Conversations 2

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle


** Emily Baker **

“Are you okay?” I asked Jamie.

“What? Yeah. I'm fine, Em. Have fun at Averi's,” he said.

He disconnected, and I slumped a little. The words had been right, but the tone was way the hell wrong. For the last several weeks things have been like this – he says the right things, but he's distracted. He shows up, we hang out, but he's not completely with me. I want to talk to him about it, but I'm afraid the answer boils down to me – or that's the way he's going to feel.

My grandmother has told me a thousand times what boys like and how to be a lady. Dress modestly. Don't make them feel less of a man by being smarter. Learn how to cook. She lived next door to us for years, and her little pearls of being 'less-than' for the sin of my gender bang around inside my head sometimes. In a way it was a relief when she moved into a senior community apartment.

My parents weren't like that, but that didn't make it as straight-forward as some people might think. My mom acted like it, even if she didn't really say anything – and I mean she acted like the things my grandmother preached. I'm not sure my father knows how to cook, and if he steps in the kitchen my mother gets all offended. It's my job to wash the dishes, and my mother gets a Very Frowny Face(tm) if my little brother, Caleb, gets asked to do anything domestic. Like, I complained to my dad it wasn't fair I had to do all the dishes; he agreed and sent Caleb in to do it one night.

My mother took over. I mean literally kicked him from her kitchen and washed the dishes herself! It's not fair for her to cook and clean it all after, but unless I clean, she ends up doing it. Apparently having a penis means you don't do some things.

It was this split between the genders that first made me curious about boy parts and exactly what made it so that they did some things but not others. My father seemed to be oblivious in a sense, but I don't really know what goes on in his head. I dated a few boys – I say dated, but really, it was just going out with friends and maybe holding hands or an awkward kiss goodnight. Then I went out with Greg Becket, and everything changed.

Looking back, I guess I was an idiot. My grandmother would have approved of Greg, and maybe I subconsciously went out with him because of that. He was a junior, and for some dumb reason I thought that was impressive at the time. He was nice enough to look at, and he was a gentleman, until he drove his car past the theater and the movie we were supposed to see. Instead we ended up at the Sanitarium ruins, and I knew that meant more than holding hands during a movie – I just didn't know how far past that he intended to go.

His kisses were better than any I'd had to that point – high school guys must have a big learning curve on kissing. But then he got grabby, and I started to feel afraid. Then I felt like every woman who has ever realized some guys are only interested in what's between our legs. Once I got home I thought I'd just go to my room, but I had the bad luck to get home before my parents. I guess in the end it was good luck, because Jamie was still there from watching Caleb. Jamie comforted me when I didn't have any right to expect that from him. We'd had a misunderstanding about going out together that night, Jamie and I, so I figured I should make it up to him with a date, since he'd been interested before.

Thinking of my current situation...if I can't find a way out of this, I should probably remember that going out with Jamie was the best thing I could have done. I don't know how he is with other people – I don't know how much me being there changes how he acts – but he's fun. He cares. He's eminently lovable, and I do, more than I thought I could.

I stood up and went to my closet to pack a bag for my overnight with Averi, thinking about Jamie. I don't think I'm a cold or analytical person. Dating Jamie woke some things up inside me, and I'm just starting to realize I may not be dealing all that well. I won't say I feel like I did anything wrong, exactly, but maybe I could have handled it better.

As I packed some pajamas and made trips to the bathroom for my toothbrush and whatnot, I reflected on a few things. My fascination with boy parts started with why they are so special, getting to do some things while having girl parts means you're supposed to cook, clean and make sure your husband is happy. The first chance I got I started examining boy parts – and maybe this is my grandmother in me, but for some reason the terms used for a penis – even that clinical one – seem soiled somehow. Boy parts is kind of kid-like, but it works for me in my head.

So I looked things up. I stared at anatomical drawings and was really intrigued by the ones that had labels and cut-aways. I think some part of me expected to find something labeled that said 'Here, this is why boy parts mean they are special'. Of course that didn't happen, but I kept looking. After a while I graduated to watching porn, and my first thought was 'They put that whole thing in there?' It seemed bizarre. You can't blame me – my mother bought me pads when I started having a period, because tampons went up there, and good God who knows how depraved you'd be if you had something up there.

I can remember becoming aware of gays and lesbians in late middle school. In my head I wondered if it might not be best to be a lesbian – after all, if you weren't supposed to put anything up there, then what better way? What really blew my mind, though, was when I started thinking about gay boys. The first time I looked that up – wow. I mean, if you can do it from behind, what was so wrong with putting it up there?

That summer I watched a lot of porn. I won't say I was obsessed, because my main interest was still why the boy parts made them special, not the act itself. I kept wondering – how does this keep you from cooking or washing your own clothes? Why do boys and men need warm towels from the dryer after they shower? I mean, my little brother fought showers most of the time, so what the hell?

Eventually I had to admit the visual of two guys going at it stirred something in me. I don't know how much of that feeling was tied into complicated psychological reasons, but I have thought about it a little. A lot. If a woman was supposed to be taking it from him, then did the guy who did the taking prefer to cook and clean? Was that their role in a relationship? I always wondered what happened after the sex was over – did the bottom throw on a robe and take their sheets to the washing machine before going to make lunch for them?

What about the scenes where they swapped roles? Chaos.

I shook myself from the sexual history highlight reel and grabbed my phone charger. Averi and I were doing an overnight at her place, and I had to get moving if I was going to get there in time for dinner. Her dad was the cook in their house, which blew my mind when I first realized it. He was also really good at it, so eating dinner there was usually pretty good.

“Mom!” I called out. “I'm leaving for Averi's!”

I heard her reply from somewhere in the house and headed out. Averi is only about six blocks from me, so I don't mind not having a car. Jamie usually drove us everywhere, but I had recently gotten a part-time job to save for my own car. Jamie's parents were loaded, no matter how much they said they were just comfortable. They had a big house, bunches of electronics, a pool. They bought Jamie and Sean their own cars, and leading up to that Jamie had told me how his oldest brother had gotten a BMW for his first car, then when a deer had wrecked it he'd gotten an Audi convertible. By contrast, Robin had gotten a Volkswagen, but it had been some faster, more expensive version of a base model. Christ, I'd take a used anything to drive if it were free; Jamie was talking about Teslas and some weird Mercedes.

He got a used Toyota SUV. It wasn't what he was thinking, but I'll admit my boyfriend didn't act like a spoiled ass – he was grateful. One thing I like about him is that he is okay with what he gets. He's not entitled or spoiled – well, maybe a little, but not enough to make you think he's a jerk. If you grow up with money, you look at things a little different, I guess.

Jamie. He wasn't ever far from my thoughts. Even as I walk down the block, music streaming through my phone, breeze screwing with my hair, Jamie's on my mind. I really never thought about falling in love. I've never dreamed about being a princess on my wedding day. I've never thought about being saved by a white knight on a charger – also white.

I mean, Christ, in middle school I was thinking lesbianism might be an option, so....

Averi's house was bigger than mine, but not up to Kirkwood standards. I knocked and entered the front door, calling out to Averi.

“Upstairs!” she called. Her parents had long ago told me to just walk in – they only lock their doors overnight. My mom thinks they are insane. “Haven't they ever heard of a home invasion?” she demanded when I told her.

I went upstairs to Averi's room. She had such a mishmash of styles in her room – a four-poster princess bed, framed posters of angry girl musicians, a life-sized cardboard cutout of the rabbit guy from that movie Donnie Darko. A chair-rail-height band of musical notes ran around the room, and her ceiling was painted like the night sky, complete with phosphorescent stars.

The ceiling was cool as all hell.

“God! So glad to get away from my mother!” I said, putting my bag in the chair by her desk.

“She still weird?”

“You know it,” I said with a laugh. She was sitting on her bed with her phone, purple fuzzy slippers on her feet, in running shorts and sport bra. “I see you dressed up for me. Very sexy.”

She laughed and tapped her screen. “I got back half an hour ago, and I was going to go shower, but I got talking to Mat. He says hi.”

“Tell Mr. Cute I said hi back,” I said with a roll of my eyes. Mat was cute, but one of his charms was his accent, and he knew it. Averi had spent a lot of time with him, and they were making things work despite him being a year behind her and his status for staying in the states being kind of up in the air.

Averi tossed her phone down and stretched. “He was telling me about the meeting with the lawyer,” she told me before scooting off the bed to head for her dresser and fresh clothes.

“How did that go?” I asked, perching on the edge of her bed.

“It's messy,” she said. “Romania is ready to let him be adopted, but our government is making some problems I don't really get. For now he's on some kind of visa thing.” She paused and said quietly, “He's worried. Makes me worried for him.”

“How could you not? He's a sweet guy.”

She nodded and turned to me with her clothes in hand. “He's told me a lot of things. I have a hard time, sometimes, because I just can't imagine being in the situations he's been in.”

“Like what?” I asked.

She headed for the bathroom, and I followed her, tapping my screen to bring up some music I could stream while we talked. She got in the shower, and I sat on the toilet while she started to tell me.

“I've heard about people that run away and get stuck in sex work or people that get forced. No matter how creepy it is, it also feels like it's far away, you know? Nothing like that happens around here, so it feels less...real? You get that?”

“Sure,” I agreed. “What does that have to do with Mat?”

She shut the water off, and I stood to toss her towel over the top of the rod so she could grab it. I heard her drying off as I scrolled through the feed on my phone. I was scrolling through Jamie's pictures, but stopped when I saw one from the tail end of summer with Sterling clowning with him. Yeah, that was a pain point.

“God, can't stop staring at your boyfriend?” Averi snickered.

“Would you?” I said with a smile and put my phone down. She'd already pulled on her fuzzy sweats and a tee shirt. She started working on her hair while I sat behind her on the toilet.

“Mat had such a rough start in Romania. I knew Nic was an orphan, but I don't think I realized they still had orphanages over there. Even worse, they were run by the churches – remember when we did that paper on the Irish kids that had been abused in the system by the church. How they'd take kids away from fathers if the mother died or something?”

“How could I forget?” I asked. “My mother signed us up for that course over the summer, and I was pissed she'd done it without even asking me. I was just glad I suckered you into joining me.”

We both laughed. She said, “Well, your mom telling my mom about getting college credits over the summer was a big factor. No wonder we both hate your mom.”


“Anyway,” she said, turning around and leaning back against the sink. “I guess Nic and Mat were really good friends, so good they fooled around some. The church ended up sending Nic away to another place, and they told Mat that Nic had died.”

My eyes went wide. “Are you serious? What the fuck!”

“Seriously,” she said, leaving the room. I trailed behind her. We settled on her bed, and she resumed. “So he didn't know what had actually happened to Nic, just that he was told he was dead. He felt really bad – and I think he went into a deep depression, personally. Think about it – you and me are all about how much your mom interferes and does weird shit. That's not exactly like being locked up-”

“Feels that way sometimes,” I grumbled

“But I can't imagine what either of us would think if all of a sudden one of us disappeared and someone told the other that we were dead. Right?”

I frowned and a cold finger ran down my back, making me shiver. “No. I don't think that would go over well.”

She sat up cross-legged and looked down at me. “That's why I think it makes sense he went into a depression. He didn't know how to mourn having lost Nic, and since he was a 'trickster' – or that's what Nic calls him – he got in trouble. Maybe he got in trouble more after Nic was gone. Anyway, he started acting out. Some of that...was with men.”

I rubbed my arms. “You know I like guy on guy action, but that's fucked up in so many ways. How does he even function?”

Averi sighed. “Sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he does fucked-up things, because he thinks that's what he's supposed to do.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Like what? Did he do something to you?”

She fixed me with a look. “If you're going to get angry, I won't tell you. I love him and we're working together. Just...sometimes it's hard.”

I let out a breath. “Okay. I promise not to gut him. What happened?”


I sat up beside her. “You know I don't like anyone hurting you. I let Sean slide, but only because you convinced me to.”

“And that's sweet in a really overprotective-mother way,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “But seriously, I'm with Mat out of choice. Got it?”

“Okay,” I sighed. “I'm sorry. I don't mean to sound controlling.”

“Uh huh,” she said. She paused. “He just wants to move faster than I'm comfortable with. I love him. He's really attractive, and he's sweet. We have a good time together. But he struggles, because for a long time if he went to dinner or if someone was nice to him, they wanted something from him. It's hard for him to handle that just being with him is enough.”

“That has to be so tough for him,” I said in sympathy. “I'm curious, though. Do you want to fuck him?”

She flipped her hair behind her. “I do. A lot. He's hot, on top of everything else I just said about him. I think I'm in love like I've never been, but when he feels wrong.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “What do you mean by pushes?”

“Not like...demanding. More like expected. Like he doesn't know what else could possibly happen except sex. It's...more like feeling he's not in the moment and wanting to be with me.” She sighed. “We've been talking about it. Nic's dads have him seeing a therapist, who is helping him work through his sexual past that he doesn't see as abuse.”

I opened my eyes and thought for a minute. “I guess I could see why he'd think that. He did it because – well not wanting to, but he agreed. Right?”

She nodded slowly, frowning. “Yeah, he agreed. But for adults to do that....”

I sighed and crossed my legs. “I wonder about that sometimes. The rules we have and the morals we come up with. Ever since I figured out my grandmother was full of shit, I've looked at everything in a really different way.”

She laughed. “My mom says you're a contrarian. Anything someone says, you're ready to argue it.”

I shrugged and smiled. “Maybe. I don't think of it as arguing, just trying to look at some things from a different point of view. Like this thing with Mat – I think I'd feel worse if it had been something he hadn't agreed to. You know?”

“Well, yeah, that's rape.”

“Right. My dad was telling me how some people think it's not a thing if a husband rapes his wife – like once she puts on the ring, she isn't a person any more.”

“Why would your dad bring that up?”

I waved my hands around. “It was part of a longer talk we were having about how my mom fights my brother learning anything remotely domestic. His point was that some people think that's a perfectly fine moral judgment to make. So when people bring up morals, I'm like...we don't all agree to the same things. One person's morals are another person's...I don't know.”

She frowned again. “Sure, I guess if you're not seeing things. Like if you're just talking, anything can be okay. But this is Mat.”

“Yeah. If you're not involved, then it's easier to make a decision. Once you get into the feelings and emotions, then the whole idea of morals changes,” I agreed.

She shook her head. “I just think it was wrong. I hate the idea of someone touching Mat like that, especially an adult.” She sighed. “I hate that he thought he had to.”

Softly I said, “Maybe he did. For some people...their body is the only thing they have to trade. It sucks, but it's all around the world.”

We were quiet for a minute, and I looked up at her, wondering what was in her head. I wanted to change the direction of the conversation – at least to make it happier. There was nothing we could do about Mat's past, but hopefully she was a big part of his future.

“So. You're in love, huh?” I teased.

She smiled. “Love! Ugh, I hate it. Speaking of, how are things with Jamie?”

So much for happier talk. “Complicated,” I admitted. “Things are kind of strange right now.”

“The thing with Sterling?” she asked quietly.

“Yes,” I said just as softly.

She shook her head. “I don't think I could do that. I can accept Mat had something comforting with Nic before, but I wouldn't want that going on while he and I are together.”

“Girls! Dinner!”

We headed down to join her parents and her brother, Andy. Dinner was lively, with a lot of talking, and I felt the difference between their conversations and the ones at my own dinner table, as I always did. Everything was led by my father or brother, with my mother quietly cutting me off and funneling everything back to them. My grandmother really did a number on her. I'm only glad I had access to other people and didn't buy into her crap.

After dinner we got changed to stay in for the night and put on music while we shared videos and took selfies of us hanging out. Mat made some silly comments, like “What could two sexy girls get up to?” I thought he was clearly implying we'd get busy. It was kind of funny, since once I'd thought about being a lesbian without really understanding it, and now I couldn't imagine doing that.

I'll give boy parts one thing – I do find them fascinating. I don't know how deeply that fascination is rooted in the privilege that seems to accompany them, but I had different reasons now.

“Mat can be such a pig,” she scoffed and rolled her eyes. “He'd better get any ideas of threesomes right out of his horny head.”

I laughed hard at her expression, and after a pause she joined me. “You think any guy you ever date won't be like 'Hey, honey, what do you think about a third?'”

“I'll never understand why. He's got one mouth and one dick. How many holes does he really need?”

That set us off again. On some level the idea was ludicrous, but I'll admit I had some curiosity as well.

“So,” she said, her giggles trailing off. “What's the plan with Jamie?”

I sighed and set my phone down. “I'm not completely sure. I...think he's slipping away. I have to find a way to talk to him.”

She frowned in thought. “Do you think he's pissed at you?”

I shrugged. “Maybe? It's hard to be sure. I totally understand people not being into the same things I'm into, and I'm really not into the kink-shaming people get into. Like, why is it people want to judge what other people want to do? Something gets popular-”

“Like pumpkin spice?”

I held my hand out to her, “Like pumpkin spice! A bunch of people have to open their mouths and put down what someone else likes, even though it doesn't hurt anyone and doesn't affect them.”

She tangled her fingers together. “But...did what you did hurt someone?”

I looked away. “Not intentionally.” I looked toward her, but not at her face. “I didn't do anything wrong. I talked to Jamie. I told you – he's okay with the D, it doesn't faze him. I just...well, I didn't think that Sterling would fall for Jamie.”

“I'm not sure about the whole casual sex thing,” Averi said, fiddling with her hair. “When I was dating Kip and lost my virginity, it wasn't that special. I mean,” she said, holding up her hand, “I wasn't expecting stars and roses or anything, but a little romance could have gone a long way. Instead he was just sweaty and grabby. I thought it might get better, and we tried a few times, but he was just focused on him. I know it's supposed to be a joke about how men can't make women orgasm, but he had a lot of work to do.”

I waited a beat. “What did that have to do with casual sex or Jamie?”

“Nothing, not directly,” she said. “But I figure you have to like something about someone to fuck, right? I liked Kip – he was cute. Now I look back and wonder what I was thinking, but you know.” She shrugged. “Now I think about Sterling falling for Jamie, which you did, too, so...anyway. He's getting D and affection from Jamie, and meanwhile Jamie is only fooling with Sterling for you.”

“That's not true,” I protested. “Jamie is pretty flexible. He just feels like he has to care to be involved in any of that. He talked to Sterling, and they agreed on everything.”

“Yeah, but...feelings just happen. They grow or die. Jamie wouldn't have done this while he was dating you, except you asked, or gave permission, because you wanted to see two sexy guys getting it on. When you first told me about the idea of watching gay porn I was kind of 'meh' about it, but after I watched a few I understood what you were talking about. There's something sexy and undeniable about watching two hot guys go at it.”

“But? You're going to say but, right?”

She rolled her eyes. “But I don't think I would want to complicate things by having my boyfriend be one of the hot guys, for one thing. I'm territorial – Mat is mine, and if he cheats I'll rip his balls off.”

I burst out laughing at her ferocious grin, and she joined me. She glanced down at her phone and started tapping out a message. I thought about what she said and had to admit she could be right. It had been amazing to see the things I had – Jamie and Sterling kissing. When I'd had to travel and gotten to watch through my phone while they were in Jamie's room – that was something I don't think I'll ever forget. I was fascinated, aroused and wishing I was there to see it in person.

I don't think Jamie knows how much a camera loves him, even though it wasn't the best light. Sterling is no troll. Watching two fit guys – ones I actually knew and one who belonged to me – was pretty close to divine. A part of me still wishes I could have seen them take that next step, but...maybe I was blinded by my desire. Maybe Sterling had fallen in love with Jamie – and I couldn't blame him for that.

But now Jamie had lost a friend, and things might never be the same between them. I had caused it, even if I hadn't intended it. Fuck.

“You get lost in your head?” she asked gently.

I sighed. “Yeah. I...still don't think I did anything wrong, not with asking for what I was interested in. If you ask me a hundred times, I'll still say you have to ask for what you want – to discuss things. If Jamie had said no, it would have been the end. But he didn't. Neither did Sterling.” I bit my lip for a second. “But where I did fuck up was in how I handled it when stuff went bad.”

“How...did you handle it?”

I blew out a breath and looked at my best friend. “I didn't. Haven't. When I suggested they go all the way, there was this huge moment of silence. I guess it could have been awkward, but I thought they were just considering it. If they'd done it, they’d have had to consider who would top or if they'd switch – things like that. I guessed that's what was going through their heads – the logistics. Instead Sterling got red in the face and told me I was stupid for asking. Jamie jumped in to defend me, and I ended up standing there like a moron wondering what had just happened.”

Averi frowned. “Why did he call you stupid?”

I shook my head. “I'm not really sure. Jamie hasn't been really helpful, either. But he's been kind of distant with me. I have to do something before I lose him.” If I haven't already.

“Like what?”

I sighed. “I think I need to go talk to Sterling. I need to understand where he's coming from before I can try talking to Jamie.” I glanced at her. “Part of Jamie's problem is that he's without one of his best friends, someone I know he loves. So...I love Jamie, so I need to help fix what I can. That means I have to understand the problem.”

Averi pinched her lips together. “I think it was because they were getting action all summer, and then it went too far. Maybe Jamie isn't as hetero-flexible as you think? Maybe he's...I don't know, mad because he's questioning how much he liked getting off with Sterling?”

I thought about that for a second. “You could be right, but I don't think it's that – or entirely that. Jamie said he liked it, but he was kind of focused on me. Like when I had to go out of town over the summer, he and Sterling got it on with me watching through my phone.”

“They did?!” she gasped.

“Yeah,” I said slowly. “Why? You knew all about this; I've told you before.”

“About the situation, yeah, but I didn't know you, remotely spying or something. It just sounds weird,” Averi replied.

“No worse than porn,” I said. “But my point is, after they did something I'd want to know what they were feeling.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, guys all seem to be in the moment and just wanting to fuck, but girls are more about the emotions. Right? Like when Jamie and I first did it, it was a little rushed, and we got down to it faster than I wanted to. But I was feeling so...wanted. You know? He was there for me, because of me. And I carried that into us starting again, and he went slower and paid more attention, and it was so much better. I mean, I felt much more ready after that first one was out of the way.”

Averi nodded. “I get that. Kip was always kind of fast to the finish, but I think Mat will do better. He's already more interested in making me happy,” she said with a knowing smile.

“Yeah, you've mentioned the whole tongue thing,” I said with a giggle and shoved my tongue out as far as it would go. She stuck her tongue out and swirled it over her lips, and we both broke down laughing. We finally moved off the subject of our boyfriends, but after we'd settled in for the night I spent some time organizing my thoughts. When Jamie had agreed to kissing Sterling, and when Sterling had also agreed, I'd been so excited. I'd watched them, and it was so hot, but it was also amazing to see the range of emotions on display.

Sterling was aggressive in kissing, and Jamie was trying his best to keep up. Then Sterling had grabbed Jamie's hair and run a hand up his shirt, and it was like they forgot I was there. When they broke it off, Sterling went to the bathroom to release some pressure, and I'd helped Jamie the same way – poor things were so hard. Things slowly increased over the summer, and when the blowjobs started I was in heaven.

I wondered if the reason it was so exciting was because of how genuine they could be. Sterling likes Jamie – maybe more, I had to admit. Jamie loved Sterling, but he was also turning his attention to me, and I'd give him a show as well. My grandmother would have been scandalized! An entire summer of watching the best show I've ever seen come to life, and it all ended with my asking about that next step.

It's not the asking that was the mistake, I realized as I lay awake in the dark. It was that I hadn't read the emotions, the things I was so eagerly experiencing and questioning them about. I'm not sure where Jamie's heart was about Sterling, but I knew – know – he loves him. Jamie calls him family. Sterling took amazing care of Jamie after he'd been hurt, and that definitely showed how much Sterling cared. But how had those feelings changed while I was so wrapped up in the experience? Had Sterling fallen in love? Had Jamie felt something he hadn’t shared with me?

And here in the dark I had to ask myself: Would it have mattered if he had? Seeing had a grip on my senses, on my imagination and my whole being that maybe, looking back, hadn't been healthy. It was sort of an obsession to see them. True, I'd had a lot more sex over the summer, keeping Jamie's tank pretty much empty between Sterling and me.

Still. What if I had been so focused that I missed out on the changing emotions and now had caused irreparable damage? I'd asked them just as school had started, and even weeks later Jamie and Sterling had argued after school. They hadn't spoken since then, as far as I knew, and as the situation had gone on I had felt more and more awkward and defensive.

No, I hadn't done anything wrong in asking. But I had to take responsibility for not being aware of everyone else's feelings, especially as they changed. I never would have predicted it, but it had happened – and I played a part.

** Sterling Bennett **

Saturday is my favorite day. I spend all week looking forward to it. Falling in love has a pretty high bar for how wonderful things are supposed to be, and the reality is so different I can't believe they use the same word. Love. When I was dating Phil, I thought it was love, maybe. At first maybe it was, but then little things turned into big things. When we broke up, I kind of thought my personal issues would go away with a new boyfriend and my missed connections with Chris Licardi, someone I'd always wanted to date. But he was dating and happy – and I'm not that kind of guy. Some people would say if his boyfriend wasn't taking care of him I couldn't steal him,'s not my thing.

Phil skulked around a little, and we took some comfort from each other, but it always ended up with questions about why we failed and how we didn't work.

Then Jamie happened.

You have to understand a few things. I can love people without needing to go to bed with them. I can think people are attractive without making a play. I admit I kissed Jamie when I was on an emotional high from witnessing a truly great act that hit me right in the feels. Maybe I shouldn't have done it, especially since it was without consent. But...we seemed okay later. He joked about it, and I thought it was all good.

I didn't sit at home and wish for him to be gay any more than I wished for my dad to not be a bigot. It would be nice if those things were true, but you can't really go through life on 'what if'. So when he said that his girl wanted to watch us didn't seem so bad to me. I liked kissing Jamie, partly because it knocked him from his comfortable spot being in charge. At first I was just thinking this would be a little kiss – although I planned to make him sweat, I'll admit that – and then it'd be over. Nothing wrong with a little tongue between friends.

At first it was weird that his girlfriend was watching, but I forgot about her pretty fast and went to work on Jamie. I pushed him up against his bedroom wall, holding him there with my body. I reached up behind him and grabbed his hair to control where his mouth was, and then I snaked a hand up under his shirt to fondle his nipple.

Oh. And I kissed the ever-living fuck out of him. So much so I was painfully hard and had to excuse myself before I made a huge mess in my underwear. It would have been a very noticeable mess.

Then his girlfriend had questions. It was weird, but it made me think later on, especially since she asked us to try again. I had no one to date and no one in the pipeline, so pinning one of my cute friends to his wall and sucking his tongue from his head wasn't the worst way to spend an afternoon. But partway through the summer things started to change. We moved from just lips on lips to fewer clothes, eventually adding stroking each other. Then blowjobs.

Eventually I realized I'd fallen for him. Or I'd fallen for the idea of being with him; it was hard to separate the two. He's a good soul, and it means the world to me that he calls me family, even if we're not talking anymore. Sean and Jamie were the first people I met who just accepted me for who I was, knowing about that secret part of my life. It killed me that we weren't speaking, and I wasn't sure how to resolve it.

We'd reached the end of the summer with something growing between us – something we weren't talking about. It was me, having fallen. Me sharing intimacy with him without his girlfriend. Nothing overtly sexual – I'd randomly stroke the back of his neck or play with his hair. I think he was so used to us touching at that point he may not have noticed – or maybe he didn’t care enough to question it. But then...she'd brought up full on sex so she could watch.

Bile entered the back of my throat because I wanted to make love to him. I did. I wanted him under me, riding me, tangled with me – but I didn't want it to be a show for someone else. The way I felt, the way I wanted him, wasn't for others, and I had to reject the idea out of hand. I practically snarled at her about how her idea was stupid, and Jamie'd risen to her defense.

And that was that.

I don't know if he knew why I'd said it, and I don't know if it would make it any better if he did. I doubt it. In retrospect there was no version of reality where he was going to choose me. It just drove my feelings and self-worth like a pile driver for a few weeks. Then we argued at school. I can't even remember the words anymore, but it wasn't like it was going to fix anything. Yelling, I mean.

I was cooling off, just trying to chill out. When it started to rain like frogs, with dogs and cats likely to follow the raindrops, I thought things just couldn't get worse. I was right. Everything changed. I was standing under tents that were partially erected to be concession stands for football games, but they hadn't put the side skirts up yet. So it prevented the rain from falling right on us, but it was falling to the sides and splashing us.

One of the guys from the visiting soccer team had dashed across the field to hit the port-a-potty, and by the time he got done, his bus was – incredibly – leaving without him. Here was this guy who was drenched and abandoned, probably feeling about as powerless as I had been feeling...and I could change that. So I'd approached him and was shocked to discover that I’d met this drenched guy the week before, when I adopted Sampson, my dog. I'd always wanted a dog, and my mother decided now was the time. I didn't tell her what was going on, but it was pretty obvious I wasn't myself; her answer to help me heal was Sampson.

Garrett, the fellow from the pound who was now soaking wet at my school, was the guy that pointed me in Sampson's direction – and was he ever right. Sampson had been exactly what I'd needed – someone to care for, someone to focus on besides my own problems. Taking him for a walk, playing with him or just letting him cuddle with me on my bed while I scrolled through my phone was the best medicine. So when I saw Garrett there needing help, I figured this was karma – my chance to give back.

I'd driven him back to his school and told my story, and I was surprised at how easy he was to talk to. But finding out he was gay and in fear at home galvanized me. He looked at me with hope, and then he blushed heart moved. I mean I felt something in my heart where it had been dead for weeks.

As Garrett and I talked we grew closer, shared more, and it began to occur to me that I had found someone of value. Someone who looked at me the way I wanted to be looked at. I was reminded, in my giddier moments, about a meme that said they wanted people to look at them the way people look at a dessert or something. He does that. As I got to know him I felt the free fall of something dawning inside me – a rising sun within my chest showing me something new and better.

We've been dating for a few months, and I know beyond a doubt that I'm in love. At times it was like a river swollen with rain, rushing through me and filling me beyond what I could contain. Other times it was a deep and abiding peace like I've never known.

And Saturdays were when that all happened. Garrett's parents were Grade-A awful people. I knew how he felt, since my father valued my half-siblings far more than he did me. But I'd had my mother to take me away from that toxicity, while his birth parents both joined in to squash him and elevate his brother, Tim. Instead of feeding on the idea how he was so much better, Tim developed a tight bond with Garrett. On Saturdays I picked Garrett up from his volunteering at Whiskers, the animal shelter, and on Sundays I took Garrett and Tim out for the day.

I suppose it'd be easy to think I take Tim to curry favor with Garrett, but it wouldn't be the truth. Tim's a good kid, and I think being alone around his parents is toxic. I talked sports with him, and he got really invested in being able to hang out with us. I think he'd have missed Garrett, since they were so close.

That Saturday I was up early, because Sampson had the farts. “Buddy, did you get into the trash or something?” I asked, waving my hand and climbing out of bed.

He hopped down and headed for my bedroom door, so I took him to the door and let him out into the backyard. Usually he looks around for just the right piece of real estate to drop his gift, but today he didn't make it far from the deck before he was squatting.

“What upset his system?” I mumbled to myself. I headed into the kitchen to start setting things up for breakfast. I knew Garrett and I would come back here for lunch and dinner, so I usually had a light breakfast; I was always nervous until I got to see him. I hated his parents for how much mental anguish they'd put Garrett through, and I always suspected they were going to yank him away from me at the last minute.

I don't think I could take that.

I let Sampson back in, mixed up his kibble with some wet food and put it down for him. I ate my cereal while he crunched his kibble, and for a while that was the only sound in the house. After breakfast I put on thick sweats for a run with Sampson. We took a regular route every Saturday that took us about five miles. If I were alone it would take about forty-five minutes, but with Sampson it took closer to an hour and a half. Lots of stop and pee or stop and sniff moments on our route. I didn't mind. The run was for him, too.

As I ran or waited for Sampson I thought about my afternoon ahead with Garrett. I hadn't managed to peel very many clothes off him in the few months we'd been dating, but I didn't care what he looked like underneath – I wanted him no matter what. The fact he had abs for days didn't hurt, but his damn soulful eyes were what really killed me. I think he could be plain as a mud fence and those eyes would still trap me every time. Our time was special, as clichéd as that sounds. We'd hung out at my house, gone to movies and the fair. There was a winter carnival coming up, and we were going to hit the rides and stuff with his little brother.

Garrett has such a good core that despite the toxicity he's sane, good and giving. The evidence, if anyone needed it, was the bond between him and his little brother. I had quickly realized that as important as my bond with Garrett was, adding Tim to our time was important and beneficial to each of us. It didn't hurt that I liked Tim as well and quickly felt like an older sibling to him – not that he needed one with Garrett.

My mom's friend...I forget her name...she has a birthday, so my mom is going to be gone until just after dinnertime. She asked me not to hold up eating for her, so I'm planning on making a meal out of Garrett today. I've been teasing him a little with some sexting, but I don't know if he's put the dots together with me picking him up today. I daydreamed about kissing him, pinning him on my bed and peeling every piece of his clothes off him.

“Hi, Sterling.”

I slowed down as I reached my hedges and saw a real boner-killer on my front stoop.

“Emily? Uh, what are you doing here?”

Sampson got closer to her, sniffing and wagging his tail. She's fooling your nose, buddy.

“I was hoping we could talk.”

I pursed my lips. “About what?”

“It's cold,” she said, rubbing her arms. “Do you mind if I tell you inside?”

I crossed my arms. “I kind of do.”

She nodded her head slowly. “Okay. Well, the short version is I'm struggling to understand what went wrong. I have some ideas, but I hate that you and Jamie are in the position you're in. I know I played a part and...I'd just like to try and move you guys back to a better place.” She took a breath. “Jamie's upset; I think it's also hurting my relationship with him.”

“'re here for you.”

“I am,” she nodded. “But after what happened, I thought it would be better if I let you guys work it out between you. Now I think maybe that was a bad idea, too.”

She wasn't wrong, exactly. I sighed. “Ah, hell. Okay, come on in.”

Sampson dashed inside to his water dish and noisily drank. I offered her a drink and she declined, so I grabbed water and leaned against the kitchen counter.

“I'm not sure what the point of any of this would be. Jamie's made a choice, you made yours, and I made mine. I think we just have to live with it, shitty as it may be.” I downed some water as she took a tentative seat at the kitchen table.

“I agree some choices were made, but I don't think we have to just live with it. As much as I don't want to lose Jamie, I also don't want him to be hurt by this for good.” She laid one of her hands over the other. “I need to understand some things first, and I'm hoping you'll help me with that.”

I snorted and nodded my head. “Okay. What?”

Her lips scrunched around a little, and she said, “When I first brought up the idea of Jamie kissing another guy, he was okay with it. He'd told me about having had an experience or two with guys and about your kiss. It's what made me think Jamie wouldn't have an issue with the idea.”

I thought for a moment. Jamie'd fooled with other guys before me? That was news. Without thinking, I slowly said, “Well, wasn't an issue exactly.” I glanced up at her, and she was waiting for me to continue. Okay. What the hell? “When Jamie brought it up, he was clear that you wanted to see it. He clarified that he wanted us to kiss, and that he was into it, so I agreed.”

She shifted in her seat. “Is that exactly what he said? That he was into it?”

I shook my head. “Nah. More like he was okay with it. I didn't want to kiss him and have him be doing it just for you. I wanted to know....”

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I think I understand.”

I hadn't expected her to be contemplative about this. Of course, I hadn't expected to have this conversation at all. “So...I don't understand. Was that what you wanted?”

She looked up at me as if startled. “Oh, no. No, I just was thinking. Like I was saying, when I asked Jamie about this first, he hesitated. He said he knew you already liked him and he didn't want to mess with your head.”

I nodded. “He said as much to me.”

She nodded. “I've always been curious about boys, but not the way you might think. My grandmother raised my mother a certain way, and she tried to do the same to me – treating boys like they couldn't help out at home and that women belonged in the kitchen and things like that.”

“I think my momma would kick my ass six ways from Sunday if I said that,” I replied, shaking my head.

“I don't buy into it,” she said with a sour look. “But it always pissed me off when my brother would get away with doing nothing, while my mother tried to make me feel like cleaning and learning to cook were my responsibilities. That's where I first got curious about boys and what was so special that made it okay for them to be like that at home. All I could think of was that they had different parts. In middle school I studied those anatomical drawings like crazy, trying to figure out which part of a penis or scrotum made men immune to household chores.”

I chuckled at her use of the words, not something I'd heard girls say before. “Yeah, that sounds messed up, I'll give you that.” I glanced at Sampson as he wandered over to his bed to lie down, bored with our chat.

“From there I saw some porn. Hot guys going at it – didn't really see a downside,” she said with an unrepentant grin.

“Yeah, I'm with you. That why you wanted to see me and Jamie?”

She tilted her head from side to side. “Kind of. As you know from my questions, I was still trying to see what was so different – what made us able to do different things or be treated like we should.” She paused and looked at me with a serious expression. “But I won’t deny that watching you guys was very hot, better than any porn I’d ever seen. I thought about that a lot over the summer, but I missed the obvious, I guess. Now that I think about it, talking about it with you, it seems obvious. You fell in love, didn't you?”

My face grew warm and I looked away. “Yeah. So?”

“Jesus. I'm so stupid,” she said quietly.

“Why's that?” I asked softly, my voice scratchy.

Her expression shifted several times, as if she were struggling. “All this time I was trying to understand the emotions that you guys were going through, to understand how we were different, how we experience the same things in different ways, but I was missing the emotions right in front of me. Is that why when I asked for you guys to go farther you got angry?”

I let out a slow breath. “Yes.” I looked at her defiantly. “If I was going to make love, it wasn't for show.” I paused, unsure, and then spoke anyway. “And I wanted to.”

She nodded her head slowly. “I'm sorry, Sterling. I completely missed those feelings – and I think Jamie must have felt them, or felt similarly. Maybe he still does.”

I shook my head. “I don't know about that. Jamie was always clear that girls were more interesting to him, but that being with a guy didn't bother him. I think he might have drawn a line there anyway.” I paused. “How can you watch someone you love having sex with someone else? I couldn't. It's too private, too intimate.”

She pushed her hands together and nodded several times. “I think because I got too focused. Focused on the display, focused on my own questions and trying to figure out the question in my head about why boys are different – or why women get treated worse, I guess. Like in the way my grandmother viewed men and boys, which is also how my mother sees it without saying it so much.” She looked up at me. “I think what I was working on in the back of my mind was how you guys would act afterward. If the person who took on the bottoming role would suddenly become more feminine, suddenly act in ways that might be considered feminine.” She shook her head. “I lost sight of everything.”

I shook my head and softly said, “We'd have still been who we are. If you're a feminine guy before you go to bed – if you top or bottom – you're going to be the same person. If Jamie and I had done that – we'd have been the same people.”

She tilted her head to one side. “You don't think it would have changed you?”

I sighed. “Look. I love Jamie. I always will. It's different now, though. I think it would have just made things more complicated if we'd done that. Now...I'm really in love. The kind everyone deserves, because he loves me back for being me. I love Jamie for who he is – for who he can be – but he's yours. You have to figure your own relationship out. I don't want to be in the middle of it.”

She nodded. “I know. I can see it wasn't fair for you both, but I didn't see the feelings developing.” She paused and looked at me. “Do you think that's how it would be for anyone? That being intimate like that would increase their emotions?”

I thought for a minute. “I guess there are plenty of people that can hook up and move on. But if you get and give affection over time, I don't know how you don't catch feelings.”

She looked down, nodding slowly. “Yeah. I think you're right.” She stood up. “Thank you. For talking to me. Um. Is it okay if I tell Jamie to reach out at some point?”

I cleared my throat. “So long as he – and you – understand I have something now, and I'm not risking it for anything.”

“No, of course! I wouldn't ever ask that of you – not again. And not him, either,” she amended.

“Okay. Well...I have to go get cleaned up. I need to pick my boyfriend up.”

“Okay,” she said with a small nod and stood up. “With the winter break coming you think you and your boyfriend might go to the winter carnival?”

The winter carnival was an indoor event in the Binghamton Convention Center and was something like a mini fair with rides and games of chance where they rip you off.

“Yeah. We'll go.”

She nodded slowly. “Maybe see you there?”

I hesitated. “Maybe.”

She left, and Sampson watched her go. I scratched his ears and thought about the conversation for a moment, feeling that moment when she'd asked us to fuck and how a part of me had leapt at the idea of making love to him.

Then I thought of Garrett. Sweet Garrett, who would be waiting for me and only me. Who saw me and saw the good, saw a future. I could look at Garrett and see all the things I wouldn't ever have had with Jamie, and I realized that I could love them both, just differently. Garrett was everything Jamie not only wasn't, but never could be.

I hopped into the shower and made sure I was cleaner than clean. I styled up my hair, tried a few things on and rejected them. I wanted today to be perfect. I wanted to look good enough for him to peel my clothes off. After we'd gotten enough of each other – for the moment – then I had some rom-coms picked out to cuddle up together while we watched. I was going to give my boy some damn romance and treat him like the perfectly special boyfriend that he is.

I'm not normally a briefs guy, but I went with a brightly colored pair I'd bought for just such an occasion. I kept them hidden from my mom because...well, she didn't do my laundry anymore, but still. What parent wants to see the sexy things their kids buy for their partners to see? Then I went with some nice broken-in jeans and a polo under a pale yellow sweater that made me look preppy, hoping it also said something about how this date was different. Normally I wore joggers or other semi-athletic, comfortable stuff. I hoped he saw the difference.

I texted my mom, per her request, that I was leaving to go pick up Garrett, and she told me to have fun. Oh, I will. I will. So will Garrett.

** Garrett French **

Jesus Christ, I thought. I'll need a shower when I get there!

I love my volunteer position. There are so many furballs that come in scared and needing help, so many that need comforting after heartless people abandon them, so many that just need. But they all need their pens cleaned out, too, and today was my day to hose and scrub the pens out while the tenants were out in runs outside or something.

It wouldn't be the first time I'd leave with Sterling and have wet pants; I always managed to spray myself a few times, not to mention the water bouncing off other surfaces and coating my whole body with a fine mist. I couldn't wait to see him today! It sucks living a town apart, not seeing him in school or having the excuse of having the same class to do homework together.

He'd stuck with me, too. When we first got together there had been some ups and down at home. My relationship with my parents was at a stand still, but we weren't fighting daily. That was a near thing, because after Tim and I refused to go to church anymore, pastor had come to our house. I mean he literally showed up himself to check on the family.

The way my parents simpered was disgusting. I've seen people in TV shows where someone powerful shows up and they start licking boots, but I always figured it was over-the-top and done for a laugh. Seeing it in person was both disgusting and alarming. It's nearly impossible to describe the feeling of being trapped, the suffocating feeling that with him in the room there wasn't enough room for anything else. It made me fearful, acid churning in my guts about what hell he could deliver onto Tim and myself.

My parents were mostly held in place by their fear of Tim, their golden child, cutting them off. Of him not speaking, not reacting as they wanted him to. But they also knew I kept Tim afloat in their sea of madness, and if they took me from him, if he had no support....

Pastor was a tall man, probably six three or so at a guess. I was nearly six foot myself, and he had me by a few inches. Somehow he always projected an even larger presence. I definitely felt him as being more menacing, like a fist being shaken at you but covered in something thin and soft like velvet.

“I'm so glad to find you at home and safe,” he'd said.

“Oh Pastor, it's so nice of you to come check on us!” my mother had slobbered. “Look, boys, it's Pastor.”

I may have imagined it, but I think I detected a bit of fear in her tone, because Tim and I had been clear about no longer interacting with Pastor.

“We're blessed to have you in our home,” my father said quietly.

“We'll let you talk,” Tim said quietly, and we turned as one to leave the room. I'm not sure about Tim, but I was seething about as much as my stomach was churning with fear.

“Oh no! I came to see the family. Don’t leave, boys!” Pastor had said.

We turned back. I stood just ahead and partially in front of Tim. “No offense, Pastor, but Tim and I don't want any part of this.”

Instead of shock, his face registered only mild surprise. “Garrett, I'm not sure what you mean.”

Tim had brushed past me. “He means no more. You and your church have twisted this family into an anxious web of bullshit.”

He didn't make much sense, but he wasn't wrong exactly.

Pastor's eyes widened. “Timothy. I don't understand what you mean. Why don't we sit down and calmly talk about your concerns?”

“No,” I said quietly. “We understand how slippery you are and how you'll twist our words back on us.” I looked to my parents. “Did you do this?”

“No, no-” My father started to say.

“I'm here from concern,” Pastor said firmly, folding his hands one over the other before him. “Your family has been part of our spiritual community since you were a baby, Garrett. Is it such a stretch that I would want to see if everything was all right when they suddenly no longer participate in that community?”

“We made a choice to leave,” Tim replied softly. “My brother is gay. You want to change him. I like him just as he is. He's more important than you are.”

Pastor's expression shifted to sadness. “Oh, Timothy,” he said gently. “Garrett is dear to me. I've known him since shortly after he was born. He just needs guidance, and I'm here to help him change himself, not try to change him.”

“According to the philosophy I've read, that's a failure of logic.” Tim sighed. “You can't say you're not trying to change someone when you're trying to convince them to change on their own. He's gay. It just is. Being part of a religion is something you can decide to change, and we did.” He waved his hand at our parents. “You can have them, but not us.”

“We're all God's children, Timothy, called to do different parts of his work,” Pastor said, his tone showing a thread of impatience. “Garrett needs to have facts about this lifestyle decision, because it's not meant to be taken lightly. The bible is clear.”

I put my fingertips on my forehead. “Jesus didn't say anything about gay people. If we were so bad, wouldn't he have?”

Pastor shifted his attention to me. “God had many voices to spread his word, to create the text that would embody what his son didn't have time to share.”

Blandly Tim said, “You'd think God could have planned better. Given his son a calendar or a watch. Wouldn't you think?”

Pastor sighed. “I don't think you're taking this seriously.”

“What's not to be serious about when you have talking snakes?” I asked.

He tilted his head to one side. “Garrett,” he said in a quiet tone, one that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, “God is nature. Nature dictates that the species must reproduce to continue to exist. So, God designed our bodies to work in concert. You can see the elegant simplicity of his design.”

“I see the simple part,” Tim replied.

“My boyfriend and I fit together in concert,” I said, right behind Tim. “We think it's more like a musical, though.”

Pastor sighed and looked over at my mother, whose hands were clasped before her. “You were right to call. I think one-on-one counseling is the best way to go. Together they feed one another in their false beliefs.”

“You miserable witch,” Tim growled.

My mother hunched, wringing her hands. “I just-”

“Stop,” my father said, placing a hand on her shoulder. Slowly he said, “Pastor, I regret my wife calling you to our home. As you can see, we are in a time of crisis, and we need time to process this together before we're ready to deal with our community.”

“Michael,” Pastor said in a compassionate tone. “Your wife called on us for aid. Your family is in pain. Your children rise against you. Help is here on your doorstep. I understand you may not be sure which path forward will lead you to success, but we're here to guide you.”

I am nearly certain I saw my father break out in a sweat. “Pastor, I appreciate all you have done to try to help us to this point, but for now this is a family matter, and we will deal with it at home.”

Pastor nodded slowly and spoke in a gentle tone. “And will we see you next Sunday? Will you be at bible class on Wednesday? How will your community support you if you don't participate?”

My father let out a small sigh. “I suppose we shall have to grow up and stand together as a family before we can be part of a community.”

Pastor shook his head. “Listen to your wife, Michael. She sees what you do not.”

My father shook his head. “Good day, Pastor. Thank you for your concern.”

Pastor's gaze tracked from one face to the next, then he gave a slight grunt, nodded his head just once, and then left. My guts were sore from being held tightly so long. Tim walked to our mother, and I'm not sure if I imagined a wobble to his step or not.

“I hate you,” he said, his voice cracking.

Things broke down: my mother wailing, my father trying to regain the control that he'd lost some time ago, Tim pouring out the tension and fear that she'd just put us through by calling that creature to our home. It was overwhelming. I didn't speak – I fainted.

As I came around, not understanding why I'd suddenly found myself on the floor, Tim was over me with a look of angry concern. It wasn't comforting. He helped me up, and we retreated to our room, him locking the door. In the house we heard loud voices start up as my parents argued; for the first time it was with each other instead of us.

Since then we'd held an uneasy peace. I had limited interactions with my parents, except when I needed to deflect their attention from Tim. Tim...struggled. He felt betrayed, and even though my father seemed to be making an effort, he was dragging my mother like an anchor. As a result we told them if we were doing something, but we didn't really ask permission. When that got brought up, it usually turned into a fight. We didn't always win, but we won more than we ever had before.

I closed up the gate on the pen I'd finished cleaning. The blanket and the bed were being cleaned – likely the dog who'd occupied the pen had been adopted. I hung the hose up and glanced down at myself. Ugh. Moist with a side of dog hair. I put my long-handled squeegee away and wandered back toward the front counter to rub the ears of our greeter dog, Charlie. I probably should have brought a change of clothes, but I'd fallen out of the habit. Sometimes Sterling and I would go for a run or help his mom move things, because she liked to clean way too much for a normal person.

Thinking of my boyfriend made me think of some of the selfies he'd been sending. Damn, my boyfriend is hot.


I glanced over at one of the intake people, who was walking a small dog on a temporary leash.

“Need a hand with this ferocious guy?” I asked, kneeling down and petting the hyper little dog. Some kind of terrier mix, I think.

“Animal control just dropped him off. No collar, but I figure we can scan for a chip. Want to give it a shot?”

“Sure,” I agreed. Scanning for a chip is pretty simple. You have a wand that you wave over the more likely areas, and if there is information it will come up on the screen on the wand. I took the little guy down to the end of the hall and lifted the wand from its charger. I waved it around his body, getting a hit near the base of his neck.

Glancing at the screen I said, “Are you Harvey? Is that you?”

He capered about, but I think I could have said anything and he'd have responded the same way. I checked the phone number and then dialed out from the phone in the room. A guy picked up.


“Hi, this is Garrett French calling from Whiskers animal shelter. I have someone named Harvey here.”

“Oh my God! He got out again! Jesus Christ! Where did you say?”

I gave him our address, and he said he'd be here in ten minutes, so I walked Harvey back to the front. He capered around Charlie, who looked at him with little interest.

“Any luck?” the intake person asked from over by the reception desk.

“Yep. Said they'd be here in ten minutes.

“Fantastic,” they said. “No intake paperwork for that one.”

The receptionist looked at me. “You just made work for me? Garrett, I thought we were tight.”

I shrugged and smiled. “You think Harvey wants to stay here?”

“I think Harvey better learn to stay in his yard,” she said with a snort. I held onto Harvey to wait for the owner, since my shift was almost over and I wouldn't have time to clean another pen. I squatted down and petted Harvey, and it brought to mind the memory of Sterling's first visit to Whiskers, where he met Sampson. It was a short meeting between me and Sterling, but he'd loved Sampson.

Sterling was such a good person. When we formally met he went out of his way to bring me home, and once I'd told him what my home life was like, he didn't run away. He easily could have decided I was too much trouble to befriend – after all he'd just driven me a half hour away from his own home, and that was already more than I deserved from him. Yet...he'd been compassionate and offered to be an ear for my trouble and a shoulder to cry on.

Tim and I were as tight as brothers could be, but I always felt as though I had to be the strong one, because I was the eldest. It was up to me to stand between Tim and the church, Tim and my parents, Tim and pastor, Tim and...well, the world, really. Tim returned my love for him, and it made for a tight bond born from our shared experiences.

Sterling was different. Sterling supported me, yes, but he also lifted me up. He'd boosted my confidence in myself and in life in general. He made it possible for me to connect so personally with a good man like him. That I was in love with him stemmed from so many things – that we fit so well when it was just us out walking, exercising together, watching TV or just scrolling through our phones and sharing dumb stuff with each other. Hell, we even did a couple dumb videos that his friends laughed about.

But Sterling also reached out to Tim, made him welcome and included him in some of our outings – usually Sunday. I hadn't asked him or mentioned it; he seemed to understand that Tim and I were almost a package in some ways. Sterling very quickly adopted Tim, and Tim picked up on Sterling treating both of us well.

My English teacher held discussions about different things all year, and one of the subjects had been the phrase 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. It made me think, later, about what we might define as beautiful, since it was a subjective term. Tim hasn't yet realized he's a beautiful person, but I can see it. That girl, Ginnie, can see it, but I'm not sure if anyone else has seen it yet. Of course, what I find beautiful, others might not – the subjective part.

But Sterling...I just don't know how anyone could leave him out there single. How did he not have people crawling over him for a date? Or just for a hug or kiss or some affection? He gives all that to me, and it makes me feel incredibly attractive and wanted. Sterling is solidly built, kisses aggressively, yet is very affectionate and likes cuddling me closely. It's kind of funny; we are close in height, but I'm a far more slender build than he is, so I feel like I have to fold up a little to cuddle him. It's always worth it.

“Harvey! There you are, you little brat! Mom is so worried!”

I glanced up at two guys walking down the short hallway from the double front doors. One had blond-brown hair and mellow green eyes set into a nice, attractive face. His partner had darker hair and looked nice, if not as athletic as the first. I'll be damned – it was Brandon McCall and Jerry Mason, last year’s surprise couple – guys I'd been seriously jealous of.

“Do you know them, Harvey?” I asked the wiggling ball of fur. I let him go, and he dashed to the guys, dancing and begging to be picked up. Brandon bent down and lifted little Harvey up, scolding him mildly for escaping.

“Hey, Garrett,” Brandon said warmly. “Was that you that called about Harvey? Do we have to sign anything?”

“Hey, Brandon. Jerry. They can finish helping you at the front desk. Does he escape a lot?”

Brandon sighed. “My dad bought him for my mom to cushion the blow of me going to college next year.”

Jerry piped up. “We never had a dog – I have a bunch of siblings, so my parents said they didn't need one more animal around the house.” He rolled his eyes. “But when Harvey visits he manages to find holes in the fence we didn't know about.”

“Probably because you and your sibs didn't climb under the fence when you snuck out, J,” the other said with a grin.

“You know Cal, though,” J said and glanced toward me. “Cal's my brother. He'd have climbed under the fence just to make my parents wonder what the hell had happened.”

“Well, that sounds suspiciously true.” Brandon looked to me. “Thanks again for the call. We were dog-sitting but not exactly watching him, then when you called we realized he was missing.”

I couldn't help but smile. “Distracted, huh?”

“B is a walking distraction,” J said with a sigh.

“You weren't complaining,” B muttered.

Such a cute couple. “Well, like I said, they have some papers for you to sign so that we can show Harvey was scanned and picked up.”

“How do we keep you in the yard?” J asked of Harvey, who just wiggled in his arms.

“We had a guy who uses chicken-wire,” I told him. They both turned to look at me with interest.

“How?” B asked.

“He takes the chicken wire and uses something to tie it to the fence, then lawn staples to pin down the chicken wire. That way if they try to dig, they can't and it scrapes their paws to discourage it.”

They glanced at each other, and then J said, “We'd end up doing the work, but it might save the little hairball’s life.”

“Lot of wire. Think your folks have any in their shed? Like leftover from gardening or something?” B asked.

“Probably. Cal may have lawn staples,” J said.

“He would?” B asked.

“Yeah. I mean think about it – Cal would think 'Who staples their lawn?' and have to buy them because they were named something weird,” J reasoned.

I smiled. “Sounds like a character,” I told them. Glancing past them I saw Sterling coming through the double doors – and boy he looked good. The first time he'd picked me up he was dressed more in a preppy style, but he'd relaxed into more comfortable gear. Today he'd spiffed up pretty nice. I smiled at him as he drew closer.

“I guess you have your own distraction,” J commented with a smile.

I couldn't hold back my grin. “I do. Glad you guys got Harvey back. Good luck with the fence.” I left them to their paperwork and joined Sterling, who leaned down and kissed me quickly. It always surprised me, even at this point, when he did things like that in public. So casually, like it wasn't the big deal it really was.

“I'm sorry. I'm a mess,” I said by way of greeting. We turned to leave as he promised to clean me up. We headed back toward his house. As he drove we talked about stuff – nothing important. We usually talked during the week; we just didn't generally get to see each other. He'd gotten a part-time job, and I had gotten one, too. My parents had objected, but I stomped it down – I was going to need money and a way to either support myself or go to school or both when I hit eighteen. I needed to learn to make money.

We got to his house, and I spent a few minutes playing with Sampson, who was sniffing the heck out of me because of all the doggy smells on me, no doubt.

“I was going to bring a change of clothes, but I forgot,” I told Sterling apologetically. “I probably smell like wet dog and other unpleasant things.”

Sterling tickled me briefly. “Why don't you take a quick shower? I'll throw your stuff in the laundry, and we can chill until dinner.”

It felt weird to think about showering in his home, but on the other hand it beat feeling self-conscious for how I smelled at the moment. It wasn't likely that I'd smell better later. “Okay, I could do that.”

He led me to the bathroom and pulled a towel from the linen closet. “Just drop your clothes by the door, and I'll hang something on the door for you to wear,” he said.

I tried not to think about being naked with my boyfriend just a room away as I stripped and climbed into the shower. Their water pressure was better than I had at home, and I wondered briefly about Sterling joining me. We hadn't gone too far sexually – honestly, being with him left me pretty fulfilled. Of course, we hadn't had a whole lot of opportunities, either. I stiffened up at the thought and then held still as he opened the door enough to pull my clothes from the floor. I saw him awkwardly hang something from the hook on the door for me to wear that I couldn't see through the steamed and rippled glass shower doors.

Trying to set thoughts of him aside long enough to get the stink off me, I cleaned up and toweled dry. What he'd left me to wear was just a robe, which puzzled me for a second. I lifted it up to see if there were sweats or shorts and a tee underneath on the hook or in the pockets, but no – just a fluffy robe. My heart rate picked up as possibilities flooded my mind.

His mom wasn't home. He'd dressed nicer than usual. Even though I'd been a little messy from work before, he'd never suggested I shower. He'd disposed of my clothes, putting them in the wash. As I turned these thoughts – evidence – over in my head, our texts from that week came back to me. He'd done some decidedly sexy posing, pulling down the corner of his waistband to reveal the curve of his upper thigh and the shadow where his manhood lay. Another pulling down the waistband evenly, just revealing the first few curly hairs to peek over, so noticeable against his skin.

I was hard again, and I hoped it was for good reason. I slipped the robe on, tying the belt and noting how it utterly failed to hide my arousal. I opened the bathroom door and called out to him.

“In here,” he said, his voice echoing down the hall from his bedroom. I padded across the carpet, my dick thumping against the fabric in time with my heart. The door was partially closed, so I pressed on it. Electric candles flickered, mimicking their live flame inspiration. The curtain was drawn, and Sterling was lying on his side, head propped up by one hand, dressed in only a pair of revealing, colorful briefs.

“Damn,” I said in a whisper, taking him in.

In a growling tone he said, “You can leave that robe right there on the floor.”

I untied the belt and slipped the garment off, letting it fall around me to the carpet. Sterling's eyes were large and fixed to my body. I shifted on my feet, subconsciously tightening my muscles and showing him my abs – which he'd seen before, but I wasn't really thinking. I was showing off. Showing him all I had to offer, bodily speaking. Showing him all I could offer him.

From there I can't say I did much thinking. I had no plan, no idea which thing I was going to do next from moment to moment. I was blinded by lust and physical sensations too much to process the idea of emotions or consequences. He invited me into his bed and I joined him, and then our hands were in motion. Our lips joined, and then it was on. It was almost violent, yet needy. I'm not sure how long we pressed against one another, how long we were grinding and exploring with our fingers and tongues before we ended up in a sixty-nine.

Luther entered my mind for a brief moment. I'd only ever blown one guy, my semi-friend, Luther. He'd turned out to be better as a person since we'd spent the last few months being more honest with each other, but I'm not sure we actually liked each other all that well.

Then the thought of Luther was gone, and I was struggling with trying to pleasure Sterling and not completely losing myself in the way he was pleasuring me. My focus kept shifting, as did my hands as I caressed his legs and grabbed his butt. We didn't finish together, not even close, but once we'd reached our end, I clambered around to cuddle in closely to him, lying on my side and flopping half on him.

He had one hand behind me, pressed to my lower back, with one finger extending to my cleft. His other hand was in my hair, pushing along my face and past my ear. One of my own arms was trapped beneath me; I stroked the skin of his chest with my other.

“This is right,” he said quietly.

“What do you mean?” I asked, idly rubbing his nipple.

“You. Me. Us. It doesn't just feel good. It's right. Correct?”

My chest felt like it was expanding, and my eyes felt wet. “Yeah. I get it. This is right.”

He shifted from me, and I adjusted to let him move, but then he rolled back. “Loosen me up.”

“What?” I propped myself up, his words not processing.

He showed me a small tube of lube. “Open your hand,” he said, flipping the top with his thumb. “I need you to loosen me up first.”

Oh. My. God. Oh my God. Ohmygod!

“Are y-”

He cut me off. “Garrett, don't make me ask you to fuck me,” he said with a growl in his voice.

I had time to be more reflective in the build up this time. I followed his directions as I inserted a finger in him, added more lube and gently moved my finger inside him to coat him. Then I added a second finger, moving gently to flex his muscle while he gave me directions. I was fascinated with the anticipation, watching my fingers as they disappeared into the warmth of his insides. I can't remember ever having been as hard as I felt, which only got more apparent to me when he told me to liberally apply the lube to myself and he spread his legs, pulling his knees to his chest.

Making entry was slow. I had to resist the very primal urge to sheathe myself fully in him as quickly as I could. It took more than a minute before he gave the okay to proceed. Once I'd slid home he scrabbled with his hands, pulling me toward him by my arms and kissing me as intensely as if he'd pinned me to a wall. I returned his energy, pushing him back down into the bed.

“Go slow,” he growled into my ear. I did. We adjusted a few times, and a few times he had me hold still, but then he told me to go. Hard. Harder. Eventually I was balanced like I was doing push ups with my hands on the mattress to either side of his chest, my toes pressed into the foot of the bed and my hips slamming forward as I crashed into him.

Small things stay with me. The shaking of the muscles on his chest each time I slammed home. His growls between giving me orders. Then there was the feel, God, the warm grip of his body squeezing my slicked hard on.

It was maybe fifteen minutes of heaven on earth. No pastor had ever preached bliss like I found in my boyfriend's bed that day. No bliss in any holy book covered my own bliss in his arms. Once my essence had unraveled inside him he pushed me into a sitting position so he could wrap his legs around my waist and pull himself onto me, wiggling and grinding as he pulled quickly on his own erection.

“Don't you want to fuck me?” I asked, watching him jack off. He slowed and looked up at me.

“Have you ever?”

I shook my head. “No. But I will.”

His chest heaved. “Do you want-”

“I will. I'll try. For you.”

His face showed a mix of expressions, and I wasn't sure why.

“Garrett, I want you'll hurt your first time. If you're not sure – if you won't want it, that's okay.”

Then I felt it. The clouds of lust were broken through by a beam of emotion that made my eyes fill and overflow. I have never, ever felt so loved. I had no idea I could feel so much from one person – from anything.

“I want to,” I said and sniffed.

“Why are you crying?”

I leaned forward, sliding out of him and kissed him, hard. I wiped my eyes and said, “Because you love me. I'm crying because you love me so much and I can feel it. It's beautiful. I promise I won't do this every time – I didn't plan on it this time. Tell me what to do. Let me give myself to you.”

He bit his lip for a moment, and I caressed his face.

“Please, Sterling.”

So he'd shifted me higher so I straddled him, pulling me down into a kiss as he slowly worked a finger in me. He spent some minutes pushing and whispering to me to relax the muscle. It was easier said than done. When he finally started to slide his dick into me, it hurt. God it hurt. I could feel sweat beading on my forehead, my lips. I felt it run down from my hairline and track down the side of my face. I had to pull off him, and he encouraged me to breathe and let him know when he could try again.

It took time, more than it had taken him to take my dick. But eventually he was in all the way, his soft thatch of pubes pressed to my bottom.

“Sit up,” he said softly. Once I had he instructed me to rock my hips back and forth rather than moving up and down. It felt odd, the pressure of his dick moving inside me, stirring my guts. I followed his directions. Though my rear was still sending signals of discomfort, I also felt twinges of something good as his dick hit something inside me. As I grew used to him being inside me, I rocked with more certainty, searching for that feeling again.

“Oh,” I whispered as something inside of me burst with pleasure.

“There it is,” Sterling growled.

I don't know how long that lasted. At some point I moved from rocking my hips to leaning forward to kiss him, only to have him wrap his arms around me and begin thrusting. I panted in his ear, and he found that spot more times than I can count. The echo of the pleasure sustained me on the thrusts that missed it. He finally pushed up in me, grunting and tightening his hug to crushing proportions.

“Oh. God,” he gasped.

We lay together in a tangled, sweaty heap. Our chests slid against one another, sweat allowing our skin to slide. I pressed my cheek to his, and he held me fast with one arm while stroking the skin of my back. Perhaps a minute later I felt his dick slide out of me, soft now. I unfolded my legs and we cuddled together, slowly falling into a light sleep.

I woke and had a moment of confusion at a naked, snoring Sterling in bed with me. I cuddled in closer and stroked his skin from neck to hip, enjoying the heat below my palm and the goose pimples I left in my wake.

“Hmm.” A vibration ran through his chest, and I glanced up as he opened his eyes. He looked down at me after a moment and his eyes focused.

“Hi,” I said softly.

“Hi,” he whispered. He shifted, and I worked my way up so that we could kiss, a soft, gentle series that contrasted with his normal fire. He pulled my cheek to his and sighed in my ear. “I think you should probably know I love you. I hope you enjoyed being with me as much as I loved being with you. I think you should know I want to make love to you over and over again.”

I shivered. “I love you, too.”

“Are you okay?” he asked.



“Um, yeah. Are you?”

“Some. I got ready this week, though.”

I chuckled lightly. “You did?”

“Yeah. Why do you think I was sending you those pictures? I wanted you good and thirsty when you got here,” he said, his chest vibrating with his amusement.

I stretched against him. “I feel set up.”

He turned so we were face-to-face. “Are you okay, though? You were crying.”

I blushed. “I'm sorry about that.”

“Don't be. I just want to know you're okay.”

I sighed. “I was just...overwhelmed with feelings.”

He brushed the side of my face. “Good feelings?”

“Yeah. The best.”

Soon after we went to shower once more, and he put my clothes in the dryer. By the time his mom got home we were fully dressed and a light dinner was being eaten. His mom sat down with us for a little while and we talked, but then she wanted to go watch the next episode of a show she was into.

“You look so comfortable,” she said as she smiled down at us. I was stretched out with my head on Sterling's lap. Sitting was a little uncomfortable.

After she left we watched TV until it was time for me to go home. The next day Sterling was at my house early, and we went out to brunch with Tim. Tim was telling us how Ginnie was starting to ask him about talking to our parents about dating. When she'd first asked him, he'd told her that our parents said she was too old, but in fact they didn't know about Ginnie at all. Tim kept their relationship on the down low, hanging out by sneaking out with me covering for him.

People in our school had generally known the French boys weren't allowed to date, but there were some who knew things had changed. Like Luther. Like Preston.

“Do you want to date her?” Sterling asked.

Tim looked at him thoughtfully. “I like hanging around with her. She's okay.”

“Would she want you guys to be public? Like for our parents to know?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I don't know. I don't care if people at school know, but I think our parents would be a problem. I'd rather not have them in any relationship I'm in.”

“Well, tell her that then, and see how it goes,” Sterling said. “You may not be in love, but that's okay. You tell her you’re willing to see how it goes, if you are, and then you both learn from the relationship. You get to learn what you want, and she gets to learn if you being sexy is enough for her,” Sterling said with a crafty grin.

“Hey,” Tim said with an embarrassed grin. “My brother is your kind of sexy, not me.”

“I dunno, man,” Sterling said, winking at me and shaking his head at Tim. “Pretty obvious you're brothers.”

“Tim is quite lovable,” I said, needling him.

Tim laughed and told us both to shut up.


Two weeks later we were all on Winter Break. My parents complained that it should be called Christmas break, but whatever. I like to say “Happy Holidays” just to aggravate them. Tim was going to play Lacrosse for the school in the spring, so I used some of my job money to get him a good stick – those things are kind of expensive. I took cardboard boxes apart and taped the pieces together awkwardly before wrapping it to throw him off from guessing what it was.

He was so surprised and happy it made my heart swell. Almost as much as when Sterling gifted him the rest of the gear – gloves, shoulder and chest pads in our school colors. Sterling admitted his mom chipped in to help, but it made Tim so happy and I was grateful. Last year Tim had played with a mix of stuff that didn't match – leftovers the coaches put together. The only thing the school really provided was the helmets.

My father complimented Sterling and asked him to thank his mother for their thoughtful generosity. My mother had grace enough to say thank you for thinking of Tim.

Sterling gave me a ring. No, he wasn't proposing. He put it on my right hand, ring finger, and showed me how it had a bearing or something that let the outer ring move around the inner ring. It was kind of cool. Our names engraved along the inside edge was pretty damn nice, too. I loved the permanency of our names cut into the metal.

I got him a super thick robe and stuffed each pocket with a skimpy pair of bikini underwear, which I hoped to see him wear sometime. I'm not a dummy, though, so I made sure to tell him to check the pockets later. I also got him a more obvious gift, a blanket with characters from our favorite anime cartoon on it. The robe and blanket were “appropriate” enough to give in front of my parents.

We both worked during the break, but on a Wednesday night Sterling picked Tim and me up to go to the Winter Carnival. He told us about the rides and concessions, but I was just happy to be with him and away from home. We walked through the reasonably crowded aisles and played some games – he'd gotten some money for the holiday as a gift from relatives and wouldn't listen to my protests about him blowing it on us. We played the fixed concessions, and Tim actually won a small stuffed animal. We were walking down one of the rows, arm in arm while Tim told us about Ginnie trying to make out with him, when Sterling's arm stiffened up and his pace slowed slightly.

I looked over at him in curiosity and then faced forward where his gaze lay. Before us was a dark-haired boy with blue eyes standing still, just looking at us. A pretty girl stood beside him, appearing to send out a nervous vibe. Tim had taken a few steps before he realized we weren't keeping pace; we had stopped a few feet from the other couple.

Tim looked back and forth between us, knowing something was happening but clueless as to what it could be. The dark-haired boy, I realized, must be Jamie, Sterling's...ex, I guess. He was handsome and dressed nicely, but other than that I didn't see anything special about him.

“Um,” I heard Tim say.

Jamie stepped closer, his girlfriend, I presumed, trailing a step behind.

“Hi, Boomer,” Jamie said quietly. “You look good.” His expression was unreadable to me.

“Jamie.” Sterling nodded and must have shifted his gaze to the girl. “Emily.”

Jamie's gaze shifted to me. “You must be his boyfriend.”

I lifted my chin a little. “I am.”

He held his hand out. “Jamie Kirkwood.”

I glanced quickly at Sterling and then shook Jamie's hand. “Garrett French.”

To my surprise Jamie didn't let my hand go. “If you're his boyfriend then you know what kind of guy Boomer is. I hope you guys love each other the way you deserve to be loved.”

“Jamie....” Sterling quietly stopped. Jamie let my hand go and fixed his gaze on Sterling, lifting his chin in challenge.

“I'm an idiot. I've missed you so much it fucking hurts. It's because I love you, dude. I'm sorry for the way things went. I'm sorry I...I'm sorry that-”

“Stop. Stop,” Sterling said, holding a hand out. “Let's this.”

Jamie looked to me, ignoring Sterling's request. “He's the best person you're ever going to find. Whatever you do, don't let him go.”

I couldn't help myself. “Why did you?”

Jamie's mouth moved open and closed for a minute, then he turned back to Sterling. “Because while he was falling in love with me, I was falling for him, and I couldn't see it. Because I was in love already, and it made everything incredibly complicated, more than I realized. And ever since I walked away from him I've been feeling like my best friend died, and I couldn't seem to find a way to say I was sorry without opening up everything all over again.” He wiped at his face. “I am, though. I'm so sorry I hurt you.”

Sterling sighed. “I'm sorry, too. It was complicated. More than I realized when we got into it.”

So, Sterling loved Jamie. I could hear it in his voice, the affection. I felt very hollow for a moment – a shameful moment – but then Sterling was introducing Tim and talking about how impressive he'd been during that past football season. I realized as Sterling spoke that he had the same affectionate tone when he was talking about Tim. I realized that if Sterling loved Jamie, then he'd always loved him – before I was there – and after.

I was such a fool.

“Sterling's told me so much about you,” I said to Jamie. He looked at me with some surprise.

“He has?”

“Yeah. Looks like your knee is better,” I replied.

“Yeah. He helped me a lot.” His tone was neutral.

“Can I just...listen,” I said, taking in a deep breath. “I know about you guys. He still loves you, you still love him. Unless you guys are going to break up your current relationships and date each other...?”

“Not happening,” Sterling said, flexing the arm that was entwined with mine.

Jamie nodded and gave me a half smile. “I do love him, but Emily is my girl.” He paused. “It's taken me months to say this, that's why I just can't wait anymore. I mean, why not confess my fuck-ups in front of a few hundred strangers in public, huh?”

“I think they're busy,” Emily said with a small eye roll.

I nodded, not sure if I was doing this right, but knowing I needed to trust Sterling. “Then you two need to work this shit out. I know he misses you, too. I don't want him to miss anyone he loves.”

“Garrett,” Sterling said softly.

I shook my head. “No. I know. You guys have history.” I glanced at Emily and Jamie so they'd know I was fully read in. “I'm on Sterling's side, but he's always owned his part to me in the way things went. Sometimes we have to accept losses and move on; but you shouldn't lose people you love, not if you don't have to.”

Jamie looked uncertainly from me to Sterling. Another push, then.

“Look,” I said, trying again. “My parents are the most toxic people I know. When I move out it will probably be because they threw me out, and I'll never see them again. Sometimes you have to cut out people that are bad for you. Are you bad for Sterling?”

Jamie looked at Sterling. “I did bad by him. Treated him badly.”

“Will you do it again?”

The corner of his mouth turned up. “Probably.”

Sterling pointed at Jamie. “Douche.”

Jamie smiled more fully. “If you give me another chance...I won't do it intentionally.”

“Moron!” Sterling said, throwing his hands up in the air. “What did I ever see in you?”

Jamie stepped forward and put a crushing hug on Sterling and said something I didn't hear. My heart lurched at the contact, but I kept reminding myself to trust Sterling. He loves me. Just as quickly he let go and turned, pulling me into a hug.

“Welcome to the family, Garrett,” he said. Then he grabbed Tim, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.


Later, after Tim had gone inside, I leaned on Sterling's car in my driveway. The night was too cold to linger for long, but I was willing to endure it for a few more minutes with Sterling.

“I think,” Sterling said quietly, “that I don't really know you as well as I thought I did.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He turned to face me. “You're a good soul. Exactly who I want and who I need. You're sexy as fuck, and you make me think things the nuns in my old school probably would have never admitted to getting hot and bothered about.”

“What?” I asked, laughing with confusion.

“Do you know how hot it is that you trust me so much? That I don't even have to ask you if you trust me?”

I knew he meant Jamie. “I won't say I didn't have some doubts.”

He turned fully, moved in front of me and placed his hands to either side of my hips, leaning on the car.

“But you still trusted me to be true to you. To us.”

I swallowed. “I hoped. Yes. I trusted in what we have.”

He leaned forward, and I was ready to meet one of his usual oral assaults, even if the timing seemed off. But instead he gave me a soft kiss, very like his post-coital kiss of a few weeks before, where he told me he loved me. Then he hugged me and said, “Your heart and your trust are the most valuable things you could ever give me. I feel! I can't even say – I don't have a word.”

He leaned back and looked at me like he had when I'd dropped the robe.

“I've had bad relationships. I've grown from all of them – missed chances, bad decisions, lying to myself. But you...” He stroked my cheek. “I want everything with you. From you. To give to you. You're my everything.”

The cold set in soon after, and we said goodnight. Once inside, I got changed for bed and crawled onto my mattress. Tim's head appeared from the bunk above, looking at me upside down.

“When you turn eighteen, do you think they'll really throw you out?”

I chuckled. “Probably. Why do you ask now?”

His nose wrinkled. “You said it to that weird guy that hugged me. I was like, dude, get off me!”

I chuckled. “I think he was overcome with emotion, as the poets would say.”

“Yeah, I picked up on some some tension. Who was he?”

I sighed. “It's complicated, but he was kind of Sterling's ex.”

He was quiet for a minute. “And you thought it'd be okay for them to be friends?”

I looked at Tim. “I don't own Sterling. The minute I think I do, I've lost him. If he wanted to cheat with an ex or with some random person, he could. We don't even see each other most of the week. But I trust him, and my trust in him is stronger than my fear.” For now, I thought. Some day, it may not be enough.

“Sterling would never cheat on you,” Tim said with confidence. “Did you know every time he looks at you, he smiles? Especially if you don't notice he's looking at you?”

“He does?” I asked, not sure how I'd missed that. You'd think I'd catch it in my peripheral vision or if he hadn't stopped smiling when I looked at him directly – or maybe he had and I just didn't put it together with what Tim was saying.

“Yeah,” he said softly. “Ginnie looks at me like that.” He climbed down from his bed and sat on mine; I scooted over a little to give him room. “That's why I won't date her, even though Sterling said it would be okay to.”

“I don't get it.”

“You used to not be happy very much,” Tim said. “You'd kind of fake it out in public, and then be more fake in church – and total plastic in front of pastor-”

“Hey! I was good at faking that! Don't you take away from my skills!” I snorted and poked his ribs. He laughed and fell toward me a little.

After a beat he said, “I didn't know before. How much you were faking it. I didn't really figure it out until you started dating Sterling. He lets you, like, be you. It's like he said it was okay or made it so you had permission to be happy or something.”

“God! Do I look totally sappy around him? Be honest!” I whined.

He laughed. “Totally. You should have little heart bubbles floating over your head.”

I pushed him. “Asshole.”

He laughed, but trailed off and finally sighed. “That's why, though.” He looked at me. “I made out with Ginnie, and I don't feel that way. I didn't mind the make out, but I know I don't feel like that for her. Not like I see you do with Sterling.”

“I've had some time to develop feelings with Sterling, though. What I have with him is from effort and time.” I paused. “But you should also trust yourself. You've been hanging out with Ginnie for a few months, and even though you like her, it's okay that you don't like her that way.”

“I...should tell her though, right? No more making out?”

“I think you should tell her. I think it would be a mistake to keep making out, even if she says it's okay. She will see it as a way to get you to change your feelings, and if you don't want that – or the messy emotions that could come later – then you're better off telling her now. Be her friend first.”

He looked away from me and nodded. “That sounds smart.” He paused. “I want to like someone the way you and Sterling like each other.”

I chuckled. “Tim, people like you. I think you'll just have to be patient and find people you like back. It's okay to try, but once you know it's not for you – let them go.”

He shook his head. “I can't believe he got me those Lacrosse pads. They are so tight.”

I smiled. “He's looking forward to watching you kick ass on the field.”

He frowned for a brief moment. “That Jamie guy better not try and get with Sterling.”

I chuckled. “I don't think Sterling would let that happen.”

He grunted. “Still. Going to watch him.”

“Maybe you could kiss him?” I teased. “See if he's better than Ginnie?”

He snorted. “Might give our folks a heart attack. Hey....”

We both broke into giggles.

He stood as if to climb back to his bunk, but sat back down. “Garrett?”

“Yeah, Timmie?”

“What's it like to kiss a guy?”

The End