Mum, John, and James were sitting at the kitchen table when I arrived home. The two boys were eating beans on toast and I was glad to see that they seemed to be at ease with one another. In fact James seemed to have recovered a happiness and vitality that I'd not seen in him for a couple of years. All three were chatting as I entered the room, but they broke off their conversation to greet me.
"That was a long hour," Mum said with a knowing smile.
John giggled and whispered something to James, who seemed very amused.
"It was less than an hour and a half," I protested, blushing.
"But I still won my bet!" John said triumphantly.
"John bet James a pound that it would be closer to ten thirty than to ten fifteen by the time you got home," Mum explained.
"Oh!" I said with a guilty smile. "Sorry, James."
"That's okay," James replied with a grin. "I don't have any money, so I can't pay him anyway."
"How's Dad?" I asked, suddenly remembering he'd gone to bed before I left.
"He's fine now," Mum said. "His headache's gone, but he decided to stay in bed and have an early night."
"So when did you get home?" I asked, looking at John.
"About an hour ago."
"And how's Marie?" I asked, partly to tease him.
"Fine," John replied with a tinge of irritation in his voice.
He glared at me and frowned in annoyance, but otherwise didn't rise to the bait.
"The boys are having a bit of supper," Mum said to me. "Do you want anything?"
"Mmm, please. A ham sandwich and some tea would be nice, but I can get it myself."
Mum insisted on preparing my supper and stood up to fill the kettle. I sat at the table and asked what they'd been talking about before I'd arrived.
"We were discussing James' future," Mum said over her shoulder.
"I'm not going back," James said with a determined frown. "Anyway, Dad wouldn't let me back."
"You still haven't told us exactly why he won't," Mum said.
Looking very uncomfortable and unhappy, James blushed, stopped eating, and stared at his plate. Mum continued making the sandwiches, and for several seconds no one spoke.
"I... I can't tell you," James said, his voice beginning to crack.
"You don't have to tell us yet," Mum said kindly as she turned to face him, "but we'll not be able to help you very much unless we know at least a little bit."
James looked around the room like a trapped animal, and for a moment I was worried that he might run away. Then his gaze came to rest on me.
"How about if I tell Paul everything first, then maybe tell the rest of you later?"
John looked disappointed and a little hurt that James had chosen to confide in me rather than in him, but I knew that he was concerned for James and would be relieved that he was at least prepared to talk to someone.
"I'm sure that will be fine," Mum said. "And don't worry, you can stay here as long as you need to. Now as soon as you boys finish eating you should get ready for bed. Don't forget, it's school tomorrow."
"The last week of term," I commented with a grin.
"Yaayyy!!" John exulted.
"Do I have to go?" asked an unhappy James.
"Well, how do you feel?" Mum asked. "I'm not your parent and I have no legal control over you, so I can't give you permission to stay off school, but if you don't feel up to it I suppose you can stay away tomorrow. You should go in for the rest of the week, though, or the teachers might start asking questions."
"What about clothes?" James asked. "I only had one change of clothes in my backpack, and they're dirty. I can't keep borrowing John's."
"Course you can!" John said.
"Well, anyway, you shouldn't need to," I said. Then I had an idea and added, "You still have a key to your house, don't you?"
"But Dad..." James began.
"Won't he be at work tomorrow?" I interrupted. "What time will he be home?"
"Usually about six."
"Right then," I said, "as soon as I get home from school, we'll take the car round to your house and collect whatever you need."
"Really?" James asked, beaming a smile at me. "Thanks, Paul, that'd be great!"
"Well," Mum said, "that might be a short-term solution but we still have to consider the long-term... the legal situation, for example."
"I won't talk to the police!" James said with determination.
I thought he was going to add something else, but whatever it was, he restrained himself.
"But there are other legal problems as well," Mum said patiently as she handed me a mug of tea. "You're only fifteen, so your dad is still responsible for you..."
"He said he doesn't want to see me again and that I'm not his son anymore." James interrupted.
"He can say what he likes," Mum continued calmly, "but it doesn't change the legal situation."
"What exactly is the legal situation?" John asked in a puzzled tone.
I was just beginning to wonder that myself when I had my second idea. Maybe it was the stimulating effects of the tea.
"Why don't I ask Dan's dad when I see him tomorrow night?" I suggested. "He's a lawyer and he'll know what we should do."
"Will I have to tell him everything?" James asked me quietly, looking scared and almost on the edge of panic.
"I guess he'll need to know all the relevant stuff," I said.
"How do I know what's relevant?" James asked me with a worried frown. After thinking for a few moments he added, "Maybe if I tell you first, you can help me decide?"
"Okay," I said dubiously, wondering how I, with no legal knowledge, could help him make that decision.
James made no suggestion about when he might want to talk to me privately, and I didn't want to put any pressure on him, so I didn't take the matter any further. When we'd all finished eating, it was after eleven o'clock and time for bed. I offered to clear up the supper dishes, but Mum insisted on doing it herself, so James, John and I went upstairs.
Normally when we had visitors John would move into my room, but as it was late we didn't want to be changing the bed linen. Also, we had no idea how long James was staying, so it was decided that James would have the spare bed in my room. James seemed very happy with that arrangement and even commented that he wouldn't want to displace anyone from their own bed. James was first to start getting ready for bed, and while he was in the bathroom, John approached me with an annoyed frown.
"I wish you wouldn't keep going on about Marie," he hissed angrily, "especially not in front of James.
"Why not?" I asked, surprised at his reaction to my gentle teasing.
"Well, first, why make a big deal just cos I've got a girlfriend? D'ya think I don't deserve one?" he said. He lowered his voice even further before continuing, "And second, James just told me he broke up with his girlfriend, so he's a bit touchy on the subject of girls just now."
"Of course you deserve a girlfriend!" I said to placate him. "And I didn't know about James breaking up with his, but I'll take more care in future."
He nodded and seemed reasonably content with my response, so we said 'goodnight' and went to our own rooms. I wondered if breaking up with his girlfriend was really the reason why James had been 'touchy on the subject of girls' with John.
When James began undressing for bed, I didn't want him to feel embarrassed, so I went to take my turn in the bathroom. On my return, I saw that he was already in bed, and that because it was a warm July night, he had the duvet covering only the lower half of his body. Despite the bruises and the fact that he was thinner than average, I couldn't help noting that he'd developed into an attractive young man. He gave me a cute little smile as I entered the room and shut the door, so of course I returned his smile, but neither of us said anything. He didn't look at all sleepy, and his eyes followed me across the room to my bed. Although I was used to thinking of him as another little brother, I began to feel uncomfortable at the thought of undressing in front of him, so I turned off the lights.
When Dan and I slept together, I always slept naked, of course, and after that it just felt so natural that I had started to go to bed naked every night. However, because James was in the room, that night I decided to get into bed with my boxers on, and as I snuggled down I said 'goodnight' to him. There was a long pause before he responded, but I was too tired to give it much thought and was soon asleep.
Most school mornings I start the day on autopilot, and that last Monday of term was no exception. I turned the alarm off, stared blearily at the ceiling for a couple of minutes, then got out of bed and headed for the shower. As usual, before leaving my bedroom I grabbed a towel intending to use it to hide my morning stiffy as I crossed the hallway. It was then that I became sufficiently awake to remember I wasn't alone in the room, and I also realised that my stiffy was sticking out of the flies on my boxers. I quickly glanced towards the spare bed, hoping James was still asleep, but I was extremely embarrassed to see that he was wide awake and looking at me with a big grin. Wrapping the towel around my waist, I threw him a swift 'good morning' and fled the room before he could say anything.
While I showered, I wondered why I should have been so embarrassed in front of James. After all, I thought of him as just another 'brother' like John and Mike, and I wouldn't have been embarrassed in front of them. Perhaps it was because I'd never before shared a bedroom with James, or maybe it was because I knew that he was attracted to boys. Returning to my room wrapped in my towel, I avoided looking at him and dressed with my back to him. When I was ready to go down to breakfast, James was still in bed, but I'd expected that because I knew he was taking the day off school to recuperate. Before leaving the room I reminded him that I'd be back home a little after four o'clock and that we'd arranged to pick up his things from his house.
As it was the last week of term, the lessons didn't contain much new material, and I was pleased that we had no homework at all. When I got back home James was ready and waiting, so John and I didn't bother changing out of our uniforms before I drove the three of us over to James' house. Fortunately, as we expected, his dad wasn't home and we quickly loaded up the car. As it happened, John's presence wasn't needed at all because James wouldn't let either of us into the house. So James did all the fetching and carrying, and John's only role was to keep me company while James was inside. When James came out of the house with the final load, I was very surprised at how little he'd put into the car. Apart from clothes, there were only a few books and a handful of CDs.
"What about the rest of your stuff?" I asked.
"Rest?" he frowned. "There's only the furniture left, and I can't take that."
John, who had been flicking through James' CDs, looked up in surprise.
"Don't you even have a CD player?" he asked.
"No. Dad has a stereo system in the living room and he sometimes let me use that as long as he wasn't home."
"As long as he wasn't home?" I echoed.
"Yeah. He said he doesn't want to have to listen to my crap."
John and I looked at one another, and I'm sure we were thinking the same thing. Each of us could have easily filled several carloads with our personal belongings, but with all of James' things in the car, there was still plenty of room for the three of us. It was a bit sad, really, since we knew that James' father was not poor and had a well-paid job with a firm of accountants. In a way, though, it was fortunate that James didn't have too much stuff because what he did have just about fit into my bedroom. While James and I found appropriate storage places, John went for his shower.
"Are you going out tonight?" James asked me as he put away the last of his clothes.
"Yeah, I'm having dinner at Dan's."
"Oh," he said with obvious disappointment. "I was hoping we could have that, er, talk before you spoke to Dan's dad."
"Ah, right," I said, remembering my promise. "Well tonight I'll just see if he'll agree to help, but I'm sure he will. In any case, he won't need to know the details just yet. Maybe we can chat when I get back?"
"That'd be great, Paul," he said with a huge smile. "Thanks."
"No problem. Will you be okay till then?"
"Yeah, John's staying home, and Mike said he'd be over after dinner."
The conversation ground to a halt and we stood between the two beds looking at one another, not knowing quite what to say to fill the silence that was growing uncomfortably long. Having put everything away, I was waiting for John to finish in the shower, so I started to pick out the clothes I intended to wear for the evening. James sat down on what was now his bed and watched as I flicked through my wardrobe. Lost in the difficult process of making decisions about what to wear, I wasn't looking at James, and at first didn't hear this sniffs until they began to turn into quiet sobs. Turning to look at him, I saw that he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his knees together and his clasped hands resting on his thighs. His head was bowed as if he was studying his hands, and his shoulders shook in time with his sobs.
My initial reaction was embarrassment, and I didn't know what to do. I was considering leaving the room to give him some privacy, but then I remembered what Dan had said about James needing hugs. In my family giving hugs was not a common event, and I didn't exactly feel comfortable with the idea. However, James was my friend, and I trusted Dan's instincts, so I sighed, went to sit next to James and put my arm over his shoulder.
Instead of reducing his sobbing as I'd hoped and expected, his shoulders began to heave even more, and he leaned over to bury his face in my chest. Still feeling a little embarrassed, I brought my other arm over to complete the embrace and squeezed as gently as I could to avoid hurting his bruised body. The previous day, when I'd hugged him in the den, I hadn't been at all embarrassed, but this felt different, maybe because we were in my bedroom.
As he continued to cry, I stroked his light brown hair. Although his hair was so short that its appearance could almost be described as stubble, its texture was as soft as velvet. Not knowing what to say, I just made the small soothing noises that one might use with a crying baby. His weeping was beginning to subside when John, with a towel round his waist, came into my room to tell me he'd finished in the bathroom. He frowned, and with an expression of concern that seemed to be mixed with disappointment, he left the room.
Although I was eager to have my shower and go to see Dan, I didn't want to leave James while he was so upset, so I gently rocked him in my arms. After a few minutes like this, he gradually stopped crying and looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes.
"What for?" I asked.
"Everything... and for holding me. No one's held me like that since Mum died."
I wondered to myself how Dan could possibly have known how much James needed a hug. Yet again, I was amazed at how lucky I was to have such a sensitive and caring boyfriend.
"What about your girlfriend?"
He looked toward the door as if to ensure we weren't being overheard, then he gave me a sheepish smile before responding.
"Never had one," he said. "At least not a proper girlfriend. I had a good friend who was a girl, but we only ever held hands."
"Yeah, we broke up last week. She said she wanted to be more than friends and we ended up arguing."
"Didn't you fancy her?"
"I s'pose so, just a bit, but I love someone else," he said looking embarrassed.
From the tension in his body and the expression on his face, I could tell that he wasn't ready to say more about this 'someone else'.
"And would you have to love her to be more than friends?" I asked, half teasing.
"Of course!" he said forcefully, apparently a little insulted by my question.
"Okay," I said soothingly and smiled. "I was just wondering."
Seemingly satisfied with my response, he put his head back on my chest, and I squeezed his shoulders, resting my chin on the crown of his head. After a couple of minutes, James looked up at me again, then gently pulled himself from my embrace.
"Sorry," he said with a sad smile.
"Well, for crying like a big baby," he said, then he pointed to my shirt and added. "And for getting your shirt all wet."
"Nothing wrong with crying..."
"Ha! That's not what my dad says!" he interrupted bitterly.
"And anyway, I'll be taking the shirt off to go for my shower."
"Oh! I forgot you were going out," he said guiltily. "You'd better get moving."
Although I was reluctant to leave him, I didn't want to be late for dinner with Dan and his parents, so I stood up.
"You sure you'll be okay?" I asked.
"Yes, thanks. I'm fine now. Can I have a quick wash of my face before you go for your shower?"
"Yeah, of course," I said with a smile, "and when you get back feel free to help yourself to my TV and stereo."
"Okay, thanks," he said as he too stood up. "But first I'll probably go and see if John wants to play a game on his computer."
During dinner at Dan's house we chatted about all sorts of things, but especially the long summer holiday. Dan and his mum were their usual effusive and talkative selves, whereas his dad, though still friendly, was quieter and more reserved. However, by that time I knew the family well enough to realise that Mr Harris' behaviour was his natural state and nothing to do with my presence. While I was waiting for a suitable time to bring up the subject of James and request the help of Dan's dad, I had a surprise.
"We've planned a family holiday in Scotland this year," Dan's dad said, "and we'll be renting a cottage on the Isle of Skye for a couple of weeks. Would you like to join us?"
From the way Dan and his mum were grinning, I guessed that they had been expecting this invitation. They all stopped eating, and his dad smiled pleasantly as he awaited my response.
"Thanks Mr Harris, I'd love to!" I said excitedly. "I'll have to check with Mum and Dad, but I'm sure it'll be okay."
I was overjoyed at the invitation because it meant that I wouldn't have to spend those two weeks without Dan, and an additional attraction was that, apart from a long weekend in Edinburgh, I had never been to Scotland before. Those positive points far outweighed the slight nervousness I felt at the prospect of spending two whole weeks with his parents.
"There's only one problem," his mum said, frowning and pretending to be concerned, but failing to suppress a smile, "there are only two bedrooms, so you'd have to share with Dan."
"But don't worry," his dad chipped in as he tried to maintain a poker face, "there are two beds in the room."
"Double beds!" Dan exclaimed happily.
Judging from the expressions on their faces, I doubt that anyone expected both beds to be used.
While we ate dessert, I told them about James and how his father had thrown him out of the house. Although I didn't mention his sexuality, I did point out that at the moment I was still waiting to find out the whole story. However, they agreed that we already knew enough about James and his father to be sure that James needed help. Mr Harris, who was outraged at the way James had been treated, pointed out that James' dad had a legal responsibility to support him until he was sixteen, or as long as he was in full-time education. He also told us that if the police were involved, then they would contact Social Services, and it was likely that James would be taken into care.
When I told him that James was safe now and welcome to stay at my house for as long as he wanted, Mr Harris said that it would probably be best to leave things as they were for a few days. That way, emotions could cool down, I could find out more from James about what had happened, and we could all make a more rational decision about what to do. He then said that if at that stage some legal action were required, he'd be glad to help.
Having sorted out James' situation, at least temporarily, we finished our meal, and Dan and I excused ourselves and went upstairs to his room. While we kissed and cuddled on his bed, I told him about James crying in my bedroom, something I'd not mentioned during dinner. I also told him what James said about not being hugged since his mum died.
"So how did ya know James needed a hug?" I asked as I rolled on top of him.
"Dunno, really. I guess I just felt it. Ya know, like you can look into someone's eyes and tell if they are happy or in pain."
"Can you?" I asked in amazement.
"Yes," he said looking puzzled, "can't you?"
"Not sure, really," I replied dubiously. "Not usually, anyway."
"Oh, well," he said, apparently mildly surprised, "it just seemed so obvious to me that James desperately needed a hug. I would've hugged him myself, but as he hardly knew me I thought it might freak him out and make things worse. So I told you instead."
The calm and reasonable way he made that statement, as if it was all so obvious, left me mute with wonder, so I just lowered my face to his and kissed him deeply. The love I felt for Dan filled my whole being so that it seemed as if I might burst, and I realised that what I'd felt for Rob was nothing compared to my love for Dan. I was amazed that I'd been so naive in thinking I'd been in love with Rob at all.
"I love you," I said as I broke off the kiss.
"I love you, too." He grinned and pulled me back down for another kiss.
When I got back home, I immediately went to take another shower as it was a hot and sticky night and I was all sweaty from rolling around on Dan's bed. We hadn't got naked and we hadn't intended to get too excited, but grinding our hips together had made me cum in my pants. Seeing my face and feeling my cock pulsing during my orgasm made Dan cum as well, and although we'd cleaned ourselves up in his bathroom, I felt the need for a proper shower. Mike, John and James were in John's room, and I managed to get into the bathroom before they could waylay me. I was back in my room and had just finished putting on a clean T-shirt and shorts when the three of them entered.
"Hey, you!" said Mike.
"Hey, you, too," I responded with a grin.
"Another shower?" John asked suspiciously.
"Yeah, it's hot and sticky tonight," I replied, blushing.
"Sticky being the operative word, I bet!" Mike teased.
They all wore irritatingly knowing smiles, and my face burned even hotter.
"So what've you lot been up to?" I asked in order to change the subject.
"Mostly playing on John's computer," James replied.
"Yeah, it was just like old times," Mike remarked happily.
James seemed a little uncomfortable at that, and there was a brief silence.
"Did you talk to Dan's dad about helping James?" asked John.
"Yes, he said he'd be glad to help."
As I began to tell them all about my discussion with Dan's dad, Mike and I sat on my bed, facing John and James who sat on the other bed. When I reached the part about cooling off to see how things turn out, James interrupted me.
"It doesn't matter how long you wait, I'm not going back to my dad. I'd rather go into care."
"Don't worry, James," I said. "It won't come to that. You can stay here as long as you like."
"I can't stay here forever," James muttered.
"Why not?" asked John, voicing the question for the rest of us.
"Cos, cos I can't," James said very quietly. "Anyway, it's not fair to expect your parents to look after me and pay for food and everything."
"That's okay," I said, "cos Dan's dad said that your dad has to support you at least until you're sixteen..."
"But I'm not going back!" James said in a strangled voice as he obviously held back his tears.
"You don't have to go back to be supported," I said to make him feel better.
From my discussion with Dan's dad, I was almost certain my statement was correct. In any case, although the three of them seemed to accept it, we still sat there in an uncomfortable silence until Mike stood up.
"Well, I'd better be going home, cos I promised to phone Sally before ten thirty," he said. He turned to James he added, "I'll come over at eight fifteen and we can go to school together, okay?"
James smiled without much enthusiasm and nodded 'yes'. I was sure that James was glad that Mike would be coming over for him and that his lack of enthusiasm was at the prospect of going to school. Mike rubbed the back of James' head, said good-bye to us, and went home.
"Is it okay if I go for a shower now?" James asked hesitantly as soon as Mike had gone.
"Sure," I replied with a smile. "This is your home now, as we already said. Just relax and treat this like your own house."
"But at my own house I always had to ask before I could use the shower in case Dad wanted the hot water."
"Oh, well," I said, "there's always plenty of hot water here, so just help yourself."
I tried to maintain a cheerful tone, even though I was saddened by the thought of what James' home life had apparently been like since his mum died. When James left the room I stood up to start getting my school uniform ready for the next day, and I'd expected John might do the same, but instead he remained seated on the bed.
"I noticed that you were hugging James earlier," he said with a slightly sulky tone.
"He was upset," I said. "I was just comforting him, that's all."
"Of course I know that's all it was!" he said irritably.
"So why mention it?"
"Well, I thought I was... at least used to be... his best friend. Why didn't he come to me?"
There was hurt as well as concern in John's voice, and it seemed to me that he was making a mountain out of a molehill.
"He didn't come to me," I pointed out. "I just happened to be there when he was upset. Anyway, would you have given him a hug?"
His initial expression of confusion changed to discomfort before he replied.
"Maybe... I dunno," he said hesitantly. He became a little sulky as he added, "But anyway, why did he want to tell you before he tells anyone else what happened last Friday? Why not tell me?"
"I'm not sure," I said, not totally truthfully. "Maybe cos I'm older and he thinks I can give him better advice."
"Then why not tell Mum?"
"Maybe he thinks she won't understand."
"Maybe it's because of what we did together..."
"Don't be silly!" I interrupted. "How could his fight with his dad be related to you two messing about more than two years ago?"
"I dunno," he said sadly, "but tonight I realised how much I missed the good times we had when we were best friends. And the good times ended after we, er, ya know."
"But that was when his mum died too, so maybe that had something to do with it," I suggested.
"I s'pose," he said, not entirely convinced. He stood up and added, "Anyway, I'd better get ready for tomorrow. G'night."
As he left the room, I realised I was feeling quite tired, so I went downstairs to say goodnight to my parents. By the time I got back upstairs, James was already in bed, so I closed the door.
"Can we talk now?" James asked.
"Yeah, sure. We can chat before we settle down to sleep."
I turned away from him as I stripped down to my boxers and got into my bed. The only light in the room now was the table lamp on the bedside cabinet between our two beds. Because of the location of the light with respect to our heads, the glare meant we couldn't see one another's faces, so I just lay on my back, put my hands behind my head, and stared at the ceiling.
"Ready when you are," I said.
There was a long pause before he began to speak.
"About last Friday... I guess if I tell you about that, you won't tell anyone?"
"I wont tell anyone anything you dont want me to."
"Okay, well Friday night I went to a party. One of the kids I know from school has an older brother who has his own house, and when I was invited to the party I thought it would be great cos there would be lots of free booze..."
"Booze?" I interrupted. "I didn't know you were into booze. You're only just fifteen."
I knew there were some teenagers around the town, and even some from my school, who often got drunk but I was surprised that James should be one of them.
"Yeah, well Dad gets drunk most nights, so I reckon I can have an occasional drink!" he said defensively, then he sighed and continued, "Anyway, I only started after we came back from Alton Towers. I just felt so bad about myself and I found that if I drank enough I wouldn't have to think about anything at all. And even a hangover gave me something else to think about."
"Well, I hope you don't get drunk while you're here or Mum and Dad will go through the roof!"
"Don't worry, I won't. Look, do you want me to tell you, or what?" he said, sounding a bit exasperated.
"Okay. Carry on."
"Right, well there was loads of booze at the party and it wasn't long before I got totally out of my brain. I fell asleep on a chair in the living room and that's all I remember till I was woken up by a cop. He told me they'd raided the house and found people upstairs taking drugs, and he asked me if I had any. Of course I said no. I mean, I may have been drunk, but I wasn't that drunk!"
"Have you ever done drugs?" I asked with concern.
"No! Only alcohol, and after this weekend I won't be doing that again for a long time. Anyway, the policeman explained to me that he had a warrant to search the house, and that included me. When he searched me, of course he didn't find anything, so he passed me over a policewoman who took me outside to a police car. Then she gave me a long lecture about alcohol and stuff and 'look how it nearly got you involved with drugs'..."
"And she was right," I interrupted.
"Yeah, I know. Well, after a few minutes talking to me she drove me home. I was still so drunk that we were half way home before I realised what my dad would do when he found out, and I almost wet myself in the back of the car. When we got to my house it took ages for my dad to answer the door, and when he did he was as drunk as I was. She told him they'd found me drunk in a house with drugs but that although I was drunk, I wasn't involved with the drugs. Then, before she left, she gave him a long lecture about looking after me properly..."
"So that's what gave your dad the idea to tell people you do drugs?"
"Yeah, I s'pose. Anyway, while the cop was talking to him, I could see he was getting more and more furious, and as soon as she left he started beating the crap out of me. Actually, he stopped hitting me sooner than I expected and he went upstairs. At first I thought he'd gone to bed, but then he shouted something about searching my room for drugs, and I knew I was in even deeper shit."
"Deeper shit? But..."
"Well, of course there were no drugs," he interrupted, guessing what I was going to say, "but in one of my drawers was a stash of, er, gay stuff."
"Not real porn or anything!" he protested. "Just a couple of magazines, a few pics, a book of stories. Ya know, that sort of stuff. Anyway, he was tearing my room apart and wrecking everything, and it didn't take him long to find it. When he saw it he went totally ballistic and started hitting me again, harder than he'd ever done before. He said there was no place for queers in his house or in his family, and that I was even more evil and sinful than my brother."
He paused and I could hear him sniffing back tears, so I just waited until he was ready to continue.
"I think I must've blacked out, cos the next thing I remember, I was on the floor and he was kicking me. There was blood everywhere and I guess it was lucky I was drunk because the pain wasn't as bad as I expected. When I tried to get up and run away, he stopped kicking me and told me that if I wasn't out of the house before morning, he'd kill me. That's when he said he'd tell everyone I was a druggie so no one would take me in. After that, he punched and kicked me a few more times, but then he must've got tired cos he just spat on me and went to bed. As soon as he left me alone, I went to the bathroom and washed off as much blood as I could. Then I put on fresh clothes, stuffed some more clothes in my backpack, and ran out."
His last few sentences had been broken up by deep, wrenching sobs, and I knew he needed to be comforted. Aware that I was wearing only my boxers, I got out of bed and put on my dressing gown before going over to James' bed. He was sitting up in bed, but bending forward with his face in his hands, so I sat next to him and put my arm over his shoulder.
"It's okay now. You're safe here," I said as I squeezed his shoulder.
Well, it may not have been the most inspired thing to say, but he'd obviously had a really tough time, and I felt I had to say something. He turned toward me, put his arms around my waist, and buried his head in my chest. As he cried in my arms, the last two years seemed to evaporate, and once again he became another little brother. We stayed like that for several minutes, neither of us speaking.
"What can I do?" he sniffed eventually.
"Do?" I echoed stupidly, confounded by the breadth of the question.
"My dad doesn't want me, and I'm not going back even if he did."
"Well, we want you!" I said, surprising myself with the depth of my feelings. "You don't need to go back cos Mum and Dad said you can stay here."
"But what should I tell them?"
"Everything you've told me. Apart from your little drinking binge, you've not done anything to be ashamed of. Mum and Dad will believe you if you tell them you're not a druggie, and they don't care whether you fancy boys or girls."
I paused for a few moments, and then a thought occurred to me. "So you had 'gay stuff' in your room, erm, didn't you say you fancy girls as well?"
"Yeah, I can get a, ya know, a stiffy, if I think about boys or girls."
"But you didn't have any 'naughty' pictures of girls?"
"You prefer boys then?" I asked tentatively, trying to sort things out in my own mind.
"I prefer one boy. I got the gay mags and stories so I could pretend that it was, ya know, him and me doing stuff."
His voice, already muffled by my chest, died away to almost nothing as he finished that last sentence. He'd stopped crying, and we hugged one another in silence for a while, until I had a disturbing thought.
"Have you ever done stuff with that boy?" I asked.
It was partly out of curiosity, but I was beginning to suspect who the boy in question was, and if I was correct then I realised that James would need even more help. There was a long silence, and at first I thought he wouldn't answer, so I decided not to pursue the matter. Then he looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes.
"Promise not to tell anyone?"
"I've already promised that I'll never tell anyone anything you say unless you give me permission. Dye want me to promise again?" I asked and smiled gently.
"No, s'okay," he said, giving me his special little smile. "Yes, we did just mess around a coupla times."
He put his head back on my chest, and I almost didn't dare to ask my next question, but I really had to know.
"Have you ever messed around with anyone else?"
"No!" he said so loudly that I could feel the vibrations in my chest.
My question had obviously shocked him, but his answer confirmed my suspicions and made my heart sink. The boy he was in love with was my brother John, who could only ever love James as his friend, and I realised that James was in a difficult position and was doomed to unavoidable heartache. There was nothing I could do to help, except to let him know he wasn't totally alone.
"It's John, isn't it?" I asked with a sigh.
His whole body tensed, and he pulled himself away from me, his face a mask of pure terror. I could see tears begin to brim in his already-red eyes.
"How'd you know?" he croaked and looked as if he was about to flee.
"Hey, calm down," I soothed. "It's okay. I just guessed."
"Ya don't hate me? I can't help it!" he said with panic in his eyes.
I reached out and pulled him back into my arms. At first he resisted a little, then he just collapsed and allowed his head to fall onto my chest. He began to cry again, and although he didn't make much sound, his whole body shook with the sobs. I rocked back and forth, making gentle noises as I tried to comfort this crying child.
"It's okay, it's okay," I cooed. "I know you can't help who you love."
"But it's wrong isn't it? It's evil," he sniffled into my chest.
"I'm gay, and I love another boy. How can you expect me to say it's wrong or evil?"
"My dad said it's evil."
"Your dad said you're a druggie!" I snorted.
"Lots of people say it's bad and, and..."
He ground to a halt, clearly having second thoughts about what he was going to say.
"And?" I prompted after a few seconds of silence.
"And my mum died," he whimpered with such misery that I too began to cry.
"But your mum didn't die because you like boys!" I protested, sniffing back my own tears.
There was another silence, which was so heavy with emotion that my head began to ache. It occurred to me that if I was feeling so bad, then James must have been feeling much worse.
"She died just after I touched his... willy," he whispered.
"That's just coincidence," I said and pulled him up so we were face to face. Then I continued, "James, you can't really believe that touching another boy had anything to do with your mum's death."
"Dad says God punishes sinners," he said, looking at me with dead, hopeless eyes.
"But even if what you did was a sin, God wouldn't punish your mum and all the people who loved her just to punish you, would he?"
"Then why did she die?" he wailed.
"I dunno," I said lamely. "People just die. But I'm sure God doesn't kill one person to punish another."
Then I remembered what James had told me. No one had held him since his mum died. No one had allayed the fears of a twelve-year-old boy who felt guilty at the death of his mother. No one had comforted him or allowed him to grieve in their arms. Today may have been the first time in more than two years that he could show his grief and know that someone really cared.
Even though I told myself that we'd all assumed that his dad would be there for him, and even though I was only a kid myself when his mum died, I still felt guilty. This boy was like another brother, and I'd allowed him to drift away, not even noticing his pain. 'So much for our Gang of Four!' I thought bitterly as my own sobs blended with his.
"I'm sorry!" I said hoarsely, when I could eventually speak. "I'm sorry!"
After several more seconds, James raised his head and looked at me, a puzzled expression mixed with the misery on his face.
"What're you sorry for?"
"Cos we were your friends. I'm your friend. And we.. I wasn't there when you needed a friend. For two years I didn't even notice you needed a friend."
As I said this, I realised that the first time Dan had spoken to James, he'd realised that James needed a hug, and I wished that I'd met Dan sooner. Deep in my heart I knew without doubt that if Dan had seen James two years ago, he would have known that James needed comforting and would have done something about it. Dan would not have allowed me to neglect my friend.
James put his head back on my chest and hugged my waist tightly. For a long time we sat there, crying together and embracing, but eventually we were both drained and could cry no longer. I felt a little better then, as if some of my guilt had been washed away by my tears, and I hoped that James' tears had washed away some of his pain.
There was one more topic that I wanted to discuss that night, and that involved James' feelings for John. Those feelings, which I knew could not be returned, were likely to bring even more pain to James, and I hoped I could find a way to minimise it. As I was trying to think of the right way to bring up that topic, I noticed that James was completely relaxed in my arms and that his breathing was slow and regular. I realised that he'd fallen asleep.
As he was already sitting up in his bed, with the lower half of his body under the light summer duvet, it was relatively easy for me to lower him onto his back and pull the duvet up to his chest. He mumbled something but didn't wake up fully, so I kissed his forehead, went to my own bed, and turned off the light. The rest of our talk would have to wait.
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