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“James, please pick your jacket up off the floor and put it in your bedroom, that’s a good boy.”



The quiet words, spoken as much to not provoke an argument as to convey a request, came from my foster father, Randy Simmons, as he took a few careful steps over my prone body lying in front of the television watching cartoons. I had arrived home from school two hours before with a half-completed term paper on John Keats, the English poet, due the following day for my senior literature class. My assignments also included all the odd-numbered algebra equations from page 250 in my textbook and an art project on the use of shading. But I needed to take the edge off my increasingly stressed out life and had neglected both homework and chores in favor of a few mindless hours of Scooby Doo and Spongebob Squarepants. I don’t even like Spongebob.



My name isn’t James. It’s Devlin. Devlin James Royce. But the foster home I lived in, probably my last since I was close to turning eighteen and would be exiting the system once I graduated from high school, was headed up by a Christian, God-fearing couple with four kids of their own. They saw the devil in me, or rather my given name, and decided they just couldn’t in good conscience call me by it. However, one of Jesus’ brothers, an author of a New Testament book in the Bible, was named James, as well as two of his disciples, so they figured they were good with my middle name.



Ugh, Devlin… James… whatever! Hell, most days I didn’t care as long as I had a roof over my head and a warm bed, three square meals a day and clothing that fit and didn’t look as if it had been passed through four other boys before I got to wear it. If no one was beating on me, I was in great shape. Oh, and don’t foist your religious beliefs on me either. It definitely made for some interesting conversations when my fosters discussed me with my teachers at school or my social worker, Ms Hopkins.



“Mrs. Simmons, his name is Devlin, not James. It’s important that you don’t erode his already fragile sense of self-worth by refusing to acknowledge him correctly. You know the rules.”



They most certainly did, although as far as I was concerned, my self-worth was anything but fragile. There was definitely some gray mixed in with the black and white of Department of Children’s Services regulations that should have been straightened out beforehand in regards to my personal freedoms but I was doing okay. If you were going to force comparisons of religion in my life…



Hmm, this is going to be too confusing if you don’t understand where I’m coming from. Literally, I mean, so maybe I should attempt to explain it from the start. I know how it looks but, despite everything, my life up until the time I was thirteen wasn’t too bad. Honest!



My parents met when they were twelve and fell in love. Mom was Jenny, and Dad’s name was Charles. They were in their mid-teens when they had me, but life quickly turned sour. The realities of two high school drop-outs trying to raise a baby on minimum-wage killed their love for each other, and they split up before I turned one. I guess Mom didn’t learn from having me either because she went on to birth two more kids by the time she was twenty. Two half-sisters I haven’t seen for half my lifetime are out there somewhere. I don’t even remember what they look like. For all I know, I’ve run across them in my travels and wasn’t even aware of it.



Okay, so after Jenny ditched Dad she went from bad to worse and turned into a prostitute who spent her days whoring herself out in exchange for crack and heroin. She’d disappear and leave us kids with a long parade of neighbor ladies who lived next door to our ratty tenement apartment. So many different ones, I’ve forgotten most of their names, but the majority of them felt sorry for us and treated me well.



Dad was a good man who caught a break in his late teens and learned how to build high-rise business structures. He worked hard at a construction job during the day and tended bar in the evenings. I learned all this from him later, not her. Jenny didn’t have anything nice to say about Dad, so it was a conversation I avoided with her because once his name came up she tended to start throwing things. Mostly I recall him being a presence more and more in my life the older I got, but it wasn’t much by anything she did, unless you want to call neglect her contribution. So I suppose I was just lucky.



Whenever four days had gone by without Jenny returning from her dens of iniquity, I would get to spend time with Dad. The neighbors would telephone him and demand that he come get me. Who took in my half-sisters would forever be a mystery because they weren’t Dad’s responsibility, but there was talk of a paternal grandmother out there. But Charles would collect me until she turned up, and he was a decent father and tried to do the right thing by me. As a youngster I felt relief when he was around because it meant food in my belly and working heat and electricity and a warm coat to wear in the winter.



Shit, I don’t know why he never sought permanent custody. No, that’s a lie. I know why because I heard Dad talking about it with his sister one time when they thought I was asleep. It was some fucked up regulation that had Dad being afraid the law would come after him for child support payments he was supposed to make. But he refused, you know? He caught on quick that Mom wasn’t looking out for our welfare and any money he paid towards my support would end up in her veins.



“And I’ll be damned if I support that whore’s drug habit,” he’d said in the only ugly snarl I ever heard him use. Ever! He was usually so calm and quiet, rarely talked much above a normal tone of voice and wasn’t given to wasting words. He had this way of looking at people in the eye that made them know his promise was golden, and he expected the same from others. I’d never call him a trusting fool, though. He inspired honesty and made me want to earn his goodwill. His one angry retort about my mom just proved that he loved me and showed how much he resented her for not taking better care of me.



When I was nine, Jenny ran off with some drug dealer, but like I said, she wasn’t much of a mother so her departure was more of a reprieve than a problem. My sisters disappeared out of my life at the same time, and I went to live with Charles. It was rough at first since he had never been forced to parent full-time. He was so young when I was born, he was barely twenty-five when I moved in. Money was tight, but we got along with the help of his sister, my Aunt Kayla.



I thrived living with my dad. Despite my mother, I was a good kid, and we were happy. He taught me that education was the key to moving out of the cheap apartments we lived in and doing better for myself. If I wanted to get anywhere in life, I would have to study hard and sacrifice; that, and keep my dick in my pants. He was kind of bitter about my mother but he never passed that on to me. Dad just explained her as having a tough upbringing and a myriad of challenges she couldn’t work through. Then he would tell me about how sweet and warm she was when they met and fell in love. Before the drugs and life cursed her.



I listened to all my dad said and applied myself in school. I wasn’t a straight-A student, but I paid attention, and a love for reading helped a lot. I wasn’t into sports, and Dad never pushed me to play, even though he was on the football team in ninth grade. I loved to draw, and my teachers said I had a fair amount of talent. Dad encouraged me and never looked down on my pictures as wasted time or made me feel I couldn’t be a great artist one day. We didn’t have a lot of money for non-essentials, but he bought me sketch pads and pencils.



For a poor man, Dad had a lot of dreams that he passed on to me and used to joke that I was going to be the one to become cultured, educated and rich, and then I’d buy him a house. We laughed over it, and he’d take me to a museum or we’d borrow textbooks that were a higher grade level then I was in and study them together. Dad would have done well in college, he was so clever. He taught me never to let anyone dictate what I could and couldn’t do to improve my life. The only person limiting the scope of my success was myself and how I viewed circumstances.



He was upbeat and would get angry if I acted like I was a burden. Even with working two jobs he always made time for me. Weekends were all ours, and he let his bosses know that he couldn’t leave me alone and needed that time free. Dad let me hang with him when he did small repairs around the apartment or on his truck. We developed into a comforting routine, and he set reasonable boundaries. I kept my eyes open and stayed out of trouble. I guess you could say I behaved better than the average child, but I didn’t want to disappoint my father. Even at the ripe age of thirteen, when many of my peers were acting out and pushing against authority, Dad was my hero.



He died that winter just before my fourteenth birthday.



There was a construction accident on a jobsite, and somehow Dad fell twenty stories to his death. It had been a relatively good day and I was doing homework waiting for him to return from work so we could go birthday shopping. The police showed up at the door with a tearful Aunt Kayla in tow to tell me what happened. I must have blacked out when I finally understood that Dad was never coming back because I came to on the floor next to the couch with my aunt sitting there just staring at me. I was wild with grief for weeks, and nobody could comfort me through the funeral. Dad was my only anchor, and then he was just gone.



I guess negotiations of some sort went on between the families of my two parents over custody of me, but so much animosity remained even after nearly fifteen years. Jenny’s mother shut her door in Aunt Kayla’s face and said I wasn’t her responsibility and she couldn’t care less. So Dad’s family decided to move me in with Kayla. I loved her because she was a relative, but she was kind of cold to me, and I thought it was her way of mourning. My grief counselor said that people go through the process in different ways and, at the time, I was too obsessed with my own loss to make it an issue. I was numb by day, wracked with nightmares of falling at night and, for awhile, I seriously considered killing myself.



I suppose the insurance company from my dad’s employer settled on him with some kind of accidental death policy that paid out close to two hundred fifty thousand dollars. I didn’t care. There was no amount of money in the world that could make up for my father going away and leaving me alone. It didn’t put my latest drawing up on the refrigerator or take me to an art exhibit to see a showing by a new artist. It didn’t tuck me in at night and ruffle my hair in affection when I brought home a report card with almost all A’s on it. I wanted Dad’s smell back and the sound of his voice telling me he loved me. I would’ve given it all away just to hold onto him for one more day.



But even if I didn’t want the money, I never saw a dime of it.



Five months after Dad died, Aunt Kayla called me into her bedroom one morning and told me to pack up my clothes and whatever I wished to take with me. She enlightened me on the situation of my birth by telling me how Charles wasn’t really my biological father. My mother was a scheming tramp who had gotten pregnant by some other man, because even back then she was whoring around, and Dad had graciously married her to give her baby a name and a home. Wasn’t it obvious we weren’t related when I didn’t look a thing like him?



If I were going to describe myself, I’d say I’m on the tall end of average if that makes any sense- around five-foot-eight and skinny. My foster mom, Amber, complains they don’t make jeans in my size because I’m a beanpole. You know, too big to wear kids’ clothes, too small for an adult size? I worked out in the gym at my high school and developed some muscle mass across my chest and shoulders and down my torso, but don’t look at me as being ripped. The best I could boast of was a modest four-pack. I have wavy mud brown hair that falls to my shoulders and is constantly in my face and hazel eyes, which are supposed to be my best feature. My skin is so pale you can see the veins under it, and I have freckles across my nose. Charles’s grandmother was full Japanese which might account for my stature and delicate features; it was fairly obvious in Dad’s high cheekbones and the shape of his eyes, but nowhere on me.



I didn’t know that I believed her, but even if it was an excuse to get rid of me, it wasn’t my call. Dad was just Dad to me, and biological or not, we loved each other dearly. He’d never treated me like I wasn’t his, but Kayla was nothing like him. Maybe it was financial or she was tired of taking care of me since she had no kids of her own and I cramped her style. In any case, she wasn’t interested in my welfare, so why would I want to live with someone like her? No other relatives came forward to volunteer either. She signed over custody to Children’s Services, and I was going into foster care, end of story. I walked out of her apartment that June day into a brand new life and never looked back.



And, here again, I didn’t do too horribly. Yeah, I was sent to the children’s center for a few months because, face it; not many foster families like dealing with teenagers. Many of us end up in group homes which are just warehouses for throwaways before they’re dumped on the street. However, I was one of the good ones. I was polite and sociable, not like those fucked up other boys who had been discarded by their mothers for gang membership or delinquency or drug addiction. I knew I wasn’t better than them, but if being well-mannered got me into a home faster, I wouldn’t cry crocodile tears over the sad situations they’d created for themselves.



Even though it was supposed to be summer vacation, I still had to attend school every day. I think it was due to the fact that many of the residents cut class on the outside and were behind in their studies. I wasn’t, I had been flourishing up until my life was upended. I started tutoring some of the younger kids just to have something to do because the courses at the center were far too easy for me. Boredom is the devil’s playground or some such phrase. I spent my spare time drawing caricatures of the adults around me, and it didn’t escape the notice of the directors that I was talented and educated and a better quality of foster kid than most. I got lucky. I was soon ‘staffed’, as they put it, meaning I was shipped off to live in a foster home.



Six, in fact. Family number one, the Tates, agreed to take me in September and kept me for three weeks. They’d asked for a pre-adolescent boy, and the department thought they could slip me in under their noses because of my size. Not that I was any trouble, they assured me when they said I’d have to move on, but they didn’t feel they could successfully parent a teenager. Like I was going to cause them so many more problems than one of those eleven year olds I’d run into at the center who would’ve just as soon shiv you than look at you?



Numbers two, three and four, were each exactly a year of my life. In each home, I was one of three or four boys, the only one not in trouble before I was staffed, and most of them bullies. I was usually the smallest and learned how to think on my feet to keep from being terrorized. I looked the other way when another teen was targeted because, as cowardly as this sounds, having anyone’s back besides my own was dangerous for my health. I was offered drugs, invited to join gangs and served as lookout when a foster brother shoplifted. I had all my stuff stolen on numerous occasions. The only thing I managed to keep from my old life was a picture of Dad I slipped into a tattered copy of Silas Marner that was on me at all times. Living there under those circumstances toughened me up quickly.



The shitty stories about sexual molestation in foster care are basically true. Starting when I was fifteen I could be hauled out of bed at any time of night to take care of daddies, so-called uncles and older, and bigger brothers alike. When you’re small like me, you have fewer options. The difference between a jaded life and a fucked-up one is learning to pick your battles and keeping your mouth shut. Food, shelter and clothing are much better options than living on the streets addicted to drugs and being pimped out.



Okay, there’s something else you need to know about me. I’m gay, and this had nothing to do with my abuse in care. Before Dad died, I had begun noticing males at school in a sexual way that I knew made me different from how the straight guys bonded. Straight guys weren’t supposed to want the boy sitting next to them in science class to kiss the daylights out of them. I even went to Dad with a hundred tortured questions, and we discussed it. He explained that he was bisexual, so he wasn’t completely surprised by my revelation. I recalled from my earliest memories of him that every once in awhile a strange man would show up at the apartment to spend a few nights in his bed, but he never had a long-term boyfriend. Or another girlfriend besides Mom either. I got the feeling he pitied me, but only because he knew being gay would make my life more difficult in the long run. But he accepted me for who I am, and it wasn’t ever an issue.



It became an issue in Foster Home #5. I was nearing the end of my seventeenth year when I moved in with the Comptons. They lived in the roughest neighborhood I’d ever been in, and I had to change schools again just after beginning my senior year of high school. Even though I was smarter than to announce that I was gay to my fellow classmates, too late I discovered that my foster brother, Barry, had a habit of snooping us kids’ bedrooms. It didn’t take long to find the very lifelike nude drawings of teenage boys hidden under my clothes in my dresser. Two days later I was jumped on the way home from school by a group of thugs calling me faggot and queer who beat me so badly they put me in the hospital for two weeks with internal bleeding, a head injury and broken bones.



Exit the Comptons where it was deemed I was no longer safe.



Enter the Simmons family, with their religious zealotry.



Ms Hopkins, my caseworker, was upfront and informed them that I was gay. What they told her was that Jesus loves everyone, regardless of gender preference, and they would never press their faith on me. And they didn’t, not overtly. They never expected me to attend church with them, and they soon found me trustworthy enough to leave me at home on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights by myself. I was exempt from morning prayers and Bible readings before bed. What they did do, however, was tell me frequently that they were praying for my immortal soul and leave religious tracts about homosexuality on my dresser. I pushed them into the trash, touching them as little as possible, like I was afraid they’d infect me if I got too close.



My new family consisted of Randy and Amber who were in their mid-forties and Randy’s mother, Maureen. Now, my foster parents might be Christian fundamentalists, but Maureen made them look like nonbelievers. I was fortunate because she spent hours at church each day so I didn’t have to socialize with her much. The only time I saw her was at dinner and she liked to pinch me under the table if she thought I wasn’t grateful enough for the blessings that were about to be bestowed on me.



The only other family member at home was Caleb, their eighteen year old son. Perfect Caleb with his soaring six-foot-three, one-hundred-eighty pound frame and blue-eyed-blonde good looks. Football tight end, track star and captain of the basketball team where he played guard. He held a 4.4 grade point average, was president of several on-campus clubs, including the Young Christians Society, and also a leader in the church youth group. A paragon of perfection for me to gag over despite how beautiful his tight end was.

Caleb’s bedroom was a shrine to God. No kidding. A few posters of Christian bands decorated his walls, for groups called Ashes Remain and Love Like Gravity that I’d never heard of, although he played their music enough. A large cross decorated the third wall. He had a bookshelf of paperback self-helps, several different versions of the Bible and study guides and even a prayer corner close to his guitar so when the urge came to compose music- another one of his talents- he could do so. Did I say he shredded on guitar beautifully and played keyboards? No? I’m pretty sure that after high school Caleb was either going into the ministry or heading up his own Christian rock band. Probably both.



Thankfully, I didn’t have to share his bedroom and had a place of my own to sleep. I think my room, all done up in neutrals, used to belong to one of Caleb’s older brothers who was married and lived up north somewhere. I mostly left it the way I found it; bare walls, a single bed, nightstand and dresser. I wasn’t going to be there long and had so few possessions anyway, and I had learned to hide my individual style from others. It was safer that way. My beating had cost me a lot in the trust department.



Look, it wasn’t that I was anti-God per se. Like most kids my age I felt I had the right to seek out my own moral truth, even if it wasn’t found in any kind of organized faith. I didn’t appreciate being accosted by street-corner preachers and told I was going to burn in hell if I didn’t attend their church. I despised the well-dressed adults who drug their children out on beautiful Saturdays to canvas my neighborhood with their trite homilies and pamphlets. What I had to put effort into right now was making my way out into the world. That meant devoting energy to getting through high school and figuring out what came next so I could be successful and independent and all the other traits the adults in our lives wanted us teenagers to strive for. If I decided to put off searching for God for the time being, that was my right too, and nobody could force me to do otherwise.



Not to mention that I was sure the doors of most of these fine religious establishments would be slammed in my face once they knew of my sexual orientation. I was the sinner people would point at and use as an example, where they’d insist a good preacher could pray the gay away in me if I simply repented. No, leave me alone and don’t lecture me, don’t tell me that God hates the sin and loves the sinner and don’t offer to pray for me because I will figuratively spit in your face.



Caleb, being in teen leadership, usually had a Bible study at home on Tuesday nights for seven to nine high school boys. On Thursdays, it was the same with a totally different group of teenagers. He invited me the first week I lived there, and I thanked him quietly and said no. From there on, I knew to stay out of the living room from 6:30 pm until after ten o’clock on those two evenings.



I didn’t mind, not really, although I was bored to death being confined to my bedroom. I brought it up the next time Ms Hopkins visited me, and let me make this clear, I was not complaining, I was merely explaining the situation. She went out and found me a small second-hand television and told Randy and Amber that I was allowed to hook it up. Otherwise, they were in violation of the Forcing Their Religion On Me rule. That was the closest I ever came to being kicked out of their foster home, and then I would’ve been in deep shit because I was almost too old to legally staff anywhere else.



But I was, you know, curious about the church kids. Not to learn about God, and not even so much to hear what Caleb and the others talked about in way of more mundane conversation, but to see which ones at my high school acted like selfish pricks during the day and turned into saints at night. Hypocrisy was alive and well within the sacred church walls, and nowhere was that more true than with adolescents. Maybe because I wasn’t in the youth group I could live without those rose-tinted lenses, and of course, my upbringing made it easier for me to spot the liars and con artists.



For instance, I found out within two weeks of my staffing that Hannah Goldsmith, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Simmons’ pastor, smoked crack. Once I made the connection, I felt duty-bound to point this out to Amber and Randy. They called me a trouble-maker and angrily denied it at first, but a month later the girl disappeared, and I heard whispers that she’d been sent to some church-run rehab program.



Rico Torres, the choir director’s son who was headed for UCLA on a football scholarship, never met a test he couldn’t cheat on and paid his friends to do homework for him. I never sampled her personally, but rumor had it that Julia Clarence gave the best head of any girl at school; her father was a deacon, and her mother was in charge of the church soup kitchen. The Milton brothers, Kevin and Keith, could quote most of the Bible to you straight up, that is, when they weren’t stealing you blind. They had a lucrative little business going selling second-hand iPads, smart phones and cameras to any interested comers.



That’s not to say everyone was like that. The Simmons attended a very large, non-denominational church so the youth group was big. They came from all backgrounds, some jocks, even fewer cheerleaders, several brains and lots of nerds. There was also a healthy proportion of normal, mainstream kids who mostly ignored me in school so they must have been way too popular for their own good.



Caleb’s three best friends were Justin Chavez, Dakota Brewster and Esdy White, and no, Esdy wasn’t his real name. I think it was something like Steven or Stan, and his middle name was Dorian, so he went by his initials. Esdy, get it? All as different from each other as could be. Justin was this super-tall, red-headed, well-muscled linebacker on the football team who liked to act as if he’d been hit in the head a couple times too many. Esdy was a tiny nerd with long blonde hair and could pass for a girl from the rear. Dakota sported the Scene look and had layered black hair all in his face, tattoos and piercings and liked his violet eyes rimmed in kohl.



They were decent enough guys. Maybe Justin acted a little superior at school with that whole jock image to maintain, but they weren’t blatantly rude or hostile. I’m fairly sure they didn’t know I was gay. Ms Hopkins had made it abundantly clear to Caleb that he was not to tell anyone at school or church because none of us wanted a repeat of my last staffing. I had shown up at the Simmons home directly from the hospital on crutches and liberally covered in healing scabs and bruises, my arm in a cast and my ribs and misshapen nose taped. It was clear I had suffered cruelly. My doctors told me I was lucky to be alive. Caleb had looked at me and winced sympathetically, and even though I didn’t trust many, I knew he wouldn’t give my secret away.



Justin, Dakota and Esdy were also in positions of leadership within the high school group, so they had to attend planning meetings before the twice-a-week Bible studies. It was hard enough for me to lock myself in my room for three and half hours, but add an extra hour in front of that, and I felt like I was in prison. So I let myself out occasionally to walk to the kitchen for snacks, exercise or just to gratify my morbid curiosity. The guys waved and called greetings but otherwise ignored me.



So there I was in the Simmons household and it was five months before graduation. To tell the truth, aside from the religious angle, this was the best staffing of my life. I was the only foster kid in placement so nobody preyed on me, Caleb was cool for a brother and pretty much left me alone and Amber and Randy were honorable and only a minor annoyance on the religious front. I grudgingly had to admit that they went out of their way to assure that I was being treated with courtesy and respect. Except for some early discomfort for enrolling in school mid-term, I was accepted for myself and happily overlooked as one of the nameless masses at my new alma mater. I felt normal for a change, just like any other high school senior.



Seeing as how I was almost an adult, between my fosters and my caseworker, a lot of hard work had been put into my future. I had already been accepted by a college- Cal State University at San Francisco, and the Simmons’ had agreed to keep me until my August departure. I had scholarships lined up, some in art and some because of my good grades, and I was eligible for several public programs for disadvantaged youth due to my position as a ward of the state. Even Aunt Kayla got tapped for support payments once my social worker found out about Dad’s insurance. Over four years’ time I would be getting a decent education and embarking on a career. The hope was that my own children, if I ever had them, wouldn’t end up in the system too. I was being hailed as one of the rare success stories.



I went to school one January morning with Caleb driving like he always did. I had my license but no vehicle, and he didn’t want me behind the wheel of his brand new Jeep Wrangler. Once we arrived in the parking lot, I didn’t dash off like usual, and Justin, Esdy and Dakota were waiting on the front steps.



Dakota turned to me and asked, “Do you have anywhere you need to be?”



“Not really.” Despite the rude wording, the question wasn’t meant to insult, but I was a little apprehensive, not knowing what to expect.



“We’re going to Starbucks and thought you might like to come along.” The popular coffee shop was located in the small plaza on a diagonal from the school. Dakota turned to look at Caleb for approval, and he shrugged.



“That sounds like fun,” I said warily. This was definitely different. In the back of my head I wondered if it was a new tactic to lure me into church.



Inside, we waited for the queue of high schoolers in front of us to place their orders, and then it was our turn. I pulled out my wallet but Dakota said he’d get it for me. I wasn’t much into frou frou drinks and was going to order a simple coffee, but he talked me into something a little more substantial, and I selected a café mocha. We miraculously found an empty table in the corner and sat down.



Taking a sip, I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor. “Good, huh!” Caleb insisted, and I nodded in agreement.



As we sipped our coffees an embarrassed silence settled around us. That I was a foster kid was no secret, so I reasoned that they probably had questions they were dying to ask me. Not even Caleb knew my entire story. I wasn’t surprised when Esdy cleared his throat and stared anywhere but at me.



I tried to smile. “Just get it over with, guys. I’ll answer anything as long as it’s reasonable.”



Justin went first, but it took a few minutes to spit it out. “Uh… how long have you been a foster kid?”



“About four years.” I didn’t offer more than I was asked, deciding they could feed me the queries.



“So why?” Dakota asked next and then blushed. “I mean, what happened to put you… um, you know, here?”



His fumbling was kind of amusing, but I was afraid if I laughed it would irritate them. “My mom ran off when I was a little kid so she was long gone,” I answered frankly, “and then my dad died.”



“Was he sick?” Esdy inquired.



I shook my head and looked down at my hands. “You know McIntyre Towers in the downtown?” Four heads inclined. Set within a garden-like plaza, the Towers were three huge corporate buildings made of black glass that rented out office suites to large companies, some of which took up entire floors. It had become a landmark.



“My dad was one of the construction workers and a crane operator punched the wrong button. The bucket swung around and hit the scaffolding he was standing on. Dad fell from the twentieth floor and landed on rebar.” I heard at least one of them gasp and closed my eyes to the mental images, knowing that despite the four foot long, half-inch thick iron bars jutting up from the cement below like swords, he would’ve died anyway just from the impact of the fall. I still couldn’t walk past those buildings without getting dizzy.



“Dude,” Dakota whispered. “How awful! But didn’t you have any family you could stay with?”



All of them were regarding me with sympathy. It was usually hard to deal with; although, I’d gotten so used to revealing my story to various social workers and mental health workers I had fortified myself against the outright anguish. I made a face.



“My aunt didn’t want me. She said my dad wasn’t really my dad. I was a charity case with a druggie slut for a mom who got pregnant with me, and he was stupid in love with her. He married her knowing I wasn’t his son. When he died, she felt no obligation to keep me and no sympathy either.”



“That sucks,” Justin groused.



“It is what it is.” I shrugged. “So here I am, finally getting ready to graduate from high school. Next term I’ll be in San Francisco at college, and four years from now I’ll be earning a college degree and making my way in the world. All this foster care shit will be just a stepping stone that I can forget and never have to look back on.”



“Forget?” The voice was Dakota’s and he sounded kind of sad. I looked straight up into eyes so dark they looked violet, circled in black that had nothing on the shade of his layered hair.



I thought hard about life in the Simmons home. “Not that Caleb and his parents haven’t been good to me. The boundaries are clear, and the consequences are fair so it’s better than most places I’ve been.”



Esdy sucked his frappuccino loudly through the straw. “Better compared to what?”



I shuddered, and Caleb took the opportunity to answer, flicking me a glance of compassion. “Don’t ask.”



I smiled back at him, co-conspirators now, and it broke the ice for all of us.



We fell into an easy routine now that I’d formally met Caleb’s friends. At first, it was a simple sharing of the few minutes between the end of the boys’ leadership meeting and the arrival of the nine or so others who attended the two mid-week Bible studies. Then Justin, Esdy and Dakota showed up on a Friday evening two weeks later to watch a DVD they had rented, The Big Year. It was kind of silly, with a tame PG rating, but I’ve always had a thing about Owen Wilson. When they invited me to join in, I sat down to enjoy it with them.



I celebrated my eighteenth birthday in early February, and the Simmons family even threw me a birthday party. The three guys came over for icecream and cake, and we played a video game Randy and Amber had bought me. There was a lot of laughter that night because each of the three, quite by accident, gave me the exact same gift, a Starbucks gift card, due to not checking amongst themselves. At least, I teased them, I could get my coffee fix on without feeling like I was imposing on Caleb’s companions.



Monday night at one of the guy’s houses became a scheduled event, and Caleb took me with him to be the backup player in their video game competitions. We viewed rented films together and would laugh uproariously at each other’s critiques. Generally, since they limited themselves to the innocuous movies that wouldn’t rile up their parents, the movies were pretty childish so the views we expressed were too. Bowling or mini-golf every other Wednesday, and laser tag on Sunday afternoons at the arcade. We played board games; I was a shark at Monopoly and ended up usually owning everything. They even cajoled me into a couple Saturday volleyball game nights in the church gym.



Away from home, Caleb called me Devlin or Dev because the other guys did, and sometimes he forgot and did it at home to warning looks from his parents and grandmother. The more I hung around the four of them, the more they seemed like ordinary guys. They prayed before eating which kind of embarrassed me when we’d stop for fast food out, and I could count on one of them inviting me to a church service or the next youth outing, but once I said no thanks they didn’t press me. This was what being a regular teenager felt like, what I could’ve had from age thirteen up if my father hadn’t died, but instead of being bitter for the chaos in my life up until now, I was grateful for Caleb and the rest of the family coming along when they did to at least give me a taste of it. At least I was making friends.



Dakota found out that I had a 3.88 GPA, and he asked if I could tutor him in AP Government which he really struggled with but had to get at least a C in. He was college-bound like me, wanting to major in international finance. He had seven university acceptance letters at home awaiting his vacillating decision, and we discussed the pros and cons of each one. He asked me why I chose to attend San Francisco State, and I said it had an excellent art program. When he discovered I could draw, he begged me until I did up a quick caricature of him. He told me he’d treasure it until the day I became famous and it would be worth a fortune. I laughed at him.



I was surprised by how quickly the time flew by, and it was April before we knew it. Sometimes I just stared at my perfect foster brother sitting across the living room from me, surrounded by his friends who had also become mine and silently wondered at what point my life had shifted. I wasn’t in love with Caleb, but he’d done a lot to open me up to a wide range of ‘what-ifs’ and it gave me comfort that my life was nearly normal.



No, I didn’t love Caleb. The man I was crushing on was Dakota Brewster. I only stared at Caleb because I was afraid that gawking at his best friend would give me away.



Dakota was like the coolest kid, the most avant-garde of the four with a heart of danger at his core and a deeper sense of self. If you weren’t aware, you might say he took himself too seriously but we all knew better because he’d get this look on his face that implied that life as we saw it was all bullshit anyway. When a topic came up for discussion, he stayed quiet, but I knew he had an opinion in there somewhere, and by the time he stated it, there wasn’t room for anything more. He was honest but not cruel and unfailingly modest. Like Caleb, he could riff on guitar, but he surprisingly preferred soulful love ballads over the harder alternative and indie rock and claimed he would never be good enough to join a band. I disagreed.



Dakota liked street scene clothing- studded belts, Converse low tops, Hot Topic band tees in black and gray and the hoody he took everywhere. However, I couldn’t say he fully embraced the lifestyle because the church frowned on the music and, at least for now, he was ruled by his parents’ wishes. His hair was jet black in teased layers skimming his shoulders, and on his eyelids he wore kohl that I was amazed didn’t get him grounded by his mother and father. Maybe they were willing to give an inch, and he was smart enough not to turn it into a mile. He had snakebites on his bottom lip and a ball on his tongue as well as a pierced navel. One time he was changing shirts in his living room to go out with us, and I noticed that the skin above his left pectoral was inked in a spiky tribal tattoo that swirled over his shoulder and down his pale spine into the waistband of his black skinny jeans. I had to turn around so I wouldn’t stare. Everything looked good on him because he was as tall as Caleb and almost as ripped with glorious muscle delineation and a rock solid torso.



Everyone in the group, indeed, in the larger church group, treated Dakota like a favorite sibling. This might sound strange but, even with the mysterious vibes, he was always smiling and was never mean or nasty to anyone. Caleb called him Kody a lot, and I heard it was a childhood nickname from way back that, aside from his family, only he got to use. Dakota was kind of shy but game for practical jokes as long as they weren’t mean. He helped out in the soup kitchen at church and read to elementary-age kids at the local library. No kidding, this guy was one in a million. I loved watching his violet eyes change shades with his emotions.

As far as my feelings for him were concerned, I just woke up one day and decided I was in love with him. It was a thousand little things that suddenly coalesced in my sleep to help me see him clearer than ever before, and it filled me with amazement that I even could talk and spend time with Dakota every day. There were no harps… oh wait, that’s death— anyway, no schmaltzy choirs of angel’s music or lines of poetry running through my head. He was beautiful inside and out and he made me a better person just being around him. I fell so hard.



Uh… yeah, that was the problem; we were both male. I was gay, and he wasn’t. End of the painful, bitter story. I was not going to moon over some guy I could never have.



To be on the safe side I started making excuses not to spend so much one-on-one time with him. Not that I didn’t trust myself around him, but we steered away from the privacy. Instead of studying at his place in the afternoon when his parents were still at work and his younger sisters were happy with free, unsupervised rein, I directed him to the school library for an hour, using the excuse that I had to look up research for a term paper. Instead of rushing downstairs as soon as Dakota showed up at our house, I hung back until another arrival provided a safe second set of eyes. It was a tricky situation, working to make it look like I was treating him the same so he wouldn’t ask questions even as I pulled away.



I was not going to lose my perspective and make an ass of myself. I was not going to fall into some fucked up delusion that he could love me. Having just found friends, it would be suicide to allow Dakota to see my heart. I had to hold on to my pride, swallow my feelings and just finish the damn school year so I could get out of there.



Fate fucked with me but good!



It was the second Friday in April, and I had sent Caleb home ahead of me because I was meeting Dakota to help him study for a Government test. He was doing very well in the class and his semester grade now stood at a B-. Several times I had suggested that he didn’t need my assistance anymore, but he would get this alarmed expression on his face and plead with me not to quit on him. What the hell, I could be cool and if we were in a public place, I was relatively safe. Despite my dilemma, I enjoyed being with him too and it gave me an excuse to see him more often.



My locker was located in the six hundred wing along the outside wall of the long brick building housing the math classrooms. I had been delayed by my 6th period art teacher, and I was just swapping out my English textbook for my binder. I heard footsteps to my left rear and turned my head, surprised to see Dakota striding towards me. Lovingly familiar, he made my heart start to jump at the mere sight of him, although there was a little bit different in him that I didn’t get right away. He usually waited for me in the library, but since school had ended thirty minutes before, maybe he thought I’d forgotten.



“Hi,” I said casually, checking to make sure I had everything we needed. “Just a minute…”



Dakota moved directly behind me and twirled me around with a gentle but firm push to the shoulder. I found myself plastered against the neighboring metal door with him far too into my personal space for comfort.



“Dakota, what…” I protested, but he didn’t give me a chance to finish. With a quick glance in both directions down the hall to ensure we were alone, he plucked my binder out of my hands and deposited it back where it came from. I felt him rest his body against me as his hands immobilized my head, and the next thing I knew, his soft, full lips were covering mine. My mouth had already fallen open in shock, so he had no trouble sticking his tongue inside to begin coaxing my own to life.



I loved it. Realizing I was with Dakota who apparently wasn’t as straight as everyone else said he was. Kissing him felt awesome, and I now realized the difference in him- he had removed his snakebites. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t like them against my own lips, but I could feel the ball on his tongue as it passed over my muscle. I wanted to give in to the bliss of that gliding tongue, the way we both moaned and how he was taking my breath away. The sweetness of his strong hands holding me, firm but not forcing. His mouth worked against mine and I gave it right back and melted into his hot body.



I let it happen but at the same time I could see myself in the third person. Backed against the lockers, standing out in the open where any coed or teacher could walk by and see us. ‘Devlin and Dakota, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G…’ The old nursery rhyme flared to life. Sudden and kind of frightening, for a few seconds, I felt alive in a way I never had before.



Just for maybe a count of five until sanity returned; then, one startling thought broke loose from all the rest and crystallized. This was not supposed to be happening. I was gay, but Dakota was straight and shouldn’t be doing this, especially not at school. Despite his promise to me, I instantly identified the culprit. Caleb must have told Dakota I was gay and this was a test to see if it was true. I went cold, fully expecting Esdy and Justin to jump out at me from behind nearby lockers, and I reacted automatically.



“Get the fuck off me.” In rage I shoved Dakota backwards with all my might. I had to think fast and react faster, even if it meant going completely against my own ideals to dispel the notion that even a tiny part of me was gay. Adrenalin kicked in and took over my instincts to give me the strength to deal with the six inches he towered over me and his extra thirty pounds. Fight or flight, you know? Either would work as long as I wasn’t pinned under him against the lockers with his tongue in my mouth.



I know I didn’t do more than shove, but he responded as if I’d punched him, suddenly jumping out of the way and regarding me cagily across three feet of dirty, trash-strewn cement. His chest heaving, his violet eyes were huge, pupils blown in lust, and he was trembling.



“What the hell is wrong with you, Dakota?” I screamed, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. “Who do you think you are to just randomly walk up to somebody you barely know and kiss him like that?”



“Barely know?” He sounded so wounded. “I thought we were friends.”



“Friends don’t do that to friends, ass-hat.” Now I was the one shaking but in anger. “Damn it, kissing me?”



My fists had come up to defend myself in case I didn’t make myself clear, and when he saw them- really looked at me- it was like he collapsed on the inside.



“Sorry, sorry… I’m so sorry,” he began to mumble, backing up. He held his hands out in front of him, palms forward in supplication and abject shame draining the color from his face. “Please… please, I am so sorry, Dev. You don’t have to… Please don’t tell anybody. Please… I’ll just leave. I’m sorry.”



Whirling, he took off in the direction of the parking lot as if a banshee was after him. I banged around in my locker collecting my sketchbook and science notes for a Monday test. On second thought, fuck the test, fuck the drawing. I dumped everything back inside and slammed the door before running off in the opposite direction towards home. Yeah, Caleb had already left, but I could cover the usual ten minute drive in fifteen with a little hard running and by cutting through business parking lots and the field behind our house.



“Caleb,” I roared, thundering through the front door. I had barely broken a sweat but I was even angrier now than when I left school. “Jesus Christ, where are you, Caleb?”



He stuck his head out from the kitchen, his mouth a round O. “Devlin, you used the Lord’s name in vain!”



“Don’t be a child,” I muttered scornfully, striding towards him feeling like I wanted to pound him. He backed up before my fury. “Why did you do it? Why did you tell Dakota I was gay?”



“I didn’t,” Caleb squeaked, ducking under my arm to run into the living room. I followed him. The shock on his face was still very apparent but it had switched to a completely different kind. Less of a ‘tell me you didn’t just say that’ look and more of a ‘have you lost your mind?’ one.



I regarded him skeptically. “So I’m supposed to believe that you had nothing to do with Dakota getting all freaky on me after school?”



“Why? What’s wrong?” There was a third switch of facial expression in nearly as many seconds, his features now etched in dread and anxiety.



“Dakota kissed me.”



“Damn it,” he gasped, turning pale and sitting down hard on the couch. “I warned him…”



It was my turn to regard him, dumbfounded. I never thought I’d hear the day when Caleb Simmons swore. He warned Dakota? His genuine worry rumbled through my numb brain, and my anger dropped from me immediately. “You don’t seem all that surprised.”



I heard Caleb groan as he shook his head, his face lined with… I really wasn’t sure. Definitely misery, some indecision, but mostly defeat. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered helplessly. “It goes against everything I’ve been taught about God since I was a little boy, and yet… he’s my friend, Dev. Dakota is my friend.”



I was starting to understand, but I still couldn’t believe it. “What’s going on, Caleb?”



“First, tell me what happened,” he demanded. “Everything from start to finish, and don’t leave anything out.”



I gave him the long version of events, and he let me talk in silence without interrupting me to ask questions. But after I related how Dakota had run off, assuming Caleb was partly responsible for his behavior, I had several, like why he’d kissed me. But even without him saying, I already knew the answer.



The blonde boy sighed and turned sorrowful eyes in my direction. “Kody is gay, Devlin, or at least, he thinks he is. He half believes he’s in love with you, but I swear I never said a word to him. Not once, not even after he told me how he feels about you.”



I was stunned to find out that Dakota and I had unknowingly been on the same emotional page. But that would mean…



Caleb was already ahead of me. “Can you imagine what would happen to Dakota if he came out?” He sounded heartbroken, and I could tell he was struggling not to cry. “With the way people in our church feel about homosexuals? I’ve known him since we were seven and I couldn’t stand to see all our friends turn their backs on him or have his family throw him out of the house… or worse. It’s been eating him up inside, hiding what he is, and where would he go if he admitted it, since all his friends have parents just like his?”



I believed Caleb was telling me the truth and hadn’t outed me. I was already beginning to feel terrible about the way I’d overreacted. There must be some way to go back and fix this, but first I had to know the details.



“When did you find out?”



“He stopped by one afternoon over Christmas vacation, and he was a mess. He told me he had been feeling a growing attraction to… to boys for well over a year, but up until recently he was in complete denial. What changed things was the first day he saw you at school. At last it was made clear to him, love at first sight, but he was so scared, Devlin. He said that since you were straight, you would probably get mad if you found out and never accept him, and he begged me not to tell you. And what could I do since I promised you the same thing?”



I closed my eyes, feeling like a total douche. I had reacted exactly the way Dakota expected, done exactly what he was afraid of. I couldn’t have mirrored his fears better if I’d been handed a script.



“The more he got to know you, the more he admired you. You aren’t the first foster kid my parents have taken in, but you’re so much different from the others. Nicer. You don’t have a chip on your shoulder or put up a front to act like a bully. That’s why I hoped we all could be friends. Kody wanted to hang out with you, and I thought it would be a good idea. Seeing as you’re gay too, I thought you would be a good influence on him even if I had to keep your secret. And I halfway hoped…”



He took a deep breath as if to expel some foul thought from his head. “A couple weeks ago he threatened to tell his family and trust for the best. I tried to convince him to wait until next fall. He would be going away to school, and at least then it wouldn’t matter, not like living at home. He’s on scholarship, and his parents would be unable to control him financially. Any university would provide the security to protect him when it all went bad… which I know would happen. He settled down and agreed to wait, and I thought he was fine.”



“What changed,” I asked softly. I, too, had sensed Dakota’s growing unease when we were together but I never would have guessed this.



“Graduation is in two months.” He lifted his shoulders helplessly. “But it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t like he’s going to lose track of you afterwards. Did you know he’s going to San Francisco next year for college? The same school as you, even though his parents are horrified because of the area’s reputation.”



Caleb scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’ve read up on the internet about gay teenagers, and… uh… what they do when their friends and families reject them. It’s scary, Devlin. He’s like my brother, and after what went down today, I’m afraid he’ll…”



I kind of choked up because now I was beginning to get scared too; scared for the man I loved. I was concerned over the horror I’d seen in his eyes once he realized I was angry and why. Of course, he would never lead me on by kissing me if he didn’t mean it. Blowing this totally out of proportion by not taking Dakota’s gentle nature into consideration when he approached me at school, I had behaved rashly by hiding my own feelings for him, even if out of ignorance and fear. And with my rejection, what would he do next? If Dakota was as desperate as Caleb feared, he might be reckless enough to do himself harm.



Dakota had been dealing with this confusion for so long, and he needed my empathy, not my condemnation. He had no way of knowing how much I cared about him, and I was the only one who could truly help him. I could make this whole problem go away- well, maybe not the homophobia from the community- but I could offer him the support and tenderness he needed to guide him through it.



“Caleb,” I said quietly. “If I tell you a secret will you promise not to share it with anyone but Dakota?”



He looked at me, curiosity warring with concern on his face. “You know I’d never say a word.”



I looked down at my feet and tried not to blush, but admitting my feelings to someone I had convinced myself not to trust wasn’t easy. After my father, Caleb was now the only person I could confide in, at least until I could tuck Dakota into that circle.



“I’m in love with Dakota too,” I whispered. “I have been for weeks.”



Caleb’s eyes went wide and a huge grin broke out on his face. “Thank you, God,” he breathed, and when I shot him a suspicious glare, he added with a shrug, “I prayed for this, for a peaceful resolution that would work out the best for both of you. You don’t have to believe it.”



I didn’t. As far as I was concerned, I was like a bug to God. Here I am, step on me.



Caleb tried to call Dakota on his cell phone, but not surprisingly he didn’t answer. I told him to leave him a message and say we’d talked and I understood the whole story now. At this stage, we didn’t want to freak out if Dakota was safely at home, nor did we want to freak out his family by rushing over there. We talked about what to do next and decided to wait. Not true, Caleb decided to wait and, as the logical one who admonished against panic, I let him talk me out of it.



Bad move! Three hours later Caleb found me in my bedroom after a tense supper, trying to derail my thoughts by doing homework, and if I thought he had been worried earlier, he was ready to crawl out of his skin now. Justin had just texted Caleb asking if he knew where Dakota was. His anxious parents, who swore their son was never late or somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, hadn’t been in touch with him since he left the house that morning and were ready to pronounce him officially missing.



No one had seen Dakota since he left me at school. He had obviously driven home at some point because his truck was parked in front of the house, but his sisters said he didn’t go inside. Meaning it had been four and a half hours since he left me and he was wandering around on foot in the dark. Even though Caleb had tried to call him all afternoon, he wasn’t answering his cell phone. For anybody, not just him. He was either ignoring the calls or he no longer had the use of his mobile. Or something worse had happened.



Giving Caleb a dark look for not following my intuition, we climbed in his Jeep just as he received a call from his parents requesting that he go to the Brewsters’ and help the members of the church try to find Dakota. We drove to their house, and the Simmons’ SUV was parked near the corner. A police car was pulled up to the curb, and the place teemed with adults and young people.



Amber Simmons rushed up to Caleb and me when we walked through the front door. I think she was a little put off to see me, but she didn’t mention it. My focus was on Dakota’s parents, and we edged closer. I overheard Mrs. Brewster tell a uniformed officer that nobody had seen Dakota since school ended at 2:45.



I cleared my throat. Caleb threw me a glance that begged me not to do anything stupid. I had no intention of it.



“Excuse me,” I offered quietly. “I saw Dakota later than that. It was closer to 3:15.”



You could have heard a pin drop; the place went silent so quickly. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me. “Go ahead, son,” the officer prodded. I heard several kids scoffing in the background.



Randy and Amber moved up behind Caleb. I looked at the policeman’s jacket, and the name ‘Brown’ was on the shield pinned to a pocket. I wondered if this was the same Brown who sat on the church board of directors who Randy had mentioned once working with. Any hope I’d had of coming clean with the cops and telling them the real story evaporated. Not to mention, the captive audience glaring at me with mistrust radiating off them as if they expected me to admit I was an axe-murderer who had dispatched Dakota myself.



“I’ve been tutoring him in Government, and today was a study day,” I stated. “Normally we meet up in the library but I was detained so it was around half an hour after the last bell. I was at my locker in the six hundred wing collecting the supplies we needed when he ran past me. He was heading towards the parking lot and looked upset.” So far that was a partial truth but all they really needed to know.



“Did he say why?”



Over his shoulder I saw Caleb flinch. I swallowed hard and tried to look nonchalant. “No, sir.”



Randy bobbed his head, indicating me, and spoke up. “This is our foster son, Lonnie. His name is James Royce…” I saw Caleb make a face at them behind their backs for addressing me by my middle name. “…and if he says he saw Dakota, you better trust that he’s telling the truth.”



The cop asked me a few more questions but nothing probing and went to call in the new information. Mrs. Brewster stood there gazing at me in silence, and I couldn’t tell if she was suspicious or grateful. Her husband put his arm around her waist and speculated on what had been bothering Dakota so much that he would run away. I only vaguely listened to their theories, and they were so clueless it made my head ache. But I couldn’t do anything to help them, not without outing Dakota and me.



The crowd talked about organizing their own searches, and Dakota’s family, church friends and their parents began to separate and drive off. I was wracking my brain to think where he might have gone. Caleb wanted to join in, but I delayed him for a moment once we were standing next to his car. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before now, and I wanted to kick myself.

“Give me your cell,” I instructed him. When his face closed down in doubt, I grabbed at the phone, rolling my eyes. “I’m not going to hurt him, Caleb. We did things your way three hours ago, and he still isn’t back. If he loves me like you said he does, and if the reason Dakota left is because he thinks I’m disgusted or angry, then I’m the only one he’s going to listen to.”



“Hey, yeah,” he agreed in surprise before his pessimism returned. “You don’t think he hurt himself do you?”



I shook my head. “I hope not. My gut says he’s okay for now, but he needs something positive to hold onto.” I found Dakota’s name and number in the recent calls and went to press the button, noticing that Caleb had not moved. “A little privacy here, please?”



Caleb grinned and walked off to speak to Justin and Esdy while I turned my back on him, preparing to humble myself and crossing my fingers that he would believe me.



Not surprisingly, Dakota’s cell was turned off, but that didn’t stop me, and I left a voicemail. “Dakota, this is Dev. You need to come home. We’re all worried sick.”



I gulped, taking a quick look around me to make sure no one was close enough to be listening in. My eyes were tearing up, and I lowered my voice to a husky whisper. “Please come home, Kody. Or call me; just don’t do anything stupid. I’m so sorry I snapped at you today. You caught me off guard, and I didn’t know… Caleb told me about… well, he told me. It’s all going to be okay. I swear it; I’ll make sure it works out, okay? Just come home. I…”



I held the phone closer to my mouth and wiped my eyes. “I think I love you, Kody. I’m gay too, and, no kidding, I think I do. Please come back to me.”



I copied Dakota’s phone number into my cell, repeating the same message from mine in case he deleted the one from Caleb’s without listening to is. Maybe an unfamiliar phone number would make him wonder who was calling him. All I could focus on was that Dakota was somewhere out there walking around scared to death. If he hadn’t hurt himself—and I couldn’t face the guilt that I might be responsible if he did.



Afterwards, we went out to join the rest of the search teams, and we scoured the town in ever-widening circles, checking out his familiar haunts over and over hoping he’d be there. All of us, friends and family alike, kept in touch with coordinators by texting. Dakota didn’t contact anybody, and messages to him kept going straight to voicemail.



Hours went by without success and, while we didn’t want to give up, our bodies wouldn’t let us continue without sleep. It was near dawn when Caleb and I pulled on to our street and stumbled inside. We were exhausted, discouraged and frightened. Strangely enough, I was so demoralized I even prayed for Dakota’s safety. It couldn’t hurt.



Thankful that it was a Saturday, I woodenly climbed the stairs to my bedroom and dropped to my bed, so tired my eyelids were nothing more than slits. I thought about just laying there and drifting off, but I had to pee and knew I should brush my teeth. I dragged myself to the bathroom and did all my hygiene stuff, glad to finally be able to close my eyes. I threw back the quilt, preparing to undress and dive into bed.



At that moment I looked at my closet door and saw an eyeball staring back. I squeaked in alarm and would have started hollering if the door hadn’t been thrown open and a warm body rushing me and closing a hand over my mouth. By that time I had no intention of crying out in fear, but I might have in glee. “Oh god, Kody!” He was in my bedroom, safe and sound. I turned and threw myself in his arms followed by a quick welcome kiss on the cheek.



Mindful of making noise that might alert Caleb, we stood there, slightly swaying on our feet. He put his arms around me tighter to still both of us. There were no more words for a time like that as we quietly hugged, and I noticed how how nicely I fit under his chin. I could hear his heart hammering in his chest, and I’m sure mine was galloping to the same beat.



Although his appearance in my room meant he’d forgiven me, after my angry denouncement at school I was afraid of hurting his feelings again. Part of me wanted to push him down on the bed and prove I was gay by kissing us both stupid, the other part warned me to hold back. It was Dakota who finally took the initiative and put his finger under my chin to tip it upwards so he could take my mouth in a liplock that would’ve made angels weep. Soft lips that parted and let me in so our tongues could meet and exchange howdies. The tongue stud rolled around between us. For the next heavenly five minutes we slowly let our lips do the talking.



“Are you okay?” I asked once he freed my mouth. My exhaustion vanished, replaced with the overriding joy that he had come home and wasn’t dead or injured. “Where have you been? We searched all night for you.”



He gave me a self-conscious glance. “I know, and I’m sorry I worried all of you. But after me acting like a dipshit and kissing you at school, I didn’t know what to do until you called me. Then I decided to come here.” He stopped, his voice stuttering a little, and he looked almost scared. “Did you mean what you said, Dev? About being in love with me?”



I smiled in what I hopped was reassurance and he dropped down beside me on the bed with his arm encircling my shoulders and mine about his waist. I could scarcely believe the danger was past, but in the quiet of my room I accepted it as a miracle. I feathered my fingers into his glorious locks.



“Yeah, I did, every word,” I avowed. “I really am gay. Caleb and his family know, but when I moved in my caseworker swore them to secrecy because… Well, never mind, it isn’t important. Caleb wanted to tell you, Kody, honestly he did, but he couldn’t without breaking his promise to me or betraying your confidence. With all the video games, Starbucks and studying, I’ve been having these crazy feelings for you since March, and I didn’t confide in him either. I’ve been just as scared as you were.”



“It’s been such torture for me,” he whispered. “I talked to Caleb three months ago, and even though I know he was trying to be a friend and look out for my welfare, all he did at first was tell me I had to be wrong. That being gay wasn’t what God wanted me to be.”



Tears came to his eyes, and he brushed them away, looking down in embarrassment. He hugged me closer.



“Finally I got mad. I looked at Caleb and asked, ‘If God didn’t want me to be gay then why did he make me like this? Why did He make me want to be with men instead of women?’ Like, what was I? Some freak? Was God just toying with me? I’ve never wanted to get naked and kiss or stick my dick up inside some girl the way I want to with you. If the Bible is right and God made me in His image, then somebody fucked up big time because in me, His image is a gay man.”



“What did Caleb say?” I asked softly, having already heard the other side of the conversation.



“He… he didn’t have an answer for it. I said nobody made me gay. I was never molested when I was a kid, not that it makes a difference from what I’ve read. I wasn’t forced to watch gay porn. I wasn’t sick so there wasn’t a cure. It wasn’t even a choice I could make. I was in love with you in a way I had never felt for any other human being on this planet. As far as I knew, I might fall out of love with you but it wouldn’t take away from my being gay. It would just send me on a journey looking for someone else but it would definitely be another man.



“Caleb told me he would pray for me, and at first it looked like a cold, lame-ass excuse.” Dakota shook his head sadly. “He had a lot to reconcile in his head, and I should have understood that as much as I wanted him to agree with me, he needed time to figure me out too. A week later he came back and said he was sorry. He still couldn’t wrap his brain around all I’d told him but he was trying. It was better than I’d hoped for in my wildest dreams, being accepted like that.”



“I think Caleb wants to be supportive,” I commented slowly, “but your parents and teachers have hammered these beliefs about being gay into you since you were small. It’s a big switch but one he willing to make for you because you’re friends. I know he cares about you… enough to make me listen when I was angry after, uh, you know… yesterday when you kissed me…”



“You were kissing me back.” Dakota stared at me in challenge, and I laughed under my breath. Yes, he had felt my response in the hallway at school.



“I told you I liked you,” I replied in my defense, looking intently at a new rip in knee of his jeans. “It was like you read my mind because I wanted it. Then I thought, you couldn’t have known, not from me, I was too careful. It had to be that Caleb said something. It made me so fucking mad, and after you ran off, I came home and got in his face for outing me like that. Except that he hadn’t…”



I guess I must have been babbling because Dakota thought the best way to shut me up was to kiss me again. His soft, moist lips found the corner of my mouth, and I turned my head so we were facing each other. I dove in and kissed him proper on the mouth. Whisper-soft little swipes passed between us as his hand came up under my brown hair and held the back of my head still. Finally his lips settled on mine warm and firm, and when I opened up, he thrust his tongue between my teeth to find mine.



There was lots of wet, hot friction of our tongues exploring each other and sucking at each other’s mouths. His calloused hands pushed my hair out of my face, and I let his lips drag against mine. I considered what that tongue piercing would feel like on another part of my anatomy. It made me a little dizzy, but then I was so drained, it wouldn’t have taken much to make me pass out. And, of course, he’d been out all night walking around, so he had to be as tired as me.



You know what fatigue can do sometimes; it’s a little like being wasted. One minute we were sitting there with our arms around each other making out, the next we were mindlessly pulling our clothes off. I couldn’t strip down fast enough, and apparently neither could Dakota. My cock, which should’ve been as dead as the rest of me felt but thinking it might catch some action, began to appreciate the totally hot, ripped guy next to me on the bed getting buck naked. Just like that, it turned to granite.



All that beautifully toned muscle in his chest, across his shoulders and down his back, the abs like small pockets of steel under his pale skin. I realized that the henna, brown and black spikes, swirls and lines of his tattoo were fashioned around a long, narrow cross with a slight curve to it. It covered his back on a tilt from over his left shoulder and bicep, down his spine to the top of his right butt cheek and gave him a dangerous appeal which was completely contrary to his sweet personality. I also saw a few straggly hairs around his flat, pink nipples so either he manscaped or he wasn’t naturally furry. I preferred bare chests myself; too much of a pelt made it hard to get to the goods since I was into nipples, and his were thankfully free of piercings.



Speaking of cocks, as I watched Dakota and with the removal of each piece of clothing, I had to fight myself not to drool. It seemed to take forever before his pants, shirt and socks sat atop his shoes, and I held my breath when he finally kicked off his briefs. I gulped, hopefully inaudibly, in both lust and nerves. His was long, but then Dakota was a tall guy, so it was probably proportioned to his height. From a tuft of jet black curls, it rose in a thin, graceful arched column of pale pink almost to his navel. His scrotum was loose and lightly fuzzed and, for a slim man, his ass was very rounded.



Dakota was pushing me backwards on the bed, his body covering mine, and I reached for him in a big sloppy kiss. Here I was, naked in his arms, and I felt no shame. His cock was coming alive on my thigh. It just made me want to reach out my hand and touch it. Wrap my fingers around its rigid shaft and pump it the way I took care of myself when the need arose. And then I wondered if I dared. What would Dakota do if jacked him off.



There was only one way to find out. Softly my fingertips traced from his ball sac to the tip of his dick, already dripping precum into my pubes. I felt the muscles in his groin shudder and his breath hitch. Kody stayed silent, which could be either good or bad, but he didn’t say stop. I repeated the stroking, and he began to hump against my thigh. That was maybe more efficient, but I wanted to be the one to give him pleasure.



“Kody,” I whispered. “Let me touch you.”



I raised my eyes to his face to see him smile dreamily, and then he rearranged his body to put some room between the two of us. Even before I had a chance to wrap my hand around his hard-on, he reached for me and began to explore. He was circumcised; I was not, so I’m sure it was a different feeling for him. He seemed fascinated by my foreskin and how it slid up and down, and he soon got the hang of it. Just a few strokes, and I was already moaning at how damned horny he was making me and that it wouldn’t take much to make me cum.



I spit twice in my hand and took hold of him. Grasping firmly, I rubbed from top to bottom, his precum also smoothing the way and employing my signature move, a flick of the wrist at the top to massage his cockhead. His mouth was slightly open, breathing shallow and eyes squeezed firmly shut, and I heard his responsive and passionate moaning next to my ear. He was so beautiful to me, and that I was getting him off was probably the most powerful feeling in the world. Had I ever worried about his religious training inhibiting him from enjoying sex with another man, I was happily mistaken. He was relishing our mutual masturbation as much as I was.



I was having trouble holding back now but I wanted to make this last. The feel of his hard, slick penisand the friction building warm in my palm. The way Dakota’s hand rode my foreskin up and down and slid his thumb over the slippery head. The ache in my balls that warned me of the churning of semen inside about to unload. I groaned deeply and rocked my pelvis into his grip.



“Oh, Dev,” he whispered frantically. “I’m going to nut. It feels too good, I can’t…”



Afraid he would start yelling and bring the folks running, I did the first thing that came to mind. I clamped my mouth over Dakota’s, and we both came in the middle of a deep, intense kiss. He whimpered into my mouth as his cock pulsed and began to shoot strings of cum between us. Two seconds later I was the one thrashing on top of him as my orgasm howled through me, and it took all my willpower not the scream in pleasure. My bucking hips had a mind of their own, and my balls didn’t seem as if they would ever stop unloading all over our torsos.



I was spent. With Dakota under me, my body sated and so fatigued I couldn’t move, my head cleared as I started to breathe again. “Oh my god,” was all I could mumble.



Dakota carried me with him when rolled so we were side by side and face to face. “That was ace,” he said, his voice just as surprised as mine. He looked down between our bodies at our cocks which were returning to their softened state. His face turned red, and I don’t know if it was because he was realizing we were both naked in my bed, we’d had sex or because of the cum all over us. “We made a mess.”



“My t-shirt is dirty,” I whispered. “We can use it to clean up with.”



He wiped our torsos off as best we could, and then I rolled in Dakota’s arms so that he was spooning behind me. He felt so good with his strong arms cradling me and his thick but flaccid cock nestled into my back. “Mmm,” I sighed. “I love you, Kody.”



He kissed the nape of my neck and snuggled against me. “I love you too, Dev.”



I guess we must have passed out after that because the next thing I knew my alarm clock said it was after twelve noon, and I was just waking up. I could feel Dakota’s warm, naked body still at my back, his arm thrown casually over my shoulder and his stiff erection locked against the cleft of my backside. His regular breathing told me he was still asleep, and I quietly turned over so I could look at him. I felt a pull at my groin, the kind that reminded me that I still had cum on me, and it had glued some of my pubic hair to my thigh. Obviously, I had no intention of leaving Dakota in my room alone for me to shower, nor could he wander around either. Yeah, the time had come for the world to learn that Dakota had returned home.



“Hey, Kody,” I whispered. “You need to wake up so you can go home and tell your family you’re safe.”



He wrapped me in his arms, still half asleep. “Don’t want to go home, Dev. I want to stay here with you. Your bed is nice and warm.”



I decided to tease him. “You mean you only like my bed?”



“No,” he corrected, beginning to thrust his hard erection against me. “I love the person in it too.”



“Well, that person says there are many others who love you too, Kody. They’re getting all freaky-deaky thinking you’re dead or something, and it’s time to tell them you ain’t.”



He sighed and nuzzled into my neck. “Okay, okay, I’ll get up.”



The covers were pooling around my naked hips when he finally sat up, and his eyes widened as he leered at my exposed body up and down. Like me, he was probably too tired that morning to fully appreciate what he saw, not that I’m so special. I’m average everywhere except my cock is fairly thick. It’s a heady experience being in bed with another naked man and experiencing sex like we did, even if all we did was jack each other off. When you love somebody, it isn’t what you do necessarily, it’s the desire to please behind it.



“Wicked,” he announced, pinching my nipple between his thumb and finger. I hissed at the slight pain, but it went straight to my cock. However, we didn’t have time for any more play, and I could tell he was trying to distract me. I didn’t want him to go home anymore than he did, but he had an obligation to relieve his family’s distress. The longer he delayed, the worse it would be.



Checking to make sure the coast was clear, I sneaked Dakota into the bathroom so he could pee and wash up. Then it was my turn, with him safely hidden in my bedroom, and we got dressed. After which, I finally texted Caleb. ‘Kody is OK.’



He messaged me back, ‘How d-u know?’



‘K’s in my room w/me.’



Seconds later, Caleb was at my door. He gave one knock and slipped inside, his face glowing to see his best friend safe and sound. “Dakota, you scared us half to death.”



My new boyfriend looked at me tenderly and grinned as he slung his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into a hug. “Nah, I’m alright. Better than alright.”



Caleb sniffed the air and stared at us with horror-stricken eyes. “I smell… I smell… you two didn’t have sex in here, did you?” Dakota laughed but had the grace to blush. I was surprised perfect Caleb even knew what sex smelled like.



“You two are going to get into so much trouble if my parents suspect anything. Which,” he was hasty to add, throwing up his hands defensively when I glared at him, “they won’t from me. But you can’t be doing that stuff or someone is going to get wise, and all H-E- double hockey sticks is going to break out.”



I snorted at him. “The word is ‘hell’, Caleb, and even your preacher says it, as in ‘all you sinners are going to…’ So get used to it because you aren’t going to get zapped by God for it. Oh, by the way, there is no half belief of anything as far as Kody being in love with me goes. I can also tell you in all confidence that he is gay.”



Dakota kissed me lightly on the lips and smiled at me in such tenderness it took my breath away. I could see the evidence of my words swirling through Caleb’s mind and the battle within him as he tried to balance his long-held religious beliefs with the devotion so apparent in front of him. God is love and commanded us to love one another, or so I’d read at various times since I was a child. Wasn’t the love Kody and I had for each other one way to manifest it?

Dakota, maybe thinking along the same lines, kissed me harder and stuck his tongue in my mouth for me to suck for a second or two. “Ewww,” Caleb half-joked as he blushed scarlet but otherwise said nothing more. So my foster brother seemed relatively cool with the idea of Dakota and me hooking up, although maybe it was the lesser of two evils, where his disappearance or death would have been far worse to deal with. We all broke into relieved giggles.



For the next forty-five minutes we discussed how we were going to get him home with the least amount of trouble. None of us were stupid; even if he was eighteen and it wouldn’t be a legal issue because he isn’t a minor, he was in for an intense interrogation from his parents and the cops. His integrity was going to come into question as well, and I didn’t envy him the inquisition of explaining why he’d run off and where he had been all night, nor the church adults guilt-tripping him because of what he put his family through. That he couldn’t admit to spending six hours in bed with me went without saying.



We rehearsed the partly true story of how Dakota had received some bad news of a buddy after school the day before that made him spaz out. Without thinking about the consequences, he’d taken off to consider what to do. He wandered around most of the night before he finally fell asleep behind the old drive-in theater/swap meet site recently sold on the edge of town—a place he never went to that Caleb and I knew had been missed in the searches. Waking up late this morning, Kody turned up on the patio of the Simmons’ home around noon, contrite and worried and seeking out his best friend Caleb.



It was simple enough. Luckily, since I helped search for him nobody thought it strange that I went with Caleb and Dakota, but there was no way I would let him walk into the lion’s den alone. It was imperative, however, that I act mostly disinterested in his story, like it was all bullshit that didn’t affect me in the same way it did my foster brother. We all hoped none of us would mess up.



It went more or less according to plan. His mother fell on Dakota’s neck wildly weeping in relief while he held her and apologized over and over. He was genuinely distressed over the pain he had caused his loved ones, so he didn’t have to fake the sentiment. A police officer lectured him on his moral, if not legal, responsibility to keep in touch with his family so they wouldn’t needlessly worry over him. Valuable community resources had been wasted on searches for him, and Dakota might not be out of the woods on that end except for his age and the fact that he was a good kid. Even Caleb and I had to give a statement, and I played my part very well of the new friend who had no part in the drama.



Then the pastor and several deacons of the church arrived, and the real show began. These people, however good their intentions, were relentless. Dakota stoutly refused to expose the classmate who had spoken to him or go into detail about the subject of their discussion, saying he had promised discretion. The churchmen told him he had a duty to share so the friend could be prayed for, and their determination to break him down just for a bit of gossip smacked of both mental abuse and hypocrisy to me. Dakota was equally strong and refused to reveal anything to them, and in the end the cleric convinced his parents that maybe their son should see the church counselor for a few sessions as follow-up. Dakota was grounded for a week.



On the other hand, they didn’t take his cell phone away. We messaged each other all evening until our fingers got sore, and then he called me after we went to bed that night.



“Hey Kody,” I greeted softly, worried about him. “How are you holding up?”



His parents had contacted his maternal grandfather about the runaway, which was how it was now being labeled. The old man arrived just before dinner with guns blazing to spend two hours shouting at Dakota for upsetting his mother so thoroughly. He was of a mind that the boy should be immediately removed from public school and enrolled in church-run education but, thankfully, it was too close to the end of his senior year, and the Brewsters realized changing schools might torpedo his chances at getting into the university. Grandpa decreed that a year at the local college, keeping Dakota at home where he could be closely watched, would be good for him, and for a time, it looked as if he might win out. Dakota told me all of this in near tears, and all I could do was comfort him.



“Keep your nose clean from here on out,” I urgently advised him. “I don’t want you stuck at some community school while I have to miss you from San Francisco.”



“That would be horrible. Another year at home? I don’t think I could live through it.”



I shuddered listening to that kind of talk. “I’m here for you if things get rough, Kody. You know that, right?”



He was silent a minute, almost scaring me with his lack of response. I tried not to push him because he had been under so much pressure from everyone around him. But at last he seemed to shake it, or so I thought.



“Yeah,” he agreed. “I know.”



I continued to talk about all the good parts of going away to college. “We should share a dorm.”



“Do you honestly want to?” he asked in surprise. “With me?”



“No, with your sisters,” I teased, but he was too quiet. “Of course with you. You’re my boyfriend, aren’t you?”



Dakota turned pensive, and my antennae went up seeking out the reason.



“Are you still there, Kody?” The pause seemed to go on forever.



“We’re an abomination, Devlin.” His wavering voice broke my heart and sent panicky chills racing up my spine. “What we did this morning is a sin.”



“You didn’t tell on us, did you?” My mouth felt like sawdust. If he’d confessed to anyone we knew, not only would he be persecuted but so would I. I might as well begin packing immediately because for sure I would be kicked out of the Simmons’ house, forever branded as the boy who turned Dakota gay.



“N-no,” he breathed. “But it’s the truth.”



“According to who?” I scoffed. “Don’t you remember all that stuff you said this morning about God and love? Even with as few times as I’ve delved into the pages of the Good Book, there are commands in there that don’t even apply to present times. Women keeping their heads covered, for example, or all men sporting facial hair. The way I read the Sodom and Gomorrah story was that it wasn’t homosexuality that was the problem, it was that the men wanted to rape the angels sent to save Lot’s family. Jesus doesn’t even address the gay issue.”



Dakota chuckled. “For a non-believer, you certainly know a lot about the Bible.”



“So what got you so freaked?” I could tell he was calming down again.



“Grandpa is a lay minister at his church and knows how to put the fear of God into people. He got his preacher on and sermonized me but good about all the sins of the world. I guess I let it get under my skin.”



His turn of phrase was waking up my cock. “I’d like to get under your skin,” I rasped. “I miss you. The sex and waking up with you in my bed made this one of my best days ever.”



“Mine too. So tell me about getting under my skin,” he teased, but I could hear the sultry edge to it. I had him interested, and that in itself was getting me further aroused.



“Oh, it’s just that there are certain parts of your skin that I’d like to wrap my lips around right this very minute.”



He groaned. “Keep talking, Dev. Tell me what you want to do to me.”



I swallowed hard, unaccustomed to doing phone sex with anyone, but if it turned Kody on…



“First we would be someplace that nobody knew about and we didn’t have to sneak around. It would have a big soft bed with the finest satin sheets.” I went on to describe taking off his clothes piece by piece, spending my time unveiling his beautiful body for me to lick and kiss. I could hear him moaning.



“Are you jacking off?”



“Yeah,” he wheezed. “What would you do next?”



Oh fuck, that sent my need for him through the roof, and I wanted to jump through the mobile to get to him. I could see Dakota in all his naked glory. The images had me so hard I was hurting.



“So all you’re wearing are a pair of briefs. They’re thin, um… low-cut, really low-cut… bright red. I can clearly see your raging hard-on through them and you’re, you know, sticking out above the top of the waistband. I take them off you and I feel up your ass before you lie down on the bed. You’re so sexy and I want to play with your beautiful body and touch you all over.”



Shucking my boxers, I spit in my hand and reached down to take hold of my own cock. The head was already shimmery with liquid need, and I began to slide the foreskin down my hard pole and back up, flicking around the head in gentle rotations.



“I spread your legs and see your big, hard prick, Kody. You want me so bad I can see your heartbeat making it jump on your stomach and you’re dripping with jizz. I crawl between your legs and when I bend over you, I pick up your prick and squeeze it. You have a puddle of jizz on your tummy, and I put some on your pole and begin to move up and down. I decide I have to taste you. I dip my tongue in your jizz and it tastes good… like, um, kind of salty and sweet.”



I could tell by his harsh breathing that Dakota was listening to me carefully. I stroked myself with long, slow grips up and down. I could feel the muscles in my abdomen begin to jerk, so I knew this was going to be short and sweet. Balancing my phone between my ear and shoulder, I began to massage my balls with my other hand, pulling on the sac and rolling them inside. I began to moan.



“I put my mouth around the head of your cock, Kody,” I whispered hoarsely. “It’s soft and sexy, and I suck on it hard to get your jizz because I need it. After I rub my tongue all over you, I hear you talking to me and telling me that you want me to suck you really hard. I start licking all over your hard dick, feeling all the little bumps and veins in it. Every lick sends you into heaven. I’m going down on you as far as I can. I have to work at it, but I can get you into my throat. You feel so good in my mouth, Kody, and I suck you hard.”



I moaned again, partly from the way I was now riding my hand, partly from my description of what I wanted to do to Dakota’s cock. I wished he was with me so I could do that to him and, by his whimpers, so did he. My fingers were flying up and down my shaft, and my pinkie was grinding into the slit, making it belch squirts of precum. I could feel my climax building deep and my balls were getting tight.



“Oh Dev, I’m so close,” Kody sang into my ear. “Keep going.”



“Yeah, well… I have the head of your prick in my throat, and every time I swallow it’s tugging at you. You’re so far gone, Kody, that you begin fucking my face. You’re sliding your prick in and out of my mouth, and you can feel every single inch of my tongue sliding over it. Your nuts are pulling…”



“Aaaah, Dev, I’m cumming… I’m…” He abruptly stopped talking, but I could hear the muffled screams, so I had to assume he was pressing a pillow into his mouth. No matter, listing to him orgasm was all I needed for my own, and my cock began to shoot cum like a fire hose. I cried out Kody’s name as quietly as I could while I blasted all over my abdomen in long strings that dripped down my sides into the sheets. Just drifting, I lay back in dazed satisfaction.



“Shit, Dev.” He was back on the phone breathing like a bull. “That was one fine nut you just gave me. Did you blow too?”



“Yeah, Kody,” I panted. “It was good for me too.”



We talked for awhile longer, but both of us were exhausted. Soon we hung up; I turned over and went to sleep.



I didn’t hear from Dakota all day Sunday, but Caleb talked to him at church and said he was okay. One of his parents had remembered his cell phone that morning and relieved him of it. I was just glad that I hadn’t given in to temptation and sent him a text picture of me naked with cum all over me like I’d been considering. Someone was watching out for us, I guess.



I could hardly wait until Monday to get back to school. The rumor mill had been working in full force over the weekend, and by the time classes started, I think every student knew that Dakota had disappeared all Friday night. There were a few sympathetic murmurs, mostly from girls who had the hots for him and hoped sharing their feelings might kindle his in return, but I had to secretly giggle over their wasted breath. Even Caleb found it funny. Most of our classmates teased him about it and Dakota laughed along with them. There were one or two who made off-color remarks about him having a secret gay lover, and I held my breath willing him to be cool and not take them seriously.



I sat with him and the guys at lunch, and he looked kind of pale. It was just my good fortune that I was part of Caleb’s group of friends, even though I didn’t attend their church, so our eating together was natural. We sat next to each other, and he ate his turkey sandwich with one hand while resting the other on my knee under the table. He needed the contact to soothe him and let him know it would be alright.



We held back as the bell rang to send us to fifth period.



“Mom says I can’t stay for tutoring,” he griped, his eyes sad. I could see the struggle inside him; he wanted to hold my hand or kiss me, but he wisely refrained. “I might be able to talk her into later this week since it’s all about my government grade. I’m sorry about the phone.”



“Shh,” I tried to console him. “It will work out. Just be strong for me, ‘kay?”



He nodded and looked at his feet. “I love you,” he said in a voice only I could hear.



“I love you too, honey.” I tugged on the hem of his shirt in place of a hug, and he smiled at the new endearment. “Have a good afternoon, and I’ll try to see you following sixth.”



We managed to get through the rest of the week of torture, with our only contact being school which was much too public to even touch each other. I could see it in his violet eyes how much he yearned for my embrace. His life was constant pressure to conform to his parents’ standards. At least Randy and Amber left me alone. They made no demands other than that I follow their rules and do my best in school. Seeing as how I was generally a good kid and an honor student, they were tickled pink.



Caleb came to be my ally. Mrs. Brewster, possibly thinking that Dakota deserved one phone call a day with a friend, allowed him to speak with Caleb at 6:30 every evening, and he passed messages back and forth for us. His face was usually a solid blush for the last fifteen minutes of the call, not that we resorted to anything like our phone sex. It was just the fervent vows of ‘I love you’ and how much we couldn’t wait for the weekend.



If we thought, however, that the lifting of Dakota’s restriction was going to help matters we were wrong. We had no privacy. Definitely none at school, not even in the library or waiting in the hall after school for the other students to leave because we couldn’t be obvious that we were better friends than we were supposed to be. None at home when Dakota came over for Bible study and his hungry eyes would rake me as I made small talk on my way to the kitchen. Not during game or movie nights because Esdy and Justin were there too.



Two weekends after Dakota and I got together we thought we had the perfect plan but neither of us was really gung ho for it. If we could talk Caleb into asking for permission for Dakota to spend the night, and we could sneak him into my bedroom… Caleb was aghast. As much as he was secretly rooting for us, he had no intention of deceiving his parents like that, and he made me promise I would never have sex again in the house. I needed his support, so I agreed. But that left us no options for solitude unless Dakota changed his routine. It wasn’t like I could stay the night at his house as a guest… not without Caleb there.



Being at school every day with Dakota became nearly unbearable. My palms itched to grab hold of his hand every time we passed each other on our way to class, and we had to settle for the brief shirt tugs that were our secret code. We sat as close as we dared at lunch. I longed to kiss my man when we met by one of our lockers or at Starbucks. But the risk was ever-present, fear for him invading me like a disease, knowing just one minor slip-up could be his undoing. I kept my eyes averted from his in case someone saw the love pass between us. We settled for text messages that we deleted as soon as we read them, much as I would’ve liked to save his vows of devotion. I doodled his name in my binder, blending it in with my artwork so it became part of a picture. I did the same on notes I passed to him, and I hoped he kept them somewhere safe or destroyed them.



Acting as if we were merely friends was easier for me than it looked. I was adept at hiding being gay by now so this became another piece of the deception, but it created all sorts of insecurities for Dakota. He wasn’t so glib and would sometimes take my nonchalance to mean I didn’t care about him in the same way. He began to come home with me after school on the days I was supposed to tutor him, and Caleb would give us time alone. Amber was as an office secretary at one of the local elementary schools, and we had about an hour’s worth of privacy before she returned from work. Not nearly long enough for me to hold him and let him pour out his anguish on my sodden shoulder. Sometimes we indulged in a few soft, sweet kisses, but that was all we’d trust ourselves to, and I wouldn’t go back on the promise I made to Caleb. Kody was so torn up with guilt and having to pretend in front of everyone else. We longed for the ability to make the rest of the school year instantly disappear so we could go to San Francisco and begin our real lives together.



What would you do for a friend? Obliterate your own moral code of ethics? Evade inquiries over why you were suddenly spending so much time with your foster brother and your best friend and run the risk of having to take on your family in the process if they found out? That was what Caleb did for Dakota. What he did for me. Aside from the man I adored, Caleb became the closest friend I ever had, the brother I never had until I moved into his house. Kody and I had so much to be grateful for, we couldn’t even explain it.



As the weather warmed and the days lengthened, we became desperate to find private time for one another. Dakota had no alternative but to become more enigmatic with his parents. I never did learn what he used in the way of excuses but we scheduled trips up into the hills in Dakota’s pickup truck on Saturdays and an occasional day after school. Living on the cusp of Angeles National Forest, there were plenty of places for us to head to where nobody would find us. Fire roads were good for parking, and we could sit in quiet spots and make out in the cab without worry of detection by Randy, Amber or his parents. We just had to time things properly to ensure nobody became suspicious.



One Thursday evening in late May, Dakota made excuses to the guys that he wouldn’t be at Bible study, and I lied to Randy and said I was going to the library with a friend. Kody picked me up two streets down and we headed for the ANF. There was some Scout camp up there we’d explored previously where the chain holding the gate of the parking lot closed was merely folded over itself, and we could drive through. If we followed the driveway back, there were a lot of private spots where we couldn’t be seen.



Dakota had sneaked a thick blanket out of his room and spread it out in the bed of the truck. Using our hoodies for pillows, it made for a somewhat comfortable resting place. I hopped up and held out my hand to him.

“Come here, honey.”



We knelt under the dying rays of the sun, and my arms slowly snaked around his waist to hang there. He was such a good-looking guy, all mysterious yet sweet, his dark eyes glowing. My gaze rested on his pink lips and how I wanted to make them swollen with my kisses. How I wanted to drive him wild with need.



My fingers crept behind his head and under the teased mess of his black hair lying against his neck. I slowly tilted my face upwards and gave his jaw a quick peck. A few more as my mouth lifted to his, and his lips parted to let my tongue in. I gently explored around his tongue for awhile as he responded to me eagerly. When the kiss broke apart his eyes were closed, he was panting softly and his face was flushed.



I kissed down his chin to the hollow of his throat where I was dying to mark my lover but didn’t dare. I worked his shirt off and kissed across his collar bones, down his shoulders to his pectorals and fastened on a nipple. He shivered in delight. My tongue flattened against the small berry, and it instantly retracted into a hard seed. With my fingers I played with one side while I sucked on the other, and Dakota threw his head back and groaned.



Dakota helped me with my own shirt, fanning his fingers across my chest as he licked and sucked on my upper body. He had the ability like nobody else I knew to get me turned on, and my cock was rock solid. His was creating a wet spot near on the waistband of his low-hanging shorts so we decided to get rid of the rest of our clothes. Naked, we spread out on the blanket to kisses that were sometimes deep and languid, sometimes like fucking each other’s mouths, needy and desperate.



“Remember our first phone sex?” I asked Kody in a husky voice. There had been many since then as we worked out our sexual frustration with each other, unable to be together except by words. “What I said I was going to do to you? Now, I’m going to show you.”



I climbed down between his naked thighs and stared at his nine inch cock that was curved, rosy marble. Without preamble I sucked it down halfway to the root to the reverberation of his howls. I slurped on the head and pulled precum from the slit as my tongue slid around to attack the sensitive nerve center in the back where it met the shaft. Bobbing over it, I began to set a steady rhythm which encouraged Dakota to rock his hips into me. For several long minutes I made love to his penis, nuzzling his balls my free hand, taking my time and enjoying his pants and groans. With every downward nod I was able to take more of his cock into my mouth until I deep-throated him. Swallowing, I felt him seize up, thrusting fiercely.



“Fuck, Dev, fuck,” he screamed to the sky, so loudly it scared birds out of the nearby trees. His whole body went rigid, and cum gushed out of his dick to flood my mouth. I kept swallowing until I emptied his balls, and I licked him clean. Afterwards I shared a deep kiss with him where he could taste himself, happy and tired.



“That was the best I’ve ever had,” Dakota told me as I pushed sweaty hair out of his eyes.



I was confused. “The only, don’t you mean?”



He shook his head and blushed a deep red. “I’m not a virgin. Um… Julia Clarence and me… tenth grade.”



Ah, the deacon’s daughter. The coincidence that Mr. Clarence was one of the men interrogating Dakota after he disappeared was ironic.



Also funny that Dakota and I had never discussed each other’s sexual pasts, only that we had both been tested at some point and were clean. Maybe we should’ve asked why we even needed to be tested if we were supposedly both virgins, but we had trusted each other. I still trusted him.



“But you’re really good at giving head,” Kody smiled. “Much better than Julia.”



I laughed at his compliment, but it was time for a confession of my own. I told him that this was my sixth staffing and how when I was younger I was forced to blow bigger guys if I didn’t want to be knocked around or thrown out of a foster home on my ass. I explained what happened when I lived with the Comptons and getting beaten up for the pictures I drew in my spare time. By the time I was done he was holding me tightly and he was crying. I was simply resigned and philosophical.



This discussion, of course, had deleterious effects on my own erection and I was soft again, my cock nestled and resting in my brown pubes. Dakota immediately volunteered for fluffing duty and went to work on me.



I lay down on the blanket and we made out for a few minutes. Kissing and nibbling his way down to my groin, his fingers fluttered over the mushroom-shaped head and played in the sticky precum. My dick began to rise like a phoenix. Using his thumb and all four fingers in a cone shape he gently squeezed it, and it was like more fluid had just been waiting for an invitation because it bubbled out like lava. He smeared it over his palm, grabbed my shaft and pumped slowly.



Rolling my cockhead on his tongue, he glanced up at me through his bangs and applied steady pressure with the vacuum of his mouth. That tongue wasn’t idle, and it curled and slithered in quick circles. And oh shit, that stud in his tongue and the feeling of it rolling across my slit! With a whimper, my hips came up off the truck bed, and I could already feel the semen begin to stir in my balls. Freeing the head, he nibbled down my pole with tiny nips of his teeth. Back up the same way, and then he took me into his mouth and began to bob. Sliding his lips up and down my pole, faster and deeper until his breath ghosted my pubes.



By the fourth descent, I was coming apart. “Oh yes, Kody, do it, do it. Suck me hard.”



He knew I was about to spurt, and his lips made a round O around my shaft and I couldn’t stop it. He held on to my hips as I unleashed everything inside me in a shattering orgasm. I shuddered and sweated and cried out. My limbs went crazy, and I may have even blacked out for a second or two.



We lay naked in the back of his truck for what seemed like forever watching the stars come out over the tree tops. It was just an inky puzzle of white dots but so romantic when I was holding on to my Kody. But all good things had to come to an end, and quickly we redressed. Dakota was about to start the truck when I put my hand on his wrist to stop him.



I fished into my pocket and pulled out a two-inch purple velveteen pouch. Inside it was a plain gold band that had once belonged to my father. As he explained it, it wasn’t a wedding ring; in fact, he had forgotten the meaning of it except it might have been given to him by a girl who liked him. I had received it from my social worker when she asked Kayla for some of my father’s things for me. It probably wasn’t even valuable if my dad’s sister was willing to part with it.



I gazed at Kody who had gone completely still. I gave him a reassuring smile, and he had a strange gleam in his violet eyes, understanding that this was important to both of us. Slipping the ring on his finger, it fit perfectly.



“I know you probably can’t show this off,” I said in a hushed voice, “without answering a bunch of questions about what it is or where you got it. Maybe if you wear it on a chain around your neck nobody will notice. I’m not asking you to marry me. Yet. Maybe this seems rushed, but I guess you could say it’s a promise ring from me saying that you’re everything I could want and I love you.”



In answer, Dakota took me in his arms and gave me a long kiss. When we parted his eyes were wet but he had a big grin on his face. “I love you too, Devlin, forever and ever.”



It was late May and we were nearing graduation. I wasn’t nearly as excited about it as I thought I’d be. It was just a stepping stone. What I looked forward to was August, and I was counting the weeks until we left for the university. For freedom. Dakota and I were under so much pressure, dying to be together, unable to show how much we loved each other except when we were alone. Every morning I woke up holding my breath and hoping we’d get through the day without making a mistake. Every night when I closed my eyes I was grateful we were still safe. If not for Caleb I don’t know what we would’ve done.



Dakota was doing much better. The ring made my promise of love to him real, and he finally took a step of faith and believed with his whole heart. He was always on the lookout for ways we could spend time together. We came up with a great one when tickets for Grad Night went on sale.



Grad Night was the all-night party following graduation when the school hired vendors and entertainers and locked the seniors in the gym. Free food, dancing to music by a local DJ and a rotation of decent bands, shows and casino games, silly crafts and kiddy fare like face painting to end the school year in style and send us off into the great unknown with a bang. The tickets cost $65 apiece. Randy and Amber had agreed to pay for mine, and Dakota had money saved up. We wondered if there was a way for us to forego the party and rent a hotel room instead, seeing as the graduates wouldn’t be released from the gym until seven o’clock the next morning.



It was marvelously easy because we didn’t breathe a word to anyone, not even Caleb. Randy gave me cash and didn’t ask for a receipt, proving that good kids can get away with murder apparently. Graduation began at five, would end about seven and then we would have close to two hours between the end of the ceremony and the scheduled start of the fete to spend with our families. Dakota told me to let him handle everything.



So yeah, my graduation from high school was sweet. Randy and Amber fussed over me almost as much as Caleb. Ms Hopkins, my caseworker, was there, happy as a clam to take pictures of me in my Honors cap and gown to fix over her Children’s Services desk and prove that some foster kids do exit the system as successes. She extended an invitation to Kayla or anyone in Dad’s family who wanted to attend, but as far as they were concerned, they weren’t related to me. I didn’t give a shit.



Randy and Amber took Caleb and me out for dinner to a roadside steakhouse that had really good food. I dawdled over my meal until Amber finally asked me if I was sick, and not wanting to give her or Randy a reason to keep me home, I smiled and ate up. Caleb kept looking at me speculatively.



We were on our way to school for Grad Night when I decided to come clean with him.



“Caleb, don’t be surprised if Kody and I disappear tonight.”



“Why?” Now, I had his full attention.



“We aren’t staying.” I blushed and hoped he wouldn’t get grossed out when I said, “We’ve put off making love for a special time, and tonight is it.”



Naturally, he came up with all kinds of reasons it wouldn’t work and how we’d get caught. Yeah, Dakota and I had already considered that some of our friends might find his or my absence strange, might even put something together as to why we were both gone. Unless they tattled to their parents, who tattled to Dakota’s or Amber and Randy we’d work it out. No matter what, we would still have the night together as planned. They couldn’t take college away either since we were both attending on full scholarships.



Dakota was standing at the street edge of the long driveway heading back towards the gym, and Caleb put down his window as we stopped next to him. “Devlin has to get out here,” Kody said, and I understood. Vehicles were being locked in as much as the students were.



Giving us both a black look, Caleb let me open the door to join Dakota. I looked at him. “You don’t have to lie for us Caleb if it makes you uncomfortable. Say you don’t know where we are. You don’t really.”



He tried to look stern but ended up smiling. “Get out of here you two.”



Dakota drove us down the coast some thirty miles to a small beach community that would be a hopping resort in a week or two. Two blocks from the ocean was a cozy set of upscale cottages, and he had the key to the one farthest in the back. We had no luggage; just a small pack holding some essentials. We were expected to return home in the same clothes we were wearing so we didn’t need anything except for a few snacks in case the sex made us hungry later. Dakota had taken care of that too.



The cottage was well appointed. We weren’t interested in the cuteness of the planked porch or the shutters on the windows or the solid hardwood floors. There was a small living room with furniture made to withstand coastal weather and little people’s sandy feet, a modestly equipped kitchen with an eating bar and a surprisingly large bathroom. The only thing that mattered to Kody and me was the big king-sized bed taking up almost the whole single bedroom. And it was ours all night.



I was so keyed up about our rendezvous that I was practically hyperventilating by the time we ran inside and locked the cottage door. Neither of us was hungry or needed anything except each other. Dakota took my hand and we walked into the bedroom. My man was going to make love to me tonight, something I had been looking forward to for nearly two months. I almost wanted to ask him to pinch me.



Dakota walked up behind me and lifted my hair away from my neck, raining light kisses between the hairline and my collar. I could feel his hard dick threatening the zipper of his khaki pants and pressed against my tailbone. His hands massaged the tension from my shoulders, and he smelled divine, aroused male along with the remnants of his spicy aftershave.



Deliberately I turned in his arms and rose up on my toes to rest a silky kiss, actually just a trace of a touch, on his lips. I slowly nibbled on his bottom lip and he quaked against me, whether out of desire or nervousness I had no idea. I licked the seam of his mouth and his lips parted. He moved in to deepen the kiss slowly, and his tongue zipped out to taste me. Colliding together, my tongue stroked his and we lost our ability to breathe for a few minutes. We held on to each other, our hands roaming over clothed bodies, amping up the excitement.



I began to remove my shirt, and he stilled my fingers. “Let me. Tonight is for you to enjoy,” he said as I stared into his violet eyes. “You always do so much. You’re the strong one who fights the battles. Now it’s your turn to rest and let me treat you special.”



I was in a formal shirt with long sleeves and cuffs because we had to dress up for Grad Night—a silly tradition, but one which we’d gone along with to create the illusion. Now, Dakota spun me back around and pulled me against his body so I was cradled into his chest. When he reached under my arms he began to unbutton the black fabric from neck to navel. Untucking the tails, he drew the cotton down my arms, folded it and set it on the chair. He got rid of my A-shirt, dress pants, socks and shoes in the same way, leaving me in my boxer briefs.



By this time my erection was almost painful, and his hands slipped down to stroke it through my shorts as he kissed every inch of skin his mouth could reach. He was still fully clothed, and I was breathing harshly and twisting in his arms. I wanted bare, damp skin to stretch against. “Mmm, take them off, honey,” I begged.



He picked me up and carried me to the bed where I bounced lightly on the firm mattress. Grinning at me in a playful fashion, he started his own little striptease, making a show out of unhooking his own buttons, removing the belt from his pants and pulling them off his legs. He was making me so horny I began to caress my own dick over my briefs, creating a wet spot that grew with each second.



Down to his own briefs, Dakota came towards me, grabbed me by the ankles and pulled my ass to the edge of the bed. My underwear was off in no time, and he knelt between my thighs and took my hard dick in his mouth to begin sucking on it. He knew what I liked; he got the whole stud working up and down my shaft and circling around the slit. I moaned and thrashed , my hands on his head to lightly hold him in place. The muscles in my thighs and abdomen started rippling under the skin, and I was getting close. His erotic show had spurred on the desired effect, and I could no longer fight the end. With a loud scream, I erupted in Kody’s mouth and nearly overflowed it with my cream.



Dakota stretched out over me, being careful not to put too much weight on my body and kissed me long and deeply. I could taste my essence on his tongue, and I could feel his heavy cock on my thigh. My hand felt down to massage it and he moaned. “What do you want to do?” I asked.



He pressed a kiss into my forehead. “I want to make love to you, Dev.” His voice was hoarse and solemn, and his eyes heavy-lidded with need. “I want to put my dick up inside you and make you all mine.”



“I want that too,” I whispered.



Kody got up and retrieved a bottle of lube from his gear. As he pulled extra pillows from the closet, I shoved the blankets down the bed to find cool satin sheets. When he moved back towards me, his briefs were gone, and his long, thin cock was swinging at me like an invitation. I licked my lips in delight and reached for it, handling the warm hardness lovingly. I fluttered my fingers over it, and he groaned.



“Dev, if you keep that up, I’m not going to get anywhere near your ass.”



I smiled, deciding to be an obedient boy and stretched out on the bed. He crawled up to me, his shaggy black hair shining in the dim light and a hungry expression on his face. I raised my knees to my armpits and held them there, displaying my little pink bud for him. I heard him gasp and the cap of the lube bottle snap open.



I had no idea if Dakota knew what he was doing or not, but he took charge. He stuffed two pillows under me to lift my hips higher, and soon after, I felt a warm, slick finger covered in lube circling my hole. I couldn’t even begin to describe how it felt but I could feel the puckered skin around it fluttering to his touch. Dakota was watching my ass carefully, seeming fascinated by my response, lightly trailing his finger over it again and again, I could feel my muscles tightening and my cock pulsing.



“Honey, stop or you’re going to get me off again,” I whined.



The finger stopped circling and slowly breeched the outer muscle to slip into my bud. There was a distinct burning pain and a desire to eject the intruder, but I bit my lip and didn’t let myself complain. He slowly began to move his finger in and out, and as he stretched me gently, the burning began to disappear.



Fully impaling me with one finger, Dakota added a second, curving and twisting to widen the passage. He hit a spot inside which I knew to be my prostate, and it was like a sizzle of electricity through me. I moaned, and he smiled wickedly and stroked it again. By the time he had three fingers in me I was babbling and begging him. “Just put it in me, Kody. Pleasepleaseplease.”



No condom. No need. He positioned my ass by lifting my feet to his shoulders and slicked his dick up with lube, groaning at his own touch. At a perfect angle for my pucker, he fed his cock into me slowly. There was resistance, as if my bud was trying to warn me what was coming. His dick finally pushed through the first ring of muscle and I nearly screamed, it hurt so badly. I won’t lie; I was in tears and trying to control my breathing, knowing I had to calm down and only then would the pain stop.



Dakota was watching me frantically, upset because he’d hurt me, massaging my thighs and ass and trying to get me to relax. As much as he’d prepared me, his cock was still bigger than his fingers combined, and there was a lot of burning and uncomfortable fullness. He pressed just a little harder and breeched the second barrier. From the look on his face, he wanted very badly to thrust but I had to ask him Dakota to stop while I caught my breath and got used to him inside me.



Minutes went by, and the burning lessened to a level I could tolerate. “Try to move,” I coaxed Dakota. He leaned into me gently with small prods, enough to enter me partial inches at a time. As I expanded to take him in, I could feel myself loosen, and his cock moving in and out began to feel good. He finally buried his whole dick in my hole, and the emotions that played across my mind of being completely one with my man were enough to outweigh the initial discomfort.

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