FRUSTRATION was becoming an all too familiar feeling to Kieran. School frustrated him—it was boring as hell and full of assholes who all had some sort of beef with him. Home frustrated him—there was only one asshole (infrequently) there, his dad, and that was getting just plain awkward. He didn’t know when it happened precisely, but somewhere along the line, he and his dad had forgotten how to talk to each other. Now beyond the point of feeling hurt or actually caring, he was just eager to get out of Cedar Keys and Florida altogether.
The town itself was okay; it was just so… small. Boasting a population of around a thousand, Keys was a fishing town known for being a quaint and artsy kind of village with a thriving tourist trade for those looking for a laid-back vacation. The pace was so goddamn slow it was practically nonexistent. Everybody knew everybody. Everywhere was fish themed. Everywhere smelled of fish. Just… fucking fish! Morning, noon, and night. Even Keys’s high school baseball team—yes, such a thing existed, though he didn’t know why—was aquatically named: the Squids. The Squids.
And as much as all of this grated on Kieran, nothing nettled him more than being a senior and still a virgin. A friendless, gay, horny as hell virgin. If the small-town lifestyle wasn’t enough to make him want to leave, then a desperate urge to have actual sex with another human being was.
It was an isolating feeling, seeing the people he’d grown up with suddenly pairing off, all boy-girl, boy-girl. He’d never been outright bullied for being gay—in fact, he’d never even announced or confirmed that he was gay to anyone (who would he tell?)—but people looked at him differently. As if they sensed he wasn’t like them. It was the reason he felt like the school weirdo.
It wasn’t always that way. Three or so years ago, round about ninth grade, he just stopped fitting in. One stupid incident set it all in place: the veritable nightmare that was the gym shower rooms. He hadn’t meant to look at the other boys, and he certainly hadn’t meant to get caught. He only realized he had a boner when the laughing and crude comments began.
He didn’t get any hassle about it anymore, but it was the reason he recoiled from other students—other guys in particular. He’d become suddenly all too aware that he was never going to want to put his hand up a girl’s shirt, and was instead exclusively interested in putting his hand down a guy’s pants. He’d realized that he was different and that nobody was like him. Nobody. And no matter how many “it gets better” videos he watched on YouTube, he still felt alone and like an outsider.
So all of his hopes were pinned on college somewhere else, somewhere not in Keys or even Florida. The farther away, the better. He just had to stick out his senior year. He’d keep his head down, study enough to get passable grades, and fantasize about the day when he’d have himself some friends, maybe even a boyfriend, and about leaving Keys altogether for somewhere that didn’t smell like the Little Mermaid’s ass.
But for now, he’d go to lunch.
Kieran looked up just in time to see Adam Jefferson—a guy who innately hated him for no good reason—slam into him and send him sprawling into the lockers. His iPod he’d been scrolling through clattered to the floor. He looked up from where he splatted against the lockers and there was Adam, crowding close and getting in his face.
“Watch where you’re going, freak.”
The fist that slammed next to his head rattled the lockers and made him flinch. Adam smirked, pushing away, and before Kieran could stop himself, he did something very stupid: he spoke back.
“Fuck you,” he whispered.
But Adam, who had a good few inches and thirty or so pounds on him, heard him clear as day. “The fuck did you just say to me?”
He recoiled against the lockers, immediately regretting his back talk as Adam leaned menacingly close, and Kieran’s eyes widened slightly as he realized just what it was he said out loud. Giggling drew his attention to two girls standing close by, watching as the brawny Adam Jefferson tormented the weird kid nobody liked, and he suddenly hated people—all people and life in general. He wanted to call them bitches for laughing at what was happening. He wanted them to feel what he felt. But if he wanted to walk away from this without a limp, he needed to apologize; common sense and self-preservation dictated so. But his pride wouldn’t let him.
“I said f-fuck you,” he whispered back, waiting for his first-ever black eye.
“You in the mood to die or something?” Adam growled.
“I’m in the mood to get you busted for throwing the first punch,” he said with more bravado than he felt. He swallowed hard and then gasped when Adam screwed his fist in the front of his shirt, pulling him close.
“I’m thinking it’ll be worth it.”
Kieran couldn’t help but try to pull away from the grip. He squinted his eyes closed and braced for the fist that was surely hurtling his way, but another voice interrupted his impending pummeling.
They both looked to see Drew Anderson—gorgeous, liked by all, pitcher for the Squids and all-around nice guy Drew Anderson—heading their way. Adam’s fist slackened slightly.
“’Sup, asshole.” Adam smirked.
“Been looking for you.” Drew frowned, nodding toward Kieran but otherwise ignoring him. “Should you be doing that?” he asked Adam. “You know, with a game coming up this weekend and all. Last thing we need is you benched for roughhousing with your boyfriend.”
Kieran very nearly fell on his ass when the grip on his shirt suddenly disappeared. He smoothed his shirt out and watched bitterly as Adam aimed a brotherly “fuck you” at Drew before diving for his middle to take him down. Drew easily shoved him aside, not even glancing at Kieran.
“You know I’m getting it good and regular from Tiff, asshole.” Adam grinned, attempting to take Drew, who matched if not exceeded his height and build, in a headlock which Drew easily dodged.
Drew laughed. “Speaking of, I just saw your girl outside the science block looking pissed, man. You should probably follow up on that.”
“Ah, shit. I was supposed to meet her for lunch.”
“So fucking whipped,” Drew teased.
“Yeah, and so fucking laid. Just you remember that. I’ll see you later, yeah?”
Kieran watched the exchange, trying his best not to feel pathetic and insignificant, before deciding to slink away just in case Jefferson changed his mind and gave him that black eye after all. He straightened the straps of his backpack and was already walking away when the sound of someone calling his name made him look over his shoulder. It was Drew.
“Hey, man. You alright?”
And goddammit, just like every other time Drew Anderson had so much as looked his way, he blushed. “Um. Yeah, I’m fine,” he muttered to his shoes.
“Here.” He held out Kieran’s iPod. “This yours?”
“Oh, uh, yeah, it is. Thanks.” He took the iPod, trying to not embarrass himself somehow when their hands touched accidentally.
“No problem. Listen, Jefferson’s a bit of a caveman, you may have noticed.” Drew shrugged one shoulder, looking almost apologetic. “You should probably just stay out of his way.”
Kieran toyed with the tie that adjusted the shoulder straps of his bag. “I shouldn’t have to.”
Drew glanced around them, the hall thinning out as rumbling stomachs drew most students to the cafeteria. “I know,” he said. “But just stay out of his way anyway, yeah?”
Kieran looked up to see piercing green eyes watching him, as if searching for something. He swallowed and nodded his head. “Thanks for intercepting.”
Drew offered him a friendly, one-sided smile, a dimple showing in his cheek. “No worries. See you around.”
I wish. “Yeah, see you.”
Kieran watched discreetly as Drew turned, throwing a wave over his shoulder and heading off like most people toward the cafeteria. He let out a deep breath and slumped against the lockers. He hated school, and he hated almost everyone in it. He wondered if Drew would be as nice to him if he knew about the almighty crush Kieran harbored for him.
Drew. Freakin’. Anderson. Approximately five nine, a whole three inches taller than Kieran. Totally toned, with the kind of slim biceps that made Kieran hard from just a glimpse. Amazing green eyes, kind of dark blond hair that looked good even when messy. Fucking dimples, and a smile that was not only handsome but genuine.
He’d had a thing for Drew ever since Mr. Trinder, their art teacher, seated the class in alphabetical order at the beginning of senior year. This left him, Kieran Appleby, to share one of the high two-seater desks with the one and only Drew Anderson at the very back of the classroom. As soon as Drew smiled and introduced himself to Kieran, breaking all cliché jock rules, he was done for.
They’d never had a real conversation, partly because every time Drew nodded hi to him in art class, he’d turn into a blushing girl, managing a small nod back but otherwise leaning away from him on his stool, attempting to concentrate on not making a sound or moving in any way that would draw attention to himself.
Today’s unexpected run-in with Adam, and ultimately Drew, left him feeling rattled. He’d actually played with the thought of skipping social studies that afternoon in favor of his one guilty pleasure: hiding under the bleachers with a sharpie, tagging the steps with doodles and his and Drew’s initials in the hideaway he was sure no one would ever find, while watching Drew practice.
No one would ever see their names intertwined. It was the same pattern sprawled again and again on the underside of the bleachers, all grammar and punctuation disregarded in favor of erratic semicolons, quotation marks and capitalization that refused to conform, as was his way. He knew it was weird. Scratch weird, he knew it might be construed as downright creepy if anyone ever found out, but it was the one thing besides art class that he looked forward to while at school.
He’d see how he was feeling and decide later whether or not to skip class. Right now he was hungry.
There wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to the cafeteria, though. He hadn’t done that since he was a sophomore. He went where he always went for lunch. He left the corridor, travelled down to the basement, and walked straight up to the door marked “Janitor’s Closet” and let himself in.
It wasn’t a closet, as the sign indicated, but more of an abandoned office without windows. There was a bucket and mop, crap like that, but there were also damaged desks, spare chairs, and empty cabinets stacked up along the walls. In the middle, under a bare bulb, were two chairs and a table strewn with comic books. His comic books. He’d brought one with him one day and noticed how the janitor, Tony, kept trying to sneak a peek at the cover. He didn’t come right out and ask if Tony liked comics. Not only because he wouldn’t get an answer—Tony didn’t like to speak—but also because he already knew. One comic book geek could easily spot another, even if the other was unaware that they were in fact a comic book geek.
Ah, Tony. Tony was probably the one friend Kieran did have, even if he didn’t actually talk. He was a great hulking beast of a man, both tall and fat. So fat, in fact, that the zipper of his overalls stretched at the seams. Kieran often wondered if, were he to listen close enough, he would be able to hear that zipper screaming. Tony was big and fat, bearded and silent, and friendly. Friendly.
“Waddup, Tony?” Kieran greeted him, forcing a smile.
Tony glanced up, lifted his chin slightly in greeting, and then went straight back to his sandwich and comic. Kieran shrugged off his backpack and pulled out the spare chair and then his lunch.
“What you got today?” He knew better than to expect an answer but asked anyway out of habit. He unwrapped his own ham-and-cheese and craned his neck to try and guess what it was Tony was munching on.
“That bacon? Pastrami? Oh my God, are you rocking a meatball sub? Man! You always have better food than me.” He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he might have seen a twitch of the man’s lips amidst the copious amounts of bristly black hair sprouting out of his face.
“What you reading today?” He fanned the remaining dog-eared comic books out across the table top. “You gone for the Green Lantern again, huh?” He plucked a comic out of the pile for himself. “That’s cool, just means there’s more Hellboy for me. Heh heh.”
He ate his sandwich, read his comic and enjoyed Tony’s easy company, and decided that, okay, there were a few things about school he didn’t absolutely hate. He didn’t hate Tony. He didn’t hate art class, despite how on edge it made him to sit next to Drew, and he didn’t hate sitting under the bleachers, watching Drew pitch. In fact, that was what he was going to do after lunch. Screw social studies.
DREW stood aside, letting the other students file out of class as he waited for Matt to finish up talking to Ms. Taylor, his math teacher. Sneaking a glance back through the doorway and judging by Ms. Taylor’s expression, he could only assume Matt had done less than great on their last quiz. He watched Matt nod resignedly and then leaned back against the wall with a sigh. When Matt left the classroom but missed seeing him, Drew caught Matt’s arm.
“Yo, I’m here.” He grinned when Matt jumped slightly.
“Dick,” Matt scolded. “You didn’t have to wait; we’ll both be late for practice now.”
“Ah, fuck it. I’m sure coach’ll let it slide this once, seeing as we’re the best players on the team and all.”
“Ah, very wise you are, yessss.”
“Have you been hanging out with Travis recently, by any chance?” Drew asked, meaning Matt’s little brother.
“Crap. Yeah, was I talking like Yoda again?”
“Man. My little bro is a geek.”
“Nah, he’s okay.”
Matt smiled despite his teasing words. “I guess.”
“Must be kind of cool to have a nine-year-old worship you.”
Matt shrugged, looking kind of smug. “It ain’t bad. Though, come on….” He held his hands out to his sides, palms up. “It’s pretty difficult to not admire perfection.”
Drew laughed. “Perfection, huh? Is that what Ms. Taylor was calling you in there?”
Matt grimaced. “Not exactly.”
“Do we need to make a study date?” he teased, batting his eyelashes.
Matt grinned and shoved Drew away a pace. “Yeah, seems like it. I hate math. I suck at it.”
“Yeah, you do. Alright, get your ass on over to my place tonight. We’ll crack the books.”
“Can’t tonight. I promised I’d take Travis to see the new Iron Man movie. Tomorrow?”
“Sounds good.” They walked in silence for a moment as they approached the school’s gym. “I think I’d like to have a brother,” Drew mused.
“You wouldn’t be saying that if he was bugging you to play with him every five minutes or making you watch Star Wars again for the fiftieth time.”
“I don’t know, I think having a big family must be better than having a small one, right?”
Matt glanced at him. “Maybe,” he said a little more seriously. “Though, I mean, if you don’t have siblings then that’s what awesome, good-looking best friends are for.” He gave Drew his most cheesy grin.
Drew snorted. “You have a very skewed, unhealthy perception of yourself going on in that little head, you know that?”
Drew shook his head. “Come on, race you the rest of the way. On three. One, two—” He set off at a sprint on two, leaving Matt to cuss him out three paces behind.
Practice was good for a number of reasons, Drew decided two hours later while walking home. First, he loved the exercise. He loved the feeling of exhaustion after giving a game absolutely everything he had. He loved the stretch of muscle and the warmth it generated through his body. He also enjoyed the camaraderie with his teammates, either sharing a victory or leaning on each other through a loss. But mostly, he loved that it ate up the hours after school, leaving him too tired when he got in to do anything but eat whatever he could rustle up in the kitchen and then sag in front of his computer or TV in his bedroom. Overall, it meant less time spent with his mother, who would most likely be rattling around the house, mumbling to herself.
Goddammit, why’d things have to be the way they were? Why couldn’t he have been born into Matt’s family? Instead, he lived with his mom. Just the two of them. Or at least it was just the two of them while his uncle was away on tour, risking his life and being a hero in another part of the world, surrounded by sand.
He knew technically he did have a bigger family, but it was by blood only, and thin blood at that. His dad divorced his mess of a mother five years ago and went and had himself a brand new, undamaged family. New kids. New kids that were his half siblings and that he still hadn’t met. He kicked a can across the sidewalk. His dad didn’t really visit anymore. Didn’t call all that much, either. Drew supposed that if he had a four-year-old daughter, twin two-year-old boys, and a pretty young wife, he’d probably forget all about him too.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t care, he repeated yet again in his head.
Things would be better when his uncle Rich came back. Just a few more months, that’s what Rich had promised. Just a few more months and then back in time to see Drew graduate. He could make do. He could look after his mom until Rich was home, and then it’d be the three of them again and life would align itself into something manageable—something almost normal. He’d be able to breathe easier.
Uncle Rich made everything better. He moved in right after his dad took off, and having always been close to his sister—Drew’s mother—there hadn’t been a moment’s hesitation on his behalf. Uncle Rich understood his mom’s condition; he knew what to do to coax her out of her pajamas, and even on occasion managed to get her into the backyard for a little sun. Drew didn’t know how to do that. He didn’t want to let Uncle Rich down, but Drew didn’t know how to keep her calm and happy like he did, and the pressure was starting to wear him down.
He only had the faintest of memories, but apparently things hadn’t always been so bad when he was little. Her agoraphobia hadn’t yet sapped the life and fun out of her completely. She was born in Cedar Keys and would certainly never leave the island, let alone the house she’d lived in her entire life, but he could remember as a child walking with her down the street to the local store on occasion. No farther, of course, but it was something. She wouldn’t even open the front door now.
He could feel that tickle of muted rage in the back of his mind now. He had his theories. His father hadn’t even waited for the ink to dry on the divorce papers before he married again. Just how long had he been unfaithful to Drew’s mother, and how long had she been aware, and played along? Something had destroyed her fragile condition, which had at one time been manageable. Something as terrible as the person she loved most, the person who had vowed to stay with her through sickness and health, just up and leaving. Abandoning her. He imagined that would probably do it.
He hated his father sometimes. He hated him for marrying his mother to begin with, for telling her that her agoraphobia did not affect his feelings for her. He hated him for leading her on like that and then leaving. He hated his father for leaving him, for forgetting him, for not caring.
He took a deep breath, hesitating at the corner that would turn onto his street. He didn’t want to be thinking all this bad shit when he got home. He wanted to be the guy his mother could rely on, just as his dad had been once upon a time.
He got his shit together. It wasn’t that bad, he reminded himself as he turned the corner, his house coming into view. Other kids had mothers who were sick with a physical disease. Other kids had moms who were dying. Other kids had no mother at all. His mother wasn’t dying; she just got a little lost inside of her head sometimes.
He took the steps two at a time up the porch and slung his gym bag just inside the doorway, where his mom would pick it up and add it to the laundry later. He took a cautious sniff and was relieved that he couldn’t smell weed. Unfortunately, the house didn’t smell of food, either, and he was starving.
“Drew, honey? Where have you been?” She appeared at the top of the stairs, wringing her hands. “I was worried about you, I thought you’d left.”
He held in a sigh and went up the stairs to hug her. “I had practice, remember? You should check the calendar on the fridge; it’s all marked down when I’ll be home late.”
She covered her face with her hands for a moment, and his stomach turned slightly to see that they were shaking. “Oh! I’m so silly.” She laughed, clearly relieved. “How are you, honey? How was your day?”
“It was fine, I’m… I’m kind of hungry, though. Is there anything to—?”
“Oh… damn!” she yelled at herself, screwing her eyes shut. “I was going to cook you my tuna casserole and I forgot, damn it!”
“Mom, it’s fine,” he said weakly, feeling guilty for even mentioning it. “I can just have a sandwich or something, it’s no big deal.”
“Yes, it is. You do so much for me and I can’t even cook you a warm meal. I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
“Really, Mom, it’s fine.”
“No, it’s not. Come on, come sit at the kitchen table and I’ll rustle something up.” She took his hand and guided him down the stairs and to the kitchen.
He sat and waited patiently despite feeling tired and desperate for a shower, and chatted idly with her as she boiled him two eggs and cut up buttered bread for soldiers.
“There,” she said happily. “Here are the soldiers, now we just have to wait for eggs. They’re soldiers just like your uncle.” She bit her lip. “I think he comes home soon.”
“Yep,” he tried brightly. “Just a few more months.”
She nodded. “That’s good.”
He watched her, knowing she was trying to build up the courage to say something; he just didn’t know what.
“Y-you’ll be going off to college soon.”
Drew sighed. “Local community college, Mom,” he said softly. “I won’t be far away, not far at all. I’ll see you all the time, I promise.”
At first, her shoulders drooped in obvious relief. Then she smiled brightly. “You’ll be a wonderful fireman. I am so proud of you. So proud.”
He smiled, feeling oddly bashful in the face of his mother’s support of his hopes to be a fireman. “Thanks, Mom,” he mumbled. It meant a lot to him that she wasn’t just focusing on what she would lose when he left for college. He glanced at the clock. It was almost ten, and he was getting tired.
“Here you go!” she chirped, setting two runny boiled eggs down next to his soldiers.
“Thanks, Mom.” He wolfed them down quickly and only happened to glance up between mouthfuls and notice that she was doing it again. She was sitting across from him, worrying her lip. “What is it?”
She startled slightly. “Oh, I was… I was hoping you could pick up a few things for me tomorrow.”
He shrugged. “Sure, I’ll go to the store after school. Then Matt’ll be coming home with me. I said I’d help him study.”
This only seemed to make her more uncomfortable. “Will… will Matt be going to the store with you?”
“I guess, why?”
She flushed and comprehension suddenly hit him. “Oh, do you need… you know, your… lady stuff?” Lady stuff? It didn’t matter how often he did it, it would never not be mortifying to buy his mother’s tampons.
She nodded quickly, eyes averted. “I’m sorry, Drew, honey. I know that’s embarrassing. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable in front of Matt, either.”
He coughed. “It’s fine.”
“I need some shampoo too, and we’re out of baking soda and laundry detergent. Oh! And I need some new incense sticks.”
“Why don’t you write me a list and I’ll pick it all up tomorrow.” He hesitated a moment. “I’ll tell Matt to wait outside.”
She nodded. “You’re so good to me, Drew. My own little hero.”
He wouldn’t go that far.
“Do you think… do you think you could nip over to Mr. Gullbeck’s tomorrow and pick up a little—?”
“No.” He cut her off firmly, feeling guilty for it but unwilling to bend on the issue.
“It’s just for my nerves, Drew….”
“No, Mom. If you want something for your nerves, then we can call the doctor out again, but I’m not buying you weed. I’m not doing that.”
She deflated, and he immediately felt guilty and ridiculous at the same time. He didn’t enjoy playing the role of parent; it felt completely unnatural.
“Alright, I’m sorry I asked. I know how you feel about that.”
He sighed. “Mom, you know Mr. Gullbeck is moving away soon, you can’t rely on him to always be there to help calm your nerves. And I’m not willing to find a… a dealer for you either.” He’d bet good money that none of his friends had ever had this conversation with their mothers.
“I just thought that maybe I could… stock up?” She shrugged, looking helpless.
“Or you could not smoke at all,” he tried.
His neighbor, a middle-aged bachelor perhaps as strange as his own mother, was a good enough guy who, on the odd occasion, sold his mother weed for her nerves. He was, however, in the process of trying to sell his house. “We’ll find a healthier way for you to get over your nerves, mom. I promise.” He knew he shouldn’t make such promises, but he was becoming desperate to just drop the subject.
“You’re right. Of course, sweetie.”
He took his plate over to the sink, ran it under the hot tap, and then left it on the draining board to dry. “I’m kind of tired, Mom. I think I’ll turn in.”
“Good night, honey. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He made his way upstairs, leaving her to sit at the kitchen table alone. He took a quick shower and then pulled on a pair of boxers before plugging his headphones into his laptop and turning it on. He sat at his desk, checking his e-mail, and then, after a quick glance at his closed bedroom door, he typed the address of a porn site he favored into the browser.
He slumped in his chair, then flattened his hand against his stomach and slid it under his boxers to just gently roll his balls in his hand. He grimaced and turned down the volume when the woman on-screen screeched as the guy behind her took it up a notch. Drew felt a slight stirring but otherwise wasn’t into it. He clicked the Home icon to return to his homepage, bit his lip, and then typed in something else.
Images appeared on screen that immediately made his mouth go dry. He clicked on a video, and ten seconds later his dick was as hard as stone. He quickly stood to find the moisturizer he kept in his sock drawer, and pulled his underwear down just beneath his ass when sitting back down.
His breath caught on the first stroke. He wanted to draw it out, but he was already sliding his hand up and down his cock in a firm stroke, picking up tempo and squeezing over his head. He focused on the man in the video who was bent over at the waist, and imagined what it’d be like to fuck him. He wanted to do that. He wanted it so bad.
He felt his groin tighten when the muscular man topping anchored the breathless, flushed guy beneath him by the shoulder and started to ram into him. He gasped as he reached climax and reached blindly for the box of tissues he kept by his desk.
His breath slowly returned to normal, and he cleaned up, deleted his browser history, and shut down his laptop. He climbed into bed and replayed the video in his mind. He wished there was someone he knew like that, someone who was like him who he could fuck. He placed his forearm over his mouth to stifle an unhappy groan. He was getting hard again.
He didn’t want to feel this way. He just wanted an easy life, but his body was not confused and knew exactly what he wanted. He rolled over onto his stomach and closed his eyes. With no sounds in the house other than what he could hear of his mom tinkering about downstairs, he tried to unwind enough to sleep. He just wanted to sleep. He wanted an easier life than this, and he wanted to sleep.