The Price of Friendship

Chapter 1

I flicked Drew a sheepish glance as I pulled the key out of the door. “Sorry, I still haven’t worked out which key is which.”

Drew laughed. “That’s okay, mate. Didn’t you say you only moved in yesterday?”

I was happy when the next key worked. “That’s right. My parents told me I had to start school straight away.”

“That sucks, big time.” Drew grinned. “At least you only have two days of school this week.” He paused and gave me a strange look. “Or did they make you go to school right up until you moved?”

It was my turn to laugh as I pushed open the door. “No. I had Monday and Tuesday off to help pack, and yesterday was the move. You’re right, though. It could’ve been worse.”

Before he could ask another question, I yelled out, “I’M HOME!”

As I expected, my mum called back, “AND I’M NOT DEAF!”

I’d have been worried if she hadn’t done that. I grinned at Drew. “Come on, I’ll introduce you and then we can head up to my room.”

I led Drew past the boxes in the hallway and down to the living room. Mum was standing in the middle of the room, staring first at the mantelpiece and then at the figurine in her hand. “Do you think this would look good up there, Rick?”

“How should I know?” I looked at Drew and rolled my eyes. He grinned back.

“You can still give me your opinion. Your father fled to the garage on the flimsy excuse that he needed to unpack his tools, so you’ve got the job of helping me out.” She put the small angel up and stepped back. She turned towards me and started to say something but stopped when she saw Drew.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know there was anyone else here.” She wiped her hands on her apron and stepped forward. “Hi, I’m Jessica, Rick’s mum.”

Drew took the proffered hand. “Hello, Mrs. Wakeland. I’m Drew Canter. I’ve volunteered to help Rick unpack.”

I jumped in before she could respond. I knew she was about to tell me off for dragging someone in to help me. “I told him he didn’t have to, but he insisted. He’s been showing me around all day.”

Drew grinned. “I’ve got an ulterior motive. Some friends and I are going out tomorrow night and I asked Rick if he’d like to join us, but he said he’d be still unpacking. Since I’d like him to come along, I said I’d help out so he’d be free by then.”

Mum gave me one of her inscrutable stares. I tried to send her a subliminal message, asking her to let me go.

She must have guessed what was going through my mind. “Where’ll you be going? And how late will you be staying out?”

“Only to the shopping centre. We usually grab a bite to eat and just hang out in the food court. We may play some arcade games, too, but that depends on who shows up. Some of the group aren’t keen on that sort of thing, so if they’re there, we’ll just chat. We’re usually home by ten, though some of us have a midnight curfew on weekends.”

Mum smiled. “If he’s finished his share of the unpacking, he can go.”

“Thanks, Mum!” I started to grab Drew by the arm, but pulled back. I didn’t know if he would like being dragged away. “Come on. Let’s get started.”

“Glad to meet you, Mrs. Wakeland,” Drew called back over his shoulder as he followed me to my room.

“Shit! How much stuff have you got?” Drew eyed the boxes with what I took to be an air of surprise, and maybe a hint of regret for promising to help.

“Look, I know you said you’d help, but you don’t have to. I’m sure I can get it all done before tomorrow night.”

Drew grinned. “I said I’d help, and I will. I just think I should ring home to say I’ll be late.” He pulled out his phone and hit the speed dial.

I kept my sigh of relief inside. I was nervous with Drew, and I knew how important it would be to stay in his good books.

I had been through two years of… well, not quite hell, but it was close. My dad moves around the country a fair amount and rarely stays long in any given place. Our last place was out in the countryside, and the school I went to wasn’t particularly large. In a series of misjudgements during my first week there, I managed to offend two of the most influential kids in the school, and that was that. I never made a friend the entire time I was there. I hated it. Most of the time I was just ostracised, but there were a few that went out of their way to make their opinion of me well known.

That’s why having Mum let me go out with Drew and his friends was so important. She knew I hadn’t had any friends at my last school, and she had seemed surprised when I showed up with someone. I hadn’t done that for a couple of years.

I’d had an unreal buzz all day from the way Drew had taken me under his wing. He spotted me as I entered the schoolyard and introduced himself straight away. It started out as just an ‘interrogate the new guy’ session, but it didn’t take long before we discovered a common interest in science fiction. He then took me around and introduced me to some of his friends, all before school started. We didn’t share all our classes, but when we didn’t he made sure I got to mine before he would run off to his. When I expressed cautious surprise at what he was doing — I didn’t want to offend him — he just grinned and asked me why he shouldn’t help. I had already gotten the impression that he was well liked from the large number of people who greeted him as we walked around — he seemed to know almost everyone — and I was petrified that I would do something to offend him.

“… I’ll call you when I leave. It shouldn’t take me more than fifteen minutes to walk home from here. Bye, Mum!”

Drew put his phone away and grinned. “Let’s get started. The sooner the chores are done, the sooner we can have fun, as my mum’s always told me.”

“I can probably get my mum or dad to give you a lift home, so you don’t have to walk.” I hadn’t asked him where he lived. I’d just assumed it was close, since he had walked home with me.

“Nah, it’ll be fine. It’s not that far, really. I could probably do it in ten, but I gave myself some breathing space, just in case something crops up.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep!” Drew’s grin made it clear that he wasn’t bothered. “But I’m looking forward to next year when I get my license. Being seventeen really sucks at times. Old enough to want to do things without the parents, but too young to drive. Phil and Joe are the only ones in our usual group that are over eighteen, and I can’t wait until I am, too.”

“Yeah.” I didn’t bother telling him that even though I was also seventeen, I didn’t have the same problem. There’d been nowhere I’d wanted to go to make it an issue. I was quietly hopeful that that was about to change.

The unpacking went smoothly at first, until Drew opened the box containing my DVD collection.

“You’ve got to be fucking joking!”

I looked up from where I was putting away clothes, worried that he had found something he didn’t like.

Drew looked up and grinned at me. “You’ve got all five seasons of Babylon Five! My Aunt Kelly gave me the first season for my last birthday and I’m totally hooked. We’ve just got to have a marathon DVD session at some stage.” He glanced back into the box. “And then we can start working our way through the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek DVDs.”

I grinned in relief. “Sure! Though it’ll have to be over the holidays sometime, because Babylon Five’s more than seventy hours of TV.” I didn’t know how I could get Mum and Dad to agree to that, but I knew I had to find a way.

Drew pulled a face. “There’s no way we could do that at my place. I’m lucky to watch a single DVD in peace. If it’s not my parents wanting to watch something, it’ll be one of my sisters or my younger brother.”

“You don’t have your own TV?” I was surprised. It sounded like there was only a single television set in Drew’s house.

“Nope. Mum and Dad think it’s anti-social.” Drew’s lips twisted into a wry grin. “Does that mean you do?”

I nodded and headed over to the appropriate box. “A big LCD screen. Dad looked at the plasma screens, but decided they were too expensive.”

“Man, I’ve got to spend more time with you. You’ve got everything!”

I was embarrassed. I couldn’t tell him that the reason I had so much, including the large DVD collection, was because my parents knew I didn’t have friends. They had tried to find a local activity where I could meet kids of my own age, but when that didn’t work, they set me up so I could entertain myself. I would have given it all up for one decent friend, but I wasn’t going to complain if it helped cement Drew’s friendship.

Drew had me abandon unpacking my clothes and work instead on setting up the electronics. Besides the TV, DVD player, and sound system, we also set up my two computers.

“As soon as you have Internet access, we’ll be able to chat at night.” Drew winked. “I convinced the parents that I need a computer and the Internet in my room for study purposes.” An angelic expression appeared on his face. “And I do use it for that. Honest!”

I laughed. “Do you really think you fooled them?”

“Nope. But I got away with it, so I don’t care. While I remember, what’s your email address?”

I dropped my gaze to the floor while I tried to find a way to answer the question without saying too much. When the silence started to stretch, I knew I had to say something. “I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one? Why not?”

Inspiration hit me so I looked up and gave Drew a sheepish grin. “We lived out in the boondocks and only had dial-in access. It was just so slow, I never tried to get myself an account.”

I didn’t mention that I’d had an account at my old school, and the only emails I ever got were anonymous ones telling me to drop dead. They had to have been from other kids at school, because no one else would have known the address, but it was never proven.

“Okay, but let me know as soon as you’re online and I’ll add you to my messenger list.” Drew frowned at the computers. “What are these for, then?”

That question I could answer honestly. “One was for school work. That’s the older one that was a hand-me-down from Dad. The other is a games server that I got last year. I needed something that had the grunt to play the games I’ve got.”

Drew gave me a strange look. “You’ve got lots of games?”

“Yep! Do you want to borrow some?”

“Maybe another time. For now, let’s get back to work. I’ve promised some friends I’d introduce you tomorrow night, so we’ve got to get all of this stuff unpacked.”

I turned back to the next box and then looked over my shoulder. “When did you promise them that?”

Drew grinned. “At lunchtime. I called them on my mobile and told them they had to be there. Joe and Sue are two of my oldest friends. They both go to the Catholic school, but I’ve known them for years. Sue lives next door to me — we practically grew up together.”

I didn’t realise how quickly the time was flying. Drew did most of the chatting, though I tried to hold up my end as much as I could. It was only when we were distracted by a knock on my bedroom door that we realised it was dark outside.

“Sorry to interrupt, boys, but it’s after six and we weren’t sure what time Drew was due home,” Dad said.

Drew glanced at his watch and his eyes widened. “Shi…Shivers! Is that the time?” He glanced at me. “Sorry, mate. I told my mum I’d be late, but it’s really time I got going. How about I come back with you tomorrow after school, we knock the rest of this off, and then you come with me to my place before we go out?”

“Sounds good to me, but I should have most of it finished tonight. You’ve been a great help, Drew, and good company, too.” I smiled broadly to show him how much I appreciated his being there. I wouldn’t have cared if he had just sat and watched me work. It was enough that he wanted to spend time with me.

Drew gave my dad a wry grin. “My mum would kill me. She’s taught me better manners than this. G’day, Mr. Wakeland. I’m Drew Canter.”

Dad smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Drew. You can call me Ian, if you like. Would you like a lift home?”

“Nah, that’s okay, but thanks for the offer. It won’t take me long to walk, and the exercise will do me good.” He winked at me. “I’ll see you tomorrow before school. About the same time?”

“Sure, if that’s okay with you.”

“That’s fine with me. See you, then!”

* * *

That night, over dinner, I thought my parents sensed how happy I was feeling. They kept exchanging smiles. Each of them made a point of remarking about how nice a boy Drew seemed. I neglected to point out that Drew was way too old to be considered a boy, and just accepted the compliment on his behalf. I was still nervous that I would do something to mess things up with him, but I’d had a promising start.

“Dad, you’ve organised an Internet connection, haven’t you?”

“Not yet, but soon. We’ve got a choice of ISPs, so I don’t see any point in rushing. Why are you asking?”

“When you get it, can you make sure to get a wireless router? Drew asked for my email address, so I thought I’d get a wireless card for my PC.”

Dad’s forehead wrinkled. I had the impression he wasn’t too keen, though I had no idea why.

“We’ll look at that. I’m not making any promises, though.”

“But how am I going to get emails from Drew if I can’t go online?”

My parents exchanged glances again, but they weren’t smiling. Something passed between them and Mum nodded. Dad turned back to me. “Okay, but if we catch you visiting sites you shouldn’t, we’ll shut you down.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. While I had a healthy sex drive, looking at porn wasn’t a priority to me. “Okay, I promise. No political sites and the only football site I’m allowed to visit is Collingwood’s. Anything else?”

Dad smiled and snorted. “Don’t be too smart. I’m still the one paying the bills.”

“That reminds me. Drew works at the supermarket two nights a week and Saturday mornings. He said he could see if he could get me a job there, if I’m interested. I told him I was, but I’d check with you first. What do you think?”

Dad opened his mouth in surprise and then looked at Mum. She seemed to consider it for a moment before smiling. “I don’t see a problem with that, as long as you don’t get behind on your homework. I think it’ll be best to wait a couple of weeks, to settle in properly, and if you still want a job after that, I can’t see why not.”

“Thanks, Mum!”

Things were definitely looking up.

* * *

The next day at school couldn’t have been better. The classes were good and I was picking up the work quickly. I was behind in a few areas, compared to the rest of the class, but ahead in some others.

Drew introduced me to more of his friends at lunchtime, and they seemed like great people. It was obvious that being recommended by Drew was leapfrogging me forward socially, and that made me even more determined to make sure I didn’t mess up things. One of his friends, Claire, picked up on how I was being cautious, but I think she misunderstood the reasons. I got the impression she thought I was shy — which was true — and that she found it cute.

After school, Drew walked home with me as planned.

“Who’s going to be there tonight?” I asked as we strolled.

“I think I’ve already told you that Joe and Sue will be there. Sue’s my next door neighbour and Joe’s her boyfriend. Sue’s also probably my best friend. She’s known me for years and sometimes seems to know me better than I know myself!”

I laughed with him. I could tell that he really liked Sue and there was no indication of any jealousy towards Joe. I made a mental note to try my best to get on and stay on Sue’s good side. I suspected that if I annoyed her, she would be able to turn Drew against me.

“Claire, Peter and Angus from school will be there, too.”

“I believe Claire thinks I’m shy.”

Drew laughed. “You are shy. At least until you get to know someone. I think I had to talk for fifteen minutes yesterday morning before you put two words together.” He smirked. “I agree with what Claire told me. I think it’s cute, too.”

I felt brave enough for a response. “Didn’t anyone tell you that guy’s aren’t cute?”

He put a hand to his chin and rubbed it contemplatively as we strolled along. He then grinned. “Nope!”

I rolled my eyes. I liked Drew, and he was easy to get along with, so I thought I would try teasing him in return. “And how often have you been called cute?”

He stopped for a second, and I halted, too, thinking I’d offended him.

“Are you saying you think I’m cute?” he asked, in what seemed like a serious tone.

I thought I’d overstepped a line, so I tried to backpedal gracefully. “I don’t think I’m qualified to say. What does Sue think? You said she knows you better than anyone.”

Drew chuckled. “She thinks I’m cute, so I suppose I have to accept that I might be.” He poked his tongue out at me. “But if you say it, you’d better mean it, because I can’t tell when you’re teasing.” He lifted an eyebrow. “So… am I cute?”

I grinned as I thought of a suitable response. “You can be if you want to be. The ball’s in your court.”

Drew laughed, and I relaxed as I realised I had gotten out of the trap. I decided I should move the topic back to who would be there that night. “Peter — he’s the one who plays rugby, isn’t he?”

“No, that’s Brandon. He won’t be there tonight — he works most Fridays. Peter’s the one who spends all lunchtime staring at Sharon O’Connor. You know? The leggy redhead? He’s got a crush on her, but we can’t convince him to go up and ask her for a date.”

I nodded as I sorted out in my mind which one of the many people I had been introduced to was Peter. He hadn’t said a lot, but he seemed a nice enough guy. Brandon had seemed a touch reserved, but I supposed I’d come over that way, too.

“Is Angus the one who kept teasing Brandon and telling him he should be playing a man’s game like soccer?”

Drew laughed. “Yep, that’s him. Brandon has to periodically take him down to the footy oval to teach him a lesson on that subject.”

I glanced at Drew as we walked. I didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean? He beats him up?”

“Nah. Brandon just challenges Angus to a game of soccer, and then throws in a few rugby tackles. Angus always technically wins, but he also ends up with a lot more bruises. The two are great mates — don’t be fooled. They just agree to disagree on sports. Sometimes I think Angus has a secret masochistic streak. The same thing happens every time Brandon challenges him to a game of soccer, but he always accepts.”

“Do you play any sports?” I asked.

“Footy during winter. That’s Aussie rules. None of this soccer or rugby crap for me. I don’t normally play anything during summer. Instead, I like to get out to the swimming pool a lot while the weather’s nice. What about you? What do you play?”

I grinned. One of the few pleasures I’d had at our last home was the swimming pool out the back. I would often burn off my feelings swimming laps. The new place didn’t have a pool, but I got the impression there was one nearby. “I like swimming, too, though I’ve never tried to do it competitively. I’m probably not fast enough, but I like the water.”

“Cool! When the weather warms up a bit more, we can head over to the pool together.”

“I assume it’s outdoors, then.”

“Yeah. There’s an indoor pool around here, too, but it’s not available for just playing around. It’s mainly used to teach or train.”

“Getting back to tonight, is anyone else going to be there, or will it just be the seven of us?”

“Claire may bring Phil. They have an on-again, off-again relationship, so we never know ahead of time if he’ll be there. I think they’re in an on-again phase, but I could be wrong.”

“What’s he like?”

Drew was silent for long time and I wondered if I was treading into dangerous territory. When I glanced at him, I could see his forehead was wrinkled and his lips were in a tight line.

“Phil is… well, let’s just say I don’t get along well with him. He’s an okay guy, even if he tries to be too macho at times, but there are some things we don’t see eye-to-eye on. Claire, I think, agrees with me on those things, but she appears to care enough about him that she overlooks them, most of the time. Me, I can’t overlook them, so I’m happier when he’s not there, though I try to be civil when he is. The last couple of times we’ve been together it’s been okay, but that’s because we both try hard to avoid the subjects which cause fights.”

I wondered what those subjects were, but I wasn’t game to ask. I assumed Drew would tell me if he thought it was important, and I didn’t want to fire him up. I was afraid he might subconsciously link me to those subjects, especially if it turned out that I agreed more with Phil than with him.

Mum and Dad were in the living room when we arrived. They had a platter of cheese and biscuits on the coffee table, along with a bottle of gin and some tonic water.

Dad stood up when we went in. “G’day, Drew. It’s good to see you again.”

Drew shook hands with my dad as he responded, “Thank you, Mr. Wakeland.”

Dad caught Drew’s glance at the food and drinks. “Since you two are going out, Jess and I decided we’d have a little party to celebrate moving in. Most of the stuff is now unpacked and put away, so we’re having the night off, too.”

“What time do you think you’ll be back?” Mum asked.

Drew looked at me before responding. I didn’t know what he was seeking, so I just smiled.

“Would between ten and eleven be okay? I’m allowed out until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, but I can bring Drew back earlier than that if needs be.”

“That sounds fine. You two have fun and don’t get into any trouble. Rick, make sure you take your phone with you.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Mum.”

Dad smirked at the tone. “She’s your mother, Rick. It’s her prerogative to be over-protective.”

Given how much my parents had done for me over the previous couple of years, I couldn’t complain.

“And it’s your father’s prerogative to end up in the dog house for being mean to me,” Mum said, though her tone showed she was joking. “Now get going before we find something for you to do before you go out.”

Drew was chuckling as we raced to my bedroom. He waited until we got there, closed the door and dropped onto the bed before saying anything.

“I like your parents. I think they’ll get along well with mine.”

“You think so?”

“Yep. We should introduce them at some stage.” He paused as a smirk appeared on his face. “Maybe they’ll like each other so much that they’ll forget about us for a while, so we can get out and have more fun.”

I snorted. “Fat chance on that. I’m an only child and Mum is always keeping an eye on what I’m doing.”

“I’ve wondered at times what it would be like to be an only child. Sometimes I’ve wished I was, but I do like my sisters and brother. Well, most of time.”

“Two sisters and a brother. Is that right?”

“Yeah. Penny is about to move out of home — she’s my eldest sister. Angela is doing a media course at RMIT in the city. She’s two years older than me. Will is my younger brother. You might see him at school sometime, though he tends to hang around with his mates, rather than with the ‛oldies’ like me.”

I laughed. “How old is he?”

“Fifteen, going on five at times. He’s got no thoughts on the consequences of anything he does. He never means to do anything wrong, but any grey hairs my mum has are his responsibility.” Drew put on an angelic expression that I found funny. “Honest!”

“Yeah, right.” I smiled and then kicked off my shoes. I had decided to wear a different pair that night.

I felt self-conscious with Drew sitting on the bed watching me, but I stripped off my shirt and picked up the one I had laid out beforehand. It wasn’t the best shirt I had, but I thought it was the best one for going to the shopping centre, while trying to make a good impression on his friends.

“Cool shirt, mate! Where did you get it?” Drew asked as I put it on.

I smiled at Drew. “I ordered it off the Internet. There’s a site that has all of these great designs, and this one appealed to me.” The black T-shirt with the purple crocodile, wearing sunglasses and playing the piano, had jumped out at me. There was something about it that seemed to tell the world that the croc didn’t care what anyone else thought.

“I thought you didn’t have the Internet where you were?”

I froze for a moment at being caught out. I didn’t detect any suspicion in his question, just curiosity.

“We did, but it was so slow, I only rarely used it. I picked this one out for my birthday — they had nothing like this in the local stores.” I was relieved when Drew laughed.

“Yeah, mate, I can appreciate that. I don’t think any of the local stores here would have something like it, either. You’ll have to show me that website sometime.” He stood up. “Grab a jumper and we’ll be on our way.”

I picked up my favourite jumper and slipped it on. Once it was over my head I caught the frown on Drew’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“Do you have another jumper? No offence, mate, but that one looks like it was made in the 70s.”

I stripped it off as fast as I could. “I don’t really have much else.” I started thinking furiously about what my options were. I suspected I was about to be delegated into fashion purgatory if I didn’t come up with something.

“Tell you what, give me that top. I’ve got an idea.”

I handed it over, afraid of what he as going to do to it, but more afraid of losing his friendship. To my surprise, all he did was put it on and then take it off.

“Perfect! We’re close enough to the same size you can wear one of mine. I’ve got something I think would look good on you.” Drew grinned as he tossed the jumper back to me. “Put it on until we get to my place, and then you can pick it up again at the end of the night. How does that sound?”

“Sounds great!” I didn’t know if he realised the source of my enthusiasm, but he was clearly happy with it.

We dashed out of the house with a “Bye, Mr. and Mrs. Wakeland,” from Drew and a “See you later,” from me. I heard an amused chuckle from my parents as we left, but I ignored it. I was just happy to be going out.

Drew’s house wasn’t far away. We walked four blocks down my street until we came to a small park. We walked through some trees and past a kids' playground before we came out on a small cul-de-sac. Drew’s house was two doors down from the park.

“I know it’s not much, but it’s home.”

“Hey, it looks great to me!” I was being honest. The property had a wonderfully ramshackle look, showing that Drew’s family had stamped their personality on the place.

The front garden was like a mini forest. The many mature trees and bushes of various sizes allowed only a glimpse of the house from the road. The driveway went up the lefthand side of the block to an old brick garage that was covered with ivy.

There was a large swinging seat, wide enough for two or three, hanging from a tree limb just to our right as we took the path towards the front of the house. The seat faced a small pond and fountain.

Drew caught my glance. “It’s good to sit there on a warm summer’s day, but it’s been booked out by Penny most weekend nights.”

“Booked out?”

Drew was amused. “Yeah. She and her boyfriend, the one she’s going to be moving in with in a month’s time, snuggle up there under a blanket. We’ll probably catch them tonight when we get home. Just be prepared — they can be a bit sickening at times.”

I filed that away. I couldn’t tell how serious Drew’s last comment had been, so I thought it was safest to not say anything.

The steps up to the veranda looked rickety, but Drew didn’t show any concern as he bounded up them to the front door, so I stayed on his heels. To my surprise, the door was unlocked.

“Mum?” Drew called out while kicking off his shoes before stepping inside. I quickly followed suit, only stopping long enough to place my shoes carefully against the wall. Drew had just flung his to the side, but my mum had drilled a neatness gene into me somewhere along the line.

“I’m in here, hon,” came the response from down the hallway.

The interior of the house was cluttered, but not in a way that made it seem crowded. The house was of an older style, with high ceilings and a wider than normal corridor. The scattered small side tables, covered with odds and ends, contributed to giving the place a homely, busy feel. It was a long way from the generic feel of my house.

Drew beckoned me on. “I’ll introduce you before we go to my room.”

Drew’s mum was a short, dumpy woman with a happy glow around her that seemed to brighten the room. She was wiping her hands on her apron when we went in, though there were still traces of flour up her arms.

“I’m just baking something for you to take with you tonight, hon. They’ll be ready in ten.” She smiled at me. “You must be Rick. Drew was bashing everyone’s ear about you last night, as if you were the second best thing since sliced bread. I have to say you look a little different to the impression I was given.”

“Hello, Mrs. Canter.” I didn’t know what else to say in response to that greeting. I felt overwhelmed by the way she seemed to fill the room.


“Yes, dear? Did I say something wrong?”

I could see where Drew had learnt his angelic expression. His mum’s was a lot more convincing, though the twinkle in her eye told me that she knew what she was doing. I couldn’t keep a grin from my face, but I wiped it off as soon as Drew glanced at me.

“Come on, Rick. Mum’s in one of her moods. Sometimes, I think she doesn’t like me having friends.”

“How could you say that, Drew, dear? I’m hurt!” She winked at me. “Let me know, Rick, when you want all the dirt on Drew that he doesn’t want anyone to find out about.”

Drew grabbed me and dragged me away before I could say anything. I had to content myself with a “Bye, Mrs. Canter!” over my shoulder.

“You’d think she’d know by now not to do that,” Drew muttered as he led me to a four-panelled door that was painted an interesting mix of green and red.

“I think she does it because she knows you don’t want her to.”

Drew snorted as he opened the door. “You think I don’t know that? I still fall for it, though.” He stepped back and waved me forward. “This is my room. Sorry about the mess, but this is its natural state. Mum won’t come in here anymore. She’s afraid that wild animals may be breeding in here.” He was grinning by the time he finished speaking.

I walked in and looked around at the chaos that was Drew’s room, searching for a place to sit down. I was tempted to sit on the unmade bed, as the closest thing to somewhere safe, when I spotted an American-style football helmet perched on the edge of a desk. I couldn’t help myself; I strolled over and picked it up to have a closer look.

“Where did you get this?”

Drew looked up from where he was rummaging in his wardrobe. “That? It was a birthday present from an American friend. He sent it as a surprise earlier in the year.”

“You’ve got a friend in the States? Wow! Where did you meet him?”

Drew stopped what he was doing and sat on the edge of the bed. His gaze was fixed on the helmet in my hands and his expression was sombre. “Online. At the time, he was one of my only friends. He helped me through some tough times, and I really appreciated it.” Drew grinned. “I sent Trey a video of some Aussie Rules matches for his birthday last year to show him how real football is played. He sent that back to tell me that if I was going to play that sport, I needed some protection so I’d keep my good looks from being smashed.”

I chuckled. Drew was definitely good looking, but it was the earlier statement about Trey being one of his only friends that struck me. I was surprised and wanted to ask more about that, but Drew continued before I could do so.

“Then his boyfriend, Eric, sent a follow-up email, mentioning that they knew there was no need to worry about brain damage, since I didn’t have one, but they didn’t want my one good feature to be messed up. Eric’s always been a joker, but both of them have their hearts in the right place.”

Drew had an odd expression on his face as he said that — one that I couldn’t read — and I wasn’t sure how to respond. There was something about what he said that Drew considered important, but I couldn’t work out what. It was clear I was expected to say something, so I played it as low-key as I could.

“They sound like a great couple. How did you meet them?”

I didn’t know how, but I seemed to have passed some sort of test, because Drew had a grin that stretched right across his face.

“I went through a very depressed phase about three years ago. I needed some help, and I found something that spoke to me. It was on a site for gay teens, and it was about how someone had been close to committing suicide, but was stopped by a message they got from Trey and Eric. I think I was close to the same point, and I sent them an email. It took them a while, but they turned me around, so in one real sense, I owe them my life.”

It was on impulse, but Drew’s words, and what was left unspoken, struck a chord with me. I sat down next to him and draped an arm across his shoulder. “Then that makes them great guys to me, too. I haven’t been quite as bad as you were, but killing myself is something I’ve thought about from time to time, too.” I was surprised at myself, because that was something I hadn’t told my parents, though they knew about one occasion, but I hadn’t expected to find someone who had been through something similar.

Drew relaxed against me. “Is that because of the small country school you went to? You were made to feel unwelcome?”

I stiffened. I didn’t think I had made it that obvious. “Yes! How did you know?”

Drew sat back and opened up some space between us. He smiled softly, knowingly. “I sensed we had more things in common than just an interest in Sci/Fi. I guessed part of it from all that stuff you have in your room — you just never went out, did you? That stuff’s there because you didn’t have any friends. Am I right?”

I just nodded, struck dumb by his perception. I stared into his eyes for any sign of contempt, but saw none. I just saw someone who understood.

Drew grinned. “I think that’s enough morbid emotional rubbish for now. You’ve got a friend with me, Rick, and I’m not going to let you get away from me without a fight. You do need to get out more, though, so how about the two of us go see a movie tomorrow? My shout.”

I was rattled, but I could tell Drew was sincere. “I can pay for my ticket. You don’t have to do that.”

“No, I insist. But if you want to, you can pay next time.” Drew winked.

I grinned. “Deal!”

* * *

It was a good-sized shopping centre, and I spotted several stores I wanted to check out, as I followed Drew to where we would be gathering. He was carrying the collection of cookies that his Mum had baked. He had told me to take a couple before we left, because they weren’t going to last long. While I thought it odd that a teenage guy would take his mother’s cooking when he was going to hang out with his friends, Drew didn’t seem to think anything of it and it later became apparent that he had done it many times.

“There they are!”

I looked in the direction that Drew pointed and saw a pair of teenagers waving. I followed quickly as Drew slipped through the crowds before giving the auburn-haired girl a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“How’ve you been, Sue?”

“Good, you big hunk.” She grinned as she pushed him back so she could give him a solid stare. “And you’re looking good, too.”


“Hey, what about me? Don’t I get a hug, too?” asked the thickly set guy next to Sue. His grin faded into a frown as Drew glanced in his direction. “But no kissing! I don’t need that.”

Drew pouted. “Ah, you’re no fun, Joe.” He then grinned and gave Joe a hug.

I watched carefully, because Drew had told me how important those two people were to him. It was clear that he had a great rapport with both, as witnessed by Joe’s complete non-jealousy while Drew was greeting Sue, and then by the playful banter between the two guys.

I caught Sue staring at me, and I gave her a weak smile in return. It then struck me how important she was to me. If I messed things up with Drew and got ostracised at school as a result, I wouldn’t be able to escape to the nearby Catholic school, because Sue and Joe were there. I had to get in her good books.

“Hi, Sue. I’m Rick. I’m pleased to meet you.” I kept a careful smile on my face as I put out a hand, internally wincing at the awkwardness of my greeting.

She smiled, which reassured me, before shaking my hand. “G’day, Rick. Drew told me a bit about you, but not a lot. You’ve just moved to Melbourne from the country, is that right? Whereabouts did you live?”

“That’s right. I lived in a small town between Shepparton and Echuca. Shep was the closest big city, at least from my perspective, but it was still a long way away.”

“And you’ve only been here for a couple of days?”

“We moved on Wednesday and I started school yesterday. That’s when I met Drew.” I smiled at Drew before returning my attention to Sue. “He’s been great, showing me around and introducing me to everyone. You have no idea how much I appreciate what he’s been doing for me.”

“Oh, I have an idea.” She glanced at Drew. “He’s a nice guy — one of the best, really — but sometimes he’s a bit quick to make friends.”

Drew stepped up next to me and put an arm across my shoulder. “Rick’s a good guy. Why is making friends with someone like him a bad thing?”

Joe laughed. “It can be, but most of the time you can get away with it.” He reached out and put Drew in a surprise headlock. “If things had been different, I might’ve had to fight you for Sue’s affection.”

“Hey, let me go!” Drew gave Joe a light jab in the stomach with his elbow, but it had no effect. “I never had those sorts of thoughts about her.”

While I smiled at the banter, it took me a moment to realise that after growing up next door to Sue, Drew probably treated her as another sister.

Joe released Drew. “Yeah, I know, though for a while I was worried, until I understood.” He smiled as Drew straightened. “She’s right, though. You’re really quick to like people. Look at you and James.”

Drew’s expression of disgust surprised me.

“Please! Don’t mention him to me. I’ve been trying to forget him for over a year now.”

I wanted to ask who James was, but Drew’s reaction stopped me. I didn’t want to drag up something that would get him upset, and it was obvious that James had broken his trust in some way. I quietly resolved to make sure I didn’t do the same.

After a few more minutes of chatting, and answering a few questions about myself, I excused myself and headed to the toilet. Nerves had gotten the better of me and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of everyone. When I returned, Drew and Sue were talking quietly. Joe intercepted me before I could get close.

“Sue and Drew have got some catching up to do. What are you like at Mortal Combat?”

I froze for a moment before I recalled that that was the name of a video game. “I’ve never played it. Is it difficult?” I was wondering what catching up Sue and Drew had to do, since they were next door neighbours, but I didn’t know how often they chatted. I decided it was none of my business and let Joe redirect the conversation.

Joe’s eyes opened wide. “You’ve never played it? You’ve got to be joking!” He grinned. “How about I teach you. The arcade games are just over there.”

I let Joe lead me away. Making friends was part of the reason I’d gone to the mall with Drew, and I knew I needed to make friends with his friends, too.

Needless to say, Joe wiped the floor with me, but I enjoyed the game. It wasn’t something I would play by myself, but if it helped me socially, I could put up with it.

When the two of us got back, we found two more people had arrived: Claire and Peter. Claire was talking to Sue, while Peter and Drew listened.

“Hi, Claire. Hi, Peter,” I said, raising a hand in greeting.

“G’day, Rick, Joe,” Peter replied. His smile was non-committal, as if he didn’t want to seem too happy to see us.

Claire glanced at Joe and me. She seemed angry. “Oh, hi, guys.” She turned her attention back to Sue. “Anyway, that was the final straw. As far as I’m concerned, we’re history. I’ve wasted enough of my life on that jerk. If he can’t see Drew for the great guy he is, I don’t want to know him.”

Sue reached out and hugged Claire. “Good for you. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat others. If Phil can’t accept Drew, despite him being your friend, then who knows what else he’ll object to?”

I filed that comment in the back of my mind. Drew had told me he didn’t get along with Phil, but it appeared he had understated the conflict between them. When Claire had to choose between her boyfriend and Drew, she chose Drew; something that Sue wholeheartedly supported.

“Nice jumper, Rick. Did you know that Drew’s got one just like it?” Peter asked.

I felt myself redden. “It’s actually his.”

“You’re wearing his jumper?” Peter’s eyes were wide. “Why?”

Drew jumped in before I could say anything. “When we were unpacking his stuff yesterday, we found that a bottle had broken and spilt over some of his good clothes. Unfortunately, that included most of his jumpers and they’re ruined. I offered to let him wear that one until he gets some new ones.”

I smiled at Drew to indicate my thanks. I had planned to buy some new jumpers, and Drew’s white lie would cover me until I had got that done.

“I hope you didn’t lose too much,” Claire said.

“Luckily, no,” I said. I noticed that everyone except Joe seemed to accept the explanation. Joe stared at me strangely, before giving Drew a quizzical look.

“I can tell what you’re thinking, Joe, and the answer is no,” Drew said.

Joe grinned. “Really? And what was I thinking?”

“You’re wondering if I lent Rick some of my underwear, too.” Drew grinned. “And as I said, the answer’s no.”

My mouth dropped open before I realised that it was just playful banter between them.

Joe laughed and moved over next to Drew.

“Drew, mate,” he said, draping an arm across the back of Drew’s neck, “there are some things that man is not meant to know, and who’s wearing your underpants is one of them. Just keep it between the two of you — the rest of us don’t want to hear about it.”

“But he’s not!” Drew looked at me. “Show them, Rick.”

I was too stunned to think of a response, but Joe saved me.

“Drew, even if Rick is crazy enough to drop his dacks in public, whatever gave you the idea that anyone here knows what your underwear looks like?” Joe started chuckling.

“You don’t? I know what yours looks like.”

Joe’s laughter stopped. “You do?”

“Yep! You’re still wearing Sue’s panties, aren’t you?”

Joe’s arm across Drew’s shoulders constricted into a headlock. “You really shouldn’t say things like that to someone who’s able to throttle you.”

“You’re too sensitive on the subject. If you’ll just go ahead and tell everyone, I’m sure they’ll all come to accept it in time.”

As my mind kicked back into gear, I realised that Drew was joking. There was no way that Joe would be able to fit into Sue’s underwear. His body was too wide. I glanced around to see the others grinning, so I relaxed and waited to see what would happen next.

“You know, Drew, all this talk about underwear has made me realise it must be more than five years since I’ve given someone a wedgie. Have you go any ideas on who I could give one to?”

“Umm… Peter?”

Peter laughed. “I don’t think so. Rick, who would you suggest?”

I knew the answer that Peter and Joe wanted, but I couldn’t say it. “As someone who’s been on the receiving end of enough wedgies in my time, I don’t think anyone should get one.”

Joe looked down at Drew. “This looks like your lucky day. Maybe next time.” He released Drew and stepped back.

Drew smiled at me. “Thanks, mate. I still think you should show everyone you’re not wearing my boxers, though. How about it?” He winked.

I shook my head. “Sorry, Drew. Not tonight.” I knew he was teasing, and it felt good that he was willing to do that with me.

Drew pouted for a moment, before grinning. “Okay, some other time, then.”

It was another twenty minutes before Angus showed up to complete the group for the night. Drew sat next to me the whole time, and made sure that I was included in the conversations. I got to know Peter a lot better during that time, since he wasn’t distracted by Sharon O’Connor, the object of his crush. It turned out he was a Collingwood supporter, too, which drew boos from everyone else, including Drew. While I was anxious at their reaction, I wasn’t really concerned. I knew they all accepted Peter, so they should, hopefully, accept me, even though they didn’t have the good sense to follow a decent football team.

Once Angus showed up, Drew’s mum’s cookies were quickly devoured. Sue then stood up. “Time to get the pizzas. Rick, will you help me?”

From the way she stared at me, I knew she wanted a private word. I wasn’t sure about what, but she was one of Drew’s oldest friends, and I didn’t want to alienate her. “Sure, but isn’t it a bit early for dinner?” I asked as I stood up.

Peter laughed. “The pizzas are a snack. Dinner’s not for a couple of hours.”

“Sorry, I didn’t know.” I felt like a fool.

Drew got to his feet and put an arm across my shoulder to reassure me. “Don’t worry about it. You haven’t seen these guys eat, so how could you’ve known?”

We eat?” Angus asked, looking surprised. “Who’s the one who usually ends up fighting for the last piece?”

Sue chuckled and dragged me away from Drew. “Come on, Rick. They’ll still be arguing when we get back.”

We headed towards the Pizza Hut counter, but Sue put a hand on my arm to stop me before we got there.

“Rick, I’m sorry if this is going to sound a bit harsh, but Drew’s been through a lot over the last few years, and I don’t want him hurt.” She fixed me with a stern gaze.

I returned an equally serious stare. “He’s told me a little bit about it. There’s no way I want to hurt him. He’s very important to me.” As my first friend in years, I wasn’t going to do anything that upset him. He was also my gateway to social acceptance, and I wasn’t going to mess that up if I could help it.

“Good. He’s been down in the dumps since he found out his last boyfriend was cheating on him, so if you do the same, I’ll rip your bloody balls off. And don’t think that’s a figure of speech!”

My mouth opened, but nothing came out. Boyfriend?

“You’re really good for him, Rick. I haven’t seen him this excited for over a year. He’s told me about the date you two are going on tomorrow, but I wanted to make sure you understood where I stand.”

“Date?” I was feeling queasy. What am I getting into?

She smiled. “I don’t mean to scare you off, but I wanted to make sure you understood that Drew’s got a lot of friends. If you mess him around, you’re in big trouble.” She patted me on the side of the cheek. “Just be nice and you’ll be fine.”

She headed on to place the pizza order. I just stood there. I felt like saying “I’m straight” but I didn’t know if that would hurt Drew. I decided that it probably would, and I would risk being hated by all of his friends. They’d probably think I had been stringing him along for two days, just for laughs.

I had a lot to think about. Drew was gay, or maybe bi, and all of his friends seemed to know about it. In hindsight, I could see the references that had been made, but they had all passed over my head.

I trudged over to join Sue while she waited for the pizzas. She smiled at me and I smiled wanly back.

I wondered if I could pretend to be gay until I finished high school. I knew that once I was at university, and once I had a car, I would have more options for making friends. If I messed up at the present time, I would face another couple of years alone. Almost two full years of everyone at school hating me. I couldn’t risk it.

“You know Drew as well as anyone. How many people know he’s… er… you know?”

Sue raised an eyebrow. “Gay? Practically everyone. He doesn’t make a big deal of it, but he doesn’t hide it.” She cocked her head. “Is that going to be a problem for you?”

I looked down while I tried to screw my right big toe into the floor. “Umm… maybe.”

She put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. Drew will look after you, and he’ll make sure everyone will help you out.”

I knew Drew would look after me; he was that sort of guy. But the price I would have to pay for his friendship suddenly looked high.

Once the food was ready, Sue and I headed back to the table. She carried the drinks and I carried the pizzas.

I put the pizza boxes on the tables, avoiding eye contact with everyone. I felt uncomfortable, knowing what they were assuming about me. While I had mixed feelings about doing it, I sat next to Drew. It was the only open seat, as if everyone expected me to sit with him. He had been a good friend for the short time I had known him, but sitting next to him somehow made it more definite that we were a couple and not just friends.

“Guys, Rick told me something that I think you should all be aware of, so we don’t mess up.”

My head snapped up and I stared across the table at Sue. I had no idea what she was going to say.

“He’s not out, so we have to play it cool. We shouldn’t let people know the facts without checking with him first.”

Peter frowned. “Have you told your parents you’re gay, Rick?”

For some reason I felt I needed to be honest, but I just couldn’t avoid being deceptive. “No. I’ve never told them that.”

Sue fixed Drew with a steely glare. “That means you have be to especially careful, lover boy, when you’re at his place. You might also want to alert your parents, just in case they end up speaking to Rick’s folks.”

Drew was wide-eyed. “You’re not out? I’m sorry — I didn’t realise. I hope I haven’t said anything to get you into trouble.”

“No. You’re fine,” I answered. “Mum and Dad think you’re wonderful.”

He wiped a hand theatrically across his forehead. “Phew. That’s lucky. I forget, sometimes, and just say things.”

Joe laughed. “Yeah, like the time you came out to your folks.” He looked at me and winked. “That’s a good lesson on how not to do it.”

“Hey, that was a couple of years ago! Everything’s cool now.”

Joe grinned. “But it wasn’t at the time. I’m really glad Sue and I were at your place for dinner that night, or I would never have believed what you did.”

“What happened?” I asked. I didn’t think I was going to tread on any toes asking, since everyone, apart from Drew, was looking amused.

Joe glanced at Drew. “Are you sure you don’t want to answer that? No? Okay.” He grinned at me. “Drew’s boyfriend at the time was a guy called James.”

“A fucking bastard,” Peter muttered, though loud enough that I think everyone heard him.

Joe nodded. “Yeah, but we didn’t know that then. Anyway, Drew here meant to ask his parents if James could have a sleepover. It didn’t come out that way.”

Joe paused, while several people snickered. Drew went red and stared down at the nearest pizza box.

“What he ended up saying was, ‛Can my boyfriend stay for a sleepover?’ Needless to say, the answer was no.”

“And that’s not the way to come out to your parents,” Sue said. She reached over, put a hand behind Drew’s neck and pulled him towards her for a quick hug. “But it all worked out in the end. Apart from the bastard James, of course. You would’ve been better off if you’d never met him, Drew.”

Drew sighed and looked up. A quirky grin appeared on his face. “Yeah. On the plus side, though, my year of moping around — and thanks, guys, for putting up with me — meant that I was still single when Rick showed up.” He gave me a smile that I guessed was supposed to melt my heart. “And he’s been worth waiting for.”

“Steady on, Drew. You’ve only known him for two days!” Peter flicked me an apologetic glance. “He’s a nice guy, but don’t go overboard. Give yourself time before you jump in the deep end.”

Drew reached above the table and held out his hand to me. I stared at it, knowing what he was asking me to do. I hesitated, and then held my breath as I took his hand in mine. He squeezed in what was probably meant to be a reassuring way.

“I’m not going to go too fast. I’ve already decided that a sleepover at his place isn’t going to happen for a while.” He tilted his head to one side slightly as he smiled at me. “Sorry, Rick, but I’ve been burnt once. Are you happy to take things slowly — until I’m ready?”

“Yeah. Definitely. As slow as you want.” Hopefully at least a couple of years, I told myself.

Copyright Notice — Copyright © September 2008 by Graeme.

The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.

Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

A special thank you to Ray and Kel, and also to everyone at The Mail Crew. The help they have given me with this story has been fantastic. Special kudos go to Aaron and Rain of The Mail Crew for doing a brilliant job of editing. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.