This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. A big thank-you to my editor, Michael, who finds the errors I miss, ensures clarity, and keeps me from straying too far from reality. Any remaining errors are my responsibility.
Although a year apart in school, Benji was only six months older than Peter. With a difference of only a couple of inches in height and a few pounds in weight, the two were nearly identical in size, and both were trim, fit, and athletic in appearance. Although their parents purchased new clothes for Peter, he was happier wearing Benji's than his own. Both boys viewed the contents of their closet as common property - sharing was a way of life.
The two boys were far from identical in other respects. Benji's black hair and dark eyes were a sharp contrast to Peter's pale blond hair and green eyes, the latter a clue to his Irish heritage. Once the younger boy's pallid, indoor complexion had been replaced by a dark tan, the overall effect turned heads wherever he went. Far from being jealous of the attention Peter received, Benji was happy to see his brother thriving in his new environment.
And nowhere did he thrive more than at the weekly volleyball games, where he and Darren had immediately joined Eric and Nick.
After they went to bed each night, Benji and Peter would lie side by side sharing all their experiences of the day. With more knowledge of Peter's activities than their parents, Benji's self-assigned role became that of watchful big brother. He had someone to love and look after, and he took the responsibility seriously. No one was going to hurt his little brother in any way, never mind that his little brother was nearly as big as he was.
The previous Wednesday, Peter had reported an unusual event, causing Benji to take advantage of his relationship with Hunter as his mentor and friend. The result was that, unknown to their four friends who participated, Benji and Hunter were on their way to the clothing-optional beach to watch the volleyball games.
As Hunter turned off the freeway into the state park, he directed his attention to Benji.
"Okay, now that we're here, refresh my memory on the incident."
Benji looked out the window long enough to check out some hot guys throwing a Frisbee, a recent addition to the outdoor recreation scene.
"After the volleyball games and the pizza feed were over, Peter left the group to take a leak. As he started back, this guy in his early twenties approached him and said he was a talent scout for a modeling agency, and he was looking for someone like Peter. He invited him to go for an audition. Peter is street-smart, and he smelled a rat and politely declined."
"Did any of the other guys witness this?"
"I checked with Nick and Eric. Neither of them saw anything. I asked Nick to let the referees know about a possible problem. I don't know if they'll talk with Peter, but at least they'll be aware."
"And you have a description from Peter?"
"Yeah, a pretty good one. White guy, about five foot six, one hundred fifty pounds, brown hair that needs a trim. But there's one thing that makes him stand out from everyone else."
"And what's that?"
Benji smiled slightly. "He was wearing slacks, deck shoes, and a polo shirt. In other words, he was fully clothed."
They paused while Hunter parked the car. Wearing cutoffs and athletic shoes, they walked towards the beach.
"Why didn't you have Peter report it to the authorities and let them handle it?"
Benji paused for a few moments.
"Because I don't trust them to do anything about a one-time event that nobody else saw."
"So what are you and I gonna do about it?"
Benji was quiet for a while.
"I'm not sure. I just wanna protect my brother."
"He handled it pretty well himself."
"Yeah, but the guy might catch him alone and not take no for an answer another time."
Hunter put a hand on his shoulder. "You really love Peter, don't you?"
Benji swallowed hard. "Yeah, I do. I'd do anything to keep him safe. And I'm concerned about the other younger boys too. None of them are safe with a predator around."
Arriving at the beach, they started upriver.
"Okay, do you have a plan?"
"Look up the beach about a quarter mile. See the guys playing volleyball?"
"Yeah, I see that."
"You can see the woods across from them. What I want is for us to sit back in the trees where we can watch the games and the pizza party that follows and see if anything happens."
"And what if we see the guy?"
Benji was quiet for a few long moments.
"I don't know yet for sure. I think we gotta play it by ear."
Hunter was quiet for a while.
"It's a little sketchy, but yes, we can watch and plan as we go."
"I really appreciate you helping me with this."
Hunter smiled and gave Benji's neck a friendly squeeze .
"It's what friends are for."
Having left the beach a couple hundred feet short of the volleyball game, Hunter and Benji sat in the woods, watching quietly. Wearing identical white Speedos, a recent import from Australia, Peter and Darren were playing against the Korean twins. Kofi and Eric were playing against Kojo and a dark-haired guy in white shorts that Benji didn't know. Kofi wore the traditional jockstrap, but Eric sported his mail-order shorts, which had become his summer uniform. Kofi and Eric soon lost the game. Benji identified the two African-Americans.
"Eric's teammate must be Kofi, and the other black guy would be his older brother Kojo. Eric told me about them. I don't know the other guy."
Hunter filled in the missing identification.
"The other guy's name is Barry. I met him at the state wrestling tournament. You should remember him. He's a guy I beat in the semifinals - a sophomore from Portland."
Benji looked again. "Yeah, I remember now. I thought he looked familiar."
"Did you notice him using sign language with Kojo? He can hear okay, and understands most of what you say to him, but he can't communicate by speaking due to a head injury. He does well by pointing, and using hand gestures and sign language. Kojo must know sign language."
It was a long morning, but not boring. Watching the games was fun. Hunter thought playing would be too.
"You and I should join this group."
"Maybe later. Right now it's an opportunity for Peter to get away from his bossy big brother."
Hunter laughed softly. "From what I've seen, your relationship with your brother is perfect."
Benji smiled. "And I hope it stays that way."
The pizza arrived shortly after noon, and now Hunter and Benji observed the socialization. Benji watched Peter in particular, a happy boy, laughing and having fun with his friends. Tears came to Benji's eyes, and his heart was filled with happiness at what he saw.
Then he remembered why they were there and looked around. There was still no evidence of any suspicious strangers.
He looked back at Peter. His brother was spending a lot of time with Barry. The boys were all friendly with the boy, but because of his speech limitation, they had a hard time communicating with him. The two exceptions were Kojo, who knew sign language, and Peter. The younger boy grasped that Barry could hear well, so he talked with him like he would anyone else. Barry responded with a combination of sign language, hand gestures, and facial expressions, all of which Peter understood instantly.
There was a lot of touching too. Barry's hands were often on Peter's shoulders while the younger boy leaned back against his chest, smiling with happiness. Benji commented to Hunter.
"Peter's made an instant bond with Barry."
Hunter had noticed too. "It's almost like they already knew each other."
Benji joked. "Maybe in a previous life?"
Hunter smiled. "I think they're just natural soulmates."
Benji looked around for strangers again. Nudging Hunter, he pointed. A guy meeting the description of the predator was walking casually up the beach from the direction in which they'd come. From time to time, he stopped and bent over as if to pick something up. Continuing a short distance beyond Hunter and Benji's hiding place, he moved off the beach and sat near the same grove of trees, watching the boys finish their pizza.
Darren, now wearing his cutoffs, left the group and headed for the trees. Stepping into the woods, he relieved himself and began to return to the party. The stranger beckoned Darren to come over and talk with him. After a minute or so of conversation, the two began to walk back towards the parking lot. Benji started to get up, but Hunter stopped him.
"Follow my lead."
Hunter waited until the two had passed their position.
"Get up slowly and walk with me. Pretend we're having a conversation. I'm gonna take him down. Once I do, help me keep him there. I think we'll have more help very quickly."
Hunter and Benji walked to the beach and moved in behind the other two, apparently absorbed in conversation, slowly closing the distance. The stranger had his arm around Darren's shoulders, talking earnestly. Darren was eating it up.
They were within fifteen feet before the man noticed them, still not alarmed. Hunter made his move. Before the predator knew what had happened, the state champion wrestler had him flat on the ground with his arms pinned behind his back. Benji's help wasn't required. Hunter spoke quietly, but there was no doubt he meant every word.
"Don't move or I'll break your fucking neck."
He looked up at Darren, who stood by watching, his mouth wide open.
"Where was he taking you?"
"For an audition. He was gonna make me into a model for advertisements. And maybe get me a small part in a movie."
Hunter addressed Benji.
"Go back and get the referees and a length of rope."
The referees were already running in their direction. Hunter looked at Benji again.
"Change of plans. Go call the authorities from the payphone by the restroom. Wait for them and send them here."
The park ranger arrived within five minutes. Benji directed him up the beach to where Hunter and the referees were now guarding their bound prisoner. The ranger gave him instructions.
"Wait here and make sure the sheriff's personnel know where to go."
With that, he took off running.
It took the first two deputies another five minutes to arrive with the red lights on their squad car flashing. Giving Benji instructions to wait, they headed up the beach at a trot.
An ambulance, sent as a precautionary measure, arrived next. One of the two EMTs approached Benji.
"I understand you're a witness. Are you okay?"
He'd been okay up to then, but suddenly he was shaking like a leaf. The EMT led him to a picnic table, asked him to sit down on the bench, and checked his vital signs.
"You'll be okay, buddy. Just sit here quietly and wait. The deputies will want to talk with you."
A second sheriff's vehicle arrived. One of the deputies joined the group on the beach, while the other stayed to interview Benji.
In handcuffs, the captive was led to the parking lot by two of the deputies. The third guided Hunter and Darren in the same direction. The other boys were asked to return to their activities, but Eric, feeling responsible for his younger friend, followed at a distance.
The predator was placed in the back of a patrol car and monitored by one of the officers. As Eric watched from the sidelines, the other three officers interviewed Hunter, Benji and Darren separately.
It took a half hour to interview the three boys. Benji told his interviewer about Peter's experience of the week before. There was a certain amount of dissatisfaction that Peter hadn't reported the incident, but he'd committed no crime and the issue was quickly dropped. Peter would be interviewed later if necessary.
Questions were also asked about why Hunter and Benji were there, but it was hard to refute their claim that they were simply watching the games. Furthermore, since the boys had bagged a known child molester with outstanding warrants, the deputies were inclined to overlook minor discrepancies.
When the questioning was finished, and the deputies and emergency personnel had departed, the four boys had their own debriefing. Eric felt like he'd let Darren down.
"I should have been watching more closely and it wouldn't have happened."
"We can watch out for each other as much as possible, but we can't always be in the right place at the right time. It's not your fault. These things happen. I'm glad Benji asked me to join him today, though. Otherwise, it might not have worked out as well."
Darren was pale and emotionally drained.
"I should have known better. Peter did."
Benji put an arm around his shoulders.
"Peter's a street-savvy city boy. You're just a dumb backwoods boy."
That drew laughter from Eric and Hunter, and a faint smile from Darren.
"I know better now. And right now, I just wanna go home."
Hunter stood up and pulled his keys out of his pocket.
"I'll take you." He turned to Eric and Benji. "How about you two?"
Still feeling that he'd somehow failed, and wanting to provide more support, Eric stood up too.
"I'll go with you. Benji, why don't you stay? Nick will take you and Peter home. They can introduce you to some of the guys. You can bring my towel and stuff and the rest of Darren's gear."
Benji smiled. "Works for me."
At the volleyball site, a few boys continued to play. Some had dispersed for other afternoon activities. Peter, Kojo, Kofi, and Barry sat nearby, waiting to find out what had happened.
Peter gave Benji a slice of leftover pizza and introduced him to the other three boys, identifying Barry as Kojo's classmate and a newcomer to the games. Benji sat down on Eric's towel.
"The excitement is over, I guess. Hunter, Eric and Darren went home." He looked around, and then at Peter. "I suppose Nick is still around somewhere."
As if on cue, Nick materialized from the woods. Benji looked up at him.
"I'm supposed to get a ride home with you and Peter."
"Do you want to head for home now, or stay for a while?"
Benji looked towards Peter for his opinion. Peter shrugged his shoulders.
"It's up to you, Benji. You look a little beat."
Benji pushed his perspiration-soaked hair up out of his eyes.
"I am." He looked up at Nick. "Let's go now."
Nick smiled. "You got it, buddy."
When Peter and Benji arrived home, they discovered that the neighborhood information network was working well. Darren's mom had reported the full details of his incident to their parents. Their dad had questions, first, for Peter.
"Why didn't you tell us what happened last week?"
"Because it didn't seem to me to be a big deal."
"It was a big enough deal to tell Benji."
"Yeah, but Benji and I tell each other everything, even stuff that doesn't seem important."
Their astute parents weren't about to discourage that communication. It was Benji's turn to be questioned.
"Why didn't you tell us more about what you and Hunter had planned today?"
Benji sounded defensive.
"I told you we wanted to watch the games, and we did. I also wanted to make sure it's safe for my brother to keep on playing. I think it's good for him. That's all we had planned. The rest just happened."
Their dad paused. Benji was telling the truth, more or less. It was time to drop the subject.
"Maybe you and Hunter should play next week instead of watching."
"It'll be okay now. The refs will be watching and all the players are on guard. Maybe Hunter and I can join them next year. For now, it's a special activity for Peter and Darren to share."
That night after the boys went to bed, Benji raised a different issue.
"You seemed to hit it off really well with Barry. Is Darren past history?"
"No, Darren's my boyfriend, but Barry's the reason I'm here."
Benji turned his head. "Okay, you gotta explain that one."
Peter smiled softly. "Barry's the friend who first showed me the waterfall where you and I met."
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