Prologue

 

THEIR voices, audible through the cracked-open bedroom door, came from the living room.

“What the hell has your kid done to my son?”

“If you’re referring to Jesse, it appears all he’s done is fall in love.”

“What are you talking about? Do you realize how insane that sounds? They’re boys, Jim. They’re two teenaged boys.”

“Have you looked at them lately? Listened to them? They’re not boys. They’re very capable young men.”

Not silence. Not quite. Tom’s breathing punched ragged holes in the stillness. “All right. Two young men. Males. And from what I’ve heard, they sure as hell aren’t friends anymore.”

“Of course they are. They’re the best of friends.”

A mumbled “Oh my God,” incredulous. “I hope and pray they haven’t taken this too far. How can you be so casual about it? Are you like that too?”

“Like what?” A flat question, no inflection. “In love? I wish.”

More silence, followed by, “My boy just got out of jail. Some depraved liar he used to trust put him there. That experience made him vulnerable. Now someone else he trusts—someone he sees as, I don’t know, some kind of savior—has taken advantage of his weakness and convinced him to lie to himself. To live a lie.” Tom’s voice rose, buoyed by a furious indignation. “But that’s one profane savior who manages to convince a perfectly normal boy that he’s—”

“I think you need to stop now.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No. If anything, I’m admitting I can’t threaten you. I’m too old to throw you out of my house. So I’m suggesting you just go home, cool down, and think. At some time in the future, talk to your son. More important, listen to him. He can teach you all about lies, and the consequences of lies. And if you don’t listen, Tom, that door he’s walking through right now, the one that leads to adulthood and his own life, will be closed to you forever.”

“Go get him.” A surly demand, growled as much as spoken. “I know he’s here.”

“No, I won’t do that. You’re not ready yet. Besides, he’s his own man now. Neither one of us can make him do anything.”

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Jim.”

“I’ll tell you what. The realization that both our sons have learned a damn sight more this past summer than we have in years.” 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

THE waxy stink from a half-dozen cheap, sputtering candles vied with the odor of weed already skunking the air in Brandon Nygaard’s basement. Jess Bonner tried to wave the tendrils of smoke away from his face. He was sitting on the floor, at the opposite side of the coffee table from the couch, so he was really getting doused. Silently, and for the millionth time, he cursed the dogshit quality of Chinese imports.

The Nygaards could easily afford stuff that didn’t come from China’s largest colony, Walmart, but they kept that stuff upstairs and held it in reserve for “real” company. Yankee and Candleworks candles would never shed their heavenly scents over the teenagers who assembled in the basement, out of parental sight… and mind.

Well, Jess supposed, that was one of the prices of privacy. The four members of the Domino Club could party however they chose in their subterranean hideaway. Bran’s parents didn’t much give a crap what went on, as long as they weren’t held liable.

Tonight the partying didn’t amount to much, even though Bran’s parents and younger sister were visiting relatives in Allouez. Everybody being stoned combined with being wrung out at the end of the workweek didn’t make for a high-velocity get-together. 

Jess again flapped a hand as he grimaced in disgust. Smoke from the charred wicks kept slithering up his nostrils. 

“Someone fart?” Bran asked, glancing up from the joint he was rolling. His desultory smirk complemented his low-hung eyelids.

Tomby, the only girl in the group, was quick to protest her innocence. She sat beside Bran on the couch, one hand resting possessively on his hunched back.

“It’s the candles,” Jess said. 

“They don’t burn very clean, do they?” Mig, who sat cross-legged next to Jess, reached for the worst offender and neatly snuffed it with a pinch. “Is that better?” The hint of a smile played over his lips, but he didn’t let the hint become a statement. He rarely gave in to a smile.

Jess did, often and easily. “That should help. Thanks.” 

Mig—real name Dylan Finch—had a mild voice that matched his mild manner, and large, soft brown eyes that matched both. He seemed more like some sword-and-sorcery gaming dweeb than the ace welder and Vietnam War history buff that he was. In fact, everything about him breathed contradiction. 

Mig had been a shy kid when he, Jess, Bran, and Tomby were growing up together on Sunrise Street in Cold Harbor. Now, fresh out of high school and a week away from his eighteenth birthday, Mig was shy still. That he’d even become part of the Domino Club had been something of a shock to Jess, and probably to Bran and Tomby too. The club, as absurd as it was, hadn’t been designed to accommodate wallflowers.

“Music?” Tomby said, looking across the coffee table at Mig and Jess. She obviously didn’t want to break the circuit she was trying to establish with Bran.

“I’ll get it,” Jess said, touching Mig’s leg. “I owe you.” He got up and ambled toward the entertainment center.

Tomby was a real piece of work. At sixteen, she was the youngest in the group, but that didn’t stop her from being imperious and pushy and something of a mathematics wunderkind. Although she’d developed an awe-inspiring rack by the time she was thirteen, her family had always called her a tomboy—hence, the nickname. She’d happily embraced it and thrown off Dominga. 

Tomby was the one who’d come up with the whole secret-society notion as well as the Domino Club’s name. She’d done so when the four neighborhood friends had begun to feel—and, in tentative steps, talk about—their burgeoning sexuality. One self-conscious confession had followed another. 

None of the friends, it turned out, was exclusively attracted to the opposite gender.

Following Tomby’s lead, they declared themselves bisexual.

But none of them, it turned out, was being completely honest.

Given his train of thought, Jess decided to put on an Elton John CD, part of the older parental collection. The newer parental collection was, like the quality candles, kept upstairs. Bran the hipster kept his music segregated, as if he didn’t want the mold from those oldies tainting his discs. 

After Jess tucked Elton into the player, he flipped indifferently through both sets of offerings. He came across an Adam Lambert disc, thought again how he’d like to do or be done by the guy, and went on. 

More pot smoke, thick and pungent, drifted sluggishly around his head. Tomby’s voice cut through the music as she talked about bringing one of her female friends into the group.

“I’d have to check her out,” Bran said. “A three- or foursome might be a nice change of pace once in a while.”

Suddenly and irrevocably, Jess knew he wanted to distance himself from this silliness. The Domino Club hadn’t expanded his sexual horizons much, if at all, and he was sick of the posturing. Besides, bringing more girls into the group wasn’t a prospect he welcomed with enthusiasm. He didn’t want to piss away his last months before college pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Jess had known all along he was a thoroughbred queer—strictly gay, nothing fuzzy, flexible, or fluid about it. Even Tomby’s magnificent breasts were little more than a curiosity to him, like those silicone-filled boob vests the queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race sometimes wore. The idea of touching Tomby’s “girls”—something Jess couldn’t bring himself to do, primarily because she was a minor but also because, well, he had no desire to—made him think of biology class, of poking at a fish’s air bladder or the eyeball of a cow. Real passion, he suspected, didn’t have that glaze of clinical detachment. 

His reaction to naked guys in magazines and porn flicks had clued him in about that. The little bit of fooling around he’d done with Bran and other guys had clued him in more forcefully. But the strongest clue of all came through certain looks he exchanged with Mig. Something inside Jess crackled and melted, drizzling from his chest to his groin, when Mig’s black-lashed eyes met his. And it got worse as they got older, as maturity lent depth to Mig’s gaze, resonance to his voice, and luscious definition to his long, lean muscles. 

Mig was a thoroughbred too. Jess was sure of it. Why they hadn’t fooled around together was part of the mystery that was Mig and a source of boundless frustration to Jess. He hadn’t made any advances simply because Mig hadn’t encouraged any, and Jess didn’t want to alienate a childhood friend. 

Oh well. Chemistry wasn’t always mutual.

He resumed his seat on the floor and took the rapidly dwindling joint from Bran’s fingers. As Elton wailed in the background about someone saving his life, Mig rose and headed for the bathroom. Tomby kept up her not-so-subtle seduction of Bran, but he seemed oblivious. 

Bran… now he was harder to peg. Although he talked about the girls he banged and had plenty of feel-up sessions with Tomby, he was strangely lackadaisical about his hetero hookups. Jess figured Bran might be the only one of them who actually was bisexual but likely had a preference for guys.

And Tomby? Hell, she was probably just a precocious middle child trying to set herself apart from her four sisters. Throughout high school, Jess couldn't help noticing how many girls feigned lesbianism or bisexuality to get attention. In Tomby’s case, it was Bran’s attention she coveted most.

So the Domino Club was built on a foundation of bullshit, basically, and there was nothing unique or meaningful about it. Plenty of other kids pretended to be ambisexual or omnisexual or whatever the hell kind of I’ll-try-anything sexual. They figured it projected the image of some super-cool Freebird who’d fly anywhere, try anything. It was a trendy game, not a lifestyle, and the players were in subconscious agreement about its outcome: sometime in the near future, they’d all be married with children, and they’d look back with varying degrees of shame or bemusement on their same-sex experimentation.

Mig returned from the bathroom and once again sank to his spot on the floor, his knee brushing Jess’s leg as he got situated. Even minor contact was making Jess squirmy tonight. He didn’t have too many opportunities for hookups, so temptation was a more or less constant, annoying companion.

He still hadn’t fully come out to anybody. Being openly gay in small-town America didn’t carry the same cachet as being bi. It was riskier too. Declaring your homosexuality could put a target on your back. You weren’t a Freebird who’d soon be earthbound. You were an alien, and you’d never be anything else.

“Excited about your birthday party?” Jess asked Mig.

“Which one?”

“How many are you having?” Tomby asked with exaggerated inflection. She’d always had a dramatic flair. 

“Two. One for family and one for friends. I’m not much looking forward to them.”

Tomby frowned. “The family thing I get, but what’s wrong with being around your buds?” Apparently tired of petting Bran without result, she now futzed around with a length of rope, tying one kind of elaborate knot, undoing it, constructing another.

Mig shrugged. “Just don't like that much attention. Makes me uncomfortable.”

“You better get used to it,” Tomby said with a suggestive smile. “You’re looking finer all the time.”

“Stop it,” Mig murmured. A blush rode his high cheekbones.

Bran wasn’t smiling or blushing. His expression had clouded. 

Jess observed the exchange with quiet interest. Had Tomby’s compliment sparked jealousy in Bran? Nearly everything people said or did gave away something about them. That was why Jess wanted to be a psychologist. 

Almost visibly, layer by layer, Tomby peeled her focus from the boys and reapplied it to the rope in her hands. She loved knots, claimed they were both mathematical and sensual. Apparently she and Bran had been experimenting with some kind of Japanese bondage thing involving knotted ropes. 

Jess could see the appeal of a hot guy tied up. He just didn’t want to do the tying. Mig was the one with the sharp eye and steady hand. Jess, however, felt clumsy enough to turn a rope-bondage session into a macramé class from hell. He’d probably cut off some poor dude’s circulation. Then gangrene would set in, and he’d have a whole lot of explaining to do to a whole lot of displeased authority figures, not to mention a limbless ex-trick.

Tomby finally put her white rope on the coffee table, where it lay in a neat circle amid a clutter of soda cans, video games, controllers and remotes, pot paraphernalia, and sprawl of explicit yaoi and yuri manga.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what knot should represent us.” Elbow set on knee, she rested her chin in one hand and, with the other, thoughtfully lifted and rearranged sections of the rope.

That did it. Jess got up. No. Fuck this. He’d be starting college as a second-semester freshman in January. He didn’t want to think of himself as inextricably bound to some stupid club built on adolescent delusions. 

Anxiously, Mig glanced up at him. His look was like an imploring whisper: Don’t leave me here.

“I thought dominoes represented us,” Jess said. According to Tomby, their duotone color scheme stood for XY and XX; their variety of pairing possibilities stood for sexual openness; the fact they were rectangular instead of square stood for a departure from conventional thinking and living.

The girl had quite an imagination.

“I’m not into dominoes the way I was two years ago,” she said, as if she had some divine right to switch things around as she saw fit. The guys usually took the path of least resistance and indulged her. 

Not anymore, Jess thought. No matter how smart she is, she’s still a kid who doesn’t know what she wants.

“No knots,” Jess said. “Too restricting.”

Tomby turned up her face and regarded him. It was a pretty face, in tones of dusky and duskier, although it still carried the pudginess of childhood. Tomby would either turn into a sultry siren or start packing on the pounds. Jess figured it could go either way.

“Then maybe you’d like this one,” she said, putting her fingertips on the rope.

“This what?”

“Knot.”

“That isn’t a knot.” Jess lifted the rope to reveal its dangling ends. “You had it forming a circle, and it wasn’t even closed.”

Tomby snatched it out of his hand and again arranged it on the coffee table. “Imagine it’s an unbroken loop,” she instructed him. “Which would make it an unknot or zero knot.” She began crossing section over section until the rope was a jumble of overlapping curves. “Only cutting and retying it can turn it into something else. No matter how much you jag it around, it’s still a loop.”

“That isn’t like any knot I’ve ever seen,” Mig said.

“Dude. That’s because it’s basically a mathematical abstraction.” Tomby had assumed her slightly haughty, I-know-better-than-you tone. “It only theoretically has physical properties.”

Jess sighed. He was too tired to absorb the concept. “Whatever. I’ve gotta go.” As he reached for his cell, which he’d put on the coffee table, he felt Bran’s eyes on him.

Bran was shrewd. He did more observing than talking, which meant he always paid attention to what went on around him—if, that is, he thought it might affect him somehow. 

“You sure you can’t stay?” Bran asked, his voice smooth and low.

Uh-oh. That question meant he was hoping for some action. He and Jess hadn’t done anything stupendous together—just some light kissing and mutual groping that had led to a few handjobs—but Jess wasn’t in the mood tonight. Maybe the likelihood of Tomby’s participation had something to do with it. And the likelihood of Mig’s imminent escape.

Jess rubbed his face with his free hand. “I’m beat, man. Working at the Ren Faire is kicking my butt.”

His answer seemed to be some kind of signal to Mig, who also got up. “I should go too.”

Bran’s pale blue eyes moved between them. “Hm. Too bad. Tomby and I had something fun planned. With ropes.” He fell against the back of the couch, legs spread, and idly drew his hands up his thighs. “You sure you don’t want to get in on it?”

Jess thought of being bound against Mig’s smooth, hard body, and maybe against Bran’s slimmer one too, and his dick stirred with interest. 

Only… Mig wasn’t staying. And Tomby was.

No knots. And no girls.

“Nah, I really gotta go.”

“Me too,” murmured Mig, shoving his hands in his pockets.

Bran stared at them a moment longer. Beneath his pot-heavy eyelids, the whites of his eyes had begun to redden. He finally dismissed his friends with a lift of the brows and an “Okay. See ya.”

He clearly wasn’t pleased.