Simon loosened the retaining nut and leaned firmly on the bottom sprocket of the contraption they'd been building, drawing the line taut, before tightening the nut again. They'd got all the parts easily enough from Home Depot, and satisfied at last that the tension was right, he pulled on the ropes that lifted and lowered the newly installed food lift.
He shouted up into the branches that towered above him. "See, it works great now—the lines just needed tightening!”
Toby waved his approval from high above as he sat perched on edge of the wooden platform with his feet over the side.
Climbing back up the ladder, Simon dropped the spanner on a shelf and came to join Toby. They stared out across the valley towards where the sun, which briefly appeared through a rent in the gathering storm clouds, splashed vivid colors over the landscape. On Toby’s knee, the Skerrit’s rather fat cat, Gizmo, purred contentedly as Toby gently scratched him just below his right ear.
Bemused, Simon smiled. At that moment, he was comfortable, too. Comfortable, and contentedly full.
When Luke had begun making arrangements to be out at some party that evening, Simon and Toby had made their own plans. Being a Friday night, it hadn't been hard to turn an evening at Toby's into a sleepover. Simon had hurriedly packed an overnight bag straight after school and biked up the hill. They'd eaten dinner inside, and then Toby’s mom had allowed them to take a couple of huge bowls of one of Publix’s tastier ice-creams up into the tree house.
It had been demolished with utter relish. Even Gizmo had had a dollop!
"That's probably it for today," Simon said. There wasn’t much more work to do on the tree house that he could see, though he was sure Toby would think of some new crazy idea given a chance. It was pretty much watertight now, and dry enough to sleep in—and they'd done that several times already, though not tonight. It was humid and hot, the time of year where a storm could easily break. And by the looks of the weather, that was going to be sooner rather than later.
Simon glanced up at the gathering clouds. "Let's hope it's still watertight. It looks like it's going to rain cats and dogs!"
"Don't tell Gizzy that," Toby sniggered. "He's confused enough as it is!"
Simon chuckled, but it would be a relief when it did rain. It had been stifling all day. He studied the banking clouds again.
“I think it’s gonna break soon. Perhaps we should go in?” As though hearing him, the heavens replied with a low grumble.
Toby shrugged and continued stroking the cat. “Five minutes—and anyway, I’m stuck under Gizmo!”
“You feed that cat all the wrong stuff, you know.”
Toby covered Gizmo’s ears, startling the poor beast. “Don’t listen to Uncle Simon, Gizzy. He’s a crazy lunatic!”
“Gizzy?” Simon rolled his eyes. “It’s just a cat!!”
He looked down over the Skerrit house—a single, bungalow style place, it was wood-built, and certainly a lot older than their own modern, brick-built home. The rambling old porch on the back led out to this garden/wilderness where he and Toby often hung out. Whilst there might be a lot to be said for a bigger place, he liked it here. It had character and was perfect for adventure-driven, growing kids…and a cat! All the rooms were on one floor. Of the three bedrooms, one was Toby’s, one his mum’s and the third was set up as Toby’s art studio.
In the skies above them, there was a more immediate crackle; a warning of an approaching storm. It was followed not long after by a shout from the house.
"Time to come in, boys. Storm's coming!"
Even before Toby's mum came outside to call them, they were already making their way down from the tree—well-trained enough to know it was not cool to sit up in one during a lightning storm.
Simon went first, making his way back down the long ladder from the tree house to the ground, waiting at the bottom as they made use of the newly-installed hoist. Toby dumped the plates and cups on the handy tray and watched as Simon pulled the looped rope. They watched the tray’s descent in satisfaction.
“Told you,” called Simon. “Look, it works great!”
Toby made ready to come down himself, and scrambled over the edge to the top steps of the ladder. Descending, he paused and stretched up to slide the simple door, dropping the hook into place. Hopefully it would help to keep out the rain.
Observing from below, Simon enjoyed the view as his friend descended. Most of Toby's jeans were slightly battered and loose fitting. He seemed to like them that way and was never bothered about a belt, quite happy to let them sag off his backside. Simon caught the bright orange flash of Toby’s current pair of rather colorful boxers, and his eyes locked onto them as Toby began to navigate downwards.
Toby glanced down and seemed to sense something wasn’t quite right, and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
Startled and knowing he’d been caught ogling his friend's bum, Simon dragged his eyes away. “Nothing—I was just wondering where Gizmo was."
Actually, it was a good point. Where was the stupid beast?
“Oh, crap—I think we left him inside!” Toby climbed back up, slid the door open again and was greeted by affectionate nuzzling. “Sorry, Giz. Come on…out with you. We’re going inside.”
The cat purred and seemed in no hurry to get the message, so Toby picked it up and dumped it on the narrow walkway that passed all around the main structure. With haughty disdain, Gizmo stalked off. Simon knew from experience that it would find its own way down easily enough.
There was another, closer crash of thunder.
"Don't hang around, you two!" Grace’s warning came from where she stood at the porch door that led into the kitchen, and she held it open as they gathered up the plates and hurried to join her. Once safely inside, the heavens continued to grumble. Miraculously, Gizmo seemed to have managed to arrive inside before them, and was already delicately preening himself in his favorite chair in the lounge.
They hadn’t long to wait. Less than ten minutes later, the storm arrived over the top of them. Lightning stabbed towards the ground and the heavens let loose a massive volley of thunder and it started chucking down!
The three of them sat on the deck sipping hot drinks as they watched the show play out in front of them. How could anyone not love it?
“That was incredible!” Toby said as the storm finally began to pass.
Simon had to agree. “I’ve never seen it like that before, either. We never had storms like that in England."
Whilst the thunder and lightening had lasted, it had been amazing. Powerful and energizing, he’d wanted to run out into the pummelling rain and jump and shout! Even now, as they watched the darkness across the valley, they could see the odd brightening on the horizon as lightening splashed over the far distance.
“Do you think about England much, Simon?" Grace asked.
He glanced at her, wondering why she would bring it up. "To be honest, hardly ever, Mrs Skerrit," he said at last.
He stood, stepped out from underneath the covered porch and held out his arm. "I think the rain's stopped."
They continued to talk about it for a little longer and then Grace gathered the cups and took them indoors, leaving the two of them alone.
Toby remained curious. "Don’t you miss it? England I mean. Do you think you’ll ever go back?"
"Why do you ask?"
Simon considered it. “Maybe we’ll go home eventually…I guess.” It had seemed an odd question and Simon knew he’d given an odd answer. At least it seemed odd to him. What did ‘we’ll go home’ mean, anyway?
He'd only ever been back to the UK once. It had been a few months after settling into their new country. The four of them had gone back to London—that place that he had still called home out of habit back then—for Christmas with Nan and Granddad. At the time, their mum and dad had thought it would be a good thing, letting them catch up with their old friends for a week or two. A special treat, they'd said.
They were right, It had been great—and had even snowed!
However, and maybe it was because he'd rediscovered all the things he really did miss about England, having to get back on the plane and return to Atlanta had been horrible! Stuck between two places, he and Luke had fought and nagged for weeks.
But that had been years ago. Things had changed, and home seemed closer now. His mum said he even sounded American! As he considered it all, he got up and went to lean on the long railing that surrounded the decking.
“So, here's a question." Behind him, Toby was still inquisitive. "If you did leave America, what would you miss the most?”
Simon stared out into the darkness, weighing the question, but unable to give voice to what actually popped into his head. He sighed. Mooching around and grumbling about it didn't do any good.
“The food, probably.” He turned suddenly and pulled a face. “And Gizmo, of course.” The cat, last seen scurrying under Toby’s bed to hide out from the storm, wandered through the still-open kitchen door. Purring, it pushed against Toby’s legs.
“Awwww, Gizzy…come to daddy!” Toby picked it up and cuddled it.
“Do you know how pathetic you sound?”
“Don’t worry, Gizzy, Uncle Simon is just jealous of what we have.” Toby nuzzled the cat’s neck, who didn’t take it well and took a swipe at him. Simon burst out laughing as Toby dropped the cat like a hot stone.
He and Toby had actually started at the Academy's Middle School at the same time; him from the UK, and Toby transferring from Creek Middle after his mum had got a full scholarship for him. With both of them being new to the school, they’d gravitated to each other and got on well. They’d had a few rough moments over the years, yet the friendship was strong enough to survive the bumps.
Once the last of the storm had moved on, they went inside and settled in the lounge. They had no particular plan for the evening and their friendship didn’t call for it. They watched some TV for a bit, until Grace opened up her new laptop—an investment for her writing—and started tapping. At that, Toby plugged in a slightly battered PS1 into the TV, and he and Simon started racing.
Across on the couch, Toby’s mom tapped away rapidly, the ideas flying off her fingers.
"How’s the book coming on, Mrs. Skerrit?” They’d kept the volume on the game low so she could concentrate, and Simon caught Toby’s smirk at his traditional unwillingness to call her by her given name. To him, it just didn’t seem right.
“She likes to be called JK, these days, Si.”
They both watched Grace roll her eyes.
“Actually, it’s called ‘Tales of a Veggie Vampire," continued Toby. "It’s about a vampire kid who can’t stand eating meat. It’s quite funny!”
“Veggie Vampire?” Simon considered the idea. “That’s quite good. Are you doing the drawings again?”
“Maybe. I’m still waiting for Mom to pay me for the first two!” Toby smirked, but if he was trying to needle his mom, it didn’t work.
She didn’t even bother looking up. “You wanted Gizmo if you remember, honey.”
"That was for the first book!"
"And I appreciate your contribution to the vet bills from the second."
Simon smiled at the exchange. The two sparred regularly, much more so than ever happened in his home—and certainly never in the free-and-easy way these two went at it. And she was as bad as Toby!
When he'd first started coming over, he'd been quite perplexed by the regular bickering, and more than a little embarrassed. In time, he came to see it differently. And she was right, Toby had asked for the cat when her first book had been published.
Grace had started writing children’s novels a few years back. Having never written before, it was just to have a go, she'd said. It turned out that her ‘have a go’ paid off, though she admitted freely to any who asked that it was probably Toby’s artwork that really sold the stories.
After unsuccessfully submitting her first real mini-novel to a host of publishers, a friend proposed she change tack, suggesting she write them for a younger audience, cutting down on the text and adding pictures.
Toby had finally run up a couple of dozen simple line drawings to depict important scenes, confessing to Simon at the time that he thought they were crap and that he had more important things to be getting on with.
But she’d reworked her story, added the artwork and resubmitted. It was snapped up and her first book was published. As a first-time author, the returns weren’t a great deal, but it was a start. Simon knew that she’d wanted to give Toby half the money, but he’d opted for Gizmo instead.
Hot on its tail, the first book had led to a second, and Toby had set about the artwork for it much more carefully, spending hours creating and painting numerous intricate, watercolour tableau scenes that he felt did his mum’s second book justice. He'd been unbelievably pissed off when the publishers wrote back to say they preferred the pictures in the simple, and rather quirky style they said had been quite popular in the first novel.
Still, for his mum’s sake, Toby had redone everything, though still taken more time than the first time round. He’d reverted to the original style and when they were done, even he admitted they weren’t bad. The publishers loved the package and—Toby boasted—threw money at them as a down payment to get the third book in the series out as soon as possible.
“You want me to draw you into a picture somewhere, Si?” Toby couldn’t contain a smug look. “I could, you know. You’d be famous!”
Grace looked up from her keyboard. “I actually think that’s a lovely idea, honey." Her eyes twinkled in amusement. "Why not? How would you like that , Simon—for Toby to draw you into the next book?”
Simon grinned, delighted, hardly knowing what to say. How cool would that be—to end up in a book?
Nobody was ever going to write a story about him, but to be able to point out his picture to his friends and family—maybe even to his own kids—hidden in the middle of a famous book? Wouldn’t that be something!
Yep, that’s me! The guy who did them was a friend of mine…a genius! We were at school together. Did I ever go around to his house, you ask? Of course I did—all the time. You should have seen the mural on his bedroom wall in those days. It was incredible!
There was actually a mural, and it was a perfect example of what made Toby's room extremely cool—a place full of the kind of artistic imagery that he excelled in. Simon’s own bedroom was bland in comparison—the walls washed with the standard magnolia that filled most of their house. But Toby's pad? You could almost taste it! One whole wall in Toby’s room was given over to the huge painting that seemed to change and grow over the months since he had first started it.
After a while, Grace shut her laptop, and the three of them played cards together, until, an hour later, she stood and stretched.
"Okay, boys.” She glanced at the clock. “Time to hit the sack."
Stashing away the PS1, Simon and Toby took themselves off to Toby’s room and began getting it ready. Between them, they pulled out the extra bed; the simple mattress that was stored under Toby’s bed. Already made up for sleeping, they arranged it alongside, the better to talk.
“You first, or me?" Toby asked.
Simon knew that Toby’s mom liked him to have a shower at least once a day—something Toby complained she was overly picky about. He, however, usually showered morning and night, so it suited him fine. There was only Toby and his mum in the house, and they each had their own bathroom. Grace had an en-suite off her own room, and Toby had commandeered the main family bathroom.
Simon began to pick through his overnight bag, checking he had everything he needed, and said, “Doesn't bother me. You can go first if you want. Just don’t hog all the hot water like last time!”
“Suit yourself. Don't say I didn't offer.” Toby opened one of his drawers to get what he needed, flicked it closed and crossed to the door.
While he waited, Simon studied the wall mural, trying to spot any new developments. The old tree, added soon after Toby had made the charcoal sketch in their art class at school, had grown fuller and more detailed. He stood back to scan the whole wall, and smiled to himself when he spotted the recently installed food lift. It hadn't taken Toby long to get that in!
Surprisingly soon, he heard the bathroom door open again. At least there should still be some hot water left, he mused as he continued to searched the picture, waiting for Toby to returned
"Where's Gizmo?" he asked, searching though the branches as Toby came into the room.
"I moved him," Toby replied from behind Simon. "He's in the leaves now, up at the top right."
Simon's eyes flicked up and found the cat. He smirked. That was the second time Gizmo had shifted. It was a bit like 'Where's Wally'! He turned and suddenly couldn't help but smirk—but it had nothing to do with the cat.
"What?" Toby frowned.
"Nothing. You remind me of traffic lights, that’s all. Orange and now green."
Poised clad only in what looked to be the green version of what had to be from the same pack of underwear that the orange ones came from, Toby pulled a face.
"What's wrong with them?" He studied himself in the trendy boxers, and then looked up. His eyes carried a challenging glint. "And how do you know I was wearing orange ones!"
Simon laughed to cover the discomforting question. "For flip's sake—you have them hanging at your knees. People across the other side of valley know what you wear!"
Toby grinned, completely unabashed. "Yeah—well, I like to wear just boxers to bed instead of PJs, now it's getting hot at night. They're pretty comfy." He slipped his fingers around the top of the band, and wiggled a bit to adjust his package, even briefly looking down inside the front.
“Did you lose it?”
“Funny boy." Toby ignored Simon as he continued to examine himself, peering around the back to examine his bum. "I got some new pairs. What do you think?”
The boxers did look good, Simon decided. The colors, the fit, they were just like Toby—quite lively. He sniggered. "Sure, they’re cool—and if you sleepwalk, nobody's gonna miss you in the dark, that’s for sure!"
He started getting his stuff together for the shower. Packed for the following day, he pulled the well-used Haynes briefs out of his bag that was resting alongside the mattress. “Maybe I need to get me some new ones soon.” There was little good to be said for the pair that could easily be mistaken for a grey floor cloth.
Toby smirked. "You know that you're the only guy wearing those anymore. Maybe it’s time to try something different?" He continued to rub his hair dry.
Simon perched on the side of the bed and considered the bland and sensibly conventional underwear that his mum always bought from Kmart. It was true, he’d been wearing underpants like these for as long as he could remember—usually from packs that were just a mixture of white and grey. Toby was right, most in his class wouldn’t be seen dead in anything that lifeless and unimaginative! These days there were plenty of bright, lively colors splashed around the locker rooms. Mason, Jacko, Gabe, Ethan, Chase—all of them sported modern boxers. Even the Elf had style, though only someone like Danny Gillespie could get away with wearing Spongebob!
“They’re pretty crap aren’t they?” He scrunched up his face, holding up the shapeless garment. “Mum always gets them.”
And maybe he should start taking a bit more interest in what he wore in the future? He wondered when would be the next time she would be going shopping? Maybe he should tag along?
"Why don't you try a pair of these?" Toby said.
The offer took Simon by surprise, but before he had time to reply, Toby had opened his drawer, pulled out another pair and tossed them over. "It's the twenty-first century, bud, get with the program!"
It was a remarkable take-off of what one of their language teachers liked to say, and Simon snickered, especially as the pair landed right on top of Gizmo, who poked his head through one leg and looked scandalized!
"Try 'em tonight to sleep in," Toby continued when they'd stopped laughing. "If you like them, go buy your own."
"It’s fine—I brought PJs." Simon had extracted the boxers off the cat, but couldn't help but compare them with the Kmart dishcloth he still held in the other hand.
Toby shrugged. "It’s up to you—it doesn't bother me." He pointed an accusing finger at the scrunched up grey cotton. "I promise you though, once you swap, you won't want to go back to those crappy things anymore!"
Simon prickled at his underwear being described as crappy, but Toby was probably right. He’d be fifteen in June, so maybe it was high time that he 'got with the program'. It was still quite humid that night, and Toby's air-con was pretty crap... It wasn't hard to convince himself as he lay the boxers over the top of his pile to take to the shower.
"As long as you don't mind." Maybe he'd try them under his PJs, just to see.
Toby brushed it off, already turning back to his mural. "I don't care—they're only from Walmart."
Walmart? Maybe worth checking out.
“Toby…” As Simon considered the boxers on the bed, something else came to mind. “I was gonna ask you about something.”
“I wondered if…” Simon halted, too self-conscious to get out the question Luke had suggested.
“What?" Toby turned, his face curious. "You wondered what?”
He shook his head and surged up from the mattress, disturbing poor Gizmo once more. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll go get a quick shower.” With that he picked up his wash bag and the boxers, and hurried out.
A minute later, standing under the hot water, his thoughts drifted and he considered his past once more. London. England. Friends. His beloved Chelsea football club, and of course, proper chips; all things that, at the time, had seemed so important.
When they’d first landed in America, the first few months had been quite a blast: finding a house, starting a new school, making friends. So many new things to discover and experience.
Luke had been the angry one at leaving London, and Simon had tried to appear pissed off for his brother's sake, but secretly it hadn’t really bothered him that much. Who cared where they lived. Everything was better over here anyway—he even had a boat!
And there was Toby...and there was the problem.
It wasn't that Simon didn't have plenty of friends, he did, but there was something about Toby that pushed his buttons. But what could he do? Though it was total crap having feelings for someone who would never return them, he could live with it. It would probably go away before long, anyway.
He shook his head and turned to something else. A few minutes earlier, he'd toyed with the idea of posing the circumcision question to Toby, but had bottled out.
It seemed a great idea earlier, but...
Maybe it still was—if only he could work up the guts for it. As he soaped himself, he ran through a few phrases in his head that might start the discussion. Moments later he found himself drifting and staring across at the bright red boxers waiting for him.
Walmart? He could do that.
His mum would just have to get used to the idea he wanted to go buy his own clothes. Luke had boxers, he knew, so maybe it was just a case of asking? Better still, go himself and get what he wanted. He smirked—maybe not bright red ones...and definitely not Spongebob! He'd have to buy some other stuff, too, so it didn't look odd. He tried to think what he needed: some new tees, maybe some jeans, too?
Perhaps he could get Luke to take him? That might be less obvious.
Around the shower curtain he glanced at the pair waiting on top of his PJs. They were definitely colourful, there was no doubt about it!
Blow it—he would wear them, he decided. If nothing else, just because Toby had offered them. Stuff the consequences! Even though all he had to look forward to was another night lying in the dark, trying to get to sleep, he would get with the program!
Absently, drawn by the memory of the teasing pair around Toby’s bum, Simon began to massage himself. He stopped quickly. He loved sleepovers, but certain aspects of them were beginning to drive him crazy.
Shit...Toby Skeritt...why do you have to do this to me?
It wasn't like he was even confused by it anymore. It was pretty straightforward—he couldn't help what he liked, even though he knew his tastes were well off the normal menu for most guys his age!
He studied the usual jaunty stick that had risen up, a result of his playing, and continued to slide the skin up and down, which in the circumstances was probably a dumb thing to do. He jerked off most days in the shower, and at home he'd have taken care of it by now.
But here? He felt uncomfortable about beating-off in somebody else's house, but this was killing him.
He played with himself some more to the point where he decided he was going to have to spunk-off now and be done with it, or he'd be hard all night. Worse still, if he didn't get it under control, he was going to walk into the bedroom with a chub sticking out of Toby’s borrowed briefs. THAT didn’t bear thinking about!
He took hold of himself firmly. The clock was running, and he needed to be quick! He tried to stay quiet and avoid any obvious rhythmic noises, and was getting quite close when there was a knock at the door.
Oh My God! Stumbling in shock, he slipped and almost fell over.
"It's me, Mrs. Skerrit." He tried to keep his voice level. "I think Toby is in his room..."
"Oh, I’m sorry, Simon." Her voice carried through the safely locked door. "I was just wanting Toby's dirty laundry. I was thinking about putting on a quick load. Don't worry, I'll do it later."
After that incident, he went down fast. Maybe he could have pressed on, but he was way too put off by the idea that Grace Skerrit was on the prowl! And she deserved better than to have him dirty their bathroom with his stupid habits. Within a few moments, his heartbeat slowed up.
What a fucking idiot!
Now the crisis had past, he had to smile at his stupid antics. It hadn’t been that much of a close call. The door was locked and she was never actually going to come in—not really.
He rinsed off and climbed out of the tub, which, like their own, doubled up as a shower tray. As he dried off with the towel, he noticed a bottle of cologne by the sink. On impulse, he splashed a little on his fingers to smell it. It was a bit...not really his thing. However, rather than waste it, he rubbed it off on his chest.
Then he slipped on the sleek, red boxer trunks Toby had provided.
At first glance it seemed that they would be the wrong size. The legs looked like narrow tubes and he wondered if Toby hadn’t checked the label properly, and had accidentally bought a size too small. But as he drew them up, the material seemed to give way easily and expand around his frame.
Damn, they felt totally fabulous and hugged his groin and bum like his old pairs never did! Like the modern pairs many seemed to have, the legs went down half way to his knees.
They felt freaking amazing!
Checking himself in the mirror, he finally brushed his teeth before collecting his discarded clothing. He was going to put his PJ bottoms on, but decided to just wrap a towel around himself instead. Making sure everything was turned off, he peered around the bathroom door carefully, checking for Tony’s mum, and then slipped down the corridor to Toby's room.