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What We Are II

Summer Heat

by Richie Ryan

Chapter 18: Homeward Bound

Soaked from the rain and shivering from the cooler air brought in with the storm, Richie was standing by the fireplace in the main room of the cabin when Kyle caught up with him. After pushing the door closed against the wind driven rain, he tossed him one of the towels he was carrying before dumping the rest of his load onto the couch.

"Here, Rich, why don't ya dry off and put on some sweats or somethin while I start the fire."

"Sounds like a helluva plan to me," said Richie through chattering teeth while he vigorously toweled himself off. "I can't believe how cold it got, so fast."

Taking up the other towel from the couch, Kyle quickly ran it over his face and chest, then through his hair before kneeling down to start the fire. While he did this, Richie tossed his towel over a chair, then scampered into the bedroom to get his sweats. After pulling them on, he quickly dug Kyle's out from the bottom of his bag before returning to the main room.

"Here, big guy," he said as he draped Kyle's sweat pants over his shoulder. "Put these on. I wouldn't want your best parts getting cold."

The fire started easily, and as soon as it needed no further attention Kyle stood. With his towel hung around his neck, he stepped into his sweats, then looked around the room as if searching for something.

"What happened to our beamers, Rich?"

"Oh, they kinda got spilled on the way up. No prob, though, cause I did manage to save all the fixins. Want me to make us some fresh ones?"

"Nah, I guess I'll pass on the beam this time, but I could go for a coke."

"Cool, I was thinking the same thing. What about the windows? Think we oughta close 'em?"

"Nah, leave 'em," said Kyle after glancing around the cabin. "As long as the wind don't shift, they'll be OK."

When Richie returned with their sodas, he set them on the coffee table, then stepped up behind Kyle where he stood staring into the fire. Wrapping his arms around his waist, he pulled him close, relishing the added warmth his body provided.

"Mmm, this feels good," he said quietly into Kyle's ear. When Kyle didn't respond, Richie continued to speak softly. "You believe me, don't you? That you didn't hurt me? That what you did, and how you did it was the greatest thing I've ever felt?"

"Yeah, I believe you," answered Kyle as he continued to stare into the flames. "I was just wondering."

"Yeah? What about?"

Before answering, Kyle took Richie by the hand and led him to the couch. The fire had warmed the room nicely, so both boys felt relaxed and comfortable dressed only in their sweatpants. After each boy took a quick sip from their coke, Kyle sat back with his hands folded across his chest and a thoughtful expression on his face. Still waiting for an answer, Richie sat facing him with his knee cocked up on the couch and his arm across the back.

"So, what were ya wondering about?" he asked again.

"Hmm... I don't know... I was trying to decide what I liked better. You know, now that we've both done each other. What do you think? Which do you like better, top or bottom?"

"Top or bottom?" asked Richie, truly not understanding Kyle's terminology.

"Yeah. You know, did you like doing me better, or me doing you?"

"Whoa! So that's what that means," said Richie with a chuckle as he settled back on the couch. Placing his hand on Kyle's inner thigh just below his crotch, he scooted himself close, then rested his head against his lover's shoulder. "Ya know, I heard that before, and I read it in a story once, but I never knew what the hell it meant. God, I can't believe I didn't make the connection. Like duh!"

"Well, which do you like better?"

"Good question," said Richie after another moment of thought. "Ya know, it's been a long time since I did you, but from what I remember, I'd have to say I like it both ways. For different reasons, though. What about you? What do you like better?"

"I guess I like both, too, but I think I liked it better when you did it to me. That's what I was wondering about. Course, both are good, and both got me off like I ain't never gotten off before, but there's something about the way you did me that I really liked."

"Maybe it's the Jekyll and Hyde thing I was talkin about before," said Richie as he casually rubbed his hand along Kyle's thigh.

"Yeah, what was that, anyway, Guppy? What exactly did you mean about me being a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?"

"You know how you're always in control? How you're always like the leader whenever we do anything? Well, you like kinda gave that up that night. Even before I started to fuck you, you were like a different person. You were mine that night, bro, and I was the one who was in charge. From the time I started to lube you up, you were like... I don't know... in my power or somethin. Know what I mean? It's like I had something you wanted and you'd do anything I asked to get it from me... if that makes any sense. That's what made it so good for me. I mean, like you kept begging me to fuck you harder, so it was sort of a power trip for me. Seeing you lying there, begging me to fuck the hell out of you brought the animal out in me, and I really got off on it. Kyle Jacobson, big tough hockey player, and you were in my power. Course, after tonight I know exactly why you wanted it that way, so I guess that's why I like both, but for different reasons."

"You were an animal that night, that's for sure... and I fucking loved it." After a brief silence, Kyle asked, "Ya think that's weird, Rich? You know, liking to be fucked like that?"

"No, I don't think it's weird." Then, with a wide grin, he added, "Personally, I think it's great." With his voice becoming serious again, he went on. "See, that's what's so good about us, Kyle. Every time we try something new, we talk about it. That's how come we know what to do for each other to make it the best."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. I'm still not so sure about me liking pain, though. I mean, like that's gotta be a little weird."

"Nah, I don't think so. Course for me, the best part of the pain I felt tonight was when it went away. Still, as long as you don't want me to stick pins through your nipples or hang a bowling ball from your nuts, I don't think what you're talking about is so weird."

There was a short pause before Richie spoke again.

"We are pretty new at this, ya know. I'm thinkin there's a whole bunch of stuff we could try. Like different positions, different places, shit like that."

Both boys were silent for the next few minutes as they gazed into the blazing fire. During this time, Richie was thinking about their newly defined relationship while Kyle was reflecting on their sex a short time ago. It was Kyle who spoke of his thoughts first, barely beating Richie to the punch.

"That was pretty wild doin it down on the dock, don't ya think?"

"Hell yes, it was. That's what I mean. Matter of fact, that's what got me thinkin about it. I bet there's a shit-load of things we could try... and if we try somethin we don't like, that's cool, we just won't do it again. I think the way we did it tonight made it even better, too."

"Yeah? How so?"

"Well, for one thing it was cool doin it in the lake like that, that's for sure. But more'n that, I think it was better because we did it when we were both ready for it. Hard to explain, I guess, but I wanted it so bad right then that even waiting long enough to get up here would have spoiled it a little. Know what I mean? It woulda taken the edge off kinda."

"Oh yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Tell the truth, I wouldn't have cared if all our friends were watchin us tonight. That's how turned-on I was."

"Really?! You telling me that if we had an audience, you'd have gone ahead and done it anyway?"

"What? Like in a room full of people, and someone says 'action' like a director for a porn movie? No! No fuckin way. What I'm sayin is that if they all came out in the middle of it, there's no way I woulda stopped."

"Hah," laughed Richie. "We probably would've caused a major circle jerk at the top of the hill."

"Ya think?"

"Fuck yeah! Hell, TJ got so hot watching me suck your dick that he had to beat off afterwards. That's why he was in the can when we came in."

"Oh yeah, TJ," said Kyle in a matter of fact tone of voice. "That reminds me, Guppy, you never told me what you thought about his uncut dick."

"Well, I didn't get to do much with it, but it was pretty cool. I almost get a hard-on every time I think of how nice it would feel to have all the extra skin to slide up and down."

"So, do ya think it would feel any different if TJ fucked you instead of me?" asked Kyle.

"You mean because of his dick? I don't know if that would make a difference or not, but I don't think I'll ever find out."

"Say what?!" asked Kyle in surprise. "With you bein a sex collector and all, I thought you'd be tryin to figure out how quick you could get it on with him."

"Yeah? Well, before tonight I was, kind of... but not anymore. I don't think I want to do that with anybody else. I realized tonight that what we did is like real personal. You know, something special that ya don't do with just anybody. Part of it's like what we were talkin about before. We know each other so well that we know exactly what to do to make it the best. It's like we're made for each other. Like two puzzle pieces, we fit perfectly together... and I fucking love the way your piece fits into mine. I just don't think anybody else could be as good for me as you. So, I think I want to keep that sort of a private thing that just me and you do with each other."

"You're serious, aren't you," said Kyle, his surprise still evident on his face.

"Yeah, I am. But that don't mean you can't do whatever, or whoever you want... I'm just speakin for myself."

"Oh, no. I've been thinkin the same thing as you. I don't wanna do that with anybody else, either. To do what we did you gotta like trust each other totally, and you're the only one I know that I trust that much. That's what I think makes it so special... the total trust we have in each other. Now I'm not so dumb as to think that we'll never find someone else that we trust enough for that, but I don't see it happening any time soon, at least not for me. And when one of us does find someone else, it'll be cool cause we'll both know it's time to move on. I don't know if that makes any sense... you know, as bad as I am at explaining shit... but that's how I see it happening. What d'ya think, make any sense?"

"Sure as hell does," said Richie as he cuddled up closer to Kyle. "Looks like we're stuck with each other when it comes to doing that, hockey player."

"That's cool," said Kyle, giving Richie an affectionate hug. "Cause I can't think of anyone I'd rather be stuck with."

There was another period of silence as they occasionally drank from their sodas while staring into the fire.

"Speaking of suckin dicks, big guy, did you give Kevin his blow-job when you guys were up at the pond?"

This question sounded so off-the-wall and unexpected that it sent Kyle into a short fit of giggles.

"Well did ya?"

"No, I didn't! We just shot the shit about you and me, him and Stephanie... you know, the usual bullshit. Don't get me wrong, though... cause I would've done it in a heartbeat if he'd asked me for it... he just never did. I even thought about askin him a couple of times myself, but for some reason it just seemed too weird. Maybe it's because we're more like brothers than friends that made it seem so weird. Anyway, since I couldn't bring myself to ask him, all the time we were up there I kept waiting for him to bring it up. I guess it doesn't surprise me that he didn't, though. Knowing him, he probably thinks it'd be weird, too."

"Oh, man, I bet it was drivin him bonkers all the time you guys were up there."

"Well," said Kyle, "I'm gonna let things slide, at least for a while. You know, give him a chance to bring it up himself if he wants. If he doesn't, then maybe I'll pick a good time to mention it just to see what he says."

"Tell ya what, bro. If you want a good time to bring it up, get a few beers in him, plus a little wacky tabacky, and his inhibitions'll come crashing down."

"Ya think?" asked Kyle as he smiled at the thought. "He sucked your dick, didn't he?"

"Oh yeah, he did... and he loved it, too. Your best friend ain't quite as straight as he thought he was. It's been kind of bothering him, too."

"Really? How so?"

While the storm continued to rage, Richie filled Kyle in on how Kevin was conflicted over his bisexual feelings. They continued to talk late into the night, discussing everything from their newly defined relationship to the success of Richie's party. Eventually their talk found its way around to Richie's plans to come out to his family.

"I hope I can find the right time to tell them this week," said Richie, trying to sound nonchalant to cover up the anxiety he was feeling. "Kevin suggested that I tell my brother, Carl, first. Makes sense, too. I mean, he has been around my parents longer than me, so he might be able to give me a better read on how they'll take it."

"Ya know they're gonna be askin you a lot of questions once the shock wears off, don't ya?"

"I know, and I think I've learned enough to answer most of them. I'm worried about my mom the most, though. You know, the grandchildren thing. For her, I think that's what it's all about... first raising sons, then spoiling their children. I don't have a clue about what I can tell her about that."

"I wouldn't worry about it too much, Guppy. Just do what I do... go with the flow and you'll be fine."

"Thanks, man, and like I said before, I won't be mentioning anything about me and you, or anyone else. I'll be as honest as I can when they start asking questions, but I won't out anybody who doesn't want to be out. This is about me and what I am. Not you, or Kevin, or TJ, or anyone else, and I think they'll understand that."

"I'd bet on that, bro. Your parents are pretty cool as far as parents go, so I'm betting that it'll go even better than you may think. You still gonna come out to Lindy's family?"

"Yeah, unless it goes really bad with mine, I am. I don't see how I can avoid it. Our two families are so close it's like we're all one together, ya know? I just wouldn't feel right not telling them. Lindy said he'd ask a few discreet questions to get an idea how they'd handle it, so that'll help."

"Well, you know the rest of us will help as much as we can, don't ya?" said Kyle as he gave Richie a reassuring hug.

"Yeah, I know," said Richie with a yawn as the lateness of the hour began to take its toll.

Watching the fire slowly reduce itself to the soft red glow of embers, Kyle thought his last words, though honest and heartfelt, sounded a bit hollow. Other than provide Richie with support from afar, to be there for him if things went badly, there was little else he could do. As much as he wished he could physically be there, to stand next to him as one when he came out, there were too many reasons why he couldn't. Even though he knew that Richie understood this, he couldn't help but feel he was letting him down. The guilt he felt was overwhelming, and his conflicted feelings saddened him to the point that his eyes began to tear up.

The more he thought about this, and how he had vowed not to come out until after high school, he realized that he may well have to change his plans. Kyle knew Richie well, probably better than anybody else, and he knew that if things went well with his family, coming out at school wouldn't be far behind. Coming out to his family was one thing, but even though life at Radison wasn't as bad for gays as it was at some schools, it was far from business as usual. So, with a resolve that actually helped to ease his guilt, he decided that when Richie did decide to come out publicly, if he had to go so far as to come out himself in order to help protect his friend from their bigoted peers, he would do so.

These thoughts caused him to think about what his life would be like if he did come out. Though it would probably be easier for Richie to come out to his family than it would be to come out at school, the opposite may well be true for Kyle. Being a senior and a hockey player, he was big enough and strong enough to where he doubted that anyone would fuck with him at school, but he had absolutely no clue as to how his father would react.

For the first time since his mother died he realized just how far he and his father had drifted apart. As he sat thinking about this and the relationship that Richie had with his parents, he remembered how close he used to be to his dad, and how much he missed it. This led to another thought, and another decision. Regardless of what Richie did, Kyle knew that eventually he would have to come out as well. So, he decided to start right away to do what he could to begin tearing down the walls that had risen between him and his dad. He didn't have any specific plan in place, of course, but deciding to take that first step was in itself enough to make him feel better.

Kyle didn't know how long he'd been lost in his thoughts, but as he came back from them, he noticed that the storm was running out of steam. Looking over his shoulder toward the lake, he saw that the leading edge of the front had already passed on to the east. The wind had all but died as well, but the sound of the rain on the roof told him that part of the storm would probably continue on through most of the night.

"The storm's lettin up some, Rich," he said softly before giving Richie a quick kiss on the top of his head.

When Richie didn't respond, Kyle looked closer to find him sound asleep. Rather than disturb him to move into the bedroom, he rested his head on top of Richie's and gazed into the fire while he listened to the gentle patter of the raindrops on the roof. Minutes later he, too, was fast asleep.


It was the sound of the birds singing their way through their morning ritual that began to penetrate Richie's sleeping mind. Rolling onto his side, he reached for the pillow his subconscious told him would be close by, only to find Kyle's cotton covered ass, instead. After nuzzling his nose into his friends crotch, he began to realize there was something wrong with this picture. Still groggy and unable to remember where he'd fallen asleep, he rolled onto his back again. Just as his eyes fluttered open, he was painfully reminded that he'd fallen asleep on the couch when he rolled onto the floor with a thump, banging his elbow against the coffee table on the way down.

"Ouch!" he exclaimed as he tried unsuccessfully to rub the tingling sensation from his injured funny-bone.

"You OK?" asked Kyle who was shocked into a semi-groggy state by the sound of Richie's fall, and now looked down on him from the couch.

"Yeah, I'll live. I can think of better ways to wake up, though. What time is it, anyway?"

"Almost nine," said Kyle, blinking his eyes as he tried to focus on the clock that hung on the wall above the TV. Then, sitting up to look out the window, he added, "At least the storm's gone, and it looks like it's gonna be another hot day, too. How hungry are ya?"

"A little, I guess, but the hangover I have won't let me think much about food right now."

"There's some aspirin in the bathroom that should fix that for ya. Then, if you're not too hungry, I thought we'd close up the cabin first, then catch something to eat at McCarthy's on our way home."

"Works for me," said Richie after sitting up to stretch the rest of the sleep from his body.

"Cool," said Kyle. "After you pop some headache pills, why don't you strip the beds while I pick up the rest of the trash around here. Shouldn't take us too long to get ready to go since we already cleaned up the party stuff while you and TJ were at the pond."

"What d'ya think all the rain did to the creek-bed?" asked Richie as he moved from the floor to sit on the edge of the coffee table.

"My guess is it's roaring down that hill like the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon right about now. Probably already washed out the snowmobile trail."

"Ya think?" asked Richie, holding his head in his hands trying to will away his headache. Blinking the rest of the sleep from his eyes, he looked over to Kyle and added, "Probably couldn't get up there now then, huh? You think the creek-bed'll be clogged-up with trees and shit again?"

"Wouldn't surprise me any. Like I said before, I was surprised it was as open as it was."

"Too bad if it is. Oh well, at least we got to get up there to see the pond while it was open."

That said, Richie stumbled into the bathroom in search of the much needed aspirin. He had no problem finding it, and by the time he'd relieved himself, washed his face and brushed his teeth, his headache was all but gone. When he returned to the main room, he found Kyle, fully dressed and stuffing a plastic bag with trash. Before stripping the sheets from the beds, he gathered up all the dishes and glasses that were scattered about and put them into the dishwasher. After starting the wash cycle, he returned to the main room where he found Kyle sweeping the tracked-in sand out the front door.

"What d'ya wanna do about the dirty sheets, bro? We don't have time to wash and dry them before we leave, do we?"

"Nah, just throw 'em into one of the laundry bags in the closet and we'll take 'em back with us."

An hour later, dressed and packed, their cleaning chores complete, Richie tossed Lindy's hat on the back seat of the Suburban before they went down to the lake for one last look around. Kyle's prediction for the weather was accurate. The near mid-day temperature had reached the low eighties, and the soft breeze that made its way across the lake had a negligible cooling effect against the high humidity. Satisfied that all was in order on the beach, the two boys stood at the end of the dock for one last reflective moment.

"Thanks, big guy," said Richie, "This was the best birthday a guy could ever hope for."

"Hey, don't thank me, Guppy. All I did was provide a place for it."

"Yeah, and the boat, and the jet-skies, and the dirt bikes... not to mention the most incredible birthday present of all."

"Hey, the tickets came from TJ, not me," said Kyle with a huge grin. When Richie didn't answer, but just looked at him with that 'you know what I'm talking about' look, Kyle shrugged his shoulders. "OK, maybe I did give you a little more than a place to crash, but last night I didn't give you anything that you didn't give back to me."

Moving closer to Richie, Kyle put his hands on his hips and pulled him close. Speaking softly, his voice little more than a whisper, he said, "Matter of fact, if we didn't have to hit the road, I'd say let's to do it again... and again... and again, until we're both so tired we can't move anymore."

"Whoa, and I thought I was the horny one. Well don't worry, hockey player, we'll definitely be doing that again, and that's for real." After leaning in for a quick kiss, Richie said, "For now, though, I'm starving. We gotta find us somethin to eat and then head back to the real world again."

"I know," said Kyle as he brushed Richie's unruly hair from his forehead. "It just pisses me off that we could have been doing that for the past six months if I hadn't had such a dumb hang-up over it."

"Forget that," said Richie as he gave Kyle's package a gentle squeeze. "Just think about what we can do for the next six months." When he felt Kyle's dick begin to stiffen from his touch, Richie continued to massage it through his blue jeans. Just as both boys began to think that maybe they didn't have to rush home so quickly after all, a booming voice coming from the top of the hill shattered the moment.

"So there you guys are," called Robert, Harry's nephew.

Quickly stepping away from each other, an embarrassed Kyle stood with his back to the hill as he desperately adjusted his hard-on while he tried to will it away. Amused by Kyle's predicament, Richie looked past him to see Robert descending the steps to the dock.

"Hey, Robert, kinda early in the year to be plowing the roads, ain't it?"

"Hah," laughed Robert as he made his way down the dock. "You're right about that. How you guys doin? Did ya survive the storm OK?"

Unable to keep his back turned any longer without being rude, Kyle hooked the thumb of his left hand in the pocket of his Levi's to cover the remaining bulge with his fingers. Turning to face their visitor, he said, "Robert! What the hell brings you all the way out here today?"

"Well, like Rich said, I sure as hell ain't out plowin. I was just down to Uncle Harry's and he told me you guys were here last night. So, since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I'd drive up to see if there were any trees down across your road."

"Whoa!" said Kyle. "I never thought about that. Did ya find any?"

"Nope. She's clean as a whistle," said Robert before stuffing a wad of chew into his mouth. "Bout the only road around here that is, too."

"No shit?" asked Richie. "How bout the main roads? They clear?"

"Well, if they weren't, they are now. The DOT, the power company, and just about everybody else's been cleaning up since sun-up. That was one hell of a storm come through last night."

"That bad, huh? I guess we must've slept through it," said Richie as he grinned at Kyle.

"You must be sound sleepers is all I can say. Anyway, long as you're alright I better be gettin back to work. I still gotta run out to one of our job sites to see if there's any storm damage."

"Cool," said Kyle. "We'll walk back up with ya. We're about ready to head out ourselves. Thanks for thinkin of us, though."

"Nah, think nothin of it. Your dad's one of my best customers so I kinda like to keep an eye on things for him."

After saying their good-byes, Robert returned to his front-end loader to head back down Jake's road while Richie and Kyle went into the cabin for a final check. Once they'd made sure all the windows were closed and locked, they locked the back door on their way out to the Suburban. Even though the inside of the truck was sweltering, and badly in need of air-conditioning, Kyle didn't start the truck right away. Instead, both boys took a moment to reflect back on one fantastic five-day party. Just before he turned the key in the ignition, Kyle reached over to give Richie's knee a squeeze.

"Time to go back to the real world, Guppy. You ready?"

"Yeah, I'm ready," answered Richie with mixed emotions. "Let's do it, big guy."

With that, they were off. Neither boy looked back as they made their way over Jake's road, but the memories they took with them would keep them smiling for a long time to come.

"We better top off the gas tanks before we leave," said Kyle when they reached the highway. "Besides, we for sure want to stop in to say goodbye to Harry."

When they pulled up to the gas pumps in front of Harry's, they were surprised to see Harry and TJ struggling with a large tree branch that had fallen onto the parking lot during the storm. When it fell from near the top, it appeared to have gotten hung up on some of the lower branches and the two of them were trying to dislodge it.

"Looks like you guys could use some help," called out Kyle as he and Richie climbed down from the truck.

"Well bless my soul," groaned Harry with relief when he looked up. "You boys couldn't have showed up at a better time."

"Take a break, Harry," said Richie. "I think the three of us can get this sucker outa here for ya."

"Much obliged, son," said Harry as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. "If you boys can get it back by the wood pile, then Robert can cut it into firewood for me later."

Minutes later the branch was free and lying flat on the ground. When Richie and TJ began to drag it toward the back of the property, Kyle went to fill the truck with gas while he chatted with Harry.

"You just might just damage your reputation around here if you keep comin around to help out old Harry, ya know," said Richie with a smile as he and TJ pushed the branch against the woodpile.

"Nah, not much chance of that happening," chuckled TJ. "That's cool, though. Harry's about the only one besides Brian that doesn't hate me around here."

"Why didn't Robert do this when he was here?"

"Oh, he said he'd get it later, but it was kinda in the way and Harry wanted it gone."

"Uh huh. And I suppose you just happen to be in the neighborhood so you thought you'd give him a hand, right?"

"Not exactly," said TJ, blushing a little. "But when I saw all the trees down around our place, I just thought I'd come up and see how he was doin. Glad I did, too. He's too old to be doin this kind of shit by himself, but he's too damn stubborn not to try. Bigger'n shit, when I rode up he was out here fightin that fucker by himself." Brushing himself off as they made their way back to the parking lot, he asked, "So, you guys heading back?"

"Yeah, we just stopped in to get some gas and say goodbye. We're gonna stop at McCarthy's for somethin to eat on our way out. Wanna come with?"

"Sure. I could go for a burger right about now."

When they approached the truck, Kyle was just finishing up with the gas, so the three boys accompanied Harry back into the store to settle up. Without the watchful support from Kevin and Lindy, Kyle managed to give Harry his credit card before Richie could even begin to protest. Oh well, he thought, keeping expenses as even as they did over the past week was a good enough accomplishment, so he didn't press the issue. Much like when their friends left, after thanking them for their help with the branch, Harry wished them a safe trip home while he expressed his wishes for them to return again soon.

When they returned to the truck, they loaded TJ's bike into the back, then headed down Hwy. 18 to McCarthy's. The signs of the storm the previous night were evident all along their route where road crews were busy cleaning up what remained of downed branches.

The parking lot behind McCarthy's was about one-quarter full, probably due to the Sunday brunch crowd that streamed in and out of the restaurant. Parking at the back of the lot, they unloaded TJ's bike, then made their way toward the back entrance. When they reached the middle of the lot, TJ suddenly stopped, his eyes resting on a beat-up old pick-up truck parked near the door. Just as Richie was about to ask him what was up, TJ turned to him with a worried look on his face.

"Um, ya know what? I just remembered my mom saying she needed my help packing for the trip home, so I better skip lunch with you guys if that's OK."

Before either Kyle or Richie could say anything, he was on his bike and headed back the way they came.

"Call me when ya get home!" called out Richie as TJ peddled away. He knew TJ heard him because he waved back over his shoulder as he continued his ride to the highway.

"What's wrong with this picture," asked Richie as he looked at the pick-up that seemed to make TJ change his mind.

"Don't know," said Kyle with little concern. "Maybe it's just like he said, he had to help his mom."

"Yeah, maybe, but I ain't buyin it. You know who owns that truck?"

"Nope, can't say as I do, Rich. C'mon, man, I'm starving."

Upon entering the restaurant, the two boys remained by the door to allow their eyes to grow accustomed to the relatively dim lighting that greeted them. When they could see again, the first thing they noticed was a sign hanging on the front of the hostess stand that read 'Welcome to McCarthy's - Please seat yourself'.

"C'mon, let's grab us a booth and order some food," said Kyle, nudging Richie with his elbow.

"Whoa! Wait a minute, bro. Look, over there. I'll bet you a buck that guy's the owner of the pick-up."

Following Richie's gaze, Kyle saw Brian's grandpa sitting at a small table near the front, playing cards with three other old-timers.

"Yup, you're probably right, Rich. C'mon, let's sit down. I'm so hungry my stomach thinks my throat's cut," said Kyle as he coaxed Richie toward a booth.

Once they were seated, they remained silent for a while. It wasn't until after the waitress came by to take their order that Richie finally spoke.

"It ain't right, man. Nobody should have to be afraid to come into a public restaurant because of some drunken loud-mouthed bigot like that asshole."

"Hey, I'm with ya, Guppy, but what can we do about it?"

"I don't know. Kick his ass, maybe. Better yet, why don't we punch a few holes in his tires or somethin."

"Whoa, chill, Rich. First of all, kickin his ass would only get us in trouble and wouldn't help TJ at all. Second, if we punch holes in his tires, he's just gonna think TJ did it and that would only make things worse for him."

"Yeah, you're right. What TJ needs is for someone around here to say some good things about him. Like how he helps out old Harry or somthin."

"Ya know what, bro?" said Kyle after looking around the room. "You just gave me an idea. Sit tight, I'll be right back."

With that, Kyle was up and headed for the front of the Restaurant. Following him with his eyes, Richie saw him approach a small table with one lone occupant. He was a balding middle-aged man reading the morning paper while he sipped on a cup of coffee. He and Kyle must have known each other because after Kyle introduced himself, the other man smiled broadly as he stood to shake hands. Then, after offering Kyle a seat at his table, both sat while the older man listened patiently to what Kyle had to say. Moments later they both stood, shook hands again, then walked away from the table. When Kyle returned to the booth, the other man disappeared into the bar.

"What the hell was that about?" asked Richie when Kyle was seated. "Who is that guy, anyway?"

"That's Tony G. His real name is Anthony Grassini, but everybody calls him Mr. G. or Tony G. and he owns McCarthy's. Well, McCarthy's and just about the whole east side of Gull Lake. He's like 'the man' around here if ya know what I mean. He's a really nice guy, too. I know him cause my dad and him used to be pretty good fishin buds. Anyway, like all the residents around here, he knows Harry really well."

"So what did ya talk about?"

"I just told him about how much TJ helps out Harry and that I thought he was getting a bum rap from all the rumors that bozo's been spreading."

"Yeah? So what did he say?"

"He agreed. Said he'd take care of it. My guess is he's talking to the bartender as we speak so's to put the word out. I think TJ's gonna find folks a little bit nicer to him by the next time he comes up." When Richie just stared at him with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes, Kyle asked, "What?"

"You just might have to hang up the bad-ass hockey player reputation of yours if you keep doin nice things for people like that, big guy. Thanks, man, that's probably the nicest thing anyone's done for TJ in a long time."

"Well it's gotta be better than kickin some ass or flattening some tires, don't ya think?"

"Yeah, it sure is."

Just then their food came and a half hour later, stuffed with burgers and fries, they climbed into the Suburban for their trip home.

Nearly four hours later they pulled into Richie's driveway. The absence of downed tree branches and other debris laying around the neighborhood told them that the storm never made it this far south. When they climbed down from the truck, however, they were immediately aware that the southern part of the state did not escape the heat wave.

"You'll call me if ya need anything, won't ya, Rich? You know, as far as your telling your family and shit," said Kyle as he pulled Richie's gear from the back of the truck.

"You know I will, bro. No matter what happens, you'll be the first to know, and that's for real."

"Yo, Rich! Kyle!" came a familiar voice from two houses away.

Looking up, both boys smiled at the sight of Lindy bounding across the neighbor's front yard, heading in their direction. As usual, he had a wide grin on his face when he and Richie went into their slap-tap greeting.

"What up, bro?" asked Richie.

"Lookin for my hat, man. You guys found it, didn't ya?"

"Hat? Now what hat would that be, Lindy?" asked Kyle.

"What hat?! You know what hat, man. Don't tell me ya didn't find it," said Lindy as he looked into the back of the truck.

"I don't know what the hell he's talkin about, do you, Rich?"

"Nope, don't have a clue."

"C'mon, you guys, don't be messin with me, now. Where is it?" said Lindy as he strained his neck to check out the rest of the truck while Richie continually moved in front of him to block his view.

After a few moments of this cat and mouse game, Richie finally relented and pulled his hat from the back seat.

"Oh, you mean this rag? I thought you were lookin for a hat."

"Bite me, Andrews," said a relieved Lindy as he put in onto his head. "Are you sure you're gay? Cause for a fag, you sure don't have much in the way of fashion sense."

"At least I'd take the price tag off if it belonged to me, you dodo."

"Well, as much as I'd love to stay here and listen to you two world renown fashion critics, I better get my butt home," said Kyle as he climbed behind the wheel of the Suburban.

Stepping up to the window, Richie asked, "Is your dad home?"

"Yeah, as far as I know he is. Why?"

"Aw, no reason," said Richie with a small grin that Kyle couldn't read. "I'll talk to ya later."

"Cool," said Kyle as he started the truck. Then, sticking his head out the window he called to Lindy. "See ya, Lindy."

"See ya!" called out Lindy as Kyle pulled out of the driveway.

"C'mon in, bro," said Richie as started to move toward the back door.

"OK, but I can't stay long. I have to shower and get ready for the big shindig tonight."

"What big shindig?" asked Richie as he held the door open for his friend.

"What shindig? Your big birthday gala, of course. You didn't think you could escape your mom inviting us over for that just because your birthday was two days ago, did ya?"

"Oh, man, did she really..." Whatever Richie was going to say was cut off short when he saw his mother in the kitchen, and well within earshot.

"Well hi, stranger," she said when she looked up. Then, abandoning her work, she wiped her hands on her apron before pulling Richie into a big hug. "How's my big birthday boy? Did you have a good time?"

"Um, sure, Mom," said Richie with mild embarrassment as he returned her hug.

As always when Richie returned home from a few days away, his mom acted as if he'd been gone a year or more. Despite his embarrassment at her display of affection in front of Lindy, her loving demonstration made him feel good. At the same time, however, it made him wonder how she would feel once she found out the truth about him.

"Oh good. You can tell us all about it in about an hour when the Lindstroms come over for dinner," she said after loosening her embrace. Then, as if seeing Lindy for the first time, she smiled at him before returning to her dinner preparations. "Hi, Lindy. I like your hat by the way."

"Gee, thanks, Mrs. A. Thanks. I'm glad to see someone in this family has good taste," said Lindy as he flashed Richie a smug grin.

"Smells good, Mom," said Richie as he and Lindy moved through the kitchen to the coolness of the air-conditioned interior of the house.

"Thank you, sweetheart, but it's just a pot roast I picked up on sale at Rainbow this morning."

'Yeah, right,' thought Richie with a grin. 'Along with all the trimmings.' These trimmings included two freshly baked peach pies cooling on the kitchen table. Smiling at the aroma, he knew Lindy's mom would be bringing a cake tonight and that his mom only made the pies because they were his favorite.

Moving into the living room on their way to the stairs, Richie heard his mother call out to him. "Make sure you put all your dirty clothes in the hamper, Richie. You must be almost out of clean underwear by now."

"I'm on it, Mom," answered Richie, catching the knowing grin on Lindy's face as they made their way up the stairs.

"Yeah, bro," whispered an amused Lindy. "Better get all that dirty underwear in the hamper."

Once they were behind his closed door, Richie dropped his bag on the bed, then sat down next to it with a sigh.

"What up, bro?" asked Lindy as he sat next to him. "If you're worried about the underwear, just wipe your ass with a couple of pair for skid-marks and she'll never know the difference."

"No, that's not the problem," said Richie with a halfhearted smile. "I was hoping to drop the bomb on them tonight, but I forgot how our moms insist on having some sort of birthday thing for us every year."

"Hey, no problem, dude. With a captive audience, you could drop it on everyone at the same time." When he saw the steely stare he got from Richie, he quickly changed his tone, "OK, bad idea. Probably not the best time or place for that, huh? Whatever, I don't think you'll have a problem. For sure you won't have a problem with my parents."

"Ya think?" asked Richie, brightening a bit.

"Yeah, I kinda brought it up today at dinner."

"You brought it up?" asked Richie, his curiosity piqued. "What exactly did you bring up, Lindy?"

"Hey, chill, bro. Didn't I tell ya I'd do some snooping? Ever since we left the cabin I've been tryin to figure out how to bring it up without raising suspicions. Then, when I was riding home from going to church with Nancy this morning, it came to me."

"You went to church this morning?" asked a surprised Richie.

"Yeah... well, Nancy goes every week and keeps bugging me to go with her, so I gave in and went this morning. I figured for sure it couldn't hurt me any, and I actually kind of liked it. Is that so hard to believe?"

"No, not at all, bro. What's hard to believe is that you actually got your ass out of bed in time to go."

"Yeah, well that was the hardest part, alright. Anyway, when I was coming home, I saw Phil Peterson cutting his parents' grass. That's when it hit me. I'll just ask them if they know about him and see what they think about it."

"And?' asked Richie with anticipation.

"Like I said, no problem. Turns out that my mom and dad both knew about Phil for a long time. My brother, Brad, didn't know, and it kind of surprised him, but he was cool with it once my dad reassured him that he didn't have to worry about getting hit on."

"He was afraid of that?!" asked Richie, unable to keep the anxiety from his voice.

"Nah, I don't think so, not really. But he's just a kid, Rich, and don't know anything about gay people. Until my dad set him straight, all he knew was what he heard at school and on the playground. My dad impressed the hell outa me, though. I don't know why or where he got all his information, but he's pretty up on it, that's for sure, and he gave us all one hell of a lecture on it, too.

"Course, just to make sure he didn't get suspicious, I kinda played dumb. When he was finally done talking, I figured he pretty much covered all the bases. I could tell from the look on Brad's face that he still had some questions, though. So maybe it would be best if you waited a day or two before telling my family. That'll give me a chance to have a little talk with Brad to make sure he knows what's real and what isn't. I'm sure he's more curious than anything else, but I'll check him out just to make sure. Sometimes I can get him to open up easier than my dad can, so if he's still worried about anything, I can make sure he understands."

"Thanks, bro. This sure as hell isn't getting any easier the closer I get, ya know?"

"Hey, don't worry, man. It'll all go down just fine." When Richie just shrugged his shoulders, Lindy changed the subject. "So tell me, did ya do it?"

"Do what?" asked Richie, truly not understanding what Lindy was asking.

"What d'ya mean, what? What d'ya think I been waiting for you to tell me about for the last twenty four hours? Did you and Kyle do it?"

"Oh, that," said Richie unable to keep from grinning at the question. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."

"You guess?! You mean you're not sure?! C'mon, bro, give. What was it like?"

After a moment of thought, Richie glanced at the clock. "It was great, man, but how bout I tell ya later. Right now we gotta get ready for the big birthday gig."

"Oh shit, you're right. My mom's gonna have my ass if I'm not ready in time," said Lindy as he jumped to his feet to leave. Looking down at the cloud of worry on Richie's face, he asked, "You gonna be OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," said Richie, taking a deep breath. "Go on home and wash that crusty body of yours while I do the same."

"Alright!" said Lindy with a grin. This sent them into a final slap-tap before Lindy was on his way down the stairs.

Richie was grateful for the extra time he had to think it over before telling Lindy about what he and Kyle did on the dock the previous night. Even though he had promised to fill him in, he didn't feel like he wanted to be quite as forthcoming as he was at the pond. It's not as if they did anything different this time, other than the fact that they did it on the dock, but he still didn't want to give anybody, including Lindy, a detailed account of it.

Trying to sort this out, he remembered his conversation with Kyle on the couch afterwards. Despite their open relationship, or whatever it was called, they had both agreed that they didn't want to have anal sex with any other partner. Smiling to himself, he thought, 'Maybe Kevin was right. Maybe if we don't set any rules or boundaries for our relationship, they'll set themselves, naturally.' In light of what he and Kyle had said to each other, that idea certainly held merit. With these thoughts in mind, he decided that whatever label could be attached to their relationship, it was more than just friends and lovers. They had something personal between them that neither one wanted to share with anyone else.

This conclusion left Richie with mixed feelings. Although he was happy that he and Kyle had this between them, he was saddened that all of a sudden he had something he felt was too personal to share in detail with his best friend. After another moment of thought, he decided to explain how he felt, and why he felt this way when he talked to Lindy later. Honesty was always the norm between them, so he was sure that once Lindy understood, a short version of what they did would be adequate. With this decision made, he began to get ready for dinner.

Rather than bother separating his clean clothes from the dirty ones, Richie picked up his bag and emptied its entire contents into the hamper. He was about to close the lid on it when he caught a glimpse of the purple envelope poking out from under one of his T-shirts. Relieved that he'd noticed it in time, he carried it back to the bed with him and sat down. Carefully sliding the tickets from their protective covering, he looked at them wistfully. What he held in his hand was probably the nicest birthday present he would ever receive, yet with the most undesirable task he could envision still looming ahead of him, he felt little of the joy they should have brought him. With his eyes misting over, he carefully returned the tickets to their envelope before gently setting it on his night-stand.

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