Thrift Shop Nation

by Geron Kees

© 2016 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

"I found you a job," Mrs. Henson said brightly, smiling as her son came into the kitchen from the rear screen porch.

But the smile went to a frown as she looked him over, her eyes going wide with consternation. "Oh, Steve - look at you. I just washed my floor, and you're a mess."

Steve Henson had just come back from an afternoon on the baseball field. He was hot and he was tired, and a little bit annoyed. Summer had simply come in with a vengeance this year - the heat and humidity piling on even as school was letting out for vacation - and you couldn't do much of anything physical without paying for it in sweat. His clothing was drenched, and grimy from sliding into second base. He'd made that move successfully, but he'd scraped up a good bit of the field in doing so. The fronts of his tee-shirt and jeans were brown with ground-in dirt, and his shoes and socks were covered with grass stains and gunk. He felt dirty and uncomfortable, and annoyed that, despite all that work they had put into it, they'd still lost the game by a single point. And now this.

"You did what?" Steve asked, trying to fit this new datum in among the other things circling inside his head. He sighed, leaning his bat against the wall and dropping his mitt beside it.

"Take off those filthy things and put them on top of the washer," Mrs. Henson instructed, like she hadn't heard him at all. She shook her head in the long-suffering fashion that moms had perfected thousands of years earlier, and crossed her arms like she meant it.

"Come on, mom," Steve returned, after a slight delay while his brain caught up. A job! He'd wanted to find that on his own, so that it would at least be something tolerable. He knew there were a few openings in town, but he didn't want to wind up stacking material in the dress shop, or something equally lame. Mothers couldn't really pick jobs; the ones they thought were acceptable were all the ones that guys naturally avoided as being too stupid, or too boring.

Mrs. Henson dropped her hands to her hips and gave him a look, divining in only the way that mothers could which of the things she had just said that had prompted Steve's displeasure. "You said you wanted a job for the summer, didn't you?"

Steve bent down and got his shoes off, then his crusty socks, then started to strip down to his boxers, laying each of the dirty pieces of clothing on top of the old Maytag in its nook just inside the kitchen door.

"Yeah, but I would have found something. I wanted to pick what I was going to do, mom. I don't want to spend my summer doing something dumb like waiting on tables at the diner or inventorying girdles down at Crockett's."

His mother gave him a small smile. "This is not anything like that. This is actually a cool job."

Steve doubted that. Claymore was a small town, just three thousand souls. The number of businesses in town was also small, and the number of teenagers just large enough to leave some standing around when it came to hunting up summer employ. At sixteen, Steve had no illusions about small town life. You either took what you could get, or you went without, and that applied to everything.

Sure - you could drive to Columbus, or one of the other larger towns, maybe, and hunt up a job - if you had a car, and the money for gas. But that was why Steve needed a job in the first place. He didn't have either.

They were just far enough out beyond the suburbs to be called rural, and what came with that was a relaxed lifestyle, uncrowded conditions - and far less in the way of job opportunities.

And, he had other things to worry about, besides a job. There was the little fact that his personal life was driving him a little nuts right now, what with Sharon Carpenter chasing him all over the place like he was a chicken and she a hungry fox, and him not having the option of telling her why he wasn't interested in her as a sex partner.

Because you're not a guy, Sharon. Sorry about that.

His mom sighed, and Steve realized he was standing there, one leg still in his pants, one pulled out. "You're daydreaming again, Steven."

Steve couldn't help smiling within. Unlike with other parents, who resorted to using their kid's full names in moments of anger or frustration, Steve's mom and dad only hauled his out when they were trying to focus him. He looked up into his mom's eyes, could see the concern there - and the love. He knew his parents had sensed his inner anguish these last few years, without knowing what it was about - that they could see beyond the outward smiles he wore to the secret turmoil within - and didn't understand any of it. But they loved him, and they were concerned about him, and babied him just a little, in a teen kind of way that he found acceptable - mostly - and he loved both of them back with all of his heart.

"Sorry, mom." He let her see the smile now. "Tell me about the job you found."

She watched him a moment longer, and then a fondness came into her eyes that he couldn't miss. "The pants go on the washer, too."

He nodded, pulled his other leg out of the jeans, laid them on top of the washer. "Okay. Now tell me."

His mom leaned back against the counter top. "You remember Betty Hannibal? She lived down by the pond near the Clayton farm."

Steve nodded. "Sure. Her grandson Kip used to visit during the summer." He sighed inwardly, remembering how cute the guy had been.

"That's the one. Well, when she died last year, that house went to her sister - the one that lives in Miami. Apparently, the sister's daughter somehow wound up with it. She's come to town now to live in that house, and she also bought the old Kennally house at the edge of town. She's opening a business of some sort there. I heard she was looking for some help, and when I saw her in town today, I mentioned that you were looking for a summer job. She said to come by tomorrow and talk to her about it."

Steve gaped. "The Kennally house? That's place is a dump, mom! And it's supposed to be haunted, too."

His mother laughed. "You're not serious?"

"Well --"

It had been Andy Henthorpe who had started the rumor about the old Kennally place being haunted - earlier in the spring, it had been. Andy had been coming by the house on his bike one evening just before sunset, and seen strange lights moving behind the shutters and heard weird noises coming from within the house. It wasn't hard to believe at all, the way the big old place squatted menacingly atop it's little roadside hill, the paint falling off of it and any friendliness it may have once had hiding behind those ugly brown shutters.

His mom was watching him.

"It's a dump," he repeated, leaving off the part about being haunted this time. "I'll probably fall through the floor or something first thing."

His mom laughed. "It's old, yes. Debbi Hannibal - that's the daughter - said she has been fixing it up for her new business."

Steve cringed a little. "What kind of business?" If it was a dress shop or a boutique or something equally feminine, he was bowing out right now. He didn't need any more threats to his already quailing masculinity.

"I got the impression it's some sort of second-hand store. She was a little vague about it." Steve's mom frowned. "In fact, she was a little ditzy, now that I think about it. Kept talking about niche markets and consumer demand. But I did get between all that stuff that she is going to be stocking and selling used items."

Huh? Well - that didn't sound so bad. A second-hand store sold all kinds of stuff, and not geared just towards women. The one over in Bentonville was actually pretty cool - Steve had bought several of his baseball bats there. Louisville Sluggers, too - his favorite brand.

"What time does she want me to swing by?" he asked now, suddenly realizing that he was at least going to go and see what was up. He did need a job, and if all he had to do was fill shelves with old junk all day long, that would be okay. The money still spent the same, right?

"She said you could come by at noon. She has to drive to Columbus in the morning, but she said she'd be back by then."

He nodded. "Okay." Then he added a smile. "Thanks, mom. Good lookin' out."

Mrs. Henson smiled, came forward, gave him a small, careful hug. "Why don't you go take a shower? It will still be an hour before dad gets home. Then maybe you can straighten up your room a bit, hint, hint?"

Steve laughed, gave his mom a small hug back. "Okay, okay. I get the message." He shook his head. "Both of them, in fact."

He smiled at her a last time, and then headed down the hall towards his room.

Second hand store, huh? The more the idea settled in his mind, the more interesting it became. Working in a junk shop meant you had first grab at whatever junk came in. And there was, quite simply, all kinds of cool junk in the world.

This might not be so bad at all.

He went into the little bathroom off his bedroom and turned on the water in the shower, setting it to just warm. He shucked his boxers and briefly examined himself in the bathroom mirror.

Here we are again, he thought, sighing.

He was kind of proud of his looks. Light brown hair, which he kept fairly short, and which had a bit of a wave across the top that transferred to a curl in the front. Blue-green eyes that held a nice sparkle and looked intelligent and aware. Nice features, a sweet and contagious smile, and a pretty nice physique that was already summer tanned. He was handsome - well, at least according to his mom. The girls liked him, too, and several had made it known that they wouldn't mind getting a little closer. Sharon Carpenter, had, in fact, told all the other girls to move over, because she was coming to get him.

But he wasn't interested in her, or them. Any of them.

He'd known that since he was little, even before he knew about sex. He was always having his eye caught by some other boy, and getting himself enchanted by a cute smile or pretty eyes full of laughter. He'd had several crushes, which might have been problematical had they not been tempered by a caution slightly mature beyond his years. He'd known, somehow, that to openly display what he felt would be bad. Not just for his reputation, but for his way of life.

But that hadn't stopped him from dreaming, and he could look back now over the line of guys he'd been sweet on over the years and just sigh, and wonder if any of them - even one - might have returned his affection had be been bold enough to offer it.

Being gay wasn't so bad. You might get kidded by others at school if they knew, and you might have to swing your fists every now and then, just to show that being gay didn't mean you couldn't kick some ass. In the city schools it was a topical issue, with teachers and counselors and principals all aware of the legal ramifications of allowing any kind of bullying or harassment to go unchecked. There was still trouble, sure - but it wasn't in the open so much as it once was, and more and more people these days were aware of the legal risks of bumping heads with someone just because they were gay.

Here, in the country, it was maybe a little worse, but not much. Steve was reasonably sure that Kelly Kittering and Josh Smalley were getting it on - both guys were just way too happy when they were around each other, and spent every waking minute together. There had been some talk, and some kidding by the other guys; but both Kelly and Josh had just shrugged it off, and not let it bother them. Safety in numbers, don't you know. Anyone that messed with one had to mess with the other, and Josh was already on the JV football team, and at just shy of six feet tall and weighing two hundred pounds, was not someone you'd just piss off idly.

If Steve had had someone like that - someone that cared about him and would stick by him - then maybe coming out wouldn't bother him so much. Nothing pares the edge off of worries like having them shared with someone else. But for now - he was staying undercover. He had no desire to go it alone.

He climbed into the shower, lathered up with the soap, and ran the washcloth over his sun-browned frame. At five-feet-seven and one-hundred and forty pounds, he was a lean and mean example of his age group - pretty much average, really, and certainly a ways away from the hulk that Josh Smalley had become. He grinned at that, remembering for just a moment that Kelly was the same size as Steve was, and that if the two other boys really were playing around, then Kelly probably needed a step-ladder to do it properly.

He sighed. Love conquers all obstacles!

Speaking of love, he took a moment to wonder what Jerry Custer was doing at that moment. Jerry had gotten himself pretty dirty during the ballgame today, too - was he at home, even now standing naked under the water in his bathroom?

The idea of it sent a rush to Steve's groin. Jerry Custer was about the cutest guy that Steve had known in a long time. But he was also one of the most disgustingly straight, and had even been caught finger-fucking Julie Proxmire at her birthday party last year. Jerry had just grinned it off, saying it was the best present he could think of for Julie, and had after that ascended into the ranks of those in school who had actually done what they bragged about - well, sort of.

Steve closed his eyes, feeling envy for Julie Proxmire - that she had had any kind of sexual attention from a boy that Steve would die to sleep with. He could see Jerry's grin and bright eyes in his mind, and if he had a dime for every time he had imagined away the other boy's clothing, he could afford to buy the car he wanted without need of a summer job.

The want and the need overcame him, and he stood beneath the warm flowing water, eyes closed, slightly smiling, and pulled one off.

After dinner, Steve sat with his folks in the den and watched a little TV. It was a canned baseball game, and actually had been played that afternoon. But none of them had seen it, so it was just like watching one live. The Indians were playing the Blue Jays, and baseball was one thing that the family always shared. Even Steve's mom - not really a total fan - liked to sit and read while the game was on, smiling at the banter back and forth between Steve and his dad, and looking up whenever the sudden roar of the crowd announced a major play in motion.

The game was a good one, and kept their interest throughout. Steve and his dad went back and forth over player stats, each offering opinions on who was going where this season. It was always fun watching a game with his dad, and it tended to put other things in perspective. By late in the game Steve was feeling pretty mellow, and smiling a lot, and just having a good time.

"Mom tell you about that job?" his dad asked, when the game had gone to commercials in the eighth inning. He was munching on Doritos, his favorite evening snack. "What'd you think?"

"I thought it sounded pretty interesting," Steve said, smiling when he saw his mother also smiling behind her book. "I just hope mom doesn't get mad at me if I bring a little cool junk home from the store - I mean, after she pointed me at it in the first place, and all."

He laughed when his mom's eyes peered at him in alarm over the top of her book - she obviously hadn't considered that aspect of the door she was opening in her son's life.

He smiled at her. "But I'll be sure that it's all necessary junk, okay?"

His father chuckled, and his mom rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. His mom already thought that Steve's room needed disaster relief - the idea of him adding even more stuff that she was unable to identify to the mix obviously appalled her. But she was being a good sport about it, concentrating furiously on her book now, and so Steve let it drop.

"What are you guys doing at work, dad?" His father was an aviation engineer at a firm in Columbus, and was always neck-deep in cool stuff - mostly stuff he couldn't talk about, but some that he could.

"Wing design for a new plane." He briefly mentioned something about vortex trails, downwash, and induced drag, before trailing off as the game action resumed. Steve grinned. His dad was damn smart - smarter than he was - and Steve was proud of him, and he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Too bad that the Indians weren't smarter - they lost the game 9-6, ending a 14 game winning streak.

"I had a little bet on that one, too," Steve's dad said, sighing, as he settled back to wait for the evening news. "With Dan Middleton. He came in smirking just before I left for home, and it cost me five bucks to make him go away."

Steve's mom shook her head. "I thought you were working at that place, Eric. Not gambling in the basement."

Steve and his dad both laughed. "Come on, honey. It was five bucks. The Indians have won fourteen straight games. You'd think they could have cooperated a little and given me fifteen."

"Still no reason to be throwing dice in the workplace." But his mom was again smiling behind her book.

"Dice?" His dad said, in mock alarm. "Are you kidding? Why, if Jack King, the unit head, saw us doing that..."

Steve got up and excused himself, kissing his mom and giving his dad a fond rub on the shoulder as he passed. They would be playfully arguing over the bet for the next ten minutes, until they tired of it; and then dad would pat the couch next to himself and mom would sigh and move over from her chair, and then they'd kiss and snuggle a little while, ignoring the news they had both stayed up to see. Steve had seen it too many times not to know.

It was great, really. He knew a few kids at school whose folks were legendary battlers, and he counted himself lucky to have parents that not only loved each other, but liked each other as well.

He went into his room and closed the door, and locked it. His parents didn't mind that, figuring he was old enough now that he could regulate his own privacy. Steve felt safe with the door locked, like he could do what he liked without having to justify it to anyone. Everybody ought to have a little private space like that, really. And once his folks retired upstairs to their room at the other end of the house, it would really feel like he was on his own. He liked that feeling, even if it was only illusory.

There was a door at the other side of the room that opened out onto the side screen porch. Steve would often sit out there late at night and listen to the crickets and the frogs as they discussed the nightly goings on in their neck of the woods, and watch the moonlight in the side yard as it drew complex patterns in yellow-white light on the uneven ground among the trees. Sometimes he would hear the eerie echo of far off traffic, mysteriously conveyed down the valley from the interstate; or the lonely horns of a diesel locomotive as it churned its way east towards New York.

Yeah, it was the country. But it was also home, and not to be traded for anyplace else.

He turned up the fan that spun on the ceiling above him, and then the little table fan that sat by his bed. The central air had broken down the other day, and they were still waiting for the man to drive down from Columbus to look at it. But the evening temps weren't so bad, and the loss of the air conditioning was mitigated by the whirling fans and the gentle movement of night air through the room. Steve kicked off his shoes, tossed his tee-shirt on the floor, and sat down at his desk in front of his PC and pulled up a few files to look at.

Special files to look at.

They were nudes, of guys his own age. They were hidden pretty far down among some other stuff, where a casual look through the machine wouldn't find them. His mom was a little nosy, but not very computer literate. His dad, who knew more about computers than Steve ever expected to know, wasn't nosy and respected Steve's privacy. So far, Steve felt safe having the pictures there where he could look at them now and then - and dream a little.

These guys were all cute. One of his lucky finds looked so much like Jerry Custer that it almost hurt to look at it. Every time Steve saw Jerry he wondered now if the other boy looked anything like the picture Steve had on his computer - the one that looked like Jerry out of his clothing, that is. That he might simply took Steve's breath away. He stared at the picture for a time, imagining what it would be like if Jerry Custer liked him the way that Steve wanted to be liked.

After a while, he heard his parents go upstairs, and soon the house grew quiet, except for the faint whirs of the ceiling fans running in every room.

The night crept in, then, and Steve closed the files and stood up. The front of his shorts were tented and taut from the pictures and his imaginings, and he felt a need to deal with that. He turned the lights down in the room, stripped out of his shorts and boxers, and grabbed a few tissues from the box by his bed.

He went to the screen door leading out onto the side porch and stood there a moment, feeling the slightly cooler night air moving slowly over his body. The sounds of the night intensified as he opened the door and went out onto the porch, found the old wicker rocker, and sat down. He sighed, closed his eyes and rocked slowly, imagining what it would be like to have Jerry Custer in his bed. As he imagined he stroked himself: slowly, pleasantly, no rush, make it last.

It was the same jerk-off dream he used most every time now, with little variation. Usually it was Jerry Custer; but every now and then he'd make it Mike Henshaw he dreamed about, just to give Jerry a rest. Mike was another boy that Steve liked, not quite as cute as Jerry, but with a healthy dose of almost.

But no matter which one it was, the dream was the same. They'd be out somewhere, together, alone, and Jerry or Mike would start clowning around, and then they'd be grabbing at each other, and then wrestling - and then kissing, and then making love. It was a simple fantasy, pleasing and without pretense. It always made Steve smile, and it always - for a time - knocked the edge off of his loneliness.

He stroked himself purposefully as he dreamed of kissing and holding Jerry, until his body finally tensed and he came with a sigh. He used the tissue to collect his cum, then balled it up and dabbed at the head of his dick to clean up. For a moment he closed his eyes, and was able to smile at himself. There was a little bit of a thrill to sitting out on the porch naked, and of course there was a major thrill to imagining being with Jerry. The combination was usually good for a nice climax.

He briefly wondered what Jerry was doing right now. Probably sleeping. Maybe he was laying there in his bed, just wearing boxers. Or maybe nothing at all. Or maybe he was laying there doing what Steve had just done. The idea was pleasant, and Steve felt a small rush in his nutsack as his dick attempted to comply with this new bit of stimulation.

But - it was getting late. The job interview the next day came to the front of his mind now, and he stood up and went back into his room, tossing the balled up tissue into the trashcan by his desk. He went to his bathroom and took a piss, and then went back into his room and climbed into bed.

A job would be a nice addition to his summer life. Something positive to do to take his mind off of the things that bugged him. Something to do to distract him from knowing he was alone. And, something to do that would keep him from the ball field and Jerry Custer, who was on the edge of driving him a little nuts just now. One more look at Jerry's pretty smile, one more look at that gorgeous face, and Steve might find himself saying or doing something that he would sorely regret.

He sighed, turned his face to the wall, and closed his eyes. For a moment he let his hand slowly rub circles into the sheet beside him, as he imagined that someone could be there with him. And wished there was someone to share the summer with more intimately.

He'd had that wish for a while now, but there had been no takers. If there were other gay boys in this town beyond Kelly and Josh, they were like Steve: so far undercover that not even God himself could find them.

And certainly, not Steve.

Around eleven-thirty the next morning, Steve said goodbye to his mom and got on his bike to go over to the other side of town. That sounded like more of a trip than it really was - about ten minutes, pedaling at a leisurely rate and enjoying the ride. Claymore was nothing if not compact in nature, its seeming spread mostly due to the emptiness between its constituent parts. In other words, the town was mostly countryside.

There was a main street, with the little cluster of schools at one end, and the couple of churches the town hosted at the other. In between them was a long section of fairly straight road with businesses strewn up and down each side, and a few side streets that held the town's administrative buildings, the library, the city maintenance warehouse, and a few dozen elderly homes that belonged to the town's oldest families. You could pedal from one end of town to the other in a couple of minutes. Traffic was always light, ever since the state had put in a bypass for the interstate, that now carried the bulk of traffic around the town.

The majority of the town's official population was spread out in the rolling country that surrounded main street - lots of old farms, these days mostly inactive - although a minority still hosted a few cows and pigs and chickens. Almost no one plowed the land anymore, though there were a few small plots of corn and tomatoes about, that were sold at roadside stands during the productive months.

There were also a couple of developments - hardly deserving of the word, really, as those additions to the town's habitations consisted of one very small row of garden apartments, another street of townhouses, and a few single-family homes dropped here and there on land once worked and productive, but since sold by the children of farmers.

Steve pedaled slowly, enjoying the day. As he passed through the school end of town and turned into the winding country road that led around towards the other side, a group of girls walking along one of the town's few sidewalks turned to look at him. One girl in particular, with long, dark hair and pretty features, jumped into the air briefly and waved at him with all of her might. "Steve!"

Steve smiled, waved, and added just a tiny extra bit of energy to the pedals, without making it obvious. Sharon Carpenter, out with friends, heading who-knows-where. He wasn't about to stop and talk and put up with her trying to sidetrack him into doing something with her. Shame about that, but what else could he do? Jerry Custer had said he envied Steve, that Sharon was after him like that. "You gonna tag some of that?" he'd asked. "She wants it."

Steve had grinned like he was supposed to, and acknowledged that Sharon was cute and might be fun. But he had then added that her pushiness was a turn-off for him, and that he didn't want a girlfriend who thought she owned him. That was a little harsh, maybe, but also something that Jerry - who imagined himself a bit of a free agent himself when it came to girls, could readily understand.

He was quickly out of sight of the girls, and breathed a little easier. Once, Sharon had actually run after him as he went by on his bike, probably figuring he would stop if she made the effort. He hadn't then, either, being even more annoyed at her insistence. It was just a good thing that girls couldn't fly, or guys would never have a moment's peace, he thought, shaking his head.

The road ahead wound into trees and rolling pasture, and Steve relaxed again, just enjoying the ride.

The Kennally house was one of those oddities hereabouts - a house plunked down along the road and unconnected to a farm or other large plot of land. Someone had come along one day - the original Kennally, one could presume - purchased an acre of land by the roadside, and built himself a sprawling house in the late-Victorian mold. The place had a wide front porch, a gabled roof, turrets at the front corners, and cedar shingles on the sides. It was probably nice once, and still could probably be nice if fixed up - if it hadn't been so creepy to start with, and rumored to be haunted.

But, Steve had decided to withhold judgment until he actually inspected the place, and could see more clearly what he was getting himself into. He hadn't been by the Kennally house this year yet - it was on the side of town with the newer residences, and he seldom had reason to come this way.

And so he was a little surprised to see the place when it came into view.

The house sat on a small rise at a spot where the road curved, and was kind of hard to miss no matter which direction you approached it from. The first thing he noticed was that the shutters were open, locked back against the wall outside each window, and painted now in a crisp, deep red. And the place looked clean: the shingled flanks of the house had been washed, and had lightened considerably when peeled of years worth of grime, really brightening the look of the whole house. The roof also looked darker and neater - it had also been tended to. The saggy look of age the place seemed to have had was gone somehow, and the house looked straight and strong for the first time in Steve's memory.

The tall grass and the wilderness of shrubbery that had overtaken the place had been cut back, and the front lawn, at least, looked nice and neat. Someone had repainted the trim in the same deep red as the shutters, and the wide front porch - once cluttered with the junk of ages, was spic and span now. A portion of the yard by the road had been covered with crushed bluestone - enough space to park a dozen cars - and even a small bicycle rack had been placed at one edge. A lone car was parked on the stones - a Nissan of some sort.

But the most noticeable change was the sign that now stretched across the top of the porch roof - professionally done in letters a foot tall, and in the same deep red paint as the house's trim:


And in somewhat smaller letters beneath: "Everything's better the second time around".

Steve grinned, just amazed at the transformation. Talk about polishing a turd until it shined!

He locked his bike in the front rack and climbed the short spread of slate steps set into the little rise; and then he was standing before the front porch. There were three more wide, slightly sagging but still sturdy-looking front steps, - also now painted red - and then he was striding across the large front porch, which produced little groaning sounds at each step, but which also felt impeccably sturdy beneath his feet.

There was a new wooden screen door in the front entry - red, like everything else - and the large, ornate oak door beyond was standing open. Steve pressed his nose gently to the screen and looked within.

The large front entry foyer was stacked about with boxes, some of which were open and had clothing draped over the sides. Stacks of books stood on the floor by other boxes, and a collection of old lamps missing the shades huddled by one wall. And, there was just all sorts of stuff standing and laying about, obviously waiting to find a home on some shelf somewhere. Overhead, a ceiling fan made soft air noises as it turned at a sedate speed.

But no people about, that he could see.

"Hello?" he called, and then turned his ear to the screen.

For a moment he heard nothing, and called again.

This time, when he placed his ear to the screen, he heard a faint call : "Help!"

Steve reared back in surprise; and then he was grabbing the screen door open and plunging inside. "Where are you?"

A voice came from a back room. "Here!"

Steve wound his way among the boxes and past a new counter with a small cash register atop it. Beyond was an arched passage to the next room, which was filled with shelving in various stages of being stocked. "Say something again," he called.

"Here I am!" The voice was hard to pick out from the soft whir of the ceiling fan - there seemed to be one in each room.

He crossed the large room and passed into the next, which was smaller, and had a rounded front and tall, narrow windows. He was inside one of the turrets.

This room held racks full of women's clothing, some large trunks, and a multitude of boxes. The back wall held a fireplace with an ornate mantel above it.


The lid of one of the great trunks banged up and down. "Help me!"

Steve approached the trunk, and couldn't help smiling. It was obvious what had happened. A large coat stand lay across the lid, pulled down by a necktie that had caught on one edge of the trunk lid. Other neckties, draped over hooks on the coat stand, lay out across the surface of the trunk's lid like a drunken octopus splayed out on a coral reef. Whoever had gotten inside the trunk had lowered the lid, the trapped tie had yanked taut, which had unbalanced the coat stand and pulled it over on top of the trunk. The ornate legs of the stand were firmly trapped against another large trunk, and the upper end had slid on impact, placing several of its arms beneath the lip of the mantel, allowing the trunk lid to rise only a couple of inches.

"Ms. Hannibal?" Steve asked, coming up to the chest. "I'm Steve Henson. My mom said you were looking for some help here?"

"Get me out and you can have the place!" the voice inside the chest yelled, sounding a little irritated now.

Steve nodded, slid the coat stand back and set it upright again. Then he lifted the lid of the trunk.

Bright blue eyes stared up at him from a pretty - if older - face. Not as old as Steve's mom, but not young, either. The face was framed with brown hair, pulled back and tied to keep it out of the way. The blue eyes rolled, and the woman - dressed in a short-sleeved blouse and blue jeans - attempted to rise.

"Oh! My friggin' back! God - help me up, will you?"

Steve grabbed one of the woman's arms as she attempted to rise, helped her up to sit on one edge of the trunk.

"How long were you in there?" Steve asked, trying to keep the smile off his face now.

"What time is it?"

"Almost noon."

"Since about ten-thirty, I guess."

Steve blinked. Wow. He could see then why the woman was stiff. "Can I ask how you came to be in there?"

The woman turned her eyes on him - and they were very pretty, he could now see - and looked sheepish. "Uh, was kind of dumb, really. I was remembering playing in trunks like this as a kid, and I just wanted to see if I could still fit inside one."

"That would be a yes," Steve said, now allowing a grin to come out.

The woman grinned back, and stuck out a hand. "Debbi Hannibal. Who did you say you were?"

"Steve Henson. My mom saw you in town yesterday and talked to you about a summer job for me."

"I remember. You're hired. It's minimum wage, but that's all I can afford yet. And it's kind of part-time - at least, at first. How old are you?"


Debbi nodded. "Oh. You look a little younger. Well, you can work as much as we can manage, then."

She slid off the edge of the trunk and slowly straightened. "I'm so glad I stopped to talk to your mom now, Stevie. I might have been in that trunk until I starved, otherwise."

Steve bristled slightly at being called 'Stevie'. Grandma Wilson - his mom's mother - called him that, and it had always bugged him. But Debbi was paying for the privilege, so what the hell.

He looked around the room now, taking in the sights. "This place is pretty cool. I can only imagine what it's going to be like once you get it straightened up."

"We get it straightened up, you mean." Debbi smiled. "That's the first order of business. Get everything squared away, shipshape, and in apple-pie order."

When he raised an eyebrow at her, she grinned. "My dad was navy. He likes things orderly."

Steve decided he liked Debbi. She was a little odd - but who wasn't? "Okay. Where do I start?"

Debbi considered that, the forefinger of one hand tapping on the tip of her chin while she decided. "I think I'll start you in the home section. Come on."

She turned, and - a little stiffly yet - led him through another archway in the back of the room into what had obviously once been a large kitchen. A great old porcelain-faced gas stove still sat underneath a wide tin hood, with white tiled countertops on either side. The front of the stove was ornate - classy, actually, and the name RobertShaw was written across the center panel of it in blue script.

The top of the stove held a variety of obviously old pots, pans, and kitchenware - all of it in great shape. Little white stickers on each one held a sale price - most of it was just a few bucks.

The counter tops held all manner of bowls, glasses, stacks of dinnerware, cups, coffee servers, tea sets, blenders, mixers, and kitchen doodads that Steve wasn't sure what to call. The cabinets above - doorless now - held even more plates, mostly sets, all priced and ready for sale. A couple of wooden dining room tables along the back wall held just a mammoth variety of glassware of every shape, color, and size, all with little tags declaring their sale price.

"Wow," Steve said, admiringly. "Must have taken some time to price all this stuff."

"It did, and it does. I have to be careful, because some of the stuff I pick up is collectible, and I have to watch out or risk giving away a king's ransom as a dog's bone."

Steve grinned. "I like the way you talk. You're from Miami?"

"Who, me? No. I'm from New York, as in City."

Steve raised his eyebrows. "You don't sound like you're from New York."

Debbi smiled. "Heaven's no. Only cab drivers and other paupers sound like they're from New York."

Steve laughed. "I'm not sure what that means."

Debbi leaned forward conspiratorially. "I was a class-girl. A jet-setter. World-wise. An elitist." She sighed. "A snob. My family has money. I had money. I didn't know what to do with it, so I did nothing. Well, except party and travel and cause trouble. I've been all over the world, honey. London and Moscow, Sydney and Hong Kong. You name it, I've been there. I finally got tired of roaming, and decided to stick to Europe. I landed in Paris, and lost myself in the party scene there for a while."

"Yeah? What happened to that?" Steve couldn't help but to find Debbi interesting. No one in Claymore talked like this.

Debbi rolled her eyes theatrically. "I met a man. Well, he wasn't a real man - he was French. But he looked like one, and he sounded like one, even if he didn't live like one. He showed me the error of my ways, that money was the root of all evil, and that simplicity was the true way."

Steve was impressed. "He was like a...a philosopher?"

"No. He was a bum, and a good one. He spent about thirty thousand of daddy's money before I got wise and threw him out. But he did teach me something - that money ain't everything, baby. Even while he was busy spending mine, he did nothing but complain and be miserable. Whoever said you can't buy happiness really knew what he was talking about."

Steve grinned. "So what happened then?"

Debbi shrugged. "I came home. I told daddy not to give me any more money. I said I was going to take what my own investments brought in and make something with my life."

"Wow. He was impressed?"

"No. He laughed at me. He said I'd be home in a week with my tail between my legs."

"Really? That would kind of piss me off to be told that."

Debbi nodded. "Me, too. I haven't been back since."

"How long has it been?"

"Seven years, give or take a day. After the first two months, daddy sent me a message: all is forgiven - come home. I sent him back a message: not until I'm good and ready." She grinned. "I'm still not ready."

Steve liked his new employer - realized then that he was bound to like the job, too. His mom got one right - who knew? But --

"I thought I heard your mom lived in Miami," he said then. "I just assumed you were from there, too."

"My mother does live in Miami," Debbi returned. "And my father lives in New York. My brothers live in Los Angeles, and Toronto. And I live in Claymore. We're not a tight family, exactly."

"Oh." Shit. Best not to go there. "So...what do you want me to do first?"

Debbi waved a hand at the kitchen. "This stuff is about where I want it for now." She pointed at two long, low, deep bookcases that ran beneath the double windows in the back wall. Another two bookcases, wide and high and just as deep, stood on either side of the windows. "See them?"

He nodded.

She smiled, and started forward, indicating that he was to follow. They went from the kitchen into another large room, which looked to have been meant to be a dining room. Steve gaped at what he saw there.

The floor was absolutely covered with ornate glassware, dinnerware, cups, glasses, china, silver, brass ware, and countless other things that would need to be scrutinized to be identified. Hundreds and hundreds of items. And each one had a little price tag stuck on it.

"I've priced these items. I just need you to take them and carefully place them on those shelves in the kitchen. You'll see that they are grouped - keep the groups together. Try to be neat, and place things so that the price tags can be seen. The less people have to pick stuff up to see whether or not they want to spend the money, the less breakage we'll have in the end through dropping."

Steve nodded. "So I'm starting today?"

Debbi grinned. "Honey, you started the second you let me out of that trunk."

Steve couldn't help smiling back. "I think I'm gonna like this job."

A look of pleasure crossed the woman's face. "Great. Because I already like having you here. Let's get started, shall we?"

They worked until five. Debbi hunted him up as he was placing the last items on the shelves. What should have taken just an hour or two had taken four. Steve was very careful moving the glassware, and arranging it, and ensuring that none got dropped. It was a successful venture, but time-consuming to get right.

Debbi seemed pleased. She smiled at him, nodding in approval. "Looks great, Stevie. You have a knack for display. Who knew?"

"Not me," Steve admitted. "And my mom would be shocked to know. She thinks my room looks like New Orleans after the flood. She told me once that if she could find a big enough vacuum cleaner she'd just suck up my whole room and toss the bag in the backyard."

Debbi laughed. "Your mom sounds like fun. She seemed a little stern when I talked to her in town."

"Yeah. She can be like that. Businesslike. But she's a real sweetie underneath."

The woman grinned. "Sounds like you get along with her. That's really great. How's your dad?"

"I like him, too," Steve confessed. "He's really cool."

"Wow." Debbi's eyes showed approval. "A kid that likes his parents. You're a keeper, for sure."

Steve was deciding that he really liked this woman, and was going to really like this job. He had to remember to give his mom a hug when he got home.

"Now if the truck guy would just get here," Debbi finished, her frown returning.

Steve waited for her to continue, but she didn't. "Who's that?" he ventured.

"Huh? Oh. I hired a guy with a truck. A small van or something, he said. I need someone to go around and collect the stuff that I have purchased for the shop, and any stuff that is donated. I hired a guy who lives over in Bentonville. He said he'd be here today, but then called this morning and said he was getting something on the truck fixed, and that he would be here tomorrow." She frowned. "I hope he's going to be dependable. He sounded pretty young." She realized immediately what she had said, and smiled and squeezed his arm. "No offense."

Steve laughed. "None taken. I'd like to think I can be a realist when pushed. I know guys my age aren't always where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be."

Debbi shrugged. "Oh, I don't think he's as young as you. I think he's seventeen." She smiled, looking thoughtful. "On second thought --"

They both laughed. Steve followed Debbi about, closing windows and turning off fans, and eventually they were standing on the front porch and locking up.

"What time to do want me tomorrow?" Steve asked.

"You can come about ten, if that's not too early."

"Nope. I'll be here."

She extended her hand, and they shook. "I think I'll like working with you, Stevie. Especially if you don't go around telling people about the trunk incident."

Steve shrugged. "What trunk incident?"

Debbi nodded. "You'll go far in this world, m' boy."

They walked down to the road, and Debbi got into her Nissan, and Steve unlocked his bike and climbed aboard. Debbi pulled out onto the road, tooted her horn, and then was gone.

Yup. This job was going to be cool.

At dinner, Steve told his folks about his day - omitting the thing with Debbi and the trunk, as promised. His parents listened with evident interest - and his mom with a certain amount of pleasure at her son's obvious excitement over the new job. But she didn't say anything about it then.

After they ate, while Steve helped clear the table, he told his mom how much he liked the new job, and thanked her. And hugged her.

She smiled. "I'm just glad it worked out. I was talking to Lannie Custer today while you were out, and she said how much trouble her son, Jerry, was having finding something."

Steve smiled. "I know Jerry. We play baseball together. I didn't think he was looking that hard to work."

"Well, he is. His mom said she told him they needed someone at Crockett's to stock shelves in the back room, and that he was going today to see about it."

Steve nodded, smiling inwardly at the mental picture of Jerry wandering among shelves full of women's lacy underthings. It wasn't a job he'd wanted, but it was one he might have been jealous of even yesterday - until he had landed something that looked like it might turn out to be really fun.

"I hope he gets it," Steve said, meaning it. There were worse jobs, after all.

The rest of the evening went kind of slowly. Steve watched some TV with his folks, then begged off early, saying he was tired. "Have to work tomorrow," he said grinning.

He went to his room and closed the door and locked it, and undressed and got into bed. He really was kind of tired. He turned off the light and lay there, thinking about his day - and then about Jerry Custer. But he hadn't even undressed the boy in his mind before his eyelids felt droopy, and before he knew it, sleep claimed him.

The next day dawned warm and sunny, with a small breeze that knocked the edge off the humidity. Steve enjoyed the bike trip over to the thrift shop, just easing over the blacktopped road at a leisurely pace that moved him along without producing a vigorous sweat. Traffic was light - but it was always light here. Claymore was not exactly Times Square.

He was dressed in shorts and a tee-shirt, and had just stuck his bare feet into his running shoes and laced them up loosely. Debbi had said he could dress relaxed, because he was going to be really working, lifting and carrying and moving stuff around, and he had taken her at her word.

He pulled up onto the crushed bluestone lot and locked his bike in the rack. Debbi's Nissan was already there, tucked over in a corner where it would leave plenty of room for other visitors - when they finally arrived, that is. First, they would need to get the place open for business.

He bounded up the slate steps, and then took the porch steps in a single leap, and pulled open the screen door and went inside. "Hi! Debbi?"

"Back here, Stevie." Her voice came through the archway to the left.

Steve walked around, and found Debbi down on her knees, sorting through boxes of books. She smiled up at him. "Hi. You want to bring those other boxes of books from the front hall for me?"

He looked around the room. It was surrounded by tall bookcases, most of them still empty. The center of the floor held two long, chest-high bookcases, back-to-back, so that the stock on them could be viewed from both sides. It was a nice, big room, and Steve was seeing now that this old house was going to be a great little store.

And not a ghost in sight, either.

"Sure," he returned, heading back to the front hall. He grabbed up the first box - paperbacks - and brought them back to the book room. "By the way - did you know that this house is supposed to be haunted?"

Debbi smiled, thinking he was kidding. But then she saw that he wasn't, and frowned. "Really? I hadn't heard that."

"Well," Steve amended, "it's not like the whole town knows, or anything. My mom didn't know, when I told her. But the kids at school have all heard it, anyway."

Debbi's face remained screwed up a moment; but then she just shrugged. "Oh, well. Nothing to do about it, in any case. I was just thinking that that's the kind of little thing that can make people think twice before coming into a place like this."

"It's not really haunted, though," Steve said, watching her. "Is it?"

She laughed then, her eyes sparkling. "Not you, too, Steverino?" She shook her head. "The only ghost around here is me."

"Oh." Steve frowned. "Well, someone swore they saw weird lights upstairs one evening when they were going by here."

Debbi brought up a hand and laid her chin on the backs of her fingers. "That's entirely possible. There was an old mattress on the floor in the upstairs front bedroom, and a number of empty beer cans on the floor. Looked to me like someone's make-out spot. And, someone broke the lock on one of the back doors." She grinned. "You got any players at your school?"

Steve laughed in surprise."Oh, yeah? Now there's something I never considered." He cocked his head, thinking. "Yeah, that could have been...well, we have a few guys who think they're lovers; and a few girls who are a little too ready to please. Could have been any of them."

Debbi nodded. "Well, I've been here alone a bunch of evenings, and I've never heard or seen a thing. And that back door lock is fixed. Any ghosts that get in now are going to be guilty of breaking and entering, so they had better watch themselves."

They set about unloading books. Steve took them out of the boxes and stacked them on the floor next to Debbi. She looked at each one, and penciled a price in the upper right-hand corner of each fly leaf. She was fast, and built a new stack of priced books every couple of minutes. Steve would remove these stacks, sort the books by category, and place them on the shelves. In this fashion they completed emptying the boxes and filling the bookcases by just after noon.

"Lunch time," Debbi said, getting up from the floor and stretching. "Ugh. I'm not quite as nimble as I once was." She smiled at Steve. "Did you bring anything to eat?"

Somehow, the thought of lunch had slipped his mind. He shrugged, feeling kind of stupid. "I didn't think of it."

Debbi smiled. "Well, I did. I've got a couple of small subs in the fridge in the office. Come on and join me."

The office was in the rear - a small room off the parlor, which was now men's clothing. Steve followed Debbi to the back of the house. As they passed through the parlor and went by the racks of clothing, Steve spied a pair of shorts on a hangar at the end of one row. They were brown, with three lines of white piping up the sides, and a small white Adidas tag on the left leg. And, they were short. He couldn't help stopping to look at them. Whoa. They weren't just short, they were sexy!

These were the kind of shorts he imagined Jerry Custer wearing in his daydreams about the boy - nut length, he thought of them. Woof! Just imagining Jerry in a pair of these made him thirsty! These shorts had once been common athletic apparel, but were a little too revealing for most guys these days. Most guys.

Steve took them off the hangar and held them up to himself. Geez. They were his size, too!

He became aware that Debbi had stopped and turned around, and was grinning at him. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you, Steve-o? Got a little lightning in there somewhere, don't you?"

Steve felt his face redden. "I was just thinking they were pretty, uh..."

"Sexy," Debbi finished. "You can say it." Her eyes twinkled. "Bet you'd look hot in them, too. Got a girl you wanna impress? They would be the things to do it."

Steve licked his lips. If Debbi thought they were cool, they probably were. Not around here - not in this town, maybe. Somewhere in the world, though.

He sighed, looking at the shorts. Yeah, but he wasn't anywhere else in the world. He was in Claymore. But...the shorts might be fun to wear in his room - or out on the porch. And to think about Jerry Custer in...

"How much are they?"

"A dollar or two. Just take them. When I pulled them out of the box they were in and held them up, my first thought was that no one in this town would ever buy them." She winked. "Seems I was wrong."

Steve grinned. "Thanks. You can take it out of my first paycheck." He tucked the shorts into the waistband of his own shorts, so that they hung down his side.

"Nope. On me. I'm just happy I won't have to look at them for the next five years. They've found a home, and that makes me happy." She grinned again. "Everything's better the second time around, right?"

Steve felt his face redden again. "We'll see."

They went into the back room off the parlor, which had a sign on the door that said, Office - No admittance. There was a desk and some chairs, two filing cabinets, a small refrigerator, and a microwave oven. Hard to tell what the room had been originally, but that was one of the cool things about these big old houses - lots of rooms of every size.

Debbi went to the little fridge, pulled out two half-subs wrapped in clear plastic, and two bottles of apple juice. "Good?" she asked, holding the bottles up for him to see.

"Sure. I love apples."

Debbi scraped some papers aside on the desk and put the food there, and they drew up chairs and sat to eat. Steve's sub was turkey and cheese, which he was fine with - it was delicious.

"We're moving along pretty good," Debbi said, taking a bite of her sandwich. "I thought it would take all day to do the books, but we're ahead. We can get to the electronics next."

Steve perked up. "Really? What kind of stuff have you got?"

Debbi smiled. "The purpose of you being here is to work, not to buy everything in sight."

Steve laughed. "I like cool stuff just like everybody else. What have you got?"

She shrugged. "Um - half-dozen old computer monitors..."

"Flat screen, or CRT?" Steve interrupted.

"They're flat. Does it make a difference?"

"Yep. No one is going to buy a CRT anymore. Too big and heavy, and the resolution is too low."

Debbi nodded. "I thought the same thing. I also have some inkjet printers, a whole box of different kinds of cartridges, a couple of cameras, a bunch of keyboards and mice, a huge box of cables of all kinds, all kinds of connectors, some blank DVDs and CDs, some speakers - there's more computer stuff, but I can't remember it all."

"It's all computer stuff?"

"Oh, no. I have some DVD players, some stereo equipment, a couple of small flat-screen TV's - all sorts of doodads."

Steve nodded, impressed. "Where do you get all this stuff?"

"Around. Estate sales, yard sales, flea markets, unclaimed storage sales, and just people selling stuff. And donating stuff. You'd be surprised how many people just call and say come and get it."


"Yeah. I take all kinds. I had ads in newspapers all over the place for six months offering to take people's junk." She laughed. "You'd be amazed at what some people think is junk."

Steve nodded. "So you've been planning this place for some time."

Debbi paused, looked around the room. "Not this exact place - no. But something like it, yes." She grinned. "There's this little thrift store in Paris, run by two old women who obviously love what they are doing. They sell mostly women's apparel, but occasionally a few other things, too. I happened across it by chance one day, and went inside to see what it was." She shrugged. "I had never even heard of a second-hand store before. That people might want to buy things that other people had already owned and used was just this incredibly novel idea to me. I was kind of enchanted by the notion of things getting a second chance." She sighed. "When I came back home and decided I wanted to do something with myself, that's the first notion that came to mind." Her eyes were bright. "My second chance, you see."

Steve smiled. "You have enough stuff to fill this place?"

Debbi laughed. "Are you kidding? I had a guy in a big box truck bring what you see here. It took him two trips. We emptied one of the four storage buildings I have full of stuff. And there is more coming in all the time."

Steve felt his eyebrows go up. "Wow. Sounds cool."

Debbi nodded. "Yup. Now if I can just get my new truck guy I hired to show up, I can send the two of you to the Grove City storage unit to get some more stuff."

That sounded like fun. On the road, doing things, going places - and more cool stuff to look at. Man. Was he ever lucky to fall into this!

They finished eating and cleaned up after themselves, and then went to work in the other turret, where all the electronics were to be stored. Debbi wasn't kidding before when she said she had 'a few other things'. The room was packed with boxes, most still sealed.

This garret had bookcases all along the back wall, and long tables along the outer walls underneath the windows. In front, beneath the narrow double windows, was a glass display case with a black countertop. It was into this that smaller, more expensive - and too easily portable - items like cameras, laptops, and computer accessories would go.

Steve marveled over a box that contained nothing but laptop computers. Each had a power supply and each one had been tested and was guaranteed to operate.

Debbi nodded. "People buy a new one and don't have kids or someone to give the old ones to, they're happy to get rid of them. Computers are hard to dispose of because they have dangerous substances inside them. They're supposed to be recycled, not thrown away."

Steve looked them over; they were all older models - not up to the speed of the laptop he had in his room. But each one was clean, came with an operating system installed, and whatever software the previous owner had left in place. The most expensive unit was a Dell with an older dual core processor, at thirty dollars. He was tempted to buy that one himself, just to have a second machine. Yeah - it would be a little slower than his current machine, but nice to have in case of emergency.

Debbi saw him lusting after it and sighed. "Here - give me that one. I'll put it in the office and we'll take five dollars out of each of your checks until it's paid for, okay?"

Steve grinned. "Thanks. You're really cool, Debbi."

She shook her head. "At the rate you're going, we won't need any customers. I can just sit back and wait until you buy everything."

They laughed together, and Steve sighed. He could almost see how guys could fall in love with girls now. In fact, he was surprised to think that Debbi wasn't married.

"Um --" He was about to ask her about it when some little warning bell sounded in the back of his mind, warning him not to pry.

Too late - she had seen the question being born. "What?" She watched him interestedly now, waiting to see what was coming next.

Steve scratched his head. "I'm sorry. I was just wondering why a really cool chick...I mean, a really nice person like you wasn't married."

Debbi laughed. "Who, me? I was always too wild to think of letting anyone marry me. The kind of guys I knew weren't the kind you'd want to raise kids with, anyway." Her smile settled down to a wistful pout. "Maybe someday, Stevie. Just gotta meet the right one, you know?"

Yeah. He did know. He was kind of hoping for that himself - meeting the right one.

Steve walked the laptop back to the office and put it on top of a filing cabinet, and laid the brown shorts on top of it to pick up later. Then he went back to the garret and got to work.They continued to unbox the electronics, and Debbi would price the stuff, and Steve would place the items on a shelf, table, or wherever Debbi instructed.

They had been moving along smoothly when they heard someone walking across the front porch, and then a sturdy rap upon the frame of the screen door "Anybody home?"

Debbi looked at Steve and grinned. "Maybe that's our truck."

They got up and went together to the door.

Someone stood on the other side, looking in at them. Steve felt his eyes narrow as he tried not to stare.

The guy was about the same size as Steve, lean and hungry-looking in a tight pair of off-white coveralls, into the pockets of which he had thrust his hands. The top two buttons of the coveralls were not fastened, showing a dark blue tee-shirt underneath. Straight black hair spilled down the sides of the newcomer's head, almost to his shoulders - thick and glossy in the afternoon light. The guy was smiling, showing even, white teeth, with little dimples on either side of his mouth. His eyes were brown and bright, and had enough gold in them to make the guards at Fort Knox sit up and suspect a thief had been in the vault.

"You Ms. Hannibal? I'm Chris Horne. I talked to you on the phone."

Debbi pushed open the door, and the newcomer stepped back out of the way. His feet were encased in brown boots, which thunk-thunked against the boards of the porch as he moved.

Steve slowly let out his breath. Great googly moogly! Was this guy ever gorgeous!

Chris seemed to notice Steve for the first time as he stepped inside the door. For a moment his eyes fastened on Steve's. Then he blinked, narrowed those eyes, and then gave Steve the once over. And then he frowned. "What are you looking at?"

Steve realized then that he had been staring, despite his best efforts not to do so. He felt his face redden, but swallowed and smiled. "Oh - sorry. With the light behind you like that I had trouble seeing who you were."

"Oh." Chris looked back at Debbi. "Sorry I couldn't make it yesterday. I had to put a fuel pump on the truck." He nodded. "She's ready to go now."

"Great!" Debbi looked at her watch. "Would you mind a run into Grove City? I have a storage building there, and I'd like some of the stuff inside brought here."

Chris shrugged, smiling. "You're the boss. Where is this place? I know that town pretty well."

"It's a place called Storage Solutions."

Chris grinned. "Sure. Corner of Rittenhouse and Palder Road."

Debbi looked delighted. "That's the one. I have stuff in unit number nineteen. It's all in boxes. There's a roll-up door on the front of the unit. Just open it up, and get as much of the stuff that's inside the door into your truck and bring it back here. Take Steve here with you to help."

For a second Chris's eyes moved back to Steve, and something unnameable tugged at the corners of the boy's mouth. But he quickly brought a hand up and rubbed his nose, giving a little sniff. "Sure, sure. You have a key?"

Debbi produced a keyring attached to a small orange flag with the number 19 embossed on it in black, and a single key. She handed it to Steve. "Don't hurt yourselves. Some of the boxes are heavy."

Chris nodded. "Okay. Come on, uh --"

"Steve," Steve offered, stepping forward.

"Yeah, yeah. Come on." Chris nodded at Debbi. "See you shortly." He turned back to the front porch and went out.

Steve looked briefly at Debbi, who rolled her eyes and gave him a little smile. "Have fun."

Steve looked after the other boy, then back at Debbi. "Yeah. Thanks." And then he followed Chris.

Chris was already down the slate steps and to the crushed stone parking area. Steve made it down the slate steps himself before his eyes really settled on the white truck parked nearby.

Jesus. "What the fuck is this?" he blurted, before he could stop himself.

Chris turned around and looked at him, his face going to a frown. "It's my truck. You've never seen a truck before?"

Not like this one. That it was some foreign make was obvious. And, somehow, Steve had been picturing something bigger, like a Ryder box truck or something of that sort. He shook his head. "I give up. What is it?"

Chris looked like he was used to the reaction, but still didn't like it. "It's a Renault. It's French."

"It's weird looking," Steve blurted again, without thinking.

Chris leaned forward, finally looking a little pissed. "It's a good truck. Just get the fuck inside and let's go."

Steve immediately realized he'd offended the other boy. He'd just been so surprised by the truck, which was unlike any vehicle he had ever seen before. It looked old, and a little tired. And whoever had designed it hadn't been too well-endowed with aesthetic talent. It looked like a truck as designed by a maker of porcelain bathroom fixtures.

But it was really the vehicle's driver that had him so flustered. Steve was all over the place with reaction to Chris himself. That Chris was attractive to him made it hard for him to concentrate. This felt just like being with Jerry Custer when that boy was at his sexiest. At those times, Steve sometimes said the wrong thing, or acted stupid, too. He'd known Jerry his whole life, and Jerry always thought that Steve was just playing around when he had those odd moments. But Chris didn't know him at all, and the other boy probably thought that Steve was just an asshole.

Steve winced, realizing he'd already screwed this whole thing up. What the hell was wrong with him?

He saw then that Chris was getting in what should have been the passenger side of the truck. That meant it had right-hand drive - the truck was European, no doubt about that.

Steve sighed, mentally kicking himself, and went around to the other door of the truck and got inside. Chris ignored him, started the engine, and rammed the shifter into reverse. There was a light grinding sound, and then the truck backed slowly around in a half circle to face the road.

"Man, I'm sorry," Steve said, not knowing what else to say. "I've just never seen a truck like this one."

Chris looked over at him, his face still tight; but then he sighed a little, and nodded. "Okay, man. Just - I like this truck. Don't be downin' it around me again, okay?"

Steve nodded, but just looked out of the side window as they pulled out onto the road and headed north.

The silence grew long. Finally, Chris glanced over Steve's way. "So - that your mom?"

It took a second for Steve to come up to speed on what the other meant. "Oh - you mean Debbi?" Steve smiled at the notion. "No. Just my boss."

"Oh. She seems cool."

"She is," Steve affirmed. "I really like working with her."

"Done that long?"

"Just since yesterday."

"No shit? That makes me feel better."

Steve looked at the other boy. "Why?"

Chris finally laughed - a pleasant sound that made Steve smile. "Well, it relaxes me, I guess. Don't feel like the third shoe now, you know?"

"Yeah. I guess I can see that. There's nothing to worry about, though. Working for Debbi is great. I'm sure you'll like it."

Chris made a face, and moved his head in a little maybe kind of nod. "It's a thrift store? Used stuff?"

"Yep. She didn't tell you?"

"Yeah - she did. Just checking. The house kind of threw me a little."

Steve grinned. "Local legend says it's haunted."

Chris looked at him, grinning, and Steve's heart did a little ka-thunk inside his chest. Oh, man, was this gonna to be hard to live with!

"Naw," Chris said, disbelievingly. "For real?"

Steve nodded. "Heard it straight from the guy who saw the funny lights." He laughed then. "Well, Debbi said she found a mattress and some beer cans upstairs where the ghost guy saw the lights, and now we think it was somebody's secret noogie hole."

Chris squeezed his eyes shut a moment and laughed. "Somebody tossin' the salad, huh? Awesome." He looked at Steve. "You believe in ghosts?"

"Nope. Believe in sex, though."

It was a little out there, and Steve knew it. But Chris just grinned at him. "Can't argue with that."

Somehow, they eased into a conversation, and the trip began to be fun. They talked about music, and decided they liked a lot of the same stuff. They were both Indians fans, too, though Chris said he had missed the game that broke the winning streak and was upset to find out about it.

"I was working on the truck most of the day yesterday, and the radio doesn't work, so I'm out of touch on the road."

Steve knew he had to be careful now talking about the truck. It did seem to move along the road without a hitch, though it had a tendency to bounce in uneven spots, and the engine sounded a little like it would rather be doing something else besides running.

"Where'd you find a truck like this?" He decided that would be a safe enough question.

Chris looked over at him. "My dad gave it to me. Two of them, actually. That's how I keep this one running. Someone wiped out the side of the other one pretty good. But all the other parts still work, and I use them to keep this one going." He patted the dashboard. "It's a good truck, really. We've been a lot of places together."

Steve nodded. "Where'd your dad get them? I mean, I've never see one before. I'll bet they're not common."

"Hell no, they're not. I've never seen another one, either. But I don't know where my dad got them."

Steve frowned. "You should ask him some time."

Chris looked over at him, but this time he wasn't smiling. "Don't know where my dad is, either. Haven't seen him in about a year. Just my mom and me right now."

"Oh." Steve winced. Great. He'd said the wrong thing again.

"He'll be back," Chris said, looking back at the road. "Someday. He went away before, when I was nine. He was gone two years then. But he came back."

Chris didn't seem to be upset about it, so Steve hazarded another question. "Where'd he go for two years?"

"I dunno. He never said." Chris tossed a shoulder. "My mom said he was off looking for himself, whatever that means."

"Your mom was okay with him coming back?"

"Yeah. She didn't even seem that surprised when he walked into the house one day." Chris frowned. "He said, 'Hi, honey,'; and she said, 'Oh, it's you.' Then they kissed, and it was like he was never gone."

Steve stared at the other boy. He'd never heard anything like that before.

Chris looked over at him a moment, then smiled. "I'm fucking with you, man."

Steve drew back a bit, narrowing his eyes. "Are you?"

The other boy laughed. "Yeah. My dad owns two used car lots outside Columbus. He buys big lots of cars and trucks. He got the two Renaults as part of some package deal, and he gave them to me. Hell, nobody would buy a truck like this these days."

Steve cocked his head to one side. "So all that stuff about walking into the house after two years was bullshit?"

Chris nodded, smiling. "Just playing, man. Don't get bent about it."

Steve looked ahead through the windshield, unable to believe that the other guy had lied to him so easily.. "That's kind of cruddy, man."

Chris rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. I was just playing. Wanted to see how gullible you were."

"I guess I passed the stupid test, huh?" Steve said back, crossing his arms.

Chris sighed. "Oh, great. I got to drive all the way to Grove City with a guy who can't take a little joke?"

Steve didn't know why he was feeling so upset. Really, it had been only a few lines of conversation, and with a guy he hardly knew. Shit.

"No, I can take a joke. I just didn't know you were making one. I'll be more careful in the future."

They were silent again for several minutes. Finally, Chris looked over at Steve. "I'm sorry, man. I just...I didn't realize you'd get upset. I just thought we'd laugh it off." He looked back at the road. "I was just playing," he said, more softly.

Something about that last part got into Steve and got his attention. He suspected then that Chris didn't spend a lot of time with people - any people, let alone people his own age. Why that might be, and why he suspected that it was true, he had no idea.

But he decided to give the other guy a second chance, and just be careful about believing anything he said without considering it first.

"So, how'd you get into the trucking business, Mr. Horne?"

Chris looked over at him again, blinked, and then smiled at the smile Steve wore.

"Well, I'll tell ya," the other boy said, taking on a Texas accent that sounded like Foghorn Leghorn, the old cartoon rooster. "I was just out walking 'mong the cactuses one night, and this here strange looking vehicle come straight down outta the sky and landed right next to me. Scared the whoppin' bejesus outta me! It touched down, and then it started rollin' right at me. I thought ta myself, the Martians have landed! The Martians have landed!"

Steve grinned at the look on the other boy's face. "And then what happened?"

"Well, I whipped out ol' Bess - my trusty six-shooter - and I commenced to wailin' away at the sonofabee. But it just kept right on a'comin. Put all six bullets I had square inta her, with nary a hiccup in her giddyup."

Steve laughed, finding a sudden pleasure at the light shining in Chris's eyes.

"Yup. I thought ta myself then, why there's no stoppin' 'em. So I 'membered what my grandaddy, Aloyisius Jeremiah Mumfferty, the Third, once tol' me: if ya can't beat the varmints, join 'em! So that's what I did."

Steve was grinning ear to ear. "You joined in with the Martians?"

Chris made a big show of smacking his lips and looking not-too-sure of himself. "Well - I was wrong 'bout that, turns out. Wuddn't no Martians at all. Some French renagade flyin' over looked down and saw me there, and somehow thought I was the Mayor of Detroit, Misshygin. Thought he would give me what-fer, and dropped down a Renault truck on a parachute, jus' to show me that Detroit didn't know everthin' 'bout buildin' trucks."

Steve patted the dashboard. "It was this truck, wasn't it?"

Chris grinned at him. "Yer damn smart fer a backeaster, son. Yuppins, was this here truck, itself. Me and her, we got together, and we started haulin' stuff around."

"I see. And what did that entail?" Steve asked, playing now into his role as an interviewer.

Chris harrumphed mightily. "Wellsir, what you do is, ya open up the back of this here truck, and you put somethin' innit, and then you drive way over there someplace, and then you open up the back of this here truck, and you take that somethin' back out of it."

Steve started laughing now. "And you make a living at that?"

"Hell, no! What give ya that Idea? But I sure do get me a lotta stuff from this'n spot here to that'n spot there!"

Steve couldn't stop smiling now, at the beautiful animation in the other boy's face. Chris had just come alive during the interview, his bright gold eyes flashing, and his white teeth shining in a smile. He just looked like this was the most fun he'd had in some time, and that Steve had been there for it somehow tickled him. And, damn it, was Chris just as cute as could be when he smiled like that!

Steve gave the other boy a stern look. "Somehow I don't think you're telling me the truth, Mr. Horne."

Chris sighed theatrically. "Well, ya got me. It's a joke, son...ah say, it's a joke, son."

They both laughed.

"You got some twisted brain cells in there someplace, Chris," Steve said then, shaking his head, but still smiling.

The other boy laughed. "Ah, I love kidding around like that. Breaks up the monotony."

Steve nodded. "You like telling stories like that, huh?"

Chris looked over at him, as if to assure himself that Steve was not making fun of him. "Yeah. I do. Sometimes I write them down, too. It gives me something to do."

Something about that statement only confirmed the idea that Chris didn't have a lot of company in his daily life.

"What about your friends?" Steve asked, fishing a little. "You let them read your stories?"

The other boy was quiet a second before answering. "Uh - sure. Any of my friends can read my stories, whenever they want to."

There was something so noncommittal about that statement that it set off little alarm bells in the back of Steve's mind, but he wasn't sure why.

"I'd like to read some of your stories sometime," Steve said quietly. "I'll bet they're a lot of fun."

Chris looked over at him, his eyes searching Steve's face. "Would you, now?" But when Steve just nodded, Chris finally smiled. "Maybe. I'll think about it."

After that, they simply settled into small talk, and Steve got the impression that Chris was digesting things, just as Steve was,

He liked Chris. Liked him a lot. The other boy was cute, and funny, and - it seemed - talented. And, somehow, lonely. That this last was an echo of something deep inside Steve himself was not lost on him. Somehow, without understanding who Chris was just yet, he understood what he was. Alone.

That hurt a little, because Chris obviously had things to offer. Chris had imagination, and humor, and - what? Something else. A depth to him that Steve had never experienced before with his friends. There was a lot more to Chris than met the eye. But what exactly that was, Steve didn't know.

They arrived at the storage facility, and piled out of the truck in front of the roll-up door for unit nineteen. Steve fished the key out of his pocket and removed the padlock, and hung it on the handle of the truck's back door. They pushed up the roll-up door and stepped back as it bounced momentarily back and forth against the tensioner. And then Steve was just gaping at what he saw within.

Debbi hadn't been lying when she'd said the place was crammed full. Just inside the door were neat stacks of plain brown boxes, each about two feet long and maybe a foot and a half high, which reached up to the same height as the boy's heads, and which stretched across the entire width of the doorway.

Chris kind of gaped a moment, too, and then laughed. "This is gonna take more than one trip."

Steve smiled at him. "I don't think she expected us to bring it all at once. She said to get as much as we could, remember?"

"Yeah. That's right. Look - you can squeeze by this end. Let's see what's behind."

They slid through the narrow gap at the end of the boxes and found themselves in a small aisle between the boxes and the cinder block wall, that quickly opened up into the storage unit itself.

The stacks were only about five boxes deep. Behind them was an open space, with two long tables with an aisle between them. Against the back wall were more stacks of boxes - but they were all sorts: boxes that had once held reams of paper, or bathroom tissue, or bottles of gin. These must be the ones containing the donated or acquired stuff --

They turned as one and looked at the stacked boxes behind them. Beside the table there was a pile of new boxes, flat, most still bundled together with little yellow plastic bands around them.

Steve shook his head in amazement, it just dawning on him how much work Debbi had put into this operation before she had even gotten to the Kennally house in Claymore. She must have been sorting and boxing stuff for weeks, or even months! The sheer volume of things here was astonishing - and to consider that Debbi had several other storage facilities just like this one only increased his amazement.

"Busy little bee, isn't she?" Chris said, summing it up nicely.

"I'll say." Steve looked around, then just shrugged. "I think she has stuff piled just like she wants it, so we might as well go back around and load it in the truck in the order she has it stacked."

"Sounds like a plan to me. Let's go."

They went back to the truck and opened the rear door. Chris climbed inside on his knees, and extended his hands. "Start giving them here."

Steve nodded, and grabbed the first box. It was heavy, and it clinked. On one side it said "Dinnerware", in black magic marker.

They worked quickly, but carefully, to load the boxes into the truck. Soon, Chris was able to crawl out, and then both of them were stacking boxes inside.

And then the rear of the truck was full. Steve sighed, went and leaned on a stack of boxes still inside the unit. He was sweating, and pulled at the front of his tee-shirt to let some air inside.

Chris sat on the rear bumper of the truck and bent over, and started taking his shoes off. Steve watched a moment, surprised, as Chris kicked off each shoe, revealing white ankle socks beneath. And then Chris stood, and began unbuttoning the front of his coveralls.

Steve felt a small rush between his legs, and then a warm creep in his cheeks as an internal embarrassment at his reaction overcame him.

"Uh - what are you doing?"

Chris threw him a look. "Are you kidding? I'm hot as hell. I'm getting out of these damn coveralls."

Steve watched as the other boy finished unbuttoning the front of the coveralls and shrugged his shoulders out of them. And then Chris was pulling them down over his body.

He had shorts on underneath - black athletics, much like the ones Steve was wearing himself. Steve watched as the other boy's hips came into view - and then his crotch - and again felt that small rush between his own legs. He frowned, forcing his thoughts into a neutral channel, but continued to watch as the coveralls slid downwards, revealing tanned, sleekly muscled thighs, dimpled knees, and sturdy, sun-browned calves. Steve's gaze ended at the other boy's ankles, which were just - well, cute.

Chris got his feet out of the coveralls and tossed them on top of the boxes behind him, stood and tucked his feet back into his boots. Then he sat back on the bumper of the truck and drew a leg up, and began tying the laces. Steve again stared - the rounded shapes of Chris's junk was plainly visible, outlined in the dark material of the shorts.

Steve looked away, feeling his breath get short. He was fighting a hard-on now, and doing everything in his head that he could to calm himself down. That Chris was attractive as hell to him was plain now. The other boy simply oozed a level of sexuality that Steve could not ignore.

Chris finished lacing up the other boot and stood. "Ready to head back?"

Steve forced himself to stand, but quickly turned his back to Chris, afraid that the other boy would notice his semi-state of wood. He reached up and pulled the roll-up door down, turned the handle so it would latch. Then he twisted at the waist, and extended a hand back towards Chris. "Hand me that lock? I hung it on your truck's door handle."

Chris grabbed the padlock and handed it over, and Steve returned it to the roll-up door's handle and snapped it shut. He gave it a tug to make sure it had locked, and then turned and headed around to the side door of the truck. Chris closed the rear door, then came around and climbed in on his side.

They pulled the cab doors shut, and Chris looked over at Steve, grinning. "That made me hungry. Wanna stop somewhere and get something to eat for the trip back?"

Steve nodded, unable not to return the other boy's grin. "Sure. A burger or something would be good about now."

They headed out, back the way they had come. Steve remembered seeing a McDonald's somewhere along the road, and when they found it they pulled in and went through the drive-thru. They each got a burger, some fries, and a drink. And then they were back on the road.

Steve's thoughts were in turmoil. He was attracted to this new guy even more than he had ever been to Jerry Custer. Chris was fascinating as well as sexy, and Steve was aware now that he was walking on dangerous ground. He needed to be able to work with Chris without drooling all over him, or staring at his ass every time he bent over. He knew - from observing the way that Kelly Kittering and Josh Smalley acted towards each other - that it was hard to conceal an attraction to someone, both from the object of that attraction and from those around them. The last thing he wanted was for Chris to take off on Debbi just because he found out that Steve wanted to sleep with him.

And then Steve was a little shocked at that thought - did he want to sleep with Chris? Already?

He closed his eyes, and knew it was true. Chris had somehow captured Steve's imagination and was now center stage in it. That the world had just become more difficult was now obvious.

Steve glanced sideways at the other boy, who was eating while watching the road. I want to be around him, and I want him to like me. But I'd love for him to love me, too.

Steve gently cleared his throat, went back to eating his burger, and just stared through the windshield, trying not to think of anything dangerous.

The truck rolled differently now, having lost its tendency to bounce. The ride was a little rougher, but somehow inspired more in the way of confidence. Steve felt a small glow of affection for the strange vehicle, which didn't seem to be straining in the least under the load. He started to relax again, the food in his stomach making him a little bit drowsy.

Chris must have felt the same way, because he reached over and gave Steve a little poke. "What's going on over there? Don't fall asleep on me, jack."

So again they talked, and Chris launched into another impression, this time of an astronaut who had been trained at the Podunk Space Academy, in Lower Buttflap, Iowa. Steve again played the part of interviewer, and before long they were both laughing, and trying to finish their burgers, and to not spill their drinks.

"You're nuts," Steve said, admiringly, when the story was done, and they were well on their way back to the store. "Squirrels keep their stash between your ears."

"Oh, that's that funny scampering noise I'm always hearing," Chris said, smiling at him. For a moment their eyes held contact, and Steve was surprised when the other boy looked away first.

"You're a lot of fun," Chris said then, his voice quieter. "It's going to be great working with you."

Steve was surprised, but then deeply pleased. "Yeah," he agreed. "You, too. I haven't had this much fun in a long time. Hard to believe we're working, huh?

Chris nodded, but then looked back at Steve, and smiled. "I'll be looking forward to coming to work, anyway."

Steve turned and looked out of the side window, thrilled and pleased at what the other boy had said. To think that Chris liked him gave him a warm pleasure that stole throughout his entire body. He knew he liked Chris. Now he would just need to work around the fact that he also desired him; but - he kind of knew how to do that. He'd been doing it with Jerry Custer for a long time now.

They continued talking, and soon were pulling onto the crushed bluestone lot of the store.

Chris put the truck in neutral and looked up at the house through the windshield. "Any way I can get the truck up there, you think? Otherwise we're gonna be hauling those boxes a ways."

"Maybe. Let me go see."

Steve got out of the truck, walked over to the edge of the yard and went up the wide flagstone steps set in the rise. He went off to the right, and found a place where the rise gentled and flowed more evenly into the yard as it sloped to the street. He walked down through some trees, noting tire tracks in the soft earth, and came back to the Renault and climbed back in.

"Back up, and go over through those two trees and go left. You can circle around and go right to the front door. I saw tire tracks through there, and I think that's how the other truck got close to the house."

Chris nodded, turned the truck around, and they crept through the trees and circled left, and soon pulled up at the door. Debbi came out on the porch as Chris shut off the engine and the boys climbed out. She looked at her watch and smiled at them. "Hey, that was quick. I didn't expect you back for another hour."

Steve and Chris looked at each other.

"We work well together," Chris explained, causing Steve to grin and gaze fondly at he other boy. Debbi looked at them and smiled again, her eyebrows going up a little. "Great. That'll make things easier."

Steve and Chris unloaded the truck, placing the boxes in the front entry foyer. The Renault's cargo box wasn't huge, and it was easier to unload than it had been to load. It took them about ten minutes.

"Great," Debbi said, when they were through. She looked at her watch. "Too late for another run today." She turned to Chris. "You'll be back tomorrow?"

"Sure. What time do you need me?"

"About ten?"

Chris nodded. "Okay. You know, I can cut over to Grove City on my way here from Bentonville. If you want to trust me with your key overnight, I'll stop at the storage place on my way and bring a load of boxes with me. Then, when Steve and I go back, we should pretty much be able to get everything that's left."

Debbi nodded. "Say, that's great. That would save a lot of time, Chris. You don't mind doing that? It will be a lot of work for one guy."

Chris laughed. "Not as long as I only have to do it once."

It was agreed. They went around the house, closing windows and turning off fans, and all met back on the front porch. Debbi had Steve give the key to the storage unit to Chris, who slipped it into the pocket of his shorts.

They descended the steps from the porch, and Chris got into his truck. "See you guys tomorrow."

Steve stopped for a moment at the driver's window, unwilling to let the other boy go without getting close one last time.

"Don't hurt yourself with those boxes tomorrow," he offered, at a loss for anything else to say. He reached in and gave Chris a little pat on the shoulder. "We're already getting used to having you around."

He immediately felt awkward and stupid, but just stood there, grinning, anyway. Geez. Couldn't I have said something smarter than that?

Chris seemed not to notice Steve's difficulty. "I won't." He smiled, reached out, poked Steve with his fingertip. Steve pulled back, clenching his arms before him defensively, and felt even stupider.

"Uh - see ya." He stepped back as Chris backed the Renault away from him, then turned and hustled down the flagstone steps.

Debbi was standing outside the driver's door of her car.

"I see you made a new friend." She smiled, and for a moment Steve felt as if she could read his mind and knew exactly what he was thinking about Chris.

"Um - yeah. He's okay, Debbi."

She smiled again and slid into her car, and he watched her back up, toot the horn, and head on down the road.

Chris's truck came slowly down the side grade and pulled up beside Steve. "Hey. Put your bike in the back, and I'll give you a lift home."

Steve tried hard not to grin like a fool. "Uh, hey, that'd be great."

He unlocked his bike and then stowed it in the back of the Renault, and climbed back into the cab.

Chris grinned at him. "Why walk when you can run?"

Steve grinned back, and began telling the other boy how to get to his house.

It was a short ride by truck. They pulled up to the curb in front of the house, and Chris shut off the Renault's engine. He bent forward and looked past Steve at the house. "Hey - nice. What's your old man do?"

"He's an aviation engineer. He helps design airplanes."

Chris looked impressed. "That sounds cool. You get along with him?"

Steve nodded. "I do. And my mom, too."

Chris's eyes smiled at him. "Figures. You're so easy to get along with."

Steve looked into the other boy's beautiful eyes, and for a moment felt uncertain. Was he getting some signals here?

"Uh - you wanna come in for a little bit?"

Chris looked surprised - but then pleased. "Um, sure. I have time. My dad gets in late, so we don't eat until about seven. He tapped the clock in the truck's dashboard, then grinned at Steve. "I can hang out a half-hour or so before I need to roll."

"Great. Come on." Steve retrieved his bike from the back of the truck, and pushed it across the front yard to the house, and then let them in through the front door. He could smell something cooking in the back part of the house, and hear his mom humming something to herself.

He took Chris by the arm and drew him towards the kitchen. Chris grinned, and followed like a puppy on a leash.

Steve's mother was seated at the kitchen table, looking at a magazine. She looked up as they came in, her eyes settling on Chris before moving over to Steve.

"Hi, mom. I just wanted you to meet Chris. He works with me at the thrift shop - he drives the truck. He gave me a lift home, so I told him to come in for a little before he has to hit the road."

Chris immediately extended his hand, smiling. "Nice to meet you Mrs. --" he suddenly stopped, and looked at Steve, embarrassment creeping into his features. "You know, I don't know your last name."


"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Henson," Chris finished, turning back to Steve's mom. "I'm Chris Horne."

Mrs. Henson rose, smiling, and accepted Chris's hand. "Hi. Nice to meet you, too."

"He lives in Bentonville," Steve supplied. "He needs to head home in a half hour or so for dinner."

"That's a pretty good drive," Mrs. Benson decided, glancing over at the kitchen clock. "Your family must eat late."

"Yeah - we do. My dad has his own business selling cars near Columbus, and he almost never gets home before seven. It'll take me about thirty-five minutes to get there myself, so I have some time."

Steve's dad would be getting home about the time that Chris needed to leave, and Mrs. Henson obviously saw that the timing was going to work out. "Well, that's great. I'm glad you two will be able to keep each other company at the job."

For just a second, Chris and Steve exchanged a look, and both of them grinned.

"Yeah," Steve said, turning away. "Come on, Chris. I'll show you my room."

Chris smiled and waved again at Mrs. Henson. "Nice to meet you."

"Same here, Chris."

They went down the hall to Steve's room and went in. Steve automatically closed the door. "It's not much, but it's home."

Chris looked around, at the posters and pictures on the walls, at the piles of clothing here and there, and the general clutter. "Looks lived-in. I like it."

Steve laughed. "I'm a little bit of a slob. I've never been able to help it."

"Yeah - don't worry about it. My room looks just the same. Just means you're normal - more or less."

Steve looked at the other boy a moment, wondering what he meant by that - but Chris just grinned. He went and sat on the edge of Steve's bed, then laid back and let his arms flop out to his sides. "I'm a little tired after moving those boxes today."

Steve couldn't answer for a moment, being a little breathless at just the sight of Chris laying back on his bed. God, is it going to be different sleeping there now!

But finally his head caught up with the conversation. "Yeah, me, too. Guess we'll both sleep well tonight."

Chris sat up and nodded. "Yeah. I think tomorrow is going to be another hot one, so I'm just going to dress like this again. I hope Debbi won't mind."

Steve indicated his own clothing. "You see what I'm wearing. And it was Debbi who told me to dress relaxed. So you'll be fine."

Steve went and sat in the desk chair and they talked for a bit. About all kinds of things.They both laughed, and Steve thought it was wonderful - but he couldn't name a single thing they talked about, if pressed afterwards. It was just a small space of time spent with this very cool new guy, and just wonderful for that. The half hour sped by, and soon Chris was looking at the clock by the desk. "Guess I should hit the road."

They both stood again. Steve felt awkward, wanting to put an arm around the other boy's shoulders and give him a fond squeeze, but knowing that wasn't what was required. So instead he clapped the other boy gently on one shoulder, gave it a quick but gentle squeeze, and smiled. "Great having you over for a little, Chris."

Chris smiled. "Yup. I had a good time. Um, well, I'd better get my butt home."

"I'll walk out with you."

They walked out to the truck, and Chris slid into the cab and started the engine. "Get some sleep tonight, because we have work to do tomorrow, okay?"

Steve nodded. "Take your own advice, too."

Chris nodded, putting the Renault into gear. "See ya."

Steve grinned, stepping back. "See ya."

He watched the truck pull away, was conscious of Chris watching him in the side mirror as the Renault chugged off down the street. It reached the far corner, turned, and was gone.

Steve stood near the curb a moment, staring after it, trying to understand what he was feeling - what exactly it was that he had sensed from Chris. An interest of some kind, beyond that he normally sensed from his other friends. He briefly compared what spending a half hour with Jerry Custer was like with what spending a half hour with Chris Horne was like. The obvious similarities leaped out at him - both boys energized him, physically, and thrilled him, sexually. Both guys were fun to be with, and both had killer smiles and beautiful eyes.

But - something was different about the way that Chris looked at him, than the way that Jerry did. Something Steve couldn't name, because he didn't think he'd ever seen it before. Something that, some small, inner part of him, that was concerned with his happiness, wanted to call interest.

Somehow, he sensed that Chris was aware of him a little differently, and interested in him. He smiled at the thought.

He turned to go back to the house, and soon to dinner. His dad would be here any minute.

It did feel like Chris was interested in Steve. All his inner senses seemed to feel it. Chris liked him, it was plain.

Now, Steve just needed to find out how Chris liked him..

That night, when Steve went to bed, he lay back on the sheet, feeling the cool air moved by the fans in the room course over his naked body. He had his eyes closed, and a faint smile played on his lips in the near-dark of the room. Steve was a little drowsy, and it was during these times that he most loved to fantasize about Jerry Custer or Mike Henshaw. And he was fantasizing, too. But for the first time in a long, long time, he was not dreaming about either of those boys.

Tonight, he was dreaming about Chris Horne. He couldn't help it, not at all. In his fantasy, he and Chris were out walking, all alone, just the two of them, just as he and Jerry Custer had walked alone countless nights in the last few years. Chris was smiling, and they were playing, and then Chris was wrestling with him. They fell to the soft earth and rolled together, touching, holding, pulling at each other. Steve was laughing, and it was so joyful a thing that it brought a smile to his real-world face.

And Chris was laughing, too, and his beautiful golden eyes were full of affection and happiness at being so close to Steve. They rolled together, their bodies pressing close; and then they stopped moving, and lay there, looking into each other's eyes. And then Chris's face was moving closer, his eyes searching Steve's; and then their lips touched, and came together, and they were kissing.

There was gentle motion then, and more touching, and the faint whisper of air against skin as their clothing came off; and then the warm caress of skin against skin as they came back together naked. Steve gasped, both in his fantasy and in the real world, as Chris's soft skin came against his own.

And then, they were making love.

That part was real - at least for Steve, who had his dick in one hand and tissue in the other. That part seemed almost lost - external and purely mechanical - not a part of what was happening inside Steve's mind. Inside his fantasy.

Chris kissed him, and slid slowly down Steve's front, and finally took the part of him inside his mouth that Steve so much wanted to share. The motions of hand in the real world and Chris's mouth in the fantasy world became one; until, at last, Steve gasped, and his body responded as if the love making that he was sharing with Chris in his mind was real.

The orgasm was enormous and powerful, beyond even what Jerry Custer could generate on his friskiest night. Because in his mind - in his fantasy - there had been something extra between Steve and Chris - something that he had never shared with Jerry: desire.

In all of his fantasy dreams of Jerry, never once had he managed to fill the other boy with desire. Jerry played, and Jerry laughed, and Jerry made love to him - but without the looks, without the touches that seemed quite real when Chris did them in this new fantasy. For this fantasy was filled with the nuances of the day, the very small and hard-to-define things that had passed back and forth between Chris and Steve while they had been together, that now totaled up in Steve's mind to genuine interest.

Chris liked him, and Chris was interested. And now, Steve felt he knew how Chris was interested.

And all that was left now, was to prove it. To both of them.

Steve was sitting on the front porch when Chris's truck came up the hill and stopped in front of the thrift shop's door. The morning sun was already warm, and the iced tea that Debbi had given Steve from the small refrigerator in the office tasted pretty good.

He and Debbi had started to open and sort the boxes that he and Chris had brought in the day before. It was a mix of things, from more dinnerware and kitchen stuff to jewelry and personal items. Steve was really amazed at the amount of work that Debbi had done before even showing up in Claymore.

Chris leaned out of the side window of the truck, smiling. "And good morning."

Steve looked into those eyes, and remembered his small fantasy from the night before. That he could now see pleasure in Chris's eyes only seemed to confirm the things that he had been thinking the night before.

Chris was interested.

"Hi." Steve couldn't help glowing a little himself. "Just taking a break. I got here a little earlier today, and Debbi and I have been opening boxes."

"Got some more here," Chris said, tossing a thumb at the back of the truck and opening his door to get out.

Steve set his drink down and got up. "Let's get them."

They started shipping boxes to the front entry hall, stacking them against the wall inside near the staircase. Debbi came from the back of the house, drawn by the noise, and examined each box as it was added to the stack.

"Great. I think you got all my kitchen stuff this time." She looked at Chris as he set another box on the pile. "How about it? Think one more trip will get the rest of the boxed stuff?"

"I know it will," Chris replied. "I counted them. There are five boxes less left in your storage unit than the number I brought on this run."

Steve came in at the end of this conversation and put a box on the pile. "That's all of them. I closed up the back of the truck."

Debbi grinned at him. "I meant to tell you - you left your shorts in the office. And you may as well take that laptop home."

Steve smiled. "I haven't paid for it yet."

"I trust you." Debbi reached out and squeezed his arm. "You guys want to go get the last of those boxes? Go now and the rest of the day will be a breeze, just opening boxes and carrying stuff to every corner of the house."

Both boys laughed. Chris looked at Steve. "Ready?"

"Absolutely. You look a little warm. Want an iced tea to go?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah.That would hit the spot, definitely."

"Well, come on." Steve led the way back to the office while Debbi went back to what she had been doing.

Steve opened the little fridge and got out a bottle of the iced tea, handed it to Chris. Chris took it, looking around the little office until his eyes landed on Steve's laptop sitting atop a filing cabinet. "You bought that from Debbi?"

Steve nodded. "For thirty bucks. It's older - just has a hundred-twenty gig hard drive in it and four gigs of ram. It's a P8600 processor, too. Slow, next to my machine at home, but definitely fast enough for a back-up machine, and to write on and stuff like that."

Chris nodded, his eyes going wide. "That's actually pretty good for thirty bucks, Steve. You got a deal, there."

Steve felt good at that. He'd though the same thing himself - but Chris's reaction only assured him of it.

"What's that on top of it?" Chris asked, using the bottle to point.

Steve looked. Oh. The shorts.

He picked them up, feeling slightly embarrassed, and held them up to himself. "Pair of shorts, just to kick around the house in."

But the way that Chris's eyes widened at the sight of them kind of pleased him. "Whoa! Kind of teensy, aren't they?"

Steve laughed. "Like I said, they're just for around the house."

But Chris's eyes seemed full of good humor. "You could go swimming in them."

Steve looked down at the shorts. "Yeah. I guess I could."

Chris nodded. "What are you doing tomorrow?"

A small thrill crept into Steve's gut. "Saturday? I don't have anything planned."

"Well, I have a pond up my way that's just great to go swimming in when it's hot like this. I could come down and get you, and we could do that." Chris grinned. "You could wear your diddly-do's, there."

Steve laughed at the terminology. "What are diddly-do's?"

"Those are." Chris nodded at the shorts. "You bend over in them, someone might just diddly-do you."

Steve was a little shocked, but laughed, and Chris laughed with him, his eyes shining in a way that Steve loved. He's flirting with me! Steve thought.

Was that possible? It was so hard to believe it - Chris had to just be playing around. Still --

Steve held up the shorts. "I can wear these to swim in, yeah." He grinned at Chris. "What's in it for me? I mean, if I wear these, what are you gonna wear?"

"Oh." Chris scratched his head. "Man, I don't have anything that can compete with them." But then he smiled. "Uh - I could wear my Speedo, I guess."

Steve stared. "You have a pair of Speedos?" Steve had a pair himself, but had never quite had the guts to wear them anywhere except to sun himself in the backyard.

Chris nodded. "I used to be on the swim team at school."

Steve was about to ask about that; but something in the other boy's look stopped him. Chris looked regretful, somehow, and his smile thinned.

Time to refocus. "Why, Christopher. I do believe you have a deal." Steve held up the shorts. "I wear these, you wear your Speedo."

Chris watched him a moment, and then slowly smiled. "Deal."

It was an odd agreement. Neither of them said why they were doing this, but it seemed plain that each wanted to see the other scantily dressed. At least, Steve seemed to understand that that was the reason for it, and it seemed that Chris also understood that that was the reason for it. And that really was all that Steve needed, to see where this might be going.


That neither of them were speaking openly about what they were doing or what was happening seemed to indicate that caution was called for. Steve remembered playing games with guys when he was younger, that often got physical - and even sexual - but that only continued while nobody put a name to them. Even Jerry Custer had once squeezed Steve's dick through his pants while wrestling around. But they had been twelve or thirteen then, and lots of things happen when you're that age that have no bearing on your life later on. That Jerry Custer was now a girl chaser was obvious. He probably didn't even remember that quick feel - only Steve did, because it had meant a little more to him than just playing around.

They said goodbye to Debbi and went to the truck, and headed back towards Grove City and the storage unit. They talked about all sorts of things on the way, that sort of killed the time but didn't really mean much. Steve didn't feel focused on any of it, and Chris seemed distracted, too. But they still managed somehow to have a good time and enjoy the trip, and by the time they got to the storage unit Steve was almost tired from laughing so much.

"You are crazy," he said, as they got out of the truck at the storage unit."Just rattle on about anything, don't you?"

Chris seemed to take it as a compliment. "Well, one of my goals is to entertain."

Steve grinned. It was the way that Chris looked at him when he'd said that that prompted Steve's reply. "Yeah? What's your other goal?"

This time it was Chris who grinned. "Why - to be entertained, of course."

Steve laughed, but turned away so that the other boy couldn't see the blush he felt on his face. The urge to say something sexy and clever warred with his natural urge to be cautious - and the latter won out. It's too early to know for sure, yet.

They loaded the truck with the last of the boxes, and then they went down the road and stopped at McDonald's again and got some food for the trip back. By that point the day was warm, and the cold drinks tasted like heaven. Their tee-shirts were wet, tie-dyed with exotic and mis-matched patterns of sweat.

"One thing this truck needs is air conditioning," Steve said, as they went on down the road. At speed, even the warm air coming in the side window was refreshing.

"Yeah - I have to admit I wouldn't mind having that." Chris laughed. "This is an '88 model - I don't even know if the French had air conditioning in 1988."

Steve laughed. "Aw - come on. It's France, not Botswana. I'm sure they did have it."

"Well, they left it out of this model, then," Chris said. But then he turned his head and gave Steve the million-dollar smile that Steve was coming to love. "Although, I haven't looked under the seat yet."

Steve tilted his head back and looked out the window, grinning.

Chris was so much fun to be with. Steve just couldn't believe his luck that this had happened. And that the other boy might have more on his mind than just friendship made Steve's legs wobbly. But - how to know? How to know for sure?

Steve knew how complicated things could get between people. That he might be totally misreading all of this was a real possibility. And he just was not going to chance messing it up by saying or doing the wrong thing. Not until he knew.

You could just ask him, a small voice said, somewhere in the back of his mind. Ask him if he's interested.

And if I do, and he's not? And it runs him off?

Do you really think that's the case? the voice answered.

Steve sighed. No. His gut was telling him that Chris was interested. But Steve's head just wasn't sure, and he thought with his head and just digested food with his gut. It seemed obvious which one to trust first.

By the time they got back to the thrift shop, Steve still had made no decision on how to act.

So I'll just go with it for now, and see what happens.

They spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking boxes and then moving things to display locations as Debbi priced them. By five o'clock they were all a little hot and tired.

"Time to call it a day," Debbi said, standing and stretching. "I'm getting too old to be sitting around on hard wooden floors."

Steve looked at her. "You have a little stool for sale over in the room with the tables and chairs. Why don't you sit on that?"

Debbi looked at him. "I do, don't I?" She smiled. "I meant to look for something like that to bring in, and it was here all the time." She reached out and squeezed his arm. "Hiring you was a good idea. I wish I'd had done it earlier."

"You didn't know me earlier."

Debbi shrugged. "Details, details." She smiled.

They laughed.

"This is turning out to be a pretty cool job," Chris said then. Steve looked over at the other boy, and caught a hint of a smile in his eyes.

He nodded, looking back at Debbi. "Yep. I was a little worried about it when my mom first told me about it. But I think now she really helped me out by finding it."

Debbi nodded. "You two have worked out well for me. Far as I'm concerned, I got lucky to get you both."

They made the by now familiar end-of-the-day circuit of the house, shutting windows and turning off fans, and met back on the front porch. Debbi immediately pointed a finger at Steve. "Laptop, shorts."

"Oh, yeah." Steve ran back to the office and got his stuff, and then rejoined the others on the front porch.

Chris eyeballed the shorts, then let his eyes drift up to Steve's. "Want a lift home?"

"Sure." Steve turned to Debbi, indicated the stuff he was carrying. "Thanks again."

For just a second, Debbi looked at the shorts, and then her eyes flicked briefly at Chris. "I'm just happy you'll enjoy them."

Steve saw the look, and was just wondering about it when Debbi turned and started for her car. "Have a nice weekend, guys. See you both on Monday at ten?"

"I'll be here," Steve called.

"Me, too," Chris added.

Debbi waved, and was off.

Steve looked at Chris. "Meet you at my bike."

"Sounds like a date."

Steve laughed as Chris grinned at him and then swung himself into the truck's cab.

Steve passed the front of the truck, still grinning at the boy inside, and started down the flagstone steps.

No way. He just couldn't be wrong.

Chris was interested.

Saturday morning was hot and sunny - a perfect day for a swim.

Steve looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, hoping this was not going to embarrass him. He was wearing the brown shorts, which just seemed really short. The reality was that they were no shorter than the bathing suit he wore when he sunned himself in the backyard, and his tanned thighs stuck out of them in a fairly appealing manner that made him want to smile. Well, he would have smiled, if he hadn't been so nervous. He turned himself slowly, looking at how much showed when he did so.

They seemed to barely cover his ass, although he had to admit that if he was gay, he'd like what he saw. Well, he was gay, and he did like what he saw.

They were just so damn short.

That's why they call them shorts, stupid, his head told him.

He nodded to himself. Yeah, but - nut-length, definitely.

He'd topped the shorts with a comfortable blue tee-shirt with a white trim that ran up the outsides of the sleeves and across the neckline in the back. He'd been planning to just wear his shoes; but at the last second he'd decided on an old pair of beach slippers - kind of like canvas deck shoes, except they just slipped onto the foot like slippers and had no back to them. They were a little beaten up from wearing them so much on Uncle Pete's sailboat - but they would do. He wanted to look relaxed for Chris, if at all possible.

Never know what might happen.

He was also taking his little blue kit bag with the yellow stripe, in which he'd placed a pair of athletic shorts like he and Chris had been wearing at work - in case they wanted to go someplace other than the pond - and his wallet, his cell, and his watch. The watch was waterproof to five atmospheres, but he'd seen the same thing on his last watch, and it had died a soggy death in the pool at the YMCA the previous summer. No use drowning it if it wasn't necessary.

"Steve? Your friend is here." That was his mom calling.

Steve nodded to himself in the mirror, managed a smile, and went to his room and grabbed his kit bag.

Chris stood in the front hall, waiting. Steve didn't miss the way that the other boy's gaze sharpened as he took in the shorts - but Chris was playing it very cool in front of Steve's mom.

"Oh, there he is," Mrs. Henson said.

Steve grinned. "Howdy. Set for some water?"

Chris nodded. "Yep. Definitely hot enough for it. You ready?"

Steve nodded, gave his mom a kiss. "Bye, mom, See you later."

"Will you be late?"

Steve looked at Chris, who just shrugged.

Steve smiled at his mom. "If I am, I'll call."

"Okay. Have a good time. Nice to see you again, Chris."

"Bye, Mrs. Henson."

They went out to the truck and climbed in.

"Did you look under the seat yet?" Steve asked.

Chris looked at him blankly for a moment. "Under the seat?"

"Yeah. For the air-conditioner."

Chris laughed. "Oh. Nah. The windows will just have to do.".

It was a nice day, if warm and humid. Chris had shorts on, though Steve guessed that he had his Speedo on underneath. And a net shirt, which allowed the defined and sun-browned expanse of his chest to show through, which Steve tried hard not to notice. And the other boy just wore flip-flops, which was as casual as you could get.

"So where is this pond?" Steve asked, as they pulled out. There was a local pond where he had gone swimming before - in fact, it was over near where Debbi lived now. It was a great place to go for a swim, although he had mostly stuck with the pool at the little local YMCA this year so far. The pond drew girls, as well as boys - girls like Sharon Carpenter.

"It's actually within walking distance of my house," Chris said, as they hit the main road going north. "If I walk through the field behind my place, that is. My uncle owns the land there, and the pond has been in the family for a long time. My cousins and I have been swimming there since we were little kids."

Steve absorbed that knowledge. "Oh. Will there be others there, too?"

"Doubt it. My cousins are all away at college now. And the older people prefer the community pool in town to shooing away the ducks that live at the pond."

Steve grinned. "There are ducks there?"

"Oh, yeah. Tons of them. They usually just go to the other side of the pond when people are there, but when they're nesting they can get pretty aggressive about not wanting to share."

"Are they nesting now?"

Chris laughed. "Nah. They do that in the spring. They're just hanging out in the summer, pretty much."

Steve nodded. He had seen Wood ducks near the pond in his own area. Chris seemed to know more about them, though.

He smiled at the other boy. "So - what kind of stories do you write?"

Chris looked over at him, smiled. "Oh - whatever strikes me, pretty much. I like to write about people in unusual situations. Funny situations."

Steve nodded. "I can see that, with the nutty sense of humor you have. You'll have to let me read something, sometime."

Chris did a slow nod, accompanied by a slow smile. "Okay."

Steve grinned inwardly, feeling that he had made another step forward. He really was interested in Chris's creative aspects - wanted to share them. Chris definitely had an unusual perspective on the world, one worth looking into.

It took them about a half hour to get to Chris's house. Traffic was light, and they made good time.

Bentonville was small just like Claymore, and Chris lived at the far end of town. They drove down main street, and Steve grinned at the little second-hand store where he'd bought his baseball bats, as they drove by.

Chris made a right turn into an alleyway that almost immediately opened up, and they drove through a wide parking area between whitewashed buildings, and came out on the backside of the block. Across from them was a wooded area, among which sat several old houses - large, once elegant foursquares, set well back from the road, with covered porches spanning their fronts, and dormers set in the center of the roofs. They were still nice houses, although only the one directly across from them could still be considered elegant. It was large and painted white, with a pillared front porch with white railings and thick hedges before them, and black shutters alongside the windows. A wide staircase led up to the center of the front porch, upon which sat several whitewashed high-backed wooden chairs and a glider. A bay window stuck out on one side of the house, and old oaks and maples towered all around the place. It looked well-kept and comfortable.

That house was their destination. Chris pulled out of the alleyway and directly across the street into a driveway that wandered back from the road and ended up circling the house. There was a detached garage in the rear, big enough for two cars. Chris pulled the Renault up next to the garage, and shut off the engine. "Home, sweet, home. Come on."

They got out, and Steve grabbed his kit bag from the floor of the truck. He shut the door, and stood looking about the property. Chris came around to join him.

"This is really a pretty place, Chris," Steve said, impressed. "Nice and quiet, lots of space, pretty house." He looked at the other boy. "You grow up here?"

Chris nodded. "Lived my whole life here. Not in any hurry to leave it, either."

Steve understood that. That he might someday be out on his own was a reality he had already considered; but his parent's spacious colonial on its wooded lot would always be home. "Yeah. Don't blame you a bit."

"Swimming, or do you want to see my room first?"

Not much of a battle on that one. "Show me your room," Steve said, grinning.

Chris gave him another beautiful smile, and turned towards the house. "My dad's at work. My mom volunteers for all the fundraising stuff at our church, and she said she had something she was working on today. I can't keep track of all that she does."

Chris unlocked the back door and they went inside, walked through a spotless kitchen, and circled around to the front of the house, where a stairway led up to the second floor. "Come on up," Chris said, leading the way.

At the top of the steps was an open area, off of which a center hall ran to the front and back of the house. Chris led them towards the back of the house, to a closed door on the left of the hall. He opened it, and they went in.

Steve immediately grinned. The walls were hung with posters and art, and there were little piles of clothing on the floor, and stuff everywhere about.

Chris hadn't been kidding when he said his room looked just like Steve's.

"I like it," Steve said, smiling at the other boy. "We have similar tastes in interior decorating."

"Similar tastes in junk, you mean," Chris said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I think my mom feels about the same about my room as yours does about yours."

Steve walked around the room slowly, looking at things. He immediately noted that some of the pictures on the walls were hand-drawn in pencil - and that they were very good. There were outdoor scenes of fields and woods, and one of the house and grounds - and several of people. All portraits of guys. And they were all young - within a year or two of Steve's own age, he would guess - and they were all cute. Or, they were so lovingly well-drawn as to appear cute.

Steve wanted to comment, but didn't. He walked on, got to the desk, and looked down at what was there. A laptop, with the lid down, and the usual clutter that all desks held - and a pad of paper, open, with a mostly complete drawing on it - another portrait. Steve blinked at it, shocked.

That's me, he thought, staring.

Chris made a sound as he realized what Steve was looking at, and came off the bed in a hurry, stepping around Steve and picking up the drawing pad and flipping the cover over. "You don't want to see that."

Steve automatically put out a hand and stopped the other boy from withdrawing. Chris stared at him, looking a little bit afraid, and Steve was amazed to see that. Afraid?

"Wait just a second." Steve reached out and carefully took the drawing pad from Chris's hands. Chris clenched his fingers a moment in resistance; but when Steve smiled at him and gave a gentle tug, Chris relinquished the pad. Steve opened it and looked again at the incomplete portrait inside.

"That really is me," he marveled. "Wow. That's really good." He looked up at Chris, was surprised to see the blush in the other boy's cheeks. "You're really good."

Chris squinted a little at him, like he wasn't sure if Steve was being honest with him. He licked his lips, finally gave a small nod. "You like it? It's from memory, so it probably isn't perfect."

"Wow. You have a hell of a memory. I think it's great."

Chris cocked his head at him, like he couldn't quite believe that Steve was pleased with the portrait. Chris licked his lips, then smiled a little. "Sit a minute, and I'll finish it, and you can have it."

"Really? Hey, that's great. Where do you want me?"

"Take the desk chair. I'll sit on the bed."

They did that. Steve sat and turned to look at the other boy, who found a pencil on the desk and went to sit on the edge of the bed. He crossed a leg atop the other, set the drawing pad against his knee, and went to work, looking up at Steve every now and then, as Steve sat there trying not to move.

A slow smile spread across Chris's face as he worked, and he finally laughed. "You can breathe, you know. It's not a camera."

Steve grinned, and Chris paused. "Aw. I wish I could draw that smile."

Steve was touched, and for a minute, elated. What were they doing here? Was this flirting? Because it felt like more than just that.

"What are we doing?" he said aloud, before he could stop himself.

Chris paused, his smile slipping. He watched Steve a moment, and then the smile came back. "You're sitting, and I'm drawing you."

Steve laughed, nodding, but decided not to press further with it. Okay - this was still way better than he'd ever hoped for.

Chris finished and stood up, extending the drawing pad to Steve. He took it carefully, and stared down at the picture.

It was beautiful, full of energy and life. He shook his head, unable to believe someone could do this with a pencil and a sheet of paper. He looked up at Chris. "You are awesome, man."

They looked at each other in silence. Chris was trying hard not to grin, and had one small section of his lower lip trapped between his teeth, biting down softly, as if seeking a reality check. His golden brown eyes held many things, all light and glittery, twirling there behind the lenses that covered his soul.

"I'm glad you like it," he finally said. "Tear it off, and you can have it."

Steve did that, separating the sheet carefully from the metal spiral ring that held it in place. He looked at the picture again and shook his head, still amazed that someone could so easily replicate life with lines and shading on paper. He finally sighed, bent down and carefully placed the drawing in the side of his kit bag. Then he sat up and grinned. "Thanks."

Chris nodded, looking happy. "Ready to get wet?"

"Definitely." They stood at the same time, and bumped together. For a moment they stood there, close, their faces only inches apart. Steve looked into Chris's eyes, saw again the beauty that was there - but also the doubt. Chris was afraid - again. Steve could see that, and understood now that all the doubts that he was feeling himself, about whether or not this was all real - really happening - Chris was also feeling. Steve smiled, and took a step back. "Sorry."

Chris only nodded. "It's okay. Come on."

Steve grabbed his kit bag and followed as Chris led the way back through the house, down the stairs, and out the back door. Chris locked up, dropped his keys in a flower urn by the door. "I don't have anywhere to carry junk now."

He bent, kicked off his flip flops, and pulled his shorts down and off, lifting each foot to remove them. Steve stepped back and stared, his heart feeling fluttery inside his chest. Chris hung the shorts on the doorknob, stuck his feet into his flip flops, and started off - careful, it seemed, not to look at Steve while he did so.

Steve followed, watching the other boy's perfect butt move inside the dark Speedo. Then he hurried and caught up to walk beside Chris, afraid now to look closer, lest he never be able to look away again. Chris cast a glance at him briefly, looking nervous, but forced a smile. "There's a path through the woods here, and then through the field. Watch where you put your feet - there's rabbit holes sometimes."

Steve nodded, but he wasn't thinking about rabbit holes. That he was scared to death - and thrilled like he had never been before - both at the same time now, was clear. The boy walking next to him seemed to give off an energy that made Steve feel weak and breathless. Even Jerry Custer had never affected him quite like this.

They walked down an embankment into a screen of trees, but it wasn't very thick, and in a few moments they came out into a field. The grass was tall here, and waved in the breeze as they passed through it. Steve could hear birds talking, and the occasional, more strident chatter of ducks arguing.

The path was mostly earth covered in dead grass, and there were holes here and there poked up from the ground that were obviously animal burrows. But Steve didn't see any rabbits, and the holes themselves looked too small to stick his foot into, though he could imagine tripping over the upraised clump of earth that comprised the upper rim of each hole.

After a few moments, a line of trees emerged in the distance, and in not too long it became clear that the path was making right for them. The sun was hot on them now, and Steve wished he'd remembered to bring a pair of sunglasses. He and Chris walked along, side by side, neither saying anything, Chris seemingly wrapped in his own thoughts just as deeply as was Steve in his.

Steve let his eyes wander downward, his focus hidden in a squint; noted Chris's feet in his flip-flops, looked at the way the other boy's toes flexed and moved as he walked. His gaze wandered upwards, carefully, not obviously - up the fine, tanned forms of Chris's legs, to touch briefly on the front of his Speedo, and marveled at the shapes of things hinted at within.

He had to squeeze his eyes shut then - just for an instant, as his heart beat noticeably within his chest, and his lungs seemed to have trouble bringing in enough air.

That he was here, now, with Chris, seemed somehow unreal. He floated across the field next to the other boy with an almost dreamlike quality, a detached reality that pushed and prodded him with questions about what he was doing and where he was going, to which his ears seemed aware, but somehow also deaf to completely, and subservient utterly to what his eyes were taking in and his desires recording with almost unmerciful clarity.

The urge to touch Chris was almost unbearable, to take him and draw him gently close, hard to deal with. What he wanted now, more than anything else, was to wrestle with Chris, to laugh with Chris, to fall to the earth and tangle arms and legs with him, and then to kiss Chris with the power of everything he was feeling inside. Just like in the small fantasies he had, when he was alone in his room at night, in the thrall of his dreams.

He wanted to make love to Chris, and feel his love in return...

Steve caught the toe of one beach slipper on the lip of a rabbit hole and nearly stumbled, bringing his focus back into the real world as he scrambled to get his balance.

Chris threw out a hand and grabbed Steve by the bicep of his arm, and steadied him. "Told ya. I fell flat on my face doing that, once."

Steve felt the bubble of unreality break, and looked over at the other boy and smiled. "Sun in my eyes, a little. Didn't see that coming."

Chris grinned, and his fingers gently squeezed Steve's arm, as if in no hurry to let him go. But then he did, and they continued onwards towards the trees.

The pond came into view, and the soft sound of falling water tugged at their ears. The pond filled a natural depression in the ground, maybe a hundred feet across and two hundred long, surrounded on three compass points by trees, with the field running right up to the nearer edge. There was a wooden pier that ran along the water there, and a float of some kind apparently anchored out in the middle of the pond.

The water looked crisp and clear on this side; but the far side looked home to rushes and watergrasses, and it was there that ducks played, skittering across the surface of the water in pursuit of each other, then lofting themselves skyward to continue the chase. Others congregated in small groups, gossiping and arguing; and a noticeable pause came to their babble as the two boys walked up and stepped onto the pier. Heads turned to look at them briefly; but these ducks were used to people, and the interest they showed was in keeping with their attention spans, which was apparently short.

The pond reminded Steve very much of the one down by the Clayton Farm, where a lot of young people from Claymore went to swim. Both in size and accessories - pier and float - in fact, although the little pier at the Clayton pond was made of concrete and had an apron that spread out from it under the water, providing the same footing for at least a ways out as a swimming pool offered.

Steve grinned, nodding. "Excellent. Is it cold?"

Chris nodded. "At first. Spring feeds it over there --" he pointed to a cluster of large boulders at the edge of the left end of the pond "-- and the overflow runs out there," he finished, pointing to a concrete structure at the other end, into which was set a steel grate at the waterline, and from which the sounds of falling water issued forth. "It just drops into a concrete catch-basin, and flows down that hill over there through an underground culvert and gets dumped into the creek."

Steve set his kit bag down, and immediately skinned out of his tee-shirt and dropped it on top. Then he stepped out of his beach slippers and nodded towards the water. "I'm ready for some wet."

Chris stood there a moment, and Steve was certain that the other boy was checking him out. And enjoying what he was seeing. It seemed almost obvious now, what they were doing, as if all the masks had been dropped and their hesitation at formally admitting where they were going was just an afterthought for the sake of some weird protocol.

Chris grinned, and shrugged out of his net shirt, and stepped out of his flip-flops. Steve tried not to just gape at the boy - he was just gorgeous, standing there in only a Speedo. But Chris saw it, and Chris grinned, and then Chris stepped forward and grabbed Steve; and then they were charging together to the edge of the pier and launching themselves into the pond.

The cold slap of the water, and then the chill of it as it consumed him, was a little shocking to Steve. His feet found the soft, clayey earth of the bottom of the pond, and he thrust himself back upwards with a powerful thrust from his legs. He burst back through the surface, taking a sharp breath of the hot summer air. Shit! Was that ever enough to perk someone up!

Chris broached the surface beside him and looked over, laughing. "Wake you up, or what?"

"I'll say. Feels good though, when I shake the little icicles off my nuts."

Chris laughed, and thrust water at him; in an instant they were slinging huge sheets of water at each other. Then Chris dived away, heading for the float in the middle of the pond, and Steve launched himself in pursuit. Chris was a fast swimmer, but he didn't have much of a head start, and Steve caught him just as they reached the float and grabbed hold of its edge.

Chris looked at him, still grinning, and pulled himself upwards and onto the fiberglass deck. Steve followed, turning himself to sit beside the other boy. They dangled their feet in the water, moving them gently, as their shoulders rubbed together - and neither of them made a move to put some distance between them.

The ducks, obviously interested in all this drama, chattered away to each other to the boy's rear; and in his mind Steve imagined they were saying things like, That boy Chris sure is beautiful and sexy, isn't he? That other guy is really lucky to be with him!

Stupid. But it just showed how bad he had it for the other guy.

Steve sighed, laid back onto the float, enjoying the dual-feel of cool water against his feet and lower legs and warm summer sun against his upper body. After a moment, Chris lay back beside him, again bringing their shoulders together.

"There's a pond over near me that's a lot like this," Steve offered. "A lot more people there, though."

"I kind of like it like this," Chris offered. "Peaceful." He gave Steve's arm a small nudge with his elbow. "Private."

Steve almost felt like he was being dared now. He turned his head, looked at the other boy. Chris turned his head, too, and they smiled at each other.

There had to be a way to narrow this down. "You got a girlfriend?" Steve asked suddenly.

Chris looked surprised. "Uh - no. Not that they're not interested. I just - I like my peace too much."

Steve nodded, letting his head go back and closing his eyes against the sunbeams making their way through the tree branches. "I know what you mean. There's this one at home - Sharon Carpenter - that has been chasing me. Driving me nuts is more like it. I'm afraid to walk into town anymore. I need my bike to make sure I can get away if she shows up."

Chris sighed. "I'm not surprised. That a girl is chasing you, I mean."

Steve bit his lip. "Tell me a story, Chris."

Chris looked over at him. "Huh? What kind of story?"

Steve smiled at him. "You're so good at that stuff - I love to listen to you in the truck, while we're rolling on the road. Tell me a story."

Chris gave a nervous laugh. "Well - what kind of story?"

Steve leaned against the other boy a little, adding weight to the contact between their shoulders. "Tell me a serious story. An important story."

Chris seemed to consider that. He looked over at Steve, who just tried to smile as encouragingly as he could.

He felt Chris tense against him. "Once upon a time...there were these two guys. Friends. They grew up together, and they were best friends. They did everything together, you know?"

Steve nodded. "Yeah."

Chris sighed. "Well, they got older. And one day, one of the guys realized...realized something."

Steve waited for the other boy to go on. When he didn't, he gave him an encouraging nudge with his shoulder. "What?"

Chris took a big breath. "He realized he"

Steve felt something - not a thrill, but close. This had less of the visceral about it, and more of the emotional. "He was gay?"

"Uh huh. Not only that...he was in love with his best friend."

Steve immediately felt sad. This wasn't quite what he'd intended for the other to say. This had the feel of secrets being shared on a deeper level. But he'd started it --

"Okay. What happened?"

Chris softly cleared his throat. "Well, you know, he and his friend were so close, he thought he could tell him anything. Anything. Still, he was scared to death when he made up his mind to do it."

"How did that go?"

"Um, they were hanging out at the guy's house one evening, and just having the best time together. So the guy that was gay chose a moment that seemed right, and he told his best friend that he was gay."

Steve felt the weight of emotion behind those words. It was an effort for Chris to say them.


He could hear Chris take a breath. "The friend said he had been wondering, just a little. But that it was okay, he understood, and that they were still cool. So, the gay guy felt it was okay to tell his friend his other secret. To tell him also that he was...was in love with him." Chris's voice broke a little then, and Steve raised his head and looked at the other boy.

Chris had his eyes closed, and his face was drawn tight with memory. A tiny bit of moisture at the corner of one eye resolved itself into a tear, and rolled slowly down his cheek.

Steve felt his breath catch, and his heart go out to Chris. "What happened?" he asked softly.

Chris bit his lip. "The friend freaked out. Went nuts. He said that all the time he'd thought they were friends, it was just the gay guy wanting to get into his...get into his pants." Chris gave a small sniff. "He got up, and he left. He left the gay guy sitting there, feeling awful. Just...awful." The last was a breath, a whisper.

Steve looked down, at where Chris's hand lay, next to his own. He reached for it, picked it up, squeezed it warmly in his. "That's terrible."

"Yeah. It was. Not only that, but when the gay guy went to school the next day, he found out that his best friend had told everyone that he was gay. And not only that - but he had told everyone that the gay guy had tried to get in his pants."

Steve felt anger then. "Fucking asshole."

Chris took a breath, seemed to collect himself. "The gay guy was fucked. Everywhere he went, people were talking about him behind his back. The other guys on the swim team wouldn't change with him in the locker room anymore, and the coach turned hostile and was making life hard for him. So he quit."

"I'm sorry," Steve breathed, wishing on some level he'd never started this, but glad on another that he had. "When did all this happen?"

"Last year. But it never really went away, you know? The gay guy is still kind of fucked this year, too. He can still see people laughing, and talking. So he just doesn't hang out with those people anymore."

Steve looked down at the face of the boy next to him, imagined for a moment how much courage it must have taken to get up and go to school everyday with that kind of bullshit hanging over his head. And he knew then that all he wanted to do was be with this guy, and look out for him, and be there for him.

Steve didn't even think further. He leaned over, and gently kissed Chris on the lips, pressing his firmly against them.

He wasn't prepared for what happened next.

Chris yanked himself to one side and stared up at him. "What are you doing!"

Steve simply stared at the other boy. "I was...I thought --"

They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity.

"I was trying to comfort you," Steve finally whispered, feeling hurt so far down it was hard to handle. "I just wanted let you know...that...that I cared."

Chris swallowed hard, his expression so difficult to read that Steve shook his head in wonder. Was I wrong? Wrong all along? How could I be that wrong?

He couldn't face being that wrong. It meant the end of all of his dreams, all the wonderful things he had been feeling for this boy since he had met him, and he couldn't deal with that.

He sat up, and pushed himself into the water, and swam back to the pier, and pulled himself out. His eyes stung, but it wasn't from the pond water. He managed to get his feet into his beach slippers, grabbed up his shirt and his kit bag, and ran for the path across the field.

Briefly, he was aware of a shout behind him, and a splash; but he ignored both and kept on running. By now he felt his own tears, streaming down his face, and his nose began to run. Shit. It made it hard to see, and remembering the rabbit hole, he slowed to a fast walk, and then stopped. He set down his kit bag, wiped his eyes with his tee-shirt, and put it back on.

And then he started off again, walking fast, his head simply a giant, dark cavern, around which the word wrong reverberated hugely, suppressing every other thought.

Somehow, he reached the trees, went through them, came out in Chris's backyard. He circled the house, went down the drive in front to the street.

Only then did he wonder how he was going to get home. It was every bit of twenty miles - too far to walk. Well, too far to walk before dark.

He crossed the street, and entered the parking area between buildings and made for the alley and main street.

He heard the sound of a vehicle coming up behind him, and than a horn tooted, and he moved over automatically, not even able to spare a piece of his limited attention on turning to look. His head seemed flat on the inside, and angled, and devoid of anyplace to put his thoughts. Every time he tried to pull them out to look at what had happened, what he was feeling, they simply slid down that angled flatness of his mind and vanished again into the dark.

He heard the horn again, and a vehicle pulled up next to him. He looked, not really seeing, and it took a moment for the image to sink in.

It was the Renault.

"Please stop, Steve," he heard Chris say, over the sound of the engine. "Talk to me. Stop!"

There was so much that was sharp in that last anguished cry that Steve did stop, The Renault continued past him for a few feet, and then stopped as well.

Steve suddenly felt the emptiness inside his head recede a little, felt some of his focus come back, almost as if his mom had called him using his full first name.

He walked a few feet, until he was even with the Renault's side window, and looked inside.

Chris had his head down on his arm, which was draped across the steering wheel. His body moved in such a fashion that Steve knew immediately what the other boy was doing.

He was crying.

Steve swallowed hard, feeling a return then, of emotion. He set his kit bag down beside him and put one elbow against the side of the truck, and reached in with the other one and laid it on Chris's shoulder. It heaved gently beneath his grasp, and he rubbed slowly, once again trying to comfort, even though the last time he had tried that, it had been disastrous.

Chris picked up his head and looked at Steve, and it was everything that Steve could do not to tear up himself. The misery that was there in the other boy's face spoke of a hurt so deep that its roots must have touched the center of the world.

Steve leaned in the window and put his forehead against Chris's. "It's okay."

Chris closed his eyes, and pushed his face against Steve's. For a moment, nothing happened except that they exchanged the warmth of life between them. Steve simply closed his eyes and let it happen.

Finally, he felt Chris take a deep breath, and the heaving stopped. "I'm so sorry," the other boy whispered.

Steve opened his eyes. "Me, too. I must have got my signals crossed. I thought...I thought you were flirting with me all this time."

"I was."

Steve drew back a bit, now more confused than ever. "Then why...why did you do what you did?"

Chris wiped at his eyes. "I don't know. I didn't see it coming, maybe. It just happened, and I wasn't ready. I don't...I just don't know."

Steve nodded. That Chris had been alone with some harsh self-judgments for a long time now seemed evident.

"What do you know?" he hazarded.

Chris took a deep breath. "Just that I don't want you to go."

Steve gave a little laugh at that. "My parents will wonder where I am if I never come home."

A smile tugged at the corners of Chris's mouth, and he gave a little laugh. "You know what I mean. I just don't want to lose you."

Steve looked at the other boy a long time, seeing now that, no matter how lonely he had been feeling himself to be, it was nothing compared to what Chris had been feeling. Chris had found himself quite suddenly in the role of outcast, and instead of breaking out of it, had somehow let it consume him. It wasn't a question of strength - the lack of it - he could see that Chris had plenty of strength to spare.

No, this was a question of ability. Somehow, Chris - despite all of his wonderful talents - lacked the one small one that would have allowed him to bounce back from being outed to the world. He had retreated, instead, to a lonely place where he could see the world around him, but not properly interact with it. And now, he was trying to come home.

"I'm not leaving you, now that I understand."

Chris's eyes lit, the golden threads that Steve was coming to love returning in full measure. "You'll give me another chance?"

Steve laughed. "You haven't properly had your first one, yet."

Chris sat up straighter. "Will you get in? Come back to the house?'

Steve smiled, reached down for his kit bag. His head was awhirl now, a mixture of relief and satisfaction, and just plain joy that this whole thing was not over like he had imagined it to be.

He went around the truck, climbed in next to Chris, pointed through the windshield. "Onward, Christopher."

Chris grinned, and it was a million dollars worth, and then some. He turned the truck around, and headed back to the house. They pulled around behind again, and parked next to the garage.

Chris's shorts were still hanging on the back door. He pulled them off, let the two of them inside, and Steve followed the other boy up to his room.

He smiled as they went in. Yeah, it was a little sloppy, a little lived in. Just like his own world.

Steve looked around again, at the faces that Chris had drawn, and placed on his wall. And he suddenly understood them, quite well. Here was the line - the same one that Steve had, but which he carried around in his mind instead. The line of guys that Chris had been drawn to, had fantasized over - perhaps had loved - over the years since he had been recording such things.

He had to ask. "Are any of these the one? The best friend from the story?"

For just a second, Chris looked anguished. But then he swallowed, and shook his head. "No. I tore that one up."

Steve nodded. "Best thing you could have done."

He went over, sat on the edge of the bed. "Maybe you can let me read another story now," he said. "Now that we've gotten past that other one."

Chris grinned, came and sat by Steve, and leaned against him, letting his face drift close. "We didn't quite end the other one. Can I try again?"

Steve nodded, letting his face move closer to Chris's.

The kiss, when it came, was simple. They just pressed their lips together, and gave a little labial click at the end, to signify that it had been real.

Chris pulled back and squeezed his eyes shut, and just grinned like there was no tomorrow. "I did it!"

Steve was surprised. "Did you think you couldn't?"

Chris opened his eyes and nodded. "Oh, yeah. After what happened with me and Alan - that was his name - I promised myself I'd never love anybody again." He sighed. "Maybe that's what happened when you kissed me before. I was hoping all along that you were feeling like I was feeling; and I was trying to work myself up to take it on. But when you kissed me, it all came too fast. I didn't think I could do it." He dropped his eyes. "I acted like a fuckin' ass."

Steve shook his head. "Man. You go at your own speed, okay? I'm just happy to be here with you."

Chris grinned. "I just think I need practice. Can we go again?"

Steve laughed. "You think?"

It was nicer this time, with a tiny bit of tongue, and a warmth to it that carried significant bits of emotion. When it was over, Steve left his eyes closed a moment, savoring its memory.

He heard Chris laugh. "You okay?"

Steve opened his eyes. "Oh, yeah. Better than okay." He smiled. "I was just thinking, that if you're this good at kissing, then I'm sure I'm really going to love the other things we do together." He nodded quickly. "You know - eventually. When you're ready."

Chris watched him a moment, his gaze moving from one of Steve's eyes to the other, and back again. A slow smile spread across his face. "Thanks. For the second chance."

Steve sighed. "It's not a thanking thing, Chris. You're the guy I've been dreaming about for a long, long time."

Chris nodded, looking a little like he might cry again. But he didn't - he just leaned closer. "Same here, Steve."

Steve felt that blaze of joy again, and knew this time that it was there to stay. He leaned in again, and this time Chris came eagerly, and this kiss was the one Steve would remember for years to come.

This kiss, and the things that followed.

The shop was full of people, far more than Steve had expected. Opening day, and they hadn't been disappointed in the least. Part of it was just the small town reaction to a new event, he thought. Some of it was that the idea of buying stuff cheap really appealed to most people. Whatever the case, there had been a steady stream of them through the store since it had opened at ten that morning. Sales were brisk, and Debbi hadn't had a chance to leave the cash register all morning. And the smile hadn't had a chance to leave her face, either.

"What do you think, Stevie?" she'd asked him, during a slight lull in visitors. "How we doing?"

"I'd say you're a hit. All the work you put into this place, I think you deserve it." He'd smiled at her. "You'll be able to go visit your father before much longer."

Debbi had laughed. "Maybe."

And then Chris had passed by, and smiled at Debbi, and really smiled at Steve.

Debbi had grinned at Steve. "You owe me."

"Yeah? For what?"

Debbi's smile said it all. "Those shorts. I see they worked."

Steve had laughed. "Yup. They sure did. Thanks."

A lot of kids from school had been through. Steve and Chris didn't really have places to be, like Debbi did behind the cash register. So they both had been circulating about the house, just helping wherever they could.

At one point Steve had sensed someone near him, and had looked up to find Sharon Carpenter standing there. "Oh, hi, Sharon."

She had looked at him, a mixture of emotions crossing her face. Then she had pointed at Chris, who was helping an older couple turn a piece of furniture around to view the back. "Is that him? Your boyfriend?"

Steve had nodded. "Yup. Yes, it is."

Sharon had frowned. "He's cute."

Steve had smiled. "I think so, yes."

Sharon had finally sighed, and shaken her head. "Well, I'm glad you finally came out, before I wasted the whole summer chasing you around like an idiot."

Steve had shrugged, smiling. "Had to wait for the right moment."

Sharon had nodded. "I guess." But she had finally smiled. "Funny, how Kelly and Josh came out right after you did."

"They were waiting for the right moment, too." He had smiled. "Misery loves company."

Sharon had laughed. "Yeah, but they weren't the surprise that you were."

That interlude with Sharon had kind of set the tone for the day. Things went along pleasantly after that. Just after lunch, Steve's mom showed up, smiling, and even gave Chris a warm hug to let him know that she was serious when she had said he was a welcome addition to the family. Steve had smiled so much at that, and the look that his mom gave him when she had seen it, had told him that, finally, some things were now clear to her. And to dad, who had also accepted things with his usual fond tolerance.

The afternoon period had been just as busy, and just as friendly - until Mrs. Cattering had come in. She was a nice enough old lady, just argumentative and nitpicky. She cornered Chris in the furnishings room about some old floor lamp that she wanted, but which she insisted was overpriced at five dollars.

"But, ma'am," Chris was saying, when Steve came into the room. "It has a brand new shade on it that's worth that much." He sounded exasperated.

Mrs. Cattering made a noise, that somehow stated that she knew better. "The brass is tarnished, and there's no bulb in it. By the time I clean it up and put in a bulb, I'll have spent twice as much on it, and you know that."

Steve smiled, and inserted himself easily into the conversation. He knew the old lady, and Chris didn't. "Mrs. Cattering, this was an expensive lamp when it was new, and it's still worth the money to get it going again."

The old lady tsked him. "It's rubbish, and you're trying to make a killing on it. I'll give you two dollars."

Steve managed to look aghast. "Mrs. Cattering, it's second-hand, yes. But it's not rubbish."

The old lady gave him a triumphant look. "There. You said it yourself - it's second-hand."

Steve smiled. "But everything's better the second time around. You saw the sign out front."

"Oh, bosh, Steve Henson. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Once something is used, it's done."

Steve looked at her, and shook his head. "I can't agree with you, Mrs. Cattering. Some things come into the world and are loved the first time, right off. Those things are cherished by someone, and cared for. " He sought out her eyes. "Other things don't get loved the first time around. They missed their chance, somehow, and they wind up here. We give them a second chance at that love. That's why we say that everything is better the second time around."

The old lady looked doubtful. "Oh - hogwash." But she didn't sound confident now, and looked around the room at the things on the shelves, the tables, the floor.

"It doesn't make sense that something would be better the second time around."

Steve looked over at Chris, into his eyes, into his heart. Chris smiled, the gold in his eyes standing out in the late summer sunshine pouring in through the window.

Some things only make sense when they are shared. And some things only love you back, when you take the chance to love them first.

Steve looked back at Mrs. Cattering, and smiled. "Believe me - it's true. If you give something a second chance at love, you will never, ever be sorry." He edged closer to Chris, reached out and took the boy's hand in his own, gave it a fond squeeze. "Sometimes, Mrs. Cattering, a thing just needs that second opportunity to shine like it was always meant to do."


This story is part of the 2016 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: May I Help You?". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 18 October to 8 November 2016 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.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

May I help you?
Please rate Thrift Shop Nation 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
Interpreted the picture well

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