After the eating came the clear up. Everyone agreed that Ryan had done enough by helping with the cooking, so Luke and a few others helped Todd and Mason bring uneaten food and serving plates back into the kitchen. They worked quickly, and after scraping off the worst of the grease, Luke slid the grill tops into the dishwasher for a long hot clean, in a kitchen that had to be twice the size of their own.
Shortly after he'd first arrived in Atlanta, and once they’d put down an offer on the house in which they were now living, he’d hardly believed his luck, convinced that it must have been one of the best houses in the area. However, once he started going round to the homes of his new friends from school, he quickly realized he was way, way down the food chain!
Wiping his hands after handling the greasy metal, he surveyed the Quince's big kitchen, wondering what was next. However, on this occasion, Mrs. Q seemed satisfied her boys had done enough and shooed them out.
He was happy enough to be let off, too—it was coming to movie time.
Mason had the first choice, opting for something that he and his friends wanted to watch. ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ had come out on DVD a few weeks previously, but it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. The party broke up as some talked about going back in the pool, and others had to leave for home anyway. Luke hadn’t seen the movie himself and was planning on changing fast and then going to grab a good seat when Todd waylaid him. Todd seemed to have other plans.
"The tub's been on for a couple of hours," Todd said. A towel was swung over his shoulder, and he had a couple of bottles of Coke under his arm. "And bring some cups," he added, apparently expecting Luke to jump to it.
Luke sighed and followed, picking up a stack of plastic cups and another bottle for good measure. He'd been quite looking forward to settling into a movie with dry clothes, but now it looked like it would be the Jacuzzi with Todd, and whomever else he’d strong-armed!
As bodies trailed past him heading for the bubbles, he paused and called after Todd. "I'd better just find Simon...tell him where we are." Last he'd seen of his brother was before he'd headed towards the kitchen to offer help with the clear up. He guessed Si was probably in the lounge waiting for the movie.
However, on a quick check, neither Simon nor Toby seemed to be there. He stuck his head into a few other rooms—with no luck—and then back into the kitchen, which now looked a lot tidier than it had. All the disposable plates, cups, and utensils had been disposable anyway, so all that was left to was scrubbing a few pans. At the sink doing just that, Stacey still had her sleeves rolled up and was chatting away with Todd’s mum as she worked.
At the heavy wooden kitchen table, dressed in a voluptuous, mustard-colored African dress, Alicia was overseeing the food remains, which were being consolidated for the fridge. Next to her, Lemar seemed intent on popping in as many morsels as possible, while he still could. Todd's mum looked up when she saw Luke and waited for him to speak.
"Hi,” he said. “I was just looking for Simon."
She gave him one of her motherly smiles. "Not here, I'm afraid, honey."
"I think saw him going out to the pool not long ago," Stacey said, turning at the sink to eyeball Luke.
"Okay—thanks.” Luke’s eyes flicked from Stacey to Alicia, and then to the pile of pans. “Thank you for having us round today, Mrs. Quince. Is there anything I can still do to help?"
She beamed and glided her considerable bulk around the table. "Now y'all go play!" she chuckled. "Y'alls done more than enough!"
"A few of us were planning on going in the Jacuzzi," he admitted.
"It should be plenty warm," put in Lemar. "Heater's been running a while." He picked up a bowl of potato chips and began happily munching like they were manna from heaven.
"At least take some snacks with you," Alicia pleaded, relieving her husband—who really didn't need any extra calories—of the chips. "Stacey, sweet girl, come help me save this blessed man from himself!" She began piling bowls of anything edible onto trays. Luke smiled. She wasn't exactly an advert for Slimmers World magazine herself!
"Come now, Lemar," she chided her husband. "Make yourself useful!"
Lemar wrapped his arms around his ample wife, and winked. "You got more than enough usefulness for the two of us, girl!"
She flapped at him. "Don't you be girling me, Lemar Quince," she snorted, though her eyes twinkled with fun.
Ryan took that moment to poke his head around the door, and Alicia clucked with delight. "Well, look here! The sweet Lord has answered my prayers for a strong young man at last!" She poked her husband playfully. "This old model has seen too many years!" As Luke grinned, she stated shooing at them with her hands, and then began piling more bowls on a nearby trolley. "Now take all this food and be out of my kitchen!"
Luke turned and caught the kind of look on Ryan's face that seemed like he would like to have said something rather more choice as a wheelchair skidded in past him.
Olly Wyeman came to an abrupt halt next to the table. "Sorry...sorry..." he said with an air of innocence that didn't quite fit. Luke flashed Ryan a smirk as Owen arrived at the door on the tail of the wheelchair. Told ya!
"Now,” grinned Olly, leaving Ryan to lick his wounds, "this is the best party I've been at all day, Alicia!"
Lemar beamed. "We're so glad to see you here, young man."
"And God bless you, you're looking so well!" added Alicia. It wasn't the phrase Luke would have used about the paraplegic boy, but Olly seemed unfazed.
“I’m here to help!" Olly declared. "Where did you say we were taking the food? The tub? Are you coming, Sis?" Despite what his sister said, and unless Olly was hiding something, he didn't appear short on self-confidence to Luke.
“Of course she is,” Alicia said as she busied herself around them. “Now you leave those pans, sweet Stacey. Lemar will do them. Off you all go now, and have some fun!”
Several minutes later, burdened with bowls and plates, with even Olly carrying his fair share, the five of them crossed the grass towards the pool. Going more slowly than the others, Luke and Ryan manhandled the loaded trolley carrying yet more snacks and drinks over the bumpy lawn. The heat had gone out of the day, and Luke shivered, feeling the cool air against his slightly burned skin as they approached.
The thing had better be nice and warm!
The Jacuzzi was already filling with bodies and at least he now knew where his brother was. He spotted Simon leaning against the far side next to the tousled head of Toby. As he and Ryan wheeled the trolley alongside the Jacuzzi, Owen already had Olly out of his chair and the pair were sliding into the water.
"I only said bring a bottle," Todd called out as they arrived poolside. "Don't tell me." Todd rolled his eyes from where he was stretched out in the tub. "Mom sent it."
"You got it!" Luke smirked and offered Todd a plate full of chicken drumsticks. "She thinks her number one son needs more love handles!"
Kieran sniggered. The accent was quite good, and nobody could deny that Todd hadn't put on more than a few pounds over the summer. Kieran gestured to the plate that Todd was frowning at, and said, "Come on, if you don't want it, pass them here."
"Bring the coke with you," pleaded Owen after they had arranged as much as they could around the perimeter. He waved his empty plastic cup Luke's direction. “Then get in—it’s nice and hot!”
Luke rolled his eyes. What did your last slave die of? He snatched up one of the half-empty two liter bottles and dropped it by Owen. Then he circled the wooden decking for a space.
By then, the Jacuzzi was brimming. There was room near Ryan and Chris, but he was beaten to it by Jacko, who leapt past him out of nowhere and settled into the slot.
"I thought you were watching the movie," Simon said, frowning as his brother’s place was stolen.
Jacko was unapologetic. "I was, but we got it at home. Mom bought it when it came out." He comfortably stretched out his legs into the central well and changed the subject. "So what about you? What are you doing this next week. You know you should be coming on the camp with me and Ryan and Mase."
"The Nike camp? I'm not good enough for that!" Simon shook his head, and Luke knew his brother didn’t care for tennis anywhere near as much as he did sailing his boat. Simon said, "So when are you guys actually going? Tomorrow?"
Jacko grinned as his enthusiasm brimmed. "No, it's the day after. We go first thing and Ry says that the first night they put on a big—"
"So, are you getting in, or what?" Ryan interrupted as Luke circled the tub looking for the best place to squeeze in.
“Come on—shift up, you lot,” commanded Todd, and he pushed across towards Chris Parker. Space opened up, but not in the place Luke would have favored as he ended up stepping over the edge between Owen and Stacey. He first stood onto the thigh deep perimeter ledge, and then lowered himself into the frothing, swirling hot water. Half way down, a squeak of shock escaped his lips.
He'd hoped it would be hot, but...jeeesshh! Too far in to do anything but bear it, he squirmed in discomfort. He knew that his shoulders had caught the sun, but for fuck’s sake, surely he hadn't gone and got sunburn on his dick!
The truth was, he'd had a bit of a problem most of the day, and had come to the conclusion that it was possible for your dick head to get sunburnt! At least it felt that way. Apparently his neck, back and arms hadn't been the only body parts to get hit by the ultraviolet rays, even through swim shorts. To make matters worse, the cheap netting in those same items was a lot less forgiving than normal underwear. His squeak of discomfort and the facial expressions…none of it went unnoticed as he hovered with the water swirling at his nuts.
Todd was the first one who couldn't resist, and was merciless. "Me thinks that Luke still has a sensitive slong!"
Luke immediately spotted a knowing grin on Chris’s face, and Parker wasn't the only one around the circle enjoying his momentary discomfort.
“Leave off,” he grunted. With stoic indifference, he lowered himself into the broiling lava. “I’m just a bit sunburnt, that’s all.”
“Then you should have put a sock on it,” smirked Kieran.
“Not there!" Luke muttered, denying the fact that the truth hurt in more ways then one just then. "Come on guys, leave off!”
"So it's true! You got yourself skinned then?" A smirking voice spoke out to the left of him.
"OLLY!" Next to Luke, Owen screeched, throwing Olly a look that made it seem like he would be more than happy to disable him even further. Owen then looked awkward and cast a regretful sideways glance to Luke. "Sorry...well...mum told me..."
Luke ground his teeth; he had no doubt whose source Anne Kear was!
"Yes, thank you Olly!" He folded his arms and his tone was scathing. "I'm SSSOOOO glad you managed to get that out for everyone!"
Diametrically opposite, Kieran was quietly gleeful. “Luke got himself unhooded not too long back,” he explained for any he felt weren't sufficiently in the know. “It looks like he’s still feeling the impact!”
Luke squirmed. The burning sensation around his dick head was subsiding, but that in his face was not.
"Come on guys," Ryan said. "Leave him alone." Even so, there was a grin on his face, too.
"If you ask me," said Toby, unexpectedly taking up the conversation in the swirling waters. "I don't know what the fuss is all about."
Despite his discomfort, Luke peered at Toby, whose eyes were hooded, giving little away. Even so, it was a surprise, as Toby rarely offered an opinion in a large group.
"The master speaks...and we're asking!" Todd came over a little disdainful. "But keep it clean," he warned. "There are ladies present!"
"Oh God!" Trish shook her head with a tired expression. She shot a look of amusement in the direction of Stacey, the only other girl present, asking, "What is it about guys and what they hide in their pants!"
With Stacey right next to him, Luke squirmed in discomfort of a different kind, wondering if she was pondering what appeared to be in his pants the night of her party! Fortunately, Toby didn't leave him hanging.
"It's just a piece of skin," Toby said, seeming comfortable at taking center stage. "Guys are better off without it." He appeared to pause, and everybody waited, but nothing more was forthcoming.
"That's it then?" Todd said at last, settling back into the bubbles. "That's your best shot?" Reaching behind himself, he picked out a sausage from one of the nearby plates, bit it in half and eyed Toby speculatively. If Toby felt intimidated, he didn't show it as those hooded eyes gazed back steadily.
"And so the prosecution rests its case!" declared Todd as he took another chunk off the remains of the sausage. "Will the defense step to the bar?" He grinned in challenge, and everyone laughed.
"You're still planning on being a hotshot lawyer then?" Ryan ribbed.
"You better believe it, bud!" Todd popped the last bit of the sausage in. "And knowing your track record, you're gonna need my help!"
Even Luke chuckled. There was no doubt that Todd was born for the courtroom.
“Well, I think circumcision sucks,” said Olly, striking back to the issues at hand. He winced theatrically. "What a bloody nightmare! I’m glad I'm not cut.”
“Oh, you little fibber!” gasped Stacey, jerked out of her modest reserve to join the exchange at last. She leaned forward in front of Luke and glared at her brother. “Of course you are!”
Olly returned a sly wink. “And how would YOU know, Sis?”
As if to prove her wrong, he made a show of peering down into the bubbles. "And anyway, you're wrong!" Appearing to shove down his swim shorts, he frowned. Then he dropped his face right down into the water. Moments later he lifted his head and his eyes were wide in shock. “OH MY GOD, I am! How the hell did that happen?” The timing and look of surprise on his face were perfect and Luke joined the group as they burst out laughing.
“Bloody hell, Olly,” Owen moaned. “What planet are you from?” He shook his head in despair. “It’s a good job your legs are crap or you’d probably stand and show everyone!”
In the circumstances it wasn’t demeaning or in bad taste, in fact it was hysterical and even Olly was grinning widely and immediately shot back. “You’re the freak here. I think you’ll find that everyone’s skinned, but you!”
Owen turned up his nose and splashed Olly with water. “Their loss, you tosser!”
Tosser? Luke smiled to himself. He’d not heard good British slang like that for a long time. He’d seen enough of how the pair sparred that day to know that Stacey was right—they were like chalk and cheese. But there was something else there, too: something that seemed to go a lot deeper than the casual banter suggested. He was also relieved that the attention had been diverted from him as he took a moment to adjust the uncomfortable netting in his jammers as the discussion didn’t look like letting up.
“Well here's the defense then!" Trish looked truly combative as she weighed in. She shook her head in determination, "I think the whole practice is barbaric. When I have babies, there’s no way I’m allowing them to cut anything off!” She offered Kieran a hard stare, and Luke smirked as Kier squirmed.
Christ, she was feisty!
"So...Kier...," began Todd. The glint in his eyes didn't bode well, but he was interrupted. This time it was Simon. Luke wondered what on earth his brother would say, and he seemed as feisty as Trish.
"Luke only had to be done for a medical thing." Si's tone took on a bit of a bite. "But I'm from England and nobody does it there. I’m with Trish; doctors should leave people alone!" He glared around, as if willing anyone to disagree.
Well, no surprise there.
Trish quickly took up his cause. "That's the point isn't it? If there's nothing wrong, why do these medical guys think it's okay to go cutting parts off for no reason?" She looked for support and found it in Stacey.
"Well, I agree with Trish, too," said Stacey, and she pulled a face. "What do they say...if it's not busted, don't fix it."
"So yours was bust then?" Jacko asked, casting his question at Luke. He'd been quiet up until then, concentrating on the to and fro of the discussion. "Dad does quite a lot of them I think." He frowned as if this were the first time he'd ever considered the possibility that having all boys circumcised wasn't a straightforwardly normal thing.
"Something like that," Luke replied. More than that he didn't really want to say.
"So did you have to go into hospital?" Owen asked.
On the other side of Owen, Olly took on his own brand of translation. "He means did it hurt when they used the scissors?"
"OLLY!" Stacey's tone was sharp. "Pack it up. It's none of your business!"
At last, Luke managed to find a place to bring it to an end and pleaded, "Do you mind if we just leave it?"
"Fair enough," said Todd, though he still seemed intent on finishing his game and added. "But we still need a verdict here. Perhaps we should vote?"
"Perhaps we shouldn't," said Ryan. He gave Todd a hard look. "Come on, let's talk about something else."
Just them, the bubbles died away and Ryan added, "And turn the jets back on, too."
Luke was relieved as the discussion moved on. Ryan could probably tell, as a sympathetic look passed across the water between them that said, 'Got your back, bud'.
Luke rolled his eyes to cover for the fact that he was a bit ruffled that Ryan continued to watch him, but he was grateful all the same. Ry could probably tell, and grinned before averting his gaze to speak to Jacko.
Luke sighed as he settled back, continuing to watch Ryan, who was letting Jacko rattle on. When it came to dating stuff, for someone like Ry, he'd get off the fence. One thing he did know, when he finally came out—and one day he would have to—he'd have to be honest with him and tell it to him straight. Even if it was when they were at college and living miles apart. It would probably be a letter; a proper letter would take a long time to write, but Ry would deserve that, if nothing else.
Some minutes later, Luke struck up a conversation with Owen. They hadn't really talked much since before the summer, and it looked like there was a lot to find out.
"Everything good with you?" he asked. He left it there, hoping Owen would take the bait.
Owen gave a knowing grunt. “If by that you mean, will I be back at Creek next term? Then, yes, probably.”
Luke studied him. Despite the gruff tone, he seemed in good humor. “That’s good isn’t it?” he hazarded.
"Really? You’re buying a house?" He sat forward, intrigued. He’d not heard that, but that really did have to be a good idea, didn't it...putting down some roots and planning ahead? Buying a home had been what had really helped him and Simon get used to the idea of staying. "Where?"
Owen rolled his eyes, a rather cynical look developing. “I don’t care where, just so long as the aircon works properly! But you know what Dad's like. It’ll take a while.”
Luke mulled on that. It would be something to tell his mum—after he'd confronted her about blabbing to Anne Kear about his surgery, that was!
He changed the subject. “So, did you go away anywhere over the summer?”
Olly was following the conversation and butted in. “We went to Florida, to Disney!"
It left the train of thought confused until Stacey added, “Owen came with us." Luke turned to her to see a sly grin change her face. "Olly needed a baby-sitter!"
"And did I ever get paid?" Owen grunted.
A single digit rose out of the water, as Olly made his feelings known.
* * *
Across from Luke, Simon listened into the conversation between Owen and his bother, and relaxed into the warm swirling waters.
Earlier, he’d eyed the crowd advancing across the grass with a tinge of frustration. He’d seen ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ with Toby and his mum only a few nights earlier, so he and Toby had strolled back over to the pool after the food was done. They found that the Jacuzzi—unlike earlier in the afternoon—was piping hot. What else was left but to get in and turn on the bubbles?
The subject of the following day, and the request for him to come for dinner with Daniels had come up again, but before they could get into it, Todd and the others had arrived, all crowding in until the displaced water cascaded over into the main pool.
He studied the faces around the Jacuzzi in quiet contemplation, also relieved they'd stopped going on about bloody circumcision! He for one knew that he certainly would not be having the same thing as Luke. How long had it been now? Nearly two months since he'd started stretching?
Nobody could say he hadn't worked at it regularly, but even so, after the first six weeks when he'd gone back to Dr Tiberius for a check, it seemed to him that there had hardly been much change. He'd even taken the metal pliers away on holiday, though he had to admit he'd let it slip a bit.
He'd been disappointed, but Tiberius didn't seem to be. The band was tougher than I’d hoped, he'd said, but he'd been encouraging too, and said there had been some improvement. A good start, he'd said. Keep at it.
Simon was relieved. At least on that occasion, he'd attended with a healthy set of pubes!
So for three weeks he'd stretched ‘til it hurt, then gritted his teeth and stretched some more to try to get his tight foreskin to open up. And at last, it seemed to be working. For the first time now, when he pulled back on his foreskin, he could actually tell that it was beginning to release and more of his head was pushing through. And it was getting better all the time.
He was ecstatic! At this rate, he might even have it beat by the time they got back to school. And even if it took as long as—who knows—Christmas, who cared? It was only a matter of time, and everything would be working right.
The thought of it lifted his spirits. It was a new year coming up, and he had plenty to look forward to! Under the cover of the roiling water, he slipped his hand over Toby's, squeezed it lightly, and murmured, "So, what time should I come over tomorrow?"