Chapter 05

Phil and Andy joined their sons, who were wrapped up in a conversation and fell silent when the men slid into the booth across from them.

“Well, Jim, Phil’s invited us to spend Thanksgiving with his family next week, so I guess we’ll just have to eat those freezer meals some other time,” Andy announced.

“Really?” Paul asked, embarrassed by how excited he sounded.

Jim smiled at him and said, “COOL!”

“So what do you have planned for your week off?” Phil asked Jim.

“I thought I might spend a few days camping and fishing out at the lake,” he said, raising his eyebrows at Paul as if there was an implied question.

“By yourself?” Paul asked.

“I’d rather not,” Jim said, “but I will if I have to!”

Paul looked at Phil who gave him a slow and deliberate nod. “Can I come?” Paul asked.

Jim smiled and said, “I was hoping you would!”

Paul smiled and nodded. Phil said, “Well, guys, I need to get going. It’s been a long week and I’m an old man!”

“You and me both,” Andy said. He looked at the wall and saw it was after 11, before instructing his son, “Home before 1.”

“You coming with me, buddy?” Phil asked rhetorically.

Paul looked at Jim and said, “Can you drop me off at home later?”

“Sure!” Jim said, prompting Phil and Andy to pay the bill and take their leave. “So what do you want to do?” Jim asked when they were alone.

Paul’s mind cried out, ‘GO MAKE OUT!’ but he said, “I don’t know,” with a big smile. “What do normal people do on Friday night?”

“I guess they’d be out with their boyfriend or girlfriend,” Jim said. “Let’s get out of here!”

Paul smiled and nodded. They drove around for a bit talking until Jim pulled into a parking space near the riverfront and said, “Let’s take a walk!” So they walked up and down the river walk until it was time for Jim to drop Paul off.

“So how was your first game?” Billy asked as they played a video game.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Paul said.

“What did you guys do after?” Billy asked, trying to sound nonchalant. “I noticed you didn’t leave.”

“Noticed that, did you?” Paul laughed. “We went out to eat with Danny and Christina, and Jim and his dad!”

“Oh, okay,” Billy said. Then he was silent for a long time before asking, “You … like Jim?”

Paul looked at him seriously. “I do,” Paul said. “He’s one of the few guys who’s been friendly to me since … you know.”

“I’m sorry!” Billy said, his shoulders slumping.

“I KNOW, SO STOP! I DON’T MENTION IT TO BE MEAN!” Paul said sharply, making Billy jump. “But it changed some things for me and I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen!”

“I know,” Billy said. “It just hurts me that I can’t really show you how sorry I am. The only thing that could even begin … well, I’m too big of a pussy to do it!”

“I knew that when I let you back in,” Paul kidded him with a smile. Then his smile slipped and he asked, “But, I need to know something. What would happen if we got caught again?” Billy looked at him with sad eyes and Paul nodded. “I just needed to know,” Paul said. Inside, Paul shoved his foot against the brakes. He’d have to go much slower with Billy than his heart wanted, because the boy would do it all over again, given the necessity.

“I’m sorry,” Billy said softly.

Paul put his head on the boy’s shoulder and said, “I know, Billy,” allowing the boy to hug him. They spent a long quiet evening together, each alone in his own thoughts mostly, and while the mood was deep and tense, Paul really did understand where Billy was coming from, not wanting to come out. He just hoped, one day, the boy would be strong enough not to hurt him to save himself.

Before Billy left, Paul told him, “I’m not going to be around after tomorrow afternoon until Wednesday evening.”

“Where are you going?” Billy asked.

“Camping,” Paul said.

“Your dad? He never struck me as a big camper,” Billy said.

“I’m not going with my dad,” Paul sighed. “I’m going with Jim.”

“Oh,” Billy said, his facing becoming a mask. “I uhm … have fun I guess.”

“Billy,” Paul said, “he’s my friend, nothing more! But Billy, if and when some guy does come along … I can only hide with you for so long,” Paul added, hating that it sounded like an ultimatum. But it was a fact; he wouldn’t trade off being able to go out with his boyfriend for a secret affair with Billy, not anymore.

Billy looked away and said, “I understand. So you and Jim aren’t?”

“NO! I mean, he’s totally hot,” Paul teased, “but he’s never shown any interest in me like that. Seems pretty straight arrow to me.”

Billy hugged him and kissed him, then, saying, “Think about me while you’re gone,” but thinking, ‘Thank God you’re clueless!’

“What’s all this stuff?” Paul asked, noticing the full trunk and backseat as he put in his bags.

Jim smiled. “Restocking some basics at the cabin, plus I invited some folks to come out to a bonfire on Tuesday night, so there’s extra food for that!”

“Folks?” Paul asked nervously.

“It’s okay, Paulie! Trust me, you’ll like them!” Jim smiled.

“Okay,” Paul smiled. He did trust Jim. “So what else, cause this is a shitload of stuff!”

“I also brought a couple of sleeping bags and a little tent in case we wanted to camp out camp out one night!” Jim said.

“Roughing it?” Paul said. “I don’t know about that!”

Jim laughed and said, “We’ll see!”

They loaded up and drove out to the lake, and then they unloaded the car. Jim unpacked the boxes of supplies as Paul stood nearby and talked to him. When they were all set, the two boys managed to go out fishing for a little while before it started to get chilly and they made their way back to the cabin.

As the sun was setting, they stowed the boat and fishing gear. Jim cleaned the fish and put it on ice, and then built a fire in the stove. Paul stretched out on one of the cots and watched him work for a while before suggesting, “You want me to cook dinner?”

“If you want,” Jim smiled over his shoulder. “Or we can just eat potato chips until they run out!”

Paul laughed and got up. He opened a few cans of vegetable to warm up and cooked the fish filets in a cast iron skillet. After they ate and cleaned up, it was already dark outside, so Jim lit an extra lamp and pulled out a deck of cards from a chest mostly full of games and taught Paul to play a few of the ones his dad had taught him.

Around ten, Paul yawned, and Jim smiled and asked, “Ready to hit the sack?”

“Yeah, I’m tired,” Paul answered, yawning again. He wasn’t sure what the dress code for this was, so when Jim just dropped his pants and hung them over the back of a chair and took off his shirt, Paul nervously followed suit.

Paul’s eyes nearly bugged out when he caught a look at Jim’s tall form – long muscles stretching gracefully as he slid the shirt over his head, nearly nude – clothed only in a tight pair of briefs. Paul only hoped his boxers hid his appreciation of the view when Jim turned to face him. Paul quickly stripped and got into bed before Jim had turned off the furthest lamp and turned to head back to bed. As Jim walked between the two cots and sat facing him, Paul struggled not to notice that Jim filled the front of his briefs as admirably as he filled the back.

“Thanks for coming back out here with me. It’s awesome to have a friend to spend the time with!” Jim said happily.

“I’m sure anyone would have been glad to come,” Paul said, brushing off the acknowledgment.

Jim looked him in the eyes and said, “There aren’t many people I’d ever invite to stay with me out here. It’s better to be by yourself than to spend time with someone you don’t enjoy.”

“Thanks,” Paul said, blushing. He was glad Jim killed the second lamp then, so that the darkness shielded his face.

Monday, they had sandwiches for lunch and sat out by the lake, the cooling air still comfortable without a coat, so long as you weren’t on the water.

“So have you ever had a boyfriend?” Jim asked, making Paul cough. “That’s a yes!”

“That’s a ‘That’s complicated!'” Paul retorted.

“What’s complicated about it?” Jim asked. “You did or you didn’t!”

“The guy made me keep it secret,” Paul said. “He was too afraid to admit it.” He felt terrible for being somewhat misleading but the truth wasn’t exactly his to tell.

“Coward,” Jim said simply, not so much judgmental as analytical.

“Yeah, somewhat,” Paul laughed. “But it’s hard to admit what you are if you’re gay, Jim!”

“Yeah,” Jim nodded. “Still, he should have been proud to have you, Paulie!”

Paul blushed and said, “Thanks, I guess!”

“So you’re really the only guy out at school. Don’t guess there are a lot of options?” Jim asked, and Paul took him to be making idle conversation.

“Not too many,” Paul replied, trying harder to dance around that one.

Jim looked over at him and narrowed his eyes, forcing a smile to his lips though his chest seized up. “You’re still together!”

“Strictly speaking,” Paul sighed, “we’re together again….”

“Ah! So he ran off after you got outed, but figures its safe again now,” Jim said.

Paul looked at the boy in a new light, surprised by the depth of the insight and glad Jim had never seen him with Billy out of context. “Something like that,” he nodded.

“Punk,” Jim said a little more harshly than he intended. “You deserve to be able to walk down the hall with someone, no different than Danny or anyone else.”

Paul blushed again and changed tactics. “Haven’t seen you walking down the hall with anyone recently,” he teased. Then he thought, ‘Ever?’

“Ah, between practice and school, I stay busy. Plus I like to do stuff like this, and girls don’t understand,” he said, picking up a stone and skipping it across the surface of the water. Then he looked over at Paul and said, “Can I tell you something Paulie?”

Paul got a concerned look and turned so they were facing each other directly. “Of course!”

“Being in a … relationship is really scary for me,” Jim said, looking down. “I’ve never really had one. I guess it’s because my mom ran out on us when I was little, but … I’m just afraid that everybody leaves, deep down.”

Paul reached out and hesitated a moment before grabbing Jim’s hand and squeezing it. “Sometimes people leave,” he whispered, “but it’s not about you. It’s about them. But there are some people who’ll never leave no matter what. Life, love, death … nothing keeps you apart.”

Jim sighed from a place deep within and leaned forward, putting his head on his knees crying. Paul knelt at his feet and put his arms around the big boy, holding him gently.

“Can I tell you something silly?” Paul whispered. Jim laughed through his tears and nodded, still hiding his eyes. “Christina’s been my best friend for years, and for a while I guess she’s been my only real friend…. Until I met you.”

Jim, puffy eyes, tears and snot and all, looked up at him and smiled. “Me too,” Jim said, the only words he could summon, though his soul screamed with the enthusiasm of a B-horror victim, ‘I LOVE YOU!’ And then he hugged Paul back, tightly.

That evening, the boys again played cards. They’d been subdued the rest of day since their lunchtime conversation, but not uncomfortably so. But their card game was quieter than the one the previous night.

So Paul was somewhat shocked when Jim reached out and put a big hand on his, wrapping his fingers around Paul’s soft hand. “Thank you for this afternoon, Paulie,” Jim said, looking him directly in the eyes with an openness Paul was unfamiliar with.

“I, uhm….” Paul began.

Jim laughed and said, “No response is required. It’s just … I’ve never really talked to anyone about what my mom leaving meant to me. My dad knows, but he’s got his own problems. He’s still not dating…. And Danny, he must suspect, but he lost his dad in Afghanistan, so he’s got his own shit.”

“Jesus,” Paul murmured, wondering at the inner strength of his motley crew of guardians, all they had lost and overcome. Then he squeezed Paul’s hand back and said, “Well, thank you too. You know … and I tell you this for two reasons … you are the ONLY person who knows about my ‘boyfriend’….”

Jim’s nose wrinkled slightly at that last, but he smiled, “So I shouldn’t mention it to Christina or Danny?” he asked with a laugh, and Paul nodded.

“But also … I trust you, Jim,” Paul said to Jim. In the comfortable silence, they both forgot to let go of each other’s hand.

“I’ve been trying to call Paul all day,” Christina complained to Danny, who looked at her with a guilty smile.

“I wouldn’t bother. He won’t answer until Wednesday,” Danny said. “But you’ll see him tomorrow night!”

“What’s going on?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Chill! Jim was going camping over break … and, ah, he decided he’d like some company,” Danny said.

“Why didn’t he take you?” she asked.

“I told him I’d rather spend the week fucking around with you,” Danny winked with a big smile.

“Yeah, well, you’re cut off if you don’t spill,” she said saucily.

“He probably just didn’t want to spend three days sitting in silence! He could do that by himself!” Danny said, sighing.

“You guys must talk!” she huffed.

“About what, our feelings? We’re guys, and we both sort of bottled up! Our conversations tend to end at football or our plans for the weekend, or turn left up here!” Danny said.

“Well, why didn’t he take you?” she insisted.

“He didn’t ask me, and he didn’t explain, okay! We talked at practice and he said he was ‘taking Paulie’….” She shook her head, and he asked, “What’s the matter?”

“It’s just … Jim? I’d never have thought they’d become friends. And now Jim seems to be the one going after Paul. Isn’t that weird to you?” Christina asked.

“I’ve got my thoughts on it,” he said, shaking his head.

“It’s just … I don’t want to see Paul get hurt again,” Christina said. “You don’t think Jim is leading him on? Even unintentionally?”

Danny’s face showed an emotion she had rarely seen directed toward her, and though it was just a wrinkle in his forehead, it was nearly chilling on his almost always impassive face. Danny was angry. “No,” he said quietly. “I think Jim is falling in love with Paul and has no idea what to do about it, if you must know! And to be frank, I think between the two of them, if someone is going to get hurt, it’s Jim! ‘Cause he’d twist himself out of shape to keep anything from hurting Paul, but Paul is totally oblivious!”

“Paul isn’t totally oblivious,” Christina said, letting her own anger bubble up. “He’s just afraid too, cause if he holds out his hand to the wrong guy, he’ll get his ass handed to him in a sling because guys not all that different outwardly from you and Jim have made him their personal punching bag!”

“God,” Danny said, with a smile, “they’re hopeless!”

“Yeah,” she nodded, raising her eyebrows. “Unless someone gives them a hand!”

Now it was Danny’s turn to be afraid.

Tuesday morning, Jim and Paul walked through the woods and collected fallen limbs and sticks and began to build a big stack for a bonfire in the clearing by the water. “So who is coming tonight?” Paul asked.

“Christina and Danny,” Jim said, “and some guys I know from football and soccer camps. Guys from other schools, so you don’t have to worry.” Jim gave him a careful glance before adding, “But they are cool guys, so you don’t have to hide anything if you don’t want to!”

“Yeah?” Paul said.

“Yeah,” Jim said. “One of the guys, his big brother came out while we were all away at camp, and these guys all helped this kid get his head straight before he went home. It was nice!”

“Cool,” Paul smiled.

“I think Danny and Christina might spend the night tonight,” Jim said. “And there are only the two little cots, so….”

“That’s why you brought the tent and sleeping bags, huh?” Paul asked.

“Yeah,” Jim smiled. “When I invited them out here I knew I’d probably need to make alternate arrangements.”

“No shit,” Paul laughed.

Billy and Robert were playing video games at Billy’s house that afternoon, when Robert asked, “Where you been going the last couple of weeks? I came by here and your parents thought you were with me!”

Billy froze up for a moment, and then he said, “There’s this chick. She goes to another school, and her parents are kind of religious freaks so we sneak around. I should have told you!”

“Damn straight you should have told me,” Robert laughed. “So is she hot?”

“What do you think?” Billy laughed. “Damn lot a trouble sneaking around if she wasn’t.”

“So what does she look like?” Robert asked, pausing the game.

“Well,” Billy thought, “she’s about a foot shorter than me and slender. She’s got this curly brown hair, and green eyes, and creamy skin. And the hottest ass you can imagine!”

“Sounds totally hot,” Robert laughed. “How’s the rack?”

Billy shook his head and said, “Small!”

Robert laughed again. “Nobody’s perfect!”

“Yeah, well, she’s pretty close!” Billy replied.

Suddenly Robert got a text and pulled out his phone. “Huh!”

“What?” Billy asked.

“Party out at Jim’s lake house,” Robert said. “Want to go?”

Billy was silent for a moment. Paul was there, and knew he should keep Robert away if he could. On the other hand, it was an excuse to check out Paul and Jim and see what was up with them. “Okay,” he said, hating himself as he did.

Paul was sitting outside reading when a big pickup truck pulled up. Jim had gone out one more time looking for wood, so Paul was alone. He felt himself shudder involuntarily as the car’s passengers stepped out. There were three boys, all of them the sort Paul had learned to avoid: massive and masculine.

The driver was a big African American, maybe 6’4″ with muscles on his muscles. You could tell his thighs were massive by the way they stretched his jeans, and the boots he was wearing just begged to kick ass. A slightly shorter, but even more built, redhead slipped out of the passenger’s side and slid the seat forward to let out a wiry boy who must be a basketball player, as he was skinny and even taller than the driver. His black hair was cut short and his eyes had a faraway look that cut through you.

The boys walked up to Paul, who knew running from these guys would be futile, and then the black guy smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Dean! You must be Paulie!”

Paul reached out shook his hand and let the boy lift him to his feet. Even the redhead was nearly a foot taller than him, but they were all smiling now, and he sighed a little. “It’s Paul, actually,” he said, and blushed as the boys smiled at each other. “Nice to meet you!”

Dean nodded and said, indicating the redhead, “This one here’s Seamus – I know, he’s a stereotype, right – and that one’s Conrad!” Each of the boys shook his hand almost gently, and smiled.

“Hey, guys!” Jim called, carrying a fallen log from the woods, his neck straining under the burden. Dean jogged over to help him. “Thanks! I see you guys met Paulie?”

Paul blushed again as Seamus and Conrad smiled at one another. Maybe his mom WAS right about Jim? That was confusing and he put it out of his mind. “Nobody calls me that,” Paul protested, making Jim laugh.

“That’s me!” Jim said. “Nobody!”

“You know that’s not what I meant, jerkoff!” Paul yelled, laughing. Then he asked the boys in front of him, “How do you guys know Jim?”

Seamus said, “Me and Dean have known him since elementary school! We used to play on the same team and go to the same summer camps. Then we all went to different high schools but we kept in touch. We actually all live pretty close together too.”

“I live next door,” Conrad said with a half-smile as he stared hard into Paul’s eyes, the settled gaze of his green eyes making the boy shake a little before turning away. Intense! “How about you?”

“We go to school together,” Paul said, still a little uneasy, but smiling.

“Guess you’re not on the football team,” Seamus joked.

“Yeah! My best friend is Danny Meyers’s girlfriend,” Paul answered. “Been having some trouble around school, and Jim’s kinda helped me out.”

“What kind of trouble?” Conrad asked, his laser focus sharpening.

“A guy … started a rumor about me,” Paul said.

Conrad nodded and softened his gaze. “I feel ya,” he said with a grin, patting Paul on the shoulder before walking off to find Jim and Dean.

“He’s different,” Paul said to Seamus after Conrad was gone.

“Conrad follows his own way,” Seamus laughed, his steely gray eyes sparkling. “Great guy, though, if you get to know him.”

Paul smiled and nodded, letting his eyes passively drift over the studly redhead as they talked a bit. The way his arms bulged beneath his sweater gave Paul images that he rather enjoyed.

They were laughing and talking when Jim returned with the other guys. Paul didn’t think much of it when Jim sat down next to him, real close. Jim’s friends noticed. But no one said anything about it as they all caught up. Soon some of the other guys from the football team – Danny included – showed up with girlfriends.

Christina gave Paul a big hug after she sat down next to him. She whispered, “Forgot to tell me about your little campout, huh?” Paul blushed and she laughed. “Having fun?”

His blushed deepened, but he nodded and she hugged him again. Danny and the guys started tossing a ball around, and Jim nodded apologetically as he left Paul to play. Paul just nodded with a smile.

“You guys are getting pretty tight,” Christina said.

“Ah, I don’t know,” Paul said.

“I’m not blind, Paul. Boy just looked at you for permission to go play with his friends! That’s more than,” she began, but fell silent. “I’m just, I’m not so sure Jim’s as straight as I thought….”

Paul shook his head. “I can’t risk it. He’s my best guy friend! It would be so embarrassing if I was wrong! And he might not want anything to do with me after that!”

“Paul, I don’t think you have to worry about,” she began, but he cut her off.

“It’s not a risk I’m willing to take!” Paul declared with finality. Christina nodded and hugged him again.

“I wish things were easier for you,” she whispered.

“Me too,” he replied.

“Hey, Danny,” one of his teammates called out. “Looks like Paul’s macking on your girl!”

“You jealous?” Danny called out.

“Of Paul?” the boy asked.

“Of Christina!” Danny said with a smirk and a wink. The boy laughed and shook his head.

“I am,” Seamus said, making them all look at him. “WHAT? He’s adorable!”

“Horndog,” Danny laughed, casting a glance at Jim. Jim’s face was purple, and his eyes showed nervousness.

Seamus was out and not at all shy about it, and Jim could feel his chance slipping away even more surely than he had when he found out about Paul’s secret boyfriend. He hadn’t been worried about slowly winning Paul over from that douche bag. But Seamus, one of his closest friends, could be a real challenge.

“Shut up,” Seamus laughed. “He have a girlfriend?” From the boys’ expressions and laughter, he knew his instincts were dead on. As always! “Boyfriend?”

“Just a bunch of guys who want to stomp his ass,” Danny said.

“Don’t they know there are more interesting things to do with those,” Seamus winked. Then he looked over at a now-smiling Paul with real consideration. Jim didn’t know what came over him, but before he knew it he had thrown the football at Seamus and yelled, “Heads up!”

The ball hit Seamus in the shoulder with a lot of speed, but it would only leave a bruise on the light-complected boy. Seamus yelled, “A little more warning next time, please!” before turning and giving Paul one last look.

Suddenly, Jim had a feeling it would be a long night. Little did he know!