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Trick? Or Treat?

by Nico Grey

In the early twilight of the final day of October, the world outside my bedroom window was illuminated in shades of gloom.

The encroachment of cold weather had already turned our lawn a mangy color somewhere between sepia and taupe. The few leaves clinging to the oaks and maples that bordered the back of our property were long dead. The pool was shut down for winter and our patio furniture stored away in the large lawn shed that resembled a mausoleum.

A streak of black out by the deck caught my eye as Casper, our cat, leaped onto the rail. From his perch, he cast a baleful eye on the sporadic flurries of snow drifting down from an overcast sky. In the waning light the few snowflakes, and the occasional leaves blown off trees by the chill October wind, resembled falling ash. The iron-lit scene matched my mood: heavy and grey.

Here I was, in my freshman year of high school, on the cusp of adulthood, and my Halloween plans were already made for me... by my mother. And, I'm sure it goes without saying, they weren't anything I would have planned for myself.

For the past three years my older sister had been charged with taking her younger siblings out for Halloween. But Meghan was sneaky. She had her own car now. She made her holiday plans early. And when her firm resolve to stick to her guns - and her plans - didn't look likely to stand up to Mother's relentless insistence, she had worked her wiles on our father and managed to scamper free of all responsibility.

Meghan would enjoy the evening's festivities with friends rather than in her customary Halloween role of shepherding our younger brother Sean and his friend trick-or-treating from door to door, and from there into sugary oblivion.

Robbed of her first victim, Mother made it very clear that I had no choice. My pleas of vague - and frankly, imaginary - plans for the evening were dismissed with a distracted roll of her eyes. My argument that Sean, almost thirteen, was old enough to go out on his own, was ignored. I would spend the evening traipsing around the neighborhood with Sean and Riley. I wanted to scream.

It wasn't that Sean was difficult. He was actually a pretty cool kid... for a younger brother. And he and Riley, while just starting seventh grade, were barely fifteen months younger than me. It was usually fun to spend time with them. Whenever they were around, they often corralled me into joining in their activities. I liked both of them.

It would be really good to see Riley again. He and Sean had been the very best friends since they met in kindergarten, Riley practically living here at times, until a mysterious falling out at the end of the last school year had kept them apart for much of the past four months. No one really knew what started the conflict, or how Riley felt about it, but Sean's mood here at home had fluctuated between hostile and morose, until the start of the school year. Then their renewed partnership as star midfielders on the school soccer team had led to a thaw in relations. Getting together once again to go out trick-or-treating together was definitely a positive sign. Our entire family was pleased.

But here I was, fourteen years old, and any thoughts I had of spending my first Halloween as an adult, perhaps out engaged in mischief with friends, had been scuppered. Run aground on the reef of my mother's sense of the responsibility that I should feel toward her youngest child, and on her steely will. When Mom made her mind up about something, the only safe response was submission. But I didn't have to like it... as long as I made sure to voice my protests completely silently.

Living in rural Vermont, Halloweens never got too outrageous. But there had to be something I could have been doing. Jason was a kid in my class who lived about a half mile down the road. He was probably already out making mischief. Or my other friend from school, Fred - Jorgensen, I think his name was - Fred was always into some sort of trouble at school. He was probably going to have a wild time tonight.

But I wasn't going to be part of any of that. Jeez! What kind of loser is sitting at home on Halloween evening? There's the ordinary kind, who will simply be spending the night alone, and then there's the megadweeb loser who is quietly waiting to dutifully trail behind his younger brother and friend while they go out trick-or-treating! And in case that didn't make everything clear, I've never been ordinary in my life.


I was resigned to my fate. There was no way I was getting out of taking Sean and Riley trick-or-treating.

And I was a megadweeb loser.

A few minutes after five o'clock I heard the front door of the house blow open... immediately followed by the arrival of a hurricane. Sean called an excited greeting to Mom, then came bounding up the stairs. The sound of Mom's voice trailed after him. He stopped to stick his head through the door of my bedroom. His ordinarily-gold hair was dyed black and slicked back. His makeup- and a few pieces of costume were already in place- suggesting something... vampiric?

"What's with the look, Count Vlad?" I inquired.

"It's not Dracula", Sean scoffed. "I'm going as Edward Cullen. You know, from Twilight."

"Oh", I replied, marginally enlightened. What's Twilight? "What happened to Batman? Did Riley get both costumes in the divorce settlement?" It was probably taking a bit of a risk to tease him like that. In response to my jibe Sean affected indifference. But I could see the flush of pink rise in his neck and into his hairline- one of the hazards of our fair complexion- and for just a moment I felt a bit of sympathy for him. "And where is the Boy Wonder?"

"Ta da!" Riley forced his head under Sean's arm and into my room. His dark hair looked a bit longer than it had the last time I saw him, but he wasn't any taller. He was grinning broadly but I thought I detected a hint of uncertainty in his brown eyes. "Aren't you glad to see me?"

"Of course I am, Riley. We've all missed you." And I was pleased to see the excitement reach his eyes then. "What happened to the Dynamic Duo? How are the neighbors going to recognize you two without your usual costumes?"

Sean and Riley exchanged a glance that seemed to convey thoughts that only they understood. "Oh, I guess we're too old for that kids' stuff with matching costumes. And Riley wanted to wear a special costume this year. He's going as Spider-Man."

"The Amazing Spider-Man!" Riley corrected.

Both Sean and I laughed at Riley's enthusiasm.

"So I decided I'd go as a vampire. It's probably our final Halloween trick-or-treating. I figured I should go as something that lives forever." Sean glanced down the hall to his room. "We need to finish getting our costumes together so we can leave before seven". He turned away.

Riley assumed Sean's post in my doorway. He didn't say anything, just watched me with an expression of intense excitement.

"It really is good to see you, Riley. How was your summer?"

"Not great. I missed everyone." He looked sad and a little abashed. "I wanted to come over and see you guys so many times, but my mom said it would be better for me and Sean to work things out gradually, when circumstances naturally brought us face-to-face. She thought just coming over might set everything off again."

I really wanted to ask what happened with him and Sean, but I figured I would hear all about it eventually now that the ice was thawing. So I took a hint from his mom and went with less direct. "Well I'm glad you and Sean are starting to work it out. We got the Dynamic Duo back together for Halloween!"

"We got the whole gang back together," Riley enthused, the electricity rising in his eyes and keeping us connected for an extended time.

"That's cool, Riley. But no big deal. It's just Halloween." I'm not sure why I said that. Maybe I was still a bit down because I wouldn't have the opportunity to go out and do something... well... something.

"No way! Tonight is really going to be amazing! I've been looking forward to it for weeks!" The electricity in his eyes increased in intensity. And it was infectious. I couldn't help grinning back at him as he maintained eye contact and started down the hall toward Sean's room. He ran straight into the doorframe, looked startled, giggled with embarrassment, and turned away.

It probably should have surprised me, someone as athletic and coordinated as Riley walking into a door frame. But I didn't really think about it. I've done it a few times before. It just didn't strike me as out of the ordinary.

I couldn't help smiling after Riley left. He often had that effect on me. He was full of energy and fun to be around. He felt like family. And today he had returned home.

My mom liked to say that Riley and Sean were almost like two peas in a pod. They were both exceptional athletes, outstanding students, and really good kids. Both were small. But their talents, good looks and personalities helped them fit in very well socially. They were leaders in their peer groups. And surprisingly, for two talented guys who could both be competitive, they had never come into conflict with each other. Each had a powerful devotion to the other and preferred to sacrifice his own interest rather than have it come into conflict with his best friend.

After Sean and Riley turned nine, they tried out for Little League baseball together the following spring. Both ended up on the same team and their coach immediately selected Riley to play shortstop for the team. And Riley was that good. He became a league All-Star as a ten-year old and the following year.

So rather than pout, or go off in his own direction to seek his own starring role on the team, Sean asked the coach to let him play second base instead. Together the two became a dynamic combination in the center of the infield and helped each other to be even better than they already were.

Riley had done the same for Sean, as well. Toward the end of their sixth grade year, their English teacher had decided that the class had enough talent to perform "Romeo and Juliet" for the Middle School and for their parents. Riley and Sean tried out for Romeo, and Sean won the part. Rather than take one of the other male leads in the play, like Mercutio or Tybalt, Riley asked Miss Segal if he could understudy Sean's Romeo to help him prepare for the role!

That decision took a really weird turn when, a few weeks before they were due to perform, Juliet's understudy and her family suddenly moved out of the school district. Then Cassie, the girl playing Juliet, got sick just before the performance. Rather than have to cancel the show and disappoint everyone, Riley persuaded Miss Segal that, after understudying Romeo for weeks, he also knew all of Juliet's lines and could take on the role. And he was great!

Riley was such a gutsy kid. He wasn't afraid of anything on the athletic field, but even on stage he was fearless!

I was there for the dress rehearsal and main performance, helping to record the show as the only member of the middle school audio-visual club. Riley looked a bit anxious before he took the stage for the first time in front of an audience. But he took a few moments to focus and to gather himself, drew a deep breath, then went right out on stage as if he owned it! I'm not sure if many people in the audience even knew that Juliet was being played by a guy.

But that was Sean and Riley. They loved each other, and each was more important to the other than they were to themselves... until the separation during their summer after sixth grade. It was so difficult that both even sacrificed their final year of eligibility for Little League baseball, each hoping, I guess, that the other would feel comfortable enough to play without the source of tension right beside them.

Their fight was tough for Sean, but probably tougher for Riley. He lived alone with his mom, his dad having been out of the picture as soon as he noticed that the condom had failed. Sean at least had two parents, a brother and a sister to help distract him from the loss. Riley just had his working mom. Ms. Cuorecorragio was a wonderful mother, but she only had so much time for him. The past summer must have been awfully stressful for Riley.

Seeing Sean and Riley back together made me feel really good. I felt good for Sean. I felt good for Riley. I even felt good for me. I loved my brother. But I loved Riley, too. I sometimes wished he could also have been my brother. It was great having Riley back in our home.

I glanced at the clock on my desk - it read quarter to six - and went back to my study of our back yard. It wasn't long before it was almost completely dark out.

I decided that there probably wasn't enough time to read a chapter in a book, and I hadn't bothered to turn my computer on when I got home from school, so I drifted into quiet reflection on our plans for the evening ahead. Since this might be their final year trick-or-treating, I figured the guys would want to keep going door-to-door, chatting with everyone in the neighborhood, until their bags were overflowing. So I prepared for at least a few hours walking up and down our road and the minor roads that intersected it. And I thought briefly about throwing together a costume for myself; maybe as Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, or possibly as Jonah Jameson. But I doubted I could put something decent together before we had to leave.

I was distracted by the sound of my brother's voice. But he wasn't in my doorway again. Due to a peculiarity in the physics of the ventilation system that carries heat throughout our home, and despite the fact that his bedroom is two doors down from mine and on the opposite side of the house, I can hear sound from Sean's room almost as clearly as if I were standing in the room with him. Presumably he can hear what happens in my room as well, although he never said anything about it. On the other hand, I've never said anything to him either. When I'm in my room I just don't say or do anything I wouldn't want overheard. I don't think Sean would ever rat me out to our parents over anything, but he'd probably be willing to have a bit of fun at my expense if he ever overheard me saying or doing anything really embarrassing. I'd rather be safe than sorry.

"So you're really going to do it, Riles?" Sean asked.

I could almost hear Riley's mischievous grin. "Yeah. Make sure you bring your cell phone. And make sure the battery is fully charged."

And that was interesting. Whatever Jason and Fred what's-his-name might be doing tonight, it sounded like I might be taking part in a bit of mischief myself! Or at least I'd be an accessory to mischief.

I leaned a bit closer to the hot air vent.

"It's your funeral," Sean snickered. "But I don't imagine anything really bad will happen. And you'll probably have some fun."

I hunched even closer to the air vent, but all I could hear from Sean's room for the next minute were some vague rustling sounds, like he and Riley were opening bags or changing their clothes.

From downstairs my mother called me.

I trudged down the stairs and into the living room, feigning reluctance. I figured I'd take one last shot at trying to have my evening to myself. But my heart really wasn't in it. I was actually starting to look forward to spending a few hours with Riley, and with Sean.

Mom probably sensed that. She would have been less patient if she thought I was really whining about her decision.

"Oh, honey," Mom sympathized, looking rather sad. "I know this isn't your idea of fun. But thanks for doing this for me. I'd worry about Sean and Riley if they were out there alone. This may be a small town but there's still a lot of danger out there."

I understood that she was playing on my guilt. Mom was an expert manipulator. I made it a point to avoid eye contact.

"Besides, it's good for the boys to see that you care about them this much. You know that Sean looks up to you. You set such a mature example for him." She's evil. "And you've been like an older brother to Riley. You're the good male role model for him that his father never was."

Why was it getter harder to breathe? My eyes started to well up. Oh, yeah! She was really pushing my buttons. And she was winning. Rather than prolong my suffering, I just nodded.

"Okay, Mom. I expect we'll be gone at least a couple of hours. Enjoy your peace and quiet. You've really earned it." I wasn't without a few manipulative resources of my own. I had spent more than fourteen years learning from the best.

After ten minutes of listening to my mother remind me of all the things to be wary of in our quiet neighborhood, and her cautions to make sure that Sean and Riley didn't collect too much candy- did she think they were eight?!- I was more than ready to go.

"Oh! Do you have your cell phone with you," Mom asked. "And is it fully charged?"

What is it about fully-charged cell phones today? I wondered briefly if Mom and Riley might be co-conspirators in... something? I just couldn't begin to figure out what that might be.

Fortunately, Sean and Riley picked that moment to stumble down the stairs, Casper weaving between Riley's legs, then rubbing enthusiastically against him when they arrived in the kitchen and stopped moving. Sean looked at him, smirked, and muttered something about the cat marking his territory again. After a moment, both looked from Mom to me, and their attention lingered intensely on me.

I started to feel anxious. Mom just looked suspicious.

"Do they look like they're up to something?" she asked.

"Maybe." Actually, I was pretty certain of it. "You're the mother. You're supposed to have experience detecting whatever it is your kids are up to."

"It would help if I actually had some experience with devious kids," Mom snorted. "You never have any friends over, so I never learned to read the signs of pre-teen boy conspiracies."

"Hey! Almost teens," Sean interrupted. "We'll both be thirteen in five weeks."

"Perhaps," Mom cautioned. "That depends on what you're planning tonight."

Sean and Riley just exchanged amused glances, then they focused their attention back on me.

Have you ever seen a menacing vampire with an expression like a smirking chimp on his face? I found it... peculiar. And very unsettling. It was harder to read Riley. The blank stare of his Spider-Man mask was inscrutable.

I had become resigned to going trick-or-treating with the guys, then had even started looking forward to it. Now I was having second thoughts again.

Mom had no such thoughts. "Out the door, all of you!" she commanded briskly. "And if I hear about anything happening that shouldn't, I'm going to have a talk with your father and Riley's mother about postponing the teenage thing."

"Don't worry, Mrs. Courtney," Riley told her as we trooped out. "I know I have to behave. My mom was real clear about what she expects from me tonight."

Riley's mom must have made her expectations extremely clear. Usually he calls our mother "Mom", with a cheeky little grin.

My mother smiled and patted Riley on the head as we departed.

"She was real clear, huh?" Sean smirked as we strolled down our driveway.

"Called me 'Riley Matthew Jansen' and everything," Riley insisted. "She never even mentions my father's name unless she's upset with me. I really don't know why she put his name on my birth certificate instead of her own."

"Probably because she knew you would never figure out how to spell Cuorecorragio," Sean chortled.

"Bite me, you twat!" Riley sniped back.

"See? All one-syllable words. Every single one of them. That's more your speed!" Sean's gleeful laughter drifted off into the night.

And we were off.

We lived in a rural area that had been farmland just two generations ago. Today those farms were all gone, subdivided into plots of two-to-ten acres with homes built on them. It was a mixed neighborhood of mostly middle class residents whose wealth was largely tied up in their homes. The surrounding terrain was gently sloped, with small copses of trees scattered across it, a small wood toward the east end of the road, and a minor stream that meandered along the north side of the road for about a third of its length. While it wasn't wilderness, there was still plenty of opportunity for adventure for boys and for people who enjoyed nature.

The road itself was a bit more than two miles long, a connector road between Vermont Route 42 leading northward out of the town center toward Baird's Crossing, and the state highway leading out of the town center toward the northeast. There were a handful of narrow roads and lanes branching off from our road, each serving a small number of residences.

Sean and Riley had already mapped out their route, presumably to maximize their loot and their opportunities to visit with our neighbors. We lived toward the west end of the road, a bit more than a quarter mile from the main road to Baird's Crossing. They figured they should visit the dozen or so homes in that direction first, stopping at the intersection with Route 42 since there really wasn't anyone living near us on the road to Baird's Crossing; Riley's home was almost a mile from the west end of our road and it was only the third house on 42 if you were heading back toward town, so there wouldn't be many opportunities in that direction either.

So at the west end of our road we would turn back east for the bulk of the night's work, continuing all the way to the east end of the road, venturing briefly onto side roads that held decent number of residents as we came to them. The adventure might not have been planned with military precision, but they had clearly put some thought into it.

As soon as we reached the road a gust of chill air hit us. I was glad I had thought to wear a jacket over my sweatshirt. Riley, on the other hand, didn't appear to be wearing any more than his Spider-Man body suit and the Spider-Man backpack that he was carrying instead of a Halloween bag. When I suggested that we return to the home to get something warmer for him, he and Sean exchanged looks before he declined with the suggestion that we just move faster to keep warm.

Twenty minutes later we had finished the brief western leg of the route and were returning back past our home before setting out on the main portion of the adventure. The wind continued to gust intermittently and the air wasn't getting any warmer, so I mentioned again the possibility of stopping by the house for a jacket or a hoodie. Riley seemed to give the idea more consideration this time, but after he and Sean exchanged another long glance he declared that he didn't need any additional clothing.

From time-to-time we ran into other Trick-or-Treaters making their rounds, most of them a bit younger than Sean and Riley. But they did stop to exchange greetings and compare notes on the best houses to visit with a couple of people that they knew from school. The parents supervising these small groups spoke with me politely while the kids were discussing tactics. It sounded like there were a few groups of mischief makers about, but no one reported any serious vandalism yet.

Our first brush with any trouble arrived in the form of six high school guys crammed into an older Chevy Impala. They slowed down and drew even with us.

"Great costumes!" one of them called out. "That nerd costume looks completely realistic."

"Yeah. Fooled me." another chimed in.

This was followed by roars of laughter from inside the car. They tossed a couple of eggs at us as the car accelerated and roared away.

Fortunately the crowded conditions inside the car didn't do anything for their aim.

Sean and Riley shouted after them.

"Hey, wasn't that Fred Torgerson in the back," Riley asked.

"Who?" I didn't know any Fred Torgerson.

"You know," Sean reminded me. "He's in your class. Lives in the trailer park just south of town with his parents and a couple of older brothers."

Well, you learn something new every day. I thought Fred liked me.

We hadn't been walking for much more than forty-five minutes when the light from Riley's flashlight started to fade. That got Sean worried about the strength of the batteries in his flashlight, but I had brought along a lantern with a large six volt battery in it, so I switched it on. Sean wanted me to give it to him- he thought that the shadows he and Riley cast with the light behind them made it harder to see- but I figured that since I was supervising, I really should carry the light. Besides, I had been responsible enough to think to bring an additional light. I thought maybe that should count for something.

Three or four houses later we came across our first evidence of real vandalism. Toilet paper festooned a pair of maple trees guarding the front of a darkened home, several pumpkins were smashed on the front step, and a fairly new model car had its windshield soaped. A mailbox on the corner of one of the side lanes nearby had been almost completely obliterated... so I guess we were lucky that Fred and his buddies hadn't thought to do more than try to egg us.

It was kind of strange to think such destruction represented fun for some people, while the people who lived there would have a lot to clean up in the morning. And the person that owned the mailbox would have to buy and install a new box or go without mail. Even if the owners of the property weren't into the spirit of Halloween, it seemed like a pretty mean 'trick' to play on them.

Riley and Sean didn't say anything, but they did exchange a look like maybe they realized there might be more than fun afoot in the night.

Walking with my light behind Riley and Sean, I started to notice the distinct outline of muscles working in Riley's thighs and backside as he walked in that skintight costume. And every now and then I thought I detected a shudder, like he might be shivering a little in the cool air. It hadn't occurred to me before, but I started to wonder what he might be wearing under that lycra Spider-Man bodysuit.

"Are you guys still doing okay?" I asked. "Are we still good to go, or should we go back to the house for anything before we finish the rest of the route?"

Sean and Riley exchanged glances, a bit longer this time, but insisted that we should press on. Riley added that it might be good if we walked even faster.

We picked up the pace a bit, stopping at houses that had their lights on, but Sean and Riley decided to pass up all of the side roads and just continue to the end of our road.

It's probably best that we did. A hundred yards of so after passing one of those narrow lanes, we heard a loud squeal of tires and looked back to see a car - I think it might have been that Impala - up on two wheels as they turned out of the side lane and onto the main road. The other two wheels landed with a 'thump' and the tires grabbed as the car sped off toward Route 42 in a dense cloud of exhaust. We might have had more than eggs to deal with if we had been on that side road when the car came roaring out.

It was about that point that I started to become more vigilant. Mom's warnings about the dangers that Sean and Riley could face out here alone came back to me as I started to realize that I might face those dangers too! For just a moment I wondered what Mom was thinking, but I guess she just thought me responsible enough to keep us all safe. And that's what I became determined to do.

Every hundred yards or so we stopped at a house, or at small clusters of houses, with lights on. Sean and Riley would go up to the front door, ring the doorbell, and shout "Trick or Treat" to whoever opened the door. They would exchange greetings and a few pleasantries, then Sean would hold out his bag for candy and Riley would turn around to let the homeowner put some candy in his Spider-man backpack. I stood behind them, protectively, and watched for signs of danger on the road... or in the fields... or the trees. I might have started to become a bit paranoid by the time we came to the stretch of road that ran along a smallish stream.

The guys were having fun. They were safe. I was determined to keep them that way.

It did occur to me to wonder, if I did too good a job supervising this adventure, whether I might get roped into accompanying them every year until I graduated high school. But I might have been over-thinking a bit at that point. After all, Sean had already indicated that this might be his last year going trick-or-treating. So hopefully there wouldn't be much downside to doing my job too well.

But aside from the danger from vandals and monsters that go 'bump' in the night, I was getting a bit concerned about Riley. He was visibly shivering at times and his usually-irrepressible enthusiasm was considerably... repressed? When we stopped at a large home well past the mid-way point of the road, he stumbled and tripped as he climbed the steps to the front door.

With my lantern pointed directly at him, as he jack-knifed onto the steps I could see the Spider-Man costume hugging his butt cheeks and stretched deep into his crack. And in the stark light, following the smooth contour of that crack, lower down I was sure I could see... texture; a small bit of fabric gathered inward in the shape of a dimple. Like maybe there wasn't a thing between that little guy's skin and the chill wind except for one very thin, and tightly-stretched, layer of lycra bodysuit.

I was sure of my analysis when he turned around to give the kind older lady who answered the door access to his backpack. The suit was stretch taut over body parts that, while quite shrunken in the cold, were easily identifiable.

When we got back to the road I asked the guys again if it might not make sense to go home. There was more eye contact- at least, I think so, although it was hard to tell with Riley's costume- but they reached the same conclusion, even when I pointed out that I could see how cold Riley was.

Before we moved on, I opened my coat, wrapped it and my arms around Riley, and held him to help warm him up. He shivered in my arms and leaned his head against my shoulder, remaining there for a few minutes until he assured me that he was warm enough to continue. As I fastened my coat back around me, I'm pretty sure my shoulder felt a little damp through the sweatshirt.

We trudged along in the light of my lantern. Riley and Sean had resumed their excited chatter. But every now and again Riley would fall back for a few seconds to walk alongside me and share a few words. We were nearing the end of the road and I offered to hold him again if he felt too cold, but he said that he thought he would be okay for a while.

I wasn't really paying close attention when Sean and Riley started whispering together and looking around at the passing landscape, then glanced back surreptitiously toward me. I was still thinking a bit about things that go 'bump' in the night and worrying a bit about Riley and the cold. So I didn't notice at first when Riley's gait changed and he started making some unusual groaning and moaning noises.

He and Sean were still chattering, kind of glancing in my direction, I guess, when Riley announced that he wasn't feeling well.

"What's wrong," Sean demanded.

"I don't know," Riley replied. "I've never felt this before. There's something weird happening in my stomach."

But when I asked them to stop so we could figure out what was going on, they pointed out that the end of the road was in sight. They thought we could finish the route and then go straight home.

Walking up the path to the final house on our road, the sounds Riley was making were getting a bit more urgent and he was walking partially bent over. And I was starting to have doubts about leading a successful Halloween expedition and bringing Sean and Riley home safely. I sure wasn't ready when Riley turned around to present his backpack to the homeowner and there, right below his stomach, was... a lot more of him than I had seen the last time he turned around.

I must have looked shocked. Riley seemed to notice the direction of my gaze, but he didn't react at all. The homeowner asked if everything was all right and, assuring her that it was, I thanked her and hustled the guys off her porch and into the night.

Riley's gait became even more awkward and his moans grew louder. But at least I had a diagnosis for his problem now. As, uh, excited as he was, walking along and rubbing against the inside of that sheer bodysuit, he was probably working toward one spectacular explosion. The problem for me was how to handle the situation without having to actually talk about it. I mean, I really didn't want to have that conversation with my twelve-year-old brother and his friend. Actually, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't even want to have that conversation with them when they were twenty.

It didn't help my equilibrium when I noticed that a couple of groups of Trick-or-Treaters were approaching us from the east. The last thing I needed was questions about Riley's moans as he walked along, and where that might lead. Riley wasn't very big... and neither was 'Riley'.... but if anyone started to look at him closely, it was bound to be noticed. That costume was skin-tight, and it was barely microns thick.

Almost as if they sensed my discomfort, Riley and Sean started to discuss how he was feeling. Loudly.

"I don't know if I can make it home," Riley complained. "It just keeps getting worse. My Spidey sense is really tingling now."

"Dude. I don't think that's your Spidey sense." I was trying to be tactful. Or maybe I was trying to be discreet. Actually, I was trying to be anywhere but right there with them at that moment.

"Marc! We've got to help him," Sean implored. "What if he's really sick? Or what if he does have Spidey sense and something bad is about to happen?"

What was with these guys? Were they new?! I know they weren't even thirteen yet, but they were smart, they fit in well socially at school and must have friends that talked about these... things. And for god's sake! they had taken the same sixth grade sex education class last year that I took three years ago! How could they not know what was happening?

I urged them to keep walking. But in the beam of my lantern I could see that Riley was trembling, almost vibrating. I could see his hamstrings working powerfully and his butt tightened and relaxed erratically, the outline of the muscles well-defined. And...

Oh my god! Was I perving on the best friend of my twelve-year-old brother?!?

An image of his crotch as he turned around at that last house flashed across my mind. Well, they would both be thirteen in a few weeks.

Then, with a deep moan, Riley stopped walking. His body convulsed briefly, then relaxed after a few intense spasms.

"Oh my god!" Riley groaned. "You guys should just leave me here," he insisted. "If this costume gave me Spidey sense, maybe I have spider power, too. I'll take care of whatever is coming. You both get somewhere safe! Now!"

Suddenly the thing I really didn't want to have to explain to them had become even more complicated... but necessary.

Sean was tugging at my arm... and bands of Trick-or-Treaters were approaching. I had no idea what I should do. But it seemed like Sean and Riley needed to get grounded in reality, and fast. They needed to know what was actually happening. Or maybe I could just throw myself on a live grenade for them.

"Riley." I paused. "Sean," I tried again. "The costume is rubbing against Riley's, uh, crotch"

Riley looked down. His body language said it all. And his crotch was... protruding. Quite clearly. "Oh god," he moaned. "That isn't part of my costume," he declared. Loudly. Again. "It wasn't there when I put it on. What is this costume doing to me?" Riley was actually starting to sound panicked.

I bit the bullet. "It isn't part of the costume, Riley. That's your... penis..." I whispered the final word.

"My penis?!?" Riley didn't whisper. "What do you mean? Is there something wrong with my penis?!!!"

The parents with the groups of approaching Trick-or-Treaters started to look curiously in our direction. Sean was dragging us toward them. And I may have lost consciousness.

Have you ever found yourself standing in a darkened copse of trees in the middle of the evening, with two twelve-year-olds, and you happen to notice that one of them is completely naked?! And then you become aware that your own pants are down around your ankles!!!!?

Yeah. If you've been there, I'm not going to be any help at all. I'm still trying to make sense of that part of the evening. And how it happened. But if pressed to offer my best recollection of events, like if I had to testify about it in court- god forbid!- I'd have to say that it all probably went more-or-less like this...

Riley was becoming more and more agitated about his "spider sense", and how he was feeling, which was mostly scared about what was happening to him. At least he sure sounded scared. And maybe I was just paranoid, but it felt like other Trick-or-Treaters, and their parents, and even people in neighboring houses- maybe some of the animals in the trees- were starting to notice us....

So without thinking very much at all, I let Sean lead us briskly past the approaching people until, about a hundred yards up the road, there was a copse of trees. Maybe bigger than a copse, but certainly less than a small wood.

The important thing, as Sean explained, is that the trees offered us some concealment; some privacy.

Once we were far enough into the trees we found a small area where there was enough space for us to gather. I took a deep breath. My mind was empty, but it seemed a good idea to have something in my lungs. Getting words out would be easier if my lungs were full of air. It still wasn't easy.

"What did you guys learn about... sex... in your Life Skills class last year?" I asked.

"Sex?" They both looked blank. "Maybe we missed some things, but that class was mostly about how to go to college, get a job, start a family, buy cars and houses, do a budget. Those sorts of things." I couldn't believe the class had changed that much in just two years, but Sean looked completely serious as he spoke. The Amazing Spider-Man did, too. But that was probably the costume.

"Wel-l-l-ll..." I probably should have dug one to give me someplace to hide, "Sex..." And at first I couldn't believe that I had uttered the word at all- not with a capital 's' like that, "Sex is something that people do to start a family. It's like when a man and woman love each other and decide to..." And then I thought about Riley, and his absent father, and decided that this might be the wrong tack. I started again.

"For a man and a woman to have a baby they have to do... stuff," Sean was looking impatient. Spider-Man was looking at the ground. I figured I had to up my game a bit.

"Guys, a baby is born when a guy puts his penis into a woman's... place... her special place... down there... and rubs it around until he feels real good. Then some stuff shoots out of his penis and mixes with stuff in the woman's, um, place. Then a baby starts growing.," I paused to see what effect my scintillating explanation was having on them. It was about as I expected. They still looked completely confused.

"When boys start to get older, like about your age, their bodies starts to change." Yeah! I remembered that phrase. It was a good one! "Your, uh, penis gets bigger... and your balls... they're called testicles. And when they get big enough they can make the stuff you shoot into a woman's... place. Yeah. There."

Sean's lips twitched. I figured he must be getting impatient again. Spider-Man appeared to be... rubbing himself?

"How does this work?" Sean pressed. "How does my, um, penis get in a girl's place?" His lips twitched again.

"Well first your penis has to get hard." I felt like maybe I was starting to hit my stride with this explanation. "The boy and the girl take their clothes off...."

"All of them?!!" Riley demanded. He sounded shocked.

"Yes. All of them." And for a second I had a mental image of Spider-Man and that costume that I had to dispel from my mind. "Then the boy puts his penis in the girl, rubs it in and out for a while, and when he feels really good his stuff shoots out of his penis."

I tried to look into Spider-Man's eyes. "When your penis got hard, Riley, it started to rub against your costume when you were walking. That rubbing started to give you feelings. When your Spidey Sense was tingling, it felt pretty good, didn't it?"

"Yeah," Riley agreed. "It was weird but it did feel good."

"So the same sort of thing happens when you rub your penis inside a girl's place." I got that out in one breath! "Then, when it starts to feel really good, your body starts shaking all over and stuff shoots out of your penis! See?"

"But nothing shot out of my penis," Riley complained. "That couldn't have been it then!" A note of panic crept back into Riley's voice. "Why isn't my penis working?!?"

"Maybe you're not old enough, Riley?" Frankly, I was guessing. I was out of my depth. It wasn't like my grade in Life Skills was up to my usual standard. It was an uncomfortable class for me; at least the parts about sex. If I was any judge, that had been pretty uncomfortable for Mr. Harrison, too.

"That doesn't make sense," Sean and Riley were clamoring together. "If you're old enough to feel good then you should shoot stuff. Why wouldn't it shoot?!"

"Yeah," Riley added. "And how come my penis got hard in the first place? A girl and I haven't decided to make a baby."

And that's where the lesson went off the rails. I just didn't have the knowledge, and especially the vocabulary appropriate for Sean and Riley, and for my own sense of propriety... to properly explain what I was trying to say. After several minutes of intense negotiation, a lot of increasing volume from the guys, and some panicked glances from me, wondering what residents and passers-by might hear or see through the trees if the clamor continued, I agreed to a demonstration of how guys' parts worked.

Yup. I was going to become a volunteer worker in the sex industry. It was far and away the weirdest moment of my life. And I hope it always will be.

"How does it work?" Riley asked.

"Doesn't he have to get naked first?", Sean prompted, when I didn't respond immediately. He sounded distracted and appeared to be playing with something on his cell phone.

And I realized that it was necessary. Even if I hadn't started to feel a bit curious about how Riley would look without that thin layer of lycra, he would still have to remove it. The entire costume was one piece, with a zipper up the back and the mask stretched over Riley's head. There was no way to get at the body part necessary to help demonstrate what Riley needed to know while he was wearing that costume. He must have shoehorned himself into it through the opening of eighteen or twenty inches in the back that was secured by the zipper. Fortunately, lycra stretched quite a bit. But it wasn't going to stretch enough to bring that zippered opening around to the front and lower half of his body.

Riley didn't seem too reluctant. Sean helped him unzip himself. Then Riley pulled the mask forward over his head. He looked focused, like he was gathering himself for something. He took a deep breath and Sean reached behind him again, startling Riley and making him jump a little. He smirked at Sean momentarily, then he pulled down his costume in one smooth motion.

We had already agreed that it had to happen for us to see the problem. It was the obvious next step. Still, for some reason I was surprised. But nowhere near as surprised as I was when he just kept going and stepped completely out of his Spider-skin!

Riley's spidey sense appeared to be on full alert. I had to blink a few times before I could focus enough to talk to him. I don't know why it surprised me, but I was impressed by how good he looked.

While I hesitated, Riley started to freak out again. He was staring at his erect penis like he had never seen it before in his life. His voice rose in pitch and volume.

"What's happening to me?! Why is it doing that?!" Panic was edging into his tone.

Something about seeing my little part-time brother physically and emotionally vulnerable like that struck a chord with me. I stepped forward, wrapped my arms around him, and told him, "Everything's okay. You're going to be all right, bud."

Jeez! Maybe I shouldn't have done that. His spider sense stabbed me in the leg... and I felt it quiver!

But he was holding on to me like his life depended on it, so I didn't let go of him until I could feel his calm restored.

"You're going to be all right, bud," I assured him again. I just wasn't sure if I would be.

I was trying to figure out how to explain what he needed to do to get that feeling again, when he brought up the obvious problem with my lesson plan: "So how do I make it shoot stuff?"

"He said yours can't yet, Riley," Sean reminded him, "and I know mine doesn't. Marc will have to show us."

Yup. A personal demonstration would be required.


Oddly, dropping my pants wasn't too difficult. It was a lot more embarrassing getting myself hard, trying to explain 'clinically' what I was doing and why. The chill night air didn't help the process either, although I did notice that Riley's enthusiasm hadn't diminished one bit. It was still on prominent display.

I faced Riley and took a fumbling start at explaining how a guy could provide the rubbing needed for stimulation once he was hard. Riley and Sean offered enthusiastic encouragement. Eventually I managed to work into a decent rhythm.

Doing that in front of them was weirdly exciting. But it also felt kind of humiliating. And confusing. I was trying to figure out how I even got into that situation. It was almost a relief when Riley reached out, pushed my hand away, and started stroking it for me.


And after that, it didn't take much longer at all for the demonstration to come to its natural conclusion!

That conclusion was far more powerful than anything I had ever experienced on my own. I started shaking almost spastically. My legs were barely strong enough to keep my upright. I tried to explain to Riley and Sean what was happening, but nothing coherent came out of my mouth. I tried to warn Riley that he was in the line of fire, but he just stood there and took five strong.... Uh, yeah. He just stood there. It got messy. He got messy. But he didn't seem to mind.

"That is so cool," he murmured, glancing over toward Sean for agreement.

Sean looked both fascinated and a bit repulsed by what he saw.

Riley glanced back at him again curiously. "Isn't this cool, Sean?" he asked. "Something we want to remember for the rest of our lives?" He seemed to put an awful lot of emphasis on the word 'remember'.

Sean nodded, but he seemed conflicted. How was I even aware of that in my state? I wasn't. But I managed to piece the scene together in my head later that night.

"Sean?" Riley queried again. He and Sean exchanged a long glance that communicated... something?

I was starting to regain feeling in the rest of my body. But my penis still felt like it was plugged into an electric outlet. I glanced down and noticed that it was still hard and that Riley still had a gentle grip on it. He was looking at me almost tenderly. But he also looked like he was waiting for something.

"I think we need another demonstration," he enthused and started stroking me again slowly, alternating with gentle squeezes.

"No. That's enough," Sean said. "If we don't get home pretty soon, Mom will call the cops." Sean stuffed his cell phone in his pocket and turned away from us.

Riley looked puzzled. After a few seconds he shrugged, gave me a few more gentle squeezes, and started to slip back into his costume. For a moment he appeared indecisive, then he grabbed a handful of leaves to clean himself off before stretching the costume over his upper body as well.

I finally cleared my head, pulled my pants back up and helped Riley zip up his costume.

And that was the conclusion of my first- and hopefully my only- live demonstration of how sex works for guys. It appeared to play to mixed reviews, but at least both Sean and Riley had seen quite clearly how their equipment will soon be working. I was ready to call it a night.

Once we were back out of the trees and walking along the road, I noticed the chill in the air again. I glanced at Riley and found his blank stare directed at me. I noticed that he seemed to start shivering whenever the wind picked up at all. Without asking, I took off my coat and wrapped it around him. Perhaps he was grateful. He walked alongside me most of the way home, occasionally bumping shoulders with me at first, before leaning into me and letting me wrap my arm around him. He still shivered a bit but assured me that the cold wasn't bothering him.

I didn't notice much more on that long walk home. I wasn't even paying attention for things that go 'bump' in the night. At one point, I think that Impala sped past again. Fortunately, they didn't appear to notice us either.

Sean had taken the lantern from me and led the way, bringing us safely home about twenty minutes later. I don't think either of the guys paid any attention to their bags of candy during that walk. It was like Halloween had ended and something new and more significant started as soon as we entered that copse of trees.

Fortunately, Riley and Sean had a soccer match the next morning and the guys had made plans for Riley to spend the night with us. None of us were in any condition for additional adventure once we got home.

As we came through the door, Mom noticed my jacket wrapped around Riley and I swear the look in her eyes softened for just a moment. After we reported to Mom and gave her a very brief summary of our adventures - and she inspected the bags of candy for anything she thought might be dangerous - I stuck my head into the living room to say 'good night' to Dad. Then I headed up to my room. Sean and Riley stayed a bit longer to visit with the parents.

I was undressing for bed when I heard some activity in Sean's room at the same time someone tapped gently on my door. When it opened, Riley stood there with my jacket in his hands.

"Thanks for everything, Marc. I had a great time tonight and I'm really glad you came with us."

Riley looked me up and down for a moment. He seemed pensive, like he was trying to figure out how to express something else. Then he handed the jacket to me. "Thanks for sharing this, too. You really saved my life." He leaned into me a bit awkwardly and gave me a hug, relaxing and lingering for a few moments when I returned his gesture.

"I'll see you in the morning," his eyes were sparkling again. He backed out of the room, maintaining eye contact, barely avoiding the door frame this time.

A few seconds later I heard Riley enter Sean's room.

"So you're in love," Sean said. It almost sounded like an accusation.

And what exactly was he talking about?!

"I think so," Riley said. "I really hope so." There was a thoughtful pause. "I hope we both are. But why are you angry? I thought this is what you wanted to happen."

"It was!" Sean sighed. "Yeah. It is." He took a deep breath. "It really is. But I just got my best friend back, Riles. Now I'm going to lose you all over again, to my brother." I could feel the raw emotion in his voice from three rooms away.

"You're always going to be my best friend," Riley insisted. "You know how much I wish you wanted what I want. But part of me will always be there just for you."

"Riley," Sean whined, but there was something less serious in his tone, "There's barely enough of you for one person!"

There were a few moments of disbelieving silence. Then I heard what sounded like a pillow connecting with something solid. Maybe Sean's head?

The noise of a brief scuffle came through the vent. But it didn't get loud enough to disturb the parents downstairs. It probably wasn't very serious anyway. Sean and Riley had always enjoyed picking on each other and sometimes that escalated into play fights. It felt like everything was back to normal, except...

What in heck did they mean about Riley being in love?! It sounded like they might be talking about me, too! But where did that come from? And how did it happen? I'd have to think more about that, but my brain was already pretty fried from events earlier in the evening.

I heard them moving around Sean's room, fabric rustling, doors opening and closing, and then water running in the pipes somewhere in the house. It sounded like they might be getting ready for bed. But hopefully their conversation would continue. It might give me some insight into what was going on in their heads... and in mine.

I lay back in my bed and waited for more conversation. I was confused, but somehow I had a warm feeling in my chest. I had discovered some pretty strong feelings toward Riley tonight. And from what little I heard them say, it sounded like he might have some strong feelings for me, too. He might even be in love with... me!? I didn't know what to make of that revelation. But it made me feel good.

That warm feeling was spreading from the center of my chest all the way down to the tips of my toes.

"Why didn't you take the picture, Sean?"

There had been about fifteen minutes of domestic-sounding activity from Sean's room and the bathroom as he and Riley got ready for bed. But now Riley's voice came clearly through the heating vent intercom. My ears perked up a bit. What picture? Something they were doing in the bathroom?

"I couldn't go through with it, Riles. He's my brother."

That was odd. What did I have to do with a picture? I couldn't think of anything I might have to do with a picture.... and then the dime dropped.

Oh! THAT picture!! So that's what Sean was doing with his cell phone in the copse of trees! Oh! My! God! Suddenly I was deeply concerned!

But wait! Riley said he didn't take the picture. Whew! I think... I hope...

Maybe I wouldn't have to run away from home now. I waited breathlessly for clarification.

"But you said we needed the picture to make sure Marc would keep doing sex things with me."

"I know, Riles. But I got to thinking while we were there in the trees. Sometimes bad things happen. What if my phone got hacked and somebody saw a picture like that? It could get Marc in a lot of trouble."

Well thank god Sean was thinking! My heart rate almost doubled just considering the possibilities. If a picture like that got out on the internet, my entire life would be ruined!

"Besides," Sean continued, "Did you see that sappy look on his face when he thought he was helping you?"


"Or the way he was looking at your dick?"

My god! They noticed!

"He really likes you, Riles. And he'll want to do sex stuff with you again." Sean sounded so certain. But how did he know? I wasn't even sure about what I wanted.

At least my heart rate was starting to slow down. It sounded pretty definite that no one had taken any pictures.

"I hope you're right," Riley replied. "I really want to do more. Marc is pretty hot."

He paused to think a bit. I paused to consider the possibility that anyone would consider me hot.

"I'm glad we aren't going to use any pictures to make him do stuff with me. I really like him, Sean. It felt so good when he was holding me, thinking I was scared and he was comforting me."

"Of course it felt good," Sean snickered. "You were jabbing him in the leg with your spidey sensor like you were a dog in heat!"

"No!" Riley protested... "Well, yeah. But that's not what felt so good. It's like knowing that my big brother really cares about me. I can't explain it any better than that, but I almost started to cry. I was just feeling all safe and warm."

"I don't know how you could feel warm out there, Riles, especially in that Spidey costume. You must have been freezing your nuts off!"

Riley chuckled a bit ruefully. "There were times when it felt so cold that I really thought about going home. And when we got down to the end of the road I had to keep playing with myself to keep my dick hard!"

"You should have just got some Viagra," Sean advised in a superior tone. "If anyone saw you messing with your meat it's going to give you a reputation!"

"Well, how was I supposed to know it was going to be so cold?" Riley sounded a bit defensive.

"I don't know how you expect us to consider you a genius if you can't anticipate basic things like that," Sean smirked.

There was a brief pause. Apparently Riley was at a loss for a comeback. Then, reflectively, "I'm glad we aren't going to use a picture to make him do anything, but I really want this to happen. He's a great guy. And he's amazingly hot. You'd better be right!"

The sound indicated that one of them had hit the other. It was followed by the sounds of more punches, then a playful scuffle followed by laughter.

"Damn!" Riley complained. "Look what you did! My spidey sense is on alert again!"

Sean retched loudly. He may have been close to the heat vent. Or maybe he was really disgusted.

"Can you show me how to turn it off?" Riley asked seductively.

"Turn it off yourself, you slut!" Sean said. More giggles followed.

"Hmmmm.... I could take a picture of you like that and leave it on Marc's bed. It might inspire him."

Damn! That got my attention. The contemplative silence that followed suggested that Riley might be considering the idea.

Then, in a plaintive tone, he asked, "Sean? Are you sure he'll want to do it again?"

"Dude," Sean said, "Like I told you when we were planning this, I'm pretty sure that Marc likes guys. He never even talks about girls. And he never spends much time with people his age. It's almost like he's afraid of them getting to know him, like maybe he's got a secret. I know he likes you. And he probably likes you that way. He sure acted like it tonight."

He paused, like he wasn't sure he wanted to go on. But he must have decided that it was necessary. "Riles, I'm only going to say this once... in my entire life, I hope... but you really are hot. If I wasn't completely straight, I'd want to do it with you myself. I know Marc. He wants to. If we just play our cards right, he will."

I was amazed at Sean's certainty. He seemed to know stuff about me that even I wasn't sure about yet. But what he was saying made sense. He was right that I loved Riley. And Riley was hot. I had seen enough of that evidence just a couple of hours ago.

Sean had given me a lot to think about. But I was also a little upset that they had planned to manipulate me into doing sex things with Riley. That felt dirty and something like a betrayal, even if they had changed their minds in the end. That warm feeling had fled my heart.

Still, talk of sex, maybe a picture of Riley naked, and all the possibilities that could grow from what had happened earlier weren't easily dispelled from my mind. The warmth had settle a bit lower in my body. I had to fight the temptation to give it any encouragement. Who knows what they might hear throught the vent? And I hadn't even locked my door! I wasn't going to risk getting busted doing something like that! But maybe, if the entire family left to watch Sean and Riley's soccer match in the morning...

"Hey, Sean," I heard Riley ask. And there was something in his tone that suggested the conversation was about to take an interesting new turn. "If you're completely straight, why did you grab my butt when you were helping me get out of my Spidey suit?"

I could feel Sean's mental spluttering through the vent.

"It was just an accident, Riles! I thought maybe you needed more help getting out of the suit and I accidentally brushed against the back of it."

"Sean," Riley was insistent. "You didn't brush against me. You grabbed my butt. And you reached inside the suit to do it. I felt your hand on my cheek. It was freezing!"

The vent was dead silent for more than a minute. Then I heard the gentle sound of distress, almost faint sobbing, gradually increasing in volume . It had to be Sean. But he never cries. I wondered if I should go in there and give him a hug, too.

It took a minute of two for Sean to pull himself together. "This is really hard, Riles," he choked.

"Seany," Riley's empathy was palpable. "You're my very best friend. Nothing is ever going to change that. But please. I just want to know!"

And so did I.

"I don't even know where to begin," Sean groaned. "But you know how you thought I got so mad at you after 'Romeo and Juliet'?"

And suddenly I really wanted to know.

"Riles, I wasn't angry at you. I was angry at the way you made me feel."

Now that was mysterious.

"I'm completely straight, Riley, because I want to be completely straight. I have to be completely straight."

Something about the way he said it told me that even Dr. Ruth might need to spend hours trying to untangle those concepts.

"For more than a year I've been pretty sure that Marc likes guys. And I have no idea what Meghan is going to do after high school. For the past year, it's been like she might move away from here and never come back."

Sean was right about that. Meghan's rebellion over her Halloween duty was just a minor incident in a developing pattern of behavior.

"And I love my mom and dad, Riles. I love them a lot. And I know that one of the things they are really looking forward to is grandkids... and seeing the Courtney family name continue here in town."

Sean took a couple of deep, shuddering breaths, like his emotions were in danger of getting away from him again.

"I have to be the one to make sure they have those grandkids, Riles. I have to! Because I'm not sure that anyone else will."

Wasn't that a revelation?! It made perfect sense, but my twelve-year-old brother was controlling his feelings to make life plans for what felt like very adult reasons! I wasn't ready to make these sorts of decisions and commitments, but apparently he already had.

But what did that have to do with Romeo and Juliet?

"When you went off the script and kissed me during the crypt scene in 'Romeo'..."


"You made me feel some things that I don't want to feel, Riles! I love you. I really love you. And I know that you're really hot, too! I think about that. Sometimes I think about it too much. But I can't do anything about it because I have to be straight for Mom and Dad."

That was an interesting twist... and maybe a new recruiting slogan for Gay-Away programs. 'Be straight for good old Mom and Dad!' I wonder if I could do it. But apparently Sean had already made the commitment. It was going to take me a while to get my mind around all the new thoughts and feelings that were emerging in my head.

Riley must have looked confused. Sean continued his explanation.

"Didn't you notice that I popped one when you kissed me? I popped one in front of the entire school and all of our parents!"

"No, Sean. I didn't. And it's a good thing that I didn't notice. The way I was feeling right then, Seany, I might have raped you in front of everyone!" Riley sounded a bit amused, but mostly reflective about what he had put Sean through.

"Well I know someone noticed. Miss Segal was staring directly at, um, me when we came off stage at the end of that scene. And she looked horrified!

"I have no idea why she even made us wear those stupid tights."

"Uh," even through the vent Riley's voice sounded a bit odd. "I heard that it was an anonymous suggestion. Maybe Cassie wanted it?" There was a clear strain in Riley's tone. There was definitely more to this story!

"Well, Riles, as I was walking off stage I thought the whole world could see that I was a pervert, popping one because my best friend just kissed me. And I could almost feel my parents watching from the audience and thinking, 'Oh, no! No grandbabies!'.

"Part of me wanted nothing more than to rush home with you and do stuff. But I couldn't let that happen. And that's the reason I was so upset. It wasn't with you. It was what you made me want to do, and knowing that I couldn't let it happen. Not even for you. So I needed to stay away from you for a while to make sure I didn't lose control and do something I can't do."

That really was a revelation. The whole family had been trying to figure this out all summer, and to help Sean and Riley mend whatever rift existed between them, and no wonder Sean couldn't tell any of us about it! I felt a whole new depth of empathy and compassion for my little brother.

Through the vent I could feel Riley digesting that information.

"But," and he sounded really confused, "then why did you grab my butt out there, if you don't want us to do anything."

"Because, Riles," and Sean sounded quite relieved to finally have that entire story off his chest, "It feels safer now. I know how you feel about me... and about guys. But we found someone else for you. You really like Marc. And I know Marc really likes you. And I'm pretty sure he isn't into girls at all.

"So I kind of lost control for a second when I saw you standing there almost naked. I had to find out just once what I was missing out on, now that I knew we were, like, committed to getting you and Marc together. It didn't feel as risky then to find out what it would be like. So I grabbed your butt. And now I know what I'll be missing out on."

Riley sounded like he was grinning from ear to ear. "So did you like it?" He dragged the word 'like' out for several seconds.

Sean was thoughtful. "Yeah, Riles. I really did. You've got a nice butt. Marc is a very lucky guy."

And I guess I was. But also a very confused guy. They had my love life all plotted out for me, and I think it was what I wanted, but I clearly hadn't thought my own life through as thoroughly as they had.

Besides, I might have been feeling a bit jealous. My own brother had been feeling up my prospective boyfriend while he was trying to set me up with him! That was a strange thought to try to work through.

"You know, Seany," and there was a manipulative tone to Riley's voice, "They do make king-size beds. And you and I aren't very big. I bet we could both fit in one with Marc pretty easily... with a lot of room for... fun."

And I actually didn't feel too offended at that thought. Weird, huh?!

"No way, Riles," Sean's voice sounded dead serious. "The grandkids! Remember? If I started something with you... and Marc... there might never be any grandkids."

"We could find surrogate mothers," Riley wheedled.

Yeah. I probably wouldn't mind having kids that way.

But Sean shut him down. "I can't, Riles. It's a lot safer it we do it my way. You and I will be best friends, and I'll love you for the rest of our lives. And I hope that you and Marc get together and that both of you are always part of my life."

"Well, if you're sure about this then you better find a girl that likes having lots of kids," Riley said. "Because you'll have a lot of people to have them for. There's your mom and dad, Marc, me..."

"Hey, you make your own babies, Juliet!" Sean sniped.

He and Riley burst out in laughter and I could hear the bedding being destroyed as they started wrestling with each other.

After their brief skirmish, Sean and Riley grew quiet again. But it didn't sound like they were ready to go to sleep. I leaned closer to the vent. I already had a lot of information to process, but I didn't want to miss anything else that was forthcoming.

And after a drawn-out silence, Sean spoke.

"Hey, Riles. I'm still trying to figure this whole thing out. I know what I find attractive about you. And it's obvious why you're attracted to me."

There was a Riley-ish snort and the sound of a brief scuffle.

"But what is it that you really like about Marc? I mean, I know that he and I look a lot alike. But we're different people. Maybe you can have my bod when you're messing around with him. But he doesn't really do any sports, and he spends a lot of time reading and on his computer. What will you two do together?"

I hadn't thought much about that yet. I prayed that Riley would have a good answer.

"I like how he makes me feel, Sean. He's older. And he's smarter. But he doesn't try to get rid of us when we're around. And he doesn't treat us like we're younger. He spends time with us. He shares his things and he shares what he's thinking. And I've noticed that he pays attention to us and helps when we need help.

"He even does things he doesn't like because we want to do them. Like Marc isn't into physical stuff, but he still plays soccer and goes hiking with us.

"And you remember that time a couple of years ago when I went camping with your family at Lake Bomaseen? When I had gone off down the shore on my own and those three bigger kids were threatening to take my swim suit? I was gonna fight them, but they still would have pantsed me. But Marc saw what was happening and he came running. And even though he hates to fight, and he might have got pantsed too, he was going to stand up with me. So those kids decided it wasn't worth it.

"Marc did that for me. And he does stuff like that for you. He's our big brother, not because you and him have the same parents, but because that's the kind of guy he is. And he loves us."

"Wow," I heard Sean murmur gently. He may have been echoing me.

"If Marc wants to be my boyfriend, he'll keep doing stuff we like with me. And I'll start doing stuff he likes, like reading and spending time on the computer and going out and doing things about nature. I'll learn to like those things and do them with him because I want to be with him. I love him. And if he loves me enough to spend time doing things because I like them, I can learn to spend time doing things with him because he likes them."

Holy cow! That gave me a lot to think about. Fifteen months younger than me, but he had already figured out some pretty important stuff.

It sounded like Sean was impressed, too. Nothing was spoken, but I heard what the silence said.

"That was nice," Riley sighed. Then a hint of mischief entered his voice, "And if you want, you can grab my butt again, too, Seany."

Sean didn't say anything. He didn't even sound embarrassed.

Finally, "You know, Riles, if you don't mind, I think I'd like that."

Riley went from contemplative, to mischievous, to bouncing with enthusiasm in less than two seconds. "Okay. But we have to make sure your hands are warm first."

And then there were just the quiet sounds of two best friends exchanging affection. And I wasn't the least bit jealous.

After a few minutes, they sighed in unison.

"You know, Riles, it's going to be so good when you're, like, legally a part of our family."

Riley murmured a quiet agreement. It sounded like he might be on the edge of sleep.

"But we have to make sure we start this off right."

And what did that mean?!

"We kind of fooled Marc. I think we fooled him into doing something he wants, but we weren't completely honest with him."

And... Wow! I need to check his birth certificate! Could my little brother really be only twelve years old?

"It may be complicated, explaining everything to him. But I think we need to tell Marc everything. It might be uncomfortable, it might even hurt, but if we aren't honest it could make things a lot worse later on, like if he finds out what happened in some other way. If he really loves you and we tell him the truth now, he'll forgive you and he'll still love you the same."

Riley suddenly sounded a lot more alert. "I've been thinking the same thing. Do you think he's still awake? We could go see him now."

"Not now," Sean cautioned. "It would be better if all of us weren't tired and were awake enough to think clearly. But soon. Maybe after our game tomorrow.

"And Riles? We should apologize separately. If we speak to him together, it might sound like we were just backing each other up. Let him talk to both of us. Hear our stories. He'll see that we are both telling him the same thing and it will be more honest and more sincere when we apologize."

That really made sense. And it seemed to make sense to Riley, too.

"Okay. But we have to talk to him first thing in the morning and make sure he'll be here after our match. I want to be honest with him as soon as I can.

"Oh, and Sean?" Riley sounded a bit mischievous again, "Should we tell him about 'Romeo and Juliet' and what happened then?"

"You know, Riles, I think I will. We kind of made a mess of the start of this. I think Marc deserves to know everything that was involved, even if it is a bit embarrassing to me. He may tease me a bit when he finds out how I feel, but he'll never hurt me."

They started to settle down after that. I heard them rearrange their bedding and climb into the bed. They exchanged a few quiet 'good nights'.

"Hey, Sean?"

"Yeah, Riles?"

"What did we do with our candy?"

"Dunno, Riles. I think Mom has it downstairs."

There were another few minutes of silence.

"Oh. Okay. Thanks. Good night, Seany."

"Good night, Riles."

Then an extended period of silence.

"Hey, Riles?" Sean asked.

"Mmmmm?" Riley murmured.

"Is it okay if I grab your butt a few more times during the night?"

"Mmm-hmm," Riley mumbled, "If you want to. I won't mind."

Well maybe somebody should ask me! I might mind! I'm okay sharing Riley with my little brother. But maybe I should get to do some of this stuff, too, while it's still a new and exciting experience for Riley.

I lay in bed, thinking about all I had done, seen, heard and felt over the past few hours. I was starting to realize that it had been a remarkable day, the sort of day that comes along but once every few years.

I knew a lot more about Sean, his surprising insights, and the depth of his feelings for me.

And I knew that Riley really loved me. As much as I cared about Riley and respected him, even coming from someone younger than me that had been a humbling revelation.

I knew I had a big decision to make. While Sean had been talking, I had come to some realizations. I was old enough to know that I really had no interest in girls. I liked them as people, but the idea of doing something sexual with one was about as interesting as one of Mr. Harrison's Life Skills lectures. I didn't think that would be happening any time soon.

I knew that I loved Riley. I always looked forward to having him around. I was in love with his intelligence, his energy, his way of looking at things, and with his enthusiasm. And now I knew that, even though he was smaller and fifteen months younger, I was really attracted to his body; drawn, if Sean's observations about my behavior were accurate, like a moth to a flame.

It would be really embarrassing when I had to explain my feelings to Mom and Dad... and to Ms. Cuorecorragio... but I could probably survive that.

If any of this got out beyond our family, well, it would certainly be embarrassing for me to be recognized as 'different'. But apparently I was already seen as a nerd. It would be much harder for Riley. So I would have to keep our secret quiet if I could, and protect Riley from the worst of the public reaction if it did get out.

But all of that felt worth what I understood was being offered to me. To have it laid so bare in Sean and Riley's conversation that he was ready, that he wanted to be my boyfriend, and that all I had to do was say the words to him and care about him at least as much as he cared about me. Well, that was a gift! Even with my lack of experience, I understood that relationships were rarely laid out this clearly, even for adults.

And that thought brought me up short. I knew everything that Sean and Riley thought and were feeling. But how did I know?

I knew because I had been just as devious and dishonest with them as they thought they had been with me. They didn't know that I could hear what they were saying in Sean's room. They didn't know that I was listening to every word they said and to every thought they laid bare, rather than doing the right thing and either warning them or making sure that I couldn't hear them. I had listened to everything they said about me in the privacy of Sean's own room, and to the feelings that were most dear to them. And I had listend avidly.

Crap! My side of this nascent relationship was built on just as much deceit as was Riley's side.

I realized that I had a lot of growing up to do in the four years before I became an adult. But I understood in that moment that I had to be just as starkly and painfully honest with Riley and Sean as they were planning to be with me. I couldn't let them go through the deception and the discomfort of explaining to me all over again what I already knew. I had to be completely honest with them, too.

It became clear what I would have to do. If I wanted to be Riley's boyfriend - and I was quite certain now that I did - I had to tell them what I knew and how I knew it. And I had to apologize. Big time.

I should probably apologize to both of them at the same time. Just sit them down after their game tomorrow, and that would also save them the time and embarrassment of having to go through their explanations with me. Tell them what I knew, how I knew, how I felt, and put all of my cards out on the table. And do it with both of them at the same time because we were all in this together. There was no sense trying to keep any part of it from any one of us... at least until maybe after Riley and I started to do more than we had tonight.

And it might be better for them if they understood I wasn't going to judge them for what they did because I had made some mistakes, too. We could just have an open conversation, the good stuff and the bad stuff, and go forward with a clean slate. Mom and Dad told us these sorts of things when we were little, but I guess we don't really understand what they meant until we figure it out for ourselves.

I shivered briefly, but it was a good sensation. In the morning I would make plans to speak with both Sean and Riley after their match. We would wipe the slate clean of any deceit or guilt. And then we could move ahead with our lives; me, my boyfriend, and our brother and best friend. It was a really good feeling.

I woke just before seven o'clock in the morning. The golden light from the sun was streaming through my window.

Looking out, I saw Casper stalking something across the back yard, through some patches of green grass that I hadn't noticed yesterday.

There was the familiar 'V' formation of a flock of Canada Geese flying overhead. They were headed south for the winter together. And I was headed toward my future, feeling much more confident now because I knew that I also wouldn't be travelling alone.

I crossed the hall and stepped into the shower. I didn't want to interfere with Sean and Riley later when they would need the bathroom to get ready to leave for their match.

I had plans for the day. I wanted to go watch a soccer match. Then I would talk to my brother and our best friend. And then we would begin our journey together; me, Riley and Sean.

-The End-

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