Drafted

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle

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It all came apart pretty quickly. It's funny how that happens. Things are going along, and you might not even see the cliff coming and then – wham! It's all over except the crying, and you're wondering where things went wrong, exactly. Then you spend some time wishing you could undo everything. Then you get mad. I guess it's kind of like the stages of grief, but in this case it's all about regret. Regret for a lot of things. My car. My friend. It's a lot for anyone, maybe harder to realize this at sixteen.

I suppose the story isn't that much different from many others – I fell for a friend, something happened between us and now it's all weird and we're not speaking, apparently. We haven't seen one another for a few weeks, and I'm left to assume our friendship is toast. I'd thought about going to see him, but after my texts weren't answered, I guess I got the message. It made me pretty damn sad, if you want the truth. Henry Fitzroy was a steady – and up until now, loyal – friend. We'd hung out a decent amount together, but also a fair amount of that in groups.

Henry was a farm boy. If you drove ten minutes out of the suburbs you'd hit farm country, and the Fitzroy's had cows and chickens. Henry had a unique look that appealed to me – a baby face that was the tiniest bit small for his frame, topped by sandy brown hair. His shoulders were wide, his shirts were a tad snug and his jeans – there was no doubt about it – were stuffed. No I don't mean that; he had a muscular ass and legs that those jeans were praying they could hold back.

He was a gentle dude, too. He had four sibs, and you grow up a certain way with a lot of family around. I should know. I had three sibs, my grandparents lived next door to us, and my cousins were only two blocks away. I have a feeling I was a bit of a surprise for my folks since my two sisters and brother were older than me by quite a bit – the closest was seven years, my sister Connie. Costanza to my grandparents, but Connie to the rest of the world. We all had that. I was Leonardo to them, Leo to the public.

Yep, we Sidoti's fuck like rabbits, I guess. Apparently the Fitzroy's were pretty good at it, too.

I'd last seen Henry a couple weeks before summer ended. I pressed down on the memory, as inevitably the twist of emotions – anger, sadness, regret and longing – ripped through me as I wondered why he couldn't even respond to a text. Even just to say screw off, don't talk to me anymore.

“Leo? Are you ready?” my mom called out.

“Yeah,” I called back with little enthusiasm. I lifted my bag to my shoulder and headed downstairs. The smell of breakfast lingered in the air and almost made me hungry again. My mom knows breakfast, maybe even invented it. Two of my cousins, Jenna and Mark, were in the living room watching TV while they waited to walk to school with me. Our middle school and high school are connected and they use this new idea about 'classroom communities'. What they do is mix the students together instead of keeping them apart by grade. Of course, that doesn't work for many classrooms, but for art, some gym classes, lunch and things like study halls, you'll find a mix of different ages.

I slipped into my shoes and glanced at my cousins. “Ready?”

They were on their feet and putting their own shoes back on. My mother said the ground was filthy, and the bottoms of our shoes were the worst, so everyone always removed their shoes at the front door. Moments later we were headed down the street to our bus stop. The stop was crowded as always. We were an aberration in that our bus had only one stop, so all the kids gathered in one place. No multiple stops for different houses, no standing in the doorway on cold days and then just darting to the bus.

Most kids were dressed nicely for the first day; they looked kind of the ideal way their parents wished they dressed instead of what they actually liked to wear. I and my cousins were no different. Mark would wear shorts and maybe flip flops and be happy if you let him. Jenna was a bit of a tomboy, but her mother had squeezed her into a modest dress. Jenna was much more at home in jeans and sneakers and it drove my aunt crazy. Aunt Liz was very proper and classy, always dressed nicely – it seemed exhausting to try and keep up with what my aunt deemed proper.

Mark and Jenna were talking, but I missed most of the conversation. It was probably Mark saying something about a video game and Jenna calling him a nerd.

“Hey, Leo.”

I turned and bumped fists, smiling at Reece Montgomery. We'd been friends since about second grade.

“Morning,” I greeted him.

“Ugh. Might be good if your mom cooked breakfast at my house,” he groused. Reece's mom was famous for sugary cereals. Reece was about the only guy I knew that didn't like sweet stuff.

“Get up early and come over. Mom's told you more than once,” I told him.

“But...my bed, man! It calls to me!” Reece said with a grin. “Fuck getting up early. I heard some district somewhere is making it so high schoolers don't have to be up at the ass crack of dawn to go to school. They say it's bad for us.”

“Sounds legit,” I replied.

The bus pulled up and we talked a little more. The combined school sat on the edge of the Hudson river. It seemed like a silly place to put a school, especially if that river ever breached its banks. Still, it was kind of pretty. Some land developer would probably buy it all so they could put up condos or something. I bumped fists with Reece again as we separated for our lockers. I told my cousins I'd catch them in homeroom; another perk of the community-style system was that siblings or family with the same last name shared things like homeroom.

“Mr. Sidoti, good morning.” I turned and waved at Mrs. O'Meara, a guidance counselor. She knew my grandparents, so I was always deferential to her for their sake. She was a short lady, hair styled in a bob, with a weird sort of not-quite suit. Before I could say anything, she asked, “Would you join me? I have a new student who needs a tour.”

I sighed to myself. “Sure,” I replied and fell in behind her.

“Excited for a new year?” she asked.

“Excited to be a year closer to graduating,” I replied.

“One day you'll look back and miss all this,” she said with confidence. What sort of life do people have that they miss high school?

The guidance office had two offices and a waiting area with a secretary. Mr. Villance was my counselor, and I could see him on the phone in his office. I was introduced to a slender kid of average height, with sandy blond hair and pretty green eyes.

“Leo, this is Micah Kutsenko. He's joined the district this year for eighth grade, and since you know all the teachers he'll have, I thought you could give him a little walk around to get him familiar with the building and so he can find his classes.

“Hey,” I said to him and held my fist out. He mimicked me and a little smile skirted his features. “Got your schedule?”

“Yeah,” he replied and shuffled through a few pages in his hand. He handed me his schedule and I looked it over.

“Go to your locker yet?” I looked up at him and he shook his head. “Okay, let's start there.” Mrs. O'Meara gave us passes and we headed out into the hallway. I explained the overall layout of the school and we headed for the nearest stairwell to the second floor. The bell rang and released people from homeroom. We weaved between them to his locker.

“Watch it, faggot.” A shoulder slammed into mine and I turned quickly to face the person. Dale Hastert. Don't know why, we just don't get along. I was going to open my mouth, when I got shocked by Micah.

“Shut your fucking pie-hole, bitch,” he snapped. We both turned to look at him, but Micah didn't seem to notice me. “Take your stupid ass to class.”

“Fuck you, twerp,” Dale said with a dismissive tone.

“Well, you are a bitch and you do need some education, Dale,” I said with amusement.

Dale's eyes narrowed. “Eat shit. Close your mouth or I'll jaw you.”

“Try it. Maybe I'll break your nose this time,” I replied, heat entering my voice.

“Move along, gentlemen,” Mr. Conroy, the math teacher whose class we were near to, said to us. “You don't really want detention the first day, do you?”

Dale glared and spun kind of dramatically to leave. Micah snickered at him and Dale shot a look that promised payback.

“Kind of spunky for a little guy,” I said to him as we resumed looking for his locker. The bell rang and the hallway emptied of people.

“Not afraid of a fight,” he said, his voice a little softer. “He was kind of big, though.”

“Small nuts, too,” I told him. “He dated Liv Witkowski last year and she told everyone he was hung like a field mouse.”

Micah laughed. We found his locker and he mastered the dial pretty quickly.

“So hey, not that I don't appreciate it, but you don't have to defend me. Okay? My grandpa thinks it's cool when I get into fights, although my dad isn't so cool about it.”

“Your grandpa likes it when you fight?” Micah asked with a small frown.

I shrugged. “He thinks people talk too much and should fight stuff out more. Seems like a shitty way for 'might to make right', but it has to be done, sometimes.”

Micah nodded. “Why is that guy such a dick?”

I gave him a half shrug. “Not sure. Heard his dad is a real dickbag to him.”

“Oh,” Micah said softly.

I raised an eyebrow. “Your dad an asshole to you?”

Micah's expression cleared and he shook his head. “No. I don't know my bio-dad, but I have good dads now.”

I glanced at his schedule to mask my curiosity, but then asked him, “You said dads? Like two of them?”

“Yeah,” he replied easily. “I know a lot of gay people, too. I don't like people saying shit like faggot. It pisses me off.”

“Noted,” I said, but instantly felt closer to this kid. I was curious about his dads, too. I think a girl in our class had moms, but I wasn't sure. Some things I never really noticed – like adults. That would also mean Micah was adopted or something. Micah and I made our way around to all his classes twice so he felt confident he could find them. Then we went back to his first period and I turned him over to his teacher.

I basically went through my morning classes in a fog. It was all introductions, how a grading system works, class rules and expectations, and oh, here, have your parents sign this. By the time lunch rolled around, I was hungry and was a little impatient in line. I bought two of their huge, soft chocolate chip cookies 'cause cookies that are warm and soft rock.

I spotted Jenna and Mark, who had a mix of my friends and theirs around them. I looked for Henry and spotted him with the football players. He looked at me and held my gaze for a moment before breaking eye contact. Great, now I feel all emo. I sat down next to Reece, who had pizza grease on his cheek.

“What did Mrs. O'Meara want?” Mark asked me.

“Show a new kid around,” I said and pulled at the paper surrounding my wrap. My cafeteria is actually pretty good. I know people complain, like it's a tired joke about caf food, but ours is a sweet setup. I glanced up and saw Micah exiting the line and looking around the room, lost in a sea of people he didn't know. I stood up and waved to him. It took him a second, but once he saw me he looked a little relived and headed for me. He plopped down across from me and grinned.

“Hey, Leo.”

“Hey, Micah,” I replied. I picked up one of my cookies. “Payment for defending my honor this morning,” I joked as I handed it to him.

“Your honor is worth a single cookie?” he teased.

“Hey, he doesn't share cookies,” Reece said seriously. “It's not the value of his honor, but the value of the cookie you have to consider.”

Micah raised an eyebrow, but clearly wasn't sure how to respond.

Jenna, jumping in partway into the conversation, thought she'd tease me. “Leo, your new boyfriend is so adorable! When did you start dating? I'm Jenna,” she said, turning to Micah, who'd started to blush.

“Not really my type, Jenna,” I said dryly.

“You're a total change from his usual, but change is good, right?” Jenna plowed on, speaking to Micah. “Just let me know if you have any questions about Leo – I know everything!”

“Did you know he's not my boyfriend?” I asked and chuckled.

“You gave him a cookie,” she pointed out. “That's practically a wedding ring, coming from you.”

I rolled my eyes. “I gave it to him because Dale decided to call me a fag this morning, and Micah told him where to stuff it. Seemed worth a cookie.”

Jenna scowled. “Yeah, sure. Just because I approve of your boyfriend, you're going to claim he isn't? Please.”

I sighed and looked at Micah. “Sorry about her. She means well.”

Jenna glanced at Micah and saw the flush on his cheeks and looked back at me uncertainly. I raised an eyebrow and smiled at her. Her face drained and she stood quickly, leaving the table.

“Hey, Micah, looks like you found a pretty girl on your first day,” Reece said, chuckling.

Micah took a bite and looked around as if unsure what to do next. I glanced at Reece. “I think she broke him.”

“Is she really your cousin?” Micah asked.

“Yeah.”

“So is your whole family nuts?”

“Pretty much.”

“Hey!” Mark protested and turned toward Micah. “Where'd you go to school before?”

“Albany. Sucked ass,” Micah replied.

“I heard they have metal detectors at the doors.”

“Facts,” Micah replied.

“When do you get your car back?” Reece asked.

“Another two weeks,” I groaned.

“Are you grounded or something?” Micah asked and Mark started giggling.

“Yeah. He got grounded, hard.”

“You're just jealous you weren't there,” I said in a bored tone. I waited a beat and said, “Tiffany Myers was there.”

“She was?” Mark squeaked, then looked around and tried to cover. “Um, yeah, right. Liar.”

I waited another beat to let him dangle. “She took her bra off.”

Marks' eyes bugged out and I smirked.

After lunch I continued to collect first-day papers from teachers and generally feel like the day was a waste. Before my last class, I saw Henry. He looked so good, and for a moment I thought he was going to say something. The tension was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and then the bell rang and we were directed to take seats – the moment was lost. What might he have said? The thought ruled my mind.

Micah dropped down next to me on the bus. “That school is huge,” he said.

“Not so bad, really,” I told him and glanced down at my phone. I'd been looking at my messages, hoping Henry had sent me something. I wouldn't reach out to him again, though. I'm not desperate.

“How old are you?” Micah asked.

“Sixteen,” I replied. “Why?”

“Just wondering. You said you had a car, so I figured at least sixteen.” He shrugged.

“Yeah. Went to a party. Didn't drive drunk, but my folks found out in general terms and still came down pretty hard,” I admitted. “I'm supposed to get the car back in a few weeks. How old are you?” I asked.

“Thirteen. Fourteen in October. My Uncle Lucien has a birthday the third of October, and mine is the tenth. There will be a big party, lots of people coming up from the town we live in. You should come,” he said with a certainty that I found cute. He shifted in his seat and then said, “Um, so I don't see Jenna...?”

I chuckled. “My friend, you have a tiger by the tail, there.”

He looked up at me, expression expectant but clueless.

“She's got cheer practice,” I told him. Then, just to be evil, I continued, “You know, short pleated skirts. Can practically see their panties.” His face went the perfect shade of red and I laughed aloud.

“Jerk,” he muttered.

“Hey, if you're hanging in my family? You need a thick skin, buddy.”

“Other way around. If you hang with my family...actually they just nice you to death.” He looked up at me. “Not nearly as intimidating, right?”

“Well, not as entertaining, maybe.” I hesitated. “Mark is your age, you know. If you're into video games, he's totally your guy.”

“Trying to get rid of me?”

“No. Just...he's your age.”

“So?”

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

Once off the bus we said goodbye and I walked for home. Mark fell in beside me. “New guy is stuck to your ass.”

“Yeah. He's cool.”

“He like video games?”

“Not sure. You should ask him, though. New guy, could use some friends,” I told him. Once home, Mark joined me in my kitchen. His parents worked regular jobs while my mom worked part-time in the caf at the elementary school. She was always home when we got home and we did our homework under her semi-watchful eye. She put down a snack on the table for us and I helped Mark with his math, since he struggled with that.

Afterward Mark played games on his phone and I stretched out on my bed and listened to some music while thinking about Henry. I realized quickly that was a bad idea, so I swapped out my nice khakis for shorts and pulled on a tee before heading down to the basement. My oldest sibling, a brother named Armando who lived in New Jersey, had left behind a weight bench and other workout gear. I grabbed a set of kettle bells and placed them on the ground as I prepared to try and sweat away some thoughts of Henry more constructively than beating off.

I frowned as I looked at my forearms. They were basically like the rest of me – practically hairless. I seriously had like three armpit hairs and what amounted to peach fuzz as far as I was concerned for pubes – forget facial hair or anything else. I looked like a fucking store mannequin. About eight months ago I'd decided to so something about my body, so I'd looked up stuff on YouTube and started to work out several days a week.

Henry would work with me sometimes, especially when football wasn't in season. His chest wasn't stacked, but for some reason he had a muscular ass and legs – as if all he did were leg days. Still, he was equal parts distracting and useful when we did that. Damn, I was thinking about Henry again. I lifted the kettle bells and started my routine.

I was sort-of out. I wasn't hiding anything, yet I didn't think I was flashy, either. I didn't shy away from talking about guys that interested me when the subject came up, but I think I was still relatively under the radar. Guys like Dale were just saying it to say it, not because they knew for certain – as if that made any real difference.

As I worked up a sweat, my mind wandered from meeting Micah to the Home Ec teacher I hadn't liked right off the bat to Mark's homework – Powell was who he had for math, and she was one of those jerks that assigns homework on the first day. I put the weights down and sat on the bench, chest heaving, and my mind jumped tracks again.

I sighed as I thought again about what had me in this mess to begin with. My friend Mia Delfino had a party that wasn't really supposed to be what it ended up being. Her parents were home, but they just went to their room and as long as things didn't get loud, they totally abdicated their responsibility. I mean, hello! You don't have to be noisy to get up to shit. I mean, to be fair to them, our group wasn't really known for trouble – not like some kids. We did stuff, sure. More than they knew of, certainly, but we weren't 'bad'.

That night, we were. We were hanging out in the basement, maybe ten or twelve people. There was a movie playing that no one was watching. A table with snacks was set up. And then Mia's brother, Gerry, showed everyone how he could reach through a broken panel and into his parents' liquor cabinet. It was nasty – the alcohol.

Gerry is all right. Next thing you know, every drink is spiked, music is playing, board games are forgotten, and Henry and I really seem to be connecting. I mean, making eye contact like never before, bumping each other or pressing close for any excuse under the sun – or in this case, the basement rafters.

In hindsight, I guess it was a bad idea. I'd never gotten a clue Henry could swing toward me. He was nice, friendly and thoughtful. Nothing you expected, stereotypically, from a farm boy. But the booze – I think – put a rosy look to his cheeks, his eyes were kind of wet or something. I don't know. I had a little to drink, and I'm not a drinker. All of that led to the two of us wandering out of the back of the house to the pool shed.

My memory gets a little tangled, here. I was definitely tipsy, but I was also feeling more sober than ever. I don't remember why we went there. I mean, I don't remember the specifics of what got us there. Words. Touches. Quick glances and shyly looking away. A combination of them all, I guess. Either way we were in the pool shed, making out like I'd dreamt of from time to time. Henry had his arms holding me firmly, and we were leaning into each other, attached at the lips.

I guess the alcohol made me lose my good sense. I went down on Henry, and it was all good right to the end. I was loving it, he was loving it and I was loving thinking he'd do me next. Then...he came. I'm not sure how it happened, like from an engineering point of view, but all of a sudden my nose was filled with his spend. Clogging, dripping and making me cough. It was sort of like drowning, but less sexy. I started to cough, and Henry was fumbling between trying to help me and pulling his pants up.

He said he'd go get me help. What was he thinking? His sperm was killing me? I'd die of embarrassment if people found me choking on it. I'd stumbled out of the pool shed, fallen on the pool deck, which scraped the palms of my hands, and tried to snort that shit out of my nose and breathe all at once.

Concerned people came out of the house. It was enough of a spectacle that Mia's parents came to check things out – and lo and behold! Gerry had left a vodka bottle out on the snack table. No one cared that I was having trouble breathing anymore – they figured their parents may soon give them trouble breathing, I suppose.

And so I'd gotten grounded, which was the car and going out. My parents liked me having a phone in case they needed to reach me. I'd texted Henry, and he'd sent a short 'hey' back. Then nothing. Losing the car and Henry wasn't quite worth the moment of passion we'd shared – even the thrill of first sex faded into unimportance at the loss of Henry. I thought the guy was beautiful and no one else seemed to.

I'd spent most of my free time the last few weeks riding that emotional high of having connected with Henry, of having had him, and then the crash of having lost him. Damn it. With a sigh I got up to go shower. So much for not thinking of Henry.

~D~

“Micah asked about you,” I said to Jenna the next morning, just to tweak her.

“I thought he was your boyfriend,” she whined.

“He's not. But now he knows you think he's cute.”

She sulked for a moment, then muttered, “So what? He is cute.”

I chuckled to myself. Mark was immersed in his phone, playing something. I didn't want to look at my phone because all I did was check to see if Henry had texted me. I picked up my backpack and my cousins followed me down to the bus stop. Minutes later Micah arrived and I was amused by the little looks he and Jenna were giving each other.

My smile faded as I thought about that night and the likelihood Henry and I had been giving each other the very same little, shy looks. Henry never used to dominate my thoughts this much, even though I thought he was cute. Hot even.

We boarded the bus and I was mildly impressed that Micah sat with Jenna. It was good that he was going to get to know her – she was kind of a pistol, as my Aunt liked to say of her daughter. Once I got to school I sat by Reece in first period, and one of our mutual friends – Miguel – was laughing at something he'd said.

“Reece? What did I miss?”

He smiled, his cheeks rosy. “My mom this morning. She yells up the stairs, 'What was that, Reece?' I'm like, 'I dropped my shirt.' And she's all, 'That sounded like a lot more than just a shirt.' And I'm like,” he laughed a little and then finished with, “'I was still in the shirt.'”

I laughed aloud and Miguel joined me. “Only you, Reece.”

“Hey, going to the game Friday?” Reece asked.

“Yeah, for sure,” Miguel said.

“Ugh. I don't know,” I hedged.

I was saved as the teacher brought the class to attention and we got on with our day. Realistically, I can't hide out from Henry forever. I mean, I'm not really hiding, but I'm not exactly going over to his house or anything, either. Going to watch his game felt like supporting him at a time when I wasn't sure exactly where we stood with each other.

I ended up not having to answer Reece until lunch, when he decided to stop me in the hall and ask me why I was waffling about going to the game.

“It's just football,” I replied, trying to shrug it off.

“Yeah,” he said, dragging the word out. “And you like football.”

Strictly speaking, I liked the shape of football players a little more than I liked the game itself. But he was right, I did like football and most organized sports. There was a certain grace to really good athletic plays.

“Bruh, this is bullshit,” Reece said, his expression screwing up and his tone disappointed. “I don't know what's been up with you, but this isn't just about having your car taken away.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, stepping into line.

“Never mind,” he said. Every line of him told me he was put out, and I felt guilty. With a little sigh I pulled him aside into the alcove of a supply doorway.

“Look, between you and me, okay?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and lowering my chin to give him a serious expression. His irritated expression eased and he nodded. “At Mia's party, Henry and I...hooked up.”

His eyes went wide. He connected the dots quickly, and my proof was his next statement. “And...so now you guys aren't friends?”

I sighed. “I don't know. I texted him the next day. He said hey, but nothing after. He hasn't spoken to me, and I tried texting a few times, but...I don't want to push it. You know?”

Reece nodded slowly and we drifted over to rejoin the line. “I think you should go. I mean, if it's a misunderstanding then you guys need opportunities. I mean, you got your car taken; maybe his parents took his phone? Right?”

I let out a breath. “Um. Yeah, that's true.” I'd thought of that, but it seemed like the timing was strange.

“If he's ghosting you, fuck him, right? I'm asking you to hang out, so it doesn't really matter if Henry is there or not. Right?”

“Not when you put it like that, no,” I admitted, though I still felt weird about going to the game. “I'll have to see if my parents will let me go.”

“I'll ask them,” Reece said with a grin.

“You say that like it'll make a difference,” I said with a snort.

“It does. I didn't go to Mia's party, remember?” He pointed at himself. “They think I'm a good kid.”

I laughed. “You were sick.”

“They don't know that,” he said smugly.

We got our food and were joined by Mark, Jenna, Micah and Miguel.

“That, Mig, is why you're single,” Jenna said tartly.

“Um, what did we walk in on?” I asked as we sat down.

“Nothing new. Miggy is being a loser,” Jenna said in a very rational tone of voice.

“Your cousin, man,” Miguel said, shaking his head. “When do you get off restriction?”

“Supposed to be next week,” I said. “Reece thinks he can bust me out for the game.”

“How's that work?”

“I'm the good kid,” Reece said. Once the laughter died down he said, “Hey, I didn't go to a party and get caught. Compared to the rest of them, I am the good kid.”

“How does that help?” Mark asked.

“Because, I can say I'll keep him out of trouble,” Reece said confidently. “Plus I'll tell them I'm going to ask Rosa to go. Mr. Sidoti is real big on wingmen, you know?”

“He is?” I asked. “I can't remember my father ever saying anything like that.”

“When I tell him how you steered me away from an easy skank, he will be,” Reece said confidently.

Micah snorted with laughter, and then we joined him.

“You sound like my dad,” Micah said.

Reece nodded sagely. “You can be my kid, as long as I don't have to actually do anything for you.”

“Now you sound like your own dad,” Miguel said with a laugh.

“You're not wrong,” Reece replied, slightly chagrined. “I'd be mad, but he's a douche canoe. So your dads are kind of awesome?” Reece asked Micah.

“They both are. I just can't tell one of them,” he replied confidently.

“Why not?” Jenna asked.

Micah turned toward her. “He's a smartass. If I said he was awesome, he'd bring it up all the time – like when I was pissed at him.”

Jenna giggled. “What does he do that's so awesome?”

“We do prank wars, sometimes. Up until my other dad tells us to cut it out,” Micah said with a smile. “At first I was kind of like, what the hell, you know? But my Uncle Lu joined my team and kind of showed me how to fight back. Like, Dad put bubble wrap under my sheets so my bed would crinkle and annoy me one night. So Uncle Lu had me connect my phone to a little blue tooth speaker and have it make cricket sounds.” He paused. “The speaker was under his headboard, between the wall and the mattress and the thing would chirp like three or four times real quick, then go quiet for a minute so he couldn't find it and he couldn't sleep.”

“Micah. Introduce me to your uncle, man.”

Micah looked at Reece. “That was genius, true, but my dad is an expert. He did this thing with mustard packets to get even with Uncle Lu – taped them under the pressure points on the toilet seat so when he sat down, he got his butt and nuts sprayed with that yellow crap.”

We all laughed and Micah grinned.

“So you never played that on your dad?”

Micah got a chagrined look on his face. “Well, I tried. I wanted to get him with the fire packets from Taco Bell, but my other dad sat down. He wasn't pleased.”

We all burst out laughing. “Sounds like a dangerous household,” I told him.

“Nah. My family rocks.”

“Do you like video games?” Mark asked Micah.

“Yeah. Who doesn't?”

“What about sports?” Jenna asked.

“Yup. Baseball. I know someone, I bet he's going to be a major leaguer!”

“Really?” Miguel asked. “Who?”

“His name is Nate Kennedy. Look him up on YouTube, he has some game clips and workout videos with his friend, Crispin Wolfe,” Micah said excitedly.

“Crispin Wolfe? Sounds like a book character,” Miguel said as he pulled out his phone, probably to look at YouTube.

Meanwhile I turned toward Reece. “Rosa? Really?”

Reece paused for a moment. “I'd say that to your dad. Like, an excuse to get you to go to the game. I'm not crawling back to her after she dumped me.”

“Oh. Just wondering, you know. In case you still had a thing for her,” I said, hiding a smile, but poorly.

“Fuck that,” Reece said and shoved a fry in his mouth.

“You guys have broken up and gotten back together so many times,” I said, sounding bored.

“No, not this time!” Reece declared.

“Okay,” I said agreeably.

“I mean it!”

“All right.”

“Asshole.”

~D~

I'm not quite sure how, but between my emotions cresting and crashing about Henry – and the fact I'd barely seen him at school, and gotten nothing on my phone – somehow, Micah was my new buddy. I didn't mind, for the most part. I needed a distraction from Henry, and while there was definitely no romantic ideas about Micah, he was enjoyable enough. Thursday after school he ended up following Mark and me back to my house, and my grandmother bustled over since she was watching out her window and saw we had a new person.

“Whos-a this handsome-a boy?” she asked in her thick accent. She sort of sounds like a stereotype, but those things all come from somewhere.

“Nonna, meet Micah. Micah, meet our nonna,” I said.

“Hi, Nonna,” Micah said, reaching his hand out. My nonna, which is Italian for grandmother, scooped him toward her with a laugh and we all went into the kitchen where my mother was putting something together for dinner.

“That smells good,” Micah said.

“You come for dinner Sunday,” my nonna said. “We feed you like a growing boy!”

We sat at the table and had a snack while I helped Mark with his math homework. Micah had the same work, so I ended up helping him a little, too. Afterward Mark said he had to go home and do a couple of chores before his parents got home, so he headed out and Micah followed me up to my room.

“This is cool,” Micah said as he took in my space.

“Thanks. So school off to an okay start?” I asked, flopping back on my bed.

“Yeah,” he said, folding himself into my desk chair. “I was kind of behind last year, and to be honest, I'm behind this year, too. I have a couple of classes that are basically to help me catch up.”

“Yeah? Why are you behind?” I asked, crossing my legs at the ankle and putting my hands behind my head.

Micah looked at me with solemn expression. “Please don't tell other people, okay? Especially not Jenna – not yet.”

I frowned lightly, but nodded.

“It's just that, I want her to know me before she knows all my history so I get a fair shot, okay? I'm not trying to ask for you to hide creepy shit from her,” he said defensively.

I raised an eyebrow. “Impressed you knew where I was headed. Go ahead. As long as it doesn't hurt my family or friends, we're good.”

He shrugged slightly. “I have dads, so you know I don't have my birth parents anymore. I'm in foster care.”

I let out a little breath. “That's got to suck balls.”

He nodded just a little. “It has, before. I ran away from the ones I had up north. My dads helped me out and got custody of me over the winter – like January or something. So I missed some school while I was on the street. Albany schools didn't help me much.”

I sat up and crossed my legs under me. “Micah, that's some weird shit. You don't seem like anyone who lived on the street. I mean, not that I know street people personally, but I thought you were just a regular guy.”

“I am. Or at least, I'm working on it.” He paused and licked his lips. “I have a huge extended family down in Sanitaria Springs. I never used to, like, reflect on who I was or anything – but I met a lot of people that pissed me off, called me on shit, then turned around and acted like I never screwed up in the first place.”

I frowned. “That actually sounds annoying as fuck.”

He chuckled. “It totally was,” he agreed. “I felt like a bigger dickbag sometimes. They're all kind of wanting me to be successful, and after a whole summer with them everyday...I guess I woke up to some stuff.” He paused again. “One of my dads...I told him about you. Just trying to get a feel for what he thought. I was thinking you might be a friend. I know, different ages and maybe you don't want a kid who can't drive and stuff hanging around....”

“I actually don't care,” I admitted. “I have a big family, and I hang out with Mark and Jenna as much as I do my own friends. If we get along, we get along – you know?”

“Yeah, I was kind of thinking you might be like that,” Micah admitted. “That's why I'm telling you this stuff. Gesture of goodwill, my therapist would call it.”

“Kind of dangerous. What if you misjudge someone and tell them all your personal stuff?”

He nodded his head a few times. “I'd beat them with a tire iron.”

We stared at each other and then started laughing.

After he slowed to chuckles, he said, “What I'm supposed to work on is not letting my past control me. I don't think this is exactly what my therapist had in mind, because people can still make me feel like crap for my past, but I don't get that from you – and I'm a pretty good judge of people.”

“Is that a fact?” I asked, narrowing an eye.

“It is,” he replied seriously. “So that's why I'm behind. Not because I'm stupid or I spent a year in juvie for cutting off some guys balls and making earrings out of them. Just...it was a bad situation that got a lot better.”

I smiled at his comment, but nodded with some form of solemnity. “I'll keep your story to myself, Micah.”

He let out a breath. “Thanks. So, um, Jenna,” he said, blushing.

I chuckled. “You're going about it the right way. Jenna is a real person, buddy. If you treat her like anything less, she'll totally break you.”

He bobbed his head. “Cool. So, Mark does games, what do you do?”

“Work out, sometimes. I like watching sports. Love reading, especially scary stuff. You?”

“Baseball. Swimming. Video games, sometimes. Nate Kennedy – the baseball player? He used to let me run with him and do some workouts. I couldn't keep up. My Uncle Robin takes me for runs with him. Can I work out with you?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Hey, won't your dads wonder where you are?”

“No. I texted them to tell them I was coming here. Plus they are in class, right now.” He rubbed his hands together. “I'll get the TV to myself because my homework is done and they'll have some to do.”

I chuckled at him. “They're in class?” I asked, thinking that sounded weird. “How old are your dads?”

“Um, like, twenty-three or something,” he said, sounding unsure. “I mean, I never asked. Well, I did at a birthday, but I forgot. I'm crap at remembering things like that.”

“Parents at twenty-three? That means they were ten when you were born,” I said with a snicker. “They had you young!”

“The gay episode of 'I'm a Pregnant Teenager'', Micah said with a snort. He ran home to change, and minutes later was back so we went downstairs and I showed him how to use the kettle bells – or tried. Turns out Nate had been a pretty good teacher, though I thought he was using weights that were a little too heavy for him.

When we got done, he video chatted this Nate guy. “Nate! I got a workout buddy. Look!” He held up his arm and flexed.

“Wow! Maybe by Christmas you'll actually have a muscle there, buddy,” Nate teased.

Micah scoffed playfully. “I'll be hitting better than you by spring.”

“Yeah? Found some batting cages?”

“Um. Leo? Are there batting cages around here? Oh! Nate, meet Leo,” he said and turned the phone toward me. A really handsome guy was looking out of the screen. He smiled and waved.

“Hey, Nate,” I said, waving. “We've all been told you're going to the majors, so can we get autographed balls now?”

He chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Micah says he can hit better than me by spring, maybe he should sign a few baseballs.”

We had a weird, yet cool three way chat for a few minutes. After hanging up, Micah turned to me. “So hey, are you dating anyone? I mean, you give decent dating advice and all.”

I pursed my lips and looked away from him. “It's complicated.”

Micah sat down opposite me on the workout bench. “Is the guy straight or something?”

I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“It just seems like...you know things. Or something.”

He laughed. “Remember that big family I said I had?” he asked. I nodded and he continued, “Well, most of them are gay or bi. I thought they were all gay, but my friend Sean explained to me that he wasn't, even though he's dating a guy – and Nate? He's bi, too. I guess they had a hard time.”

“Um, why would these guys just...tell you their sexuality? I mean, that's weird,” I said, chuckling with disbelief.

“Um,” he said, his cheeks going red. “I had a problem with a friend over the summer. He had a crush on me and, kind of tricked me into letting him kiss me. I was pissed. I don't like being lied to.”

I gave him an appraising look. “You're an interesting dude, Micah.”

He smiled lightly, but seemed pleased with my statement. “Anyway, Nate and Sean kind of both told me, separately, that being bi can be really hard because people are like 'pick a side, already' instead of understanding that it isn't that simple. I didn't get it at first, but after hanging around them, I think I totally don't care.”

I jerked my head back and frowned. “What do you mean, you don't care?”

“My Uncle Lu explained it to me – I don't have to understand it, I just have to know that it is. Sean is cool. Nate is awesome. Like, good people. Who they like doesn't mean shit because they're good people.”

I nodded. “I think I like your uncle Lu. Whose brother is he, to make him your uncle?”

“My dad, Alec.”

“Is Lu older or younger?”

“Younger. He's a freshman in college right now, so like eighteen I think.”

I decided to fuck with him. “Is he hot?”

He raised an eyebrow. “His boyfriend, my uncle Robin, would break you in half, Leo. Seriously.”

I laughed. “Okay, no hitting on uncle Lu. He sounds like a cool guy, though.”

“He's great. Taught me all kinds of pranks to pull on my dad.” We both laughed at that. Eventually Micah went home for dinner and I went up to shower. I checked my phone, but no text from Henry. I assessed my progress in my bathroom mirror – pecs were definitely showing progress, but I still looked as smooth as a baby's ass. Ugh.

~D~

Friday afternoon, Reece took his shot at convincing my parents to let me go to the game.

“Because...you need a wingman?” my father asked of Reece, who nodded as if my father were asking a serious question.

“Yes, Mr. Sidoti. Rosa will be there and Leo keeps me out of trouble – just like I would have kept him out of trouble, if I hadn't been sick the night of that party. I'd never have let him around all that booze. And whatever other stuff.”

“Led him straight to it, is more like it,” my mother said with a knowing look.

“Mrs. S!” Reece said with a stricken look. I decided it was time to stop this before it got any more absurd.

“Actually, I have a reason for the request,” I said to my parents, who turned to look at me as one – like that wasn't creepy. “You remember Micah – he's new to the school, and has dads. They offered to come along, and I thought it would be really interesting to meet them.”

My parents looked at each other and then back to me before my dad spoke. “Is this boy gay as well?”

“No. He and Jenna are making eyes at each other. It's kind of disgustingly cute, actually,” I said to them. “His dads are fostering him, and it makes me curious. I never thought about having kids or anything when I get older, but they seem interesting.”

There was a pause before my mother spoke. “Why does it have to be tonight? Why not next week, when you're done with being grounded?”

“It doesn't,” I replied truthfully. “But I've followed the rules while grounded, and his dads are going tonight because he's never been to a school game. I guess one of his dads used to play in high school. Jenna is supposed to cheer – half the high school squad got mono, so they got called up basically. Not sure they know about Jenna. I have no idea if they'll go again.”

My parents looked at each other again for a moment, then back to me. I hate the whole parental telepathy thing. My mom asked, “And how will you get there?”

“His dads offered to drive,” I replied.

My dad nodded slowly. They glanced at each other again. Ugh.

“Okay. But you come straight back. No after game parties,” my mother said.

“I'm really hurt,” Reece said to them. “What if you hadn't said yes and I started dating Rosa again? Where does it end?”

“Reece, you're a teenage boy. You're destiny is to do stupid things until you learn from them. If you haven't learned your lesson about Rosa yet, then I foresee child support payments in your future. Have fun,” my dad said, dismissing us.

We went up the stairs to my room and Reece cleared his throat. I turned to look at him. “Did your dad just say I was going to get laid?” He grinned to show he was joking and we both laughed at the stupid things that came out of his mouth. He sat on the edge of my bed while I texted Micah to let him know I could go, then tossed my phone aside while I looked for a sweatshirt and knit cap to wear – it gets cool in the bleachers since we're down by that river.

“Hey so, how long have you had a thing for Henry?” Reece asked.

I paused. “What?”

“I was just thinking,” he said with a shrug. “You've been my wingman a few times. I didn't know you and Henry were a thing.”

“We're not,” I said, pulling my preferred sweatshirt on and looking over at Reece as I ran a hand through my hair. “I always thought Henry looked nice. He was about the nicest person I know.”

“Besides me, but nicer than you.”

“Fuck you.”

“You make my point for me. Go on.”

I flipped him off and hunted for my beanie. “I didn't even know Henry could be interested. We were at the party and...we both had a little. Then he's smiling at me, and we're kind of leaning on each other.”

“How much did you drink?” Reece asked, amused.

I looked at him. “Not much, honestly. You know I'm not big on drinking. I don't know how much Henry had, but I know he was flirting and I started to flirt back. It was so fucking cool. That...little attraction to him just blew up in my face.” Reece started to laugh at me, and considering how this story ended – not that I'd tell him details – that was a poor choice of words.

“Brah, you were hiding things from me,” he said, teasing. “I told you I was into Rosa.”

“Everyone in the fifth grade knew you were into Rosa,” I said with a snort. I grabbed my beanie in triumph – always losing that thing.

“Yeah, maybe,” he conceded. “You still should have told me. What if I had plans on you or Henry?”

I raised and eyebrow and looked at Reece in disbelief. “Excuse me?”

“What? I could be, like, an omni-sexual.”

“First, I don't think that's a thing. Second, you're pretty damn straight. Third, no offense Reece, but I'm not into you like that.”

He frowned. “Sounds like you've been talking to Rosa.”

I laughed. My phone buzzed and I checked the message from Micah. Fifteen minutes, look for the blue brick. Free pizza before the game.

Sweet, I replied.

“Micah will be here in fifteen, says to look for a blue brick – whatever that means. I guess there is free pizza involved somehow.”

“Free food? I like this kid!”

“He's cool,” I said.

“He actually has dads?”

“Yeah. So is Rosa meeting us at the game?”

“Dude. Broke up. Ring any bells? I'm a free man.”

“And?”

He shrugged. “Probably. So did you and Henry suck on each other's tongues?”

I shot him a look of utter disbelief.

He wrinkled his nose in amusement. “Eww, you're gross,” he said and laughed.

“You say it and I'm gross?”

“Yeah, 'cause if you didn't, you're thinking about it now.”

I don't know why I said it, but I don't regret it. “Yeah, well, we did.” I eyed Reece. “And it was good.”

He stared at me for a second. “Bruh, you really have been holding out. How far did this hook-up go? You get some of Henry?”

“You just want to hear about tongues and body parts,” I said, sniffing at him for effect, then followed up with, “Eww, you're a perv.”

“Of course I am! Hello?” He laughed at me and I chuckled back. Kind of thrilling to mention the make out, but not telling him that – or anything else. “But seriously, have you always liked Henry and just said nothing? Like, secret crush?”

I paused, thinking of how that very thing had crossed my mind before, but I had a pretty good way to describe it, now. “Henry is like the fries at the bottom of the bag – the ones that fall out of the container. They're just fries – like all the others, and they might be unnoticed, but then you're so thrilled you found them. I always knew Henry was there, but knowing he could be interested bumped him up.”

“That's, like, the best description for a relationship ever.”

We went down and said goodbye to my parents, and went out front. We weren't waiting long before a literal blue brick of a van pulled up, Micah in the back and rolling open the sliding door.

“Hey, kids. I've got candy in here. Can you help me find my puppy?” Micah asked.

Reece and I looked at each other and back to Micah before telling him, “Eww, you're gross.” Then we climbed in the van.

“Leo, the driver is my Uncle Lu. That's my Uncle Robin next to him. Leo's friend who I don't know, that's my Uncle Lu and Robin.”

“Hey,” Lu said, lifting a hand in greeting. Robin turned in his seat.

“Hey, guys,” he said in a friendly tone. “Nice to put a face to the name, Leo.”

“Hey, you guys, too.” I stage whispered, “Micah, they look normal to me. I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Give it time,” Micah stage whispered back, not missing a beat.

“Hi,” Reece said, kind of having been forgotten.

“Um, this is my bestie, Reece,” I told Micah's uncles.

Niceties were exchanged and once we buckled in, we crossed a bridge into Albany and pulled up next to a pizza shop in a sketchy looking area.

“Are we eating here?” I asked Micah.

“Nah. One dad is meeting us at the game, and the other one works here. He's grabbing a pie for us to eat in the bus.”

“Wait, what? Oh no he's not!” Lu stated. We all climbed out and walked into the little pizza place. There were a few people eating, but the place was only about half full. A young guy broke from behind the counter, and the closer he got the nicer he looked.

“Hey, Little Bit,” the guy said, and looped an arm around Micah's shoulders.

“Alec, we need a table. No way are you bringing pizza into my bus – last time I didn't find that slice until it was growing hair,” Lu said firmly.

“Lu, Lu! Come on, man! We'll take a slice count before we go and when we arrive. You don't want to be late, do you?”

“I don't care about a high school football game,” Lu grumbled.

I was sort-of drooling over Micah's dad, and then snickered to myself – I'd met my first DILF.

“Dad, this is Leo and Reece.”

“Oh, you guys make a nice looking couple,” Alec said.

“Um, no,” I said, slightly surprised.

“He won't date me,” Reece deadpanned.

“Because you're straight and not my type at all,” I retorted. I turned toward Alec, and then noted his name tag: Supreme Sausage. Yeah, somehow it made him hotter. “He's just my best friend.”

“Oh, guess I assumed. Made an ass out of you,” he replied with a grin.

“Alec! Did you punch out?” a guy called from behind the counter.

Alec turned back toward the counter. “Yeah, all set, Dan,” he said as he headed back to the counter. “Just have to grab my pie.”

“Hey! Damn it, Alec! I told you to stop using pizza labels as your name tag!” Dan, apparently the boss, groused at Alec.

“Truth in advertising, Dan,” Alec told him as he peeled it off. I looked at Lu and Robin, who were smiling and shaking their heads. Micah looked unfazed.

We sat down and ate the pizza, fresh from the oven. I had to admit, it was damn good. Then we headed over to the field, and as I feared it would, the wind off the river made everything feel way cooler than was comfortable. We took spots on the bleachers, but before we even started to talk to each other, Reece jumped next to me, and in a shrill voice said, “Holy crap that's cold!”

I then noted the slender Latina hugging him from behind, with her hands up under his shirt and to his ribs.

“Hi, Rosa,” I said.

“Hey, Leo. My fingers are so cold,” she said.

“They sure as hell are!” Reece stated, lowering his arms to pin her hands to his sides as he slowly sat back down, she being folded behind him.

“Who's this?” Rosa asked.

“Rosa, meet Micah. Micah, Rosa,” I said.

“Oh, so you're Micah? Nice,” she said with a little grin.

“Uh. What?” Micah asked.

“Want to go say hi to Jenna?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Oh, yeah!” Micah said, gaining his feet. Rosa tickled Reece to get him to let her hands go, then she walked down toward the cheerleaders with Micah, and got him past the distracted person that was supposed to monitor letting the appropriate people onto the field.

“It is brick titty out here,” Alec said. “I need Sash to bring my coat.” He pulled out his cell and started to text, and Robin and Lu asked if anyone wanted hot chocolate before wandering toward the concession. I glanced at the players on the field, hunting until I spotted 87 – Henry Fitzroy. His face was mostly hidden, but I could see his forearms and calves – and I may have been staring.

I wished for a Hollywood moment where he'd turn and see me. Maybe wave. Or come over and we'd have some romantic, dramatic thing to a soaring musical backdrop. Anything to break this miserable...nothing going on between us. Of course, none of that happened; he didn't so much as glance in my direction.

“So, hey, appreciate you looking out for Micah,” Alec said to me and I turned toward him, pulled from my weirdness.

“Um, no biggie. He's cool, same age as my cousins.”

“He says he's been invited to Sunday dinner?”

“Yeah. My nonna thinks he's too skinny.”

“Italian, huh? Well, she may have met her match. Kid eats like a horse. Just strap a feedbag to him.” He mimed throwing his head back and forth, which didn't seem like a horse eating as much as it was an obscene blow job. Or maybe that was just me.

“So, um, what made you decide to be a dad?” I asked. Reece peeked around at Alec to hear.

“Just kind of happened, man,” Alec replied easily. “People are always giving me a hard time, you know? But now I can play with squirt guns and drop water balloons on people because I've got a kid – free license to mess with people. No joke.”

“You got a kid so you could play jokes?” Reece asked. Glad it was him asking and not me.

“You have a better reason?” Alec asked, grinning.

Reece looked at me and I looked back at Alec. “He said he's in foster care.” I said it more to let him know I knew the score, so it was a serious question.

Alec's face lost it's grin and he let out a breath. “Yeah. He's a great kid, needed someplace safe. Time to heal up and grow. Unfortunately, the world doesn't really care what we need, so people have to step up. So he's ours, now.” Alec seemed to hesitate, then looked directly at me. “Appreciate if you don't talk about his being in the system. Not with other people. They'll judge him.”

I nodded. “He told me.”

“I figured. He's decided he can trust you.” He looked at Reece and narrowed his eyes. “You, I'm not so sure about.”

“Me?” Reece yelped. “I'm good! Leo, tell him!”

I rolled my eyes and looked at Alec. “I'll take care of Reece.” I grinned and Reece, unable to see, spluttered until I told him I was busting his nuts.

Alec's husband showed up, and it felt so weird to see a young gay couple in public. I mean, like in real life. Micah hung by the fence, and Jenna would come talk to him between cheers and stuff. Miguel came to sit with us, and Rosa came back whenever her hands got cold. Micah wandered back during the cheers, and Jenna was doing a lot of jumping around and her skirt was flipping up some. Something seemed off in the back of my head, then I was distracted by Micah hustling down to the fence, pulling his hoodie off. Was he nuts? It was getting downright nipply!

I saw Jenna walk over to him, but something was wrong just from her walk. He handed the hoodie to her, and there was some sort of private conversation between them – then she used the arms to tie it around her waist. She covered her face with her hands, and Micah just shrugged. Jenna went to her coach and then departed the field, headed for the restrooms. It clicked for me – she'd just started her period. Micah had seen, and was actually taking care of her.

Micah wandered back up, holding his arms tightly to his sides with the chill. I had a long-sleeved tee on, so I pulled my hoodie off and tossed it to him. He gave me a quizzical look, but I just nodded. No need to talk about that one.

Sasha asked what happened to Micah's hoodie, and I leaned in to explain Jenna had had a lady problem. Lu had another hoodie in his bus, and I was grateful because I started to get cold. We talked with Sasha and Alec for a while, and watched the game. Sasha was nice, asking me little things about my family – trying to get a read on me and Jenna, I guess. He asked about Mark, who wasn't there because it was too far for an extension cord to reach his gaming rig. Speaking of Jenna, she'd changed so that she had track bottoms on that the cheer squad used for warm-ups. She was assisting, but no longer part of the group actively cheering.

It was all fairly standard stuff until the end of the third quarter. Henry wasn't the biggest guy on the field, despite the way I describe him to others. He plays a linebacker on defense, and he plays a fullback on offense so he blocks most of the time, but sometimes they use him like a running back. The ball was hiked, the quarterback made a shovel pass and Henry caught it. He broke through the line of scrimmage and then his head snapped back as someone grabbed his face mask and jerked him around violently. I was on my feet, yelling like much of the crowd around me – though I was gripped with fear about his health, rather than anger at someone's stupidity. I was down at the fence before I knew it, anxiously watching the circle of people surrounding his prone figure on the ground.

Miguel and Reece were by my side, and my hands were tightly wrapped around the top of the fencing, gripped hard enough to make my knuckles go white. Time passed and I couldn't see him among all the coaches and kneeling players. What if he'd had his neck hurt? What if he was paralyzed? Jesus Christ, why isn't he standing up yet? Are they going to bring a stretcher out? I glanced toward the far end of the field where an ambulance was parked, but so far the EMTs were not approaching. I heard a smattering of applause and I turned, seeing number 87 standing up with help, helmet off.

His hair was messy, and his face was splotchy – and he'd never looked more beautiful to me. He took a few unsteady steps, but then evened out and walked to the sideline under his own power. I cheered and clapped as hard as anyone. He glanced around, and then he saw me – I was sure of it. I pursed my lips, and raised my hand in a small wave – and he gave me the tiniest wave back! My heart swelled. Shit, I think I was crying a little.

“Fuck, that was scary,” Miguel said angrily. “We should find that other guy and meet him after the game.”

“I bet they hide him just because people will want to kick his ass,” Reece said.

I was shaking as I walked back to our seats, sandwiched between my friends. The game was already getting back underway, but I was lost in my own head for a second. Micah plopped down in front of me and looked at me solemnly yet knowingly.

“Jenna is going over to check on him. You okay?” Micah asked.

Shit. Jenna. Did she figure out I had a thing for Henry?

“Yeah. He's...a friend. Kind of scary,” I said, trying to sound like I was shrugging it off. Don't ask me why, I didn't know why I was hiding anything right then.

I saw Jenna trotting back to the break in the fence and she walked to me quickly. I leaned forward, despite my dumb attempts to downplay things to Micah. I also stopped caring that Miguel and Reece might hear something – all I could focus on was that Jenna was carrying some information, maybe a message, from Henry. My first contact in three weeks.

Jenna climbed up and leaned down by my ear. “He says he feels okay. He said he's grounded for another week, but asked if you could try to come out to his house tomorrow.”

I looked up at her, searching her face. She smiled lightly. She knew. Well, I guess Henry must not mind if he said what he did.

“Tell him I'll try. Let him know I'm grounded, too.” I paused. “I could see him after the game.”

“Good idea,” she said tartly. “I was hoping I didn't have to tell you that.” She shook her head. “Boys.”

She walked away, and Micah said, “He doesn't look complicated.”

Kid was smart. Miguel's eyes got bigger. “You and Henry?”

I sighed. “I don't know where it all stands. Don't say shit, okay?”

“About Henry? Hell no. I mean, I hope you guys work it out, bruh,” Miguel said. “I always thought Henry was decent.”

“Miguel, looks like Nina Ramos is here,” Reece said quietly.

“No shit?” Miguel asked, looking around.

“By the concession, looks like she's helping to close up. Probably use a hand,” Reece suggested.

“Bet she could,” Miguel said and headed over to take a shot at his crush.

I glanced at Reece, nodding to him in thanks. He smiled lightly. Rosa returned moments later and sat down beside him.

“That was scary,” she said quietly. “For a minute I thought he wasn't going to get up.”

“It's a dangerous game. I sure wouldn't want to play,” I said.

“Yeah, not for me,” Reece agreed.

The wind picked up and we huddled together a bit to warm up. Micah sat beside me, leaning into Sasha and tucking his hands into his pockets.

“Hey. Micah.”

He turned to look at me.

“Ever date a girl before?” I asked.

“Sort of,” he said. “I hung out with this girl, Beth. I liked her friend, Kara, but my friend Carlo was right – Beth was nicer.”

“Go on dates? Movies?”

“Nah. Hung out at the pool. Texted sometimes. Why?”

“Well, the whole family will be there on Sunday when you come for dinner. You want to come as my friend, Mark's or Jenna's?” I asked, smiling a little at him.

“Um. Why do I feel like this is a trap?” he asked, eyes narrowing.

Sasha laughed and rubbed his shoulder. “Probably because the family rubbed off on you. I think you can be friends with Leo and still sit with Jenna.”

“Facts,” I said with a grin.

The game ended and I let out a breath. “I, uh, have to go meet Henry. I can walk home,” I said to Lu.

He frowned. “Micah made it sound like you could get in trouble. You sure?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Some things are worth getting in trouble over.”

Lu grinned. “Don't I know it. Still, we'll wait for you. Text Micah if you'll be more than fifteen or so, okay?”

I nodded, actually grateful because the walk home would be pretty damn long. Rosa and Reece were cuddled up and I didn't see Miguel. Micah was down at the fence talking to Jenna. She seemed relaxed with him, rather than defensive or salty. The team was just leaving the field, and I'd been so distracted I hadn't seen if they'd won or lost. Instead I stood up and looked for Henry. The first of the team streamed through the gate and I took a few steps down the bleachers, still looking for him. I spotted him, then, moving on his own, but scanning ahead. He'd taken the shoulder pads and jersey off, leaving a sleeveless shirt to cover his chest. I tried to take a steadying breath and walked down to meet him.

I stood off to one side, away from the direction most of the team was headed, which was toward the school and the locker room. Henry spotted me, and turned my way. In a few long strides he stood before me, his face full of unasked questions.

“Hi,” I said to him, more or less just to say something.

“Hey,” he said quietly. He licked his lips and frowned slightly. “How come you've been avoiding me? I thought...I thought we....”

I returned his frown. “I haven't been avoiding you. I tried texting you, asking if we were good. If we should, you know, maybe...talk. But after saying 'hey' you never said anything else.”

He shook his head. “I wrote you, like, a book. Are you telling me it didn't go through? I can't tell because my folks took my phone.”

“I didn't get anything,” I said with a shake of my head. “I didn't know what was in your head, so I didn't want to push you. But, Henry...I'd really, really like to know what you wrote.”

I stared at him as his expression softened and he looked at me with an unmistakable affection. My chest swelled and my heart beat faster.

“First, I wanted to know if you were okay. I thought maybe, you know, I hurt you.”

Heat rushed into my face and I let out a nervous laugh. “I lived. No harm done, except to my ego.”

He smiled. “Good. Good. Um. Second was...I've liked you for a long, long time. I thought maybe you were gay, but I didn't think you'd be into me so I...when we hung out at the party...I kind of took my shot.”

“Didn't we already talk about that,” I asked, trying to cope with the flood of excited nerves I felt. I tittered with nervous laughter and he blushed, yet still managed a little smile.

“Before...that. I was having a really good time. I mean, I had a good time until I got worried,” he said and chuckled nervously, and I looked away. I was blushing hard, but smiling too. He ducked a little to get into my field of vision and I turned to look at his face.

“Leo...are you...could you be into me? I mean, I'm really...I like you. A lot.”

I smiled, still nervous but feeling some confidence leak in. “I like you a lot, too.”

He smiled widely. “Would you go out with me?”

I raised my eyebrows and my head wobbled a little on my neck as I smiled. “Hell yes.”

He placed his fingertips along the side of my jaw and leaned forward, kissing me in front of anyone that was looking, and just like that we were both out and together.

~D~

Saturday morning brought a sit-down with my folks.

“So...I know you guys don't want me drinking. I got the message. I mean, I've never done that before, you know?” I said to them, trying to get them to see the weight of evidence against keeping me on restriction.

“So why did you, then?” my mother asked.

I smiled a little sheepishly. “So, there's this guy....”

“It's always about a boy,” my father said and rolled his eyes. “I told you – boyfriends after you get your degree. Eh?”

My mother stifled a laugh as I looked sourly at my father. “So, this boy,” she said leadingly.

“Yeah. So, we were both there. We both kind of got brave, and we started to connect. But then Mia's parents came down, found the bottle Gerry had snuck from the liquor cabinet...With all the restrictions flying around for the both of us, we haven't been able to talk or figure out...anything.”

“You left out the part where you were out in their shed,” my father said, a little sourly. “That's why the Delfinos came down to check on things. You were in there with this...boy?”

I looked him in the eye. “Yes.”

He stared at me for a moment and grunted. He could have been disappointed I was distracted from my future or pleased I'd looked him in the eye and answered – or maybe he just had gas. Sometimes he was hard to read.

My mother was looking at me and I had no idea what was running through her head. I wondered how my father knew what was going on in her head when they did that silent communication thing. Maybe he just went with whatever she said because he didn't know either.

“Okay,” my mother said.

My eyes went wide. “Really?”

She gave me a half shrug. “We all do dumb things when we are young and in love. So yes, I can let you out of your grounding. If.”

I think I forgot to breathe.

She held a finger in the air. “If he comes to Sunday dinner.”

I let out a slow breath. “I can ask, but he's been grounded, too. It...” Oh I hated to say this. “It might help if you spoke to his parents, for that.”

The corner of her mouth twitched upward in triumph. “I can call. I think I have the Fitzroy's number in my phone.”

My jaw dropped. Her eyes flashed and her mouth spread into a grin. “Go. Help him with his chores.”

I needed no additional instruction, and was frankly afraid what else my parents knew. Creepy isn't the word. I drove my beater over to the Fitzroy property. The home was plain with white wooden sides and a large porch on the front. There was a large area wrapped in chicken wire – I mean eight feet tall and probably the same wide – that ran from the side of the coop so the chickens could safely roam. They kept goats that gave milk that they made cheese from, though they had fewer goats now than used to. At one time they were a certified producer of goat cheese and milk which was sold far and wide. With most of their children grown and having left the farm, they only produce for themselves, now.

Of course, phones connect faster than cars can drive, so the elder Fitzroys weren't surprised to see me. They invited me in and asked me to sit in their living room. Mr. Fitzroy had jeans and no boots – those likely had been discarded at the door. The missus wore house slippers. I, of course, had removed my shoes at the door and my socks were by far the most colorful foot apparel in the room – and how weird was this that I was examining everyone's footwear?

“We understand that you attended the same gathering Hendrick attended a few weeks ago?” his father asked.

“I did.”

“We were disappointed to hear about alcohol being present. The Delfinos never struck us as the type,” his mother stated.

“They had it locked up. Gerry was showing off how he could break into their liquor cabinet, and it just was stupid from there,” I told them. I didn't like having to explain it to them. I didn't like explaining it to my parents, but I could understand that.

“How much did the two of you have?” he asked.

“Very little, actually,” I said. “I'm not a fan of alcohol, and Henry is an athlete so he's kind of particular about what he puts in his body.” It was true. He ate lean meats, lots of veggies – brought his lunch from home. I'd seen it often enough. He was probably the healthiest eater I knew.

They looked at each other, and that was beyond irritating. My parents do that, and I know this also means they are silently discussing me for some reason.

“So, is Henry outside?” I asked.

They looked back toward me. “We understand he's been invited to your home for Sunday dinner. You'll make sure he's home by eight.” His father looked at me until I nodded in confirmation and he stood. “I expect we'll be seeing more of you.”

I stood. “Yes, sir.”

He walked to a side door leading to a mudroom and pulled on rubber boots caked with dirt before letting himself out. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to follow him or not, but since Henry’s mother was still in the room, I decided I was probably supposed to stay.

“Henry is down cleaning out the coop,” his mother said. I thanked her and slipped my sneakers back on before picking my way over to the small outbuilding. I could hear a scraping noise as I got closer, and saw a shovelful of chickenshit go flying from the open door of the coop and into a wheelbarrow.

“Henry?” I called.

I heard two hollow thumping footsteps and there he was, sweaty and leaning out of the doorway of the coop.

“Man, am I glad to see you!” he said and hopped down from the doorway. He walked over to me, feet sliding in his boots on the uneven ground, grinning. I smiled back at him, pleased at his pleasure.

Then I smelled him. “Um, maybe keep downwind, Captain Chickenshit?” I teased.

“Come on, now,” he said with a grin. “Just one big hug!”

“No!” I fairly shrieked, laughed, and backed away from him all in one.

“Okay, fine!” he said, sounding put out, but smiling at me anyway. “I'm almost done. Keep me company, then I'll go shower.”

“Okay,” I said agreeably.

Without moving he asked, “So who's the new guy hanging with you?”

“Micah. He's new to the district. I was asked to give him the tour. He's kind of stuck by me, since.”

“Nice guy?” He walked back to the coop and climbed in to resume his work.

“Stand up,” I said, thinking of Dale. “He's also got a thing for Jenna. Seems as if she has a thing for him, too.”

He poked his head out of the coop. “Jenna? Man. Brave or stupid?”

“Lack of knowledge,” I said with a smile. “He's doing the right things, though.” I paused, wanting to ask him about what he'd written on his phone – the message I'd never gotten. Instead he ducked inside and I heard something get rolled aside somewhere in the coop, then he was opening the door and hopping out, securing the door behind him.

“Let me run this last barrowful over to the manure pile.” I walked with him, the ground uneven and damp. He dumped the wheelbarrow and sat it up on the front edge. We walked back toward the house, and I was on the verge of asking him again about what he'd written when his mother opened the door.

“Oh, good,” she said. “Henry, why don't you get washed up for supper? I'm just going to call your father. Leo? Henry will show you where to wash your hands.”

Man, his parents just expected that people were going to do things their way, didn't they?

“You're staying for supper?” Henry asked, sounding pleased – and just like that my irritation with his parents assumptions melted away.

“I guess I am,” I agreed.

I followed Henry around to the side of the house where there was a small mudroom – the one I'd seen his father use earlier, I presumed. He kicked off his boots, and I left my sneakers there with them before following him inside. We climbed a set of stairs at the back of the house and exited on a landing. He turned into a room and I started checking out his personal space.

“You like horror novels?” I asked, heading toward a wall-mounted shelf.

“Yeah, love them. Why? You like them? Hate them?” he asked, his voice edgy with excitement.

“I love them,” I told him, glancing back at him and then back to the spines of the various paperbacks. “This one, I couldn't finish.” I pointed to a copy of The Amityville Horror.

“Why?” he asked, his breath tickling the back of my neck.

I turned and he was right behind me, studying me. Then he leaned forward...and I put a hand on the middle of his chest. “Shower first, Captain.”

He growled, smiling at me and whined slightly.

“What was on your phone? The message I didn't get?” I asked, trying to defuse this. I mean, I wanted to kiss him. I wanted him to kiss me. I just didn't want to smell like chicken shit afterward.

His cheeks flushed a little. He backed up a step, then went to his desk and picked up his phone. “They suspended my service, but I charged it after we talked last night.” He unlocked the phone, flipped to the text app and handed me his phone. “It never sent – stuck in my drafts folder. I'm going to shower. Be right back.”

I watched him leave the room. The back of his shirt was untucked, and just as he left the room he pulled off the sleeveless tee. For one glorious second his bare skin was on display, then he was gone. Fuck. I adjusted myself, then glanced down at the phone which had dimmed as it got ready to go dark and lock. I touched the screen quickly, then started to read the message.

I hope U R all right. I don't know how that all happened last night, but I'm not sorry. It wasn't a mistake. I've wanted to kiss you for a long, long time. I hope U feel the same. Can we meet? I want to see U.

I let out a shuddering breath. This was real. I mean of course it was real! What did I mean? What had I expected him to say? Nice blowjob, can we meet again? The corners of my mouth curled and I felt the heat of a blush in my cheeks. Maybe I just wanted to see it. I was happy that he was interested. Happy he was into me. I read the message again and felt twisted by the warring emotions of nervous excitement and peace over the whole situation. I was definitely asking him to send that to me later when his phone was back on.

I looked around his room, trying to take in the stuff that wasn't horror novels. It was a tastefully classy room done in neutral colors. White wainscoting ran around the room, hidden only by his desk, bed and a dresser. His hamper was overflowing, and his football gear – minus cleats – was piled in a corner. I noted the absence of a tablet or computer, much less a TV or game system.

I heard a door open in the hallway and the thump of his footfalls. A second later he entered the room in sweatpants and a tee shirt, damp towel around his neck. He ran the towel back through his hair and hung it from the back of his door before turning to look at me fully.

“Um, want to make sure I don't smell like shit anymore?”

Heat flooded my body and I crossed the room, and paused a foot or so away. I put my nose in the air and sniffed overtly. He grumbled and reached for me, and I didn't really try to get away. That wasn't the point, after all.

He wrapped me in his arms, pulling me snugly against him, and then it was time to renew acquaintance with his lips. Man, I thought this felt good when I was a little tipsy – but this is so much better. He ran his fingers into my hair and then moved his face to the side, pulling me close so that our cheeks were pressed together and he hugged me.

“Damn, Leo,” he said with a sigh. “I am so wrecked right now.”

I held him, inhaling the scent of his soap and soaking in the feel of his body pressed to mine. It was a long minute, perhaps, before he let out a tiny sigh.

“So do I smell acceptable?”

“You do,” I confirmed.

“I didn't want to stop kissing you,” he said softly.

I nuzzled his cheek. “Then why did you?”

“Because I didn't want your lips all swollen when we go downstairs to eat.”

“Bad reason,” I said with a giggle. He leaned back and smiled at me. It was a shy smile, but a happy one. I imagined I looked much the same.

“So, um, why couldn't you finish that book?” he asked.

“Hmm? Oh, the book!” I said, trying to shift gears mentally. “It was because of the spirit – Jody, I think? They talked about these red glowing eyes that they could see in the garage or something from the bedroom window. Well, my bedroom looks out over other houses because we're on a hill, and through the trees I could see some lights for businesses – red lights from their signs. Made it extra creepy, played with my mind.”

He smiled. I kissed him, just because. He kissed me back. Kind of got caught in a loop until his mother called up the stairs. Blushing he directed me to the bathroom so I could wash my hands and calm down, and I did. I met him back in his room and we headed down to meet his parents for supper.

“We eat heavy in the afternoon,” his mother said in response to my jaw dropping at the food before us. A sliced roast, mashed potatoes, a medley of peas, carrots and lima beans. A green salad sat in a large bowl.

“I guess so,” I said, impressed. “I mean, my family is Italian so I'm used to food – but usually at dinner.”

Henry passed me the salad and I put some in my bowl before handing it to his mother. The room was filled for a few minutes with the sounds of serving spoons, requests to pass things and his mother jumping up and exclaiming about forgetting the rolls in the oven.

“This is really good, Mrs. Fitzroy. Thank you for having me,” I said partway through the meal.

“You're welcome at our table,” she said with a nice smile. “Tell me, Leo, do you play sports? Henry has always been into team games.”

“Not really,” I said. “I appreciate athletes when they make good plays. I like to watch, but my exercise is mostly with the weight bench in my basement.”

“You can work with me. Pump you up,” Henry said with a grin.

“Not nearly as much work as there used to be,” his father said before I could retort. “Years ago we had a few people on staff. Five kids to help. Making cheese and milk is a twenty-four-seven kind of job. These days...a few chickens for eggs, a few goats for our own milk and cheese. Outside of that?” He glanced at his wife and back to us. “Probably sell the place when you head to college. Let younger people run it.”

“There was a time this table was full every night,” his mother said, not quite wistfully. “They were good days, but I'm glad I don't have to cook for an army anymore.”

“Well fed army,” I said and earned another smile from her. I jumped slightly as something crossed my foot, then settled on it. Henry. I blushed and looked at him quickly, but he was blushing a little himself and not looking at me, so I looked away. Christ.

“How long have you boys known each other?” his dad asked.

“Um.” Henry looked at me. “Three years? Four? Middle school sometime, I think.”

“Yeah, sounds right,” I agreed. “We had some classes together, and we were also both friends with Reece and Miguel.”

His dad looked at us with interest. “Miguel Rios? He's a good kid.”

“Yep, that's him,” I agreed. “So we hang out sometimes. Henry and I did the geology project together in – what grade was that?”

“I don't even remember,” he said, rubbing his foot over mine.

His father was sopping up stuff from his plate with a piece of bread, but he paused and let out a sigh. Without looking at us he said, “Henry, I'm pretty sure I mean this...I hope you two can be happy.” Then he put the bread in his mouth, picked up his plate and headed to the kitchen.

I looked at Henry and he back at me.

“Oh, please,” his mother said, looking at us. “I've raised four children before you, Henry. You're all different, but you all turn into imbeciles when you fall in love.”

“Mom!” he whined, and it was kind of cute except that I was getting embarrassed, too.

“Did you think your dad and I didn't know? Did you think we wanted anything other than for you to be happy?”

He squirmed, his foot pressing down on mine a bit. “I didn't really think about it. I mean, you and dad have never said anything bad about it. You just sort of accept people on an individual basis.”

“But you're our son,” she said with a little smile. “We've known you were different since you were little, and we've loved you since we first set eyes on you.” She shifted her glance to me. “So you'd better be careful with my baby, Leo.”

I cleared my throat. “Yes, Mrs. Fitzroy.”

“Going into town and get some chicken feed. Probably stop and look at a mower,” his dad said, re-entering the room. He paused and placed a hand on each of our shoulders. “You know that feeling you get when you look at each other? Butterflies in your stomach, helium in your chest, heat in your face?”

I looked at Henry and he looked back at his father with interest – and a little blush, thankfully. I knew I must have been. Christ – hell with all this blushing shit.

“That feeling you get? What it is, is all your good sense leaving your body, boys,” he said, looking back and forth between us. “Alcohol doesn't make you wittier or better looking. Next time, grow a set and just talk to each other, eh?” He clapped Henry on the back. “You can have your things. Your mother will take the restriction off your phone.”

“Wait, what?” Henry asked, turning in his chair. His father just waved as he closed the door to the mudroom to get his boots. Henry spun back to look at his mother. “I'm confused.”

“Your friend – can I just say boyfriend at this point?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and looking back and forth between us.

I looked at Henry, then back to her. “Works for me.”

She smiled, a pleased expression. “Henry, your boyfriend knows you aren't the drinking type. That you watch your diet. When you got caught drinking...we didn't know what to think. What if something were wrong? You certainly didn't want to tell us. We hoped some grounding would give you time to speak with us, after the dust had settled.” She paused. “Now we know you lost all common sense because you had a crush. Don't do it again. Now your consequence is over.”

Henry's jaw dropped, and mine did to for a moment. Then I started to chuckle.

“What's so funny?” Henry asked, a bit dazed.

“I had a conversation with my parents just to get my car and come over today. I told them the whole thing that happened at the party was about a boy – and then they let me off restriction. I'd almost think your parents and mine are talking, sort of.”

“Or you could say we're both intelligent couples who know our children,” his mother said as she stood. She smiled and winked. “Of course, phones make so many things so much easier these days.”

We helped to clear the table, then grabbed his box of electronics from the hall closet and I helped him get things set up in his room. We cuddled up on his bed and largely ignored a movie in favor of kissing. I could spend a great deal of time kissing Henry, being held by Henry – just being with Henry. I'm not above having some fun with him, either.

“So I made you something,” I said, pulling a folded piece of paper from my back pocket.

“What is it?” he asked, pulling me closer as I leaned back to unfold it. He kissed my jaw, then my neck. That tickled so I giggled a little and hunched away from him, pushing him back. “This better be important.”

“It is. You're coming to Sunday dinner, so I made you a cheat sheet of who will be there.”

“Um.” He took the sheet and his eyes got wide. “What the heck, Leo?”

“They all know you, so you'll have to know them. Come on, I'll help you study. See here? This is where my oldest brother Armando will sit. His wife, Amelia, is next to him. Then his kids, Remy and Grenadine, and yes, I think he's an alcoholic. Then my sister Connie – Constanza to my grandparents – and her boyfriend, Neral. I don't know where he's from. Then my other sister....”

I spent a good hour going over everyone, drilling their names into his head and generally freaking him out about forgetting someone's name and having them be ticked about it. I'm evil, sometimes. He did a great job, though, so we made out some more. I'll be honest, I'm not completely sure who was being rewarded, there.

Just before five we headed downstairs. He had to go out and do something with the goats – I wasn't paying attention. I said goodbye to his mother and father, who were both in the kitchen, and thanked them again for supper. I put my sneakers on and he put his boots on, and we headed out across the expanse of his yard to the long barn that housed the goats that remained.

I hadn't planned to go inside, but Henry tightened his grip and grinned at me, so I smiled and went. Then he pushed me against the wall and kissed the hell out of me, and while I was hyperventilating from him having stolen my breath, he dropped to his knees.

“I owe you one,” he said. God, he made it a good one, too.

~D~

I was a little restless at home that night. I tried to read, tried some games, tried the TV – but nothing held my attention. I texted Henry, but he told me he was helping his father with something to do with a sick goat so he couldn't talk right then. Finally, I changed and headed to the basement to work off some of my excess energy, even though it wasn't my favorite thing to do.

As I changed, I sneered at the lack of hair on my body. Christ, will I ever grow up? I should wear pants all the time so no one can see my bald legs, much less the rest of me. With a sigh, I set up my kettle bells and started my routine. I wasn't all that into it, but between the motion and some music, it was acceptable. I began to sweat in earnest and tossed my gross tee shirt aside. That was usually a bad thing since I'd get cold right after, but whatever.

The music from my phone was interrupted by Henry calling.

“Hey,” I said, out of breath. “The goat okay?”

“Better,” he said. “How come you're out of breath?”

“Working out in the basement,” I said. “I have a boyfriend to keep fit for, now.”

He laughed lightly. “I feel like such a dork, but I love hearing that. Take a selfie, let me see your setup.”

I sat down on the bench and took a picture for him.

“Damn, Leo.”

“What?”

“That's fucking hot. I'm just going to keep that,” he said, his voice trailing off.

I smiled and blushed all at once. “Okay, sure. Whatever.”

“So what time are you picking me up tomorrow? How should I dress?”

“Um. I'll pick you up about two, even though dinner isn't until five. Uh, do you still have that grey sweater? The one with the v-neck?” I pulled at the hem of my shorts. It was sort of embarrassing to tell him about clothes I liked on him.

“Yeah. I think it still fits. You...like that?”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling foolish. “Um, khakis if you have them and your good shoes.”

“Dang. Feels like an interview!”

I let out a small sigh. “Henry...I've never had a boyfriend to dinner with my family.”

He let out a small cough. “I'll make sure I clean up good.”

I chuckled. “You already clean up good!”

“So what are you going to do tonight?”

I picked up my sweaty shirt and headed toward the stairs. “Probably just read.”

“What are you reading?”

“It.”

“Because of the movies?”

“Some. I like to read the books before seeing a movie, sometimes. There's always more in the books. Like the Harry Potter movies were great, but the books were better.” I crested the stairs and tossed my shirt in my hamper.

“Yeah. My biggest complaint was when they cut Peeves. He would have been a really nice addition,” Henry said. I heard his bed squeak, much as it had earlier when we lay on it together – he must have lain down to talk to me.

“Me, too. He was funny.” I sat on the edge of my bed and peeled my socks off, flinging them toward my hamper. “What are you going to do tonight?”

“I'm whipped, man,” he said and let out a yawn. “I might watch an episode or something. I'll probably be asleep before I get to a second one.”

I pushed my shorts and underwear down. “How about if I watch with you?”

“Yeah! That'd be cool.”

“Okay. Let me get a shower, and I'll call you when I'm done.”

Fifteen minutes later we were watching some stupid natural disaster movie. I made fun of it, he defended it, but we both ended up in stitches laughing.

~D~

Mark and Jenna showed up around one. Their parents had gone next door to my grandparents' home already, but they usually hung out with me beforehand. Of course, I wasn't going to be staying.

“So, enjoying stealing my 'boyfriend'?” I asked Jenna.

“Yeah. Completely misjudged the situation. He's too good for you,” she said, grinning at me.

“Oh, nice, Jenna. Nice. Don't forget who introduced you,” I said, affecting being hurt.

“Is he going to be here soon? I brought the game we were talking about,” Mark said.

“Okay, look, both of you,” Jenna said firmly. “Micah is my boyfriend. He spends time with me first.”

I chuckled a little, but adopted a serious tone. “Jenna. A bit of free advice?”

She scowled slightly, but didn't say no.

“Micah likes you, and I'm sure he wants to spend time with you. But it's also important for you guys to spend time with other people.”

“Because you've dated so much?” she snapped.

“From all the failed relationships I've seen,” I said, irritated. “Look, do as you want – just remember if you try to keep him all to yourself, you're both going to find out that won't work long term. I'm done.”

She crossed her arms. “Okay. I hear you. I just don't want you two trying to get him interested in video games and working out.” She hesitated. “We cooked at his house last night. His dads were really cool.”

Despite her snippiness, my interest was piqued. “Oh? Tell me.”

She uncrossed her arms. “His dads said you don't show up to a dinner like this empty handed. So Sasha showed us how to make this jello salad and we made it together. It was so much fun mixing things, chopping nuts-”

“Whoa! Easy, now,” I said with a grin.

“Breaking off the cream cheese and mixing it. I can't wait to taste it today!”

“I'm looking forward to it myself,” I said, smiling a little.

About a quarter to two I headed over to pick up Henry. His mom greeted me at the door and complimented me on my clothes. My shirt was was a button-up that complimented my eyes, my hair was actually combed unlike yesterday, and I had on clean khakis and dress shoes. The grandparents take Sunday dinner seriously.

He came bouncing down the stairs, grey sweater on, damn well-fitting khakis and a smile that made my heart beat a little faster.

“Hey,” he said. “Just let me grab the pie, and I'll be ready.”

“Pie?” I asked, trailing him to the kitchen.

“Yeah. Mom and I made it early in the evening, before you and I talked. She said you don't go to a dinner like this empty handed.”

“That seems to be a common thought,” I said. Minutes later he'd slipped on his nice shoes and we were in my car on the way back.

“You look pretty nice there, Mr. Fitzroy,” I said.

He brushed the front of the sweater. “I'm glad you approve of the wardrobe you picked out for me,” he said with a smile.

We listened to music on the way over, but before we could get out of the car I was a little overwhelmed and kind of kissed him for a few minutes straight. I mean, I'd been good that whole time – and he looked so nice dressed up. He had it coming, really.

We went into my house where Mark and Jenna said hello.

“How come you're coming to dinner?” Mark asked Henry, head jerking back in an oddly dramatic way.

“Because he's my boyfriend,” I said to him, smiling despite thinking he was being weird.

“Oh. Do you like video games?”

“I do!” Henry replied. “But I have to go over this list again.”

“What list?” Jenna asked. He pulled out the diagram I'd drawn for him and showed Jenna.

She looked at me and grinned. “Armando lives in Arizona, so we won't see him. Connie goes to college down in New York City. There's just my parents, us and Leo's parents.”

Henry looked at me, raised an eyebrow and gave me an expectant look.

“Well, I figured you'd need to know them. Someday.”

“Brat!” he said and charged. I turned and ran up the stairs laughing with him threatening me all the way. I ran into my room and he tackled me onto my bed, turning so that he didn't land on top of me. He crawled right on me after that, though, and tickled me for having played the prank on him.

“I suppose you think you're so smart?” he asked.

“Outsmarted you,” I said, and he tickled me.

“I'll show you smart,” he said, though he never did. Instead he slowed his hands, and then touched the side of my jaw like he did at the football field and then he was kissing me. Fuck. Kissing is a lot of fun. Eventually we just lay tangled together, talking about our books, his football and my whatever. We talked about the goats – the sick one was a little bit better today. We talked about our parents. He poked me when I mentioned families.

“Ugh. I can't believe you like me back,” he said suddenly.

“Why? You're good looking,” I said defensively. I hoped he wasn't going to start putting himself down.

He pursed his lips a little and wiggled them around on his face, which was cute. His cheeks got a little splotchy and he pulled his phone out. “I told you I've liked you for a while, right?”

“Your message, the one in your drafts folder, said so,” I replied. I felt weird. Nervous. What was going on?

He turned his phone to me and I took it from him with curiosity. He had his photos open and there I was. I recognized the park – it was from a school picnic at the end of the previous school year. We'd been playing, and it had been hot out so my hair was kind of sweaty – not my best look. But he had captioned the image of me looking at my phone with 'he's cute'.

I looked up at him. “Am I going to find a bunch of pics of me on here?” I asked. I wasn't sure if that was hot or creepy.

“A few,” he allowed. He didn't reach for the phone. “I sent that one to my sister. She was always on me about when I was going to date – she claims she feels like half a person unless she's dating someone. So she wanted to know who I was interested in, and you were conveniently right there.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You sent her a picture of me with sweaty hair at a picnic table? Did you want her to tell you to keep looking?” I asked, laughing uncomfortably.

He pushed his fingertips through the hair on the side of my head. “Nah. She agreed with me. I guess I have to take a selfie with you. Just so she knows how it turned out.”

Why is my face so hot right now?

Eventually we straightened our clothes and went down to join everyone as we migrated next door to my grandparents' home.

There was a lot of bustling around. My grandmother threw her arms around Henry, and cooed about his pie. Then she did the same to Micah and his jello salad. Even though we all had our nice shoes on, they came off at the door just like at our home. We kids sat at one end of the table, and Henry had his leg pressed up against mine, his foot covering part of my own. It was silly, possessive, and sweet all in one. After the grace that was required to be said at this table was over, we ate like kings. Pot roast, string beans with garlic and oil, sweet potatoes, Micah's salad, a Caprese salad – slices of mozzarella and tomatoes with balsamic drizzled on top – and it all tasted so good. I even had to compliment Micah and Jenna.

Micah told us that after he and Jenna had made the salad and put it into the fridge to chill, his dads made a fort in the living room out of couch cushions, blankets and pillows and they watched a movie Jenna had picked.

“We should totally do that,” Henry said.

“I was told to have you home by eight,” I reminded him.

“Sure, but what time do you have to be home?” he countered.

“He has to be in bed by ten,” my mother said, somehow listening to her conversation and ours.

“Henry, you should come to my birthday. First weekend in October,” Micah said.

“Jenna, what are you going to get Micah for his birthday?” Henry asked, after accepting Micah's invite.

She looked at him and blushed. “I owe him a hoodie,” she said.

“We traded,” he said, holding up his hand to show one of her hair scrunchies around his wrist. The middle school version of rings, I guess.

“So you guys know each other from a new student tour, huh?” Henry asked Micah.

“Well, that, and I defended his honor – which was only worth a cookie, I guess,” Micah said teasingly.

“What's this?” Henry asked in amusement.

“Some guy called him the 'f ' word. I have a lot of friends and family in that category. I don't like it,” Micah said seriously. “So I yelled at the jerk.”

“He did,” I said with a nod. “I was impressed, so I gave him a cookie.”

“Who said this?” Henry asked, his brows drawing down.

“Dale,” I said with a snort and a dismissive wave. “I'll have to kick his ass before Thanksgiving, I'm sure.”

Henry snorted and shook his head.

“What?” I asked.

“Eh. I just...I notice that he watches you. Like, a lot.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, thinking this sounded weird.

“I kind of thought Dale had a thing for you,” Henry said, smirking a little. “I was actually afraid he was going to make a move, soon.”

“That's stupid,” I stated flatly. “You're making that up. All he ever does is insult me and shove me. I've gotten into a fight with him almost every year since about sixth grade.”

“Yeah. If you had a bike, he'd push you off it.” He paused. “I'm not saying it's right. It's, like, the caveman way of trying to find a mate. I figured you'd turn him down, even if he did ask you out before I did.”

“Oh, uh huh. Dale is a self-hating gay who can't admit he likes me. Sure. Why didn't I think of that?” I said with a snort.

“'Cause you're hot and don't know it.”

“Eww! Please!” Jenna said.

“Come on, man! I'm trying to eat!” Micah said with a laugh, turning toward Jenna who joined him.

“Anyone want play Minecraft?” Mark asked hopefully.

I stared at Henry and he stared back at me. “You're serious.”

“Yeah. You're hot.”

“Not that, and no I'm not,” I said, flushing.

“About Dale? I think so,” he said, teasing.

“Jerk,” I said, resuming my meal. “Dale is just an asshole.”

“One who wants you,” Henry stated.

“Are you trying to aggravate me?” I demanded.

“At least I didn't make you memorize my whole family and pretend they'd be at dinner,” he said with a grin.

My lips twitched. “Point.”

He leaned in close to my ear. “But you are really, really hot.”

I shivered.

~End~

Micah's jello salad is an old family recipe for my family that we have either Thanksgiving or Christmas day with our meal. If you'd like to try it out, it's very easy:

LIME JELLO SALAD

To 2 pkgs lime Jello, add 2 cups boiling water and juice of one lime or lemon (about 2 tbs.)

When nearly set (Jello syrupy), add:

2 cups crushed pineapple and juice

1 8 oz. Pkg. Cream cheese

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 pint Cool Whip.

Fold in and put salad mold. Chill until firm.