Enumclaw, WA—Three years ago
“HEY, Mister Anderson, you gonna put on your eyeliner for us today?”
The taunting shouts rang across the asphalt. Mason Anderson hurried for his car from the side door of the high school. He’d been hoping to avoid the exact situation he currently found himself in. Of course it had to be on the other side of the parking lot. He tried to pick up the pace without running. Running would be stupid. He’d get caught anyway, and then his stuff would end up strewn all over the parking lot.
Fucking small town jocks. He hated when they started with that Mister Anderson shit, and since when did he wear eyeliner?
“Hey, pretty boy! You ignoring us?”
Seattle, Seattle, Seattle….
Mason repeated the word in his head all day like some sort of magical chant. He’d been doing it since he got his acceptance letter right around Christmas time. Ever since then, time had seemed to slow down. But it couldn’t stop. In four months he’d be a freshman in college and out of fucking redneck Enumclaw, Washington, forever. Away from the cowboys and their Wranglers and their nasty taunts. He was about ten feet from his car when he felt the shove in the small of his back.
“Why didn’t you answer me? Huh? Pretty little Mister Anderson?” Mason reached for the back pocket of his jeans. He had 911 on speed dial. Felt like he had to. The assholes of the school seemed to find him everywhere he went.
“I’ll call the cops, Kyle. My mother already made a complaint about you.”
A few months before, Kyle had tried to force Mason to suck his dick in the boys’ bathroom. Mason had come home and told his mom he was never going back to that school and he didn’t give a shit if he graduated. She’d called the cops and filed for a restraining order. Didn’t do a damn thing, but he was glad she cared. He was glad she talked him into graduating too. It was his ticket out of the place.
Kyle laughed. “The cops. I’ll just tell them you wanted me to fuck you, and I got grossed out or something.”
“Yeah, I want you to fuck me in the school parking lot over the hood of my mom’s crappy Corolla. That sounds super hot.” Mason tried for sarcasm, but his voice shook. He didn’t want the asshole to know he was scared of him, but he was. Kyle Butler was huge and beefy and there was no way in hell he could do anything to fight him. The pressure was suddenly off his back, and Kyle was stepping away like nothing at all had happened.
“So are we going to work on that chemistry project tonight at your place, Mason?”
Mason stared at him, mouth open and flabbergasted. What the fuck was he talk—ohhh. He saw Ms. Densley, his English teacher, walking toward them, laptop bag slung over her shoulder. She wouldn’t know Kyle, he wasn’t in AP, but she knew Mason, and she was a teacher. Kyle wasn’t stupid. Mason breathed a sigh of relief. He waved at Ms. Densley and unlocked his car. He made sure to lock the door again once he got in and started it before his teacher had even gotten her stuff put into her trunk. He was getting out of there fast, before Kyle had a chance to start any more shit. Mason revved his engine and headed cautiously for the exit of the school. He hit three on his speed dial with shaking hands the second he was out of the parking lot. His best friend picked up on the third ring.
“Mase, what’s up? I’m at Taco Time. Where you at?”
Thank God. Logan. His friend’s voice was the best thing he’d heard all day. “On my way. Ran into Kyle Butler again after class.”
That’s all he had to say. Mason’s best friend Logan was a baseball player, totally straight, and the nicest guy in the universe. Logan was also always ready to jump in and protect him no matter how much he protested that he didn’t need it. Mason had no idea how he’d have survived the past four years without him.
“Dude, please let me take that fucker out for you. Clearly the police aren’t going to do jack. This has gotten way outta line.”
Mason grinned at the prospect of Kyle Butler getting taken out as he headed for the highway between Enumclaw and the next little town, Bonney Lake, and the taco joint he met Logan at every day after school. Too bad any kind of fight would get Logan in more trouble than it was worth.
“I don’t want you to get suspended or anything. It’s May. We’re so almost out of here.”
“Jesus, I can’t wait till September. To the dorms!”
Mason heard the huge smile in Logan’s voice. He was just as excited to get out of cowtown as Mason himself was. They’d been planning to share a dorm room practically since kindergarten. Thank God there wasn’t any of that awkward straight friend crush shit. Logan was like his brother.
“To the dorms.” He echoed the toast they’d been repeating all school year. “Hey, I’m parking. Order me some mexi-nuggets and a side of ranch. I’ll be in there in a sec.” At least the town was small enough that it didn’t take very long to get from one place to another. It might have been the one thing Mason liked about it. Too bad everything else sucked.
Seattle, Seattle, Seattle….
It was enough to keep him going for a few more long months.
“MASETERBATOR, you didn’t seriously take that job out in Bumfuck, Egypt, did you?”
Logan. Gotta love him. Mason took a swig of Dr Pepper and laughed into the phone. He surveyed the piles of boxes that littered his Seattle apartment. All the big stuff had been loaded hours before. All that was left were blank walls and that slightly sad looking mass-market apartment carpet. It was weird seeing his place look so abandoned. But he needed to leave Seattle. The job couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Yeah, dude. I took the job. That hospital had an open position at my level, and I really liked the chick who’s the lead RN. Totally has her stuff together. I think she’s family too.”
“Haven’t you been my best friend long enough to know what that means?” Mason chuckled. “Family means I think she bats for the homo team, dude.”
“Oooh, a lesbian. Is she hot?” Logan was joking but, well, Mason was sure he still wouldn’t mind knowing.
“Shut up, Loogie. I’m going to tell Carrie you’re cruising gay nurses.”
“Fuck. She’d probably want to know too. My girl’s bent like that.” He growled into the phone. “I like it.”
Mason groaned. “Oh, I do not want to hear about you two and your freaky het action… or bi or whatever you… just ugh.”
Logan burst into low giggles on the other end of the line. “You can’t handle the hotness. Speaking of freaky action, how are you going to find any in… where are you going again?”
“Astoria. It’s in Oregon.”
Logan snorted. “Like Kindergarten Cop Astoria? Goonies Astoria?”
“Uh, yeah, both of those things actually.” Mason smiled.
“Seriously, where are you going to find action? That place is all, like, cute and familyish. You’ll be twenty-one in like, what, two months?”
“There are a few gay bars around. I think.” It had to be better than Enumclaw. Anything was better than Enumclaw.
“Yeah, with the same ten dudes every week. Maybe you’ll meet Chunk.”
“That’d be pretty hot. He can do the truffle shuffle for me.” Mason snorted, then shrugged even though Logan couldn’t see him. “I’m not really into dating right now anyway, after Todd. I just want to have a good job and make some decent money.”
“So come back here and finish college. Go to med school like you were planning! You’re not running away from that douche Todd, are you? I told you I’d kick his ass.”
He snorted. “You can’t keep kicking asses for me the rest of our lives.”
“Says who? Besides, that would imply you’ve ever let me do it. Just once would be so much fun. I’m serious, yo, if this is about him, just stay here. Let me take care of it.”
It was about Todd. And making bad choices and being in a city where those choices were so easy to make. Mason was pretty sure Logan was still a little mad that he’d left the university after a quarter to go to nursing school. He felt bad about ditching his friend, but it had just seemed smarter at the time, and less money for his parents, who’d told him they would pay for medical school but really didn’t have the resources to do it no matter how much they wanted to.
“I think I like this move, Loogs. I’m never going back to Enumscratch, but Seattle really was too… much for me. I need something in the middle, you know?”
Logan sighed. “Fucking Enumscratch. Hate that place.” It had been their refrain for the nearly three years since they’d escaped.
“Hate that place,” he echoed. “Listen, let me get all settled in, and you come visit in a few months. You’ll see it’s not all that awful. The place is actually pretty. Carrie would like it.”
Mason could almost hear Logan trying to find a way to be stubborn. It was sweet how hurt he was that Mason was leaving Seattle. And Mason really did get it. It would be weird. They’d never lived more than about five minutes from each other. Not since Logan’s family had moved in down the street from Mason’s when they were three.
“Loogie, I’m not ditching you. Promise. This is just a good job and a good move for me. At least let me give it a chance, okay?”
“Okay.” His best friend sighed. “But if you hate it, you’ve got permanent dibs on my living room couch…. Oh, and you can bring the nurse for Carrie. I’d be down to watch.”
Mason groaned. “Her name is Amy, and just in case you guys ever meet her, I’m totally going to try to forget you just said that.”
He hung up, still laughing, and got the last of his boxes ready for the long drive he had ahead of him the next day.
Rock Bay, Washington—Fourteen years ago
“YO, D-DOG, are you lost in a different solar system or what?”
Drew MacAuliffe looked up from where he’d been pretending to contemplate the limp chicken nuggets and oddly shiny french fries on his lunch tray. In reality, he hadn’t been looking at his food at all. He’d be lucky if he managed to eat anything ever again. He was reeling in shock, freaking out from something he’d just realized, something that had been dawning on him slowly for years.
He liked boys.
Shit. Fuck. Damn. Every swear word known to man. Could there be anything worse?
There had been inklings, hints, but nothing definable until just a few minutes before, when in a flash of holy shit, it had hit him like the side of a careening freight train. His friend, his closest damn friend in the world, football star and legendary pussyhound of Rock Bay High School, Tallis Carrington had leaned his head back and laughed out loud at some dumbass thing that Brock, another of their other friends, had said. The light from a dusty overhead window had hit his brown hair in just the right way, and out of nowhere Drew’s stomach clenched, then exploded into a mass of giddy bubbles.
Over Tally. His friend. Shit. Fuck. Damn… again.
“Seriously, Drew. What’s your problemo?” Brock aimed a piece of celery at him and fired. Drew caught the celery and dropped it on his tray with the rest of his uneaten food. His stomach was coiling itself into tighter and tighter knots.
“I guess I was just thinking about that chem midterm,” he lied quickly.
The last thing he needed was for them to start teasing him about being a space cadet or a dumbass, because invariably space cadet or dumbass turned to gay. Every insult turned to gay eventually. No matter what, in minutes, whatever you were doing wrong evolved into taking it up the ass from some unsuspecting nerd who happened to be passing by.
Thank God the guys were distracted by their favorite target, who had walked into the cafeteria at that moment, head bent over a book. James Barry. The poor chubby little freshman had been tormented since the first week of school. Drew tried to stay out of it, but he didn’t stick up for him either. Wouldn’t want the focus to turn.
“Ooooh look, it’s Butters!” Brock crowed. Drew thought Brock was a tool most of the time, but he was one of the crowd. Drew had to be friends with him. It was the way things were. He kind of felt bad for the little Barry kid too. Didn’t seem like a bad guy. Drew thought he saw Tally flinch, but then he joined in the fun, heckling the red-faced underclassman.
No, Tally. You’re better than that.
“Drew, I bet you’d be all over Butters, huh?” Brock made an exaggerated spanking motion and pumped his hips. Drew felt a panicky little flutter, but made a big show of rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, I totally wanna do him.” Drew tried to go for sarcasm and was rewarded with one of Brock’s braying laughs.
“You’re such a homo, dude.”
“Whatever. You gonna eat those carrots?” He didn’t want them either, but he did want a distraction.
Brock shrugged and pushed the carrots toward Drew. “Here, take them. They make me fart.”
Tally chuckled under his breath. “Nice,” he muttered.
Drew tried not to notice Tally’s deep, mellow voice or the way he felt that chuckle against the side of his arm… or how damn amazing Tally all of a sudden smelled.
Suddenly the school year couldn’t end quickly enough. Drew needed to get the hell away from Tally before he did something stupid like lean over and lick him. He wondered if he’d gone insane.
“Hey, guys, I think I left a CD out in the courtyard. I’ve gotta go get it before some bitch steals it.”
“Is it The Cranberries?” Tally asked with another low chuckle.
“No. Smartass.” Drew couldn’t help laughing as well. He and Tally grinned at each other. He tried not to feel any different about the smile than he always had. No luck. Damn. “I'm gonna take off. I’ll see you in history.”
Drew passed by the Barry kid again, who was sitting at a table with a rather ferocious-looking girl in jeans and a sweatshirt with long, sandy pigtails. She glared at him. He shrugged apologetically and headed for the cafeteria door.
“THAT guy is a total fag! He needs to take his flaming ass out of this club.” Brock’s voice rang loud and clear over the milling crowd at the city building’s main meeting room. Drew cringed.
Club? They weren’t in a club. They were at a damn city council meeting! How drunk was Brock after all? He was slurring, listing to the side, and being an asshole. As usual. Drew shook his head and tried to maneuver Brock over to the refreshment table. If he could just get him to eat some bread to soak up whatever he’d been most likely chugging in the parking lot.
Brock’s comment had been aimed at Lex Barry, who'd been coming to the city council meetings for a few years. Brock had been a total asshole to Lex for far longer than that. Ever since he thought Lex’s name was James and Drew’s friends called the poor kid Butters. Drew had to credit his old crush Tally with starting the torturing, but Brock was more than happy to continue it ad nauseam.
He wished there wasn’t any bad history between him and Lex. Drew sighed mentally and wondered why he’d ever come back to Rock Bay after college. He wondered if, at nearly thirty-three, it was too late to escape.
Drew took stock of the room where the city council meeting was being held—faux wood paneling, an accordion wall that would fold up to make the room larger if needed, cheap tables, a bunch of stuck-up country club folks. Sometimes he wondered how Lex stood it. Sometimes he wondered how he did… then again, sometimes he looked at Lex and thought it would be really nice to kiss him. Damn. Not a good thing to think, at least not in his current company.
Drew really didn’t fucking want to spend yet another night dealing with Brock, but he was still one of the “guys,” and the guys were Drew’s best source of business in town. He did the accounting for all of Brock’s friends and their parents—the business owners, the people with money. Without Brock, he’d be sunk. He knew that. Drew gritted his teeth.
“Brock, let’s blow the rest of this thing off. I think there are a few pints with our names on them at O’Toole’s.”
Brock wasn’t having it. “Hey, Sexie Lexie, what ya doing here? This isn’t Butt Buddies ’R’ Us you know.” He called it out loud. Several people turned to stare. Drew wanted to sink into the ground. He tried to make an apologetic face to Lex. Lex simply rolled his eyes.
“AA is down the hall and to the left, Brock. You might want to make a stop in there on your way out.”
“Oh, fuck you!” Brock yelled. Drew made a pleading face at Lex. Please don’t say anything else to him! Why did Lex have to go there? He started herding Brock toward the door.
“Lex was just joking around, B. Let’s get out of here before they start the speeches.”
He thought he saw Lex roll his eyes again and wished he could go back and say something, anything, to take Brock’s dumb comments out of the guy’s head, but he had his hands full of slobbering drunk asshole. As usual.
It wasn’t easy, but Drew managed to get Brock to the door. It would’ve been nice if one of the other guys had been at the meeting to help him haul Brock’s heavy butt around when he wasn’t in the mood to cooperate. Drew wished he had the balls to say something when Brock was messing with Lex Barry, just like he’d wished it back in high school. But he hadn’t had the balls back then, and he didn’t have them now. Brock was still an asshole, Drew still felt like he had to do what Brock said so he’d stay in the town’s good graces and… fuck. Nothing ever changed, did it?
Well, nothing other than Lex Barry. Damn. What used to be five and a half feet of pudgy freshman had turned into nearly six feet of lanky, gorgeous hotness. Drew really tried not to stare. Really. All the stuff that woke up back in high school when he looked at Tally, though? It never exactly went back to sleep. Which was a problem for him, since all his closest friends were homophobic pricks.
“We going to O’Toole’s?” Brock asked as soon as they were out in the fresh air.
“Don’t you think we should get you home, B?” Drew tried not to roll his eyes.
“No. I don’t want to go there. Sucks. Letsh go to the bar.”
Drew sighed, pulled his phone out of his back pocket, and searched through his menu while trying to hold the phone with one hand. It was awkward, but Brock kept swaying toward him.
“Hey, Rick?” He was really glad that Rick had picked up. Drew wasn’t a big fan of Brock’s other right-hand man, but he’d get the job done. “I need backup.”
Sometimes Drew wished their friend Tally hadn’t left town back in high school. He knew the guy couldn’t stay, what with the monstrous shitstorm that had swirled around his family at the time: his father’s affairs, the suicide, all the money disappearing. He somehow thought that Tally wouldn’t have let Brock turn into such a mess. There had always been something decent about Tally—hidden perhaps, but there if anyone chose to look.
“C’mon, B. I’m going to take you to O’Toole’s, and Rick will meet us there. Is that cool?”
“Rick’s so gay,” Brock murmured. “Yeah, it’s cool.”
If Drew knew his old buddy, Brock was about a half a beer from passing out. He sure as shit hoped so. He wanted to get the night over with. He had a ton of work to do when he got home.
Drew was grateful to Rick for coming to his rescue. He helped the grumbling Brock back to Drew’s condo, where he was deposited on the couch. They covered him with blankets that probably saw more of Brock than the ones at his own house and waited until he was snoring and dead to the world before they both breathed a sigh of relief.
“He’s getting worse.” Rick kept his voice low so they didn’t wake the sleeping beast.
Drew reached up and shut his kitchen window against the late winter chill. They’d had an unseasonably sunny day, but the warmth was long over. “Yeah, he is. He sure doesn’t listen to Lindsay, though, just bitches about her trying to control him.”
Rick shrugged. “He doesn’t listen to me either.”
“God, where’s the power of Tally when we need it? Brock used to do whatever he said.”
Drew chuckled to cover up the way any mention of Tally still made his breath catch in his throat… like he was going to be caught thinking about how hot Tally used to be. “Tally? What made you bring him up? We haven’t seen him since high school.”
“I know. I wish he had a bat signal or something. Then he'd swoop into town and deal with Brock, and we could have a night off.”
“Rick, Brock’s your best friend.” Drew felt guilty talking about the guy behind his back, and he’d never really even liked him. It kind of sucked that Rick would do the same.
“What? Do you like running cleanup every weekend? It’s not even only weekends now. How many nights has he slept on your couch this week?”
Drew shrugged. The guy had a point. “Three, I think.”
“Listen, I gotta go. Jill’s waiting for me to start Dexter. You cool watching him?”
“Yeah, he’s just going to sleep it off, and I’m going to go to bed. I have a really long day tomorrow.”
Rick punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Night, dude.”
“Night, Rick. Thanks again.”