Summer of Innocence, 1988
“WE SHOULDN’T be doing this,” Nelson Maitland whispered.
His best friend, Lucas Rollins—or Luke, as Nelson called him—lifted his head from where he had it buried in Nelson’s crotch and peeked out from beneath the covers. “Why not? It feels good, don’t it?”
Oh yeah, it felt good, fabulous. His entire body tingled, and he was an idiot for even considering they stop. Nevertheless, as good as it felt, Nelson couldn’t seem to stop worrying about getting caught. “What if your mom comes in?”
“She won’t.” Luke recovered his head and licked the tip of Nelson’s penis again.
Nelson released the death grip he had on his pillow and shoved the covers off Luke’s head. “Wait. How do you know she won’t? What about your dad? Your little brother?”
Luke huffed a breath and crawled up the bed. He lowered himself between Nelson’s legs, their naked bodies touching in all the right places. Naked! Oh geez, what if we are caught! How are we going to explain being naked! His heart started pounding so fast he thought for sure it would leap out of his chest.
“We’re not going to get caught. Now will you shut up? You talk too much.”
Nelson started to protest, but Luke pressed their lips together. It was clumsy and sloppy, especially after Luke pushed his tongue halfway down Nelson’s throat. But suddenly he didn’t care about anything except the way Luke was moving his body and their privates were rubbing together, and Nelson forgot all about Luke’s parents and kid brother.
It wasn’t until they were lying next to each other breathing hard and sticky that Nelson’s worry started gnawing at his gut again, but it was no longer Luke’s parents who created his unease.
“Yeah,” Luke whispered in the now-dark room.
“Do you think Pastor Collins ever lies?”
“I don’t think he’s allowed to ’cause he’s a pastor.”
Nelson looked up, watching the shadows from the trees outside the window dance across the ceiling. He worried his bottom lip as he considered Luke’s answer. He supposed Luke was right. Pastor Collins was supposed to teach them about sin. It was against the rules of the Bible for pastors to sin, and that included lying. Luke’s belly flipped sickeningly. There had to be another explanation. “Do you think maybe he doesn’t know everything about the Bible or sometimes preaches from a different book?”
“I don’t know. Why the sudden interest in the Bible?”
“I was just thinking of something he said in church the other day. You know about sinners. Do you think we made God mad?”
“For what we just did,” Nelson explained. He was unable to put a name to it. Sure, he knew all about the birds and the bees, but they were boys. Nothing he’d heard or read said anything about two boys being together. All his friends were chasing after the girls, and here he…. Well, maybe Pastor Collins was right. Maybe what they were doing was unnatural.
“I don’t think so. We were just playing around, Nelson.” Luke yawned and rolled over, pulling the covers up. “Now will you go to sleep?”
“I know, but—”
“Pastor Collins was talking about sodomites, Nelson. We ain’t them. Besides, it’s not like anyone will ever find out. We’re going to be best friends and roommates forever, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Nelson responded, feeling better. They’d promised each other they were going to join the rodeo and see the world.
“Now stop worrying and go to sleep.”
He and Luke didn’t have to worry about what Pastor Collins said because they weren’t going to lie together as a man would with a woman. There would be no women or marriage in their lives. Nelson smiled as he drifted off to sleep. It was going to be him and Luke against the world forever.
AN AUDIBLE “oomph” escaped Nelson as he hit the ground with a hundred-and-fifty-pound Luke on his back. The football Nelson had been clutching to his body popped free, but he couldn’t even attempt to go after it. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, but nothing came out. He didn’t even care about the game anymore as panic started to surge through him when nothing went in either. He couldn’t breathe! He was going to die. His short thirteen years of life flashed by, ending in a headline that read: Scrawny Kid Crushed By Best Friend.
Nelson tried to force air into his lungs but again unsuccessfully. His arms, pinned beneath him, put added pressure on his chest, constricting it further. He needed to move but couldn’t. His muscles refused to respond, and his panic turned into full-on hysteria.
Luke rolled off Nelson, grabbed the back of Nelson’s shirt, and yanked him up to his feet. “What’s wrong with you?”
Nelson clutched at his chest, tears rolling down his face as he continued to try to breathe.
Luke took Nelson’s shoulders in his meaty hands and shook him. “Stop it, Nelson, you’re scaring me.”
You’re not the only one. Another attempt, a weird sound, and suddenly his lungs reinflated, and he began gasping. The rest of the guys surrounded them, all staring at him and asking him what was wrong. Nelson could now breathe, but tears were still streaming down his face. The fear that lack of oxygen would kill him passed. But now he was pretty sure the embarrassment would.
“Just got the wind knocked out of me,” Nelson wheezed. He wiped at his damp cheeks, then glared at his best friend. “Jesus, Luke, you weigh a ton.”
Luke grinned and tussled Nelson’s mousy brown hair. “Not my fault you’re a runt.”
Nelson slapped Luke’s hand away. “I’m not a runt, you Brobdingnagian,” Nelson countered. He tried for a harsh tone, but it came out as a squeak that, of course, caused everyone to laugh.
“Alright, Mickey Mouse, I think that’s enough football for you today,” Luke announced and slung his arm over Nelson’s shoulders.
None of the other guys argued with Luke, and they began to disperse. Luke had been blessed early by the puberty gods, and he had a good fifty pounds on most of the boys at Sipel Middle School. Nobody wanted to go up against him. Luckily for Nelson, he and Luke had been neighbors and best friends since they were five. Luke could easily rule the kids within the neighborhood and at school by pushing his immense size around. But Luke was a kind-hearted giant. Still, their friendship assured no one ever picked on Nelson.
Nelson ran his hand over his chest. “Man, you really knocked the hell out of me. I thought we were supposed to be on the same team.”
“Sorry about that, little man. I tripped over someone. Hell of a run you had going there. You’d have gotten a touchdown for sure if I wasn’t so clumsy.”
Now how was he supposed to stay mad at Luke when he was complimenting and apologizing? He couldn’t. Crap, who was he kidding? He never could stay angry at Luke for long. All Luke had to do was look at Nelson with those big blue eyes and turn on that dimpled smile, and Nelson would forgive him for stealing the stars and moon. Nelson brushed the grass from his pants and shirt, then shrugged. “It’s okay. Scared me for a minute when I couldn’t breathe, but I’m good now.”
“Oh man, I know. Freaked me out too.”
“Hey, Luke! You forgot your ball,” one of the guys called out.
Luke released his hold on Nelson and started to run. “I’m going long.”
Nelson watched in awe as Luke’s long legs tore up the field as he sprinted across the grass. The ball reached him but was well above his head. At the last second, Luke jumped, stretched his well-toned arms, and grazed the ball with his fingers, tipping it. Luke spun, grappling to get his hold on it, and then fell on his back, the pigskin landing on his chest. He wrapped his arms around it and clutched it to his chest.
Everyone, including Nelson, clapped and cheered when Luke stood up, a satisfied grin stretching across his face as he held the ball over his head. He tucked it under his arm and took a bow.
Nelson shook his head. Man, the guy could do anything. He was tall, athletic, handsome, and smart. Nelson was one lucky fellow to have someone like Luke as his closest friend. Only Nelson worried they were growing apart. Sure, they still stayed over at each other’s house on the weekends and any other night that wasn’t a school night, but much to Nelson’s disappointment, nothing had happened in bed except sleep the past year. However, Nelson thought about their secret a lot, especially when he was lying in the darkness of his room, and Luke made an appearance in his dreams most nights.
Nelson was too scared to take the initiative, and Luke didn’t seem to be interested in their secret games anymore. Nelson tried his best to let it go. But it was getting harder and harder to ignore. He didn’t understand what was wrong with him. Luke had told him it was normal, lots of guys experimented when they were kids, and it didn’t mean they were gay.
Luke was never wrong.
There was always a first time because he was beginning to believe Luke was wrong about the gay thing. Instead of chasing the girls like the other guys did, Nelson couldn’t stop thinking about his best friend. He shouldn’t want to hold Luke’s hand, run his fingers through his wheat-blond hair while looking into his big blue eyes. He shouldn’t want to press their lips together, run his hands over his muscular chest, but God help him, he did. Perhaps he was still a kid, and once he matured, he’d finally outgrow the forbidden desires plaguing him. He hoped so, anyway.
Luke jogged back to Nelson. “Did you see that?”
Luke shook his head. “Pure dumb luck, that ball falling on my chest like that.”
Nelson started to respond, but then Luke pushed the ball into Nelson’s gut and slung his arm back over Nelson’s shoulder. His throat went dry, and a tingling sensation raced down his spine, settling into his groin. Even Luke’s innocent touches were enough to make his dick start to fill. He spun away, flipped the ball up, and caught it.
“Nah, that was pure athletic talent,” Nelson finally got out past his constricted throat.
“Aww, thanks, little man, but seriously, I didn’t think I was going to get that one. I think luck had a lot to do with it.”
“If you say so.” Nelson walked backward, needing to keep some space between them, and tossed Luke the ball. “Mom’s making meatloaf tonight. What about yours?”
He and Luke always checked the cooking schedules of their moms, compared notes, and then decided which house to eat at. It was rare they didn’t both choose the same meal.
Luke threw the ball to Nelson, then wrinkled his nose. “Meatloaf? Yuck! We will be eating at my house tonight. Dad’s bringing home pizza.”
“Oh, Mrs. Maitland, I love your meatloaf. I love everything you cook,” Nelson said in his best impersonation of Luke. He tossed the ball back to Luke, and before taking off running, he added, “I’m so telling. It’s your fault I have to eat that crap.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
Nelson didn’t respond. He sprinted across the field as fast as his legs would go. He didn’t dare look back and waste precious seconds, knowing Luke was right behind him. He’d catch up soon enough with his longer stride. Nelson was getting better. He nearly made it to his driveway. He slowed down to make the turn around the rosebushes, and Luke sprung. He wrapped his arms around Nelson and lifted him off his feet.
“You tell your mom, and I’m gonna beat your scrawny little butt.”
Nelson reached back and tickled Luke’s sides and wriggled free when Luke started laughing and squirming. Nelson ran up the driveway. “Going to take a shower and let Mom know I’ll be eating at your place, and then I’ll be over.”
“Okay, see you later. Oh, hey, you should grab a bag and just stay over tonight.”
“K,” Nelson tossed over his shoulder and headed for the house.
HIS BELLY full of five slices of pizza and half a liter of pop, Nelson stretched out on the old couch in Luke’s basement. He folded his arms behind his head and relaxed while Luke went through the video cabinet.
“What are you in the mood for tonight? Comedy, action, or horror?”
“My gut is too full to laugh. How about scary?” Nelson suggested.
“That makes no sense at all.”
“Sure it does. Laughing makes my belly hurt; horror makes my chest hurt.”
“I stand corrected.” Luke rummaged around in the cabinet and then turned, holding two tapes. “Zombies or Freddie?”
The last thing Nelson wanted was to watch someone munching. Dang it, he loved zombie movies. He shouldn’t have eaten so much. “Let’s hang out with Freddie tonight.” They could do an undead marathon after church.
“Nightmare it is,” Luke said and loaded the VCR. He hit the play button, grabbed a bag of chips from the bar and sat on the floor, and leaned back against the couch.
“How can you still be hungry? You ate twice as much as me, and I feel like I’m going to burst.”
“I’m a growing boy,” Luke mumbled around a mouthful of chips. “Now shut up and cut that light. The movie is starting.”
Nelson turned off the lamp and then stretched back out on the couch. They’d already seen the show at least a dozen times, so it wasn’t long before Nelson was dozing off in between screams. He’d open his eyes again and be able to catch back up with the movie quickly. He’d just started to slip back off to sleep when Luke tapped his shoulder.
“This floor is hurting my butt, scooch up.”
Before Nelson had a chance to respond, Luke climbed over him, shoved him forward, and lay down behind him. They’d been staying at each other’s houses since kindergarten, and it wasn’t unusual for them to lie on the couch together. Nor was it out of the ordinary for them to wake in the morning in Luke’s full-size bed wrapped up in a tangle of arms and legs. The last few months, however, Nelson found Luke’s closeness uncomfortable, or more like weird. With Luke’s warmth pressed against Nelson’s back and his strong arm draped across him, the tingling started trickling down Luke’s spine. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he was painfully aware of Luke’s dick pressed against his butt.
For some reason Nelson still didn’t understand, Luke had stopped touching Nelson like they used to. Luke explained they were becoming men, and the things they did as children had to stop. Nelson had tried to put it out of his head, to stop wanting to touch and kiss Luke’s naked flesh, but it was impossible. Over the last year, his desire for Luke had only increased. While Luke and the rest of the guys were having first dates, first girlfriends, Nelson wanted nothing more than a boyfriend. More specifically he wanted Luke as his boyfriend.
What is wrong with me?
He didn’t understand why he couldn’t be more like Luke and the rest of the guys. Why he couldn’t put those childhood experiences behind him and grow up as Luke had. He was thirteen, for Chrissakes, a man. He wasn’t supposed to be thinking about Luke like this, and he sure shouldn’t be popping a boner. Oh God, what if Luke feels it? His hand was close, and if he moved it an inch downward, he would—
Nelson jumped to his feet.
“Where ya going?”
“Too much pop. Be right back,” he lied and rushed up the stairs.
Behind the locked door of the bathroom, Nelson held on to the counter and hung his head, breathing harshly. Why was this happening to him? A better a question was why couldn’t he make it stop? He was going to lose his best friend if Luke found out, Nelson was sure of it. How could he not lose Luke? He was a freak.
Shame engulfed Nelson. His eyes filled with tears, spilled over, and rolled down his cheeks. He knew the difference between right and wrong. He went to church, wasn’t a bully, tried his best in school. He’d lied about breaking his mom’s lamp, sometimes told fibs about having his homework done. He was far from perfect, but he couldn’t think of a single thing he’d done bad enough to deserve what was happening to him now. He didn’t want to be different from the rest of the gang. Dammit, he wanted to go out on double dates with the other guys, wanted to add to the conversation about girlfriends, and he didn’t want to lie anymore.
A sob escaped him, and he turned on the taps to drown out the sound. “Please, God, make it go away. I promise I won’t lie anymore, and I’ll tell Mom about the lamp. Please just make it go away,” he whispered.
Nelson grabbed a washcloth, ran it under the cool water, and then laid it against his face until the tears stopped and he was able to swallow down his sobs. He lowered the cloth and stared at his reflection, his eyes puffy and red-rimmed. “Now you look like a freak too.”
A soft rap on the door was followed by Luke’s low voice. “You okay in there?”
“Ummm… no. Too much pizza and pop made me blow chunks.” Nelson squeezed his eyes shut and laid his head back. Less than five minutes, and he’d already broken his promise to God, but he couldn’t tell Luke the truth. Ever.
“There is some Pepto-Bismol in the medicine cabinet.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll be right down.” Nelson waited until he was sure Luke had moved away from the door before he opened his eyes. He couldn’t even stand to look at himself in the mirror. He flushed the toilet to give credence to his lie and then shut off the taps. Maybe he did deserve this punishment. He was a sinner, and the lies were getting easier and easier to tell as the guilt got harder and harder to swallow.
FOR TWO weeks he continued the deceit. Stomach ailments, headaches, poison ivy, homework, and a multitude of other reasons why he couldn’t hang out with Luke. Nelson would have sworn the worst punishment that could be bestowed upon him was the unnatural desires he’d had for his best friend every time Luke touched him. He was wrong.
Nelson stood at the back door, his legs shaking so hard he didn’t know how they were keeping him up. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“I wish I was,” Luke responded sadly. He then turned and sat down on the top stair and hung his head.
Nelson pushed the screen door open, reeling from the shock. He barely made it the three steps before his knees gave out, and he fell on his ass next to Luke. “When…?” Nelson’s voice cracked, and he had to swallow hard before he could continue. “When are you leaving?”
“Dad’s leaving Monday, and Mom and I will join him in two weeks,” Luke replied without lifting his head. He was silent for a long time before he whispered, “They’re putting the house up for sale.”
Nelson didn’t know how to respond. Wasn’t sure he could with the lump that lodged in his throat. Christ, he could scarcely breathe, and it was taking every bit of willpower he had not to fall to the ground in a fetal position and cry like a baby.
California? That was on the other side of the country. It might as well be on the other end of the world because Nelson knew he was losing his best friend, and they’d never see each other again. What was he going to do without Luke? Who would he hang out with, eat dinner with, watch zombie marathons with?
He heard Luke sniffle, and it was all it took for Nelson to give in to his own grief. He wrapped his arms around himself and rocked as the tears fell. The sobbing intensified when Luke pulled him into a hug and cried just as hard. Nelson poured out his anguish as only a child could. Powerless to change the course they were barreling toward. Too young to fully understand why. Only knowing an adult’s decision was destroying his world. He suddenly hated Mr. Rollins. Would never forgive him for taking Luke away.
They clung to each other well after the tears stopped flowing. Nelson’s anger at the injustice growing until it burned off the rest of his grief and left him with nothing but red-hot rage. He jumped to his feet, fists clenched as he stomped down the stairs. “He can’t do this,” he screamed. “He can’t make you move.”
Luke caught up quickly and grabbed Nelson’s arm, stopping him. “He doesn’t want to move. His company is doing this.”
“Then he can get another job!”
Luke sighed heavily and gave him a watery grin. “I’ve argued every reason I could think of. We have to move. I don’t want to. It sucks, it’s unfair, and I hate it! But there is nothing we can do about it.”
The anger seeped from Nelson like a deflated balloon. “Then what’s going to happen to us?”
“We’re still going to be best friends. We’ll talk on the phone every day, and you can stay with me on every holiday and summer vacation. And when we turn eighteen, we can hit the rodeo circuit together.”
“Hey! Maybe I can talk my dad into moving too. I bet there are lots of jobs in California for police officers.”
“Yeah, I bet there are. It’s a big state, and the best part is, we won’t ever have to shovel snow again. We can spend Christmas on the beach.” Luke wiped at his eyes, a genuinely happy smile lighting up his face.
“And we can send pictures of us surfing to the rest of the guys who are going to be stuck under a hundred pounds of winter clothes.”
“And we’ll be tanned and buff and have the hottest girlfriends,” Luke said with a wink.
Nelson liked the idea of them being tanned and buff and living on the beach but wasn’t so keen on the girlfriend part. He wasn’t going to dwell on that one negative, but the rest of it sounded amazing. “We’re going to have the best life ever,” Nelson hooted.
“Yup,” Luke agreed. “Race you to the ball field? I can’t wait to tell the other guys.”
“Right behind you,” Nelson called, having already taken off on a dead run, leaving Luke to catch up.
It was the last time he and Luke laughed together. Two weeks later Nelson stood in the center of his street waving goodbye to Luke. Their plans and dreams were crushed when Nelson’s dad refused to move. His only consolation was his parents agreed to let him visit Luke in the future.
Nelson had no clue how impossible it would be to keep his promises.