The two boys arrived in the heart of town only a few minutes after the stores had opened for business. They were on Meridian Street, one of the main streets in town and the street where the largest and most prestigious retail stores were located.
“Where do you want to go?” asked Tris. “This is all new to me. My mom always took me to the mall.”
“I haven’t been here for years, but my mom always liked going to the fanciest place in town, and Rodgers and Bancroft was the place she usually shopped. The store’s right in front of us, across the street. As I remember it, it has everything: clothes, electronics, sporting goods, shoes, appliances, toys, jewelry—everything. Old-fashioned department stores like they had in the 1950s in most places have been replaced by malls.”
“Well, let’s take a look. Looking won’t break the bank; if the prices are too high, we can try another place,” Tris suggested.
Jordy gave him an eye-rolling look. “Dad doesn’t talk about money much, but he makes a ton of it and hardly spends anything. Plus, he really likes you. He won’t care how much we spend, and anyway, as you say, we have to carry it. We won’t get much more than we can wear today.”
They walked into the store, which had several floors with escalators connecting them. Consulting the store directory located next to the escalators, they found men’s and teen’s clothing was on the third floor, along with sporting goods and kitchen items.
“Going up,” said Tris, acting like an old-fashioned elevator boy and sweeping his hand forward, inviting Jordy to get on. Jordy laughed and stepped on, and Tris boarded right behind him.
Tris couldn’t believe how content he felt. All the pressure of the past few months, all the worries, were gone. True, he had no permanent place to live now, but he was pretty sure Jim would invite him to stay with them. He’d seen how Jim had looked at him since the first time they’d met at Antonio’s. He’d seen how he’d treated him, how he’d taken Tris’s problems on as if they were his own, as if Tris was part of his family. No, he didn’t think Jim would abandon him now, and anyway, he wasn’t going to worry about it till it happened. He was sick of worrying.
They got off on the third floor and made their way to the teen’s wear department.
Ben was already on the third floor of Rodgers and Bancroft. He’d arrived just as the store’s doors were opening.
He knew the store well and had hurried to the third floor. There, he picked out a pair of jeans and an oversized sweatshirt, then went to the dressing rooms to change. He rolled up his suit, one he’d spent $800 on, and stuffed it in the trash bin just outside the dressing-room area as he left, now wearing clothes he’d never have worn before.
He knew he’d have to be clever before leaving the store. The clothes had theft-prevention tabs on them that would ring an alarm if not removed, and he had nowhere near enough money to pay for them. He thought he could find a vacant sales counter and grab one of the tab-removal devices. Anyway, he’d face that when he had to. The important thing had been getting different clothing, and he’d done that. Except for his shoes. He had to get out of his businessman footwear.
He walked to the sporting-goods area and sat down in the athletic shoe section, waiting to be served. This wasn’t a do-it-yourself store, but that was OK. He’d find a pair he liked in the right size, then say they weren’t what he wanted and walk away.
He did that, hiding his face as much as possible from the clerk, which was easy as she was more interested in his feet than his face. After walking away, he kept his eye on her, waiting to see where she put the shoebox. It would be an easy matter to come back and walk off with it when the lady was distracted serving someone else.
While waiting for another customer to show up and grab the lady’s attention, he wandered aimlessly through the department. His eyes fell on a display of hunting knives. One of those was just what he might need! They were arranged on a panel on the wall behind a counter—in all shapes and sizes. No one was shopping there now, and the counter was deserted. Could he step behind the counter and just take one?
He could visualize himself with one of these. He didn’t have a need for it at the moment, but he might later, leaving or after leaving the store. Another vision came to him—holding Tristan down and cutting his throat, or stabbing him several times—or both! He could envision the fear and then pain in Tristan’s eyes. He could feel the life seeping out of him.
But enough of that. That was a dream, and this was reality. He had to be smart.
Ben took another look around. No one was even looking his way. He pretended to drop something, stooped down to pick it up, and while he was crouched, slipped into the opening that took him behind the sales counter.
Both boys found a pair of jeans that they liked. They took them to the dressing rooms, where they slipped off their trousers and tried on their selections. This was not done without some ribald comments and playful grab ass. Tris wasn’t the only one in a great mood. It took longer than it should have to try on the jeans because it was difficult to know just how they fit as both boys were aroused. That and the laughing both were doing delayed the fitting.
After deciding the jeans were fine, they took them to a counter at the front of the department and left them with a sales clerk, telling her they were getting more things. She smiled at them.
They went back and selected some boxers, socks, tees and a polo shirt each and took them back to the front again. Then they went back to see about some sneakers.
The sporting-goods department was fancy. It had clothing, sports equipment, shoes, hunting supplies, and much more. It also had impressive sales displays. The water-sports section had a mannequin in a snorkel, bathing suit and wet suit holding a spear gun with a spear attached. The tennis section had two mannequins, one preparing to serve, one in a crouch ready to receive the serve. Both were wearing only a pair of skimpy, blue tennis shorts and a white polo shirt. The football-uniform display had a mannequin kitted out for a game: short pants with hip pads, a bulging groin area supplemented with a padded jock, shoulder pads making its shoulders impressively wide, a jersey covering it, a helmet and cleats.
Tris stopped and stared at the ersatz football player and then the various items he was wearing displayed on the shelves around it. “Hey,” he said, “they have shoulder pads. I always wondered what I’d look like, wearing them.”
Jordy smiled. “Well, let’s try a set on you.”
Tris pulled a pair off the shelf and then tried to put them on, but the number of straps and laces was befuddling. Jordy watched him, saw him grimace in frustration, and started laughing heartily. “Here,” he said, “give those to me and watch how I do it. See? It’s easy.”
Ben couldn’t believe it! Tristan was here! Right here! He was with another boy, a big guy, and they were laughing and playing and having fun while Ben himself was expecting the police to show up any minute to take him away and throw him in a box for the rest of his life. These two didn’t have a care in the world, and one of them had ruined his life!
He couldn’t believe it, but there he was: Tristan! And Ben had a knife now. Should he? It was a risk. He’d be better off just following his plan: steal some clothes and take off. But Tris was right here! Ben had a knife. It could be done quickly and quietly. Get Tris and his faggot partner! And there was absolutely nothing to stop him!
He could off the pair of them without any noise at all and simply walk away. It was too much of a temptation to walk away from.
Ben didn’t decide as much as simply act. Keeping the knife down at his side so it wouldn’t be noticed, he stepped out from behind the tennis-playing mannequin he’d been using to screen him from the shoe clerk as he waited for her to leave her area. He didn’t have far to go to reach the boys. They were entirely occupied with each other. Neither had even glanced his way.
He moved, approaching Tristan from his side. He knew the boy would sense him after just a few more steps, so as he moved, he raised the knife, planning a downward blow into his queer son’s neck. He moved faster, taking a big stop, and then another one, and then one last step and he was there.
Jordy saw the man approaching, then was shocked to see him raise a knife. The man was looking at Tris. Without thinking, just reacting, Jordy dived forward at him, just the way he’d tackle someone on the gridiron, leading with his left shoulder. At the same time he gave Tris a mighty push with his right hand. Tris stumbled sideways, crashing into the swimwear mannequin.
Ben’s knife continued its downward plunge even as Ben was slammed backwards by the impact of the tackle, Jordy falling on top of him. The knife struck hard, but into the plastic shoulder pad Jordy was wearing. It slid off the plastic and against the side of Jordy’s neck.
Immediately there was blood. The combination of blood on the knife—running down on the hilt and making it slippery—and Ben hitting the floor hard after being landed on by a 185-pound boy, knocked the knife loose. Ben struggled to get out from under Jordy, but Jordy wrapped his arms tightly around him and didn’t let go. Ben’s right arm was free, but all he could do with it was feel around for the knife, desperately trying to find it, wanting to shove it into the other queer who was holding him down.
Tris somehow managed to keep his balance, using the mannequin for support. Turning, he saw Jordy on top of his father and his father searching with his hand for the knife. And saw him find it!
He had no time! Tris saw where he was; he saw the weapon. It may have been a fake spear gun, but the spear itself, locked into the gun, was very real, making the display come alive. Tris grabbed the gun from the mannequin, took the two steps needed to reach the two people squirming together on the floor, raised the gun and its attached spear high over his head, then brought it down with all his adrenaline-fueled strength, aiming for Ben’s shoulder.
And missed! He’d been aiming at his father’s shoulder. He missed because Ben, after finding and grabbing the knife, was plunging it toward the side of Ben’s vulnerable chest. His arm moved, and so destroyed Tris’s aim. This caused the spear not to hit Ben’s shoulder but his arm, piercing through the bicep and jamming into the floor beneath it, immobilizing it. The knife was still in his hand, its point less than an inch from the side of Jordy’s chest.
Ben screamed and screamed. The sound brought all the people in the department, shoppers and clerks. Tris didn’t even notice. He was kneeling beside Jordy, holding his handkerchief against the gash on his neck. Pressing. Seeing the blood stop running down his neck.
He tried to ask Jordy how bad it was, but Ben was screaming too loudly, his mouth close to Jordy’s ear; there’d be no way Jordy would be able to make out what Tris was asking.
Tris turned his head to the crowd, not releasing the pressure he was applying to the cut on Jordy’s neck. “Help!” he shouted over the din. “Help me!”
Two men stepped forward, eager to help, and together they were able to lift Jordy off Ben, Tris staying beside him, holding his hanky in place against his neck.
When the men had Jordy well away from Ben, they laid him on the floor as Tris instructed, and he told Jordy to stay there while the EMTs were called. Jordy waved him off. Instead, he moved to a sitting position on the floor, leaning against the shelving that held the football equipment. “It isn’t that bad,” he said. “I don’t think it’s deep. It stings more than anything. Take a look.”
Hesitantly, Tris peeled back the handkerchief just enough to see part of the cut. Indeed, it was small, and was already stopping its seepage.
By then, store security had arrived. Tris explained that the man with the spear in his arm was his father, that he had been in police custody and must have escaped, and that he’d just tried to kill him with the bloody knife still in his immobilized hand.
Through it all, Ben continued to scream, though he seemed to have added unintelligible cuss words to the cacophony. Then his words became babble, screaming babble, and saliva was now bubbling from his mouth. Tris watched, feeling no emotional ties to his father whatsoever, and couldn’t help thinking that the man’s mind had snapped.
We were in our architect’s office. Jim had got his name from Garlen, who seemed to know everyone in town. Jim had described to the young architect just what he was looking for in a house. By now, there’d been several meetings, and Jordy and I had been included. This was to be the final one before the plans were drawn up.
Fred Strictland, the architect, was young and energetic and kept requesting specifics from us about what we wanted from the house he was going to design for us. All of us. Me, too!
After speaking to Jim, he looked at us. “What about you two? Any new ideas? Any last thoughts before I put this all on paper? Anything you’ve thought of since our last meeting?”
I grinned at him. I’d been doing a lot of that. Here I was, being asked to help design Jim’s new house, a house Jim had told me would be my house, too, one I’d be living in for as long as I wanted. Even if I got tired of Jordy, this house would be my home. It was hard to wrap my head around that. But tiring of Jordy? As if, I’d told him. As if!
Jordy and I were as tight as two people could be. I loved him as much as he said he loved me. I told him it couldn’t be as much because he’d saved my life. He countered, saying I’d done the same thing, but twice when he’d only done it once! I asked what he meant, and he said not only had I stopped him from being stabbed, which surely would have been fatal, but I’d also stanched his bleeding from the horrible wound in his neck before he fully bled out. Hah! Horrible wound! Sure! He hadn’t even needed stitches! The nurse in the store’s infirmary said it was just a scratch and had put a Band-Aid on it!
We weren’t going to have any more problems with my father or the group he’d been involved with. The police had searched Ben’s house and found a memory stick in a kitchen cupboard. It had a woman’s voice, a voice recognized as Mildred Coppinger’s, outlining the entire scheme and the part everyone had played. Except her part. She named everyone but herself. It named Ben’s boss, the councilman, as being part of it, and one or two other minor players. It even had the name of the person supplying the narcotics to Mr. Burrows.
The boys who’d been forced into the scheme had all been found and were being treated for their addictions. Foster homes had been found for the ones not institutionalized. Noah Simons, who was 18 and now enrolled at the college in the city, had been asked by Alex to act as a councilor/mentor for the boys to make sure they were doing well in the homes they’d been assigned to. Noah was spending considerable time doing so and had decided he wanted to major in social work. Alex was finding the money to pay for his schooling. I’d met and spoken to Noah a couple of times. He was a really neat kid.
Jordy was talking to the architect, Fred, and I thought I’d better stop my reminiscing—daydreaming is what Jordy called it when I went off like this—and listen.
“I want a swimming pool. I don’t know if you get involved with that, but I want one. What would be neat would be if Tris’s and my bedroom could be on the ground floor, opening on the terrace—oh, yeah, I want a roofed terrace, too—with the pool off that so we can get out of bed and in a few steps be in the pool.”
That gave me an idea, something to add. “Oh, I didn’t know we’d be having a pool, but if we do, the entire pool should be private. I mean, well, I can see how, in the morning when we’re still half asleep, we might forget to put our bathing suits on and just go outside to the pool dressed in just what we wear in bed.”
We’d become very comfortable with Fred. He gave me a look, and said, grinning, “You mean undressed, don’t you? And you probably also mean in the state most teens are in when they’re just waking up. Yeah, privacy. I get it.” Then he laughed. I liked Fred a lot.
I kinda blushed, not so much because Jim was there but because the architect’s secretary, a pretty woman named Helen, was taking notes, as she always was when we were talking about the house. Fred had told us that ideas kicked around informally like this could easily be forgotten, and he’d found having a record of every idea that came up was really helpful.
So Helen was there, hearing how we planned to skinny-dip, and how we’d probably be aroused, walking out of the house. How embarrassing! The thing was, I liked Helen a lot, too. She was older than Fred, and she had a wicked sense of humor. If I was embarrassed, and I was, she wasn’t at all. She joined the rest of them, all hooting as I blushed. So I did the only thing I could; I joined them and laughed as well.
Jim had told me that my college would be paid for if I didn’t get the scholarships I was expecting to get. I was sure I’d get at least some, though. I’d had all A’s since fifth grade, except for math, and I’d gotten one in math at the end of the first semester this year. Jordy knew how to teach me math better than any math teacher I’d ever had. Well, maybe I just paid more attention to him.
But I’d asked Jim why. Why pay for my education? Why even take me into his home and family and do everything he’d done for me? I’d been a complete stranger to him. I didn’t understand it. I loved that he had done what he had, and I now loved him, too; he was the father I wished I’d always had. But nope, I didn’t understand it.
Jim had taken me into his part of the hotel suite we were staying in and sat down with me. “Tris, I don’t know whether I can explain it. I’m not even sure I understand it myself. All I can say is this. From the first time I saw you at Antonio’s, when I saw your eyes, how sad they were, it hurt me. It just seemed wrong to me that a boy with such striking good looks, one so incredibly handsome as you were, and as smart as you showed me you were, could be so solemn, so obviously full of sorrow. I just looked at you and was struck by this feeling of compassion, this feeling of wanting to make things better for you.”
I opened my mouth to speak, and he laid a hand on my knee. He wasn’t done.
“I was in a strange mood that day. I’d just sent my monthly check for Jordy’s child support out, and I was thinking about him and missing him more than usual. I wanted him with me so badly. Then I saw you, and I guess maybe I visualized how maybe he looked, that maybe his eyes looked like yours, my own son being as unhappy as you were, and I told myself that I can’t help Jordy, but maybe, just maybe, I can do something to take that heartbreaking sorrow out of this boy’s eyes. And that became a mission for me. I couldn’t forget you. Then I got to know you. You’re one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met, and it doesn’t hurt that Jordy loves you with all his heart. We make a perfect family, all three of us. You’re part of us, our family now, Tris.”
By the time he was through, I had tears in my eyes, and I was hugging him. He hugged me back, and we held it for a moment or two, until Jordy walked in on us and told us he was hungry, so to cut out the schmaltz; it was time to go eat.
Jordy could be like that—just funny as all get out. He could defuse angry situations, add humor to things that needed it. He was amazing. He ended the football season as the team’s MVP and was voted in as captain of next year’s team. Really. I’m not making this up. They won every game he played, and lost the one he didn’t. I guess that meant something. Everyone on the team liked him. Everyone. Red had been expelled for attacking me. His two backups came around and were no problem and even became friends with Jordy. Everyone liked Jordy sooner or later.
I’d gone back to work at Antonio’s. Jordy got an allowance, but my pride wouldn’t let me accept one from Jim, not when I was perfectly capable of earning spending money. This time, I got to keep everything I earned. That felt pretty good.
Fred and Helen had been out to view the lot Jim had bought for one final time before he developed the house plans. Fred and Jim had discussed where the best place to situate the house would be, what the exposures would be, what trees to remove and which to keep, all sorts of things. Helen had taken notes. She must have known shorthand because she seemed able to write down complicated discussions and decisions in no time flat.
This might seem beside the point, but it isn’t. Jim and Fred always did most of the talking. But while he was speaking to Jordy and me that last time in the office and I was embarrassing myself suggesting the two of us would be walking around in the mornings with hardons, both Jim and Helen were watching and listening. Yet what I saw when I looked their way, hoping Helen wasn’t embarrassed, was that Jim wasn’t looking at me but at Helen. And I realized I’d seen a lot of her looking at him, too.
We left Fred’s office shortly thereafter, after listening to him grouse about now having to redesign the house with downstairs bedrooms and terraces and who knew what all, and then laughing about it when Jordy looked concerned. He told us this was why he insisted on so many meetings with clients, and how it was always this way, that more changes came up at the last meeting than in all the previous ones. It was then when people realized that this was it, that they’d have no more chances to change things without those changes becoming really expensive, and so they finally mentioned ideas they’d had all along.
I left with a lot on my mind. Jim had helped me more than I could ever express. Maybe, just maybe, I could help him. I decided to do some research. Without anyone being the wiser, I was able to learn that Helen was a couple of years younger than Jim, had been a widow for a number of years, didn’t have any children and hadn’t dated recently because the men she’d tried that with earlier had turned out to be jerks.
So it seemed to me that it was possible I could do something for Jim.
Jim told Jordy he was tired of eating out in the hotel’s dining room and wished the house would hurry up and be done. The framing was complete by then, but it would still be weeks before the place would be habitable.
“Let’s hit Antonio’s,” Jordy suggested. “Maybe we can see Tris bussing and give him a hard time. ‘Hey, kid, you missed a spot on that table you were wiping, and this fork is dirty. Oh, there’s a napkin on the floor there.’ You know, stuff like that.” He grinned, but Jim simply ignored the comments and answered the suggestion.
“Antonio’s is fine with me. We’ve hardly been there recently. Let’s do it. But let me call Tony and let him know we’re coming. He can save my booth for us, and maybe assign the bussing of it to Tris.”
Jim took out his phone and called.
Tony answered. “Jim! Haven’t seen you in a while. Sure, we’ll keep the booth for you. Oh, wait. Hold on a sec.”
Jim held the phone, and eventually Tony was back. “Actually, a party is there right now. We were hit hard tonight. They’ve just gotten their drinks. Why don’t you come in, say, in 45 minutes, if that isn’t too late for you. I’ll give you a free antipasto for the inconvenience. OK? And of course Tris will be here.”
It was almost an hour later when Jim and Jordy came in. Tony took them to their booth, told them the antipasto would be there soon, and that he’d send Tris right over.
They sat, and a few moments later Tris approached the table. Jim looked at him, then said, “Why are you dressed like that? That’s a waiter’s uniform?”
“I was promoted!” Tris gushed. “Just tonight. I’ve waited on a few tables already, and I got tips! Tony says he’ll assign me to tables where there are teenaged girls and then watch what tips I get! Haven’t had any of those yet. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll have to learn how to flirt with girls!”
“Wait till I see Tony! I’ll tell him to keep you away from tables with teenaged boys!” Jordy said with a frown, which quickly turned into a laugh.
“Anyway, I’ll be your server tonight. But there’re two things I need to say first. One is, you can see how busy we are tonight. Absolutely swamped.”
Jim had noticed, walking in after the height of the dinner hour had passed, that half the tables were empty. So he wondered what Tris was talking about.
Tris saw his confusion but hurried on. “Yes, swamped, so I was hoping you’d help us out. I need to seat someone, and there’re no tables open. You’d do that, wouldn’t you? Help someone out who needs a table?”
Jim didn’t know what to say. Tris helped him. “Say yes,” he said in a stern, commanding voice, a voice he almost never used.
Jim, puzzled, smiled, and said, “Well, if you insist. Yes.”
“Great! Just a sec.” Tris walked away, and returned almost immediately, and with him was Helen.
“Jordy, slide out, please?”
Jordy did as asked, and Helen slid in where he’d been sitting, right across from Jim. Jim looked stunned. Helen was smiling broadly.
Tris whispered to Jordy, “A bunch of your teammates are sitting in the other room. Why don’t you go join them?”
Jordy caught on quickly. He turned and left. Jim had turned to Tris. “Uh, what…?”
Helen answered. “Tris set us up. He called me about a half hour ago. Don’t know how he had my phone number, but he did. He told me you were coming to eat here tonight. He told me he’d got the owner to delay when you got here so I’d have a chance to get here first. He also said he’d seen you taking glances at me and me taking glances at you and thought maybe having dinner together might be a better idea than silently ogling each other.” She laughed then, her eyes sparkling with humor, and Jim couldn’t help it; he joined in.
Tris asked, “Helen, do you like wine? Red wine?”
“Sure,” she answered. “Whites are for amateurs.”
“Wow!” Jim ejaculated. “Really! I knew there was something I liked about you.”
Tris wiggled his index finger disapprovingly at the two and broke in. “You two can get to the flirting part of the evening in a second. First, I need to tell you, Tony has been saving a bottle of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon to share with you, Jim. Knowing you’d have a date here tonight, even if you didn’t know you were, he has it out, ready for me to bring to the table. Let me get it for you.”
Tris brought the bottle and displayed it for Jim’s approval.
Jim sat up, then looked up at Tris, his eyes wide. “My god!” he exclaimed, “that’s a hundred-dollar-plus bottle of wine!”
Tris merely nodded and went through the mechanics of opening and pouring a sample into Jim’s glass, then filling Helen’s and Jim’s glasses a third full after Jim tasted, looked heavenward and enthusiastically approved the bottle.
“Tony said he hoped this would help things along here, and you could pay for the next one,” Tris said, laughing.
Jim laughed as well, and Helen spoke up after taking a sip. “As good as this is, I’ll split the cost of a second one. We’ll probably need it,” she said.
Jim was looking at her, awe in his eyes. Man, this could be the start of something great, he thought, as he took a sip of wine after Tris had left the table with a wide grin on his face.
Yep, he thought, his eyes on Helen’s sparkling ones, the start of something really great.