“I can't.” Devon said softly, tentatively. “I might be able to do something. I might be useful. I might finally be able to do something good... something people will look up to me for. I have to help. I have to try. I don't think a chance like this will come around again and if I waste it or go bury my head in the sand I'll be worthless forever. I'll be the guy that did nothing... again.” He looked up at Mark, Jeff, and then John. “I'm helping.”
They sat and listened to the rain and the radio. Teenage Dream was playing. In the half-light of the overcast early evening, it wouldn't be dark yet for another four hours if it hadn't been for the clouds, they saw headlights turn towards them. There were headlights and then another row across the top of the vehicle, 4 deer lights that ran across a rack there onto the road ahead of it. “It's Dave.” John said.
“That's an escort?” Jeff said as it came slowly into view.
“Yeah. I told you, it wasn't exactly street legal.” John said.
Coming towards them was what had been an '87 Ford Escort when it rolled off the assembly line. It had since had a lift kit put on it, big tires, and a light rack across the top with high powered halogen lights that faced fore and aft. There was a black tubular steel brush guard that wrapped around the front end of the escort protecting half way down the quarter panels of the car. The top of the engine was sticking out through where the hood had been cut away to make room for it. Nothing on it was chrome. It was all matte black and faded red paint. As it rolled to a stop they could see the inside had been reinforced with a roll cage and the front seats had been removed and replaced with wrap around aluminum racing seats with a five point harness.
“That you John?” The voice came from speakers under the lights on the light bar that none of them had noticed until they heard them crackle to life.
The Escort's lights were aimed into the back seat of the car, effectively blinding the back seat passengers. John honked his horn once.
“How many you got with you?” Again, the voice came from the speakers, the volume had been turned down some, as if the driver was adjusting things inside the car.
John honked four quick times.
“I'm not getting out in this crap. Send two over here and have one in the front and the other climb into the back then follow me. We're going to my cabin. We'll talk there.” He revved the engine twice to indicate he was ready. Devon moved to open the door and John stopped him.
“Sit tight. I'm going to pull up beside him first. If we just trust him it'll piss him off. I need to visually ID him or we'll hear about it.” John rolled forward slowly and around the car until he was driver door to driver door with the red car, but he was looking at the bottom of the door from his unmodified Prius. He opened his door and stepped out into the rain. With a quick bob up onto the running board, also tubular steel painted matte black, looked in at the driver and into the back seat and then ducked back into his car. The whole thing had taken less than five seconds but he was soaked when he slammed the door. “It's him. OK. Mark, he knows about you at least so you ride with him and one of you” John looked back at Jeff and Devon, “needs to go too. Probably Devon would be best I guess? He'll ask fewer questions right away at least. And maybe you could sort of ease him into the idea of why Jeff's with us... probably leave out the part where he wants to hump our legs though.”
“I what?” Jeff asked, startled.
“You know what I mean.” John said.
“Don't be a dick John. He's a good guy.” Mark said unfastening his seat belt as Devon and Jeff moved towards Mark's side of the car so they could get out quickly. Devon wanted to see what it was like on the inside if it was that tricked out on the outside. Outside lightning split the sky, lighting the inside of the car.
“I know he is. I'm just saying. Leave that part out. David's pretty erm... conservative.”
Jeff reached forward and tapped Mark's shoulder with one of the radios he had retrieved from the back of the car, “Take one of these with you so we'll both hear if anything new happens.”
“Good idea, and worst case, we can use it to talk to each other. At least until David figure something else out. He's probably got radios too.” John said. “OK. Go for it. See you wherever it is we're going.”
Mark opened the door and ran for the passenger side of the Ford Escort and right behind him Jeff climbed out and Devon followed Mark into the rain. Jeff slid back into the car, in the passenger seat and shut the door with a quick shiver as his wet shirt stuck to him. “Holy shit it cooled off out there!” Jeff said rubbing his arms.
The Escort's horn drew their attention and David's outline could be made out waving the radio at them. It looked like he was giving them a thumbs up, but it was hard to tell through the gray of the sheets of rain. The red Escort pulled around them and John watched it pull ahead of them, a winch and tow ball hung off the back of the car, just visible through the wrap around tubular steel brush guards David had put on the back of the car as well. Along the top of the windshield they saw five small orange lights evenly spaced. “What the hell? John said leaning forward to see what they might be, just as he did they went off, five strobing flashes that left him seeing spots. The Escort's horn honked a laugh at him as David pulled slowly out onto the gravel road and waited for them. “ASSHOLE!” John yelled, laughing, and he honked when he could see again. He knew David was laughing at him. He hated people who tail-gated almost as much as he hated people that drove too slowly. “I guess he found the solution to tail gating drivers.”
“Yeah, kill them. Seems like an over-reaction.” Jeff said rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms.
“Well, it's not like this was his daily driver. It's for emergencies. You weren't really going to puss out were you?” John said as he turned north following David through the rain, away from town.
“I still would.” Jeff said.
“Why?” John asked, sounding almost angry, “We fought for you not two hours ago? We might have even killed somebody.” John knew he had but wasn't going to say it out loud. It bothered him more than he would admit. Not right now. He'd think about it later. The snap the man's neck had made was in every clap of thunder he heard already. “We went back for you. Would you have come back for us? I gotta know, because if not... I just gotta know.”
“For you? Yeah. I'd come back for you. You, and them too. But you're all here. If we go in to town you and I will all be at risk again. We're finally safe, or as close to safe as we've been all day and it is stupid to go back.”
“Even for our moms?” John asked quietly.
“No, not for them. If they don't come out with your dad you've got to go back. If you go back I'm going back. But you're all young, and not to be a dick about it. I don't think any of you believe bad things can happen to you and I know that they can. Something that seems like a good idea at the time can come back to bite you in the ass and have forever type consequences. This is one of those times.”
“It always comes back to my ass doesn't it?” John asked.
“Honestly, your ass isn't your best quality.” Jeff said.
“My sparkling personality? Witty come backs? Dazzling good looks?” John asked.
“God knows it's not your sparkling personality. You'd be a 10 out of 10 if you were a mute.” Jeff said, half-jokingly. “If I had to say, it'd be your looks... and that in spite of being a jerk in front of your friends when you're by yourself you're almost tolerable.”
“Almost?” John asked as both cars slowed at a portion of the road that was partially flooded out with a sheet of water running from one side of the road to the ditch on the other.
“Almost. When you're showing off for Mark you're almost not fit to be around.” Jeff said, honestly.
“I'm not showing off for anybody!”
“Oh bullshit. You've got to be the biggest cock on the block and you strut and preen and mouth off like you're King Shit. But when it's just you you're a good guy... most of the time, when you're not being a pissy little bitch.”
“There you go again with the biggest comments.” John said. “Really? You really think that?”
“Yeah. If we were having this conversation in front of Mark you'd be more defensive and pushy. You're hard to like sometimes.”
“Hunh. But you're saying my dazzling good looks make up for it is what you're saying.”
“Only sometimes. Like in the summer, in a wife-beater.” Jeff laughed. “But seriously for a minute, if your dad gets your mom out and meets us at whatever white supremacist survivalist bunker we're going to, why should you go back? If it's a sink hole what can you possibly do about it? Fill it in with dirt? Do that running thing around the edges of it? There's nothing to be gained by going back and everything to lose. Not just if we're killed, but what if we wind up in Guantanamo or some other camp for anti-american activists? They can lock you up and lose you. With all the people who are going to be missing after this nobody'd know you weren't at the bottom of a pit somewhere.”
“Because if we don't do anything we suck.” John said. “Mark's right. It's our town. Did you read that book he gave you? I know he gave you one. He has like a dozen copies of it. Good Omens? I listened to it on audio book. You know how the main character feels about his town? How he's protective of it and looks out for it and his super power is that what he wants comes true so the town is protected? That's how Mark feels about here. He likes it like. He wants it to be a safe place. He believe's it's a safe place. I don't have it as bad as he does, but I think it's contagious. It's hard to not like the town when you're with him.” John said.
“Yeah, and your super power is jumping over things, eating ice cream when it's free, and I don't see how either one of those is going to help.”
“What's your super power?” John asked.
“I've got terrible taste in friends. I manage to associate myself, in a town of 25,00o with three people who are, good people, but insanely dangerously bad for me to hang around. I don't even have to do it on purpose. If I'm not doing something stupid the world will fall apart and contrive to put me in a situation where, for all the world, it looks like I'm managed things to get me in a car with a sixteen year old with no pants on just in time for some uniforms to pull up and see it. That's my super power. Insanely bad taste in friends. As super powers go it's kind of a steaming turd actually.”
“You don't have bad taste in friends. You said we were good guys. That's good taste in friends.” John argued.
“For anybody else you'd be right. For me, you're like a loaded gun. Seriously. This is so not a good idea. Not just the going in to town. I can almost get that, but me being around you all is really not a good idea.”
“You think you're going to hump our legs in our sleep?”
“God no! Just the attachment part is bad. It's a thinking thing. I can't think I can have just one cigarette or just one drink. It's like an ex-smoker or a recovering alcoholic that way. Once the foot is in the door it's hard to shut again.” Jeff was surprised how easy it was to talk to John about any of this. It wasn't something he was usually comfortable talking about with anybody. That John wasn't putting him out of the car made him feel somewhat better. Not exactly accepted. He didn't think acceptance was probably possible, but non-rejection counted for a lot. That was most people's reaction at best, rejection of him as a person and a human being.
“So, you'd rather we weren't friends?”
“Are we friends or just all using each other for different things?” Jeff asked.
“Damn, that's cynical as hell. If we weren't friends you'd still be back there with the uniforms. The ice cream's good and all, but it's not worth fighting over.”
“Well... shit.” Jeff said softly and stared out the window into the rain. They rode in silence for several long minutes as the radio played Alannah Myles sang Black Velvet. Eventually the lead car, David's Escort slowed, brake lights bright red in the growing dark, and turned down a little used long driveway that ended in a stand of trees and a dark two-story farm house that wasn't visible through the surrounding trees until they rounded a corner. It stopped near front door and turned around so it was facing back down the drive way. A motion sensor light came on over the steps. John turned around and parked beside the car as the occupants of the red car ran, hunched against the rain, to the protection of the front porch.
“If I try not to be an ass will you tell me which of us you like best?” John asked as he put the car in park.
“Devon.” Jeff said without hesitation.
“Is it because you two have...” John left the question hanging.
“No!” Jeff said quickly, louder than he meant to. “I haven't. We haven't. That's not why.”
“Would you?” John asked looking at Jeff thoughtfully.
“Not with him. It'd fuck things up. He's got that all screwed up in his head. He thinks it's how people show they care about him.”
“And you're trying to prove that's not how it's done so you care about him but won't. That's confusing.”
“Yeah.” Jeff looked up from where he'd been looking at his hands.
“So, who would you with?” John asked.
Jeff looked back at him, “Nobody. It's not worth it.” Jeff's voice was low, soft in the dark.
“Oh.” John said reaching for the door handle. “It'd be worth it.” He laughed as he opened the door.
“Sure it would 'Point and Shoot.'” Jeff said as he opened his door and followed John to the house, shutting the car door behind him as he ran to the door. He heard John lock the doors with his remote over the sound of the rain.
Mark and Devon ran around the Escort for the door and Mark reached up to open the door. The diamond plate matte black running boards were slick in the rain as he pulled himself up and into the front seat as Devon scrambled in behind him, turning sideways to squeeze between the middle pillar and the back of the racing seat. He slid into a racing seat in back and the two of them struggled with their harnesses for a minute before getting themselves buckled in. They looked over at David, blond hair close cropped and under a Nebraska ball cap. He was in his early forties or late thirties, wore small square wire rimmed glasses and grinned around what looked like half of a Slim Jim, Teriyaki judging by the smell. “How's it going? You Mark?”
“Yeah. That's my friend Devon.” Mark thumbed towards the back seat where Devon waved at David as he glanced back at him.
“Nice pants.” He said as he looked at the matching camo pants' digital square print.
“Yeah.” Mark said, “We found 'em.”
“Just laying around were they?” He asked reaching forward to flip a toggle switch on his dash. “Close your eyes. It'll be bright for a minute.” He laughed and pushed a button. A blinding flash reflected off the back window and David laughed again. “Love that thing.” He said looking over at Mark who was rubbing his eyes. “You didn't close your eyes.”
“Well I didn't think... yeah. I didn't. What was that?”
“For tailgaters. I hate 'em.” He said. “So, those were just laying around? How'd you get those? They look like what I wore in the service.”
“Some guys had them and didn't need them any more so we borrowed them.” Mark said. As the escort turned from the cemetery drive onto the gravel road he told the story of the soldiers coming upon them at the brick yard without saying where it was. Several times Devon interrupted to correct a detail.
David listened, asked several questions, ending with, “How sure are you the one guy is dead?”
“Pretty sure.” Devon said. He'd had one side of the man when they carried him into the shack tied to the others.
“How's John doing with that?” David asked.
“Seems OK with it. He was pretty pissed that they'd gone all postal on Devon and Jeff.”
“You didn't say why they were taking Jeff away.”
“Gotta be a case of mistaken identity. Or maybe because he was the only adult and Devon was a minor so they were just going to ignore him.” Mark made up. He'd glossed over that part of the story and hoped David wouldn't notice. The man looked at him out of the corner of his eye as he drove.
“Mmmkay. We can go with that for now.” David said turning onto another gravel road. He reached and grabbed a CB mic off the dash, “You out there White Rabbit?” There's a sink hole that opened up in the middle of town. It looks like it got the mall and a little bit south of the highway through there. Not sure how far down it goes. Their chatter cut off right after the hole opened up, but you heard that. They knew something was going to happen though or they wouldn't have had so many people in place. They got here too fast for it to be a coincidence. Stillwater's the outfit they brought in, and they're from the east coast. They're also amateurs. Merc's for hire. Not much of a challenge.”
The CB emitted a long tone. “He's there.” David said slowing to turn onto another gravel road. The rain ran off the windshield as he drove and he didn't use windshield wipers at all.
“Got 'em. Meet you there.” The CB said. It was John's dad.
David put the mic back on the dash and looked over at Mark. “He's got your Mom. We're not talking much. Don't want them to know where we are or what we're up to, but he said 'them' so he's got more than one person. He said he was going after your mom and Shirley. We'll head out to a place I know and dig in until he gets there and then we'll figure out what to do. Might be a few more people coming out if they can get there. There are a lot of closed roads. The rain will help though.”
“What're we even thinking about doing? It sounds like it's just a giant hole. What's with all the helicopters?” Devon asked.
“What helicopters?” David asked looking at Devon in the rearview mirror.
“There were three black helicopters. They looked like they were stealth helicopters, but I don't think there is such a thing. Same flat black paint like you've got on this. They flew by just before the soldiers showed up. They were headed in the direction of town from the airport, or at least the direction of the airport.” Devon said.
“Big enough for troop transport you think?” David said looking at Devon again through the mirror.
“We didn't think so.” Devon said. He was ready for David to not be talking to him. He preferred to not be the center of attention.
“Hunh. Anything else you forgot to mention?” David asking with a glance to Mark.
“I don't think so.” Mark said.
“How about why is Jeff with you? You go for ice cream and kidnap him?”
“You know Jeff?” Mark asked.
“He's on my route. Yeah. I know him that way.”
“There were some guys giving him a hard time and John decided he shouldn't stick around there so he brought him with. We were over there looking at the dead bread. He thinks the water is the problem. Something in it killed the yeast he thinks. That's when John picked him up.”
“John did.” He sounded surprised. “That's more initiative than I'd have expected out of him. How well do you know Jeff?” David asked. He seemed to be asking another question, or at least another question was implied.
“We know him OK. He's a good guy. I guess we know him better now.” Mark said, cautiously.
“You know he's gay right?” David asked.
“Duh.” Mark answered with a smile to take some of the sting out of it. He wished he knew David better.
“Just saying. People might talk.”
“Fuck 'em.” Devon said.
David grinned and turned to look over his shoulder, “Good attitude. They're all idiots anyway. Right?”
“Maybe not 'all.' You seem OK so far.” Devon said with feigned cockiness.
“Yeah? Just OK?” David asked, faking being offended.
“Nebraska? Really?” Devon asked pointing at his baseball cap.
“Oh, that.” David laughed. “Hate 'em. But not as much as Paul. He'll have a shit fit when he sees this thing.” He took the hat off, looked at it, grinned and pulled it back onto his head laughing at John's Dad's anticipated outrage.
The CB crackled into a static-filled burst of noise. The only word they could make out was, “work.” At least Mark thought it was “work.” He looked at David as the smile fell from the driver's face and he reached for the mic. Before he could key it on they heard more static and “... me at work... get past roadblocks...”
“Well, shit.” David said, “Looks like we've run out of luck. My guess,” and he held the mic in his lap while he turned down a lane to a farm house, “is that he wants to meet me at his work because he can't get past the outlying roadblocks. The ones in town are manned by local people but the further out I got the fewer people I recognized. I drove through a field around one of them using night vision. Was worried about that. I'd hoped his reservist status would get him through. OK.” He pulled into the drive and turned around. “We'll run inside and meet up in there and sort things out before I head back into his work to get them out. You boys stay here OK?” Before they could answer he opened his door and ran up on the porch and into the house.
They followed seconds later with Devon saying to Mark as they climbed out, “I'm not staying here.”
Mark answered as he jumped down to the ground, “Me neither.” They they ran to the house as John and Jeff readied themselves for the dash through the rain to the house.
As John and Jeff went into the house they entered the kitchen. A lone coffee cup sat in the white porcelain sink, a black sludge dried onto the bottom of the cup. The room was lit by a battery powered lantern on the gate leg table against the wall opposite the sink. As the light started to dim Mark reached over and cranked a small crank on the side of the lamp. David reached out and shook John's hand, and then Jeff's. “How you two doing?”
“Nice hat.” John said.
“You like that?” David asked grinning. “I think Paul will too, don't you think?”
“Only team Dad hates worse than Nebraska is Notre Dame. I think he'll notice it. That's for sure. So, when's he gonna get here?” John asked, looking around the room at the white painted cabinets that lined the kitchen walls.
“Soon as I go get him. I think he's got trouble with a road block so I'm supposed to go meet him at his work. He's got Shirley and Mark's mom I'm pretty sure. You all just sit tight. There's no power, but there's a generator down stairs if you need it. I can't imagine you would. The toilets flush. We're on a well and it's got power. With the water situation in town I'm not sure if I'd trust it or not, but the toilet's will flush. Just don't drink it until we get that cleared up. I'd use the light as little as possible. There's a CB in the next room. It's got a hand crank too. You should probably get it going and keep an ear out for any news. It's got a better antenna than the one in the car so it might pick up better. Jeff, you want to stay here or go in with me?”
“He's staying with us.” John said. “We should have some supervision right?”
“Riiiight.” David said, drawing it out as he tried to decide if he should try and figure out what the real reason was. Deciding he didn't have time he took his keys from his belt loop and tossed them into the air and caught them. “You all just sit tight then. We'll be right back. We'll all be right back.” He said looking at John and Mark in turn. “You take care of these guys OK?” He asked Jeff.
“Will do. Be careful.”
“Screw careful. Careful wouldn't have gotten me out of the house!” David looked at John one more time as he moved towards the door. “Don't do anything stupid. We're expecting you to be here when we get back, and to be safe. I'm bringing your mom and dad here... they'll expect you to be here.” He looked at John for a long minute, glanced at the other people in the room, eyes pausing a moment longer than the others on Jeff's face as if he were about to ask a question then he turned and ran back into the rain and to his car. They heard the engine fire to life, the lights came on illuminating the front yard and the drive and he pulled away into the night. In the kitchen the light faded to a dull yellow then went out.
“Well, who wants to play strip poker?” John asked in the dark.
“We're not seriously going to sit here are we?” Devon asked.
“Nope. I don't have cards anyway. But we've got to give him time to get down the road. It'd be just like him to go around the corner and wait to see if we're going to stay here.” John said pulling a folding chair into the kitchen from the adjacent room and sitting down. “There's more chairs in there if anybody wants one. The bathroom's at the top of the stairs on the left.”
“You've been here before?”
“Yeah. It's his parent's place. We used to come out here for Fourth of July picnics that would turn into all night things with fireworks and bonfires.”
“Used to? What happened?” Jeff asked.
“Someone crapped in the yard so he quit having it.” John said.
Mark barked a laugh.
“I'm serious. One of the campers dropped a deuce behind a tree and he saw it when he was mowing. It was the last time we came out here.”
“Well that's just gross.” Devon said. “I'm going to smoke on the porch? That OK?”
“Yeah, just leave the outside door open so the smoke goes outside.”
Mark pulled a chair in and sat near the sink, leaning back and closing his eyes. “I'm beat. What's next?”
“We could crash here for a while. Now that you say it I'm tired too.”
“You're tired? You had a nap.”
“I couldn't sleep with all the jabbering going on. It's a tent. The walls are made of cloth.”
“What do you think Jeff? Catch some z's?” John asked.
“I could use some sleep. We can crank up the CB and it'll wake us up if they say anything.”
“Alright. Who goes outside to grab the sleeping bags?”Mark asked. “Not it!”
“Don't need to. I'll go grab some from upstairs.” He went up the stairs and returned minutes later with four sleeping bags. “No mint on the pillows. Hell, no pillows that I could find. We should sleep in our clothes.” He turned to Jeff, holding up both hands and padding the air, “Calm down. Nothing to do with you. Just so we can be ready in a hurry if we need to be.”
“I didn't say anything. I think it's a good idea for both reasons.”
Devon came in and the room immediately smelled like cigarette smoke. “Dang. You've got to quit smoking.” Mark said.
“I know. It'll kill me.” Devon said.
“That and it stinks like ashtray.” Mark added. “We're going to crash here for a while and then go into town.”
“Crash now? It can't be past seven.” Devon said sounding surprised.
“I know, but it's been eventful, and I've got adrenaline debt going on. Besides, maybe they'll be here before we wake up. Because honestly. I don't have any idea what we'll do when we get there. If we can even get into town.” John said sounding tired.
“I'd wondered that.” Jeff said. “But I assumed you had a master plan rolling around in that head of yours.”
“Nope. No plan at all.” John passed out the sleeping bags before cranking on the generator on the table long enough to get light out of it while he led them into the mostly empty living room. An old office chair sat in one corner, and on top of it sat a CB radio on a red Igloo cooler. Next to that was a small hand powered generator and some batteries. He switched on the CB and cranked the generator until his arm got tired then he let Mark, and then Devon, and finally Jeff wind it up. While they weren't cranking the generator they set out their sleeping bags in a plus sign pattern with their heads in the center and their feet sticking out.
“You gonna be sneaking into my sleeping bag later Jeff?” John asked as they slid their shoes off and climbed into their sleeping bags.
“You want me to come on over? We could just zip our bags together. I bet Mark and Devon won't care, just keep it down.” Jeff countered.
“Go right ahead,” Mark said. “No problem on my end. You care Devon?”
“Go for it. Shouldn't keep us up too long from what I hear he'll be finished fast. Just don't get any on me.”
“You're gross.” John said. “Fuck you.”
“Well, if you insist.” Jeff said sliding into his sleeping bag and laying down to look at the ceiling. He could just make it out in the darkness. He'd decided to give him a hard time back when John started something. He wasn't sure how the other two would react, but thought they'd know he was kidding. There was something easy about their banter. He heard them call each other “fag” all the time and say things like he'd just said, but had never thought he'd be saying it too. He feared rejection, not of perceived advances, but of him as a person. He worried he'd be rejected as a person if he'd made those jokes, and they were mostly jokes, certainly jokes under the circumstances. It was the most relaxed and comfortable he had felt with a group of people, adult or not in years. He didn't have anything to hide and could be himself and wasn't rejected. He knew he'd have to be careful to not do anything but he could at least be himself... that was something he hadn't done in years and it felt good. He closed his eyes.
“Nothing John?” Mark asked.
“Nyah. I'm going to wait for you to go to sleep and switch places with you. So, if you wake up and can't find your pants, remember, you asked for it.” John said.
A long time passed before Jeff said into the darkness, “Thanks guys.”
“For what?” Devon asked, sounding almost asleep.
“For coming back for me. For not treating me any different... just... thanks.” Jef said haltingly.
“Stop it.” Mark said. “You'd have done the same thing.”
“What happened?” John asked.
“When?” Mark asked.
“The first time. Jeff, what got you in trouble the first time?” John asked.
“C'mon John.” Mark said, “He'll tell us if he wants to.”
“I can say, it wasn't a violent crime or anything.” Jeff started and quickly added, “I'm not trying to make it sound OK but I didn't... it wasn't violent. We were just fooling around, ugh.” He stopped. “There's no way to not make this sound creepy.” He was nervous. He hadn't talked about what happened to anybody outside of a counseling session ever and those had been hard enough, both group and one-on-one. He hadn't cared what those people thought about him, but he didn't want these three to not trust him. Not for a bad reason, but because he liked them. They'd said they were friends, maybe friends would trust each other even if they weren't perfect. “I was younger, a lot younger than I am now, twenty. The other person was about your age. I'd come over and he was on the internet. It was obvious he didn't want me to know what he was looking at but he finally showed me. It was porn.” He was finding it harder and harder to talk as he went on. “We talked about it for a little bit and seriously. It was exciting to me, but I didn't think anything would happen. We were just talking. One minute we were talking, the next minute he, and I swear I didn't start it, the next minute he had his junk out. I don't even know how long he had it out. We were talking. He was nervous. I was... I was nervous... That's when his Mom came in. I hadn't heard her come up stairs.” He hadn't heard anything. He'd been totally consumed by what was unfolding next to him. If his head had caught on fire he's not sure he'd have noticed. “All I heard was her yelling at me, at him, at both of us. I went home. The police got there right after that. I don't remember much after that. Jail was a blur. Court was a nightmare. The things she said about me, her lawyer was brutal. I feel worst for him. He'd been put through hell for it and I swear I didn't ask for any of it and didn't touch anything.” Jeff stopped.
“Did you want to.” Devon asked. He sounded less sleepy now.
Jeff stared into the blankness of the dark over his head. “Yeah. More than anything I'd ever wanted before.” Jeff sniffed in the dark.
“Well fuck 'em.” John said. “You didn't do anything. That's bullshit.”
“Yeah, well. I should have left. I should have told him to put it away. I shouldn't have sat down when I saw what he was looking at on the internet. There's a lot of things I shouldn't have done.”
“But you wanted to.” Devon said again, not badgering him, but not letting go of that part. The part that was hardest to talk about.
“Yeah. If it'd gone on much longer I might have, probably would have, the conversation was going that way. It's probably good she stopped it then.”
“Did you like him?” Devon asked.
The light came on in Jeff's head finally. He rolled to his side to look at Devon even though he couldn't see him. Devon was wondering why, if Jeff liked that sort of thing he'd never tried anything with him. Did it mean Jeff didn't like him? “Yeah, but I wasn't thinking about him right then. I mean I was... no I wasn't. I was only thinking about me and what I wanted right then and that was what was wrong. It was why I feel bad for him. Liking someone doesn't mean you have to mess with them. Sometimes liking someone means you don't, or can't. We'd been friends, but that messed it all up so I went from having a friend to having nothing. It wasn't worth it.” He paused. “It wouldn't be worth it. I'd hate to lose your friendship.”
“Still,” John went on, “it's fucked up.”
Jeff wasn't sure which he meant, that he'd gone to jail or that he'd wanted something so bad that he wasn't supposed to want, but he agreed either way. “Yeah. Yeah it is.”
“What's wrong with looking?” Mark asked.
“It's illegal until you're eighteen. The idea is kids can't give consent. They're not able to decide what they're doing yet.” Jeff answered.
“If he'd killed you he'd have been charged as an adult though. He's old enough to go to prison for that but not to decide if he's up for it or not?” John asked.
“That's they way it is.” John said.
“That's fucked up.” John repeated.
They lay there in silence except for the sounds of them trying to get comfortable on the floor. Jeff lay back down and closed his eyes. He jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder. It groped around in the dark until it found his shoulder and squeezed it once for a long time before patting him twice and retreating back into the darkness.
More sounds of people moving around in their sleeping bags and then the slow steady breathing from Devon's direction.
“G'night.” Mark said softly.
“Yeah.” Jeff said, his voice sounding rough.
It was still dark when John woke up and slipped out of his sleeping bag. He carefully walked around the edge of the room to crank on the generator on the CB to make sure it would work if someone tried to talk to them. He heard the slow, steady breathing of the others sleeping and sat on the floor next to the CB for a long time before pushing himself to his feet. He'd never needed much sleep and while he got tired maybe a little earlier than most, he never slept a whole eight hours and that left him lots of early morning time to himself. He walked around the edge of the room again and went outside. It had stopped raining and he sat on the front step. Minutes later Jeff came out and John moved over and patted the step. “Can't sleep?”
“I wake up easy.” Jeff said. “Light sleeper. You?”
“Don't sleep much. Was all that true what you said earlier? That was the whole story?”
“Yeah. That was why I went away.” Jeff said, not looking at John.
“I mean.. telling some of the truth or most of it isn't the same as lying, but it's not all the truth. You didn't leave anything out?” John pushed.
“That was all of it.” Jeff said.
“OK. Can I ask a follow up question?” John asked.
“Yeah... why so interested? You want me to go?”
“No, not that, just... you're first person I ever met that would talk about it I guess. I mean we could talk about the weather if you want to.”
Jeff laughed. “Rainy and shitty. Anything to add?”
“Not much. You ever talk to him again?”
“After I got out. He messaged me on the computer. We chatted for a while. I wouldn't say much, didn't know who was on the other end over his shoulder. He apologized.” Jeff's voice caught, “and I...” he waited and coughed a couple times, “I tried to assure him that he hadn't 'done anything wrong. Evidently they'd put him through counseling and he'd managed to convince himself there was something wrong with him and there wasn't. There wasn't anything wrong with him right up until it all hit the fan. He felt like he had to apologize and that was the hardest, thinking he'd been living with that... I...” Jeff stopped again.
“So, he was OK?” John asked.
“He will be. I think he just wanted some resolution to it. Neither of us meant for what happened to happen. Both of us got hurt by different people, and he said what hurt most was nobody ever asked him what he thought should happen. He said he was treated like a victim and had that beaten into his head until he started to believe it... that was what he hated the most. He hated the way people looked at him and treated him afterwards. It's not supposed to get out, but it was a small town, everybody knew.”
“Is that why you moved here? To get away from the town or to get away from him.” John asked.
Jeff looked at him sideways, “You're smarter than you look. You know that?”
“Yeah. Wait. What?”
“Never mind. I was mistaken.” Jeff laughed. “I moved to make it easier on him. If I'd been there it would have brought it all up again. That's not true. I moved for both of us. I didn't want people knowing, or thinking they knew. So, I came here. Well, to town anyway. Not particularly here.” He gestured at the trees and outbuildings around the house.
“I knew what you meant. So, do you like older guys?”
“Old? Like sixty?” Jeff said.
“No, like your age.”
“Screw you. I'm not that old.”
“Well you're older'n me.” John said.
“Yeah, not really. Sometimes, but it's really rare. Really, really rare.” Jeff said.
“Well, we'll have to find you an old guy that works then you'll stay out of trouble.” John said as if he'd decided on a job that had to be done.
“That's OK. Really. I think the last thing I need is a group of high school matchmakers picking people out for me.” Jeff said with a with a quiet laugh.
“What if I knew somebody else like you. You think you'd like each other?” John asked, tentatively.
John thought about what John was saying and not saying, “I doubt it. It'd be like putting two legos together backwards. Both looking for the same thing and neither of us looking for each other. Should I ask who or how you know them?” Jeff asked.
“Just a guy I know. I could introduce you I guess if you changed your mind.”
“You OK?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah. It was a long time ago.” John stopped himself realizing he couldn't take the words back and wishing he could.
“Want to talk about it?” Jeff asked.
“Will you talk about it?”
John looked at him. “I guess, fair's fair, but you don't tell anybody or I swear I'll rat you out and throw you under the bus. You gotta swear.”
“I won't tell. I swear.” Jeff wanted to put his arm around John's shoulder, he could see, in the dim light of the stars and the half moon peeking through the clouds, the pain on John's face, mostly around his eyes.
“You can't tell anybody.” John's voice was intense.
“You don't have to talk about it.” Jeff said.
“I was in first grade. I remember he picked me up from school and I only went to that school for first grade and fifth and it wasn't fifth grade. He was a friend of a friend. He picked us both up and we went to the lakes. We were meeting people there and I'd begged mom and dad to be able to go right after school and they'd go there after they got off work. I think it was a long weekend or something? We were going to be camping. I remember we were camping.” The words came out in a rush.
“Somehow we wound up around the bend near where the creek goes into the river, we were walking up the creek and throwing rocks to see who could throw them furthest. I don't know how it happened, but we wound up skinny dipping. I was in first grade. It wasn't a big deal really. Anyway. Wound up way up the creek and laying down on the bank. It was way away from everybody. I don't think that was an accident. We started playing truth or dare, his idea, and the dare's got more... well... at the time it was just funny stuff to do.” There was a long pause.
“You don't have to do this.” Jeff said quietly, not sure if he wanted to hear it either.
“So, after a while we went back. He said we shouldn't tell anybody or we wouldn't be able to come camping again or something like that. I got the impression it wasn't Forest's first time. That was my friend's name, Forest. So, I didn't tell. Things sort of progressed from there. We were already friends, me and Forest so going over to his place wasn't that big a deal. And sometimes we'd go to his house.” Jeff could tell by the way he said “his house” that John wasn't talking about Forest. “One time I woke up and he was doing stuff... it freaked me out a little bit, but I didn't tell him to stop. It felt good. I didn't tell him to stop. I just laid there. After that time it happened all the time. I'd always wake up and pretend I was asleep. Finally he moved away suddenly. He was an over the road driver for some company and he got transferred. Then it was over.”
“How long did it go on?” Jeff asked.
“Years. Sometime around fifth grade.”
“You kept going over?” Jeff asked.
“I didn't know how to stop it. If I quit going over maybe people would ask why and I didn't want to say why. I wasn't ashamed of what we'd done, but I knew things would go to shit if it got out. And besides, it felt good. I mean, it's sex right? Sex feels good. It's what it's for.”
“You know you didn't do anything wrong right? He shouldn't have done that.”
“I know. I know all that. I didn't do anything wrong.” John stressed the word “didn't” and to Jeff he sounded as if he meant it. “I don't really hate him or anything for it. But the part where he never asked. That's the part that I don't like. I wish he'd asked. I don't know what I'd said, but at least he could have asked.”
“What would you say to him if he were here right now?” Jeff asked.
“I'd ask him if he'd ever liked me at all or if he was just using me like a piece of meat.” John said immediately. “If he liked me then it's OK. If he was just using me... that's not cool. That's not cool at all. Well, not OK really. I still wish he'd asked. Hell. I'd probably have said 'yes.'”
“I'd offer you a hug but I'm probably not the right person for that right now.” Jeff said.
John leaned over, “I'll let ya hug me.” He sniffed once, twice, and added, “But don't try and hump my leg.” He laughed dryly. It was obviously fake and reached over to hug Jeff.
Jeff hugged him back and wiped his face on John's shoulder. “I'm so sorry, John.”
“It wasn't you.” John said, and Jeff could feel the teen wiping his nose on his shoulder and didn't care.
“I know, but it shouldn't have happened. You shouldn't have to wonder if you're a piece of meat or not. For what it's worth.” Jeff cleared his throat. “You're not just a piece of meat.”
“I know. I'm an incredibly hot piece of meat.” John said ending the hug and standing up, taking a few steps and turning back to face Jeff. He could see Mark standing in the door to the house, outlined in the greater darkness of the interior of the house. “Well, fuck.”