I woke to the sun in my face. Blinking my eyes, I sat up and looked around, momentarily confused. It passed quickly, and while I was glad to have made it to another day, I knew I'd have to conserve resources and hope to last until someone found me.
I opened the door and stepped out onto damp land, shivering, with the seat cover flapping around me. Apparently the thirsty earth had taken all mother nature could give it to drink. I stretched, enjoying the slight breeze as it traced along my skin but not the cold ground on my feet. I walked a few feet away and relieved myself before getting a sudden urge to crap. I hobbled back to the truck and dug behind the seat, scrambling for the small folding shovel that was stored there and some paper towels. Again I walked away from the truck and found a spot to do my business.
It felt downright odd to squat in the dirt and crap while looking around like a wild animal shivering in the cold. Once done I cleaned up and buried it all before limping back to the truck. The temperature was slowly rising and I worked to warm my body by doing push ups and sit ups on the bench seat, warming my muscles and trying to generate some heat in the cab.
The sweat felt cool on my skin and I shivered as it dried quickly. I wrapped the seat cover around me and briskly rubbed my feet again before settling in to drink some water and eat a bar or two. Thinking of water, I looked behind me to see only one of my containers had stayed upright the night before. I didn't need it, yet, so I left the water outside.
The cab remained cool and I could see tiny wisps of my breath. I hummed to myself as I shifted on the seat and then, when that grew monotonous, I curled into a ball and dozed for a while. The cold made me dopey and I slipped in and out of sleep or consciousness, I wasn't sure which. I took the time to drink small amounts of water and roll over as I shivered under the thin cover.
I began to grow despondent. I moved restlessly in the cold, desperate to generate body heat and not lose a toe or finger. I blew on my hands and then rubbed my legs and arms, then exercised again until my body felt like something warmer than a Popsicle. Condensation stuck to the windshield and began to crystallize as the day turned into night and the last of my water ran out. Not long after the sun fell for the day, I climbed out and had to pee again.
I didn't understand why my body wasn't getting the message to retain water, but I couldn't hold it anymore. Climbing back in the cab I was glad to be out of the wind and set about warming my extremities again. As the night deepened and the temperature dropped I began to lose energy for rubbing my toes and extremities. At some point I began to hear my father's voice. He kept telling me how people wouldn't want me because I wouldn't reproduce. How I was weak, easy prey. How I should embrace guns, his weapon of choice, and bend others to my will.
Fat tears rolled down my face as the abuse was hurled at me. I covered my ears and shook my head, repeatedly saying 'no' as I desperately rejected his painful jibes. Desperate for comfort, I pulled my phone from the glovebox and turned it on as I huddled under the seat cover. The phone tried and failed to send the message I'd composed for Parker, but I didn't have the heart to read it again. For some time, I stared at Parker's picture and tried as hard as I could to find that peace he'd given me.
I traced his image, once more, with my fingertips. I felt his loss almost as if he were the one that had died, as I soon would. Maybe even tonight I would fall asleep and just...not wake up. Would my father have told me the truth about that? Would the end be...peaceful? With a sigh, I turned off the phone and clutched it to me as I huddled into a ball and, shivering, drifted off to sleep.
An unknown amount of time later, a squeaking hinge and an unknown voice stirred me, but not much. I may have groaned, but I was so cold and stiff, perhaps I just thought I did. The cover was pulled back from my feet and then thrown farther, exposing me to the cold and the eyes of whomever. Funny, I didn't feel much of the cold, now. I wasn't feeling much of anything. I felt pressure on my cold legs as I was hauled across the seat toward the door. Voices, concerned voices, came to my ears but, perhaps my eardrums were too cold to properly vibrate as I couldn't make out what they said.
I think they may have asked me to stand, but I couldn't find the energy to uncurl and I dropped toward the ground before my fall was arrested. I heard grunting, I think, and then I was lying on something soft, jostled and then warmth flooded around me.
"Wrap him up and lay down with him," said a voice. I was too tired to open my eyes. "Rub his legs, arms, fingers, toes-anything to get his circulation going. If he stirs, try and get him to sip some water."
Water. I opened my eyes and rasped, "Water."
"Glad you're still in there," the man said and lifting his gaze from somewhere down low to meet my gaze. Older man. A ring of white hair ran around the outside of his head, but the top was bald and shiny with a freckle almost dead center. What a funny thing to notice.
I was pulled up into a sitting position, though more like squatting as my legs were locked. A bottle touched my lips and I opened my mouth, nearly choking as the water hit my tongue and I tried to groan all at once.
"Easy, friend, easy."
"I know him, Grandpa. I know him from school."
"Oh? Do you have a phone number we can contact someone?"
"No. Once we have service I can-hey, he has a phone in his hand. He probably has a number we can call in there," the voice said.
I became aware of pressure on my back, sliding back and forth across my shoulders. A hand, perhaps, moving quickly to warm my skin. Things grew hazy. I think the vehicle was moving and, vaguely, I recall small hands moving over my body, chaffing my skin and trying to warm me. Then the most wonderful thing happened. Parker.
His warm skin backed up against me, pulling the blanket over us and pulling my arm around him. He molded himself to me, pressing backward and I sighed deeply. He'd come for me.
I ended up being in the hospital overnight and, amazingly, I was just a little dehydrated but had suffered no serious damage from the cold. I had a small bruise on my hip where I'd fallen in the truck bed, but that was the worst of the physical injuries. When we'd gotten closer to town my rescuers had turned on my cell and found my home number. My mother met us at the hospital, out of her mind with worry. My phone had died shortly thereafter but, once settled, my mom called the Reids and Parker showed up and squeezed me hard enough that I thought he might actually do more damage than my father had.
Hatred for my father burned through me as I stared up at the ceiling tiles of my hospital room. In a voice I could hardly credit as my own I whispered, "I did it. I survived, you miserable bastard."
I stayed home on Monday and Parker skipped school to stay with me. I felt better but Parker insisted on babying me-and if I'm being honest, I ate it up. He sat with me as I related to my mother what my father had seen and what he'd done about it. I had to repeat the story with to the sheriff and he sent a patrol up to find my dad's body and recover the pickup.
Parker and I were nestled on my couch and my mother was in the chair opposite us. We all had a warm drink, but Parker was being a pain and making me hold it in my hand.
"Parks! I'm warm, now! Relax!" I chided him.
"Shut up before I pour it down your ungrateful gullet," he said and pushed me lightly.
My mother sipped her drink, no doubt laced with something alcoholic, and cleared her throat. "So. Your dad saw you in bed and assumed you were having sex? That you were gay?"
I sat up straight and looked her in the eye. Moment of truth, but I realized that there was nothing left to be afraid of. Not after your father tried to leave you to die. "I am gay. Parker is straight. He's my best friend and he has this very strange cuddling addiction."
She nodded slowly. "It seems like he made a pretty big leap if you boys were just...huddled up under the blanket."
I paused and glanced at Parker who merely nodded at me. I looked back toward my mother and said, "Well, to be honest, Parker and I...experimented. When dad came in to wake me or whatever, we didn't...have any clothes on."
"Oh," she said and her eyebrows twitched up a bit. "I see. Well, his assumption makes more sense, then." She paused and looked away from us. "I'm sorry if you felt like you couldn't share that with me, Shane. As long as you're safe and happy..." Her gaze turned back to us. "Then I support whomever you love."
I felt choked up even though I wasn't sure why. Perhaps if I'd given serious thought to coming out or had had a close enough relationship with my parents for me to have braved their reactions I'd understand being emotional about the situation.
"It doesn't, however, make a great deal of sense that you say you were naked and that only one of you is gay." She glanced between us and said, "If you really are boyfriends, I'd like to know. Please."
"If I were gay, I'd totally date your son, Mrs. Blankenship." Parker slipped forward on the couch, perched on the edge of the seat. "But I'm straight and we aren't dating. I can promise you, though, nobody loves him more than I do. He's safe with me."
She nodded slowly and I looked at Parker, impressed with his words. He glanced at me, bobbed his head and spots of color appeared on his cheeks.
My mom looked at me, and I could see the sorrow in her face. When she spoke, I could hear it, too. "Your dad, Shane, he was different when we met. The last few years he'd become increasingly...paranoid. I was almost relieved when the night supervisor position opened up but I guess I never stopped to think how this would affect you. I always assumed your dad loved you and that...that..." She covered her mouth and bit back a sob. I climbed off the couch and went to her, hugging her from the side and wasn't entirely surprised when Parker helped from the opposite side.
Parker stayed over that night and we held each other. I know I was reassuring myself that I was whole and still had him in my life. He had put the blanket up again and pushed me over so he could cuddle me from behind. I sighed as his hand settled on my stomach and the heat of his skin soaked into my own.
I was drifting off to sleep when he shifted and whispered in my ear. "Shane...I got your message."
"Hm? What message?"
"Your text. From the day your dad took you."
I thought for a moment and then recalled my heartfelt note to him, when I thought I was going to die. "Yeah? What about it?" I whispered.
His hand opened wide and he moved his hand to the center of my chest and clutched me to him. "I just wanted you to know I got it. I...well, ditto. Okay, man?"
I smiled. "Ditto?" I said, and rolled my head to look back over my shoulder, a futile gesture what with his obsession with the dark. "I pour my heart out to you and all you can say is ditto?"
He tilted his head forward, placing his forehead on the back of my neck and inhaled deeply. "You already know what I'd say. You know who and what you are to me. I'm not going to stroke your ego and fill your head with flowery words."
"Well, you could stroke something else," I said and snickered.
"That only works while we're single, Shane," he chided me.
I rolled over on to my back in a flash. "What? You're dating someone? Who?"
"Relax!" he said with a chuckle. "I mean you. Travis told me all about your backseat cuddle, pretending you just needed to get warm. I know you, you wanted to get Travis into his underwear and cuddle that little brainiac."
"Wait, what? I have no clue what you're talking about."
"You want to play it like that, huh?"
"Parker, make sense," I told him.
"Okay, have it your way," he said with a sigh. "Sunday morning Travis and his grandpa were going fishing and they were the ones that found you, freezing, in your dad's pick-up. This ringing any bells?"
I stared off into the darkness and said, slowly, "Things got really hazy. I remember someone cuddled back into me, but I thought that...well, that you'd come for me. I mean, obviously that can't be true, but...that was Travis? And his grandpa? Travis cuddled me?"
"He was warming you up by stripping down and sharing body heat under a blanket in the backseat of his grandpa's Jeep. You totally cuddled with your crush. You seriously don't remember?"
I frowned. "Are you fucking with me, Parks?"
"No way, you can't make this shit up. Now, roll over," he said and pushed on my shoulder, but I resisted.
"How do you know this, exactly? When did you see Travis?"
"At the hospital," he said. "They were out in the hallway. Travis's gramps waited to talk to your mom and the sheriff so they'd know where they found you and all that. I was all freaked out, but you know acting not so anyone could tell," he said. "They had turned your phone on closer to town and your text came through. I tried to call back and...well, now I know the phone died but...I thought I'd lost you."
I closed my eyes and let out a sigh. "I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"Me, too. Don't do it again," he said and pushed on my shoulder once more, and I didn't resist, He pushed me onto my side and nestled in behind me. He put his hand on my stomach and I placed a hand over his, slipping my fingers between his.
"I don't mind cuddling and the occasional jerk off, Shane," he said with a chuckle, "but holding hands is pretty intimate."
"Deal with it," I said as I squeezed his hand.
I lay awake as Parker gently breathed behind me. I turned over everything I could remember about that rotten weekend, at least everything after the suicide. I remembered the message to Parker and...I vaguely recall...oh, yeah. I did. I promised myself I'd ask Travis out. Shit.
I knew he was dating Angie, and now the little cutie had seen all my parts and pieces and kept me warm so nothing fell off. Either way, Travis was already familiar with me-and I hadn't even said thank you to him.
"I don't know, Shane. I think you should stay home and rest," my mother said, biting her lip as she watched me.
"I want to go back. Don't worry, Parker will be there with me," I told her.
"You witnessed something horrible, though. You should be in counseling."
"Yeah, okay," I told her. "But that won't happen today, right? I want to say thank you to my friend that helped me out and-"
Parker coughed into his hand. "And ask him out," he said and coughed again.
I turned and glared at him and he smiled back toothily. I faced my mom and said calmly, "Mom. I need to do something. Sitting at home all day is going to drive me nuts. The doctor said I was okay."
A tear filled her eye and ran down her face. "Okay," she said, her voice a thick whisper. "Parker, you'll watch out for him, right?"
"I've always got his back, Mrs. Blankenship," he said and clapped his hand on my shoulder.
I hugged her and Parker and I departed for school. My ankle was better, only twinging now and then, and Parker skated around me on the way to school. I felt normal, good even. We approached the school and, as we did, Angie Fjeldsted waved and approached us. As she got close, Parker did his little board flip thing and all felt right with the world.
"Morning," I said to Angie.
"Hey, guys," she said, and then with concern and some curiosity she asked, "Are you okay to come back so fast? I'm hearing a lot of rumors."
"Physically, yeah," I nodded. "I've got Parker, too, so I'm mentally screwed."
He shoved me and I snickered at him.
Angie looked confused, as if she wanted to do something but couldn't quite do it. Suddenly she blurted, "I feel like I want to hug you. I was a little worried with some of the stuff I heard and, I know we're not really close or anything but...would a hug freak you out?"
I opened my eyes wide as she spoke. The idea that she'd grown fond of me or something from our limited discussion surprised me.
"Why would a hug freak me out?" I asked, deciding to just accept that, somehow, Angie and I were friends now.
She pointed to her chest. "You noticed these, right?"
"Yes," Parker replied and we both glared at him.
Turning her gaze back to me she said, "I just figure that, you know, being gay you might get weird if I hugged you because that means my tits would be crushed up against yours."
"I like hugs. Don't I, Shane?" Parker said and I just shook my head and smiled.
"I'd love a hug, Angie," I said and held my arms out. She gave me a short, strong hug and sighed when letting go. She patted my shoulder and gave me a tight smile before stepping back.
Then she fixed her gaze on Parker and her expression shifted away from the emotions of dealing with me to...something else. Something decidedly predatory. "So, I have a question, Parker. Are you gay?"
I frowned slightly and Parker gave her a very disinterested look. "Well, it depends on who's asking."
She put a hand on her hip. "What does that mean? I just want to know if Shane's your boyfriend."
"That's not the question you asked, though," Parker said, a smug grin crossing his face and, I swear, I heard Angie growl.
"Now, if some ugly cow asks me if I'm gay I know it's because she wants me. So, I tell her I am. If a pretty girl asks me, I'm straight as an arrow because that covers me either way."
She crossed her arms. "How does it cover you either way?"
"Well, like let's say a pretty girl like you asks me that question. You could be asking for you, and in that case me being straight is the right answer. If you were asking for your gay brother, then being straight is still the right answer."
She chuckled and shook her head. "And is there some circumstance where you actually are, in fact, gay?"
He scrunched his lips off to one side and nodded. "Yeah. I'm a little gay, honestly, but only in one circumstance."
"And that is?"
"When my best friend asks."
She glanced back and forth between us and then, actually did growl. "Are you two dating or not?"
"Why?" Parker asked. She took a step toward him and he barked a laugh and took a step back. "Nah, we're not dating. But, um, he's my best friend so, I'm hanging with him a lot."
"He might be busy," Angie said, her evil look completely on display.
Angie nodded and said, "Someone on your list is single." She turned and fixed her eyes on Parker, "And Parker, here, is single. I like, for now, that he's single. That means he has no excuse when I tell him we're going to the movies Friday."
Parker got a pleased expression on his face and then the sly look I loved so well settled on his features. "Well, I have to see if I had plans with my best friend, first."
She lowered her chin. "Really?"
"Well," he said, "Am I going to get to cop a feel?"
"That depends," she said tartly. "Am I?"
Parker burst out laughing and I grinned at him. I nodded and he turned to face Angie.
"You tell me where to be and I'll see you then," he told her.
"Okay," she said, straightening up. "That's more like it."
As Parker and I watched her walk away I glanced at him. "Parks, why'd you fuck with her? You already liked her and she was asking you out."
He smiled and threw an arm around my shoulders. "Shane, she wasn't asking. She was telling. She's a tiger, pal. She doesn't want me to lay down and be meek. She wants a little fight in things and I, well, I just gave her what she wanted."
I laughed at him. "And what was that shit about being a little gay just for me?"
"I am!" he said, affecting a hurt tone. "I'd prove it, too, but I don't want Travis to see me kissing you. He's not a tiger. I think he's going to want someone to be there for him, a protector," Parker said and pulled his hand back so he could clap me on the shoulder.
I smiled wryly. "So you're coming over Friday after your date?"
"You know it."
"Will you still be single?" I asked slyly.
"Maybe you should worry about you being single, Shane," he said with a chuckle. He bumped my fist and we separated for the day.
My story had traveled and I was something of a minor celebrity to some, an object of pity for others. It was such a confusing, mixed bag that I started to feel a little overwhelmed. Because of that, I think, I ended up ditching a study hall and hung around outside the cafeteria doors. In nice weather some people would eat lunch outside, but now it was getting too cold. As my nose reddened and my boogers froze I decided that this was no better than listening to idiots and I headed back in.
"Why not? It's not like you have a girlfriend anymore to keep you busy. You'll do it."
I turned with casual interest in the direction of the voice. It belonged to a big guy, someone named Joey something or other-I never bothered to learn and he wasn't on my list.
The guy he was threatening, though? Yeah. On my list.
"No. Do your own work," Travis told him, his voice wavering. My chest swelled with pride for the little guy and I headed in his direction to help.
Joey leaned in. "How many teeth did you want me to knock out?"
"Travis? There you are!"
Travis and Joey both turned to look my way. I turned my gaze from Joey, who was asking who the hell I was and I beamed. "Travis! I've been looking all over for you. Mr. Hathaway wants you to take me to the A/V room for some...equipment for that demonstration."
"He...oh, right. The equipment." Travis sidled away from Joey who looked very suspicious but probably didn't know why. The bell rang and people surged from the lunch room. It was my lunch period, now, and I usually sat with Parker. I was guessing the previous lunch period was Travis's and that's how Joey got him.
I thought we were free and clear, but Joey moved to block our path. "Hang on. Squirt doesn't go anywhere until he understands his job."
I sighed. "He's not doing your homework, Joey."
"Oh? You going to do something about it?"
"Yeah," I said with a smile and a swift nod. "I'm going to tell your teachers you're cheating and watch them make you repeat the grade."
"Be hard to do that from the hospital," he said and moved closer. My nerves jumped up a few notches, but I channeled my inner Parker and took a mental deep breath. If I let Joey have the first swing, I was toast and we both knew it. So, instead of backing off, I stepped forward and drove my knee into his groin. He let out an 'oof' and started to bend over. Parker stepped around him and looked from me to him while Joey tottered from side to side.
"What happened?" Parker asked.
"He was threatening Travis," I told him.
"You ask him yet?" Parker asked, jutting his chin toward Travis.
"Uh," I mumbled, glancing back and forth between Parker and Travis. "Not yet."
"Ask him. I want to watch."
"What? Come on, it's important."
"Um, what's important? Ask me what?" Travis asked, pushing his glasses into place and then, when we both looked at him, biting his lip. Yeah, it was the lip bite that did it.
"Well," I said, gathering my courage. I was stopped when a large hand landed on my shoulder and turned me. Before Joey could do anything else, Parker kicked him in the groin, as I had, and Joey dropped down to one knee, where Parker kicked him in the back of the head, toppling him to the floor. I glanced around, wondering where a hall monitor or other authority figure was.
"Jeez, thanks, Parks," I said.
"Get on with it," he said, shooing me toward Travis.
He stopped biting his lip so at least I could think about something besides how darned cute he looked doing that. "Um, Travis, I wanted to thank you for what you did for me. I, uh, didn't realize you had helped me. I was a little out of it."
"I know," he said with a smile. "You called me Parker."
"Did I?" I asked, chuckling nervously as I ran a hand up my neck and through my hair.
"It's because I'm the perfect cuddler," Parker told Travis.
I rolled my eyes. "Travis, would you...ever...want to, like, go out with me?" I asked, very awkwardly.
He frowned slightly and an uncertain look settled on his face. Pink spots highlighted his cheeks and his eyes didn't quite look at me. "You mean to hang out or, like, for a date?"
I glanced at Parker who was gleefully watching me squirm. Turning my attention to Travis I said, "Um, date?"
"Really?" Travis asked skeptically. "Aren't you dating Parker?"
Before Parker could open his mouth, I jumped in. "No, I just cuddle with him and, in all honesty, I'm still going to even if I'm dating someone-is that okay?" My voice had gotten higher and my words had gotten faster as I'd spilled out the nature of my relationship with Parker.
"So, you want to date me but cuddle Parker?" Travis asked, his words slow and his tone full of disbelief.
I cleared my throat. "If I were dating you, I'd be cuddling you. But, Parker and I are best friends and I know we'll cuddle when we stay over at each other's houses. Or, more honestly, he'll cuddle me and I'll tolerate it. I'm just...I know, you probably want nothing to do with this. I'm dumb." I threw my hands in the air. "I just wanted to be honest."
Travis looked back and forth between us, probably wondering if he was the victim of a prank. The bell rang and Travis jumped, but didn't leave. The silence stretched between us and I forced myself not to speak and make it any worse. I thought it was a minor miracle Parker did the same. Travis stood still and his face betrayed nothing; I had no idea what was going on in his head.
A doubtful look crossed his face. "Is this...some kind of joke? I don't think it's funny."
"No, no joke. I'm seriously asking you to go on a date with me." I kept the additional hopes of holding hands and a goodnight kiss to myself.
His eyes fluttered and he glanced away and then back to me. "What kind of date?"
"What kind of date do you want to take me on?"
I glanced at Parker, scarcely believing my luck before turning my attention back to Travis and trying to not let my face split in half with my smile. "Uh, I was thinking about pizza, maybe, and a movie? I mean, if that's cool with you?"
Travis studied me for a moment and then glanced down where Joey had been. I frowned and wondered where Joey had gone and when. He was hard to miss and he was probably sore and pissed as a bear with a toothache.
"Um, well, I think food and a movie is kind of the thing-" I was cut off as Parker whacked me in the back of the head. I turned around and swung at him a few times, but he dodged me. "What is your problem?" I demanded.
"He means, why are you asking him," Parker said, using a tone of voice that called me an idiot without actually saying it.
"Huh?" I turned my attention back to Travis, who was looking at me steadily, though he must have wondered what the hell was up with Parker and me.
"Is that what you meant?" I stuttered out to Travis.
His gaze flickered between me and the hallway leading away, perhaps thinking of an escape plan. With a glance back, he nodded.
"That's easy," I told him with a smile. "I like you. I think you're cute and I'd like to know you better."
He stared at me as if he expected something more, but I wasn't sure what. Either more compliments or a punch line. The latter seemed most likely. Well, maybe I could compliment him some more, then and see what happened, I thought. Before I could, though, he curled his lips inward and then out, and he spoke in a very low, timid voice.
"There's an old theater downtown. They're showing the Godfather on Friday night. It's 'R' rated, but my Grandpa said he'd get me in." He swallowed. "Maybe we could go together."
"What's it-" I was cut off as Parker whacked me in the back of the head, again. I glared at him and then returned my attention to Travis, who was biting his lip again.
I sighed inwardly. I hope he never figures out biting his lip will get him whatever he wants from me. I smiled widely and said, "Yeah, that sounds great."
His blue eyes popped open and focused on me. "Really? I asked Clint but he was trying to get out of it without saying no."
"Really," I said, enjoying his pleased expression. "I can't wait to go to the movies with you."
Travis straightened up a bit and actually bounced on his toes once before nodding at me. "Okay, Good. Great. Um, I'm late for class so...I'm going to go. I'll see you later?"
"Yes. You will," I said, nodding.
Parker dropped his arm on my shoulders as we watched Travis disappear into the crowd. "That was so dorky and awkward. You guys are made for each other."
I turned an exasperated look on him. "Are you kidding me? I think my heart almost stopped just asking him. Then, of course, there was you hitting me, dick!"
Parker's gaze went faraway and-completely ignoring my statement-he said, "I don't think he saw you coming, Shane."
With a shiver he came back to himself and propelled me forward. "I owe you, Shane."
"Again? What for now?"
"For one, I have been waiting since fifth grade to get even with Joey."
"Huh? Oh, yeah, him. Why?"
He looked at me with a grim expression. "Remember the guy that was my best friend?"
I gaped. "No. Him?"
"I know. My friends are so much better quality, now," he said with a snicker. He kept his arm in place and steered me toward the lunch line.
"What's two? You said for one was Joey, what's for two?"
His lips twitched and he said, "I didn't think you were serious about us, you know, being us even when we dated. I give you a lot of props for being honest with both Travis and me."
"I've never lied to you," I said.
"Well, exaggerated, maybe," he said slyly.
"How much you want me."
I rolled my eyes. "Shut up, Parker."
I skipped out on the library that day. I was in no mood to work on my report and I wanted to get away from people. Parker offered to walk me home but he was glancing at Angie as she walked away from the school and I knew he was dying to see if he could get under her skin, so I told him I was good and to call me later. He had the good grace to ask if I was sure before he dropped his board and headed after Angie.
As I started to walk, I wondered about Travis and regretted that I hadn't gotten his number before he'd walked off at lunch today. I was excited about having a real date with someone that actually was willing to date me, unlike Parker who'd remind me he went on a date under protest or because no one else would. I smiled, knowing Parker would probably be my date for prom or whatever if I wanted him to. I shook my head and thought about how much change had come to me so fast and wondered how I could balance it all.
My father not being home was an adjustment, even knowing what he'd done. It wasn't so much missing him as I felt like I didn't have a huge connection with either of my folks. It was more that things were still where he'd left them, like he could walk back in at any moment. It was that pregnant feeling that he'd be just outside the door, just around the corner or out in his shed, making bullets.
I knew he'd be ash, soon. My mother said that, as soon as the sheriff's office released his body, it would go for cremation. I don't know what she planned to do with his ashes; my vote was to flush them down the toilet.
Shaking those thoughts off, I was wondering if I should bring something special for Travis when we went on our date. Guys usually brought girls flowers or something, should I do that? Who do you ask about things like that? Should I plan to walk him home? Did I have any right to plan on kissing him goodnight?
I paused, coming to a stop on the sidewalk as I thought about kissing him. I had the idea that I'd thought of it before, of lifting his glasses from his face. Perhaps he'd protest a little when I did that and I'd kiss the bridge of his nose while shushing him and then move down to his soft lips, just under that elfin nose...
"Shane? Are you all right?"
I turned slowly, thinking I must be hearing things like I had in the cab of my father's truck. The shame of his insults washed through me again and I shivered as I spotted Travis, looking at me with curiosity.
"Shane?" he asked again.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay, Travis...well, kinda," I said and blew out a long breath. "I was just...thinking, I guess."
"Something bad?" he asked.
"Some, yeah." Then, thinking of kissing him I blushed and said, "Not all, though."
"Um, want me to walk with you?"
I smiled at him and was heartened to see little spots of color appear on his cheeks. "Yeah. That'd be nice."
He fell in beside me and I deliberately walked slowly to stretch my time with him.
"So, um, you sure surprised me today," he said. His color spots grew larger, enhancing his cute factor.
"Well," I said, feeling brave, "When I was up on that trail, freezing to death courtesy of my father, I had time to do some thinking."
"Yeah. You know...not to make this about me, but when I heard the rumors about your dad leaving you I couldn't help but think of my mother."
"Really? Why?" I asked, thirsty for knowledge of him.
He came to a stop and shifted his shoulders, clearly uncomfortable. He cast his gaze about, seeing that no one was close enough to overhear. "Well, she always told me that...that I'm a mistake. Her biggest mistake. So, I kind of know what it feels like when your parent...when they..."
"Yeah. You understand, all right," I said softly and put a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"
He blinked a few times and took a deep breath. "Yeah. I'm sorry. I don't like to talk about that."
"I can understand why." I hesitated and said, "But thank you for trusting me with that."
He nodded. "But we have that in common, I guess. Kind of a shitty bonding experience."
"I don't know. I guess I got a cuddle with you out of it, but I wish I could remember it!" I said and snickered.
He chuckled, but we both trailed off to an awkward silence. "So, um, you said you had time to think?"
"Oh, yeah," I said and blushed. "I was thinking, well, a lot of things but part of the time I was thinking about you."
"Me?" he said, puzzled. "What about me?"
I smiled and shrugged helplessly. "I promised myself I'd ask you out, even if Angie did kill me in my sleep."
"You...are you serious?"
I widened my eyes and nodded.
"You were slowly freezing to death and, of all things, you decided you'd ask me out if you got through that?"
I felt confused as I said, "Yeah. Why?"
He shook his head. "Don't you think that's a weird time to think something like that, to begin with? Plus, you're talking about....me. Dating me isn't that big a deal."
I smiled at him and turned in place a bit, side to side. "It was a big deal to me. Especially since you were dating Angie."
"Uh, we broke up last week."
"Oh. Um, sorry?" I said in a voice that was completely unconvincing.
"Yeah, I'll bet you are," he said and snickered at me.
We started to walk and turned to cut through a vacant lot that had a few large work trucks parked there. I looked at them in passing, thinking they must be there to perform repairs or upgrades to a nearby building, but then dismissed them.
"I was kicking myself for not getting your phone number this afternoon," I told him.
"Oh, you know, I didn't even think of that," he said while pulling his phone from his pocket.
Our conversation came to a halt as a big hand grabbed Travis's phone, but fumbled it to the ground.
"I'll take that," Joey said smugly and then seemed to realize he didn't actually have the phone in his hand.
"Think Steve will answer that number? I don't like holding this cash, someone's going to miss it, eventually," a large kid said to Joey.
"No. I told you, Steve got picked up by the sheriff. He'll call when he gets out. Meantime," he said, eyeing us with a malicious sneer, "I have to teach these two a lesson."
I pushed Travis behind me as Joey and the unknown hulk faced us. I was ready to tell Travis to run like the wind when a most unexpected thing happened.
"I can't think of anything worth knowing that you could teach anyone, Joey. Not showering, certainly, or any other hygiene. What do you think?"
I turned my head slowly toward Parker's voice. My heartbeat increased as I took in Zane Thompson, leaning on his cane and looking at his boyfriend, Clint Fjeldsted. Stepping around them were Parker and Angie, who continued to advance as Clint offered an opinion.
"I don't know if you can teach stupid, but these guys would be at the head of the class if you could," Clint said and then screwed up his face. "Or would that be the back of the class?"
The four advanced toward us and Joey and the new guy looked a little less comfortable.
"Joey, Joey, Joey," Parker said as he sauntered closer. "Don't you know you're supposed to get smarter as you get older? Ever since fifth grade you've been going in reverse!"
"Fuck you, Parker," he growled. "I got friends. I have a girlfriend. What do you have?"
"Friends and a date," Angie said as she subtly moved toward Joey's side, flanking him. Flashing a feral smile toward Parker she added, "Maybe more if he keeps his shit up."
"Isn't it supposed to be if he stops his shit?" I asked, unable to stop myself.
"Nope," she said with a grin. "But you better learn to share your toys, Shane. All I keep hearing about is 'Shane this' and 'Shane that'."
"He's my cuddle buddy," Parker said, also making a flanking move.
We six were arrayed in a semi-circle in front of the two goons and I was sure they'd choose to depart. Instead, Joey reached behind him and pulled out a blade that was at least eight inches long. A collective puckering of butt holes could probably be heard a mile away.
Joey glanced at Parker and smiled grimly. "Steve says hi."
Before he could move, Angie took one step forward and powerfully kicked him in the back of the knee. The new guy turned to see what had staggered Joey and Parker rushed in, tackling him toward Joey and causing them to stumble into each other. I pushed Travis back and pointed at him. "Stay here, I don't want you hurt."
"I'm not defenseless!" he protested with a shaking voice.
"But I'll feel better if I know you're safe, okay?" I said and turned from him so I could help Parker. The new guy was gaining his feet and I pushed off on my good ankle and stepped as lightly as I could before ramming him solidly with my shoulder in his kidney. I bounced back a bit and he staggered, groaning like a cow that had been speared. Parker dropped him with a shot to the nuts and I punched him in the nose, hearing the cartilage break and taking great satisfaction in the blood spraying from his nose.
"Oww! My nose!" he bleated. Parker turned to me and smiled.
"He sounds like Steve after you punched him. Who are you, Iron Fist? Does that make me Power Man?"
"Power Man?" I said, my breath coming hard and adrenaline pounding through my system. "That has to be the dumbest superhero name, ever!"
Joey roared and was on his feet again, shoving Angie hard. She stumbled back and banged her head against the side of the nearby truck. One might have thought that the tide was turning in Joey's favor as his knife gleamed in the fading light of that autumn afternoon. But, in rapid succession, Clint kicked him in the kneecap, causing Clint to hop back and say something about his foot hurting. Zane, using the long reach of his cane, pivoted on his good leg and hit the same knee, causing Joey to bellow.
Before he'd recovered, though, Zane brought the cane back around and it made a sharp cracking noise as the shaft shattered on Joey's forearm, and making him lose his grip on the knife. He reached out and grabbed Zane by the front of his shirt and then the fight descended into ants swarming a larger insect. I attacked the knee both Zane and Clint had already disabled while Parker moved behind Joey and began to pummel his kidneys. Travis picked up a rock and tried to punch him in the crotch, but Joey was turning and flailing. His size was enough of a problem, but when he threw Zane back into Clint he toppled them both over. A mad spin caught Parker in the face with a backhand and he stumbled back, shaken up.
I yelled at Travis to back off, and he took a step back, but stood beside me as I stared at Joey. I had to stall for enough time for everyone to recover because Joey was huge, injured, scared and pissed. Not a good combination.
His lip curled up in a sneer and he took one step toward me. I tensed, aiming to try and kick him in the nuts again when the most amazingly awesome thing happened.
Angie, back on her feet apparently, launched herself with a yell. She planted a foot on Joey's knee and used it to vault herself up into a kick that landed squarely on his nose. The crack of cartilage and bone was loud enough to make me think of the report of a gun.
Joey bellowed and brought both hands up to his face. Not wanting to take chances I stepped forward and kicked him in the balls to make sure he stayed down long enough for everyone to get away. No one was more surprised than I, though, when flashing lights bounced off the parked work trucks.
I looked around, asking if everyone was okay. Besides some dirty clothes and a few bumps, everyone seemed all right.
The side of Parker's face was red where Joey's paw had landed, but he was in fine spirits as he clapped Zane on the shoulder.
"We were right!" he said to me as he shook Zane. "He does fight crime. Batman doesn't use a cane-sword, though-but he didn't even need it! Did you see him knock that knife out of his hand?"
"I know! He was like one of those guys from that Secret Service comic you like, right? Smooth and debonair with a sword-cane?"
"Smooth? That's the second cane he's broken this week," Clint snorted.
Parker continued as if Clint hadn't spoken. "That was that crappy movie, Kingsmen. Don't ever mention it in my presence again."
I started to chuckle as Parker patted a bewildered Zane on his shoulder and walked to Angie.
"You better say something nice," she growled.
He paused and place his hands on her hips. "Angie, that was dead sexy. Scary as a hungry rat eyeing my dick as a snack, but dead fucking sexy."
She shook her head as she tried to parse his words and then just laughed. "Are you like this all the time?"
"Not when he cuddles," I told her. "He can be kind of sweet, then."
"Shane," he stage whispered. "Shut the fuck up, man. You're ruining my image."
Then the men who were attached to the flashing lights showed up. Statements were taken and it might have been written off as a schoolyard fight except that Travis produced the knife we'd all mentioned and he remembered to tell the cops about Joey and the other fellow talking about Steve and the large amount of cash they had.
After getting all our names and addresses the cops turned us loose, promising visits with questions in front of our parents.
"How did they know to show up?" I asked aloud.
"Um, when you pushed me back, I spotted my phone so I called nine-one-one. You know, to be useful." Travis said. "I told you I wasn't completely defenseless."
"You're pretty coolheaded in a fight," Angie said, a grudging admiration evident in her voice.
"I need a shower," Zane said, looking down at his dirty, wrinkled clothes.
"Um, I'll just come with you," Clint said in an innocent voice that fooled exactly no one.
"For public safety," Parker said, "I should see that Angie gets home."
"Don't you mean for her safety?" Zane asked, still looking in annoyance at his clothes.
"Nope. She might try to take out someone else on her way home."
Angie swatted him but seemed pleased when he put his arm around her shoulder. With a glance at me he said, "You okay to get home, Shane?"
"He'll be fine," Travis piped up beside me. "I'll walk him home."
I grinned widely at him and was rewarded with a blush and lip bite. I grinned even wider at Parker. "He'll walk me home. Call me tonight?"
"Sure, but I like Shane better. Tonight is too confusing."
I wrapped my arm around Travis's shoulders and shook my head. "Shut up, Parks."
The old theater was ornate inside and the crowd was thin enough that Travis and I had our pick of seats. I followed his lead, checking out his butt in his khakis as we waited in the concession line. His grandpa had greeted me warmly and stated he was glad I looked better than he'd last seen me. I thanked him profusely for his help, which he waved away.
Travis, besides the khakis, had worn a nice button up shirt, untucked, that set his eyes off and flattered his slender frame. I felt a little giddy that he was actually my date and wondered if we'd see anyone from school so I could brag. Travis looked back at me and a slight blush bloomed on his face.
"So, what's this movie about?" I asked as we waited our turn.
"Well," he said, turning toward me and growing animated. "You have these five crime families in New York City-the Mafia, you know? This movie is where we meet all the major players in the Corleone family. So here's the background."
He enthusiastically told me tons of things about the movie, where it was shot and the book it was based on, the awards it won, famous lines and scenes. I started to shake my head and he paused his story, asking what was wrong.
"Trav, you sound like you've seen this before."
He tilted his head. "Yeah. I've seen it at home a bunch of times."
I shook my head in confusion. "Then why are we here?"
His face took on a slightly hurt look. "I like classic movies. It isn't often you get to see one in a theater. Plus, I get to...well, to introduce you to it. I was kind of hoping, maybe you'd like watching old movies with me." Softly he said, "Not many others do."
I instantly felt bad. "I was just wondering, Travis," I told him. "I'm sure I'll enjoy it, just because I'm with you."
His lips curled into a smile and he looked pleasantly off balance. "This theater shows old movies pretty often. In two weeks they are showing The Wrath of Khan."
"I don't know what that is."
"It's the second Star Trek movie, widely held to be the best of the original crew movies."
"Dammit, Travis, I'm on a date, not in movie class!" I said with a deep tone and he burst out laughing at me. I chuckled, pleased at making him laugh.
It was finally our turn and I deferred to Travis, who got up popcorn with extra butter and two large drinks. I carried our popcorn while he had our drinks. Something about Travis was different, tonight. He seemed to be a touch more confident, more sure of himself. It suited him. He decided on seats roughly dead center and we settled in.
"So, you want to come see that movie with me? It's PG so my grandpa won't have to drop us at the door."
"Wow," I said and gave him a pretty satisfied look.
"What?" he asked, his voice laced with suspicion, which only shows how smart he is. We weren't an hour into this date and he was already getting suspicious of me.
"The movie hasn't even started and I already have a second date," I said, smugly.
He stared at me and then his forehead wrinkled and his eyebrows slowly drew down. "I thought you liked me, Shane."
"Duh," I said.
I spread my hands out in question.
"You're going to wait two weeks to go out with me again?"
"Oh," I said and smiled widely at him. "I just figured we could cuddle at our houses. I mean," I revised and faux coughed, "watch a movie and share a blanket."
"Nice cover," he said with a grin. His eyes twinkled with sudden mischief. "What about Parker?"
"What about him?" I asked. "You want him to come cuddle, too?"
"No! I was just thinking, well, he's your best friend. Wouldn't you usually watch movies with him?"
"Just because I do things with Parker doesn't mean I can't do them with you," I said with a smile. "Besides, Parker already told me he wouldn't put out."
I blushed, realizing the implications of my galloping mouth and Travis was equally red, but didn't seem to be offended, thankfully.
"You guys are really close. I thought you were dating, for a while," Travis admitted.
"Well, Parker was on my list but he's...well, he's my best friend," I said reasonably. "That's why I was up front about who he is and what he means to me."
"That's why you can cuddle him?" Travis asked, his tone teasing.
"Now you're catching on," I said with a chuckle. "And he cuddles me, so we're clear."
Travis fell silent for a minute and then asked, "What list?"
My stomach dropped. "What's that?"
"You said Parker was on your list. What list?"
I groaned. "Travis...do I have to?"
"Well, no," he said softly. "I understand if you have things you're not comfortable telling me."
I kicked my feet and let out a whine. Embarrassing though it may be, I knew it didn't feel right to keep things from Travis. I wanted him to like me for me and to do that, I guess, I had to tell him things. With a sigh I said, "He was on my list of guys I thought were cute."
"Oh. Oh, wow. Um, I guess that was awkward. Um, he knows, right?"
"Yeah," I replied with a nod. "He'll never let me forget it, either. Amuses him way too much."
I looked at him and, for fuck's sake he was biting his lip. My good sense and control of my tongue melted. "You were on my list."
His face flushed red, his lips flickered in and out of a smile and his eyes got larger. "I was? W-who else was on the list?"
"Could you...please...stop biting your lip?" I begged.
He blinked and let his lip fall back into place. "I'm sorry. I'm nervous, it's a bad habit."
I groaned and shook my head. "That's not it, Travis," I told him and then I smiled, completely embarrassed as I said, "It's too fucking cute for words. I can't think when you look at me and bite your lip."
He blinked again and smiled tentatively. "Really?"
We looked at each other for a minute, the murmur of the few souls in the audience the only sound as we two nervous guys looked at each other.
"So...that list?" Travis said.
I pursed my lips. "You won. Isn't that enough?"
He bit his lip. The little fucker did it deliberately. "Zane Thompson, Curtis Wainwright, Ty Menendez, Parker Reid, Clint Fjeldsted and you," I said in a rush.
He paused. "You picked me over all of them? Over Clint?" His voice was filled with wonder and disbelief.
"Well, yeah, in the end."
"What do you mean?"
I hesitated and he bit his lip. "Travis," I whined and he smiled at me.
"Come on," he said. "Tell me."
I rolled my eyes. "Well, first I thought you were dating Angie so, not a possibility. And Ty turned out to be snob and Curtis started dating Maria Fernandez-Parker fixed them up, by the way. Zane and Clint were dating and Parker just turned into the best friend I ever had."
Travis twisted his hands in his lap. "That's pretty stiff competition. I, uh, can't imagine I was your first choice."
"Oh no, no, no," I said with a wave of my hands. "The list was just of guys I thought were cute and I didn't have a ranking or anything. I never thought I had a chance with anyone on my list, you included. In fact, I probably wouldn't have done anything if it weren't for Parker."
I explained how Parker and I met and how we'd grown increasingly close. I told Travis how Parker had stood between me and the dog and then how he'd been determined to get me a date. I then, deciding for full disclosure and to put the spotlight on someone else for awhile, told him about Angie knowing he was on my list.
He shook his head and smiled. "I can't believe she was setting me up for my next relationship."
I smiled and tilted my head. "So, you think this will turn into a relationship?"
He smiled shyly, looked away for a moment before bringing his gaze back toward me. His face was redder than red, and it was sexier than it had a right to be, and he said, "I'd like to think so."
An uncontrollable smile bloomed on my face. It was hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, I was holding myself away from people and admiring a few from afar. But now I had the best friend in the history of best friends and I was out on a date with a guy who was, really, at the very top of the list. From the tip of that elfin nose to his strawberry blonde mop; from the way he pushed his glasses back up and bit his lip to the way he was being brave enough to go out with a guy after breaking up with a girl. That gave me pause.
"Do you mind if I ask you a question?" I asked.
"Um, I think it would be unfair of me to say no, considering," he said with a shrug.
"I just..." I paused and slicked my lips. "I don't want to seem, you know...I don't know. I just wanted to ask you...see," I said, turning one hand over the other, "I didn't think I would have a chance with you because you were dating Angie. I thought you were straight."
Travis sat for a moment and then said, his tone gently inquisitive, "Was there even a question in there?"
I looked at him and said, "Do not bite your lip right now, this is hard to ask." He rolled his lips inward, yet managed to smile, too.
With a sigh I said, "I guess I'm just wondering how you can go from dating Angie to going on a date with me. Like I said, I thought you were straight."
Travis dropped his gaze and, taking a deep breath, said, "Well...that's a long conversation." The lights dimmed over head in warning that the movie would start soon.
"I understand," I said, a little disappointed.
"Please, Shane, it's nothing bad," he said and reached a hand toward me, before catching himself and pulling back. "It's, well, kind of complicated I guess. For right now, I guess what's important is, well,two things."
I waited, watching him as he widened his eyes and let out a breath. "First, there was when we picked you up last Sunday. Even though I knew who you were, before that-I mean, we grew up here, you know?"
"You were nice, when we formally met. And, I have to admit, I really, really liked the way you and Parker told off Sheila before the GSA meeting that day."
"Steam came out her ears," I said. "No joke."
He chuckled and then moved his hands together restlessly. "When my grandpa told me to, um, get down to my underwear and warm you under the blanket..."
"Look, Trav, it was cold."
"Shrinkage, you know? Or, if I was hard, it's probably because my bladder was full but my piss was frozen."
He burst out laughing and I grinned at him, enjoying having made him laugh again.
"It didn't have anything to do with your dick," he said, still chuckling. "It was more because you needed me. There was something I could do for you that would really matter."
I gave him a contemplative look. "You sure getting a frozen stiffie over you wasn't needing you, somehow?"
He smiled, an odd smile with his lips pursed together and off to one side of his face. "Anyway, then you stepped up and helped me with Joey."
"So, wait. Parker helped, too. You seeing him tomorrow night?" I teased.
"No," he said, blushing hard. So fucking cute. "My point is that I feel like I know the kind of person you are." He paused and then said, "Feeling that, well, it's opened up all kinds of possibilities for me."
"Oh," I said. I thought for a moment and then asked, "So, do you think you could, um, like me? Someday?"
He gave me a tentative smile. "I swear, this is so weird. I can't believe you're asking me if I could like you."
I frowned. "I don't know why that's weird. I asked you on a date because I like you."
He looked away, his face blotchy. "Like me, how?"
I waited for him to slowly bring his gaze up. I waited as he watched my face and then, just as he opened his mouth, I said, "I've liked you for a long time, Travis. You're smart, you're cute and your butt looks great in those khakis. I'm just glad I got to you before someone else scooped you up."
"Yeah, right," he said, his voice small. "You're the only one that's ever asked me out."
He shrugged and pursed his lips in response.
"I find that hard to believe," I told him, suspicion lacing my voice. "Are you teasing me?"
"I'm not," he said with a shake of his head. "I'm scrawny and weak-Clint actually threw a sandwich at me last week and told me to eat something."
I smirked and cut him off before he could get into a litany of put-downs on himself. "I don't know how much my opinion means to you, but I always thought you were really cute. Maybe you could have used a few pounds before, but you're filling out your shirt pretty nicely. I like your hair, your eyes, your nose-don't laugh, it's a cute nose."
His face continued to be quite red, but a pleased smile crossed his face. His smile melted and then his expression was cautiously hopeful. "I don't think I look like much, but especially not next to Parker."
"Parker is Parker," I told him. "I love him, he's my best friend. This isn't a competition. I have room in my life for my best friend and, I hope, my boyfriend. But, in fairness, if you keep dating me...you're going to be subjected to his insanity.
"You think you can handle Parker?" I asked.
He tilted his head from side to side. "It's kind of weird, I guess. But, I can handle Parker if you can handle Clint."
I searched his face. "Handle Clint? What's there to handle?"
"Don't worry," Travis said with a grin. "I'll protect you."
"Travis?" I said as the lights started to dim. "Travis?"
He bit his lip. 'I am so screwed,' I thought happily.