioned something like that."

"You old softie," Chris said, also grinning.

Debbi brought her gaze back, and sighed. "I just think that when it comes to people, care should be taken to offer them every advantage the first time, so that they do not wind up in the second hand store of life, waiting for another chance."

"No argument from us," Steve said, holding up a hand. "We were just commenting on your generosity, is all. It's much more fun working for a sweetheart than it would be working for some stingy old witch who pinched every penny until it screamed for mercy."

Debbi's face colored, but she smiled. "I expect, just from what you told me on the phone, that the Karticker collection will bring a good sized wad of bills at auction."

Steve laughed, and told Debbi how Mrs. Karticker planned to send her ex-husband pictures of his empty den and say how she had burned everything in the patio fireplace. Or maybe to tell him after the auction that everything had been sold.

Debbi frowned at that. "Don't bet on it, Steve-O. I'm going to partner with an auction house in New York City to sell that stuff. I already talked to Gerry Connell and gave him a general idea of what was to be expected, and he's excited about it, too. I've arranged with Mrs. Karticker for me to go by her home and catalog the stuff this Sunday, and once that's done, the auction house will begin making small noises to their regulars about what's coming up. I'll get the collection crated and shipped, and the auction house will do the final appraising. But by the time the official announcement is made, those collectors that follow stuff like that will already be aware of the upcoming sale."

Steve shrugged. "What's that got to do with Mrs. Karticker's plans to upset her ex?"

Debbi sighed. "A collector like her ex is probably plugged into most of the best markets, honey. He'll probably see pretty quickly that it's his own stuff coming up for sale, and be there to try to buy it back."

Chris made a small so what? face. "Maybe that's better. An odd duck like Mrs. Karticker may get a kick out of selling the guy his own stuff."

"And she may be upset that he got it back, too," Debbi pointed out. "I'll have to have a talk with her on Sunday, when I see her. If she is resistant to the idea of her ex-husband buying his stuff back, the collection may have to be broken up and sold through several outlets." She shrugged. "We'll see." But then she brightened. "It's getting sold one way or the other, and that's all that matters."

They were silent a moment, and then Debbi laughed. "Actually, it might be fun. Collector's often have stuff that is worth considerably more now than they originally paid for it, and this auction will bring in some monied players. I'll be sure to point out to Mrs. Karticker that her ex-hubby might have to pay as much as double what he originally paid for stuff, just to get it back. She might like the irony of that idea - that he had to buy the same stuff twice."

Chris tilted his head back and grinned, and then shook his head at Debbi. "You have an evil streak in you, boss."

"I cultivate it now and then as needed, too," Debbi said pointedly. "But not just now, okay? After you finish those sandwiches you can come and help me with the boxes you brought in yesterday. Some of them are heavy."

Steve and Chris both nodded, and dug into their subs. Debbi took a sip of her tea, and watched them a moment. "So...if it isn't prying, how are things going with the two of you?"

Steve and Chris smiled at each other. "Pretty good, I think," Steve said. "We get along particularly well."

Chris nodded, laughing at the understatement. "I'd agree with that."

Debbi smiled. "I can see that for myself. I actually meant, how are you two getting along with being out in the open now?"

Steve gave a relaxed sigh. "We haven't had any problems. My folks made it clear that it was my life, and they were behind me no matter what."

Debbi blew some air between her lips. "You sure got lucky." She looked at Chris. "How about your parents?"

"I don't think they were thrilled at first," Chris admitted. "They probably wanted grandkids, and a daughter-in-law - that stuff." He nodded. "But me getting together with Steve seems to have improved my mood a little, and they like that. They finally told me they'd been worried about why I acted like I did, but understood now, and that as long as I was this happy, they wanted to be happy for me, too."

Debbi sighed. "That's great. You're both lucky to have parents that love you first, before their own self-images. A lot of parents take it personally when their kids don't turn out exactly like they expected."

Steve wondered briefly if Debbi was speaking from experience. That she had butted heads with her dad for some years now was something she had admitted to. And that she had not been back to see him in seven years, the sad result.

He knew that he and Chris had been lucky - fortunate to be allowed to stay together. Some families wouldn't tolerate a relationship like theirs. But apparently such acceptance was not as rare as he had expected, as both Josh and Kelly also seemed to still be on good terms with their folks. Josh had even laughed about that. "As long as I kick ass on the football field, my dad said I can sleep with two-headed aliens if I want," he'd told them.

Debbi looked thoughtful. "I've known a few gay guys in my travels. Europe - well, the western part, anyway - is actually a lot more tolerant of gay relationships than this country happens to be."

"I've read that online," Steve admitted.

Debbi grinned. "Then it must be true." She leaned forward and patted both their knees. "Finish up and come help me, okay?" She stood, tossed back her ice tea, emptied the bottle, and turned to go. As she exited the office she flipped the empty bottle over her shoulder without looking. Steve and Chris both watched as it followed a perfect arc into the trashcan by the desk. Then she was gone.

"Woman's awesome," Chris said, grinning.

Steve finished his sandwich and stood. "I've known that since the first day. She's just one of two really awesome people I've met this summer."

Chris smiled and got up, too. They tossed their trash and their empties, and Chris put an arm around Steve's shoulders and squeezed him as they headed back to the front of the shop.

After dinner, Steve and Chris sat for a while in the living room and watched TV and talked with Steve's parents. There was already an easy kind of togetherness about it, and Steve was so happy that both of his parents seemed to like Chris that he found himself smiling at his mom and dad a lot. They noticed, of course, and smiled back a lot.

The clock hit seven, and the sun began to edge down lower in the sky. Steve got up and called Kelly Kittering, and asked if he and Josh would like to get together for a little and talk. Kelly said that he and Josh were down at the pond near the creek, which was a field away from the house that Debbi now lived in.

"You guys come on by," Kelly said. "There's nobody here right now but us. We can shoot the shit for a while."

"We'll be there in a little," Steve returned, and turned off his cell.

He and Chris changed into shorts, and just kicked off their shoes, and headed for the door. They told Steve's parents where they were going and that they wouldn't be late, and then they walked out to the Renault and climbed in. Chris pulled out, and Steve gave him directions to the pond.

"It's not quite as big as the one near your place," Steve decided, comparing the two bodies of water in his head. "They're different. It's nice, though." He grinned at his boyfriend. "You'll see."

It was a short ride, past the heart of town and then a left where they would have gone right to get to the thrift store. The road was two-lane blacktop, traffic was light, and the trees masked the sun now, which was heading for ground in an hour or so. Steve sat back in his seat, smiling, enjoying the cooler air against his face that the end of the day was bringing as it swept into the truck through the side window, and just loving the fact that he was not alone for another evening. That he had someone special.

They rounded a curve in the road, and Steve directed Chris to turn the Renault into a dirt drive. "Go slow, because it gets bumpy up here around the bend."

They chugged over the rough spots, bouncing, and then the road smoothed again and the trees all about them suddenly receded, and fields of tall grass closed in on both sides of them. Steve grinned at the waves that ran across the tops of the grass, wind-driven by the light breeze, so like the ocean, and yet so much a part of the world he had always known. "Man, I love this place."

"It's cool," Chris agreed, also taking in the waves that moved towards them from the left, seemed to skip right over the road, and then picked up, unfazed by the gap, on the other side. "Man, look at that sun."

It was visible now, on the road ahead, no longer hidden behind trees: blood red, enormous somehow as it sat atop the horizon. Lacy orange clouds hung all about it, rippling upwards into the sky, and shading to indigo before merging with the general blueness.

"Red sky at night," Chris said, grinning.

Steve laughed. "You sound like my grandmother. Everything in the world has some old proverb that goes with it."

Chris looked over at him. "Yeah? That sounds like fun."

"You wouldn't think so, if you had to listen to all of them."

"Aw, come on. Grandmother's are cool. Mine rides a Harley and has tats."

Steve looked at the serious expression on Chris's face, and was about to ask if he was serious, when something in the other boy's eyes gave him away.

"Sure she does," Steve said, laughing. "You almost had me."

Chris grinned. "Okay, so she doesn't have tats."

Steve laughed, reached over and claimed Chris's free hand. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you."

Chris opened his mouth to reply, but Steve suddenly pointed at a barely noticeable indentation coming up in the grass to the side of the road. "Oh, turn right there. Sorry. It's hard to see sometimes."

Chris hit the brakes, and wrestled the Renault into the indicated turn. This stretch of narrow dirt road followed a shallow grade downward, and ended in a cut field bordered by trees. A small gray car was parked there - Kelly's Chevy.

"Park anywhere, but turn around first," Steve suggested. "If there's nobody here by now there probably won't be later, but every now and then some group of beer guzzlers shows up and parks a bunch of cars here. If you are already facing out we can just nudge them out the way if they block us in."

Chris's eyebrows went up at that, and he laughed. "Okay. You know best." He swung the Renault around, and backed it in next to Kelly's car.

They got out, and Steve motioned for Chris to come up beside him, and then reached out and took his boyfriend's hand, lacing their fingers together. Chris's eyes darted quickly about, but there was no one to be seen.

Steve grinned. "A little late to get shy on me."

"Shit. It's just reflex action, I guess. Sorry."

Steve headed them for the start of a path that led along the trees. The field was awash in sunshine, but of the soft, orange, stretched-out kind that falls from a sun contemplating a dive below the horizon. The breeze whispered in the trees, and its refreshing coolness signaled the onset of twilight.

Magic time, Steve thought, as he pulled Chris into a wide gap in the trees. The short hour before sunset was truly a special time of the day. There was always this great feeling of change coming, as the world somehow made all these enormously subtle adjustments between the time of light and the time of dark. It had always been amazing to Steve that the feel of the world could change so much just by the absence of direct sunlight. The day belonged to the sun, and the night was the realm of the stars and the moon.

But it was more than just a change in the world's lighting. Things that seemed utterly clear in the true colors of sunshine took on new meaning when painted in the subtle shines of more distant suns, and in the pale glow of the moon. That moonlight was itself just a ghost of the sun, changed by reflection into something else, only served to confirm that the light it offered was of the sort that did not demand perfection. The night was a time of exploration, a time where imagination ruled, a time of change in the way one saw things.

The night was the time where the rules relaxed, and all things were possible - and two people could be close, no matter what the world elsewhere thought about it.

They emerged into a large open area bordered by trees. The hollow was filled with water, dark in this more shaded place, with just a hint of blue light dancing on its surface and reflecting the dim ghosts of treetops above. They were facing an edge of the water that was lined with a concrete pier - more a platform, really - narrow in width, but rather long, with the upright, square-cut butts of cut railroad ties sticking three feet upwards out of the concrete of each end. To one of these was tied a small rowboat, which drifted leisurely on the quiet waters, waiting patiently for the next visit from its owner.

Sitting with his back against the other one, his bare legs splayed outwards across the concrete, was Josh Smalley. Sitting between Josh's legs, his back to the larger boy's chest and the side of his head laid comfortably against his boyfriend's jaw, was Kelly Kittering. Josh had his arms around Kelly, holding him, and the two were talking quietly, and both smiling.

Both boys were wearing just their swim trunks, and looked relaxed and completely at home here among the trees.

They looked over at the same time and saw Steve and Chris, and Kelly lifted a hand and waved. "Come on over, guys."

Chris gave Steve's hand a little extra squeeze, and the two of them started across the grass. They reached the pier, stepped up the few inches to its smooth concrete deck, and walked down to the end to where the other boys sat.

"What's up, fellas?" Steve asked, sinking into a cross-legged sit. Chris followed him down, leaving no room between save for their knees. Steve grinned, squeezing his boyfriend's hand, and Chris simply sighed and settled himself against him.

Kelly grinned. "Yeah, you two don't look happy."

Josh nodded in agreement, grinned at them mischievously, then turned his head and nipped gently at Kelly's ear. Kelly pretended not to notice, but his smile grew to show the whites of his teeth, and his eyelids drooped just that extra measure that suggested supreme contentment.

Steve laughed. "Yeah, you guys don't, either."

Even Chris smiled at that, and Steve felt his boyfriend's body relax even more against him. Chris still carried some small wariness - some of the hurt from his previous life - the life he had lived before he had met Steve. It had been a difficult time in the boy's life. Steve was aware of the fact that, while now largely submerged into the complexities of Chris's being, it was a time that could never be totally forgotten.

"Beautiful evening," Josh said, with a sedate sigh, his eyes briefly smiling at Steve and Chris. "Perfect for hanging with beautiful people."

Steve laughed at the glimpse of the sweet guy that lived inside the hulking footballer's body. Before he had become aware of Josh's special connection with Kelly, Steve had viewed the bigger boy as just another jock, maybe a little quieter than most, but one whose head had little room inside for things and events that were not sports-related.

He could have not been more wrong. Josh was perhaps the best example that Steve had ever encountered of the contents of a book being hugely at variance with its cover. Yes, Josh loved football, and yes, Josh loved all sports. He was a jock by nature, there was no doubt about that.

But a quick examination of Josh's table of contents described a boy with many interests, many of which he had kept hidden from the world at large. He loved art and science, loved to read and talk about books, had a taste for classical music and jazz in addition to rock, and doted on his Irish Setter, Prince. Kelly, for his part, was much the same, in that what you saw was only a small part of what was going on inside, although there was much more of an air of sensitivity about him - an air that Steve had been aware of even when they were briefly Cub Scouts together in the fourth grade.

Once, at the start of an outing in the woods, two of the guys had gotten into a rough-and-tumble while the Den Dad had gone back to the van to get his compass, and one boy - Jack Knox - had gotten accidentally head-butted hard in the face, resulting in a bloody nose and and a brief loss of his senses. Steve and Kelly had been among the boys that had dragged the two wrestlers apart, and Kelly, upon spying Jack's condition, had sat down and cared for him with a tenderness that Steve would always remember, sitting with the other boy between his legs and wrapped gently in his arms, talking to him quietly while Jack struggled with his wits.

Even back then, Steve had known he had a special liking for other boys. It predated his awareness of sexuality by several years, and had manifested itself in close friendships, a curious awareness of the parts of other boys hidden by their clothing, and a desire for physical contact through play together. So his curiosity had been high as he had watched Kelly hold Jack much in the same manner as Josh was holding Kelly now, and listened to Kelly talk gently and reassuringly to Jack until the guy was aware enough to want to shrug him off and get to his feet. There had been a caring element to the way that Kelly had looked after Jack that had touched Steve's heart deeply.

Steve and Kelly had never spoken of that day, though Steve would have liked to. He briefly saw in Kelly a kindred spirit, one who maybe understood what it was like to view other boys as special. Steve had never been attracted to Kelly like he was to Jerry Custer, but the idea that the other boy might be friendly to a closer contact intrigued him. But unlike with Jerry, who was a friend and easy to talk to, Kelly was just another guy in class, and the two of them had never really gotten close enough for Steve to ask questions. It was a subject so closely held that Steve had never been able to think of a way to broach it. And once Steve had become aware of the general stigma of being gay, he was afraid to bring up the subject at all.

But now...things were different, obviously.

Steve must have been staring at Kelly while recalling those past moments, because the other boy suddenly perked up and grinned at him. "What are you thinking about?"

Steve grinned. "Jack Knox."

Kelly's eye widened, and he laughed." Oh...Jack." He sighed. "Man, he sure was a cute guy."

"I was remembering the time he and Bret Halmer were tussling in the woods while Mr. Kramer was off looking for his compass, and Bret hit Jack between the eyes with his head. Almost knocked him out."

Kelly's smile slipped into a frown. "Wow, that's way back. But...yeah, I remember that. Jack was knocked silly." He shook his head. "We didn't know about head injuries back then, but that could have been serious. I did wonder years later if Jack might have gotten a concussion, the way he was only half aware of stuff for a few minutes."

Steve smiled. "I was just remembering the way you held him, and talked into his ear, and told him he would be okay. I thought it was awfully sweet of you to do it."

Kelly looked surprised. "Really?" He looked away a moment, as if remembering. "I was kind of sweet on him, but didn't have the guts to let him know. I didn't know about sex, just how nice it was to hold someone." His eyes returned to Steve's. "Hold someone male, that is."

Josh grinned and gave Kelly a squeeze. "You mean I'm not your first?" The way he said it seemed to shout that he didn't care at all if he was not first, just that he was the one there now.

Kelly leaned his head back and rubbed it against Josh's cheek. "You're my first lover, you know that. But you're not the first guy I ever hugged. That would be my cousin, Emory."

Steve looked at Chris, and they both grinned. "Ooh, I love secret pasts," Chris said.

Kelly laughed. "It wasn't much. I used to go to Emory's with my folks every now and then. Emory had this really cool tree house in the catalpa tree in his backyard, and we would climb up there and spy over the fences on what his neighbors were doing in their backyards. The family next door had a teenaged girl and a swimming pool, and she and her boyfriend were always out necking by it in the chaise lounge chair. Emory used to giggle at that, and I guess it made him horny or something, because he always wanted to wrestle me. We'd do that a lot, but it wasn't really wrestling, because pretty soon we'd just stop, and lay there and kind of hold and rub each other." Kelly sighed. "It felt good, and it gave us both some wood, but we didn't know what to do with it - not exactly - so all we ever did was rub them against each other through our clothing." His expression said that it was a fond memory. "We were so young, and there was so much we didn't know. Just kids."

Steve nodded. "You and Josh have been friends for a couple of years. When did you guys know you liked each other, know. Like you do?"

Josh gave Kelly a squeeze. "I knew the first time I saw him."

Kelly grinned, but shook his head at Steve and Chris. "No he didn't. We met in art class in seventh grade. He was drawing a dog, and I told him it looked like a lion."

Steve laughed. "A lion?"

"Yeah. It had a mane and everything."

Josh rolled his eyes. "That was Gruffie, my Uncle Ed's Great Pyrenees. They have that extra fur that stands out around their neck. But it's called a ruff, not a mane."

"It looked like a lion." Kelly tilted his head back, turned it, and kissed Josh's jaw. "But it doesn't matter. It was really cute when you were done with it, no matter what it was."

Josh smiled and returned the kiss. "It definitely wasn't the cutest thing I saw that day."

Steve felt Chris laugh silently, and looked over at him. "I'm glad it's not just us," Chris said, grinning.

Steve nodded. "Yeah, I know what you mean." He looked over at the others. "Me'n Chris say the same kind of stuff to each other." He smiled. "Some of it's pretty awful. But it's like we can't help it. Sometimes we just laugh at it." Then he sighed. "But sometimes, I want to cry, I'm so happy to hear it."

Josh smiled, and Kelly laughed. "Of course. You guys are in love. What'd you expect?"

Steve looked at Chris again. What had he expected love to be like? "I don't know. I only dreamed about it before I met Chris, so I didn't really know what to expect." He sighed. "All I know is this is way better than anything I ever imagined."

Chris's eyes sparkled, and he leaned his forehead against Steve's. "Ain't that the truth."

Kelly shrugged. "Just be glad you can say it to each other. Remember what it was like when you were young and didn't understand gay, or back when you did know, but were in hiding? You had to keep your mouth shut around guys you liked." He nodded. "I liked my cousin Emory, and I liked holding him. I realized it was something special. And I really liked Jack Knox, and I wanted to hold him, too. So when he got hurt and went down, I did. It was the only way I could be close to him and show I cared."

"I remember," Steve said. "I thought it was pretty special. I wanted to ask you about it, but never had the nerve."

"Really? I didn't know you well back then." Kelly grinned. "You were too busy being friends with Jerry Custer."

Steve's mouth dropped open, and he felt a warmth spring up in his cheeks. "You couldn't see how I liked him, could you?"

"No." Kelly shook his head. "Not like you mean. I never suspected you were gay until you came out. But I could see how much you and Jerry liked each other. Especially Jerry. He was always hanging on you and shit. I actually once suspected that he might be gay."

Steve gave a startled little gasp. "I had the hots for him for a long time. If he was gay, I would have known."

"I think he liked you enough to do stuff with you," Kelly insisted. "I can see shit like that, I'm telling you."

Steve gaped a moment, and then laughed. "He's the worst girl-chaser in the school!"

"Yeah - now. But he sure looked like he was sweet on you a few years back."

Steve was amazed at that, at what others could see that he could not. He had always thought of Jerry as his best friend, and when sex had started to become a factor in Steve's life, he had directed his passions at Jerry and a few of his other friends. But only in his mind. And never once had he dreamed that any of what he felt was in any way being returned.

But then a memory came back... "Jerry felt me up through my pants once, when we were wrestling in the grass."

Kelly's eyes brightened. "Yeah? That doesn't surprise me. In case you haven't noticed, even guys that go the straight path often take a turn through gay territory first. Guys are with other guys when the first urges strike, and so that's where those urges go." Kelly nodded. "If you had responded, you probably could have at least fooled around with him."

Steve's heart did a little flip at the idea. Had he grabbed Jerry back - squeezed his dick like Jerry had squeezed Steve's - they might have wound up...naked together? Steve closed his eyes as the first internal images of what might have been burst inside his imagination...but then...but then something happened. Those images ground to a halt, froze even in the act of being painted into colors of reality. Steve took a startled breath and opened his eyes again, and the images escaped, and were whisked away on the winds of time. He turned his head and looked at Chris, who was watching him with an interested expression now. Interested, and...what?

Chris's eyes were so deep, and so full of things that touched Steve inside. Was he, even just for a brief second of idle thought, considering trading those things for something else?

"I believe in a kind of fate," Steve said then, quietly. "Not predestination, or anything quite so bold...but I believe sometimes that things happen for a reason in life." He shook his head. "I could never be with Jerry. It didn't happen that way. That means to me it wasn't supposed to happen that way, because something else was supposed to happen instead. Something better. I was supposed to be with someone else."

Chris gave a little sigh, and he leaned forward. "You were supposed to be with me."

Steve nodded, and wrapped his boyfriend in his arms and pressed his face into the side of Chris's neck. "I was supposed to be with you," he agreed softly.

They held each other, and Steve felt tears in his eyes. Once he had considered fate a cruel master - one that had taunted him, been unkind. But now he saw that was wrong. Totally wrong. Fate had gifted him, not taunted him. He had simply been made to wait for the right moment, in order to receive the best gift that he could get.

Steve sniffed, pulled his head back and rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. Then he kissed Chris on the cheek. Chris immediately turned his head, made it a kiss to the lips, and again they were briefly lost in each other and unaware of the world.

When the moment finally expired, when they became aware of where they were again, Steve turned his head and looked over at Josh and Kelly.

They were watching quietly. "We know what you guys are feeling," Kelly said then. "We were both there. For the longest time you feel so alone, like no one will ever come along. Like you're just gonna be by yourself forever. You think that all you will ever get to do is watch life, not live it." He tilted his head back, drew one of Josh's hands up beneath his chin. "But then, someone does come along."

Josh smiled, and rubbed the side of his chin gently against Kelly's hair. "Go with it, guys. You've really been lucky to find each other."

"You're right about that," Chris said, giving Steve another squeeze. "Man, are you ever right about that!"

Josh nodded. "We're glad, too. It's gonna be nice having you guys to hang with. Two guys that know."

Steve understood what the other boy meant, and nodded. "Yeah." He allowed a small smile to bloom. "Is it really still like this for you guys? Um...emotional?"

Kelly turned his head and grinned over his shoulder at Josh. "Is it?"

Josh's eyes met Steve's, and the answer was plain, even without the words he offered after. "Oh, yeah. It is. Even after more than a year, it still is."

Steve sighed, feeling content.

"So," Chris said, grinning at Josh. "You like to draw, huh? Are you any good at it?"

"Just so-so. I mean, I can draw a dog that looks like a dog and not a lion, despite what some people say."

Kelly grinned at that, but just rubbed the back of his head slowly against the bigger boy's chest.

"Not something you want to do for a living?" Chris asked.

"Nah. I like to diddle, but I don't have a real eye for that kind of stuff. My cousin Samantha can draw really well, and I can compare easily enough. I'm just average. And it's fun for me, but not a passion, you know? You need to have passion for stuff to do it for life."

Chris nodded. "Yeah." He looked over at Steve and grinned, his eyes saying I have a passion for you!

Steve grinned back , nodding. Yeah.

"You guys have any trouble with anyone since you came out?" Kelly asked then.

Steve immediately shook his head. "Nope. I mean, I get the stare sometimes, and I can tell that people are talking about me, but no one has said a word to my face."

"What about you guys?" Chris asked.

Kelly sighed. " One time, when we over at Bratton, we had some words with a few guys."

Steve's interest spiked at the mention of the rival high school. "What were you guys doing there?"

"Football game," Josh said. "Me and Kelly were in the stands. It was the game where Brian Coffey threw the touchdown pass right at the end and won it for us."

Steve remembered the game. There had been quite a celebration at school after that game had been won in the last seconds of the fourth quarter. "What happened?"

Kelly took over the narrative. "It was my fault. They were lining up for that last play and I reached over and grabbed Josh's hand, for good luck. A couple of the locals saw it and started grinning at us."

Josh's eyes narrowed. "I saw them looking. Seniors. Phil Eagler, and some of his worthless buddies. You know them."

Steve did. Troublemakers with fast cars, that had been warned off the lot of Claymore's own high school several times in the past year, with the additional warning the last time by the local deputy that if they came back, they would be arrested for trespassing. That crowd had all graduated now, and vanished over the summer into the world of adulthood.

"Those assholes?" Steve said, leaning forward. "What'd they do?"

"Just looked at us for a while, grabbing at their cocks and stuff, making sucky motions with their mouths," Kelly said. "Being jerks." A thin layer of anger was apparent in the boy's voice now. "They kept at it until our guys won the game, and then they just started giving us dirty looks. The stands started to clear, and me and Josh just sat there, waiting to see if they would leave. They didn't."

Chris and Steve looked at each other now. "I've never heard about this," Steve said quietly.

Kelly shook his head. "No. We didn't exactly spread it around. It was before we came out."

Josh nodded. "Yeah. People continued to leave, until it got pretty thin. Me and Kelly should have left, too, but we thought those guys might come after us, and we didn't want a big scene in front of so many people."

"What'd you do?" Chris asked.

"We finally got up and went around the stands the other way, thinking we could get to my car that way," Kelly said. "But there was a fence there, and we wound up having to cut along behind the stands." He sighed. "It wasn't the best idea."

"Yeah, they saw us, and met us under the stands," Josh continued. "Phil and two of his buddies. I didn't know their names."

Steve and Chris just watched the other two boys, waiting for them to go on.

Kelly saw that, and smiled tightly. "They asked what a couple of peter-puffers like us were doing at a football game. Asked if we had come to spy on their guys in the locker room."

Steve felt a growing anger himself. Chris grasped his hand even tighter, and also leaned forward, looking intent.

"We started to go around them," Josh said, his face clouding. "They blocked the way, and then one of them pushed Kelly."

Steve felt his eyebrows go up. "What'd you do?"

Kelly grinned and hugged Josh's arms to him.

"I lost it," Josh said, looking a little embarrassed. "When the guy pushed Kelly, I just started grabbing guys and pounding them. Next thing I knew, all three of them were on the ground."

Steve and Chris both laughed in surprise. "No shit?" Steve asked.

Kelly nodded. "My big guy leveled the crudballs. We just walked away and left them."

"All right," Chris said softly, shaking a triumphant fist.

Steve grinned. Not because the three Bratton guys had been pounded, but because his growing fear that he had been about to hear about a more brazenly unpleasant confrontation had not materialized. "That's it?" he asked, shaking his head in wonder. "You just pounded the guys and walked away?"

"That's it," Kelly said, his smile huge now.

Steve nodded. "I can see why no one knows about this. You guys didn't tell anyone, and Phil Eagler and his friends certainly didn't tell anyone." He frowned then. "There were no come backs on that?"

Josh shook his head. "No. I even saw Phil Eagler in Bentonville one day after it happened. I was with my mom, and we were on the sidewalk near Martin's Hardware. I turned around, and there was Phil and one of the other guys from that day, walking towards us." Josh grinned. "They saw me, and they stopped, and they turned around and went back the other way."

Steve laughed. "Wow. Not so brave after all, huh?" But he thought about that a second, and then frowned. "I'd still keep an eye out for those guys. You never know."

Josh nodded. "I know. I don't plan to forget. I heard Phil Eagler got a job in Cincinnati with some uncle or something, laying concrete, and won't be back any time soon." He nodded. "But I ain't gonna forget him, that's for sure."

Steve looked over at Chris, imagining the two of them in such a situation. He knew then that he would do the same thing that Josh had done if someone tried to lay a hand on them. Fight.

Chris saw him looking, and snuggled closer. "Somebody fucks with you, I'm gonna light a fire under his ass," he whispered.

Steve grinned, and kissed him, then looked back at the other boys. "No one is going to touch us just because we're gay. Someone tries, they're gonna get hurt."

Kelly rubbed his hands slowly up and down Josh's forearms. "That's the way you have to be," he agreed. "Me and Josh don't bother anyone. And no one has a right to bother us."

Steve sighed, but it was driven by contentment now - a feeling that things were going to be okay. That, and the certain knowledge that he and Chris were in this together, no matter what might come.

The night had not waited on them. The sun was taking its plunge, and the land about them edging into a deep twilight. The frogs that lived all around were talking now, above the gentle, recurrent stridulations of the crickets. A bit of mist had sprung up on the surface of the pond, and the far shore was now invisible, faded into the dark mass of the woods beyond. Somewhere far off an owl called, sounding lonely in the coming night.

"I like this pond," Chris said then. "Maybe as much as ours. It has that same kind of feel to it, like some place special."

"It is a special place," Kelly agreed. He reached down near him and they heard a small click, and then a light sprang up, revealing a small battery-powered lantern. Kelly dialed the brightness down a little, just enough that they could all see each other.

"Skeeter magnet," Kelly said, nodding at the light. "But they'll be here, anyway, so we might as well see what we're doing."

Steve grinned at a sudden memory that sprang up. "Remember that stupid song we sang when we were Cub scouts? There's a skeeter on my peter, knock him off?"

Everyone laughed.

"I know that one, too," Chris said. "All sorts of dumb songs about dicks, in fact." He shook his head. "Boys are nuts when they're young."

"They're not much better when they're older, either," Josh said. "Most of those nutty songs are made up by guys our age. They just filter down to the younger ones over time." He laughed. "All guys love dicks. Usually, it's just their own." He gave Kelly a mighty squeeze. "It takes a special kind of guy to like other guy's dicks."

Steve and Chris grinned at each other, each thinking the same thing: And I found one!

Steve felt a bit of curiosity come over him. "So, guys do anal?"

Kelly laughed, while Josh grinned. "Sure," Kelly said. "How about you?"

"We've tried it," Chris admitted. "Both of us."

"And?" Josh asked.

"It's cool," Steve said. "We're still experimenting, a little."

Kelly eyed them. "Who's the top, and who's the bottom?"

Steve and Chris both laughed. "We take turns," Chris said. Steve nodded.

Kelly looked surprised. "Really?" He nuzzled Josh's cheek with his own. "I like my big guy on top."

Josh closed his eyes for a moment and just squeezed Kelly close.

Steve had to grin at that, imagining the big football player poking the more diminutive Kelly. "Is he gentle?"

"Of course he is. He's wonderful."

Josh nodded. "Yeah, I am." His grin said he was kidding, but Steve had a feeling that there was some definite truth to it.

To see two other guys obviously feeling the same things that he and Chris were feeling for each other was reassuring. The world was too large a place to stand alone in. If there was one unifying element to being human, it was knowing that others felt the same things that you did, and shared the same feelings and dreams.

Steve let go of Chris and stood. He went over to the railroad tie, and sat with his back against the side at a right angle to Josh's. The big footballer grinned at him, and shrugged a little to the side to make room for him.

Steve looked over at Chris. "Come here."

Chris grinned and bounced to his feet, came over and lowered himself carefully between Steve's splayed legs, leaned back, and laid the side of his head against Steve's jaw. Steve wrapped his boyfriend in his arms, closed his eyes and briefly squeezed him, then sat back and sighed. "Doesn't get much better than this."

Kelly chuckled. "It will."

They all laughed at that.

"Don't be afraid to work at it a little, guys," Josh offered. "You're two people, in addition to being lovers. You may not always see eye-to-eye, but that's normal for people. Just...don't let the differences you have ever get in the way of the things you both love together. Okay?"

Steve realized that Josh was offering some good advice. It had not occurred to him that the other two boys may have had occasion to argue over things - they always looked so happy together. But Josh sounded like he might be speaking from experience. Steve considered that, and nodded. He was not hot-headed by nature. Chris had more of a temper than did Steve, but it had seemed largely to have been checked by their involvement together.

But...shit happened. Steve made the decision, then and there, that nothing ever be allowed to jump between himself and Chris.

He squeezed Chris gently, and rubbed his face against his boyfriend's ear. "I never want to lose you, okay?"

Chris nodded, grasping Steve's arms more tightly. "You won't."

Steve sighed, and simply held Chris, feeling his warmth in the cooling air of the settling night.

There is no forever - not in this world. But there is endurance, and there is patience, and there is that quality of lasting, that only comes from love.

Along about ten they called it a night, each couple wanting to get back to a comfortable bed to exercise the things they were all feeling. Steve had already cataloged the evening as a special memory, one he would not be forgetting in a hurry. For the first time - really the first time - he had been able to shed many of his own fears and worries about being gay.

And the subtle feeling of shame that had always underlain the fact that he was different...and unaccepted.

Josh and Kelly were too much like Steve and Chris. The things they felt, the things they saw and understood, were just too similar not to be based in a sense of normality. That being gay might be normal - even a normal in a smaller percentage of the human experience - was a stunning revelation. Steve and Chris talked about that on the way back to Steve's house - how it just did not seem possible that so many people could feel a certain way about life, without it being in some sense a working part of human nature.

"I used to feel embarrassed about being gay," Chris said, as they turned onto the winding street that led to Steve's house. "Scared of it - like it was wrong. Like it was wrong and I couldn't control it and make it right." He shook his head. "I see now it isn't something you control, because it isn't something you can choose. We are the way we are, and that's all there is to it."

Steve grinned, again struck by how similar he and Chris saw things in the world. "I agree. I've kind of decided not to worry about it anymore, too. I don't feel like I have to be someone that everyone sees as just like them. I'm me, and I intend to be happy being me."

They pulled up in front of Steve's house, and got out and locked the truck. Steve's parents were still up, sitting together on the sofa in the family room, doing their little ritual of waiting for the eleven o'clock news, which they would likely talk through, and miss most of as a result.

"You guys have a good time with your friends?" Steve's mom asked, noting with a smile the smiles that Steve and Chris wore themselves.

"Yup," Steve announced, nodding. "It was nice just to sit and talk for a while." He bent and scratched a couple of small bumps rising on one knee, and sighed. "Got a little bitten up, but that's outside anywhere in the summer."

"Put something on it," his dad said, maybe just a little sleepily. "You don't want to irritate it by scratching."

They said their goodnights, and Steve and Chris headed for Steve's room.

They showered together, the first time they had done so, and washed each other gently and fondly. The best part for Steve - the one he would always remember - was simply standing there, under the warm flow of the water, with Chris held against him, his eyes closed, his lips against his boyfriend's cheek. It was one of those moments that burns into memory, and etches itself so deeply that it can always be seen again, and heard again, and felt again, just by closing one's eyes.

Afterwards, they dried each other and went and laid in the bed and just held each other, kissed a little, and talked. The air conditioning, which had died at the start of the warm season but which had been repaired since, was off, Steve's parents having discovered a curious liking for the overhead fans that were in every room of the house, but which had simply never been used in the summer because the house had air. Steve's dad had pointed out that the fans actually cooled quite well, and that with them running the windows could remain open, and the sounds of the summer night allowed to enter. Steve had gone along with that one, having always loved the sounds of crickets and toads and other creatures of the night, which now entered his room through the windows and the screen door to the porch, and blended most soothingly with the soft shush of the overhead fan to provide a particularly restful and sleep-inducing white noise.

"I like your room," Chris said, giving him a little kiss to accent it. "I need to get me one of those fans."

Steve smiled, sighed, and rubbed his nose against Chris's cheek. "I've never loved this room more than right now."

Chris laughed. "You got some corny romance in you, buddy. know what?"

Steve shook his head gently. "Uh uh. What?"

Chris sighed, and squeezed Steve a little tighter. "I love it. All of it." He tilted his head, delivered a kiss to Steve's lips. "I love you."

Steve could feel that from his boyfriend - the emotion that was love. People can touch you your entire life, that welcome warmth of skin-on-skin; but the first time someone does it out of romantic love, it's immediately different than anything you have experienced before.

"I love you, too."

Chris ran his fingertips gently up along Steve's ribs, moved them over, and squeezed a nipple, gently, playfully.

Steve grinned. "Be careful what you start."

"Oh, I am, I am." Chris raised himself, pushed himself down along Steve's body a bit, and descended on the same nipple, this time with the tip of his tongue, and then with a gentle nip from his teeth.

Steve squirmed, and laughed. "Ooh. I love foreplay."

He was both kidding and serious. All of it was new, for both of them. They'd been experimenting, and playing, and both of them had just been slightly in awe of having someone else's body so...available. Steve was not sure he even knew the word to describe it. Being able to touch Chris, just anywhere, was incredibly special. And doing that touching out of affection, and desire...there was where Steve started losing the words to describe what he was feeling.

It had been at first overwhelming, and then something that neither of them could stop doing. The desire to touch each other had become so strong that they had had to be careful in public, it had become so automatic.

"A pat on the back in McDonald's is cool," Chris had said, grinning, when they had talked about it earlier. "But sticking your hand down the back of my shorts and squeezing some cheek might raise a few eyebrows."

They had laughed about it earlier in the day, just before dinner, sitting out on the glider together on the screen porch outside Steve's bedroom, both imagining scenarios where people would just roll their eyes and nod, and think, yeah, these two are gay. Steve had poked his fingers into Chris's shorts and began a pleasant rub down of his dick, which had caused Chris to smile and sigh mightily.

"You like?" Steve had asked.

Chris had grinned, looked quickly around the empty screen porch and side yard, and nodded. "Son...I say, do realize that people will talk if you continue to caress my penis in such a blatant fashion?"

Steve had laughed, unable not to. Whenever Chris dropped into the rooster accent, it mean that he was having fun. "They might," Steve agreed. " wanna!"

"Well, boy, I want ya ta be doin' it, too. It's just the blatant part that needs a tad tonin' down, I say." Chris had sighed, looked as if he was concentrating mightily, and then wiped the expression of sheer joy from his face and replaced it with one that someone might wear while looking at fertilizer brands at the hardware store. "There," he had said, through stiff lips, barely moving. "It's far less blatant now."

Steve had grinned, and given Chris's dick a little affectionate squeeze, causing the boy to jump. "How is it less blatant? I still have your junk in my hand."

"Of cawse you do, boy. But now I am enjoyin'...I say, enjoyin' it, far less blatantly!"

And now they were together again, in Steve's bed.

Chris kissed Steve across the width of his chest, and then down the middle, and ran the tip of his tongue around Steve's navel. "There appears to be a hole here."

"I meant to have that filled in so people wouldn't fall into it," Steve said, grinning.

"Oh, I can fill it," Chris returned, sticking the tip of his tongue inside. Steve grinned as his boyfriend then continued south on his journey, flipping himself around in the bed so that he could better get at the goodies. This of course presented Steve himself with some interesting anatomical parts, a situation he wanted to take full advantage of.

The result was a mutual suck, and a very enjoyable one for both of them. Steve closed his eyes and ran his tongue over the pleasant firmness of his boyfriend inside his mouth, while at the same time gasping at the impulses coursing through his own midsection, the results of Chris's ever-increasing experience with using his own tongue. There had never been anything like this in Steve's life before. Jerking off was a stimulating, heart-pounding act; but it was also a solitary one, and ultimately unfulfilling in the end, kind of like running in place. The fact that what they were doing now was a shared experience somehow multiplied its wonder tenfold.

Chris came first, the warm liquid jetting into Steve's mouth, as his boyfriend made a small noise deep in his throat. But, somehow, Chris didn't stop what he was doing, and in another minute Steve was delivering his own, his body tensing with the joy of it.

After it was done there came a moment of total relaxation, quite unlike anything else in Steve's experience. It came from the knowledge of what he had just done, and what he had just had done to him, and that the sharing of the experience was based on a special affection that ran deeper than anything he had ever known.

After, they snuggled together again under the sheet and kissed, and talked quietly, and smiled in the near-dark, and laughed, until they both grew quieter, and the words came less frequently. The soft sounds of the night were all about, drifting in through the open side door and the windows, and in combination with the quiet whirr of the fan overhead, began to lure them towards sleep. Steve did not want to go, wanted instead to have this very special moment with Chris go on and on. But the day had been long, and busy, and pleasing, and the many things that had happened lined up now in his thoughts to find places within the archives of his mind.

Steve started from a drowse, and then smiled, and then drew Chris just a little closer. The last thing that he did before allowing that sleep to take him was to tell Chris how much he loved being his lover, and his companion, and his friend. It was a whisper, scarcely above the voices of the night itself, and at first Steve was not sure that Chris had heard him.

But then he felt movement, and a kiss, and a reassuring squeeze, and then a smile pressed against his cheek that told him that, yes, he most certainly had.

Steve and Chris sat on the front porch of Thrift Shop Nation and watched the crew from Greenlawns - the local landscaping company - put the finishing touches on the little pond near the flagstone steps. The new construction was small, not a pond at all, even though they all kept calling it that, perhaps six feet across, and circled by a low rim constructed of mortared stone. The basin itself was of blue epoxy resin, which would be nearly invisible once filled with water. It was only about six inches deep, and in the middle of the little pool stood the baby white elephant, turned to face anyone mounting the steps from the parking lot, the little look of joy upon its face perpetually turned into the morning sun.

The construction crew consisted of old man Herrit himself, his son, George, and a guy that Steve knew from school, Bret Paisley, who was working the summer as a helper. Bret had grinned when he had seen Steve, and stuck out his hand, and taken Steve's in a pleasant grip that said nothing at all had changed between them despite anything he may have heard.

"The old Kennally place looks great, doesn't it?" Bret had asked, staring up at the house after he had set out the tools from the white Ford van that he and the others had arrived in. "Never seen it looking this good." He'd leaned closer, and lowered his voice. "What's your boss like?"

"She's cool," Steve had said, with the simple plainness that underlay all truths. "I like working here." Then Steve had leaned closer to Bret. "What's your boss like?"

Bret had sighed. "He's a grouch." But then he had smiled. "But he's been good to me, and I'm learning some good stuff. It all kind of evens out, in the end."

Steve had introduced Chris, and Bret had offered a grip to Steve's boyfriend that was just as friendly as the one he had offered to Steve himself.

Derek Hambledon had been to the store earlier, with his partner, Mike Kanassis - the town's plumber and electrician working together from one small business - and they had run power and water lines from the basement of the house out to where the elephant pond was to be constructed. They'd brought along a handy little gas-powered slit trencher, which sliced into the grass and laid the lines down a foot or so deep, without really marring the lawn. It had taken all of an hour, and the pair had been on their way back out when the landscape crew was coming in.

The guys from Greenlawns had buried a small reservoir tank in the ground, which was connected to the water supply, and then the basin of the little pool itself. A recirculating pump forced water up through the statue, where it tinkled pleasantly back into the pond. The pump ran on the juice supplied by Mike, which also operated the electronics that ensured that the reservoir tank kept the basin full and everything operated like it should. It was a simple set up that basically just recirculated the same water over and over, with the reservoir there just to replace what was lost to evaporation in the summer sun.

Debbi came out to watch as the little elephant was turned on, and the water started playing its restful tune as it pumped into the warm morning air and then splashed back into the basin at the elephant's feet.

"I love it," she said, grinning and clasping her hands before her breast "Now we just need Mel to do the sign, and then we'll have a face that people will remember."

"I think I'll remember this one just fine," Chris said, smiling at the way that Debbi looked. Like a child examining her first Christmas tree.

Debbi sighed and rolled her eyes, and dropped her hands, but her smile refused to go. "Yeah, yeah. So I like the fountain. Now shut up and come back to work."

She turned to Mr. Herrit, and thanked him for a job well done. "I'll bill you," Mr. Herrit said, nodding. He gave the elephant a small shake of his head, that had nonsense built into it, and he and George began to gather their tools.

Steve and Chris both laughed, gave Bret a pat on the back in passing, and followed their boss inside.

"They did a good job," Steve said, as they got down on their knees on the floor beside Debbi, who had parked herself on her little stool and was now sifting through a box of books. "I think you were right to keep Dumbo."

Debbi's eyes came up, and she laughed. "That's what we'll call him from now on, then." She had three books in her hand, and let her eyes drop back to them as she sorted through them. "God, the junk some people read...hell-o."

Steve stopped pulling the tape from one of the still-sealed boxes and turned back to look at the books that Debbi was holding. She had pulled two old paperbacks aside and was now holding a hardcover book in one hand, which had a dark jacket on it, with the moon, a spaceship that wrapped to the spine, and the face of a man. He squinted and turned his head, and was able to read the print on the front of the jacket:

The Man Who Sold the Moon, and Robert A. Heinlein.

A wave of recognition washed over him. Steve had read science fiction on and off over the years, and had gone through a fairly intense phase of it in his early teens. The school library had a fair amount of it, and Heinlein was one of the authors that Steve had enjoyed. One particular novel, called Have Space Suit, Will Travel, about a teenager who won a spacesuit in a near-future contest, and through its use accidentally found himself involved with moon colonists, aliens bent on taking over the solar system, and a huge galactic confederation wanting to judge the people of Earth, had left a particularly glowing impression upon him. It was a little old-fashioned, but a hell of a lot of fun. He had quickly gobbled up the rest of the titles by this author, finding adventure, exploration, and excitement in all of them.

But this was a title he didn't recognize.

"Something special about that one?" he asked.

Debbi carefully opened the cover, turned a few pages, and sighed. "Well, it's not a subscriber copy, but it is a first edition." She closed the cover, examined the edges of the jacket more closely. "Couple of bumps, a closed tear - but no chips. The back panel is a tad soiled, but the jacket is still bright and shows well." She looked up. "A treasure among the turds, guys."

Chris and Steve both moved closer, examining the book.

"Looks pretty old," Chris commented.

"Early fitites," Debbi said, nodding. "You might as well learn this stuff if you're going to work here, so I'll tell you about it in case you see others like it later on."

"I've read this guy before," Steve said. "He's pretty good."

Debbi grinned. "A lot of other people thought so, too." And then she launched into an explanation of the book's history.

Once upon a time, science fiction was the bad boy of the literary world. Looked down upon with contempt as 'that outer space junk' by most adults, it was thought of as childish and unworthy of most sane people's attention - one step above a comic book, and a tiny step, at that.

It seemed to have mostly started as a male-oriented thing. The guys that read it often kept the fact secret, just sharing their addictions with other guys they ran into at the newsstand or book shop where they purchased their titles. Most science fiction was sold in the form of cheaply-printed magazines, with novels serialized over several months of time and no lasting editions of the stories available to those that collected them. Publishers of hardcover books saw no profit in a genre they felt was aimed at children, and paperback books had not yet emerged from beneath the shadow of the hardcover as a salable form of writing. If you bought a story to keep, it was in the form of a hardcover book. And science fiction was not able to make the jump to that medium.

So a strange thing happened. The genre really was not confined to children, though it may have started its roll towards greatness there. Those kids grew up, and with them their desire to own their favorite science fiction tales in book form. But book publishers were not interested in this seemingly small market.

So the collectors decided to publish their own books. In a ten year period of time, a dozen new publishers sprang into being, huddling together under the moniker of specialty publishers, because all they published was science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction. For that same ten year period they were supreme, publishing their hardcover editions and selling them without competition from the established publishing houses, mostly through ads placed in the back of the flourishing number of science fiction magazines.

And they catered to their customers. It was expensive to publish a book, and these new publishers were pretty much limited to editions of several thousand copies. To help finance this operation, they hit on the idea of subscriber copies - special versions of the first edition, announced before any actual printing and binding was done, designed to get readers to pre-order the book, and thus help to pay for its publication.

Authors were eager to get into book form at that time, and worked with these new publishers to get the job done. In order to get people to buy a book that hadn't even been made yet, something had to be offered - something that would appeal to the collector instinct of those willing to fork out three dollars for a hardcover book. That incentive proved to be signatures.

When a new book was announced, these specialty publishers offered a subscriber version, usually limited to just a few hundred copies of the first edition, that was signed by the author, or even inscribed to the person buying the book. Sometimes these signatures and inscriptions were applied directly to the front flyleaf of the book, and sometimes they went on a specially designed page inserted during the binding process.

"Collectors today want these signed copies," Debbi said, showing them the blank flyleaf of the book she held. "Heinlein was a busy guy, and he didn't like to sign stuff much. So his signature really makes the value of the the book jump."

"How much is that book worth?" Chris asked, looking interested.

Debbi, frowned, looked over the book again. "The jacket is really nice. I'd put about two-fifty on this one."

Steve blinked. "Two hundred...and fifty...bucks?"

Debbi grinned at him. "If it was signed it could be worth four or five times that much. Depends on interesting the right collector."

Steve and Chris gaped at each other. "Wow," Steve said. "And it was just there in that box of books?"

"Yep. That's where all the treasures are in this business, guys. In the box with the old ashtrays and the potato peelers. People just don't know." She held up the book. "Someone's granddad owned this. Probably prized it, too, going by the condition it's in. Old books that get read a lot don't stay this well-preserved." She sighed. "The old guy probably died, and his family just tossed his books into boxes. We'll have to be careful in going through the rest of this stuff, because most of it all came from the same place."

"You think there's more?" Chris asked.

"Maybe. I've found a lot more singletons like this one than I ever have whole collections. But we'll examine everything else closely, anyway."

Steve stared at the book. "Are all of this guy's books valuable like that?"

"In first edition, pretty much."

Steve grinned at Chris. "Man, my middle school had a dozen or more books by this guy in the school library. They may have had a fortune and didn't even know it."

"Doubt it," Debbi said immediately. "For one thing, collectors all want first editions, and Heinlein - like most bestselling authors - was reprinted so many times during his career that most of what you find out there is like a sixth edition, or even later. In fact, first editions just aren't that common except for recently released titles. Within a few years of a book's release, it has either been reprinted several times in greater numbers, or vanished altogether. But the first editions seem to disappear pretty quickly in any event. Many, if not most, go to libraries. And libraries destroy books. They tape or glue the jackets to them, slap barcodes all over them, stamp them, write in them - awful stuff. It's necessary in order to track and preserve the library's investment, but it destroys the collector value of the book. If it's in a library, it can just stay there, as far as a collector is concerned." She nodded. "In fact, because libraries have always been primary buyers of new books, they are one reason that clean, unmarked first editions of so many titles are so hard to find." She held the book up to them again. "It's a rare enough thing to find something like this these days just because this book is nearly seventy years old. Most of what you will see coming through here is twenty years old or less."

Chris pointed at the book. "Shasta, it says. That was the publisher?"


"What happened to them?"

Debbi frowned. "Same thing that happened to all of those little specialty publishers: their own success killed them. The big publishers soon saw that there really was a market for science fiction and fantasy, and they started publishing it themselves. They could afford to pay the authors real money for a title, and had the production facilities to make books a lot more cheaply than the little guys could manage. In just a few years, the big publishers squashed these little guys into oblivion." She shrugged. "Doesn't matter now. Just makes their books more valuable to a lot of collectors."

They went through the rest of the boxes that had come with that shipment, but found no other valuables. Debbi looked disappointed, but not particularly surprised. "People that bought the signed copies almost always had more than one book. But this could have been just a one-off. Don't know. Maybe this guy's family did know his collection was valuable. Maybe he had other books in his house - just regular stuff he read, not collected. In boxing everything up, someone stuck this one in the wrong box. We'll never know."

Still, it was cool to learn about this, and Steve decided that there was more to dealing with second-hand stuff than just gathering it together in one spot and finding people willing to pay a few bucks for it.

"This is really cool, Deb. I see why you look so closely at everything we bring in here. Not just the books, but the artwork, the glassware, and the doodads. Treasure hides everywhere, doesn't it?"

Debbi grinned at him. "Hey, you're learning something. And you're right. I have to know a little bit about a lot of things, or risk selling something valuable for a song." She pointed at the Heinlein book, which she had set atop the glass counter near the door. "Books I am fair with, because I read myself, and I know authors and genres, and follow the market. I'm interested, you see. My mom collects glassware, so I know carnival and milk glass from depression glass and Fenton glass. I can also manage some artwork, especially modern paintings. But collectibles like you have in the Karticker buy - baseball cards and stuff like that - I'd be guessing a whole lot more than knowing. That's why I partner with Gerry Connell at Gilmore and Frank, in New York City. They have people that know about everything."

"That's probably going to be a cool auction," Chris said. "How does that work?"

Debbi shrugged. "Gilmore and Frank caters to more average collectors than do the really big auction houses. As far as New York auctions houses go, they're pretty small potatoes. Outfits like Sotheby's televise their auctions online, and you can bid by computer from your own living room. They sell to a really global crowd, and they sell well. Gilmore and Frank specialize in liquidating private collections of small to medium size - the stuff the big houses are less interested in. I didn't pick them for that reason - I picked them because I've dealt with them before and I know them, and I like the way they do business. They are also not live online with their bidding. They will list things for sale on their site so that interested buyers can look them over, and remote bids can be placed. But if you send in a remote bid there is no guarantee it will be the winning bid, and as you cannot check the progress live, you won't know if your bid is the winner until the live auction is over."

"So people actually go there to bid?" Chris asked.

Debbi nodded. "Collectors, dealers, or their agents, yes. You have to understand the drive that a collector has to acquire things in order to see how easily you can prod one to hop on a plane in Los Angeles and fly to New York to bid on something he's missing from his collection."

Steve smiled. "I'm kind of surprised you're not running a collector's store instead of a thrift shop, with what you know."

Debbi laughed. "Oh, I know just enough to be dangerous, honey. I wouldn't last in a collector's shop, though. My knowledge is very general except for a couple of areas, and I'd have to focus on those one or two areas and get to know them even better. That limits the market way too much for my tastes." She shrugged. "Besides, there is far more used stuff out there to make money on than there are collectibles. Things people collect, by their nature, become scarce. It's harder to make a living selling stuff that's hard to come by. Why do that when I can sell the contents of everyone's basements and attics instead? It's a matter of simple economics."

"But you still keep an eye out for the good stuff," Chris said, grinning.

"Certainly. When I run across something like that book, I sell it on Ebay or a collector's site. It isn't often enough that I have to keep track of a lot of listings."

Steve sighed. "This auction sounds like fun. You're going?"

Debbi nodded. "I am. I learn a lot at these things, by talking to the appraisers and sellers. They'll answer questions they might normally not, when you are there selling yourself." She grinned. "And, it's fun, watching what sells, and for how much."

Her eyes suddenly moved to Steve, back to Chris, then to Steve again. "You guys want to go with me? Be a great learning experience for you."

Steve grinned, looked right to Chris, who was grinning at him in return. Steve laughed, already knowing his boyfriend's answer. "I can only go if Chris can go."

Chris laughed. "I can only go if Steve can go."

Debbi made an impolite noise. "So find out and let me know, okay? It's going to be right near when school starts again, but probably a Saturday. We would leave Friday afternoon and come back Sunday."

"Are we driving?" Steve asked.

The impolite noise Debbi made this time was even louder. "You can, but I'm flying. I'd advise you to fly with me." She gave them a pointed look. "You've obviously never been to New York City."

Steve shook his head. "Nope."

Chris also shook his head.

Debbi nodded. "It's a ten or eleven hour drive from here. We'd have to leave Thursday if we were driving, and I'm not doing it. Bad enough we have to close shop for that weekend."

Steve frowned. "I've never flown before. How much will the tickets cost?"

Debbi grinned. "I'm paying, so why should you worry?" At the shocked looks on the boy's faces, Debbi just laughed. "My treat, guys. Like I said, it will be a learning experience for you."

Steve nodded. "I'll talk to my mom and dad at dinner."

Chris nodded. "Yeah, me, too."

"Tell them to call me if they have any questions," Debbi advised.

Steve sighed. "What a great job this turned out to be."

Debbi smiled, and reached over and patted his hand. "For me, too, Stevie. For me, too."

Neither Steve's nor Chris's parents had a problem with them going with Debbi to New York. Both couples viewed it as part of the boy's jobs, and a positive experience in their working life. Debbi was pleased to learn she would have company for the trip, and the rest of the week went by in an almost celebratory mood. Steve couldn't help feeling a small excitement over the pending journey, having never been to New York City. Columbus was a big city to him, and the idea that he was going to see something even bigger was oddly thrilling.

"You're just into size," Chris kidded him, when Steve brought up the subject on the way home from work the next day. "Most gay guys are."

Steve just shook his head at that one. "We're both in trouble, then."

Chris snorted, but grinned. "Aw, come on. We do okay."

"Yeah, but we're about average, both of us. Maybe a little better."

"Who cares about size?" Chris insisted.

"All guys that have six inch dicks say size isn't important. It's the ones that have nine inches that never even have that thought."

Chris grinned at him. "It's not how big it is, it's what you do with it. Remember that."

Steve sighed. "Yeah, okay. I guess I'm pretty lucky there, then. You sure seem to have learned quickly what to do with yours."

Chris gave him a sweet smile. "Babe, I've just got a good teacher, is all."

On the Sunday afternoon that Debbi drove up to see Mrs. Karticker, Steve and Chris hung out again with Kelly and Josh. By now the four of them were comfortable with each other - old friends beneath the fresh trappings of a new relationship. Steve kept wanting to stop at moments and watch what they were all doing, just unable to believe that in the space of a few months he had gone from dreaming each night of companionship to not only having it, but being able to share it with others.

Chris also seemed to be battling with the immense changes, sometimes just stopping, grinning at Steve, and then kissing him. Kelly and Josh laughed at all of this, but the little lights in their eyes stated very plainly that they not only understood the way things were now for Steve and Chris, but loved seeing it. They, too, had been feeling the pleasures of having others around to talk to about life.

"We acted pretty much the same as you, at first," Kelly admitted.

Josh put a hand on his boyfriend's shoulder and pulled him closer, and kissed him. Steve and Chris just grinned as the kiss went on and on. Finally, Josh sighed and pulled back, smiling at Steve and Chris. "We still act like you two do."

It was a pleasant day, another one to be filed away with Steve's other memories of his first summer of love.

Chris was now in the habit of swinging by Steve's house to pick him up each morning for work, and Steve was standing at the curb on Monday as the Renault pulled up and stopped. He climbed in, grinning at Chris, who was leaning over to offer a good morning kiss even before Steve had the door fully shut.

"Hey," Steve admonished, "watch it. There's people out and about."

Chris blew air through his lips in a derogatory fashion. "Like I care about that."

Steve grinned at his boyfriend's new courage. "But what will the neighbors think?" he offered, in a high-pitched voice that sounded aghast.

Chris made a determinedly rude noise. "If they're standing at their windows gawking at people in parked cars, they have no life, anyway," he returned, shaking his head. "Just kiss me, and let's not worry about them."

Steve laughed, leaned closer, put a hand against Chris's neck, and kissed him, rubbing gently with his fingertips. It was long, and very, very passionate.

The Renault suddenly lurched, and then stalled.

Steve pulled back and looked around, startled. "What happened?"

Chris was sitting there, his eyes still closed, a smile on his face. His eyes slowly opened, adding little flecks of gold to the mix. "My foot slipped off the clutch." He laughed. "A kiss like that kinda takes all my concentration. Sorry."

He waved the shifter into neutral, restarted the engine, and put the truck in gear. Steve grinned at him the whole time, feeling a warm glow inside. "Are you saying I have a face that can stop a truck?" he kidded.

Chris looked over at him, his eyebrows jumping upwards. "You said that, not me."

Steve laughed, laying his fingertips atop Chris's hand on the shifter as they pulled out.

"Wonder how Deb did with Mrs. Karticker?" Chris wondered aloud, as they hit the road to town.

"We'll know as soon as we see her," Steve said. "If she's smiling, it went well. If she's not, it went sour."

Chris shook his head. "I can't see Debbi not being able to handle this. She's too good with people."

At the edge of town, they spotted three teen girls walking along, obviously heading for the line of stores in midtown. They turned to look as the truck came up, and one of them stood on tiptoe and waved, grinning.

"There's Sharon," Chris said, grinning. "Want me to stop?"

"Just slow down as you pass," Steve said.

They came abreast of the girls, and the truck crept along beside them. "Hi, guys!" Sharon called, coming closer. "Going to work?"

Steve nodded across Chris. "Yep. Where are you heading?"

"Crockett's. Want to see if they have any new jeans in." She smiled. "Have to look good for school, right?"

Steve grinned. "You don't need new jeans for that."

Sharon gave him an oh, you did not! look, and grinned. "Don't you flirt with me, Steven Henson. I'll make you sorry you're teasing."

Steve grinned anew. "Who's teasing?"

Sharon rolled her eyes and looked at Chris. "Take him away from here, Chris, before he hurts himself."

Steve and Chris both laughed, and they waved as Chris let the truck edge ahead.

"She still likes you," Chris said, as the girls became visible in the side mirror.

"I like her, too," Steve said, a little surprised at the admission. Sharon had turned out to be a sweet girl, once the heat of her pursuit was off. "But I'm spoken for," he finished, grinning at his boyfriend.

"Yep." Chris nodded, shifted into second, and grinned at him. "You are."

They passed through town, and noted several trucks from county maintenance parked outside the high school. "Guess they're getting the place ready," Steve commented, realizing again that school was coming up fast. "Speaking of that, have you registered yet?"

"It's tomorrow. I almost forgot to tell you. I may be late getting in."

Steve nodded. "Don't worry about it. I have to register tomorrow, too. I'll just plan on riding my bike to the store after."

"I still haven't finalized my schedule," Chris said. "I'm trying to work in some art classes."

"Man, you need to. You have talent oozing out of your pores. The people you draw look like photos."

Chris sighed. "I'd love to find a way to make money doing that. Drawing or writing. I love both."

"You'll find something," Steve said confidently. "You can become a famous graphic novelist, and I'll be your live-in boy-toy."

Chris hooted. "Yeah, I don't see that happening. You have too much going on to be a, guy...whatever."

Steve laughed at the confused look that passed across his boyfriend's face. "Housemate, maybe it would be called," he supplied. "But, you're right. I'd like to work in the aerospace field, like my dad. That's why I've been taking all that math. I have a knack for it."

"You can do anything you set your mind to," Chris said assuredly. He grinned. "We'll make a great team."

Steve just sighed, loving the sound of that.

They arrived at the store, and Chris backed the truck into a corner of the crushed bluestone parking lot next to Debbi's Nissan. "Dumbo's running, so things can't be too bad."

Steve looked up the hill at the little elephant, shooting its little column of water skyward, and nodded. "Probably a good sign, too. Come on."

The got to the top of the flagstone steps, and immediately spied Debbi, sitting in a patio chair on the front porch. She waved, and smiled, and Steve and Chris grinned at each other.

They mounted the steps to the porch, and walked over to where their boss sat.

"You look pleased," Steve noted, pulling one of the other chairs over and sitting. "How'd it go with Mrs. Karticker yesterday?"

Chris pulled out a third chair and sat, too.

Debbi scratched her cheek, and shook her head. "That woman is just a tad nuts...but I like her."

Chris looked at Steve and laughed. "Bonkers, huh?"

"Just a little." Debbi frowned at them. "With good reason, I think. Her husband sounds like he was pretty oppressive, not to mention not exactly loving in nature. Jerk is the word I had in mind. If he wanted a full-time maid, he should have hired one, instead of marrying one."

"That's what Mrs. Karticker told us, "Steve agreed. "That she spent all of her time keeping things clean for him."

Debbi nodded. "Yeah...until something broke upstairs. She's a little out there right now, but I think she'll adjust in time and be okay. She just needs to find her own life and get on with it."

"How about the stuff?" Chris asked. "Looks like it's valuable, doesn't it?"

Debbi let some air puff through her lips and canted her head to one side. "I'll say. I took my tablet and looked up some of the stuff online, just to get an idea. Old Arnold collected old mysteries, and a lot of them are signed by people that are dead now. And the artwork he had hanging on the walls is all mainstream collectible." She laughed. "The baseball stuff is just ridiculous. No wonder he told his wife they couldn't afford to travel."

"Big money?" Steve asked, grinning at the look on the woman's face.

Debbi rolled her eyes skyward and looked thoughtful. "I think the entire lot could bring in a hundred thousand."

Steve and Chris looked at each other in shock. "Dollars?" Steve whispered.

Debbi laughed. "Yeah, dollars. Joyce...Mrs. Karticker...said her ex started collecting that stuff after they were married, and had been at it full time for twenty years."

Chris made a small noise of wonder. "Wow. I thought it would be some money, but I wasn't guessing anything like that." He blinked, and leaned forward. "What about the TV and the stereo system? I know a little about audio - he had Scandinavian brands. Top dollar."

"Oh, I talked her into keeping that stuff. She said it was his and had to go, and I asked her if she had ever watched the TV or listened to the audio, and she said she had. So I convinced her it was as much hers as anybody's, and to just move it all into another room where she would be comfortable with it. So she's going to keep the electronics."

"You don't think it would sell?" Chris asked, looking surprised.

"Sure it would sell.'s not collectible equipment, it's bulky and a pain to move, and Joyce can actually use that stuff and would have to replace it, anyway. Used electronics don't hold their value unless they're collectible stuff from way back, so the work involved produces far less of a return. I figured she was better off keeping it."

Steve was reminded of the laptop computers - only a few years old and still more than useful - that they occasionally sold in the thrift shop themselves for the price of a couple of movie theater tickets, and had to nod. "Yeah, I can see that."

Debbi shrugged. "He probably spent ten grand on that stuff, but we'd be lucky to get twenty-five hundred for it, and Joyce would have to spend twice that much to replace it with something half as good."

"So when will the collections get shipped?" Chris asked.

"I photographed everything yesterday and cataloged it all, and called a guy I know in Columbus who will come down Wednesday and crate it and get it to the shipper. Gerry should get it by the following Monday. I talked to him, too, and he's aware it's coming."

"You took pictures of all that stuff yesterday?" Steve asked, feeling surprised. There had been a lot of stuff in that room. "How long were you there?"

"About nine hours, I guess. Joyce and I had dinner when we were done, and I was beat by the time I got home."

"I'll bet," Chris offered. "I guess it didn't occur to you that Steve and I would have been happy to come along and help."

Debbi grinned. "I've been a solo operator for so long now I still forget I have partners."

Steve and Chris both laughed. Steve knew that Debbi was kidding about them having any real stake in the business...but in a way, they did. The thrift shop had become a part of the boy's lives now, and both of them thought of it as important. To see it thrive and continue in operation was something that both Steve and Chris wanted.

Steve offered Debbi a slow smile. "The store is important to us," he said quietly. "So are you. You can always call on us for help."

Debbi's brows knit together and she smiled. "Aw. Thanks. I don't see this sort of thing happening often, but you'll be welcome to come along in the future." She grinned. "Next time I have a slightly crazy woman trying to give away a hundred thousand in collectibles, I'll be sure to take you two to help."

Both boys laughed.

A car pulled into the parking lot and disgorged two tired-looking adults and a horde of young kids. Debbi sighed, and looked at her watch. "We're supposed to be open. Let's get to it." She stood, but then leaned closer to them. "Keep an eye on those kids, huh? They have a tendency to pick stuff up here and put it down again there. A bunch like this can reorganize half the shelves in the store while we're talking to the parents."

Steve grinned. "Come on, Deb. You love kids."

Debbi rolled her eyes. "Yeah. I just wish they didn't have so many fingers!"

From the air, La Guardia airport had looked much like John Glenn Columbus, save for the fact that the New York City airport was bordered on three sides by water. Steve and Chris had taken turns peering out of the window of the 737, with Chris in the window seat and Steve in the next seat inboard, and Debbi in the aisle seat, looking bored at it all. "Wake me when we land," she had said, smiling.

Steve had leaned over his boyfriend to get a good look at their destination, and felt Chris smiling at the legitimate nature of the closeness, as several other passengers fore and aft were doing the same thing.

Landing and debarking was a whirlwind of motion and required patience, and here Debbi had proved prescient in having instructed them not to bring much in their carry-ons.

"A change of clothing for two nights is about all you'll need," she'd told them. "The less, the better. We can buy some toothbrushes and deodorant after we land."

"Why so little?" Steve had asked.

"The less you have, the quicker you'll get through security," Debbi had said. "This is a domestic flight, so it's a little easier, but not so you'd notice. When I go to Europe, I feel like I'm being screened for a job at the NSA." She'd grinned. "It's the anal probe that is the worst."

Steve had had a vague awareness of airport security hassles from television, but he and Chris had both gaped at Debbi's words.

She'd grinned. "Okay, so I'm kidding. No anal probe. It just feels like one, by the time they are done."

Debbi had emailed them both a copy of What Can I Bring?, the TSA's guidelines on what was and was not allowed on a flight. This had proved to be more amusing for the boys than distressful, as they had learned that, while items like ammunition; brass knuckles; baseball bats; bows and arrows; cattle prods; crowbars; firearms; flare guns; hammers; hockey sticks; ice picks; knives; lacrosse sticks; meat cleavers; night sticks; nunchucks; pellet guns; pepper spray; razor blades; realistic replicas of explosives, firearms, and incendiaries; rifles; sabers; saws; screwdrivers; spear guns; stun guns; swords; tear gas; throwing stars; torches; and turpentine were not allowed to be brought on board in carry-on luggage, those items were allowed on the plane in checked luggage.

"Makes me feel safe," Chris had said, straight-faced. "Just means the guy you piss off because he has to wait on the bathroom can't shoot you or hack you to pieces aboard the plane. He has to wait until you both get to the parking lot at the next airport to do it."

They were kind of amazed at some of the things that were allowed to be carried aboard. It was apparently okay to walk onto your flight with adult sex toys in your bag, as well as deer antlers (providing they would fit into the overhead bin), artificial skeleton bones, body armor, a bread machine, coat hangars, corkscrews, cremated remains, crochet hooks, curling irons, duct tape, forks, fresh eggs, fresh meat, full-sized video game consoles, glass, gravy, handcuffs, Harry Potter wands, helmets, knitting needles, license plates, life vests, light bulbs, light sabers, live fish, cake mixers, paintings, parachutes, pizza, plants, printers, rocks, salad dressing, sand, scented candles, scissors, sewing machines, skateboards, snow globes, snowshoes, soups, speakers, staplers, stuffed animals, tattoo guns and inks, tea kettles, tortilla presses, toy robots, trophies, waffle irons, and yogurt.

Chris had jumped up from where they were seated on Steve's bed after reading the list and waved his hand about, a grim look on his face. "Theese stapler, she is loaded! Take me to Republic of Cannabeer now, or I peen you to bulletin board!"

Steve laughed, more at the wonderfully crazed look on his boyfriend's face than anything else. He grinned and shook his head, and looked back at the print out in his hands. "This is my favorite," he said, reading from the manual:

"A live lobster is allowed through security and must be transported in a clear, plastic, spill proof container. A TSA officer will visually inspect your lobster at the checkpoint. We recommend that you contact your airline to determine your airline's policy on traveling with your lobster before arriving at the airport."

By the time they were done reading the list, their chests hurt. And it was an hour before they could look at each other again without laughing.

But they had taken Debbi's advice and just packed a couple changes of clothing, and a light, windbreaker-type jacket each in case it rained, figuring they could buy the few other things they would need for the couple of nights they were staying. They made it through security in fair time, and hustled through the crowds to the front of the terminal. Amazingly, they managed to find a cab, and had themselves taken to their hotel, which was one block away from the auction house.

The city was huge, and the boys gaped at the tall buildings lining the streets, despite having already been told jokingly by Debbi that that would mark them to the locals as rubes. The sun was just setting, and the place was lit up like a Christmas tree, with signs blinking and moving and changing colors all around them. People were simply everywhere. Neither Steve nor Chris had ever seen so many human beings at one time. They were on the sidewalks, in the parking lots, in the streets, coming up and going down the stairways to the subway - even hanging out of some of the building windows, apparently watching the foot traffic below.

"It's a summer night," Debbi said, shrugging, as if that would explain everything.

Even the heart of Columbus didn't look this busy. The streets there seemed wider, and less congested, and not An uncomfortable feeling of too many people and looming things - of being closed in and surrounded - was well upon Steve by the time they pulled up at their hotel. Steve and Chris stood a moment on the sidewalk outside, staring around again at the buildings. "Man," Chris said, giving Steve an unhappy look. "Feels kind of close, doesn't it?"

"Yeah." Steve looked around, having already noticed the dearth of growing things about them. Many of the streets they had passed through had trees along them, but they looked a little scruffy to Steve, who was used to trees that went up and spread out. He pointed at the nearest one, frowning. "Trees don't look very happy, do they?"

They both stared at the slightly stunted-looking thing, which appeared as if by magical declaration from a square of dirt tucked among the squares of concrete that comprised the sidewalk.

A little way down the street was another tree, also looking a bit tired. Steve pointed. "Look! They're cloning them!"

Debbi sighed. "Okay, you two, cut it out," she said, herding them towards the front doors. "It's enough like downtown Columbus here that you shouldn't feel out of sorts."

Just then they heard a huge crash, which seemed to echo in from afar, bouncing among the buildings like a ricocheting cannon shell. Steve and Chris stopped immediately, and Debbi took two more steps before she noticed. She turned to look at them, her eyes quizzical. "What? Why'd you stop?"

They suddenly heard sirens in the distance, and the sound of large truck air horns bleating in the night.

"What was that?" Steve asked.

Debbi stared at them. "What was what?"

Steve and Chris looked at each other. "The sonic boom," Chris said, "and all the sirens."

Debbi laughed. "Oh. Who knows? It wasn't close by - I didn't even notice it." She came back to them, circled behind them and stepped between them. She pushed the strap of her flight bag up onto her shoulder, and took each of them by an elbow and moved them toward the hotel doors. "Don't worry about it, guys. It will probably be in the paper tomorrow, whatever it was."

Steve looked at her. "It doesn't bother you that something sounds like it blew up?"

The woman simply smiled. "Honey, this is the city. Something is always blowing up. You get used to it. Now come on inside."

They arrived at the double glass doors and Debbi made to reach for the handle of one.

"Where's the doorman?" Chris asked, turning his head to look around them. "I thought these big-city hotels had guys at the door."

Debbi laughed. "Yeah, we'd need to go up a star or two to have the door held for us." She took a second look at the hotel's facade. "Um, maybe even three stars. Now cut it out, okay? We're here to attend an auction, not buy city real estate. You guys are acting like hicks."

Steve put out a hand and laid it on Chris's shoulder, looking crushed. "Shay mains we're actin' like a coupla country bowahs, Jed."

Chris looked embarrassed. "I'm a-sorry, Billy Joe. I cain't braithe hare!"

Debbi rolled her eyes, but couldn't help smiling. "Keep it up," she said, nodding. "Someone will hear, and you'll piss off the city-folk, and I can't be held responsible for how they react. See who gets steered into an open elevator shaft on the sixth floor while looking for the dining room."

The boys laughed, but nodded. "We'll be good," Steve said. But he looked around a little doubtfully. "I think I'll take Claymore, though, if you don't mind."

Debbi nodded. "Oh, me, too. Now shut up. I'm serious when I say the locals bite if you offend them."

They checked in, and carried their own bags to their rooms on the third floor. As they walked the length of a slightly dingy-looking hallway, they met a cleaning woman pushing a small cart. She was large, decked out in a white uniform with apron, had truck-driver arms, and didn't slow as she came upon them. "Comin' through, people. 'Scuse me!"

They plastered themselves to the walls as the cart and woman barreled between them.

Steve grinned after her, shaking his head. "Emergency clean up in the bridal suite, no doubt."

Debbi nodded. "Okay, point taken. The place is a little beneath my standards, too. It was just the closest hotel to Gilmore and Frank, and I figured we could walk it, 'cause, baby, cabs can be tough to get here."

"It looks like an old crime movie," Chris said, waving a hand at the dark wallpaper and ancient wall sconces. "I keep thinking I'm gonna to see Harry Bogart come around a corner."

Debbi laughed. "Humphrey Bogart."

Chris grinned. "My bad."

"He's messing with you, Deb," Steve said, giving his boyfriend a little poke. "But it is a little creepy here, I will admit."

Debbi huffed, but smiled at them. "Welcome to the big city. Now, if you don't mind, I am older than you two and in need of a sit. My legs feel like jello."

They arrived at their rooms, which were directly across from each other. Debbi got out her card-key and turned it around in her fingers, looking for the 'this way' arrow. Chris frowned, and looked down the hallway at the door beyond Debbi's. "I wonder why they didn't give us adjoining rooms?"

Debbi followed his glance, and shrugged. "The coroner probably hasn't removed the bodies from that one yet."

Steve tossed his head back and howled, while Chris leaned on his shoulder, his eyes shut, heaving.

Debbi just shook her head, but was unable not to chuckle. "Oh, god, now you've got me doing it."

Gerry Connell looked more like a jockey than he did an appraiser and seller of collectibles. He was smaller than Steve and Chris, narrow and thin. Only the lines in his face and the touch of gray at his temples gave away the fact that he wasn't fourteen. His exuberance, however, was certainly youthful enough.

"This is one of the better collections of material I've seen in my ten years here," he said rapidly, smiling as he lead them along a narrow hallway that ran behind the main auction room. "The artwork is all good enough to stand on its own, as is most of the baseball memorabilia. The books - there are some really, really good ones, but a lot of average stuff, and a few turkeys, too. We've attached the lightweights to better material as a lot, and we'll sell them that way." He laughed. "The owner must be a magician. I've never seen a Hutchinson Land of Mist before. Conan Doyle first editions are hard enough to find, but this one is signed by the author. That's pretty special."

"I was kind of wondering at the estimate you guys came up with," Debbi said, as they hustled along. "Your last email was a little vague."

Gerry nodded, but didn't slow down at all. "Lou and Frieda just finished with that last night. We think you might get two hundred thou out of it. Maybe more."

Debbi simply stopped, and Steve and Chris, stepping quickly along behind her, had to dance not to run over her.

Gerry continued on a few more paces before stopping and turning. He grinned. "Didn't expect that?"

"Half that, maybe," Debbi said, shaking her head. She whistled. "Ohmigosh."

"It's the books that did it," Gerry said, coming back. "There are a few that are some real gems. Besides the Conan Doyles, there is a signed copy of the 1902 Heinemann edition of The Mystery of the Sea by Bram Stoker. That one alone will bring five grand."

Steve blinked. "He wrote Dracula, didn't he?"

Gerry snapped his fingers. "Bingo. There you go. There's also a signed Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios, from 1939. It's the first American edition - the Knopf - but that's another four grand by itself." He shrugged. "And you have firsts - some signed - by people like Mickey Spillane, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Lawrence Blochman, Dashiell Hammet, Earl Derr Biggers, Carroll John Daly, C. S. Forester, Eden Phillpotts - heck, you name the author, there's probably at least one title. The books are half of the collection's value, easily." He smiled. "Maybe more."

Debbi laughed. "Joyce is going to be happy." She nodded at Gerry. "The owner."

"Lucky lady." Gerry came back to stand by Debbi. "Why is she selling, if I might ask? This is a pretty strong collection to see broken up." He raised his shoulders questioningly. "Death, divorce, or debt?"

"Divorce," Debbi said. "It was her husband's stuff. Joyce's lawyers wouldn't give in to what hubby wanted unless she got the house and everything in it. A bitter pill for the man, I would imagine."

Gerry frowned, and rubbed at his jaw. "Sheesh. No doubt. The guy know his stuff's going on the block? Sometimes they want to buy it themselves."

Debbi shrugged. "If he's plugged in to this kind of stuff, he's going to know. I have already considered that he might show up. His wife said he can buy all he wants, as long as he pays absolute top-dollar for it."

"Ouch." Gerry looked unhappy. "Sounds like a nasty split. I'm glad you told me, because I'm going to add a security guy or two to the floor for your auction, and I'll make them aware of the possible situation with the husband. We have several full-time security people, but for consignments of this value we always get a few extras." He grinned. "My brother Earl has a bar in the Village. I usually borrow a couple of his bouncers. They're good, and they look like they mangle things for a living. We never have any trouble when they're here. know what the hubby looks like?"

Debbi nodded. "Joyce showed me a picture. Big guy, florid face, blond, kind of scowling." She compressed her lips in distaste. "Unpleasant."

Gerry laughed. "Oh, man. Someone get a pic of him at the tax office or something?"

"No, it was their wedding picture."

Gerry looked amazed. "Soap opera city! I don't want the house involved in any meanness. I hope the guy wasn't a gun collector, too."

"I didn't see any at the house, hon, and Joyce didn't mention that he had any. So he's probably only going to be armed with his wallet if he shows."

The man briefly rolled his eyes. "I should have known there was a catch. No one sells a collection like this just to be rid of it." But then he brightened. "As long as we get our ten percent, what the hell?"

Debbi nodded. "That's kind of the way I feel about it."

They went on, and soon came to a room, the door of which was locked. Gerry brought out a ring of keys, found one, and unlocked it. They went inside, and were confronted with a sizable room with shelving and counter space on both sides, but only the shelves and counters on one side were full. Steve immediately recognized items from the Karticker house, stacked about in large, clear plastic containers.

"Here it is, all sorted and ready to go. Feel free to look, but please don't move anything from one container to the next, nor change the order of the containers." Gerry looked at his watch. "Your consignment is the third to go on the block today. The first two are small and will be quick. We've assigned most of the day for your stuff. You'll be able to hear everything that happens back here, and when they get to you those double doors over there will be opened. Don't worry, the floor won't be able to see you. You're to one side of the block. You can watch the proceedings through that window over there. It's one-way glass, so no one can see you, okay?"

Debbi went to the window and peeled back the curtain covering it. "Looks like regular glass to me. Sure we cannot be seen?"

"Trust me," Gerry said. He grinned. "When an item or lot is sold, it will be returned to this room, only placed on the shelves or the counter on the other side. Each container will hold the bid sheet with the winning amount or amounts, and the winning bidder. You should not touch those items at that point, because under the law they are no longer yours, but belong to the bidder, pending payment, of course. Once your auction is over, I'll be back and we'll settle with the buyers." He pointed to the window again. "If you'd rather view the auction from the floor, feel free. But you'll get a better idea of the flow of things from here."

"Here's fine," Debbi said.

"I have a question, if you don't mind," Steve said, raising his hand.

Gerry looked at him and smiled. "Shoot."

"What happens if something isn't bid upon for it's estimated value?"

Gerry nodded. "In this case, the minimum bid for each item or lot is the minimum appraised value, set as the reserve price. The auctioneer will call for an opening bid of the minimum bid, so the floor will know they have to accept that in order for bidding to begin. So the worst that can happen in a sale is that you get the value at the bottom of the range, which is still a fair price for the sale. If the floor will not start out at the minimum, the item or items are returned to their positions on the holding wall there. You'd then have to try to sell them elsewhere." He grinned. "I don't think I'd worry about that, though. This is going to be a fairly hot auction, I think. Some of the city's major players are already here, and there are a lot of strange faces out there." He winked. "No better place on earth to sell Yankees memorabilia than here in their home town."

Just then there was a knock at the door through which they had entered. Gerry rolled his eyes, but went to answer it. The young girl on the other side whispered something to him, and he nodded, then closed the door and turned back to them. "Hmm. You have a caller."

Debbi looked at the boys, who looked at each other.

"Do you know who it is?" Debbi asked.

"Someone from the floor, asking to see the consignor. A bidder, I would think, interested in one particular item or lot, and wanting to see if they can buy it from you before the auction. We don't allow this, as you know, but we do have to let them talk to you." Gerry waved a hand at the door. "Beverly is waiting outside and will take you to the guy."

Steve immediately went to stand by Debbi, and Chris was only a second behind him. "We're going with you."

Debbi grinned. "Come on, fellas. I can take care of myself."

Chris smiled. "Uh huh. We'll go along just to make sure that happens."

Debbi sighed, but started for the door, waving for them to follow.

The intern outside smiled at them as they emerged. Her name tag said Beverly, and she was pixie-cute. If Steve had been a little straighter, he might have been interested. Well, okay, a lot straighter.

The girl smiled at them, and indicated that they were to follow. She led them down another hallway, and into a small vestibule containing a sofa, two chairs, and a small center table.

A man stood on the other side, looking at a painting hanging on the wall. He was wearing an expensive-looking gray suit and a light blue tie, and he was big and blond...and frowning.

Debbi stopped, and turned to look at them. "Well. Mr. Karticker did show."

She turned and followed the intern, who had not noticed their hesitation.

The man turned as they came up, and smiled. Steve looked at the guy's face, noted immediately that the smile did not go as far as the man's eyes. They were cold, full of thoughts that did not show a pleasant sheen to them.

Beverly gave them a nod, and moved off.

The man stepped forward, a large hand extended. "Ms. Hannibal? I'm Arnold Karticker."

Debbi took the hand and shook it, and nodded, but the smile she offered was there and gone in a flash. "I know who you are. I saw your picture at your wife's house."

The man's right cheek twitched, as though he would have liked to comment on whose house it really was. But he just nodded, dropping his arm. "Yes. I want to talk to you about the items you have for sale today. My collections."

Debbi nodded. "I'm listening."

Mr. Karticker had so far ignored the boys, but now his eyes inspected them each briefly, and then dismissed them. "I want to buy the consignment. All of it."

Debbi smiled. "It's for sale. All of it. You just have to be top bidder to claim it."

The man's cheek twitched again. "I thought maybe we could work something out that would avoid all that nonsense."

Debbi gave a small laugh. "Well, it isn't nonsense. It's why we're here today."

Mr. Karticker frowned. "I want that stuff." He leaned a little closer. "It's mine. It belongs to me and you have no right to sell it."

Debbi cocked her head to one side. "Your divorce agreement says it belongs to your wife, and she has every right to sell it."

Karticker's eyes narrowed, and he took a small step towards them. "Look, there must be a way to arrange this. I can pay whatever you feel is fair."

Debbi sighed. "Mr. Karticker, this is a process in motion. It's impossible to stop it."

The man laughed then. "Nothing is impossible, if you have enough money. I know what that collection is worth. I know because I bought every single item in it, and I drove a hard bargain with each and every seller. I know it has appreciated nicely. I am willing to see that you get a good profit." He narrowed his eyes. "So sell it to me."

"I can't do that."

"Can't." Karticker repeated the word as if he had never heard it before. Then he nodded. "You mean you won't. You're siding with my wife on this, aren't you? Helping her steal my stuff from me."

A touch of anger appeared in Debbi's eyes. "I'm not stealing anything, and neither is your wife. You agreed in a court of law to this arrangement, and now you have to abide by it."

Karticker nearly spit. "Arrangement. You mean I had my arm twisted! That bitch judge was going to help my wife take everything I had. Joyce didn't work for any of that stuff. None of it! I bought all of it, every scrap, with money I earned. She didn't do shit." The last word was a hiss.

Debbi folded her arms in front of her, plainly losing her patience. "She put up with you for twenty years. That counts as a major effort in my book."

Karticker gave a small, angry laugh. "You're all alike, aren't you? Just want some man to come into your life, sweep you off your feet, put a house around you, then walk away meekly when you start emptying his pockets." He took another step forward. "I want my stuff!"

His voice was raised now, and Steve felt a rush of adrenalin, followed immediately by alarm. He and Chris both stepped up to Debbi's side.

"Back off, buddy," Chris said, the words sounding tight and full of warning. Steve could feel his boyfriend's temper on the rise, and was suddenly filled with some mad himself.

He nodded, pointing a finger. "Don't come one step closer, mister."

In the next instant, Debbi had her phone in her hand. "Do I need to call a cop, Arnold?"

Karticker froze, looking surprised, maybe suddenly seeing that things were going sour. He held up both hands in a placating fashion, and stepped back again. "Look...I don't want trouble. I just want what's mine. I said I'd pay. There has to be a way to do this!"

Debbi nodded. "There is. Go out on the floor and bid with the rest of the people."

Karticker bared his teeth, his control slipping again. "I mean a way I can buy this stuff back now!"

Debbi shook her head. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. We signed a contract with the auction house. It precludes the sale of items in the consignment by other means prior to house bidding." Debbi smiled, but it clearly wasn't a nice smile. "You've had more than enough time to call your ex-wife and try to buy the things from her. You should have done that, if you wanted the stuff back so badly."

Karticker swore. "Who would have thought the crazy bitch would actually sell the stuff? It's not like she has any business sense. She's dumber than a box of rocks! I figured I'd wait a year or two, until she'd spent the money she stole from me, and then I'd get the stuff back for cheap."

Steve simply gasped at that confession. This guy sure knew how to say the wrong thing. Steve just stared at him, unable to grasp this man as the one who had bought the little elephant fountain with the sweet face.

Debbi shook her head sadly. "I guess we have nothing else to say to each other."

Karticker's eyes moved from Debbi to Steve to Chris, and then back to Debbi. "I usually get what I want."

Debbi nodded, but it wasn't in agreement."Wow. First your divorce judge, and now me. Not looking good for your record lately, is it?"

There was a clatter in the hallway, and Beverly reappeared, leading Gerry Connell and two extremely large and beefy guys.

"Everything okay, Ms. Hannibal?" Gerry asked, smiling sweetly. The two very big guys walked around him and took up positions on either side of Arnold Karticker, who flinched and let his eyes go from one to the other. Maybe it was the fact that both men had him in height by five inches. Maybe it was the skull's head earrings, or the colorful tattoos of snakes and dragons curling around the bulging arms sticking out of their too-tight tee-shirts. Whatever the case, it was obvious he saw that he was outclassed, and his shoulders sagged perceptibly.

"No, nothing wrong," Debbi said, just as sweetly. "We were just saying goodbye to Mr. Karticker."

Gerry nodded. "Benny, you want to go with this nice man back to the floor, and see that he stays there?"

"Right, boss."

Steve grinned. The big guy's voice sounded remarkably like Darth Vader with a Bronx accent.

Benny pointed a thick finger at Arnold Karticker. "You wanna come wit' me?"

Karticker's eyes flashed a last time at Debbi, but he nodded and followed.

"That the husband?" Gerry asked, after they had gone.

"Yep. Two hundred pounds of charm and manners on the hoof." Debbi sighed. "Good timing, Gerry."

Gerry laughed, and turned to Beverly. "Something extra nice for you in your pay envelope this week, Bev. Thanks."

The intern smiled, nodded, and was off.

"You need me, boss?" the other big man asked. "If not, I need ta go and water da flowahs out front." He grinned, showing three gold teeth among the pearly whites.

Gerry smiled. "I think Benny can handle our problem child, Grip. Go ahead."

"Yeah, he can. Dat guy inna suit ain't nuttin'." The big man turned and walked away.

Chris grinned. "He isn't really going to water flowers, is he?" he whispered.

Gerry laughed. "No, he's not. Grip was just saying in his own nice way that he needed to pee."

Steve and Chris grinned at each other, and Debbi rolled her eyes. "Geez. Men."

Gerry just smiled at them. "Want to go back to your perches and watch the proceedings now?" He winked. "I'll send Beverly around with something to drink and eat."

Debbi nodded, and the three of them turned and followed Gerry back to the room holding their consignment. He let them in, and closed the door behind them.

Steve turned to Debbi and hugged her. "Oh, man, were you ever awesome, Deb!"

Chris was right there, too, his arm around Debbi's shoulders. "Can I have your autograph?"

Debbi actually reddened, but her smile couldn't be missed. "Oh, come on, fellas." She pulled back from the hug. "That guy was all bluff. Did you see the way the air went out of him when the motorcycle gang showed up? He was about intimidation, not action."

"I dunno, lady," Chris said, imitating Grip's accent. "He kinda looked pretty mean ta me."

Debbi laughed. "Oh my god, don't do that. It might stick."

The boys laughed, and Debbi grinned at them.

"You were amazing," Steve finally said, giving Debbi's hand a squeeze. "I was really proud of you."

"Me, too," Chris said. "Man, who ever thought being a thrift shop employee could be so damn exciting?"

Debbi's eyebrows went up, and she laughed. She stepped away from them, turned to face them, and waved both hands in front of her. "Stop this right now, you two. This was just a small incident, okay? It goes with the territory."

Steve laughed. "Yeah? What are you, a secret agent in your other job?"

Chris came over next to Steve, grinning, and pointed at Debbi. "Hey, isn't that Lara Croft?"

Debbi shook her head and sighed. "Man, are your small town roots showing! It was exciting to you because you don't get much in the way of confrontation where you live."

Steve and Chris looked at each other. "And you do?" Steve asked.

Debbi let loose a thoughtful smile. She tapped her chin a couple of times, and nodded. "I've had my share of them. I had a little altercation with a drunken Romanian banker in a Berlin bar that would have had old Arnold there hiding under a table waiting to be rescued." She laughed. "Daddy had to send someone to bail me out."

The boys laughed, but for Steve it was an eye-opener. He knew that Debbi had been around, but now he was seeing just how far she had been around. That she was tough and resilient in addition to being as sweet and bright as could be was pretty obvious.

"Okay, we'll lay off," Steve agreed. "We just wanted you to know how special we think you are."

Debbi came closer, turned them around, and linked her arms through theirs. "I didn't miss you two rushing to my defense, either."

Chris laughed. "Just goes with the territory, like you said."

There was a knock at the door, and then it opened, and Beverly came in with a tray, which she set on a countertop. There were hot sandwiches and coffee, and a small bowl holding baby bananas and apples. "Compliments of the house," she said, grinning. "Mr. Connell says they'll be to your stuff in a couple of minutes."

She left again, closing the door, and Debbi handed out the sandwiches and coffee.

"Man, this kind of work makes me hungry," Chris said, munching on his sandwich. He took it and his cup of coffee and went to the curtained window in the front of the room and pulled the covering aside. "Wow. The place is packed, guys." He leaned a little closer to the glass, then turned to them, grinning. "You gotta see this. Arnie is right up front, and Big Benny is standing right behind him."

Steve and Debbi took their food over to the window and looked out onto the floor. Arnold Karticker was standing near the front of the crowd, holding a paddle with the number '13' on it. Just behind him, arms crossed, stood Benny, obviously having settled in for the duration. Karticker had removed his jacket and loosened his tie, and his forehead glowed with a patina of perspiration. He looked anything but happy.

They heard the auctioneer open the session, describing the three main parts of the collection being offered: books, artwork, and baseball memorabilia. The double doors at the end of the room suddenly opened, and two of the ringers came in and took the first plastic case out to the block.

"And we're off!" Debbi said, grinning.

It was fascinating to watch - at least at first. Arnold Karticker was high bidder on the first five lots, but then he started to slow down as some of the more expensive items came up, looking shocked when the minimum bids were announced. When the Bowman Mickey Mantle Rookie card was announced with an opening bid of twelve thousand dollars, he looked furious and waved his paddle, at the same time yelling out, "I only paid four for it!"

Debbi laughed at that - not unkindly - just at the fact of yet another collector not having a true idea of the value of what he had. "If it had been the Topps Mantle rookie card, signed like that, the bid would have been four times higher," she told the boys. "That stuff has taken a jump in value since Karticker bought it." She shrugged. "Not enough to go around."

The auction progressed, with some items being snapped up quickly, while a lengthy battle ensued for others. They completed the sports collection, and then the art collection, and then moved on to the books. The amount of people on the floor remained almost the same throughout, as even as the sports bidders retired from the fore of the crowd, others replaced them who had come later for the books.

They watched the faces of the bidders, seeing the impatience, the calculating looks, the annoyance, and even the anger when things did not go the way that was expected. For the most part things were civil, and the auctioneer was expert at getting a laugh out of his crowd to keep things as happy as could possibly be. Even so, there was more than one dark look tossed about, as someone took the high bid away from someone else that really had wanted the prize.

So there was disappointment aplenty, and not a little bit of what looked like simple, naked greed. I want that!

The hours went by, and Steve began to feel the day creeping up on him. They'd all slept a little fitfully in their odd surroundings the night before, and that lack of a good night's rest after the long day and the late afternoon flight was telling now. The auctioneer's chant began to get to him, it's song-like cadence mesmerizing, until his eyes began to close and then jerk open again. And then close again.

" seven-fifty, now seven-fifty, now seven-fifty, who'll give me eight, who'll give me eight, who'll give me eight..."

Steve slowly drifted away, without even realizing it.

In his drowse, Steve and Chris walked the city streets, staring up at the great buildings and walking carefully among the throngs of people. Those people passed without making eye contact, disinterested, their attention solely on their own purposes, and their cares wrapped up in tidy little auras that scarcely extended past the safe confines of their own hides. There were none of the nods, the pleasant smiles, that people on the streets of Claymore offered in passing; no sense of neighborliness, no sense of town, no sense of anything much at all.

The impression of aloneness in the midst of a throng was confusing and frightening. Steve reached out and found Chris's hand, clasped it tightly and pulled him closer. He immediately felt the cool and clammy fog of solitude withdraw, almost as if fleeing from the warm glow of human sharing seeping into his skin, which was filling him with the comfort of touch and the strength and reassurance of love. Steve felt his gaze lift, over the heads of the milling masses, over even the towering facades of brick and stone looming all about them. Lift and then soar, up and out, away from this place, and back into the heart of the world.

His head jerked up, and he opened his eyes. He had leaned forward on the countertop before the window, and his forehead was resting against the one-way glass. Chris was close beside him, in virtually an identical position, his eyes closed. His slow breathing formed irregular blobs of mist on the glass, which almost instantly evaporated, only to be replaced by another on the next exhalation.

Steve looked between them, found their hands firmly clasped together. He smiled in wonder, giving his boyfriend's fingers a squeeze. Chris started, opened his eyes, and turned and looked sleepily at Steve. He laughed then. "Wow. Are we there yet?"

Steve immediately leaned forward and kissed him. Chris gave a slow breath of surprise; and then he was kissing back, and making no bones about it. It was wonderful and exciting...and long.

"You know that Gerry was kidding about that being one-way glass," Debbi said, from somewhere behind them.

The boys snapped apart, their eyes going immediately to the floor beyond the pane of glass - but no one was looking at them.

"I'm sorry - I couldn't resist," Debbi said then, coming up behind them. She laid a hand on each boy's shoulder and gave them a fond squeeze. "You two have a nice nap?"

Steve and Chris laughed, and turned to face her. "How long were we out?" Steve asked.

" A couple hours. Are you sore?"

Now that it had been mentioned, Steve could feel a little bit of a crick in his neck. "Maybe. What time is it?"

"Oh, it's after six. The last of our stuff just closed. The new owners should be arriving soon to claim their property."

Steve looked then to the shelves and counter on their side of the room, where all of Mrs. Karticker's things had been arrayed. The shelves and counter were empty now. Everything had made the journey to the other side of the room.

"We sell everything?" Chris asked.

Debbi nodded. "Yep. Don't ask me what we made, though. I was keeping count of the bids for a while, but I dozed off myself and lost track some time back."

Steve turned and looked out the window again. Arnold Karticker was among a group of people standing before the auctioneer's podium, behind which stood the auctioneer, three ringers, Gerry Connell, and Benny and Grip. Gerry was talking, and the others were listening.

"Do we need to be here when they come in?" Steve asked.

Debbi shook her head. "No. Let's go on out now, okay? No use trading the nasty eyeball with Arnold again."

They headed for the door. Steve cast a momentary glance at the things along the sale wall, arranged neatly in their clear plastic bins. All of these things had found new homes today, after a fierce battle had been waged to possess them. Each item was the stuff of dreams and imagination for the people that had bought them; each item filled a mysterious hollow within the soul of someone who may not even have understood the need to possess them. Here was another side of the second-hand world - the glamorous side - all prettied-up in the mask and gown of the fancy dame that wore the name collectibles.

Steve marveled at the idea that some used things were sought after, coveted, and needed. Here, in this changed land, no one thought of anything as used. Collectibles were not considered at all by the number of people that may have owned them previously - usually far more people than had owned the things that were sold daily from the shelves of Thrift Shop Nation. These collectible things would always be given another chance, because there was something about them that endured, and would not go away, and would always be appealing.

And yet, one person's collectible would still always be just another person's trash. What a fascinating world he and Chris had entered - a world of things.

I like doing this, he told himself. I like being around these things, and figuring them out, and finding places for them to be. Finding people for them to be with.

Coming with Debbi to New York for the auction had been important. Steve had learned some essential truths, both about the world of things that appealed to people, and the people that those things appealed to. Mr. Karticker, for instance, who thought that baseball cards, and books, and paint-on-canvas hung on his den wall, were all somehow more important than the woman he had married. The woman he was supposed to love. Mr. Karticker was obviously an unhappy guy - a troubled guy. What had made him that way, Steve would never know.

But once again Steve had glimpsed some results of the equation - a bit of mental math that he was coming to see played a pivotal role in the ways of the world. It wasn't a complex equation at all, but it did seem to be a troublesome one, readily apparent to many, but entirely elusive to others. Recognizing the equation seemed to be the difficult part. That suggested that it might be a math that could only be solved within, inside the heart and mind of each individual, and perhaps not taught in the way that other crucial maths were taught. No one could really be shown. And that labeled the equation as a quality, and qualities are born, not instilled.

The equation that Steve could see plainly was direct and to the point, and stated, most clearly and boldly, that people should always - always - be more important than mere things.

Mr. Karticker, obviously, was not good at math. Nor, perhaps, were some of the others that Steve had seen bidding so aggressively that day. Steve was not prepared to judge any of them on their reasons, just - maybe - a little bit on their methods. They were, after all, people, too. Just maybe a little lacking in talent for the higher mathematics.

Chris, on the other hand, seemed quite adept at math. Chris, and Debbi.

That he had found two very important and special people that enhanced his life, Steve could comment upon. These two people had changed his entire world, boosting it from the uncertain depths of hoping to find and needing to find into the higher realms that were formed by the having found of two very quintessential human necessities: satisfaction, and happiness. Steve had found that his innate ability to do math functioned best when partnered with the mathematical abilities of others - those individual, irreplaceable strings of numbers that only other people could supply. Steve was satisfied by his days now, and happy with where his life was going.

And happiness, it could be argued, is the most elusive equation of all.

The cab dropped them off in front of the old Kennally house at just before four p.m. on Sunday afternoon. Chris walked over to his truck and gave it the once over, but nothing had been disturbed in their absence. Both boys drew out their cell phones and called their parents, just to let them know that they were back. The boys decided also that Chris would stay over at Steve's again, just because they were tired, and maybe in need of some talking, and some closeness.

"That was a hell of a trip," Steve said, as the three of them collapsed into the chairs on the store's wide front porch. "The city is a nice place to visit, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there."

"Amen," Debbi said, grinning. "You see where I live now. I grew up in cities all over the world, and I used to love them, and understand them, and see them in a different light. I still like them, but I also see now that you have to cultivate a certain obliviousness to live in one, or never have any peace." She sighed, and looked around the wooded property that the old Kennally house occupied. "Peace is built into living in places like this."

Steve agreed with that. The city had left him feeling unsettled in a manner he couldn't exactly describe. It was big, and it was awesome, and it had a lot of stuff going for it. They hadn't had time to see the sights, and Debbi had assured them that there was a lot worth seeing. Maybe some other time.

Driving through the streets of any place was not the way to assess its merits. They had stayed at one hotel, visited one auction house, met a half-dozen new people, most of them pretty nice. They had also met one unhappy and nasty guy - and had glimpses of maybe a few more - but unhappy and nasty people were everywhere, and not a product solely of the city.

Steve cocked his head to one side, heard the sounds of birds, and the odd, almost illusory far-off sounds of traffic, wafted down the valley on the breezes from the interstate near Circleville. This was a different kind of reality than the one of brick and stone mesas, and the people that lived in and between them.

I guess I am a country boy, he realized.

"Sure glad to be home," Chris said tiredly, as if he had heard Steve's very thoughts. Steve gave forth a soft chuckle.

Chris heard it, and smiled at him. "What?"

"I was just thinking the same thing," Steve said.

Chris grinned, his golden eyes saying pretty plainly that that was because they both thought alike.

Debbi looked from one boy to the other, and shook her head. But she was smiling as she got to her feet.

"Let me run inside and check the answering machine. Be right back."

Debbi had a cell phone, but she didn't let the number out to many people. The store had a land line phone, with a machine attached to take calls when the store was closed. Steve thought it was a little old-fashioned, but also part of Debbi's charm. And it did keep down the number of junk calls to her cell.

"I had a great time," Chris said, pulling his chair over next to Steve's. "It was fun, and I learned some stuff."

Steve nodded. "Yeah, me, too. It's kind of fun to see what people collect, and how they go about it. Never really connected that with the store, but I guess it's all kind of the same: old stuff, going from one owner to another."

Chris reached over and took Steve's hand. "Debbi's way cool, isn't she?"

"Yeah. I really like this job. I'm glad we're staying after school starts."

"Me, too."

For a moment they were both silent, just listening to the afternoon moving around them. The omnipresent rustle of trees in the breeze, the distant roar of a tractor in some field. Suddenly, there was a little sound of displaced air, and Dumbo began spewing water into the air. It formed a tiny umbrella of droplets above the end of the elephant's trunk, and then tinkled down into the little pond below in a restful and pleasing fashion.

Chris squeezed Steve's hand. "I love this place, too."

Steve just nodded. The store was special, no doubt about it. And Dumbo fit right in here - another lost soul that had been found. Again Steve considered Arnold Karticker, and his purchase of the little elephant fountain for his backyard garden. That a man so obviously wrapped up in things at the expense of people could have selected a statue that seemed to display such joy seemed a conundrum. The happy little elephant did not at all seem to reflect the nature of the man who had bought it.

Unless the smile wasn't there then, Steve thought. He smiled at the fantastic idea - that the little statue had only acquired its smile after it had found that it was leaving Arnold Karticker's garden. He laughed then, and at Chris's curious glance, explained his idea about the little elephant and its smile.

Chris simply nodded. "Hell, I wouldn't be surprised. Did you see how much Mrs. Karticker smiled, the whole time we were there? I'd be willing to bet it was new for her, too."

Steve grinned, and leaned over and kissed his boyfriend.

The screen door opened, and Debbi came out, carrying an opened ice tea in one hand, and two sealed bottles in her other. She grinned at them as they separated, sighing. "There's a great ad for the store."

Steve and Chris both laughed. "Who can see? No one has driven by since we got here."

Debbi regained her seat and handed the two bottles to them.

"I see you turned on Dumbo," Steve said, opening his.

"Sure. As long as we're sitting here we may as well be open. Someone might show."

The boys nodded and grinned, each taking a sip off their bottles.

"Any messages?" Chris asked, setting his bottle on the glass-topped table in front of them.

Debbi swallowed, and grinned. "A couple. Mel called and said he'd be by tomorrow to paint the elephant face on our sign." Her eyes danced as she looked at them, and Steve felt a sudden suspicion.

"Yeah? Who else called?"

Debbi nodded. "Can't hide anything from you, Steve-O. You guys feel like running over to Derby tomorrow for a pick up?"

Chris and Steve sat forward as one. "What's up with that?" Chris asked.

Debbi shrugged, and then just offered a slightly enigmatic little smile. "Well...there was a message from a Mr. Feldswinger, over in Derby. He said he saw our ad in the paper, and asked if he could donate some things."

Steve nodded. "He say what?"

Debbi gave a small laugh. "Well...he sounded a little old, and a little confused, maybe. He mentioned something about a cannon."

Steve blinked, and he and Chris stared at each other.

"A cannon?" Chris asked. "You a big gun?"

"That's what it sounded like he said. A cannon, and something about some more books...but not the ones that Teddy Roosevelt had left him. He said he was keeping those."

Steve and Chris stared at her. "You're pulling our legs, right?" Steve asked.

Debbi swung her hand across her breast in a quick 'x' pattern. "Cross my heart, fellas. You can come inside and hear the message for yourselves."

"Anything else?" Chris asked, sensing more to come.

Debbi laughed. "Well, he was really hard to understand. But...I swear to god, he also said something about a flying saucer in his backyard."

Steve and Chris both burst out laughing. "That had to be a prank call," Chris said. "Someone's yanking our chain here."

Debbi let them laugh a moment, and then shook her head. "Well, the caller ID said it was Erno Feldswinger who left the message."

"Did you call back?" Chris asked.

"Yeah - I did. I just got Mr. Feldswinger's answering machine."

"I'd wait until you can talk to him," Steve suggested.

Debbi made a small face. "Well, his first message said that he was leaving the house for good on Tuesday, but that he would be there all day tomorrow. He gave his address. I'll try calling him back again, sure." She shrugged. "But just in case I can't get him, you guys want to go, or what?"

Chris looked at Steve, and then grinned at Debbi. "Sure, we'll go look."

Steve laughed, and nodded. "Can't hurt, huh?" But then he had a thought. "If the guy really has a cannon, do you want it?"

Debbi frowned, but it looked like she was covering up a smile. "Well, I'd have to know what kind, first. And of course we can't take anything that won't fit into the truck."

Steve and Chris grinned at each other. "Okay. How about we go and see, and we'll call you?"

She nodded. "Works for me."

They all fell silent for a moment.

"So," Chris said then, his eyes darting to Steve a second before dancing back to Debbi, "what about the flying saucer? You want it, too?"

Debbi made a show of considering the idea, and finally nodded. "Sure. Especially if it flies." But then she frowned at them. "If it has occupants, though, you'll have to tell them to go to the motel out on 23. I don't have room for guests here."

They all laughed at the idea, and sat back in their chairs.

"This just keeps getting better," Chris said.

Steve nodded, and reached out and took his boyfriend's hand. Yeah, they definitely had stumbled into something special here. The idea hit him then that all of them had kind of recycled their lives - started anew. Debbi with her independence from her family, Steve and Chris with each other, and all three of them with the store. Sometimes, life just works best when it's shared with others.

"Thrift Shop Nation," Steve said, grinning. "Everything's better the second time around."

Debbi poked him. "Are you making fun of my jingle?"

"Nope. Just thinking how apt it really is."

A minivan came up the road, pulled into the lot, and stopped. The side door slid back, and a gaggle of small kids poured out. The front doors opened, and two adults heaved themselves onto the crushed bluestones, and immediately started calling instructions to the kids to behave, not to touch things, that daddy and mommy didn't want to pay for a lot of broken stuff. Again.

Debbi gave a little groan. "What was I thinking? I should have stayed closed."

Steve and Chris laughed, and they stood, pulling Debbi to her feet. "You're doing what you do best, boss," Steve said, turning Debbi towards the front door. "You're putting people and things together. Making treasures out of trash. It's a noble profession, actually."

They opened the screen door, and helped her inside. Steve paused on the threshold, turned and looked back at the horde of noisy, laughing people coming up the walk, and grinned. "Man, I love this job."

Out by the flagstone steps, Dumbo just smiled, and seemed to agree.


This story is part of the 2017 story challenge to write a sequel. The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 11 March to 1 April 2017 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the competition home page.

Please rate The Second Time Around with the impressions it left you with

Either while reading this story, or afterwards, I found it to be/had/made me (Tick all that apply)

An emotional read
Written with rhythm and pace
Thought provoking
Well laid out (paragraphs etc)
Technically well written
Written with good use of grammar and syntax (this does not mean pedantic use)
Easy to read
It invited me in
I could not put it down
Cheering (made me happy)
I identified with at least one of the characters
It felt like it was about me. I know it wasn't, but it felt like it
The plot was tough to read. (a tough [good] experience, not hard to read)
Not just prose, but almost a 'tone poem'
There could be spelling/grammar/punctuation improvements
Followed on well from the original

Current Results

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead