Chapter 01

“Paul, what’s wrong?” Christina asked, finding the boy out behind school in the middle of the day. She was known to skip class; in fact it was sometimes surprising when she wasn’t skipping class. But Paul, her best friend, was a straight-up nerd. Cute, but a nerd no less.

“Billy and,” he began, and Christina groaned. “Billy and Robert caught me in the hall after I finished lunch,” he finished, talking over her.

“Paul, you have to stop paying attention to those guys! I mean, what more can they do to you?” Billy was a cute, and formerly believed-to-be sweet, jock who lived a couple of houses down from Paul and across the street. Shortly after the beginning of school, however, Billy had outed Paul to their suburban county high school in a very public prank.

Paul tossed the girl his glasses. “They COULD hurt me!” The right lens of his glasses was broken. “I’d show you the bruise on my back, but it hurts too much to lift my arms,” he shouted. Billy had taunted him, and when Paul talked back, Robert, the bigger and more apish of the two, pushed him hard against the lockers. When the glasses fell from his face, it was Billy who stomped on them. When he calmed down, he explained this to Christina, who was fuming.

“Did you go to the office?” she demanded.

“And do what? Complain that a star baseball player and a varsity football player were mean to me and broke my glasses? Then I could be the school bitch and the school fag. Beautiful! And after the suspension, I could get my ass kicked every day! Unless their friends decided to get a head start!” Paul retorted.

“I’m going to talk to Danny,” she said resolutely. Danny was Christina’s boyfriend. He seemed like a legitimately nice guy, but he was very quiet and inscrutable.

“He doesn’t need that kind of trouble on the team,” Paul moaned. Danny was on the football team with Robert. “It’s not his problem.”

“It’s your problem, which makes it my problem! And if he wants any more of this,” she declared, making a slightly obscene gesture at herself, “then he’ll make it his business!”

LEAVE THE POOR GUY ALONE,” Paul replied, knowing it was futile.

“Right,” she said. “You going to study hall?” she asked.

ARE YOU?” he retorted with a snort. Then he added, “I’ll go to my next class.”   She hung out with him until he left to go to class, before heading off to her own. She might have skipped it too, but she shared that class with Danny and some of his friends.

She met the muscular boy outside their classroom and dragged him to the side. As quickly as possible, she filled him in on the situation. “He okay?” the quiet boy asked simply.

“Scared, angry, hurt,” she said angrily. “Sound okay to you?” Danny frowned at her and she said, “Sorry, it just pisses me off!”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked.

“What can you do?” she replied.

Danny shrugged, and shook his head, following her into class, their last of the day. It passed quickly, as they were watching a video, and Christina gave Danny a kiss when the room cleared a little, and whispered, “Just try?”

He nodded and walked out into the hall. She ran to look for Paul and offer him a ride home, while Danny headed for the gym. “What’s going on?” Jim asked as he hurried to catch up with his friend.

“What do you mean?” Danny said through his mask of quiet unconcern.

“You look even more tense than normal,” Jim laughed, “and your girl is up to something. I can tell.”

“You know she’s friend with that guy, Paul?” Danny asked.

“Yeah, the one that Billy,” Jim began, but got cut off.

“Yeah,” Danny said. “Well, apparently Billy and Robert roughed him up today?”

“What does she want you to do, dude? I mean, people are mean, and he’s … who he is,” Jim said.   Danny frowned. “I don’t mean it like that, but you know how people feel!”

“How do you feel?” Danny asked.

Jim fell quiet for a minute. “He’s a nice kid, quiet, doesn’t mess with anybody,” the boy replied, shrugging.

“Maybe if just a few people were to keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn’t get hurt?” Danny said.

“Sure,” Jim replied, nodding.

And quietly, Danny executed the best plan he had. There were a couple of other good guys on their team. Danny quietly just asked them to watch out for Paul, and each was happy to do it. But all through practice, Danny noticed Jim was distracted. After they were all showered and dressed and ready to head home, Danny called him aside.

“Everything okay? You seem a little scattered,” Danny said.

Jim looked over his shoulders and said, softly, “I’ve just been thinking about what you said. I feel bad for Paul.”

“Yeah, but,” Danny began, but Jim shook his head and silenced him.

“It’s just, if things had been different,” Jim began, but then his mind silenced his mouth, and he covered by adding “he wouldn’t be all that different from us. It just isn’t fair.”

Danny nodded, but he knew one of his best friends had just lied to him about something important. One of the benefits of being the quiet one is learning how to listen.

Back at Paul’s house, Christina did not drop her friend off, but parked and followed him inside and up to his room. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“I thought I might do some homework,” he said sarcastically. “Couldn’t hurt you to do a little too!”

“Let’s watch Oprah,” she said, flipping on the television.

“Just because I’m gay,” he began to protest. “Oooh what’s that?”

She snorted and turned up the volume. “So I talked to Danny….”

“What did he say?” Paul asked nonchalantly, secretly allowing himself to hope a star football player would take his side.

“He said he’d see what he could do,” she replied, and Paul let out a breath. That was as good as an oath from Danny. “So what happened between you and Billy? I mean, you guys were never BFFs, but we used to hang out!”

“We talked about this, Christina. I’m not talking. And I don’t think playing on a slip-and-slide with the neighborhood kids when you were ten counts as ‘hanging out!'” Paul responded.

“He used to come over and throw a baseball around with you,” Christina corrected. Since she only lived a few houses down there was no denying it.

“And don’t I love to toss a ball around?” he asked sarcastically.

“You certainly did. Maybe because it was him?” she suggested.

“Maybe,” he blushed.

“Paul, you didn’t … come on to him?” she asked hesitantly.

“Are you saying this is my fault?” he asked angrily, his face turning red.

“No,” she blurted out. “But maybe something happened and you let him know you felt something for him, and that’s how he found out?”

He was purple with anger, but he shook his head. “THAT IS NOT HOW IT HAPPENED!” He stopped to catch his breath, feeling the asthma coming on.   “It wasn’t like that,” he said, huffing as he reached for his inhaler and took two quick puffs. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he added as he tried to calm himself down.

Christina wrapped her arm around him and said, “It’s okay, but I’m here when you do want to talk!” The two sat and talked through the rest of the afternoon until it was about time for football practice to end.

“I ought to be going,” she said with a grin.

“What’s the hurry, hot-pants?” Paul teased.

“A girl has her needs,” Christina answered shamelessly. “And a girl who has a Danny to fill those needs doesn’t wait around!” she added with a wink.

“Slut,” he taunted.

“Yeah, like you’d be sitting around if you had a big football player waiting for you!” she joked back, causing him to turn red.

“Get,” he shouted, shooing her out, laughing, “I’ve got homework to fill the emotional void!” After she was gone, Paul’s mind drifted as he leaned over his homework.


“Hey!” Billy called, waving as he walked up the street. Paul was in his yard mowing the grass, his small t-shirt sweat-soaked and clinging to his torso. Paul turned off the machine and waved back, smiling.

“Hey, Billy! What’s up?” Paul called, admiring the muscular young man returning from his morning run, wearing only none-too-modest blue knit shorts, his chest glistening.   “How far did you go? You look beat!”

“Six miles!” Billy grinned as he jogged over and leaned against the riding mower, a few inches away from Paul. Paul was sure Billy had no concept of the effect he had on him.


“By the time school starts next month, I want to do ten miles without thinking about it!” Billy said, laughing.

“Why?” Paul laughed, incredulous.

“Gotta stay hot for the ladies!” Billy said with a captivating grin. “I’m gonna change and hop in the pool. Want to come for a swim?”

Paul shrugged. “Sure! I can finish this up later,” he said. “See you in a few!” He ran upstairs and put on his swim trunks and a pair of flip-flops. On his way out he grabbed a towel. As he walked across the street, Paul’s stomach fluttered. He’d been to Billy’s house and swum dozens of times, but he couldn’t recall ever being alone in the pool with the boy. Which was a good thing, because in a crowd he could stare and avoid getting caught. He’d been secretly crushing on Billy since the boy had moved in down the road years earlier.

Paul knocked on the front door and it took a minute for anyone to answer. Finally Billy opened the door and apologized. “We’re all alone. My parents and sister are at my grandparents this week!”

Paul didn’t answer for a minute, transfixed by Billy’s built, brown form as he stood in the door in his Speedo. “Why didn’t you go?” Paul asked as he followed Billy inside, taking that moment to appreciate the muscular ass before him.

Billy looked over his shoulder with a smile and almost caught Paul. “I wanted some time alone! Besides, my grandparents are coming to town for the first game of the season in a couple of months and staying a week. Want something to drink?”

“Diet coke?” Paul asked, knowing Billy’s mom never ran out.

“Watching your figure?” Billy asked, giving Paul an appreciative looking over that made him feel strange.

Paul blushed. “I’m not going to run like a crazy person, so yeah!” he answered with a shy laugh. Billy grinned and handed him the can and grabbed a Coke Classic for himself.   Then they walked out to the pool and put their drinks on the table, and Billy dove in sleekly, surfacing and pushing his hair back.

“What are you waiting for?” Billy asked with a grin.

Paul sat down on the edge of the pool and smiled before slipping into the water. “Hey!” he yelled with a grin as Billy splashed him. Paul quickly splashed the boy back. Soon their laughter resounded as they splashed raucously around the pool.

Later as they sat in the shade, Paul asked, “Where are your friends?”

Billy gave him a funny look. “You are my friend. But if you mean the jock squad,” he said, pausing momentarily, “most of the guys are getting a last bit of vacation in before summer camp. Why?”

“What are you going to do all week by yourself?” Paul asked, trying to sound offhanded.

“Who said I’d be alone?” Billy teased. Then he looked Paul in the eyes and said, “What are you doing this week? Want to hang out?”

Paul looked away and tried to repress the smile rising to his lips. “Uhm, yeah, sure…. Christina will want me to hang some but otherwise I’m free,” he said. Really, he thought to himself, ‘Home alone all week otherwise! I’m a loser!’   But here was Billy wanting to spend time with him. It just didn’t compute in Paul’s head.

{Present Day}

“Dinner,” Paul’s mom called, stirring him from his reverie.

“Coming,” he answered unenthusiastically. He hadn’t gotten any work done, but he’d finished most of his homework during class anyway. He trudged downstairs and slumped at the table, eating quietly as his parents chatted about their day.

“How was your day?” Paul’s dad, Phil, asked. Paul shrugged, but his dad didn’t keep talking. Instead, he asked, “What happened?”

“Nothing. It was nothing!” Paul inisted.

His dad turned red. “You know who says, ‘It was nothing?’ The kid who’s about to tell his dad about something he knows is bad!”

“Dad! Just don’t get mad?” Paul begged. His father’s angry face softened a bit and he continued, “Billy and Robert pushed me into a locker.”

“God damn it, Paul! Did you go to the principal?” Phil demanded. Paul shook his head, and Phil rubbed his eyes in exasperation. “This isn’t going to stop until that school…. God!” Phil felt helpless because he couldn’t pull his son out of the school. It was private and Paul was there on scholarship; he couldn’t afford to send Paul to another private school and his son was too bright to get lost in a public school warehouse.

“Dad?” the boy said meekly, almost whispering. When his father looked his way, Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out his glasses, the left lens broken and the frame twisted and crushed. “They broke my glasses.” Phil took them gently and rubbed his eyes as surreptitiously as possible.

He coughed and said, “It’ll take a couple of days to get them replaced. I’ll call the store.” Dinner was quiet after that, and when he finished Paul hurried to get back to his room.

“What are we going to do, Molly?” Phil asked, after his son was out of earshot.

“It’ll pass, Phil,” she said, putting a hand on his forearm. He picked up the glasses and stood, walking to the door. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going over there,” he said calmly.

“Phil,” she began to warn but the door was already closing. He strode proudly up the block and across the street and gave the door a firm knock.

Billy’s father, Chris, answered the door. “Anderson,” he said drily.

“Cooper,” Phil answered in kind.

“What can I do for you, neighbor?” Chris Cooper asked, sounding none-too-neighborly. Like his son, the man was tall and broad-chested, but his son clearly got his looks from his mother. Or some other father, equally tall and built.

“Your son and his friend broke my son’s glasses at school today.” Phil said simply.

“I’m sure it was an accident, boys will be boys and all,” he said nonchalantly. “BILLY!” he called over his shoulder.

Moments later the big boy tromped downstairs, his smile fading as he saw the man holding his son’s broken glasses. “Mr. Anderson?” he asked softly.

“Anderson here thinks you broke his son’s glasses. That true, boy?”

Billy looked at the ground at his feet and said, “Uh, yeah…. Me and Robert were messing around and we broke them.”

“On purpose?” the man interrogated his son.

“Uhm, not exactly,” Billy said nervously, but added, “but it was our fault.”

“Send me the bill,” Chris Cooper said with a dark look back at his son as he reached for the door. Before he could close it, Phil looked directly at Billy and said, “I want you boys to leave my son alone!” Billy looked guilty, and a little ashamed, as he looked away, just before the door slammed in Phil’s face. He was left with an all-around bad feeling about what had just happened.

When he returned home, Phil settled into his chair to read, but was distracted. “What did you do?” Paul asked quietly, making Phil jump.

“I went to talk to his father,” Phil said simply.

“Dad!” Paul complained.

“Paul, you’re my son. I can’t just stand by and watch this stuff happen to you!” Phil replied defensively. He motioned for his son to come over and pulled him down into a hug. It was a ridiculous but endearing sight, Paul sitting on his father’s leg. “When you first told your mom and me, this is just what scared me the most, and now it’s happening, and there doesn’t seem like a whole lot I can do…. It makes me…. Your dad’s supposed to be able to take care of you,” he cut himself off with a smile to force back the tears.

“Dad,” Paul whispered, “I promise, if I’m ever in real trouble, I’ll let you know, okay?” The man nodded, hugged his son, and shooed him off.

“Feel better?” Molly asked when the boy was gone.

“Not really,” he said grimly. “A little,” he allowed. Then he gave voice to his worry, “Molly, something’s terribly wrong over there!”

“Not much we can do about that,” she said.

“Well, he’s taking it out on OUR boy!” the man grumbled angrily, picking up his book in a huff.

That night, Paul lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, his smooth body naked except for boxers beneath a single sheet. He couldn’t sleep. Again. The day’s events played over again in his mind, and watching the events unfold there was a moment still when he reflected how cute Billy was when he laughed. He kicked himself because that laughter had been directed at his suffering. Damn dimples.


“Your parents said you could stay over?” Billy asked when Paul returned. The previous day in the pool had left Paul electrified, and the opportunity to spend as much time as possible alone with the boy was not to be passed up.

“Yeah!” Paul replied.

“They didn’t mind us being over here by ourselves?” Billy asked with a dimpled grin, raising his eyebrows as he chewed a stick of gum.

“Nope,” Paul said, turning pink.

Grinning wider, Billy asked, “You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“Nope,” Paul smiled meekly as Billy laughed and let him into the house.

“Hope you like horror movies! I emptied the RedBox’s horror section for a marathon!” Billy called after him as he put his bag in the living room.

Paul shuddered inwardly but smiled and said, “Sounds fun!” Billy brought him a diet coke without being asked, which Paul thought was sweet, and plopped down on the couch a couple of feet away. Then he turned on a low-rent indie horror, which was more schlock than shock, so Paul was fine. When it was over, Billy smiled at him and said, “What do you want for dinner? I could call for pizza, or Chinese, or we could try to make something?”

Paul had seen a leaning tower of take-out in the garbage so he smiled and shook his head. “Let’s see what’s in the fridge?”

Billy showed him around the kitchen and pantry and Paul grabbed a couple of pots and boiled spaghetti and whipped up a simple sauce. It took less than half an hour, but Billy’s face lit up as he took the first bite. “This is way better than my mom’s cooking dude!”

Paul couldn’t help but smile at the honest enthusiasm the boy showed, and said, “Thanks, it was no big deal….”

“Well, I appreciate it. I’ve been eating crap out of cartons for a couple of days already!” They ate in silence, and when the food was gone, Paul looked up to see Billy smiling at him strangely across their empty plates.

“What?” Paul asked timidly.

His smile widening peculiarly, Billy shook his head. “Nothing.” After a moment’s silence, he added, “Want some ice-cream?”

“Sure,” Paul smiled in return and they boys made themselves Sundays before returning to the living-room for another movie. Billy sat closer to Paul now, and the movie was creepier, making Paul jumpier, so occasionally their shoulders bumped awkwardly. Eventually, they both jumped and nearly knocked each other over, and began laughing like kids. When the movie was over it was all dark and quiet and Billy replaced the movie with the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But when he returned to the couch, he casually draped his arm across Paul’s shoulder. Paul said nothing but was stiff beneath the arm, and somewhat fearful, until the scary movie made him glad it was there. Then he leaned into the big boy slightly and felt a warm feeling when Billy’s arm closed around him a bit and pulled him in a little tighter as if to say, ‘It’s okay.’

Paul nearly jumped off the couch, however, when he felt something grab his hand. Something soft and warm. He looked down and saw that Billy had reached across with his right hand and grabbed his. Paul looked from the hand to Billy’s face, and back to his hand again, confusion and fear etched on his face. Paul sounded pathetic even to himself as he asked, “Is this … a trick?”

“What do you mean?” Billy asked.

“I mean are some guys about to jump out of a closet or something with a video camera and beat the shit out of me?” Paul asked, fear overcoming confusion as he pulled his hand away and slid closer to the edge of the far end of the couch.

Billy’s smile fell away, and he said, “I just … thought you liked me. Don’t tell anybody? PLEASE?”

At that, Paul’s stiff back softened and he let out a breath. “I don’t understand….”

Billy laughed, pain in his face, and said, “Me either….”

Paul stood and said, “I should get my things and go,” looking away.

“Please, don’t,” Billy asked softly. “I … don’t want to spend the week by myself!”

“Then why did you stay home alone?” Paul asked, beginning to come untethered.

The last answer he expected was the truth he got. “For THIS!” Billy put his head in his hands and said, sounding like he might be crying, “I stayed home to spend time with YOU!”

“BUT WHY?” Paul said, feeling it himself now. “You are you, and I’m just me….”

“Just you,” Billy laughed bitterly. “I like just you!” Looking up with puffy eyes, he emphasized, “I … LIKE … YOU!”

Paul again looked around, unable to shake the feeling that this was some cruel episode of PUNKED. “I … uhm. I….”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Billy said grabbing his bag quickly and handing it to him. “You can go. I’m sorry. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t say anything about this to … anyone.”

Billy walked Paul to the door, a few spaces between them, and with each step, a voice in Paul’s head repeated, ‘This is it! Where are you going, moron?’ He reached for the doorknob, telling himself, ‘If you walk out this door….’ His fingers slipped from the cold knob and he dropped the bag, turning to the dejected Billy. “This isn’t a trick?”

“NO!” Billy said, a smile of relief on his face confirming it. Moments later Billy felt Paul’s arms snake around him and sighed.

{Present Day}

Paul woke early after getting to sleep late; he was groggy and moody. A shower only helped wake him a bit, but did nothing for his emotional state. As he plopped down at the table, dressed but with hair damp, his mother said, “You should dry your hair sweetie, it’s cool out this morning.”

“I don’t care,” he grumbled harshly as he poured cereal into his bowl and began to eat mechanically.

“Did you have trouble sleeping?” she asked, noticing his bleary eyes.

“Couldn’t stop thinking,” he said simply. She nodded assuming he was thinking about the bullies and what had happened the day before, but she was only part right.

He hurried to finish in order to avoid further conversation, and quickly exited through the side door of the garage. “Paul?” The voice stopped him in his tracks, and his back stiffened.

“MOM!” he yelled instantly. “MOMMMMMM!”

Billy took a quick step towards him, but seeing Paul stiffen, he put his hands up in the air in a sign of surrender. “I’m sorry! Just stop yelling?”

“Why?” Paul asked with venom. “So you can beat me up outside my own house in peace?”

Billy’s face fell, and he said, “I’m not here to hurt you. I came to apologize! I’m sorry! Things have gotten out of hand!”

Paul stepped toward him in a moment of bravery and held up a finger. “You mean, like how they got out of hand when we got caught and you outed me, pretending it was a PRANK?” Billy looked away and shrugged, as Paul stepped closer still. “The least you can do is look me in the eye when you lie to my face!”

Billy looked up at him with a dual shame in his eyes. First was at being called out, but second was at what he knew was coming. Paul gasped, as he saw for the first time the big boy’s black eye. Paul couldn’t contain himself, as he blurted out, “What happened, sw…. What happened?” he repeated trying to cover what had almost come out of his mouth.

Billy winced, before brushing some hair out of his face and shrugging. “Fell in the shower.”

Paul pursed his lips together, willing the tears down, and took another step closer, bringing himself within arm’s reach. “It’s because my dad came over! Billy, I tried not to tell him!”

“It’s not your problem. I fell,” Billy said, coughing to clear his throat. “I’ll be fine. Anyway, I just wanted to say sorry. I should be going,” he said, slipping around Paul without touching him.

But he felt the small cool hand on his bicep and stopped. “Billy?” Paul began and then sighed and closed his eyes. “Billy, I’m here if you need … anything, okay?”

Billy looked at him with sadness and confusion in his eyes. Then his expression hardened a little and he pulled himself from the boy’s grasp. Nodding, he walked off, leaving Paul standing there silent and alone.

“Was that Billy, dear?” his mother asked, shocking him back to reality.

“Yeah, mom. Way to hustle by the way!” he replied sarcastically.

“Was he bothering you?” she asked.

“No, he surprised me. I thought he was going to mess with me, which is why I screamed. But he didn’t, which is why I stopped.”

“Don’t take that tone with me, young man,” she said, getting a little fed up. “What did he want?”

“To apologize,” he said. She nodded and turned to go back in. “Mom?”


“I’m sorry,” Paul said, and her face softened. “He had a black eye, mom,” he added.

“Hmm,” she said, nodding. “Be careful dear,” she said, urging him off.

Paul got to school and hurried to his locker, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. But a moment too late he realized he had caught some most unwelcome attention: Robert grinned wickedly and headed in his direction. “Hey, fag!” Robert said, as he might say, ‘Hey, dude!’ He didn’t need to add any malice to his voice to make it clear that was his intention.

“Just leave me alone,” Paul said quietly.

Both boys were so focused on each other that a third voice shocked them. “Hey, Paul, can I talk to you a second?” Now he had both their attention, and Jim said to Robert, “Give us a minute?”

Robert looked at his teammate with a confused and somewhat put out expression before nodding and walking back to his locker, giving them both another glance over his shoulder. Paul just stood there shocked until Jim addressed him directly. “You okay, Paulie?” Jim asked, shaking his shoulder gently.

“Yeah, I’m just … my week was flashing before my eyes,” Paul joked. “Nobody calls me that, by the way….”

“Sorry, hope it doesn’t bother you. So how was it?” Jim asked.

“How was what?” Paul asked.

Jim laughed, “The week!”

“About as sucky as the one coming up is probably going to be,” Paul smiled, letting out the breath he realized he was holding.

“Sorry,” Jim said with a smile. “So are you still doing tutoring after school in the library?”

“Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Paul said.

“I could use some help with this history paper,” Jim said. “I can come right after school if you’ve got some time?”

“Sure,” Paul said. Jim smiled and thanked him. Before he could walk away, Paul stopped him. “Jim?”

“Yeah?” the boy asked, turning back to face Paul with a big smile.

“Did … Danny ask you to keep an eye on me?” Paul asked.

When Jim said, “Yeah,” Paul was thankful, but there was a part of him that was disappointed to, though he couldn’t say why. “But I could have asked anybody in the tutoring group for help on my paper and still kept an eye on you,” Jim added before walking off, making Paul’s heart race again unexpectedly. Then Jim looked over his shoulder one last time and said, “See you after school, Paulie!”

Paul was glad the boy turned away and didn’t see him blush. “What’s up with you?” Christina asked as she rounded the corner. “You look … happy,” she said with a fake look of disgust on her face.

“Well, the day started off weird and just got weirder, so I guess it’s my kind of day,” Paul said with a laugh.

She nodded and said, “Danny talked to some of the guys on the team, asked them to watch out for you….”

“I know,” Paul said, smiling involuntarily. “Jim got between me and a beat-down this morning!”

“Yeah?” she asked. “Well, good!”

“He’s coming by the library after school for some help on his history paper,” Paul added, causing her to look at him funny. “Don’t look at me like that! I know he isn’t … like me! But how many guys who are so nice to look at are also nice to me?”

She laughed and shook her head, grabbing his arm and letting him drag her into class.