I looked over at the kid. He was mortified. "Zach," I said quietly. "You want me to tell her?"
"P-Please. I'm gonna, um, I'm gonna go use the restroom." He was off like lightning.
"Jerry! Tell me what's going on. I get the feeling I'm not going to like it, and I know there's going to be blood involved when I get through. Trust me, it won't be mine. And shit! I'm wearing white."
"Let's go sit down, and I'll tell you the whole story. Be warned, though, it's ugly. Very, very ugly."
Fiona and I sat on the couch and talked for quite a while. When I was done, she was livid, and the tips of her ears were almost flaming. But I finally calmed her down when I told her the kid needed her help and not her loud, brash mouth. It finally sunk in when I gave her a handful of questions for her dad since my sister hadn't gotten back to me yet. Fiona went on to tell me that even though he was an immigration lawyer, which I knew, her dad was a senior partner with lots of pull. She said his practice had many different divisions including family law and real estate. The best part was when she added that her dad might be able to get Zach the help he needed pro bono.
She took Indy outside while she gave her dad a call, and I went the other direction through the house looking for Zach. He'd been gone a while, and I was worried about him. I found him sitting on the end of my bed, staring off into space. He had put on the clothes we dried last night and had his little suitcase by his side.
"Hey, Zach. You okay?" It was obvious he had been crying.
"Yeah. No. I don't know. I guess I'm overwhelmed. And while Fiona is your friend and all, I can't deal with her shouting. I think I like her, but I can't handle this. She reminded me of Mother chasing me around the house screaming at me that everything's all my fault. I don't know how I'm going to get past this. I really don't. And that scares me. I'm wondering if I don't have PTSD or something."
"You know, that's entirely possible. Is it okay if I sit next to you? I want to talk to you about a few things that are going to help tremendously. At least I hope so."
"Sure, Jeremy. I think you're the only one I can trust right now."
"Thanks for that. And I promise we're going to get you through this. You have my word. First and foremost, I want you to know you can stay here with me as long as you want, no problem. I like you, buddy, and I don't want you to think you're a burden. You're not. You're family, and family comes first in this house. Got it?"
"Maybe. But how can you say that? What happens when the rest of your family comes back from Spain? I'll just be another mouth to feed, and I have nothing to offer."
"Doesn't work like that. And besides, I own fifty percent of this house. So, I have an equal say plus veto rights."
"How's that possible?"
"My sister and brother-in-law bought this house with the money my parents left us when they were killed. They put half in my sister's name and the other half in a trust for me. When I turned eighteen, the fifty percent was all mine with no restrictions and I could either sell my half of the house to my sister and move out, or just continue living here and cash out later. I chose the latter. My sister and I were fortunate my parents had a great lawyer, and he set up other trusts for us with the rest of their assets and life insurance money. My parents were very frugal but very wise."
"Wow. But what about your brother-in-law? Isn't that kind of weird for him, living in his wife's and her brother's house?"
"Nope. Henry's smart, and has managed all our funds quite well. And this house has appreciated significantly. That's where the family thing comes in. The motto around here has always been family takes care of family regardless of blood. We share the rewards and circle around when there's a problem. You know that, because you were friends with the twins. Still are, and when they come back, they'll be happy to see you and make sure you're all good. It's the same with Fi, and a couple of other people you'll meet soon. Shit, you should see what a holiday is like around here."
"Thanks and all, but I'm just a burden. I should go. I'd be a disruption."
"I was headed to the LGBT center last night. They have an outreach program for people under twenty-one. They have a shelter, and can help me get a job."
"I know about that place, and I donate money to them once in a while. They do a really great job with at-risk youth and foster kids aging out of the system. But this I know: You'd have to share a room with strangers, probably get your cash ripped off, and tell me, who is going to hire you with that fake license? You wouldn't even be able to get a job in a dildo factory," I joked.
"Shit. I'm totally screwed."
"No, buddy, you're not. Brace yourself, I'm coming in for a hug." I wrapped my arm around the top of his shoulder and pulled him into me. "Look, Zach, I talked to my sister this morning while you were still asleep. She was devastated to hear what happened to you. You know what her first question was?"
"No. She probably didn't even remember me."
"Oh, yes she did. She asked me if I wanted her or my brother-in-law Henry to catch the next flight home. That's how concerned she was."
"Are you serious? She'd interrupt her vacation in Spain to come help me out? Oh, God." The second he got that out, he burst out sobbing. There's the meltdown I was waiting for.
I pulled him in tight, holding him while we rocked back and forth. It lasted about ten minutes when Fiona and Indy came in. Fiona got down on her knees in front of Zach and quietly rubbed his legs while Indy sat protectively by the kid's side. Finally, when he was cried out, Fiona looked up into his red, puffy eyes and said, "Puppy, I'm so sorry I freaked you out. I had no idea what happened to you. But you need to know I'm here for you a hundred and fifty percent, just like Jerry is. Can you forgive me? All I want to do is help you and be a friend. Please? I promise I'll try not to yell like that when you're around."
Zach sniffed and wiped his teary eyes and runny nose on the bottom of his shirt. "I'm sorry I acted like that. It's just that…this is all so new. I'm not sure how to handle it. I'm so scared and overwhelmed."
"I would be too, Puppy, I would be too. Thing is, I've always had Jerry to back me up, and it sounds like you really didn't have anyone. But we're both here now, and I swear we'll never let you go."
"It's true, buddy. We only want you moving forward again so you can be the happy kid I remember when we'd sit on the curb and talk while we waited for your mom. Do you remember that?"
"I do. I felt so special when you'd spend time with me like that. You were like a big brother, and I could ask you anything."
"That's right. And you know what? That wasn't just one way. You probably wouldn't believe it, but you helped me out too."
"How? That's impossible."
"Even in a house full of people, sometimes I felt lonely too, and it helped to talk with you. In some ways we're the same, losing our parents."
"I don't understand that."
"See, mine were gone, but yours just ignored you."
"Mine ignored me too, Puppy, so I know what that's like," Fiona added. "Both my parents are attorneys, and when I was young, they were working so many hours to make partner I barely saw them. That's why Jerry and I are so tight. So, c'mon. Let us help you out. I promise you'll have way more fun with us than sleeping in some stinky shelter. And we really are sincere. I've already called my daddy, and he has someone checking out the foreclosure status of your house as we speak. We need to get in there and get your stuff."
"You did that? For me?"
"Yes, Puppy. Of course. Welcome to the family." More hugs ensued, and more tears were shed by the three of us. This time they were tears of relief and happiness.
"Okay, everybody. Enough lovey-dovey! Zach, I need you to do something for us. You told me about your culinary skills last night, so I'm deferring the kitchen to you, my five-star chef. Fiona and I are freaking starving. Go make us proud. The two of us are going to sit at the counter and pretend we're on Chopped."
"I love that show," Fiona said. "I think I'm gonna be Alex Guarnaschelli."
"Seriously? Oh my God. That's so great! But if she's Alex, who's Jeremy going to be?"
"I guess I'll be Ted since he's the only one I know that's gay and isn't covered with tats. At least that you can see."
"Good call, Jerry. All right, thirty minutes on the clock!"
"Wait! If we're really doing this, I need to know where everything is. I've never used this kitchen before. And do I get a mystery basket?"
"Excellent idea," I said. "I'll show you around the kitchen, and then you head outside while Fi and I put a box together. And no peeking. I don't know where our picnic basket is, so is it alright if I use an empty Amazon box?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, smiling ear-to-ear. "Guys, this is so awesome. Thanks so much."
Since Zach said he was a pro at a frittata, once he was outside we slipped a dozen eggs in the 'basket'. Fi suggested adding an extra ten minutes to his cooking time because she thought a frittata might take longer. I agreed since I had absolutely no clue.
"Hey, Jerry? I have a question," Fi asked, rooting around in the fridge. "Why does your sister have all this amazing stuff when she says she's tired of cooking? And she's taking cooking classes in Spain? What's up with that?"
"Weird, huh? I'm thinking she's tired of cooking and just wants to pig out now. Plus, she wants to do more things she likes, like yoga, watercolor painting, crystals, mind-melding. That kind of shit. I really don't blame her. It was tough on her being a young mom with twin toddlers and then having me drop in."
"Yeah, she deserves it. Let's just hope the kid knows how to cook, or we'll all going to starve."
"Zach told me about his housekeeper and how she taught him the basics. He's worried for her because she's out of a job now. If she's a good cook, we're solid. When I talked to sis, she said if I like her, hire her."
"Thank God. You know I can't cook shit."
"Or clean up. 'Jerry, Jerry. It's just too gross'," I mimed.
"So true, you bastard. Think we were married in a past life?"
"No. I was queer back then too. You must have been the annoying little sister that always wanted in the action."
"Just like I am now."
"Exactly. Remember when you were eight and you complained to the playground monitor your nuts hurt? Even then you wanted to be a guy."
"I did then. Not now."
"Guess we didn't learn our lesson, so we're repeating it if you believe in that kinda thing."
"Next time Standing Wolf's in town, we'll ask him. He'll know. He knows all that mumbo-jumbo other-worldly stuff."
"I doubt it," I said. "I don't think reincarnation is the same in their spirit world. But I may be wrong."
"Where is he? I haven't seen him in a long time."
"Wolfie's in British Columbia helping out with some vision quest type of thing for indigenous teenagers. He lives for that stuff."
"So true. He's a great guy."
We added the half bottle of whiskey sitting on the table in the great room to the box since we both thought it would be a good test of Zach's culinary prowess. After poking around, I tossed in a jar of pickled habanero's that had been sitting on the shelf forever, and finally a bag of potato chips. We both agreed we didn't want it to be too difficult, but it wouldn't be much fun if we made it easy, either. Neither one of us had any idea what he'd do with the chips. I hoped we'd be amazed.
After a pot of water came to a boil and the oven was heated to 350 degrees, Fi and I jumped up on our barstools, and I asked Zach, "Are you ready, chef?"
"I think so. This is so great, and so nerve-wracking. But yeah, let's go."
"Great. Just so you know, we're giving you an extra ten minutes," I said. "Open your basket!"
"Eggs, good. Whiskey, okay. I can deal with that. Uh-oh, habaneros. Shit. Chips. Yes! I can do this." He looked so adorable and happy when he turned around and smiled at us.
"Then here we go. Fi, put forty minutes on the clock."
"Check. Puppy-Chef: Time starts now!"
The kid moved like a European high-speed train, first grabbing a big mixing bowl, then a cast-iron skillet. Next, he went through the fridge, pulling out – and then putting back – several ingredients. At one point, when he was looking at the jar of pickled chilies' he yelled, "Hey! I need gloves."
"Bottom drawer next to the oven. You get one more help, okay buddy?" I said.
"I won't need it."
"Damn, listen to him," Fiona laughed.
Zach looked like a pro and moved around the kitchen with swift ease. At one point, I had to laugh out loud when the kid started singing "Scotty Doesn't Know," which of course drove Fiona completely insane. Dude was full of surprises.
"He's got bacon!" Fiona yelled. "I love this kid."
I looked at the clock and was surprised only five minutes were left. Fiona was aware too, and told him, "Puppy! Get a move on, mister. Five minutes remain." She was really rocking Alex now.
"Two minutes, buddy. Start plating. You need three plates. Get one more."
When we started counting down from ten seconds, the kid was a blur. "Hand's up!" I yelled.
"Shoot. That was totally insane." The kid laughed when Fiona and I started clapping, which made Indy bark.
"Okay, chef. What do have for us?" I asked when everybody caught their breath and had calmed down.
Zach plopped two beautifully arranged plates in front of us and said, "Today, Judge's, I have for you a frittata with sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, green bell peppers, and gouda and white cheddar cheese. Also, there is whiskey-glazed bacon strips with a potato chip crumble, and a side of cranberry, habanero, and balsamic relish. Enjoy!"
Zach looked so happy and proud, and it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping over the counter and giving him a ginormous hug. I think Fiona was thinking the same thing since her head was cocked and was staring and smiling like crazy at the kid. Total Alex Guarnaschelli. She leaned in and whispered to me, "He's a keeper, Jerry."
"I'm beginning to see that." To Zach I said, "Grab your plate, buddy. Get up here so we can all dig in together."
"On it. I'm super-starving too." I was surprised when he squeezed in between Fiona and myself.
"Yum, Puppy! This bacon is killer. When and where did you learn to cook like this?" she asked with a huge mouthful of food. "This is so freaking good. Have you gone to cooking school?"
"No. But I like to watch cooking shows on FoodTV. Chopped and Iron Chef are my favorites. What I'm really addicted to right now is Pati Jinich. Watching them is how I learned. And our housekeeper, Isabella shows me stuff too. Mostly Mexican food, but that's my favorite food of all time. I guess I got a knack for it or something." He was so excited he was bouncing all around in his seat. I loved seeing him like that.
"Well, Zach, I have to be honest. This is truly amazing. Seriously. One of the best meals I've had in a while. You totally surprised me. The frittata was cooked perfectly, and like Fi said, the bacon is crazy-good. I wish we had more."
"Me too," Fiona said.
"And you can make us Mexican food every night for all I care. That's my favorite, too. Taquitos?"
"Of course. I make my own tortillas."
"Hey! Don't forget me," Fi pipped up. "I want some."
"You guys are so awesome."
"Seriously. That was a great meal. So, here's a thought," I said when we were done eating and satiated. "Since you were concerned about being a burden staying here, I think I might have a solution to that. How about from now until everyone gets home in a few weeks, I'm going to make you the head chef. With pay. How does that sound?"
"It's freakin' outrageous is what it is. What are my duties?"
"We'll both have to agree to them of course, but I was thinking that at a minimum you'd plan, shop and make dinner on the nights I'm not working. Dinner for sure, and other meals if you want to practice a bit. You'll have carte blanche to plan, purchase and make about anything you want. Just don't go crazy with two-hundred-dollar tomahawk steaks and fancy stuff like that."
"Okay. If you insist."
"I must, I must."
"But you have that great salamander. I gotta try it out. Has anyone ever used it?"
"I'll take the fifth on that one. Show me your list, and we'll talk. Just make tasty food and don't go too wild."
"Yes!" he said as he pumped his fist in the air.
"Can you make dessert, too? I love cheesecake," Fi said. "And everything chocolate."
"Heck yeah. Cakes, pies, pastries, I'm pretty sure I can do all that. As long as I have my tablet, I can make anything. Shoot, this is so great. But how would I purchase food? I told you I don't know how to drive. And taking an Uber or Lyft would get kinda expensive."
"We have an account with a local market which stocks great produce, and an awesome butcher here in town. They deliver too. I'll add you to those accounts, and you just call in whatever you want. Easy-peasy. But that driving thing?"
"I'm gonna teach you."
"Are you serious? Holy moly, that's the best thing ever!" The kid surprised me when he leaned over and hugged me, hard. I wasn't expecting that.
"Girls! Get a room, you two," Fiona laughed. "Geez, you're this close to becoming a married couple."
"Excuse me, Fiona, but when you walked in earlier, you saw my junk. I am definitely not a girl, and neither is Jeremy."
"Point taken. But from what little I saw, you desperately need some grooming down there."
"Zach, calm down. She's just yanking your chain. Sometimes I think she's really a drag queen."
The kid looked her over for a minute, and then started laughing. "I get it now. Those boobs look totally after-market. Probably from Pep Boys."
"Puppy? Touché. Jerry? I love this kid. He's a quick learner, no doubt about it."
After helping Zach clean the kitchen – Fiona supervising, of course – we were still in a holding pattern of sorts, waiting for some word whether we could legally get into Zach's house or not. Fi decided she was going to raid my sisters closet for some work-out gear and take Indy for a walk to the Starbucks down on the boulevard. That was her favorite pick-up place, and having Indy by her side guaranteed attention and at least a couple or ten phone numbers.
Zach said he wanted to take a long, hot shower because he reeked from sweating in the kitchen and thought the hot water would also help the bruises on his back. That was cool by me because I was headed back to bed for a nap. I didn't get much sleep last night, and now that I was stuffed, I was sleepy.
All I wanted was some quiet time. But…no.
After Fi took off, Zach asked, "Jeremy? Can I ask you a question? Am I too hairy down there? You know, on my best parts? Be honest. I have no clue here. I don't know why I keep asking you all these weird questions. But, well…both you and Fiona mentioned it."
"No worries, buddy. It's kind of a personal thing, I guess, but a lot of guys do what's called manscaping. Here's what I know. I shave my balls and trim my bush. I think it feels better and looks better. I started doing it when the guys on my high school water polo team were doing it so their pubic hair wouldn't show sticking out their Speedos. Also, from what I've heard, if you're straight and don't groom down there, the ladies will call you Chewbacca. They're in position for something sexy and not interested in flossing, if you get my drift. As for me, I just think it looks better. My only other reference was Trevor, and he was so hairless it didn't make much difference. Why do you ask? Is this from Fiona? Whatever spews from her mouth you can't take literally."
"No. Maybe. I was just wondering. I haven't seen much porn, but the few I've seen the guys my age look like first graders. I want some hair because I worked hard for those guys. I'm just trying to figure out all this stuff. I had nobody I could ask these questions too. I'd say I'm being a dork, but then you'd get after me."
"And I would. But, no, you're not a dork for not knowing this stuff. How about this. I'll put a new razor blade and my electric trimmer in the bathroom for you. Give it a try and see what you think. Fair warning. Take your time. Go slow. And, Zach, I mean that. Wear your glasses if you need to. If you're going to shave down there, do it last thing while you're in the shower. The warm water makes it easier. And clean up when you're done. That's my one request. I'm not going to take care of a Code-9 pubic hair catastrophe. I'm not licensed for that."
"Okay. Cool. Thanks."
"Do you need some clean clothes? I get the feeling that's the only thing you have, and it's got food all over it."
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
"Why? Why in the hell would you be sorry? You just won Chopped, San Marino, for shit's sake. And Zach, think first before you answer with something I'll call you out on. You're so much better than you think you are."
The kid took a deep breath. Maybe two. "Jeremy, is it possible I can borrow some clean clothes? Mine smell something like penguin poop."
"You got it, buddy. Let's go raid the twin's closets. I also have a pile of t-shirts I get comped at work you can have. I get the mediums for the twins because I don't wear them unless I like the band, and then I get the larger ones."
"Cool. Thanks, Jeremy."
It was maybe forty-five minutes later when I felt Zach slipping under the covers next to me, waking me up from my nap. I mumbled into the pillow, "How'd the haircut go?"
"All good. Your tips totally helped. And I cleaned everything up."
"Thanks for doing that. I appreciate it. Fi hates doing dishes, and I hate cleaning bathrooms."
"No problem. Wanna see it?"
I couldn't help but start laughing. "Wanna see what?" I teased. "The bathroom?"
"No, silly. You know. See if I did it right. C'mon. You've already felt up my balls."
"You're a tease, you know that?"
"What's a tease?"
"Oh, man. Okay. Show me. You didn't cut yourself, did you?"
"No. I was careful. Okay, sit up and prepare to be amazed!"
"I think I'm creating a monster. Alright, let's see 'em."
Zach stood up next to the bed, yanked down the boxer briefs we'd swiped out of Ricky's room, then pulled up the Billy Strings concert shirt I gave him. "Pretty good, huh?" He looked so proud.
"Damn, dude. It looks so much cleaner. Awesome job. I gotta say, you have the longest balls I've ever seen. Now pull up your shorts. We don't want Fiona popping in on us and see you like this again."
"Can we cuddle for a while? I really like doing that with you. I feel safe when you hold me."
"Sure. Get back in here."
We snuggled for a bit, but I could tell something was brewing in his mind because he seemed antsy. "Whatcha thinking, Zach?"
"About a hundred million things. But…um. This is gonna sound weird. Can we talk about sex?"
"Sure, I guess. What in particular do you want to talk about?" I had no idea where this was going to go and was a little worried.
"I like you a lot, and I like what we're doing. But, um, for now, I just want to held and cuddled, and um, maybe we can try kissing a little? Is that alright?"
"Of course. What brought this on?"
"I really like being with you, and I love this part when you hold me, and I'd like to do more, you know, sexy stuff. I totally want to do that with you. To you. But I'm not sure I'm ready. Is that okay?"
"Absolutely. That's a very mature way of thinking. I have to be honest here. I was afraid to give you even a little teeny-tiny hug because I didn't want to freak you out. You have so much on your plate right now I'm worried that doing anything remotely sexy would send you over the edge."
"Thanks for that. So, you like me? Like, really, really like me?"
"Zach, I think I've liked you and been attracted to you since we'd sit on the curb and talk all these years ago."
"And just so you know, I'd like to do that other stuff with you too, but maybe we need to keep it simple. Just hugs and cuddling for now. Trevor and I started way too fast, and we didn't get to know each other first. I don't want to make that mistake again. My feeling is that if this thing between you and me is going to turn out to be amazing, then taking our time doesn't matter. What do you think?"
"That sounds so great! But one thing. Um…you've seen my junk twice now, and help my balls once so it seems only fair that I see yours. It will give me something special to dream about."
"You're too much, you know that?"
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked that."
"Don't be sorry. I'll take it as a compliment. Get up and let's make this quick."
"You have a choice. You can either see it, or you can stick your hand in my shorts and feel it. But not both."
"Oh, God! Oh, man. Best day ever. I guess I'll take seeing it for five-hundred."
"Alright, here goes."
And of course, just as I whipped it out, Fiona and Indy came barging into the bedroom. "Oh my God! Not again. Can't the two of you keep your hands off your business for one minute?"
"Fiona, you have to stop doing that. We weren't doing what you think we were doing."
"Then, what exactly were you doing?"
"You guys said my balls were too hairy," Zach said. "So I just shaved them. Jeremy and I were only comparing."
"I see. Totally believable."
"Fi, what's up?" I asked.
"Get dressed, boys. We have a caper to pull!"
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